What's up everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com, and today I'm talking to Julian Shapiro, a good friend of mine who I met a couple months after launching Indie Hackers. Julian runs a growth agency called Bell Curve. He started an open-source application called Velocity.js to help with animations on the web, and he's done a whole bunch of other stuff, sold a few businesses in the past, and generally become a growth and marketing expert over the years. How's it going, Julian?
So you and I met, I like the story, we met over the internet about a month after I launched Indie Hackers, and I was getting all sorts of messages on Twitter and over email, and the really good ones I get tend to stand out to me. And yours really stood out because you basically said, "Hey Courtland, I like Indie Hackers, and I noticed that you're doing advertising, and I have advertising experience helping clients basically buy ads, so let me help you and show you how you can sell ads and do a really good job."
And not many messages come from people who recognize something that I'm trying to do, and then provide an actually helpful solution for that problem. So that stuck with me, and we ended up having an hour or two phone conversation after that, which says a lot because I'm tremendously introverted and I do not like to talk on the phone to people.
Well, I'm glad it stuck. I would say it's because if I ever reach out to people, it's because I first make sure I can provide value, very clear value. And so when they click on my name, whatever my personal website is, whatever my Twitter history is, my history of tweets reinforces the value I'm offering, and I do so without asking for reciprocation.
So in your case if I saw some low-hanging fruit for growth optimization, I would say okay you could perhaps double your conversion rate on your homepage and if you click on my profile, and say, okay this guy probably knows what he's talking about. Then for me, it's a pleasure to hop on the phone and chat with someone who's producing work at such a high caliber, the design, the content production, the marketing you're doing for Indie Hackers were all things that were inspiring to me. It was such a nice, the whole package was so well done that whoever was behind it must be worth talking to. So for me, it was like a Trojan horse to be useful, have a chat with someone doing really cool stuff, 'cause I wanna do similarly cool things.
And really the takeaway for anyone listening is provide value, don't ask for reciprocation, but if you provide value, be able to reinforce it. It's one thing to say, hey I wanna help you with your X, but if they look at your tweet and they're like this person's a novice at whatever they're talking about then it's more of a burden for them to entertain your pitch and then try to be nice and hand hold you when the output's not very good. So that's one way to pitch people you really want to chat with is build up your online persona to reinforce ways you can be useful to have conversations with cool people.
So you obviously have a lot of information to share and there's a lot we're gonna cover in this episode, but to start, let's talk about your growth agency. So you run a growth agency called Bell Curve, where you're essentially hired by businesses who are your clients to come in and help them achieve traction. Basically, help them bring in customers to their product or their service. Can you tell us a little bit about how that works?
Absolutely, so a growth agency typically most people would think of it as a agency for running your ads, so Facebook ads, Instagram ads, AdWords, whatever channels work for your product. What I did, which I thought may be enough of a distinction to A, get clients quickly and B, get them better results would be if we acted as their in house CMO. So we would actually own and be fully responsible for their entire growth funnel. And we can dive into what that funnel looks like.
And what is a CMO?
Oh, yeah, certainly, Chief Marketing Officer, right, which is someone who'd ostensibly be responsible for the brand and for growing revenue in some capacity. At least getting people into the pipeline so someone like a Chief Revenue Officer could grow the revenue more efficiently. And so what I thought would be interesting is if I pitch Bell Curve, the growth agency, as your in house CMO, then maybe the angle is you get four people in one and all four of us, Bell Curve, have a much higher proficiency in running ads and A/B tests, which we can dive into, and designing landing pages and so on, then one CMO could have. And we're really tightly on top of these channels, channels being ad platforms like Facebook ads and Instagram ads, so we're at the cutting edge of its performance, and so we can do a better job. We can push revenue, growth, more efficiently. So that was the idea.
And it turns out to actually have resonated quite nicely with a few YC Companies. Just coincidentally they happen to make up most of our clients. People who just raises a couple million funding and need someone who would not just run ads, but would also understand how to setup the corresponding webpage and the user onboarding flow. And the general copy and positioning of the product, so that the entire funnel, that entire quote unquote growth funnel, could be sufficient for ads to perform well at all.
Okay, so that's a pretty ambitious job. You're essentially creating a company that will replace an entire, I guess, executive at another company and do their job for them, except you do it across multiple clients, if I understand correctly.
Exactly, we have this interesting dynamic where we have a Slack channel set up and we'll ... a group and we'll create specific channels for each client and then they'll invite all their employees in who would like to know about marketing or the marketing happenings with that company and so they basically throw tasks on our shoulders as if we are their in house CMO. And we do real-time chat with all of them.
That's cool how you guys work with everybody in the company and you bring, you pretty much involve anyone who's interested in growth, which really should be everybody. I mean, if you think about the role that growth plays, well let me ask you. What do you think and how would you describe the role that growth plays? And I know that might sound like a stupid question to a lot of people, but I think it's not obvious to everybody how important growth is and when they should start thinking about it, especially if they're in the super early stages of their business and their not quite sure even what they're gonna work on yet.
Yeah, to answer your question, the role of growth is one of validation, would people want your thing, and you can find that out really early, before you're even charging. Although you honestly should charge before you attempt to find out if people want it 'cause you really want to find out would they pay, not would they just find this cool enough to sign up. So there's a validation component.
The other reason to take growth seriously early on is, it's going to take you awhile to get good at it or to at least optimize the quote unquote growth funnel for your app, your product, to facilitate it. And these things do not come organically. They never do. Like for example, if you try just winging the best copy you can put on your homepage, so the best text calculated for the purpose of conversion, it will likely not be nearly as good as whatever you would have optimized through an A/B test or through a rigorous test of headline copy in the form of ads on Facebook just to see what people click the most, which we can dive into.
So you're never going to wind up from the get go with your best performing words, or images, or onboarding flow, or even product features. So growth is the source of volume that gives you sufficient sample size to test everything.
I think that's a perfect answer. Ultimately, if you don't grow than you're not going to be able to do a whole bunch of other things that you want to do in your startup so it's important not to neglect growth, and it's important not to underestimate it as well. A lot of people come into this thinking, I'm just gonna come up with a great idea and then people are going to use it automatically, and it's gonna spread through word of mouth like wildfire. And that is the vast minority of cases.
Even successful startups, most of them didn't grow magically because everybody talked about it without any sort of strategizing or deliberate effort in that direction from the founders, so if you are kinda planning on starting something and your entire plan consists of coming up with an idea, building it, and profiting, and there's no part of your plan that's okay, here's who's gonna use it, here's why they're gonna use it, here's where I'm gonna find them, how I'm going to convince them to share, et cetera, Then you should probably go back to the drawing board because you're missing a crucial piece.
Here are two sobering data points sort to speak as to why your company will just not grow organically with a couple of like one off hits. Here's what I mean by that. If you get a couple one off hits from press, let's say TechCrunch covers you, here's a data point for that. Maybe you get between 300 and 25,000 hits depending on what time of day you are posted, what day of week, and how enticing and clickbaity the headline was that the journalist used. All those things matter. That'll dictate the 300 visits versus the 25,000 or more.
So let's just say you luck out and get the 25,000. The amount of people who would actually convert as oppose to immediately bouncing is going to pretty small. And the amount of those people who wind up taking your product seriously 'cause they were actually in market for it, even smaller. And then the amount of people who find what you have compelling enough to pay for it, even smaller. So, and that's just a one time thing. None of those people who reduce down to that funnel, let's say you get 25,000. That reduced down to 20. It might honestly be a number like that, if not less. All depends on how well-optimized your page was, how enticing it was.
Let's say you get those 20. Now how many of them are going to refer their friends and does it even matter if they're just 20 people. Let's say it's 200 people. The people they invite will go through the same funnel, the same drop off, although a bit better 'cause referral or word of mouth based traffic usually performs better than everything else. But the point is, that doesn't lead to some follow one tsunami of traffic. It dies out immediately. Press dies out immediately every single time, unless you have some huge social network hit sort of thing, which you almost certainly do not have. So once you're done hustling for your press, then what? You're back to normal, but now you have an extra 20 customers.
That's not enough to sustain growth, those 20 people. You have to have a high volume recurring sales or growth strategy in place, and that is not easy to do, does not come organically like I've been saying, and quite frankly requires a bunch of money or time upfront to figure out how to do it efficiently.
Yeah, I like that you brought up the press example because I'm sure many listeners have seen Y Combinator's Trough of Sorrow graph where the company releases and they launch and it's this big glitzy launch and they get an article on TechCrunch or Hacker News or Product Hunt, and there's a ton of traffic, and then after that it just falls back down to basically zero and stays there for months until the company actually figures out a growth strategy.
And I think that's the most common story in the world. If you've done a startup in the past and you've gotten press when you launched, you probably know exactly what I'm talking about because every startup that I've ever done had that exact thing happen to it, including Indie Hackers, which was at the top of Hacker News for a whole day and then for the next six weeks had nobody visiting the site. So you can't rely on a single press event to carry your site to the top, and word of mouth will just kick in after that. On that note, I'd like to ask how does somebody get into this type of work? What kind of things did you do that led to you starting a growth agency?
I think the first thing is having a genuine interest in hacking systems. I'm very interested in finding the high leverage, low workload ways of getting a lot of exposure for something. And this started perhaps four years ago when I built an open-source animation engine called Velocity.js. And when I started, I had zero open-source credibility. Nobody had heard of Julian Shapiro.
And I thought to myself, there's quite a few hacks, quite a few open opportunities here in the open-source world for me to push out awareness for Velocity that won't cost me a dollar and would certainly be a lot easier than say getting awareness and distribution for any startup I was trying to launch. We can go into the reasons why, but when I started realizing all the tricks I could do to market Velocity, and when I started seeing the success of that work, I was very motivated to see if I could then take on the much more difficult task of applying those same hacks to startups proper. Because if I could make the transition that it could be a little bit less about raising awareness for the work that I thought was cool and more about making money, or either making money for others as an agency or making my own startups more successful.
So it started with Velocity, and then when I saw how doable things were, it then transitioned to startups and getting good at startups, at least to a point where I felt confident to start an agency, was really a function of freelancing for friends' companies and saying hey, can I just take over your Facebook ads, for example. And then when you do that and you do a really good job and then they refer you to someone else and it just steamrolls from there as you audience is familiar with in terms of freelancing lifestyle usually most of your clients are referrals. So I just took my work very seriously, and I wanted to get very good at ads. And then once I got good at ads, I was, okay, well I see ads are performing well, but they're now getting bottle necked by other components of the startup, so I wanna learn those really well too. And so it was just this iterative process of doing work on behalf, for others, and using their marketing budgets for me to learn how to do things properly for myself. And then cut to a couple years later, and I've hustled enough to have a pretty broad knowledge.
It's interesting that you mention ads eventually hitting a point where they butt up against other limitations of the startup, and I think it's pretty common for people to have this misconception that growth is this thing that's entirely separate from your company, right? So you've got your product, and you've got your hiring, and you've got everything else happening in your company, and then you've got growth, which is this totally separate thing on the side that you can kinda turn on and off. When in reality, it's actually completely interlinked, right? There are other parts of the product itself that if they don't work correctly or if they're not optimized are going to hinder your growth, and you're gonna run up against problems where your ads don't perform as well not because the ads aren't good, but because your product isn't right.
Exactly, I would go so far as to say, if while developing your minimum viable product, if you cannot demonstrate some traction on one of the ad channels, like Facebook ads for example, and traction meaning you can get a sustained volume, whatever volume seems appreciable for your product in your market, at a price point that if it's not yet profitable per user acquisition, there's at least a trajectory toward getting there, meaning maybe you're within a two, three multiple, and maybe if you improve X, Y, and Z in your landing page or in your product, you could bring that down. So my point here is if you can't make that possible, I would actually rethink either your business model or the features that comprise your MVP.
Yeah, I totally agree. And I think I really want to talk about that. Someone on Twitter actually earlier today asked me exactly that question. When do I determine when to turn on the marketing juice, and how do I know I'm not spending my marketing efforts too early or too late, et cetera? And it has a lot to do with that early traction. So that's something that's really worth getting into, but let's go back a bit and talk a bit about Velocity.js, 'cause that's kind of your origin story in terms of growth. And I know you've covered this elsewhere. You did an awesome podcast for the Changelog late last year that I listened to. You described your entire life in detail basically and how you got to where you are now. But give us the kind of whirlwind overview of Velocity.js and how exactly it was that you learned how to do growth activities and marketing activities.
Sure, so no particular order here off the top of my head, let's take press. So what's interesting about getting press for open-source projects versus say your startup is where as TechCrunch is inundated with cold pitches and for you to stand out is difficult, and then not even standing out, but actually getting fully through the funnel, getting a really interesting article that's well positioned, well titled, dropped at the right time of week and time of day, so there's enough exposure, like all of those variables add up and they're usually not working in your favor. And it may not even be positive coverage necessarily.
here I saw a distinction between that hustle and simple emailing the kind editor of a popular open-source news blog, for example. And I knew these people in this camp, in this part of the tech industry, were not getting bombarded with spam and cold pitches. So I took the time to get to know who they were, figure out what type of content they wanted, and I prewrote an entire pitch or tutorial for how to use Velocity. So I just wrote an A to Z on how you'd get web animation off the ground if you've never done it before. And then I sent it to them. And so I was doing two things here.
One, I was going to a channel that I knew wasn't totally spammed, so I could actually get through and I would take the time to therefore tailor my creative, like the messaging I was sending them to be something they would likely want. I could justify that time input. And number two, what I was providing them was something that was already good and prewritten and ready to go. So if you're just cold pitching a blog saying, hey, can I submit a guest blog post, for example, they may not want to say yes because in doing so, if they don't know how good of a writer you are or whether you're reliable, they may be tying themselves up into an awkward situation where they'll ultimately either have to reject you work 'cause it's not good enough or spend hours copy editing your work. And neither one's very desirable.
So, if you just come to them off the bat with a cold email saying, hey, this is exactly in the format you write, it adheres to the same style guide that you would publish your own native content in, and it's a fantastic thorough, witty, clear post. Your audience would love this. Would you like to put this up? All of them said yes. So that was the first thing is it's kind of exploiting the underutilized quote unquote press in that sphere. These are people who were not getting cold emailed at all. They were scrounging the web for their own content to post, so I was giving them new content. So that's one way.
And why do you think that was that they weren't ever getting cold emails?
I think they're just, well that's an interesting question. I think a couple reasons, but the most interesting answer is I think open-source developers do not take it upon themselves like the average startup founder would to get the word out about their project. Maybe it's an ego thing. In the sense they want to be humble. They don't want to be seen as self marketing. They wanna keep true to their code and the community and so on and focus on issues with the code.
But that's kind of silly because if you're going to justify the time input on a project, you have to also consider getting distribution so other people can benefit from your time and your time will have been warranted. You need to have an impact if you're going to do something. Otherwise if you're just doing it for yourself, why even bother putting it on GitHub at all?
Yeah, couldn't agree more. I mean when I started Indie Hackers, it was kind of a similar situation where, okay, it's not an open-source website, but it was kind of a resource for people to use to help them. It was meant to help me, but also to help other people, and it made no sense for me to just do Indie Hackers without having some sort of business model behind it. Otherwise, I probably would have shut it down after two or three months, and that wouldn't have been good for anybody.
So, same thing in open-source. If you're doing an open-source project, you might as well try to charge money for it, or at the very least, learn how to market it and grow it. Because if you just write the code and you don't worry about those ansulary things?? And who knows how many open-source projects have been completely abandoned or didn't get the adoption that they needed because they didn't actually hustle and try to figure out how to promote what they built.
Absolutely, if you build something incredible, it would be selfish to not put in the hours to share it with others so their lives get better. And furthermore, once you share it with them, they can provide feedback. As more people to provide feedback, iterate on it so it gets even better, and your life gets better and so does theirs. There's just no reason not to put in the marketing work. And if developers are uncomfortable with the marketing work, that's a separate issue as oppose to being unwilling. And if you're uncomfortable, there's great content out there. And you can Google open-source marketing with Velocity.js and see my post about this on mozilla.org and there's a bunch of other material out there.
Just educate yourself and break down those barriers of, oh it's marketing, it's spammy, it's SEO, it's salesy. It really doesn't have to be any of those things. You can just write great organic content for blogs that you love to read.
Okay, so your first big insight with Velocity.js is that, hey, this is an open-source tool. There's not gonna be that much competition in terms of pitching the press compared to other startup resources and other startup press. Your second insight was, if you're gonna pitch these people, you're gonna try to make their job as easy as possible by actually writing quality posts for them rather than just saying, hey take a shot on me. Is there anything else you learned while marketing Velocity.js?
So another thing I did is I found out where my power users hung out. So, you'll very often hear about influencer marketing. You know, getting Twitter influencers or Instagram influencers for the purpose of startup marketing. And that doesn't usually work out very well for a few reasons we can get into. But in the case of open-source, it actually made a lot of sense for me to attempt pursuing that. And this was certainly not something I had seen other people doing prior.
It's a little bit counter intuitive, but it makes a lot of sense because in open-source, there're a lot of main figures that other coders seriously look up to. If DHH of Ruby on Rails were to recommend Velocity, although it's a bit out of scope there, that's something a lot of people would pay attention to. And I knew his followers would be sufficiently engaged and it would be sufficiently relevant audience that it would probably move the needle. So I went on codepen.io and I found the people who had the most popular quote unquote pens, which are these little like embedable animations or code test that you can share with others and you can modify with others and fork and so on.
And so I found the people who had the most successful pens in terms of distribution, had the most hearts and so on. And I said to them, here's 50 bucks or here's 100 bucks. Use Velocity to remake some of these things or to create entirely new experiences in CodePen that's blow people away, like gorgeous complicated animation sequences that no one's ever seen before that are now possible thanks to Velocity. And so they did this. Enough of them said yes, and for them they didn't care about the money, it was just oh cool, this Velocity thing seems interesting. I couldn't do a portion of these things before. And I was gonna do more animation work anyways, let me just do it. So they were super happy to do it.
But I treated those CodePens like ads. So at no point did I just say oh this would be cool and throw things out there and hope they would stick and somehow come back to me. I treated every outlet like a genuine growth channel. So even when I was writing content and handing it to blogs, I made sure that content incentivized you pretty well to come back to the GitHub repo and check out Velocity for yourself. And by the way, just going back to that point, the blogs that I reached out to, which I'm sure would still be open to you guys today if you want to repeat some of these steps, Smashing Magazine has covered Velocity, or at least I've covered myself on there a couple times. CreativeBloq, davidwalsh.name, and CSS-Tricks, and Mozilla's own tech blog and a few others.
So back to this point, CodePen, when the animation was complete, I then made sure at the end, it really strongly incentivized you. It had what we call a CTA, a call to action, to click a big button that would bring you to the Velocity repo. And to also have some corresponding copy, which is growth speak or marketing speak for text that's calculated for a specific purpose, in this case conversion, getting someone to click the CTA, that would further entice you. It wasn't just a cool one off thing, right? I considered the entirety of it. So that's another thing I did was influencer outreach and then I would share those CodePens with well known people on Twitter who had big audiences in the open-source space and be like, hey check this out. And usually they would retweet it.
So two things here. One, just like the outlets were not inundated with pitches and were therefore willing to cover me with zero friction, similarly the influencers in the open-source space were not being spammed by people trying to get them to hawk their apparel or something. And so there was no friction. And I think the larger lesson here is a lot of people like to think growth hacking is a series of super resourceful tricks, it actually usually isn't. It's usually just being very methodical about running ads and A/B testing your homepage, which we can get into.
But, this is an instance where because there was so much low-hanging fruit, I was able to be spectacularly resourceful and exploitative of this, not the community, but the channels in that community, to push Velocity really hard because nobody else was doing it. No one else was taking a startup growth approach to open-source project, which would make sense 'cause open-source projects typically are not monetized. So the incentive to do all this is usually not there, but for me, I wanted the opportunity to learn more about growth.
It's absolutely fascinating to me how much friction there is between good ideas spreading from one community or industry to another. So in this situation, there's all sorts of very common advice for how to market and distribute your products or service on the internet that you find floating around startup circles or bootstrapper circles, things that we're all very familiar with and we talk about a lot if you're interested in that sort of thing.
But you take one small step, not even a very big step, just a small step in a direction to an adjacent community, in this case the open-source community, and suddenly all this information on how to market and promote your products is completely lost. People aren't doing any of it. And you go sort of even further out to other industries that would really be able to benefit from this information, and they're not doing anything close to what you see people doing in the startup community.
So a couple examples, on Twitter someone was talking a few months ago about how all the information regarding self publishing books online is just absolutely terrible, and that when he wrote his ebook, he completely ignored all that and did things that we might be more familiar promoting our products and services with. He setup a landing page, setup a MailChimp list to collect emails, did a drip email campaign, etc, etc. And his ebook was far more successful than most self published books that just throw them up on Amazon.
Or another example, I was talking to this guy Rob Caraway who made a few hundred thousand dollars from his mobile apps in a few years. And the thing that was most surprising to him, was just how far behind the advice for marketing a mobile app was compared to the playbook for marketing a web application. So he ended up marketing all of his mobile applications the same way that he would do if he just built something on the web, and ended up obviously making a lot of money doing it that way.
So, I think in any industry, no matter what you're doing, if you're building something that could benefit from being promoted online in some way rather than just blindly copying the status quo and the best practices from your industry, look at what's going on in the startup community. Look at the best advice there for how to market your product and get the word out about it, and follow that.
The other thing that's really important about how you grew Velocity.js was that it's very clear that you understood who your target users would be. So Velocity is an animation library for programmers. It's going to be used by other programmers. And being a programmer yourself, you knew where other programmers hung out online. You knew where they got their news and their recommendations from. You knew what sources they trusted. You were aware of the particular influencers who would be helpful for spreading Velocity.js and the websites like CodePen that would be helpful for demonstrating what Velocity.js could do, and that gave you a huge leg up in terms of growing your library and attracting followers to it.
And I think people drastically underestimate how important it is to actually understand who your target customer is. You would not have been able to do any of this unless you understood developers and the open-source development community. You would've probably just spun your wheels with Google Ads or posting on random websites and not had any of the success that you had. So to people who are listening who are maybe kinda had a bump in the road where you're not sure how to grow your product, ask yourself how well you really understand your customers. Do you really know who it is that's using what you're building? Do you know where they hang out online? Do you know where they get their product recommendations from? And if you don't, that's research that you need to do.
So fast forward a little bit, you're done with Velocity.js. Today you're working on Bell Curve, and you're also writing up a ton of content on julian.com. And one of the things that we've talked about a little bit is your new guide to growth where as far as I understand it, you're basically just talking about all the different lessons that you've learned as a growth consultant and growing your own apps and services and putting them into this kinda mega guide where you just cover everything that you think people need to know about growth. Can you talk a little bit about what's in that guide and how you've structured it?
Sure, so that's the one that I'm working on right now, and it breaks down in the same way the quote unquote growth funnel would break down. So now's a good time to explain what that means. So essentially, for no matter what the company or what the project is, there's some loose funnel that connects all the steps between when you acquire a customer and then you get them to pay you.
So usually, it looks something like this:
You have acquisition, meaning you acquire a customer.
You then have conversion, meaning at this point you've acquired them, to say your webpage, but you haven't converted them yet into a user, someone on your platform. So that's conversion.
The next step is once they've converted, you want them to be engaged in some capacity. Either they're regularly using your product, let's say it's a social messaging app, so they're regularly messaging their friends, or if it's a B2B SaaS product, maybe they're creating projects on it and sharing it with their team members. So that's engagement. They won't wind up paying you until they're first, well not necessarily, but very often they won't wind up paying you until their first to some extent engaged, at least for SaaS products.
And then once they're engaged, you then try your best to optimize revenue extraction, right? So you wanna offer them enough value in a compelling way that they're willing, not only to give you their credit card, but pay more over time as they can get more value out of the product.
And then usually the last step of the funnel is described as referrals. So you've already gotten a customer who loves using your product and sees value from it, and now for you to get even more value out of them beyond monetary, you would ask them to then re-kickoff that whole funnel by bringing it all back to the acquisition event and having them refer other people to become new users.
So that's the growth funnel. And the guide that I'm writing currently roughly follows that structure. So how would you acquire users? Meaning, which ad channels would you use? How would you rock Facebook ads, and Twitter ads, and Instagram ads at a professional agency level like I've been running for Bell Curve's clients? So what's everything you'd need to know to run ads properly? And there's not been a lot written about this online, at least not comprehensively to the point where you could do it as well, at least hopefully as well as I could. So that's one portion of the guide. And then it'll talk about conversion. So how do you onboard users in a methological way, methological, jeez. I'll start that one over. That's pretty cool.
It is logical in a way.
It is a great word, I've never heard that.
It is a great word. Methological.
I'm going to copyright that.
I love that.
I'm going to trademark that before you.
Keep all this in. I'm not even gonna restart. I'm gonna make it impossible for you to restart, so we're keeping all this in now.
So speaking of methodological, so you want a methodological way of getting people from the point of awareness of your product on your webpage to the point where they actually become a user. They sign up and they get engaged. And so that consists of the onboarding process or the first time user experience as it's sometimes called. And that means making the onboarding process really easy and self evident and exciting them through the signup form, to actually see the end goal.
So an interesting example is like on Ashley Madison, which is this quote unquote dating site. It's kinda this obnoxious ploy to get people to cheat on each other, but then you just wind up chatting with bots. So there's a cycle at Ashley Madison and the way they've designed their onboarding experience or their FTU experience is as you're filling out a form behind the form slightly blurred out is big collage of beautiful women. And so they're enticing you with the end goal of filling out the form, so that you don't bounce halfway through the form.
So that's one tactic as part of the onboarding experience of which there are many to get people to convert. So once you have them converted, you've then gotta get them engaged. The guide's primary focus in on growth, the acquisition portion and conversion portion of growth, so I don't talk a lot about developing a really awesome sticky product, but I do skip over to the referral, the final referral step where I have bunch of tactics using content marketing and user generated content.
And we also talk about the metrics and the inner workings virality. Where is it BS unicorn speak and where is it the real thing you could leverage for the average product? So it's that full totality of how do you grow a startup efficiently that I'm currently writing about.
So you've gotten your growth guide and you cover the growth funnel from beginning to end, from user acquisition to conversion to engagement on through referrals, where customers are actually referring other customers to use your app.
And what's interesting about this is kinda what I was talking about earlier in our conversation, which is that none of this is disconnected from your actual product. It's in fact, amplified by or limited by the quality of the product itself, and so you really should be starting to think about growth from the very earliest phases of your company.
When you're decideing what idea to work on and evaluating one idea versus another, part of that evaluation process should be: okay, I have this idea for a product, but do I know how I'm going to get this in the hands of customers? First of all, do I know who my customers are? Do I know where they hang out online? What distribution channels might be effective, et cetera? And of course you're not going to figure all this out immediately in the very beginning, but you should at least be thinking about i, because a good idea without a plan for growth is not actually a good idea.
Beyond that, I think what a lot of listeners, and the stage a lot of listeners are at right now, is maybe they have an idea or maybe they're trying to test out ideas and they're trying to put up a landing page. And I see this a lot on the Indie Hackers forum, probably the number one most popular type of post on the forum, is somebody showing off their landing page and they end up getting the same advice over and over and over again, which is your marketing copy is not compelling. The button to sign up is not really visible or easy to click or easy to find, et cetera, et cetera. And I know you've got entire landing page section of your guide, so how do you as a growth consultant think about landing pages?
What's interesting about landing pages is there shouldn't actually be much variability among them. There's a pretty clear rubric for how to develop a landing page, that reliably converts given what your product is. If you have a very unappealing product, a landing page of any sort probably won't put too much lipstick on that pig, but if you have something decent, a landing page should not be complicated, even a great one.
So there really isn't much of an excuse to do these poorly, so if I were to just recap some of the points in my guide, first of all there's a very clear hierarchy or clear structure in terms of the nav bar, the hero section, and then the social proof section where you post logos if you have them of your biggest customers.Oor the press that's covered you, followed by the features and objections section, which every landing page should have for the most part, which addresses the key benefits you provide and then you also proactively address the objections you know people will likely instinctively have when you pitch those benefits.
So you're kinda doing like you know a call and response, and that gets paired with compelling imagery from your product. And then you can tie off the page with a couple CTAs, so call to action sections, which the purpose of those is to say hey, let's take a pause real quick. If I've pitched you sufficiently up to this point, here's what you gotta do next to go ahead and convert.
So let's say you wanna capture their email or get them to buy your eCommerce product, whatever it is, and then you can also tie in a little bit of information about your team and so on, so there's some variability in the last third. But for the most part, there shouldn't be much variability. And so in the guide I break down that structure and what each of those sections should contain and how they should be written to be maximally compelling.
The key takeaways usually are be incredibly specific, so let me give you an example of a bad piece of copy that would be at the very top of a page. Let's say, "making work faster and more seamless". So that's not good copy for the purpose of capturing someone's attention at the top of a page, and having them continue reading because you've told them nothing. And every other page on the web uses those same adjectives, faster, revolutionary, whatever. So my motto is whatever copy is in the header of your page should be so descriptive that if the viewer stopped looking at your page if they bounced after reading the header, they could describe to a friend exactly what it is you do. And that almost always demonstrates a better conversion, better time on site, all the good metrics you're looking for than being vague.
There's really no room for traditional brand marketing when it comes to performance based growth marketing. A specific header copy would be something like design website visually without knowing how to code. Right, so that's a webflow.com. That may not be great copy, but that's an example of specificity that's important.
And then you'd pair that specificity with specificity everywhere else, so your subheader copy, the kicker that gets them to keep reading, and then the titles of each section. And even down to the paragraphs in your features and objections, even if you have team profile section, don't be vague. Don't in the team section for example, don't project your mission as a company that's usually pretty boring and people think it's fluff. Instead, describe what it is you're currently kicking ass at, like we are doing X extremely well because of Y, period. Join this movement with us. As opposed to we look to change the world by doing, like no it doesn't matter.
What are you doing now? How is it material to me, and how does that demonstrate your credibility as being great at what it is you do? So name drop the credentials of your team or past acquisitions or whatever it may be. So specificity and data converts better. And a lot of us don't think that way. A lot of us think oh we have to mimic what we've seen in television commercials where they're broad and very lifestyle based and Coke says, enjoy life or whatever. That stuff is not measurably better for growth.
Yeah, I like what you said about landing pages not really being the place for innovation. I see a lot of people share their landing pages on the Indie Hackers forum, and they say, you know what, I put up this website, and I'm selling my product and people come and they just bounce. They don't sign up, they don't browse around the site, and I look at their page, and it's this totally new looking thing that I've never seen a website like it before in my life.
It's got like one text box that says sign up and then it's got no text overhead that explains what it is they're doing, just totally just random stuff that I've never seen before. And I always think, there's no reason to deviate from what's worked well in the past for a landing page. We know what converts well for landing pages, and so, I think there's a lot of wisdom there to say it's not a place to innovate.
But, on the other side of that coin is the fact that you can't just copy what other people are doing blindly without understanding why some landing pages work and some landing pages don't, because you'll end up doing exactly what you were saying not to do. And that's ending up with one of these overly broad marketing pages that's basically brand marketing.
I think a lot of people don't understand what brand marketing is, but it's like what you were saying. It's Coca-Cola, it's McDonald's saying all these very vague fluffy feel good things because guess what, there're already billion dollar companies that everybody knows, right? They're not working to actually convince you to buy what they're selling because you already know what it is that they're selling, right? Versus you have a small unheard of startup, people have no idea what you are, who you are, what you're selling, why they should use it et cetera, so you're wasting an opportunity if you don't go into the specifics.
Spot on, and I can give you some counter examples of where you can be unique, or unique's the wrong word, but you can be innovative. You can try to push boundaries. And like we agree, landing pages are not really the place for that. Maybe creatively in terms of imagery and multimedia and your video if you have one. Do something cool there if you'd like, stand out.
But in terms of where else in the growth funnel does it make sense to actually try to push boundaries, I think, well first of all uniqueness of your app, you should have a really cool product that itself through its features and the UX, that should standout. It should still be self evident and intuitive. But it should standout. Another thing is, the ads you run. So to grab people's attention when they're native ads everywhere on the web now, and every single mobile app, you do actually have to stand out, and you have to work to stand out. So while your ads should be descriptive, because again, like Courtland said, you're not Coke. People don't know who you are.
So if you act vague, they will continue to not know who you are after they scroll past your ad and you'll accomplished nothing. You have to stand out 'cause they have nothing to hook onto.
And I think a lot of it is the curse of knowledge too. Like people make a website and you know everything about your website, and you'll overestimate how much visitors are going to know. They're just like oh, clearly this is what my website does. And then you're just super vague.
Exactly, exactly, that's why getting feedback, which is a key, it's a recurring theme of this guide is survey your users or survey prospective customers because you probably don't understand what they find most interesting, what their biggest objections are, and what you haven't told them yet, that you think you clearly messaged on your site or in your ads that you failed to. So that's incredibly important.
In terms of a few other ways where you can really push the needle, It think content marketing is a good one too. You don't have to write a blog post that's like every other blog post. It doesn't have to be structured like it. It could be totally crazy and random. You could have your personality in videos injected, multimedia interactive widgets, it's whatever. So there a lot of areas where you should kick ass and be unique in that sense, but landing pages, not one of them. Absolutely.
Although, let me go back, 'cause I realized I should clarify why you can't be crazy on a landing page. It's because, just like with an ad, and just like this theme of specificity, there are certain things you have to get across, and if you fail to, you won't get them either sufficiently interested, like you won't pique their interest enough, or you won't have addressed enough objections for them to sign up on yet another landing page. Your landing page is not unique. It's one of a dozen they may see that week, if not dozens upon dozens. So, you can't afford to miss the key beats that are part of, the key ingredients that are part of the conversion recipe. There's a tried and true formula, there's a rubric, and so that's what I break down.
Anyhow, so after that, you have conversion. So that's the onboarding experience. But there's actually something in between those two, which is, how do you then, after you have your landing page, how do you optimize it? How do you know it's the best it can be, to actually get people to the next conversion step. And this brings us to the concept of A/B testing.
So, A/B testing being, you have your original version of whatever it is you're testing. An ad, an image, a blog post even, like introductory paragraph to a blog post. Or for our purposes right now, a landing page. So all the copy on it, it's structure, it's images, everything. And then to A/B that, means you create a variation of it. So you clone it, and you tweak some components of it, to try to see if you were then to send traffic simultaneously to both pages, meaning you have some A/B testing tool on your website, that randomly selects users for either A or B. So they don't know that they're being bucketed, but your A/B testing tool collects data to determine who, based on which variation they saw, winds up performing more of the metric you're looking for.
So, conversion meaning signing up, going through your sign up form, or purchasing an e-commerce product, whatever that is. And so, there's an entire strategy to how do you select what you should test? What you should vary? How long should you let that test run, for a significant sample size, so that your results are meaningful? And then, what should you do once you have an answer?
And very often, you'll have an answer, and you won't know why it's better. It will be completely opaque to you. Like let's say you changed, you swapped the order of sections three and five on your landing page, and now your page performs 20% better. If I made that change, I may not necessarily, even after having done this for awhile, for various companies, and having seen a lot of industries, and how people react within them, I still to this day, don't have a great reflex or intuition, for why that A/B test was necessarily better. And so it's a form of pattern matching, 'cause human psychology is nowhere near as easy as marketers would like you to think it is in terms of knowing how to exploit it systematically.
So to this day, my A/B test, not just some landing pages, but ads, continually surprise me. And the only thing that I get better at over time, is my base level content. So the first iteration of my landing page today, that I make for a client, or the first set of ads that I run for them, are way better than the first iteration terms of performance, then what I would have done for them two years ago. But that doesn't mean that they're nearly as optimized as they should or could be. So I'm still never near optimization on my first go around never, not even close.
I listened to something recently, and I'm not sure exactly who it was, but I remember they were talking about having a room full of, basically professional copywriters. And how they would all sit in a room, and brainstorm things, and come up with stuff. And the things that they would come up with would be absolutely garbage. These professional copywriters. They do this literally for a living. They would just be terrible. So there's a lot of truth to the idea that you're probably not on your first iteration going to come up with the optimal thing. Or your second, or your third iteration.
Exactly. You know, when you have the scale of the Facebook audience, or the Facebook ad platform to let millions of people, or more realistically, let's say, a couple tens of thousands of people, give you some idea of which of your variations performs best, you have no excuse to just wing it. You can never write any copy on your landing page, and let it stay that way forever. You have to run tests.
Whether it's on your own audience, or, this is a trick I love, I'll use ads for the sole purpose of just testing two pieces of copy that I will then take the winner, and put it on my landing page. And the reason why that's a great trick, is because it could be very expensive to get enough visitors to my landing page. Let's say I had to pay for all of them through Facebook ad clicks. And let's say that totals to hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a big sample size. Although it usually doesn't have to cost that much, but let's just say, for sake of example, if I instead ran ads, and just ad impressions cost nothing, you can pay as low as like $3.50 on Facebook, even lower, per thousand ad impressions. And so, if you just run ads for a few thousand impressions, you can determine which was clicked most, and then we know which copy now is most enticing.
And yeah, it's gonna excise from the context of your landing page, but this sort of methodology is what I'm starting to write about in the growth guide. And it applies to every part of the entire growth funnel.
Yeah, that's a really good trick man. Admittedly, I've barely changed the landing page copy on Indie Hackers since I launched the site. And I just haven't had the time really to set up any sort of A/B testing framework or the interest. But using Facebook ads to run two different lines by thousands of people and seeing which one perform better, is a really great trick, and I'm gonna start using that.
I asked some people on Twitter before this interview, what they would ask, if they could talk to a growth expert or a marketing expert. And these are all people who are presumably run businesses, or in the situation where they're running a business right now. And I got a lot of interesting responses. So what I wanna do is kind of ask you some of these questions, and see what you think. The first question was my favorite. The question was, what kind of questions should I be asking? So I'm a founder starting a business, and maybe I don't know anything about growth and marketing, where do I even start?
So we can go pre-growth thinking, and go to the very core level of, start with something you're passionate about, that you can foresee yourself working on for a long time. But let's skip that, because I feel like a lot of the existing Indie Hackers content speaks to that.
So the earliest that growth should come into play is, okay, I have an idea that I'm passionate about, and I know how to make it good. I know what that feature set would look like, and I know how to execute it. But is there an audience? That's the first major question. Is there an audience? If you can determine there's an audience somewhere, even tangentile to your current spec for an MVP, you can then survey them, or work with them, or run A/B tests on them, to determine where you should then focus in terms of those features, the initially proposed features. So you can narrow in really early on. That's the first step.
And what if you already have a company, and you already picked something you're passionate about? You've already built a product, your growth is negligible. You're kind of in this trough of sour point, where maybe you've got some press early on, but nothing's going on. What kind of questions do you ask then? Or as a growth marketer, if you're coming to a company, and they're in that situation, what kind of questions do you start asking?
At that point, growth can do one of two things constructively for you. If you execute very well, and your product, meaning your product itself, and your growth plan, so your acquisition. So the ads and the landing pages, to get users from Facebook, and AdWords, and so on. If you crush it, now is the time for you to actually see positive return on investment ad spent. So maybe you just execute a great ad strategy.
But, if you are middling, if you're in some sort of zombie mode, where nothing's really moving the needle, you can get traffic that's pretty well-targeted to your webpage, but people don't convert, or if they do, they don't wind up converting into a paying user. Or, they churn really quickly. They disappear after a few months, 'cause you weren't that useful to them. In any case, growth can still play a pretty productive role. Which is it can verify your hunches. It can get you sufficient sample sizes, to determine whether an A/B variation you were on, say your landing page. Let me give you a hypothetical here, before I continue that thought.
Let's say I take my current landing page, and I clone it, and I completely swap out all the value propositions. So whereas before, I was talking about how it will make spread sheeting way easier for you. And now I'm talking about how it'll make prospecting for leads for your sales tool, way easier for you. And the reason I'm thinking that way, is maybe that's something I had in the back of my mind as a future feature, or as a minor pivot that we could take pretty easily.
In either case, I can use the traffic to this quote unquote, dummy page, to determine whether this alternative way of presenting my company, and this alternative feature set would be more viable for conversion. And the way I would measure that, 'cause I don't yet have a product to back that up, is I would have a CTA form some where on that page, that would say, coming next week, for example. Enter email address. Or, more realistically, not to deceive people, you would say coming in the future, enter email, and if you do so, we'll give you the first three months free. All you gotta do is enter your email address. There won't be any spam, I promise.
So, if you get a lot of people signing up for that, you can then compare that to your existing homepage, or if you wanted to do the more controlled environment, take that clone page that we discussed, make another version of it that has all the same value props that you currently have on your existing, real home page, but remove sign ups entirely, and just do the same ending CTA pitch, where you enter your email address to get three months off free, for example.
So now you're comparing apples to apples. And now you can truly see which set of value props would be better. And when you know, then you can determine the future of your product. 'Cause if you're gonna just stay in zombie mode with growth being capable of moving the needle for you, you have to change something, and this is the best way to do it, because getting that initial burst of traffic to determine which is the winning variation in this A/B test, will cost you nothing.
Here's another one. What analytics and tracking should I set up at the beginning of my company, if any?
Hmm, well if you're a mobile app, or you're a SaaS product, you wanna do event-based analytics. So something like Mixpanel or Heap Analytics. There's also Amplitude. I'm not gonna get too deep into why. That's a whole different conversation, but relative to Google Analytics, for example, if you have a very rich user journey within an app, where they create an account, they interact with various dash board widgets and so on, measuring that event to even journey, is much more complicated in Google Analytics. You want something built for that. And that's what Mixpanel and Heap do.
And regardless of whether you're using that, you always as like a base layer, want Google Analytics installed. A few reasons, one, it's reliable, it works, it's free, it'll track. Your listeners at minimum know what Google Analytics is, I won't go into pitching that, but I will say something awesome.
Or, I will announce something kinda awesome, which is, Google just released something called Google Optimize, which is everything we've been discussing rolled into Google Analytics. So it's Google Analytics own A/B testing tool, for free. An amazing interface that competes with Optimizely, and VWO (Visual Website Optimizer), which are the two large A/B testing tools that people go to, that also can be quite expensive. So that's pretty darn cool. So you have GA, you have the event-based tools.
So you have that pixel installed on day one, and you get a big press hit. You get 500 to 10,000 people, whatever it is. All of those people, so long as the conversion pixel is installed, will be logged forever, and then later actionable for up to 180 days, or up to a year, by these platforms. So even if you're not yet going to do ads, you'll have the perfect audience to run ads against. And the reason I say perfect audience, the reason why retargeting is so valuable, is because any time you run what's called a prospecting campaign. So you're running ads on Facebook to people who have never heard of you, never been to your website, versus the retargeting campaign. People who have been to your site at least once. Retargeting always performs better. The CPA, the cost per customer acquisition is way lower. Maybe a 10th of the cost. So if you start with that audience, you can do ads better, and quicker, and cheaper.
Yeah, that's great advice. I've never done any retargeting myself, but I've seen it as a user, just going around the web. I'll go to a website, and then I'll see ads for that website everywhere for the next few months. And it works sometimes. It's like, oh I wanted to buy that shirt, and I didn't buy it today, but it's almost like the ad itself is a little to-do on my to-do list that follows me around everywhere I go. Then eventually I'm like okay, now I'm ready to buy that thing, and then I buy it.
Yeah, someone once told me a joke. They said, retargeting is kind of like that crazy aunt, who once you mentioned how much you loved ninjas as a 12 year old, and now every single year for the rest of your life, she sends you ninja gifts. Like ninja branded stars and stuff, you know? That's what retargeting is.
Okay, so another question from Twitter is, how do you know what's the signal if your product is ready for mass marketing? I'm assuming this person is someone whose product is in the beta phase, and they're not sure, okay should I start pitching this product hard, or should I wait until later?
Right, right. That's really more of a question about product development. But I can speak a bit to it. So, when is a product ready for mass marketing? It comes down to, do users stick around really? And better yet, not just have you reduced churn, but also, have you increased referral rate? So that every user who does come through your funnel, winds up bringing others, at least some fraction, that would be a huge bonus.
If that's not feasible for your product for whatever reason, at least make sure your revenue is fairly optimized. So that you're not leaving a ton of low-hanging financial fruit on the floor when a user comes through your funnel. If there are ways to incentivize them to upgrade, make it happen. And so in terms of paying more, in terms of referring more, in terms of staying around longer, those are the three things that you want, those are the three types of categories of metrics you're looking to optimize in general. And if you have those already in place before you begin marketing, every dollar you thereafter put into marketing, will go a lot further. It'll be for customers who stick around longer, and wind up being more profitable.
And specifically important because there's this concept of LTV, right? Lifetime value. Which is just a simple formula of how many months do users on average stick around for? And how much on average are they paying you per month? So if they stick around for six months, and average at 10 bucks a month, that's 60 bucks. And that's your LTV. And so, how much you can afford to spend to acquire a user, this term CPA I've been using a few times. Your CPA on these ad channels, is dictated, it's capped, by the LTV. And the rule of thumb is you wanna pay a third or less of your LTV per customer acquisition. The essence here is, unless you do have that portion of your product build out well, and you know how much a user is worth, you can't really go to marketing having the confidence you're not overpaying for users yet.
And that's a really good reason why for people who might be considering building a product where you don't charge up front, you should probably not do that. Because if you're not charging money up front, you have no idea whether or not people are actually deriving value from your product. Whether or not you could profitably acquire users using advertising, or other efforts. So, charge up front.
And another thing you said that I really liked is you talked about turn. And this is something that I, for a very long period of my entrepreneurship career, ignored at my own peril. But every single time somebody who is a user of your app stops paying you, or stops using your app, then you need to find somebody else just to replace them. And so ultimately, I think that a lot of people have these apps that have super high churn rates, and they don't really understand that a churn rate is not just a number on a page, it's something that makes growth extremely inefficient. Right, if your turn rate is 50%, and half of your users are leaving your app, then you have to double the amount of users that you're bringing in, just to keep up with what you would otherwise.
So, before you start pouring a ton of users into your app, before you start paying for a ton of ads, before you start pitching all the press agencies, make sure that people actually derive value from your app long enough to actually stay and keep using it.
So we've covered a lot of ground. We've talked about a lot of different topics related to growth, and one of the things that I'd really like to get into is, talk a little bit more in depth about the clients that you've worked with at Bell Curve, because I'm sure there's a ton of stuff that you've done, that's been educational, not only for you, but that all of us would find extremely educational. Are there any stories that come to mind of clients that you've worked with, and projects that you've worked on, where you learned a lot about growth, or you encountered some surprising insights that we might find helpful, to help us grow our companies?
Sure. I think the most interesting stories are the ones that didn't play out like I thought they would. The growth strategies that failed, and then what we had to do to supplement them. So, I'll just start with, let's say, Service.
So there's a client of Bell Curve's called Service. And what they do, is they allow you to enter any sort of support inquiry. Like, I want better customer support for this bed I just bought. Or I just went to a restaurant, and they spilled food on my shirt, and they're not willing to repay me. So you give Service your customer complaints, and then they go and handle them for you. And if they can get remuneration from the business, they'll then take a cut of that before they give it to you.
Kind of an odd business model. To be honest, I didn't think it was gonna work at all. And it didn't.
And so when they signed us on, we looked at what were the narrow set of cases that did in fact, work. Which were the ones that led to the highest lifetime user value? And it turned out that, when Service responded to airline delays or cancellation support inquiries, very often the airlines would in fact, give, up to, three, four, $500, depending on your elite flying status, back to you as a way of saying hey, please don't leave us. We're sorry we canceled or delayed your flight. And so, each time, Service would take like 30% out of that.
And we're like, well if that's such a well-defined financial bounty, why don't we just focus on that, kick out everyone else, all these other use cases, and now let's build a landing page around that particular use case. Let's completely pivot this business to airline focus only.
So we did. We built up a landing page, and you can actually go look at it. I'll leave you guys something to kind of sink your teeth into, as how we delivered goods for them for this particular pivot. So if you go their site, you'll see the mobile landing page that we designed for them. And we wrote for them, which is really the key word. What would be most enticing to this audience?
So, knowing full well that this is a mobile app in the app store, we thought, why don't we just start spinning up Facebook ads, Instagram ads, and Pinterest ads, and Twitter ads, and AdWords, for sending people directly to the App Store. And what we discovered was, when we sent them right to the App Store, this value prop of we'll get you money, if your flight was delayed or canceled, sounded too good to be true, 'cause no one knows about this. This is actually a real thing. Airline will pay you, at least in the United States, and most of Western Europe, if they delay or cancel you. And people wouldn't believe it, 'cause they hadn't heard of it. So, when we sent them to the App Store, the App Store failed to sufficiently address the sort of BS alarm that went off.
And so we were seeing terrible conversion. People may download the app, but those who did, would not then enter their credit card to allow for us to move forward with the claim processing, and to give them compensation for us to get a cut. So it was performing terribly, despite us knowing that that user segment within the app loved that feature.
So what we thought was, why don't we spin up a landing page, which is what I referenced a moment ago. Which may not look good on desktop, it's really more for mobile. And the idea here is, what if we took a whole page to explain the value prop, break it down in such a way that it would be compelling to each type of audience segment, and address all their concerns? And here's where alarms went off in my head. Typically, if I'm trying to make a growth funnel efficient, so the funnel being where you acquire someone and finally get them convert, and everything in between. And thereafter, too. Referrals, and optimizing revenue, and so on. You don't wanna add new steps into that funnel at all. You don't wanna add a page between your ad and the App Store. That's another place for users to drop off. And get annoyed, get bored, whatever, and just bounce.
But in our case, we had to take that risk, to add enough context. And I think people will start seeing how this will apply to their product. You don't wanna throw someone onto your signup form. Right? So I'll get back to the real world implications of this, or the, extra Service implications of this in a moment.
So we write this up, and what we realize on this landing page that we're sending all the ad traffic too all the sudden, is not only has to be compelling, but it also has to convince you that we're legit. And that this claim we're making, this big claim, is something we could actually satisfy, from a company you've never heard of before. We're gonna get you hundreds of dollars. Sounds like a scam. So number one, we explained technically, how is it possible that we do this for you? And you can go look at the steps on the webpage.
And again, this applies to anyone's homepage. How is it possible that you pull this off better than your competition? Explain it to people, specifically. That's the first thing. Second thing is, what is the social proof you're providing? For people to see that other people have validated your claims. So that's why when I tell people to design a landing page, to put some form of social proof, like a logo wall for the press that's covered them for their biggest, their customer count, or how many reviews they have in the App Store, or their local business, how well starred they are or reviewed on Yelp and so on. Social proof is a key component. The more you make claims that are bold, you have to back 'em up
In fact, on that landing page, I went so far, and this tickles me because I've never had the opportunity to do this before for a client or for anyone, is I have a tweet from Jared Leto, the dude who now plays Joker, embed onto that landing page. Because he is actually an investor in Service. And so he tweets about it every now and then, and so I embedded that thinking, if you know Jared Leto, if I embed the damn tweet, you're gonna say, wait a minute, this is interesting. So this is big, this is broad. A lot of people must know about this if Jared does. And then to kind of add some reinforcement there, if you don't know who that guy is, or never look at Twitter, I also embed the Buzzfeed logos, and the quote from Buzzfeed, and CNet as to the really nice things they've said about Service
And I go one step further, and at the bottom of the page I have a 30 second video of Service having been covered on the Today Show. Which for non-US viewers is kind of like the early morning talk show in the U.S. So, a lot of social proof. At this proportion, amount of social proof relative to the average landing page I would design for everyone. But in the case here, because of how bold the claim is, like I mentioned, totally warranted.
So, what were the outcomes of this?
This page performs tremendously well. If you're coming from Facebook or Instagram, there's a 55% conversion rate from that page to going to the App Store. Not necessarily to installing the app, that has its own conversion rate. But 55%, which is phenomenal. Because this isn't a squeeze page, which is like trying to force you to click to the App Store, it's a long page with text and social proof, and it means I've hooked over half the people to go keep clicking. Very impressive rate there.
And so you can study some components on that page, or you can refer to the julian.com growth guide. It has a page on how I designed that landing page. What was the structure I followed? To see how to get a similar rate perhaps, for your product. But so very performant. So these are the takeaways here, from a landing page perspective and that's kind of how I responded to the failure of not providing enough context for people when I was sending them direct to the App Store. So we go into a few more things there, like the ad and so forth, but I'm gonna pause if there's anything you wanted to dive into, Courtland.
Yeah, there's a lot. There's a lot in there that you talked about that I think is really good, that I just wanna highlight for people in case they maybe missed some of it, and maybe add a little bit of my own thoughts.
The first thing is that, you went in to help this company, Service, and getting this company to grow involved actually modifying the product that they were working on, right? They were working on something super broad, and vague, and it was to help everybody in every situation ever. And you guys ended up focusing the app down to one small iota of what it actually was doing earlier, that was well-defined, and easy to understand. And from that point on, you could easily create, for example, very specific copy that said, hey we're going to help you with this specific problem, getting your money back from airlines. And I think that's something that people should really take to heart, which is that growth is not this thing that is magically divorced from what you're doing and what your product is. It's actually inextricably linked to your product itself. And so you need to optimize your product to make it something that can grow, right? And part of that means, if you can't come up with a good tagline, or a good headline for why people should use your product, probably your product is way too vague, and not helpful enough.
The other thing that struck me, was that you had kind of an education problem here. Which was, people didn't now what this was. And they didn't even know if the claims that it was making were true. And so your point about social proof, I think a lot of people don't understand social proof, but like you said, it's something that pays dividends if the product that you're making is extremely, I don't wanna say untrustworthy, but people don't understand it and maybe they don't believe it. And if you're listening to this podcast, chances are pretty high that you're a rational, and maybe skeptical person. So I'm sure that you've been to websites that you've thought are sketchy, and immediately clicked off of those. And those situations, like the things that your brain automatically searches for, are clues to see okay, is this sketchy, or am I just being paranoid? And one of the top clues that you can search for is, are other people using this? And so for pretty much any landing page, having some degree of social proof, is going to immediately quell objections from a lot of people who might be wondering if it's a scam that you're working on, or if it's an unpopular product that people simply don't trust, et cetera.
So I think that's a huge point. And it should really be a part of any landing page, if you can swing it. Are there any other stories, and other companies that you've worked with, where you've derived some interesting insights from growth, that might help the audience grow their own products?
Sure, so let's look at a product like Cinder. So, Cinder is a different client of ours.
They are, I don't know how many people listening are familiar with a cooking method called sous vide, but essentially, you take a tub of water, you heat it to a certain temperature. You then take food, and you put it in like a Ziploc bag, essentially. And you put that Ziploc food into the water, and you let that food sit there, until the food has reached the temperature of the water. So you maintain the water temperature with an electric circulator. And that circulator is called a sous vide device. And the idea is that it cooks better than putting something on a grill.
So the first thing we thought of was, why don't we do a crowdfunding campaign because it's kind of futuristic, uses really cool technology, and it's the sort of thing that has really strong lifestyle play. Where when you use it, you're like okay, suddenly everyone in my family is a chef, and suddenly I don't have to spend so much time worrying about food, and it improves my confidence, buying food because I know I won't ruin it. All these cool dynamics, which lend themselves to crowdfunding.
By the way, crowdfunding I don't think is necessarily exclusive to hardware. There are a lot of people who will write content, like books, or even design games, like mobile apps, or board games, that'll use crowdfunding to raise awareness and funding. So this isn't just for people doing physical products. There's a really wide gamut of stuff here.
So you decided to use crowdfunding for the Cinder Grill, 'cause it makes a lot of sense for this type of product. And then what comes next? What's the firs step for getting a crowdfunding campaign off the ground?
So, the first thing we did, is we started queuing up press. And we would prospect, which is kind of sales term, for building a list of journalists who would likely be interested in our product. And we did that of course, by looking at the past coverage they had written on related products. And had seen if they had written about a sous vide device, they may be interested in writing about Cinder. There's a bit on a narrative thread there we can tug on.
Further, we would make sure they're writing for publications that have some track record of writing about this sort of space, or technology. So just making sure that their story about sous vide wasn't a total one off thing. So we made this list. We went and looked at Reddit posts, we went and looked at Google News posts, we just scoured the web for what's been said. And then we tracked down the individual journalists' emails, using clearbit.com's prospecting tool. That's how we were making sure that we were getting the right emails, and not just guesstimating their first name, last name combination.
So we put together this huge list. Maybe 150 people. And we had a fairly standardized template, but it did modify based on what they had written in the past. So we did try to tailor it. And the way we kind of scripted, or automated that outreach to the template approach, is using a tool called Streak. So streak.com, it's a free Gmail plugin that allows you to do template emails very easily. And you can piggyback off of the Google spreadsheet of your prospecting list. So very straightforward process.
So we write up an email. The first question we have is, what should the subject be? We have something very interesting in our favor, versus say, a software company. We have a physical product. Now I figure, why don't we play that up? How often do journalists get emailed, can I send you a demo unit? Question mark. That was our subject line. That's gonna get your interest versus B2B SaaS app revolutionizes x. They've heard that many times. So they open email.
The first thing we do, is we hit them with a link to the homepage, which we make sure is very well-written, and very visually enticing, with a video to help get you excited about the product. So the first thing we do, is we drop that link, 'cause we know the landing page is going to pitch better than our email will. 'Cause the landing page has been heavily optimized through a lot of traffic. Our email template at best, may ever see a hundred pair of eyes, right? A few hundred pairs of eyes. And it's very hard to A/B test that. It's not a big sample size. So the first lesson here is, when you're doing cold outreach, try to pivot your pitch. Hand it off to some sort of collateral, like a webpage, that you know has been rigorously optimized for conversion. That gets people excited. And do that quickly. Don't bury that somewhere in the email. So, that's the first thing.
Second thing is, we explain to them, why would they care about this? How does this relate to what they've written in the past? Hook into their interests. And then we'll do a quick bullet point of why this is so cool and revolutionary. In the case of Cinder it actually is, so we're able to use that word seriously.
And then I'll conclude with a call to action, which is essentially, just let me know your shipping address, and I'll shoot you one right away. Really simple. All they gotta do is say, yo, here's the address, we'll shoot them one, they get a FedEx number, once they get it we get notified, and then we follow up maybe a week after that.
We say hey, how did your demo experience go? Would you like to write that coverage? And they almost always do. So, that was our first outreach, was press. Now, what we realized was, press is fleeting, impossible to predict, and very often, doesn't even come through. So we have this tremendous success rate in terms of response. And people actually following up with publishing the coverage. But we barely got traffic. This is not exaggeration, from TechCrunch, Mashable, PC Mag, CNet, Digital Trends, and easily a half dozen others that are escaping me at the moment. We may have gotten like 700 visits. So...
Yeah, that's not a joke.
Crazy. And in the past, I've gotten a startup on TechCrunch that got over a 100,000 visits. So...-
Yeah, I've had posts on Hacker News that sat at the top and got 100,000 visits in a day.
Yeah, absolutely. So the variability is so extreme, to put all your eggs in the PR basket is absurd. It's something you should do because there's basically zero cost to that outreach, but it's not something you should depend on. Or even expect to work well. So, that surprised us, because it's such a physical, awesome product delivering you, it's like a magical meat maker, which is what the Gizmodo review said. Yet no one's cooking.
So that was the failure. And then I had to figure out, how do I supplement that failure? What do I do next? So there's a few other things you can do. And a lot of these, for whatever reason, I only learned midway through our crowdfunding campaign, 'cause I couldn't find the answers online. Which was very peculiar to me. I figured others must have gone through this, but then I realized two things:
One, most crowdfunding campaigns fail. You're in the top .1% if you raise over like $400 or $500,000. I think that number's roughly correct.
And number two, most of the ones that succeed, use an agency. I had no idea. Not an agency like Bell Curve, where we do growth, for mobile apps and desktops SaaS, and so on. But crowdfunding specific agencies, and I thought to myself, why are these agencies crushing it so much better than we are at Bell Curve, for Cinder Crowdfunding contributions when we really know ads, and we really know landing page, and we know copy. What's happened here?
And so, I actually just cold called other agencies, basically willing to let them do my work for me, which is kind of an ego hit, saying we can't do it. What would you do differently? And in these discussions, I learned that the only way to make any sort of acquisition work for crowdfunding, on a scale, systematically recurring, week after week, to get to hundreds of thousands of dollars, is to do something called a custom audience on Facebook.
Now before I dive into that, and how this applies to basically everyone listening, all the businesses, I do wanna mention, I do wanna highlight here, that I paused, I reflected on, I first appreciated the fact that I was failing, and then I went and I looked for other people who were in a similar situation, and I asked them point blank, what would you do? And so, if you have a company, and you're not doing great, reach out to the CMO of some company that's tangentially related, not a direct competitor, and just shoot the shit. Get a conversation going, and ask them what works for them. And in doing so, be as helpful as you can. Tell them what has worked for you, and offer them productive assets that you may have that can help them out.
And of course, this goes right back to what we were saying earlier. If you're going to reach out to somebody from help, then don't just tell them what you need. Find out what it is that they need, or how they can be helped, and then provide that help or that information for them. Provide something to make it interesting for them, or worth their while, and they'll be way more likely to reciprocate. And on that note, getting help from other people is also tremendously underrated. I spent many years of my career just doing things on my own, that there were already solutions for.
No matter what it is that you're working on, chances are very high that you're not alone, and other people are working towards the same goals that you are to accomplish similar objectives, and if you can tap into their knowledge, rather than trying to derive a solution to these problems on your own from scratch, then it's like getting a tremendous head start. You're at least starting at the level of the status quo. Starting at the level of understanding what the best practices are, and you can go from there, rather than starting at zero. And that's kind of a lot of the reason behind why I created Indie Hackers as well. If you're trying to start a business online, and you want to turn a profit, maybe quit your job, you're not the only person who's doing this. You're not the only person who has this idea, and there's a lot of common lessons that you can learn from other people, who are doing this too.
So, for example, one good place you could go, is Indie Hackers forum, and there's all sorts of people doing the same things. You can go on Twitter, you can find your community on Reddit, and talk to people who are doing these things. You can do what Julian did, and find an expert at a particular thing, and just email them, and make it worth their while, and see if they'll help you out. But certainly, by all means, get help from people, and don't just struggle on your own, trying to solve problems completely alone. Anyway, getting back to the topic. You're talking about Facebook custom audiences.
So custom audiences. That was the next step we were introduced to. And I was actually very familiar with this term, or this technique, custom audiences, by having run Facebook ads for many years. But I didn't realize it was the key to making crowdfunding work.
So, here's the thing. If you've run a crowdfunding campaign for a client in the past. So let's say I'm one of these crowdfunding agencies, and let's say I've working with 10 other crowdfunding campaigns that were hugely successful. Now when someone contributes to your campaign on Kickstarter, or Indiegogo, the two popular crowdfunding platforms, you get their email address. And so you can store that email address, compile that into a list, and make it a custom audience on Facebook. So if I'm that agency, and I've just run five amazingly successful campaigns, and collectively I have 10,000 email addresses, I can then retarget, or I can advertise to, on Facebook, all of those past crowdfunding customers for the next client I work with.
And the reason that's so valuable, is I know all of those people (a) know what crowdfunding is, (b) likely know what either Kickstarter or Indiegogo is, 'cause they contributed on that platform prior, and (c) have a credit card on file with those platforms. So I'm reducing all the risk, all the friction that would come with typically targeting people trying to get them to buy my good on a crowdfunding page. And so now I have this super tailored audience of people who are primed to buy, and have already shown their willingness to be early tech adopters. And if I hit them with my product, they're likely to convert much better than the broader interest-based targeting I would have done, on people who like cooking, people who like high end cooking.
'Cause remember, this is for Cinder Grill, so people who are into sous vide. Those audiences failed utterly. My Facebook ads failed utterly, compared to these custom audiences. So I spoke to these agencies, and I said can I get my hands on them? And they're like, no. This is like our proprietary trade secret here. We worked with these customers, we have the emails, you're either gonna pay us a big cut, and we'll run your Facebook ads for you, or good luck. And so we're like, okay. And so we negotiated a price, they started running the ads. And the ads start crushing it. And suddenly we were getting 10 to 30 orders per day, for something like 40, or let's say 25 to $60 depending on the day, per conversion. We're selling a Cinder right now at about 399, and the average purchase price with other perks winds up being something like 470 bucks. So, extremely positive ROI. And now it works. I would not have known this. And I would have continued failing on Facebook ads had I not asked questions.
So I had Alex MacCaw on the podcast a couple weeks ago. And I know you and Alex have also worked together. Specifically you helped him with Quora Ads. What is the story behind that?
So Quora Ads is an interesting example of when you should be resourceful as a growth marketer. So Quora Ads is currently in the beta phase. By the time you hear this, it may actually be public. But when an ad channel, like Quora is in the beta phase, it means the total pool of people advertising is very small. Which means the competition over clicks is very small.
And so what happened was, I saw this random ad on Quora a few months ago, and I'm like wait a minute there are ads on Quora now, I had no idea about this. So I just contacted Quora, I asked a friend, then another friend of a friend. I gotta get in touch with these people, 'cause if they're running ads for the first time, I knew about this phenomenon. I knew I wanted to be resourceful. And see if I can get in as an early customer, then maybe I could pitch them as learning more from my learnings. Like listen, I'll share all the data I have, all the conversion insights, and any way I can be useful to you, I will be. And in exchange, please let me begin advertising on Quora.
I've heard by the way, similar stores of people advertising right when Snapchat started doing ads, and also right when Instagram started doing ads, that they were able to basically get ridiculous numbers or clicks and impressions for super cheap, just because there was no competition on the platforms.
Exactly. We were paying on Quora ads beta, five cents per very qualified iOS click from someone in the United States. Which that, on Instagram, could be tens of cents, on Facebook, could be a couple dollars. So on LinkedIn, that could be seven or more dollars. So it was an incredible deal.
And the volume was all ours for the taking at that price point, 'cause nobody was competing. There were like 150 other advertisers. So it gave us this enormous platform to test copy, and to test landing pages, and to test value props. And so the way we pitched the product in multiple forms. So it was an amazing test bed, and in the process of testing, we got tons of cheap customers. We signed up tons of people for this Clearbit product.
And then at the same time, I used it for all my other clients, and just started crushing it for all of them, because they happened to be there early enough. And so, short of getting to the nitty gritty of the ads I wrote, and why they perform well, obviously the takeaway here is, when you see an opportunity to advertise, to acquire users, whether it's an ad, whether it's a brand new blog that pops up in your industry that's getting coverage. Like Indie Hackers to me.
Let's say for example, I reached out to you, Courtland, not for the purpose of helping you with growth tactics, but for the purpose of trying to leverage your audience to advertise. Let's say I had some sort of SaaS company. That would be a good thing to do. If I say hey Courtland, have you thought about putting an ad unit on your homepage? Among the interviews, why don't you have one ad unit that looks like an interview, it's got a logo for a company, it just says promoted somewhere, that even has how much we're making. So it's just like organic content, and that might be a great way for us to get a bunch of high quality clicks. And maybe there's a way for you to make it also very useful for your customers. For your visitors rather. So reach out when you see an opportunity for an ad that either doesn't currently exist, or if an ad does exist, and you don't see a way for you to get your hands on it, that means other people aren't getting their hands on it either, like the Quora beta program, and go hustle your way into it.
All right. So we've talked a lot about landing page design, about A/B testing, about the growth funnel, and reaching out and pitching press, crowdfunding, Facebook ads. One major area that we've totally left out, is content marketing. And maybe we'll just have to save this for another episode, 'cause we're running low on time, but one thing I've never heard you talk about, either on this podcast, or in person, just between the two of us, is social media. So what role does social media play in how Bell Curve goes? Basically what Bell Curve does, when you go in to help a client go in to help a client grow their product or their service?
It plays almost no part. So in general, if you're running a social media account, there are kind of two ways to stand out. Either be a curator, someone who finds and retweets, regrams, reshares great content. Or produce original niche content yourself. So an example of that may be, if you sell photo frames, maybe you have some beautiful photos of your frames on various walls and wall paper, and you get people in the photo frame as like inspirational words or something. So you can produce cool content people can easily consume and evolves your product. Those are usually your two paths.
Both take a ton of work. And both wind up failing. Because just look at the graveyard of corporate company Twitter handles. Most of them have thousands of fake followers, zero Twitter engagement. Same thing with Instagram accounts. So the truth is, people have Buzzfeed to keep them interested online, or they have Reddit, or they have YouTube. They don't need your marketing intern collating inspirational images with pop culture quotes to entertain them. So, unless you give them a really, really good reason to look at your stuff, they're not going to. 'Cause they won't care. If you build it, they will not come. There's a bigger reason here, though. Not just a lack of success. And I'm not trying to poo poo on social media in general, if you can nail it, and if you are a lifestyle brand, apparel, fashion, beauty, or like Go-Pro, anything that emboldens a lifestyle choice, that lends itself to great imagery and videos, roll with it. You're gonna have a much greater chance at pulling this off.
But for most companies, especially listeners doing SaaS software, for example, every time you ask someone to follow you on Twitter, you're doing it at the expense of replacing that call to action, with getting them to do something that's more productive for your growth funnel. So instead, you could be asking them to join your newsletter, every time you waste space on your home page, or your blog footer asking them to follow you on Twitter.
That space that can get them to subscribe with their email address. And certainly, kids these days aren't using email. But adults are. And they're using it more than they ever have. And email is the only surefire way to get to the top of someone's inbox. To get the top of their attention, I mean.
Whereas social media, if you share a tweet, you post a tweet, if someone doesn't see it, that's it. Maybe you have a couple opportunities to retweet it before people get annoyed and unfollow you, but even then, most people will not see it during the time that you post it. Whereas email it's in their face. And you can keep hitting them, you can keep emailing them, keep following them up, and you can track the metrics of who opened it, who viewed it, who responded? It's measurable, it's optimizeable. And you can do a full post.
So, consider the opportunity cost of what you're asking people to do on your site. You want them to do so many things. You want them to follow your Twitter handle, you want them to subscribe to your blog, you want them to sign up to convert into a paying customer. Figure out what's most appropriate for the page at hand, and the section of that page even. And focus, what matters most for conversion. So usually not gonna be social media.
Yeah, I totally agree. And I like that you mentioned opportunity cost, because it's not necessarily a business concept, it's more of just a general life concept. But anytime you spend working on something, it's time you're not spending working on something else. And it's very unlikely that any, all of your growth channels are equally as important as each other. So, to the extent that you can cut out the ones that aren't going to have as high of a return on investment as the others, you should.
And people ask me all the time, why aren't you doing x for Indie Hackers, and why aren't you doing y? I'd really like to see this other feature. And my answer's almost always the same. I would love to do that, but there's only one of me, and I can only focus on a few things at a time, and that simply isn't as good as these other areas.
Specifically for Twitter and Facebook, my Facebook strategy has just been abysmal. But on Twitter, I find it very useful for having conversations. For actually talking to people. But not useful at all for driving large amounts of traffic to Indie Hackers, or any other startup that I ever started. And maybe that's just me not using it well, but I think it's more to do with what you said, which is I'd much rather have people on an email list, where they're gonna be a lot more engaged, and I can connect with them personally, and there's a lot higher of a chance of they're actually going to see what I write, versus them having to be logged into Twitter at the exact time that I tweet something.
So I totally agree with that advice, and I think people should put your priorities in order and figure out what channels are actually effective for you, and double down on those channels and neglect the ones that are not effective. All right, we're out of time. That is by far the longest episode that I've ever recorded for the podcast. Can you tell listeners where they can go to find out more about yourself, about Bell Curve, and to get this guide you're working on, when it's out?
Sure. First of all, dude, you're the nicest guy ever, letting me get the word out. I appreciate it. So julian.com is home to the guides and writing. And you can also see some of the stuff I'm working on writing in the future, about to release. twitter.com/shapiro.
All right, thanks so much Julian. I'll talk to you later.
Thanks for having me, Courtland. I appreciate it. And I' glad we got to do this.
If you enjoyed listening to this conversation, and you're looking for a way to help support the Indie Hackers podcast, then you should subscribe on iTunes, and leave a quick grading and a review. It only takes about 30 seconds, but it actually really helps get the word out, and I would personally appreciate it very much.
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