2019 UPDATE: I’ve co-authored a new book called Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models, and I’m highly confident that knowing the mental models in this new book will also help you get traction! You can order it now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.
The second edition of Traction is now out, published by Penguin Random House (the first edition was self-published). I mention that because the change gave us the opportunity over the past nine months to make a much more high-quality book, reacting to the tens of thousands of first-edition readers, adding sections that we discovered were missing, addressing the more counter-intuitive aspects of getting traction.
In going through this process we pulled out takeaways across all the chapters. I give those to you now with the caveat that if you are serious about getting traction, you should really get the book.
I hate business books that are 20 pages of ideas and another 200 telling you the same thing over and over again. Traction is the opposite. There is no fluff. It’s all been edited away. Beyond these 78 takeaways there are probably 500 more actionable tactics and insights you can use across all 19 traction channels.
Traction Channels (Chapter 1)
1) Startups get traction through nineteen different channels. We call these customer acquisition channels traction channels. These are marketing and distribution channels through which your startup can get traction: real customer growth.
2) Most founders consider using only traction channels with which they’re already familiar. Or, similarly, they only consider using those they think they should be using because of their type of product or company. This means that far too many startups focus on the same channels and ignore other promising ways to get traction. In fact, often the most underutilized channels in an industry are the most promising ones.
3) It’s hard to predict the traction channel that will work best. You can make educated guesses, but until you start running tests, it’s difficuult to tell which channel is the best one for you right now.
Traction Thinking (Chapter 2)
4) Put half your efforts into getting traction. Pursue traction and product development in parallel, and spend equal time on both. Think of your product as a leaky bucket. Your early traction efforts are pointing you toward the holes worth plugging.
5) Set your growth goals. Focus on strategies and tactics that can plausibly move the needle for your company. Get some hard numbers.
6) Learn what growth numbers potential investors respect. How much traction is needed for investors is a moving target, but a sustainable customer growth rate is hard for investors to ignore. Potential investors who understand your business are likely to appreciate your traction and thus invest earlier. Traction trumps everything.
7) Find your bright spots. If you’re not seeing the traction you want, look for bright spots in your customer base, pockets of customers who are truly engaged with your product. See if you can figure out why it works for them and if you can expand from that base. If there are no bright spots, it may be a good time to pivot.
Bullseye (Chapter 3)
8) Work through Bullseye. Maximize your chances of getting traction: brainstorm, prioritize, test, and then focus. Do not overlook underutilized channels. In fact, those channels are more likely to be the ones that will work best.
9) Talk to founders a few steps ahead of you. Research how past and present companies in your space and adjacent spaces succeeded or failed at getting traction. The easiest way to do this is to go talk to startup founders who previously failed at what you’re trying to do.
10) Hold on to your other channel ideas. Compile your brainstorming ideas for each traction channel in a spreadsheet with educated guesses that you can confirm through testing. Even after you’ve chosen your core channel, you should keep these ideas around for future runs of Bullseye.
Traction Testing (Chapter 4)
11) Look for customers where others aren’t looking. Keep a lookout for the cutting-edge tactics that haven’t yet suc- cumbed to the Law of Shitty Click-Throughs. Run cheap tests to quickly validate assumptions and test new ideas.
12) Constantly optimize. You should consistently run A/B tests in your efforts to optimize a traction channel strategy. There are many online tools that can help you test more easily and evaluate your use of various traction strategies and tactics.
13) Keep it numerical. Look for ways to quantify your marketing efforts, especially when deciding which traction strategies to pursue and comparing them within Bullseye. You should have an idea at all times of what numbers it will take to move the needle, and focus your traction efforts only on strategies that could possibly do so.
Critical Path (Chapter 5)
14) Lay out your milestones. Determine your traction goal and define your Critical Path against that goal, working backward and enumerating the absolutely necessary milestones you need to achieve to get there.
15) Stay on the Critical Path. Assess every activity you do against your Critical Path and consistently reassess it. Building such assessment into your management processes is a good idea. Quantify traction subgoals and put them on a calendar so you can properly monitor your progress over time.
16) Actively work to overcome your traction channel biases. Being on the cutting edge of the right traction channel can make a huge difference in success. Which traction channels do you know most about? Which traction channels do you know least about? Mentors can help here.
Targeting Blogs (Chapter 6)
17) Run tests on a variety of smaller blogs. See what type of audience resonates best with your product and messaging. There are a variety of tools you can use to uncover relevant blogs including YouTube, Delicious, StumbleUpon, Twitter, search engines, Google Alerts, and Social Mention. You can also ask people!
18) Sponsor small blogs, especially personal blogs. Providing influential bloggers early access, or offering early access in exchange for spreading the word, are other effective strategies.
19) Offer something unique to your best targets. Build a special offer just for them and put together a draft guest post that they can run with.
Publicity (Chapter 7)
20) Target the right smaller sites. Press stories often “filter up,” meaning major news outlets are often looking to major blogs for story ideas, which in turn are looking at smaller blogs and forums. That means if you can generate buzz on those sites, you can increase your chances of getting picked up by bigger publications.
21) Build real relationships with the specific reporters covering your startup’s market. Read what they write, comment, offer them industry expertise, and follow them on Twitter.
22) Have newsworthy milestones to share. Contact reporters only when you can package your milestones into a compelling emotional story. When you do make a pitch, keep it short and sweet!
Unconventional PR (Chapter 8)
23) Do something big, cheap, fun, and original. A publicity stunt is anything that is engineered to generate a large amount of media coverage. They are often hard to do consistently well, but just one well-executed stunt can move the needle for your company. Publicity stunts need to be creative and extraordinary to succeed. Some types that have been successful repeatedly are competitive stunts and viral videos.
24) Be awesome to your customers, and good things follow. Common ways to do customer appreciation well are through gifts, contests, and amazing customer support. Excelling in this area is a way to do unconventional PR over a longer period of time.
25) Prepare for failure. Success in this channel is unpredictable. You should have a defined process for brainstorming and selecting ideas, but also understand that not every idea will work.
Search Engine Marketing (Chapter 9)
26) Use search engine ads to test product positioning and messaging (even before you fully build it!). Do not expect your early SEM ad tests to be profitable. If you can run an ad campaign that gets close to breakeven after a few weeks, then SEM could be the traction channel for you to focus on. A test ad campaign can be as little as four ads that you use to experiment.
27) Measure conversions, so you can test SEM variables against profitability. Areas you should be testing including keywords, ad copy, demographic targeting, landing pages, and CPC bids. Cost per acquisition (CPA) is how much it costs you to acquire a customer, and that is ultimately what you need to be testing against.
28) Use longer keywords. Known as long-tail keywords, they are often less competitive because they have lower search volumes. As such, they are cheaper and so can be more profitable — you just may have to aggregate a lot of them to get the volume you need to move the needle.
29) Pay close attention to your ad quality scores. High quality scores get you better placement on the page and better pric- ing on your ads. The biggest factor in quality scores is CTR.
Social and Display Ads (Chapter 10)
30) Contact small sites directly for display ads. Ask them to run your ads for a small fee. This is an underutilized strategy in display ads, especially in phase I. Study your competitors’ ads to get good ideas for A/B tests to run on your ads.
31) Use social ads to build awareness of products and create demand. The goal with social ads should be to build an audience, engage with that audience over time, and eventually move them to convert to customers. This indirect response strategy usually leads to more conversions than a direct response strategy that tries to get people to convert immediately.
32) Create compelling social content. The best way to build a presence and engage your audience on social sites is to concentrate on creating less content, but making it highly shareable. When your content is getting naturally shared, that’s the time to promote it further with social ads.
Offline Ads (Chapter 11)
33) Run cheap tests by first targeting local markets. It is hard to predict what will work, so it is often useful to run several small offline ads tests in parallel. Each offline ad medium is testable locally. Then you can scale up to regional or national campaigns if warranted.
34) Seek out remnant ad inventory for the highest discounts. You can use remnant ads for both initial tests and scaling this channel. The downside is less targeting ability, both in terms of demographics and timing.
35) Use unique codes or Web addresses to track the effective- ness of different offline ad campaigns. Make sure before you set up tests or campaigns that you can trace conversions back to specific offline ads.
Search Engine Optimization (Chapter 12)
36) Find search terms that have enough search volume to move the needle for your company. If you can’t find enough search volume, or can’t rank high for those terms, SEO won’t be a great strategy for your business. If you identify some terms that could work, you can further qualify them by running search ads against them to test whether they actually convert customers.
37) Generate long-tail landing pages by using cheap freelancers. Or, if your product can naturally produce good long-tail content, use it to create the landing pages yourself.
38) Focus on how you will build links. Whether you pursue a fat-head or long-tail strategy, SEO comes down to two things: content and links. Link building is often the more challenging of the two. Creating amazing content is one way to quickly build links.
39) Avoid “black-hat” SEO tactics that violate search engine guidelines, especially buying links. These banned tactics will eventually come back to bite you.
Content Marketing (Chapter 13)
40) If you blog, dedicate at least six months to it. A company blog can take a significant amount of time to start taking off.
41) Do things that don’t scale early on. Reaching out to individuals to share posts, for instance, is okay, because you’re building toward a point where your content will spread on its own. Reaching out to influential industry leaders (on Twitter, etc.), doing guest posts, writing about recent news events, and creating shareable infographics are all great ways to increase the rate of growth of your audience.
42) Produce in-depth posts you can’t find anywhere else. You need to create quality content to succeed in this traction channel. There is no silver bullet, but a decent approach is to write about problems your target customers have. Another approach (not mutually exclusive) is to run experiments or use data from your company that leads to a surprising con- clusion.
Email Marketing (Chapter 14)
43) Personalize your email marketing messages. Email marketing is a personal traction channel. Messages come into your inbox along with email from your friends and family.
44) Build an email list of prospective customers whether you end up focusing on this traction channel or not. You can utilize email marketing at any step of your relationship with a customer, including customer acquisition, activation, retention, and revenue generation.
45) Set up a series of automated emails. Often called life cycle or drip sequences, this technique works best when the series of emails adapts to how people have interacted with your product.
46) Use online tools to test and optimize email campaigns. These tools have built-in templates and A/B testing ability and will track open and click rates.
Viral Marketing (Chapter 15)
47) Build a viral loop into the product. There are several types of viral loops including word of mouth, inherent, collaborative, communicative, incentives, embedded, and social. Startups can combine and change types over time, but generally these loops need to be built into the product to work successfully.
48) Shorten viral cycle time. The shorter this time, the more loops will occur and the faster you will grow.
49) Look for viral pockets. You might already be viral in a subgroup of your customers. Find that subgroup and focus on it.
50) More than any other channel, test, test, test. Successful viral strategy involves constant testing, measurement, and trying new things. It is a numbers and creativity game. No test is too small, as small changes can have big effects over time. Viral loops that work well often have extremely simple components (forms, copy, email, etc.).
Engineering as Marketing (Chapter 16)
51) Create a stand-alone, low-friction site to engage potential customers. Make sure it naturally leads to your main offering. The case for spending engineering resources on marketing becomes much stronger when you think about these marketing tools as long-term assets that bring in new leads indefinitely after only a small amount of up-front investment.
52) Look internally for site and tool ideas. Perhaps you have already started creating something for yourself that could also be used by potential customers? Another approach is to turn a popular blog post into a microsite.
53) Make them as simple as possible. Single-purpose tools that solve obvious pain points are best. Put them on their own Web sites and make them easy to find, particularly through search engines.
Business Development (Chapter 17)
54) Pursue mutually beneficial partnerships. In a standard partnership, two companies work together to make one or both of their products better by leveraging the unique capabilities of the other. Other major types of BD deals include partnerships focused on joint ventures, licensing, distribution, and inventory. You need to understand why a potential partner might want to work with you. What are their incentives? Just as you are evaluating potential partnerships in terms of your core metrics, they will be doing the same.
55) Focus on meeting your startup’s core metrics. Good business development deals align with your company and product strategy and are focused on strategic product and distribution milestones. Avoid deals that don’t directly align with your traction goal.
56) Create a pipeline of deals you’re constantly working on. For initial testing, you can reach out to a variety of potential partners to gauge interest.
Sales (Chapter 18)
57) Don’t rule out cold calling. Good first customers have a burning need to address a problem, are interested in your approach to solving their problem, and are willing to work with you closely. Sometimes cold calling is the only way to find them.
58) Build a repeatable sales model. An effective sales funnel has prospects enter at the top, qualifies these leads, and closes them effectively. Map out your sales funnel, identify blockages, and remove them. Keep the buying process as simple as possible.
59) Get the buyer to commit to time lines. To close sales effectively, get an affirmative at each point that you are on track to close. Always know exactly what steps are left.
60) Keep the customer’s perspective in mind. Talk to people who need your product and understand their common concerns. Address those concerns specifically on your Web site.
Affiliate Programs (Chapter 19)
61) Test using an existing affiliate network. It already has affiliates, so you can start using this traction channel immediately.
62) Keep your payouts simple. Know how much you can spend to acquire a customer and keep it below that. As you get deeper into this channel you can test more complicated payout programs.
63) The next place you should look for more affiliates is your customers. They already like you, and so there may be a lot of them willing to sell for you.
Existing Platforms (Chapter 20)
64) Figure out where your potential customers are hanging out online. They could be on major platforms, on niche platforms, or some combination thereof. Then embark on a strategy to target these existing platforms.
65) Create a feature specifically to fill a gap for that platform’s users. Large companies have been built on the back of each major social platform by filling gaps with features that the platform was not providing itself.
66) Focus on new and untapped platforms. Or try new aspects of major platforms because there is less competition there.
Trade Shows (Chapter 21)
67) Schedule meetings and dinners ahead of time. Identify your top targets and find a way to engage them individually at the show.
68) Investigate the efficacy of shows before committing. Attend shows this year you might want to exhibit at next year. Reach out to previous exhibitors.
69) Have an inbound and outbound strategy for your booth. Do something proactive and creative. Include a strong call to action on every item you give out.
Offline Events (Chapter 22)
70) Launch at a conference. Conferences are the biggest and most popular type of offline event. Launching at a conference has been a successful phase I conference tactic. If there isn’t a conference that directly brings together your target customers, consider creating one.
71) Test this channel first. Attend a couple conferences or host a few smaller meetups or a one-day mini-conference.
72) Throw a party. Having meetups or parties, either alongside conferences or across many cities, is another successful strategy to attract and reward prospective customers.
Speaking Engagements (Chapter 23)
73) Remember that you are doing organizers a favor by presenting. Event organizers need to fill time at their events.
74) Submit authoritative proposals far in advance. Organizers consider timing, topic, and credibility when selecting a speaker. By establishing yourself as an expert on the right topic and submitting proposals far in advance, you maximize your chances of securing one of the best speaking engagements at the target show.
75) Tell a story onstage. Without a story, the audience will lose interest. We suggest telling a story about why you’re doing what you’re doing, and specifically present insights only you can give through your unique position as a startup founder. Make it exciting!
Community Building (Chapter 24)
76) Cultivate and empower evangelists. Foster cross-connection among them and among community members in general.
77) Set high standards from the start. Focus on community quality early on and set strict standards that can be maintained as the community grows. You can build tools and processes into your community to help your community police itself.
78) Bootstrap off an existing audience. Find initial evangelists by sharing your mission with complementary communities online and at offline events.
There you have it: 78 takeaways from Traction. Useful? Get more!