Marketing Strategy Hacks for Startups

April Dunford
Jun 2, 2015 · 6 min read


(A version of this post appeared on RocketWatcher )

I do a lot of coffee meetings with founders looking for marketing advice. Most of the time people have a specific marketing problem but occasionally I meet with frustrated founders complaining that everything they’re doing on the marketing and sales side just simply isn’t working.

Let’s put aside the very real possibility that there is a fundamental product or product/market fit problem (a big assumption but work with me on this one) — is it possible your marketing/sales strategy is getting in the way of the success of your company? In my opinion, yes that’s very possible. Can you hack your way out of this mess? Yes, again. OK, not always, but it’s worth poking around at a few things to see if it’s fixable. If I was in charge of marketing for a company in that situation, here are a few things I would try:

Hack the Definition of Your Buyer

For example — at one company I worked at we started out targeting buyers in IT because they would ultimately be responsible for maintaining the integration of the solution with other systems. However IT saw the solution as risky and also secretly hoped the company would allow them to develop a solution in-house. The end-users of the product were sales people and we had a strong value proposition to the sales executive in particular. We switched to selling to sales executives and once we had their buy-in, they easily forced IT to get on board with the solution by getting the CEO’s agreement. As an example of moving the other way — I worked with a startup that moved from targeting the executive team (which in this case were difficult to engage with and didn’t understand the end-user pain) to targeting users directly who could start using the product and then lobby their managers to buy it.

Here are the things I rank when I’m looking at target buyers:

  1. Who does our value resonate with the most? Economic value props resonate more with executives whereas ease of use and efficiency often works better with end users.
  2. Who is the easiest to reach? Often C-level execs are impossible to reach by low-cost marketing methods whereas further down hierarchy is easier.
  3. Who has the most influence on a purchase? This is generally opposite to the previous point. Just because end users are the easiest to reach doesn’t make them a good target if they have no real influence over purchases.
  4. Which audience is underserved (Where is the competition the weakest)? In most markets there are groups that are heavily marketed to and others that are underserved. Selling to an underserved market can create a competitive advantage.

Hack the Definition of Your Market Space

Market frame of reference is important because it signals a bunch of things to prospects including:

  1. Competitive comparable — if you say you are a marketing automation platform you compete with Eloqua, if you are a testing tool, you don’t.
  2. What you are good at (and bad at) — There are expectations for each market space. For example if you are a marketing automation platform, I expect you to be great at email. If you are a landing page testing tool, I don’t expect you to do anything with email but I do expect you to be way better at landing pages than my marketing automation platform.
  3. What your price should be — Things in a market tend to be priced at similar levels. Switching markets means you switch the mental model for expected pricing.
  4. Who you are for — Markets serve particular buyers. If I tell you I am a CRM tool you expect that I’m something that is used by sales people. If I tell you I am a sales pipeline analytic engine selling to sales people is off the table.

Sometimes redefining your market space is really a matter of narrowing your focus. Most startups target too broadly and narrowing down to a sub-segment can be the key to early traction. I’ve seen startups do this by moving from being a horizontal solution to focusing on just one industry or by narrowing the focus within an industry to just one slice of it — for example, focusing on Investment banking versus Investment and Retail banking, or focusing on Residential Real Estate versus focusing on both Residential and Commercial.

Hack Your Value Proposition

At one startup I worked with we went from our site highlighting 5 key features to simply talking about one big benefit to prospects, resulting in more leads and higher close rates. At another we re-trained the sales force to lead every prospect conversation and demo with our key differentiating feature and to only move on to other aspects of the solution after that was well understood. Again, conversion and close rates improved dramatically.

Hack Your Sales Process

For example, I worked at a company that sold large enterprise systems to technical buyers and we often got stuck doing proof of concept tests that never progressed into deals. We started to offer an alternative off-site real data test (we took a sample of their data and ran a test in our own lab) that was faster and more controlled than an on-site POC and led to more sales that closed quicker.

At another company we found that we couldn’t close a deal without giving buyers a way to test the system live ahead of time. Even though prospects didn’t ask for a POC we offered it, managed it in a very controlled manner, and closed deals faster. I’ve seen companies do interesting things with free trials and up-selling and cross-selling offers that accomplish the same goal of getting prospects in the funnel unstuck. Looking at not only where deals are dropping out of the funnel but really understanding why can lead you to creative changes in your sales process that move prospects along.

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April Dunford has been a startup marketing and sales executive at a series of successful startups. You can follow her on Twitter, or check out RocketWatcher for articles about startup marketing and sales.

April Dunford

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Entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, board member, advisor. Former CEO Sprintly. I help companies launch innovative new products.