Startup marketing best practices can be used by organizations of all sizes, and across industries to accelerate growth.
Below, I’ll highlight six of my favorite best practices, with guidance on how to immediately implement new processes and drive more ROI.
1. Don’t do Anything Until You Define Goals and OKRs
Goals define an organization’s growth aspirations.
Quantitative ‘Objectives’ and ‘Key Results’ track your marketing department’s ROI while also keeping people aligned and accountable. Your objectives and key results must be aimed at your organization’s big goal or mission, and also be quantifiable and time-bound.
To start building your own OKR framework, set weekly or monthly benchmarks for what constitutes success. Once OKRs are in place, you’re ready to start building out a marketing plan.
A simple setup might look as follows:
Objective: Sell 100 pints of Cookie Dough Ice Cream over the next 30 days
Key Result 1: Get 1,000 new visitors to the Cookie Dough product page
Key Result 2: Get 500 views for our “Cookie Dough: How It’s Made” video
Key Result 3: Get 25 existing customers to add Cookie Dough to their next order
Key Result 4: Double last month’s total number of free Cookie Dough samples given away in-store from 75 to 150
Early-stage startups should avoid vanity metrics or splashy outcomes like social posts going viral or top-tier press coverage. There isn’t anything wrong with these outcomes, but if they don’t directly drive objectives and key results in the short term, those resources would have been better spent elsewhere.
Takeaway: Define goals and objectives to ensure every single marketing activity is aimed at improving the bottom line.
2. Flip your Funnel
Early-stage startups are under intense pressure to reach growth targets that unlock a next round of funding (or carry them to profitability or IPO).
If acquiring more paying customers is priority #1, what should priority #2 be? Hint: It’s not top-of-funnel awareness. It’s the step immediately before the sale – which could be a product demo, a video view, or a customer visiting a website’s Pricing page.
Flipping the funnel means optimizing down-funnel activities first, before investing in top-of-funnel campaigns. This might mean more time and energy on sales emails, landing pages, or nurture campaigns, and less time on brand awareness.
In some cases, generating lots of early buzz or driving customers to an underdeveloped website can actually be harmful. Leaving a customer with a bad first impression is worse than having zero awareness (since awareness is easy to manufacture).
Thinking about the funnel top-down, also leaves too many marketing options in-play:
‘Should I launch a buzzy PR campaign? How about AdWords? SEO? Should we get more active on LinkedIn? Are we overlooking offline media? What about podcasts?‘
Top-down marketing creates too many unknowns and too much distance between awareness and conversion. Once startups grow and unlock larger budgets and more resources, data will help solve for these unknowns.
Takeaway: Make sure your down-funnel marketing initiatives are performing before investing in top-of-funnel campaigns.
3. Precisely Define Targets
Thoughtful customer targeting will ensure that marketing dollars are focused on the customers most likely to buy. More importantly, smart targeting will ensure that customers who are unlikely to buy, won’t eat away at your marketing budget. Marketing to the wrong targets can be devastating as every dollar spent on the wrong targets is a dollar not spent on the right ones.
Use an Ideal Customer Profile (or ICP) framework and Buyer Personas to define characteristics of the organizations and buyers you’d like to target. If your startup is already generating revenue, you can start this exercise by examining the characteristics of your highest-value customers.
Ideal customer profiles define the characteristics of the organizations who will become your customers. Buyer Personas are more about the person on the other end of your sales and marketing efforts. Almost all purchases are executed by a human decision-maker so understanding your buyer is crucial.
Having a clear understanding of your ideal customer (the organization), and your ideal buyer (the decision maker) will allow you to sharpen your messaging. More targeted messaging will either accelerate sales cycles or provide valuable feedback when a sale stalls or fails. Conversely, feedback from non-target customers or buyers can confuse your strategy.
Takeaway: Define clear targets to maximize the impact of your marketing dollars.
4. Reimagine messaging and your 10x Difference
A ’10x difference’ statement explains why your solution is at least ten times better, cheaper, faster, or easier than the competition.
Here’s Steve Jobs, the greatest marketer of all-time in my opinion, introducing the iPod in 2001:
“A CD player costs about $75, holds 10-15 songs on a CD, that’s about $5 a song.
“What is iPod?”
“iPod is an MP3 music player”
“Has CD quality music”
“holds 1000 songs”
“a quantum leap, because for most people, it’s their entire music library”
“You can take your whole music library with you, right in your pocket.”
“Never before possible. So that’s iPod.”
With just a few sentences, Jobs makes an elegant, overwhelming case about the value that the iPod can deliver to customers.
Here are three reasons why you need a 10x difference:
- People have short attention spans.
- Switching costs are high… and feel even higher. For example, have you ever felt overwhelmed by the idea of switching from one product to another before ultimately realizing the switch-over was easier than anticipated? Oftentimes people overestimate the difficulty associated with switching. This cognitive cost sits on top of the hard costs of switching (in dollar terms).
- Startups don’t have the luxury of being able to build up brand trust over years and years, so as a result, their value proposition must be clear, outstanding, and immediately digestable.
Takeaway: Asking a customer to take a chance on you is a big deal. Be sure you’ve framed your product to be ten times better than the alternative.
5. Use Sprints & Experiments
Startups that succeed in marketing understand the value of being both data-driven and agile.
Marketing experiments ensure that larger-scale marketing activities in the future will be informed by data. Well-crafted experiments should be time-bound, aimed at specific OKRs, and have clearly tagged campaign elements (channel, budget, duration, creative, calls-to-actions, target audience, etc). Experiments should also define expected results beforehand, so that actual results can be compared and contextualized.
Rather than spending weeks or months building comprehensive marketing plans, startups who excel at marketing also use “sprints” to control costs, align and energize teams, and retain their ability to stay agile. Sprints should be time-bound (usually 2-4 weeks in duration), and always aimed at specific OKRs.
Takeaway: Sprints and experiments uncover valuable marketing opportunities, use less resources, reduce overall risk, and provide valuable insights that better inform future marketing endeavors.
6. Don’t Wait for the Next Release
Founders oftentimes feel the need to wait for an upcoming product release before launching marketing efforts. There can be a feeling that marketing an inferior version of a product today (compared to a new and improved version tomorrow), is wasteful.
According to LinkedIn Co-Founder, Reid Hoffman, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
A product or service will (or should) always be improving, which means your design and product teams will always be working on something new and exciting. With marketing, thinking exclusively about the future comes at a high cost. You will need the marketing insights from smaller experiments today, to be ready to scale up marketing tomorrow.
Takeaway: Don’t wait for “the next release” as there will always be a better version of your product in development. Marketing needs insights right now in order to properly prepare for that next big launch.
When it comes to startup marketing best practices, the above list is still just the tip of the iceberg. I hope that the insights above unlock some new ideas for you and make your marketing efforts more impactful.
I’d love to hear more about the specific problems or opportunities your business is facing. If you’d like to schedule time to chat about my list or your marketing workflow, feel free to grab a time on my calendar here.