Attracting customers early on in your startup can be a challenge. You might spend hours reading about different customer acquisition strategies, marketing techniques, and sales tactics just to end up overwhelmed. Luckily, there are some simple, actionable steps you can take right now to get new customers to your business.
Let’s look at 5 actions you can take today to get to your first 100 customers in the door, plus a few long-term strategies you can implement to continue growing your customer base for the future.
1. Use your network
Don’t underestimate the power of leveraging the people you know — friends, family, coworkers, professional connections from past jobs or academic endeavors, mentors, acquaintances — to get customers. The advantage you have with those in your network is that, to some extent, they already know and trust you. They’re more likely to pay attention when you share news of your product launch, and check out your endeavor themselves and share it with others.
Here are some of the ways using your network might look:
Reach out directly. Email or call some of the people you think might be most interested in hearing and/or spreading the word about what your startup does.
Identify and tap influencers or experts in your network to see if they’ll give you a few minutes of their time to hear about your product, and potentially share it with their followers.
Work with contacts who have startups or businesses in the same field (which complement not compete with your product) to find ways to get your products in front of their customers.
Demo your product for a dozen or two people you know in one place.
Share updates and information about your product via social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.). Don’t be spammy and post a dozen times a day, but do what you can to get the news out in front of those you connect with on those platforms.
When you’re using your network, remember the rule of reciprocity and that communication is a two-way street. Be authentic and genuine, taking an interest in what the person on the other end is doing and seeing whether there are ways you can help each other.
2. Blog / Do (Selective) Content Marketing
Content marketing is an important strategy for a large percentage of today’s businesses. According to Inc. “Providing quality content for free is a fantastic way not only to draw people to your website but to demonstrate your domain expertise.” A word of caution, though: You can spend a considerable chunk of your day updating your blog and trying to promote it. Don’t. Remember that your blog is not your business, so don’t lose focus on what you’re actually trying to make or do.
Be selective about how, when, and what you post.
Here are a few tips:
Only create content that speaks to your expertise in something, or discusses something relating to your product. Say you have an app aimed at helping people reach better work-life balance, some of the things you could blog about are how you make work-life balance happen, what programs your startup implements to support that for your team, recent studies about work-life balance, and recent news articles about the dangers of overworking. In other words, you want to talk about what’s relevant to what your business does, because that’s what’s going to be relevant to your customers.
Repost and share your blog posts on Medium and LinkedIn to reach a wider audience. You should have your own blog, hosted on your site, in order to drive traffic and improve SEO. However, in order to give your content even more exposure, share it on sites that already have a huge built-in visitorship. Medium has millions of users who might find your content and as a result get interested in your offering. With LinkedIn, you are (as above) leveraging the power of your network, and you’re also positioning yourself as an expert on a professional platform. Just remember to mention that the post first appeared on your blog and provide a link, so that traffic can find a way back to your site, and to adhere to each platform’s publication rules.
Keep your blog focused. It’s not a repository for daily musings and random observations. Only blog when you have something to say.
3. Participate in Online Communities like Quora and Reddit
In addition to content marketing, another great way to position yourself as an expert worth listening to, and get your product out there, is to join sites where people have discussions on various topics.
Quora, for instance, is a community built around asking and answering questions. Create an account and make sure that your profile mentions your business/product and links back to your site. You can then use their “Answer” feature to find questions that target customers might be asking about something adjacent to your product and respond. Don’t respond by saying “try my product” or something equally sales-y; respond earnestly and (if it’s appropriate) mention your product in a way that reinforces your expertise by association. For instance, say you’ve created an anti-snoring pillow and you find a question about what causes snoring. You shouldn’t respond by throwing in something like “Stop snoring today with my revolutionary new pillow!”. But you can say something like “In the months I spent researching the origins of snoring in order to develop an anti-snoring pillow, I learned that the most common causes are…”
Reddit is a similar site, where users engage in discussions. Topics run the gamut and there is likely a community around just about every interest. Here, also, you don’t want to be too sales-y. Engage in discussions on forums that center around topics that are meaningful to what your startup does.
4. Fish on Twitter
Twitter is another social platform you can use to attract new customers. It’s also something that, like blogging, can eat up a lot of your time if you let it. For that reason, it’s important to be strategic and focused in your approach.
One of the best things to do is to follow hashtags and keywords that are relevant to your startup. The easiest way to do this is using an application like Tweetdeck (which is owned by Twitter, and free) to keep set up searches and alerts for when those words or phrases come up.
Using the example of the work-life balance app again, you would follow the hashtag “#worklifebalance” and keyphrase “work life balance”, but also “#overworked” or “allwork” or “#notime”, or similar. You can set your preferences in Tweetdeck to notify you whenever someone includes one of the words or phrases you mentioned in a tweet, then tweet back at them. Make sure you engage genuinely. You can mention your app, but be human about it and don’t go in blazing with the sales pitch.
You can also search Twitter bios for those important keywords and hashtags, then create a list of people whose profiles mention a given keyword so that you can interact with each one. Or simply follow them.
When it comes to tweeting, don’t make most of your tweets sales pitches. Of course your product/company should be front-and-center in the bio, and even the cover image. But only every 4th or 5th tweet or less (depending on how much you tweet) should be a direct attempt to sell the product. Tweet high-quality content that relates to the field of your startup and allows you to establish credibility so that you attract people with the right interests to your account and, hopefully, your company.
5. Cold Emailing, Calling, Messaging
Probably the scariest of the five actions so far is the idea of emailing or calling up strangers to talk about your innovation. This is a tactic that might work better if your product is B2B rather than B2C, as many consumers are on Do Not Call registries and likely also receive many ads in their emails. Simply put, it may be harder to get visibility in the B2C market doing cold sales.
Regardless of who you’re targeting, remember to ensure that you get good lists. You can often purchase these, or have someone internally gather them for you. Emailing will be easier and less time consuming than calling, since you can create an email template and just plug in each recipient’s details into the individual emails, or use a mailmerge to create these semi-custom emails in mass. Keep in mind, though, that open and click rates in emails tend to be very low, though, since email inboxes tend to get flooded with messages. If you choose the email approach, make sure to test a lot of wording before doing any mass message, and consider using an email marketing automation system like Mailchimp to allow you to track the success of different campaigns.
While calling may take more time, it will yield better results. Since it takes so much more time, ensure you focus this effort on the potential people and partners who are most likely to be of the most value. If you are B2C, this may be potential influencers who have access to marketing to many of your customers, such as speaking to some educators if you are selling to students. Or if you are B2B, recognize that the people within the organization who will use your product versus make decisions on purchasing may not be the same, so consider the order of operations of your discussions.
Keep in mind that you can use this method in conjunction with some of the others above. For example, you could search LinkedIn for people who are in a certain field relevant to what you make and then, if they are not in your network or connected to you in any way, send them a cold message there or via email (if they list it).
Long-term Strategies to Consider
Once you have your first 100 customers (or whatever the equivalent milestone is for your startup, which may be lower if you are B2B or developing partnerships), you can start playing the long game and implement strategies that bring in more customers without as much hands-on daily work. Here are 5 tips:
Set up a referral program
In this instance, you need customers to get customers. But once you have some solid, loyal users or clients, you should incentivize them to spread the word. Whether you give them a discount the next time they shop with you, a credit on their monthly fees, or some other reward, make it worth their while to spread the word about your business. Word of mouth (in all its forms) is still one of the most powerful ways of attracting new business. According to survey results, “77% of consumers are more likely to buy a new product when learning about it from friends or family.”
Do a little PR
Press releases may seem like a thing of the past, but they’re nothing to scoff at. It can still be a worthwhile spend to get word of your major product updates or launches in front of news/media agencies. PR Newswire offers lots of options in that realm, including press release distribution and media targeting (so you reach the bloggers, sites, and publications that are most valuable in your market). Just remember not to issue a release for every little thing (e.g. app updates don’t warrant a news release, but a new app does).
Learn from competitors
Once you have a small customer base, you can start looking at what your competitors do to attract new business. Examine not just what’s working well, but also look at where they’re not hitting the mark so you can gain even more insights about your target customers and create a better strategy for yourself. And definitely pay attention if any of your customers express that they’re leaving you for a competitor, or are tempted to do so. It’s important to figure out where you fit within your market, and distinguish your offering.
Your network isn’t only important when you’re just starting out. The more you expand it as your business grows, the more opportunities you’ll have both for collaboration and customer acquisition down the line. So, pinpoint your local startup scene and get involved. Go to meetups that center around what you make. And consider hosting your own meetup, where you facilitate presentations, discussions — and provide light refreshments — as another way of making more potentially beneficial connections.
Keep your tracking on point
Your efforts and capital spent on customer acquisition may be wasted if you don’t know what’s working and what’s not. Be sure you have good tools and methodology in place for tracking metrics.
Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) — the amount of money it takes to acquire a customer during a particular campaign or span of time — is especially important to track. If you spend $1000 on ads and marketing over the course of a month and acquire 10 customers as a result of those efforts during that time span, then your CAC is $100. You need to measure that against your customer Lifetime Value (LTV - which I’ll discuss shortly) to determine whether your current approach is sustainable. Keep in mind though, that some efforts will be long-tail. That is, you may not see the results within the same period as the spend or immediately after, you may instead be building foundations.
Your customer LTV (lifetime value) is most easily calculated as Avg. Value of a Sale x Number of Repeat Sales/Transactions x Avg Retention Time (months or years the customer sticks with your business). If your work-life balance app costs $2 per month and most customers stick with it for 2 years, then your customer LTV is $2 x 12 x 2, which is $48. In this example, your LTV is less than half your CAC, which is bad business. If, though, the app were $10 a month and users stuck with it for 2 years, you’d be looking at $240 in LTV, which is better, though ideally your LTV should be at least three times (3x) your CAC.
In most types of business, you’ll also need a good CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool to track your customers’ health after you’ve acquired them. Hubspot and Zoho both have popular and well-rated CRMs that are affordable and great for lean startups. CRMs can track customers through the different stages of their lifecycle, from lead to paying customer and beyond.
You also need to keep an eye on your ROI (Return on Investment) to ensure that your business is profitable or heading in that direction.
Strategies with variable results
Finally, let’s look at a few customer acquisition strategies whose results are more unpredictable.
Conferences / Trade Shows: Attending conferences or trade shows where you mingle with potential customers can be useful, but it can also get expensive depending on how many you commit to. Your booth may attract a lot of traffic, but it’s easy for prospects to come by just for the swag and not really give your product a second thought once the conference is over. If you do attend a conference, make sure you’re capturing your prospects’ contact details, plugging them into your CRM and following up. Take good notes about your interactions so you can better personalize your outreach email or call.
Google / Facebook Ads: Online ads are another potentially hit-or-miss strategy. Your success will depend on the quality and positioning of your ads, as well as your target market. A great video ad showcasing your product in action, served up to your target market on Facebook is better than a Google text ad that appears among search results. Just know that you’ll likely have to play around a lot with online advertising before you get it dialed in.
Crowdfunding: One way of both acquiring customers and raising capital is crowdfunding, especially through sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While many companies do build a following and a buzz using crowdfunding, keep in mind that it is not the right solution for every product. You’re more likely to do well on Kickstarter with a revolutionary physical product that you can put into your early buyers’ hands, for example, than with something like a piece of software. So be mindful of whether your offering would be something that could get people excited enough to invest or to buy before it’s been market-tested.
Ensure that you consider the above strategies with respect to your specific customer type and industry. The best strategies will vary, so setup your tracking and be prepared to hear "no" a lot along the way. Keep pushing to get to a core group of engaged customers to learn, get feedback, and iterate to ensure your offering will be ready to scale.