Startup Digital Marketing: How to Do it Right

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Digital Marketing is Not Optional

As the owner of a startup, you are going to wear many hats. The roles you’ll assume may include project manager, paralegal, bookkeeper, and perhaps most challenging of all — digital marketer. Becoming a successful digital marketer requires some strategic and technical skills that might be a bit new to you since there’s a dizzying array of digital marketing tools at your disposal. From search engine optimization (SEO) management, to ad builders, to analytics packages, choosing and integrating the right set of digital marketing tools will be one of your first hills to climb.

The quality of your digital marketing will help shape the perception and ultimate success of your business, so establishing and growing a well executed digital presence can’t be overstated. To illustrate just how far the exposure of your online presence can reach, take a look at a these statistics:

  • According to Verisign as of August 2020, there were 370.1 million domain name registrations across all top-level domains (.com, net, .org, .co, etc.) and domain name registrations grew by 15.3 million (up 4.3%) vs. August 2019.
  • According to Hubspot as of January of 2020, there were 2.6 billion monthly active Facebook users, and roughly two-thirds of U.S. adults report that they are Facebook users.
  • In 2023, Instagram is projected to reach 120.3 million monthly active users in the U.S., up from 107.2 million users in 2019.

In an always-connected world that contains a vast multitude of digital properties, the challenge is obvious. How does your startup break through all the noise that currently exists online? Moreover, how can your business gain customers with so many other companies online vying for attention? The simply put but less easily achievable answer to digital marketing for startups is proper planning and precise execution.

This article will walk you through some of the most important steps in creating and managing a successful digital marketing plan for your startup. While the methodologies presented here are based on years of research and practical experience, it’s important to note that this is not a comprehensive guide to all of your digital marketing practices. The concepts offered here should be individually researched, vetted, and planned out. Deeper dives into these and other digital marketing topics are also part of General Assembly’s Digital Marketing Course.

Quick note: Throughout this article, we’ll use the term digital property instead of website when the concept being presented extends to both websites and mobile applications.

Marketing Funnel Overview

Before we get started, let’s take a look at a fundamental marketing concept. Many people have heard the word funnel used in one business context or another. A marketing funnel is a representation of how customers engage with your brand through all of their interactions with you. A customer’s life cycle generally starts with finding a business, then utilizing that business, and then (hopefully) becoming a repeat customer and a brand advocate. The most effective marketing campaigns are deliberately built around a specific phase in the marketing funnel. As your company and your digital marketing mature, make sure to focus on the specific area of the marketing funnel you are planning campaigns for. 

How to Approach Digital Marketing for Your Startup

“Good fortune is what happens when opportunity meets with planning.” 

– Thomas Edison

As a startup, your initial marketing efforts will be focused on the top and middle sections of the marketing funnel: awareness, consideration, and conversion. Begin your digital marketing plans by identifying the funnel section you’re targeting. And while you should give proper thought and planning to each digital marketing strategy you will use, it’s acceptable, and even advisable, to use several strategies at the same time. We’ll take a closer look at strategy planning and execution in a moment.

In this part of our journey, we can think of your digital marketing program like a building. What you put together can look really nice, but if it’s not built on a solid foundation, you could be wasting time and money on a structure that will ultimately fail you. The following three steps are a high-level guide for constructing a solid and well-functioning digital marketing program for your startup. We’ll start with describing the foundation, then the framing, and lastly we will touch on the wiring, the walls, and decor.

1. The Foundation: Create Your Personas

The American Marketing Association defines marketing as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” As digital marketers, the ways in which we accomplish this lofty mission are where our skills, talents, and creativity are put to the test. Too often, would-be digital marketers approach campaign planning by looking at their industry (or the world) through their own eyes instead of their customer’s. Without exception, empathy, or the ability to understand someone else’s situation or feelings, is a primary and fundamental skill for every marketer.

Creating personas offers a way to step outside of yourself and create a typical customer you can view the world through. There are many ways to develop personas. Most personas are created using the demographics, behaviors, and attitudes of some of your typical customers, and may also include a picture to add to the subject’s realism. Xtensio provides a free online template you can use to build personas with. Lay your digital marketing foundation with a group of personas that represent the various facets of your business.

Empathy Maps

One very effective tool for building personas involves creating empathy maps that help you diagram how a customer thinks and feels about the industry your business is in. Empathy maps are built with data that you gather through both qualitative research (like surveys and interviews) and quantitative data (like web analytics or testing tools). UX Booth has a very good guide for developing empathy maps that you can use to build your personas.

2. Define Your Marketing Strategies 

Marketing strategies map out exactly how you want to execute your digital marketing. Before you start planning your marketing strategies, however; you need a clear picture of your business objectives and your marketing objectives; the measurable goals you have for your business for a specific timeframe. Business objectives define the goals you have for the business, and may include areas outside of digital marketing in your business. Below are a few examples of measurable and time-based business objectives:

  • Our business objective is to sell 20 new software licenses in the 3rd quarter.
  • Our business objective is to increase sales on custom t-shirts by 10% during the month of November.
  • Our business objective is to gain 10 new clients this year.

Marketing objectives are goals that support the business objectives. Your objectives are the maps for your digital marketing to follow, so make sure you have realistic business objectives before you start this journey. The timelines will be the same, but the measurements will be based on the digital marketing activities you engage. Below are some marketing objective examples to support the business objectives above:

  • Our marketing objective is to drive 1000 visitors to our website in the 3rd quarter. 
  • Our marketing objective is to drive 2500 visitors to our custom t-shirt landing page.
  • Our marketing objective is to increase the number of visitors who fill out our contact us form by 50%.

Defining marketing objectives requires data in order to understand what goals are feasible and realistic. Since most startups don’t have a statistically significant dataset of their own yet, we can use industry standards to build our marketing objectives. Per technology industry standards, we know that roughly for every 100 visitors to our website, we can expect 2 licenses sold (more about conversion rates later). This means we will need at least 1000 visitors to our website in the 3rd quarter to sell the 20 software licenses we need to. Granted, this is a high-level example, but the point here is you will need to use some detective and math skills to arrive at goals for your marketing objectives. Knowing your objectives will be necessary for the campaign-building tools inside of social media and Google Ads.

Remember, when you put objectives and strategies together, your business objectives inform your marketing objectives; and your marketing objectives inform your marketing strategies.

Choosing Strategies to Use

It is important when building out your digital marketing strategy to prioritize your efforts. You can apply an 80 / 20 rule to define your marketing strategies where 80% of your marketing efforts will be conversion strategies and 20% will be awareness and consideration strategies. The digital marketing analytics you collect will over time reveal the specific approaches that work best for your business.

Awareness and Consideration Strategies

Awareness and consideration are strategies that are designed to get the word out about your business and more specifically, your business’s value proposition. Well established businesses often use awareness and consideration strategies to bolster themselves to what are called love brands.

Search Engine Optimization

Search Engine Optimization (SEO, also called Organic Search) is the practice of optimizing web pages to rank best on search engine results pages (SERPs). Google has over 200 considerations for how it ranks pages with updates to its algorithms happening all the time. Keeping up with these changes can be a daunting task, but the value of a high ranking on Google cannot be understated. Make optimizing your SEO for branded searches (i.e. for your company’s name) your first priority and then focus on applicable keywords for your website. Tools like Google’s Search Console can help you make sure your digital properties follow best practices for SEO.

An important note about SEO: While search engine optimization is certainly a viable top-of-funnel strategy, organic search should be a standard and ongoing practice for every startup. Your rank with Google not only increases your brand’s visibility and reach, but it also promotes trust and confidence in your brand. Kent SEO expounds on five compelling reasons why SEO is so important:

  1. User-friendly websites that result in faster and more responsive pages.
  2. More customers from your increased exposure.
  3. Better conversion rates from your increased exposure.
  4. Increased brand awareness with higher rankings.
  5. Ability to bypass competition with higher rankings.

Content Marketing

Content Marketing involves creating social media and blog posts that help establish yourself as an authority or thought leader for your industry. One of the best ways for startups to break through the pack in their industry is to focus their content on niche topics and capitalize on the niche keywords. In this way, writing for the web and creating social media posts combines both strategy and purpose. Your posts should always make use of the keywords you are targeting while reflecting the proper tone and voice for your audience. If you are using Google Analytics to measure your digital efforts, make sure to add UTM codes to links in your social media posts so you can track the effectiveness of the traffic that comes to your digital property. You can use a tool like the Google Keyword Planner to help you decide what keywords will be most effective for your posts.

Social Media Influencer Marketing

Influencer marketing is a more recent phenomenon amongst digital marketing strategies, and as such, there are a lot of differing opinions on approaches and effectiveness. According to Linqia, nearly 39% of marketers increased their influencer marketing budgets in 2019. 

One of the major pitfalls to watch out for are people who use fake — or even paid for — followers to try and pass themselves off as influencers. Startups also have to be careful about the bonafide influencers they partner with. Certainly not all influencers are a good representation of all brands. Ensure that having an individual influencer promote your brand does not damage your reputation. If you are considering influencer marketing, give some thought to the type of influencer that will fit your brand and marketing budget best, and then thoroughly research the influencers in that category. 

Social media influencer categories are not an exact science and there is no governance around these definitions, but below is a generally accepted hierarchy of social media influencers:

  • Elite Influencers
    While top-tier celebrity personalities with over 50 million followers have the largest reach and arguably hold the most sway over consumers, celebrity endorsements are also the most difficult and most expensive endorsements for a startup to secure. Media personality Kylie Jenner has over 197 million followers on Instagram, and according to Business Insider, she commands an astounding $1.2 million per sponsored post. While $1.2 million is well out of budget for most startups, major established brands find top-tier influencer endorsements invaluable, especially when one post from someone like Jenner can garner over tens of millions of engagements.
  • Mega Influencers
    Mega Influencers with over 5 million followers are lofty goals for most startups as well. YouTube personality Casey Neistat has over 12 million subscribers to his channel, and he will often demo products like drones for brands that have mass appeal. You may want to look for a mega-influencer if your product or service has a relatively high price point.
  • Macro Influencers
    While engagements with Macro Influencers (people with over 50,000 followers) can still be relatively expensive, these can be good potential fits for influencers that match your brand identity or niche. DJ Jazzy Jeff’s promotion for Serato Studio is a perfect example of a macro-influencer matching a niche market. 
  • Micro Influencers
    Local musicians, community activists, regional figures, and content providers can provide excellent endorsements with the right match. Partnering with a cooking personality like Tiffy Chen who has over 12,000 followers and 12 million likes on TikTok, having could bring excellent results for your business.
  • Loyalists
    These are followers, customers, fans, etc. that have moved all the way along the marketing sales funnel and are now devoted to your brand. Promoting advocacy campaigns with these influencers can prove invaluable when your startup has enough traction to start looking at bottom of the funnel strategies.

Conversion Strategies 

Every digital property should have a conversion point (sales, downloads, contact us, etc.) and conversion marketing strategies should be geared towards getting visitors to that conversion point with as few distractions as possible. For example, a Facebook ad that features a product should send people to a product page where that item can be purchased directly. Likewise, a Google Search Ad for a service business should lead users directly to a page that contains information about the service and a contact page to sign up or get more information.

Your conversion rate can be thought of as the number of conversions you have divided by entries to your digital property. So if you have 1000 entries to your website that resulted in 100 purchases, your website’s conversion rate is 10%. Conversion rates are very site specific, so a 1% conversion rate may be phenomenal to some sites, while 50% may be perfect for others. 

SEM

While SEO is technically a strategy for free placement on a SERP, Search Engine Marketing (SEM, also called Paid Search) is where you pay for SERP placement. SEM still employs the techniques of choosing the proper keywords, however, your SERP listing also comes from outbidding competitors for space on a page. SEM can get expensive for popular and generic (“broad”) keywords, so it is important to capitalize on the niche keywords mentioned earlier to give you the best results. Since SEM is most-often a conversion strategy, paid ads should almost always send users directly to a landing page to complete the conversion.

There are several bidding strategies for running SEM ads, but the most common is the cost per click (CPC) method. With the CPC method, you pay when a person clicks your ad according to the current rate for a keyword. This rate fluctuates during the day, so the number of times your ad is shown and the cost when someone clicks the ad is all factored by a search engine’s algorithms. Each click then counts against the ad budget you set for the ad.

Social Media Paid Advertising

Social media paid ads on channels like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and now even TikTok are a lot like SEM. Like SEM, placing ads on social media requires keyword research, ad design, and bidding. The advantage of social media advertising is the ability to target ads on a much more granular audience than SEM. In addition to the areas and keywords that you can target with SEM, social media ads allow you to narrow your target audience by demographics like marital status and ethnicity; and sociographics like gender identification, religion, and political affiliations. Building these precise audiences comes from the massive amounts of data social media platforms collect. As people interact with social media, they contribute data points that provide the basis for the campaigns we create.

Much like Google Ads, the most common bid strategy for social media is cost per click (CPC); although some businesses choose the cost per mille (CPM) method where you essentially pay for the number of impressions (views) your ad gets. The CPM method can be advantageous for brand awareness campaigns. You can look at the potential effect of different bidding strategies as you are setting up social media marketing campaigns.

Retargeting / Remarketing

Social media advertising, email marketing, and display ads all work extremely well for retargeting strategies. Retargeting is basically a marketing campaign that launches based on a user’s previous behavior. For example, you can trigger ads for specific people on Facebook based on what they did on your site. So if a person visits your site, places an item in a cart, but does not complete the purchase, you can have an ad served on Facebook for that product and/or send the visitor a personalized reminder email to come back and complete the purchase.

While the terms “retargeting” and “remarketing” are sometimes used interchangeably, the main difference is retargeting is mostly about serving ads to potential customers based on cookies while remarketing is usually based on email. 

3. Measure and Optimize

One of the most important aspects of digital marketing is having a mechanism to measure success and there are several tools you can integrate into your digital properties. While Adobe Analytics, Chartbeat, and Decibel are all good paid solutions, Google Analytics is a free digital analytics solution and the most-used analytics package in the world. According to Nerdy Data, there are 3.4 million instances of Google Analytics installed across the web.

One the most important aspects of a digital analytics tool Google Analytics is its ability to measure the effectiveness of your marketing channels. Marketing channels are the various ways visitors get to your digital property (SEO, SEM, social, etc). For example, using the UTM codes mentioned earlier, you can track social media channels to their conversion points and you can see how different social media posts result in different online behaviors. Google Analytics also allows you to measure other important online behaviors for your properties like: 

  • How many times were specific pages visited?
  • What was the average time spent on a specific page?
  • How many times did visitors leave a specific page without any other site interactions?

Wrap Up

The key to digital marketing for your startup is the proper planning and precise execution of top and mid funnel marketing strategies. Start your marketing plans by creating empathy maps to and building personas that represent your potential customers. Understand your business objectives, and let those inform your marketing objectives. Use your marketing objectives to guide your marketing strategies.

The top of funnel (awareness and consideration) marketing strategies we covered included search engine optimization, content marketing, influencer marketing, and display advertising. The mid-funnel (conversion) marketing strategies we covered included search engine marketing, social media advertising, and retargeting.

Remember that proper measurement is a mandatory component to any of your marketing efforts. Measurement advises how your current efforts are performing and informs you how to proceed with future marketing strategies.

Lastly, startups need an effective way to select and integrate the digital marketing tools they will need. Gathering your marketing tools under one umbrella creates what is often referred to as a marketing technology stack (or martech stack). While companies like Mailchimp, Hubspot, and Constant Contact are excellent email service providers, they are also fully integrated digital marketing platforms that allow you to manage almost every aspect of your digital marketing strategies in one place. Companies like these are excellent ways to gain a prebuilt martech stack.

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