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Founder @ Growth Sprints marketing agency | Exploring how SaaS companies *actually* get customers
Is your team trapped in the inefficient cycle of ‘checkbox marketing?’ Quarterly webinar, check. Monthly newsletter, check. Weekly blog post, check.
They’re working at 110% capacity but only hitting 50% of goals.
In an era when marketers have higher expectations and tighter budgets, efficient growth in B2B is critical.
Brendan Hufford founded Growth Sprints, a B2B marketing agency, to help companies adopt a more focused, momentum-driven strategy highlighting customer needs and creating valuable content around them.
In this episode of Closing Time, Brendan shares strategies for thinking about GTM differently, finding value in social selling, and optimizing your site (for free) with two SEO best practices that can have big impact.
In the fast-paced marketing world, professionals often find themselves trapped in a cycle of ‘checkbox marketing.’ You tick off tasks like weekly blogs, monthly webinars, and routine emails without a strategic focus on quality or impact. This approach, while it may give an illusion of productivity, is fraught with inefficiencies.
It leads to a stagnation of creativity, a lack of meaningful engagement with the audience, and ultimately, a failure to drive tangible business growth.
This realization hit Brendan hard around 2018-2019, when he was serving as the SEO director at a small web design agency in Chicago. The turning point came when a client abruptly ended his contract. This experience highlighted the inherent instability and inefficiency of the traditional marketing agency model, which heavily relied on long-term retainers without a clear, evolving plan for the latter stages of the engagement.
Inspired to find a better way, Brendan looked towards the concept of design sprints, a methodology popularized by Jake Knapp (see image below).
This approach focuses on intense, short-term bursts of activity with clearly defined objectives, contrasting sharply with the monotonous rhythm of checkbox marketing. Thus, Growth Sprints was born, embodying a new ethos in marketing. Our philosophy is centered around creating momentum through focused, goal-oriented sprints. Each project is tackled with full dedication until completion, after which the accumulated momentum and energy are harnessed into the next task.
Growth Sprints is more than just a marketing strategy; it’s about empowering clients with a plan they can execute independently, shifting away from the dependency fostered by traditional retainers. This approach ensures not just the completion of tasks but also builds a sustainable momentum, leading to long-term, impactful growth in the marketing landscape.
When thinking about efficient growth, it’s easy for marketers to get caught up in tactics—create a newsletter, be present on social media, and do some SEO. The issue here is that a tactical approach feeds into the checkbox marketing cycle.
When marketers get trapped in that cycle, they typically end up dissatisfied with their work, eventually leading to high turnover (another issue impacting the effectiveness of teams). To avoid this, Brendan points out two things that all marketers need in their job roles.
1) Marketers want to be proud of their work, and 2) they want their work to have an impact.
Here are a few strategies Brendan suggests for transitioning towards efficient growth and higher satisfaction amongst marketing teams.
Deepen Customer Understanding: It’s crucial for marketers to get closer to their customers. Try forming a customer advisory board or reaching out to customers directly. Engage with them to understand their needs, preferences, and experiences. Use qualitative research methods to delve into the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind customer behaviors and decisions. This approach helps in tailoring marketing strategies that resonate more with the target audience.
Leverage Customer Participation in Content Distribution: Involve your customers in creating and distributing your content. This can range from blogs and emails to webinars and social media posts. By integrating customers into your content, they are more likely to share it within their networks. This not only enhances content reach but also adds authenticity and credibility. It’s a cost-effective method of spreading your message without heavily investing in paid advertising.
Create Unique Content IP (Intellectual Property): Focus on developing unique terminologies or concepts that address your customers’ problems. This is akin to creating a ‘conceptual scoop’ in journalism, where a new trend is identified and given a catchy, memorable name. For example, terms like ‘The Great Resignation’ and ‘Quiet Quitting’ effectively encapsulate complex societal trends. Apply this principle to the problems your customers face. By naming these issues, you make them more relatable and understandable, which in turn, positions your product or service as a more appealing solution.
Brendan’s approach to social selling is a refreshing blend of authentic engagement and strategic content creation. He emphasizes the importance of transitioning from niche, ‘geek out’ content to material that offers real value to a wider audience, particularly potential customers. Here’s how he frames it:
Build an Audience of Customers: Brendan suggests that the key to effective social selling is to cultivate a network, not just of peers, but primarily of customers. This shift in focus demands content that resonates beyond just the job role you’re currently in. For example, if you’re a salesperson selling a marketing automation tool, don’t just create content about B2B sales, but reach out to a broader group of marketing leaders that includes potential clients.
Engage with Content that Solves Problems: Brendan’s strategy involves creating content around the problems his customers face. He advocates for discussing not only the solutions but also the common roadblocks encountered. This approach includes sharing practical tools, like templates or frameworks, to address these issues, making the content both valuable and actionable.
Share Real-World Examples and Insights: Adding an element of storytelling, Brendan often includes examples of how other companies, like Airbnb, have tackled similar challenges (see example below from Brendan’s LinkedIn). This not only provides relatable case studies but also injects an element of investigative journalism into his content. He believes in sharing unique insights and experiences, which can be more engaging and enlightening than standard industry advice.
Brendan encourages thinking like a reporter or an explorer. It’s about offering more than just expertise; it’s about guiding the audience through a journey of understanding and application, making social selling a more enriching and interactive experience.
When it comes to low-cost, high-value initiatives for B2B companies, SEO is at the top of the list. Brendan shares two often overlooked yet incredibly potent strategies: optimizing internal links and understanding search intent.
Internal links connect different pages of your website, forming a cohesive internal network. While the SEO community often emphasizes the importance of external backlinks, internal linking is a less-heralded hero. It enhances your site’s structure, aids in navigation, and can dramatically increase your site’s credibility and ranking.
Brendan shares an example from when he was working with Allstate Insurance. By linking the term “car insurance” across various pages to their main car insurance page, Allstate ascended to the top of search results for this term, for years!
The second strategy Brendan advises is to align with search intent. Understanding what users really want when they type a query into a search engine is critical. It goes beyond producing content; it’s about ensuring your content profoundly connects with your audience’s needs and desires.
For example, a search for “digital marketing skills” might imply more than a desire for a list of skills; it could reflect a deeper ambition for career transformation or life improvement. By delving into the real motivations behind search queries and developing content that caters to these specific needs, your content becomes more engaging, relevant, and SEO-effective.
Brendan’s insights into internal linking and search intent reveal a path to more efficient and impactful SEO. These strategies offer a smart, strategic approach to digital marketing, ensuring that your content is not only visible in search engine results but also genuinely valuable to your audience.
What if you could get 80% of your marketing benefit in just 20% of the time?
We’re going to talk all about sprinting to efficient growth
in this episode of Closing Time.
Hi, welcome to Closing Time, the show for. Go to Market Leaders.
My name is Chip House.
I’m the CMO here at Insightly CRM and today
I’m excited to be joined by Brendan. Hufford, who’s
a B2B SaaS and marketing expert and founder of Growth Sprints.
Welcome to Closing Time, Brendan.
Thanks so much for having me. Chip.
I’m really excited about this. Yeah, and happy New Year, by the way.
Good to see you.
And so I’ve been kind of engaged silently with your LinkedIn content.
I’ve been a silent newsletter subscriber for a while
and I’ve been compelled by this idea of Growth Sprints
and so can you just in your own words, just talk
about why you founded Growth Sprints and what it means to you?
Yeah, I remember it was roughly
2018, 2019, and I was working at a small web design agency.
I was the director of SEO at the small web design agency here in Chicago,
and I had just gotten fired by a client that day.
They were like, Hey, we’re not going to work with you anymore.
They sent the breakup email and I thought to myself,
I was on the train ride home and. I was like, They’re all going to churn.
Every client is going to fire me.
We are on retainer.
We’re a marketing retainer like we do web design upfront,
and then we try to keep them on for marketing retainers.
Chip, on a long enough timeline, every client was going to fire me.
That’s the only way the relationship could end.
So I was like,. That feels like a broken model.
And it also hurt the relationships because a lot of these agencies,
like they work with you, they sell you a six or 12 month retainer
and then, you know, it gets sour around month ten because they didn’t have a plan.
They’ll sell you a 12 month retainer,
but they can’t tell you what they’re going to do in month eight.
They’re like, We’ll be busy.
And you’re like, That sounds weird.
So I was like,. All right, cool. Slash insufficient.
Yeah,. I don’t know what you’re doing right.
It’s so silly.
Or then, you know, I’d also been inside of agency,
so I went from that web design agency to a B2B SaaS marketing agency.
And then I was in-house
and like was on the other side of it, like getting sold to by agencies.
And I was this whole time just growing the fire in me of like, this sucks.
And when I was in-house at the Web design agency,
we really got into design sprints and this guy named Jake
Knapp kind of coined this and wrote a book about it.
So instead of
just dripping things out to you the way most workers do, here’s my weekly,
you know,. I call it checkbox marketing, right?
Like, here’s my weekly blog and my monthly webinar and like my weekly email, like,
you just do things on a cadence and the quality is garbage,
as long as we get it out the door, we check the box.
And I was like, I’m going to do it differently.
I’m going to say like, here’s 20 things I want to accomplish
and I will work on each of them until they’re done.
And what I realized was
this was a better way to work.
Not only did we get things done,
but I think marketing lives and dies by momentum.
And when you’re dripping stuff out to a week one or week one
a month or whatever, cadence things are, there’s no momentum.
It’s just I’m going to drip.
It’s just a dripping faucet forever, right?
And it’s like, Well, if I want to take a drink of water,
I can’t just have a dripping faucet forever.
So what’s awesome is we finish a sprint, whether you’re I did this in-house
and then also now I do it with Growth. Sprints.
That’s why it’s called that when we finish, we like double overhand high five.
We’re really happy we’re finished with the thing
and then we take that momentum, we roll it into the next thing and then we
finish that and then eventually. Chip, spoiler, we’re done.
Like you don’t need to be on retainer for most things.
I think a big piece of this is
I just give you the plan and then you should be able to run with it, right?
If you’re dependent on me forever,. I haven’t done my job.
And that was a big piece of like, wanting to go out and start something
like Growth Sprints.
You know, most marketers this year,
certainly the last couple of years,
maybe have started to deal with smaller budgets.
You know, and, 2024 is looking up, by the way.
But last year has been tough.
And so most people are looking to how do they get more efficient
with their team?
How can they leverage
some of the benefits that you’ve seen on the Growth Sprint side?
And and what would be the top three things that you would recommend,
Brendan, that marketers look at
if they want to quote unquote sprint to more efficient growth.
So I think it’s really easy to get caught up in tactics here.
And you know, most of the people would answer that question of like,
I think you need to do SEO and you need to do an email newsletter
and you need to like do whatever,. I disagree with like that take on things.
I think me recommending you the top three tactics
feels good, right?
Like we love that stuff on LinkedIn.
Like, you know,
the reason we all love copywriting advice, like it feels very actionable.
Like give me a swipe file, give me some hacks.
I think at the core of it, if you do not, like you either have money or time.
And if you don’t have either, right, if you’re super busy,
you’re already working at 110% capacity and you don’t have money.
Something is wrong and it’s probably not like something’s
wrong at the business level, we are busier than we’ve ever been
and every month the numbers are down or every month we’re missing projections.
And I think most marketers, especially in-house, you want two things.
You want to be proud of the work you’re doing.
You want to able to show your friends,. Hey, look at this cool
marketing stuff that I’m doing, and then you want to be proud of it.
And then you also want to have impact.
If you want to have both of those things, you want to be proud of it
and have impact.
There’s a couple of pieces I’ll give you three kind of quick bullet points.
Number one, every like Think Boy on. LinkedIn tells you to talk to customers.
I can tell you I’ve seen inside
a ton of companies, marketing should be like, we live and die
in marketing by momentum, Yes, but also by our proximity to the customer.
And yet success is closer to the customer than us.
Sales is closer to the customer, support is closer to the customer,
product is closer to the customer.
We are the farthest organization.
If we did a deep dive into so many companies,
I guarantee you would see this marketing is the furthest away from the customer.
If you want to figure out how to talk to customers.
I again, like people. I already know the objections.
I asked my company
if I could talk to customers and they said we already send
too much information to customers, we’re bugging them too much.
They don’t want to talk to marketing, no problem.
Form your own customer advisory board
and what you’re trying to do is just ask them questions.
It’s the same like jobs to be done type of questions you would ask.
We’re looking for qualitative things.
We’re looking for those events of like what happened?
Why were they interested in this?
What did they tried before, all of that sort of stuff.
My buddy Ryan Paul Gibson from Content. Lift has a really amazing free article
of like all these questions you can ask customers,
the first thing you have to do is talk to customers.
Second piece is include them in content distribution, right?
Start pulling your customers into your content, into your
and this is channel agnostic, blog content, emails,
webinars, social content, like start pulling them into it.
Then by law of reciprocity, they’re going to want to share it.
Again, this is super easy with MarTech right?
Marketers love talking about this stuff, but so does everybody else.
Everybody wants to look smart at their job.
If you give them the platform to look smart and do well and be successful,
they’re going to share that with their peers who are, Spoiler, also your ICP,
it’s a super.
There’s no downside to that.
We’re already really close to them.
We’re bringing their insights into the content
and now they’re sharing it out, right?
We don’t have to run.
We don’t have to, you know, yeet $1,000,000 a year into the sun in search
ads anymore because they’re doing distribution for us.
And then the last one is something
that I work with a lot of clients on, which is creating what I call content IP.
So instead of creating a category, instead of putting all of our energy
into creating this category.
Let’s put our energy into creating words around the problems our customers have.
Have you ever heard of a conceptual scoop? No.
So a conceptual scoop is a thing in journalism where they notice
a large trend happening in the world and then they give it a name.
You’ve heard of The Great Resignation?
Journalists noticed a big thing happening in the world,
and then they were like, Oh, I’m just going to put it, and let’s be honest.
The Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting are both like Chef’s kiss.
There’s, it’s such good language.
Imagine if we put that much work around the problems our customers have.
We all know the list of five or ten problems that we solve for customers.
Give them words for those problems.
Don’t give them sentences.
Don’t use the same generic language that the whole industry uses.
Name that stuff because when you give people names for the problems they have,
the solution becomes a little bit less relevant.
They’re like, Shut up and take my money.
So I think that piece of like talk like, do deep dives, talk to customers,
create a customer advisory board,
have them help with content distribution, and then spend some time
on positioning and messaging and think about the problems
your customers have instead of your solution and your product,
will go a long way if you don’t have a lot of budget right now.
Yeah, that’s great stuff.
So and I 100% agree that
getting closer to customers is is really critical
and I’ve got a decent amount of experience in that as well.
I started our customer advisory board way back in at ExactTarget years
before we were acquired by Salesforce and led that team led our relationship
And you know, ultimately. I think your customers are expecting you
to understand the problem better than they do, right?
And so they’re definitely wanting you to get them,
but also understand their problem and how,
you know, be able to provide a solution
or at least the idea of a solution
with product and sort of show them the promised land, so to speak.
So but I want to
pivot a little bit here, Brendan, because we had a great discussion
when in our pre call and you were talking about social selling frameworks
and you’re kind of an SEO guy, you know, but
you don’t like to be known as just the SEO guy, I know.
And you talked about
on LinkedIn when you were starting to produce what you called kind of a
geek out type content and all of the SEO people are engaging with it.
But you really were not reaching outside of that.
You were not making an impact with the problem that maybe
your customers or potential customers had.
So how does a, you know, with your content,
how do you make that shift from geek out content to value added content?
So when it comes to social selling,
I think you have to build an audience of customers.
They can be peers sometimes, like in our space, right?
There’s some measure of peer,
but I don’t want to just talk about SEO all the time, right?
Especially because I don’t think that’s how my clients,
you know, software companies doing between ten and $100 million in revenue.
That’s not how they win through this myopic,
siloed SEO focus.
So I started talking about more than that, and
that was really a breakthrough for me.
Like when I look at my pipeline and what I’ve built for myself, like half
of my revenue comes from people saying,. I found you first on LinkedIn.
I think more people are kind of waking up to the power of that.
So the framework that I use is pretty simple.
Talk to your customers.
Take these pieces of IP that you’ve created
and we’re going to create content out of it.
We’re going to for each piece of IP, for each problem our customers have.
I’m going to talk about the solution to the problem,
the first roadblock you’re going to run into with the problem.
I’m going to give you templates to solve the problem.
Sometimes those are just like those are actual
like template templates, like, here’s a spreadsheet,
but sometimes they’re just like, here’s a framework or a way to think about it.
An example of how I’ve solved that problem for a customer before
or have had experience, and then what. I call like a high level, interesting
round up of like, here’s somebody else that solve this problem, right?
They’re not a client of mine, but here’s how
Airbnb solved this problem.
Here’s how they did SEO.. They did it differently.
I did some God forbid,. I did some actual journalism them.
I talked to their growth designer who worked on their growth team
and I was like, Hey, I noticed this weird thing about this chart in Ahrefs.
Can you tell me what these spikes are?
I noticed they had like three big spikes.
And he leans in and looks at it goes, Oh, that’s when we focused on SEO.
It would go up and then it would plateau and then it would go up again.
And he was like, Yeah, we didn’t we never always did SEO at Airbnb.
We would just focus on it for short sprints.
And I was like, That’s a cool insight.
Like all the agencies in the world say you need these long tail, It also bolsters
my case for sprints, but like, so win win, right?
But like it was like a cool piece of investigative journalism.
You can see journalism is like a big piece.
I love the word to use the word like reporter or even explorer.
My friend. Jay Acunzo gave me that word of like,
if you look at my LinkedIn, like I use the word exploring right?
I’m just taking you on the ride with me.
And it’s so that way that I think about like social selling on
LinkedIn is very much like, let’s talk about the problem,
the roadblock, a template, a client or customer.
And then like just another really cool example.
So I don’t want to let the time pass without at least asking you a couple
SEO questions. Sure.
I led off saying what if you get 80% of the benefit in 20% of the time?
And I think there are those things and I think one of the
first thing you’re talking about is potentially using the words
of your customers to help you decide what to write, what content to create.
Hopefully,. I’m not putting those words in your mouth.
What what else do you typically see
is part of a sprint to effective SEO?
So I’ll give you like two huge levers that people miss.
One is internal links.
Backlinks have been and will remain like the core way that websites rank in search.
It’s a social signal.
These other websites are linking to you, they’re credible websites on this topic.
You’re now more credible
but internal links forever, were just like a nice to have best practice.
People didn’t think about them a ton.
And then back in 2020,
somebody on my team, we were working with Allstate Insurance.
They’re the number two insurance company
here nationally in the United States.
I don’t know where they are globally, but like they’re right behind State Farm.
They’re huge. They’re a Chicago company.. I love them.
I’ve been to their offices.
They’re wonderful people.
We literally went through their website,. Chip.
We found 250 times that they said car insurance and we linked those
to the car insurance page on their website just as like a best practice.
And they’ve ranked number one for car insurance for years.
They didn’t do anything else, but. Google was like, that’s enough from us.
250 internal links.
And that might sound like a lot,
but like when you have as many pages as they do, it’s not a ton.
Yeah, they’ve ranked in like it might change based on localization
and stuff in search, but nationally they ranked number one for car insurance
and have for years.
And I’m like, what’s it worth?
Hundreds of millions of dollars
to them, maybe billion from something that’s like just like a best practice.
Simple simple stuff. If you have to pull, you know, a rabbit
out of a hat in any given quarter, do that.
Fix your internal links.
The other piece of it,
I think, is thinking about search intent.
This is a
a symptom of again, checkbox marketing where marketers don’t have enough time
to just think, it’s just produce, produce, produce, make, make, make.
But if the next time you’re creating something and you want to use
SEO as a distribution channel, which is all that
it is, content should do three or more things for the business, right?
It should be able to be emailed out to customers,
it should be able to be used as sales enablement,
it should be able to use for like all these different use cases.
If SEO is your only use case, like rethink what you’re doing.
But spend time going,. If I was googling this,
I again,. I’ve talked to a bunch of customers.
All these things have already happened.
I have a good foundation of like what the jobs to be done is for my customers
and how I can actually help them, what they really care about as humans.
If they were Googling this phrase, what the heck did they want on the page?
Because it’s not just what the SEO tools tell you they want.
It’s not a you know, for a long time search intent.
They were like, it’s transactional, navigational.
This is a model Rand. Fishkin created like 15 years ago.
It’s I love Rand, and I work with him at Sparktoro.
It’s not the model for how search, search intent is just like
be a copywriter, be a journalist and go,. What do they actually want?
Get in their heads a little bit and then be like, okay, cool.
This seems to be like, it’s a how to, all the articles are how to, or
what is or whatever? Yeah, but what do they really want?
Can I give you an example? For sure. Yeah.
If you Google, I’ll do it live along with us here.
You can do it long live at home too.
Google digital marketing skills, like Google that phrase
and you’ll see some ads and then there will be like a list from Google.
But if you look at the search results,
i’m going to read the search results to you, Chip.
Ten essential skills. Every digital marketer needs to know,
15 Top skills for a digital marketing expert.
Top seven skills, 16 skills, Top six skills,
Top 14 skills, Top eight Essential Digital. Marketing Skills, nine Essential.
Does anybody actually want to listicle?
I don’t think anybody
wants a listicle,
So I spent some time thinking about it
and I looked at the autocomplete in Google
and the autocomplete is digital marketing skills in-demand,
resume, to learn, list, course, needed, to put on a resume,
and then usually the year like digital marketing skills 2023.
Chip, These are people that want to learn digital marketing to change their lives.
Yeah, so that’s the search intent.
It’s the anti listicle, right?
It’s like more detailed.
If your article, Chip, was like the one digital marketing skill
that saved my life.
Or like, changed my career.
That’s the real intent there.
Is not just give me 50.
And also, if you open any of those articles, they’re so bad.
Like they’re like one of the skills is how to talk to people.
And you’re like, No crap. Like, are you kidding me?
They’re so vapid and bad.
But if you if I, if I wrote that article,. Chip, and I’m like, Hey, I was a teacher
making $35,000 a year, ten years into my career, I had a couple kids.
I was wondering how we were going to pay bills and I didn’t want to be a principal.
And I was freaked out.
But I learned these three digital marketing skills
and now I make 10X what I used to make as a teacher.
That’s a hell of a hook.
Yeah, because that’s the actual intent behind the search.
But you only figure that out by spending 30 minutes.
And if you don’t have the 30 minutes because you’re so caught up
in producing, you’re never going to get that.
Now, that’s an actual helpful article that will get shared on social.
People will email that to each other, they’ll backchannel DM it to each other
and it’ll ranked number one in search because it matches the intent best.
So that’s what I mean when I say like internal links
and then I say search intent.
I mean, like really get in there like a copywriter,
be a journalist, like get in their head about what do they actually want.
Yeah. Brendan Well,. I really enjoyed the discussion.
Thanks so much for joining us on Closing Time.
It was great discussion. Chip. Thanks for having me.
This is a lot of fun.
And to all of you out there, thanks for joining us and please subscribe
to the channel if you like this content and we’d like to see you again next time.