I have been meaning to write this post for a long time. As I am heavily involved with early stage companies on a daily basis, I feel like I just had to sit down and get this out there today.
A couple of years ago, a well-respected CEO came to me and wanted to hire my company for “online marketing”. They were launching their product; he had a very successful exit at his previous company but one of his takeaways had been that they had really screwed up their opportunities and execution on the online front. So, in comes my company…
This person wanted to get going in a BIG way with online marketing for a launch-phase product in a relatively new market. I explained that we needed to test out not only channels but keywords and source types (display, 3rd party media buys, SEM, etc.) – i.e. there were a lot of variables. That these things “take time”, but once we figured out where we had some traction, we could go much deeper into those channels. He said he understood “a/b testing”; he understood “gathering data”; he understood “optimization”; he understood “fail fast”.
Or did he?
I wisely (or so I thought) structured the engagement as a short-term one that focused on gaining the learnings to devise a larger strategy, to be scoped out separately. Hey, I was trying to make it clear that we had to gather the data to then go execute the online marketing…right?
WRONG. After 8 weeks (the length of the initial engagement), we had learned little, and this person was on to phrases like “I want to know exactly where to fine tune which keywords attract and convert customers” . Combine that with some basic issues like bad tracking on their end, landing pages that didn’t work, lack of any explanatory content, and we had nothing worth spending TENS of thousands of dollars per month on (which is what he was ready to do).
Fast forward a few months, and needless to say, it wasn’t a successful relationship and I wasn’t surprised when they let us go.
So what did I learn? I should have said, pointedly, over and over again in the beginning: “NO, you can’t optimize online marketing as you launch your product”. I should have been more focused on teaching how this process works than on getting going on the engagement (and let’s face it, securing the client).
My give-back to the universe to show that I learned my lesson is to explain why this mindset of optimization at the launch of a company is a bad one (except in some very rare cases where you have hockey-stick growth on Day 5).
The initial launch period is all about gathering data about your online marketing. What the heck should you even be tracking? Are you even tracking it properly? How should you be looking at the data? If, in the course of your “all hands on deck” approach to getting the word out about your product, you hit upon some successes, GREAT. But the more likely scenario is that you’re getting bits here and there and have no idea where to spend your optimization energies.
That’s why the initial launch period is about making sure you have a strong base of data to then come up with an optimization strategy. What makes a strong base?
- Tracking things properly. If you aren’t UTM-tagging the sh*t out of links to your site, spend your energies there. Here are some best practices for UTM tagging.
- Capturing data somewhere else besides Google Analytics. Take that UTM data and put it in your database.
- Getting your Google Analytics right. If you think you have a free tool that is going to be your crystal ball, I’m here to tell you that ball is DIRTY. Spend some money to fix it. I have never met a GA implementation (and boy have I seen hundreds) that was done in a way that provided accurate data for all the key lifecycle points.
- Trying a bunch of different things. Try some social posting, some social advertising, some display and/or retargeting, some SEM, some email, some SEO, etc. See what sticks.
I’m not saying there should be no errors – there are always errors. But get your data into a leverage-able state.
Then you can look at all of that and come up with priorities for optimization and tactical recommendations. But if you jump to keyword-level refinement based on 2 weeks of crap data, you’re hosed. I know A/B testing sounds sexy, and optimization is so touted as the yellow brick road to the Oz of perfected online marketing, that it’s tempting to a) reduce the complexity involved in optimization, and b) want to begin optimizing before you have something to actually optimize!
How long are you in “launch phase”? That’s tricky. I only know it when I see it – sorry. If you’re e-commerce, then I’d suggest that you need to get a nice number of visitors and transactions under your belt to make your data statistically significant, or at least statistically “interesting”. That doesn’t mean you can’t optimize until you do, but rather that your mindset should still be in launch phase (gathering data, setting up proper analytics and reporting) – with mini-optimizations sprinkled throughout. Chances are too high that you will go down an optimization rabbit hole if you do too much of it too early…and miss a potentially explosive opportunity!