One of the most challenging facts that you’ll have to come to terms with is that no matter how innovative your product is, you won’t have any customers if they aren’t aware of your startup. Even more challenging is figuring out how to attract your first customers when you have a limited budget and resources.
While you definitely won’t experience overnight success, the good news is that most startups have been in the same place that you’ve been. And, they were able to turn out just fine by using the following techniques to gain that initial traction.
1. Start With An Awesome Product
Incredibly obvious but the best way to start gaining traction is by offering an amazing product. Sure, other elements like packaging and customer service will help determine the success or failure of your startup. But, you’re halfway there if you have something so incredible that it practically sells itself.
Take Elon Musk’s Tesla. The electric car brand hasn’t launched an expensive advertising campaign. Instead, the company relies on word-of-mouth marketing to back-up its product. And, that could only be accomplished if there was actually a great product to boast about. Guess what? Tesla succeeded.
As reported by CNN, the “all-electric luxury sedan earned a satisfaction score of 99 out of a possible 100, which Consumer Reports said was the highest in years.”
If you build it, they will come. You build it really well, they will come even faster.
2. Brand Yourself
When you think of branding, you automatically have visions of logos, voice and tone, website design, and social media presence. But, as Kevin Barber states your “brand is the experience you deliver customers.” While a slogan (think of Nike’s “Just Do It”) or lighthearted image (think of Dollar Shave Club) are important components of your brand, you have to go deeper.
For Michael Marcial, his brand is literally delivering his voice to his customers. Since launching the Motivation MasterMind podcast, the show hit #25 on iTunes in the Business Podcast category and has seen almost 3,500 downloads and hundreds of subscribers. Leading up to the launch date, Michael was very intentional on using the most powerful resource he had: people. “I reached out to my friends and social media groups that I engage with and announced the launch date. I wanted to prove that if you’ve got that kind of drive behind you, then you can do amazing things. When you’re authentic to who you are, you attract what’s meant for you.”
This is one of the reasons why Uber has found so much success. The company offered an experience that’s incredibly difficult to replace. Max J. Crowley, who is a part of the Uber team, says that there is “an operations team on the ground in all the cities where Uber exists, and that team is working with both local drivers, and local clients to grow the business there.” He also adds, “When someone sees the ease of use, the fact that they press a button on their phone and in under 5 minutes a car appears, they inevitably become a brand advocate.”
3. Connect With Influencers
One goal that should be defined, and achieved, is reaching out to influencers in your industry and community. Whether that’s sending out a specific amount of cold emails to influencers, interact with them on social media, or entice them with an offer they can’t refuse.
This is one of the strategies that propelled Yelp from a Bay Area startup to global juggernaut. The company reached out to a core group of influential reviewers and bloggers and rewarded these “elite” reviewers by placing their profiles on the home page. Yelp also gave “elites” the first-chance to RSVP at exclusive events. This created an active and engaged community of brand advocates that spread the word about the emerging review site.
4. Do Things That Don’t Scale
As Paul Graham wrote: “One of the most common types of advice we give at Y- Combinator is to do things that don’t scale.” What Graham means is that instead of waiting for your product to take-off, you need to give it a little push manually. Graham recalls the success of Stripe. The company had a great product that would have attracted customers, but the company was aggressive and recruited users early on.
Whether it’s through cold emails, reaching out to influencers, hosting an event where you meet users, giving away swag, or building your all-star team, you need to give your startup a nudge. It may take longer than you’d like, and it will involve plenty of hard work and motivation, but it’s one of the best methods to gain traction.
5. Leverage Your Email List
Despite all of the other pieces of marketing advice and technological advances, email remains one of the greatest marketing tools. This worked for Facebook during the early days at Harvard. Adam D’Angelo, an early Facebook employee, recalls, “the founders invited their friends and sent emails to some mailing lists. At some other early schools they relied on their friends at those schools to spread it socially or by sending emails to mailing lists.” He adds, “There was also an email signup form where people at schools that hadn’t been launched yet could enter their email address, and when the school was launched, everyone who had signed up from that school would be emailed immediately.”
Companies like Zappos, Groupon, and Thrillist have all used email marketing to gain traction since it allows them to speak directly to the customer, send special offers, keep them updated, and highlight new products or features.
6. Partner Up
Plenty of startups have been able to gain initial traction by teaming up with other high profile brands. It’s a pretty simple technique that gets your startup in front of the customers that another company has already earned.
Usually, there are four types of partnerships:
- Integration. This is when your product plays nice with another product to enhance the features of both companies.
- API. If you’ve built your own platform, you could encourage other companies to extend on that platform. Uber has done this with TripAdvisor, Starbucks, OpenTable, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, and Expensify.
- Syndication. This is where companies team up and combine their products together or expose each other’s products to their audiences. Kayak achieved this with AOL back in 2004. More recently, Cloud-based security provider SilverSky became an Office 365 syndication partner.
- Referral. This can be either an affiliate, reseller, or organization that uses your product. Dropbox has one of the most famous referral programs where they offer 500MB of space for both the sender and the recipient.
7. Test Everything
As Hiten Shah, Kissmetrics’s co-founder, has explained “growing your business without tracking your marketing performance is like driving with both hands over your eyes.” For startups, you should be paying close attention to the following analytics in particular:
- Content analytics that reveal who your visitors are, how long they stay on your site, and what they’re doing on your site are not just beneficial, they are essential.
- Advertising analytics that track your conversions from marketing channels like Google Ads.
- Email analytics that will measure opens and conversions.
- Social media analytics that determine most effective social media channels.
- Qualitative analytics that dive deeper into the wants and needs of customers. For example, if a customer unsubscribes from your newsletter, have a discussion with them to find out why. (Even if just through email).
This idea is one of the key principles of the Lean Startup movement.
8. Create Original Content
Whether it’s a press release, social media update, or blog post, it’s expected of companies to create and share quality, original content. Content has been proven to help spread brand awareness, become an authority figure in your industry, share valuable information with your audience, and get you picked-up by search engines.
This was one of the reasons that Mint was able to gain traction. According to Jason Putorti, former lead designer for the company, “we focused on building out a unique personal finance blog, very content-rich, that spoke to the young professional crowd that we felt was being neglected. Eventually the blog became #1 in personal finance, and drove traffic to the app. Our app didn’t have a high viral coefficient but we had content that was. Our infographics and popular articles became regular hits on Digg, Reddit, etc.”
9. Promote Original Content
It is great having original content but you then need to get it to the broadest audience possible. Native content advertising enable you to get your content to the eyeballs you need. Revcontent who just acquired Content Click is one such solution for promoting your content. It works by increases audience engagement on publishers website by allowing viewers to continue reading an article or move on to explore other recommended content.
The other recommended content is provided by advertisers. Users who are interested in a particular topic have your content presented to them to select. If they are interested in your content they click on it and view your content. This is a great method for targeting users with particular interests. This method of advertising is proving very popular with advertisers and is a fast growing adtech sector.
10. Showcase Your Product
As mentioned earlier, don’t just sit back and wait for customers to come to you. Take your product to your customers. One of the best ways to accomplish this by attending events that fit your company’s goals and product. For example, both Twitter and Foursquare showcased their products at the annual SXSW Festival in Austin. The demo at the popular event was not only a good pairing; it also attracted thousands of potential new customers without having to embark on a lavish marketing campaign.
11. Think Outside The Box (pardon the extremely overused cliche)
Finally, you don’t always have to play by the rules. Sometimes you can be a little offbeat or unusual in order to gain traction. Airbnb has attributed “the sales of a cereal we created around the time of the 2008 presidential election called Obama Os’” as not only a way to fund the company, but also gain publicity. Back in 1999, Half.com paid the town of Halfway, Oregon to rename itself Half.com, OR for a year. Lyft gave free DeLorean rides to New Yorkers on Back to the Future Day in October 2015.
Publicity stunts and unique marketing campaigns are one of the best ways to introduce your startup to potential customers and attract media attention.