Two Roads Diverged: Why we turned away from paid lead generation
The Birth of TrustRadius
It was December 2011. I was shopping for a gift for my wife, a coffee machine, so I went to Williams-Sonoma. The sales person recommended one of the in-stock products, but I didn’t fully trust their advice. I talked to a friend who recommended a brand called Jura. I searched online for reviews and stumbled across a site called CoffeeGeek which had amazingly thorough reviews. They affirmed his recommendation and gave me the confidence to buy.
At the time, I was Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Convio, a SaaS platform that helped nonprofits raise money online. The company had grown to 450 people and we’d bought a lot of software to run our business. Selecting the right software was always challenging. In a couple of instances, we had made bad decisions and later had to switch. Other times, not all features worked as promised, or the product required more resources than expected. In each case, I wish we had the information needed to enter each relationship with our eyes fully open.
When Convio was acquired in 2012, I began to contemplate my next entrepreneurial venture. I asked myself why there wasn’t a site like CoffeeGeek for business technology, a resource based on expert user reviews that could help businesses evaluate and select the right software. And so TrustRadius began, with a mission to create the most trusted resource for B2B technology buyers based upon customer reviews.
After validating the idea through interviews and a private beta, we launched our public site in May 2013. We spent our first two years solving the hard problem of getting professionals to share authentic and helpful software reviews at scale.
Today we have over 60,000 ratings and reviews which average 406 words, 10 times the length of the average consumer review. We have nearly 100,000 registered community members, and 77% of the Fortune 100 has contributed reviews. Our site is used by almost 300,000 professionals each month and our content shared with a further million through syndication.
Exploring Monetization Through Paid Lead Generation
At the end of 2014, we started to explore monetization. Our hypothesis was that charging buyers would curb adoption. On the web, no matter how strong your content, people gravitate to free resources. So we knew that we had to focus on monetizing vendors, at least initially. The question was how to do so without compromising the integrity of our service to buyers.
Before I started TrustRadius, there were several software directory sites (Software Advice, Capterra, GetApp, etc.) who generated revenue through paid lead generation. They either drove clicks to vendor websites, or they got people to fill out forms and speak to them, which could then be qualified as CPL (Cost Per Lead) opportunities to pass to vendors.
Given the growing scale and quality of our traffic, that seemed like an obvious path. For a few months, we dipped our toes into those waters. However, it soon became obvious that to scale revenue, we’d have to use tactics at odds with our mission to create the most trusted resource for buyers.
Some of the tactics we observed other review sites using to monetize via paid lead generation included:
- Baiting buyers to become “contactable leads” by offering them access to pricing information, which they never receive but instead get called by lead development reps
- Portraying call or chat line staff as expert advisors, when they’re really just lead brokers
- Steering people to products that the site has a lead sale relationship with, irrespective of whether they are the best choice for the buyer
- Connecting buyers to five or more vendors to maximize their revenue, regardless of whether such broad vendor engagement made sense for the buyer
- Displaying products on their site based upon which vendor was spending the most
- Ranking products based upon factors that could be paid for, like count of reviews
- Having staff who have never used the software write “editorial reviews”
In addition, when your focus is monetizing traffic, you spend limited energy thinking about things important to buyers like:
- Preventing review fraud
- Representativeness of ratings and correcting for gaming by vendors
- Review depth and quality which is so important as technology purchases are highly considered
We also felt that to authentically serve vendors, a review site should not:
- Hide or position products any less favorably if they are not paying you
- Bid against their brands for search traffic
- Charge them for leads that they would have derived anyway by monetizing search traffic associated with their brand
Finding an Authentic Monetization Path
By early 2015 we had become influential with software buyers in multiple categories. Several vendors requested help building out their review presence. They wanted to be properly represented but had struggled to drive reviews themselves.
In response, we launched a program called the TrustRadius Review Acceleration Program to help vendors accumulate high-quality review content at scale. We created a systematic approach that accumulated in-depth reviews with very high customer participation rates. Since today’s software evolves quickly, we also prompted reviewers to update and augment their reviews over time. The program was well received and drove strong results.
Unsurprisingly, some vendors wanted to focus initial outreach to known happy customers. To ensure that we put the interests of buyers first, and that the data on our site was representative of broad customer sentiment, we continued to source most of our reviews independently and introduced an algorithm called trScore for computing ratings which places more weight on unbiased sources – ratings and reviews that we collect independently or know come from a representative list.
We also found that vendors materially benefited from broadly inviting customers to review them:
- Increased trust with a much higher review count and a more believable rating distribution
- More content and coverage of different segments and use cases
- Identification of new customer references and candidates for advocacy programs
- Product and customer service feedback
- Deter poor fit customers
The Big Epiphany – Business Software is Sold, Not Bought
While business technology buyers are completing more of their initial research online, most complex software is still sold versus bought. Few vendors have hordes of educated prospects showing up ready to buy, and qualified buyers need help navigating complex enterprise purchases. Many technology companies spend as much as 50% of revenue on sales and marketing to drive consideration and brand preference.
Yet vendor messaging is frequently opaque and loaded with superlatives like “most complete” and “recognized market leader.” Buyers want to cut through the hype. They want a straightforward explanation of how well a product performs, and a balanced discussion of the pros and cons. They value hearing from people like themselves, in the same industry and with the same use case.
We realized that the customer reviews we’d accumulated could be a powerful asset for vendors to use in their own sales and marketing, so we starting building a customer voice platform to help vendors deploy this content in their own channels. The platform includes a curation capability to extract and tag quotes from reviews to create a searchable library for use in email campaigns, proposals and presentations, etc.; content syndication that dynamically streams review excerpts to web pages based upon persona or theme; and an integration to Salesforce that suggests the best review excerpts for reps to use based on context.
The early results have been impressive. Vendors have experienced material lifts in lead conversion, ranging from 13% to over 100% on key landing pages, and strong adoption of review content by sales to develop and close opportunities.
Feeling Good About Our Path
Today, we have signed close to 100 leading technology brands. They range from some of the largest software companies in the world to disruptive high-growth startups. What unites them is the belief that their customer’s voice has a strategic influence on prospective buyers, improves sales and marketing performance, and informs their product roadmap.
Most importantly, we’ve arrived at a successful monetization approach that doesn’t compromise our authenticity and mission to be the most trusted resource for buyers. To quote the poet Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.