Marketing your startup doesn’t have to be expensive

“Build it and they will come” makes for a great movie but a lousy business plan. Creating a great product is only half the battle. Now you need to market it, so customers know you have the solution to their problems.

Startups backed by big globs of venture capital have it easy — they have millions to spend on advertising and a huge sales team to knock on every door. Bootstrap companies and early-stage startups like mine have only a small marketing budget. So we have to be scrappy and efficient.

Fortunately, it is entirely possible to compete with the giants on a minuscule budget. I’ve spent two decades beating public companies and VC-funded startups that had a $10 million marketing budget against only $100k of my own.

Companies with big budgets tend to waste the vast majority of it. Do you need Super Bowl advertising to find customers? Does hiring Bruce Springsteen to play at your sales conference increase sales? Does a fancy office near the top of the World Trade Center attract customers? Not really.

With the 9 techniques I’ve listed below, I can get to the same customers at little or no cost. I don’t need a team of 10 marketing flacks. For most of my career as CEO or CMO of multiple startups, I’ve done everything I’ve listed on my own or with one assistant.

Since my background is in B2B technology, my list is B2B centric. However, most of my techniques can be applied to B2C startups with minor adjustments.

1. SEO

When potential customers google my product category, it’s critical my site pops up on top. This gives me instant credibility along with lots of traffic.

There are entire books on SEO techniques and no shortage of marketing firms offering to help for a fee, but at its heart SEO is simple. First, I make sure my web pages use the keywords customers are searching for. Then I find any way possible to get big sites to link to mine.

2. Content & Articles

How do I get other sites to link to mine? I give them content they can use. I contribute articles to industry newsletters, websites, and partner websites. I publish articles on Medium. I write blog posts that I share on LinkedIn and Twitter. I write Wikipedia pages for the technology and industry. But I don’t write about my product.

Nobody wants to read an advertisement, not even my mother. I write articles about how my technology solves user problems. I write a guidebook to the technology that I give away to customers. My goal is to turn myself or my CTO into an expert that the industry relies on. Then I post that information on my site and beg people to link it.

3. LinkedIn

For B2B product sales, LinkedIn is king. But most startups don’t use it right.

I don’t waste my time on cold outreach — that just annoys people. I market myself. I build my network of everyone in my industry. I join every industry group.

Then I post articles about how customers have saved millions using my product. I post news about my big wins. I post invitations to upcoming events where my CTO be a featured speaker. Then I let customers reach out to me for a solution.

4. Keyword Advertising

Targeted advertising on Google, Facebook, and other platforms can be highly effective. But if I’m not careful, it can be a phenomenal waste of money.

I set a small budget and see how far it can go. If I see a strong ROI, I gradually increase it.

I focus my keywords on exact matches and avoid the default broad matches that find people looking for something else. I limit my paid advertising to business hours and only those countries where I’m likely to find customers. I use negative keywords to exclude useless hits to keep cost to a minimum.

I also look for keywords my users search on that are not obvious, and therefore cheaper than the keywords my the competitor are fighting over.

It’s critical to monitor the paid traffic carefully. The big guys can afford to throw boatloads of money at advertising and consider any contact a win. For me, if it’s not a solid lead, it’s wasted money, so I watch every click carefully to see if it’s useful or not.

5. Trade shows

Trade shows are expensive, typically $10,000 for a small booth, including all expenses. But for B2B products, they’re the best way to meet everyone in the industry in one swoop and build up awareness.

The key to making trade shows pay is to get customers to come search for me. I insist on a speaking slot where my CTO can give a talk about our new technology. And I advertise to everyone in the industry that we’ll be there.

Most trade shows have some sort of startup package at a fraction of the regular price. If not, I ask for a big discount as a first-time exhibitor, which can considerably cut the cost.

6. Webinars

Webinars are boring. Nobody wants to spend an hour watching a demo of my product, not even my wife. (Sorry honey, I’ve got another meeting then. But next time, okay?) So, my webinars aren’t sales demos.

I make my webinars an extension of my articles and trade shows by focusing on technology and customer solutions. I invite a customer to speak about their experience solving a critical problem. Then, I add an expert to pontificate on how new technology is transforming the industry.

There’s no need to mention my product other than saying the webinar is sponsored by my company. A few days later, our salesperson can follow up and discuss how we can assist with the participant’s specific issues.

7. Discounts Traded for Marketing

Some customers won’t pay full price for our product. Maybe they don’t have the budget, maybe a competitor has offered a huge discount, maybe they just enjoy showing how important they are by bullying their vendors.

For whatever the reason, once I know I have to offer a big discount to win the deal, instead of simply lowering the price, I ask for a marketing benefit in return — i.e., participation in a case study, agreement to be featured in an article, or anything else I can leverage. Sometimes the marketing benefit turns out to be worth far more than the discount.

8. Partnership with Giants

The best deal I ever made was to give away hundreds of copies of our product to a big company selling a complementary product. We even made a special version with extra features they wanted. Their sales team then used our product as part of their own product demonstrations.

Suddenly, we had hundreds of their salespeople walking into potential customers with our products as part of their demo kit. Their trade show demos and webinars all used our product. While their salespeople were focused on selling their own products, our product was selling itself. Customers saw us as part of the demo, and many reached out to call us. Our sales doubled overnight.

9. Influencers

For consumer products, social media influencers are critical to build awareness. The same holds true for B2B, but even better, other than the big consultants like Gartner; we don’t even have to pay them.

I reach out to everyone who reviews new products, holds podcasts, writes newsletters, and tweets with industry updates. I try to make them my friends. I bring them on board as advisors when I can and get them involved with what we’re building.

Their advice helps me immensely in building the right product, and afterward, they’re so thrilled at what we’ve built from their feedback that they tell the world about it.

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