Mint a fresh example for start-up Web marketing

Aaron Patzer might not have revealed what his product was or how it worked, but that didn’t stop him from collecting 30,000 e-mail addresses for Mint Software Inc.

The founder of Mint.com and now general manager at Intuit Inc. was brewing up a Web-based personal finance tool for the everyman. But he didn’t need to reveal that to start piquing interest amongst some early adopters. Instead, he hyped-up the product launch with a personal finance blog.

“We didn’t have enough money for writers,” Patzer recalls. “So we went to the other personal finance blogs and asked them to lend us a guest blog post.”

The gambit worked. Each blog post ended with the teaser “The Mint revolution is coming,” leaving readers guessing. It was enough to lure 30,000 pre-registrations and when the alpha product did launch, about 6,000 signed up to use it.

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“The conversion was all right and that was crucial because we had real users o the system,” Patzer says.

Mint continued to grow at a boiling pace, at 3,000 new users a day. The growth first caught the ire of finance software company Intuit, but later converted into a buy-out from the larger firm. Mint continues to operate today as a free personal budget-planning service, and now has new responsibilities to manage Intuit’s line of personal finance products.

Mint continued to grow at a boiling pace, at 3,000 new users a day. The growth first caught the ire of finance software company Intuit, but later converted into a buy-out from the larger firm. Mint continues to operate today as the free budget-planning service it launched as, and now has new responsibilities to manage Intuit’s line of personal finance products.

Now Mint hopes to find similarly rapid growth outside of the U.S., and it’s coming to Canada first. The site has previously stated its intent to launch north of the border before year’s end, and Patzer will be in Toronto to meet with media Dec. 1.

The site has quietly been adding support for Canadian financial institutions since the summer. It currently supports banks including TD Bank, Scotiabank, the Bank of Montreal, and President’s Choice. At present, Mint also allows users with Canadian postal codes to create accounts.

Mint’s start-up phase, a two-year period before the Sept. 14, 2009 acquisition is now often cited as a well-architected example of Web marketing done right. Mint was able to take a very personal topic and create shareable online content that connected with people, says April Dunford, a product marketer consultant based in Toronto.

“I hate the term viral marketing, because it makes it sound like it’s magic,” she says, giving a presentation at DemoCamp in Toronto. “Figure out who is interested in your content before you go and spend a lot of money on lead generation.”

Mint used more Web content than just a blog to attract early adopters. It hosted “Train Wreck Tuesdays” that involved a person telling a story about a personal financial disaster.

“This was incredibly popular,” Patzer says. “It made people feel better about their finances in relative terms.”

A series dubbed “What’s in your wallet?” asked bloggers and Silicon Valley notables to take out all the contents of their wallet and explain why they used certain cards. It asked them to lend their best financial tip to others.

That sort of story-based content is one that sticks with people, Dunford says.

“Stories are really important because it is an easy way to illustrate this stuff,” she says. “If people like your story, they will tell it to other people.”

A year after its 2007 launch, Mint claimed to have grown its user base from 600,000 to 850,000 in a matter of months. That caught the attention of Intuit’s legal department, sending a letter that demanded proof to support the impressive numbers. Intuit later apologized for the letter, and did better than that when it bought Mint for $170 million a year later. By then, Mint had 1.5 million users.

“The primary mechanism for gathering new users was press and media appearances,” Patzer says. “I’ve done about 500 media interviews over the last two and a half years.”

Early adopters of Mint’s product were niche customers, he adds. Personal finances buffs that enjoyed discussing the differences between fixed and variable rate mortgage. “The later adopters were about getting personal finances under control in 10 minutes or less.”

It’s a common shift a start-up has to make, Dunford says. Marketing must use a different psychology when approaching users as a product ages.

“Early adopters don’t care if someone is using a product,” she says. “Later adopters want to see that other people are using a product before they jump in.”

Mint won over the masses by making them comfortable in dealing with personal finances on the Web. It made the security of the site a big feature on the home page, highlighted the ease of saving money, and used a colloquial voice to talk about money instead of that of an accountant.

But it wasn’t easy to settle on a design that worked, Patzer says. Mint tried several approaches before they launched – not live on the Web, but at a local Mountain View, Calif. train station. They’d use different slogans and survey commuters to gauge response.

“We tried things like ‘Mint is your money ninja,’ ‘Mint if your free money management tool,’” Patzer says. “We discovered which one resonated with people.”

Today the site’s home page sports the phrase “the best free way to manage your money” along the top. A pie-graph representing money of a fictional user divided between rent, auto, and groceries is displayed beside a sub-header “at-a-glance insights.” A big orange button again hammers home “Free!” as you’re invited to get started.

There’s no mistaking what this Web site is offering, and how much it costs.

“Make it clear on your Web site what you do,” Dunford advises. “You have 10 seconds to grab your reader’s interest.”

Today, Patzer continues to operate Mint.com in his new role at Intuit. He’s also in charge of Intuit’s personal finance products, Quicken desktop and Quicken Online. Despite joining a larger corporation, he still operates like a start-up.

“We make quick decisions,” he says. “We hire and fire as quickly as we did before, and we avoid meetings at all costs.”

Marketing efforts include emphasizing organic search engine optimization to supplement paid-for search engine marketing, he adds. It’s a money-saving tactic that Mint users would applaud.

Mint is currently only available south of the border, but Canada will be the first international location serviced, Patzer says. But it’s not clear when that will happen.

Until it does, Canadians can still read the blog that caught user interest in 2007. It’s now called “Mint Life” and it’s still going strong.

Brian Jackson is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.

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