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Problem solved… now what? Unbounce shows us what’s next in marketing AI

Jackie Gill - November 22, 2019 Unbounce conquered their first problem: giving SMB marketers a way to create and customize landing pages. Their next challenge? AI.
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Go back in time ten years.

You might have listened to Boom Boom Pow by the Black Eyed Peas (it was the #1 Billboard chart-topper), watched Avatar in theatres (a.k.a. the year’s highest-grossing movie) and carried an iPhone 3GS (or even a BlackBerry Storm).

Now pretend you’re a marketer. “Web 2.0” would be common vocabulary. Social media was still in its nascence. And the term “landing page” was just starting to pick up momentum. That was the world of Unbounce co-founder and CEO Rick Perreault.

“Back in the day, you had your web designers and developers, and they’d maybe be part of the technology department,” says fellow Unbounce co-founder and CTO Carl Schmidt. If you asked them to build a landing page, “They’d always be like, ‘Hey, no problem. We can get that for you in two quarters from now.’ It just didn’t work.”

Not only was that content time-intensive to make, but they were also expensive, Schmidt adds – which meant small and medium-sized businesses were essentially locked out.

Today, things look quite different. Creating and publishing personalized content is as easy as dragging and dropping the right words and images into the right places, thanks to Unbounce’s platform. In other words: they accomplished what they set out to do.

So what do you do for the next ten years when your problem is no longer a problem? For Schmidt and his team, the answer was clear: look back to your roots and tackle the next big challenge.

First things first

In its earliest days, Unbounce was just six guys working out of coffee shops and living off of bologna sandwiches in Vancouver, says Schmidt.

“Back in those days, it really was doing everything on our own, not understanding how on Earth we were going to pay the bills, watching every single penny and honestly having very real conversations with each other about how many months we had, and are we going to make it?” he remembers.

But at first, he wasn’t sold on the landing page idea at all.

Was that just unique to our broken reality, or do other folks have the same pain?

– Carl Schmidt, co-founder and CTO of Unbounce

“I wasn’t sure that this word was even a thing. I had serious questions around, okay, are people really going to use this tool?” he says.

He had faith in the team, though. All six co-founders had worked together, in one way or another, before. And at the moment, no one in the group had a full-time gig, so they went head-first into the challenge.

Plus, it turns out, Perrault’s hunch was right. “Rick had done all the work talking to customers and going, ‘wait a minute, was that just unique to our broken reality, or do other folks have the same pain?’” Schmidt says.

“It didn’t take much digging to discover that, yeah, there are a lot of folks who are just trying to get their message out there from a marketing perspective and really can’t do it because of technology barriers or people barriers.”

It took the team about 12 months to cobble together an initial product to start sharing with marketers. Schmidt may describe that first release as “cringy,” but it established what they were all about: “The whole idea was to just remove those barriers and put the power into the marketers’ hands of being able to craft their message,” he says, “by allowing them to create the content that would actually drive conversion.”

And although their first product was rough, it kicked off what is now a $25-million-in-revenue company with 15,000 customers around the world.

Fast forward a decade

Unbounce celebrated it’s 10-year anniversary this year, and for the company, it was time for reflection.

In June, they updated their look and feel to better reflect their brand promise – “giving you the tools and support you need to execute amazing marketing,” they wrote in their blog – by adopting new colours, new photography, new typography and a new logo.

But it was time to look at their product, too.

“The whole idea was to remove those barriers and put the power into the marketers’ hands.”

– Carl Schmidt

“We spent a decade just improving that building experience,” says Tamara Grominsky, Unbounce’s director of product marketing. “What we started to see was that the world is changing, so there are all kinds of new channels that marketers are using.”

Someone opening a link from Facebook expects a different experience than someone arriving there through a search engine, for example. Knowing exactly what customers wanted to see? Well, that’s a new challenge entirely.

And that challenge led them to their latest technology, Smart Traffic, which launched this week. Using AI, it looks at basic attributes for each visitor – things like their location and device – to make smart guesses about what’s relevant. It’s yet another way they’re democratizing tech for small and medium-sized businesses, she adds.

“It’s good observation – and if that’s done well, it feels great.”

– Carl Schmidt

It only takes 50 visitors for the system to hone in on the right content for the right person. Plus it’s more effective than A/B testing by about 20 per cent, according to their early results.

And it does all of that without feeling creepy, Schmidt adds. “We’ve always been very focused on how can we bring something to market that’s comfortable and beneficial for our customers and for the world at large,” he says. Like an attentive salesperson at your favourite store, “It’s good observation – and if that’s done well, it feels great.”

Ready for AI?

But when it comes to AI, there’s another challenge: not all marketers are comfortable with it.

“When we started to do the actual work to understand whether our customers would appreciate and use this technology, we heard a lot of things like, ‘I’m scared that’s going to put me out of a job. Why would I trust a machine, because I know better?’” Schmidt says.

He understands those concerns. It’s natural that there’s friction when the issue is framed as AI vs. people, he says. Writers fear AI will create content for them; designers worry that an algorithm can replace their keen eye. “There’s still a lot of fear around what AI may or may not do.”

But as a self-proclaimed technologist, he sees a different future – one where technology works hand-in-hand with the people using it.

For one, while some tasks, like picking the best version of your landing page to serve up for each visitor, can be easily automated, others like inspiration, conceptualization and deep understanding of our audiences, just aren’t there yet (or even close).

“There’s still a lot of fear around what AI may or may not do.”

– Carl Schmidt

“I think in the next five years for sure what we’re going to see is marketer-enhancing use of AI, not marketer-replacing use of AI,” he says.

And when their customers see the results first-hand, it doesn’t seem so bad after all – especially for those small businesses, traditionally trapped on the outskirts of the latest tech.

“We actually get to hear firsthand from customers, ‘Hey, you helped me build my business. You helped me actually get started,’” he says.

And that’s what keeps him and his team going as they aim to solve even more problems in the next ten years. “It took us a decade to properly solved the first problem. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it takes us another decade to solve this one.”

DRAFT CARD

Draft Card Logo
  • Name: Unbounce
  • Solution: a landing page platform for small and medium-sized businesses that allows them to build and test landing pages without technical difficulties expertise.
  • Owners: Rick Perrault, Carl Schmidt, Carter Gilchrist, Oli Gardner, Justin Stacey and Jason Murphy
  • Employees: 190
  • Headquarters: Vancouver, BC
  • Founded: 2009
  • Initial investment: $1 million
  • Revenue: US$25 million
  • Contact: [email protected]
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