Paid advertising is often at the center of marketing efforts. However, that’s not the only or even the most persuasive way to get the right kind of attention. Many ideas, solutions, and recommendations happen in the clandestine corners of niche communities where word-of-mouth rules the day.
It’s hardly surprising.
In today’s experience-obsessed economy, the less straightforward personal approach might be just the ticket. Kalo Yankulov, Growth Marketer and Co-founder at Encharge.io, employed just such tactics to grow his companies.
Although Kalo’s journey started by pursuing a career in graphic design, he soon realized his passion lay in creating digital products. His first attempt at a SaaS product was HeadReach, an online prospecting tool designed to help sales, marketing, and data research professionals find valuable business contacts. A product he grew to 300 customers before successfully selling it. His next and current project is Encharge, an email and customer journey automation tool fast on its way to becoming a strong contender in its field.
In an interview for the Ungated Marketing Podcast with our VP of Marketing, Fernando Amaral, Kalo discusses his community-focused “back-alley” growth strategies that brought his products to success.
Communities & Word-of-Mouth as Organic Supertools
The Martech landscape is overcrowded, and joining the “battlefield” with a new tool is increasingly difficult. There are a lot of players, both big and small, with which SaaS startups must compete for attention, often with the lack of human and financial resources.
Though, for Kalo, the opportunity to wear several different hats is part of the fun and appeal of working in a startup. It’s this challenge that brought him to try strategies others often dismiss.
The Product Hunt Effect
He explains that, for example, “...with HeadReach, the interesting thing was that we didn't do a whole lot of marketing. It was really what [...] people call word-of-mouth and all of that.”
In that instance, the trick was in the successful Product Hunt launch: “At the beginning, there was really a lot of organization around the whole [...] launch. There was a lot of effort involved to really get to the top. I think we were like, top three or something like that, [even though] the day that we launched, we were competing with [...] I think it was Microsoft Teams or something like that. There were like two or three products that were really huge, huge companies. Very, very, very exciting products. So that was very successful for us. And that helped us with a lot of word-of-mouth. We got a lot of organic traffic coming from it.”
The Truth Behind Successful Community Marketing
Following the success with Product Hunt, Kalo makes a strong case for leveraging communities to gain initial traction — especially if you are targeting marketers: “You can definitely take advantage of like Product Hunt, Growth Hackers, Indie Hackers, or other tools, other places [...] There is a good number of communities [to choose from]. Facebook groups are another place, which is huge. So, you can also take advantage there.”
However, if community marketing is to pay off, it can’t be about you barging in and promoting your product. You need to become a member of the community to be able to exert influence over the debates within. As Kalo points out: “Obviously, you have to be careful and try to provide value and engage with the community before promoting your software and all that, but it works pretty well if you're able to do that. “
He elaborates: “It takes time, and it's difficult. But if this is really your community, if this is your ideal customer profile that is living in that community, then I think it's totally worth it.”
From Established Communities to Your Own
According to Kalo, the power of communities doesn’t just lie in joining existing groups but working to create your own.
In fact, one of his most successful strategies revolves around a dedicated customer Slack channel: “So the first thing when I jump on a demo call and then send a follow-up email, and I say look, I mean, you can feel free to join our Slack channel where [...] you can chat directly with me, with a customer success manager, with a developer... and we're going to create a private channel for your team.”
It sounds like a lot of work. However, it’s not without its rewards.
Kalo explains several advantages to this tactic: “So, first thing is that it makes [customers] feel more special. And that's one of the things that huge companies like Active Campaign or HubSpot, or the others, they can't afford to do that with every single customer. [...] But, most importantly, it gives us also the opportunity to get direct feedback and help people, help our customers on the spot as soon as possible.”
Making your customers feel special and having direct and instant feedback on new features are not the only reasons Kalo stands by this strategy: “It's definitely something I recommend every new startup and even grown startups — if they have the resources to do that — and not only have a Slack workspace with public channels but try to be more personal and say: ‘Look, we can create this private channel just for your team. You can invite the decision-maker, the developer if the tool needs some implementation, you can invite someone from finance or whatever — everyone involved in the process. [...] That can help you move the sales process much faster.”
Building a sense of community from the start can strengthen your position and give you more bargaining chips — the kind the big companies can’t compete with.
The Positive Side of Negative Reviews
Nevertheless, giving customers space to discuss and share experiences opens you to the risk of public criticism. When people complain online publicly, it tends to be emotional and, overall, not very pretty.
Response is Everything
Kalo is not overly concerned about this phenomenon: “It can definitely happen with larger communities. And as I said in our Facebook group, it does happen quite often. People complaining, especially the people that reach out for support, and they expect an immediate answer. And if they don't receive that answer soon, then they create a Facebook post and try to complain about support times and things like that. But, I mean, those are things that you should expect when you start growing in. It always happens. I still have to see a company that doesn't get any [complaints], [that ]has 100% positive response. And I think the most important thing is how you handle that response there.”
He goes on to elaborate that negative reviews are marketing opportunities in disguise: “There was a case study from G2 or Trustpilot. I don't remember the numbers, but the gist of it was that when people go to those review websites, they look for the negative reviews, and [...] those reviews, right, [are] the best opportunity for you to handle any type of objections. And what [prospective customers] look for is the answers to the negative reviews. So, [often] people will make a purchasing decision based on that.”
Negative reviews, whether they appear in a Facebook group, Slack channel, or G2, offer a tremendous opportunity for you to show potential customers that you:
- can admit to making a mistake;
- are dedicated to solving the issue.
Ignoring the negative reviews or providing vague and uninvolved responses to them can be detrimental to your growth.
Kalo admits that even he prefers to check the negative reviews first: “You know, the positive reviews... there might be some incentives there [...]. So if you see like a lot of five stars, that's great! That's definitely something I want to check at some point, but the first thing I want to check is why people are unhappy. And then the second thing that I check is the 3-star, the 2-star reviews. The ones that are in the middle. Those are the most [objective].”
So while five-star reviews are the ones to bring you visibility, they are the least important when it comes to the decision process. The one-star and the middle-ground reviews are the ones likely to affect potential buyers. Hence, how you respond and engage can make more difference than the budget for your next paid campaign.
Want More Reviews? Be Explicit
Both positive and negative reviews play a role in customer acquisition. The more significant issue most startups face is acquiring any reviews at all.
When it comes to this, Kalo champions clarity and explicitness. He reflects on their AppSumo launch that created a massive influx of new signups trying Encharge: “As soon as they signed up for Encharge, we asked them to leave a review. [...] There was [also] an email sequence [going out] the third day. So, we left them a little bit of time to try the tool for a couple of days. And then, on the third day, we asked them to [... do] us a huge favor, go to G2, and leave a transparent, honest review of [their] opinion of Encharge so far. And that's what helped us a lot.”
It’s true that many companies with a massive number of reviews take a proactive approach and encourage their leads and customers to comment.
However, Kalo recommends going beyond just a simple invitation to leave a review and, instead, guide customers to it with concrete steps: “You have to give them very concrete steps. And that's not only with G2 but other tools like Product Hunt or whatever. When you ask people to do something, they might not be on G2. They might not be on Product Hunt. You really have to explain: ‘This is a review website. Or, this is a leaderboard product type of site where you can vote for Encharge. And this is the button [...], you have to click on the red button for votes. You can log in with Twitter or Facebook, so it will take just a minute. So... handle those objections, give them the action steps to do whatever you ask them to do. And don't expect that people know everything.”
Hitching a Ride with the Leaders
Communities and reviews are not the only weapons in the organic, cost-effective arsenal. You can take advantage of those who are already visible and respected to channel some of that visibility to yourself.
Kalo reminisces about a time when his first company, HeadReach, didn’t have enough resources to launch a proper SEO strategy to gain organic visibility, and so he decided to use those who had, to help his cause: “I created a list of [...] of blog authors and editors and marketers of different media outlets and marketing related blog posts. I reached out, and I tried to do a little bit of link building, just get people to mention HeadReach in different types of roundup posts, or maybe [...] a list of lead generation tools. And we got some good success there. We got a few good mentions from companies like Yesware. The whole approach there was to find companies that rank very well for the key... bottom-of-the-funnel topics that we want to target [...] So that allowed us to capture a good part of that traffic and direct it to HeadReach.”
Since those articles had a high domain rating and were already ranking and generating traffic, the tactic enabled Kalo to drive relevant organic traffic to HeadReach without getting caught up in a slow SEO buildup.
Keeping Your Eyes Open for Opportunities
When you are a startup trying to position itself in a crowded market, you can look for any number of strategies to help you do so. Still, the most important thing is to keep your eyes wide open for not-so-obvious opportunities.
Kalo relates just such a case: “At the time that [...] we launched HeadReach, there was another tool similar [to ours] that closed at the time. I'm not sure if they sold the tool or [...] But it was there. Their domain was given 404. And that was the perfect timing. And I was like, great! I mean [...], I just reach out to people say: ‘Look, that tool is not live anymore. So why not feature HeadReach instead?’ It was perfect timing, and it worked pretty well.”
Thus, it’s essential to stay alert on what is happening in your industry, keep an eye on the competitors, events, even “gossip.” You never know when the next organic opportunity might appear.
Email Marketing: Old but Alive and Kicking
Kalo’s hard-earned expertise doesn’t stop with community marketing and backlinking hacks. As a CEO and co-founder of a powerful email and customer journey automation tool, he is a fierce advocate of this marketing strategy as well.
While email marketing is nothing new, Kalo disagrees with those who proclaim it “dead.” He sees it as just another tactic often employed by companies promoting SMS or messaging marketing. He admits he wouldn’t shy away from such a strategy himself if it was relevant, however: “the fact is that people still use email. And if you look at the numbers, it’s still the channel that gives the best return on investment compared to PPC, compared to other mediums. So, it still is a great channel to leverage.”
He goes on to highlight what makes email marketing stand out among the rest: “The thing with email is that you own the audience. You have a list of contacts that you can do a lot of things with. You can remarket them on Facebook. You can create a journey, create sequences. So, you actually own the audience; you don't live on an external channel; you don't depend on [...] what Mark Zuckerberg or someone else decides to do with their business.”
However, Kalo does point out that email marketing as we know it is changing. He believes for the better: “What I see is that one of the things that is quite popular at the moment is the death of the open rates. So the iOS 15 and Apple is killing the open rate. And what I see as a trend is people [...] moving towards more important metrics like revenue or leads generated, and trying to attribute email marketing to those types of metrics rather than focus on vanity metrics, like traffic, open rates.”
While open rate is still something you might want to look at and try to improve, what matters most is how many leads are generated and how your email strategy affects the bottom line.
Kalo believes that these changes will help sales and marketing align: “The big gap that currently exists between sales and marketing will become smaller and smaller, and people will try to work on real, focused objectives to increase the revenue. So I think email marketers will try to own specific metrics that are really tied in with the bottom line of the business. And they will look into ways of making, their... proving their effectiveness of their, their campaigns, and just really focusing on more and more personalization.”
Personalization is Only as Good as Your Data
It’s no secret that targeted, personalized email campaigns and sequences based on behavior and/or demographic data are the key to generating revenue. In fact, more and more people are transitioning towards this type of email marketing.
According to Kalo, if you want to stand a real chance, your personalization efforts need to start with data: “The first critical thing is really to capture the data processes to collect that data. And the second thing is to [practice] data hygiene.”
Only then can you start segmenting: That's where tools like Encharge come in, and you can segment that data. You can have very powerful segmentation capabilities, where you can create segments based on all of the attributes of the behavior-based data, the activity [...] And once you do that segmentation, then things are much easier because you can rely on a non-technical person, a marketer [who] can jump into Encharge, or [other] marketing automation platform and just start building those personalized journeys.”
There you have it. While the giants in your field might have the resources you lack, being a startup has its advantages. It allows you to “play the field” on a more hands-on personal level and create the type of experience the new type of B2B customer craves.