Marketing Planning for Startups: Here’s a no-BS Framework for Early Stage Companies

It seems we have product-market fit. What marketing channels should we invest in?

This is probably the most common question in the startup community (right after “should we do an ICO?”). After answering it a couple of dozen times in one-on-one sessions and workshops I now think I have a solid answer, the equivalent of having a map in an unfamiliar city. You can still get horribly lost but there’s a really high chance of getting to where you need to go. Which is particularly handy if you’d like to arrive before all the others do.

This post builds on my Two Hedgehog Marketing framework which was great but may have missed some practical implementation guidelines which are now present.

Ready? Building a marketing plan starts from assessing category awareness.

Step 1. Map category awareness: are you a guard dog, a sugar glider or a little bit of both?

cute-Sugar-Glider-4
A sugar glider, your humble guide to understanding category awareness.

Join me on a (justified) detour with pets to illustrate this. You get a guard dog if you feel like you need to protect your property by someone who can also keep you company. You kind of know what to expect and how the business of getting and looking after a dog works. No amount of advertising or media stories will persuade you to get a dog if you don’t want a dog. In fact, if someone did advertise getting a dog, you’d probably be blind to this.

On the other hand, let’s take sugar gliders. No-one wakes up one morning and googles “buy a sugar glider”. In fact, only one person of about 80 at a workshop a few weeks back knew the animal. But the goggle-eyed creature is kind of cute. It’s possible you see a photo of one and immediately decide you NEED one, even if you were not looking for a pet.

Getting a dog is usually not an impulse thing. The decision is made on the back of some amount of knowledge and experience with dogs and potentially some research. It’s how decisions are made when category awareness is high. Getting a sugar glider is different. It doesn’t need to be an impulse decision but awareness of the need for pets like flying squirrels is created at the moment you see one.

Category awarness: scale and examples
Category awareness: scale and examples

“But what about my neighbors that saw a cute puppy advertised by an animal rescue center and decided to adopt it?”.

Great question, I was just about to get to that.

Like in almost all places in life, there’s a spectrum and very few products are at the extremes. And when I say products I mean audiences for products.

Let’s take to-do list apps. Some productivity aficionados have been using these apps since they were 9 and they use one to-do list app only to tick off which to-do list apps they’ve already used. They’re 100% category aware. And then there’s a segment of people who are new to productivity hacking or have been happily using post-it notes on a fridge for the last 20 years. And maybe they’ve recently gotten a lot of extra responsibilities and/or they’ve begun to lose track of things. Show them a to-do list app and it has the effect of showing them a very cute pet. They become problem-aware, category-aware and solution-aware in one swift move.

If you’re selling a to-do list app, you know you need to market to both category aware and category unaware people. You’re selling dogs as well as flying squirrels.

Step 2. Take a broad pick of channels and tactics based on category awareness

If you know where the market you operate in stands in terms of category awareness, you can make your first pick of channels.

Marketing channel reccommendations based on cat awareness

If category awareness has been established, a certain amount of people are searching for a solution already. The most effective marketing approach is to harvest demand (rather than create it) ie. just be present and findable when people are looking for a solution. We’ll cover how to do just that in a bit but if it’s people searching for a solution, then (doh) the best channels are SEO, paid search and the types of media channels that complement search.

If there is no significant category awareness for most people in your audience, you’ll need to create it. You’ll need to interrupt someone in their tracks and stand out in the sea of others who are trying to do this. And because they’re not actively looking for a solution, the channel is somewhere where people spend waste a lot of time. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social channels are obvious starting places but old-fashioned media (and doing PR) is also worth keeping in mind.

Please note that the list of channels is not exhaustive. Many channels work equally well (or poorly) on both sides of the category awareness spectrum, eg. events or brand advertising.

Heads up: steps 3 and 4 below are most useful if you’re selling guard dogs or dog-squirrel hybrids (metaphorically speaking). If you’re 100% sugar glider type, feel free to skip to Step 5.

Step 3. Do keyword research, all the way

Keyword research is the process of analyzing search queries in terms of volume, competitiveness and relevance. The higher the volume and relevancy to what you do and the lower the competition, the better. This term usually comes up in the context of search engine optimization, but as a computer can be so much more than a text processor, this practice can offer so much more.

Keyword volume full example

Yes, keyword research guides your SEO and content marketing efforts but if you add one step to the process, it can provide you with a detailed plan for which channels to prioritize as you’re planning your precious resources. Keyword research also gives your insights about the language that people in your target audience use.

I’ve covered doing keyword research in this post, so I’m not going to repeat the contents here. Let me just add my recommendation to take at least a few days for the exercise and ideally involve people other than your content marketer or agency. It’s too important of a topic to just pass to someone who looks to be qualified to do that because it doesn’t just guide content strategy but acquisition strategy overall.

Still with me? You’ll love the next step, and how non-complex marketing can be.

Step 4. Identify specific channels (and tactics) you need to master to become findable

Let’s assume you’ve done your keyword research and found a list of keywords which people use to discover tools and insights in your line of work. I recommend picking 10-20 keywords to focus on if you’re an early stage company ie. before you’ve hired your second dedicated content marketer. You’ll probably want a healthy mix there: some head tail broad terms with a huge volume, some high-intent long-tail ones, a couple of competitor terms (like “alternative to mailchimp”) and some low-intent/educational ones.

The good news is that now you know what channels you’d need to focus on for the next 3-6 months.

Let’s now assume that “best recruiting software” is among the keywords you’ve selected as high priority. Here’s Google’s first page that lists the search results:


search results for best recruiting software

Where should you want to be listed if you wanted to be findable? Yes, that is a rhetorical question.

A typical answer is “the first organic listing” and that’s not incorrect. Same with “somewhere on that page” or “one of the paid listings”. But none of these is not enough as it ignores the people that may click on the 2nd, 3rd or 7th listing for one of many reasons.

So the best answer to this question is “at least one paid listing and all the free ones”. This way people have a very slim chance of not discovering your product or service, independent of where they click.

Of course it’s not possible to be present on ALL of the slots because by nature of things some of the search results are those of your competitors and it’s a rather tall order to have your logo present there. But you can be present on all the listing sites, media articles or reviews, user-generated content sites such as Quora, video listings, blogs, etc.

You may want to think about your marketing plan as a matrix where there are approximately 15 keywords and 10 search results. That’s altogether 150 slots. 50 of them are occupied by your competitors. Great, that makes focusing easier.

Let’s say that what you’re left with are 4 slots for Quora, 3 for Reddit, 32 for media articles and blog posts, 20 for listing sites like GetApp, 5 for Wikipedia entries, 8 for Youtube videos and 28 for “other” kinds of sites.

Congrats, you’ve got your marketing plan blueprint ready. You know exactly which keywords you need to target and exactly which channels you need to focus on. In the above exercise, it’s  review sites (ie. review management and some PPC-programs) and (semi)-media sites.

Step 5. Maximize recommendations, your most effective “channel”

While keyword research based planning is incredibly effective for most early-stage companies, there is one channel that is even more effective: recommendations.

Yes, recommendations is not really a tactic or a channel in the same way that “paid search ads” are but it helps to think about recommendations as a channel. Because whether you’re selling a “guard dog” or a “sugar glider”, if you’re making something even half-remarkable, chances are that most future customers will discover you via a recommendation.

Getting more recommendations is more of a product and customer service than a marketing question but marketers can still do a lot to drive this. Marketing can (and should):

  • set up processes for measuring baseline reccommendability (eg. monthly NPS survey),
  • generate insights about the reasons recommendations are asked and given. A simple survey is a good start, you can follow these up with simple tests,
  • simplify the message to lubricate making recommendations,
  • provide triggers and rewards in the form of building a referral program. As I’ve written before, the best approach here is to not over-do it in terms of incentives and promotion.

Step 6. Execute, measure, repeat, and have patience

That’s it. You can probably come up with a solid plan for execution, using this framework.

Of course, before you execute, you’ll probably need to sacrifice some of those precious developer hours to have adequate tracking in place.

No matter whether things are “working” or not, I’d go through a marketing planning exercise every 6 months or so. Category awareness is not fixed but ever-changing. Keyword research is never “done”, some search terms gain in popularity, others wane and most importantly, there are always great keywords you haven’t yet thought of. And the resource available to execute tends to change, hopefully for the better, not worse.

Last but not least, you’ll need to have some patience. There are about 300 billion stars in our galaxy which is almost as many as there are startups. Channels are saturated and things take more time and money than they used to.

Let’s recap

Assessing category awareness is a great place to start as this gives you a dose of empathy towards people in your target audience and helps to understand whether you can stick to driving visibility and recommendations, or need to work on generating awareness and demand for your category as well. Category awareness helps you to make the first pick of channels and tactics.

Doing keyword research gives you insights in the type of content you need to create, the type of language you need to use and the channels that most effectively connect you with those looking for a product like yours.

And no matter whether you are selling a “guard dog” or a “sugar glider”, getting recommendations is probably your most effective means of getting customers.

PS. I’m currently working on a marketing automation tool that integrates with Pipedrive so seamlessly it might make a grown man cry. If this sounds interesting, sign up for updates here.

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