Before you begin, I’d like to mention that you’ll find an advanced version of the same model/concept in this post. (Mar 2020).
One thing that doesn’t hold you back in startup marketing is the lack of options for models, frameworks and opinions on what to spend one’s time on. There’s Dave McClure’s AARRR model. The Bullseye framework. The “Throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks” approach. The list goes on.
So why this post? If you have little data and time, as many early-stage startups do, these models don’t help you focus on the 1-2 things that can make a difference. And so many spread themselves too thin between too many channels.
I think there’s a simpler better model for early-stage startups. (It’s so simple in fact that you might already be using it and I was the last person on Earth to stumble upon in it.)
About a year ago I did a customer persona exercise for Pipedrive and spoke to about 35 customers for an hour during an intense two-week period. (Something I recommend any startup marketer to do). One of the slightly off-piste questions I asked was: how did you first hear about Pipedrive? Most people replied “from a friend or colleague” and others said they searched the hell out of the internets. I dutifully marked down the answers and continued my persona work.
Only some months later it hit me. What I had gotten from those good people was not just an idea of who Pipedrive’s customers were but a highly practical marketing model.
Recommendations from friends and findability in search. This is basically the simple “model” that got Pipedrive from 0 to more than 10,000 paying customers. This model has worked or would work in almost all of the early-stage startups I have marketed or know friends to market.
I’m going to call the model the Two Hedgehog Model, tipping my hat to Jim Collins and the “hedgehog concept” he popularized. (It’s one where you do only one thing, and do it really well.) Here you’d need to do two things really well, so you’ll need another one of those small animals. Very creative, I know.
Long story short, if you focus on only two things and do them very well ie. if you make sure your customers tell their friends and that people find you when they search keywords relevant to you, you’ll have your early-stage startup marketing priorities sorted.
Hedgehog strategy #1: how do you get people to recommend you?
This is “easy”. Have a great product, which is a science and an art in itself and I’m not the best person to write about building great products.
Specifically in marketing context, this means two things. First is not focusing on the communications side of marketing before you have some level of product-market fit. A product with a brilliant content marketing strategy or paid marketing budget that has a big churn problem will not fly very far. You’re better off wearing your unglamorous customer development hat rather than the flashy marcom one.
And secondly, past reaching the product-market fit, this means spending some time on making sure your customers have the motivation and triggers to recommend you. I’d say building a simple referral program is a good idea somewhere past the first couple of thousand customers/users. That’s when we at Pipedrive added it and the program continues to be one of the most efficient channels for us.
Hedgehog strategy #2: how do you become findable?
Answer to this is more nuanced than just buying some Google ads and doing some SEO.
Buying clicks is definitely the easiest option but cost-per-click marketing has become both expensive and quite complex due to the fact that absolutely everyone is using the channel from other startups to larger well-run companies to clueless companies who are spending large sums on Adwords for questionable reasons.
Getting your site to rank on the first page of Google (or your friendly neighbourhood app store or whatever is the place where searches are done in your line of work) for free would be nice, but it’s easier said than done. One can start ranking for some longer tail keywords in the first 6 months but, with a fresh brand and domain, you’re not likely to get your desired top spots for “best whateveryoudo” searches.
Look at search holistically, not from SEO or CPC perspective only.
My advice would be to not start from any one channel in mind and begin from keyword research, an exercise that identifies what people are searching for, where the biggest potential lies and where there is most low hanging fruit. Doing keyword research also helps to decide which channel(s) to double down on.
Let’s assume you’re selling a web-based “website builder” service. I haven’t done a full keyword research there but a quick search suggests that each click costs 23$ and that in order to rank for that keyword you’d need to compete with the likes of Wix, Squarespace and WordPress.com. I don’t know this area well, but I’m sure this wouldn’t be a walk in the park. A walk in Jurassic Park, maybe.
But hey, what’s this thing there in place #3? It’s a review/affiliate site that has already done the necessary work to rank highly. While you can’t start ranking on the first page of Google with your own site, you could be featured on articles, posts and comparison sites that are already ranking.
In order to be indirectly present on the first page of Google then you may need to:
- do some PR/blog outreach
- List your app on a review/comparison/directory site which may be free but increasingly is paid
- Get yourself featured on the relevant non-mainstream social media sites such as Quora or Angellist
- I wouldn’t go as far/low here as to recommend that you add a comment or ask a customer to add a comment about you on sites that rank highly for terms relevant to you. This tactic probably stopped working around Obama’s inauguration. (To my knowledge, there is no direct causation there, only correlation.)
At Pipedrive, we want to be present at not just our own landing page or ad, but basically all listings for searches relevant to us.
Pro tip: there is a lot of opportunity in the long tail
I was writing the advice above and thought “man, this is some seriously generic advice there, I should become a consultant or something”. The thing is, getting listed on sites that are already ranking for keywords relevant to you is not all that novel.
So here’s a pro tip: you’ll find better opportunities if better is defined as “customers will start to find you quicker”, when you look at the long tail section of keyword research. In the website builder example, this might mean doubling down on a multi-language website builder or website builder for artists instead.
While search volume is orders of magnitude lower for longer tail keywords, you can get visibility for lots of terms quicker and cheaper, and this adds up to a decent volume of traffic.
How to apply the Two Hedgehog model
Using common sense and healthy skepticism, like all models.
This model helps to find focus in most areas where a category has been defined and people are actively searching for solutions. It might work that well if you’re building a new category. No-one was searching for “a better way to order a cab” before Uber and Taxify came along. (But as it happens, the recommendations half of the model is a key driver for these apps.)
Also, past the first couple of years, this model might get too simplistic. When you’ve created two major ways for customers to discover you, you’ll probably have been successful enough to be able to look for the third and fourth one. You’ll then want to find a home for both Hedgehogs in a more comprehensive marketing strategy.
Finally, it doesn’t take into consideration your particular strengths and opportunities. If you have a large mailing list or social following, you’ll want to use that even if it is not part of the model.
PS. If you’re planning marketing and looking to upgrade your stack among other things, check out Outfunnel, the sales-centric marketing platform I’m now working on.