Inbound Marketing Strategy for Startups: 2020 Guide
by Mike Khorev
Starting a new startup is certainly a challenging task, and arguably the biggest challenge at the beginning is how we can get our brand known by our target audience – building awareness. This is why implementing inbound marketing as early as possible is very important.
Instead of pushing our message to the customer like in traditional marketing (or outbound marketing), inbound marketing focuses on attracting our target audience to come to us. The idea is, since your audience is already attracted to what you are offering, the conversion rate would be higher.
In this guide, we will discuss how we can implement an inbound marketing strategy for your startup in 2020, but so that we are on the same page, let us first discuss the concept of inbound marketing.
What Actually Is Inbound Marketing?
Inbound marketing was a marketing jargon first coined by HubSpot back in 2006. However, it didn’t really gain popularity until around 2012. Since then, however, inbound marketing has become one of the most important buzzwords in the last decade’s digital marketing.
So, what actually is inbound marketing?
We have briefly discussed that the main idea of inbound marketing is about attracting our target customers inwards. So, what exactly are we going to use to attract these customers?
As you might have guessed, the answer is content. Inbound marketing is essentially about putting valuable, relevant content out there so our target audience can find it.
The most common case in inbound marketing is when the target audience is looking for information or solution for a specific problem on Google and then click on a search result to consume the content. Now, this particular audience is aware that a certain brand/blog has information they are currently seeking and at the same time might learn about the product it is selling, the brand, and so on.
According to HubSpot’s initial concept of inbound marketing, we can generally divide the strategy into four different stages:
- Attract: attracting strangers to visit your website or platform. As discussed, this is mainly done through content marketing and SEO, but we can also use other channels like social media, influencer marketing, and so on.
- Convert: converting strangers into prospects/leads, mainly by offering something in exchange for their contact information.
- Close: nurturing prospects/leads until they are ready to purchase your product or service. This is mainly done via email marketing/newsletter, but also via other channels like social media marketing and even content marketing
- Delight: reminding existing customers about your business and maintaining healthy relationships so they become loyal customers and advocates for your business.
Why Inbound Marketing for Startups?
The thing about inbound marketing is that the output might be less tangible compared to a traditional advertising campaign. Content marketing can take a long time before you can see significant results. On the other hand, many startups tend to desire tangible, quick results to grow the business quickly.
Still, there are some key benefits of inbound marketing for startups, and so it’s best for startups to start investing in the inbound marketing efforts as early as possible.
One of the key challenges in any startups is limited capital, which often translates into a limited marketing budget. On the other hand, mass outbound marketing like advertising is not only expensive but has become highly ineffective in today’s digital marketing age.
This is where inbound marketing can be a cost-effective solution. As discussed, the cores of inbound marketing are content marketing and SEO, and both of them can be very affordable and even totally free if you do everything yourself.
By investing in inbound marketing, startups can quickly achieve growth with its limited marketing budget.
- Inbound marketing helps build the credibility of your brand
One of the biggest challenges of building a startup is that nobody knows you, and so it’s obviously harder for startups to attract new prospects and customers.
At the center of inbound marketing is the consistent publication of relevant, high-quality content, and content is now the best way for us to establish credibility as the thought leader/expert of the industry.
When done properly, inbound marketing can be a great way for startups to leverage social proof, convincing people to purchase from us.
- Sustainable results
The objective of inbound marketing is to build sustainable connections with your customers.
Once, for example, a blog post is ranked on the first page of Google’s SERP, it can generate organic traffic for months or even years even after you’ve stopped spending on it. Compare this to traditional advertising, where you won’t get any impact when you stop placing the ad.
Again, this will be related to the cost-efficiency and ROI of your marketing process. Once you can provide high-quality, relevant content for your potential audience, everything else becomes easier.
- High-quality traffic and prospects
While a core part of inbound marketing is about creating awareness, there is another important advantage of inbound marketing: it is designed to attract the right kind of traffic and prospects that are the right fit for your business.
The precise targeting is a key benefit of inbound marketing over the traditional marketing channels, and by ensuring you get highly-relevant, qualified leads, we can also improve the cost-efficiency and ROI of the inbound marketing campaigns.
- Two-way communications
In today’s world of social media, inbound marketing is not only about getting our content found by the audience. However, at the same time, we can listen to their conversations on social media.
As a result of this, we can use inbound marketing to gather insights about our target audience and improve our future marketing efforts using these insights. Inbound marketing can be a valuable source of data so we can improve our products and services in the future.
Comprehensive Inbound Marketing Strategy for Startups: Step-By-Step
Now that we’ve learned about the initial concept of inbound marketing and its benefits for startups, here we will discuss how we can develop an inbound marketing strategy for startups.
While there are a lot of different ways to execute your inbound marketing, having a clear strategy in place will significantly help, especially since inbound marketing is a long-term game.
As discussed above, there are four different stages of the inbound marketing strategy:
- Attracting visitors to visit your content
- Converting strangers into leads/prospects
- Closing leads into paying customers
- Delighting existing customers into advocates
Our step-by-step inbound marketing strategy below would also be based on these four different stages. So, let us begin with the first one.
Step 1: Defining Your Inbound Marketing Objective
The most basic and arguably the most important step in creating an inbound marketing strategy is defining your goal(s).
While in most cases, the obvious objective of inbound marketing is to attract visitors to our website/platform, it’s best to think ahead of what exactly are you expecting out of the inbound marketing campaign.
In general, your inbound marketing objective should mirror your overall business’s objective. For example, if your business goal is to grow your revenue by 20%, then this can translate to a 100% increase in lead generation from inbound marketing (with a rough estimation of a 20% conversion rate).
Your inbound marketing objectives should be SMART goals:
- Specific: it has to be clear and targeting only a specific area to improve
- Measurable: we can assign KPIs and we should be able to measure the progress via metrics
- Assignable: we can specify who is responsible for achieving this goal
- Realistic: attainable. Having a realistic goal is very important in maintaining your team’s morale. If you have a big goal, you can divide it into smaller, more attainable milestones.
- Time-related: you can set a deadline for each objective and measure the progress
You should be able to measure the progress of your inbound marketing campaign based on this objective, and it’s important to frequently analyze the results of your inbound efforts through these KPIs.
Here are some examples of clear and measurable inbound marketing objectives:
- Generating 1,000 new leads within 3 months
- Improving conversion rate by 30% within a year
- Reducing churn by 20% within a year
Define your lead generation objectives as clearly as possible, and we’ll use them as the foundation for the following steps.
Step 2: Defining Your Target Audience
A very important part of your inbound marketing strategy is to define your target audience.
Step 3: Plan How To Attract Your Audience
This step is related to the first stage of inbound marketing: attract. This is about how we are going to attract potential prospects to our platforms (mainly website) and build awareness.
In general, there are three core channels to focus on in this strategy: content marketing, SEO, and social media, but in this step, we will mainly focus on planning how we will attract visitors with these three channels.
Since SEO will be our main ways of how people can find our content, then all of our content creation should begin with proper keyword research. It’s very important to find out how your target audience is searching for content so we can properly target the right opportunities.
There are three key principles in finding our target keywords:
- The target keyword should be relevant to our target audience. This is mainly measured via monthly search volume. We should target keywords with high enough search volume.
- The target keywords should be relevant for your business. Not all keywords that are popular for your audience would be relevant for your business. For example, if you are targeting people between the age of 18 to 25, then keywords related to ‘Netflix’ might be popular, but they might not be relevant for your business.
- Depending on your budget and timeline, the competition for these target keywords must be manageable. Even if the target keyword is very popular, you shouldn’t pursue it if the competition is too heavy for your current condition.
Make a list of your target keywords, and set your priorities depending on these three factors above.
Based on the keyword research we’ve performed above, we can design an editorial calendar as a foundation of our content marketing plan.
The editorial calendar should include:
- What the content is: target keyword, topic idea, rough draft, etc.
- Where the content will be published: which platforms you are going to publish the content and with which type
- When the content will be published: the timeline when you’re going to publish the content
Also, in developing your content calendar, here are the important factors to consider:
- How frequently are you going to publish your content? Decide on how often you are going to publish your content: daily, once a week, three times a week, etc. Deciding on this factor would help in how you will design your content calendar.
- How many people will use this calendar? If you have more than one team member working on your content, then you should use a platform that allows multiple people to collaborate and brainstorm on the platform. This is especially important if some/all of your team members are working remotely.
- The types of content you are going to upload. Decide whether you are going to focus on only one type of content (i.e. a blog post) or on several different types of content (i.e. videos, podcasts, etc. )
- The process of content development. Define the different stages your content goes through before it’s published, including required approval process within your startup. You should accommodate your calendar so it can differentiate between two similar projects that are in different process stages.
Last but not least, choose the right platform and/or format that you will use to create your calendar. You can use basic Excel (or Google Sheets) for this purpose, but you can also use platforms like Trello or CoSchedule if you want collaboration features.
Planning Your SEO Implementation
Implementing SEO for startups would cover two different aspects:
- On-site SEO: SEO optimizations performed on your site, which can be further divided into two:
- Non-technical: keyword optimization and all other optimizations related to the content (layout, word count, etc.)
- Technical: optimizing the technical factors of your site including but not limited to site speed, mobile responsiveness, META description, etc.
- Off-site SEO: especially about generating backlinks to the content but would also include maintaining social media presence, responding to reviews, etc.
SEO optimization can be a pretty deep subject and you can check with Mike Khorev if you are looking for startup SEO agency or services. However, here are some important things to consider when implementing SEO for inbound marketing:
- Content quality remains the most important factor of SEO success. If your content is high-quality and relevant, sooner or later you are going to get those valuable backlinks, and as a result, it will boost your SERP ranking. On the other hand, no amount of strategies can help low-quality content to rank higher.
- Backlinks remain the most important ranking factor in SEO. However, it’s important to note that the quality of the backlinks is now more important than quantity. Obviously, however, getting high-quality backlinks from famous, authoritative sites is easier said than done. However, while there can be countless link-building tactics we can use, in the end, they will boil down to just two:
- Link hook: essentially, giving them a reason to link your content. Include things like
- Unique data or information, for example, research report, user testimonials, etc. Information that only you possess.
- Aesthetically pleasing content like photos or infographics
- Interesting story
- A collection of information (i.e. data roundup, reviews of various products, etc.)
- Relationship: obviously we are more likely to provide links to websites we know. Since we are a fairly new startup, building relationships is very important, since it’s unlikely that others will know us by reputation. Here are what you should do:
- Reach out to them. It can be as simple as sending them an email to introduce yourself
- Join their social media conversation, ask valuable questions, provide valuable answers, etc.
- Again, the best way to get yourself known is to consistently publish high-quality content
3. Optimize the technical SEO factors of your site, as discussed above. Especially focus on three things:
- Site speed: According to Google’s research and other studies, people will bounce from your site if it loads in more than 3 seconds.
- Mobile responsiveness: It’s no secret that Google now prioritizes mobile-friendly sites to rank on its SERP. So, making sure that your website is mobile-responsive or mobile-friendly is very important.
- Indexable: Make sure your website can be properly indexed by Google (and the other search engines), and all the elements on your website are properly recognizable. Again, follow our technical SEO optimization checklist here.
4. Keep your content fresh and up-to-date. Google’s algorithm now prefers newer or at least updated content. So, make sure to set a schedule in your editorial content to update your older content once every year (or if possible, every 6 months). Update older content with newer information, fresh images/infographics, and additional content if necessary.
Social Media Marketing
Social media is simply where our audience is nowadays, so it would only make sense to use social media in our inbound marketing effort to attract our audience. Regardless of who your target audience is, it’s likely that they are spending time on one or more social media platforms.
We can generally divide social media marketing into three different types:
- Organic: that is, growing your own follower and share your message
- Paid: using various paid options offered by the social media platform, like Facebook ads, LinkedIn Lead Gen Ad, etc.
- Influencer: although influencer marketing can be considered as a marketing channel on its own, it is actually a part of social media marketing.
Organic social media efforts are affordable (and can be 100% free), but it will take time before you can grow a substantial amount of followers and have sufficient organic reach. Paid efforts, on the other hand, can guarantee short-term results can be very expensive if you are not careful. Influencer marketing can be midway between the two (although if you work with famous influencers and celebrities, it can also be expensive).
Use social media effectively to promote your content and also to engage your audience.
Step 4: Convert Visitors Into Leads
Now that we’ve successfully attracted the target audience to our platform, the next step is to convert these strangers into prospects/leads.
First, a definition: we can say that a stranger has successfully been converted into a prospect when they’ve provided their contact information (mainly their email address), confirming their interest in our brand–or at least, what we are offering.
In encouraging conversions via inbound marketing, there are three key aspects to focus on:
- Lead magnet: something valuable (perceived as valuable by the user) that we offer for free in exchange for the audience’s contact information. A classic approach is to offer downloadable content (an ebook, white paper, etc.) that is related to your initial content.
- CTA: Call-to-Action, a link or button provided in your content offering the lead magnet. When a user clicks on this CTA, we can show an opt-in form or drive them to a landing page.
- Landing page: a specific page designed to convert users. The page will mainly include the description of your offer (the lead magnet), as attractive as possible, and a form where your potential prospect can submit their contact information.
Attractive Lead Magnet
The key to a successful lead magnet is the offer, or to be more specific, the value of your offer. For your lead magnet to be successful, your audience must perceive that your offer is valuable so they are willing to submit their contact information.
Another important factor to consider is whether the offer is a good fit for your brand. Think about it, if we offer $1,000 for anyone to submit their e-mail address, we can quickly attract a lot of people. Yet, most likely it won’t bring any value for your business.
So, finding the right balance between the value of your offer, the cost (if any), and the relevance to your business is very important. If what you offer isn’t very valuable in the eyes of your audience, then you won’t get too many leads. On the other hand, if what you offer is too valuable, you might attract people that are only interested to the offer itself and not your actual product/service.
You can be as creative as possible with your lead magnet offers, and this list can be a good source for inspiration.
CTA Design and Placement
What and where your CTA is can make or break the lead conversion rate.
The purpose of your CTA is very simple: tell your audience about your lead magnet or to direct them somewhere else (your landing page). It can be a hyperlink with an engaging copy or a designed button, but the purpose remains the same.
Here are some tips in creating a high-converting CTA:
- Make them as obvious as possible
You want your audience to notice your CTA, so make them as visible as possible without disrupting the user experience. Yes, everybody hates those pop-up, screen-blocking CTAs, but hiding your CTAs below the fold won’t help your conversion rate either.
Again, finding the right balance is very important: it should be higher on the page but not too high, and it should be stand out enough.
Also, make sure that the message of the CTA is clear. Be straight and to the point with an attractive message. If you are going to use a button, make sure it’s also well-placed and eye-catching.
- Easy to understand
Don’t use confusing or too technical jargon, and use languages that they can easily understand. A good approach is to target the problem your audience is trying to solve and communicate that you can provide a solution. For example, “are you ready to lose 20lbs in a week? Click here”. As usual, don’t forget that it should be as attractive as possible.
- Command the action
Remember that the CTAs are designed to gently push visitors towards the next action. So, gently command them to take this action whether it’s “click”, “buy”, “subscribe”, ”download”, and others. Use active verbs and an exclamation mark if you can.
- Be consistent
If you repeat your CTAs (you should, as many times as it’s appropriate), make sure to be consistent in your messages. Also, if you use a button, be consistent with your designs.
- Create a sense of urgency
A very effective approach is to leverage on your audience’s fear of missing out (FOMO). Use words like “for a limited time only” or use a counter showing that only a limited number of offers is left.
- Keep it short
As a general rule of thumb, your CTA shouldn’t be more than 120 characters in length (around 90 characters is ideal). Again, our goal is to be as clear as possible in this limited number of characters. Be straight and to the point, and be as attractive as possible.
Conversion-optimized Landing Page
Landing page optimization can be a very deep subject on its own, and the goal is to optimize every element on the landing page to improve conversion rate using data and evidence.
However, here are some best practices to follow:
- Make your offer clear
Use all the principles of optimizing a CTA above on your landing page. The goal is to communicate your offer as clear as possible and focus on how the customer can understand its benefits and experience positive emotions.
- Less is more
On a landing page, ensuring it is as simple as possible, and getting rid of as many visual clutters as possible is very important. Your audience should focus on your offer (the CTA), and the benefits they will get.
Use contrast effectively to emphasize your message. A common practice is to use a contrasting, attractive color for your CTA button so it stands out. Also, use negative space effectively between your elements and emphasize your logo and CTA.
- Make it as easy as possible
It’s already difficult enough to convince them to convert, so don’t add to the difficulty. Make the conversion process as easy as possible. If you use an opt-in form, include as few fields as possible. Also, make sure your landing page is mobile-responsive and loads quickly.
- Make it easy to find you
Provide contact information in various different ways (but don’t add to the clutter). You can include a link to the help center or put your email address on the landing page so they’ll know where to find you. This can help create a sense of trust, which can help with the conversion rate.
Step 5: Closing Leads Into Customers
This one is about how we can nurture the qualified leads until they are ready to purchase, and finally give them that little push so they convert into customers.
The most common (and effective approach) to launch a lead nurturing campaign via automated email marketing. We’ve successfully captured the audience’s contact information, and in this step, we are going to leverage it via a process we call drip marketing.
Identifying lead lifecycle stages
Creating lead lifecycle stages according to the prospect’s position in the funnel/buyer’s journey can significantly help us in preparing a lead nurturing campaign. While the stages might vary depending on your product’s sales cycle, here are the common lifecycle stages you can use as a template:
- Unknown lead: a website visitor that has visited your site more than once and has been tracked by your solution (i.e. cookies) but they haven’t provided their contact information
- Known lead: pretty self-explanatory, someone who has given their email address but hasn’t yet engaged much with your brand
- Marketing-qualified lead (MQL): a prospect who has engaged enough (i.e. consumed several pieces of content, browsed the product pages several times, etc. )
- Sales-qualified lead (SQL): a prospect who has been validated by your sales time and is determined as very likely to buy the prospect. Ready to be approached by your salesperson and discuss their options.
- Customer: a prospect who has been converted into a new customer
The idea of using drip marketing/automated email marketing to nurture leads is to send a continuous stream of email messages to the prospect based on their actions and/or their position in the buyer’s journey.
For example, when they just abandoned a cart, we can send an email about the product they’ve just abandoned to remind them and convince them to purchase.
The idea is, if we can send the right message, to the right people, at the right time, it can slowly but surely improve the chance of conversions.
So, there are two key aspects of an effective drip marketing in lead nurturing: personalization and automation.
- Personalization: not only about using the recipient’s first name in the subject line, but to actually send the right email address based on the actions they are doing
- Automation: using a marketing automation solution to schedule your emails automatically and/or to automatically send an email based on the triggered action
A key consideration in this lead nurturing stage is to ensure your sales and marketing teams can work hand-in-hand with the same objective: converting sales-qualified leads into actual customers.
The basic principle is about information sharing: the marketing team (who has previously interacted with the prospect) should provide the information about the prospect to the sales team, so the sales team is now better equipped for the sales call.
A proper CRM software can significantly help in this aspect, so both marketing and sales can easily input and share data of different prospects/leads.
Step 6: Delighting and Retaining Customers
The last stage of the inbound marketing campaign is where we delight existing customers, turning them into advocates.
Converting customers into advocates that essentially promote your brand/product/service for free is the ultimate goal of inbound marketing, and the key here is relationships.
The best possible advocates of your product/service that will potentially generate a lot of referrals are those with actual experience and are happy with what you offer. In this stage, inbound marketing should focus on campaigns like implementing loyalty/referral programs, post-purchase support, further product education, and drip/email marketing that is focused on maximizing retention.
Although we are already in the last stage of the inbound marketing process, content marketing is still the core strategy.
The idea here is to segment existing customers into their own list and then we can implement drip marketing to push content pieces that are focused on continued education. We can also pursue cross-sell and upsell opportunities, for example by offering additional products that might cover the needs they may have.
However, focus on education/information in how they should maximize the benefit of the purchased product/service. Treat this as an ongoing post-purchase customer service to delight this customer. Remember that you have two focus: maximizing retention and converting them into advocates.
You should still send a segmented email newsletter to encourage repeat purchase, push upsell/cross-sell opportunities, or simply to provide information related to the product/service or your niche in general.
Maintain your position as the thought-leader of your niche, so you remain their first option if they need to make another purchase. Doing this effectively can also remind them every now and then to recommend your product/service to their peers, simply because they are happy with your content.
A loyalty program can be a cost-effective campaign to minimize churn. Depending on your product or service, you can implement a referral program that rewards customers that refer your product to others.
The secret to a successful referral marketing is your incentive: offering something too valuable, and you might generate low-quality referrals that are not a good fit for your business. Offering too little of value, and you might not generate any interest. Finding the right balance is very important.
End Words: Evaluation and Re-Optimization
Since inbound marketing is a long-term game, always monitoring your progress based on the inbound marketing objectives and KPIs is very important. You should especially focus on lowering lead acquisition and customer acquisition costs.
You can do this by monitoring the whole aspects of your website traffic thoroughly: keyword ranking, click-through rate, organic traffic, conversion rate, and other metrics while also considering your overall online presence (social media engagements, etc.)
Keep track of your inbound marketing objectives, and your startup business goals in general. While implementing an inbound marketing strategy can take a significant amount of time at first even if your work with a startup marketing consultant, it will also provide a long-term, sustainable result.
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