Episode 2

How Userlist Built Their Organic Visibility

Interview with Jane Portman, CEO of Userlist

Discover how Userlist launched and built their SEO program, what challenges Jane and her team encountered, and how they are scaling their efforts now.

Episode transcript:

Hello there, welcome to the show. This is a super exciting episode, the first interview I’ve conducted for Stacking Pancakes, and it turned out to be an incredible one.

Hello there, welcome to the show. This is a super exciting episode, the first interview I’ve conducted for Stacking Pancakes, and it turned out to be an incredible one.

I invited Jane to tell you about how Userlist built its organic growth engine. Now, full disclaimer: I was part of the process. I worked with Userlist, and helped them kickstart their program, and you’ll hear a bit about that during the interview, too.

You’ll hear what it was like for Userlist to get into SEO, and launch and build the strategy. You’ll learn about the challenges Jane and her team encountered, you’ll also hear about results they’ve been getting, and also, this is super interesting, you’ll learn how they’ve been scaling their efforts lately.

It’s all super exciting, so let’s get to the interview.

[01:05] Pawel: And we're recording. Hey. Hello. Hey, Jane.

[01:07] Jane: Hi Pavel. Good to be here.

[01:09] Pawel: Thank you. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this. We haven't talked for a while, so it's good to catch up. But before we get to that, before we talk about SEO, can you tell people listening who is Jane and what is UserList, your company?

[01:24] Jane: Userlist is an email marketing platform that targets specifically SaaS companies.

So we're like your MailChimp, but much better for a very specific niche use case. We help you manage marketing, email and lifecycle email that happens after people sign up, like User onboarding and stuff, and we've been in the game for about five years before that.

I used to be a UIUX consultant, so I'm a designer by drade. However, these days all I talk about is marketing and specifically email marketing. And all I do is content marketing that talks about email marketing.

So it's very little design in my world. All I do creative is probably like picking creative images for our blog or things like that. And a little bit of product design, of course.

[02:14] Pawel: Yeah, I was just going to say that probably this. And you're the CEO?

[02:19] Jane: Yeah, we run it together with my co founder. He's the technical brain and I'm legally the CEO.

[02:27] Pawel: And marketing and everything around.

[02:30] Jane: We're a team of six at the moment, if that helps establish the context for our listeners. So we're still a small team, but definitely off the ground. And it's definitely easier these days than it was before because the name is out there and things have got much easier as we've got the team.

[02:49] Pawel: Brilliant. And you're quite present in the SERP right in the SEO, and I wanted to talk to you about your journey, basically, and full disclosure, I know your journey.

We talked about it before and it's super interesting. And especially not especially, but kind of the first attempt, which maybe we could talk about now, and also the stuff that's been happening later on.

But tell me, how did it all begin? So you launched Userlist. You built, I don't know if it was the prototype or full working product, et cetera, and eventually I'm sure the thought came, oh, we should do some organic, right?

[03:32] Jane: It's been an interesting journey because we started this, both of us having a little bit of influence in our circles.

I had a nice personal brand, I had a podcast, a mailing list, and I somehow assumed that this time is going to be easier and I'm just going to sort of parlay that authority and existing audience and kick started from there. And then word of mouth and other things.

But it didn't work.

It did work, but only for that necessary fraction to kick things off the ground, but not more. Whenever I would post things to my personal mailing list, I wouldn't get any immediate conversions. And just overall, as we've learned over the years, it's really hard to make people switch email marketing tools.

So it's always sort of an uphill battle to activate, to convert people, to help them get on board. It's always a challenging journey.

So we tried different things.

We experimented here and there, and we did publish content, but it was always things like how we did this, how we did that, how cool we are. Pretty exciting stuff to read, probably even useful, but nothing that would target specifically our audience and the subject matter.

And we've done marketing consultants as well in the beginning, but content is really like it's always on the table. Yeah, sure, you can do content marketing, it's great. You have authority, you're a great fit for content marketing. But until you do that, you're kind of not sure whether that's going to work or not.

And also you can't really test it in one month.

You've got to really invest.

So we didn't start that until about two years ago. And for the context, I had zero expertise in SEO. The way things worked out previously for me is owning a couple keywords for UI breakfast, particularly keywords like UI audit and productized consulting.

One of my previous books in the past just so happened that they drove traffic to site a little bit alongside personal authority. So my original understanding of SEO was publish useful stuff, do a bit of promotion around it. So not like sit in silence, but do promotion, people will come to you. That has worked out, but that has not worked out this time.

We had to have a more educated approach to SEO, but our niche was, first, crazy competitive, and second, we struggle to even explain what our tool does, not to mention the keywords for content. And you can describe email marketing in about a thousand different words and everybody has their own ways to say you can say that this is behavior based email lifecycle marketing, email marketing strategy for SaaS and about it as another variations of just what we do. And not to mention when you want to target a topic to write about.

So I'm really glad we didn't try to do it ourselves and we just well, what we did, we hired you to have an additional consultation, but that was basically the only way forward because we were absolutely lost at this stage.

How do we get started on this journey? What you did probably it's a good place for you to say it yourself, but what we've received was just a massive report with keyword ideas, keyword research, and also a content strategy map.

And I'd love to hear how you did that because that was like month of work and I have no clue where it appeared from. So probably time to flip the table.

[07:46] Pawel: Well, just digging around. No, yeah, I remember that it was like what? Two, three year long content plan that ended up and it was actually amazing because we didn't set out to do that.

Right. You asked me for some help for figuring out where to go and it's almost like it doesn't happen with every company, but with some companies, you open the box and suddenly there is or open the door and suddenly there's so many avenues you can take.

And that was the case with you.

So it's funny because it was in contrast to what you said you were trying to figure out keywords. And on my end he was like, oh gosh, how do I cut out phrases? Right?

So we ended up with this two year plan in the end. I'm really delighted with it still, I really appreciate having me on this. This was actually fabulous experience. And you guys have been implementing it, of course, right?

What I would like to talk about and kind of move away from me, this is not self promotion.

I would love to hear about your challenges with this. Because for those guys listening, what we ended up with with a strategy was a list of almost like all the information or all the keywords or topics that user list would have to cover or should cover to almost dominate the SERP, basically. Right?

So we covered topics very close to the product and then the ones very far away, but still relevant, et cetera. And you guys set out to achieve it. And tell me what were the challenges with this?

[09:35] Jane: So one challenge that we've touched on is a lack of clarity around keywords.

And the second challenge was in our own perception of how SEO works. I wasn't personally not familiar with the concept of search intent.

And that a you need to create content for SEO that was kind of like given, but that needs to be a specific format that answers that particular question and that you wouldn't rank with your homepage for SaaS email marketing but you would rank for a SaaS email marketing strategy guide.

And that was the biggest revelation.

Combined with that keyword research, then we started to gradually work through that content roadmap.

So initially you were the one who were writing articles for us. Then we embarked on an interesting journey on how we can do this even better.

We tried a couple of other agencies, we tried expert writers. And then over the course of about a year and a half probably, we did cover the majority of those main keywords that we really needed to cover, like user onboarding and SaaS mail marketing strategy.

And at the same time we were observing how things started to rank and we started to get traffic. So it was like gradual journey.

We were both hands on doing like, I don't know what it was, three, four posts per month at first.

Then we slowed down a little bit. So right now we do probably two or three per month.

And at the same time when we've got this bulk done, we really double down on quality to make this not just useful, but crazy useful and crazy exciting for the reader.

There are a couple aspects where we're lucky.

One is the SaaS niche in general for email marketing is not super busy. Like email marketing at its own is a very busy niche. But when you add SaaS to something, you suddenly get a leg up and you can rank much better because nobody cares about SaaS specifically. Usually the vast majority of email marketing advice out there is tailored to ecommerce and just general purpose folks. And SaaS is like, it sounds like a big niche, but in fact it's a niche niche and it's nice and also has a crazy load of challenges which we were able to gradually address and parallel to content.

We were on this mastery education quest on how do we better understand our customers, their needs, their problems and their struggles and what the customers care to hear about. And that understanding over the last two years has evolved dramatically. Like, we do regular rounds of customer interviews to do that. Also, we use every demo as an opportunity to learn about their problems, listen to the language, hear where they struggle.

For example, just like recent example, we've been starting out with done for you services and we've stumbled across cases where customers struggle because their pricing model is not free trial and it's not freemium.

So they don't find any of that common advice for their specific pricing model. They might be running on credits or they might be taking commission fee and then they're at a loss like, what does my lifecycle look like?

And when you see this physical person, like literally struggling in front of your eyes and then you have an opportunity to work with them and develop their lifecycle emails, then it becomes an amazing educational material in the end.

And we've just probably by the time this is out, this will have been published.

A guide for Unpopular pricing models.

This is so niche, nobody at MailChimp would care about it, but our listeners, our readers would. So these days we're less about keywords because, to be honest, this kind of guide isn't really going to rank for, like, who's going to search for unpopular pricing models. Let's admit it.

[14:21] Pawel: The trick is that's actually one of the I wanted to say shortcuts, but it's not a good word because it's not a shortcut. It's not something that will get you anywhere faster.

But it's almost like a hack. Let's stick to that word. I don't like it either, but anyway, it's one of the best hacks to actually focus on what your potential audience wants to read.

So one approach to SEO is the obvious and a good approach, I'm not criticizing it, I do this too is to go and look for topics, keywords, et cetera.

But another approach is to start from the other end and look at customer problems. Write content that addresses those, even if you don't have keywords.

I think we talked about this a few months ago, actually, where you can create content addressing problems like unpopular pricing models.

Publish it, and in a few months, go back to Google Search Console and see what Google ranks it for.

And there is a chance there will be something there. So you don't know what keyword to target for. I get it, but you know, it's a real problem and come back.

[15:29] Jane: I was trying to figure out how this SaaS model is called where you charge a commission fee. And what I learned is that SaaS Fee is a ski resort in Switzerland. Nobody cares about SaaS when there is a ski resort with the same name.

[15:50] Pawel: True that. But you never know, there might be an actual problem or question you'll see in Google Search Console.

But you have to give it time. That's the thing. You need to go leave it for three, six months. Leave it that post up there and see. So it's almost like finding those keywords post factum rather than before and optimizing the content, but you already know you're targeting a real problem. It's a super powerful there is a.

[16:19] Jane: Bit more to this. So we write these big guys, like I described, it's usually basically me condensing the knowledge because as a small team, we do have this privilege of me both doing sales calls and live talking to customers and writing.

If we were a corporate situation, that probably won't be true.

So there is like one core guide per month, let's say, or every couple of months, and then we still tap into keywords.

For example, we have a writer, she produces about two posts a month for different email examples. And we have this privilege of something, something SaaS.

Email examples is like a formula we're following there and we've done a gazillion and there is a gazillion to do still, like cancellation, email examples, survey email examples, feedback, email examples like pricing, update, email examples, anything.

So we are slowly exploring this. Oh, she actually does one per month, that would be the correct phrase. And one more.

We don't typically accept guest posts, but sometimes somebody very reasonable comes along and we work with them on a topic that would also match our intent.

And we don't allow any bad quality stuff, so we don't accept top level kind of stuff. That is the kind word for it, but basically what's floating around the web, we don't do that, we only work in depth or we collaborate with them pretty heavily on the drafts together.

And yeah, we're very specific on the type of quality we want up in our blog. So we have this email examples kind of direction. We have these top guides that we're publishing.

[18:13] Jane: We do have events from time to time also around those same topics. And then from those events workshops roundtables, we write recap posts that results in another piece of content.

But with that in mind, we still have that bulk of content done on the initial keywords that ranks the best and brings us the majority of folks via traffic.

So it's a combination of having that done and producing more exciting stuff to bring in eyeballs.

Another piece of the equation is distribution. And to be honest, I don't have any scientific data as per how actual human readers versus SEO traffic, like how they play with each other. But I'm pretty sure that Google does care about people visiting and reading stuff. So we do have a dedicated team member, Katerina, who goes around communities and organically participates in discussions, dropping link to our content.

Not in every post, but just where it makes sense. So just drawing real human eyeballs to this.

And when we started that about a year ago, I didn't invent this. We hired Arpit, he was previously at Integromat. He now runs a storic. We hired him for a consultation. He said if I could start from scratch. So what he did, he built a blog on a very niche topic like SaaS product something or analytics. And then he sold it, I think to Amplitude, if I'm not mistaken. And I was like, that is a great success story. What did he do right, what did he do wrong? What can we learn from him? And then we invited him on the call and he said that if I could change anything, I would write less and start promoting much more, much earlier.

And that's the type of promotion he said that works is actually engaging in human conversations. Not like publishing boilerplate tweets. That's not promotion, that's just like that's a substitute.

[20:32] Pawel: Fair enough.

[20:33] Jane: So that's what we did. And once we had somebody distributing those new pieces, there was a whole new surge of energy in the team, and especially for me personally to write, because I now knew that these posts will be distributed and deserve gain attention versus just disappear in the void. Because to be honest, what we describe the kind of work I do, I just never have time personally to hang out and share content. I probably could for a lot of money, but I'll also be miserable and not get any other work done. So I just can't juggle all the balls. So that's why we have a special person doing it for us. And it all creates in synergy of this great content game that we have going on that is both brings results and inspires us to keep going.

[21:29] Pawel: Speaking of results, do you remember your first big result from SEO?

[21:35] Jane: To be honest, I don't remember the specific day when I looked up and saw something, but was it like three, four months in that we started seeing some rankings a bit longer?

[21:48] Pawel: I remember that. I don't remember the exact day either, but I remember the email from you. It's working, remember, and you sent me a graph from and we want to chat about this. And I tell you why. I hear a lot of I talk to a lot of companies who are where you were back then or when we started, right? So they see everyone in the search, I mean, their competitors or companies, they look up. So whatever search they put in, those people are there and they make a decision, okay, we're going to go after this too. And then the thought comes. Usually it's just, what's going to happen? How will this work out? What should I expect? It's intimidating, basically. And I get it. You have a new site, or relatively new site. You haven't done SEO or content, so obviously you don't know what to expect. That's why I wanted to talk about this, because I remember the email from you or a slack message. It's working. And the graph, I tell you, I'm counting months. It was about five, six months in. I was already working on other projects. So you took over. And I remember that message, and I remember it was so funny because you were like, oh my gosh, it's working. I'm like, yeah, of course. That's exactly when it should happen. That there was like a lovely spike. Right. I just wanted to talk to you, even your expectations, how did that and I know I'm kind of trying to kind of go back and talk about your experiences back then, but if you.

[23:43] Jane: Work in marketing long enough, you reduce your expectations to zero.

[23:48] Pawel: Fair enough. Okay.

[23:50] Jane: You probably see those.

[23:51] Pawel: Okay, fair enough, fair enough.

[23:52] Jane: But we just had this commitment, and the reason why we kicked this off is because initially I had a conversation with one of the fellow founders, and he was able to bring a blog up from scratch to significant traffic in reasonable amount of time, like a year.

So we knew it was possible.

And we were just ready for those small results, slow, gradual results. And basically we just doubled down, did the work with you, and we're really happy to see those trickling in. It wasn't as much excitement because well, no, it was super exciting because I've never been able to intentionally make SEO work before in my life. So it was like results that you can touch. Previously, we just had a load of branded traffic. So people just searching for user lists and that's all, that was all we have.

And suddenly we started seeing traffic to pages that we deliberately created for SEO. And it grew and grew.

Now it's like three times that and a little bit of branded traffic. That's pretty exciting. That was a sign that things are working out. And then another sign was that when we started getting on demos, people were like, oh, I found your content. I found your content. I found you in Google.

And these days, not just that, but also people compliment us a lot about our content, about email marketing and articles that we do. So it's like double nice. Not only they find us, but they're also very excited to find a resource that cares about niche SaaS content.

[25:43] Pawel: Brilliant. That's brilliant to hear and tell me. Just want to kind of explore another thing. You mentioned you worked with quite a number of content providers. And talk to me about your experiences. And again, the reason is it is sometimes a hit and miss, right? And for somebody who's never gone through this, like hiring content agencies, it's again, quite unintimidating. It can be quite intimidating. So talk to me about your experiences, about this. Let's skip me. Let's make that deal. Let's skip me. I only did the initial first few pieces, and let's keep that. Let's move on from there, okay?

[26:29] Jane: Because the reason why we kept looking, because we couldn't achieve what we wanted. And we started with expensive pieces with you that were definitely great for SEO itself.

[26:46] Pawel: Big guys.

[26:47] Jane: We knew they weren't perfect when it comes to subject matter, so that kept bothering us. And we were hoping that there will be that magical place in the world where people, you can just pay a couple of thousand a month and you will get back a few quality pieces that match exactly what you want. And that was not happening because, except our business, who is niching down this topic?

To be honest, no other agency is really niching down on that topic. And you will not find experts in agencies. You will find very nice people, productive writers who are good with English, can ship like nice language, can do rather nice SEO, putting keywords in your headlines and stuff.

But what we were looking for is the actual meaningful content. And we were only able to achieve that in house with help of writers that we work with super closely. And we have a very strong component of us guiding the grief, and it's a pretty tight collaboration as a result.

So we use this expertise that we have. We also had this stage where we tried to work with individual industry experts, but unfortunately, there might be some out there that could do this for us. But we were willing to pay quite a good deal of money for thought leadership content. But there was this balance. Like, we were willing to put a good sum of money down, but not as much. And the results that we're getting were also nice, but also not as nice as the amount of money that we put down. And also the people that we were expecting to work with, they were high value consultants and respectable authorities. Therefore, you can't possibly ask them to write for less money. It's kind of awkward.

Okay, so it's fair. But the kind of content that got back, it was nice, but it was not worth what we paid, at least in our bootstrap kind of budget worldview.

As a result, we did a few collaborations, they were nice, but we wound that part down and ended up doing our own expertise, written with the hands off a few in house or freelance close writers.

So now, surprisingly, we can do better content for less money as a result of this, because we know what exactly needs to be leveraged and where you can let go and where you need to control things.

When it comes to the gist of things, yes, it's never easy, but it's definitely enjoyable. And there is never ending educational quest when you learn how to explain very complex concepts to the reader.

So it's always very nice just to see how you get better at that and with time. So it's sort of our own educational quest.

[29:54] Pawel: Yeah, I absolutely love what you mentioned about working primarily in house. And I see this time and time again, and this is not a critic on anybody because many writers and most of the writers I've encountered, they're really great writers.

And as you say, they have the talent, they have the skill, they have the command of the language.

But there is that element of in depth knowledge that's usually, but in most cases not there, unless somebody deliberately specializes in a particular topic.

And I totally agree, the guidance, and actually it should be done in house to at least certain degree.

And even if the final putting it together that writing the text is not done in house.

It's somebody who works very closely with the in house team rather than an agency.

And again, this is not a critic on agencies. I know some agencies, fantastic agencies, but I also think even from SEO point of view, it's brilliant what you're doing.

[31:05] Jane: It wasn't for agency, for your consultant help and your writing work that when we did this bulk of content on the top level words, if it wasn't for that, we wouldn't have started off the ground in that kind of so this attitude, as in better done than perfect, that's the name of our podcast show.

We had to embrace this attitude in order to get this bulk volume up and running before being able to drill down on quality. So it's a combination of things. You can't just do everything on your own. And we also needed to see what you do to make sure we can do similar things, but just more with better.

[31:52] Pawel: I noticed later pieces using my formats and certain types of pieces, which was really nice.

But I tell you what, I've actually even changed slightly the way I approach this. Rather than creating those initial pieces and setting formats this way, I now prefer to set formats and templates and guidelines, et cetera, and then maybe oversee the initial pieces, but actually not do them myself anymore. Have the person who's going to be taking over do it from the start with me, because then it's easier to just let them go and continue. But you're right, for SEO, it's super important to know what to do rather than just hand it over to somebody to try figure it out or try doing something with it. And have a format and processes and formats and styles set up from this. So you're hitting the optimum or the maximum actually quality and also the SEO effectiveness straight away by them.

So tell me one last thing. This is all super exciting and also, look, thank you so much. I have to thank you for plugging me in this. I wasn't expecting that. That wasn't the purpose of this to be a case study. So I really appreciate it. But tell me what's next? If you can tell, some people say, no, that's a mystery or that's a secret. Not a mystery, a secret. But what's next?

[33:31] Jane: There is nothing dramatic coming along, but we do have the intention to keep going. So we just put this as a process in the background of our it's like a fundamental process in our marketing. And we publish on a schedule. Like I mentioned, we do two, three posts a month typically, and we just keep going and keep exciting our readers with new topics. And there is a bunch more that we need to write not based on keywords, but based on the knowledge that is lacking out there.

So we're on that nice mission and well, it's definitely looking brighter and brighter because we gain that reputation of a company that's kind of killing it with content. It's so nice to hear, especially if you know how it exactly started and how it's going now. So we get that reputation. Some folks say like, oh, your blog is the example of blog that I show to my peers when that is how a SaaS blog should. Look like other nice stuff like that when you hear it just makes your day brighter. So we just intend to keep up that reputation. For example, I have role model is the Ahrefs blog and Academy. It's like go to resource. So we just want to be that kind of reputation resource.

But in the field of SaaS email marketing and automation that's the mission we're on. And yeah, complementing it. There is a lot of potential how to nurture those leads once they arrive to the site. We have given up on trying to convert them to trial or demo immediately because we know how long the sales cycles are. So about a year. We have been only driving new visitors to the email list sign up and then we do email marketing with them. So there is endless potential in what can be done inside the email marketing list as well.

[35:37] Pawel: Brilliant.

[35:38] Jane: So that'd be great to dedicate more time to that part as well. Yeah. So it's a never ending loan cycle marketing plate.

[35:49] Pawel: Awesome. Sounds amazing. Listen, best of luck with that and thank you so much for coming into the show and sharing this. I really appreciate it.

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