Startup Marketing Strategy: 18 Ideas and Tactics That Actually Work

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Bob Dearsley
Bob Dearsley


Are you new to the startup game, and even newer to the content marketing game?

team building a startup marketing strategy on a whiteboard

With all the work that goes into starting a business, there's little time to think about marketing strategies that prove successful and are feasible for a startup's teams to execute.

If you find yourself in this boat, don't panic. You probably know the tools that are helpful for startup marketers to use when strategizing — a CMS, social media accounts, and graphic design software, for instance.

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Now, what you need to know is how to use these tools, and similar methods, to create campaigns that align with your business goals. You may have seen other startups' glowing marketing techniques and found yourself wondering how to create a winning strategy.

For that, we've got you covered. Here are some of the ways you can build a winning startup marketing strategy designed to lay the foundation for future success.

1. Use SMART goals to focus on business-critical goals upfront.

At Huble Digital, we use SMART goals. These are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. For example, a SMART goal could be:

  • Increase organic traffic to our website by 50% by 2022
  • Create 10 new sales focused blogs by Q3

The purpose of SMART goals is to set businesses up for success. They provide a sense of direction and help to organize efforts.

And, while SMART goals are invaluable for any organization, they're particularly beneficial for start-ups.

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    In most start-ups, employees have to wear several hats (often due to budget constraints or lack of resources). The founder, for instance, might be responsible for strategy, product development, and even PR, while the chief technology officer (CTO) might be involved in the design of the website, marketing, and social media. There's just so much to do!

    Of course, for all start-ups, the principal focus is product development (and always will be until the "release" stage) ... but what about all the other elements that help sustain the business' growth?

    It's here where SMART goals can really help. Instead of trying to do everything at once, focus on the most business-critical goals, put everything you have behind them, and tackle things in a strategic way. For instance, rather than spreading your time across several initiatives (some of which may not be important right now), focus on three or four that will lay a foundation for your activities or support your current efforts.

    If you're launching with a new product, for instance, focus on the development but also set goals like:

    • Create 10 new blogs to build awareness of the product by X date
    • Publish 2 new web pages to promote the new product by X date
    • Secure 5 placements in online media using digital PR by X date

    These are just some examples, but they can undoubtedly help raise the profile of your business idea without costing much — the only real expenditure is time. Instead of spreading your capabilities across several initiatives, try focusing on those that will support what you're doing right now.

    The key to sustained growth is consistency and focus, and SMART goals enable you to do just that.

    2. Create detailed documents to distinguish who your target buyers are.

    SMART goals give your marketing efforts direction and focus, sure, but who are you marketing to?

    For your start-up's marketing efforts to bring in tangible results, those efforts need to be tailored to your ideal target audience.

    Now you'll probably have a good understanding of who it is you want to do business with, but have you articulated that to the rest of your team or — at the very least — put together a document detailing who your buyer personas are?

    It's here where buyer personas come in handy. Buyer personas are semi-fictional representations of your ideal customers. They're based on market research, current data, existing customers, and a few educated assumptions. Buyer personas help you to understand the drivers, business challenges, and needs of those to whom you want to market.

    It's also important to note that buyer personas are not real people, but archetypes of them.

    Now that we've briefly covered what buyer personas are, you might be wondering — Okay, but what makes them so valuable to my start-up? Simply put, buyer personas allow you to refine your marketing and segment your audience(s).

    You want and need quick wins during the product development and release stages, so why waste time (and money) casting the widest net possible when you can hone in on those most likely to buy from you?

    Your buyer personas will provide you with a good idea of who these people are. Use that information to build marketing and PR campaigns that focus on the right people, at the right time and place of their buyer's journey.

    3. Have clear, compelling messaging.

    If you've ever seen a Ronseal advertisement, you're likely already familiar with the following phrase: "It does what it says on the tin."

    In an age of slick, big-budget marketing campaigns and buzzwords, it falls to you to keep your messages clear and concise.

    People don't want platitudes or jargon. They want to understand what it is your product does and how it can help them solve their business challenges. In fact – and this may sound harsh – it's not even about your business, it's about how you can help your potential customers.

    With this in mind, any messaging that your startup creates (and this applies to all businesses of any size) needs to be created with the end user in mind. It needs to be simple, informative, and compelling. This will help convert the website traffic you generate into leads.

    4. Create a content marketing strategy to generate leads.

    Speaking of traffic, you'll want to have a plan for bringing prospects to your site. Content marketing is all about producing high-quality content that answers questions your prospects and customers have, and nurturing them to a point of purchase.

    For instance, blogs are great for increasing your website's organic traffic and awareness of your brand. Each blog should be optimized for a long-tail keyword term, as this will help to drive targeted traffic (i.e. people definitely interested in what you have to say) to your website. It's a really easy way to increase your startup's digital footprint and start building its name.

    The content you create also helps to generate leads and demonstrate your expertise. You could, for instance, produce informative ebooks and gate them behind landing pages on your website. Visitors can then download your ebooks in exchange for their details.

    With this approach, you know that those that do download your ebooks are interested in hearing from you. The ebooks you create will be particularly useful for targeting "early adopters", i.e. those that want to be on the cutting-edge when it comes to new technology/software.

    Over time, as more and more content is created, your website becomes a repository for information. Providing it's all optimized for the right terms, the right people will find it time and time again. Learning from the experiences of an outsourced marketing agency can provide valuable insights and strategies to enhance your content marketing efforts, and even drive more targeted traffic and engagement to your website.

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      5. Distribute the content you create.

      It's not enough to hit "Publish" and wait for customers to show up. After all, content marketing doesn't only work for organic search engine traffic. To get the most bang for your buck, you can repurpose the content you create, distribute it on non-search channels such as social and email, and promote it to new and existing audiences alike.

      Let's take a blog post for example. If you created a listicle that outlines 10 tips, you can create a social media graphic for each of the tips and do an informational series for your followers while promoting the full article and/or a related content offer.

      A social media plan like this should be part of every content marketing strategy, and every content marketing strategy should be developed with distribution in mind.

      6. Run ads for short-term results.

      Content marketing is a long-term play. While it can be extremely rewarding over time, you likely won't see immediate results. As you build your content platform, you'll need a way to generate leads and ROI in the short-term, and the best way to do that is with ads.

      Ads are "pay to play," so they're not as scalable as content marketing, but the benefit is that your ads will be shown to users shortly after you turn on the campaign.

      But which ads should you go with first? That will be determined by your ad strategy, but a good rule of thumb is this:

      • Google Search Ads - Best when people are already aware of the product/service you sell and search Google to find the right provider/vendor.
      • Social Ads - Because people don't go on social media specifically to shop, these are best when people are not aware of the product/service and you can catch their attention in a fun/visual way. Also good for finding niche audiences.
      • Display Ads - Best for brand awareness and re-targeting.

      7. Implement a digital PR strategy to increase buzz around your brand.

      Now if you want to get the most out of everything you do — particularly from a content creation perspective — why not amplify it with digital PR?

      Digital PR effectively takes everything good about traditional PR: press coverage, events, outreach, thought leadership content — and does the same for the online space. Suddenly, the assets you've created for your marketing activity can be retrofitted to suit PR purposes.

      In fact, digital PR goes one step further: the agency you work with will do their utmost to earn backlinks back to your website (editors and publications are notoriously difficult when it comes to keeping links in content). Subsequently, those reading your content via online publications can actually find your business, and the content itself is already optimized for search because you've done it already.

      All-in-all, digital PR will help to increase your startup's visibility both online and offline, helping you to get featured in key trade media relating to what you do and cause a positive stir in your industry.

      8. Measure and improve customer lifetime value (CLV).

      Because it's easier and less costly to retain or re-sell to existing customers than acquire new ones, it's critical for startups to intentionally track CLV and improve on it by:

      9. Establish and cultivate your reputation.

      87% of customers read online reviews for local businesses in 2020, an increase from 81% in 2019 (Bright Local). The internet allows customers to be more informed than ever during the buying process. A poor reputation can therefore hurt your marketing and sales efforts while a good reputation may help seal the deal.

      With this in mind, you should do what you can to make a positive impression:

      10. Build a referral engine.

      Despite all the digital marketing strategies and tactics out there, word of mouth is still powerful.

      This is especially true for those who intentionally improve the customer experience.

      Referrals often happen organically, but a referral marketing strategy can help you generate them faster. For example, you can:

      • Identify promoters and ask them if they know anyone who would benefit from your product/service.
      • Incentivize customers to refer their friends through a referral program.
      • Leverage user-generated content.
      • Build campaigns that are mutually beneficial or champion a cause your customers support.

      Startup Marketing Ideas

      The above strategies can give you a high-level sense of where to go, but executing it is a different story. To get a sense of how a marketing strategy can produce success for your startup, we're going to lay out some ideas. These ideas are from startups, and will help you visualize how a successful strategy can be helpful for your own marketing goals.

      1. Use paid ads to build a community.

      Starburst Data is a B2B company that helps companies understand their website analytics. They use a search query engine that organizes data, so customers can interpret large amounts of data quickly. This startup uses ads on LinkedIn to connect with its audience, like this one promoting their software:

      Starburst Data paid ads example

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      A content marketer for a company like Starburst has a good chance of finding its target audience on LinkedIn, since it's a platform for professional networking. Part of this marketing campaign involves using LinkedIn Ads to build community and provide helpful information.

      A similar B2B startup strategy could involve making use of a social media platform's paid ads offerings to cater to your audience. Alternatively, you can upload offers for free and use hashtags to get them seen by more prospective customers, like #B2BMarketing, or #MarTech.

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        2. Try social media to connect with customers.

        Social media marketing doesn't have to include spending money — it can be used to grow your audience and connect with existing members. Take Paperless Parts, for example, a manufacturing company with a stellar Facebook page:

        It's free to create a Facebook Business page and optimize it so leads and customers can find it. The Paperless Parts feed begins with recommendations and reviews from happy customers, showing that the business has a dedicated customer userbase. After that, the business posts videos that go behind-the-scenes of the manufacturing process, and also post reminders for webinars and other website content.

        A social media page for a startup that showcases customers provides helpful content and encourages audience participation is a free strategy to expand reach, bring clicks to your website, and show credibility in the industry.

        3. Crowdfunding marketing, which can generate press.

        Are you thinking about starting a crowdfunding campaign? If you do, you could earn great press from publications, expanding your campaign's reach. Take NeighborSchools, for example, which is a child care startup. NeighborSchools offers unique daycares from licensed and experienced professionals.

        NeighborSchool's website page.

        Image Source

        When the minds behind NeighborSchools began to seek funding to scale up their service, they turned to crowdfunding to seek out people who believed in the service and were able to invest. This tactic earned the company $3.5 million in seed funding, and the success caught the eye of major publications.

        Even if you have just a few customers, you can use your crowdfunding campaign as a marketing tactic to get more people interested in your business.

        4. Host a virtual meetup instead of a conference.

        Mabl is a Boston-based SaaS provider for machine learning test automation. It makes the lives of developers who have to test their solutions way easier. To build a larger community, Mabl hosted a virtual meetup with industry experts.

        Mabl's interactive webinar invite.

        Image Source

        The meetup's speakers educated its attendees about software testing. This idea is a cool, low-cost way to expand your professional network and provide valuable content for customers without hosting a conference.

        5. Use user-generated content to tell your story.

        Startups don't usually have the revenue to produce big-budget social media campaigns. For travel agency Hopjump, their marketing team found that the best way to tell their story is on Instagram. The business page is filled with clients enjoying their destination vacations, booked using the service:

        Customers who post their amazing travel pictures on Instagram can tag Hopjump for a chance to be featured on the page, and this also increases exposure for the startup. Satisfied customers can share their experiences with more of Hopjump's target audience.

        A marketing campaign that includes user-generated content is an easy, free way to work in testimonials. You can use your social media channels to execute the campaign and include hashtags for the chance to appear in more feeds.

        When thinking about campaign ideas, you might not have to look that far. You might be able to turn some of the tools you already have at your disposal to boost your campaign messages. Is there a webinar you can host about a topic, or a content offer you think will resonate particularly well with your LinkedIn audience?

        6. Create SEO-optimized content to attract high-intent visitors.

        SEO is another free, cost-effective strategy startup marketers can use to spread word about their business.

        But here's the caveat: of all the strategies mentioned, this one takes the longest.

        That's not to say it's incredibly time-consuming — it's not, but it is a continuous job. The more you optimize your website, the better it'll perform, which, in turn, will generate more leads for your company.

        We have to let you know that at this point, SEO won't net you leads or opportunities immediately, but it will lay the foundation for consistent success in the months and years to come.

        The idea behind SEO is that you optimize your web pages (and content) for keyword terms you know prospects use to find products or services like yours.

        Better yet, you identify long-tail keyword terms with low to medium competition and high search volume that are relevant to your product or service, and use those instead.

        You main service pages will, of course, be competing with other businesses in your space on many similar terms, but you can use the content you create to link to these pages, bolstering their SEO value over time and increasing their ranking on SERP results pages.

        Updating and optimizing your website will ensure it continues to grow and attract interested prospects for the long-term, so it's an opportunity you don't want to miss.

        7. Implement a referral program.

        Referral-based marketing has become the hype over the last few years as people increasingly look at product/service reviews, testimonials, and case studies to validate their purchase decisions.

        The aim behind this particular startup marketing idea is to leverage those who have already bought your product/service and ask them to advocate on your behalf — whether that's through a review, testimonial, or case study.

        This kind of content is invaluable because it shows and tells your potential customers that you have solved for others like them in the past. To increase the chances of your customers doing this for you, offer them discounts or free product trials.

        Additionally, you might consider giving away free keys, trials, or versions of your product to specific people. For example, a good way to gain press coverage and build brand awareness is to let tech journalists try your offering for free. They can then write a review and distribute it to the relevant online publications and link back to your website.

        Lastly, make sure that you feature these reviews prominently on your website. They help build trust and authenticity, both of which are key to making sales in today's digital-first world.

        Free Marketing Plan Template

        Outline your company's marketing strategy in one simple, coherent plan.

        • Pre-Sectioned Template
        • Completely Customizable
        • Example Prompts
        • Professionally Designed
        Learn more

          Download Free

          All fields are required.

          You're all set!

          Click this link to access this resource at any time.

          8. Offer a free or trial version of your product.

          One of the best ways to get your startup out there is to offer some kind of version of your product/service for free — and it's worked for a lot of businesses already.

          Canva, Dropbox, Zapier, HubSpot — all of these high-profile tech companies offer some kind of free/trial version of their product or service to let people try before they buy (or upgrade). As people use them and realize just how great these products are, they feel compelled to buy the full, "unlimited" version for all the bells and whistles. Great, right?

          HubSpot's freemium page

          Image Source

          But along with getting people to use your product — and inherently talking about how good it is as a result — it's all about lowering the customer's costs of acquisition. What a lot of businesses do with a freemium model is offer current trial users a discount on the full price of the software. This is significantly more appealing than paying the full price and can potentially convert more leads into paying customers very, very quickly.

          Also, for those who don't convert to paying customers with this offer, it enables you to understand what features or parts of your service are lacking. You can ask for feedback, make the necessary changes, and then roll them out to see who bites on the full product offering.

          For maximum effect, cross-reference what you offer against the main issues your buyer personas have in relation to technology like yours. Consider adding features to your product/service to address these problems (where possible). Maybe produce a roadmap and show people what they'll be getting. Transparency is a great way to increase users!

          Lastly, bear in mind that this approach does come with the risk that people might not want to upgrade to the full version. That said, be as clear as you can with what users can get from the full version and highlight how valuable it can be for them. Keep your coolest features under wraps!

          The Best Strategies Use a Combination of Ideas and Tactics

          If you want to get the best possible results when it comes to marketing, you need to focus on what works.

          While there are loads of different ways to achieve your goals, you should always focus on the most high-impact and cost-effective, and as a startup owner — I'm willing to bet you already know how important that is.

          The best strategies use a combination of what we've mentioned above and then analyze the performance of them to determine which ones require more or less investment. No matter what you do, remember that your marketing activities are only as good as your goals and targeting. Good luck!

          Editor's note: This post was originally published in July 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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