The Path To More Billable Hours

Professional services businesses represent a huge chunk of the U.S. economy. Legal services alone account for nearly $250 Billion in revenues and over one million employed.

Many of these firms rely heavily on billable hours for their primary revenue stream. The story is basically the same whether it’s a law firm, CPA practice, management consultancy, or similar business. 

The problem is that so much of the day-to-day work that goes into these businesses isn’t billable. This rings especially true if it’s a solo-practice or small firm. 

It’s not uncommon to spend up to two-thirds of your time in a solo-practice working on non-billable tasks such as billing, accounting, and marketing to new clients.

Obviously, all those things are valuable. However, it’s important to understand where your time is best spent. 

For example, a typical attorney may bill in the $200-400/hr range. Is that half-hour they spend each day sorting through mail worth the hundreds lost in billable hours each week?

There is a path to reduce the non-billable work…

Download the white paper, Four Steps to Cut Back on Your Admin Costs & Increase Billable Hours

Open Source Experiment: Chargify App for Zendesk

From Steven Maguire, VP of Tech @ Earth Class Mail

One of the key value propositions of Earth Class Mail is the ability to access important business information, the kind contained in your mail and physical documents, from anywhere in the world.

This same principle drives the development of internal tools that we use to ensure our customers have a positive experience with our services.

The Problem

Two of the third-party tools that we use a lot everyday are the Chargify recurring billing platform and the Zendesk customer service platform. They are “mission critical” and we couldn’t deliver the level of service our customers expect without them.

Each of those tools contains important information about each customer, their accounts, history, pending support requests, and the like.

We noticed that our own team members were switching between Chargify and Zendesk dozens, if not hundreds, of times everyday.

The Solution

We also observed that the primary reason for switching to Chargify’s web UI was to view read-only data within Chargify’s platform. That is, they were just looking at customer information, not taking any billing related actions.

That observation led us to a very natural and, it seems now, obvious hypothesis:

If we eliminate the need to switch between Zendesk and Chargify, then our team members would be more productive and be able to provide better service to customers.

Fortunately, Zendesk supports a third-party application development platform, that means we can build internal tools that will work natively in the Zendesk platform. So now we have a great opportunity to test our hypothesis.

We’ve also decided to make our Chargify Zendesk app open source, so that anyone can use it. The reasons for that are:

  1. Zendesk apps are not how we make a living.
  2. The more contributors there are to this project, the more we will all benefit from a better product.
  3. If we can make it easy for other businesses to provide better customer service, then we’ve done some good in this world.

We’ve built, tested, and released a minimum viable product of the open source Zendesk app, here’s how:

Development

After reading the documentation for Zendesk’s Apps Framework v1 we learned a few things:

  1. A tool to create and scaffold a new blank project.
  2. A tool to lint and validate the code that you write for your project.
  3. A tool to package your application code in a zip file that will be uploaded, unzipped, and installed within your Zendesk account.
  • Zendesk supports a third-party app marketplace where you can find and install public applications; some free and some paid.
  • Zendesk supports installation of private apps without going through the marketplace.

With these observations in mind we created a goal for the experience of our app:

Whenever a Zendesk agent is viewing a customer profile or ticket, we want to use the email address associated with that customer or ticket to display customer and subscription records from within Chargify.

After some research we discovered that a single email address can be associated with more than one Chargify customer record, and each Chargify customer record can be associated with more than one subscription.

This discovery drove the decision to include two views:

  1. A customer search results view, and
  2. A customer detail view.

Using the “app.activated” event emitted by the Zendesk application framework we attempt to load the customer search results view first.

During the creation of this view we use Zendesk’s Data API to fetch the customer’s email if we are looking at a customer profile view in Zendesk, or the requester’s email if we are looking at a ticket.

With this value in memory we issue a customer search to Chargify to fetch customer results.

We introduced a few use cases here:

  • If no Chargify customer records are returned we update the search results view with an “empty results” alert.
  • If more than one Chargify customer records are returned we update the search results view with a list of each of those customer records as links which will load a customer detail view.
  • Finally, if a single Chargify customer record is returned we redirect the application to that customer detail view; we feel a search results page with one result is not valuable.

When loading a customer detail view we issue a couple other calls to Chargify to first fetch the fully hydrated customer record as well as a second call to fetch each of the subscriptions associated with the customer.

When all this data is available we update the customer detail view to display the data.In order to facilitate these API calls to Chargify our Zendesk application needs to know two pieces of unique information:

  1. The subdomain associated with our Chargify account
  2. The API key associated with our Chargify account

Fortunately, the Zendesk framework provides a way to ensure we can gather and securely store that information during installation.

In the unlikely event that the app begins running and that information has not been set, the app will display a third settings view with instructions on adding that information via the Zendesk API.

Installation

Another hat tip to Zendesk here as they have made the installation and management of third-party apps very simple and straightforward.

The process involves:

  1. Downloading the zip file of the latest binaries
  2. Uploading the zip file
  3. Accepting some terms and conditions
  4. Providing subdomain and API key

That’s basically it! Be sure to read the documentation on the project page for a more granular walkthrough.

Additionally, if you need to update your subdomain or API key, you are welcome to do so via the API or a point and click interface provided by the Zendesk App management tool.

Once installed the app will appear in a new pane to the right of a Zendesk user profile view and Zendesk ticket view.

The Future

We mentioned previously that this project was designed as a minimum viable product, and that’s what we’ve delivered here. While our team is really enjoying the current version, there is plenty of room for improvement.

Here’s a short list of immediate opportunities that we see:

  • Add client side caching to reduce API traffic to Chargify’s API
  • Add nested detail views for things like Subscription Statements, Subscription Invoices, etc
  • Add some update operations to push data into Chargify’s API
  • Add the project to the Zendesk App Marketplace
  • Minor enhancements designed to get novice engineers involved in open source; look for the “first-timers-only” label in the issues.

Contributions to the project are very much welcome in regards to any of the items listed above, or any other improvements you can dream up!

Will Your Idea Work? Claimsender Series, Part 4

In our last post we learned that people will potentially pay to file their health care claim forms online, enough to support a business at least. Wahoo!  

Now we build everything, right? Absolutely not. Hold your horses, buckaroo, and put that hammer down.

The data told us that a good number of people want this problem solved, and will pay enough to make it worthwhile for us. Now we need to make sure a real product can be built to support this business.   

In other words, I want to know: Is our core idea technically possible?

WARNINGPLEASE don’t skip validating if a product and service can actually be built to solve the core problem. I made this mistake a few times in the past, and wasted months and years of time and money as a result.

ClaimSender.com requires a few things to work, some business related, some technical

Business items to confirm:

  • We need to make sure that insurance companies will accept our claim forms when we fax them in.
  • Since we’ll be storing health information, we need to make sure our hosting is compliant and affordable.
  • Our app will fax in claim forms, and that process needs to be HIPAA compliant and affordable.

Technical items to confirm:

  • The main value proposition of the product is speed and convenience, so we need to collect information from user, and write it onto an existing claim form – then deliver it as a complete PDF.
  • We will also need to collect a digital signature from the end user, then write it onto an existing claim form PDF.

Let’s walk through these issues one by one, and answer them with the least amount of time and cost.

Issue: Will insurance companies accept faxed in claim forms with a digitally-created signature?

Testing this turned out to be easy. I happened to have a few claims I needed to file. Remember, this is why we went down this path in the first place!

So I called up my healthcare company and asked if I could fax my claim form in. They said yes, and gave me their fax number.   

With that in hand, I headed over to HelloFax.com. I uploaded the claim form PDF, filled in the claim info, and signed electronically.  

I faxed the form in and held my breath. Ok, I didn’t hold my breath, because claims can take 7 days to make it through the insurance companies’ claims department.   

A few days after faxing my claim in I logged into my email and saw a “New claim processed” email from my insurance company. Boom! Success. Total cost? $0. Time spent? 20 minutes.

To make sure the digital signature would count as a legal signature, I pinged Earth Class Mail’s Chairman, Jonathan Siegel.  He founded RightSignature, an electronic signature company, so he knows the space well. He gave a big thumbs up.

If you don’t know any experts in the space, UpCounsel.com can serve as a good resource. VALIDATE.

On to the next issue… 

Issue: Do cost effective HIPAA web hosting solutions exist?

Storing people’s health information requires the utmost security and care. This requires ClaimSender be HIPAA compliant. I won’t bore you with the details of HIPAA compliance.

In general it means you follow a bunch of strict guideliness on storing and transmitting health information.  

A few hours of web searching turned up a few options, including HealthCareBlocks.com, which isn’t too expensive. That works, on to the next issue.

Issue: Can we find a HIPAA compliant fax API?

ClaimSender will fax in healthcare claim forms. Healthcare claim forms contain a lot of of sensitive personal information. We need to make sure our fax provider sends this information securely.  

A few more hours of web searching revealed a few candidates, including Phaxio.com. After some back and forth with their excellent support crew, they confirmed their service can pass HIPAA muster when set up correctly.

Their pricing pleases too, so consider this answer a “yes”.    

Issue: Can we collect information from users, and write it onto an existing claim form PDF?

I wrote code in a former life, and still fancy myself a developer. A “pretend” coder if you will. Real developers won’t call my code pretty, but I can code enough to test a concept.

To answer this question, I wrote a simple ruby script (I love rails) to see if I could write fields onto a PDF. I tried a few different ruby gems, and landed on the prawn and combine_pdf gem.

I kept the script as simple as possible, just coding enough to confirm I could place text onto an existing PDF. After an hour or so, my script gave me the “yes” I hoped for.

Before we move on, notice what I didn’t do…. I skipped creating a new rails project. I left data design for a later day. I bypassed everything except validating my core question.

My natural tendency is to start building the end app at this stage. After years of learning the hard way, I finally learned to focus on just answering the core question.

Issue: Can we collect a digital signature from the end user and write it onto an existing claim form PDF?

This question proved beyond my meager coding skills. To answer it, I created a small project on Upwork. Upwork runs a freelancer marketplace, and provides a great tool for one off tasks.

They have a ton of developers, which made getting this question answered quick and cheap (< $50). 

Do research before posting your project so you can specify as much detail as possible. For our project, I made sure I captured our key requirements before posting the job on upwork:

  • I knew the solution should use prawn and/or combine_pdf for the PDF manipulation.  
  • A little research led me to this github project to accept the end user’s signature – https://github.com/szimek/signature_pad.
  • Using what I learned above, I wrote a specific job description with as much detail as possible.
  • I prefer to post my small projects as a set fee, instead of hourly. That gives me confidence on how much I will pay.

After posting our project, I read the reviews and explored the work history of any applicants.

I can’t stress this enough – READ THE REVIEWS.  

If someone doesn’t have reviews yet, proceed with caution. I like working with individual developers instead of companies. I find I pay less and get stuff done faster.   

I often ask applicants to write a tiny bit of code using the language & tools asked for in the job to make sure they know what they’re doing.

This also shows you how responsive they are, and how they communicate. Make this something tiny, so you don’t waste their time. I posted my project, chose a freelancer a day later, and within a few hours he delivered validation that things would work.  

Boom! That makes us five for five on our questions.

Now what? How can we find out if people will really buy this? Great question. Let’s dive into that with our next post.

The Market Likes Your Product, Now What?

And we’re back for round 3 of our journey into starting a profitable business online. To recap, I’m Doug, CEO here at Earth Class Mail.

So far we’ve talked about Step 1: the biggest mistake you can avoid, and Step 2: how to find profitable customers. Now let’s dig in to the results with Step 3, evaluating your market demand test.

What’s a Demand Test again?

Simply put, a demand test is an experiment you run to see if there is anyone in the market for your product or service.

It can take many shapes, but for our purposes we focused on setting up a simple lead funnel by buying ads on Google AdWords and pointing those users to a landing page with a lead form.

This type of test is great because:

You can simply buy exposure to users likely to be interested in your product, very inexpensively. That means you don’t need to organically build an audience and you don’t need to have a product, just a pitch.

You can use the landing pages to funnel users through the various value points of your product, from a high-level pitch down to pricing. That means you can gain insights into what exactly is drawing people in or turning them away.

Most importantly, it’s really easy to setup. A focus group or even a basic functioning product are way more expensive and time consuming. 

Step 3 – Did Any Customers Show Up?

Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far, you ran some ads to a landing page. Now let’s dig in to the results.

To refresh your memory, we want to answer a few simple questions to better understand if our business idea will be a success:

  • Question: How many potential customers exist looking for a solution to this problem?

Answer: Ad impressions

  • Question: How well does your business solve the problem for potential customers?

Answer: Ad click-through-rate (CTR)

  • Question: How many potential customers can you get to your front door?

Answer: Ad clicks

  • Question: How many potential customers are interested in pricing for your product?

Answer: Landing page CTR

  • Question: How many potential customers indicated they would pay you money?

Answer: Pricing button clicks

  • Question: How many potential customers are ready to buy now?

Answer: Email leads collected

  • Question: Can your business be profitable? How profitable?

Answer: The metrics from your demand test will help build an initial forecast

Let’s dive into our data to see what it tells us.

The very first question is probably the most important, how many potential customers exist looking for an answer to this problem?

In our test this data is easily accessible, and there’s good news for the future of ClaimSender. Google AdWords shows that there are thousands of daily searches related to healthcare claim forms. 

We dig in a bit more and find that our $50/day budget produced 48 clicks/day, with an average CPC of $1.08 (this data is for one day, but it’s representative of the other days in our test).

Our limited keyword test produced a solid number of impressions. A bunch more search volume likely exists for a few reasons:

  • We set our daily budget at $50, and hit that somewhat early in the day. 
  • Adwords budget alerts told us we could double our budget to get double the clicks at the same cost per click. 
  • We can expand our keyword set to include other health care companies and more niche terms. 

This is good news. It means we have plenty of room to grow through paid acquisition.

A quick trip to Google Trends tells us there’s perhaps at least double the volume if we include other healthcare companies besides United and Aetna. 

Adding Cigna alone would produce a lot more volume, and a bevy of others exist – Humana, Centene, HealthNet, WellCare, Molina, Magellan, etc.

So the answer to our question is: “enough to keep learning”. No red flags on this step, let’s keep moving.

How well does your business solve the problem for potential customers?

I’ve seen click through rates from 0.01% up to 8% for AdWords campaigns. Our ads clocked in at a robust ~2.9%, a great result for a first attempt. 

Hitting nearly 3% on our initial go shows that our ads appealed to people searching for a remedy to their health care claim filing pain. 

We struck a nerve!

You can always improve on your first attempt, so the answer here is two strong thumbs up.

How many potential customers can you get to your front door?

Don’t sugarcoat this number. Is it enough to support a business if we convert a reasonable percentage of tire-kickers into customers?

Our ads delivered ~50 clicks per day.

However, our budget and keyword set constrained us. If we cranked our budget up and expanded our keyword set to include other healthcare companies, we could likely make that 50 turn into 150-200 per day. 

Pencil in a conversion rate of 0.5% – 2% (some rule of thumb averages, your mileage may vary) and you have your likely customers per day.

If we get 200 interested people to the site, and convert a handful to paying customers, will that be enough to build a business? Perhaps, but let’s cover that in the spreadsheet section. Stay tuned.

How many potential customers showed interest in seeing how much your service cost?

Here’s what they saw after clicking an ad and landing at http://try.claimsender.com/

26.67% clicked the “Get Started” button, one-in-four is not bad at all.

How many potential customers indicated they would pay you money? 

As the saying goes, “the proof is in the pudding” and it’s pudding time. We’ll measure this by looking at two things:

  • Unique users clicking on one of the sign up buttons
  • The specific sign up button they clicked 

These actions tell us the person showed interest in signing up, but you can’t count your money yet. The best thing to do here is to apply a reasonable conversion percentage to calculate signups. 

More importantly, looking at which pricing plans people clicked on tells you a bit about what they would pay.

Using the data from Unbounce, we can see that 24% of people that hit the pricing page clicked one of our pricing buttons. Nice!

Diving into Google Analytics to look at the events reveals which pricing tiers prospects clicked on. Most clicked on our free plan (some free will convert to paid when they hit usage limits), a few clicked on the $29/mo option, and one clicked on the $9/mo plan.

The clicks on the paid plans are encouraging. The data lacks enough volume to be valid, but even this amount of data is enough to show that we have something worth further investigation.

How many potential customers are ready to buy now?

These prospects display the strongest interest in your product. Three of the nine people who clicked on the pricing buttons left their contact info for us. Not bad at all.

Even better, it gives you a list of prospects to email so you can rack up some easy signups when you launch. 

One thing did surprise me – two of the leads were from 10-25 person healthcare companies. Perhaps there’s a business-to-business product here?

Can your business be profitable? How profitable?

Time to break out the spreadsheets. I’ve created a simplistic one here for you to look at. Our example is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) based business that charges people a recurring fee per month. 

For this type of business, we want to model the following numbers:

  • What we plan to spend on ads
  • How many customers we can acquire for that cost
  • How much each customer pays us per month
  • How many customers leave us each month

The resulting numbers give you the money you’ll be left with to pay for everything else. Those things include every other cost of running the business – per unit costs (if any), all provider costs (hosting, email, rent, software, support tools, etc.), taxes, compensation . . . you get the idea.

By playing with the assumptions in the spreadsheet, we get a sense of how profitable the business can be, and what it takes to make it so. 

If we use monthly ad spend of $1,500, a CPC of $1, 1% conversion, an average of $12 per month per customer, and 3% churn, we break even in month 10 and generate a positive $337 in month 12.

If we use monthly ad spend of $6,000, a CPC of $1, 1.5% conversion, and 2% churn, we break even in month 5 and generate a positive $7,563 in month 12.

Results vary DRAMATICALLY with changes to each of those numbers. It’s impossible to know what they will be at this point, but we can use this template to get a sense of what’s possible, and what it will take to make that happen.

What’s next?

Let’s Drop Everything and Build Our Site! Right Now!

No Larry, hold your horses. It’s not time to build yet. Stay strong, and FIGHT THE URGE TO BUILD, BUILD, BUILD. Let me repeat myself, DO NOT BUILD ANYTHING YET.

Let’s dig into the data to deduce our most intelligent next step

Here’s what we learned:

  • We can buy plenty of clicks at a reasonable cost.
  • A lot more keywords, forms, categories (dental, vision, pharmacy) and providers exist than we tested. 
  • The strong CTR on the homepage and pricing buttons show demand lurks, ready to turn into signups. 

That’s a solid foundation to build on. Let’s make an action item to research how much more search volume exists, and note that optimization can improve our conversion rates significantly over time with testing.

Our financial model gives us a sense of how big this can be. On the low end it appears to deliver a few thousand dollars a month after many months of ramping up. 

A more generous interpretation of AdWords demand and conversion rates gives us a nice solo lifestyle business.

Getting leads from small healthcare companies surprised me. Perhaps these types of companies need a solution? Mark down another research item.

This data told us that a good number of people want this problem solved, and will pay enough to make it worthwhile for us to solve. 

To paraphrase my good friend and investor in Earth Class Mail, Jonathan Siegel, “the best investments have little risk and high return”.

If we channel our inner Jonathan, what questions do we need to ask to reduce the risk and build confidence in a profitable business?

I want to know:

  • Is our core idea technically possible?
  • Is our core idea legally possible?
  • Will people really buy this? For real? For really real?
  • How can I get those questions answered most simply?

That’s it for today, but stay tuned for our next post where we dive into the questions above.

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 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!

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.

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

How We Unlocked The Hidden Revenue in Our Site

Earth Class Mail has been around for a long time, longer than most tech startups at least. In that time the product, site, and marketing strategy have gone through a lot of iterations. It seems though that the longer an organization exists, the easier it is to neglect the things that seem to “just work”.

Our site did exactly that, it just worked. The common pitfall there is that your audience changes over time, even more dynamically over a 10 year span. For some added perspective, 2006 was the year that: Amazon launched Web Services, the Nintendo Wii debuted, and Google bought YouTube. 

Now our site definitely had some facelifts since its inception, but we never really sat down and focused on making the site better at doing what it’s supposed to do – sell the product and get people to sign-up. Partly that’s because the tools that make it easier have only really evolved in the last few years, and partly because it just worked.

In early 2015 we reached out to Conversion Rate Experts to help us get the most out of our site and implemented some shiny new tools like Convert.com, Hotjar.com, and live chat. Working with the CRE team, we conducted a lot of due diligence on our audience and existing user base. Tools like Survey Monkey helped with that, as well as diving deep into our web analytics.

Just like any business we have to prioritize and allocate resources to our projects, so we zeroed in on the three most impactful visitor touchpoints on our site: the home page, the pricing page, and the first step of our sign-up path (our “Basic Info” page). 

What resulted is an iterative approach that seriously impacted our site’s conversion rate and revenue potential, without driving any significant additional traffic to the site. That’s right, we made more money without investing in marketing just by doing this. It’s something any business can do and, frankly, should do.

See the detailed case study from CRE here.

Study: Majority of SMBs & Startups Mismanage Their Back Office

Back office work tends to be the red-headed stepchild of items on your to-do list. No one wants to deal with it, but it has to be taken care of. Your business mail is at the center of that burden because in it there are important notices, invoices, and checks from your customers. 

All that gold is buried in a mountain of junk. Once you’re done sorting and opening your mail, the job tends to only be half done. Now you have to scan the important stuff or head to the bank for a deposit.

You are not alone… 

  • 70% of small businesses burn over an hour each month managing mail,
  • 40% more than three hours, and 
  • 20% waste six or more hours each month*. 

That’s a crazy amount of time to spend on dealing with snail mail. In a recent survey, jointly conducted by Earth Class Mail and GetApp, 500 small business owners answered the question: 

How much time do you spend managing your business’ mail each month, including: depositing checks, scanning, and distributing to recipients?

*Survey results adjusted to exclude “None of the above” responses, and percentages normalized.

There is a real cost to all this waste

Sometimes you don’t know something is a problem until you take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Managing your business mail can turn into a routine pretty quickly, and you can probably go to bed feeling like you’ve accomplished something. But at what cost?

Fred Wilson, a famed VC investor and entrepreneur, suggested in 2011 that the average burn rate for a fully burdened employee at a startup is $10,000 per month. Marc Andreessen suggested it was in excess of $16,000 per month in 2014. Even the median income for a small business owner in the U.S. is $60,000 per year according to payscale.com, not including all of the added cost burdens that can more than double that figure.

All of that means that it’s costing businesses real money each month, from $100 to $1000 or more, and that doesn’t account for the opportunity cost of working on tasks more directly tied to business growth.

Earth Class Mail plans start at $49/mo. Learn More

Sometimes business mail is just a pain in the a$$

When mail becomes white noise it can lead to real problems for businesses. Today’s companies are dynamic, ever-changing machines. They move often as they expand and hire, they work with a myriad of vendors, and they focus on the things that drive growth. That means that minutia like updating an address with an insurance provider or the secretary of state can easily get overlooked.

“We didn’t receive a renewal notice at my last company because the insurance provider had an old address. It cost us a lapse in coverage.” Jeff Judge, Founder @ Bright.io

Missteps like that can lead to big problems. Lapses in insurance coverage, missed incorporation renewals, and worse.

Then there is the new breed of entrepreneurs that choose to run their companies without walls or borders. A 2015 Gallup Poll revealed that 37% of workers telecommute on some regular basis, and some predict that 50% of the workforce will work remotely by 2020. That sentiment is surely overrepresented in the entrepreneur class, with tech startups leading the way.

As a small startup, we didn’t have physical office space until a few months ago. Earth Class Mail took care of that and our mail, so we could focus on our business. Matthew Juszczak, Founder @ Bitlancer.com

This trend will only continue as the workforce moves to more flexible location opportunities and the cost savings of remote work are realized by larger organizations. 

Thinking ahead on the future of the back office

The need for digital solutions that mirror the benefits of traditional services, while offering more efficiency and cost savings, is only growing. Physical addresses and snail mail are still required to legally operate a corporation. 

As archaic as it may sound, there is definitely a superficial need for professional contact information as well. Just like businesses want a public facing phone number that isn’t the founder’s personal line, they need a public facing “physical” presence that isn’t also someone’s home. 

There is no shortage of tools and resources that solve these common back office problems around phone, mail, and communication. These solutions make back office operations better, and do it cheaper. There’s certainly a lot more to come, and the future looks bright for both entrepreneurs and employees.