Change the channel: why less is more in customer acquisition

In the wise words of Loom cofounder Shahed Khan: “Most fast-growing startups acquire the majority of their customers from a ‘single’ acquisition channel.” The question is: how do you find yours in a sea of endless options?

Getting people to buy stuff has never been “easy”. The process is entrenched in layers of complex human psychology and obscure motivations – desire, inadequacy, impulsivity, mistrust, mid-life crises… But for the salespeople of yore (yore being, say, the 1980s), it was fairly simple. 

You had telephones, face-to-face, door-to-door, and advertisement. Ads were either on TV, in newspapers, or on billboards. If you tried all of these and nothing worked, you’d very quickly realise it’s your product that sucks.

Now, you could go through 100 methods and waste months or even years before getting to that realisation.    

We are now blessed with big data. We can use social media platforms and search engines to derive psychotically specific insights about our customer bases, and then devise intricate strategies to target them in evolvingly invasive ways. 

Our salespeople can masquerade as normal people in the form of influencers and content creators. Brands spend millions on sophisticated campaigns only to be beaten by smaller competitors who accidentally go viral on TikTok. 

Customer acquisition has become a merry dance, with the seemingly endless options signalling to startups they should all be sampled. 

Here’s a controversial suggestion. What if you stuck to just one? 

Throwing clicks at the wall

Founders are faced with a wall of potential customer-finding channels. Namely: 

  • Outbound sales 
  • SEO and content marketing
  • Social media advertising 
  • Product virality 
  • Pay per click advertising 
  • Physical advertising (TV, print, billboards) 
  • Brand activation events

Some experimentation in the beginning does make sense. But many – especially technical founders and those inexperienced in sales and digital marketing – waste time and money doing too much of everything. 

The ICE strategy can help you gain clarity on what to try first. 

Ex-Product Design VP at Facebook Julie Zhuo used this framework with her product teams, brainstorming outreach ideas every 6 weeks, applying the framework, and testing the winners.  

For each metric, rate on a scale of 1 to 10:

(I) How much of an impact will this have?

(C) How confident are we that this will work?

(E) How easily can we get this up and running?

The one or two channels with the highest scores across the board are the ones you test first. 

Once you’ve narrowed your pool, tested and iterated, and started logging some reliable data, all you need to do is identify the channel with the highest expected ROI.

Changing the channel

Obviously, what works for B2C won’t work for B2B. B2C products are socially and emotionally led, and often involve a smaller decision making unit

With B2B customers, your product is utilitarian, can’t play on emotions (much), and pitches often need to survive a chain of decision makers.

It will also depend on target market, customer lifetime value, and digital inventory. 

Target markets are about understanding the language of the demographic and knowing which experience to sell. Consumer tech has always done well on TV ads that showcase the product visually and aurally (although as always Apple had to do things differently, with no visuals, and still went viral. All hail the Mac vs. PC series). 

Aussie-based Contour Cube is on the other end of the spectrum, going straight to ready and waiting skincare-obsessed audiences on TikTok, getting 2.3 million likes, and selling out within days of launch. 

The customer lifetime value (CLV) determines the number of target customers and how much you charge them. More customers means charging less and fewer customers means charging a premium. It doesn’t matter if the CLTV is high or low, as long as the ratio can be balanced to make a profit.

The third factor is exclusive to digital products and marketplaces. The wider your digital inventory, the more searchable it is, and the more likely it will appear at the top of Google when potential customers search for related topics. High-inventory sites like Spotify and Netflix often secure trade through Google searches for song names or “watch x online”.

Sales and storytelling

Some startups are just good with social media. 

British startup Partner In Wine, maker of colourful portable wine coolers for people to enjoy outside during lockdowns and pub closures, was achieving 90% of sales via organic Instagram traffic. 

Then the founder posted a TikTok video showcasing the product and hit 500k views in half a day. 

Orders increased by over 1700% on the previous day, with a cooler selling every 2 minutes, leading to a 5-figure sales day. PIW is now partnered with Selfridges. 

Being a highly Instagrammable, colourful product aimed at millennial women, PIW still uses Instagram to keep customers engaged through polls. 

As a not-insignificant sidenote, PIW founder Lucy Hitchcock says that the power of storytelling on TikTok is: “…exactly why Partner in Wine has experienced the growth it has in its first year”.

Hitchcock showcased her personal experience of a highly relatable problem, and people got on board. This is knowing your audience through and through, and sticking with the one or two acquisition channels that work.

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