How we’ve grown Postmark without ‘hacking’

For the past couple of years, we’ve really zeroed in on growing Postmark. We have incredibly happy customers, and we felt like it’s in a great position to grow. But we only wanted to grow in a healthy and sustainable manner that we can feel good about. 

In my early days at Wildbit, I wrote about our beliefs about marketing. While we’ve generally stayed true to those beliefs, we’ve regularly questioned whether we’re being stubborn by failing to try more traditional marketing tactics. It’s an ongoing struggle, but the following will discuss approach we’ve taken and share the resultant lessons.

All of that said, we know that our collective efforts are working because credit usage, accounts, and revenue are all on much better trajectories now. It’s been a combination of product updates, customer support, improved onboarding, marketing, sales, and much more. But the point is that it’s working. More importantly, it’s working without being sleazy.

So how do you spend time on things that matter while maintaining a reasonable confidence that it does matter? And how do you do it without doing the types of things that make you sick to your stomach? We don’t have a universal answer, but we have some insights from our experience.

Some background on Postmark

We’re comfortable bucking industry norms to do things our way at Wildbit. With marketing, though, we struggle to find the line between “industry best practice” and “being a lemming.” Basecamp’s recent post about paying customers rather than Facebook and Google really resonated with us because we also don’t get excited by shoveling money to Facebook or Google to cover the web with ever more invasive ads and tracking. We’re not interested in growth at any cost. We’d love to grow, but we’d much rather grow using methods we can get excited about, and those methods almost always circle back to customers and product improvements.

With a 60-day NPS that floats around 80, one might think that growing Postmark would be trivially easy, but we’ve found that hasn’t been the case. Our customers absolutely love Postmark, and churn is almost non-existent. However, most teams often only consider Postmark after they’ve tried the more high-profile providers and started to realize that transactional email isn’t the commodity it looks like from the outside. And switching a key piece of infrastructure to a new provider isn’t something people do on a whim.

It’s also worth discussing Postmark’s context. Postmark isn’t your basic SaaS application with a small recurring monthly fee. It’s an infrastructure product, and that means that customers can easily spend thousands of dollars per year. It also means that their switching costs are higher, and customers are much more careful about such serious changes to their systems. Long-story short, Postmark isn't a whimsical product. It’s critical infrastructure for businesses. So we’ve focused on building relationships and education rather than just short-term conversion tweaks or funnel optimization.

Create a foundation for growth

You can’t just start buying ads and expecting growth. You’ll need data and processes for reviewing and acting on that data. The processes don’t have to be anything fancy at the beginning, but it needs to be something that’s concrete enough that it doesn’t get skipped over. In Wildbit’s case, we had multiple products, multiple web sites, and a variety of implementations of analytics and content management solutions. That had to change for us to be able to measure or track anything.

The first thing we did was dive into analytics. We built a small business intelligence tool that tracked key metrics and made them accessible to the whole team. We jumped through the hoops of making Google Analytics work so we could have some insight into conversion rates and other data across all of our products. All of this gave us a decent picture, but it was always still just a little bit fuzzy. Numbers can only tell you so much, and looking at the wrong numbers or using the wrong calculations can easily lead you astray.

With analytics in place, we did some work to streamline publishing so that we could write and share more on the sites. We migrated all of our sites to a single platform that we knew would be able to handle our out-sized vision for content management with multiple contributors (Craft) and got to work on a simple editorial process to help create more educational content. We set up an account with Buffer and queued up tweets about all of the new educational material we were creating. 

We initially focused on writing in-depth guides to help people use our applications, as well as some guides that could help people even if they weren’t using our tools. We open-sourced some tools that we had made, and generally focused on creating things that helped people. And we invested in a newsletter framework that worked for all of our products and put us in a position to send higher quality newsletters with an order of magnitude less production effort.

One of the more interesting and exciting things we tried was offering free credits to our customers if they set up DMARC. We wrote an extensive DMARC guide to go with our free DMARC tool to help customers understand and implement DMARC. It’s hard to quantify the impact this had on growth, but growth wasn’t our primary drive for that effort. We made the offer available to existing customers as well. We simply wanted to increase awareness and interest in DMARC and help our customers get up to speed with the latest email authentication standards. 

We also dabbled in AdWords, Twitter and Facebook ads, but the platforms never really felt right or good. Despite a little FOMO, we decided it wasn’t right for us. We primarily focused on ads to increase awareness around our guides and free tools. We weren’t looking to convert people right away. Nobody signs up for an email service provider on a whim anyways. We simply wanted to increase overall awareness and education.

Establish laser-focused messaging

We focus exclusively on transactional email. Since we don’t send bulk, this enables us to have an equally sharp focus on features and our message, and it makes it much easier for potential customers to understand how we fit into the market. We know this is working simply because customers and potential customers tell us. We frequently hear that at first they don’t believe that deliverability is any different and assume it’s just a bunch of marketing hype, but after they switch, they get it.

Having heard from customers switching to us for improved deliverability for years, we decided to exhaustively focus on furthering education and awareness around the importance of deliverability and delivery speed, or Time to Inbox as we like to call it. We’ve been closely monitoring delivery rates and speeds for a while internally for our own peace of mind, so we decided to share the live delivery data publicly. We even open-sourced MailHandler so that other teams could setup detailed monitoring internally if they wanted.

Screenshot of our status page showing deliverability and time-to-inbox for the five main inbox providers.
Our status page goes beyond "up or down" to transparently share the delivery data that represents what customers are really paying us for.
Screenshot of our home page showing current delivery times to the five main inbox providers.
We believe so much in the importance of delivery speed as well as our ability to deliver emails quickly that we share the data right on our home page.

At the product level, our focus on deliverability and customer support is working. We’ve done our fair share of customer interviews with people who have switched to Postmark, and, initially, most people believe deliverability is the same across all of the providers. Of course, the providers with less-than-stellar deliverability have a lot invested in perpetuating this myth. Once people experience a delivery catastrophe with their current provider and come to Postmark, they’re amazed at the difference in both customer support and delivery. It’s not just a drum we beat. It’s built into Postmark’s DNA. This seems minor, but messaging has to mirror the truth. Claiming great delivery but failing to, uh, deliver, undermines the messaging. Messaging can’t just be what you say. It has to be reflected in your actions.

Our focus on delivery and delivery speed is an example of something that we feel is simultaneously useful for our customers and great marketing. It requires a non-trivial amount of infrastructure and maintenance to keep it running smoothly, but we feel that sharing it publicly is simply the right thing to do.

Focus on an over-arching strategy

All of our foundational efforts certainly helped growth, but it was all more foundational than true marketing. So we sat down as a team and read Traction. We organized a workshop as a team where we went through all of the nineteen options in Traction to determine what felt like the right fit for Postmark. It needed to be something that we knew we’d enjoy and something that would have a chance to meaningfully improve our growth.

Ultimately, we decided on one overarching strategy for our efforts: connect better with our customers and potential customers. We’re selling infrastructure rather than a simple SaaS tool. We already go out of our way to provide amazing customer support response times, and we never hesitate to put someone directly in touch with an engineer when our support team doesn’t have an answer. We’re a lot more hands-on than the other email service providers, so we chose two tactics that were loosely related and felt right for us.

The first was attending conferences. We felt that we needed to get out there and simply talk to people face-to-face. It’s not really scalable, but it was a better fit for us. We needed a little more presence and awareness. If our customers loved Postmark, all we needed was for more people to know that Postmark exists. We didn’t want any high pressure sales tactics or any of that. We just wanted to meet people in person and try to help with email. It’s difficult to quantify, but it feels like it’s been productive when we’ve been at the right conferences.

The second tactic was to do some creative outbound sales to reach more companies that we respected, but we didn’t want to just cold call or email people. We wanted to reach out in unexpected and delightful ways. This took a lot of effort, and it doesn’t scale well, but we still learned a lot.

Conferences enable personal connections

With conferences, we’ve experimented with various combinations of sponsorship, presentations, and attendance. We’re pretty quick to support conferences through sponsorship when it’s around a theme we believe in, but we’ve also made a little effort to get in front of specific audiences that we thought could benefit from Postmark’s exceptional delivery.

A photo of the team at the Postmark booth at Lead Developer Conference in London.
Having a booth at conferences was a great way to talk to customers and potential customers face-to-face.

There were a few other conferences where team members ended up presenting outside of our sponsorship and attendance plans. In those cases, we’d send additional team members where we could, or help support the conference through sponsorship where possible. We were initially a little concerned that sponsoring conferences where we were also speaking would appear to be pay-for-play, but in reality, the conference reputations preceded them, and it wasn’t a problem.

In 2017 we have had or will have some sort of presence at 13 difference conferences around the world. Each had their own unique aspects, and we explicitly tried to sponsor a wide variety of conferences with varying levels of commitment and involvement to help understand if certain conferences or tactics worked better than others. Pulling together materials and organizing travel, sponsorship, and tickets was stressful at times, and print work and travel require a lot more lead time than web projects. However, nothing really compares to getting out there and talking to folks in person.

Through it all, we’ve learned a lot about the types of conferences that are a good fit and those that aren’t. Speaking in conjunction with sponsorship can be beneficial as long as the talk isn’t promotional. In our case, the talks were always designed to be useful whether someone used a Wildbit product or not. The conversations we were able to have with people were great from a marketing standpoint, but they were even more powerful from a learning standpoint.

Even though our primary goal was to make personal connections in the context of sales, some of the best value came from the opportunities for more of our team members to talk to customers and potential customers. We already do a lot of this, but it’s usually reactive in the context of customer support. Conferences, on the other hand, created a better opportunity for other team members to talk with folks about their businesses and really get a feel for the pains teams are feeling (or not feeling) around transactional email. These conversations have really crystallized where and how people struggle with transactional email.

Standing out requires meaningful effort

Our outbound sales effort was a little more challenging because it involved a lot of leg work. We didn’t just want to reach every company. We wanted to hand pick companies we’d be genuinely excited to work with. Even then, we didn’t want to just call or email these companies. So we went analog with small care packages of Field Notes, some first-class Postmark stamps, and a hand-written note. We figured, even if they couldn’t care less about Postmark, everyone could put a pack of Field Notes and free stamps to good use.

The biggest lesson here is just how unscalable this process is. We designed it knowing that hunting down mailing addresses and hand-writing notes wouldn’t scale, but we definitely underestimated just how challenging it was. We’re still sending things out from time-to-time, but our focus has shifted more to sending them out to customers and potential customers that we’ve had conversations with. We’ve always sent out t-shirts and stickers to new customers, but this helps give us more options when we send stuff for special occasions.

Photos of the Field Notes, stickers, hand-written notes, etc. that we mailed to folks.
We spent some time thinking up physical materials that would get the message across but still be useful even if folks didn't want to switch to Postmark.

We’re not really directly measuring or tracking results on these packages. We’re just doing it because we like how it fits with who we are. The response rate has been solid, but the responses helped drive home that people weren’t ever going to consider switching email service providers without a lot of pain from their existing provider. It’s just too deeply integrated into their stack and would require an incredible amount of development time. Lately, we’ve also started handing out these packages at conferences as well. This has evolved into more of an ongoing background thing that we do because we enjoy it, and it feels like a good fit for building relationships with our customers.

Like conferences, one of the most interesting side effects of this kind of outreach is that it created more conversations with people who aren’t necessarily ever going to switch providers. The response rate was significantly higher than a spray-and-pray cold email approach. Because we took the time to write a personal note and send something useful, we heard back from a lot of people with their honest takes on Postmark and why they didn’t have any interest in switching. The short version is that email is critical infrastructure, and without a catastrophe with their current provider, there was simply too much inertia to switch. However, even though few teams were interested in switching right away, they all appreciated the effort, and Postmark will be on their minds on the future if or when they encounter problems with their current providers.

Talking to your customers enables insights

The key takeaway from all of these efforts is that few things are more useful in marketing than having real non-email-based conversations with real customers and potential customers. The more conversations you have, the more it exposes what you’re doing right and what your’e doing wrong. Sure you can growth hack your way to measuring and analyzing data for some of this, but it’s not the same. Personal connections trump data every time. Data can only help validate intuition. It can’t provide or inspire it. When you have a face-to-face comversation with folks about their problems and challenges, you can better understand how to help them with those problems. We’ll take that over sifting through data any day. 

While conferences and outreach were our two primary marketing channels, our team has collectively invested significant amounts of time expanding our research and customer outreach process as well. While marketing is useful for reaching potential customers, there’s vast amounts of knowledge and understanding that your current customers have as well. It’s just a matter of making the effort to reach out to them and help them achieve their goals.

Improve awareness of improvements

Something else that we’ve gotten better at but still have a bit of room for improvement is ensuring that customers are aware of improvements. Postmark isn’t an application that they log into every day. In most cases, they set it and forget it. It just works, so they don’t need to come back regularly unless something is wrong. This means we have to make an effort to market new features and improvements to existing customers. In many cases, we’ve found out that customers didn’t even know about some of our new features years after they were launched. 

Now we make an effort to increase marketing around new features, and we explicitly think about reaching new customers. Sometimes that means repeating ourselves a bit and sending the same message a little more than we’re comfortable with, but it helps. Marketing isn’t just about generating awareness of Postmark’s existence, but about generating awareness of its capabilities among existing customers as well as potential customers.

Sales can be a necessary and integral piece

For product folks and makers, “sales” feels like a dirty word. In most cases, it feels like this comes from the enterprise software sales world where everything is negotiable. We recently purchased an application where we effectively had to play two vendors off of each other to get a good price. There was little transparency in pricing, and in the end, it was clear that it was all just a big charade. That’s the typical vision of sales that comes to mind, and that’s something we’ve always wanted to avoid. 

We have one person focused on sales, and even his role is more success-focused than sales focused. His goal isn't to create artificial demand but rather to help people determine if Postmark is right for them. He does some outreach, but almost all of his work is on fielding inbound interest in Postmark. His involvement put us in a position to put a phone number directly on the site. Sometimes he ends up fielding support calls as a result, but that’s ok. We regularly hear from customers that chose us simply because we were the only provider willing to get on the phone with them. Not everyone wants to call, but when people do, it helps to be available via their preferred medium.

Nuance is lost on your customers

The vast majority of your potential customers don’t understand or care about the subtle details of your industry. They have other problems. They simply want you to solve their problem. In our case, this is complicated because email and delivery appear simple on the surface. As a result, email has a reputation as a commodity, and that’s a hard myth to bust.

We’ve devoted almost all of our time and messaging to increasing awareness, but boiling complex and subtle technical topics into points that are meaningful for people focused on other things can be a tough nut to crack. So we constantly refine our messaging by talking to customers, talking to our success and sales team, and iterating on the points that matter to our customers. Sometimes that means that incredibly interesting technical topics are useless from a marketing standpoint, but that’s OK. It simply helps us focus on the things that customers care about.

Establish a marketing baseline

We’ve explored and experimented with ton of ideas and approaches. Some of them work, and some of them don’t. Others are just the ongoing baseline of things that we need to stay on top of. This covers things like newsletters, conferences, social media, blogging, and educational materials. These days, it’s not enough to focus exclusively on one channel. Moreover, everybody is different, and different efforts will be useful in different ways. Some may prefer written guides, and others may prefer newsletters. It’s our job to provide options so folks can choose the methods that work for them. 

For these mediums, we’re working on getting them down to a science so that they happen almost automatically. By making it easier to write, edit, and publish, we’re able to write more because the tools and process get out of the way. By improving our newsletter process and preferences, we’re able to send more relevant newsletters to subscribers. The process never ends, but by improving our baseline communication and posting, we’re able to focus more on other channels to help customers.

Conclusion

Every product needs a unique marketing strategy, and it’s taken us a lot of effort and research to find the right path. To be honest, we’re still not sure if we’re really on the right path, but we definitely feel better about things due to everything we’ve learned the last couple of years.

Overall, we know that it’s all working, but we’re not quite in a spot where we can say to what degree our marketing and growth efforts are behind the improvements. We’re heading in the right direction, but we certainly don’t have it down to a science just yet.

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