How to choose the right marketing channels for your startup
Part 2 of 3 in Growth Marketing Strategy Series
“Are we are using the right channels?”
“What channels should we try next?”
“We’re only doing paid search. Is that okay?”
“We’re only doing cold outbound. Is that okay?
These are some of the most common questions I get about growth marketing strategy from B2B startups of all sizes. And when I’m asked these questions I typically have to give the worlds most annoying answer: “It depends.”
But that’s the truth, you need to pick channels that will work for your startup specifically.
So, I ask some follow up questions and usually when I dig into gather context it becomes clear: Most startups have fallen into the random acts of marketing (R.A.M.™) trap.
Sure signs you’re doing random acts of marketing when it comes to channel strategy:
Picking channels somewhat randomly off a checklist
Checking the boxes and doing SEO, SEM, and outbound in equal measure because that’s what everyone else is doing, right?
Launching channels, but not having the right “fuel” (content, messaging, creative) to make these channels work
Selecting channels without thinking about funnel coverage & segment coverage
Trying to launch every channel possible, and not leaving enough time to drive impact from any single one
Doing random acts of marketing is the opposite of having a high-impact strategy. So in this newsletter mini-series, I’m covering how to go from zero growth marketing strategy to picking channels and running campaigns that are the perfect fit for your audience, market, stage, creative, and marketing advantages.
As you’re thinking about your plans for next year, remember to avoid the RAM trap. Instead do the necessary planning and strategizing first to prioritize efforts that can actually work for your startup.
This is part 2 of 3 of my growth marketing strategy series
You may remember last month that this was going to be a 2 part series, but I changed my mind. It turns out there’s a lot to say here, so it’s now 3 parts!
Part 1: What drives your growth marketing strategy? - last month’s newsletter. Check it out first.
This newsletter covered all the inputs you need to look at quarterly to lay the foundation for your growth marketing strategy.
Stack ranking the 4 high-level ways to drive growth
Analyzing and understanding the 3 marketing strategy drivers (your inputs)
Identifying and making room for big bets
Part 2: What the best channels for your startup? - this newsletter
How to choose channels that are a fit for your growth marketing strategy
How to determine if a channel is working
Part 3: How to plan and execute campaigns - newsletter in ~2 weeks
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Channel selection & prioritization process
Different channels work for different audiences, for different markets, for different products, for different companies. So, before picking channels you need to design a strategy that fits with your stage business, your audience, your market, your GTM motion, and your marketing advantages. Go back to last month’s newsletter to dive deeper.
Channel selection template
Once, you’ve done the pre-work, it’s time to pick some channels. The below diagram is what you’re striving for in this process. It’s a truncated version—your list of channels will be longer! This particular example of channel selection & prioritization is for a hypothetical vertical SaaS startup, with a hybrid GTM motion and marketing advantages (including a wedge in, an audience that seeks community & content, and a compelling founder story).
If you’re a paid subscriber, there’s a template for all of these steps, linked at the bottom of the newsletter. If you aren’t a paid subscriber, subscribe to get this template.
Here are the steps to select and prioritize channels:
1. Make a list of all possible channels.
Yes, this is me telling you to do something I expressly told you not to do at the top of this newsletter: list out all channels. But, the difference between this process and the one I advised against, is that making the list is step 1 of many, and not the entire process. And this is the easy part because I made a fairly comprehensive list for you already:
2. Add the status of any existing channels
It’s important to know which channels are in test mode, scale mode, and core mode. These statuses represent the level of effort you are putting into each. If you don’t do this, you may focus on the wrong things, end up with way too many channels to mange, or have the wrong success metrics for each channel—since new channels take a while to be as efficient as core channels.
The diagram below works for setting the status for almost all types of marketing activities, from channels to campaigns to content types, but I’m focusing on channels here.
Definition for each stage:
Note: For each of these stages, make sure you have a clear goalpost for when a channel is successful and therefore moves to the next stage.
Up next: As it sounds, channels you that fit with your growth marketing strategy that you’d like to try in the near future.
Testing: Channels you are dipping your toes into. Maybe you’re doing a small test spend on a new paid channel like LinkedIn ads. Maybe you’re doing a test with one partner before building out a whole partner program. Maybe you’re testing using other communities or hosting a series of events before building your own community. Etc.
Scaling: Channels that have shown signs of working through testing, that you are trying to scale up. You’re trying to scale while not losing efficiently or hitting diminishing returns.
Core: Channels that are driving most of your growth today. Typically these channels will be driving 50-80% of your growth.
Big Bets: These are initiatives that you want to double down on—you think these channels could change your growth trajectory. Maybe you knew this channel could be a big bet when you began testing it; maybe you realized it when scaling it. Either way, you want to identify these big bets so you actually focus on them. Make sure you have at least one big bet in the works across all of marketing at all times.
Not working: Some channels don’t work right away. Some channels work for a while and then you start seeing diminishing returns and scale back. Know what you’ve tried; and indicate your hypothesis as to why they failed when you move them to this stage.
Pet peeve when a startup refuses to try something EVER AGAIN because at one point it didn’t work. Lots of things can change that may make a formerly failed channel viable again: from the “fuel” (content messaging, creative) you have available distribute through the channel, the market, the channel itself (changes to algorithms etc), competition, etc. So know what didn’t work, but always detail why the channel “failed” so if something changes you can test it again.
3. Determine if the channel is a fit with your 1st strategy driver: PMM Research
Steps 3-5 all relate to making sure the channel is a fit with your marketing strategy. This is critical to avoid falling into the R.A.M. trap mentioned at the top of this newsletter.
Based on what you’ve learned from product marketing research about your audience, ecosystem, competitors, etc, indicate if this channel is a fit (based on just this research).
The obvious question to ask your audience to determine channels is “how do you find out about new products?” But this isn’t enough. You need to understand as much as possible about their work generally–what do they read, what do they search for, who influences them, what products they love and rely on, etc.
For example, some individuals may work exclusively out of email, while others may rarely check it as part of their job. Or if there’s a trusted product your audience loves, consider co-marketing efforts with them.
A note on segmentation: Depending on your audience and sophistication as a marketing organization, you may have multiple segments. Do this exercise for each segment if that’s the case. Different channels will likely work for different segments.
4. Determine if the channel is a fit with your 2nd strategy driver: GTM Motion
For more on GTM motion and why it’s a strategy driver, check out this newsletter.
Typically, startups determine their purchase process or GTM motion (self-serve, sales-led, or hybrid) based on a business attributes like deal size, total addressable market, time to close, audience, and how teams adopt the product (bottom-up or top-down). These same attributes also tend to dictate the channels that will be most successful for acquiring, nurturing, converting, and expanding customers.
When startups ask me if they should focus on more inbound or more outbound:
With higher pricing, slower times to close, top down adoption, and a sales-led purchase process, you should definitely test outbound. If the opposite is true, test inbound first.
But let me get more specific on how I assess:
I first look at their GTM motion—including how people purchase their product and how the product is adopted internally.
I also look at pricing and time to close.
Then I ask if they can identify all the companies in their total addressable market (TAM) fairly easily (or at least some portion of their TAM, like enterprise target companies).
This combination of factors usually makes it obvious where to focus—of course there are tons of other channel options and lots of ways to do both inbound and outbound, but this helps narrow the list down a bit.
A primarily outbound strategy goes well with sales-led motion:
If you’ve opted for a purely sales-led motion, you are likely going after large contracts.
In this case you typically have a smaller number of companies in your total addressable market, and/or you are starting with a specific vertical. In these cases, you can map the total addressable market. Literally find every potential account and contact and add to your CRM.
It then makes a lot of sense to do outbound and potentially account-based marketing toward these target accounts.
Don’t wait for these accounts to come inbound when you know exactly who they are!
A primarily inbound strategy works best with self-serve motion:
When you have a lower average contract value you need to close a high volume of deals, this lends itself to a self-serve motion and using inbound channels to acquire customers.
If you have a horizontal product that can serve many audiences, self-serve motions make sense so you can see who naturally gravitates to the product and similarly inbound channels make a lot of sense so you can cast a wide net.
5. Determine if the channel is a fit with your 3rd strategy driver: Marketing advantages
Marketing advantages (an MKT1 framework) are dynamics in a company’s DNA, product, or market that inherently drive growth. Think of these as tailwinds or catalysts for growth. Once you identify these, it’s obvious where to focus the bulk of your marketing efforts.
Here’s a diagram that can help »
(my newsletters are always too big to send, so have to link off here unfortunately)
Marketing advantages include: Networks effects or product virality, free plan or trial, wedge into a large market, integrations/co-marketing, channel partnerships & sales, forcing function: trend or regulations, audience seeks community or educational content, founder/market fit & story, and ability to create or own a category.
Once you identify your advantage(s), choose channels to accelerate your advantage(s):
Identify advantages (keeping in mind the points above) and make sure there’s cross-company alignment on these.
Know the category of your advantage. We break advantages into 3 categories, based on where the advantage comes from and the high-level strategies that typically work to accelerate the advantage (your product, your ecosystem, your marketing, or company story)—knowing the category gives you some indication of what types of channels might be best too.
Build a marketing plan & channel strategy to accelerate each advantage
For product-related marketing advantages:
For network effects, product virality, or free plan or trial: You typically lean on product-led growth tactics: in-product marketing, driving referrals and word of mouth, and using inbound (efficiently) to drive as many new qualified accounts as possible. Then use lifecycle marketing channels like email, in-product, and even community to expand these accounts and drive referrals.
For a wedge in, both product and marketing teams are aligned on the starting segments/vertical/use case and are building an experience catered to that wedge. Since you have a knowable audience, you can do highly-targeted outbound and paid.
For ecosystem-related marketing advantages:
This one is more obvious, ecosystem marketing advantages lend themselves to using ecosystem channels.
In other words, piggyback off of the audiences of other people or companies targeting the same audience. You can distribute content through partner, customer, or influencer channels. You can try to rank for SEO terms related to integration partners.
For trends and regulations, you are reacting to forcing functions impacting your market or ecosystem. Piggyback on those trends and regulations with SEO, press, time-based campaigns, etc.
For content & brand-related marketing advantages:
Having one of these advantages means having great fuel—or the potential for great fuel that will resonate with your audience.
Distribute that fuel on channels that align with the fuel itself and distribute, distribute, distribute. Typically this means using SEO, your founder’s social media, your own or existing communities, and even 3rd party publications through press or bylines.
If you aren’t familiar with MKT1’s fuel & engine framework, here’s a refresher: To build a well-oiled marketing machine, you need both fuel & engine, and they need to go together. Fuel represents everything you do to add value to your audience (story, messaging, design) and engine represents everything you do to get the fuel to your audience (distribution, channels, growth levers). More in this newsletter: Building an efficient marketing machine: the fuel & the engine
6. Prioritize based on these inputs & add next steps
Remember: prioritize each channel individually based on these 3 strategy drivers, then do a universal prioritization.
If a channel is a good fit with all 3 drivers, you should probably start using that channel! If it’s only a fit for 2 or stuck between 2 potential channels, evaluate the effort to impact ratio, funnel coverage, and segment coverage to prioritize.
You’re ready to determine not only what to focus on next, but also any channels you should stop putting effort into based on this exercise. Use the same spreadsheet, Asana project, or my template with to update the priority and status of each channel.
7. Set goals and make plans around the channels you plan to focus on
It’s important to run this process before or as you are setting quarterly goals or OKRs. If you need to test a new channel or determine if you should continue to scale and add efficiency to a channel, these should be captured in your goals.
For more on the 4 types of goals I recommend setting: KPI, Project, Experiment, and Ops Goals, check out this newsletter.
How do you know if a channel is working?
I’m going to answer this question with a series of questions. If you are trying to determine if a channel is worth continuing with (no matter if it’s in testing, staging, or core stages) run through these questions.
Do you have the best possible fuel for this specific channel? Have you tried different fuel? If not, you might have a fuel problem more than a channel/engine problem.
Are you using the right audience targeting on this channel? Especially for paid channels, make sure you have precise audience targeting while not limiting volume is key. You may have a product marketing/segmentation problem and not a channel problem. Make sure you’ve experimented with segmentation and targeting before giving up on a channel.
Do you have the right budget or traffic to get statistically significant results?
Did you wait enough time to see results? SEO in particular can take a while.
How are you measuring success? You need to look at the impact on web traffic, leads, qualified leads, pipeline, CAC, and conversion rates through the funnel for each channel. If the channel drives a low volume of high-quality leads, that could mean success. If it drives a high volume of low-quality leads at a high price, that means failure. For more on attribution and analytics check out our newsletter or if you are a paid subscriber access our reporting template at the bottom of this newsletter.
Are you seeing diminishing returns? Are you putting in the same amount of human effort and/or spend and seeing fewer resulting opportunities or closed deals? Diminishing returns happen when you’ve saturated your audience (they are seeing so many ads it’s not working anymore!), when you’ve run out of high-potential keywords, when you’ve over-emailed your audience, etc.
Does this channel fit with your audience, your GTM motion, and your marketing advantages—or are you trying to fit a square peg into a round hole? If this is the case, follow the instructions in this newsletter! And now we’ve come full circle, just as I planned it.
More from MKT1
MKT1 will be back in your inbox covering all things campaign strategy and execution after Thanksgiving for the final part of this 3 newsletter series on growth strategy. Subscribe so you don’t miss it!
Become a paid subscriber to get the channel selection template mentioned here, so you can easily determine if channels are a match for the 3 strategy drivers.
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