Q: Whats the No. 1 priority for a startup? Customers.
Q: Whats the most universal way to attract new customers? Advertising.
Q: Should startups advertise? Probably not.
These three questions represent the thorniest conundrum that entrepreneurs face in customer acquisition. Most startups usually have at least an idea, if not a working prototype or even a completed product. They know their product solves a problem that exists in the marketplace, and they know they can solve it cost-effectively.
The catch is no one else knows about it.
But spending money on ads is not the answer for any startup or small business, at least not at first. Marketing is more than advertising. Its a process. It has rules and steps, and those steps have an order.
The secret to marketing success as a young company isnt one great idea, said Jake Finkelstein, founder of the Durham data-driven marketing agency Method Savvy. Rather, its consistency in doing the fundamentals.
Finkelstein helps startups market their products and services via digital media and focuses on measuring the impact of that marketing on his clients bottom line.
The proper marketing mix will vary depending on the type of business, but the more focus and constraints you can put into the program, the better the results will be, he said. Geographically target if you can. Drive prospects to a website. Utilize a mix of direct response, like pay-per-click advertising, and lead nurturing, such as email marketing or site retargeting. Invest in quality content and thought leadership to drive brand awareness and organic search traffic.
In the digital age, advertising isnt Mad Men, its mad rocket scientist.
But there are more informal ways of reaching new markets.
Tobias Walter, chief operating officer of Durham digital expense tracking startup Shoeboxed, has several methods to test the waters without breaking the bank.
Start with free marketing channels before working on making your marketing scalable, he said. Utilize press as much as possible. Reach out to influential bloggers. Write your own blog, and make your case. Go to other startups, a table at your office park, email your friends and ask them to spread the word.
However, the channels you use to obtain new customers are just a delivery mechanism. Its what you do for those customers that will make your message work.
Most importantly, Walter said, Make your customers happy. The best marketing tool you have is customers who want to tell their friends about you.
Marketing can be full of trial and error. It can be frustrating, especially for startups.
So keep in mind this advice from sales and marketing agency Catfoxtail founder Eric Boggs:
Regardless of where you spend it, your first marketing dollar should be closely tracked and spent with skepticism.
Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer and speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jproco or at joeprocopio.com.