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.

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

Distinct

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.

Desirable

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.

Deliverable

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.

Measurable

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.

Memorable

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.

How to Build a Social Media Content Plan with Trello

Here’s a dead-simple way to plan content with Trello.

Caveat: this post will not teach you how to be a social media “ninja”, “guru”, or “rockstar”. If you aspire to use one of those terms to describe yourself, or already do, seek professional help. Or just quit the internet.

Ok. On to the post…

Managing your company’s social media presence can be a mess if you’re not intentional about it. It’s like that guy who’s sat on the couch all year and decides that on January 1, he’s going to go to the gym “like all the time.” Week one, he’s there every day. Week two… well, you know what happens. Without a solid plan that you can stick to, your social media content won’t be consistent or effective.

That’s why I’m going to show you how to plan a full month’s worth of content in 30 minutes or less.

For the sake of simplicity, this post will focus just on Facebook. However, the methodology can be used for any content calendar, and even for multiple social networks if you’re creative. Here’s how it works:

1. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish. Why do you even have a social media presence in the first place? Do you want to keep customers talking about your brand? Announce new products? Set the tone for your brand’s voice? Make a list of key objectives. Keep it short, not more than three or four. Just like the guy planning to hit Gold’s Gym every day, not knowing why you’re doing something is a sure path to quitting. Here’s an example:

  • Keep customers informed of new product features
  • Foster engagement by highlighting outstanding customers
  • Reinforce our values through human-interest and humorous content
  • Improve company image vignettes of employees

2. Identify the type of content that will best serve each of those objectives. Example:

  • Keep customers informed… via events announcements and company news (Update)
  • Foster engagement… by highlighting outstanding customers (Community)
  • Reinforce our values… through human-interest and humorous content (Voice)
  • Improve company image… by featuring profiles of employees (Personality)

3. Prioritize your categories. Don’t just say, “they’re all important!”; prioritizing will help you decide how much content is devoted to each. Try this: give yourself 10 “points” to hand out. Give more points to the most important objectives, and fewer to secondary ones. So much math!!

  • Update: 3
  • Community: 3
  • Voice: 2
  • Image: 2

4. Calculate your output capacity. How many posts per month can you consistently commit to? Don’t bite off more than you can chew and burn out after a month. At our company, we are planning to ramp up our volume to about 20 posts a month. That’s on the aggressive side, but we generate a lot of growth through Facebook and our followers have been very engaged with our content. Having videos with lots of gratuitous explosions always helps.

5. Do some math. With you ideal volume in hand, it’s time to match that against the priorities you outlined earlier. Apply the formula below to

Number of posts/month = (points assigned to category / total points) x total posts/month

For our first category, Updates, the formula would look like this:

(3 points / 10 total points) x 20 posts/month = 6 Update posts per month

Easy! You didn’t even need a calculator. Right? Right????…..  Don’t worry I won’t tell your 4th grade math teacher. Just repeat for the remaining categories and you’ll have a baseline plan for how many posts of each type to publish each month. Here’s what you’d end up with for all four categories:

  • Update – 6 posts/month
  • Community – 6 posts/month
  • Voice – 4 posts/month
  • Personality – 4 posts/month

6. Take things over to Trello. We use a 4-step workflow to manage content throughout the month. Every piece of content starts out in a Planned list, and moves through the following steps:

  1. Planned
  2. Being worked on
  3. Pending approval
  4. Scheduled

You may need fewer or more depending on the structure of your team. We have multiple content contributors, but only a couple content approvers, so this process helps us hand off content to the right people.

Now… create a Trello card in the Planned for each post you outlined above. The result will look something like this. Look at all those beautiful posts just waiting to be written. So many Likes and Shares lie ahead:

A fresh month...

7. Assign owners. Whether you have one person or a team of ten managing content, make sure that every single card has an owner. This is the person who will make sure that a piece of content is drafted, edited, and published on time, and by the right people. Give your team the gift of clear ownership and it will greatly streamline your process. Don’t assign owners and watch you best intentions disintegrate into pure and unrelenting madness. Your Facebook fans deserver better, don’t they?

8. Set due dates. With you content list established, it’s time to figure out what to post when. Trello gives you a great calendar view, which makes it super-simple to get a bird’s eye view of the month. We use also labels to designate content categories, making it  easy to see what type of content will go out when. Here’s a possible result that will satisfy any obsessive compulsive disorder sufferer, with it’s neatly-spaced scheduling.

Get writing!

9. Get writing. You have all your work cut out for you for the month. No more planning, go write!

At the end of the month, sit down with your content team and examine the results. Which types of posts performed the best? Were there days of the week when you saw better results? Was your team able to handle the load?

You’ll want to make some tweaks to make next month even more effective. Now you’ve established a baseline, though, your process will be much more effective and well-informed.

Bonus round: You can download a free content planning template in Trello here. Enjoy!

How to Choose The Right CRM For Your Startup

Choosing a CRM is a lot like dating: you need some experience to know what you’re looking for, it takes a while to find out if you’ve made the right choice, and if you decide to switch to another option, it’s generally a pain in the ass.

We recently went through the CRM selection process at my company, and we ended up with a great choice. I wanted to share the steps we went through, to hopefully save you some pain in your own journey.

Background

We originally used Hubspot as an all-in-one marketing/sales platform. We tried to use it as a CRM as well, but it’s not well suited for that. As our sales volume started to increase, and we quickly needed a better solution to help us manage leads and deal discussions. After an afternoon spent Googling every CRM search string we could think of, we soon realized that there were hundreds of choices. Far too many, in fact. Suffocating under the sheer variety of options, we decided to take a step back…

Assessing Your Needs

We took a break and tried to honestly assess what we really needed from a CRM. Just like your buddy’s girlfriend you can’t stand to be around, some CRMs will be a poor fit because they’re tailored for a different type of user. But since you can’t afford to date a dozen CRMs before you marry one, you have to figure out what you want first.

Here are a few questions that will help you find out:

  • How complex is your sales process? Perhaps you sign leads up after a phone call or two. Or maybe it’s a months-long conversation with several people. You won’t need every feature under the sun if you just need a fancy list to keep track of who needs to be called.
  • Who will be using the CRM? Is your team really tech savvy, and comfortable setting up a lot of configuration? Or will they refuse to touch something unless it has a beginner-friendly interface?
  • How many leads do you manage at once? How similar are they? If you’re selling the same thing to every lead, you probably have a fairly straightforward process. A CRM that simply helps you track progress will be fine. But if you have multiple products that have unique sales approaches, you’ll want more flexibility to customize.
  • Where do your sales take place? If you’re out in the field much, then consider CRMs that have mapping features and a strong mobile app (many CRMs don’t).
  • Do you sell via email, phone, or both? Several CRMs that offer in-app calling, call logging, dedicated telephone numbers, and other features that make it easy to manage calls. Other CRMs offer direct integration into email services such as Gmail and Outlook, which is handy if you want to easily track correspondence.
  • How long does this CRM need to last? Remember, just because you pick a CRM now doesn’t mean that you’ll use it until the end of time. Yes, it’s a pain to switch, but if you’re a startup, the software you use today isn’t what you’ll be using three years from now.
  • What other services do you use? Are there email, billing, chat, or other web-based software you use for marketing and sales? Several CRMs offer direct integrations with those platforms, making it a cinch to sync data.
  • How available is your tech team? Many CRMs can’t fully connect to other services unless you make use of their API. Have a custom website that someone wrote from scratch? You’ll need to make API calls if you want those forms on your website to update your CRM automatically. If this is a concern for you, check out Zapier, which offers direct integrations between many platforms, all without writing code.
  • How much does it cost? Don’t worry about this one for now. Most CRMs geared at startups will be within a fairly similar price range. Unless you’re on a shoestring budget, focus on finding a tool that works best for you. More expensive isn’t necessarily better.

Review With Your Team

If you’ve talked through these questions together, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what you need out of a CRM. Here’s what we ended up with:

Our sales process typically involves a couple of emails and a phone call or two. However, the time from initial interest to close can take anywhere from one day to one month. We need something that will make it easy to track correspondence and deal stage. Phone integration and mobile apps are must-haves.

Right now, our products have fixed pricing. The sales process is mostly educational and less focused on negotiation. With that in mind, we didn’t need anything really nuanced. Just an easy way to keep track of how many customers are interested and how many we’ve closed.

Our sales team is a smart bunch, but they don’t have a lot of time to learn a funky interface. Finding something that was intuitive is paramount. While our sales are mostly done in-office, knowing where leads are located geographically is really important, as we sell to many local businesses.

Finally, we need a service that will integrate with MailChimp and Gmail. We’ll also need to update our CRM via an API, since we’d have an custom-built website and sign-up portal for our services.

Go through this exercise and get ready to go hunting…

Narrow It Down

There are a couple options for narrowing your choices: use a service such as Capterra or G2 Crowd to filter your options, OR take the easy way by looking at the short list we came up with:

  • Close.io – great for call tracking and a simple interface
  • RelateIQ – uses algorithms to help you know where to spend your time
  • Intercom – offers a single platform for communicating over multiple channels
  • BaseCRM – solid call/email integration, great UI and mobile app
  • HighRise – extremely simple, a glorified contact manager
  • Nimble – strong social media integration
  • Pipedrive – targeted at high-value/low-volume deal flow
  • Pipeline Deals – focused on managing an intricate sales process
  • CapsuleCRM – easy to get started with

Go On A Date

Once you’ve selected three or four candidates, it’s time for a test run. Set up a trial account, import your data, and start to poke around. Before long, you’ll get a sense of how steep the learning curve is and how much customization is involved before you can really make use of it. Make sure you include any mobile apps as part of the trial process.

If you’re still having trouble making a decision, here are a few tips to help:

  • Submit a support request and see how quickly and thoroughly their team responds.
  • Check out their documentation. How many resources do they provide to help you along?
  • Ask one of their sales reps to tell you why you should choose them over another CRM you’re considering. They may point out some features you weren’t aware of. If you want to dig even deeper, ask the sales rep to tell you what the weak points of their CRM are. Every service has a few.
  • If Salesforce came up on your short list, cross it off. Unless you have a big sales team and a lead who’s already familiar with Salesforce, changes are it will be overkill. By the time you have it set up, you could already have been using a simpler CRM for months.
  • Visit the company’s blog to see how recently they’ve released new features.
  • Take a look at Zapier to see what kinds of integrations are offered. Set up a Zap and see if it works.

Make Your Choice

You won’t know whether you’ve made the perfect decision until you’ve committed to a CRM, started using it for real deals, and discovered all its warts. But you won’t be able to try them all for months. And at a startup, sometimes done is better than perfect. So make your decision, move forward, and don’t look back.

For us, we went with BaseCRM. We really liked its intuitive interface, call integration, and mobile apps. It also has a fairly good API, which means that it can grow with us for a while. Reporting tools are solid too. Yes, there are some shortcomings we found with it, but none of them are serious enough to cause us to reconsider. And their support team has been really helpful. So far, so good…

Have you gone through the process of picking a new CRM? If so, I’d love to hear your own thoughts on how to make the process more painless. 

Delta’s Marketing Department is Better Than Yours

If you haven’t seen Delta’s latest pre-flight safety video yet, it’s a riot. It’s the latest in a string of comical takes on the standard (and usually mind-numblingly boring) safety films that anyone who’s flown in the past decade is already familiar with:

OK, so I’m sure you laughed a little bit. But I wanted to break down why this video is such a win from a marketing perspective. Making a funny video is one thing. But making an otherwise dry by necessary production into something that people actually seek out to watch is another feat entirely. Let’s take a closer look:

1. It isn’t funny for it’s own sake. Delta (and presumably the FAA) really do want you to watch their video. The information it conveys could literally save your life. Making the video humorous ultimately serves to get passengers watching, which is a good thing. This is probably the most important lesson for anyone involved in technical writing or user experience: just because your subject is serious doesn’t mean that the message has to be. Of course, the Germans learned this decades ago: here’s the classic example.

2. Comedy doesn’t distract from the content. This is actually hard to do. But most of the humorous bits relate directly to the message conveyed at that time. For example, when passengers are told to ask flight attendants if they have any questions, they see a business man looking for help with his Rubik’s Cube. And it’s hard to ignore how to deal with oxygen masks, because seeing Arf don his own mask is pretty unforgettable.

I've never solved one either.
I’ve never solved one either.

3. The humor isn’t exclusive to a certain age group. Even if you didn’t grow up in the 80’s, watching the hair metal guitar player store his “ax” in the overhead compartment is going to make you laugh no matter what. So is the guy in the multi-colored track suit dancing the robot as he takes his seat in the exit row.

4. If you did live through the 80’s, the video is especially funny. It starts with watching the straight-laced business man place his Devo energy dome underneath the seat in front of him. References to mullets, Teddy Ruxpin, Gameboy, Atari, croquet, and Tab ensue. And the piece de resistance: seeing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reprise his role in the classic movie Airplane, as Roger Murdock, the co-pilot.

"I'm sorry son, but you must have me confused with someone else. My name is Roger Murdock. I'm the co-pilot."
“I’m sorry son, but you must have me confused with someone else. My name is Roger Murdock. I’m the co-pilot.”

5. They didn’t overthink it. There are some temporal challenges with the video, namely that the passengers seem to have been transported from 30 years ago to the present. Not only are they seated in a modern 737 that doesn’t allow smoking, but they’re told not to use wifi, which doesn’t exist in their era. Delta could have stopped halfway through the script to realize “Um… this doesn’t actually make logical sense…”, but they pressed on.

6. It respects the passengers. Perhaps Delta considered forcing everyone to watch the video by yelling in a thick German accent: “NOW YOO MUST VATCH ZEE SAFETY WIDEO!” But they thought better of that and actually decided to make the passengers’ day slightly better by making them laugh. They even give a nod to those who’ve flown with Delta for a little while: the red-headed girl at wagging her finger is supposed to be the original Delta redhead in their first lighthearted production several years ago.

"Smoking is NOT ALLOWED, on any Delta flight..."
“Smoking is NOT ALLOWED, on any Delta flight…”

This is marketing done right. Delta has effectively used humor to make its messaging more effective and to improve its customers’ view of the brand. Now can every other company who thinks it’s too boring to be interesting please take note?!?