Screw Overnight Success: How to Really Build Long-Term Growth Online

This post is by Jason Fitzgerald from Strength Running.

“Actually, I’m an overnight success. But it took twenty years.” – Monty Hall

There’s no shortage of overnight success stories on the web. Google “make money online” and you’ll be flooded with sleazy ads promising thousands of dollars of income per day if you just buy their product. For those of you who may be new to the internet business game, it can be intimidating and even off-putting.

Despite what the ads will tell you, very few business people earn a comfortable living after a few days or weeks in business. A more reliable – and more profitable – way to approach your business is with a long-term plan. When you’re patient, you’ll be more likely to build a thriving audience that’s ready to support your work.

Today we’re going to study my running website, Strength Running. I’ve been a distance runner for over 13 years and SR is the business I’ve created around my passion. I launched the site in April, 2010 with absolutely no idea what I was doing.

Luckily, I learned a lot about building an audience since that launch. There are several big principles that I’ve found work best. Since my business is built on a blog platform, that’s the model that we’re going to look at. Read on and learn the keys to sustaining long-term growth.

Don’t Rush into Monetization

I believe in making money from what you’re good at, but that doesn’t mean you should try to over-sell your readers or try to squeeze pennies from each visitor. Your first goal is growth, not making money from 38 RSS subscribers.

Delaying monetization helps build trust with your audience. You don’t want to sell them whatever you can to turn a profit – this type of short-term mindset will backfire. Instead, you should genuinely care about solving their problems. Build that relationship first – the selling will come later.

Instead of focusing on making money, you’ll be pouring all of your effort into creating unbelievable content that draws in new readers and subscribers. Forget money in the early months – go engage with your potential customers wherever they hang out. That could be on Twitter, other blogs, Facebook, or on forums.

So when can you start to monetize? That’s the million dollar question and there’s no clear answer. You can go by the numbers and start when your subscribers reach about 1,000. Or you can start when you think you’ve developed a loyal fan base. Judge this by the retweets of your posts, comments on your posts, email feedback, and other engagement.

Another strategy is to monetize immediately with the launch of your site, even if only a trickle of visitors are showing up. This is what I did – but it has to be done carefully. I didn’t use ads, affiliate links, or even have my own product. I just used a dedicated page for online coaching to help runners get better. After 4 months, I had my first client despite barely ever mentioning that I coach runners.

Plant the Seed for Growth Immediately

When I first launched Strength Running, there was zero monetization in place. But I did have an online coaching page that simply said, “Interested in having me coach you? Email me and let’s chat.” It was simple, definitely not optimized for conversions, and I rarely called attention to it.

Like I mentioned before, my first goal was to grow my audience – the coaching page was just a placeholder. To grow, I focused on the basics:

  • Value-packed articles that solved a real need in the running community that were also optimized for the search engines
  • Controversial articles that would draw comments, links, and shares on social platforms
  • List posts that had the potential to go viral
  • Evergreen articles that I could constantly refer back to for reference
  • Round-up posts that built my relationship with other running and fitness bloggers

There’s no denying that building a business is time-consuming. I often spent 2-3 hours crafting an 800-1,000 word post because I wanted it to be just right. That work has paid off.

Viral Content Made Easy

The benefit of spending extra time to craft a perfect post can be seen with my article 7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Running. It went viral on StumbleUpon, attracting over 4,000 readers in the first two days that it was published.

Remember that “viral” is relative to your site’s history. I was averaging about 400 visits per day back in March – attracting thousands of new readers in a day was a huge boost to Strength Running.

But the real magic is that this article still goes viral from time to time – it actually brought in more visitors on a random July day while I was on my honeymoon. StumbleUpon typically has poor quality traffic, but the bounce rate is average and the time on the page is actually higher than my site average.

You can see the traffic spikes below from March, 2011 to the end of October, 2011.

Experiment with article structures that have the potential to go viral. You’ll typically want to write list posts that have a very catchy headline. Go to the front page of Digg or StumbleUpon to see what is currently going viral for ideas on title creation.

Don’t forget that the post itself still needs to be awesome. A great headline on a crappy post isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Lessons learned: Writing epic shit will continue to pay off in disproportionate amounts long after you’ve published an article. Spend the extra time to tweak that headline, add in more helpful information, and provide enough detail to help your readers.

How to Dominate the Search Engines

Long-term growth from a blog-based business also has to partly depend on search engines, primarily Google.

Google rewards websites with rich, helpful content that’s updated regularly. Short articles in the 300-500 range aren’t as useful and likely won’t be linked to from other bloggers, so you’re better off writing longer articles.

With a long-term mindset and the patience to stick with your content creation, you’ll grow your keyword traffic significantly, month after month. Since I started Strength Running, my keyword traffic has grown over 42% per month every month. I now get 9,000 – 10,000 visits from search engines every month.

Here’s a snapshot of keyword traffic growth from 2011:

To grow your search engine traffic, you don’t need to be an SEO ninja. In fact, you just have to follow a few basic steps:

  1. When you’re planning your article, use the Google Keyword Tool to find a keyword phrase that’s 2-4 words long and gets 100-1,000 exact searches per month.
  2. Use that keyword phrase in the title of your post, a heading title, bold or italicize it once in the body of the article, and use it a few times in the content of the post.
  3. That’s pretty much it!

For background on why this works and even more details (not necessary, but helpful and a little more advanced), read The Simple SEO Strategy. I don’t do this for every article since some posts don’t lend themselves to keyword research, but you should do what works for you.

Lessons Learned: Write insanely useful and detailed content that solves your reader’s problems. Keyword research and a simple SEO plan can help your articles continue to get traffic long after the post was published.

Don’t Be Afraid to Branch Out

Strength Running is a running website. There are other topics that I’ve covered that have helped to bring in new types of readers. While I know far less about nutrition than I do about running, I wrote a post called Hacking the Perfect Runner’s Diet: Food Lessons from a Lifetime of Obsession.

I spent about 3 days thinking about the title of this post because I wanted it to go viral. It did – the first day it was viewed nearly 1,400 times. It’s not one of the most popular posts on SR, but it shows that you should cover many subject areas around your primary topic.

Like some previous posts, this article has occasionally been picked up weeks or months after it was published and gotten an influx of new visitors. I suspect this trend will continue in the next 4-6 months.

Many other bloggers write about topics that aren’t in their core subject:

Approaching a new topic can open your blog up to new readers, but be sure to tie your core subject in somehow. If you blog about sports, don’t write an article on Cabbage Patch Kids unless you can relate them to each other. If you can somehow do that, please email me to explain how you did it.

This strategy works only once you’ve built a strong platform of pillar articles in your core subject and a loyal audience that won’t run screaming when you publish something a little off topic. Put in the work developing your brand and then slowly introduce your readers to a slightly new topic.

Lessons Learned: Weaving slightly different blog topics into your content lineup can help you gain new readers. Your current readers will also learn a new side of you and what you can help them with. Always relate your new topic to your subject!

Traffic isn’t Everything

Of course, traffic alone won’t help you reach your business goals. Strength Running is a business and while viral posts and keyword traffic are great ego boosters, they don’t pay the bills.

As you build your traffic, capture visitors and turn them into regular readers (and eventually, customers) through an RSS subscription or newsletter. Build relationships with other bloggers in your niche and help them whenever you can. They’ll return the favor.

You may even partner with a bigger blogger to create a product that not only helps your bottom line, but also gives you exposure to their (much larger) audience. My partnership with Steve Kamb at Nerd Fitness not only made me a new friend, but I was able to grow SR much more quickly. Relationships matter!

Continue delivering epic content and help your readers as much as possible. They’ll remember you when they need a paid solution to one of their thorny problems.

The strategies that worked for me can work for anyone who puts in the hard work. Just by following the basics, Strength Running’s traffic has grown by over 19% every month. Where will your business be in two years with 19% monthly growth?

Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and coach at Strength Running, a community of runners who want to reach their potential. If you’re a runner, join the team for access to the Runner’s Gear Bag – a collection of free ebooks, workouts, and exclusive content not on the blog.

15 thoughts on “Screw Overnight Success: How to Really Build Long-Term Growth Online”

  1. Jason:
    Thanks for outlining such a clear strategy for creating a successful business. This is the approach that I’ve been thinking of using when I launch my new blog in January, but you filled in several gaps for me.

  2. Jason,

    What an awesome post. I love reading about what experience has taught others.

    I think one thing you have demonstrated from your success is the employment of persistence, patience, and consistency. Those to me are perhaps the most important qualities a blogger must have.



  3. What a coincidence. We started a blog for unexperienced runners here in Holland about the same time. We begun in February 2010. Our blog scores on some low competition keywords and we see a lot of potential growth in the future. We average about 2.000 visitors a month now, but it’s rapidly climbing.

    The first of January will be a good time for starting on working on some new years commitments, and we will publish our e-book to our following of 1000+ subscribers.

    Good luck with your blog!

  4. Great post Fitz – good to see you are a multi-talented individual. Having followed SR for, what, a year now, I have definitely seen your evolution as a blogger. I agree with a lot of the principals you state and am implementing them in much the same manner – I think my problem is I am a little scattered in my offerings and need to focus on what is more likely to be successful (so look for my book sometime early next year). On the SEO traffic, I’m not as rigorous in keyword evaluation as you but have still seen good growth there – will definitely implement some of your recommendations (who knows, maybe I’ll steal, errr, share, some of your traffic!).

  5. I’m so glad I read this post. I just tried some of your advice on one of my blogposts today and it’s now on first page of google with the search term I used. And already retweetet once. Amazing. Thanks:)

    1. Keyword traffic (for me at least) is always the lowest on Saturdays, Fridays, and Sundays respectively. I think it’s because a lot of people are out doing things and away from their computers – like running races!

  6. Hi Jason,

    That’s a pretty good strategy. Combining two areas for your blog is not easy and you’ve to do it tactfully.

    Visit my blog and you’ll see how I’ve combined Finance and Career areas in my blog writing.

    All the best for 19% growth rate, that’s awesome :)

  7. Jason,

    I have been stubborn about doing SEO on my blog. And it shows. I have my regulars but nothing viral or even traffic worthy. I need to follow your advice, go back to some of my older posts that I worked real hard on and revamp their SEO.

    Thanks for the tips!


  8. Personal bookmark on my computer. This was a very helpful and insightful post – everyone seems to be “in it” for instant gratification, but those with a little will power to see the longer term view will succeed – thanks for reminding us of that.

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