YouTube Strategy Lessons from a Channel with 1.6 Million Subscribers

YouTube continues to be one of the best places to see organic growth, and the barrier to entry can be an advantage for companies and brands willing to put in the work. Whereas a blog post needs just a computer to type, a video requires an understanding of lighting, audio, storytelling, editing, and community building. […]

The post YouTube Strategy Lessons from a Channel with 1.6 Million Subscribers appeared first on CXL.

YouTube continues to be one of the best places to see organic growth, and the barrier to entry can be an advantage for companies and brands willing to put in the work. Whereas a blog post needs just a computer to type, a video requires an understanding of lighting, audio, storytelling, editing, and community building.

So, if you’re willing to fight through the learning curve and are patient enough to suffer through low viewership, you can generate significant exposure. In this article, I’ll show you how to turn YouTube into a core part of your marketing efforts. 

Beardbrand currently has two different YouTube channels, one with 1.6 million subscribers (Beardbrand) and one with 120k subscribers (Beardbrand Alliance). We launched the larger channel back in 2012 and the smaller channel in 2019. These channels combined are generating hundreds of thousands of views a day, none of which we pay for.

Because it’s so challenging to create engaging content, there’s a big opportunity to create fresh content and carve out your niche. 

YouTube fundamental content types you need to know

The first step of developing a successful YouTube strategy is choosing the right content types for your brand. 

You can break them up into three main types—education, entertainment, and self-promotional. The best performing content will include all three styles in one video. Those that focus on only one type have limited appeal and never see the type of organic growth you should expect.

1. Education

Educational content covers videos like how-to’s, tutorials, documentaries, product reviews, and many more. Some of my favorite examples of channels that think outside the box with this are:

Giant channel examples are Smarter EveryDay, Mark Rober, and MKBHD. The opportunities with an education-based channel are enormous. The ones that are crushing it have figured out the formula of how to blend education with entertainment.

2. Entertainment

Compared to educational videos, I believe pure entertainment videos are more challenging. To succeed in this category, you need to do something that people have never seen before. If you have an individual on your team with a magnetic personality, it may be possible to find success, but those types of people are uncommon.

Entertainment videos cover vlogs, sketch comedy, musicals, reaction videos, trick shots, etc. Some of my favorite examples of these are:

3. Self-promotion

This content relates strictly to the products and services you provide, and have a very limited audience. Typically, people who are going to watch these videos are already customers or at the very bottom of the funnel.

It’s a great way to bring value to your customers, but you’re missing out on the leverage that YouTube provides. If you’re creating videos only for your own content, then it might make sense to host it on Vimeo and drive people to a landing page (or product pages), and not try to build a community.

There are exceptions to all rules. The folks over at Vat19 have generated over 7 million subscribers by highlighting the products they sell, but the products they sell are newsworthy.

Beardbrand’s marketing strategy

We’re a bootstrapped company that started with more time than money. So, from day one, we invested heavily in YouTube, our blog, Tumblr, and Reddit. This wasn’t necessarily strategic; it was simply the only option we had.

As we’ve grown, we’ve generated more cash, which has allowed us to diversify our marketing strategy. We follow the traditional funnel strategy—top, middle, and bottom—when thinking of content to create.

Top-of-the-funnel is where you bring awareness to your brand. Middle-of-funnel tries to build trust. Bottom-of-funnel seeks to inspire action.

Top-of-funnel awareness

For the awareness stage, the goal is to reach a wide range of people. If you try to accomplish this through paid efforts, you’ll find it’s quite pricey, and it’s been unprofitable for us. Fortunately, organic content is a great way to generate awareness profitably. 

Our top-of-funnel strategy is to create content that will engage with the most potential customers. We do this by creating barbershop content that focuses on clients getting haircuts. This appeals to people who like to see transformations, barbers who want to better their craft, and people who want to get cool haircuts.

Barber playlists.

Trust building

The middle of the funnel is where people start to learn about your core values, brand mission, and products. You aren’t able to ramrod this information into all videos, so it’s important that each video has a little bit of your soul ingrained into the content. This is how you start to build trust; otherwise, you’re creating generic content that can be duplicated by anyone.

Staying in front of our audience

This part is the hardest. Your content has to evolve to stay relevant and fresh—but in a way that doesn’t alienate subscribers.

To further diversify, consider strategies to drive viewers to join an email newsletter or Facebook community. 

Your organic YouTube strategy

To understand the YouTube Algorithm, you need to understand YouTube’s strategy. Ultimately, they want to keep people on the platform as long as possible—so they can show as many ads as possible. 

Many creators over the years have complained about how their channels have fallen or stopped growing because of algorithmic changes, but the reality is that you’re in control with how you adapt to those changes.

It’s easy to become consumed with the in’s and out’s of the algorithm, but, as a general rule, I won’t look into what’s going on with the algorithm unless we start to see red flags (e.g., lower views) in our data.

I lean on these YouTube channels for info on the YouTube algorithm:

As of November 2020, the two most important things are:

  1. If viewers click on your video when they see the thumbnail and title, how long do they watch the video?
  2. Do they watch more videos after watching your video?
Roberto Blake YouTube.

The strategy, then, is to create content that:

  1. Your subscribers want to click on and watch.
  2. Will appeal to people similar to your subscribers.

The more content you create, the more data you acquire and changes you can make. If possible, create up to three videos a week and, at worst, create one video a month. If you can’t create a video a month, then you will inevitably fail on YouTube, and your resources are better spent elsewhere. The fewer videos you create, the higher quality each of those videos must be. 

Key metrics (90% of your focus)

The wonderful thing about YouTube is that they have specific metrics to help you hit the above strategy. The downside is that they have data on pretty much everything, much of which is distracting. The two major metrics you need to look at are:

  1. Click-through Rate (CTR), which tells you how engaging your thumbnail and title is.
  2. Average View Duration (AVD), which tells you about the quality of your content.

Every audience and content strategy has different metrics. It’d be great to say that a 10% CTR and 6 minute AVD will make you a million-subscriber channel, but you might just have a super engaged niche market without large growth potential.

Your best comparison is to your previous data—and finding ways to improve it.

Click-through rate (CTR)

To improve your CTR, you need to tell a story with your thumbnail and title and create a sense of curiosity.

We do a lot of haircut transformations and have learned that if we show the final cut in the thumbnail, we’ll get less engagement. Viewers already know what the haircut will look like, so they don’t have an incentive to watch the video. So we’ve found that a back-of-the-head shot about halfway through the cut performs better than other styles. 

Once you find a formula that works, there is no shame in sticking to it. For example, look at these thumbnails from DOPEorNOPE. Ever since one is Mattias’s face to the right in an interesting expression, with the products held close to the camera on the left.


The other vital thing to understand is the difference between a thumbnail with a hook and one that’s clickbait.

Clickbait is fraudulent. It has images and indicators that are designed to mislead and trick the viewers. They’re photoshopped images that don’t actually happen in the video. An effective hook is something that gets people to click on your video because they’re curious, not the result of false or misleading promises. 

Some things we’ve learned:

  • If you have a face in the thumbnail, make it as large as possible with an appropriate expression.
  • Text generally takes away valuable real estate from images. Use it sparingly.
  • Make sure that thumbnail content is in the video.
  • All audiences are different, so find channels that appeal to a similar audience and create thumbnails in that style.

Average View Duration

Increasing the average view duration is the hardest part. The intro needs to help viewers understand what they’re going to get out of the video, then the content needs to keep them engaged to not skip to the end, and the conclusion needs to satiate their curiosity.

In most cases, new creators are making videos that are too short. Don’t be afraid to create content anywhere between eight  minutes and 30 minutes. At the eight minute mark, YouTube allows for creators to put extra ads in the content so they’ve got an incentive to show those longer videos and generate more ad revenue.

We’ve found that if a video has a six minute AVD and a high CTR, there’s a good shot of it outperforming most videos. Most of our videos are in the three—four minute range.

Vanity metrics

One of the problems I think most entrepreneurs and online marketers run into is getting wrapped up in vanity metrics. They’re looking for quick wins that will elevate their content. The biggest ones I see are focusing on keywords for search optimization, tags, and descriptions.

Now, there is opportunity in search optimization, however it pales in comparison to the recommendation engine from YouTube. The recommendations from YouTube are based on your CTR and AVD, so it’s a big reason to prioritize the title with a hook and related thumbnail design.

Below, you can see the traffic sources of our large channel and small channel. The larger channel gets approximately 20% of its traffic from search, and the smaller channel is only getting 5.7%.

For viral growth, you want most of your traffic coming from “Browse features,” which consist of YouTube’s home screen, subscriptions, and other browsing features. The “Suggested videos” is when your videos are recommended next to (or after) a video being watched.

YouTube traffic.

Best practices for creating titles would be something that includes keywords and still has the hook. A bland, keyword-stuffed title won’t do as well as a title with a hook.

For the description, you’re in luck. YouTube has built comprehensive tools to scrape video content. You can see how close it gets to your content in regards to transcription. So, tags and descriptions might help with the first hour or two of views, but, beyond that, YouTube knows what your content is about. Trying to “game” the system is a waste of time. 

Optimizations (10% of your focus)

So, most of your attention needs to be on optimizing your thumbnail, title, and content.

The next most important optimization is thinking about how you can get viewers to spend more time on YouTube. A lot of marketers want to drive users off YouTube through a hard CTA. These techniques are counterproductive to growing organically on YouTube and don’t align with YouTube’s core strategy.

Occasionally, you’ll need to promote a product off YouTube. We’ve found that pinning a comment with the link is far better than including it in the description.

Playlists and cards

There are a few ways to increase time spent watching your videos. Playlists are a great tool to take advantage of this.

Beard grooming playlists.

On days you’re not creating and uploading videos, take time to build playlists and organize content. As you build a robust playlist inventory, you’ll want to link videos from within those playlists. We organize our playlists by barber, hair style, beard style, transformation, and a few other categories.

You can have the same video in multiple playlists, and you can include video content from other creators if you need to build out deeper playlists.

To promote other videos and playlists, use YouTube’s “cards” feature. Cards are call-outs that happen on the video and at the end of the video. You won’t get super high click-throughs, but it’s better than nothing.

Community engagement

Speaking of comments, you’ll want to interact with viewers who comment on your videos. When you do this, it gives them a reason to come back to the video as well as the incentive to comment on future videos.

When your channel is very small, this is probably one of the best investments of your time. Often, the comments give you valuable feedback on how to improve your videos.


In most cases, you’ll want to turn on advertisements for your videos. If you have concerns about competitors buying ads on your videos, you can block their websites through AdSense.

By monetizing through ads, you’re giving YouTube another reason to recommend your videos—they can make money on them. 

Meta work

Above, I said that tags, keywords, and descriptions aren’t top priority, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invest in them. Fortunately, YouTube allows you to have a default template for your description, so you can add links to your company, social media properties, and other relevant information.

Don’t use more than 10 tags, and really focus on the most relevant one. In addition, you can transcribe your videos and have detailed descriptions. While helpful, these efforts aren’t likely to have a significant impact on the success of your videos. Don’t overthink it. 

New opportunities

YouTube’s platform is continuously evolving, and new features are added (and taken away) all the time. Most of YouTube’s traffic is on mobile, and they’ve been highlighting their Stories feature, as well as shorter videos under a minute.

In our early testing, we’ve seen pretty significant views on these short videos; however, we aren’t getting a lot of comments and engagement. If you’re in a saturated market, there may be opportunity to focus on these shorter videos as a differentiator for your channel.

Your paid YouTube strategy

As with organic, there’s a ton of opportunity and scale if you find success with your creative, but it does take a lot of time and effort to get there. 

Master organic YouTube first. Once you do that, you’ll better understand the in’s and out’s of the platform and be able to use the same techniques that increase AVD with your ads. This is vital for success.

One secret to success on YouTube is that you can generate ad views without paying for them. The first five seconds of a video will play, and if a viewer decides to skip the rest, you’re not responsible for that ad.

If too many people do it, however, your cost per ad will be higher. If you have a great performing ad, you’ll get a lot more impressions within those first five seconds to boost growth.

How YouTube Ads fit into our marketing strategy

As a bootstrapped company, profitability is one of the highest priorities for our paid marketing. This presents an issue because a lot of your performance on YouTube happens after a person watches a video. Expect to see lower CTRs than other mediums. (I’ll dig into other metrics below.)

We look at our paid strategy similar to our organic one. We break it up by top of funnel, middle of funnel, and bottom of funnel. We also have an additional “testing” category to try new audiences or creative.

Your biggest challenge with YouTube paid marketing is how to create an advertisement that people want to watch more than the video they clicked on. 

Another key component of our strategy is to exclude current customers (for 180 days) so we can focus purely on customer acquisition, not remarketing. While there are opportunities there, we use our email list and organic social media channels as our remarketing channels.

We focus exclusively on pre- and mid-roll advertisements (the ads you need to hit “skip” to get past). We don’t do any banner advertising, driving people to subscribe, or search marketing.

YouTube account structure

One of the biggest mistakes you can make with YouTube marketing is to use your existing Google Ads account to manage your ads. Create a separate account so that you have a better grasp on attribution. 


In addition to creating a new Ads account, create a separate YouTube channel to serve your ads. Our channel, Beardbrand Products, is where we upload our advertisements, and we make public our successful ads in the event people want to share them.

We do this because we don’t want to hinder the growth of our organic channel by Google seeing the resources we’ll put into paid. I know Google claims they won’t dock your organic channel’s performance, but I’m skeptical. 

The different funnels

The paid funnels are focused based on where the audience is when they’re exposed to Beardbrand. So, at the top of the funnel, we’re doing broad customer targeting (e.g., just men), or a large custom affinity (e.g., sports, coffee, etc.)

In the middle of funnel, we leverage custom intent audiences to get more specific with our targeting—people interested in grooming, DTC brands, or with product-relevant keyword searches. The awesome thing about having a large organic channel is that we can also target viewers of those videos.

The bottom of the funnel is for people who visited the Beardbrand website, whom we retarget.

Key metrics and performance indicators

Your most important metrics vary depending on the conversion rates on your website, price of your products, and margins. These are the metrics we strive to hit (with exceptions, of course). 

The first thing we do is set our pixel to a 30-day conversion window. On Facebook, we do a 7-day window, but because this is more “brand building” (and there’s less direct tracking), we’ve found that a 30-day window is acceptable—if you exclude customers. 

From there, our primary metrics in Google Ads are View Rate, Cost Per View (CPV), and Return on Ad Spend (ROAS). Our target View Rate is 30%, with the exception of a high-converting ad. Our target for CPV is $0.02 or less. For our ROAS, we factor in all conversions and look to get at least 2X our spend.

Typically, we’ll know within a day whether our $20 investment in ads will hit our 30% View Rate goal and be successful. There’s no point letting ads continue to spend in the hopes they’ll improve. The first couple hundred views are sufficient indicators to ad performance.

One last metric we look at is brand search on Google Trends. Dr. Squatch is a brand that has had incredible success with YouTube paid marketing. They’ve generated over 100 million views for their ads, which—if you do the math—means that they’ve spent seven figures on ads in a short period of time. 

Dr. Squatch Google Trends.

Look at their brand name growth in Google Trends as an example of the power of YouTube. This technique is a lag metric, and another reason you want a longer window into the success of your channel.

Content is the key

So what does it take to make sure your advertisements are profitable? It comes down to two areas of focus:

  1. The first five seconds of the video have to be the most engaging content you can imagine. Go back to the hook. How can you convince the viewer to stick around and watch your ad—over the video they want to see?
  2. Get the viewer to watch at least 30 seconds of the video. This will help your metrics and drive down the CPV of your ads.

Just like organic YouTube, you need engaging content for your ads. Remember, engaging doesn’t mean “highly produced,” but it does mean interesting, unique, and like nothing else on the Internet. 

Our best-performing ads tell a story and keep people hooked to the end. You can see examples of our content on our Beardbrand Products YouTube channel. The reason we’re able to get millions of paid views is because the views perform so well that the CPV will be below $0.01. These videos are also top-of-funnel videos with the intent to build awareness.

Dr. Squatch has found success because their videos are top- and bottom-of-funnel content in one video. Where we need to expose our audience to two or three ads, they can do it in one.

Many firms offer creative help, but we’ve found that producing videos in house is far better. We’re able to create more versions, test quickly, and keep costs down. But this could only happen because we invested in our organic YouTube channel and have core competency in video production.


It’s incredibly difficult to find success on YouTube. But if you have the vision and commitment to learn and improve, you’ll see the impact on your business.

YouTube has been a big part of our strategy. We do a post-purchase survey, and about 40% of our DTC customers first heard about us through our organic YouTube channel. This drives multi-million dollars of revenue for us. When you factor in the ad revenue we generate from our YouTube channel, the cost of production is effectively $0. 

So, to put it bluntly: We’re being paid to generate revenue for their business. That, my friends, is the power of YouTube.

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Create a “Content Playground” that’s Fun for Buyers (and Lucrative for You)

I recently faced a familiar scenario: My team wanted to buy a new SaaS tool, so my boss asked me how much budget to request. I had no idea about pricing, so I Googled around and asked for pricing tiers from several vendors in the space.  Unfortunately, I received a handful of all too common, […]

The post Create a “Content Playground” that’s Fun for Buyers (and Lucrative for You) appeared first on CXL.

I recently faced a familiar scenario: My team wanted to buy a new SaaS tool, so my boss asked me how much budget to request. I had no idea about pricing, so I Googled around and asked for pricing tiers from several vendors in the space. 

Unfortunately, I received a handful of all too common, unhelpful responses.

“Let’s jump on a call for a demo and maybe we can talk about pricing at the end.”

“Please fill out this form to download our white paper so that you understand the value of solving this problem.”

“Have you checked out this blog post, this video, and this infographic? I can send you more links to more information about our product if needed.”

Despite me just wanting a rough estimate to forward to my boss, all the reps wanted to put me through their traditional funnel—when I didn’t even have a budget!

Several reps even tried to start by educating me about the problem, despite the fact that I had already already bought in on solving the problem and using a SaaS tool as the solution.

I wanted to buy from them, but they wouldn’t budge on moving me to the “purchase” phase of the funnel, all because I skipped the standard “awareness” and “consideration” phases—a huge mistake.

Breaking content out of the linear funnel

The traditional buyer’s funnel relies on linear decision-making, assuming that an audience will move neatly to become a prospect, then customer. In the past, we’ve assumed that potential customers would always arrive at our website after Googling a specific search term, and we’d make them “aware” of a problem and how our product solves this problem. 

Awareness would then grow as they perused our landing pages, read our blog posts, and filled out a form to download an in-depth white paper. Filling out the form was a clear signal that the person was moving into the “consideration” phase of the funnel, intentionally trying to see exactly how our product solves the problem. 

We’d then send them increasingly pushy emails to nurture them into deciding to make a purchase. And after some number of opens, clicks, and visits, we’d go in for the hard sale—a phone call from a sales rep, an office visit to provide a demo, and some kind of “buy now or else” discount on pricing. Straight-forward, logical, easy to track.

But despite being effective in the past, that’s not how modern humans work.

Content marketers need a new model that reflects how humans actually work. When reflecting on these challenges, I initially thought about a jungle gym, because it allows you to travel up, down, and sideways. 

But the problem is that the goal is the same: to get to the top. It’s still a marketer forcing someone to go on a journey that ends in a purchase.

Enter the playground. 

What’s the right way to play on a playground? Is it to go down the slide first? Up-and-down on the seesaw? Should you swing on the swings last? What’s the right way to use the equipment?

Playground designers intend for you to slide down the slide, but, of course, children always want to climb up the slide. And what about the parents sitting on the park bench, watching their kids play? Are they using the playground the wrong way? Of course not! 

When you translate these ideas to your marketing content, you realize that you need to treat the buyer’s journey like a playground: People can enter and exit as they please, can go in any order, and can never use content the “wrong way.”

What does it look like to create a journey that delivers the right content, to the right person, in the right place, at the right time? To build a playground such that your audience experiences a seamless journey, no matter which path they take?

Choosing what to talk about

Instead of focusing on content for each phase of the traditional funnel, marketers need to create content at three depths: conceptual, strategic, and tactical. Keep in mind, however, that customers won’t necessarily go through these stages in order.

The conceptual level

This level covers the overarching idea, the “what” and why.” It helps the audience think about the problem space (not just the problem your product or service solves, but the long-term problem they face, which they might not even know about yet). 

Metrics for this depth are rare and only long-term. A goal for readers of our content at Atlassian, where we make collaboration tools, might be “team cohesion,” for example. 

Or, to think of it in another context: What does it mean to be healthy and fit? Most people agree that it is some combination of exercise and nutrition. But the answers differ among magazines like Muscle & Fitness, Runner’s World, and Yoga Journal.

If we choose Muscle & Fitness magazine as our lens to view the concept of health and fitness, the answer is focused on a high-protein diet, strength-focused goals, and aesthetics.

The strategic level

Strategic content gives the audiences the frameworks and processes they need to make the conceptual ideas reality, and helps them frame up the solution space (again, not your product or service but how to think about solutions). 

We might have medium-term goals like “adopting agile methodologies” or “getting everyone on the same page with a project kick-off” as the outcomes for the reader. 

To use the health and fitness example, you might focus on content about compound exercises, good form when lifting, and fast-digesting vs. slow-digesting protein. 

The tactical level 

The tactical, of course, focuses on the nitty gritty details. This content details prescriptive instructions on how to implement strategies to make a concept reality, and the regular habits and actions your audience needs to take to achieve the ideal outcome.

For Muscle & Fitness magazine, articles with titles like, “10 Tips to Grow Bigger Biceps” or “5 Recipes for Chicken Dinner this Week” fall into this category.

Someone might land on tactical content like chicken recipes on Pinterest as their first touchpoint. That might take them to a blog post with the recipe and a short explanation about the role of protein in your diet. 

An in-line link or sidebar to related content might have a headline like, “Why weightlifters need a protein-heavy diet,” which leads to conceptual content about what it means to be fit and healthy, as defined by Muscle & Fitness magazine.

Alternatively, someone might be sitting in their doctor’s office for an annual physical and pick up a copy of the magazine while they wait. Here, they read strategic-level content about different sources of protein, which leads them to search for tactical-level content like chicken dinner recipes in the online publication. 

How Atlassian used the conceptual, strategic, and tactical frameworks 

At the conceptual level, we talk about how people work, not just what they produce. The goals are quite lofty: connection, trust, speed, belonging, and momentum.

Atlassian practices.

The Atlassian Team Playbook offers a mix of conceptual, strategic, and tactical content. The “Why Team Playbook” addresses the conceptual depth by talking about the need for a common resource. Again, the goals at the conceptual level are hard to measure and focused on long-term outcomes.


It addresses the strategic depth with a Health Monitor for different types of teams, which allows the team to score eight attributes. We encourage teams to run Health Monitor at least three times per year and compare ratings across each attribute over time. The metrics for this level are more concrete and objective. 

For example, one attribute of a healthy team is that each project has a full-time owner. To test this, the facilitator asks the team, “Who is the full-time owner”? A unanimous agreement on a name without prompting supports a “thumbs up” rating on this attribute.

Atlassian health monitors.

Based on the scoring from the Health Monitor, the site offers a range of exercises with step-by-step instructions, templates, and action items to improve teamwork.

For example, the project kick-off play requires the team to name the Driver, Approver, Contributor(s), and Informed members for the project, instead of just assuming that all members know their role.

Atlassian team playbook.
Team playbook.

All of this information is available for free, with no email address required, and no purchase commitment of any kind—a decision we made strategically.

Instead of hard-selling our products, we created templates within Confluence and retro boards within Trello to tie our products to the conceptual, strategic, and tactical information presented in the Team Playbook.

This links the tools we sell to the ideas we promote, allowing our audience to choose their own journey and build a long-term relationship with our brand.

Project teams playbook.
Retrospective technique.

In addition to brand-level content about teamwork, Atlassian product content follows a similar style: educate and empower, and showcase how teams need both practices and tools to succeed. 

For example, the Jira Software team created a microsite dedicated to product-agnostic education about becoming an agile team. 

The Agile Coach includes a mix of long-form articles, vidoes, and tutorials. At a conceptual level, the site addresses the origin, benefits, and practices from the Agile Manifesto. 

At the strategic level, content offers context about each of the key rituals of agile, with guidance on how to choose which agile practices best fit your team. For example, Kanban and Scrum are two popular agile project management rituals.

The old model would tag this as “awareness” content for a “top-of-funnel” audience, but the playground model recognizes that agile practices are useful no matter where you are in your product or purchase journey (even if the journey ends in no purchase).

What is agile.
What is scrum.

The site offers tutorials using Jira to help practitioners put the concepts and strategies into practice, again with step-by-step instructions. These tutorials are useful whether you’re considering the product or own the product.

Many organizations purchase a project management tool to streamline work without adopting agile practices, but Atlassian wants you to connect the tools and the practices. Thus, reviewing, onboarding, and setting up Jira is inherently tied to conceptual and strategic content about adopting agile practices.

Software development tool.

For example, one of our customers received an invite to an internal Jira training. The team was switching project management tools, and she was tasked with setting up her organization on Jira. In her search for tutorials, she landed on the Agile Coach. 

She wasn’t familiar with agile methodology, but the new tool was based on these practices. She ended up learning about and implementing agile rituals like stand-ups in her team and, eventually, became responsible for driving agile adoption across people, practices, and tools throughout the organization. 

She wasn’t looking to make a purchase, and she wasn’t considering that a product could solve her problem. The product decision was already made, without her input, but the search for practical tips led her to conceptual, strategic, and tactical content that made her a champion of both agile methodologies and Atlassian products.

Jira tutorial.

Distribution framework

Once you’ve determined which narratives to address, you need to choose the asset type and outlets to share your content with the world. 

When considering asset types, don’t get stuck in a rut thinking that “content” means a blog post or a white paper, content can be written (long-form or short-form), visual, audio, or interactive.

Outlets include paid, owned, and earned platforms, as well as a place to host and share content. The traditional funnel emphasizes owned platforms as hosting gated content helps track leads and conversions. 

But your audience spends time on a variety of non-owned platforms, and their next action might not be a buying action, so consider which metrics you want to optimize for each asset, on each platform. 

  • Choose platforms based on industry research from analysts like Gartner and Forrester, benchmarking data from academia and consulting firms like MIT, Harvard Business Review, Deloitte, and McKinsey, and surveys of your audience. You can also test different platforms to understand how your audience interacts with that platform. 
  • Look at communities where your audience spends time. For example, developers spend time and engage on Reddit and HackerNews. Lifestyle brands are often showcased on Instagram. 

For example, we surveyed prospects and customers and found that they were looking for educational content about agile methodology on YouTube. At the time, we didn’t have video content to address this need, and we were losing significant reach and engagement. 

The Jira team created the “Agile Coach” series on YouTube. The videos were also added to the relevant pages on the Agile microsite, and the microsite was linked in the descriptions on YouTube. 

The team experimented with different thumbnails, title lengths, and CTAs to subscribe to the company channel and watch the next video. Since the launch of the series, the Agile Coach has received hundreds of hours of watch time and positive feedback from our audience.

The agile coach.

Duarte used a mix of outlets and asset types when they launched Nancy Duarte’s “Slidedocs” book. It was created in PowerPoint and released for free on Slideshare.

Slideshare Slidedocs.

The team added call-outs throughout the book to access downloadable content, like diagrams and two PowerPoint templates. They also created a landing page to promote a paid ecourse with related content, and an embedded version of the book. 

Slideshare 1.
Slideshare 2.

The Slidedocs book showcases all three content depths: 

  • At the conceptual level, Nancy Duarte argues that communication has changed, and we need to choose the right tool for our communication needs. 
  • At the strategic level, she lays out different communication tools, including introducing the slidedoc as a new medium. She shares a spectrum of dense documents, slidedocs that pair words and visuals, and presentations, which use visuals and storytelling, along with recommendations for when and where to use each medium.
  • Finally, the bulk of the content in the book focuses on the tactics to create your own slidedocs, with step-by-step instructions for writing, designing, and delivering a slidedoc.
Table of contents.

Remember, all assets and all channels do not need to accomplish all things at all times. Are you optimizing for reach, engagement, or CTR? Do you intend to engage on an owned platform or a third-party platform? There are trade-offs for each asset. 

When Atlassian launched a major update to Jira, the team used 1:1 engagement on social media to address questions and concerns. Individual Product Managers and Product Marketers reached out from their personal Twitter handles to respond directly. 

We partnered with the corporate social media team to coordinate responses in a dedicated Slack channel and incorporated the individual responses into an FAQ for the team to use going forward. 

The corporate team tracked responses and tagged at-mentions with positive, neutral, or negative sentiment labels to allow the team to view success. Verbatim tweets and thread links were included to improve responses and track sentiment changes. 

Atlassian twitter.

And it’s not just tech companies moving away from easy-to-track metrics like impressions.

Here’s a counter-intuitive example: the “Visit Vienna, not #vienna” campaign. The city explicitly asked people not to take photos and share them on social media using a hashtag. 

Vienna social.

Instead, they asked people to pick up an instant camera at the city visitor’s center and take only 10 photos for the entire trip. They created a website of local vendors and locations, with guided paths depending on the type of vacation you prefer. 

Vienna homepage.

They used out-of-home advertising and strategic engagement with influencers to generate conversation and impressions, but when you limit the conversation to in-person venues, it’s much harder to measure. 

How would they measure success without the usual reach of a hashtag?

Increase in requests for tourists visas, revenue lift for vendors featured, and the number of people who picked up a camera could be measured and correlated more strongly with a “buy” action than simply using a hashtag.

Vienna advertising.

Uniting content across multiple touch-points

It’s difficult to unite and track online and offline experiences. The previous examples showcase multiple digital outlets, with handy tracking via marketing automation, form fills, or URLs with UTM codes.

But what does it look like to meet your audience wherever they are, with a cohesive story across all platforms?

During my work at Cloud Access Security Broker, we created a booth giveaway that gave us multiple entry points into relevant topics and social media fodder. 

We placed an Amazon Tap in a locked case and had a bowl full of what looked like identical keys, with a small number of keys that actually worked with the lock. Attendees could choose a key and if it opened the lock on the case, they won the tap.


Many attendees were skeptical that a working key actually existed in the bowl, so when someone opened the box, we’d snap a picture for the company Twitter feed, tag them, and ask them to re-tweet the photo.

Lock trade show campaign.

But it wasn’t just about a quirky challenge at a security conference. The storytelling tie-ins were perfect: Who has keys? How do you know if someone took a key and gave it to someone else? How do you know who’s used the keys most recently? What happens to the keys after the show? 

We used real-life stories of customers we’d helped answer these questions and tied all the messaging together in a downloadable ebook that we posted on Slideshare and used in our follow-up emails to people we scanned at the booth. 

We also shared the ebook to our company social media pages so that followers who didn’t attend the trade show in person could still participate and learn.

Cautionary tales.

Throughout this process, we tracked a significant increase in lead scans at the booth, driven in large part by our booth traffic and give-away engagement during the opening night party in the expo hall. 

We saw an increase in followers and engagement on our social media channels, as well as views of the ebook on Slideshare. And, finally, the open-rate and click-through rate on our post-event emails was higher than past events because we referenced the popular give-away in the subject line, and our ebook tied to their time at the booth.


The traditional funnel seeks to rush people to a purchase with as few touchpoints as possible. But the content playground seeks to create a seamless, non-linear journey across all touchpoints.

Instead of focusing solely on a short-term purchase, marketers with a playground mindset focus on creating a delightful experience, educating and empowering their audience, and building long-term, trust-based relationships. 

The post Create a “Content Playground” that’s Fun for Buyers (and Lucrative for You) appeared first on CXL.

How to Craft (Or Pivot) Your Agency Value Proposition

Back in 2016, I read a book called Sprint by Jake Knapp, founder of Google Ventures. Knapp talks about focusing on only the essential activities for shipping new products and testing new ideas. As advocated in the book, I felt the idea of using restraint would help me quickly execute on new ideas. And so, the concept […]

The post How to Craft (Or Pivot) Your Agency Value Proposition appeared first on CXL.

Back in 2016, I read a book called Sprint by Jake Knapp, founder of Google Ventures. Knapp talks about focusing on only the essential activities for shipping new products and testing new ideas.

As advocated in the book, I felt the idea of using restraint would help me quickly execute on new ideas. And so, the concept for a digital PR service was born. The goal was simple: validate demand or move on.

Using my existing skills and resources (including an old domain name), I tested a productized digital PR offer. I put together a one-page website, a list of 100 people to reach out to, and a cold email script that would make seasoned sales professionals cringe.

To my surprise, I closed my first client in under two weeks. Another three came on board 45 days later. My service startup quickly grew and became a platform to identify new problems we could solve for clients.

About 18 months later, we pivoted our messaging to evolve beyond digital PR. Today, Grizzle is a full-service content marketing and SEO agency that provides B2B and SaaS companies end-to-end services.

Here, I’ll show you the journey we took to finding our place in the market by testing, pivoting, and re-pivoting our serving offerings and value propositions so you can grow your agency faster, without fewer wrong turns.

Why—or why not—pivot your agency service offering?

These days, many agencies start as a lean operation. For example, KlientBoost started out as a small Google AdWords (now Google Ads) agency, run entirely by founder Jonathan Dane, and a designer—his first full-time hire:

KlientBoost homepage.

Now, KlientBoost is a $750,000+ MRR agency with over 70 employees, serving clients an array of paid media services with a widely recognized brand:

KlientBoost homepage updated.

Starting as a lean operation allows you to build processes in a manageable way, serve clients without burning out, and generate cash flow early. To do this, you need to offer a specific service to a particular group of people (i.e. “niche down”).

But eventually, you’ll come to a crossroads where expanding is an attractive—and lucrative—option. You’ll end up pivoting not only your service offering but the people you serve and your value proposition.

If your network has expressed an interest in additional services, pivoting is a no-brainer. When clients ask, “Do you do X?,” it’s a good sign they trust you enough to take care of fixing that problem, too.

Naturally, pivoting (or expanding) is an option if you’re hungry for growth. For example, a productized service allows you to start quickly. But if you’re looking to build a $10 million agency, you’ll need to expand several times throughout your business journey.

Inversely, if you’re using the agency model to fund another startup or product, you should probably keep things lean. Pivoting and expanding will distract you from your true goal.

If expanding services is the right move, what should you offer?

3 ways to find proposition pivot or expansion opportunities

1. Conduct client development interviews.

My agency wouldn’t have expanded beyond digital PR if it weren’t for early client conversations. Churn rate was high for a service that many organizations saw as a “nice to have.” I knew we needed to change things up to survive. So, I got on the phone with existing clients and asked the question: What else are you struggling with at the moment?

Turns out, getting high-quality blog content delivered consistently was a big one. Luckily, we already did this as part of our digital PR offering and had already cemented trust. During our first discovery call, our client upsold themselves. In 30 minutes, Grizzle pivoted from a productized digital PR service to an SEO-focused content marketing agency.

Your existing clients trust you, but they won’t assume you can help them beyond your current mandate. It’s up to you to find the overlap between the services you provide, your capabilities (and those of your team), and your client’s challenges. It starts by asking clients the right questions.

It starts with a simple email. Invite clients to join you on a call, letting them know you’re looking to improve your services. If you feel it’s necessary, let them know you won’t be trying to sell them anything. It’s simply a fact-finding mission.

Go into the call with a handful of broad questions. The real gold lies by digging deeper into their responses with relevant follow-up questions. Here are three we use whenever we chat with our clients:

  1. “First of all, it’s been a pleasure working with you for the last eight months. What do you feel is the biggest challenge we’ve helped you solve?” An additional objective for this call is to find out why clients invest in you. It’s easy to assume they work with you because of your deliverables. However, you don’t always see the impact you make behind the scenes.
  2. “What other content marketing challenges are you facing?” (Replace “content marketing” with whatever your agency offers.) This question is where the gold lies. You’ll hear a lot of objective responses (and “jobs to be done”), but your follow-up questions will uncover why these are important.
  3. “If I found a service or solution to help you with [challenge], would it be something you’d evaluate?” I know this language sounds formal and stuffy, but high-ticket service sales cycles are long. Asking clients if they’d invest in a solution without understanding it doesn’t make sense. Evaluation, however, implies a journey of discovery. Most B2B buyers know this.

When asking follow-up questions, pull on relevant threads that will help you get the insight you need. For example, if a client says a challenge of theirs is “converting more users who visit product pages,” ask them what they currently do, what’s worked, and what hasn’t.

After three or four of these calls, you’ll likely start to see patterns in how to solve challenges using your capabilities. In our initial calls, we uncovered our clients were struggling not only with getting high-quality blog content, but the time it takes to edit and polish it and, if necessary, find a new supplier.

To solve this problem, we built out an end-to-end editorial capability to ensure content is polished before delivery. Content creation is the capability, but the bigger problem we solve is making sure that clients save time dealing with writers and providing feedback.

Much like our digital PR offering, we started with a lean operation:

  • We used Google Sheets to manage content operations across all accounts, along with dashboards that each client had access to.
  • We then used Zapier to allow these two sheets to “talk” to each other, meaning we could avoid gaps and delays in content delivery.

We decided to create the content in-house for the first few projects. Why? Because we wanted to document every aspect of the process before partnering with new freelance writers. This allowed us to guide and train new writers, while maintaining the level of quality that our clients had already come to expect.

You can apply this philosophy to any service. For example, you may design beautiful looking websites, but your clients want something that looks great and performs as a lead generator. You may need to expand your capabilities, but it’ll be worth the time or investment if you can consistently deliver on both needs.

2. Respond to shifting market priorities.

Interviewing your customers can reveal the priorities they’re aware of. However, as an agency, clients expect you to be knowledgeable about shifts in the market, new technologies, approaches, tactics, and methodologies.

Relying on client development alone will give you only part of the picture. You must constantly educate yourself on the shifts and changes within your market. This applies to new offers and how you execute what you already offer.

The former is simple. For example, after looking at the broader market, we saw that a service that helps marketers scale their video content was in demand. In the context of content marketing alone, these challenges would not have come up in our client interviews unprompted.

How you execute on existing services should also evolve. For UX agencies, one example is offering technical or UX writing services. Beautiful UI is no longer enough. How you communicate as a function of that design is a critical problem that you should aim to solve.

Here are some practical approaches to identifying shifting priorities:

  1. Embedding yourself in social media. Listening to conversations among your peers is one of the fastest ways to find changes in the way they work. Sure, you shouldn’t take one person’s word as gospel. But if several people are expressing similar opinions (in relation to how something is being done), it’s worth paying attention.
  2. Talk to other in-house practitioners. Outside of business development, outreach is an excellent opportunity to make friends with and learn from other in-house marketers, creatives, and senior decision-makers. For example, if you offer ad services to startups, make time to connect with in-house paid media specialists at larger companies. Bonus points if you can create a community that brings them together.
  3. Learn from your competitors. Other agencies have likely done some of the hard work for you. The best agencies are continuously testing new approaches and methodologies. Don’t be afraid to learn from them, take their lead, and adapt to new ways of doing things.

When I first started my agency, I often compared myself to the competition. Now, I embrace the excellent work they do. For example, I recently had a call with Ryan Law, Director of Marketing at Animalz, a fellow content marketing agency:

Twitter DM.

Many old-school agency marketers might consider this as fraternizing with the enemy. But we have a lot in common, and I learned a lot from our conversation.

There’s a caveat to this advice: Competition is worth learning from only if they’re thought leaders in your space. Sacrificing your own methodologies just because someone is opinionated about their own may backfire. However, if they’re sharing new ways of improving upon your craft, it’s well worth listening.

There’s plenty of pie to go around. But, more importantly, your competitors are continually setting new standards for working. It’s your job to embrace, adopt, and build upon them.

3. Choose to expand vertically or horizontally.

Traditional advice tells us to niche down when starting an agency. While this is solid advice, eventually it will feel limiting. Especially as you approach a natural decline in growth.

To alleviate this problem, it’s common to take a broad leap by expanding in one of two ways:

  1. Broadening out into different service offerings (e.g., “SEO” for a content marketing agency);
  2. Serving new industries and markets.

While talking to existing clients and uncovering new problems yields additional services, expanding your capabilities means offering something entirely new.

A dramatic example of this is a software development agency offering UX and UI services. The two are interlinked but require wildly different capabilities and resources.

There’s no right or wrong answer to this, and for established agencies it requires a slow and deliberate plan. A safe approach is to partner with contractors and freelancers to fulfill new business. This way, you can focus on business development, communications, and awareness to build a sales pipeline and “validate” early demand.

The hard work is building out a team that can deliver on those services, along with leadership that can ensure a smooth operation and a stellar service for clients.

This approach takes a lot of work, so it’s worth taking a lean approach when starting. As I mentioned earlier, we started expanding our own services by doing things in-house, building out simple systems that allowed us to scale steadily without sacrificing quality.

For ambitious agencies, taking an MVP approach can unlock incredibly lucrative revenue streams. Start small, and then start hiring new talent to expand upon what you’ve started.

How to communicate new services to potential buyers

For agencies, getting new services to market can seem like a daunting task. I’ve found the simplest (and fastest) method is to craft highly specific offers.

By communicating the following, you can turn a list of vague services into crystal clear propositions:

  1. Who the offer is for;
  2. The problem the service solves;
  3. What exactly the service is and how it works.

Let’s look back at my agency’s beginnings. Starting as a productized digital PR service, we solved a single problem for a specific audience: getting martech companies featured in marketing blogs.

Why this audience? Because that’s where my track record was at the time. Here’s what our very first landing page looked like in 2016:

Grizzle homepage old.

This landing page wasn’t pretty and broke many copywriting rules in the book. However, it did communicate everything a potential client needed to know and was responsible for my first $9,000 in monthly recurring revenue. As a solo-founder at the time, that was huge.

When crafting offers like this, we rely on a messaging framework called SCQA, which stands for:

  • Situation. Set the stage by demonstrating you understand your prospects current reality. Lead with a statement that your audience ultimately agrees with. Define a problem that’s either top of mind or one that they’re constantly aiming to overcome.
  • Complication. What are the hurdles that prevent them from overcoming this problem? This is your chance to present them with cold hard facts, which are most powerful when accompanied by third-party statistics and data.
  • Question. Now it’s time to release some of that tension, and bring existing thoughts to the forefront. Your question is simply another way of stating, “How do I overcome this?”
  • Answer. Your offer, value proposition, and call to action.

Let’s dissect our guest blogging offer against the above model. Here, we outline the situation:

As a marketing leader growing a B2B organization targeting other marketers, you’ll be more than familiar with the challenge of utilizing content marketing to capture a wider audience and discover business opportunities. According to a HubSpot survey, 36% of marketers believed the biggest challenge of all was creating engaging content in the first place.

Not the best paragraph in the world, but it gets the audience nodding. Why? Because I used the exact language spoken by marketing executives (despite the apparent buzzwords). From here, I touch upon a simple but powerful complication:

When marketing a B2B company solving a marketing challenge, you’re faced with an overwhelming array of choices. The amount of marketing options available can be confusing and distracting. Yet one thing is clear: content marketing is important. In fact, 76% of marketers plan to produce more content in 2016 compared to 2015 (Content Marketing Institute). 

The problem is, only 30% of those marketers believe their organizations are effective at content marketing in the first place.

Back in 2016, not everyone knew where to focus their content marketing activities, and fewer were pleased with the results. These statistics present facts, but painful ones. Now’s our chance to set the stage for our solution:

So, how do you produce content that’s proven to engage and expand your audience, generate opportunities, build high quality backlinks – all while positioning yourself as a thought leader at the same time?

The above question sets the stage in two ways. First, it aims to read our audience’s mind. It could have simply said, “How do you produce content that gets results?” and had the same effect.

But it’s in the specificity that draws curiosity. Generating backlinks and establishing thought leadership are two common content marketing objectives. By presenting an approach that achieves these, we build anticipation and draw the reader toward the answer: our solution.

Guest blogging for marketers service.

I know, the copy is terrible. But the problem, value proposition, and offer are clear. While this follows a simple long-form copy structure, there are plenty of other ways to lay out the information your audience needs to make a decision.

The purpose of your offer is to “land and expand.” Attract new clients to start a commercial relationship. Time and time again, I’ve found that reaching out to prospects with a broad offer fails to get the conversation going. Create an offer to solve a specific problem, show clients you’re a reliable partner, and nurture accounts over time.

What to do when your pivot doesn’t work

At the end of 2019, I noticed an increasing shift toward organic marketing in the ecommerce and consumer technology space. People like Web Smith from 2PM, and others in the D2C space, were advocating and sharing examples of brands who used content to build organic audiences. After some initial digging, there was a clear opportunity to offer our methodology to this market.

Expanding into a new market was exciting. Not only because I’m fascinated by consumer brands, but the opportunity to make an impact was huge. Competition, at an initial glance, is far lower than the current B2B environment.

Long story short, penetrating this market was challenging. After a few months, we realized that not only did we have zero track record in this market, but we didn’t truly understand their motivations. Many of our ideal target accounts (in terms of size, number of employees, and marketing team structure) still prioritized performance marketing over other activities.

When conducting a post-mortem, it was clear we expanded too early. There’s still plenty of opportunity in a space where we have a strong track record, plenty of results, and great logos to organically carry us forward.

So, we “un-pivoted.” It was a tough decision, as we spent a lot of work researching, developing offers, and producing our messaging. But to expand successfully, we’d need to dedicate ourselves to in-depth customer development, persona conversations, and perhaps take on some projects for free (but only if you have a limited track record in the new space you’re looking to expand into).

The biggest mistake was ignoring our own advice. We should’ve started by sprinting a handful of specific offers to this audience. This would have given us the feedback we needed much earlier.

If you’ve made significant changes to your value proposition and overall positioning—and you don’t see results—take the time to evaluate why this might be before deciding what to do next. 

When we conducted our post-mortem, we aimed to answer the following questions:

  • Why do we feel this isn’t working?
  • What go-to-market activity have we already tried?
  • What is the data from those activities telling us?
  • What go-to-market activity could we try?
  • To commit to this change, what do we need to do?
  • Is there any publicly available data that can help answer these questions?
  • If we need to un-pivot, how would we do it?

The answers to these questions will help you decide whether to press forward or rollback. There’s no single clear-cut approach to this. You’ve got to figure out what’s right for the business, and what your immediate priorities are.

For us, that priority was the sales pipeline. We couldn’t grow to where we wanted to go without increased revenue. So we went back to a proven approach.

Other warning signs included a lack of responses to our high-performing outreach campaigns, along with the fact that new content wasn’t performing well. All-in-all, the message we were putting out to the world didn’t match the needs of the audience.

This philosophy applies to the service offers we talked about earlier. Only this time, the consequences aren’t as harsh. You can test an offer, review the feedback, and then pivot or move on quickly. It took us a lot of trial-and-error, but until we’re ready to expand into broader markets, this experimental methodology is the one we stick to.


For my agency, our journey has come full-circle. We started by offering something that clients want. But the further we moved away, the more we realized the need to go back. Funnily, we now use our very first offer as a method to acquire new clients.

Specific offers are an entry point for new business. They may not generate the largest deals, but they certainly get your foot in the door. Do a damn good job, and you’ll develop those deals into bigger accounts over time.

All clients want from you are the results you promise and a supplier they can rely on for years. It starts by proving you’re the exact partner they’re looking for.

The post How to Craft (Or Pivot) Your Agency Value Proposition appeared first on CXL.

Optimizing Freemium Conversions Through User Onboarding

Freemium to paid conversion rates for SaaS businesses hover around the 2% mark on a good day. That means that 98% of your free users will stay that way forever—never diving into their wallet to provide you with the MRR that will lower your CAC. Now, there are many methods you can use to try […]

The post Optimizing Freemium Conversions Through User Onboarding appeared first on CXL.

Freemium to paid conversion rates for SaaS businesses hover around the 2% mark on a good day. That means that 98% of your free users will stay that way forever—never diving into their wallet to provide you with the MRR that will lower your CAC.

Now, there are many methods you can use to try and increase your conversion rate. You can create a sense of urgency with a well-timed offer (e.g., “Get 50% off your annual plan, this weekend only”). Or you could work on your upselling, in order to close the penny gap. And these are both effectives strategies. 

But the one thing that’s going to truly make an impact—and that has a snowball effect through all your other initiatives—is prioritizing your user onboarding. In this article, we’ll show you how to activate and onboard your freemium users and ultimately convert them from freemium to paid. 

Don’t ignore activation—or the rest doesn’t matter

When I was younger, I used to be addicted to Roller Coaster Tycoon. And recently, to my delight (not so much to my partner’s), I found a free version of the game for my phone. After 15 years or so, my theme park building skills have become a bit rusty—but the app’s onboarding sorted that out in minutes. Within minutes of joining, I was already building my first ride. 

The onboarding process took me through how to build my park from scratch, step-by-step—before introducing tips that encourage me to share the game with friends, like adding my name and social networks (events that will keep me around for longer and become more competitive).

Roller coaster tycoon.

While I’m not in the business of theme park building in my day-to-day life, there’s a lot to be learned from the gamification of user onboarding. It’s a tactic that game designers had been using long before marketers to increase money spent by gamers. With each step you’re shown—in a game or product—you find value, and get to the “Aha!” moment as soon as possible.

The “Aha!” moment (a.k.a the “Wow!” moment, Time to Wow, or Time to First Value), is the moment in which your customers “get” the value of your product, like in a cartoon when the lightbulb goes off above the character’s head. Some notable “Aha!” moments you’ll have encountered are:

  • Scheduling and holding your first Zoom meeting;
  • Connecting a Trello board to Slack for instant updates;
  • Uploading your first receipt to Expensify, then getting the money back;
  • Seeing your social media post live through Buffer’s scheduling feature.

Great user onboarding is imperative for steering your users in the direction of conversion, and it all starts with activation. 

Improvements in a user’s first five minutes can drive a 50% increase in lifetime value. Users who truly understand why they need your product are likely to stay around for longer. And that’s why you need to be giving your users a reason to keep coming back to your freemium product.

Onboarding is overlooked by many companies, and customers feel the same way. Over 90% of customers think that companies “could do better” when it comes to onboarding. Think of your onboarding process as a candy store pick and mix, you can try a bit of everything before deciding on your perfect combination. So, what’s in your onboarding candy bag? 

Let’s walk through some of the most effective ways to activate and onboard your freemium users. 

1. Use email to hook your users

Trello onboarding.

If your email onboarding flow ends with “confirm your email address,” you’re missing out on a massive opportunity to make a good first impression and get your users to make the most of using your product. Freemium users signed up for a reason, and email is an effective way to show why they made the right choice. 

What works for one company, won’t work for another—it’s all about finding what works for you. Yes, this involves testing. As with SaaS trials, your emails should introduce your company and demonstrate the value your product provides. Introduce them to your dashboard; suggest helpful tips for getting started. Get them from thinking about your product to using your product as quickly as possible.  

If you have certain features that both freemium users find value from, be sure to highlight those in an email. You can also use email to point them to helpful documentation or guides to get them started. 

2. Grab their attention with in-app messaging 

In addition to email, you can use in-app messaging to set up targeted tooltips, tours, and related articles at set points in the user journey. 

Fresh user to your platform? Give them a tour of the basics—and be sure to direct users’ eyes to key “Aha!” moments in your product to reduce their time to value. The average product tour has a completion rate of 61%—that’s some mighty fine engagement. Remember, simplicity is key:

Imagine that you’re using an application that’s loaded with lots of options, tons of ways to configure our settings, and lots of buttons to press. We’ve all been in this situation. Frustrated with the UX flow and superfluous, irrelevant options in our way, we’re likely to quickly abandon this application. And that’s the key takeaway: More features do not mean more value. Instead, design a less-is-more experience for the average user, and you’ll find that your users will thank you.


With in-app messaging, you can get really clever with your communications. If users click on a paid feature—don’t hide it from them, explain the benefits of this section so users understand how they can level-up their usage. 

Look at what Mixpanel does for their Flows section in-app. Instead of blocking off this feature, they use a shroud over the premium feature and explain the potential that Flows has—users can even go on to watch a video and learn more. 

3. Don’t sleep on retargeting 

When you know users have taken certain actions in your product, you can go on to retarget them. This strategy works best when you’ve gathered pre-qualifying information from your users—more on that next.

To extract real value from your freemium users, you must constantly analyze the data they give you. Based on unique metrics and behaviours, you can identify when and where the user is most likely to upgrade, and tailor your marketing accordingly.

Marketing Manager Erin Barber at Simplaex

If you know that a particular cohort of users work in ecommerce but haven’t signed up for the paid plan yet—show them testimonials and case studies of your successful ecommerce customers. 

Or if you know someone’s been hovering around the Pricing page—strike while the iron is hot and show them an offer—like this ad I got from SuperHi the other day. I’d downloaded their ebook and had been looking at their pricing plans (which I thought were pretty reasonable). But now with an offer like this, they’re at the top of my mind. 

Retargeting can also be effective and staying top of mind and ultimately drive your users to becoming a paid customer. 

SuperHi Facebook ad.

4. Go above and beyond with advanced personalization 

Personalization bridges the gap from “Eh” to “Aha!” at lightning speed. In fact, by adding basic personalization to your website, you can boost your sales by 8%—just by showing users that you know who you’re speaking to. 

All those small personalization efforts (e.g., showcasing relevant user stories upon login or suggesting relevant integrations) make the user onboarding experience that bit smoother. 

My FitnessPal onboarding flow.
MyFitnessPal does an excellent job of customizing your experience right from the start.
(Image source)

Make the most of the information you know about your users and build out targeted modal messages that appear in-app. These should be personalized and hammer home the point that your paid plans have so much more to offer. 

With the qualifying questions that Dropbox collects, they begin to show targeted pop outs as your free space decreases, knowing that you’re working with a professional team and that you need it. It creates a sense of urgency. 

When logging back into HR software Gusto, for example, you’re greeted with “Welcome back.” 

Gusto welcome back.

Here’s another great example from Proof.

Proof onboarding.

5. Lend a hand with customer calls 

Word of warning about this one: Most users don’t want a call during their sign-up process. During the “warm-up” process (e.g., when a user is onboarding), 80% of sales calls go to voicemail. But depending on your industry and your target audience, they can work. Again, it comes down to experimentation. 

Where customer calls can be exceptionally helpful is when selling to larger accounts. The solution: Give people the option to get in touch on their own terms—like Atlassian does with their product discovery sessions:

Product questions.

Getting to “Aha!” for freemium users

Effective onboarding and activation is great, but if it doesn’t increase conversions, something is amiss.

Here’s how to take your onboarding and activation the final mile and convert your freemium users. 

Ask prequalifying questions

If you’re speaking to everyone, you’re speaking to no-one. Okay, your personas on paper are one thing, but not every marketer, product manager, or CEO fits into the same bucket. Asking key questions upon sign-up is a sure fire path to success. 

At Typeform, they want their users to find a form template that suits their users’ needs, so that they can find value as quickly as possible. Upon sign-up, you’re taken through a short survey that allows Typeform to show you the best forms for your needs. The data gathered can also be used to improve retargeting efforts as well as marketing communications. 

Here, I’ve replied to the survey questions, saying that I’m a SaaS Marketer at an SMB looking to manage events through their tool—and the results are pretty spot on.

Straight away, I can start using their tool to manage my events and get feedback—plus, they’re already looking great (important to us marketers). Recreate what Typeform does by asking the following questions when users sign up:

  • How big is your team?
  • What industry do you work in?
  • What department do you work in?
  • What’s your main goal with our tool?

With these four key questions, you can then personalize the first screen that users see—whether it’s forms, dashboards, or email templates. From there, your user can dive straight in, friction-free to their pre-picked “Aha!” moments.

Prequalifying questions also allow you to better understand how certain users use your product, which can be incredibly useful for customer research and developing new features your users will love.

Show users how to use your tool

By using in-product tours, you can steer your users to discover the right features, at the right time. Users are 123% more likely to complete tours they start themselves versus a tour that appears automatically, and 38% more likely to complete a tour triggered by an event they just completed. Not every user is going to want a full tour right off the bat, be sure to give them an option via button to continue their tour or walkthrough at a later time. 

Tech giant Slack uses an automated onboarding tours to get users to do one action that will get them to stick around for the long-haul: communicate.

Slack onboarding.

And once you’ve communicated with Slackbot, it’s time to talk to real people. By inviting your team and creating channels, users can breeze through the platform to find their “Aha!” moment and get their work done quicker. 

Slack onboarding.

Within just a few minutes, you’re already up and running and see first hand how Slack can potentially fit into your workflow. 

Highlight sticky features

If users can’t see what they stand to gain, it’s impossible for these products to gain traction. And without traction, there’s little hope for sustained long-term growth success. That’s why it’s essential to identify your product’s core stickiness, build that value into your product and support it long-term so that your users keep coming back.

Cara Harshman of Amplitude

What parts of your product make people stay around for the ride? These are features that gently “lock” people into your tool. It could be an integration with a data-provider, or maybe you know that once a user invites three people to their plan, they will stay for much longer. The best product-led SaaS companies will have a handful of features that they know will boost their retention rate. 

You can find these sticky parts by comparing feature usage through data-analytics platforms like Amplitude or Mixpanel. Consider offering a taste of what premium can provide but keeping the functionality limited. 

Sticky features chart.

Then, when you know these sticky features—make sure that you highlight the benefit of those to your free users, to encourage them to make the jump to a premium plan. You can do this in-app by adding a tooltip that encourages users to engage with these features, like what HubSpot does below. Teamwork makes the premium work, afterall.

Create your team upgrade.

Build soft friction points

There’s a fine line between too much friction and just enough of it. While friction will slow down your users’ path to “Aha!”, it can also have a positive impact. 

As CXL notes:

Friction can be good for sign-up flows

…provided that it’s “purpose-driven” friction—friction that’s intentionally incorporated into your sign-up flow. Usually, this is either to:

Increase the quality of your sign-ups;
Improve user engagement.

Take Pinterest. They deliberately add friction to the sign-up process by asking the user to follow a minimum of five interested topics. Then, they nudge users to install the Pinterest browser button before taking them to their page:

Pinterest onboarding.
Pinterest onboarding.

This is positive friction—and the more effort invested into building a product goes hand-in-hand with how likely users will be to stay.

Trello integrations add a reasonable friction to their freemium product. Users go through the process of learning how to integrate with their chosen tool, get the information flowing between the two, and then enjoy the benefits of their supercharged workflow. 

Trello powerups.

And here comes the “but” —only one integration is permitted per free board. Now, this is reasonable friction as users have already experienced the benefits of one integration. Imagine what they could do with a handful of integrations.  

Go for the ask at the right time

Timing is crucial when it comes to converting freemium users. If you come in too soon with your prompts, you’re going to annoy users with your efforts. But if you wait too long, your users are at risk of staying free forever. The BJ Fogg Behavior Model dictates that user behavior comes from people taking the right actions, at the right time, with the right motivation.

Looking at the graphic above and applying it to freemium conversions, we need to be looking at three key points:

  1. Ease of use. How are your users finding your product? Are they lost or have they successfully adopted your tool?
  2. Value proposition. What will users gain from upgrading to a premium tier? 
  3. Prompts. What will nudge users into making the leap to payment?

If your users have a strong value proposition and have been successfully onboarded onto your tool, with tours, marketing communications, and personalization—then the prompts have a much higher chance of succeeding. 

Examples of powerful prompts 

As you move towards the revenue stage with your freemium users, it’s vital that these prompts are impactful and perfectly timed. And there’s a variety of different prompts you can use to encourage users to get their credit card out.

Limited time offers

To be used sparingly so not to affect your perceived value,  this prompt can do wonders for a user who is waffling about payment. By offering a discount over a longer period of time, you can increase lifetime value and ensure that users stick around for longer.

For example, Headspace offers a 40% discount on an annual subscription. The habits built over that year would make it very difficult for users to cancel their subscription after that time period.

Trial periods of premium features

If you have an active cohort of freemium users who are using free features to the maximum, consider offering them a limited trial period of freemium features. Think of this as turning the free trial model on its head and working in reverse—instead of offering all premium features at the beginning, offer them only to your most engaged users.

Canva are masters of this. They work on a freemium model where you can be free-forever and always gain value—great! But the Pro plan is always there and free to try—with raving social proof to tempt you even more. 

Bonus: Don’t forget to highlight and build your community 

In many cases with freemium tools, the benefits of the tool extend beyond the actual product. Whether you’re using Grammarly, Trello, or ConvertKit, the community built around those tools is an excellent way to tip the scales and get freemium users to convert. 

As shared on Databox:

FusionAuth’s Brian Pontarelli says the best way to convert free users to paid is: Don’t try. If you force this for a developer-oriented tool like FusionAuth, your users are going to get annoyed and start ignoring you or stop using your tool completely. Build a great community, and then conversions will just happen.

Danielle Juson of inSided agrees: “We find that online user communities have a big impact in converting B2B SaaS users from free trials or freemium tiers to paid users.” 

Highlight your users success through testimonials. Build and engage in your own community built Facebook or Slack group. Highlight the fact that the benefits extend far beyond the tool. 


Onboarding your freemium users should be at the top of your to-do list. It’s one thing to acquire a ton of users through traditional marketing channels, but if they’re feeling lost, you’re going to struggle to get them to convert to freemium.

Guide your users to their “Aha!” moments and prompt them at the right time. Now go forth and set up some great user onboarding—I’ll be working on my virtual theme park.

The post Optimizing Freemium Conversions Through User Onboarding appeared first on CXL.

How Email Can Help You Manage The Dreaded Backorder

Ecommerce customers are used to getting what they want, when they want. And with any delay like a backorder, you risk losing revenue and increasing churn. A backorder email marketing strategy ensures that customers: Get updates as soon as you have them; Get answers to their questions quickly; Stay excited about what they’ve ordered.  This […]

The post How Email Can Help You Manage The Dreaded Backorder appeared first on CXL.

Ecommerce customers are used to getting what they want, when they want. And with any delay like a backorder, you risk losing revenue and increasing churn. A backorder email marketing strategy ensures that customers:

  • Get updates as soon as you have them;
  • Get answers to their questions quickly;
  • Stay excited about what they’ve ordered. 

This article will help refine your backorder email strategy as well as help you build trust with customers and decrease the chances of a refund during those inevitable delays. 

Backorders vs. out of stock

It’s important to note that backorder items and out-of-stock items look different to everyone involved in your business. 

Your inventory manager and warehouse team often approach how they restock differently, with backorders getting their own shelving and location to simplify inventory tracking and speed up packing and shipping when products finally arrive.

Your customer service team, by contrast, will focus on updates about when backordered products are expected to arrive and ship, or if there have been further delays.

pros and cons of taking backorders.
As with most things in business, there are pros and cons to every decision, including whether you list an item as “on backorder” or “out of stock.” 
(Image source)

Customers won’t see that behind-the-scenes work, so they aren’t always understanding of delays if you aren’t transparent. What they need is clear, consistent messaging through the process:

Manufacturing is hard. Even with the best planning, a lot of things can and will go wrong. In 2018, when we had a lot of backorders, we struggled to communicate with our customers in the beginning, resulting in quite a few unhappy customers. Our customer service team was swamped. We quickly decided we needed to get in front of the issue, and invested heavily in communicating the status of their order, and keeping them up to date through email and content.

Pavlok founder and CEO Maneesh Sethi. 

Status updates set expectations and keep people happy. The best tool in your arsenal to deliver those estimates is email. 

Backorders and out of stock mean the same thing for the products right now—the product isn’t available.  But word choice matters. Saying something is “out of stock” often makes customers think they can’t order the product, even if you still have order buttons on a page. Using “backorder” lets them know they can order now, even though it might be delayed. 

If you’re going to offer backorders on products, you need clear communications about how the process works, what customers should expect, and how the order is proceeding during the protracted fulfillment process. 

Cryptocurrency wallet Trezor was faced with backorders during a peak in sales. They decided to publish an update to their community on Medium. They were explicit and clear on what to expect moving forward and took responsibility. 

Whether or not you expect a major backorder issue, automating the process can save you a lot of time when it happens. (And, if it does happen, you’ll be busy with plenty of other things.) 

Backorder template.
An email template for backordered products.
(Image source)

Customers are generally understanding of delays and backorders as long as you communicate clearly.

For example, even in the chaotic times of COVID-19, 94% of online shoppers were willing to give retailers more time to deliver an item, and 60% didn’t expect companies to have everything they wanted. Your customers often default to giving you the benefit of the doubt, as long as you don’t break that trust by being misleading or uncommunicative. 

Neil Saunders, Managing Director of Retail at GlobalData, told Forbes, “At present, when most of us are on lockdown and unable to go out, waiting can be less of an issue [. . .] regardless of the situation, shoppers need clarity around when the product will be back in stock and when it will be shipped.”

Jenn Chung, founder and CEO at Embody, shared on Linkedin how they were able to handle their backorder challenges and come out ahead. 

You’ll notice that those who effectively handle backorders almost always over communicate. 

When faced with backorders:

The specifics of what you say are much less important than actually communicating. Even just a one line email the day letting your customers know, will be better than a well-crafted email two weeks later.

say business consultant Kai Davis

So how can you improve your process—for emails and beyond? You have options.

Non-email preparations for backorders

Purchase orders that include backordered products should get their own tag in your customer management tools. This will help customer service teams prepare for questions and concerns specific to backorders.

Make customer service agents proactive with an FAQ and process explanation of how backorders work and when people will get notified. 

Putting important information in your customer service knowledge base makes it quick to share whenever a customer calls, emails, or chats. (Not everyone will read the generic “status update” emails you send out.)

Monitor your customer service call and email volume around backorders to understand how they’re impacting your operations. For example, if your customer service team is getting an abnormally high number of questions about order processing times, you can push an update on a banner at the top of your site. 

Pop-ups can communicate the latest updates on the product page itself. Letting people know when the status changes and a product ships also builds trust with your customers.   

While delays and backorders are a normal part of ecommerce, you can take steps to reduce their frequency. Predictive analytics can help flag items that may be at risk of backorders in the future.

“A predictive analytics program can identify which products are most likely to experience backorders giving the organization information and time to adjust. Machine learning can identify patterns related to backorders before customers order,” says Matt Dancho on Business Science.

Additionally, you’ll want to work with your warehouse and set aside space just for backorders. If you can’t, consider outsourcing your fulfillment to a third-party that can use advanced techniques such as cross-docking for backorder management.

Email updates to maintain engagement

While the exact mix of emails depends on your products, business, and customers, there are a few defaults everyone should have. Don’t think about developing a complex series of backorder emails until you’ve covered these bases:

  1. “Thank you” email to confirm a purchase. At a bare minimum, this should serve as a receipt. When possible, give people an estimate for shipping and delivery dates.
  1. Notification that an order has shipped. While the “thank you” email can often have a tracking number if your ecommerce and order/warehouse management tools are integrated, this email is smart to ensure the customer has it.
  1. How do you like our product? After your customers have received their order, follow up to confirm receipt of the product and ask if the customer has any questions or concerns. The follow-up here has two points. First, it gives you confirmation for the end of this order, so you can see how long it took from processing to final fulfillment. Second, you’re proactively offering service to resolve any potential issue and keep building positive experiences that support long-term sales. You can also use these responses for future testimonials and social proof. 

Beyond these email basics, backorders require a few additional emails to keep customers engaged and updated throughout the process. Customers losing interest is a quick way to spike cancelations and refund requests. 

If the delay is only a few weeks, you might not need any additional nurture emails to keep people excited—just notices for when things ship, or when there’s a status change. 

If your backorder will take months—which can be common for custom-made items—consider adding additional emails to your sequence to help people prepare for their product and make the most of it as soon as it arrives. If you’re selling a smart watch, for example, you can send a few emails showing them how to make the most of the watch as soon as it arrives.

You’ll need to test to find what works best for your products and clients, but one email every 10 to 14 days is a general best practice (i.e. good starting point). Sending a dozen emails on how great your product is will just frustrate customers. 

Twitter interaction.

In addition to communicating with your customers via email, be sure to monitor social media for an opportunity to build trust and keep potential customers in the loop.

Your first email sets the pace. Tell them the timeframe you expect for the product to arrive and provide additional context on what they can expect over the upcoming weeks via email. 

Immediate notices

Don’t over promise and underdeliver. If backorders usually take a few weeks to fulfill, don’t keep sending an email each week that promises a product will ship “soon.”

In the beginning, providing a general timeline can prevent a customer from expecting an exact date. Dates can vary, so give them an honest range.

However, when products arrive at your warehouse and are ready to start rolling, it’s time for immediate updates with as specific information as people. Here’s where you get people excited again because what they want is almost there.

Here are three specific times you’ll want to update customers based on their shopping history, current orders, and backorders.

  1. You have new inventory in stock. This should trigger emails to customers who have placed a backorder that their order will be processed immediately. If someone has added a product to their shopping cart but has not purchased it, now is the time to send those cart abandonment emails, too.
  2. Their specific product has arrived, and the order is processed. Here’s your next communication element, even if it takes you less than 24 hours to process an order. People want to know that their products are ready to be shipped. This might be your first opportunity to send a tracking number as well.
  1. Their order has shipped. Here is when you send a specific note that the order is on its way and remind people of tracking numbers and other shipping details. You can have fun here—your goal is to get people excited about what’s arriving soon.

In some cases, there are exceptions. Let’s look at a few.

Inconveniences and explanations

Unfortunately, we’ve all come to learn that delays can be unpredictable and extend a lot longer than initially hoped. When another delay occurs, apologize and update the customer immediately.

Remember, any unexpected delay is an inconvenience for your customers. You want to lessen their frustration as much as possible to avoid them canceling an order.

Here’s what these emails need to include:

  1. Explain what has happened. Don’t just tell them that there’s a delay; tell them why. You’re not here to blame someone else, but you do want people to know what’s happening.
  2. Discuss how you’re trying to solve it. Demonstrate how you’re willing to move forward and any steps you’re doing to prevent this. (Your business should do this whenever there’s a significant delay.)
  3. When you expect the issues to be resolved and their products to ship.
  4. What they can do at this point. People might want to cancel, and that’s okay. Give them an option or two to consider, so the choice isn’t just whether to cancel. Consider additional options like sticking with the order but getting free expedited shipping when the order is ready or store credit to use right now.

If your delay is uncertain, tell customers that.

Remarkable 2 revised shipping schedule.

Alternatives to avoid the wait

If delays are considerable, you can make the call to ship parts of their order, or consider creating a segmentation email campaign for customers based on the specific, delayed products. 

You want to consider what similar customers have bought from you and what might fill the same need for customers. Suggesting someone buy a swimsuit instead of sunglasses probably won’t be a compelling counteroffer, especially in the winter.

Keep these messages clean and simple and clearly explain your process if you’re allowing someone to switch to an in-stock product or get store credit.

If you’re unsure of what to offer, don’t be afraid to ask. Give customers time-limited options in your email series and move them out of the campaign as soon as they take an offer. Have the time limit runout before the next email is sent to avoid double dipping.

Automation based on specific actions goes a long way here. If someone clicks “yes,” they need to go into your sequence without going through any additional hoops. As soon as they use their coupon or buy an alternative, move them out of this sequence.

When someone opts to see alternatives, start with an email that shows all of the options you’ll send them. 

Customer service follow-ups and repeating a purchase

Throughout the process, you’ll also want to make it easy for your customers to contact customer support. 

If you have a chatbot that can provide updates on your site, tell your customers. If they can receive a faster response via phone, tell them. Push people to the channels where you can provide the best quality service and fastest resolution for their issue.

If waits get long, customer service channels can help alleviate frustration. Ultimately, you want to make sure your customers are being heard and are kept in the loop at all times. 

What’s important is that anything you send—invitations, discounts, freebies, etc.—should be tailored to the specific products people purchased.

Once they receive their first order, run a traditional “win back” campaign for these visitors to highlight their value and reduce churn down the road. Tag their experience and willingness to buy backordered goods in your CMS and consider them during times of backorder in the future. 

If you tag or sort your list by customers who have made a backorder purchase in the past, you can compare them against other customers in terms of overall orders, order frequency, and lifetime value. This should give you insight into if backorders are a reliable sales method for your business or if they unnecessarily eat into revenue given the increased labor, delays, etc.


Backorders and delays happen. How you respond to these challenges will determine whether or not your customers remain loyal to you as a brand or jet for your competition. For email campaigns, follow these guidelines to make the most of a tough situation:

  • Always be transparent with delays and backorders. 
  • Over communicate—don’t let your customers guess as to when they will receive their order.
  • Use email marketing to automate sequences to keep your customers engaged and up to date. 
  • Segment your customers based on their specific situation and provide support based on their individual needs. 
  • Use backorders as an opportunity to deliver excellent customer service. 

The post How Email Can Help You Manage The Dreaded Backorder appeared first on CXL.

Google Will Soon Rank “Passages.” Does It Matter?

On October 15, Google announced that it will integrate more artificial intelligence into its search algorithm, improve visual search, and work on 3D search functionality. When it comes to organic results, the biggest news is Google’s new focus on “passages”: By better understanding the relevancy of specific passages, not just the overall page, we can […]

The post Google Will Soon Rank “Passages.” Does It Matter? appeared first on CXL.

On October 15, Google announced that it will integrate more artificial intelligence into its search algorithm, improve visual search, and work on 3D search functionality.

When it comes to organic results, the biggest news is Google’s new focus on “passages”:

By better understanding the relevancy of specific passages, not just the overall page, we can find that needle-in-a-haystack information you’re looking for. This technology will improve 7 percent of search queries across all languages as we roll it out globally.

So what’s going on? Do you need to do anything differently to keep—or increase—organic traffic?

The sky isn’t falling. You may not need to do anything differently, but there are some new opportunities. In any case, you’d better understand what the change actually affects to avoid wasting time and money on things that don’t matter. 

What is passage-based indexing ranking?

Google insists that this is not an indexing change. This is a ranking change.

Somehow, it’s been referred to as “passage-based indexing” throughout the web, even in articles that claim it’s not an indexing change:

Google passages press.

This matters because indexing and ranking are different stages in the process of generating search results.

Passage indexing would imply that Google is storing and retrieving (and perhaps even crawling) information in passage-sized chunks; passage ranking, by contrast, suggests that Google still crawls and indexes entire web pages but might rank a webpage based on a component of that page.

The gist of the announcement—the part that matters to SEOs—is pretty simple.

Google will give priority to some less-powerful pages (those that’d otherwise rank lower) and even less relevant pages if there’s a passage on that page that does a great job of answering the query.

So, whereas pages were once the primary unit of comparison, Google, in some cases, will make passage-against-passage comparisons.

A few caveats on the announcement:

  • It’s not live yet but will be sometime in 2021.
  • The change will impact only very specific search queries (i.e. those seeking very specific answers). It’s safe to assume this will impact long-tail (i.e. low-volume) queries.
  • Google’s improved understanding of passages may create more search snippets, which will generate even fewer clicks from search results. (Getting more answers in the search results lowers the motivation to click through).

Finding and highlighting passages isn’t exactly new

This change sounds like a logical extension of Google’s featured snippets—Google’s attempt to locate the best answer to a search query from within a web page and feature it on top of search results.

In doing so, Google:

  • Tries to locate the part/section/passage inside a document that answers each query best. (In many cases, that’s not the document that actually ranks first for that query.)
  • Uses that part/section/passage to generate an “answer” box.
Google's featured snippet example.

Look familiar? Of course. The change is more about an improvement in Google’s ability to locate the passages that become featured snippets.

Historically, featured snippets often required, for example, a bolded definition below a “What is…” style question. But Google, over time, has improved its ability to find buried passages that answer a search query well and, in turn, could use those passages to generate (more than one) search snippet.

The big difference between featured snippets and passage-based ranking is that the featured snippet algorithm selects the source based on the entire page’s relevancy to the question, while the new passage-based algorithm looks at the relevancy of individual passages.

But in either scenario, Google needs to locate the best passages, so the optimization tactics remain the same.

So…do you need to do anything?

Maybe. Not every change to search algorithms requires action. But every change has the potential to adjust tactics—even if that adjustment means having to do less “for search engines” because algorithms improve.

So it is with passage ranking, in a couple of ways.

The “one page, one topic” mantra may fade. 

In a page-versus-page world, it often wasn’t enough to have a section of a page dedicated to some topic. “Someone else will have a whole article on it,” you might think, so you’d better have a whole article on it, too.

The top results for a topic, in other words, are usually pages dedicated to that topic—not that specific topic and two or three other things.

Passage ranking may mean that you don’t actually need a separate page for every location or FAQ or glossary definition—especially if that site structure was built with search engines, not users, in mind (i.e. the UX is better with everything on one page).

Once passage ranking rolls out, for example, the short section at the bottom of this article on adding voiceover to videos could outrank an entire article devoted to the topic—if our section happened to include an (algorithmically) better answer to a user query.

You may have a shot at ranking for some things you previously didn’t.

If Google is better able to identify and understand relevant passages, the number of snippets that show up in search results should increase. If snippets increase, that means that any URL on Page 1 of results has a shot at the top spot.

So, perhaps, more SERPs will be in play for sites that otherwise would never be able to muscle their way to an above-the-fold position (because the top-ranking posts, for example, have hundreds or thousands of links).

Additionally, if Google improves its ability to understand and reward passages, that may decrease the influence of other signals—including links. Backlinks to a page are a proven proxy for the likelihood that the page has useful, credible information, but they’re still a proxy. If Google knows more about bits and pieces of text, the reliance on that proxy might lessen. 

This, of course, is speculative, but it tracks with what Google actually wants to do—deliver the information you need, not the information that’s been linked to the most times.

In any case—and as Danny Sullivan and others from Google would tell you—continue to focus on several things you already should’ve been doing. But if “there’s no way I’ll rank for that” once dissuaded you from honing in on certain elements, maybe it’s time to reconsider.  

Some things you should do (that you already should’ve been doing)

Two major factors make this looming search update a little bit less confusing and scary than many bloggers make it sound:

  1. It will impact less popular, more specific queries.
  2. It’s not exactly new.

But don’t let the first note make you think that there’s nothing to be gained:

  • Long-tail queries are better converting than high-volume keywords (thanks to being more focused/better targeted).
  • In aggregate, long-tail queries can drive a ton of traffic.

So with Google surfacing more snippets from long-tail queries, how do you improve your chances of winning one?

How to max out your chances of winning a snippet

You’re likely already doing keyword research to identify how your target audience researches your topic and which answers they need in your content. (Luckily, there are quite a few tools for that.)

The only things I’d add to a traditional keyword research process:

Think about how best to answer each query. Just imagine yourself searching for the phrase. What would be a helpful format for the answer? A definition? A quick list? A chart with numbers? A comparison table?

Chunking information logically makes your content more user friendly and makes it easier for Google to identify high-value passages.

Research questions related to your target keyword. Researching questions is much like researching keywords, only more fun—you can relate to full-sentence questions easier than a string of words.

For the sake of scale and consistency, focus on the overall search patterns rather than individual questions. Keep asking yourself: “What is my target customer wondering about when researching this topic?

Three tools are helpful in identifying those searching patterns:

1. Buzzsumo Questions

Buzzsumo has a section showing you popular discussions around any topic. But the most useful part of the tool—at least in this context—is the “related themes” section, which helps you discover more ways your target topic can be researched and discussed:

Discover questions Buzzsumo.

2. Google’s People Also Ask

Google’s People Also Ask boxes provide lots of insight into related questions for a search query.

You can find your relevant “People Also Ask” results for each of your key pages inside this Featured Snippet Tool, which collects questions that show up for queries your page already ranks for. 

Again, no need to cover all questions. The idea is to identify patterns. These could be key questions (e.g., how much, how long, is it legal) or synonyms (e.g., blockchain, virtual currency, etc.).

People also ask example.

3. Text Optimizer

Text Optimizer is another useful tool that uses semantic analysis to identify underlying concepts and search patterns. The tool has a separate section to give you a clear idea of search patterns:

Text optimizer tool.

But optimizing for the long tail doesn’t require exact-match keywords

Over the years, a couple updates have made Google smarter at interpreting search queries, going beyond keyword matching and understanding the context in which words are used.

The first major data processing update was called Hummingbird. Hummingbird introduced the so-called “things not strings” data processing algorithm. It helped Google understand the query context and provide answers rather than just match keywords to web pages.

A more recent update, called BERT, improved understanding of the relationship among words in longer queries (rather than trying to match them word-by-word). A better understanding of longer queries inevitably means better answers, which, in turn, brings higher user satisfaction.

Before and after Google changes.

The takeaway here: You can focus on giving the most useful answer instead of forcing those keywords into your answers. Google is smart enough to identify the most valuable and helpful page (or passage!) without relying on an explicit match between the words in the query and the words on your page.

While we’re here—add a voiceover to your videos

Another section from Google’s announcement talks about videos. Just like with text content, Google is going to get better at identifying a more useful and relevant part of a video.

And, again, it’s not exactly new.

Google is already indexing video transcripts to suggest to users a part that would answer their query best.

Voice over for videos example.

So it looks like they are simply going to do more of that.

To locate the best answer inside your video, Google needs an audio explanation so that the content shows up in the transcript, so this is something to make standard within your video strategy

Most video production tools allow you to add audio and sync it with your video. I use a video maker called InVideo, which offers an option to upload my own voiceover, so it’s not hard:

InVideo screenshot.


Google is constantly improving search results, and we, as marketers and SEOs, should keep an eye on changes and adapt our strategies accordingly.

The key here is to differentiate the click-baity articles from actually useful and informative content. I hope I was able to accomplish the latter.

Fundamentally, this update is not going to turn search upside down, nor is it offering anything really new to the search industry.

If nothing else, this update may be a good reminder for the search community to:

  • Focus on giving useful answers.
  • Create content covering more related questions and topics.
  • Cater to users’ search intent (what would be the most helpful copy here?) instead of matching the copy to identified keywords.
  • Leave quality-degrading metrics like “keyword density” behind.

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