I just read Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares, and as a marketer, I’d highly recommend it. Every now and then, I’m so engrossed by content that I write down meticulous notes so I (hopefully) remember the subject matter better than I would otherwise. Sometimes I share those notes, like now, in the hope that others will get some value out of it and I’ll be able to easily reference them later.
For some quick background on the book, the two authors have pretty extensive experience in the digital marketing space. Gabriel Weinberg is the Founder and and CEO of DuckDuckGo, and Justin Mares is an industry growth marketer and entrepreneur. The book covers 19 marketing channels, as well as a 3-step framework dubbed Bullseye.
The main premise is that teams should quickly and effectively find ways to get getting real customers/users onboard. Traction is a key business metric, and one that dictates the success of fundraising, hiring, press, partnerships, and acquisitions. The Lean Startup could be considered the seminal book for startup product development. Likewise, Traction bills itself as the same for product marketing – Hacking Growth makes a similar claim.
Anyway, let’s dive in:
Traction is defined as a sign that your company is taking off. This could be app downloads, subscriptions, signups, etc. The aim of a startup is to grow rapidly, and Traction is evidence of that growth.
“Traction is basically quantitative evidence of customer demand.” -Naval Ravikant
The authors lay out 19 channels called “traction channels” that are referenced throughout the book, each also having their own chapter. It’s hard to know which one will perform best until you run tests, which is central to the Bullseye framework. Here they are:
- Targeting Blogs
- Unconventional PR
- Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
- Social & Display Ads
- Offline Ads
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
- Content Marketing
- Email Marketing
- Viral Marketing
- Engineering as Marketing
- Business Development
- Affiliate Programs
- Existing Platforms
- Trade Shows
- Offline Events
- Speaking Engagements
- Community Building
Measured by sales/signups, it’s important to quickly and effectively exploit the channels that prove most promising. Why quickly? Often, what works in one growth stage eventually stops working.
“The number one reason that we pass on entrepreneurs we’d otherwise like to back is they’re focusing on the product to the exclusion of everything else.” -Mark Andreessen
Traction and product development are of equal importance. The authors go so far to say that 50% of time should go to product development with the other 50% to traction (note the product bend here…). Many companies die because they don’t have good distribution strategies.
How do you not just survive but thrive? Use results from your traction experiments to guide you constantly. Getting traction early on can actually help your development since you’re constantly getting new feedback. New info from traction should inform your product creation as well as your distribution strategy.
Thank about what traction means for your company before jumping in too deep. Set a traction goal and look for something that moves the needle. That’s phrase that gets used quite a bit in the book. Moving the needle basically means to focus on growth activities that result in a significant (and measurable) impact on your business goal.
There are basically three phases of working on a product:
- Phase I – Make something people want.
- Phase II – Market something people want.
- Phase III – Scale business.
Traction will look different for each phase. Phase I often entails getting traction in ways that don’t scale like giving talks, writing guest posts, and emailing your network. When you’re at Phase II, you should have product-market fit. Phase III is about fueling your growth engine efficiently.
Takeaways from this section are putting equal amounts of effort into product development and traction, setting your growth goals (and I’d argue getting the right system in place to accurately measure), learn what growth numbers potential investors respect, and find your bright spots (read:highly engaged customers).
It’s the whole selling point of the book. Bullseye, the framework, helps you find the channel to get the best traction. Think of three concentric rings – outer, middle, and inner. This framework basically lays out a way of coming up with a lot of growth strategies, testing them, testing them again, then putting your weight behind the most effective method.
Bullseye is meant to be a straightforward way to direct traction and focus to maximize results. It forces you to take all traction channels seriously.
The Outer Ring
Think of at least one idea for every channel that has a chance to move the needle Understand how similar companies acquired customers over time.
The Middle Ring
Run cheap tests in channels that seem most promising. Use the best “outer ring” ideas and promote them to the middle ring. Keep the number low but more than one. In other words, pick 3-4 great ideas to test.
The test should answer three things:
- How much will it cost to acquire customers through this channel?
- How many customers are available through this channel?
- Are this channel’s customers the kind we want?
Your main consideration is to get data to prove or disprove assumptions. Your test should cost at most $1,000 and take a month to run.
The Inner Ring
Focus on the channel that will best move the needle for your startup. This is your core channel. At any stage in a startup’s lifecycle, one traction channel dominations in terms of customer acquisition. At the inner ring, your goal is to wring every bit of traction out of your core channel.
Note that often one channel is domination but others feed into it(e.g. SEO fed by publicity).
- Determine your outer ring and move inwards, testing along the way. Keep in mind that when companies really take off, they * usually employ underutilized channels and channel strategies.
- “If you build it, they will” come is always wrong.
- Talk to founders a few steps ahead of you.
- Hold on to your other channel ideas for your next phase.
A channel strategy is a particular way to acquire customers within a channel. Continuous testing these channels and their strategies is the key to getting traction with Bullseye.
- Traction Channel – Offline ads
- Channel Strategy – Billboards, transit ads, magazine adsense
Be sure to ask similar questions about channel strategies as you did about the channels:
- How much is it to acquire each customer?
- How many customers are available?
- Are these the right kind of customers?
The first channel strategy tests are often cheap and short – think $250 on Google Ads. The inner ring tests help to optimize channel strategies and uncover better channel strategiest within a particular traction channel. Running A/B tests is ideal once you have the volume for them.
Eventually, tactics that once worked will become crowded and ineffective. To combat this, constantly brainstorm new channel strategies and conduct experiments. Become a marketing mad scientist!
Once you’ve got a core traction channel, it’s helpful to brainstorm how you could use the other 18 channels to support that one.
“Don’t start testing until your tracking and reporting system has been implemented” -Sean Ellis
This. So much.
Using a spreadsheet to help you rank and prioritize traction channel strategies is a good step to take. Some metrics to measure at the very least: available customers, cost per acquisition, lifetime value (LTV). For more on testing metrics, check out UX + CRO = PROFIT from my Albert and Laura over at Viget.
- Look for customers where others aren’t looking.
- Constantly optimize
- Keep it numerical
How do you decide to work on?
Always have an explicit traction goal to work toward. The right goal should be chosen carefully and align with your company strategy. Once that goal has been identified, you can work back ward and set subgoals (e.g. monthly growth goals).
And now the concept of “Critical Path” – Critical Path is the path to reaching your traction goal with the fewest number of steps.
To follow the critical path, first enumerate the intermediate steps (aka milestones) to get to your traction goal. Then, cut out all unnecessary steps – you can’t afford to waste what little resources you have.
A lot of bloggers have loyal audiences but don’t make money from their writing. Creating partnerships with niche blogs can help you highly target existing engaged audiences. Run tests on small blogs, either by sponsoring or offering authors (and their audiences) early access/discounts.
Most publications make their money from ads (i.e. eyeballs), so stories that drive visits and engage readers are the ones that win. Often, larger publications will scour smaller outlets for stories they can then bring to a wider audience (quote note that in my experience, this doesn’t really hold true).
When pitching, be succinct and clear, crafting a compelling narrative/angle that elicits emotion. Basically, figure out what the hook gon be. Share newsworthy events and milestones – think about what readers will actually click on. Also, be a resource for reports – offer commentary on industry stories, and keep up on the latest trends. Don’t just hit them up when you want to talk about yourself.
Amplify publicity through link-sharing sites, social media, email to influencers, and reaching out to blogs that could be interested in a follow-up. Also, Twitter is a great tool to talk with journalists and keep up with what they write.
Unconventional PR includes publicity stunts and customer appreciation. Note that customer appreciation includes small but powerful acts of gratitude like sending food, gift cards, and handwritten notes.
Contests, scavenger hunts, and other unconventional PR can bring incredible ROI (and inherently require some risk). There’s no guarantee of success with these channel strategies. It could bring your company to new heights or be a total flop. That’s not a reason not to try, but keep expectations reasonable.
“Do something big, cheap, fun, and original…and prepare for failure.”
Ultimately, be excellent to each other, especially your customers!
Paid search sells directly to people who are actively searching for solutions. Solutions like Google Ads can help you test and measure content experiments. They can even help with position and messaging.
Look for long-tail keyword opportunities, and make sure to also test landing pages using a tool like Google Optimize or Optimizely.
A great way to go even further is to take advantage of retargeting – displaying ads to people who have already been to your site.
Be sure to measure your efforts to maximize efficiency. Optimize performance by making small tweaks along the way, which will help increase your conversion rates.
Finally, keep your eye on ad quality scores, since they’ll dictate when your ads show up, in what priority, and how much they’ll cost.
Social ads can be used to build, engage with, and ideally convert users/customers. They shouldn’t be solely focused on conversions. Instead, they should humanize organizations and products, eliciting conversation about topics and connecting with supports. It’s “social” media for a reason.
Display ads are good for brand awareness, retargeting, and affordability. Niche ad networks can be useful for highly targeted audiences. When looking to share an ad on a small site, reach out directly.
Offline ads include TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, billboards, direct mail, etc. Keep in mind offline channel demographics when running these ads, as many will be able to provide audience prospects or an ad/media kit with that information.
“Remnant advertising” is ad space not currently being used and can be extremely affordable. Check out a local remnant advertiser for more details, since you can often get a great deal.
You actually can tie offline ads back to conversions in many cases by using UTM parameters and 301 redirects. There are also some companies that tie offline actions like phone calls to digital actions.
There are two high-level strategies detailed in the book: fat-head and long-tail. Fat-head focuses on the most popular keywords you’re looking for (e.g. new york lawyers), and long-tail focuses on less popular but highly targeted ones (e.g. Staten Island technology startup patent lawyer).
“Research what terms people use to find proucts in your industry”
A few questions to ask:
- Is there enough volume to move the needle?
- How difficult is this keyword to break into? (i.e. Does this keyword have a lot of competition?)
- Is this audience right for me?
Consider adding multiple landing pages, each customized for specific keywords. Note that you can also test terms using SEM (to see which ones convert the best) before committing.
For either approach (fat-head or long-tail), SEO comes down to two things: content and links. Create great content, then make sure you’re building links through things like publicity, content marketing, widgets, and outreach. Don’t buy links, and don’t adopt shady (read: black hat) SEO practices.
Finally, if you really want to learn more, check out my own article, Your Guide to Healthy SEO.
Content marketing is all about creating the kind of content that your audience will find valuable, and building trust to lead them to ultimately become users/customers. Relevance (value) and authority (trust) – use these to guide content.
Use data to build stories that people will share and journalists will cover – think about how you can write or record something of value that will be original and useful. Maybe it’s data about your users. Maybe it’s sharing some previously-unknown insight about your industry. Write about things that people might not know about that they’ll be interested in. Produce high-quality content that can’t be found elsewhere.
Not sure what to do? Ask your audience for what they care about using a survey or interview. Some examples of content marketing: blogs, infographics, videos, podcasts, etc. Reach out to others in the industry who aren’t direct competitors to set up guest post exchanges.
Monitor performance of content to guide your strategy.
Note that great content strategy can also lead to speaking gigs. When you’re recognized as a primary voice in an industry, there are more opportunities to speak at major conferences, give press quote to journalists, and influence the industry.
A strong company blog can positively influence many other traction channels like SEO, publicity, email, targeting blogs, community building, offline events, existing platforms, and business development.
Don’t rush, either. Allow 6 months for blog content to really take off.
“Do things that don’t scale early on.”
Email is in many ways the most personal channel and can be tailored to recipients.
“Email marketing can be used for all stages of the customer lifecycle: building familiarity with prospects, acquiring customers, and retaining existing customers.”
Build an email list, even if it’s not your primary focus. Use email automation and testing – there are now some great simple tools that give fantastic returns. Think Mailchimp and others in the space.
Viral marketing is the process of getting your existing customers to refer others to your product. In other words, word of mouth.
A “viral loop” begins with a customer becoming aware of your product, then telling others about it, then some of those others becoming customers and starting the loop all over again.
Here’s an equation given by the book:
[number of additional customers you can get for each current customer] = [invites sent per user] x [conversion rate]
Look for existing subgroups of viral customers – study them and test to optimize the viral loop.
Useful tools like education microsites, calculators, widgets, “graders”, and more can get your product in front of a new audience. To maximize impact, put them on their own domains – they’ll basically be “mini-products”.
Use your own product to discover and share interesting trends and data.
When you build valuable tools for prospective customers, you get more leads, a stronger brand, and increased awareness while also solving a problem for the individuals you want to target.
Don’t be afraid to use engineering time and talent to create a tool that will end up moving the needle for your company. Also, look internally for inspiration for tools that can make your own processes simpler.
Business development is focused on reaching customers through strategic partnerships.
Types of partnerships:
- Standard Partnership – Companies work together to make product better (e.g. Nike’s venture with RGA – NIKEiD)
- Joint Ventures – companies create a new product together (e.g. PepsiCo and Starbucks making Frappuccino)
- Licensing – a company with a strong brand that another company leverages (e.g. PopSockets selling Disney-themed accessories)
- Distribution deals – one company provides a product/service in return for access to potential customers
- Supply partnerships – securing key inputs (still not sure what this really means)
Business development often requires finding an advocate for you with a partner organization, usually people who are in charge of the metric you’re targeting.
How can you get started with this? Come up with a list of potential partners and then reach out to investors, friends, and others for intros.
“Sales is the process of generating leads, qualifying them, and converting them into paying customers.”
This is a particularly useful channel for getting enterprise-level clients.
People who’ve worked in a field for a long time are often good candidates for introductions.
This chapter basically refers readers to Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling. Here’s the premise in acronym format:
- Situational questions – Ask questions to help you learn about a prospect’s buying Situational
- Problem questions – Find out the paint pointless
- Implication questions – make prospects aware of a problem’s implications
- Need payoff questions – focus attention on your own solutions
Sales customers should be progressive and willing to work with you closely. Remove sales “blockages” or points in the sales funnel where prospective clients drop off – usually due to complexity or lack of information.
Build a repeatable sales model, and get buyers to commit to timelines.
Affiliate programs pay “affiliates” either in monetary commissions or using a product as currency.
In many cases, you can test this with an existing affiliate network like ShareASale.
You can also start your own affiliate programs with satisfied customers.
“Existing platforms are websites, apps, or networks with huge numbers of users that you can leverage to get traction.”
Think app stores, Product Hunt, and the like.
There are opportunities to fill the gaps on developing social media networks that are slow to address features. Being first to new marketplaces/platforms (e.g. app stores) can give you a first-mover advantage and lasting promotion.
Trade shows are an opportunity to showcase your product in person, fostering interactions between vendors and prospects.
The best way to vet a trade show is to attend it. Come up with a list of potential industry events, the kind of interactions you want, your budgets, and necessary ROI.
Trade show are great opportunities for face time with potential and existing customers, editors and bloggers, competition, and potential partners.
Choose your booth location wisely, don’t forget swag, create a connection with visitors, and keep your booth decorated well.
Don’t just stay at your booth either – an outbound trade show strategy can increase leads by up to three times.
Sponsoring conferences, hackathons, meetups, and other events can be an effective traction strategy, especially for startups with long sales cycles. Keeping attendee quality high is critical in making sure people find value and return.
Unveiling features or launching at conferences can amplify success and adoption. Test offline events by attending different ones.
Speaking at events can get products more traction, increase awareness & authority in an industry, and improve employee speaking ability.
Tip: Start by teaching through content marketing, then use that as a foundation for talks, honing your best content for in-person audiences.
Organizers need to fill time – you’re helping them if you fill that time with something valuable.
Make a list of national/international, regional, and local events, then investigate to see which ones are the best fit.
Organizers consider timing, topic, and credibility when selecting a speaker. Make yourself a expert, apply in advance, and build your speaking reputation. Record speaking engagements, and share them if possible to amplify your story and build credibility.
Finally, make sure you’re engaging the audience by telling a story – keep the attention of attendees.
“People want to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.”
Have a powerful mission when building a community, whether it’s on an owned platform or elsewhere (e.g. Slack or a forum). Keep content and conversation quality high – use community guidelines and empower users.
Cultivate evangelists and recognize them for making the community better. Use existing audiences to build your own (e.g. complementary communities, offline events).
If you’re looking for more information (aside from reading the actual book), I’d recommend reading Weinberg’s own posts on Medium: The 19 Channels You Can Use to Get Traction and 78 Takeaways from Traction Book.
Thanks for reading!