This blog is part of Brandpoint’s ongoing interview series where we talk with content marketing professionals about their career, thoughts on the industry and key advice they’ve learned along the way.
When Clay Collins founded Minneapolis-based Leadpages in 2013, he was a blogger living with his parents. Now, he’s grown an incredibly successful SaaS company with 46,000 paying customers, and over $25 million a year in revenue.
But just a few months ago, he announced that Leadpages had more room to grow, and that there were a couple of people better equipped to make that happen.
Dustin Robertson is one of those people.
A serial adviser, Dustin Robertson took over as Leadpages’ first CMO in April and has hit the ground running with his tried-and-true advisory process. It’s a familiar kind of role for Robertson, and one he’s very good at.
After Robertson and I expressed our mutual appreciation for Utah’s natural beauty (Robertson’s home state), he gave me a detailed look at data-driven marketing, shared candid and honest opinions about the marketing industry, and described how small wins can mean big gains for a growing business.
Nels: When you joined Leadpages, a company that’s really complex and moving at an incredible pace, where did you start making changes?
Dustin: With the low-hanging fruit. Forty-six thousand customers is a really large customer base for any SaaS company, so that’s where I dove in.
Just like anybody with new eyes, you’re able to look at something that already exists and find stuff that people who look at it every day aren’t able to. It’s not anything magical. That freshness is just a big advantage I have.
So, I started with the user onboarding process to figure out how we get people to engage with the app more and make it down the milestone path so they’re happier. And then we looked at how we acquire customers so that the ones paying for our service are the ones who are going to be the happiest.
One big challenge is that we have a lot of customers that are very aspirational and want to build a business. If Leadpages can’t help them achieve their business goals, often that’s due to circumstances outside our control. But we’re still a part of that tool set. We wanted to reduce the number of customers that pay for the service when they’re not quite ready. We found the biggest opportunity to do that was to improve the communication sequences in the onboarding process and adjust the introductory offer to make sure our users could identify a fit (or misfit) sooner.
Though we’ll acquire customers more slowly at first, we’ll have stickier, more valuable customers and less churn in the long run.
N: You’ve spent much of your career serving companies in an advisory role. What are some of the most common challenges you’ve helped these companies solve?
D: Three things:
- The company’s organizational structure isn’t aligned with what they’re actually trying to accomplish.
- Customer acquisition methodologies aren’t dialed or formulaic so they can scale.
- They don’t have a brand position or a concept they’re trying to own in the customer’s mind. They’re going after something that’s not ownable.
Those three buckets are what we try to hit. And corporate structure is a big one. A lot of companies aren’t organized for what they’re going after. There are either too many people doing too many things or no one is really focused on the one thing really important to the organization.
N: What are the core elements of good content?
I think good content teaches you something; it has a key takeaway that’s obvious and awesome. The idea is that the takeaway is so great that people share it. Sometimes you’ll have this 2,000-word document where you make five great points but they’re jammed into the copy so nobody ever talks about them or highlights them. So it could be a great piece of content but it didn’t get shared. So it failed to communicate that.
N: What are the core elements of a successful marketing automation practice? I know that’s a recent venture for Leadpages with the Drip acquisition. So how does content marketing roll up into that?
D: I think automation is in a pivot point. Before, we’d just put you into a communication workflow and how you interact with the content would dictate what happened to you next. That’s what automation has been.
Now, it’s much more data driven and that’s why we acquired Drip. It has a data platform that ties every event, whether that’s an analytical event or a content event or a website navigation event, to an email record, which can then be triggered to do automation.
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That’s the big pivot. It’s no longer “Did you open this email or did you download this PDF?” Now it’s about “Did you click on this ad on Facebook and then read this blog and then make a comment?”
N: So it’s more about the quality of your database?
D: Right. That data layer is a real thing, and for SMBs, I don’t think they’ve been able to grasp what that is or that they have it.
A data layer is kind of like a user interface for the data flowing back and forth. It makes data much more usable so you don’t have to rely on a data scientist or a BI (business intelligence) engineer to set up a query for it.
There are all these tools cropping up that consume these data layers and that’s why marketing is becoming much more technical. You hear that if you’re not a coder or a mathematician, you can’t be a marketer anymore. Those things are important, but you don’t necessarily need to be a coder to do this type of marketing. You just need to think strategically about the data you have access to and think about how you can use them today in a way you weren’t able to yesterday.
Facebook Audience Match is a very basic version of this. They take the email and find people who look like that and have that campaign hit them. With automation, now you can look in that lookalike audience, find people who have never interacted with you, and give them a different welcome email and a completely different set of materials.
N: Now that we’re talking about marketing tools, do you have a favorite one you like to use?
D: Hmm. One tool. It’s been analytics since the start. As a marketer, the most important tool you’re going to have is your analytics platform. Without that, the rest of your tools will be pretty useless.
N: So what’s next? You’ve got your analytics. What are you plugging those analytics into?
D: You need a communication platform, whether that’s a website through WordPress or an eCommerce platform like Shopify or even just email or Facebook or Twitter. What business you’re in might tell you which is the most appropriate. But no matter what, you’re going to have that vehicle to communicate and engage the customer.
N: Which content marketing tactic is the most overrated?
D: I have a slight issue with the term “content marketing.” Because if you’re pushing content out to a customer, would it ever NOT be marketing? Even if it’s an instruction manual, that’s a chance to engage with the customer. That should have some sort of brand engagement that people will remember.
IKEA’s instruction manual is the best example of no brand. Because they’re made to work with every language in the world, there are no words and only plain stick-figure drawings. As a customer, it reinforces that you hate that process of assembling furniture. They do nothing to enhance the worst part of the IKEA experience, but they could improve it with content. Is that the brand IKEA wants to communicate? What they could do is take a little more time, maybe write a few different versions of the manual and make it fun to remind me why I’m building my own furniture.
My favorite kind of content for marketing that’s been really successful for me has been user-generated content. When you can get an authentic engagement from a customer and it’s about about your brand, those are so much more tactful than any corporate drivel you can put together.
N: I think Seth Godin once said content marketing is the only marketing that’s left, alluding to the fact that everything COULD be content marketing.
D: Yes, but it’s not necessarily new. The old-school marketers, the Mad Men-era marketers, that was all content marketing. That’s all they were doing. The same is true for growth marketing. “Growth” and “marketing” as a term together makes no sense to me. If you’re marketing, would you ever be doing it to not grow?
That’s just what marketing is. If you’re ever making content and not thinking of it as marketing, you should stop. Every time you talk to the customer, it’s marketing.
N: So what are you working on right now?
D: I’m working on my advisory process here at Leadpages. I’m working on organizational structure and brand positioning. We’ve only ever had a self-serve sales model. Customers buy through the shopping cart and if they don’t, we don’t do business with them. So we’re building a sales team and treating those inbound prospects as leads to see if we can convert some of the bigger customers. Those are typically the kind of customers that don’t self-convert.
We’re also building a customer success group for two reasons. One is to make sure we offer the world’s best service. In my previous lives, that’s been a big differentiator. And second is to make sure our onboarding process is educational and that we’re building tools and webinars and resources to help our customers succeed.
N: I read that you worked at Backcountry.com and took it from nothing with no resources and built it into an incredibly successful business. How did you do it?
D: Yeah, we started that at Snowbird as ski bums. We snuck out of the ski-patrol life and into the internet.
That was a little different. That was in 1996 when the website started. By 1997 when I came back from Connecticut to help them, they were working out of a little condo. Then I eventually quit my job in 2000 to work there. At that time, Google didn’t exist. It was just AltaVista and Lycos and things like that. And I say it was different because eCommerce wasn’t a thing then and the internet was super small so we were in this new space.
So what worked there was, we didn’t have any funding so measured marketing was essential. For every dollar we spent, we had to bring in $10. We used this crazy high ROI model. There wasn’t a ton of competition but there also weren’t a lot of customers. So it was a weird dynamic but that was it. And then we just grew it incrementally as the market grew. Every year, the market got bigger and bigger and we were always right there, on the edge. We were constantly looking for new channels that would work.
When Google first came out, it took over. It was where everyone went to search. But it was all organic so you couldn’t buy ads. So we immediately made sure that everything we did would rank well on Google and built out all sorts of strategies around that.
And so because we were so early, whenever something caught fire, we were already on it. We were really riding that wave and our competitors were left trying to catch up. So we went from $1 million in revenue in 2000 to $150 million in 2007. And of course, it’s even bigger now.
But that was the deal: Measured marketing and having a brand that connected with people’s passions. And that was not by accident because it was our passion, too. We just did what we thought was cool and created a platform for our customers to join us.
N: What’s your favorite book?
D: My favorite business book is “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. It’s an amazing book about how to run a business, how to be a manager, how to be a leader, everything. That’s THE book.
My favorite book in general is “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey. He’s written a lot of books, but he wrote “Desert Solitaire” when he was a park ranger at Arches National Park, which is in Moab in southern Utah. If you’ve never been, there’s no place like it on earth.
N: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
D: That you never stop learning. Always be on a quest to learn something. I don’t know who told me that, but it’s something I’ve definitely absorbed over my career.
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