A master class on marketing with Syed Balkhi of WPBeginner
Syed Balkhi is a marketing consultant, developer, designer, and entrepreneur. Among the businesses he has founded:
- WPBeginner, a prominent WordPress tutorials site
- List25, a large entertainment list site
- OptinMonster, a popup and lead generation plugin.
Syed now operates Awesome Motive, a 14-person company designed to manage his web properties. We spoke with him about marketing, leadership, and the uses of WordPress.
We appreciated the entire interview a lot, but Syed was particularly illuminating on the subject of marketing. Look for our our Seal of Good Advice (at right) for parts of the interview that we think should be especially helpful to almost anyone who does business online.
Current projects: Work and management | Time management | WPBeginner
Marketing advice: Principles of marketing | Scaling web properties | Revenue models
On WordPress: Role in business | New features | Developments in the WordPress ecosystem
D: What’s the thing you’re most proud of and working on the hardest right now?
S: Right now it’s List25. It’s a project we started by accident: a buddy and I wanted to start a site about castles—“21 must-see things in every castle”—but then I decided I don’t have enough time to travel around, and we’d just spin the site into a general list site and see what happens.
And we just reached half a million subscribers on YouTube this past week. So that site is growing, and it’s phenomenal to see it grow that fast. That site’s two years old, and it’s definitely one of my proudest sites.
And obviously, WPBeginner, you can’t really say enough about the impact it’s made in the past four years. We just built a school in Guatemala through the community—I did a fundraiser in July for our fourth anniversary—and that was pretty humbling, and I felt honored that we could actually do something like that, and make a difference in the world.
And then OptinMonster is something we’re working on. It’s not where we want it to be, but we’ll get it there, and it’s still better than everything else out there right now.
Work and management
D: On a daily basis, what are you working on with respect to all these properties you have?
S: My day now looks a lot different than how it used to a few years ago, because we have 14 people working at the company now. So my role has shifted toward management and being the idea guy. I still do support, I love doing support emails, I love interacting with the audience, so I do a lot of that. We have developers that are much better than me and designers that are much better than me, but I really like the part where I get to engage with my audience, where I get to talk to people. That’s what I do. So I’m the front person that you associate the company with. I’m going to a lot of conferences, I’m going to events just about every other week. So that’s what my job looks like in the company.
And obviously, I’m checking to see what’s going on, talking to the company to keep them all motivated and working as a team collaboratively, and to make plans for what needs to be done, what’s the deadline, what are our short-term goals and long-term goals, priorities, making sure everything is happening. That’s what I’m doing now.
F: Is there any special challenge to managing 13 people, or is it just an extension of the work you were doing earlier?
Everybody needs to feel like they are part of a team that’s working toward the same cause. They need to feel that everything they’re doing is theirs, they own it. They have to feel that sense of ownership.
S: When you’re growing a team, it’s a challenge. When you hire somebody new, you need to make sure that they’re not going to break the team you already have, but add on to it. So there are a lot of challenges—how to keep everybody motivated, how to make them feel like they are part of a team that’s working toward the same cause. Even if somebody does not have equity in the company, they still need to feel that everything they’re doing is theirs, they own it. They have to feel that sense of ownership.
In order to do that, you have to manage different people. Everybody has something that they’re adding, something that they’re bringing, as well as different attitudes—some people are more sensitive, some people aren’t. So there’s a lot of things in management that you have to do right.
D: It feels like 14 is about the size at which you might need to organize people strategically into teams.
S: We definitely have teams, so I don’t necessarily get to talk with everybody in our team. We have meetings and a group chat room where people can drop in and say “Hey, good morning,” to give them sort of an office environment. And they can say “Check out this video” or “Hey, I just published this, what are you guys’ thoughts?” But obviously we have a visual mind-map of the company—this is the person in charge of this, these are the people in charge of this team, with director-level positions—David started List25, Adam’s in charge of SteadyStrength, and so on.
D: So it’s broken apart by property, or you have a design and development team?
S: Yes, we have a design and development team, and it’s also by property since we have a lot of writers.
F: How do you as a person and as a company do time management, and organize priorities?
I think the best thing I’ve learned is delegation. You need to hire the best people and trust them. If you can’t trust somebody to do a task right, then you probably hired the wrong person.
S: I think the best thing I’ve learned from all of this is delegation. You need to hire the best people and trust them. If you can’t trust somebody to do a task right, then you probably hired the wrong person.
You need to delegate. You brought them on; you can’t be a control freak. They are good at what they do, you have to trust them. I’m not saying let anyone go—you still have to have the meeting, see where everybody’s at, but at the same time you have to empower every person in the company so they feel that they’re valued, and they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. And since there’s accountability: you’re on HipChat, and if someone’s constantly posting, “I just did this, I just did that,” another person feels like, “Oh, snap, am I not doing it fast enough or what’s going on?” [Laughter] Or on a weekly progress report, when everybody gets on the call, if you’re like, “Oh, uh, I didn’t do much,” you look stupid. Nobody wants to look stupid in front of your teammates. That accountability definitely helps.
I personally use Time Doctor, and a lot of the people in the company use Time Doctor, because it really keeps you honest to yourself. I can say, “It took me two hours to write that article, but maybe I could’ve written it in 45 minutes.” Or I can say, “I spent two hours replying to emails, but as it turned out, thirty minutes of it I was watching YouTube videos.” Time Doctor really helps you stay honest to yourself.
F: For us a lot of the time it feels like there are too many fires and we can’t put them all out. For you is that a solved problem at some point?
S: There are going to be those days where you feel like there’s too much crap that needs to be done right now. One thing that I think is really important is to have issue tracking software, whether it’s GitHub or Bitbucket, whatever it is. You need to be able to set priorities as to what needs to be done first, you need to have some sort of structure there. You need to have a mind map of what needs to be done.
What personally helps me a lot is having a whiteboard where I can actually see it. If there’s so many things going on in my head, I can’t remember it all. Even if I write it in my Evernote, if I’m not seeing it at all times, it’s not going to get done. So there’s a thing about visualization: the more you see it, the more likely it is to get done.
As soon as I turn around, all I see is my whiteboard. It motivates me, too. If I just go and scratch off seven things, I’m going to feel good. You need that motivation, or you don’t realize what you did that day.
As soon as I turn around, all I see is my whiteboard. In order for me to get out of this room, I have to see the whiteboard. And I look at it, I’m like, “Okay, this needs to be done—oh, I just did this,” and it kind of motivates me, too. If I just go and scratch off seven things, I’m going to feel good. You need that motivation, because if you don’t have that, you don’t realize what you did that day. You need to reward yourself—“Okay, I’m going to go do this right now, I’m rewarding myself right now.” You need to be able to do that.
F: Let’s talk about WPBeginner. Would you say it’s on a steady course, or you’re trying to change it strategically?
S: I’d say it’s on a steady course, because we’re meeting the goals that I set in 2009. My goal was to help users, and I think we’re doing that. We have enough questions users ask us that can be turned into articles day after day, and that’s what I really wanted the site to do. So it’s on a steady course.
F: Does it at all feel like the WPBeginner branding is a branding decision that constrains you?
S: The site came out of my own needs. I wanted to get out of the consulting business and into maintaining websites, and I had clients that were asking the same questions once I switched them onto WordPress. So it was called “WPBeginner” because at the time nothing was targeted at the beginner level.
There are tons of WordPress tutorial sites out there, but if you don’t have a niche, then you’re not going to survive.
Now, we’ve evolved the word “beginner,” into saying, “You could be a beginner developer, you could be a beginner XYZ”; you don’t have to be a literal noob. Our goal, always, is to explain everything to the basics, because that’s our brand. We try to explain everything the best we can for the beginner level. If we mention XML sitemaps, we’re going to link to an explanation so you know what an XML sitemap is and why it’s useful. That’s what we stand out for, and that’s our specialty. There are tons of WordPress tutorial sites out there, but if you don’t have a niche, like we do, then you’re not going to survive. Tuts+ has everything for developers, and they don’t try to explain everything for beginners because that’s not their audience.
But has that stopped us from things that could potentially make us a lot of money? Of course. If the site was more about blogging in general, I could be selling 50 other blogging products on the site and make a lot more money. That part has been restrained a little bit, but that’s not something that slows me down, because this is my passion; when I started I wanted to help people out, so my goal is accomplished.
Principles of marketing
F: What sort of soft skills do you see as the most important for marketing or online marketing?
S: One, you have to be really likable. You have to talk to people at a human level, not at a client level or a user level. Most people, when they reach out to someone, their first email is a pitch—“Oh hey, I am so-in-so from this site, and I just launched it and I want to tell you about it.” And when I get an email like that, I’m like, “Well, why would I want to know about it?”
But what if your first mail was like, “Hey, I was reading this article of yours, and it’s really cool. Keep up the great work.” End of email. You just gave them a compliment. Now they’re much more likely to reply. You’re building a relationship. It’s not just, “Hey, will you promote this for me?” You can’t do that. To be a good marketer, you really have to help people. You have to give them something in return.
To be a good marketer, you really have to help people. You have to give them something in return. I always try to help whenever I can, however I can.
A lot of the time, a reason for the success of List25 was my prior relationships where I used to help a lot. I always try to help whenever I can, however I can. In my emails I’m always like, “If there’s anything I do, let me know.” If I know so-and-so does this and another person’s looking for this, I’ll make the intro and see where it goes. If it goes somewhere, awesome, I helped them. If not, hey, another connection.
So you have to pay it forward, and I think that’s what it takes to be a really good marketer these days.
Scaling web properties
F: The idea to have a list website, like List25, seems very intuitive. How do you take an idea that thousands of other people have tried, and actually scale it up and make it work?
S: I think a lot of it has to be the passion, and having your back against the wall. A lot of people do this kind of thing as a side project, but David, my partner, was 100% focused on List25—that was his baby.
People hear a “no” the first time, and they’re like, “Okay, that’s a closed lead,” and they just stop that. The first “no” usually turns into a “yes” a few weeks or a few calls down the road.
Second, you have to be really persistent; you can’t take “no” for an answer. People hear a “no” the first time, and they’re like, “Okay, that’s a closed lead,” and they just stop that. I’ve been in the industry for long enough to know that the first “no” usually turns into a “yes” a few weeks or a few calls down the road. So you have to be really persistent about making these connections and trying to offer as much as you can.
And also because I have enough experience in social media and in the industry—I wasn’t someone new just starting to build a blog—I had plenty of experience in how to get traffic, how to make something go viral, and knowing what people like.
Also, we decided we were going to leverage the power of every social network that’s out there. So our YouTube was just like, “Okay, let’s see how we can do on YouTube,” and we did really well. And we have a Tumblr property. We have good success with Tumblr, good success with Facebook. Our Twitter is going, but it’s not that powerful.
So some of the things I think made us stand out were, one, quality of content. Anybody can do a list, but can everyone do great lists? Our lists take like eight hours to write, because of the amount of effort involved. You can’t just make “Oh, 25 beautiful photographs of this.” We do that now, just to ramp up the quantity of articles, but everyday we come out with a research list that gives reasons, like “25 reasons you should laugh out loud”—something that people are intrigued about. “25 most brutal execution methods used in history”—people want to see that stuff! And for you to go back and do research and rank them in an order that actually makes sense is hard work, it’s not easy.
F: when you just started List25, were you able to point some of your existing reach to the site? We’ve noticed that the hardest part is often when you haven’t begun to scale literally at all.
S: Because I’ve been in the industry a long enough time and I have an existing following, when I said, “I’m launching the site,” a lot of people went on it. But obviously, when we launched the site, it had zero traffic.
We launched at BlogWorld in LA, and that was a great time to launch. We were giving out shirts to everyone at the event and saying “Hey, look.” And I was also speaking at the event and got to talk a little bit about it. So it had a good initial following there.
Then, since I was in college, I reached out to all my friends and said, “Hey, I’ll buy you lunch if you help promote this.” And they then shared it to all their friends. So you have to go from the grassroots and just spread it through word-of-mouth, and that’s what I did.
And also we had WPBeginner, and people would see what’s running behind the scenes on a site, so we did a “behind-the-scenes” on List25, and automatically pushed a number of WPBeginner users over. And I have a great profile on a number of social media platforms, like a power user profile on StumbleUpon and so on, so I stuck the site there.
So a lot of things definitely played to my advantage, but to answer, yes, at the beginning, it had zero visitors, and then within a few hours it had a few hundred, and within a few days it was a few thousand.
D: Are you building out a pre-launch strategy, or are these things naturally occurring to you as you go along?
S: So when we first started List25, like a month before I put a pre-launch page, like a squeeze page on the site. It had like, “A little birdie just told me” about the site and to give your name and email to get updates, and obviously I was pushing it out on my Twitter, so I was building up the hype and seeing if people are even interested in a thing like this.
So I did have a pre-launch strategy. And when we were thinking about domain names, whether it should be “List25” or “List21,” because our original idea was to do “21 things you should know about this castle,” right? But then we switched to 25 because List25 just sounds catchier.
When we first launched, we did a contest on Facebook. And there was a “share” lock, a “like” lock, and you had to enter your email, so we got three interactions for you to enter the contest.
Then when we first launched, we did a contest on Facebook. It was launched in November, which was good timing—December was coming soon, it was Christmas time—so we did a giveaway, 25 $25 Amazon cards for 25 different people on Facebook. And there was a “share” lock, a “like” lock, and you had to enter your email to enter the contest, so we got three interactions for you to enter the contest.
Then the prior connections with different bloggers and different people really helped us grow. So yes, there was a pre-launch strategy there; we weren’t just winging it.
F: How do you approach monetizing web properties?
S: Before I even launch a product, I need to have a monetization strategy. Some people do it the other way around—“First I want to focus on building the audience, and then I’ll add ads.” I’m the other way around. I add ads even when the site is in beta, pre-launch. We need to have a good gist of how we’re going to make money from it, and we need to start making money from day one.
For List25, you can’t really go from a link-based or a product-based model, so we had to go on a CPM-based model. So our first model was just ads—“Let’s put three ads on the page and see where it goes.” Versus for SteadyStrength we were doing a lot of affiliate marketing, building our products, and so on.
So it really depends what kind of product you have, what type of website you have. Do you want to do lead generation and offer your service? Is this a site just about entertainment, like List25, where people are much less likely to buy something unless they feel a sense of allegiance? We’re working a store now with List25 merchandise, because we put up some pictures and people were like “Where can I buy that shirt?” So we’re at that stage now, but that’s not something you’re going to do when you first start out, because why would somebody buy a shirt for a site that just started?
Affiliate marketing is something I’m really big into. With List25, we’ve dabbled in, for example, gift ideas—“25 best Mother’s Day gift ideas”—and we made some money with affiliate income there. And you can do a catered list toward your own products. There’s different ways you can strategically add product placement in your articles to monetize. It really just depends what your site is.
F: It seems like a lot of online magazines are searching for a revenue model. What seems likely to be sustainable?
If you have a site that’s very niche-specific, chances are CPM is not going to make enough money. It might make more sense for you to sell a product, or find a sole sponsor that is looking for that product.
S: It depends, again. Depending on the amount of traffic, you can make enough money with ads alone. If you have a site that’s very niche-specific that only gets a thousand views a day, chances are CPM is not going to make enough money. It might make more sense for you to sell a product, or find a sole sponsor that is looking for that product. So if you have userbase x, and you know of a company that’s looking for that userbase, you can collaborate and say “You’re complementary to the service we’re offering, so let’s work together.”
So it just all depends on what stage you’re in. Cracked.com or any large website, their entire business model is ads. You can go sell private ads, but it’s harder if your site has no revenue. Going with an established network, what it does is it allows you to target the user for what they’re looking for, not what your site is all about. If you go to an entertainment site, why are they showing ads for a chair you were looking at, or cruise tickets? Because on that site, it’s really hard for you to target. Versus on a fitness site, everyone is coming there to look for “how to get fit,” so maybe you have private advertisements or work out a collaboration deal with someone who’s selling a product.
F: So CPM makes more sense as you scale.
S: Not necessarily. If you have a really targeted audience, you can put in one or five ads and work out a good deal, or go totally to an affiliate model and get a cut of every sale you make, and it might make more sense.
Let’s say you’re getting ten thousand visitors a day, and your average CPM is $3—you’re making $30 a day. But let’s say the audience is really targeted, and you’re sending 100 clicks. Maybe a CPC model works better. Can you get $1 a click there? If so, you just got yourself $100 instead of $30. But out of 100 people, if 10 people are buying the product there, can you work out a deal where you get $30 for a sale? If you can, you just made your $100 $300 there. Do you see what I’m saying?
F: [Silently] …Yes…
S: So it just depends what model you’re on. You can scale with a CPC or affiliate model. For List25, can we come out with a $97 product? Probably not. Can we do that with SteadyStrength? Probably. So it just depends which niche you’re in, what the audience wants from you.
F: Thank you, that’s really helpful.
D: Does the revenue model evolve as the project changes and grows?
It always evolves. It has to evolve, in order for it to keep on growing. What worked for you in the beginning will not work later on—or it may, but it might not be the most feasible option for you. For example, we’re adding merch into List25; that wasn’t there before. That’s an added value. We’re adding affiliation now because our SEO is so good that we can put an article up that our audience likes and it’s instantly going to rank higher and get traffic. That wasn’t there in the beginning, because we were a new site. We’re looking to work out specific product placements for our videos, because we have 500+ thousand subscribers, so if we add our own product placement in the video, it’s going to convert much better. So yeah, your model will scale as you grow.
Role in business
D: How does WordPress work for your business and how are you using it?
S: We’re in the consulting business; we do consulting for conversion marketing. For that to work, you need a good website, and you need to be able to empower the client or their employees with the ability to go in and tweak things. That’s where WordPress is beautiful. We can easily train our writers for List25, build a thing that allows them to drag-and-drop list items, so they don’t have to write everything on paper and reorganize.
WordPress has opened up a lot of doors for me, because with WPBeginner, with this popularity, a lot of bigger companies have come to know us as the go-to shop to get some WordPress help, and we’ve gotten tons of clients through that. WordPress has been a blessing.
D: What do you think about the newer features that are coming in, like auto-updates or MP6? Do you think any of that will change the way WordPress works in the ecosystem?
S: MP6 I think won’t change things, because it’s just a redesign of the admin. It’s just a new skin. It looks a little bit modern and a little bit flatter. The widget screen is getting an overhaul, which is amazing. It means less questions for me on WPBeginner: “How do I do this?” [Laughter] The skin overhaul is, “it’s about time,” because the skin overhaul looks a little old versus Squarespace, which is heavily advertising on TV right now. I think the darkened skin might have been inspired from Squarespace, I don’t know.
Auto-updates is cool but scary at the same time. As long as it doesn’t break, I’m happy with it. But if it does break that one time, I’ll be pissed off. So it just depends how you feel about it.
You have to have a good backup system. If auto-updates break the site for you, it’s kind of your fault. You should have had a backup, because this could have happened with something else too.
On our site, we have auto-update for minor releases. We didn’t turn it on for everything. I don’t remember the last time when a minor release broke WPBeginner. Even if it does break, I have a good enough system in place that VaultPress will easily replace it in one click. So you have to have a good backup system. If you don’t have a backup in place and auto-updates break the site for you, then you’re kind of screwed, but it’s also kind of your fault. You should have had a backup, because this could have happened with something else too.
D: Are all your properties on WordPress?
S: Yes, everything’s using WordPress. We have a good editorial flow. We use a plugin called Edit Flow which is amazing. It has its bugs and issues, but it’s the best solution out there.
I always do things in a systematic way. If something goes wrong, maybe this step is going wrong, maybe I need to improve this step, or take that out and pass something else in, or improve an existing step.
You need to come up with your own workflow, and have a system. As long as there’s a system in place, you know where things are falling off. If you don’t have a system, it’s really hard to see what can be improved. I always do things in a systematic way, I see things, “Okay, this is a system, this is a step, step, step, step, step.” If something goes wrong, maybe this step is going wrong, maybe I need to improve this step, or take that out and pass something else in, or improve an existing step.
So yes, everything is running WordPress. It has to run WordPress, because that’s what I like using, it’s easy to use, and it’s simple enough to become familiar with.
Developments in the WordPress ecosystem
F: Who or what excites you in the WordPress space right now?
S: The excitement is to see more competition in the e-commerce industry. When WooCommerce came in, it was a big step, like, “Oh, wow, there’s a big e-commerce player out.”
E-commerce is growing. Every small business is now trying to get online and sell stuff. Having e-commerce solutions for WordPress is really vital for the health of WordPress. So when WooCommerce came out, the community involvement that happened, because Woo had such a big brand, it really helped that grow.
But now you just have one product that’s taking charge. Competition needs to be there. What Pippin’s doing with Easy Digital Downloads is amazing, with the community that he has, and with the amount of young talent that he has, which is just amazing. I envy him for getting all this talent sometimes [laughter]. But Pippin is amazing, the work he’s doing with Easy Digital Downloads.
iThemes came out with their Exchange, and I’m really looking forward to how that is going to tie into a membership platform, because they’re also doing content and everything involved with iThemes Exhange, and they’ve made it really easy. So getting the developers’ involvement in there, to see companies that are trying to make money off add-ons, because some people just create add-ons, and they create enough add-ons for enough popular products that they make a living that way.
So I think the e-commerce space is really interesting to see, and to determine, Can an e-commerce solution in WordPress outpower a Magento? Is it where WordPress is a CMS where you can use a plugin and rival the large e-commerce products? That is something that is really exciting for me, and I hope that either Woo, or Exchange, or maybe Easy Digital Downloads, or maybe a new player who comes in can do it.
F: We’ve had an especially good experience with WooCommerce.
S: I think people don’t give Easy Digital Downloads a fair chance, which is amazing to sell a product as long as it’s digital. It’s amazing what Easy Digital Downloads can do. It supports activation keys, it supports all that. We’re using EDD to sell OptinMonster—you have a key system, you have all that, the licensing. So EDD is very powerful, but people just don’t give it enough of a chance. It is a very, very popular plugin, mind you.
I also think it will be really interesting to see how Exchange grows. Right now what I like about it is the clean UI, the simplicity of it. We’ll just have to see which one wins and takes over.
Big Dumb Question
Growing a web property
F: Let’s say I have a WordPress site, and it’s just not growing. What should I do? It’s an intentionally vague question, so if it’s too dumb, just tell me.
S: It is too dumb, because what does growing mean? Is it not growing revenue, traffic? What does growth mean to you?
F: Okay, let’s make something up. Let’s say I want to write about science fiction novels. Let’s say I’ve always loved them, and I want to start a blog that could eventually become a community where people who are passionate about sci-fi novels can come and read reviews and stuff. But so far it’s me and two of my friends, and I’m this shy guy sitting in his college dorm, and I post all this content, but I don’t know how to tell anybody about it.
S: One, find sci-fi forums, other people that are doing the same thing. Get in touch with them, write them an email. Look, they can’t see you, so you can’t be too shy about it. You can use an anonymous email if you don’t want to use your personal email.
Go on those forums and engage with the community, go on those blogs and comment. Work out a relationship with those people. What that does for you is one, if you’re part of a sci-fi community forum, there’s a lot more users than you already have. Some of them are going to go over to you. When you’re part of a blog and you’re commenting and you’re really active in that community, the blog owner will respect you. They might give you an opportunity to write on their blog, they might just give you a shout-out on their blog, they might tweet about you, they might share your stuff.
That’s one of the best ways to grow: go to somebody who has more traffic that you want, and offer them something that they need, and get them to give you what you want.
D: Thank you, Syed.
S: You’re welcome. Take care, guys.