The best channels for acquiring customers

What are the most effective ways to acquire customers in 2021?

Channels may include:

Google Search • Instagram • Facebook • Quora • Amazon • Google Display • App Store • Pinterest • Snapchat • YouTube • Bing • LinkedIn • Affiliates • Influencers • Direct mail • Physical ads • SEO • UGC • Share-worthy content • Network effects • Referrals • Sales • Content aggregators • Speaking and events • PR • TV/print/radio • Community

(I summarize most of these at the bottom of this doc.)

At my startup, Demand Curve, we’ve trained 1,000+ companies in growth. And we have a community of 50,000+. So, I see a lot of marketing data.

Let’s narrow into two critical trends I’m seeing.

Part 1. When should you scale new channels?

Until you’ve proven strong NPS and retention, you’re not ready to scale. Until then, the purpose of customer acquisition is getting a sample audience of users to test your ideas on and gather feedback from.

If you scale growth before then, bad first impressions can ruin you and be impossible to come back from in a competitive market. This is real. As a senior PM from Facebook, Nikita Bier, puts it: “If you need to launch nationwide to test your product, it's not a good test. You will prematurely exhaust your audience's attention and limit future shots.”

Therefore, when growing a startup, I use a sequence like this:

  1. Fix every major drop-off point in your product funnel. Plug holes.
  2. Next, maximize retention and NPS within reason. Make sure people are happy and stay.
  3. Then scale up customer acquisition. Start with the channels you have high conviction in.

Part 2. Which channel is best?

The best channel is… whichever works 😂

Pay to interview people who've successfully grown a startup like yours. You can find them via LinkedIn Sales Navigator. Ask them which 3 channels (ads, SEO, etc.) to prioritize for acquiring customers. Ask for examples of companies who run these channels well and for the highest-leverage tips they have for each. Also get introductions to growth contractors and agencies they trust.

But, generally, product-led acquisition (PLA) is the best growth channel. Product-led acquisition is when your users drive your growth for you—by inviting others in one way or another. Like when you join Slack then you invite your teammates and partner organizations.

(Note: People often use product-led growth to mean having leads skip sales demos and instead self-serve their registration via an open demo or trial, and so I have to call this PLA instead of PLG because they ruined the term for us. Since that process should be called product-led sales, not product-led growth!)

PLA is the best because it scales without increasing costs, you’re not at the mercy of third-party platforms (Facebook ad costs, Google SEO rankings), it has compounding/network effects (new users invite more users), and it’s defensible (no one can take it away from you).

I’ve identified four PLA subcategories that you should study:

Category #1: High-value invitations

This is where the use of your product naturally encourages users to invite friends/colleagues because both they and the friend/colleague get more value from the product. 1+1=3.

Examples:

  • When you send $100 via Paypal, the recipient signs up to receive the money.
  • When you talk with someone on Zoom, they have to install Zoom first.
  • When you talk to teammates via chat, you onboard them into Slack. When you want to talk to outside teams, you use Slack Connect.

Notice two important elements:

  1. The person inviting and the person being invited both significantly benefit from the other’s use of the product. It cannot be a one-sided benefit or the person being invited won’t join.
  2. The benefit to both parties has to be getting an important job done, which means getting paid or enabling communication that helps a business or social group critically function.

Note that cash rewards are not good incentives. Those are just referral programs, which are much worse than PLA. Incentive schemes attract new users for the wrong reasons, don’t compound as well as PLA, and generally die out quickly. Lesson: focus on enduring product-level incentives (getting paid or communicating) instead of reward-level incentives.

Here’s the action item this comes down to: How can I modify your product roadmap to prioritize features that facilitate 1+1=3 user invitations? What can you change in the app to encourage users to invite new ones in such a way that both get a lot of new value?

Category #2: Billboarding

Here’s the next PLA subcategory: billboarding. This is my term for when using a product is noticeable to the people around the user.

For example:

  • Wearing Airpods in public, people recognize they’re from Apple.
  • When sending people your Calendly/Dropbox link, it shows them them those companies’ branding at a high frequency.
  • Including “Sent from my iPhone” in your email signature.
  • Replacing your Twitter profile picture with an NFT.

If you can get billboarding to work—which requires non-users to react with “wow, I want that too”—you become viral without even having to orchestrate it.

Here’s the action item this comes down to: How can I modify my product to make its use visible to non-users?

Category #3: WOM

You might be wondering: Where does word of mouth fit in?

WOM is amazing. It can be as good as PLA, although generally with slower virality time.

It’s hard to just slap on WOM, however. It’s not a channel you engineer. Instead, it naturally emerges from:

  • The product experience being delightful (entertainment or utilitarian benefits) and the user wanted to share their joy with others. That’s how Disney+/Netflix grow: people watch TV shows, love them, and tell others they have to watch them too. “You didn’t see The Mandalorian??”
  • The second way I think about word of mouth is “tribal affinity.” This is where you create a movement of prestige, exclusivity, and/or ideology. Once a new member is initiated, they want to look good and signal their taste/status by helping others join the tribe too. Common examples are invite-only chat apps, prestige clothing brands, and video game leagues.

In both cases—triggering either delight and tribal affinity—these are emergent properties of nailing product-level and brand-level decisions. This is the starting DNA of your company: what value propositions is your product delivering on, and are those ones that trigger delight or tribal affinity? Maybe adjust your value propositions accordingly.

Category #4: UGC

User-generated content (UGC) is when the use of your product generates content for users beyond the product to consume:

  • Creator platforms, e.g. YouTube and Tiktok
  • Conversational networks, e.g. Quora and Stack Overflow

If users create shareable content when using your product, it behooves you to design high-performing growth funnels that connect a high-performing funnel together. Meaning, use education and UX best practices to guide users toward:

  1. Create appealing content.
  2. Make it easy to share.
  3. Make it easy to consume for those who it’s shared with.
  4. Make it easy for those new people to sign up and create content of their own after consuming.

Measure each step of this funnel and improve its conversion over time.

PLA recap

Product-led acquisition is when the use of your product is what drives the product’s growth. No existential need for ads, sales, and so on—those are force multipliers if you do PLA right.

Almost every major company grew this way. This is the north star of growth. This is what you want to optimize for.

To repeat in full: PLA is the best because it scales without increasing costs, you’re not at the mercy of third-party platforms (Facebook ad costs, Google SEO rankings), it has compounding/network effects (new users invite more users), and it’s defensible (no one can take it away from you).

There’s one more channel I really like: programmatic SEO.

Moving on to one more channel I find under-discussed and very high ROI: Programmatic SEO. (You can read a Zapier case study here.)

Examples of programmatic SEO: Quora, Stack Overflow, Airbnb, Yelp, Wikipedia, IMDb, and other companies that automatically (or manually) produce a huge long-tail of pages that help searchers with niche interests, e.g. programming questions, local restaurants, movies, travel destinations, and so on.

By having thousands of quality, non-spammy long-tail search pages that dominate the SEO margins, you can aggregate traffic on the margins into a meaningful volume. Eventually you become the go-to destination and mainstay brand in the category.

Programmatic SEO is not a fit for every startup (most channels aren’t!) if you’re not in a sector nor produce enough content where there’s an open opportunity in the search rankings, but it’s incredible when it works. It costs nothing, it scales incredibly well, and it picks up a lot of very high-intent visitors.

Here’s the action item this comes down to: Is there long-tail, niche content relevant to my industry that I can write about or generate at scale that will attract visitors who are likely to convert into customers?

Part 3. Should I try all of these channels at once?

If my product already has high NPS and strong retention, I like to immediately pursue every growth channel that I have high conviction will work—constrained only by my bandwidth to execute each formidably.

I’ll expand my team with outside contractors as needed if I’m short on bandwidth. Because, if your conviction is high that a channel is positive ROI, you should have no problem justifying contracting with experts to pursue the channel immediately—the ROI should cover the labor.

Plus, channels can take a long time to fully optimize. So get started now. Further, it’s important to quickly identify which channels will be your hero channels and use that feedback loop to iterate aspects of your product to better suit the channel. Maybe you find PLA UGC is crushing it and you should triple down on that because it makes all other channels unnecessary.

For all the channels you’re uncertain of, defer them until you’ve tested the ones you’re confident in. Don’t spread yourself thin running experiments until your main channels are in a healthy position or have been (temporarily) ruled out.

Note that not all channels are reasonable to test yourself. Some channels require professional expertise to reach a threshold of competency to avoid false negatives. I find that creating great ads, optimizing ad campaigns, and writing/designing compelling landing pages is not well-executed by most in-house teams. For channels with a high competency threshold, perhaps contract with experts, use a top-tier agency, or hire full-time.

Here are the agencies and contractors I recommend: 4. Recommended agencies and contractors

List of channels

Factors to consider when selecting channels:

  • Scale: How much of your target audience is on the channel.
  • Targeting: How easy it is to reach your target audience.
  • Effort: How difficult it is to launch and maintain the channel.
  • Time to results: How quickly you can expect to see results from the channel.
  • Cost: How much the channel costs to launch and maintain, and the average cost of acquiring a customer.
  • Scale: High; able to reach billions of people using Google for searches each day. However, scale will depend on search volume for relevant keywords.
  • Targeting: Great; with keyword targeting, you choose the specific search queries you want your ads to show up for.
  • Effort: Low; compared to more visual ad channels like Facebook and YouTube, the time to get up and running is very low since your ads are just text. Most of the effort comes from thorough keyword research.
  • Time to results: Fast; you can go from zero to results in a matter of days.
  • Intent: High; people are actively searching for things to buy and researching/comparing products.

Businesses it works for:

  • Products with substantial search volume
  • Products that have moderately high LTVs (lifetime value) or average order values (a $10 product is going to struggle to be profitable)
  • Scale: High; able to reach billions of people using Google for searches each day. However, scale will depend on search volume for relevant keywords.
  • Targeting: Great; with keyword targeting, you choose the specific search queries you want your ads to show up for.
  • Effort: Low; compared to more visual ad channels like Facebook and YouTube, the time to get up and running is very low since your ads are just text. Most of the effort comes from thorough keyword research.
  • Time to results: Fast; you can go from zero to results in a matter of days.
  • Intent: High; people are actively searching for things to buy and researching/comparing products.

Businesses it works for:

  • Products with substantial search volume
  • Products that have moderately high LTVs (lifetime value) or average order values (a $10 product is going to struggle to be profitable)
  • Scale: High; able to reach hundreds of millions of people using Amazon for searches each month. However, scale will depend on search volume on relevant keywords.
  • Targeting: Great; you can choose one of the various automated keyword targeting options or manual keyword targeting.
  • Effort: Low; compared to more visual ad channels like Facebook and YouTube, the time to get up and running is very low since there’s basically no ad copy or creative. Most of the effort comes from thorough keyword research (but you can also choose automated targeting options).
  • Time to results: Fast; you can go from zero to results in a matter of days.
  • Intent: High; people are actively searching for things to buy and researching/comparing products.

Businesses it works for:

  • Consumer products sold on Amazon
  • Products with a very short sales cycle
  • Products people are searching for
  • Products that are visually appealing
  • Scale: High; able to reach hundreds of millions of people using Instagram every day.
  • Targeting: Great; you have a wide variety of targeting options including demographics and likes, as well as lookalikes and retargeting options.
  • Effort: Medium; Instagram is a visual channel. This makes creating ad copy easy, but high-quality and frequently changing ad creatives are essential, which can be time consuming.
  • Time to results: Fast; you can go from zero to results in a matter of days.
  • Intent: Medium; people aren’t using Instagram specifically to buy products. But it’s a platform that people browse to keep a pulse on what’s new.

Businesses it works for:

  • Most businesses, including:
  • Mobile apps
  • Ecommerce (it’s a visual platform)
  • B2C software
  • B2B software
  • B2B products with high customer lifetime value
  • Products that are visually appealing
  • Scale: High; able to reach hundreds of millions of people using Facebook every day (although on desktop, a portion of users have ad blockers enabled).
  • Targeting: Great; you have a wide variety of targeting options including demographics and likes, as well as lookalikes and retargeting options.
  • Effort: Medium; Facebook is both a written and visual channel. You need to constantly be creating new ad copy variations and high-quality ad creatives, which can be time consuming.
  • Time to results: Fast; you can go from zero to results in a matter of days.
  • Intent: Medium; people aren’t on Facebook to buy products, but it is a platform that people browse to keep a pulse on what’s new.

Businesses it works for:

  • Most businesses, including:
  • Mobile apps
  • Ecommerce (it’s a visual platform)
  • B2C software
  • B2B software
  • B2B products with high customer lifetime value
  • Products that are visually appealing
  • Scale: Medium; Quora has 300 million monthly active users, which is large but isn’t as big as Facebook and Google.
  • Targeting: Moderate; you target based on keywords and topics, but you can’t get granular.
  • Effort: Medium; Quora has reduced targeting options, but just like Facebook, you have to create ad copy and creatives.
  • Time to results: Fast; you can go from zero to results in a matter of days.
  • Intent: Low; people aren’t on Quora to buy products or keep a pulse on what’s new, so purchase intent is low.

Businesses it works for:

  • Products that solve a problem people search Quora for
  • Professional services
  • Scale: High; over two million websites, videos, and apps show ads using the Google Display Network.
  • Targeting: Moderate; you target based on keywords, topics, and specific placements, as well as audiences (retargeting and lookalikes included).
  • Effort: Medium; Google Display ads require you to write ad copy and create a lot of different ad creatives. To fully control how your ads look, you need to make ad creatives in about 30 different sizes. But you can opt for an auto-placement option if you’re less picky about how your creatives display.
  • Time to results: Fast; you can go from zero to results in a matter of days.
  • Intent: Low; generally speaking, no one likes banner ads. People often ignore them, and ad blockers block them. The ad is a distraction from the content they’re viewing.

Businesses it works for:

  • Mobile apps
  • Ecommerce
  • B2B SaaS
  • Visually appealing products
  • Products that are easy to identify visually
  • Scale: Medium; Apple has millions of users, but searching for apps is not a frequent occurrence.
  • Targeting: Moderate; like Google Search, you target based on keywords, but the App Store is more limited in terms of keyword types and research/volume.
  • Effort: Low; there’s no ad copy or creative involved, just your search listing, so it’s quick to launch.
  • Time to results: Fast; you can go from zero to results in a matter of days.
  • Intent: High; people are actively looking for an app to download.

Businesses it works for:

  • iOS and iPadOS apps
  • MacOS apps
  • Scale: Medium; Pinterest has 478 million monthly active users.
  • Targeting: Moderate; you target in similar ways to Facebook, including keywords, demographics, placements, and audiences (with actalikes and retargeting).
  • Effort: Medium; like Instagram, you’ll need to constantly refresh ad creatives to experiment and stay fresh. The size formats are also different from all other channels.
  • Time to results: Fast; you can go from zero to results in a matter of days.
  • Intent: Medium; people often use Pinterest to find new products. Clothing and furniture products do exceptionally well.

Businesses it works for:

  • Ecommerce
  • Cooking, health, fashion, furniture, gardening products
  • Scale: Medium; Snapchat has 46 million monthly active users.
  • Targeting: Moderate; you target in similar ways to Facebook, e.g., demographics and audiences (including actalikes and retargeting).
  • Effort: Medium; like Instagram and Pinterest, you’ll need to constantly refresh ad creatives to experiment. The size formats are also different, and video is often needed, so they require customization.
  • Time to results: Fast; you can go from zero to results in a matter of days.
  • Intent: Low; ads are a distraction from use of the platform, and most people using Snapchat are young with low buying power.

Businesses it works for:

  • B2C mobile apps
  • Ecommerce
  • Physical locations
  • Those that target Gen Z
  • Scale: High; YouTube has two billion monthly active users.
  • Targeting: Moderate; you target similarly to Google Display ads, including keywords, topics, placements, demographics, and audiences (with lookalikes and retargeting).
  • Effort: Medium; like Instagram, you need to constantly refresh ad creatives to experiment. And videos can be expensive and difficult to make.
  • Time to results: Medium; making high-quality videos takes time—although it’s quick if you already have videos made.
  • Intent: Low; ads distract people from using YouTube to watch entertaining videos or learn things. Many people complain about them.

Businesses it works for:

  • Ecommerce (gaming, fitness, music, beauty)
  • B2B SaaS with high lifetime value
  • Visually appealing products
  • Mass-market consumer products
  • Scale: Low; Bing has about 1-2% of Google’s daily search volume.
  • Targeting: Great; Bing’s targeting is almost identical to Google Search ads.
  • Effort: Low; like Google Search, there are no ad creatives to make. You can get Bing to fully mirror your Google Search ads account.
  • Time to results: Fast; setting up a Bing account and mirroring/copying over your Google Search ads takes no time at all.
  • Intent: High; people are actively searching for things to buy and researching/comparing products.

Businesses it works for:

  • B2B SaaS that targets Microsoft users, since it’s the default search engine for their browsers
  • Products that people search for
  • Products that solve a problem people search for on Bing
  • Products that target older demographics, predominantly women
  • Scale: Medium; LinkedIn has around 300 million monthly active users.
  • Targeting: Great; LinkedIn lets you target based on job experience, job titles, specific companies, and audiences. It has the best data for anything related to work experience.
  • Effort: Medium; to do LinkedIn right, you need to write direct messages and ad copy, build ad creatives, and possibly even create a lead gen asset like an ebook or piece of content.
  • Time to results: Fast; you can go from zero to results in a matter of days.
  • Intent: Low; people don’t tend to use LinkedIn to find products to buy. Instead, they use it to hire people, get hired, or sell products.
  • Average cost per LEAD (CPL): $200. Note that for LinkedIn, we use CPL instead of CAC. The focus here is on getting valid email addresses, not acquiring customers yet. Actual customer conversion often requires moving over to a different channel, such as direct sales. LinkedIn is expensive and tends to work only for B2B companies earning thousands in customer LTV.

Businesses it works for:

  • Recruiting
  • Higher education
  • B2B businesses with a customer lifetime value of over $1,500

This is when you contact people with their own audiences (on social media platforms or on their own) and incentivize them to plug your product, either blatantly or covertly.

  • Scale: Medium; there are influencers with followings of all sizes on different platforms, with many hundreds of millions of followers and subscribers collectively. Your scale will depend on how many influencers there are in your niche, and how popular they are.
  • Targeting: Medium; you can select influencers whose audiences directly overlap with your company’s. For example, if you have a personal finance app, you can target personal finance bloggers and YouTubers.
  • Effort: Medium; you need to create a list of influencers, contact them, educate them on your product, negotiate rates, and work with them on how to naturally pitch your product.
  • Time to results: Medium; it can take about 15 hours a week to build an influencer marketing program, including contacting and negotiating with influencers.
  • Intent: Medium; some influencers’ followers respect their recommendations, but they often don’t follow with an intent to purchase products.

Businesses it works for:

  • Ecommerce (especially health, beauty, and apparel)
  • Consumer SaaS
  • Industries/niches where influencers dominate and their fans respect what they have to say # Traditional paid acquisition channels
  • Scale: High; you can send direct mail to basically anyone with an address.
  • Targeting: Moderate; you can choose the neighborhoods you want to send to. For example, one company sent mail to people within a few miles of a hospital that was advertising open nurse positions.
  • Effort: Low; the main efforts are designing the pamphlet you’re sending out and choosing where to send it. Delivery services are quite easy to use for that.
  • Time to results: Medium; once you finally launch, results are pretty quick, but first you need to design the pamphlets, print them, and get the delivery service to pick them up and deliver them (probably a day or several later).
  • Intent: Very low; people’s default reaction to random fliers in the mail is to toss them immediately. You need to really grab their attention. Even when you do, this channel is higher friction because they then have to visit a website, make a phone call, or go to a store.

Businesses it works for:

  • Local businesses
  • Food and delivery services
  • Real estate services
  • Scale: High; you could theoretically buy any billboard or subway, bus, or bus stop ad in the world if you outbid everybody else.
  • Targeting: Poor; availability depending, you can choose the specific places you want to advertise to, but you can’t control who looks at your ad.
  • Effort: High; there’s no easy platform for buying physical advertisement placements. It’s still a very manual process of calling different companies.
  • Time to results: Slow; because physical advertisements are mostly good for general brand awareness, it takes time to have a measurable effect.
  • Intent: Low; people aren’t wondering which website-building tool to use when they’re heading to a coffee shop or commuting.
  • Average customer acquisition cost (CAC): $???. It’s very hard to track, other than hand-wavy things like, “At this date, we added a billboard in this area, and sales there increased by X% over the next Y months.”

Businesses it works for:

  • Local businesses
  • Companies that want brand awareness, particularly in a location where their target market is (like Silicon Valley having tons of tech billboards)
  • Real estate services
Image source: https://www.creativereview.co.uk/mcdonalds-canada-ads-moving-day/
  • Scale: High; you can blast your ads on every TV channel and radio station and in every newspaper and magazine.
  • Targeting: Poor; you can choose the specific channels, stations, or magazines to target, but you’re at the whim of their audiences.
  • Effort: High; there’s no easy platform for buying these ads. It’s still a very manual process of calling different companies.
  • Time to results: Slow; because these ads are mostly good for general brand awareness, it takes time to have a measurable effect.
  • Intent: Low; ads are an unwelcome distraction.
  • Average customer acquisition cost (CAC): $???. It’s very hard to track, besides hand-wavy things like, “At this date, we added a billboard in this area, and sales there increased by X% over the next Y months.”

Businesses it works for:

  • Companies that want brand awareness
  • Expensive, luxury products (e.g., Rolex)
  • Products that appeal to almost everyone (e.g., Febreze)
  • Companies with very large budgets

This is content written specifically to target high-volume, preferably low-difficulty keywords that people use to search on Google. The goal is to write the definitive article that answers a user’s query/solves their problem, increasing traffic to the article and improving the rank of your site overall.

  • Scale: High; there are billions of Google and Bing searches every day.
  • Targeting: Moderate; you can target specific keywords, but you’re at the whim of the search engine’s algorithm.
  • Effort: Medium; to be clear, it takes time to write and edit a lot of articles targeting various keywords, although you can easily outsource them to writers.
  • Time to results: Slow; at a minimum, it takes several months to start seeing results. And it can take over a year to start seeing meaningful volume—if it comes at all.
  • Intent: Medium; depending on the keyword you target, you could have anything from very high to very low intent.
  • Average customer acquisition cost (CAC): $0. If you write all the articles yourself, you can get organic customers “for free.” But realistically, you’ll want to outsource the writing.

Businesses it works for:

  • Companies in niches that have significant search volume
  • Products that require extensive education before the audience understands what they are and why they’re needed
  • Professional services, such as accountants, agencies, and law firms, as they can demonstrate their expertise

This is content created by your user base, not by you. Obvious examples are social media platforms. People put videos on YouTube, and those videos bring people to YouTube. This also includes platforms like Medium and Substack, as well as marketplaces like Airbnb and Etsy (seen above).

  • Scale: High; if you have a lot of users and they’re incentivized to generate content, there’s no limit to your reach (think Facebook, Medium, or Substack).
  • Targeting: Poor; you have little to no control over the content your users make.
  • Effort: Medium; it can be challenging to create a platform that encourages and incentivizes users to generate a lot of good content and share it. On the other hand, you aren’t creating the content yourself.
  • Time to results: Slow; you need to reach a decent size before the amount of content being produced by users is sufficient to generate results.
  • Intent: Medium; ultimately, intent depends on the content your users generate, so it can range from very low to very high.
  • Average customer acquisition cost (CAC): $0. Because your users are generating the content, it doesn’t cost you anything.

Businesses it works for:

  • Social networks including Facebook, Twitter, and Dribbble
  • Tools that help people create and distribute content. Examples: Medium and Substack
  • B2C media businesses
  • Marketplace businesses (think Airbnb or Etsy)

This is content made to be shared. That means it’s either extremely shareable/viral in nature—like a funny meme—OR it’s so good and useful that people naturally want to share it with others and link to it from their site. Demand Curve’s playbooks are viral content. They’re not made with SEO in mind. They’re purely meant to be extremely detailed and useful content that people will want to reference and share with others.

  • Scale: High; there’s no limit to the amount of content you can create for this purpose, and no limit to the number of people who might see it.
  • Targeting: Poor; you can choose the subject for the content, which will influence who ends up reading and liking it, and you can share the content in various places (social media, Reddit, Product Hunt, etc.) to distribute it to specific types of people. You can also run ads to it if it tends to perform well. But you can’t control who shares it and when.
  • Effort: High; viral content requires a lot of writing, researching, planning, and experimentation. Hitting virality through some sort of weird novelty way takes a good deal of experimentation. If you want your content shared because it’s really good, it takes substantial effort to make it really good.
  • Time to results: Slow-medium; writing and creating really great content takes time and effort, but each piece lets you get the ball rolling.
  • Intent: Low; generally, readers of viral content don’t have high intent to purchase anything.
  • Average customer acquisition cost (CAC): $0. Each additional user doesn’t directly cost you anything, particularly if you’re writing all the content yourself. But to create great content, you probably need to hire great writers.

Businesses it works for:

  • Teams with strong content expertise
  • Educational products (like Demand Curve; content reflects product)

Referrals are a hybrid between paid acquisition and viral acquisition. You incentivize your customers to invite others to use the product by offering the referrer and/or referee some sort of bonus. This can be straight cash, but more often it’s free credits or additional features/bonuses in the product itself.

  • Scale: High; this is a snowball effect. The more customers you have, the more potential referrers you have.
  • Targeting: Low; you’re at the whim of the customers recommending your product.
  • Effort: Medium; it takes a decent amount of effort to dial in a referral program (when to ask for referrals, how to ask, how much to offer, etc.), but once it’s running, it’s pretty easy.
  • Time to results: Slow; it takes time for your customer base to build, and for people to feel comfortable recommending your product.
  • Intent: Low; because you’re incentivizing people, they’re probably going to share the referral link with a lot of people, many of whom don’t actually care about the product.
  • Average customer acquisition cost (CAC): $20. It all depends on how much you offer as an incentive. If you offer a discount on a piece of software, it doesn’t really cost you anything. If you offer cash or a discount on a physical product, it costs you something.

Businesses it works for:

  • Products that get better the more people are using them, such as marketplaces, social apps, and networks. Referral helps speed up natural product virality.
  • Products that aren’t particularly private in nature. People aren’t going to share their referral code to Grindr, for example.
  • Products people love and would be happy to share with others.
  • Scale: High; the only limits to scale are the size of your market and your ability to get contact information.
  • Targeting: High; you can specifically select the people you’d like to contact.
  • Effort: High; although much of the outreach can be automated, it takes a lot of writing and rewriting emails, then nurturing leads after they respond.
  • Time to results: Fast; you can start sending emails in a matter of hours.
  • Intent: Low; this is cold outreach. It’s unlikely that recipients had any intent to purchase a product like yours.
  • Average customer acquisition cost (CAC): $0. If you do it yourself, it’s free to prospect and send emails to people. If you hire salespeople or use prospecting tools, it can be costly.

Businesses it works for:

  • B2B products
  • Service-based businesses
  • B2C products with a customer lifetime value of more than $150

This is when you launch your product on websites like Product Hunt, Reddit, Hacker News, Designer News, Indie Hackers, and various other communities. They generally rank for only a day, and you typically need to promote the post in other places to get significant traction.

This channel tends to do best if a superuser of the platform is the one to share your product, not you.

  • Scale: Low; although there are a lot of people using these channels, ranking can be very difficult. Even if you do, your content is really only going to rank for a day or so. You’ll get a great burst to launch something, but it’s not scalable.
  • Targeting: Poor; there’s no targeting on many of these sites—besides maybe Reddit, where you can target based on the subreddit you choose. Ultimately, the audience is whoever uses the site that day and whom you’re able to market your post to.
  • Effort: Medium; it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of work to create the post, video, some images, or a bit of text, but it takes a decent amount of work to cross-promote it and try to engineer it to be viral.
  • Time to results: Fast; things generally rank and get traffic for a maximum of 24 hours, so it’s a very fast turnaround.
  • Intent: Low; people use Product Hunt and these other sites to find cool new tools and products, but generally just free ones. They’re bombarded with them all day, so there’s some fatigue.
  • Average customer acquisition cost (CAC): $0. It doesn’t cost anything to post to or use these sites. It would only cost money if you were to pay for a video or a designer.

Businesses it works for:

  • SaaS tools for B2B or B2C
  • Bundles of free tools and content
  • Weird viral things

This channel could entail either hosting your own conference or meetup, or going to others as an attendee or with your own booth.

  • Scale: Low; there are only so many conferences and meetups. If you’re running one, it’s very costly and time consuming.
  • Targeting: High; you can cherry-pick very specific conferences to go to (or run). For example, people at the bitcoin conference are perfect if you have a bitcoin-related product.
  • Effort: Medium-high; if you’re creating a conference, it’s a ton of work. Running a booth, a lot of work. Going to a conference to network, not a ton.
  • Time to results: Medium; if you’re just attending, results can be fast. If you’re running a conference or managing a booth, there are weeks to months to years of planning and organization.
  • Intent: Medium; people going to conferences are often looking for products and services to use.

Businesses it works for:

  • B2B products targeting enterprise customers
  • B2C products with high lifetime value per customer

These are conferences or other events where you can offer your services as a presenter on a topic directly related to your business. Unless you’re a high-ticket person, it’s unlikely that you’ll be paid; instead, do it for free for the exposure.

  • Scale: Low; there are only so many places with speaking engagement opportunities.
  • Targeting: High; you can cherry-pick very specific events where your target audience will be.
  • Effort: High; you have to find the event, convince organizers to let you talk, create the speech, travel to the event, and give the speech.
  • Time to results: Fast; generally, people will either convert right then and there at the event, or they won’t at all.
  • Intent: Low; the audience is most likely looking to learn, not purchase a product.
  • Average customer acquisition cost (CAC): $0. The cost depends on whether you need to pay to attend and/or need to travel.

Businesses it works for:

  • B2B products targeting enterprise customers
  • B2C products with high lifetime value per customer

PR involves creating some sort of story or buzz. Different media outlets then decide to share the story. In the tech industry, TechCrunch is the classic media outlet that covers the stories of hot new startups and their funding rounds.

  • Scale: Low; there are only so many media outlets, and they can only cover you so many times.
  • Targeting: Low; you can choose the media outlet, which may have an audience type (like tech people and TechCrunch), but anyone can see it.
  • Effort: Low-medium; you might have to come up with the story, write the articles yourself, and do a lot of schmoozing with editors/writers. If you have connections already, it’s pretty easy.
  • Time to results: Fast; if you have the connections at media outlets, the turnaround time is very fast. PR leads to spikes in traffic that die off quickly.
  • Intent: Low; the audience is just reading the news. They aren’t looking to buy products.
  • Average customer acquisition cost (CAC): $0. The cost really depends on whether or not you have connections at media outlets. If you don’t, you’ll probably need a PR agency, which will charge large amounts of money to be the gatekeeper to the media outlets.

Businesses it works for:

  • Mission-driven companies with a novel or impactful narrative