You’re Not Failing Enough

I was asked to give a talk about paid traffic sources at 500 Startups last week. The presentation is embedded below.

Although I couldn’t resist diving into deep, specific, tactical stuff near the end, the three most important points I wanted to impress upon my audience were:

  1. Most online ad campaigns (even those created by professionals) fail
  2. The only foolproof way to succeed is to try (and fail) enough to exhaust every other option except the successful one
  3. Therefore, your objective should be to fail as quickly and cheaply as possible

It’s become common knowledge among the lean startup movement that you should launch quickly, iterate, pivot, etc. But I want to take this one step further as applied to traffic (and startups as a whole):

When you launch a campaign, your objective should be to make it fail.

When you launch an advertising experiment, it will most likely fail. The null hypothesis is that it fails. This is a good thing, because it creates defensible barriers to entry for your business.In other words, once you have a successful campaign, a novice with a $100 AdWords coupon won’t be able to disrupt your acquisition channels.

If chances are that your campaign fails, you might as well do it quickly and painlessly.

I know it seems crazy to set a goal of losing money. But just give it a try. Because here’s what happens when a campaign fails:

  1. The campaign failed because it spent money without bringing in enough conversions or revenue to pay for itself.
  2. If the campaign is spending money, it’s generating traffic.
  3. If the campaign is generating traffic, it’s also generating data: click costs, conversion rates, ad copy and landing page split test results, etc.

And as any good marketer will tell you, data is everything. He who has the most data wins.

Don’t aim for launching a campaign that’s instantly successful/viral/profitable. That’s a fool’s errand, and it can only lead to disappointment.

Your only objective with a new campaign should be to collect enough data to validate or disprove your assumptions.

Then go back to the drawing board, use what you’ve learned to create a new campaign that fails slightly less than the last one, and try again.

Don’t worry about the conversion rate or CPC with a new campaign. Just get the data, so you have a baseline you can optimize from.

If you get an additional data point about what works and what doesn’t you win, no matter the result.

Pickup artists call this mindset outcome independence, defined as “The mindset of not focusing on a specific result, or growing attached to any outcome.”

If you’re not attached to the outcome of a split test, you’ll never get demoralized by its inevitable failure. And you’ll never risk giving up on a traffic source or acquisition strategy too quickly because your first few campaigns failed.

This can be an incredibly powerful mindset. Embrace failure. Never stop testing. And the successes will come in time.

The high rate of failure for most ad campaigns is the reason we started MixRank. We built our startup to catalog and analyze millions of split tests and campaigns  so you can learn from your competitors’ mistakes rather than making them all over again.

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Startup Marketing Lessons Learned Part 3: Scaling Up To Massive Traffic

I recently had the pleasure of assisting over 150 Hacker News members with marketing their startups. I was surprised to learn that I was giving the same advice over and over again. I’m collecting the most specific, actionable and useful marketing advice for startups in a 3 part series. This is part 3. If you haven’t already, read part 1 and part 2, as this post builds on the advice given in preceding posts.I know what you’re going through, fellow startup founder. You’ve already gotten pretty far with your startup. You’ve already launched, and maybe even developed what you think is a solid, scalable business model. You’ve set up tracking and analytics, optimized your landing pages and customer acquisition funnels, tried some PR, and maybe even set up and AdWords campaign.You’re getting a few signups a day, mainly through word of mouth, but not even close to the amount you’re expecting. AdWords is expensive, your CTR is abnormally low, and you’re not getting very many clicks anyway on your $20/day budget.What you need now is traction, but you’re not sure just how to get traction, for it is fleeting and capricious and lost more easily than gained.But don’t worry, I can help. This post is all about quickly getting traction, customers, and profits. More specifically, it’s about leveraging the vast amounts of traffic available out there into rapid, sustainable growth for your startup.So, after you how do you make the leap from piddling along at a few signups a day to consistent, rapid growth?

Test Lots of Traffic Sources

Any successful business uses multiple customer acquisition channels, constantly adapting to shifting trends in the market . Gabriel Weinberg calls them traction verticals, and he has a pretty good list. But you can go much deeper than that list.Are you advertising on AdWords search?With a little excel skill(or some commonly available tools) it would take almost no effort to export a campaign from AdWords and convert it to AdCenter, which covers Yahoo and Bing. Do that, and you suddenly have as much as 50% more search traffic, probably at much lower cost.And, following my last post, don’t neglect media buys on industry blogs. They’re cheaper and easier than you think, and they can do wonders if you’re trying to reach small, high targeted niche audiences- like customers for your B2B software.

Go Beyond Search and Banners

What about PPV(popup ads) networks like Trafficvance and MediaTraffic? You just enter a list of URLs and keywords, and whenever a member of these networks visits one of your targets, your ad comes up.You pay between $10-$15 per 1000 visits. If, for example, you’re trying to promote an iPhone app, popping up an ad for your app over reviews of competitors’ apps is a very cost-effective and underutilized way to get targeted, engaged prospects.I know you think popup ads are so 90s and don’t work, but the success of these ad networks speaks to the contrary. For certain segments of the population(IE users) they can be effective and unobtrusive without damaging your brand. If toolbar traffic is good enough for Ask.com and Zwinky, it’s good enough for your entertainment/gaming startup too.

Leverage Your SEO Efforts

If you’re already getting conversions from SEO, but you’re struggling to get to the #1 position for every single one of your keywords, you can use what you’ve learned from SEO to get a lot more traffic. Running paid ad campaigns is all about testing; you’re essentially paying to collect data about what works and what doesn’t.[pullshow]You’ve collected that data for free(or cheap) from SEO. Use it. [pullthis]Take your top converting keywords from SEO, and put them into a new paid search campaign.[/pullthis] You already know these keywords convert, so it shouldn’t hurt to start paying for them. Even if you’re #1 for a keyword, like your product name, consider bidding on it in PPC anyway. Rand Fishkin says 12% of clicks go to paid results. If your only search strategy is SEO, you’re leaving that traffic on the table.How about keywords your competitors are optimizing for? If you see them moving up in the SERPS for a certain keyword, get the jump on them with a paid search campaign targeting it.

Learn Customer Demographics, Reach Out To Them In Social Ads

The biggest thing you can do to rapidly scale your business is to stop thinking in terms of keywords and develop an in-depth understanding of who your ideal customers really are. Start thinking not just about demographics, but also psychographics. What are their interests? Where do they work or go to school? The more detailed the better.Then take those specific keywords and create highly relevant ad campaigns targeting them on Facebook Ads. You can now target the entire social graph with incredible precision on Facebook- every like, group membership, interest, and so on. Use this data.If you create an ad campaign on Facebook targeting everyone ages 18-30, unless you have an incredibly compelling ad….You.Will.Fail. If you take the time to think creatively about who your customers really are, and microtarget their interests, you will get virtually limitless, highly relevant traffic for pennies a click.Keyword targeting on Facebook is the best kept secret in social advertising.Very few people use this strategy in their social ads, and the ones that do are making absurd amounts of money with very little competition.Did you know that you can target people who have “liked” a specific website? Wow! Imagine the possibilities now that you can show your ads only to people who not only visit but actively engage with specific domains, brands, etc.If you use MailChimp to manage your email lists, they offer a cool free feature where they will link the email addresses in your list to Facebook profiles(courtesy of Rapleaf). Browse through some of your customers’ profiles. Do they share a common interest? Belong to a certain demographic? Try targeting those on Facebook Ads and see how they convert.


I didn’t hit even 20% of what I wanted to cover in this post, and it’s already too long. I’ll flesh out the details and specific tactics for scaling traffic in subsequent posts.For now, remember this: Learn everything you can about your customers, find out where they go online, and target those sites from every angle possible.

Startup Marketing Lessons Learned Part 2: AdWords is Only the Beginning

I recently had the pleasure of assisting over 150 Hacker News members with marketing their startups. I was surprised to learn that I was giving the same advice over and over again. I’m collecting the most specific, actionable and useful marketing advice for startups in a 3 part series. This is part 2.Last time, we discussed marketing fundamentals you needed to get right before beginning to drive traffic to your project. I hope you’ve implemented some of those suggestions into your product marketing.I don’t want this blog to consist solely of vague textbook marketing advice. This week, we’re going deeper and diving right into specific methods you can use right now to generate a stream of interested customers for your startup. Let’s get started.

Test and Track Everything

…advertising is traced down to the fraction of a penny. The cost per reply and cost per dollar of sale show up with utter exactness. One ad is compared with another, one method with another. Headlines, settings, sizes, arguments and pictures are compared. To reduce the cost of results even one percent means much in some mail order advertising. So no guesswork is permitted. One must know what is best.

Can you guess which AdWords guru wrote the words above?That quote is from the seminal work Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins, written in the 1920s. You would think that, 80 years later, people would realize the importance of tracking, especially with how easy modern analytics software makes it.And yet, startup after startup is creating ads that link to their homepage, without any tracking variables appended. They can only guess if their ads are effective, and they’re collecting exactly zero data.Any ad campaign, even if it’s set up by an expert, will probably start out losing money. When you launch an ad campaign, you’re not just paying for customers, you’re paying for data about what works and what doesn’t, tested in the marketplace.As you collect data and optimize, the campaign will eventually pull into the black. But if you’re not collecting click and conversion data, you’ll never know what you need to optimize, and you’ll continue bleeding money forever.Don’t just track based on which campaign gets the highest CTR. You need to drill down to the individual ad and keyword level, and track both CTR and conversion rate for each ad. This is done by appending a unique id to the URL of each ad variation. If you can’t tell me exactly which headline is bringing you the most loyal customers, you’re doing it wrong. If you track everything down to the ad level, you’ll be able to know exactly where your most profitable customers are coming from. This is especially critical for recurring billing/subscription services, which many startups are. Again, optimize for CLV.Setting up tracking is super easy. Google Analytics has a simple URL Builder you can use to append tracking variables to any link. You’ll want to focus on the utm_term and utm_campaign variables.If you want even better, more customizable, real-time data, my friends at MixPanel are happy to help.If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this:Track Everything Now. Every second you’re not tracking, you’re losing money.

Search Is Just The Tip of the Iceberg

Here’s an example of what the typical startup founder told me about their marketing campaign:

Out startup sells time tracking software for dog walkers. We’re already advertising online. We’re bidding on “dog walker time tracking” on Google Search and getting 3 clicks and 0 conversions a day. How do we get more traffic?

It’s not surprising that you’re not getting lots of traffic, because you’re stuck in a search-only mindset. You can thank Google’s excellent branding for that, because they would love to have you believe that the only way to get customers online is through buying search keywords.Here’s the truth about advertising online: most of your traffic and customers will not come from search. They will come from social networks(more on that soon) and other sites- and I don’t mean just the Google Content Network. Want to know a cheap, high volume traffic source your competitors aren’t using? Two words: media buys. Yes, I’m talking about banner ads and yes, they still work.You don’t have to have a big budget to start buying banner ad space. Start approaching smaller blogs in your niche, and offer to pay them a fixed amount to paste your ad code into their site for a month. Again, track everything.When you do a simple media buy, you don’t have to worry about maintaining a high CTR or relevance between ads and landing pages, you just need to get enough clicks and conversions to stay profitable.I’ll have a post exclusively about media buying coming soon, but for now, start looking around and negotiating. You’ll be amazed at the great deals and cheap traffic you can find.

Competitor Bidding Works, Take it To The Next Level

Bidding on the names of competitors on search is an effective tactic. You’re reaching customers who are at a later stage of the buying cycle. They already know they need your product or service, and now they’re just comparing the alternatives and reading reviews before committing to a purchase. Let your competitors spend money educating the market and finding qualified prospects, then snatch the customer from their grasp when he’s about to buy.[pullshow]Competitor bidding is a good start, but it’s only a start. Here’s how you can easily and inexpensively outfox your competitors on most traffic sources:[pullthis]Don’t stop at search. Follow competitors’ ads around the web.[/pullthis] Search for competitor names, features, products, etc, or get their keywords from a keyword research tool. Look at the search results for their name and main keywords. Are there any sites there that have AdSense? Any blogs that have written reviews of a competitor’s product? Those are all prime advertising opportunities.Approach them directly and offer to buy banner space, either on the whole blog or just on that specific post. Prospective customers searching for information about competitors will instead come across ads for your product, and some will inevitably convert. If you see a competitor’s ads on an AdSense block on a page, you’ve found a fantastic traffic source. Approach the webmaster and offer to buy a banner ad to replace the AdSense. You’ll be able to pay the webmaster more for the space because Google isn’t taking their 30% cut, so it should be a no brainer for them to accept your offer. Now not only have you cut off a competitor from a lucrative traffic source, but you’ve also uncovered a proven source of converting traffic. Repeat this enough, and you’ll be able to completely dominate your competitors outside of search while spending less than them.

Start Retargeting Right Away

Retargeting is the practice of showing ads to people who have already visited your site(but probably didn’t convert). Retargeting is very cost effective, and delivers incredibly high-converting traffic, because you’re only paying for impressions shown to people who have expressed an interest in your product. When building a retargeting campaign, create banners that prominently feature your name, logo, and color scheme. People who have seen that design before will notice and click. There are two easy ways you can use retargeting right away:AdWords has a retargeting option you can turn on for a campaign. Or, for greater reach, AdRoll has an easy self-serve retargeting system that ties into major ad networks. You just add their pixel to your site, they leave a cookie, and show banner ads that follow your visitors around the web, g
ently yet firmly reminding them to sign up for your site.There is so much involved in getting traffic online. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible. If nothing else, I hope this post has inspired you to explore other traffic sources with tracked, tested, creative campaigns. Next week: I show you how to easily increase your current traffic tenfold, discuss advanced optimization tactics to squeeze more out of your current campaigns, and finish with a little-known traffic tip I’ve never told anyone before.

Lessons Learned From Helping Over 150 Startups With Marketing Part 1: Fundamentals

About a week ago, I made a post on Hacker News offering free online marketing advice to any startup that asked for it. I had over 150 startups emailing me, selling everything from enterprise software to scheduling tools to pet food, and I tried to answer every single one with specific, actionable insights they could put to use right away. This took a lot of time, but not as much as I expected, because I would frequently find myself giving the same advice over and over again.I’m going to collect the most useful and common advice I’ve given into a three part “lessons learned” series. In this post, I’ll focus on broader marketing strategies which are critically important if your startup is to succeed. Next week, I’ll delve into driving traffic and specific tactics startups can use to immediately begin growing their customer base.These suggestions may seem basic or common sense to some of you, but you would be surprised at how few startups are actually executing on these. I’ll write about more specific tactics and methods for driving traffic and customer acquisition in my next post, but all of those will be useless unless you get these fundamentals right. By the way, if you’re an affiliate and you don’t think these apply to the landing pages you’re building, you’re doing something wrong.

Articulate a Clear, Specific, Compelling Value Proposition

For many of the startups I looked at, I had to kind of scratch my head and think for a few minutes as I tried to figure out exactly what benefit they offered consumers. The value of your product or service, your unique competitive advantage, should be clear within 5 seconds of visiting your site. I’m sure you’ve heard the old copywriting mantra of “list benefits, not features”. Take that to the next level. [pullthis id=”1″]Take the single most important benefit of using your service, and make that your headline.[/pullthis][pullshow id=”1″]If you could only have one feature in your app, what would it be? Your “killer app” can lead to your biggest benefit, and that’s how you need to introduce yourself to customers. I could write volumes about writing headlines, but a simple statement like this is a good place to start. Especially if you’re selling a B2B service, as many of you are, you need to make the immediate benefit or ROI of using your service crystal clear. If you’re building a B2B app to manage payroll, “Cloud hosted SaaS payroll for your business” is not a good headline. “Spend less time worrying about payroll” is a better one. “Cut payroll management costs by 37% instantly” is even better.

Find Your Target Market, and Segment the Hell out of Them

Another issue I ran across rather frequently is a distinct lack of marketing focus. When asked who their target market was, many people responded “small businesses” or, worse “anyone”. Alright, fine, you sell your SaaS products to small business in the US. But what kind of small business owner converts the best for you? Which customers are most likely to be profitable customers? Who is most excited about your product? You have been tracking these things, haven’t you?You don’t have the budget to target all small businesses, so start with a specific niche or industry you think your product has particularly strong appeal for. Selling time tracking software? Start positioning as time tracking software for accountants, or dentists, or landscapers. How about targeting a specific task or feature and finding people looking for that feature only? Or what about people who already use a particular competitor’s software? I’ll go into competitor bidding at a later time, but it’s a fantastic way to get motivated early users.Build super niche landing pages or, even better, microsites targeting each specific market segment you want to go after, emphasizing the specific benefits of your product to that group only. Not only is this a very strong SEO play, but it will increase your quality score and relevance in AdWords, as well as greatly increase conversions.If you have a landing page targeted to doctors, test putting a stock photo of a smiling doctor using your software on your landing page. It’s cheesy, but there’s a reason companies use it- it works. Similarity is a very powerful principle of persuasion. Tech people respond well to screenshots of software. Local small business owners may not.By the way, this applies to ecommerce startups as well. If you’re a clothing company build pages like “Top products for new moms” or “Tshirts for fans of __”, they will do very well.

Optimize Aggressively for CLV

If you’re running a subscription service of any kind, customer lifetime value(CLV) is by far the most important metric you need to be thinking about. More than conversion rates, burn rate, SEO, or anything else, CLV will determine whether your startup lives or dies. Try to determine this number, at least an average for your entire customer base, as soon as possible.There are so many ways to increase CLV that fall outside the scope of this post, but just remember that effective monetization of the backend is where many online businesses live or die. Effectively upselling or cross-selling once you’ve acquired a customer could mean the difference between outbidding your competitors and capturing more market share or falling behind.You don’t have to be spammy or annoying to upsell well. This can be as simple a showing a notification when your customer is close to reaching a usage limit, urging him to upgrade to the next tier of service, or emailing your most loyal customers with special discounts.Start measuring engagement, churn rate and attrition, visit frequency, etc, loyalty and so on. If you’re selling a $20 a month service but you know that you will net $400 over the lifetime of an average customer, suddenly you have a lot more options for marketing, not to mention some great metrics to show investors.

Start Marketing Early and Validate Your Idea ASAP

You don’t need a product to start marketing. Let me say that again. You don’t need anything to start marketing. All you need is a vague idea and a landing page where you can collect email addresses from prospective customers. It’s called dry testing, and it works, at least for gauging initial interest to see if an idea is worth pushing further.It pains me to see so many startups emailing me who have already spent months or even years building a product without thinking about promotion or validating their idea at all before launching. “Launch first, then figure out marketing” is a recipe for disaster. You need to be able to answer at least these questions as soon as possible, ideally before you write a single line of code:

  1. Is there a target market for my product and how big is it?
  2. Who are the current players in the market? Is it controlled by a few big players or dominated by many smaller companies?
  3. How much market share can I realistically expect to capture, and how well can I monetize them?

[pullthis id=”2″]Remember this: A startup is a business.[/pullthis] And any business requires basic market research. If you were thinking of opening a coffee shop, would you jump right in and start building it? Or would you first see if there are any other coffee shops nearby, how many customers they have, how much they charge for coffee, etc?[pullshow id=”2″]Marketing isn’t just emailing bloggers and driving traffic. It’s everything- product, price, placement, and promotion. Start thinking about these things before you launch, learn from them, and iterate quickly before wasting a lot of time and money.Next Week: Exactly how to find exactly where your most profitable customers are, where to get cheap traffic to validate your idea fast, and how to easily dominate your competitors on most traffic sources.