Episode 013

How to fix failed messaging with just 3 conversations

“I realized that I’m doing the same stuff as I was doing at the first launch, this is like launch number four, and I’m not growing like I should be. What’s the missing piece here?”

“What I discovered? There’s a big difference between your audience and your customers.”

- Brian Dean, founder of Backlinko.com

In this episode, we cover:

Today, we’re speaking with Brian Dean, the founder of Backlinko.com, about the importance of talking to people in order to make sure your messaging is on point. I’ve been a fan of Brian’s for years now, and his site is one of my favorite sources for everything related to SEO and building backlinks.

Today, Brian is going to walk us through how sales of his flagship course, SEO That Works, started to stall by the 3rd or 4th launch, even though his email list was growing like crazy.

And no matter how much he looked at his analytics, he couldn’t figure out what was going wrong. Until, that is, he started talking directly with his customers.

So listen closely and find out how Brian dramatically increased his launch numbers with a simple human-first approach.

Show notes
  • [00:02:27] Where Backlinko was in October 2013
  • [00:03:33] How Brian decided to launch a flagship course
  • [00:04:10] How Brian got the feedback that led him to creating a new course
  • [00:04:50] How long it took Brian to create that first course, and how long it takes to create a course now
  • [00:05:31] How Brian learned what people thought about SEO from reading blog comments
  • [00:07:19] The overall structure of Brian’s first course
  • [00:08:07] How Brian promoted his first course
  • [00:08:33] What happened when Brian launched his first course
  • [00:09:26] How the audience changed after the launch of the first course
  • [00:11:26] How many people Brian tried to sell the first course to
  • [00:13:39] How Brian knew he could do better than he did at his initial launch
  • [00:14:22] The online course that Brian took to learn more about selling, and what he learned from it
  • [00:14:27] How Brian went about reaching out to customers who had been successful with his material
  • [00:16:10] What questions Brian asked when he reached out to customers
  • [00:17:09] What Brian found out from asking those questions
  • [00:19:23] How Brian changed the messaging and course after talking to customers
  • [00::21:37] Why talking to people is the only way Brian could have discovered the changes that he needed to make
  • [00:22:35] How Brian’s next launch size tripled after making changes
  • [00:23:28] How Brian applied his new knowledge moving forward

[00:00:04] Louis: Hey there. Welcome to The Humans Strike Back by Hotjar, the weekly podcast designed to help you succeed by putting people first. I’m Louis Grenier. Today, we are hearing from Brian Dean—the founder of backlinko.com—about the importance of talking to people in order to make sure your messaging is on point. I’ve been a fan of Brian’s for years now and his site is one of my favorite sources for everything related to search engine optimization and building backlinks. Today, Brian is going to walk us thru how sales of his usually successful flagship course, SEO That Works, started to stow by the third of fourth launch, even though his inner list was growing like crazy. No matter how much he looked at any fix, he couldn’t figure out what was going on and what was going wrong until he started talking directly with his customers. Listen closely to find out how Brian dramatically increased launch numbers with a simple human first approach.

I am with Brian Dean who's the SEO genius behind backlinko.com. It's probably the best resource on the internet for SEO and content link building. Brian, welcome onboard.

[00:01:32] Brian: Hey, thanks for having me, it's good to be here.

[00:01:33] Louis: No problem at all. I looked at your website and I am amazed by how you care about your customers and your readers because it's really simple, visually appealing. There isn't a lot of links in the menu, the text is really simple to read, the images are well thought out. We are not here to talk about how beautiful you are or how clever you are, we are here to talk about how you doubled your sales on your SEO flagship course by doing something really simple and focusing on your readers.

You thought you understood your target customers, but you didn't really until you did something. We're not going to say that, we're not going to say what you did yet, we're going to go back to the origin of the story. It does take us back in October 2013, right?

[00:02:26] Brian: Yes.

[00:02:27] Louis: How old was backlinko.com at this stage?

[00:02:30] Brian: About nine months or 10 months.

[00:02:33] Louis: How many visitors do you have roughly at this stage?

[00:02:35] Brian: Probably like 5000 a month, something like that.

[00:02:39] Louis: How many do you have now?

[00:02:41] Brian: Like 150,000 a month.

[00:02:45] Louis: We can talk about it in another interview perhaps, in another conversation, but the way you do it is also quite good. You focus on really good quality content, instead of trying to tier one piece a day or two-piece a day, you’ve really focused on updating your content when it comes to a flagship type of post.

This is a very interesting approach, which I think in this day and age where we are really focused on content marketing as the only way forward, you have a nice approach that is really based on humans and how people behave online.

[00:03:16] Brian: Yeah, thank you.

[00:03:18] Louis: You're very welcome. Let's go back to the story, 5000 visitors a month in October 2013 and you mow down and let me do the calculation, you multiply that by 30 or 300.

[00:03:32] Brian: My math isn't very good.

[00:03:33] Louis: Never mind. You decided to launch a flagship course, right?

[00:03:44] Brian: Yes.

[00:03:45] Louis: What is your first course at this stage?

[00:03:48] Brian: I had another course when I first launched the blog and that was just a little mini course on link building. After launching that one, I realized that, link building is important but it's only one piece of the puzzle and I was getting tons of questions about all the other stuff and I realized, I needed to take a step back and create something that really was more comprehensive than the first course.

[00:04:10] Louis: How did you get this feedback? Was it via email? People contacted you this way?

[00:04:13] Brian: Yes, from customers so they would say, "I have a question about this, I have a question about that." and I realized that it's normal to have questions when you have an online course, but most of the questions that I was getting wasn't actually about the material, it was about all the other stuff that's involved in SEO like human research and content, creation of content, promotion, on page SEO.

I realized that in order to help people the most, I needed to create something that covered everything instead of just this tiny bit, that's important. If you only did this stuff and you didn’t get very far, you need more than that and I decided to create a course that covered everything.

[00:04:48] Louis: How long did you take to create this course?

[00:04:50] Brian: The first version probably like three months or two months. I didn't really know what I was doing, that was the first real big flagship course that I created. Now, when I create a course it takes like eight months and a team.

Back then, it was basically me and my buddy who filmed my videos in my apartment. It's just really like bootstrapping it, getting it going, but it still took a long time to plan everything and write it out. So that first version, we're at 3.0 now, that took about two months.

[00:05:20] Louis: And based mostly on blog comments, you realize that most people thought something along the lines of, "SEO is really hard. This is really cooked off. I don't know where to start." That kind of thing right?

[00:05:31] Brian: Exactly. one of the cool things about having a blog especially that the blog grew from 5000 to 200,000–I think the next year it hit 100,000 is that I got a lot of feedback from people via email, every time I send out a newsletter, I get people replying to those. Every time someone signs up for the newsletter, I ask them what's the number one thing you're struggling with.

I got tons of feedback from people about the thing they're struggling with and also from comments on the blog people would say, “Please help me with whatever,” or “This brought clarity to this.”

I thought by reading all that stuff I have all the answers because my audience was telling me exactly what they're struggling with and the problems they had, and as you'll see that can get you to a certain level, but it can only get you so far.

[00:06:18] Louis: You switched these feedbacks, you really used that to building the messaging across, right?

[00:06:25] Brian: I used that almost 100% because I figured I could either make up the messaging or use stuff from my readers. To give some context about what people were saying was, a lot of the comments were along the lines of, "SEO is so confusing, there's a lot of conflicting information, I'm reading blog posts and watching YouTube videos and I still don't really understand what to actually do." Or, "I don't know who to trust."

One guy says one thing, another guy says another thing, which one's right? The basic sense in it was, SEO is really hard, it's confusing, there's a lot of conflicting info and I don't know what to do. Either they would say that in email or in a blog comment or whatever but I'd see that sentiment over and over again.

[00:07:07] Louis: Can you just portray with us, I know it's difficult just over video and audio how maybe the landing page looked like and what was the overall structure of this course at the stage.

[00:07:19] Brian: The sales page was one of those ridiculously long sales pages that you just scroll down and like, okay how much is the thing, you try to get to the bottom to see how much it is. It's still like that actually, but the messaging is completely different.

The headline was something along the lines of SEO is hard, this makes it much easier, and then the lead which is the most important part of a sales page right after the headline was something like, a reader reached out to me and told me , "I'm struggling with SEO. I used to do well, but I don't know what to do anymore. It's very confusing." Basically, I took a little story from my readers that's a real example and put that as the lead because I thought a lot of my customers can relate to this story.

[00:08:01] Louis: You launched it and you used the blog as the way to promote it or did you use other channels as well?

[00:08:07] Brian: Just the email list as a way to promote it.

[00:08:10] Louis: How many emails do you have roughly?

[00:08:12] Brian: About 100,000, but back then it was a lot less, I don’t remember.

[00:08:17] Louis: That’s what I meant, okay. Back then you don’t remember, it wasn't a crazy amount, now 100,000 is what you mean.

[00:08:25] Brian: Yeah.

[00:08:26] Louis: You sent this email, or you sent many, many emails about this course and then what happened?

[00:08:33] Brian: People bought it. It sold pretty well. For my first launch, I didn't really know what to expect, with the other link building course that I launched before, I didn't do proper email sequences, I just emailed people and I was like, it's ready if you want to buy it. I had no idea what I was doing.

With this one, I also had no idea what I was doing, but I knew a little bit more. I would send out multiple emails reminding them that it's available. The enrolment is closing on a certain day and it sold pretty well. It did six figures on the first launch.

I was happy with that considering my site was only 10 months old, I was just getting and going, but throughout that consecutive launches, it didn’t really grow that much. It stayed almost around the same number even though my other numbers were growing like traffic and email subscribers, it was growing, but not proportional to the amount of new people I was getting in my audience. I knew something was wrong.

[00:09:26] Louis: That’s an interesting take because six figures is a good number especially with the second course that you launched, I think where you're getting at is your initial audience, you knew them very well, and maybe I'm making assumptions here, perhaps you can say, “No, this is not true,” but maybe your initial audience wasn’t really that advanced as you were and the course was perfect for them, but perhaps as your audience grew, the audience changed, right?

[00:09:55] Brian: Exactly. When you're first starting out, it's like Kevin Kelly's 1000 True Fans, a famous article that he wrote. Those first thousand people that you have are going to be the most enthusiastic people you're ever going to have in your audience.

For example, when Hotjar launched, that first email you sent out to say we're open can be the very best of any email you’ve ever sent just because those people have been waiting for it to come out for so long. When it came out, they're excited and they bought.

Later on, you get less and less people that are like that. Your first launches can do really well and then later on, those people who bought, those first 1000 true fans and then you have people that aren’t as into it.

Even as your audience will grow, your sales won't grow proportionally. I actually figured that out eventually, but it still wasn't even growing like it should considering that fact.

[00:10:45] Louis: That's a good point, a nice plug on the Hotjar story there. We are going to mention all of that in the resources of this episode.

By the way, if you want to get into the details, we mentioned a lot of resources there in those interviews, so you can always go back to hotjar.com/humans to check them out.

Let's go back to the story. I think I can hear the listeners and the viewers in my head telling me, "Okay, he's saying casually that he made six figure from a single course with a small email list."

I'd like to dig into the number of people you have in this email list, roughly, I know you can't can’t say the exact figure because you don’t remember, but roughly how many people did you try to sell this course to?

[00:11:26] Brian: I would say around 3000 to 5000.

[00:11:31] Louis: Let's take 5000, it means that you made more than €20 per email subscriber.

[00:11:41] Brian: It's dollars, but yeah.

[00:11:43] Louis: Yes, sorry.

[00:11:44] Brian: $20 per email subscriber. It's actually great that you did the numbers there because as the email list grows, I'll never hit $20 per subscriber again, it's inevitably going to go down. It's really a good observation but yeah, $20 per email subscriber. Part of that was that what I was selling.

If you have 5000 email subscribers for a fitness product or something, it's not going to sell as well, there's more competing information, also, my course is a premium course. It costs at the upper end at that time was around $1000.

I didn’t need as many customers to hit six figures as I would if I was selling a $29 ebook and because B2B, people are more willing to shell out that kind of money because it can help grow their business versus a personal development or relationships or something. People are less likely to spend money.

To get some context, 5000 sounds like a lot, and it is, but part of it was just the nature of the industry that I'm in. It wasn’t that I had some super powers or anything. If you launch in that space, you could make more money per subscriber, but there's less subscribers than a different type of product.

[00:12:50] Louis: That’s exactly where I wanted to get at and thanks for clarifying all of that. I think a lot of people probably thought, “That’s crazy, I can't do that.” But, the way you explained it makes a lot of sense.

You probably had an email list that was highly active, they really wanted to hear from you. You had a topic that was really specific, and finally, you also had a price point that was quite high.

$1000, 100 people, that’s $100,000. All of a sudden, that doesn’t sound like a lot even though it is, but that doesn’t sound crazy compared to the first time you mentioned it a few minutes ago. This is a situation but yet, you made more than $100,000 out of this course and yet, you knew you could do better. You had this hunch that you could do even better.

[00:13:39] Brian: Yeah, especially as the audience grew. At that time, I was super hyped with the $100,000, don’t get me wrong, I was pumped.

As time went on and the audience grew, and I do a little bit more, I was like, shouldn’t it be doubling or tripling as my audience quadruples and increases. I realized something was missing and it's like that expression, "What got you here, won't get you there." I realized that I'm doing the same stuff as I was doing with the first launch, this is like launch number four and I'm not growing like I should be. What's the missing piece here?

[00:14:11] Louis: Exactly, that’s a nice teaser. What's the missing piece? You took an online course about selling and what was it about? Who was behind this course by the way?

[00:14:22] Brian: Derek Halpern from Social Triggers.

[00:14:25] Louis: What did you learn from that?

[00:14:27] Brian: There were a lot of helpful bits in that course, the first thing that he recommends is to talk to three customers. A lot of people, when they survey their customers, they send out a type form survey which there's value to that, or an NPS score, and there's value to that, too, but nothing beats talking to people. Because it was only three people, I couldn’t make an excuse that I was too busy.

I can't talk to all my customers, but you could always talk to three. How could you justify–what can be more important than talking to your customers. I decided to do that and talk to three actual people that had bought my course and were successful with it. The people I want more are people that don’t just buy it, but use the material and get results.

[00:15:13] Louis: Right, so you are around those calls and did you just reach out to three people over email? How did you go about it?

[00:15:19] Brian: Yeah, because the customers had their emails, these people I had kind of known either from them emailing me results of from the Facebook group that we have as part of the course. I could see them share their results.

It wasn’t random, it was handpicked people that were, sort of like the people I'd want to get more of to invest later on but I didn’t know where they were, how to find them, or how to speak to them.

[00:15:41] Louis: So to use a French expression, it was like creme dela creme, right?

[00:15:44] Brian: Exactly.

[00:15:44] Louis: I had to use it because if people didn’t get it yet, I'm French. I plug it as much as I can. Once again, those resources you just mentioned will be in the show notes and we will put the links everywhere so you can find them. So you talked to those people, did you just use Skype, was it the only thing?

[00:16:07] Brian: Yup, just Skype.

[00:16:08] Louis: What questions did you ask them?

[00:16:10] Brian: There were a few that he recommended, but there are basically like, what does your day look like when you're doing these stuff? My thing was SEO, and these people were either doing SEO fulltime, as an agency, or part time, but what does it actually do on a daily basis? Get into their head a little bit on their tasks, like when they do SEO, what does that look like? Is it cue word research? Are they writing a lot of content? Are they managing a team that’s doing all those stuff and they're being the conductor of the orchestra? What's going on here?

You get a little bit more into the nitty gritty. Then I ask them, what's your biggest need when it comes to SEO. This was the part that I was a little bit surprised. I asked them that and then I asked them, why did you invest in the course? What was the one thing that made you say yes, this is for me? Those were the three questions that ended up being the most helpful.

[00:17:07] Louis: What did you find out?

[00:17:09] Brian: Basically, I found out that my messaging on my course was all wrong, completely wrong. What these customers were telling me was that, SEO is not hard, they're good at SEO, what they need is help to get to the next level, or to scale what they're already doing which is completely different than what I was saying.

My thing is SEO is hard, it's confusing, this can bring clarity. What these people were telling me was, “When I bought your course, I already knew SEO. That's how I had $1000 to buy your course, I already knew these stuff, I just needed help getting better with the results that I'm already getting, or getting a team to execute your blueprint rather me developing it from scratch.” When I saw that I was like, man, I wish I knew this a long time ago. I was so surprised.

In the course Derek says, you're going to be surprised with what you hear. I was skeptical because I had all these blog comments and emails. But what I discovered, the big takeaway and there's a big difference between your audience and your customers.

Your audience can be 99% of your group, but they may not buy, there's a 1% that will actually invest, it's the same in SaaS, it's the same in info products, the same in consulting and if appeal to that 99%, you're going to appeal to the 1% who will actually buy, and it's really difficult to get the signal versus noise because there's so much noise with from the audience that are never going to buy versus the tiny minority of people who are like, “Hey, actually SEO is really easy,” but unless you pick them out and talk to them, you'll never know that.

[00:18:42] Louis: This is fantastic information and this is why when you do customer research, and voice of the customer research, it's important to pick the buyer, so the person who took the decision to buy from you and more importantly to pick your ideal customers themselves as you mentioned before.

Perhaps the people who don’t necessarily train and support, people who get you, people who share stuff from you, quite a lot. If you pick those people that are really at the top of the pyramid if I may say, then you will be surprised as you mentioned. You will really get information that are just absolutely amazing.

[00:19:18] Brian: It helped a lot.

[00:19:19] Louis: What did you change the messaging to?

[00:19:23] Brian: I basically put the messaging in two buckets, you're either person A or person B. Person A is the agency owner, and that's the person that needs to scale what they're doing and they also need the blueprint, because they know SEO hopefully, if they are running the agency, so they know their stuff but you need to scale it, or you're already doing well with SEO and you need a blueprint to get to the next level or a new set of strategies that no one else is using to get the next level.

I made those two buckets my main two ideal customers. Both of which knew SEO really well, both of which are confused, or they don't feel frustrated with the information, they know their stuff, they just need this thing. It's actually better because instead of trying to solve this huge problem of there's so much SEO information, I'm solving a much simpler problem which is, scale what you're doing or get a blueprint to take your SEO knowledge and SEO skills to the next level.

[00:20:19] Louis: Did you update your course based on that as well?

[00:20:21] Brian: A little bit, yeah. It didn't really need that much updating because it was there already, I just didn't know how to communicate that because like a product like Hotjar for example, in the early days, at least when it was basically a bunch of different things before we had the advanced stuff, a big part of it was heatmaps and if you were just saying, if you told people, “This will help you get more traffic,” it may not have worked, but then if you said, “If you need the heatmap to increase your conversions and it worked, you don't need to change your product it was already there.”

The same thing for me, I tweaked it a little bit for the messaging mostly and I added more bonus resources to help people scale especially because that was one thing that — the only way to scale is to have processes and stuff. I made sure to break stuff down into little worksheets and checklists that they could hand off to their staff to get them to execute.

I added that stuff to match the messaging, but it didn't need that much of a change, it was really a messaging problem.

[00:21:16] Louis: This is amazing to hear because the only difference as you mentioned is your course was the exact same almost, it's just the way you communicated about it that was different and this is why focusing on humans, focusing on people is so important isn't it? You cannot come up with that on your own, you cannot come up with messaging on your own, you have to talk to customers like you’ve done.

[00:21:37] Brian: Exactly, if I just looked at analytics or tried to figure it out myself, it wouldn’t have happened, I had to talk to people. It's hard though because online especially as you grow, you kind of forget these numbers.

Every view on a video is a person, every opened email is a person with problems and desires and whatever issues and they want to make money, they want to look better or whatever. It's hard to remind yourself of that, and then when you sit down with three people, it brings it back, it grounds you a lot, and you're like, “You know what? This is a guy just like me or a girl just like me, we can relate, this is a person,” and it just grounds you, and it grounds you back to — what really matters like you said are people.

People buy from people and the more you can get to know them, the better. The mistake I made was sitting behind my computer screen and trying to figure it out from reading other books, and reading blog posts and stuff, thinking that these were from people, but nothing beats the two-way conversation you can get.

[00:22:32] Louis: Amen to that. How much more money did you make at the end?

[00:22:35] Brian: A lot more, no hints. It’s made a huge difference. I can't say that it was the only thing, but what I'll say is between launch, it's before this and after this. Before that, I was doing about the same and the next launch I did after was three times bigger than the one before.

Now, they're three times bigger than that one. It's helped grow, of course, the audience has grown and all of this stuff has helped, split testing and things of that nature. The biggest difference by far was talking to those three people, it probably took an hour total, 20 minutes each and it's been the biggest difference in terms of sales that I've ever done. I should do it again.

[00:23:13] Louis: Do it again, come on.

[00:23:14] Brian: Yeah, I'm lazy.

[00:23:18] Louis: Did you apply those learnings as you launched new stuff? Did you keep talking to customers or what did you do then?

[00:23:28] Brian: This year, I launched a YouTube SEO course called First Page Videos. I had beta testers that signed up for the early version of the course that was like one module to help them cue a research which is the most important part of YouTube SEO, and then I talked to them about the material, but also about what you're struggling with YouTube. Again, a big learning from that was that SEO, yes, was one part, but a big struggle was video production.

Even though my course was about YouTube SEO, most of the people are like, “What microphone do I use? What do I use for lighting? What camera? How do you edit?”

That stuff I always thought as separate, like, “Okay, there's plenty of stuff online on minor courses about that,” but honestly, if you don't know what camera to use, you can't even make a video to optimize, so it makes sense that people struggle with that, but unless I talk to people, it wouldn't have hit me.

When I talk to them, basically, all of them are saying the same thing. The biggest struggle I have is not necessarily SEO, it's making the videos themselves. Even though my course is about YouTube SEO, I have tons of material now about video production that I wouldn’t have had otherwise and in the positioning for the course when I offered it.

I mention that, don't worry about producing videos, we hold your hand. Actually, what camera, microphone, lighting, setup, examples to use to make your videos. That way, that person that's reading it will see that and be like, “Oh okay, so they’ve got me covered there.” That would usually be a roadblock and it wouldn’t be something I would mention if I didn’t actually talk to people. Yeah, it's been something that I'll do for every part that I create.

[00:24:59] Louis: That's the gift that keeps on giving it seems. To summarize, talk to people. That’s just three words.

Brian, you've been an absolute pleasure to deal with. I love your authenticity, honesty, the way you explain stuff. People can check out your website backlinko.com, you have many courses available as you mentioned. I might actually check out your latest courses about videos and YouTube.

For the listeners and the viewers, all the resources we've mentioned, all of the conversation that we just had can be found if you go to hotjar.com/humans. Brian, once again, thank you so much.

[00:25:40] Brian: Hey, thanks Louis, thanks for having me.

[00:25:49] Louis: Thanks for listening, my fellow human. We know how fast paced life is. If you're listening to this on your daily commute, while running, or even cooking, you can always go to Hotjar.com/humans and look for today's episode. That's where you'll find access to all the resources and humans we talked about, the full transcript of the conversation, and even links to really see the episodes.

[00:26:12] David: If you like today's episode, please help us out by leaving your honest rating and review on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast. The more honest feedback we get, the more we can improve the show for you, and the more this podcast will be discovered by other humans. It's a win-win situation. Until next time, take care and be human.