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Technical startups

Marketing for a tech startup? You have a target on your back.

November 30, 2016 - Marketing, Startups -
By: Chris Riley

Joining the startup community is exciting. Even more exciting is being able to execute in such a knee-jerk environment. Technical startups are often founded by technical people—People who don’t have a lot of marketing experience, but they know they need it. And when pressured by investors, they are frantic about getting it. Which means the marketing team in these startups is measured against unicorns, with not a lot of experience to operate by.

Don’t quit your job just yet. Marketing to techies can be a lot of fun. The culture is less restrictive, and when you get engagement, the impact is big. But there is no magic bullet. And unfortunately, your technical founder is talking to unicorn peers, usually by way of introduction from your investor. And those peers are talking about some fantasy land where nine times out of 10 what they did was pure damn luck, and not repeatable.

What this means is you have the dangerous job of balancing your founder’s enthusiasm with marketing best practices, and campaigns that require patience.

We believe that one of the best ways to market to a technical audience is to focus on share of voice. Share of voice looks at everything being said about your market space and measures how much of that conversation you own.

Share of voice is driven by content and relationships, and it is a long tail effort. But when you have success, the impact is long-lasting, and grows steadily over time. You get healthier adoption and leads, and have a marketing force which is much easier to build on.

Because share of voice is an emerging metric, here is the pushback for short-term rewards you will likely be hit with:

  1. Go viral: I have not found the “go viral” button yet. But when I talk to founders of tech startups, clearly they believe one exists. First off, having content go viral is not something you choose. You can choose to architect your content so that it has the best chance of doing so. But you can’t decide for it to happen. If you could, then everyone would be doing it, and the term viral would not exist. Viral is a spectrum and relative to the market you are in, and the conversation you are participating in within that market. Sometimes the conversation itself is not viral, so having a share of that voice is not going to be huge.

Your response:

If you drop everything and try to repeat the unicorns’ efforts, you are hurting your existing campaigns, your morale, and the direction of the company. But the drive to do all this will be persistent. The founder can’t fathom that the market does not share his/her same enthusiasm for the product. And it’s surely viral in their brain. You may be able to resist this self-destructive pressure if you can bring in an outside voice, a trusted advisor who can deliver pointed input on how the market works (supported by concrete examples).

  • Just get someone to talk about us: Influencer marketing is a legitimate marketing effort. In fact, it is what Fixate IO does. But getting someone to write about you (either an enthusiastic user, or a member of the press) requires an all-out PR strategy and effort, and your product functionality is less than 25% of this effort.

Your response:

Influencer marketing is a lot of work, and ultimately mental warfare. Starting with your  top users is the best place. Getting some evangelism from them is usually as easy as a sticker or t-shirt exchange. But a lot of times your top users are not well known, so their impact will be small. Just the process of finding people is a huge effort. Then, getting execution is even harder. We recommend, of course, to use us, because this is what we do and do well. Or leverage another existing community to get a big impact. You can also hire a tech evangelist who can focus on this. However, the best tech evangelists are expensive and are often the worst employees.

Obtaining bylined articles by the press is a different type of activity. You need to follow the principle of trading up the chain, where you start with the smaller forums, and less known writers build up a strong overarching story, and move up. For this, you need to have a PR agency that has the contacts to start building strong relationships with journalists. The more you know and are known to the editors and journalists, the easier it is to engage them. Make sure you approach them with strong stories, not just announcements. And the more heavy lifting you can do, such as pitching the story outline, the better.

  • So-and-so did this: Maybe once a week your efforts will be compared to the efforts of some startup that has already claimed some marketing success. Hopefully you get some ideas from what the unicorn did. But you are wasting your time if you simply try to replicate it. How similar is your market and offering to theirs anyway? I once worked for a tool vendor who made products for the DevOps market, and our investors insisted on comparing us to Dropbox and leveraging their marketing strategies.

Your response:

Treat this as an opportunity to learn. Going through the exercise of seeing if their idea will work or not often results in good alternate ideas and/or a confirmation of what you already know. Agree to nothing, but show enthusiasm about the idea. Ask questions, get an introduction to the unicorn, and set up a meeting to learn about what they did and why it worked. Explain to them in more detail your challenges, and see for yourself if in the end they still think their idea will work. Often the peer is reasonable, and if they can understand your solution and market, then likely, after a good conversation, they will come to the same realization as you, or a better idea will ensue. They will confirm to your founder that you were open to influence, and your founder will be satisfied with both the process and the outcome.

The takeaway

In the thick of startup activity, if you listen to everyone, you will get nothing done. Which means you have to practice deflection and focus. Or you can choose to ignore all of it, because founders tend to bounce around so much that an amazing idea is replaced by another a week later. Commit to share of voice as a metric whose trend is important and use it to refocus the conversation so that tactical doesn’t sink strategic.

You have to be up for a serious challenge when marketing for technical startups. But if you weather the storm and get even moderate success, you’ll win big. It will make your future marketing endeavors easier, and you will generate great ideas. The worst thing that can happen is that you get into the idea trap, and you spend too much time meeting and exploring why adoption does not meet expectations. Usually, founders’ expectations are wrong. Focus on execution.


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Chris Riley (@HoardingInfo) is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling. In addition to being a research analyst, he is an O’Reilly author, regular speaker, and subject matter expert in the areas of DevOps strategy and culture. Chris believes the biggest challenges faced in the tech market are not tools, but rather people and planning.