It might seem obvious, but a good product is not enough to sell. Most foreign startups coming to the U.S. already have a viable product with several customers in Europe. Even if you were to have U.S. based customers, focusing on the product and the product only may satisfy your early adopters but it will not bring you the desired outcome which is significant growth.
During a Stanford conference Marc Andreessen (Founder of Netscape and the VC firm Andreessen-Horowitz) was asked, “why does AH pass on entrepreneurs?” He replied:
“The number one reason that we pass on entrepreneurs we’d otherwise like to back is focusing on product to the exclusion of everything else. We tend to cultivate and glorify this mentality in the Valley. We’re all enamored with lean startup mode. Engineering and product are key. There is a lot of genius to this, and it has helped create higher quality companies. But the dark side is that it seems to give entrepreneurs excuses to not handle the difficult facets of sales and marketing. Many entrepreneurs who build great products simply don’t have a good distribution strategy. Even worse is when they insist that they don’t need one, or call their lack of distribution strategy a “viral marketing strategy.”
Let’s put it this way: how can your potential customers buy your product if they don’t know about it? A good product is necessary but not enough.
It is important to build and improve your product while getting to know your market and testing its reaction to your solicitation. Those solicitations can happen within the 19 customers acquisition channels introduced by Gabriel Weinberg (a Marketing guru at Exceptional Cloud Services) and Justin Mares (CEO of DuckDuckGo). Those identified channels are the result of dozens of entrepreneurs’ experiences.
Where do we start? What channel should we focus on as a startup?
The key, according to Weinberg and Mars in their book titled Traction, is to equally split your time between product development and customer acquisition. The customer acquisition phase should focus on the most relevant and efficient channels. In order to identify those channels, knowing your market, customers and users is crucial. You can’t just pursue anything and everything, as a founder, you need to bring focus on the channels that bring revenue and growth to your business. The channels you should focus on are therefore the ones that bring in the most return for the smallest amount of money invested. To do so, it is important to have an efficient tracking and reporting system such as Google analytics, KISSmetric or Mixpanel.
The next step is to test each of the 19 channels below.
The 19 customer acquisition channels
1. Viral marketing
This is a process where your current customers bring you new ones without you spending additional money on advertising or marketing. It can happen in many ways:
- Word of mouth,
- Inherent virality (Facebook’s users need other users to join in),
- Collaboration (Trello),
- Incentives (Dropbox offering more storage space through referral)
- Embedding (Disqus, the comments system for websites)
If you are familiar with viral marketing, you probably heard of the Viral Loop. The VL is the cycle wherein a user sees content or uses a product and shares it with others, causing the cycle to repeat. The effectiveness of your Viral Loop is symbolized by the Viral Coefficient (signup conversion rate X referral rate).
2. Public Relations
Public relations is the practice of reaching out to magazines, newspapers, blog or other media outlets.
One strategy developed by marketer Ryan Holiday is referred as laddering up.
If you are on a niche market, you should pitch small related blogs. Once they write about your product, use various growth hacking strategies and post those stories to Reddit or the Hacker News. The easiest way is going through a PR agency.
3. Unconventional Public Relations
Unconventional PR means anything you could do that would result in a huge amount of publicity without you having to make an effort for it to spread, even if that publicity is negative. One good example is the youtube series “Will it blend?” by the manufacturer Blendtec: each video features an electronic device being destroyed in a Blendtec blender.
4. Search Engine Marketing
Google Adwords is the largest advertising network online. If you can afford it, try it.
5. Social and Display Ads
Even though Google adwords is the largest ads network online, a serious contender appeared the last few years… Facebook. Facebook ads allow you to target a more specific audience: demographics, interests, page likes and more.
6. Offline Adverstising
This one is harder to track and may need you to set up special URLs or coupon codes in order to measure its efficiency.
7. Search Engine Optimization
Good search engine optimization (SEO) means free traffic for your keywords, which in turn can translate into customer acquisition at zero cost or near zero. The more niche and noncompetitive your market is, the less effort you’ll have to put in. To execute this strategy, you need to know what type of things your ideal customers are searching for. Once you know the searched keywords, you should use them in several pages of your website, and most importantly, in the slug (the part after the .com/)
8. Content Marketing
This is the process of creating content that your customers and users are interested in:
- Blog posts
- Infography, ebooks, PDF,…
- Videos explaining concepts
The fastest way to grow in the beginning of content generation is to publish it on other websites with a link back to yours.
9. Email Marketing
Email is the most effective way to re-engage your existing customers.
When someone signs up for your newsletter or buys from you, their email address needs to be added to an email marketing software such as Mailchimp. It can then be used with a content marketing strategy: you can let them know about new articles or infographics and bring traffic back to your website.
It’s important to find the balance between useful information and calls to action.
10. Engineering as Marketing
Similar to content marketing, you can use engineering projects that provide value to your target market to draw new users or customers to your site. The idea is to offer your expertise to a potential customer while tying it to your product / customer success channel.
A good example would be Hubspot’s Marketing Grader which reviews any website and then suggests improvement by using their services.
11. Targeting Blogs
It looks like PR, but targeting blogs means building strong relationships with bloggers in your niche. The idea is to build long-term relationships which may lead to them sharing your content to their audience. Don’t forget this is a two way street, so return the favor.
12. Business Development
Building partnership and agreements with other companies or startups to promote each other’s products or services could be an efficient way to acquire new customers.
Partnership means combined sales, sharing ad space or even combining products.
If you have a high cost product, direct sales may be a strong channel for you.
The sales process should go through 3 steps: generating leads, qualifying them and closing them. If you are focused on that channel, always rethink your processes and identify parts of your funnel that are slowing down your sales operations. Always optimize.
14. Affiliate Programs
Affiliate programs are more appropriate for B2C companies. It’s a way to reward customers and evangelists for spreading the word about your product:
- With actual money,
- With credit for your product/service.
15. Existing Platforms
It can be assimilated to growth hacking. The idea here is to use existing platforms to promote your product. Apps on the iOS AppStore or Facebook games are good examples.
16. Trade Shows
This is a classic example of old-school ways to gain early customers, but it’s still viable, especially on niche markets. It’s also a way to reach out to media outlets.
17. Offline Events
An alternative to trade shows is hosting your own event. Bringing people together through “meetups” is the most popular way to do so.
It’s a good way to create a community of people who represent some of your target market and could be early test users or early customers.
Again, it’s important to find the balance between a useful event for everyone and a sales pitch for you.
18. Speaking Engagements
Between trade shows and offline events, there’s speaking engagements. If you are a recognized expert in your field, you may be invited to speak at a conference, or you can pitch yourself as an expert/speaker once you hear about an event being put together. If you don’t have a reputation just yet, you can start by volunteering to speak at small events and then put recordings online for everyone to see.
19. Community Buildings
Community building can happen offline (meetups), but online is another way to do it.
Now that you know the 19 traction channels, let’s identify the ones you should use.
For each channel, you should list:
- On a scale of 1-5, how much potential you think it represents?
- What would be the cost to acquire a new customer or user through this channel?
- How many customers could you reach?
- How long would it take you to run a cheap test on that channel?
Once you have that information, rank the channels by placing them in 3 groups:
- the long-shots
- the ones with potential
- the best options
It’s now time to prioritize. If you have more than 3 channels in your best options, put some of them on hold until later. Ideally, you want to pick the three that you think have the absolute best chances of generating growth.
Once you’ve picked your top 3, you can start running tests on those channels to see how effective they are. Those tests should be as cheap and as fast as possible.
They should seek to answer questions like:
- How much can you expect to spend on customers through this channel?
- How many customers do you think you could reach through this channel?
- Are the customers you’re getting through this channel the kind you want right now?
If none of them work, try again. But if one looks promising, it’s time to focus on this channel.