Startup marketing: What is it good for? Absolutely everything

By Editor July 16, 2013
Stephen Tanenbaum, UGallery

Stephen Tanenbaum, UGalleryBy Stephen Tanenbaum, co-founder, UGallery

You’ve built a great product. Congratulations.

Now, here comes the hard part—letting people know that it exists. Of course, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that creating a good service—whatever it may be—is easy. I’m just saying that there are tons of great offerings out there. What really makes one stand out, though, is an understanding of how to communicate its value and differentiators to your target audience.

This is where marketing comes into play. Marketing can tell your story and drive scale, so it should be top-of-mind for any serious startup (along with product design, functionality, etc.).

The tricky part, however, is creating an effective marketing plan on a narrow budget, which most startups need to do. You don’t have the money to dive in and just ‘give it a shot,’ which, believe it or not, some actually try. They think the offering will sell itself. That’s arrogance.

A good marketing plan needs the same TLC you put into product development—or else you’re throwing money away. So, before building your strategy, here are five things to consider.

Can You Hear Me Now? 

I’ve met countless entrepreneurs and founders who think that a good offering should simply ‘speak for itself.’ The problem? Rarely does that occur in a meaningful way. Industries are far too cluttered. To just assume that ‘if you build it, they will come,’ candidly, is a failure.

That’s why the first step of any truly successful marketing plan is to know your offering’s key values and differentiators, translating them into messages and positioning statements that highlight competitive advantages and benefits. Knowing what you’re ‘selling’ and why it’s better than the next guy is important, but if you can’t communicate that, no one will care (and if pricing for your offering is similar to others, your positioning becomes even more critical).

This is largely just functional messaging, however. It’s only a piece of building a brand.

It’s important to effectively articulate product advantages and benefits, but you also need to ground them in an umbrella brand message that encapsulates your startup’s personality. In the social media age, people will like your brand first and your product second, so it’s important to move beyond just ‘I’m better because X.’ You need to deliver a concrete company identity.

When thinking through your brand, remember to be specific about the personality you’re trying to convey. Be mindful of word choice, design, etc. Once you have the positioning and messages ironed out, your marketing decisions become much easier, more focused, and tactical.

Audience Defines Strategy

An offering’s positioning is naturally tied to knowing the intended customer. When building it, you have a core end-user in mind. It shapes the product itself, from features to the design. That same approach and thought process needs to be woven into a startup’s marketing strategy.

Your target audience constantly influences the marketing plan. At the most basic level, who will use your offering? Is it B2B? B2C? For a CIO, CMO? You’ve already thought these things through when executing your idea, but they need to be revisited for your marketing. Depending on the audience you have in mind and how long the ‘sales’ cycle might be for that audience (the B2B cycle is often much longer) certain marketing channels and tools may not be necessary or as important. Knowing this helps select effective approaches while spending strategically.

For instance, if you have a consumer service, perhaps whitepapers aren’t necessary. Similarly, B2B-oriented offerings may not need support from every popular social media network.

Data + Insights = Knowledge

To truly understand your customers and their needs, it’s important to invest in and learn how to use marketing insight technology to help you to build a full view of them through data.

This means deeply integrating data collection capabilities and analytics tools within your actual service while also building customer touch points into marketing collateral (e.g., website, email, whitepapers, etc.). The more data you have on your customers and the way they’re using your offering, the more informed and advanced your marketing approach/strategy will become.

Basic methods to glean customer data include CRM (e.g.,, website visitor analytics (e.g., Google Analytics), Constant Contact for email, web forms to collect leads, built-in tools already provided by social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, or more advanced social media analytics tools like Curalate (great for Pinterest and Instagram). It’s also important to invest in a unified dashboard (for instance, Moz, etc.) that can house this data and make it easily digestible and offer structure. More data is a good thing, but it has to be actionable.

With that said, while I love data and think it’s critical, you really can’t do it with data alone. Data provides a foundation, but insights—data + the context—provide actual marketing power.

Use any data as your starting point, then uncover actual insights and get to the ‘why.’ Understand ‘why’ people buy this or that, not just that they do or don’t. This is where a quantitative-qualitative approach helps. Get deeper insights by talking to people, interviewing customers, listening on social networks, etc. It’s through this dual strategy that you will better understand your customers and, as a result, build smarter, better marketing programs.

Your (First) Customers Are Priceless

Talking to your customers and listening to them—you gain immeasurable insights that can significantly improve and enhance not only your marketing programs, but your offering itself. Beyond that, though, your customers can be an entire marketing strategy all on their own.

To this day, the most successful marketing technique is word of mouth (for instance, 90 percent find that positive online reviews influence our buying decisions). Luckily, it’s also the most budget-friendly. This is why your first users and customers, in particular, are so important—if they’re happy with what you’re doing, they’ll tell their friends and spark organic viral marketing.

Making early adopters feel special is then critical to the marketing process. In addition to building a strong offering that they’re happy with, it’s also important to reach out to this group and have substantive conversations with them to foster lasting relationships. This establishes a rapport between you and them, making it clear that you value their opinion and perspective. This isn’t rocket science, but it requires a time investment, so some gloss over it completely.

While it may seem daunting to have thoughtful, one-on-one conversations with customers through social media, email, and simple automation tools, it’s a lot easier than it ever has been, eliminating that barrier to entry as well as any excuses you may have for not jumping in.

Become an Industry Expert (On Your Own)

Building and executing an effective marketing strategy requires some knowledge of the marketing space. Knowing what works and what doesn’t across the industry, knowing what partners you can leverage for certain areas, all of it demands some industry expertise.

Now, some startups can resolve this by simply hiring an internal expert or CMO. However, for those bootstrapping and more inclined to use a DIY approach, it’s not that easy—meaning they have to learn a bit about the space on their own. That’s why, for any startup, research is key.

Marketing trades like Adweek, Ad Age, MediaPost, ClickZ, MarketingProfs, and MarketingLand deliver this in spades—and all of them should be regular reading for any startup with marketing aspirations. Whatever you’re interested in, whether email marketing or content marketing, they’ll have info. to help. You won’t become an expert overnight, but you’ll get a better sense of your options.

These are just a few top-level tips for startups to consider before developing their own successful marketing strategy.

Most importantly, just be careful with the ‘throw spaghetti at the wall’ approach. Be meticulous and thoughtful. Early on, any marketing win is a marketing win. But to build real consistency, choose messaging, channels, etc., that fit your brand personality and vision and stick with it. A focused brand that reaches the same customer multiple times will gain more traction than an unfocused brand that reaches a broad range of customers only once.

# # #

Stephen Tanenbaum is the co-founder of UGallery, a leading online art gallery offering curated, original art for sale from the nation’s most talented mid-career and emerging artists. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sltbaum.