A Marketer’s Obsession with Programming and Customer Acquisition

One year ago, I joined Laurel & Wolf as its first marketing hire.

At that time, our customer acquisition strategy relied mostly on startup press, word of mouth, and our investors.  Laurel & Wolf brought me on to scale paid acquisition, improve conversion, and ramp up overall client growth.

For years, I’ve obsessed over using programmatic methods to generate revenue online.  Engineering interest started early – I began coding (Perl) at 15.  My dad and brother have been computer programmers for a combined 65 years – Dad coded for various aerospace companies most of his career, starting in the 60s “writing” machine code compiled on punch cards.  My brother is a Tech Lead at Adobe for subscription infrastructure & services.  Programming’s in the blood apparently.

Making the “switch” from programming to marketing happened mostly by accident.  After 7 years developing in Java & PHP for LA mobile technology startups, I heard a friend mention he’s “making money with Facebook Ads”.  That night, somewhat begrudgingly, I Googled “how to make money online” – and discovered a large community of affiliate marketers arbitraging traffic on Facebook.  It was 2007 – I wasn’t even on Facebook yet!  So, I joined, added some friends, posted a now-embarrassing status update, started an ads account, and created my first affiliate campaign.  It didn’t go well – my first several campaigns flopped and I lost money.

After soaking up affiliate marketing forums and chatting with new, imaginary online affiliate friends, eventually I built my first profitable campaign.  It was remarkably easy in hindsight – I created ads for single guys on Facebook, targeting very specific demos, re-directed them to dating sites (eHarmony & match.com), and earned commission for every lead I generated.

I decided that if I began making more money than my programmer gig, I’d quit my day job.  It took 3 months and several painful campaign losses – but the long nights eventually paid off – and I jumped ship to do the affiliate thing full-time.

The ad creation process on Facebook was tedious and horribly manual.  I coerced a programmer buddy to join my 1-person startup, and we built a Java-based platform to automate my daily repetitive tasks.  Our platform POSTed thousands of ads into Facebook at once, with slight variations, passing a unique identifier to link each ad’s performance to revenue.

It was programmatically straightforward to create – we used Firebug to reverse engineer the HTTP request Facebook’s ad platform sent during ad creation, and created a simple HTML form to emulate it.  It would break occasionally (as scrapers do) but usually a parameter change fixed the issue.  And Facebook never plugged all the holes to stop us.

It was a fun few years and I learned a ton.  Over time we built better tools, easy-to-read dashboards, self-optimizing campaigns, and custom DB triggers to alert us when campaigns went awry.  Everything built was used in-house only to stay focused on our business and maintain competitive advantage. However, traffic arbitrage became more difficult over time, mostly due to affiliate saturation (i.e. everyone copying each other) and Facebook & MySpace’s increasingly stringent advertising guidelines, and my venture became unsustainable.

After 3 years being my own boss, a few bad revenue months provoked us to jump back into larger-than-2-person companies.  At this point an identity shift occurred that I never would have predicted – I became defined more as a customer acquisition expert vs. a software programmer.  I’ll go with it!

This career phase shaped my view of digital marketing today.  My thoughts specifically:

  • A marketing team is stronger with a technical & programming foundation.  Most affiliate competitors couldn’t compete because I scripted and built tools for tasks and campaigns.  Fast forward to today, within Laurel & Wolf’s Marketing team, we have a similar pro-programming philosophy – for example, we utilize AdWords scripts and other automation tools to acquire customers more efficiently.
  • Investing in data, dashboards & tools will improve ROI.  In the affiliate days, I built self-updating dashboards in PHP by scraping/pulling from APIs, storing metrics/segments in MySQL, running every hour via cron jobs.  This made scaling campaigns easy.  We operate similarly today, with a sophisticated marketing stack that exposes deep campaign insights and optimization opportunities.
  • Conversion is (arguably) the most important marketing metric for a business.  Most initial affiliate campaigns I launched flopped.  Optimizing just the ads sometimes yielded positive ROI, but improving conversion funnels generated the largest revenue gains.  In a few cases where campaigns didn’t convert well, I contacted advertisers directly, hand-coded better landing pages & flows for them, and turned campaigns net positive overnight.

At Laurel & Wolf, especially on the Marketing team, we’re obsessed with customer acquisition.  And I’m confident that with continuously improving marketing tools and thoughtful engineering, we’ll achieve awesome growth.

Love fast-growing companies?  Want to join our great team?  Check out all available openings here or email us!

Dave Riggs