Why Drift Coined "Conversational Marketing" — A Term That Disrupted an Industry

21 March 2018 by

“The most underrated piece of marketing advice is that you’ve got to name something,” explained Dave Gerhardt, VP of Marketing at Drift. “The thing that I’ve learned the hard way a bunch of times is if you don’t name something, then it doesn’t become real.”

What Drift made real: conversational marketing.

Drift, a marketing and sales platform that allows businesses to easily have conversations with website visitors, was doing pretty well before they branded their own niche.

Conversational Marketing Example of a popup

But, as Dave explained, after they came up with the term that best defines the company, their growth exploded.

It wasn’t just Drift’s product that disrupted an industry; it was their philosophy.

Conversational marketing started out as the way to describe their product and their mission. Today, its Drift’s identity — all the way down to the metadata:

Drift is the leading conversational marketing platform. With Drift on your website, you can turn your traffic into qualified meetings using our bots 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

To understand why both Drift’s product and their concept took off, it’s helpful to understand their place in the market.

We interviewed Dave to ask him more about the strategy behind Drift’s success.

Here’s exactly what the company did, from picking a market to identifying “conversational marketing” as the term that has become the core of the company.

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Drift Picked a Crowded Market (on Purpose)

Dave believes that there are two ways to successfully position yourself in a market: “You can either be the first or you can re-segment the market and create a new category.”

Drift wasn’t first.

There were already major players making waves in chat technology when David Cancel and Elias Torres co-founded Drift in 2014. As David explained in another interview, he and Elias intentionally looked for ‘a commodities market’ because that means that there’s demand already in the world.”

If you’re not first, you have to find a way to stand out. “And so we entered that market knowing that we had to go out create a new category and be the only way to conceive of it,” Dave said.

They found a Neglected Audience

“When we started off, we were in this mushy bucket of customer communication,” Dave explained.

Drift was working with customer success teams, product marketing teams — anyone that communicated with a customer for any reason. “We realized that we couldn’t be everything to everyone.”

Because of the co-founders’ background with Hubspot and Performable, marketing and sales were the aspects of business that the company knew best.

People saw Drift as a chat tool to communicate with customers, but it wasn’t clear how the company was different than any of its competitors — until David and Elias decided to focus on marketing and sales as their primary audience.

“We built this product that allows sales and marketing to talk to the people that are visiting their website,” Dave told us. People loved that idea, and it wasn’t really something many sales and marketing teams were doing at the time.

“This was our light bulb moment,” Dave told us. “We realized we needed to go deep on marketing and sales.”

They Defined a Use Case for a New Audience

Drift’s decision to target sales and marketing departments led to a dilemma.

At the time, everyone in the chat technology market was focused on support teams, which they believed chat was best suited for.

Marketing and sales had not shown an interest in chat technology because, as Dave explained it, chat didn’t scale.

“No sales rep wanted to deal with a hundred support questions … they want to deal with dollars and booking meetings.”

Chat led to a Pandora’s box of questions: does the product have this integration, does it have this feature, etc.

That’s when Drift had its second light bulb moment: a chatbot can filter out that noise.

Bots could answer many of the simple questions and could be programmed to hand a website visitor to a support or sales rep at strategic moments in the conversation.

“We realized what everyone wants to do is just have conversations … the people on your website, these are the people you need to be talking to.”

Sales reps would never ignore customers who walked into a brick and mortar store. Why should they ignore them when they visited a company’s website?

For all these reasons, Drift worked hard to boil down their service to simply helping companies talk to their customers.

They Gave it a Name

“From there, people started to talk about [Drift] as ‘chat for sales, sales chat, marketing chat …’ and we started to talk about it in that way,” Dave said. “But it didn’t really take off until we gave it a name.”

Picking the right name for a concept you hope will become the identity of your company?

Easier said than done.

We asked Dave about the specific set of steps they took to identify and — eventually — define “conversational marketing” as the core of Drift’s business.

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1. Keep Notes on What People Say About Your Company

We often talk about the benefits of listening to our customers to improve a product or a company’s communication strategy. But there’s another less commonly discussed benefit: it can help you better conceptualize and describe your company.

Listening to how others speak of your company gives you an idea of how it is being perceived and can give you the clearest language to describe exactly what it is you do.

Dave keeps a file of things that people have said about Drift both for inspiration and copywriting. Drift frequently uses customers’ language in their copy. They even have a name for it: “Their Words.”

“I could spend hours writing copy for our website, but the best copy I could use is when somebody else actually said it,” Dave explained.

2. Practice Naming Concepts

When Dave and David Cancel started their podcast, Seeking Wisdom, they knew they were offering solid business advice, but something was missing. Then they began to notice how great marketers have a name for everything.

“We were like, damn, we’ve been doing it all wrong! We need to give something a name!” Dave explained.

A photo of Dave and David Cancel who started a podcast called "Seeking Wisdom"

In one of their podcasts, they were talking about the stages that startups go through. In the past, they would’ve called the podcast: ‘The Three Stages that Any Startup Goes Through.’ This time, however, David decided to call it “The Hypergrowth Curve.”

“We started to notice that people started to reference it because there was actually something to reference,” Dave said. “We just literally made up a name for what it was called.”

They went on to use the term in more than just the podcast. Drift now runs a conference called Hypergrowth, and David wrote a book on the topic.

A photo of the cover of David Cancels book called "Hyper Growth"

“It’s all about making something easier to remember and creating real-estate in somebody’s mind.”

Marketing Takeaway: Practice naming principles and theories. Some will catch on, and some won’t, but you’ll get better at it.

3. Make it Simple

There’s a Henry David Thoreau quote from Walden, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!”

Dave read the book Insanely Simple by Ken Segall about Apple’s obsession with simplicity. In the book, Segall explains that if Jobs had written those words, it wouldn’t have said, “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” it would’ve just said, “Simplify.”

In the beginning, Drift was using the term “conversation-driven marketing.” Then, one day, they hit upon “conversational marketing” and agreed that it sounded better.

“Conversation-driven marketing and sales” sounds like a bunch of BS and jargon,” Dave said. “‘Conversational marketing‚’ … it’s the same exact concept, we just found a cleaner more relatable way to say it.”

4. You’ve Found the Right Term When People Start Using It Back.

“That’s when it really took off. Not when we said it, but when we heard someone else say it back to us for the first time,” Dave explained. They knew then that they were onto something.

“People would tweet out, “Hey I just signed up for Drift. Can’t wait to start doing conversational marketing for my business.”

Conversational marketing was no longer just Drift’s verbiage; it was now customer speak as well. It was “Their Words.”

From Drift’s staff to customers, the term continued to spread. “Conversational marketing” started showing up in places not connected to Drift. There were webinars and articles about the concept of conversational marketing not directly related to the company.

5. Write the Blueprint

How did they get people to start using the term? They used it everywhere: press releases, headlines, their homepage copy, and their conversations. Whenever they spoke of Drift, they made sure “conversational marketing” came up.

And when customers did started using the term on their own, Drift was just getting started.

“If you Googled ‘conversational marketing’ we wanted to make sure we had the ‘what is conversational marketing’ key piece of content … We basically wrote the blueprint,” Dave said.

A Google search of Conversational Marketing

Marketing Takeaway: If you brand a term, you need to own it. Own its definition and its SEO fingerprint — become (and stay) the authority on the thing you created.

Be Patient and the Words Will Come

This type of branding doesn’t need to happen near the founding of your company. Drift had been around for a while before they started using the term.

“We had multiple thousands of businesses using Drift at the time and so like it wasn’t like we weren’t already onto something,” Dave told us. “We just hadn’t given it a name yet.”

“And then once we gave it a name, it clicked even more. It became easier for those businesses to tell other people, “Oh yeah, we use Drift. ‘It’s conversational marketing.’ We enabled them to tell more people because it’s easier.”

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