Main illustration: Cory Uehara
You can spend months working on a great idea, pour tons of time and energy into crafting the perfect marketing strategy, but without customers your business will cease to exist. All future growth hinges on one thing – customer acquisition and the strategy you deploy.
What is a customer acquisition strategy?
A customer acquisition strategy is the set of activities that businesses use to bring in new customers or clients. Successful customer acquisition strategies use a systematic and sustainable approach that can evolve over time.
While this may sound simple, it can be incredibly challenging to find new opportunities for growth and customer acquisition in an increasingly crowded marketplace. There are a billion emails sent every day by MailChimp alone. There are over two million blog posts published each day. In today’s world, you’ll only win by acquiring paying customers in a way that differentiates you from the crowd and builds an enthusiastic customer base that sticks around.
To help you understand and improve your customer acquisition, we asked SaaS leaders within and outside of Intercom to reveal their top customer acquisition strategies, tactics and channels. Hopefully this will give you some ideas on how to build sustainable growth for your business.
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Top 5 customer acquisition strategies
1. Mobilize your influencers to drive customer acquisition
When it comes to getting the word out about your product, ask yourself, “Who do my customers and prospects turn to for advice when they are looking to learn about great solutions or make a buying decision?” Understand who influences your prospects most, then earn the trust of those influencers. You’ll need to win both their hearts and their minds.
Before I joined Intercom, I led all of Intuit’s small-business products and services, including QuickBooks accounting, payroll and payments. For accounting and payroll products, the No. 1 influencer for a buyer was the accountant. Makes sense, right? When small businesses make decisions around accounting and payroll, they end up talking to an accountant roughly half of the time. So, we focused on being great for accountants – winning their hearts and minds to help drive word of mouth.
Once you find the folks who are trusted advisers to your customers and prospects, you need to help them do four things. In order, they need to know, use, love and recommend your products or services.
- Know: They can’t recommend your solution if they don’t know about it.
- Use: To build their confidence, they have to actually use and understand your product.
- Love: Figuring out what matters most to those folks is crucial. Make sure that they’re experiencing real value and that they see the value your product will provide for others. This is also about giving them an experience that is emotionally engaging, wins their hearts (not just their minds) and gets them excited.
- Recommend: Find ways to help influencers amplify this love. Make it easy and rewarding for them to recommend your product. You can use things like referral fees to align your business interests. At Intuit, we built capabilities into our products that made accountants’ lives easier when their clients used QuickBooks, so they were motivated to get more folks using our products. How can you motivate your influencers to get more folks using your product or service?
– Karen Peacock, COO, Intercom
2. Don’t trade growth for profitability
There’s a silly old business expression that says: “We’re going to lose a dollar on every deal, but we’ll make it up in volume.” It is also an extremely common way that venture-funded businesses think about how to grow. They think they can burn through tons of capital acquiring users and figure out monetization later. But no matter how much volume you have, if you don’t make money on any of the transactions, you won’t make money at all.
If you look at many of the initially successful companies that have come and gone over the past 36 months, that’s exactly what they were doing. These companies had incredibly smart and experienced people, but the underlying business model was broken: They were creating volume businesses without a clear-enough plan for how to solve the profitability question. For a viable business, the value of the customer must exceed the cost of acquiring that customer. You don’t need to have this solved on day one of your business, but you need to have a plan as to how that’s going to happen.
– Brian Kotlyar, Director of Demand Generation, Intercom
3. Don’t invest in customer acquisition too early
You can definitely invest in acquisition too early. Unfortunately, at my first SaaS endeavor contentmarketer.io, which has pivoted to Mailshake, we made that exact mistake.
If you don’t have a product that can fit that channel, then I would recommend not leveraging that. For example, at contentmarketer.io, we had a product that was kind of okay, and we were still validating product–market fit. Naturally, I went to town as a marketer. I built an audience. I built an email list. We started blogging. We got lots and lots of traffic. People even converted into customers. But the feedback we got from the first month was, “I don’t think this product is right for me. It doesn’t fit.” We wasted that whole channel, and we had too many people talking about us. That sounds like a good problem to have, but it’s a really bad one because the first impression those people had of us was a product that doesn’t work for them or a bad product.
In the early days, if you’re figuring out your product and it’s still not fully ironed out, go lay the groundwork of content that you know is going to be potentially optimized or something that can rank. Go to town on channels that you can turn on and off, like outbound or cold email or advertising. Make sure when you turn them on you get feedback and data, and then turn them off until you’re ready to go.
– Sujan Patel, Co-founder, Web Profits. As heard on the Inside Intercom podcast
4. Be relentless with content marketing
I was talking growth with Neil Patel recently and we discussed the channels that we would both invest in long term. If we were to start all over again, what would we do? The answer was one you’d expect us to give: content marketing.
The way I see it, and the way Neil sees it as well, content is the foundation of customer acquisition. If you get content marketing working, then you are able to retarget people. You are able to build lookalike audiences on different channels. If you’re creating great content, it builds links, which brings your domain authority up.
You can write more content and then you can collect more emails and optimize your conversion rate from there, but everything starts with content first. Look at a lot of media companies – they’re building agency services divisions now. It’s easier to build an audience first, and then from there you can start to branch out into other areas.
I’ll share a story. Four years ago, I spent six hours a week on “Growth Everywhere,” the first podcast I started. Editing, recording – I did everything by hand the first year. And after the first year I was only getting nine downloads a day. That number is terrible. I should probably have given up, but I kept going because people kept emailing me saying, “Hey, I don’t know why you’re not getting more downloads but this has been really helpful. It’s made a difference in my life.” I worked for another year, again six hours a week, and I was only getting 30 downloads a day.
Nowadays “Growth Everywhere” has about 80,000 downloads a month. Not bad, but the “Marketing School” podcast gets about 640,000 downloads a month. Those succeeded because I was relentless.
The framework that I’ll give is really easy for everyone to follow. It’s the Content Reusage Framework from Aleyda Solis. She has this flowchart you can follow when you’re creating content, and it doesn’t mean you always have to be writing new stuff all the time. If you use that framework, it’s going to work out really well for you.
My point is just be relentless. Content marketing works. Content marketing is the foundation for building whatever you’re trying to do in the long term. Yes, it takes time, but anything good takes time. Just be patient.
– Eric Siu, CEO, Single Grain. As heard on the Inside Intercom podcast
5. Acquire the right kind of customers
One of the things I’m really concerned about is that we’re not just acquiring free teams. We’re here to acquire teams that have the potential of paying Slack at some point. Last year we pivoted from asking “How many teams are we creating?” to “How many work teams are we creating?” Even though an enormous amount of our team creation is social, based on how much people love Slack, work teams are the teams that pay Slack.
Then we moved from looking at work teams created to looking at what we call “early-activated work teams created”, which are teams that have actually invited somebody to join. A Slack team of one is a lonely place, and unlikely to be successful. Then, if a team has invited a couple people, have they exchanged any messages? The bar is fairly low, because it has to be something people can achieve quickly, so that we can iterate and test off of it and not wait five months. But, it’s high enough that it actually screens out a lot of teams of people who have said, “I don’t really know what Slack is. I just want to get in there and experiment with it and see if it’s at all like what I think it’s like.”
Looking at the full funnel of metrics and not just stopping at that team creation number is really important for knowing whether we are driving value for the company. The friction is so low to starting a Slack team that you could really drive a lot of really poor quality teams if you didn’t pay attention to it.
– Rachel Hepworth, Head of Growth Marketing, Slack. As heard on the Inside Intercom podcast.