My experience with startups and corporates has educated me greatly about the pitfalls of choosing the wrong growth channels. Every situation is unique, particularly when you’re pushing a fresh idea and building an audience from scratch. There’s no magic formula.
Exposing the unsustainable growth tactics
Sure, gather all the inspiration you want from elsewhere. But any consultant peddling a catch-all approach to growth via digital channels is to be avoided. Specified iterative testing as advocated by The Lean Startup is paramount; insight should be paired with trial and error results to settle on the most efficient set of growth tactics.
I recently wrote a status on my LinkedIn profile which gained good traction, and wanted to expand on my thoughts in this article. In the face of all the advice on the web, business owners and CMOs are still taking risks with unsustainable tactics. In some cases, these prove to be downright dangerous, creating yet more volatility in an already capricious environment.
In this piece I’ll compare two sets of approaches; sustainable and unsustainable.
Sustainable growth tactics
Firstly, let’s look at some tactics and approaches which encourage sustainable growth.
This incorporates Google AdWords and Bing Ads, social media advertising, in-app advertising, and other paid channels. Facebook Ads have become particularly popular as the depth of data grows ever bottomless (it accounted for 77% of the digital ad industry’s growth in 2016), but Twitter and LinkedIn have also made an impact for startups, SMEs, and large corporations alike.
Paid acquisition is uniquely scalable, and easily measurable in terms of ROI. Whilst the details remain unique to each brand, it’s fair to say that businesses requiring immediate growth and conversions often rely on paid acquisition, as it provides a route to market at the flick of a switch.
Whether it’s compelling web copy on static pages, dynamic blog article content, or photos, videos, podcasts, and illustrations - great content is crucial. What makes great content? Well, it’s a combination of creativity, accurate target market research, and meticulous execution. Content isn’t great unless it has been designed obsessively for your audience.
75% of businesses increased their content budget in 2016. But great content doesn’t thrive by itself. For this to be a sustainable and successful growth tactic, content must be effectively distributed. Distribution is key, no matter how exceptional the content creation is.
To collaborate with likeminded individuals and brands can be of great value. In the context of growth this often targets awareness stage audience, although collaboration can be heavier-hitting on the sales side. Collaboration may occur on content, budget sharing, cross-promotion and offers, networking contacts, and much more. We’re much stronger as a collective, rather than busting ahead by ourselves.
You might also think of influencer marketing tactics as collaborative. For more on this check out the piece I recently wrote for Onalytica about how influencer marketing with integrity can benefit startup growth. Remember, to be sustainable, collaboration should always be mutually beneficial, non-exploitative, and driven by common goals and values.
There are two kinds of value; perceived and real value. Both are necessary to grow your business. Perceived value gets your “foot in the door” and converts prospects into customers. Real value is what keeps them coming back. Are you creating both types in your marketing efforts?
The value-driven approach is about long-term relationship fostering. This isn’t always applicable, but for most businesses a long-term view of the customer lifetime value (LTV) hinges on consistent value-add. I’ve seen clients struggle with maintaining customer engagement after the initial offer, usually due to the core product or service offering being stifled, with the majority of attention on new customer acquisition.
Even prior to the retention phase, in-between awareness and consideration, content marketing enables you to add value and build a deeper relationship. But how? On to the next point...
Company-culture driven marketing
Nowadays, relationships are not purely transactional and revolve around brands and their values. Sustainable eco-friendly businesses such as Acer and Adidas gained the top spots for the most planet-friendly brands when 36,000 people were surveyed in the US. Employee-focused brands such as Zappos have built a reputation for their adoption of holacracy. Charitable work is important, too. For example, Toms gifts one pair of shoes to those in need, with each customer purchase.
You can get customers through the door with perceived value, and ensure that they stay and become advocates by communicating and actioning brand values in a meaningful way. It’s about vision alignment. This is where creativity and personality comes to the fore, contributing to the bottom-line growth results.
Methodologies for sales, marketing, and product
“My methodology is not knowing what I'm doing and making that work for me.” said Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard. There’s no such luxury for those who seek to efficiently grow a business. A methodological approach is essential to reducing wastage and making every penny count. Yes, risks will be taken on tactics that don’t pay off, but iterative tests will highlight the dud manoeuvres before it’s too late.
Listening and acting
Be inquisitive. Listen, learn, and ask questions. The most impactful insights are gained by constantly asking questions, and seeking to validate them with data thereafter. A brand can grow by maintaining a close proximity to its customers; it’s easy to lose touch with this. For interesting insight on how to ask the right questions (internally and externally), see Eric Ries’s 5 Whys method on Harvard Business Review.
In short, a customer-centric culture will facilitate growth, because it enables faster and more accurate iterations of a product or service, and simultaneously builds brand advocacy within your target group.
Bootstrapped startups, of course, need to be extremely resourceful. But resource constraints are applicable to a business of any size. This also pertains to the careful management of human resources.
Generalists are helpful, but you may achieve better ROI by hiring a specialist. For instance, if you’re seeing that Facebook marketing is a core business drive, double-down on that channel with the right specialist support. The famous Anthony Robbins echoes this quite poignantly, lamenting the lack of resourcefulness at the heart of many who fail to succeed.
Take a look at the bigger picture, and try to comprehend your place within it. Individually and collectively. Appreciate relationships as more than purely transactional arrangements, and seek outside perspectives as often as possible. In a recent piece, I wrote about how startups can suffer from success myopia; a strict focus on results that leads to reductionist language, and an over-focus on the product. This masks what should be a key focus; whether you are answering the most critical problems of your customers.
Avoiding wrong-term thinking
An overreliance on short-term results is problematic because it masks long-term gains. Likewise, an obsession with long-term consistency could hinder the calculated risks that catalyse staged growth. A fine balance is required, especially when measuring the performance of acquisition channels.
This is also pertinent to your team. Burning through staff quickly will damage productivity, and a constant churn will harm morale and cloud the collective vision. Investing too heavily in potential for the future risks leaving gaps in critical skill areas. Finding the balance is tough, but achievable.
Now, let’s take a peek at some of the unsustainable tactics I often see in businesses striving for growth.
Spambots are not the answer, and don’t reflect positively on brand integrity. Bots are used to mass like and mass comment, and for mass link-building. Industrial-scale spam was a valid tactic years ago, but algorithms are clever and society has become wise to unsolicited automation. This is one of the least sustainable practices of modern day digital marketing - any short-term results will be extinguished fast.
Your close network is of great support, especially in early stage growth. But to rely on this existing group in the long-term is foolish. Word-of-mouth may be your most valuable asset in the short-term (especially for high-value B2B services, with 91% of B2B buyers influenced by this when purchasing) but again, overreliance on this channel is dangerous and unsustainable.
Faking is fatal. Always maintain integrity to achieve sustainability. Avoid fake profiles, fake reviews, fake social signals, fake followings, fake clients, and fake experience. You’ll get found out algorithmically or through someone spilling the beans on you.
A machine-gun approach
By investing in all the available channels at once, you’re risking huge wastage and a lack of clarity about which channels are most impactful. This can be damaging to cash-flow, distracting in terms of resourcing, and reflective of a gap in methodology.
I address this problem in my article, Fatal Mistakes: 10 Common Startup Failures.
By hiring according to the lowest cost, whether in-house or outsourced, you’re risking poor ROI. The old adage about “getting what you pay for” has credence, and this is especially apt for resourcing at the most critical times. When budgets are tight, it can be enormously tempting to defer to cut-price talent, inexperience, or quick-fix remote freelancers.
As I’ve said in previous articles, more hours by a junior will not compensate for less hours by a specialist. For the same level of overall investment, startups and established brands must trust that the value added by high-quality talent is reflective of their monetary demands.
This is an era of big data, which is great. In fact, we recently surveyed data scientists about how marketers can improve their use of data. But qualitative analysis and small data is also valuable, while anecdotal insights can be extremely powerful.
Sometimes one just needs to ask a question. Sometimes one just needs to watch a customer’s interaction with the product. Sometimes one should analyse and interpret the data afterwards to validate softer assumptions, rather than seeking meaning in a vast tide of numbers.
Shortcuts are a sure-fire way to burn through cash. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. Let’s be transparent; sometimes shortcuts do indeed work. But the failure rate of shortcutting is higher, and these shortcuts can be harmful during research, strategic planning, execution, and measurement. Beware of growth hacking consultants that recommend risky tactics which break terms and conditions.
As an employee, mentor, investor, supplier, and contractor, I’ve worked with exceptionally intelligent people in multiple VC-backed businesses and corporate environments. It requires money to pay talented people. But if they’re not stimulated by the problem or enjoy the challenge, they’re quick to leave. No matter whether the business weaves a compelling story, something doesn’t stack up and talent smells it.
I’ve mentioned resources within this piece itself, but don’t reduce people to mere “resources” in your everyday thinking or language. Invest in engagement on an emotional and mental level. The more holistically you consider the needs of the people in your fold, the more likely it is that you’ll succeed.
Here’s some essential further reading on employee engagement:
- Moving From Transactional To Transformational: Why Employee Engagement Matters - Larry Myler
- To Give Your Employees Meaning, Start With Mission - James Harter & Amy Adkins
- What Great Managers Do to Engage Employees - James Harter & Amy Adkins
- Millennials Work For Purpose, Not Paycheck - Karl Moore
- Making Differences Matter: A New Paradigm for Managing Diversity - David A. Thomas & Robin J. Ely
- Why It's Not A Case of Re-Inventing The Wheel For Employee Engagement - Tony Kissack
- From Vision to Values: The Importance of Defining Your Core - Jeff Weiner
In a nutshell, there are no safe or sustainable shortcuts. There is of course marketing automation, which needs to be strategically sound and carefully executed. There are tools which reduce time-consuming burdens and streamline processes (i.e. keyword research, link prospecting, social update scheduling). But there is no machine which generates exponential growth.
Each brand has its perfect mix of channels, which remain fluid and open to change due to audience trends, technological advances, and platform algorithms.
Most unsustainable tactics aren’t banned or illegal (apart from the fake stuff). Indeed, I still occasionally dip into the unsustainable toolbox when absolutely necessary. But to rely solely on these tactics risks an inevitable implosion, small-scale or catastrophic. Shortcuts are risky, and must be carefully considered in the context of a broader mission. Do the risks outweigh the rewards? This is the choice.
Sustainable tactics are integral to long-term success. To avoid short-lived growth and burnout (of cash, time, or energy), brands must invest in hiring and nurturing solid specialised talent, producing high-quality content, launching scalable paid acquisition, and fostering an iterative testing methodology.