What Is Marketing In A Startup?

May 12, 2011 by comments 2

Tonight I led a panel discussion on startup marketing, as part of the Vilna Shul Speaker Series. The panel featured Founder Ace Bhattacharjya, CityVoter CEO Josh Walker, Serial Entrepreneur Rachel Blankstein, SherpaReport President Nick Copley, and Terametric VP of Marketing Chris Selland. It was a small but savvy crowd, and a lively back and forth spilled into the audience more than a few times.

The dialogue boiled down to a debate about what marketing really is in a startup environment, and what it’s becoming more generally.

So what is marketing in a startup? Well, bottom line, it’s a lot more than advertising. Most people agreed, and yet the two words are often used interchangeably in the panel, as they so often are in the wild. When someone talks about how marketing doesn’t matter much for a startup, they’re really talking about marketing communications… the importance of which seems to have declined precipitously not only for startups, but for businesses and brands across the board.

5 Levers of Startup Marketing

Advertising – marketing communications, really – is just one lever of Marketing (note capital “M”) in a startup. And it’s often the least important one.

Inbound marketing, to borrow a phrase from the HubSpot juggernaut, is another lever. Call it social marketing, content marketing, blog/twitter/facebook marketing… It’s the place most startups begin, in large part because it’s powered by passion instead of cash. But more than a cheap advertising, it’s also a great toolkit for pulling the other 3 levers.

Lead generation, or more specifically Funnel Development is the third lever. Dave McClure put this idea on the table a while ago, and David Skok has since taken it to a whole new level of science. It’s rooted in the belief that marketing is really just a process of breaking the bottlenecks in your sales funnel. If you can instrument your marketing process in a way that finds those bottlenecks, then execute to bust them open, you win. It’s interesting to me how much momentum this idea seems to have in VC circles right now, and that’s probably equal parts because it works and because it’s reassuring to the engineering types that lead most startups.

The fourth, and I would say most important lever of startup marketing is Product Strategy. Alex Bogusky’s Baked In really brought this idea into focus for me, but it boils down to the idea that, today, your product is your most important marketing vehicle. It needs to tell your story in a way that resonates in the marketplace, and if it doesn’t, no amount of “bolt-on” marketing is going to solve the problem.

The fifth and final lever, and the one which polarized the audience most intensely, is that of Brand Strategy. On one hand was the cheap logo crowd, noting the availability of great crowdsourcing options where all you need to get a logo is a dream and a $100. On the other were those who felt equally strongly that understanding the emotional value proposition of your offering, and placing that at the core of your entire marketing program, is the absolute key to success.

I closed the panel with a variation on a simple question: If you had $10 to spend on marketing an early stage, tech-oriented B2C startup, how much of it would you spend in each of these five dimensions of Big M Marketing?

Answers from the panel and the audience varied widely. So what’s yours?

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  • John Wall

    That’s an interesting way to cut it, I see advertising and inbound as channels, and the other three as strategies. When it gets down to tactics there’s a lot of overlap in the last 3. With $10 I’d spend 3 on inbound (and possibly advertising if there was something so well aligned that it actually brought in business – like virtual events to a community that’s a dead fit for your product). $5 towards funnel development which would include, email service provider, a CMS with Blog and Forums. Product strategy is a lot like inbound, a lot of passion but you can’t just throw cash at it. $2 for brand strategy, and I would include user events there. I’m not a fan of crowdsourcing, my experience is that it’s getting a huge group of Elementary School Kids to help you with your High School Homework.

    • Mike Troiano

      Fair point on the distinction between channels and strategies, John. Both compete for the finite bandwidth of startup marketing folks, though, so I’ll leave the question on the table. Also hear you on the importance of the funnel, you’re in good company with that pov. Thanks for stopping by.