Last year I launched Content Marketer – a tool that helps to scale and automate content marketing; a project that I (more or less) dedicated my entire life to working on for the six months prior to its launch.
We’re up and running now, so you might think the hard part’s over. Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s not. Far from it, in fact..
Growing our customer base, building the brand, and getting to the point where we’re actually turning a profit… that’s where we’ll really be tested.
Thankfully, I know a little bit about marketing and growth hacking a startup, so I’m certainly not going into this with my eyes closed.
If you’re new to the game, here are a few of my best tips and ideas to help you (like me) market your startup – however small your budget may be.
Break your goals down – make them smaller and more manageable
It’s great to dream big, and everybody should start there. You can’t start something amazing without first envisioning its potential.
In a few years, you could be turning $1 million in profits, employing a staff of 20 people, or be outfitting your premises with an 80 foot tall aquarium (yes, that actually exists…)
Picture whatever you want. It’s fun and motivating.
But after that, if you want to have a shot at realizing those lofty goals you dreamed about, you need to begin by breaking them down into a series of smaller, more achievable targets.
In other words, you need a plan.
Compare it to losing weight. If you decide to try and lose weight, there’s a good chance you have a big, juicy target size or weight in mind. But in order to get there, you’re going to need to assign yourself a much smaller goal – like losing 1 pound a week.
You’ll also need to lay out strategies that’ll help you achieve those goals, such as changes to the way you eat and how much you exercise.
If you simply said “I want to lose 20 pounds so I’m going to eat less,” you probably aren’t going to get very far.
Marketing your startup isn’t all that different. You need to start small. Be specific with your goals and the strategies you’ll use to achieve them.
My initial goal with Content Marketer was to make a few million with it. Granted, my end goal still is.
I knew I was looking well into the future with a goal like that, but I needed to imagine how big this thing really could be in order to motivate myself to make it happen.
Once things were up and running, I shrunk that goal to “make one million.” That’s still a lot though, isn’t it? Especially for a complete startup. So I changed the goal again, to “get 1,000 satisfied customers.”
That’s sounding far more achievable and tangible. Since I know how much a customer is worth (churn rate accounted for, I need around 2,500 customers to break the million dollar barrier), I can focus on getting those customers and keeping them happy. I’m setting myself a goal that I can actually work towards.
But I didn’t stop there.
In the end, I made my initial goal “get 100 extremely happy customers.” That’s not going to set me up for retirement, but it’s something I should be able to achieve within a few short months. After that, I can aim for 1,000 customers, then move onto $1 million in revenue, then…. $5 million. Because I set my goal small I was able to acquire 100 new customers in the first 12 days & 1000 new customers in 7 months. Now I’m off to hit my next goal of 5000 customer.
And after that? I’ll worry about that later. The key here is to dream big but start small and work your way up.
Start spreading the word as soon as possible – don’t have to wait until launch
What if you could have a list of 1,000 potential leads before you even launched? Don’t wait to start marketing yourself, and you could.
That’s what I did with Content Marketer: I started blogging about it on sujanpatel.com, mentioning it on my guest posts, and promoting it on twitter as soon as the initial landing page was ready, even though this was quite a while before we actually launched.
By the time we officially went live, we already had a 307 beta users and 3590 qualified leads on our email list.
If you want to do the same and start marketing your pre-launch startup, you could:
- Write guest posts for industry publications that’ll allow you to incorporate mentions of your new venture.
- If this isn’t your first (or only) business, you can start blogging about it (or incorporating mentions of it) into posts on your other blog(s).
- Start talking about it on social media/building your social following.
- Run a competition (tie the winner announcement into your launch).
- Find a newsworthy hook and get a press release into circulation.
- Use tools like Quora and Reddit to find people with a problem you’re soon going to be able to solve, and turn them into prospects.
It can also help to…
- Create a little mystery. Drum up interest by giving away just enough information to spark intrigue. Don’t tell the whole story just yet.
- Promise a special price to people who sign up to your mailing list before launch. Reward those who give you their trust early on.
Fake it until you make it
In its early days, Reddit’s founders Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian created hundreds of fake profiles, which they would then use to submit links to the site.
The idea was to make the site appear popular and, therefore, more enticing, to new, real users.
There’s no doubt that it worked…
That’s pretty clever stuff. Is it completely, 100% ethical? Maybe not, but what advertising isn’t at least a little misleading? It may not be right, but it’s just the way the world works.
Unless you’re publishing fake reviews or testimonials (don’t do that), all you’re effectively doing is preempting the consumer’s need for social proof – the reassurance that comes from knowing they’re not alone in their choices.
You don’t even have to claim customers or users exist where they don’t: if you can design an ultra-slick, professional website, and keep it populated with content, you can create the feel of an established, successful company – no dishonesty needed.
Incentivize customer referrals
Not only are referrals a really cost-effective means of acquiring a new customer, but the Wharton School of Business found that a referred customer actually has a “16% higher lifetime value.”
With that in mind, you might assume that, if your product’s good enough – and your customers are happy enough – they’ll naturally go on to tell their friends. The stats prove otherwise.
Even though a customer might be willing to refer their friends, the reality is they probably won’t.
Thankfully, the solution here is pretty simple: you have to give your customer a reason to refer a friend. In other words – an incentive.
Is this going to cost you? Of course. But it’s worth it.
Let’s say you own an SaaS company selling a tool that costs $29.99 a month. Let’s also say you have 100 customers, with an estimated average lifetime of 12 months. That makes the average LTV of your customers $359.88.
What would happen if, as an incentive to these 100 customers, you offered them one month free in exchange for every new referral they made that resulted in a paying customer.
Naturally, they won’t all take you up on the offer, but even if just a quarter of them refer one friend each, that’s a potential $8,997 in revenue – all in exchange for a $749.75 investment.
Set the right price
Setting the right price is key to maximizing your customer acquisition and retention, and – most importantly – profit. Pricing isn’t a marketing strategy per say, but you’re going to struggle to market your business effectively if you get it wrong. It’s also a critical part of getting a new business off the ground – especially when you’re operating on limited funds.
In fact, small changes to your pricing can make a massive difference to your profit: research from the Harvard Business School found that a “1% improvement in price increases operating profit by 11.1%.”
But what is the “right price?”
This isn’t an easy question to answer. Set your price too low and, while you might not have any problems acquiring customers, those customers may in fact be willing to pay more. If that’s the case, you could be losing a lot of potential revenue. And you certainly wouldn’t want that.
That said, although it might seem counterintuitive, a low price won’t necessarily increase customer acquisition. It can (and may very well) inadvertently alter how consumers view your product.
James Noble did a good job of describing the phenomena in a piece for Kissmetrics: “A low or discounted price implies you have a lack of faith in your own product or service – particularly if it is ‘high-end’ – and if you don’t believe in your product, why should anyone else?”
In other words, set too low a price, and potential customers may be dissuaded from converting simply because they believe that if the price is low, the product must be crap.
It all comes down to the age-old saying that “you get what you pay for.” In many cases, that’s true, but there are no doubt exceptions to the rule. Cases do exist where a bargain really is a bargain – they’re just the minority.
Unfortunately, by pricing too low you play into ideas about value that are ingrained into our subconscious, and you may well suffer for it.
This is especially true for SaaS companies that are selling a completely unique product (or, for that matter, anyone who’s producing and selling their own goods). Things are a little different if we’re talking about resellers of products – in such cases, price is a huge (and often defining) factor in their success.
So what happens if… you set your price too high?
There’s no real surprise here: charge more than people are willing to pay and they simply won’t pay it.
The real question though, is: how do you find that elusive “optimum” price point?
Analyze your competitors’ pricing
While your competitors’ pricing should never define your pricing strategy, it’s naturally a pretty good place to start.
Just remember that price isn’t everything (far from it). Take the time to make sure you fully understand how their product actually compares with yours.
Once you have a thorough understanding of what you’re up against – both in price as well as features and benefits – you’re ready for the next step…
Talking to potential consumers
Who better to talk to about what people are willing to pay for your product than the very people who are likely to dip their hands in their pockets and buy it?
You can approach this whichever way you want: surveys, polls, email outreach, or one-on-one chats with peers that you know and trust. The important thing is that you talk to enough people to get an accurate understanding of what people are willing to pay for your product.
However, instead of simply asking “how much would you be willing to pay for this product?” you might want to try employing Van Westendorp’s “Price Sensitivity Meter” technique (or at least, your own variation of it).
The technique involves four questions:
- At what price would you consider the product to be so expensive that you wouldn’t consider buying it? (Too expensive)
- At what price would you consider the product to be priced so low that you would feel the quality couldn’t be very good? (Too cheap)
- At what price would you consider the product starting to get expensive, so that it’s not out of the question, but that you’d have to give some thought to buying it? (Expensive/High Side)
- At what price would you consider the product to be a bargain – a great buy for the money? (Cheap/Good Value)
Framing the question this way enables you to determine the perceived value of your products – something you can’t achieve if you simply ask “how much would you pay?”
Minimize product friction
Product friction is anything that serves as a roadblock to conversion. As described by di, it has many faces: “It can be micro, like a piece of interface copy that doesn’t make sense or a page where the CTA isn’t obvious. It can also be macro, like a marketplace business that lacks a clear plan for overcoming the chicken-and-egg problem.”
Friction is part and parcel of any business – you’ll pretty much never be able to eliminate it entirely. However, the issue is often exacerbated when businesses underestimate just how little friction is required to turn a customer off.
It’s easy for us to look at problems with our product or website and think that, because we can figure out a way to work around them, that our potential customers will too.
That just isn’t true.
Most entrepreneurs (at least in my experience), think of our companies like our children. We see them through rose tinted glasses and believe they can do no wrong.
We have to remember that our customers don’t (usually) see what we see. Don’t underestimate how seemingly insignificant obstacles can affect consumer behavior and drive potential customers away.
Admittedly, this isn’t a marketing tip that’s going to work if you literally have no money. However, if you’re working on a limited budget and are looking to invest in display advertising, you’re going to see the biggest ROI on remarketing ads.
HubSpot found that even when ad fatigue is accounted for (which is basically when consumers begin to get bored of seeing the same ads over and over again), CTRs for remarketing ads still outdo other types of display ads:
If you’re not familiar with remarketing, it’s the reason you often see ads for small companies on huge sites, and vice versa. No, your local marketing firm haven’t forked out for ads on CNN or the New York Times. What’s actually happened is you’ve recently visited their website and they’re paying for remarketing ads – this means you’re going to see them follow you around the web (at least for a little while…).
It works like this:
Remarketing ads are so effective because they target people that have already been to your site – people who are clearly interested in your business and what you do. Even if they don’t click on any of the ads and return right away, they’re still being fed reminders about your brand, which ultimately help to cement your company in their mind.
Oh, and as a sneaky little bonus, the positioning and placement of these ads can make you seem like a really big brand, even when you’re just starting out.
You don’t have to be an expert in paid search to make it work either; especially if you utilize a platform that can take care of the technicalities.
Just to reiterate: if you’re working with a non-existent marketing budget, or a seriously limited budget, then you’re probably going to want to steer clear of all forms of paid search advertising – at least for now. However if budget allows, remarketing can be well worth the investment.
And on that note…
Use Bing Ads
I know, I know. I hate to recommend Bing as well, but hear me out on this one…
You won’t get very far with any form of paid search unless you have at least some funds to play with. However, if you want to reap the benefits of pay per click advertising without breaking the bank, you may want to consider giving Bing Ads a shot (as opposed to Google AdWords).
Admittedly, if your only concern is traffic levels, Bing pales in comparison to Google:
However, when it comes to value for money, Bing is the clear winner:
What’s more, there’s even evidence to suggest that visitors from Bing may be more engaged and spend more time on your site than their Google counterparts:
Just in case you’re not convinced, here are a few more reasons Bing “beats” Google AdWords.
Competitions are a great way to boost awareness of your brand (and to build your email list or social following) for little to no cash. In many cases, all you need to get one up and running is a product to give away.
Authority Hacker did this and gained this many new prospects:
If you wanted to follow in their footsteps, you could…
Run a competition on your own website. This method drives people to your site, which is great. You won’t, however, get the same kind of reach as a competition run.
In a big publication. Lots of publications run competitions on behalf of other brands. The advantage to this is in the potential to reach a huge, untapped audience. Unfortunately, as the contest isn’t hosted on your own site, you may find that a lot (most, even) of the entrants don’t actually visit your website. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some publications will charge you for running the competition, while others will charge you for handing over contact details.
There’s also the option of running a competition through social media – read more about how to do that here.
Regardless of how or where you run your competition, here are a few tips to help maximize your ROI:
Be selective about what you give away
The prize should be something you sell – or if, for some reason that’s not possible (say, your product value is too high to justify a freebie) – then pick a prize that your target audience, and only your target audience, would be interested in.
While it can be tempting to give away something that will appeal to as wide an audience as possible – an iPad, for example, or even cash – doing so isn’t going to get your brand in front of the people that will care about it.
Yes, you might get 100,000+ email subscribers or Facebook likes, but those numbers are meaningless if the emails or Facebook profiles belong to people who are simply never going to convert.
Get people to interact with your site in order to enter
The more familiar entrants have to become with your site in order to enter, the more familiar they’ll become with your brand.
For an ecommerce site, this could be as simple as asking entrants to email in with how they’d spend $100. This forces them to interact with your site, and could even result in a purchase. SaaS sites, on the other hand, might want to ask entrants to describe how they, personally, would make use of the service.
The technicalities of the question don’t matter that much – the idea is simply to force the entrant into visiting and using your website so that they inadvertently become familiar with your brand in the process.
Be generous – give stuff away
If you sell anything that’s tangible and worth more than $50, move on: this tactic only really works with brands that sell low value products – especially startups with small budgets.
If you do sell something that’s low cost enough that you can give away a few without feeling the pinch, however, then please feel free to continue…. this one’s really quite simple.
Step 1. Find bloggers who write about your industry.
Step 2: Contact said bloggers and ask them if they wouldn’t mind receiving a free product from you.
Step 3: When most of them say yes, send said product their way.
Most of the time, the bloggers will write about you and your product. And, most of that time, they’ll even be nice about you. It’s a great way to get eyes on your brand for minimum investment.
They will, most likely, also link to you. However, chances are that they’ll nofollow that link – and you’ll want them to, since a followed link in exchange for a product is considered by Google to be a paid link.
Either way, you’re not doing this to get links – you’re doing it to increase exposure of your brand and your products. And for that, it’s very effective.
Get a partner
Partnering with a successful firm that has a customer base to match can be instrumental to your growth.
You don’t have to actually give away a portion of your company – a profit-share or even a commission should be enough to seal the deal. If it’s not, just move on to a company that’s more receptive to the mutual benefits of partnering with a startup.
HubSpot is a prime example of a company that’s making this type of strategy work. Apart from their own marketing efforts, they have a reseller program that’s responsible for 40% of their customers. As a result, they get tons of new sales from their partners’ networks – all without having to do any extra work on their own.
That said, the operative word here is “mutual” – don’t expect something for nothing.
Find a company with shared (but not clashing) interests, and ask them whether they’d be willing to sell your product for a cut, promote you for a profit share, or drive traffic to your site for a referral fee (essentially, affiliate marketing, only this way, you’re in control). The results could surprise you.
Remember that marketing and making a success of a startup is never easy – whatever the size of your budget. It takes time to build a business from scratch, so don’t get disheartened if things get off to a slow start – we’ve all been there. Stick with the strategies that have worked for you and diversify from the ones that haven’t.