Book Review-Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth

Years ago I owned a sports car. It was a Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4. Over 300 horsepower of twin-turbo-charged fun. It had one unique characteristic not found in most sports cars of the time. It was all-wheel drive. Why in the heck would you make a sports car all-wheel drive? It’s not like you’ve got enough ground clearance to go off-roading with it. The answer was simple: traction. With all four wheels turning, it could convert the power in the motor into forward motion. I never spun the tires. The best I could ever get was a slight chirp before all four wheels started digging in and throwing you back in your seat. That’s what we need in our startups. We need something to transform the power of our idea, our innovation, into a business that’s making money and propelling us forward. That’s the subject of Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth.

Knowing What Works

I asked a friend of mine who teaches at a university, who happens to have a master’s degree in marketing, what I was doing wrong with my marketing. I was convinced I was doing something wrong because it didn’t feel like it was working. His response wasn’t what I expected. “You just throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks.” With an advanced degree in marketing he basically said, “try stuff.” I tell you, I’d want my money back from that college.

However, the more time I spend with marketing and people who do marketing, the more that seems to be the answer. The goal with marketing is to make lots of little expenditures to see which ones work – and then you build on and leverage the working approaches. It seems like there should be a better formula for making things work, but there isn’t.

Discover the Truth

Nineteen Ways to Create Traction

Every business is a bit different. Every situation requires its own approach. That’s why the authors provide nineteen different approaches to creating traction:

  • Targeting Blogs – Finding and engaging with the blogs that your customers read.
  • Publicity – How do you create publicity for your organization to potentially create a windfall of customers? Getting noticed by magazines, newspapers, and TV shows have this power.
  • Unconventional PR – How do you get noticed? Sometimes it’s a publicity stunt and sometimes it’s uncommon care for customers. Either way, unconventional PR is what draws traditional publicity to you.
  • Search Engine Marketing – More and more people are searching for content instead of navigating. If you want to get people’s attention they need to be able to find you, and for most folks that’s through search. With this strategy, you pay for each click.
  • Social and Display Ads – Everyone’s talking about the power of social to draw people to your organization. This channel drives activity through social channels organically and through paid ads.
  • Offline Ads – While it’s an online world, print and other offline advertising mediums aren’t dead yet. This channel uses offline to get more bottom line.
  • Search Engine Optimization – If you’re good at creating content, you may be able to leverage organic clicks instead of paying for them by optimizing your content to match the keywords that users are typing in their searches. This may mean a lot of trial and error – but the long tail on the leads it drives to your site are powerful.
  • Content Marketing – Creating content for web pages targeted at search engine optimization is one thing, but there are also strategies around creating whitepapers and videos which help you collect prospect names, and then you can market to them directly.
  • Email Marketing – SPAM is something everyone hates – because it’s so effective. Where printed pieces may cost a dollar or more to send, you can send thousands of email messages for pennies each. Email marketing can be effective if you can get the right names.
  • Engineering as Marketing – Sometimes engineering can create a useful tool or widget that you can offer for free. This provides a way to collect information and provides a service at the same time. Giving someone something they value at the start of the relationship can speed closing times and improve closure rates.
  • Viral Marketing – Everyone wants to have their marketing effort take off on its own, but how does that work and how do you keep it going? By crafting messages and content, it’s possible to create things that people want to share—and thus they go viral.
  • Business Development – Sometimes you just need feet on the street or at least someone smiling and dialing. That’s business development. It’s trying to create partnerships that lead to sales.
  • Sales – Sometimes the only way to get customers is to sell to them directly. This is only a scalable traction channel if you can create a repeatable sales process.
  • Affiliate Programs – Sometimes the channel you need for traction is to have other people send folks to you. Every book I review here has an affiliate link to Amazon, so I get a small portion of the cost of the book as a referral fee.
  • Existing Platforms – Any place where folks gather, like App Stores, you can leverage to create traction. This is why there are so many free apps in the App Stores for various mobile platforms.
  • Trade Shows – Getting folks in one place at one time can be a great way to get your message across and create awareness, if you leverage the event correctly.
  • Offline Events – Creating your own meetup or conference can be a way to drive interest in your product, though admittedly this channel may be harder to execute.
  • Speaking Engagements – Speaking has the benefit of creating instant credibility, but the draw backs of needing skills to do it right and the need to find places to get an audience.
  • Community Building – Ultimately, getting people that think the same way and are enthused about what you’re offering is the holy grail of getting devotion. However, creating communities isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s difficult to get right and requires more than a bit of luck.

If you’re looking for more information on specific ideas for ways to get traction through these channels you might want to see Brand is a Four Letter Word, Fascinate, Guerrilla Marketing, Demand, and The New Rules of Marketing and PR. The channels that are presented in Traction aren’t new – but viewing them as a set of options for engaging your audience is.

Splitting Time

There’s a challenge in any startup. That challenge is the allocation of resources. Do you spend time on product development or do you spend time on marketing, sales, and getting customers – in a word, do you spend time on getting traction? This isn’t really an “either-or” question. You need to do both. You need to have something to sell and a channel to sell it. I’ve personally seen plenty of bad products get sold for a short time before failing spectacularly, and plenty of great products that never made it because they couldn’t get enough traction in the market.

The recommendation is to split time equally between these two areas – developing what you’re selling, and selling what you’re developing. While this is sound advice, I think the idea that you would split it evenly isn’t a great plan. Each organization and situation will be different. You’ll need to find a way to walk between what you spend creating the product and what you spend creating traction.

A or B?

One of the skills that I find difficult to force myself to do is to do A/B testing. Which subject line works better? Which marketing message resonates more with the younger audience? It’s absolutely a necessity to do if you want to optimize the output of your channels – whatever they are. However, it’s infuriating to me because it requires more than double the work the second idea always seems harder), and too many times for me the differences aren’t material. They just don’t matter.

I have to struggle to force myself to do it and it, for me, takes quite a bit of willpower. I know that, with folks that have larger budgets and more time to create messages, it can mean the difference between success and ho-hum results, just at my scale it’s difficult to justify.

Looking into the Bull’s Eye

The recommendation is to brainstorm ideas about the kinds of traction channels that you believe can be effective, and ideas to test out those channels, then run small-scale tests in those channels. You track and observe the results of those channels, and then find a channel that works and ramp up your participation in that channel. It seems simple, but the devil is in the details.

When brainstorming which traction channels are going to be effective, we realize that, in the end, we really don’t know. Some small idea that seems barely worth thinking about can have a high conversion rate and do more than campaigns in other channels that require 10 times as much effort.

Try Different

As I mentioned in my review of Selling to VITO, we’re in an attention economy. Anything that we can do that is different can be memorable. Whether it’s a non-traditional PR stunt or a completely different way to do an ad on a billboard, we’re hardwired to find differences. Those differences lead to focus and attention, and that can mean the difference between people becoming interested in what we’re doing or getting lost in the noise.

As you’re doing things, look for different. Look for something that you can do that has never been done before. The wackier, funnier, and more odd it is, the more likely that it will get noticed – and get you noticed.

Speak to Me

I’ve made speaking a large part of my attempts to create traction for a long time. I’ve got experience at it, but at the same time I’m always trying to get better at it. Whether it’s reading Great Speeches for Better Speaking or looking Inside Jokes, I continue to refine my craft. I believe that many organizations like the idea of generating leads and credibility at the same time, so speaking seems like a great traction channel to try. The one thing I can say about this speaking process is that most of my fellow speakers admit that there’s very little direct business that they get through speaking. As consultants and product companies, they see some – but not a lot – of activity. They realize that the greatest benefit of speaking is the credibility that it lends. They use this credibility to reduce their sales cycles and to make their other traction channels more effective, rather than leveraging speaking as a primary lead generation tool.

Conversely, I know of a few speakers who book small venues across the country and make their living by selling a handful of people in the crowds their audio and video products. It’s works but, in my opinion, it’s a hard way to make a living.

So whether it’s speaking or some other channel that works for you, I hope you find your Traction.