Seven figures in ARR is a major milestone for most startups, and that’s where Surfer is today.
They’re in the highly-competitive SEO and content marketing industry, a space that has lived for at least two decades.
And their audience in this industry has always had SEO/content marketing tools they work with before Surfer showed up. In no particular order, there’s:
👉🏼 and many others.
But out came Surfer in 2017 and now they have (almost) everyone’s attention in the industry.
How did they hit seven figures in four years?
For the most part, key factors that led to Surfer’s growth revolve around having a thriving community, creating audience-relevant content, and a smart content distribution strategy.
I’ve invited Surfer’s cofounder Michal Suski to discuss these growth strategies and channels in detail.
Let’s dive in!
1. Webinars — as “T-shaped content”
I’ll explain what “T-shaped content” means in a bit, but let’s start with the webinar aspect of Surfer’s marketing strategy.
Webinars are one of the most effective marketing strategies out there; no wonder 67% of marketers increased their webinar investment in 2020.
Webinars perform different tasks for every business.
Common use cases in many companies include:
👉🏼 Live events
👉🏼 Q&A sessions
👉🏼 Internal communications
👉🏼 Product demos, and so on
For Surfer, webinars have been an opportunity to perform two important tasks:
- Educate SEOs and content marketers about topics important to them
- Drive existing user engagement and new sign-ups
They figured webinars would help them drive growth when they started doing one-on-one demos with their earliest users and sharing the demo sessions publicly. It helped them reach and convert their target users.
Michal said it like this: “At first I was running 1:1 demos with early adopters, but it turned out that we can scale it up and turn it into webinars that cover day-to-day work with Surfer.”
This way, they use webinar content to educate existing and potential users about key SEO topics, while driving more user acquisition.
(Aside: Internally at PCS, we call this type of content [webinars, in this case] “T-shaped content.” It’s the type of content that performs two functions at the same time: delivering value to both your audience while driving leads to your business.)
Now, let’s talk distribution; Surfer has a content amplification (or distribution) strategy that’s working so well for them, and this leads to my next point below.
(Author’s note: Get the good stuff below…)
2. Content partnerships — as a distribution strategy
Content partnerships are popular — especially with B2B & SaaS companies, and that’s because they’re super effective.
You invite guests to help you create content and they share it with their audience once you publish — because it’s their content too. It’s a win-win for everybody; your audience gets to meet them and theirs get to meet yours, both parties win!
This has been a strategy that’s helped Michal and his team tremendously:
“The key to success with our content was inviting guests. It is a great growth hack when you can not only pick your guests’ brains but also ask them to share the show with their online communities.
Some webinars attracted many new customers who were well educated and stayed with us for good.”
Case in point: when Michal partnered with expert Steve Toth of seonotebook.com to create video content on an SEO-related topic, Steve shared the video with his (then) 5,000 subscribers (now 9,000, btw).
Surfer does this with several influencers in the SEO and content industry; it’s a smart influencer strategy that has helped them reach thousands of people, many of whom have become paying customers today.
Michal and his team have also built a powerful community on Facebook where they further amplify their content, and I’ll share more about this in my next point.
3. Facebook group — as a community channel
You can build an online community on any platform you prefer — Slack, Mighty Networks, Reddit, Facebook, and so on.
But Facebook stands out in the sea of community platforms out there; reason being that it rewards community building and engagement better than many (if not most) other platforms.
For instance, Facebook will recommend your group to other users who they think will be interested in topics your group is about. And this way, you get to tap into their network of billions of users (not that those billions of people are your audience anyway, but you get the idea).
“The Facebook group would be the second strongest content marketing effort for us,” Michal says. “Great place to educate, share tips and tricks, and have a massive reach, almost 10k people.”
The Surfer team uses their Facebook group to host and promote different types of content, like:
👉🏼 Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions
👉🏼 How-to content on key SEO topics
👉🏼 New product feature announcements, etc.
And, given the level of engagement from their group members, Surfer doesn’t experience any problems with content distribution many SaaS companies go through; they already have an audience in the group who happily engage with their content.
For more context, see two examples of their community content getting a pretty decent amount of engagement:
Another enormous advantage of having an online community like this is that your users/customers get to talk to each other, ask questions, and create and share content.
“We let people use the group to help others,” Michal says. “This is because so many questions are coming from Surfer users. We try to answer them quickly and keep the discussion active.”
And all this content creation happens with little to no effort from you since group members are doing it; what’s left is for you to get community managers to keep group engagement rates high and make sure every community member adheres to housing-keeping rules.
(Author’s note: Get the good stuff below…)
4. YouTube — as a content distribution channel
If you’re creating video content, hosting it on YouTube often drives better results than hosting it anywhere else.
And this is especially if you’ve done your research and found your audience uses YouTube to consume content related to your product or industry.
Case in point: Surfer’s audience is SEOs, affiliate marketers, and content marketers. If you know anything about these three audiences, you’ll know they frequently use YouTube to consume their industry-related content.
So, it was a brilliant decision Michal and his team made when they started hosting their videos on YouTube — because the platform turned out to be a great content distribution + plus acquisition channel for Surfer.
“Did YouTube play any role in amplifying your content?” I asked Michal.
“I think so,” he said. “We are not doing SEO there, yet a couple of thousands of subscribers support our channel. We have a question about how you discovered Surfer while joining the FB group, and quite many people answer YouTube. This is a clear indication that there is organic growth through YouTube.”
5. Email marketing — as a content distribution channel
I’ll be direct: email marketing isn’t dead. Period.
For one, there are just too many businesses driving revenue through this channel to think it’s dead.
Plus, if statistics are anything to go by, consider the following:
👉🏼 There are over 4 billion active email users in the world today population.
👉🏼 For 80% of professionals, email marketing is great for customer acquisition and retention.
👉🏼 87% of B2B marketers say email is one of their top free organic distribution channels.
👉🏼 Then see the numbers in the screenshot above; it’s from our most recent email campaign.
You get the idea, email marketing works.
But there’s a caveat: you must have lots of engaged subscribers for email marketing to do your business any good.
Michal put it like this: “Email marketing is an effective content distribution when you have an engaged audience.”
He added he couldn’t quantify the impact of email marketing on Surfer’s growth, but they use it for content distribution.
This is one of those cases where marketers just can’t track everything. And that’s okay!
I admit it helps a lot when you know how your marketing effort affects your bottom line, but where you can’t track everything, it’s okay to give it a rest.
It doesn’t matter how brilliant your marketing is, it almost never works without consistency.
How many brands publish one piece of content and then go viral? That’s right, almost none. You need to publish content consistently to make a real dent in your market.
In Surfer’s case, they weren’t actively trying to be consistent, they just happened to be. It was just an understanding they had that content needs to go out to the right places for growth to happen, and that was enough.
When I asked Michal if they had any process that helped them stay consistent with all their content, he said, “There was no process that helped us stay consistent; no real strategy.”
They knew they needed to build trust and awareness, and helpful content was the way to do it. So they started putting out content.
And it’s not even a whole lot of content that’s helping them get meaningful results; it’s just been the right type of content distributed in niche communities where their audiences are.
In conclusion: growth is not a gamble
Growth results from repeated efforts taken over a period of time.
It’s not a gamble; it’s showing up consistently with content that adds value to your audience and drives awareness and demand for your business (T-shaped content, remember?)
If you’re thinking of approaching your growth strategy the way Surfer is doing it, here’s essentially what you need:
👉🏼 Relevant and helpful content: People love content that’s helpful and relevant to them. And it doesn’t matter which industry you’re in — marketing, sales, petroleum, architecture, etc; whatever your industry is, your audience wants content that helps them solve problems, teaches them something new, or even just entertains them.
👉🏼 Facebook as a community content platform: Ideally, you can use almost any type of platform to build your community, but Facebook is one of the best platforms to use. And the reason is quite obvious: the platform makes it easy to build and grow almost any type of community. Plus, it’s free. It has tools for setting up rules, managing conversations, and so on — all of which help you drive community engagement and growth.
👉🏼 The right content formats: Know which content format works best for your business and audience(s). For Surfer, what’s working best is video content that helps their target audience(s) solve specific problems. Although Michal mentioned they’re ready to start publishing written content as well — since it’s a format that works well in their industry.
For your business, it can be something similar or a different content format entirely. Just know what’s working in your industry. For instance, in niches like productivity, HR, analytics, ecommerce software, etc., publishing SEO-optimized content is a major growth strategy.
In some other industries, what performs best is social media content or webinars. Or it could be a combination of different content types. Just know what works best in your industry and create content based on that.
All in all, the goal here isn’t to copy verbatim what Surfer is doing, but it’s always a good idea to see stories like this on what’s working for other businesses, so you can pick the parts that can work for your business.