If I told you don’t need a sales team to succeed in the software market would you believe it?
It is more common than you think — companies like Atlassian, Slack, and Basecamp have proven it is both sustainable and good for business.
Slack, the communication platform that was recently valued at $5B employs zero salespeople. They cite their success on acquisition marketing, with an obsessive focus on driving as many sign-ups of their “forever free” product, knowing that a certain percentage of their customers will value their product enough to pay for the premium features.
Slack isn’t focused on MQLs, lead-scoring or strategies that companies such as Hubspot, Pardot, and Marketo have advocated for over the past decade. Many would argue the funnel-based marketing model is proven and consistent — which is accurate, but this model also requires a significant amount of capital (both cash flow and human beings) to execute.
Instead Slack focused on investing that same capital into product development, betting that by refining its customer and product experience would lead to adoption within the larger mid-market and enterprise organizations of its user base. And it worked.
Atlassian, the software development industry’s stalwart, also attributes their success to a product that sells itself and not to sales staff, instead citing word of mouth, product simplicity, and innovation as the key reasons they have been successful with the no-salesperson model.
With the DIY-sales model, if a non-paying customer wants to upgrade to the premium product, they can, and they don’t need to talk to a salesperson. Nor does their legal team need to review each and every contract they put in place, because there isn’t one. The customer/vendor relationship is built on value, and if at any point the cost outweighs the value, that customer can stop paying and move to another platform. It is dead simple, and the freemium model isn’t going anywhere soon, but is that really the reason for their success? Even Slack knows if their product is crappy, the whole model breaks down.
Sure, this works for heavily funded startups, but for a smaller, self-funded operation is it reasonable to believe you can have success without a sales staff?
A few years ago the answer may have been different. However, the outright commoditization of the marketing stack has happened quickly, and with similar technologies now used by both large and small companies, it is entirely possible to build highly sophisticated and entirely automated areas of a business with a minimal budget.
In some cases, a true “go-to-market” sales strategy is pushed off because startups want to validate product-market fit before building out a sales team. But today, both enterprises and smaller teams are putting it off longer as they have realized that automated growth strategies can make a huge difference when the organization needs to staff for sales (if at all), meaning additional focus on product and making customers happy, which ends up having a cyclical effect on revenue.
But getting it right is extremely difficult. The rest of this guide highlights some of the successful strategies that have been utilized by these growth-centric companies with ideas on how you can apply in your own business.
The 4-Step Growth Automation Process For Startups
Paid acquisition channels, in-app customer on-boarding, effective tracking, and a dedicated customer success team can all be massive levers for growth and are all part of a proven model used by high growth companies to acquire users at scale. But can the entire process from acquisition to revenue be automated? Absolutely, but only if your strategy is built to scale.
Step 1 - Use a segmented, multi-step funnel to drive your customer acquisition engine.
One popular method among direct response marketers is to use multi-step conversion funnels to drive users towards sign-up of a free product. This can be even more effective if you:
Build brand equity with your target market using inexpensive, awareness-based ads.
Start by building a broad audience based on your target customer persona. Leverage the scale and reach of CPM-based paid media such as Facebook video ads, native advertising or even podcast ads to reach thousands of potential customers at a $10 CPM or lower. Comparatively these audiences are underpriced because many marketers don’t understand their purpose. The goal here is to build brand recognition among your target audience without an immediate focus on conversion — instead, identify who is interested in your product.
Target your interested audience with a freemium conversion offer.
After building some brand equity, you can approach that same audience with an offer for your freemium account type. Based on the established interest that was created with your first few ad impressions, you can target these users across multiple ad channels including Facebook, LinkedIn, display, and even search (using custom audiences) with highly targeted ads pinpointing their potential pain points and day-to-day scenarios.
Since there will be very little “waste” at this stage based on your segmentation, you can bid aggressively to target these users with a high-converting offer to your freemium product plan.
Convert a freemium user to a revenue-driving customer.
Once a user converts, he or she is now part of your freemium cohort, and you can focus on revenue with workflows that help achieve that goal such as highlighting premium features, roadblocking functionality within the app or creating educational material that encourages product adoption.
The inputs to the funnel can be active in multiple channels simultaneously, with each being measured on its own merit, focusing on straightforward metrics such as cost per sign up, upgrade percentage, and total revenue per user.
Step 2 - Encourage product adoption with automated onboarding experiences.
While you may have an initial conversion, freemium users have the possibility of never using the product, churning out and eventually becoming lost revenue. The following activities can help make sure you activate those users from an email address into a paying customer.
Consistently onboard freemium users with in-app product tours to increase product adoption.
The recurring theme in the “sales-less” organization is a consistent focus on product adoption. But if a product is a bit complex, it can be a struggle to activate customers to use the application even after they have signed up.
Building onboarding experiences to overcome product complexity roadblocks is one area that growth-focused organizations have spent time perfecting. Platform “tour guide” solutions like WalkMe can provide an even more personalized approach, allowing product manager to create sequenced step-by-step demos right in the application upon the first login or triggered by different parts of the application. These can be set to run at the right time for every user and can be highly customized.
Use automated webinars to encourage engagement for complex products.
When there is some level of configuration on the user’s end, product adoption can crater when the time investment required to start using it in a real business workflow is more than just a few minutes. Pre-recorded webinars are a popular way for potential customers to get introduced to the steps to accomplish this. Customer success and sales teams can utilize automated "evergreen" webinars that only need to be recorded once and can then be set on auto-pilot.
Companies like Demio, ClickMeeting, and EverWebinar have tweaked the traditional webinar model so that recordings can be used on repeat minimizing the amount of time spent presenting and more time answering questions. This can be an especially powerful aspect of automation for prospects that are closer to purchase, and numerous recordings can be created for each of the company’s different products, services or target customer audiences.
Send triggered emails based on key events or in-app inactivity.
User adoption can be difficult, and there are a number of integrated marketing tools utilizing user-based analytics that have emerged to address these challenges. Intercom’s Customer Engagement platform is built for both web and app-based products and focuses on tracking activity in segments and triggering corresponding notifications based on different scenarios.
Guiding users to their first in-app experience or pushing inactive users to get started can be the difference between revenue and another free user. In all cases, this logic is set once and then managed and monitored from within the application, meaning onboarding can be completely automated. What’s more, businesses can test the performance of different sequences to find which are most effective, driving additional revenue.
Step 3 - Scale customer acquisition efforts by measuring and maximizing your CLV.
Effective paid acquisition programs are a critical part of growth. After all, if you don’t have potential customers, you can’t generate revenue. But generating leads is simply not enough, you need to effectively track revenue contribution to understand the full picture.
Avoid measuring on cost per lead alone.
It is quite common to optimize programs based on total leads and cost per lead, but this strategy can be very short-sighted. If you aren't measuring the full lead lifecycle with closed-loop revenue reporting, you may be making the wrong decisions.
Understand your conversion cost vs. customer lifetime value.
It is critical to know your cost per lead, but this is only part of the equation. Measuring customer lifetime value from the moment they register to the day they cancel their account will help you understand how much each customer is worth and how profitable the customers from each channel actually are. For example, a high cost per lead from LinkedIn Ads that drives significantly more revenue is worth the cost ten times over. Instead of measuring success purely based on CPL, adjust your ROI measurement strategy to account for marketing channel acquisition cost while also measuring the CLV of customers generated from each channel.
Implement basic campaign attribution with custom CRM fields.
Step 4 - Deliver customer satisfaction and the maximize the downstream effects.
All of the brands that have been successful at generating revenue without a sales team have one thing in common — a passion for their product and a desire to create amazing experiences for their customers. Happy customers referrals can be one of your most profitable acquisition channels. Word of mouth is a powerful and silent customer acquisition tool and should not be underestimated.
Invest in customer success with a dedicated role.
No matter the reason, your customers should be ecstatic to use your product. Staffing for and making a single person responsible for responding to inbound support requests, triaging internally and tracking the resolution of issues within the organization is critical. Happy customers are a key component of word of mouth referrals and delivering quality support will pay dividends, albeit it may be more difficult to track than almost any metric.
Make your Net Promoter Score (NPS) a company KPI.
Measuring customer satisfaction can be done in a number of different ways. Measuring your Net Promoter Score can provide clarity and transparency on the overall satisfaction level of your customers. Avoid potential customer churn and monitor NPS with tools like Promoter.io, Retentl, or simply survey your customers using a form tool. No matter how you get this data, make sure it is front and center alongside other key business metrics.
Reward your customers to refer.
A focused effort to incentivize your existing customers to share your product with their network can be one of the most effective and low-cost ways to build out your customer base. Building it into your product UI or as triggered email based on events activated by power-users are two simple ways to make sure your referral offer gets the visibility it deserves.
Stop Thinking and Start Automating Your Growth Strategy
No matter how big or small your organization, there is often a business case for automating your customer acquisition, product onboarding, measurement or customer success that can save time and drive more revenue — letting you focus on bigger challenges.
Startups today are in a position to make this happen with more specialized software than ever before. With numerous tools available to provide user-based analytics, cohort analysis, and in-product messaging functionality there has never been a better time to be focused on growth.