Status update - 2021-02

Status update - 2021-02

Console status update - Feb 2021: subscriber growth, paid ads, website build, blog theme and email templates, and our first developer Q&A interviews.

This is a monthly series reporting on how things are going at Console.

Our first update covered the soft launch of our free weekly newsletter where we provide a digest of the best tools and beta releases for developers.

This is our second post which will go into what happened in February.

Focus for February

I wrote last month:

In February our primary goal is to grow the number of subscribers. We will continue our paid marketing experiments and start analyzing retention.

Paid ads are just one component of our marketing strategy which will also include longer form articles and research. We are still working on these and hope to release the first in March. The groundwork (writing, coding, website building) for that will be happening in February.

We are also working on a more customized version of the blog theme, the "about" page for the website (which currently links to a blog post), and our own template design for the email newsletter.

So how did we do?

Subscriber growth

We set ourselves an internal goal of hitting 1,000 subscribers by the end of Feb. We beat that goal by more than 50%! A big part of reaching that goal was our successful launch on Product Hunt.

Our original plan did not involve launching the homepage and newsletter on Product Hunt because we weren't convinced it would do well and we have other things we hope to launch there in the next few months. However, after some discussion we thought it would be a good idea to test it out and see what we could learn from the experience. If it worked, that would be a bonus, but it wouldn't matter so much if not.

We did a lot of research to understand how to create a good listing. This involved working with our designer to create some custom graphics and an animated logo as well as priming some friends to check out the listing on the day (importantly: not asking them specifically to vote for us, as per the Product Hunt guidelines).

We launched at 8am UK time, which is when Product Hunt resets for the day (midnight PST). For the first hour or two we were nowhere to be found! This was a bit nerve wracking because we weren't even showing up in search. Had we triggered some spam flag? Maybe we didn't get enough initial votes.

I contacted Product Hunt support around 10-11am (who were very quick to respond) and shortly after we suddenly appeared on the homepage, in search, and throughout the site. From then on, we were consistently in the top listings, hovering around position 9-12.

It was clear when the US came online because we had a surge of subscribers, and other listings appeared with a burst of votes. Ultimately, we finished in position 13 after a really successful day with 500+ new subscribers, 167 votes and 20 comments.

The following day saw more votes and subscribers then it tailed off significantly after then. As of today we have 218 votes and 23 comments.

Product Hunt dashboard showing 167 votes as of the end of the day.

Our goal with paid ads is to find a channel where we can invest a consistent amount each month to get a predictable flow of subscribers. It will be too expensive to pay for every subscriber but this allows us to bootstrap the initial list to a point where organic growth becomes self-sustaining.

We have a view on how much we want to pay for a new subscriber and have been experimenting with various paid ads, calibrating our bids to try and hit/beat that cost goal. We have been trying different ad text and targeting options such as broad interests or targeted groups to figure out where is the best place to spend.

It is common to use products like Facebook's Lookalike Audiences to target ads directly at people who are similar to existing customers. However, this requires giving Facebook contact info or use tracking pixels so they can match profiles. I don't think this is ethical, and is against the privacy principles by which we want to run Console.

As such, we've been manually targeting our ads based on where we think our audience may be. This has involved specifying specific target interests on Twitter and on Reddit running ads in selected sub-Reddits.

We're still running experiments but Reddit appears to be performing the best, followed by Twitter. Facebook has not worked well. This doesn't surprise me because of where I have anecdotally seen developers and tech enthusiasts hang out i.e. not on Facebook, but it was worth proving.

We'll be writing more about the details in the future.

Reddit ad.

Website build

Getting the homepage live was the priority in Jan. It was built as static HTML using Cloudflare Workers Sites. In Feb, we moved to a proper static site framework, Hugo, and developed the content pages so they were more than just skeletons. We now have a template we can use for other pages, still deployed on Cloudflare.

The About page was published and our Privacy Policy moved into the main site template. We added support for prefers-color-scheme and a user-controllable toggle in the bottom right of every page so you can pick light or dark mode.

We don't currently have an archive of back issues because Mailchimp forces Google Analytics onto the pages, which we don't want to use. We prefer that they live on our site and domain. However, we do show the contents of the last email. This page is auto generated every Thursday morning using a scheduled GitHub Action. The data is pulled from Google Sheets and transformed into JSON so it can be fed into a Hugo data template. I'll be writing more about how this works but in the meantime you can see the code for the whole site on GitHub.

Auto-generated latest newsletter page.

Blog theme and email templates

The default Ghost blog theme is nicely minimalist, but we wanted it to feel like our site. This involved customising the colours, paragraph elements and imagery. The first version of our custom Console theme is now live.

We have also started working with an illustrator who will be working with us to draw custom post graphics for each blog post. She has now gone through all our historic posts and replaced my Japan photos with these new illustrations.

Custom illustration for these "Status Update" posts.

We had been using a slightly modified default Mailchimp email template. This was doing a good job but as the email is a core part of our product we wanted something more custom.

We spent some time designing several different custom templates but weren't fully satisfied with the results. Further, Mailchimp's block editor works really well with our Google Sheets Apps Script setup for auto-generating the content blocks. We can just drop the HTML in once we've picked the content for the week. However, you lose that feature if you create a custom template. Annoying.

In the end we decided to make some adjustments to the default template to fit more in with our brand, but still keep it quite minimal. There is more work to be done though.

Customized email template.

Clubhouse

The new audio social network, Clubhouse, has suddenly exploded in the tech community. It's been around for almost a year but it appeared on my radar this year because of some heavy promotion from the VC firm a16z, and due to discussion on some podcasts I listen to, such as Dithering.

So far, I've yet to be able to attend a live session because all the ones I'm interested in are scheduled in the evening US West Coast time i.e. late / after midnight in the UK. I've been able to listen to a few of the a16z events, such as the Elon Musk discussion, but only after they were published as podcasts.

We decided to try running a scheduled event on 18 Feb and invited a few friends to come and help us kick off a discussion about dev tools. This was linked in the newsletter on the morning of the event and we also shared it on various social channels. It was scheduled for 5pm UK time so we could cover as many timezones as possible.

The result was unfortunately a bit disappointing. We had several people join but not many. The discussion was fun but it highlighted the problem of trying to bootstrap an event amidst quite a few constaints: Clubhouse is invite only, available only on iPhone, and we don't have many followers (because we're new to the platform). The current events running on Clubhouse seem to be mostly around startups, investing, tech, or growth hacking. The overlap with our developer audience may not be that large.

Regardless, it was good to experiment with a trendy new social network. We may run more events in the future to give it another go, but will probably wait until its more open and at least has an Android app.

First Q&A interviews

Over time our goal is to build a community where developers can find the best tools. Part of this includes creating interesting things for developers to read and helping make the connection between the people behind the tools we use every day.

This is starting with interviews, so we've published the first Q&As with developers behind three tools we've featured over the last few weeks:

We'll continue to build out this section with a library of interviews over the coming months.

Focus for March

Now that the website infrastructure is in place (static site framework and automatically generating the "latest newsletter" page), we need to build a confirmation reminder tool. We have noticed that around 10% of subscribers need reminding to confirm their email address, otherwise they don't complete the double-opt in and we can't email them.

Mailchimp doesn't support confirmation reminders so we're currently doing it manually. This needs automating. The plan is to build a simple tool that sends a reminder email after 24 hours. If they don't confirm within 7 days, we'll remove their details.

March will also involve a lot of refinements to the marketing campaigns as we figure out where the best place to spend our budget is.

Finally, we have several projects we're working on for launch in April, which will take up the rest of the time.

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