Nowadays doing marketing is commonly used as a shorthand for making sure your target customers find out about your product. Тhe act of startup marketing is synonymous with the act of promoting your startup offering and is usually constrained only to mass-reach, often inorganic tactics.
This definition is useful when talking to the marketing team because it puts borders between marketing and other activities like sales, PR, branding, product development, etc.
However, thinking about marketing under these constraints could be damaging when you put your founder hat on because it prevents you from thinking from first principles and seeing the broader picture.
This failure could lead you to invest in strategies and tactics that don’t fit the unique situation of your startup project. This is why shallow listicles about “10 marketing tricks to propel your startup into unicorn land” could be damaging if you misunderstand the fundamental marketing principles and the needs of your business and customers.
In other words – yes, PPC (pay-per-click) ad campaigns are marketing. That said, this doesn’t mean that you can throw money at PPC ads and call it a day, sleeping soundly because you know the marketing side of the business is taken care of.
Such a shallow understanding of the problem and choice of a solution could easily be the end of your startup. According to the Startup Genome project, premature scaling is the no. 1 reason for startup failure. Paying for PPC ad campaigns before product-market fit could be used as the very definition of premature scaling.
1. Startup Marketing In the Early Stages
As you can read in our startup guide – 27 Steps for Building a Startup, the early days of a startup consist of the discovery and validation phases. During these stages, you pin down your idea and validate if the problem you’re trying to solve exists and if your solution is the right fit.
From a marketing mix framework, this means that you are working almost entirely on the product.
While in this stage you can run a PPC campaign, it will be small scale and the goal wouldn’t be to grow your business but rather to see which kinds of customers show interest in your offering.
In the discovery and validation phases, by far the most important activity is to talk to your customers and to gather a deep understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. While you will on the surface level be trying to sell them your solution, your goal wouldn’t be just to make money, but rather to empirically test which aspects of your offering resonate the best with the people you’re talking to (your target market, and your minimum viable segment).
By the end of the discovery and validation phase, you need to have a good understanding of who exactly is your most likely customer (your MVS – minimum viable segment), and what your product needs to be.
In that phase, you are not trying to grow your business, but simply to get the product right (and to a smaller degree the pricing). Every marketing strategy you employ should help you reach that goal.
During this phase, you should get a better idea of what your branding needs to be – getting to know your target customers should help you understand what values, messages, and type of communication works best for them. This is vital because, at the end of the day, good marketing is simply good communication.
In a way, startup marketing in the discovery and validation phases is all about building a strong foundation for your promotional efforts later on. If you don’t build this strong foundation, all the marketing tricks and growth hacks in the world would be futile.
2. Startup Marketing In the Late Stages
Once your validation tests have given you good empirical results, you are ready to enter the efficiency and growth stages.
During the efficiency phase, you’ll be looking to refine the repeatable processes that allow you to give your customers the exact offering that best resonates with them. Using the marketing mix framework means refining the price (and revenue model) and place (the marketing and promotional channels that allow you to reach your customers most efficiently).
Generally speaking, for a startup with limited resources your best bet is to choose one channel and invest in it deeply rather than cover all your bases and spread yourself thin. Being efficient (and ahead of your competition) in each channel requires effort and expertise, and you simply wouldn’t be able to do it for multiple channels.
For example, if you are a B2B startup, your whole funnel could be:
- Content marketing on LinkedIn to attract the relevant audience.
- Your LinkedIn content attracts subscribers to your email newsletter, which you should try to make the best possible resource for your niche.
- Your email newsletter grows your audience organically and sells your product(s).
Doing this is hard enough. You don’t need to pile SEO, PR, and PPC campaigns on top of it. (This is just an example, the right approach for your startup could be different.)
Once your business model starts working, it’s time to grow. Now that you’ve found product-market fit and you’ve proven the efficiency of your channels it’s time to be more ambitious and to scale up.
How much effort and resources you pour into this depends on your situation. If you are a venture-backed startup you might have to aim very high and pour a lot of effort and money into marketing in order to speed up your growth.
However, if you don’t have that much capital, it’s safer to grow at a natural pace without overextending yourself financially. If your offering and channels are the right ones, organic growth would come anyway.
An interesting case proving this point is Gumroad:
This is Gumroad’s processed transaction volume from 2012 to 2018 (source). Initially, they had a sales team and a marketing budget. Later on, the founder (Sahil Lavingia) worked on the startup on his own. Can you tell me when that switch happened? The main thing that determined Gumroad’s growth rate was the growth of its market rather than its marketing efforts.
This isn’t true for all startups – if you are in a crowded market and you are fighting for market share (i.e. a zero-sum game), then your marketing efforts and your fight to differentiate yourself and to be noticed would be vital. If you are an innovative startup working in a new market, however, you will most likely grow WITH your market and you need to consider this when choosing your marketing strategy.
3. The Most Popular Startup Marketing Strategies
Keeping all of this in mind, here are the most popular marketing strategies that you can employ for your startup. Choose wisely:
3.1 Outbound Sales Efforts – Cold Calls Or Cold Emails
Outreach is absolutely essential in the early stages of your startup because this way you get to know your potential customers better and you get to refine your offering and your target market. If you are working in a scalable startup (especially B2C) where the customer lifetime value isn’t that high, 1 on 1 sales efforts wouldn’t be that essential later on simply because they are costly and don’t scale well.
That said, while you will replace these efforts with more scalable promotional tactics, you need to make sure you stay connected to your customers in order to stay up to date with their wants and needs. It’s possible to lose product-market fit even after you’ve found it.
For B2B startups, one-on-one sales (often over the phone, Zoom, in conferences, etc.) remain one of your best marketing channels.
3.2 Influencer Marketing And Affiliate Programs
We live in a world where more and more people trust and follow individuals rather than institutions. Finding YouTubers, streamers, bloggers, social media personalities, etc. with an audience in your niche could be extremely powerful to jump-start your growth. Influencer campaigns are also hard to scale, but they are more than worthwhile and even if they wouldn’t be your main growth driver in the late stages, they will give you authority and will make you trustworthy.
Affiliate programs are a good way to scale your influencer marketing efforts. They usually don’t require you to out-reach to individual influencers, and they allow you to pay for converted users rather than for exposure, which means they should be more efficient. That said, if you aren’t big enough (and with a good enough reputation), it might be hard to get enough people to actively sell your products, which means that affiliate campaigns are usually employed in the later growth stages.
3.3 Incentivize Word Of Mouth: Referral Programs
A referral program was the main growth driver behind Dropbox’s early growth. If you have a product with a wide appeal and you are certain you have PMF, a referral program could be one of the most cost-efficient ways to grow your startup early on.
3.4 Content Marketing
“Content marketing is all the marketing that’s left.” —Seth Godin
The advertising industry has made most people allergic to traditional ads. Ad blindness is a real thing, and one of the best ways to circumvent it is to put adding value as your primary objective of the content you put out there for people to find rather than driving sales.
Content marketing is a long-term game – it allows you to build trust and showcase your competence, which hopefully leads to a lot of inbound sales and inquiries as well as organic SEO and ideally – virility.
“In 2004, good SEO made you remarkable on the web. In 2014, good SEO is a result of being remarkable on the web.” — Rand Fishkin
Search engine optimization is only one part of your overall content marketing strategy, but it is often the main part. Organic search traffic is arguably the cheapest and most reliable way to generate leads but keep in mind that in order to see good SEO results (to rank high on Google) you need long-term efforts. Organic SEO can’t give you fast results.
3.6 Search Engine Marketing Campaigns (PPC)
If your customer lifetime value is high enough and if your target keywords are too competitive to rank organically, PPC search campaigns are a good way to solve this problem. Their obvious drawback is that they are quite expensive, so you need to make sure that the unit economics work out (customer acquisition costs vs customer lifetime value).
3.7 Social Media Marketing
“Content is fire, social media is gasoline.” – Jay Baer
Indeed, if you produce high-quality content, it makes sense to share it on social media. That said, not all content types fit all the different social media sites.
For example, a lifestyle and clothing brand would fit best on Instagram, while a B2B solution/consultancy usually needs to focus on LinkedIn.
Twitter is much better for engagement with your wider community and sharing opinions (and memes) rather than simply tweeting links to articles from your blog. At the same time, having an active Twitter account doesn’t make sense for each company out there, because the return on investment (mostly in time and effort) could be very low.
Often, it makes more sense to build a personal brand on Twitter as a founder and to retweet the content of your startup rather than to make a Twitter page dedicated to your brand (remember, people trust other people more than brands).
3.8 Social Media Marketing Campaigns (PPC)
Again, you need to carefully consider if the unit economics work out. Facebook Ads are a staple for e-commerce stores and novel physical products (impulse purchases), but they are unlikely to work for many other offerings and nowadays it’s harder to build an organic following without paying to boost your posts.
3.9 Display Ads (PPC)
While display ads aren’t entirely a thing of the past, they are headed in that direction. AdBlock and ad blindness as a whole make CTR (click-through rate) and conversion rates very low, so use them with caution and try to empirically evaluate your results.
Retargeting campaigns might be the only type of display ad campaign that’s worth it. While it’s decent for getting new sales, retargeting campaigns are also a tool to keep old customers engaged, which is usually a smart thing to do because it’s more cost-efficient than attracting brand-new users who haven’t heard about your brand.
3.11 Email Marketing
While we’re on the topic of retention and keeping users engaged, email marketing is king. The big investment is in building an email list and putting out valuable content, but the long-term benefits are huge. Email marketing is also a great tool for upselling and cross-selling your startup products and services.
That said, the quality needs to be really high, otherwise, you risk being forgotten in the promotions and spam folders.
3.12 PR Campaigns
Good PR campaigns could be one of the best ways to get exposure and grow your business. The so-called earned (organic) PR helps a lot to gain trustworthiness (as well as high-quality backlinks for your SEO efforts).
That said, PR campaigns are high-effort and they are risky because they rely to a degree on virality. All companies are fighting for attention, so a successful PR campaign requires creativity and originality. “We’re giving money to charity” isn’t good enough nowadays.
It’s entirely possible to pour a lot of resources into a campaign and to get bad or average results, which means that in the early days of your startup, it’s best to be ready for organic PR rather than to try to force it.
3.13 Viral Marketing
Usually a part of social media and PR campaigns, virality is the Holy Grail for growth. However, at the same time, it’s almost impossible to engineer inorganically. Moreover, while it could lead to a ton of exposure, keep in mind that in many cases this wouldn’t necessarily lead to real leads and sales.
The best early-stage startup strategy for virility is to have a great product, high-quality content, and a good social media presence and to hope that eventually, something you put out catches fire. Releasing a single video on YouTube or TikTok with the hope that it goes viral is almost certainly a waste of time.
3.14 Co-Branding, Cross-Promotion
If your product or service is synergistic with another, then cross-promoting and co-branding can make a lot of sense. That said, this is too case-specific to offer generic advice.
On a high level, you can safely say partnerships are a vital part of marketing – whether between businesses or individuals (influencers). That said, in the realm of partnerships saying no is very often the right move – go only with partnerships you’re certain about.
3.15 Traditional Media Advertising
Way too expensive for 99% of startups, and with dubious cost-effectiveness. Quibi is a great example of a startup that poured a lot of resources into TV ads before product-market fit (during the Superbowl and the Oscars) and failed terribly. Don’t let your ego get the better of you – the fact that you’re paying to “hang with the big boys” doesn’t make you one of them. Always keep premature scaling in mind.
3.16 Inbound Marketing
Hopefully, your content, social media, and PR efforts lead to a lot of inbound inquiries. The only thing you need to do is to make sure you have the capacity to handle the inbound sales and partnership opportunities.
In conclusion, make sure that you understand the marketing needs of your startup at a fundamental level. Don’t pour money and effort into promotion just because you see other companies doing it. Keep in mind that marketing problems are the most common reason for startup failure.
Marketing isn’t simply a box you have to tick, it’s arguably the most strategy-intensive and fluid part of a successful startup journey.
For most startups, good marketing means:
- Validating product-market fit
- Discovering your most important market segments
- Choosing just one or a few of the most efficient marketing channels
- Diving deep into one marketing strategy, making sure you stand out with it from any competition in your niche
Diversifying your marketing efforts is something you can afford to do only once you are a big, established business. As a startup, make sure you get the maximum bang for your buck.