I was spending some time with an MIT senior who is very involved with the startup community and has spent some time working at venture funded companies. We were chatting a bit about marketing for early stage companies. How important is it? Who does it well? Does it even matter? Etc.
She asked a pretty simple question: “What is marketing for a startup, really?”
I was a bit struck by the simplicity of the question. But I think marketing is one of those disciplines that is a bit of a black box to startup founders who come from more of an engineering background. I’ve heard founders think about marketing both as something that doesn’t really matter (since all that matters is the product) or something that matters a lot and requires hiring a fancy CMO or VP Marketing.
I disagree with both of these paths, but that’s for another post. In a nutshell, here is the basic way I think about marketing for startups.
First, I think of marketing as a funnel. It can be a very basic funnel, but you can drill down to much more specific sub-components of the funnel. At the highest level, I see it as: Awareness –> Conversion –> Raving Fans. A couple examples on each:
Awareness: How people first hear about your company
- For startups, this usually means referral from an existing user, PR, or ways that the product talks about itself (eg: “posted by Instagram” on Facebook)
- A big part of awareness to me is crisp positioning. Potential users need to “get it” right away. You’ll spend 30 minutes reading about each great feature of a new apple product. But you’ll only spend 10 seconds trying to understand a new no-name product that someone tells you about
- Product impacts awareness, which seems strange given that awareness happens before trial.
- The challenge for startups is how to great broad awareness with limited resources. When Gillette launches a new razor, they spend millions to make sure that in short time, every male knows about it. As a startup, you have to focus on cheap awareness channels and get the most value out of your efforts/dollars. This usually means focusing on a narrow user segment that has a particularly strong need for your product, and expanding from there.
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