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TikTok SEO: Understanding the TikTok Algorithm

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TikTok SEO: Understanding the TikTok Algorithm

The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

TikTok has quickly become a viral sensation, with millions of users across the globe spending hours scrolling through the app’s endless supply of videos. But for marketers, TikTok’s greatest asset lies in its algorithm.

In the first chapter of this series, we dug into the search behavior on TikTok and why it should matter to SEOs. In this article, we are going to cover the ins and outs of the TikTok algorithm, and how to leverage it to get more users looking at your brand’s content.

The principles behind the TikTok algorithm

Before we dig into the algorithm’s ranking factors, a bit of background.

In 2020, TikTok’s CEO Kevin Mayer published a manifesto on the importance of transparency for tech companies, especially when it comes to their content algorithms. Mayer committed to being more open than its competitors, indirectly challenging Meta and Google.

Luckily for us marketers, TikTok has kept its promise and has some solid documentation on how their algorithm works. In this article, I will be combining that information along with secondary sources and inference based on general social media principles.

Surfacing interesting topics

A few months ago, I was raving about TikTok to my partner. He is big on privacy and didn’t love the idea of joining the platform, but I convinced him.

The moment he joined the app, his feed was flooded with bikini-clad teenagers, crude physical “humor” and what I can just describe as a bunch of British guys acting very lad-y. All the platform knew about him is that he is young(-ish), male, and British.

The content TikTok was serving was based on his demographic data. The algorithm hadn’t had time to work its magic then, but when it did, he could hardly put down his phone.

TikTok collects data on how users interact with different videos. Based on this information, TikTok can determine a user’s interests and serve them related content.

TikTok uses the content of each video to understand what topic it pertains to. This is based on the use of hashtags, video descriptions, the TikTok sound used, and the textual spoken audio. Based on what we know about other platforms’ natural language processing capabilities, this is likely more effective in English than in other languages.

The platform gets better at tailoring this content for you as you engage with it, but it also bases its recommendations on demographic data such as gender, age, and location.

According to their privacy policy, TikTok adds “inferred information” to your profile, such as age-range, gender, and interests.

Knowing this, it would make sense that TikTok puts audiences into different interest cohorts. By connecting different topics by how closely related they are, TikTok should be able to surface topics you’re likely to enjoy, even if you’ve never engaged with them on the platform before.

Let’s see an example. I like interior design, so I’m likely into IKEA hacks, which means I’m likely into DIY. If I’m into home improvements, I’m likely into crafting. Boom, a cross-stitching video reached my feed, and I love it.

@tiktokswithtom Cross stitch 🤷‍♂️ #fyp #fypシ #foryou #crossstitch #crossstitchoftiktok ♬ Che La Luna – Louis Prima with Sam Butera & The Witnesses

Bursting the filter bubble effect

TikTok’s transparency policy came about after receiving some criticism around how their algorithm creates echo chambers that promote radicalization and the spread of misinformation. Now some platform representatives have spoken about how the platform is trying to prevent that.

Youtube and Facebook have come under fire for this before, but the truth is that any platform with a content discovery algorithm that relies on engagement is susceptible to creating echo chambers and promoting radicalization. Human psychology tells us that we’re more likely to engage with content that elicits a strong emotional reaction. This incentivizes content creators to promote content that makes us angry or afraid.

TikTok’s answer to the filter bubble effect has been somewhat simple: the platform will show you random content from time to time.

In order to avoid homogeneity of content, the app has started showing users content that they don’t usually engage with. This includes surfacing random hashtags, video aesthetics, sounds, and topics. The app tries to keep things fresh by avoiding content repetition, so you’re unlikely to see two videos by the same creator or using the same sound in a row.

Another interesting incorporation into the algorithm is showing you fresh content that has not had any engagement yet. If you’re a TikTok user, I’m sure you have noticed this.

Is this enough to prevent creating echo chambers? Probably not. Familiarity or the mere exposure effect will make you engage with the content you see most frequently, so there’s still a pretty high chance of developing echo chambers.

According to the teachings of one of my favorite psychology textbooks, we’d need to see about 50% of this random content on our feed to break the behavioral learning and bias towards what we already like. Obviously that would be against the business interests of most social media platforms, so it seems unlikely to happen.

With this background and context in mind, let’s dig into TikTok’s ranking factors.

TikTok ranking factors

As I mentioned above, this list of ranking factors is based on a mix of TikTok-confirmed features as well as unofficial sources and general social media practices.

1. Video engagement

One TikTok ranking factor is engagement, which includes likes and comments as well as watch time and profile visits. When a TikTok video has a high level of engagement, it means people are taking the time to interact and engage with the content.

This also includes replays, follows, bookmarks, and tagging a video as “not interested” (which affects your video negatively, of course). Engagement shows TikTok that the content is worth pushing out to more users, thereby helping it rank higher on TikTok’s algorithm.

Not all forms of engagement are created equal, of course. A comment or share are stronger engagement indicators than a like. We see this on TikTok’s documentation and it’s true in many other social media platforms too.

According to TikTok’s documentation, engagement is measured at video level, not at account level.

The profiles a user follows on TikTok also contribute to determining the user’s interest profile. Following gardening accounts indicates to the algorithm even further that you’re interested in gardening videos.

The follower count or the previous performance of an account doesn’t directly impact the rankings of their videos. However, having a high follower count can indirectly help your videos perform better, as it will expose them to more eyes through your followers. If your followers engage with your content, that engagement can help you reach bigger audiences.

This is a big shift from classic forms of social media marketing, were the previous performance of posts on a profile are thought to influence the reach that future posts will have.

2. Discover tab engagement

Another way in which TikTok determines a user’s potential interest in a video is by analyzing their interactions with TikTok content beyond just video. Searching, clicking on a hashtag, exploring a trending topic, or viewing videos from a specific sound will weigh towards the video recommendations that users receive on their For You feed.

3. The content of the videos

As an SEO, I can’t help but draw a parallel between on-page SEO and the TikTok ranking factors within the video content.

For the platform to be able to recommend videos of topics that you like, it needs to understand what each of the videos are about.

There are several elements within the uploaded videos that help the app understand what topic and emotional tone each video has. Let’s take a look at what those elements are:

  • The video’s visuals. According to their privacy policy, TikTok can “detect and collect characteristics and features about the video and audio recordings” by identifying objects, scenery, and what body parts are present in your video. This is used for content moderation and to power their recommendations algorithm.

  • The audio. The platform can process the “text of words spoken” within your videos to further understand what they’re about.

  • Text over the video. Using text over the video also contributes to that understanding of the content. Adding the text natively within the platform might provide a stronger signal, based on the way other content ranking algorithms work.

  • Title and hashtags. This is the OG signal for TikTok and it’s the one they’ve publicly discussed the most. The title and hashtags used in the video help tell TikTok what the video is about, but they can also influence rankings indirectly by affecting engagement and discovery.

  • TikTok sounds. The sound being used in a video is a ranking factor on its own, as it helps the platform understand a video’s content. But the biggest way in which sounds affect your content’s performance is jumping on a trend. Trending sounds get a ranking boost for a short while, since they can predict user engagement.

4. Content language

There are three language preferences you can set in your account: app language, preferred languages, and translation language. This should be pretty self-explanatory, but there is an interesting aspect to explore here.

You can select several preferred languages and TikTok prompts you to select the languages you understand. However, you can only select one language for your app and one for your automatic content translations. It would not surprise me if TikTok used those settings to establish which of your preferred languages is actually your favorite.

5. Device suitability

TikTok explains in their documentation that the user’s device matters in the videos that users get shown, but they have not specified exactly how.

According to TikTok, the information they receive about your device is anything from user agent, mobile carrier, time zone settings, model and operating system,and network type to screen resolution, battery state, or audio settings.

My guess is that older and slower devices get shown shorter and lighter videos more often, to prevent disrupting the user experience if the phone’s performance can’t keep up.

6. Creator locality

There is one line on TikTok’s official documentation that really caught my eye:

“A strong indicator of interest, such as whether a user finishes watching a longer video from beginning to end, would receive greater weight than a weak indicator, such as whether the video’s viewer and creator are both in the same country.”

There isn’t a lot of clarity about how location is used as a ranking factor, but we know it exists. We can understand that proximity between viewers and creators helps in ranking, but we don’t know at what level this is measured.

TikTok tracks user location through SIM card information, IP address, and, if you give your permission, GPS.

7. Ineligible content

TikTok has two ways of moderating content: removing it or making it ineligible to rank. These include your usual suspects such as violence, nudity, and hate speech, along with some others.

There are some interesting types of content that are ineligible to appear in the For You page:

  • Content uploaded by users under 16 — so don’t use your company’s actual age to make an account.

  • Content that includes QR codes — TikTok wants to know what you’re linking out to and get a piece of the cake if it’s a product recommendation.

  • Content that manipulates users into engaging with the video or user — all that “tap the screen twice to see something magical” stays on Instagram.

  • Duplicated content from TikTok or other platforms where the user doesn’t add any significant creative edits.

  • Dangerous stunts not performed by professionals.

  • Content that features tobacco.

8. Native content creation

I am pretty confident that building content using TikTok’s native tooling can help boost your content ranking. Other social media platforms tend to favor native content and native content creation in their algorithm, so it would make sense for TikTok to do the same. For the sake of transparency, this is just an educated guess and not an official ranking factor.

Instagram, for example, has improved their native video creation tools for Reels and Stories while demoting content with watermarks from other platforms. Facebook favors native video over Youtube embeds. LinkedIn favors posts without external links while offering a native blog platform.

TikTok’s own analysis shows that companies who used their native creative tools saw 14 times more engagement than those who didn’t.

There is an indirect mechanism that could lead to native TikTok videos performing better: the familiarity of users with the type of content the app can produce natively. Users are very quick to spot an overproduced video as an ad and will tend to engage with it a lot less. This blog post on TikTok for Business supports that theory, by telling brands: “don’t make ads, make TikToks”.

TL;DR

In conclusion, the TikTok algorithm aims to show you content you’ll find interesting while avoiding filter bubbles.

Based on the user’s interactions with the app, TikTok is able to suggest videos that the user might be interested in. This is done through analyzing likes, comments, watch time, replays, follows, and bookmarks. The app is also able to understand the content of the videos through visuals, audio, text, and hashtags. Additionally, TikTok takes into account the language preferences, device information, and locations of both the user and the creator when suggesting videos.

What unique strategies have you implemented to perform well on TikTok? Share with us @LidiaInfanteM and @Moz on Twitter, and be on the lookout for part three of this TikTok SEO series: how to rank in 2022.



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Why We Are Always ‘Clicking to Buy’, According to Psychologists

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Why We Are Always 'Clicking to Buy', According to Psychologists

Amazon pillows.

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A deeper dive into data, personalization and Copilots

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A deeper dive into data, personalization and Copilots

Salesforce launched a collection of new, generative AI-related products at Connections in Chicago this week. They included new Einstein Copilots for marketers and merchants and Einstein Personalization.

To better understand, not only the potential impact of the new products, but the evolving Salesforce architecture, we sat down with Bobby Jania, CMO, Marketing Cloud.

Dig deeper: Salesforce piles on the Einstein Copilots

Salesforce’s evolving architecture

It’s hard to deny that Salesforce likes coming up with new names for platforms and products (what happened to Customer 360?) and this can sometimes make the observer wonder if something is brand new, or old but with a brand new name. In particular, what exactly is Einstein 1 and how is it related to Salesforce Data Cloud?

“Data Cloud is built on the Einstein 1 platform,” Jania explained. “The Einstein 1 platform is our entire Salesforce platform and that includes products like Sales Cloud, Service Cloud — that it includes the original idea of Salesforce not just being in the cloud, but being multi-tenancy.”

Data Cloud — not an acquisition, of course — was built natively on that platform. It was the first product built on Hyperforce, Salesforce’s new cloud infrastructure architecture. “Since Data Cloud was on what we now call the Einstein 1 platform from Day One, it has always natively connected to, and been able to read anything in Sales Cloud, Service Cloud [and so on]. On top of that, we can now bring in, not only structured but unstructured data.”

That’s a significant progression from the position, several years ago, when Salesforce had stitched together a platform around various acquisitions (ExactTarget, for example) that didn’t necessarily talk to each other.

“At times, what we would do is have a kind of behind-the-scenes flow where data from one product could be moved into another product,” said Jania, “but in many of those cases the data would then be in both, whereas now the data is in Data Cloud. Tableau will run natively off Data Cloud; Commerce Cloud, Service Cloud, Marketing Cloud — they’re all going to the same operational customer profile.” They’re not copying the data from Data Cloud, Jania confirmed.

Another thing to know is tit’s possible for Salesforce customers to import their own datasets into Data Cloud. “We wanted to create a federated data model,” said Jania. “If you’re using Snowflake, for example, we more or less virtually sit on your data lake. The value we add is that we will look at all your data and help you form these operational customer profiles.”

Let’s learn more about Einstein Copilot

“Copilot means that I have an assistant with me in the tool where I need to be working that contextually knows what I am trying to do and helps me at every step of the process,” Jania said.

For marketers, this might begin with a campaign brief developed with Copilot’s assistance, the identification of an audience based on the brief, and then the development of email or other content. “What’s really cool is the idea of Einstein Studio where our customers will create actions [for Copilot] that we hadn’t even thought about.”

Here’s a key insight (back to nomenclature). We reported on Copilot for markets, Copilot for merchants, Copilot for shoppers. It turns out, however, that there is just one Copilot, Einstein Copilot, and these are use cases. “There’s just one Copilot, we just add these for a little clarity; we’re going to talk about marketing use cases, about shoppers’ use cases. These are actions for the marketing use cases we built out of the box; you can build your own.”

It’s surely going to take a little time for marketers to learn to work easily with Copilot. “There’s always time for adoption,” Jania agreed. “What is directly connected with this is, this is my ninth Connections and this one has the most hands-on training that I’ve seen since 2014 — and a lot of that is getting people using Data Cloud, using these tools rather than just being given a demo.”

What’s new about Einstein Personalization

Salesforce Einstein has been around since 2016 and many of the use cases seem to have involved personalization in various forms. What’s new?

“Einstein Personalization is a real-time decision engine and it’s going to choose next-best-action, next-best-offer. What is new is that it’s a service now that runs natively on top of Data Cloud.” A lot of real-time decision engines need their own set of data that might actually be a subset of data. “Einstein Personalization is going to look holistically at a customer and recommend a next-best-action that could be natively surfaced in Service Cloud, Sales Cloud or Marketing Cloud.”

Finally, trust

One feature of the presentations at Connections was the reassurance that, although public LLMs like ChatGPT could be selected for application to customer data, none of that data would be retained by the LLMs. Is this just a matter of written agreements? No, not just that, said Jania.

“In the Einstein Trust Layer, all of the data, when it connects to an LLM, runs through our gateway. If there was a prompt that had personally identifiable information — a credit card number, an email address — at a mimum, all that is stripped out. The LLMs do not store the output; we store the output for auditing back in Salesforce. Any output that comes back through our gateway is logged in our system; it runs through a toxicity model; and only at the end do we put PII data back into the answer. There are real pieces beyond a handshake that this data is safe.”

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Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads (And How To Fix It)

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Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads (And How To Fix It)

Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To

You ask the head of marketing how the team is doing and get a giant thumbs up. 👍

“Our MQLs are up!”

“Website conversion rates are at an all-time high!”

“Email click rates have never been this good!”

But when you ask the head of sales the same question, you get the response that echoes across sales desks worldwide — the leads from marketing suck. 

If you’re in this boat, you’re not alone. The issue of “leads from marketing suck” is a common situation in most organizations. In a HubSpot survey, only 9.1% of salespeople said leads they received from marketing were of very high quality.

Why do sales teams hate marketing-generated leads? And how can marketers help their sales peers fall in love with their leads? 

Let’s dive into the answers to these questions. Then, I’ll give you my secret lead gen kung-fu to ensure your sales team loves their marketing leads. 

Marketers Must Take Ownership

“I’ve hit the lead goal. If sales can’t close them, it’s their problem.”

How many times have you heard one of your marketers say something like this? When your teams are heavily siloed, it’s not hard to see how they get to this mindset — after all, if your marketing metrics look strong, they’ve done their part, right?

Not necessarily. 

The job of a marketer is not to drive traffic or even leads. The job of the marketer is to create messaging and offers that lead to revenue. Marketing is not a 100-meter sprint — it’s a relay race. The marketing team runs the first leg and hands the baton to sales to sprint to the finish.

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via GIPHY

To make leads valuable beyond the vanity metric of watching your MQLs tick up, you need to segment and nurture them. Screen the leads to see if they meet the parameters of your ideal customer profile. If yes, nurture them to find out how close their intent is to a sale. Only then should you pass the leads to sales. 

Lead Quality Control is a Bitter Pill that Works

Tighter quality control might reduce your overall MQLs. Still, it will ensure only the relevant leads go to sales, which is a win for your team and your organization.

This shift will require a mindset shift for your marketing team: instead of living and dying by the sheer number of MQLs, you need to create a collaborative culture between sales and marketing. Reinforce that “strong” marketing metrics that result in poor leads going to sales aren’t really strong at all.  

When you foster this culture of collaboration and accountability, it will be easier for the marketing team to receive feedback from sales about lead quality without getting defensive. 

Remember, the sales team is only holding marketing accountable so the entire organization can achieve the right results. It’s not sales vs marketing — it’s sales and marketing working together to get a great result. Nothing more, nothing less. 

We’ve identified the problem and where we need to go. So, how you do you get there?

Fix #1: Focus On High ROI Marketing Activities First

What is more valuable to you:

  • One more blog post for a few more views? 
  • One great review that prospective buyers strongly relate to?

Hopefully, you’ll choose the latter. After all, talking to customers and getting a solid testimonial can help your sales team close leads today.  Current customers talking about their previous issues, the other solutions they tried, why they chose you, and the results you helped them achieve is marketing gold.

On the other hand, even the best blog content will take months to gain enough traction to impact your revenue.

Still, many marketers who say they want to prioritize customer reviews focus all their efforts on blog content and other “top of the funnel” (Awareness, Acquisition, and Activation) efforts. 

The bottom half of the growth marketing funnel (Retention, Reputation, and Revenue) often gets ignored, even though it’s where you’ll find some of the highest ROI activities.

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Most marketers know retaining a customer is easier than acquiring a new one. But knowing this and working with sales on retention and account expansion are two different things. 

When you start focusing on retention, upselling, and expansion, your entire organization will feel it, from sales to customer success. These happier customers will increase your average account value and drive awareness through strong word of mouth, giving you one heck of a win/win.

Winning the Retention, Reputation, and Referral game also helps feed your Awareness, Acquisition, and Activation activities:

  • Increasing customer retention means more dollars stay within your organization to help achieve revenue goals and fund lead gen initiatives.
  • A fully functioning referral system lowers your customer acquisition cost (CAC) because these leads are already warm coming in the door.
  • Case studies and reviews are powerful marketing assets for lead gen and nurture activities as they demonstrate how you’ve solved identical issues for other companies.

Remember that the bottom half of your marketing and sales funnel is just as important as the top half. After all, there’s no point pouring leads into a leaky funnel. Instead, you want to build a frictionless, powerful growth engine that brings in the right leads, nurtures them into customers, and then delights those customers to the point that they can’t help but rave about you.

So, build a strong foundation and start from the bottom up. You’ll find a better return on your investment. 

Fix #2: Join Sales Calls to Better Understand Your Target Audience

You can’t market well what you don’t know how to sell.

Your sales team speaks directly to customers, understands their pain points, and knows the language they use to talk about those pains. Your marketing team needs this information to craft the perfect marketing messaging your target audience will identify with.

When marketers join sales calls or speak to existing customers, they get firsthand introductions to these pain points. Often, marketers realize that customers’ pain points and reservations are very different from those they address in their messaging. 

Once you understand your ideal customers’ objections, anxieties, and pressing questions, you can create content and messaging to remove some of these reservations before the sales call. This effort removes a barrier for your sales team, resulting in more SQLs.

Fix #3: Create Collateral That Closes Deals

One-pagers, landing pages, PDFs, decks — sales collateral could be anything that helps increase the chance of closing a deal. Let me share an example from Lean Labs. 

Our webinar page has a CTA form that allows visitors to talk to our team. Instead of a simple “get in touch” form, we created a drop-down segmentation based on the user’s challenge and need. This step helps the reader feel seen, gives them hope that they’ll receive real value from the interaction, and provides unique content to users based on their selection.

1716755163 298 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To1716755163 298 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To

So, if they select I need help with crushing it on HubSpot, they’ll get a landing page with HubSpot-specific content (including a video) and a meeting scheduler. 

Speaking directly to your audience’s needs and pain points through these steps dramatically increases the chances of them booking a call. Why? Because instead of trusting that a generic “expert” will be able to help them with their highly specific problem, they can see through our content and our form design that Lean Labs can solve their most pressing pain point. 

Fix #4: Focus On Reviews and Create an Impact Loop

A lot of people think good marketing is expensive. You know what’s even more expensive? Bad marketing

To get the best ROI on your marketing efforts, you need to create a marketing machine that pays for itself. When you create this machine, you need to think about two loops: the growth loop and the impact loop.

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  • Growth loop — Awareness ➡ Acquisition ➡ Activation ➡ Revenue ➡ Awareness: This is where most marketers start. 
  • Impact loop — Results ➡ Reviews ➡ Retention ➡ Referrals ➡ Results: This is where great marketers start. 

Most marketers start with their growth loop and then hope that traction feeds into their impact loop. However, the reality is that starting with your impact loop is going to be far more likely to set your marketing engine up for success

Let me share a client story to show you what this looks like in real life.

Client Story: 4X Website Leads In A Single Quarter

We partnered with a health tech startup looking to grow their website leads. One way to grow website leads is to boost organic traffic, of course, but any organic play is going to take time. If you’re playing the SEO game alone, quadrupling conversions can take up to a year or longer.

But we did it in a single quarter. Here’s how.

We realized that the startup’s demos were converting lower than industry standards. A little more digging showed us why: our client was new enough to the market that the average person didn’t trust them enough yet to want to invest in checking out a demo. So, what did we do?

We prioritized the last part of the funnel: reputation.

We ran a 5-star reputation campaign to collect reviews. Once we had the reviews we needed, we showcased them at critical parts of the website and then made sure those same reviews were posted and shown on other third-party review platforms. 

Remember that reputation plays are vital, and they’re one of the plays startups often neglect at best and ignore at worst. What others say about your business is ten times more important than what you say about yourself

By providing customer validation at critical points in the buyer journey, we were able to 4X the website leads in a single quarter!

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So, when you talk to customers, always look for opportunities to drive review/referral conversations and use them in marketing collateral throughout the buyer journey. 

Fix #5: Launch Phantom Offers for Higher Quality Leads 

You may be reading this post thinking, okay, my lead magnets and offers might be way off the mark, but how will I get the budget to create a new one that might not even work?

It’s an age-old issue: marketing teams invest way too much time and resources into creating lead magnets that fail to generate quality leads

One way to improve your chances of success, remain nimble, and stay aligned with your audience without breaking the bank is to create phantom offers, i.e., gauge the audience interest in your lead magnet before you create them.

For example, if you want to create a “World Security Report” for Chief Security Officers, don’t do all the research and complete the report as Step One. Instead, tease the offer to your audience before you spend time making it. Put an offer on your site asking visitors to join the waitlist for this report. Then wait and see how that phantom offer converts. 

This is precisely what we did for a report by Allied Universal that ended up generating 80 conversions before its release.

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The best thing about a phantom offer is that it’s a win/win scenario: 

  • Best case: You get conversions even before you create your lead magnet.
  • Worst case: You save resources by not creating a lead magnet no one wants.  

Remember, You’re On The Same Team 

We’ve talked a lot about the reasons your marketing leads might suck. However, remember that it’s not all on marketers, either. At the end of the day, marketing and sales professionals are on the same team. They are not in competition with each other. They are allies working together toward a common goal. 

Smaller companies — or anyone under $10M in net new revenue — shouldn’t even separate sales and marketing into different departments. These teams need to be so in sync with one another that your best bet is to align them into a single growth team, one cohesive front with a single goal: profitable customer acquisition.

Interested in learning more about the growth marketing mindset? Check out the Lean Labs Growth Playbook that’s helped 25+ B2B SaaS marketing teams plan, budget, and accelerate growth.


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