How To Build A Killer Marketing Engine For Your Startup

Develop a marketing plan that incorporates your vision, strategy, OKRs, tactics, and KPIs.

All organizations should strive to deliver compelling solutions that solve customer pain points. However, there’s no point in having great solutions, if no one knows about them.

Lack of product demand is one of the top reasons startups fail. Yet, many startups don’t realize the importance of marketing their products. Almost as bad are companies that do marketing but fly blind without a marketing plan or success metrics.

In my former startup, a SaaS eBook platform for K-12 schools, we did marketing early on but in hindsight, we were terrible at it since we weren’t consistent with our marketing messaging and calendar but worse, we were either not looking at metrics or looking at the wrong ones. 

This likely cost us months/years of slower growth and money that could have been put to better use. With Startup Sidekick, we want to try to get this right from the start. I share some insights from both my startups later in this post.

Let’s look at how you can build a killer marketing plan on a budget, by reviewing the following facets of assembling a well-oiled marketing engine in any startup:

  • Common Mistakes
  • Marketing Statistics
  • What Others Are Doing
  • Creating Your Own Marketing Plans
  • Experiment, Measure, Improve
  • My Experiences
  • Sample Tools Of The Trade


Before we continue with the rest of the post, let’s establish a baseline: I’m assuming your startup either has the following (prerequisite) things and/or you generally understands them, since they aren’t covered in this post:

  1. Plans: Business plan, mission, vision, problem, solution, budget, and target market. Corporate strategy with success metrics (e.g OKRs).
  2. Market: Target industry and market size defined (TAM, SAM, SOM).
  3. Product: Compelling product, pricing, roadmap, website, etc.
  4. Knowledge: General knowledge of common marketing terms such as CPA, CLTV, landing pages, conversion rate, 5Cs of a company (company, collaborators, customers, competitors, climate, SWOT), 4P/7Ps of marketing (product, price, place, promotion/offers, people, process, physical evidence), etc.

Common Mistakes

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” -Albert Einstein

Whenever possible, I try to go into a situation with my eyes wide open, by researching common mistakes and statistics. We all make our own mistakes, so we might as well avoid known pitfalls.

For example, the following are some common mistakes that startups make — if you can avoid these, you are well on your way to doing the rights things to promote your solutions: 

  1. Basics: Not having a why, how and what story for the company brand. Not knowing what the focus is: brand, signups, margins, etc. 
  2. Target: No clear definition of target market, size, personas, perfect customer profile.
  3. Consistency: No consistent marketing plan, strategy and/or activities.
  4. Messaging: Not understanding customer pain points or communicating to it.
  5. Channels: Focus on wrong online/offline, free/paid, channels.
  6. Testing: Not measuring results and improving (test, iterate, repeat).
  7. Competition: Copying competitors instead of being unique.
  8. Input: Doing it all by yourself versus outside consultants/agencies.
  9. Fast: Focus on quick wins or big bets (e.g. Super Bowl ads) versus sustainable growth. 
  10. Brand: Overly focused on brand versus serving customers.

Marketing Statistics

Using data as a decision making tool is essential to every organization. There are a lot of published statistics on startups online.

For example, I found these marketing stats interesting for us:

  1. From HubSpot – The Ultimate List of Marketing Statistics for 2020
    1. Only 17% of marketers use landing page A/B tests to improve conversion rates.
    2. The first five seconds of page-load time have the highest impact on conversion rates. Website conversion rates drop by an average of 4.42% with each additional second of load time. (Portent, 2019)
    3. 70% of respondents said that SEO is better than PPC for generating sales. (Databox, 2019)
    4. Landing pages, the least popular type of signup form, have the highest conversion rate (23%). 
    5. …search traffic generated 65% of total ecommerce sessions, 33% was generated through organic search, and 32% was generated through paid search. (Statista, 2019)
    6. Mobile web traffic has consistently accounted for about half of all global web traffic since the beginning of 2017. (Statista, 2020)
    7. 70% of marketers are actively investing in content marketing.
    8. Marketers today create content for multiple audience segments — marketing to three audience segments is most common.
    9. Articles that are >3,000 words get 3x more traffic, 4x more shares, and 3.5x more backlinks than shorter articles. (SEMrush, 2019)
    10. Video has become the most commonly used format in content marketing, overtaking blogs and infographics.
    11. Only 35% of marketers said that understanding the ROI of their campaigns is “Very Important” or “Extremely Important.”
    12. 24% of marketers use paid advertising to impact direct sales. The paid channels with the highest ROI are Facebook and Google Search advertising.
  2. From Launchway Media – Stats that Prove Startups and Small Businesses Need PR
    1. 80% of business decision-makers prefer to get company information in a series of articles versus an advertisement
    2. 96% of B2B buyers want content with more input from industry thought leaders
    3. 70% of consumers prefer getting to know a company via articles rather than ads (Content Marketing Institute)
    4. Journalists receive, on average, 50-100 press releases every week. 44% prefer to receive them in the morning. 68% just want the facts (B2B PR Sense Blog).
  3. From Mayple – Useful Marketing Statistics For Startups
    1. 82% of customers stating that they would not use a website that has an insecure connection
    2. Businesses can now track a large amount of behavioral data to start building customer profiles, for tailored marketing solutions. Despite this, 70% of marketers are still failing to make use of such data
    3. Millennials are 247% more likely to be influenced by blogs or social networking sites

What Others Are Doing

In addition to learning from common mistakes and stats, following marketing trends can help formulate your plans.

For example, The State of Small Business Marketing in 2019 by Campaign Monitor surveyed over 1,000 small businesses (tech, marketing, retail, healthcare, etc.) and found these to be the common things people are focusing on (listed in most popular to least order):

  1. Building Brand: Social media, content marketing, email marketing, video marketing…
  2. Reaching Customers: Social media, email, online paid media…
  3. Core Goals: Customer acquisition, increase prospects/leads, increase web traffic…
  4. Marketing Goals: Customer acquisition, retain current customers, increase LTV…
  5. Distribution Channels: Facebook, email, direct mail, Instagram, Twitter…
  6. Key Challenges: Influencer, SEO, direct paid…
  7. Communications Forms: Email, Facebook, phone, direct mail…

Creating Your Own Marketing Plans

“To be successful, you must match the way you market your products with the way your prospects learn about and shop for your products.” – CEO of Hubspot, Brian Halligan

Marketing plans can be used at different stages, periods and purposes in a startup (e.g. annual, quarterly, paid, free, product launch, promotion).

A marketing plan doesn’t need to be extensive — in fact, many experts recommend a simple one-page template. Also, limiting the plan to one page forces you to focus on the most important things.

Startup Sidekick Marketing Plan

Let’s take a look at the components of a marketing plan in more detail.

Strategic Plan

Before you can achieve your desired goals, you need a plan to pull your marketing strategy together while also connecting the dots between product and downstream groups (e.g. sales, support).

The plan should have short and long-term SMART goals. For example, is your goal to build your brand, generate leads/customers, reach influencers, increase traffic/retention, social cause, or something else?

According to The Nielsen Company, “which surveyed more than 28,000 Internet respondents in 56 countries, 92 percent of consumers around the world say they trust earned media, such as recommendations from friends and family, above all other forms of advertising”

Here are some common sections found in marketing plans; you can choose ones applicable to you to create a plan tailored to your startup:

  • Audience: Demographic, psychographic, and personas: (buyers, influencers, users, early adopters, etc.). 
  • Messaging: The “why” (mission), “how” (unique value/selling proposition) and “what” (product); consistent with company vision/mission/strategy/OKRs. Positioning (benefits vs. features). Urgency (free/bonus offers).
  • Success: Definition of growth KPIs based on company/department OKRs. Experiment, track, gauge, and adjust.
  • Budget: Total funds, spend by sales funnel stages and conversion rates, operational costs, paid advertising, online versus offline (e.g. PPC, trade shows), etc.
  • Channels: Social media, direct mail, print, trade shows, etc.
  • Content: Strategy to distribute content relevant to your audience on a consistent schedule; e.g. blog, guides/ebooks, infographics, case studies, newsletter, webinar, video downloads/white papers, audio/podcast. Maintain a content inventory, so you have enough new or recycle content for the editorial calendar.
  • Collateral: Aka marketing materials; e.g. website, press kit, brochures, infographics, tools for salespeople (scripts, templates, etc.)
  • Techniques: Viral, inbound/outbound marketing, drip marketing (nurturing) using marketing automation software, testimonials, referral, freemium, retention, free resources, paid marketing/advertising (display, search, affiliate, sponsorship), beta programs, contests/challenges, social causes

Tactical Plan

One you have the higher level, strategic marketing plan, it’s time to hit the ground running with scheduled marketing activities in a regular cadence (e.g. hourly/daily/weekly postings). 

Here are some things you’ll want to take into consideration for the tactics:

  1. Systems: Process, editorial calendar/roadmap (blog, events, promotions, holidays, who, dates/weekly/monthly), measuring KPIs, meetings
  2. Keywords: For SEO purposes, create a list of common phrases someone online would search for you by.
  3. #Hashtags: Choose categories (brand, campaign, trending, content, geographic), specific topics. Be unique, industry specific, informative, authentic, and emotional (e.g. #justdoit). Consider a call to action. Make it short. Research social networks for best practices on the number of hashtags and what others in your niche are using. Use appropriate number specific to each social network (e.g. two or less on Twitter, more on Instagram).
  4. Press: Build relationships with journalists/bloggers. Issue PRs regularly (e.g. new features, major changes).
  5. Network: Link to popular blogs. Follow influencers on social media Reach out to forums (e.g. Quora). Guest blog on other sites.
  6. Testing: Use A/B testing to find the best performing pages.
  7. Feedback: Conduct surveys, polls, speak with customers.
  8. Giveaways: Novelties, stickers, free gifts with sign ups (e.g. gift card).
  9. Different: Borrow ideas from other industries (e.g. Poo-Pourri’s explainer video).
  10. Communications: Nurture consistently via marketing automation (drip marketing).
  11. Measure: Use KPIs to measure numbers. Use behavioral data to start building customer profiles.
  12. Components: Social media (right networks based on demographics; Startup Sidekick), email, blog.
  13. Offline: Biz cards, brochures, print ads, billboards, postcards, posters, direct mail.
  14. Timing: Seasonality, holidays, unofficially recognized days/months.

Once you have your marketing plans done, it’s time to execute them.

Experiment, Measure, Improve

“It’s not an experiment if you know it’s going to work.” -Jeff Bezos

Figuring out what’ll work in marketing requires experimenting, measuring and improving on campaigns. 

Once you feel comfortable with your marketing plans, you’ll want to start testing various techniques on your chosen channels. For example, here are some ways to test if your plan are working as expected: 

  1. Customer feedback loop, measure, iterate, focus
  2. Measure KPIs against OKRs; e.g. here are some common KPIs used to measure success/growth:
    • Unique visitors
    • Time on site
    • Referral sources
    • Email signup, open and click rates
    • Likes/shares on social media
    • Registrations, purchases, conversion strategy/rate, best times, newsletter, LTV, CPA, NPS, etc.
  3. Document what works and improve what doesn’t. Iterate and improve.

My Experiences

As of July 2020, this site, Startup Sidekick, hasn’t fully launched yet, so our marketing plans are a bit fluid. However, you can see the live version on a single slide here.

My former startup (successfully acquired) was an eBook SaaS platform for K-12 schools; we served millions of student and teacher users across dozens of countries, over our 10-year run. However, we didn’t start creating effective marketing plans till our fifth or sixth year into our business. 

Once we got the hang of things, we began creating logical systems for everything. 

Sample Activities At My Former Startup

In addition to the graphic show above, we had a single-slide cheat sheet for routine tasks (e.g. daily social media, weekly email), marketing channels & tools, KPIs, sales territories, using purchased lists, seasonality, qualified lead specs and sources, marketing collateral, and so on.

Sample Tools Of The Trade

Marketing tools can significantly make a person’s job easier through automation, scheduling, analytics, lead tracking, etc.

There are many marketing tools out there from niche products to comprehensive social media management tools, so be sure to do your research. For example, here’s a tiny sampling of some of the marketing tool categories you can expect to find out there.

  1. Keywords: Google’s Keyword Tool, Uber Suggest
  2. Social media: HootSuite, Sprout, SocialBro
  3. Influencers: Followerwonk
  4. Referral: Ambassador
  5. Automation: HubSpot, Pardot, Marketo, ActiveCampaign
  6. Analytics: Google Analytics
  7. A/B: Visual Website Optimizer
  8. Trends: Google Trends, Google Alerts,
  9. Hashtags:

Enjoy The Journey

Marketing can be difficult to perfect but it’s an absolutely necessity for most organizations. Marketing can be a lot easier with the proper systems in place. Remember to learn from others, do your research, plan, execute, measure, improve, and repeat.

In my opinion, marketing can be one of the most fun things an organization does. Putting together campaigns, using gorgeous visuals, measuring results, and most of all, getting the products in as many customer’s hands as possible can be extremely rewarding work.

Further Reading

Here are some articles I found useful:

  1. Neil Patel: The Ultimate Guide to Startup Marketing and 20 Uncommon Marketing Strategies That’ll Kickstart Your Startup
  2. HubSpot: The Ultimate List of Marketing Statistics for 2020
  3. Venture Harbour: The Ultimate Startup Marketing Strategy For Incredible Growth
  4. Moz: Content Marketing: 97 Tips For Better Ideas, Strategies & Results
  5. Entrepreneur: 9 Low-Budget Marketing Strategies Every Startup Can Afford
  6. Mayple: Useful Marketing Statistics For Startups
  7. Venngage: What Is A Marketing Plan and How to Make One (20+ Marketing Plan Templates)
  8. Campaign Monitor: The State of Small Business Marketing in 2019