For Inc. Magazine, audience engagement is integral not only to its annual Inc. 5000 list, but also the brand’s revenues. Recently, however, the list has run into issues with losing potential applicants to outdated technologies and lack of follow-through. So this year, its marketing team is set out to reverse this issue.
Since establishing, in 1982, the Inc. 500 (later expanded to the Inc. 5000) list of the fastest-growing, privately held companies in the U.S., Inc. Magazine has worked to curate a competitive group of entrepreneurs and up and coming businesses through a selective application process. However, at the end of last year’s submission period, the brand realized that a large section of potential applicants never completed registration, eliminating themselves from consideration.
“The more applicants that we have, the stronger the list is, the better the list is, and everybody benefits,” Patrick Hainault, group vice president, marketing at Inc. Magazine.
Realizing this issue needed to be remedied to ensure the growth of the 36-year-old list as well as to bring in revenue for the publication, the marketing team used a variety of tactics including personalized house ads, comprehensive email campaigns, and upgrading the e-commerce platform.
Advertising to the individual entrepreneur
“Every marketer knows that personalization and very targeted messaging will ensure a successful program,” says Julia Pan, consumer marketing manager at Inc., who tells Folio: that personalizing their house ads were likely the most successful aspect of their marketing campaign.
Using users locations, potential applicants are greeted with ads on the brand’s website that state, for example, “Show your success in Montana on Inc. 5000.” Pan says this was aimed to show people all around the country that they have as much chance of being honored as a startup in New York does.
“It’s a big list so it can be intimidating for entrepreneurs who don’t realize that their success might merit national attention,” says Hainault. “Breaking it down gives everyone a chance to shine and creatively and we have the technology to do that.”
In addition to personalizing location, these ads also target former winners with phrasing such as, “Can you make the list multiple times in a row,” as well as applicants who started their registration but haven’t yet completed it.
“If they are incomplete, they’re actually a different audience segment so the messaging changes to ‘finish your application’ versus someone who is ‘start your application,’” says Pan.
Pan says the marketing team also looked to widening the funnel of their email campaigns in addition to taking “a very proactive approach” in following up with people who’ve presented interest.
“Essentially, for this year’s program, what we wanted to do was not only expand our outreach across those in the ecosystem, but then we also wanted to reach those beyond our ecosystem, to try to reach those that previously might not have had a relationship with Inc.,” she says.
Hainault attributes the value that the list provides to up-and-comers and to the brand, to the team’s comfort in swinging far and wide with their outreach, then refining with more targeted emails the closer they got to the application close date.
“If we see that there is some level of interest, and we know somehow you’ve engaged, online or otherwise, then we’ll try to pursue a little harder to ensure that you’re well aware of the opportunity as a business owner, and repeat it from several different angles,” he says.
Moreover, adding the creative twist of featuring the company’s name on an image of the award or on the cover of the magazine also helps to increase responses by allowing applicants to visualize what it would be like to win the honor, according to Hainault.
The results, and the revenue, are in
The company is looking at at least 25 percent revenue growth from last year due to the increase of applications and traffic, which Hainault points out is a major leap for a brand that is on its 36th year. “It’s not a new property and if it grew 25 percent year over year, we’d make our own list, which would be excellent,” says Hainault.
The marketers speculate that it is between the personalized ads and their increased engagement with Facebook that has driven the most interest and therefore the most revenue. “It’s hard to say what does what,” he says. “We really increased how much we spent on Facebook.”
With the application fee acting as the direct source of revenue for the list, having a technologically secure and efficient e-commerce platform was a necessary change that the marketing team needed to make. Making the switch to Google Shopping Cart this year, Pan agrees that last year the user experience of making the payment was too cumbersome and filled with barriers.
“This year, we thought, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of our applicants and what can you do to make this process easy, positive, exceeding expectations,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s an application—it shouldn’t be hard.”
User ease in mind, it was important to Hainault that the new platform was clean and widely accessible. “It’s 2018, right, so it has to work in mobile, it has to work in all sorts of browsers,” he says. “I think it’s true of any program, it gets layer upon layer of fixes and patches and what not and there comes a time where you need to start fresh, and not just fresh, but up-to-date.”
Providing a better platform for checkout, applicants didn’t even seem to mind the increased application fee this year of $199, compared to last year’s $150. Hainault attributes this to entrepreneurs understanding that being on Inc. 5000 provides a priceless service for the company and that the saying, “it takes money to make money” is true.
“Maybe a decade ago, there was some push back,” he says. “But I think now it’s accepted. Specifically, we’re dealing with entrepreneurs and they understand the creation of value and what it takes to make programs happen.”
Finding the “golden answer”
In regards to what marketing tactics the team plans on implementing again, Pan suggests that they’ll never be done tinkering with their methods, nor will they ever find a perfect system.
“We’ll let the dust settle and see what we want to do for next year,” agrees Hainault, who is still looking towards the results that will come in after the April 30 deadline has passed.
While Inc. won’t reveal how many applicants it receives for the list, Hainault says “it’s a lot more than 5000,” and this year, the list is expecting its most successful submission period ever with 25 percent more applications than 2017.
“I think that one of the reasons of the lasting success of the list, and not just this year’s great bump, but overall, is the fact that the list itself has tremendous meaning,” says Hainault. “It represents something that is really really meaningful, not just for the honorees, but for the entire country—about 10 percent of all new jobs are created from those 5000 names—so the list itself needs to matter and the the rest I think is taken care of.”