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For many entrepreneurs, developing their business idea is fun and easy. What is less fun and more complex is marketing their startup - creating a brand and then driving awareness that leads to sales. Like all other aspects of creating a business, marketing a startup can be broken into a number of critical steps, starting with defining your value proposition.
A foundation for marketing a startup
Define your value proposition
One of the most important tasks for marketing your startup is exploring and defining the unique value that your new business will deliver to customers. Startups succeed when they solve a real problem in a way that creates positive change for customers. Your value proposition captures and expresses what your customers value about what you are delivering to the market.
At the very least, we recommend that you take the time to answer the following questions:
Who are our customers?
What problems to we solve for them?
What positive change or transformation do we create for our customers?
How do we deliver this change?
Over many years of working with organizations of all sizes and types – for-profit and nonprofit, we have developed a structured approach we called “Value Proposition Discovery” which offers a step-by-step approach for gathering information from founders and their teams as well as inside and outside stakeholders. Using our Value Proposition Discovery Workbook, we work with them to gain a deeper understanding of who their customers are and the problems they solve for them.
Bonus points: Create customer personas
It is highly recommended that you take the extra step of defining customer personas to guide all the important business decisions you will make. A persona is nothing more than the personification of a general audience. You are creating a character who best represents the audience. Give the character a name, find a photograph of them. Decide their demographics: age, gender, job, location etc. Then outline the problems the persona is having that your organization solves. Describe what is important to them in the decision-making process. If relevant, provide a list of ways this persona can be reached: magazines, blogs, special interest sites online etc. There are many great examples of highly targeted persona’s online if you get stuck.
Create a messaging framework
Once you have answered these questions, it’s time to craft your messaging framework. A messaging framework is a structured representation of the value promises your startup, product or service is making to its audience (or persona). It is less about who you are and what you do and more about why you are doing it. It should always be audience-specific. It is critical because it acts as the foundation or the starting point for all customer-facing communications – including your brand identity, website, email marketing, blog strategy, newsletter, advertising and more. It also allows you to consistently communicate the value of your startup (and not just the features and functionality) when someone asks you “What does your business do?”
Please read our article to learn more about brand messaging and how to create a messaging framework.
Marketing a startup - How to name your small business
Now that you know what your business is how it works and how it creates transformation for customers, it is time to create your brand. Clearly you have to start by naming your startup. Picking a name for a new business is challenging but can also be creative and fun.
Remember that your business name and your website URL or domain name are inter-related. This means that it is critical to consider whether your business name can translate into a domain that is available for purchase (at a reasonable rate).
As you identify names that could work, first type them into a search engine (nameyoulike.com) and see whether there is currently a website using that domain. If you get a message like:
Hmm. We’re having trouble finding that site.
We can’t connect to the server at wwww.nameyoulike.com.
….is a good sign. Then open www.domains.google.com and enter this name into the search bar. Ideally, you will get a result like this:
It is highly recommended that you only buy a URL ending in .com. It is critical that you only search for your designed name once – once you get a positive result, buy the domain – you can always cancel it later. If you search for the same name more than once, it is very likely that it will no longer be available the second or third time you search for it. Avoid disappointment later and buy each domain you are considering.
You may want to include relevant keywords in your business name – this will help you with search engine optimization. For example, if you are opening a cell phone repair shop, include “cellphone repair” in your business name and domain. See other tips for choosing a domain/brand name.
Once you have a shortlist of potential names, get as much feedback from people who represent your target audience. Maybe use Survey Monkey or some other online survey tool to ask people to rank your top contenders.
Create your brand
What is a brand? For a new-to-the-world startup, your brand is an expression of how you want your company / product or service to be perceived and experienced by your target customers.
When working with customers on creating brands, we ask a number of key questions that allows us to get to the heart of the brand’s personality. These questions include:
If your company was a person, what would he/she look like?
What would his/her personality be?
What does your brand’s ‘voice” sound like? – For example
Educational and informational
Whimsical and personable
Smart and inspirational
Smart and effortlessly cool
What colors best represent your brand?
We use this information to develop a creative brief that will allow a graphic designer to create logo concepts. We also make sure that the logo process is informed by our messaging framework.
In 2020, it is also important to consider what your brand’s purpose is. Why? Because today, more and more buyers expect brands to have not just functional benefits but a social purpose. Purpose-driven brands put purpose alongside profit to harness the potential of startup as a force for good. A core value of a purpose-driven business is to find a need within society and work hard to meet it.
Bonus points: Create brand guidelines
What are brand guidelines? Also known as brand standards, style guide, brand identity guide and more, brand guidelines give your brand consistency by codifying how it presents itself to the world through its logo, font and color selections, photography and much more.
Get the word out about starting a small business – Invest in a website
There are few startups today that can function without a professional website that clearly communicates the value proposition along with the products and services your business offers. Here are some things to consider as you make decisions about your website:
Will this be a simple information website (an online brochure) or is the website the “product”?
If your website is your product, you will need to work with a software developer to create a custom website
If your website is a simple online brochure, you can build the website yourself or you can hire a firm.
Whether you build the site yourself or hire a firm to do it for you, you will need to make a decision about which platform your new website will be built on. For content-driven websites, there is no reason to build a custom website even if you want to add capabilities like video, appointment scheduling, newsletter integration, ecommerce etc.
Instead, a key driver for your website is that it should be visually beautiful and easy-to-use for your audience and easy to update and extend for you or any non-technical person. Many startups who invested in custom or template-driven WordPress websites in the past 5 to 10 years, for example, now find that they have an outdated website that is hard to update – and often, offers very limited design capabilities.
Another decision to make is how much of the technical set-up and management of the site you want to take on. WordPress builders like DIVI from Elegant Themes give you the full flexibility to build a beautiful, easy to maintain website. However, WordPress websites are self-hosted which means that you will need to have a hosting account and manage the process of downloading and installing WordPress, the website builder, your SSL certificate and any plug-ins you want to use. Once your site is live, you will have to manage updates and plug-in incompatibilities over time. Clearly, you could outsource all of this management to your website development firm.
If this feels daunting, consider using a self-hosted platform like WIX or Squarespace. Because your website is hosted by WIX or Squarespace, there is no need to download or manage anything – other than connecting your new website to your domain. The WIX platform offers rich formatting tools and a marketplace of tools and capabilities – many available for free – that will add rich functionality to your site.
If building websites is not your profession, hiring a firm may be the best option for the following reasons:
Get a professional and polished website that is designed to engage your audience and communicate your value proposition
Accelerate time-to-market as you won’t have to learn a new tool
Take advantage of professional copy writing
Search engine optimization
Your website should do more than provide information to visitors. It should also organically attract visitors to your site via search engines. This means that it is critical to optimize your website for organic search traffic. It is important to understand that SEO is a marathon and not a sprint but it is important to give your site a solid foundation from which to grow. Once again, SEO is something you can take on yourself – if you have the time and the inclination – or it can be outsourced to your web development firm or an SEO specialist.
LAUNCH YOUR STARTUP
Once you have all your legal, financial and marketing ducks in a row, you are ready to launch your new startup to the world. For many, their business is open once they launch their website – which may be sooner than when they open their doors if they are a physical business.
Here are a number of key actions to take as soon as your website is live:
Optimize for local search
Make sure you are discoverable locally by setting up keyword-optimized profiles that include your core messaging on Google Business and Bing Places. Also, set up detailed and accurate profiles on local and national directories and recommendation sites like Yelp and White pages Why is this important? The number of accurate citations a startup accrues and the quality of the platforms they exist on all influence search rankings. Search engines like Google amass data about each business. If what they encounter is accurate, the search engine trusts the validity of the data, which is believed to strengthen the business’ chance of ranking well.
Build a social media presence
Starting a small business requires you to take on tasks that you may not feel comfortable with unless you can afford to hire help. Social media is a reality for all businesses but it can also be time-consuming and discouraging. It is important, therefore, to make some strategic bets about which platforms to invest in. Start by looking at your audience. Where do they go on line? Where would they expect to find information about your business? If you are selling a consumer product, LinkedIn may not be your best bet.
Whichever platform you choose, you must be willing to commit to the effort required because the quality and consistency of social media posts are key to success. It is also important that you understand how to grow an audience through engagement on each platform. Simply posting pretty pictures on Instagram, for example, will not deliver the results that will make any effort worthwhile. As a business owner, your time is probably your most valuable resource, so it is critical that you use it wisely.
Clearly, you can also outsource social media to a third party. The challenge with this approach can be a loss of authenticity and immediacy.
Here are some guidelines on how often to post on each of the social media platforms:
Facebook: once per day is optimal, with a maximum of two posts per day and a minimum of 3 posts a week
Twitter: 3 to 30 times a day. Tweets have an very short shelf life, so it’s important to spread your tweets through the day.
Pinterest: a minimum is 3 Pins per day, with a maximum of 30 Pins per day
Instagram: at least once per day, and no more than 3 times per day
LinkedIn: at least twice a week, and no more than once each business day
Launch press release
If the new small business you are starting is breaking new ground or if you are already well-known in your community, it may be helpful to hire a firm to draft and distribute a press release to your local business media. The press release should be sent directly to local reporters and distributed via a free or paid press release distribution service like PR log. This will ensure that your press release is available on the internet.
Set up email and newsletter marketing
Direct outreach to your audience and potential audience is one of the most effective tools you have for getting the word out about your new startup. Start by creating a spreadsheet with the email addresses of everyone you know. Then work with a firm – or do it yourself – to set up an account in MailChimp or Constant Contact – or, if your website is built on WIX, use their built-in email campaign tools. Import your email list and create a launch email that matches your website visually. This is when having brand guidelines can be very helpful. Send out your launch email.
Make sure that your website allows people to subscribe to your newsletter. You may also want to consider adding a pop-up when your website loads to encourage people to subscribe. Once you have a few hundred people in your email list (including your initial contacts) and have news to share, create a newsletter calendar (monthly, quarterly etc). Use your email platform to create a newsletter template.
Ideally, your newsletter includes links to articles you have published on your website’s blog. Your newsletter should include an enticing paragraph or two and a link out to the article. Feel free to also link out to articles published by others.
Driving traffic to your site
Once you have submitted each of the pages on your website to Google Search Console for indexing, you will see that it can take a while for your site to attract significant traffic. This is why SEO is important and requires constant attention. However, pay-per-click online advertising can be a great way to acquire traffic in the short term. And the good news is, you only pay when someone clicks on your ad.
Each of the social media platforms and search engines offer performance-based online advertising. Unfortunately, each of these platforms has their own approach and tools, some of which can be quite complex. There are many firms that specialize in online advertising. You may want to hire one to ensure that you are getting the most from your advertising dollars.
A simple way to start and to inexpensively test whether your advertising message resonates with your audience is through Facebook automated ads. The process for setting up these ads is easy – Facebook asks you a few questions – and the process of writing copy is pretty straightforward. You will be able to choose an image or video for your ad. The great thing is that you can spend $2 or $3 a day on each ad which is a cheap way to see which images/copy has the highest click through rate but lowest cost-per-click. Once you identify your highest performing ads, you can increase your daily ad budget.