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A Primer To Marketing Through Education


You’ve built a product, and you’re ready to make some money and get it into the eagerly awaiting hands of some customers.

…Except, you really don’t know how to do that. And you don’t have any customers yet.

If you’re like me, you were waiting for your break. That “Show HN” post that finally takes off, resulting in dozens of high-profile bloggers reaching out to you. Your product being so amazing, so immediately appealing, that it can’t help but go viral.

But these are all things you really can’t control, especially if you’re flying solo and don’t have the money or any big names backing you. You can’t make TechCrunch feature you, nor can you make the Internet buzz with excitement. And you’ll probably find that these bursts don’t really help you in the long run. They’re short-lived.

You can, however, fully control your marketing. By educating an audience, you can establish a steady, cadenced approach to getting your product in the hands of customers.

What, exactly, is marketing?

A lot of people — especially developers — misunderstand marketing.

Marketing in a nutshell: 

  • People have problems
  • Some people have problems that they’re willing to pay to fix
  • Products and services directly solve, or empower your customer to solve, these problems

So if you’ve built a product that solves a problem, like the tediousness (and lost opportunity cost) of creating invoices by hand, marketing is educating an audience about why the way they’re invoicing now is losing them money, and how they can make more money by fixing it.

Unfortunately, a lot of software types believe that software is sold on merit alone. Meaning, when someone stumbles upon your product or blog, the product’s merit — the list of features and aesthetics of a product — will be enough to sell it.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

What a potential customer really wants is to make getting money from their clients suck less. And a list of features isn’t going to communicate that, neither will screenshots of the sexy invoices your product generates.

Marketers are amateur psychologists

It’s your job as product creator to get your product in the right person’s hands at the right time.

When someone is shopping around for a product like yours and is ready to buy or try, your marketing site takes over to showcase the value proposition of your product, provide social proof, display your packages and pricing, and ultimately attempt get the visitor to buy or sign up for a free trial.

But we’re going to assume we aren’t happy with the volume of customers we’re getting exclusively through our marketing site.

Here’s our plan:

  1. We’re going to get into the heads of our customers. What pain points do they have, and how are we and our product able to solve (or partially solve) these problems?
  2. What does tomorrow, devoid of these problems, look like?
  3. How can we — using some great informational material — ferry our customers over to this land of milk and honey?

When a psychologist sits down with a patient, they don’t directly come out and say, “So Brennan, what’s wrong with you?”

Instead, they talk with you. They make note of the language you use, the examples you give, and attempt to peel away what you’re actually saying to get to the root of what you’re really  saying.

The same applies here. If we want to sell our product, we need to understand why someone wants our product. And if they don’t know they need a product like ours just yet, we want to paint a picture of that idyllic tomorrow, and eventually provide our product as the bridge between now and then.

Creating honeypots of information

When you understand the root problems and issues that your audience face, you can start responding to the questions your audience using your expertise or your capacity for research.

Choose a common question that you’ve heard your audience ask about, and write an easily consumable article that addresses a pain and provides an actionable solution.

  1. Reinforce and reminder the reader of their problem
  2. Establish context around the solution you’ll be presenting
  3. Provide a solution to their problem, or a facet of their problem
  4. Leave the reader with at least one actionable step they can take to implement your solution

Some might call this “content marketing” or “inbound marketing”, but I like to think of it as just writing informative articles that genuinely help a reader be better off than they were before reading. The articles are about things that people might type into Google. We aren’t tweaking keyword density or becoming obsessive over SEO — we’re simply future proofing ourselves against Google’s algorithm changes by creating Real Content for Real People.

Dating your audience

A lot of product owners who blog fail at going beyond offering an anonymous transaction. Meaning, someone stumbles upon your article, reads what you have to say, and then clicks back to wherever they were before.

What’s missing is a call-to-action (CTA), or asking the reader to do something beyond read your post. The most common form of CTA might be a banner or blurb that sends a reader over to your marketing site to try to attempt to sell your product.

However, we’re assuming that our one nugget of wisdom — the article they’ve just read — isn’t enough to make someone realize they need something like our software and establish enough trust in us.

The best way I know to do increase trust and showcase why someone needs a product is over time, using email. We want the reader to realize we have a lot more to offer them, and that we want to take a vested interest in their long term success. My preferred way of doing this is a 7-8 part email course, delivered over a week or a month.

We’re simply mirroring reality. We don’t propose marriage on a first date, nor do most clients hire us after first meeting casually over at a networking mixer. We want our name or our product to become a staple in their inbox, and to get the reader to look forward to hearing about what we have to teach them next.

When preparing your email course, work backward: What do you ultimately want your reader to end knowing? How does this knowledge fit in with your product? And what relationship do you want them to have with you?

Chances are, the answer the latter is “as a paying customer.” And the good news is we’ll be there, or a lot closer to that point, after the completion of our email course.

It’s important to start each email with a reminder of what you’re doing (e.g., teaching them about SEO can improve their business) and what you covered last time. In closing, clue them in on what’s coming next (“Next week, we’ll be looking at how the recent Panda update affects your website.”)

Pairing your product

While our primary goal is to educate our audience and establish ourselves as authorities, what keeps the lights on is acquiring paying customers.

Selling our product, or letting our audience know that our product is an enabler to help them solve a problem, doesn’t come in until we’re certain that our audience understands the problem and how it affects them, and understands our expertise.

It doesn’t hurt to remind readers of your email course that you have software related to their problem, or offer casual anecdotes (“In fact, one of the reasons we went about writing Planscope was to do just this.”) But the hard sell, or asking a reader to become a customer, should happen with your last email:

Brennan,

Over the last few weeks we’ve covered why being open and transparent with our clients will help us make more money and ultimately get more referrals. We’ve also looked at a few ways to tame out of control scope requests so that we don’t get burned and our clients are happy. It’s been a lot of fun, and I really hope you got a lot out of our conversations.

You know I wrote a project management app, Planscope. What you might not know is that Planscope was written because I was being burned over and over again by the problems we’ve been going over in this course, and wanted a tool that had my back. A tool that made it clear to my clients that, yes, there is a direct relationship between what they’re asking me to build and their budget.

I was tired of needing to defend my invoices, or having to dig through time logs and version control commits report on where their budget was spent. Why couldn’t my project management tool get my budget, and tie together what I’m working on and what I’m charging???

And that’s how Planscope was born. I’d love for you to give it a try so it can help you with your freelancing business, and because you’ve gone through my course I want to offer you a special coupon that expires next week: XXXXXX.

Again, this course (and Planscope) was built for you. I want to know what you thought, what you got out of it, and most importantly — how you plan on using this advice to better your business. Reply to this email and let me know!

Whenever possible, encourage your readers to write back. Not only will this provide you with a wealth of actual pains and takeaways from your audience, but you’ll have access to an engaged member of your audience. If they don’t choose to give your product a try, ask them why. What doubts kept them from signing up? Chances are, as someone is indebted to you after going through your course, they’ll be more than happy to open up.

Getting started

First, you need to really understand your audience and the underlying pains that your problem solves. But once you’ve captured a core problem and the language used to describe this problem, you’re ready to go.

The educational content you produce will usually come in the form of a blog post, and your goal is to leave the reader wanting more from you. To do that, you’re going to include a call-to-action that asks the reader to give you their email address in exchange for joining your free course. This should be as frictionless as possible, so if you’re able to capture the email address without sending the reader to another page, do it. If you’re going to capture any other information, you’ll want that to be their first name. Even though your course is delivered automatically, personalizing your emails with “Hi $FIRST_NAME” can help increase engagement.

Creating call-to-actions:

Next, I recommend creating a simple spreadsheet that lists out the multi-part email course you’ll be putting together. Rather than just stitching together a bunch of random articles, your course should be a steady progression of information that culminates with a hard sell.

Course calendar spreadsheet:

  • Day Offset (how many days after subscribing to send)
  • Subject
  • Core Takeaway
  • Bulleted Outline of Post
  • Call-To-Action (if applicable)
  • Open Rate (%)
  • Unsubscribe Rate (%)
  • Conversion Rate (%, if applicable)

Delivering email courses:

You’ll notice that our spreadsheet tracks open rates and unsubscribes. As you start getting statistics about which emails are being opened up and where people are dropping off, you’ll be able to start experimenting and testing changes that increase engagement. Because delivering our course is an automatic fly-wheel, once it’s up there’s not much we need do outside of observing and responding.

Once you’ve setup an email course (or if you already have one up now), I’d love to include it in the resources list below. Cycle back and drop me a line once it’s up!

Additional resources:

BTW, if you happen to be a freelancer or consultant, I’m just about done writing a book that covers these same principles (in a lot more depth), but related to selling high-value items — like our time.

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