Total Transparency: How Groove's Tell-All Blog Brings in Paying Customers

Jane Callahan
Jane Callahan / April 13, 2015

There's a new help desk app in town: it's called Groove. But there's a good chance you already knew that, thanks to its popular blog.

The Groove team started publishing bare-it-all stories in 2013, recording their path to success and attracting readers from all over the world—many of whom are entrepreneurs themselves, the ideal customers for Groove's product.

Today, more than 30,000 people visit the Groove blog each week; it's been their number one driver of new customers, helping them attract 3,000 paying customers in just two years.

"We've gotten outsized returns," says Groove founder and CEO Alex Turnbull. "When we started, we didn't invest much. It was only after we got a taste of content marketing success that we really doubled down on it." They're so invested that Groove's marketing strategist, Len Markidan, says they've "pretty much built the company on the blog."

How can you go from a few blog posts to building a company from a blog audience? Turnbull and Markidan recently spoke with us, sharing insights on how they write and market a blog that repeatedly attracts readers and serves as the primary growth engine for their company.


Building a Blog that Delivers Results

Groove blog

Groove's blog is one of the better known content marketing success stories in the startup world for one big reason: they trend towards total transparency. They write about their failures (like "3 Early Fails That Nearly Killed Our Startup") as well as their successes ("How We Grew Our Blog to 5,000+ Subscribers in Five Weeks") on the path to earning their first $100,000 (then $500,000) in monthly revenue.

Groove's approach hasn't caused any major uproars. But the potential is always there.

"On the Internet, no one is afraid to tell you that you suck," Markidan says. He recalled that when their product was at an early stage, some people who were having technical difficulties would complain in the comments section of the blog.

"Even when you get that in a private email it's terrible to hear, but to see it in a public forum…all you can do is respond nicely and help them," he says.

They expected some complaints about the product—every online business deals with frustrated users from time to time—but their blog comments have otherwise been surprisingly positive. Markidan attributes the absence of backlash to the fact that the company has put its whole self out there. While some people perceive transparency as a risk, he finds that most people appreciate honesty.

"They want to know who they are doing business with," he says. "I know I'm more likely to do business with someone I know, especially for something as sensitive as customer support."

"I'm more likely to do business with someone I know."- Len Markidan, Groove

Marketing analysis by heavyweights like AdvertisingAge and HubSpot say that so-called "brand journalism"—where companies use in-depth, helpful, and sometimes self-focused articles to tell a story about their brand—is the future of marketing. But many marketers claim that this tactic is just an offshoot of content marketing.

"I would really hesitate to call us journalists," Markidan says, adding that journalism is more "serious" than brand blogging. For example, Groove's team doesn't fact-check everything they write before they post it, but will make changes if a reader points out an inaccuracy. Under the guise of journalism, there would be more serious consequences.

"Internet and tech companies have a tendency to think they invented everything, but direct response companies have been doing content marketing for over 100 years," Markidan says. "Ogilvy did it with medical journals."

Good content is really, at it's core, just about writing something that your prospective customers will find valuable. It's just easier to do today than it was in Ogilvy's days, thanks to the advent of the Internet.

The Beginning

Groove first blog

Starting a blog doesn't require any expense or trouble today. Seriously, a 7th-grader could set one up during his lunch period. When the Groove team first started blogging, all they used was a Tumblr blog.

"It had poor, horrific images," Markidan says, shaking his head. And yet, that's where it all started.

The decision to move the blog to their own servers didn't come until September 2013, when they hit the number one spot on social news site Hacker News with the post "Getting Crunched, Mashed or Beaten Is Not a Launch Strategy." That post touched on how a lot of startups have the expectation that if they get covered by a publication like TechCrunch or Mashable, they will be successful—and the fallacy behind that thinking.

"Whatever the startup is, nobody cares. If you don't understand anything about building a compelling story, trying to get press won't be helpful for you," Markidan says. "Nobody wants to read a blog about a product, they want to read a blog about their problems, that provides something useful to them."

"Every post should solve a problem for your reader. Otherwise, it's a path to no one caring," he says.

That's exactly what Groove did: they told stories, solved problems for their readers, and built up a loyal following in the process. Once they proved their strategy and got a feeling for what their audience wanted to read, they invested more heavily in building their own blog platform and pushing out content.

Measuring Results

Data plays a crucial role in helping Groove determine how their blog generates business. They watch to see which posts result in new customers, tracking both quantitative and qualitative data.

Quantitatively, Groove tracks all site traffic using Google Analytics and Kissmetrics, which tells them whether or not a new customer visited the blog before signing up, plus how many times they'd visited it and which posts they read. All of this leads to a clear picture of how the blog generated new business on both an individual and macro level.

Today, around 65% of Groove's new business is directly attributable to their blog, though at points that number has been as low as 25%.

But qualitative data is just as important to Groove. After someone signs up for the first time, the team contacts them with one simple question: Why did you sign up for Groove?

Groove sign-up email

The responses range from "We're a four-person team and we're using Gmail for support, and a lot of things are slipping through the cracks," to "I signed up for Groove because I've been following your blog for a year and a half, and I recently changed jobs and now our company needs a new support platform."

The ultimate goal in asking this question to each customer is to continuously learn more about what problems people think Groove can solve for them. This data also tells the team if their clients had long-term relationships with the company (e.g. avid blog readers), or if the relationship started recently (e.g. visitors who stumble on Groove via a Google search).

Around 25% of new customers respond to Groove's simple follow-up question—well above average for a marketing email. But even if response rates were much lower, Markidan says he still thinks it's worth asking.

"The reality is that even if it was a one percent response rate, we'd still do it because we are still getting extra pieces of qualitative data that we weren't getting before," he says. "That approach is valuable for any company."

Getting the Word(s) Out

"People forget that 'content marketing' is two words. If you're spending 100% of the time you allocate for your blog to writing, then you're doing it all wrong."- Len Markidan, Groove

The Groove team played around with how to promote their blog. For a time, they emailed the entirety of every new blog entry to their mailing list. That resulted in two pitfalls: less traffic to the site (why visit the blog when you can read it on your email?), and more comments via email (which kept the conversations private).

"From a business standpoint, it was less effective, because a lot of the most interesting takeaways in the blog came from the comments," Markidan says.

The comments add depth to Groove's posts. Readers tend to leave in-depth, honest comments, echoing the transparency and vulnerability that the Groove blog embraces. "We post about our screw ups, and people respond in kind and post their own experiences that are painful and embarrassing," Markidan says. One such example of that is a post by Turnbull, "What I Fear Most As a Founder," in which he admits that as an entrepreneur he fears "a lot of things." In turn, readers shared their fears.

Groove Fear comment

Now, the Groove team sends out an email every Thursday, notifying readers that a new post is up. The email is always the same: it comes from CEO Alex Turnbull, and includes a link to the post, a two-sentence summary, and a call-to-action encouraging readers to comment.

That tiny bit of encouragement led to an uptick in the number of comments people left. Following that trend, they decided to then include a "P.S." in the weekly email, which asked readers to share the post on Twitter via an included link. They found in their tests that, universally, asking led to action.

"Alex has this mantra: you don't get what you don't ask for," Markidan says. He thinks that many new businesses are afraid to ask customers or followers to do things like promote content over social media, and that they're missing a big opportunity.

His top piece of advice for businesses that blog: promote, promote, promote.

"People forget that 'content marketing' is two words. If you're spending 100% of the time you allocate for your blog to writing, then you're doing it all wrong," he says.

Groove found that the absolute "X factor," especially in the earliest days of the blog, was that the amount of time spent promoting a post determined whether or not it was shared by their readers.

"Writers and creatives have this tendency to [think] 'If I write something awesome people will read it,'" Markidan says, "and it's crushing for your business because no one is going to find your blog if you don't help them."

In the first six months, Groove spent 20% of their blog-allotted time actually writing, and 80% of their time promoting. Thanks to the blog's success, that ratio has since flipped—but the success was from investing that initial time in promoting their content.

One way to start promoting your blog, Markidan says, is to forge relationships with influencers early on. Groove began by leaving useful, insightful comments on these peoples' blogs, emailing them for feedback and advice on content, and then later down the line asking those influencers to send out Groove's blog posts to others.

Then, back on their own blog, Turnbull tries to respond to every comment on the Groove blog—they believe that building one-on-one relationships with readers is crucial, and getting a response from the CEO can kick-start the process.

Writing Quality Content Consistently

Using Trello to collect blog post ideas

The Groove team has turned their idea-to-post process into a well-oiled machine, one that involves everyone on the team.

Groove keeps track of all potential blog post topics on Trello, a free-form project management tool that's a great app for brainstorming. Their ideas come from all over: customer emails, keyword research, support requests, and often from comments left on older blog posts. Whenever someone on the team brings up an idea, it goes on the Trello board, and they currently have more than 100 ideas in waiting—essentially two years of potential content.

Every week, the team plans their editorial calendar two months in advance, making sure to keep it agile. Then, if something timely and interesting happens, they can always move things around.

Turnbull and Markidan get together and brainstorm, which ends up taking the form of a messy Google Doc, and from there Turnbull takes it from an outline into a first full draft. Everyone on the team offers input, an important part of the process according to Markidan, "because it's about our experiences, and someone may remember something happening differently."

"When Alex has a 40,000-foot-view, and writes about something on the dev side, the devs can say 'Well, it happened more like this.'"

Content marketing workflow in Google Docs

After all comments are in, Turnbull does another review, Markidan proofreads it, and it's passed to Groove's Russia-based designer who codes it into HTML for their custom-coded blog and creates images for the post. After the final OK, the post is cued up to publish.

Then, at 10:30 a.m. every Thursday, the scheduled post is published on the blog, accompanied by a notification email that goes out all 30,000 subscribers.

But as Groove grows, will the all-employees-in approach continue to mean a smooth editing process? Not likely.

"Right now the team is small enough that it's easy to do," Turnbull says. "But there are diminishing returns as you begin to add too many people into the editing process. As a 20-person team, we certainly won't have all hands on deck editing the blog."

Attracting Readers Who Become Customers

"Every post should solve a problem for your reader. Otherwise, it's a path to no one caring."- Len Markidan, Groove

Any good marketer will gush about their own blog. But what about Groove's readers? Does the content that Markidan and Turnbull produce really help entrepreneurs build their businesses? Markidan connected us with two individuals—one who's customer, one who's not—so we could find out.

One of Groove's many reader-turned-customer success stories is Proposify founder and CEO Kyle Racki. He stumbled upon Groove's blog in 2013—when it only contained a few early posts—and read it for the "lessons learned" that the Groove team shared, which helped him avoid the same pitfalls in starting his own business.

"I was blown away by the first post…and [then] took a quick glance at their landing page—which even they admit wasn't very good at the time," Racki says. "The blog really got my ass in gear to look at the right metrics and learn from their mistakes and what they've done well. It felt like a coach."

Racki didn't spring for Groove's services at the time because he didn't have enough customers to warrant help desk software, but "as they wrote the content, I thought maybe I should try it, thinking the software was as good as the blog was," he says.

Eventually, as his business grew, Racki did try it. And he stuck with it.

Even though his business is in a bigger and better place, Groove's blog still offers a lot of value to an entrepreneur like Racki.

"Alex has such a good way of making the brand really personable…of incorporating a big lesson but using real stats, and that combination is what is makes it so good," he says.

"Recently they've had stories from other founders, and it's interesting to hear from other people how they started, and learning about all the stuff that helped them get there."

Ian Yates—our second entrepreneur, the one who isn't a Groove customer—says that just because he doesn't pay for the service doesn't mean the blog is any less useful.

Yates co-founded Fitzii, an online recruiting software provider, and discovered one of Groove's earlier blog entries through a catchy Tweet that was relevant to his startup's journey at the time.

"I'm an avid reader of the blog mainly as the series combines aspirational and practical aspects of the entrepreneur's journey, which I am also on," he says. "I also really enjoy the honest and open approach to sharing the journey. It feels very authentic and credible, and the level of interaction in the discussions adds value for the reader, too."

Fitzii isn't a Groove customer mainly due to timing: they had just implemented a customer support tool when he discovered Groove, and as a fledgling start-up, they just couldn't justify the time investment required to switch.

"Ironically, through the blog and my passion for customer service, I do feel a high degree of brand loyalty towards Groove and recommend other entrepreneurs to take a look when they're in the market for support software," Yates says. "Groove will be high on our list when we take another look at options for our own business."

Writerly Advice

Groove's brutally honest blog posts have helped many entrepreneurs dodge business-shattering bullets. But beyond the advice in the content of their posts, Groove can teach us much about building a stand-out blog, too.

While it’s important to have all the elements that Groove’s blog has—a unique approach, tons of ideas that offer readers value, a smooth editorial process—good writing is at the core of it all.

So, how do you improve your writing? Simple: Read.

"People do less reading than they should, and outside of writing it's the best way to improve," Markidan says.

"Good writing is not just about writing down thoughts, it's about conveying thoughts clearly and putting yourself in the shoes of the readers… by asking yourself what they are walking away with."

Turnbull says the key to good writing is something you can't manipulate: Time.

"I simply block out time to write each week, and it gets done," he says. "As for improving my writing, a lot of that is in the editing process, and a lot of it just comes with time. I look at the comments on each post and think 'Does it sound like they got what I was trying to say?'. If so, then the post did well. If not, then I try to analyze why so that I can improve moving forward."

Does your business have a blog? What are your best blogging strategies, and what advice do you have for those looking to launch a blog?

Credits: Groove screenshots courtesy Groove.

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