Customer acquisition for online products

Aug 21, 2013

Table of contents:

  1. The importance of setting a goal
  2. How to get there
  3. What to build
  4. What should you measure?
  5. Conclusion

A problem that all online products face is, how to create a steady stream of new users or customers. Building successful products is much more than writing amazing code, beautiful design or building scalable architecture. A much overlooked component is the marketing and growth strategy that you need to pursue in order to reach new people.

It is increasingly difficult to differentiate on the Internet because there are so many competing products that launch every day. Even when you are an early adopter of new products like I am, it is fatiguing when you sign up to 10 new things, but you aren’t really captivated to hang around in any of them.

In this post I hope to give you a more focused strategy for building and launching a new online product. By focusing on the right things to build, target and measure, you can find your initial core group of users who will be the lifeblood of your new product.

The importance of setting a goal

I think one of the big mistakes that people make when approaching something like customer acquisition for new online products is, they don’t set themselves a clear definable goal. This is important because it allows you to ask yourself, is what I’m doing right now moving me closer to my goal?.

In a world of analytics, metrics and data, you need to be able to concentrate on one clear thing that you are trying to achieve. If one of your data points in Google Analytics suddenly spikes, it can be easy to convince yourself that you are succeeding because that particular graph is going up and to the right.

In reality, you need to ensure that the most important metric is heading in the right direction. This often means that you won’t see immediate gratification because growing the right metric is usually much harder than simply growing page views or unique visitors.

In order to make this post more actionable, I will write the remainder as a case study for what I would do if I was launching a new Customer Support Software as a Service application.

My goal in this instance is to grow a small initial group of customers who have highly concentrated usage in the product. This means a smaller group of people using the product multiple times a day, rather than a bigger group who use the product once but rarely ever return.

To do this I want to sign up prospects long before the actual full public launch, and I will focus on one specific niche which can then be slowly expanded outwards.

How to get there

Whilst you are building your product, you also need to be building up momentum in parallel. Building a project in secrecy and then launching with a “big bang” only works when you have an existing audience and an existing platform to launch from. If you try and do this without an audience, your launch will fall flat.

Here are the things I would do prelaunch to build momentum for your product.

Create content

So if you are a regular reader of Culttt, you will probably be sick of me telling you to write content again and again and again and again and again!

I can appreciate that this strategy is not for everybody, but it can be so powerful that it would be a crime to just dismiss it because you don’t enjoy writing.

Content marketing is so effective because it enables you to give away value to the visitor without asking anything from them in return. Potential users aren’t going to want to come to your website if the only thing to do is to sign up for your product. This enables you to massively increase the surface area for your website so that many thousands more potential customers are exposed to your product through your content.

Content marketing also enables you to build a relationship with the potential customer. This is extremely important because a customer who signs up with a pre-existing relationship is going to be far more satisfied with your product, have lower customer support needs and a much lower chance of churning.

By creating content from the very early days of product development, you can build momentum and create relationships with your early evangelists who will be more likely to spread your product to other users.

Whilst I’m a fan of concentrating your best content on your own domain, guest blogging on niche related sites or communities is a great way to add fuel to your fire.

By targeting these pre-existing community sites, you can target exactly the right kind of potential customers that you are going after. This is often a much better strategy than going after bigger opportunities that will expose you to a much less concentrated crowd.

There are many posts all over the Internet on guest blogging, so I won’t go into too much detail here.

One thing I would suggest though is, build up a lot of content on your own website before going after growth through guest blogging. If a reader enjoys your guest post, they will want to go to the root of the source to get more content just like it. You want that user to discover your website as a rich source of content and a potential product to solve their problems, not just a wasteland of one or two published posts.

Get your own house in order before you start adding fuel to the fire.

Experiment in other niches

Hopefully there will be existing communities that are an obvious place to start building momentum. For example, with our Customer Support application, a good place to start would be blogs or forums for small bootstrapping companies who are looking for a low cost customer support solution.

Whilst these should be your bread and butter for your early marketing efforts, I would also suggest experimenting with a percentage of your time in other communities. For example, you could spend your time in design related communities like Dribbble or Behance or technical communities like Hacker News.

In the early stages of Customer Development, you should be experimenting a lot. The majority of your interactions won’t be nearly as well received in comparison with talking to people who actually have the problem you are trying to solve. But these serendipitous interactions could lead to a bigger discovery at some point down the line.

Just because there isn’t a clear Return of Investment, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

Hijack existing Facebook and LinkedIn groups

Facebook and LinkedIn groups are a great way of finding a potential audience who have already gathered around a certain niche. By joining these groups, adding to the discussions and generally being a good member of the community, you can build a lot of momentum for your product as you go to launch.

For example, you can promote your content, run polls on existing problems, solutions or potential product features, and you can offer early access in return for real customer feedback.

The important thing here is, don’t just jump into a group and start to try and sell. I wouldn’t even start promoting your content straight away unless you have written something that will actually solve someone’s problem. Nobody likes this kind of person and so you will likely do more damage than good. Instead, be helpful, share relevant content and try and help people out if you have the answer to their problem.

Build a name for being helpful in one niche and focus on it

Wherever you choose to build up your momentum, a good strategy is to just help people out consistently. You will start to be recognised as not only someone who is helpful, but also someone who can solve people’s problems. Generally I would focus on one niche and usually between one and three websites. This is because it is likely going to be either overwhelming or ineffective if you try and spread yourself too thin.

There will likely already be influencers in these niches. Often these people have created the website or have been an instrumental voice in the community for some time. You should take your time to build relationships with these people by helping them out and generally being a good member of the community.

What to build

Now that you know the places you should target and the things you should do, now you need to know what to build.

Obviously, it goes without saying that you should be building your product, but there are some other important things you should build long before you launch.

Generally I would say get a blog up as soon as possible. You can set this up with a simple WordPress installation. Although many companies seem to use Tumblr to host their blog, I think there is much greater value if you keep all of your content under your control on your domain.

Next you need to create a landing page that can accept email addresses for people who are interested in your product. I think it is usually better to have a much more intuitive sign up box that enables you to do some niche launch strategy tactics, but for the most part a simple form will do just fine.

If you are not a technical person, there are many ways you can quickly and easily set up a page to collect emails. One of the best ways is to simple create a list in MailChimp and use the provided HTML to create your sign up page.

However if you are technical, you should create a landing page that offers you much greater depth of data collection that you can use when contacting your sign ups when you are ready for them to start using your product.

What should you measure?

Now that you know what channels you are going to be targeting and you have a point of entry to collect potential customer email addresses you should start to measure and analyse your progress in order to improve the effectiveness of your input.

The problem with doing anything new like this is, at the outset you are likely going to make a lot of assumptions. Whilst these assumptions are not always very far away from the actual truth, you need to be aware of changing conditions and you need to have the ability to constantly adjust your course.

Monitor where your traffic is coming from

The first big thing is you should monitor where your traffic is coming from. It should go without saying that you should have Google Analytics installed from day one.

This is incredibly valuable because you will start to pick up random bits of traffic as you start to build up momentum. For example, someone might link to your website or blog in an online community or LinkedIn group that you didn’t even know about. When you go and thank that person for linking to your content and you start to engage in the community, you gain another potential new source of building your audience. All of this would not of been possible if you had not been aware of the link in the first place.

Of course if you don’t want to use Google Analytics, there are plenty of other analytics software to choose from.

Monitor and increase conversions

You should be monitoring how well your landing pages or blog posts convert visitors to sign ups. This will be good training for when you actually have a sales funnel that leads to new customers.

Adding the analytics code is usually fairly straight forward even if you are not technical and so there really isn’t a reason to not do this.

Once you have a baseline conversion rate you can start to look to experiment to try and increase it. For example, you might want to look at increasing qualified traffic, or traffic from a particular source.

Split test your assumptions

You should be split testing any assumptions that you make on your product, copy or design. Often your assumptions will be grounded in background experience, domain knowledge of actual customer feedback, but I think there is still value in running split tests to expose more information on your actions.

Again, you don’t need to be technical to run these kinds of tests. A product like Optimizely allows you to create split tests by dragging and dropping elements on the page.

A lot of people say that split testing is a bad thing because you end up with an end-product that has no distinct design direction or no character behind the copy. Whilst I think there is a risk of over analysing every little detail, I think there is still a lot of valuable things you can learn from split testing.

I would advise that you run split tests, but you are not beholden to them. Use them to learn and not necessarily make every decision because of them.

Google Analytics allows you to very easily add source links as a parameter in a URL. This allows you to very easily track which campaigns are actually sending you traffic and how these break down in terms of conversion.

This is extremely important because it will shed a lot of light into how your campaigns are performing. This will allow you to double down on the things that are working and get rid of the things that aren’t.

Another thing I like to do with this tactic is to wrap ugly URLs in clever short urls. Bitly allows you to use their short URL service with your own custom short domain. This not only gives you the power of short URL analytics, but it also allows you to hide the ugly Google Analytics parameters from your links.

Use different landing pages for different campaigns

A tactic that is often used for Saas type products is to have a different landing page for different campaigns. For example, if you were promoting the virtues of a specific feature in one campaign, you could direct that audience to a specific landing page. On the other hand, for members of a specific community, you could have an entirely different landing page.

This is a great way to offer a more customised experienced for the end user. For example, if you have been using a drip marketing campaign that has focused the product on a specific demographic of people, those users should land on a page that follows that consistent story.

This is a lot more work to set up, but it could yield much greater conversions. As with any online tactic, don’t get carried away with an idea before you see evidence that it is working. By this I mean, don’t waste time coming up with elaborative campaigns and landing pages before you have evidence that it is actually going to work. Set up two landing pages and direct two different sources of customer referrals before expanding to other campaigns.


If you don’t already have a large existing audience to launch a product in to, building something in secrecy and going for the big launch is probably one of the worst things you can do. You are not Apple, people won’t care about your product and they won’t be blown away on launch day. TechCrunch won’t be banging down your door to cover you and the world’s media won’t be fighting to get your exclusive interview.

Instead of hoping things will work out, you should take the steps to ensure that by the time your public launch comes around, you already have a growing product that is generating real revenue.

In order to achieve this, you need to be working on your momentum long before your product goes live. This means running marketing campaigns, building an audience and connecting with your first groups of core users.

Don’t fall into the trap of if I build it they will come. They won’t.

Philip Brown


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