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Ask HN: What is the best way to promote your startup?
145 points by ahmedaly on June 26, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments
I think that customers/users are the key for making a successful startup. But firstly, you have to provide a way to let them reach you and figure about it.

What are the solutions, tricks, and methods you are using to generate a high traffic to your startup?

1. Hire a writer from elance to write a human-interest story about your startup. You can get this done for $100-$300.

2. Armed with #1, hit up your local news media. This kind of coverage is easiest to get and builds the social proof that you can use to build on your media coverage with the bigger outlets like nytimes, TC, etc.

3. Reach out to the main bloggers in your space and start building relationships. You are much better off spending 3-6 months building a relationship and then hitting up for coverage.

4. As you are doing the above, build and optimize your site's funnel to convert the visitors into users.

5. Obviously have presence on twitter, facebook, linkedin, wikipedia, etc. Why? Because every journalist will google you and the various social media profiles are the first things to pop up on google.

6. Google analytics is your best friend. Measure everything. The stats will also give you motivation to keep on keeping on.

7. During this entire cycle, keep brainstorming ways to develop new human interest stories that you can use to generate new publicity.

Something worth noting: if you have good content, the placement is super easy, so if you find a good writer, get more than 1 story from them. Maybe a press release, an interview-with-the-founders kind of thing, and a top-howevermany things list comparing you to some others in the space.

Once you have an arsenal of content, find sites like forbes, techmeme, and the like that publish non-staff writers (they usually have a "write for us" link somewhere) and reach out to some of the independent writers. Do a little googling and see where else they publish.

Once you get an article up, push it as hard as you can. Blast your friends and family to like, share, upvote, and whatnot. If you don't have friends or family, buy some. You want that article to look valuable (and it should be if you spent enough money on it) because this will be the foundation of your relationships with other bloggers.

Shameless plug: these first couple steps are what my company does - email's in my profile.

Why not put your company in your profile too?

Do you have an example site to show? It would be great, if it is a real website.

A few founder friends of mine have done this for techli.com in the past and they take guest posts from CEOs/founders. Might be worth a look.

Let me share my experience,

I've read this blog post: http://blogs.balsamiq.com/product/2008/08/05/startup-marketi... and will strongly recommend it. After reading it, I went to the google, spotted a couple of competitors, entered their urls respectively in Bing Link explorer for webmasters to discover who wrote about them, I then went to create a list and retrieve some bloggers names and emails in a spreadsheet , wrote a short pitch template inspired from the balsamiq pitch, and got the got the software http://www.bulkmailapp.com and a Lite sendgrid account (a Free account is enought if you send ~200 emails per day or less) , I then proceed to send a personalized batch email to all the prospects on my list. The response rate is over 25% so far, when they don't cover me, they at least reply and ask a couple of questions.

The second approach: set a blog and go to http://www.fiverr.com , have some descents writers (look for journalists) write blog entries about keywords you actively researched and somehow relevant to your startup, set your blog at www.yourdomain/yourblog/ and publish the stories on a regular basis, start blogging on a regular basis.

For your main webpage: Do your SEO Abc... create a twitter account and search queries relevant to your startup and start tracking/monitoring them and engage in the conversation when it's possible.

That's what I've been doing so far, I will write a blog entry about it. I hope this could help for a start.

P.S.Sorry for my english, not a native speaker.

Is the www.yourdomain/yourblog/ still important ? I've seen it mentioned a lot in the past, with a minority opinion saying it doesn't matter.

Also, let's say I have a webapp on www.yourdomain.com but I want to host my blog elsewhere, let's say tumblr. I can't find a way to host it on www.yourdomain/yourblog/ with this setup, unfortunately.

Yes, www.yourdomain/yourblog/ is still very important, it's better for your SEO than www.yourblog.yourwebsite.com , but www.yourblog.yourwebsite.com is better than having no blog at all. Well, as for Tumblr, posterous...and similars, you can try a reverse proxy hack but I'd suggest to just set a folder on your server and drop wordpress on it.

I'd say that having two blogs (one about your business and the other about your industry) is a better choice. Segment your content into different blogs and you can create more traffic. Its akin to having two roads that lead to your business instead of one.

Experiment and see what works for you. We have an email SaaS business that sends super-targeted emails. Here are all the things I've done that have generated a positive response:

1. Sign up for lots of products and reply when I get an email that looks targeted and based on my behavior. (I want to learn how they do it and what pain they have)

2. Write personal blog posts that are totally unrelated, and have an "About me" section to send curious people to your company. Two that were on the front page of hacker news were "Burnout is caused by resentment" and "A standing desk for $22".

3. Write company blog posts about how we built our product. Most recently: "How we built our HTML email editor using liquid, wysihtml5 and premailer"

4. Work in a highly visible coworking space (we're in General Assembly in NYC).

5. Build relationships with people who sign up on your launch list by sharing interesting things you've learned (did this last week and got a phenomenal response).

6. Ask VCs to introduce you to their portfolio companies. Ask the portfolio companies to understand their problems, not pitch your wares.

7. Tap your network for advice and help.

That's what we've tried so far that has been beneficial. Good luck!

This really is the $100 million question.

I personally find it frustrating to have the skills to build a high quality, robust, elegant application, that meets a real need, but to not have the ability to market that to a critical mass.

Rather than spending my time reading about the latest tech news & coding techniques, I feel as though I should spend my time studying up and learning about marketing from first principles. It's by far the biggest obstacle to the success and lifestyle that most people frequenting this site have.

I've been doing marketing for national and international brands if you send me a mail me[at]ilkthomas.com with a short description of your project, I'll send you some free tips.

What type of applications are you looking to build? I have the same frustration, only for me, it has to deal with a lack of time to do both. Given the time, I feel I can excel in both areas.

I second that. I've built a dozen awesome apps and never even took them live due to the burden of having to market them

Same offer to you.

"I've been doing marketing for national and international brands if you send me a mail me[at]ilkthomas.com with a short description of your project, I'll send you some free tips. "

Since you mentioned apps, my company QuantApps even offers doing all the marketing for a percentage of the revenues if that sounds better to you. Of course if you prefer just some tips that offer stands too.

Short answer: Blogs.

Long answer: Blogging. Seriously. Write about interesting topics related to your startup. Start to pique people's interest in your product. That's where the best (and free) traffic comes from.

From an SEO perspective, does the generation of fresh content increase your rankings in SERPs by itself? Or is the idea to generate interesting content that others will link to?

It's also worth mentioning that blogging gives you a great way to go after the long tail.

I tried to reach several bloggers, most of them don't respond. I'm having a hard time finding the good blogg(ers) that would write about my app. Maybe I suck at marketing...

This post will raise your hit rate substantially: http://blogs.balsamiq.com/product/2008/08/05/startup-marketi...

Heh, I emailed you directly some time ago :) We both agreed that blogs are my best bet. But maybe I have to face that my MVP idea sucks :\

When pitching anyone else, always ask yourself: What's in it for them to write about me? Why should they care? Why should their readers care? How can this pitch be made into a blog post? What story do I want them to tell?

If you can answer that, briefly, in your pitch, you'll have a much easier time pitching people with success. The "My product is awesome. Here are the features. Write about me." approach rarely works.

"I want to change how you X. I do so with Y. You can do it at my service, Z." I'm not amazing at it, but if you want to trade an email or two, I'll glady trade what I leaned doing SEO work with you.

Where does the traffic to your blog come from? Web search?

Totally agree and in addition to that, Tell your story, tell stories about your startup, product, people, bear etc..

The only thing that makes a startup into a business is customers.

Finding out who those customers are, what they are looking for, and then building it is the correct step.

If you haven't already had this conversation with at least 5-10 customers who are dying for exactly what you're doing, I suggest you stop what you're doing and learn some about the lean methedology.

Basically, hiding behind a keyboard thinking you're creating value isn't creating a valuable startup or product.

When you have confirmed what people want, and you build it, you have your first customers. You know how to reach these people because you know who they are, what they do, how they surf, where they hang out, and lots more.

This is really going to boil down to whether you can put down the code and learn something you aren't familiar with instead of doing busy work coding.

A book like Ash Maurya's Running Lean might be an interesting read for you.


Get out and talk to the people that you think would make good customers!

A small-business product like yours is the ideal candidate for that model. Small business owners are relatively approachable. You can often get a chance to talk directly with the decision-maker and try to show them the value. More importantly, you can listen to what they think their problem is. You will learn a ton about how to frame the value-proposition in terms that resonate with customers.

It's almost comical seeing the lengths that many introverted technical founders will go through to avoid talking to people, when that is by far the most effective path forward.

Worry about scaling up your sales process after you've hand-cultivated a (probably small) pool of happy customers. This helps you polish both the product and the pitch.

This video might interest you: Rand Fishkin - Inbound Marketing for Startups: How to Earn Customers Without Paying http://vimeo.com/39473593

In short: generate great content.

Thanks for sharing.

It depends!


* Paid: Ads, other pay marketing.

* Inbound: Blog. SEO. Etc.

* Viral: generate incentives and reasons for users to invite and refer people they know via social networks, email, etc.

* Other "organic" channels: hack your way to the top of the app leaderboard, for instance.

And most are terrible at items 1-3. It's a problem.

A very valid question for Enterprise start-ups. There might be multiple ways but what's the best way depends on what you did best and are good at.

Email-marketing might sound great for enterprise startups to reach out to businesses directly, but ofcourse there's a limit to it. In my opinion, its the brand and visibility you create for yourself (via blogs, media coverage, backlinks,sensible website) which carries long-term paybacks. If people know about you, they'll come to you when that specific need arises.

Something I see neglected in the comments is emails. I assume you had a life before you started this venture and have met people in business and personal situations and emailed back and forth with them.

Your personal email list is one of the best ways to drive initial traffic and build awareness since:

1. These people know you and (hopefully) trust you 2. They're likely more willing to provide additional connections and introductions

When you have a rough estimate of when you want to launch your startup you should be emailing the relevant contacts on your list regularly to keep them up to date on what you're doing and when it will likely be ready. That way when you launch and are trying to drive traffic you already have an initial audience who can forward it on to their contacts.

Past that... yes you should definitely emailing relevant writers with your story, blogging, and generally creating as much great content as possible and seeding it online in the places that matter to your startup.

What you have mentioned above "Your personal email list is one of the best ways to drive initial traffic and build awareness" only holds true if they are your 'right audience'.

When we first launched a closed beta for my startup LearningJar, we ran an experiment of sending it to my contacts and then to people that had genuinely showed interested. What I quickly found out is that your friends/contacts will not be as engaged because they dont have a need and further more, they will not be honest with you because they want to encourage what you are doing.

On the other hand, 'real' users will give you real feedback that will make a more effective awareness campaign.

Therefore, it means a lot more if a complete stranger finds my product valuable and then promotes it to others than my friends doing it just because they like me.

People always say "blogging" and I always hated that response. I didn't see the direct benefit; it seemed like a waste of time doing the wrong thing.

But in my experience over the past year, it's surprisingly beneficial. Blog about related topics, helpful resources, etc. That's where a majority of our links pour in from on a typical day.

+1. Blogging is an excellent SEO technique.

I think the answer depends on your startup. Social startups have a nice advantage in usually having a viral mechanism. Anything that's sufficiently better than what's already out there will often be something that people want to tell their friends/colleagues about. That's reliable, but from what I've seen word-of-mouth does take a bit longer than most people would expect. There's countless ways, but none can guarantee large volumes of traffic unless you have a similarly large budget. This is part of what makes starting a startup so difficult.

Grab a cup of coffee, this is going to be long.

Let me get a couple of things out of the way first. Your startup is not your website. The website is the store front. What you are asking about is not promoting the startup but about how to design a good marketing plan. A marketing plan is a combination of marketing tools/resources combined and used to achieve one goal: profitable sales.

Ok, now let's talk about the two different ways you can approach this problem. In marketing there are two main audiences: general and direct. The genereal audience is anyone and everyone that may read/listen/watch your marketing tool. The direct audience is composed of people who are the most likely to buy your product because they have bought a similar product or fit your ideal customer description (The ideal customer descirption is basically you saying that people who bought X, have Y, carry a given credit card, live in Z are most likely to buy my product).

Ok, which do you use? In my experience, marketing to a general audience is a waste of resources, because it just eas away too much time and money. It is also harder to measure and keep track of. The direct approach has always proven itself to be, well, direct. It is completely measurable, and depending on the marketing tool being used, can be modified on the fly to see if something works better. Direct marketing is about talking directly to the customer. The best definition I can come up with is that it is as if you were sending a professional sales person through your marketing tool. If your tool is a targeted email, then imagine as if you were sending a sales person through the email message and the sales person pitching the sales message to your prospect directly. This is why direct marketing is has a better profit/cost ratio. It allows you to test, test, test marketing tools directly with the customer without having to buy expensive advertising campaigns/spots.

What are some good direct marketing tools? Almost all marketing tools available out there can be used as direct marketing. TV? The late night commercials selling pots and pans are evidence that it works. Radio? Same. Print? You betcha. The question should be: what combination of marketing tools do I have to use to make up a good marketing plan? Let's answer that below.

What you want is to: first, define your ideal customer description. If you don't have a clue, then look at your competitors. Who is buying their products? Second, find how can you reach those prospects. Is it through email? Regular mail? A video brochure sent to their office on a thumb drive? A skype call? A telephone call? Third, find out how they buy. Some people (include companies) buy when presented with a lot of print materials. Others require a sales person to visit them. Other might enjoy a night out drinking. Find that out.

The point to the marketing plan is to define a general multi-step pattern that will allow you to duplicate any succesful marketing efforts without much problem. For your business it might be a direct sales letter inviting the customer to visit your website to watch a two minute video presentation. Then a scripted telephone call with the customer that will focus on answering any questions. Then if you cant close on the sale, an email highliting your offerings, and giving the person a chance to get some special order. And so on.

When you think of marketing, don't think of funnels. Think of ladders. What steps do people have to take in order to get them to where you want to.

Ok, break time. Think of puppies for ten seconds. Now back to this.

What are some good marketing tools that you can start with? Depends on your business. It really does. I can't give you any insight into this because I dont know if you sell cars, chairs, or helicopters. The product has a lot to do with how you market it. You don't market a Rolls-Royce in a shitty youtube video, just like you don't market cheap web hosting on the Wall Street Journal. The internet does make this a bit simple. You can create a simple marketing plan to get things rolling. In general terms, an email campaign is a good start. But how do you get those email addresses?

Welcome to the second part of this post.

Have people find you. This is going to sound wrong, and against everything I've said about direct marketing. But, direct marketing is not a one way deal. Direct is about talking directly to your customer. Doesnt matter who starts the conversation, as long as it takes place. You can make people find you by creating content that they find valuable. Things like blog posts, newsletters, podcasts are great tools that allow you to start a conversation with the people that want/need your product. Just dont fall into the trap of limiting your marketing to these tools only. It is a huge mistake to do so, because it limits how much you can sell.

Create a good landing page (a squeeze page), a blog, the miriad of social accounts and what-nots, and start crunching out valuable content. Do you sell diapers? Talk about diaper rash, diaper fitting, how to dispose of diapers properly, but dont talk directly about the diapers you sell. You want to give people a taste of your knowledge, and then have them give you their email address so they can learn more. Information is priceless. People will feel indebted when you give it away for free. Remember that.

What about those bloggers, journalists, and news people? Forget about them (for now). Not worth your time. Focus on getting the customers directly. Fact: if you sell enough of your product, the bloggers/journalists will come knocking on your door.

Now, some random thoughts, because it is 10:10 PM and I have to go to sleep.

-- Talk to everyone you know about your product. Just do it casually.

-- Do not be afraid of selling. If you can't pick up the phone and call a customer, then work on that first. In fact, email me and I'll call you! Email in my profile.

-- Realize that marketing is a full-time job. In fact, it is the most important job in your startup/business. Become fairly good at marketing and your business will grow.

-- Your startup is a business. The word startup is wrong. Think of it as a small business. Just because you dont have a bick and mortar store front doesnt change the fact that it is a business. A business lives or dies on marketing.

-- Your startup is not about the software. Whatever you sell is your product. Dont obsses about: programming language (pick whatever makes it easier to prototype), framework (ditto), design too much (make it pretty but dont go broke on designers), the website, the name, the address, the office chair or desk (the $22 desk was interesting, but unless you sell desks it wont help you much). Focus on selling the product. Not on the produc itself.

-- Email people in the industry (the industry you are selling to). Do you know how much valuable contacts I've made by just sending an email with the words: Hi, I really like what you are doing with X. Wish you great luck with it. Tace care, orangethirty. Do you what happens next? They either ignore me (which saves me the hassle of dealing with assholes) or (most likely) they will answer with a thank you. Most will ask what is it that you do, and the rest is just easy. Dont be afraid to email people. You are not spamming them. You want to meet and ge to know them. Most people are worth meeting, even if through an email.

-- Print some nice business cards, but dont pay more than $50 for them. Also dont hand them out to everyone.

-- Advertise your email address, and please dont put a contact or sales @yourstartup.com. Use your name or a fictional name. Makes people less resistant to contacting you.

-- Read some marketing books.

-- Hire a good copywriter. If you need help with this, email me. I can help you with making the choice. The words used to sell your product must be carefully engineered. Just like you dont write variable names like this amount_ofProduct_leftOn_inventoryPer_disctrict, you jus dont write sales copy without a basic guideline.

-- Realize that marketing != lots of money. It does require a lot of thought and detail.

-- Realize that everything Ive said may not work for you. Huh? Maybe you can sell your product with a SEO campaign and a landing page. But that would still constitute a marketing plan. So think about that for a second.

- Be open to new ideas. You know who is rich? The guys that decided to sell advertisements through internet searching (yeah, google). Test all ideas, and be open to re-testing them in the future. Dont label anything permanently.

-- Reach out and help people. Good sales can come from helping local organizations with their needs.

-- Above all, dont ever, ever think that marketing doesnt work. It does work. You just have to become good at it.

-- All free advice is cheap advice. And cheap advice dont work. Hit some books, contact some professionals, and get working.

Ok, so now I have to go. Sorry for the huge post, and I deeply apologize for the mess of a post Ive made. Im tired and need to sleep.

If you need any help, just shoot me an email.

PS. I dont want to sell you anything. Hell, I dont have anything to sell. This post is not some thin-velied attempt at getting some gigs.

A lot of people are saying "it depends" - I totally agree. Some products are built to spread virally, others need to acquire users/customers via advertisement.

Eric Ries has some really interesting thoughts on this topic. Check out this blog post: http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2008/11/what-is-custome...

Degrade yourself. Do stupid, Richard Branson-style stunts(seriously). When it works, it works REALLY well. Examples:




Look through these: http://www.ideaoverload.com/Find-ideas/Finished-ideas/Media-...

...including "Kevin Rose - Taking your Site from One to One Million Users" among others

Making a startup is not about coding or ideas. You have to learn a lot (some boring stuff) that will help to reach your goal. Learn marketing, negotiation, social media, blogging, bussiness management, how to treat your customer. After this you will have the answer

I am going to target home and small businesses in particular for my startup: http://www.ecompucloud.com

I am still confused about how to promote and how much should I spend.. but thinking that maybe facebook ads are much cheaper than google and can be longer in term if promoting the facebook page.

Facebook does not seem like the right place for your ads. Grandma doesn't care about your service.

That said, I could be your target audience but I have no idea what your service is, even after I visited your web page.

My advice is to promote your service, get in front of your customers.

First though, make sure your customers can actually tell what you are offering from your web page. I know you have a cloud-thing, and that you dont need 'technical knowledge'.

I work on cloud platforms every day, and all I could glean is you have a non-technical cloud-thing. That's probably your biggest problem right now.

The messaging on your landing page is very unfocused. As a potential customer, you're asking me to do way too much work to understand your value prop. The benefit to me should be instantly identifiable. A feature is not a benefit...

Happy to chat if you'd like to discuss. Email in profile.

I'm sorry but I really hate "for the rest of us" slogan. Who are the rest? Who are the others that are not the rest of us? Why is it for the rest of us? It's a cliche that makes no sense. Change it.

I mean its for the average joe.. non technical people.

I am changing it now anyway.

It's hard to give you advice knowing almost nothing about your business, but I am pretty sure facebook ads aren't the right strategy for you.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your planned product and brand?

For my startup http://www.jackpotbuddy.com we are doing the following:

1. Creating Facebook/Twitter presence (1900 followers on both) 2. Creating blog with good content 3. Contacting other bloggers who are in same domain 4. Using Google analytic to analyze our traffic and trends 5. Sharing on HN, Digg and Reddit 6. Google Adwords

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