What should be a startup’s main focus when it comes to marketing? Where do you start? What matters and what doesn’t?
I decided to ask top startup founders, leaders, investors, and marketers a simple question that would shed some light on how startup companies should be approaching their marketing efforts.
Here’s the question I asked:
What should be the #1 marketing priority for a new startup and why?
Although the answers varied, you will see that there were 3 common themes that were mentioned by the experts:
- Build an awesome product.
- Figure out your story and consistently communicate it to the world.
- Treat your customers like superstars.
All these and other topics will be discussed on Marketing Before Funding in the upcoming months. But for now, read on to see what the experts had to say.
Then, I’d love to see your answer to the same question. What’s your #1 marketing priority? Why? Let me know in the comments!
Jump quickly to one of the experts (or scroll to read all answers):
Tony Hseih, Dave Olson, Bob Walsh, Brad Feld, Brian Wong, Ben Yoskovitz, Chris Guillebeau, Ian Walker, Dario Meli, Boris Wertz, Greg Ciotti, Jon Cartwright, Ryan Holmes, Ray Kanani.
And if you want to follow all of them on Twitter, here’s a list.
TONY HSIEH, CEO OF ZAPPOS
“In the early days of the company (we were founded in 1999), we were unable to raise funding so we weren’t able to spend a lot of money on expensive marketing campaigns. As a result, we were forced to focus more on our existing customers. What we found was that the more we invested into customer service and the customer experience, the more loyal they were, and the more we grew from word of mouth. Today, we take most of the money we would have spent on paid marketing or advertising and invest it into the customer experience instead.”
DAVE OLSON, VP COMMUNITY AT HOOTSUITE
“Start telling your story from day one. Archive and contextualize your artifacts, outreach to anyone who should be part of your community, and amplify what makes you interesting… long before you have product to launch.”
BOB WALSH, FOUNDER OF 47HATS
“The number 1 priority for any startup is simple: You’ve got to get your product or service in front of at least a tiny slice of your hypothetical market and they have to respond with attention and enthusiasm.
For example, let’s say you contact 20 people you don’t know, but you think should be interested and excited in your product. If their response is lukewarm either you definition of your product’s market isn’t specific and accurate, or your product is uncompetitive. The sooner you find out, the better. If you build an app for accountants, you market is not on day one going to be accountants. It might be solo accounting firms in the US who provide services for SMB who hate product X they now use.
Find people who so want your product they are prepared to beg you for it – and build a product that is just what a particular group of people really want.”
BRAD FELD, MANAGING DIRECTOR AT FOUNDRY GROUP
“Create an amazing product that people want, love, and will tell everyone else on the planet about.”
BRIAN WONG, FOUNDER AND CEO AT KIIP
“Understand the “why” behind your business – it’s much more important than just the “what”. People need to understand the reasons behind your existence to believe in it as much as you – the more you can “inceptionize” folks that are around you – the more they’ll be into believing the vision you’re tackling and helping you do that.”
BEN YOSKOVITZ, VP PRODUCT AT GOINSTANT
“I’m not sure there’s one specific priority that really precedes all others. For starters, I don’t believe marketing plays a huge role for a startup until they’ve gotten product-market fit or very close to it; when they know (a) they’ve found a painful enough problem worth solving; and (b), they’re delivering the appropriate solution. At that stage, it’s time to market.
Having said that, I know startups engage in marketing efforts before that as well. For B2B startups I like to encourage them to establish credibility in the market they’re working in; through blogging, building a social media presence, establishing relationships with analysts, etc. The blog in this case –a corporate blog– becomes a good “home base” to drive people to and build long-term value. That’s less relevant for B2C startups.
If I had to (since you asked!) provide 1 recommendation it would be to put in place the appropriate measurements so that you can figure out what’s working and what’s not. It comes down to a basic level of understanding of analytics. If you’ve got analytics in place –and you know what your goals are for your marketing endeavors– then you can experiment. Try a blog, try social media marketing, etc. Try anything and everything, but do so with a goal in mind. “If I do X, it will result in Y.” And make sure you can measure that properly, so you know what’s working and what’s not.”
CHRIS GUILLEBEAU, AUTHOR OF “THE $100 STARTUP”
“1a. Somehow acquire 5 customers, even if they are non-paying ones at first.
1b. Treat the 5 customers like the most important people in the world.”
IAN WALKER, USER ENGAGEMENT MANAGER AT PERCH
“Marketers in startups rarely do just marketing. If you’re in a startup you’re probably wearing at least 5 or 6 different hats a day. Whether it’s building hype around your product, recruiting, or finding leads for your company, it’s all part of the gig. And since you’re probably spread so thin, prioritizing your tasks on the marketing side of things is key. So where do the efforts go? Well, whether you’re putting in your first line of code, or pushing your first pixel, your focus should be directed on building an audience.
That’s simple right? Sure, build an audience, no big deal. It’s only what every marketer across the planet is trying to do.
For us, in startup land, we have an advantage over companies with an established product. Yes, companies that have a history have more customers and therefore an audience. But that audience is stale and fleeting. For those of us that are building products and companies, we get to start with a clean slate. Attracting the right people at the right time. This almost always starts with storytelling.
Storytelling is the most essential and critical part of building your audience. It’s a how you lay the foundation of culture for your company and it also doesn’t have to be expensive. Storytelling can come in the form of a blog or a meet-up over beers instead of pricey banner ads or pay-per-click placements.
Building an audience doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and effort to cultivate an engaged audience, and there are multiple techniques to accomplish this.
You can tell your company story on stage, in person, or my favourite location – the blog. Use your blog to create the core of your startup. Let it be the place where the culture of your company takes root and begins to blossom. Your blog also gives you access to the first tier of your audience and it should serve as the hub in your hub and wheel marketing strategy.
By starting the story right from the cocktail napkin, your story becomes a compelling piece of history that explains how every mechanism in the clock that is your startup works. Every twist and turn has a beginning and an end. It’s up to you as a marketer to tell this story. This not only helps you to build an audience that is actually interested in what you’re building, it’s also a litmus paper test for how interesting your project is. If you find that the story of your product is attracting an audience of 0 – it’s time to get back to the whiteboard.”
DARIO MELI, CO-CEO AT INVOKE MEDIA
“Create the most amazing product, service, or experience. PR, social, ads, all come second.”
BORIS WERTZ, EARLY-STAGE INVESTOR THROUGH VERSION ONE VENTURES
“The number one marketing priority for any start-up is to figure out a clear communication strategy for the brand and the product – the message must be simple, clear and differentiated. Users must understand right away what problem the product solves and why they should use it and engage with it. And hopefully you also take this communication opportunity to show a bit of personality!”
GREG CIOTTI, CONTENT STRATEGIST AT HELPSCOUT
“From where I’m standing, the #1 marketing priority for a new startup is to establish the all-important “content funnel” to drive visitors back to their site without relying on advertising. I may be a bit biased as I’m the content strategist at HelpScout, but many other fantastic startups (notably the BufferApp) have succeeded in using free content to convert to paying customers.
Your essential content funnel will look like this:
1. Entry points: This is links and features from other sites. Ways to get featured include guest blogging, interviews, volunteering for a case study, whatever it takes to get on the radar of as many people as possible.
2. Home base: This is the content on your company blog. The goal here is to become a thought leader in your industry. For instance, on the HelpScout blog, we aim to provide the best customer service content available, and we go out of the way to write about things others haven’t covered in-depth.
3. The list: This is your email list. It’s possible that your off-site and on-site content will result in a direct sale, but to be sure (and to build some great leads for prospective customers), it is a must that you start a useful and engaged email list.
All of these factors help to establish your ultimate marketing goals as a startup: Know, Like, Trust.
When you’ve established these 3 factors through free content, sales will come in without costly expenditures on advertising.”
JON CARTWRIGHT, CO-FOUNDER AND CEO AT FOOD.EE
“Find people who are screaming for help solving their pain and then target your product and messaging to them.”
RYAN HOLMES, CO-FOUNDER AND CEO AT HOOTSUITE
“The #1 marketing priority should be building a marketing channel. You need a way to communicate with your customers whether that’s an email list, a twitter account, or a fan page, you need a way to distribute information down the road to the people who can help share your story.”
RAY KANANI, FOUNDER AND CEO AT SMART PICS
“Care about the problem you are solving!
Founders sometimes get caught up with trying to figure out a tagline, logo, name or what a cool office would look like. This stuff has nothing to do with the problem you are solving. Pick a random name, scrap the tagline for now, work from a coffee shop and start helping people. Answer and ask questions on quora and Twitter, blog and comment on related blogs, attend meetups, look for people who have the problem you are solving and solve it. Solve the problem manually while building an automated solution.
When you start caring about the problem you are solving things become simple, and after a year of hard and rewarding work you will begin to realize that random name you chose, Google, Zappos, Apple, Nike is now a brand that stands for something meaningful with a product that solves a problem.”
Now it’s your turn! I’d love to hear your point of view in the comments.
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