How a Blog Became a Physical Store in Two Years

Tea leaves displayed on a white background.
Nat Elison decided to test out his content marketing skills from running his own marketing agency by launching his own blog.

As a longtime tea lover, Nat started Cup & Leaf to blog about all things tea. He publishes on a consistent schedule, reworks content to rank higher on search, and curates products for the online store.

Since the launch of Cup & Leaf in early 2018, the website now sees 250,000 monthly visitors and brings in $5000 in monthly revenue.

In this episode of Shopify Masters, you'll learn from Nat Elison on how he built a successful blog, grew organic traffic, and turning the Ecommerce business into a physical store. 

The best way to do this is actually to create a blog about an area that, one, you're already interested in, and two, where there's a clear way for you to turn the content into products.

Tune in to learn

  • When you should actually spend time on content marketing and SEO
  • The content plan they used to grow to 250,000 monthly visitors
  • How they drive sales from blog to physical store
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Show Notes


    Felix: Today, I'm joined by Nat Elison from Cup and Leaf and Growth Machine. Cup and Leaf sells prima tea for healthy life at the start of 2018 and based in Austin, Texas. Welcome Nat.

    Nat: I'm glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

    Felix: Yeah. The business did not start as a business, Cup and Leaf in this case, but it was actually a blog that just blew up. Tell us more about the blog. Tell us about where it all began.

    Nat: Yeah. I actually started the Cup and Leaf blog a little earlier in 2018, because I wanted to create a good case study for my SEO marketing agency. We were growing some of these other e-commerce stores, through content marketing and SEO, but we couldn't really talk about them because, obviously, you don't want the agency you're working with to go share all the details of how your company's growing. We needed a good case study we could talk about. So, we started the Cup and Leaf blog, just talking about tea really just so that we had something we could use as an example in talking to potential clients.

    Nat: I'd always really loved tea. It's always been an interest. I had joked about starting a tea company in multiple articles before, it was a good fit. We started that blog, and it started getting a little traffic and then more traffic, started taking over some of these bigger terms related to tea. Eventually we kind of said, "Well, hey, if we're getting all of this traffic, we may as well go ahead and plug a store into it so that people who are reading these articles can just buy tea from us instead of going to another site." Now a bit less than a year later, that's become a nice extra bit of side income for the agency. We're actually opening a physical location here in Austin, Texas in the next couple of months.

    Felix: You obviously had a lot of experience that you apply over at Growth Machine for the clients you're working with. You decided to start an e-com- actually, a blog at first to apply the skills and expertise that you had over there.

    Felix: Tell us about the pros. If someone out there is thinking about taking the same approach and maybe starting out with some kind of passion project, some kind of blog, help us lay the groundwork. Where should they begin?

    Nat: Yeah, I think the best way to do this is actually to create a blog about an area that, one, you're already interested in, and two, where there's a clear way for you to turn the content into products. For us, if we were talking about tea, obviously there was an easy way for us to take talking about tea and turn it into selling tea. What you can do as a bit of a bridge is create these articles, talking about whatever you want to talk about, and obviously, you need to optimize them for SEO and everything so that you can get them ranked if you want that to be your acquisition channel.

    Nat: To start off, you could just link out to other people's products using something like an Amazon affiliate program or another company's affiliate program. A lot of companies will pay 10, 20% for the traffic that you send them. You could start with that.

    Nat: Once your blog is getting enough traffic that it seems like it's actually generating a meaningful number of sales for other people's businesses, you could start swapping out your links to them with links to your own products. That's not exactly what we did, but it would be a way to hack it, a little bit, earlier on if you don't have the same resources to throw behind waiting for something to rank and to generate traffic before generating revenue from it.

    Felix: Got it. The content that you're creating, I'm assuming it was research backed and data backed on what you should be creating. Can you tell us about that?

    Felix: How does someone figure out what kind of content they should create, because this kind of stuff obviously takes a lot time, a lot of investment. How does someone that, especially if they're just starting out or they're working just by themselves as a solo founder, how do they make the best use of their time in terms of creating the right type of content?

    Nat: Yeah, and I actually gave away the whole... and this is a free ungated article, there's no email sign-up or anything. If you just search Cup and Leaf SEO case study or something, you can see exactly how we did it for this blog. 

    Nat: I would start with a tool like Ahrefs, or SEMrush, or you could use Google keyword planner, which is free but it doesn't give you as good of information. And just start plugging in terms related to the area of products that you're interested in and see what kind of search volume they're getting. So for us, that was topics like best green tea, healthiest tea, where to buy tea, best tea for weight loss, whatever. And then going through all those ideas that we could come up with and seeing how many people were looking for those each month, and how difficult it would be to rank on those. Depending on the tool you're using, it could make it really clear, the total search volume and the total keyword difficulty. Then we sort of scored all the keywords that were showing up in our searches, based on; how many people are looking for it, how difficult would it be to rank for it. The third really important thing is, is this a search that will actually lead to a purchase?

    Nat: Because in the beginning we were just going after raw traffic and I think that that resulted in us creating a lot of pages that did bring in a lot of traffic, but didn't actually lead to sales. As a really good example, I think we still have it, if you search Jasmine Tea Benefits, we got one of the top articles on Google for information on the benefits of jasmine tea. However, very few people actually buy jasmine tea from that article, they're sort of just generally interested in learning a bit about jasmine tea. It gets some cells but not as high as a conversion rate from its traffic, compared to an article like best Oolong to you.

    Nat: If you search best Oolong tea, I think we still come up in the top three or five on Google for that, a lot of the teas in the article are just our teas, and explanations of why they're really good. Then people go from there, to actually buying the tea from us. So the intent behind what somebody is searching to arrive at your article is really important if you want to use it as an acquisition strategy for Ecommerce.

    Felix: Are there certain words or phrases that are either added to the front or end of the keyword, that you typically pay attention to, if you want to focus on keywords that are more likely to lead to a purchase?

    Nat: Yeah definitely. "Best" is a really good one. People looking for the best X, are pretty serious about buying. "Where to buy" is obviously another super obvious one. "Comparisons" are really good too.

    Nat: There's a guy named Benji Hyam, from Growing Convert, he’s got an article on Pain Point SEO. He lists out, I think he's got five or six, kind of keyword modifiers that he has seen have much higher conversions to sales in articles. I've named a couple of them, but some of it too is just experimentation.

    Nat: For us, we realized that all of the best lists were converting much better than the benefits list. But that might be different for different industries. I know that in... what’s a good example here, maybe in the dog food industry. Some of the stuff around the benefits of the different ingredients or the risk of different ingredients is very influential on purchasing decisions. Because people who are looking up whether certain ingredients are good or bad for the dogs are, actually pretty much ready to buy a new kind of dog food, or they’re getting dog food for the first time for the puppy. So it might be relevant there to focus on benefits articles even if it’s less relevant in another field.

    Felix: Got it. [inaudible] You got a put yourself in the shoes of the person doing the search. Like what stage, in the purchase cycle or process, are they at when they are searching for this. Some of it sounds like it is kind of almost like qualitative, right. So, you mentioned that you first started off by getting in some raw traffic in at first. Not necessarily focusing on the buyers.

    Felix: Is that an approach that you recommend, what is the idea behind doing it that way?

    Nat: I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing it that way. Part of why we did it was we wanted to create a really good growth case study for how quickly we can grow a site to 200,000 organic visitors per month. It was really good for that, but if your focus is on getting sales, and this is what we do with most of our clients. We say, "look, we could go for a raw traffic play, but it’s not necessarily going to lead to the most sales. We should focus instead, on some of the longer tail, lower volume, but more likely to convert to actual customer terms that we can get you ranked for faster and that are actually going to drive more customers." That’s probably where I would focus.

    Nat: Don’t try and get ranked for, in this example green tea or the best green tea right off the bat. As a super simple example, you could start with like best sencha green tea, right. Best Matcha green tea powder, or best sparkling water in Texas, right. Start a little more narrow and then you can broaden out later. Because the more narrow the terms are going to be quicker to rank on and probably going to have higher purchase intent for it.

    Felix: Got it. So, when you were building this out how much content are we talking about that, you were producing. Was it just you, a team of people, how many people were working on building out the blog it first?

    Nat: Yeah, we did four articles a week, basically every week for a year. We’re still doing two or three articles per week now. It was all done by one amazing woman on our team, Erica, who runs the Cup and Leaf blog, and a few of our other projects.

    Nat: She actually started as a freelancer with us and then all of her writing work was so great on Cup and Leaf, and some other stuff that we said "hey, you want to join the team and run all this?" But I think that somebody doing it in their spare time could probably do two to three articles a week. Try to just get them done Monday, Wednesday, Friday or something before the craziness of the day sets in. Aim for like 1500-ish words. Try to go through some sort of training on writing for SEO if you haven't. Really the biggest ingredient is just waiting. Because it takes a long time for the stuff to start to rank, probably 4 to 6 months minimum so you have to have the patience to start bringing in traffic.

    Felix: Yeah, and because of that waiting period it does make it hard for people to course correct or recognize are they going down the right path or not. Are there kinds of earlier signs that can show you that your blog is not necessarily destined for success, but more likely to succeed.

    Nat: Yeah, there are three indicators that we tend to track. One you know you can start tracking this week, the next one will take maybe a couple of weeks to a month to start to be useful, and then the last might be four to six months. So, the first indicator is; are you actually publishing every week, because if you're not putting out two to three posts per week every week on a super consistent schedule it’s probably never going to work as a strategy for you. That’s the area that I see a lot of people struggle with the most, is actually publishing on a consistent schedule. Especially in the beginning when you’re not getting much of a dopamine hit or reward for doing it, because you might have to publish two to three articles a week, every week, for three or four months, before you see any traffic. That’s the number one indicator, is if you’re actually publishing.

    Nat: Second that is off first-page keyword rankings. You could use any tool for this like Ahrefs, or even Google Webmaster tools if you wanted to stay free. We use AccuRanker, but you can track how your articles are ranking, even when they’re down in position 60 or 100. So, they’re way down on the sixth or 10th page where nobody will click on them, but you can see if they’re starting to move up towards the first page. That’s a really good leading indicator that what you’re doing is working, you’re just not seeing the results from it yet. Then once they do start to tip over onto the first page and the top five top, three rankings, then you can start looking at traffic and saying "Okay, traffic is going up for these, it’s not going up for these, what’s the difference between them."

    Felix: Okay, so when you’re talking about improving content what’s more important, is it to push content that’s already working to make it better, or do you focus on looking for the content that’s just mediocre or not working that well and trying to improve those? Which one is more important to you?

    Nat: I say it depends on where you are in working with the list of keywords you can go after. So, for us, we’ve got 200 some articles on the Cup and Leaf blog and we’re actually running out of tea related keywords. So, now it makes more sense for us to spend more and more of our time on trying to get ranked higher, for the really high valuable topics. Because even going from position three to position two for a super high valuable topic like best oolong tea is going to result in a lot more traffic and a lot more sales for us. That stuff is really worth focusing on.

    Nat: But some of the other keywords that maybe don’t convert to sales as well, like benefits of chamomile tea, it converts some but not as much. If we’re already at position two or three, four, we might not take the time to try to get it to number one. We might try to get go after other topics instead. It becomes more of a judgment call over time as you start to exhaust the list of good topics to write about, then you start putting more and more of that energy towards getting the high valued topics ranked higher and higher.

    Felix: Got it. What are some factors that you look for when you are returning back to an article or a piece of content to improve it?

    Nat: A few things, time on page and bounce rate are usually good things to look at. So, if people on average are only spending 20, 30 seconds on the page and bouncing, then you might not be hooking them very well in the intros. That can be a sign that you need to go through and try to make the article more interesting from the start, or it could be a sign that it’s targeting on the wrong keyword. That people are showing up for one topic and your article is ranking for that topic, but your article is actually about another topic. In which case it might make sense to break it out into two articles. One more focused on the keyword people are arriving for an answer to, and another based on whatever other topics the article was originally about.

    Nat: Then there’s the more qualitative stuff. Go look at what’s currently in the top three spots, top five spots on Google and say "what’s better about these articles than mine. Are they more detailed, do they give more visuals, do they have a video or some cool graphics included?" Try to figure out why it is that they are winning and you’re not, and then decide how you can improve your article to make it more in line with the expectation set by those pieces of content. That’s usually the process we'll go through and that’ll give us a pretty good idea of what we might need to do to make our stuff more competitive.

    Felix: When you look at a store, or store approaches you and they already have some kind of content marketing or they already have a blog up, what would you say is the most common mistake that you see stores making that already do you have a blog, already do you have contact? What is the common mistake that you see?

    Nat: Just that it’s not very good. In most cases they either had their head of marketing write all the articles and they’re probably not really a writer. They’re probably a marketer who does some writing, but you really want a writer who does some marketing. We’ll see a lot of sites come to us and the ranking for a few things and they’ve got all of these 500, 800-word articles that are not very depth, they aren’t better than what’s in the top spots right now. Obviously, they’re not gonna rank for anything.

    Nat: What we'll actually do with those sites is will start by going through and re-writing everything on their blog, that has some potential to rank for a good keyword. The reason we do that is that those rewrites can actually rank much faster than creating new content from scratch. If we got approached by a blog that already had an article on benefits of green tea and we rewrote it to make it way better and way more competitive for that term we might see results in two to three months. Whereas if we wrote a new article on the benefits of green tea from scratch it might be more like four to six months depending on the authority of the site. It’s a really great way for us to get quick wins for the sites that are coming to us, that are high already have some content on their site.

    Felix: Got it. So, can you share some numbers with us? I think the last update you gave me was 150,000 monthly visitors and growing, and then also you shared those over $3,000 per month in revenue and growing. Is that still in the same ballpark?

    Nat: It’s more. More like $5,000 in revenue and then the blog is like 250,000 visitors a month.

    Felix: Amazing. Based on what you’ve seen, is that in the ballpark of what you typically see? 250,000 monthly visitors and $5,000 range in revenue?

    Nat: No, that’s actually the lowest of any site that we work with, which is a little embarrassing for us. I think it’s because we're coming from being like content marketing as SEO people and not a product or e-commerce people. So, it’s been a cool learning experience for me to try to learn more about conversion rate optimization and store design and product selection and things like that, that you know in the past our clients have all handled. They’ve done a really good job at optimizing their site views and traffic and we haven’t had as much of a hand at that. Now we're having to learn how to do it ourselves, so that’s kinda like a cool learning experience.

    Nat: Based on what we see with other sites it should be more like anywhere from $10-$20,000 a month or more for that blog specific organic traffic, but it’s not, so we got work to do. But it’s fun work

    Felix: It’s definitely a lot more promising than, 250,000 monthly visitors and $5,000 in revenue. You definitely can’t expect a lot more than that. I think that’s definitely inspiring for a lot of people.

    Felix: When you did go down this route of turning this into an e-commerce store, talk to us about how you built out the product catalog, how large is it today? How many different products are you selling?

    Nat: Yeah, we got about 45 different teas with another, I think it's like 48 teas and then maybe seven or eight pieces of hardware to go with them. Most of the tea selection is based on what we like and what we want to add to the store, plus what is ranking, and what other people want. All the initial selection was with me and my co-founder, Cosette, just really liked in terms of tea and wanted to include in the store. Over time we've expanded the selection based on what else we want to add, what else we're able to find suppliers for. Some teas are harder to find than others. And obviously what people are searching for. It’s a good mix of I think data driven and passion driven.

    Nat: Now we’ve got the process down pretty well, with our warehouse and our suppliers and with our packaging and fulfillment and set up, where we can add new teas pretty easily based, on seeing new opportunities pop up from the content.

    Felix: Got it. So, you mentioned as well earlier on that you guys are on the path towards opening a physical store for this. Tell us more about that.

    Nat: Yeah, I moved to Austin last September and then I just sort of possibly started watching the commercial real estate listings. I thought well maybe it’ll be fun to have a café at some point and didn’t think it would actually come to anything in the near term. then this spot popped up in East Austin that was a really good size, in a great location, had tons of outdoor seating. So Cosette and I checked it out and we love it.

    Nat: It required very little rehabbing. We just had to build out the interior and we already had all of our designs figured out, all of our sourcing figured out, all of our products figured out. We had a lot of that stuff done we just needed to do to do plumbing, and electrical, and carpentry work and then get everything permitted. So, we signed that lease on February 15 and we’re hoping to open in the next month, month and a half.

    Nat: We’re getting pretty close. We’re getting the very last permits done, most of our carpentry work is getting done off-site, so they can just come in with it as soon as the permits are approved and then will just have to do the plumbing and electrical and be good to go.

    Felix: That’s amazing. From a blog to a physical store in less than two years, definitely very inspiring. is a store, is the agency that you run. Thanks so much for your time Nat. So, the last question I ask you is, what would you say needs to happen this year for you to consider a success for Cup and Leaf?

    Nat: I’d love to get the monthly revenue over $10,000 and I’d love to get the physical location, at least break even, if not profitable. Those are the two big goals for Cup and Leaf this year.

    Felix: Awesome. I think that breakdown that you mentioned the case for Cup and Leaf, we'll link to that in the show notes to make sure if anyone wants to check out in more detail step-by-step, how it was all done. Again, thank you again so much for your time Nat.

    Nat: Thanks Felix, this was fun.