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How to Launch and Grow Your Digital Marketing Program

By Mark Harnett, Charlie Mock, Patrick Lundbom and Toby Skinner

So you’re ready to launch a digital marketing program. You’ve got a website with a CMS that is owned by marketing. You’ve got a hands-on digital marketing strategist on board, a design resource, and a data analyst to set up your basic measurement infrastructure, as we advised in part one of this series. You’ve checked in with your SEO person. You’ve educated your stakeholders on the digital marketing mindset and you’ve got plenty of ideas to test and start learning. Here’s how to stand up your program and grow to about a million a month in digital ad spend.

Start with the Duopoly

There is no shortage of digital advertising platforms, but you should start with the “Duopoly” — Google and Facebook. Google Ads, and Facebook and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) have a huge amount of ad inventory, and traffic. These platforms have made ad buying so simple, and the reporting is very good. The platforms are super flexible. You can change your budgets daily, or even hourly. You can launch new ads or stop campaigns at a moment's notice. That's something you can’t do when you've got piles of direct mailers already sitting at the post office.

There's lots of room to learn and grow in those channels, and you’ll be doing lots of testing — of ads, messaging, and economics. What are the costs of getting a new customer or a new lead? Can you bring in new people and scale in a way that’s economically viable? These are the best platforms for learning fast.

Clarity on Goals and Ad Types

All of these platforms offer a wide variety of ad types, so you need to understand which types perform best in which part of the funnel so you can align your ad buys with your goals and expectations. If your goal is to generate leads or sales, display ads or YouTube ads are not going to get you there. There's not a lot of buying intent.

That doesn't mean these types of ads are not valuable. They play a role in discovery, building brand awareness and getting more people into the top of the funnel. But you have to look at them with a different lens with regard to success, because they can help you build an audience that you can remarket to or add to your email list and nurture over time. You've got to couple these types of ads with paid search campaigns, which have a much higher level of buying intent, especially on branded search terms.

A Realistic Budget

What should your initial budget be? Ideally, enough to get 100-200 conversions. That gives you enough data to begin optimizing your program with confidence. So how do you figure that out?

Seasoned marketers know that a one to two percent response rate is considered good. That applies to digital advertising as well. If you get 100 people to click through to your website, you might get two actual transactions to occur — if your product is compelling and priced right. A lot of things have to be working to even get to two percent. It seems paltry, but that's the norm.

However, it’s common to find yourself faced with aggressive growth targets and minimal budgets. For example, leadership in a B2B company might want 100 new customers in Q1 and the budget is $10,000 — an effective CAC (customer acquisition cost) of $100 per customer. That’s aggressive.

To get to a realistic number, draw up the conversion funnel, plugging in some benchmark data for each stage — traffic costs, conversion rates, and falloff at each stage. You can get data for your industry in reports from big ad networks and from agencies that publish ad metrics from the big platforms on a regular basis.

Applying that data, let’s optimistically say we're going to pay $5 a click for a targeted campaign on Google Ads. If you really can get a click for $5, then $10,000 would buy 2,000 visits to your landing page. Let’s say, (also optimistically,) that you achieve a 20 percent engagement rate — with 400 visitors downloading a piece of content or submitting a demo request. That’s 400 MQLs (marketing qualified leads), for a cost of $25 MQL. If you're lucky, sales might qualify half of those for 200 SQLs (sales qualified leads). You might close 10 percent of those. In the end, you've got 20 sales for an effective CAC of $500 — five times the original budget, and even that may be too optimistic.

Conversion Funnel

But, it’s not necessarily a budget killer. In fact, it could still be profitable if the lifetime value of a customer exceeds $500 by a big enough margin, as is often the case with B2B offerings. This is why you need to understand the unit economics of what you’re advertising. Unless you’re a venture-backed unicorn with millions at your disposal to capture a winner-takes-all market, your CAC needs to be lower than your lifetime value of a customer. If you’re paying $50 to get customers for a widget you’re selling for $60, that’s not going to work. If you've got a great product, with the possibility for repeat purchases, subscriptions, upsells, cross-sells, etc., you can afford to pay more to acquire a customer than if what you’re offering is only a one-time sale.

Initially, this is all hypothetical. Once you get enough conversions, you’ll be making decisions using your own data.

Measuring and Optimizing

Buying media is just one aspect of digital marketing. Once your campaigns are launched, the work begins in earnest. One of the great things about the Google and Facebook platforms is that you have total visibility into your campaigns, so you can check performance any time you want to. However, resist the temptation to make too many tweaks early on. It takes time for campaigns to “settle,” i.e. for the platforms to have enough data to feed into their algorithms and for performance to become reliable. What you see early on may be very different from where you end up. Give your campaigns at least six weeks to run before you make any big decisions.

Initially you can just look at data in the platform interfaces and export it into a Google sheet. We recommend at this point that you evaluate ROI based on media spend only, rather than including salaries and consultant costs. These are part of the cost of the program, but they’re fixed costs, whereas media spend is a variable cost. Right now, you want to focus on understanding, and optimizing variable costs.

Once you have enough data, go back to your funnel and re-forecast. Then, look for the keywords, creatives and messages that perform well, and double or triple spending on those. Ratchet down spending on the losers, or shut them off completely. Launch some new creatives and try out some more hypotheses to see if you can find more winners. Adjust your bidding strategy, and your budgets, and see if you can do better. Run for another six weeks. Lather, rinse, repeat until you top out in these channels.

Beyond the Duopoly

Let's say that using Google and Facebook in this manner, you’ve gathered enough data to determine you're willing to pay $10 to get someone to buy your product, and you can get 1,000 people a day at that price. But if you want to get 2,000 people a day from Google and Facebook, you can't do it without it becoming too expensive. It could take a long time to get to that point, or it could happen relatively quickly. It depends how much you’re spending, and how tightly you are targeting your audiences. If you’re spending a fair amount and targeting tightly, you can quickly exhaust those channels. Now, you’re ready for phase two.

That means taking what you’ve learned and expanding into different channels. Maybe you want to try other social platforms; advertising on podcasts; in apps, or programmatic ad buys. There are many, many options and we won’t go into them all because it will depend on the audience you’re trying to reach. What we would suggest is a continual testing cadence of trying at least one new channel every month to find those that are going to perform well for your business.

Bring on the Specialists

Now you’re running Facebook and Google, and you’re also testing other channels. You might be running some geographically or demographically segmented tests. The company may be changing as well. Often, by the time you get to this point, and the product changes and/or you add new product lines. The sales process may be changing because the product has become more complex. You may be changing your positioning and messaging or refining it for different channels. You need to start developing content for multiple channels, and for multiple landing pages, and you need to be able to track and compare performance across multiple channels.

As the volume and complexity of activity increases, you will need to add some specialists to your team.

Why not just have your product marketer or another internal person do digital marketing part time? Besides not having the depth of expertise required, adding a net new function usually stretches internal people in other roles too thin to be effective. The more you spend, the more you need to feel confident you are spending it as effectively as possible and managing the channels daily. Unless you have someone internally who has the experience and can consistently devote 10-15 hours a week to it, it may be best to hire a mix of full timers and specialized consultants.

Who you need will depend again on who you have on board already; what channels you’re in, and whether you are selling directly online, or generating leads for sales. Here are some considerations:

Dedicated Data Analyst

Once you go beyond two online sources, figuring out the worth of each of these programs in relationship to each other, and to other marketing programs, will almost certainly require an analyst dedicated to your group. It depends somewhat on the organization and what kind of data you have.

If you're just doing lead gen, you may be able to continue with your part time analyst. But if you have a SaaS product where you have a free trial and you want to look at retention and billing you’re probably going to need to bring in an analyst to tie those up with the finance department, because it's all going to go into your growth projections and determine how much you can reinvest in paid advertising. Ditto if you’re on a trajectory approaching multi-million dollar spending on paid media. You’re going to need to set up even more experiments and make sure you get results that are accurate. The infrastructure is going to become more complex. You’ll want to be using a tag manager; you might be bringing in HubSpot or some other marketing automation tools, along with analytic tools such as MixPanel or Tableau. You need somebody who can set it all up, pull together data from different programs and from the business, and normalize and analyze it to determine where you should be allocating your budget.

Paid Media Specialists

If paid search is performing well for you and your spending is growing, consider hiring a paid search specialist. It is very time consuming to stay on top of your keywords and bids and be constantly testing, and you want someone who is extremely effective at it. If social is performing well, you need a specialist there too. These are not usually the same person. There are skills that are transferable, such as knowing how to structure campaigns, and the same mindset around measuring performance to make smart investment decisions.

What’s different is that search is based on targeting keywords, and social is centered on audience targeting. Then there’s just platform knowledge — someone who spends all day every day using a tool is probably going to know more of the nuanced options that can boost your program. The other consideration is size. If you're trying to manage hundreds of thousands of dollars in each channel, switching costs make it inefficient to try to do both. When you have that much spend in a channel, it requires someone’s undivided attention.

You could also consider agencies, but there are some caveats. Digital agencies charge based on a percent of media spend, so there’s a built-in incentive to increase your spending. Also, what often happens is that you’ll speak with top people with years of experience during the sales process, but on a day-to-day basis, you're going to have less experienced people managing your campaigns. The other issue is reporting cadence. Most agencies aren’t going to report out at the cadence you need when you’re testing and learning, which you should be doing constantly.

Creative Resources

Once you have a sense of which channels are going to work best for you, it’s time to invest in creative resources dedicated to your program — as opposed to sharing with other departments or a series of freelancers. Waiting on design or copy can hold your program back, and the overhead of having to get freelancers up to speed on your brand is pretty high. Having people who know the brand is very valuable. It'll speed things up a lot. Whether these are full-timers or consultants on retainer will depend on how much you’re spending and where. If you’re spending a lot on Facebook, where you need visual assets, it may make sense to have a graphic designer and perhaps someone that can turn out videos. You might also want to have a web developer if you want to iterate a lot of landing pages.

One resource you’ll need: A copywriter or two. These are vastly underrated in terms of the value they can bring to your program, writing landing pages, ad copy, headlines and calls to action. Once budget permits, you should bring one on, especially if Google Ads turns out to be your best channel.

Digital Marketing Consultant

Your digital marketing consultant is still on board, but less hands on. The role shifts more to looking at results and setting strategy for expansion. They could be involved in hiring and/or training, project management, and coordinating with product marketing. If you do work with an agency, this person should be on point to make sure they’re executing against your goals.

You need to not restrict your hiring process to geography. One of the great things about digital is that it can be done from anywhere. There are plenty of talented individuals out there that can work as a consultant or a full-time employee. If you’re willing to be flexible and think beyond butts in seats, you can sometimes get two experts for the cost of one FTE.

Digital media has revolutionized the world of advertising and marketing, providing buyers with self-service capabilities and a huge amount of data on results. At the same time, it’s created lots more work for marketers. It’s easy enough to buy some ads on a digital platform. It’s buying the expertise to do it right that presents the greater challenge. You need a lot of specialized expertise to do a digital marketing program at scale. It’s the behind the scenes understanding of the data, the true costs and how to strategically optimize for the best results that makes the difference between a successful program and one that is ineffective, and, given the importance of digital media to most industries, between a business that succeeds or fails.

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About Mark Harnett

Mark Harnett has run hundreds of campaigns for both high volume consumer products and high value business contracts. He has made lots of mistakes and also found some huge improvements using many of the techniques outlined here.

About Charlie Mock

Charlie is a Bay Area digital marketing consultant, specializing in user acquisition and demand generation for companies of all sizes. He brings a data-driven, 'Customers Included' philosophy to his practice that drives growth for both B2C and B2B businesses.

About Patrick Lundbom

Patrick Lundbom has built dozens of digital marketing teams, standing up programs and hiring teams, both as an internal expert and in his current role as a consultant.

About Toby Skinner

Toby Skinner has been the first digital marketing hire in a number of organizations, helping set up the marketing tech stack, tagging and attributions and launching a testing strategy in the initial media channels.

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