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There is no one-size-fits-all marketing strategy for businesses. Your product and target customers aren’t the same as everyone else’s, so why would you promote them in the same way? Marketing allows your business to build and maintain long-term relationships with your audience. It’s not a “set and forget,” but an ongoing strategy to help you consistently reach people. A solid marketing strategy informs, engages, sells, and evolves.
Marketing is not just advertising. You can’t rely solely on online ads and websites to see real traction. Nor can new startups dive right in without doing the legwork first.
“Marketing significantly influences the overall ‘likeability’ of a business,” says Rachel Sheppard, director of global marketing at Founder Institute. Particularly for emerging companies, it’s essential that you make a good, lasting impression, and start getting leads in—be they optimal or unideal.
With that in mind, here’s how to market your new business, with a few tips from the experts.
First, define your brand and customer.
Before you start any type of marketing, you need to confidently know your target audience and brand. Your brand has to be on point, as it will define the image and voice of your marketing strategy—without it you will constantly be struggling to lock down your message and lack consistency. And if you don’t know your target audience, you might as well be screaming into a hurricane.
“Once you understand your customer and the way in which they want to buy from you, the other things fall into place,” says Adam Christensen, global head of marketing and brand and communications at Ingram Micro Cloud. “You can pretty much do the rest on gut, as long as you know that customer.”
Build ideal buyer personas, being as detailed as possible in your descriptions. Ask yourself, what motivates them? What puts them off? What memorable life experiences do they share? Try to think beyond the product you’re offering, and about what inspires and repels those consumers, what drives their emotions and decision-making. This will help you connect with those conscious and subconscious motivators among your target customers, as well as humanize them, putting you in a better position to empathize and start meaningful conversations.
“You have to start outside in, not inside out. You could start from the inside, and set a goal of X amount of leads in X time, but you’ll be sprinting before you’ve found your footing,” Christensen explains. “Start with the idea of ‘this is the kind of customer I want to reach,’ or, ‘we’ve got these kinds of customers, let’s find more of them.’”
Your marketing strategy should reflect the values of your audience and showcase how your company shares those values. Sheppard says that “a common mistake people make is to create a marketing strategy that simply focuses on the hard sell, but the reality is good brands have a value-first approach.” For example, if your audience is ethically driven, your tone and language should be ethically conscious, and your output should emulate your message (could you be using recycled material for your business cards?).
Much of your creative process will have begun with your branding journey. Your brand’s logo, color scheme, and typeface will be integrated across your marketing campaign, so avoid skimping on your visuals. Take the time and resources you need to ensure they look refined, or this lack of professionalism will permeate across the board.
Planning your strategy.
When planning your marketing strategy—before you start writing your online ads or prepping your Instagram campaign – set clear goals and KPIs. Your entire strategy will revolve around these priorities, and they will also define the metrics you use to track its success.
Anna Milaeva, chief marketing officer of Coro Global Inc., recalls the goals that her startup set to achieve product/market fit; which included: Customers understanding and recognizing the value of Coro’s product, word of mouth spreading, usage growing at a high rate; and customer acquisition cost below a certain level.
“Once we had identified those goals, we knew we had to be tracking metrics such as number of active users, retention rate, customer acquisition cost, and revenue,” she says.
It follows that your plan has to include a metrics, data gathering and testing system, both to make sure you’re on track with your goals and to start refining your strategy according to where your leads are actually coming in from. Your plan should be flexible, improving constantly as the data from your campaign flows in.
Avoid vanity metrics—stats that make you feel good without actually telling you how you’re doing in real terms. You may be getting tons of potential “leads” from LinkedIn, but are they even in your target market? How many of them stand a chance of becoming qualified leads? “Good metrics have to be actionable, if they aren’t, they’ll just mislead you,” Milaeva says.
Make sure you lay out a strict budget, too. For early-stage startups, it may be worth exploring free options before delving into the campaign.
“Use free strategies such as social media, content creation, press outreach and SEO analysis to determine how people discover your brand, and to learn more about their specific demographics,” Sheppard says. “That will help you design your budget, while quantifying your customer acquisition cost.”
Your pre-campaign phase should also be educational. Read up on (or audiobook) the basics, and test and implement what you learn, that way you won’t eventually be forced to rely on external help.
“There is a ton of online advice on marketing, but it’s often unsound,” Milaeva says. “My best inspiration comes from books relating to growth marketing, consumer and general psychology, and biographical accounts of startup founders who made it.”
Now, you can decide what your actual output will be. Will your startup benefit from physical assets like business cards, posters, uniforms, and car decal? Or should you prioritize digital assets like social media ads, whitepapers and how-to guides. (You should always have a website and social media accounts). Go back to those KPIs—what’s the most effective way to get there?
“While you should look around you for inspiration, don’t blindly copy others just because it seems to be working for them, or because it’s all over the internet,” Milaeva says. “For example, everyone says you should do content marketing, but it may well be that for your startup it’s not the right way to spend resources.”
Your strategy will depend on several factors, and there are some key differences between B2C and B2B approaches. B2B sales cycles tend to be longer but have less “touch points” along the marketing funnel, says Sheppard.
“Conversely, for B2C marketing, a customer may need to see your brand 10 times before they recognize it and decide whether or not they want to buy from you,” she adds.
However, Christensen warns against seeing B2B and B2C marketing as completely different strategies. “I think the big myth about B2B marketing is that you’re marketing to businesses. You’re marketing to the people within businesses. So a creative B2C approach can work really well with B2B – get to know the job role and needs of the person you’re marketing to, so you can bridge that gap between their professional persona and their personal persona.”
Marketing in action.
An effective marketing campaign will have several branches – typically including digital ads, product strategy, and social outreach.
Your digital strategy should make the most of social media and sites where word will spread rapidly. Meet your audience where they’re spending the most time and finding information they respect and trust. “Also look into organic growth tactics for social media channels, so you can move content in a way that uses the algorithms to your advantage,” Milaeva says.
In regard to incentivizing customers toward your product, you can give away free products, trials, or run competitions. How much you actually give away depends on you and your target market. “See what competitors are doing, read up on some of the psychological perceptions around pricing and freebies, and ask potential customers ahead of time what would be valuable to them,” Milaeva says.
Your social strategy should raise the hype about your product among industry influencers, journalists, and other business leaders. This should range from targeted networking to hosting or speaking at events, establishing partnerships, but also looking around you.
“Check local organizations connected to your field; they may not be super sexy but they are real people who can give you a word of mouth boost. Don’t be shy to go and ask for help sincerely,” Milaeva adds.
It’s worth considering teaming up with other early-stage entrepreneurs in your same position, for example by setting up a strategy group where you can bounce ideas off one another and promote each other’s businesses.
Don’t get too caught up in the idea of finding a big hack to get dizzying traction. Focus on things that aren’t scalable too, like picking up your phone and reconnecting with everyone in your network to ask for references and raise awareness of your product.
Remember that you should always be using data to track success and test new approaches continually.
“With your digital marketing, you should be optimizing on a daily or weekly basis,” says Christensen. “A startup doesn’t have the luxury of running a campaign for a quarter or two before looking at its effectiveness.”
“We usually do two-week sprints of testing. When the tactic works, we increase our budget and effort while always listening to our customer feedback,” says Milaeva.
However, it’s a different story when it comes to content marketing.
Promote the product through ideas, aka content marketing.
Content marketing is different from traditional marketing because you’re not directly pushing your product in front of customers. You’re creating content and a conversation—one that supports the argument that your product is necessary, and that builds the trust and respectability of your business.
This style of marketing ranges from opinion articles to whitepapers, social media posts and vlogs. But it’s not for everybody. “Content marketing is usually best for startups with a long runway, because it takes time to build the necessary traction, and eventually get people to opt in to what you’re offering,” says Dan Wheatley, CEO and co-founder of StraightTalk Consulting.
“It’s different if you’re integrating paid ads in your strategy, however, because this immediately creates an opt in that can generate leads for you,” Wheatley adds.
Some startups can’t overlook this approach, however. “If you’re a content publishing company, content marketing should be your main marketing strategy,” says Reva McPollom, founder and CEO of Lessonbee.
Your content should tap into relevant topics (tools such as BuzzSumo can help you here), but above all they should reflect your brand. “All of your content should educate, inspire or entertain (or a combination of these),” Sheppard says. “Determine which of these categories is most true to your brand and start to create content that reflects your brand’s voice.”
Edit all of your output, no matter how informal the channel. This is to avoid slip ups, but also to align everything with your value proposition, and keep a tone that’s consistent with your brand.
Bringing leads back to you: Creating a funnel.
Regardless of the approach you choose, make sure you have a way of directing leads back to your website and product. To manage your funnel effectively you need to create and “nurture” a database of potential customers.
Paid ads are key entry points of the funnel, as are landing pages. Once people start clicking ads or signing up for gated content, consultations or free trials on landing pages hosted on your website, you can save their details and start to nurture them by putting additional content in front of them. You should be sending them emails, newsletters, and promotional content that directly and indirectly sell your business to them. Educational material that showcases your expertise is also effective. For example, a B2B startup selling gym apps could offer a free how-to guide on moving workout classes online in response to COVID-19. This is directly beneficial to the businesses in their target market, and shows they are to be trusted when it comes to digital resources for gyms.
The database itself should be part of your customer relationship management (CRM) tool where you’re logging contact details and tracking response rates. How potential leads are nurtured should depend on how they arrived to you and the level of interest they’re showing. You should be segmenting the database according to the level of engagement of your potential leads.
“You should have around four different stages: subscribers, lukewarm, those you’ve spoken to, and actual leads,” Wheatley says. “Provide different messaging and content depending on what stage they’re at.”
For any new startup, marketing is your launching pad to turning your product idea into something users desire. You have some leeway to start in terms of strategy, but not in terms of budget and resources. So plan your approach thoroughly, and never stop planning: continually refining your approach is just as crucial as placing your product in front of the right people.