Twelve years ago, marketing was a primary recipient of the mountains of cash thrown at start-ups in an effort to grow fast. But over the past two to three years, I don’t see many new businesses that couldn’t bootstrap their marketing in their formative months or years.
This thought alone will make many a startup founder nervous. I’ve talked to many who claim little to no experience in marketing, and assume they need others to do the marketing for them. Yes, that’s one option. And eventually you may need more resources as the team and your goals grow.
But from day one, the marketing role is yours. And you’re far better equipped to tackle it than you may think.
Marketing isn’t about ads or press releases or trade shows. Marketing is about connecting with, influencing and mobilizing individuals and organizations, inspiring them to action or to share your story with others. How you do this – the tactics, the messages, the channels – will become far easier and often self-evident when you walk through the fundamentals first.
Here are seven specific focus areas for startups to begin bootstrapping their marketing.
Develop a complete understanding of your customer
This is fundamental to your business and product strategy, let alone how you’ll create and execute a marketing plan. Everything about your marketing strategy stems from this deep understanding of the customer – who they are, what they need, what keeps them up at night. If your product strategy is on target, it likely means you’re solving a problem for your customer in a way they couldn’t think of or don’t yet have access to themselves.
If your product or service solves a problem or need, understand as well specifically how your customer gets to that point. What experiences build up that crystallize that need? What specific pain points make them seek something out? What are the early buying signals you can map to – in your product, your content, and eventually marketing channels – that indicate a customer is heading down the path of needing what you’re selling? They might not be ready to buy with these early buying signals, but they’re on their way. And that point in time is a far easier, less crowded time to start building trust & credibility.
Map the customer’s complete ecosystem
Who or what influences the customer’s behavior and activity? Your fundamental understanding of the customer isn’t complete until you also map out who influences them, at what relative levels of influence, and with what relevant elements of their life (specifically related to the problem you’re solving for them). This includes people, organizations, associations, etc.
Each of these influencers has a unique relationship with your customer. They may have influence over part (not all) of the problem you’re helping them solve. And they each have their own motivations and objectives in interacting with and influencing your prospective customer. The better (and sooner) you understand how all of those relationships work, the easier it will be to drive interest and action among each of them – individually and collectively.
Begin adding value throughout the customer ecosystem
Take your understanding of the customer, their ecosystem, and the needs/priorities therein to start adding value. Leverage your knowledge of the early buying signals to answer questions, fill gaps, and quickly make yourself an indispensable part of where the customer gathers important information.
Make it easy and worthwhile for customers and their influencers to follow you. Trust you. And come back for more. This will manifest itself in the kind of targeted awareness, interest and discovery that most companies pay handsomely for.
Make every employee a marketer
As your team grows, you should empower, encourage and reward every employee for having direct relationships with your customers and prospects. This includes acting as a peer in their online and offline communities, making themselves available for questions and advice, and being proactive in seeking out customers and prospects who have problems or questions you can address and solve.
I worry less about having specific guidelines for how, where and when employees can interact with customers. The two most important factors in effective employee-driven marketing have nothing to do with which social media tools can be accessed on a company computer, who can have a Twitter account, and who’s allowed to answer customer email. If you want employees to help you market, you need to 1) hire the right people, and 2) make sure they intimately understand the insights you gathered in the first three steps above. That understanding should be a fundamental part of new employee training.
Your product is your primary marketing channel
The best marketing is a great product. Period. If you’ve done your job, if the product or service provides the kind of value people what to shout about, then you’ve done 80 percent of the work required for organic, bootstrapped marketing. The only remaining task is to make it easier for your customers to share that story for you – with their peers, colleagues and others.
This doesn’t mean embedding referral requests around every corner. Put yourself back in the mindset of the customer. Where in the product are they most likely to be delighted? What actions or destinations will most likely lead to a recommendation or pass-along? And how can you make it more fun, more useful, more in the customer’s interest to drive greater awareness and pass-along on your behalf?
Your customers are a constant feedback loop
Few companies adequately tap into their customers as a daily source of feedback. They are your daily focus group, your constant sounding board. You can even take some customers, give them special privileges and access, and share even more with them – beta products, new ideas to provide input on, etc. Give them special access and they’ll be even more likely to spread your story for you.
Measure and optimize everything
Most of your marketing isn’t working. The more marketing you do – whether or not you hire someone else or spend more money to do it – the more important it will be to understand what’s working and make adjustments. The trick to successfully scaling a bootstrapped marketing plan isn’t to do more, but to do less. Focus on fewer initiatives that, individually and collectively, generate greater results.