In The Pulse's Go-to-market series, startup marketers share their advice and insights on marketing for startups. In this edition of Go-to-market, Stella Startups’ Gemma Clancy shares the importance of starting with customer research, and how early-stage startups should approach community hacking and product-led growth.
Stella Startups isn’t your typical marketing agency. They don’t even like being called an agency because it can bring to mind bureaucracy, bias, and way too many meetings. What they are is a team of marketing experts who help early-stage startups build profitable brands minus the overwhelm. Head of Marketing, Gemma Clancy, credits their success to a process that builds essential marketing foundations grounded in customer research before approaching tactical execution.
Over her decade in marketing, Gemma has seen many a startup grapple with how to efficiently allocate their marketing budget for maximum impact. This can see founders create a long list of tactics copied from competitors without any real substance behind them. Instead of adopting a “spray and pray” approach, Gemma says investing in early foundational work can help extract the most value from your marketing budget.
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Meaningful research focuses on people, not products
During customer interviews, Gemma says a lot of startups make the mistake of only focusing on product testing or user experience, that’s if they do any research at all.
“I’m consistently surprised by how many startups don't do enough customer research, or the kind of customer research they do is just focused on their product, its features, and what they think the customer wants. For example, they show people their app and ask them to use it but they haven’t gone back to the basics of understanding customer needs.”
Gemma’s approach analyses the problem a startup seeks to solve, how the customer describes the problem and solution, and the motivational drivers associated with both.
“We need to ask - what is the problem we’re trying to solve? Are we describing that problem the same way as our customers? And how do our customers describe ways to overcome the problem? We also need to understand how it would feel for the customer if that problem was solved for them so we can create that feeling with the solution. Just focusing on the product is a very closed-minded view of how a customer views the problem because there are likely a lot of different ways they can solve it.”
We all like to believe that once we introduce a great solution to our ideal customers, they will jump on it. But Gemma says that part of understanding customer behavior is realising that people are hard-wired to take the easy route and that often means doing nothing at all.
“The status quo is usually the most likely outcome. Somebody will have a problem but they won’t do anything about it because it’s easier not to change. It’s important to understand all the intricacies of customer behavior before you introduce your idea or product.”
Segmenting your audience early maximizes opportunities
While customer research sometimes falls down the priority list of busy and cash-strapped founders, it helps startups avoid missed opportunities for growth. Gemma says too often founders figure this out down the track.
“If anyone thinks they don’t have time to segment their audience, they’ll realize that they end up wasting time later because they’ve been shooting in the dark. If you’re a passionate founder, solving a problem you’ve experienced first-hand, you might assume that the customer is you and reduce your market down to something small when it’s actually quite large.
Recently, I was talking to a startup that had mapped out some buyer personas of people up to the age of 30 and was focusing on channels like TikTok. I thought their app had the opportunity to be used by people up to 60 plus. If they had identified and developed an ideal customer profile around that older age group, it would completely change not only the channels that they go after but also the messaging. That's the importance of informed segmentation.”
Say no to waffle with a concise and compelling marketing plan
Once you’ve got a solid understanding of your ideal customer based on research, Gemma recommends creating a concise brand narrative – a one or two-page story that informs your marketing plan and resonates with your team and prospective customers.
“Your brand narrative is your single source of truth and should feel like a rallying cry. What should naturally flow out of that is your key messaging – what can you say about the problem and your solution that no one else can say? Usually that comes out of an insight into your customer that nobody else has or an approach that nobody else is focusing on because you’ve done that initial research.”
With your marketing foundations in place – a strong understanding of your customer and the key messages you want to convey – Gemma recommends developing a three-month marketing plan including three of four objectives that have clear measures for success and aligned tactics. After three months, the objectives should stay the same but the KPIs and tactics will need to be reviewed and updated based on performance.
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Instead of just creating your own community, go to where your customers already are
We all understand the importance of creating a community around our brand but setting up a Facebook or Slack group isn’t enough. It also takes a lot of time to build an audience from nothing. For a shortcut to brand credibility, Gemma recommends finding where your ideal customers “live” and going to them.
“Find the offline or online communities that your ideal customers naturally gravitate towards and plug into them, either through partnerships, creating content or contributing to online forums like Reddit or Facebook groups. You could spend months trying to build up a community of your own. By plugging into an existing community you’re able to quickly build authority and credibility.”
Gemma says that while community hacking isn’t new, it’s definitely something that has gained traction in recent years, especially in the startup space where some brands are allocating significant time to build connections.
“I was listening to an interesting podcast with a growth leader at a B2B startup in the US and she said that a huge amount of their time is dedicated to answering questions on online forums like Reddit and Quora and giving free advice to people. By inserting themselves into where the customer is already seeking a solution to their problem they are making their brand synonymous with the problem and solution.”
Get marketing involved early in product or service development
Gemma’s final bit of advice is to get marketing involved as early as possible in product or service development rather than plastering it on once you have finalized your offering.
“Even the best marketers can't market certain products because as they were being developed, nobody was thinking about growth. On the other hand, some of the best products were developed because the startup thought about how they could scale instead of just being focused on the amazing features.
"If you want to be a product-led growth business, go and upskill on product marketing and find marketers who want to talk to product people. The customer research piece will sound really familiar to people who are in the product space. Product and marketing people should be working together from day one.”