On the surface, creating a startup doesn’t appear complicated. You’ve developed a promising idea filling the gap of an unmet need, and you have the data to prove it. Now all the idea needs is a little TLC.
You may already be familiar with what goes into marketing an established business. However, when it comes to startup marketing, the stakes are much higher. It’s up to you to elevate your vision to its full potential from the ground up.
Startup marketing is about initiating and nurturing the connection between the solution you’ve created and the consumers who need it. In many cases, your target audience has never had the chance to try your product or service. So they’re likely saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ based on marketing alone.
As a startup founder, it’s crucial to know your customer and establish an identity. You want to meet your target audience where they are with the perfect messaging to grab their attention. And, you are sure to face some challenges, for example, timing everything perfectly while working with limited resources.
Your initial marketing decisions could be the difference between success or failure. So if you’re not sure how to proceed, don’t waste time, money, or energy playing trial-and-error with your marketing approach.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll outline the key goals of startup marketing, explain why timing is everything, and establish the foundation for marketing your startup.
We will outline a step-by-step plan, compare effective marketing channels, and introduce 11 concrete marketing ideas proven to generate growth. Then, we’ll help you calculate ROI, and answer all your remaining startup marketing questions.
To learn more about marketing for startups, see if you qualify for membership to join Founders Network.
What Good Marketing Can Do for Startup Businesses
Startup marketing isn’t traditional marketing. You don’t yet have a substantial customer base, brand identity, recognition, or reputation.
In order to reach its potential, your new idea needs to be seen by the right people immediately. Your marketing should stand out from the crowd and be able to create interest and demand while building trust and loyalty. Ultimately, you want a well-known brand or product with a loyal customer base.
Having a sound marketing plan and deploying a masterful startup marketing campaign enables you to:
Establish a Brand Identity and Presence in the Marketplace
Having a cohesive brand identity appealing to your ideal customer is just the start. Through marketing, you precisely angle your brand to make positive, lasting impressions in the marketplace.
With effective marketing, your target audience will understand what your product or service is and trust it to meet their expectations.
Help Create Interest for the Product and Increase Demand
If you have a startup with real potential, you already know you can’t create demand where none exists. However, when you capitalize on demand and follow through with good marketing, you can increase demand far beyond your expectations.
It’s not just a matter of attracting those who know they need a solution like yours and are already looking. By filling a void in the marketplace and marketing it properly, you can also spark a newfound interest in those who can benefit from your product or service but don’t realize it yet.
Differentiate a Startup Company from its Competitors
Refer back to your startup’s original motivation and justification. You researched existing solutions to the problem at hand and didn’t set out to address the problem in the same exact way as your competitors.
What sets you apart should be at the core of your idea. It shouldn’t be hard to come up with unique selling points to market it. Is your product more user-friendly or intuitive? Does it have more versatility or features? Marketing demonstrates your product’s superior value over competitors.
Create Positive Relationships with Target Audience
Before you market to a target audience, you should know who they are, what they want, what they do, and how they feel and think. They’ll know you understand them and their pain points, trust you care about their needs, and align with their values, ultimately leading to a positive relationship.
This sense of ‘a good fit’ starts customers off on the right foot for when they actually experience your product.
Build Customer Loyalty and Trust
Marketing can also be an effective tool in retaining the customers you’ve already earned. To them, your marketing reinforces your brand’s proven effectiveness, and unique selling points. This ensures they don’t get distracted by the next trendy competitor.
Establish a Strong Reputation Within the Industry
As you grow and gradually earn customer satisfaction and trust with a strong industry reputation, utilize marketing to emphasize your good standing and brand recognition.
As you continue to demonstrate unique value, highlight positive reviews/testimonials and any connections with other reputable brands. This goes a long way toward fueling even more growth going forward.
Increase Sales and Profits
Together, all of the above marketing wins culminate to achieve traction. Your ever-increasing loyal customer base, brand recognition, and market share will equate to higher sales and profits, so you can keep climbing.
How Soon Should Your Startup Start Marketing?
Even the most talented performer would flop if they rolled out of bed and ran up on stage in front of an audience of thousands without rehearsing, getting dressed, or warming up. Similarly, marketing your product too soon can be a disaster.
Maybe you can’t pique the interest of prospective customers at all, or maybe you’re generating leads, but not closing sales. These are signs you’re not ready for marketing.
Risks of Marketing Too Early
The harsh truth is 80% of entrepreneurs watch their businesses fail within the first 18 months. Here are some big reasons why:
- You can’t afford to waste money: Don’t prematurely invest in marketing when you don’t have the substance to win, impress, and accumulate customers to grow revenue. You’re just going to burn through capital unsustainably and crash.
- You can’t undo a bad first impression: The idea might be golden, but the execution might need more work to be polished and free of bugs, UI flaws, or product-market mismatch. Don’t let customers try your product or buying process only to be disappointed or underwhelmed. You’ll be hard-pressed to win them over again, and your reputation may sustain permanent damage.
Although marketing shuld be a part of every decision from the beginning, wait for the correct moment to unveil your product. Marketing prerequisites include a smooth user experience, exhaustive testing with replicable results, and a data-backed product-market fit.
The Foundations Needed to Get Startup Marketing Off to a Great Start
You know the goal of marketing. You’ve overcome the rigorous process of procuring a reliable real-world product you and your customer can be confident in. Now, you can start with these startup marketing basics:
Establish a Business Brand
In addition to visual aspects like an eye-catching and legible logo, branding encompasses a distinct voice and custom marketing strategy reflecting who you and your customers are. It should all relate to a cohesive story, promise, and set of values that resonate.
Perform Market Research
Market research is learning who your customers are through-and-through, and discovering where your business stands with them. What do they want most, what do they think about your brand, and how can you better accommodate them?
You can find out directly via customer feedback or by conducting a SWOT analysis (your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats).
Be methodical. Establish a hypothesis, the best method to test it, and target demographics. Then gather insights, extract important pieces of information, and repeat.
Create a Digital Presence
This means you need a digital presence, which doesn’t stop at building a website. Be visible across multiple relevant platforms. Use web analytics to monitor results, and adjust . The goal is to help your target audience find you easily, get engaged, and move through your sales funnel.
Draft a Marketing Plan
Your first marketing plan articulates specific promotional and branding strategies based on who the customer is, who you are, and how you want to introduce yourself to them.
How to Develop a Marketing Plan for Your Startup
In 15.3% of startups, the owner is the only person doing the marketing. So there’s a good chance you’ll have to learn marketing on the job, even if it doesn’t come naturally.
Here are the steps to develop your startup’s marketing plan, so you can find your focus and direction, construct goals, quantify and track efficacy, budget, and strategize.
Step 1. Determine Your Value Proposition
Your value proposition goes back to meeting needs. Identifying and communicating your unique value is not about showing off the impressive qualities of a product; it’s about helping the customer better than anyone else does.
Confidently make your case without pandering. Instead, acknowledge the customer’s challenges, expressing your value in an interesting, informative, and straightforward way.
Step 2. Identify Your Target Market
Hopefully, a target market is another core element of your brand. But based on market research, you want to refine it or at least narrow it down. The data should help you imagine a cast of characters representing ideal customers, who you’re trying to reach.
Have a document expanding on your buyer personas based on market research, internal data, and existing customers. This will help you explore their varying challenges and motivations. You can personalize every facet of your marketing approach to those most likely to buy so that you’re presenting yourself at the right time and place.
Step 3. Research Your Competitor’s Marketing Strategy
The competition is a resource, rich with relevant data. Their strengths and weaknesses are as important to study as your own. Check out their websites and social media accounts. Knowing their market presence and marketing strategies unloacks shortcuts to learning what works, what doesn’t, and why.
That doesn’t mean being a copycat, because your offerings aren’t the only part that needs to stand out. Potential buyers won’t know how you’re different if your marketing strategy isn’t different, too.
Step 4. Create SMART Marketing Goals
We already covered the broader goals of every startup’s marketing journey. In your marketing plan, you must specify SMART goals. SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. For example:
- We want to increase organic traffic to our website by 50% by the end of the year.
- We want to publish 15 new blogs this quarter.
SMART goals guide your direction and organization, breaking down marketing goals into actionable steps. Start small with three or four goals within one initiative at a time, and always watch the data for feedback.
Step 5. Identify Your Marketing Strategy
Based on your market research, which marketing strategies are most likely to serve your long- and short-term marketing goals? Does your target audience respond to traditional ads, blogs, emails, social media engagement and viral trends, free trials, or referral programs?
Determine what characteristics differentiate marketing strategies proven to be successful with your target audience from those that aren’t successful?
Step 6. Set Metrics and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
Speaking of data, the pre-marketing stages should have clued you in on what short-term and long-term marketing objectives to aim for. You should know whether each marketing strategy and marketing tactic you equip furthers your objectives based on appropriate metrics and key performance indicators. Hint: Google Analytics is a good (and free) source of data on your site.
Basically, interpret what the numbers are saying about traction:
- Is this strategy working? If so, how well is it working, and why?
- What does the data show about how this strategy could improve?
- What metrics/KPIs accurately and dependably predict marketing success/failure?
- Social media reach and engagement rate
- Daily/monthly active users and user retention
- Inbound website traffic, time on page, and conversion rate
- Organic search reach
- Customer lifetime value, and more
Step 7. Create Your Marketing Budget
Let the data inform your decision here. Don’t throw money at a marketing strategy or objective if you don’t have substantial reasons to believe it’ll pay off.
If you’ve already done the market research and know your customer, you can scale the marketing strategies and scope based on the metrics, and determine a suitable marketing budget. Based on your budget, decide whether you need a full marketing team, a one-person team, freelancers, or a marketing agency.
Regardless, itemize the budget breakdown for different marketing methods and campaigns and re-visit as needed based on ROI and other metrics.
Step 8. Monitor Your Progress
Keep relying on your metrics and KPIs for marketing success insights and hone your efforts as needed. Stay tuned, because we’ll go over how to calculate your ROI, the most significant indicator of marketing progress.
Effective Marketing Channels for Startups
Digital marketing strategies tend to be the first thing we think of these days, but there’s no need to limit yourself. You may decide that offline channels could work for you, too.
Here’s a summary of potentially effective marketing channels to consider:
Digital Marketing Channels
Offline Marketing Channels
Digital Marketing Channels for Startups
Let’s say your startup targets millennials who are 247% more likely to be influenced by blogs or social networking sites. In this case, digital marketing is a safe bet. Digital marketing uses online communications like websites and blogs, social media, podcasts, email, and search engines.
Search Engine Optimization
SEO is a type of inbound marketing. When potential customers look up a related question, problem, solution, topic, or brand, you want the search engine to pull up your website as close to the top as possible so people find you first.
You can tweak your website to organically strive for high search engine rankings or you can use PPC- paid search advertising. With paid search advertising, you buy an ad placing your site among the top search results.
Building and optimizing a website for your startup should probably be one of your first marketing steps. Startup founders often say SEO can be one of the most challenging marketing channels, but if you get it right, it can have a high conversion rate, at 14.6%.
Social Media Marketing
Managing and leveraging your social media presence is another fundamental step in marketing your startup. In social media marketing, you take advantage of platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and LinkedIn. You should have a long-term vision for your brand and online influence because it can be time-consuming to muster an audience. Having just one person dedicated to SMM can maximize engagement, trust, and sustainable results.
With email marketing, you can keep in touch with customers and promote new offerings. It might seem old-fashioned compared to social media marketing, but don’t underestimate email marketing. Overall, email marketing produced the highest ROI in 2022, and ranked as the second-best method to build brand awareness after social media.
YouTube offers a unique set of marketing opportunities. To be effective, you need to fine-tune your ideal combination of creating organic promotional videos, working with influencers, and/or buying ads.
Remember, YouTube is a search engine. Like Google SEO, it can be tricky to optimize content for the YouTube algorithm.
Paid Advertising and PR
Through public relations, you build relationships with influencers/celebrities and the media to promote your startup to a large audience.
Additionally, paid advertising or PPC (pay-per-click) with Google Ads, GDN, or AdWords can drive traffic to your social media or website to increase brand awareness and demand. PPC can have a high ROI given that your product, site, and buying process convert enough potential customers after they click.
Influencer marketing is related to PR since you pay popular online influencers to promote your brand. 74% of consumers say they trust opinions they see on social media, leading to influencer marketing’s high success rates.
Many brands benefit from influencers’ pre-existing engagement, trust, and positive relationships with a target audience. So if you work with influencers who draw your target audience and genuinely care about the startup, they can help you pinpoint new customers and skyrocket brand awareness. However, these kinds of campaigns are often expensive.
Content marketing is another type of inbound marketing with articles, blog posts, guides, lead magnets, and videos. It’s cost-effective and just plain effective. For instance, tech startup LiberEat grew organic traffic by 1000%, and organic conversions by 25%, and achieved sustainable growth in three months using content marketing to build their user base, engagement, and trust.
Educating prospective buyers also helps them feel more confident about making a decision, speeding up the sales cycle. This route is an affordable strategy to supplement your website and overlap with SEO because search engines favor new, high-quality content.
Offline Marketing Channels for Startups
Don’t write off the old-school ways just yet. Traditional marketing still made the top three highest-ROI marketing channels of 2022. It’s easy to combine multiple offline marketing approaches in tandem, and these can also help you network in a more personal, memorable way.
Business Cards, Pamphlets, and Flyers
Print off well-branded business cards, pamphlets, and flyers with contact information and perhaps exclusive discounts.These can be useful for events or to have on hand just in case.
You may find other companies to collaborate with, promoting each other and mutually expanding your reach to new potential customers. This is easier than ever to do with social media. Other ideas include co-hosting events or coming up with joint discounts.
Industry Magazines, Papers, and Journals
Especially for B2B startups, try to get featured in industry magazines, papers, and journals. You can promote your startup or submit whitepapers or a compelling article.
Once you have a concise pitch prepared, attend networking events to meet other businesses and potential customers in person. Don’t forget to follow up later.
Word of Mouth
A person is more likely to trust a recommendation when it comes from someone they know. Spread the news to people around you who may be interested in your business. You can also add promotions encouraging people to spread awareness.
11 Startup Marketing Ideas to Consider
Now that we’ve got you thinking about marketing channels at your disposal, here are some tried-and-true startup marketing ideas to take advantage of these channels:
1. Invest in paid ads to supplement your community
We already discussed how social media marketing is effective but takes a long time to perfect. Speed up the process of building a trusting and loyal community by promoting it through paid ads. Your ads will pay off more when you combine them with social media, using offers and hashtags.
2. Engage your customers through social media and content
Facebook Business pages and other social media profiles are a free way to reach your target market and engage them in a personal way. Foster relationships, trust, and loyalty with your brand while sending more people to your website and its informative content.
3. Marketing through crowdfunding, which generates publicity
You still must have a ‘finished’ product, but all of the marketing channels and ideas featured here could just as easily apply to a crowdfunding campaign. This fuels publicity and capital to help boost your startup’s growth.
4. Consider hosting a virtual meeting instead of a conference
If you were considering starting an in-person meetup with the expense of using a physical space, consider a virtual conference instead. There are so many ways to do a live event, where you can feature certain speakers and conversations with an online audience connecting in real-time.
6. Master SEO to attract visitors with high intent to your site
SEO content like blogs, articles, and guides can fast-track visitors who are most likely to be interested in your startup. If you master inbound marketing with SEO and content marketing, you could reach the top of the Google rankings for targeted keywords and searches.
You’ll direct your target audience right to your website, almost automatically. The trust and interest you’ll create with fresh, high-quality content will be worth the effort.
7. Create a referral program
Leverage relationships with happy customers for reviews, testimonials, and referrals. You can even attach an offer enticing people to put in a good word for you. Remember to make customer reviews highly visible on your site.
8. Make your product available as a free or trial version
The free sample has worked out well for companies like Canva, Dropbox, HubSpot, and more. With a free or trial version, the product markets itself. Users get to experience firsthand how useful it is and attest to its unique value, winning their trust and making them more likely to buy.
9. Make viral marketing work for you
‘Viral’ marketing might seem unlikely since viral trends seem so elusive. But it’s simpler than you think. Virality means that each user generates one more user, causing linear growth.
But if on average, each user generates more than one additional user, you’ll achieve exponential growth. It helps to partner with influencers, encouraging your audience and customers to share, like, and comment on your content/social media page.
10. Send personalized email messages
Email marketing still works, and it’s more efficient than ever with automation. You can even customize the campaign, subject line, and content to specific recipients to maximize the likelihood of favorable action.
11. Consider forming a partnership or integrating with popular platforms
Think outside the box about how your product could work hand-in-hand with another. Especially if you’ve gained a great reputation and formed business connections and partnerships, you can always venture to integrate with popular platforms. For example, Slack features integrations like Simple Poll, Statsbot, Giphy, and Trello to name a few.
How to Calculate Startup Marketing ROI
The key is to know right away when something is working, and when it’s not working, so you can respond fast. Calculate your startup’s marketing ROI, judge whether it’s good, and arm yourself with data for future marketing and product development decisions.
Your ROI is the net sales growth after marketing costs, which allows you to see how lucrative those marketing investments are.
Subtract your marketing costs from the sales growth of a business or product line, then divide that by the marketing cost.
(Sales Growth – Marketing Cost) / Marketing Cost = ROI
Let’s say you invested $1,000 in a marketing campaign and sales grew by $1,800:
($1,800 – $1,000) / $1,000 = 80% ROI
In this example, the marketing campaign wasn’t successful. Our strategy would need improvement because we want an ROI of at least 200%. In fact, 500% or more qualifies as a good result. You can use other metrics to reveal which elements of your strategy worked and which ones failed.
FAQs About Marketing for Startups
How do I get my startup noticed?
To get noticed in a positive way, wait until the product and the market fit is up to par and do more market research to identify the most worthwhile marketing channels. Then use all the digital and offline channels in your toolbox while tracking metrics.
How can I promote my startup for free?
Free ways to promote your startup can include in-person networking, social media marketing, referral programs, customer reviews, and testimonials.
How much is marketing for a startup?
Some startup marketing strategies start off free, and as you grow, you should scale your marketing to maintain at least a 200%-500% ROI.
Is digital marketing the most effective form of marketing for startups?
Digital marketing strategies are very effective for startups, especially SEO, content marketing, Facebook ads, and email. But traditional marketing activities can still be highly effective as well.
Which is the best marketing tool for startups?
A combination of professional networking, social media marketing, email marketing, SEO, and traditional channels can be the best marketing route for some startups.
What are the benefits of inbound marketing for startups?
Inbound marketing (SEO and content marketing) tends to have a high conversion rate because it draws in and inspires confidence in people who are already likely to buy.
How to get a marketing partner for my tech startup?
Find other startup founders online and at events to get referrals for effective marketing partners. You may start by doing the marketing yourself with advice from someone who’s more well-versed, then transition slowly to a one-person marketing team and scale up from there.
What is the hardest part about content marketing for startups?
The most challenging part of content marketing on YouTube or your website is producing new, quality content that nails down SEO.
How do you plan on getting noticed?
Are you still thinking about marketing activities in an early-stage context? Or has your startup mostly started up already, and you’re waiting to set it free into the marketplace with the perfect campaign?
Maybe it’s still just a basic concept, or you have a fleshed-out marketing vision with short- and long-term SMART goals.
Either way, now you’re more empowered to make informed marketing decisions to advance your startup higher and faster.
To learn more about how marketing feeds the life cycle of your startup, see if you qualify for membership.