Dave Gerhardt on Content Marketing Without the Gimmicks

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Today on the Early-Stage Founder Show, I’m talking with Dave Gerhardt, the Director of Marketing at Drift, a messaging app designed to help you grow your business. Dave has spent the last 6 years work at SaaS marketing companies like HubSpot and Constant Contact, and after joining Drift he and his team have produced tremendous results by bucking the mainstream.

In our chat, we cover everything from the tools and approach Dave uses to measure ROI to how to actually get your content in front of your target audience, but where we really dive in is the drastically simplified approach to marketing that Dave and his team have taken at Drift. 

When you visit their site, you aren’t swarmed by dozens of CTAs, popups, push notification requests, and all of the other gimmicks that plague the rest of the web. Instead, throughout the entire site you just see a friendly chat box offering to help along with two opt-ins: one to start a trial, and the other to join their mailing list.

If a site like that sounds like a breath of fresh air but you’re curious about whether or not it drives results, then you don’t want to miss this interview.

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Topics covered:

  • Dave’s approach to marketing  (1:10-1:58) 
  • “Hands on” versus “hands off” approach to business  (5:57-7:35)
  • The tools and approach that Dave takes with analytics and measuring ROI  (10:35-12:38)
  • Best Practices: Should you follow the crowd or find what works for you?  (15:13-16:41)
  • Creating content and how to promote it  (21:45-23:58)
  • Plans for Drift’s future (29:52-31:36)

Resources mentioned:

Seth Godin’s book, “Permission Marketing”
Product analytics tool, Heap
Brian Dean’s blog, Backlinko
Drift’s podcast, Seeking Wisdom
ConversionXL’s blog

Where to learn more:

More information on Dave and Drift can be found at their website, Drift.com. And make sure to check out their blog where they share tons of great content. If you want to send Dave an email to ask him any burning questions, tune into the show for his email address.

Transcript:

Andy: Dave, thanks for coming on the show today. 

David: Yeah, Andy, thanks for having me. 

Andy: So you’ve been at Drift for a little over a year now, and in that time, there have been a few big wins that you guys have had, to say the least. So it looks like you guys have grown blog traffic from 200 people, is that the actual stat on that?

David: Yeah, 200 or zero, whatever you want to call it. I started at Drift in October, for the month of September there was 200 visitors to our blog, and now we’re over 60,000 visitors a month.  

Andy: And you also generated over 500,000 views from Drift content on Slideshare, and you launched a podcast with 13,000 downloads a month. So it seems like it’s been a pretty big year. 

David: Yeah, it’s been an amazing year, we definitely have a ton of work still left to do that keeps me up at night. But as far as year one, our mission was to basically get our name out there and build an audience and really start to build out our funnel. So, yeah, we’re definitely on our way. 

Andy: So I know this is a bit of a broad question, but it’s how I like to start things out. What has your approach to marketing been that has helped you make these tremendous results?

David: Wow, that’s a good question. The approach to marketing – I’ll just sum it up for you – just since day one I’ve been thinking about doing things that I would actually want to read and react to. I’ve done a bunch of podcasts and interviews and people are like, “What have you guys done, what’s the secret?” And it’s not like we have this crazy growth or anything, we’re just kind of plugging away. I’m always surprised that people want to know the answer, because I think what just happened is that we’re so used to just marketing not being enjoyable and just being the same old thing for all these B2B companies. And so for us it’s really been like, what are the things that would get us to react as people, as consumers, and how do we make sure that we’re doing those things from a marketing strategy.

Andy: How much of that has been influenced by the Hubspot inbound mindset?

David: I guess I give a lot of credit to Hubspot for the whole inbound movement. You could rewind all the way back to Seth Godin and “Permission Marketing”, his book in 1999. I think it’s more that this is the type of business that we’re building we have a different type of model than a lot of traditional businesses, which is this PQL model. So most B2B businesses run on this marketing qualified lead model where marketing’s job is to capture leads and other stuff like that. And then those leads get passed on to sales and BDR’s call out to those people and they get qualified for opportunities, then they book demos and all that stuff. And then, once you’ve finally paid, then you get to use the product. 

Our model is just the exact opposite of that, which is Drift is free to use. You can go right to our website and sign up for a Drift account. It’s just like Slack and Mailchimp and Buffer, and a bunch of these other product-driven companies , where our goal or marketing is effectively to get people into Drift. The product starts at free, and so our leads are actually people that are using our product. 

Andy: How much of that do you think is because of having that free tier? Would this work without having a freemium model?

David: That’s a good question. I don’t know. This is what we’re doing for our business and it’s working for us. But I will say that I think that there are huge opportunities for other companies to change the way that they’re thinking about doing marketing, and this is the way that I think about it. If you’re anything like me, by the time I get off this podcast with you, I’m going to have 3-5 cold emails in my inbox from sales reps who I never talked to in my life and they’re going to say, “How does tomorrow at 4:00 sound for a call?” I don’t even know you, why, for what? And I don’t ever answer my phone unless it’s my wife or my mom. If it’s a number I don’t know, I don’t answer it. 

And you’re laughing right now, but everybody I talk to feels the same way. But then we go to our jobs in sales and marketing and we do all the things that we hate as consumers. So I think that even if that is working for other people, I think eventually that model is going to break. And it’s really because this whole shift has happened where SaaS is basically shifting towards free. If you look at all these companies now, a lot of them are starting at this free model. And it doesn’t have to be freemium, it can be free model trial, it can be anything where people want to – and expect – to try things before they buy them. You could walk right into an Apple store and open up a Macbook and try it without ever having to talk to someone. And that’s the experience that we are starting to expect online. 

Andy: Yes, it’s sort of the difference between Mailchimp and Infusionsoft. With one you can sign up for free easily, whereas with the other one – Infusionsoft – it’s like a $2,000 setup fee, plus all these things you need to go through this exclusive network to get set up. With Mailchimp you can just sign up yourself.

David: Yeah, that’s one. But also – while we’re talking about Mailchimp – the other thing that Mailchimp did is they brought branding back into business. Do you ever see people raving about Infusionsoft’s brand and their marketing? No, you don’t. But you’re going to hear people tweeting and saying things all the time about Mailchimp all day. So I think it’s a combination of that, but also bringing branding and emotion back into B2B.  

Andy: There’s one question that makes me think of this – we’re going off outline a little bit, I’m fine with that – I think at some level though, especially with B2B, if you have an easy to understand product and the need is clear – like if your customer already knows they have a need for what your product can do – then this can work. But what if you have to educate them, what if you have to explain why they need to use the product, does this kind of hands off approach still work?

David: Yeah. I don’t think it’s hands off, I actually think if you look at the best brands today, the whole thing is like information is free now. If I was interested in buying your product, after this podcast I can go and find just about every single thing that I need to know about you guys online without ever talking to you. And so I think it’s embracing that approach from a marketing perspective in that it’s really damn hard to get people into that funnel anyway, so our approach to marketing has been, “let’s get our stuff to spread as wide as possible” versus having it only apply to a narrow subset of people, because our take on it is that only that narrow subset of people are going to end up buying from us anyway. The same amount of people if we had gained them through content and nurtured them.  Just because this is our model and the way that people buy things is changing. 

So I hear what you’re saying, if people didn’t have a lot of awareness about their product. But again, the flip side of that would be that the solution is just to gate everything and put everything on lock, and how is anybody going to get to know.

Andy: True, true. So when you have people come into the free trial for Drift, is it a free trial or is there an actual freemium?

David: It’s an actual freemium plan. 

Andy: So once someone is on a free plan, is somebody reaching out to these people, or how hands off is it?

David: So we want to make money, we want customers. It’s not like if you sign up for Drift we’re never going to try to sell to you and help you out. But basically the way that we think about it is helping you selling. So once you’re using Drift and you’re active, that’s when you might start to hear from our sales team. So that’s how we’re flipping the model a little bit. So instead of cold calling outbound, our outbound really starts when somebody is actually using the product. So if we saw that you guys signed up, two people at your company were using it, you imported 10,000 contacts and you have it up on your website, you’re probably going to hear from our sales team.  

Andy: I see.

David: So we’re using all of the product data, we’re not guessing at things that you’re doing. We’re using all of our product engagement data to figure out what you’re actually doing, and then reaching out. 

Andy: It sounds like if you go back to the Apple store comparison, if I’m in the store looking at things, you’re going to ask me if I have any questions.  

David: Yes. I wish I could high five you right now.  All you’re doing is asking the same question if I go into Foot Locker and I look at a pair of Nikes, the sales guys always walk by and say, “Hey, let me know if you need anything.” That’s it. And I’m going to let him know if I need something . 

Andy: And it’s not like you’re standing at the door not letting people in until they hand over all this information.

David: And then when I do go to check out, they’ll let me know there’s a special, 3 for $20 on black socks. So all those things are happening, just a little bit better approach.

Andy: This actually makes me think a lot of parallels with us. I was talking to Marcus Sheridan last week, actually – he’s a big consultant in the inbound world – and his big thing is that for agencies, so many of them don’t publish their prices on their site. And when you’re looking for a consultant, one of their first questions is, “what will this cost me”, even if it’s just a ballpark. And if you can’t find one that tells you, you’re going to go to the next one and keep jumping around, because you want to know this information before you really get too invested.  

So he talks about putting up a range, you don’t need to be as precise for that type of thing, but at least answer the questions that people have. I think it all comes down to what you were saying before whew we forget how miserable the average marketing experience is when we do our jobs as marketers. We just do more of the same rather than trying to change that. 

David: And honestly, the biggest #1 question we get is, “I totally agree with your story, but how do you measure that?” And here’s the thing, marketing technology and sales technology has gotten so good that you can measure whatever you want to measure. You can figure out anything. 
We use an amazing tool for analytics where I don’t even have to set up any funnels in advance, I can go in and retroactively create all those things.       

Andy: Which one do you use?

David: It’s called Heap, it’s for product analytics, but we just kind of slap it on our blog and website so I can say, “show me all the people that signed up for Drift accounts this month that have read at least two of our blog posts”. That’s not the perfect funnel, but to me that’s a pretty good benchmark of is content influencing people who are signing up for Drift.

And I think it’s just become this crutch that because we can measure everything, that we want to lean on marketing and say that 3 hours that you spent last week writing that blog post, how many sign ups did that drive directly. And when as a person – as a consumer – when have you ever read a blog post and immediately bought? Never.  

Andy: And that’s the thing, that’s where a lot of times you want to have more gated content around this so that we can prove the ROI and make sure we’re getting some value from this content. Because there can be that lag from reading the post to sign up, and people don’t always like that lag in the numbers.

David: Yeah. And while you mentioned gated content – I actually personally don’t have a problem with it – if it’s working for your business and you’re getting results, keep doing you, that’s fine. For us, we just happened to launch our business at a time when we wanted to rethink how we did marketing. And so a lot of the people will say, “What were the results before and after?” And I don’t have an answer for them because we literally launched our business with this strategy. This is how we’ve done it. 

Andy: When I was reading one of your blog posts from a while ago where it was talking about the decision to get rid of the vast majority of your opt in forms, I think you have one to start the trial and you have one to join the newsletter to get updates. Is that accurate?

David: Yeah. We have a one field form on our Homepage to get a Drift account, and we have a one field form on our blog to get on our email list. You’d be surprised – maybe not – how much heat I took when I posted that, and everybody tweeted at me with a screenshot of, “this guy says he’s getting rid of his forms, but here’s a form on his blog.” And I’m like, I still want to get your email address to be on our email list. You can get access to everything without having to be on our email list. 

Andy: Right. And that was the biggest thing, a year ago you were giving away more up front, you didn’t lock the doors to getting it you just said you weren’t going to put as many barriers to getting it.  

David: Yeah. And if all of a sudden we can get a million subscribers to our stuff via Chrome notifications, then sure, I’d be happy to kill email. 

Andy: Right. Have you experimented with the Chrome notifications?

David: No, I haven’t.

Andy: Everyone is doing it. 

David: It’s the new thing that drives me insane whenever I go to people’s sites.  

Andy: I know. It’s almost like they annoy me, but it seems like everyone is doing it. It’s like that constant drip where you check what everyone is doing and ask why they’re all doing it. 

David: I really like reading the Conversion XL blog, and I wish there was an easy way for them to send me new posts. Like, I would be on their email list to get new posts every day, but the only option is the Chrome notifications.

Andy: As a consumer, I don’t even know what those Chrome notifications do. Like, if I click “allow”, I don’t know what that’s going to do. The question I want to ask next though, your marketing philosophy is that at the end of the day you still are trying to produce results. So I’m curious, are you committed to this strategy because you think it’s going to produce the best results, or because you think it’s the right thing to do?

David: I would say both A and B, both of those things. But also we are starting to see the results that are proving that. I think we all need to be willing to go back on the claims that we’ve made. I think just because we said that, if it didn’t work for us then we need to abandon it. I guess almost 8 months later I couldn’t imagine us doing marketing another way, it’s the reason you and I are even talking on this podcast today.  So it’s working for us, but this all boils down to the #1 frustrating thing when people want marketing advice and business advice.

It doesn’t matter what other people are doing, you have to do what works for your business. But we just fall in love with advice from other people. Ok try it, if it works, do it. Just because everybody is going a certain way and you’re doing it differently doesn’t mean that you’re right or wrong. At the end of the day, what matters is what are your metrics for your business, are you hitting those numbers, are your customers happy, are you generating revenue. If you can achieve that by doing it in your own way, then I don’t understand why you need to do what best practices are. Especially when best practices are everybody just follows them. That means all the channels are just going to be crowded for everybody else.  

If somebody says the best time to send an email is 7AM on a Tuesday, I’m going to send email at 7PM on a Thursday. That’s just obvious to me.   

Andy: Yeah, exactly. If everyone is following the same thing, you don’t break through by doing that same thing.

David: Yeah, but a lot of people aren’t comfortable with saying, “No, we’re doing it this way because this is what works for us.”

Andy: And I think it goes back to also you’re not standing here evangelizing and telling everyone they need to do it your way. This is what we do and it works for us, but again, you do you. If it works for you, great. This is how we’re going to do it.

David: I’m glad you said that. Let the people know . I’m happy to do this interview because I’m happy to let the people know what’s working for us at Drift, and I’m hoping that maybe you might agree with our philosophy and it might be something that you can try for your business. 

Andy: How are we on to get a little tactical into the specifics of how you started implementing the marketing strategies, how early on did you launch the podcast for Drift?

David: That’s a good question. So I started in October, we launched the podcast in January, so three months. But it didn’t really take off at first. So before I started at Drift I had been doing podcasts on the side – I did a podcast at Hubspot, actually – and when I was talking to David, our CEO, he said he wanted to do a podcast one day. He already had this idea and he wanted to call it “Seeking Wisdom” because of a book that he read. So I thought it was just going to be him doing an interview just grabbing the mic 30 minutes a week, and then shortly into that we learned that that’s a really hard format. One person just kind of sharing their stories But I was like a little bit hesitant at first because this guy founded five companies, he’s been a CEO twice, he’s been in SaaS for 20 years. I’m just like a 29 year old marketing guy that can’t figure out what I’m doing. 

So I ended up just interviewing him to get the stories out, and that started to work much better. If he would go off script -, we used to have notes for him and reading them just wasn’t his strength – his strength is if I could just mic him up when he and I went one on one for a coffee, that would be gold. So that’s why him trying to do podcasts transitioned into me being basically the host and just trying to pick a topic and interview him to get ideas out. 

Andy: And listening to it, it is very casual. It seems like it’s just two friends talking. 

David: Yeah. It’s kind of grown into that. If you’ve listened the last couple of months, it transitioned from me just interviewing him to now it’s a lot of fun. The feedback we get is we’re basically two people at completely different stages of our career talking about shared topics, and I think that‘s the angle that we try to take. It’s just a lesson that you can launch something and have a plan for it, and you’ve just got to be willing to adapt and listen to what people are reacting to and saying, and so that’s how we landed at this format now.

Andy: How has it grown over time? Have you guys done much with any of your content after promotion, or how have you attracted your audience, because that’s one of the biggest mistakes I see most people make with content is they say they’re going to write all these blog posts and people are going to just start showing up. How have you used these strategies to actually get the people to your site? 

David: Do you want to talk about podcast growth or content growth?                

Andy: We can go with content in general. 

David: Yeah, because the podcasts is, we just keep doing it. We could grow it a lot more if we focused more on promoting that content, for sure.  So on the content side of things, we actually spend a lot of time promoting content. If you look at our stuff at Drift, we actually publish more, but our goal is really one or two posts a week. 

A couple reasons for that. Number one is you create better content if you’re publishing less and focusing on not writing 500 word blog posts  but trying to go a little bit more in depth. We have an amazing writer on our team, Eric, and at his last company he was told to write one post a day, so when that’s your incentive you’re going to behave differently. So he’s an amazing writer and designer and now I tell him I don’t care if he publishes anything this week, as long as the next thing that you’re doing is amazing, Even if it takes 10-20 days, that’s fine. And that has just completely set the tone for all of our other content, quality-wise.

Now, just because it’s awesome – and it’s cool that we have 60,000 people that come to our blog every month – we’re actually still early enough at this stage where if we just published a post and didn’t promote it, nobody would find it. We don’t have millions of visitors, we don’t have millions of organic visitors, so people won’t find it if we didn’t promote it. So we have to spend a lot of time promoting that content.

Now if you’re in that other model where we have to promote content 5 days a week, how do you figure out what to promote?  You have an email list, but you can’t email people 5 times, they’re going to hate you. You also can’t put all 5 links in an email, because then you’re just going to dumb it down and you might get a couple clicks on each. So our whole take is we create 1-2 pieces of content, then we send 1-2 emails a week. In those emails there’s usually one link, and that is “here’s a link to the post”. So that way, all of the clicks go to that post. 

And then also because we’re publishing less frequently, that means we can spend more time building outreach lists and seeing who’s written about topics in the past and promoting it on social and actually writing copy for social that we would click ourselves.  So just kind of taking a thorough approach to it. One of the last things Erik did is he wrote this post about customer success metrics, and while he was writing that post, I was building a customer outreach list of 100 people that have written about customer success metrics, so I could send them a really nice personal email to get the ball rolling on promotion. That’s not something that I would be able to do if we were publishing every single day.        

Andy: That’s what I was going to get to. It’s not even that you couldn’t do it, but that’s not the point. By having a focus on the quality before everything else, you’re also standing out for all the people reaching out for this. You’re actually creating content that is worthwhile like they should want to share.

David: This is just kind of anecdotal – we don’t have data on this – but I’ve tried the VA approach and I tried just me doing outreach personally. It has felt like the outreach is way more effective when it comes from me. I just think when somebody sees that it’s somebody that works at the company and they know us at Drift, I’m able to write a better note that’s more personal. That is always going to work better than I could pay somebody on Upwork to scrape 200 emails and just email people and get 3 links back.
The way that we think about it is, instead of making a list of 100 people – and I know I just said 100 – I would rather make a list of 10 people with a domain rank of over 60 and try to get 5 links from those people, then try to just get 200 people to share it.  

Andy: Right, it’s not purely a numbers game in the sense that every person you’re contacting has – I don’t like to say the same “value” – but they’re just not going to have the same impact across the board. I feel like this goes back to a lot of the fundamentals of the way you approach marketing, is that you’re not trying to just spam out hundreds and hundreds of outreach emails, you’re not trying to put up as many words as you can on the blog. You’re not trying to do this. You’re actually trying to put the customer first and put out content that they’ll want to read, and then find more ways for people to read it. 

David: Yeah, and honestly that part is true, the customer driven thing. But also even more selfishly, let’s be selfish as a marketer. If you’re listening to this podcast, you want your stuff to spread and you want good links for your site. I just feel like the outreach is going to be better. You can have a better crack at it, you have a better  at bat if it’s you sending that email. I totally get that maybe you use the VA to build the email list, but if you can do that outreach yourself, I always think that’s going to be better. 

Andy: Yeah, and that’s one thing where a lot of the work we’ve done for this podcast – and the agency podcast I also do for Hubstaff – it’s like, that’s one piece where I’ve really held onto it. I feel like it can be a big hassle to ask someone on the podcast, these are busy people, and even saying, “i just need an hour”, that’s a lot of time. Out of respect for that, I almost want to do it myself. BUt the selfish reason is, I’m going to get better results because I’m going to ut the time in to make sure that's it’s really customized to make sure that I’m showing that I’ve done the research and I’m giving them value up front, I’m explaining why this would benefit them, I’m explaining those types of things. And it’s really hard to outsource that.  

David: Exactly. And honestly, I would be mad if I had a brand that I read all the time and I felt like I had a relationship with the people who are writing their content, and then all of a sudden I get some email from somebody’s name who I’ve never heard from in my life, asking me to share a post from that company. Why would I do that?

Andy: That’s the thing, it’s putting the company before everybody else. It’s putting them before the people you’re doing outreach, putting them before all of that. 
David: So Brian Dean, Backlinko blog, this is the whole 200 outreach emails, VA’s, all that stuff. To me, I would go that route if I wasn’t working in B2B SaaS. If I had a food blog or a fitness blog or something like that’s just so different to me, that you just need volume and you can get more people. In the B2B SaaS world, everybody knows about SEO, everybody knows about outreach, everybody knows what you’re trying to do. It’s like, everybody knows that I’m trying to get a link, so it’s a better ask if it comes from me personally, and I can say something.  
 Andy: So many times sometimes you’re playing dumb about it, and it’s like, just be upfront and transparent. I know what you’re getting at, I know why you want me to do this. 

David: IT’s funny you say that. The most effective thing that we’ve done is I actually just emailed everyone on our email list at Drift and was like, “Hey, so I realize that I never sell to you on this email list, but because it’s the end of the month, and chance that you want to create a Drift account if you haven’t already?” That was the most effective email that we’ve sent, because I think it was just honest and real.  

Andy: So I’m curious, to start wrapping things up a little bit, what do you see as the next steps for Drift? Is it ore of this, is it just continuing this, or what do you see as the plan going forward? 

David: I think #1 is, the easy mistake for us would be to not double down on what’s already working. So that means to make our free product better, keep creating content, keep hammering on PR. Those are kind of our big three buckets, so we would be silly to not keep doubling down on those things until they break. But really, from a marketing perspective, I think our challenge will be how do we as we continue to scale and grow the company do we make sure that we keep this bar. How do we look back and listen to this podcast in two years and  say we still have those core values. So that will be the biggest challenge for us, and to really not take our eye off the ball because we have some crazy hairy goals and numbers that we have to do. 
If we had it’d be really easy to do things the wrong way, but it’s actually easy for me because our founders set this tone and they’re like, “Look, here are our crazy goals, but you have to hit them in the right way.” So this whole marketing tone gets set from David and Elias, and when people ask questions about this approach, it’s always obvious that the company is not aligned. It’s obvious that the company is not aligned around happy customers and doing things the right way or whatever. And so our marketing team will never be compensated or goaled based on how many people fill out forms or become leads for us. It’s going to be about paying customers and doing it the right way. So I think as long as we stay aligned, I think this is an approach that we’re going to continue to take. 

Andy: I know exactly what you’re talking about. As you start, once you have those early successes, you want to double down. But it’s easy to first get distracted by a shiny object, and then you just start doing things to do them. You can lose sight of why you’re actually there in the first place and what you’re actually trying to accomplish, and then it can just go to hell. 

David: And that’s hard because I always want more – most marketers do – you just want to keep growing faster. I might read some posts later today about creating dark posts on Facebook ads and how that creates X amount of engagement, and I wonder if that’s something that we should be doing. And I just have to take a step back and remind myself you could do that, or you could spend more time doubling down on what you know already works and what people like. And for now, that’s going to be the best approach for us.   

Andy: Right, because it’s not like you’ve hit the capacity for what you’re currently doing, you can double down on that. 

David: Exactly. I think we could and eventually we continue this 0 four of us on the marketing team – we’ll double that to eight and we’ll keep hiring people that can focus on those specific areas. But as far as we consider we’re still in basically month 8 of our company – even though the company has almost been around for 2 years -we relaunched this product in April and so it’s still very early and it’s all about stages of your company and perspective, and so for us it’s like let’s keep doubling down until things don’t work anymore.    

Andy: Awesome. And so if listeners want to hear more of some of these marketing thoughts, if they want to learn more about Drift, where are the best places for them to go?  

David: This is my favorite part of the show, as a marketer. So check us out at Drift.com, that’s our website. Blog.Drift.com is where we have all of content, and if you want to say “hi” to me, I’m @DaveGerhardt on Twitter. 

Andy: Perfect. Well Dave this was a lot of fun. I will get everything linked up in the show notes, and I just want to say thanks again for coming on, I really appreciate it.  

David: Cool, man, I appreciate it.