Startup Marketing

Charlie O’Donnell asked me to present at the inaugural nextNY Online Marketing School on June 1 in New York City. It’s the first in a five-part course to teach entrepreneurs and budding CMOs the fundamentals of online marketing. I’m to share my perspective on “properly resourcing an integrated marketing effort over the lifetime of a company.” The course is free, and you can sign up here.

Most anyone can quickly learn digital marketing tactics on their own. Therefore, I’m hoping to cover some marketing principles that have been critical in the past three startups I’ve been involved with, as well as my current one.  I’ve introduced 11 principles below. I’m hoping a few will resonate, and spark debate and case-study discussion among the group.

Be a curious student. When I graduated from college in the mid-1990s, there were no seasoned experts in online marketing. And there definitely were no experts in marketing for Web startups. Fifteen years and three Web startups later, spending most of it doing marketing, I’m convinced there still are no experts. We’re still too early in the Web game — the book is far from being written. The best you can be is a curious student, with common sense and enough intelligence to recognize patterns and apply them to new scenarios. Some best practices and tactics of today will stick around, while many will be gone tomorrow.

Define purpose and values. Surfacing and articulating a company’s purpose and values is not the marketer’s job alone, but often the marketer plays a key role. Why does a company exist? Why should its employees be driven to come to work? How is a company making a difference in the world? A purpose statement should answer these questions. How does a company do its work? What makes it different? What behaviors should employees live up to through good times and bad? A simple values statement should answer these questions. No other marketing efforts matter without clear purpose and values.

Establish a core  narrative. Every startup I’ve worked had a strong narrative — a story with a constructive series of events. The narrative is foundational to every which way anyone might talk about a company. Science has proven that narratives are easier for people remember. Your company’s narrative should be simple, authentic, chronological, flexible and sustainable. It should be engaging and shareable. You should iterate and refine constantly. All marketing builds as layers on top of your core narrative. In most startups, the core product should be part of the narrative, and be able to expand into a effective pitch and demo.

Invest heavily in thought leadership. You, the individual marketer, need to be an authority in your business. Equally as much, your organization needs to be a center of expertise and vision. Early-stage ventures mandate heavy selling to a wide variety of stakeholders. Without a recognizable brand or legacy, everything about your story must be backed up with smart, compelling and relevant perspective. That’s thought leadership.

Cultivate grassroots support. When you’re a startup, you’re unproven, you’re nothing. Any eventual widespread support or fandom you earn will be derivative of your core supporters. Therefore, you must build your base of core supporters and nurture those relationships indefinitely. Invest in them by offering to do more for them than they do for you. Do everything you can to give them a stake in your success. Communicate with them individually, early and often. Keep track of your grassroots supporters, and keep them by your side for the ride.

Know what you’re not good at, and who is good at it. If you’re in marketing at a startup, you’re probably a good communicator, a strategic thinker and a confidant to the CEO. You probably specialize in a few areas, though one of them (in a startup) is serving as a jack of many trades. While it’s critical to wear many hats, it’s just as critical to know what you’re not good at. But that’s only half the battle, because the job still needs to get done. That’s why it’s critical to know trusted experts in a wide range of disciplines whom you can call for rapid decision-making, contracting or full hiring. You must continually invest in a deep and wide network of trusted advisors.

Balance internal marketing with external marketing. Most marketing people tend to gravitate to one end of the spectrum: either focusing externally on reputation and top-of-line brand-building activities, or internally on bottom-of-the-funnel optimization. Successful startups need both.

Establish a simple, flexible marketing strategy. Startups often don’t know what business they’re really in until after several years. Even with a great idea and working prototype, experimenting and iterating quickly is what gets startups to the answer. Marketing plans must  not only adapt, but help find the answer sooner. To do that, marketing strategies should be simple, goal-based and focused on doing only a few things extremely well — with immediate and longer-term impact. They should be flexible so as to enable new paths while building on prior momentum.

Define your key performance indicators. You need to define objectives and metrics that work toward corporate goals. You need to have a summary report that you periodically share with the management team and board members, and deeper-level reporting for your frontline team. Make your data collection and reporting as efficient and automated as possible, so you can dedicate more time to analysis and action.

Build strong alliances with all key business division leaders. Building strong internal alliances may sound obvious, but it’s important to understand why from a marketing perspective. The fact is that every member of a startup (or large company) contributes to the marketing function in some way. For example, customer service can create advocacy and word of mouth. Sales can significantly educate a large customer group and create a brand impression. A flawless billing transaction may keep a customer another day, while one full of errors may create a brand detractor. You need tight alliances with all key business division leaders so they and their teams can live out the startup’s marketing ideals. A company where all employees feel they are a part of the marketing team will always be far more effective than a conventional marketing team on its own.

Make your Web site your marketing hub. This is the most tactical principle in this list, and may seem obvious for a Web startup. But I’m going to say it anyway, because I’ve seen enough Web startups (especially b2b ones) disrespect their public Web site. Make your Web site your marketing hub. It should be viewed as the hub of everything — from design and branding, messaging, experience, customer acquisition, customer service, customer insights, culture and community. If your public Web site is not the product itself, you still should manage and invest in it as if it were.

Feedback welcome.

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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