Hoping to Gain Startup Traction? Make Just One Customer Count

I love learning about business, but in particular, I love learning about how today’s most successful companies got started. What things did they do to gain initial traction?

As a result, I listen to a lot of podcasts and interviews with founders—but there’s one thing about them that drives me absolutely insane. Founders are all typically asked about their growth and the key to their success.

Here are are two super common answers:

“You know, it’s all about the team and we were able to hire great people.”

“It’s all about having a great product experience.”

Awesome. For some companies, like Slack, that works — right product, right place, right time. And then there’s the rest of us out there trying to get traction and go from 10 customers to 100 customers, $10,000 in MRR to $100,000 in MRR, etc.

When it comes to getting initial traction, here’s the one thing few people will actually tell you: There are no shortcuts (well, there are, but the companies that take them get exposed pretty quickly) and there are no playbooks (or else that guy you always see on stage talking about growth tactics would have gone out and started multiple successful companies).

Getting traction is all about the hand-to-hand combat—one lead, one customer, one loyal fan at a time. Here are a few tactics that have helped us get our initial traction at Drift(Editor’s note: NextView is an investor in Drift.)

Treat Every Person as a Possible Fan

One of the first things we did was get a stash of Drift t-shirts and started randomly sending them to anyone who shared Drift content or subscribed to our newsletter. It seems simple but the results were amazing—people were tweeting pictures of themselves wearing Drift t-shirts and slapping Drift stickers on their laptops at work.

The kicker was that each t-shirt was sent with a handwritten note (a real handwritten note, by the way — not a note from one of those outsourcing services).

And for a few very special people, we sent Kindles pre-loaded with a few of our favorite business books (apologies for the somewhat blurry screenshot):to grow faster? Win one fan at a time.


Customer-Driven Copywriting

It doesn’t matter if it’s an email we’re sending, copy on a landing page, or text in a tool inside of our product, everything that we write has to be written in a way that our customers will understand and care about. We always try and ask ourselves these questions:

  • Why should someone give a damn about this?
  • What’s in it for the customer to read this?
  • Is this how you’d explain this to a friend over a cup of coffee? Is this how you’d explain it if you had to walk up to a stranger in a bar?

Plain Text Emails

Plain text emails have become the norm for sales and marketing emails that we send, and the response rate has been amazing. We’ve sent just over 9,000 emails this month alone and have an open rate of 56% and a click rate of 38%. In a world of highly designed marketing emails, these plain texts emails stand out and feel much more authentic.


Free, Un-gated Content

The majority of our content is free and un-gated. Just like plain text emails stand out when compared to the norm of highly designed marketing emails, un-gated content seems to have the same type of response.

Since October, our SlideShare presentations have been viewed over 260,000 times and have generated a significant amount of traffic to our blog, as well as leads that we’ve driven to product demos.

We also started a Medium publication where anyone on our team can write and submit stories about the things they’re working on, from product to design to marketing.

There’s often debate about whether or not you should publish on Medium instead of your own blog because of the impact on search engine optimization. Forget about that. The exposure and audience you can get on Medium outweigh any minor SEO benefits you might get from writing on your own blog. Plus, if you write something awesome and link back to your own blog, people will come. Medium has become the number two referrer to the Drift blog (behind drift.com).

Why does free, un-gated content work? Because it’s genuine. And it’s helpful. If you make it actually good, un-gated content can just plain work.


We Don’t Have A Content Schedule

Content has been the single most effective channel for us at Drift, but we don’t even have a set schedule of publishing. Too many people get caught up in thinking they have to publish on a certain cadence. That’s an outdated way of thinking. Today, there is so much noise that the only thing that matters is if your content is amazing.

In a world of constant noise, competing channels, and short attention spans, there is still a way to win and build an audience: you have to make something that is genuinely worth someone’s time. Plain and simple, you have to make something that is better.

And if you’re doing startup marketing, this should be encouraging, because for the most part, people are lazy. Everyone is looking for a hack or a shortcut, and that means that most people won’t put in the effort needed to get someone’s attention.

We write when we have something to say that we think people will like, not because it’s Monday.

Too many people get caught up in thinking they have to publish on a certain cadence. That’s an outdated way of thinking. Today, there is so much noise that the only thing that matters is if your content is amazing. – Dave Gerhardt, Drift

You’re Small Right Now: Use That To Your Advantage

As a consumer, after you sign up for something new, you’re usually ready to unsubscribe after three days because you’ve already been emailed six times. At the end of the day, we as entrepreneurs are consumers, too, and we hate that. But we ignore that understanding when we try to market our companies.

So instead of going crazy with lead nurturing, we at Drift don’t do it at all right now. We’re a small team and we try and use that to our advantage. We look at each new lead manually, one by one, and can then figure out if they might be a good fit. It won’t always be like this, but in the early days, embrace the times that you can have your finger on the pulse of everything little thing that is happening at your startup.

Some startups take off like rocketships from day one (or so says the media). And then there’s everyone else (or just “everyone”).

Focus on the little things, the hand-to-hand combat, and focus on winning one fan at a time. You’ll be amazed how the rest will follow.