Let’s start with a confession.
It’s about the very first time we invested in marketing.
We bought a full-page ad in a large industry newspaper. We were going to make a big splash. Get the right people talking about us. And convert a torrent of leads.
This was costing us 15% of our revenue at the time. But we figured it would be worth it. We’d be making headlines, thousands of decision-makers would see us, and the industry would be talking about Upsales.
Launch day came. And then…
…launch day went.
No calls. At least, not the sorts of calls that would lead to deals.
There wasn’t even any PR or media interest. No sense of market buzz being generated.
Even if people were looking at the ad, we had no way to measure their responses. There was no way to know if they’d considered calling. Or whether they’d read the ad and thought, “No thanks”. We couldn’t even track if they’d noticed the ad.
All pain, no gain, down the drain
As you can imagine, the disappointment was huge. That investment in the ad turned out to be money down the drain. For a bootstrapped company, that sort of thing can cost you everything.
We were expecting the ad to result in lots of inbound leads. It didn’t. Instead, it was an expensive lesson.
Of course, inbound marketing can work for some businesses. However, for bootstrapped companies with little budget, or as a good friend of mine once said:
“Inbound marketing is great if it works, but the sales strategy for a bootstrapped start-up can’t be aggressively waiting by the telephone.”
When best practices aren’t the best
There was one thing we did learn. That we shouldn’t do that type of campaign again at that stage of growth. So we at least discovered what didn’t work.
Although when you’re bootstrapping, you rarely have the luxury of being able to absorb too many wrong turns.
Even if you do all the things you “think” is right. Whether that’s following successful case studies and applying them to your situation. Or reading all the digital marketing best-sellers.
That’s what we did. Many times. So here’s another insight learned the hard way.
What you find in marketing literature is almost always created with B2C and transactional business in mind. The majority of books also assume that you have a big budget to spend, with multiple departments.
Plus, it’s often unclear if a case study’s winning tactic is actually a winner. For example, take A/B tests. It’s common to read about an experiment that shows which SaaS landing page got the most sign-ups. It’s rare to find a case study that reports which SaaS landing page led to more upgrades 12 months later.
Here’s the thing: Every case study is as unique as your target audience. You can’t just transplant what worked for someone else. You can try of course, but what if you’re operating on a shoestring budget? You can rarely afford to wait and see if you’re right. Or as my old mentor used to say:
“The operation was a success, but the patient died.”
We’d opted for inbound because, well, honestly we were hoping to find something that would ease us from the burden of putting in all the hard work and effort that was needed. Cold-calling went against much of the general sentiment at the time. When there was an element of, “Build it and they will come.”
Our ad experience had shown otherwise. So we worked our way through tons of business books with a more sales-driven focus. Where everything was geared towards results.
This led us to devise an outbound marketing strategy, where we choose who to contact. Looking back, this was an early form of Account-Based Marketing.
Google Trends showing interest over time for “Account-Based Marketing” from 2004– 2022 worldwide.
We weren’t giving up on inbound. We knew this was essential for building the Upsales brand in the long term. But as a bootstrapped company, we realised we needed to shift our approach in the short term. Towards closing new deals, which meant focusing on KPIs that impacted our bottom line.
Pushing the envelope
The humble physical letter. Not a particularly advanced form of technology. Also one of our most effective marketing efforts back then.
- We researched 140 companies that matched our ideal customer profile
- Then we researched the CEOs
- We created 140 letters and packed them in envelopes
- We asked a friend with stylish handwriting to add the addresses
- Total cost: 3 hours of work, €70 postage
The results: Four people called us back, with three leading to deals. We were up and running. And as a value-added bonus, we also had some specific, measurable, sales-oriented KPIs.
It’s easily done. Analysing data that doesn’t really have much to do with sales. Or reporting on data that won’t indicate what change to make.
Website page views might be useful for a news site. Not for a B2B start-up.
Your top of the funnel should be some sort of initial sales contact. Like a first meeting. That becomes your KPI.
What to measure
For a typical B2B SaaS business, it’s about digging down to really understand what customers you want to sell to. It takes time, but it also saves time. It’s like the famous saying, “If I had nine hours to cut down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my axe.”
Adopt a qualitative approach. Call them. Create an automated workflow to nurture with direct mail, email, and/or LinkedIn. No reply? Call them and ask if they received your message. Create KPIs around these three elements:
- How many are actively engaging with our marketing?
- How many have become leads and booked meetings with your sales reps?
- How many have turned into revenue?
If it’s too good to be true, it probably is
Here’s one more lesson, before you go off and convert more of your leads.
It’s about when we were growing and ready to enter a new market.
We found an online campaign tool. They promised qualified leads that would want to read our ebook. The campaign started.
At first, everything looked good. The leads came in. The more money we poured in, the more leads we got.
We finally thought we’ve found a scalable way to increase the number of leads. Our KPIs were looking good. Until we started contacting the leads.
The majority had provided fake phone numbers. Most of them had been called by a call centre, asking them if they could send over our ebook. Few had arrived at our website and made an active decision to download.
Out of hundreds of leads, a grand total of zero became a sale.
Back to basics
After this lesson, we went back to basics.
We wanted to target SaaS companies in the UK. So we put together a list of best-fit potential customers. This involved plenty of deep-dive account-based research. We came out with a list of companies we knew would be a good fit for Upsales.
We also developed a way to scale our outreach on LinkedIn. This resulted in 70 SaaS CEOs attending our webinar. A low-cost, highly targeted and optimised campaign. Without requiring major investment.
It all came down to narrowing the focus. Then doing extensive account research. Oh, and avoiding shiny-yet-valueless KPIs.
/ Daniel Wikberg
CEO & Founder of Upsales