Resources are limited in a new startup. If you have employees, there are salaries to pay, processes to put in place, development work to get done, etc. Sometimes, your budget just isn't enough to cover paid marketing campaigns on channels like Google search or Facebook.
That doesn't mean you can't go head to head with the big players to acquire your first customers; you just have to get creative.
But, how do you build a startup to compete with entrenched players who have huge marketing budgets?
Below, we'll look at proven ways to grow your customer base without spending a dime on a marketing budget. All you need is a bit of sweat, determination and time.
The biggest mistake you can make is having a vague idea of your ideal customer without putting much thought into your target customer.
For example, my company serves people who do business online, but we're not in the 'œmake money online' space. You won't see us write an article about 'œHow to monetize your blog' or 'œThe 10 advertising programs better than Google.'
That's not the target customer we're after. The point is, if we didn't have a clear picture of who our ideal customer was, we'd be tempted to make content around those topics.
Granted, they're high volume search terms, so we would be able to rank for them in search engines. But, a very small percentage of them would become customers and in the end, it wouldn't be worthwhile.
In order to succeed with little to no marketing budget, you'll have to guard your time and attention just as closely.
Before you go out there and try to drum up customers, answer the following questions about your target customer:
Don’t skip this step! This is customer segmentation 101. Once you answer all of the above questions, you'll be in a much better position to acquire new customers.
If you look at almost every successful company, they have an iconic story.
For example, Henry Ford worked for years to build a combustion engine in his free time before developing the Model T.
Steve Jobs was fired from his company, started a new one, and was acquired by the same company that fired him.
You, too, have a story and an expertise that you can share with your audience. Take the time to refine your message, and ask yourself the following questions about your own brand:
After you've done that, it's important to reach out to the right people. No matter how good your story is, it doesn't matter if the people you want to pitch are in the wrong space.
For example, Men's Fitness would never write about my company even if I had the most compelling startup story ever devised. On the other hand, Tech Crunch would be all over it.
Use a tool like Buzzsumo to find pitch opportunities for your business. Type important keywords in the search bar and it'll provide the most popular content based on shares. Let's say your startup is working on a budgeting app, so a relevant keyword you search is 'œpersonal finance.'
The results show the most popular pieces of content based on this term, the websites, and where they were shared on the internet. Sort by content created in the last year or six months.
Add the interesting/relevant ones to a spreadsheet along with their contact information. Keep going until you have at least fifty contacts.
Start pitching, and a few of them might accept and publish content about your business. This will drive relevant visitors to your website, some of which might turn into customers.
Note: When you pitch your story or relevant expertise, be sure to frame it in a way that's helpful to their audience, as well.
There's a community for almost any niche imaginable. A while back, I stumbled across a Facebook page dedicated to finishing a task before the microwave timer runs down. You'd be surprised at how helpful this kind of focusing can be. It's almost like a Pomodoro method.
Anyway, niche communities can be an amazing way to build lasting relationships, find your first customers, establish authority and create advocates when used properly.
There are a few general places you can go that aggregate niche communities:
There is a Subreddit for almost anything, but it's notoriously difficult to market yourself. If you decided to try, be sure to:
This platform has a topic for most niches. When you sign up, there are a few things to be aware of to make sure you get the most out of it.
Reddit and Quora will only take you so far. Other niche communities will round out the strategy.
Navigate to Google and search for communities relevant to your business. Here are a few search queries you can use.
When I typed 'œpersonal finance forums' into Google, it brought back tons of results. Keep in mind, it's important to check these results out to confirm they're active before you sign up. Check how many total threads there are, when the most recent post was, how many views it got, and total members (this last one may not always be possible).
If everything looks good, sign up and start contributing. Before you post about your company, please make posts that only add value to members. Some forums have labels such as “new member” or “novice” attached to your profile until you create enough posts or comments. Contribute enough to get it removed before you start promoting your own business.
Sometimes giving your product away to influencers in exchange for a permanent mention can do wonders for a new business. These aren't the influencers with hundreds of thousands of visitors or followers, however. No, we're talking about micro influencers.
Bloggers, YouTubers, a popular forum user, journalists in your niche all qualify. These are the types of people we're looking for because:
Micro influencer marketing works best when you can create an echo chamber. For example, if you're selling a product that could be used in multiple spaces like fashion, accounting, fitness, etc., you'll get maximum results when a few people in a single niche mention you and your product.
The metrics you use to determine whether someone is an influencer will be different based on your startup. Here are a few rules of thumb to follow:
You'll also want to add your own criteria relevant to your business.
Create a list of relevant keywords you can use to find them. You’ll need to go deeper than searching for something simple like 'œfashion bloggers.' You'll get lists of the top bloggers in fashion, which isn't what we're after, because they'll charge a premium.
Instead, search for terms like 'œHow to dress to formal occasions' or 'œHow to wear a little black dress.' These are things niche fashion bloggers would write about.
The next step is to filter the results by date. If you don't perform this step, you'll get the most popular websites in your results. Filtering by date shows you recent posts that otherwise wouldn't be on the first page. Limit your search results to one month.
Add websites that meet your criteria to a spreadsheet and get their contact information using one of the many email lookup tools out there. If you send 100 emails, roughly 20 to 25 people are likely to reply to you. Roughly half of them will work with you. That's a 12 percent close rate.
Rinse and repeat until your brand is generating a consistent flow of customers from this method.
Have you ever signed up for a service and during the on-boarding flow, they recommend other products for you to check out?
These are often referred to as preferred partners.
When this happens, two companies come together and create a mutually beneficial relationship. One company promotes the products and services of another in exchange for a cut of the revenue. Or, they refer clients back and forth.
It's up to you to determine how you want to set up your channel partnership agreements. Of course, this depends on what kind of products and services your startup offers.
Before you start looking for channel partners, think about what you can offer and what you want to gain.
Do your research before you jump in.
Once you're sure about what you can offer and what you want to gain, brainstorm businesses that would be a good fit for you.
For example, a hosting company might partner with an email marketing service or a web design agency.
Make a list of all your potential partners and reach out to them one by one. These deals take longer to establish, so I suggest you take your time and get comfortable with the longer sales cycle.
One they're set up and running, they'll take you from zero to 100 customers quickly.
It's easy to look at the competitive landscape and get discouraged because of your limited budget. That's not an excuse to give up before you've even started.
There are tons of ways to get your first customers without spending a fortune.
We've outlined four of the most effective which include:
Are there more methods? Of course. However, what I've outlined here are strategies with the highest impact.
Let me know what you think of these strategies in the comments section below, and let me know what strategies you’ve used for acquiring customers on a budget.
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