Updated 19 May 21
I recently asked founders in our facebook group what burning questions they had around marketing their startups. I then caught up with our Head of Marketing Paul Dodd and put them to him! Read his advice below.
Jump to specific questions:
I always feel like there is so much ‘marketing’ I could and probably should be doing, how do I decide what tactic will get me the best results?
Ok so it’s a common problem, many founders get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of different options available to them, so my advice is to help you prioritise.
First I’d say consider 3 things, what time, budget, and skill set you have at your disposal. Considering these helps narrow the net, and your choice on a tactical level to begin with should be based on that. For example if you’ve got 2 weeks to get some sales, £200 budget and your housemate is a wizz on FB ads - it makes sense to start there. Whereas if you’ve got 9 months of runway, and £50k budgeted for marketing you can be a bit more strategic and layer some fast and slower learning channels.
Where founders can sometimes go wrong is not understanding that some channels and tactics, for example SEO and Inbound stuff, are generally slow burns that will require a continued effort for several months before bearing fruit. Others will work faster, but might have higher cash requirements.
If you’re unsure where to start I think it’s really important to understand that in the early stages of your business, you’ll have lots of assumptions about which tactics and channels will work best for your business but until you start testing them out you don’t know. So try and approach your marketing work in the same way as you do with your product development, be intentional about what you want to learn and create experiments to either prove or disprove those assumptions. It’s an iterative process and only through running many lean marketing tests, across different channels and tactics, you’ll gather enough insight and understanding to what works for you.
For the slightly later stage startups in our portfolio we’ll often run a Traction Workshop. This is a great exercise that involves brainstorming and prioritising each of the 19 different marketing channels available. It often throws up lots of ideas around the lesser used channels - which can be great places to look as it’s where competitors aren’t active, and you’ll likely get more impact.
How important is social media for a startup and how often should you be posting on your channels?
Completely depends on your business - for some it’s essential, for others it’s irrelevant and a big distraction. That said my advice would always be if you can cultivate a community before or alongside your product development (through social media or otherwise) that’s the perfect scenario. Social media is a great vehicle for doing this but don’t underestimate the amount of time it takes to do this well.
Whilst I don’t think there’s an ideal ‘posting’ frequency, it’s more about being able to deliver good value to your followers or community members regularly. That’s what will get people coming back, valuing and trusting you. The main thing I see is that people completely underestimate how long this takes to do well, and don’t give enough time to do it properly.
There’s plenty of founders who pertain to building a community when what they’re actually doing is scheduling a load of one way posts, sending out an email update once a month and hoping people join their journey. They do this for a couple of months then give up because they’re not seeing much engagement or value from it.
If you’re passionate about your business and subject matter, and can document your progress, involve your followers in your journey and decision making, offer them value for following (think about what’s in it for them) and have regular open and honest dialogue with your community that’s a great basis to go from.
I’m trying to make my startup more engaging on social media but I struggle to come up with content ideas. Are there any tips you’d give for this or would you recommend outsourcing social media support?
It worries me when founders struggle for ideas for their subject area, because I believe if you know your audience and community really well you’ll know what they’ll find valuable. There’s tons of tools like answer the public, and Semrush that get recommended to help with ‘content ideas’ but tbh I think they’re a bit of a cop out.
My advice would be, stop marketing and start helping. Just think about what are the problems your community struggle with - share advice, tips, tools to help them overcome these. Share opinion on the big industry topics, draw upon your expertise and things you’ve learnt about the industry and if nothing else just document your journey. That first customer, that new logo / website, that experiment you’re running - share it.
In the early stages I’m always in favour of founders managing their own social media, I think it really helps you understand your audience and develop trust and relationships with people that can become customers and advocates for you and your business. Use the channel you’re most comfortable on, and I’d say only outsource this when this becomes a scaling issue i.e. when you’ve figured out what works and you’re getting the results you want from it but it’s taking up too much of your resource. At that point you should look at what parts of it you can outsource.
Marketing changes all the time! How do you keep up to date with the latest tools and improve your marketing skills?
It’s really difficult - but tbh I’d say don’t try to compete and stay up to date on everything, you’ll burn yourself out trying. Instead focus on understanding people - people are much more predictable and behaviours change much slower, if you can understand what your audience want and get that right you can apply it to any channel.
Who do you think is doing a great job of marketing their startup recently and who should we be looking to for inspiration?
That’s a great question and there’s not tons that spring to mind tbh, there’s a couple on my radar - one of which is a company called Fast who are doing a really great job of fostering a community on Twitter. Their leadership team (@domm and @mkobach) are both really engaged and leading out on creating really great posts, involving their audience in the discussions they’re having and building excitement around their product.
A startup that I think had a great beta-launch recently was mmhmm, their explainer video was fantastic as were the communications across their landing page and email comms post sign-up. Signing up and bookmarking these to use as a template is a good idea if you’re approaching a beta-launch yourself!
I actually really love startups that nail the virality and focus on that as a metric, so although they’re not ‘recent’ the likes of Dropbox who offered additional cloud storage for both parties on signup, or Hotmail who embedded the hyperlinked line 'Get your free email at Hotmail' into the footer of each email that was sent (which was revolutionary at the time), are the two other great examples that spring to mind too.
Analytics confuses me as there's so much to look at! Where should I focus my attention?
Yep, you’re not alone! Gathering data is a great thing to do, but it’s so easy now to gather a whole host of data points from the likes of google analytics, HotJar, Amplitude and any ad platforms you’re using that it can quickly become confusing. Unless you're focused and intentional about what you want to learn from the outset, you can quickly end up in a data black hole trying to unpick some vague insight and ending up not learning very much at all.
So before you run any activity, set out what you’re trying to learn from it, and then reverse engineer what analytics software and data points will allow you to do that...and ignore all of the rest (for now).
There will be time to get into all of the detail as your business grows, but just a word of warning not to over analyse every piece of data in the very early stages. As in essence, analytics is only telling you ‘what’ is happening but not necessarily why. If you find yourself quoting things like ‘Well I noticed that Wednesday’s are 5.4% more effective for us, because we got 1 extra sign-up that day over Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday’s’ then you’re probably over analysing it!
Very often I’ll track pretty top level stuff like spend, conversions and individual ad performance but then use that alongside some more qualitative data gathering. For example just spending time watching people using your product and speaking to them about their experience can be way more valuable and can help you understand more of the ‘why’.
My product isn’t built yet, what marketing activities can I be doing in the meantime?
There’s lots to be honest, I love it when startups are actually able to validate their business idea and plans before they have to build anything. I’ll link an example that I love of someone who did a photoshop mock up of some software they were planning to build, posted it in a reddit community and advised people he had it locally on his machine; and that he could share it if people wanted it. He had hundreds of people asking him for it and offering to pay for it. He was able to gather an email list of people willing to use and pay for his product without building a thing - that’s ideal!
Pre-product you can run lots of different tests and experiments - at Nova we use terms like concierge MVP, wizard of Oz MVP that are worth looking up if you’re interested in this. But if nothing else you should be networking as much as possible and starting to build and foster a community of people that will be of value to your startup when your product does go live.
I understand the importance of SEO but i’m not sure whether I need to bother with it at the moment as I’m just starting out. How much time should I be spending on SEO?
I’d say it is important, but at the very start just get the foundations right and remember that SEO is a longer term strategy, and to start you’re really just looking to avoid things that google will punish you for. Focus on having a fast loading, well designed site with good UX that’s easy to navigate. Cover off the basics in terms of ensuring your pages all have nice, relevant meta-descriptions and titles, all images are named and tagged and that your site is secure and gets indexed by google.
It takes time and effort to build reputation, generate links and create the ton of content needed to see a significant SEO impact. So for me SEO is just too slow to rely on alone for traffic and lead gen when you’re in the ‘validating business idea’ stage. I’ve linked a blog below where we’ve discussed SEO and our advice further.
What do you think is instrumental to the success of marketing and growing a startup in its early stages?
Ok big question, I could say lots here, but I’ll try and keep it concise - I’d say the main points are;
- Align your marketing to the stage of your startup your at. So when you’re at 0-10 customers you shouldn’t be thinking about running billboard campaigns, or discussing rate cards with the Guardian. Think in blocks of 10x and align the activities you're doing to that i.e. if you’re at 2 customers all you need to focus on is how to get to 10, then when you get there plan how to get to 100 etc. This will keep you focused and keeps things simple. As often you can, and probably should, recruit your first customers without the need for complex marketing campaigns. At the start it can be done manually through your own network or spending time and having discussions in places where your audience are.
- Run your marketing activity with the same thoroughness as your product development. think iteratively and run experiments rather than just randomly trying lots of different things simultaneously and hoping one works. Before testing any channels call out what you want to learn, and what key metrics you’ll be monitoring to judge this are.
The best marketing never is a first time hit, it’s always built up over lots of small experiments to learn what works for you - only when you’ve been able to refine what channels and messaging works well for you can you start to put some serious time and cash into scaling it.
- Clarity of messaging, IMO people don’t spend long enough thinking about and testing the copy and messaging that they’re using. Being able to quickly articulate what your business is and what value it delivers can make or break the startup. Really don’t skimp your time on this - write out 50-100 versions of a one sentence pitch for your startup and the copy you’ll have above the fold on your site. A decent structure to use is this one from the brilliant Marketing Examples. 1. Write down the main feature, 2. Ask ‘So what’ to find the benefit 3. Contrast the *old way* with your *new way*. Then write them in 2,3,1 order (see example below).
I’ve seen tons of good products displaced by lesser ones who just get this bit right. One mistake I see happen is when founders try to be everything to everyone, and end up with vague generic messaging that appeals to no one. If you’re building something with a broad appeal, niche in first and focus your messaging to appeal to a smaller better defined segment of people who have the biggest need for your product right now.
If you can get those 3 things above in place you’ll have a great shot!
If you have any other marketing questions you’d like answered feel free to drop them blow and I’ll get Paul to answer them.