How Startup Marketing is Like Learning to Surf

Surfers will tell you that there’s no better feeling than paddling out to a wave, catching it and then riding it all the way back to shore. It’s the thrill of seeing an opportunity, going for it and then reveling in the knowledge that you just accomplished something truly amazing.

Startup marketing is a lot like learning to surf. You wait for the perfect wave — like your business starts doing well and people buy your product — so that you can ride it and succeed.

But just like learning to surf, you have to tackle marketing strategically. Going forward without a clear, well-formed plan almost always leads to a wipeout. Instead, you have to wait for the right opportunity to present itself. And even if you do wipe out, you have to get back up and try again.

Read on to learn how to find the right wave for your startup marketing and how to ride it like a pro.

Don’t drown in the sea of possibilities

When you look at this picture, what do you see?

The one thing that stands out is the number of waves to surf, right? Some are bigger than others but there’s no shortage of opportunities.

Startup marketing is no different from this picture. You have an ocean of opportunities available to you to engage customers. For example, you can use social media, your blog or email as channels to get your product in front of a lot of people.

But just because you have so many choices, doesn’t mean you have to use them all. Different marketing channels work for different companies. Choose the channels that will help you reach the goals you’ve set for your marketing.

For example, depending on who you’ve identified as your target audience, your marketing might not be seen by them in certain channels. Look at social media as an example. With so many platforms to choose from, each one attracts different types of users.

If we look at age distribution across popular platforms, we see that the age of users varies across the board:
Social media age distribution[Source]

If your core demographic is 18-24-year-olds, then you need to be on Snapchat. Facebook and Twitter are great but because 18-24-year-olds don’t spend much time on them, you’d be missing a huge opportunity to target this demographic.

Finding the right platform “takes better brand alignment, thought-out social conversations and meaningful connections with your core group of brand loyalists.” As a startup, you can’t afford to do everything, you have to find the option that gets you the most bang for your buck.

Get to know your target audience

Even with tons of possibilities in front of you, when you have a clear picture of who your target audience is, you’re in a better position to hone in on the channels that will have the biggest impact.

How do you get focused? Create buyer personas. Here’s how:

  • Use a tool like Clearbit to track the kinds of people that visit your website. Then use Segment to feed the data into an analytics tool like Amplitude. Use the data on user location, contact information, social media platforms used, etc to segment customers and build personas.
  • Survey current customers. Send an email to customers and ask questions about their preferences. You can also use this information to learn more about customer behaviors.
  • Update contact forms. Update the fields on the contact forms on your website to include information you can use to segment and group similar customers together.
  • Set up online interviews. Engage with customers on different social media platforms. Use it as an opportunity to get to know some of your customers on a one-on-one basis.

Use the data you gather to create the personas then give each persona a name to make it easy to identify each one.

With your personas you can choose the right waves to ride based on what resonates with each group. So instead of targeting everyone through social media, your blog and email, target each persona based on where they’re most likely to see your ads. For example, one persona might prefer getting emails so the majority of their marketing should be through email. When your ads are seen by the right people, you’re more likely to see higher conversions and revenue. Which is key for startups to survive.

Wait for the right wave

Remember the picture with all the waves? Surfers don’t rush to ride the first wave they see. They wait for the right one so that they don’t waste their energy and arm strength on waves that won’t give them the results they’re after. Surfers are taught to be selective.

If surfers don’t evaluate the wave properly, this is what can happen when they paddle out and try to ride it:

They wipe out. Not only that, when a surfer comes up for air they’re hit by a second wave that takes them under again. To get the most out of your marketing, a better approach is to save your energy and get selective. This means knowing how to choose a channel you can ride for a long time.

If we look at social media again, the buyer personas you’ve created will tell you which customers prefer to hear from you on social media. But just because these customers are on social media doesn’t mean you blast them on every platform or only on one. For example, there’s a lot of hype around Facebook ads but if your target audience isn’t millennials, you’re wasting your time and marketing budget.

Choose a platform that effectively gets your message across and will be seen by the right people.
Social media cheat sheet for brands[Source]

This chart shows the breakdown of who uses social media, the kind of content that works best on each platform and why users choose each platform. What’s interesting to note are the details in the last column. Not only does it tell you who’s using each platform but it also highlights important takeaways that companies can use to choose platforms. For example, users spend 20+ minutes on Facebook a day. This is a huge opportunity to market to these users.

Evaluate channels before committing

To be selective about the channels you choose to market on, you have to set up some criteria first. Here are some questions to ask yourself to get started.

  • What do you hope to achieve by using a specific channel? Do you want to boost lead generation? Increase retention?
  • Will specific channels help you reach the right customers?
  • What’s the potential ROI? Is this option worth the investment?
  • Is there a way to track marketing attribution? Meaning, can you track if your spending has been effective?

Let’s take a look at how all of this comes together. When Appcues was launched, the goal was to grow our customer base. We reached millions in ARR from 500+ customers in just two short years. We did that by focusing on getting really good at one thing: user onboarding.

Our initial marketing channel was our User Onboarding Academy, a 16-part lesson on how to improve user onboarding. We eventually expanded to develop our blog further by taking the 16-part lesson and writing more in-depth articles about user onboarding. By doing this we were able to target specific people in our audience, to see a direct improvement to ROI grow quickly.

Learn from your wipeouts and get back up

To grow Appcues we chose channels because they seemed like popular choices and not because we’d tested them beforehand and seen results.

For example, we tried social media and events as ways to boost market qualified leads (MQLs). For us, this is anyone who signs up for our free trial or requests a demo.

I spent about 20% of my time talking to people on Twitter. I’d experiment by posting stuff I thought was interesting and wait for user engagement data to roll in.

The interesting thing is, social media never really took off for us. Compared to other channels like paid advertising and organic searches, the return was low.
Social media advertising

It was the same thing with events. We tried to engage people but the return was even lower than it was for social media.
Event advertising

So rather than try to keep using channels with a low return, we cut them so that we could focus on the channels that had a better chance of seeing results.

Get back up and try something new

After these “failed” attempts at increasing MQLs, we changed tactics and explored different channels. Remember, by this point we’d been working steadily to improve our blog content to attract more people.

We eventually started to use Quora as a place to curate questions people had about onboarding. We took these questions, wrote blog posts about them and then posted the articles as answers on Quora. This turned out to be an effective way for us to draw people back to the site and get them interested enough to sign up for a free trial or request a demo.

The main takeaway here is to create a marketing strategy. Look at what didn’t work and build off of that. Here’s how it works:

  • Look at how you’re handling your marketing right now. Is it working? If not, what’s the problem?
  • Lay out your goals for your marketing program. As a startup, it makes sense to focus on just one thing so that you’re using your available resources effectively.
  • List target audience details and your buyer personas. This lays the foundation for the direction your campaigns will go.
  • List the channels that you’ve found most effective at reaching these groups. You can split them amongst your buyer personas and create a kind of chart of who (each persona) and what (channel type).
  • Plan your campaign.

Once you have answers to your questions and you’ve set up the process that your marketing will follow, test it out. If you hit your goals, there’s no need to adjust. Just ride the wave to success. If your efforts don’t go as planned and you miss the wave, look at each step of your strategy to pinpoint where things went wrong.

Was your campaign not comprehensive enough? Did it leave people unclear about the value and benefits you offer? If that’s the issue, make changes to your email copy or social media posts to be more clear.

Get ready to catch the next wave

You have to be very considerate about the amount of energy you spend on your startup marketing. Unlike enterprises with massive teams and large budgets, you have limited resources. That’s why it’s so important for you to be intentional about how you market your product. Choose the opportunities that you think will help your company meet your goals and commit to the process.

Next, when you come across strategies that don’t work, get rid of them. Often times we want to push even harder to make something work when the truth is, it’s not the right opportunity. When something doesn’t work, make a change right away and find something better.

And finally, get buy-in from your team about what your marketing focus should be. My main goal was to improve MQLs so marketing focused on getting more trial users and demo signups. This meant that other metrics and enhancements weren’t pursued as heavily. Luckily, I got buy-in from the CEO and COO to focus on MQLs as the main way to drive growth in our business and we’ve benefited from this approach.

When it comes to marketing for your startup, think about what it’s like to learn to surf. You want to wait for the right wave and ride it to shore — a.k.a your goal.