[Book Review] Traction – A Startup Guide to Getting Customers

Why I read this

As a marketing technologist, I’ve noticed interesting behaviors when marketers sell to marketers and salespeople sell to salespeople. Too often the tactics demonstrated are narrowly useful in one specific application.

I first heard about Traction while listening to some of my favorite podcasts. The author,Gabriel Weinberg, strategically included quotes from many influentials in the entrepreneurial space and seems to have used this as his own key channel for the book. In this way, the book serves two purposes: as a case study in the narrow channels for how best to produce and market a book, and the broad channels it outlines that apply to almost any business.

List of Channels

The author dives into 19 channels he views as key. Below, I’ve bolded the ones that are NOT intuitive to most B2B startups I work with. Those channels might be where you can develop the Blue Ocean Strategy.

  • Viral marketing
  • Public Relations (PR)
  • Unconventional PR
  • Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
  • Social & Display Ads
  • Offline Ads
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  • Content Marketing
  • Email Marketing
  • Engineering as Marketing
  • Targeting Blogs
  • Business Development (BD)
  • Sales
  • Affiliate Programs
  • Existing Platforms
  • Trade Shows
  • Offline Events
  • Speaking Engagements
  • Community Building

“The Bullseye Framework”

The core principle of the book is Weinberg’s “Bullseye Framework”, a deceptively simple, five-step method for finding your best marketing channels.

Step 1: Brainstorming

To start, you should take each channel and consider how you might use it, and answer some basic questions to get at its viability. This is specifically valuable because you may have not considered as many channels as you can.

Weinberg, for example, loves to share his story of using SEO as his main channel when he first started DuckDuckGo. The problem? As a competitor to Google, he isn’t likely to see success in SEO. He just assumed it was his best channel because he knew it from his previous company.

I see many marketers adopting a similar myopia, attempting to apply their best historical strategies in new companies. When it works, the marketers seek out the companies that will best use the channels they already know. When it fails, the marketer often dives headfirst into the company, determined to make their favorite channel a success.

As a founder, you rarely have the pleasure of taking such a quest. More often, you’ll be judged on specific business results, so finding the best channels is key. Investors don’t care about whether you use traditional channels to market.

Step 2: Ranking

The next step is to rank your channels. Weinberg suggests creating three buckets and placing each channel in one of the buckets

  • Bucket A (Inner Circle)
  • Bucket B (Potential)
  • Bucket C (Long-Shot)

traction-channels-ranking

This is helpful because it removes some of your built-in biases to channels by clustering them in more vague groups. Too often, we get stuck with false precision in data-driven marketing, such as creating lead scoring models before buyer personas. This ranking helps to dislodge some of that.

In creating the brainstorming and answering the fundamental questions, you’ve also helped to set the criteria to identify the best potential channels.  Doing this internally, we’ve found the Inner Circle channels are the ones we already do or believe in, while the Potential channels are those we haven’t fully considered.

Step 3: Prioritizing

Next, you prioritize the three traction channels that seem most promising. The author suggests identifying the point where “there is an obvious drop-off in excitement.”

This is an interesting point because the book’s target audience will likely be cash-poor and time-rich. In this scenario, your excitement level is an indicator of how likely you will learn enough about the channel to test its viability

Step 4: Testing

With three channels chosen to be prioritized, your next step is to test them. Weinberg suggests three questions you should answer in each test.

  1. Roughly, what is the customer acquisition cost through this channel?
  2. How big is the total available market through this channel?
  3. Are the customers you are getting through this channel the ones you want right now?

The third question is the most interesting. It’s more than just customer lifetime value, because it gets at the impermanence of buyer personas. When we first started consulting, for example, our target buyer was an agency who had process experience. As we’ve grown, we’ve shifted our target buyer to a VP of Marketing for a funded technology startup. In neither case have we focused on LTV, but rather some intangibles such as the suitability to our strengths and weaknesses.

Similarly, many companies may look at trade shows as a channel and attempt to answer the question “are these the right customers for us?”. Mark Suster of BothSidesofTheTable has a great post describing the advantages of hunting deers – the right-sized customers for most startups

Step 5: Focusing

Finally, Weinberg’s big idea here is: “At any stage in a startup’s lifecycle, one traction channel dominates in terms of customer acquisition.” This idea is central to the theme and value of the book: put all of your eggs in one basket, but know when to change baskets. The author doesn’t advocate any specific ratios, which is an encouraging antidote to the fundamentalist fervor over the 80/20 principle. Instead, he’s noting the pattern where one channel should be the focus at any given time.

Is it true? Heres what one progression might look like for a Salesforce app:

traction channel stages

In contrast, the typical (unfocused) approach I see funded startups looks something like this:

traction-channel-random

At a glance, the first diagram seems far more effective from the beginning, but of course it depends on your target buyers and other variables.

But the Book Misses a Few Things

This is a great book overall, it encapsulates a broad view of a process when others too often share a very narrow story as the only map. That said, I do note a few things that could be improved in the book.

Internal strengths factors

First, Weinberg ignores internal strengths factors. When he describes his experience with SEO, for example, he forgets that this channel was his favorite both for his experience and his strengths.

Most startup founders have some built-in strengths in themselves, their team, or their underlying labor market. This can be uncovered in the bullseye analysis of costs, but in doing this analysis you may miss the strategic advantage

When I first started consulting, I saw that I had an inherent disadvantage in Business Development / Referral channels because I lacked the twenty years of experience in marketing that my competition had. I struggled with whether to follow their channel strategies, noting referrals as *the* key channel, or to explore other channels. Ultimately, I used my knowledge in SEO and content marketing as a repeatable marketing channel.

Now that the team is based overseas, we have some specifically interesting channels where our labor cost of marketing is a fraction of the costs in the US, and this creates some specific advantages in our channels that others may not have.

Planning ahead for channel failure

The second notably absent part of the book is planning for failure. While the author starts to discuss this when mentioning “the law of shitty click-throughs”, he focuses on the macro impacts in the market instead of the internal limits of each channel.

This point might be redundant for some readers, but when a well-funded company is seeking traction, they can conceivably reach the saturation point in a new key channel every quarter.  It important to plan ahead for success and understand when these growth pains will occur.

For example, suppose you identify SEM as your initial marketing strategy: it’s big, it works, and you can afford it. But you note the monthly limit on new customers will be about 5. You need to understand whether you will hit this number in one month or twelve months. Trade shows, on another hand, have a far higher need for capital, turnaround time, and experience to see success over a channel like SEM.

And there are lots of subsequent questions to answer internally. How long will it take to ramp up and down your channels? What kind of contracts should you sign for SEM consulting, given your expected limits? How much lead time do you need to become competent at your next channel?

B2B specific channels

The channels listed in the book are more comprehensive than I typically find, but the author neglected a few channels that are suitable for B2B businesses.

Retargeting

Although Weinberg includes this as part of the SEM chapter, a light reader may miss this, thinking they already “do” SEM and don’t need to come back to it. Retargeting, on the other hand, is a peculiar timely tactic that can magnify the efforts of other channels.

Customer Success Management

Next, he forgets to mention customer success management, which is expected given his experience for a search engine. Most B2B companies also seem to neglect this as a channel, viewing it instead as a cost center. But we only need to look to Zappos to see an example where customer success can lead to success in Viral Marketing and Public Relations channels.

Customer attrition

Finally, he fails to mention the value of customer attrition. Here at Beachhead, we believe customer attrition is, in the long run, one of the most important channels for most B2B companies with great products. Customer churns are not permanent if you know how to turn them back to their buyer journey.

Conclusion

Again, this is a great book overall, both a quick read and something . The author’s stated goal is to broaden your mind to new marketing channels, and he succeeded. Our takeaway from the book is a full checklist of channels to try and a whole lot of new, captivating ideas for consulting and product development.