It’s not uncommon for me to see a startup business plan “mission” to be the “premier brand” for their product, yet their marketing budget in the financials is trivial. This combination will almost certainly get your plan tossed by potential investors, who understand all too well the need and cost for marketing in today’s environment.
When questioned, founders usually mention word-of-mouth, viral marketing, and a top quality product. These founders need a reality check on what recognized brand names have spent to reach that threshold, and how long it is likely to take. Viral marketing costs real money these days, which usually means adding at least an extra zero to budget estimates.
Recognized brands like Facebook and Priceline.com each required over $50 million and several years to get to be premier brands. We know that existing big brands like Apple and Nike spend millions per year just to maintain their brand recognition. In fact, the average spent by Inc 500 companies for sales and marketing expense continues to hover around 10% of overall revenues.
My first recommendation then is to confine your “premier brand” comments to the long-term vision section of your business plan. Concentrate elsewhere on the near-term marketing activities (which are also expensive) for this round of funding. By the way, if the marketing section is missing or un-budgeted, you will also likely be “branded” as unfundable.
So what are some credible marketing and promotion steps you should consider for your startup? There are many more, but these should get you started:
1. Create a professional website and blog. With these, your business presence can look big and credible even when you are small. There are multiple low-cost website tools available, like Adobe Dreamweaver, which allow you to do your own work and save thousands of dollars, but a budget of $10,000 is a good starting point. A blog is critical, and essentially free (your cost is creating content).
2. Get exposure for your expertise. Use social media and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) to start. Create meaningful content and engage others online (free downloads, white papers, webinars, regular blogging). Put out regular press releases for search purposes and general visibility. Pitch your story to newspaper journalists, radio, and television news reporters who cover your local area or industry.
3. Do something unique to get customer attention. Promotions and free giveaways are all the rage these days. This step requires thought because you need to identify what can set you apart from your competitors and how to retain customers. Promotions that appeal to the wrong customers won’t help you.
4. Generate leads for your product. Gather leads online from your social media initiatives, mine your contacts, attend trade shows, and use lead-generation services. Here is an area where you need to be creative, and not just spend big money. For example, exhibiting at trade shows is very expensive, and usually not very productive. Figure out what is valuable to your audience.
5. Establish partners and referrals. Customers who enjoy doing business with you are more than happy to spread the word. Create referral marketing opportunities within your business community that maximize the potential for customer referrals. Find partners and channels which are complementary, and not directly competitive.
Good marketing often is the only thing that separates the successful startup from the not-so-successful startup. There is no doubt that marketing overall has become even more critical for startups over the past several years.
Despite the fact that social networking and other online processes are essentially free, good marketing still costs money. If your early-year budgets for marketing aren’t 10% of projected sales or more, plus an early kicker for setup, you are probably underestimating reality, and jeopardizing your credibility with investors.