The internet is a cost-effective, versatile channel for entrepreneurs who want to build an audience and scale their business. We’ve gathered the premier methods of digital marketing for startups into this checklist of steps so that you can get to work on growing your brand — quickly.
According to 2016 numbers, entrepreneurs launch 550,000 new businesses every month. That’s a lot of competition. Marketing a brand new company in such a sea of startups can feel like shouting over the sturm and drang of a 100-piece symphony orchestra. On top of that, you’re going toe to toe with established category leaders and their well-oiled marketing machines.
But don’t let the breadth of the field overwhelm you. There are plenty of ways to cut through the noise and reach your target audience without breaking the bank. You’ve just got to do things a little differently.
Digital marketing for startups is all about finding cost-effective ways to scale valuable messages from a small team. You won’t win on budget and resources alone, but luckily, you’re not trying to.
- Strategy is something you can laser focus on; too many companies lack a clearly defined content marketing strategy and schedule. It’s not enough to spin out material like a content-powered gerbil wheel. You need to back that content up with analytics, research, and SEO to prime it for success.
- Quality is something you can control; it doesn’t take a multinational brand to produce impactful material. Be thoughtful, deliberate, and put yourself in the audience’s shoes.
- Reach is possible without a pre-established brand. Affiliate programs, guest blogging, influencer marketing, and automation tools are just a few ways to boost the size of your audience quickly.
None of these are prohibitively expensive. Online marketing for startups is far cheaper than print or traditional marketing, and more effective too. Research has shown that digital content marketing costs 62% less than conventional channels for nearly 3x the leads. It’s no wonder why 9 in 10 businesses used content marketing in 2018 (86% of B2C and 91% of B2B companies, to be specific).
So where do you start?
STRATEGY: Smart Digital Marketing For Startups
You can’t start pumping out digital content without knowing who’s going to read it or how they’ll find it. Keywords, SEO, and your channels of choice all act as gatekeepers for your audience’s eyes. A serious digital marketing strategy should start with these three priorities:
Build a Relevant Keyword List
Keywords require careful targeting. When people are looking for the solution your company provides, what are they typing into Google?
Digital marketing for startups isn’t all about organic search — email, social media, and promoted content matter too — but it is the cornerstone of a cost-effective, evergreen strategy. If folks can find your marketing material without you lifting a finger, the potential savings are limitless.
The core of your keyword list should be the 3-5 keywords that sum up your startup’s value proposition. What are you offering that sets you apart? The larger collection of secondary keywords can be more granular and act as focuses for small pieces of content.
- Super relevant
- High traffic
- Low competition
Long tail and short tail terms
Spend Time on SEO
Adblockers can make digital advertising tough. But they serve a purpose — ads are interruptive, and most consumers aren’t interested in seeing them. Content, on the other hand, is opt-in by nature.
SEO helps your target audience find you when they genuinely want to see what you have to offer. This is fundamentally different from social media, where you’re trying to distract people from their lives long enough for a visit to your website. The 500 million people searching Google every day are actually searching for something. Make sure they can find you.
Keeping track of your performance on keywords matters (and so does tweaking as necessary), but don’t neglect to take linking and backlinking seriously:
- Internal Links that connect your web pages and blogs can help move visitors around your site. These links can also increase traffic, as you’re funneling people’s attention towards related content and product pages.
- Outbound Links to reputable sources and industry news sites help boost your web pages and thought leadership content in search rankings. The more you associate yourself with other respected, high-traffic pages, the more trustworthy your brand becomes in the eyes of a consumer.
- Backlinks that lead from reputable sources back to your pages have more value than any other attribute in search algorithms. Which news sources are linking to your competitors? Have leaders in your space written articles that mention something you cover in your content? Reach out and suggest your page for a backlink. The footwork will pay off.
Tools like Monitor Backlinks will let you see who’s linking to you. Better yet, you can check who’s linking to your competitors and reach out to see if they’d like to link to your content as well.
Find the Right Channels
Google is the king, but it’s not the only search engine out there. YouTube, the second-place search engine, has over 50 million searches a day, and video content is in ever-higher demand. There’s less competition for video search keywords, but the content itself could have an even higher impact on digital marketing for startups.
Consumers are more interested in seeing videos from brands than any other form of content. Consider trying:
- Expert interviews
- Event videos
- 360-degree and VR Videos
A social media presence is a great way to get more bang for your content buck as well. LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social networks allow you to join conversations your target audience is already invested in. Join relevant groups and share content (your own and links to related content you found valuable) to spark conversations and drive interest back to your site.
A steady, scheduled stream of valuable content and commentary will build the size and depth of your audience’s engagement over time. Targeting the networks or groups where your audience is active means you aren’t relying exclusively on broad Google searches to attract attention.
QUALITY: Market Like a Venture Capitalist
There’s something to be said for a large quantity of digital content, sure. Businesses that publish 16 or more blogs a month drive 3.5x more traffic than those who publish 4 or less. But many startups only have one or two people devoted full time to marketing.
While building a content catalog is valuable, there’s only so much you can write before the quality drops. Prioritize value above all else, or you may end up diluting your image before you’re off the ground.
Prove Your Expertise
VC firms (who for many years didn’t do any “marketing” beyond PR) can teach us a lesson, here. Here’s some quick background: Over the last few years, content marketing and internet-based thought leadership have taken the venture capital world by storm. VCs started to learn that they could attract more interested entrepreneurs if they were seen as leaders in the investment space — with social proof.
VCs like Andreessen Horowitz (a firm that invested in Groupon, Airbnb, Twitter, and Skype) use online content to prove they know more about the VC space than anyone else. Knowledgeable content builds trust every time entrepreneurs consume their high-quality work. Co-founder Marc Andreessen says that thought leadership content “gives entrepreneurs a great deal of comfort to already understand us before they walk in the door.”
Quality Over Quantity
Camille Ricketts, the Head of Content for notable VC blog “First Round Review,” only writes twice a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays). Nevertheless, the firm she works for has grown a massive audience. First Round Capital launched the blog in July 2013 and have used content marketing to establish themselves as a leading voice. To date, they’ve attracted over 100,000 newsletter subscribers and regularly have half a million monthly web visitors.
She says of their success, “I think that's what ends up happening when you're very focused on very high quality content, you end up having a broader appeal than you would if you're trying to produce things for many different audiences at once.”
Their strategy was to take their time and produce the very best, most useful, most informative, and most authoritative long-form material. The results speak for themselves. Even a startup with only one marketer can set a high bar for quality on a modest schedule.
Trust Takes Time and Patience
Quick, bite-sized content is an easy trap to fall into. It can feel like the more you produce, and the faster you produce it, the more of a difference you’ll make. In the long run, a tidal wave of lackluster content will just contribute to the overwhelming static in an already crowded world of digital marketing for startups.
Chris Cavallini, the founder of Nutrition Solutions, says, “I suggest investing more in the front-end and making sure your content is the best possible representation of your company. Your content is often the first thing people see. And if what they see is average, they’re going to assume your company, product, service and team are average as well.”
It takes time to build the relationships and trust that you want with your target audience, but the upfront investment is worth it. The last thing you want is to develop a reputation for being “average.”
REACH: Give Your Small Business a Big Voice
It takes time to develop a meaningful relationship with an audience of thousands, but you don’t have to wait. Start by connecting with platforms and people that already have these relationships:
Existing customers are your best marketing resource. One of the lowest-cost forms of digital marketing for startups, referral marketing (AKA “affiliate” marketing), puts customers at the center. Mostly, you encourage customers to refer your product or service to others in return for a commission whenever the referral creates a conversion.
Try signing up with a digital affiliate network, such as:
Next, invite website visitors to join the referral program with prominent messaging. Suddenly your customers are doing the footwork for you. Each customer brings their entire personal network into play — a group that will include people you might not reach in other ways. Best of all, customers trust recommendations from friends and family over any type of online marketing and advertising your brand can create.
If you don’t have an audience yet, you can always borrow one. Post as a contributing writer for a well-known publication (like Entrepreneur or Medium) or a more focused one that’s respected within your space. This will build your reputation at the same time as it harnesses the much more robust traffic of the publication’s pre-existing audience.
Many blogs accept guest contributions openly via a writers’ or contributors’ page. If you can’t find one, find an editor on social media and ask to send a draft of your idea.
Another way to borrow an audience is to work with influencers in your space. As you grow your reputation, it will be easier to attract influencers as guest bloggers on your startup’s site. Don’t forget to let the contributor know when their article goes live so that they can promote it on their website.
Chris Cavallini of Nutrition Solutions also advocates this tactic. “Aside from all the other benefits of influencer marketing — like reaching bigger, more targeting audiences,” he says, “influencers just create better content. Period. It feels more genuine, more authentic, and a lot of them are highly creative. There is huge benefit in having influencers help tell your brand’s story.”
Start a list of influencers to touch base with. Who writes popular blogs in your niche? Who is appearing in search results for your target keywords? Keep in mind that journalists and leaders in the community can be as influential as celebrities, and are generally much easier to connect with.
Email marketing used to be about amassing mailing lists and sending newsletters. Nowadays, marketing automation has changed the game. Current software can create and send highly personalized messages, based on custom triggers, with responsive templates and branching workflows.
With automation, your startup team can do more with less. HubSpot even has a program with automation tools and support specifically for scaling businesses — HubSpot for Startups.
You can capture email addresses through subscriptions to newsletters or your blog, but gated content like downloadable eBooks or whitepapers can also be highly effective.
Email has an average ROI of $38 for every $1 spent, and a higher conversion rate than social media and organic search combined. Returns like that can go a long way toward maximizing your small team’s impact.
Ready For Liftoff
In the startup scaling world, a lot is made of being in the right place at the right time. But success isn’t all happenstance. You probably spent a lot of time and effort to get yourself into a position where you can be in those right places, after all.
If 80% of life is “showing up,” as the saying goes, then some might say the other 20% of life is following up. Harness the power of big data and analytics to keep a bead on your marketing strategy. Inbound strategies like digital content marketing can take time to build momentum, but it’s up to you to track progress over time so you know what’s working, what’s not, and what to do next.