While marketing in the 60s was the realm of sociologists, psychologists and chain smoking admen, that is no longer the case. Today we have significant data on customer behavior and excellent B2B marketing vendors that can enable a startup define and capture its market with a few thousands of dollars of marketing spend.
This article is for B2B tech startup CMOs until series B/C. It is about the art and science of running a startup’s marketing while the startup’s product is immature, team is relatively inexperienced and marketing money is scarce. Our focus is SAAS products excluding marketplaces as marketplaces have quite different growth dynamics. There are excellent resources on scaling marketplaces from the airbnb team and a16z.
Though I structure the points below sequentially, you should of course work on them simultaneously if you have the resources or you are pulling unusually long hours. In all steps, I provided both short term steps to make sure your company survives today and long term steps to make sure that your company keeps growing.
0) Understand the hole you have dug yourself into
Those that have not done marketing call sales hard. Try having all the pressure about sales numbers without actually talking to clients. This is part of the startup roller coaster so prepare to spend long thankless hours which achieve limited results. You will find yourself looking down on the
- sales reps as lazy and unproductive
- product and tech team as incompetent
- finance as crippling your initiatives with short sighted decisions
- the previous CMO (if s/he exists) as having chosen the most horrible branding and messaging
Most of the time, you would be partially right but it does not matter. What matters is whether you managed to achieve skyrocketing sales. Your excuses won’t feed you or your family so get to working with the team that you have and the resources you got.
1-Identify your resources
Marketing is using resources (labor, capital) to enable sales. So first of all, you need know what resources do/will you have. The critical questions are: What is your monthly budget? How was it determined? Did someone pick a random round number? Challenge it using the other important information below:
- Company’s runway and burn rate. Cut down all that is unnecessary. Do you really need a fancy office? I know companies that spent double/triple their marketing budgets on office rent during the COVID outbreak when no one needed an office. Surprised that you are now looking at cutting unnecessary costs when you had signed up to be the CMO? Welcome to the startup world.
- Customer lifetime value (CLV). You will have a rough clue of a number. Your company, product and the monetization model are probably changing too fast. You definitely don’t have enough track record to estimate the churn rate so you will have a very limited idea of CLV. Life doesn’t let you run your company for 10 years just to see the churn rate. Assume minimal churn and maximum account expansion and set out to make them real.
- Customer payback period. Are you getting paid monthly or annually? Seems like an unimportant aspect but can make the difference between life & death.
Now that you know how much to spend, identify who can help you. Startups are poorly managed by inexperienced managers. If you can identify less valuable activities and get more people to help you with marketing, you should. Does that sound like HR’s work? Well, the company probably either doesn’t have a senior HR person or if she exists her last concern will probably be to help you. The typical places to look for are:
- Sales team: Are they complaining about the number of leads? They can do smart outreach to increase the number of leads (more on that later). For example, they can use lead generation tools such as Leadforensics that provides information on website visitors so they can focus on businesses that show interest in your company’s products and services.
- People with unclear titles, analysts etc.: They probably are not assigned meaningful work anyway. If you can coach them, they could be of immense help
- Anyone smart, analytical who could fit a few more things on their plate: Get to know the team. You are the one driving the growth of the company. If you can give people meaningful tasks, they can be happy to help
As you get others’ support, there will inevitably be clashes. You will be seen as intruding into other’s territory etc. Startups don’t have the time to deal with politics. Be courteous but swift in resolving such disputes or else there won’t be much to dispute over.
2- Inbound: Pay to fix the top of the funnel fast!
Now that you have probably fought with everyone in the company to secure the right resources for marketing, it is time to to work on the survival of the company.
Start at the top of the funnel. Even if you have the best sales team in the world, they will not be able to do much without leads arriving in their pipeline. Top of the funnel is deceptively easy to overlook. For example, if you luckily pulled off a good event and your sales team is busy with those leads, you can overlook the fact that you are not getting new leads. However, as those leads pass through the sales process, your sales team will be sitting idle and it will be too late to act because B2B sales takes months.
Run rapid experiments to identify the important channels for your product:
- Paid ads: Since our focus is B2B, you can start with Google and Linkedin. You will be constantly improving these to achieve better results:
- Targeting criteria:
- Google makes your life easy as you just need to choose the right keywords regarding your business
- Linkedin is harder. Even targeting specific roles and specific industries results in miserable conversion rates in most cases because intent is important. Decision makers have hundreds of changing priorities, especially in large companies. So your message needs to arrive at the time when they are looking for your solution, this is commonly called intent data. Account level intent data sources include providers like Bombora or ZoomInfo, some review aggregators like G2, as well as your company’s website. Your visitors that do not convert are potential candidates showing intent about your solution. You can read more about this in our Account Based Marketing (ABM) article.
- The ad copy and visuals: Your initial text can probably be improved a lot and you need to test it to see what resonates with customers.
- Landing pages: Of course, follow the KISS principle test them like your life depended on results.
- Targeting criteria:
- Remarketing: As soon as you are getting visitors on a digital platform, it is time to remind them of how great you are. This tends is more efficient than regular paid ads for most companies.
- Analysts/media operating in your area of focus: If you are working on an AI related solution, you are probably already working with us. If not, sign up and reach out to us. Every area of B2B tech includes media, research companies or blogs that can be more effective than the most common channels like Google.
- Review aggregators: G2, Capterra etc. Most of them are owned by Gartner which is trying to become a monopoly in this space. There are 2 approaches:
- G2 approach: They will want you to get your customers to add reviews to your profile. This will make your profile more popular. Sounds great? Not really. Unless you pay up, they will add your competitors’ ads in your company’s profile.
- Capterra, GetApp etc. approach: They will again want you to get your customers to add reviews to your profile. However, most visitors will be clicking on their paid links on profile pages. So again, you gotta pay up and get reviews.
- As you can understand from our commentary, we are not thrilled by their offering and find most reviews to be written by people who just do it to get a free Starbucks coffee. However, you got a solution to sell and they got visitors. So it will not hurt to have a profile, get some reviews and test the quality of the traffic you are getting.
3- Outbound: Systematically try outreach
Why pay your hard-earned cash on all these channels when you could write directly to these prospects? If you are thinking like this, you are about to step into the world of unsolicited linkedin or email outreach. As you are probably well aware, you will be doing something which you most of the time don’t enjoy when it is done to you. Everyday I receive ~5 Linkedin requests and 10-20 unsolicited email on requests about featured posts etc. I do accept some Linkedin requests and probably never had a business transaction that started with an unsolicited email. However, I am only a single data point and many companies including Salesforce had great results from unsolicited email outreach.
The approaches that I have heard include all of these:
- Reaching out to companies in-market for your solution category. We discussed how to get that data above.
- Outlining benefits and asking to be referred to a relevant person in the organization
- A smart system to track opens and responses and to improve messaging based on response rates
4- Invest in the future
Hopefully, these approaches saved the day and got your sales team to close enough volume so you can focus a bit on the future, initiatives that will pay little to nothing today but could support the next phase of growth 6-12 months down the road:
If you are solving an interesting problem, people need to hear more about it. Having references, case studies, comparisons with competition, benchmarks and quantitative proof of your solutions’ benefits make it easier to sell. And this content can both attract traffic as well as be used to further qualify your leads.
You would expect us to talk only positively about our category but we won’t. Our problem with most analysts is that:
- They have no skin in the game
- They have no first hand information on the products they talk about. They talk to vendors who fill them with a very biased view of their product. And therefore, they become sceptical.
So you will need to talk to them, demo your product and answer their questions about products they will probably never use since they are the analyst, not the user. Our approach is of course different but we will go into that in another article.
Set up the marketing automation machine to power all of this
While we have covered the primary channels, any channel requires automation for growth. The key pieces of automation are:
All this investment needs to be analyzed for performance. Gaps in analytics is a major cause for startups to not fully optimize their spending. A company should be able to follow a prospect from its first interaction with company’s advertising to the close of the sale. Most small companies lack the connection between their online analytics and CRM.
Conversational AI tools can automate lead qualification by helping leads answer a few critical questions about your product.
Automated workflows can be created to follow lead’s interest with relevant content and to stop sending information to leads that are no longer interested in your company’s product.
Hope that was helpful. If you need a shoulder to cry on, or need advice, feel free to leave us a comment below.