Authored by Yasmine Mustafa
I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs and I tend to focus my conversations on marketing because it's my main area of expertise. I've noticed many first-time entrepreneurs don't consider a marketing plan until right before they launch. In reality, you need an idea of how you're going to get users when you decide to move forward with your idea and at least an initial marketing plan at least 6 months before launch.
As someone who's helped dozens of startups with their go-to-marketing plans and has consulted with various companies, I've decided to summarize by process with a step-by-step outline.
Step 1) Perform a Competitive Analysis
People without a marketing background look at me perplexed when I suggest this as the first time. Before you can determine how you're going to position yourself, you want to see what your competitors do so you can differentiate yourself. You'll see the data you collect here to see how to devise your messaging as well.
The main differentiators are going to center around 4 key areas: cost, quality, uniqueness, and speed of service. A couple of things to note – 1) Great customer service is no longer a point of differentiation. The widespread use of social media has made this a mandatory component and 2) You can’t possess all of those qualities. Two of them are standard and you may be able to do three if you’re lucky.
To start, pull up a spreadsheet and list yourself and your competitors on the first row. If you're unsure of how to find them, take a relevant targeted keyword that pertains to your business and Google it. The paid advertising ads that show up at the top and the side are your competitors. You may also want to search on Product Hunt, a popular site that highlights new products.
Next, add what you want to track on corresponding columns. This might be how much they've raised, if their app is available on multiple platforms, the features they have, pricing, etc.Crunchbase is a great resource to use to dig into your competitors in terms of finding out how much funding they've recieved and recent news stories about them, same with Google Trends. To view their traffic data, try Compete or Alexa. You may also want to utilize Quantcast for an idea of their demographics if they're big enough. It's not a bad idea to go to their site and look at their Careers or Jobs page to analyze where they're going. For example, you may see they're hiring lots of product people. That may tell you they're focused on product development vs. sales.
Step 2) Learn everything you can about your target market
(Note: Steps 1 and 2 can be inverted. It doesn't matter if you start with one or the other). Before you can devise a plan on how you’re going to get your first users, you need to understand them. This is especially true if you classify yourself as your own user. Too often, I read stories on Hacker News of technical founders whose own assumptions turn around to bite them because they couldn’t take themselves out of the picture.
This is comparable to the requirements you would put together before starting development. It is the most imperative component of building a marketing plan and too often, it’s not given enough time. Who is your typical user? Where do they hang out? What do they like? What do they not like? Where do they fall in the adoption cycle? What are their demographics? Psychographics? etc.
I like to start this by researching what bloggers are saying about similar tools and services. I write down a list of keywords that pertain to my product and market and Google it one by one. I open up multiple tabs of pages that are relevant and start reading. I compile notes on a separate document with what I’ve learned. I also include links to the respective page if the information is really valuable in case I want to reach out to that person in the future.
Let's say you're working on a product, I recommend looking at similar products on Amazon and seeing what people are saying in the reviews. You'll not only find demographic info but also how it's been used and what they like about it, what they don't like, and what they wish it included. This is a great way to get market research into your product as well.
Next, I take the same keywords and turn to Twitter to search for what people are saying about them. You can easily save them so you don't have to type them down each time. Every day, go through each one and see what folks are tweeting. If someone says something you don't understand, reach out and ask them to elaborate. This is a fantastic way to start building relationships with future users.
After this is fleshed out, take the time to build user personas. Personas are descriptions of fictional users that represent a majority of your target market. It’s focused specifically on how they would use your product/service to meet their goals. Through this exercise, you actually bring these characters to life and you use them to set the tone for future initiatives. This infographic provides a nice guide that explains how they work and provides other resources to look into.
Step 3) Determine your USP (or your unique selling proposition)
This is one of my favorite exercises. Now that you've dived into your competition and learned about your target markets, it's time to lay out how you're different from everyone else to see the best way to position yourself. Here's how you do it:
- Start by writing down all the benefits of your product on a whiteboard, leaving enough space underneath each sentence to fit 3 bullets.
- Once you’ve exhausted all of them, go down your list and ask yourself “Why would X care about this?” Use the personas you’ve built if available and input your answer in the first bullet.
- Do this again for the second bullet.
- And again for the third.
Marketing Experiments also has a nice USP exercise you can view on Scribd. You want to be that annoying little kid that’s always asking why broccoli is good for you. After his/her parent realizes saying “because I said so” isn’t good enough, he or she will take the time to explain that broccoli is full of vitamins that will help him/her grow into a healthy adult. That’s exactly the process you’re going through in this step, you’re getting to the core of what your users really want. Some of them will be duds and others will make you say, “why didn’t I think of that before?”
Tip: If you come up with yours easily, you didn’t do it right.
Step 4) Set your marketing goals
Goals set the context for your marketing plan. Is your goal to acquire 1000 users by June? Is it to hit $10k in monthly revenue by then? Create SMART goals – that is, make sure they’re Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. Wikipedia has a thorough page outlining each criteria.
Only once you've listed your goals do you start brainstorming marketing ideas. This is important as it'll help you determine exactly what you need to focus on.
Step 5) Brainstorm strategies and determine tactics
I love this part. Now is the time to get the creative juices flowing. I like to start by defining marketing channels, then laying out ideas for each. Some examples include email marketing, social media, SEO, paid advertising, lead generation, and so on. Don’t leave anything out. I’ve found a crazy or boring thought can spark a new idea that jumps to the top of the list later on. The only criteria is to ensure the concepts are relevant to the goals you laid out above.
If you have a bigger team, you may want to write your ideas on a post-it separately and then share it with the group so everyone’s thoughts doesn’t impede sharing. With this process, the protocol I’ve used is as follows:
- Set a time limit for brainstorming. A good timeframe is 15 minutes
- Write ONE idea on a separate post-it
- Once time is up, go around the room and have one person get up, share the idea, and stick it to the respective category on the whiteboard. If duplicates occur, put it right on top to represent the strength of that concept.
Step 6) Prioritize your ideas
You'll find a slew of ideas come out of the previous step. Where should you start? My old partner taught me a technique to evaluate ideas called the Value Judgment Analysis. The exercise involves measuring the expected impact, time, and cost each idea. The benefit being it allows for easier prioritization. To start, make a list of all the ideas in an Excel spreadsheet. Add “Impact,” “Time,” and “Cost”columns. Create a legend to dedicate how you’ll measure each criteria. Go through each idea and determine the corresponding rating on a scale of 1 to 5. Add up the total and re-organize how you’re going to start executing your promotions.
Step 7) Test and measure, then repeat!
Make it a point to keep testing your site copy, subject line of your email campaigns, paid search keywords/ads and so on. What are your KPI’s? Did they increase or decrease? Adjust as necessary. One way to accomplish this is with A/B testing. A few tools that can help with this include Google Optimizer, Optimizely, Performable, and Unbounce.
And there you have it, a step-by-step process to start your initial marketing plan. Don't forget to start early. Marketing should be considered as part of the development of your startup, rather than something introduced at the end. Let us know if you have any questions.