7 Keys to Product Marketing for Startups

The road from young startup to industry-leading juggernaut is a bumpy one: A crucial piece for those that make it? Effective product marketing.

Startups that succeed do so because they effectively position their product offering – at each and every stage of their company they know who they’re building for, what their target audience’s pain points are, and the propensity of their target audience to pay for a specific solution.

The first step down this road is often the most crucial, and from a product marketing perspective, can also be the most challenging. Former Dropbox SVP Adam Gross gave a talk at Google Ventures Startup Lab in November 2013 focused solely on “Product Marketing for Startups”, which focuses on developing branding, positioning, and messaging for startups. I’ve summarized Adam’s talk in my notes below, and you can find the video of the original presentation here.

7 Keys to Product Marketing for Startups

1) Strive to be both strategic and emotive

The Grand Unified Theory of Marketing: The two properties of truly great marketing comes from organizations that are both strategic and emotive. By being strategic, an organization is driving and leading their respective industries: by being emotive, an organization can produce a reaction upon individuals engaging with a specific product/service. Overall, B2B companies usually start out being strategic and then gradually lean more into emotive qualities, whereas the opposite is true at B2C companies.

2) Develop an “industry transformation” narrative

For companies that are important players a specific space, there’s always a core industry transformation narrative. Whether it’s Zynga describing the industry transition from console gaming to social gaming or Facebook moving “discovery” from search to the social realm, any stand-out company is able to craft their narrative around disrupting an industry. 

3) Differentiate yourself from the competition

“It’s better to be different than it is to be right”

If you aren’t able to differentiate your organization, it’s hard to imagine how you will become successful. You have limited bandwidth to talk about you company and your products: if it isn’t imminently clear what’s different about you, your opportunities are going to be lost. To be successful, you need to know who you’re trying to differentiate against, who you’re trying to compete with, and why.

4) Brand the ingredients of your product

Certain aspects of your product should become the physical manifestation of all of the ideas about what makes your company/product different. As an example, was the mouse actually a key differentiator for the Mac? No. But because of the way Apple branded it, the mouse became the stand-in for everything that was different about the Mac.

5) Use other organizations to distribute your product

A good approach on how to piggyback on other organizations is thinking about the smallest, simplest product you can create to deliver it through another company’s channel. For example, Salesforce wanted to partner with Skype. They wrote 3 lines of code to pass phone data and made it easy for Salesforce users to create conference calls via Skype. This feature, although small, greatly bosted Skype adoption and awareness, in addition to generating 3 separate mentions in the Wall Street Journal.

Tip: Leveraged acquisition shouldn’t be driven by BD: it’s really just effective product marketing.

6) Repeat your message ad nauseum

After you know what your messaging/positioning is, it’s the job of product marketing to repeat the message until they can’t stand it anymore. One tactic is to create a minimum viable marketing product (ie the absolute minimum amount of smallest piece that needs to be added to make something credibly new). Product launches should be used to convey a core message and each launch is an opportunity to repeat your core message.

Saying the same thing again and again and again is counterintuitive to what we typically think of as communication, but repetition is the best way for potential users and customers to continue to discover (and re-discover) your organization/product.

7) Understand PR hierarchies

Similar to an API, every PR story can be grouped/classified into one of several plot types. PR plots have a stack rank, or an order of impactfulness. Your approach should always be to craft a story that falls within one plot type. These plots can also be factored into your overall strategy, (ie since partnerships are typically more impactful in the press than product launches, you may want to focus more resources on partnerships as opposed to product launches).

Press Plots Lines: Most –> Least impactful

Financial/Funding (IPO, quarterly results, etc)
Product launch


Final Summary:

Product marketer should be continually asking:  What am I doing on a day-to-day basis to become both more strategic and more emotive? Whether you’re writing a blog post, sales collateral, or a press release, you should be taking advantage of every customer communication to become both more strategic and emotive.

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