Essential Traction & Growth Tactics for Startups


Ryan Battles  •   Entrepreneurship

Traction & Growth for Startups

“Almost every failed startup has a product. What failed startups don’t have are enough customers.” – Gabriel Weinberg, Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers

Why do 3 out of 4 venture-backed startups fail? I mean, these aren’t stupid ideas. Someone has to come up with an idea, validate it’s market demand, create a plan for execution, and articulate this via presentation to venture capitalists, who reject approximately 99% of the ideas they agree to sit down and listen to. The few that make it through this process must have a pretty good chance of success, right?

In addition, you would think that with the experience venture capitalists bring to the table, more startups would succeed.

What is missing in most of these cases, however, is traction. These startups need to not only build a valuable product, but also gain the attention and user base necessary to return the investor’s funds 10x. Needless to say, gaining traction is difficult in most cases, so a strategy to be in the minority that achieve it is imperative.

Growing Your Audience

While there are a variety of factors that play into whether or not a startup gains traction, the basic steps are the same:

  1. Getting people to notice you
  2. Getting people who notice you to become customers
  3. Keeping those customers

In this article, we will discuss the first two, while saving “Keeping those customers” for a future post, where we’ll discuss not only customer retention, but turning our customers into raving fans. Signup here to be notified when it goes live.

So how do you get people to notice you? How do you prevent a launch event that sounds like crickets chirping, and instead celebrate thousands of signups on your first day, and strong momentum every day after that? I’ve taken note of what has worked for others, as well as what I have found working for my own products. What follows are 7 foundational methods for getting people to notice your product:

  1. Email Campaigns
  2. Social Media Networking
  3. In-Person Networking
  4. Borrowing Other People’s Audiences
  5. Generating Buzz
  6. Rising in Search Engine Rankings
  7. Buying Your Audience

These tactics will have varying levels of success, but not all of them will produce a significant return on your investment.

Email Campaigns

Just like great empires, social networks rise and fall. Several years ago MySpace was the top social network, Digg was where you submitted articles to go viral, and Del.icio.us was the social discovery and bookmarking service du jour. In all three cases, the social networks have fallen out of popularity for that original purpose. Some have pivoted into something new, but not nearly as popular as their former glory.

Email is the once constant throughout all of this. I remember using email even before I had access to a web browser. Building your email list is the one universal way to build an audience that won’t depend on the continued success of another company or network.

Not only is there security in email, but the response rates are generally the best in the business. An email sent out to your list has a much greater chance of evoking a response than a Tweet, Facebook post, and LinkedIn update combined (assuming your following is about equal in each venue).

Author and entrepreneur Nathan Barry has revealed that his observed email responses come in at about 29.5%, whereas his observed Twitter response rate is 3.1%.

In my own experience, I’ve noticed that in social media streams, like Twitter, your post is only seen by a small fraction of your total audience. As I write this, I have 5,450 Twitter followers. My two most recent Tweets each only reached an average of 532 people. That’s less than 10% of my total audience that even see the Tweet, let along act upon it.

Twitter Stats

Of the 10% who saw the tweet, only an average of 2.3% engage with it (click a link, retweet, or favorite it). All-in-all, with Twitter, I typically see about .2% engagement from my audience (don’t miss that “point” in front of the two).

Let’s compare this with what I experience with emails. I’ll share the stats from my last three email campaigns:

Twitter Stats

For each of these emails, I’m seeing a pretty consistent 12-13% engagement rate, that is, how many people not only open, but click through to read more about what I am sending out via email. That’s way better than the .2% I’ve seen with Twitter. In fact, it’s 6,250% better!

So, understanding that email is an awesome way to attract engagement, there are three questions that remain to be answered:

How do I get people on my email list?

This is of course the most difficult part of email marketing, growing the list. The most surefire way to grow your email list is to provide something of value, over a long period of time. For example, if you post valuable blog content, then sending that out over email to those who want to subscribe will give you a growing list with each piece of quality content that you write.

Now, this is the slow-and-steady approach. What about speeding the process up a bit? For this you have to be creative. Here are a few strategies:

  • Guest post on a blog with a large following, providing a link to your signup form, ideally giving something away for free as a thank you for signing up.
  • Run a giveaway where people to sign up on the list get a chance to win.
  • Create a free eBook that people find useful and want to share.

On that last point, Hubspot is a great example of a company that gives away free eBooks and webinar recordings in exchange for email signups:

Twitter Stats

The single best strategy that I’ve found to boost the number of people who sign up for my mailing lists is to provide a downloadable piece of content that complements the content that they are currently reading. For example, I wrote an article on Marketing Site Design for Startups. When this post first came out, I simply asked people to sign up for my email list at the bottom of the post (as well as a popup for first-time visitors). My conversion rate was about 3%. When I created a 1-page PDF summary of the key points of the article (which was over 3,500 pages), and made this the incentive for signing up for my list, the conversion rate jumped to 9%. That helped me connect with 300% more people who visited the site, plus they walked away with a useful resource.

What do I send them when they are on my list?

So, you’ve got some people on your list. Wonderful! Now what? Here we have three options:

  1. Ignore the list until you have something that you want to sell them. This is a bad choice. By the time you want to sell something to them they will likely have forgotten who you are or what your startup is about.
  2. Emailing frequent posts selling your services. This is also bad, as people don’t like to receive excessive emails, especially not sales emails. They will likely unsubscribe pretty quickly.
  3. Find the happy medium of how much often to send out mailings, and only sell your services every so often This could be once a week or once a month, depending on the level of value that your email brings.

The basic idea with emailing people is to email them as much as possible while providing value that they look forward to. The standard email newsletter is simply a notification of a new blog post, or some other news about the company. Other successful newsletters send out a curated list of articles or resources that the audience might be interested in. Some newsletters announce a giveaway. All of these things can be valuable to your email list, the key is to find the right balance.

While there isn’t a hard rule to how much you should email people, I’d recommend no more than once a week unless you have a compelling reason to, and no fewer than once a month. This is a great case for testing. Use one method for a while and record your results, then change up the frequency and check on your clickthroughs and unsubscribes.

How do I keep them from unsubscribing?

So you’ve done the hard work, you have people on your list, and you are sending them value on a regular basis. However, with every email you send out you receive a handful of unsubscribes. What? You worked hard for those subscribers, why are they leaving?

The fact of the matter is, there are people on your list that probably shouldn’t be there. These are people who aren’t really interested in your product, who would never buy anything from you anyway, or who only signed up for your list to download your free PDF, now they want out. These are perfectly fine reasons for people to leave your list, and you shouldn’t take it personally.

Now, for those who actually do make good candidates for your list, how do you keep them around? Again, some of this might be out of your control. Some people might be feeling overwhelmed by email newsletters that day and just unsubscribe from all of them. It happens.

The part that is under your control, however, is how much value you are delivering with each email. I recently decided to change the format of one of my newsletters from simply linking to a recent article, to additionally linking to other useful articles that week, plus a free giveaway. My unsubscribes were cut by 67% after that move. The strategy behind this move is to make the email list something people won’t want to miss out on in the future, so they won’t unsubscribe.

Social Media Networking

Now, in the previous section I went on about how pitiful social media engagement rates are compared to email. However, email marketing can only happen to those who have already opted in to receiving notifications from you. How do you spread the word to people who don’t yet know who you are? Social media!

Social media is a way to keep in touch with your audience, but it’s not a great way. As I mentioned previously, only about 10% of your Twitter audience will see your tweets, and this number is likely lower for Facebook since they’ve changed their fan page update algorithms to encourage you to buy more ads if you want your fans to see your updates in their timelines.

That’s not to say you should ignore these channels for spreading news and content, you will still receive benefit from these shares. In fact, if something that you are sharing is exciting enough for others to want to share it too, now you’re expanding your network!

There are more direct ways of ending up on people’s radar using social media. For example, with Twitter, many people receive notifications on their phones when:

  • They have a new follower
  • Someone favorites a tweet of theirs
  • Someone retweets a tweet of theirs
  • Someone mentions them in a tweet
  • Someone sends them a direct message

There used to be a lot of applications that could automate those activities based off of a few rules. However, Twitter changed their policies to stop allowing much of that automation in an effort to keep the community engagement quality higher when using Twitter.

The good news is, you don’t have to be spammy in order to take advantage of these notifications. If you are truly trying to add value to your interactions with people on Twitter, you can do some of the following:

  • Follow interesting people or thought leaders in your target audience.
  • Regularly favorite thoughtful tweets that relate to your business area.
  • Retweet quality tweets with useful information.
  • Mention people by replying to tweets that they broadcast out, just make sure you are adding to the conversation. The more you add to the conversation the more likely they are to click into your profile and find out more about you and your company.

One company that has found a way to boost their brand while adding value on Twitter is Hilton Hotels. Under the handle @hiltonsuggests, concierges monitor tweets in their area and provide advice to travelers looking for places to eat, stuff to do, etc. The results are impressive, which nearly every tweet ending up in a “thank you” or other enthusiastic reply. This boosts the Hilton brand as a company that wants to create a pleasant experience for travelers.

In-Person Networking

Nothing beats face-to-face interaction for driving engagement. The reason why it is so effective is two-fold:

  1. It doesn’t scale, so people are limited with how many people they can network with in-person. This makes the engagement more powerful.
  2. We’re human, and we’re wired for relationships. A face-to-face interaction is the “whole food” of relationships in today’s digital age.

In person networking can come in the form of attending a conference or meetup, or grabbing coffee with someone. It can be a little uncomfortable sometimes to hit someone up on Twitter and see if they want to meet up. I mean, you don’t know if they’ll reject you, or if it will end up being awkward the whole time, or if they’ll stand you up! These are risks (albeit small ones), and the reason why many of us don’t meet face-to-face with strangers on a regular basis.

I can say this, however, that just about all of the best opportunities that have come my way were via someone that I connected with in person. My business partner Andy reached out to me via Twitter when we were just strangers, because he was going to be in town and stumbled across my profile on Twitter and thought it would be good to meet up at a coffee shop. We found a lot of common ground and decided to rent some desks at the same co-working facility. Eventually, we ended up working together on several profitable projects. This all began with saying “yes” to coffee with a stranger.

When it comes to our audience, these personal connections can be very powerful in spreading the word about our product, and introducing the right people to its benefits.

Borrowing Other People’s Audiences

With a little creative thinking, you can grow your audience pretty quickly by “borrowing” from others. Here are a few examples of what I mean by this:

  • Request to be interviewed on someone’s podcast.
  • Start a podcast, and interview someone with an audience. Odds are they’ll let their audience know about the interview.
  • Do the above, but with blog posts.
  • Donate a free product, or free trial for someone else to give away.

People who already have audiences have them because they work at providing value, and building awareness. If you can creatively think of a way to help them do that, there will likely be benefit back at you.

Generating Buzz

This is one of those concepts that is fun to say, and fun to attempt to do, but really hard to do (or at least predict what will generate buzz and what won’t). There are a whole slew of minute reasons why things generate buzz when others don’t, the best strategy here is to just try one thing after another until one sticks.

Of course, doing something that the press wants to cover (getting funded, partnering with a major player, etc.) is one way to generate buzz. This falls under public relations strategy (covered in-depth in a previous post).

Rising in Search Engine Rankings

Search engine optimization used to be much easier to engineer. By using the right code, strategically placed keywords, and building links throughout the web using sketchy methods, you could get you to the top of Google’s search results pages.

With recent changes to Google’s algorithms, you can actually be penalized or banned from search results for trying to engineer your rankings, or trying to game the system. Google’s goal is to serve up the results that people find the most useful, and they are getting better and better at that every year. The best course of search engine optimization is to truly create content that people find useful. People will then naturally share, link to, and visit your site on a regular basis. Google can detect these things, as well as about 200 other factors that they use to rank sites in their results.

So the best SEO strategy is to create excellent content that people tend to search for, and share with others. Nothing you do will matter with SEO if your content isn’t good.

Now, assuming that your content is good, there are some things you can do to look more attractive to Google:

  • Make sure your site is fast-loading
  • Make sure your design is user-friendly
  • Use your targeted keywords in the page title and heading tags, but also use related words throughout the post
  • Make sure your design works on mobile devices
  • Make your pages engaging so people spend more time on your site

These are just a few examples of factors that Google uses for search engine rankings. To see a more comprehensive list check out Brian Dean’s list of 200 ranking factors

Buying Your Audience

Of course, all of this audience building stuff takes time and creativity. You could shortcut the whole process with a little cold, hard cash. Options include:

  • Purchasing search engine advertisements
  • Purchasing social media ads or sponsored updates
  • Sponsoring an event
  • Sponsoring a podcast
  • Purchase ad space on popular websites and blogs in your niche

There really is no limit to the advertising options if you have deep pockets. The only problem is, whereas the other methods provide continued return on your time investment, purchasing your audience doesn’t. You have to keep pumping money into your advertising in order to continue its effectiveness.

Now, if you find an advertising channel that costs less to acquire a customer than that customer’s lifetime value is to your company, then purchasing your audience might be a smart move. For example, let’s say it costs about $5 to acquire a customer using Facebook ads. You also know that each customer has an average lifetime value of $100 after expenses. As long as these numbers continue to hold true, it makes sense to pump as much money into Facebook ads as you can. In fact, this is a great reason to take on venture capital in order to really put the petal to the metal with your customer acquisition.

The sad truth is, it is difficult to get to this stage where you are “printing money” via profitable advertising channels. It requires a lot of trial and error, and a lot of analytics to ensure that these numbers are accurate. The results are well worth it though when you find your profitable advertising channels.

At Harpoon we grew our initial email list into the thousands by purchasing a few email newsletter advertisements before we launched. This didn’t give us an immediate return on our investment in regards to a dollar amount (since people couldn’t sign up for the app just yet), but it did provide us with a jumpstart on product validation and a significant audience to start with.

Converting Your Audience

Using the previous channels, you should now have an audience interested in hearing more about your product. How do you reach out to these folks and convert them into paying customers?

No Substitute for a Killer Product

What is the best way to convert your audience into paying customers? Have something awesome that requires little convincing to purchase. If you have an awesome product, people will be talking about it, sharing it, reviewing it, and ultimately persuading others to give it a try.

If your product’s key features solve a major pain point for your target audience, they’ll be lining up to make purchases.

Give Value Away for Free

Now, I’m assuming your product already is awesome, but perhaps people aren’t yet aware of that fact. The best way to show others that your product is valuable is to plant in their mind that you are the type of person or company that is just overflowing with value creation.

Perhaps your product has a free plan for people to check out. Perhaps you could write an ebook, deliver an online course, or host a webinar that provides value to your audience. Maybe your email newsletters are chock-full of helpful information that provides value to your audience. However you are able to do it, provide value to your audience and they will want to learn more about you. If they see you as a source of value, they will be more likely to buy from you.

Earn Their Trust

Providing value to people is one way to earn their trust, but there are also others:

  • Provide testimonials or embedded tweets from real people.t
  • Have a robust “About” page that shows the people behind your product.
  • Have a professional design on your website and branding materials.
  • Display logos of companies that you are affiliated with.
  • Display your press mentions.
  • Show impressive stats (number of customers, dollars saved, etc.).

These social signals let other people know that they are in good company if they decide to go ahead and make that purchase.

Next Up: Turning Customers into Fans

Nothing builds growth and traction faster than a vocal group of customers that proudly promote your product for you. In next week’s post we’ll be diving into ways to turn delight your customers, turning them into your biggest fans!