How To Pick a Target Market For a B2B Startup (Part II – Surveys)

This is Part II in a three-part series about finding your ideal target market. Click here if you’d like to start from the beginning.

In part I of this series, I showed you how to use brainstorming and a bit of research to build a short list of potential target markets for your B2B startup.

Now it’s time to narrow that list even further.

To do that, we’re going to use surveys to ask polarizing questions and find out even more about our targets.

Why Mess With Surveys?

Pretend it’s 1993.

A since Spotify, YouTube, and iTunes haven’t been invented yet, we can safely say that finding a target market is a lot like buying a CD. An old-school, shrink-wrapped, don’t-scratch-it-or-you’re screwed compact disc. The kind you’d purchase for $16.99 + tax by having your mom drive you to Tower Records after mowing lawns all weekend.

At the store, do you simply buy the first album within reach? Oh no no. This is a major commitment, and there’s going to be some planning involved.

Having been impressed by the copious amounts of distortion and flannel displayed by the likes of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, you’re ready to go with an album from either band.

But you still have some work to do. Flipping through stacks of plastic jewel cases, you discover that Pearl Jam’s albums have cooler artwork, so you’ve narrowed it down to Ten and Vs. Oh, but which one?

With the 7 minutes you have left before your mom comes back from Sears, you nab of a set of headphones to preview each album. After listening to Alive again, you’re confident that Pearl Jam’s first release speaks to your teenage angst slightly more. Ten it is. Whew…

Pearl Jam Ten
A big decision indeed: once that shrink-wrap came off, there was no turning back.

That may have been an overly dramatic illustration. But my point is this–picking a target market is a huge decision. Rush into it and you’re bound to make mistakes. Spend some time learning about your options and you’ll be much better off.

Yes, surveys are a bit time-consuming, but they are a key step in narrowing down your list of potential targets. Ultimately, you’ll want to do in-person interviews to make your final decision. But you probably don’t have the time to interviews dozens of people in multiple markets. Surveys help you narrow your list so that you only spend time interviewing the most promising opportunities.

Let’s get started, and I’ll share the process I’ve used to conduct surveys with my own team.

Start By Pre-Qualifying Your Audience

This may be the most important piece.

Pre-qualifying means asking a test question to see if a potential survey taker is actually someone you want a response from. Data from anyone else is a waste of your time. Pre-qualifying questions should ask for any information you think is relevant: industry, job responsibilities, use of certain software, or perhaps a ranking of Kenny G songs, from worst to most worst.

You can usually set up pre-qualifying questions so that anyone who gives a wrong response is removed from the survey.

Choose The Right Questions With These 3 Tips

I’ve written some good survey questions and plenty of bad ones. Here are four things I try to keep in mind that have helped me write better questions:

  1. Only ask questions that are actionable. Eliminate those that are merely interesting. If the response to the question won’t affect your decision to pursue a target market, then toss it.
  2. Your respondents can only handle so many questions. Ask too many, and they’ll start giving unthoughtful answers just to finish the thing.
  3. Don’t shy away from open-ended questions. Sometimes it’s hard to know what response options to provide. Using open-ended questions can help solve this. While they can be a pain-in-the-ass to sort through, open-ended questions let your survey takers provide whatever information they think is most relevant.

Get Your Wording Right Or The Whole Thing Is A Waste

Frame your questions the wrong way and you’re better off not doing your survey at all. Leading questions or ambiguously worded ones can actually give you misleading information about your potential target market. Here’s an obvious example to help you get the idea:

What is your favorite Michael Bolton song?

Sounds innocuous right? But it implies that the survey taker enjoys listening to that bronze-skinned tenor in the first place. He may try to give you an answer (“I guess I sort of like them all…“) but you probably won’t find out what you really need to know–that you couldn’t pay her to listen to even a single one.

Here are three resources to help you write better questions:

– Qualtrics: 10 Commandments For Writing Outstanding Survey Questions
– Hubspot: How to Write Survey Questions: 7 Things NOT to Do
– Grammar Girl: How to Write Good Survey Questions

“I guess I sort of like ’em all…”. Whether you’re talking about Michael Bolton or your list of potential target markets, either way, it’s not the right response.

Two Easy Ways To Get People To Take Your Survey

Now the real crux of the process: finding the right people to take your survey. The more specific your audience, the more difficult it will be to find them.

You have two options.

  1. Use Facebook’s detailing targeting tools to build an audience that closely matches your target. Then set up a Facebook ad that links to your survey. Like all Facebook ads, you’ll have to pay to get those clicks.
  2. Use a third-party research service like TapResearch. Not only will a service like this help you find the right people, they’ll do it incredibly quickly. This is my preferred option; in fact, we use Tap Research so often that they even wrote a short case study about us.

What To Do With All That Data?

Now that you’ve amassed enough data to rival a burgeoning record collection, what do you do with it all? Outside of the obvious (read it), there are four things we always do with our own survey responses:

  1. Make sure data is statistically significant. That’s just a fancy way of saying “get enough data so that if you ran the survey again, there’s a very high chance you’d get the same outcome.” To figure out how many responses you need, check out this calculator from SurveyMonkey.
  2. Look at how responses vary based on answers to other questions. For example, let’s say you’ve asked for “years in business.” If you look at the responses from people who’ve been in business less than 5 years vs those who’ve been around longer, do you see a difference? This data might help you refine your target market further.
  3. Throw out the entire response of anyone who’s given bogus answers. You don’t have to get many people taking a survey to get responses like “asdfasdf” or the classic, “your mom.” Discard every answer from these survey takers as they probably weren’t taking your questions seriously.
  4. Read through every single open-ended answer. Some survey services will show you a word cloud that highlights the most commonly-used terms. But they’re not very useful. Instead, read each response individually and you’ll get a much better sense of what people are saying.
A massive record collection is like having a ton of data about your target market
Hopefully, you have a similar look on your face after organizing all your survey data.

What’s The Next Step In Picking Your Target Market?

The purpose of this exercise was to help you narrow your list of potential target markets down even further.

To do that, compare data from each target market. Did each group provide relatively similar responses? If so, you probably didn’t ask the right questions or word them the right way. Time for a redo–this time with some more polarizing questions.

However, if you crafted your surveys well, then you should now be able to get a sense of the most promising three or four target markets to go after. You’ll learn about each of those further in part III, where I’ll share some tips for conducting in-person interviews.

To receive an email when part III is published, provide your email below and I’ll send you a note.

How To Pick A Target Market For A B2B Startup (Part I – Research)

In a B2B startup, there are two questions that you must answer before your company gets very far: what is the product, and who are you going to sell it to? In today’s post, I’m going to focus on the second question, and show you a 3-part process you can use to find the exact market niche to focus on.

Before We Begin, Here’s What Not To Do

But, my friends – before we talk about how to do things the right way, let’s take a moment to reflect on the one thing you should not do. Have you guessed it already? It’s sell to everyone. 

It’s tempting, isn’t it? After all, your product idea is so wonderful, why on Earth would you want to restrict it to niche? The answer is simple: a product for everyone is a product for no one. Few products have a truly universal appeal, and I’m willing to bet yours isn’t one of them. Unless you can solve a specific problem for a specific audience in a really exceptional way, no one will give you their attention.

The Fisherman, The Psychic, And The Detective

With that being said, let’s move on to the solution to finding your market niche for your B2B startup. I’ve encountered three ways to go about it:

  • The “Fisherman” Approach: cast a wide net by offering your product to as a diverse group as possible, and see who bites. Then, focus there.
  • The “Psychic” Approach:  when you feel like you already know who the best fit is, and move forward based on gut instinct.
  • The “Detective” Approach: through research and interviews, discover who will be the best using empirical evidence and your judgment.

These are all legitimate approaches, and I don’t think you’d have to search too hard to find successful businesses have been started using each. However, the Fisherman and the Psychic approach present some risks that could actually slow you down.

With the Fisherman approach, the risk is that no one bites, because they didn’t feel you were speaking to them. With the Psychic approach, the risk is that you’re just plain wrong. Or more likely, that you made a merely OK choice but could have made a better one if you had done your homework.

Inspector Clouseau
Pink Pather’s Inspector Clouseau may not have had to do research market niches, but I like to think he’d be great at it.

If either of the Fisherman or the Psychic approaches don’t work out, you’ll end up starting over and going down the path of the Detective anyway. That’s why I recommend starting with the Detective approach. It gives you the best chance of finding the right answer the first time around, while only requiring a little extra time and effort

Become A Market Niche Gumshoe With These 3 Steps

So how does the Detective approach to picking your market niche work? It’s actually pretty easy. You can break it down into three steps:

  1. Brainstorm and research every suspect you can imagine
  2. Survey the remaining suspects to get a quick read
  3. Personally interview the most promising suspects

In the rest of this post, I’ll outline step one of the Detective process: brainstorm and research. You’ll find instructions for steps two and three in follow up posts. (To receive an email when those posts are published, just enter your email address below.)

First, List Your Suspects

I was going to start out by saying “imagine that you’re a real detective…“. But I don’t need to, because you kind of already are. Hopefully, you’re not looking for a murder suspect, but like a professional gumshoe, your first job is to gather as many facts as you can that pertain to your case.

Start by making a list of every single suspect you can possibly imagine. This means coming up with every market niche that might have a chance of doing business with you. For a B2B company, try to be as specific as possible. Don’t just say “small businesses,” list “dry cleaners,” “fine dining restaurants,” and “yoga studios.

Here are three pieces of advice for making the most of this process:

  1. The list doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around. You can always group entries together or split them apart later on.
  2. Try not to be overly concerned with whether a niche would be a perfect fit at this point. Since you’re just brainstorming, bad ideas can be helpful because they’ll trigger other ideas you may not have come up with otherwise.
  3. Try to have at least a dozen entries to start with.

Next, Eliminate Anyone Who’s Not Viable

Now that you’ve created your list, your next job is to eliminate any entries that simply don’t present a viable opportunity.

This could present itself in a few different ways: (a) the market may not be large enough to be worth pursuing; (b) the market is so large that it’s likely to attract the attention of a larger and more powerful competitor; (c) businesses in the space simply don’t make enough money to afford what you’re offering; or (d) there’s some other circumstance about the market that makes in undesirable.

To answer these questions, you’ll need to do a bit of research. Here’s how we go about it on my team:

  1. Look up the market size, in terms of number companies within that niche.
  2. Find out how much revenue a typical company in that niche generates.
  3. See if the industry is growing or declining and if there are any geographic characteristics that would help or hurt you.
  4. Use Facebook’s Insights tool to see if there’s anything unique about people who work in that space and to gauge audience size.
  5. Get your hands on industry websites and publications to see if you can glean any relevant insights on companies in each space,

As you gather this information, cross out any opportunity that no longer looks remotely desirable. Ideally, go through this exercise with a few people on your team. If someone provides a new piece of information that helps you rule out an opportunity, that’s great! She just saved you a lot of wasted effort. Try to be aggressive, and eliminate at least half your list. And if you can, see if you can get it down to 5-10 options.

What’s Next? Stay Tuned

At this point, you should have eliminated the options that are least likely to get you early traction. With the obvious bad fits out of the way, you’ll now move on to the survey process, where you’ll begin to understand the nuances of each market niche in a bit more detail. That’s what we’ll discuss in the next post, and if you’d like to receive an email when it’s published, just provide your email address in the form below.

The One Thing Every Marketer Must Consider Before Setting A Strategy

As a marketer, it’s not uncommon to feel tempted to emulate the marketing strategy of another company you admire.

While there’s nothing wrong with drawing some inspiration from great companies, there’s a big risk involved with following someone else’s footsteps: they may be at a different point on the path, or might be on a different path entirely.

Or they might be drunk, and moving in the entirely wrong direction. (Hey, even the best companies make marketing mistakes).

This brings up something every marketer should consider before developing a marketing strategy: the state of the industry you’re trying to enter.

Which State Is Your Company In?

In case you were asleep that day your marketing professor went over “industry life cycle,” here’s a review. Industry life cycle is typically broken up into these four stages:

Emerging – a new product category. The industry may not be growing yet; heck, people may not even be aware it exists.

Growth – how do I explain this any simpler? Smartphone adoption from 2010-2015 is a perfect example.

Maturity – overall demand isn’t growing much, but it’s not going away anytime soon. Airlines have been a mature industry for quite some time.

Decline -Desktop computers, standalone GPS units for your car, and thankfully, those tacky Bluetooth headsets with the insufferable blinking blue light.

Yes, startups exist in all four of these industry states. Because each state has different dynamics at play, the role marketing plays will vary too. Let’s take a closer look at each state to find out why…

Psst… if you want a quick-and-dirty version of what strategies work best in each stage, just skip to the end for a cheat-sheet. 

Emerging: Be An Evangelist

What’s going on: Being part of an emerging industry might be sound cool, but it’s actually kind of a pain in the ass. Very few people know about you or your industry. If you have a great product; you’re one of the few people who know about it. That has to change.

Do this: Marketing needs to focus on just two things: (1) helping people understand why they should care about your product category; and (2) reducing barriers to using your company’s version of it. That’s it.

Don’t do this: Since there’s going to be very little search traffic related to what you do, don’t waste much time on SEO and SEM. And since you don’t have many customers to nurture through email, that shouldn’t be much of a focus either.

Remember: This is not the time to fine tune your marketing. It’s more important to experiment and see what works. Optimizing won’t matter if you can’t first get people aware of what you offer and why they need it. Content marketing, PR, and events can really help here, even if the outcome is hard to measure.

Growth: Have A Plan, And Go Crazy

What’s going on: If your entire industry is taking off, the biggest risk might lie in spending too little on marketing. Why? If you don’t capture market share, someone else will. Have a plan, and don’t hold back.

Do this: Now is the time to really dive into your marketing KPIs. Once you can establish a performance benchmark (like “we can pay up to $37/lead), spend as much as you can while still hitting that goal. Now’s the time to start exploring opportunities in search advertising as well.

Don’t do this: Just because you’re spending more on marketing doesn’t mean you should be wasteful. Perhaps the biggest temptation here to think you can “buy your way out of a problem” – leading you to overlook your fundamentals, like establishing good buyer personas, creating a brand promise, and enforcing consistent messaging.

Remember: Just because more marketing tactics are potentially available doesn’t necessarily mean you should pursue all of them. Stay disciplined by only focusing on those activities you can do well and are relevant to your goals.

Mature: Optimize, Optimize, Optimize

What’s going on: Because the overall market is pretty stable, if you want to grow business, you’ll have to steal it from somewhere else. Outside of that, your main focus is defending your territory from others.

Do this: Optimizing for search traffic really becomes important. There’s already demand for what you’re offering; whether you get that business depends on getting found when people look for you. Similarly, brand awareness really starts to matter, as you want to keep your name top of mind when people are making buying decisions.

Don’t do this: Be careful not to spend more than you need to. Because mature industries approach a zero-sum game, any spend that’s not helping you gain market share or retain customers is going to yield little results. At the same time, spending too little leaves you susceptible to losing business.

Remember: This is where fine-tuning your marketing machine really becomes important. You’re not likely to make massive changes in your marketing budget, so being able to squeeze as much out of every dollar is key.

Declining: Spend Just Enough, Then Reinvest

What’s going on: You’re going to die. It’s just a matter of when. All you can really do is try to sustain life and profits for as long as possible. Trying to generate more demand is a waste of money; you should be using those funds to invest in new products.

Do this: Your marketing needs to focus on three things: (1) making sure the world knows you’re still alive and kicking, (2) continuing to optimize for any search traffic that might come your way, and (3) nurturing your existing customers as well as you can.

Don’t do this: Trying to generate new demand would be like working really hard to keep the sun from rising in the morning: in ain’t gonna happen.

Remember: If you’re a startup entering a declining industry, you’ve either (a) made a terrible mistake, or (b) are planning to disrupt the industry and resuscitate it in the process. If that’s the case, you need to approach your marketing more like an emerging industry than a declining one.

You Could Have Just Skipped To Here

So how does this all affect what marketing strategies you should employ? The younger your industry, the more you should be focusing on “push” strategies that inform your audience about what you offer. And as your industry gets older, you need to focus less on generating new demand and use your time “pulling” any market interest towards your brand.

There are going to be exceptions to the below (which is based on my subjective and mostly certainly flawed opinion anyway), so if you have ideas on how to improve this, let met know in the comments.


Oh, and you really want to geek out on this topic, take a look at a book called Creating Strategic Leverage: Matching Company Strengths with Market Opportunities. It’s about as riveting as the title sounds, but the content is really solid. I gleaned most of the insights in this post from that tome, and if you want to explore how market stage affects every nuance of marketing, I’d highly recommend it.

Your Startup Isn’t Growing. Is It From A Bad Product, Bad Marketing, Or A Bad Market?

You’re about to go on the fifteenth date with that “perfect” girl. Everything’s been great. She thinks your corny jokes are funny, she loves watching The Profit with you, and heck, she doesn’t even seem to have any annoying friends. She might be the one. But then one day, things… just… stall. Not only is she suddenly “too busy” to see you, but she even lets slip that she thinks Marcus Lemonis is kind of lame.

What happened?

Who knows. But what matters is that startups actually deal with this same scenario all the time. Growth takes off, and you’re sure this company is the one that’s going to make your mom proud. But one day your growth hits a brick wall. And no matter how your good your ad creative, how optimized your campaigns, every new customers is more hard-earned than the last.

Not knowing why your startup isn’t growing is the hardest part.

The good news is that there’s probably a good reason. In this post, I’m going to show you what those reasons are and how to determine which one is the culprit.

The 3 Reasons Your Startup Isn’t Growing

OK, there aren’t only three reasons your startup isn’t growing. For example, if your company catches a whiff of bad PR for, oh, I don’t know… FRAUD, then that might be the culprit. These are reasons why nice companies selling nice things to nice people might run find themselves caught in quicksand:

Reason #1 – Bad Product: Let’s face it… you can only get so far before people realize your product isn’t great. If you’re reading this and aren’t aware if your own product is good or bad, I’ll just assume that (a) you’re brand new at your job; or (b) you already know deep down inside and you’re hoping that this article will let you off the hook. Either way, I’ll show you the warning signs of a bad product.

Reason #2 – Bad Marketing: Your product is fine. Maybe it’s even great. And people seem to buy it. But they’re not responding to your marketing, because, well… it’s lame. If you’re a marketer, you probably don’t want this to be the reason. But better you find out yourself then someone else (your boss?) be the one to break you the news.

Reason #3 – Bad Market: Trying to sell the world’s best yoga mat to your local Harley-Davidson club? Life insurance to a 17-year old? This weird, cucumber-flavored Pepsi to someone who doesn’t live in Japan? You get the idea. You’ll always hit a brick wall if they’re selling a great product to the wrong market. 

So which one of these is the main culprit? Keep reading and we’ll find out…

It’s 3rd Grade All Over Again, And I’m Giving You a Worksheet To Do For Homework

At least I won’t be grading you on the results. And this assignment will only take about 5 minutes. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. First, download and print this PDF. Or click here for an Excel version.
  2. Grab a #2 pencil (or go really crazy and make it a #4)
  3. Below is a list of 10 areas you’ll evaluate your company on. Read them now and then return here.
  4. Go through each line on your worksheet and rate your company as weakaverage, or strong. Don’t spend more than 30 seconds on each.
  5. At the bottom of this post you’ll find what results look like for a company with a bad product, bad marketing, or a bad market. Don’t peek! Whatever result your worksheet most closely resembles will point you to the real reason your startup isn’t growing.

Finally, at the end of this post, I’ll provide a bit more commentary on each result. 3-2-1-Go!

Click here to download your worksheet

Rating Your Company On These Areas Will Help You Find The Real Reason Your Startup Isn’t Growing

Again, on your worksheet, you’ll find these ten areas listed. Which of these your company is weak or strong in will indicate where your problem lies.

PPC/SEM Marketing – anywhere you spend money to drive leads, clicks, etc. Evaluate the ads themselves, not the entire conversion funnel (here are some good benchmarks to reference). Why this matters: if your ads themselves perform well but you’re not growing, it probably indicates a product- or market-related problem.

Search traffic for your product/company – what’s the search volume for the name of your company or if applicable, your own products? Nonexistent? Moderate? Growing? Why this matters: if people are searching for you, they’ve probably heard about you from someone else. That’s a usually good thing!

Search traffic for related terms – this is the search volume for terms that are related to what you do, like “landing page software”, “energy efficient lightbulbs”, or “books on how to find a girlfriend”. Why this matters: if there’s high search volume for things related to what you do, that’s a good sign that there’s a market for what you’re selling. 

PR coverage – are other sites interested in writing about you? Or does your local newspaper turn you down so they have space to cover that local fashion show for seniors? Why this matters: if you can’t get any PR, chances are your product isn’t interesting or valuable enough to be worth writing about.

Direct/referral traffic – having plenty of these visitors means people are (a) bookmarking your site, (b) heading there directly, or (c) coming to your site from articles written about you. Why this matters: it means you’re doing something right – people love you enough to visit you often to tell others.

Website Conversion Rate – you might generate lots of “top of the funnel” interest from a paid ad campaign, but once visitors actually learn what you do on your website, are they still interested? Why this matters: a low-performing site means your product just isn’t compelling, or that you haven’t described it clearly.

Sales Close Rate – do leads show up for calls, and are they closing at a healthy rate? Or do you resort to discounts just to get a few closes? Why this matters: a really good marketing team can get people interested, but if the product is weak and/or the market is wrong, then sales won’t get very far.

Referrals – what portion of your does your growth come from referrals? If your not sure what a good benchmark is, look at this article from FriendBuy. Why this matters: if you’re getting little growth from referrals, that’s a sign that people aren’t passionate enough about your product to tell others. 

Retention/Repeat Purchases – do your customers buy from you again? And if you’re selling a subscription-based product, do they stick around for long? Why this matters: low retention or a low repeat purchase rate is a major red flag that your product doesn’t fit with the market. 

Reviews/Net Promoter Score – either one will tell you what people really think about your product. If you don’t know how to measure NPS, here’s how to do it. Why this matters: low ratings on either metric are a sign that your product is weak. But if you have high ratings and still aren’t growing, that points to a marketing issue.

Which Type of Problem Are You Facing?

With your worksheet complete, compare it to the three examples below. Chances are it will line up with one more closely than others. If you find a match, read that section to find out the real reason your startup isn’t growing.

Can’t find a match? Read each section a few times, and you’ll probably start to see one that sounds mostly like you. And if you’re still not sure, there’s probably a combination of reasons your startup isn’t growing. More commentary on that at the end.

What A Bad Product Looks Like

This is the easiest to diagnose, so we’ll start here. Your product gets few referrals, weak reviews, and customers don’t stick around for long.

when your startup isn't growing because of bad product
When your startup has a bad product, you might be able to get people to buy it, but as soon as they find out what it’s like, your referrals, retention, and reviews will suffer.

You might get away with decent performance in your paid ad campaigns, perhaps because you’re still addressing a need that your target market actually has. And perhaps your sales team or website can even do a decent job of generating new customers. But as soon as people find out what your product is really like, the truth becomes evident.

How is this different from a bad market? These two problems are most easily confused, so let’s look at that one next…

What A Bad Market Looks Like

The tricky thing about having a bad market is that you’re also likely to see mediocre reviews, a poor net promotor score, and weak referrals – just like you do with a bad product.

But there’s a key difference.

When you’re trying to sell to the wrong market, nearly everything is a challenge. There’s not a lot of search traffic in your product category, so you can’t rely on SEO. Since your paid ads aren’t really addressing a need that your market has (or understands) they’re never going to work well.

when your startup isn't growing because of bad market
Selling to the wrong market is the toughest battle to face – nearly nothing works!

You might have pockets of people who “get” how valuable your product is. But if you’re finding that potential customers just don’t understand the problem you’re trying to solve (regardless of how well you describe it), then you’re probably selling to the wrong market.

This can be a particularly thorny problem if you’ve sold most of the “early adopters” in your market but haven’t established enough credibility to sell to the “early majority.” The book Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey A. Moore, provides some great insights here. If you were growing quickly early on but now your startup isn’t growing at all, it’s definitely worth a read.

What Bad Marketing Looks Like

If bad marketing is your main issue, then your company’s growth is mainly limited by your success with referrals, PR coverage, and search traffic.

when your startup isn't growing because of bad marketing
If you have a great product, some people will still buy it despite your poor marketing. You’re lucky – this is actually the best problem to have, as it’s the easiest to fix.

When customers have great things to say about you, when the press loves writing about how wonderful you are, and when more and more people search for you online, then you know that that product and the market are solid. So if these things are happening but your startup isn’t growing, it’s probably because: (1) you haven’t found the right marketing channel; (2) your ad campaigns themselves aren’t messaged properly; or (3) you haven’t figured out how to convert paid traffic into revenue.

While no one gets joy in learning that their marketing needs improvement, this is actually this best scenario to find yourself in. If you have a great product and are selling it to the right market, then marketing is really there to serve an accelerator for growth – not the only thing keeping your company alive!

The World Is Messy, And The Real Answer Might Be A Combination Of The Above

Of course, there’s probably more than one reason your startup isn’t growing. So which problem do you fix first? Here’s a quick rule of thumb:

  • Great marketing can only do so much to offset a bad product. If you’re dealing with bad marketing and a bad product, then improve the product first. Focusing marketing will only get you short-term gains. But you can actually build a business on a great product.
  • Likewise, a great product cannot account for a bad market. If you’re facing both of these issues, find the right market to sell to first. The right market will tell you what problems they need addressed (if you ask), and will lead you to the right product and the right way to market to them.
  • In other words, focus on fixing your marketing last. This may sound counterintuitive coming from a blog that’s focused on marketing, but if you deal with the underlying issues of bad product and bad market first, you’re marketing will be much more effective.

Have you dealt with this conundrum at your own company? If so, what was the underlying issue – and how did you solve it? Let me know if the comments.

Should You Hire a Marketing Agency For Your Startup?

One of the defining characteristics of a startup is that you never seem to have enough people to get everything done. Marketing is no exception. The desire for extra marketing help is always going to be there, whether you’re a team of one or one hundred. While recognizing that you need to add manpower is simple, deciding whether to hire more employees or bring on a marketing agency isn’t so straightforward. There’s no answer that works for everyone.

I recently went through this dilemma myself. And to help you learn from my experience, I wanted to share why I decided to consider a marketing agency and what questions I asked myself to make the decision.

When Things Get Complicated, It’s Time To Ask For Help

Early on, we scaled our business mostly through Facebook and Instagram ads. Our campaigns were pretty straightforward, and our small in-house marketing team could manage pretty easily.

But as we grew, things got more complex. First, we decided to go after some new markets. The copy and creative that worked initially would not be effective with these new audiences, so we soon found ourselves allocating at least twice as much time to creating and managing Facebook ad campaigns.

Secondly, between 20014 and 2016 it got far more expensive to advertise on Facebook and Instagram. More advertisers competing for the same ad inventory directly increased our CPMs (they more than doubled for the audience we were targeting!). To hit our benchmarks, our ads had to perform twice as well just to get the same results. That meant even more planning, split testing, and campaign monitoring.

Finally, as our business grew, our internal team needed to spend more time on product messaging, website development, lead nurturing, and customer communication. While the time required to run a successful campaign continued to increase, the time we had available to do so only shrank.

Justifying The Cost Is Easier When You Can Measure The Results

Just because you need help doesn’t mean you have the money to pay for it. So I couldn’t just hire a marketing agency (or an employee) because I wanted to; the numbers had to make sense.

But it wasn’t hard to calculate: based on our monthly ad spend, the agency we were planning to hire could pay for itself if it improved campaign performance by just 17%. In other words, if we could spend 17% less on our ad campaigns, use that money to pay for agency fees, and get the same results, we’d be good.

I actually shared this number with the agency before we began the relationship. They knew what numbers they’d have to hit in order to keep the contract alive, and they were confident they could deliver. So we agreed on a 3-month trial period and moved forward.

Could I have hired an employee instead? Maybe. But here’s why that didn’t make sense for us at the time:

  • The agencies we looked at all charged management fees of about 17-22% of ad spend. Based on our ad budget, we could hire an entry-level employee for that amount, but not a more experienced marketer that we’d actually need.
  • Finding an employee can take a while. And you never want to rush a hire just because the need for help is pressing.
  • An agency will likely get up to speed quicker than an employee. They only need to focus on the job you’ve assigned to them, and don’t have to deal with on-boarding, coming to meetings, understanding the culture, etc.
  • If an agency didn’t work out, parting ways would be pretty straightforward. But doing the same with an employee is much tougher on both parties.

Did It Work Out? Yes And No.

I’ll skip to the end of story. We ended up parting ways after a few months. But not for the reason you’d think.

The marketing agency we hired actually did a decent job of improving our Facebook and Instagram campaign performance. But shortly after we engaged them, we made some core business changes that took us away from marketing on Facebook and Instagram. The agency didn’t do anything wrong, we just no longer needed their help in running campaigns on social media. Fortunately, they were really understanding. Ending the relationship was pretty easy, no hard feelings.

Even though we only worked with the agency for a short time, having an outside perspective was really valuable. They taught us quite a few things about campaign structure, how to set up tests properly, and using Facebook’s ad units in different ways.

Not only that, but having to teach an agency about our own brand forced us to clarify own messaging. We thought we had pretty clear guidelines, but when we started to explain them to an outsider, we realized they could use quite a bit of improvement. Having someone ask you a bunch of questions about your brand is a great way to find out where all the holes are.

Takeaway: if you end up hiring an agency yourself, I recommend finding one that’s willing to share knowledge back and forth. Both you and the agency will benefit.

Should You Hire A Marketing Agency For Your Own Startup?

There’s no right answer for every startup. So to help you come up with the right answer for your own company, here are a few questions to consider as you ponder the decision yourself:

Do you have clear branding and messaging guidelines?

Asking an agency to create marketing campaigns without clear brand guidelines is setting them (and you) up for failure. These guidelines can’t just live in your head, they need to be documented in a straightforward and accessible way, so that everyone on your agency’s team can have a clear idea of how your brand should be communicated.

Don’t have guidelines yet – not even in your head? If building these isn’t your strong suit, you might actually consider hiring an agency on a project basis to help you craft them.

Are you trying to scale a proven strategy or are you still looking for something that works?

Many startups acquire their customers primarily through one or two channels. But finding out which channels those are is going to take some experimentation. If you’re still in that experimentation phase, ask yourself if you’re able to move faster than an agency.

If you think you are, then you’re probably better conducting those experiments yourself. On the other hand, if you’re going to spend a lot of time just figuring out the basics of some new marketing channels, partnering with an agency who already has experience may help you get moving sooner.

Are there specific gaps in your team’s talent that you can’t fill otherwise?

Agencies can be really valuable if there are skills your current team lacks and (a) you can’t afford the time it takes to learn them; (b) it will take too long to find someone who already has them; or (c) adding these skills doesn’t require a full-time hire.

For example, your own team might be great at paid advertising on social media, but doesn’t know left from right when it comes to PR. If PR needs to play a core role in your marketing strategy, then maybe it makes sense to hire an agency that specializes in that.

Is your time being taken away from the core business?

If you’ve established a marketing strategy but find that managing it day-to-day is taking you away from actually running your business, a marketing agency might be a good choice as well. You’ll still need to provide lots of direction on marketing campaigns, but freeing yourself from managing the details may give you time to look at the big picture.

Are you stuck?

If you’ve tried “everything” but can’t seem to get traction with any marketing strategy, having an outside perspective can be really valuable. You might consider hiring an agency on a consulting basis to give you a more objective assessment of your business.

Is there a special project you need help with?

Perhaps there’s a big campaign you need some creative horsepower behind. Or maybe there’s a video you need to create that’s beyond the capabilities of your own team. Marketing agencies are perfect for this type of work. Your employees should handle the work that requires ongoing effort, but when you need to deliver a special project that requires skills that your own team doesn’t possess, an agency can be the perfect partner.

What are your expectations?

Don’t think that hiring a marketing agency abdicates you of your responsibility to grow your business. An agency can help you execute something that doesn’t make sense to do in-house, but don’t expect to just write a check and see your business to grow on its own. It’s up to you to get the fundamentals right. Once those are in place, your next job is to find the right resources to get the job done. Whether that’s through employees, freelancers, or agencies is up to you. Chances are that as you grow, you’ll make use of all three.

Still considering an agency? Do this first.

If you think that hiring a marketing agency makes sense for your startup, don’t start making phone calls just yet. Before you go down that path, get your team on board first. You all need to understand why you’re considering bringing on an agency – what they’ll be helping with, what they won’t be helping with, and how your team is going to engage them.

If your team doesn’t understand how an agency fits into the big picture of your marketing strategy, it will decrease the chances of everyone’s success. Once everyone’s aligned and you know exactly what you want out of an agency, begin your search. Good luck!

Your Company Will Fail Without A Brand Promise. Here’s Why.

“Come on,” my dad quipped, pretending not to notice the look of sheer horror pasted on my face. “It’ll be fun. I promise.

I was just a 9-year old kid, getting ready to ride a roller coaster called the Loch Ness Monster: 3,240 feet of bright yellow steel tubing wrapped around itself like a two contortionists playing a game of Twister in the middle of tornado. I nearly crapped my pants when I saw it, prompting my dad to issue that promise.

By making that promise, my dad was taking a risk. Any father knows that if you promise something, you better be damn sure you’re right. But, precisely 2 minutes and 10 seconds later, he proved that he was as I exited the ride with a huge grin on my face.

Promise was delivered on. Trust was established. And many more roller coaster rides ensued that afternoon.

Why am I telling you this story?

Because just as kids look to parents to fulfill any promises made, consumers expect that brands do the same. When promises are kept, a loyal following ensues. When they’re broken, disaster awaits.

To find out what a brand promise really is and learn how to develop your own, keep reading.

loch ness monster busch gardens
The Loch Ness monsters at Busch Gardens. Causing heart attacks in children since 1978.

What is a brand promise anyway?

Let’s test your knowledge. A brand promise is…

(a) When a brand assures you that this time, it won’t be late for your 8 PM date at The Olive Garden
(b) An unconditional 110% money-back guarantee on skydiving equipment
(c) Something that only overpaid marketing consultants understand
(d) A pledge to not spill massive amounts of oil and light the ocean on fire any more

The answer is (e) None of the above. A brand promise is simply what consumers expect a brand to deliver. It’s the very reason someone chooses to buy something. It’s what connects the actions of the company with the needs and desires of the buyer.

For example, two similar mobile phone services might each offer their own brand promises. Brand A might promise that you’ll always be able to connect with loved ones. Brand B might promise that you will always receive an affordable bill, as long as you never travel outside the United States, never call someone outside the United States, never exceed your data cap, never forget to look both ways before crossing the street, and never even touch at your phone. Two similar services, two very different promises.

How Do You Know If A Brand Promise Is Great?

There are two ways to find out…

First, you can pay a fancy agency a fee of $100,000 (along with the hand of your oldest daughter in marriage), and they’ll develop a fantastic brand promise for you. It will be fantastic because you just paid $100,000 for it, dammit, and only a fool would pay that much for something that was less than extraordinary, and you sir, are no fool.

Alternatively, you can use the $17.34 Rougeux 5-Point Brand Promise System For Marketers Who Get S**t Done to create your own, which I’m offering at a 100% discount for an unlimited time.

The Rougeux 5-Point Brand Promise System can be easily remembered with a simple acronym: DDDMM. Pronouncing it is easy, especially if you’ve ever had your jaw wired shut from a bizarre softball accident and were later forced to recite German poetry.

DDMMM stands for Distinct, Desirable, Delivered, Measurable, and Memorable. Here’s what each means.

DDMMM: The 5 Points Of A Great Brand Promise


Any decent brand promise has to stand out from similar products. If you’re Starbucks, and your brand promise is simply “Hot coffee in a cup”, that’s not going to help you much unless you’re the only coffee purveyor on the planet.

Or if you’re a trucking company, don’t tell me that you’re “On time, every time.” You better damn well be, as that’s pretty much table stakes for every trucking company in the America. Instead, a powerful brand promise is one that only your product can deliver.


This sounds kind of obvious, but how many times have you heard a company tout that if offers something like, “Strategic, value-added solutions.” A promise so frustratingly vague that you’re probably tempted to leave this page just because I made you read it. In fact, I dare you to read it again… Strategic. Value added. Solutions. Still here? Wow, your pain tolerance is pretty high.

A great brand promise has to be something that gets the buyer excited through its appeal. If your brand promise involves a unicorn descending from a rainbow to deliver you cauldrons full of crisp $100 bills, then you’re on the right track.

What is a brand promise? Saying "strategic value added solutions" is a poor answer.
Did you make the mistake of using “Strategic, value-added solutions” as your brand promise? Don’t worry, so did 4,649 other people.


I know what you’re thinking. “I’ve got this whole brand promise thing figured out. It involves unicorns, rainbows, and lots of cash. But there’s one problem. You probably can’t deliver on that. Especially since unicorns are notoriously difficult to train. A great brand promise needs to be something you can actually do. (That’s why it’s called a promise).

An appealing brand promise that you can’t deliver on is worse than having no brand promise at all. Fail a customer’s expectations and they’ll never come back.


Now we get into the tough part. A brand promise is far more likely to generate raving fans if the buyer is certain that her expectations were met. If a brand promise is both deliverable and measurable, then buyers who see that promise fulfilled are going to love you.

One of my favorite examples is BMW’s The Ultimate Driving Machine. You can head to any dealer, plop your butt in 3-series, nail a few onramps, and come away feeling pretty certain that a BMW provides a much more satisfying drive than that cushy Lexus you’d been cruising around town in. Pro tip: do this when the dealer is open and with the permission of a salesperson. Doing so greatly reduces your risk of jail time.


This is where many good brand promises fall short of becoming great. If no one can remember your brand promise, it’s of limited value.

Not only will your customers have a tough time remembering it, your own sales, marketing, and customer support teams will, too. How can you expect your team to build an experience around a promise that no one’s aware of?

Geico’s promise that “15 minutes can save you 15 percent on car insurance” is probably the best example on Earth:

What’s Your Brand Promise? Do You Even Have One?

If you haven’t defined your brand promise, two things will happen.

One, people will make their own conclusions about what your brand represents. Their answer is unlikely to be the same as what you’re trying to deliver, and you’ll be setting them up for disappointment.

The other scenario is this: potential customers won’t be sure why you exist, and they’ll patronize a business that is clear about what they have to offer. Especially if unicorns are involved.

P.S. Here’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way… just because you’ve established a brand promise once doesn’t mean that you never have to touch it again. As your product evolves (and as the tastes of your customers change), your brand promise will need to be adapted.

Why This Duracell Hearing Aid Commercial Will Make You Cry

I was standing there at my desk when a Slack message popped up: “Check this out…” with an innocuous link to a YouTube video. 78 seconds later I was desperately trying to pretend I had allergies as I fought to keep tears from welling up.

What happened?

A commercial for one of the most mundane objects on Earth: a battery.

To find out how a pitch for such an ordinary item could cause so many feels to come out of my eyes, I decided to deconstruct the ad. Watch the Duracell hearing aid commercial below and then keeping reading to see why it was so effective.

When it’s over, go watch this video of Chuck Norris kicking some ass to restore your emotions back to normal.

[accordion title=’Click Here To View the Script of The Duracell Hearing Aid Commercial’]

Act 1:

Friend at dinner (muffled): “These seats are excellent, but unfortunately, they’re for tomorrow night.”

Co-worker (muffled): There’s cake for Paula’s birthday in the kitchen..

Daughter: Thank you.

James: Bye bye! She’ll be fine.

[Crying baby / sports game]

Jame’s wife: Can you hear her? The baby’s crying!

Act II:

Doctor: So let’s get you started today. These are the batteries. The tab makes it super simple. Flip it over the ear.

Wife: How’s that sound?

Doctor: Did you hear her?

James: I think so… that’s amazing.

James’ wife: Thank you..

Act III:

James (to son): Well, it’s a rule. I said, what.. what rule? I don’t know about baseball…

James: She’s doing great.

James’ son: Yeah?

James: Yeah

James’ son: Thanks dad.


Duracell batteries are long lasting. So you don’t miss the moments that matter.

Trusted everywhere.


WHAT JUST HAPPENED? Can you even read this through those watery eyelids? Wipe your nose and let’s see how some marketing genius was able to make the Energizer bunny look like a cold-hearted killer compared to Duracell.

Genius Move #1: Follow A Classic Story Structure

Here’s a dirty little secret: nearly every great story follows an established pattern. This Duracell hearing aid commercial is no different. In this case, it follows the classic three-act structure. It goes something like this:

  1. Setup: The hero is going about his business when some unexpected event turns his world upside down.
  2. Confrontation: The hero struggles to deal with this new challenge. When he’s all but defeated, some external intervention occurs, and he finds the courage/skill/answer/secret potion he needs to succeed.
  3. Resolution: With the conflict resolved, the hero finds himself even better off than when the story began.

Anything that doesn’t follow an established convention is either crap or is considered avant garde, which is a special type of artwork for people who are overly concerned about the source of wool in their $295 turtlenecks.

Here’s how our Duracell ad follows the structure….

Act 1 – Reality Hits Home

Our hero isn’t given a name, but since the most popular baby name of the 1950s was James, let’s go with that. In the first scene, James isn’t laughing at a dinner party jokes because he can’t hear. Either that, or the jokes are about him, and this ad just got off to an extremely awkward start.

In the next scene, James misses out on a crucial office ritual: cake for Paula’s birthday. Missing out on both jokes and cake kind of sucks for James, but he’ll survive… right?

In the final scene of the act, James’ hearing loss goes from a mere annoyance to a painful source of shame when he neglects to hear his crying granddaughter over the sports game.

Act 2 – Enter The Savior

Having fully realized the consequences of his hearing loss, James meets with an audiologist. Now enters our savior: the hearing aid, powered by (you guessed it) Duracell batteries.

While the story hasn’t quite resolved itself yet, James can at least imagine a brighter future when he whispers, “That’s amazing.”

Act 3 – Life Is Good

We find James at the kitchen table, yet this time, he’s able to hear his granddaughter crying. The story reaches its peak when James’s son says, “Thanks dad,” as James comforts his granddaughter.

James is not only happy with himself, he’s also able to live up to the expectations of his family.

Genius Move #2: Reinforce Emotions Through Production

Not only does the story itself follow the classic three-act structure, the production choices of the Duracell hearing aid commercial were all made to reinforce the message of each act. Take a closer look and you’ll see what I mean:

  • Music: Initially, a sole piano sets a sad and contemplative tone. As it the story transitions into act two, the music pauses to emphasize James’ realization that he can’t hear. But as he visits the doctor, the music cautiously resumes. As the tempo gradually increases into act three, a keyboard and synthesizer are added to convey energy and confidence. Way to go, synthesizer.
  • Lighting: The dim set of James’ house is a sharp contrast to the brightly lit audiologist’s office, reinforcing the idea that new things are taking place. Ok, “brightly lit” is an understatement… the audiology office looks the interior of the spaceship from Space Odyssey: 2001. Anyway, the story concludes with the soft, natural light, conveying a warmer, more familial environment.
  • Time of Day: The story begins in the evening: darkness increases along with James’ realization of his loss. Yet the story resolves in the full daylight, the start of a new day symbolic of new beginnings.
  • Emotion: Confusion and frustration take over the first act of the story, climaxing in full-on anger when Jame’s kids return from their night out. I would not want to be there to hear James’ wife chew him out afterwards. In act two, sadness is replaced with cautious optimism in the audiologist’s office. Love and laughter are shown in the final act that takes place in the family’s home, leaving no doubt to the outcome of the story.
Act by act breakdown of the Duracell hearing aid commercial
Each act of Duracell’s ad is reinforced through the production choices made in each act.

Genius Move #3: Use Supporting Characters To Frame Emotional Transitions

James’ wife

James’ wife has a simple role in the story: show you how you should feel as you watch James deal with his challenge. She starts off with anger at James’ failure…

Duracell hearing aid commercial act one: James' wife gets upset
James’ wife isn’t exactly going to nominate him for AARP’s Grandfather of the Year Award.

… and later displays gratitude for at possibility of James getting his hearing back.

Duracell hearing aid commercial act two: James' wife is optimistic
This shot takes less than a second but it drives home plenty of optimism.

Finally, she shows joy as she see James thrive again. Observe your own emotions as you watch the video… are you feeling the same way? James’s wife plays a minor role but she telegraphs the emotional transitions really clearly.

James' wife is happy
James’ wife is relaxed and happy now that James can hear again.

James’ Son

The Duracell hearing aid commercial isn’t really about James’ ability to hear. After all, who really cares if he misses out on office birthday cake because he’s a bit deaf? It was probably some crummy cake from the grocery story, anyway. No, the story really has to do with James failing his family, specifically his son.

Take a look at the conclusion of Act 1. As James’ son and daughter-in-law gather around the crying infant, James looks at his son with embarrassment and sadness. To make things worse, James’s son doesn’t even make eye contact with him:

Duracell hearing aid commercial act one: James is embarrassed
Worst. Babysitting. Ever. James was a major disappointment to his son that evening.

Finally, the closing scene shows James, his wife, son, and daughter-in-law seated together, signifying that the family is healthy again. When James picks up his granddaughter this time, James’ son smiles directly at his father. The father-son relationship is restored and James receives the trust and love he years for as a grandfather.

Duracell hearing aid commercial act three: James' son is smiling
All is well, and James’ son can once again look at his dad and smile.

Genius Move #4: Don’t Make It About The Product

This is the most important part of all.

People aren’t interested in watching advertisements. They want to watch stories. And this Duracell hearing aid commercial is exactly that – a story about a new grandparent who lets down his family because he can no longer hear. Even if most viewers can’t empathize with hearing loss, nearly everyone can relate to the hurt caused by strained family relationships.

As lesser writer would have been tempted to introduce the Duracell brand right at the start. Since so many videos are skipped after just a few seconds, the temptation is understandable.

But doing so would only tell the viewer, “This is an advertisement. Nothing to see here!”

Instead, an engrossing story is used to break down any resistance a viewer might have towards seeing a branded message. It’s only until the last 8 seconds of the video that the product being advertised is finally made clear.

In this case, it’s a simple battery.

Perfect example of the maxim: “There are no boring products, only boring writers.”

P.S. Random Observations

I had to watch the Duracell hearing aid commercial more times that I care to admit to do this deconstruction. And it the process I noticed some things that you probably missed…

  • The doctor gives James a package of 16 hearing aid batteries. The package notes that each battery lasts 4 years. That means James has enough juice to last him 64 more years. I guess there’s nothing wrong with being optimistic.
  • In Act 3, I really can’t tell what meal the family is eating. The lighting suggests breakfast, as do the oranges on the table. But the Coke (tea?) and Chinese takeout contain suggest either lunch or extraordinarily usual eating habits.
  • James’ coworker seems overly disturbed that he didn’t hear her the first time. What if James was just “in the zone” as he processed his expense report from that craaazy insurance conference in Tampa? Don’t most people just call your name again before donning an expression of utter confusion?
  • The interior of James’ living room looks like it was inspired by an outdated Motel 6. Come on James, you can afford a painting or two on those walls!
  • Why did the custom designer have James wear that copper bracelet? It’s given tons of prominence in one of the scenes, and since those things are proven not to work, it’s strange that they would have him sport one.

What Do You Think of The Duracell Hearing Aid Commercial?

Maybe you watched the Duracell hearing aid commercial and thought it was a crass attempt to get people to pay more for a branded commodity.

Or maybe you didn’t even finish reading the article because you immediately ran to the nearest Walgreen’s to buy their entire stock of Duracell batteries.

Or perhaps you’re convinced that this is really a super secret conspiracy among Big Audiology, Coke, and Duracell: it proves that drinking soda causes deafness, and all these companies out there to profit off the suffering they induce by making you consume their products.

However you feel, let me know if the comments below.