Earth Class Mail

3 Inexpensive Ways to Validate Your Idea

This is a guest article by Jonathan Chan @ FoundrMag.com.

Everyone out there has a big idea. If you count yourself as an entrepreneur, chances are you have an idea for a startup.

The problem is that few ideas are actually any good. Even with a great idea the reality is that it won’t necessarily translate into a great business. But, you can save yourself from a lot of heartache and wasted effort.

That’s why you need to validate

Validation is when you actually put the pressure test on your idea, to see if anyone even wants what you’re offering in the first place. Too many would-be entrepreneurs make the mistake of keeping themselves in a bubble and fall out of touch with the real world. 

Check out our own journey into market validation, where we build a business online from the ground up.

The goal of validation is to find the true fans of your product. A true fan is someone who would put down money for your product even if they don’t have it yet. You should get at least a hundred of them to validate further investment in your idea.

When it comes to validation, it’s important to remember these rules:

  • The goal is to find 100 true fans.
  • Always listen more than you talk.
  • Keep in mind that great ideas don’t always translate into great products.

Talk to your customer

Here’s a quick little exercise to get started. Quickly write down at least five people you know who would use your product. That’s five people who would fall over themselves in order to do business with you. Then talk to them.

If you can’t think of at least five people, then maybe that’s all the validation your idea needs.

Don't stop at this step! It's a good first step, but for the most part you’ll probably get a load of people telling you that they could see themselves using your product. 

The first mistake entrepreneurs often make is they rely solely on their friends and family for feedback on their idea. This is exactly the reason you need to expand your validation beyond friends and family. 

You need to ask people who are complete strangers. In fact, you need people to tell you that your idea sucks. You need to find a way to actually get in front of your target customer and start asking them what they think.

For that you need to clearly define, in writing, who you believe your target customer is and get in contact with some of them (this could end up being totally wrong, but you need to start somewhere). 

That means actually go to the places where they’re hanging out, online or offline. Come armed with questions, ask them to fill out a survey, or maybe even convince a couple to be beta testers for you. Develop a 15 second pitch for your idea, that's all the attention you'll get from people you don't know.

It doesn’t really matter how you approach this, as long as you’re actually listening to them and taking what they have to say seriously.

Smoke test

One of the best ways to validate your idea is to start selling it, even if you don’t have a product to sell. It's never too early to start selling.

A smoke test is super easy to do and is often used by some of the best in the business before they even start building their products.

The easiest way to do a smoke test is to set up a landing page for your product or service. Don’t worry if you don’t have one at the moment; the entire point of this exercise is to just gauge interest for your idea. 

Make it so that the landing page actually has a strong call to action like, “Sign up now” or “Get a free consultation” that people can actually click on. This will become very important data for you later.

There are lots of inexpensive services out there to help you do this, even with no development or programming experience. Try these: Unbounce.com, Launchrock.com, QuickMVP.com

Now that you’ve set the bait it’s time to start casting the line out.

Remember to go after your target customer here, so don’t just do a social media blast linking back to your page and hope for the best. Actually find out where your potential users hang out and seed it out there. 

Come up with a real pitch, sell the value of your idea and incentivize people to visit your page. Early-bird discounts are a great incentive, so is exclusivity. 

Some common messaging examples: "Sign up today and get 50% Off", and "Join our waitlist and be part of the beta test".

If you don’t mind spending a little bit of money then you can drive targeted traffic to your site with Google AdWords, Bing, or Facebook. Do your research on how pay-per-click (PPC) marketing works, or find an inexpensive contractor to launch a small campaign for you.

This whole process shouldn’t take you more than a few hours of work, PPC campaign excluded, and a couple days of patience. After a few days, it’s time to check and see if you got any nibbles.

Remember the goal is to find 100 true fans. How many people visited your page? How many people actually clicked through on your call to action? 

Usability cafe

Developed by the tech-heads at Google, the Usability Cafe method is a very effective and cheap way for you to validate your idea. The best part is that you don’t even need any special tools to implement it.

Even though this is a method primarily designed for apps and developers, you can easily use this for other types of products and ideas as well. 

Although, unlike the smoke test method above, you will need a functioning version of your product. Remember to go as lean as possible, no need for any bells and whistles yet.

It can even be a bunch of static landing pages with links, laid out how you imagine the app working, for example.

The Usability Cafe is based upon the principle that up to 85% of your core usability problems can be found just by observing five people using your product. 

The method is simple: Just find a popular cafe nearby and ask the first five people you see to test your product for you.

All you really need is a couple hours of time, a simple (i.e. MVP) version of your product, and some rewards for your beta testers. Remember, all you’re asking them for is ten minutes of their time, nothing more, nothing less.

Give them five minutes to play with your product and ask them to talk out loud about their experience, any problems they’re encountering, and to be as honest as possible. 

After that’s done, just spend another five minutes getting a bit more in-depth about the app and their thoughts. When all’s said and done, treating them to a muffin or a coffee for their time can be a great reward.

The entire point of the Usability Cafe method is to take yourself out of your own bubble. Sometimes what’s obvious to you isn’t obvious to someone else. 

Getting out there and speaking to people can not only help you develop a better product, but open your eyes as to what’s possible with your idea.

Wrapping Up

Too many entrepreneurs out there make the fatal mistake of jumping without looking. While it’s important to have confidence as an entrepreneur, it’s also important to have the common sense to pack a parachute too.

By using these validation methods, you’ll be able to take your ideas out of your head and into the real world. See what works and what doesn’t, and make sure to double down on whatever it is that works best.

Again, remember these simple rules:

  • Find 100 true early adopters that would buy your product.
  • Collect feedback from people you don't know, lots of it, and take it seriously.
  • Understand that great ideas aren't guaranteed to turn into great businesses.

If everything goes right and you have yourself a validated idea, take that bold step forward. But always make sure to keep on iterating, pull yourself out of your bubble whenever possible, and always be listening.

Fund Your SMB or Startup The Right Way

At some point or another, most businesses need funding. Maybe you're just starting out and living off credit cards. Or, maybe your business is in a slump and you need cash to pay everyone. 

It's important to both know your options, and understand them enough to choose the best one for your situation.

Some Background

Earth Class Mail has a lot of personal experience with this. If you've done some searching, you probably found an article or two on the bankruptcy of a "once highly touted Oregon startup", that would be us.

The most important lesson we learned, and one you can learn from, is not to take on too much debt even if it's offered. 

The second most important lesson, is to clearly understand the type of debt you are taking on. You can read a little more about it in our CEO's letter, and we'll come back to it again in an upcoming series.

3 Basic Categories of Funding


Cash 

Bootstrapping, the badge of honor so many startup founders aspire to wear, is easier said than done. Few are lucky enough to have the savings to do this, and even fewer reach meaningful revenue before they run out.

The benefits of cash are clear. It's interest free, it's liquid (i.e. easily accessible), and you don't have to give up equity. 

Cash definitely has its drawbacks too. You're personally investing much more than you would via leveraging. If you don't get profitable in time, you will run out of it.

Is this a good idea? It really depends on your run rate, how much savings you have, and reasonable expectations for the growth of your business. 

At a minimum though, if you have cash, you should build that into your funding model so that you don't need to give up as much collateral or equity to other investors.

Debt

Probably the most common form of small business financing. To borrow money from an institution or individual you put forward some sort of collateral, then you agree on terms of repayment such as the interest rate and payback period.  

If you both agree then you get some money, and they get payments to cover the principle and interest every single month.

It doesn't matter if your business isn't profitable, or if you're making money hand over fist. Those terms are locked in.

Debt financing is a complex field, but here are a few shapes it can take:

  • Family and friends 
It is often easiest to ask those close to you for small amounts of money, relatively that is. Make sure to draw up a formal agreement, no need for lawyers with apps like Shake
  • Credit cards
A common option for new entrepreneurs and freelancers because of the ease of access. It's really only a good option if you have cash flow issues and can repay before the interest charges hit. 

If this fits your needs, many credit cards offer cash back so you can easily reduce overall expenses and get other benefits.

  • Peer to peer
It's the 21st century after all. There are lots of notable services out there, like LendingClub.com, that will let you secure a personal loan from one or multiple individual lenders. They aren't investors, you are establishing a lender-debtor relationship. 
  • Line of credit 
This can come either from a bank directly, or from a service like Kabbage.com. It's a lot like a credit card, but with a much higher limit and generally needs to be paid down to $0 each month. 

The interest rate is likely adjustable, higher than a fixed rate loan, and payback terms are usually shorter than traditional loans.

  • A/R Lines or Factoring 
If you've managed to generate revenue, and have some recurring or expected payments coming from clients then you can leverage that to fill any gaps in cash flow. A great example of this is if your business signs up clients for contracts. 

It may take you a year to collect that revenue, but if you need money now you can take that to a lender and say, "give me a little bit less money now and I'll give you my receivable later".

  • Small Business Loans 
This is a big category, with lots of sub categories, but we'll focus primarily here on Small Business Administration (SBA) and Traditional loans. 

There are lots of services out there that can take the hassle out of securing a loan, like Fundivo. The service is actually really unique in that it searches multiple lenders for proposals, then negotiates on behalf of your business for the best rates.

Whether you use a service or go at it alone, there are some important things to understand. Firstly, the SBA is a government organization that insures loans for small businesses, much like the FHA does for home mortgages. 

Because of that insurance, it's a lot easier to secure an SBA loan. 

They have softer requirements and reduced rates. Traditional loans will be harder to secure, but can have preferential and more creative terms for established businesses. 

Most importantly, these types of loans are going to be collateralized. Meaning, some assets will be needed to guarantee repayment in case of default. Think of things such as cash on hand, equipment, and inventory.

Often times, small business owners will have to personally guarantee the loan. So the lender can come after your personal assets to collect on a debt if you default. 

That's not meant to scare anyone away, but it's a fact of how business loans work. It's no different than your mortgage being secured by the title on your home, or you car loan secured by the title to the car.

Equity

This is the one that makes the headlines you see in your Twitter feed. It's rare to see something like "new startup secures $100,000 SBA loan", but you will see stories like "startup raises $50,000 seed round" almost daily.

There are a lot of reasons equity sounds sexier than debt financing, but that doesn't mean it's the best idea for every business. It can definitely be a reckless decision to give up equity and control of your company.

Investors do take on all the risk, but in exchange they become business partners. You share your profits, and make big business decisions together.

Equity financing is generally broken down to the stage of business maturity.

  • Seed

This is the earliest stage, often pre-product even. Usually founders at this stage have an idea, a strong business plan for their current stage, and a committed team. 

Investors at this stage are often considered Angels, as they are individuals with independent sources of capital. These rounds tend to raise small amounts of money, usually less than $100,000.

All of the product and team caveats aside, you are giving up a lot of equity here because the Angel is taking on a lot of risk. Angel investors will probably lose money on 90% of investments, but that one winner is worth the risk to them.

It could be a great idea for you, or it could be a big mistake. Giving up a ton of equity just because you don't want to dip into cash might cost you millions in the end.

  • Series A

A company might skip seed funding entirely, or this could be a post seed round. Usually, this round will attempt to raise up to $5 Million and attract professional investors, both individual and boutique firms.

There are a lot of mistakes you can make here. Stock sales are nuanced, and lawyers are expensive. 

If you are trying to rapidly grow a company and don't like the risk associated with debt, this could be a good option.

  • Series B, C & Beyond

Once a business has grown more established and needs to scale past a certain threshold, it will hold additional financing rounds. There is less equity at stake here, mainly because there is less risk and much of it has been given up already.

Usually a business has proven itself here and already achieved major milestones. This is also a time when most big Venture Capital firms will get involved, as they are looking to invest large amounts into high growth potential businesses.

Wrapping Up

The most important thing you can learn from this article is that you need to make prudent, clear-headed decisions about your financing options. Most businesses will blend these methods to hedge against the risk of each. 

If your business is just starting, slower growth might be ok. If you want rapid growth, but can't secure an investor - ask yourself why? Don't immediately turn to debt because it's easier or more available.

Financing can help you grow a good business faster, but it can't help a bad business succeed.

Find Profitable Customers In A Week For Less Than $1,000

Doug Breaker here, CEO of Earth Class Mail, back for round 2 of our adventure on how to launch a profitable business. 

Last time we talked about the common error many founders make - read here and don't make the same mistake.

What was Step 1 again?

You're minding your own business when BAM, the-best-idea-ever-created slams into your brain. You've got it! You're rich! Step 1 is the idea. Congratulations, you've reached the point almost everyone on earth has. 

I hate to break it to you, but your idea is worth a lukewarm cup of coffee. Now let's talk about what to do with that idea.

The Setup

Before we jump into the how, you're probably wondering what grand inspiration slammed into our heads. Well...

I loathe how insurance companies force you to print out their forms, write out every detail in pen, sign them, and mail (gasp!) their claim forms to get reimbursed.

Do you like health and dental insurance companies? I don't. I rank them right up there with putrid cabbage and elevator farts. 

Hmm...I wonder if they make that process painful on purpose? I harbor a sneaking suspicion that they make it just annoying enough so a certain number of people won't file claims. 

Do I have proof? Nope. Am I annoyed enough for my inner developer to want to build an app and stick it to them? You bet!

Here's my idea: a website that makes it super easy to submit your medical and dental claims online. 

Why print out the form, fill it out by hand, stuff it in an envelope, find a stamp, and drop it in the mailbox? That's a huge hassle.

Often you can't find stamps, your printer's out of ink, or you decide to watch Turd Ferguson videos on Hulu instead, and as a result you never file your claims.

What if you could enter your information just once, and make a few clicks to file new claims? I'm betting you would file your claims faster, file more of them, and appreciate it when you get reimbursed faster. 

Wait, it gets better. Did you know that most insurance companies accept claims by fax? Perfect, because we can send faxes online so you can submit your claim forms immediately, nothing to mail.

So that's the idea, let's fix insurance claims and make people's lives better.

Finding The First Customers

Enough about us, let's get back to you. What do you do right after your idea hits? Do NOT do any of the following (I am guilty of all):

  • Start building anything
  • File a patent
  • Spend weeks talking to potential partners
  • Write a business plan and begin courting investors

No no no, do not do anything on that list. You're wasting time and indulging yourself if you do.

Instead, your sole mission is to find out if customers will pay you for what you're offering.

Setting Up Your Test

The ONLY way to find out if your idea has any demand is to let potential customers tell you. The fastest, cheapest, and easiest way I know to do that is to throw up a landing page, point some ads to it, and see how prospects respond.

Go online and do some research

You want to answer a few questions in this step:

  • How many people search on terms related to your idea (i.e. market size)?
  • How many of those people can you convince to visit your page (i.e. does your product solve the problem)?
  • How much do you have to spend to get them to visit your page (i.e. what will it cost to acquire leads)? 
  • How many of them convert (i.e. show interest by submitting their contact info)? 
This isn't an exact science, but it gives you enough data to get a sense of the interest and appetite for your idea.

Make sure it passes the initial demand test

Sign up for a free Google Adwords account. If you do some searching, you might be able to find a coupon that will give you an extra $100 in spend for free.

Once you're logged in to the account, navigate to Tools > Keyword Planner. Think of every possible search term people could type into Google. Better yet, do a couple searches yourself and see what comes up in the auto-complete recommendations for even more ideas.

Once you have your search terms set go to the "Get search volume data and trends" section in the Keyword Planner, then drop in all those search terms and submit. Here's our example:

Take a look at the projected search volumes and suggested bids. Keep brainstorming to clean up the terms until you get a good set that maximizes searches, and minimizes your suggested bids. 

I recommend forcing yourself to modify your list at least 5 times. Try ultra specific terms. Try wacky terms. The point is, keep trying until you get a good set of terms.

If you can't find a grouping of search terms that generates at least a few hundred searches per month, you may want to stop and reconsider. It is important to note that the volume in here is not exact, and usually underestimates searches by some multiple. 

Building a landing page

Great, you've done some research and there is demand. Don't go measuring for blinds in your new mansion yet! Your next step is creating a landing page for your idea. 

You need to be able to sell your idea in one page. Distill everything you imagine it being down to a single value proposition that you can verbalize simply and succinctly. 

If you can't explain it easily, you can't sell it easily.

Get a domain name that prospects will believe. Services like InstantDomainSearch.com can help you find a reasonable domain for your idea. We aren't affiliated in any way, they just have a great product.

Don't stress about the exact domain at this point, just grab something reasonable. Whatever you do, DO NOT buy an expensive domain yet. 

Find an available one and shell out the $12. WARNING - I recommend you register your domain somewhere other than Google Domains, as you'll need domain forwarding to setup the page properly. I tend to use GoDaddy and NameCheap a lot.

Sign up for a free trial at Unbounce.com, choose a responsive template, and whip up your masterpiece of a landing page. Channel your inner Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross and sell, sell, sell! 


I recommend creating two separate pages: 1) a primary landing page, and 2) a pricing page. The aim with this strategy is to test both low-friction demand, and early-adopter demand in one experiment.

The primary landing page should be the main sales page, and what you're looking for here is how many visitors click through to the pricing page. You can track that directly in Unbounce, and the results are considered your low-friction demand as these visitors show interest when the barrier to learn more is low.

On the pricing page, you will want to embed a lead form that collects visitor information. This is how you measure the early-adopter demand since they are willing to give you contact information, with a higher level of friction it's likely these leads could become customers.

A few tips:

  • Your page should pass the "eye test" - meaning a regular joe should be reasonably convinced it's for a real company. It's not a high bar to clear.
  • Force yourself to set pricing. This gives two benefits: 1) it forces you to think of what to charge, and 2) it gives you more valid results.
  • Ask a few people to look at your landing pages and explain their interpretation of the product to you. This will put a check on your messaging and help you catch any glaring issues that you've become numb to.
  • Sign up for a free Google Analytics account and integrate it with your Unbounce page. Here's a quick tutorial.

For example, see what we built over at try.claimsender.com

Bonus tips:

  • Make sure your root domain and subdomain work, or Google may not let your ads run.
  • Google may ask you to put a business address on your landing page. Luckily, I know just the company to recommend for that.
  • Done is better than perfect. The point is to test your idea with real people vs. obsessing over minutia.

Once your landing page gets to the "it's not completely horrible" state, STOP working on it.

Creating ads

Now that you're armed with a good terms list and shiny new landing page it's time to create some ads!

Go back to that search terms list you built and save your keywords to a new campaign. Set your default bid and daily budget, create a new ad group and click "Create new ads for your ad group". 

Bids, budgets, and AdWords campaign structure are a nuanced field with no shortage of opinions on the topic. This is not an AdWords tutorial, but AdWords is one of the best documented platforms on the planet so there are plenty of resources.

You will want to let your ads run for at least a week to allow for any day-of-week fluctuations, so set your daily budget appropriately. Make sure you understand how AdWords budgets work too.

Channel your inner Don Draper and whip up some ads! Create at least a handful, trying out different headlines and different ad text. You want to find out the terms and hooks your target audience responds to.

A great place to start for this is to look at ads from competitors on similar terms. If your idea is so unique that there's no ad competition, search for terms that will bring up ads for big brands and see how they do it.

Save your ads and wait for Google to approve everything.

Verify Tracking and Wait

While Google takes its time approving your ads, run through your landing page and make sure all of your tracking works. You may have done this already, but do it now if you haven’t. Make sure the following works:

  • Unbounce visit & conversion tracking (go to your live page, click the CTAs, submit some leads)

  • Unbounce lead tracking (submit some leads)

Once you’ve confirmed that all the tracking works, sit back and be patient. In our next post we’ll talk about how to evaluate the data and what to do next. For now grab a coffee, pull up a chair, and watch the show!

Meet David Fideler, Owner of Concord Editorial and Design

Our customers rock. We love to share their stories, and are thrilled to introduce you to the next customer in our customer spotlight series, David Fideler. David is the owner of Concord Editorial and Design, and the creator of the blog Brainstorm Every Day. 

Concord Editorial creates books for publishers in the United States, and Brainstorm Every Day helps people generate ideas and create their own business opportunities. 

David Fidler, Concord Editorial


Thanks so much for sharing your story, David. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company? What does Concord Editorial do, and what sets you apart?

We create high-quality books, mainly for university presses. The thing that sets us apart is the quality of our work — from the design, to the editing, to the quality control processes we use to make sure every book is error-free.

How did you get started and why?

From the day I was born, I grew up around books and publishing. My father owned a textbook publishing company, which he started as a young man. Then, when I was twenty-four, I started my own publishing company which I ran for twenty years.

After that, I started Concord Editorial to create books for other publishers. I’ve now worked to bring well over 100 books into print, probably closer to 200.

Do you have an incredible customer success story you can share?

Not really, because all of our customers are happy with our work. That’s because we guarantee total customer satisfaction. In fact, we won’t deliver a project until a customer is fully satisfied with every aspect of our work.

In my view, every business should guarantee total customer satisfaction.

What’s the best business decision you made in the last few years?

Five years ago I decided to move my business overseas to where I now live in Sarajevo, in southern Europe. Without question, that was my best decision. I used to be based in West Michigan, and my editors still live and work in the United States, but after visiting Sarajevo I just fell in love with the city and decided to move here.

When I started the business ten years ago I designed it to be a location-independent company, but I had no idea I’d eventually relocate overseas and even buy a home here. Book publishing is not the highest-paying field in the world, and outsourcing work to other countries has been going on for many years now. In this case, I decided to outsource myself and take advantage of the much lower cost of living here to increase my quality of life.

Can you share a tip, trick, hack, tool or service with our readers that makes you better, or makes your days more effective?

Actually, I can offer more than one. There’s a resource guide available on my website, Brainstorm Every Day, that describes in-depth “The 12 Tools and Hacks I Use to Run My Business From Overseas”. I included Earth Class Mail in that guide because it’s one of my most important tools.

Tell us how Earth Class Mail makes you better at your job, or your company better at what it does?

Ever since I moved my business here five years ago, Earth Class Mail has been invaluable. I couldn’t run my business without it. It gives me total control of all my mail at a distance, and I’ve never once had a single problem with the service.

The most important feature of Earth Class Mail, for me, is the automatic check deposit feature. It works perfectly. Based on the research I did before leaving the United States, Earth Class Mail is the only company that really has this down as a complete, affordable service that is totally automated.

Whenever I get an envelope containing a check, the check is scanned, automatically identified as a check by the software, and automatically deposited into my business’s bank account. It just works flawlessly, each and every time.

Another feature that is very helpful is the cloud storage of everything you receive in the mail. After my documents are scanned and my checks are deposited I have Earth Class Mail recycle the original hardcopy documents, but keep all the PDF scans online in cloud storage until I have time to print them out and process them. I often get very busy with work so while I have my checks deposited immediately, I can wait even a few months to update my invoicing database, whenever I have the time.

What feature can we add or improvement can we make that would make you say, “shut the front door, I need that!” ?

For the life of me, I can’t think of anything. Earth Class Mail fully meets my needs, it lets you work anywhere and still have a U.S.-based company.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today, any parting words or advice for our readers?

Yes — I truly believe we are living in the best time ever for anyone to create a location-independent business. I feel so strongly about this that I’m now creating an online course to help people who want to start their own business and, most importantly, do the marketing so they can get great clients no matter where they live.

When I started my book design business ten years ago I wanted to be able to work with clients anywhere in the United States, because at the time the economy was just so terrible where I lived in West Michigan. I had no idea that I’d one day move to another country, I just wanted to be able to work with anyone, anywhere. That, in my mind, was the best way to be financially secure.

So if anyone is reading this and contemplating something similar, I want to encourage them and let them know that yes, it really is possible.

How we used Facebook and Twitter to Generate Cheap Leads

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Building a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business, just like many other B2B verticals, is all about leads. Yes, Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) is the central measure for a business like ours, but it's a lagging indicator and can be a red herring when used to predict future growth.

Here's an example. You've been tracking two key performance indicators (KPI) for your business, MRR and Lead Volume. Let's say you look at the last 6 months of MRR and it's totally flat. It would be reasonable to assume that next month will be flat too. 

Now let's say you take a look at leads, and they jumped 50% from last month. If you know how long it will take you to get through those leads, and how many leads convert to sales, you can estimate that impact to your business in terms of MRR growth.

Same goes if your lead volume went down, or stayed steady. What's most important is, if you start looking at leads as the growth indicator instead of MRR then you can build strategy around lead generation that ties directly back to MRR growth.

That's exactly what we did, here's how.

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Podcast Crash Course

Get a 15 minute crash course from the B2B Growth Show with James Carbary. Listen to Mike Beck, Head of Growth & Marketing at Earth Class Mail, talk about getting started with Twitter and Facebook lead generation campaigns.

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The Setup

Facebook and Twitter are often overlooked by small B2B businesses, from a paid advertising perspective. 

It could be because they assume these networks are mostly recreational or because, at least in our experience, they aren't particularly effective at generating revenue directly. 

What's really important to understand, especially for experienced PPC operators, is that the advertising model is very different. 

Advertisers on networks like AdWords, Bing and the like generate the majority of their results from ads in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). 

SERPs are easy to target because someone goes into their browser and searches for something very specific, thereby providing the advertiser with a clear and explicit intent for ad targeting.

Here's a specific example for "po box in washington" on Google. We know exactly what the user is looking for and what to write in the ad.


On Facebook and Twitter, you are not targeting search intent.

Rather you are finding cohorts of users that are likely to be interested in your product. You then have to tailor messaging, including visuals, that resonate with the audience and convince them to take a step that they had no explicit intention of taking.

It's a lot like display advertising, but on steroids. Lot's of steroids, like the kind that would even make the Russian olympic program say, "Wow, that's a lot of f***ing steroids"!

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Why Ads On Facebook And Twitter Are Better Than Display

Traditionally, display ads have been poor performing media. They have some of the lowest expectations for click-through rate (CTR) and conversion rate (CVR) of any digital medium. 

That's why you need a lot of volume to even experiment with a campaign, much less see meaningful results. 

With Facebook and Twitter there are a few important differentiators:

  1. A plethora of reliable demographic targeting parameters.
  2. Meaningful control over ad serving.
  3. Unparalleled remarketing features.
  4. Robust, easy to deploy ad formats.
  5. Native lead generation.

These differences are key. They allow you to get useful data without needing to carpet bomb a broad audience with ads. 

You can deploy campaigns faster, and iterate on them faster. You can bypass the need for custom landing pages entirely with in-feed forms.

That's just a few of the immediate benefits. Moving on...

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Finding Your Audience

Who's going to buy what you're selling? Answering this question is going to involve two things, data and money. Here's what we looked at for the data part:

  • Who's coming to our site?
  • Who are our current customers?
  • Who are the influencers in our niche?
  • Who's engaging with our ads on other networks?
Bonus Content: Have a new product or business idea and want to test market demand? Read this first...

Who's coming to our site?

To figure this out you're going to need to setup some tracking. Both Facebook and Twitter offer proprietary tracking pixels that will collect data on the visitors to your site and group them into cohorts that you can define.

We wanted to know:

  1. All visitors to the site
  2. Visitors that submitted a lead form
  3. Visitors that purchased

If you don't have resources, or just have limited technical skills, then start with "all visitors". This will be valuable regardless.

Segmenting the visitors by how far they made it in the funnel was important to us for targeting purposes, but it's not critical to get started with this.

Who are our current customers?

This is exactly what it sounds like. We pulled a very large CSV file of all of our current and even canceled customers. We then segmented that list by customer status, again for targeting purposes, and pulled out the emails and phone numbers. 

Those two identifiers are all you need, and frankly email is enough most of the time. It's much more likely to be matched to an account than a phone number is. If you have both then use them, if not then just the email will work fine.

Who are the influencers in our niche?

We already have a good pulse on the industry, but there aren't a ton of people excited to talk about virtual mail. A much sexier and equally aligned niche is startup and SMB digital marketing.

There are lots of recognizable names that we can look to for targeting users down the line like: Noah Kagan, Gary Vaynerchuk, Neil Patel, and Tim Ferriss just to name a few.

You might think, "why does that matter"? Well, Mr. Question McQuestionFace, you can actually target fans and followers of other profiles on these networks! 

If you don't know who the influencers are, you can cheat a little with a tool like BuzzSumo. Search a topic that's relevant, then dig in to the top sharers for the most popular content. 

There's a free trial, so if you plan ahead you can get all you need without any added expense.


Who's engaging with our ads on other networks?

If you're already running PPC ads on AdWords, Bing and the like then you have data to lean on. We're not going to deep dive into website analytics for this, sorry that's for another series. 

Simply put, we used Google Analytics and applied segmentation to our audience demographics so that we could see what the PPC visitors looked like from that perspective.

You can do this with pretty much any website tracking application on the market, Google Analytics is the most popular and it's free.

We figured out very quickly that our audience leaned heavily Male, older, and within a more affluent income bracket. We also learned some things about their interest and affinity categories that helped later on in targeting.

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Finding Your Message

This part is tricky. If you've never run ads before, you're going to burn some money getting a baseline message. You should lean on every piece of marketing data you have to come up with a test set.

Bonus Content: See how we optimized the landing pages on our site and squeezed more revenue without any more traffic.

We looked at the best performing PPC ads, the best email campaign messaging, and the top landing pages on our site. 

Here are a couple of easy tactics you can use if you feel like you have nothing to start from:

  • Survey your existing customers. Just ask them "How would you describe our service to a friend?", or "Can you explain the value you get from our product?". Make sure to offer an incentive if you want a good sample set, and stick to open-ended questions.

There are free tools like Wufoo and Survey Monkey that can help collect info.

  • Search on Google for keywords related to your business and click on the ads. This will give you insight into what advertisers are using in their ads and, more importantly, on landing pages.

Nailing down the imagery

More important than the marketing copy are the visuals you choose. We know, from past surveys and feedback, that we have two primary demographics: 1) nomadic professionals, and 2) SMBs that hate dealing with paper mail.

To start, we narrowed down two images that we felt represented the main value proposition to each segment. Then we added in a few stock photos we already had laying around from previous design work.

To start, two images and several variations of copy are plenty to test for your first run. You will need to create more as you optimize campaigns and if you have stock photos you can repurpose, even better.

Another great feature of these networks is that you don't need a ton of design work for the ads since you have plenty of space to write copy around the visual. 

Below is one of our ads with just a stock photo and marketing copy.

You will very quickly see which images perform better than others, and the difference is usually clear. However, you want to remain data driven so you should rely on testing for statistical significance in your results.

Tools like the Get Data Driven calculator from Kissmetrics make it exceedingly easy. 

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Setting The Mood With Landing Pages

Ads and targeting are half the battle, you will need to optimize the other half as well. You can have fantastic ad performance and terrible conversion because your landing pages are being neglected.

Now, the beauty of these networks is that you don't necessarily need to start with landing pages at all. Native lead collection means you just have to figure out audience and messaging to start.

A few big differences between native lead forms on these networks:

Twitter

  • Lead forms collect email addresses only. They are high quality though, because a lead can only submit the email on their account.
  • You pay per lead, so impression volume is irrelevant from a cost perspective - especially in the beginning.
  • Depending on the audience type you select, your reach may be throttled by Twitter until they collect enough data on campaign relevance.

Facebook

  • Lead forms have many fields, and are totally customizable.
  • You pay cost-per-mille (CPM), so if you get a ton of impressions it will cost you even if you don't get leads.
  • The full reach of your audience is available immediately, assuming your budget allows for it.

Optimizing your landing page can be pretty easy

Honestly, we're not making light of a difficult task here. We use Unbounce, it's a powerful tool that lets us test outside of the walls of our main site. 

They also have built-in responsive templates, dynamic text substitution, and a lot of cool integrations. If you are really trying to bootstrap, then you can always just create a custom page on your blog with Wordpress or whatever your blog service is. 

The least work, but least flexible, is to choose an existing landing page that works well with the messaging in your ads.

Most importantly, you want to preserve context from the ad to the page. The tone should be the same, the fonts should be the same, imagery should be related, and the page should really extend the ad's message while closing with a strong call-to-action (CTA).

In the beginning, with lower volume, you want to test big changes to see if there is meaningful impact. Changing one line of copy, or the text on a CTA button isn't likely to yield significant results (remember, we're looking for statistical significance with our optimization).

We had three very specific pages we wanted to test: short form, long sales letter, and video supported.

Left to right: Short form, sales letter, video supported

As you can tell each page is very different in layout and focus, but they all tie-in to the ads that are being served. You don't need to be this aggressive, but the more effort you put in the more reward you get out.

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Putting It All Together

The first step in setting up your campaigns, on both networks, is going to be your audience. You will want to upload CSVs of your existing customers and any other prospect contact information you have. 

Make sure that the tracking you implemented for remarketing is working, and that the audience is large enough to market to. For low traffic sites, this may take a while so you are going to lean on building new audiences in the beginning.

Why existing customer lists are valuable

You can use existing customers for a few really beneficial purposes:

  1. A list of active customers can be used to create Lookalike audiences of similar users for targeting.
  2. A list of canceled customers can be used to try to win them back with special offers.
  3. The combined lists can be used to exclude these users from seeing your ads, and potentially wasting money.

The same goes for users in your tracking cohorts, not only can you retarget them, but you can create Lookalike audiences from those users as well.

On Facebook specifically the Lookalike audiences are really large, no less than 2 million potential users. That's way to big, so this is where all of that other data comes in handy.

You will want to narrow that by using demographic data. In our case we excluded gender, geo, and age groups. Similarly, you will want to narrow by interest and affinity data where it makes sense. 

An example audience might look something like this: Lookalikes of our current customers, Male, 25-55 years old, on the West coast of the U.S., that also like Tim Ferriss. 

You will want to narrow, within reason, to an audience that is less than 100,000 in potential reach to start. This will be easier on Twitter than Facebook. It's a unique challenge, because you don't want to accidentally filter out a big cohort of good prospects.

If you're skipping the landing page

Your next step is the imagery and copy for the lead generation ad. Take what you worked on and set a couple of variations of each visual.

You should test:

  • Promotional messaging and special offers
  • Different CTA language, like: Free Trial, Learn More, Buy Now
  • Value propositions 
  • On Facebook, you should have multiple variations of the form with more or less fields

For those using a landing page

The most important thing you can do here is to make sure you are collecting data. Without it your efforts aren't valuable.

If you're not using a landing page service like Unbounce, then add UTM tracking parameters to all of your links. Set a proper tracking taxonomy so you can dig into campaigns later and know what is going on.

If you're using Unbounce, integrate all of the tracking pixels directly. They have great help content on this, so it's actually pretty easy. Similarly, here is what you should be testing on any landing page:

  • Form length and position
  • Quantity of supporting content
  • CTA language
  • Value propositions

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Let It Fly

You've got all of your assets in place, now it's time to see it work. You will need to spend some money, and in the beginning it may feel like you aren't seeing results.

Give. It. Time.

This is a process, and optimization takes time. Pull data from your campaigns regularly, not just in the canned reports but that actual raw CSV files and segment it yourself.

You will learn things you never new you could learn. Take that knowledge, and build new campaigns. Then learn some more.

A safe budget expectation is at least $1000 to learn something from your first run and hopefully collect leads. It will take some multiple of that to optimize the campaigns further, find new audiences, and grow the channel. 

This process helped us cut our lead cost by 50%, and in some cases generates leads at one-fifth the cost of what we expect to pay. You can do it too.


The Fatal Mistake 99% of Entrepreneurs Make


A little background...

Doug Breaker here, CEO of Earth Class Mail. One of my favorite video clips is a South Park episode where a few entrepreneurial gnomes come up with the next great startup idea. Their plan goes something like this: Step 1. Collect underpants, Step 2. ?Step 3. Profit!

I love this because it illustrates really plainly the most common pitfall budding entrepreneurs make, that is how they're actually going to make money. I'd find this funnier except that almost every entrepreneur and founder I know has fallen prey to this. 

I know I did, multiple times, stubbornness is both a strength and a weakness. 

The pattern goes like this:

Inspiration hits, "Wow, I've got it!".

The soon-to-be-rich-and-famous founder jumps immediately into building, planning, strategizing, and daydreaming. Big funding rounds and massive success here we come! 

Months or years later the business launches, woohoo! They'll shout "My creation is alive!", "Revel in its beauty!", "Kneel down to its glory!". Then some time passes...a week, a month, maybe a few go by. 

In that time some customers trickle in, just a few, if at all. "Where are all the customers?", asks the founder. Oops! Sounds like someone forgot Step 2.

What is Step 2?

I've personally had to survive more than five failed product launches: a monthly pickle service, an accent training service, a moving company website, and I could go on. It took those failures and more for me to break this habit and finally focus on Step 2.

So again, what is Step 2? It's customers! More specifically, it's finding a lot of customers at a profit. That is Step 2.


The goal of any for profit business is to collect more money than you spend. To collect that money you have to find customers that will pay you money. Let me hammer that point home...

You. Have. To. Find. Customers. That. Will. Pay. You. Money.

Your business must find enough customers that pay enough to cover everything your business needs to operate in the black, i.e. above breakeven. That is salaries, benefits, technology, the costs of goods sold, taxes, rent, and etc.

It's also important to remember that it costs money to find those customers. You must figure out how to find enough customers at a cheap enough cost so that the money those customers pay is more than all the other costs to run the business. Sounds pretty simple right?

To understand Step 2, ask yourself:

  • How many customers can I get to buy my product or service?
  • How much will it cost me to do that?
  • Will the money left over be enough to run and grow the company?

Only AFTER you understand that should you start building. Put those daydreams on hold, and let Dr. Math tell you what your idea is worth.

Great smartypants, so how do I do that?

Ah! Great question. I love the internet. It's the perfect tool to answer Step 2 cheaply, quickly, and confidently. You can get your answer for less than a $1000, a few hours of work, and few weeks of testing. Which option sounds better to find out if your idea works?

  1. Spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and months or years
  2. Spending less than a thousand dollars and a few weeks

I am going to save the specifics for my next post, so I can get to the point of this one.

What the heck does this have to do with Earth Class Mail?

As CEO of Earth Class Mail I own ultimate responsibility for how awesome our product and service is, and how much value our customers get from it. We want to make SMBs, startups, independent entrepreneurs, and digital nomads more amazing. 

We especially want to knock it out of the park for our business customers who crave efficiency and reliability. We want them to spend more time growing their business, not stressing about mail.

The best way I know to do that is to walk in their shoes and use Earth Class Mail ourselves. We already use Earth Class Mail for all our inbound company mail, but I want us to really feel what our customers feel. I want us to experience their joy, and their pain.

To make all that happen we're going to go through a real world example of starting a business, from idea to launch. We'll start with testing if our idea can attract enough customers, and share all the things we learn along the way. 

Then we'll walk through everything from the techie things like creating a website and the actual service, to the mundane like registering a corporation and setting up a bank account. 

Along the way we'll dig deep into the Earth Class Mail service, and the ways it can make running a business easier.

Hopefully this process will help a few entrepreneurs launch more successful businesses. I can’t wait to see how it helps us build a better service for our customers.  

Case Study: How HealthyHearing.com Uses Earth Class Mail to Increase Online Review Volume

HealthyHearing.com connects its 2,000,000 visitors to a national network of hearing centers and clinics. They also provide industry leading thought leadership on hearing loss and hearing aids. It's estimated that 28 million Americans are impacted by some degree of hearing loss.


The Setup

With a demographic that trends older, 55 and over, HealthyHearing.com struggles at times with generating the online engagement they need from their users. 

Although that age group can be tech savvy, it's still a generation that appreciates a handwritten note over an email. - Dr. Paul Dybala, President at HealthyHearing.com

In 2011, Healthy Hearing rolled out a new feature allowing users to leave reviews for the more than 2,000 clinics in their directory. The review process was simple and completed entirely online.

The jury was still out on whether users would remember to come back to the site and leave a review after visiting a clinic. Would they respond better if they had the option to submit a handwritten review instead?

The Experiment

To give their users a more traditional option for leaving reviews, Healthy Hearing implemented a solution that allowed clinics to provide postcards to their patients. The patients could write their review and then mail it in. The postcards would then be transcribed and published online.


Since the Healthy Hearing team is completely virtual, they initially used a PO Box located near one of the editors. Hundreds of postcards started to roll in, but managing all that wasn't ideal.

The Problem

It worked ok, but there was a delay as the editor would pick up mail once a week from the post office and then it took a while to get the information from the postcards entered into our system.

Soon, Healthy Hearing would learn of another pitfall. The editor in charge moved to another company, leaving behind thousands of postcards and a PO Box nobody else could access. This would inevitably lead to delays, and likely frustrated consumers and clinics.

They needed a solution that was scalable, accessible for a virtual team, and reliable.

The Solution

With a real problem on their hands, Healthy Hearing reached out to Earth Class Mail for a solution. They needed a physical address with virtual mail management for their team.

New postcards were printed with the Earth Class Mail address. Those were distributed to the clinics in the network, while the old ones were recycled. 

Knowing that not all of the old postcards would be dropped from the network, mail forwarding was setup from the old PO Box to the new address.

We then had mail forwarded from the old mailbox to the new ECM address and monitored what addresses were listed on the postcards coming in. 

About 3 years later, with virtually all of the postcards coming direct to the Earth Class Mail address, they shut down the old mailbox. 

More importantly, the postcard reviews don't live in a silo anymore. They can be accessed from anywhere, making transcription scalable. 

The Results

Postcards now account for 50% of all reviews posted to HealthyHearing.com, and it's increasing. There are two team members currently monitoring and managing the program, both completely remote.

The use of these postcards are important for the demographic that we serve and ECM has enabled us to do this in an efficient way. 

The Healthy Hearing team focused on what their users wanted and, based on their research, found that the paper reminder and process would resonate well. 

They also knew that the address transition would not be a clean one for the clinics, and the time it took to filter out mail from the old address confirmed that.  

ECM helps us to deliver on our promise to help serve the consumers and clinics that use our website and to do this efficiently with our virtual team. - Dr. Paul Dybala

Earth Class Mail and Google Smart Mailbox

A partnership made in heaven if there ever was one. Combining the powerful tools from Earth Class Mail with the technology power of Google. Watch the video to learn more.


New Feature: Now Offering SHREDDED Service

At Earth Class Mail we take pride in the high level of security we provide to customers and their confidential information. That's why we've spent a lot of our resources on securing our cloud storage and mail handling operations. 

Now we're excited to announce a totally new security feature, a whole other level of Secure Shredding (already available for free on most accounts). For just $15/mo you can get true peace of mind when you securely shred documents with SHREDDED. 


In case you ever wondered what all those Gym Rats did when they weren't in the gym, well now you know. They've been here, at our Headquarters in Beaverton tearing mail to teeny tiny pieces.

"It's just way more effective than what secure shredding services can deliver" says Doug Breaker, CEO at Earth Class Mail. "A shredding machine can only do so much, but the team we have here for the SHREDDED service takes it to an extreme". 

We aren't kidding either. The SHREDDERS take a team approach, one doing the tearing and the other spotting and shouting "come on, one more"! Unlike a machine that might give up, the team won't. At least until someone collapses or we turn the lights off.

Jocko, our Project Supervisor says, "It's really about the passion more than anything. We want to do this. We dream about it at night". Adding later that "once you get your first uncontrollable muscle twitch it just becomes like an itch you have to scratch again".

This Guy is the Reason You Get Junk Mail

Junk mail. It's the reason you dread going to the mailbox every day. It's why your mail carrier has back problems. Simply put, it's the source of all the frustration in the world.

If you've ever wondered "why the hell are they sending me this"? Here's the answer: Derrick S. of Wyoming, he's the reason you treat your mailbox like it just told you it tested positive for VD. 

Derrick refused to go on the record with his full name and address. We assume it's to protect his parents' home from hordes of pitchfork wielding citizens. He also asked us to hide his face for fear of retaliation.


From the basement of the home he has lived in for 42 years, Derrick has been patiently printing postcards, coupon books, and pretty much any piece of junk you can imagine. In fact, he's very proud of the work he's been doing over the past couple of decades. You can thank him for:

  • Those sweet stacks of coupons in your "random sh**" kitchen drawer, all expired now because it's been 6 months since you got them in the mail.
  • Postcards from your mortgage broker telling you he can get you a lower rate than the one you just got from him.
  • That letter you thought was important because it said "IMPORTANT!" on it, only to find a credit card offer from the Bank of Ridiculous Fees.
  • Birthday cards from your Aunt in San Antonio with $5 checks in them and a message to "buy something nice!"

Ultimately though, Derrick understands the pain he's causing the rest of the world. When asked why he does what he does, he said...

"At some point in my 20's I realized I don't have any friends anyway, so why the heck not"?

There is an upside to all this. Since Earth Class Mail was able to track down Derrick, we've partnered with him to help reduce the junk mail you get. All it took was a fat check from us and Derrick's agreement to wear a Wi-Fi enabled shock collar. 

Why you ask? Well, for only $19.99/mo you can unlock the "Zap Derrick" feature on your account. It's really simple, just choose the option in your account anytime you get a piece of junk mail and Derrick's collar will go off with a 120 volts of reminder that what he does is neither acceptable nor appreciated.

You're welcome world.