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Nir’s Note: Justin Mares is the co-author of the new book Traction, a startup guide to getting customers. Justin’s framework provides a simple way for new marketers to discover their most effective triggers. Get 3 chapters of Justin’s book free at

Bullseye: Getting TractionIn his book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,

Nir Eyal introduces the concept of triggers as they relate to building user habits. As a quick refresher, triggers are anything that cues action. For example, when you see a “Sign-up Now” button on a blog asking for your email, the trigger is effective when it prompts you to submit your email address.

As we learn in Hooked, people will only take an action when they’ve been triggered by some cue. But how do you decide what triggers to use? Furthermore, once you have ideas for your triggers, how do you make them as effective as possible? What insights can we glean from user psychology to help us get more users to start using our product in the first place?

In this post, I’m going to cover how you can use external triggers to get traction: how to use cues in a user’s environment to engage current customers and acquire new ones. By the end of this post, you will have a list of triggers you can immediately implement to get more traction and ultimately make your product more engaging.

Types of Triggers

First, let’s review the different kinds of triggers. Nir mentions four kinds of external triggers in his book:

  1. Paid triggers. These triggers include advertising, search engine marketing, and other paid channels that attract user’s attention and get them to check out a product or service.
  2. Earned triggers. These are triggers that you can’t buy directly, but that still generate short-term exposure. Things like press, viral videos, App Store rankings and speaking gigs are all earned opportunities to get wider exposure. Though they can be very effective, these kinds of triggers are also harder to consistently replicate.
  3. Relationship triggers. These triggers are generated by referrals from people you have a relationship with. Think of tweets you see from friends playing the Kardashian game, things that Facebook connections “Like”, or hearing about products from word of mouth. All are triggers that leverage existing relationships to reach new users, and can be extremely powerful.
  4. Owned triggers. Lastly, these are triggers that are a part of your user’s environment by their choice: the app icon on a user’s phone, an email newsletter the user subscribers to, or push notifications the user has opted in to.

Owned triggers help drive repeat engagement until a habit is formed. The other trigger types help you acquire new users. For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on the first three types of triggers, those that help acquire new users by driving first-time use.

The Bullseye Framework

The first step to growth and getting traction is determining what triggers might work to acquire new users and where you want to deploy those triggers. In our research, we found there are 19 ways companies acquire customers.

With so many triggers at your disposal, figuring out which one to focus on can be tough. That’s why we use a simple tool we call the “Bullseye Framework” to help you find the most suitable triggers to drive use of your product.

Step 1: Brainstorm

The goal in brainstorming is to come up with reasonable ways you might trigger users. If you were to advertise offline, where would be the best place to do it? If you were to give a speech, who would be the ideal audience?

In terms of research to feed your brainstorm, you should know what marketing strategies have worked in your industry, as well as the history of successful marketing campaigns in your space. It’s especially important to understand how other companies acquired customers over time, and how unsuccessful companies wasted their marketing dollars. I’d suggest talking to advisors and other founders in your industry to learn what’s worked for others, and what hasn’t. You can also use tools like SEMrush and KeywordSpy to see the paid triggers others are using, and sites like Compete to see where most of their traffic is coming from. What triggers have historically worked in reaching your audience – ads, viral relationship triggers, or earned triggers like PR and email marketing? What triggers have failed?

Step 2: Rank

The ranking step helps you organize your brainstorming efforts. It also helps you to think critically about your potential triggers.

Place each of the triggers into one of three columns, with each column representing a concentric circle in the Bullseye:

  • Column A (Inner Circle): which triggers seem most promising right now?
  • Column B (Potential): which triggers seem like they could possibly work?
  • Column C (Longshot): which seem like worth exploring but only after the low-hanging fruit has been picked?

Your research in the brainstorm step should guide your rankings. Ranking is more gut feel than a science. Usually, a few ideas you thought of will seem particularly compelling – these belong in column A. Triggers that seem less plausible but still worth exploring go in column B. The stretch ideas, that are less practical and promising belong in column C.

How you rank these triggers will depend on your stage as a company, funding and willingness to experiment. Some paid triggers – ads and the like – could be effective, but are too expensive to test in the very early stages of a company. Others (like offline ads) may not make sense given the audience you’re trying to reach.

Step 3: Prioritize

In this step, we’ll identify your inner circle: the three triggers that seem most promising. You should have more than one trigger in your inner circle so you don’t waste valuable time finding your successful trigger by testing them one by one. Instead, you’ll need to run multiple experiments at the same time.

Many of the tests you’ll be running (AdWords vs. content marketing) can be done simultaneously, and may take some time to run after they’ve been set up. This is why running tests in parallel is so important: it helps you figure out what’s working (and what’s not) much faster.

Step 4: Test

The testing step is where you put your ideas into the real world. The goal of this step is to find out which of the triggers in your inner circle are worth focusing-on and which you should dump.

You will make that decision based on results from a series of relatively cheap tests. These tests should be designed to answer the following questions.

  • Roughly how much will it cost to acquire customers with this trigger?
  • How many customers are available with this trigger?
  • Are the customers that respond to this trigger the ones you want right now?

Keep in mind that when testing, you are not trying to get a lot of traction just yet. Instead, you are simply trying to determine what triggers work for you.

Step 5: Focusing

If all goes well, at least one of the triggers you tested in your inner circle produced promising results. In that case, you should start directing your traction efforts and resources towards that most promising one.

The goal of this focusing step is quite simple: to wring every bit of traction out of the trigger. To do so, you will need to continually experiment to optimize your current trigger by testing things like ad copy, demographic targets, and other attributes.

The 5-step bullseye framework helps companies systematically determine which channels make sense to invest their time and effort into.

Note: This guest post was written by Justin Mares. Get 3 chapters of his Traction book free at

Photo Credit: emiliokuffer

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