Recently I’ve spent a lot of my time reading and listening to podcasts about startup companies.
In particular, I have been looking for clues about what kinds of marketing techniques are working today for high growth startups.
I’m doing this because I’m in charge of marketing for my own startup, InboxDone – Email Management, so I’m always looking for smarter ways to invest our somewhat limited budget.
I haven’t written about this much, but over the last three years I’ve made angel investments in over 25 companies (you can visit my About Page to see what companies I have invested in). These are not big investments, from $1,000 to $20,000 into each company, but they are exciting investments. I say exciting because I love to support entrepreneurs building cool products and services, and of course the potential for big exits is real, if rare.
One of the other reasons I enjoy angel investing is the chance to ‘peek behind the curtain’ and see how founders are growing their companies today, in the modern and busy internet landscape we operate in. This gives me an opportunity to learn what growth marketing techniques are working for them.
In this article I’d like to share with you an interesting trend I have noticed, one that has influenced my own decision making for growing my startup, and a trend I expect will only increase in the years ahead.
If you have a new startup, an existing business, or you’re still contemplating your next step in the world of online marketing, this is something you should pay attention to.
Let me start by stating something that is probably overwhelmingly obvious: The number one growth marketing technique I hear mentioned from almost every founder of a high growth company, is word of mouth.
This makes sense, since one of the outcomes of product market fit is the fact that people love what you sell so much they tell others. The companies that grow REALLY fast have amazing word of mouth.
I was hesitant at first to call word of mouth a ‘technique’ of marketing, since it seems like a by-product of people loving what you offer rather than some kind of action taken to market something. The product itself is so interesting, so new and compelling, and such a good solution to a problem that people spread the word without needing any encouragement.
You could say in this instance, a focus on product itself is the marketing technique. Product = marketing.
The company ‘Mirror‘, founded by Brynn Putnam and later acquired by Lululemon for $500 Million is a good example of product word of mouth.
I was watching this story on YouTube about Brynn Putnam and how she started Mirror and was not surprised to hear her talk about how word spread about her home gym technology.
Mirror, in case you have never seen it before, is a home gym product, one part mirror, one part streaming video featuring training classes and coaching from fitness professionals. It’s a very cool product, allowing coaches to also support clients with individual feedback as they watch them working out through the mirror.
Needless to say, there has never been a product like Mirror before and it simply caught on fire in popularity. It grew like crazy in two short years, fuelled by women sharing their experiences with the Mirror.
Mirror also leveraged marketing techniques like influencer drops to grow (giving top influencers the product, which they then talk about on social media), so it wasn’t just about word of mouth, but I think in this case it’s safe to say the product itself was the driving force for adoption.
What is interesting though when I consider my own startup and hear reports from the founders of angel investments I made, and listen to podcasts with more founders, is that word of mouth as a force is variable.
Every product or service that meets a need will get some word of mouth. However, it can be like a firehose or a dribbling tap, and it fluctuates a lot.
Ideally word of mouth increases over time. The better your product gets, the more people you reach, and adjustments you make to who you target and how you sell, all (hopefully) shift you closer and closer to better market fit and thus more word of mouth.
What all this means is that founders are not just sitting back watching customers come to them. They have marketing and sales teams, they are constantly experimenting, looking to reach more people, and increase referrals. They have to force expansion and stimulate adoption, which costs money and time.
I’ve been an organic content marketer since the day I had my first website. I didn’t have a budget to spend on ads back then, and later when I did try a few paid advertising experiments with my first company, the results were terrible, so I stuck to my organic content marketing plan.
Later, once I started blogging, that’s when I really fell into the content marketing world. Everything was about search engine optimization to connect with people via Google search and making sales using articles and emails.
That being said, I was well aware — and jealous to be honest — of those people who could roll out a paid ad campaign on Google or Facebook and Instagram, and instantly start making money.
Today as we know, the internet marketing landscape is vast. The big ad platforms dominate (Google, Facebook, and Amazon for e-commerce), then there is influencer marketing, content sponsorships, pay per lead, affiliate marketing, display advertising, podcast ads, YouTube ads, Pinterest ads, Twitter ads, and countless niche platforms offering various methods to reach potential customers.
What I have found compelling, because of my exposure to startups as an angel investor, including the companies I invest in and those I don’t but get to learn how they have gained initial traction, is how frequently organic content marketing is mentioned as a strategy for the future.
Although many get started by buying ads on the big platforms or using social influencer marketing (often good for DTC startups, companies selling physical products Direct To Consumers), they see the need to push marketing spend toward content creation to improve organic reach.
Some of the startups I see, especially those focused on two-sided marketplaces, are starting out almost entirely focused on content for growth, even if that means it is slow to begin with.
The motivation for focusing on content is what you would expect. While slower to build, once in place, content brings in a steady stream of targeted customers/users that cost zero to acquire, just the sunk cost of creating the content and building links to increase search authority.
The other driver behind this shift to organic is the changing world of paid advertising. With issues like fake-clicks, privacy (third party cookies being banned), and increased competition, relying only on the big ad platforms is becoming less desirable and even risky.
If you want to look into what’s going on in the digital advertising space, Rand Fishkin did a deep dive here in his post – Something is Rotten in Online Advertising.
Despite all the negative trends with paid advertising, it still continues to be a top choice for startups because it’s an instant solution. Spend money, get clicks. It works to attract new customers, and in a world where investors and media value growth over profit, founders don’t get reprimanded for spending money on paid ads to get more paying users, no matter what the cost of acquisition or the return on investment.
This of course will not be the case forever, which is another reason to shift towards organic content marketing — to prepare for a future where paid ads do not deliver, whether because of click-fraud, or the need for ad budgets to line up with return in profits, or venture capital drying up.
First, I’ll state the obvious. Product market fit drives word of mouth. Keep working on your product or service based on feedback from real customers.
You will know when things are working, because more and more customers will come to you.
If word of mouth is not driving growth, or to augment it, paid advertising, sponsorships and organic content are the tools of the trade.
These marketing methods are also your best options for a new product or service offer, to test, gauge interest, iterate and grow. You need real word feedback to make decisions and that means you need to reach people.
For stability, to establish a platform you control and best of all — to reach new customers without having to spend on a per-click or per-sponsorship or per-lead basis, start investing in organic content.
It’s not an instant solution, but it’s by far the most stable, and I’m not saying this just because I have experienced the power of organic content over the past 20 years with three different companies. I say this because I hear it stated over and over again by founders who are in charge of high growth startups. They made the choice to invest in content marketing, and a year or two later, they’re reaching new customers every day for free.
If all this sounds new to you, or you’re confused by what exactly organic content marketing is, then I recommend you spend an hour today taking part in my free workshop. You can participate any time, just click play after you enter your email address here:
My Platform Launch Plan workshop explains what content marketing is and uses some basic examples of different types of content to show you how you can reach customers. This has been my ‘bread and butter’ marketing method for over 20 years now, and I’m still using it today.
Content marketing is possibly the most important skill you should learn, if you are focusing on the Internet as your tool for business. You can start with my workshop and from there if you want more in-depth training, my flagship course Blog Mastermind 2.0 is the next step.