In 2015, Chris Gimmer and his co-founder Marc Chouinard built an entire business on the back of one keyword and one viral blog post. Sound impossible? Yeah, it did to us too.
We asked Chris if we could interview him about the story and he graciously agreed.
You’re about to learn:
- The dead-simple SEO strategy Chris followed to rank for “free stock photos”—a very competitive keyword in Google
- How he leveraged traffic from that keyword to build a totally new business—all in less than 12 months
Grab a pen or fire up your Evernote. You’ll want to take notes on this one.
(Note: Like you’ll see below, research is critical to accelerating your growth. If you need a simple way to ask your customers for feedback, Fieldboom can help. Try it out free here.)
Viral SEO: How Chris Ranked for a Massively Competitive Keyword
In 2015, Chris and his team were running BootstrapBay—a market for developers to buy and sell Bootstrap themes and templates.
Chris built BootstrapBay’s business “using content marketing,” as he told us. The basic strategy was to publish relevant content, promote it in various developer forums, then earn backlinks to grow organic traffic over time.
He had two main strategies he used to find content ideas:
- Keyword research
- Forum research
SEO Content Strategy #1: Keyword Research
Chris’ keyword strategy was straightforward.
He used Google’s Keyword Planner to find long-tail keywords related to the Bootstrap framework.
At the time, Bootstrap was a newer coding framework, which meant developers were searching for a lot of specific “how to” phrases in Google.
“We would go through Bootstrap’s documentation and just plug different keywords,” Chris told us. “We’d look at Bootstrap carousel or Bootstrap grid options, for example and then we’d see what the volume was like.”
“There were a lot of those keywords that had hardly anything written about them,” he added.
He then took those keywords and wrote blog articles based on them.
Simple? Yes. But effective.
“Anything that had a lot of volume and relatively low competition, we wrote an article for it,” Chris said.
This worked well for them and they had multiple articles that were driving thousands of pageviews a month to the site.
SEO Content Strategy #2: Reddit Research
This is where it gets interesting…
Keyword research was not the only place Chris used to generate content ideas for his SEO strategy.
He also spent a lot of time on Reddit looking for popular content he could turn into blog articles.
In one subreddit, he saw that someone had created a thread and listed a bunch of links to free stock photo sites that don’t suck.
That thread blew up with dozens of people voting and commenting on it. Developers—it turns out—use a LOT of stock photos.
“They’re heavily used by developers and designers because basically every website now has a lot of imagery,” Chris said. “Even the Bootstrap templates we had on our site—they used a lot of photos from free stock sites.”
Chris didn’t know it at the time, but that little Reddit thread was about to completely change his business.
Knowing that “free stock photos” was a topic developers cared a lot about, he wrote a post called “17 Amazing Sites With Breathtaking Free Photos”—and published it on BootstrapBay’s blog.
The article—like the original Reddit thread—blew up.
“It was actually StumbleUpon where it really went viral,” Chris said. “I actually don’t remember doing hardly any manual outreach. It really just took off on its own.”
As a result, natural backlinks poured in from all over.
Even more interesting, it wasn’t developers—the original target audience for the post—who made the most noise about the post.
It was marketers.
Tens of thousands of people visited the free stock photos blog post every month.
And they continued to visit it. Because all of a sudden—thanks to the flood of natural backlinks—the post started ranking in the top 3 for “free stock photos” on Google:
Here’s what Google’s Keyword Planner has to say about “free stock photos,” by the way.
The Real SEO Lesson of Chris’ Story
Chris’ story, of course, begs the question…
Could you replicate Chris’ strategy?
Could you find a popular topic on Reddit, write a blog post about it and then almost immediately rank for a hyper-competitive keyword with a 100,000+ searches every month?
But Chris will be the first one to tell you, he didn’t expect the post to take off like it did.
“I thought it would do well,” Chris told us. “But I didn’t ever think it would rank on the first page of Google for ‘free stock photos’ because that’s such a competitive keyword.”
The “free stock photos article” was just part of his content marketing strategy. The next in a long line of articles he’d published on BootstrapBay.
Chris’ strategy was NOT to identify the No. 1 most perfect keyword, write the perfect blog post, then bask in the glow of organic traffic.
Instead, he was playing his lottery tickets.
One after the other. Post after post. Like good content marketers do.
Some content did well. Some did poorly. But he kept publishing.
And—as you might have experienced yourself, sometimes one of those lottery tickets hits big.
Because that’s how viral posts work.
You rarely know ahead of time that a piece of content will go viral. But any given workday, one might.
Believe it or not, the magic of this story is not that Chris ranked for a crazy-competitive keyword—which is hard to control for in actual practice.
The magic is what he did afterward to capitalize on his success—which was entirely under his control.
How Chris Built a New Company from the Organic Traffic to His Viral Post
Here’s where the story pivots.
To this point, we’ve been talking about an SEO miracle—a single blog post that blew up, drove a flood of organic traffic—and kept driving that traffic month after month.
Many marketers would throw themselves a party at this point.
They’d congratulate themselves, write a list of “lessons learned,” pat themselves on the back and move on to the next thing.
Because that’s what we’re always focused on right?
The next thing. The next article. The next viral hit. The never-ending chase for traffic.
That’s not what he did.
Instead, he stopped.
He recognized the magnitude of the opportunity in front of him.
And he doubled down, leveraging the success of that one blog post to build a completely new bootstrapped business.
StockSnap: Chris’ New Free Photo Site
Chris and his team started BootstrapBay—not because they were in love with Bootstrap—but because they saw an opportunity.
The flood of organic traffic to the “free stock photos” blog was another opportunity.
Traffic is great of course, but in this case, it was attracting an audience of people (marketers) that was completely unqualified for the product they were selling (Bootstrap themes).
So, Chris thought, “How could I take advantage of this?”
StockSnap, a free stock photo site of their own, which they could then add to the list of sites in the viral blog post.
Thus, StockSnap was born.
Chris populated the site with free photos he found that had been shared with the Creative Commons license.
Later, he added a submission page where photographers could submit photos to the website.
At the time, it was the only free stock photography site that included a search function, a feature that took Chris forever to build out.
“I literally spent days and days just tagging thousands of photos to get that site off the ground,” Chris said.
Within a few weeks or so, StockSnap was up and running and the team added it to list of sites described in the viral blog post.
Just like that, a steady river of traffic started flowing to StockSnap.
“It was super easy to cross-promote StockSnap on the blog post,” Chris said. “All we had to do was insert it into the blog post, which was already ranking. Because of that, it wasn’t long before StockSnap itself started ranking for ‘free stock photos’ too.”
Chris set up simple opt-in forms on StockSnap and worked hard to optimize them for conversions, allowing the team to convert all that traffic into a truly owned audience.
It was a step in the right direction.
But to make it a successful business, they still had to monetize.
Snappa: Online Graphics in a Snap
For several years, Chris had been sitting on an idea to build a service for marketers.
It would be a product for marketers, built to solve a problem Chris had always had as he worked to promote BootstrapBay: quickly creating graphics for social media.
He had not, however, moved on the idea.
“I like to minimize my risk,” Chris told us. “Most people build the product first, then worry about the traffic later. But I think if you build on things that are already working and leverage stuff you already have, it’s much easier and safer way to grow something.”
With StockSnap in place, Chris had the opportunity he needed to validate the need for such a service.
Sure enough, after a series of surveys and phone calls with marketers, he found that—like him—many of them struggled to create quality graphics for their work.
They had Photoshop or some other graphic design software they didn’t really know how to use. Or they had an in-house designer that could help—but who took too long to turn things around.
Marketers really wanted a way to just create graphics on their own.
With validation in hand, Chris and his team started building Snappa, an online service that would give marketers the power to quickly design their own graphics.
As planned, Snappa was a low-dollar product with a free plan, a $10/mo plan and a $20/month plan.
When it was ready, the team began promoting Snappa to the StockSnap list and anyone who made it to the StockSnap site.
With an audience, a validated need and a freemium-style SaaS product in place, Snappa grew quickly.
So quickly, in fact, that within months, Chris and the team were able to sell BootstrapBay and focus just on Snappa.
But not before they redirected traffic from that original blog post to a new version of the post on Snappa’s website, using instructions he found in an article called Breaking The Glass Ceiling Of Search Through Acquisition by Matthew Barby on Search Engine Land.
“I was afraid that we would lose the authority of the post,” Chris told us. “Very afraid in fact. But I followed the instructions in that article. And it worked.”
Epilogue: Diversifying Away from One Source of Traffic
It is true that the vast majority of Snappa’s initial user-base came from the blog-post-to-StockSnap funnel.
But Chris didn’t let it stay that way.
With Snappa as the main focus of their efforts, Chris continued to plug away at his old SEO methods.
He did his keyword research
He monitored forums.
He found what marketers were asking about related to graphics and images online.
For example, he found that marketers often asked about social media headers and searched for keywords such as:
- Facebook Page Header Size
- Twitter Header Image Dimensions
So, he created dedicated landing pages that let people use Snappa to create exactly those kinds of graphics in minutes—using their new free Snappa account.
He has a whole series of those landing pages now which, combined, drive significantly more organic traffic than the blog post about stock photos.
They’ve done such a good job, in fact, that they were recently able to sell StockSnap for an undisclosed (but significant!) amount, positioning them nicely for whatever direction they decide to head in the future.
“Selling StockSnap made a lot of sense for us because it took away the burden of maintaining the site,” Chris said. “Plus, it gave us a good chunk of cash in the bank, which we can use for future projects.”
How Is Snappa Doing Today?
Very, very well. According to SEMRush, Snappa.com gets well over 100,000 visitors per month and has 1,500 total backlinks, as you can see here:
We certainly felt smarter after talking to Chris for a little while. We hope you feel the same.
Here are our biggest takeaways from the conversation…
1. Use Reddit for SEO
Use Reddit for content ideas to supplement your traditional, keyword-driven SEO strategy.
2. Viral hits are almost never planned in advance
Content marketing is like playing the lottery. You do your best with each content piece, but you won’t know in advance if a piece will go viral.
3. When a piece goes viral, take advantage
When you do have a viral hit, slow down, examine the opportunity and do everything you can do take advantage.
4. Traffic only matters if it’s qualified traffic
Organic traffic is only helpful if it’s coming from an audience of people that are qualified to buy what you sell.
5. Conversion is key
Forms, calls to action and conversion optimization are critical if you want to convert traffic into subscribers, users, or customers, especially with organic traffic.
6. Do not rely on one source of traffic
As soon as you can, diversify your inbound strategy so you have multiple sources of traffic flowing to your website.
7. You can be risk-averse and still be an entrepreneur
The traditional startup approach is to build a product, then take it to market—hoping someone will buy it.
Chris flipped that model on its head. He waited to build Snappa until he had an audience in place and had validated their need for his product.
With those two things in place, THEN he built the product. And he succeeded.
(Note: Like you saw above, research is critical to accelerating your growth. If you need a simple way to ask your customers for feedback, Fieldboom can help. Try it out free here.)