Keeping the faith

Having the courage to focus on a market sector and use innovative digital tactics to generate sales leads is core to the success of Pushpay, winner of the supreme award at the 2017 New Zealand Hi-Tech Awards, as well as Innovative Company of the Year. Concentrate talked with co-founder and CEO Chris Heaslip about their marketing journey so far.

Like any award-winning technology company, Pushpay has shown outstanding innovation around its mobile payment product. Just as important to the company’s success has been innovating in the way they market and sell, says the company’s co-founder and CEO Chris Heaslip.

“Innovation for us is not just about product innovation. One of the mistakes we make as Kiwis sometimes is thinking innovation stops with the product. Actually that is where it begins - innovation in the go-to-market is one of the most critical factors in our story,” he says.

At the heart of this marketing innovation is Pushpay’s decision in 2015 to focus its growth efforts on churches in the USA. Heaslip and co-founder Eliot Crowther had originally conceived their payment app as a way of helping churches collect money more easily from their members, but were selling to a range of sectors.

“I can remember a time in 2015 and we had just moved to the US, and we were very unfocused. We had a lot of good ideas, but no execution in any of them. I got together with the senior management team and we talked it through, and wondered if our investors would understand the (church focus) story.

“There is a Chinese saying that ‘a man who chases two rabbits catches none’, and that was us at that time. We were so bifurcated. Choosing that focus was a turning point for our company.”

A focus that is working. Pushpay last week published their annual results for the year ended 31 March 2017, recording a 79% increase in customer numbers from 3766 to 6737.

Pushpay improved their annualised committed monthly revenue (ACMR – a measure of recurring revenue), a key metric for a software-as-a-service company, by 158% to $US50.5 million and are forecasting that they will achieve break-even on a monthly cashflow basis by the end of the calendar year.

According to the company’s website, 10 of the top 20 and 36 of the top 100 largest churches in the USA use their products, including the largest church in the USA, which has over 39,000 average weekly attendees.

Chris says other vendors weren’t looking at the church sector, “People missed the growth of the evangelical churches. The number of actual churches is decreasing but attendance is growing in the US. There is lots of consolidation, and some large churches are growing rapidly.”

Extending the animal metaphor, Chris cites US business writer Jim Collin’s concept of the fox and hedgehog, where the former is chasing every shiny thing and not making much progress, while the latter is taking a slow and methodical movement towards a single goal. “That was us, so doubling down on the faith sector made sense because it was so under-served.”

A second important aspect of Pushpay’s growth story is their focus on using content marketing to generate and nurture leads.

“Half of our challenge is convincing churches that they have a problem, that they do need to engage in different ways with people. It leads to a very different kind of demand gen, it’s educational based with lots of content like eBooks,” says Chris.

“We probably produce two (eBooks) a month, and instead of doing search engine optimisation around potential product terms they might search for – our job is instead to take it a step higher and focus on the core problems they are focusing e.g. how do I engage with the next generation of attendees.”

“Then we have to tie our product as a solution to a problem a church understands they have. The problem for churches is not simply how do I get money, but how do I engage in deeper and richer ways using technology.”

Chris says while content marketing is a well understood marketing concept, Pushpay have got it working by focusing properly, producing information that is genuinely useful to their target market.

“People think content marketing is content farming - slapping blog posts together. That’s not the case. It’s as expensive, if not more so, than traditional marketing, but the benefit is that it should be evergreen. In five-years time it should still be working.”

This approach reflects the fact that the core need of a Church will endure forever – how to attract, engage and retain their followers – so content directed at this problem continues to resonate for the long term. Specific solutions such as Pushpay will evolve as technology changes.

“You invest a lot upfront (in inbound marketing) for not that much return,” says Chris, “but over time as people read the content, share the content, tell other people about it, and you get more SEO on your website. It ranks higher and higher and you don’t have to pay to promote it,” says Chris.

“We invest a tonne of money into this, using outsiders to come in and write that content for us. We want it to be world class. There is a natural bell curve with the content, and you know pretty quickly the ones that work.”

Pushpay don’t just publish quality content, they focus on inbound marketing best practices to turn content downloads into qualified leads.

“By gating content we can progressively capture information as people return again and again to download content. Over time you can then segment your buyers, and use drip email nurture campaigns to help move them along their buyer journey,” says Chris.

“Those nurtured leads are going to close at a much higher rate than unnurtured leads, so this is a big part of our marketing. Over time we have seen the returns get higher and higher. In the short term you have to take the leap but after a few months you can get complete transparency into the costs, and dial it up and down.

“It’s really getting the flywheel started, and there is heavy lifting at the start but once you get it (inbound marketing) going the return on investment on it is great.”

Pushpay extended their church focus strategy in later 2016 by acquiring a company from Bluebridge Digital that specialised in producing apps that help churches communicate with their members. Instead of only extending into other market niches with their core payment technology, they saw an opportunity to go deeper into the church niche.

Chris said the acquisition made a lot of sense from a sales efficiency perspective, “We’ve invested all this time and money into this (church) channel, so the question is how else can you help. One is allowing to give the way they want to give through Pushpay. Having a mobile app is also really important for Churches communicating with their members.

“We’ve already got a marketing channel, we’ve already got a sales team, now we get some efficiencies because we have a second product to sell so we can increase revenue and decrease our marginal cost to acquire customers.”

Pushpay’s story so far is inspiring. They have done many things well, but their approach to marketing has been world class. The courage to focus on a small and under-served niche, and the courage to invest heavily in a sophisticated content marketing programme to make their sales efficient, are lessons that any aspiring tech exporter could adopt.


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