Have you ever felt like you’ve been working hard for years but have very little to show for it? Client project follows client project and you stay afloat financially, but you don’t feel like you’re building anything of your own.
This was precisely the conundrum that faced British designer Stephen Shaw 3 years ago. After the dotcom bubble crushed his agency, he had been able to sustain himself from freelance work, but he didn’t have much to show for it beyond advanced design skills and some savings.
A creative at heart, Stephen wanted to move away from the rat race of trading his time for his clients’ money over and over. So he decided to create a business asset of his own that would live up to his ideals: something special that he would be proud of.
Being the sort of all-or-nothing guy that he is, Stephen resolved to put his client work on hold for 6 months to figure out how to build something really meaningful. He sold his shares and wine collection, put his snowboarding hobby on hold, and went all-in. Little did he know that he was about to embark on a roller-coaster journey of emotional ups and downs that would last over 3 years.
But the results were worth it. The typography guide he created went viral, bringing a whopping 218,450% increase in traffic to his site. Yes, you read that correctly. The change was so dramatic that Stephen actually thought that his website was being hacked for a while.
I’ve never heard of such ridiculous user growth before, so I sat down with Stephen to find out how he did it.
Why write about typography?
Stephen began his journey to create a business asset with an open mind; he did not set out to specifically create content about typography. His initial mindset was one of philosophical scepticism. In other words, he assumed everything that he been told about web design was a lie and set out to find out what works from first principles.
While reading everything he could get his hands on from the masters of web design in the US, Stephen began to notice a surprising trend. The websites that were ranking on Google all had **extraordinarily** good typography. At a time when most designers were betting on flashy CSS, he observed that it was typography that really made the difference. And typography was not only a factor in SEO — good typography also significantly increased the chances of content being shared by influencers in the content promotion phase.
In that moment, Stephen understood typography was a skill that he really needed to master. Reasoning that there would be plenty of other designers that would be interested to learn what he was figuring out, he decided to create a typography guide and turn it into a cornerstone piece of content on his site.
From a content marketing point of view, I think this is one of the reasons that Stephen’s content went viral. Most content marketers see content ideation in terms of firing up Buzzsumo and choosing some keywords to write about. Stephen’s approach was much more human. His content was aimed at solving a genuine problem that he and other designers had. Stephen’s approach of starting content ideation with pain point analysis instead of SEO is something that reminds me of the pain point SEO strategy created by Benji Hyam from Grow and Convert.
Viral content creation begins with … typography?
Stephen’s content creation process was intuitive, rather than structured. In his quest to understand typography, he followed his curiosity, using tools like Ninja Outreach, Buzzsumo and even comments on Amazon to validate or disprove the ideas that he had.
The content creation process for just the first of Stephen’s 10 steps to excellent typography took some 6 months to put together. Interestingly, he began with the typography of the page he was building, rather than writing the content itself first like most content marketers do. Most content marketers (this one included) barely give typography a second thought beyond plugging in a Google Font at the end of the process.
Instead of splitting the research and writing into two distinct phases, Stephen wrote as he was researching, rearranging his notes at the end of the research process. In this way, he was able to document his journey as he went. Stephen’s writing style makes frequent use of copywriting tactics such as open loops and cliffhangers to build emotional engagement with the reader.
At this point, I think it’s worth noting how far away Stephen’s approach is from the mirage content that most marketers produce. It’s so easy these days to create facile content from keyword suggestions spat out by the latest SaaS tool. Stephen’s method of creating unique content instead of following the crowd is extremely time-consuming, but the results speak for themselves.
I’ve observed something similar in my own journey at Content Viking. Before I understood that good content needs to have some nugget of uniqueness, repurposing content from existing articles on the Internet was easy. Anyone can do that. Finding out what topics our audience is interested in and writing unique articles about those topics that tell an engaging story takes me perhaps 3x as much time.
Going viral from the power of typography influencers
Something else that sets Stephen apart from most content producers is his understanding that all content needs to be marketed. The Internet is so saturated that it’s not sufficient to just write a great piece of content and hope that people find it. Stephen and I agreed that many content marketers are frightened of content promotion. I think this has to do with fear of failure: that no-one will actually read your articles.
Stephen’s promotion strategy was exclusively focused on getting typography influencers to share his content. Rather than directly requesting them to share, he instead asked the influencers for feedback using a combination of Twitter and email. The results surprised even Stephen himself. As many as 70% of the influencers he contacted got back to him, including some big names. Many had nothing but praise to give, although there was also some constructive criticism that Stephen found helpful.
Stephen also tried contacting a few journalists, but that got him nowhere. When I asked him why he thought influencers were more interested in his typography study than journalists, he explained that it was an easy marriage with influencers because they are so passionate about typography.
Most marketers recognise that the end goal of content promotion is to eventually become so well-known that you don’t need to promote content anymore. After being retweeted by multiple influencers, Stephen’s piece about typography reached this point very quickly. It was picked up by the prestigious Smashing Magazine, and the organic shares exploded from there. Stephen went from being an unknown freelancer with 2 website hits per day to over 4,000 hits the next day — overnight.
I was touched and amused by Stephen’s humble response to his success. He was so surprised that he contacted his hosting provider to see if there was some kind of technical error.
Life after going viral
“Blogging seems a little 2007-y” — perhaps the most memorable sales objection I have ever received. I still chuckle every time I think back to that conversation.
Stephen’s example proves that it is still very much possible to produce exceptional blog content in 2019. He acknowledges that it took him a long time and that his results are not even necessarily replicable. But, as startup mentor Paul Graham famously pointed out, sometimes small businesses need to do things that don’t scale.
So what do you do once you’ve achieved the rare feat of going viral? Stephen wants to use his knowledge to help other businesses do the same. He’s currently creating a system for building online marketing funnels and hopes to teach it to other businesses. All of us at Content Viking will be watching his journey with great interest.