Your browser does not support JavaScript!

How Artificial Intelligence Is Changing Marketing in 2018

The machines are coming. But far from being an end-of-world scenario, the continued development of sophisticated computers and artificial intelligence is increasing our productivity, safety, and efficiency while making our lives easier. We’ve got ‘smart’ televisions, phones, lights, thermostats, cars, kitchen appliances, cameras … even belts. However, with great power comes great responsibility. We can […]

The machines are coming.

But far from being an end-of-world scenario, the continued development of sophisticated computers and artificial intelligence is increasing our productivity, safety, and efficiency while making our lives easier.

We’ve got ‘smart’ televisions, phones, lights, thermostats, cars, kitchen appliances, cameras … even belts.

However, with great power comes great responsibility. We can embrace AI, but we need to constantly be aware of what it could mean for us.

Everything we love about civilization is a product of intelligence, so amplifying our human intelligence with artificial intelligence has the potential of helping civilization flourish like never before – as long as we manage to keep the technology beneficial.“ ~Max Tegmark, President of the Future of Life Institute

Should we be afraid? No – despite what the Terminator films have taught us. Artificial intelligence is not inherently good or bad. It’s all in how we use it.

As we move from 2018 into 2019, we’re doing some fascinating and innovative things with it, including Toyota’s $1 billion investment into self-driving cars and AI, AI programs being used to predict the next trends in fashion, and the recent unveiling of the world’s first AI news anchor in China.

The reach of AI extends to virtually every profession and industry, and that most definitely includes marketing. In fact, it’s the fastest-growing marketing technology with an anticipated year-over-year growth of 53%.

Image Source

 

Will we soon see robots in suits and ties sipping martinis on Madison Avenue? Absolutely not. Marketing and advertising require too much creativity and instinct to be completely taken over by artificial means. But it does present some very intriguing developments and disruptions, many of which we’re already experiencing.

Marketing is evolving, and AI is a big part of that.

Artificial Intelligence

Before we take a look at some industry-specific use cases, let’s define terms. We hear and read about AI all the time now, but what exactly does it entail?

At its most basic, artificial intelligence is simulated intelligence within machines and computer systems. They’re programmed to ‘think’ and make rational decisions based on what they know and other pre-programmed criteria, depending on the task.

Alan Turing created the Turing Test in 1950 to assess a machine’s ability to exhibit human-like intelligence. In 2014, a program named Eugene Goostman passed it, marking the first time a machine managed to fool more than 30% of people into believing that it was a real live human.

But within the very broad category of AI, you’ll encounter a number of subsections and classifications:

  • Machine learning – the ability of systems to learn and interpret new data without human intervention
  • Deep learning – learning based on data representations with or without human involvement
  • Strong AI – equivalent to human intelligence in virtually every way
  • Weak AI – AI that is focused on a single or narrow task
  • Natural Language Processing (NLP) -– a branch of AI that deals with how computers interact and process human languages

Everyone still with me? Good. Let’s get into some specifics.

AI and Marketing

AI is the marketing technology outpacing all the others, and 80% of marketers predict AI will completely revolutionize marketing by 2020.

Despite that, 34% of marketing execs feel unprepared for it.

Prepared or not, it’s coming, and the benefits are too good to ignore:

Image Source

 

Better insights, detailed analyses, and faster and more accurate prospect identification are just three examples. So far, AI is primarily used for data analysis, but it’s increasingly being used for data generation as well.

Within marketing, it works best at the moment for clear sets of inputs, well defined texts, and clear outputs. But the sky is truly the limit.

Personalization Galore

When it comes to modern marketing, personalization is the order of the day. Consumers no longer respond or react to generic ads and messaging.

Personalized emails deliver higher open and click-through rates.

A personalized consumer experience delivers higher revenue, loyalty, and conversions.

One of the most successful examples of AI in marketing is the powerful programs that deliver highly personalized and targeted recommendations from Amazon, Netflix, eBay, Spotify, and every ecommerce site that knows what it’s doing.

By gathering data, possibly from your customer relationship management platform, AI algorithms analyze user behavior, past purchases, reviews, ratings, and whatever else is available to them to generate recommendations and make predictions about what users will want or need next.

And that creates a very positive, very personal customer experience.

Image Source

 

Looking to add a little AI to your ecommerce platform? Try LimespotBarilliance, Nosto, Vue.ai, or an alternative provider. Ecommerce in 2018 without some sort of AI assistance is needlessly fighting an uphill battle.

It doesn’t stop there, though. AI tools can be used for better audience targeting, segmentation tracking, and more.

Keeping up to date with ecommerce trends around AI and test what works for your business and customer.

By analyzing customers based on their movement among segments over time, we can achieve dynamic micro-segmentation, and predict future behavior in a very accurate fashion. This approach can take customer segmentation to a whole new level. Using micro-segmentation, brands can communicate ‘personally’ with every customer, optimizing customer experience and increasing loyalty and lifetime value, in today’s highly-competitive direct-to-consumer space.” ~Pini Yakuel, founder and CEO of Optimove

Chatbots

We live in a world of fast, instant, and immediately. Consumers typically expect a response to a question or complaint within 0-4 hours, but the average brand response time is 10 hours.

Additionally, imagine being able to engage with, answer questions, and make suggestions to everyone visiting your site or platform, regardless of time or day.

Enter chatbots 2.0.

Gone are the days of robotic-sounding ‘bots’ limited to canned responses. Modern versions use AI and NLP to engage in genuine conversations in real-time.

That’s useful in customer care, sales, and marketing.

AI chatbots are revolutionizing prospect and customer interaction with unprecedented personalization and engagement. They can track and predict based on past behavior. Companies like KLM Airlines are using them to tremendous success at every customer touch point.

Image Source

 

According to a recent survey, 59% of millennials and 60% of Gen Xers in the United States have interacted with a chatbot, and consumers find them 35% more useful than apps.

Even better, getting started with a chatbot is easier than ever before with services like Botsify, Chatfuel, MobileMonkey, LivePerson, and Twyla. With them, you can quickly create a chatbot that can answer questions, collect data, make suggestions, accept payments, and more. They easily integrate with commerce platforms, websites, social media profiles, and messaging tools like Slack, Facebook Messenger, and Whatsapp.

Where 10 years ago every company needed a website and five years ago every company needed an app, now every company needs to embrace messaging with AI and chatbots.” ~Murray Newlands, Entrepreneur, Author, and Investor

Engage with prospects, leads, and customers 24/7/365. Chatbots are not a replacement for human interaction, but they are complementary to it. Take engagement into the 21st century.

Analysis and Optimization

An artificial intelligence program can do the work of dozens of humans in a fraction of the time. In the age of big data, that means lower costs and better insights.

AI allows for a move from reactive to proactive when it comes to monitoring, tracking, analyzing, and optimizing.

Tools like Adext, for example, can optimize hundreds of ads on multiple channels to find those that resonate best with an your audience, and then automatically prioritize them with additional funds and resources. How long do you figure it would take your marketing department to do that?

Ad relevancy and timeliness will always be the key to running profitable marketing campaigns. The beauty of AI tools like Adext, Tapcast, or countless other tools is that you can better pinpoint what is working or isn’t quicker and make adjustments. The cost of advertising is skyrocketing due to the amount of advertiser’s leveraging ad platforms so AI is going to keep marketing cost down while hopefully increasing profitability.”
– TJ Welsh, VP of Marketing at STRYDE

Email marketing is effective, but it can fail for a wide variety of reasons. AI-enhanced email automation can analyze and uncover individual insights on everything from content topics, subject lines, best times, frequency, and more.

Phrasee, for example, can create, test, and optimize subject lines, Facebook ads, and push notifications that outperform those drafted by humans 98% of the time.

Likewise Persado, which identifies the exact words, emotions, and visuals that most resonate with your audience to build stories and marketing copy with your brand voice, context, and prospect interests in email and on social.

An AI service or tool can analyze and track campaigns in real-time, optimizing for best times, lowest price-per-click, and conversions on the fly. They can generate countless variations and permutations of copy and design with specific input to find the perfect offering for your intended target.

Data Collection

Every marketer understands the importance of proper research on everything from the market to the individual prospects and customers.

Artificial intelligence can be used to quickly pull data from multiple sources, organize it, and present it to marketers for consumption. This allows for greater accuracy across the board, but especially in audience and customer insights.

Data-driven agencies like Ayzenberg use AI to collect the data you need, and find the influencers most able to help spread your message. They advocate a listen-create-share workflow powered by analytics, data, and AI.

Image Source

 

AI solutions can track customer sentiment and buying habits, uncover their motivations, and make better decisions faster.

The knowledge you get from AI technology is akin to the knowledge most sales reps have when they research every single buyer in-depth. Today, many companies are already enabling this hyper-personalization at scale, creating context-rich conversations that help businesses understand, connect and relate to their audiences.” ~Aman Naimat, CTO/Senior Vice President of Engineering & Technology, Demandbase

Content Creation

Yes, even content creation can benefit from an artificial intelligence booster.

Most content marketers list creating content and/or identifying suitable topics as their biggest challenges. Finding hot topics is time-consuming but necessary.

At the moment, the best solutions utilize a human-AI collaboration model. Take Quill as one example. They produce AI-enhanced ‘primary content’ – product and category descriptions, shoppable how-to guides, and more – that is fast, customer and SEO optimized, and reflective of brand voice. At scale.

It’s early days, but possible.

Creativity is one of the hallmarks of humanity, and it’s unlikely that AI will ever be able to fully replicate that. That said, it can certainly help us be more productive and make better decisions supported by concrete data. It’s yet another tool in your tool belt.

Ultimately, AI is the bridge that connects platforms, datasets, and tools into a meaningful resource for us, the human innovators.

The world is changing.

Are you ready?

How are you using AI in your overall marketing strategy? Share in the comments below:

10 Marketing Tools You Need to Have in Your Toolkit

How big a role do tools play in your workday? Anything less than “very big” is the wrong answer. Tools should be playing a prevalent role in pretty much everything we do at work. They help us be more efficient and effective at our jobs so we can make more money in less time. They […]

How big a role do tools play in your workday?

Anything less than “very big” is the wrong answer.

Tools should be playing a prevalent role in pretty much everything we do at work. They help us be more efficient and effective at our jobs so we can make more money in less time. They just make our lives easier.

But we shouldn’t be using just any tools. We should be using the right tools.

If you’re relying on tools that don’t fit your needs, are badly supported, or are antiquated, you won’t get the results you could be or should be.

While there’s no one perfect set of tools for everyone, here are 10 of the top marketing tools available today that you need to have in your toolkit.

 

1. Google Data Studio

Google Data Studio is up there with the best digital marketing reporting tools, but it’s got an awesome USP: it’s completely free.

GDS pulls data from countless sources into one real-time, bespoke dashboard that looks good and is easy to share.

Everything from YouTube and Reddit, to SEMrush, Salesforce, and, of course, Google Analytics, is supported. Even Bing Ads can be connected in a few clicks.

While there are other reporting studios that pull in and display data in a similarly easy-to-digest format while offering more features and better support … did we mention Google Data Studio is free?

What does Google Data Studio cost?

We might have said this already, but … it’s free.

 

2. Mailshake

Mailshake is an intuitive, user-friendly platform designed to help you simplify, streamline, and scale cold outreach campaigns.

Choose from pre-written templates, or write your own personalized messages en-masse, then schedule or send emails in real-time. Mailshake also makes it really easy to create automated follow-up sequences, as well as monitor performance by tracking opens, clicks, and replies.

You can even leverage Mailshake’s API, and streamline workflows by connecting the tool to more than 1,000 other apps, including Gmail, Slack, and HubSpot CRM.

What does Mailshake cost?

Pay annually, and a basic package will set you back $22 per month, per user. It’ll cost you $29 if you pay monthly. Pro accounts (which offer additional features like A/B testing and conversion tracking) are $37 per month per user, paid annually, or $49 paid monthly.

 

3. Visual Website Optimizer

Any organization that relies on its website for even a small portion of its business should be constantly testing and optimizing with the goal of improving UX and increasing conversions.

VWO is an enterprise-level A/B testing and CRO platform that’s also suited to small businesses. It boasts state-of-the-art-technology, easy integration with a variety of popular third-party platforms, and the features you’ll need to plan and execute campaigns across whole teams with ease.

While there are more affordable A/B testing and optimization tools on the market, VWO stands out thanks to its intuitive interface and industry-leading technology, security, and support.

What does Visual Website Optimizer cost?

Pricing is bespoke, but you can set up a free trial or request a demo on their site.

 

4. Voila Norbert

Voila Norbert does the hard work of digging deep into the web in order to verify email addresses individually or in bulk. For an extra (nominal) fee, it’ll enrich your email lists en-masse by digging out data like contacts’ locations, job titles, employers, and social profiles.

It’s an invaluable tool for prospecting that’ll help you build better lists, faster. Voila Norbert’s email finding tool was elected the most accurate email finder out there according to Ahrefs . Whether you’re trying to reach out to influencers, build marketing connections or reach potential recruits, Norbert’s got you covered.

What does Voila Norbert cost?

Your first 50 leads are free. After that, you can pay-as-you-go (for $0.10 a lead), or save money and choose a prepaid package starting from $39 per month for 1,000 leads.

 

5. Zapier

With more than 1,000 apps supported, Zapier makes it possible to eliminate repetitive, data-driven tasks from your workload. This can instantly increase productivity and make you more effective at pretty much everything you do. Marketing is no exception.

Simply connect the apps you use, create workflows in a few clicks, and tackle your tougher tasks while Zapier automates the grunt work.

What does Zapier cost?

Absolutely nothing.

 

6. Right Inbox

Right Inbox does what Gmail doesn’t. This includes scheduling emails, setting reminders so you don’t forget to reply to important messages, and creating recurring emails that will automatically get sent on the dates and times of your choosing.

You can even attach private notes to email threads that only you can see (a priceless feature for those of us who struggle to keep organized).

What does Right Inbox cost?

The free version gives you access to all features, but limits you to 10 emails a month. Unlimited use costs $5.95 per month if you pay annually, or $7.95 paid monthly.

 

7. Grammarly

Error-free writing is essential to creating a professional image. Even something as innocent as an isolated grammatical error or a single sentence with sub-par structure can cause a prospect to question your credibility.

This is where Grammarly comes in. Just copy and paste a block of text into the tool, and Grammarly highlights spelling mistakes and grammatical mishaps, alongside other simple fixes that will improve the readability of your writing, including repetitive words, missing articles, and misplaced modifiers.

What does Grammarly cost?

A standard account (which does plenty) is completely free. Premium accounts cost between $11.66 and $29.95 per month, depending on whether you choose to be billed monthly, quarterly, or annually. For paid accounts, Grammarly promises to identify more mistakes and get you better results. You’ll also get access to its plagiarism tool.

 

8. Mention

Mention lets you listen closely to the entire web. See what’s said about your brand, anywhere online.

You can set filters to drown out noise, track how your share of voice and sentiment matches up to your competitors’, and benefit from detailed brand insights that are bespoke to your business.

What does Mention cost?

From $25 per month. That gets you a solo plan, which lets you create 2 alerts and notifies you of up to 3,000 brand mentions each month.

Small business plans start at $83 per month. Larger businesses and agencies will likely require a custom plan with bespoke pricing.

 

9. SimilarWeb

SimilarWeb is a competitive intelligence tool that can assist with everything from competitor research to content promotion.

It’s essentially a pared-down version of Google Analytics for all medium- to -high traffic websites that anyone can view.

Sure, the data is estimated, but it’s generally not far off the mark (and short of hacking into a competitor’s analytics account, what better option do you have?).

The data it offers includes estimated visits, time on site, and bounce rate, as well as traffic source, visitor location, and top referrers.

There’s also a free Chrome extension, which is well worth plugging into your browser.

What does SimilarWeb Cost?

A basic account is free, as is the Chrome plugin. Enterprise plans are available and offer extras like historical data, keyword analysis, and mobile app engagement. Prices are available on request.

 

10. Easel.ly

Most of us aren’t designers, but many of us will benefit from being able to transform dull data and information into engaging visuals.

Easel.ly is a simple, versatile tool that enables pretty much anyone to turn facts and figures into visual content that people actually want to read.

What does Easel.ly cost?

Limited access is free, and pretty restrictive. Thankfully, a pro account (which gets you access to over 320 infographic templates, 112 fonts, and much more) is just $4 per month.

What other marketing tools do you think everyone should have in their toolkit? Let us know in the comments below:

6 SEO Tips to Drive Meaningful Traffic to Your Website in 2018

Do any of these headings sound familiar? The Top 4 Reasons SEO Is Dead Why SEO is Dead SEO IS DEAD! Misguided marketers that (at a wild guess) want to present themselves as forward-thinking, have been making the claim that SEO is dead and buried for almost as long as search engines have existed. In […]

Do any of these headings sound familiar?

  • The Top 4 Reasons SEO Is Dead
  • Why SEO is Dead
  • SEO IS DEAD!

Misguided marketers that (at a wild guess) want to present themselves as forward-thinking, have been making the claim that SEO is dead and buried for almost as long as search engines have existed.

In fact, here’s a handy little chart from Portent SEO that demonstrates just how long this idea has been around:

However, regardless of how often it’s said or how loud it’s shouted, it’s wrong.

The reality is that as long as there are search engines, there will be SEO. All that’s changed (and continues to change) is the approach we need to take when it comes to optimizing sites.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are 6 of the most effective SEO tips for driving meaningful traffic to your website in 2018.

1. Prioritize Technical SEO

You may have heard the odd SEO state that technical SEO isn’t important, that “content is king,” and that if you get that bit right, everything else will just fall into place.

Just like those who claim SEO is dead, they couldn’t be more wrong.

Technical forms the foundation of any SEO strategy, and ensuring a site is technically sound should take precedence over anything else.

Even small mistakes can hinder a site’s performance in the SERPs, such as:

  • Failing to use H1s or title tags correctly
  • Implementing redirects to unsuitable pages
  • Using 302 redirects in place of 301s

These are all common mistakes that, in isolation, might not have a huge impact. Collectively, though, they tell a different story.

Some mistakes, however, can have a devastating impact and prevent whole sections, or even entire sites, from being indexed by search engines – i.e. the classic disallow fail – placing, or leaving, this in your robots.txt file:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /

Unfortunately, technical SEO can quickly get complicated. If your knowledge is lacking, it would be advisable to seek help from someone who specializes in this area. That said, if you want to have a go at it yourself, here are a couple of resources to get you started:

In addition to this, you’re also going to need at least one tool that will crawl your site and help you identify technical roadblocks:

  • Screaming Frog – Arguably the best-known.
  • Botify – Awesome but pricey, and typically aimed at a more advanced market.
  • Sitebulb – Also awesome, affordable, and, thanks to its user-friendly interface, ideal for both beginner and advanced SEOs.

2. Write Content with Users and Search Engines in Mind

Do you remember the days when SEO copywriters were instructed to write first and foremost for search engines? When the aim of the game was to practically force-feed search spiders the subject of a page by working one or two specific keywords into a piece of content multiple times?

Fast forward a few years and things have changed – a lot. The general consensus today is to forget what search engines want, and just write for users.

However, while writing for users and users only is a far better approach than keyword stuffing (after all, at the end of the day, all search engines want is to serve the best possible results to users), it still pays to understand how the search engines themselves work.

The fact is that keywords still matter – just not in the way they used to.

Today, Google uses algorithms like TF*IDF to understand how often, and where, specific words should appear in a piece of content. It also looks at the semantic relationship between words and phrases in order to better establish the subject matter and relevancy of a page.

Thankfully, writing for the modern search engine doesn’t have to be as complicated as it might sound. You simply need to use long-tail keyword research in order to pinpoint semantic words and phrases that can be used to enhance your content, and the relevancy of its subject matter in the eyes of search engines.

3. Analyze and Optimize Your Search Snippets

For anyone who’s not sure, this is a search snippet:

A search snippet features your title tag at the top, the URL of the page in the middle, and below that, your meta description.

A well-written search snippet can make a massive difference to your site’s performance in the organic search results for two reasons:

  1. The keywords you include in your title tag impact rankings.
  2. Informative, enticing and persuasive title tags and meta descriptions can improve click-through rates.

Unfortunately, a lot of marketers make these common mistakes:

  1. They don’t give search snippets the time and attention they ought to.
  2. They stuff too many keywords into title tags.
  3. They overlook search snippets altogether.

The contents of your search snippets are an opportunity to sell your site and increase click-throughs. This applies to both your title tag and your meta description, so while you should include a keyword (maybe even two) in your title tag, your main focus should be the user, and how you can persuade them to click onto your site, instead of a competitor’s.

For even better results, you shouldn’t just be optimizing your search snippets – you should also be analyzing the snippets of those you’re up against in the SERPs.

To do this, take your most important pages, and their top-ranking keywords, and compare your search snippets against those that rank around you.

What can you do to stand out and increase your share of the clicks?

Of course, unless your site’s very small, you can’t be analyzing the competition and writing bespoke snippets for every page of your site – especially if you’re working on a large ecommerce site.

So what’s the solution?

Write bespoke snippets for your most important pages, and create rules that will automatically populate title tags and descriptions on the rest of the site. For example, the rule for title tags would typically involve pulling in the page’s H1 tag, followed by the brand name.

4. Optimize for Voice Search

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing SEOs today is voice search.

No one knows for certain how many voice searches are actually taking place, but Location World estimated that in 2016, 40% of adults were using voice search on a daily basis, while ComScore predicts that by 2020, 50% of all searches will be voice-based.

Needless to say, if you’re not considering voice search as part of your SEO strategy, you’re missing out.

So how do you optimize for voice search?

Consider the difference between how people talk and how they type. Voice searches tend to be longer and more conversational. Keep this in mind when creating content for your site.

Create content with featured snippets in mind. Research from Dr. Pete found that 53% of voice search results were being pulled from featured snippets. You can read the full research here.

5. Don’t Forget About Links

As much work as Google may have put into devaluing them, as of 2017, links still carried more weight than anything else in the search giant’s algorithms (even if they don’t carry as much weight as they used to).

This means generating quality, natural links (or at least, links that appear natural) is as important a part of SEO strategy as it’s ever been.

Without going into too much detail, here are a few search engine-friendly ways to generate links that will boost your site’s domain authority and in turn, its visibility in the search results.

  • Write great content that answers common questions and is formatted for featured snippets (other sites may link to it as a resource in their own content).
  • Go one better and create playbooks or ebooks.
  • Start guest posting (the right way).
  • Gather original, firsthand data that’s of interest to your industry (better yet, create data visualizations to accompany it) and promote the heck out of it.
  • Upload and optimize high-quality photographs to Flickr, apply the Creative Commons license, and request in the description that if the image is used, they should link to your site as the source.
  • Create free, embeddable tools that you can promote and feature on your site (again, requesting that if the tool is reproduced, your site is linked to as the source).

6. Don’t Forget About Internal Links, Either

Internal links help users and search engine spiders navigate your website. They’re pretty damn important, and yet they’re often overlooked (particularly as a site grows).

A poor internal linking strategy can diminish the value of key pages, or leave pages orphaned altogether.

What’s more, search engines use the anchor text of internal links as an indicator of the content of the destination URL. Unlike with external links, you can use pretty much whatever you want as the anchor text (within reason) without being at risk of getting a penalty. However, it’s poor practice to use anchor text like “here” on internal links. Use text that accurately describes the content of the destination page instead.

Unfortunately, implementing an effective internal linking strategy tends to be much more complicated than that (and the bigger the site, the more complicated things get). If you want to learn more, I can’t recommend this resource from Shaun Anderson enough.

What other SEO tips would you suggest using in 2018? Comments are below if you can spare a second to share your ideas.

How Stencil Recruited and Nurtured over 1400 Affiliates for Their SaaS Business

Building an affiliate network can seem a bit daunting at first, but once things start rolling, you’ll see it’s actually not that hard. Nurturing the affiliates and helping them succeed is another story, but we’ll get to that later… There’s no shortage of people out there looking to make a little side income, but the […]

Building an affiliate network can seem a bit daunting at first, but once things start rolling, you’ll see it’s actually not that hard. Nurturing the affiliates and helping them succeed is another story, but we’ll get to that later…

There’s no shortage of people out there looking to make a little side income, but the single most important part of recruiting affiliates is absolutely crucial: You must have a solid product to begin with. If your product is sub par, not only will you have a hard time selling directly to customers, but affiliates will have no interest referring new customers to you. Remember, the quality of your product will be directly reflected by your affiliate. It’s important you make your affiliates look good and of course, that all starts with the product.

Beyond the product itself, there’s a number of different things you can start doing to recruit and attract more affiliates:

 

1. Pay Generously & You’ll Get More Interest

We learned this one the hard way. On our very first stab at building an affiliate program, we were admittedly stingy. We were afraid to be too generous and feared we’d end up losing money. This was a mistake. Not only that, but the referral commission offering was complicated. Just have a look at our convoluted initial offer to new affiliates:

BAD: $30 one-time commission, only on annual subscriptions.

This was less-than-ideal for a number of reasons. First off, it was a pretty crappy deal all around. $30 one-time isn’t that interesting to anyone. Everyone wants recurring revenue and you should be happy to share that with your affiliates. Next, it was very confusing (and annoying) to limit commission to only annual plan signups. This stipulation made it hard for affiliates to sell to their audience and also created the potential for them to refer customers and end up getting nothing in return. For example, if an affiliate sent someone our way but they ended up deciding to go on a monthly plan, the affiliate would get a total of $0 in earnings. Worst. Even still, we would sign up the odd affiliate and go figure, they barely sent anyone our way. There was just very little incentive.

So one day, we decided to start over completely with a much better offering:

GOOD: 30% ongoing commission on ANY customer you refer.

The difference might seem subtle at first glance, but this is a far superior approach and we know it to be true because it resulted in many more affiliate signups. We also saw affiiatings sending more actual referrals our way. It’s simpler, it’s percentage based (so we can mess with our pricing and not have to worry) and includes ALL plans.

Takeaway here is that if you’re fair and your affiliates start to make some real cash, everyone wins.

 

2. Use An Off-The-Shelf Solution to Save Time and Money

Deciding how to manage your affiliate program can be one of the more technically challenging parts of the process. We first thought it would be best to roll our own simple affiliate program internally. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but ultimately, it ended up being time consuming, required a lot of maintenance and kinda just sucked. Since we’re bootstrapped and had to keep things really cost effective, our affiliate program lacked a sales dashboard where affiliates could track their success, download assets and easily get access to their custom link. Being able to see your progress as an affiliate is important and keeps motivation flowing.

We eventually decided to use a third-party service to manage our small, but growing, little army of affiliates. After much research, we ultimately decided on Tapfiliate. It’s not the cheapest solution around, but it’s feature-rich and handles a lot of the pain points of building your own affiliate program. While we’ve found this approach to be much better than our own hacked affiliate program, one clear downside is the lack of access to a network of affiliates. This is where ‘affiliate networks’ like JVZOO, ShareASale and Commission Junction tend to shine. I can’t speak much to these since we haven’t explored them yet, but it’s generally regarded as a good practice to use a network in addition to your own affiliate program (either built by yourself or powered by a third-party like Tapfiliate). One very nice thing about networks is that you can tap into thousands of potential affiliates who are eager to find new products to sell. While the network approach is definitely worth exploring, be aware that the network often wants to take a cut or have expensive set up fees.

 

3. Build a Great Landing Page to Signup New Affiliates

Having an easy to understand affiliate signup landing page is essential. We’ve experimented with this a bit and have had good success with keeping things as simple as possible. If the messaging becomes too complicated, affiliates will be deterred and may not trust that they’ll get paid what they expect to be paid.

A simple commission table and a section that explains exactly what an affiliate will get is the best and most straightforward approach:

The table immediately shows the affiliate what they could potentially make and helps us emphasize yearly accounts, which are the subscriptions we like to drive the most.

Another great thing to include on your landing page is a direct contact (or “Affiliate Concierge” as we call it) This has 2 big benefits:

  1. It will make the affiliate feel like they’re taken care of and have a direct contact they can reach out to. It puts the affiliate’s mind at ease.
  2. It creates a relationship between your affiliate and a real person.

#2 is especially powerful because it allows you to stay in constant contact with your best performing affiliates. The challenge there is that you’ll either need to hire someone to do this or do it yourself at first. I’d suggest the latter if you’re just starting out, but ignore this approach at your peril! 

 

4. Start Small and Find Some Lists

Alright, recruiting time! It’s probably a good strategy to be conservative and not try to swing for the fences just yet. There are some super successful affiliates out there and they’re very particular about the product they wanna rep. Avoid going after them first. Try to find smaller niche affiliates first who you can test your pitch on and grow with. Going after the big fish takes a bit of a different approach (admittedly, one we’re still trying to figure out!), you may as well get your feet wet on smaller prospects.

So where do we find these smaller affiliates? A great place to start is finding a list of affiliates who publicly display their monthly affiliate income. These often go by the phrase “Income Reports”. Here’s an income reports list where you can see exactly how big or small the affiliate is, at least in terms of income. Start from the bottom and work your way up, honing your pitch along the way. For most of these affiliates, it turns out the easiest way to contact them is via the contact form on their site. While that sometimes can get a response, you often get mixed in with a giant pile of contact form submissions and you may not get noticed. In addition to filling out their contact form, it’s also a good idea to try and find their email address to contact them directly there as well. A great tool for this is called Voila Norbert and they even have an excellent Chrome Extension so you can find emails on the go.

Sending a direct email (in addition to a contact form submission) has 2 distinct benefits:

  1. It shows you’re persistent and if they get contacted from you in multiple places, they’re more likely to respond.
  2. With an email pitch (as opposed to just an on-site contact form submissions) you can use a tool like Mailshake to automate a sequence of emails and follow-ups. This is a huge time saver and you can even tell Mailshake to only send follow-ups if the prospect didn’t open emails or take action. For more tips on how to do this, check out this great post on how to write the perfect “Ask” in your cold emails.

Generally speaking, these pitches are a bit different than sales pitches, because you’re not actually selling anything in exchange for money. And heck, you know these people are already interested in being affiliates, so the goal is to show them your awesome product and how it can make them money and ultimately make their audience succeed. Oh and bonus tip: After you’ve filled out their contact form and emailed them directly, follow up on Twitter, LinkedIn and eve Facebook to keep reminding them about your existence. Out of sight, out of mind!

 

5. Tap Into Your Own Customer & Mailing Lists

A great place to find affiliates is right within your midst! Your existing users, customers or mailing list subscribers are an excellent source of potential affiliates. This will of course depend on the nature of your product, but chances are if they’ve purchased your product or signed up, they are probably already impressed by your offering. That right there is half the battle and it’s usually pretty easy to turn these folks into affiliates, assuming they’re into that sort of thing. This is where we signed up our very first affiliates. You can do this by emailing your list and announcing your affiliate program. You can be pretty confident that anyone interested will reply. We did this initially and then over time we would continually get requests and questions about the program.

 

6. Partner with Others to Tap Into Their Customer & Mailing Lists

I can pretty confidently say that this is where we’ve signed up the majority of our affiliates. Not to mention, this being our #1 source of new user signups…but that’s another post for another day. Partnering with other services that have an overlap with your audience is incredibly powerful, but it can be a bit tricky. In the end, it ultimately comes down to networking and relationship building, but if you can find a win/win scenario with a similar app or service, it’s a fantastic source of new affiliates. For example, we’ve done several promotional offers with our great friends over at AppSumo and it has resulted in almost 30% of all our new affiliate signups.

 

7. The 80/20 Rule Applies Here Too…But It’s More Like 90/10 With Affiliates

As you begin to start growing your base of affiliates, you’ll realize the horrible truth: Only about 5% of them actually do anything. I know, kinda sucky news, but it’s the reality of most affiliate programs. The good news though, is that the 5% can often send a lot of sales your way. So whatever you do, don’t disregard these high performing affiliates. Try to build a direct relationship with them and always be as helpful as possible. Some ways you can help these affiliates:

  • Provide them with brand assets, banners or any information they need about the product.
  • Help them with blog articles they write about your product.
  • Offer custom coupons they can offer to their audience (keep it reasonable ~10-15% so it doesn’t cut too deeply into your profit margins.)
  • Create content for them like pre-made tweets (make sure to include their affiliate link!), videos and even ‘lead magnets’.
  • Check in with them frequently to see if they need help with anything or even just to say hi.
  • Let them preview new features before they’re publicly available (this makes them feel like VIPs which everyone loves!)

 

8. YouTube Is A Great Place to Find Affiliates

YouTube is an especially good place to find affiliates because they’ll ultimately be creating high quality video content to showcase your product. Even better, if they decide to do “Tutorial style” videos, you can leverage that content and link your existing users/customers to it. So it’s kind of a triple whammy: Get a new affiliate + video content you don’t need to produce yourself + built-in social proof. New customers love hearing from someone — other than you — how great your product is!

 

9. Build a Drip Campaign To Nurture All Your Affiliate Signups

One important thing with new affiliates is remembering to nurture them effectively. If you don’t check in with them every now and then, they may forget all about you and probably won’t send as many referrals as they could. The reality is, you’ve probably got a ton of other things going on with your business and remembering to follow-up with new affiliates can be tough. So, let’s automate it!

To do this, you’ll need to use a service that can send a sequence of emails at a specific frequency, over a given period of time. This is often referred to as a “Drip” campaign. Some tools — just to name a few — that can help you do this:

We used Campaign Monitor for this, because that’s the service we use to manage all of our customer emails. Since Campaign Monitor offers drip tools in what they refer to as “Automation”, we were able to keep things all under one roof and avoid any additional integrations. For some inspiration, here’s our actual affiliate drip that is currently being used. Note that these emails are intended to be very plain looking, so they almost resemble a plain text email. They tend to get better engagement than heavily designed HTML emails.

 

10. Continue Nurturing with a Weekly Affiliate Newsletter

In addition to your affiliate drip campaign (or in place of it) it’s a solid idea to have a weekly affiliate newsletter as well. We’ve seen good stats with these often with over 40% open rates and 10% click through. Here’s an example of one of our affiliate newsletters:

In the newsletter we always include:

  • Links to helpful blog posts from other industry experts
  • Some ideas on how they can promote our service
  • Call to action to login to their affiliate dashboard
  • It can be good to have a ‘theme’ for each newsletter where you can focus on a particular channel for promotion, such as Twitter in the example above.

 

Summing Things Up

That’s a lot of information to take in, but follow these steps and you’ll start to see more and more affiliates trickling in. Much like anything else in growing your business, JAY-Z was right: Progress is a slow process. So this will definitely take some time. But stick with it and you’ll reap the rewards of an affiliate powered promotion engine.

Always be generous to your affiliates because whenever they succeed, you succeed! Keep a close eye on how much you’re paying out to affiliates every month. That number going up is a basic but great indicator that things are going well. One of the best feelings we’ve had as a company is not only seeing some of our own success, but that other people out there can actually make a real income just from promoting your product.

How are you running your affiliate program? Would love to hear some of the stuff that’s worked for you in the comments!

The Rise of Live Chat: How 6 Successful SaaS Companies Drive More Revenue with Messaging

Chat platforms have matured over the last half-decade. Long ago, in the days of dial up, we’d sit down to our two-ton desktops to listen to the soothing sound of the AOL sign-on screen. You know the sound. A/S/L?  But chat has come a long way since then. It’s gone from a simple, reactionary customer […]

Chat platforms have matured over the last half-decade.

Long ago, in the days of dial up, we’d sit down to our two-ton desktops to listen to the soothing sound of the AOL sign-on screen.

You know the sound.

A/S/L? 

But chat has come a long way since then.

It’s gone from a simple, reactionary customer support tool to AI that’s just scratching the surface for marketing and sales.

We’re talking lead gen, prospecting, selling, and much more.

Here’s why chat is making such a splash.

And how six SaaS companies are using it to boost their bottom line.

Why chat platforms are growing in popularity

Live chat isn’t technically new. It’s been around for 50 years at least.

But in the last few years it’s changed dramatically.

Somewhere during mid-2016, companies like Facebook and Kik launched their own chatbots, starting an AI revolution of sorts.

New live chat options like Influx, Drift, Intercom, Autopilot, and the appropriately named LiveChat are literally growing like weeds.

And it’s no surprise why.

Today, 79% of consumers prefer it over email or phone for support because most issues are resolved in a lightening-quick 42 seconds.

That benefit extends far beyond merely customer support, though.

Influx has topped the basic 1-2% of form conversions to bring in over 27% of inbound leads. They’ve also helped one company do the same, growing 20% month over month.

Those results aren’t a fluke. Intercom is now being used by over 17,000 paying customers.

(image source)

Drift is also growing steadily, experimenting with real-time qualifying filters that automatically route messages to a specific department based on responses.

(image source)

Autopilot also isn’t far behind.

They’ve reportedly grown “from 0 to 2,500 customers, signed up 24,500+ free trialists, and experienced 21% month-over-month revenue growth (with 130% net retention),” according to their CMO, Guy Marion. Not bad at all.

(image source)

In fact, average conversions for companies using chat are as high as 15% (compared to 2% conversions without it).

The reason for its increasing popularity is not only a matter of convenience or conversions, though.

It’s growing because the technology underneath it is getting better every year. A lot better.

It’s more intuitive. It’s more responsive. And it can help companies meet customer needs faster and cheaper than ever before.

Here are just a few of the companies using messaging to bring in leads, close sales, and keep customers around for the long-term.

1. Segment

At Segment, Vice President of Growth Guillaume Cabane confirmed what we already know: historically, the live chat feature is a tool for customer service, not sales.

It was hard to pinpoint potential conversions through live chat. Everyone, primed to buy or not, can use it.

But Guillaume was determined to filter out those who weren’t interested and reach his potential customers in real-time.

And for good reason: 16% of Segment’s signups represent 86% of their revenue.

So he brought in live chat to control the flow of Segment’s leads. Guillaume knew that just 10% of the people visiting the site would actually be interested in the product.

He used Clearbit to identify web visitors using their IP address. Then he used domain matching to discover where visitors worked.

If the company matched Segment’s lead-scoring model, the user was pinged to get a targeted message.

(image source)

Guillaume was able to turn the traditional purpose of live chat on its head to produce the results Segment needed.

The proof is in the numbers:

  • Segment has seen a 200% increase in conversions and a 500% increase in chat engagement.
  • Drift’s live chat feature is the biggest contributor of sales growth for Segment.

Drift didn’t completely take over the sales process for Segment. But it enhanced it.

And provided the sales team with qualified leads and additional information on their customers to help them be more prepared for targeted conversations.

2. RewardStream

RewardStream was stuck in a bit of “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” prior to implementing live chat.

They had plenty of web traffic from all the traditional channels: email marketing, fresh content, SEO, etc.

They’d capture their potential leads using online forms and try to convert as many as possible into bonafide prospects. You know — the old B2B marketing playbook we’ve beat to death by now.

But they weren’t having a lot of success. They brought the horse to water, but he (or she) was not drinking.

RewardStream knew that their visitors were interested. They liked the idea of the water.

RewardStream just needed to add a little personal presence to make sure visitors knew they could get real-time support and answers while they were perusing.

So they added a chat feature for instant communication.

(image source)

Very quickly, they saw results.

“We discovered that more than a quarter of the leads we handled that converted to meetings were coming from Drift,” said Neil Parker, Vice President of Marketing at RewardStream.

“During that first month, Drift was second only to our top-converting inbound form (which came from a paid inbound source), and was only underperforming that by about 2%. In the last 45 days, it’s grown to 30% of our demos coming from Drift.

And the feature isn’t just used for chatting or questions. Customers can use it to set up and schedule meetings and demos with a sales rep.

(See? They wanted to drink the water all along. They just needed a different glass.)

3. SalesLoft

SalesLoft provides sales companies with the tools they need to report out, analyze, and convert leads to sales.

The team at SalesLoft was already well-aware of the benefits of live chat. They’ve been using the feature for quite some time.

Their problem was that the chat option wasn’t appealing. To anyone.

Only 5% of their demo bookings came from their original live chat. Even with the chat feature staring them in the face, most users still prefer to connect with SalesLoft through their online forms.

So SalesLoft took notice.

They took out the forms the user had to fill out as ‘pre-chat.’

They also added targeted auto messages to users based on their activity on the site and their geographic location. If a visitor is hanging out on the contact page, they are sent this message:

(image source)

Real-time communication produces real-time data. And the data shows real-time results.

These auto messages have a 40% open rate on SalesLoft’s contact page. And a 20% one for pricing. Their reply rates for each are 15% (contact) and 10% (pricing).

This is where the numbers show off: Intercom has a standard 5% reply rate benchmark.

SalesLoft’s new live chat model has paid off with an 800% increase in sales appointments booked using the feature.

4. Keen IO

Application program interface Keen IO helps developers build large-scale data and analytics into their sites.

Lots of developers means lots of communication.

Keen IO gets that.

“Our customers’ success depends on our ability to communicate clearly and on a personal level,” said Maggie Jan, Director of Developer Advocacy at Keen IO.

Before using the live chat service, Keen IO used a variety of methods for customer communication. As their company grew, this quickly became cluttered.

Read: It slowed things down. Read more: It hindered customer success.

Using live chat, they put all their communication into one place. Less clutter. More success.

Also, less time solving problems. The chat helped Keen IO raise its customer satisfaction numbers by 30%, and reduce churn by .5%.

They also didn’t have to recreate the customer service wheel to do so.

With every new message, a Keen IO staffer was given a user profile and their company’s data to make sure they got the full picture of needs.

Right from there, they can see what the user is looking at, and their last query. It’s a hands-on, speedy approach that causes a faster solution.

Keen IO also integrates their Help Center to provide user’s with even more information. Reps can send this info along in addition to their speedy geeksquad work.

(image source)

Their chat feature also allows for real-time feedback.

Like, what are Keen IO’s prices? Even though the site had them displayed, reps frequently got this question.

“As a company, we really value transparency around pricing, but didn’t realize we were not doing a good job of making it clear and easy to find,” said Maggie.

“The customer feedback we collected helped us figure out the best placement for that content. Customers are now better able to self-serve the information, and don’t frequently ask about it.”

5. Tradeshift

Tradeshift connects buyers and sellers.

Simple enough, right?

Not so fast. Let me be more specific.

Tradeshift connects 1.5 million buyers and sellers, in 190 countries, with more than $500 billion in annual transactions.

With this type of activity, Tradeshift needed to get the sales process streamlined. It took an average of 21 days to qualify a good lead, for example.

The team started to analyze the sales journey to see where the bottleneck was happening.

It didn’t take long to spot the problem: The dreaded contact form.

People were filling them out. But the form required a lot of follow-up and back and forth. What does the customer want? Are they a good fit?

Even worse, this process can only go as fast as the lead is willing to respond, taking a lot of the control out of Tradeshift’s hands.

So they added a live chat feature to the company’s marketing site. From there, interested leads could reach out directly to SDRs, and were qualified immediately as potential candidates.

(image source)

Even better, the leads could come back to talk with the same SDR, building the relationship even further. If the lead is qualified as a good fit to move on to an AE, they are entered in the database.

Twenty-one days and at least four touch points of webinars, emails, and site visits was the old norm for Tradeshift. Now, they’ve increased their sales opportunities by 32%.

“With Intercom, the time it took to surface real project opportunities and receive RFPs decreased from an average of 21 days to three days,” said Adam Cleveland, Director of Demand Generation for Tradeshift.

“We’re able to identify and engage leads faster than ever before.”

6. Recurly

If your company does subscription billings, chances are you’ve heard of Recurly.

They take the labor problem out of billing.

That lets companies shift their focus to bigger business operations, like development, marketing, and revenue.

(image source)

The big guys like Groupon, Salesforce, and Hubspot all use Recurly.

Even LiveChat uses Recurly.

So then Recurly uses LiveChat. (Such a symbiotic relationship they have.)

Before they switched to LiveChat, Recurly communicated with customers through emails. But this slowed down the process and prompted the need for something a little more real-time.

“We wanted to improve our ticket response time by providing more direct, personal customer service,” said Rachel Quick, Director of Customer Support at Recurly.

Before LiveChat, Recurly could get through about 40% of their customer tickets in two hours. Now, they’ve bumped that response rate up to 70%.

This is critical for Recurly– ain’t nobody got time to wait around on a billing problem. Must. have. money. now.

Recurly started the LiveChat offering with two agents at the ready to handle customer questions. Now, a full team is trained to put out customer fires before they even get the notion of hitting the send button on a long-form email.

LiveChat gets the job done quickly. And gives the customers direct access to Recurly. Better client relationships lead to better reviews lead to better revenue.

Done and done.

Conclusion

Let’s be completely honest with each other for a second.

Live chat used to suck.

It was static. It was reactionary. It was clunky.

Today, that’s all changed.

.

And it’s outperforming almost every other alternative channel.

Live chat features help bypass confusion and questions from customers and potential customers. Having someone right there ready to guide them through the process means they are less likely to go elsewhere.

It’s helping companies engage new leads and connect them with new sales reps.

And most importantly, it’s increasing revenues faster.

So stop reading. And start chatting.

Growth Case Study: How Autopilot Went From 0 to 2,000 Customers in 18 Months

  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 […]

 
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.

Month over month growth graph

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.

Foundations

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:

Avoiding the SaaS Graveyard

 

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.

Personas

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.

 

Growth strategies

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.

Nurture 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:

  1. Generating pre-launch buzz to attract early adopters
  2. Attracting industry attention with a controversial research report
  3. Building domain authority through a content-driven SEO strategy
  4. Growing and nurturing our lead database
  5. Activating trialists based on usage
  6. Pricing for land & expand
  7. Integrating deeply with key solutions
  8. Optimizing the customer journey using the right tools
  9. 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.

Marketing Automation

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.

lifecycle-content

Top

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:

Our academy, Flight School, has also added hundreds of customer journey marketers into the fold.

Middle

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.

Bottom

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):

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:

personalized-email-shoes

Personalize your emails

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.

activate-trialists-impact

 

Here’s the in-app message we send on day two of our free trial to nudge users toward adding the tracking code:

headsup

Heads Up Message

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:

land-and-expand

 

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:

Slack-Screenshot-sales-onboarding

 

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:

map-the-customer-journey

 

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.

Case Study: How to grow your SaaS startup to 10,000 paying customers

How Intercom Got $10mil+ in Annual Recuring Revenue Without Splashy Media Coverage, a Sexy Story, or a Famous Founder While companies like Slack have earned praise, press, and huge valuations for their rapid growth, an Irish-born startup called Intercom has been quietly but steadily creating a new category of software. And even though the company is still in the […]

How Intercom Got $10mil+ in Annual Recuring Revenue Without Splashy Media Coverage, a Sexy Story, or a Famous Founder

While companies like Slack have earned praise, press, and huge valuations for their rapid growth, an Irish-born startup called Intercom has been quietly but steadily creating a new category of software.

And even though the company is still in the “early adopter” phase of its market development, its products making in-roads into the low end of Salesforce’s, Marketo’s, and Zendesk’s markets.

In the last 12 months, the company doubled its customer from 5,000 paying customers to 10,000. They’re generating tens of millions of dollars in annual recurring revenue. Most recently, they raised a $50 million dollar venture round.

While this kind of growth is rare for even excellent SaaS products, Intercom’s story offers lessons for every SaaS startup founder and marketer around.

So how can you create, market, and sell a product that catches on and grows?

The key – if there is only one key – turns out to be simple (even though it’s hard): build a product that solves a big, expensive problem that you, yourself deeply understand.

This is exactly what Intercom’s founders did when they built Intercom to solve the problems they, themselves, faced when marketing, selling, and providing support to customers using a half-dozen different tools.

As they built their product, they discovered that a whole lot of other people had a similar set of problems. As Intercom grew, they found more ways to use and expand their offering to address both their own growing pains and the demands of a rapidly-expanding set of customers.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the story, and it can teach all of us a few lessons about how to create successful products.

 

It’s hard to define a new category when you’re the only one in it.

If you’re setting out – as more than a handful of founders have – to build a faster, cheaper, or better designed version of Zendesk, the problem you face is clearly defined: you just have to look at Zendesk, and ensure your product is faster, cheaper, and/or better designed.

Same thing goes for sales software, task management, or any other pre-existing category: you can look at the dominant players in the space and potentially carve out a niche by mimicking their best features and improving on their worst.

But if you’re building a complex, category-defining product, the problem is a lot less constrained.

You can’t simply say “We’re Uber for Salesforce!” and be done with it. You have to define what you’ve built without a clear reference point, and this is almost always incredibly hard.

Indeed, defining the product in clear and compelling terms (i.e. getting your product marketing right) seems to be an ongoing challenge for even founders and marketers of successful, high-growth SaaS startups everywhere. It certainly has been for Intercom.

As Intercom’s founder and CEO, Eoghan McCabe told me in an interview:

When we started out, we didn’t know the full breadth and depth of the competitive landscape. We didn’t frame the whole Intercom vision and the idea around what already existed. We simply started to solve our own problems and took it from there.

Because we weren’t entering a pre-existing product category, we struggled to explain not only what it was to the rest of the world, but even we struggled to understand it ourselves. What is this thing we’re building? Why does it matter? Why are people so excited about it? That was basically the fundamental challenge that touched every component of the business, whether it was on the product side, or the go-to-market side.

And, as even McCabe will admit, even though Intercom’s team has come a long way in understanding what they are creating, they still haven’t completely nailed down the language they use to describe it.

But if you’ve built a compelling SaaS product and are having a hard time distilling its essence, here’s some good news: Clay Christensen, the famous Harvard Business School professor and product marketing mind behind The Innovator’s Dilemma, came up with a framework that can help you.

This framework, lesser known than Christensen’s classic theory of disruption, is known as “Jobs To Be Done.

 

 

How Clay Christensen’s “Jobs To Be Done” framework can help you explain your SaaS product

Christensen’s “Jobs To Be Done” is a product marketing framework that helps you articulate your product’s position and value. It boils down to asking yourself “what ‘jobs’ do my customers ‘hire’ my product to do?”

To make this concrete, let’s say you’ve built a big, beautiful collaborative task and project management application. The job your customers hire that product to do may include:

  • Keeping their teams and themselves focused on the most impactful work
  • Tracking and prioritizing bugs and feature requests
  • Planning a complex marketing campaign
  • Creating repeatable systems and processes that they can delegate to junior people on their team.

Applying “Jobs to be Done” to its full capacity enables founders, product people, and marketers to go beyond demographic-driven “buyer personas” and “user stories” and start to understand the purpose of their products in more concrete terms.

According to Intercom’s McCabe, the “Jobs To Be Done” framework has been invaluable for his team.

Jobs to be Done focuses us on these nuanced problems that arise in people’s lives. If you understand the nuances, you can then understand the specific criteria that the product must have. And then you can focus on building a product that fits those criteria and solves those problems. Anytime we want to build a new product or a new core feature in a product, we’ll actually write out the job to make sure we understand it.”

Now, if you take look at the top of Intercom’s homepage (screenshot below), you’ll see that the headline is a bit murky.Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 4.56.18 PM

The fuzziness of this headline shows that even with the “Jobs to Be Done” framework in the background, boiling down Intercom’s essence to a single sentence remains a struggle for the company.

But applying the framework has helped Intercom do what few startups are able to do: break its core product into multiple successful products AND launch a new product line that catches on.

 

 

How to split your core product into separate products without losing momentum

Breaking up your core product into separate products can be an intensely risky move. Do it wrong and at best, you piss off your customers. At worst, you lose tons of them. Let’s look at how Intercom did it right:

When Intercom first launched, everything came bundled together. You got all of it–the support, marketing, and product feedback tools–for a price that varied based on the number of active users you had in your database.

But a couple years back, the company broke its core product into three separate products, each one targeting a specific “job” that a given team inside a SaaS company needs to do:

  1. Engage. This is the marketing product, intended to eliminate the need for a full-fledged marketing automation system like Marketo, Pardot, or HubSpot. Engage helps marketing teams on-board new customers and retain old ones by sending automated messages based on their behavior inside an app. The job here is to transform potential customers into actual customers without requiring hands-on contact from a salesperson or customer success team.
  2. Learn. This one is for product teams who need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of their users. It makes it easy for product managers and research teams to send highly-targeted messages to customers, based on what they’ve done (or haven’t done) inside the product. For example, you might use “Learn” to send a message to the 40% of your users who aren’t using that fancy new feature you just launched and ask them why not.
  3. Support. This is a tool for support teams who need to deliver customer support without turning everything and everyone into a “ticket.” Its features include a “Team Inbox” that lets a support team distribute support requests and basic reporting features to track how long responding usually takes.

The benefits of the Jobs To Be Done framework is clear here. Before Intercom implemented the framework, its product was much harder to explain, and perhaps even harder to sell.

 

 

Jobs To Be Done can also help you grow faster

By dividing the product into a set of jobs and then splitting the core offering along the lines those jobs create, Intercom can punt on its core positioning challenge. After all, if the company can sell individual products to the individual teams who will benefit most from using them, they can tell three individual stories, rather than a single unruly one.

And of course, once they’ve made in-roads into a company with one product, it becomes much easier to sell another product to another team. Eventually, the whole company is using Intercom, and paying a lot more money to boot.

This is a version of the “land and expand” enterprise sales strategy, where a sales team sells a specific product to a specific team or division of the company and then uses the opening that product creates to sell across and up the chain.

For Intercom, whose customers tend to be small and mid-sized SaaS companies rather than Fortune 500s, the “land and expand” process requires a bit less sophistication (and fewer salespeople), but the principle is the same.

 

 

Jobs To Be Done can even help you launch new products that catch on

According to research by an entrepreneurship professor at North Carolina State University, about 40% of all new products fail.

We see this all the time in technology, when even our favorite companies put out new products out that fall flat. (See: Twitter’s Moments, Facebook Home, Google Glass, Amazon Fire Phone).

Failed products are a sad way to waste a ton of money, human output, and morale, and while there is a much better, lower-risk way to build and launch new products, very few companies do the necessary legwork.

But in October of 2015, Intercom did what so few companies manage to do: they created and launched a brand new product that caught on and grew fast.

This product, called “Acquire,” is an alternative to the live chat software you put on your website to talk to potential customers. And while Acquire would benefit from more sophisticated ways to capture email addresses and communicate with potential customers, it does the job of converting website visitors into new leads fairly well.

When Intercom launched Acquire, they had around 6,000 paying customers. On the back of the new product, that number rapidly hit 10,000. But as McCabe will tell you, launching a new product that nearly doubled his business wasn’t 100% pure luck.

As he says,

Before we built Acquire, we already had people trying to install Intercom on their marketing sites, even though it wasn’t something that we designed Intercom for. A lot of people made that request. So when we launched it, we had a really high degree of confidence that it was something that people wanted.

By diving deep and investigating the unconventional ways your customers already used your products, you can discover the big gaps in your offering. Equipped with these insights, you can build a new product and be confident that it will have instant appeal.

This sounds simple, but it’s easy to get it wrong: building a new product you know your existing customers will love is far less risky than attempting to concoct something new and compelling from thin air.

Of course, even if you focus on building new products for your existing customers, it’s still easy to slip up. Indeed, McCabe says that when Intercom first released Acquire to the public, the product faced “really aggressive churn.”

It was rocky going, but the team had a clear path to addressing the problems and getting their product right. After all, Intercom’s own product happens to be expressly built for collecting feedback about itself.

 

 

How regular, “expensive” communication with your customers pays huge dividends

This brings it all back around to the beginning: Intercom got started because Eoghan McCabe and his co-founders looked at their 10 years of experience building, marketing, and selling software and concluded that the conventional processes and tools were a disaster.

As he says,

When you think about how humans want to interact, and then you look at how most companies talk to their customers, those two things look very different. They spam them. They treat them like tickets, like statistics. Sales, marketing, and support teams talk across each other so that the customer gets the opposite of a holistic experience. That’s the status quo today: Many different teams in many different apps; no one on the same page about the customer; everyone treating customer like data points and tickets rather than humans.

The solution he and his team came up with was Intercom: an all-in-one tool for communicating with your customers in a far more personal, human way.

The challenge, of course, is one of scale.

When you have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of customers, how can you possibly give them the attention necessary to make them feel like you care? And even if you could, should you?

McCabe’s perspective here is instructive, so I’m gonna share a bunch of it.

Every single conversation we have with every one of our customers goes through Intercom. There’s 50-odd people on the sales team talking to people every day. We’ve got our product folks building segments and getting feedback from different groups of our users and customers. Our research team also talks to our customers in Intercom. Our customer support team does too. I even jump in there to see what conversations people are having and talk to customers, too. While other companies try to add efficiencies over time and try and reduce conversations, we are fully committed to increasing the amount of conversations we have with our users, and always being available.

If all of that sounds like an expensive way to engage customers, it is: McCabe intends to grow his sales and support teams to “many hundreds of people in just a couple years.”

But instead of treating personal communication with customers as a cost center that would ideally be automated, Intercom treats it as an investment. Indeed, McCabe sees all of this interactions critical to Intercom’s growth and success.

 

 

Final Thoughts: Your existing customers are actually a goldmine of strategic insights.

When new users are confused about your product and tell you, that’s an opportunity to improve your messaging and your on-boarding. When a feature you just launched isn’t getting traction, talking to customers that haven’t used it is a great way to find out why not.

When you talk to your customers as a matter of practice, you can learn all about the strengths and weaknesses of your product, the accuracy of your marketing messages, and the efficacy of your internal processes.

Yes, communicating with your customers in a more human fashion is expensive.

But you know what else is expensive? Failing to understand your customers, watching tons of them leave, and building products that don’t catch on. 

So what do you think? Are you talking with your customers on a daily basis? Or is your company still considering it a cost instead of an investment? Let me know in the comments below.