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GTM Playbooks

Notion’s Foundations of Product-Led Growth & Marketing: Insights from Rachel Hepworth

This post by François Dufour is part of our series on Product-Led Growth Playbooks. There, we share insights and advice from leaders who have built successful PLG businesses that target software development teams.

Notion is the new poster child for rapid product-led growth. In 2020 alone, Notion saw a 5x growth in users as the pandemic pushed more work online.

The Notion team has expertly layered its growth engine atop a very successful community-led top-of-funnel motion. All this has led the company to a $10B valuation, with 20 million+ users logging into Notion to take notes, track projects, and coordinate work.

Rachel Hepworth, who leads Product and Growth Marketing at Notion, is at the helm of the company’s growth efforts. Rachel and I worked together at LinkedIn. There, and later at Slack and Notion, she became one of the best product and growth marketing leaders in SaaS. Her insights will be instructive to anyone looking to accelerate their growth.

We cover:

  • Growth marketing at Notion: the scope, the team, and the KPIs
  • The foundational activities of growth marketing
  • Hiring for your growth team
  • The challenge of paid channels when you have strong organic success
  • Using actionable segmentation

Key Takeaways

  • Be deliberate about your KPIs. A sign-up for a freemium business is likely a vanity metric. Activations are a much stronger true north
  • Optimizing your website is essential for conversion and low-hanging fruit can improve performance substantially
  • To enable your growth team, focus on having robust data first. You won’t be able to grow without proper insights
  • Don’t hire traditional marketers for your growth team
  • Companies with high-volume organic traffic will struggle when using paid channels without a strong data engine to optimize paid efforts
  • Segmenting your audience is essential and the correct segmentation depends on your needs. For growth marketing, Notion focuses on function and role

Growth marketing at Notion: the scope, the team, and the KPIs

Rachel’s scope

Rachel leads Product Marketing, Growth Marketing, International Marketing, Demand Generation, and Content Marketing. In her words, it’s taking care of “everything after the awareness stage.”

Because Notion benefits from an incredible community and stellar word-of-mouth marketing, millions of visitors come to the site each month and many of those visitors then sign up for a free account. The users need to understand all the value that Notion has to offer if they’re going to convert from freemium users into paying customers. This value becomes especially clear when Notion is used by teams.

“For Notion to grow, users need to see it as a valuable tool for more than personal note-taking. They also need to invite others to Notion so it becomes collaborative, as working together is how much of the product’s value is unlocked.”

The team structure

Rachel’s team is currently structured into five groups:

  1. Growth - This team is focused on getting end users signed up and activated with Notion, usually through an initial free account. It includes Performance Marketers, Web Engineering, and Growth and Lifecycle Marketers.
  2. Product Marketing - This team brings new products and features to market. They inform the product roadmap, position new features, develop messaging, and help with distribution and education of new products and features upon release.
  3. Content - The content team creates educational and enablement resources about the product, the community, and the industry as a whole, as well as supports top-of-funnel campaigns. Their work builds trust and community.
  4. Demand Generation - The demand generation team is focused on building awareness and interest among decision-makers to drive pipeline for Sales, adding a top-down motion to a very powerful bottom-up machine.
  5. International - 80% of Notion users live outside of the U.S. The International marketing team serves this audience, focusing on each region’s unique language, culture, and product needs.

Notion’s Growth Team’s top 3 KPIS

Because Notion is easy to sign up for and has benefited from viral moments that drive general traffic, a sign-up itself is not proof a user will be valuable.

Rather than using sign-ups or web visitors as KPIs, Rachel looks at activated teams, upgraded team accounts, and pipeline value.

  1. Activated teams - Notion defines an activated team as when at least two team members visit their Notion account twice in the first week. Activated teams may not have converted into paying users, but there is real potential to do so. They are engaged users getting value from the product.
  2. Upgraded team accounts - When a team enters in their credit card information and becomes a paying Notion customer, they now have an upgraded Team account. Rachel and her team watch this number closely to see how many teams are upgrading.
  3. Pipeline value - Notion measures how much pipeline is in the funnel at any given time– this is the dollar value of prospects that may upgrade to an enterprise account. This KPI is especially important to the collaboration with Sales.

Rachel and her team have recognized that users follow a typical path, and the product has been designed to guide users from one use of Notion to multiple uses. Typically, users begin with individual docs, then start using Notion for project management and as an internal wiki. Along the way, Notion can measure the top KPIs: activated teams, upgraded team accounts, and overall pipeline value.

The foundational activities of Growth Marketing

Here are the activities Rachel and her team have been focusing on.

Optimizing the website for conversion

When someone lands on the Notion website, they need to not only understand what Notion has to offer but be able to sign up as easily as possible. In short, the website needs to convert.

By addressing low-hanging fruit– clarifying pages, re-writing and designing calls to action– the team has been able to improve conversion rates substantially.

“Even though we have a lot of traffic and volume, we hadn’t spent much time optimizing the website. We recently did a website refresh where we updated pages, simplified messaging, clarified our value props, and highlighted calls to action that resulted in a 5% increase to ARR - a huge number at Notion’s scale.”

Accelerating product value

PLG works when it is easy for users to get started with a product and see immediate value. To improve product-led growth, users should be given guidance within the product to increase their engagement and ensure they reach an “ah-ha moment.”

Notion tackles this in a variety of ways:

  • Triggered emails are sent when people take a certain action, such as creating a database for the first time, that educates them about the feature and helps them use it more deeply.
  • Notion has templates for a variety of use cases, anything from designing a marketing calendar to building a company directory in Notion, that can help users get value more quickly.
  • In-product prompts also educate and explain Notion features at just the right moment.

    “We know it doesn’t work well to send people a lot of general educational emails about Notion,” said Rachel. “Instead, we want specific actions within the product to trigger certain messages because in these moments we know someone is highly motivated. We’re focused on nailing the trifecta of sending the right message to the right person at the right time.”

Layering performance channels for a word-of-mouth driven product

When a company like Notion has a great amount of organic traffic, it can be challenging to then run paid campaigns with a positive ROI. You risk cannibalizing your organic reach by targeting the same people who would have found you anyway. You need to make sure you have a system set up to capture real-time, high-quality data.

“The key to using paid channels profitably is to have a lot of data flowing between your internal product and marketing systems and the ad platforms, which require building customer-triggered events and often custom pipelines.”

“If a company is going to invest in paid channels, then they need to invest as heavily in data and engineering as they do in performance marketing budgets and creative,” she said.

Rachel’s team has been focused on opening up paid marketing channels, a complex workstream that involves work on targeting, attribution, modeling, creative and tooling improvements.

She noted that many companies hire a large team of performance marketers to run and optimize paid campaigns, whereas she’d rather have a cross-functional team of engineers and data scientists and a small group of performance marketers working together to target users who actually convert.

Hiring for your growth team

Rachel doesn’t see traditional marketers as the most important hires for a Growth team. Instead, she looks for analytically-minded people from a variety of backgrounds. She also believes that without ironclad data, growth marketers can’t be successful.

Who you should hire for your growth team

It might be tempting to first hire people who call themselves “growth marketers” on LinkedIn, but Rachel recommends strategically hiring your growth team in order of priority.

“For most companies, it’s very costly to acquire users if those users are not seeing success with the product. They churn, and you’re back to square one. So really focus on making sure that your users are actually sticking around before worrying about hiring for your growth marketing team.”
  1. Data - For a team to be successful, they need access to accurate data. Without this, the team won’t understand what parts of your funnel are healthy and what needs help. They won’t know which strategies and tactics you should double down on vs. which are poor performers and should be abandoned. “You have to actually know what’s happening– you have to be able to track it. Otherwise, you’ll never know what’s working or what’s not,” said Rachel. “That’s why I recommend hiring data scientists as the first step.”
  2. Engineering -  You need web and growth engineers to connect your systems, build and execute your experiments and create better user experiences.  
  3. Product - The product team focuses on making the product easy to use, provides great onboarding experiences, and ensures users get value quickly.
  4. Marketing - Once data, engineering, and product are in place, it then makes sense to hire marketers who can promote the product and help to optimize the customer experience.

What to look for in a growth marketer

Finding a great growth marketer is challenging. Rachel looks beyond traditional marketing hires to find good fits. “One unusual profile I’ve found valuable is previous early-stage founders, whose original business may not have succeeded,” she said. “Ex-founders often have the independence and drive to go out, build something, and make an impact.”

Rachel emphasizes that these hires don’t necessarily need to have a background in growth. Instead, you must find people who are action-oriented and perpetually curious. Analytically-oriented individuals like management consultants and investment bankers can be good fits due to the rigor and data-driven mindset they bring.

“I love to hire people who have a technical background but work in marketing– these are gold. If I see an ex-engineer or an ex-data scientist who has moved into marketing, I’m willing to pay double.”

When it comes to interviewing, Rachel asks candidates:

  • “Walk me through your current business and the most important metrics. Why are those the metrics you focus on? What might be the downside of those metrics? What alternative metrics would you look at if you were to add a few more?”
  • “Can you share your most successful growth test or project? Why did you decide to invest there? What would your next step be to extend that success?”
  • “Walk me through your biggest growth failure. Why did it fail? What would you do differently next time?”

She also typically gives them a light case question. For example, she might ask candidates how they would try to double the number of Notion Teams created per week. The candidate is not expected to know the correct answer– the point is to see what questions they ask to create a potential approach. Do they understand Notion’s funnel? Do they ask about current conversion rates, consider the size of the audience impacted at any stage of the funnel, dig into what has already been tried? Rachel pays close attention to the questions that the candidate asks to understand how they think and to see if they take a structured approach to solving growth challenges.

The actionable segmentation Notion uses

Segmenting an audience to better nurture users is a winning tactic in practice, but it can be challenging to figure out how to organize segments and what to say to each one. Rachel offered a word of warning: too many companies ask for information in the signup flow, such as a role or industry or company size, and then never use that information for any meaningful nurturing efforts.

At Notion, Rachel and her team focus on function. For example, Notion might showcase a content calendar template to marketers of all levels, but share something different with engineers, who won’t be interested in that type of resource.

They also focus on user-type. That is, is someone a team creator or a team joiner? Are they a workspace admin? The person who creates the team may be highly motivated, ready to be an internal champion, and comfortable with new tools, whereas a joiner may be asked to use the tool as part of their job and need more hand-holding. An admin, in contrast, needs particular advance notice about changes in the tool that may affect all workspace users.

Making PLG + ABM = 3 and not 1.5

When Notion began, they saw sweeping success in engaging new users. In order to grow further, they need to marry bottom-up (PLG) and top-down (Sales-led/ABM) motions so that adoption could continue to accelerate in large companies.

To enjoy similar success, you’ll have to learn when to shift from a user-centric approach to focusing on the account level, identifying and engaging the right company decision-maker. As you move upstream into the enterprise, it will be more important than ever to establish relationships with those who hold the budget. Rachel (and I) see that as one of the holy-grails of Marketing: a very solid ABM motion built on top of a powerful bottom-up one.

Notion is tackling this in a few ways.

  • The first is building an intelligent PQA model (Product-Qualified Account) that looks at all of Notion's self-serve users and identifies the accounts that are good prospects for an enterprise upgrade, through a combination of product engagement, firmographics, and user-level information. This creates a constant stream of leads for sales.
  • The second is by creating nurture campaigns for the decision-makers at those PQA companies, to help engage them in conversation.
  • The third is by building out a robust Customer Success team that works with larger companies to create more valuable experiences within the product. This helps Notion spread wall to wall and become a strategic system within the company, vs just “another tool.”

Most companies do well at either a bottoms-up or a top-down motion. When they add the second one, it takes a while for that one to ramp (culture, talent, processes and tools are often optimized for the 1st motion) and so 1+1 rarely equals 2. Yet, those who truly figure it out are destined to reap massive rewards.

Thanks, Rachel, for all these insights!