Does marketing feel like a crushing weight on your shoulders?
You are not alone.
New products have a high chance of failure.
According to a 2018 report by CBInsights, 70% of companies failed to exit through an IPO or merger and acquisition (source).
This failure-rate is similar to stats from older studies too:
You may have a great product. But without a repeatable marketing channel, your great product could die in silence.
This is where a product marketing strategy comes into play.
Growth Ramp is a product marketing agency with a mission to help 1,000 entrepreneurs from idea to scale. From the beginning, people like you told me getting customers for early-stage startups would be a challenge. And it is. Especially in a cost-effective style.
As cheesy as it sounds, most things worth doing aren't easy. (Otherwise, we'd all be billionaires).
Though early-stage marketing is challenging, success leaves clues.
Today, I’m taking you behind-the-scenes with the product marketing strategy I used to help Decibite:
This strategy is ideal for entrepreneurs with products without a scalable business model.
A clear product strategy will do more than increase your annualized revenue. As Ben Leavitt, the CEO of Decibite, put it:
“Marketing has been a frustrating process. Before I started, I had no idea who our target customers were and how to approach our growth goals.
Growth Ramp interviewed our customers, did market research, showed us where we were, and who I wanted to help. You then helped execute the strategy to capitalize and appeal to that market. This was a huge game-changer. You did everything that we were wanting to do. This was a huge weight off my shoulders and helped me avoid burnout.”
In this actionable guide, you’ll get a behind-the-scenes look of the product market strategy I used to grow Decibite.
Here are the seven steps I took to double Decibite’s annualized revenue:
Step 1: Creating The Synthesis to Prepare for Growth
Step 2: Use Market Research to Verify The Brand Messaging
Step 3: Analyzing the Competition
Step 4: Getting Decibite’s Team Excited About The New Mission
Step 5: Positioning Decibite, Crafting a Value Proposition, and Fine-Tuning the USP
Step 6: Updating the Messaging
Step 7: Testing the Go-To-Market Strategy
Let's dive in.
For some, doing research is about as fun as doing taxes. It’s not like the adrenaline rush you get when you make your first dollar online.
But if you want to convert passive readers into paying customers, customer research is critical.
Why is customer research important to increasing sales?
Because in the end, your goal is to serve your customers’ problems. Not simply to deliver a product or a service.
Consider the brand messaging hierarchy:
If you know what messaging resonates with your customers, you can use that information in your marketing channels.
To improve your messaging, the progression should go something like this:
If this doesn’t make sense, keep reading. You'll understand each step as you see how this worked for Decibite.
There were five questions to get answers to improve Decibite’s strategy:
To get this information, I created a list of questions to ask Decibite’s customers. Then I set up customer interviews to capture the voice of the customer.
Here are the answers I found to each question...
Main article: Customer personas
Yes, customer personas are fictional representations of your customers. But personas cannot help you grow if the information does not represent your customers.
Rather than guessing what I feel I know about Decibite’s customers, I wanted data. To get this data, I asked eight Decibite’s customers questions during the customer interviews:
The pricing tier question (#7) allowed me to segment Decibite’s customers. I do not recommend early-stage products should segment customers in their marketing strategy. Focusing on one customer persona will maximize your return on investment (ROI). Why? Because you can speak more specifically to that one customer’s needs.
However, segmenting customers is necessary to get the right data for your pricing and product strategy.
Why do I make this distinction?
Let me use an example to help you understand.
An enterprise customer often has similar problems to your regular customers. Both customer personas might say in customer interviews “I want faster web hosting.”
But the two customers have vastly different expectations. An enterprise customer might say, “I need a dedicated server and are willing to pay $400/month”. A regular customer might say, “I’m willing to pay $10/month for you to take care of my hosting problems.”
If you have different pricing tiers, I recommend asking your customers for this information. If you do not, don’t sweat this detail.
Main article: Marketing channels
Often the easiest way to get new customers is to double down on what’s already working. To do this, I asked Decibite’s customers, “How did you first hear about Decibite?”
What’s important is to get as many details as possible.
When someone told me they heard about Decibite through a Facebook group, I would ask what was the name of the group. If they say they first heard about Decibite from a blog, I would ask if they can remember which one.
This information reduces the amount of time needed to find Decibite’s first scalable marketing channel.
Main articles: Positioning strategy, brand positioning, brand messaging
It’s difficult to market a “me-too” product that looks the same as your competitors. While you can do it, your marketing campaigns will likely cost more without differentiating your product.
From my observation, positioning a startup also helps put wind in the team’s sails and overcome burnout. Why?
A clear positioning strategy gives people a renewed sense of purpose. Decibite offers “15% or faster web hosting, guaranteed.” As a result, a customer knows it’s worth switching to Decibite if she wants faster hosting speed.
To find out how Decibite should rise above the noise, I asked their customers these 10 questions:
Later in this article, you’ll learn how I created Decibite’s unique selling proposition (USP) of 15% or faster hosting speeds, guaranteed.
Main articles: Customer validation, pricing strategy
Most products are in the same boat Decibite was in: they looked at the competition and guessed a “reasonable” price.
Rather than guessing the optimal price, I asked Decibite’s customers four questions:
After talking to Decibite’s customers, I learned Decibite was underpricing its products.
The business hosting plan was $5 CAD per month (about $3.75 USD). The data showed I could bump this up to $10 USD per month without losing growth, an increase of 167%.
The VPS hosting plan was $10 CAD per month (about $7.50 USD). The data showed I could increase this to $25 USD per month without losing growth, an increase of 233%.
After finding out the customer’s willingness to pay, I then got to work crafting a pricing strategy with Decibite’s team.
This included diving into topics like:
By improving the pricing strategy, Decibite could confidently charge a higher price. This allows them to invest more in improving their product, marketing strategy, and customer service at no added cost.
Main article: Product-market fit
A product customers love is also a product customers will tell their friends about. How do you know if customers will spread the word about your product?
Sean Ellis, CEO of GrowthHackers, came up with this question to find the answer: “How would you feel if you could no longer use $PRODUCT?” (source). There are three responses a customer can give:
Your goal is to find out if you have product-market fit is to have 40% of customers respond “Very disappointed” if your product did not exist.
To get a better understanding of their answer, I also asked Decibite’s customers, “Why do feel this way?” This information gave me clarity on how to improve Decibite’s product roadmap.
To my delight, all except one customer said they would be very disappointed if Decibite did not exist.
I know the customers I surveyed is not a large sample size to represent the total market. And my sample has some self-selection bias too. But this is a fantastic early signal Decibite was ready to grow faster.
Main articles: Voice of the customer, email outreach program
With the preparation in place, I was ready to collect the voice of the customer data.
After adding all the questions into a Word doc, I ended with a final question: “Is there any other feedback you would like to give to us?”
I’ve found this question helpful for two reasons:
Decibite gave me their customer list to set up customer interviews. If you want to do these customer interviews, here are the tools I used:
With the questions complete, I sent an email outreach sequence to line up customer interviews. After finishing the interviews, I put together the Gap Analysis™ to the Decibite team.
The customer list I received was not as well-curated as I thought. As a result, one customer was a little upset when reaching out to them. I solved the problem with Decibite’s help, but it did slow down the customer research.
Next, I wanted to verify what I had learned during customer interviews. Customer interviews are an excellent source of qualitative data. But market research gives you necessary quantitative data.
Before the go-to-market strategy, you can only learn what customers say they have done in the past. This means doing customer interviews and market research.
To collect this market research, I used Pollfish.
And to get to statistical significance, I wanted 664 responses. This means my test would be statistically significant at a 99% confidence level with a 5% margin of error.
As an early-stage startup, paying $1,328 for the survey results was a tough pill for Decibite to swallow. But I knew Decibite needed the market research to make sure it was positioned right the first time.
Further, I knew I could take the survey data and turn it into an article for their blog. Original research is a proven opportunity to get ongoing links (source).
Yes, a survey won’t convert new customers. But the links would improve organic traffic on all pages. This includes bottom-of-the-funnel pages that do convert. (More about this tactic in step seven).
The first qualifying question I asked was, “How do you earn a living?”
There were five possible responses:
To move to the next step, a person had to respond with answer #1 or #3.
While this question would reduce the number of bad answers, it wasn’t enough. For example, some freelancers use places like Upwork and do not need hosting.
So for the second qualifying question, I wanted to reach a smaller market. I asked, “How important is a blog to making you money?”
Again, there were five responses:
To qualify, a person needed to answer #2-#5.
Most of the questions I asked were the same questions during the customer interviews in step one.
I also asked five new questions which I used in my go-to-market strategy:
It was clear going through the survey responses that some results were duds. About 14% to be exact. Thankfully, Pollfish allowed me to replace these survey responses for free.
Main articles: Competitive intelligence
Before you position your company, you need to know how your competitors position their companies.
This information will let you know what customers expect when buying your product. This is also known as points of parity. Further, you will also learn what areas of the market would allow you to differentiate.
To analyze Decibite’s competition, there were three steps:
With several web hosting competitors, I grouped Decibite’s competitors into three categories:
Yes, there is an overlap between these product categories. For example, GoDaddy has a cloud and WordPress hosting packages.
The goal isn’t to perfectly place each competitor in one category. Instead, the goal is to understand the competitive landscape to position your company.
A simple way to see how each competitor positions their company is to write down:
Are you competing in a big product category? If so, you may want to know where you should wedge yourself into the market first.
To choose which market to focus on Decibite’s marketing, I answered three questions:
Answering the first question was simple. I looked at the Gap Analysis from step one and looked at what web host each customer switched from. (Note: Customers who said they would be very dissatisfied if Decibite did not exist took the highest priority).
The second question was simple to find answers but took time. I looked at the market research from step two. I also went on Reddit to find people dissatisfied with their current web host.
What should you look for to find out which category has the highest dissatisfied customers?
You want to look for people who use words such as: hate, afraid, anxious, overwhelmed, feeling stupid, feeling stuck, or wasting time.
Finally, I looked at what benefits the market wanted Decibite to provide.
This came from the 10 positioning questions I gave earlier:
With this data in hand, I went to Decibite’s team to share how I planned to transform Decibite.
In this step, there isn’t anything that goes wrong. For example, you won’t know the product category and position is incorrect until you pick one. What’s important is getting an agreement with the team about what product category you should focus on first.
I got on a one hour call with Decibite’s team to catch them up on everything I had learned so far.
It was most important to confirm what I learned with what Decibite’s understanding of the market. Further, I wanted to make sure the team was on the same page.
Here’s what I discussed with Decibite:
This step is especially valuable if you have employees doing sales and marketing. If they are not aligned with your new position, they’ll waste more time and lose sales using old information.
Main articles: Positioning strategy, brand positioning, brand messaging, value proposition, unique selling proposition.
There are several ways to position a company.
The three most common ways to do so are by:
Web hosting is a large market, estimated at $32 billion (source). So I decided Decibite should focus on two of these three categories:
To come up with Decibite’s position, I took three steps:
Let’s look at each of the three steps.
Time and again, Decibite had customers thanking them for being like a tech partner on their team.
Some customer responses included:
I summarized this by stating Decibite serves non-technical entrepreneurs. Specifically by outsourcing their technical headache.
Now “outsourcing the technical headache” would be great to keep customers.
But I wanted a stronger reason for customers to switch to Decibite now. So I looked at providing a specific benefit.
Web hosts typically focus on one of four benefits:
After looking at:
...“speed” was the benefit Decibite would focus on.
It’s one thing for Decibite to tell people they’re the fastest web hosting startup. And Decibite might very well be the fastest. But it’s quite another statement to back this claim up with a concrete benefit. Then offer a guarantee if you don’t deliver on the promise.
To further improve Decibite’s position, I crafted a unique selling position (USP).
This became, “Decibite offers 15% or faster hosting, guaranteed” to further improve its position.
Here’s how I crafted Decibite’s USP.
Main article: Unique selling proposition
Take a look at these USPs:
Can you see what each USP has in common?
Each of these company’s USPs has two characteristics:
To craft Decibite’s USP, I began by brainstorming specific USPs related to fast web hosting. I came up with “15% or faster web hosting speeds, guaranteed.”
Next, I did some research to find out if Decibite could fulfill this promise. To do this, I read several articles, asked a few experts in the field, and talked to Decibite.
Finally, I worked with Decibite to offer a guarantee. A guarantee means Decibite would take the risk for fulfilling the USP rather than the customer.
If Decibite failed to deliver on their USP, a customer could choose one or all three of these options:
With the positioning and USP complete, it was now time to update the messaging to match the positioning.
Decibite’s USP proved to be rock solid when I did the go-to-market strategy. When I helped Decibite get 50% more customers, 85% came with the new USP.
Main articles: Comparative advertising, product keywords
Now that Decibite knows their position in the market, it’s time to update their website copy.
During the customer interviews in step one, I wrote down almost word-for-word what every customer said.
This is a key element of a successful voice-of-the-customer program. After all, what better way is there to speak the customer’s language than to use, well, the customer’s language?
I had a lot of pages to build. Some of these pages would become key to Decibite’s go-to-market strategy. For Decibite, I created over 120 pages. This included:
To create these bottom-of-the-funnel pages at scale, I used templates for the comparison pages and feature pages. I then customized them to fit Decibite’s needs.
At the time, Decibite did not have its go-to-market strategy established. As such, I did not want to invest too much time on a specific feature page or comparative landing page. This allowed me to apply the 80-20 principle.
In practice, this meant finding out which 20% of pages would bring in 80% of the traffic.
Related Article: The best landing page builders for startups
Main articles: Go-to-market strategy, marketing channels
“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don't know which half.” - John Wanamaker, founder of one of the first department stores in the United States.
Creating a marketing strategy for a new product is energizing and challenging. What works for one product may not work for another.
Now that I had Decibite’s USP in place (15% or faster hosting), it was time to distribute that message by testing a handful of the 12 core marketing channels.
Here’s what Decibite gave Growth Ramp to work with:
Here’s what marketing channels I tested and lessons learned.
With Google Ads, I used Decibite’s USP in the headline and body copy. For each competitor, the ad looked something like this:
Decibite offered a lot of value for free what their competitors charge for. So I included the potential savings in some versions of the ad copy as well.
I used single keyword ad groups (SKAGs) to send traffic to landing pages with the exact comparison. This creates a near-perfect message match because:
In practice, it looks like this:
Related articles: Content comparative advertising, product keywords, consumer psychology, link bait
To attract customers faster, I created over 120 bottom-of-the-funnel (BoFU) pages for Decibite.
Affiliate content marketers are fanatic about finding high buyer-intent keyword phrases. (Or in simple terms, they want to find phrases customers lookup in a search engine right before they buy a product).
Two common types of high buyer-intent keywords affiliate marketers use are comparison keywords and product keywords.
Why should you consider creating BoFU pages for these keywords?
After creating these pages, I wrote an article on Reddit why entrepreneurs should avoid GoDaddy. (I’ll share more about that story in the Reddit section). After a handful of new customers came to Decibite, I talked to Ben, Decibite’s CEO.
From what I pieced together with Ben, the buyer journey went something like this:
So these pages assisted in the buying process. Let’s look at these two types of BoFU pages.
Comparison keywords focus on customers looking to compare your product to a competitor’s product.
The copywriter Eugene Schwartz describes these customers as product-aware. These are customers who know what you sell and often what the competition sells. So at this stage, you need to position your product against the competition. (Hence the USP in step 5).
For Decibite, this meant creating pages that target keyword phrases like “GoDaddy Alternative,” “Inonos Alternative,” and “BlueHost Alternative.”
A common mistake I see startups using comparison keywords make is to target only their known competitors. But when a customer has a problem, they aren’t always using a known competitor.
For example, you could do email outreach using Mailshake. Alternatively, you could use Gmail’s Schedule feature. If I worked at Mailshake, I would create a landing page targeting this alternate solution.
To reduce competitors doing this against Decibite, I created a comparison between Decibite and their competitors. This page targeted the phrase “Decibite alternatives”:
Product keywords are another set of keywords with high buyer intent. These keywords focus on features related to your product.
Using Schwartz’s five stages of consumer psychology, these keywords target solution-aware customers. In this stage, your customer knows the result he wants. But he may not know of your product, or that it provides the results he’s looking for.
For Decibite, this meant creating pages that target keyword phrases like “Free SSL Certificates,” “Page Caching,” and “Website Backup.”
After creating these pages, I did zero link building to increase organic traffic. Yet these pages got a lot of organic traffic right away without any links. Why did this work? And why did I not build links right away?
When I evaluated the keywords’ search results in Google, most were easy to rank in one of the top 10 positions. By creating in-depth content, the pages brought in traffic without needing links.
This allowed me to watch what 20% of pages would give 80% of Decibite’s traffic.
Once I saw what pages were bringing in the most traffic, it was time to build some links. To do this, I worked with two agencies to see which would produce better results.
The first agency wrote some articles on SEO-focused blogs with links to Decibite. While some SEOs believe these links work well, Decibite and I had mixed feelings about them.
uSERP was the second agency I approached. uSERP’s price per mention was higher, but their link quality was terrific. Consider this mention on BigCommerce:
BigCommerce is a respected brand.
The anchor text also briefly shares our positioning: a faster GoDaddy alternative.
Further, the page likely gets ongoing organic traffic as the page ranks for a few keywords:
Finally, I turned the market research data from step 2 into a report about content marketing.
Original research is an excellent way to attract ongoing links.
In a 2015 survey by BuzzSumo and Moz, the team found research-backed articles get a lot of traffic and links (source). This is also how I helped Orbit Media get over 430 links in six months.
After creating the study, I reached out to a few content marketers who wrote on similar topics. I asked them if they would like to check out Decibite’s report. Some of them did, which led to a link on Diginomica (source) and a resource link on eMarketer (source).
When you quadruple (+331%) organic traffic in four months, there’s no reason to complain. Still, there are always lessons to learn when reflecting.
Given Decibite’s customer persona, I knew Decibite’s were active on /r/entrepreneur.
If you’re unfamiliar with Reddit, think of it as a giant forum. Reddit has several smaller forums or subreddits. As a result, there’s like a subreddit (or more) your customers hang out.
Each subreddit has different rules beside’s Reddit’s rules. Further, each subreddit has a different language which resonates with their users. (Just like every other type of marketing).
Reddit is also a challenge for many marketers to crack.
First, the subreddit moderators (or mods) have the right to ban any post. This can happen if you don’t read the rules carefully.
Second, users are able to vote on your post up or down. The more upvotes you get, the longer it stays visible. But too many downvotes and your post gets next-to-no visibility. (Zero downvotes aren't always bad, which I’ll explain why in a moment).
Third, tracking Reddit’s traffic isn’t perfect. If you believe Google Analytics, you might think Decibite got almost no traffic from Reddit:
With no other marketing campaigns running, the traffic bump only came from Reddit.
Here’s why Reddit’s tracking isn’t always accurate:
This also explains the spike in Decibite’s organic traffic…
Most of these subreddits have a low tolerance for direct marketing. So Decibite took the approach of content marketing and wrote a couple of articles for specific subreddits.
To increase Decibite’s odds of success, I looked for similar high-performing articles relevant to Decibite. You can do this by going to any subreddit, clicking on “top,” then filtering by “links from -> all time.”
For the first article, I worked with Decibite’s CEO, Ben, to announce his startup on /r/selfhosted. This is a community of people that host their own web servers. A do-it-yourself type, if you will.
My impression is this would not go over well. DIY folks often don’t want to spend money on a new solution. However, Ben had a connection with the /r/selfhosted community and wanted to give it a try. As you may know, sometimes the best results come from testing your assumptions.
Rather than becoming a popular article, the post became one of the top 5 most controversial of all time:
While Decibite did not get much traffic or sales, this post helped in other ways.
First, it confirmed this is not the type of customer Decibite should serve. An anti-persona, if you will.
Second, it gave me greater clarity on Decibite’s messaging. When reading through the comments, there were several detailed responses. So when I took these learnings and wrote an article on /r/entrepreneur, the community went crazy…
This second article on /r/entrepreneur received over 850 upvotes. Further, it led to Decibite getting 85% of the new customers during the six-month time frame.
At the beginning of 2019, I did marketing for a non-profit. I redesigned their website, improved their positioning, and increased traffic. They were also on GoDaddy, a competitor of Decibite. I knew Reddit hates this company with a passion, so I wrote about my experience with them.
Even with the article getting pulled twice by the mods, this article got over 850 upvotes. This also landed a few new customers.
The failure rate of startups and new products is high.
When entrepreneurs don’t talk to customers, they often lack empathy to get customers at scale. Perhaps that’s why Silicon Valley has upheld the mantra to “get out of the building and talk to your customers.”
This is why Growth Ramp’s product marketing services begin by talking to customers. Perhaps this case study has allowed you to see the value of a strategy rooted in talking to customers.