About two years ago, I was tapped for an amazing opportunity.

My friends at College Raptor had just raised a Series A round for their incredible college matching technology. And the CEO asked me to help them figure out how to make it scale.

It was a consumer platform, offered for free, with the main objective being to scale traffic and drive user growth.

I was pumped.

I was ready.

Actually, I was terrified.

I had never done this before.

I had worked in marketing for my entire career and helped a lot of different companies grow their traffic and sales. But I never had to start at 0 and figure out how to get to a million.

The climb seemed daunting.

I knew that content marketing was super effective at growing and scaling a website’s traffic. I’d done that in the past and I knew it worked–somehow.

But, like a lot of people, my approach to content marketing up to this point was basically just to “blog and pray.” I knew that creating content could drive a lot of high-value traffic and generate leads and sales, but I didn’t really know how to track, measure, or control that growth in any meaningful way.

With such a big target, I had to figure out what was working for everyone else and put together a plan that we could measure and rely upon.

“Blog and pray” wasn’t going to be a good approach when I had to talk to the board of directors and investors.

We needed a plan and we needed results.

So, I started reading–a lot.

I found so many incredible resources on the web that taught me everything from how to do really in-depth keyword research to how to use competitive analysis to get to great content more quickly.

I was introduced to the Skyscraper Technique and learned about the absolute necessity of manual outreach and link building.

Together, these articles became my base of knowledge which I used to form the strategy that we would go on to use at College Raptor.


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And that strategy turned out to be incredibly effective.

Just over one year after launching, we had generated well over a million visitors to the website and were bringing in over 100,000 organic sessions per month. And still growing.

cr-analytics-organic-growth

In this case study, I’m going to tell you exactly how we did it.

I won’t rehash all of the specific tactical steps about how to do keyword research or send outreach emails–these have been thoroughly covered by a number of other sources.

Instead, I’ll focus on the big picture.

I’ll walk you through the strategy that we used to achieve these results and the logic behind why it works.

I’ll also share some key transition points that occur and help you really hit hockey-stick growth as well as a few lessons learned along the way and what we could have done differently to get even better results.

Let’s get into it.

Assumptions and Objectives

When we started this journey, we knew a few things to be true about what we were trying to accomplish.

I’ll call these our assumptions:

  1. Much of our audience was using search to find information related to the college search, admissions, and financial aid process
  2. In order to generate search traffic, we needed both content and domain authority (backlinks)
  3. Our audience was also using social media to find information on colleges

With these assumptions in mind, we knew that our strategy had to meet our needs for reaching our target audience.

Here were our stated objectives:

  1. Create content that attracts relevant search traffic from our target audience (college-bound students, their parents, etc)
  2. Generate links to the website to help us improve our rankings and search visibility
  3. Gain traction and authority in the space, grow our brand presence through social

One of the biggest realizations for me seems pretty obvious in retrospect, but at the time it felt like as huge revelation. And it became the basis for much of our strategy moving forward.

Here it is: Each piece of content doesn’t have to meet all 3 objectives.

Obvious, right?

It seems like it now.

But at the time, I was so focused on figuring out how to check all the boxes that it didn’t immediately dawn on me that each piece of content we produced could meet just one objective and that together they would generate the same outcome.

I think a lot of companies get stuck right on this point.

They understand the intrinsic roles of content, but when it comes time to actually creating it and coming up with topics, they get stuck because they can’t think of any topics that serve every single purpose.

“How do we write a post that goes viral on Facebook, generates 1,000 links, and also has long-term search value?”

The answer is: You probably don’t!

And this realization became the basis for our strategy.

Sure, sometimes you nail all of these objectives. Every once in awhile, you land on the perfect piece of content that feels like it fires on all cylinders. But most of the long-term growth and planning shouldn’t be spent wracking your brain for this single, golden unicorn.

Instead, break it down.

Rather than expecting every piece of content to accomplish everything, create three separate pieces of content, each one serving a purpose within the bigger strategy.

So that’s what we did.

The Trifecta: Our Content Marketing Strategy

Here’s how our content marketing strategy was structured:

Trifecta-Cogs-Graphic

I call this our “Trifecta Strategy” because it has three basic components.

Here’s how we broke down each piece:

1. Evergreen content

This content was built for search. It was topical and keyword-focused.

Think of it like the meat and potatoes of the site. It answered questions like, “what’s a good ACT score?,” or, “what do colleges look for from students who apply?”

We knew that the people searching for these topics were our target market. We wanted them to find the answer with us so that we could then encourage them to check out the product we had to offer.

Not viral. Not link-worthy. But brings in hundreds of target search visits every week.

Not viral. Not link-worthy. But brings in hundreds of targeted search visits every week.

But this stuff wasn’t super sexy.

Not every post is bound for viral greatness or worthy of a million backlinks. And that’s okay.

In many cases, we barely even promoted this content–if at all. We let Google do all the heavy lifting and generate traffic over time.

By building out a huge library of this kind of topical, focused, evergreen content, we were able to cast a wide net–bringing in students and parents who were at different stages in the college search and admissions process.

2. Social-viral content

This content was designed specifically to play well within our target demographic market on social media. It was created to generate likes, shares, and traffic.

It didn’t have to be super informative. It didn’t have to be keyword optimized or meaty enough to get links.

Think like Buzzfeed.

“13 Owl Photos that Look Like Celebrities,” probably doesn’t get a lot of search traffic or earn a bunch of links.

But it goes gangbusters on Facebook.

And that drives a ton of traffic and creates brand awareness.

This article generated nearly 5,000 Facebook shares.

This article generated nearly 5,000 Facebook shares.

Using elements of surprise, fun, or intrigue make content go viral–but that’s an entire post unto itself.

We used social-viral content as a way to get our target market familiar with our site, to build awareness, and to start to earn trust.

You might also use this kind of content in a more traditional funnel to start to qualify prospects. You could use social-viral content to generate traffic and then use retargeting or other tactics to convert those visitors into leads.

3. Link-building content

Last, but certainly not least, we needed links to our site in order to put the evergreen content to work. Without strong domain authority, all of those articles were just lost out in the sea of Google results, probably somewhere around page 20.

By creating separate content assets that were specifically aimed at earning links, we were able to “raise the ship,” providing authority to our entire domain and raising the Google ranking of all of our pages.

This kind of content requires you to often times take off your marketing hat for a minute.

Forget about your target audience.

Instead, think about other sites, writers, or publishers.

What kind of content do they link to?

An example of an infographic that we created to build links.

An example of an infographic that we created to build links.

If you study this, you’ll realize that the kind of content that earns links from reputable websites is often not your run-of-the-mill blog post. It’s an engaging graphic, a new study, or an especially valuable resource.

But it’s also not as easy as simply publishing great content and waiting around for links. You need to do promotion and outreach to get the content in front of the right people. And that’s what we did.

For every piece of link-building content that we created, we spent about twice as much time doing research, compiling contacts, and doing email outreach.

Now you may be thinking that this Trifecta Strategy means you’ll have to create three times as much content. But that’s not really true. You don’t need 1,000 articles to generate 1,000 links–you only need one great resource with the right promotional strategy.

This is why the Trifecta Strategy is so effective.

It’s about creating a strategic mix of content, with each piece serving a purpose. It’s about making every piece of content work as hard as possible.

In our case, we did end up producing a lot of content in order to achieve the end result–because our addressable market was huge and there are a lot of different topics to cover. But in a smaller market, this strategy may only mean having a few really strong, product-focused landing pages that are propped up by content that’s used to earn links.

Either way, the main point remains true: Your content should work together to achieve the stated objectives. Each piece should have a purpose.

But each piece doesn’t have to serve every purpose.

Note: If this were a B2B company or you wanted to generate leads or email subs, we would also add content assets that are designed to generate leads like white papers, ebooks, email courses, etc. That would make it a “Quadfecta,” I suppose.

Using Public Data to Score Early Wins

One of the recurring things we noticed when studying different kinds of content was that most of the companies that really crushed it at building links were using data to do so.

Interesting studies, analysis, or maps–they’re everywhere. We all love a nice graphic or a data visualization. And unexpected facts and figures make for sexy headlines.

So, we set out to try to capture a piece of that success for ourselves.

One of our early successes was so simple, it seems crazy in retrospect.

We spent a few days coming up with ideas and putting together a piece of content–a nice infographic, backed by some data. Then we put together an outreach plan where we targeted news media and bloggers who we thought would be interested in what we had found.

We hit publish and sent out some basic outreach emails sharing the content with the writers we identified.

And we waited.

Was this going to work?

It was really our first attempt to grab some big attention and build links. We weren’t sure what the expect.

But just a few minutes after we sent out our emails, we got a big break.

I got this email:

washington-post-email

Holy shit.

We got picked up by the Washington Post.

But from there, things really took off.

Once the post went up on WaPo, our content got picked up by dozens of outlets.

The Houston Chronicle in Texas. The Deseret News in Utah. Minnesota Public Radio. Time magazine. We found out later that the content was even cited before the U.S. Supreme Court.

So what was this groundbreaking piece of content?

What compelled all of these news outlets to take heed and post us on their website?

It was a map of the United States. With some college logos. And a bit of analysis.

Seriously, here’s the post: Where the 114th U.S. Senate Went to College.

We literally looked up the list of U.S. senators on Wikipedia and researched each one to figure out where they went to school. Then we made it into a map and did some basic analysis.

Top portion of the map we created from Wikipedia data.

Top portion of the map we created from Wikipedia data.

Trust me, it was not rocket science.

The biggest lesson to take away from our victory here is that you can totally use publicly available data to make cool content.

You don’t need to fund some expensive research study if you use the data that’s already out there. And there’s a ton of it.

We used other public data sources time and time again throughout the year to create rankings, infographics, maps, and other content and resources.

You can find data from a number of sources, but here are some ideas of where to look:

  • Public/government databases (we used IPEDS data extensively)
  • Manual research (like our data on the senators)
  • Google trends/keyword data (regional interests, trends over time, etc)
  • Published research and reports from academic journals
  • Trade publications and industry studies
  • Facebook advertising/page data

All of this data is out there–and it’s free.

The key to using it is to find new and interesting ways to approach the data. Take something that exists in the world and make it better, sexier, or easier to understand.

You can use this data to create things like:

  • Static infographics or data visualizations
  • Interactive data tools or resources
  • Maps, charts, and graphs
  • Ratings or rankings
  • Layered research based on data from multiple sources

Once you have something cool and interesting, then it’s just a matter of showing it to the right people. Email it to writers who cover the beat. Make it simple for them to pull it down and use it in their own stories.

Keep in mind that this content doesn’t necessarily have to be created for your primary audience. It should be related to your market, for sure. But the real goal here is to get links.

Writers and publishers in your industry are your target audience, not your average user.

Our infographic wasn’t really going to appeal to a 16-18-year-old high school kid. It didn’t really help them find the right college. But it helped us get links, which helped us bring traffic to all of our content that was aimed at our main audience.

Remember, the strategy is about putting together the pieces, not trying to make every piece of content meet all of your goals at once.

Our First Viral Success & What We Learned

Early on, we saw a lot of wins like the infographic from above. Little victories here, spikes in traffic there.

But nothing compared to our first big success.

In the last week of May, we published something new and different. At the time, we honestly weren’t sure how it would go.

We knew that we wanted to go after the world of college rankings, which are big game for many major publishers. But we couldn’t compete head-to-head on a list of “Best Colleges.” We didn’t have the authority to get traction there (yet).

So, we improvised. We put our own spin on things.

And we came up with the idea to create a ranking of “Hidden Gems.” These were colleges that, according to our methodology, were being overlooked by students when compared to other colleges of similar quality.

For the sake of simplicity, let me just say that this was a different kind of college ranking.

One of the things that we got right (in retrospect) was that many of the colleges we honored were not your typical “Best Of” colleges. They were still good schools, but they generally weren’t on a list of the top 100.

Fast forward to the day of the launch.

After spending a few days compiling all of the data, creating some graphics, and putting together the final post, we clicked publish.  Then we got to work on outreach.

We had a plan to promote the content and put in front of people who mattered most. We sent out hundreds of emails and messages to colleges, newspapers, counselors, and anyone else we could think of who might help us spread the word about the ranking.

I spent the better part of the day drafting and sending emails.

Then we started to see results.

We watched as traffic started to pour into the site. 10 people. 20 people. 100 people. Pretty soon we had a steady stream–hundreds of people on the site at once for hours on end.

cr-analytics-first-big-win

The colleges on our list were sharing the content on their social channels and their students and alumni were sharing it from there.

We were going viral.

When the dust had settled, we had the biggest spike in traffic to date.

250,000 visitors in just one week. That’s huge.

We also generated a ton of links–many from reputable news websites and EDU domains.

From this success, we learned a lot about what factors would help push our content over the top:

1. People love sharing maps

As you may be able to tell from our first big successes, people really, really love maps. Seriously, they do. And we figured out early that we could use them effectively. I think it plays on both our sense of identity and our sense of being different from other people in the country.

We would go on to use this as a cornerstone of our link-building strategy, segmenting data geographically whenever possible.

2. Vested interest helps expand reach

We were posting about colleges and shining a spotlight on their institutions. So, by including these colleges in the actual content, they had a vested interest in promoting the piece.

In total, we had a college from every state–or a base of 50 targets for outreach.

To boot, since we took a different approach in our rankings, many of the colleges on the list were not used to receiving national accolades. These weren’t the same 50 schools that are on the U.S. News list of top colleges every single year. But they were still good institutions.

This taught us the power of vested interest. Any time our content could help promote another entity, we could work with them to expand our reach and grow our audience.

3. Self-affirmation and positive social proof encourage sharing

The effect was amplified even further because each of these colleges had an audience of alumni and current students. All of them had their own vested interest in the positive social proof of having attended a “Hidden Gem” college. So many of them shared it and helped spread it far and wide.

hidden-gems-share-count

Our content ended up with tens of thousands of shares, likes, and comments. (Note: The numbers here don’t seem to be displaying likes/comments correctly, but the share count lines up with what we saw a few months after publishing the post.)

We learned that one of the keys to going viral is to create content that plays on our desire for self-affirmation. People love to share things from reputable, third-party sources that seem to confirm a belief they already have (e.g., they made a great choice by attending the college they chose.)

4. Coordinated outreach is critical

Outreach is ultimately what made this piece work.

We gathered hundreds of contacts. We wanted to make sure that someone saw it at each college. We wanted to send it to their respective local media. And we wanted other influencers to take note of a new type of college ranking that didn’t have the same 20 schools at the top.

Our team spent way more time doing outreach and follow-up to ensure the success of this piece than we did actually creating it.

That proved to be a big lesson for us moving forward.

Great content is great, but it ultimately doesn’t matter if noone sees it.

Although we had already focused on outreach, this caused us to realize the magnitude of the outreach we needed to do to achieve these kind of results.

5. Comprehensive promotional materials make it easy for people to help you

If you want people to promote your content, you need to give them everything they need to do it.

Make it so simple they can’t say no.

When we did outreach to colleges about this recognition, we didn’t just send them a link to our post.

Oh, no. We did way more than that.

We prepared a press release template. We created a visual badge. We gave them specific materials and instructions on how to promote and publicize the achievement.

And it worked.

hiddden-gems-referring-domains

Dozens of colleges used the materials we put together and helped promote this piece, sending it viral, and generating tons of links back to our site–almost all of them from high-authority EDU domains.

Rinse & Repeat

Okay, so we had some big wins under our belt. I mean, we had just driven a quarter of a million people to our website in 7 days.

We made it. Right?

Well, not exactly. In fact, that was dead wrong.

We learned quickly that although we celebrated every win as a huge victory, the traffic quickly died down. Just as quickly as the Internet shines its light on you, it moves on to the next thing.

And that’s another big lesson to learn. Sustained growth for a website like this doesn’t come through a single flash of brilliance or a viral success. It almost never works that way.

It’s incremental. It’s slow–sometimes painfully so.

Keep in mind that what you’re doing is basically trying to assemble an airplane in mid-flight. You’re trying to create content that will rank well in search, while at the same time also earning the links that you need for that content to rank.

It’s not an overnight process.

And you will fail at times. You’ll spend too much time creating something you think is great, only to have it fall flat when it’s finally pushed out into the world. That’s okay.

The key is consistency and process.

Keep moving forward.

Hitting Explosive Growth

At this point, we were on a solid growth path. We were seeing steady increases in traffic and all of our existing content was rising in the SERPs.

We were about 8 months in and had about 150-200 linking domains.

But we didn’t set out to achieve slow and steady. We wanted big-time, hockey-stick growth.

So, we changed course.

When we got to this point, we knew we had an opportunity to really turn up the dial.

If each new piece of content that you publish lands pretty high on SERPs, then it becomes a question of how many pieces of content you can load up–how many unique search terms you can rank for.

This is because the domain authority that you’ve built helps lift each piece of content on your website.

More pages = more keywords = more traffic.

So, we slowed down our production of content aimed at generating links and social traffic and focused more on heads-down production of evergreen content targeted at relevant keywords.

We brainstormed hundreds of article ideas, digging into all of the topics related to the college search and admissions process.

We came up with content ideas by:

  • Looking at our competitors and identifying gaps
  • Doing extensive keyword research
  • Joining forums and communities with our audience asking questions
  • Sourcing questions from our existing audience

Over the course of a few months, we published about 200 articles.

This propelled us to the next level. Up until this point, we had seen a slow and steady growth in traffic.

But this step changed our trajectory.

Now, we had over 300 articles on the site that were all working to bring in search traffic from our target audience on a huge range of relevant topics. Our traffic started to explode. We were growing at 20%-50% per month.

This worked because we had spent the first 8 months focusing almost entirely on earning links. We had generated enough domain authority that each new piece of evergreen content was almost certain to land somewhere on the first page of Google for the target keywords.

It’s worth noting that we didn’t have to do it in this order. We could have spent the first months doing a production sprint and building out a huge catalog of content. Then we could have spent the latter half of the year building links to “raise the ship” on the content that already existed.

The order doesn’t really matter, ultimately. And the results should have been ostensibly the same.

But there can be some strategic advantages to your order of operations.

In this case, we opted to build links first and then focus on building out more content. Since College Raptor had a number of data-driven, programmatic pages, building authority early started to show results right away, even if we didn’t have a lot of search-focused content.

What I Would Have Done Differently

Looking back over this year of work, it’s obvious that we accomplished something that many companies and startups only dream of achieving.

But that doesn’t mean we did everything perfectly right.

Although we had a lot of success, this was ultimately one giant learning experience. And I learned a lot.

Here are some of the things I would do differently:

1. Work smart(er), not hard(er)

Like many others, we started out with the assumption that our content really needed to be something special–something no one had ever done before, seen before, or even dreamed of.

We spent hours wracking our brains for ways to twist or layer data to make something new.

What I know now is that you don’t need to try to reinvent the wheel every time. There are easy wins to be had by simply looking for what’s been done and making incremental improvements or changes. In some cases, you can even take the exact same premise and put your own spin on it or create your own version. If you’re after links, you might simply do outreach to a different audience.

This doesn’t give you a pass to be lazy. You still need to create great content.

But you can be smart about it and learn from the experience of others.

2. Repurpose more

Another way to make better use of time and resources is to build repurposing into the core of your strategy.

This can take a lot of forms. It may mean creating a series of graphics that work as a big, long infographic and also can be broken down into smaller graphics that are used in a series of text-based posts. It might mean collecting a series of content that’s already published on your site and packaging it up into something “new.”

But, repurposing is a great way to get extra mileage from the work you’ve already done.

Look for opportunities to tie things together or use your assets in different ways or for different audiences.

Remember that just because you’ve read something on your site doesn’t mean everyone has. So there’s no shame in giving it a second, third, or fourth life.

3. Curate content where it works

It’s tempting to think that if there’s good content out there, you need to set out to make something better–bigger, sexier, more helpful.

But sometimes you should just take what’s already been given.

Notice that I didn’t use this case study to explain to details of how to craft a nice outreach letter or use a tool like Ahrefs to identify link opportunities. That’s because it’s already been done–a lot. So rather than simply rehashing what’s already been created, I just put together a collection of prerequisite resources.

In an age of so much content, sometimes the best thing you can do to add value is to simply serve as a filter.

Curate a list of the best of what’s already out there.

Many of the great content marketing and SEO experts of the world rely heavily on curating lists of other people’s content to provide value to their readers. And they can still use it to generate traffic and links.

Don’t underestimate the power of curation.

4. Focus more on design and presentation

Another thing to keep in mind is that looks matter a lot–probably more than you think.

Beyond just having a reasonably designed page, design can play a big role in the success of your outreach and link building. Many times, people won’t even read your content. They’ll skim and try to pick up some of the key points.

They’re busy and they just want to know, “is this a valuable resource of just some spammy junk?”

Having a page with a nice design can set their mind at ease quickly. A wall of text may contain the same information, but it doesn’t feel quite as nice as a well-designed guide with clear bullet points, section headings, and useful graphics.

Content is ultimately only useful it’s also usable.

Using the “Trifecta Strategy”

I wanted to share this experience not just to brag about the numbers (although they’re pretty impressive, if I do say so myself). But, because what we learned through this process was that this model–this content marketing strategy–could be applied to almost any business.

Let me be the first to say that it’s not easy.

In fact, it’s damn hard. It takes a ton of work.

But with focus and the right team, this same framework can be applied in nearly any industry–the three (or four) content types are universal.

What changes is the strategic mix of content that you need in order to achieve results.

Here are some tips for adapting this strategy:

1. Plan for SEO from the beginning

This strategy was ultimately so effective at generating huge amounts of search traffic because we went wide and shallow in terms of SEO. We had a huge number of pages related to a broad range of college topics.

If your business relies on ranking highly for a few specific keywords–like, say, an eCommerce store, for example–then your strategy will likely be different. Evergreen content may not be valuable in terms of bringing in traffic that actually converts. So your strategy may focus almost entirely on building links and driving social traffic.

Whatever the case, you must consider the SEO landscape of your industry and then adapt the strategy to help you compete there and achieve your goals.

2. Set a benchmark (the 7% rule)

The general rule for achieving the all-mighty hockey stick is that you should aim for 7% growth, week over week.

The same benchmark generally applies here. We used 7% weekly growth in organic traffic as a goal and it gave us something to chase after and also a way to project what our growth would look like into the future.

You probably won’t hit 7% every week, but if you’re seeing about 7% on average, then you’re probably in good shape.

3. Stay strategic

One of the reasons so many people fail at content marketing is because they lose sight of their strategy.

Instead of focusing on results, they just worry about publishing content–any content. Just to meet some arbitrary schedule or quota. But this is ridiculous.

Content takes time, money, and effort. And if you’re not using it strategically–if you’re blogging just to blog–then it’s simply an expense that isn’t generating a return.

Do what you need to focus on the strategy and make sure that every piece of content that you create and publish is being put to use as an asset. Everything you create should be focused on one of the core objectives of your strategy.

If you can’t immediately say what the purpose of a post would be, then scrap it.

Essential Reading

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, most of our strategy was built on the teachings of many SEO and content marketing experts who generously share their time and knowledge.

People like Neil Patel, Noah Kagan, Robbie Richards, and Brian Dean were all hugely helpful in teaching me some of the fundamental laws of scaling traffic.

Since I didn’t have the opportunity here to rehash all of the specific strategies and tactics that I learned from them, I’ve packaged them up into a collection of essential ideas, strategies, and tactics for anyone who wants to apply this strategy or achieve similar results.

Grab a free copy of this collection of essential reading, tools, and know-how by email.

Wondering how you got here? Find out in our next article.

Coming soon: The step-by-step content promotion strategy that we use to drive tons of traffic to every post.

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Tyler Hakes

Tyler Hakes

I'm the strategy director at Optimist. I've spent nearly 10 years helping startups, agencies, and corporate clients achieve growth through strategic content marketing and SEO.