Why Acquisition Marketing Is Still So Hard

As you read this, those who work in acquisition marketing have never had it so good. More channels than ever. More tools. More data. More communities and forums like Inbound.org or Growth Hackers to discuss your challenges and opportunities.

And yet despite this, customer acquisition (the sole purpose of acquisition marketing) is as hard as ever.


Particularly when its premise, as illustrated in this 3×3 matrix, is actually incredibly simple.

marketing acquisition outcomes matrix

*Now you just need to do it a hundred, thousand or several million times a year, year in year out, usually increasing 20-40% every year (or more for high growth, VC backed startups).

As the matrix shows, acquisition marketing only works if you manage to get someone’s attention, and influence their behaviour in the desired way, which in the case of customer acquisition means making a sale.

It’s that simple. There are just two elements to being good at acquisition marketing.

Get someone’s attention, persuade them to buy (or sign up to) something.

As I said, simples.

Oh but wait, it’s really freakin’ hard!

Let’s put things in perspective.

You’ve got friends? Ok, phew, that would’ve been awkward!

So you’ve got friends, and you want to get a few of you together for drinks and maybe a meal one Friday evening in the next month or so.

That’s your goal.

And in theory you know how to reach everyone (they’re all your friends, right!), but…

Fred just moved jobs and always used to use his work phone, so you actually don’t have his number or work email, which means you need to communicate via Facebook because he just never checks his personal email.

Jane is pretty responsive, but only via text because she doesn’t like WhatsApp, whereas everyone else in the group loves WhatsApp and now rarely check their email unless they’re at work, when they’re pretty busy or don’t feel comfortable replying to personal stuff.

So now you’ve got to co-ordinate across Facebook, text, email and WhatsApp just to try and reach a handful of friends and get their attention (marketing’s #1 prerequisite).

Then you’ve got to get everyone to respond, which is hard because they’re all busy, and while they probably mean to get back to you, they got distracted by their partner/kid/boss/train arriving etc. so you have to chase them several times.

And then you have to actually get commitments (acquisition marketing’s #2 prerequisite – commitment, or action), which is even tougher, as co-ordinating diaries across a handful of working professionals is essentially impossible.

And so to reach your goal, you have a massive uphill battle, and actually it’s why so many friendships drift and falter once we enter our adult lives.

Which means that even with our friends, who know us well and have ‘opted in’ to communication, and in theory all want the same thing as you do (i.e. they’re predisposed to act positively)…achieving your goal is really tough.

Why marketing acquisition is still so hard

Should getting friends together be so tough? Should marketing?

Now put yourself in a marketer’s shoes, where you’re more or less attempting the same thing, but most likely you’re in a position where you’re not trying to get in touch with friends, you just have a vague idea of who you’d like your friends to be (e.g. personas), and they’re not predisposed to like you, or what you have to say.

And you want them to pay you in order to take the action you’d like them to.

So achieving acquisition marketing’s simple goal is actually somewhat akin to sticking the tail on a very erratic, fast moving, uninterested and possibly mythical unicorn that doesn’t want to play the game. Over and over and over again.

Now we’ve got some perspective on how hard this type of marketing is, let’s dive into it a little more closely, to really understand the fundamental challenges.

Issue 1: Attention is in incredibly short supply

Fundamentally, I would argue you only have four options if you want to get the attention of someone during their waking day. They are:

  •      When they’re on a computer
  •      When they’re on their mobile phone
  •      When they’re at home and not on either of those devices
  •      When they’re out and about and not on either of those devices

That’s it. They’re your options. Pretty limited wouldn’t you say?

Of course as marketers we like to think there are lots of options for reaching our audience. So we break it down a little more granularly.

Desktop: Email, display, search, retargeting, content marketing, social media, influencer marketing, video etc.

Mobile: Mostly all the same options + podcasts, mobile ads etc.

Out and about: Out of home (e.g. Billboards, posters, experiential and events etc.), instore promotions, print ads etc,

At home: TV, radio, flyers and leaflets etc.

The reality is, only the largest brands have the kinds of budgets to reach people ‘at home (other)’, or ‘out and about (other)’ i.e. TV, Radio, Billboards etc. which could be summed as offline acquisition marketing.

So for probably 95% of brands and businesses, you’ve essentially got the exact same two windows of opportunity to get someone’s attention that everyone else has to reach your customers i.e. a desktop screen or a mobile screen (aka online marketing). Limited!

Now let’s think about what people spend their time doing on those screens. Essentially it’s consuming content (reading, watching videos, playing games), searching, emails and communicating / being social.

Which means you’ve got SEO, social media, email, and performance marketing (SEM, Retargeting, Affiliate etc.) at your disposal, and that’s about it, across consumer and B2B, mobile and desktop. Just 4 primary marketing tactics across 2 mediums of attention in any given 16 hour period of wakefulness.

Just think about how Google Analytics, used by millions upon millions of businesses to track their marketing, presents its traffic acquisition data: Direct, Social, Organic Search, Referral, and Other. Just 5 buckets for the many billions of sessions it registers each month.

Despite how much of an opportunity online marketing seems to present, or how many new-fangled tactics and buzzwords that are generated each year, the reality is you’re operating in a very, very finite world.

Four ways, across 2 screens, to reach 3 billion people if you take anyone with an internet connection, or 2.5 billion with a mobile phone.

Issue two: Excessive demand from marketers for that short supply of attention

Compounding the issue of a limited supply of attention, is the excess of demand you’re competing against.

In fact you’re competing with at least 37 million plus marketers who also have to try and reach the same people across the same very limited real estate in their limited waking hours.

lots of people in marketing acquisition

Walker-Smith famously said that we’d gone from being exposed to about 500 ads a day in the 1970’s to as many as 5,000 a day in 2006. That was before Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn had gone massively mainstream, and way before Instagram, Pinterest, SnapChat etc.

It was also before the first iPhone launched, which brought about the smartphone revolution that has led to us touching our phone an average of 2,617 times a day, and getting anxiety (or nomophobia), if we can’t find it before using the loo.

So I can only imagine that in 2016 we’re being exposed to at least 10x that number, with maybe 50,000 commercial messages a day whizzing past us.

marketing acquisition challenge

Trying to stand out in a sea of 50,000 messages being pushed by 37,000,000 marketers onto 2 screens using just 4 basic tactics is pretty tough. Especially when you think about just how difficult it is to sync up getting your messages to your target customer on the right medium at the right time, which brings us to…

Issue three: Customers don’t want what you’re selling (most of the time)

Further compounding the issue of limited supply and excess competition is that the vast majority of the time you’re in front of your potential customers, it’s in the wrong context (or at the wrong time), because they’re not using that particular medium for the purposes of being sold to.

If they’re on any given social network, it’s probably very likely because they’re also marketers or self-promotionalists, trying to push their messages on millions of people just like you are, which sends us into a deep, dark marketing vortex…

The marketing echo chamber

Most social networks are just marketing echo chambers, with people shouting loudly past each other.

Or they’re just trying to co-ordinate that damned dinner with friends, or make them jealous of their kid’s achievements / amazing holiday / new gadget etc. In other words they’re using social media to be (somewhat) social (shock horror!)

Or they’re using their phone to find directions to the pub, or their laptop to watch the latest Netflix original, or they’re browsing their favourite blog or news site to get the latest info on something they care about.

By and large what they’re not, is receptive to your marketing message.

Issue four: Ability to complete desired action

Now, let’s just take a beautiful moment to imagine that the stars have aligned, and you’ve not only got in front of your target customer, beat everyone else by getting their attention, and at a time when they’re receptive to your message…there’s still another hurdle in the way.

That hurdle? How easy it is for them to take the desired action (i.e. become a customer).

Here’s what it takes to drive a desired action.

“The Fogg Behavior Model shows that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behaviour to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger. When a behaviour does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.”

marketing for action

Courtesy: http://behaviormodel.org

So now as a marketer you have to ask: Is your checkout process or form mobile optimised? Can they do it at work or on the move? Do you offer the payment option they’re comfortable with? Are they comfortable with your T&Cs? Do they have an internet connection right now?

There are a million reasons why you might have just hit that magical moment, only for it to be ripped away again, because before your potential customer’s completed their purchase, an email / text / news update pops into their worldview, something eminently more interesting than your message, and they’re off again, while you hope that retargeting manages to snare them at some point in the future.

Issue five: Attribution

Last but not least, acquisition marketing is really hard because of the perennial difficulty of attribution.

Roughly a century after John Wanamaker famously said “I waste 50% of my budget, I just don’t know which half,” we’re still no better off.

Flying skateboards and self-lacing shoes? Tick.

Ability to know which of our marketing £££s were well spent? Wah wah wah, maybe in another 100 years.

The reality is we have a shed load of data, more than ever before, but it’s also more than we can handle. And it’s often not even accurate or trustworthy, as we’ve learned from not one but three Facebook mea culpas, a situation that was recently highlighted as unacceptable by P&Gs Chief Brand Officer, Marc Pritchard in a recent speech.

Not to mention that most of this data doesn’t actually connect up; or the tools that collect it are frequently set-up incorrectly, or in such a way that one tool tells you something completely different to another, even when they’re measuring roughly the same thing.

Then if you’re marketing at any kind of scale across multiple activities, it’s all but impossible to tease out what would happen if you just stopped spending on an entire category, without actually stopping it.

And who’s going to be brave enough to just stop spending on an entire category? Imagine if it does happen to be important in driving revenue, then by the time you’ve stopped it long enough to figure that out, it’s too late and you’re fucked.

Marketing attribution is like playing Jenga. You don’t want to pull a channel that makes everything else come crashing down.

Maybe you are wasting a ton of money on top-of-funnel branding, but without that groundwork in building consumer preference and first-time attention, would anything else convert? Who’s going to take that risk?

You might actually be wasting way more by spending heavily on bottom of funnel activities like retargeting, because a massive chunk would actually convert anyway, so you’re paying to cannibalise your existing demand.

But again, who’s going to suggest stopping an entire channel that on paper looks to provide amazing ROI? You Sir? You Madam? No, thought not.

Which basically means we tend to spread our budgets a little bit across everything, and particularly where we can display some metrics that look good, such as ‘reach,’ and ‘clicks,’ at the top of the funnel.

This makes us feel like we’re being data-driven, empirically guided marketers, but in truth the vast majority of organisations find it hard to properly model the effects of different channels on customer acquisition with any real accuracy.

Let’s just take a moment, shall we?

Ok, so now we’ve established just how simple, and insanely hard customer acquisition actually is, let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact it does actually work.

Every day, billions of pounds of goods and services are bought and sold around the world directly, without any interaction between the customer and a sales person or customer service rep. Why? Because acquisition marketing.

Despite all the hurdles, the impossibly small window of attention, the insane competition and the compounding difficulties of timing and ability to act, we make it work. Time and time again. Year in, year out.

C’mon, let’s have a virtual high five!

But will our lives as marketers get any easier? Will new ways to reach customers be developed that we can utilise? Will we finally get a 25 hour week, or evolve so customers no longer need sleep? Probably not those last 2, but here are 3 potential opportunities I see coming down the pipe.

The future?

In the last few decades, since the arrival of email, we’ve really only had 2 fundamentally new outlets for reaching customers.

One is mobile, the other social media. Every other advancement I would argue is just another way to reach people across the same channels and mediums, in a slightly more complex or sophisticated way.

And while mobile is undoubtedly powerful, the ability to target people at the right time and in the right context is still pretty far off where it could and should be; while I think social media is still overrated as an effective acquisition channel (more on this in a future post).

So what can marketers hope for in the future? There are 4 promising opportunities that could make our lives a little easier (or at least offer more ways of reaching customers).

Home assistants

Time frame: now



The Next Web

CES was awash with products incorporating Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated OS for connected devices. And it sold a ton of its own devices (the Dot and the Echo) over Christmas too.

With Google Home released in October 2016, Microsoft starting to move into the market and Apple rumoured to be looking at it too, there’s no denying that it’s one of the most exciting (and immediate) channels reshaping how you can communicate with customers.

Compared to something like traditional search, it’s obviously still tiny, but it feels like it’s a genuine, growing opportunity.

No longer will reaching customers at home (or in the car), be limited to TV, radio and magazines. Now you’ll have systems like Alexa so you can communicate with customers in a natural way, and the 2-way communication will only get more impressive as time goes on. 

Conversational commerce

Time frame: Short-to-medium term (Next 2-5 years).

While this is also available now, to an extent, it’s even more nascent than voice-enabled personal assistants, so I think its full impact won’t be felt for a year or two.

However when it does, then ‘conversational commerce’ offers an unbelievable opportunity for marketers to seamlessly integrate into natural conversations happening on messaging apps (and social media).

Google’s Allo seems like a pretty good step in that direction, with its inclusion of ‘Assistant,’ which will “suggest restaurants nearby or movies to check out, right in your conversation.”

This is just a first step towards showing products and services at the exact point in time that people are naturally talking about them, meaning Google are primed to own yet another giant commercial opportunity that should work in a similarly effective way to how search currently works.

That said, Facebook’s ownership of Messenger, Instagram and Whatsapp, Microsoft’s Skype, and SnapChat (not to mention some of the Chinese giants like Sina Weibo and WeChat), all mean this is far from a foregone conclusion, and they will all compete fiercely in this burgeoning market.

Augmented Reality

Time frame: Mid-to-longer term (5+ years).




Without a doubt one of the most exciting, potentially game-changing mediums to emerge for marketers is Augmented Reality.

The ability to overlay timely, contextually relevant digital messages everywhere that someone looks is a marketer’s dream.

However battery life, processing power and internet speeds are all acting as a drag to mainstream adoption; not to mention the fundamental technology is not sophisticated enough, nor have the killer use-cases yet been developed for end-users to want to use it frequently.

But my bet is that over the next 5 years or so, it will get there. And when it does, this should be a fertile playground for marketers, as it promises to open up the ‘out and about (other)’ channel to the 95% of marketers that can’t currently afford Out of Home advertising.

A shift in mindset

A good friend of mine, Mark Masters (author of The Content Revolution, business owner, blogger, podcaster, event organiser and all-round top guy), reviewed this piece for me, and reminded me of another important shift that is providing us with answers to the challenges we face, but where “the solution is not in the circuit board of robots.”

That is a realisation that for us to acquire users, we need to not just understand the mechanics and tools of marketing, but what makes our customers tick and then provide value to them upfront. In other words we must also be value creators.

This in essence is the blazing hot trend of ‘content marketing’ or ‘inbound marketing’ that’s swept through the marketing landscape over the past several years, but it still seems to sit as a separate discipline to ‘performance marketing,’ which is often seen as the metrics driven, highly scalable, ‘sharp end’ of closing the deal with customers.

The truth is they need to work hand-in-hand, not in parallel, but symbiotically. Only by delivering value to potential customers, at the right time and in the right context, can we hope to build enough rapport and trust to convert new customers.

And of course, when creating value works perfectly, you end up having customers ‘come to you,’ and so many of the challenges illustrated above start to fade away entirely. Though the reality is some kind of pull and push will always be needed to reach the full potential of your target market.

However that shift in mindset, combined with some category-defining, additive distribution mediums to work with, could spell a new golden era of acquisition marketing.  

A recap of customer acquisition marketing in 2017

In theory, acquisition marketing is simple. And in fact, it works well enough for many businesses.

But I still think that’s a minor miracle, because as marketers we face a massive challenge having to compete against so many other messages, across such a very limited window of potential attention.

Remember: 1 potential customer, 16 waking hours, two screens, four channels, 50,000 messages a day, spread by 37 million plus marketers.

Then when we do get in front of the right people they’re likely not interested in our offer at that particular moment in time, and even if they are, they have to meet the 3 criteria for action.

And finally when we do make the sale, most of the time we don’t know which of those limited channels are the genuinely effective ones, and therefore find it difficult to maximise our focus and investments.

The odds still seem stacked against us, and yet we make it work, day in, day out.

However if the lack of substantially differentiated channels, and limited opportunities to grab the bombarded consumer’s attention, is one of most intractable challenges, then I think the future looks promising.

The three emerging channels highlighted above  – home assistants, conversational commerce and AR – should improve our ability to reach consumers across genuinely new and additive mediums, delivering our messages at contextually relevant times. And if those messages are geared towards adding value, they’ll be more gratefully received too.

Here’s hoping, anyway.

Got any comments, thoughts, suggestions? Agree, disagree? I’d love to start a discussion with you! Please jump over to Inbound.org or GrowthHackers to post your comments.