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Different startup stages require distinct marketing approaches

Irina Ianculescu
5 min read

In startups, we get overwhelmed by the multitude of optionality when it comes to marketing tactics and strategies.

While it's important to have a strategy in place, your startup stage will play a crucial role in determining what you should focus on marketing-wise.

Usually, by stage I mean 2 things: pre-product/market fit and post-product/market fit. The marketing actions you'll take in each of these two stages will differ tremendously.

Marketing in pre-product/market fit

I won't get into specifics about product/market fit, but at its core, it means that you found a market that really wants and needs your product. It's about making something that people want in their life and want to use.

When it comes to marketing in the pre-product/market fit stage, your only goal is validating your product with your ideal customer.

You want to get to that point where people are willing to pay for your product because they NEED what you’ve built. And you want them to continue to pay you moving forward.

Really, your only goal is to focus your time on research as, at this point, you only have some assumptions that need validating with real people from your target audience.

At this stage, you want to spend a lot of time talking to prospects, running surveys, and researching their behavior online.

I’ve seen a lot of startups wasting their already low budgets on some pretty advanced marketing strategies. I think their approach is flawed, as, early on, you don’t really know who you’re selling to, what their most pressing problems and needs are, and even what you’re there’s no point in wasting money before figuring that out.

In the rush of the moment, there are startups that start spending too much time and resources on paid marketing, partnerships, and producing content.

In this product stage, you most probably have a leaky bucket, and all those users at the top of the funnel won’t help. Why? Because you don’t really know with great clarity who you’re selling to, how your product fits into their day-to-day, and you still need to validate whether those people really need what you have to offer.

You want to hold off on the marketing until AFTER you’ve found product/market fit.

Here’s where I focused my efforts pre-product/market fit with different startups:

  1. Online research in forums, communities, groups

We spent time on forums, groups, and communities studying what the ideal customer was saying and complaining about. You could say we were stalking them :).

  • At some point, you’ll start noticing some patterns - some problems and challenges they keep repeating. Make sure to take lots of notes!
  • While doing this, I’ve also mined for keywords, messages, and phrases the target audience was using to describe their pain points and the problems they were facing.

This type of analysis gave us some pretty amazing insights into their struggles, pains, challenges, benefits, and what matters to them as it relates to the product.

2.  Prospect and customer interviews

We also did some calls with prospects to find out more about their behavior as it relates to the product and learn about any gaps we haven’t thought about.

  • It’s very important to know how to frame the conversation, so when you reach out to prospects, don’t focus the conversation on your product, as this will bias them towards saying what you want to hear.
  • Talk about their past experience with your type of product, why they started looking for your type of product, how they compared solutions, what drove them to your type of product. Record the conversation or take lots of notes.

3. Chats with friends and acquaintances in similar situations

For some of the apps/products I was helping with research, I also talked to a lot of friends and acquaintances that were using similar products or had similar needs to find out more about what a usual day in their lives looks like, what their most pressing problems were, what they’ve tried.

  • There were basically open conversations about their lives. I didn’t ask any direct questions related to the product as not to bias them towards one answer or another. I just wanted them to open up and talk about their day-to-day.

4. Surveys for website visitors

We’ve also run some surveys for the website visitors. We chose 3-5 questions to help uncover their motivation to buy a certain product, their most pressing pain points, dealbreakers, and objections.  

I'm gonna be honest - customer research can be gruesome and time-consuming, BUT there's no way you can succeed without some form of research and validation.

Focus on the patterns that emerge and the frequency with which different behaviors happen. You want to find those things that the ideal customer is frequently mentioning that they’re doing or feeling.

If it’s not frequent, they’re unlikely to want to purchase the product. For example, if someone’s doing something or experiencing a pain point once a year, that’s not frequent enough to pay for a solution that will help them get rid of that problem. Better said, they don’t consider that a problem because it rarely happens.

But if they’re doing something once a day or a few times a week and they’re always experiencing challenges and difficulties with that, and your product is the solution to that pain, then that’s the perfect situation to be in.

So, to sum up, your pre-product/market fit phase should only focus on learning as much as you can about your target customers and their needs as it relates to your type of product. And maybe testing some messages to see what sticks.

You want to uncover some needs and problems that happen with a high frequency, that are painful and urgent for them to solve. That will very much increase the chances of them paying for your solution.

Some other signs might be folks actively searching for exactly your type of product with specific keywords, there are ads showing up in Google for your type of product. These are also some signs that you’re moving in the right direction, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your own customer research.

Marketing in post-product/market fit

In post-product/market fit, you want to shift your focus to distribution and acquisition.

You want to get to as many people as possible, who experience the same problems and need to purchase your product.

You’ll focus on finding your customer acquisition channels to attract those people back to your website and grow your top-of-funnel.

It might happen that these new audiences coming in are somehow different from your first early adopters, so it’s very useful to try and learn about their experience, as well.

Maybe they’re coming from different channels, having different awareness stages and different experiences, so your goal is to optimize your website and your funnel and make it as efficient as possible to accommodate all these types of visitors.

It might be that your website isn’t converting well for them, or your onboarding is not very effective - so take every step they take from getting to your website to purchasing your product and think about how you can 10x their experience.

It’s at this stage when you’ll start playing with different marketing tactics and channels, with A/B tests and conversion rate optimization, ads, partnerships, content marketing, SEO.

Of course, you need to consider what works for your business model, in the industry that you’re in, given the way you’re monetizing your product. There's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to marketing and growth.

early-stage marketing