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Startup Marketing: Best Practices to Consider in the Time of COVID-19

As marketers and entrepreneurs ditch their quarterly goals and work hour by hour to roll out COVID-19 initiatives and put out fires, new challenges and opportunities constantly arise. The Traction Hero team has been walking this journey with our clients, and we want to share what we see in hopes that this will help you feel supported in your strategy or spark ideas on how you could increase your marketing effectiveness.

This article focuses on how funded, scaling startup marketing leaders are adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how early-stage and pre-launch startups are shifting gears and adjusting budgets. We also see new startups forming quickly and aggressively to help support the crisis and adjust to life after the crisis, and we have a few tips to provide a better chance for success. At the end of this article, we’ve offered some initial thoughts on how marketers can use or adapt their strategies in various marketing channels.

Startup Marketing during COVID-19 and Coronavirus

Funded, Scaling Startups.

Marketing leaders at funded startups positioned to scale as quickly as possible are moving fast to strategize and support business initiatives. The top priorities are:

  • Industry and competitive research. Understanding how your industry is responding to the crisis is critical, and most marketers have been monitoring competitive reactions and initiatives for several weeks, noting when competitors have changed pricing or delivery options, adjusted hours or availability, or rolled out other initiatives to serve their customers better. Once you understand what is happening competitively, you can quickly react to adopt ‘new normal’ procedures or even gain a first-mover advantage with new initiatives of your own. This comes with its challenges - is your first-mover idea a true advantage, or will a competitor enhance your offer?

  • Accessibility and virtual offering. Almost every company that can is shifting to an online offering and putting measures in place to make life easier on customers at every touchpoint in the customer lifecycle. Marketers are rushing to understand every angle of these new offers and features to inform customers, prepare supporting content, and build a campaign around the effort. Messaging is not enough right now. Marketers need to operate knowing what they can offer their audience to help out.

  • Customer service support. As the fallout of the shutdown is financially affecting customers each day, customer service teams are getting swamped with requests for relief of payment or a change in payment terms. This is hitting B2B and B2C startups, and customer service teams are sleep deprived while phone queues are growing longer than ever - potentially impacting cash flow on two fronts. Marketers are working to figure out how to help customer service streamline marketing communications, channels, and messaging, as well as automate the standard responses to take some of the burden off of team members who are inundated with requests. Marketing is often tasked with generating revenue, but during times like these, expert marketing skills can be applied to cost-saving initiatives as well.

  • Creative campaigns and product offerings. This is a time when brands can really engage with customers and help their communities. The trick is understanding the best option to reinforce your brand promise and deliver your campaign in a creative way. Top brands are using humor, sympathy, convenience, and genuine care in their messaging and are not calling out the virus directly. Many brands are adjusting their products and offers in ways that benefit both the company and their customers, like no-contact delivery or deferred monthly payments when a customer signs a longer-term contract. These types of creative approaches help the company land a sale, while the customer gets added value and a growing appreciation of the brand.

  • Executing campaigns quickly. Marketers are figuring out how to create new video ads quickly. Thankfully there is great stock video available. This is the time to write compelling briefs to inform your team of the strategy, timeline, and task assignments. Business is changing by the hour, and many team members may not have a full grasp on new initiatives or policies, which can delay creative work with costly revisions. Strong, informative briefs that include relevant business information allow everyone to be on the same page to develop great creative and execute in the market as quickly as possible.

  • Proactive planning. The current situation has caused havoc for some companies as they are forced to react to changing needs quickly. Systems and procedures that may have worked fine in an office with steady, planned deployment dates are now breaking down when employees are remote and government mandates change operational procedures by the day. Many marketers are taking notes of the challenges they face as they run into technology and process hurdles. They are keeping track of processes that could be improved, software that could be updated or streamlined, or portions of their tech stack that could better integrate to avoid speed bumps that challenge agile marketing communications in the future.

Pre-Launch and Early-Stage Startups.

Entrepreneurs are moving fast to understand new fundraising options, shift budgets, and to evaluate new strategies for launching their startups.

  • Evaluating new fundraising options. Speaking of helpful marketing, Gusto quickly put together a list of COVID-19 Relief Resources for SMBs. This is the most comprehensive list we have seen.

  • Shift your marketing dollars. Most entrepreneurs, especially those gearing up for pre-launch, need to adjust their spending and find scrappier methods to execute marketing. This will ensure a longer ramp for launch. Look at your marketing plan with a critical eye and make sure every dollar counts.

  • Cast a wider net. Entrepreneurs often expect PR to play a major role in their launch efforts and early traction. With the news cycle closely following the virus, this is not a safe bet right now. It’s crucial to cast a wider net and prepare your marketing channels in advance for your launch.

Startup Building in Response to the Crisis.

Serial entrepreneurs, in particular, are seeing new and significant opportunities arise as regulations change in response to the virus. These entrepreneurs are typically well-funded and want to move quickly to be first to market. Here are the first steps we are working on with entrepreneurs who find themselves in this position:

  • Market Research. It is a great time to conduct market research surveys because the world is online. Research lets you quickly gauge interest in an idea and decide if it makes sense to pursue, pivot, or move on to something better.

  • Product Input. We believe that the best products are created with marketing top of mind. Senior marketers know how to build viral distribution, community, and branding into a product. We also know how to launch a concept to get a fair market test. Once market research results are in, product development for an initial market test begins. Make sure to have a marketer at the table for these conversations - particularly when moving fast to take advantage of a new opportunity. A marketer’s eye can spot strengths and opportunities that others may miss.

  • Initial Branding. To get a market test ready, you need the first version of your brand. This includes the brand name, logo, and color palette. The initial branding is essential - it’s your new startup’s first introduction to the world. Make it a good one.

As you work to develop an initial market concept, make sure you prioritize the areas that can have a big impact at launch.

General Thoughts on Marketing Channels in the Time of COVID.

Marketers and startup founders are thinking through marketing channels and instinctively know what to do. Here is a general list of what is happening on various marketing channels.

  • PR. This is not the time to count on significant traction through PR unless you can pull off an incredibly creative campaign that will stand out above the news. You may be able to get attention in your trade publications for an exceptionally innovative approach, but anything beyond that would be incredibly challenging.

  • Social media. While engagement on some social media platforms was decreasing toward the end of last year and in January, the world is all online right now, and many are spending more time than ever on social media platforms. This is a great time to develop influencer strategies and to maximize engagement, growth, and creative campaigns. Your target audience may be social distancing, but they are as connected as ever on social media. Make sure your brand is there.

  • Content. Content is a massive part of a marketer’s plan right now. Teams are grounded and at home, searching for answers online. Customer service channels are backed up, so there is a preference to find solutions ourselves - without interaction. Marketers are focusing on content to support coronavirus initiatives, content to help with lead generation for the sales team, and branded content to increase engagement while everyone is grounded. Having relevant content is key to driving your business forward.

  • Lead Generation. Growth marketers are thinking of smarter ways to get data for lead lists and creating better data filters. Developing whitepapers with email gates, creating branded giveaways, or simply taking a closer look at acquisition funnels and landing pages are some of the tactics we’ve seen marketers pursuing to make sure they keep a consistent pipeline of warm leads.

  • Digital marketing targeting. With many companies asking employees to work from home, brands have had to consider how that impacts their targeting tactics and timelines. Are you a B2B brand sending direct mail to large corporate buildings? Those may be empty right now. What about a B2C startup that sees the bulk of sales in the evening as people browse online after work? That behavior may be different now that people are working out of their living rooms all day. As consumer behavior changes, make sure your marketing and targeting change with it.

  • Event marketing. Community is so vital to everyone right now, and we are all looking for ways to stay connected and informed. Traditional event marketing may be on hold in some states, but consider taking your events virtual with Zoom or live streaming. There are many ways to surprise and delight your customers while they are sitting at home.

  • Swag. If you need any COVID-related swag (branded hand sanitizer, sanitizer wipes, lotions, or floor signage), order it now. These products are back-ordered with suppliers, but there is a waiting list, and inventory will return in May. (Traction Hero can help you with this.)

These are some topline ideas and suggestions to help get you thinking about how your marketing may need to shift or adapt during this time. If you need more support or want to discuss how COVID is impacting your business’s unique situation and needs, Traction Hero is here to help. We provide on-demand hourly marketing services to our funded, scalable startup clients. For our early-stage startups, we offer milestone-based marketing solutions and strategy calls. Feel free to also check out our free reports that cover the ins and outs of martech solutions for email, marketing automation, website development tools, and CRMs. They will save you time in research and help your team work more efficiently and faster.


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