Four Ways to Market Like a Startup

Here are four ways to pick up the pace.

by Brian Gregg and Vivian Weng  |   9:00 AM March 22, 2013

1. Get serious about “test and learn”
Too often, marketers set well-defined financial goals for a campaign’s impact but fail to define clear objectives for learning about their customers. In contrast, high-performing startups constantly seek new customer insights and adjust their approach as they learn more.A learning agenda is the first step in getting more bang for your buck with every campaign. Start with a catalog of learnings already captured and of specific learning goals for upcoming marketing programs (for example, “how can we influence 18 to 25 year olds to do X?”). Before launching a campaign, check to see which hypotheses on your learning agenda will be put to the test.Before investing in new services, Barbara Messing, CMO of travel site TripAdvisor, puts concepts to the test by using a “dummy banner” to advertise whatever feature the company is considering. If a user clicks on the banner, she is taken to a 404 / “Not Found” message; if enough users click on the banner, the product will go into development. In contrast to the “traditional” marketer’s solution — focus groups, for example, which can cost $10,000 per session — this approach costs nothing and gives TripAdvisor a fast, accurate read on the features users want.

2. Embrace experimentation and “good enough”

Mistakes are not mistakes if you learn from them. Olga Vidisheva, founder of Y Combinator fashion startup Shoptiques, encourages her team to take risks by giving every employee a $1,000 discretionary budget to spend on any creative marketing idea. “And it’s absolutely ok to fail” she says. “The only requirement is that you spend time to analyze the data afterwards, and share what you’ve learned from your campaign.” The startup has already reaped rewards from this program and mindset; one employee discovered that Pinterest was a valuable source of traffic, and Shoptiques now considers Pinterest a key channel for engaging with its community.

Companies that want to encourage employees to take risks must also embrace the concept of “good enough.” We often see marketers spend weeks chasing after the “perfect” solution when a “good enough” solution already exists. And remember, those extra weeks have a cost. At flash sales site, for example, 70% of revenue is generated by email; each extra day spent perfecting an email campaign rather than actually sending the email could mean up to $700K of lost revenue.

3. Simplify your metrics

A 25-page report on campaign performance is only useful if you can answer the question: “What will I do differently next time?” We’ve seen companies get bogged down by numbers, reviewing campaigns for weeks without reaching any action-oriented decision. Rather than reporting dozens of metrics, focus on the handful that tell you whether your campaign is working and what you might change in the future.

Pushpins — a mobile grocery startup recently acquired by Ebates parent company Performance Marketing Brands — concentrates on two pieces of data: 1) the number of times its mobileapp is actually used, and 2) minutes spent per user. CEO Jason Gurwin recalls the early days of the startup: “Instead of getting distracted by vanity metrics — like number of app downloads — we focused on time spent per user, which told us if the new features we were building actually drove more activity.”

In another example, a Fortune 500 consumer tech company recently overhauled its campaign review process to cut through the clutter. The CMO now reviews a standard dashboard of five metrics — down from over 25 — during weekly meetings. To force discussion about the metrics that matter, meetings end with a “juice or kill” call for each campaign — “juice” the promising projects with more resources, “kill” the unpromising ones.

4. Work faster, not harder

Many campaigns should take days, not months, to roll out. In large organizations, cumbersome processes— such as too many approval requirements — can lead to lengthy lead times. In these cases, no matter how well-designed your campaign is, you’ll never be able to iterate quickly enough to learn at the speed of a startup.

Small changes can lead to lots of time saved, which ultimately means faster learning. Another consumer tech company is currently redesigning its campaign process, aiming to reduce time from idea generation to campaign launch from six weeks to three. The company first mapped out every step in its campaign development and execution process. It then focused on easy ways to simplify and speed up processes for example by introducing a one-page strategy brief that marketers must complete before kicking off a campaign. The simple template ensures that marketers are clear about their objectives from the outset and reduces the temptation to develop overly long strategic compendiums. By cutting its campaign development cycle to 3 weeks, the organization is able to learn twice as fast and estimates that agency costs will be cut by 50% by reducing rework of creative assets.

Marketers need to become ever more agile and flexible to succeed. The solution isn’t to work harder to achieve perfection, but to think like a startup and be ready to learn.

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