HubSpot + The Hustle (or ProfitWell's entire media strategy)

Patrick Campbell Feb 18 2021

This article is a part of our Protect the Hustle series where we explore the truth behind the strategy and tactics of B2B SaaS growth to make you an outstanding operator. 

 

Today, we're sharing a framework for becoming a media company, including why you should abandon your current inbound strategy and move to media. I wrote this doc three years ago when we changed ProfitWell's strategy, but thought you'd all enjoy it as HubSpot bought a media company for this very reason. 



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Two weeks back HubSpot closed on the sale of The Hustle, a media company and community for entrepreneurs. Everyone's talking about it, but people don't understand the why. Thankfully, we've been building a media network for the last couple of years as a software company, so I thought I'd share why we started giving up on traditional inbound marketing and moving to a media strategy. This is also what I think all of you should do.

To set the stage, the following is from three years ago. The only person doing marketing up until that point was me and before we jumped into a larger team I wanted to define what our direction should look like. The result was research on what's happening in the inbound market, as well as why the media strategy makes sense.

Apart from the lessons, it's also a good example of first-principles thinking. I had to redact some, because I can't share all of our secrets (you can have them if you come work at ProfitWell though :)). Enjoy and let me know what you think or where you'd like me to go deeper.

 

Let's talk about insurgencies and the Iraq war

At ProfitWell, two of our core axioms are think from first principles and always seek and increase your leverage. As we embark on setting up our marketing vision and direction we therefore need to find a strategy that gives us maximum ROI while fulfilling our goal of attracting subscription companies to our products.

We also need to understand our constraints:

      1. We don't throw around cash: We're bootstrapped, but even if we weren't, we're still too analytical to accept waste. We're willing to bet big, but we need something that pays big.
      2. Our logo TAM is small: While our revenue TAM is expanding exponentially, there are only 100k-150k subscription companies in the world and that number is not growing quickly.
      3. We sell consideration/trust products: Our products require buyer consideration and buy-in as opposed to quick impulse decision making, so we need to build trust.

With our constraints and goal in mind, I centered our research on studying marketing trends, but also going to the bedrock in understanding the tactics and strategies used in extreme scenarios to quickly win over groups. Why here? Human psychology of community is in our DNA at this point. If we strictly study marketing, the body of knowledge isn't wide enough and is too subtle and nuanced. If we look at extreme shifts in community, we get more signal and less noise into the most effective strategies.

While going deep on google scholar around cults and religions through a media lens were interesting, the richest research actually was around the psychology of insurgencies in the context of the Iraq war. I get this is a memo about ProfitWell's marketing strategy, but bare with me.

When coalition forces invaded Iraq in the early 2000s, an old school methodology of "Shock and Awe" was used. The strategy was to essentially bomb the area so much that Iraqi forces would be awed and shocked into giving up and simply accepting their new hierarchy.

This is akin to most direct response type sales and marketing. In a 30-minute informercial my goal is to shock and awe you into believing that you need the product by peppering you with the awesomeness of the product and the people who use it's features. Yes, war and marketing have very different outcomes and aims, but the approach is very single-move minded.

Single-move thinking is what got the coalition forces in trouble in Iraq. If we were just going to leave or install a puppet government like previous shock-and-awe campaigns, the approach would have worked (albeit still obviously devastating for the population[0]). Instead, these tactics created an insurgency—radicalized civilians who took up arms and fought against troops in an exceptionally resentful way (for obvious reasons).

Tactics needed to change, because coalition forces were losing. Rather than win by force and fear, coalition forces learned that they needed to "win the hearts and minds" of the community. Instead of bombs and air raids, US intelligence shifted to paying off tribal chieftains, troops distributed candy and food to local families, and Navy/Army construction battalions fixed utilities for local communities.

The result? Coalition forces won hearts and minds, and these communities not only agreed to stop fighting the coalition, but to help them against the truly bad actors in the region.

Love takes longer to foster, but it's more effective than fear.

 

What in the world does this have to do with marketing at ProfitWell?

Given our constraints, our goal is to win the hearts and minds of the subscription community. We need to do this by providing tremendous value to the community that builds trust.

In analyzing the literature on the insurgency strategy (and leveraging some lessons from when I worked in US intelligence), creating effective insurgencies comes down to two primary axes:

      1. Creating reciprocity and partnership by giving away value
      2. Boosting brand through media that engenders trust

Reciprocity through giving value away

Creating reciprocity through providing value for free is pretty easy to understand—those who give us gifts, we tend to view positively and feel obliged to repay them in some way. Like all things, there's varying levels of effectiveness.

A free toaster for opening a checking account is not as effective as a friend being there for you without you asking for help. Essentially there's a higher payoff for "help for help's sake" versus a clear exchange of "I'll give you this if you do this."

Given we're predisposed to being helpful and share what we learn (which our market appreciates), we'll lean towards providing a constant stream of value for free. While altruistic in being a good steward of our industry, it's also good for business.

ProfitWell Metrics and other free products

From a product perspective, freemium is the future. It's the best content you have at attracting our target customer. Old-school operators loathe giving away value, because they cut their teeth in a single-move world that only thought about conversions through push sales and marketing. There also wasn't as much pressure and density in distribution. Our world is different now. There's more competition for attention than ever. You need to pull users in.

With ProfitWell Metrics we provide all the subscription financial metrics a subscription company needs, and it's better than the paid competition. We will continue to develop this product forever, to the point that it's not just the best financial metrics product, but also the best business intelligence product any subscription company needs. All for free.

Being better than the paid competition is exceptionally important here, because in a freemium strategy we're still fighting perception of free being bad. This perception is waning rapidly—if the product is not only free, but also better, there's a double whammy of delight for the user. We relish in feedback that says, "I can't believe I'm getting this for free," or "I feel bad not paying you."

The result is we win their hearts and minds. Users then recommend us to their peers. They also are more than willing to get on the phone with us to learn about our paid offerings. The added benefit is the data is also a crucial piece in our virtuous product circle—studying the data and deploying that understanding into our paid products. More on this in the core product memo.

Take every call. Speak at every event. Answer every question.

We can deepen reciprocity through value by being exceptionally helpful. The second best answer to, "What does ProfitWell do?" is, "I don't know, but they know their stuff and are extremely helpful—you should talk to them." Even in a world of inbound marketing, this is currently not an accepted practice.

Most advice revolves around protecting your time, filtering out bad leads, conferences are a waste of time, etc. While we need to be smart about our time, these pieces of advice foster a single-move mindset. Growth is multi-move. Bad leads know good leads. Powerful, helpful keynotes spread and garner referrals. Help sells.

In this vein, our sales and support teams answers any pricing or retention questions that come in, as well as provides pricing and retention audits for even leads we know can't afford our prices [1]. We definitely triage the folks we know aren't great fits for us and don't pretend we know answers to companies/questions outside of our core competencies. Yet, it's imperative for us to be looked at as the hub of subscription growth.

Our marketing approach is also geared towards providing value. We must give subscription operators answers through exceptionally deep and actionable plans around subscription retention and monetization. Our north star here is people not believing we're giving away so much in terms of the playbooks for free.

 

Boosting brand through media that engenders trust

Our other pillar of creating an insurgency is going all in on media. As we set out on expanding the marketing team beyond just me writing a blog post each week, we will transform ProfitWell into a media company.

Media is better than traditional inbound marketing, because inbound is losing its effectiveness[2]. Everyone is running the same playbook. They're writing better, deeper content. Higher quality isn't bad, but given the deluge of content out there, the approach is heading to just another plank in the platform of online advertising. Put another way—inbound marketing of today is the equivalent of running google search ads.

On the other hand, media companies are the best in the world at driving traffic and audience. They're the worst at monetizing that traffic. B2B SaaS companies are pretty lazy at driving traffic, but they're pretty darn good at monetizing that traffic. So let's just combine the best of both worlds.

I'm not just think tanking this. I went deep on the data. Let's compare media to inbound for a moment.

Traditional Inbound Marketing

Traditional inbound marketing deploys what's known as the "wheel strategy." You take a content offer—ebook, webinar, industry paper, etc.—and then atomize the content and distribute it through email, social, ads, etc., to drive people to that offer. The entire goal is for someone to fill out a form and give you their contact information in exchange for the offer. You then nurture that lead through lead scoring and your sales team.

When the inbound marketing wave started it was a reaction to the push tactics of sales and marketing in the late 90s and early 2000s. Email still had the tinge of, “It’d be terribly rude to not answer or look at someone’s email, because it’s just like snail mail.” It also road the wave of more and more information being sought by consumers.

Density is now at an all time high. You can find out basically anything through a search. Everyone has at least a blog and most have responded with higher quality content, treating SEO like a machine. This is great for consumers, but for businesses, inbound marketing has lost a lot of leverage (which was bound to happen).

Here are some numbers from my research:

      • The effective life of an ebook has gone down from 6.2 months three years ago to 1.8 months today.
      • The max average touch point, per lead per week, from inbound has gone from 3.1 to 1.4, largely driven by the expectation that you can't send emails more than once (maybe twice) per week.
      • Cost to create an offer has gone from an average of $1.2k to $10.4k. This is driven by rising salaries, design and quality expectations increasing, etc.

Inbound marketing is still amazing and we will continue to do it at ProfitWell, but we should not expect the outsized gains we once did. Instead, we should change the system we run and approach to something higher leverage. Media is that system.

Running a media strategy

Instead of putting an offer at the center of the strategy, media centers on building audience. Your goal isn't to chase the spikes and long tails of an offer attracting leads; it's to move your audience count up and to the right. It's exceptionally effective, as well.

The key difference here is media centers around shows. You attract an audience on a given topic or outcome and then episodically entertain and educate that audience towards that topic or outcome. For instance, we can create a show that teaches people how to set up their subscription pricing strategy over a season of 13 episodes (a quarter). We can also create a show that does a case study each week on the pricing strategy of a company.

Benefits here are threefold:

      • Creating a rhythm and anticipation; also binging behavior. 
        Shows build from episode to episode. Done right, we'll be able to attract our personas more effectively through boosted brand. We'll also be associated with the topics we create shows around through the level of quality and education. Binging will take place, as well, creating a deeper connection.

      • Multiple mediums
        Shows can be in multiple mediums. We can have a written newsletter, that's also an audio podcast, and has video. Users can choose how they want to consume the content. We're not making the decision for them.

      • Multiple shows
        We'll start small, but multiple shows earn the right to be in our leads' inbox every single day. Media companies get a different perception than traditional blogs. Some users will want content three times per week. Others once per week. Regardless, we increase our average touch points per week.

How do costs and effectiveness compare though? Here's some data:

      • Max average touch points per lead per week is much higher. Bloomberg is at 5.2. The Skimm is around 4.4. We'll be happy with anything over 3.
      • Current estimates put the cost of a season of a show (13 episodes) under $10k. If this fails, the cost feels like a good hedge, because we'll at least have 13 good posts with high quality video or audio.

In red teaming this strategy, what has me worried and what do we need to figure out? I believe these concerns fall into two buckets.

Mechanical concerns

Creating quality content is not easy and we don't have budget or time to hire 30 people for our first show like Buzzfeed did or wait months to get our first show out. Beyond that, we also need to find a way to build multiple shows in different formats, cadences, and quality levels. This will take time, but we should start small and bring on a video producer instead of a content manager as our first hire.

Distribution Concerns

No one's really done this before in B2B. I don't know if we're really going to crack the perception of people only wanting one email per week. Will we get binging? Even if we get both of these, is there enough distribution to justify continuing the effort? These are all important questions we'll need to figure out. Given the untested waters here, we're going to focus on the mechanical side first, because if we can't produce content inexpensively there's not much we're going to be able to do long term.

We'll certainly have bumps along the way, but even if we fail completely, we'll have high quality, media-rich content that no one is really doing in the market. Therefore, this feels like a worthwhile direction to move forward on. Essentially, minimal to medium risk with potentially very high reward. We'll constrain with pushing 1-2 headcount plus me (PC), and see how much we can push. We'll evolve from there.

 

Our framework for the type of content we produce

Given our media strategy and constraints, we need deep thought around our approach. Through researching effective mass media and insurgency media, we need to understand our targets, as well as our core pillars around what should drive that content.

 

ProfitWell's targets for our shows

Let's start with our targets:

ProfitWell currently targets three main verticals:

      • B2B SaaS and Prosumer 
        These companies sell to other businesses or sell to individuals who use their products to conduct some sort of work. Example customers include Notion, Schneider Electric, Bigcommerce, etc.

      • Consumer Subscriptions
        These companies sell to consumers for a variety of uses, including sub-verticals like education, fitness, non-profits, media publications, and entertainment. Example customers include Masterclass, Starz, The Atheltic, Change.org, etc.

      • Subscription ecommerce
        These companies sell a physical product on a recurring bases to their subscribers. Example customers include Dr. Squatch, Hubble Contacts, Hunt a Killer, lots of pet food brands, etc.
Amongst these verticals we have three cores of content:
      • Pricing: content that coaxes toward ProfitWell's Price Intelligently product
      • Retention: content that coaxes towards ProfitWell Retain
      • General: content that attracts subscription companies in general, optimizing for ProfitWell Metrics, RevConnect, and other products coming down the pipe.

More in our target customers docs linked here, but the goal is to have a show that's building audience for the cross section of our cores and our verticals. Below you can see some examples of shows we're going to build or are already in the process of building. These shows will evolve over time, as well (ie. Pricing Page Teardown today shouldn't look like Pricing Page Teardown in two years).

 

Guiding principles on the type of shows and content we produce

In developing our shows and wider content, the following will act as guiding principles to filter options and debate directions:

    • Expertise and Domain Authority
      • We need to show we're smart, but approachable. It's a tough needle to thread, but ProfitWell needs to be what people think of when they think of "subscriptions." Data and benchmarks are our friends. Q&A is encouraged. Our SEO footprint in this context also needs to be wide and deep.
    • Community Journalism and Local Focus
      • People like seeing their friends, companies, and enemies. Let's take up the mantle of community journalism and show names, faces, companies, and news. We need to also ensure it feels like we're a part of the community—not just the subscription community at large, but the different ecosystems in different regions. People are proud of their tech bubble.
    • Action. Always Action. Takeaways.
      • Do the work for the viewer/reader/listener. Every single episode should have a field guide or action plan that the individual can use, hand off to someone who reports to them, or that they can share with a portfolio company. Make it easy.
    • [REDACTED - Come work at ProfitWell if you really want to know. :)]
      • [REDACTED - Come work at ProfitWell if you really want to know. :)]

Each show should have elements of each of these or go incredibly deep on one of them. The point is every episode will work to fulfill the view that we're the "subscription company."

 

How is the team organized and which type of content do we produce

We have three core functions within the team—creating content, making that content look good, and distributing that content. In terms of content creation, we produce four types of content:

      1. Upscale shows: Content producers spend their most time here, producing content that's to the level that people think our team is 10x the size. This team's north star is content that could be optioned to Netflix or a mass media network.
      2. Spread shows: Content producers here focus on content that's specifically made for social to capture audience or for sales to capture opportunities. Most of the production of this content should be outsourced and we should have higher volume.
      3. Drops, Events, and Product: Content here is focused on experience and splash. We'll be the first B2B company to do Supreme-style drops. Our event game will be the best of any event no matter who is there, and our product marketing will evolve to having the best ads on the market. It'll take a bit, but we'll get there.
      4. [REDACTED - Come work at ProfitWell if you really want to know. :)]

Our creative production team will work throughout these three different areas of content, developing treatments, graphical work, etc. They'll own the look and feel.

 

Distribution

This is our least developed area, but for now our distribution will be organized according to outcome. We'll have a team (likely just a person) for zero-to-lead (sparking awareness and then giving an email address), lead-to-demo (working on leads to get them to the opportunity stage), demo-to-close (sales), and close-to-happiness (customer success).

We'll start with one person who permeates these four areas (likely focusing just on one at first) and then mitosis the team from there following the Balfour playbook. Our approach will likely follow this path in order of lift and effort.

      1. Email
      2. Partnering
      3. Social and Demand Gen
      4. Community

Many bumps along the road

Our approach here is not going to be easy, but that's the very reason we're doing it. With time we'll create a moat of understanding and leverage from a production standpoint, as well as a moat for brand. There'll be bumps along the way, but the mission will be worth it in the end.

 

[0] The metaphor isn't talking about the merits of war. Just a very narrow comparison of the before and after of strategies that alienate or win over the local population.

[1]Our retention and pricing audits are our first calls in our sales cycle where we provide an assessment of the company's current hits and misses of their pricing/retention based on their data, if they're hooked up to ProfitWell or through pattern matching if they are not. The outcome is they leave the call with an order of operations of what they should fix regardless of moving to next steps with ProfitWell.

[2] If HubSpot is smart they'll rebrand inbound AS media. This is the most likely scenario based on the data we're seeing in the market. My fear is they'll end up getting too addicted to the teat of offers, but maybe they buy a media company?

 


Do us a favor?

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This is a ProfitWell Recur production—the first media network dedicated entirely to the SaaS and subscription space. 


 
By Patrick Campbell

Founder & CEO of ProfitWell, the software for helping subscription companies with their monetization and retention strategies, as well as providing free turnkey subscription financial metrics for over 20,000 companies. Prior to ProfitWell Patrick led Strategic Initiatives for Boston-based Gemvara and was an Economist at Google and the US Intelligence community.

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