What’s the role of digital marketing for startups ?

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startupThree startup experts advice to capitalise on digital marketing

Finally, you took the brave decision to set up a new business, bringing to life an idea that you had for so long. There are many things you need to consider, including the right marketing strategy, but your funds are limited. Additionally, the problem is that you are not just competing in your industry, you are competing with millions of other marketing messages targeting consumers. Should digital marketing be prioritized? And what would be the right strategy? We spoke to three startup experts for their advice.

As a digital evangelist, I advocate leveraging digital tools in every marketing strategy. It provides great capabilities to target your audience, engages the customer, and provides measurable results. Used smartly, small players can compete against the big players that have a hundred times your spending power. You only need to think of the success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge run by a small NGO.

However, how are startups embracing digital marketing? To help us answer this, Joel Curado, Technology Strategist at Cisco’s Corporate Strategic Innovation Group and Nhat Vuong, Web Marketing Consultant, at Digital Inception, who has been consulting many startups and in particular some from Mass Challenge, the well-known accelerator from Boston that launched operations recently in Switzerland. Lastly, Ksenia Tugay, currently an independent entrepreneurship advisor, was previously Director of Marketing at Mass Challenge Switzerland, provides her perspective after observing closely the evolution of some startups from their beginning to final success. All three share their experience and help us explore if startups are ‘digital friendly’.

Are startups embracing Digital Marketing?

The answer is that it depends on the industry. Startups related to ‘retail’ are usually more advanced and have articulated a Go to Market strategy, including digital plans. The picture is much different when looking at technology startups. As Curado explains, “these technology startups are comprised of ‘geeks and techies’ who focus more on the product rather than promotion. By the time the product is completed, only then do they start thinking about marketing. Their priority is to focus on programmers to get an minimum viable product (MVP) completed fast, business leaders for sales, and UX designers to help bring amazing user functionality and features. Marketing comes last, and by marketing, what they mainly have in mind is participating in industry trade shows. These include Hannover Messe, CEBIT or CES, or at events like Web Summit, Tech Crunch Disrupt, Pioneers Festival or Cisco’s Innovation Grand Challenge. Only when startups secure initial seed funding do they start to think of digital marketing.”

Tugay confirms this view, since she has mentored several startups from different countries in different fields. She stated that most struggled with digital marketing and helping them with the digital strategy was one of her mentor roles. Often there was not even a marketing budget. Available cash was spent on exhibitions and presenting their product live. “I have not yet heard of an early stage startup that has invested into digital marketing,” she says, “apart from probably website development.”

What do startups aim to achieve with digital marketing?

Digital marketing is a valuable tool that can be leveraged in different ways across the company. It could be leveraged while designing the product, so to test different alternatives with consumers, or for the online brand / product building. When deeply analyzing the key objectives of startups’ digital marketing, the focus is clearly to get clients. However, before defining a (digital) marketing strategy, a company should be clear on some fundamental questions. As Vuong says, “I advise the startups I mentor that it cannot happen overnight and that they need to take different web marketing actions depending on which stage they are in. Their main objective is to increase awareness about their brand in order to get clients, but most of the time they haven’t answered basic questions like, why do you want to use social networks? Who is your main target? It’s just not possible to define a marketing strategy, without being clear on the basics”.

Curado reiterates that the key objective for startups in order to become profitable is to drive awareness of their products in order to attract and retain customers. He stated that after they complete a full MVP, they try to be creative in their marketing. In many cases, they leverage partnership tactics with key industry players in order to both scale their exposure and sales. If a potential customer sees that a startup collaborates with a big multinational, it shows product maturity and creates credibility.

Lastly, Tugay points out that “very few startups leverage ‘cold calling’ and some are completely ignorant regarding ‘newsletters. Usually, they leverage LinkedIn and Twitter, however, they are often confused about choosing the best channels to communicate to their target audience (unless, of course, they have a marketing professional on the team)”.

What are the top digital tactics startups leverage?

Digital marketing activation concerns mainly basic digital activities rather than sophisticated tools, while the total digital budget is a maximum 20 percent in the best case scenario. As explained already, startups are struggling with budgets, hence are using any opportunity that will give them free resources. This fosters their creativity and ‘trying to do more with less’. A great and visual website is usually their top priority, along with all marketing collateral they need for sales purposes. Ad words follows on the list, and Facebook/Twitter/Linkedin/Instagram advertising. Additionally, they activate their personal network in order to get free visibility, free articles in specialized magazines, blogs and any other free mentions that will help them drive awareness of their brand.

Vuong shares a cost effective tactic that has been beneficial for the startups he mentors. “My favorite tactic right now”, he says, “is to create a landing page that describe the product or service very concisely with the visuals and the most persuasive benefits about the things they are selling, then create a hyper-targeted campaign on Facebook that direct potential buyers to that landing page and start tweaking the campaign every week in order to reduce the cost per click. This gets results really fast with low investment from their part. Then on top of that they can start sharing the landing page on different marketing channels and also to their mailing lists if they already have a database of emails”.

Do startups have internal capabilities to design digital strategy or should they employ an agency or consultant?

Often startups don’t have internal capabilities for digital marketing due to a limited budget, so they prioritize other expertise. In the case that they have some extra money for marketing, they target finding people to join their team instead of hiring to an external agency. The driver of this is to maintain the knowledge and expertise internally, even if the budget runs out. Tugay confirms that with their limited resources they try to do the best they can. “Typically startups try to find a friend who can help.  In one of the startups I was mentoring, one of the team members was a graphic designer, so they tried to leverage him in other tasks as well. Soon, I am launching a company that will specialize in providing visual identity and digital marketing strategy services for startups, in super friendly prices.  I understand how challenging it is financially for the startups in the beginning of their path and want to help them, not make them pay thousands.”

Nhat provides an additional idea; “My advice for startups would be to find some independent consultant and ‘seduce’ them with their company, their product or services. If the consultant personally likes the product, he might help them pro bono – at first. Additionally, some companies provide a new type of pricing strategy for startups, such as Freemium, which is a great way to catch new customers. Lastly, is often that startups can pay via stocks, but in that case they should make sure they found a committed partner who will get his hands dirty when needed and not someone who wants to make a quick exit”.

In which areas do they usually require the most help?

The feedback from our experts was loud and clear. While startups are capable of defining a value proposition, they have difficulties on defining a ‘Go to Market’ strategy and a marketing strategy, including social media. They are struggling to select the best channels to be activated and distribute their message. Often, despite knowledge of their product and benefits, they have difficulties to express it in a consumer-friendly way. Hence, they should ensure they recruit the right people to help them, because a perfect product cannot go far without a marketing strategy.

Can you name a startup you have worked with that had very effective digital plan and what they did successfully?

Curado: “One of the startups coming to my mind that had an effective marketing strategy combining traditional and online marketing strategy is Relayr, an IoT startup focusing on cloud and sensor applications for building management systems. What they did is great, because besides their initial product, they also created a crowdfunding campaign to gather funding to an IoT starter kit. They also partnered with Industry leaders like Cisco to integrate their products and create proof of concepts in Cisco’s innovation centers. They benefited of a joined Go to Market strategy and became part of their ecosystem. This brought a lot of exposure, business and leveraged resources that might never be able to create by themselves”.

Vuong: “This was a B to C Company that wanted to try selling a totally new service without investing in a full website. I suggested to them to make a landing page combined with a Facebook targeted ad campaign, as described previously, and the results were really positive, getting them more than 200 unique visitors a day on the landing page only with daily budget of 5.-. Pretty good for a website that no one heard about a week ago”.

Tugay: “Among the startups I have worked with, Flatev had a fantastic digital marketing plan and they raised a lot of money thanks to that on their Kickstarter campaign. They used a lot of spoilers on social media, they leveraged all their network, they did a massive outreach. Side note though, that they were working with marketing and communication specialists”.

Which are your tips for a winning Digital Strategy?

Curado: “My key advice would be ‘Know your problem, know your product and what and how it solves the problem, and know the customers and the market’. Prepare a good pitch for your company, leveraging their value proposition and consumer stories to add relevancy to future customers. A good website, with a great UI and clear product offering is the basis. Then be creative and think of ways of gathering consumer database, to push your products. Provide a mix of technical and business documents on the product pages on the website. This enables startups to increase their database pool, while adding value and relevant information to potential clients for both technical and business audiences.”

Vuong: “I would advise startups that when in doubt ask a specialist. They don’t always charge you for giving quick advice so don’t hesitate. Frankly, there are tons of free information about digital marketing. So the question they need to answer is do they really want to do the web marketing themselves or let better people do it. Make sure you know how to sell your business well before writing the content of your website. Don’t forget that this is what people see first about you online, so make sure you make a great first impression, by making a beautiful, clear, and user friendly and persuasive website. Then when your website looks good, you can go to phase two and start promoting it.”

ismagilov via istockphoto.com

Elena Sava Elena Sava

Brand builder with solid expertise in digital marketing, communication and advertising. A digital evangelist leading projects across majority of digital tactics, and hands on experience from strategy to implementation. A creative marketer, that makes things happen, having worked in large multinational, global and regional roles, client and agency side. Ex journalist, but always passionate for media, I currently contribute to GBN in regards to topics related to (digital) marketing.

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