The below post is an abridged version of a GrowHack Bootcamp presentation from Michael Taylor. Michael has invested over $25M in paid and is the CPO and Co-Founder of Ladder, a growth agency (they’re hiring, too).

If your company is investing in content, you should certainly consider combining paid with your organic efforts. The below post lays out experiments that have worked for the Ladder team, that you can test for yourself. -Conrad

Michael Taylor: Proven Paid Tests to Hack Your Organic Growth

Organic growth through paid advertising.

Not two things that sound like they should logically fit together, right?

And yet one of the best ways to “hack” your organic growth efforts is to run ad campaigns.

It doesn’t sound like it should make sense, right? But it does if you approach advertising, as a way to quickly and inexpensively validate different approaches to take with your organic marketing.

Here are a few examples of how that might look:

  • Using audience targeting to determine exactly which demographic likes your product.
  • A/B testing value propositions that you can then use as headlines and eye-catching phrases on your homepage.
  • Proving the economics of your business early so that you know if you have the right model, pricing, etc…

With that in mind, let’s get into how exactly you can use ads to hack your organic growth efforts.

But first, an important thing to remember.

In reality, no marketing tactics are free.

All marketing tactics take time. Your time is worth a lot of money. So if you think an organic, budget-free marketing tactic is actually “free,” you’re just ignoring the actual cost of you executing that tactic.

Most marketers don’t factor their own salary into their budget. And it’s fine for the most part – that would be extremely difficult to quantify. But when deciding whether to do paid vs. unpaid tactics, it’s important to remember that there’s really no such thing as free marketing. Your efforts are the budget in that scenario.

So if you can speed up your organic growth by spending less of your own (highly valuable) time with small-budget ad tests, why wouldn’t you?

The point is this: You can learn faster with paid ads, then apply your learnings to organic for longer-term more sustainable growth.

Here’s how to do that:

Our Proven Ad Tests to Hack Your Organic Growth

Note: For this, we’re using a few ads that we ran at a Startup Weekend event for a company we called Heeve, a product that helped advertisers who spent money on product displays to check whether their displays were actually what they paid for and weren’t messy. We spent $50 to show our ads to 35,000 people over the course of a weekend, aiming at shoppers who would get paid to do look at and take pictures of messy product displays for brands.

  • Creative Tests – We started off with a single ad and immediately decided to test creative. So the test was whether people would be more likely to click on an ad that shows a messy product display, or one that shows the company’s logo on a solid color background.

    The result: A clear winner in the messy product display image ad, with a $0.98 CPC compared to a $2.25 CPC for the alternative.creative testing
    Conclusion: Using actual product imagery on a landing page can make a critical difference for getting clicks and audience interest when it comes to finding people to help brands with their product display efforts. The audience we’re going for wants to see what a messy display looks like.
  • Title Tests – We then moved on to the titles: “Make Money While You Shop” and “Get Paid To Go Shopping.” The test was to see what kind of copy incentivizes people to click on the ad. What are they more interested in, making money while shopping or getting paid to shop?

    The result: A closer one, but a winner in the “Get Paid To Go Shopping” copy, with a lower overall CPC.title testing

    Conclusion: We learned that our audience prefers the messaging of getting paid to do something than making money while doing something. This is an important learning that we can then use to create smart landing page copy or use in further ads down the line.
  • Copy Tests – The copy in an ad is important to test as well, and that was our next step. We drilled down to the right image and title. Now our next test was to see how that description copy in the ad changes click rates.

    The result: Again, getting paid to do something seems to be a big draw. That assumption is even more solid now. 
    copy testingConclusion: Getting paid to help out advertisers doesn’t seem to click with the audience. That says a lot about how potential Heeve shoppers can be incentivized to take product display photos.

That’s how far we got with actual live tests, but here’s what else we could have done if we had the time:

  • Price Tests – Testing to see whether getting $5 or $10 for 10 photos makes a difference. This lets us see whether we’re potentially giving up too much money per photo to the shopper. If we find an equal interest level for both versions, then that might mean we can bump our cost down by 50%.price testing
  • Business Model Tests – A dollar per photo? A flat rate $10 for 10 photos? Which works better? It’s hard to test this live, so gauging interest via ads is a smart way to figure out which business model will get more interest, clicks, and conversions. Potentially, there are some people that just want to snap one or two while others want to snap 20 at once and get paid $20 to make it worthwhile. This is how you learn if that’s the model test
  • Partner Validation – Want to see if including a partner or dropping a big name in an ad works? You can use ads to test that. You can either pit two different partners against one another in an A/B test, or pit the original no-partner ad against one with a partner. The results will tell you whether name recognition helps you increase conversions.partner validation
  • Audience Test – You can also test different audiences to see how they’d respond, whether pitting gender against income-levels, home ownership against car ownership, interests, etc… This helps you narrow your audience for future ads and lets you know which audience will be your bread and butter.audience testing

Intermediate Growth Tests

After these simple advertising tests, you can really start getting fancy and going for more difficult tactics. Let’s get into a few of the fun ones!

  • Keyword Tests – Wanna write killer content that people actually read? Wanna then have it rank on high-value search terms? First figure out whether those terms are worth a damn to your company. Running AdWords ads on keywords before you actually write the content helps stop yourself from wasting time on useless keywords. We did that with the Ladder blog and it’s worked brilliantly so far.keyword validation
  • Press Boosting – Want that killer review TechCrunch did of your app to keep bringing you traffic? Run some ads promoting it. Seriously. You’ll lead your audience to a place they trust for reviews and get them back to your site already partly convinced that they should try you ads
  • Publisher Validation – Before you try to target a big publisher to become a contributor or to get them to write about you, first run some small-budget ads to see whether your audience actually reads and is interested in those publishers. Run a few ads on an audience that’s shown interest in those publishers on Facebook to see whether you get conversions.publisher ads
  • Landing Pages – You can use Unbounce or a similar landing page builder to make really simple landing pages specifically for your ads. This is extremely useful for A/B testing different landing page approaches that are connected to the ads you’re running so you can then update your homepage copy. It can also help you test whether matching copy in your ad and landing page makes a real difference in getting more conversions.landing pages

There’s plenty more you can do to get creative with these intermediate tests. Just focus on continuing to validate further down the funnel, using ads to test different assumptions before you actually start putting in the hard work and effort get them done.

Advanced Growth Tests

Beyond the intermediate, you can get into the really fun testing zone with some more advanced tactics. Here are a few interesting ones:

  • Reach Investors via Gatekeepers – A clever way to reach investors you want to get in touch with is to use ads to reach their most active audiences with ads. Those audiences? The CEOs and founders of the companies that they have invested in. Their friends on LinkedIn. You can get really creative about this and serve an extremely targeted audience an ad that can get you in contact with an investor.investor ads
  • Get More Upvotes – If you’re featured in Product Hunt, run some ads about it! This can help you get more upvotes, more attention, and a deeper conversation on the platform. That can then lead to even faster growth off of PH, which tends to have a long tail effect for growth.get more upvotes
  • Website RetargetingRetargeting people who’ve visited your website to bring them back is a great way to get return traffic and either repeat customers or new customers who have learned about you but have yet to convert.retargeting

Some of these are very hacky ways to use ads, obviously, but the overall point is that you can use advertising to grow the organic parts of your business quickly and efficiently.

Ads don’t have to be only promoting your product. They can serve any purpose you want, so long as you follow the rule of the ads platform you’re running them on. So don’t limit yourself with what you’re trying to test. Go beyond copy, creative, etc…

Growth Testing Rules of Thumb

As you’re running actual tests, here are a few important things to remember along the way:

  1. Don’t turn off your test too early – whether you’re running an A/B test or just a single ad, make sure you get at least 30 conversions per variation. This is critical because with 30 conversions you can actually make educated guesses about the results of your test. You aren’t likely to have the budget or traffic to hit statistical significance, so just use this rule of thumb.
  2. Always try A/B testing – even if you think you have the exact right piece of copy, it’s important to test that assumption against an alternative or a control. You never know how a new piece of copy will perform in the long run unless you test it against something else that might work equally well or better simultaneously.ab testing
  3. Double-check – just because something worked in an ad doesn’t mean it’ll work in a landing page. However, it does give you a really quick directional fact check. Think about it as growing confidence, not a definitive answer
  4. Test high up the funnel – make sure you keep your overall test costs lower by testing higher up the funnel. Remember, you’re validating ideas, audiences, and copy. You’re not trying to build a business off these tests. That comes later, and you can optimize further down the funnel funnel

Scaling Up Your Growth Experiments

Eventually you’ll hit a point where your tests give you a good basis to run real ads and get real organic growth moving. After you’ve completed these experiments, when do you think about scaling up? 

Here’s something to think about:

  • You have validated your unit economics – i.e. you know that your business model is on solid ground.unit economics
  • You have tested >10 tactics yourself – i.e. you’ve actually done some of your own marketing and you’re not just outsourcing something you know nothing about. To simplify this process you can try the Ladder Planner, a marketing plan builder powered by 1,000+ proven growth tactics that we built as a way to help marketers run smarter campaigns.ladder planner

Once you get this right, you can start using the learnings from the above ads tests to accelerate your paid and organic growth by hiring talented marketers (Here’s how we hire for marketing) and scaling.

Any questions for Michael?

Let him know in the comments below! If you’re interested in scaling your growth efforts reach out to his team directly.