The new customer sales journey is a long and arduous road, requiring marketing for brand awareness, cultivating interest, and encouraging taking action. But the current customer sales journey? It’s like a quick trip down to the market to pick up a carton of milk – at least in comparison. Marketing Metrics estimates that the probability of selling to an existing customer is as high as 60 to 70 percent (whereas the probability of selling to a new prospect is between 5 and 20 percent). Customer Success capitalizes on this, and so do the fastest growing companies.
When I ask clients what sets them apart, what I hear from most is a lengthy list of features.
Variations on: “Our product does this, that, and the other thing.”
I hate to shoot them down, because they’re all really proud of what they’ve accomplished. Their products are, in fact, excellent at what they do. But here’s the problem with using features as differentiators:
Features can be copied.
Android phones are copying iPhones (and vice versa).
Google Cloud Storage is copying Dropbox and Box, or is it the other way around?
Germany’s Samwer brothers made their fortunes by blatantly copying existing web companies, including Airbnb and Pinterest, and selling the businesses back to their originators or other interested parties.
If you’ve made something, someone else can and will copy it. But, what they can’t copy is you.
“Oh, but I don’t want my business to be about me; I want it to be about my [product/customers/mission trips to Zambia].”
You’re on the right track with this train of thought. This post on CopyHackers says it best, “Potential clients aren’t interested in you. They want to hear what’s in it for them.” But one of the most important benefits customers get from purchasing your product is the expertise, experience, connections, and even personality behind it – your expertise, experience, connections and personality.
Give your brand a face
Some people are deeply hesitant, if not downright suspicious or fearful, of associating their names and faces with their companies. They believe their brands should speak for themselves, which isn’t a terrible idea. It’s just hard to achieve for startups and newer companies. This mindset also misses out on an opportunity.
It is much easier for an individual to become a recognized and respected thought-leader than it is for a corporation.
When Sean Ellis started GrowthHackers.com, he already had a large personal following and authority. He has earned his place as a thought-leader in the field with years of freely sharing valuable insights.
If someone else had tried to start a Growth Hackers community, they could copy the website’s basic premise of up-voting and commenting – but they could never duplicate Sean Ellis.
Similarly, the vibrant Product Hunt community has a duplicable up-vote and comment system, but getting another Ryan Hoover with all of his experience and Silicon Valley buy-in to run the show is unlikely.
Breaking the mold with community
When you consider what truly sets you apart – it has to be something no one else can copy. Knowledge, personal authority, established presence in the community, insider information, in-depth knowledge earned over years, and the community of engaged followers who gravitate to you.
Hubspot, for example, is an outstanding company that makes inbound marketing, content creation, segmentation and tracking easy. But even its sophisticated system will likely generate copycats in the coming years. What these latecomers won’t be able to replicate, however, is Hubspot’s strong community of inbound true-believers at Inbound.org.
Be the first – no one can take that away
You don’t have to invent something brand new to be the unforgettable first (though it helps). Being the first to introduce (or at least vocally adopt) a trend can also establish your reputation as a leader. Buffer beat just about everyone to being a “transparent” company. They’ve become famous for their “default to transparency” values and are credited for starting the movement.
In Running Lean, author Ash Maurya calls these differentiators “unfair advantages”:
A real unfair advantage is one that cannot easily be copied or bought.
On the list are:
- Difficult-to-achieve capabilities – think of how Google has dominated the search market by constantly making improvements to be the best.
- Community – the people who not only follow you, but add value for each other.
- Dream team – it doesn’t have to be all about one person; your differentiator may be how you harness the considerable talents of others.
- Exclusive access to a segment of customers
- Experience & insider knowledge
Once you’ve identified your unfair advantage, you’ve taken the first step towards building a company that may be copied, but will never be matched.
5 fun things to do with your differentiator
Now that you’ve identified your differentiator, or “unfair advantage,” it’s time to use it. You can:
- Use it in your unique value proposition.
- Include it in your supporting copy.
- Add it to the “About Us” section (with a benefits-focus on the customer, of course!).
- Let it inspire your social media strategy.
- Let it be the leading voice in your content, positioning you and your company as a thought-leader in your industry.
Last week, my friend received a charming hand-written note from a monthly wine club she recently joined. It was addressed by hand, the welcome note was written by her personal “wine concierge,” and it contained four $30 Off coupons to give to friends.
But what impressed me (and my friend, since she’s a copywriter) is the words in that handwritten note.
“We are a new company and growing fast.”
“Please help us continue to grow by sharing these referral cards with friends – you’ll earn free vino if they join.”
With that simple call-to-action asking the recipient to share the referral cards with friends (for free wine – who doesn’t love that?), Bright Cellars delivered a customer development tactic that may not scale, but will definitely help them grow.
Crowdfunding is when a large number of donors contribute small amounts of money during an online fundraising campaign in order to finance a new product, project, venture, adventure or even an entire company. Crowdfunding campaigns have been used by video game companies and movie makers, toy makers and authors, and the possible uses are nearly limitless for startup companies. But you know what they say: if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Since major crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter launched, the crowdfunding universe has become overwhelmingly crowded, drowning out many promising projects. Competition is fierce, and even startups with great ideas for products and services people really want will find it difficult to rise above the noise.
Edit: Meerkat no longer exists, but I’m keeping Kiki’s guest post as is, because her advice is still relevant to any live video streaming app.
This is a guest blog entry by Kiki Schirr.
First Meerkat was, and now Periscope is taking over the Internet. If you’ve installed either live-streaming video app, chances are you’ve heard the siren call of its audio alert. Have you rushed to your phone to tune in to someone else’s exciting life? “Walking the Great Wall” or “At the top of London’s Ferris Wheel” are clearly going to get the views. How can we, with our more simple lives, possibly compete?
There are three winning strategies for the normal amongst us: friends, foreigners, and fridges.
1. Friends: Tap Your Followers List
Friends are an easy source of likes and follows—possibly the most easy to snag. You know what your friends like, so use those inside jokes and connect with all your Twitter friends like a chimp in a game of Barrels Full of Monkeys.
2. Foreigners: Embrace an International Audience
Foreigners are a little more difficult to attract. You should ask yourself: what aspect of your daily life might seem strange to a foreigner? What about your morning make-up routine? Your drive to the grocery store (from the passenger seat!) or walking through the aisles of a gas station can take on an exotic edge when viewed by someone who’s never stepped foot in your state.
If you’re trying to appeal to foreigners, be sure to use your location in the title. If you speak a foreign language, use key words in multiple tongues. Like “Florida USA drive on a sunny day” or “美国 gas station” Bonus points if you speak Arabic, because doesn’t Periscope make you think 3/4 of the world’s iPhones are in the Middle East?
3: Fridges: Play to Your Unique Strengths
The final “F” is for fridges: the sort of weird, completely absorbing fads that absorb most of the traffic on Periscope. Right now it’s an exploration of fridges, with insightful commentary on which brand of ketchup you prefer. This is where your creativity will have a chance to shine: what can you do that people will find oddly fascinating?
For me, the answer has been drawing. I can draw, sort of, and the slow reveal of a shapeless stack of pencil lines into a recognizable face of some movie starlet has captured more attention than my other videos. Try to capitalize on your talents—like basketball trick shots, turning your eyelids inside out, or burping the National Anthem. Admit it, you’d watch those.
So when you next flip that iPhone camera on, think of the 3 F’s: friends, foreigners, and fridges. You can thank me—by tuning in. I’m Kiki on Periscope, and @kikischirr on Twitter.
Let me know how it works!
Like samples at Costco, Free Trials are meant to make buyers’ mouths water. But, unlike mini-quiche, your SaaS product probably doesn’t appeal to 95% of the population, which means you have to do a little work to make people want a nibble.
SaaS Free Trial conversion rates are strongly correlated with revenue and well-worth optimizing, as Lincoln Murphy pointed out in his SaaS Free Trial Conversion Rate Optimization Resource Guide. But while his list of 40 articles on Free Trial Best Practices is comprehensive, it may also be a little overwhelming! So let’s distill it down to its main concepts.
Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
You can’t optimize what you don’t measure, so make sure every decision in your Free Trial process is metrics-driven. Only measure metrics that are actionable, and be sure to identify things most customers did during the Free Trial that ultimately lead to sales. Hint: Number of Free Trial users (i.e. those who have only created an account but haven’t engaged with it) is a vanity metric.
Think a 5% conversion rate is okay? Think again. The argument that low conversion rates are normal is total bupkis, a load of hooey. What it really means is that A) Your sales process or product is driving away customers., or B) You’re marketing to the wrong people. If you make a 25% conversion rate your goal, then you’re shooting for average – and who wants to be average?
Offering Free Trials automatically increases conversions, right? Um, no. Not all Free Trials are created equal. To see if your Free Trial is increasing conversions, you’ll have to A/B test it against not having a Free Trial. Try something as simple as “Buy Now” versus “Try Now.” From there, the challenge is to design your Free Trial around proving your product/service’s ROI to the prospect (rather than wait for them to do something vague like “see how much it helps their business.”)
Freemium or Free Trial? Freemium is when you give “Level 3” access to everyone for free, but reserve Levels 2 and 1 for paying Premium customers (or however you want to break it down). Free trials are limited in time, after which customers have to pay to continue using the service. Which is better? Freemium works well when you have a wide market and when having more users add value (via content, data, shares, etc.). If you don’t have those two factors in place, well, you aren’t running a charity (unless you are, in which case, never mind).
Stop thinking that your customers are there to “evaluate” your product (aka kicking tires), and shift your mindset into getting the prospect to use your product. Your Free Trial strategy should be aimed at helping them really use it and get comfortable with it as quickly as possible. Keep refining the process to shorten the distance between Free Trial sign-up and actual use.
Best question ever: If your ideal customer looks at your site for 5 seconds, will they know they’re your ideal customer? And this goes double for your Free Trial content.
Nitty-Gritty Details of the How-To Variety
How detailed or simplified should Free Trial signup forms be? Ask for the bare minimum – an e-mail address. Then later you can ask for more information so you can help improve their Free Trial experience. Never let them feel like you just want their information so you can sell to them.
Free trial content/e-mail marketing: Once a prospect signs up for your free trial, what happens? He or she receives a welcome e-mail. Onboarding this customer begins with that e-mail, which means you have to nail it. Make sure the prospect knows to expect an e-mail after sign-up; compose a compelling subject line; send it from a real person’s e-mail address; and write it with one goal in mind: To encourage the prospect to take the next baby-step down the sales funnel. Clean, simple, useful, personal, non-salesy copy wins the day.
Front-load your Free Trial sales process with automation. This way, you will liberate your sales person’s time while making each prospect feel cared for and valued. Throughout the trial, prospects will qualify themselves or drop out, allowing your sales team to close the strongest prospects by the trial’s end. Think you should call every prospect when they sign up for a Free Trial? Not your best move – Free Trials are a self-service sales model and your prospects likely won’t appreciate your “personal touch” before they’re ready to make the decision.
Should you ask for a credit card up front? No. Free Trials are about building trust, and asking for their CC before they can even try you on for size is a non-starter.
Trying to decide on Free Trial length? First, stop associating its length with your sales cycle, and start focusing on how long it would realistically take someone to evaluate your product/service. To find that out, ask customers about their product evaluation process, then A/B test two trial lengths until you have it down to a science. Keep in mind that the goal of SaaS Free Trial length is to get the prospect to sign-up (it’s what you do after the sign-up that determines whether prospects convert). Oh, and always offer a way to “Buy Now.”
Is the first page your new Free Trial customer sees upon login engaging? The Number One reason free trials fail to convert is that they don’t engage customers quickly enough. That first page should be friendly, simple, and lead the user to successfully use the tools provided.
Free trials, like all of SaaS marketing, are a science. The good news is: You can master it! Measure everything, see what your best customers did and are doing during their Free Trials, and fine-tune your process until you’re reaching conversion percentages of which your competitors only dream. It’s all possible.
“Automagically” sharing just about anything is Buffer’s claim to fame. It’s their business to make being a contributing member of the online community easier. But when it comes to making the lives – and jobs – of the people behind Buffer easier, it gets complicated. The stack of apps Buffer uses to get the job done was four years in the making and is still changing as the company scales.
What tools does a growing company like Buffer need? Tom Redman, mobile developer at Buffer, shared not only their current stack, but their reasoning behind every layer.
“We are continually experimenting with new tools and systems, changing existing ones and seeing what works. We’re not really dogmatic about anything and try really hard to keep an open mind about tools.”
Tools for Navigating Instant Communication
Buffer is a tight-knit team, and when one person sees a need or pain-point, he or she researches available options and checks with the team to see if there are any takers. When Sunil Sadasivan, Buffer’s CTO, thought that having a more open, idea-based discussion forum would help foster new ideas (without cluttering up email or HipChat threads) he set up an internal Discourse site. Anything and everything goes, keeping HipChat and email for more focused discussions.
And yes, Buffer uses HipChat rather than Slack – but they didn’t always.
In the beginning was the Slack channel. And it was good. But Slack didn’t give the team much control over its notifications system, which lead them back to HipChat. “HipChat is our office,” says Tom.
Buffer also uses Small-Improvements for positive and constructive feedback. Small-Improvements is performance review software that allows users to set and track objectives, send messages, and most importantly, dish out lots of praise.
Face to Face, with Miles Between
To further create the feeling of a spontaneous office environment with remote team members, Buffer uses Sqwiggle for rapid-fire video chats. Sometimes, all the emoticons in the world can’t take the place of seeing the expression on your co-worker’s face.
Long-Form, Long-Distance Discussions
While instant message style tools like HipChat and Slack are ideal for keeping a long-distance team connected, sometimes you need to write more than a chat window or thread can comfortably hold. When this happens, the Buffer team switches to Gmail – with “heavy filtering and labels.” Each team member receives a lot of mail, and as the team grows, Gmail’s sorting and labeling features become more and more important.
In the midst of flying emails from teammates, instant messages and video chats, it’s almost too easy to forget that clients, customers, and people outside your work circle might also want to speak with you. For these communications, Buffer uses HelpScout for email, and SparkCentral for Twitter.
A Place for Everything, When Everything Grows Like Crazy
When your company is growing as fast as Buffer, organization and project management become all-important. And, they can become all-consuming without the right tools. Buffer employs several tools to help them stay focused, organized and on track.
For product specs, personal task tracking, getting advice, or just about any other random thought, they use Hackpad.
When it’s time to orchestrate a Task Force, or perform any task that involves a list, Trello is the preferred medium.
iDoneThis is ideal for seeing which tasks have been completed in each person’s day (the Buffer team is completely transparent on who does what, when).
And, for document organization and spreadsheets, Google Docs is the tool of choice – for most things. For other types of files and resources the team wants to share, they use Dropbox.
Tracking, Measuring, Monitoring & Keeping All the Balls in the Air
They say “What gets measured gets done” and by the number of things Buffer gets done, they must measure a lot. Here’s their list of tools for keeping all the balls in the air (and getting instant alerts should one ball go down).
- Github for code repositories, versioning and, recently, issue-tracking
- Jenkins for automated builds, running tests, and deploys (we have Jenkins hooked into HipChat for convenient deploys)
- Compose/MongoDB for database requirements
- Amazon AWS for hosting, data crunching, SQS workers, performance monitoring
- Looker for data mining/exploration
- New Relic for performance monitoring (we get notifications as soon as anything goes wrong)
- PagerDuty to automatically assign engineers to rotating on-call shifts when something is urgent
- BugSnag to receive PHP error/exceptions in real time
- Google Analytics for general web analytics
- Seamless, an internal metrics tracking system for detailed usage tracking
Buffer’s Advice for Startups Building Their Stack
When I asked Tom’s advice for how startups can begin to build their own stacks, he had this to say:
“From what I’ve experienced at Buffer, we’re always open to new things, to new tools and processes. If something’s not optimal, it’ll usually signal that something could be changed or at least re-visited. Don’t be scared of experimenting when you think things could be smoother or more effective. With that said, at Buffer we won’t really impose anything. We offer it out to the team, and see how and if others like it, and go from there.”
Try new things, keep what works, and add it to the stack.