Right now, your startup has one mission.
It isn’t to become the next $1 billion startup. (Though that may come in time).
It isn’t to make a difference in the world. (Though you may make a meaningful impact).
Nor is it to raise your next round of venture capital. (Though your team may need to do so to complete your mission).
Your mission right now, if you choose to accept, is to find a scalable business model.
As a part of finding a scalable business model, you need to tap the right marketing channels. That’s it.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. What works today may not work tomorrow.
Not too long ago, marketers were all raving about:
While specific trends and tactics come-and-go, marketing channels will always be around.
If you want to get more customers, it’s helpful to understand each marketing channel. And not only should you know how a marketing channel works, but why it works.
In this article, I’ll share with you the twelve major marketing channels. I’ll then provide a few case studies and strategies for you to test to grow your business.
Note: The book Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth shaped much of this article. If you want to become better at getting and retaining customers, I recommend reading both.
The goal of marketing is to learn what marketing channels will provide you profitable customers.
To do this, it’s important to track your sales from each marketing campaign. This allows you to estimate your return on investment (ROI) or return on ad spend (ROAS). Once you know your ROI and ROAS, you’ll know if you should continue investing in that marketing channel.
Some marketing channels will be easier to track your ROI or ROAS than others. But you can always estimate your results. Common tracking methods include using unique phone numbers, coupon codes, and UTM links.
However you choose to measure your marketing, it’s critical to understand your core marketing channels. In no particular order...
Business development is often a gray and ambiguous term. Some equate it to sales. Others simply say any partnership is business development.
Here’s how I define business development.
Business development is creating long-term value for your startup by partnering with anyone in your market. This includes other businesses, influencers, and media outlets.
The focus of this channel is on the exchange of value through the partnership. This channel also includes partnerships from influencer marketing and affiliate marketing.
The goal of each partnership is long-term value.
It should not be a one-and-done transaction. Sure, you might get some money from your first co-promotion. But the highest ROI comes from finding new opportunities from the same partnership.
As a result, partnerships often are a slower channel to scale.
The partnership may or may not include paid compensation.
Keep in mind the relationship will change if you pay the other person. Further, there may be certain expectations a person has about the partnership. This expectation may also change by industry.
For example, an influencer is more likely to promote a blog article for free. But I’ve had a few influencers request I pay them to promote my article. The same influencer who was willing to promote an article for free may expect payment for directly promoting your product.
Offering payment when the party does not expect it may be offensive. And in another scenario, it’s a delightful gift.
At the dawn of the Internet, people rallied around old marketing channels with new names:
Then advertising began to move online. Old advertising channels like billboards, newspaper ads, and radio commercials are now a thing of the past.
Or are they outdated?
Believe it or not, according to the OAAA, out-of-home advertising reach a new record high of $8 billion in 2018:
I bet you didn't see that one coming.
Paid advertising has several mediums, which I’ll categorize by offline and online ads. Offline ads include TV ads, radio ads, billboards, magazine ads, newspaper ads, and bus ads.
Online ads are also called pay-per-click (PPC) ads. This includes:
The benefit of paid advertising is if you have an unlimited budget, it’s easier to scale this channel. It’s an excellent channel to test your messaging, get feedback, and iterate quickly.
But as fast as advertising comes, so too it also disappears fast.
There’s a limited window of exposure because ads rent space. Marketing on other channels gives you an asset that stays up as long as you keep them up.
As your ad spend scales, it becomes more expensive and harder to track. In turn, paid ads can also cover up underlying problems.
Andrew Chen, an investor at Andreessen Horowitz, shared how a startup’s paid cost to acquire a customer can be off as much as 2-5 times what it should be. (Source)
Further, you often do not build a relationship with the customer.
As a result, advertising works best for impulse buys or products which offer fast value to the customer.
For SaaS startups, paid ads are often a secondary channel that supports content marketing.
But for eCommerce products, paid advertising is often the first scalable marketing channel. This is because eCommerce will likely sell products which bring delight faster.
 Unfamiliar with SKAGs? Let’s say you wanted to sell Ultimate Frisbee discs. In one ad keyword group, you would use three keywords:
If an unrelated keyword pops up such as “ultimate frisbee rules,” you move it to your negative keyword list. And if a relevant but unrelated term pops up such as “best ultimate frisbee brands,” you can create a new SKAG and send traffic to a new landing page.
Effective marketing is nothing more than salesmanship in ink. While marketing sells on many-to-one, sales specialize in hand-holding customers one-on-one.
Sales is the process of generating leads, qualifying them, and turning them into paying customers.
Now perhaps you’re wondering, “If marketing is effective salesmanship at scale (many-to-one), why should I hire a salesman?”
Contrary to what most SaaS entrepreneurs believe, sales is a primary scalable channel.
First, sales can accelerate the process marketing starts. Without a proper nurture sequence in place, it can be slow moving a prospect down your funnel. A salesman or woman specializes in moving them faster through the funnel.
Second, big customers often need a sales process. When you’re selling a high-end or enterprise product, it’s common to have a salesman giving the customer the red carpet treatment.
While sales will help speed up landing big customers, it’s not without a major cost.
Most suggest hiring at least two sales reps. If they work on a team, one will generate and qualify leads while the other closes them. If you favor competition, you can put the two against each other.
Two full-time salaries are more than what you’d pay for most marketing agencies.
How cheap can your product be and afford to have a sales team?
If you have a repeatable sales model, a sales rep has three limits:
Jason Lemkin of SaaStr, a SaaS founder, enthusiast, & investor offers this advice:
Most inside sales reps can probably close 8-12 deals a month.
Assuming a 20% close rate, that’s 60 demos a month, or 3-a-day.
If the rep needs to make $80,000-$100,000 in OTE (on-target earnings), and you need to clear $300,000 in revenue to make the math work on your side, at 100 closed deals a year, to bring in $300,000 to the company, each deal has to have a $3,000 ACV (annual contract value) on average.
So the straight math says it’s tough to have inside sales reps working on deals under $3,000 ACV or $299/month if there’s monthly churn.
But that’s not all!
If you maximize your current leads and play your cards right, you can bring in a sales rep for a $99/month product.
But, still, we dropped the price point (necessary) for inside sales to $99. And it worked. Why?
I’m not saying you can build a whole inside sales team around a $1,000 ACV or $99 price point. You can’t. The lowest you can probably go on average is $3,000, based on the math above, and that’s if you are hyper-efficient.
If you aren’t, bump that up to a $5k ACV to account for overhead, waste, turn-over, etc.
If you have a question on how to do something, where do you turn for an answer?
More than likely, you will turn to a search engine.
This channel includes traditional search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Most SEO agencies and consultants focus on Google’s search engine because it provides the most traffic.
It also includes popular, but niche search engines like Amazon and YouTube search optimization.
Scaling SEO can be slower than other marketing channels.
The key to getting faster results for SEO comes from mastering three areas:
Keyword research helps you learn how often people search for a phrase. It will also inform how competitive it is to get search traffic from that keyword phrase.
In my article, “No Keywords Easy to Rank For? I Call ‘Bullcrap,’” I outlined a simple process to find high volume, low difficulty keywords. Here’s a quick summary of the process:
When doing keyword research, it’s also important to understand a person’s intent when searching for a phrase. Understanding search intent will inform how long it will take to make a sale.
If someone searches “What is copywriting?” in Google, they are likely looking for basic information. But if that person looks up “copywriting services in Spokane”, they probably want to buy copywriting services from an agency in Spokane.
Next, you’ll want to create in-depth content to answer people's questions and objections on that topic.
To do this, content strategists often source ideas from other content. For example, you could:
Once done, share everything relevant to this topic. Articles on Growth Ramp often are between 1,500 and 3,000 words.
After you’ve created your content, you may need some authoritative links.
Why are links important to improve SEO?
I’ll answer this question with another question.
When you write a research paper, how do you know the information is accurate? You cite your sources. On the web, people cite sources by linking to different pages.
Google’s search engine puts pages with the most relevance to your search higher up. That’s why you want in-depth content. But Google also prioritizes relevant content with more links.
So if an authoritative site like Harvard University or Microsoft cites your article, Google will likely rank it high in their results.
Virality isn’t just when your cat video hits the front page of Reddit or Youtube. It’s about optimizing the time it takes a customer to invite or refer more friends to your product. This is known as a viral loop.
A viral loop happens in three ways:
The more customers who share your product who become customers, the better the viral loop. To measure your viral loop’s effectiveness, you can use a viral coefficient.
David Skok, a venture capitalist at Matrix partners wrote an excellent article on understanding the key variables of viral marketing.
Viral loops are most common in referral systems and network effect products like Facebook and LinkedIn. Network effects occur when there is an increase in value with each new customer using your product.
Virality and network effects are not the same.
Many things can have viral effects without having network effects. Buzzfeed and Upworthy are relentless at improving virality. But that does not mean they have network effects.
And products with network effects don’t always have viral effects. Any of these marketing channels could bring people into the network effect. Facebook used community marketing to get an Ivy League college student to join in its early days. A B2B marketplace might use content marketing to attract their audience.
Unfortunately, while getting free users is valuable, it’s also hard to create viral loops and network effects.
It’s difficult to engineer a viral loop for any product. And virality is even more difficult for SaaS products.
Network effect products must have certain features built into the product to create a network effect. At that point, you need to seed the network.
A network has almost no use when no one uses it. How valuable was the fax machine to the first person who bought it? And even with 100 fax machines, if these users do not send messages to each other, the machines were glorified paperweights.
Viral loops and network effects are valuable. The VC firm NFX argues that 70% of the value in tech comes from network effects. Both viral loops and network effects can bring in free customers. The challenge is getting those customers in the first place.
If you want to learn more about network effects, I’d recommend two resources:
Community building involves building direct relationships with your customers and potential customers. Developing deeper customer relationships can result in increased activation, retention, and referrals.
One challenge of community marketing is not having an existing audience to start your community.
If you don’t have an established audience, you can become a prominent member of another community. Then use relationships you build in other communities to start your community. Forums, Facebook groups, and Reddit communities (called subreddits) are some of the fastest ways to build relationships in your industry.
Building a community is difficult, but the rewards can be massive. Reddit, Wikipedia, and Stack Exchange are startups built on the community they created.
When was the last time you read an article online? How about the last time you heard a podcast? Or perhaps watched a video?
Content marketing spans a wide range of mediums. It includes articles like the one you’re reading to infographics, videos, and podcasts.
When done right, content can help you:
And so much more. Popular venture capitalists like Mark Suster, Paul Graham, and James Currier are well-known because of their blogs.
Further, you always have the content. Once you spend on advertising, that’s it. But you can get customers from content for years to come.
Unfortunately, content marketing often requires knowledge of another channel to become successful. As such, it’s often slower than other acquisition channels. That is unless you have a solid content promotion system in place.
SEO and social media tend to be the two most common ways of getting traffic to your content. Email marketing is also common to get people to become repeat visitors to your content. But you can also create a paid content funnel using ads, an article, and premium content to get an email address.
Email marketing is often declared to have the highest ROI for marketing channels.
Not only can you use it to find new customers, but you can also use it to engage (activation), retain, upsell (revenue), and generate referrals.
Because messages from your company are right beside updates from friends and family, email often feels very personal. When done wrong, the email will also make people feel angry, damage your brand, and decrease future email deliverability rates.
Keep in mind it’s also difficult to get a large enough email list to acquire customers. By itself, email marketing cannot grow unless you have some mechanism for others to share and join your newsletter.
But it is possible to start just by emailing a few interested friends. Newsletters like The Hustle, Startup Digest, and Product Hunt all began as emails sent to friends. Each of these newsletters has several thousands, if not millions, of people.
Typically marketers pair email marketing with SEO or content marketing to build a list.
Do you have a team of engineers? You can leverage their skills by building free tools and products to reach your customers.
This a major competitive advantage because you’re giving something free that your competitors charge for.
Free tools are often easier to market than your paid products. As a result, you can get a ton of inexpensive leads. That said, this approach requires you to market the new tool too.
Some common tools include calculators, WordPress plugins, and educational microsites. You can then collect leads through these tools and get people to buy your product. Sometimes a side project becomes successful enough to be the main product.
Here are some strategies and case studies you can use for engineering as marketing:
From traditional press to PR stunts, the press can help you get customers, improve your social proof, and increase awareness.
What gets a reporter’s attention to want to cover your startup?
Here are four of the most common opportunities:
Does that mean if you’re about to raise a round of financing that you’ll be able to get press? It’s hardly likely.
Journalists often have one goal: get more traffic to their articles.
To help them get more traffic, you need to provide them the following:
The more elements you can combine in your pitch, the more attractive your story. For example, if you do a PR stunt which helps you get your first 10,000 customers, this becomes a new attractive story. Add some original data where those 10,000 customers came from and you have a more powerful story to share.
To scale press, most pair it with SEO and occasionally with ads. Once-in-a-while, the press attention creates a snowball effect as site-after-site covers your story.
There’s never been a product that serves everyone. But social media giants like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram are close. Even Reddit can help you reach thousands of customers with a single post.
Many social media sites have a low organic reach until you’ve built a larger brand. This is why most startups focus on paid ads and community marketing. But don’t overlook the connections you already have on those sites.
Keep in mind that while it would be great to “go viral,” the odds are not in your favor. Most social media posts do not go viral. And even viral posts may not create sales, which is your goal.
You have a much better shot of creating constant wins or using platforms that scale through SEO.
Almost every industry has many trade shows and events. And since everything is in-person, you have a rare opportunity to meet many people in one place.
Simply setting up a booth may get you some results. But to get the maximum leverage, you need to be proactive. Set up meetings in advance, host networking dinners, and determine your strategy to get people to come to your booth.
Trade shows mix well with sales as you can generate leads, demo your product, and close customers in one trip.
There are two types of marketing channels:
1. Marketing channels that are scalable in nature.
When done right, growth happens without any added work.
There are five inherently scalable marketing channels:
2. Marketing channels that are not scalable in nature.
By itself, these marketing channels are not scalable.
It’s possible to make these channels scaleable. But for simplicity, I will call them non-scalable channels.
To scale non-scaleable channels, you either need:
There are seven non-scaleable marketing channels:
Now you might be asking yourself, “Why should I pick a marketing channel which is not scalable?”
First, most scalable channels require a non-scaleable channel to work. For example, if you want to grow with SEO, you might use content marketing or engineering as marketing.
Second, scalable channels are often harder to master.
Anyone can write an article and publish it. But getting the article to rank in Google to bring in organic traffic takes a specific skill set.
Third, non-scaleable channels are also easier to get new customers. Once you have the fundamentals in place, you often can get new customers in less time with non-scaleable channels.
The opportunities for growth are abundant.
But it’s not easy to know what market channels will successfully bring you more customers. Your team’s skills, market conditions, and budget will change what marketing channel is best. And what works today may not work tomorrow.
And if you attempt to pursue every channel all at once, you will burn out.
So how do you choose what marketing channel to pursue first?
By using the ICE Framework.
Everything you pursue comes at a cost. At some point, pursuing one marketing channel will prevent you from pursuing another one.
So what marketing channel should you pursue first?
To prioritize your marketing channels, I recommend you use the ICE Framework. ICE stands for:
First, create a team of people who would like to share their marketing ideas. Even developers have suggested several successful marketing campaigns. So don’t rule out people who are not marketers.
Second, list out as many marketing ideas as you can. Don’t worry if the ideas are a little crazy (“What if we hired a mariachi band to play for new customers?”). But it may help to focus on what the outcomes should do. For example, “Let’s focus on ideas which increase SEO traffic.”
Third, score each item from 1 to 5 in each of the three areas using these questions:
Fourth, take the average score for each growth idea. Then organize the growth ideas by the highest ICE score. Items at the top are those you believe will bring the most customers for the least amount of time and money.
To improve your marketing strategy, think of every campaign as a science experiment.
Even if the campaign fails, you can use that information to teach you what to do next time.
One of our clients became the second most controversial post of all time on a Reddit community. Our goal was to become one of the most voted posts. But as we read the comments and debriefed, we took these lessons:
From these three lessons, we later wrote another post for the right community. This article received over 850 upvotes. The following week, my client got seven immediate sales and some ongoing sales too.
Henry Ford said this well: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”