What follows is the story of how Chris and Greg, a couple of bootstrapping serial entrepreneurs with many years experience living in Tokyo on a budget, decided to launch an online magazine to show the world that visiting and living in Tokyo doesn’t always need to cost a lot of money.
Tokyo Cheapo, the blog they created which is now the base they are using to expand into other cities, generates an impressive 1 million+ page views per month on a consistent basis.
It’s a great story we can all learn from, so I was happy to (virtually) sit down with co-founder Chris Kirkland to discuss how they got started, what marketing strategies they recommend using and tips you can use to grow a large readership and fanbase yourself.
Chris, can we start by explaining how Tokyo Cheapo came to be and what the current reach/metrics look like?
There were plenty of websites talking about travel in Tokyo, but most of them focused on how you could run through and spend large amounts of cash, while I have experienced many years of living in Tokyo on a pittance.
Moreover, contrasted with my experience of living in London, Berlin – and even Southeast Asia – I can say that Tokyo is a value-for-money city.
So we both agreed to come up with a quick WordPress theme and started brainstorming some of our ideas into blog posts to see what would happen.
Our hunch proved to be right. Now – almost five years later – we’ve crossed a million page views per month and we’re still growing.
What do you attribute to the fast growth?
I would attribute it to three things: Writing the right thing at the right time, writing very well and not dropping the ball on SEO and content marketing.
To elaborate, we noticed that there was a lack of information on cheaper and better value experiences in Tokyo, even though there’s been massive growth in tourism in Japan in the last few years.
Also – while there is a significant number of other people creating websites about Tokyo in Japan – many of them are not very good and a large amount are dreadful.
For example, many of them are not even written by native English speakers. Thus, we were doing the right thing at the right time.
Can you share what the process looks like with managing content and writers?
The ideas come from both our contributors and also our editors/management. The editorial team has regular meetings to discuss ideas and priorities.
We put our ideas into a board on Trello and attach notes, images, discussions and more. Once an idea is approved, it’s assigned to a writer and we continue to manage the creation and publication on Trello.
Here’s an example of an editorial workflow on Trello, which is quite similar to our setup.
We also use Slack as a team communication tool. Writers are able to input their posts directly into WordPress and our editor can edit it directly from there.
Publishing great content is one thing, but getting the content in front of the right audience another. How have you approached building an audience for Tokyo Cheapo?
Over the years we’ve tried many varied approaches. I will sum up what I think has worked best:
We’ve always focused on high-quality content with detailed and practical advice – all under our specific editorial voice.
This seems to have automatically helped us with growth – people like the site and often become fans, therefore they are likely to become repeat readers, share our articles and recommend our content to others.
In terms of a content marketing checklist – apart from scheduling on our own social media feeds (using Buffer) – there’s not a great deal more that we do.
We have a monthly newsletter in which we include recent and timely articles, but other than that we’re not trying too hard on the content marketing.
Another process worth mentioning is that for each article we create, we take great care in choosing a good title and keyword terms to match how people will be searching.
For example, we’ll correct British English to American English, given than ~80% of our native English readers are American English readers.
We’ve experimented with posting on Reddit, trying to get our content shared by specific influencer accounts and even hiring a social media and community manager. However, we’ve not seen any significant return for these efforts and it doesn’t seem like there’s any clever content marketing tricks or hacks that move the needle for us.
It seems that, regardless of any specific content marketing effort, our content is being organically shared and ranks well on Google. I think this is a natural side effect of writing well and writing the right thing at the right time.
What level of capital did you start out with?
Initially, we started with nothing by using a free WordPress Theme and hosting the site on our own servers. I also designed the logo myself in about 20 minutes.
As time has gone on, we’ve probably invested about $10,000 in helping the business grow, mainly with hiring people, setting up better hosting, incorporation and general business setup costs.
Can I ask how much revenue and profit Tokyo Cheapo is making, and how you are monetizing it?
Tokyo Cheapo and Japan Cheapo generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in purchases and bookings every month. Our profits come from ad campaigns or CPA partnerships.
Occasionally we do sponsored content, though we’re quite particular as to who we work with on this basis.
We also monetize the site with sales of our ebook.
What social media platforms are the most effective when it comes to engagement with your audience, and what tools/apps do you rely on to manage your social media marketing?
Facebook has the greatest degree of engagement so far, but by ratio of fans and followers, Twitter may be slightly higher.
I find Twitter allows us to be more conversational with our followers – it’s a platform that better facilitates ongoing conversation (rather than just comments on a post like FB and Youtube).
We have a business buffer account for our Twitter scheduling, this works fairly well as we can schedule content a long way in advance then sit back and let it do the work.
Otherwise we just post directly using Facebook’s scheduling tool, as Buffer doesn’t seem to work well with Facebook.
As an aside, it seems like Facebook deliberately prioritizes posts published via the Facebook page over third party apps.
Can you share some of the some of the biggest challenges you have faced, and outline any mistakes you’ve made that others can learn from?
We started out as a fun side project, so as we had nothing to lose.
We went all in on having fun with our branding (photoshopping massive dogs and kittens into the images, comedy laser cat intro in our videos etc).
It turns out this was a very good move. Today people enjoy our humour, find us down to earth and so there’s a lot of brand trust and goodwill.
This is a great segway into my next question!
You’ve been really creative and unique with using cats and lasers into your content. What was the reason behind starting this, and how much do you attribute this to Tokyo Cheapo’s success?
The laser cats (and occasional dog), are an extremely powerful and dangerous weapon. In fact, personally, I attribute 100% of our access down to having them on our side. You can read more about their creation in a Japanese military laboratory.
(Actually, I just started photoshopping animals into the less interesting photos on the site because it amused me, before long I started adding lasers and the theme stuck.)
You’ve recently started to expand into other cities. What tactics and processes are you applying to the new properties you’re launching?
We like to live our brand, so obviously, our expansion is on the cheap!
But in all seriousness, rather than spread ourselves out too thin (or raise money), we’re starting small with a few carefully chosen cities.
In terms of content, each city is going to be quite different, for example, London is already an English speaking city, but otherwise, we’ll likely use a similar approach overall.
It’s still early days, but the main (and obvious) lessons learned with London is that English-speaking cities have no shortage of English writers and there is a gigantic amount of content written about it already.
Out of the 4 you have in the works right now (Tokyo, Japan, London and Berlin), which one presented the most obstacles and what do you attribute that to?
Each property has had different obstacles, London possibly seems like the most challenging, but it’s very early days so it’s hard to tell.
For Tokyo Cheapo, the challenge is dealing with the difficult business culture in Japan, for Japan Cheapo it’s covering content for such a large geographical area and for London it’s because there is already a huge wealth of English language content about the city meaning it’s very competitive.
Will we eventually see a Cheapo guide on every continent?
I would like to see that 🙂
Certainly in the world’s top cities at least.
Thanks to Chris for his time sharing how they launched and run TokyoCheapo. Be sure to subscribe for more interviews we’ll be publishing here soon.