Why Startups Need Marketing
At yesterday’s Startup School, Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann talked about how the secret behind Pinterest’s growth was marketing, not engineering. In the early days at only 3,000 users, they started holding local meetups w/ Pinterest users (largely women) and engaging w/ bloggers to spread the word. Even when you hear him talk about the company, it’s clear that engineering - while important - does not call all the shots. Marketing and design have equal seats at the table.
No matter what the startup is, marketing’s mission is the same — to tell the world about the product. However, the similarities end there. How you tell your target customers about your product and why it’s valuable couldn’t be more different from company to company. This is why marketing is so often misunderstood. Ask 5 different people what marketing does and you’ll get 5 different answers. However, if you keep that core mission in mind, it’ll be much easier to set marketing goals for your company.
In order to tell the world about your product, there are many important ingredients. Marketing’s responsibilities are as follows:
- Positioning the product. Easier said than done, but it’s a critical exercise that every startup should go through. Take Foodspotting. In the early days, they ran the risk of being known as the product for “people who like to take pictures of their food.” However, they worked hard to position themselves as a “visual food discovery guide.. And that is what stuck.
- Defining the target customer. To properly position your product, you need to understand and define your target customer. Understand what makes them tick, spending time w/ them regularly, and acting as their voice. (Arguably every stakeholder in the company should be doing this, not just marketing) Products can often have more than 1 target customer segment, but usually you shouldn’t exceed 3, and there is always a pecking order. (One type of customer will ultimately be more valuable than another)
- Representing the customer voice in the product roadmap. Too often I see product decisions being made without incorporating marketing - at both small and big companies. Marketing can have an impact on key product and business decisions by representing the voice of the customer. Also, in order to properly market a product, marketing MUST understand the ins and outs of the product and how it works. To do so without that knowledge only makes your marketing weaker and less authentic.
- Developing the company’s brand. The key to branding is identifying your core values/attributes and building a compelling narrative. Brands are powerful because of the emotional connection. How will your brand make your customers feel? It starts with the founders. Leah Busque built TaskRabbit after one snowy night in 2008 wishing there was a way to have someone else go out and buy dog food. Aihui Ong has an amazing personal story behind her company LoveWithFood which she shares openly on the website. Brian Wang and Richard Talens were inspired to start Fitocracy after their own personal transformations. Their narratives have been core to their brands, and it has served them well. The beauty of marketing in this day and age is that, like building a company, it’s much easier and cost-efficient. So invest time into blogging, tweeting, Facebook pages, videos, external messaging (website copy, email marketing, basically anything your product touches).
- Acquiring customers. Marketing should build the customer acquisition strategy (define key marketing channels), execute on them, track results, and constantly be testing and iterating. Think of it like a stove with pots and pans on each burner. You have to keep an eye on each one, turn down the heat when something’s overflowing, and turn up the heat when something’s not cooking fast enough. Marketing channels can be either organic to the product (ex. changing the colors and copy of your sign-up button), or external (ex. SEM/PPC, SEO, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc). Note that all of this is closely integrated with all bullets mentioned above. For example, blogging is part of building your company’s voice. However, it may also be an effective acquisition tool and you’ll need to figure out how to track users coming in via your blogging.
- Keeping customers happy. Call it customer retention or customer engagement - there is huge opportunity in marketing to your installed base. Get them to do more stuff, adopt more features, buy more, etc. Specific tactics may take the form of regular email communication, incentives to invite new customers (referral program), events and meetups, etc. Customer support also plays a huge role in customer happiness.
Should marketing be your first hire?
Yes, or if not your first hire, then bring someone on as early as possible. Many founders first hire engineers before they hire marketing because they think they need more hands on deck in building the product. The other reason is also that they themselves are engineers and don’t know what to look for in a marketing hire. I’d challenge any founder to think closely about how marketing fits into their company. Twilio hired Danielle Morrill as their first employee (and she was marketing). By not treating marketing like a second class citizen, that was one of the best decisions they ever made.
What if you don’t have the budget to hire a marketing person, and it’s just you and your co-founder who have zero marketing background/experience?
As a founder, you’re already wearing many different hats. You’re not just writing code, but you’re also raising money from investors, talking to reporters, taking out the trash, doing partnerships, and so on. Be scrappy and figure it out. Seek out mentors who can help guide your marketing strategy, and talk to other founders. If you’ve raised money, hopefully you’ve raised from good investors who are willing to help you. Tap into them and their networks.
Still don’t think you need a marketing person? Joe Kraus put it best. If you don’t think you need it, then you haven’t seen greatness.
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