Digital Marketing Investment: Where to Put Your Money for Best Results
I'm part of several SaaS marketing groups on Facebook.
Yes they're still there, and some of them are still amazing places to talk it out with other digital marketers.
My favorite is probably Aaron Krall's "SaaS Growth Hacking" - the most (non-spammy) active community I'm a part of - a community which prompts some of the best marketing conversations I have.
Last week was a great example. Melanie Richards, a new member, asked the group to answer a poll:
Where would you spend in order to grow your SaaS?
- Content Marketing
- Email Marketing
- Website Optimization (UX and A/B testing)
- Improve the Product
- FB Ads
More than 150 people have voted, and it prompted an interesting conversation between marketers.
Some argued for content marketing, others for Adwords or email.
There is an argument to be made for every one of the 6 marketing strategies to be where you should invest your time and money. There's also an argument to be made against them all.
I, for one, went into that conversation (and this article, actually) firm in my belief that you shouldn't invest in any one thing or else you'll lose down the line.
I've changed that point of view slightly, and I'll talk about what changed and what I recommend now.
This article will dive into the argument for each of these six strategies to be your marketing focus, feature my "must-do" strategies, and give you super valuable insight and opinions from some of the leading digital marketers out there.
Are you wondering where you should invest to grow your business? Let's dive in.
Want to skip down to the bottom to get right to the conclusion? You can do that by clicking here, cheater.
The Argument for Content Marketing
Ryan Smith, content manager for Bench bookkeeping as well as his own consultancy firm, explained the argument for content marketing as well as I possibly can. Here's what he had to say:
“Content is the only form of marketing that actually compounds in value over time. You publish once and continue to earn traffic and authority long after. If I could cheat and pick one more it would be email, to convert readers to customers. Any other form of marketing might drive revenue, sure, but it will also get less sustainable over time. Content is like a savings account: If you keep adding to it, the value will continue to grow.”
Aaron Orendorff, content at Shopify Plus, agreed (with a product-based addition):
Product and content marketing, those are the backbones. And once you have those in place (esp with content) you can repurpose and test like crazy across ALL the others.
- Aaron Orendorff, Shopify
To give you a better idea of what they're talking about with "compounding in value," it'd be valuable to see a real-world example of it in action.
Below is a snapshot of the funnel for a few of our pieces of "evergreen content" for some of our oldest (though updated) articles:
Each of those, except for my social media marketing plan article, was written at least a year ago.
Content Marketing "Must-Do's":
- Do your research: There's no point in creating a single blog article until you know what your ideal reader/customer is interested in. Check out BuzzSumo to review the most successful posts from your competitors.
- Establish your content objective: Is it SEO? If so, you'll need to determine your 20 or so target keywords and phrases, and then determine if they're attainable. Is it brand awareness? If so, you'll need to go back to BuzzSumo and check out the most shared content in your niche, and write something similar. Is it trust and expertise? If so, you'll need to create content which says something original (either research or simply original ideas). To drive trust and expertise, you can also connect your brand with one another brand that prospective customers already trust (webinars are great for this).
- Figure out the next step: Once you have a reader on your site, what are you looking for them to do? Subscribe to your blog? If so, you'll need a lead generation strategy. And once they subscribe, what are you driving them towards with your email? If a paid conversion, how are you doing that?
The Argument for Email Marketing
Austin Mullins, one of the community members on Facebook and a freelance copywriter, argued for email marketing. I asked him to explain his reasoning and he was kind enough provide a video:
Email Marketing "Must-Do's":
- Personalize: Consistently shown to increase open rates and click-through rates, personalization is key to email marketing - whether with merge tags or genuine personalization.
- Automate: Volume is also an essential requirement for success with email marketing. Build as large an email list as you can (email-gated content is great for this) and then segment by interest (as best you can) and set it all to happen while you sleep with marketing automation.
- De-Automate at the Right Time: A key to success with email is to send a bunch of emails (see above) automatically and with merge tags, and then take over with the personal touch at an optimal time. A good marketing automation platform will enable you to send an email to a sales associate when someone replies to an automated email.
The Argument for Website Optimization (UX and A/B testing)
The argument for website optimization is simple: What's the point in driving traffic from advertising or content marketing to your website (the place where traffic becomes money) if that website is crap?
What's the point in setting up any strategy which drives traffic if people can't figure out how to convert when they get to your pricing page?
Website Optimization "Must-Do's":
- Have someone you don't know and love look: Usertesting.com (and its competitors) offer your business an objective point of view for $50 per test. Give directions to marketers, buyers, or whoever, and watch as they go through your website from beginning to end, giving verbal feedback the entire time. This is an extremely valuable insight, particularly when you and everyone you know are too close to the project to give genuine feedback.
- Implement without statistical significance: This is a super controversial statement, but bear with me. Statistically significant A/B tests are, honestly, hard to get even for businesses with traffic. Most startups and SMBs won't have the traffic to implement only those design variations which end up as statistically significant. As a result, go with your gut where necessary (provided you're building tests based on proven best practice). Don't let a lack of statistical significance get in the way of change and growth.
The Argument for Improving the Product
Jeroen Corthout is another representative from the great Facebook group which started this whole thing. He made the argument for an improved product being the most crucial element of business growth:
“Product is more than just UX, UI or even design in general. It's [about] product strategy and vision, building for the future, managing the customer feedback and product-customer relationship, getting the dev team to be in line, building the right architecture, nailing the business logic, setting up the infrastructure correctly, monitoring well, analytics on customer behavior, managing the product team…
If I [absolutely had] to choose one thing, it's the way a product works for the customer to exactly do what he or she needs and expects."
- Jeroen Corthout, Co-Founder of Salesflare
Improving the Product "Must-Do's":
- Don't go in blind: Check out where you have deficiencies by signing up for your competitor, speaking to your customers or having an expert go through your platform (again, UserTesting or a similar tool will help with that). The last thing you want to do is dive into improving your product based only on your own objectivity (because you don't have any). Never assume you know what your customer wants. Prove it.
- Run I.C.E. on your product improvements: That's "Impact," "Confidence," and "Ease." You need to determine which of your product's deficiencies will have the highest impact on customer satisfaction with the least amount of effort from you and your team. Do the math!
The Argument for Facebook Ads
For some businesses (and some marketing objectives) there is nothing better than a good Facebook Ad.
Not every business has search volume for their business' keywords, or (if they do) their larger competitors are making them prohibitively expensive for small business.
And that's where Facebook Ads come in: they offer affordable, demographic and interest-based targeting. They're visual, colorful, value-oriented, and (most importantly for many early-stage businesses), have a cost structure where you pay only when your objectives are met. Want to increase brand awareness but don't care yet about sales? Pay per 1000 views. Want to increase attendance at your conference and don't even have a product? Pay per event attendee.
Facebook Advertising "Must-Do's":
- Create your Facebook Ads around a promotion: The primary thing with Facebook Ads is that nobody's looking for what you're advertising (unlike Adwords), so you need to give a reason for them to care. Run limited-time promotions, contests, or sales, and have that discount/prize be the focus of your ad's messaging.
- Use bright colors which attract the eye: Whatever you do, don't create a grey ad with a bit of light blue - you won't stand out against the Facebook color scheme or draw the eye away from your target audience's newsfeed.
- Consider retargeting: Facebook's "Website Custom Audience" targeting allows you to target, exclusively, those people who have visited your website. For more on website custom audiences and retargeting on Facebook, check out "Chapter 5: Facebook Ad Targeting (Advanced)" and "52 Facebook Marketing Ideas (Updated Feb. 2017)."
For a complete, free guide to Facebook Ads, check out my Complete Guide to Facebook Ads.
The Argument for Adwords
I can work for 6 months writing content around a keyword we want to rank for, and not even get to the first page. The competition for high-volume search terms (particularly in the marketing space) is fierce.
Alternatively, I could create a Google Ad, and pay only when someone clicks on it.
It's a guaranteed spot at the top of the search results (I'm not going to get into Google display or remarketing ads here, to avoid confusion).
It's also a spot where your business shows exclusively to people who are looking for something your business offers. And, if you follow the "must-do's" below, you'll only be showing when someone is looking to buy.
Google Adwords "Must-Do's":
- Do not target low-intent keywords: For instance, your business might sell men's socks. Targeting "buy men's socks" is great, targeting "how do I sew my own men's socks" will result in you paying to show your ad to people with no interest in your product.
- Use Adwords extensions: Ad extensions allow you to show your phone number, reviews and more beneath your ad copy. They also add surface area to your ad (which, on mobile, is a huge thing).
- Do not target your competitor's brand names: This will just create a bidding war, where they start advertising on your brand name and and you go back and forth to no end.
- Do target "[competitor] alternatives: This is a keyword which is only searched by someone looking to not use your competitor. High-intent indeed.
The Argument Against Any One Thing
Initially, this was my argument. I've changed it a bit since starting this whole process, but nonetheless, here's what I wrote on the Facebook post:
Melanie: If you could only pick one?
James: I wouldn't. There's no point in paying towards online advertising unless your site has been optimized for UX. And there's no point generating inbound leads from content unless you have an optimized email marketing strategy. If I was to pay for one only I'd be biting my nose off to spite my face.
Melanie: So then your vote would be Website Optimization and Email marketing, as priority, from what I gather. :)
James: There's equally no point in optimizing my website if I'm unable to drive traffic. And there's no point in creating an awesome email marketing strategy if I have no way to generate subscribers through content.
Not trying to be difficult! I just see way too many digital marketers focusing on one element of the funnel, being frustrated by the results, when it's apparent they haven't spent any time on the others.
What I'm saying is even if you have the best product doing exactly what the customer needs and expects, how are you going to let them know it exists? And if you do let them know it exists (through ads or SEO or whatever), what's the point if your website sucks? And if you're driving tons of qualified traffic to an awesome website with a product they clearly see the value in, you still don't have optimized email onboarding. Even the best products need good onboarding or your churn rate explodes and retention plummets. I guess that's my problem with this question. Marketing isn't about focusing on one thing. If I answer this question with "one thing," I'm screwing my business over.
Melanie: So do you have a team doing everything at once?
James: Yes. We have to.
I was wrong. I mean, I was right, but I was wrong too. I'll explain it in a second.
Thoughts from the Experts
I reached out to a few marketing experts I respect the most, to see if they had thoughts similar to my own or disagreed. It was these conversations which changed my mind about where to put your money to grow.
I’m not sure if they’re always mutually exclusive. For example, if you’re focusing on Google Adwords, you need to build out the entire funnel - ads -> landing page -> sign up. That applies to any ad platform.
Secondly, the opposite argument could be made. By doing too many things, you’re spreading yourself too thin. In broad terms, there are 2 things you can do - increase traffic, or improve conversions. Let’s say my traffic is 100/day and conversion rate is 10%. That means I get 10 customers/day.
Now if I focused only on conversion rate I could double it. Similarly, if I focused on traffic only, I could double that. Either way I’m now getting 20 customers a day.
However, if I try to do both, I might half ass it. Remember that many startups have very limited resources. Some only have the one marketer. So by trying to do a bit of both I may increase traffic by 20% and conversion rate by 20% also. That gives me 14.4 customers a day, vs the 20 I was getting by focusing on one.
Of course, those are arbitrary numbers. The point is the answer is different for each startup. And it boils down to math and resource optimization.
- Sid Bharath, marketing consultant
1.Where is there the most opportunity for growth? Compare growth opportunities in your company, but also where your competitors are lacking.
2. What's your (team's) skill set? If you don't have the chops to get traffic through a marketing channel, even the best opportunities will quickly turn into a huge loss for your company.
3. I agree with Sid, as well: "By doing too many things, you’re spreading yourself too thin." Additionally, it becomes harder to know what's working and what doesn't if you try multiple things at once. Even though we live in an age where it's easier to track more results, it's still not possible to track everything.
This is what swayed me - the math done by Sid and Jason's agreement. If I focus on everything, I might improve each by 5%. If I focus on one thing, I improve that one thing 10%. The part of the funnel which comes above or below (so long as it's technically viable) still works, and I win.
But it requires you to have a solid baseline, and that's my conclusion here...
Where To Put Your Money
So here's my answer, for those of you who came all the way through this super educational article and for those of you who just clicked on the link in the introduction…
Do it all, to a certain extent. Create a baseline which functions.
- Create a website which, while not your dream website made real, works technically. People can see what you do and pay for it.
- Create Google Adword campaigns which cover your top keywords. Set reasonable budgets and make sure you don't have any spelling errors.
- Create ad-specific landing pages. Not a billion of them, but enough so that the traffic from your ads aren't just sent to a generic homepage.
- Create blog content. 10 or 15 articles focused on your primary keywords. This gives you a place to start for social media and in getting your name out there. Create two pieces of gated content and start generating leads/subscribers.
- Look into Facebook Ads (particularly retargeting). Set up campaigns with, again, very reasonable budgets. Run them for a while and see if they're even close to profitable with your existing website flow.
- Create two email drip campaigns: one to turn your blog leads into customers and another to turn your free trials or new buyers into loyal customers.
This is your baseline.
Now, we can focus on improving one thing at a time. We don't have to do it all:
- Set up your digital marketing strategy in one-month sprints - focusing on one element while still maintaining your baseline.
- Focus on optimizing one element of the above strategies per month.
- Measure carefully throughout, so you can come back at the 6-month mark and reconvene. Which digital marketing strategy worked best for you? Do you think you can replicate the results you saw? Do you see an obvious place you could do something differently or better in your next sprint?
Rinse, repeat, and grow.
If this exercise taught me anything, it's that there's always room to learn. I went into that Facebook conversation so sure of myself and my understanding of marketing early-stage businesses online.
Only through conversations with other marketers, though, did I come to see that my understanding was flawed - incomplete.
So that's my takeaway here (alongside a more complete strategy for early-stage business growth): Ask questions of the community. There are hundreds of other digital marketers out there just like you. They want to engage in a conversation - comparing notes, developing better strategies for growth. Reach out to them.
I'm one of them! Have any experience with growing an early-stage business online? Which strategy for growth did you invest in, and did it pan out?