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15 practical tips for marketing a startup in 2015

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How to build - Start-up Marketing 101

Recently, we attended Denver Startup week, which inspired us to create a short 'How To' Guide that digs into issues related to getting a start-up off the ground – building on the 'How to build requirements for an MVP' and our white paper on 'Tips every first-time entrepreneur should know.'

This article mamepecifically focuses on how to develop a marketing strategy as a start-up, with lessons learned from experts, as well as advice on tools of the trade and how to measure and analyze your progress.

15 Marketing tips for start-ups

Tip #1

The key advice that you always have to keep at the top of everything you do is:

  • Get your product out the door – with emphasis on speed over perfection. Your product doesn’t need to be perfect, because you don’t even know what 'perfect' is at this point. Instead, keep calm and keep shipping.

What does this mean for start-up marketing?

It means that you shouldn’t market a product until you actually have one, or at least have a beta program and a concrete delivery date. Of course you can do some preliminary 'smoke test' stuff to collect emails and validate your idea, but what good is having a serious and structured marketing program before you have a product (or as least a concrete delivery date of said product)? And while you should be doing some marketing and PR to gain company awareness, don’t get ahead of yourself by sinking money into product marketing campaigns before you have a product to sell.

Focus on what matters first, even though it’s tempting to get distracted with gratifying but often useless things like gaining Facebook likes and Twitter followers.

Tip #2

This brings us to our second tip:

  • Be careful with social media. Doing it right requires a huge time commitment, so if you can’t keep up with it, don’t bother starting. That being said, if you can launch and run a sustained social media campaign and it is not distracting you from your No. 1 objective of shipping your product, then by all means, tweet away! You can also hire an agency to help you build and sustain a social media effort if it’s not something you can focus on. There are plenty of good reasons to have a social media campaign while you’re building your product, depending on your business objectives.

Now where do you begin with start-up marketing?

  • Writing is the most important secondary skill of a startup. Writing takes skill (and hence, practice). You want to get across what you need to say in as few words as possible – think elevator pitch or a back-of-the-napkin overview.

    Blogging is also essential – to increase search is the obvious reason (SEO), but the less obvious reason is to establish yourself as a thought-leader. Providing your audience with accurate and valuable information, without asking for something in return, builds your credibility and your reputation.

    The key objective is to take a stance on a topic, rather than simply reporting what other people have already said. You may be wrong or you may be right, but the point is to start a dialogue. You personify the company.

Tip #3

  • Follow the keep-it-simple-stupid (KISS) principle. Don’t overcomplicate pieces by being too wordy or relying on jargon. For example, don’t use the word 'utilize' rather than 'use' or rely on marketing buzzwords like 'revolutionary' and 'innovative' to describe your company or product.

    If you can make your point in five words rather than 20, use the five-word version. The simpler you make the idea, the faster someone will understand how you can help them and the more likely they are to buy.

    Take a look at ly; this is a great online tool that can help correct your wordiness, passive voice and other problems. There are also firms for outsourced blog writing, which some local start-ups even offer

    However, we recommend that you don’t outsource your start-up marketing until you have dedicated resources internally to support your plan.

Tip #4

  • Now what? How should you determine your startup marketing strategy? The best advice is to try, measure, analyze and repeat. Don’t be afraid to try quirky things. Chalkboard signs at bars and restaurants are a perfect example; they will offer an item as a special and if it does well, it gets added to the menu.

    The medium isn’t important; it’s all about the message. So play around and see what sticks. Don’t be afraid to do something weird.

    Personally, I have been experimenting lately with ly and it, and I’ve had some successes and some failures. Keep a log of everything you try; integrate what works into your repertoire and trash the rest.

  • Challenge your assumptions. Just because something is working, it doesn’t mean it’s best for your business. For example, just because your bounce rate is 30 percent, don’t assume that’s good enough.

    By challenging your assumptions, you may realize that a change is needed, which is especially true for the start-up marketers at the pointy end of the spear.Take a look at The Lean Startup.

    Don’t just experiment as an exercise – actually pivot when it needs to happen and be ready to commit to the pivot at a certain point. The minimum viable product approach helps you do this.

  • Don’t be afraid to steal. All’s fair out there. Steal tactics and especially competitor’s pricing as much as possible. If you’re not stealing, then you probably aren’t doing a good job figuring out what your competitors are offering.

Tip #5

  • 1. Tools of the trade - Which social media channel should you use? If you have a B2B business model, consider Twitter and LinkedIn. If your audience is mostly consumers, try Facebook. Experiment on all and measure results. Then, focus your energy on the platforms that provide the most value.
  • 2. Paid search testing can also help augment your social media efforts, and measure your return/acquisition upfront, per channel.
  • 3. Penetrating LinkedIn groups with your thought-leadership pieces can also be effective. (It’s worked for us). However, it’s hard to differentiate between a company and a thought-leader at the company. LinkedIn still hasn’t figured that out.
  • 4. Then there are blogging platforms like WordPress, which are good for aggregating domain authority. Tumblr won’t give you the domain authority or any long-term leverage. Ultimately, you can use anything that has a good infrastructure that ties in to search. An argument could be made that Google+ will be the next solid platform because it’s closely tied to search results (too bad no one is using it).

Tip #6

  • Experiment and learn. Try A/B testing using tools like Optimizely and Unbounce, which allow you to experiment with similar, but slightly different variations of marketing collateral side-by-side in order to determine which option customers prefer.You can also try MailChimp, which allows you to experiment with email newsletters, and Sharpspring, which offers landing page variations.
  • Paid search is also an effective research tool. You can advertise products that don’t exist to test demand. Use word strings from Adwords, which will help you come up with your phrasing.

Tip #7

  • The key to successful startup marketing is prioritization. Time is always an issue – and there’s an opportunity cost with everything you do. If you spend time on social media, for example, you’re taking time away from product development. Also, try to get comfortable with the fact that there’s always more you can do, so be willing to maintain this perspective and focus on what’s most important.

    Peter Drucker’s quote sums it up: 'There’s nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that shouldn’t be done at all.'

What can you do to make the biggest impact? Do that. And of course, if you get stuck, we can help.

Tip #8

  • How do you know when your start-up marketing is actually working? Here are a few suggestions we’ve come up with to tackle this question from a process perspective and ensure that your start-up marketing evolves appropriately:
  • 1. Analytics through a cross-disciplinary approach: Look at the Obama 2013 campaign – the campaign director managed the creative team and the analytics team simultaneously, which allowed a great deal of synergy to flow between each discipline. (Incidentally, we are big proponents of the cross-disciplinary approach, including theDevOps movement).The idea during the Obama campaign was to constantly test creative, vary and analyze, all in-house.You can also do this by using the Google Analytics app– just make it a habit to check every day to see how you’re doing so that you can react accordingly.

    And remember, correlations do not equal causation, so don’t step on to the jump-to-conclusions mat too quickly (a reference to 'Office Space' for all you movie buffs out there). Keep in mind sample sizes, test cases, variance and more. Don’t just pivot on a dime with only 10 responses.

  • 2. More data is not always better. A big problem with big data is that it is paralyzing. Make your data actionable. Build test cases with hypotheses and outcomes (agile Web design stories). At some point you have to do something, so decide in advance what you will do if that trigger comes. 'If I don’t get any email signups in a week, I’m going to change the CTA on my landing page' – and then actually make changes.

    In other words, think in advance of the actions you will take once specific triggers are reached and specific goals are hit around your start-up marketing analytics program. This will help ensure that your start-up marketing evolves appropriately.

  • 3. It’s not all about numbers. Another way to say this is quality can be more important than quantity, and so it’s important to dig in to the statistics at a low level. Yelp is fascinating – look how much time some people spend writing reviews.If you’re a small business owner with Yelp reviews, often it’s not actually about quantity but about quality of a single post or comment.

    You shouldn’t be afraid of negative comments and reviews you may receive as a result of executing your start-up marketing tactics, because these are what you’re going to learn the most from. The quality of these can often be better than the hard metrics, just don’t get too hung up on them.

Tip #9

  • Turn big problems into smaller ones.If you feel stuck on a big task – break it down into smaller and smaller chunks until you can do the sub-tasks at a granular level. This technique is super helpful and will help you start to tackle those daunting tasks.

Tip #10

  • Tracking your time doing start-up marketing is tedious but important. Track your time in five-minute increments and then log it. Then you will realize how much time you’re wasting on certain things and how long certain things really take, and you can continue to fiddle the start-up marketing nobs. A good productivity tool can and will actually change your behavior and help you to work smarter.

Tip #11

  • Avoid big builds and big programs with a big-bang approach. Although this is more of a product development tip, I thought I’d throw it in here because all startup marketers should ALSO be clamoring for this. Trying to anticipate problems before they happen is a waste of time. As a marketer, you should be OK with imperfection and look at is as a way to engage your target audience and garner feedback. When they see you listened to them in the next build, they will be wowed!

Tip #12

  • If you’re a start-up and don’t have a lot of money, these tools are your friends.
  • 1. Free trials:  If you sign up for trials, take advantage of the high-touch support teams – especially for free trials offered by start-ups that care about your feedback. This can sometimes lead to an extended trial or more features for free or a reduced price.
  • 2. Free tools: This may sound obvious, but there are actually quite a lot of free tools you can take advantage of for your start-up marketing program that can do the job 99 percent of the time.For example, Google Analytics is the way to go until you’re at an Omniture level ,which you won’t need until you are well-funded. Don’t get hung up on needing to have the absolute best (or have whatever it was you used when you had your day job). Just use what is cheap and functional, even if it’s not pretty.
  • 3. Ferret out UI weakness: Consider using heat map technology to track the Web actions of your users. You can do this through Google Analytics in real-time mode, but there are actually specific tools out there that are more robust as purpose-built, such as MouseFlow. Through this tool, you can watch video commentating live of people actually using your product (live feedback). It’s painful (and often laborious, especially when they’re not getting certain aspects). But it’s extremely elucidating.

Tip #13

  • 'How much does my personal brand matter, and should I work on improving it? Or is this just a waste of time?Unequivocally yes – you are your brand. For things like Google Authorship (discontinued), the idea was to add credibility to your marketing. With authenticity, your product and your content feels less shady and more authentic. People trust people not machines. Your start-up marketing program will be the better for strengthening the personal brands of your team-members.

Hopefully these tips have sparked a few ideas about how you can analyze and manage your start-up marketing program. As always, if you feel lost, or just want a sounding board – we’re here to help.



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