Marketing your startup? Here are the steps to take first

“Social media marketing” is not a sufficient marketing strategy for your startup. Yet this is the default answer that far too many founders of early-stage startups provide when asked about their distribution plan. I myself have stated a similar plan to mentors and investors in the past. It’s easy to fall into this path since there is certainly a plethora of articles, book, and gurus focusing on social media marketing, but finding efficient ways to promote your startup requires far more planning and creativity. In this article, we will cover some key questions to answer at the start, and we will flip the standard marketing approach on its head to break you out of the predictable (and less effective) path.

Who is your ideal customer?

How and where you try to reach your customers has everything to do with who exactly you are targeting as well as their unique needs and challenges. For example, let’s say that you have created a novel platform for connecting employers to job seekers. It is not enough to say that you are “marketing to employers” or “marketing to job seekers.” What kinds of employers exactly are you targeting? Are you trying to reach small businesses or corporations? Is your platform optimized for finding executives or janitors? Is your customer more likely to be a manager or an HR professional? Is your ideal customer likely to be using your platform on a laptop or mobile phone?

You should come to a specific profile of your target customer having carefully identified their key characteristics. Perhaps you decide to focus on small to medium-sized creative services companies such as design, branding, and marketing firms. You further note that your customer is likely to be a manager or the owner of the firm since most of the target companies are too small to have dedicated HR departments that source talent. The firms that you are focusing on primarily need to hire junior to mid-level graphic designs, copywriters, and user experience designers. Further, you note that your ideal customer is busy and is more likely to use your platform on their phone. And most importantly, you find out that your target customers’ biggest challenge is pre-screening candidates based on how methodically they approach a creative project.

Where do your ideal customers live?

After clearly identifying distinguishing details about your ideal customer, the next step is figuring out where they hang out both virtually and in real life. Continuing with the above example of a job platform for small to medium-sized creative agencies, you might find out that many of your ideal customers read publications such as Communication Arts and Wallpaper as well as blogs such as Brand Struck and the Igor Naming Agency blog. In addition, you realize that many creative professionals work in cafes (not to stereotype or anything) and attend industry conferences such as the AIGA Design Conference. Finally, you do some research to find that many designers hang out in virtual communities such as Reddit, User Experience Stack Exchange, and Designers Talk Forum. Now that you know where to reach your target customer, all that is left is creating a strategy and executing on it.

Crafting your marketing message

The effectiveness of your marketing is a factor of the message and channel, which is why you have to first answer the above two questions. Having a detailed understanding of your ideal customer will help you create messaging that is likely to resonate and capture their attention while knowing where they hang out will make it possible to quickly hone in on the best way to reach them. Most important is to first identify what you would like to communicate to your audience that demonstrates your startup’s unique value. Keep in mind that the message that I’m referencing can take forms other than the written word; pictures and videos are just two other ways that can effectively communicate a message as well.

I like to start by creating a general pitch to the customers that is not specific to a given channel but highlights what is special about your product or company. What is the most important point that you’d like to communicate to you target customer? In the above example of a hiring platform for creative agencies, we found out that a key challenge for your target customers is pre-screening their ability to work through difficult creative projects with purpose and a logical plan. Your one-line pitch might be, “Our hiring platform helps creative agencies hire more efficiently by letting employers screen candidates’ working style and approach through interactive design challenges.”

Identifying message types

This article started with a common refrain from startup founders that they are doing social media marketing. Notice that this statement only gives a vague hint about the channel (social media) and mentions nothing about the specific actions or types of messaging (what). Is the startup writing Medium posts, tweeting on Twitter, posting pics on Instagram, posting videos on YouTube, answering questions on Quora? Perhaps many of your customers are on Instagram, but are you prepared to create images on a daily basis and will they effectively convey your message? Additionally, you must decide whether you will engage solely in outbound marketing such as paid advertising and PR or if you will also aim to become a part of the discourse through valuable insights and commentary—inbound marketing.

Assuming that your aim includes creating valuable content to engage your customers, it is often most instructive to consider what kind of messaging is both likely get your audience’s attention as well as what can your team do a superb job creating. For example, perhaps your startup team has a great graphic artist that also makes videos as a hobby. Returning to our example of a hiring platform for creative agencies, would your target customer be most engaged by a long article on hiring, random tweets, a well-designed infographic, or a witty video short? I know I just biased the reader with my use of adjectives, but it’s not unreasonable to think that creative leaders are more likely to respond to visually-rich media. Then perhaps creating tweets might not be the most effective strategy or one that your team is particularly good at. Instead, given your audience, the message that you are trying to convey, and your team’s capabilities, you might do much better to use images and videos to reach your customers.

There are really only a handful of message types that you can create:

  • Long articles or posts
  • Short posts
  • Answers
  • Photos
  • Graphics
  • Videos
  • Podcasts
  • Newsletters

In your specific case, consider what type of messaging is likely to resonate with your customers, fits your key message, and aligns with the skills and capabilities of your team.

A menu of marketing activities

Up to this point, we have focused primarily on creating and publishing content aimed at building your startup’s reputation and engaging in dialog with your customers. However, there are many other activities that can effectively reach your audience. Bringing inbound and outbound marketing strategies together leads to the following list of activities that your startup can pursue to promote your product to potential customers:

  • Publish long articles or posts
  • Publish short posts
  • Publish answers to questions
  • Publish videos
  • Publish images or pictures
  • Publish a podcast
  • Send emails or newsletters
  • Buy traditional advertising
  • Buy digital advertising
  • Buy influencer promotion or endorsement
  • Get covered in media
  • Speak or promote in person at events
  • Run a contest
  • Create partnerships

The above list is not exhaustive, but it should be a good starting point for most startups.

Creating your marketing strategy

The final step in creating a marketing strategy is to prioritize and flesh out what exactly your team will be doing. You obviously cannot cover all of the items on the above list, but start by choosing the five most promising activities that will both fit the capabilities of your team and that are likely to effectively reach your customers. Once you have identified the top five, catalog details about how you will implement each. For example, if your team is going to be writing long-form articles or blog posts, what will be the publishing cadence? What topics will you cover? Who will do the writing and editing?

In tomorrow’s article, we will cover each of the above activities as well as itemize potential channels to consider. For example, there are multiple places where one could run a contest: online on your site, on twitter, or at a conference. Understanding what channels are available to your team will help you answer the final question in your marketing strategy: over which channels should we engage our customers.

Tune in for the next article in this series. And if you found this helpful, please share with your friends! Thanks for reading!

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