How Should You Market Your Startup? The Definitive Answer

08/14/2012

The most common question I get from early-stage startup founders is “How do I market my startup?”

Experts are full of answers to this question telling startups that for great marketing all they need to do is social media, inbound marketing, SEO, hire a better sales team, build a better website, build a better product, do better media relations, get more customer advocates, or be more likable/remarkable/authentic. Every day I read a blog post telling startups there’s a simple key to revenue growth and oh by the way that simple key is different from the previous 20 simple keys I just read about.

You don’t have the resources to follow all this advice and even if you did not all of it applies to your business. But what if you’re not a marketing expert – how the heck are you supposed to know what pieces DO apply to you? So you call someone like me who’s run marketing at a bunch of startups and you ask me the question “How do I market my startup?”

To which I respond – “I don’t know.”

Yeah, that sucks. It’s not the answer you want to hear. But it’s the answer you need to hear.

The reason I don’t know is not because I’m an idiot (at least not all the time) so stick with me and I’ll explain.

Tactics are just Tactics

Most of what we talk about in marketing is tactical and there are many folks that are experts in certain tactics. I’ve got some experienced opinions about content, email, inside/outside sales support, strategic relationships, messaging, and some other stuff. If you need help with SEO I can recommend a book to read and a couple of experts to talk to. The same goes for PR, website design, events, affiliate marketing, channels, AR, advertising, bus. dev., community, blogging, and a bunch of other tactics.

Not All Tactics are Right for Your Business

What I CAN’T tell you is which of those things you should be focusing on to maximize your revenue growth. I can’t because I don’t know your customers, their buying process, your market landscape, or your offering. This is what makes your business different from every other business. Your customers aren’t the same as other people’s customers, your offering is different, the market landscape you’re in is different, how your customers decide to buy your solution looks nothing like how other customers buy other solutions. Your business is different therefore your marketing will be different. You need to understand this FIRST before you start thinking tactically.

You’re marketing to IT managers at mid-sized businesses that are looking for a better way to manage their budgets? Maybe blogging and PR isn’t the best way to reach these folks and email marketing might work very well. Your early adopters are Mom’s in New York buying baby stuff – you might focus your energy on existing places where those mom’s hang out. You’re selling high-end services to Fortune 1000 CMO’s – I’d be over-rotating on target account planning and spending less time on email marketing. Maybe. Or maybe not because those single sentences don’t really capture enough detail about your prospects to really understand them.

Doing the Work

If you don’t know how to market your startup yet it’s because you’ve still got work to do to understand:

  • Your target customers – who they are, where they hang out, how they find out about offerings like yours
  • The customer’s perception of your offering – what market are you in, how do they describe the value you deliver, what are the competitive alternatives
  • The customer buying process – what stages does a prospect move through on the way to a purchase and what can slow this process down or speed it up

Once you understand these things the question will change from “How do I market my startup?” to “How do I make it easier to be found on Google because I know that’s how prospects find solutions like mine?” or “How do I coverage in publication X, Y, Z because my prospects read them?” or “How to I expand my email list?”

Instead of asking “How should I market my startup?” you should be asking “How do I get to a point where I know how to market my startup?”