How to build a low-budget, high-returns marketing strategy in the early stages of a startup

Global venture capital (VC) funding experienced a 10% drop in April, demonstrating that it could be increasingly difficult for startups to access funding in the months to come. Generally, when funding is tight, founders and their colleagues can be tempted to forego marketing efforts entirely, in favour of a focus on product development and operations. 

This ultimately ends up with shooting yourself in the foot. Neglecting marketing altogether in the early days stifles growth and can land founders in an even more restricted budget due to lower revenue figures. 

Marketing departments rarely exist in many early-stage startups. Founders and other leaders often oversee multiple aspects of the business, with marketing generally falling down the list of priorities. Needless to say, this is a problem; companies must ultimately grow revenue to be sustainable, and doing this without even a small-scale marketing strategy can be difficult. 

The best kept secret of marketing for startups? Some of the most effective strategies are completely free. 

In the early stages of brand development, investing lots of money into long-term strategies simply doesn’t make sense. Leaders need a low-budget, high-return approach that drives brand awareness, and crucially, attracts the right type of customers to the business’ product. 

Start with leaders – the driving force of any business

Founders usually start a business either to resolve a problem that they have personally experienced, or because they have spotted a gap in the market that they believe they can fill. Taking the initiative to start a business requires significant expertise in the designated market, which should not only feed into the business’ operations, but is a goldmine for marketing too. Unfortunately, all too often this expertise is not tapped into. 

Increasingly, consumers want to buy from a company made up of experts in any given field. 71% of consumers will buy more from brands that they trust, highlighting the importance of consumer confidence. 

How do leaders build that trust? In today’s information-saturated world, it’s all about developing the human face of the business. Consumers are picky over which businesses they engage with than in the past, so it’s crucial that startups portray themselves as real people, not faceless corporations. 

As the driving force behind a business, nurturing and growing the profiles of the leadership team is essential. Consumers need to have faith that the business and the people within it are a good fit for them. When it comes to raising the profile of the leadership team, startups can learn from some of the world’s greatest CEOs. For example, successful entrepreneur and CEO of Virgin, Richard Branson, maintains a blog on the Virgin website where he shares his travel experiences and perspectives on pertinent industry issues. In doing so, consumers can access the human side of one of the world’s largest corporations, in turn driving trust and brand loyalty. 
 
Focusing on the personal branding of founders and the wider team is an essential part of startup marketing – and best of all, it’s totally free! Every individual has a story to tell and expertise to share, so it’s essential to leverage that for the benefit of the business.

Engage in simple acts of content marketing

Content marketing is often a tactic favoured by the big players – those who have expansive marketing teams and budgets with in-house graphic designers, social media managers, and more. That being said, startups shouldn’t avoid content marketing, as it doesn’t always have to require significant resources. Content marketing can be done similarly to personal branding: by leveraging quality resources and expertise and positioning them in the right places.  

For businesses in the early stage of their growth journey, content marketing is all about low-spend, high-value content. Do members of your team post regularly on LinkedIn? Has your CEO written an article for a blog or news outlet? Have you ever sent an email about your startup? All these assets, however small, are content. And all pieces of content have longevity.

Early-stage startups don’t have the time or resources to design beautiful graphics or employ a team of content writers – but they do have a wealth of experts at the helm. Startup marketers should be tapping into the existing expertise of their wider team, positioning them as specialists in their field, not reinventing the wheel. 

Build a strategy around content types that can be created easily - ensure the team commits to fuelling a strong content pipeline through blog articles. Talk about the team, the people and the users who drive the business to create engagement around the human side of the business. Ask the leadership team to discuss their experience with entrepreneurship, touching on what they have learned and how these learnings can help others. 

Content is not a single-use commodity. It has longevity and should be treated as a minefield of useful information for potential customers and other stakeholders. Content is a driving force of the overarching goal of developing trust among customers, ultimately making the business more attractive to potential customers whilst using as few resources as possible. This process both bolsters and is bolstered by existing personal branding efforts for the leadership team, as each piece of content can be reused multiple times for different platforms. Additionally, when sharing content on social media, marketers can try to make connections with thought leaders in their market, who can eventually help maximise the brand.

Invest in targeted ads to reach your prospects in the right places

During the early stages of LastBasic, our marketing budget was incredibly small. We had to make difficult decisions on what strategies would provide the best return on our investment, and work alongside free approaches. 

It was 2018, and even in the pre-pandemic world, we saw the tangible benefit of social media. We had organic presences on a wide range of platforms, but like many other startups, at that time we lacked the resources to invest in formalised social media management. So, we needed to tap into the benefits of social media in a different way – through advertising. 

Facebook has around 2.93 billion active users across the globe, which is an astronomical feat. This wide range absolutely fit the bill for what we were trying to do at this time – attract a range of inventors and experts to our hardware product development platform from a variety of different regions and countries. For a relatively low price, investing in PPC (Pay Per Click) advertising on Facebook and other social media platform allows for highly targeted advertising, thus allowing startups to speak to their precise desired audience. 

After some time, we reviewed our PPC strategy and found that Facebook was no longer achieving the results we desired. Consequently, we moved our investment to Google Ads, which provided quality results. It’s important that startup marketers review the range of PPC channels, testing accordingly to assess which serves their business best and brings the highest ROI. If the business hasn’t achieved organic positioning yet, online advertising is a cheap and easy method for startups to drive interest in their brand. 

Develop an email marketing strategy

Once startups have attracted interested stakeholders to their website, it’s about keeping people engaged for as long as possible. Personal branding and content marketing are key aspects of stakeholder retention, with email marketing sitting perfectly alongside these strategies. 

Some sources claim that email marketing has a ROI of 400% or more. Even at the most conservative estimates, email marketing is certainly a strong approach for engaging prospects, simply because almost everyone has an email address in today’s digital-first world. The cost efficiency of this approach is crucial for startups with limited budgets, as leaders should be able to see a significant return on any resources invested. 

Building an effective email marketing strategy involves curating a good list of prospects. Email marketing is generally free, but it takes time to build out a target list. Including an ‘opt-in’ on all forms and a ‘subscribe’ button in the team’s email signatures can help to increase this base. Once the audience is signed up and engaged, startups must deliver regular and engaging content that adds value. Evidently, this can cause an extra strain on resources eventually, but in the early days leaders must remember to re-use existing assets, ensuring that all content goes the distance.

Email marketing campaigns aim first and foremost to deliver relevant content to prospects, but there’s certainly more to be gained with this strategy. Building out a list of customers and regularly communicating with them allows a business to acquire a great deal of information on these customers’ habits. Information such as open rate and location allows marketers to further target sections of the overall customer base with specific information, ultimately increasing the likelihood of engagement. Leveraging free CRM tools can help marketers keep track of these different qualities and ultimately deliver more relevant campaigns later down the line, crucially generating leads. 

Revise, refine, and get creative

Marketing for a startup is a completely different ball game to marketing for a larger organisation. It’s likely that budgets will be tight, and without a fully fleshed-out marketing department, a range of team members will often need to be persuaded to join marketing efforts. Yet simultaneously, marketing for a startup is incredibly exciting. There is often more freedom to test out new approaches and get creative, without the boundaries of past efforts to restrain marketers. 

Relying upon low-cost, high-return approaches is crucial for startups looking to grow. Marketing is no different, and certainly should not be overlooked, due to its high value in driving stakeholder engagement. In today’s digital world, anyone can become an entrepreneur – all it takes is a little dedication and creative flair. 

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