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How to Master Startup Marketing: Experts Share Their Secrets


October 14, 2021·30 min read

Startup marketing success takes more than just checking boxes and ‘being on Twitter.’ Learn how to build a well-considered startup marketing strategy that gets results.

Don’t become another startup marketing failure.

You know the one: A newcomer thinks they know how to market a startup, so they launch a Twitter account, set up a LinkedIn company page, build a website, start running ads…but then nothing happens.

Despite all that precious budget they spent, they’re not getting many visitors, and almost none of those are converting into buyers. Why? Because they didn’t understand the factors that make startup marketing successful. And when you’re just getting off the ground, wasting all that time and energy can be catastrophic.

Startup marketing takes a lot more than just checking off boxes and being on Twitter. In this guide, we’ll explain how to build a startup marketing strategy that actually succeeds.

  • In Part 1, we’ll discuss why you need to focus on building your brand.
  • In Part 2, we’ll lay out five tips for building your startup marketing plan.
  • In Part 3, you’ll learn about the seven most effective types of digital marketing for startups.
  • In Part 4, we’ll look at how to work with stakeholders and resources outside your marketing team.
  1. Contents
  2. 1.Part 1: The Secret to Startup Marketing—Build Your Brand
  3. 1.1What’s in a Brand?
  4. 1.2Startup Marketing is Brand Building, Not Brand Maintenance
  5. 1.3Don’t Jump the Gun on Your Startup Marketing Strategy
  6. 2.Part 2: 5 Tips for Building Your Startup Marketing Plan
  7. 2.1 Identify Your Strengths and Focus on Them
  8. 2.2 Look at What Your Competitors Are Doing
  9. 2.3 Set and Manage Your Startup Marketing Budget
  10. 2.4 Build Your Startup Marketing Plan
  11. 2.5 Execute, Track, and Test
  12. 2.6Additional Marketing Resources for Startups
  13. 3.Part 3: 7 Types of Digital Marketing for Startups
  14. 3.1 Content Marketing for Startups
  15. 3.2 SEO for Startups
  16. 3.3 Social Media Marketing for Startups
  17. 3.4 Email Marketing for Startups
  18. 3.5 Advertising for Startups
  19. 3.6 Websites for Startups
  20. 3.7 Event Marketing for Startups
  21. 4.Part 4: Startup Marketing with External Teams
  22. 4.1How Marketing Can Work With Sales
  23. 4.2Working with an Agency as a Startup
  24. 5.Feeling More Comfortable with Startup Marketing Now?

Part 1: The Secret to Startup Marketing—Build Your Brand

Here’s the startup marketing plan that finds success:

  • Step 1: Build a brand
  • Step 2: Sell it

The full process is way more complex, but in the end, it boils down to those two steps.

Your goal is to establish a footprint in your audience’s mind. You want your startup to be known as an entity that solves a specific problem using a high-quality solution. Once your brand’s reputation is cemented, it drives purchases and builds business momentum.

Example: Dollar Shave Club. The startup saw an issue—namely, having to buy expensive razors. The solution: Subscribe to have affordable razors delivered straight to your doorstep.

Dollar Shave Club was so successful at building its brand through positive product experiences that it was eventually bought out for $1 billion.

What’s in a Brand?

So what exactly is a brand? It’s a promise you make to your buyers: “If you buy our product, you’ll get a quality solution.”

Your brand travels through word of mouth. It’s discovered when people interact with your product. They have to like what they find—no amount of advertising can make a bad product good, like a breakfast cereal that burns people’s tongues. You get one chance to make an impression.

Create a strong brand by building a product that buyers will genuinely enjoy. Word about your product will begin to spread on its own. The stronger your brand and the better the product experience, the more durable your impression and the more effective all of your marketing will be.

It’s as true for consumer packaged goods as it is for marketing for tech startups.

Startup Marketing is Brand Building, Not Brand Maintenance

When you think “startup marketing,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably “advertising,” but ads aren’t the answer. Establishing a brand that’s backed by trust and quality isn’t something you can do with just advertisements.

“Most marketers confuse brand building with brand maintenance,” say marketing experts Al Ries and Laura Ries in their book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.

Brand maintenance is what you see most big brands using advertising for—think billboards, banner ads, radio spots, and Superbowl commercials. However, you’re not at that stage (or budget) just yet, young startup. Before you can maintain your brand, you need to build it in the first place.

Don’t Jump the Gun on Your Startup Marketing Strategy

You may be champing at the bit to get started with this whole “startup marketing” thing, but don’t go sprinting out the gate. Resist the initial pressure to act immediately—whether it’s coming from your peers, from the board, or from the CEO.

Instead, study. Invest in building a real brand. Know—don’t just guess—why people buy. It’s the only way you’ll get through those next few months of blistering activity and see the results you wanted.

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Part 2: 5 Tips for Building Your Startup Marketing Plan

1. Identify Your Strengths and Focus on Them

As a startup, you can’t afford to spread yourself thin. It’s better to dominate one channel than to bore audiences on many, and better to produce one remarkable asset than to write many mediocre ones.

So what are the best marketing strategies for a startup business? The answer: The marketing strategies that play to your strengths.

What are your startup’s unique advantages? What’s remarkable about your product or process? What do you have that those big brands don’t? Identify it and double down.

For instance, many startups find that their small size and low budget are actually benefits to their marketing efforts, not detriments. When it comes to approaches like video marketing, those scrappy, small-budget videos can make your startup feel far more human and relatable than your larger rivals.

2. Look at What Your Competitors Are Doing

Whether your competitors are large or small, they’ve done valuable legwork that you can learn from.

How is your competition approaching its marketing? What audiences are they targeting? What angle are they taking? Which concepts and keywords are they linking to their brand?

This can tell you where to focus your efforts (because it’s working in those markets) or where to avoid (because those markets are already saturated).

Don’t duplicate their marketing initiatives wholesale, but don’t miss out on the valuable insights you can gain from their marketing decisions. If your competition is doing something, figure out why, then put to work in a way that complements your own brand.

3. Set and Manage Your Startup Marketing Budget

Next, you’ll need to decide on your startup marketing budget. Here’s a common question: “For early stage startups, it’s advisable to spend what percentage of your revenue on marketing?” The answer is always “it depends.”

Most mature businesses spend 10% of their budget on marketing. The marketing budget for startups will likely be higher—you’re in the insurgent stage of the corporate lifecycle where it’s build a brand or die. Though Gartner says the average marketing budget for a startup is 11.2%, up to 20% is acceptable.

Within that startup marketing budget, spend 85% on conservative activities that you know work—branding, PR, email marketing, content marketing—and 15% on moonshot projects. Most moonshots won’t pay off (or break even), but some will succeed wildly and help you learn, grow, and pivot to channels and assets that work best for you.

Learning what doesn’t work is just as important as learning what does. After years of spending four to five hours each month selecting images for its blog posts, one startup agency learned that the blog actually looked better without them. The time and startup marketing budget they had spent was worse than just wasted—it had diverted time and money from more profitable activities.

4. Build Your Startup Marketing Plan

With all that reflection, competitor research, and budgeting work finished, you may feel ready to get rolling on your first startup marketing program…but there’s actually a little more prep work to be done before you can get on the road.

Writing blogs and buying ads willy-nilly isn’t going to get you anywhere. First, build a detailed, carefully considered startup marketing plan. It’s the roadmap that will guide you all the way through the execution and refinement of each marketing program you run.

A lot of the things you should be doing at this stage share commonalities with standard, non-startup marketing strategy generation. But if it’s been a while since you read your last “marketing 101” guide, here’s a quick refresher.

Build Buyer Personas

You’re probably no stranger to the concept of the buyer persona. It’s a fictionalized individual who represents your larger customer base. Based on what you know about your target audience, you nail down the type of job they’re most likely to have, their probable lifestyle choices, their most common values and fears, etc.

Drilling down to this level of detail lets you hyper-focus on the marketing activities that are most likely to pay dividends. Example: Instead of deciding to run ads on all major social media outlets, you can consult your buyer persona to winnow down to the social media your target persona is most likely to hang out on.

This leads to less wasted resources—which is especially important when you’re working with a small startup marketing budget.

Crystallize Your Core Value Proposition

Now that you know who your audience is (via the buyer personas), what do they care about? What desires drive them, and what fears keep them up at night? What questions are they asking Google?

Those findings will be invaluable levers for your startup marketing plan. You may be selling a product, but truly effective startup marketing strategies also sell an outcome.

Use those wants, needs, and fears as cornerstones of your messaging. Use your marketing to explain how you’ll solve a problem, or attain a goal, or avoid a pitfall that is relevant and authentic to your audience.

Presenting a strong value proposition is so important because your startup is a new player on the scene. When was the last time Coca-Cola told you about what its product does or what problems it solves? Big brands can get away with brand maintenance because they’re so entrenched in the market’s consciousness. Your startup, on the other hand, needs to tell consumers exactly what a purchase will get them, and why.

Tailor Your Startup Marketing Strategy to Your Resources

You probably don’t have the startup marketing budget to throw at every idea that comes along, so you need to refine your choices down to the options that are most likely to work for you. What approaches best suit your staffing, skillset, and budget?

If you’ve got great content creators, lean into content. If someone has an eye for design and can write a punchy headline, consider an ad campaign. Have a naturally charismatic presenter on the team? Events and webinars might be more your speed.

(More on each of these types of digital marketing for startups in Part 2.)

5. Execute, Track, and Test

You’ve done your homework. Now it’s time to actually develop your marketing program, execute it, and see how it fares.

Don’t forget to set performance goals before launch, then reflect on them after the program concludes. Did you get the results you expected? If not, it’s back to the drawing board. Tweak the way you talk about your product, the imagery you use, and the methods you use to reach your audience. Permutation makes perfect!

Additional Marketing Resources for Startups

Part 3: 7 Types of Digital Marketing for Startups

There are many ways to market your startup based on what it is and who your buyers are. The smartest marketers narrow their options and pick one or two things to do well before expanding.

Below, we detail seven strategies for (mostly) digital marketing for startups:

1. Content Marketing for Startups

The fundamental goal of content marketing is simple. You produce content that establishes your startup as an authority on the topic, which is great for attracting the attention of both prospective customers and search engines.

But a lot of people misunderstand content marketing for startups. The goal isn’t to write as much as you can—it’s to write a few things that are exceptionally useful.

Take the Michelin guide and star rating systems for restaurants. Michelin started that in the early 1900s by publishing maps for drivers, hoping that if people knew where to eat, they’d do more driving and buy more Michelin tires. It worked so well it became an institution.

Content marketing for startups is more than writing, too—it can be anything, really. You could produce guides, brand-agnostic case studies, videos, blogs, infographics, tools, checklists, or calculators. If you’ve ever tried CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer, you’ve experienced great content marketing firsthand. The headline analyzer exists primarily to help, and people learn to know and trust CoSchedule by association.

Great content is rooted in a deep understanding of how your buyers think, and many startup marketers don’t invest enough in this.

Most startups are understandably intoxicated by the opportunity they have perceived. It’s why they started the company. In marketing that can cause a sort of willful blindness, particularly among first-time entrepreneurs. They think everyone else is as excited as they are, and that they don’t have to put the hard yards in to persuade their target audience. It’s often a problem if the company is led by a first time engineering or sales leader. Marketing often ends up being more ‘look at me’ and less about romancing the opportunity or explaining the problem they solve.

profile image for Stan WoodsStan WoodsVelocity PartnersCEO

Content marketing fails when it gets too solicitous, or when it has too obvious a conflict of interest. The Sisyphean struggle of content marketers is stopping others on the team from inserting calls to action or pitches for the product. Readers sense a fake immediately and flee.

To create great content, follow the four Es: Engaging, educational, emotional, and empathetic.

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Does Your Content Use the 4 E’s?checklist graphicCreate content that connects—every time. Discover how in the Four E’s Checklist.Download Now