Posts

The Future of Startup Marketing

the growth hacking myth

When I decided to start freelancing for startups, people kept advising me to always ask for the client’s budget right at the very beginning.

So I asked.

“Hey man, oh yeah, thanks for asking. Well, as you know we are a startup and we don’t have a budget yet but we’ll give you a lot of exposure.”

A lot of exposure? What does that really mean?

While I was spending the early days of my freelancing journey sending out pissed-off emails to free riders, I noticed those free riders were at least being honest.

I’ve seen clients disappear without paying right after I sent them the final project files, while some others pretended to be upset so they could still disappear with the files.

According to some close friends, the reason I couldn’t make freelancing work was obvious:

“Stop wasting your time trying to target desperate entrepreneurs and startups. Go offer your marketing services to big companies with deep pockets instead. Entrepreneurs are broke and they don’t even know what they want. They are the worst clients ever.”

I never managed to find a corporate client “with deep pockets,” whatever that really meant. But I decided to start approaching startups that I knew had raised at least some funding, instead of targeting the so-called “broke entrepreneurs”.

I also figured the founders of these just-funded startups still had to build their in-house teams so they would be open to getting some freelancer help down the road.

But getting paid wasn’t the only trouble with serving startups. 

Every time I approached these clients telling them I could help with marketing or growth, I was treated as a magician who was expected to bring phenomenal growth overnight.

Some religiously believed their growth had to be similar to those hyper-growth startups like Slack and a few were sharing example stories such as how Airbnb achieved spectacular growth by growth hacking Craigslist.

slack-strong-growth

Having such sudden and crazy growth expectations wasn’t entirely the fault of those founders, though. It was the new trend in town:

Growth hacker in. Marketer out.

The first decade of the 2000s in tech were the days when being a marketer was still cool. There were no words like “hacker”, “startup”, or “growth” attached to it.

And when someone asked about what we did, our answer was pretty simple: marketing.

Then in 2010, Sean Ellis appeared on the tech scene and coined the term “growth hacker”.

sean ellis

His insanely popular “Find a Growth Hacker for Your Startup” essay had something bold to say about startup marketers:

“…Rather than hiring a VP Marketing … I recommend hiring or appointing a growth hacker. A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.”

Soon the term was everywhere and many influencers were helping it spread further. According to Neil Patel, growth was the sun that a growth hacker revolved around and the marketers didn’t revolve around that sun in the same way:

“Of course, traditional marketers care about growth too, but not to the same extent.”

While some people had difficulty understanding the hype around the “growth hacker”, the term was too cool to ignore.

I was one of those many marketers who were rushing to update their Twitter bios by changing their job titles from the boring “marketer” to the new, cool “growth hacker”.

It was also when the word “hustler” was just starting to become popular. So we were now both “growth hackers” and “hustlers”, and we were boosting our egos every time we told people how busy we were growing the hack out of startups.

growth-hacker-magician

While most of the growth-hacking advice contained invaluable lessons, we the marketers managed to ruin things yet again. With the excuse of hacking our way through, some of us started to employ heavily aggressive and spammy tactics.

Using tactics like Twitter follow-for-follows, spammy email pop-ups, black-hat SEO backlinks purchased for $5 on Fiverr, auto-favouriting tweets, or Instagram like-for-likes were enough to call ourselves growth hackers.

And the last few years have seen numerous examples of failed spammy tactics and sparked a huge discussion that questioned if growth hacking was bullshit or ethical, or whether throwing away your integrity was worth a few extra clicks.

While I understand the critics, I fully trust it wasn’t the intention of Sean Ellis or his followers, whose insights helped many startups grow. He probably had no idea to what extent the world would misinterpret his term and confuse it with employing nonsense hacks.

After all, it’s fair to say that many of those shortcut tactics actually worked.

The cycle is always pretty straightforward:

  • A tactic starts to work great.
  • Others (Hello, marketers. Oh wait, hello, growth hackers) notice it’s working great.
  • More people adopt the tactic.
  • The tactic soon becomes fatigued, typically by the time someone writes a blog post to brag about how they grew their startup by 345 percent without spending a single penny on marketing.

While we’re too busy milking each tactic for all it’s worth, the consumer isn’t a moron. Her BS-detectors are getting better and she’s becoming smarter than ever before at ignoring our old-school tricks.

“Hey, but I’m sure my audience pays me attention,” you try convincing yourself. But recent research suggests that the average human attention span of people is now shorter than that of a goldfish.

And the moment you hope to get some search traffic, you realise there are now businesses dedicated to ensuring your content never makes it to the front page of Google.

Come on. Let’s not even talk about the millions of blog posts published every day, the ever-rising shopping cart abandonment rates, or the percentage of people who never read your content to the end.

internet-live-stats

But enough with these depressing stats, because I’m not writing this essay to add yet another point to the growth-hacking debate or to talk about the first-world problems I had when freelancing for startups.

Instead I want to highlight a few points on what all the clutter and sad stats might actually mean for the future, especially for those of us who are spending their days and nights trying to grow a startup on a journey full of ups and downs.

The Future of Startup Marketing

    • Not only that, but giant gatekeepers such as social networks continue to declare one war after another against those shortcutters. Google is now moving more email campaigns to spam folders than ever before and they just announced they’ll be starting to punish sites with annoying pop-ups.

    • The slippery road of chasing such “get rich quick” hacks matter also for the type of audience you might want to build for your business. By engaging in those short-term tactics, we only attract customers who have short-term goals, and frustrate other people whose trust we lose.
    • Envisioning the future of startup marketing begins exactly at this moment, when you realise the cost of playing the long game is actually not any higher than following the shorter path which takes you only so far. In the most cluttered marketplace in history where ad blockers are now topping app stores and people are getting better at ignoring us than ever before, playing the long game thus requires reconsidering the way we ask for a sale:

    • To cut through the clutter of today, best-selling author Jay Baer suggests your marketing should be so good that people would gladly pay for it if they were asked. Marketing today is defined by how useful it is to your customers. And the bar for what’s useful has risen substantially, so substantially that it’s getting increasingly difficult to impress your audience. Take the marketing we do at Crew as an example. Despite having a blog with over a million annual readers, a series of popular podcasts, and tons of useful side projects that attract quite a few million monthly visitors, we’re still struggling to impress even our most loyal audience. We’re constantly reminded that if we quit creating extreme value, they might as well quit sticking with us as they’re surrounded with many other awesome options. Applying Jim Rohn’s advice, we realise the secret to growing a startup is to find a way to do more for your audience than any other startup is doing.
    • And when the bar to impress people is so high, instead of trying to create value on their own, a growing number of startups now form strategic alliances together, such as Product Hunt teaming up with Amazon or Crew with Designer News.
    • Of course, there are many other ways to deliver extreme value. When growing the top of your funnel is getting increasingly expensive, many startups are finally recognising the importance of retention over acquisition. They focus on word-of-mouth-driven growth strategies, mostly by delighting their existing users and setting Net Promoter Score – ‘the one number you need to grow’ as many refer to it – as a company-wide metric. Slack is probably the best-in-class example when it comes to relentlessly focusing on customer experience.

Growth doesn’t come from reading a bunch of growth-hacking articles or applying a set of universal tactics just because they worked for another random startup. And it isn’t necessarily a job reserved only for the growth hackers many love to call magicians.

Rather, growth starts with the very first line of your code and needs a great product that your full team works hard to improve, day by day, one baby step at a time. Growth is thus everyone’s job, not just marketing’s.

And growth often happens to those who are here to stay and start a business they hope will last forever; those who believe in the power of consistency while the majority find it boring and don’t have the patience or vision for it.

Growth doesn’t happen overnight.

Retention > Acquisition

3,520,934
That’s the number of blog posts written today.

5,740,000,000
That’s the number of Google searches per day.

782,651,327
That’s the number of tweets sent today.

investing in growth before having retentionThat’s the million-billion stats planet we live in.

And in that million-billion stats world, some strange things have been happening in the marketing arena.

An interesting piece of news came from an unexpected startup last month.

Buffer, a company considered one of the leaders in social media, announced that they had been failing on social media.

The introduction to their shocking announcement was brutally honest:

“We as a Buffer marketing team — working on a product that helps people succeed on social media — have yet to figure out how to get things working on Facebook (especially), Twitter, Pinterest, and more.”

Buffer has had the reputation of being completely transparent, from making their salaries public to showing consumers exactly where their money goes. Still, it was probably not an easy decision to share failure news in public.

Indeed, you could sense it in Kevan Lee’s hesitant words:

“… I’m a bit scared to publish: We’ve Been Failing on Social Media for the Past 2 Years,” he tweeted.

It didn’t take long before the article hit my newsfeed being shared by many marketing people I follow.

Was it time someone finally took the courage to say out loud the things we have been scared to confess?

So many people were joining the Buffer discussion.

While many were admitting their social traffic was also record low, some industry experts including Rand Fishkin were expressing opinions about why Buffer might have lost half of their social referral traffic.

Buffer wasn’t the first one to bring this up though. In parallel, some other influencers seemed to have been sharing similar thoughts over the last year.

Is this the social media fatigue everyone has been talking about?

Have we reached a moment where we can no longer stand the idea of ‘liking’ yet another marathon or baby picture of our friends?

Maybe we’ve developed a magical eye skill to scan tweets without engaging with them. The truth is:

Social reach is just one side of the story

We are starting to see content saturation in many forms. The concept of information overload isn’t new, it’s just getting intense. Steve Rubel called it “attention crash” eight years ago.

And in his popular “Content Shock” post last year, best-selling author Mark Schaefer told us content marketing might not be a sustainable strategy.

He suggested we were about to reach a point where content production would intersect our human capacity to consume it. And it would become uneconomical to produce content afterwards.

content-attention-shock

While some argued that there would be no content shock, a strong part of Schaefer’s thesis relied on the assumption that each human has a physiological, inviolable limit to the amount of content they can consume.

And that limit would create a ceiling beyond which our messages would receive little or no attention from the audience.

Indeed, a very recent study conducted by Moz and Buzzsumo analysed 1 million articles and found that the great majority of content got little material response: 50% of the content received 2 or fewer Facebook interactions (shares, likes, or comments) and 75% showed no external links.

Is this the beginning of a new era we might soon call “#ConsumerTakeOver”?

An era where consumers finally take control and react by ignoring our messages.

An era where they start muting the noise, blocking ads, and cleaning up their cluttered newsfeed by un-liking pages, ignoring tweets, or unsubscribing from newsletters.

blocking noise in attention war

The truth is most of us got it wrong. We religiously followed the advice of experts to publish content consistently and flooded the world with ‘me-too’ blog posts.

“The thing is, a lot of these experts cut their teeth in the early years of the Web, when 500-word blog posts could win you fame and fortune,” says MarketingProf’s Puranjay.

We scheduled 12 tweets per day just because they told us it was OK to tweet every two hours. We confused self-promotion with self-expression and found aggressive ways to increase the number of our followers and page views.

And along the way, we forgot about her, the consumer. We forgot she was the reason we started our businesses in the first place.

The Engagement Magic

And the trouble with focusing on growth before you have retention

David Ogilvy, the father of advertising as the world called him, warned us 52 years ago not to underestimate the power of consumers:

“The consumer isn’t a moron. She is your wife.”

In today’s modern world of gender equality, he would probably rephrase it to “he/she is your spouse.” But his inspiring words make it pretty clear that we shouldn’t take any consumer for granted or insult their intelligence.

The rules of the game in the online space are changing like never before.

In a world where consumers become increasingly selective over what they consume, retention is emerging as a key factor that differentiates the successful from those who fail.

renting users

Retention is the most important factor in traction and growth according to many, including Brian Balfour, VP Growth at Hubspot. Tarun Mitra highlights its importance by noting:

“If you invest in growth before you have retention, you’re renting users, not acquiring them.”

We might have thousands of users, followers, or customers. But how many of them are true fans?

How many of them read every single article we publish or click on every single tweet we send? How many of them actually pay attention to our company newsletters?

Instead of trying to attract more eyeballs in an unquenchable thirst for never-ending growth, we need to pause and learn to engage the audience we already have.

Tribe

COMMUNITY

True Fans

While most of us were busy flooding people’s newsfeeds with posts and tweets, few others got it right from the very beginning.

They were smart enough to realise that even just five engaged true fans were more valuable than five thousands followers.

I’m talking about those who knew that the secret to success was to find a way to do more for others than anyone else is doing. They are the ones who have been building a community of true fans by engaging them through extreme value creation.

true-fansKevin Kelly’s principle of 1,000 True Fans suggests that a creator (such as an artist, musician, photographer…) needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living. In his words, a true fan is:

“someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing… They have a Google Alert set for your name… They come to your openings… They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.”

But let’s make three things crystal clear about audience engagement:

1. Engaged ≠ True fan

Kelly’s true fans principle relies on the assumption that each true fan spends $100 per year to help the creator make a living. This economical contribution is what differentiates true fans from others.

This is also where we get confused the most. We think that if we keep giving and creating value for people, they will all give back and buy whatever we are selling when we ask them in the future.

true fan

Though businesses exist to make a profit, we need to understand the subtle difference between an engaged person and a true fan. Just because someone engaged with or showed interest in, say, your tweet, product, or newsletter doesn’t mean she or he will purchase anything you produce.

2. The power of an invisible audience

Your tweet or article didn’t get the attention you think it deserved? Not enough retweets or shares? Well, here is some good news. Your audience might be way bigger than you think.

A joint study by Stanford and Facebook found that your actual audience size is four times larger per post than you think. Your invisible audience, or the ‘quiet observers’, might also have some friends who might be your future fans.

Amanda Palmer highlights the fact that the relationship building between the creator and fan is not just in one direction, but in many. Mike Masnick calls it “the artist giving to fans, the fans giving to artists and, beyond that, the fans giving to other fans and artists giving to other artists.”

3. There is no right way to engage an audience

There is so much to learn from those who have built a community of true fans by engaging their audiences. Here are a few ways to do it:

  • Find a unique voice: Paul Jarvis calls his true fans his “rat people” and is famous for using a sharp sense of sarcasm to engage his tribe.
  • Take accessibility to the next level and be available: Justin Jackson, a guy crazy about making stuff, has built a community of makers on a Slack channel called “Product People Club.” While some influencers make themselves available even on a 1-on-1 Slack chat, others engage their tribes by being responsive on Twitter or offering AMAs, products, live chats, feedback sessions…
  • Make few people feel special: “Make your first 100 users feel like thought leaders,” recommends Erik Torenberg, explaining how they leveraged community to grow Product Hunt. Giving exclusive access to only a few people or sending gifts are some possible ways.
  • Help customers get better at what they do: According to Helpscout’s Gregory Ciotti, “Nobody wants to be a camera expert — they want to be a great photographer. Success means helping customers become better at what they do.” Startups like Helpscout or Buffer delight their audiences by publishing top-notch content that improves the businesses of their customers.
  • Identify a niche and build a community around it: Instead of employing traditional marketing tactics, Hubspot’s co-founder Dharmesh Shah coined a brand new term nine years ago: ‘inbound marketing’. This not only boosted the awareness of Hubspot but also gave birth to one of today’s most popular community websites inbound.org. The same happened when Sean Ellis built a community of people passionate about growth on growthhackers.com, after he coined ‘growth hacking’.
  • Use side project marketing to create extreme value: In a world where blogging takes ages and ads no longer work, I tried to explain in my latest post how side project marketing can be an alternative growth machine. levels.io is yet another serial maker who has built a community of digital nomads by launching tools, from Nomad List to Nomad Trips.

How many of your followers are your true fans? What are you doing to engage them?

It’s always nice to talk about fancy metrics or growth hacking terms like A/B tests and DAUs. But when it comes to growth, how many of us set a qualitative target such as “Delighting your tribe”?

Content shock may or may not arrive, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fix what we already know hasn’t been working.

Your customer isn’t a moron. She is your wife.

And it looks like it’s finally her turn to teach us how to do this engagement thing right.

Medium vs Self-Hosted Blog

“Look, I am not telling you not to write on Medium, OK? You can give it a try. I am just saying you’ll regret it big time for not having blogged on your website. Do you know why?”

Self-hosted blog vs Medium
Without waiting for my answer, he opened an article on his computer and started reading the following sections out loud:

“It’s called digital sharecropping, and it means you’re building your business on someone else’s land.”

“In this case, on Medium’s land,” he added, “Medium is your landlord and it’s the same as creating content on Facebook or Google!” He was getting louder again:

“Anyone can create content on sites like Facebook, but that content effectively belongs to Facebook. The more content we create for free, the more valuable Facebook becomes. We do the work, they reap the profit. The landlord has all the control. If he decides to get rid of you, you lose your livelihood.”

I had been trying to blog for months but every time I tried to blog, I ended up doing everything except blogging.

Indeed, my blogging journey started a few years ago after discovering all those famous blogs that help you to learn how to blog. I read thousands of articles from the likes of Quicksprout, Copyblogger, Hubspot, Moz, Michael Hyatt, Kissmetrics, Chris Brogan, Problogger, etc.

I set up my WordPress website and purchased shared hosting on Hostgator. And I spent days and nights customising my WordPress plugins.

I even went on to god knows how many blogs and left comments without even reading any of their articles. I made sure, however, to come back and check whether the moderator had approved my comment so that I would get the backlink.

I did everything…

…everything except blogging.

I didn’t do ‘the thing,’ but I did everything related to the thing in order to postpone doing the thing.

When I finally got frustrated and reached my limit, I started writing my first article and when it was time, I wrote my first headline:

“5 Ridiculously Easy Ways to Increase Twitter Followers by 278%”

With only 112 Twitter followers at the time, I was trying to give Twitter tips to my non-existent audience with a title idea I stole from one of those top blogs.

All those top blogs I used to read were teaching me how to be a great blogger and to find my unique voice. Instead, I was copying those blogs and selling other people all the tactics I’d learned from them.

I noticed I wasn’t alone, however. We were thousands of people trying to sell each other all the same things we learned from the same top blogs.

This was the thing Alberto insisted on not understanding.

We were doing everything except blogging.

Blogging Journey

On August 25, 2013, a few months before meeting Alberto in Rome on that warm spring day, I discovered Medium.

And three days later, I received the following email from the platform:

blogging on self-hosted websites

The last sentence of Medium’s email seemed to know what I was suffering the most from:

“There’s nothing to set up or customize.”

It was a call to stop wasting time customizing the look of my website, buying hosting or trying to optimize a blog that didn’t even have a single article on it.

On April 11, 2014, I typed my first story on Medium and finally hit the “publish” button.

Starting a Blog on Your Own Website vs Writing on Medium

I shared some of my learnings and my Medium stats in my last article, How I Got 6.2 Million Pageviews and 144,920 Followers. Since then, a lot of people have emailed to ask why I chose Medium, so I wanted to share more insights.

Here are few things you might have to give up if you choose Medium:

    • Medium branding dominates: Though the platform is beautiful, the Medium look and feel might overshadow the customized branding you could otherwise have on your own website. You will hear people saying, “Oh, I read that article but I didn’t know it was you. All Medium articles look the same to me.”
    • Not everybody understands how the site works and apparently, not everyone puts in the effort to. On a recent trip to Australia, I was asked by a designer from a leading creative agency, “OK, but how do you get read on Medium? Is it like Product Hunt, where people upvote you?”
    • However, your readership depends heavily on how much people understand the site. To get read by other people or to end up on ‘Top Stories,’ you need your readers to click on the ‘Recommend’ button. Even a great writer whose audience doesn’t understand the site could get no traction.
    • Content discovery is still not at its best.

  • Simplified stats: If your blog will rely on revenue streams like advertising, you will need to track detailed analytics and Medium’s stats page won’t give all you want.
  • SEO: Obviously, on a platform you don’t own, along with control you also lose some SEO benefits.

I drafted this article a few months ago and back then the above list of disadvantages of writing on Medium was much longer. However, I have to admit that Medium is listening and improving a lot.

Here are few reasons why I write on Medium instead of on my own website:

WHY MEDIUM?

1. We love to call ourselves…
…entrepreneurs, but when it comes to getting things done, we often confuse taking action with making too many plans and perfecting things. Before writing even a single article, we make plans for a blog that nobody may ever read. Medium is a great platform to quickly test your writing skills instead of wasting time perfecting the look of your website.

Medium is the MVP of your blog.

2. While people on Google are…
…in a search mood or on Facebook in a browsing mood, people on Medium are in a reading mood. Some people are so much in the reading mood that it shocks you to see them commenting on, highlighting, or recommending all of your articles in a row.

3. People look for ‘answers’…
…on Quora, ‘pictures’ on Instagram, ‘videos’ on YouTube, and ‘slides’ on Slideshare. With (mobile) centralization conquering the world, Medium is on its way to becoming the all-in-one equivalent for ‘articles’.

4. Medium is growing…
…and so is the traffic you get from the site. The percentage of referral traffic my Medium articles receive from Medium.com and the Medium app has gone up from 2.3 percent to 26.8 percent over the last year. I was already late to the Twitter train and now seems to be the best time to jump on the Medium one. (For instance, below are the top referrers of my last Medium article.)

medium stats

5. People here…
…have a great taste, and it puts a weird pressure on you to double-check your writings and make sure what you publish is your personal best. This helps you improve the quality of your articles. (Don’t worry, you will always think your articles suck.)

6. And when you write for…
…those people instead of machines, you end up dominating search engine results. Maybe the best SEO is when you don’t know it’s SEO. (P.S., apparently the http://medium.com domain is gaining authority in the eyes of Google. As a result, your articles obviously benefit from that juice. Also, with more reach comes more social shares.)

7. Then there are those other benefits:

  • Built-in audience: There are guys like me who spend hours on Medium and constantly look for stuff to read. I just finished reading three articles from three strangers: one was tagged with ‘entrepreneur’ (a tag I am following on Medium), the other was recommended by a friend, and the last one was published in a publication I follow.
  • Whatever you write looks beautiful. Medium’s distraction-free editor is ‘what you see is what you get’ (WYSIWYG) so you don’t have to click on the ‘Preview’ button to see how your article will look when you publish it.
  • Medium servers work for you for free and load even your image-heavy articles within a second. (Priceless when your article goes viral.)

Obviously, choosing whether to write on your own platform or to blog on Medium is not a zero-sum game. Both have their awesome and sucky sides.

You can always give Medium a try or you can also publish your essays first on your own website and cross-post them on Medium after few days.

No matter where you blog, just type. And Medium is a great place to test your writing skills on a built-in audience before making plans for a blog nobody may ever read.

After two years of blogging on Medium, I finally feel ready to experiment with growing my audience on my blog here.