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Release Date 10/15/15 Episode Length 26:20

Chris Lucas of Formstack

How to Experiment with, Measure, and Optimize Marketing Channels

with Chris Lucas of Formstack

Rocketship: Alright. Chris, tell us a bit about Formstack.

Chris: We are a lead collection platform. Basically, what we do is we help organizations collect more leads via an online form. People who are driving leads whether they’re through paid search, advertising campaigns, they use our forms to collect that information and then we have strong analytics to show you where those leads came from, what campaigns are converting well. Really, on the optimize piece, how do you optimize your form for better conversion. You can see through field bottlenecks where people are falling off on your forms and you can A/B test forms and things like that. Really, it’s around how do we gather more leads to an online form and that’s the problem that we’re solving at Formstack.

Rocketship: Very cool. You guys have been around for about nine years, right?

Chris: Yes.

Rocketship: I understand you came in during year one. Tell me a bit about what your role looked like then.

Chris: When I started, we were still a consulting company and we had the product on the side. I was really the first one who is brought in to focus on how do we get traction around the product. There was a little bit of just organic traction. People are signing up and we had a website and kind of back in the free and young days, so people are signing up for free and ultimately converting to a paid plan, but I was really brought in to say, “Hey, we think we’ve got something from a product standpoint. How do we generate PR around it? How do we do search engine optimization? How do we do pay per click advertising?” Really, like many folks when you’re starting that young and that early in a company, it was to do a bunch of things and see what works and see what sticks.

Rocketship: Cool. What ended up kind of sticking for you guys? What were some of the channels that worked early on?

Chris: Really, it was amazing how easy SEO was back then. I say that a little bit tongue and cheek, but really I mean when we think about nine years ago, people were really understanding the power of search. Before, it was kind of generating eyeballs through expensive advertising, and so a lot of banner ads. When I came in, it was, “How do we just get some relatively quick PR wins?” A lot of it was, “Let’s do some product reviews. Let’s go to the Mashables of the world.” That was when Mashable was just coming up and they were still doing product reviews. “Let’s go to a bunch of bloggers who are in this.” At that time, we were kind of serving the small business space. We went to a lot of small business blogs and just said, “Hey, we have a really cool product. We think it helps small businesses get worked on. Can we get a review?” That was kind of the easy way of just getting some PR out there which ultimately helped the SEO. Then we started to add blogging and content around it. It was before we knew what content marketing was. We just said, “You know what? If we put a page or blog post around ‘best WordPress forms,’ we could rank pretty high for that.” We started doing a lot of that and just experimenting if we wrote blog posts around certain topics could we rank it, could we not rank. Really, that was our first foray. Again, I knew a little bit about search, but it was nothing. I was no SEO expert at the time at all.

Rocketship: How did you educate yourself on what worked and what didn’t?

Chris: Goodness, just a ton of reading. I think I read every blog out there. Moz was SEOmoz at the time and Search Engine Journal was Search Engine Watch. All of those things were really on the forefront even old publications like Clicksy. I’m probably dating myself with a lot of these publications. Really, it was just a lot of learning and a lot of just reading what other people were doing. We also draw up at a cruel time when companies like MailChimp and Freshbooks and all of those folks were kind of coming up as well. Watching what they were doing, watching what was successful for other startup software companies, software as a service companies and saying, “How do I apply this to my business and how do I make this work in my space?” It was cool to grow up in a time when a lot of these software tools like that were getting started and really gaining traction.

Rocketship: Things have obviously changed a lot in the past 8, 9, 10 years, not only in terms of what works and how easy SEO is, but also in terms of your team and your size and the scale at which you’re trying to grow. I’m curious what you do now, what things work for you and how you’ve kind of evolved as the channels have evolved.

Chris: For a lot of things, for paid search specifically, at one point we are running lots of paid search. About three or four years ago, we just killed our paid search entirely. We weren’t really understanding if it was working or not. We killed it and we said, “If we can’t get in to this black box that is paid search and we don’t understand how it’s working for us, let’s just kill it and see what happens.” It was one of the most interesting times because we all … The day that we decided that, the next day we were like, “Oh great. Is half the business going to go away?” What we found is we created this brand and this SEO value around the website. When we killed paid search, it didn’t really affect us too much. It affected us immediately, but it didn’t affect us. What it forced us to do was really get smart and understand how to measure things. We started to understand paid search a little bit more and said, “What are the things that we can do to put in place to better track this?” We worked with kind of better UTM tracking codes and really put some processes in place and backend to really understand what campaigns we’re converting in a better rate. Then from the SEO side, we’ve shifted, as I mentioned, the content marketing. We really shifted in to how do we do content marketing but do content marketing that we can measure. Now, we track things through … We use a system called Pardot which many people are probably familiar with and we have Salesforce on the backend of that. Did something that we never would have even thought of, even three years ago is, “How long once somebody downloads a piece of content, does it take them to ultimately score or kind of grade themselves up or request a demo or do something that says, ‘Hey, I’m really interested. I’m not just looking at a piece of content?’“ Really, the systems and the process have changed that we measured a whole lot more. We understand what are the things that people are actively doing on the website and how are they engaging on the website, but a lot of that was building out the systems and the process to better understand that. I think that’s one thing that we realized. Without measuring things, we knew some things were generally working, we didn’t know how well.

Rocketship: What is the average time that you’re seeing for conversion from the blog to a paid customer?

Chris: It’s funny. We have some pieces … What we found is we have a couple of really big kind of content pieces. We have a form conversion report that we put out every year. What we found was that was about 30 days from somebody downloading on a demo or want to request. Some of our smaller e-books we find there’s 45 to even 100 days out, but it’s amazing how long people will kind of stick with your brand. It goes to the … People are doing research. They’ve done 60% of the research before they actually land on your website. What we found to be true is people download content way before they’re actually ready to buy. As we’re starting to track that, we can see those smaller pieces of those people who are just kind of researching content and those bigger pieces are probably people who have more intent to buy because they’re more interested of that story you’re telling in that big content piece.

Rocketship: Interesting. How many touch points are there in between? Is it download and then nothing? Or are they like reading other articles?

Chris: No, they’re definitely reading other articles. The way that we do it is we just kind of score base on activity on the website, so interest in a pricing page. If they go to our pricing page, that score is a bit higher, but along the way … I think I’d have to double check our numbers, but I think it’s like four or five different touch points after they download a piece of content. They come in and they generally look at our features page, try to understand the features. They look at our price and page then they’ll read the blog, then they’ll come back and look at pricing. That’s when we start to say, “Okay, this person has high intent. How do we have them reach on?” We have a couple of calls to action for either demo or trial. If they click demo, then we have a salesperson contact them right away.

Rocketship: You mentioned that you’re tracking all these different things in Pardot even down to what kind of content people are looking at on a site. What are you looking for in that or are there trends that you actually seek? It seems like when you track that much, you would just see a bunch of random behavior viewing this blog post and then that one and then maybe buying six months later and everybody would be totally different. Is there something you’re looking for specifically?

Chris: I mentioned real briefly. For many years, we kind of served the small business and we’re really focused on Formstack being a form building tool and it was kind of a Swiss Army knife of you can do event registrations, you could do surveys. That’s changed in the last 12 months and I talked about our digital marketing focus in the last 12 to 18 months. As we’re looking at a lot of the data that we are looking at and specifically from content, we’re trying to figure out where does somebody who’s interested in digital marketing and using our product the way that we’re kind of repositioning it now for the digital marketer. What content are they interested in. What is the type of content. We write everything from conversation rate optimization content to better analytics and analyzing Google AdWords and Google campaigns. What we’re trying to identify is what’s that buyer who’s in digital marketing. We built a persona called [Daniel 00:10:28] and so what we’re trying to do is really nail in. “Is the person that we call Daniel, is that personal correct? Are they interested in digital marketing content? Are they specifically looking at content that is around PPC advertising and paid search campaigns?” Then we’re looking at kind of the types of titles and the companies that we’ve kind of said, “This is what we think Daniel works for. Is that accurate?” We’re really trying to nail the persona that we’ve kind of built based on user customer interviews and things like that to really say, “Okay, from a marketing perspective, can we start to dial in on who this Daniel person is in the real world and can we start to build out that actual persona?” That’s really what we’re trying to dig out from a data perspective is can we be better, because then what we can do is say, “Okay, this person generally follows this path or this person is generally interested in this type of content and then we can kind of begin to serve it up at the right time in the right place.” That’s what we’re trying to get to. Ultimately, we’re not there yet, but it’s part of that science that’s really kind of become part of marketing now.

Rocketship: Essentially what you’re doing is kind of creating verticals within your own product and personas around those verticals?

Chris: Yeah. Though we’re trying to create a broader platform around digital market, so the verticals, we’ll still be there, but it’s generally saying, “Here’s a digital marketing platform.” Then what kind of buyers kind of fit into that digital marketing space, if that make sense.

Rocketship: Do you change within the product how people interact on their way in based on the persona that they match?

Chris: Not yet. That’s something that we’re definitely looking into. Part of our challenge is just scaling our team and scaling our development. Probably our marketing team is, and just by sheer size, we’re slightly ahead of our product team, and so we’re trying to catch up on the product side to better serve some of those. We’re starting to better understand that on a product side. What are the features if they are interested in this type of content, are they actually using these features. That’s part of our product team is working on is building out that stuff on the backend as well.

Rocketship: Yeah, that’s very cool. It’s usually the case. I think marketing is a little bit of ahead of the product most of the time. I’d like to hear about kind of how you grew the team and bringing on specialists over the last eight years from handling all different aspects to bringing on people to focus on SEO or content. How did you do that to build it up to what I believe is 14 now?

Chris: Yeah. Really, it took a huge … Not a huge, but to us, it was a huge moment. At the time, I was really the only one doing marketing and we sat down one day and put on a whiteboard, we said, “What are the things that we’re doing from a marketing perspective?” We ended up writing up 15 major things that we’re kind of doing. It’s webinars, it was paid searches, it was SEO, but it was a long list of 15 things and we said, “Realistically, how many are we actually good at?” We send maybe one or two, because you’re trying to do all of these things. That was the aha moment for us that we said, “We really need to have somebody else.” What we did is we then actually hired two people, because I said, “One of the things that we have to be good about is understanding if we can hire two people at this early stage. Can we have them specialize in two general areas?” We went out and found a bit of a generalist and kind of PR and general marketing I’ll call it. She was really good at writing, understood PR at its basics and understood kind of SEO from a bare minimum. She was able to handle all of that side of the house. Then we found somebody who was a bit more analytical and so he was able to come in and help us with our paid search campaigns and really driving some more technical understanding of what we were doing on the marketing side. Some of the analytics and Google Analytics and things like that. We paired that content. At the time, we weren’t calling it a content person, but that content plus the analytical and paid search side. That was really the first hire and I like to … There’s an old post that Jason Fried wrote of 37signals and it was a long, long time ago. He wrote a blog post about don’t hire until you’ve actually done the job so you understand what it takes to get that job done. I remember reading that and saying, “Okay, I understand the basics of all these 12 to 15 things that we’re doing, but how do I hire somebody to begin to do some of these?” Those two people were really the first iteration of that and then it was a really scale problem. Once you got to a point where PPC took up 90% of our time, it was like, “Okay, we need somebody who actually goes and really understands PPC to the core because we understand that it’s driving X amount of leads, X amount of trials a month and so we know that we should have somebody focus on that.” Going where we are today, really, we took that generalist mentality and we started to say, “Okay, what are the specialists that we need to really understand the business. Data is everywhere and if we don’t understand it, we’re going to be continued operating in a black box. What we’ve done is we built out a performance marketing team is what we call it. Really, it’s three people around content. They’re working alongside our demand gen team. One person specifically around SEO. One person specifically around paid search and then we have a strategic person that sits on top of that team. Then we have an analytics and operations team that runs our systems and processes. I mentioned Pardot and we’ve got NRG Metrics that runs behinds us. They’re specialists in those systems. The other content piece is we have a webinar. We found that webinars scale really well. We’re able to drive a lot of highly qualified leads out of webinars. We’ve got somebody who’s focused on that. We’ve built out this team. Once we understood the basics of SEO, content, paid search, those big buckets of marketing, we said, “Okay, what are the specialists that really need to hone in on these?” That’s how we’ve structured and built the team out now.

Rocketship: Interesting. How do you hire without … What kind of questions are you asking someone who’s kind of honed in on one aspect to know that they’re going to be a good candidate?

Chris: Our interview process is actually pretty rigorous. We have a multi-stage process. The first time we have an HR person, we call it team talent, and they go and do the first phone screen. There are some criteria that we say, “This is kind of check for these things and also check for some basic understanding of who we are, what do we do.” All those kinds of things. Then the biggest thing that we found to be helpful in this is we give everybody a project. If it’s around paid search, we give them, we say, “Here’s a challenge. We’ve got a $500,000 budget.” That’s not really our budget. “There’s a $500,000 budget, tell me or tell us …” Kind of the old math show your work. “How would you scale this budget knowing what you know about our company and kind of show us what would your expected return on investment be?” That really helps us to get a feel for do they understand what paid search is. Do they understand where they can spend their money. Do they understand how to allocate dollars. Then can they specifically say, “Here’s my expected return.” We give them some criteria. We’ll say, “We see average click through rates between 3% and 5% or we see this much our conversion rate from traffic to trial is 10%.” We give them some metrics just so they can get the project started and then we walk through it with them. That really helps us understand, “Do you understand paid search at its core? If you can explain it.” Again, because I understand it at a high level now, I’ve not been in a PPC campaign for a couple of years now, but I know the questions to ask and if they can explain it to me, then I understand. I get a better understanding of their true knowledge. We do that for … We hired an analyst and we said, “Break down …” We gave them some traffic information and some customer information and built a project around that. We do that from a developer standpoint. We have them do API projects. Really, it’s just a matching of understanding their skill sets with the project that we give them. That’s been one thing that we found to be real key in the hiring process.

Rocketship: How do you prepare the analytics team to know what to be tracking? Are they paired up with the product team to understand what the goals are and what you want customers to be achieving?

Chris: We’re not that advanced yet. It’s one of those things that we’re trying to get to. The analytics team really is serving all of the marketing teams at this point. We just actually hired another product analyst so they’re going to be starting to work with our marketing analyst a lot more. To date, our analyst has really been focused on what are the KPIs for paid search or content or SEO and then how do I deliver that information to them on top of the revenue and performance metrics that we have as an organization. New MR, new monthly recurring revenue, what is that number and how does that tie back into their specific areas. Those are really the indicators that we’ve used thus far, but now that we’re building out more products and have a product analyst, those people where we talk a lot more. Then we can start to tie in that product knowledge with the marketing knowledge.

Rocketship: That’s awesome. Thanks so much for coming in. Can you let everyone know where they can keep up with you and Formstack online?

Chris: Yes. Online, we’re at You can find us on Twitter, @formstack. Me, specifically, I am @chrisclucas on Twitter. That’s a terrible name, but I’ll have to tell you my Twitter story some other time. Then I’m also on LinkedIn, Chris Lucas. You can definitely find me in lots of different places.

Rocketship: Great. Thanks so much.

Chris: Yeah, thank you guys. I definitely appreciate it.

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