What I've learned about writing viral blog posts for the tech community
A blog about entrepreneurship has been the highest return on investment for my startup. Popular posts have driven leads worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to our website with little engineering effort. In this post, I’ll share some strategies and tips for blogging for the tech community.
I’m the CEO of an early-stage startup called Kapwing, an online video editor for casual creators. Last November, a month after we launched, my co-founder and I decided to try blogging as an SEO strategy. When our first post - “We let users skip our paywall if they wrote an apology” - was featured on HackerNews, we realized the power of high-quality content.
Now, eleven months later, we’ve raised a seed round and written 20 blog posts about the experience of growing a startup. Seven of our blog articles have been featured on the HackerNews frontpage, attracting thousands of upvotes and blog subscribers. The blog's traffic and exposure were critical to our early traction.
Why startups should invest in a blog
A good article about startups or tech trends has a shockingly high ROI. Blog articles I’ve written in a few hours or days have earned us tens of thousands of website visitors and features in news outlets like Wired. Although the attention disappears quickly, the resulting backlinks have a lasting effect on Kapwing's organic search ranking, bringing highly-relevant traffic to our video editor with no marketing spend.
Because the tech community is concentrated in the Bay Area, an entrepreneurial blog has also helped us establish a brand and reputation. Strangers that I meet in San Francisco have frequently already heard of Kapwing. Engineers we cold email as potential employees respond to us because they’ve read one of our articles. Investors have read and re-tweeted my articles before we meet with them. I can’t measure the blog's impact on Kapwing's brand or legitimacy, but anecdotally it feels significant.
Blogging is also fun :) It's rewarding to share learnings with others so that they can avoid the mistakes you made. Even if no one features your post, it helps you update and stay in touch with the people who care about you and your success.
How to write a great blog post
Writing high-quality content is not scientific or straightforward, and it’s a skill you develop over years of practice. I’m lucky to be a native English speaker and to have had a lot of writing training. I was a debater in high school, a journalist in college, and a product manager before starting Kapwing, so I’ve learned to write through volume and critical feedback. Here are some guidelines for authoring articles for the tech community:
Copy other authors: When you find posts and authors that you like, emulate their voice and style when you write posts on a different topic. In the beginning, I was inspired by the entertaining and relatable voice of the Canny blog. Atrium’s blog hosts a diverse array of credible, high-quality writers whose styles you can model.
Add structure: Engineers appreciate logic and efficiency. Posts with bold headlines, bulleted lists, and summaries make it easier to glean the main points and follow an argument. For example, the “Takeaways” sections in “Unexpected lessons of making money” make it easier to skim.
Shorten: Even more so than most readers, techies want all meat and no fluff. Focus on brevity and substance and edit out words that don’t support your thesis.
Advise: Offer guiding lessons and consider how your experience can be generalized to help other founders. HN moderators want to feature articles that help startups thrive. For example, an article I recently wrote on Paternity leave was featured recently because it helps startup CEOs with something normally delegated to HR.
Cite data: Software developers are also scientists who love to discuss methodology, surveys, and statistics. Go out of your way to measure, collect data, and quantify your claims and add interesting graphics to visualize the numbers. For example, the bar graph in my article on chat bot harassment made the article much more quantitative and shareworthy.
Make it relevant: Referencing a recent event, quote, or example from Startup Land makes your post more shareworthy. If your post mentions cultural memes, it’s more likely to catch on. Arguing against a popular or influential opinion can make your piece more scandalous. Check out the Patrick McKenzie quote we refute in this article about our first 10 users.
Lead with a click-worthy title: Since HackerNews only shows a headline, your post needs a title that attracts attention. We’ve had luck with “Here’s what happens when X” and “the unexpected learnings from X”.
What to write
Generally, I've found that the following types of articles appeal to the entrepreneurial community:
Stories and first-person perspectives: Talk honestly and authentically about your experiences. Founder stories are trendy right now and people like reading about the journey, so share how you progressed and arrived at your conclusions rather than merely stating your findings.
Controversial opinions: The best blog articles take a stance on a controversial topic. If you say something that others have said before, it’s uninteresting. Instead, stretch yourself to defend a provocative position. For example, Eric wrote a great post titled “Cloud costs aren’t actually dropping” that researched a common claim in the tech circle.
Studies: White papers or data reports earn a lot of backlinks, even if it’s an informal experiment or statistic. Surveying your friends can also help you learn more about your startup’s market.
Where to publish
HackerNews (HN) is an incredible forum for publicizing articles within tech community. HN has an insane readership, and people who click your post are sent directly to your website. In Kapwing’s first six months, HN delivered more than 15% of our traffic, much more than other forums. Here are the lessons we’ve learned about HN along the way:
- To get readers on HN, your post needs to be “featured.” That is, it needs to be boosted to the top of the first page where it can be seen by readers and upvoters.
- It appears to us that HN is heavily moderated by humans. After dozens of attempts, we think that people (not machines or algorithms) pick which articles to feature from the pool of new posts. The process is hard to predict or game -- I’ve written excellent articles that don’t get featured and meh articles that do. Remember that HN is owned and operated by YCombinator, so the moderators promote the YC agenda.
- HN moderators will “re-feature” your article if you post it at a bad time or they missed it. Twice, the HN moderators pushed my post to the front page days after it was first posted (and notified me over email).
- HN values diversity and demotes self-promoters. If you only post and comment on posts from your own domain, the HN moderators are much less likely to feature you, and if you’re an active community member, your posts are more likely to do well. For example, I posted this article about sexism in chatbot messages seven months ago, and although it got several upvotes immediately it was not featured. When someone else posted the same article the next day, it was immediately featured and got more than 1000 upvotes.
- The front page is refreshed quickly. Even good posts don’t stay at the top for long, as they’re replaced within a few hours by new content.
Outside of HN, you can also pubish tech blog posts on HackerNoon, DesignerNews, Indie Hackers, GrowthHackers, Product Hunt, or reddit.
I've learned a huge amount from other founders, and I think it's important for people to tell their stories to help and inspire other rising entrepreneurs. I hope this article helps other tech founders experimenting with a content blog for the first time. High-quality blog posts can elevate a startup and make it easier to win customers, investors, and talented teammates.
Thanks for reading! As always, please reach out over email or Twitter and subscribe here for more entrepreneurial learnings from Team Kapwing. I'll close this article with a quote from the OG founder:
I wrote my way out
Wrote everything down far as I could see
I wrote my way out
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I looked up and the town had its eyes on me