close up of a chess board
The downside of marketing technology is that it makes it too easy to execute, so that 'doing' overtakes 'thinking' PHOTO: Maarten van den Heuvel

Marketing in a startup is challenging. 

You start with no brand awareness, no resources and little to no budget. In some cases, your startup is breaking new ground and faced with trying to establish a new market or product category. 

Too many startups fail to have a strategic plan. As a result, the marketing plan quickly devolves to nothing more than a tactical lead-gen plan with marketers bombarding prospects with email and phone calls and chasing them around the web with ad retargeting — none of which is tailored to the prospect’s persona or needs.

I’ve been called into companies who are a year or more into their marketing efforts who are perplexed why no one understands what they do. 

But guess what?

Large, well-established companies share the same concerns. They too fear they’ve lost control of their messaging and struggle to differentiate themselves from their competitors.  

Digital marketing technology is a wonderful and valuable thing, but the downside is that it makes it too easy to execute, so that “doing” sometimes overtakes “thinking.” 

So for all the startups — and the well-established giants — let's take a step back from the martech and revisit the underlying fundamentals that drive a successful marketing program.

The Art of the Modern Marketing Plan

Do you have a marketing plan or a marketing calendar?  

Hopefully you have both, with the marketing calendar documenting the tactical execution plan for the overall marketing plan. In my experience, most startups have the calendar but not the plan. The risk in only having a calendar is that you end up working towards short-term goals and miss the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a successful longterm market position.

A marketing plan doesn’t need to be long. A series of well thought out bullets in word or PowerPoint will generally suffice. And don't carve those bullets in stone — like most other things today, the marketing plan should be revisited and revised on a regular (I recommend quarterly) basis.

Key elements of the marketing plan include:

  • Marketing objectives
  • Personas
  • Positioning 
  • Branding and messaging
  • Strategy and tactics
  • Measurement

Establish Marketing Objectives

Every marketing team should have three to five marketing objectives — specific goals that they are working to accomplish.  

First and foremost, these objectives must directly tie to the overall business objectives of the company. With marketing directly responsible for, or firmly within, the path to revenue these days, some of these objectives may specifically relate to revenue:

  • Produce $X in revenue
  • Increase conversion rates to Y
  • Increase customer lifetime value to Z
  • Drive ## of qualified leads

Having quantifiable revenue-related objectives does not negate the need for traditional marketing objectives related to market reach, position and share, as well as competitive differentiation and customer satisfaction. Some examples of these types of objectives:

  • Improve NPS score to X
  • Establish company/product as Y (positioning statement)
    • Thought leader, innovator, market leader, expert in, first to … etc.
  • Differentiate company/product from Z 
  • Expand the company’s reach to new market/new demographic
  • Improve customer experience
  • Advance the company/product brand  

When establishing qualitative objectives it is important to:

  • Establish a definition of success for each one
  • Ensure that they do tie back to company business objectives
  • Include at least one that is related to long-term goals (e.g. move Company X towards a market leader position by doing Y).

Develop Personas

All marketing activities aim to influence or drive someone to take a specific action. So the first step to creating a successful marketing plan is to know your intended audience and what they care about — in other words, persona development.  

Understanding what is important to each of your constituents is vital to crafting messaging and programs that will successfully resonate. Persona development should extend beyond existing and prospective customers to include potential partners, as well as media and industry influencers. 

Build Your Positioning

My biggest pet peeve is when I read leadership positioning statements that claim market leadership before a company has a product or revenue. 

Those statements might make the company feel good, but trust me, no one outside of the company buys it.

Positioning is hard work. It can be tedious and time-consuming, but it pays off when it's done right.

Establish Your Market Environment

First, make sure you know and understand your market environment.

  • Have you had direct contact with existing customers and prospects?  Do you understand their requirements, their challenges and how they feel about your company? Do you understand what products are being purchased to work alongside or with yours? 
  • Do you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors? Not just product features but sales and marketing strategy, approach to customer support?
    • How often do they announce new products?
    • How do they position themselves?
    • How do your customers and prospects perceive them?
    • How active are they on social channels and with the media?
    • Do they negotiate on price?
    • What market share do they hold? Is it growing or declining? How long did it take them to achieve their current market share?
    • How big is their marketing department and spend?  Where are they allocating spend?
  • How do influencers, the media and industry analysts talk about your market? Is it a high growth market? Is it about to fragment? Where do they see opportunity? Does their thinking align with yours?
  • Who are potential partners for your company? What need would you address for them? Are they partnering with others? Are they engaged with your competition?

Building a comprehensive view of the market environment will ensure that when it comes time to test positioning and messaging, you've already thought through the dynamics in your industry. Your market positioning strategy will therefore make sense in the bigger picture.

Put Stakes in the Ground and Test Them

With your market environment in mind, put several stakes in the ground:

  • How do you want someone to describe you in five years?
  • Now pull back and define an interim three year and near term one year positioning statements

Test those statements for viability within your market environment:

  • Will the competitive environment allow you to achieve these goals? If there is a dominant player in your segment, what are your chances of displacing them as a market leader in three, five or even 10 years?
  • How does the media and analyst community report on your category? Is your positioning in line with their thinking or counter to it? Having a different view isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does require educating and influencing this community so you are not fighting an uphill battle to justify your positioning strategy. 
  • If your goals include strategic partnerships or acquisition, evaluate your position in the context of the positioning of your desired partners — is there synergy between your positioning and theirs?

A Case Study in Nano-Tech

A technology company I advised went through this exercise and completely changed their go-to-market strategy. 

The company achieved a level of safety and performance far beyond anything currently available thanks to its unique nano-technology, so it wanted this nano-technology to lead its positioning statement and product launch. 

Unfortunately every article published in the previous 18 months about nano-technology concluded with “great idea, but no-one has been able to execute.” 

We also heard from prospective customers that they couldn't care less how safety and performance metrics were achieved. They weren’t buying nano-tech, they were buying a product to solve a specific problem. As a result of the exercise the company:

  • Took nano-tech out of its headlines and positioning statement
  • Included a paragraph in the press release on nano-tech innovation and how it was the first and only vendor leveraging this state of the art technology
  • Delayed the product launch until it could announce a $90 million customer contract in tandem with the product announcement. This diffused the question of “is nano-tech real and viable”

It’s time consuming to dig into all facets of your marketing environment, but once you do it, a positioning blueprint frequently defines itself.

Check back tomorrow when we'll dive into branding, messaging, strategy and forming a tactical plan that puts all of these elements in motion.