Maybe it’s because I played a lot of video games as a kid, but I often think about the growth of a business in terms of levels that unlock new ways to play the game.

To avoid the black hole of online marketing—holding marketing activities accountable with measurable, bottom-line results, not just likes and shares—we first need to understand what strategies fit into a company’s stage of growth. New tools and strategies become available and priorities shift as the company matures.

Here are three levels of growth that can clarify an organization’s online-marketing priorities and make sure that we’re working on the right problem:

Level 1: Understand the customer and their problem.

You might be in Level 1 if:

  • You’re an idea-stage or a pre-revenue startup or nonprofit. (You don’t have paying customers for a standard product or service.)
  • Your organization is zero to three years old.
  • You have one to four full-time team members.

Milestones to graduate from Level 1:

  • Understand your customer and their needs: Must have a concrete definition of who your customers are and the needs they have that your organization can solve.
  • Value proposition and differentiation: You have identified clear value propositions and differentiators for your product or service based on what your customers care about.
  • Market validation: Paying customers who serve as proof that your product fulfills a real need.

Until these milestones are met, any form of online marketing is very likely to have poor returns. Don’t spend time and money on building sophisticated websites, a following on social media, or paid advertising because without a clear understanding of who your customer is, the problem you’re solving, and how to communicate with them, there’s a real danger of wasting resources offering things that people don’t need.

Not only is it nearly impossible to identify what traffic sources or marketing channels are relevant, but writing compelling copy is impossible without understanding the customer. Even if your ideal customers somehow found their way to your website, you wouldn’t be able to get them to pay or take any sort of action.

When it comes to online marketing—especially in the early stages of your business—empathy is far more important than sophistication Tweet This Quote

If you don’t know who you’re talking to and what they care about, it doesn’t matter if you’re speaking to one person or ten thousand. No one will pay attention to you because you’re not paying attention to them.

So what do we do? First, keep it personal. Above all else, prioritize building one-to-one relationships with the people you believe are your ideal customers. Interact with them. Share ideas with them. See what they think of your product or service. See if they’ll buy from you in person or over the phone. This is how you gain deep, nuanced insights about your customers—what they care about, and how to create an offer that speaks to them.

Next, if you feel like you’re gaining traction on an idea that people are interested in, give them a simple way to find you online and stay in touch using a simple landing-page creator like Launchrock.

Create more opportunities to interact with potential customers and get direct feedback from them. As your understanding develops, work to craft a clear, concise explanation of who you serve, what problems you solve, what benefits they’ll enjoy as a result, and how to get started. If the messaging seems to resonate with your audience, put it front and center on your website.

When it comes to online marketing—especially in the early stages of your business—empathy is far more important than sophistication.

Level 2: Focus on the fundamentals.

You might be in Level 2 if:

  • You’re a small business or early-stage startup or nonprofit.
  • Your organization is two to five years old.
  • You have three to ten full-time team members.

Milestones to graduate from Level 2:

  • You have a simple website with copy that communicates the main points in Level 1 and covers basic conversion best practices.
  • You’ve established a basic online presence with consistent branding and messaging that directs visitors to your website.
  • You’ve set up basic analytics and identified Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and track them on a regular basis.
  • You’ve developed at least one consistent way of driving traffic to your website that converts into sales.

Creating bottom-line results from online marketing boils down to two main things: driving qualified traffic (i.e. people who are likely to want and pay for what you offer), and converting traffic into customers.

Your website is the centerpiece of your online-marketing strategy. The final outcome of everything you do to drive traffic—blogging, paid advertising, social media, SEO, PR, or partnerships—will hinge on your website’s ability to convert that traffic into sales.

Creating bottom-line results from online marketing boils down to two main things: driving qualified traffic and converting traffic into customers. Tweet This Quote

Unless your website effectively converts traffic into leads or customers, it doesn’t matter how many different sources of traffic or followers you have.

Secondly, if potential customers can’t find you online without knowing your website’s direct URL, you’ll be missing out on the cheapest and easiest source of new customers: word of mouth and referrals.

To take advantage of this, create a respectable presence on the usual suspects: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Instagram. Not necessarily all of them—it depends on your ideal customers and where they spend their time online. However, unless your website is at the top of page one on Google for your organization’s name, it’s safe to assume that people are going to look for you on one or more of these platforms.

Your website is the centerpiece of your online-marketing strategy. Tweet This Quote

Do whatever you can to make it easy for them to find you, and invest time into making sure you appear consistent, professional, and legitimate across these various platforms. And don’t forget to show a link to your website in a place that can’t be missed.

Lastly, establish a foundation for data-tracking before moving to more sophisticated tools such as Google AdWords, Facebook advertising, SEO, retargeting, or marketing automation software. Baseline data for performance comparison is the only way to make smart decisions—especially if digital advertising is down the road.

Build a strong online-marketing foundation by covering the 80/20 rule of best practices: a solid website built with conversion (turning visitors into leads or customers) in mind; a respectable and professional online presence; basic analytics; and one reliable traffic source that produces sales.

It’s critical to get customers online on a small scale before investing in more high-volume or long-term strategies.

Level 3: Achieving Scale—Multiply Your Traffic Sources

You might be in Level 3 if:

  • You’re a profitable, high-growth or venture-backed business.
  • Your organization is three or more years old.
  • You have three or more full-time team members

Milestones to go beyond Level 3:

  • Create more than one reliable source of traffic.
  • Develop consistent internal practices of ongoing testing and optimizing and make data-driven decisions.
  • Get an experienced direct-response marketer on your team.

After identifying your customer, selling them a product or service that fulfills their need, and establishing a strong online presence and sales-driving website with analytics, what comes next is scale.

A good place to start is experimenting with new sources of traffic. Developing multiple sources of traffic is a critical strategic move for long-term, organizational success.

Baseline data for performance comparison is the only way to make smart decisions Tweet This Quote

Here’s a maxim worth remembering: “one” is the most dangerous number in business. If a company has one client that pays them one million dollars per year and that client suddenly decides to leave, that company is ruined the next day. A company with the same annual revenue but with 1,000 clients paying them $1,000 per year is much more stable and secure.

Whether it’s revenue streams, suppliers, or sales teams, being dependent on one of anything in business is dangerous. The same is true with traffic to your website.

Don’t expect things to stay the same for long in the online world. Tweet This Quote

Don’t dependent on any one source because who knows whether it’ll still be flowing three months from now. Google could change its algorithms and drop your SEO rankings due to no fault of your own. Facebook could decide to halve the organic reach of your posts to fans overnight. A competitor could raise millions in funding and decide to outbid you on all the key search terms you advertise on. A key partner that you rely on to promote your products could shut down its virtual doors without a day’s notice.

Don’t expect things to stay the same for long in the online world. If you want to build a sustainable business that lasts, it’s critical to build multiple sources of traffic and avoid having all of your eggs in one basket.

Achieving Scale: Become Data-driven

The keys to building a resilient, adaptive, and continually expanding online marketing system are testing and optimization. Test by setting new initiatives or campaigns as experiments with specific desired outcomes that can be measured objectively, and clear indicators that tell you whether it’s working or not. Optimize by continually making small tweaks to specific website elements, ad campaigns, etc., and systematically improve effectiveness over time.

Most companies invest in paid advertising or hire marketing managers to develop multiple streams of traffic. Developing a culture of testing and data-driven decision making is critical because investing in these resources can be a waste if they don’t deliver lasting results.

Developing a culture of testing and data-driven decision making is critical Tweet This Quote

In my experience, most organizations do not operate this way. They rely on gut and personal preference, or reactively implement random tips they read about.

To make this radical shift, you need someone who can provide the expertise, strategy, and discipline for your team to start running campaigns by the numbers.

This is the role of a direct-response marketer: someone trained in the discipline of creating marketing campaigns that generate a direct, measurable response. Distinct from community managers, social media marketers, or brand marketers, this type of marketer specializes in things like conversion best practices, analytics, testing and optimizing, and building paid advertising campaigns.

Without someone like this on your team, it’s very difficult to allocate resources and budget wisely on the right strategies as you grow.

To sum it up, if you’re Level 3, become data-driven and systematize your marketing. Now that you’ve got your foundation set, take a longer-term perspective and build a sophisticated marketing system—one that is consistent, predictable, and robust.

Become data-driven and systematize your marketing. Tweet This Quote

Standardize key processes to make them more efficient. Run controlled experiments that consistently increase the ROI of your core marketing channels. Use technology to drive scale and efficiency. Make your customer acquisition strategy more resilient against competition and technological shifts by developing multiple traffic sources.

Now, an ask for you: tell me what Level you think your organization is in, and share one insight you’ve gotten from this article about what you need to do to reach the next. How do you think you can better priorities your marketing efforts given what Level you’re in?

Disclaimer: please note that these are not tried-and-tested rules or laws of business, but rather trends. They are most relevant for businesses that make money and grow by selling a product or service, and may be less accurate for venture-backed startups or well-funded nonprofits that can spend money to shoot through organic stages of growth.

Shane Rasnak

Author Shane Rasnak

Shane Rasnak is an Unreasonable alumni and consults with leaders of impact-driven companies, helping them acquire customers by improving their websites and online marketing. Learn more about his work at

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