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Marketing on a budget: how small businesses can make every dollar count

When it comes to the early days at a startup, marketing isn’t always the number one priority.

With so much effort involved in getting a business off the ground – and tight budgets – marketing can be seen as an unnecessary expense.

But marketing doesn’t always have to be expensive. In fact, some of the most effective solutions are free.

Speaking with B&TDovetail Head of Marketing Steph Schaffer shared her advice on how early-stage startups can launch effective marketing campaigns, even on a tight budget.

While marketing serves as a great way to get a product or service in front of potential customers, there is no point putting marketing spend behind an idea that isn’t quite right.

“Before you even start marketing a service or product, it is important for early-stage startups to validate their ideas and make sure they have good indicators for product-market fit and a working business model where investments in marketing can be used to democratise a desired solution, rather than push an unwanted product into people’s hands,” she said.

Next, it’s time to start thinking about where you will be most likely to find customers.

“Find channels that are going to get you those critical first customers and the resulting revenue,” Schaffer said.

“For every startup, this will be different. For some, this might mean influencer marketing or partnerships, for others it will mean physically attending local events and Meetups.

“Figure out what works best for your business and has the greatest ROI with the least effort. Leverage existing opportunities that provide direct access to your target audience.”

This is complemented by well-thought-out buyer personas.

“Start building out buyer personas very early on to build a crystal-clear picture of who your customers are,” Schaffer continued.

“Forget what you think and gain user feedback before you start marketing to validate your assumptions around your customers’ drivers, pain points, and needs.”

Other simple marketing hacks for early-stage startups could be SEO analysis, the creation of SEO-rich content, use of Google Analytics and setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-bound) goals, suggested Schaffer.

How about what not to do?

One of the biggest sins for early-stage marketers is blowing out the budget, however small it might be.

“It should go without saying, but the key to marketing in a startup’s first 12 months is to limit your budget (if you have any),” Schaffer said.

“Take advantage of any free opportunities you can get your hands on and leverage your network as much as possible. The most powerful forms of marketing are free, like word of mouth, organic search, and attending community events.”

Do small businesses care about marketing?

As well as working with companies like Afterpay and Bakkt to design and develop digital products, Dovetail also partners with early-stage tech startups to help build out the business.

With this experience at the coalface, Schaffer has seen different startups successfully follow some of these marketing principles.

She points to brands like Koala, Who Gives a Crap, and Thankyou as being particularly smart with marketing activity.

And while there are plenty of great case studies, Schaffer still believes the value of marketing does not get the recognition it maybe deserves in the startup ecosystem.

“As startups and entrepreneurs have become more prevalent over the years with the democratisation of technology and the digitisation of our world, I think this is something that more and more people are becoming aware of,” she said.

“However, I still think it has a long way to go. Most startup founders don’t necessarily have commercial experience, especially if they’ve come from a technical background, so it’s often very difficult for them to get into a marketing mindset and realise the importance of it for acquiring users or customers.

“For this reason, marketing is often pushed down to the bottom of the priority list, when it really should be in the top five. I always recommend bringing in a marketing role as soon as you have the funding to do so, and doing your best to find someone who has a background in startup marketing as it’s an entirely different beast.”

The bottom line for marketing budgets

Schaffer has a simple message to startups unsure about the importance of their marketing activity – get your business out there.

“The value of great marketing cannot be understated. You can develop the best product in the entire world, but if nobody is using it, you might as well not have gone through all of that effort,” she said.

“As most people know, many startups fail within the first 12-24 months, so it’s during this time that things really make it or break it, especially your marketing efforts.

“Once you’ve established product-market fit, aim high, remain steadfast in prioritising activities that produce the highest ROI, and don’t falter on telling a compelling story to the right audience around how your product, service or solution makes your customers’ lives better.”

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