Zack Onisko is a veteran of the San Francisco Bay Area growth marketing community. For the past 15 years, he has been growing and scaling companies with multiple acquisitions including Creative Market, acquired by Autodesk in 2013, as well as BranchOut, acquired by 1-Page in 2014.
He is especially well versed in using growth channels that don’t scale as a means to get initial traction. His introduction to the tech community of San Francisco was also as a designer, which lends itself especially well to a strong perspective on conversion rate optimization.
Zach joined Hired as their VP of Growth in December of 2015 where he is running the marketing efforts that supplement their robust paid acquisition strategy that drives many of their signups for both candidates and recruiters on Hired’s recruiting platform that is actively disrupting the hiring and job search industry.
Here are some of the topics discussed in this episode:
Modern Marketing Design Trends
Most modern websites, ads, and landing pages, follow a similar format: heading at the top, sub-text, call to action, a three icons with a value proposition.
It’s also kind of a shame that as a standard practice we’ve become very stale in our creativity with what we can do with homepages and landing pages. It’s every website ever. And, I think that is becoming the new ad. It’s just like everything else and you start to tone it out.
Zack tells his team at Hired, a site that has lower traffic than his previous companies, that more dramatic changes are necessary to obtain the necessary results from A/B testing.
More importantly, instead of creating redundant web experiences, there are plenty of opportunities for marketing designers to to think outside the box and offer a something fresh for the user that isn’t tuned out.
Scalable vs. Non-Scalable Growth
After identifying product market fit, Zack says it’s necessary to do some manual labor to gain early traction, even if it’s not scalable in the long term. This includes direct outreach to customers, giving away free stuff, and even throwing parties for your users until you have the user base to fund other marketing channels, such as digital advertising.
That non-scalable stage really comes down to hustling and doing the leg work of finding low-cost channels for acquisition because paid channels are expensive.
Once you’ve establishing your growth marketing machine, it’s easier to invest money and time into other channels for scalable growth including SEO, Virality, Sales, Partnerships, and of course, Paid Acquisition.
The smart folks – all the high growth companies today from Airbnb to Pinterest to whomever – they had very humble beginnings and they didn’t get to that mega growth overnight. It was something that was a slow play.
But even then, spending money to acquire new users must be done with frequent monitoring and proper testing.
Responsibly Managing Your Advertising Budget
As Andrew Dumont mentioned in a previous episode of Advertising Influencers, many of the people who fail with paid acquisition are using the channel with a lack of sophistication.
Additionally, Zack finds that some companies use digital advertising during their non-scalable growth stage before they have the resources and funds to engage in the level of advertising sophistication needed for successful ad campaigns.
Ads are great and you could do a lot of experimentation on those channels because they’re highly targeted, and you can get a handful of ads for relatively low cost. But it’s pretty dangerous when you have campaigns that you’re just running on autopilot and you’re blowing through, ten grand a week...
Even so, successful advertising with positive ROI requires consistently monitoring your results with a robust testing strategy and fine-tuning your targeting to make sure that your marketing budget is going to the appropriate places.
Note: this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ander: Well, this is kind of a fun interview here in the Hired office, Hired HQ in San Francisco. I’ve been here one or two other times – I have a number of friends who work here – and one of the guys I’ve met here before is Zack Onisko, VP of Growth here at Hired. Zack, how are you doing?
Zack: Good, thanks. Thanks for having me.
Ander: Certainly. Thank you for joining us. And you’re in a product role now as well, is that right?
Zack: I was. I was wearing the hat for a couple of months while we were kind of in between Head of Product. We have a guy named Wyatt just came over here from Optimizely, he’s our new SVP of Product.
Zack: Yeah. Super excited to have him.
Ander: Great. Given that you have the experience with all these different kind of
organizations and scaling growth teams and making some pretty incredible things happen, let’s hear the fifteen second version of how you got here, some of the how you got started and how you ended up at Hired.
Zack: Sure. The quick career summary is that I started as a designer, moved into a PM role, and then moved into a growth function, really focused on growth specifically. It’s been about a fifteen year run. Built three companies from infancy to successful acquisition. And now here at Hired and aiming to take this thing IPO.
Ander: I certainly can see that happening with the amount of ads I see from you guys on a fairly regular basis. You’re working with what appears to be a pretty large advertising budget.
Zack: Yeah, I mean, without disclosing the numbers, we’re probably one of the larger advertisers on LinkedIn, for example. We also have a large Facebook and Twitter budget. It kind of expands out from there with a bunch of one-off deals all over the place.
Ander: Yeah. I say that observationally because I get a number of your ads and most of the people I know who operate in the tech space get many of your ads as well.
Throughout your career, with all of the things that you’ve done, what was your first interaction with paid?
Zack: Right out of college, my first job was a design role in a marketing team at a startup that was spending about a million and a half dollar a month on paid. Coming into a role like that you really start to design for performance.
You learn really quickly about user behavior and the things that’ll get people to click and drive traffic through to an advertisement to a website. That was very early, as I was moving from design into the marketing world. It was kind of trial by fire. But that’s really where I got my love for A/B testing and really the whole quantifying performance. It came through that experience and through that marketing team. And that drove a career into end-of-product and I spent over a decade designing products and making them grow.
Ander: It’s interesting you said that about A/B testing. Yes, obviously A/B testing is very, very important. I know how much you advocate for that.
You also talk a lot about growth channels or methodologies for growth that don’t necessarily scale. You have this really great deck online entitled ’20 Ways to Grow Your Company That are Non-traditional.’
How do you kind of balance this analytical approach with A/B testing and some of these ways that you outlined in that deck?
Zack: A lot of founders are just in a big hurry to get to that scalable growth. They just wanna go viral and get to bazillions of users overnight.
That talk is really talking about three stages of start-up growth – the first stage being product-market fit, and really just finding out if there is a market large enough to build a sustainable business. Once you have a signal there, a lot of founders make the mistake of jumping right into, ‘Ok! Let’s figure out our viral channel. Let’s dump a lot of money in paid!’
And then they blow through their seed fund. The smart folks – all the high growth companies today from Airbnb to Pinterest to whomever – they had very humble beginnings and they didn’t get to that mega growth overnight. It was something that was a slow play.
That middle chunk, that second stage, is this non-scalable stage and Paul Graham has a quote of an analogy of the old car cranks that you would turn to start motors back in the ‘20s. He says that as a founder, you have to turn that crank. It’s a manual, laborious process to get that going. But once it’s going, then it runs on its own.
That manual cranking is this non-scalable growth stage and then the engine running on its own is really the scalable stage.
The scalable stage really has, five major general buckets – it’s paid, but it’s also SEO. It’s virality, the one that everyone thinks about with growth. The holy grail.
Then there’s sales. If you have a product where you have enough profit left over to pay people then you just keep throwing people at the problem. And then there’s partnerships, if you piggy-back on somebody else’s existing audiences.
Those are the five channels that we have as entrepreneurs to scale digital businesses. And it’s funny at Hired we’re really going after all of those, which is unique because most companies, you know, you can pretty much point to one of those.
Ander: It also appears that you’re at a place where you can afford to do that in terms of bandwidth and other things that you guys have going on here.
Zack: Yeah. In the beginning, we had what was very much a paid, one-channel approach to
driving growth.Something that we’re actively working is diversifying our acquisition channels.
And, we’ve just recently over last year built this mature sales force, and really going after that, as the next big acquisition horse power. But the growth team is also working on building out referral channels, partnership programs, and doubling down on content marketing and SEO to go after that free organic traffic.
Ander: Yeah, that’s a big part of it as well. You said something interesting a few moments ago about people dumping all their seed money into paid.
Zack: Yeah, I think when people think about marketing or advertising they just think, ‘Oh! I need to do Facebook ads.’ Ads are great and you could do a lot of experimentation on those channels because they’re highly targeted, and you can get a handful of ads for relatively low cost. But it’s pretty dangerous when you have campaigns that you’re just running on autopilot and you’re blowing through, ten grand a week and you look back six months later and you’re like, ‘Where did all the money go?’
Zack: That non-scalable stage really comes down to hustling and doing the leg work of finding low-cost channels for acquisition because paid channels are expensive. Hired spends a lot on advertising and we have super high customer acquisition cost, but we can afford it because we make $15 on average for every transaction.
So the numbers work out for us, but even then, it’s still really expensive. For a lot of other businesses, it should really be the last channel that you go after. Try a bunch of other stuff first and then, if you fail everywhere else, the advice is then run some experiments on paid. But it’s expensive, it’s competitive, and it’s just gotten more expensive and more competitive over the years.
Ander: Sure. So why do you think people default to it?
Zack: ‘Cause it’s easy. I think it’s easy to run ads, it’s easy to, get some campaigns going and check that box.
Ander: I wonder if it’s easy to do that because people don’t have dedicated marketers and they just need something that they can do quickly. Or, is there something else to it?
Zack: It all comes down to your business too. Every business is different.
Zack: If you’re selling something and you have your angle in a space that’s not competitive, then paid can work for you. If you’re really looking to go high-growth, and you’re building a business where you need hundreds of thousands or millions of users, it’s just not a viable channel.
Do you have any thoughts in terms of retargeting? Or using that…
Zack: I mean, Home Depot got me to buy a lawn mower.
Zack: I left a lawn mower in my shopping cart. Home Depot chased me all over the internet with that lawn mower.
Zack: Eventually I broke down and went back and checked out. So, I think you could do some smart things like that.
Where people retarget incorrectly is Amazon. They’ll show me things like the thing I just bought. And I’m like, ‘Well, I already bought the thing, so why are you showing me other things?
I don’t need ten more bowling balls. I already have a bowling ball. I just bought it.’
When you’re not really thinking with the user first and you’re just getting sloppy or lazy with the retargeting, I think that’s where it falls down.
Ander: That makes sense. Is it fair to say that many marketers who are running paid are doing it wrong? Are more people doing it wrong than might be doing it right?
Zack: I mean, I think it’s like anything. It’s a skillset. The more experience you have, the better at your craft you’ll get.
But, advertising in general is a hit space business. If you have a dead campaign you’re not gonna see it perform. If you think outside the box and you do something that grabs people’s attention, again, it’s like you’re competing for people’s attention in a very competitive landscape. There are these studies about people with a version of their screen that ignores ads. Even on mobile, where the ad is almost as big as the screen, people will scroll past it immediately. Intuitively. Because we’ve trained ourselves to tune out this noisy advertisement.
Ander: Gotcha. Let’s talk about top-of-funnel CRO. If somebody comes straight to your site, maybe it’s a branded search, maybe it’s direct traffic…
Ander: What are some of the observations that you’ve made in your career as a growth marketer on things that are working and things that aren’t working on homepage CRO?
Zack: I tend to steer away from tactical advice because one thing that worked for one company rarely works for other folks.
It’s also kind of a shame that as a standard practice we’ve become very stale in our creativity with what we can do with homepages and landing pages. We’ve distilled down all the ideas to the heading at the top, maybe some a sub-text under that, and then a call to action. Then that’s all above this, like, hero graphic 100% with. Underneath that, there’s three icons, maybe a few words… You know what I’m talking about, right?
Ander: Yeah, yeah.
Zack: It’s every website ever. And, I think that is becoming the new ad. It’s just like everything else and you start to tone it out. What I tell my guys, and with Hired, is that we have the challenge of having lower traffic, and it requires us to have bigger swings to get to statistical significance in a shorter amount of time.
We have to really aim for making a much larger change in a conversion rate than. When I was at BranchOut, we were signing up, at our peak, 600,000 people a day. High growth. We could set an A/B test live and reach statistical significance five minutes later.
Ander: That is wild.
Zack: Set that variation live and then set the next one on top of it. We were compounding those growth rates on top of each other.
At Hired we can have a test run for two weeks. It’s a much longer process to get that place. What we really want to see is a big win. So, yeah, I could talk till the cows come home about things I’ve done like button color tests and copy changes… And copy is important.
Ander: That’s awesome. Let’s talk about copy.
Zack: You can move the needle with copy, but only so much. You can only play that game for so long before you really have to think, ‘What’s a completely different approach that you can take with this page?’
Ander: We talk a lot at Instapage about personalization, specifically advertising personalization, but I think that the whole concept of personalization goes… and it goes beyond just ads. It comes down to, you know, the user experience within an app or within a website or wherever else it might be. I think that people wanna be humanized. They want to feel that they’re not just another number in somebody’s stripe account or something like that.
Zack: Sure. Yeah.
Ander: How does the top-of-funnel copy work towards that kind of personalization – whether it’s coming from an ad or from something else?
Zack: There are some clever things you can do. If you go to Optimizely’s homepage, they sniff your IP address and they know that’s the IP of a corporate headquarters. They’ll say, ‘Hello, Microsoft! Welcome to Optimizely!’
You can do some cool stuff there, which is neat when you don’t have any information on the visitor. You go to weather sites and they see that you’re in San Francisco and automatically ‘Here’s the weather in San Francisco.’ That’s some cool stuff.
I think the personalization when you get to B2C or e-commerce is really around recommendations. That’s when you have a registered user and you’re learning about their behavior and you’re making predictions about recommendations on what they might like next.
You see Medium do it through social connections and there are some cool recommendations and personalizations there that are through a social signal. And then, e-commerce sites – Amazon is the obvious one – see patterns in your search behavior and then bubble up recommendations based on it. That gives us a great experience.
One of the things we’re working on here is not so much personalization… And, personalization is kind of an ambiguous term and it means lots of different things for lots of different applications.
But for me and for growth in terms of reducing friction from on-boarding for Hired… As a candidate we there are nine steps. We’re looking at how we can reduce this flow, and we’re looking at if we can use third-party data sources to get some general public information on you that’s already out there. And so if you give us a unique identifier, then we can choose to pre-fill form fields for you. We can guess that this is you and ask ‘Is this correct?’ Or if we have enough confidence that this information is there, we don’t need to have them, we can just basically, fill out their resume.
We don’t need them to fill it out manually. That’s another example of personalization.
Also, an SDR is doing an outreach and there’s all these crazy sales tech tools today with lots of public data built into them. If you send an e-mail, why not add a bunch of parameters from the sign-up form into that call-to-action in the e-mail. And then on the landing page, have all those fields pre-filled and the user can then choose to edit them or not. It cuts out the friction.
Landing on the page and having them type out seven form fields is just work. If you can take work away from folks, that’s personalization. That’s optimizing. That’s CRO.
Ander: Yeah. To play devil’s advocate, what about the argument that, if there are more form fields and there are more steps, if you have a two-step opt-in, that you’ll have higher quality leads.
Zack: I think for every business that requires lots of information, that’s the devil’s advocate thing.
I think it depends. I think that it’s one way to filter people out but if you’re focused on conversion rate optimization, you shouldn’t be filtering people out by making your interface harder to use.
You find another way to do that. That’s just bad user experience.
Ander: Is that almost like anti-CRO?
Zack: Yeah, and I think it’s like the dark patterns. Getting people to manipulate behavior through interface.
There’s a scale to intent. High intent people will spend the time and go and fill out all the forms. And so will desperate people. You might have had people who were high quality and said know, ‘I’m not filling out 17 form fields for this application.’ And then, you just lost a high quality person because your application is hard to use.
Ander: See, I wonder if there’s a way – and I’m kind of hypothesizing here – but I wonder if there’s a way with personalization to actually provide the right number of form fields to the right [cut] type of person… something like that.
Zack: Yeah, could be. By all means, chase that. I kind of come from the school of thought that less is a better experience. The goal should be able to get your user in front of that “aha moment” as fast as possible. Everything else that’s blocking them from getting to there, is more things that you’re putting in front of them. What drives me batty is SasS products blocking any kind of demo of the product until you talk to the salesperson.
Ander: That’s one of the reasons that we don’t require a credit card or anything at Instapage. You can just dive in and start using it.
Zack: Yeah. That’s amazing. Cut the friction out. There are graphs of all the logos of marketing and SaaS products. Have you seen this?
Ander: Yeah, the whole marketing technology ecosystem.
Zack: Yeah. Just do a Google image search. It was a couple hundred just five years ago, and the thing is, it’s grown. Now there’s more than 3000+ marketing SaaS products out there. And I don’t know how long this sales roadblock is gonna last when all these new kids on the block like Instapage say, ‘We made an awesome product! Here it is! Use it with no friction! Come on board!’
I think that’s the way of the future and a better user experience. At the end of the day, a better user experience will win.
Ander: Speaking of the way of the future, I know that you’ve done talks about why paid is one of the channels that you don’t like to work with, necessarily, as much. We’ve talked about it a little bit during this conversation about how if you’re not doing it strategically with the right way, then you could spend a bunch of money that you don’t necessarily want to spend. Given what you just said about the way of the future and creating as frictionless of an experience as possible, what do you see that way of the future being – in terms of paid, if you’re able to comment on that at all?
Zack: The channels are always evolving. Now there’s Instagram and there’s Snapchat and all these new opportunities to spend your money. And I think that that’ll continue to evolve. I think that mobile is still very much in its infancy.
And I think that’ll be a battle of advertisers wanting to get in front of larger audiences and operating systems trying to prevent ads and trying to protect that user experience. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes. There are all these interesting technologies like bots and AI coming out that could be interesting in terms of advertising, or just insanely annoying.
Ander: Yeah, I mean, it could be both. Sometimes the insanely annoying things are the most interesting to talk about.
Ander: Zack, once again, thank you so much for letting us come to your office here. It’s been a pleasure talking, pleasure seeing you again.
Zack: Yeah, same.
Ander: Hope to see you soon.