How 4 Top Startups Do Inbound Marketing – a Group Interview

Inbound marketing – getting found and educating your customers through SEO, social marketing, and content – is a fantastic way for emerging companies to acquire customers.  Because of its low-cost, high-cleverness nature, it’s especially great for startups, who often have agility, smarts, and tenacity, but lack big advertising budgets.

This week, I asked marketers at some of my favorite startups to open the kimono and share how they do inbound marketing and get the word out about their new service without breaking the bank.

Our Bold Startup Marketers:

Gregory Ciotti, Inbound Marketer at HelpScout


Gregory Ciotti is an inbound marketer at HelpScout, a startup in the help desk space based in Boston.  Greg is also the author of Sparring Mind, a blog about psychology and content marketing.



How do you decide what topics to create content about?  How do you decide what forms of content (blog post, list, ig, etc) to use?

Before we got started “really” getting into content marketing, we took time to figure out what our space was missing, or what doing incredibly well. We found that for customer loyalty/customer service, there were far too many pieces of content revolving around best practices, with very little data to back it up.

Nowadays, we look at what our ideal customers are talking about, but that hasn’t been covered to death in article form. We also look at how we can bring in our angle and make an effective argument in a new direction.

The last thing we always keep in mind is something no online startup can escape: writing content for the web. Our audience is quite professional (it pays to know your readers!) so we can get away with some styles that other bloggers cannot usually go near, but we are always certain to keep important web-specific aspects in mind: writing magnetic headlines, keeping body paragraphs short and to the point, ending with a persuasive argument/CTA, etc.

Bottom line, great content only happens with great “research”, and I don’t mean the academic kind: you have to know your current and prospective audience well to create the kind of content that will perform well in your space. As Abe Lincoln once said, “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.”

We think of our content strategy in the same way.

How do you measure your effectiveness and ROI of your efforts?

Currently, we use a mix of software, but our main tools consist of HubSpot and Google Analytics (our marketing gal Ivana is a wizard with GA!)

Bottom line, sales are what matter, but the most important “content-specific” metric for us right now is newsletter growth.

We’ve found that this can be a misleading metric to track, and by that I mean that an individual’s post forward-facing popularity (social shares and the like) doesn’t always predict great newsletter sign-up rates.

For instance, our first infographic was great for shares, links, and brand impressions, but didn’t generate a slew of newsletter sign-ups like you’d might predict.

Conversely, a fairly popular blog post what what customers do better than brands didn’t receive even 1/4th of the shares that the infographic did, but the content style (“wheat bread”, more on that later) was much more effective in generating leads.

We also track features / guest posts very carefully to see what’s resonating and where we are being best received. The idea is to see what’s working and what audience’s are responding well to our product (tracking trial sign-ups and new email subscribers is key here).

Traffic growth is only monitored to make sure it’s never receding, we don’t view overall traffic as any indicator of things “working” properly. For instance, we got a Lifehacker feature that sent a ton of traffic, but resulted in very few people sticking around. For us, a great month of newsletter sign-ups is where it’s at in terms of direct return on content creation.

We’ve heard a lot about branded versus unbranded, anything your audience is interested in versus related to your core offering content.  Where do you fall on this continuum? What approach do you think startups should adopt?

This is a great question and one that startups really need to think about, as their content focus is what makes their blog “citable”: combining quality with being different is what gets you noticed in the crowded blogosphere.

That said, a unique selling proposition can turn around to bite you in the ass if it’s gets TOO specific, as there won’t be an audience for it.

One thing we like to do is look at “content affinities” that we can relate to that may expose us to a wider audience. For instance, we’ve take a look at how social media has impacted customer service because we know that the social media crowd is very prominent online, and we thought a post like that might pick up some traction among the influencers in the space.

We were right in this instance and the post got picked up by Convince & Convert. This tactic isn’t always successful, but is definitely worth pursuing when you are looking to get yourself featured within a popular niche that relates to what you are selling (the social media crowd is obviously a space of small biz owners that cares about customers, so we wanted to get involved).

As for our “balance” of branded vs. unbranded, we typically follow a “wheat bread” vs. “white bread” approach. The wheat bread content is the stuff specifically for those deeply interested in our topic. This won’t be list-post style content; it’s the deep stuff for people who are already informed on customer loyalty & customer service and who want to read real “thought leader” style articles.

A good example of this post style is our article on customer loyalty programs that stick. No lists or other goofy web-related tactics to be found, just a solid presentation on an important topic for those interested in customer-centric content.

On the other hand, we do engage in come forms of “white bread” content in order to embrace certain posts that perform well metric wise, but aren’t as deep as our flagship wheat bread content. This is where SEO plays, big list posts, and affinity / cross-topic content come into play, exposing us to a wider audience and hopefully getting them hooked on our more substantial stuff.

A good example of this post style is our recent post covering the best customer service books out there. It’s solid content, but admittedly a bit “fluffy” and meant for people to share and browse.

Once you get customers to your blog, how do you get them engaged with your product?

Our “content funnel” is no different from many others, and it looks like this:

  1. Inbound links / features
  2. On-site content
  3. Newsletter sign-up

Once on our newsletter, we don’t hard sell all that much, but we’ve found that creating engaging email campaigns remains unbeaten in getting readers to check out your product.

The reason this works is because of the commitment factor: in a place as big as the web, if someone is willing to hand over their email to you (and trusts you with it), they are likely interested. It’s better to appeal to this crowd of folks rather than random “drive-by” blog readers, which is the reason we don’t do any selling in our on-site content.

The best specific advice I can recommend here is to customize your follow-up emails to the source of sign-up (ex: Follow-up emails from resource downloads are different from a bottom of blog post sign-up) and to constantly test these follow-up emails.

Since they are automated and constantly going out, the slightest tweak can adjust the results over a long period of time, so be diligent in maintaining a good balance of ‘inbox sanctity’ (not spamming your list) and creative testing to get your newsletter more engaged with your product.

You’ve gotten a lot of premier placements on A-list blogs – what’s your strategy for getting these guest blog placements?

Guest blogging is a strategy that tends to get easier with time, as more experience gives you more past pieces to reference, and the exposure you get often results in requests for you to post, rather than having to reach out to new connections.

The best way to go about it is to start with eliminating headaches for those who are going to be looking at your submissions. That means:

  1. Understand the audience well, look at past posts that were extremely popular and be sure to align your post with their USP
  3. Showcase how your guest post is going to bring a ton of value for their readers (and how it will bring them tons of traffic) and back up your reasoning. Make the submission about what your post will do for them, not how it will benefit you (hint: they don’t care).

The best way to get features though it to just genuinely connect with people. Some of the tougher places to appear are only going to accept somebody that “knows somebody”, so being able to reference a mutual connection goes a long way.

Your work cites a lot of data and psychological research.  Where do you source all these great studies?  And then what’s your process for turning them into compelling posts?

So, back in my undergrad days I was a research assistant, so one advantage I have is being used to reading boring academic papers. 🙂

Honestly though, one of the best ways to come across great research is to start with good books. Not only do books offer classic studies within their content, the studies they cite are usually a “big deal” and will cite plenty of other research.

This creates a fantastic (and seemingly never-ending) rabbit hole to all sorts of academic papers. In today’s times, there are also a lot of ways that you can access these papers for free as well, although in a jam I can always head to the Uni library by my house.

That’s probably the biggest problem with this sort of academic research, the paywalls and hassles it takes to get access to it. As for turning this sort of stuff into compelling content, that’s starts with how it relates to any pain points that stick out like a sore thumb.

Eric Siu, Director of Inbound Marketing at TreeHouse


Treehouse is a white-hot online technology school, teaching students across the world how to code and design web sites and apps.  (Disclosure: I’m a Treehouse customer.)  Eric Siu leads their inbound marketing.  Eric is also a contributor to Search Engine Watch.


How does Treehouse do inbound marketing?

SEO, Youtube, PR, Social Media, and Word of Mouth work really well for us.

How do you decide what topics to create content about?  How do you decide what forms of content (blog post, list, ig, etc) to use?

We’re lucky to have a full time staff of 13 in-house teachers that really understand technology. It’s easy for them to decide which topics are hot/trending and from there, we’ll look at Google Analytics and Qualaroo to see what our audience wants. Right now, we’re focused mainly on blog posts and Youtube videos.

How do you measure your effectiveness and ROI of your efforts?

For our app, we mainly look at signups, CPA, and conversion rate. For our blog, we’re mainly looking at number of e-mail newsletter signups and traffic. We of course look at other metrics but we try to focus on the ones mentioned above so we don’t get overwhelmed with too many things at once.

There’s considerable debate about how content marketing should be done – some people say your content should be non-branded, while others insist it must have your brand on it.  Some thought leaders say your content should relate to your core differentiation and ‘sweet spot’, while other suggest you can write about anything your audience is interested in.  Where do you fall in terms of these dimensions, and why?

Funny that you mention that. Over 87% of our traffic is either branded or not provided/not set.   For our blog, we come up with topics based on what we think will do well and then we survey/review the data.  We’ll constantly go back to the drawing board to see what’s working and what isn’t.  

Before the pre-not provided days, it was much easier to see what people were interested in based on organic keyword data. Not as easy today.  Thankfully Qualaroo gives us some good raw data that we can then follow up with keyword research 🙂

Lately, we’ve been considering an approach where 80% of our content will be ‘safe’ and 20% of our content will be new, riskier content. We’ll see how that goes.

Once you get customers to your blog, how do you get them engaged with your product?

We have various call to actions to let them check out our product at a discounted price but we understand that people aren’t ready to buy immediately so we have a newsletter for them to sign up to. The newsletter contains 5 free valuable gifts that any beginning designer or developer would find useful.

After they sign up, they’ll receive e-mails with the gifts and e-mails that actually deliver value.  As a matter of fact, the majority of our e-mails don’t talk about the product much.  We know that if we continue to provide enough value to our prospects, they’ll remember us down the line when they’re ready to get the full Treehouse experience. 

Aside from Acquisition, how do you use inbound marketing techniques to address the other elements of the startup marketing stack (the Dave McClure AARRR metrics – Activation, Retention, Revenue, and Referrals) ?

We get a lot of word of mouth because the product helps market itself plus we have a very responsive customer service team a good job of keeping customers/prospects happy. We use e-mail and social media to keep people engaged (by providing them even more content). There’s more but those are the first two I thought of 🙂

Treehouse has a great blog – how have you worked to get your whole organization blogging?

Thanks! We have a great understanding that our main strength providing valuable content to people. Our teachers understand that the blog is a powerful inbound tool that can draw in prospects. They also understand that the blog is great for personal branding so they’re up for the challenge 🙂

The Treehouse Team has put a ton of content on YouTube – how should startups use YouTube (especially versus self-hosting and other video sites) for marketing?

We like Youtube because it’s the second largest search engine so it’s tough to ignore.  We provide a lot of free content there because it’s a great brand awareness tool – the traffic we get from Youtube is very engaged and tends to convert better than other channels.  It’s very simple to embed videos, has useful analytics, and has a robust advertising.

If you have enough time to produce free, valuable content, it’s worth a shot.  If you find that certain blog topics are doing well, there’s a good chance you can bring in a different audience with video.  We do self-hosted for a lot of our videos but we know that we shouldn’t ignore Youtube just due to the sheer opportunity that it offers. 



Brian Whalley, Director of Inbound Marketing at Kinvey


Kinvey is a Backend as a Service provider for Mobile App developers based in Cambridge, MA.  Brian Whalley leads their inbound marketing.  Before Kinvey, Brian did inbound marketing at HubSpot and Tracelytics.



How does Kinvey do inbound marketing?

Kinvey does inbound marketing by blogging daily, finding interesting news and industry events and sharing them with our network, and creating awesome, helpful content targeted at what our customers want to read, but can’t find. For example, we created an ebook on how to pick & use an Infrastructure as a Service provider, like Amazon. There aren’t a lot of great resources out there for developers on these kinds of topics – They all kind of learn these things either from coworkers or through independent trial, error, and experimentation. So we’re creating great content on a variety of subjects around developing mobile apps and web services and making it available to our customers. It’s also useful because it helps show our authority on these subjects – we know a lot about this space and people understand that best when they see our ideas and presentation. 

How do you decide what topics to create content about?  How do you decide what forms of content (blog post, list, ig, etc) to use?

We pick content topics based on what we see lacking in the marketplace (Such as guides for picking technologies), what we see high search volume around (for SEO purposes), and what we have the internal knowledge to write about. We need an intersection of all three items there to know that a content offer will be worthwhile to our audience. To show why having all three is important and not just two of them… If people aren’t searching for it, they probably aren’t interested in it and so it’s a waste of our time. 

How do you measure your effectiveness and ROI of your efforts?

We use a combination of HubSpot and Eloqua to help us understand what parts of our content have been really successful and what’s worked for us. HubSpot helps us understand our web traffic and how people discover us, and Eloqua has a great reporting engine for our email marketing and lead nurturing campaigns, so we can clearly see what’s driving people to our site and trial signup. 

There’s considerable debate about how content marketing should be done – some people say your content should be non-branded, while others insist it must have your brand on it.  Some thought leaders say your content should relate to your core differentiation and ‘sweet spot’, while other suggest you can write about anything your audience is interested in.  Where do you fall in terms of these dimensions, and why?

As an organization, we produce almost no branded content. We have marketing veterans from both HubSpot and Eloqua here, so content and inbound marketing is in our blood. Our audience isn’t interested in our brand or what’s important to our company. Anyone who’s calling themselves an inbound marketer and producing brand content is probably lying to themselves though – If you’re a great inbound marketer, you don’t need piles of branded content to convince people to use your service. Your logo on a bus stop or a deck on Slideshare about how cool your company is won’t drive new leads into your business. We occasionally blog about major new features in our platform, but only significant features get that kind of presence. It’s important to us that when people visit our blog, they’re learning about what’s important to them, not what’s important to us.

Once you get customers to your blog, how do you get them engaged with your product?

Our blog has calls to action all over it for our content offers. That drives new leads for us because we get people’s email addresses, and they may sign up for a trial or they may stay in lead nurturing for a little while, but there’s a low effort item that they can convert on with just an email address and get a guide on IaaS or attending a hackathon or similar. We’re rolling out new content offers constantly to keep things fresh and appeal to new segments of people.

Kinvey markets to app develops – how does a developer audience change your inbound marketing tactics, versus, say, an audience of marketers?

Marketing to developers is a lot harder than marketers. I’ve done both, between HubSpot, my last employer Tracelytics, which sold an APM solution to developers and IT people, and Kinvey. Developers have much higher standards for content, for giving away their email address, and for what they see. They’re very picky and detail oriented, and most marketers just aren’t. Developers are also a much smaller audience than marketers – It’s easy for someone to take a casual interest in marketing and want to learn more. People are either developers or they aren’t. No one with a passing interest in development will download an eBook on how to buy an infrastructure service. 

I see you have a form on your site you can fill out for a free sticker – what’s the thinking here? How should startups use swag in general?

Our sticker form is really popular actually. It lets us gather email addresses and gauge interest, and every person who slaps that sticker on their laptop, notebook, whatever, is helping promote us. We want it to be easy for people who like Kinvey to promote our name, even if they don’t use our service. We have a lot of people who are Friends of Kinvey helping promote our name for free. Every startup should be giving away stickers on their website. It’s free marketing. You’re crazy not to do it. 

Jonathan Kay, COO & Co-Founder at Apptopia


Jon Kay is the co-founder of Apptopia, the marketplace to buy and sell mobile apps.  Before Apptopia, he was the Ambassador of Buzz at Grasshopper.



How do you decide what topics to create content about?  How do you decide what forms of content (blog post, list, ig, etc) to use?

Our core audience is iOS/Android developers. Our secondary audience is entrepreneurs, development shop, & big brands (fortune 500) looking to get into or better optimize mobile.

 As a result, most of the content we create/curate is targeted to specifically educate and raise awareness around important trends for mobile developers. 

We always track and test the content that seems to work best in each medium but a lot of the time it also depends on the resources and time we have at any given moment.

The goal is to make sure that the content doesn’t suck – IGs have to kickass, blog posts have to be meaningful and usable. We’re definitely taking a quality over quantity approach as we are at a point in our business where we can only have one of the two. 

What metrics do you use to track the effectiveness of your inbound marketing?  How do you measure them?

We use Woopra to track everything on the site, and the obviously native tools in each social channel. When it comes to social, we are always trying to increase our audience and the engagement of that audience…however we do not spend much time tracking.  Its an ineffective use of time for a small business.

One of my employees asked me if I would like him to spend a few hours a week tracking, or a few hours a week building a stronger following.  The answer was simple to me.

There’s considerable debate about how content marketing should be done – some people say your content should be non-branded, while others insist it must have your brand on it.  Some thought leaders say your content should relate to your core differentiation and ‘sweet spot’, while other suggest you can write about anything your audience is interested in.  Where do you fall in terms of these dimensions, and why?

First off, there is no playbook to exactly what content works, because every company and audience is different – so the general answer is test, analyze, and do what is proven to work pretty much no matter what it is. 

Our approach on this is pretty straight forward.  We believe there is already enough link bait, and nonsense out there for the rest of time. We do not plan on creating any more of that.  We will not create top 10 lists, or who are the best app developers to follow on twitter…none of that.

We are experts in a very specific niche, and the content we produce and the content we associate our brand with is all targeted toward that niche, and our direct experiences.  I want you to read something Apptopia produces and feel overwhelmingly that “These guys understand acquisitons”, “Apptopia knows app valuations”, etc etc.  We are an expert in our trade and content is our way of scalably sharing this with people.

This article on the topic is interesting.

Once you get customers to your blog, how do you get them engaged with your product?

The answer here is very much defined by the strategy I just mentioned above.  By cutting out the fluffy shit, and really focusing on your core expertise – you very organically make it more about your product.

Of course we do things like relevant back linking, and we even have a bar on the top of our blog which drives people to key parts of our site…however, it the targeted and useful nature of the content that does the selling for us.

Aside from Acquisition, how do you use inbound marketing techniques to address the other elements of the startup marketing stack (the Dave McClure AARRR metrics – Activation, Retention, Revenue, and Referrals) ?

We are starting to do a lot of work with services like Bronto & a new tool called  These tools allow us to speak to our audience at the most relevant point in their experience with Apptopia.  Because we understand what they are going through and where they are at in the process we can address their needs and concerns 10 times better.

This style of “Drip marketing” is something we are still testing though, we will have to report back on the results.

Apptopia is a two-sided marketplace, so it must attract both app developers and app purchasers, whos needs are very different. How do you deal with attracting both sides of the marketplace (thru content marketing and otherwise)?

Attracting both of these audience is very much about education.  Through and through.  Our marketplace is a bit of a new concept, and if I can help you understand it as well as I do, and be comfortable with our process – you are much more likely to engage (and share) our brand.

We try and use different strategies to segment our users while on the site, and once we have an educated guess as to what users are looking for what – we educate them differently.  Buyers need to understand the business side of it, the valuation side of it, and need us to really paint a picture of the opportunity.  Our experience with Buyers has also been that its best to attract them via OTHER sites (i.e. press and guest blog posts).

Where as with sellers, its much more of an awareness game.  They simply do not know a service & liquid market like Apptopia exists.  So its not only raising awareness, but showing them case studies and examples of past successes.  This helps the developer put themselves in the shoes of someone who has already had their app acquired on our platform.  Social proof is one of the most important forms of content you can share with your users.

You’ve been great at getting press write-ups and building buzz for both apptopia and your last startup – do you have any tips for startup marketers trying to buzz and press coverage?

Admittedly I summed up all of my lessons learned here – happy to provide it half off to anyone reading this.

But in short, I would say its really just about being different.  There are so many people doing the same boring, typical shit.  Spice it up.  Typical approaches to things will most definitely produce typical results.

Find a way to be different, and you will win the PR game.

Thanks for Reading!  If you have any questions, ask them in the comments, and our interviewees will try to answer if they get a moment.


  • Mario

    Good and still actual info. These days it is good to use some tools to measure inbound marketing like ColibriTool which has Google Analytics integration with goals and conversion measuring. For me – it’s great and time-saving tool.

  • Measuring ROI is a hot topic at the moment, especially in light of recent news regarding CEO’s lack of trust in marketing professionals in being able to deliver genuine business results.

    I think the fact that the interviewees all stated their individual ways of capturing ROI, dependant on the tools being used and the campaigns themselves shows that far from being at the wrong end of the business spectrum, understanding and interpreting these metrics is paramount in continuing to develop meaningful strategies. It also highlights the importance that marketers place on interpreting and understanding their customers and aids in the continual growth of their respective businesses.

  • Some great interviews here with some really interesting points! Interesting views on how to come up with topics for content. The most important thing is knowing your audience and doing research to find out what it is they would like to read about next.

  • Great interview. Love how the various opinions differ on certain issues. My takeaway is this focus on a handful of metrics as well as content types (don’t try to do it all), then be unique and commit to daily focused work.

  • I LOVE the concept of “wheat bread” content vs. “white bread ” content. I’m running to tell our marketing team right now.

    I also think of the “wheat bread” content as the type of content that helps build trust–the long reads, the technical tomes, etc.

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