As with most aspects of starting a company from scratch, your startup marketing strategy will be pretty scrappy, based on the results of experiments that performed with little more than an idea and a gut feeling. And while you are certainly at risk of making mistakes by going down this path, you can still make the most of your marketing experiments by tracking their results and using them to build your strategy upon.

In this syndicated blog post, (Founder of MediaTech Ventures and Director of the Austin Founder Institute) outlines how early stage startups can establish a strong foundation for the strongest possible marketing strategy.

The article, "Entre to the Internet; Marketing for Startups ", originally appeared at seobrien.com, and has been republished below with permission.

As you get started with marketing or growth hacking (which, frankly, is nothing more than what CMOs these days should be doing), appreciate that marketing is the practice of asking the right questions and executing work based on those answers; as a startup, you don’t have all the answers so your marketing is your means of validation as much as it is growth: working together to ensure you have a customer, a market, and a scalable business.

How do you validate your startup?

  1. Fail, fail fast, fail frequently
  2. Collaboration and focus create synergy
  3. The results that matter are not the results that matter

Startups fail all the time. In my experience, those that fail, truly fail as the team moves on to other endeavors, fail to embody these core beliefs in their teams.

Fail, fail fast, fail frequently

Companies that chase success, reward what works while ignoring (or worse, punishing) what doesn’t, aren’t trying hard enough.

When you find a technique that works, put it in market and move on. Your competition is right behind you and they WILL discover the same opportunity. Keep trying new channels, new stories, new user experiences, new support services, etc. Never stop. And NEVER discourage the failures. In fact, reward them.

One of the most successful startup cultures with which I was involved spent every Friday morning as a company with everyone sharing what they had screwed up that week. The failures were applauded, jeered a bit, and ultimately the most significant failure was awarded. The companies that encourage their teams to try so hard they are more likely to fail than succeed, are the companies that find incredible opportunities. Most importantly, because they learn and fail fast.

Collaboration and focus create synergy

By way of an marketing based analogy to help appreciate this point, years ago, I shared the idea that our definition of search engine optimization as a marketing technique was doing a terrible disservice to everyone working online. SEO is really performance architecture and the most significant impact you can have is when your entire organization architects your website (and your business) for search.

This requires the singular focus of your entire business – not just your web designer, social media, your marketing director, customer support team, and business development executive but YOU, the business owner or founder – doing your part. We’re only going to touch briefly on SEO in this post (learn some more here if you’d like), my point is that you will be most successful when you engage an experienced marketing advisor, VP, or mentor to help drive the organization as a team; you will fail if you’re hoping to hire someone to do your marketing for you.

The results that matter are not the results that matter

A mouthful to say, I realize; think of it this way.

You are most likely reading this because you hope to grow with more customers; after all, the feedback from your early investors and advisors is to get more customers: more foot traffic, more sales, more downloads, etc. If that’s you’re sole focus, you need a young advertising or lead gen resource who can spin up an Adwords campaign for you and get you some customers; invariably, you’ll fail as a startup as you’re not doing marketing, that’s advertising and at the stage you’re at, you will be disappointed, they’ll run out of opportunity to grow the business, or your competition will do the same and more – and put you out of business.

What are you really trying to achieve? Marketers help you deliver that mission. Startups, generally, are looking to raise capital and gain market share.

Let’s stop now. If you are a mobile app developer simply looking for more downloads, a local business trying to understand how to get more paying clients, or even a business trying to learn customer acquisition, read no further; this isn’t for you. Bluntly, by my definition, you aren’t a startup and while sure, you are starting a business, I’m speaking to those who are disrupting markets, innovating industries, and changing lives. If you’re in business to make a difference, more than a living, read on; your results are different than merely acquiring customers. How do we succeed in that?

Foundation, Function, and Finesse

To help you do that, effective Marketing develops that process through a foundation, functional advertising and lead gen, and some finesse. Ask your team now if they’ve put this architecture in place for your organization and if they haven’t, seriously consider investing in more focus as such. Because this is how we really scale new ventures.

How We Scale Startups

Your Foundation

Your venture will fail to grow significantly without an investment in your foundation; the foundation upon which skyscrapers are built:

  1. Website
  2. Analytics
  3. Technical SEO
  4. Optimization
  5. Lead capture and email

Frustrating for many business owners, looking for short term growth and immediate return, is that these efforts will not deliver that. And yet, without doing these, any marketer worth their salt will laugh in your face when you try to hire them if you aren’t willing to invest here and expecting your marketer to own these programs. Without this work, without this time and money spent, marketers you bring in to acquire customers will fail to make you a successful venture – you may acquire customers and build a nice lifestyle business, but you won’t scale into your market quickly and significantly enough to matter.


Theme Forest – $250 / month – $50-2000 investment

Here I’m undoubtedly going to piss off a bunch of website designers. Tough. In the same breath that I’m going to tell you NOT TO HIRE AN SEO AGENCY (or a social media consultant), I’m going to point out that you should have an incredibly well designed, gorgeous website, for about $300.

Build your website in WordPress. Stop, I know what you want to ask… what about Drupal or… Stop. WordPress is used by, I don’t know, something like 60% of the ENTIRE internet to power everything from blogs to eCommerce sites. It’s supported by millions of developers, designers, and entrepreneurs. At the time of my talk to Owlspark, there a was an announcement that 1 in 5 of the top 100 websites is built on WordPress. It’s largely free. Use WordPress.

If Google Ventures can run a site on WordPress, so can you. Start by spending an hour or two with Theme Forest. Pick a theme for about $50. Hire a WordPress developer who can design if you must but I can almost guarantee you don’t need them. There is a design for almost everything and you can pay thousands to get your own site designed exactly as you want it or you can pay hundreds to have something just as incredible, more likely more effective, and save your money. If you can’t figure it out, hire a local to launch it for you (but only if they can outline what they are going to do for you SEO, Social Media, Lead Gen, Analytics, etc. AND that they are going to turn over EVERYTHING to you – including hosting). If you need something more technical built, WordPress developers overseas are around $10 / hour – NO, don’t just hire them blindly as yes, the horror stories are usually true – find someone who works with them and hire them to benefit from that efficiency overseas (ask me).

How do you get a theme onto a functioning website? Stop trying to figure out Godaddy, HostGator, and the like. Sign up with WPEngine and they’ll take care of the backend.

Design is paramount! Good design increases your conversion rates, reduces bounce rates, improves word of mouth, and generally boosts the performance of your business but great designs likely already exist for what you’re doing. As part of your foundation, build a great website with a modest investment – No search engine marketing for you if your website sucks.


Google Analytics – $0 / month – $500 investment

Period. I know, you’ve heard about this incredible new intelligence tool and your CTO really wants to put in place the hottest analytics app. Bottom line: Google Analytics is free, it’s integrated with AdWords, it has A/B testing built in, and when set up properly, it is the most valuable technology on the market. There’s the catch, you have to use it. Not just your marketing team, EVERYONE has to understand it, demand of it, and use it. That investment, as such, is about what it takes to get someone who knows what they are doing to ensure you’ve set it up right.

Make sure you have Goal and Event tracking set up and valued. Spend some time enabling Remarketing. Enable Google Webmaster Tools. Use Segmentation – liberally! You can track the impact of even Word of Mouth in some incredible ways if you spend time with Segmentation. Understand funnels, reverse goal paths, and assisted conversion reports. Make sure you strategically develop your use of Campaign Tracking and don’t just throw up parameters that seem to make sense. Finally, set up Dashboards for EVERYONE in the organization and expect them to report out in your team meetings FROM those reports – make them use them and don’t waste your time with presentations and charts.

You know what, there’s a ton to know about Google Analytics so just last week I wrote this: Google Analytics for Startups.

Technical SEO

Your Developers – Part of your culture – $2000 investment

What the heck is Technical SEO? Odds are, you’ve considered or even an “SEO Agency,” or been told copy, keyword optimization, and link building is what it takes. LIES. Report those people to the Better Business Bureau and do you part to help clean up the economy.

Getting your site effectively indexed by search engines starts with:

  1. Great site architecture, an understanding of navigation and user experience
  2. An appreciation of bounce rates and how to deal with them (hint: refer to my point about good design when working with your website)
  3. Appreciating the significance of social media

Essentially, building a website that works and a website that works for your business has to be built and managed by your business. Hence getting started with WordPress. Presuming you’ve done that, install and completely set up this to take care of most of the technical SEO: WordPress SEO


Google Analytic’s Content Experiments – $0 / month – Part of your culture

Still not sold on Google Analytics over other intelligence tools? Optimization testing is part of the package.

A solid A/B testing platform that puts the responsibility of optimization in everyone’s hands. Test: messaging, buttons, calls to action, forms, colors, etc. NEVER stop testing. Have every department (who now has access to Google Analytics because they have a dashboard – right?) responsible for optimizing their part of the site from Business Development down to Customer Service. Still wondering why GA is so much more valuable? When doing this testing, Google Analytics has already built in source referral tracking, keywords referrals, visitor location, click stream, events, conversion goals, etc. You can optimize based on an endless number of variables and not just the sale.

How to get started? It’s in Google Analytics. Click on the left, Behavior and then Experiments. Follow the guided set up and you’re up and running!

Lead Capture and Email

MailChimp – less than $100 / month – $500 per month

What I want you to start appreciating is that email leads and marketing are as much a source of market intelligence as they are communication tools.

Ensure that your site is designed and built to enable EVERY opportunity to capture an email address. Store every email address in your email marketing platform – no, you can’t email to all of them unless they opt-in – but you can capture and maintain them all. Segment your email database by location and context so you can effectively leverage those addresses in other ways. Certainly email those you can, twice a month at least. Make sure you test plain old text email from you personally vs. that marketing newsletter from a generic email address – you’ll be surprised how much more effective that personal note is than advertising via email. Now, the first source of intelligence about those email addresses (all of them), check out Fliptop (MailChimp has it built in) – Fliptop will give you a social profile of everyone they can – where they live, name, their social network profiles, etc. While you can’t email, you can learn about and connect with everyone.

How do you capture those addresses? Set up Gravity Forms in WordPress to power all of your forms, registration, commerce, etc. and link it to your MailChimp account.

Functional Marketing

With that foundation in place, we can get to the programs for which most business owners try to hire. Don’t misunderstand that we (marketers, sales, and business development professionals) know you really only want to pay for more customers so let me characterize the importance of that foundation this way: You can spend $5 to acquire a new customer; say, through search engine marketing, OR, you can spend the same $5 to acquire 3 new customers, 2 new partners, 10 email addresses for various reasons, and understand how you influenced other search behavior and acquired a few more leads through your organic search results.

Unless your entire organization is rigorous about time and energy invested in that foundation, you aren’t doing enough to ensure your functional marketing programs will work.

How then do you fail if you’re getting positive results? Because your competition is doing the same thing.

We’re growing 20% year over year. What can you do for us?

What if we can’t afford what our competition is bidding on keywords?

If you can’t prove to me that your foundation is humming like a well oiled machine and 20% is all you can get, that growth is failing to keep up. If your competition can afford more, you’re doing something wrong. What? We need that foundation to find out.

Functional marketing starts with:

  1. Search Engine Marketing
  2. Social Advertising
  3. Marketing Automation
  4. Lead Marketing

Search Engine Marketing

Google AdWords – Usually $1000 / month ($2000 with help) – Performance based investment

Remember why I said you should only use Google Analytics?… Okay, I won’t go there again.

Start Search Marketing simply: your brand terms and product names.

But wait Paul! I’m not paying for for clicks on my own name!

You’re a startup. Let’s make sure we capture everyone interested in you, your brand, your co-founder, your product name, etc. Start simply to learn about SEM by ensuring that when a potential angel investor looks for that hair-brained idea he heard something about, you show up.

Ultimately, we’re starting here so you can build a foundation to your program so that it performs well – effective search marketing is about contextual relevance between the keywords, ads, ad groups, and campaigns that you are running. We’re starting with your own brand terms so you can appreciate how that works – you don’t run ad copy promoting Product A on a key word for Product B.

Next, work into category and industry terms by adding new campaigns and ad groups as needed to keep that context as relevant as possible. When I was at HP, we had hundreds of campaigns and ad groups; if you think a word or ad should have it’s own group, it should. Next, ALWAYS BE OPTIMIZING. Never stop removing bad ad copy and trying new (remember, your site is doing the same so you are constantly improving performance).

Lastly, appreciate the indirect benefits of Search Engine Marketing as much as a conversion – if you are investing in future bids only based on a sale – you will fail. SEM increases the performance of organic search, it drives awareness, it prevents competition, it helps partners find you, it helps customers solve problems. AND the search data itself (keyword search volume, trends, click behavior and patters), is invaluable.

Social Adversiting

LinkedIn, Twitter, & Facebook – Performance based cost – $1000 investment

The best way to comprehend why/how I can say that Advertising isn’t Marketing to understand what’s going on in Social Networks. Social Marketing is NOT Social Advertising and advertising in social is not the same as search engine marketing. Quick definitions:

  • Social Network: the site on which you have a social profile (e.g. Faceb00k)
  • Social Media: the aggregate of social sites and activities (e.g. LinkedIn and your tweets comprise social media)
  • Social Marketing: the act of marketing (promoting your business AND learning) by way of a Social Network and throughout Social Media
  • Social Advertising: buying ads on Social Networks.

What we’re talking about doing here is paying to promote what you’re doing. Advertising. Why is that so distinct from SEM? Search Marketing reaches an audience searching for something related to you with an intent to act. It’s more efficient and you can learn from those volumes, trends, and intentions. Social Advertising is not remotely the same and just because both are CPC (Cost per click) based, doesn’t mean they are alike in any way.

What are we trying to do here? Reach our highly targeted audience. You want to reach ONLY Customer Service VPs in Michigan? Done. Make sure though that you use each Network as that network is ideally situated. That is, on each of the major three, consider using them as such:

  • Twitter: Always @ someone to get their attention. Auto-tweet your blog to streamline your use of twitter
  • Facebook: Viral marketing works here, find reasons people will Like, Comment, and Share your content
  • LinkedIn: Target very precisely based on individuals’ professional responsibility

Marketing Automation

ORBTR – At least $500 / month – Variable investment

Marketing Automation is about tracking all known individuals as they interact with your site. This allows you to do a few things like scoring email addresses for your Sales or Business Development teams so they know where to prioritize their time, automatically emailing people based on what they do, or automating some customer support efforts.

Automatically emailing?? I thought we couldn’t email people who haven’t given us permission, right?? Right. As a company. Individuals do it all the time. Use Marketing Automation to send a personal email from you (or your Sales person) to them to set up a call. But from where do you get the email addresses so that you “know” these people? – Marketing Automation isn’t nearly as valuable if you don’t have the email addresses with which to identify people (though it can still be helpful in identifying traffic from companies – based on IP addresses). Recall our foundation? You are capturing EVERYONE in every way you can and putting them here. Now ask yourself (or me), how might you get your hands on more email addresses?

Lead Marketing

Data.com – $300 for a few thousand names – $1500 investment

Build your list of contacts.

While you can’t email folks, you can do quite a few things with the list.

1. Sending post cards and sales or flyers with deals is about as archaic a waste of money as there can be but send a personal thank you or invitation and you have the highest open rate (to use the email marketing term) you can imagine. Work with a print designer who can manufacture such letters, notes, and invitations in bulk (not design them, print them), and make sure they are personalized. Your investment is in that print work and to acquire target contacts and addresses via a platform like Data.com

2. Call them

3. Manage that list in MailChimp with your Fliptop account plugged in to get social profiles about all of your contacts. Who are they on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn?

The Finesse

Hopefully you’ve grasped that your foundation is a bit of a fixed investment and a shift in your culture. Your functional marketing consists of programs, largely performance based, that can often be outsourced but are usually better served by hiring someone with experience. Now it’s time for the finesse and I want you to go into these ideas constantly considering where and how domain expertise really pays off – because while expertise is invaluable here, this is work best done in-house.

  1. Marketing SEO & Content
  2. Public Relations
  3. Social Marketing
  4. Lead Management

Marketing SEO & Content

Raven – $500 / month – $1500 investment

You and your business need to think like your audience: Google does. That’s the big secret in SEO. All that science, that algorithm, those ranks, the optimization…. it’s all about creating a technology that thinks as much like a person as possible. Weeding out the junk and promoting the right stuff. You don’t need to understand much more than that.

Take a look at your website, assuming you handled your Technical SEO properly your URLs (addresses), navigation, links, and calls to action should all make sense to you. You should be able to look at the address of a webpage and know exactly what it’s about. Think like your audience. If you haven’t yet accomplished that, get started.

Marketing SEO is really about intelligence. Track every imaginable keyword related to your business. Not just product, brand, industry, and category names but track your partners’, competitors’, sponsors’, and employees’. Track them all through an analytics tool that gives you insight to the demand for those terms, how you perform, where you appear, and the trends and changes in those words.

With that data in place, create pages, static pages (not “landing pages”) for key concepts, locations, products, and services in which you have opportunity. Develop relationships with bloggers in your industry and work with them to tell unique stories about those themes (consider starting with those affiliates we’ve nurtured). Ultimately, think like a person; don’t write optimized headlines or try to game how this works – Google is trying to provide results like a person so you will reap the greatest reward if you simply write for that audience.

Public Relations

DIY – $500 / month – $2500 investment

Note, this is really important, Public Relations or PR, does not refer to press. In the same sense that Marketing is not JUST advertising for sales, press is but a small part of the finesse of public relations. That said, starting with the press, deal with them directly. Put a reminder on your calendar to call key, local and industry reporters once a month.

The press covers things that are top of mind; your press release, your sudden need for coverage, your desire for a story does not put you top of mind – your relationship with the press does. What does the press cover? Notable business news (not your latest product or feature release but stories of growth, significant hires, fund raising, etc.) or industry stories in which you could be featured as an interview or source of information (HARO is a great place to start). Ever wonder where those industry interest pieces come from?? It starts with you.

With that in mind, keep in mind that Bloggers are often more valuable than press. Bloggers, generally, better understand SEO, social media, and they take the time to link to and promote you; press all too often doesn’t. While the press might have greater reach, a well placed blog post will often yield greater indirect impact.

Now, a word about “PUBLIC” relations. Your strategy here needs to most appreciate that second core tenet: Collaboration and focus create synergy. Everyone in your company is dealing with the public so don’t leave this stuff to an agency or marketing department. Is your Business Development team sharing your story? Does Customer Support report reactions and enable social media conversations? Are YOU blogging on your own site and supporting your business through you Facebook account? Is Sales speaking your language or simply doing whatever it takes to close a sale? Yes, you might want to hire an agency, but realize that you are hiring their ability to craft and tell a story – NOT their ability to write and publish a press release, their connections in the industry, or the change they can make on how your organization deals with the public: that needs to happen from within.

Social Marketing

DIY – $500 / month & $75 per post – $1000 investment

Are you one of those businesses or business owners who has tried blogging and think it’s a waste of time? Go home, you’re going to fail. Social marketing is about telling stories and it STARTS with a blog.

If you are trying Facebook or investing in Tweets without first sharing or telling those stories on your blog, you are wasting an opportunity. Remember the point that Google thinks like a person? What do people do these days? They validate things through their friends (Facebook and Twitter), then they turn to content to confirm, learn more, or engage an idea, and that influences their decisions. Google does the same. Without a blog, that content isn’t YOU.

If you think a blog, or Facebook, or Twitter, is going to get your customers, go home, you’re going to fail. Not directly anyway. You are in social media to establish yourself in your industry, create awareness, and generate excitement for what you’re doing. Stop trying to tweet your latest deal, share your new product, or blog about your holiday sale – no one cares. Blog about innovations in your industry, potential partners, business news, and exciting developments so that you can capture Google and the audience that’s looking for that insight. You want to be the brand delivering that information. THEN share it with your fans on Facebook and Twitter, remember to @ all of the parties involved in the story so you get their attention, and appreciate that your fans are the individuals most likely to spread such stories on your behalf – they aren’t likely to tell all their friends about your latest sale. In many respects, think of social media as business development more than marketing as the ability it has to develop your reputation and create awareness with other businesses is tremendous – far more valuable than trying to sell something therein.

Lean Management

Nimble & Pipedrive – $50 / month – $500 investment

You’ve captured everyone and are automatically communicating with them, how do manage all of that value?? It takes some finesse and the collaboration of a CRM (Nimble) with a deal flow management platform (Pipedrive). We’re going to push your contacts into these tools and let them simplify your life by automatically maintaining your contact list, tracking your contacts’ use of social media, and giving your organization transparency to where those contacts are in your pipeline.

Now you have intelligence about user engagement with your business and you can start identifying, efficiently, why they don’t buy, what they’d like changed, budget constraints, customer service issues, and more, all while staying connected with everyone by way of their preferred social networks. This is the icing on the cake, the way in which we put everything together to make your business really hum.

Website > Analytics > Forms > Mailchimp > Orbtr > Nimble > Pipedrive

Startup Marketing All Put Together

Still with me? I’m impressed, I do hope, in particular, that you’ll share some thoughts in the comments below; tell me I’m wrong, share your experiences, suggest a better tool, criticize one that I’ve favored. Heck, the pace of innovation means that my suggestions from months ago are already out of date so how long will it be before we have better solutions available to us now?

Without your foundation, without the functional programs, a story in the media or a blog tweeting stories will fall flat. Without the foundation, your work on a search marketing campaign will yield misleadingly positive results at best and missed opportunity at least. With this pyramid approach to your marketing strategy, your finesse will blow away the competition as they continue to struggle with sales and lead gen alone.

Marketing for Startups from Paul OBrien

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