Critical Marketing Activites For A Startup

Question: When taking a new start up out to market, what is your advice in terms of critical items to consider in terms of marketing activities?

Answer (Brad): Anyone that knows me has heard me say “I hate marketing” so I’m probably biased against this question.  Of course, I have Regis McKenna’s legendary HBR article “Marketing Is Everything” (1991) sitting on my desk to read so it’s equally probable that you could call me a hypocrite about marketing.

While this is an impossibly broad question to answer (and one that has spawned many management books on marketing), I’ll point out the three things about marketing for software / Internet startups that I’ve learned over the last twenty years.  If you make industrial machine parts, you might as well stop reading since I’m even more clueless about that.

1. 98% of launch-based marketing sucks.  Every now and then you find someone that is brilliant at it.  When you do, hang on to them for dear life.  Let them do their thing.  See #2.

2. Great launch marketing does not require very much money.  A company I was an investor in once spent $2m on a print advertising campaign to launch its first product.  I knew I was in trouble when I got a 4’ x 5’ poster of the ad framed with a note from the VP Marketing that said “congrats on the new ad campaign.”  When I read the ad, I had no idea what the company did.  I sat down and cried for a little while.  Fortunately it was 2000 so I was soon to be not alone in my misery.

3. You don’t need a VP Marketing to do launch marketing.  You’ll eventually need one, but when you launch, you need an amazing CEO (is that you?), a great technical visionary (you or your CTO / partner) and a couple of passionate user-facing evangelists (regardless of the type of product you have.)

If you think I’m wrong, go ahead and spend some time with “Marketing Is Everything.”  The summary is: “Today technology is creating greater customer choice, and choice is altering the marketplace. Six principles define the new marketing: marketing is a way of doing business that pervades the entire company; companies must dispel their limiting market-share mentality; programmable technology promises to open up almost limitless choice for customers; a feedback loop is making advertising’s one-way communication obsolete; the line between services and products is eroding; and the marriage of marketing and technology is inevitable.”

  • Tom Higley

    The person who wrote the question asked about marketing activities when taking a startup to market. There are a couple that probably ought to be considred in advance of the launch date.
    Who are you, as a company, and who are your customers? What are you selling? Why should your customers care about you and your product/service? How will they hear about you? Why will they think you are any different (and any better) than what they have experienced in the past, and why should they buy from you or use your service?
    Customers need to learn about you. How will this happen? Once you’ve got their attention, why will they love you and your product/service? (This is where the real “marketing” happens; and it needs to have happened long before “taking a startup to market.”)
    Of course, therea are a few other things to consider in addition to the product. Traditionally you’ll want to think about the four “Ps” include product, place, promotion and price. “Place” includes distribution. While the Web provides the general answer to the question of distribution, the specifics can make a significant difference to success. The third “P” is promotion – PR, sales promotion, advertising (yes, that may actually make sense), mailing lists. And finally, price. How much should your charge for your product/service? Will you offer discounts or credit/terms?
    More specifically, don’t spend a lot of money on spiffs. Don’t spend a lot of money on print or online advertising. Do have a well thought out plan to tell the world what you’re planning to do. Do have a plan to talk to influencers, press, analysts, key customers and anyone else who can help you. Do get some traction from key customers who are willing to be reference accounts.
    (Incidentally, Regis McKenna is a dear friend who served as an advisor to Service Metrics – and NETdelivery too; and he’s an advisor, again, for which I’m grateful, to iggli.)

  • Sounds like the playing field will get evened out. Fantastic.

  • Mary Trigiani

    Well said. I’m a veteran of corporate marketing functions and a long-time consultant. Now I’m a member of a startup’s founding team. And I’m on the warpath.
    A significant part of the problem is that companies of all kinds don’t know how to set expectations. They can’t find talent. They follow some sort of mythical playbook for spending on marketing.
    What marketing really takes is a set of abilities you never hear marketing poobahs recite: a clear thought, a real product or service, written and verbal authenticity, an abiding interest in the person listening to you or reading your stuff and a profound affection for working, team life, product and industry.
    No offense, but in Startup Land, VCs are often to blame. Example. At CommunityNext’s conference this weekend, when the term “PR” came up, two things were apparent. First, it didn’t seem that everyone was on the same page with how you define it. Second, the VC-backed startups and/or their elitist marketing functionaries were all for spending a lot on it. The engaged, spirited founders with few titles saw hiring a big firm a waste of money when it comes to their needs.
    There are a lot of traditional media practices that work beautifully for traditionally organized corporations. For Web 2.0 companies, however, to be consistent with our goal of bringing everyone to the table, positioning and outreach require getting some soil under our fingernails. So VCs must help startups find real talent — not just someone they met at AllThingsD or whatever they call it.
    For those of us who have been doing marketing from the get-go in the way you describe, Web 2.0 is the promised land. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • fewquid

    But now lets get real… Most marketing people simply suck at their jobs. They have no idea what they are doing or why they are really doing it.
    It’s all very well “getting the brand out there” or “connecting with customers” or “insert BS phrase here”, but most of it is meaningless.
    At the end of the day, marketing’s job is to facilitate and expedite (my choice of word would be “lubricate”) the sales process.
    My personal vendetta: if I meet one more marketing person that wants to do a mind mapping session with a large (10+ people) group I’ll poke them in the eye with a sharp stick.
    But at least there are the McKenna’s, Reis’s and Trouts of the world to give me comfort…

  • A few tech-specific nuggets:
    – Enterprise SW companies: focus on sales/partners, support materials/case-studies for sales/partners, and analysts (official and unofficial/bloggers)
    – Chips/communications companies: focus on industry relationships and BD-like marketers
    – Online/New Media companies: focus on viral, culture and targeted performance-based marketing buys, resist the urge to throw money at eyeballs, think niche/long-tail for early adopters and grow efforts with adoption and business model
    Tactically, sponsored social media delivers significant launch ROI alongside quality announcements. (Note, I have invested in a sponsored social media company)
    Overall, find marketers who live and breath measurement. They are hard to find, but worth the search.

  • RYK

    Could you or anyone give some specifics of how an internet startup in boot strapping phase build awareness: PR, Roadshows, what else?

  • Sean

    Old post I know, but I’m currently spending 100% of my time trying to answer this question so figured I could provide some helpful information for anyone else who stumbles across this. After running marketing at two startups from launch to IPO filing, I’m now specializing exclusively on the traction stage of new startups. I’m doing this through a series of total immersion one-at-a-time interim VP marketing roles. My ultimate objective is to optimize a sequence of high impact marketing activities that should be executed before investing in data driven customer acquisition drivers.
    The following blog post made earlier this week is a snapshot of my latest thinking about the question asked: