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Content Marketing At Early Stage Startups

Marketing at a startup is really tough.

Most startups have tight budgets, few internal resources, and short timelines to show traction to their investors. Nearly 40% of startups fail because they don’t generate enough traction to make it to their next fundraise, and unfortunately, it’s no longer enough to build something and just hope that people will show up.

While I don’t think content marketing will solve every startup’s growth challenge, there’s a compelling case that it should always be part of your marketing strategy.

It’s typically more affordable than paid advertising (when done right), and it provides many fringe benefits. Content can support paid marketing, sales teams, recruiting efforts, and customer support teams.

Advertising is typically more expensive than content

Almost all of the companies we work with at Draft.dev are early to mid-stage startups. Many come to us because content is a core part of their developer marketing strategy, but they aren’t able to produce enough of it in-house. During initial conversations, my goal is to understand each client’s content strategy so I can figure out where Draft.dev might fit into the picture.

There are essentially three questions that help dictate your content marketing strategy:

  • What’s your go-to-market strategy?
  • What’s your timeline?
  • What resources do you have? Or what’s your budget?

In the remainder of this piece, I’ll go over these questions and some of the ways early stage startups can shape their content strategy based on the answers.

What’s Your Go-To-Market Strategy?

While most early stage startups are testing many marketing channels, it’s critical to understand whether your go-to-market strategy is more sales or marketing focused.

Sales-focused companies will likely use cold prospecting, demo calls, and account executives to close deals while marketing-focused companies will rely on self-service signups, trials, and content to help them attract customers.

That said, content can play an important role in both of these go-to-market strategies. You just need to adjust the kind of content you create accordingly.

Content Marketing for Sales-Focused Startups

Content can be a fantastic form of sales collateral. It can help you close deals, handle objections, and mitigate support requests.

Most sales-driven startups focus on bottom-of-the-funnel content that helps prospects see how they might benefit from their product. Case studies, FAQs, tutorials, comparisons, use cases, integration guides, and webinars are all good examples of the kind of content that can help move prospects down the funnel and facilitate sales.

For example, take a look at LinkPoint’s FAQ page.

LinkPoint’s FAQ page is an example of content marketing in a sales-focused startup

I bet these FAQs are common questions that customers ask during sales calls. LinkPoint realized that it would be easier to head these questions off before the call, but it also gives salespeople a central place to point customers that have a lot of questions or if they want to send resources to other team members.

Content Marketing for Marketing-Focused Startups

Startups who need mass-market reach or want to focus on inbound interest can also use content, but should be more focused on top-of-funnel pieces. The goal here is to raise awareness, introduce the product to the world, and build long-term traffic from Google searches.

Marketing-focused companies need content that has wider appeal. High-level guides, keyword research-driven content, community-driven content, and strong op-eds from the founders are all good examples of this. For our industry (engineering), documentation, demos, and feature lineups are also important pieces of content as buyers won’t be getting on a sales call as often. They need to learn what the product does for themselves.

One of our clients, ContainIQ, has been doing a good job building this sort of top-of-funnel content for their Kubernetes monitoring tool.

ContainIQ is a marketing-focused startup using content

Each piece of content on their site is aimed at exposing engineers learning about Kubernetes to their product. While the call-to-action isn’t strong, they’re building a base of organic search traffic and readers that they’ll be able to build on for years to come.

What’s Your Timeline?

I’ve already hinted at this, but for startups, timing is critical. Most raise enough funding for 12-24 months of operation, planning to raise their next round off the success of the previous one.

Unfortunately, content marketing gets more expensive and riskier the shorter your turnaround.

Short-Term: Showing Results in 3-6 Months

If you need to get significant traffic from content in 3-6 months, you’ll need to put a lot more money behind it.

Assuming you’re new to writing for search engines, you won’t have time to rank highly for any competitive terms, so one way to generate leads and traffic from content quickly is to put advertising behind it. Write a few long-form pieces, put them behind a signup wall, and run ads on Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc. to drive traffic. The cost varies depending on your industry, but you might pay anywhere from $0.10 to $20 per click with signup rates of 0% to 20%.

Another option is to syndicate or publish content to third-party sites that already generate a lot of traffic. Many news and industry publications allow sponsors to publish promotional content for a fee, but you can also try pitching your pieces for organic placement.

Finally, you can attempt to write viral hits. My recommendation would be to have your founders take a strong point of view on something and share it to tons of places (Reddit, Hacker News, newsletters, Facebook groups, Slack channels, Twitter, etc.) in hopes that it might take off.

This option might seem attractive because it requires more time than money, but it’s the least reliable way to generate qualified traffic. It’s basically like playing the lottery, but even if you do get a viral hit, out of millions of readers, very few might actually be in your target market.

Long-Term: Showing Results in 6-24 Months

On the other hand, if you have 6 or more months to prove out your content marketing strategy, you have more low-cost options.

With time on your side, you can invest a week or two on keyword research to find topics with search volume that you could rank for on Google relatively easily. Because you know what the reader was searching for when they arrived at your piece, you can organically introduce your product and help them understand the need it fills.

Most of this content should be placed on your own site and you should build backlinks to it from other sites. This will help your whole site’s visibility in Google as the search engine will start to associate your site with the keywords you target.

Finally, you can invite readers to subscribe to your newsletter or social media channels so that you can encourage repeat visits. My friend Manuel Weiss and I collaborated on a full course on this topic earlier this year, so if you want to dive deeper into content marketing, be sure to check that out.

Attracting traffic on Google is really appealing because once you’ve created a piece, the traffic typically compounds over time. You don’t have to keep paying to promote it, and it quickly becomes a largely passive source of traffic and leads.

How Much Are You Ready to Invest?

The last question every early stage startup should ask is what percentage of their funding will they allocate to marketing, and what percentage of that to content marketing? I am amazed at how many founders get funding but have no idea how they’ll deploy their capital.

Producing high-quality content is not cheap. But, beyond production, you have to promote it, build links to it, and update it periodically to maintain its value. Hiring a full-time team to create content every week is often cost-prohibitive for early stage startups, but managing and editing a team of freelance writers is very time-consuming.

This is why specialized agencies are often appealing. I don’t believe founders should outsource high-level marketing strategy, but hiring a content creation agency can take a lot of the risk and hours off your plate. Just be sure to get a firm that understands your market as you want your content to be authoritative and compelling.

Common Content Marketing Mistakes

If you can answer the above questions, you’re doing much better than many early stage startups when it comes to content marketing. That said, you’re only starting to scratch the surface.

It’s really easy to spend a lot of money and time producing content and then find that nothing is working. The four issues I see most often are:

  • Trying random things instead of acting strategically - It’s easy to fall into this trap, but you need to be intentional. Great marketing should deliver consistent, predictable results.
  • Failure to measure results - With dozens of analytics tools available, there’s no excuse not to monitor the effectiveness of your content marketing. You really just need three metrics to start: visitors, signups, conversions.
  • Not putting enough time or money into content before quitting - I get it, you don’t want to waste money, but like any organic channel, content marketing takes time. I typically recommend 6-12 months.
  • Not promoting content - Finally, if you’re strategically writing great content but letting it languish on your blog with no traffic, you probably need to spend more time or money promoting it. I advocate using a promotional checklist like this to help seed some conversations.

If you’ve got your own tips for marketing at early stage startups, I’m always open to updates and suggestions. Find me on Twitter to pick up the conversation.

Karl Hughes

By Karl Hughes

Karl is a former startup CTO and the founder of Draft.dev. He writes about technical blogging and content management.