Creating a Marketing Foundation for Corporate Success
If you have ever wondered what B2B startup marketers do during their long work days, here’s a composite sketch structured as I were talking to a class of graduating college students curious about a possible future in B2B startup marketing. Based on my own experience doing marketing for a dozen B2B startups across a range of industries, this advice is intended for fulfilling the marketing role in an early-stage B2B and SaaS startup doing $40K-125K MRR.
Read (A Lot)
In the earliest life of startup, you establish the marketing foundation. This requires much analysis, planning followed by execution. Curiosity is a much prized characteristic.
Study the market, analyzing competitors, their products, positioning and pricing. You try to figure out how who you’re going to pitch (customers – not media) and how you can get their attention. You visit websites of the media and bloggers who cover your industry or niche.
Listen and Talk (in this order)
Whenever feasible and practical, attend trade shows and conferences to learn about competitors and prospects. Study the alternatives available, learn the industry issues and see which people are considered the thought leaders. Sit in conference sessions and listen and take lots of notes. Walk the expo floor and study the branding of competitors’ and other vendors. Show up well-rested because you want to sit through as many product demos as you can.
Three categories of people man trade show booths; the marketing team, sales reps and technical sales people. The latter (aka demo jockeys) know the product so well that they can almost convince you that it will be as simple for you to use should you become a customer. You want to talk to them. Tell the sales rep that your time horizon is more than a year, and he will leave you alone with tech sales. I’ve always found tech sales staff much happier to discuss their employer and industry. They’ve often worked in the same industry for multiple vendors so they can give you an amazing amount of information in 15 minutes.
When I started in the IT Security category, I attended RSA to do this. George Kurtz, CEO and co-founder of CrowdStrike, was in his fourth year running Foundstone and they had their brand 100% dialed in. I took note of their booth design, apparel, collateral design, visual branding, etc. They set a standard.
Food loosens lips; not as much as alcohol but you should speak with people in the buffet line. Eat your lunch with others, preferably attendees working for companies in your target market not your competitors. Sit with them and listen. Try and find out the lexicon that people use to describe their problems, and the context in which they search for solutions. Collect business cards from your neighbors and make notes about which products they use and why. Hopefully, some of them are using your competitors because you want to learn why they made that selection. You want to learn how much they’re paying, as well as likes and dislikes. How do they buy stuff that approximates the functionality or value of what you’re selling? Who in their organization has what role in the technology evaluation and vendor selection process?
You’re not Sherlock, but you’re pleasantly inquisitive without being annoying. Connect with everyone afterwards on LinkedIn. Your online research should be similarly comprehensive.
If your company is entering or in an existing market, you sign up for online product demos from the prospective competitors and even tangentially-relevant vendors. Register for their webinars. You may want to use QuickTime to record those demos to watch again later. Subscribe to competitors’ newsletters.Follow their key people on Twitter, IG and Facebook. If they run a LinkedIn Group, become a member. Reverse engineer their demand gen and lead ten processes. Use as many competitive tools as you can. Keyword analysis is a key; use SEM Rush and similar tools to discover details that can help you focus your PPC activities and website content. If your company’s martech tool budget is low, freemium accounts and 14-day programs will be your friends.
Study competitors’ linking and content marketing. Head over to SlideShare and see what they’re sharing and whether it’s popular. Watch their YouTube channel clips. What companies have they already partnered with? Create a swipe file of their best assets. Learn about their PR program. A simple way is to do a Google search for ” profile” or ” profile or interview.” Sign up for Google Alerts for them.
Essentially, you’re trying to identify and map their strengths and weaknesses. You create a really big competitive tracking spreadsheet. What appears to be working for them? Who is working with them? What do influencers say about them? If you’ve never been a marketer in the category before, you have many relationships to create. This will become a critical part of your future content marketing and PR success, or lack thereof.
You work with the CEO and whoever will headline sales. She could well be the same person. You work together to plan your sales activity.
- Can you sketch out a prospective sales cycle?
- Who is in that cycle and how can you reach them?
- Should that approach be direct or via a third-party like a reseller?
- Is the Channel going to play a role?
- What are the prospective support issues like first-tier and escalation policies and procedures?
- Do potential channel partners have any idea who you are? If not, you will need to introduce yourself.
- Will you need sales reps of order takers?
- How much will you have to pay reps? Can telesales work?
- What’s the role of inbound marketing? What’s the product trial experience going to be?
- What is the pricing opportunity? What are the pricing tiers and how can differentiate them?
- Does your pricing model work with third-party distribution?
If you’re a SaaS company, Price Intelligently is an excellent pricing resource. I first spoke with CEO Patrick Campbell 6-7 years ago when his then-very fledgling startup was itself just getting initial traction. He’s more than doubled the company since then.
You won’t be expected to answer all these questions yourself, particularly if you’re working for a company whose leadership has startup experience. If so, they hopefully know what they don’t know and therefore what they need to learn. Unfortunately, many startups are founded by first-time entrepreneurs who don’t know what they need to do and the optimal order of operations. So it may take some time to iterate the most promising sales channels.
But, assuming your sales model has been sketched out, what does marketing need to do and deliver?
- What kind of messaging, collateral, materials and media do you need to get your foot in the door, and move the sales process along?
- From here, you start planning your digital marketing roadmap.
- Do you need a product video?
- Can you secure any early feedback from alpha or beta customers?
- Can you merchandise it as a case study, or talking head testimonial video on your home page?
- Is there anything from the previous lives of the founding team that you can leverage?
Algolia is an example of leverage. A search-as-a-service startup in SF, it created early traction and publicity from the fact that co-founders Nicolas Dessaigne and Julien Lemoine had had prior domain success.
You then do messaging and positioning development. One of the most valuable and challenging positioning exercises you can do as an early-stage marketer is to draft 25, 50 and 100-word descriptions of your company. It forces—really forces—you to focus on identifying the core value and synthesizing it.
Hang Out with the Dev Team
Learn the release schedule to learn what the product will and won’t be able to do. Press the dev team for honesty about bugs and clunky functionality. If you release buggy technology—Microsoft did it for decades—you at least need to know how this will affect the UX. Try and identify complaints likely to arise as a consequence, and devise mitigation activities.
What customer touch points can the UX incorporate? Are there ways to integrate growth into the product or service? Research ways that successful tech companies have increased sales from customers without traditional upsell activities. Dropbox is one of the more obvious successes.
Dive into Go-to-Market Planning
It’s decision time.
If you’re like most startups—limited by very limited funding—you have to decide where to place your sales and marketing bets. Where are you going to focus? Who are you going to sell to first? How will you get their attention? How much will it cost to create this awareness? Who can help you do that? What order will you do everything?
Merge the answers to these questions and your other research into your GTM plan. If you’re never heard of a GTM plan, watch this video. It’s 45 minutes you won’t regret investing. The Presenter is MaRS Cleantech Fund Managing Partner Murray McCaig, a Canadian VC.
Help Create the Support Infrastructure
Customer support is vital, requiring a lot of text and visual content. Explaining how to use a specific feature isn’t the entertaining domain of the creative writer, yet someone has to produce it. FAQs are an example. I’ve also written hundreds of FAQ questions and answers. When building your FAQ list, take a very objective lens and figure out what people are likely to want to know. This is true for both Support FAQs and Sales FAQs. Communicating objectively is a great exercise in precision and clarity.
- What is your on-boarding process going to be?
- Will you need a Getting Started Tour video? Graphic design service Canva forces you to watch one. (I recall that it was only 23 seconds long, but someone had to storyboard the script, film it, and finalize the editing)
- If your product is an app, are you going to connect with something like Intercom?
- What content will you put into Intercom?
Finally, someone in an early-stage company has to write Privacy and IT Security and ToS documents, and System Availability Commitments. Although not technically part of the customer support domain, you may have to write them.
Finetune the Investor Pitch
Depending on the company’s funding status, this may be an area where you can help.
The first VC pitch deck I edited was in early 2003. If your CEO is fundraising, you should part of the process. She’s busy and needs help. There are summary emails to write, paragraph summaries to proof, pitch decks to improve and one-pagers to revise. The CEO will receive frequent feedback and advice on how to improve the presentation. Hopefully, your skills will help iterate the pitch to a successful conclusion.
If you have a background in PR and have any experience with media training and public speaking, help your CEO with her presentation. Test it, and help improve it. Few people are naturally gifted at public speaking; pitching an investment opportunity with conviction and impact to a room full of angels is challenging for many.
Build A Marketing Toolkit And Operations Stack
How are you going to implement your GTM plan? You might lack resources, but you shouldn’t lack initiative. You can access a lot of technology and create some really interesting systems for little to no money. Google Analytics and freemium tools are your friends. Make friends with Zapier. A patchwork martech stack can take you a long way if money is tight.
Start to Do
Start implementing, testing and tracking what works. Do more of what works.
I’ve purposely omitted a ton of other stuff that an early-stage B2B startup marketer might do. Much of the final lists depends on your GTM. For example, if your distribution channel will be a channel, you may have to create a Play Kit. Play Kits are soup-to-nuts packages of sales material, digital assets, email versions, voice scripts, FAQ content for partner dashboards, and training resources for partner employees. Creating one is a lengthy project. (I created one at McAfee that was over 55 pages).
B2B marketing requires mapping out sales personas, their concerns and likely questions. Next, you try and identify conduits to reach them. Mapping funnels and appropriate content touches is vital. You’ll have to plan and perhaps project manage your website development. Who is going to register your social media accounts? Building lists of media, influencers and bloggers takes time, too. Creating landing pages and social media images might also test your design skills. Don’t forget your visual identify as that is what many people first think of in terms of a company’s brand.
A good B2B startup marketer can prioritize the most important tasks and help a company pursue the shortest path to revenue. If you’ve engaged a talented marketer at a level beyond a small part-time gig, expect more than blogs, tweets and Facebook ad management.
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