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“Leaders lead when they take positions, when they connect with their tribes, and when they help their tribe connect.” – Seth Godin
One of the hardest, but most rewarding aspects of building a sustainable, profitable business is cultivating a tribe of insanely committed individuals who love what you are talking about or selling.
In modern day, there has been a huge focus on growth hacking and other forms of marketing to get people on your platform and buying your products.
But one the most powerful strategies any entrepreneur can implement to build a business that not only grows but thrives in the long run, is to focus on building a community around your product or service.
Our guest today, Chris Coyier, is a master tribe builder.
He is the founder of CSS Tricks, CodePen, and the Shop Talk podcast. Over the last decade, he has been writing 20+ articles a day on his site, CSS Tricks, and has built up a substantial following, 7 million monthly page views to be exact.
In this Q&A, we discuss the strategies and psychology Chris used to build such an incredible following, with some helpful ideas on how to monetize your following once you have it.
If you are interested in building a hungry tribe of fans that devour anything you sell, this is a must read.
1) Hey Chris, why don’t you start off by telling us about your story starting CSS Tricks?
Sure. I’ve been running CSS Tricks for over a decade now. It began in 2007. And it’s a web publication about all things web. It’s certainly about CSS, but it’s not limited to that topic, necessarily. The theme is building websites.
2) Among the three things that you have going on right now, how are they doing regarding revenue, users, and things like that?
A B-minus. There are no investors knocking down my door or anything because we have crazy explosive growth. But I don’t know that I need it. I feel comfortable and happy where I am.
Regarding growth for CSS Tricks, I have had Google Analytics since day one, so I have a ton of analytics.
3) Okay, would you mind telling us what that looks like? Regarding monthly traffic that you’re getting and email subscribers that you have?
Right now it’s at seven million page views a month. I know the page views isn’t super interseting because it is easy to pump that up. I think that there’s more interesting metrics to look at.
4) What are your users and number of email subscribers?
Okay, so email subscribers is real bad because it was only one year ago when we decided even to do a newsletter. It’s at 24,000 email subscribers right now.
I’m not saying if somebody has a newsletter that has 24,000 subscribers they’re doing badly. But I’ve tracked our RSS numbers back when they used to be accurate, and we were like hundreds of thousands of followers.
5) What about your Twitter following?
On Twitter, CSS Tricks has over 300 thousand followers. So, to have an email newsletter where we are at isn’t that great. But we’re growing it. We’re having fun with it.
I haven’t done smart stuff yet with building the list. For example, on Twitter you can do a tweet that has a card where all people have to do is click the tweet to be signed up for your newsletter. I haven’t investigated it yet, but there’s a lot of ways you can grow it that we haven’t even tried.
6) You’re at seven million page views per month right now. What does that growth rate look like, if you are looking at month over month rates?
A: Month over month growth is probably really super-duper low. Like, sub one percent.
7) But it’s still growing?
A: Rarely is there even a month where it goes down. It’s steady, which makes me feel good because I do drastic stuff sometimes to the site. For example, I will redesign the whole site in a week, because it’s just me and I can do that.
8) What do you think sets you apart from other people? Because clearly, you know how to build communities. What’s your secret?
A: First of all, I’m just a person, so when I write on the site, I’m not trying to hide myself from the audience. Clearly, there’s a picture of me on the site. I put my name on there. I’m not trying to make it seem like it’s any bigger than it already is.
9) Okay, but a lot of people are open about that, what else sets you apart?
A: I’ve tried to codify it before, but it’s like we have an authoritative tone, but we’re not pompous about it. We’re always a friend. I used a lot of “we” when I write for the blog. Kind of as if we’re going through the tutorials together.
For example, I don’t just allow anybody to comment. On the comment form, it says, “Please treat this more like a letter to the editor. You can write to me, but I’m not going to publish ever single thing that’s written in here. If it’s a good comment that I feel like adds value to this site, I approve it. If it isn’t, I don’t.”
10) Obviously you’re wearing a lot of hats right now. I’m just wondering, what is your team at CSS-Tricks look like right now?
A: It’s mostly me, but I have a couple of part-time writers that help on the content side. I don’t mandate what other people write, necessarily. I prefer that it wasn’t an assignment and was something the writer is interested in.” It’s a slow trickle. We only publish one or two things a day.
11) How many articles are you putting out a month, yourself?
A: A month? I don’t know, at least twenty I’d say. Sometimes they are full-blown tutorials. Sometimes it’s a video. Sometimes it’s a snippet or a CSS almanac entry.
For example, the almanac is more like an encyclopedia of CSS. It’s not as timely, whereas the blog is by nature date, and read chronologically.
12) What does the average word count look like for you?
A: We don’t tend to do 10,000+ word pieces, nor do we do two paragraph shallow articles. Usually, we are in between. There are two types of posts that we typically produce. First, there is a standard, traditional blog post. Second, there’s a link post, which by nature are shorter, because we are not trying to get you to stay on our site very long.
13) Tell us about the business model. You have three sites right now. How do you make money? What is the revenue breakdown?
A: You know, display advertising used to be big. And there still are display ads, but the market for that has changed. I don’t mind them and use them, and I’m glad there is money to be made in them still.
But most of our revenue comes from a pure site sponsor. It is a custom partnership with Media Temple. Because they are my host for the website, and with partnerships, it’s more complex, we do contests together, there is display advertising, there’s sponsored posts, and I write on their blog.
So the business model for CSS-Tricks is (i) merch, which we almost lose money on, (ii) display advertising, which is okay, (iii) sponsored posts, which are pretty good, and (iv) a full site sponsor with a custom deal, which is the best thing for us.
14) Cool. So how much are making on CSS Tricks a year? Is it 500k? Less than a million?
A: It’s much less than a million. And in fact, like my personal take-home is pretty low. It’s a little over $100,000, maybe. I don’t mean to scoff at a hundred thousand dollars. It’s just I’m not buying a yacht from CSS Tricks, that’s for sure.