Issue #3. Why Brian Jackson Combines Content + Paid at Kinsta to Grow Faster, for Less

Brian Jackson is the Chief Marketing Officer over at Kinsta, managed WordPress hosting extraordinaire, who work with everyone from small-time bloggers on up to agencies and enterprise clients.

Here’s how they use content to help position the company in a crowded market, how they scale content in up to 12 different languages, and why they’re combining paid promotion with content to grow the number of people who could eventually be their customers one day.

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How content positions Kinsta in a growing marketplace

“Managed WordPress hosting” didn’t even exist a decade or so ago. There were just a few shared hosting companies, like your Bluehost’s or HostGator’s of the world. Or, you were technical and knew the savvier players in the market like Rackspace, could afford them or could spin up your own server.

Then, Pagely came along. (Credit where it’s due.)

But that was then, and this is now. You’ve got monsters in the market like WP Engine. And all of those shitty shared hosting companies, like Bluehost and HostGator, each have their own managed WordPress option as well.

Positioning, now more than ever is essential. And no one knows that better than Brian Jackson, who’s seen the market evolve since his early days at Kinsta when there were only half a dozen people. Now, there are more than 50 spread across the world.

“To be honest, Pagely and the other WordPress hosting companies, they all have their own little goals that they’re trying to accomplish and their own sets of clients that they’re targeting. And so even us, we’re going kind of after kinds of different kinds of clients than Pagely is. I would compare us more to probably like WP Engine if you’re comparing us to someone just because we have a broader spectrum of clients. We deal with smaller businesses but we also deal with Fortune 500 companies and stuff like that. So, the industry just had issues. And now, like you said, there are tons of WordPress hosts, they’re still popping up. I think with WordPress being 30% or 32% now of the internet, there’s still room for a lot of these companies to have tremendous success, and that’s what we’ve seen too.”

One way Kinsta drives their positioning home is through content.

Kinsta, as a bootstrapped company, has always invested heavily in content. (Scales slower, but more effectively over the long-term, bringing down the cost to acquire each customer, yadda yadda yadda.)  

Long, in-depth, technical content was there from the get-go. That includes more prep work at the beginning, like detailed keyword research, SERP analysis, and competitive link profile evaluations.

Over the last two and a half years, Brian’s been tasked with now scaling that approach to reach more people. Which is an important point, because there’s a catch-22 of keyword research and content that most people don’t discuss.

The best keywords and content topic ideas are typically too big for most people to go after initially. However, in time, with enough diligent work, that script flips. Here’s how.

The Catch-22 of keyword research

In the early days of any new website, you’re faced with a seemingly insurmountable task:

Google doesn’t trust your site. Domain authority or rating or whatever you want to call it is virtually nonexistent. And people just don’t really trust a new, unverified brand.

So it’s an uphill battle.

Especially in small, hyper-competitive spaces like “marketing” or “hosting,” where you have a lot of savvy players (who all have money), going after a ton of low-volume search queries.

Brian lived through this challenge for the first few years. But lately, he’s seen a shift as Kinsta’s exploded.

“Over the last, I would say, just the last six months, I’ve noticed a shift in my own keyword research as far as I’ve noticed us obtaining things I didn’t think we could obtain. And so shifting things to like, ‘Let’s go after broader keywords than we were before,’ because we’re at the point now where our domain authority’s high enough. We have a massive amount of traffic to our site which matters because you have those people sharing other content and in other articles, it all kind of creates a snowball effect for all of your content and boosts all of it up.”

In the early days, you go after long-tail variations off the broad term you really want. Brian did the same. But with the new evolution, and instead of simply sitting back with a ton of old content bringing in few visitors, he’s going back and re-optimizing the old long-tail stuff to be more competitive.

“I’ve been going broader now saying, ‘Hey, wow, yeah. You know, two years ago, there’s no way we could have ranked for this keyword, and I wouldn’t have ever thought of going for it.’ And we even re-optimized some of our content, current content to focus on the broad keyword now instead of the original keyword we might have already won.”

Do it carefully, and you don’t risk losing the stuff you’ve built up, either.

“As long as your content’s good and you keep it updated, I’ve never seen…so far I haven’t seen really losing those long tail keywords if we’ve re-optimized it for the broader tail. It seems to…because a lot of the long tail stuff, it’s in the paragraphs, it’s in the headings already. So a lot of times you won’t lose it. It’s more like really optimizing the main headers, the title, even things like, I mean, I look at the file names of the images, the file names of the featured image, I mean, I am obsessed.”

There are tiny competitive margins at the top. So much so, that Brian obsesses over image file names.

“It takes a lot of time and it sucks if you’re literally obsessed. But I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen a lot of success too, is because we’re that obsessed over it. And, obviously, a lot of companies don’t have that much time to do that. If they don’t, I would suggest hiring someone to do that in marketing just full-time or reach out to an agency that’s maybe has guys that are doing more technical sides of stuff rather than just content or maybe the agency has both types of people where they’re doing both of that.”

Hiring helps. Just throw a few cheap (free) interns on the job and turn them loose.

But marketing, according to Brian, “is one of the hardest places to hire people or quality people.”

Here’s why.

Why hiring is hard in marketing

“Marketing” often means advertising today. Maybe promotion or PR, too.

But that’s wrong. Because it’s only one tiny sliver of the actual role marketing plays.

Marketing used to influence everything from product to pricing to distribution channels. Brian continues to agree with this classic definition:

“When you have a certain way of doing things, it’s really hard to let the reins go. And I guess you could say this about any department, but I feel like marketing is super hard because it affects a lot of different parts of the company from sales to SEO to… It affects a lot of things rather than just a development thing might affect one area of the dashboard where a piece of content could affect, if you’re going to get that next enterprise lead or if it’s gonna rank on the first page of Google, it just…it’s really important.”

In other words, even the simplest decision, like which keywords to target, ultimately affect the type of customers you bring in, how much money they spend, what they are (or aren’t) willing to pay for, and more.

That, plus the lowering barrier to entry to call yourself a “marketer,” make it tough to spot the gems in the rough who get this.

“I mean, there’s so many marketing buzzwords that go on that it just excused the whole industry, I think, and puts like a mask in what’s really happening. And so yeah, it’s hard to hire people because they say they have ten years of SEO and writing experience, but they’re still doing the same thing that they were doing ten years ago or they’re just doing what the latest HubSpot article says that that might not be what’s really working. And while I have huge respect for the guys at HubSpot, and some of their guys even host their sites with us, like Matthew Howells-Barby, he’s a genius. I love reading his stuff, but a lot of their stuff he’s not writing it either.”

Hiring is especially difficult when you’re scaling fast. The old business-as-usual plans get thrown out, in favor of a faster tempo. Which means new hires get thrown squarely in the deep end.

How Kinsta scales multilingual content in 12 different languages

Kinsta not only goes after bigger, broader topics today. They’re also publishing more. But that doesn’t just mean more English content.

“I would say we’ve increased it, yeah. And I would actually say that partially due to the multi-lingual stuff we’ve been doing. So, now, it’s kind of changed. I would say our English content has maybe slowed down a little bit simply because of time constraints on my part. But we’ve actually increased content output based on hiring more people to help with translations and stuff.”

Brian scales content just like any other funnel in marketing.

“So basically, everything will funnel down from our English version of what I’m writing, or we do have content writer. We work with you there at Codeless for some content. We have other guest bloggers too. So it’s not just me writing all that stuff anymore, but I’m the one that’s touching everything still, from the very first funnel. And then it trickles down and then gets replicated kind of across all these different languages. So, in terms of that, we push out a lot more content than we were a year ago.”

They initially dipped their toe into the multilingual waters with Spanish. Since then, they’ve upped it to twelve different languages.

“We have a guy that’s our Chief Global Strategist. It’s a good title to have because he’s in charge basically of all of the translators and he works with me directly as far as making sure the content is getting translated correctly. He works with all the other international markets. He does all the hiring the stuff with all these translators because we don’t just outsource to an agency, we’ve actually gone and hired people individually that speak these native languages. It costs us more money but I feel like we have higher quality translations in the long run because of that. And I do feel like our SEO were seeing huge jumps in all these markets. And I feel like that’s definitely contributing to part of it.”

There are no shortage of translations options out there. Just fire up Google Translate, for one. But there are also other external contractors, or even WordPress plugins, like Polylang, that can help automatically translate the content for you.

“Yeah, and there are a lot of great point options… I mean, even I don’t know if you’re familiar with Weglot. It’s a newer one that’s grown really fast but it’s one I’ve actually used on my own blog, basically on my own stuff because I don’t have time to hire people or do the stuff that we’re doing at Kinsta on my own hobby stuff, and it’s a great plugin. Our workflow is just so weird that we had to build stuff ourselves.”

Scaling anything, quickly, requires an odd mix of standardization with processes, but simplicity for fluidity. And for that, Kinsta relies heavily on Trello.

“I have to give a shout out to the guys over at Trello because while people might go for more robust tools, we’re still using Trello even though we’re scaling at a rapid pace. Tom [Kinsta’s co-founder and CFO] and I used Trello on a daily basis. We have a different Trello board for each language, basically. And each translator has their own little columns in those boards that they go into. But our developer has written crazy stuff, too. So I’ll update a post on the English side and we have a little button that says, ‘Push it to Trello,’ and then it will actually take the change revisions that WordPress does. You can go back and look at the auto-save drafts and stuff.”

Change revisions are also added to each Trello card so that individual translators can see the current status. They can see when someone’s been finished on the English side, and then Brian just needs to push a single button to replicate the card 12 times for each language board.

“And I never leave WordPress, so that’s really cool. It’s helped me a lot, but it’s stuff like that where we use Trello heavily. And we did wanna switch to something like, we use Atlassian for our developers. That’s a great tool for that but, in my opinion, for marketing stuff, it can be a little clunky because there’s a lot of clicks. And, Tom and I like just being, you need a task, just, Trello card, done. Set a new date, that’s it. And I don’t think we’ll ever move away from that just because I can’t think of any way of doing it faster. But that’s one reason we’ve just integrated our workflow and we just ended up building our stuff ourselves. And stuff like for SEO, like the tags for different language of the sites, that’s pretty trivial. And all the plugins can do that stuff pretty easy now. And our developer, Geno, just kind of basically coded that in as well.”

The added bonus of a multilingual strategy is that other language SERPs tend to be a lot less competitive. Kinsta’s seen this with Japanese.

“Japanese is one we’ve gone into. And this one, we’ve actually seen a lot success. And I think it’s because other people don’t usually go into that language just because, I don’t even know what’s on the page. It’s just all these random symbols. So I can’t update anything. I’m 100% reliant on the translator to help us here. But, that’s one market we’ve just seen literally skyrocket, and part of that might be due to just the WordPress industry in that niche is not as competitive. I think another part of it is the SEO industry or niche is less (competitive), too, because you don’t see a lot of people going into that language.

The trick to creating branded, MOFU pages that don’t suck

Branded website pages serve a purpose. They’re there to convert.

Unfortunately, that means they’re often not meant to educate or entertain — let alone be shared or read in their entirety.

Kinsta has managed to avoid that trap with their “alternative” MOFU pages. These are another page out of the standard SEO playbook, except executed much better than most.

There is usually a well-worn template these. So people type in “WP Engine alternative” or “Pagely alternative,” and they see the same headline, table, 300-odd hyped-up words, and then a big CTA button for a demo or trial.

“I spend a lot of time on those pages. Fortunately, I know the other competitors pretty well. And a lot of them I’ve even used in the past for other clients. And, I work with lots of other people in different hosts that maybe come to Kinsta, so I know how kind of their tools work and stuff too. But a lot of it is, anyone could do it if they just take the time to research. Or if their competitor has a tool, there’s nothing stopping them from spinning up their trial and diving into it themselves and doing the research. But I can tell you, those who have been really successful not just from an SEO perspective but also from a user perspective because our sales team on a daily basis will get questions like, ‘Well, why should we choose you guys over these guys?’ We’ll get that every single day.”

When you execute content to a higher degree, like Kinsta did with these pages, it’s not just an SEO play anymore. These pages become a resource for the sale team and other departments as well.

“To be honest, that’s originally why we wrote them. It wasn’t for SEO, it was because we got tired of answering [the same questions] over and over and over. But once we dove into it more, and I did more keyword research, I realized, ‘Wow, there’s actually…the bigger our brand grows, the more there’s actually search volume starting to pop-up for like, you know, keys to versus XYZ versus our competitors.’ And so, if you’re a brand just scaling, maybe there’s no search volume there yet, but it can be something that will continue to grow, which I think is a win-win. If it’s something you can do for the user and its SEO lower competitive SEO that will continue to grow, that’s a no brainer. It might be you should do it like right away.”

Despite the initial low volume, these pages can be among the highest converting on your site.

“They do, yeah. And I would say they convert better because we spend all that time. You can tell when you visit them that they’re not just like some of the other pages out there. We put tons of time into putting in facts. And we’re not trying to bash anyone. We never try to be disrespectful of any other hosts on those pages, we just stick to the facts. And on some of those facts we actually have the other competitors as better than us. We don’t win on everything or better on everything. And so, we try to be truthful. I think that comes across. We try to do that in all of our marketing and I think it helps being transparent. I think, especially in 2019, people see through a lot more crap than they used to. And all these companies, like Buffer and everybody else publishing their annual recurring revenue metrics there, all their Baremetrics stats, and trying to be more open to show more than they used to be like ten years ago, where everything was just hush, hush. I think you have to be more honest for people to trust you nowadays.”

Going into more depth on each page also helps minimize the threat of duplicate content. If 200 words out of 200 are duplicated, you have a problem. But if 200 are duplicated out of 4,000? Not that big of a deal.

“Yes. So, what I found, because that’s always been a concern of mine, especially since I’m so obsessed with doing everything perfect. Like, ‘Is this 200 words going to hurt me that I just copied to this other post?’ But what I found over the years is that if the article is long enough, it doesn’t matter. So even on those pages, I think there might even be a couple of sections which I just copied across. The thing is, those posts are 3,000, 3,500 words, they’re pretty big, and there might be 300 to 400 words that are copied in different kind of sections. And so while I’m not worried about those at all, because I know there’s enough unique content that’s overpowering it constantly. So my advice, I guess, would be from my own experience is, as long as the articles long enough, you can copy and paste some stuff here in there.”

The pros vs. cons of PPC. And how Kinsta balances both.

People don’t just look for tool alternatives in Google. They’re also asking the same question on places like Quora.

Brian’s experimented with a few distribution options on Quora: answering these organically with content and promoting ads. They both work. Just like both content and PPC work on Google.

The difference lies in the pros vs. cons of each.

“Writing on Quora it actually does work really well. The problem is it takes a ton of time. And when you look at the results, it’s like, ‘Maybe I should have taken that time and just written on my own side rather,’ because you’re really helping boost Quoras’ bottom line when you’re doing that. So, I would be careful about writing on Quora. I know a lot of guys will spend…I’ve talked to some guys that spend 20 hours a week writing Quora answers to get traffic back to their own site and they get a lot of traffic back. But, I probably would have spent 20 hours on my own site to be honest, or 20 hours just doing anything on my own tasks because that’s a quite a bit of time.”

Some people think ads are expensive. Purists will only claim content. But like anything, it depends. Twenty hours writing on Quora seems pretty damn expensive, too.

The trick, especially for bootstrapped companies, is to determine where the time vs. money line is worth it.

“We do a little bit of AdWords. And when I say a little we try not to do AdWords at all but we need some there because it’s just expensive. And, a lot of the stuff we do is Facebook ads and Twitter ads. And I would say 70% of it is not ads but rather boosting our content. And when I say the word ‘boost,’ I don’t mean like clicking out boost button.”

Instead, Brian runs paid social campaigns to either increase distribution on posts he knows will perform well. Or, he’ll run lead gen campaigns with content he already knows will convert well. “Part of the reason is just because we know what content converts just from analytics and stuff on our site organically. So the theory is, it should convert on pay-per-click too,” explains Brian.

For example, he recently wrote a 25,000-word guide that they’re turning into a printed book for events they attend. But it will also go into the evergreen paid queue, too.

“We’ll always be boosting that post probably, literally 24/7, I mean, for the rest of my life maybe. So, stuff like that, take your best content and there’s no reason to stop promoting it if you’re seeing conversions from it. Make sure you’re seeing results from it, but there’s no reason to stop it if you’re seeing good results from it.”

Brian will also promote new content through paid campaigns, but not for the reason you think.

“New content is always important to just keep rotating whatever new stuff you’re publishing because I’ve seen a direct correlation between boosting stuff and organic rankings. And, there will be a lot of people that might scoff at this theory or say, ‘No, there’s nothing there.’ But I’ve literally seen stuff go. You boost a post, and I’ll hit the first page of Google and you’ll stop boosting the post and we’ll go back to page two. And I literally haven’t changed anything. It hasn’t really gotten many social organic shares. And, there’s some correlation there I’ve never been able to figure out what it is. But that’s why it’s always important just to keep boosting stuff and taking advantage of the social media traffic. Google definitely looks at that in some ways.”

Audience targeting also plays a massive role, too. Your first few thousand goes directly to audience building. Then, you continually refine those audiences to lower spend over time while seeing better results roll in the door.

So filling your funnel with junk links from click farms in a third-world country are useless. Whereas granular targeting will laser-focus that ad spend.

“What I would say there is, we target people that have already converted in India. We’ll target the cities that have converted because there’s certain cities in India that just have higher incomes of their people that live in certain areas of India. And those are the people that will probably be our customers. So we’ll target people that have already converted in those areas. Then I’ll do a 10-mile radius on a Facebook ad just for people in that area. I don’t care about anyone else in the country, just that one area.”

Organic and paid aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, using them together can often drive better results than relying on just one.

Investing a few hundred more bucks in a piece of content, for instance, could save you tens of thousands down the road in paid promotion.

“Yeah, exactly. And like us, we’re a bootstrap company. So we don’t have investor money behind the scenes. So, compared to our competitors, we have a lot smaller marketing budget that we’re having to deal with, and that’s one of the reasons why we’ve really taken advantage of content marketing to begin with. But we don’t have $1 million a year to throw at AdWords. That’s not something we have, and so we have to be smarter about where our ad money goes. And Facebook and Twitter right now, if you’re good with it, it can be really a cost-effective way to see some results.”

It also depends on the larger market. Cost per clicks in insurance or health or law might seem expensive. But when each new customer is worth $10k? Not so much.

“Before I worked for Kinsta, I worked for a couple of years ago now back in the health niche for pain management clinics. One client to them in certain areas for a certain ad, one client could be actually $10,000 worth of profit. Yeah, so a CPA, a $10,000 CPA, that’s something really nice to work with when you’re doing PPC. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is awesome,’ because you can spend $500, that’s no big deal. You spend $500 to get them in at $10,000. But in our industry like for hosting $10 to $20 a click, when we’re a bootstrap company, that’s a problem, it’s a big problem.

Tech companies have other PPC problems, too. First, your average user revenue is split up. So any churn within the first few months puts you in the red. And second, you’re luring people in with a free trial. So there’s no guarantee they’re even getting over that hump, either.

“Exactly, yeah. And so we’re at the point where we have low tier plans now which are $30 a month, but we have a 30-day money back guarantee. So, while our churn rate is really, really low just because I think we have a really good product and people really like our service, there’s still a chance of a $40 CPA, that’s not good for us because if we have a client come in at $30 a month and for some reason they cancel, that’s a $10 negative loss there. That’s not good for us. So we have to figure out different ways to be profitable. AdWords really is more of a branding place for us. I’d say we do a lot more branding stuff on AdWords than trying to go after fast WordPress hosting keywords. It’s just not something we can complete with. So, content working in a huge win for us.”

Remarketing is another win for Kinsta, taking advantage of people’s preference to shop around in a crowded, competitive landscape. And, when you have excellent alternative pages to send them to:

“Remarketing also works really, really well for us. And I can’t say this about other niches. I know for us our product, as you know, hosting takes more of a commitment. People that search for a host of probably bouncing around between five to seven different options before they decide on one. And so for us, remarketing convert just constantly because I think people, they might go looking for another one and then they see our ad again and they’re like, ‘Oh, wait. Let’s go back and look at them one more time.’ And so they’ll convert the second or third time where they didn’t the first time. And those clicks are cheap. Those are one of the cheapest clicks you can get if you do it right.”

Branding vs. performance: Grow or convert?

Small companies often scoff at pure branding plays. But there’s an inflection point where a lack of branding hinders your ability to grow quickly.

Kinsta is arguably investing more in pure branding than ever before. Brian mentioned using AdWords for branding. They’re turning one content piece into a book. They’re passing around said book at various WordCamp events this year (WordPress’ own traveling conference).

When a startup starts scaling fast, it becomes tricky to figure out when you take money away from conversion-oriented efforts and put them into branding. Because, at least temporarily, you’re willingly pushing the cost per acquisition up, in hopes if later bringing it back down.

So how and when do you make that decision?

“Yeah. That’s a really good question actually. That’s a really good one. I would say, the branding is something we’ve done more now that we’re to the scaling part. Because I think when you start a company, I don’t think you have a lot of time to risk putting towards all the branding in place because you don’t know if your model probably is even at the point of working yet. If you’re bootstrapped, which most companies are when they start, you have to go after what’s gonna get that demo the next day because otherwise you’ll just go bankrupt too fast. But, I think once you’re to the point of seeing consistent growth, maybe after two, three years, it comes to the point where I think you have to look at branding because otherwise you won’t scale fast enough.”

In other words, the focus shifts from converting what (little) you’ve got to expanding the overall size of the pie.

“I think once you get to the point of like, say, ‘Hey, we have a business that works.’ I think immediately once you come to that conclusion and it’s somewhere in the middle of after you bootstrap for a while. Versus, ‘Hey, we need to invest in branding now because that’s how we get to the next level.’ “We’re at 50-plus employees now, we wanna go to 200. We want to go to that scale as much as we can. And so, to do that, obviously, a company has to think broader. They have to think branding.”

Branding, in this sense, can take various shapes and forms. But this entire conversation of content + paid is a direct example.

“Pay-per-click goes hand-in-hand with content because if you want to get eyes on the content, if you want to kind of boost the organic growth faster, you just have to be doing in both. It has to be, it’s cohesive in between, you have to do both.”

Kinsta has also been doing some influencer interviews for awhile now. If you looked at any dashboard or inside Google Analytics, you’d probably see a big fat zero next to conversions for this type of content. Some content isn’t created to shove people into an opt-in sequence.

But that doesn’t mean this content is worthless. Or, that it doesn’t convert anyone.

“Yeah, I can tell you, we’ve done those for two and a half years now. And I can tell you, those have actually turned into customers. So that’s another thing you might not think of. But reaching out and connecting with those people to do an interview saying, ‘Hey, we know, you like you’re awesome at this. We wanna interview you.’ You never know that it might turn into an actual customer of yours down the road. So, that’s another thing.”