You have a startup.
But everyone has a startup these days.
Even poor me.
What makes the difference between something dying in anonymity and something else clutching the pinnacle of success in the startup world, aside from it being a great product, is how well you market your dream.
My name is George and in this no-nonsense post I will show you how you can market your startup without a big budget and be successful despite.
I will show you real examples of the principles I outline here in action so that it becomes easier for you to follow those footsteps.
But, no startup becomes popular overnight. All startups that have their stories being penned today began at the grassroot levels and made their way up after incessant struggle.
For instance, Airbnb— a media darling, crowd-favorite, the first example that comes in the minds of struggling founders when they talk dewy-eyed about their brainchild to future father in laws, a company that boasts over 2 million listings in 190 plus countries and 40 million guests till date— a poster child bearing testament to the potential of the sharing economy had its origins in poverty and struggle.
Its founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia had just moved from New York to San Francisco— where they found themselves penniless. Being unemployed they couldn’t come up with enough money to pay off their monthly rent. Looking for ways to get some extra cash to get by, they hit on an opportunity. All around, hotel rooms were booked with nary a space for a cockroach, owing to an annual conference that was about to happen. They bought a few air beds and put up a sign saying Air bed and breakfast—a place to sleep and have breakfast—in their tiny apartment. At $80 a night they got their first three customers and Airbnb was born.
Also read my post on the best credit cards in India.
Any startup that went on to become successful was in the beginning just a good idea, later followed up with excellent execution and brilliant growth hacking.
Startup marketing is unavoidable to get the news going about your product, create brand awareness and get new customers.
Here’s how to get started:
- Start small
Don’t try to capture the entire market with dime a dozen products at the start.
In the beginning you don’t have to be a jack of all niches. Don’t listen to the artificial pressure created by wannabes who have their fingers in every pot imaginable. Instead start small, keep your focus on one niche, master it and then gallop ahead.
By keeping the focus small you’ll be able to devote your entire energies to make that one single product successful.
For years since it was founded in 1994, Amazon was an online bookstore. Bezos perfected book delivery before moving to other things. Today that online bookstore that began life in a one room tenement is worth 1 trillion USD with Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world.
An eye-candy for inspiration: Bezos’s first desk was made out of a wooden door (yep that’s the desk)
With just one product you know exactly who to target and whom to market to. Content marketing efforts in entirety can be channeled to acquire this laser-targeted targeted list of customers however small. While bigger competitors may be creating all sorts of content, you by keeping your focus to a small niche will be able to target various points in their customer journey from Problem awareness, to solution awareness to purchase facilitation.
With a smaller list of products at hand it’s easier to manage support tickets and may be even give spectacular support.
Top of my mind, an example of this would be a niche product in the men’s grooming niche. In the initial stages you could produce just a single product say an oil for men’s beards. Your target market is clear. It’s definitely not females. It’s meant for people above the age of 20 who have beards, who love their beards, are proud of it and go to great lengths to maintain it.
The man behind Northwest Beard Supply Greg ( they sell beard oil and have over $1 million in annual revenues) says, “If you want to stay in business, and even better, in people’s minds, you have to create value worthy of attention.
Focus on holistic value, ramp it up 10x more than the next best competitor, and never get comfortable.
I’ve pain-stakingly placed 450+ labels on 1 ounce bottles, taking a needly and popping every air bubble in each label until it looks damn perfect.”
Do you think you will be able to equally dedicate your hours already stretched thin managing a startup, investors and clients to 12 different products?
Your time is best spent and you have the biggest chance for success if you have just a few products or one product to concentrate on.
2. Don’t underestimate the power of social media
The power of social media isn’t something that’s been completely harnessed even in this age.
Because we don’t completely understand it. For every direct visit from social media, 7 additional visits transpire. Sometimes it’s due to word of mouth, other times due to mobile apps. We have a name for it— it’s called dark social traffic.
Social media is as big a channel for acquiring new customers as search engines are and perhaps even more so.
Today people lacking a social media account are deemed living under a rock.
Different social media channels are best for a particular kind of business. Posting content, sharing posts and participating in discussions on an ill-suited medium will no doubt yield results but you could be so much more effective on the right channel with the same amount of time and effort.
So the best part of your time should be spent analyzing how other competitors of yours are using social media, which platform they’re getting success on and how.
Social media can help you get more traffic and exposure for existing content— you don’t need to update content or build more links to it.
And like the above advice on being niche-focused, the same applies to social media as well. Stay niche focused, post relevant content— content that you want your followers to be able to share.
Here’s what each social media channel is for.
- Facebook – Ideal for reaching out to both businesses and customers
- Twitter – Good for getting your product in front of businesses
- Instagram – 82% teens use Instagram on a monthly basis and teens themselves have said that it’s the best way to communicate brand promotions to them.
- LinkedIn – Business outreach
- Pinterest – A highly female audience. Great for fitness products, homemaker products, kitchen items and so on.
- Quora – Difficult to get traffic but can generate quality leads with consistent efforts. Quora is a great place for posting quality answers on subjects that interest your core audience. As of now there’s no penalty for posting links to external sites. And it’s a great medium to get some extra traction. That said even if your answers have a lot of views the traffic would be a fraction of the views.
- Forum discussions— You can a tool that’s been beside me for years called Buzzstream to find relevant discussions on subjects around your blog and drive boatloads of traffic.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and I would warn you against using the above list as your north-star metric you blindly trust.
Your ideal social media channel is where your target audience hangs out the most, the place online they call their online water cooler.
To illustrate my point, allow me to borrow once again from Airbnb.
Brian and Joe were aware they had a great product but the challenge as always was to get this product in front of the people who needed it. After all, there are only so many conferences and so many posters one can plaster over walls.
They wanted people who were looking for something other than hotels—either due to hotels being overbooked or they being interested in other experiences.
Online, Craigslist is one such spot where this target audience comes hunting for places other than hotels.
Do you know what Brian and Joe did next? They gave an option, a social media sharing button on listings for people to share those listings over to Craigslist. The coding required was elaborate but the idea- stupidly simple.
The results were astounding despite the simplicity of their idea. Thousands of visitors from Craigslist started flocking to Airbnb primarily because Craigslist seems like a dump compared to Airbnb’s polished listings, quality photos and rich descriptions.
Here’s what Craigslist looks like even today.
And the people who came flocking, stayed. Soon more people started to hop to this great new site that didn’t list hotels from word of mouth leading to a virtuous growth cycle that went on giving.
3. Don’t underestimate your friends and family
This is what the founders of Nipyata have to say about its viral growth, “When we first launched, we simply emailed all of our friends and asked them to share the website. We didn’t have a viral video or any “launch plan” in place.”
This helped them create initial traction.
Here’s another story that illustrates what friends can do for you.
When his classmates declined to show up for his birthday party the boy almost gave up on his first party and then social media turned tables for him.
Mike Ellis, a friend’s of the boy’s mother posted this incident on Facebook and told the world that the boy had given up on his party after his friends failed to show up which incidentally was his first party after years of homelessness and bouts of extended poverty.
Ellis reached out to friends for help to change the boy’s mind by asking his friends if they’d be interested to show up for the party.
The response was immense and very soon interested parties came up with ideas for help. Local retailers provided gifts,cakes and other items. Some donated furniture and sneakers for the event— all for free.
Eventually over 100 people turned up.
Employees at the venue pooled money to gift the boy a card and party bus company waived off transportation charges.
On October 28th, when the boy and his mother came to the venue there were over 100 people waiting with gifts, food and cake at Spokane.
Local newspapers and mediums picked up the story followed by International channels and the heartwarming tale got told all over the world.
That’s the power social media exerts.
But traction isn’t the only good thing that comes from telling your friends and family about your pet project- they can be willing guinea pigs as well.
Remember the guy from NorthWest Beard Supply I referred to earlier? This is what he says about great ideas. He suggests that you shouldn’t limit it to yourself. Share the idea with close friends and family members. And then test those ideas to death, refine and read up all you can on the subject. In short be an authority.
These family members and close friends can become your first test subjects.
When Greg first came up with the idea for a beard oil, he was met with mild ridicule, with some dubbing the product as too feminine. But his test subjects loved the oil, even coming up with suggestions for improvement, and that’s how he knew he was on the right track.
It doesn’t take a rupee to tell your friends, relatives and family about your project.
The effect can multiply in seconds. If you have 10 friends and each tell 10 of their friends at least 110 people know about your startup because of this free method. Ask your friends and family to tell about your product to more of their friends and families. Almost all phone networks have a free calling option today (thanks to Jio). It’s very cost-effective to place ads on magazines or even local television channels that serve a small geographical region.
Also get your startup listed on local directories and leave a link on them to your site.
You can put this method on steroids if you can muster enough courage to speak before strangers.
When Neil Patel started with CrazyEgg he had no money to market it. Do you know what he did?
He took up all speaking opportunities he could find to grow his brand and get in front of as many people as possible.
This shows your expertise and leads to brand exposure.
If you’re doing it for the first-time even speaking before a small group of people can be nerve-wracking. But it’s a experience to be had. Think of everyone before you as naked and things will be a little bit easier.
Everyone before you dressed in impeccable suits and ties went to the bathroom naked today morning and will do so tomorrow despite their airs. And this was told by the great man himself—Dale Carnegie.
If you record those talks you can give those away on social media channels and get more people coming next time who want to see you live and in action.
4. Invest in Customer experience that people can relate to
Customer service is all about making customer effort easier.
Most startups don’t consider customer service to be an integral part of their product. Their entire focus is on the product’s functionality, feature set and other factors and not in how they handle customer support.
It’s put at the backburner and massively impacts churn rate.
Plus, interactions with customers will also determine if they’re going to recommend the service to others or not.
If a customer asks for a small new feature build that for them as long as it doesn’t sponge away a lot of time. Deliver those iterations quickly if that makes them stay.
Encourage your customers to tell about you to their close friends. Such kind of word of mouth results in sure-shot customers and overtime the cumulative effect will result in unprecedented growth.
Customer support should extend beyond solving a customer support ticket successfully. It should extend to creating a great experience and that’s where the term customer support experience comes from.
Here’s an example.
A random customer wrote to HomeServe to see if it were possible to reduce the policy price at renewal. (If you ever had insurance you must know that it’s a business that makes money by jacking up premiums). But the HomeServe agent who got the mail decided to touch base with the customer to know more and in the process discovered that he was about to be 100 years old soon.
The agent talked to members of the HomeServe’s vulnerable customers team and decided that they’d gift the old man a Cover8 policy for life for free.
The agent informed him of the gift, wished him a happy birthday and on top of that she arranged for a birthday card to reach this customer.
It only takes some empathy to understand someone’s situation and respond in accordance.
People don’t sign up to HomeServe now because of ads but because they know they’re in trusted hands.
And it need not always be elaborate examples of freebies. Sometimes all you need to do is reduce support waiting times and solve the issue quickly.
5. Build a dedicated email list
The primary benefit of having an email list is unlike most properties you use to market your business- an email list is completely owned by you and under your control.
It helps you discover pain points of your customers, ask for suggestions and so on.
Armed with ideas you get to the root of the issue and weed out the problem.
An email list is a consistent unfailing source of traffic to your blog. There’s no one stopping you from mailing older blog posts to your list and driving fresh traffic to it.
However, with an email list be careful in not using a free email service to blast bulk emails to strangers. With GDPR and stringer European privacy laws such actions can be your undoing and lead you to legal hot water.
Important things to consider when considering a paid tool:
- Use a service that doesn’t limit your numbers. You should be able to build and keep a big database of subscribers.
- Doesn’t cap you by the number of mails sent.
- Allows a certain number of automations like welcome email and follow up sequences.
- Allows you to send well designed emails
- Has proper segmentation in place. With segmentation you can send highly targeted emails to people who are most likely to convert, and help increase your bottom line at no cost.
- Should have a good delivery rate.
As mentioned before it’s one of the things you have total control over.
You should use social media and other channels to grow your startup, attract traffic and so on. And try and get that traffic to sign up to your email list so that you control where that traffic goes.
An email subscriber list lets you connect more intimately with your subscriber base and engage at a deeper and intense level not possible through other mediums. Also you don’t have to constantly engage in upkeep like you do with social media channels or with a blog.
You may want to prune inactive subscribers but that’s about it.
While social media sites are great you don’t own them. Facebook tweaked its algorithm a bit and all sites relying heavily on Facebook to drive traffic went dry.
Despite having millions of followers and likes and what not organic reach turned to be 20% of it was earlier and is going down since. Instagram is great for organic traffic but as soon as it grows beyond a threshold thanks to all who made it grow, Facebook will tweak the algorithm and kill organic reach.
All the traffic that was free until now would now be pay to play. That’s the problem with third party channels. They can die or cease to exist any time. What if someone complains and they ban you?
That’s why it’s important to get as many people from as many channels to your email list. Despite all the storm around you still have followers and subscribers who you can email to any time of the day.
The conversions with email is much higher and it’s great for you as a startup
People detest spam in their inboxes and if you have made it to their inbox it’s because it’s a place they want you to be. You get more engagement and full attention. There’s little to divert their attention.
6. Invest in Content marketing
Inbound lead generation efforts are significantly cheaper than paid ads.
Content marketing іѕ а marketing strategy wһere you create and ԁіѕtrіbute content that your target audience finds valuable in a bid to ԁrіvе conversions.
And there’s more than one reason to invest in creating great content.
First, content is much more effective at attracting visitors. Traditional advertising methods have lost their edge due to repetition. Do you remember watching any ad on TV? As soon as they start displaying ads you hop to another channel.
There’s so much of advertising going on that sub-consciously we have learnt to block that information from reaching us and making an impact.
Offline we skip tv ads and banner placements. Online we’re completely immune to ads by being banner blind. And if that weren’t enough, most of us have ad blockers installed to stamp out the rest. Die ads die.
People actively want to search and engage with services they’re interested in and don’t want to see or engage with something that’s forcibly displayed right on their face. They detest it.
And hence the call for engaging content that educates, motivates, teaches and engages them.
Content is the key and just below are examples of startups that nailed it. Make no mistake—content isn’t long articles or blog posts. It can be videos, mixtapes, and anything else that your audience would love and share.
Blue Apron’s growth to 5 million recipe deliveries
Blue Apron is a recipe delivery startup that grew by 500% in 2015 meaning they were able to deliver over 5 million meals.
Through content marketing.
Being a recipe delivery service they wanted to create interest and desire for their recipes even before subscribers got it delivered to them.
All their recipes are the work of renowned cooks but they’re created with the sole intent to be accessible to home chefs, and help home chefs feel proud about having cooked something new from scratch. Something that not only tasted good, but was refreshingly unique and looked wonderful. They wanted home cooks to upgrade themselves from making noodles to making spiced salmon and labneh.
And that’s what most of their 2 million strong following on Facebook do. They share their culinary creations on the channel (which gives Blue Apron tons of User Generated Content) and talk and comment about the brand with much gusto.
To build this engaged tribe Blue Apron hacked into a strategy that revolved around creating content that this audience would find helpful.
They couldn’t share the recipe they planned on sending on their blog (doing so would make the business obsolete) but instead shared other interesting tidbits like information on the recipe’s history, blog posts on cooking techniques and kitchen hacks.
Doing this they accrued over 2 million Facebook followers. The content strategy helped them engage followers who became subscribers by providing an education filled learning experience surrounding their recipes.
By building great content they forged healthy relationship with random followers, first turning them to loyal fans and then to customers.
Design Pickle’s first 1000 customers
Design Pickle got to their first 1000 customers riding the content wave.
Russ Perry started Design Pickle to turn graphic design into a convenient service for people rather than the convoluted process it was. To that end Design Pickle became a subscription service where anyone could sign up to receive unlimited graphic design for a monthly flat rate.
Perry took to guest posting to get the word out and posted content on marketing related topics on any blog that accepted guest posts. Within each post he talked about his service and shortly after he got his first 1000 customers. Now they’ve completed over 100,000 project for clients.
WP Curve Content marketing success leads to 65k MRR
Dan Norris from WP curve grew his site to 65,000 USD in monthly recurring revenue, and hundreds of thousands of users— both free and paid mostly through content marketing.
Content marketing success is elusive for most startups because of the sheer dearth of planning and strategy.
They take a spray and pray approach hoping that something works. When it doesn’t they don’t wait with patience to wait for results and give up.
With a good strategy an inbound marketing like content marketing is a nearly free and highly effective way to grow your business.
How much patience are we talking about?
Dan Norris contributed over 500 blog posts on WP Curve before the blog began to take off. Once it started taking off it began raining leads. No money was spent on PPC or Facebook ads. Content marketing grows on its own and it’s an investment that pays off longer after you’ve stopped posting any new content. Once a spost ranks the links to it begin to grow in number. It’s a snowball effect that doesn’t stop.
Short sighted metrics don’t give you the true measure of the success of content marketing.
To begin, let’s look at four reasons why content marketing should be a part of your marketing strategy.
How did they do it?
WP Curve started by clearly defining its target audience. The target audience consists of people who run sites or are startups who are busy with running their business, and know a bit about WordPress. However they need help when it comes to technical changes. Left on their own, they make take an entire day to make those changes.
Blog posts, podcasts and eBooks and everything else that appeared on the site were all tailor made to target that audience.
Two, Dan tapped into what his audience cared about These startup and website owners want their sites to look good and function at all times. That’s their primary concern.
For WpCurve, Dan developed an approach of sending an email to a group of subscribers with a specific question revolving around a particular challenge or concern they had.
With the information received he gleaned ideas about the challenges the audience needed help with.
Dan has one more piece of advice. He suggests that for creating compelling content, create tons of content first and then pay attention to ones that are creating an impact. Go through comments to gauge interest, find out which of your posts are getting most shares. Real enthusiasm is what that should dictate your strategy.
And once you know what gets traction build on that.
How tо arrive at a content marketing ѕtrаtеgу that ensures your startup’s success?
Ву this роіnt, you рrоbаblу јuѕt want tо know how tо gеt started. So lеt’ѕ jump іn.
First start by setting a goal What should the content do
1. Affix goals for content
Content you write for your startup should achieve certain goals. Be it higher number of conversions, more sign ups, an increased number of social shares and so on.
Make sure you’ve some means to track the progress on these goals. It shouldn’t be a case of the blind leading the blind.
2. Research target market interests, worries and concerns
Find out what makes them get up in the morning.
Researching your market to find the kind of content they enjoy is the next step in the process.
The easiest thing to do? Find out what their struggles are and where your business fits in
Without this info there’s no content marketing strategy in place and you will be just hitting in the blind.
How to find this out?
Collect feedback from your target market just like Dan to develop your marketing personas. If you don’t have a subscriber list, read through comments on your posts and prop a website feedback form to gather feedback. Highlight their pain points problems and map their customer journey.
3. Research уоur competitors.
Find out what content your competitors are spending money, how much content are they producing per week or per month and see if you can outdo them.
With a tool like Ahrefs you can also figure out content gap and see content that could be produced but haven’t appeared on their blog.
Here’s an example of the same.
4. Push out content relevant to where customers are at the buying cycle
Customers are in different buying stages. Some are problem aware, some are desirous of your solution and others are ready to buy.
All of these stages can be targeted with different content types that carries them through their journey.
Begin by introducing some light hearted content and progress to solving and approaching serious and specific problems.
Above all keep in mind the problem at hand should be something you’re able to solve currently.
Here’s an example:
LeadPages has successfully used different forms of content to get leads. Their prime focus for lead generation has been through online courses, relevant to their business by targeting different purchase stages. Their growth during the first few years came entirely on the back of courses they created to this end. This helped them reduce churn and increase retention. Each time they launched a course they tracked engagement and built on their lessons.
Through all these steps, you arrive at content after which there’s no looking back for them and they have to say that you’re the one.
It’s not like a PPC ad where you direct them through a keyword on a hope and prayer. You have taken them by the hand made them aware of the problem and solution, created a desire and finally driving home the best solution for them.
By all means this should result in a conversion. In a happy customer.
Also this should continue over where they bring you repeat business by referring you to other friends of theirs.
As mentioned at the start of the post, content marketing is quite a powerful tactic. Because when you write content you attract exactly the kind of people who you want to attract, nobody else. And what else is better for conversions?
For every dollar spent, content marketing gеnеrаtеѕ three times as many leads as paid ads can. It’s way cheaper, much more targeted and by extension way more effective.
But that calls for a better handle on content planning. And I hope this section helped with that.
It’s been a long post and thank you for staying with me thus far.
To sum things up
Let’s go over the important points again:
- Keep your focus laser-targeted so that you can devote your and your team’s energy to marketing a single product.
- Use social media to the hilt. Find channels that could drive highest engagement and focus on those alone.
- Tell your friends and family about your startup and build initial traction.
- Invest in creating valuable customer experiences. People should get talking about the wonderful experience they had and not the nightmare they went through.
- Have an email list: Search engine traffic may die, social media channels may ban your brand or cease to exist but you always have your list.
- Invest in creating epic content by understanding your customers’ problems, worries and concerns. Find what keeps them awake at night and what pulls them out of bed each morning.
What do you think of the startup marketing ideas I listed above that don’t break the bank?
It’s amazing to see that unicorns like Airbnb that raised over 1.5 billion USD in funding got their initial growth almost entirely for free and by listening to customers and contributing to channels where their customers were.
And that’s probably what you need to be doing.
Bansals who founded Flipkart in their initial days, stood outside Gangaram Book Stores on Church street in blistering heat, sweat glistening on their foreheads and their serious shirts already wet and damp under the weather handing out Flipkart bookmarks to people who came out after shopping. The duo were sharp; they gave bookmarks only to people coming out with books in their hands to make sure their tiny budget was well spent targeting the right people.
And from their humble beginnings they exited with 1 billion, over 6700 crore in hand.