marketing 101 backboard

Update: This post made it to #5 on Hacker News, thanks everyone! I wish there was a way to integrate the comments on the thread. To check them out, click here. 

Since the acquisition was announced in December, I’ve been inundated with emails from entrepreneurs wanting to meet over a cup of coffee to talk about their idea or startup. Although my time has been more limited with my new position at NetLine, I try to set them up on weeknights or weekends and provide helpful feedback when I can. One of the recurring themes I’m seeing is technical founders building a product for themselves. I wish I would have been in their shoes. That is, until I find out they’re forging ahead without a marketing plan.

Over and over, I hear them say “I know my user because I AM my user and all I have to do is show them my product. They’ll buy it.” Here’s a typical dialogue:

  • “How are you going to find these users?” “I’m going to approach them and tell them about it.”
  • “Where are you going to find them?” “On Twitter, Facebook or [insert site here]“
  • “How are you going to make them listen to you?” “I’ll send them an email or respond to a forum [or something similar]“
  • “Are you going to send emails to all your users? Why are they going to care?

By this time, most of them understand they haven’t fully fleshed out their go-to-market strategy and they turn it back on me and ask me for ideas. It’s as if they assume because they gave me a two-minute spiel of their product or service, my brain is magically going to overflow with promotional ideas that will generate their first one hundred users.

If only it was that easy!

With this post, my goal is to provide a methodology for building the framework of a marketing plan. It is geared towards those with a technical background although anyone can take advantage of this structure.

Marketing 101 for Developers:

Step 1) Learn everything you can about your target market

market research

Before you can devise a plan on how you’re going to get your first users, you need to understand them. This is especially true if you classify yourself as your own user. Too often, I read stories on Hacker News of technical founders whose own assumptions turn around to bite them because they couldn’t take themselves out of the picture.

This is comparable to the requirements you would put together before starting development. It is the most imperative component of building a marketing plan and too often, it’s not given enough time. Who is your typical user? Where do they hang out? What do they like? What do they not like? Where do they fall in the adoption cycle? What are their demographics? Psychographics? etc.

I like to start this by researching what bloggers are saying about similar tools and services. I write down a list of keywords that pertain to my product and market and Google it one by one. I open up multiple tabs of pages that are relevant and start reading. I compile notes on a separate document with what I’ve learned. I also include links to the respective page if the information is really valuable in case I want to reach out to that person in the future.

Next, I take the same keywords and turn to listening on Twitter. For example, we’re promoting a new RSS to Email tool at RevResponse. This product takes RSS feeds and automatically converts them to email newsletters that site owners can provide their readers. I came up with the following keywords:

  • RSS to Email tool
  • convert RSS to Email
  • Feedburner alternatives
  • Feedburner sucks
  • hate Feedburner
I was able to add the last two to my list during my initial research. I saved all these keywords as searches on Twitter. Every day, I go through them to see what people are saying. When someone says something I don’t understand, I reach out to them and ask them to elaborate. This is a great way to start building relationships with future users. Because we’re further along, I’ll ask what they’re looking for in an RSS to Email tool and relay that feedback to my team.

While the research aspect is often a one-time process, the listening process should be on-going. Once you feel like you have a good understanding of the space, it’s time to validate your assumptions and ensure you know exactly who you’re going after and what they want from a product or service like yours. Surveys are a great way to do this. I love using Wufoo and Google Forms.  I’ve also seen Survey.io mentioned on Hacker News although I have not used it yet. For useful resources on how to tackle this section, check out the links below.

  1. Survey Design – A comprehensive guide on designing and launching a successful survey.
  2. 5 Tips for Better Online Surveys – From the guru himself, Seth Godin provides insights into how to create better surveys.
  3. How I Used Amazon Mechanical Turk to Validate my Startup Idea – A entrepreneur discusses how she used Amazon Mechanical Turk to distribute her survey.
  4. Using Facebook in Market Research – Helpful tips on how to use Facebook ads to gain responses from your target market.
  5. Talk to Your Target Customer in 4 Easy Steps – Andrew Chen describes how to write a survey, recruit participants and distribute it online.
For a more targeted way to get the right group of people to answer your survey, there’s also a service called “Ask Your Target Market.” It allows you to input the demographics of the participants you’re looking for and it will distribute your survey for a nominal fee. Of course, keep in mind this is more appropriate after you’ve validated the assumptions of your target group. I would recommend reading “Four Steps to Epiphany” by Steven Blank for hands-on, step-by-step techniques to help you build a product your users want.

After this is fleshed out, take the time to build user personas. Personas are descriptions of fictional users that represent a majority of your target market. It’s focused specifically on how they would use your product/service to meet their goals. Through this exercise, you actually bring these characters to life and you use them to set the tone for future initiatives. This infographic provides a nice guide that explains how they work and provides other resources to look into.

Step 2) Determine your USP (or unique selling proposition)

USP

Thought we were ready to dig into the plan? Not quite yet. You just spent a lot of time researching your ideal customer, now it’s to dive into why they would care about your product or service. This is where developing your USP comes in. It’s usually good practice to devise a few variations and A/B test them when you build out your site. Before jumping ahead, let’s get into how to go about this.

Before you can figure out what makes you different from your competitors, you need to research them! While this post will not get into how to perform a competitive analysis, you can find a lot about the topic through a Google search. The main differentiators are going to center around 4 key areas: cost, quality, uniqueness, and speed of service. A couple of things to note – 1) Great customer service is no longer a point of differentiation. The widespread use of social media has made this a mandatory component and 2) You can’t possess all of those qualities. Two of them are standard and you may be able to do three if you’re lucky.

Now that you know how your competitors differ, it’s time to go through how you’re going to distinguish yourself:

  1. Start by writing down all the benefits of your product on a whiteboard, leaving enough space underneath each sentence to fit 3 bullets.
  2. Once you’ve exhausted all of them, go down your list and ask yourself “Why would X care about this?” Use the personas you’ve built if available and input your answer in the first bullet.
  3. Do this again for the second bullet.
  4. And again for the third.

Marketing Experiments also has a nice USP exercise you can view on Scribd. You want to be that annoying little kid that’s always asking why broccoli is good for you. After his/her parent realizes saying “because I said so” isn’t good enough, he or she will take the time to explain that broccoli is full of vitamins that will help him/her grow into a healthy adult. That’s exactly the process you’re going through in this step, you’re getting to the core of what your users really want. Some of them will be duds and others will make you say, “why didn’t I think of that before?”

Tip: If you come up with yours easily, you didn’t do it right.

Step 3) Start with your goals then move on to strategies

I’m a big advocate of interns as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Whenever I held our quarterly marketing strategy meeting, they would start by shouting out ideas they have. They would be all over the place, ranging from getting exposure to business development to selling. Every time, I would stop them and ask them if the idea was relevant to the goal we had set. Usually the answer was no. Before devising tactics, you need to come up with your marketing strategy and before that you need to set your goals.

Goals set the context for your marketing plan. Is your goal to acquire 1000 users by June? Is it to hit $10k in monthly revenue by then? Create SMART goals – that is, make sure they’re Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. Wikipedia has a thorough page outlining each criteria.

Once you have your goals outlined, it’s time to discuss strategies. First, you need to understand the difference between a strategy and a tactic. Strategies are focused on how goals can be achieved and tactics are actions taken to execute the strategy. E.g. Blogger outreach is one of our strategies in raising awareness of our RSS to Email tool. Offering paid reviews to bloggers who qualify is a tactic.

Step 4) Brainstorm session: Get all your ideas on a whiteboard

This is my favorite step. Now is the time to get the creative juices flowing so you can determine your final strategies. I like to start by defining marketing channels, then laying out ideas for each. Some examples include email marketing, social media, SEO and so on. Don’t leave anything out. I’ve found a crazy or boring thought can spark a new idea that jumps to the top of the list later on. The only criteria is to ensure the concepts are relevant to the goals you laid out above.

If you have a bigger team, you may want to write your ideas on a post-it separately and then share it with the group so everyone’s thoughts doesn’t impede sharing. With this process, the protocol I’ve used is as follows:

  1. Set a time limit for brainstorming. A good timeframe is 15 minutes
  2. Write ONE idea on a separate post-it
  3. Once time is up, have each person get up in front of the idea, share it with the team and stick it to the respective category on the whiteboard

Step 5) Evaluate the expected return and prioritize

startup-todo-list

My old partner taught me a technique to evaluate ideas called the Value Judgment Analysis. The exercise involves measuring the expected impact, time, and cost each idea. The benefit being it allows for easier prioritization. To start, make a list of all the ideas in an Excel spreadsheet. Add “Impact,” “Time,” and “Cost”columns. Create a legend to dedicate how you’ll measure each criteria. Go through each idea and determine the corresponding rating on a scale of 1 to 5. Add up the total and re-organize how you’re going to start executing your promotions.

Step 6) Test and measure. Repeat!

Testing is a concept that’s all too familiar to developers. Just as you go through Quality Assurance to ensure your program is working, you have to do the same with your marketing channels and messaging. Make it a point to keep testing your site copy, subject line of your email campaigns, paid search keywords/ads and so on. What are your KPI’s? Did they increase or decrease? Adjust as necessary. One way to accomplish this is with A/B testing. A few tools that can help with this include Google Optimizer, Optimizely, Performable, and Unbounce.

Final things to keep in mind:

  • Create baselines before embarking on any new marketing initiative (For instance, we want to rank organically for “RSS to Email tool.” When we searched for that keyword, we placed #39th in Google. With our promotions, we’ve been able to bump it to #5).
  • Utilize Google Analytics events. Record all new blog posts, marketing promotions, email campaigns as they are executed. You’ll be able to go back to this later to see what worked and what didn’t. Focus on what worked.
  • Getting a lot of traffic doesn’t matter. It’s TARGETED traffic you want. If you notice your signup or sales conversion rate is low, you may not be promoting to the right audience.
  • Putting together a marketing plan is NOT the same as creating a brand for your Company. While I touch on it above, it is a separate topic altogether.
  • Along the same lines, marketing is also not the same as selling or advertising.
  • I assume you’ve already validated your concept and de-risked your assumptions.
  • Startups should never hire a PR Company. If you can’t get exposure yourself, you’re doing it wrong.
  • I haven’t run across one startup that doesn’t need more blogger outreach. Utilize this as one of your main strategies. Mark Hendrickson has a great post you should bookmark on how to pitch a tech blogger.

Before you even you start reaching out to your audience, determine the voice and personality of your brand. This guest post on Fred Wilson’s blog sums it up perfectly. Alexis Ohanian (co-founder of Reddit) also has this wonderful class video series on General Assembly’s site where he talks about how he built the brand and mascots of Reddit and Hipmunk.

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