How To Become A Customer Acquisition Expert

Written By Brian Balfour

Posted On June 17, 2017


If I Can Do It, You Can Do It

I started my career out as a “product guy.”  But about 4 years ago I realized that product was a small piece of the startup puzzle.  I became fascinated with how products were growing.  Thus, my journey on learning growth and customer acquisition began.  

I have a degree from the University of Michigan (Go Blue, btw!), but not in marketing.  I am completely self taught.  As a result of my learning, I have started multiple companies funded by tier 1 investors, held VP Product Marketing and CMO positions, grown consumer products to millions of daily active users, and advised/consulted numerous others on growth.

I’m not here to brag.  My point is, if I can do it, you can do it too and I want to share my tips and lessons learned.


Where You CAN’T Learn Customer Acquisition

First thing is first.  Let me clear the air on a few things so you don’t waste your time.  

1.  There is no one unicorn course/source that will teach you everything you need.  So stop searching for the one. 

2.  You will not learn digital marketing and customer acquisition in college. The realm of digital marketing is changing extremely fast, and the rate of change is accelerating.  Universities/colleges are too slow to adapt.  There are some foundational things you will get from college courses (that I will cover), but even those you can get in other places faster and cheaper.   

Going to college doesn’t hurt.  But our education system, plain and simple, is not teaching the things to to make people productive in the work environment.  Filling the gap between what you learn in college, and the skills to make you productive in the work environment is up to you!

3.  You will not become a customer acquisition expert by exclusively watching/reading endless courses and blogs.  At some point you just have to jump in and get your hands dirty.  More on this later.  

4.  Certifications are bullshit.  You will probably run into a bunch of online courses promising “certification for Google Adwords” or “certification for social media” or “certification for being xyz schmuck.” Ignore them.  Certifications provide little to no value and you are going to end up paying a premium.  I have also found that those courses are often worse than other material out there.  

The best employers in todays market don’t give a crap about these certifications.  They want to see examples of what you have done which is why my point below about getting something to experiment with is so important. 

Learning Plan - Shape Yourself Like A “T”

The world of digital marketing is HUGE today.  It is easy to get overwhelmed.  Having a plan and path is the most important part.  I have tried to simplify the path as much as possible.  There are three layers:

1.  Base Layer

These are non-marketing specific subjects that provide a base to build from.  Subjects in the base layer are used throughout the subjects in the next two layers. 

2.  Marketing Foundation

These are marketing subjects you should know that are used across almost any channel you use.  

3.  Channel Expertise 

The third layer is where you will need to make some choices.  Channels are all the different ways you can reach your audience.  It is near impossible to become an expert in all of the online marketing channels AND stay up to date on the latest changes.  Each channel is changing unbelievably fast in addition to new channels emerging.  

That is why I recommend a learning plan that will shape yourself like a “T” [See picture below].  Go broad by knowing the basics including pros/cons of most channels.  Then choose to go really deep on a couple channels.  Generalists are useless in most work environments.  As an expert in certain areas you will be able to build a brand around yourself and stand out from the crowd.  


Learn About Growth.  No Fluff.  One Email Per Post.

Which Channels Should You Go Deep On?

Ultimately this is up to you.  The key is to just choose.  But I’ll give you two things to consider as you are deciding.    

1.  Your Preference and Skills

Think about the type of person you are and where you are strongest.  Some channels orient more towards creative skills (i.e. Content Marketing, Social, etc).  Some are more quant focused (i.e. viral growth, paid acquisition, etc).  The closer the channel is to your strengths and passions, the better chance you have at becoming an expert in that channel.  Personally I am more of a quant person.  So I have tended to go deep on paid acquisition and viral mechanism.  

2.  Take A Bet On On An Emerging Channel

If you are just starting your digital marketing career and have many years ahead of you, I highly suggest leaning towards emerging channels.  Four years ago the emerging channels would have been Facebook and content marketing.  

If you are one of the early players in a new channel that becomes popular, it will accelerate your career.  Being early positions yourself as an “expert.”  For a period of time while the industry catches up, there will be low supply, but high demand of people like you.  This puts you in a position of many options with negotiating leverage.  

The safest bet would be to choose two channels to go deep on.  A proven channel that you know will be around for awhile (Search, Content Marketing, etc) plus one emerging channel.  

Some General Tips

Before I dive into all the different pieces, here are some general tips as you begin your learning.  

Get Something To Experiment With

In learning digital marketing, nothing is more valuable than hands on experience.  The courses I will list are useful.  But I really really urge you to find a product/company to try out what you learn as you take the courses.  Maybe you are already in a company.  If not, volunteer as an intern somewhere.  Or use yourself (via a blog, mini website, etc) as the experiment.  

Learn From Others

One of the best things you can do is follow other awesome marketers who produce content online.  Here is a list of just some of the guys that I follow:

Noah KaganAndrew ChenRand Fishkin, Andy JohnsAvinash KaushikDave McClureHiten Shah

Oh yeah, don’t forget to follow me as well :)

Learn From Other Companies

Once you have chosen the channels you want to go deep on, identify a few companies that are executing in those channels really well.  Follow their tactics like a hawk.  For example, in content marketing I would pay attention to companies such as Moz, Hubspot, KissMetrics, and Buffer.  Use tools to research and follow their strategies such as Moz Research Tools, Followerwonk, SEMrush, WhatRunsWhere, and SocialCrawlytics.  

Keep A Scrap Book

No, not like the one that your mom has with naked pictures of you as a baby.  Keep a digital collection of examples and resources from other companies that provide inspiration and ideas.  I use evernote and every time I come across a great marketing email, landing page, ad creative, info graphic, on boarding technique, etc, etc I store it and organize it in Evernote.  That way when I’m designing a new email campaign down the road, I have numerous ideas and examples to refer back to.  

The Base Layer

The base layer are topics that aren’t marketing specific, but provide an essential foundation of knowledge to build from.    In no particular order…

Basic Statistics

All of digital marketing is going to have a quantative element.  It is important to understand the basics of statistics so you can make sense of the numbers.  At a minimum I recommend being familiar with, statistical significance, distribution analysis, confidence intervals, regression, and mean/median/mode. 

Introduction to Statistics via Udacity (course) 

Statistics One via Coursera (course) 

Basic Programming

Programming should be required for anyone who is going to work in a technology company.  But specifically for a role in marketing you will find that the biggest resource constraint for any company is engineering.  So the more you know how to do on your own, the faster you can move and the more value you can add.   You don’t need to be a master programmer but it is very useful if you understand code and know how to hack specifically on front end technologies including HTML, JavaScript, and CSS.  Bonus for learning a language like Ruby on Rails or Python.  Courses I recommend:

Intro to Programming (base concepts)

Learn HTML and CSS via Treehouse

Javascript and JQuery via Treehouse

Simple Ruby on Rails via Treehouse

Intro to Computer Science (for Python) via Udacity

Product Design & UX Principles

The past few years we have seen a greater movement towards design as a critical piece of communicating marketing efforts on the web.  So much so that in some cases design can be a competitive advantage (link).  You don’t need to become a designer, but you need to understand how elements of design interact with marketing.  

Design For Hackers (Book)

Lean UX (Book)

Dribbble (Resource for Inspiration)


Online marketing has become more and more analytics driven the past five years, and I believe we are just getting started.  Understanding the principles of analytics and how to integrate and use analytics tools such as Google Analytics, Mixpanel, KissMetrics is vital.  

Analytics For Growth (Course)

Web Analytics (Course) 

Lean Analytics (Book)

Web Analytics 2.0 (Book)

Avinash Kaushik Blog (Blog)

Google Analytics Learn (Resource)

Behavioral Psychology

Statistics, analytics, and excel will help you understand what users are doing.   But a key to marketing is understanding why users are doing what they are doing.  To understand why, behavioral psychology comes in handy.  

Nir Eyal (Blog)

Influence (Book)

The Power of Habit (Book) 

Paradox of Choice (Book) 

Drive (Book)

Thinking Fast and Slow (Book) 

Predictably Irrational (Book) 


Most users/customers don’t respond to you selling features.  They respond to you selling a story.  Telling that story through branding and positioning is critical to standing out of the crowd in todays noisy market.  

Why, How, What Framework (Video)

Why, How, What (Resource Site)

Positioning (book)

Marketing Foundation Layer

Building on the base knowledge, the marketing foundation layer are marketing specific topics used across almost any marketing channel you choose to become an expert in.  

Conversion Rate Optimization

Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) is the process and tactics used to uncover why your users aren’t converting to a particular action, and the things you can change to improve.  A lot of the use cases will talk about Landing Page CRO, but a lot of these same techniques can be used to optimize other actions within products.  

The Big Picture of CRO by Rand Fishkin (Video) 

CRO Basics (Resource)

50 Posts on Conversions (Resource)

Unbounce (Blog)

Conversion Rate Experts (Blog)

Optimizely (Blog)


Whether you are writing full blog posts, or just two line Google Ads, copywriting and the consumer psychology behind copywriting is an essential skill.  A couple suggestions on courses

The Web Copywriting Bible (eBook)

The Only Copywriting Course You’ll Ever Need (Video)

Copyblogger (Blog)

Gary Halbert Boron Letters

Funnel Marketing

Funnel marketing is framework in how to map out journey from awareness to purchase/conversion of your customer and user.  Understanding this framework is vital for any online marketer.  

Startup Metrics For Pirates by Dave McClure’s (Presentation)

Startup Metrics For Pirates (Video)

See - Think - Do Framework (Resource)

A/B & Multivariate Testing

A/B testing teaches you how to properly test new ideas for copy, features, calls to action, everything.  You will start to understand why one of the base layer pillars is statistics :)

Always Be Testing (Book) 

Optimization and A/B Testing (Course)

A/B Testing Ideas (Blog)

Basic Photoshop & Wireframing Skills

I commonly find myself in photoshop/wireframing tools tweaking landing pages, calls to action, ad creative, etc.  This is similar to Programming and Database skills.  You can either wait around for someone else to do it, or know some basic skills and jump in yourself.  Bottom line recommendation, get familiar with Photoshop. 

Photoshop Foundations (Course) 

Note…There are TONS of photoshop courses online.  Here are some more on  You do not need to become a photoshop expert.  Take the first course I listed, and go further depending on your interest.   

Database Querying

There will always be a set of data you want to look at that isn’t available through your analytics or in house tools.  Especially in the early days when you probably don’t have the resources to invest in in-house tools.  You can either wait for engineers to pull the data for you, or learn a little SQL and jump in yourself.  

SQL Database for Beginners (Course)

Excel & Modeling

No matter how many analytics tools you have within a company you will always resort to excel at some point to analyze data.  Knowing your way around excel will become very valuable. Course I recommend:

Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced Excel via Udemy (course)  

Channel Expertise Layer

Now that we have some foundational skills we can talk about diving into certain channels.  Once again, shape yourself like a “T.”  Know the basics of each channel, but go deep on 1-2.  The materials listed below should cover the basics of each channel.  These channels are listed in no particular order.


Virality and WOM is core growth component to most online B2C companies.  While there are few resources on the topic, you should understand two things.  

1.  The different types of viral distribution.  

2.  How to measure, model, and analyze viral distribution.  

Viral Marketing Is Not A Strategy by Andrew Chen

What’s Your Viral Loop 

The Science Behind Viral Marketing 

How To Model Viral Growth Part 1(Blog Series) 

How To Model Viral Growth Part 2

How To Model Viral Growth Part 3

Search PPC

Search PPC is a very crowded channel, but can still be one of the most effective due to its high intent.  

PPC Training (Course) 

Learning Adwords (Course)

Google Adwords Essential Training (Course)

Wordstream Blog (Resource)

Facebook Ads

Facebook Ads is becoming one of my favorite channels due to the unique targeting.  The channel is still changing quickly as Facebook tweaks their optimization algorithm and launches new ad formats.  

Starters Guide to Facebook Ads (Resource) 

Profitability With Facebook Ads (Course) 

Traffic Black Book 2.0 Facebook Section (Course)


While SEO is another crowded channel, it is still driving growth for many recent high growth startups such as Quora and AirBnB.  SEO is a very valuable channel to learn and harness. SEO Learning Center (Resource) Blog

SEO Training (Course)

The ClickMinded SEO Optimization (Course) 

Distilled Training (Resource)


Social is an extension of almost all marketing strategies today.  There is a growing list of social publishers (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Youtube, Vine, the list goest on).  Understand which publishers and tools to use for which strategies.    

Social Media Marketing w/ Facebook and Twitter (Course)

Social Media Market Training (Course)

Content Marketing

Content marketing is the latest rage especially among B2B startups.  Content marketing paired with a high powered social or SEO strategy is extremely effective.  If you think it just involves blogging and info graphics, then I highly recommend digging deeper into the resources below.  

Inbound Marketing University (Resource) 

Content Marketing Institute (Resource) (Community)

52 Content Marketing Lessons

Display & Retargeting

While most marketers turn their nose up at display ads, it is still one of the highest volume channels available.  The display world can be massively complicated ( , so take the time to learn the details.  

Media Buy Academy (Course)

Traffic Black Book 2.0 (Course)


Mobile is an emerging channel still.  The number of resources is slim, and the ones that exist don’t go very deep.  Many of the other channels I have listed here (Facebook, Display, Google) have mobile components.  The best way to learn is to dive in.  

Market Motive Mobile Marketing (Course)

Mobile Marketing by (Course)

Hacking App Store Growth (Course) 


Efficient sales models are still a leading path to growth especially for anyone focusing on B2B companies.  

Building A Sales & Marketing Machine by David Skok (Blog Series)

Ultimate Sales Machine (Book)


I have to admit, PR is probably one of my least favorite marketing initiatives.  It is not a marketing strategy in itself, but it is an extension of a strategy with another channel at its core.  My personal recommendation is to become an expert in one of the other channels I have listed here.  

How To Get Media Coverage For Your Startup (Blog Post)

Jason Calacanis On Startup PR (Blog Post)

Media Training Starter Series (Course)

Startup PR (Course)  

Email Marketing

Email is still one of the most (if not the most) effective communication channel with customers and users.  Mobile and the use of data is changing how companies do email marketing.  Here are some suggested resources to get started:

Mailchimp Blog

50 Posts About Email Marketing

Email Marketing Statistics and Benchmarks

Advanced Email Marketing 


See my post - From 0 to 2 Million DAU: A Guide To Growing Your Startup via Partnerships where I cover this channel at length.