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Laying the Foundation: A Marketing Toolkit for Early Stage Startups (Part 2)


“We deny that in order to do something we must first be willing to do it badly. Instead we opt for setting our limits where we feel assured of success… safety is a very expensive illusion.” – Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

As I detailed in the first installment of this series, these days it’s critical for startups to start building marketing capabilities earlier than it was in the past. In my experience as a CMO and operating adviser, I’ve found there are four main pillars that are essential to success in this endeavor:

Pillar #1: Start with the mission Pillar #2: Get the efficient, measurable things working ASAP Pillar #3: Invest early in engagement and loyalty Pillar #4: Hire selectively and surgically

I covered Pillar #1 in my prior post, so let’s dive into Pillar #2 today.

Pillar #2: Get the efficient, measurable things working ASAP

Building a marketing engine inevitably raises some uncomfortable questions around measurability. How do you balance revenue vs. ROI goals, for instance, when managing a paid media budget? Or, how do you determine if an investment in brand awareness or PR is helping to grow the business? While the management team may be eager to start experimenting with some marketing levers, it still wants to do so responsibly.

After defining the brand mission (see Pillar #1), I suggest focusing first on what’s directly measurable, rather than trying to do too many things at once. That discipline builds important muscle memory in the organization to drive continuous iteration and improvement, while also earning the team some leeway to experiment with some things that are by definition less tied to immediate ROI. To apply this ethos, it’s important to remember five underlying principles:

  1. Be smarter today than yesterday. A thoughtful approach to testing different acquisition channels, conversion strategies, and customer retention plans will ensure an organization is getting progressively more efficient in its marketing. This is a case where a little bit of extra process — around hypothesis definition, experiment design, and goal-setting — can ensure a team builds on its learnings every day. There’s no reason acquisition costs shouldn’t decrease over time if the organization is rigorous about how to test its way there.

  2. Don’t buy your way to growth. Investing in paid marketing, whether direct response or brand campaigns, often makes sense for a startup in growth mode. Once you identify the point of diminishing returns for paid media channels, you can determine how hard to press on the throttle. It’s important, however, that fledgling brands devote sufficient attention to getting the organic flywheel humming. The team should be focusing more on unlocking word of mouth potential than simply optimizing paid campaigns. Companies that don’t generate enough organic growth risk facing progressively higher acquisition costs, as well as a funding crunch when investors question whether the unit economics of the business are favorable enough to justify a big cash infusion.

  3. Define what success looks like in advance. A great test isn’t worth anything if, at the end, the team finds itself mired in a debate about whether the result was a successful one. It’s critical to set an objective hurdle beforehand and align with stakeholders on that target. Further, some marketing tactics will inevitably require proxy metrics. For instance, running a brand awareness campaign may not show an immediate impact on conversion rates, but organic site traffic and engagement can be valuable indicators of whether the campaign boosted interest in the brand and put a foundation in place for future growth. It’s important that the goal is specific to the type of marketing program you are running.

  4. Treat your website like your greatest marketing asset. While this precept may sound obvious, it often does not get enough attention. Regardless of the business you are in, prospective consumers or business customers want to learn about a new brand before they part with their money. Even if the company sells a consumer product in retail stores, the site is the place to build trust. A visit to Allbirds’ website, for example, educates prospects on the company’s unique approach to using natural wool to maximize the comfort of its shoes, while Slack’s site goes in depth to explain the product’s versatility in helping all types of teams communicate seamlessly.

  5. It’s OK to fail. Just make sure you learn from it. A failed experiment is a good thing. It teaches the team what not to do next time. Embrace that mindset!

Clarity and transparency with respect to mission and values, as well as an early focus on optimization of measurable activities, are both critical in enabling a consumer startup to start to get some early traction. Stay tuned for more insights and be sure to follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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