What does rocketship growth look and feel like – and can you fabricate it through quick wins and hacks? Answer: yes and no.
One thing is for sure: hit best-in-class growth rates and you’ll attract more customers and talented employees, punch above your weight with partners, win press and influencer interest, and importantly, get inbound investor interest and pre-emptive fundraising opportunities. Here I’ll share Autopilot’s story so far and some of the growth secrets that have worked for us.
For context, over the past 24 months, Autopilot—the visual software for customer journey automation—has gone from 0 to 2,500 customers, signed up 24,500+ free trialists, and experienced 21% month-over-month revenue growth.
In this post, I’m going to share how we did it. I’ll cover the foundational choices and growth strategies we used that you can adapt to your own company.
Let’s get cracking.
Avoid the SaaS graveyard
Before pushing the growth tactics gas pedal, you need to define the go-to-market strategy that is best suited to your SaaS product and founding DNA. This’ll give you an edge over the competition.
Are you focused on a deep enterprise need and have a strong view of how you will sell and onboard customers? Or will you take a self-service approach to serve a broad horizontal market, relying on an online e-commerce experience to acquire customers? Start by deciding where you intend to live on the price and complexity spectrum:
The Y axis, SaaS pricing, ranges from a few dollars a month (low) to millions of dollars a year (high), while the X axis, product/service complexity, ranges from simple to try, install, and buy (i.e. Dropbox, Google), to complex solutions with multi-month implementation cycles and long-term contracts.
Almost every SaaS company fits into one of the four quadrants:
- Self-service companies have low complexity with a low price point
- Hybrid companies have low complexity with a high price point
- Enterprise companies have high complexity with a high price point
- SaaS graveyard companies have high complexity with a low price point
Whatever you do, avoid the SaaS graveyard. You’ll be on the fast track to nowhere if you throw growth tactics on top of a hard-to-use product that is priced too low to allow you to hire the customer success, sales, or support teams needed to onboard customers.
We launched Autopilot as a self-service company, and focused initially on these core metrics:
- Monthly free trial signups
- Activation rate (% that achieved key in-product milestones)
- Conversion rate (% of trialists who buy)
- Average sales price (MRR/customer)
- Monthly recurring revenue (duh)
- Gross churn MRR
- Net Promoter Score (measure of customers’ success and willingness to refer)
Basically, we put all our chips into building an intuitive product that was easy to try, buy, and use without ever needing to talk to a sales person. We depended on customers being able to self-educate themselves on the basics and make their own purchasing decision online.
The takeaway? Choose whether you’re going to build a self-service, enterprise, or hybrid company to set the right product vision and marketing direction.
Develop your target personas
Know who you’re selling to and building for.
As precisely as you can. This is the first step to shaping your value proposition, developing a tone of voice (are you Enterprise dependable? Trusted advisors? Outlaws in the space?), and adding value at every step of the customer journey.
If you haven’t yet, take the time to develop your target personas. You want to come up with clear answers to these questions:
- Who are these people—roles, titles, age, interests?
- What are their key needs and priorities?
- What are their biggest challenges and blockers?
- What is their technology environment, and what is their ideal situation?
- Why would they buy your product over your competition?
Pay attention to the different key segments that pop up within your pool of potential customers, and start thinking about how you can tailor your messaging accordingly.
At Autopilot, we focused on three target personas: Growth Gary, Email Emily, and Executive Ellie.
When we write content, launch demand gen efforts, and kickoff new automation journeys, we have Gary, Emily, and Ellie in the back of our minds.
Creating target personas is an essential company-building exercise that will get your whole team on the same page. So get your key stakeholders in a room and hash out who you’re selling to.
Have you heard of Dave McClure’s pirate metrics? It’s a popular framework used by growth marketers to expand their thinking from just getting leads to focusing on the full customer lifecycle.
Similar to pirate metrics, our team developed a full customer lifecycle approach. We call it the “Acquire, Nurture, Grow” framework.
The framework spans the whole customer journey from awareness to lead capture, through the nurturing, onboarding, and retention paths that lead to a higher customer lifetime value. Every growth strategy I’m about to cover is built on the “Acquire, Nurture, Grow” framework, so keep it in mind as we move forward.
Here are the nine growth strategies we invested in:
- Generating pre-launch buzz to attract early adopters
- Attracting industry attention with a controversial research report
- Building domain authority through a content-driven SEO strategy
- Growing and nurturing our lead database
- Activating trialists based on usage
- Pricing for land & expand
- Integrating deeply with key solutions
- Optimizing the customer journey using the right tools
- Testing (always)
1. Generate pre-launch buzz to attract early adopters
Launches are better when you have people already clamoring for it. As your team is putting the finishing touches on your product, start hosting interactive product Q&A’s to attract early adopters and releasing content that’ll draw in potential users.
Our most successful articles before launch included Increasing Conversion Rates with Email Personalization and 10 Attention-Grabbing Lead Nurturing Strategies and their KPIs. Both covered topics that could easily be executed in the product.
Shortly after launch, shoot to host a partner webinar with a complementary company to get a quick injection of new users. That’ll extend the life of your initial buzz.
2. Attract industry attention with a controversial research report
Investing in original research is great way to make a splash, since it’ll add credibility to your company from the get-go. Position yourself within an established category (creating a new one is tough, although gutsy marketers might), and later on aim to transition your category and domain authority to a sub-segment you can own.
In our case, the first major content piece we created was the 2015 Marketing Automation Performance Report.
We surveyed 505 companies across the United States to figure out why, at the time, only 4% of companies had adopted marketing automation. The effort confirmed our hunch that cost and complexity are a barrier, while generating brand awareness through the downloadable report, an infographic, and social media campaign.
3. Content and SEO throughout the lifecycle
Content marketing is about educating customers and getting found online.
The most effective strategies map content to the top, middle, and bottom stages of the funnel. This helps you share the right information as a person moves along the buyer’s journey.
At the top of the funnel, speak to your audience’s needs and interests with helpful thought leadership content, trends pieces, and tips from your treasure chest of experience. Examples of our top performing blog content:
- 7 Lead Nurturing Secrets to Turn Strangers Into Customers
- Demand Generation Strategies: 10 Ways to Make People Need Your Product
- 10 Takeaways From Growth Marketing Conference 2016 🙂
Our academy, Flight School, has also added hundreds of customer journey marketers into the fold.
At the mid-funnel stage, there is a higher probability leads are imagining themselves as a customer or, at the very least, are open to the idea. At this stage, you want to create customer stories and longer-form content like webinars, and link to review sites.
For example, webinar attendees took a ride inside Lyft’s customer journey to learn how the company automates marketing for its business travel program. This webinar alone brought in over 600 registrants.
At the late stage of the funnel, call-to-action content like invites to sales calls and group demos or signing up for a trial work best. You’ve essentially made deposits into a lead’s trust bank, and there’s enough saved up to make a withdrawal. Try using an on-website message to engage contacts in a way they may not expect, but that speaks to them at their stage of the funnel.
By mapping your content to the full customer lifecycle, your communications will feel like a natural conversation instead of coming off as a pushy sales tactic.
4. Grow and nurture your database
How does all of the content you mapped to the funnel get distributed? Automated lead nurturing.
It’s easy to set up. You take the content you’ve developed for the top, middle, and bottom of the funnel, repurpose as emails (or summaries), and start sending using your marketing automation system.
In terms of structure, you can start with a basic four-email drip nurture of helpful content that ends with a sales-focused call to action.
If you want to take things to the next level quickly, try this three-tier nurture approach (the journey is from Autopilot):
A top-of-funnel awareness email sends every ten days. If a lead does not click through, another email is sent ten days later. If a lead does click through, a middle-of-the-funnel email with a customer story or webinar invitation is sent next.
Finally, leads who click through mid-stage content are then sent a call to action to sign up for a free trial, join a group demo, or set up a call with sales.
With this approach, leads only receive sales-focused invitations after engaging with your content. Those who don’t simply keep receiving the helpful top- and middle-of-funnel content you’ve created to educate the market.
Once your nurture track is set up, you can do cool things like data enrichment emails that help you continue gathering information about your customers. Here’s an example from our email vault at Autopilot:
Lead nurturing programs bring in results. About 2% of our email database is re-activated every year through our nurture efforts, and we recently found that these conversions have contributed $70,000 in annual recurring revenue to our bottom line.
5. Activate trialists based on usage
Guiding trialists toward key activation events is a big part of nailing your SaaS trial. I saw this at my first company, during my time at Zendesk, and now at Autopilot.
Start with nailing down the key “aha” moments that have a significant impact on your conversions from free trialist to paying customer. Here are a few common ones:
- Completing one or more actions: Sharing a file, inviting another user, or adding a pixel, for example.
- Crossing usage thresholds: Number of projects created, photos uploaded, or code committed. This will vary depending on what your product does.
- Login frequency or duration: User has logged in more than 15 times or been in-session for more than 5 minutes in the last 7 days.
- Outside-of-product events: Account configuration with a tech specialist, quick start call with an account manager, user training with your customer success manager, etc.
For our product, the key events that drastically drove up activation rates were publishing a journey and adding our tracking code. 9% of our raw trial signups convert to paid customers, 21% convert after publishing a journey, and 35% convert who publish a journey and add the tracking code. That’s a 4x increase after completing two events.
Here’s the in-app message we send on day two of our free trial to nudge users toward adding the tracking code:
Once you know what drives up your activation rate and subsequent conversions, then align your product experience, marketing automation, and sales and success teams to focus on getting trialists to complete those key drivers.
6. Price for land & expand
Pricing for “land and expand” was the fourth strategy behind our growth. The core idea is to reduce upfront friction with a lower price point, then bank on increasing retention revenue as customers grow and get more value out of your product.
For example, Autopilot’s pricing plans are based off of number of contacts. Say the fictitious BigDataSocial.io has 1,000 contacts in their database when they sign up, costing them $20/month for the Base plan. After they run a few clever campaigns, their database grows to 5,000 contacts. Plus, they want to integrate with Salesforce and connect with Segment. This ups them to the Business plan and moves their price to $160/month. In short, as they grow, we grow.
We don’t get too much pushback around the price increase as customers grow their databases because they experience the value of the product, making the upgrade a no-brainer.
Here’s how the numbers play out over time:
After the first three months, the original cohort is bringing in 132% of their starting MRR. There’s a 1% increase after 12 months, but notice how the real jump happens in the critical first few months of the customer experience.
To make your land and expand approach work, focus on reducing upfront friction, providing value over features, and creating a sticky product that leads to off-the-charts retention rates.
7. Achieve step-function growth with integrations
Strategic integrations help your company get big, fast.
By working with like-minded companies, you’re able to grow your user base by leveraging the credibility they have with their existing audience. In Autopilot’s case, we’ve built integrations with Salesforce, Zapier, Segment, and Slack, which opens us up to users who are already using those particular platforms.
Slack was one of the early integrations that helped us achieve step-function growth. The integration made sense; teams wanted notifications for events like a person signing up for a free trial or a user struggling to add their first user…and they didn’t want them in their overflowing inboxes.
The integration led to being featured in VentureBeat, landing in the Slack app directory, and hosting a webinar with Slack’s head of marketing operations and analytics.
Take a gander at what one of the Slack notifications looks like:
Who can you integrate with to power up your product and improve the lives of your users?
8. Optimize the customer journey using the right tools
71% of high-performing marketers have defined an initiative to map the customer journey. This means marketers are becoming more sophisticated in leading users through the entire funnel, as opposed to simply focusing on acquisition. And it’s working: 88% strongly agree their customer journey marketing is driving results.
Here’s our actual customer journey map:
You’ll notice that users go from anonymous to known to raw lead to qualified lead to customer. Along the way, the marketer’s job is the acquire, nurture, and grow (there’s that framework, again!).
We drive traffic and capture leads using Autopilot from organic sources (organic search, referrals, social) and ads/paid sources (Adwords, Adroll, Facebook, GetApp, etc.). Anonymous users are converted to known users, then into leads through trial signups, content downloads, Eventbrite & GotoWebinar registrations, and blog or content subscriptions.
We then sync those raw leads into Salesforce for predictive fit scoring using Infer.
Depending on their database size (which we request in a dropdown on all forms), we route leads to the appropriate “swimming lane” in Salesforce—either a self-service track, a high velocity channel designed for light-touch featuring group demo’s and automated manual emails and reach outs, to a more mid-market experience that includes direct contact with sales.
We practice multi-touch attribution (using Bizible) to assess the impact of our content, free/paid channels, or nurture journeys on pipeline and revenue generated.
From there, we run a monthly optimization cadence to review lead quality (“eliminate D sources”), email or touchpoint performance (A/B testing), and ROI impact (refocus on high revenue activities).
We’re working on templatizing the customer journey map right now, so keep your eyes peeled in Flight School for its upcoming release so you can easily repurpose it for your own growth efforts.
9. Always be testing
I’m preaching to the choir here, but I’ll say it anyway: Testing has been a vital part of our growth. For example, we recently completed 12 months of email newsletter A/B testing and are adjusting course in 2017 based on our findings.
Instead of providing a laundry list of things to test, here’s what a CRO pro wishes he knew when he started A/B testing:
- Most conversion rate optimization studies are BS. Be sure to look for contextual factors as well as whether or not the author(s) fudged the numbers.
- Don’t stop a test early (or at significance). Pre-calculate your minimum needed sample size and run the test for two business cycles to get accurate results.
- If you don’t have a process, you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s important that you implement (and optimize) your optimization framework. Try ConversionXL’s.
- Small changes produce small results (usually). Err on the side of testing the extreme version of your hypothesis. Subtle changes don’t usually reach significance as quickly as bigger changes.
- Build a culture of experimentation and the rest (should) fall into place. The effectiveness of your optimization program is primarily a function of your top-down organizational culture.
In other words, buy your team a copy of Winning With Data—and watch the magic happen.
0 to 2,000 customers
There wasn’t one silver bullet for Autopilot to go from 0 to 2,000 customers in 18 months. It was the combination of a strong product foundation, multiple growth strategies, and a solid team.
Mix and match these strategies to move the needle for your own business.
Now go forth and acquire, nurture, and grow your way to thousands more customers.
What growth strategies have been effective for your company? Let us know in the comments.