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Issue 20

Startup marketing: challenges and practical ideas

Sorina Mone
Marketing manager
@Fortech
MANAGEMENT

Budget, team and limited resources in general, anonymity and the need to create awareness, sometimes the need to educate the market and the need to generate sales opportunities - these are just some of the challenges faced by startup businesses. In this context, the process and the marketing approach applied by startups has at least some particularities often addressed in the marketing literature and certainly "lived" by many organizations in the early stages of their existence.

First of all, perhaps more than other processes, marketing in startups is innovative. Limited resources put managers and marketing specialists (if there are dedicated people!) in a position where they need to find solutions to these shortcomings, often unconventional ones. It is often said, that desperation leads to innovation. Exactly for this reason, the term of "growth hacking" - introduced by Sean Ellis and centered on creativity and the use of unconventional methods to achieve rapid and spectacular growth - is very popular in the context of startups in the technology area. Sure it does not involve reinventing the wheel, but rather the use of already popular concepts and practices (such as those in the area of content marketing or community marketing), but in a unique way that attracts attention and facilitates rapid dissemination. Products such as Dropbox, LinkedIn and YouTube are often given as examples of growth hacking.

Furthermore, the approach is short term. This is rather natural: the business has no history yet, estimates are hard to define and, in addition, the aim is, to a certain extent, survival. Unfortunately sometimes, and especially in less mature economies such as our country, factors from the external environment, especially the macro-environment (unstable legislation, socio-economic situation etc.), also contribute to this.

Finally, marketing is strongly influenced by the personality of the manager who usually is also the business owner (entrepreneur). Often, the organizational culture of a young or small company revolves around the entrepreneur and adopts defining characteristics of this person"s personality. Essentially, it is not a bad aspect, but situations may occur, where too much reliance on the entrepreneur can cause shortcomings. A simple example is blockage on the decision-making level; there may be situations where no decisions are taken in the absence of the manager - entrepreneur, and nothing is done, while agility should be one of a startup"s strengths.

Given these challenges, marketing strategy (the segmentation - targeting - positioning process and the entire marketing mix: product, price, promotion, distribution) in a startup consists most often of identifying a set of priorities, taking decisions and executing them. Some references are essential in this context:

First of all, it"s necessary to provide answers to a series of questions aimed to define the positioning the product: What consumer segments does it address? What needs or problems does it solve for these consumers? What makes it different from other similar products that are already on the market? Knowing the future customer in as much detail as possible is an essential aspect, since it may provide the basis for important decisions, including decisions in the product conception and development phase (with respect to functionalities, characteristics and so on). In this context, marketers usually resort to creating a very comprehensive profile of the user (i.e. user persona) which includes demographical, social and economic characteristics such as age, occupation, income, habits, interests and so on.

Once the target consumer, the need and the competitive advantage of the product are identified, this advantage has to be communicated. This is when branding comes in, a process which, at a basic level includes the choosing of a name and the articulation of a mission and vision statement, as well as some key value propositions. Especially when dealing with B2C software products that are addressed to individual consumers, it"s important for the name to be easily identifiable and memorable. The key messages, in order to actually reach the consumers and make them aware of the product, have to articulate the benefits, the solutions to problems they are confronted with, rather than objective characteristics of the product. Also, as early as possible, intellectual property protection issues have to be considered: brand registration, web domain acquisition, "parking" of the pages on social networking platforms and so on.

Then follows the most interesting and challenging part for a marketing professional in a startup: to generate demand for the product and create opportunities for sales. The activities that define this stage can be grouped into the following two categories:

Outbound marketing, which includes activities such as advertising, email marketing and telemarketing, fairs and exhibitions attending etc. - generally, activities that involve an outreach to the target consumers.

Inbound marketing includes marketing efforts which, on the contrary, contribute to the consumer finding the product or the company and not the other way around. In the area of digital marketing, inbound marketing activities may involve developing a website that attracts visitors naturally, through search engine optimization, social media, blogging, press etc. Inbound marketing efforts require time, but are generally lees costly than advertising (as they may only require creativity and editorial capabilities) and, very importantly, once built, they produce results and long-term impact.

All these aspects may not only make the difference between survival or failure for a startup, but can also offer premises for growth and expansion. And this is where growth hacking comes in, especially when the startup aims to attract financing for further development. Investors are interested in success stories, not just ideas with potential and, most importantly, they want healthy businesses. This is why growth hacking has to be approached with caution and care, as figures are important, but they must have a solid basis, meaning a quality product, which delights and does not disappoint the users. Having the right experience with a product may determine users to become the main engine for business growth, an ideal situation for a startup with great plans.

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