Your Guide to Growth Marketing & PLG

May 31, 2023

Webflow, the web design and hosting platform, has quickly become one of today’s most iconic PLG brands. The company joined the $100 million ARR club last year and has been on the bleeding edge of PLG trends such as:

  • Building a vibrant community around the product
  • Curating templates and user-generated content to attract new users
  • Pairing self-service with sales assistance (as Co-Founder Bryant Chou described in an earlier Growth Unhinged post)

But the Webflow we know today isn’t the Webflow of only four years ago. As of early 2019, the business had been operating under-the-radar for seven years. Apart from a small $2.4 million seed round, Webflow bootstrapped to $10 million ARR and had roughly 60 employees at the time.

Bruno Estrella, Webflow’s head of growth marketing, joined in those scrappy early days. He was initially brought in as a growth marketer where he wore many hats like validating paid channels, scaling SEO efforts, setting up a B2B sales motion for the enterprise product, and scaling programs like Webflow for Education.

Bruno just hit his four-year mark with Webflow. The company is now 10x the size (600+ employees) and has raised more than $300 million in funding. Bruno and I chatted about the role of growth marketing in a PLG startup and his lessons learned navigating hypergrowth.

On what it means to be the first growth marketer at a startup

I was brought in as a growth marketer, but in such an early stage you need to wear so many hats and that was my case.

I was brought in to validate new channels and build a system to scale them after validation. Because of that, I was able to touch different areas and bring them from 0 to 1. From there I would build a system to bring them from 1 to 10, and hire great people to bring it from 1 to 100.

I was involved in trying to validate paid advertising, build a B2B sales motion with the enterprise product, and build systems to scale programs like Webflow for Education (the student audience).

As the first growth marketer, you need to be comfortable with having a lot of problems to solve and identifying which you think are the biggest, then doubling down on those. A lot of times you don’t have the right skillset and so you need to adapt and learn how to approach the problem. That’s one of the key things that makes an early stage growth marketer successful.

Before you start to test channels, take advantage of having much access to the business itself including execs, initial data, and so on. Understand the business model of the company, how it has been growing from a unit economics perspective, and which channels you can leverage.

Even today, there’s always a conversation about a new channel coming up or a new tactic, but most of the time this channel doesn’t line up with your business model or you can’t find your audience there. Understanding the business itself is the foundation before you start to validate these channels.

For B2B PLG products, it’s hard to find paid channels that work and that have traction. Many of the scalable paid channels are on mobile. But there’s a high friction level from getting from mobile into a desktop software product.

For us, we are looking at channels that have high intent and also strong attention. With that in mind, we started with paid search and SEO, including editorial SEO and programmatic SEO. Whenever you can match user-generated content with SEO for your product, that’s a really strong channel for a PLG product. That’s what we tapped into with Webflow Showcase and the Template marketplace.

On the role of growth marketing in a PLG company

Growth marketing at Webflow is responsible for new customer acquisition and new ARR.

Our team is structured into a few functions:

  • SEO – divided into editorial and programmatic SEO.
  • Paid programs – we have people leading paid search and paid social.
  • Web – includes the web experience and conversion rate optimization. We have dedicated engineers and data scientists who can help with these projects.
  • Affiliate channels – our affiliate program has two people managing it and we focus on content creators around the web design industry.

While SEO and paid channels are common, affiliates is an additional channel that can work for PLG companies if you have a really strong community. It’s an incentive for people to create more content around you.

People will create something in Webflow Showcase and then share it with their audience through affiliate links. We have them join the program to continue to create content and in return they get a revenue share incentive (12 month period). Our team is mostly focused on YouTube creators, blogs, and so on.

On how to test and scale paid marketing

Almost any PLG business should start their paid marketing on the paid search side of things. It is the channel that has the highest intent and the highest level of attention from the user’s perspective. It’s a no-brainer for new user acquisition.

When it comes to paid social, people need to understand that for B2B prosumer or PLG motions, you need to get creative to make that channel work. There is a level of friction with people browsing social media on their phones, then asking them to start to build a website. We had to understand the user’s level of intent and how do we grab their attention to start building something.

What we learned is that if you drive someone from a Facebook feed or Instagram story straight to a landing page to build a website, there’s too much friction. But if you can allow them to utilize a template they can save to use later or a “free resources” approach, you can find more success. We’d try to take users to Webflow University, for example, to teach them how to learn something so that they could come back later and build.

From a social standpoint, we started with YouTube because of its ability to target high-intent users. What we learned is that we can better attract users from these channels by offering a free resource that indirectly gets them to the product. For example, we promote Webflow’s University Portfolio Course as well as Webflow’s University Figma course. Both of these courses teach users something extremely valuable for free and utilize Webflow as the main solution.

Webflow University Figma Course Trailer

Webflow University Portfolio Course Trailer

This is a very common tactic on sales-led motions, offering ebooks, webinars, and whitepapers through gated pages. From a PLG perspective, we are offering a resource that integrates well with our product.

On the best KPIs for paid campaigns

We’re always looking to paying customers at the end of the day. Our team pays close attention to volume of customers, CAC, LTV:CAC ratio, and payback period.

Especially on PLG and freemium models, it’s hard because it takes time for people to become customers. At the same time, signups can become a vanity metric because if they’re not qualified, it’s hard to convert them into paying customers.

We built a predictive model with our data science team to identify the key attributes of people that have a high correlation with becoming a customer and where we can identify them. The first version took us about five days to see if someone was qualified or not. That doesn’t really help when it comes to paid acquisition. A week later you might have wasted the money you spent.

We then tried to refine the model and make the learning happen sooner. We can now learn whether someone is qualified as soon as they sign up based on data enrichment tools and onboarding survey questions.

Webflow’s onboarding questions gauge the intent of the sign-up with questions about their role, who they’ll be building websites for, how comfortable they are with HTML/CSS, and what they want to build.

For example, we’ll ask new users what their familiarity is with HTML or CSS. People that have a good understanding of coding languages tend to be more successful with Webflow because Webflow has a level of complexity to the product. That helps us tailor our messaging and move faster.

On how to scale programmatic SEO

We divide our SEO efforts between editorial SEO and programmatic SEO.

On the programmatic SEO side, we tap into the user-generated motion. This user-generated content piece is pretty unique to Webflow because people can output a piece of content with our core product – when people are building websites, they’re building content and a portfolio of work. Similar to products like Figma, Miro, and Notion, our users are always generating content.

The biggest bottleneck for SEO growth is content creation. If you don’t have user-generated content, you need to hire editors, writers, etc. It takes a lot of time and energy. With a user-generated content motion, you can unlock this bottleneck.

The role of an SEO and growth marketing team is to enable users to create more content, then to grab this content and build landing pages and indexable pages that are optimized for Google. After the content is formatted in a way that’s optimized for Google, you can then make further optimizations. You can build things like interlinking with tags and category pages.

The main unlock of this programmatic SEO—besides the content creation bottleneck—is that there’s a clear path to using our product. If people are landing on an editorial page or a blog post, there’s not a clear path to using the product. Perhaps people will sign up for our newsletter to stay in touch. But with programmatic SEO and user-generated content through Webflow Showcase or the template marketplace, there’s a clear path from the pages that people are seeing to using the product.

Example user-generated Webflow template.

Right on the template marketplace, you can go ahead and download the template to use in your account. On the Showcase pages, you can use those components and build your website based on these things. And so that’s a big focus for us: how do we scale content creation from programmatic and user-generated sources? And how do we make sure that these pages are ranking and driving people to the product?

On how to move upmarket from self-service to the enterprise

Back in the day, product-led sales wasn’t a term, and bridging the gap between self-serve and enterprise wasn’t the go-to playbook in PLG. I’m so glad we went through that initial phase of validation because it’s unreal to see what the team is accomplishing here.

Our PLG product is free and anyone can try it. A lot of people use Webflow for side projects, portfolios, etc. and before they introduce Webflow in-house for teams.

As we grew, we started to see some traction with larger organizations doing this, but they were paying self-serve prices. The interesting thing was that we talked to super large companies and told them that we had an enterprise product, but they didn’t see enough differentiation between the enterprise product and a $40 self-serve plan. We had to talk to a lot of customers to understand their requirements (like security questionnaires and SOC2 compliance), learn what enterprise-focused features they cared about, and then build an initial offering to these customers.

I believe a big learning we had from these early days is that most enterprise buyers would come to us already convinced about using our product—thanks to our PLG motion. The main problems we needed to solve in the early days were security requirements and enterprise-level service. Offering these value propositions allowed us to focus on product development while signing new deals in the meantime.

On closing advice for thriving in a high-growth startup

Look for problems to solve.

Ask yourself what’s that big hairy problem that everyone knows is there, but no one wants to touch it? Own it. This will unlock major learning opportunities and give you visibility on different skills, problems, etc. A lot of the time, that’s where the biggest career unlocks are.

Don’t let the startup outgrow you.

As the company grows, it will need new types of skills. For growth marketing – things like being strategic and aligning with the top-level strategy, strong stakeholder management, and deep integration with technical teams like data and engineering become crucial. As an individual, look for how executives operate and start to create the same habits.

The TL;DR – growth marketing and PLG

  1. As the first growth marketer, you need to be comfortable with having a lot of problems to solve, identifying which you think are the biggest, then doubling down on those.
  2. For PLG products, it’s hard to find paid channels that work. Prioritize channels that have high intent and strong attention.
  3. When advertising to people on social media, don’t ask them to do too much right away. Look for opportunities to get folks to save a template or start learning how to use the product.
  4. If possible for your product, double down on user-generated content paired with programmatic SEO. Besides solving for the content creation bottleneck, it creates a clear path into the product.
  5. Sign-ups are a vanity metric for growth marketers. Paying customers is the goal, but it takes time for new users to become paying customers. Turn to data science to quickly predict the quality of your signups.
  6. Spend the time to validate the opportunity for enterprise adoption and what enterprises need in order to buy your product. Services can be a stopgap while you’re building those enterprise features.
  7. Look for problems to solve that nobody else wants to touch. Not only will this unlock learning opportunities, it’ll help you to never be outgrown by your startup.
Kyle Poyar

Partner at OpenView

Kyle helps OpenView’s portfolio companies accelerate top-line growth through segmentation, value proposition, packaging & pricing, customer insights, channel partner programs, new market entry and go-to-market strategy.