Startup Lessons: Marketing

This is the 4th installment in the Startup Lessons series I have been writing in the wake of my experience with Get Satisfaction. We are getting into the topics that are much more specific to Get Satisfaction, therefore I have an obligation to redact certain details that are confidential however in the spirit of shared learnings I will cover as much as I feel is appropriate.

To recap, here is the series thus far:

1) Hiring
2) Dynamic Org Structures
3) Product First

4) Marketing. and all that implies: What can you say really, if there are 2 things that a startup in tech should be good at, it’s product and marketing, everything else succeeds or fails on the basis of being good at those core activities.

Get Satisfaction was blessed – and I mean truly blessed – with the kind of brand that most companies in the space would kill for. It is at it’s core an aspirational brand message about all of the promises that the social technology revolution has presented to companies as they remake how they interact with people. I really loved telling the story of GS for this reason alone, it is about what is possible by empowering people, customers and employees, rather than saving a few dollars here or picking up some extra revenue there.

The problem with aspirational brand messages is that if you don’t back it up with hard hitting marketing that converts goodwill into revenue, you are wasting it or worse, educating the market about how to evaluate competitive products.

We did very well in 2010 and 2011 with a highly differentiated creative marketing strategy but then we had our VP Marketing leave just after the B round closed (awkward.) and the role went unfilled for the better part of a year. Actually, it was worse than that, we had a consultant that one of our investors recommended and that was a disaster that resulted in a botched website project, what I thought was a stupid book project, and a lurching repositioning of the company to traditional enterprise software. Disaster.

The last issue is particularly sensitive for me because at the time I was responsible for the freemium business and nobody was trying to understand what this part of the business needed in a website. The result was, predictably, a website that catered to the old world traditional call-to-action of “call us and talk about enterprise”. Not surprisingly, the new customer acquisition ramp for the monthly subscription business flattened out dramatically almost immediately when this site launched.

We did eventually replace the marketing consultant with a VP Marketing but by then the damage was done. Brand voice was lost, our demand gen was wonky because of the confusion we were creating around our market focus, and “shit wasn’t getting done”. Remember what I wrote about in my first post in this series about hiring and how bad hires are a cancer?

Even after putting in place a full time marketing leader things didn’t really get that much better. I think this goes to the dynamic that executives in this industry, and others for that matter, exhibit which is in times of challenge they go back to what they know. I do not believe that Get Satisfaction should have been directed at large enterprise sales opportunities as a primary revenue source, but that’s what happened and our marketing reflected that in spades.

My stated preference was to point the marketing at the upper SMB and mid-market buyer, also called the departmental buyer, and qualify 100% of the business off what was coming in from the web funnel. The is what companies like Yammer, Hootsuite, and Zendesk have done, they drive the traffic to the site and skim the enterprise opportunity funnel off the top. The objective in this approach is getting people into a rich product experience and then converting them or upselling them into an enterprise buying lane, rather stating a preference or making them choose up front.

Succeeding at zero to low touch web direct sales models is not a challenge to take lightly, it requires an intense focus on web traffic generation and instrumentation of assets for funnel analytics. It also requires that people think outside of their comfort zone of campaigns, PPC, webinars, and landing pages. in fact I feel more strongly than ever that in order to be successful with this customer acquisition model that tech companies need to act more like media companies with a distinct editorial agenda and content strategy. For this kind of model to work you need a lot of traffic. paid, sponsored, and earned traffic, all of the above.

Even if we did all that I am not sure we would have been successful because at the core we were underinvesting in marketing, both people and spend. However, it is hard to fault us for not investing more in marketing because we clearly had not solidified the Magic Number math that is essential for justifying increases in marketing spend.

There was a bigger issue with the marketing performance that all companies need to be aware of. When you marketing team has as a primary objective enterprise demand generation, well what they measure is enterprise lead generation. Meanwhile, GetSat also had a line of business that was dependent on getting people into the website and into a product experience that converts into a monthly subscription relationship, therefore we had a real sync problem that would not have been resolved with more money thrown at it.

When you measure your marketing spend solely on the basis of lead generation, the slippery slope is changing the definition of lead to juke the stats and show improvement in the specific activity you are measuring. This is something I will forever be aware of, measure the result instead of the activity.

I will close by highlighting something really special I saw happen at Get Satisfaction. Based on the early product work and what we discovered as the first iterations of the business came together, it was clear that social technologies were driving a consolidation of the customer lifecycle that all companies are subject to, with customer support and marketing coming together for the purpose of serving the customers you already have while using that momentum to acquire new ones. Whether or not we did this well in the business is not the point, the fact remains that we identified an important shift in the market well ahead of competing companies. While we did not fully capitalize on this, in no way does that take away from the innovative work that was done to develop a differentiated marketing story to compliment the product.

Freemium Mechanics

I read an interesting blog post by Ruben Gamez titled Why Free Plans Don’t Work. If you are interested in freemium business models or any of the variations on the theme, this is well worth reading however I take issue with a couple of points.

First and foremost, Gamez uses a statistics breakdown (in %) to highlight the disparity between free and paid plans. Whenever someone does this they invariably open the door to the question about what their customer numbers because a percentage breakdown without knowing what the denominator is will lack the proper context. Knowing that 1% out of 100 customers are paid versus 1% out of 100,000 is a fundamentally different discussion to have… and there is no discussion about the cost to serve free product customers.

Gamez points out a number of well known freemium companies and the transitions that they have made between free products and free trials. This is an interesting discussion and the body of work that can be studied is relatively small and fluid given the immaturity of freemium as a business model. However, a couple of things are increasingly apparent for people who are running these businesses.

You can have a freemium business that depends on a free trial process instead of a free trial and a free product option at signup, there is no debate about this, and you can have an exclusively paid product that depends on a free trial process for acquisition and onboarding. This is a smart decision in my opinion and at Get Satisfaction we are constantly tinkering with and evaluating the options relative to placement and purchase path for the free product. The idea here is to route every website visitor who becomes a prospect into a funnel that exposes them to the full product before downgrading them to a free product.

In 2010 we relaunched our website with a new “plan picker” page, which over the course of the year went through 2 significant updates that are very relavent to this analysis. Initially we had Free placed as a promo box on the sidebar, separate from the monthly subscription plans but highly visible nonetheless… this is the control group as best I can provide one because with each subsequent change to the plan picker page we changed more than just Free product placement.

In April of this year we elevated placement of the Free product to equal standing with the monthly subscription plans. Almost immediately the number of new communities created through the free product jumped substantially (and for the record, I am not going to disclose actual customer numbers so I’ll do my best to avoid putting up percentages, following my own advice above). At the same time the number of new trials created for our monthly subscription products remained flat and in some months declined materially, however the number of free-to-paid conversions for customers who were net new (not a previously paying customer who canceled) went up.

The net result was still a decline in new customer conversions and our churn rate (turnover of all paying customers in a single billing period) stayed constant or declined slightly so I would have to say that elevating Free to first world status did not improve the business.

In August we changed the plan page again and pretty much hid the Free product option. The resulting decline in Free product signups was dramatic but offset by the trial signups and associated trial conversion rate, however churn went up as well so the net effect was offset by customer cancelations in the first 90 of total life.

Churn is a really important consideration in freemium models and not just because of the financial impact. The raw churn number is obviously important because that represents the size of the hole you need to fill each month before you can start adding customers, however when churn happens is often overlooked.

You should be doing a cohort analysis each month on cancelations to determine what the survival curve is for each customer segment, which graphically represents how quickly cancelations are happening in the customer lifecycle as represented by the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile groups.

This first example is basically a bad curve because it shows that over a proscribed period of time a large percentage of your customers fall off. It’s basically telling you that you are attracting the wrong kind of customers and you are going to invest disproportionately in replacing lost customers.

 

 

 

 

 

This next curve is a pretty good one, the drop is initially steep but then levels out and after 12 months you still have over half of the customers you acquired in any single cohort. What this curve is telling you is that you are losing customers who are not a good fit for you very quickly and then cancelations stabilize.

 

 

 

 

 

In the context of freemium this information is very valuable because it is a consequence of how prominently you are positioning free vs paid product options. If you are hiding free in order to stimulate take-up rates on paid, then you have to expect that cancelations rates will go up as a result of people converting to paid that otherwise would not if presented with a prominent free option.

This leads to the next topic I want to discuss, which is the methodology you embrace for the trial process. In the interest of being honest and transparent, the way we do it at Get Satisfaction is not the optimal way to do trials because we provision trials as a time based variant of a specific product instead of having a single trial where everything is turned on and then have the prospect select the product they want to convert into at the end of the trial process.

The second problem we created for ourselves is that we require the web visitor to create an account and give us their credit card information in order to create a trial account. This is an obstacle for trial creation first and foremost but also orients the trial experience to people who are pre-disposed to buying you before they even enter the trial process… so in effect you are giving them a free period of service for something they would pay for.

We are going to make changes to the trial process to address the two issues I raise, however I can’t do much about the account creation requirement simply because my product requires a named user to be the administrator of it… no user registration would mean I would have no account to attach the administrator rights to. My recommendation to you is that you create a free trial process that downgrades to a free product at the end of the trial period if someone doesn’t enter their credit card details and select a plan, instead of offering a trial experience in addition to a free product.

Annual billing options are a game changer in the freemium model, arguably the single most effective strategy for reducing your churn rate. Typically the way that annual billing is presented is 12 months of service for the price of 10, a 16% discount.

You can also use a buy-it-now option to bypass the trial process, offering something like a discount or promotional offering in order to pull forward demand that exists in the trial pipeline, and in the process isolating true prospects who are won or lost in the trial. I’d like to do this at Get Satisfaction as part of our structural changes to the trial process.

Having a freemium business model is dependent on a number of strategies but one that often gets overlooked is how well you identify potential demand and feature marketing inside the free product for free to paid conversion and inside the various monthly subscription products for paid-to-higher-paid conversion.

Ultimately the freemium model is a strategy that increases the catchment of leads as a result of using your product as the primary marketing vehicle through which you deliver a funnel to. Take care to structure your website so that every aspect of the content you are creating is designed to deliver a site visitor into a product experience or isolate them for followup through a traditional enterprise sales process.

It’s also worth pointing out that if you have a product that you are primarily selling to businesses, and the product itself has a multistep onboarding process, then you really have to have a higher touch sales process where you are nurturing the free and trial accounts at a higher level than if you were, for example, Evernote.

For me the mechanics of a freemium business are some of the most interesting to be involved with in a modern software as a service company. The implications of billing and provisioning system dynamics, how you structure your website content, surface funnel analytics, build upselling cues into your application, and manage high volume sales nurturing processes are incredibly complex but increasingly normal for the B2C and even B2B markets.

CLV, Cohort Analysis, and Survival Curves

Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) is an important metric in any SaaS business, it explains the potential for profitability and more directly the extent to which a company should spend to acquire customers, measured as Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC).

Custora is a company that provides an analytics platform specific to customer value and survival, which is a cohort analysis of customers acquired month by month to analyze how quickly each group churns out.

CLV forms the foundation for a probability model through which a company can forecast future recurring revenues, because every SaaS company exists within the frame of every customer renewing their contract at the end of each billing period (month).

The cohort analysis weights the group of customer acquired in a given month with their probability for renewing. Think of it this way, every customer has a coin they flip at the end of the month, renew or cancel, and in any given population of customers you want to know what the probability weighting of coins are for renewal; the cohort analysis provides this weighting while the CLV estimates the value of an individual customer in that population.

The customer survival curves are valuable for a couple of reasons, the first being the rather obvious benefit of seeing where most of your churn is happening, however this leads to a more insightful analysis about the type of customers you are attracting as a company. Simply put, if the customer survival curve is very steep, as in a fast falloff as churn chips away at each cohort, then the conclusion you can draw is that you are attracting the wrong customer for your product.

Churn is a naturally occurring factor in all SaaS businesses (and all non-SaaS businesses!). The point is that you have to strategize around managing it down to a number that is equal to or better than the average for your peer group and analytics such as what Custora provides are a good investment to make in this area.

At Get Satisfaction we have used a variety of homegrown and data services to instrument our business for day-to-day management and long term planning. We worked with Custora under their previous company name and then I let the service lapse as I built up an internal data warehouse of performance tracking metrics. I missed the dashboard and analytics drill downs that Custora provides, which because they are very focused around a specific problem set tend to be more useful than endless spreadsheets, so we are back to using Custora for customer retention analytics.