July 15, 2021
As we continue to share our 2017 Market Research document, we move on from audience research to focusing in on the major players in the marketing industry — our market competition, and the influencers we’re most interested in working with.
When researching your competitors, we looked at competition on both the technology side and the agency side of our business to ensure we’re covering both potential sources of competition. If we only look at agencies, we won’t find tech products that can potentially compete with our proprietary software, and vice versa.
On the influencer side, we paid attention to prominent figures in marketing based on what they’ve written about in regards to our most pertinent keywords — growth hacking and marketing strategy.
These two pieces of research are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A lot of our competitors on the technology side, for example, have influential leaders that we’d love to collaborate with — GrowthHackers’ Sean Ellis, for example.
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Let’s first look at who we’re competing with:
An important part of looking at the industry you’re competing against is understanding the value propositions those tools have and how to differentiate them from your own.
Particularly for a new product that hasn’t been advertised before, looking at competitors can give you inspiration of what to test; either similar variations on what seems to work for them or new value propositions you don’t see covered.
Let’s take a look at the most similar tool to our Ladder Planner — Growth Hackers Projects.
Interestingly enough, this tool seems to focus very heavily on collaboration. There’s lots of talk about capturing learning, rallying the team, and it emphasizes how it works into your existing process.
This is great news for us. Although those things are important to our users, they aren’t the main basis from which someone decides to work with us. Usually, they want to offload their marketing activity, not increase collaboration within an existing team.
Not only does this mean that we’re targeting a completely different user persona, it also means we have a clear point of differentiation; we offer a fully managed service whereas GrowthHackers Projects is better suited to self-service teams.
We might see competition from freelancers and consultants empowered by GHP on a deal-by-deal basis, but that’s not a major concern from an overall business point of view.
There’s also little risk of GHP competing directly by developing their own agency service — it’s tough to build the infrastructure we’ve built, and as a pure SaaS play, investors are unlikely to be happy with the lower margins and scalability of the agency model.
Ultimately, having GH Projects in the market should be a force of good for us. With Sean Ellis’s amazing reputation and strong marketing skills, he’ll go a long way towards popularizing and validating the type of test-driven marketing both our businesses are built around.
GoodUI is less a competitor than just a company we really respect. The way they seamlessly combine content and consulting and their focus on repeatable tactics inspires us.
Their specialty is conversion tactics, and they’re a consultancy rather than an agency, without any technology, so it’s not directly competitive for us right now. However we should keep an eye out for any developments.
This is a little closer to home than GoodUI. Though they’re just CRO focused right now, there are more similarities here to us. Not only is this an agency with a cost-per-test pricing model like us, they also use GrowthHackers Projects internally to manage their process.
Where we can differentiate here is that we have our own technology, with our database of what tactics work. We also have a depth of experience in non-CRO tactics, like Facebook ads, Google Ads, etc that would be very hard for a CRO agency to replicate (it’s a different skill set).
Moving out of CRO and into full-funnel, full-service, we have Quint Growth Partners. This is much more in our territory and Jamie Quint is a legend within the growth community. Their main differentiation here is the clients they work with; Hipmunk and Twitch, which are also well known in the startup community (and probably landed through Jamie’s network).
Even though there is a lot of overlap here between us, and their credibility is high, I’m not worried. The market is enormous and considering this looks more like a consultancy, I wouldn’t be surprised if we never even pitch the same client. A lot of our clients are much earlier in their journey than Twitch and Hipmunk, much less well funded and not based in the Valley.
This one is interesting because AI is such an attractive field right now. If they were able to fully automate the role of a growth marketer, we would all be out of a job! Thankfully (we hope) they’re not close to doing that yet.
They focus on the saving time aspect, which we also depend on as a key value proposition, and our product also uses some AI / Machine Learning. However they seem to have focused on finding opportunities in the data.
Our thesis is actually the opposite; tell me what type of business you are, and without even looking at your data I can tell you a long list of tactics that are bound to work for you.
We arrived at this conclusion by observing how top marketers actually give strategic advice. They ask a few questions about the business and do very little actual analysis before reeling off a list of things you should try.
If they do analysis at all (like we’re doing with this marketing plan), you’ll notice it’s usually only very basic pattern matching; they find something that’s performing badly then use their own personal experience of what worked in the past to fix that issue.
This is counter-intuitive and it took us a long time to come round to this way of thinking. It just feels wrong to make recommendations without looking at that individual companies’ data.
Because our view is contrarian, it’s very unlikely our competitors will copy us, even if they read this post (which is why we don’t mind sharing it). However it does mean we’ll have to put in extra effort to prove this point of differentiation to prospects who believe the opposite.
I’ll be honest; we’re competing with Percolate almost by accident. Because we wanted to keep track of what worked and what didn’t work, we had to build an asset management tab. After a while, people who saw our product started to say “hey, that’s kind of similar to Percolate”.
While their customer base is enterprise and their feature set richer (i.e. 100x more expensive), we don’t expect to compete with them any time soon. However we’ll keep this on the radar as we might one day move upmarket into their space (or they might move downmarket into ours).
We’ve incidentally tested the ‘system of record for marketing’ language in sales pitches in the past, and it worked pretty well, so we might try a few variations of that language in our plan.
Staying on the enterprise side, we have Bionic. This goes a step further than Percolate; it’s a little more niche. It focuses on automating the workflow of a media planner in a larger agency. It’s replacing what people currently use excel for, and even helps you execute the media buys!
This is more of a direct competitor to us than Percolate, particularly because we have a direct connection to this world; a Publicis Groupe agency incubated us and several prominent agency executives have shares in our company. We might be doing battle with Bionic one day soon.
This is another accidental one. Funnily enough our software doesn’t really do anything that Hubspot does. However we’ve found there is a lot of confusion in the marketplace. Time and time again customers have asked us “What do you do that Hubspot doesn’t?”
We think the confusion comes from their content marketing operation. Because it talks so much about marketing and growth, people come to expect Hubspot to grow their company for them. They don’t even know what it really does; this whole space is a black box for them. They don’t realize the product still needs a smart practitioner to operate it.
In reality we are a complement to Hubspot; their landing page builder, SEO tag editor, CRM and email drip technology are regularly used by our team to deploy various tactics. However it looks like to those who don’t know the space, we’re filling the job that Hubspot’s marketing promises.
We should take that into account and potentially run campaigns to disenfranchised or confused Hubspot users, teaching them how to get the most of the tool they bought.
Just making a good product and writing good content isn’t enough. Your ranking on SEO and traffic from social both depend on influential people linking to you. Most marketers think they can just produce good content and the rest will take care of itself. This is a huge mistake; every link and mention is a hard won battle.
To succeed, you need to actively be researching who has the reach to move the needle for you, and actively build those relationships over the long term, by producing content they’re already pre-disposed to share and link to. This is not a one-and-done type thing; you have to put a lot of thought and creativity into your influencer strategy to cut through the noise.
There are a lot of tools out there to get this done, but we tend to get the most use out of BuzzSumo, as it shows you both social shares and backlinks, and can be searched by topic.
Let’s start by searching for our banner topic; ‘Growth Hacking’.
The first result looks a little strange – over 100k retweets but only ~50 Facebook or LinkedIn shares? This is very likely to be fake sharing activity by bots – I guess we should expect as much from ‘growth hackers’!
Investigating further we see it’s a guy called ‘Aladdin Happy’ who founded Growth Hacking idea.
While his methods seem a little spammy / low quality, he does have thousands of people signed up to his email list, so it might be worth reaching out to him to suggest a tactic / sponsor that list.
The second link down was an Inc article, that seems more related to ‘hacks’ than ‘growth hacking’ specifically, and many of the articles are general business / strategy pieces from Harvard Business Review.
It looks like the major business publications, if not directly talking about ‘Growth Hacking’ will be really important sources of content inspiration. Eventually we should be aiming to work our way up to being quoted as thought leaders in these influential magazines.
The first real ‘growth hack’ style article is from Moz’s blog, so let’s click into the article and see what it’s about.
It looks like it’s a guest post from Larry Kim, who with 5 mins of research we can find is the founder of a PPC software tool called Wordstream, but is an extremely popular marketing influencer across all channels.
Let’s take a look and see who shared Larry’s post.
So it looks like a lot of the social impact came from shares from Larry’s own monster audience of half a million people. We also see Moz must have had a big hand in the piece’s success, but also Wordstream (Larry’s company) has close to 200k followers they blasted this out to also.
On top of initial seeding by these juggernaut accounts the author and publisher control directly, there was also a number of independent marketing consultants blasting this out to their more niche, smaller audiences.
It’s important to make a note of these influencers, as we can potentially target their followers on Twitter later, or even contact them directly to start building relationships.
Let’s keep going with this; we can actually dig into an individual influencer and see what else they share on social.
You can also aggregate this info and see if there are any patterns in the type of domains that get shared by that influencer.
In this case we’re seeing marketingprofs and business2community come up; two publications we haven’t included as potential audiences yet.
As well as social shares, we can also see the backlinks this article generated, and who linked to them, as well as how popular those links were.
Now for SEO research I’d normally switch out to a different tool like Moz, because the number of shares is a poor proxy for how much ‘seo juice’ the link gives, but this can give you a quick idea of what socially popular domains are linking to that post.
Ok let’s zoom back out and take a look at another topic we cover, and see how much the landscape differs from the growth hacking topic.
Interestingly it looks like the bulk of the shares for these top posts are on Facebook, whereas it was LinkedIn and Twitter for Growth Hacking.
We can see here there are a number of less relevant articles here, less relevant to our audience of B2B businesses trying to get help on marketing strategy.
However if we scroll down we start to get some really interesting and relevant influencers / publications that we should investigate further.
Interestingly Entrepreneur magazine seems to appear more often on this topic, whereas HBR dominated growth hacking.
When we click into one of these Entrepreneur articles, we can see what influencers shared.
Ah – Sam Hurley; he also featured as a key sharer in the Growth Hacking article we looked at earlier. As you go through this process you’ll start to notice patterns like this; we’ll note him down as someone to investigate further.
Now obviously for our marketing plan, we explored more topics and went deeper into each topic, but we’ll stop there as I’m sure you get the idea and we don’t want to be repetitive.
So let’s run through what we should be doing with this research:
1. Building your list of influencers, competitors and complements.
I’m talking about the list we built in our competitor research section. This should be an ever expanding list, a living document, where you and the rest of your team contribute new entrants to your landscape as you find them. You can keep coming back to this list for new marketing ideas, new audiences to test and who to build relationships with.
2. Finding relevant new audiences to test on paid advertising platforms.
We can take these influencers, publications and competitive / complementary products that we find, and plug them directly into Facebook, Google and other platforms using the exact process we talked about in our audience research piece. Once you know the size and that it’s possible to target each audience, you can work them into your testing plan.
3. Use this research for inspiration on what to try with marketing.
This process of digging in manually into what posts, influencers and publications are important in the industry, can get pretty tedious. Conversely I find that it’s one of the best ways to spark my creativity. Seeing what other people are trying with their marketing gives you ideas you can directly try yourself; either direct replications or mashups of multiple ideas. Over time you’ll start to spot gaps where there’s potential demand for a campaign that nobody has done well yet.
Bonus: the best kept secret in influencer marketing.
As someone with a background in paid advertising, I was always jealous of people who could grow companies organically. It seemed like they had some secret that got them backlinks, social shares and guest publications. Whereas any blog post I published would get 10 people visiting (thanks mom!), no shares or links.
For a long time I struggled to get any traction with my personal blog and wondered why the big marketing influencers shared other articles that I didn’t think were any good, but didn’t respond to any of my cold outreach. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, until someone told me this secret about influencers…
They’re all friends in real life!
Suddenly it was so obvious; they didn’t want to share or link to my content, because they didn’t know me. My approach was the equivalent of a stranger walking up to someone in the street and asking them to be an employment reference. Once I looked a little deeper I could see that they all cross-referenced each other in their blog posts, spoke at the same conferences, attended the same events and shared each other’s links on social.
I got to see this in action working for Noah Kagan at Sumo; he was relentless in supporting and adding value to his network. He’d go out of his way to visit people he knew in the marketing community when he visited new cities. And he’d find new, interesting people to meet through this network directly. In return for this effort, promotional opportunities continually flowed his way; talking on blog posts, guest posts, shares on social, his network paid him back in kind.
I tried to replicate that when I came back to Ladder. Instead of ‘networking’ or ‘link building’ or ‘cold emailing’ I just focused on helping out people I found genuinely interesting. I mentored at startup accelerators, taught classes at bootcamps and made mutually beneficial introductions. When it was time to launch our blog, I was pleasantly surprised to see hundreds of social shares on each post from the people I’d helped.
Over time they trusted me enough to introduce me to the most interesting people they knew in the marketing space, and now I’m starting to get shared in top growth marketing newsletters and by influencers on social that I admire. Our blog is now getting 13,000 visitors a month and growing 4% a week.
It’s impossible to attribute any single action I took or relationship I built to this performance; it’s more like a web of interconnected good karma. Because of that I can’t see any way to make it more efficient; every time someone finds a rule for gaming the system, the system adapts so people don’t get taken advantage of.
That’s the hard part for people to get, is that these relationships have to be genuine. You have to truly be interested in helping other people and learning from them to keep this hustle up. You can’t be faking it just to get shares / links and move on to the next one; it comes across as false and all the best influencers can spot it a mile away. The system adapts and spammy techniques stop working. Worse; the proprietors get socially blacklisted.
So whatever you do, don’t just take a big list of social influencers you researched and start cold emailing them. Instead, start thinking of ways to add value; can you share their content? Tweet genuine words of encouragement? Help them with their business in anyway? Can you help someone who isn’t ‘important’ enough to return the favor? You never know who they know or how it’s going to come back to you, so focus on adding value, and in no time, you’ll be an influencer too.
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