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18 min read

How to optimize your paid media spend on a budget

Revenue marketing

Optimizing paid media spend in a budget-conscious environment is an art form that requires precision, creativity, and a keen understanding of your marketing funnel. 

I'm Austin Beveridge, former Head of Marketing at Arc, and current Co-Founder of GoliathData. My experience has been a deep dive into the world of marketing efficiency, focusing on data-driven decisions to navigate the complexities of paid media on a tight budget. 

In this article, I'll share insights on optimizing your marketing strategies to not just survive, but thrive, by making informed, strategic decisions that fuel growth without breaking the bank.

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There's heightened pressure from both external and internal forces concerning budget allocations. The market now favors campaigns that yield positive returns on ad spend, marking a significant shift from the previous "growth at all costs" approach. 

It's no longer viable to acquire customers at a net loss. The expectation now is to acquire customers with a payback period of less than 12 months, aiming for an ad spend return of three to four times. This means for every dollar spent, the aim is to generate three to four dollars in top-line revenue, which should contribute to gross margin and ultimately, profitability.

Several factors have contributed to this shift: 

  • Firstly, investor sentiment has evolved: With rising interest rates, the acceptable time horizon for investment returns has shortened dramatically. Where investors previously tolerated a seven to ten-year wait for a payoff, they now expect returns within three to four years, driven by the need for investments to be cash flow neutral or positive in a much shorter time frame.
  • Secondly, the scale of investment rounds has changed: Large Series A and B rounds are less common, necessitating more cautious spending due to reduced venture capital funding, which has decreased by almost 60% year-over-year. This reduction in available capital forces businesses to achieve free cash flow positivity more quickly and necessitates more efficient spending.

This environment requires marketers to shift their focus from merely generating Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs) and Sales Qualified Leads (SQLs) to being true drivers of revenue

Efficiency is no longer optional; it's imperative. Marketers must scrutinize not just the volume of leads generated, but the actual revenue resulting from their campaigns. This represents a fundamental shift in mindset from prioritizing lead quantity to prioritizing quality and conversion to revenue, ensuring that every dollar spent is an investment toward profitable growth.

Adapting marketing strategies in a new financial landscape

In the context of tightened marketing budgets and shrinking investment timeframes, it's vital to acknowledge that venture capital (VC) dollars have retracted in recent years.

Despite this pullback, VCs operate on a seven-year investment cycle, suggesting that while there's been a hiatus in spending, the inherent nature of VC investments hasn't changed. 

Data from sources like PitchBook indicates there's approximately $1 trillion in VC and private equity funds currently unallocated. This hiatus accounts for a significant portion of their investment cycle, hinting at a potential surge in funding once the economic climate shifts, especially when interest rates start to decrease. 

The generative AI sector has already seen a substantial influx of investments, signaling that VCs are beginning to earmark funds for promising areas, though overall funding across sectors remains subdued.

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For marketers, the current environment demands a strategy that ensures survival through efficient budgeting and achieving cash flow positivity. The emphasis on generating a net positive return on ad spend is more crucial than ever. 

Success in this area means that once investment flows resume, businesses can rapidly scale their proven strategies, effectively "pouring gasoline on the fire." This period of financial restraint forces marketers to refine their approaches, focusing on profitability rather than growth at any cost. 

Understanding unit economics, identifying profitable channels, and preparing to scale operations once funding resumes are key steps in navigating this new normal.

This financial recalibration presents an opportunity for marketers to become more effective and efficient. By necessity, marketers must move beyond strategies that rely on negative unit economics for customer acquisition and instead focus on profitable growth. 

This shift not only prepares businesses to capitalize on future investment influxes but also promotes a healthier, more sustainable approach to growth. 

The challenge of operating with constrained budgets and the emphasis on positive returns are shaping a new generation of marketers who are adept at driving substantial growth in more challenging economic conditions.

Embracing data-driven marketing for sustainable growth

The introduction of regulations like GDPR in Europe has indeed made us better marketers by compelling us to scrutinize how we handle and leverage data. This shift toward data governance and utilization has been transformative, particularly in sectors like SaaS, where a keen understanding of the direct line from marketing efforts to revenue is crucial. 

However, this data-driven approach is still not universally adopted, with perhaps only a small fraction of organizations truly excelling in this domain. For the vast majority, the primary step is to gain mastery over their data to identify what truly works.

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Reflecting on my own experience, there was a time when I was indifferent to data. As long as the metrics were trending upward and we were hitting our targets, deep dives into data seemed unnecessary. This mindset was feasible in an era of abundant capital, where success could be sustained by continuously raising more funds. 

Today, the landscape has drastically changed. Achieving cash flow neutrality or positivity is imperative for securing continued investment. This necessitates a disciplined approach to identifying the most effective channels, as failure to do so could prematurely deplete resources before a business has the chance to scale.

Our recent analysis revealed the need to reassess our marketing channels critically. For instance, we discovered that leads from Google Ads were not converting satisfactorily, prompting us to discontinue our investment in this channel. 

This decision was part of a broader strategy to evaluate the performance of each channel — be it paid social, search engine marketing (SEM), event marketing, or content creation — based on concrete data on lead conversion and customer lifetime value (LTV). 

Such evaluations led us to make tough decisions, focusing our efforts on channels that showed genuine promise.

The cornerstone of effective data-driven marketing is a comprehensive CRM system that integrates seamlessly with all marketing channels. Whether Salesforce, HubSpot, or another platform, the key is to track campaign performance meticulously, from event participation to paid advertising, ensuring that data flows unimpeded from initial lead capture to the CRM

This setup enables precise tracking of the sources contributing to conversions and allows for gathering first-party insights directly from customers. Establishing this foundation is critical for making informed decisions and moving beyond guesswork in marketing strategies.

The most significant lesson I've learned is the importance of accessible, interpretable data. Without it, marketing efforts are akin to throwing darts in the dark. Today's marketing professionals must cultivate a data-driven mindset, ensuring they have the tools and processes in place to collect, analyze, and act upon the wealth of information available

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This approach not only enhances efficiency and effectiveness but also positions organizations for sustainable growth in an increasingly competitive and financially conscious business environment.

Refining targeting strategies and embracing experimentation

In times of financial abundance, it's tempting to cast a wide net, exploring beyond core demographics and venturing into expansive territories like influencer partnerships. However, the current economic climate necessitates a more focused approach. 

It's crucial to tighten demographic targeting and optimize ad spend, ensuring resources are directed toward audiences most likely to engage and convert. This strategic narrowing not only improves efficiency but also enhances the relevance and impact of marketing efforts.

In my previous role in Bolt, we maintained a narrowly defined Ideal Customer Profile (ICP), targeting roles directly involved with the tech stack, such as directors of finance and heads of eCommerce. This focused approach enabled us to scale our advertising, events, and outbound strategies effectively. 

Conversely, at ARC, while we began with a similar focus on founders and financial executives, we've since broadened our reach. 

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Recognizing the diverse needs of our clientele, we've extended our targeting to include roles like heads of partnerships and marketing, who, although not directly controlling budgets, play influential roles in financial decision-making processes.

This expansion into new personas, driven by our product offerings in capital and cash management, has proven to be beneficial, prompting us to continue exploring additional audience segments.

In an era of constrained budgets, reserving a portion of the marketing budget for experimentation is vital. Allocating about 10% to test new channels, audiences, and partnership opportunities allows for innovation and discovery. 

For instance, sponsoring events that gather unique communities or exploring new demographic segments can uncover valuable insights and opportunities. Experimentation is the bridge between good and great marketing, providing the data and experience needed to refine strategies, messages, and positioning

It's through these trials that we identify where our target audience congregates and how we can effectively meet their needs.

Carving out a budget for experimentation underlines a commitment to not just sustaining but growing and evolving as marketers and as an organization. It's about seeking what resonates, finding the right channels, and delivering value in a way that positions us as leaders in our field. 

Without this openness to experimentation, there's a risk of stagnation, relying solely on past successes without adapting to the changing landscape. Therefore, dedicating resources to explore new possibilities is essential for achieving greatness in marketing and fostering organizational growth.

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Prioritizing marketing spend for maximum ROI

When faced with a constrained budget, the instinctive move might be to funnel resources into demand generation, assuming it directly correlates with revenue.

However, a strategic reassessment of spending across brand advertising, demand generation, and nurture campaigns is essential for optimizing returns on investment.

In tight budget conditions, investing in brand advertising, especially within paid channels, may not be the most efficient use of resources. Branding builds naturally across various channels, and paid media might not always offer the measurable return needed to justify the expenditure. 

The logic is straightforward: If your brand already appears organically in top search results, paying for clicks through branded search ads could result in unnecessary costs for traffic that you would likely capture anyway. This approach may lead to misleading success metrics, as these clicks represent users already familiar with your brand, not new leads generated by paid efforts.

While demand generation plays a critical role in filling the top of the funnel, it's akin to pouring water into a bucket with a hole if there isn't a robust mechanism to convert leads into opportunities.

This realization underscores the inefficiency of allocating a significant portion of a tight budget to demand gen without ensuring a healthy conversion rate further down the funnel.

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Nurture campaigns present a compelling case for investment, particularly when funds are limited. These campaigns effectively "patch the holes" in your marketing funnel, improving the conversion rates of leads already within your system. 

By enhancing the efficiency of lead conversion — even by a small percentage — nurture campaigns can have an immediate and significant impact on revenue, providing more funds for reinvestment.

  • Retargeting: This has proven to be a highly effective method for re-engaging users who have visited the website without taking a desired action, such as filling out a form or completing a purchase. Tailoring retargeting campaigns to different user interactions can yield a high return on ad spend.
  • Account-based marketing (ABM) for engaged accounts: Targeting accounts that have shown interest but haven't converted can be particularly fruitful. Tools like Warmly and Mash offer insights into account behaviors and funnel stages, enabling highly personalized and targeted outreach that resonates with potential customers' specific interests.

For organizations navigating financial constraints, the strategic allocation of marketing budgets towards nurture campaigns, particularly retargeting and ABM, offers a path to tangible ROI improvements. 

Once the funnel's efficiency is maximized, and conversion rates are optimized, expanding into demand generation and, eventually, brand advertising becomes a viable strategy to drive growth. This approach ensures that every dollar spent is an investment towards not just growth, but sustainable and profitable growth.

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Enhancing website convertibility and nurturing leads

The challenge of converting paid traffic into meaningful engagement and ultimately into customers is a critical aspect of marketing efficiency, especially when operating under budget constraints.

Focusing on how to maximize the convertibility of digital assets is paramount, prompting a series of strategic tests and optimizations to our funnel.

Initially, our approach to engaging leads post-form submission involved a basic one or two-step email sequence. Recognizing the opportunity to deepen engagement, we extended this to an eight-step sequence. 

Unlike traditional follow-ups that press for a meeting or call, our sequence aims to add value by providing resources relevant to the interests indicated by the form submission. This approach positions us as thought leaders and partners, rather than just transactional entities, nurturing a relationship built on value and trust.

A pivotal experiment involved the introduction of a second CTA on our landing pages. Previously, we relied on a single "Book a Demo" button, which, while effective in generating demo requests, did not necessarily align with every visitor's readiness or qualification level. 

By adding a "Direct Onboarding" option alongside the traditional demo request, we catered to a broader audience spectrum, significantly increasing product sign-ups and, by extension, conversions.

Two additional measures have been instrumental in improving the quality of leads and the efficiency of our funnel:

  • Implementing reCAPTCHA: To reduce noise from bots and non-genuine submissions, we incorporated reCAPTCHA on our forms. This simple yet effective tool has nearly eradicated the influx of irrelevant traffic, ensuring that our engagement efforts are focused on real potential customers.
  • Blocking personal email submissions: We noticed a trend of leads submitting personal email addresses, which often resulted in lower engagement and follow-through rates. By blocking submissions from popular personal email domains (e.g., Gmail, Yahoo), we've significantly improved the quality and business relevance of our leads.

Our email outreach strategy emphasizes personalization and relevance. The emails sent post-form submission are crafted to resemble one-to-one communication rather than generic marketing blasts. 

This personalized approach fosters a more authentic connection with potential customers. While we have begun experimenting with branded emails for product updates, the core of our nurture strategy remains focused on delivering value through tailored, plain-text messages.

These strategies collectively represent a comprehensive approach to enhancing website convertibility and nurturing leads effectively. 

By continuously testing and refining our engagement tactics, focusing on providing value, and ensuring our outreach resonates with the needs and preferences of our audience, we've been able to significantly improve both the quantity and quality of conversions. 

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These efforts underscore the importance of adaptability and innovation in digital marketing, particularly in an era where every dollar spent needs to work harder to achieve desired outcomes.

Leveraging data-driven insights for marketing strategy optimization

Upon joining the marketing efforts last May, a significant challenge was the dominance of branded traffic, which accounted for 98% of our search footprint. This high percentage of branded traffic indicated that most of our web visitors were already familiar with ARC, limiting our reach to new audiences. 

Through a dedicated content strategy and the creation of a variety of resources—blog posts, Learning Center articles, and encyclopedic pages — we've dramatically shifted this balance.

Proudly, we now boast a 17% share of non-branded organic search traffic, a testament to our strategy's effectiveness in attracting individuals unfamiliar with our brand, thus expanding our market reach.

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Analyzing spend across all channels highlighted field and events marketing as the most efficient in terms of ROI. With a modest investment of three to five thousand dollars per event, we've consistently converted two to three accounts from each gathering, yielding a return on spend of 10 to 12 times the initial investment. 

This success underscores the value of direct engagement and personalized experiences in converting leads into customers.

Social media, while often overlooked due to its non-monetary investment, has proven to be a powerful channel for driving deposit volume and account sign-ups.

The minimal time cost associated with creating and sharing content on these platforms has delivered substantial returns, emphasizing the importance of leveraging social media for brand visibility and engagement.

Similarly, our approach to content marketing — relying solely on in-house production without external expenditures for backlinks or agency services — has significantly contributed to our inbound traffic and conversion rates. 

This strategy not only underscores the effectiveness of content in driving non-branded search traffic but also highlights the efficiency of utilizing internal resources for content creation.

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A noteworthy insight from our data analysis is the increasing importance of referrals in driving high-value conversions. The growth of this channel, where founders refer to other founders, has transitioned from a minor segment to a significant contributor to our overall business volume. 

This evolution illustrates the power of community and word-of-mouth in enhancing our customer base and overall market penetration.

This comprehensive analysis reveals the critical role of data in shaping our marketing strategies and resource allocation. By focusing on high-impact channels like field events, social media, and content marketing, and recognizing the growing value of referrals, we've optimized our approach to capture a wider audience and drive efficient conversions. 

These insights not only guide our current strategies but also set a foundation for future growth and adaptation in an ever-evolving market landscape.

Tracking and optimizing partner channels through CRM integration

Our approach to managing and tracking partner referrals leverages dedicated landing pages for each of our partners, such as Slack, Gong, or Rippling.

This method allows us to direct traffic to customized pages designed to facilitate seamless referral processes. 

For instance, a partner-specific URL like "rippling.com/arc" serves as a dedicated conduit for traffic from Rippling to ARC. Conversely, we have mirrored landing pages on our site, such as "arc.tech/rippling," to capture leads originating from our partners.

This bidirectional setup ensures that we can accurately track the flow of traffic and referrals between ARC and our partners.

The integration of UTM parameters with Salesforce is crucial for maintaining visibility over the referral process. By capturing the UTM data from landing pages and passing it through to Salesforce, we gain insights into the origins of our leads and can attribute them accurately to the corresponding partner channel. 

Additionally, our product onboarding process includes options for new users to indicate how they heard about us, further enriching our data with both self-reported information and automated tracking data.

This combination of first-party input and UTM tracking provides a robust framework for understanding and optimizing our referral channels.

A significant challenge in digital marketing is the "dark funnel," where the origins of direct traffic and referrals are not clearly identified, obscuring the true effectiveness of various channels. By asking users directly where they heard about us and implementing tailored landing pages for partners, we aim to illuminate this dark funnel. 

This strategy enables us to attribute referrals accurately, assess the performance of our partnership channels, and refine our strategies based on reliable data.

The conversation comes full circle to the essential need for a solid data foundation. Understanding what works and what doesn't in our marketing efforts hinges on our ability to capture, analyze, and act upon data. 

Our systematic approach to tracking referrals and partner traffic exemplifies how a data-driven strategy can enhance visibility across the marketing funnel, allowing us to make informed decisions, optimize our efforts, and ultimately drive better results from our marketing investments.

Key takeaways: Optimizing marketing in a budget-constrained environment

1. Establish a solid data foundation

The cornerstone of any efficient marketing strategy, especially under budgetary constraints, is a solid data foundation. This enables a comprehensive understanding of what's working and what's not, allowing for strategic allocation of resources. 

By leveraging the right technology stack and ensuring seamless integration across platforms, marketers can illuminate the dark funnel, pinpointing the origin of leads and optimizing spend based on concrete insights. 

This approach not only conserves resources but also sets the stage for scalable growth once additional funding becomes available.

2. Prioritize demand generation over brand advertising

In environments where budgets are tight, the focus should shift towards demand generation rather than brand advertising.

While brand building is essential for long-term success, its impact is harder to measure and may not deliver the immediate ROI that demand gen can provide. 

Demand gen vs. demand capture: What’s the difference?
Demand generation attracts leads with content, social, and ads. Demand capture nurtures, qualifies, and converts them into opportunities.

By concentrating efforts on demand gen, marketers can drive measurable results, generating leads and conversions that contribute directly to the bottom line.

This doesn't mean neglecting brand building entirely but rather understanding the current priorities and allocating spend accordingly.

3. Optimize digital assets for conversion

The importance of optimizing your digital real estate — your website and landing pages — cannot be overstated. Directing paid traffic to your site is only part of the equation; ensuring that visitors convert at the highest possible rate is crucial. 

This involves continuous testing and refinement of page layouts, CTAs, content, and user experience to maximize conversions.

By making your digital assets as effective as possible, you capture more value from each visitor, improving overall marketing efficiency.

Final thoughts

Focusing on data-driven strategies, demand generation, and conversion optimization are paramount for marketers navigating the challenges of a reduced marketing budget and increased scrutiny on spend.

This shift requires not just marketing acumen but also an analytical, almost scientific approach to understanding and engaging with audiences. 

The lessons learned in this environment will not only help marketers succeed in the short term but also emerge as more capable, versatile professionals ready to leverage growth opportunities in the future.

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Written by:

Austin Beveridge

Austin Beveridge

With perseverance and compassion, Austin Beveridge builds, scales, and inspires, motivating others to dream big while uplifting everyone he meets.

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How to optimize your paid media spend on a budget