The Interview: Casey Armstrong, growth hacker

10 Apr 2015

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LA-based growth hacker Casey Armstrong, who will be coming to Dublin in June, laments how businesses focus so much on digital marketing to win customers but ultimately fail to keep them.

Armstrong describes himself as a full-stack online marketer who focuses on customer acquisition and revenue growth by employing everything from SEO to content marketing, semantic search, marketplace hacking, email marketing and software development.

He has driven growth at several top US technology start-ups, such as Mavenlink, which he helped grow from 5,000 to 500,000 customers while taking monthly recurring revenue (MRR) from zero to a six-figure sum.

Armstrong spearheaded the online marketing for The New York Times bestseller The Lean Entrepreneur, which also hit the USA Today, BN.com and Amazon bestseller lists.

A recent project he captained, PaleoHacks.com, attracted more than 1m unique visitors a month and more than 25m page views annually.

Armstrong will be holding a Growth Hacker Workshop for Start-ups at the NDRC in Dublin on 8 June alongside The New York Times bestselling author Patrick Vlaskovits and HubSpot VP of Growth Brian Balfour.

All the moving parts of digital marketing

The first question to Armstrong is what is a full-stack online marketer? “It’s very similar to software development, where the full stack involves everything working together, in tandem.

“This is where the big wins are today. In the early 2000s somebody could step in and just do SEO and drive a lot of traffic and that’s when there was a lot less competition. But nowadays, especially in the start-up world, to really succeed you are going against the best of the best every single day and there’s always the big guys like the Googles of the world and the new young ‘uns kicking off a start-up in their garage. And this is about understanding how does SEO and paid and social and partnerships all work together to get to the top of the funnel of traffic – do you understand conversion rate optimisation, for example?

“Do you understand user onboarding, email marketing, retention? It is basically just the entire spectrum of the customer lifecycle and all the different mediums to attract them or retain them.”

While most companies or start-ups master one or two of these fields, the battlefield is constantly moving and new technologies and disciplines need to be understood.

Armstrong agrees with this assertion and says it comes down to business fundamentals. He believes there is too much focus on customer acquisition but very little effort goes into retention.

“I like to refer to David McClure’s Startup Metrics for Pirates, where he refers to five steps in customer lifecycle and marketing. Most people only focus on the first two, which are acquisition and activation, but very little on retention, revenue and referral.

“Why are you doing all of this? You are doing it for growth, but if you are losing customers you are dying, not growing.

“You need to take the entire customer lifecycle into the equation, you can’t just drive traffic and hope people stay on the site, you really need to have the right people and hold their hand through the entire process and show value immediately. Especially in today’s world.

"It is daunting – people come in green; they say this is easy and they will realise how hard it is and then it is this dark cloud. It is difficult but people are succeeding and via different methods and tactics you can go through and put yourself in a better position for success.

“Taking that and throwing creativity into the mix and finding out what fits for your company and products.”

The power of people – incentivise them

Armstrong says the projects that have succeeded the best for him often involve very small teams

“It is a team effort, there is no one person necessarily that does everything and so it just is about getting everybody on the same page and incentivising people properly.

"That’s how you get people working toward the same goal. To get everybody on the same page just get everybody involved in talking through the stats. Talk about what you think will work, track what works, find out why and double down on that.

“In the start-up world the shift in how people are trying to work, more and more, people want independence, they want money, but they want their work to have some meaning and so getting everybody involved and selling is critical.

“In search and SEO it is so hard, so celebrate the small wins here and there as you try to truck forward and a month later you go back and go ‘wow – we’ve been climbing this crazy mountain and we’re a lot higher than we were before.

“If you don’t celebrate the small wins here and there, it gets very dry for everyone.”

In terms of PaleoHacks.com, which was subsequently acquired on the back of the strong traffic growth, Armstrong says it was a small team.

“But everybody was incentivised for both business and personal needs to get things to succeed and that really helped us to do well.”

Think lean

To succeed in full-stack online marketing, Armstrong says firms from publishers to e-commerce players need to realise they can’t do everything but should treat all the tools available as a kind of Swiss Army Knife, do you need a can opener or a bottle opener?

“The important thing is how do you prioritise time. Money is important for start-ups, but time is extremely finite so you need to spend time wisely. It’s the scarcest resource out there.”

Armstrong is a big advocate of lean methodologies and says he is more comfortable growing projects where resources are tight.

“In terms of lean methodology, customer feedback from early on and right on through is vital.

“Not everything fits into that model but I think, at least from my experience, whenever I get involved in a new project I think: do we have some competitive advantage from a distribution point, can we get eyeballs on those products, can we partner with people that can help provide awareness? All you have to do is search for something on Google, Facebook or Twitter and there are 3m ads crammed down your throat and we are all inundated with email.

“But how can we have people actually care about it versus just deleting that email or glancing over that ad? They key is feedback, talking to people who care,” Armstrong concludes.

“They will be your best guide.”

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com