Marketing Wars — How bootstrapped ventures can scale up!
The only fact I learned from all the coverage of the Housing-Sequoia spat last week was that the new branding campaign for Housing.com costs USD8m! And then, of course, there is the USD 5m sponsorship of the West Indian cricket team for the ongoing world cup — for a 3-month tournament by Yepme, an e-commerce site that is still making a mark amongst India’s top online venues to shop.
Yes, there’s a lot of money sloshing around a few sectors in India today, notably e-commerce in all its hues, housing, and more recently food. In addition to the big money flowing to the sectors above, there is also an uptick in smaller investments in earlier stage ideas and in themes that are not yet the flavor of the month and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) status, like local services amongst others.
There’s not just a lot of money but also the pressure to spend it and show exponential growth in a few months so that the next round is ensured. This loosening of the purse strings is affecting at least 2 areas very starkly for the broader domain of start-ups and beyond: hiring, and marketing. It is super hard to get good talent unless you can afford to give increases of 30%-40% over what people are currently earning and of course slot a more junior person into a role! But that’s a separate blog. The focus here is on marketing and the challenge that early stage start-ups and businesses face when they are crowded out by lots of money!
So here’s the reality for many high-quality, yet early stage businesses looking to scale:
· the big (read funded) guys have probably made keywords super expensive
· the quick wins from social media are gone
· there is so much content out there that just standing out is hard, and
· bought data and leads most often don’t work!
We all know this, and also know that despite these challenges, not growing is not an option. This does mean however that we may need to invest in a few well thought-through and aimed sniper shots versus random spraying or a one-shot guided missile that carries all the ammo.
So the framework that we are using at Flexing It for our marketing approach is spelled out below:
· Link your marketing strategy very closely to your defined customer and target group (TG): This is very basic I know but we have felt the pressures of experimenting with strategies we weren’t fully convinced tied to our customers but tried just the same to get growth. In our case, as the platform targets professionals who are likely to have graduated from a top-tier college and worked for 7–8+ years on average, we found that leveraging affiliates did not work for us while it works beautifully for much other online business. So we now try to be very specific as to how a marketing approach will get to our TG, defined by age, qualifications, work, and other behaviors.
· Maintain a marketing heat map: Track levers for your TG — what’s been tried, reached, achieved, costs (per click, registration etc) over time, among other metrics. Definitely track quality as well as we realized that several of our mini-experiments gave us faster uptake but were less aligned with our core target group. The heat map also helps us figure out when its time to cut our losses from a certain approach.
· Always size an approach: Given the focus on project-based and consulting opportunities versus regular/permanent jobs, we need to reach lakhs to get tens of thousands to open our mailer and then get a few hundred (or thousand if one is lucky), active users. This was a big shift in mindset for me coming from a management consulting background where we always had a very well defined (and contained!) business development pipeline.
· They are called basic principles for a reason: There are a ton of mantras out there including don’t market offline for an online product. While these may be true in some cases it may not be true for all. So follow the lifecycle of your users — where they are likely to work, what they are likely to read, where they are likely to live, and that may throw up innovative ways to get the message across to them.
· Invest in original, quality content and research….and expand readership beyond current users: Well written blogs with clear and relevant messages that speak to your target group’s needs are an established strategy to get people interested. The challenge for us has been expanding the audience for these so that they not only engage existing users but also draw new ones. Our focus now is on linking up our blog to other content platforms to expand readership and also developing a content strategy based on where we want to be read and featured.
The other aspect of content we are starting to get our act together on is data — while we have regularly done surveys/research pieces to understand independent consulting and freelancing in high-end skills, we have done less well with data we collect regularly i.e. on skills registering, projects posted, the kinds of searches done on our site amongst others. Since ours is a new market segment, this is a wealth of data that can really shape and further the discussion as it evolves, and we need to leverage this research well for the overall benefit of the space and of course our platform.
Finally, the one mantra though that is incredibly true is that customer experience trumps marketing. We will slog to get site visits and sign-ups, and one poor interaction can and has cost us, users. It is critical to get the customer experience consistent and right through scripts for everyone in the team and ensuring a tight ops loop no matter what your product or service.
The elements outlined above are our list of how we look at our overall marketing approach and also individual levers. I look forward to feedback from fellow entrepreneurs attempting to scale-up their businesses on what else one should consider — and if there is a silver bullet out there that we have missed!