Many of you who are starting companies, or work in startups know the struggle. You’re working on something you really believe in, but the money isn’t always there. When our company was a startup we ran out of money… a few times. For many companies, you may face your impending doom 2 or 3 times before you find your footing. That’s ok, it’s part of the process, but that doesn’t make it any less stressful.
So where do you spend your marketing dollars as a cost-conscious early-stage startup?
I respect almost any answer to that question because it’s based on your customer, the makeup of your team, their strengths, and what brand message you want to put out in the world. Marketing isn’t about following a set of rules defined by some “how to market companies” textbook, it’s about being where your customers are and creating value. So, I want to tell you about my experience in a time where our marketing budget got cut to 0, and rather than flounder we grew over 100%.
We were running a handful of ad campaigns a week: some list building campaigns, some content marketing ads, retargeting, and maybe a few off the wall experiments. This drove decent results, we got good social engagement, we grew some of our social channels, and it seemed to help drive sign-ups.
As many of you on small teams know, we wear a lot of different hats. So, I wasn’t primarily focused on ads. I was also writing content, editing videos, doing customer interviews, sitting in meetings, diving into our marketing data, doing research, yada yada yada. So, while our ads were doing well, I can admit they probably didn’t get all the attention they deserved. I was, however, afraid to turn them off and fully focus on something else because they did bring in customers at less than a customer’s LTV (lifetime value) and I didn’t want that to stop.
However, we don’t always get to choose when to stop!
I was told by my boss that we no longer had a budget for social media ads. This made us all nervous because in our minds they were such an important piece of our awareness marketing.
What were we going to do without this cornerstone of marketing strategy?
I decided: let’s double down on content. All the time we spent talking about ad campaigns, let’s shift that to brainstorming on awesome articles and videos that will drive value for our customers. So, we put a huge emphasis on SEO and creating content that we thought our customers would love.
We also took that extra time and re-optimized some articles that we felt needed some help, and made a plan for our marketing team to start writing more.
Within a couple of months, the articles that we optimized started growing like crazy. We started ranking for a ton of different keywords, and in turn, our traffic started growing exponentially.
To put this in perspective, our top-performing article is ranking number 1 on Google for a keyword that gets 1,300 searches a month. We get 8,000+ views on that article every month because of that and other keywords it’s ranking for. If we were to pay for a Google ad to sit on top of those search terms, we’d be paying close to $10,000 a month. Instead, we get the same value of that Google ad for FREE. Our marketing is saving tens of thousands of dollars a month by focusing on creating value for customers with content, rather than paying to poke our head on their newsfeeds.
Why is this?
Good content creates trust. — That’s because it’s intentional. We write with the idea that someone is looking to solve a certain problem. For instance, we found a lot of people monitor temperature with Raspberry Pi’s on our system so we created an article about monitoring temperature with Raspberry Pis. Now, as of the publishing of this article, when people search for “Raspberry Pi Temperature Sensor” we’re the number one article and have one of the top 3 videos on Google’s SERP (Search Engine Results Page).
Our customers find us when they are searching for a solution. They find us in their time of need, and our content is high quality so it solves their problem. This whole philosophy has helped us grow much faster than trying to just plop our ads and content in our target customer’s news feeds until they’re curious enough to click. Plus, when customers find you while they’re on a search, rather than scrolling through social media, they’re much more likely to take action.
Good content is shareable. — Ads can be very shareable too. Especially if you’re a large company with a big advertising budget. But if you’re a startup still building trust with your customers, you’re likely going to have a much harder time trying to make an ad within a reasonable budget that makes people want to share it. I’m not saying it can’t happen; it can. It’s even worked for me, but given there are no guarantees with any marketing, throwing all your money at one or two ads may mean you are just throwing money out the window trying to make it happen (which has also happened to me).
Making an investment in a long-term content strategy is a much lower risk and higher reward approach when you’re still figuring out your marketing.
Good content has longevity. — Some content comes out, peaks, and then sharply drops down and becomes irrelevant. That’s ok. It can happen even when you think it’s going to be a hit. As I said, there are no guarantees in marketing. However, if you really start to understand your customer and create content that inspires them, then you can see content grow for months and even years.
Many of our articles get more views many months after they’ve been released. One of our pieces of content is still getting more views than it did when it was released a year ago. This is because we’ve continued to optimize it, keep it up to date, and never let it go stale. In my experience, social media ads need to be optimized and refreshed at a much higher frequency because their shelf life is much lower than a targeted and well-produced article or video.
Ok, so don’t run ads?
But the title says it’s a waste of money?
Yeh, I know that’s because it can be. The point is that social media ads, like any other marketing strategy, are a waste of money if you don’t give them the proper attention and budget they deserve.
Plus, every customer segment is different. Our audience of engineers and developers don’t always respond well to ads. So, while we could have some wins in advertising, it’s going to cost us a whole lot more money for potentially not as good results rather than just doubling down on creating content they’ll love. And when you get to the point that you can create amazing content and have a budget to run ads, do it!
The more diverse your marketing mix is, the more powerful, but if you overly diversify too early then something is going to suck. And, it’s probably going to be your ads.