User Acquisition Guide: 10 Powerful Strategies To Attract New Users in 2021

It’s time to change the way we approach user acquisition.

Why?

Because the way users acquire new mobile apps, products and services has changed considerably. Years ago, we were able to map out a user’s buyer journey in a linear way, from awareness, to interest, to consideration and then action. We called that the funnel.

Well, the funnel is an outdated concept, to put it lightly. Now, users go through a long, complex, back-and-forth process of exploring and evaluating options before they make a decision.

As marketers, we need to adapt and make sure we’re wherever potential users go to explore and evaluate their options. This implies a new way of thinking about user acquisition.

It’s no longer enough to be visible and promote your selling point. In fact, it’s critical to show how you stack up against your competitors and be prepared to be evaluated.

This guide will walk you through some of my favorite user acquisition strategies that focus on being present, wherever users look for mobile apps, products or services such as yours. I call this creating a Surround Sound effect when promoting your products.  

The messy middle

The success of a user acquisition campaign depends on how visible you are where users go to find and evaluate apps, products and services like yours.

Users now have so many options they can choose from that they need to properly evaluate their decisions before being sure, they pick the best one for them.

We’re all looking for the best option out there. No the cheapest, but the best. Just look at how searches for “best” vs “cheap” evolved since 2004. 

Google Best vs Cheap

This means that we’re evaluating many more aspects of a product other than just the price. And that requires a lot of research.

In fact, according to a Google study on buying behaviour, buyers now go through a long and complex process of continuously exploring and evaluating options, before making a final decision. They call this process the messy middle.

The messy middle

This guide focuses on user acquisition strategies that aim to help your brand understand and prevail in this messy middle. 

But first, a few definitions:

What is User Acquisition

User acquisition, as the name suggests it, refers to the process of getting more people to use a mobile app, like Freeletics for workouts, a platform, like HubSpot for sales, marketing and customer support, or a service, like nutritional counseling or an online course. 

User Acquisition vs. Customer Acquisition

When a user converts by opting to a paid subscription or plan, they become a customer. Therefore the process of converting users into paying customers is referred to as customer acquisition.

In theory, it’s clear as day, but in practice, things tend to overlap. Depending on the business model, user acquisition and customer acquisition can be the same thing.

For the purpose of this article, I want to talk about the process of acquiring quality users for a free app, product or service. This specific business model has its particular challenges and opportunities and it’s something I’m personally passionate about. 

How to acquire new users

  1. Understand who are your potential users, what’s their profile, what makes them choose a product like yours.
  2. Research what channels they use to find information and evaluate products.
  3. Compare how you stack up against competitors on those channels.
  4. Pick a set of strategies, like the ones below, to make sure you improve your presence on those channels.
  5. Measure results frequently (signups), iterate and improve until you’ve saturated the potential of each strategy. 

Recommended resources:
1, Make My Persona Tool
2. Facebook Audience Insights
3. Answer the public
4. Product channel fit for growth 

10 user acquisition strategies that work in 2021

I strongly believe that in today’s world, where users have an abundance of products and services to choose from, your brand needs to be everywhere people are searching for solutions. This is what I call having a surround sound effect with your user acquisition strategies.  

In the following section I’m detailing ten strategies that are designed to make sure your product or service is visible and recommended in the channels and places where potential users look for products or services such as yours.

  1. Create content targeting high-intent keywords
  2. Historically optimize old content for better search rankings
  3. Historically optimize old content for better conversions
  4. Create a learning center to help educate the potential users
  5. Build partnerships with other websites that rank for high-intent keywords
  6. Build a network of industry opinion leaders (influencers) to help promote your products
  7. Create linkable content to generate backlinks and press mentions
  8. Incentivize your paying customers to refer a friend (viral mechanism)
  9. Set up an Affiliate program
  10. Guest post targeting keywords that are relevant to your user base

Create content targeting high-intent keywords

Channel: SEO
Resources: SEO specialist, Content writer
CAC (customer acquisition cost): Low

 This tactic aims to attract more qualified users from organic search from high-intent queries related to your products or services, like “best CRM tools”.

This is one of my favourite tactics because it’s fairly easy to implement and, once your content ranks well, the traffic and new users keep on coming. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

The main idea of this tactic is to publish articles that aim to rank for keywords your potential customers use to find products like yours, and, of course, feature your product in that list.

For a SaaS company that sells business software, a list of high-intent keywords would include:

  • “best CRM”
  • “CRM for small business”
  • “free CRM”

That said, here’s how to implement this tactic:

First, put together your list of high-intent keywords. To do this, you need to understand what queries people use to find and compare products such as yours. Start by looking at the queries that drive traffic to to your products in Google Search Console. You can also use an SEO tool to see what keywords you’re ranking for in Top 10 or you’re missing out on. 

Another great source of keyword ideas is spying on your competitors. Again, use an SEO tool, like Ahrefs, SEMRush, MOZ (and the list can go on) to figure out the terms your competitors are ranking for and you are not.

I personally use Ahrefs for doing content gap analysis (like you see in the screenshot below), but you can check your competitors by using other tools like SEMRush, Moz. If you’re on a tighter budget, try GrowthBar from my friends at GrowthMarketingPro.

Source: Ahrefs

Once you have your list of keywords for which you’re not yet present in SERP, create an SEO-driven editorial calendar. Once you know what you want to rank for, it’s time to start planning and publishing the content that will help you rank. 

This is often easier said than done, so I recommend using an SEO-driven editorial calendar, like the one we have at HubSpot. My colleague Aja Frost has published a template you can use for free.

Other recommended resources: How to Skyrocket Your Blog’s Organic Traffic With a Search Insights Report

Another useful step in the process is to make sure your content is SEO-optimized.

There are a few tools out there that can help with that. MarketMuse (starting at $79/month) and Clearscope (starting at $170/month) are two of the tools I’d recommend giving a try.

Once the writing part is done, promote and monitor content performance. A lot of marketers forget that after publishing a piece of content, you need to keep track of its performance, promote it and make sure it gets to Google page #1 for your intended keyword.

In the screenshot below you see an example of an article’s evolution over the past year. It took about 3 months for the article to rank in Top 10 with a few keywords and then gradually, it started ranking for more and to higher positions. This is in part also the result of a sustained promotional effort

Source: Ahrefs

If content promotion is a challenge, here are a few ideas to start with:

  • Remix the content into a LinkedIn post, Slides deck etc.
  • Ask your friends to promote it (I know it sounds uncomfortable, but it’s really effective)
  • Publish on other blogs and talk about your content

Also, listen to this episode of GrowthMarketingToday with Ross Simmonds about How To 10x Your Content Distribution To Reach Millions of Eyeballs.

Historically optimize old content

Channel: SEO
Resources: SEO specialist, Content writer
CAC (customer acquisition cost): Low

Historical optimization is another way of saying review and update old articles, making sure you improving them for the readers and for search engines. 

This is another favourite tactic because it’s fairly easy to implement and it can have a massive impact, long term, on growing your organic traffic and ultimately your user base.  

We experimented a lot with this at HubSpot and my colleagues from the SEO and blogging teams have written about the results extensively. You may check out the HubSpot blog for more resources around optimizing old content. If you just want the TL;DR of why this is worth trying, just take a look at the chart below.

This chart shows the evolution of six HubSpot blog posts as they were historically optimized. The blue bar shows the monthly organic traffic the post was getting before the optimization and the orange bar represents the organic traffic after the post was updated and SEO optimized. On average, the articles doubled in traffic.


search views before after post updates
search views before after post updates

The process of updating and optimizing old content is pretty straightforward. 

First, audit your content and prioritize articles worth updating. Make sure you prioritize the articles with: 

  • High-intent: articles that drive potential users e.g. article that could rank for high-intent keywords like “best CRM tools”.
  • High-traffic: articles that drive the most organic traffic to the website e.g. “how-to” articles on popular topics that have fallen recently because the content is outdated. 

Once you have your list of priorities, update the content with more relevant, more up to date information. Make substantial changes, not just H2s or a couple of paragraphs.

Then, review the content from an SEO perspective. Again, tools like MarketMuse (starting at $79/month) and Clearscope (starting at $170/month) can help remove some of the guesswork and ensure your article is well optimized for your target keyword.

Lastly, re-publish and promote your updated post as if they were brand new posts.   

Cheeky pro tip: You can use this tactic to update your own content or help your partners’ content rank better.

You might be wondering: Why help another website rank for the queries I’m targeting? 

Well, if they’re an affiliate or another partner that promotes your products or services, it’s beneficial for you to help them, so your brand shows up in as many of the Top 10 results as possible. 

Historically optimize old content for better conversions

Channel: SEO
Resources: SEO specialist, Content writer
CAC (customer acquisition cost): Low

Similar to the previous tactic, the goal here is to get more from your existing articles, especially the ones that get constant organic traffic. Instead of optimizing them for better search rankings (like in the previous section), optimize them for conversions from visitors to new users.

The key here is to match the intent with the right offer, in our case a sign up. So match existing content to relevant sign up CTAs (Calls-To-Action). 

Start with a small batch and A/B test this to make sure it’s the right tactic for your audience. 

As with the previous tactic, start by auditing your content and identify top performing articles (lots of traffic every month) on high-intent topics (that visitors read because they are looking for products and services like yours). Use Google Search Console data to see gather this data. 

Then, add relevant CTAs to each article so that you help convert more of those quality visits.  

I really like the way BlueApron.com does this in their /recipes/ section. You get the recipe and you can download the instructions card (CTA is “CLICK FOR RECIPE CARD”). Or, if you click on “Get Cooking” you get to their sign up page where you can order the meal kit.

BlueApron Cookbook
BlueApron Cookbook

As with any tactic, it’s important to measure the results of those changes. So after the first month, compare the new results with the old ones and see if you now get more sign ups from the same traffic.  

Create a learning center to help educate potential users

Channel: Content Marketing
Resources: SEO specialist, Content marketer, Video producer, Graphic designer 
CAC (customer acquisition cost): High

Online education has skyrocketed, especially after the start of the pandemic in early 2020. Platforms like Udemy and Skillshare that offer online education have reported significant growth as remote work and “quarantining” have become the new normal. 

In April 2020, Udemy reported a 425% increase in enrolments for consumers. According to their study:

  • People in the U.S. are gravitating toward creative skills like Adobe Illustrator (326% increase)
  • The Spanish are taking Piano lessons (466%) and have a growing interest in  Investing (262%)
  • People in India are learning Business Fundamentals (281%) and Communication Skills (606%)
  • Italians are taking Guitar (431%), Copywriting (418%), and Photoshop (347%) courses

So there’s never been a better time to build out a content marketing strategy that’s focused on online education. This way, you support your potential users, who are looking for free, accessible ways to improve their professional skills or fuel their passion projects. 

You can start generating more buzz around your brand and products by capitalizing on this trend and creating a resource center, with ebooks, or an online academy with free e-courses

First, figure out what your audience wants to learn about. There are many ways to go about this, from interviewing your best clients, to a market research, seeing what other companies in your space are doing. 

I personally like to start with a keyword and competitor research. The information is easy to get, if your familiar with basic SEO tactics. All you need is an SEO tool and a bit of curiosity. 

For example, you can use Ahrefs to look at a website’s Top Pages report to see what are the most viewed pages and what keywords drive traffic to them. You can even focus on “how to” titles to see what visitors are looking to learn from your competitor’s blog.

Ahrefs: Top Pages
Ahrefs: Top Pages

Study how your audience prefers to consume content. You can create content in many formats – ebooks, podcasts, video courses etc. It’s important to find the most suitable format for your audience. If you’re at the beginning of the process, it’s probably best to test a few formats over time.  

Some brands use all types of formats to deliver the best learning experience. Take Wistia for example.

Wistia Learning Center

Wistia’s Learning Center gets about 26.5K organic visits per month (source: Ahrefs). It seems to me that they’ve been experiencing growth in organic traffic since March-April of last year, once people started working from home and looking for more online learning sources.

wistia.com organic traffic cost year
wistia.com organic traffic cost year

BlueApron’s Cookbook is another great example of a learning center that features different formats. Each recipe has a beautiful “infographic” that shows all the ingredients you need, a short video with a cooking tip and a gallery with images and recommendations for every step of the process.

BlueApron Cookbook
BlueApron Cookbook

This section gets 14k organic visits per month (source: Ahrefs). There’s probably more untapped potential there from an SEO perspective, but their content is really good so they are in a place where they can grow a lot.

HubSpot Academy is another example I couldn’t forget to add to my list. As biased as I might seem, since I work at HubSpot, I honestly think it’s one of the best learning centers for digital marketers out there. And it evolved so much over the past couple of years. Now you can join bite-sized  courses on specific marketing areas, select your favorite content type and learn so much more.

HubSpot Academy

Build a network of industry opinion leaders (influencers) to help you promote your products

Channel: Affiliate
Resources: Affiliate specialist digital PR specialist
CAC (customer acquisition cost): High

This is a strategy that will help your brand stand out when users are evaluating different options. By building a network of advocates that speak positively about your products, you give a signal to potential users that your product or service is appreciate by peers. 

On a personal level, I think building a network of influencers is a very exciting job. I loved working with influencers, both at SEOmonitor and at HubSpot. I like meeting and working with highly driven individuals, who are experts in their field and whose ultimate goals are to help, educate and inspire their audience.

The way you work with influencers will depend a lot on the industry you’re in. It’s one thing to work in B2B tech, and deal with marketing gurus, and a completely different thing to be working with fashion influencers. The approach is totally different, but some fundamental elements of the process I think remain the same.

Here’s how I think about it:

First, set up a clear goal for each project. By project, I mean however you plan on working with influencers: they promote you in social media, interview you, review your product etc. The goal can be anything from brand awareness to sign-ups, leads etc.

Then, build a profile, an “influencer persona”, that describes the ideal influencer I’d like to work with. Ask yourself: What’s their preferred social media channel? How many followers does a Top influencer have? How do they engage with their audience? What brands they worked with? How did they promote them? This will help you narrow down your search to the influencers that make the most sense to your program. 

Find influencers that fit your persona and reach out to them. Don’t start with a sales pitch. It’s important to go ahead with a mindset of discovery. Try to learn from them what are their goals, how you can help and how your project fits into their plans.  

Only after you’re sure you’re on the same page, propose a campaign to them. 

Build partnerships with other websites that rank for high-intent keywords

Channel: Affiliate 
Resources: SEO specialist, Content writer
CAC (customer acquisition cost): Medium

There are 10 positions on the first page of Google and (usually) your website can only occupy one. So if you want to maximise your visibility in SERP, try partnering with the other 9 websites that rank there. If your brand gets mentioned in their content, your visibility in SERP goes beyond what you can gain with SEO.  

As always, think about your target users and how they find solutions, such as your product, using search engines. They probably don’t stop at the first results they see. Instead, they open up a few of the pages they are suggested and maybe try a bunch of other queries to make sure they evaluate all possible solutions. 

This is a strategy we use at HubSpot to make sure potential clients learn about our freemium features especially. 

Recommended resources: The Surround Sound Series: How We Created A New Content Marketing Program & Improved SERP Visibility Beyond SEO

We partner with review websites, like G2 or Capterra, with affiliate blogs that recommend our software, and sometimes with other publishers or SaaS solutions that are complementary to our tool.  

Here’s an example of how a potential user comes across HubSpot CRM in almost all of the Top 10 results that show in Google  when looking for “CRM software”. (souce: Ahrefs)

CRM software Surround Sound

Build a list of keywords that your audience uses to find solutions like yours. I call these high-intent keywords or product-led keywords. Things like “best CRM”, “best management courses”, “top running gear”, and so on.

Evaluate how your brand appears in those searches. See if your website ranks for these terms and if the content is optimized to drive sign ups.

Evaluate how many times your brand is mentioned in the other pages that rank for these terms. Check every Top 10 or 20 result and see if your brand is mentioned, if the mention links to your site and if you get any referral traffic and signups from those mentions.

Build a plan to get mentioned in the other pages, where your band is not currently present. Having an Affiliate program in place will help because you have something specific to give to make this a win-win partnership.

Start reaching out to potential partners and keep track of your “deals”. Using a CRM tool like HubSpot CRM is a great way to make sure you have all contacts and communication in one place, for future reference.

Every once in a while, go back to Step 2 and 3 and evaluate your visibility in SERP. I personally do this very frequently, even a couple times per month, to make sure I’m not missing any big opportunities.

Like with reactive PR, reaching out early increases your chances of success.

Create linkable content to generate backlinks and press mentions

Channel: Content Marketing
Resources: SEO specialist, Content writer
CAC (customer acquisition cost): Medium 

This strategy involves creating content that’s designed to attract mentions. The objective here is to reach a bigger audience, potential new users, by getting other people to talk about your brand.

When well designed, the following types of content tend to attract mentions naturally:

  • Original research
  • Charts & infographics
  • Ultimate guides
  • Thought leadership
  • Curated lists
  • Free tools
  • Ego-baiting conten

I recently wrote a long post about How to create content that naturally attracts backlinks, so I won’t go too much into the step-by-step process in this article. 

What I want to do here is to share some of my favourite recents campaigns that were very successful in generating the right kind of buzz.

HubSpot COVID Study
Content type: Original research

HubSpot COVID Study
HubSpot COVID Study

TimeOut Ultimate Guides: The best London restaurant vouchers to buy during coronavirus
Content type: Curated lists

Timeout

Backlinko: Content Marketing Guide in 2021
Content type: Ultimate guide

Backlinko: Content Marketing Guide in 2021
Backlinko: Content Marketing Guide in 2021

Recommended resources: Sapio User Acquisition Case Study: How We Earned a 3,072% Spike in Weekly App Installs

Incentivize your paying customers to refer-a-friend

Channel: Email Marketing, Paid
Resources: PPC specialist
CAC (customer acquisition cost): Medium-High

This strategy involves giving existing happy customers a gift card or a discount every time they refer a friend. Uber, Dropbox, Deliveroo — are just a few brands that come to mind whenever I think of successful refer-a-friend programs. 

 Here’s an example of a refer-a-friend program from DropChef, al meal kit company from Ireland. 

DropChef
DropChef

Here’s how Deliveroo acquires new customers by incentivising existing users to recommend them. This is a great tactic, especially in a competitive market like food delivery.

Deliveroo refer a friend program
Deliveroo refer a friend program

Set up an Affiliate program

Channel: Affiliate
Resources: Affiliate specialist 
CAC (customer acquisition cost): Medium-High

Your users often tell your story better than you do.  

So make it easy for anyone to recommend your product, app or service and get rewarded for their effort. Do it because people love to hear what their peers have to say about products they are interested in.

The “classical” way to set up an affiliate program means setting up a system to generate custom links that your partners use when they recommend your products or services.

Recommended resource: Airbnb is notorious for their successful refer-a- friend program. Watch this video presentation about how Airbnb’s refer-a-friend program helped them drive growth. The video is from 2014, but the lessons there are still valid today. 

There are a few things you need to consider when setting up your program:

  • How much you can pay your partners to retain a profit or at least break even.
  • How much your competitors are paying affiliates in your space.

Lots of companies see the benefit of an affiliate partnership far beyond the direct signups or customers they get. That’s why they are willing to pay at the expense of their profit margin. 

Figuring out the right reward system for your partner might take a bit of trial and error, but it is worth it considering your long term success.

Guest post targeting keywords that are relevant to your user base

Channel: SEO
Resources: SEO specialist, Content writer
CAC (customer acquisition cost): Low

Most companies abuse guest posting for link building purposes alone, which I completely advise you to never try. Others simply use it to build their thought leadership. 

The way I propose you to approach this tactic is different.

I suggest you publish SEO-optimized guest posts that target high-intent keywords with the purpose of driving qualified referral traffic to your website. I say “qualified” because the ultimate goal is not only to bring new visitors to the website, but bring those that can become users. 

This guest posting tactic is an alternative way to get your brand mentioned in one of the Top 10 search results for your target keywords, without using your website or an affiliate partnership. Plus, it’s a great way for your host to generate more organic traffic and for you to acquire high-quality backlinks. 

First, I have to say I always liked publishing content on other websites. It’s a great way to build an audience and connect with people.

Over time, I realized that, unfortunately, it comes with a big downside: the guest post generated buzz the moment you publish and that’s pretty much it.

You may see referral traffic coming in 1-2 days after the article is published, then it rapidly goes down.

It’s a one-hit-wonder tactic, and for user acquisition you need strategies that can keep on driving new users.

Of all user acquisition channels, SEO is probably one of the most effective ones, next to PPC (Google AdWords, Facebook Ads, Youtube Ads etc.)

That’s why I believe combining the SEO and guest posting is a winning solution.

As always, start from keyword research and identify what product-led queries are relevant for your product.

Prioritise your keyword list by difficulty and search volume. Ideally, write guest posts targeting keywords that have the potential to drive referral traffic to your website.

Reach out to potential partners that would be interested in your content. Select partners based on their relevance to the topic and make sure their authority can match the ones that are already ranking. 

Related resources: Everything you need to know about guest blogging

Hope you found these ten ideas useful for building your own user acquisition campaign. 

Of course, there are more ideas out there that you can try. But these ten are the ones I consider fundamental for any growing business. 

Some might not fit your niche or your audience and that’s OK. You don’t need to implement all of them to grow your user base. It’s enough to figure out which ones work the best for your context. So evaluate the difficulty of each tactic and what internal resources you have available, and get started with the easiest ones. 

What’s next?

User acquisition just means half the job is done. A very important half, but you still have a big battle ahead of you. 

It’s time to think about how you turn these users into paying customers.

Thanks for reading this far! If this article inspired you to try a new user acquisition strategy, I’d love to hear from you.

Want more playbooks like this?

Every now and then, I send a note with my latest posts, interesting projects I’ve been working on or simply stumbled upon that I think you’ll find useful and entertaining. 

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