A Conversation with Niall Lenihan
In today’s conversation, we speak with Niall Lenihan, the marketing manager of Project Central. He tells us about how he's working on pinning down his niche market at a new startup and how he's using a mix of paid ads and content to drive traffic.
Project Central is part of BrightWork, a market-leading SharePoint project management solution that was founded over 25 years ago. We have a very successful track record within the project management space overall. On the BrightWork side, clients include Amazon and the United States Postal Service.
Project Central was founded in 2018. It was built for the occasional project manager who uses Microsoft 365. We built directly on the Azure directory using the Microsoft APIs, which is the highest level of security you can provide.
We're trying to give people a process and structure to manage day-to-day tasks and projects.
The tool is really easy. You access it using your Microsoft business email and password that you would use on a daily basis. From a setup perspective, you don't need your IT manager to come in and create 50 different usernames and passwords: You use everything that you're using already.
We're very much building on that technology at the moment. We're just about to launch Project Central as an app on the Microsoft Team store, so people will be able to use Project Central directly within a team's channel. And we've just launched our Outlook calendar integration.
My role is quite wide and varied, as you can imagine. I work very closely with our product managers and our development teams.
I like to be involved in everything and it's great to be with a product from the very start because you're very much invested in everything you do—it becomes like a child. On a day-to-day basis, I'm looking at our website, our content, our online presence. And then from the sales perspective, I'm managing the new leads that are coming in, managing the pipeline, and putting in place the playbooks that we want to try and use going forward.
We have a team of 12 people in total. Over the next 12 months, as we're scaling the business, we will start to grow the team and bring in additional expertise as needed. But right now, we want to try and keep the team as intimate as possible because it gives us a greater chance to learn with our customers.
We're still working remotely, so I haven't actually met anyone in the company as of yet. All of the communication is done via Teams. It really changes the relationship; I suppose you have to adapt.
We're using a wide variety of tools at the moment. For our in-app experience and chat and support, we're using Intercom, which is quite popular for startups. On the sales CRM side of things, we're using Pipedrive. They integrate directly with each other. And from the marketing perspective, we're using a tool called Autopilot. Then the three of them are synced together using Zapier. I'm hoping to consolidate everything eventually, as I'd really like sales and marketing to be on the same tool. Recently, we've also started using a nice website messaging tool called Sleeknote.
As a startup, we're still trying to find our niche market—and we don't know who that is, specifically. We're working with customers at the moment in a wide variety of industries, from healthcare to financial to NGOs to other startups. We know we have a niche; we just haven't found that niche yet. The product-market fit is really, really important for us.
Our customers at the moment are very much helping us and guiding us on the product. That's how we've been developing our roadmap. So, the goal for us over the next 12 months is to work on the product, get the product into a really good position, and then find that market that we're looking for.
Although we're a SaaS business, we're at that stage where we set up a lot of touchpoints with all of our customers—our customers know all of the team, so they're able to give us that feedback. Rather than SaaS selling at the moment, we're more solution selling. There's no point in selling our product to a customer who's not going to use it. We're only going to learn from customers who are going to use the product every day or every week or every month.
From a marketing perspective, it's quite challenging. It's a really tough product to try and market as the market is quite wide, but the product is quite specific. We get a lot of lead source coming from G Suite customers, but they're not compatible with our products. Likewise, we get a lot of lead source coming from other email providers, but again, if they don't have a Microsoft 365 business, the license won't work.
We've kind of found that what's worked the best for us so far is really looking at the content we're producing: looking at how we can focus that content specifically onto the product, as well as relating it back to the product and really trying to show the benefit.
It's very much “live and learn” at the moment. I've definitely worked for companies in the past where it's been easier to market what we're doing because we've known who our target customers are. But we're not there yet.
The main challenge that any kind of technology company has is trying to meet the needs of every potential customer you have. That's why it's so important to find that cohort of customers that you can really help, rather than to try to be the master of everything.
About 80% of the traffic we get at the moment is organic. A lot of it is coming through the blog posts that we write. Paid is working, but we're still very early in that. And one thing about paid marketing is when you're selling a SaaS product, the return on investment from a paid lead conversion takes a long time to get back. So, you have to be so careful and precise with your paid campaigns.
For us at the moment, it's really about our product—getting the content right around our product, speaking to our market, and getting them to understand the importance of project management in the workplace.
The world of marketing is so unpredictable. Google changes what they do and what they want every month with very little warning. It can have such a dramatic impact on your traffic and on your lead source. I still see organic being primary, but I think everyone is now being forced into paid marketing in some capacity. I think bumper ads on YouTube are really important: from a cost basis, they're very, very low.
Paid ads now versus five years ago are so different. Everything now is AI-driven and algorithm-based. Your spend can be gone so quickly. You just have to get really good at your keywords and your negative search terms. But I think any big company who wants to try and compete in the marketplace needs to be spending potentially $10,000 to $20,000 to compete, which isn't right. It's probably why partnerships with other companies are becoming stronger—because partners are cross-selling between each other rather than selling online.
Content marketing is critical for any company, no matter what they do. I think people need to be able to understand what you're selling in the simplest of terms.
Content marketing is tricky, though. You have to always keep your audience captivated and engaged. People get bored very quickly. They don't want an email from you every week. It's just trying to find the right balance.
Content is also very sensitive. We try to rehash or update our strongest content pieces every six to nine months. And we can rehash a really good piece that has really good performance one month, and then the following month, it can just fall by 60–70% with no rhyme or reason.
I think the best benchmark of people that you can look at from a content marketing perspective is somebody like HubSpot, who really has that inbound methodology of what they're doing. That's something we're trying to strive for on our site. We're targeting the occasional project manager and we're sharing free templates. So, we're striving to be like HubSpot, maybe in two or three years.
I worked with a content specialist in my last role and she completely changed our image to our partners. Within six months, our partners knew that there was somebody new writing and speaking about our company, and they loved it. They could see that the tone, what we were saying, and the message we were delivering was actually now on brand. So, having a content person within the company is critical. And they have to be invested in the products that they're writing about, and they have to understand the products. That's number one.
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