Traction is everything for early-stage startups. It not only generates cash but it’s a key indicator that investors use to assess viability. Gabriel Weinberg put forward 18 channels in his seminal book on the topic, Traction. Peter Thiel went on to say of these channels that if you can get just one to work, you’ve got a viable business. As such, don’t fall into the trap of doing what most entrepreneurs do which is to focus on two or three channels and neglect the rest.
Explore then exploit! You want to apply a process of rapid experimentation to your traction channels to, as you do to finding product-market fit and testing your assumptions.
Viral Marketing consists of growing your user base by encouraging your users to refer or share your offering with their network. Companies like ThankYou Water, Twitter and Facebook have all grown virally through this channel. Such as...
Public Relations (PR) is essentially all about getting into traditional media outlets like radio, television, newspapers and magazines. While still effective for certain segments, this channel is losing steam as targeted and personalised online campaigns, usually more effective, cheaper and measurable, become more commonplace.
Search Engine Marketing or ‘SEM’ is marketer speak for what essentially amounts to Google Adwords. Expect to pay anywhere between 10 cents and $30 for a click, depending on the search terms (keywords) you target and how competitive they are.
ProTip: Don’t target general, expensive keywords. For example, at Collective Campus, we don’t target general (and expensive) keywords such as ‘business consultants’ because not only would it be prohibitive but it would put us in a general bucket of searches, most of which would not be relevant, and therefore we’d be paying top dollar for useless clicks. We prefer instead to rank for what those in the space call longtail keywords such as ‘corporate startup accelerator Australia’. Someone searching for such a keyword phrase is much more likely to be interested in our services and given the more specific nature of the keyword, it attracts less searches and also means we pay a pittance for each click (something like $1 instead of the $20+ you’d pay for ‘business consultant).
For example, for every 100 $20 ’business consultant’ keyword click we are likely to get maybe one genuine lead because of the generic nature of the search term. This means we’ve paid $2,000 for that lead (100 x $20) which is simply not sustainable for us, especially if only something like one out of every twenty-five leads converts. For every 100 $1 ‘corporate startup accelerator Australia’ keyword clicks we are likely to get 10 genuine leads so we’ve paid $10 per lead. That means our cost per lead has dropped by a whopping 99.5% which also means that we can generate 200 leads, market size permitting, for the $2,000 we would have spent for one solitary lead targeting a generic term.
Display Ads on popular sites like Reddit, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and hundreds of other niche sites can work, particularly if your offering is incredibly targeted. For example, a mortgage broker would find more joy running display ads on a residential real estate portal than on an auto trader site. You’d be very familiar with display ads; they’re the ads that follow you around the web and on Facebook based on websites you’ve visited recently, trying to get you to return to said website and complete your purchase of those headphones you were looking at or perhaps that marketing software you were investigating. The beauty of retargeting display ads is that they are effectively much cheaper because you’re working with a pool of people who’ve already visited your website. You can also target people who’ve never visited your website but they are much more expensive and less likely to convert than retargeting display ads.
Offline Ads include TV spots, radio commercials, billboards, infomercials, newspaper and magazine ads, as well as flyers and other local advertisements. Use these channels for demographics that are harder to target online. Think seniors, less tech-savvy consumers and commuters. Few startups use this channel so there’s less competition for many of these audiences. Having said that, these channels are usually expensive, hard to measure the effectiveness of and don’t provide for anywhere near the same degree of customer segmentation and targeting that you can achieve online. ProTip: Find out when the hard cut-off date for ad submissions is by calling media outlets or publications you’re interested in advertising in. Call media representatives a day before cut-off and suggest you’re interested in advertising in the very next issue. If they’ve not filled their allotment yet they will be hungry to sell and earn their commissions. Push for a discount. Publishers will sometimes offer distressed ad pricing which can sometimes be as little as 25% of the normal price. They won’t offer such pricing straight out of the blocks but if you suggest that a rival publication has offered you an ad for half of what the publisher you’re speaking to is offering then you can play them against each other and jostle. Tim Ferriss suggests playing the “let me check with my manager” card in response to a price point and come back with something along the lines of “I’m sorry, we’ve only got approval to spend $X and I have authority to spend that right now.” Urgency and scarcity goes a long long way in negotiations of all kind.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is all about getting your website to show up on page one of Google by optimising both your website on ‘off-page’ (that’s other websites) links to your website. Less than 10% of people proceed to page 2 of Google’s search results. SEO can take time, months or even over a year to get you ranking for the right keywords but it’s worth the investment in time. First though, you need to have a clear picture of what your value proposition is and who your customers are in order to best identify what you should be ranking for in the first place. Once you’ve got that sorted out you might want to use tools like Moz, SEMRush or WooRank to help you optimise your website. If considering hiring an SEO marketing agency, be careful, few do it well and you will need to work closely with them to better understand your value proposition and market.
Protip: Most SEO agencies suck. Most of them, like app development agencies, will ship work offshore to developing markets but charge you developed world prices for inferior work. To help offset the risk of engaging a lemon, ask SEO candidates (a) who they’ve worked for in the past, (b) what keywords they’ve gotten said companies to rank for; and (c) how profitable those keywords have been for those companies. Follow this up by speaking to a representative for those companies to see whether the reality is aligned with the story you’re told. I’ve seen prospective SEO managers of mine flaunt keyword rankings for words that either got few clicks or were the wrong keywords to go after for a particular company, rendering the rankings useless. Not sure how many clicks you should expect for a keyword? Check out Google’s free Keyword Planner tool.
Content Marketing involves creating content and then sharing it to educate and acquire potential customers and generate traffic. This includes blogs, books/ebooks, white-papers, infographics, videos, podcasts and more. I am a massive advocate of this channel, particularly if what you’re selling is knowledge and if you don’t have lots of cash to burn on advertising or PR. The book you hold in your hands would not have been possible if I had not used a podcast, two self-published books, several ebooks and hundreds of blog posts to build my personal brand and develop what book publishing houses call a platform, and you might better know as a following.
ProTip: Create some compelling content, make it downloadable, embed a pop-up on your website offering people the free download and capture their email. Ensure you’ve developed a drip feed so that they will automatically receive a series of emails designed to nurture them towards taking next steps. You can set up automated dripfeed campaigns with most modern email marketing platforms like Mailchimp, Campaign Monitor and MixMax.
Email marketing is one of the best ways to convert prospects while retaining and monetising existing ones. Despite the advent of social media and apps like WeChat and WhatsApp, email is still the number one go-to form of online communication and engagement. According to Optimonster, of 2.6 billion email users, 58% check it first thing in the morning and 91% check it daily which trumps any and every social media platform. Email addresses are golden.
We routinely develop and publish ebooks on topics such as ‘customer experience’ or industry-specific topics such as ‘innovation in insurance’ and distribute these first and foremost to our email list. Within hours hundreds of executives from large companies download our latest ebook which opens the door to conversations on the said topic. Content positions us as thought leaders, but effective email marketing helps us ensure that the content is delivered to relevant people.
Using ‘engineering as marketing’ to acquire customer- is an under-utilised way to get traction. For example, we’ve got a number of innovation tools on the Collective Campus website including free ‘innovation assessments’ and ‘company innovation benchmarking’ tools. We use these to not only acquire leads but get a better understanding of those leads and our market overall so that we can respond with tailored offers. Things you might’ve completed at one point or another like online personality quizzes and business health checks also fall under this bucket. Can you provide small amounts of value to help compel visitors to your website to leave their email address?
Targeting Blogs and Communities has worked for companies like Dropbox and Buffer. The former posted their ‘explainer video’ (a short smoke and mirrors video that demonstrated what Dropbox would do, but didn’t yet) on online community-driven platforms like Digg and Reddit, with a link back to their website to collect expressions of interest. Literally overnight, Dropbox secured 60,000 prospective customer emails. The key here was the relevance of the product to the community.
For example, when I released my second self-published book, The Innovation Manager’s Handbook volume 2, I leveraged an online Linked in community group called Innovation Management Group. I had previously hosted the group’s curator Paul Williams on my podcast which served to develop a relationship. I asked him whether he’d be so kind as to send a direct message to his groups 40,000+ members to advise that my book had been released and was currently available via an introductory special offer on Amazon and he made no bones about it and did so immediately. The next day over 1,000 copies of my book had been downloaded, a large number of which were members of Paul’s group. This is the power of targeting existing communities.
Sales is primarily focused on prospecting, setting up meetings, building relationships, learning what your prospect’s pain points and desires are and delivering solutions at a price they are willing to pay, at a margin that help you achieve your goals. Customer relationship management (CRM) tools like ProsperWorks can make your job easier, as are prospecting tools like one of my personal favourites, LinkedHelper.
ProTip: Use LinkedHelper to scrape user profiles from targeted Linkedin Groups and then send them personalised messages, For example, if I'm selling HR software, there are groups on Linkedin for HR executives that are tens of thousands strong. You can also filter your targeting by location.
Affiliate programs are the reason behind the growth of companies like GoDaddy. It simply means that you pay a commission, say 10%, to affiliates who refer prospects your way who convert and become paying customers. You are effectively extending your sales force but not paying a dime. Just make sure that your margins are larger than your affiliate fee!
Existing platforms include the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and the App Store. By leveraging these third-party platforms, you can get some of their hundreds of millions of users to use your product (note: easier said than done). This strategy has driven the growth of companies like Zynga, Evernote and Instagram. Oh, and Airbnb used Craigslist’s apartment lodging listings to drive traffic back to Airbnb back when they had little traffic of their own, in what to this day is considered one of the all-time greatest and most notorious growth hacks.
Trade shows are a chance for companies in specific industries to show off their latest products, meet potential customers, learn more about the respective industry and get feedback for your idea or product. Based on my experience, exhibiting at trade shows is a massive hit or miss proposition (much more miss than hit actually). Preparing for and successfully participating in a trade show requires days of effort and will probably set you back thousands of dollars, especially if there’s travel involved. Your expenses will include space rental, transport and accommodation, booth displays, marketing collateral, prizes, branded materials, Wi-Fi dongles and most costly of all, employee time before (planning), during (delivering) and after the event (following up). Long hours mannin a booth at a trade-show is hell on employees and can leave them burnt out, so much so that they might need a day or two to get back into the swing of things afterwards, costing you even more time.
More often than not, conferences are littered with employees of organisations who are merely looking to earn some CPE points (continuous professional education) so that they can tick that box as part of their next performance review and jostling for promotion. This is not to say that all conferences are a waste of time because they’re not but hocking your wares on a crowded convention centre floor amongst hundreds of other startups vying for attention is far from graceful, to say the least.
It’s also easy to confuse movement or being busy with effectiveness, often at the detriment of your goals. If you’re going to go down this route, you need to have a solid targeting, acquisition and conversion strategy. You need to ensure that decision makers of your target customer segment organisations will be in attendance. You should also explore the possibility of running dedicated workshops or give a keynote talk, which gives you an opportunity to put yourself forward as a thought leader and have customers come to you. And always...always have some kind of offer or lead magnet to help you collect emails, whether that be a worthwhile prize or a free trial of your product.
Protip: Next time you're deliberating over whether or not to invest the time and money into a conference, perhaps email the conference organiser and ask for a list of attendees. Have your virtual assistant put together a list with the Linkedin profile URL of each attendee then import these URLs into a tool called LinkedHelper which will send targeted, personalised message to all relevant attendees via Linkedin. This will save you countless time and money and help you better qualify prospects and pursue the ones more likely to convert. On conference days, get your VA to jump on Twitter and put a list together of who’s tweeting. Do they fit your target customer segment? If so, repeat the steps above. The subject line? “Sorry I missed you at Conference X.”
Sponsoring or running events can be an awesome way to get traction, because you’re putting yourself forward as an authority in the space. For example, education bootcamp General Assembly has scaled globally by partnering and sponsoring events hosted by local marketing agencies and the like on topics that align with GA’s courses and workshops. The agencies tend to bring hundreds of people to these events through the strength of their brand name and existing email databases, while General Assembly gains access to all of the event registrations (including those near priceless emails) and can therefore begin to nurture these leads through their very deliberate marketing and sales funnel.
We adopted a similar tactic early in the life of Collective Campus when we offered to run a satellite event as part of the Australian Federal Government’s Innovation Month. The session, dubbed Disrupt the Public Sector, was a relatively simple one-day event hosted at our office with a number of keynotes and panel discussions taking place throughout the day. The Government promoted the event through their Innovation Month portal and the event sold out, with over 200 public servants RSVPing to attend. In order to RSVP they had to do so through our event page so we suddenly had 200 new emails to nurture. We’ve since run the event in a half-day format a further three times in 2016, 2017 and 2018 and have worked with a number of public sector organisations as a result, including the Australian Securities and Investment Commission.
Eric Ries used speaking engagements to hit the bestseller list within a week of The Lean Startup’s launch. I was fortunate enough to land a national speaking tour across Australia with the CPA Congress early into Collective Campus’ life which got me in front of almost 1,000 executives at large organisations in the space of four days. I scored the gig by writing a short 500-word article on ‘innovation metrics’ that I offered to CPA’s magazine, InThe Black, as it was targeted at financial executives. This developed the initial relationship and prompted CPA to ask me if I’d like to speak about the topic at their annual conference. The speaking tour opened the door to many subsequent conversations on how to better measure early-stage innovation, outside of the innovation-killing ‘projected net present value’.
Build a community like Reddit and many an online influencer have done (think Gary Vaynerchuk) can be a great way to grow your company’s brand and prominence and create enduring relationships with both fans, advocates and customers.