The DigitalOcean Knowledgebase Marketing Strategy

Corey Northcutt    By under Managed Service Marketing.

Since 2010, it seems that every managed service provider has been a little jealous of DigitalOcean. I've had hundreds of these conversations. And how could you not be?

They did everything right. They carved out a niche in early-stage Silicon Valley startups. Their product solved huge pain points on a new level. They demonstrated a cleaner UX than all others at the time. And of course, they reinvented the knowledgebase with their community tutorials.

They also had silly amounts of funding ($100M+), but so have others that still managed to fail epically. Clearly, there are lessons to learn from DigitalOcean.

Enter The Knowledgebase

First, the concept of a knowledgebase isn't new.

In fact, it's the most ubiquitous content on tech brand websites since the 1990s.

It's almost always a brand's least effective marketing content. The difference is all execution.

Targeting Behind A Knowledgebase

Who is a knowledgebase for?

Since the 1990s, this content has been based on customer service needs. They prioritized the most common support questions like "where do I login" and "how do I reset my password".

DigitalOcean's knowledgebase uses a tone that's accessible by all phases of their marketing funnel.

digital marketing funnel

Most importantly, non-clients. Their articles demonstrate how developers can do cool stuff on a cloud server. It's deliberately tied to search demand.

This has more in common with Demand Media's wildly successful than the knowledgebases of the past.

It's also community-driven, labeled "community tutorials".

Again, not special in itself. Every long-time web host has run vBulletin, MediaWiki, or other runs at user-generated content (UGC). UGC was critical for DigitalOcean, nonetheless.

The difference is in the execution.

Marketing Using A DigitalOcean-Style Knowledgebase

So, how did DigitalOcean get this right?

I see 5 phases to their knowledgebase flywheel.

  1. Strategy
  2. Sourcing Authors
  3. Editing
  4. Distribution
  5. Promotion

Here's each.

1. Strategy

Make no mistake: DigitalOcean is paying $200-$300 per tutorial and $50-$100 per revision, but their authors have high-quality help. A lot of it.

They set a strategy that's relevant to search demand. By putting in that work and not just rehashing the tutorial content of others, DigitalOcean has been blessed with highly novel content. Novel content ranks better.

They can accept ideas from writers, but most won't be all that original. Fewer will be messaged in a way that it's going to draw long-term traffic. It's best to have a gatekeeper that's rock-solid in search and social strategy.

I'd expect a workload that's 20% strategy, 20% handled by the submitter, and 60% editing.

Based on that, the real investment on a per-tutorial basis is closer to $1,000 than $200. That's in stark contrast to $10 TextBroker copy, right? But it's worth every penny.

Say the brand gets 20% of the value from the tutorials themselves. Tutorial content is pretty evergreen. If it attracts 100 prospects per month from Google results in 1 lead, that's not the total value.

Many will say "hey, I only got 100 visits, this was a bust". But truly evergreen content lasts 10 years or more with the occasional, pro-active update (which I include in that editing budget).

Here are ballpark KPIs from unpaid search:

100 visits * 12 months * 10 years = 12,000 visits
1 qualified lead * 12 months * 10 years = 120 leads
20% sales effectiveness = 24 sales
24 sales X $10 cloud servers X 12 months estimated life of account = $2,880

That's not all. Organic content has a cumulative effect. If it's the best content available that solves a real problem, it also attracts links/shares. This enhances domain authority and relevance for SEO. That not only helps the new content rank better but old content too.

Then there's word of mouth, upgrading, and the many imperfections of web analytics. For example, when someone hits a tutorial, leaves, and returns 6 months later on a different device.

The remaining 80% of the value comes the author's peers.

Let's say we that we keep a prospect audience on social media and email of 100,000. We engage with them constantly. Most that do content marketing never look past this owned bubble. Often, the greatest opportunity exists in grabbing attention from new pockets of the market by collaborating with others.

Influencer marketing is all about finding new ways to step in front of entirely different groups. You get the social validation of somebody that they already trust. Of course, my estimates are conservative and assume that you won't be the next DigitalOcean. That's just fine.

Here are their real #s, as of 2015, according to DigitalOcean CMO, Mitch Wainer:

In case you don't have time for that:

  1. $400 in monthly revenue is attributed to the average community tutorial (vs. $240 in the example above).
  2. That's $4,800/year on our estimated $1,000 investment. Not a bad return!
  3. DigitalOcean draws 3.8 million monthly anonymous sessions from these methods.
  4. At the time, they were aware of nobody else had such a knowledgebase that was "public and optimized".

2. Sourcing Authors

DigitalOcean didn't invent influencer marketing, but they're the first example that I've seen of it done well in IaaS.

I could talk about the usual process for this, but Gary Vaynerchuk does it so much more loudly.. watch this instead.

But Instagram isn't where developers are.

Where are they? GitHub. And guess what? We can do exactly the same thing there.

Check out trending developers. We can even filter by language where we need more tutorials.

github developers

Guess what? These people have influence.

Just like the Instagram example by GaryVee, many up there in the thousands.

github profile

And just like Instagram, their contacts are just half a page down.

github user profile

Now reach out. If they do good work (and they probably do, if they're trending and have this many followers), we give it a look and complement them on our favorite.

We ask if they'd like to be paid to write a tutorial on X and ask if they have ideas.

In my experience, when creators do great work, they show it off. We just need the rest of this process to assure that it's spectacular work that they're proud enough to spread around. That's what minor forum entries, blog comments, and wiki contributions all lack.

This is the 80%. That attracts clients and handles much of our link building campaign for us naturally. This helps everything else on our site rank better in Google.

Just make sure that we give our influencers credit and a dedicated profile like DigitalOcean does.

digital ocean tutorials

This process continues maybe indefinitely, but certainly until we hit a critical mass of tutorial writers that are creating and attracting peers faster than we can find them ourselves.

3. Editing

All content needs to go under an editorial review. Developers and sysadmins are rarely bloggers. And that's OK.

What's important is:

  1. That the content is accessible to people that maybe aren't as smart, or at least as informed (I mean, that's exactly why these get read).
  2. That the grammar is flawless.
  3. That it uses keywords effectively.
  4. That it doesn't cover the same ground that we've already covered.
  5. That the style is fairly light, conversational, and dare I say, maybe a little bit entertaining to read. We want people to want to read these on purpose; not treat as a textbook that they have to read.

Not much else to say, but depending on the writing skills of a particular developer, it's often a lot more work to edit something than to do an original draft.

Some may well be spectacular writers, but prepare for the worst. DigitalOcean gives so much credit to their editing phase that editors get their own by-line beneath every tutorial.


4. Distribution

Distribution of community tutorials works essentially like any other content marketing flywheel, but it's worth mentioning.

That means this content should go to the brand's own audience on social media, newsletters, and any other forum. And, for all major funnel stages.

We just want to make sure that we're getting this stuff seen by our people too. That's one more perk for the author as well.

5. Promotion

In part, the hope is again that influencer marketing drives promotion, but more can be done to grease the wheels.

There are three types of search query. Do, know, go. Or, transactional, informational, navigational.

Do: Where to I buy something? I want to accomplish something instantly.
Know: How does X work? I'm looking for information.
Go: Where's the support page? I don't have time to learn another menu system.

Many SEO's also acknowledge a 4th. This one was coined by Dan Shure from the Evolving SEO podcast:

Link: I'm writing an article and need a source that I can cite.

"How to" content is still an extremely narrow sect of a search strategy People run informational searches not only for "how to" questions like these, but for all of the 5 W's. That's why a blog strategy is key as apart of the content strategy, and it's another opportunity to reference these tutorials.

We also still have all potential "transactional" queries for the brand to address. The sorts of stuff that most typically take out a Google Ads ad on. And, "link" queries, for "infographic", "statistics", "research", etc.

Beyond this, especially "sticky" tutorials - those that get shared most - could be candidates for a social ad, press release, or any other variety of omni-channel campaign continue leveraging this content for future growth.