Between traditional and nontraditional business growth strategies, many roads can lead to business growth. Of course, understanding our customers can help us understand which strategies we should pick. Those could include traditional, nontraditional, customer-led business strategies and a mix.
We discussed the topic with two experts on episodes of “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.” This article dives into the different types of business growth strategies discussed during those shows.
Gia is co-founder at Forget the Funnel where she helps marketers, consultants, startup founders and product managers leverage customer-led growth strategies. She’s an exec-level growth strategist and supports scaling Software as a Service businesses and helps marketing & growth leaders be more effective.
With more than 20 years of experience as a serial marketing measurement technology entrepreneur, Kristin’s consulting practice, ScaleHouse, focuses on nontraditional growth strategies for data-driven technology firms and market research companies, as well as emerging Consumer Packaged Goods companies, direct-to-consumer brands and “vice” categories like cannabis and sex tech.
What are customer-led business growth strategies?
Customer-led business growth strategies can happen through customer-led product development.
“I recognized this need for marketing to span the entire customer journey and not just customer acquisition,” Gia said. “Not just leads, leads, leads, but having an important role in generating revenue for the business. And even playing a pivotal role in that post-acquisition.”
Customer-led growth is the holistic experience that includes the entire customer journey, Gia explained.
The internal titles of departments and roles vary, and the titles really don’t matter all that much, Gia said. “The way I look at that skillset is to communicate value. And view it through the lens of the customer. That’s something we as marketers have gotten really good at.”
The customer at the forefront
Gia recounts the story of meeting with a product team, where 10 pieces of paper were taped to the wall.
“At first glance, it looked like your standard customer journey, but it was through the lens of the customer, not the lens of the business,” she said. “Up to that point, we’d been talking more about transactional buckets that we put our customers in. What was different about this one was that it was through the lens of the customer … and the customer was reaching these milestones.”
Read next: Marketing teams: Who owns customer insights?
“At the end of the day, customer-led growth is about operationalizing what you know about your customer, operationalizing customer value — so that the team can deliver value,” Gia said. “That’s opposed to these transactional buckets that we lean on a lot, like when we use marketing automation tools. We fall back onto the transactional because it’s easier, when we should be measuring a valuable moment for them … as opposed to the other way around.”
When customers are successful, the companies that helped them also are successful, Gia said.
What’s the definition of a traditional business growth strategy?
Kristin mentions anything that you would consider a paid strategy is a traditional strategy. That includes:
- Traditional advertising ‒ like on TV, radio, etc.
- Paid speaking gigs
“Anything where you have to pay for exposure,” Kristin said. “Of course, we are always trying to spend as little as we can and get the most bang for our buck.”
“Those traditional play-for-play strategies … they certainly work for a reason,” Jenn added. “And there’s an expectation to be able to prove the value of these strategies, and those are really easy to measure.”
When you have an ad placement and you can measure the attribution all the way to revenue, that helps show success. Paid strategies often focus on short-term goals and results.
What are nontraditional business growth strategies?
“Some of the nontraditional strategies are a little bit more difficult to measure the impact,” Jenn said.
In this category, Kristin lists:
- Content marketing
- Account-based marketing
- Collaborating with competitors in some cases
“A lot of these things are strategies that companies haven’t considered in the past,” Kristin said.
Some nontraditional methods are harder to measure, and you want to balance that in your strategy.
“Although I’m a total measurement freak, and if I can’t measure something and there’s a lot of money on it, that makes me really nervous,” Kristin said. “But I don’t think that all marketing and branding activity can be measured. Nor should there be that expectation.”
Nontraditional strategies often focus on longer-term success. Some nontraditional strategies can be cheaper to start implementing and, with that, it “can be easier to get people on board with trying them because there’s not as big of a monetary risk,” Kristin said.
For example, in the case of content marketing, a company can decide to share valuable content for its target market on an ongoing basis through:
- Social media
That content then will help the brand establish itself as the go-to resource for a particular topic, which, of course, is also linked to their business.
How important is customer understanding for business growth?
Understanding customers is important, both of our experts said. You have to understand their:
- Buyer journey
- And more
And most importantly, companies need to focus on existing customers.
“Which many companies don’t do,” Kristin said. “I can’t tell you how many engagements I go into and ask about churn because CEOs tell me ‘I’m bringing in all these new clients, but we are just not growing at the pace that we want to.’ ”
A lot of times, the problem is a leaky funnel. New clients come in and do a few projects and then leave, Kristin explained. “There’s no work being done to retain them.”
“It’s so hard to bring in a new client, and it’s so much easier to grow an existing client,” Kristin said. “That’s my No. 1 tip in customer experience. Treat your customers like gold. You want them to be growing.”
“Growing the efficiency in your marketing spend — it’s really in growing your existing customers,” Jenn added.
“Absolutely, but when you look at marketing strategies, engaging with existing customers isn’t even in there,” Kristin said. “But you have to nurture and grow them and make sure they know they are loved.”
How to understand customers
Certainly, do research to understand your buyers, Kristin said.
“I’m an evangelist for video,” Kristin said. “The closer we can get to customers and potential buyers, the better. And I think there’s no more powerful way than hearing it from them in their own words. I think it just resonates more deeply with people.”
It can be dangerous for companies to not understand their customers and what they really want and need from your brand.
Read next: How to use video surveys for market research
That’s something that has come up a number of times over the last year,” Jenn said. “Understanding your customers better and in a deeper way, to actually meet them with your products and your services where they are.”
Getting good customer insights can be hard, Kristin said, since customer behavior and the ability to reach them has changed in recent years.
Measurement through market research
Gia recommends that even if you start a reiterative market research process, it can be helpful to learn more about your customers and that it’s good to remember the segments of your customers:
- Highly engaged. Wouldn’t want to give up your product for anything.
- Somewhat engaged
- Passively engaged
- Use your product but don’t remember how they signed up.
You’ll want to focus on the highly engaged group to get started, Gia said.
“And find out from them what happened before they became a customer, during the buying process and even after that,” she said. “What was that moment when they truly built a habit or became engaged? And if you can determine what that journey looked like, based on research, then you can identify what those leaps of faith are and lean into each one.”
Consider these areas of importance:
“What are they thinking when they are using your product, what are they feeling and what are they doing?” Gia explained. “Figuring out their emotional journey can help you figure out their leaps-of-faith areas.”
Once you figure that out, you can “put the mechanics in place to measure it,” Gia said.
In B2B, also keep in mind there’s often a business motivation as well as a personal motivation, Jenn added.
“There’re so many things going on in people’s lives,” Jenn said.
It’s also important to look at the right numbers.
“Like, we are getting lots of leads but not all those leads are turning into customers,” Gia said. “Zoom in and solve for that specific thing is a really great way to introduce customer-led strategies.”
Once you solve for that problem, then you can expand from there, Gia said.
When should you implement these business growth strategies?
It’s always a good idea to stay connected to your customers. Marketplaces continue to change rapidly, and people’s behaviors change.
Gia added that checking in with customers is especially important when your business is undergoing changes. That could include:
- Product updates
- Expanding into new markets
“And then figure out in what order do we need to implement, and what do we need to know for second and third implementations,” Gia added.
Added Jenn: “Also, if you are not making a significant shift in your business and a lot of time has gone by, it’s probably a good time to revisit the work that’s been done. Things change all the time.”
Doing what works
“I focus on nontraditional strategies because it’s what has worked for me,” Kristin said. “The acceptance of those strategies can vary by brand. That’s probably why I work a little bit more with renegade brands.”
For example, Kristin said she works with some direct-to-consumer brands that are doing particularly well during the COVID-19 pandemic since retail shopping slowed.
Read next: How consumer insights are evolving – rapidly
Kristin also works in cannabis, which is now legal in about a dozen states in the United States.
“A lot of people — when they think about cannabis — they think about a hippie in a pot field. But most of the folks that run these cannabis businesses are now like Wharton business grads,” Kristin said. “They understand the importance of marketing and marketing spend. And they are open to doing things a different way. There’s also a regulatory environment they need to be cognizant of.”
Read next: Marketing teams: Who owns customer insights?
Regulatory environments can be fluid, Kristin explained.
“One company had to change their packaging on the fly three or four times in a year to meet new regulatory standards,” Kristin said. “Imagine them having that in a marketing environment and then only having one sales channel — cannabis shops. There are just some real interesting marketing schemes there.”
Gia said many new strategies can naturally start in these stages:
- When the positioning isn’t clear
- Customer onboarding
- Customer adoption
“And then companies can build from there,” she said.
Who should own your growth strategies?
Eva Tsai of Google said that really everyone on a marketing team needs to own customer insights. Gia discussed a similar line of thinking when it comes to who should own customer-led growth strategies.
“It depends on what teams are there,” Gia explained.
Every team should have a liaison that owns pieces of the growth strategy, Gia said, adding that if a product marketing team exists, the strategy should be led by that team.
“Just because there’s such a close tie between product marketing and the other departments,” she said. “When there’s no product marketing, it can work well if customer success or marketing leads it. The reason I say those is rather than the product team is because of their bandwidth and because not all growth strategies require product updates per se.”
Jenn added businesses always have a long list of ideas for product updates, so being able to validate strategies as potential successes — before making product updates — can help prioritize actual updates later.
How do you start?
The first step would be to decide what customer problems you are going to solve, Gia said.
“I call that a critical business opportunity,” she said. “Just because if there’s a business opportunity that is critical and that you can solve for the business, buy-in can be much easier.”
Take product adoption: If you can increase adoption by a certain percentage, what will that do financially for the business?
“It can be worth more to your business to increase product adoption and engagement than doing more top of the funnel marketing,” Gia said.
Of course, to understand what needs to be updated to improve, you must understand your customer, which can be done through video surveys, for example.
Once you improve those product-specific updates, that also can make your marketing go so much further, Gia said.
“It has to be continuously championed internally, too, which is why it should be led by marketing,” Gia said. “Be a marketer about it.”
While these business growth strategies can be used in many verticals and types of businesses, they become especially important when your business relies on repeat customers or subscribing customers.
“It’s really important to have an intimate relationship with your customer because subscription models are based on customer relationships,” Gia said. “And it’s not just about getting somebody through the front door but keeping that relationship going for the long haul and understanding what they are solving for.”
And then keep in mind how many verticals have just exploded, including mar-tech and others. To survive and strive in a highly competitive area, understanding your customers better than your competition is a differentiator.
“Customers’ expectations have gone way, way up,” she said. “Switching costs have come way down.”
Use the right business growth strategies, with the right amount of customer input, to offer the right experience to your customers and improve your product along the way.