The thought of becoming a customer acquisition expert never really occurred to me; I vividly remember sitting in an MBA classroom at the University of New Hampshire on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, when a guest speaker told our class that we should really consider a career in sales. He had a big-wig job, an impressive resume, and an expensive suit. “Sales is, in most companies, where the money is,” he told our class.
In a room of aspiring venture capitalists and CFOs, the message fell largely on deaf ears. “Customer acquisition?” I thought to myself. “Sales is for car dealers and people who want to spend the rest of their lives as a slave to their quota… not for me.”
Broader marketing was more appealing to me; I knew that my writing background would prove useful and that buyer psychology—why and how people choose to buy certain products or services—was interesting to me. Still, my younger self wasn’t overly enthused; I envisioned a career in marketing as a gloried version of a craft shop, creating flyers and pumping out taglines.
But everything changed for me on the morning of May 10, 2010—my first day at a “real job.” I’d signed on to lead marketing at a small software startup in Boston, and as I followed the CEO to my new desk in the middle of a shared office space with dingy gray carpets, he turned to me and said, “Customer acquisition, that’s the name of the game. We have a product in the market and people are signing up for it; your job is to make sure that even more people do and marketing is how we’re going to make that happen.”
He left me with a manilla folder of health insurance forms, then faded away into his office.
The Path to Becoming a Customer Acquisition Expert
Since that day, I have spent my career learning, studying, and practicing new ways for startup companies to acquire customers. I’ve led marketing teams at three companies and founded my own, landed a business on the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies five years running, managed millions of dollars in marketing spending, and presented marketing plans to the most prestigious venture capital firm on the planet.
I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes along the way, too. I mention these things because I’m a pretty regular guy—I didn’t go to an Ivy League school or get a 1600 on my SATs. Hell, I was an English major who was pretty apathetic about customer or user acquisition in general, remember? But through a combination of self-education, great mentorship, and trial and error, I was able to learn the tools of the trade and find my way into a career that I love.
Here are some tips to help you do the same.
Debunking Common Misconceptions
I want to start by giving a tip of the cap to Brian Balfour, a very talented marketer who wrote a fantastic piece about this topic in 2013; his post has been a tremendous resource and was very much the inspiration for this post. My intention here is simply to share a bit of my own story, as well as some areas where my opinions differ a bit from his—but all-in-all, his post still rings as true today as did back in 2013.
To start, as evidenced by my journey, you don’t learn digital marketing or customer acquisition in college—you learn by doing. If you take nothing else away from this post, you must find a sandbox environment where you can practice real-world digital marketing skills. For me, I was basically forced to sink or swim; I realized that first day on the job that I was in way over my head. I had been given free rein to try whatever digital channels I wanted, but at the time I didn’t even have a personal Facebook or Twitter account.
Your sandbox can be your own business, helping a friend with theirs, launching a website, or creating a blog or YouTube channel—the key is you need some sort of web property that you can drive traffic to and learn to build an audience. I decided to launch a blog—a sports blog actually—for no other reason than it was something I knew a lot about and could write about frequently. I wrote that blog consistently for three years. Almost all of the digital strategies that I employed at work I tried on my own blog first. It was a safe place to mess up and make mistakes.
The first six months, as I tried to teach myself search engine optimization (SEO), were particularly maddening: zero visits one day, four the next, 10 the following day, then back to none? I had to be doing something wrong, but I kept hacking at it. Eventually I started to get real, sustainable traffic and develop a small but loyal audience. And then my little blog led to bigger opportunities, and I was offered the role of featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All of a sudden I had weekly assignments and got to see the inner workings of a large national publication. The point here is we all start small, and little steps snowball into bigger opportunities.
As I’ve mentored aspiring digital marketers (including students in Springboard’s mentor-led digital marketing bootcamp), one of the most common misconceptions that I’ve heard is that there’s a “right way” to approach a specific marketing problem, that there’s an answer that the experts would know that the student doesn’t. Nothing could be further from the truth—there are no “right answers” in digital marketing, so stop looking for them.
Likewise, students often feel held back—either in terms of their results or when they fail to land a job—by their lack of experience with specific marketing technologies. Don’t sweat a lack of expertise in any given tool; if you can learn to use one email marketing or analytics tool, you can learn to use any of them.
If you find yourself like me, refreshing your website or blog and pulling your hair out when your traffic isn’t growing, come back to these simple steps and you can be sure that you’re plotting the right course:
- Find yourself a sandbox.
- Learn to use whatever tools are accessible to you.
- Seek out people and companies that are great marketers and study their work. Better yet, keep a swipe feel of the good stuff.
- Learn to run marketing experiments where you can fail fast and learn quickly. Test, learn, then repeat.
Next, let’s look at what you should learn, and what you shouldn’t.
An Alternative to the T-Shaped Marketer
An SEO company called Distilled introduced the idea of a “T-shaped” marketer, which has been a popular concept ever since. The general idea is that every marketer should have some foundational skills, but then develop a much greater depth of expertise in one particular area. In a nutshell, it’s a case for specialization.
I absolutely agree that all marketers need to have a solid foundation in topics like behavioral psychology, analytics, positioning, and user experience design. And make no doubt about it, specialization can be a great accelerant to career growth; it can be hugely beneficial if you go into consulting and it’s probably the right thing to do if you find yourself deeply interested in one particular discipline of digital marketing. It’s common that T-shaped marketers ride their area of specialization into a marketing leadership role—if you work at a company that acquires customers primarily through SEO and you’re the SEO expert, it’s only logical that you’ll find yourself getting promoted.
But I strongly disagree with the notion that “generalists” are useless in most work environments—in fact, many of the most successful marketing leaders that I know are generalists. They know more than enough to be dangerous with all the channels and strategies that they have at their disposal, they know which levers to pull and when to pull them, and they understand how each marketing channel works in tandem with the others. In my experience, the superpower of the generalist is that they are much stronger on the foundational skills and marketing fundamentals than most T-shaped marketers—you can have all the channel-specific expertise in the world, but if you don’t understand the buyer’s motivations or your product’s positioning, or you’re targeting the wrong persona, it won’t matter. More marketing campaigns fail for these reasons than for lack of channel-specific expertise.
Think of it this way: marketing “fundamentals” does not mean that these skills are easy to come by or master. For example, I think it’s much more difficult to develop true expertise in positioning and branding than it would be to master all aspects of Facebook advertising. Talk to any professional golfer, swimmer, or basketball player and they’ll tell you that their success is more directly attributed to doing the fundamentals of swinging a golf club or shooting a free throw better than anybody else, rather than mastering some more advanced moves. And where do they turn when the pressure is on? Back to their fundamentals.
Becoming a T-shaped marketer is a great option, but it’s not the only one.
Choosing Your Battles
Back at that first job out of college, I soon found myself getting stuck—I would often want to make changes to our website that required the help of a designer or developer to implement. I went to my mentor, Nancie Freitas, and said, “Nancie, I need to learn HTML and CSS so I don’t keep getting stuck when it comes to making changes to our website. Do you have any resources you’d recommend?”
Her response caught me off guard. “Geoff, Geoff, Geoff,” she said, shaking her head at me. “Marketing is big enough as it is and that’s not going to be your strength. Don’t bother.”
While I was taken aback, Nancie’s point has stuck with me—if you try to be a master of everything, you’ll be a master of nothing. To this day, I don’t write code and I’m not a designer.
As you start on your own path to becoming a customer acquisition expert, make a conscious decision to learn the skills and channels that are both of interest to you and in line with your natural talents and abilities. Be deliberate about identifying skills and channels that you’re going to punt on and bring in help in these areas as needed.
As you make your own decisions about specialization, it’s definitely helpful to learn skills or gain expertise in new marketing channels that are just beginning to emerge and grow. It can also be very helpful to focus on specific problems, industries, niches—what Aaron Ross and Jason Lemkin call “nailing your niche” in their book Predictable Revenue. This could mean anything from helping charitable organizations get their first 100 donors to being a marketing consultant like Wes Bush, who very specifically helps software companies better leverage free trial or freemium products to drive their customer acquisition strategies.
Let’s start by looking at the marketing fundamentals I think any aspiring customer acquisition expert needs.
Ideal Customer Profile and Persona Development
Identifying your ideal customer profile and developing personas is perhaps the most foundational skill on this list—if you’re not targeting customers who are a good fit for your product or service, it’s going to be nearly impossible for you to succeed.
Ideal Customer Profile Framework, by Lincoln Murphy
Facilitating Innovation and Organization Wide Integration of Personas, an original study published in The Design Journal
A deep understanding of behavioral psychology is a marketing superpower that I don’t think is talked about enough, particularly in business-to-business environments. The reasons and motivations for someone stopping to buy an ice cream cone are dramatically different from why someone would buy a home or an enterprise software product. I think that too many companies are looking for B2C or B2B or industry-specific expertise when hiring marketers; if you understand behavioral psychology, you can market almost any product or service effectively.
Thinking Fast and Slow, a book by Daniel Kahneman
Contagious: Why Things Catch On, a book by Jonah Berger
The Future of Marketing Is Behavioral Psychology, by Christian von Uffel
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, a book by Robert B. Cialdini
Positioning and Branding
I’m using positioning and branding as a catch-all that also includes skills like identifying your product or service’s value proposition as well as identifying the messaging you’ll use to communicate in a way that resonates with potential customers. Ultimately, both positioning and branding are about trade-offs—how are your product, service, and brand differentiated from your competitors? This is one of the hardest skill sets to truly develop well—and often one that many marketers who choose to specialize in a specific channel don’t understand well enough.
The Lean Brand, a book by Jeremiah Gardner with Brant Cooper
Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, a book by Al Ries and Jack Trout
Value Proposition Design, a book by Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur, Gregory Bernarda, and Alan Smith
Discovering New Points of Differentiation, from the Harvard Business Review
User Experience Design
I think that user experience design is one of the most underrated skills that aspiring marketers need to develop; it’s intricately linked to almost everything you’ll do from designing landing pages to optimizing customer-onboarding sequences to writing ad copy. UX optimization is one of the most effective tools that you have at your disposal that can improve the results of all your marketing campaigns without requiring additional budget.
Useronboard.com, UX teardowns of popular digital products
UX for Marketers: How to Create Great Content With Buyer Personas, from the Springboard blog
Springboard’s UX Design Course, a self-paced, mentor-led online bootcamp
The customer acquisition funnel is a common framework that marketers use to think about the customer acquisition process from end to end—identifying blockage points in your customer acquisition process is key to consistently improving your customer acquisition results.
Customer Acquisition: Maximizing Your Funnel, by David Skok
How Marketing Funnels Work, by Neil Patel
Communication is at the heart of everything we do in sales and marketing—it’s tough to be successful without learning to write persuasively.
Neville Medhora’s Kopywriting Kourse, an online course
25 Inspirational Resources for Copywriters, from Unbounce
Conversion Rate Optimization
Conversion optimization is a universal skill that impacts every customer or user acquisition channel or experiment that you run.
SaaS Landing Pages in 2017: Our Analysis of 100+ Top Businesses, from the ChartMogul blog
The Definitive Guide to Conversion Optimization, written by Neil Patel and Joseph Putnam
A core marketing fundamental that often isn’t given the attention it deserves is learning to price your products and services effectively. Few decisions have a more direct influence on customer acquisition… and revenue growth.
A Quick Guide to Value Based Pricing, from the Harvard Business Review
3 Types of Pricing Strategy, by Patrick Campbell
Statistics and Analytics
I know this is an uncommon opinion, but I think too much is typically made of the quantitative abilities you need as a digital marketer. I’m not saying quantitative skills aren’t important—of course they are—but you certainly don’t need a degree in data science to excel at customer acquisition.
Most digital marketing metrics are fairly easy to calculate and understand, and most of the marketing technology that you’ll use will readily surface the metrics that you need—website visitors, conversion and retention rates, churn data, etc. You need to learn to interpret what this data means and how to act on it more than you need to learn rigorous data modeling. And you need to understand basic concepts like statistical validity—if you launch a marketing experiment and one out of the first two visitors to your website converts to a customer, you need to understand that this doesn’t mean your website will continue to convert leads to customers at a 50-percent rate because your sample size isn’t large enough.
In larger organizations with a greater volume of products and customer acquisition-related data, the need for greater quantitative ability definitely increases, but you’ll typically have dedicated personnel with these skills on your team. Put it this way: I have intermediate quantitative aptitude and I’ve never felt that my own statistical or analytical ability has held me back from being successful as a marketer.
Learning the basics of conversion tracking and Google Analytics is the right place to start, then half the battle is simply using consistent measurement strategies and focusing on getting your metrics to trend in the right direction.
Google Analytics for Beginners, a free course from the Google Analytics Academy
Intro to Business Analytics, a free Springboard course that uses an Airbnb case study to improve analytics skills
If you already have programming skills, by all means you should wield those to your advantage—they’ll be useful to you particularly if you work for a technology company. If you don’t have these skills or a serious leaning toward computer science, I’d suggest you punt on learning to code. I think it’s generally more effective to instead build small growth-hacking teams that include a designer, developer, and marketer.
While I’ve made my case for the value of the marketing generalist, developing deep channel expertise comes with many merits. By specializing in a particular marketing channel, you’re able to narrow your focus in terms of what you need to learn, allowing you to plot a more direct path to becoming a subject-matter expert.
Developing this level of expertise makes it easier to position yourself as a go-to resource for people in need of your skills, and can also make it easier to landing speaking engagements and other opportunities to position yourself as a thought leader. When your name becomes synonymous with a particular problem or skill set, your personal brand reaps the benefits.
Here are some useful resources to help you learn some of the more common digital marketing channels that you’ll have at your disposal.
Virality/Word of Mouth
Viral Marketing Is Not a Marketing Strategy, from Andrew Chen
Viral Marketing and How to Craft Contagious Content an online course offered by the University of Pennsylvania
Google Ads Fundamentals, a Google course
Advanced Google Ads, a LinkedIn Learning course
How to Write Facebook Ads That Convert, from the Databox blog
How to Run Linkedin Ad Campaigns, from HubSpot
How to Use Twitter Ads Like a Pro and Get the Most Out of Your Budget, from the Hootsuite blog
A Marketer’s Guide to IGTV, an introduction to Instagram TV
The Beginner’s Guide To SEO, from the Moz blog
Search Engine Optimization, a free course exploring how to optimize a site for organic traffic and teaching how to track and measure results
SEO Best Practices, from the Springboard blog
Intro to Search Marketing, a free course that teaches the basics of SEO through project-based work
The Ultimate Guide to Social Media Marketing, from Jeff Bullas
Social Media Marketing Made Simple: A Step-by-Step Guide, from Neil Patel
Social Media Marketing Training and Tutorials, from LinkedIn Learning
The Advanced Content Marketing Guide, written by Neil Patel and Kathryn Aragon
The Ultimate Guide to Email Marketing, from HubSpot
17 Email Scripts That Have Helped Us Grow Our Business, from the Groove blog
Dear Public Relations Professionals, from The Hustle
How to Write a PR Pitch That Gets Noticed, Not Ignored, from Sujan Patel
The Art of Pitching: How I Got Published in The Atlantic, from the Campfire Labs blog
Your Path to Becoming a Customer Acquisition Expert
I hope that the resources shared in this article are useful to you as you look to sharpen your own customer acquisition skills. A final resource worth mentioning is Springboard’s Digital Marketing Career Track—it’s an intensive, self-paced, online course that covers the fundamental and channel-specific skills mentioned in this post. Students get access to 200+ hours of curriculum, weekly meetings with a professional marketing mentor, and a real $10,000 Google AdWords budget to spend on behalf of a non-profit organization.
Now get out there and find your sandbox—your career as a customer acquisition expert is right in front of you.