Over the last month I’ve spent countless hours studying the content strategy that helped Drift build one of the most successful B2B brands in the technology industry. I’ve looked at more than 30 articles and documents from the company, interviewed people on their team like their VP of Marketing, David Gerhardt, and spoken with outside experts to learn what makes the company’s marketing so unique and effective.
In this article I’ll cover the following:
How Drift created the category of conversational marketing
How Drift measures, documents, and manages its content and team
How Drift hired their first content marketers
How Drift comes up with content ideas
Before we dive into content, picture these two scenes:
#1 In 2013 there were around 100 marketing technology companies. Just five years later in 2018, there were over 5000. Everybody's hopping on the boat, trying to tell their story and everyone sounds the same. It’s impossible to break through the noise.
#2 A few years ago, David Cancel was bored. He was a serial entrepreneur who had built and sold several companies. He was working at Hubspot, a large company that had bought his last startup. He was, as he says it, exercising twice a day, not really feeling like he was learning anything new or pushing hard. So he decided to spin off and do something new. Thus Drift was born.
But Cancel didn't want to create a conventional company. He saw where B2B tech was going: more and more players doing similar things, combining sophisticated levels of data and machinery to drive more leads, more volume, all the time. Yet he predicted all this marketing and sales automation was going to reach its peak, and people would again yearn for more human connections with companies. This was his plan to break through the noise.
One morning, Cancel called his Head of Marketing, David Gerhardt, who had followed Cancel from HubSpot to join Drift. Cancel told Gerhardt, “I think we should get rid of all of our forms.”
Gerhardt's eyes nearly bugged out of his head. This was every marketer's nightmare. A campaign without leads. A landing page without a CTA. How the heck was he going to hit his numbers?
But at Drift, they have a “disagree and commit” philosophy (more on that later). So Gerhardt went ahead and 'ungated' their content - no more need to fill out a form to get that PDF. And their entire strategy changed.
Instead of forms, they started initiating conversations, right on the page. Of course, they used their own “conversational marketing” software to do it. Immediately conversions skyrocketed.
Over the next few months Drift wrote articles, social media posts, and spoke about this strategy publicly at conferences. In doing so they took a page out of Salesforce's “No Software” playbook and turned a small strategy into something much larger, a category the company could own. The "No Forms" movement had begun.
At this point Drift gave up on the typical lead generation efforts like PPC and Display Ads that their peers spent the bulk of their time and money on and doubled down on content. Strategy as Michael Porter says is about making choices and saying no; Drift’s team had the discipline to do both.
Don’t be afraid to be bold and break the rules.
Promote the hell out of your success if it works.
Create a category that you can own.
Next, I'll go through what makes Drift's content itself unique and effective, including how they break traditional marketing rules, how they continue to come up with new ways to hit their core brand messages, and how that is driving unprecedented success.
Breaking the Rules on Content
Focus on humans not data
Gerhardt told me that today “content is a commodity.” Before joining Drift as the company’s VP of Marketing, he was a Marketing Manager at Hubspot. While he was there he saw the internet become saturated with B2B companies producing content. Most of them mindlessly followed the industry “best-practices” (read: rules) and produced uncompelling content that lacked story or a unique voice.
Gerhardt saw an opportunity to do things differently. He believed that authentic stories and a unique brand could help Drift stand out. He didn’t want to build a faceless brand that hid behind esoteric press releases and generic blog posts. Instead he set out to build a brand that strangers on the internet could relate to.
How Drift succeeded in building this is described in their brand book and marketing manifesto, which has remained remarkably consistent up to today. Here are some of the key takeaways from those documents:
Only real humans: Drift doesn't do stock photography. They put their real employees and customers everywhere in their marketing. Their site and content is overflowing with customers’ faces, typically with some Drift additions. They'll often do some colored outlines or almost comic-book like illustration around their customers or employees. The most important thing to note here is that they are different. In brand building that is key.
Be good enough: they don't need high production quality to put something out. Sure, they'll spin up a great, polished marketing video from time to time, but the bulk of their marketing is fast, simple, and on iPhone videos. Gerhardt is particularly known for constant, hand-held videos, speaking directly to the screen, including directly on LinkedIn and Instagram stories.
ELI5 (Explain It To Me Like I'm Five): Drift uses simple, plain language throughout. They've practiced and honed their tone to be like an everyday conversation. It makes sense, particularly when your product is about facilitating conversations.
Some of this seems so simple, that it gave me pause. Does it really work? How do you know if it is working? So I asked Gerhardt how he measures success.
Measure in love.
Before speaking to Gerhardt I imagined him sitting behind the world’s most sophisticated marketing dashboard like a mad-scientist, pulling levers and calling shots. But when I asked him how he measures success his answer blew me away. He said, “We just know. We don’t have to search for it.”
Gerhardt says that their executive team inherently understands the power of good marketing. The podcasts, the videos, the amazing content—they all add value. Cancel and Gerhardt have talked to the best CMOs in the world and in all their conversations haven’t heard of a company that measures the true quality and love of a brand.
In a world of endless data, Drift’s content strategy is led by more intuition than hard numbers, simply asking, “Is this helpful?” or “Would we want to consume this content?” It may sound unscientific, but this first principles approach is working.
Of course, that’s not to say they don’t measure their progress at all. Gerhardt shared an internal snap of one of their Slack channels, aptly titled "drift-love".
They measure overall traffic and word of mouth over time, but it doesn't really guide their behaviour. Of course, their marketing keeps in mind overall revenue, churn, NPS, and standard metrics… but what they really track and what drives their decision-making is customer love. And Drift keeps growing.
It almost reminds of that song from RENT: “In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes. How do you measure a year in a life? How about love? Measure in love!”
Document, don't create
Drift also follows Gary Vaynerchuk’s “document, don't create" strategy of content marketing. They focus on documenting what they do and then share it quickly.
Here's one example in which they describe how to get more out of your product launches, based on how they do it. They followed up again this year with how to ship more effectively, an interview with their VP of Product. Drift has a literal Shipyard landing page, which profiles what they have recently launched, a series of new features. Drift is always sharing knowledge, and it builds up the profiles of their executives and their team, at the same time as drawing people into their brand and product.
Again, no press releases or faceless marketing. They’re more social media influencer than they are corporate marketer. More Casey Neistat than Don Draper.
Another good example is how they profile their #1 Drift Power User, who happens to be on their sales team, Eve. It is a great feature of one of their employees, with authentic interactions with their customers and users, that also details how she uses their product to grow their business.
A third solid example of how they do this is through their weekly podcast, Seeking Wisdom, which is co-hosted by Gerhardt and Cancel, and explores a number of different topics. One of their recent episodes talks very openly about how their team functions internally, for example through their use of Slack. They are always openly talking about what they are doing and how they do it.
Don't be original (everywhere)
So Drift's content is human driven, not data driven. And it's often documenting what they do, rather than creating net new content. But it's also often not original—at least the second, or third, fourth, or fifth time that you see it. And you will see it again: similar messages, over and over again, across different platforms.
Gerhardt talked to me about their philosophy on this. He said: “We make small bets, for example Cancel will write a LinkedIn post on how the future of X will be Y. If it blows up, we turn it into another medium.” They'll take a conversation onto the podcast, for example. And then they'll turn that into more blog posts. It seems like Drift has had a least a thousand different conversations and variations of the ungating story, but each time it's a bit different.
Buffer, another content marketing giant, learned the same thing when they built their content marketing team. Rather than create original content, they focused on creating content they knew their audience needed and then made it better than anyone else. As a result they ranked for keywords with a high volume of traffic. Here are the figures their VP of Marketing gave me recently on the following landing pages:
Social media graphic sizes — 26,000 views per month
Free SEO tools resource page — 22,000 views per month
A guide on how to get verified on Twitter — 15,000 views per month
Were they the first to write a post on how to get verified on Twitter? No. Had their competitors already written it? Yes. But Buffer, like Drift, focused on creating a better content mousetrap. It worked.
Radical transparency and showing your work.
Drift isn’t nearly as transparent as Buffer. For example, they don’t have a transparency dashboard that shares salaries at the company to the outside world. But as Gerhardt told me, they are "very transparent about the way that we work. Everyone shows their work every day."
Consider a typical scenario on a marketing team: a designer is asked to build a landing page, so they work hard and deliver it by Friday. But it's not quite what the team wanted or maybe expectations changed so it gets blown up and not used. But at Drift, the designer would mock it up, take a screenshot, and share it in the middle of the day as a social media post. Again their strategy is more social media vlogger than corporate marketer.
The Drift team believes in faster, daily iterations. One of their mantras is “innovate, don't invent,” which aligns with their philosophy around reusing content as well as borrowing and copying great ideas from other companies. In fact, when people are showing their work internally, they'll often ask "where do you find that? Who did you look to?" They want to see ideas validated by others, if they can. For example, Gerhardt remarked that on their new pricing page that they were happy to take inspiration from great leaders like InVision, another successful B2B company.
Don't farm, hire for fluency
One of the questions our customers ask us most frequently is how to build a content marketing team so I relayed the question to Gerhardt.
He told me it was originally just him cranking out blog posts. But over time, that wasn't scalable. When they finally started to grow their team, Gerhardt never wanted to build a content farm.
At this point what a lot of companies end up doing is hiring 5-6 people fresh out of college to crank out SEO heavy content like 5 ways to do X. While Drift certainly has some listicles, it's not the main focus of their content. The main focus is authentic, narrative driven content. The reason for that, as Gerhardt remarks, is that he's in a tough industry to fake. “We are marketers, doing marketing to marketers,” he said to me, with a laugh.
In making his first hire he looked for someone that was fluent in the language of marketing. He recruited Erik Delvaney, a former content strategist from Hubspot and tasked him with writing 3-4 high quality articles per week. Once he was maxed out, they started thinking about how to expand.
Eventually they hired Gail Axelrod from OpenView Labs, a marketing-focused VC firm. She was already well-known in the industry for her work and came with a lot of experience.
When Axelrod joined she set out to build a blog that felt more like a good business magazine than a content farm. She’d interview Cancel or other executives as if she were writing a story for Bloomberg. Or she’d ask customers like Slack how they were approaching a specific problem. She spoke frequently with her customer success team about the problems customers faced, both related to Drift’s product and not. Her and her team were constantly asking, “How can we turn this into content”?
It’s a far cry from the typical content marketer coming up with listicle ideas in a conference room.
Disagree and commit
One of the last questions that I asked Gerhardt was about his relationship with Cancel and how that affects their content. I wanted to know what they do when two very experienced marketers disagree on strategy.
Gerhardt said “Well, we disagree a lot. But he is… usually right.” We both laughed and then he continued, “One thing we do agree on is to always ‘disagree and commit.’ We borrow that from Amazon. Both parties can make their case, and then on the weight of the evidence and their argument, get mutual permission to move on and go out and do it.” (Compared to most teams that stall when people disagree).
But he told me that it’s important to note any disagreement is temporary. They believe in “Strong opinions loosely held.” As soon as the evidence shows they need to pivot, they do it. There’s no shame in changing one’s opinion.
What's next for Drift
In April 2018, Drift announced a $60M Series B raise from Sequoia Capital. That brings their total funding to above $100M. In press announcements they said they want to build “the Amazon of B2B.” Whether that will come true remains to be seen. But what's clear is that Drift is incredibly ambitious and some of the top investors in Silicon Valley believe that they can make good on that vision.
There’s no better example of that ambition or their commitment to excellence than what I think is the pinnacle of their unique content strategy to date. Today Gerhardt and Cancel are releasing a 300 page book about what they’ve learned building the company.
Gerhard told me, “We spent the last two and a half years creating this category of conversational marketing. Then about a year ago we realized that we need to write about it. We’ve pulled the stories and case studies on it.”
The book is category creation and content marketing at its finest. If you want to learn more about this unique company and their marketing strategy check out the book here.
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