Guest commentary: Marketing for a startup is different than anything you may have done before. It’s different from the big-company and/or traditional marketing many executives may be used to, and a whole new challenge for entrepreneurs who don’t have a background in marketing to begin with.
The way startups need to market themselves is as unique as their product, service, market and target customer. But there are several mistakes many new startups consistently make.
Whether you’re managing a startup, managing marketing for a startup, or even consulting for a startup, here are seven common mistakes to avoid.
1. Hiring a PR firm too early
PR is sexy. It’s exciting to see your name in print, to have others talking about you, to have articles framed on the wall and shared with investors. And PR can be an important component of early marketing strategy for some startups. But hiring a full PR firm might not be the right answer, at least not yet.
Your initial PR efforts should be organic. They should stem from self-published channels and social networks, spread via employees, investors and customers directly. Executing on this opportunity requires a smart strategy and well-understood messages & objectives, and may very well require some outside help to coordinate. But early-stage startups can typically achieve these objectives and save money in the process by working with an independent socially-adept PR consultant who can help coordinate the internal and organic efforts that will drive early PR momentum.
2. Overthinking brand
I’ve seen countless startups obsess about their brand at the expense of the business. They build thick brand guidelines before they even have something to monetize or sell, and fuss over the logo instead of empowering the sales team.
Early startup marketing strategies need be executed with a bias for action, sales and revenue. If the color palette is slightly different for the email campaign vs. the trade show banner, nobody except a handful of insiders and others with too much time on their hands are going to notice and care.
Brand is important, brand consistency is important. But shipping, testing, moving fast and driving customer behavior and monetization is more important. If you can’t drive revenue and grow the business, that brand binder isn’t going to mean a thing.
3. Starting with a marketing budget
Startups should have to earn their marketing budget. They should operate with the assumption that there’s no money for marketing, and instead focus initially on the scrappy, organically-generated ways to drive customer awareness, demand and closed business.
We live in a world where our customers can be a powerful marketing channel, where countless free tools exist for us to be effective publishers with good content, where a good product and great value can create inbound demand that supersedes the need to pay the expensive, traditional marketing “tax”.
You may eventually start spending money to accelerate your opportunity. But if you start by spending money, there’s little incentive or motivation to first figure out what can drive the same performance and results with far less investment.
4. Taking strategy or tactical cues from competitors
If you’re doing it right, you’re obsessed with your competitors. You’re watching everything they do – from product updates to Web site changes to what their low-level employees are tweeting. And when you get a link from an investor to something that a competitor did that you’re not doing, your first reaction may be to scramble to catch up.
Resist that temptation. Use your competitors as a source of ideas, but filter them through your own objectives, priorities and needs. What’s good for your competitor may not work for your business. And what competitors are doing, launching or trying today may fantastically fail. If you’re doing it just because they did it, you’re distracted from the work that will more directly drive your unique business forward.
5. Letting interns drive the social media plan
Would you let a college student run your customer service department? Would you put them on a panel at an important customer event? Would you trust them to serve as the voice of your business directly to current customers, prospects, future investors and more?
Interns may be more socially-savvy than you, they may have more time to execute, they may have great ideas. But they by definition aren’t going to be around for long, they aren’t as invested in the business as you are, and anything they start that you can’t sustain when they leave is wasted work, or worse. Countless blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook fan pages sit dormant since the intern left, making the company look like it stopped doing business. Don’t be that company.
6. Allowing adversarial relationships with sales and biz dev
It’s ridiculous that businesses big and small allow an adversarial relationship between marketing and sales to persist. It’s more ridiculous for marketers in today’s environment to fail to hold themselves accountable for measurable performance and revenue traction.
Sales and biz dev may close the deal, but marketing can set the table. Marketing can have a direct impact on driving larger sales pipelines, more business development opportunities, and faster revenue ramp. If sales, marketing and business development have the same goals, and are measured based on their individual and collective performance against measurable revenue-based outputs, it’s far more likely that they’ll work together.
There’s no reason that marketing can’t drive this process. And if you run the business, put common metrics & expectations in place and expect this level of collaboration to take place.
7. Impressing board members & investors instead of customers
Your board and investors are important constituents, no question. They’ll have lots of opinions and ideas. But it’s your job to filter those ideas through the eyes of your customer and your target market. Not every idea is going to work, not every idea is even worth testing.
And if you explain your rationale back to the originator with a thoughtful, customer-driven response, I guarantee your board and investors will greatly appreciate that you didn’t waste your time (and their money) on something that was less likely to work.