Digital marketing is not always the fastest track to growth and in fact many startups may benefit more from having a proper sales process in place. Yet all startups will need it eventually and executed right, it can turbocharge your customer and lead acquisition as well as sales revenue.
The article is based on a masterclass held at Salto Growth Camp Moonshot by Joanna Grudzinska from Tribe47, a Poland-based digital marketing agency specialized in full-funnel strategies. (In fact, Joanna’s insights proved so useful that she received a record number of requests for individual sessions from the teams and was voted the most helpful mentor at the event!)
Among other things, you’ll find out:
Though geared towards B2B business, the principles outlined by Joanna also apply in the B2C sector.
DIGITAL MARKETING IS NOT ALWAYS FASTEST TRACK TO GROWTH
Though all companies need a digital marketing strategy at some point, many early-stage businesses may benefit more from having a proper sales process in place, says Joanna. Naturally, all startups can use digital marketing tools to test the market, finetune their value proposition and messaging, and validate buyer personas. But their acquisition and retention strategy does not necessarily have to be digital-first in the early phase.
It is possible to acquire your first customers through many different strategies. A golden rule: it’s much easier to go to where your users already are (online or offline) and start conversations there than bring them to where you are (e.g. to your blog). One of the best strategies is to expand through people who already know you, that is to use your network to get customers. Other strategies include creating FOMO, leveraging influencers, getting press coverage in the industry news (also a form of going where your users already are), and building a community.
According to Joanna, your digital marketing strategy should rest on four pillars:
Let’s look at each of them in turn - and really dig deep into the funnel part!
PILLAR #1 - MEASURABLE BUSINESS GOAL
First, you need to set a business goal to drive your efforts. For example, how many new users, active users or clients you need to acquire over a period. It may be hard to come up with numerical goals at first, but any estimate that you can validate later is infinitely better than having no goal.
NB. Revenue is not a sufficient goal if you don’t break it down into elements (you’ll see how in the section on Growth metrics).
PILLAR #2 - DIGITAL SALES FUNNEL
Before building the funnel, you first need to review the following elements: your market, buyer persona, and USP & core messaging. These are very fundamental, so do not skip this step!
1. Knowing your market - how sophisticated is it?
Understanding your market’s level of sophistication will help you craft your communication. It’s useful to differentiate between five levels of sophistication.
(For more on this topic, see the classic work by Eugene Schwartz, Breakthrough Advertising)
2. Know your audience - Buyer Persona
In addition to the market, you need to understand the people in it ‒ your audience. Keep in mind that very often you are not a target client of yours. For example, when as a startup you are selling to the corporate or governmental sector (though you may have useful former experience from that sector).
You want to understand what problems your buyer persona has, what language they use, what message they would relate to and what they aspire to accomplish. As well as what fears they have and what pain points you can help them solve right now.
In B2B sales, a buyer persona is never a single person and there are various stakeholders involved in the process (aka the buying committee). In B2C business, it’s usually more straightforward, though there too more than one person may be involved (for example, if you’re selling to families). Organisation structures differ but typically there is at least the owner of the goal that your project is related to plus someone who owns the budget ‒ you need to map each of them.
To understand your persona well, talk to 1) people who never bought from you 2) people who bought from you once (but churned) and 3) people who are your avid fans. It’s common to start and stop with the third group but it’s actually more important to understand why others are not using your solution (or why they ceased doing it).
It’s useful to give your persona a name, reflect on their spending, family situation, characteristics, etc. Spend time thinking about where they hang out online, for example, if they are active on Linkedin or belong to some entrepreneurial groups. Another framework you can use is how they are thinking and making decisions. Are they logical or emotional, fast or slow in their decision-making? Finally, consider your persona’s awareness regarding the problem and your product. Are they simply unhappy with the current state, considering or choosing between
3. USP & core messaging
The third element to think through is your messaging that is built on two frameworks: your core statement and core messages supported by proof. Your core statement (USP) tells in one sentence what you are doing. A great formula for structuring it is as follows:
We help (who) to (what problem we solve) via/thanks to (how we do it)
Core messages address the main pains or aspirations of your persona. Each core message should be a part of your core statement supported by proof. Different things can work as support ‒ statistics, examples, social proof, etc.
Always communicate benefits, not features ‒ what people get from using your tool, not what tool they get. After all, you’re in the business of solving problems. So instead of talking about the features of your product, speak about the pain points that you can solve for customers. Instead of talking about the car, say that your customers are going to get home safe. It’s the end result that people want and you should talk about.
And now (drumroll) … the funnel
A funnel is a clear and controllable client acquisition process. A digital sales funnel is a strategically designed flow of content marketing and performance marketing tools that you can affect by moving things around. The starting point is always the buyer persona: the whole flow should be designed for one type of person with one type of goal regarding your solution.
Below is one framework which is very useful for seeing how your messaging should work (remember, your goal is to change the way that people think).
First, you need to align with your persona’s level of awareness to attract their attention. For example, if you’re talking to someone already choosing between options, you don't need to educate them that there exists a solution to do X. Instead you need to present them with a new perspective, for example, that they can do X effortlessly without leaving home. That’s called shifting the paradigm.
Next, you need to offer some results in advance: promise them something and deliver on that. For example, a service consultant could help a person to sort out an issue during a consultation. For product teams, there is typically a demo opportunity. By helping the person to fix something you demonstrate that your product works and you are trustworthy. (Additionally, you could build trust and likability, for example, by showing how you are alike and understand their problems and perspective.)
Only after establishing this connection, it’s time to present your offer. Beware of potential objections (everyone has them) and address them in your demo call or communication. After closing the deal, shift the focus to maximizing the customer’s lifetime value (through referral programs or asking for references).
Inbound vs outbound digital funnel
Your funnel can be divided into inbound and outbound based on your relationship with the user. Inbound can be seen as a PULL strategy, where the user comes to you. Outbound is the funnel where you reach out more directly (and usually take a shortcut). You can think about it as a PUSH strategy.
The inbound funnel starts with building awareness through ungated content distribution. People read your articles, watch videos, listen to podcasts and receive advice on social channels on how they could use your solution. They then sign up for a demo call or a white paper (lead acquisition via gated content) which allows you to start controlling the conversation. On the upside, you get to work in the sales process with people who already came to you. Yet it doesn’t necessarily translate into sales the easy way (but can work well with low-cost items).
The outbound funnel is common in B2B sales where sales representatives (or founders) are doing the sales. Here you segment your audience, identify your ideal customer and map their buying committees. In an advanced version of the funnel, you do some content outreach before directly reaching out to the people. This process of educating through content is often skipped, though, in favour of a cold call (with possibly some content built into the process later) after which you’ll move on to sales calls and emails.
The hybrid funnel combines both inbound and outbound elements and is the best model for B2B sales and attracting investors and partners. Here you regularly post on Linkedin/other social networks/communities frequented by your target audience, filter out engaged leads and reach out to them. This way you can reach them without paid ads or a blog, while tools like Phantombuster can help you automate your prospecting efforts.
Evergreen vs seasonal funnel
In the previous breakdown, we looked at how to reach out to your audience. Let’s now investigate a different way of segmenting funnels which focuses on the rhythm of communication and how you as a company can structure your campaigns (activities) to maximize return from investment.
In short, you need two funnels: evergreen for warming up the audience and seasonal for tipping over the warm but yet undecided audience.
The evergreen funnel is where you educate, get attention and show your competitive advantage (remember the paradigm shift) by meeting people where they are. For example, through articles, podcasts, webinars, your LinkedIn profile, or guest blogs (but not necessarily your own blog). These activities are continuous, have a rhythm, and shall result in ongoing growth of your audience (people who know you ‒ both as an engaged social media audience and your marketing list).
Evergreen stands for always on. As a result of constantly building genuine connections with people, they will consider you once they start to look for solutions. Another result to optimise for is building your network ‒ followers on social media, email list, mobile number list. This funnel bears the cost of warming up your audience (in case of an innovative solution, also for your competitors), but the cost of acquisition is high.
The seasonal funnel, on the other hand, involves a special offer, sale or perks for new customers in a certain period. It can also be a CSR campaign where new customers join because you also do something good. Or a new product launch or challenge where people have the time scarcity and community to do something together.
Seasonal campaigns work wonders for monetizing people who you have already educated but not yet converted. It benefits from all your evergreen efforts and the CPA should be low here. At the same time, you’ll soon exhaust warm leads unless you simultaneously work on evergreen activities to warm up new people.
PILLAR #3 - RELEVANT GROWTH METRICS
To know if your funnel and optimization efforts work, you need relevant growth metrics. As you remember, Joanna advised to break down your revenue goal into constituent parts. Here’s an equation that applies to all businesses:
Revenue = No. of Clients x How much they pay x How often they pay
Here’s another formula that goes a step back, looking at the traffic to your website (leads) and how many of them convert to new clients.
Revenue = Traffic x Conversion x Average order value x Frequency/Stickiness
NB. Always choose a single metric to focus on when carrying out tests to optimize the funnel.
Remember that while every business model has a set of generic key growth metrics that represent a "typical" customer journey, these shall be further adjusted based on the chosen funnel. If your strategy relies on webinars, registrants and attendees shall be added to the set of key metrics that grow your business. Let’s round it off here, though the topic of metrics is broad and would easily fill a separate masterclass 🙂
PILLAR #4 - SKILLED MARKETING TEAM
Finally, you’ll need someone to run and optimize your digital sales funnel. First, you need someone responsible for the metrics ‒ not necessarily marketing people, it could be anyone on the team, including the founders. Then you need actions to improve metrics.
A marketing team comes into the picture when you can no longer deliver the actions due to a lack of time or competency. The ownership of growth metrics, however, should still stay at the top level of the company.
Summary ‒ digital funnel in a nutshell
Before embarking on building your digital marketing strategy and sales funnel, you need to understand your market sophistication, buyer persona and figure out your core messaging.
You also need to set a measurable business goal to drive your efforts. Only when you know what you want to accomplish, can you start considering the how or tools in the funnel.
Your digital sales funnel is the flow of content and performance marketing tools strategically designed for your buyer persona. It can rely on inbound or outbound activities ‒ or both. For sustained growth, you need to simultaneously work on an evergreen funnel to warm up your audience and a seasonal funnel to convert warm but undecided leads with special offers.
Inevitably you also need a set of relevant growth metrics that represent key stages in your customer journey to know if your funnel and optimisation efforts work. And dedicated team members responsible for those metrics and running the funnel.
As Joanna says, hacks and small tactics are only useful once you have the fundamentals sorted out. Hopefully, her insights help you do exactly that, paving the road for your startup’s fast growth!
Joanna has 7+ years of experience in digital marketing. She is a real T-shaped marketer and has touched all aspects of digital marketing. She started her career as social media and content specialist, then moved to paid advertising role where she grew to be a team manager of 8 with 7-figure monthly budgets spent on promoting Mindvalley products. She spent a big part of her career in PortalYogi - CEE’s biggest online yoga platform which she joined as a startup of 4. Currently, digital marketing consultant at Tribe47 and startups mentor at Salto and 500 Startups.