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I like reading case studies on Inbound.org and GrowthHackers.com as much as the next person, but here’s something no one will tell you:
What worked for them won’t work for you.
Why? Well, to get to where they are now, these big, successful companies tested dozens or even hundreds of ways to drive visitors, leads and customers.
I’m talking about companies like Hubspot, Zendesk, Zapier, Buffer, Slack and even one of my companies, BigCommerce. These are 9 and 10-figure companies that have been around for years. In most cases, 5–10 years (we started BigCommerce in 2009).
Plus, they have different resources to you (money + team + skills) and sell to customers who probably respond to different marketing channels and messages than yours might.
Also, the approaches that grew their company a few years ago (you know, when they were much, much smaller) might today be saturated or inefficient / no longer available.
How Airbnb spammed Craigslist is a great example.
What you see in these “growth hacking” posts is the end result of relentless testing and millions of dollars invested in failed marketing experiments.
They talk about the strategies, marketing channels and approaches that worked FOR THEM. What they rarely talk about are the years, bucket loads of money and patience it took to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last 15 years building 7 companies, it’s that what worked for one company probably (in the context of growth hacking) won’t work for another — even if you do the exact same things, at the same time, in the same way.
So what am I saying? Simple — there’s no silver bullet. Not even growth hacking. Don’t believe anyone who tells you there is. They are lying.
Growth is hard for every company. Even those that have raised millions of dollars. And even those large companies you admire struggle with KEEPING the customers and growth rate they got in the early days.
Think Uber (what a train wreck), Snapchat (hello Instagram stories!) and Slack (the law of large numbers catches up to everyone eventually).
The Right Approach
OK, so instead of just blindly implementing what you read in posts about growth hacking and getting to a bazillion customers, what should you do?
I always break growth down into organic, viral and paid.
Organic takes the longest but pays off the most over time because ranking at the top of Google for most keywords is defensible — assuming Google doesn’t massively change their algorithm and people’s search behavior doesn’t shift to Facebook.
Viral, when done correctly, can drive a huge amount of people to your site (or more specifically, your blog) which you can then leverage to build your email list (yes, email is still a thing).
Paid is Google Adwords, Facebook ads, etc. Paid can work well depending on your price point, your market and your lifetime value.
In general, I like to take a layered approach to growth when starting a new company (which I’ve been doing since November using this exact approach):
Phase 1 — Inbound Marketing
Get your inbound marketing machine going from day minus 365 AKA a year before you launch or as soon as is practically possible.
Start a blog, hire a writer (to create the content) and an SEO strategist (to figure out keywords, to build back links and to secure guest posts on other sites for your writer) and publish one EXCELLENT post per week. Brian Dean’s skyscraper technique is a good place to start.
If you can’t afford to pay people, either do it yourself or barter — they help you, you help them back.
The goal of your blog is NOT to sell. It’s to build an email list and an audience which you can collect feedback from and also help out with valuable content while your product is being built.
Phase 2 — Paid (Re-marketing)
IF you can afford it. Don’t advertise to cold traffic. Instead, remarket to blog visitors who didn’t join your email list. Advertise a guide, a video course or some other content asset that will genuinely help them.
Then use marketing automation to move your email list down your funnel.
This simply means you keep sending them useful content and every fourth email, ask for something. Gary Vaynerchuk’s jab, jab, jab, right hook applies here — give, give, give, ask.
You could ask for feedback. You could ask them to try your product. You can even ask them to become a customer or buy more from you.
With re-marketing via Facebook or Google’s display network, your cost per click will be $0.10 — $0.50 and your conversion rate (opting in to get your guide) should be high because they already know who you are and you’ve already helped them with your blog posts.
Phase 3 — Viral Posts & Tools
Once you start getting some organic traffic to your blog (a few thousand uniques per month — will take 4-6 months if starting from scratch), mix in 2 “viral” (I hate that term) posts on your blog every month.
These should be relevant to your market, but generally the “deep dive”, longer form type posts work well.
They work especially well if you discuss the influencers in your market and how they got a specific result that your audience wants (more money, faster growth, a better body, etc), because you can reach out and ask them to share the post once it’s live.
This strokes their ego and re-enforces their influencer status to their social media followers. A powerful psychological trigger that plays into your favor.
If you have the budget, “viral” can also mean providing free tools, free software, free browser and WordPress plugins, etc.
Tools that add value to your audience are, again, defensible (hard for your competitors to copy).
In this context, viral means creating something that has a higher-than-average chance of being shared amongst the audience you’re trying to attract.
The “simple” 3-part approach above will take you 1–3 months to spin up and another 3–6 months to optimize and start seeing early results from, assuming you have 1) the patience for SEO and 2) a budget.
Note: If you don’t have a budget, stack some cash by doing things that don’t scale first and then start your company. Here’s the step-by-step process to do it.
By now you have PREDICTABLE traffic coming to your blog. You’re helping your future customers with great content, you’ve built an important asset (your email list) to a few thousand people and now your product might be ready to launch.
Congratulations — you have what 99.99% of founders don’t: a tribe of people who will actually care when you launch your product. A lot of them will even sign up and pay you from day one.
Why? Because you’ve invested months helping them via content. They know, like and trust you and buying from you is now the next logical step. This is marketing 101 right?
But I bet you’re not doing it. And I bet I know why — it’s hard to stick to. It can get a bit boring. And you probably have a short attention span like me. And let’s be honest, growth hacking is F-U-N!
But man, this “boring” strategy works. Every damn time.
Once you’re 6–12 months into this strategy, it definitely makes sense to start growth hacking. You have an audience. You’re in the early stages of building a brand. And most importantly, you have a product people can buy.
But how do you approach growth hacking? Run lots of small tests and kill what doesn’t work — but only when you have statistically significant metrics (99% ideally, but 95% minimum).
Read all of the in-depth case studies on what your favorite companies are doing TODAY (not 2–5 years ago — very important point). Pick the tactics that you feel like and keep a list of them in Evernote.
A good rule of thumb if you’re just starting is to launch one new experiment with a small budget ($50) each week. That way, you can run 52 experiments in a year. Most will fail but you should find 2–5 that you can scale that become part of your regular marketing mix and drive customers affordably.
OK so to end this post, what are my favorite growth hacks right now? Good question. Here they are:
- Content upgrades in blog posts (easy — will double the number of people who join your email list at a minimum)
- Podcasts (start one or go on others and be interviewed)
- Interview experts on your blog (and asking them to share the post with their email list, social channels, etc — you get their audience for free)
- “Hijacking” traffic from your established competitors (bid on their company name on Adwords, rank for “[competitor] alternative” or “[competitor] competitor” in organic search, etc
- Building an audience around your PERSONAL brand instead of your business — that way you can launch multiple companies over the next decade to a built-in audience that already knows and trusts you (this is my preferred approach, which I’ve been using since 2003)
- Learning to be more and more patient every day, because building an important company takes 7–10 years as I’ve written about before
All of these growth hacks have been written about dozens of times on Inbound.org and GrowthHackers.com so I’m not going to go into detail about how to implement them — that’s honestly the easy bit.
The key thing right now is to NOT get excited by the list above. Don’t rush out and try to implement any of the growth hacks on my list. Not yet.
Putting tactics before strategy is what kills you.
The hard part for most founders is ignoring growth hacks early on and building a solid foundation on which to apply your growth hacks down the track — a solid inbound marketing strategy.
After all, it’s pointless to apply growth hacking strategies to your web site if you get 100 visitors a day. It won’t move the needle. Instead, implement the strategy I’ve outlined above to get 10,000+ uniques a month and THEN apply the growth hacks. That’s how you drive real impact on email subscribers, leads and customers.
Sure it’ll take 6–12 months to do, but unless you’re first to market, that will be a year well spent. Don’t buy into the idea that competitor X will come along and win the market in a year. That almost never happens. Winning a market (if you ever do) takes 5+ years.
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|About Mitchell Harper
Mitch is a 7x company founder, advisor and investor. He is best known as the co-founder of BigCommerce. His companies have generated over $200,000,000 in total revenue and he is currently building an online education company and a SaaS company.