A strange professional pastime of mine these days has been swapping notes on marketing and growth tools.
I’m a nerd, I know. But if you’re focused on developing a repeatable way to grow, you aren’t just thinking about individual tools, you’re thinking about how these tool fits into an agreeable combination or “stack.”
To create more discussion around marketing stacks, in this post I’ll go into detail on the set of tools I’ve used to help SaaS companies hit consistent 20% monthly revenue goals, without paid or sales.
I’ll also open a conversation on a new study to encourage more peer-to-peer learning.
How Tools Fit Into a Repeatable Growth Process
A strong growth process involves setting a goal BEFORE considering a set of tools. A tool or stack is most useful if it’s focused on moving a high-priority metric which is unique and changes over time.
While there are riskier and shorter term strategies to drive growth, generally our goal is to find a repeatable process we can optimize and automate:
A great stack can help us cost effectively and quickly test until we have a process in place with an acquisition channel. Earlier in the process, it can also be helpful to break down fellow peer stacks as a source of ideas to test.
Seeing a credible peer stack offers social proof about a repeatable growth process that may work for your business.
However, if you were only to approach looking at tools as a source of growth intelligence you’d run into unruly lists, that aren’t relevant for you business. This stuff is constantly changing too. Here’s how the marketing technology space this looks like in the past few years:
Cool, right? More like WTF.
The 2016 marketing tech landscape is even more unruly with a total of 3,874 tools. All of which ask you to try them out.
Open peer-to-peer stack sharing is the better way for us all to save time and work better.
In this post you’ll get two things…
#1 – In an effort to encourage MORE sharing, I’ll go into depth on a growth stack I’ve used to help SaaS companies between $0 and $5M ARR companies hit consistent 20%+ MoM revenue goals, with minimal paid spend and no sales:
I’ll go into a brief overview on the logic on why we chose a particular tool. In most cases I’ll use Teachable, a company I recently Co-Founded as the primary example.
Keep in mind, I’m not saying my stack is better than yours (although I think it’s pretty awesome). That wouldn’t make sense, given as we’ve discussed your goals are probably different. However, feel free to take inspiration, even if you’re in a different stage or more driven by sales or paid.
#2 – This new editable Growth & Marketing Stack Study (Google Spreadsheet)
In this sheet, I’ll start to include growth stacks from other leading practitioners working with different stage products and business models. It’s inspired by a recent spreadsheet put together by Nathan Latka who published on a large number of SaaS company LTV, CAC and MRR benchmarks you can check out here.
I’d love YOUR help in getting access to more stack information. If you know someone who’s put a lot of thought into their growth machine, let me know.
For the sheet, I only want tools currently in use. In many cases there are strong second place products, but I believe it’s most helpful to look at what product is actually chosen.
I’ll also be asking questions about which type of business model a stack applies to including company stage, acquisition channels and growth team size to make it as relevant as possible.
While me and teams I’ve helped run have probably used 100+ marketing tool products at any given time, my main qualifier to include a product on this list is: Would I be disappointed if I could no longer use the product almost every day?
Do you have a tool that fits this criteria? Reach out or drop it in the comments below.
Background on my Marketing-Driven SaaS Stack..
I hope to share with you the tools I spent hundreds of hours evaluating, testing and using to build marketing-driven SaaS machines.
What’s a marketing-driven SaaS stack, you ask?
Rather than focusing on using sales to grow MRR, a marketing-driven model focuses entirely on product and marketing to do the heavy lifting to drive revenue.
Tomasz Tungz talks a little about the expanded role of marketing in SaaS here. He compares “high-velocity” marketing to a “traditional” approach.
This type of growth model and stack uses whatever tactics possible to get buyers ALL the way through evaluation AND buy stage. It doesn’t stop at just the evaluation stage mentioned by Tomasz’s high velocity definition, so it’s a little more extreme. Through this post, we’ll discuss how this can be done affordably without much use of paid acquisition.
Guidelines on Using Marketing Stack Information
If you’re just starting out, do not feel you need to immediately use this process or set of tools. That’d just be overwhelming and not useful.
To avoid “shiny tool syndrome,” I’d suggest first putting growth ideas and tools you discover in your own backlog. From there, you can go through the growth process I referenced above and test what makes sense for YOUR business.
If you know you’re weak on measurement, pull an idea from the Analytics section. If you know you need to focus on Acquisition, go to Acquisition tools.
Here’s how I thought about deciding on these these products:
– The tools I included align with a marketing-driven SaaS growth model. Meaning, if your company is sales-driven, you’ll probably use a different set of tools. Heck, we stuck to excel as our CRM when we needed one.
– The below stack fits very well with Search, Partnerships and WOM as primary channels with a growth team size of between 2 and 7 people.
– There’s often a free version or trial of each tool you can test. I chose these tools with a strong attention to cost and value. Many times I’d evaluate these products each month to keep costs low.
– I’ve organized these tools into their respective goals of Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Revenue and Referral. In some case, certain tools hit multiple goals, so that’s been clarified.
– I know many times in selecting these tools, I’ve had to just be decisive under limited information, which is another reason why I hope this post will help inspire more sharing.
While writing this post I went out and created affiliate accounts for two products: Drip and Teachable. I currently pay for both products and am a believer in where they’re going (I’m the Co-Founder of Teachable). If you want to jump on the free trial for either product, I’d highly appreciate use one of the links I provide.
These tools focus on researching, finding and executing on user growth goals.
||Keyword difficulty feature.
|Google Keyword Tool
||Freemium keyword research tool.
||Scraping without code.
||Customer and competitor research.
||Free email outreach open and click through tracking.
||Independent publisher theme or customize.
||Visual Composer, Disqus, Drip, Segment, GA, Attention Grabber.
||Automated outreach tool and nurturing.
||Email research and verification.
||Social media monitoring and batch publishing.
||Freemium image editing.
|| Customer education and online courses (affiliate link)
What’s unique to Teachable is each of these approaches helped us stimulate a weak referral loop. Although each Teachable site is white-label, users teaching and publishing content with our product would drive traffic to their Teachable websites which many times included a “powered by Teachable” link in the footer. Over time this has lead to slowly compounding backlinks and referral traffic for each new customer.
That said, ANY SaaS can create its own referral loop by creating content that’s helpful to their customers and influencers.
Working with your topic’s influencers creates its own referral loop that will also compound if executed properly.
I’m a fan of stacking these approaches together. The approach worked with us beginning by researching a list of influencers. Rather than selling at initial contact, we’d focus on tailored each email we’d then send to an influencer in a way that immediately added value with our content, courses and events. We’d then write pillar pieces of content featuring them, optimize each for search and repurpose the best content in a variety of channels. Working with influencers generated immediate results for us, while over time helped kick start a process for creating great content, growing an email list and getting picked up by Google.
Here are the tools we used to make this acquisition process much more efficient:
Step 1: Research high-priority users and influencers
This part of the process is critical to make sure you’re target the right users from the start. A tool like BuiltWith is a great way to find an initial list based on a hypothesis you have.
Just the freemium version of BuiltWith allows you to create a specific list of quality sites to reach out to with a CSV download of 50 leads that includes things like Twitter handles, emails and estimated size of their current marketing spend.
If I wanted to run a quick test on a segment of users, I can reach out the 50 free contacts provided. Then, if we had a match, I could go pay for the service.
Another quick way to build a list of target users is Import, which allows you to scrape otherwise unstructured lists, including paginated pages without having to build your own scraper. Import is also freemium.
If you’re really trying to keep costs low and scale your effort, you could use something like PublicWWW which allows you to search by using code.
To work PublicWWW, let’s say I believe my next best customer or user is an InfusionSoft user. I could pull information by inspecting the code from the site of an InfusionSoft user like so:
Searching for the above highlighted text just gave me a free list of 34,589 InfusionSoft users I could download to a CSV.
While there’s still some data integrity issues with this list, you can find ways to prioritize this information and find contact information at no cost besides your time.
Over time, as our brand and the number of influencers we had access to grew, it became easier to find new folks to work with. Firstly, we got referrals from the influencers you’ve worked with. Second, it becomes much easier to pitch new influencers after a core audience is built.
For Teachable, this started to get powerful once we reached around 10,000 subscribers. These days, it’s grown much beyond this.
To take your content playbook to next level you should understand how to make search work for you.
There is a lot of content elsewhere on how to be great at search, but if you’re optimizing for this you’ll want to know:
- Keywords and topics you’re customer hypothesis is searching for.
- The traffic and competitiveness of each keyword and topical group so you can identify the best opportunities. You’re looking for low competitive and high relevance and search volume.
- Make sure your site is optimized to get picked up by a SERP.
- You are open to investing into getting relevant backlinks from priority websites and domains.
If you don’t do the above, you’re flying blind with your content strategy. Don’t worry, 90% of other people are too. This presents an opportunity for people like me, so no big deal :).
I’d recommend signing up for a free trial of Moz which can give you access to all the tools you’ll need to start. Moz itself is comprehensive tool, but a useful report I found myself constantly referring to was this SERP difficulty report:
This report would help me find out why someone might be ranking in the top 10 search results for a topical area, and help create a list of people to reach out to for further backlinks based on domain and page authority. This is yet another way to find influencers to be added to your outreach list.
Step 2: Outreach
Once you’ve prioritized an outreach list we would reach out without selling. Ideally this happened over email, although other touch points are also helpful.
I’m currently experimenting with tools like FullContact and Clearbit who both offer APIs that will provide email and a variety of other information about contacts. That said, you can do this completely free on your own. The Rapportive trick works well for me, but there are other tools you can research as well.
When you’re actually reaching out, HubSpot Sales (previously known as SideKick) is a free Chrome plugin alternative to a Tout, PersistIQ and YesWare to give you open and click through rates on outbound email to show you how your outreach is going.
How these tools work is by embedding a 1×1 pixel blank image into the email you send. That info gets routed to the tool, and then you get a list of useful notifications like this:
HubSpot Sales has worked well for me as a free alternative that doesn’t slow down my inbox. This can be helpful to know if what you’re sending is actually reaching someone. If your contact doesn’t open, you can consider trying a second email with a different subject line for example.
When you’re reaching out, a good heuristic is to reach out at least 7 or even more times when you know you have something of value to share with your target audience. Generally, as seen on the right, outbound touch points are cumulative.
For these campaigns, Outreach allows you to look at email open rate and click through data for different batches of outreach as well as follow ups. This will cost you a bit more than the free options above, but it’s an upgraded approach from just using HubSpot Sales.
Step 3: Content creation
For hosting, we used HubSpot which has a solid CMS and blogging setup. That said, I generally recommend companies go for a customizable WordPress theme. I currently use this for GrowHack which I’m running at minimal cost.
The main WordPress plugins I’m using and you can research are:
- Visual Composer
- Disqus (when you use Diqus with WordPress your blog comments will be Google readable)
- Drip (related to my Stack)
- W3 Total Cache
- Segment (related to my Stack)
- Google Analytics
- Attention Grabber
We used Teachable courses to acquire, activate and monetize which I’ve talked a little about, however I’ll save more details for a future post.
Skitch is a great tool to quickly create visuals.
You can hit “CMD + Shift + 5” to take screenshot you can organize and edit. Really easy to take quick screenshots and it’s free to use.
For this post, I used Skitch to take quick screenshots that I’d quickly drag-and-drop into WordPress. Skitch also helps with adding comments, and arrows and whatever you like to an image and saves quite a bit of time if you’re developing new content.
Step 4: Repurpose Content
Think about it: most content you create simply isn’t seen by your target audience. Even a healthy 50% open rate is seen by only half of your audience. To take advantage of this and help drive traffic to our pillar content, our final step would be to repurpose.
The social platforms our users hung included places like Quora, SlideShare, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Google +. For social posts, we stuck with HootSuite to help us batch this type of work.
We weren’t interested in using paid to stimulate this process early on, but to really get this approach working, you can invest in some paid advertising within these channels to give content that’s driving traffic and subscriptions a boost.
These tools focus on helping take or circulate people through our blog, online events, courses or sign up process.
||Landing page tool builder with the right integrations, best design and templates.
||Quick basic email opt in pages and email.
||Product launch landing page builder.
||Used until we built our own webinar solution.
||Pop up plugin and homepage takeovers.
||Facebook and Google ad retargeting.
||User onboarding and experience recordings.
Each of these pieces of content helped us learn about users and be another touch point to build trust and get them successful.
At Teachable, we didn’t didn’t start by creating our own pages and used LeadPages for quick and dirty opt in forms.
I’m a big fan of Unbounce for landing page creation, which is a great way to crank out a lot of tailored pages. This is especially helpful if you want to move fast with a well designed template or if you’re getting into testing paid acquisition.
In Unbounce, you can set properties within your landing pages for example to adjust your landing page headline based on the advertising source. Instapage is another option that’s worked well for me (and my wife Juliana Crispo in this article she posted on SalesHacker.
That said, I personally like a few design adjustments and templates included with Unbounce to help me make each page look unique. It’s a minor difference, and I realize I’m biased towards good design.
For a few SaaS companies I’m coaching who are in the early product development stage, I’m recommending KickOff Labs if you’re trying to grow a beta waiting list.
A big part of our activation and revenue process at Teachable was using webinars. Online events were such an essential element we eventually built our own solution on top of Google Hangouts to run webinars.
Before this, GoToWebinar was sufficient to create the elements we needed for a live event which were discussion, video, chat and analytics. Connecting our email provider HubSpot to their API allowed us to segment attended users into different email follow up sequences.
Keyword is GoToWebinar was “sufficient” but not great which is why we ended up building our own as we optimized our growth process.
We used SumoMe for a variety of tests to improve our conversion rates throughout the site. SumoMe is great for quick tests, as well as experimenting with a variety of different lead generation techniques such as this homepage takeover experiment we ran or doing some quick heatmaps on our main lead generation pages.
Perfect Audience was a great way to help reengage users. If you’re getting into paid, starting to invest first in retargeting is almost a sure win to reengage users who might not have seen your recent promotion or casually move users along your funnel.
Full Story was great for optimize first-time user experiences. You get a detailed review of each user session. If it’s this creepy, it’s usually pretty good.
These tools focus on the goal of either retaining users or doing customer development to figure out ways to keep them coming back. Technically, a few of these tools were useful to activate users, but I’m going to talk about them in terms of retention.
||Lacks nurture and workflow features, but great to start with.
||Initially used Intercom which is a great tool, but I’m currently recommending Drift for customer development and in app messaging.
||I’ve probably used every email tool out there. By far, Drip is my favorite. It’s actually intuitive to use while having all the advanced features I need: email broadcasts, nurture, segmentation, lead scoring (affiliate link).
||We initially used Frontapp.com, but moved to Freshdesk for CMS and more advanced features.
||Freemium survey tool.
We initially started with MailChimp, which is a great starting solution before moving to HubSpot, which is an alright solution.
Recently, I found out and started using Drip for all my automated email on GrowHack after some recent feature updates.
I don’t want to spend too much time talking about Drip given it warrants its own post, but out of the half dozen email providers I’ve used (that includes MailChimp, HubSpot, Ontraport, Aweber, InfusionSoft, Active Campaign) I’m a big fan.
Here are just a few of the key features that got me into Drip (affiliate link):
– Workflows: This is the new feature that turned me Drip happy. Workflows allows you to create automated campaigns focused on tags and events you set up.
What this means is I’m able to segment users closely and get better at sending meaningful emails to the right people, whether they were in onboarding, a webinar, course or churning.
It’s also great that I can see all this easily and share it with my team:
– Pricing: Rather than charging you a large set up couple grand set up fee (cough, HubSpot cough, InfusionSoft) there is simply no set up fee. The pricing is also focused on a consumer rather than B2B audience, so you’ll save hundreds of dollars a month for what I believe are even better features.
– Integrations: Drip not only collects website information that will allows you to do trigger email campaigns and behavioral lead scoring, but it also easily integrates with Stripe or Zapier (which I’ll go into later) to allow you to pull in customer data directly to your email campaigns. This makes it very easy for you to email certain types of customers without TOO much set up work.
– Better UI/UX: This is a last point that’s important to me personally. I spend a LOT of time in my email automation, so using Drip just makes my work life happier and more efficient.
As you can tell, email is pretty important to me. I’ll try to go into this for a future post, but moving on for now…
For customer development an inapp messaging we used Intercom which along with customer development let us monitor DAU (daily active users) and MAU (monthly active users) which was one of our first engagement metrics we closely monitored in the early days.
Later, Intercom became too expensive, and we went for a more fully functioned marketing automation tool with HubSpot.
These days, I’m recommending folks who want initial in app messaging, live chat and customer development try Drift. They’re freemium and have a lot of the same features and a great UX.
SurveyMonkey is something you can use across the funnel. It’ll give you better response rates and analytics than a Google Form or something like TypeForm. In each of my experiments with it, TypeForm has given me significantly lower conversion rates so I’d watch out for this even if you like their design.
For reactive customer support, we starting using Front which allowed everyone on the team to see customer feedback and requests.
Later, we went on to use Freshdesk for our support CMS and system. Better team management and analytics made sense for us to switch, although Front is a great solution to start with sharing your inbox with a small team.
These tools focus on helping us optimize, perhaps the highest leverage point in a SaaS funnel: revenue.
What’s great about handling payments with Stripe is you’re able to plug into other tools like your email automation and Baremetrics.
With BareMetrics, which we found to be more accurate than another great product, ProfitWell for our business model, we were able to keep a close daily eye on MRR and churn. You’ll never get 100% accurate numbers with either tool, so no strong opinion here.
One important analysis was MRR by payment plan, which helped us identify opportunities if we noticed for example we thought our higher tier payment plans were lagging our lower tier plans. I also kept coming back to looking at any users who churned to figure out if we could have done something better.
We used Churnbuster for messaging, however based on looking at Drip’s documentation it appears you can integrate with Drip to do the same.
These tools help optimize customer, influencer referrals and word of mouth.
At Teachable, we starting focusing referrals only AFTER a fully working funnel was built. This made sure we had a conversion process that drove revenue and would more likely help make partners happy.
Tapfiliate recently helped us launch an affiliate program that’s currently being tested. And look at that, I just got approved for my own affiliate program here:
Ambassador is another referral product I’ve seen folks use, although I hear its focus is more on more consumer focused referral programs.
These are tools focused on measuring and analyzing your funnel as well as segmenting users.
||Free analytics tool to help set up your website funnel and message users.
||Analytics data storage and cleaner tool integrations.
||Free analytics tool you should just set up.
A lot of analytics can be handling in your email provider or customer built. That said, we started and still continue to use MixPanel to handle funnels. It was quick to set up and cheap.
The main report I default to almost daily is MixPanel. Here’s an example of how a very basic funnel looks like for an online course:
You want this to be easy to digest and accurate given you’ll be looking at it often.
What you can then go quickly underneath this funnel is to get a sense of attribution which you can do by UTM code or referring domain. In the below case, I can see that quite a bit of traffic from The Next Web converted for this post:
KISSmetrics is another option I’m using with some folks I’m coaching and is just as great, although not freemium. For larger implementations, I’ve also used Amplitude, which has better features and UX than MixPanel at significantly lower cost.
Google Analytics helped with some basic tracking on the blog. Once we got it to work that is. Turns out with our first implementation we were tracking 1/3 of actual page views, which made the blog building process not as inspiring until we figured it out.
When evaluating your analytics set up, strongly consider using a product like Segment to be the first place you send event data. Once information is sent to Segment, you can route it to MixPanel and use their webhooks to send to keep a store of data.
This allows you to avoid vendor lock in and easily switch between analytics vendors without having to reimplement. It also sets you up to plug into a tool like RedShift to answer more difficult questions.
These tools focused on growth ops, whether it’s connecting different tools in the stack or team productivity.
We use Slack as much as possible. It’s great for handling internal team management or collaborations with consultants, users or outside influencers by inviting them to specific Slack channels. Although we tried Trello, we ended up using Asana for larger projects.
Meldium was really useful for team password management, which is a major pain to deal with. With Meldium, we could bring on new members of the team or revoke account access to groups of tools. A Meldium link in my browser made it simple to easily switch between the long list of apps used through the growth and technical team.
For any legal or contracts we used HelloSign and eShares, which are incredible for what they do.
We considered multiple options, but started with Indinero to manage our initial accounting and bookkeeping. ZenPayroll, which is now Gusto, saved us an incredible amount of time managing initial payroll and taxes. We used both options, until we brought someone to focus on finance full time.
AngelList was by far the most useful product for startup hiring (we also used it to handle our initial fund raise). We ended up hiring most of our initial team directly or indirectly through AngelList. It was completely free.
Now onto YOU
Is there a growth tool you’d feel you’d be disappointed if it didn’t exist? Or maybe a terrible one you feel forced to use today?
Let me know in the comments below and include any details about your company stage and business model.