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This is a follow-up to Marcelo Calbucci’s recent post on GeekWire: “We need more startup marketing minds (a.k.a. Full-Stack Marketers).”

Below are some strategies and lessons for tackling your startup marketing initiatives, specifically in the realms of consumer Internet and mobile applications. The sections below are chronologically arranged to reflect the different startup stages – naming, branding, betas, public launch, and post launch activities.

I learned these lessons during my career experiences at my father’s shop in India early on and then at Microsoft, Swype, and Clipboard.

The Startup Mindset – Defying Typical Job Descriptions

In today’s fast-paced environment, a successful startup marketing mindset demands a deep understanding of your product and creative ways to position and engage your product across various channels.

Your product and its marketing should lead to conversations that turn your users into product evangelists. As the lines between product management, product marketing, public relations, and community management blur in most startups, your role is no longer limited to a typical job description. Instead, it requires you to wear the many hats of a founder, product manager and marketer.

As a rule of thumb, if your product does not invoke a “wow factor” among your target audience, then take the time to rethink your product building efforts. In addition, marketing should not be viewed as a fix for adoption if your product is still struggling to find its target audience.

What’s In a Name?

Choose a brand name, logo, and tagline that are memorable and build an emotional connection with your audience. A great brand name is the heartbeat of a solid marketing campaign. A great logo has an element of romance, stands out, and is still recognizable when it’s shrunk. A great example of this is Apple’s original logo.

In order to pick a solid name, engage in a naming exercise where you evaluate different types of names and score them against the experiences you want your customers to feel. In addition, include factors like appearance, distinction, competitive positioning, sound, trademark and website availability. Below are few examples of different types of names:

1)    Functional: These kinds of names describe the function of a product or company: Swype, Glympse, Quickbooks, iRobot, InfoSeek, GoTo.

2)    Inventive: Inventive names can be memorable and emotionally engaging: Google, Zillow, Skype, TiVo, Firefox, Mozilla, Alexa, Oreo.

3)    Experiential: These kinds of names relate to some sort of human experience. NetScape, Picnik.

4)    Evocative: These kinds of names evoke position of a company instead of a function or an experience: Apple, Virgin and Yahoo!

If you are interested in drilling deeper on naming and branding, I recommend reading Igor’s free naming guide. Also, if you are targeting international customers, always double check for any negative cultural contexts associated with your chosen name in your target market. For example, in September 2004, Dogpile search engine changed its name in UK and Europe to WebFetch after realizing that the word “pile” in the United Kingdom refers to a dog relieving itself or hemorrhoids.

Building Inherent Virality Within Your Product

Understanding your product and its goals will aid in determining if and how to build inherent virality in the product itself. A useful and delightful product can turn your users into evangelists who can spread the product simply via word of mouth.

Google primarily grew by word-of-mouth. Swype users rave about its speed and intuitiveness to non-Swypers. Pinterest users are obsessed over its tiled design.

Good design certainly helps. During the alpha/beta stages, if you have decided to build inherent virality within your product, understand the mechanics of a viral loop and consider introducing entry points for potential users while minimizing any barriers to entry.

A viral loop precisely describes steps and characteristics that make a service popular. When Hotmail first launched, it contained “Get your free email at Hotmail” line in its footer. That led to an explosion in user growth. Some companies offer referral incentives to users for inviting other users. For example, Dropbox offers every user 500MB of free space as a referral incentive. Early on, Facebook grew its users and engagement numbers through the photo tagging feature.

Overall, you have to strike a right balance between adding virality, and annoying your users and their friends. Whatever you do, do not lose trust with your users or partners. If you make mistakes, take accountability, apologize, and correct quickly. Your loyal users will forgive you. A good example is how Path handled their mistake of automatically uploading user contacts for their “Add Friends” feature.

Note: Sometimes, people will ask for your viral growth factor. It is defined as follows –

Viral Growth Factor  = X*Y*Z

X = % of users who invite other people

Y = average # of people they invited

Z = % of users who accepted an invitation

A viral growth factor of > 1 means an exponential organic user acquisition.

(Source, Viral Growth Factor: Dave McClure’s Startup Metrics for Pirates, Slide 76)

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Depending on your product or service, a significant portion of your traffic may come from search engines. Focusing on SEO from the beginning, will help your company’s visibility in search results in the long run. Do not leave this until the last minute because improving your visibility in search rankings takes time. Below are some SEO strategies that I have found to be helpful:

  • Create quality content on your startup’s blog. SEOMoz and Hubspot blogs are great examples of this.
  • Create landing pages/posts that point out the benefits of your service over other products in the market.
  • Follow guidelines to ensure your website and mobile sites are easy to crawl and index.
  • Ensure that all pages have correct titles, meta-description and relevant keywords. You cannot expect search engines to understand what your page is about if you do not tell them.
  • Submit your sitemap to search engines. Site maps help search engines crawl and categorize your website. Read more about Google’s tips on sitemap here and video sitemap on Distilled’s blog here.
  • Submit creative content to sites like Reddit, StumbleUpon for backlinks.
  • Create Google alerts to monitor keywords relevant to your business.
  • Tools – If you are running ad campaigns, use the Google keyword tool to understand relevance, number of searches, etc. Use SEOmoz’s tools for rank tracking and competitive analysis. Use the AHrefs tool to understand backlinks for your company and competitors. Finding out who your competitors are linking to and why, can give you invaluable insight into what is working well for competitors, and what types of things you can do better.
  • Ensure that pages that are not found have a 404 error response code.
  • Ensure that canonical page versions (i.e. multiple URLs that resolve to the same page) have a 301 redirect.

Overall, SEO can be a long-term source of unpaid and unmanaged traffic so make sure to prioritize it.

Publicly Launching and Working with the Press 

Press is all about relationships. Good relationships and understanding how the media works can help and sometimes be the difference in landing a story or not.

Keep in mind that good reporters are constantly getting bombarded with pitches and new product announcements, so whenever possible seek an introduction with a reporter from a credible source instead of sending them a cold email. When reaching out, be authentic and write a short, simple, and humble pitch that shows you know what they cover and what interests them. Analogy in pitches can sometimes help.

For example, Yammer is often described as the “Twitter for Enterprises.” Early on, Clipboard was described as the “Dropbox/OneNote for the Web.” Be patient with reporters and do not bombard them with emails. Also, it is easy for reporters to cover your startup if you have a significant piece of news, if your product offers extraordinary/rare features, you have recently received a funding round, or can be a resource for supportive data and a voice for trend expertise in their articles.

Here’s my checklist for dealing with the press:

  • 4 weeks prior to launch:  Identify a target list of top-tier reporters.
  • 2 weeks prior to launch: Pitch to top-tier reporters without completely disclosing the news. Gauge their interest and find out if they will honor the embargo (assuming you are going to disclose news under an embargo.)
  • 1 week prior to launch: Create and share press release with the reporters who have agreed to honor the embargo. Offer an opportunity for exclusive quotes and interviews. Create a press kit with screenshots and logos and provide something unique to each publication.
  • Day of the launch
    • Announce launch/news via a blog post or press release.
    • Monitor comments on the press articles and respond appropriately.
    • Address any negative feedback immediately. Never argue with users.
    • Share positive coverage on social media channels.
    • Reach out to second tier of reporters and review websites.
    • Send a thank you note to reporters who covered the launch.
    • Post on Hacker News.

Note: Make sure that your launch date does not conflict with announcements of any major companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Amazon or events like Consumer Electronics Show (CES). If you chose a launch date that conflicts with the aforementioned, you will either have a hard time landing coverage because reporters are busy covering these bigger announcements or your coverage will most likely get eclipsed.

Social Media Marketing

Some standard social media to-do’s that I follow:

  • Create a short promotional video to highlight your product.
  • Depending upon your needs, set up accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. If you are handling too many requests for support via your Twitter channel, consider creating a separate Twitter account for managing support.
  • If a company like Apple, Microsoft, or Google notifies you that they want to highlight you in their New and Noteworthy section, Internet Explorer (IE) Gallery/Windows app store, or Chrome store respectively coordinate with their social media managers on retweets and social sharing.
  • Also, if your brand or trademark is being squatted or abused, do not lose hope. Work with the support team of these media companies and build credibility with them to obtain your desired usernames.

Email Marketing

This topic requires an individual post of its own, however for brevity below are some simple strategies for approaching email marketing:

  • Software
    • Use an email marketing program such as MailChimp or SendGrid and chose a desired template (or create your own template.)
    • Note: There can be a significant ramp up period as these services slowly increase the number of emails they send for you each day. These companies have strict guidelines you should abide by and they monitor spam percentage to make sure you are not a spammer. Make sure you are authorized to send emails to the recipients on your list.
    • Content
      • Have a personalized and creative subject line. Avoid words like free or all CAPS in the subject line. Read some tips and statistics on subject lines from MailChimp here.
      • Ensure that the email is personalized and feels genuine. Stay away from marketing or buzz words.
      • Follow best practices to ensure your mail does not look like spam (For example, avoid exclamation points, all CAPS in subject lines, etc.) Read some tips from MailChimp on avoiding spam filters and abiding by CAN-SPAM act here.
      • Have a clear and single call to action in your email.
      • Ensure that your emails include an unsubscribe link.
  • Process
    • Segment your list and experiment with a few variations of your newsletter with a subset of your list. Measure and send the best performing variation (for click through rate, open rate, etc.) to the remaining users.
    • Test your email across different email clients.
    • Understand the best day and time to send your emails. Generally, emails sent on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday experience the highest open rate.
  • Frequency
    • Share announcements or feature updates with your users on a monthly basis.
    • You can also re-target your users who showed certain activity on certain pages. For example, re-target users who abandoned the sign up process or re-target users who signed up but didn’t complete the first run registration experience, etc. You will need to integrate software like Google Analytics, Mixpanel, KissMetrics etc. for tracking in-app behavior.

The key here is to experiment, measure, learn, adapt, and repeat.


Always look for meaningful partnerships that can result in a win-win situation. Partnerships can help you gain momentum and also result in free marketing. Swype received its distribution and licensing revenue by partnering with major OEMs and carriers. As a result, Swype was also featured in Samsung commercials.


Nominate your company and products for awards like GeekWire Seattle 2.0 Awards and TechCrunch Crunchies. Make sure to properly research award categories before nominations. Most of these award programs select finalists through a combination of public and committee voting. It does not hurt to request your friends, family, and users cast their votes as well. Once you are selected as a finalist, repeat the ask for voting.

Sometimes, you will receive unsolicited emails from certain companies running award programs requiring a fee for nomination. Ignore them. You should never have to pay for nominating your startup for awards.


Events can be expensive. But if you can afford it, they can be good for relationship building, networking, and seeking partnerships. Always vet an event prior to attending it and see who else is attending. Ask for a startup discount.


I hope that you find these marketing lessons useful for your product, user growth, and brand awareness. Whenever possible, measure and course correct your efforts. It is possible that you have a different perspective on these lessons and I would love to hear your feedback.

Finally, I just want to express the sentiment that every person working for a startup is its greatest evangelist. You work for a startup because you believe in it and are in it for the long haul. You exude passion for your startup. Every person working for a startup should constantly be thinking about growth if you are to survive long term. Do not get distracted by fancy titles or buzzwords. Always choose substance over style.

In conclusion, marketing a startup is full of many facets, it is not just the marketing on one single concept. So then what is startup marketing?

Marketing is product. Marketing is passion. Marketing is you.

Shalendra Chhabra (Shalen) is responsible for product management and marketing at Clipboard, an online service for saving your favorite parts from across the web. Previously, Shalendra worked at Swype and Microsoft. You can  follow him on Twitter @shalen.

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