GE 100: Derek Halpern Drops Knowledge On How He Built A 300,000 Subscriber E-mail List

derek halpern photoHi everyone, today I’m talking to Derek Halpern of Social Triggers, a popular online marketing blog. In today’s interview, we talk about how Derek went from being a celebrity gossip columnist to a corporate employee in a Fortune 100 company, to striking it out on his own again as an entrepreneur and the content strategy he used to grow Social Triggers from nothing to 70,000 subscribers in just 16 months. (Today his website claims 300,000.)

An Online Ad Sparks College Entrepreneurship

When Derek was in college, he was a fan of a website of a guy around the same age who blogged about all the crazy, stupid things he did with his life. One day when he was on the site, he accidentally clicked on the guys “advertise here” link and saw that he was charging $500 per week for ads, and that he had five ads running at the same time.

“Wait a second,” Derek thought. “This guy does dumb things… I do dumb things!”

So he tried starting his own website to talk about the stupid things he did, but quickly realized that his website wasn’t funny, so he started a celebrity gossip blog to make fun of celebrities from 2006 to the end of 2007.

The site was really successful, and attracted around 40 million visitors over the course of one full year. But, he got depressed running the gossip site because he didn’t like waking up every day with the purpose of making fun of other people. So he put an end to it in 2007, even though he had an attractive offer from a publicly-traded company to buy it out.

To Corporate America & Back

After graduating, Derek went into corporate America to work for a Fortune 100 financial company for 2.5 years. He realized it was a little boring for his liking. The bureaucracy was also driving him a little nuts, along with the fact that he wasn’t 100% in control of his end results.

Luckily, he had a friend who was working on growing a software company and heard about his history in growing a gossip site successfully. He hired Derek as a marketing consultant over the course of 2010, and Derek quickly realized that everything he learned about growing a gossip site also applied to helping people sell more software and get more users.

Once he realized that what he knew about generating traffic for gossip applied to other types of traffic, he decided to start teaching the things he knew in March 2011 on Social Triggers.

Building Social Triggers to 70,000 Subscribers in 16 Months – With A Low Posting Rate:  Why Content is Like Software

Derek only posts on Social Triggers about three times per month, but isn’t worried about the advice out there that tells budding bloggers to keep creating as much content as possible to get traffic for their blog.

Sites like Huffington Post, he says, update many times per day and do well on that model because Google’s already given them that heavyweight, high-ranking status. Even if they pump out a lot of bad content, they still get decent rankings.

But most entrepreneurs have websites without authority, and most are brand new with absolutely no backlinks, traffic, or audience.

For them, it’s better not to create too much content, and to focus on getting the content they do take the time to create into the hands of more people.

For example, says Derek, if you write a post that 1,000 people read, chances are there’s another 1,000,000 people in the world that could use that exact same article.

So instead of just putting a bunch of content together & hoping something hits, you should focus your time on creating the BEST article on a certain topic, and then on getting that resource into the hands of as many people as possible.

This is where Derek says content and software are very similar.

Software builders want millions of people to use what they make. But they don’t keep churning out new software every time they want more users. Instead, they make that one software product even better and market it to get more people to use it.

By spending 20% of his time creating content and 80% of his time promoting it, Derek got maximum reach with the posts he wrote and grew Social Triggers from nothing to 70,000 subscribers in 16 months.

Content Promotion for New Startups

If you’re a new startup working on your first 1,000 users, Derek suggests launching a blog and putting out one strong article every 10 days.  And he says to focus on content that precedes the sale to attract the right type of customer.

After you publish a piece, spend the next nine days getting that piece of content into your ideal customers’ hands via what Derek calls the drafting technique.

Basically, you try to get other blogs, press writers, newspapers and news shows to write about your content or link to your product. You find people who are already talking about what you want to talk about, reach out to them, and build a relationship over the period of 3-4 months. And when the time comes to pitch them, it’s much easier to come to an agreement and get your name out there.

The Value of Paid Traffic

Even with a blog and business the size of Derek’s, he still spends tens of thousands of dollars per month on paid content promotion.

So even though he started out with organic traffic methods only and grew really quickly from that, he still sees the value in reaching out in that way.

If people visit his site and don’t download something, for example, he’ll run retargeting ads at them to get them back on the site so they’ll hopefully turn into subscribers.

But just gaining subscribers isn’t the end goal by itself. You’ve got to have a plan for turning those subscribers into money for your business, otherwise you can’t afford to pay for them.

Using the Legs of Your Old Content to Acquire More Customers

Derek suggests looking at your content’s analytics and seeing what your most popular posts are over time. (Not necessarily just the new ones.)

Make a note of those pages, and go back and update them with a free download (a content upgrade) associated and relevant with that content.

That way, you can increase your conversion rates from the traffic those older pages are getting, and is an easy way to generate extra subscribers from the traffic you’re already getting.

Online & Public Personalities

Derek is highly energetic, but he swears it isn’t because he’s an extrovert. In fact, he says his ideal day is him sitting in his apartment by himself.

But, he says, people who are well-known personalities in one particular space are very rarely middle-of-the-road. They’re either to one extreme or another.

He says they exaggerate real qualities of themselves to make their interactions with others more interesting.

Derek says he himself is kind of insufferable when it comes to certain things, so he tends to magnify those with his business interactions.

You very rarely get attention from the public eye by being a little extroverted or a little introverted, he says. You gain trajectory by being loud and obnoxious by going a full 10 on whatever it is you want to do to become memorable.

Derek says he keeps his own character, but exaggerates those parts he knows people will latch on to.

One Big Struggle: Hiring

Derek’s got a lot of experience building large traffic numbers, turning his traffic into products, and getting people to buy.

But now that he’s got a multi-million dollar company and wants to expand even more, he needs to be really great at hiring so he can scale in the ways that he wants to.

For the first three years of Social Triggers, he only had two full-time employees and a handful of contractors he worked with.

Now he’s got 8-9 full-time employees and another 6-7 contractors he regularly works with.

To deal with it, he bought and read every book he could find on the topic of hiring, reached out to people he knew who’d done some hiring recently, and asked his mentors for advice.

He also looked into hiring a hiring consultant to help develop his own internal hiring system, which has been working well.

Advice to His 25 Year-Old Self

“Don’t join corporate America.”

Not that joining corporate America is a bad choice for everyone, but when he looks at the trajectory he was on with his life, going into a traditional job was definitely a step back from the success that he already had.

His Day-to-Day Structure

  • 5:30 am – wake up, read on the couch, hope to fall back to sleep
  • 7:30 am – get out of bed for the day, take a hot shower within 10 seconds of waking up
  • 8:00 am to 12:00 pm – focus on hard work: writing, tough decision making, vision stuff
  • 12:00 pm – eat lunch
  • 12:30 pm to 2:30 pm – more tedious afternoon work that doesn’t require full brain power
  • 3:00 pm – go to the gym
  • 4:30 pm – start having meetings to end the work day

One Productivity Hack

“Stop trying to be so productive.”

Derek says he’s definitely not the most productive person he knows, but he doesn’t think you should focus on productivity when you’re in a creative role. Because, sometimes, you simply can’t be productive when you’re trying to be creative.

It’s not an excuse to be lazy, he says, but it is permission to have an off day.

When you give yourself permission to do that, he says, you don’t stress yourself out when you’re not productive, and it frees up time for you to actually be productive.

Two Must-Read Books

First, Derek recommends Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

He says it’s the perfect example of how someone who came from nothing to become the leader of one of the world’s most profitable companies and the world’s first billionaire. If his fortune was translated into today’s money, he would have hundreds of billions… far more than Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.

But, for a quicker read, he suggests As I See It by Jean Paul Getty.

This is an autobiography by the world’s richest man from the 1950s to the 1970s. For Derek, he says the book, and one quote in particular, is a reminder to make sure that he’s building what he wants to build business wise, but to also make sure he’s building the kind of personal life he’ll be happy with in 20 years.

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