My “BBC X SmashingLists” Moment

In 2010, I received an email from BBC about a possible collaboration with my blog SmashingLists. My blog was uniquely positioned in the industry as far as the branding was concerned because it frequently made it to the then front-page of the internet; Digg’s frontpage. Because of that, I started to receive brand inquiries that were way above my pay-scale.

BBC had just launched BBC Earth and were looking for partners for distribution of their content to get visibility. They got in touch so I could publish their stories on my blog as they didn’t have a blog at that time and were just looking for ways to build their brand.

They were hoping that I would then push this story on Digg and get their brand eye-balls.

Guess what did I bill them for this?

Nothing. Yeap. I thought that I’m getting free content from BBC and that probably is great in itself.

I also completely failed to capitalize my future relationship with them.

This is what happens when you give influence to a Pakistani boy who has no idea whatsoever about the billing structure of the west and is happy to take home; nothing.

Who Were Shizmen?

I was going through old documents on my cloud and found this file. It was made by Shizmen co-founder Zeeshan and I’m not entirely sure who he made this for. This dates back to 2012. Before we were called Socialoholic, we chose to call ourselves Shizmen. We thought we were the shiz and because it was 3 of us so Shizmen.

Looking at this presentation, it seems we had come far by 2012. Since then, we’ve done more and it seems we’ve come much farther. The paradox however is that the more you learn about something, the more you realize how less you know.

In the bigger scheme of things, we haven’t come far at all. There are things on my wishlist that I want to do, professionally. I’d be glad if Shizmen can pull those off together.

Enjoy the presentation.

Why We Paid $10,000 For Our Hosting

A few weeks ago, I wrote about three types of founders. To summarize, they were big spenders, extra savers, and the ones that cut expenses in some areas bit were big spenders in others. We all should aspire to be the third type.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to be frugal with your operating expenses. If you’re not frugal with them, especially once you’re bootstrapped, you’ll always see yourself struggling with money or progress regardless of the revenue.

Not all costs are meant to be avoided though. Some costs, if you avoid them, will hinder growth of your business. Some costs of as little as $1000, could get in the way of your next $100,000 in revenue. So it’s quite important to be generous in some of the areas of your expenses. No I’m not talking about spending extravagantly on a shiny office space. I am talking about spending extravagantly on top talent, expensive tools, and education or training.

Never stop investing in yourself. Never cut corners on hiring talent. You need more talented people than yourself to build great companies. Always buy expensive tools that would put your productivity and growth on steroids.

I remember using PressLabs, a managed WordPress hosting company, for our content websites. Our monthly bill with them, at one point, was 10s of thousands of dollars. Yes, we paid 10s of thousands of dollars every month just to keep our websites online and safe. May be we could have rented a mega dedicated server for much cheaper, right? Yes, we could. However, we would still need top talent to continue to maintain that dedicated server to keep it online and safe at all times.

A few hours of outage, a malware, DDoS or ineffective caching would have been more damaging to our business and the revenue than the price we were willing to incur to keep everything online and safe at all times.

So we incurred that cost, and continued to work from our homes, because our priorities have always been clear about what to spend on and where to cut corners.

On a side note, our stats are still featured on PressLab’s front page 🙂

This Simple Trick Resulted In 800% Higher Traffic From Facebook

We have worked with many influencers for some of our content websites. The best part of running this operation between ’11 and ’16, in addition to generating revenue, was gaining extraordinary insights and knowledge.

It was a collaboration with over 200 marketers each running individual experiments in identifying the best of the best ways to leverage Facebook’s newsfeed. During the few years that we ran these websites, we collectively identified many ways to increase newsfeed visibility, but here’s my favorite one because this was the easiest to execute and had the highest reward.

We identified that Facebook distributes new domains on it’s platform with a much higher weight than domains with history. As the new domains receive some feedback in the next few days, their distribution is also limited. But there was no easy way to launch a new website everyday, with all sorts of advertising approved, and unique content in place. So as a quick fix, we resorted to using new domains but only as redirectors. This wasn’t a great solution to this problem, and obviously came with some caveats. So we looked further and eventually identified the perfect recipe to leverage this.

On running another experiment, we identified that sub-domains are also considered as fresh domains with no history as far as the Facebook’s algorithm is concerned. At the same time, subdomains do no require fresh approvals from the ad networks and exchanges. We also do not have to use redirectors, and Facebook referral headers stay intact.

Using this simple trick, we were able to boost our traffic by up-to 800% and were able to provide an environment that the influencers preferred due to extra-ordinary results and revenue-share.

End of An Era, And Start of A New One

My long time friend and Socialoholic’s co-founder, Saad, has decided to relocate outside of Pakistan. He calls this A/B testing. While he does quite well in Pakistan and enjoys the financial and location freedom, he feels that in order to grow further in life, a change like that may be necessary.

I feel that our company could see growth if one of the founders is to going to go through personal and professional growth. At the same time, there would be associated challenges with this move.

It is why, it is both; end of an era, and start of a new one.

Overlapping Audiences, Competing With Your Own Ads And My Take On This

Yesterday, I wrote about my ad account that got disabled and I concluded by saying the following

And in the super optimist world, I’ll have two ad-accounts burning twice the fuel, delivering twice the sales, making twice the profit. I want to think that this will happen. Because without this kind of optimism, it’s hard to want to run a business

Today when I read my own blog post, I realized that overlapping brigade must hate me right now for saying something so foolish. But I don’t care about overlap as much as many other people.

I hear a lot of people say that this audience will overlap with that audience or that your ads are competing with your other ads and that you’re bidding higher against your own ads etc. I understand. I understand what you’re saying and I understand what you mean. But I am not concerned on the same level as you.

First things first, I mean no disrespect to other marketers. I will also never claim that I am good at what I do. I am always learning. I spend everyday in this industry with an open heart and an open mind with will to learn more than I knew yesterday. I understand that different marketers have different strategies and yet they are able to deliver results. In summary, I think any strategy that brings the results we seek, is the right strategy and that many strategies can co-exist together.

Now off to some of the reasons why I’m comfortable with overlapping and competing with my own ads.

In the past, I’ve had a successful product where we were spending thousands of dollars per day in ads, and were generating tens of thousands in sales. I did everything in my power to scale the ads profitably until I couldn’t anymore without hurting profitability. So I created a second ad account, created 100% duplicate campaigns as my first ad account, and started competing with my own ads.

The end result was that I was able to increase my sales by over 60% and my profits by over 40%. In summary, by competing with my own self, I slightly reduced my margins, and significantly increased the money I took home.

Now I don’t know about you, but I prefer focusing on the actual dollars I take home, and while the margin percentage remains the significant focus of my business, it isn’t what I’m actually focusing on at the end of the day.

There are many occasions when simply raising the budget will cost you much higher CPA than creating a duplicate copy of your campaign and duplicating budget like that. Of course, you’re overlapping and competing with your own ads, but if it works, then why not?

In addition, not many people know this but Facebook sets CPM penalization not just for ad-accounts, but even for business managers based on the reports it receives from the users about your ads. In this case, running identical campaigns from multiple ad accounts or even different business managers will generate significantly different results.

Furthermore, my attitude towards overlapping and self-competition is also lenient because we like to scale fast. If we won’t scale, someone else will. If we won’t compete with our own ads, someone else will compete with our ads. This is how we like our marketing at Socialoholic.

How Hunger Drove Me & My Co-Founder To Success

Some of what I am going to write may feel insensitive to some readers. I apologize to them, but I will still write about it because it is the truth.

Yesterday someone called me to ask that he wanted to sell merch in the memory of Kobe, the basketball star. May his soul rest in peace. It reminded me of a story and that is what I’m going to write about today.

During the early stages of my work, I was trying really hard to make any kind of revenue but I failed year after year. My co-founder on the other hand, whom I didn’t know at that time, dropped out of college because he couldn’t afford it anymore. My family’s financial circumstances were better than his, so for me it was just the hunger to make it work. But for him, it was the actual hunger, that comes from not eating enough.

To fulfill my hunger to make it work, I used all kinds of opportunities to make money including trying to sell merchandise in the memory of celebrities who recently died. I tried all forms of click-bait for content that didn’t exist and then locked the content until user performed a certain action such as provide an email or phone or zip, for which I got paid. I did fake-news of all kinds. I did it all.

I feel no shame in writing about it today, because I think that’s what people do when they want it bad enough and it isn’t working. I won’t do most of that today because I don’t have to and I only want to work on good opportunities. But I probably would do all that again if I had to start over. Of course, I’ve always drawn a line. I don’t want to scam people out of their hard earned money, but I felt no shame in capturing their attention or wasting their time for money.

My co-founder on the other hand started his journey by scanning Pakistani magazines commonly known as digests in Pakistan; including Khawateen Digest, Suspense Digest etc and then published them online. Of course, an act of piracy, but he complied with the requests of the publishers, and only made them available for overseas Pakistanis. Eventually due to the pressure from publishers, he closed the website completely. He also feels no shame in this. He did what was meant to be done to be able to live and it got him the kickstart.

My co-founder was hungrier than I was. His hunger came from his drive to win as well as because it was a survival game for him. My hunger came from the drive to win only. He did twice as good as I did. Because he wanted it twice as much.

Today, we don’t have the same drive as we used to have. Despite having 15+ years of experience, we don’t perform on the same level as we used to do. We’re more knowledgable, highly skillful, more experienced, and less hungry. And we don’t do as good as we used to do. Hence, for me, hunger is the single biggest differentiator in killing it, or not.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

The Fast Moving World of Digital Marketing

As I mentioned earlier on this blog, our first e-commerce store was launched in 2016. Our primary customer acquisition strategy since then has been through Facebook ads.

While I had run Facebook ads a long time before, it wasn’t until 2016 that I spent a major budget. Since then, almost everything about the ads has changed. Many new strategies have been introduced and a lot of strategies that I learnt in 2016 are irrelevant.

Case in point, tech moves really really fast. Digital marketing moves even faster. And I’m curious what value could business schools add in your marketing career in this day and age.

It’s likely that my perspective is limited too, since I’ve never been to a business school. But help me understand, do business schools, including international, teach anything about this kind of marketing? If they do, how do the teachings stay relevant since the minimum length of a masters business degree is 1 year. Let’s not even talk about the bachelors degree here. In my opinion 1 year is a long enough time in digital marketing to unlearn everything and learn new things.

In my 15 years of career as digital marketer, I’ve changed my job roles 15 times. If I hadn’t, I would have found myself with no work. My primary source of revenue came from selling ads and our publishing company Socialoholic mastered that area. Only a few years later, we found ourselves buying ads instead. Now all of our revenue comes from buying ads.

In digital marketing, if you’re not pivoting every few months or even weeks, you’re being left behind.

So if you’re looking for a marketing school, let me tell you one. It’s where I went to. It’s called YouTube. The course length varies from 4 days to 4 weeks. And after that, you can get shit done.

The Secret E-Commerce ‘Hot Sauce’ That No One Talks About

When I started blogging and later ventured into internet marketing, things were a lot different than they are today. During 2009 and 2010, 93% of my traffic came from Windows and Mac. Only 1% traffic came from iOS and Android. This meant, I largely ignored how mobile users viewed my sites and only focused on desktop.

Mobile Evolution

Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen mobile traffic go from under 10% to over 90%, and that brought quite a lot of challenges for me. While mobile has certainly increased the potential audience by manyfold, the responsibility now lies on the website founders to serve content in a way that works perfectly across the large variety of screen sizes, OS, browsers etc.

For content websites, the estate for ads just squeezed into nothing. We couldn’t serve the same quantity of ads anymore. But I’m not gonna talk more about that right now.

For e-commerce which we only ventured into in 2016, mobile had already taken over by the time we started it, bringing its challenges with it.

E-Commerce Struggle

Early in our cycle, we identified what we believed was a winning product and we created a large set of ad sets which we also believed would give us a winning campaign. Despite that, we had a low conversion rate and while we made sales, we struggled to make a profit.

We were sure the product would work, we had data to believe in it. We saw others grilling and scaling it. As for ad campaigns, we had spent enough on Facebook before (outside of e-commerce) to be sure that what we were doing with ads was also not a problem. Which brought us to our final conclusion, that it was the landing page that was the problem.

Often I see, people working really hard but focusing on the wrong things or fixing what isn’t broken. I bring this up, because a lot of people just change their products or ad strategies without thinking about other possibilities.

Landing Page Struggles & Heatmaps

Back to our problem; we couldn’t think that our landing page could be problematic because our store was powered by Shopify. We expected the store and theme to be optimized to work in a perfect manner. But mobile can be tricky and so we introduced heat-maps and video recordings to see exactly how users interacted with our landing pages.

We used a tool named Hotjar, but you could use anyone you like.

I’m not going to go into details of the wide range of things you can do with heatmaps, but personally I focused on scroll heatmaps the most. While it’s a natural behavior for the loss of audience from top to bottom, if the colors change abruptly or sharply, it means a significant number of users left the page there. This can mean, among other things, that user is either not interested in content below that point, or is unaware that the page has more content to offer.

This can be solved by either removing an element at the point of abrupt exit, or introducing new elements that convey to the user that there’s more content available below. After making certain changes, I saw the conversion go up, but not enough to be excited about it.

Video Recordings

The next logical step for me was to watch thousands of video recordings of users interacting with our store. And so I did that.

The reason why I started this blog post with emphasis on mobile was because after watching hundreds of videos, I saw how different the user interaction was for different devices having different screen res, OS, browsers, in-app browsers (such as site loading inside Facebook) and how many changes were needed for everything to be in harmony across the board.

Conclusion & Further Reading

After making those changes to the theme and landing page, we were able to bump our conversion by 120% and so the secret ‘hot sauce’ of e-com, at least for me, is the heatmap and landing page optimization.

I’ve previously written three posts about our dropshipping experience explaining what dropshipping is, how we scaled it, and how we grew it by 837%.

One Psychological Trick That Boosted Our Revenues by 38%

One of our content websites was a gallery website featuring images as “top 10 this” and “top 20 that”. It was an interesting website because bounce rates were super low ( below 20%) due to pagination in galleries and average page-views per user were over 8.

But we were always looking for ways to increase the page-views even higher. This was a website where quantity mattered more as the site had little text and the ad-rates were generally lower, so our focus was on increasing the page-views.

Website layout showing a gallery image 1 of 23

We ran A/B tests and decided to change the pagination heading from “1 of 23” to “1 of 24” adding an increment of 1 to the actual size of galleries. The idea was to trick the user into thinking there is one more photo in the gallery. But on clicking next, the user would end up on the next gallery eventually creating an infinite gallery loop for the user.

The following day, we saw 38% increase in our revenue and our PV/user went from 8 to 12. It’s not an example that I’m very proud of, but it showcases the power of A/B testing and psychological changes you can make to exponentially boost your revenues.