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How A Real Estate Blog Went From 2,000 To 18,000,000 Visits Per Month In Two Years

Movoto’s Content Strategy: How We Make All Those Things Go Viral

Chris Kolmar & Randy Nelson

1 articles, 0 comments

How do you compete against sites that are 25 times larger with marketing budgets that exceed your 7-year-old company’s total historic revenue? You don’t.

For the past two years, the content strategy at Movoto has been about finding holes in our bigger competitors’ strategies and exploiting them. Much like the Oakland A’s fight against the Yankees and Red Sox, we can win if we focus on parts of the market that our competitors overlook.

Here’s how we went from 2,000 visits per month to over 18,000,000 visits per month, and you can too.

Table Of Contents

1. Clearly define your goals
2. Start with the end in mind
3. How we figured out the best way to pitch people OUR way
4. Don’t re-invent the wheel. Learn from the experts.
5. How to make things go viral
6. The magic of click-through rates
7. Focus on Facebook
8. Remember the small things when it comes to SEO
9. The results of all the hustle
10. The future of content

In Order To Get There, You Need To Know Where There Is

The first step in your journey is to define what success will look like to you. We can’t emphasize enough how important this is; this becomes the light that you’re drawn to like a moth. Every decision becomes optimized to meet these specific goals.

The objectives we have at Movoto, in priority order, are:

  1. Absolute count of citations (Links, mentions, TV spots, etc.)
  2. Number of articles produced per week
  3. Article quality — We define quality through share rate. Plain and simple. If the internet likes it a sufficient rate, then we are happy. Because the internet knows all.

You might be asking, “Hey, Randy & Chris, where does revenue play into all of this?” The answer is in a mix of the middle and right bubble in this particular Moz Whiteboard Friday video:

  1. Links are a rising tide that lift all pages
  2. Brand awareness
  3. Oh yeah, and ad revenue 😉

So, how did we come up with our current content strategy? Trying a lot of different techniques and failing with one goal.

Always Start With The End In Mind

In our case that meant: Links, links, and links.

Our first thought isn’t, “Oh, this will be cool” or “This would fit perfectly on The Atlantic” or “This will soooo go viral.” No, our first thought is, “Is there an audience out there that will link back to us?”

In order to satisfy that question, you have to answer three things:

  1. Is there a large group of sites that belong to a specific niche?
  2. Does that niche link out to other resources?
  3. Can you create content that meets that niche’s standard? (Hint: The answer is always “yes” if you get creative enough.)

To answer number one, we use tools like Ahrefs, the (now defunct) Technorati blog list, and a ton of Google searching.

Let’s say in our journeys across the internet we identify two niches:

  1. Personal finance
  2. Video games

With those two options on the table, we looked through a bunch of sites to see what kind of things they link out to.

Personal finance sites are normally written by a mom and pop group talking about their own experiences. They actually don’t link to other sites that much, which was surprising to us, and when they do it’s to resource type pages.

Video game sites link out to anything “cool” and they do it A LOT.

So, you’re probably thinking, as a real estate site, it’s pretty obvious we should be writing about video games. It was our first choice, too.

And so the question quickly became how do you marry video games and real estate? To solve that problem, we set up a regular brainstorming session once per day for 30 minutes. Same time every day and pencils down at exactly 30 minutes.

Our brainstorming sessions aren’t of the typical “person in the front of the room writing down ideas on a board” variety. That’s inefficient for several reasons including the fact that I can’t talk while you talk and I might be afraid to voice a “bad” idea.

Instead, we brainstorm separately, but together, on the same Google doc where everyone is anonymous. This way, you can riff off of other people’s ideas, get your ideas down as you have them, and have no fear about coming up with a “bad” idea (which doesn’t exist). The result is a ton of ideas in 30 minutes, which then need to be refined.

Eventually, we realized even video game characters need a place to live and are from somewhere. And we were able to happily marry real estate and video games.

But now to get people to read it…

You Need People To See Your Stuff For Them To Share It


The flow(?) chart above is Content Marketing 101 and it works like a charm. There is no secret sauce to content promotion; it’s just constant, repeated, improving hustle.

Emailing the correct people at the correct organizations with the correct pitch makes all the difference. We may develop three or four unique angles to the same story depending on who the audience is at the other end of the tube.

I cannot underscore the importance of this step. Don’t work your butt off to get here just to have your emails get insta-deleted from someone’s email box. Spend the time to think through what is going to get the person on the other end of the tube to want to read your content.

Even when the content speaks for itself, you still need influencers and bloggers to do two things:

  1. Open the email
  2. Click through to the page

If you fail to achieve those two objectives with your emails, then the content will never be seen by anyone.

We spend an hour or two as a team creating the pitch for the day. We use a big whiteboard and outline the main talking points of the article. In each pitch meeting we try to get across:

  1. How would you describe the article to your mom?
  2. A specific call to action (Click a link or email us back)
  3. Explain the benefit, or value add, for them to mention it
  4. Why we wrote about the topic

Here’s a pitch we used a while back:

Learn From The Experts – All Wheels Are Round For A Reason

We’ve talked about having an end goal in mind, and for all but the very few that’s probably not going to include reinventing the wheel. There’s a very good reason that certain things are done the way they are, and that’s because they work—reliably and at scale, the latter being especially important to our goal.

You Have To Do Your Homework

The first step to building your content strategy is studying what others are doing in the space. By “space,” we don’t mean your particular industry or market, but online content in general. And not just online content, but truly successful content.

This is the stuff that’s getting used as conversation starters at parties, going around on office email threads, and, of course, being passed around like crazy on the social media platform du jour.

In our case, we took a 10,000-foot approach and started identifying standout performers that were generating the most buzz online. This lead us to (among others):

  • Listicles
  • Heatmaps (and maps in general)
  • Big, delicious full screen images
  • Really meaty infographics
  • Curated video content

It’s also important to note and understand trends, which in online content ebb and flow just as in the worlds of fashion and fast food.

Things come into and go out of style; infographics were really hot for a while, but heatmaps stole their lunch; listicles climbed back up the charts only to be surmounted by curated, packaged video content, and so on.

A big part of identifying the hot content type of the day/week/month is, pure and simple, becoming a connoisseur of content yourself. You simply won’t be able to produce it (or understand it) if you don’t consume it. Some of our favorite sites include:

Rely On Data, Not What Seems Popular

That said, it’s extremely important to realize that just because you think something is going to knock people’s socks off, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is going to leave said individuals sockless.

This sort of goes back to how we described our ideation/vetting process. We’re big proponents of proofs, and that extends to the question of true content success.

Sites like BuzzFeed display page views in big shiny numbers at the top of the page, but that number is irrelevant; you need to know where they got their views:

  • Internally
  • Social

Because we can’t rely on driving traffic internally like BuzzFeed can, we need to make sure content actually resonated with people socially.

To do this, you can turn to tools that can help you look beneath the surface and determine the true popularity of a type of content.

BuzzFeed actually provides you all the information you’ll need for articles on their site. If you become a registered user you can access the dashboard for articles. Here you are looking for articles with >10x social lift. Anything less and BuzzFeed’s internal machinations drove up the views.

For other sites, we turn to tools like BuzzSumo and Ahrefs, which allow us to study, in-depth, the performance of a piece of content’s social and link potential.

Using this process, once you’ve found a new type of content you think is promising, then actually looked under the hood and found there’s a viral V8 in there and not a hamster wheel, you can give it a shot. That way you don’t waste time and resources on “good ideas” and instead are always testing GOOD IDEAS.

Of course, you can have our own wholly original ideas, but it’s a sound strategy to build your mix of content on enough sure bets that we can take some risks from time to time without it resulting in a sad graph a mountain biker would love to ride down.

Recognize Leaders And Learn From Them

Two little sites you might’ve heard of have garnered the lion’s share of our “how’d they do that?” poking and prodding in an effort to reverse engineer their success in the past two years: BuzzFeed and Upworthy.

The reason for this is simple: they produce what we (and any content-driven site should) aspire to create—great content that really, truly goes viral. And gets links.

These two giants of the online content world are considered such because, well, they’ve already figured it out. Like, really figured it out. We weren’t out to try to beat them (yet!), but we realized there was a lot we could learn from them.

Thankfully, they’re pretty open about how they do what they do (sort of like a certain real estate site we could mention, cough cough), which really helped inform our view of and approach to virality.

Virality – Brand awareness on steroids

The methods described to this point have been totally focused on building links and citations. To get things really going we needed to figure out how to make stuff “go viral.” We stumbled upon the answer by accident in October of 2013.

When it comes to making things go viral, few (if any) do it better than Upworthy. They also talk a lot about how they make things go viral (or at least do their very best to make it happen—they’re quick to remind people that they can’t guarantee virality).

But as they point out, there are a lot of things you can do to help content go viral, all of which we studied, learned from, and did our best to improve upon.

What we’ve found is that virality basically boils down to a equation comprised of two numbers: click-through rate and share rate. That may seem overly simplistic, or like it doesn’t factor in the actual, y’know, content—but it does.

Click-through Rate


You can (and we do) think of click-through rate (CTR) optimization as making the absolute best first impression possible upon Facebook users. Or, alternately, it’s like being a carnival barker that’s really friggin’ good at his/her job.

Either way, it’s all about getting people in the door to see your content. After all, if no one sees your content, they can’t share it, and virality is dead in the water.

In terms of Facebook, optimizing your click-through rate hinges on perfecting your:

  • Headline
  • Image
  • Meta description (subhead/deck/whatever you choose to call it)

So that they’re as incredibly clickable/shareable as possible.

Crafting The Perfect Headline

When we say “the perfect headline,” we should be clear that 1) the style of headline that’s going to work best depends on the type of content you’re creating and 2) we have yet to find the “perfect” headline that yields 100 percent click-through, so if you do, please email us.

We’ve found that for listicle format content, headlines that involve numbers work best. These are “BuzzFeed-style” headlines. For example:

You’re probably thinking “hey, that’s a lot of things and/or numbers.” You’re right. Numbers work great in these types of headlines, and there’s a reason they’re so big—it has to do with the concept of larger numbers for listicles conveying authority. Basically, the content that offers more tends to be perceived as the authoritative work.

Back to headline types though, our best results with packaged curated video content has come from “curiosity gap” or “Upworthy-style” headlines. Some of our best examples of those include:

As you can probably surmise, this type of headline is far trickier to get right than the type used for listicle format content. Not that we haven’t gone through copious iterations of those.

Back to these guys, though, we spent months studying what exactly generates the “curiosity gap” and how to make it work with different types of video content. Perfecting it (or getting as close as possible) was absolutely key to increasing our average click-through rate from where it was in the 3 percent range when we started to 9 percent and higher.

Curiosity gap extends beyond the basic structure of a headline, and into careful word and phrasing choices. There’s also the concept of the “odd man”—the person behind the video who, if it makes sense, should be placed into the headline and spotlighted as what they are: a “famous musician,” “high school student,” “astronaut,” whatever. In our experience, capitalizing on this almost always results in a CTR boost.

The Right Image Says A Thousand Words—And Gets Thousands Of Clicks

The other absolutely vital piece of the CTR puzzle is image choice. How vital? We’ve spent nearly a year testing and learning what makes a image as clickable as possible on Facebook—and we’re still at it.

After all that trial and error, we’ve learned that people love images of:

  • People (especially people eating food)
  • Statues of people
  • Women in bikinis (note: We target our Facebook ads exclusively to women)
  • Wizards (don’t ask)
  • Handwritten/drawn doodles on the above types of images

If you want to see an immediate jump in CTR, use an image with people in it. It’s that simple.

That last part—the doodles—is something we just started using in the past month, and in our testing the “doodle image” wins out in terms of CTR almost every time.

Also, it may seem like a little thing, but if you follow the rule of thirds in your photo choosing, that has a measurably positive effect, too.

Subtitles: The Unsung Supporting Stars Of CTR

We’ll admit that most of our CTR-focused effort of the past 12 months has been spent on headlines and images, but that’s not to say we haven’t made some strides in improving the third piece of the puzzle: subtitles (sometimes known as meta descriptions).

We’ve found that these, when done well, can give people viewing your Facebook ad that final little push over the line into “I’ve definitely gotta read that” territory.

As with some of what we’ll talk about regarding share rate below, we basically found that shorter is sweeter with these—and the more clever (warning: there is certainly such a thing as too clever) you can make them, the better.

Share Rate – Facebook Is Your Best Friend

Similar to the case with headlines, there are basically two different approaches we’ve taken to optimizing share rate with our content. Which one we use depends on the type of content we’re creating.

We started out (and still focus primarily) on original content—listicles and the like. For these, we’ve found a couple of extremely powerful tenants all such pieces must follow in order to maximize share rate. They’re pretty simple, really:

  1. Tell a story
  2. Focus on the self

That first one should be pretty self explanatory. Whenever possible, a viral post should be structured to tell a story. Yes, even when it’s 10 stereotypes about the people from a certain city that are totally accurate.

See what we said there? The people. As it turns out, people gravitate to viral content that’s written about them. For example, readers don’t care about or connect with the statement that a restaurant is good as they do with the assertion that people love a restaurant because of X, Y, and Z.

Because of this, you should try to make the content about the people whenever possible. It’s a very different approach to framing for most writers, but the payoff in terms of share rate (and, ultimately, virality) is worth the hard work.

The second approach alluded to above is what we use when we’re packaging curated video content. In these cases, we’ve found that share rate is best served when we let the videos themselves do most of the talking.

We’ve tried various approaches to share rate optimization in these types of posts over the past year, but the most beneficial have been as follows:

  1. Keeping it brief (less than 50 words, sometimes only a few depending on context)
  2. Having an opinion
  3. Making it about the people (works here too)

This again came from studying the leaders in this type of content and what has worked best for them, then combining it with our own findings on what clicks with readers.

The result is share rates of 20 percent or greater on average—and we’re sure there’s plenty more to learn.

Tie It All Together By Paying Attention To The Details

Don’t worry, we saved the most boring part for last: SEO.

SEO is great because it is the one part of the entire content marketing funnel that does not rely on any outside players. At the end of the day, you are solely responsible for it, which means that you can always get it right.

SEO in my book comes down to two important concepts:

  • On page
  • Site structure

On Page

I play a little loose with term on page, but to me it includes the following:

  • Keyword research
  • URL slugs
  • Titles
  • H1s
  • H2s
  • Image alts
  • Mobile responsiveness

We try to make every article we write actually have a keyword as its backbone. Some are obvious, but others take a little finagling. For example, the keywords for this article are in the URL, but you can’t maintain virality by writing a headline for robots.

Which brings me to URL slugs. These are the easiest to optimize for SEO, which we have done traditionally, since the straightforwardness of the keyword plays with the article. However, we are going to start testing a new URL format with social optimization in mind.

(As a semi random aside, we cannot recommend DigiDay and NiemanLab enough for staying on the front of publishing trends. Content marketing, after all, is just journalism without standards 😉 )

We put readers at the forefront with titles, as you could tell by the virality section. We try to incorporate a keyword somewhere in the title; towards the front being better.

It’s important to just have H1s. We actually have the H1 match the title of the page to reinforce to readers that they have arrived at the destination they thought they were going. Wait what? There’s theory in landing page optimization that the major headline on the page should match the link that got you there. This practice ensures the headline matches the link and no one is confused about where they landed.

H2s have a dual purpose. They break up the flow of the article to make it internet readable. H2s also allow you to re-enforce the keywords the page is going after. For example, an article about the best places to live should have those places as H2s.

Image alt tags don’t mean anything to users at all. They are just an easy way to reinforce what the page is about. We add something like 300 images to the site each day, so we standardize the alt tags to the page title. Ideally, they would describe the image, but we haven’t implemented a process at our scale for that.

Lastly, mobile responsiveness makes sure that the people actually reading your content can read it. In our case, over 75 percent of readers are now on mobile phones or tablets.

Site Structure

Site structure allows you to leverage everything you do in content marketing to improve the rest of your site. Specifically, it allows you to take the authority generated by the content and flow it to your most important pages. The most basic ways to do this are:

  1. Make sure your content lives in a subfolder and not a subdomain
  2. Link to your most important pages from the body of every article
  3. Create relevant, prominent category pages that serve as hubs for your best content

#1 – If you are starting a blog, for the love of everything traffic, please start it at www.movoto.com/blog/ instead of blog.movoto.com. The incremental boost to your domain authority is a major reason for starting content marketing in the first place. Don’t dilute those gains by putting all of the content off your root domain.

#2 – It’s through linking that you actually direct the authority a page generates into the rest of your site. All of our articles revolve around something tangentially related to real estate. That allows us to link to cities and key pages on the site, even if the gist of the article is about something unrelated.

It also allows visitors to get the meat of your site/product if they are interested in using it.

#3 – This points revolves around making sure you get all of your content indexed by Google and throwing even more authority at important categories of posts. We achieve that goal by having the most important categories prominently placed in the header of the site. Every page on the site then links to the category, making sure Google knows it is important.

The Results For Pure Hustle – Our Scale, Traffic, and Engagement


Content marketing is a grind and there’s no substitute for hustle. After almost three years of content marketing we’ve accomplished the following:

  • 3,198 articles written
  • Over 120,000,000 visits
  • Over 18,000,000 Facebook engagements (Likes + Shares + Comments)
  • 41,000 emails sent with a 55% open rate
  • Over 30,000 links

So an average articles gets:

  • 37,500 visits
  • 5,600 Facebook engagements
  • ~13 promotion emails
  • ~10 links

But it wasn’t always like this. It’s a grind that improves over time as you study from others and learn the tips and tricks.

Content marketing as a whole is not a one-off investment, but a routine that needs to be repeated day in and day out. By continuously putting in time and effort, it will pay off in the long run.

It’s not rocket science; it’s just hard work.

The Future Of Content At Movoto


Content marketing continues to evolve and we are going to try and continue on the wave. Some of the things that worked two years ago don’t anymore. And there are certain techniques that get better with age.

In my opinion, the future of content marketing is in video and other methods for more involved storytelling. And it looks delicious.

This post was co-authored by Chris Kolmar & Randy Nelson.

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posted on: December 10, 2014
37,617 views, 13 comments

13 Comments

  1. Francisco Javier Sanz

    Hi Randy!

    Excellent post!

    I get the point to publish very popular/viral stuff, that people want to share and all that. But… I think you go way out of your target audience, when you publish things like “a famous wants everyone to know how to pronounce a city” or a “city food taste”. Your’re mention a city, going local, but I don’t know… it’s like to focus on a too wider audience, too much “trash visitors”, your ideal client is not going to feel identified with your content.

    Ok, you earn a lot of inbound links and social links, but… you’re not focusing on our ideal client or audience. You’re not “whispering” to your ideal client’s ear, you’re screaming to everybody. Make sense?

    I would love to hear more about this!

    Awesome post, though!!!!

    Cheers,
    Fran.

  2. John

    @Francisco

    One thing, it explains on the post: Brand Awareness. The other thing, that doesn’t get mentioned is creating a strong and valuable SEO real estate (pun intended). Now they can rank for their laser targeted content like a breeze.

  3. Nate

    Great insight and a really nice breakdown of your mindset and process. Really appreciate it.

    @Fran: I’m not sure I would call it “screaming at everyone”. Their goal is not necessarily to convert all of the people reading about the price of Hyrule castle into Movoto users. Their stated goals are:

    1. Links are a rising tide that lift all pages
    2. Brand awareness
    3. Oh yeah, and ad revenue

    When an article goes viral amongst an audience that tends to link a lot (e.g. the personal finance vs. video games example mentioned in the article), it generates lots of backlinks, which boosts domain authority, which makes it much easier for searchers to find their high commercial intent pages. Getting 120M visitors to read your articles also contributes to brand awareness, and of course they can monetize their viral content with ads to support their content marketing efforts.

    They couldn’t compete against larger competitors via more traditional channels because they don’t have the same budget and would lose, so they found another angle the big players in their market weren’t exploiting. Very mpressive work imho.

  4. Kristof Van den Branden

    Wow guys, this is one of the most interesting and helpful blog posts I have read the last 2 years (and I read a lot!). Congratulations with the results.

  5. Mark V

    Great article!

    Two questions.
    1. How did this effort tie into revenues/profits?
    2. What can you share about the costs of doing this?

    Thanks

    • Chris Kolmar in response to Mark V

      1. Revenue was mentioned in section 1. Domain Authority, Brand Awareness, and Ad Revenue.
      2. Unfortunately, can’t give specifics. But scaling quality content isn’t something you can do fiverr. :)

  6. Peter

    @Chris. Fascinating article!

    We are doing something similar on a much smaller scale, but I was hoping you could help with a question.

    When we change Facebook’s open graph title on an article the title doesn’t get updated when you try to share the article. Do you know how to force Facebook to use the new title instead of the previously cached one? Facebooks debugging tool says we’ve already had too many shares to change it.

    With testing titles using Facebook ads we were able to identify which ones get more shares. Do you do this sort of ad testing for your articles?

  7. Christine Clara

    You have mentioned the great way to improve the whole process. A process to get a target.

    I have a question in my mind – ‘What is the cost in terms of investment (both time & money)’?

  8. Perrin

    Amazing, amazing post, Chris & Randy. Actually starting to implement this with my own site now.

    Just one quick question… (okay, two).

    Are promotional emails your primary method for getting initial readers? Do you email publishers with things like listicles and curated videos, or do you only send key influencers meaty stuff, like infographics?

    Thanks again for this content marketing masterpiece!

    Perrin

    • Chris Kolmar in response to Perrin

      Hey Perrin,
      Our main forms of user acquisition are:
      1. Emails to news outlets and influencers with great content.
      2. Facebook

      And we tripled down what we were good at and ignored Twitter, Pinterest, etc.

  9. Victoria

    AWESOME post! Thank you so much! It explains a lot about right content marketing. I love your approach. Thank you! And good luck!

  10. Jessy Grossi

    Great article, love the framework and the lessons on virality.
    I’m not sure about what you said (in the SEO part) about internal linking and URL optimization.
    Maybe it would be better for you to focus on your titles’s lenght or pages speed improvements.

  11. Sam

    Great article, great success story. Thanks for sharing, I can certainly see what you have described here being practiced in all your content.

 

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