There are hundreds of customer acquisition channels out there. If not thousands. What I've learned after helping small, medium and large companies at Growth Tribe is that to find your silver bullet, you need to start testing early.. and you need to test fast.
Having said that, where do you start? A team's scarcest resource is usually time... so knowing which channel to focus on first is of the essence.
In this article I'll share a method (as well as all the templates and a step by step guide) I developed over the course of the last few years called the BRASS Method. It's a simple step-by-step guide to brainstorming and then identifying which channels you should start testing right away. It's been tested and refined on a ton of companies and I hope it will work for yours too.
But first some context.
(If you'd like to skip the context and get straight to the point, scroll down to "The BRASS framework for prioritizing which customer acquisition channels to test.")
Many find customer acquisition or “topline growth” to be one of the most exciting and sexy parts of being a marketer and growth hacker. Although increasing your activation, retention and revenue rates are undoubtedly vital to company growth, there are few things more satisfying than seeing the top line user chart of your company grow month over month. And it's not all vanity: top line growth is also important to drive enough traffic to experiments, grab attention for your product and drive traffic through your funnel.
So how do I get more people to visit my website?
Large amounts have been written about methods to acquire new users. I won’t dwell on these methods here but I will share some resources that may be useful. In this image, inspired by James Currier, you can see the number of options available to you grouped divided into 4 categories.
If you’re in the very early stages of a product or company, Paul Graham recommends doing things that “don’t scale”. In another article, Jason Evanish described 95 free techniques to acquire users. Sumome also has a good round-up article here. I like to call these "hustle" techniques. Another article also offers many ideas and resources on how to get your first users without paid ads.
Techniques that DO scale
Want techniques that scale better? You can read this article, by Andrew Chen. But also, in case you’ve missed it, the authors of “Traction Book”, Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares, did a fantastic encyclopedic job of compiling examples and case studies of extremely diverse customer acquisition techniques. It’s a GREAT source of inspiration to get your creative neurons going. They also developed a framework for prioritizing customer acquisition channels, called the Bullseye Framework that is comparable to the one I will explain in this article. It’s a great framework, so I recommend you try it out. I have been told a number of times that my BRASS Method is a bit more rigorous to really pinpoint which techniques you should be testing out first. Please use the one you feel is more adapted or a healthy mix of both!
But wait, those are just the categories. Now let’s drill down into one of the categories to see how many sub-categories exist:
Yes, we know, you’ve probably heard and read “content is king” several times before. It’s so important that everyone is doing it and 2015 was dubbed the “Year of content marketing deluge”. To make things more complex, today "content" refers to a huge amount of possibilities. Shout-out to Pushkar Gaikwad for compiling a long list of possible content methods on this growthhackers.com post:
- Case Studies
- "How to'' Guides
- Press Releases
- Reports & Trends
- PDF and eBooks
- Web Forums
- Q/A websites
- Competitions and Reviews
- Facebook posts
- Twitter tweets
- Linkedin posts
- Google+ posts
- Local Business Listings
- and more...
This is just to show you the sheer number of possibilities available at the moment. Feeling overwhelmed yet? Don’t be... this is actually all great news. It means there’s definitely a customer acquisition channel that is right for you and the BRASS Method will help you identify it.
So what do you do now?
1. Just like in finance, diversify your portfolio to reduce your risk.
Relying too much on one source of user acquisition or on a single platform can be extremely risky. Why? Platforms are ever-changing. Users come and go. This video illustrates it perfectly from the angle of APIs.
This goes deeper than just APIs. Let’s take Facebook fan pages, as our first example. If you relied heavily on Facebook organic posts you may have been hurt by changes a couple of years ago. Consider this graph by Ogilvy:
This example, posted by Rhys Hillman during the 2014 World Cup, illustrates this even further.
Another example is Google’s Panda 2.0 algorithm update in 2011. Many companies (especially “content farms”) relying on organic Google searches as a main source of traffic were gravely affected. Consider this chart:
SEA: “Sistrix posted its initial list of the 30 biggest losers from Panda’s expansion. It’s based on an analysis of a million keywords that were checked before and after Google’s announcement. The “Visibility Index” is Sistrix’s internal measurement that takes into account how many keywords were ranking, their position, and click-through rate on those positions.”
Let’s now look a little closer at ehow.co.uk:
Scary, huh? Looking at these examples, it’s easy to understand why it may be risky to rely on solely one effective traffic channel. Regardless of how effective or profitable it may be, it could die overnight.
Having said that, consider an opposing school of thought:
2. Don’t diversify. Double down on what works.
Backed by famous examples and a dive into the world of blackjack, Brian Balfour argues that startups don’t have the time or manpower to diversify customer acquisition channels and that when they find one that works, they should put all their efforts into it. Here is an extract of his awesome article:
"Doubling down on a single channel/strategy is about increasing the probability of success component of this equation. Just like in Blackjack you optimize your winnings by doubling down on something that already has signs that it is working rather than spreading them across new channels and efforts that you don’t have data on.”
Find 2 or 3 channels that work well for you. So limit your options whilst also spreading out the risk. So whether you’ve already identified a channel or haven’t identified any yet, I’ve created this framework to help you out. The aim of the method is to help you identify which customer acquisition channels to start testing right away.
The BRASS method for prioritizing which customer acquisition channels to test first
Now that I've laid the basis, I’d like to share a simple framework that can help most of you answer the question: "What should we try to drive users to our website?" The framework is based on 2 premises. One is the pedagogical method Maieutics developed by Plato, according to which the answer to the question already lies within the startup - it's simply a matter of asking the right questions. The second premise is based on James Surowiecki’s "The Wisdom of the Crowds", according to which the more people you get involved in the acquisition channel brainstorming and voting, the better your chances of choosing the right channels to test.
Small disclaimer: although very handy, this framework is NOT rocket science.
Step 1. Get everyone in the room
Referring back to The Wisdom of the Crowds, I’ve found that the more people are involved in this process, the better. It’s also important to diversify the types of people in the room. Get your CEO in there, someone technical, a marketing person, sales, a copywriter, analysts: basically as many and as diverse individuals as possible. In my experience, mixing customer support/ customer success (anyone in direct contact with customers) with designers and technical minds in a room makes for extremely creative ideas.
Step 2. Brainstorm User Acquisition Techniques
The next step is to start listing all the user acquisition techniques that your team has been thinking about, that you have heard about or that you are already starting to implement.
There should be a mix of traditional methods but also the “outside of the box” ideas. I would advise to get really creative here. One example I love is Hubspot’s Twitter Grader. HubSpot launched Twitter Grader that generated a ton of buzz and signups. Another great example is how Ryan Holiday partnered up with Bittorrent to create a rich special offer package that got the book 2 million downloads, over a million page visits and opened up the book to a whole new audience. Once again, I would recommend reading the “Traction” book, as they have done a magnificent job of detailing tons of techniques you could replicate or get inspired from.
Mix it up: These channels should not be seen as independent from each other. The most powerful customer acquisition playbooks combine multiple techniques into one.
Spend some time on growthhackers.com, as they have tons and tons of articles that will give you ideas.
During the brainstorming session try to be as detailed as possible. If you’re thinking of doing PR, be precise about what type of publications you’ll be reaching out to and what process you will use to contact them. If you’re suggesting content marketing, list out what type of content you wish to produce and at what frequency you plan on generating it.
Step 3. Apply the BRASS Criteria
Click here to have access to the template.
*All ideas should be listed in the first column. A brief description in the second column. Then scores in each of the other columns. I’ve listed a few examples to get you started.
I like to use the "poker scrum" technique to vote. Use some playing cards, count to 3 and ask everyone to give his/her score, which you then average out.
Now for all of the criteria below, the whole team will start giving out scores. 1 is the lowest and worst score, 5 is the highest and the best. One way that works well is for everyone to count to 3 and at 3 everyone pulls out a hand with the score they wish to give. The person collecting the scores does the sum of fingers and puts it into the template. Expect a bit of hesitation and time loss at first, so maybe try the first 2 or 3 times on dummy ideas, but after 2 or 3 times the ball really gets rolling.
So what are we voting on?
If you've read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink (which goes into beautiful detail on how our brain thinks even before we realize we’re thinking), you'll understand that your blink score would be your intuitive score. What is your initial intuitive gut feeling about this user acquisition channel?
The idea here is not to overthink it: just give a score from 1-5 on how much you like this idea and think it could work for your company. Give us your intuitive gut reaction!
How relevant is this user acquisition technique to your target audience and to your product? How narrowly can you target and reach them using this technique?
Ryan Fujiu refers to this as “product/channel fit”. For GoPro, sending free cameras to sports heroes, so that they could film and post videos on Youtube, was a very high product/channel fit. Hubspot’s Twitter Grader also got a really high score. If you’re a B2B company and looking at promotion on Pinterest, this might be a bit lower. Try to ask yourself, is this channel really where my target audience hangs out?
Availability = Ease & Cost
How easy is it to set up this channel? How long will it take? How much will it cost? Do we have the necessary human and technical resources? Do we already have some of the tools?
Consider content marketing, for instance. If you decide that writing blog posts could be a good technique but you don’t have a good writer on your team and you don’t yet have a blog set up, then the ease would be reduced. If, on the other hand, you have a great in house designer, he has some time to spare and you have tons of industry specific data at your disposal, you could consider creating and sharing infographics, as a better and easier form of content marketing.
How scalable is this channel? If it turns out to be extremely effective, how easy will it be to scale it up?
Some customer acquisition techniques don't scale. Some are just not meant to. In this article I described how commenting on blog posts was a great way to get your first users. Although efficient, if you are looking for strong growth, this technique would have a low scalability score. Conversely, Hubspot’s free tool "email grader", is an example of an extremely scalable technique.
Multiply your scores together. Some teams like to give a bigger coefficient to one of the parameters. For example, if you're really low on time and human resources, you might want to give a 2x importance to "Ease". One company gave virality a 2x coefficient because they had tremendous product/market fit, had just raised a big round and were ready to scale fast.
In the end I have always found that teams come out with 3 or 4 clear winners. These are the channels that you should aim to test first. These are the channels that have the highest chance of succeeding.
The next step is to isolate the channels with the highest BRASS score and to design the experiments that will allow you to test these ideas. As with any good experiment, it should be time-boxed (I like to cap experiments at 2 weeks max), should have a quantifiable goal, a minimum success criteria to validate/invalidate the experiment and should be clearly detailed.
Designing a scientific test is no easy task... and should be done methodically. But that’s a whole other article. I’ll just leave you with this awesome Test Card by Strategyzer that can help you get going.