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How We MVP Organic Traffic As A Lead Gen Channel

(Editorial note: I originally wrote this post over on the Hit Subscribe blog. I’ll be cross-posting anything I think this audience might find interesting and also started a SubStack to which I’ll syndicate marketing-related content.)

Minimum viable product (MVP), as defined by Eric Ries in the Lean Startup, is a fascinating term.  It has a specific meaning in the context that he defined it, but it also has a highly-inferable, slightly-wrong meaning if you simply happen to know what each of those three words mean.  I imagine a whole lot of people have inferred the definition without reading the book:

A minimum viable product is the earliest, feature-poorest version of your product that can survive in the market, right?  Right!?

Turns out, not exactly.  According to the source:

The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

I’ve always thought of the Lean Startup as a book about applying the scientific method to business. And so I’ve thought of an MVP as an experiment rather than a product, myself.  How can you form and then verify or disprove a hypothesis as quickly and cost-effectively as possible?  This is the core question of the MVP.

(As an aside, if legibility and lifecycle of buzzwords is a topic that interests you, I once spent a whole blog post musing about this.)

Against this backdrop, I’d like to formalize an offering we’ve been doing more frequently of late: our organic traffic MVP.

What Is an Organic Traffic MVP?

Our organic traffic MVP is an offering designed to let you learn, as quickly and inexpensively as possible, whether organic traffic can serve as a viable lead gen channel for your business.  We work with you to build a small but statistically significant stream of well-qualified traffic to your site and see if you can do something productive with that traffic.

So how is this the least effort?  Couldn’t you run paid ads or look at a competitor or something?  The short answer is no, you won’t learn what you need to, and I’ll explain in more detail shortly.

And how is this the maximum learning?  Wouldn’t you learn more with something more precise than “do something productive with the traffic?”

The answer in this case is that you might, but it would veer out of the realm of learning about the channel.  Organic traffic to your site is really just a distribution channel.  So, the true-north question is whether it can get the right people onto your site and provide you a means of continuing to communicate with them.

The organic traffic MVP is thus Hit Subscribe working with you to produce a small amount of traffic-attracting content, retrospecting with you on the results, and then recommending whether or not to use search traffic as a channel in your marketing efforts.

Organic Traffic MVP Specifics: Cost, Time, and Deliverables

Given that I’m both a longtime consultant and a brevity-resistant writer, you probably assumed I’d hand-wave at the specifics and urge you to book a call to discuss.  But what are we even doing if we can’t have a little fun subverting expectations from time to time?

First of all, this will cost around $10,000, in some combination of capital and your own labor.  And that variability will depend mainly on who you prefer to execute the content.

Speaking of executing the content, the main deliverable will be ten pieces of content that, properly executed, project to rank and earn qualified traffic.  Now, obviously that includes supporting deliverables such as our traffic modeling, keyword research, briefing, etc.  But at the end of the day, you’ll publish ten pieces of content and observe the results.

Why ten?  Any fewer than that, and you risk not having enough data for a proper evaluation.  Too many more than that, and you’re starting to scale before you learn.

And, finally, timeline.  How much calendar time should this take?  The answer depends on both your timeliness on deliverables and your site’s domain authority, but you should think in terms of three to four months, on average.

So, spend $10K over three to four months, and your absolute worst case will be that you feel good disqualifying a lead gen channel and focusing on something else.  A much more likely case is that you have a prototype and blueprint for scaling lead gen.

What We Want to Confirm

Now, let’s get into the meat of why you should prototype/MVP the channel rather than just pencil it in as a distribution tactic.  Here are the things that we want to learn about you in order to recommend hitting the gas, tuning, or abandoning the channel.

  • Will your editorial vision and ideation tactics for site content prove a blocker for results?
  • Will or can you remove blockers to the channel’s success?
  • Will your business sustain interest and follow through?
  • Will the live content hit leading indicators of success in a timely fashion and drive qualified traffic?
  • Can you do something productive with the resultant traffic?

Throughout the course of (on average) three to four months, we’ll answer these questions together.  And the ongoing learning will feed into a paradigm that I think of as “succeed, fail, tune, or bail” to help answer whether to scale the channel, abandon it, or make adjustments and continue learning.

And I should also clarify that abandoning a channel isn’t a “fail” in the judgment sense but rather in the positive, “fail fast” sense.  If search engine traffic isn’t a fit for your business, it’s better to learn that quickly and move on, rather than hiring an endless series of low-value SEO consultants to tell you to optimize meta descriptions or whatever.

What You’ll Learn

So let’s dive into the learning.  But to set the stage, it’s important to understand that the SEO industry has created an absolute miasma of misunderstanding of the channel among non-SEO folks.  In other words, the majority of people that come to us subtly misunderstand how organic traffic to their site works.

The most common, and often deal-breaking, type of misunderstanding we see is the idea that you create the content you feel like writing and then “do SEO to it with Yoast or whatever” to make it rank.  If this is how you think of SEO, there is a strong chance you’re going to fail at the channel.  Full stop.

If this is the case, I invite to you to reference my “Are you sure you want organic traffic?” checklist to help you set more realistic expectations around the process.  And, yeah, as you are no doubt realizing, this comes up A LOT.

When asked, everyone says they want search engine traffic.  Who wouldn’t?  But it isn’t until ideating topics and publishing posts that we really see if they mean it, so to speak.

1. Will Your Editorial Vision and Ideation Tactics Prove a Blocker?

This actually makes for a great segue into describing the first thing that we want to learn about you.  If you’re currently on team “sprinkle some Yoast on my thought leadership” you’re starting out in a success deficit.

Most people tend to think, understandably, of their blog in the original web-log sense.  The blog is your brand’s journal, where you share insights, wisdom, and novel premises, and you build an audience of steady readers.  (Careful here, though, since that can easily degrade into performative content.)

So naturally, you want to ideate about interesting topics that showcase your sophistication.  But the problem is this: it’s the polar opposite of how you attract search engine traffic.

Searchers are asking fairly mundane, straightforward questions when they take to Google.  What does DevOps mean? Or how do I get started with Terraform?

And this means that to rank for “DevOps” and “Terraform tutorial,” you have to create content with titles like, “What is DevOps,” and, “A Terraform Tutorial for Beginners.”  Enter: the friction.  It’s extremely common for marketers and founders to balk at those premises as “too basic.”

So let’s get this out of the way first and foremost.  If that’s your take, and you’re not moving from it, I can save you the $10K.  Don’t do organic as a channel—you’ll fail.

The good news is that you can have your cake and eat it too.  Save your blog for thought leadership takes, and position this content as a glossary or a community tutorial repository or something.  Heck, spin up a microsite.

But the first piece of learning here is whether, where, and how you can make peace with organic topics.

2. Will or Can You Remove Blockers to the Channel’s Success?

Next up is a much more mundane but equally important concern.  Just as SEO has an editorial component, it also has a technical component.

I won’t bore you with too many details here (and rest assured, they are indeed boring).  But the gist is that we have prospects that come to us with technical problems that would prove a serious headwind for the channel’s success.  Some quick examples to make this tangible:

  1. Terrible site performance.
  2. A weird, unconventional CMS that doesn’t take care of SEO things out of the box.
  3. A history of spam or site problems.
  4. Lack of certain SEO table stakes technical concerns, like sitemaps.

When we engage with clients for campaigns that involve SEO in any way, we do an initial sanity check looking for problems that would be true blockers (as opposed to SEO hygiene minutiae).  Usually clients address these things and we move on.  But occasionally, if they can’t or won’t address them, we’d recommend against the channel.

3. Will Your Business Sustain Interest and Follow Through?

I imagine this sounds almost stupid to you as a reader.  If you’re investing $10K and a few months in a lead generation experiment, wouldn’t you obviously stay interested?

You’d be surprised.

Client marketers, especially in the early stages, are wearing a lot of hats.  It’s fairly easy to find yourself distracted and let signing off on briefs or publishing content slip by another day…or week…or month.

And that’s assuming that other, more holistic issues don’t crop up.  Personnel turnover is incredibly common, site migrations happen frequently, and early-stage orgs tend to pivot.

The amount of ways orgs find to lose momentum would stagger you.  It’s surprisingly common for us to have to keep nudging clients to finish their part of MVP engagements.

So we want to learn whether or not the channel’s success has enough of a role in the business’s success to sustain interest.  And this is another one that we can really only learn via live engagement.

4. Will the Live Content Hit Leading Indicators of Success in Timely Fashion and Drive Qualified Traffic?

It’s interesting that we’re on item four here, and it’s the first time Hit Subscribe’s methodology and deliverables are part of the equation, as opposed to client concerns.  But in terms of what we want to learn in chronological order, this is the way it shakes out.  A lot of failure patterns occur before the racers even leave their marks.

This is the phase where we’ll learn if the content performs on your site the way we hypothesize that it will.

At this point, it’s important to revisit the idea that we want to see ten pieces of content so that we have enough data from which to learn.  That’s because SEO (and I’d argue digital marketing in general) is a game of chance where you stack the odds in your favor, like a casino.  The goal is to win the majority of blackjack hands and a steady stream of money while understanding that you won’t win every hand.

We’ll plan ten posts for you and then monitor them right out of the gate.  Google should index them fairly quickly, and then we should see them start bouncing around pages two through ten of the search engine for a few months.  If we’re not seeing that right out of the gate, we’ll do some root cause analysis and try to course correct.

If that happens, we next expect them to settle onto page one and start driving traffic to the site.  But I can tell you right out of the gate that maybe eight posts will wind up on page one driving traffic, and maybe two posts simply won’t, for reasons no one will ever truly know.  That’s the nature of the game we’re playing here (and anyone who claims otherwise is in the digital snake oil business).

But what we want to learn is whether a predictable majority of them will rank in good position and earn traffic and, if not, why not?

5. Can You Do Something Productive With the Resultant Traffic?

Now we’re finally at the end of our learning, chronologically.  And we’re also at the point where SEO as a distribution channel hands the baton to product marketing and your lower funnel tactics.

You’ve maintained interest, produced the content, and earned traffic for those efforts.  What is that traffic doing?  If the answer is that 100% of it is reading the articles and then leaving your site with no further action, then you have a vanity channel rather than a lead-generating one.  (Luckily, this almost always fixable.)

Most of the organic visitors to your site will be landing there for the first time and encountering your brand for the first time.  So, what next?  Do you have a plan for that?

This doesn’t need to be perfect, but you should have something in mind.  Personally, I think a good litmus test for success is “Do you have a way of initiating a subsequent interaction with this person?”

Here are some examples of what this might look like:

  • You have a call to action at the bottom of your post that goes to a sales page and prompts readers to fill out a form.
  • You drop a pixel and retarget them through social media later.
  • You invite them to sign up for your mailing list or for a webinar.

All of these are relatively light-touch ways for you to continue your conversation with them, and they’re also measurable.  And crucially, they’re all lead pipeline.  So if you have these in place and some of the searchers are taking the appropriate action, you have now proven the concept of using search as a lead generation channel.

Examples: Obvious, Marginal, and Non-Fits

If you’re reading this and potentially interested in conducting an organic traffic MVP (with our help or just for yourself), let me make things a little more tangible for you.  You’re likely wondering what fit and non-fit for organic might look like in practice, especially for the “something productive” piece.

With that in mind, let me lay out obvious, possible, and likely non-fit example companies.

First of all, obvious fits.  If you have a product offering with a low entry price-point, self-serve sign-up, and autonomous purchasing, it’s a fit.  In other words, if searchers can land on your site, quickly grok what you do, and buy from you, organic makes sense almost without exception.  Think SaaS, productivity tools, retail.

For marginal fits, think of purchase decisions becoming more complex.  If the product is more expensive, more complicated, and requires more purchasing consideration, organic becomes less of a no-brainer.  In this camp, you’ll find complex software, higher-ticket productized services, and small agencies, among others.

And finally, non-fits are companies where “does something productive” is hard to reconcile with a purchase.  For instance, imagine enterprise software or global agencies, where commercial purchase decisions involve years-long sales processes and massive buyer committees.  Who is going to read an Accenture blog post and say, “Oh, that reminds me, let me get out my credit card and buy a nine-figure consulting engagement”?

(Quick intermediate-level-SEO clarification: I’m not saying Accenture has no reason to show up in search. I’m saying they have no need for an MVP for organic lead gen.)

You Should Test the Channel

I’ve spent a good number of words here laying out Hit Subscribe’s methodology for helping clients evaluate the channel because it’s what I know.  We’ve worked with well over 100 brands on organic campaigns.  And as our resident traffic modeler, I’ve had a front-row seat for all of it.

But I want to conclude by saying you should MVP this (and any) lead gen channel whether or not you ever reach out to us.  At its core, digital marketing is experimentation and adaption.  MVP-ing channels and tactics lets you shorten the feedback loop and iterate quickly to success.

So if you’re thinking of trying to bring search engine traffic to your site, sketch out a small prototype first.  And crucially, execute it end-to-end—not just on paper.  All of your meaningful learning will happen in the trenches.

SEOTechnical Writing
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