The One Way to Attract Early Customers to Your Startup — with No Budget

Emily Randolph
written by
Emily Randolph
last updated
March 26, 2021
The One Way to Attract Early Customers to Your Startup — with No Budget

Finding early customers should be easy. But once you run out of friends and family members and try to find your first 10, 50, 100, or 1,000 customers, things get much more difficult. It requires a deep understanding of your customer that borders the need for an undergraduate psych degree.

In today’s environment, there are endless ways to promote and sell your product/service. These tactics fall into one of three strategies:

  • Sales – Working with the client or customer to buy your product.
  • Outbound Marketing – Paying for your prospects’ attention through advertisements (e.g. Google Adwords or Facebook Ads).
  • Inbound Marketing – Creating content for your prospective customer that they find organically through social media or Google Searches.

The Right Marketing Strategy for Early Customers

If you’re running a lean operation (meaning it’s you and maybe a few others), you need to be very efficient in how you work. Every day that goes by without a sale is pressure mounting on you to make this right.

Most people assume that Inbound Marketing is limited to blogging and typically reserved for established companies who can afford a full-time writer. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and in fact, more startups should be utilizing it to find their early customers.

No matter your industry, the competitive landscape has never been tighter, and finding a designer/developer to bring your latest ideas to life is easy. The better question to ask is what should they build? What’s going to be your competitive advantage?

As a startup, it has to be that you understand your customers’ problems better than anyone else.

Inbound marketing (done well) forces you to put yourself in the customers’ shoes and engage with them through content. While your product might not be the end-all solution to your customers’ problem, your content can supply your audience with an idea of the direction your heading in.

Who Are You Targeting?

SaaS Facebook Groups

The answer is that you’re stuck in Product-Market Fit; you’re hypothesis testing. You’ve got an idea, a prototype, a functioning product… heck, you may even have sales!

What is Product-Market Fit?

PMF is the process of proving your hypothesis in the market. It’s asking the question, are there people out there who see enough value in what I’m selling to depart from their cold hard cash?

Startup Success Failure Rate

90% of startups fail because they aren’t able to achieve Product-Market Fit (PMF). ‘Despite how perfectly designed and developed the product or service is, it is useless if no one wants it.’

It’s a process because while the formula sounds easy (find potential customers, close the deal, retire to the Caymans), it’s much harder in practice.

The way to move through PMF quickly is by rapidly prototyping, testing, and iterating your product until you have a reliable way to find customers and make money.

Startups especially need to be very deliberate on identifying their customers. If this were a school dance, you’d need to go up to everyone individually and ask them if you can get their attention for one song.

Once you have product-market fit, you can do the worm in front of the whole student body.

Everything does not need to be working at 100% to launch your product, but you do need three key elements:

  1. Website – Where people can find you
  2. Marketable/Sellable Product – The content on your website
  3. Feedback Loop – A way to communicate with users

Customer Feedback Loop

Creating a Feedback Loop

How I start the conversation 

The key here is to launch your product early and be sure you have a tight feedback loop. The three key insights you’re looking for are:

  • I’ve noticed [this problem in the market]. Do you have this problem?
  • Tell me about your experience.
  • Would a solution like [Product Outline] solve your problem?

If you’re solving a real problem that people care about, users will be eager to talk to you about it. This is where the real value-add of Inbound Marketing kicks in and helps you define your offering.

You’ll also find a lot more interest, buy-in, and candor because it’s a discussion and not a sales pitch. This contributes to users pre-paying for a solution on the way or purchasing an incomplete product because they believe in you.

The life of any startup can be divided into two parts – before product/market fit and after product/market fit. – Marc Andreessen

The hardest question every startup founder has to ask themselves is: am I solving a real problem that people care about?

Attract Early Customers Without Ads

One thing that ads do very well is give you an influx of data. This data can be helpful as long as you have clearly defined goals and a well thought out plan of how these paid strategies will accomplish them.

One of the biggest problems with acquiring your early customers via Outbound Marketing (i.e., ads) is that you’re relying on things going your way. You need content relevance, timing, audience targeting, interest level, product offering, landing page design, and more.

That begs the question: how memorable is your solution? Once you turn your ads off, they stop being shown to your audience, which means no more traffic and no more data.

With a focused effort on Inbound Marketing, you can validate your hypothesis by connecting with your audience through high-quality content.

How Inbound Marketing Works

The first step in inbound marketing is research. This is not a gut feeling; it should be documented and organized into a spreadsheet.

Create your buyer personas, research the competition, define your value propositions, and list your marketing channels. Listing out your marketing channels is often overlooked and a key piece to the success of your inbound strategy. These are areas where you can directly connect with your users, so the more you have, the broader your reach will be.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve deleted Facebook, hate podcasts, won’t go in front of a camera, or don’t know how Slack channels work. If your users are there, then it’s a potential marketing channel.

By ignoring a potential marketing channel, whether you like it or not, you are ignoring a potential customer segment and leaving the door wide open for a competitor.

Inbound Marketing Framework

One key note with Inbound Marketing is that users rarely convert after reading your first blog post. In today’s world, it’s common to have 5-7 touchpoints with prospects before they become customers.

Inbound Marketing’s value is not in the short-term sale. It’s about building familiarity and a future relationship with your customers.

Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s)

Before creating any content, think about what problems the users have, broadly speaking. They are trying to generate more leads, sell more widgets, communicate their value, connect with a community, improve their bounce rate… you name it! Your customers have 100+ problems whether they are aware of them or not.

Here’s what to measure in the beginning:

  • Velocity – How many pieces of content are you able to publish every day/week/month? Remember, if your content is stuck on Google Drive, it’s not providing any value.
  • Time – How long is it taking you to create content? Record everything! It’s impossible to spend all your time on Quora, LinkedIn, and other sites while managing the other parts of your business.
  • Page Views – This is an indicator of two things: How well did you promote your blog and the quality and shareability of your piece.
  • Time on Site – How captivating was the content? Were people skimming through the highlights, digging into the details, or clicking on something in their news feed?
  • Bounce Rate – How relevant is your content to your audience and your product offering? Does it leave them wanting more? Did they check out your homepage or subscribe to your newsletter?
  • Conversations + Comments – How engaging was your content? Remember, think of your content as a conversation. When you go back into those convos and drop your content, what’s the response? Can users relate to your topic? Was it white noise?

Getting Started

Now that we’ve got our plan in place, let’s look at how to actually execute the tasks.

  • Search + Engage – Look at your marketing channels and start engaging. Research common topics, dig through the comments and inject yourself in the conversation. Start commenting and responding to other’s posts and then post your own questions.
  • Be authentic – Don’t write for the search engines, write for the user. Google’s primary job is to provide the most relevant content to their users (based on 200+ signals) and most are meant to resemble human behavior.
  • Validate – Perform the PMF. Before writing this blog, I tested this idea in person with about 15 people, posted in 4 slack channels, 5 facebook groups, our company slack, and my personal social media. All of this was done before deciding to write this blog. Validate your content before you spend your time creating it.
    • If your topic gets a negative response, that’s a great outcome too! Imagine if you spent all that time creating your piece only to find out after the fact that no one cares about it.
  • Create – One of my favorite quotes from Ernest Hemingway is, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” To be honest, I wrote 1,000+ words for this post before scrapping it and starting over (in the middle seat of a Southwest flight).

How I validate content

  • Grammarly’s free writing app catches any grammatical or spelling mistakes.
  • Hemingway helps makes your writing clear.
  • CoSchedule has an awesome tool to write great headlines
  • Ahrefs gives you tools to better understand how your competitors are ranking and where the opportunities are for you to succeed!

Lastly, have a core group that you can rely on for peer reviews and honest feedback. If you don’t have anyone in your corner. Find someone, anyone!

Go back to all of your family/friends who’ve promised you, ‘Hey, if you ever need anything, just ask.’

Slack Community Feedback

Online communities give you much more honest feedback

Promote It

One of the most common pitfalls for content creators is not promoting enough.

Publishing your blog to your website won’t get it done. Period.

You’re serving up a meal over here and if you think people are going to get good smells and whiffs from down the street, you’re fooling yourself.

Now, your job is to go back to the channels where you validated the topic and inject your piece into the conversation.

This only works if you Search, Engage, and Validate first. If you drop a blog post into a comment thread where no one has heard of you, you have no credibility or relevance to the discussion and will be ignored or worse, flagged.

Google has built a reputation on providing us with great search results, and they will protect their reputation at any cost. They protect us (the public) by not letting anyone cheat their way to Page 1 so it’s on you to promote it and drive traffic back to your website.

Measure It

After you have created some content and built a few connections, head back to Google Analytics and review each Key Performance Indicator (KPI). Depending upon how much traffic you’re able to drive back to your site, you may or may not have enough data to draw real conclusions.

Pro Tip – Update your content based on feedback from the larger audience. Ask for feedback or things you may have missed. You can always go back and change the title, excerpt, blog content, etc. Just be careful about changing the URL because if anyone’s linking to your post, you’ll want to be sure future users find your post and not a broken link or page not found (404) error.

Remembering that it will take 5-7 touchpoints before someone converts; how many times have you engaged with your customers?

Final Thoughts

I find it interesting how quotes you hear as a child become more relevant as you get older. ‘If it were easy, everyone would do it!’ Looking at the stats, running a business is hard work – and that’s what Inbound Marketing is. Hard work.

The companies winning today know their customers through and through and have built a relationship with them over time. Every company has to start somewhere so I ask you, ‘Do You Know What Your Customers Really Want?’

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