Traction Summary and Review

by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares

Has Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

Picture a car stuck in deep mud, its wheels spinning and spinning, sinking deeper into the dirt. Now picture a tank arriving beside the car, its tracks easily gripping the ground, propelling the tank through the mire with no problem at all.

What’s the difference between the tank and the car? Traction. It doesn’t matter how good your product is, or how high you rev the engine: if it isn’t equipped to tackle the tough conditions where new companies fight for a market share, it’ll never lift itself out of the mire.

So is your start-up going to be a tank or a car?

This book summary explain the authors’ key insights into the traction channels that will become your start-up’s caterpillar tracks, propelling you ahead of the crowd.

In this summary of Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares, you’ll learn

  • why having a good product won’t guarantee your start-up’s success;
  • how Google’s early partnership strategy won it more users; and
  • how to use social media for traction without annoying people on Twitter.

Traction Key Idea #1: Start thinking about traction early on by growing customer demand for your product.

Countless start-ups launch every day, but only a fraction succeed. Why? The answer lies in traction: the growth of customer demand for a product.

Traction is crucial because the defining metric for any start-up is its growth rate, and this growth can only be driven by a corresponding growth in consumer demand.

However, the amount of traction your company needs depends on the stage it’s reached. Early on, even a handful of new customers count as traction, but by the time you have a customer base of 10,000, only increments of thousands will work.

Another key to understanding traction is that it isn’t just about a good product; it also depends on solid marketing strategy. Many mistakenly think that a great product is all that’s needed to attract customers. However, this is almost never true. Your product needs to be marketed to the right audience in the right way.

Nonetheless, what you’re selling is still important. Split your time 50/50 between product development and traction. By devoting time to traction early on, you’ll also get valuable feedback that will help you further develop your products.

For example, when Dropbox started out, they tested search engine marketing but quickly realized it was too expensive: gaining a single customer cost twice the amount they made from a subscription! Luckily, they had time to experiment with cheaper and more effective viral marketing strategies.

A final advantage of thinking about traction early on is that it builds useful experience and allows you to grow quickly once the product is ready. For example, marketing software company Marketo started blogging about their product long before it was fully developed. This led to a better product thanks to the feedback they received, but also resulted in a ready-made customer base of 14,000 buyers on the day they launched.

So how does your start-up build traction? Read on to learn about proven techniques.

Traction Key Idea #2: Don’t discount traditional media – a great PR campaign can locate new users.

How do you start building traction? The key is to create a traction channel, that is, a way to market or distribute your product.

In order to achieve this, consider both traditional public relations, like stories in newspapers, and unconventional PR, like flash mobs centered on your product.

Let’s first examine traditional media. Think of it as a food chain with small blogs at the bottom. In order to get broad coverage, you don’t call the big fish like CNN directly. Instead, approach smaller blogs and perhaps one of the bigger news sites will pick up on the story, resulting in lots of attention.

This technique worked for, which allows teachers to raise money for things like gadgets for science classes. The company was first noticed by a few small, local media outlets, and the resulting coverage attracted the attention of Newsweek. And then, when someone on Oprah Winfrey’s team saw the Newsweek piece, the website appeared on Winfrey’s annual Favorite Things list – which brought many new sponsors to DonorsChoose.

Another route to media coverage is unconventional PR. This could mean techniques like flash mobs or creative customer appreciation gestures. This can be a great traction channel because it never gets boring and can attract a lot of attention. However, make sure that your quirky idea isn’t misunderstood. What makes one person laugh could offend someone else – or simply not attract very much attention.

On the other hand, if you’re hoping to reach a broader demographic, think about traditional offline advertisements such as radio, TV and billboards. This can actually be done quite cheaply by advertising in local media or digging for remnant advertising – unused ad space which can carry discounts of up to 90 percent. This is especially good in targeting an older audience that might not engage with technology as frequently. Unfortunately, however, the success rate of offline advertisements is difficult to track.

Traction Key Idea #3: Use social media to encourage traction and build a stable customer base.

Social media isn’t just for sharing pictures of what you ate for lunch; it can also get your start-up a lot of traction.

The first way to achieve traction through social media is via viral marketing: encouraging your existing users to refer new ones. Once you start the ball rolling, it gathers its own momentum. It’s all about encouraging your users to refer other users to you – and ultimately growing your customer base in an exponential way.

Viral marketing is cheap and fast, but it can also be difficult to pull off. There are two factors that make it successful.

First, you need as many people to recommend your product as possible. One way to achieve this is to give your existing users incentives. Dropbox, for example, offered users more storage space if they referred a friend.

Second, you need to maximize the number of referrals who go on to become users. This happens by making it as quick and easy as possible for referrals to buy or use your product. So make your sign-up process simple and fast.

In-house blogs are another avenue for growing traction. Not only do they allow you to communicate with and show your product to potential users, they are also great for soliciting feedback.

While company blogs keep devoted customers engaged, it can take a while to build up a reader base for them. So instead, consider sponsoring a third-party blog that your customers already like, in order to gain attention.

The goal is to build a community of users, which is ultimately how you achieve traction and ensure a stable customer base. Devoted users are more likely to refer others to your product and you don’t have to worry about losing them to the competition. They’re also a great way to generate product-development ideas.

So, in order to foster a strong community, give users opportunities to interact. Encourage friendly but honest communication via social media, blog comments, forums or even at parties and meet-ups!

Traction Key Idea #4: Online advertising allows you to target potential customers and raise brand awareness.

How can online advertising help you gain traction?

The first factors to consider are Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Optimization (SEO).

Let’s start with SEM: These are the ads displayed next to search engine results. So when someone does a related search, they see your ad and are informed about your product.

For example, if your company produces Danish backpacks, it’d be a good idea to have ads appear anytime someone searches for “Danish backpacks” on Google. You pay for each time a user clicks on your ad. One way to decrease costs is to target long, specific search phrases, as they will help narrow down the people clicking on your ads to only those who are truly interested.

SEO, on the other hand, involves pushing your website to the top of the results people get when they search for related words. This is important because data shows that only ten percent of all clicks happen beyond the tenth search result.

Take, for example, that Danish backpack manufacturer. It currently only appears on page three of the Google search results for “best backpacks.” The manufacturer should engage in SEO by adding that crucial keyword “backpacks” to more parts of the site, or adding more precise search terms that highlight what's unique about their product, like “backpacks from Denmark," as this will improve its search engine rankings.

In addition to search engines, social and display ads also raise awareness.

Display ads, also known as banner ads, appear on websites and target all visitors to the site, in a similar fashion to a traditional print advertisement, although with added clickability and a younger audience reach.

Similarly, social ads appear on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. Since most people use these sites for pleasure, it’s best practice to use social ads to start a conversation that guides attention toward your product rather than making a hard sell, as this would most likely just annoy users.

For example, eyeglasses maker Warby Parker encourages customers to try glasses on, take a photo wearing them and then post it on their social networks. This way the company doesn’t pay for advertising but still gains attention while its customers have fun.

Traction Key Idea #5: Partner with others to gain more traction.

You wouldn’t start a business without a support network, so why market without one? Partnering with other companies in a mutually beneficial way is called business development, and it’s a clever way to build traction.

Google is a great example of a company that leveraged partnerships to become a worldwide success. In 1999, it partnered with Netscape and Yahoo! by becoming the default search engine for the former and improving the search results of the latter. It was a win-win situation, as Google enhanced these sites’ search capabilities and itself gained many new users itself in the process.

Other collaborative ways to get traction include attending trade shows, speaking engagements and other offline events.

Trade shows are oriented toward the latest product innovations in an industry, but they also attract people who might help with your next step.

For example, bicycle brake manufacturer SlidePad Technologies began attending trade shows before their product was even ready, and landed a deal with major bike manufacturer Janis. While they didn’t have a final product to show, they met Janis executives at a trade show and learned what they needed to do to form a partnership. SlidePad then met those requirements and eventually partnered with the bigger company – enabling them to get traction and reach thousands of customers!

Other offline events like conferences, meet-ups and parties are also a great way to find people and promote your product.

For example, Twitter promoted itself at the SXSW conference in 2007 by putting TVs showing live tweets in the conference hallways. By the end of the week, their traffic had jumped from 20,000 to over 60,000 tweets.

Another way to capitalize on these offline events is to take on speaking engagements. Not only does this improve your speaking and management skills, it also spreads awareness of your product.

Traction Key Idea #6: Email marketing and traditional sales remain important ways to gain traction.

Sometimes the most obvious methods are also the most effective.

Email, for example, is still a powerful traction channel for reaching customers, especially those who’ve expressed interest in your product. It’s personal and gets you the undivided attention of prospective buyers.

However, it’s important to differentiate your emails from unsolicited spam. Find legitimate ways of attaining email addresses, such as asking for them on your blog or at the end of a conference. That way, when you reach out with product improvements or other news, your customers will want to share it – further improving their connection with your company, and improving your traction!

Another avenue to consider is traditional sales: approaching customers and proposing the direct exchange of products for money. This personal traction channel works especially well for expensive products. That’s because personal contact builds trust, so potential customers are willing to spend more on your product.

The best way to approach sales is to get people you know to be your first customers. But if that’s not possible, cold calling, or contacting unknown people who might be interested, will have to be done. In either scenario, the key to success is to thoroughly prepare what you want to say thoroughly.

And ultimately, the goal of any good sales strategy is that it is durable and works for future customers too. To that end, ask yourself: How do customers make purchasing decisions? What common questions do they ask? How do you address their concerns? And what are the most effective ways to influence their decisions during a pitch? These questions form the basis for a solid sales strategy.

As you now know, there are multiple traction channels. Read on to learn which one is best for you.

Traction Key Idea #7: The most effective sales strategies involve trying multiple traction channels and being open to change.

Each of these traction channels have proven effective for different companies, but which is the best for you? Well, it’s important to keep an open mind – don’t rule anything out in the very beginning.

Try the Bullseye Framework, a five-step tool to find the best traction channel for you:

One: start by brainstorming all the different traction channels in your industry, and how you might use them with your particular product. Ask yourself questions like: Where would we get potential customers’ email addresses? Which companies would we partner with and why?

Two: put all the channels into one of three groups: really promising ones, possible ones and long shots.

Three: choose the three top options and put them on your A-list.

Four: test these three options. Try to keep the tests cheap because you’re just exploring. Consider these questions: How much will you spend in order to gain one customer with this channel? How many customers can you get this way? And are those the customers you want and need?

Five: focus on the channel that seems the most promising, or repeat the process if none of the channels seem to be working.

Remember also that the right channels for you may change as your business develops. Think of your business’ lifecycle in three phases: product development, marketing and scaling. In principle the goal for every traction channel remains the same – increasing the customer base – but what this means in practice will change.

In the first phase you might be happy just to generate some interest in your product, but in phase two you’ll need to generate thousands of customers, so this narrows your channel options.

So just as you’d review your business plan as your company grows, review your traction channels periodically too.

Traction Key Idea #8: An effective traction strategy is pivotal for the success of your start-up.

Traction will determine the success of your start-up. This is why you should take some time to develop a well-thought-out strategy. To do so, set clear and specific goals and frame your overall strategy around it.

For example, when DuckDuckGo wanted to become a serious player in the search engine market, the company determined its traction goals, including the number of people it wanted to be using their product as their primary search engine, and how many searches per month should be completed (in their case, 100 million).

You may also find traction sub-goals, such as number of Facebook shares, helpful indications of your progress.

An additional benefit of setting traction goals is that they help organize your start-up’s limited resources. Start-ups always operate in a hectic environment where there are too many things to do and never enough time or money to do them. But tasks like product development, designing a company logo and building a team all serve the same ultimate purpose: gaining traction. This is why you should determine a critical path of actions that will lead you toward your traction goals, and then focus intently on following that path.

For DuckDuckGo, the critical path to reaching 100 million searches a month included getting more press coverage and improving search speed. Having traction goals allowed them to focus on these steps and put other tasks like optimizing product features on the backburner.

But just as the best traction channel for your company can change over time, so can the critical path. This is why you need to be flexible and open-minded. Constantly review and improve your path, keeping top-notch traction as your main priority.

In Review: Traction Book Summary

The key message in this book:

Even great products don’t sell themselves. A start-up stands or falls on the customer base it can build. This is why you need to think about traction early and often, and build your company’s goals around achieving that traction.

Actionable advice:

Attend a trade show: they’re great for getting press and viral marketing – and for building partnerships.

Do some research on which trade shows are popular in your industry and then attend a few. They are a great way to get media attention, build a customer base that can spread your message virally, and meet other businesses who might become future collaborators. Just make sure you do put on a good show that makes you stand out among all the other start-ups.

Suggested further reading: Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore

Crossing the Chasm examines the market dynamics faced by innovative new products, particularly the daunting chasm that lies between early to mainstream markets.

The book provides tangible advice on how to make this difficult transition and offers real-world examples of companies that have struggled in the chasm.