This guide shows you how to think about your acquisition channels so that you can find your target users and/or customers. We’ll walk through the major channels, how to find ones that may be best for your company, and how to get started in the channels that you think would work best for you.
There are three major components of the customer journey that all companies must figure out.
How do people hear about your brand? Where do they learn about you, from whom, and what happens once they are aware of you? Awareness does not mean that the person who heard about you does anything in relation to your brand, but that they simply have a level of awareness now about you that they didn’t have before.
This is the process by which you move from awareness to actually engaging with your audience – for example – by getting visitors to hit your website. An acquisition channel is a specific format or method by which you drive awareness and then acquisition. Facebook is a channel, so is Google, so is Word of Mouth, as is SEO. A channel mapped to a strategy generally means that you’ll move people through the initial stages of your customer journey. Using the SEO example as a channel – you’ll write relevant content that your target personas are searching for, optimize your website to have pages related to those searches, and will get indexed by the search engines so that when people search, they find your property.
A channel is where many of your experiments will start, and we’ll cover the major acquisition channels in this guide, as well as provide you with tips on how to go about finding the right channels for your business.
Activation is driving users to take the intended action you wish them to take. Activation is not passive, it’s active – there is a goal associated with it. It’s not enough to just get visitors to your website – number of visits to your site is a vanity metric unless you are running an advertising business.
You need to engage them to take an action. It might be to download a guide in exchange for their email, or their email in exchange for something of value, or perhaps it’s just to have them view a video or create a free account. There are endless activation tactics – but the goal is that you are able to successfully educate and steer them down the path you intend them to take.
Choosing Acquisition Channels
There are a few things you’ll want to consider when choosing which acquisition channels to work with, namely:
- Your ability to find and target users within the channel
- Potential volume from the channel
- Cost to leverage the channel
- Your ability to win in the channel
Your ability to find and target users within the channel
If you can’t figure out how to find users within the channel, then you are unlikely to succeed – especially early on. You’ll want to consider how easy or hard it will be to find people in the channel who will engage with and move through the buyer or customer funnel. Having channel fit is critical, as any time you spend on the wrong channel means time away from more relevant channels – so choose wisely.
Founder tip ➜ When you are just starting out you should try everything you think might have any chance at being a viable channel. In the beginning, you probably don’t know much to base your decisions on – so test, test, test!
An example of bad channel fit may look like this: A company selling a cyber security product to the government likely won’t have luck in Facebook since Facebook is blocked from within the government firewall. Or a B2C company selling running sneakers will likely have a hard time advertising successfully on LinkedIn.
There are three ways that a customer will typically find you:
- They know they have a need for a solution like yours, and they search for it – this is often called intent based targeting. If a user knows they want to attend a concert in their city this weekend, they’ll likely do a google search for “concerts near [their city]” and get some results, then browse from there.
- They don’t know that they have a need for a solution like yours, and they need you to inject your brand into the places where they hang out online (and maybe offline too). This is often called demographic based marketing, but can also go by names like “awareness marketing,” “content marketing,” and persona driven marketing. Regardless of the label – the key difference is that there likely is lower intent.
- They’ll find you via referral or word of mouth. In this scenario they may have or not have intent, but they were at a minimum influenced by various channels that you may have a strategy around – or not. For example, a strong product in the skincare space that’s in a few local stores may spread via word of mouth in a local area, then jump in scale once distribution channels kick in (i.e. Whole Foods picks it up to put it in their stores).
You are going to want to think about which method will impact you most positively as fast as possible, and use that thinking to guide you as you start your marketing efforts.
→ Exercise for now or later: Learn how to run an acquisition audit for your company here.
Potential volume from the channel
A major consideration in the mid to long term is how much potential volume you can get out of a channel. In the early days of your growth efforts this is less important than just getting started, and covering off on any and all channels you think are relevant. However, as you grow and as you work within each channel, you may find sooner rather than later that you’ll reach diminishing returns on your efforts – and likely you’ll need to spend more and more money to reach a smaller set of potential users.
Here’s a report that the Pew Research Center puts together based on survey results from the past 7 years they’ve been capturing data:
As you can see here, YouTube (owned by Google) and Facebook in the past 2 years are by far the largest places where U.S. adults are hanging out. Notice though that there are some newer trends – Reddit pops up in 2019 with 11% share, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) is newer at 20% in 2019, and Snapchat is up to 24% as well.
What’s more, some of the major channels are getting a lot of daily active users (DAUs) who come back every single day to consume content on the platform. Here’s a graph showing DAUs by channel for the top 5 channels:
Here’s another chart by AHREFs that shows the top 15 websites by traffic as of 2019:
In this list you see some new names. It’s worth mentioning that Wikipedia does not allow advertising, so that isn’t a viable marketing channel (and don’t try to “hack” Wikipedia, you’ll likely get caught and de-indexed).
Notice Amazon in the #5 slot – Amazon is becoming a great channel for some brands to advertise on. There are some other interesting sites lower in the list – for example, the New York Times – whom you can advertise with, but it’ll likely not be in budget for you if you’re just getting started.
It’s pretty clear that when you look at the leaders across these lists, you end up with a few huge companies dominating the channel mix, but there are some outliers (like Reddit) that you can start to look at as well.
How you go about “advertising” in these high volume sites depends on a variety of factors, but you can look at both paid and organic methods as you start to run your analysis. We cover channels in depth below, but first, let’s talk about costs and effort.
Cost to leverage the channel
Sometimes a particular channel – say, Snapchat – might be the perfect fit for a consumer startup with a new product on the market to reach their target audience. However, Snapchat requires a good amount of creative work (i.e. engaging video), and while they lifted their $1k per day minimum spend some time in 2019, the level of effort to get your brand on Snapchat will be higher than other channels, like Google SEM. Part of your job as a growth person is to suss out which channels you can leverage and where you’ll get the highest return on your ad spend, time, or both.
Think about your team and the resources that you have. Do you have a video production person and a designer? If so, you can likely advertise anywhere! If it’s just you, and if you’re like me (Craig) then you may have a hard time advertising anywhere where visual assets are needed. I’m terrible at design, so when first starting out with new concepts I’ll test them in Google SEM so that I only have to write simple content and calls to action. Google SEM ads have no images, so it’s a quick and easy channel to start in, though it costs money.
If you are very budget constrained but you’re decent at writing, then Organic SEO may be a good route for you. If you hold yourself to writing a few blog posts or articles per week, and you’re good at distributing that content, then you can probably get some traction from this “free” work.
It’s worth mentioning though that you’ll likely need a balance. The “free” work (i.e. SEO) will take you time to produce, and it’ll take time to rank in the search engines. The paid work (i.e. SEM) will not take you long to produce and launch (you can go from zero to 1 in an hour!) but it’ll always cost you money.
Find your balance – we’ll walk through an exercise below that will help guide you, but for now, let’ look at one more thing before we dive into channels…your ability to win a channel.
Your ability to win in the channel
The most important aspect of growth is getting out there and doing the work it takes to grow your company. In the early days and likely well into extended growth, it’ll be fairly easy for you to pick channels to work in that will drive positive results. However, if you are in a crowded market, or are an enterprise business with a high cost product, or if you have other constraints (team, budget/fundraising) then you’ll want to start thinking about channels that you can win in over an extended timeline early on. Let’s say you are running a mid-market enterprise company that does transactional revenue and is a niche product doing $200k in revenue per year. It’s unlikely you can win using paid LinkedIn ads since they are generally very expensive. If your product costs $2000 but you have to spend $500 on LinkedIn ads to get a lead, and you convert 20% of leads, it’ll cost you $2500 to get that $2000 in business. That doesn’t scale
However, if you are at a run rate of over $1 in ARR then you can probably afford to market heavily on LinkedIn. If you sell a $10k product and spend $500 per lead, and you close 10% of your leads into deals, you’ll make $5000 per $10k spent. That’s not terrible, and it’s likely you can get better at your advertising, optimize, and drop that cost to profit ratio.
Think about your opportunities to win in each channel. If it looks like it’ll be hard to win a channel, it’s probably still worth testing the channel, but have realistic expectations for measuring success.