Marketing for Engineers (aka Growth Hacking)

So you are building a new product. Great! However, one of the worst mistakes you can make is to wait for it to be done before thinking about how you are going to market it. You should be thinking about how you will reach users and convert them into customers at every step of your development process.

The following is a basic framework you can use to think about marketing your product that you can consider at every step along the way.

1. Practice Telling Your Story

The first thing you should do, before even starting to build your product, is to understand how you will explain it to your customers. What problem does it solve? How does it work? Why is it the best option? Amazon takes this even farther, asking product managers to write the press release for the product before they start building it. Working backwards forces you to think about the product from the perspective of customers, instead of building a product just for the sake of building.

You should test this story by telling it to potential customers continuously during development. When you have wireframes, show them. When you have a prototype, demonstrate it. Do not wait until the product is “done”, because by then it might be too late to learn how it needs to change to match the story that customers want to hear.

You will know that you have mastered the storytelling for your product when describing it to potential customers comes naturally and the product tells most of the story for you.

2. Model Customer Conversions

It is easy to fall into the trap of optimizing your user interface for expert users of your product. You are an expert user of your own product, after all, and it is natural to want to optimize it for yourself. However, the most important feature of any product is the first time user experience  (which is how the customer becomes a customer in the first place). If you don’t obsess over the initial experience, customers may give up and never make it to the the point where your expert user interface has a chance to shine.

You can think about your first time experience as a sequence of events. For example:


This example sequence is simple, with the blue circles representing the actions we want the user to take and the gray circles representing alternatives. For this product, the ideal first time experience is as follows: the user clicks on a link, signups up for the service, stays active for one week (is retained) and eventually makes a purchase. At each step the user could have failed to complete your preferred action (instead of signing up for the service they abandon the registration page) and this represents a lost opportunity. By understanding this flow you can understand how you expect customers to progress from prospects to ideal customers and where you might lose them along the way.

Of course the first time user experience for your application will be different, but it is composed of some number of steps that you can set up in the same way. There are some great examples of first time user experiences on FirstTimeUX. Your goal is to figure out these steps and make sure you can measure them effectively using your analytics solution.

The very last step should be the ideal behavior of an ideal customer (full purchase, invite 10 friends, etc.) such that a user that completes all the steps in your flow is your ideal customer. By measuring how many users achieve each step you will understand how effectively you convert prospects (clicks) into ideal customers. If you are losing customers along the way you should know quickly and be able to plug that hole.

3. Plan Your Marketing Channels

When you were mapping out the customer conversion flow in Step 2 you likely thought a lot about where the customer might be coming from. Where did they see the link that lead to that click? You have many options for getting users to that first step in the conversion flow including:

  • Content marketing (blogging, tweeting, press)
  • Social Sharing (Facebook, Pinterest)
  • Invites from friends
  • Paid advertising

The conversion flow for a customer coming from all of your channels may be the same, or they may all be different. You should model conversions based on the experience you think is most likely to convert a prospect from a given channel into an ideal customer.

Many people will dismiss paid advertising and believe that your product is so great that it will succeed through word of mouth and virality alone. Alas that is rarely the case. Even Google spent $12B in traffic acquisition costs in 2013, and their product is nearly ubiquitous. It is important that you do not overspend using paid advertising (see The Most Important Equation for Your Business) but it almost always a part of a successful marketing campaign.

Be as creative as possible in identifying possible marketing channels and how your conversion flow might differ based on the source of the click. Many of the channels you identify will not be effective and you will discard them, so you want to cast a wide net.

4. Measure, Rinse, Repeat

As early as possible, you should begin testing your story, conversion model and marketing channels. It is almost impossible to be sure which channels will be the most cost effective, how users will convert or what story will resonate the most. Do not wait for your launch to start figuring out how best to attract customers. Some of the best companies will test their marketing channels during their Alpha or Beta tests, while others will “soft launch” their product in other countries to test their assumptions.

When you do start testing, be sure to track performance very closely so you can make decisions later. One way to do this is by compiling your marketing channel performance in a spreadsheet. An example template for such tracking is below.

Marketing Channel Tracking Template

This particular template ties channel performance directly back to cost. This may seem strange, especially for non-paid promotional channels, but it is important to remember that nothing is free. Writing blog posts and soliciting the press for articles seems free, but takes up your time which can be expensive. Building social channels within your product can lead to word of mouth but takes away from other features. In the end, everything you do costs money and you need to understand the return you get for that investment.

When you are running at full stream, you will not track your marketing through a spreadsheet and instead will likely use one of the many advertising tracking services available. However, in the early days it can be helpful to do it yourself by hand so that you really understand what works and why.

Conclusion: Hire a Marketer

While this is a great start, none of this is a replacement for hiring an experienced marketer. Software engineers tend to discount the value of marketing because it is so different from the hard skills of computer science. However, a great marketer will help you explain to your customers how amazing the product is that you have built. Marketing is the act of understanding your customers and communicating with them in a way they understand. Without strong marketing, a great product may die in obscurity.

During your product development, always consider how the product and marketing strategy work together. In the end, they really are the same thing.

2 thoughts on “Marketing for Engineers (aka Growth Hacking)

  1. Pingback: Go To Market To Win | Sean on Startups

  2. Pingback: The Science of Creating Demand | Sean on Startups

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