What comes first? The audience, or the views?

The goal of WordPress, from the very start, has been to democratize publishing: to give anyone the freedom to have their voice on the web. But what is a voice without an audience? If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?

The design team at Automattic often run empathy challenges. They are designed to take you out of the building mindset, and into the listening mindset. It’s one thing to use the tools we build ourselves, it’s another to face the same challenges our users face on a daily basis. One of those challenges is making sure the posts you write also get read. Usually the key success metric for this is views. And so for this months empathy challenge, our task is simple: formulate a plan for how to promote a post so that it would get at least 1000 views in a 3 month period on a budget of $20. Woo!

Hypothesis

I’ve been blogging for a decade. I’ve run stats on my blogs, I’ve seen how you can gradually build an audience. Perhaps you’ve heard the usual advice for how to get traffic: blog often and on a regular cadence, and share your writings on social media. On WordPress.com we even advise as much, both in our support pages and on our Blogging University blog.

The key learning I keep coming back to is that traffic is a side-effect of the size of your audience. And so while the key metric is usually views, I’d like to hypothesize instead, that:

if you focus on growing your audience the views will come on their own

To put it differently: can a from-scratch new blogger from a largely unknown domain get at least 1000 views in 3 months by focusing only on growing the audience?

How could we test this?

For us to be able to test this hypothesis we’d have to have a few things in place.

First off, we’d need a good post to test. I’d pick How to fake calligraphy by my colleague Cristel. It’s an approachable and useful post that teaches a new skill. It’s a great little read that seems like it would be easy to base a whole topic and therefore following around.

We’d need a few key metrics to test. Views would be easy to track either through the built-in stats, but alternately for a more isolated test we can create a shortlink and track stats for that link alone. Given the hypothesis is that growing a following is a more effective long term traffic strategy than focusing on views alone, we’d want to benchmark the delta between followers for the author, before and after the three month period:

  • followers on WordPress.com
  • followers on Twitter
  • followers on Facebook
  • followers on any other social networks the blogger might be on, such as LinkedIn

In researching what other prolific bloggers and writers do, other than leveraging their network, I found that professonal looking (or at least customized profile pages) with a memorable custom domain was a common pattern. No doubt a post on a free plan can go viral, but a domain and a bit of customization does feel like tablestakes for growing an audience in any kind of sustainable way.

And so instead of spending a budget of $20 on buying traffic (which would probably be relatively trivial, just promote a tweet with a link), this time I’d spend the majority of that budget instead on upgrading from a free to a paid plan. On WordPress.com, those start at $4 a month, coming to a total of $12 for a three month period. That gets us a custom domain and hosting for the duration.

I’d then spend the remaining $8 on promoting the link to this one post, by using whatever methods available on my platform of choice, whether that be Twitter or Facebook. I’d probably go with boosting the post on Facebook, as anecdotally I’ve been told that’s an effective means especially when starting from scratch.

Learning from results

At the end of the excercise we’d have a number of metrics to look at:

  • relative increases in follower counts on both site itself and social networks
  • total number of views to the post
  • total number of views to the website
  • relative increases in engagements (likes, comments, retweets) on the blog and various networks

If we reached 1000 views for the post itself, while spending the majority of our $20 budget not on the promotion but on the longer term durability of the blog, it would arguably be fair to consider the experiment a success. We could priobably also presume that the 2nd post would have a slightly easier time getting to the same amount of views.

Another factor to look at would be the delta increase in followers. On social networks it would be hard to guage which followers found you due to the promotional status updates vs. who found you through your normal usage of those networks. But any increase in followers on the site itself should arguably be attributed to the investment in the audience.

For a true learning experience of whether it’s better to focus on organic vs. artificially boosted traffic, we’d probably have to run a dual experiment: promote two very similar but different posts using different strategies, each weighted towards either organic or artificial promotion.

Other learnings that would be fun to chronicle at the end of the test period:

  • Is our official traffic advice still current or does it need adjusting?
  • Did my past traffic experience actually seem current or was I wrong in some assumptions?

The most important learning we could make, probably, would be finding out whether buying traffic is as easy as it might seem, or whether it’s better to invest in the long tail. As such, failing in this experiment would arguably be as interesting as succeeding. Certainly worth a twenty.

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