Know your hand-raisers: why marketing to your user base isn’t working anymore

Many product-led companies hit a bumpy spot in their growth path when they start selling to larger companies and enterprises. What used to work well — monetizing through the product and marketing to active product users — becomes less effective as they try to scale.

Maybe you're experiencing the same thing:

  • You target active product users with in-app messages encouraging them to upgrade to premium. It works at first ... but then the channel shows diminishing returns.
  • You send more nurture emails to your user base, but don't generate more handraises.
  • You know you have power users at amazing upmarket companies, but when sales reaches out, they can't close an enterprise deal.

It's a classic case of "what got you here won't get you there."

"We incorrectly assume that if we have people from incredible companies actively using our product, or purchasing self-serve, then we have the ability to sell them on an enterprise plan. This is where the disconnect happens ... where you can deploy a ton of tactics on your user base and generate zero pipeline." — Elena Verna, Growth Advisor

To understand how to get around this phenomenon and keep scaling into larger markets, you need to know your hand-raisers, according to product-led growth experts Elena Verna (growth advisor at Reforge, MongoDB and more) and Francis Brero (co-founder of MadKudu).

Hand-raisers at large companies tend to be different people than your product users. So if it seems like your in-product marketing channels are "tapped out," maybe your focus is a little too narrow.


We love Francis and Elena's examples of how this plays out in the real world. They share lessons from Invision, Miro, and Netlify to show how big the gap between buyers and users can really be — and how to work around it.

(For more from these two, check out their excellent webinar How to scale your PLG motion with an account-centric approach.)

Understanding account readiness: Invision

Invision, the popular digital design platform, has users ranging from individual designers and freelancers to teams at large enterprises like Amazon, HBO, and Airbnb. They're a great example of a company that optimized their product-based monetization, then successfully moved upmarket and figured out how to land enterprise deals.

Francis tells a story about when MadKudu worked with Invision years ago as they scaled upmarket. At the time, Invision had optimized their handraise motion: sales responded quickly when product users requested contact and got high conversion rates. Invision also had a product-qualified lead (PQL) motion that was working well — finding people in their user base who displayed high engagement and reaching out with offers for premium features to get them to upgrade.

The problem was, this PQL motion was working well for smaller businesses … but not for larger enterprises.

Here's an example of what was happening: you notice that three designers at a large company like Facebook (just for example) are super active in the product. So sales would reach out, but for some reason, not be able to generate an opportunity. It's not that sales flubbed it; they'd reach out quickly with the right messaging and find that the users did indeed love their product. What's more, the company fit their ideal customer profile.

The problem: they just wasn't ready to convert at the account level. Why? A small company might have no problem quickly testing Invision as their new design tool of record, to fix a straightforward collaboration issue. But a big company with a big design organization likely has complex needs — and far more hoops to jump through.

This illustrates the idea of account readiness. Francis says, "Just because three people from Facebook use your product, doesn't mean you're ready to close an enterprise opportunity and become their main provider of design assets across the company."

A product-led company can bypass this issue by supplementing their PQL motion with a top-down, sales-assisted approach. In the example above, they need a dedicated enterprise sales team who can proactively find the head of design and the IT decision makers, learn the organization's challenges, and then pitch Invision in a tailored way. In other words, larger or more complex accounts, such as enterprise companies, often need white-glove or more personalized sales treatment.

It's not enough to get a few designers fall in love with a product and cross your fingers that they'll figure out how to fix their broader organizational challenges. Zoom out to consider how to reach not only the product user, but also the people who are buying the product for the users — and how they're thinking about their team's issues. When you're marketing to big companies, they're usually not the same people.

Here's an example from another design product, Miro, that shows just how different they can be.

Most upmarket buyers are not in your user base: Miro

Elena Verna spent time as interim CMO at Miro, an online whiteboard platform. The product-led company uses viral loops to grow within organizations: people use Miro boards to brainstorm and visualize ideas, then invite more and more coworkers to collaborate. Eventually, someone at their company submits a form to talk to sales and close an enterprise deal.

Miro started with an inbound sales team who would talk to these hand-raisers, with very organic pipeline creation from the product. When they wanted to create more enterprise pipeline, they decided to amp up their nurture email marketing to Miro's users, hoping that it would inspire more of them to raise their hands.

In the past, they had focused their nurture emails on a subset of users who identified themselves as buyers in an onboarding questionnaire. But now, Miro expanded their email marketing across the user base to anyone that hit a certain product activation threshold, and they personalized the messages for different use cases. Ultimately, they sent out 10 times the number of emails they were sending before.

After the messages went out, Elena and her team would sit in their revenue meeting each week, eagerly awaiting the deluge of hand-raisers. But nothing happened. Three months later, still no increase in hand-raisers.

They started to investigate what went wrong.

They pulled a list of Miro's previous hand-raisers and what they found surprised them. Over 70% of hand-raisers were not really product users. In other words, they wouldn't have reached those hand-raisers with emails in the first place. Here's the breakdown:

  • 60% of hand-raisers were registered in the product's user base. Miro's nurture emails would never reach the 40% that weren't in the user base. Okay, almost half doesn't sound great but not as dire as 70% right? Stick with us...
  • For half of the 60% of hand-raisers that were in the product, their Miro accounts were just a couple days old by the time they raised their hand. They didn't make any Miro boards or collaborate. They were just signing up to peek at the product as part of the evaluation process. These buyers had such low in-product activity that they often didn't hit the activation threshold to receive nurture emails anyway. Plus they already had high intent — so they weren't the leads that needed to be nurtured.

"We kept nurturing our user base expecting our buyers to be in there, but a majority of them weren't," says Elena. "Yes, in some segments, the buyer also uses the product, and our in-product efforts are fruitful. But for others, we needed a way to find the buyer, or influence the user to find the buyer at their company."

Elena thought this was an anomaly, until she did the same analysis at another company.

The hand-raiser gap is a trend: Netlify

Elena was also running a growth team at Netlify, a web hosting platform. (She's in demand!) Netlify's product is in a different industry than Miro's — they sell to developers, not designers. Despite these differences, their buyer-user gaps looked exactly the same.

A large chunk of Netlify's hand-raisers weren't in the user base at all. And half of those who were in the user base had quickly created an account just to evaluate the product. For larger company segments, particularly those with over 500 employees, it was less likely for the buyer to be the same person as the user.

Elena says, "We started seeing a pattern: if you have a user-centric product, these relationships hold, whether you sell to designers or product managers or developers. This is why you need to think of strategies to generate pipeline on top of your product. If you only place ads to contact sales in the product, or only send nurture emails to your user base, you may see diminishing returns from these initiatives."

The instant converters

Francis offers another data point in support of Elena's findings. A large software company working with MadKudu noticed that 50% of their self-serve conversions were people who'd signed up for the product and instantly converted to a paid plan. They did nothing in the product before buying it.

The company wondered what was going on. Perhaps these people had their mind made up before signing up — maybe they'd done a lot of research by reading the website, getting super educated, and becoming convinced as they came in the door that this is the best database provider for them. Could that be why they were signing up immediately?

Not exactly. Zooming out, it turned out that these instant-converters belonged to a bigger account: they were the buyers at a company with a bunch of active product users.

The lesson is that conversions and handraises might seem like they come out of nowhere, but they're often part of an account that has already been engaged.

Francis says, "When you start looking at the roles of these people, you see that there are buyer types who swipe the credit card, and there are activator types who are in the product to get value from it. They champion the tool within the organization and hopefully invite the buyer to come in and swipe."

It's critical to be able to link the two — the buyer and the activator/user — or else it'll seem like hand-raisers are falling out of the sky. It sounds cool, but the problem is, you'll be hard pressed to generate more hand-raisers if you don't know where they come from.

Know your hand-raisers

In the early days of your product, when self-serve is working well on its own, the buyer journey may seem linear: someone signs up, they get value, then they upgrade.

But as you sell your product to larger customers, the journey gets more complicated. There's an interplay between the buyers and the enthusiast users who champion your product, inviting their coworkers and generating internal engagement. Understanding these dynamics within the account is critical, and it all starts with knowing who your hand-raisers are.



Want to learn how to break into the enterprise market and reach both buyers and product users? Watch Francis and Elena's webinar, How to scale your PLG motion with an account-centric approach.