Fundamentals of Startup Marketing: How to Punch Above Your Weight Class

April 6, 2017

Marketing a new software product can be one of the most challenging roles in a SaaS startup—especially when you are defining a new market or trying to displace a commonly-held practice. By its very nature, you are fighting an uphill battle against large incumbents or a major adversity to change, and you are doing so with a tiny marketing budget. You are tasked with showing potential customers and the industry at large that your solution is inevitable and a force to be reckoned with.

This becomes even more difficult—and important to do well—when you’re selling into the enterprise. Below I’ve detailed 10 different tactics to help you compete with an incumbent and punch above your weight class based on my experiences at Salesforce and while building and marketing enterprise cloud startups at High Alpha.

1. Do Something Meaningfully Different

Alex Bard, the CEO of Campaign Monitor and former GM of Salesforce’s Service Cloud visited High Alpha last year and spoke with us a great deal around competing with large incumbents. He noted:

“If there’s a gorilla in your space, what are you going to do that they can’t do? You need to build something meaningfully different when going up against an incumbent—something they aren’t able to do.”

When thinking about your positioning and early marketing programs, determine what will make you “meaningfully different.” When Salesforce was an early-stage startup, their cloud-based multi-tenancy and fundamental new approach to subscription billing was their meaningful differentiator. Oracle and Siebel Systems could not easily disrupt their entire way of doing business to shift to a cloud subscription offering. By throwing out their lead forms, Drift, a sales communications platform, also did something that was “meaningfully different”. Do something that your “gorilla” incumbent either can’t afford or isn’t nimble enough to do.

2. Challenge the Status Quo

As part of your messaging and positioning, you need to tie your product and brand into a larger meta industry narrative. Salesforce has been the king of this ever since the slide below made its debut around 2003, showing the industry transformation over time from mainframes and client/server platforms to cloud software. They still use a version of this slide even today, building beyond the cloud revolution to the social, mobile, IoT, and AI revolutions.

What was more powerful in Salesforce’s early positioning and marketing, though, was how they went about their differentiation as a part of this larger industry narrative. Do you remember Salesforce’s “No Software” logo? Even though Salesforce’s product is technically “software”, the message behind it was a pivotal part of their success that helped them displace the incumbents like Siebel, Oracle, and other on-premise software giants. The logo and mascot were their way of showing the fundamental difference between Salesforce and the current state of the industry that sold software in a box.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Price for Value

Young companies can sometimes be afraid of putting out proposals attached to big figures. Sometimes, though, a potential enterprise customer will evaluate you based on the confidence—and sophistication—of your pricing. You may think that lower prices are a sign of a better deal or higher value, but it may actually make you look inferior. Don’t settle for being average—you should hear some resistance to your pricing. In Harry Beckwith’s book Selling the Invisible, he argues that 15 to 20% of people should resist your pricing.

Pricing doesn’t always fall on the shoulders of the marketer, but if it does for you, don’t be afraid to increase your pricing if your price tag doesn’t equate to the value you’re providing. OpenView recently put together some amazing research on the state of SaaS pricing if you’d like more research and stats on SaaS pricing.

4. Strategically Define Your Competitors

Even if the current state of your software cannot displace a large incumbent fully, you should think strategically about who you associate with as your competitors and rivals. It adds a level of credibility when you’re comparing your product and company to industry gorillas instead of other budding SaaS startups. From day one, Salesforce compared itself constantly to Siebel Systems, Oracle, and SAP. Box even took on Microsoft SharePoint directly—and very publicly—in early 2010 by putting up billboards like the one below.

5. Get on Analysts’ Radar

Even if you don’t fit squarely into a Gartner Magic Quadrant or Forrester Wave report, find a way to get on the relevant analysts’ radars. You most likely don’t need to pay a big agency to manage analyst relations at this stage—just sign up to give Forrester and Gartner free briefings every 6 months to a year to stay on their radar. Analyst firms need to know about emerging and disrupting technologies as badly as you want to be included in that analyst report. Analyst firms don’t ever want to be in a position where a customer asks about an up-and-coming software they’re thinking about purchasing and they don’t have any insight or research to give them. Find industry-specific analyst firms to focus on like SiriusDecisions if your buyer is a sales, marketing, or product leader.

6. Create a Remarkable Onboarding and Customer Experience

Going back to the idea of doing something your competitors can’t do, as a smaller startup, you have the ability to tailor your onboarding experience. Give your customers some of the most personal, remarkable experiences while onboarding or during key milestones like the annual renewal. You should give your customers a white-glove treatment that your competitors aren’t able to provide. This could take the form of handwritten thank you notes, thank you messages on social media, or personalized customer gifts—like memorabilia from a customer’s alma mater. By definition, remarkable experiences are experiences worthy of remark—or experiences your customers will tell others about.

7. Design Everything

When I say design everything, I don’t just mean the aesthetics — you have to holistically look at all the experiences your audiences have with your brand and intentionally structure and “design” them. At High Alpha, we call this Design with a capital “D”.

Is there intentionality and thoughtfulness behind your email newsletter signup process? What is your process for asking a customer to do a case study with you? How do you “launch” a new eBook or content asset?

All of these processes should be designed and thought out with a very specific purpose and end goal in mind. This goes a long way in conveying your sophistication and importance you place on your brand.

I recently heard Justin Zalewski, User Experience Design Lead at Studio Science, put it this way:

“Today’s companies succeed by creating a better customer experience, and they do this by investing in Design — I’m talking about Design as a methodology and not simply making their apps pretty.”

8. Develop a Drumbeat

Your marketing needs a constant drumbeat of activity and momentum—from product launches to press releases. Having a well-defined drumbeat can leave a major impact in the sophistication of your marketing efforts. Get on a regular cadence of strategic press releases, product rollouts, and industry events. Think about what success as a whole looks like and break that down into chapters, pages, sentences, and specific words. You don’t want to be known for crying wolf, so be sure to not overwhelm your audience. I would recommend coordinated activity or a press announcement every 3 to 4 weeks.

A drumbeat strategy, though, isn’t just about constant activity—it’s about making sure your entire team and company can rally behind the key components of your drumbeat, know why they are important, and see how that correlates to the overall direction of the company.

9. Don’t Be a Social Zombie

Coinciding with your drumbeat approach, you shouldn’t have zombie digital accounts. If you’re going to have a blog or link to social accounts from your website, they need to be active to some degree. It’s better to not have a Twitter account at all than to have an inactive, “zombie” account.

10. Dominate Customer Reviews

Your customers can be one of the most influential marketing assets you have. Make your customers successful and let them market your product on your behalf. Ask your customers to leave product reviews on G2 Crowd, Capterra, and other public software review sites. Getting your customers to talk about your brand and product can have a major impact on being able to punch above your weight class.

Marketing Analyst

Drew is a data-driven marketer with a passion for crafting exceptional brand experiences. He currently runs marketing at High Alpha, an Indianapolis-based venture studio, and previously held roles in content marketing and product marketing at ExactTarget and Salesforce. At High Alpha, Drew advises and runs marketing in the early days for the High Alpha Studio portfolio companies, helping them scale to their first $1M in revenue and build world-class marketing teams.