How do you stand out in an overcrowded sea of startups?
Sure, it starts with the fundamentals. You have a compelling vision. You make something people actually want. Those are a given. But that’s simply not enough these days.
We live in an attention economy, with brands vying for fleeting moments of attention from the over-marketed. In a world where startup activity is rampant, what are the keys to breaking through the clutter and reaching prospective customers?
It begins with reputation.
Reputation is the catalyst that enables startups to find customers, to spark word of mouth, to raise funds and to garner media attention. For fledgling startups struggling to get noticed, Google is the front page of your reputation. Journalists, investors and other influencers in the startup community often begin by a simple search for your brand. If they don’t like what they see – or worse, they don’t see anything – you might as well be invisible.
For startups, search marketing and inbound marketing are critical to laying a foundation for success. Here are 12 keys to consider when constructing an inbound marketing strategy for your startup:
1. KNOW THINE AUDIENCE
You want your customers to buy from you. You know that you need potential customers to pick up the phone because they recognize the value your product delivers. You need people with big accounts to write big checks. If you understand your audience, you’ll have a roadmap for how to make that happen.
At this stage, you likely already have a handle on the audience that you’re targeting. After all, that’s a building block of the vaunted business plans that you’ve undoubtedly put together (and rewritten several times). But, you’ll need to go beyond a basic audience description.
Briefly, you need to segment your audience and understand what they want. What are the unique challenges they face? What industries are they in? What about basic demographics? Answer these questions, and you’ve started your journey to startup marketing success.
2. BUILD YOUR FOUNDATION: MESSAGING STRATEGY
You know who you’re trying to reach, now comes the what. What are the key messages that will resonate with each of the segments? Create a grid with each audience segment and build out messages along with supporting proof points as necessary. The messaging should:
- Directly address the issues and challenges that your audience faces
- Briefly explain how your product overcomes these issues
- Differentiate your product from the competition
- Use narratives to support and explain – storytelling is powerful
One of my favorite examples of messaging done right is our work for a technology startup that use satellite imagery and in-person crop observations, crunching the numbers with a powerful proprietary algorithm to predict crop outcomes with greater accuracy and before the USDA crop report. It was pretty wonky stuff that tends to be coveted by commodity trader types and not easy to distill into simple messaging. Our solution? We used an analogy with the 1980s classic comedy Trading Places and “more accurate crop reports that come out two weeks before the USDA.”
3. COMMIT TO THE LONG TERM
It is frightening how many times that I’ve heard someone say, “Can you just SEO the site?” without a modicum of insincerity. Today, gaining visibility in the search engines requires a long term commitment – it’s a process not an event. The tweaks to Google’s ranking algorithm demands that brands place an emphasis on the user, not try to game the system. In the era of Panda and Penguin algorithm updates, gaming the Google system is a good way to find yourself banished to the bottom of results.
More than anything, don’t get discouraged. All too often, we expect quick results. The reality is that the results that took 4 – 6 weeks in the past, often take 6 – 12 months minimum in 2014. Stick with it.
4. GET THE BASICS RIGHT
With the advent of modern CMS platforms, many of the basic, technical tenants of SEO have become remarkably easy to sort out. Nevertheless, there are some basics to think through. Although a complete walk through is beyond the scope of discussion today, the most important include:
- Speak Their Language: It’s important to use the keywords that your prospects are using. Start with the keyword research tools available from Google.
- Unique Tags: For every page, it’s important to have unique title tags that integrate keywords as well as your brand. Likewise, deploy unique description tags that encourage searchers to click through to your site.
- Use Descriptive URLs: Studies have suggested that the decision to click on a search result is significantly influenced by the URL. Make it easy for the user to guess what’s on the other side of the click.
Much, much more on the basic tenants of SEO are available from the good folks at Moz.
5. THINK HOLISTICALLY
People are skeptical these days. They don’t trust messages from you. Well, at the very least, they don’t put the same faith in what you say as what other, trusted third parties say.
For startups, the implications are simple. Don’t just look at where your site ranks. Look at the other listings for branded and unbranded searches. For brand searches, the results should be filled with profiles on your founders, pieces that talk about funding and influential media that glowingly reviews your product. That is the kind of reputation building that can talk your startup to the next level.
Simply put, the battle for your reputation begins with branded search.
6. BUILD A PROACTIVE PR STRATEGY
We’ve seen it happen first hand. A fledgling startup with a promising idea gets some major media coverage then, almost immediately, prospective customers start calling, investor interest is piqued and the leaders are suddenly the toast of the town. Oh, and Google notices these kind of things, too. Nothing has a more positive impact on SEO overall and those all important first page of results like a solid public relations strategy.
7. DEVELOP BRANDED CONTENT
Many times, public relations alone isn’t enough to drive the organic search visibility of a site. After all, the Google ranking algorithm is still driven by the quality of inbound links to determine where a site should rank. So, we need to give editorial gatekeepers an excuse – a reason to link to your site. More often than not, content is the carrot to compel the gatekeepers to link. Beyond Google, compelling branded content solidifies your brand as a thought leader in your space, conferring credibility and increasing the likelihood that you’ll close that next prospect. Content isn’t just fluff, it’s about the bottom line.
Where to begin? Start with your audience’s needs in mind, not simply with a list of keywords:
- Prospects are searching for information that helps them make an informed decision. Help them.
- Map the buying cycle. Build out a content plan that addresses the needs of each segment during that buying cycle.
- Mine online conversations. Look at Q/A sites such as Quora or Yahoo! Answers to identify common questions. Search Twitter to better understand the prevailing themes that are being discussed.
- Follow your industry and peers. Find content or themes that you can build or improve upon.
- Encourage sharing of the content
There’s just one minor problem: there’s an overwhelming glut of content already. To a certain extent, Google addressed this in 2011 by implementing updates that downgraded sites like eHow that had shallow, not-terribly-good content. You can’t just check the content box these days. You have to do more.
8. DISRUPT OR DIE
Today, your content must be truly remarkable to break through the clutter. It needs a unique hook. It needs some special sauce. It needs soul. Not every piece of content must be remarkable. But, to truly raise your profile, you need content with some magnetic appeal from time to time. What does that look like?
- Challenge the Status Quo: Do not simply regurgitate the conventional wisdom from the almighty Interwebs. Do something unexpected. Take chances. Have a contrarian point of view. Surprise them. Make the piece memorable. Have some freakin’ personality. Everything else gets lost in the clutter.
- Invest in Design: The journey to remarkable content begins with the eyes. This means your must invest in design. Use colors, fonts, formatting and images to entice the reader. Good design tells the reader, “Hey, it’s cool. This content is legit and can be trusted.” Look beyond text and get creative in terms of how the content piece is executed. Is an infographic warranted? Can you use a clever animated GIF to convey a key point? Should you consider video? Or, do you just need some TLC from design to elevate the professionalism of your piece?
- Provide Insight: You’ve staked your future on your startup. Presumably, you have some expertise. Don’t be shy. Share your experience and expertise in the industry. Have an opinion and put it to work.
- Ask Yourself These Questions: Would your audience share this? Does it offer a unique perspective? Does it contain an original idea? Is it thought provoking? Is it timely? Is it easy to understand? Is it high quality?
9. BUILD YOUR REACH
For young companies, a network of advocates, supporters and customers is a powerful thing. Social media and email marketing enable startups to grow their reach and nurture relationships.
Most startups intuitively understand that social media platforms are fertile ground for engaging in conversations with their customers – both current and prospective. Focus on the social platforms that make sense – don’t try to execute across all of them. From the outset, connect with influencers from within your industry – journalists, analysts, and thought leaders. There are a cornucopia of social tools that can empower your team to efficiently monitor the conversations for brand or industry mentions. Above all, focus on your content. Avoid the temptation to pound on your chest and extoll the virtues of your company or latest offer in every update. Rather, mix these updates in with other content that you feel would be of value to your target audiences.
Likewise, email marketing can be leveraged to build your reach and influence. In fact, despite the proliferation of messaging alternatives, marketers continue to cite email as one of the most effective marketing channels. For startups, you should begin building your email list from the outset – often before product launch. Include calls-to-action throughout your site, in your email signature and in other channels. Harness your branded content to provide value to recipients, segmenting when possible to maximize relevance.
10. LEVERAGE COMMUNITY RESOURCES
There are a large and growing number of resources designed to nurture and support startups – likely many in your community. Take advantage of these to enhance awareness and your organic search footprint. Get listed in startup directories. Speak on relevant panels. Offer to write articles for other sites.
11. TEST, TEST, TEST
Your website is the front door of your company and your most valuable marketing asset. By systematically testing of different elements – images, headlines, offers, and calls-to-action, for instance – you can make it work harder for you, driving up conversion rates. Implementation can be accomplished by using off the shelf tools such as Google Site Experiments (free) or Optimizely (low cost) – both that have enough firepower to get the job done for most sites.
One of my favorite models of optimization is the LIFT model from WiderFunnel.com (above).
The LIFT model focuses on six factors that play a role in the conversion rate optimization. By attacking a page with this in mind, it’s easy to quickly develop hypotheses about what page changes could have an impact on the conversion rate. If you’re interested in getting started, the fine folks at Unbounce have created a wonderful guide to help you get started.
12. MEASURE YOUR PERFORMANCE
You can’t manage what you can’t measure. From the outset, startups should identify KPIs aligned with business objectives for each marketing program that is rolled out. For most channels, Google Analytics along with the platform specific data – Facebook, Twitter, email provider, for instance – provide the needed data. But data alone doesn’t cut it.
We recommend a minimum of monthly reporting that pulls together KPIs from all marketing initiatives, looking at trends and noteworthy activity.
A brands reputation is its most important asset. As my colleague Jason Falls is apt to say, building your reputation is not rocket surgery. If nothing else, understand who you’re marketing to, what you need to tell them, and create a long-term plan for developing killer content.