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Marketing your startup: What's on your checklist?
167 points by danielhonigman on July 8, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 55 comments
There are many ways to promote your startup. What are some tactics you've used that were effective, that you'd recommend to others?

Not a checklist, but I put together a fairly comprehensive spreadsheet of all the top marketing resources I've come across when I worked in a startup doing online marketing:


If you're wondering what should be on the non-technical guy's checklist, start here.

Includes absolute gold from Mint.com, Neil Patel, Patrick McKenzie, Kissmetrics and more, covers many areas of marketing such as:

- getting press coverage


- Link building

- B2B Marketing

- Blogging

- social media


1. Figure out your market before you build anything. Talk to them, get to know them, figure out what they need.

2. Ask them for an intent to purchase or to reserve a spot in line or whatever.

3. Build landing pages and advertise them so that you can validate your ability to acquire customers before building anything.

4. Create a human machine that looks/feels like the real machine you are going to build later.

5. Sell your fake, semi-terrible, human powered machine that pretends to be your real system until you have enough sales to justify building the real product.

6. Build and sell your real product.

If you do #1-5 before you ever build what you would normally start by building, you'll already have experience selling and marketing your product before you ever actually build it.

Serious question regarding #1: What if I am the market because I am addressing a need I have that others have not addressed? Is the question then whether others have the same general needs?

Do I get to walk around thinking I have instant validation, or am I rolling the dice on the likelihood that others have the same problem?

You'll still want to validate that it's a problem others share, that others share deeply, and that others share the same way.

That last part is critical. Human psychology is a funny thing. Two people might experience the same pain point, but articulate two wildly different needs. Or they might have tangential pain points, nominally clustered around the same topic. And sometimes, one user's problem is another user's solution. All of these things can happen.

It is totally valid and worthwhile to start with a pain point you have. A lot of startups began that way. But never assume you (n=1) stand in for an entire market. You can't use personal anecdote or self-insight as a proxy for market validation. Not even Steve Jobs got to do that, despite popular misconceptions.

Insight can be a path to validation. A shortcut starting point. But treat it like a hypothesis, not a foregone conclusion. Hypotheses should be tested.

I was once in that situation, and I learned that yes, you do need to validate that others have the same issue and that they're willing to pay for the solution and that there are enough such people to make this a viable business.

The product I created was a tool for a small niche of artists (of which I was a part). It solved a major problem I had, and I knew that others had the same problem. I even ran it by a few other artists and they loved the idea. What I failed to validate was whether they'd pay for the service. As it turns out, most artists in this niche can't afford to pay even $18/month for a service, and they're just as happy using a manual alternative.

What if you had used a freemium model and delivered your product as a free app with IAP or ads and such? Or was the market too small in such a case?

In hindsight I think the market was just far too small and did not have the expendable income to pay for such a service.

I was about to ask the exact same question. I'm trying to solve a problem that I (and some colleagues) face daily, which I assume others must face too. Actually, I sorta know others have had the same problem because when I first looked for a solution, I came across a few posts and discussions offering terrible solutions that I didn't like. After being annoyed enough, I figured I'd try and see if I could develop a solution.

Until you talk to other people, you're rolling the dice. Trust your gut and go ask a bunch of people if they have the same need (and if it's going to be a paid thing, whether or not they'd pony up for it if it existed). If the answers come back positive, high five yourself and go make it!

What if a competitor has already validated the market for me? For example, they exist and have existed for a few years, but still don't service my need. Is it valid to assume I can attack their market share?

Assumptions are inherently risky but ultimately you always end up having to go with your gut. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do the background research and talk to people first though! Even if you are right, you'll very likely discover that the proto idea you have now needs changing or tweaking in ways you would never have imagined had you not talked to some people in your target audience first.

I'm actually working on something right now that started like that. There are a load of large, well established incumbents operating in the market I'm about to try and pitch a tent in but none of them offer a service that does what I want. My gut told me I wasn't the only one who'd prefer my approach to the problem, so I talked to a bunch of people, refined the idea a little, did a load of research and when that all came back positive I quit my job and started building it. I'll let you know how it pans out :)

I know that as engineers we'd like to avoid talking to strangers as much as possible, but there's simply nothing better than speaking with your potential customers.

Having a competitor is a good sign, but how do you know they're profitable? How do you know they're solving the problem well enough that they're even worth imitating? How do you know they're not frustrating the hell out of their users? If you speak to potential customers, you'll know.

This is critical. As a marketer, I've seen - far too often, mind you - a severe disconnect between the perception of one's customers, and the reality.

Not saying that you need to have full personas, in which you include ALL motivations, demographics, customer journeys - the works - but it helps to have something on paper that you can refer to.

The beauty of it is you can always change them!

Well, I've been reading the competitor's press releases mainly and reviews of their product on the internet. Since I've never done this before, I just don't know how much of their frustrations I can count as a form of validation. :-)

Why are you resistant to doing the market valuation? It is cheap and beneficial. No matter hire certain you are it will validate and refine your offering. You get to learn the market size, the price point and create reasonable estimates for adoption all while collecting free feedback on features.

No matter how certain you are talk with your customers!

No resistance, just trying to get some input on how to do this stage of the process properly. In particular, I've been reading a lot of feedback on competitors' products.

I talk to people, but I need to talk to more.

If they've validated the market, then it should be easy to throw up a landing page with a pitch and a price and get people to reserve a spot in line.

Don't assume anything, get real leads and/or sales and talk to them about your planned offering and pricing.

Use data.

I write about this kind of thing quite a bit.

http://www.strategicmessaging.com/marketing-communication-es... is on marcom essentials vs. nice-to-haves.

http://www.strategicmessaging.com/marketing-in-stealth-mode/... is specifically on stealth-mode marketing (not quite an oxymoron).

And http://www.strategicmessaging.com/strategy-for-it-vendors-a-... is the strategy (not just marketing) worksheet that a whole lot of tech companies have relied on.

Quality stuff, have an upvote!


SEO - takes a while to get picked up and also some trial and error, but once you've got it will bring in a trickle of leads every day. This adds up.

Guest posts on industry blogs - My experience is to make it easy for the person to put the blog up - have a few ideas ready when you contact them. Make it awesome and they'll ask you to write another one.

Advertising is hard and expensive. Repeat advertising is HARD and EXPENSIVE. Its hard to convince people to buy your stuff with ads/landing pages. Its expensive to run ads. Great for driving traffic before you've "earned it" other ways. Measure, measure, measure and iterate. Spend time on different ad variations and turn of the bad ones. An increase in CTR from .05% to .1% doubles your clicks!! Spend some time on a landing page. Make sure you wow these people so you get referrals and stretch every last penny of your ad dollar. Use retargeting - its way cheaper and way more effective. Takes 5 minutes to setup w/Perfect Audience All of these things stretch your marketing dollar farther.

Referrals - ask people to refer you. Or better yet, WOW them and they will do it for you. In my experience, people ARE ok with doing business w/new companies that aren't super polished. Make up for it with ridiculous service and responsiveness.

I was with you until the recommendation that it "takes 5 minutes to setup w/ Perfect Audience."

Taking five minutes to setup a display campaign is a horrible idea for an experienced display buyer, let alone someone who doesn't have years of experience in the space. Lots of DSPs try to make it seem simple enough for Joe Businessowner to setup a display campaign, but that doesn't mean they should.

To go about display buying properly you need:

- A decent budget you are ok wasting to collect your initial data set

- Proper conversion tracking in place

- Ideally an ad server and/or way of measuring the contribution of view through conversions/revenue from a cross-channel attribution standpoint

- Display creative, and ideally multiple variations to test

- Retargeting tags set to take advantage of various list-based tactics

- Etc. Etc. Etc.

Some things like an ad server might be ok to do without if you know what you are doing as the DSPs all have their own you can use these days, but it enables things like exposure-to-conversion reporting which is pretty important.

Advertising in general is indeed hard and expensive, and all too often I see companies who have tossed thousands upon thousands of dollars (sometimes with several zeros appended) on buys that weren't thought out, weren't tracked properly, weren't managed properly, and that they ultimately deemed failures because they don't understand how view-throughs factor into the broader mix.

Source: I do this for a living.

EDIT: Formatting

I'm a senior digital marketer who has worked both agency and client-side with anything from shoestring budgets to millions of dollars/month for close to a decade. I'd like to share some guidance on digital media and analytics that I have observed many people/companies making mistakes with. Not saying any of this to brag--just giving context so you can more effectively judge the quality of my advice.

1. Please dear god make it a priority to get your tracking setup properly. At the very least you should have your primary revenue generating action tracked as a conversion goal. Other things you should track are key actions that lead up to this, such as signing up for a free trial, and the various steps involved in that. This gets you into things like event tracking. Google Analytics is fine for this initially, although some newer analytics companies offer some interesting things such as Heap Analytics with their "track everything and worry about defining it later with a WYSIWYG editor" approach. You need to have a crystal clear understanding of your funnel to identify where any problems/bottlenecks are. Just as important are tracking cancellations properly (for SaaS at least) so you can do a proper cohort analysis across various dimensions.

2. If you are starting on AdWords, and you don't have conversion tracking, you are asking for trouble with a handful of exceptions. Read through the entire AdWords help site if you haven't managed an account before. It's a lot, but it is just as technical of a discipline as software development with its own share of intricacies, known issues, workarounds, etc. It is also changing incredibly quickly.

3. For paid search in general, if you have a limited budget start small with a handful of keywords you think are appropriate (including your brand name terms), and keep the number of ad groups/campaigns/ad variations rather small initially. Doing so makes it easier to tell when you have enough data at various levels to begin making optimizations. Additionally, you should keep your bids fairly high initially and focus on driving CTR. Building up a solid Quality Score is priority one for a new account as it determines long-term efficiency and scalability, and CTR is the #1 factor in determining that. Ultimately, this can get you into a positive feedback loop of higher CTR->higher Ad Rank->lower CPCs->lower CPA->higher ROI.

4. Display buying is not a simple thing to learn, and if you don't know how to interpret the data (particularly view-through conversions), you are going to be unhappy and lose money. Ease into it, and understand that it takes time to see an impact. If available inventory/business permits, focus your initial display efforts on particular DMAs or geo targets and see if there is any lift in your brand search query volume on AdWords. That can in some cases give you a sense of if things are working.

5. Understanding what cross-channel attribution modeling is all about is mandatory in this day and age, particularly if you engage with agencies who may not have a vested interest in valuing display view-through conversions at anything less than 100% (seen it happen too many times). If you don't know what attribution modeling is all about, you had best read up on it. In short, it means that just because you see a conversion in AdWords for example, doesn't mean that AdWords should get all the credit for it. Digging deeper into search funnel reports or the awesome Google Analytics attribution and path analysis tools, you'll frequently see other multiple touch points such as organic search, email, social, etc. Certain channels, like social and display, tend to play a larger role at the beginning of the buying process with generating awareness, and attribution models let you get a sense of that. If you have impression and view-through data from an ad server (DFA for example), you can get a much more complete picture of how your display efforts fit into that mix.

6. Don't listen to any gurus or agencies/consultants that claim to know all the secrets of AdWords, or display, or whatever. There is no secret sauce. There is however lots of buried knowledge in various help sites, industry sites, industry forums, etc. and it is a fairly technical discipline that is evolving at a breathtaking pace, so it is easy to get overwhelmed and buy into these promises. Do your due diligence, and properly vet through any such hiring decisions. Ask to see what exactly they might do for your account/business. If they are anything but 100% transparent in their approach, run away. The real value to look for is someone who can execute properly and consistently, and frankly, the knowledge should be given away for free since that alone won't lead to success.

7. Developers--I get that for many of you marketing is this evil misleading thing that you want nothing to do with. We have differences of opinion, and I could show you plenty of examples of marketing done right. Bottom line though is that you should try to avoid the "Field of Dreams" fallacy. If you build it, there is no guarantee they will come. Marketing is what gets you visitors and leads, and then sales and/or your product are what close the deal. Advertising (an aspect of marketing), when done right, is delivering the right message to the right audience at the right time and place. It does not need to be (and shouldn't be) misleading or make false promises.

8. Understand the nature of your advertising placements and traffic sources. Some networks get their traffic from places that makes me highly skeptical of the quality of their inventory. Likewise, some placements just aren't worth the value.

9. Don't waste your time with small targeted direct buys initially. It takes much more time to setup and execute than going through something like the GDN on AdWords or a DSP (once you know what you are doing). These scale MUCH better, will give you more data to optimize against, and in many cases are more cost-effective. If you have a particular placement that is doing gangbusters and want to guarantee more inventory, then and only then should you consider approaching the publisher for a direct deal at a slightly higher CPM than what you are clearing off the exchanges.

10. Many DSPs, ad networks, etc. have minimum monthly spend requirements of $5-10k. Understand that this is done to separate the serious buyers from the rest, and that typically you won't have even close to enough data to properly measure success with a display campaign for less than that (sometimes even with that amount). Display efforts can take time to see the results of, and even more time to reach optimal efficiency.

11. Understand your sales cycle with regards to number of touch points needed, duration, etc. Not much more to say here other than this plays a large role when setting up retargeting properly. Not considering retargeting? You're leaving conversions and dollars on the table. It is some of the lowest hanging fruit in the funnel, and while you might risk paying for unnecessary touch points, odds are you will more than offset this by keeping your brand top of mind over longer sales cycles. Mind your frequency caps though or you will assault your audience with a never-ending parade of your display banners.

12. Believe it or not, some agencies are actually quite good at media buying, and can bring to the table economies of scale even Fortune 50 advertisers can't reach on their own. Sometimes there is a misalignment of incentives, but this almost always comes down to poor scoping during the initial sales process. Understand that agencies are a service-based business, and make sure you are paying for sufficient staffing on your account, otherwise you get what you pay for and don't be surprised if you don't get any love and performance suffers. There are many benefits to agencies, but just as many benefits to building a team in-house, so weigh the pros and cons before making a decision, and make sure you go to RFP with several agencies before hiring one. Don't be afraid to pit them against each other with regards to the things they are telling you.

Anyway, its lunch time, but hopefully this is helpful for some folks here. I truly enjoy helping people with digital marketing, so feel free to reply here with any questions you might have.

Very robust answer. Thanks for taking the time to respond!

Thanks--I guess I had a lot of this pent up and this was the perfect thread to post it in.

SEO takes a long time (compared to other strategies) to work. So for most startups it shouldn't be a priority. You also don't want to be relying on Google for traffic.

You're better focusing on building relationships with influencers in your industry, guest posting on their blogs and asking them for feedback to help build a good product. This in turn will encourage links anyway and make the SEO come naturally.

1 effective content marketing approach I used with previous company:

1. create a slidedeck with lots of visual & publish on Slideshare 2. create blogpost with the slidedeck embedded - remember to test the headlines (e.g. with KingSumo for Wordpress) 3. change the headline in slidedeck & blogpost according to what works best - after we updated the headline on Slideshare one deck went from 1,000 views the first 24hrs to 10,000 views in the next 24hrs (not only due to being featured by Slideshare) 4. share your blogpost on various channels (niche Linkedin groups, twitter etc.) - and don't forget to submit to Buffer (https://buffer.wufoo.com/forms/buffers-awesome-content-colle...). Buffer can really drive traffic & a crazy amount of shares on Twitter.

People mention SEO, but that's such a broad term now. So many people have different opinions on what SEO really is. It's not just "optimizing your site" and then spamming links to your site all over the place.

Let's forget for a moment about links. What's critical is that you build a site that's search engine friendly. Here's what I would concentrate on:

- Unique content, well written (hire a good writer if you can't write the copy yourself).

- Site structure is important. Think of a pyramid type structure where important high level concept pages link to categories that link to subcategories that then link to more specific pages. Some sites only have high level and then category pages, and that's just fine.

- SEO Best Practices. Use unique title tags, heading tags (h1, h2, h3, etc.) and image alt attributes on all images. Link within sentences to other pages on your site.

- Privacy policy, disclaimer, and TOS pages should be on the site.

- If you appeal to an EU audience, then make sure the proper cookie notices are there on the site. See Google's CookieChoices.org.

- Add a blog. Update it regularly with fresh posts, talk to your users. Even if it's just updates about new features. Tweet, +1 and Like your posts (i.e., share them whenever you write a new post.

- Press Releases can still help. Add press release to your own site on your press release page, then distribute.

- News. Add a news page on your site, link out to where you've been mentioned in the news.

- Hire a PR guy or gal. Someone who has contacts in your industry who can help pitch story ideas. SEO isn't just about links and optimizing your content. It's about getting your brand mentioned. A good SEO can optimize a site. A great SEO can get your brand mentioned in the news and drive traffic.

I could get into all sorts of other SEO details, but what's important is to get your site taken care of first. It's got be search engine friendly and crawlable with unique content, though.

You can't really provide much value without knowing the goals / intentions behind the campaign / activity and obviously decisions on channels would be massively dependent on verticals, circumstances and budgets, however content campaigns alongside paid activity can be good from a launch branding POV.

I've seen people combine offers with quirky / creative content, which is leveraged via paid StumbledUpon, Twitter and FB advertising to generate brand impressions and traffic.

I've also seen sponsored YouTube content work quite well for startup brands.

Obviously SEO and PPC / displayed are more acquisition channels - but dependent on the goals, these represent good channels for quality / qualified traffic.

Yes, yes do your market research, identify pain points, find a compelling value proposition.. do all those things.

But once you've defined the technical aspects of your product-market fit, write a story. The story of why you are doing what you're doing (not how, or where or when.. but why). This story must be true and it should resonate with you so you don't get sick of re-telling it a million time in a million different ways.

Then build that story into your product and find the most frictionless ways of enabling your users to spread that story for you through your product. Finally identify any and all channels where this story might garner a captive audience and go and share that story yourself.

I suppose you need to ask, "What is the point of promotion?" If you're just trying to get to a particular niche audience and you know they're on a particular channel, then go there and start interacting. Defining marketing isn't going to get people to look at your product and producing your messaging in a perfect bubble is a surefire way to keep you in obscurity. I suppose my tactic is creating a shortlist of 1000 ideal customers, reading what they read, figuring out their needs, and then after all that research -- approaching them humbly with a request to demo.

1) Set up a Twitter page. 2) Set up a facebook page. 2) Have your branding the same on all social media. 3) Connect to relevant followers or potential customers. 4) Connect your blog posts automatically to twitter.

How do you mean by connect your blog posts automatically to twitter, you mean have twitter link to new blog posts? What tool do you use?

In wordpress you can connect your twitter feed, so when you write a blog post it automatically posts on twitter. I can't remember if it was a plugin I added.

It also makes the short url for you. So you can track on statcounter.com how many people clicked that short url.

Tools: dlvr.it, bufferapp.com, ifttt.com

Blogging is always on my list.

It's almost like cheating. A well planned and written article can get you thousands of visits from relevant people to your site. Then some of them visit your main site, some of them sign up for your service, some share your site with their colleagues, etc.

For example, a recent blog post I wrote to help promote my own consulting service brought in ~15,300 visits over this past weekend. The post before that brought ~10,000 visits. A post for a company I work with brought them ~30,000 visits in a day... You get the idea.

I think a reasonable follow up question is how did you market your blog posts so successfully?

Nothing complicated... Just posting on relevant subreddits, HN, Designer News, etc.

I think the more important (and far more difficult) part is writing an article that's interesting enough that it doesn't need a lot of work or trickery to get visits.

I would also add usability to the already mentioned tactics. Usability testing helps you to understand what people really want, thus making you a better marketer.

In addition to testing your own site, you can also do a usability test for your competitor's site. You might find some interesting marketing ideas that way. :)

Here is a free usability checklist for websites: https://userium.com/ And services like e.g. usertesting.com are great for getting feedback from users.

Hi, I am new here and I have a product, its a VPN(Virtual Private Network) trying to make a venture through it. Why VPN? because people like i my country and many other are facing bans and censored contents on internet. Can you people please help me and some suggestions on marketing this product as i am computer scientist so have weak side in marketing. I will be really thankful :) P.S: If you want to check the product , here is the link: getolive.org

We tried Stumbleupon PD for getting quite cheap traffic, when we were on initial stage - it helped us to validate the concept and move further. Advantage - you will also get a free traffic just as regular stumbleupon submission. Betalist is quite hot now as well - we got 100 subscribers to beta from it.

My problem with stumbleupon is that while you may get many visitors (in the thousands per page), I noticed that very few - if any - actually cared. Did some analysis on it and I wouldn't use SU again: http://ssdpress.com/when-it-comes-to-blogging-readership-its...

Good point. They don't stay long, and they likely won't sign up for anything. If you get a big spike from SU visits, it could take down the site. And you'll have nothing to show for it.

Creating a podcast is a really simple way to create some leads coming to you - http://justhitpublish.com/podcasting-matters-software-compan...

the answer depends on your product!!

Rob Walling has a great grid for how to think about marketing based on what your product is: see his blog at http://www.softwarebyrob.com/

Is it Sold on Value? Is the Need obvious? Are people active looking for it?

also check out inbound.org. At the moment Dharmesh Shah has the top post with "how to grow a startup with inbound marketing" https://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/36749575#

Use something like quickmvp.com to tweak yout branding. Before you finally decide for a brand name consider pusruing an Adwords campaign to find out which branding and marketing slogans convert the most.

Here are the things that have proven effective for us:

- Guest blog posts - AdWords - Answering questions in forums on other websites - Content marketing - Getting partners that promote or sell our services

Blogging. I'm not really a good writer, so I tend to do a lot of interesting data things. My startup is also Reddit based, so the content gets pretty decent attention.

Building on this, I'd suggest that your goals should be primarily focused on early stage branding activity and building foundations for long-term acquisition.

I organized bootcamps about the product and even mobile dev sometimes. Found a good loyal user base. Recommend it.

it all depends on your objective. it can be user acquisition or customers. if customers then b2c or b2b? in geofrey moore's world, is your product a category or still very innovative? depending on this - maybe you can arrive at a tactic

The very first thing that should be on everyone's marketing checklist is understanding what marketing is and what it is not. A lot of people use marketing and promotion interchangeably. Promotion is just a part of your marketing strategy.

Marketing is the science of bring a product to market. A good marketing plan includes (among other things) initial market research, analysis of the marketplace (the dynamic relationship between companies, products, segments, distribution channels and consumers), finding a product-market fit (defining product design and specifications based on the market analysis and your short,mid and long-term goals), pricing strategy, and finally - promotion strategy.

There are some great (and free) MOOCs on marketing strategy on coursera. I recommend "Competitive strategy" and "Advanaced competitive strategy" by Tobias Kretschmer, if you are not looking to change the world with this great new app you and your friend are hacking together. Checking out "Introduction to marketing" is good if you want a checklist for consumer-driven philosophy. A rule of thumb when taking MOOCs is to use the videos simply as general pointers. If you want to really learn - use the recommended literature.

This. The most important part of marketing your X is building a X that matters. This applies whether you're doing a startup or playing in a band. The best promotional tactics will flub on a bleh product that nobody cares about. You'll waste time and money trying to sell something that people aren't interested in buying.

A lot of good marketing is about figuring out how to position your offering in a way that allows people to talk about your stuff. The marketer is really a facilitator- you have as little and as much influence as that sounds.

The promotional stuff at the end, that's the victory lap, that's the easiest bit. The million (or billion!) dollar question is- who does this matter to, and why, and how do we put it in front of them in a way that makes them agree? The rest is just elbow grease.

I second the high quality of "Competitive strategy" and "Advanced competitive strategy" and its value for founders. However, ignore "Introduction to marketing" and other courses that mostly talk about offline marketing, the mental model of large brand management/marketing is very different from start-up world.

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