10 things I learned about early-stage startup marketing
Over the past three years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the best ways to market early-stage startups. Below is a synthesis of this thinking, packaged nicely into ten points. My insights reflect a wide range of responsibilities that fall under the marketing function, and cover both the strategic and tactical. I’ve written them primarily for consumer-facing tech products; specialized areas like mobile and B2B will be topics for future posts.
1. Get your fundamentals in order
Before I start working on a new project, I always get my marketing fundamentals in order. They include defining the company’s mission and vision, articulating customer pain points, understanding the target consumer and developing the key message. All of this information is captured in a few short documents, and serves as a reference point for all future work. Can you do marketing well without this step? Not really. Different people will have different answers to questions that define your company, which leads to internal confusion and weakens your message to outside parties.
2. Focus your efforts on just a few things
There are a million things you can do to get the word out about your product. Unfortunately, you only have time for just a few. Rather than fighting this reality, focus your efforts on only 2-3 big initiatives at once (eg PR, content, 3rd-party distribution). Many marketing activities require a concentrated effort before they catch on. If your resources are spread too thin, nothing will work and you’ll end up scrapping initiatives that have a lot of potential.
3. Give each initiative enough time to succeed
Marketers often deal with the uncertainty of time. Something that you do today may give you results tomorrow…or a few months from now. This happens a lot with situations that rely on a third party with different schedules and motivations (eg PR outreach), as well as marketing activities that require a critical mass to drive growth (eg social media). Be patient with a program so it has a chance to succeed. I find that 1-2 months is usually a good benchmark of progress.
4. Create a master tracking dashboard
There are a lot of free (or cheap) analytics tools to track key performance metrics, including Google Analytics, Intercom.io and Campaign Monitor. Each tool does something slightly different that contributes to your overall success, but none of them is the one-stop solution. It’s up to you to create a master tracking dashboard (I do it in a Google Spreadsheet) that aggregates and standardizes information from all of these sources. It’ll help you see the big picture and understand why your company is (or isn’t) growing.
5. Ask only for one thing
In an early-stage startup, marketing is all about getting people to do things for you: getting users to try your site, getting the press to write about you, or getting partners to take a chance on a tie-up. The best way to do this is by asking them for one thing. If you give them options, they’ll come up with excuses or ignore your request. You should always think in a system of ones: one message, one call to action, one click.
6. Use your pitch to evaluate your product
Writing out your pitch forces you to articulate your startup’s key points of difference. This, in turn, helps to evaluate your product. As you list your company superlatives, identify which ones really stand out and cannot be claimed by competitors. If there aren’t any, this means that your message is weak and will probably be lost in the noise. Compiling this feedback early can help steer your development team toward the most exciting and most differentiating product features, rather than building cost-of-entry ones.
7. Always pair social media with great content
Many people think that social media is a must-have in your marketing mix. The reality is that on its own, social media activity takes a lot of time and has very little ROI. Pairing it with content, either original or curated, adds substance to your conversations. It gives you a point of view when sharing with the community, and incentivizes your audience to participate. If you can’t commit to some form of content production with your social media efforts, don’t expect great results.
8. Make email your best friend
You’ll spend a lot of time marketing your startup via email, including pitching the press, reaching out to potential partners or communicating with users. It’s in your best interest to make it your best friend. Assuming you’re on Gmail (why would you use anything else?), arm yourself with various add-ons that save time on repetitive tasks. A few of the ones I use: Rapportive (plugin) to generate social profiles, Boomerang (plugin) for message scheduling, “undo send” to prevent mistakes, “default reply all” to keep everyone in the loop, and “canned messages” for standardized pitches and replies.
9. Spend money when necessary
There is a common notion among early-stage startups that you shouldn’t pay any money for marketing. The reality is that some very effective forms of user acquisition are paid, and they’re well worth the cost. For example, you can jumpstart your community efforts by paying for Facebook likes, and once you reach a critical mass, the community will grow by itself. The key metric here is arbitrage: as long as the cost is less than the average revenue per user, you have a strong rationale to spend.
10. Add polish to everything you do
As a marketer, you’re ultimately responsible for the final product and the image it projects. If something doesn’t look right or work properly, you’re the one who has to explain it to users and outside parties. Make sure to pay attention to details and add polish to new product features or marketing initiatives before they are deployed. This means doing things like writing site copy, fixing grammar/formatting errors and creating professional About and Press pages. Most of these tasks don’t require a lot of time, but are the difference between a real company and an amateur operation.
Kudos to Dorothy from North Brooklyn Breakfast Club for inspiring this post. I’ll be sharing it with the North Brooklyn startup community at our upcoming meetup.