2015 was a really fun year for us. We started out struggling in a big way, but we’ve emerged in 2016 much stronger than we started. As we embark on digging into what’s working, what’s not, and the experiments we want to try this year, it only makes sense to provide a bit of background and context on what’s happened with our program over the past year.
When I got here at the end of 2014, there was a lot broken on the Ceros Marketing team… because there wasn’t a Ceros Marketing team. The website was custom coded (no CMS); we had no creative resources for content; our Hubspot – Salesforce integration was a mess; we were search engine optimized for a SME audience (while selling into the mid-market and enterprise); and we desperately needed real leads (the kind that turn into deals).
It was hard to know where to begin. Nothing was working and everything needed help—tons of fun! In the first half of 2015, we focused on fixing the major issues and building a foundation. For starters, we built a real marketing team over the first few months of 2015. We hired Keegan Vance Forte to lead Partnerships and Events at the end of 2014. By April, we’d hired Brad Hess to drive lead generation efforts and digital strategy, and Ashley Taylor Anderson to lead our Content, Social, and PR efforts. It’s important to know these team members, because you’re going to be hearing more from them later on these topics.
So what was the strategy? We basically needed to fix every stage in the funnel. We had a decent amount of web traffic for a startup (roughly 10K monthly visitors), and we were receiving around 80 demo requests a month. Since many of those requests were tire kickers and down-market interest (e.g. I’m a student and I want to make a digital presentation for class), they only netted us a handful of qualified leads at the time. So we were a bit stuck. We needed to greatly increase the number of leads we were capturing while simultaneously building an engine that would do it for us so that we could scale lead volume with the business.
In future articles, we’ll share detailed lessons on what we’ve learned around those operational issues I mentioned—building a creative team, fixing our tech stack, and building a site that works for us. But I thought the best place to start would be with our favorite tactics of 2015. Some of these are hacks and some of them are just good marketing, but one thing’s true about all of them: none of them worked at first. Here’s what we learned about 5 key channels that took off for us in 2015.
Pub Night at the Ceros office
Events were a great channel for us at the beginning of 2015. The marketing world pundits regularly discount events as an ineffective—or at least inefficient—channel, but I don’t buy it. If you hustle and put the organizational focus behind events, they can be a great short-term strategy for generating qualified leads, especially when your digital approach needs to be completely overhauled.
But it’s hard to make an event work for you. With most events, you pay to sponsor, show up in a sea of other sponsors, and have to hustle to find the actual prospects in the room. If you work it, you can find some, but we’ve gone beyond that to try and make events really effective for us (after lots of trial and error).
We’ve found that turning an event into a meaningful multi-touch experience is the best way to generate real leads from it. We have a coordinated effort to ensure this happens. When sponsoring an event, we reach out to companies that are going to be there in advance. Sometimes, we’re provided the list as part of our sponsorship; other times, we just have research companies attending and reach out. We try and do this in a personal way: “Hey, saw you might be at the event, any chance we can connect there?”. This outreach creates the opportunity for a meeting, but more importantly, it’s a first touch. While at the event, we make a concerted effort to meet and greet as many people as possible. We set business card targets for everyone attending to ensure we connect with enough people. If possible, we work with the sponsor to put content created on Ceros on a device where the traffic is high—like the bar.
The coup de grace that’s made a huge difference for us is creating content for the event. Whenever possible, we partner with the event organizer to create a cool piece of content that the organizer distributes to all registrants after the event. We love this because:
- It’s all content, no sales.
- It shows us and our platform’s capabilities in our best light.
- It’s distributed by the organizer, so it gets great engagement on the back of the event.
When we finally do our post-event outreach, people have seen us in a number of different contexts, and most recently in conjunction with a great piece of content. They’re much more responsive than they would be if we’d just sent them your typical “we were at the event, so were you, talk to us please!” email.
Partnership piece created with Contently
The partnerships piece was a big part of our vision for driving brand awareness. We figured if we could get people with established audiences to use our platform with some Ceros branding on it, the awareness of our company would skyrocket. It took a bunch of false starts for us to figure it out, but it’s starting to have a big impact on the business.
At first, we assumed that we could simply call big content creators—think the Hubspots and Content Marketing Institutes of the world—and offer our software and some training for free. Then they would start creating tons of content with our software, and everyone would see how valuable we were. But we were totally wrong. As it turns out, lining up project partners is just about as hard as an actual sales process.
Once we realized this, we started offering up our design and production services. We asked potential partners to give us a cool piece of content that we could turn into something interactive and amazing. This kind of worked, but was difficult to scale. We ended up doing large eBook and microsite projects that took a lot of coordination with the partner and a lot of production time on our end.
What ultimately worked for us was offering to do all the work and scaling down the size the project. Instead of requiring that partners provide the ideas, we offered to manage the content creation process from ideation to published interactive content. And instead of pursuing large-scale eBooks and microsites, we focused on building single-page experiences—perfect for embedding on a blog or sending as an event follow-up piece. This enabled us to create many more pieces with a similar number of resources allocated.
This approach has worked great for us. We put our name on our work, because we’re proud of it. And people all over the internet learning about content marketing from brands like NewsCred, Contently, Skyword, Visage, TapInfluence, and more are stumbling on our content and clicking through to learn more. It’s been an amazing source of qualified referral traffic, resulting in a ton of sales qualified leads. It’s funny how adding value, telling stories, and getting people to see those stories results in a better lead funnel….
Third party coverage in an article on Forbes
Most of our referrals have come from the partnership program I just spoke of. But in addition to that, putting a solid amount of effort into PR and guest blogging has resulted in further ubiquity. The combined effort of this and our content partnerships, has caused us to get picked up on a bunch of other site in recent months, particularly in January. We’ve been featured in articles about cool new tools on the market, companies to watch, listicles, etc. This coverage is effectively free press as a result of our investment in paid PR, guest blogging, and partner projects. This has a huge multiplier effect on the key metrics we look at such as traffic, leads, demo requests, etc. We always knew this would happen—we just weren’t sure how quickly. It looks like it took about 8 months to start, but we have no intent of slowing down. Our main goal is to make sure people keep running into us again and again so they have multiple touches with our brand over time.
One our our paid social ads on Facebook, pointing to a gated interactive eBook
We ran a number of experiments promoting content via social channels to help drive engagement. We took two approaches via social channels. The first was to simply promote posts to get engagement with our content. The second was to promote premium content gated behind landing pages in order to build our list of qualified prospects. While this was an expensive approach, it taught us a number of important things.
As a paid acquisition channel, we really liked it. People respond much better to ads offering valuable content via social channels than they do to banner ads or other relatively meaningless sales messages. While social channels aren’t perfect, they enable a great deal of targeting, either on a demographic/firmagraphic data on platforms like LinkedIn, or by behavioral targeting on channels like Twitter. We were able to generate more than 5000 new names in Q4 of 2015, and more than 1000 engaged enough for us to call them MQLs based on lead scoring.
However, we did find that around 50% were great fits (right title, right company), while the other half were not. So there’s room for us to improve on the targeting front. Additionally, we found that it took a significant amount of time for these new contacts to be willing to engage in a sales conversation. We saw an initial MQL to SQL conversion of around 5% (our average for other channels is 10-15%). However, we’ve seen a significant long tail on spend, with many paid leads created in September turning into qualified opportunities in January. We’ll continue to experiment with these channels to get them where we need them, but they’ve been a huge help in augmenting our database and building a qualified audience.
A frame from our first interactive eBook of 2015, 5 Ways to Increase Brand Engagement
As an emerging marketing team, if we were going to be really good at what we did, we needed to make Ceros a central part of our strategy. Since we’re selling interactive content to the market, we had to figure out the right way to do it ourselves and tell that story to customers and prospects.
Our first challenge was learning how to create interactive content. It was a big leap from handing over a big chunk of copy for a designer to turn into a PDF. We re-architected the process to be much more iterative—writers and designers work together step-by-step to ensure the visuals and the words work seamlessly together. This was a big win for us and led to great improvements in the quality of our content. From there, we played around with using interactive content wherever we could in everything from blog posts to increase shareability to eBooks, which drove an average of 6 minutes of engagement for us last year.
The content we build in Ceros has really formed a lynchpin of our strategy. It marries art and science perfectly. From an artistic angle, our content really stands out. People are impressed by what’s possible, and we inspire our audience to think of new ways to tell their stories. From a science angle, using digital content rather than PDFs for our mid-to-late funnel activities has opened up a whole new world from a data geek perspective. We now have better lead scoring, timed CTAs, retargeting, and MAP tracking. Additionally, for qualified leads, interactive content has help our inside sales team massively because they have visibility into when qualified leads are engaging with content they’ve shared.
The improved quality of content and scientific enablement of it by using a digital medium has opened up a lot of strategic doors that none of us has had the opportunity to explore in previous roles. It’s also opened up a lot of ideas around things we want to try this year that no one else has done before.
There’s a lot more that we learned last year, but these are the 5 major channel optimizations we were able to implement. In another article, we’ll dig deeper into our lead flow and the various bottlenecks that emerged over the course of the year that we were able to solve. The overall effect, through lots of testing and failure, has resulted in some key strategic pillars that are now producing great results without a ton of effort. We can now put more resources into these areas and expect predictable results. We’ve also learned enough to build out some interesting experiments for the coming year.
We’d love to hear your thoughts or questions about any of the areas covered in this article. Leave us a comment below, or send an email to the team at marketing at ceros dot com. Yes, we all check that address, and we will actually respond.