Hello from Portland, Oregon! Welcome to another episode of B2B Marketing & More. Today I have another fantastic guest – Kevan Lee. Kevan is a product-led growth and SaaS leader and the head of marketing at Oyster, a distributor HR platform helping companies take care of the global teams.
Today we are going to talk about growth hack strategies for startups.
In this episode:
- How did Buffer ramp up its marketing and increased the number of users, readers and visitors?
- What is the system behind the high content production?
- What is the role of proper keyword research and optimization in content success?
- How can high-pace growth hack strategies keep the momentum over a more extended period?
- What tools should startups use, and business in general, to optimize their content?
- What are some growth hack strategies for startups and SaaS companies in the different business stages?
- How should sales and marketing work together in a startup?
- Is your business sales lead or product-led, and why should businesses care?
- How should marketers make a transition to support different business models?
- What tools should startups use for marketing automation and CRM, and should they integrate them?
- How can marketers measure the success and also a contribution to sales when it closes the deal?
- What is a daily routine of an effective leader, and why does it matter for business?
- What are the two books that marketers must read, primarily when they work in a startup environment?
Quotes from the episode:
“The strategy we took is to pitch something as if it was already written. And so we’d say we have written three things on these topics. Would you like them? And if they say “yes,” then we go and write them real fast and get them over.”
“We have a couple of different ways that we do [to measure the success and also a contribution to sales when it closes the deal]. We have different pipeline targets that we measure at the top and then through the different stages. From lead to meeting to the opportunity to closed one, we have insight into each of those stages and how well we’re moving people along.”
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To expand your knowledge about growth hack strategies for your business, check out some of my previous podcast episodes, blog post, and videos.
Hello from Portland, Oregon! Welcome to another episode of B2B Marketing & More. Today I have another fantastic guest. What’s more, I don’t subscribe to many newsletters, but I subscribed to his newsletter, and he is Kevan Lee. Kevan is the head of marketing at Oyster, a distributor HR platform to help companies take care of the global teams. Imagine that. And he was previously CMO at Buffer, which is a tool I have used for a long time. In addition to that, he has worked very closely with Feely and Polly, a very, very popular SaaS-based platform. So welcome, Kevan.
Kevan Lee: Thank you, Pam. I’m thrilled to be here. I don’t think you hear my dog in the background. He’s thrilled that I’m here also.
Pam Didner: Joining the podcast. That’s ok.
Kevan Lee: Exactly. Thank you for having me.
Pam Didner: My pleasure. You know, it was wonderful that you worked at Buffer for a long time. And can you tell us a little bit about your experience at Buffer and how you ramp the marketing and help them increase the users?
Kevan Lee: Yeah, of course. Thank you for being a Buffer user. Much appreciated. I was lucky enough to join Buffer as employee #17.
Pam Didner: Ooo, wow!
Kevan Lee: Very early days there, which is great and exciting. Um, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was my first job in what I call like real tech startup scene. I worked at Vox before that. And a couple of other spots, but the pace and the excitement were unlike anything I’d experienced before.
And so, one of my first jobs at Buffer was a bit around this idea of category creation and then using content marketing as an engine for our growth. And so I came in and I really kind of built out the content scene there. I was lucky enough to join with another great teammate who was kind of another content person. Um, she ended up going down the people in operations path, and then I stayed on the marketing path.
Pam Didner: You end up staying on the dark side,
Kevan Lee: the dark side. Yes. As she would describe it. Yes. Had a lot of fun there, though. It was, it was great. And so, um, the content was the biggest thing that we did
Pam Didner: Talk to us a little bit about content. What you did that was so special and unique compared with the other companies
Kevan Lee: Yeah. So I think one of the big things was guest posting before I joined, but our co-founder was prolific in his guest posting strategy. And so he would go out and find different blogs that were strategically aligned with the type of customers that might make sense for Buffer and then write articles for those blogs, deliver value to that audience and, you know, add a link to Buffer here and there.
Pam Didner: And then bring the traffic back to the Buffer website. Is that true?
Kevan Lee: Bring the traffic back to Buffer. And I think it did a couple of things. But it also brought a lot of backlinks to our site. Those helped with our domain and our search authority. So that was critical as the first step.
Pam Didner: So can I interrupt for one second for that? Did you guys hire writers to do it, or he did everything on his own?
Kevan Lee: Everything ourselves. (laughs)
Pam Didner: That’s a lot of work. People don’t understand that the guest posts outreach, and that takes a lot of time. And then you have to coordinate it, find a topic and also you have to send it to them. And then you also have to make sure that they follow up. It’s a lot of work. It’s incredibly time-consuming. So I admire the co-founders’ effort to do that flawlessly. And that’s hard to do. And especially, you do it in-house.
Kevan Lee: Yeah, the strategy we took is to pitch something as if it was already written. And so we’d say we have written three things on these topics. Would you like them? And if they say “yes,” then we go and write them real fast and get them over.
Pam Didner: (laughs) “I have it!” And then you turn around, “No, I don’t have it!”
Kevan Lee: It’s in our head. We had it in our heads. And so it felt like a bit of a less, less of a lift in that case. Cause we didn’t have, we didn’t commit to anything until we got the full approval of yes, it’s already chosen. Let’s go for it. So it helped a little. Um, but from there, scaling our content library was kind of my biggest undertaking at Buffer. And so we went from, um, a very B2C approach–social media and viral content. We talked a lot about productivity and lifehacking. And so, I shifted gears to more of a keyword-driven approach around social media topics. And so, we built our authority on social media and then distributed that content through SEO. And so the way to do that effectively is as you just have to own all the search engine result pages. So own the SERPS. And that meant writing 4-5 articles a week. 1500 to 2000 words long. And just like, going for it.
Pam Didner: Yes! Kevin, do you do that yourself, though? Because that is very much a high-frequency, right? You create four to five blog posts that mean you publish one post every day. And I assume you did that for a while. And you couple that with the SEO and also keywords. You try to optimize that. So, um, do you do that in-house or do you outsource that to writers or the freelancers to do it?
Kevan Lee: Well, for better or worse. I did it all myself at Buffer. So we did it all in-house, and I did it probably for 18 months. I had this method of working on three posts, so one post would be at the research stage. Another post would be at the writing stage. And then, one post would be at the final edit stage. And then it would just kind of cascade day after day. So there’s always like the next thing up gets researched the following day. The next thing up gets written and edited and then like the final. After a while, it was almost like a machine process, which I think I burned out after 18 months of doing it.
Pam Didner: I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, how can you sustain it? And on top of it, I’m, I’m sure you wore multiple hats; it’s not just the content creation and content writer. You probably took care of a lot of stuff. So how do you find that balance?
Kevan Lee: Yeah, thank you for thinking, I, I had a balance (laughs).
Pam Didner: Did you just focus on writing and not doing anything else? I don’t think that.
Kevan Lee: No, I did other things. One of the things that made it easy to continue at that pace was seeing positive results. That was great. Like getting, I think I get a lot of joy out of the instant feedback loop of content. Like you publish something, you get feedback right away on people visiting or commenting sharing. So that was great.
And when it came to the success of that continent. It was helpful because it didn’t force us to do many other things like that was kind of our main driver. And so the company was focused on it.
Pam Didner: Got it. So that’s your primary engine in terms of driving traffic? So that’s a channel that you focus on and don’t do like a multi-channel or omnichannel approach. You focus on just using the content, and that’s your core piece if you will. And then use that to do a marketing outreach/drive traffic back to the website.
Kevan Lee: Exactly. Yeah, we didn’t have any paid ads that we ran. We didn’t have a formal sales team, and there was no need for marketing support there. If you consider like Google’s 20% rule where you have like 80% of your core work during the week, then the final 20% of your time is spent on other things, it was probably a similar balance, like 80% on content, 20% on whatever else happened to fall my way.
Pam Didner: For you, in terms of, from my perspective, listening to what you just said, and that you focus on the core content, that means you really, really worked very, very hard to use the keywords and also the search to optimize your content. Would you agree with that?
Kevan Lee: Yeah, I would. I would say that I’m by no means a technical SEO expert. But, I almost took like an 80, 20 – there are those numbers, same numbers again–and I was like, “I can understand 80% of what I need to about SEO and get far with it.” And so it wasn’t like putting together a really deep technical SEO analysis. When I did a Google search, it was more like the related keywords that show up at the bottom. And so, we’re going to target those based on this higher topic. And so, it was a very intuitive approach that saved us a lot of time but got us most of the way to where we need it to be.
Pam Didner: A fairly decent result, yeah. What tool would you use to help you to optimize your content? Can you share that with us?
Kevan Lee: Oh yes, cause I didn’t use a tool. (Pam laughs) and so that’s easy to share. I didn’t have a proper SEO tool, and that was building out the strategy. We used Google Analytics and Google Search Console to check their performance. But in terms of optimization and strategy, we didn’t have a tool. Eventually, we did add Ahrefs as our tool. And now, at Oyster, we use SEMrush as our tool.
Pam Didner: Ok. So these are two very popular tools. Yeah. Yeah. I know a lot of people use Moss, as well. You leveraged content initially when you started. And I know you probably also talk to many, many startups and especially SaaS-based platform companies. Do you have any advice for a new startup? The marketing team working for basically the early stage or even a little bit like Series B, Series C–so they have more funding. Do you have any advice for them regarding approaching marketing and how you advise how sales and marketing should work together?
Kevan Lee: Yeah, I think I’ll give you the unpopular answer, which is it depends. Um, I won’t leave it at that (laughs)
Pam Didner: I agree. I don’t think that’s unpopular. I think that’s the core of the answer nowadays, especially in digital media. And, uh, mainly B2B marketers are looking for the shortcut, or they are looking for the best practice. Still, they have to understand that even if you go to sessions (I teach a workshop and the sessions), I always tell them that “whatever I’m telling you as the, my framework and my templates may not apply to you 100%, you somehow need to modify it. If you know how to modify it, that means you know what I’m saying? And also how that applies to your company.” So I love your answer of “it depends.” So talk to me more.
Kevan Lee: Thank you. I feel like you let me off the hook. So I appreciate that. I’ll tell you how I if it depends, these are the things I think it depends on is maybe the best way to get at stuff. So one of the biggest things is what your go-to-market motion is? Are you sales lead, or are you product-led? I think that’ll dictate how you think about the different channels and investments you make.
Pam Didner: That your business model, how you sell does matter.
Kevan Lee: Absolutely. Yes. A hundred per cent, um, whom you’re selling to matters. And so an example of that at Buffer, we were selling to folks at the small business level. And so what that meant for us is that we were able to achieve a really large scale, but our average revenue per user was quite low. And so it was them $15 maybe on average.
Pam Didner: Yeah. Then that’s hard to grow the revenue. You know, it doesn’t matter. Your value has to be incredibly huge to reach your revenue goal.
Kevan Lee: Yeah. If you’re going to do that, you have to get scale on the user side. And so, to get scale, you have to choose your channels and strategies that match to scale. And so, for us, SEO is a huge channel in terms of scale and scope because Google has such a huge surface area for us. And so that matched with our philosophy. Also, SEO is free beyond the people resources. And so, you know, if we’re getting $15 per user, we’re not going to have a ton of money right away to reinvest into things. So you have to think about those.
Pam Didner: Your cost per acquisition cannot be $20, for example.
Kevan Lee: Yeah. So, we had to have those things in balance. If you have a sales-led organization where you’re selling into mid-market or enterprise, your deal values will be higher, potentially, then pay channels will become possible for you. You might have a longer sales cycle, so you have to consider that. So lots of these different factors come into play.
If there’s any like blanket advice, I think product marketing is more important today than it was five years ago, three years ago. Like, I think it’s becoming more and more important because it is such a, almost like a generalist role within a team.
Like depending on the product marketer you hire, they may have specialities across the board, or they may just have like Jack of all trades in a way. So I would say if you have to optimize for something optimized for that. Or optimize for someone with a really strong data mindset, especially as an early hire who can build out some of the foundation, some of the learnings so that you understand if I’m going to try all these things, how will I feel confident that they’re working? And I think having someone on your team who can give you that confidence is important.
Pam Didner: There’s another thing I would like to ask you specifically is how did you at Buffer, or even at your current company, I know like if you start at your business model is actually for small business owners and, um, what is your recommendation for marketers that are supporting their sales team and their sales team based on, you know, their business model or based on the SaaS-based platform that they offer, they now need to reach out to enterprise customers. But for a long time, the marketing team tended to focus on SMB. So what do you suggest the marketers do to make that transition, to support, say SMB-centric type of customer, in relationship to say enterprise.
Kevan Lee: It’s a big jump to make (laughs).
Pam Didner: I know! I’m a B2B marketer, and I never really support SMBs. And the, I tend to focus on enterprise, uh, segments of it. And then when I talk to a marketer is incredibly nimble and agile and doing things very fast. They tend to have a hard time supporting the enterprise segment. So I want to hear your feedback on that.
Kevan Lee: It’s a different segment. First and foremost, you have to understand the ideal customer profile or your buyer personas, like whatever you use, they’re like, cause they’re going to be different people. They’re going to have different titles. They’re gonna have different expectations. They’re gonna have different pain points. It will be a different buying process at the enterprise level than there is at the SMB level.
It’s almost like forget everything, you know, and go learn office, which is exciting. So you wanna find people who are excited by that? I think it is maybe what you optimize for.
Pam Didner: Really, it depends on individuals. It gets me very excited to learn new customer segments, new industry segments. And that was about ten years ago. Ok. I was like, “Oh my god! New segments. I get to know more about them! That’s good.” Now I’m like, “really? Do I have to learn another segment? That’s way too much for me. I cannot take it!”
But I hear you. So you said whatever you think is working for SMB may not work for the enterprise. So you have to relearn, or you have to unlearn everything and then relearn it.
Kevan Lee: You do. Yeah. And I think when you’re marketing to enterprise, I think one of the things you’ll find is so different is that you need you to provide them with materials throughout a much longer buying process than you’re probably used to on the SMB side. And so resources, testimonials, case studies use-cases, third-party reviews. There’s just so much content that you need to give to them and education and hand-holding. It’s very. It’s like a full-time job at that level.
Pam Didner: It is, in a way it is. You brought a very good point, and you hit the core in terms of marketing to an enterprise is very different from SMB, and I agree, and the purchasing cycles tend to be longer. I agree with that too. And the, you need more content to facilitate the buying cycle. I agree with that.
So the next question for you is how do you measure marketing’s countries? Because the purchasing cycle is so long and you have ICP, you kind of facilities that you have NQL converted to SQ–marketing qualified leads to sales, qualified lead. But the purchasing cycle is so long. How do you measure the success and also a contribution to sales when it closes the deal?
Kevan Lee: It’s a really good question. So we have a couple of different ways that we do it at Oyster. So we have different pipeline targets that we measure at the top and then through the different stages. So from lead to meeting to the opportunity to closed one, we have insight into each of those stages and how well we’re moving people along. And so, if we were to focus as a marketing team on getting folks from one step to the next, we can measure how much lift we had from one time period to the next.
Pam Didner: Does that mean that there is a goal set up for the Marketing team at each purchase stage?
Kevan Lee: We don’t have that today, but if we wanted to measure that we could, we could goal ourselves on that. So today, a lot of the focus is at the end-stage. And so what we goal ourselves on is a win rate. And that’s a goal that we share with Sales, but it’s something that we feel that marketing has a really big role to play in it. So you’re right; it is a bit kind of fuzzy. What does marketing specifically contribute to what sales specifically contribute to? So we kind of removed that fuzziness and just said, “like, we are all playing the same game here and let’s run the same team. Let’s just think of it holistically in those terms.” And so win rate is one that we look at.
Another piece of it that we’re starting to measure this quarter is how many times, our reasons why we win come up and the deals that we win. And so if we, as a marketing team, believe that these are the three things that we want to be true of our business and our product, how often are our customers repeating that back to us when they choose the product that will tell us that our positioning is going well.
Pam Didner: that also will dictate the content you’re going to create in the future.
Kevan Lee: And it will force us to be clear on why we win, which is kind of a—
Pam Didner: And also, that will help on value proposition and messaging framework.
Kevan Lee: Yes.
Pam Didner: Yay! Everything is connected!
Kevan Lee: Those are the best goals. Like when it’s, it seems like it’s one thing, but it’s so many things, if you can have one goal that touches all those different areas, that’s the ideal, I think.
Pam Didner: If you are in it, the Sales team and you guys have a unified win rate. And can you also talk to us about the marketing automation tool and CRM you use, and are these two tools integrated?
Kevan Lee: Yeah. So Salesforce and HubSpot are the two that we use, and they’re both integrated. Um, I believe they integrate on a one-to-one basis, so everything that’s in, one is in the other, and then we push all that information into a business intelligence tool called Looker. And so Looker is how we view all of the data dashboards and things across the company.
Pam Didner: I see. Is that very similar to a Tableau is a BI and basically business intelligence or analytics platform where you create a dashboard that pulls data from different sources. You guys can look at the dashboards together collectively.
Kevan Lee: Exactly. Same thing as Tableau.
Pam Didner: All right. Another question I would like to ask you is your daily routine to be an effective leader? You are managing a marketing team for a company. So what do you do, and how do you keep yourself sane in such an intense marketing environment? Because a lot of things tend to happen, and there are always last-minute requests.
Kevan Lee: That’s a great question. I tend to think of how can I be a great person, like holistically and I—
Pam Didner: Oh, that’s so sweet. I’m so jaded. I was like, “ok, how can I just get through today? Should I drink a lot? Should I just drink a lot? I’m talking about tea!” (laughs)
Kevan Lee: Fluids, yes! Yeah, I have those days also. I think the way that I approach. My day-to-day marketing is just so intertwined with day-to-day life as a parent and as a partner, um, that I, I kind of have to think of them all under one bucket. And so I start my days very early. I started at 5:30. I roll out of bed.
Yeah. So I start early. I work with a worldwide team, so there’s stuff happening when I get online quite early and can catch up to what’s happening when I am asleep. And so, getting up at 5:30 also allows me to start my day early but end early. And so I get to take my son to school. I get to pick them up from school and then have a longer time with family at the end of the day.
And that’s important to me and helps me stay balanced and centered. And then I think at work then. I do have this dedicated time to be fully focused. Like while he’s at school or while the family is sleeping and fully present, whether I’m at home or work. I’m at home all the time because I work from home, but mentally at home or work – I think it’s really important. From a leadership side, I believe that being empathetic towards your people, building a team with trust, respect, and affirmation are the pillars. And so trying to align with those things is how I, I think those are the principles that guide the way I work.
Pam Didner: Very nice. Excellent. So last question. What are the two books that marketers must-read, especially when they work in a startup environment? Do you have any suggestions?
Kevan Lee: There’s a really interesting one to call. I think it’s called Uncanny Valley that came out last year. Um, it is about startup life. So it’s not necessarily how to be a better sort of marketer. It’s just about like, can you believe it
Pam Didner: You mean all the crap that happens? (laughs)
Kevan Lee: That’s a great one. Just like a novel form. Um, but in terms of actual marketing tactics and strategy, two of the ones that I enjoyed, one of them is called Alchemy – written by Rory Sutherland. He works with, uh, the Ogilvy Agency, and it’s all about kind of the psychology of why consumers act the way we act. The spoiler is that we don’t know why we act the way we act, but marketers steer us in that direction. (both laugh)
And then there’s a book called Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, which is great also just around like more of the bigger picture strategic thinking. The strategy was one of the hardest things for me to figure out when I switched from individual contributor work to people management and leadership. So I gained from books.
Pam Didner: Yeah. You brought up a very good point. I did a webinar in terms of How to Cultivate Strategic Thinking, and you are not the only one who encountered that challenge. To be honest with you, I was not a marketer to start with. I was a CPA. And, uh, so my mind is built up in a certain form is always like, things need to be in a certain order and need to be organized. Everything needs to have a process. That’s how my mind works. And, uh, so when I moved to the marketing field, it was very, very different.
And the creative matters, content writing matters. And the way you write matters that, you know, there are certain elements associated with it. Some of them have a certain kind of, you know, you need to have a process, but the certain things you don’t, and it requires some kind of gut check, especially on the marketing site. And I also encountered an issue when I made that transition as first several years is how to be, how to think strategically. Every time I present my plan and stakeholders, all my senior managers will say, “ok, this is old tactics. You are not telling me your strategic approach. What are you trying to do?”
It took me a long time to make that. So, Kevan, I’m so happy that when you said how to be strategic to me, that’s critical. It took me a long time to get to that stage. So what you said resonates with me?
Kevan Lee: Yeah. I’d say to anyone listening or watching like books where I learned how to think about strategy. And so that was key to me because you don’t talk about it within the workplace. It’s just kind of like these people do strategy, and they know what it is, but you don’t really, you can’t learn it. It’s not intuitive to learn when you see it.
Pam Didner: Exactly. It’s very hard. For me, that was such intentional learning. I have to intentionally observe as I will go to a CEO’s meeting. I will go to the VPS meeting, and I will just observe intensely. What do they talk about? How do they approach things? What do they say? The type of question they ask you have to just pay attention to.
And I think you can teach somebody to some extent, but you as an individual somehow also need to be in the trench and pay attention. And I don’t know how to help people to do that. Does that make sense? Because I was helping several marketers, they took a route just like you–they became a leader. And they feel like they need to think differently and act differently, and there are some behaviors I can help them change, and they are very, very cognizant of that. But there is some thinking approach. It takes time. It just takes time to get that.
Kevan Lee: It does. Yeah. And I think it’s interesting for the teams that I’ve worked on, strategy as part of the career progression. If you want to go from this level to this level, you need to begin thinking strategically. If people want to get to that level, we have to help them and find ways to teach that and coach them. And so often, the most helpful thing for me is just able to show them through examples of “this is an example of a situation where you could have thought more strategically in this way.” But it’s very hard to just talk abstractly about this is generally what strategy is. It’s much more helpful to show, especially based on the examples they’re like living through and working through daily.
Pam Didner: I hear you. All right. So one last question. I promise, I say like last a couple of times, but this one is the last! So what is one place you always want to visit and never did?
Kevan Lee: Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to the Swiss Alps and ski them.
Pam Didner: Oh, great choice. Great choice. You should go. No, I never did, but I did go to one of the mountains in Switzerland but did not ski there. I don’t ski, if you will. And uh, but I went during the summertime. Gorgeous. You have to go. You have to go, and there’s no way to describe it. It’s sublime.
Kevan Lee: It’s like strategy. You can’t describe it. You have to experience it.
Pam Didner: Oh my God. I’m here. I mean, the scenery, the landscape, the shape of the mountain. It’s incredible.
Kevan Lee: It’s on the list, so we’ll get to it eventually, I’m sure.
Pam Didner: Sure. Excellent. Excellent. Kevin, thank you so much for coming to my shell. It’s wonderful to have you, and you share so much insight with us. I am truly, truly grateful.
Kevan Lee: Well, thank you.