Growth Marketing for Hire

Posted in: Content Strategy, startups

How Marketing Doubled Our Sales at an Ed-tech Startup

If you follow me on Medium, you’ve probably seen my recent posts describing how you can get a job doing marketing startups in San Francisco.

My journey to SF started from the first job I had out of college. I was working in sales at a company who sold marketing products to colleges and universities in the US. To my surprise the marketing team there never generated a single lead for the sales team.

Everything I was reading about B2B marketing at the time told me the company I was working with didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Working in sales was tough, and instead of marketing supporting the sales team, they simply insulted our abilities and gave us messaging that they thought would work.

I promised myself if I were to ever get a marketing job that my job would be to make the sales team’s job easier.

Fast Forward Two Years

It was month two on the job in SF. We’d just finished our first Whitepaper and were working to get it live on the website. I announced the big accomplishment at our weekly all hands meeting, but to my dismay nobody seemed to see the big deal.

“How do we know that’s going to do anything?” one engineer spoke up.

My stomach dropped. I wanted to say something like, “what the hell do you know about marketing?” but before I could the VP of sales chimed in quickly, “Don’t worry we’ll be tracking how this influences sales to decide whether we’ll be doing anything like this in the future.”

I was nervous. Would this content do anything for us?

A year later it had been downloaded over 3,000 times generating over 1,000 qualified leads, meaning about 1 in 3 people who downloaded our content were the target audience we wanted to talk to.

Our website went from generating 5 qualified leads per week to over 30 per week measured six months later.

A full year later, content marketing the leads generated made up over half of our sales revenue. All this was done with one and a half marketing persons (me and some help via an internal designer, intern and later a sales rep) with little to no budget.

Here’s exactly how we got there:

Step 1.  Hire an intern to focus on developing one content piece

One of the biggest problems a marketer at a small company will face is that they don’t have the time to dedicate to content development. Another common issue is that a marketer (or freelancer) doesn’t have the necessary background knowledge to write a REAL content piece. 

One that provides value and truly speaks to your reader.

To solve both these issues at our ed-tech company we found a recent graduate student who had an interest in education research. Because most graduate students spend their days reading and summarizing research it was the perfect fit to turn her loose and summarize the academic literature around the social factors which influence student persistence. 

Gathering and summarizing content around a specific topic is typically called content curation, and it’s often the easiest way to publish your first content piece.

Step 2. Set up a system and process for qualifying the leads.

A few weeks after the content piece was published I quickly realized we had an issue. Our sales team wasn’t following up on these new leads.

“How can you expect these leads to turn into sales if you’re not following up with these people?!” I protested.

“How can you expect us to reach out to all these leads you’re generating?!” sales responded.

Fair enough. 

The sales team was generally busy demoing the product so to solve this problem we created a new role called an SDR. The SDR followed up with all the people who downloaded content sending emails and making phone calls to the person asking them if they’d be open to a chat about their retention goals for the upcoming year. 

Another key to the SDR was that they had to process new leads immediately because the quicker you follow up with a lead the more likely you are to turn that lead into a sale.

Step 3. Develop an Educational Webinar

While whitepapers, guides and e-books are great for lead generation, educational webinars are one of the most effective ways to engage and create new leads.

During the first few years at Uversity the only marketing activity they conducted was a weekly sales pitch that they called a webinar. Unfortunately the attendance of this webinar could be counted on one hand. To boost our webinar results we created a truly educational webinar that summarized many of the research white papers we had created. 

This new webinar would regularly get 20-50 attendees and it soon became the top lead source converter. Our SDR’s (and eventually our entire sales team) would gather in conference rooms trying to call and get a hold of every person that just attended the webinar.

Step 4. Invest in a Flagship Content Piece

Summarizing industry news or research is a great place to start with your content, but it doesn’t really position you as an industry leader. A broad educational webinar is great to warm up leads, but it’s not enough to generate PR and generate waves of new leads.

This is where investing a large deal of time and possibly money into a Flagship Content piece can fuel marketing efforts for 1-3 years. The key here is developing something:

  1. hasn’t been covered before
  2. connects to hot trend or topic in the industry
  3. provides tremendous educational value.

Our Flagship Content Piece was the Social Admissions Report, which surveyed thousands of high-school and college age students to learn about their social media habits and how these habits influenced their college search and decision making process. While there are lots of studies citing how millennials use social media, there was rarely a focused study on the age of college bound students and there was nothing about how their usage influenced their college search.

This new information helped us debunk popular myths in the industry and gave administrators practical tips on how they should or should not use social media. Fortunately it also backed up our view of the world and gave our sales teams the facts and graphs they need to convince skeptical VP’s. It also generated PR buzz of our own including coverage in Mashable and Inside Higher Ed.

Step 5. Re-purpose, republish, repeat

Social Admissions Report Infographic

After our initial webinar which had close to 200 attendees we decided to host another one a few weeks later. With all this content we need to figure out a way to spread the message beyond just the one webinar.

We wrote blog posts and op-eds around individual points or slides that we talked about on the webinar. We created an infographic which summarized the results receiving 100’s of social media shares. We presented this information at industry conferences and continued to present the data each month in another webinar.

We promoted all of this via our email marketing channels and finally, just when we thought the content was done. We broke down the data in different ways to show the regional differences from each state.

  • initial broadcast webinar
  • blog posts and op-eds around individual topics
  • an infographic to show a comprehensive visual summary
  • slideshare presentation sharing the results
  • a whitepaper with raw survey data
  • regional conference presentations
  • social media advertising campaigns
  • promoted through email marketing
  • data analysis broken down by region or sector

Our sales team gave us feedback that “the south” didn’t want US-wide statistics and instead they wanted to hear what the southern student statistics were. Even though the conclusions were the same as the US-wide presentations, we could get more attendance by targeting the presentation at each region.

After almost one year of the most leads generated in company history we decided to do a new survey for the following year to continue our momentum. Because the social media landscape was always changing we were able to add and tweak some of our survey questions (based on the feedback we got from our audience) to develop a yearly content piece which positioned us at the forefront of these trends for our industry.

Some Final Tips

All of this is much easier said than done. Although looking back our plan looks linear, content development is a creative and experimental process.

The hardest part may be evolving your internal systems and processes to keep up with your new lead generation efforts. Here’s a quick summary on some things you’ll need:


  • a landing page to send any traffic who is interested in downloading the guide
  • a lead form for your customers to submit their contact information in exchange for the guide
  • a thankyou page to send the traffic after they have submitted where they can view and/or download the content
  • a connection to your CRM which adds the new leads to a list for your sales team to process
  • an ability to tag that lead with the proper lead source (whitepaper, presentation, newsletter)
  • multiple content campaign attribution (an ability to tag leads with multiple campaigns since many leads will be influenced by more than 1 content peice)

These capabilities can often be found in various marketing automation software systems. If you’re using a wordpress site, Inbound Now has many of these features as a suite of free plug-ins.


  • a single person who is in charge of processing new leads as they come in every hour (often an SDR)
  • a person in charge of cleaning up or auditing leads to make sure they are being properly tagged and followed up on (often the SDR, sales or marketing manager) 
  • an automated or individual process for each rep to reach out to and qualify (or disqualify) the lead
  • a list or automated trigger which sends unresponsive or disqualified leads back to marketing for them to send nurture or re-engagement campaigns
  • a monthly or quarterly audit of closed deals to analyze which marketing campaigns are truly responsible for their initial lead source and which campaigns influenced the deals


Have your say