All startup founders need to solve the problem of visibility. As a brand-new business, no one knows you exist. It takes marketing effort to start gaining attention. Content marketing is the most cost-effective early marketing strategy, yet I often see new founders turn to expensive in-person marketing events. What they fail to consider is the amount of time, money, and resources it takes to make a physical marketing event successful in a measurable way.
This tilt toward events makes sense—humans are social beings and have a strong bias toward being in person. We’ve seen this play out in real-time as companies force employees to return to the office. Companies insist that workers return to the office for productivity reasons even though research has consistently failed to show that office workers are more productive than remote workers. While the desire to connect in person may never change, in-person marketing events may not make business sense for early-stage startups. We may feel like we’re getting a lot out of in-person marketing events because we might talk to a lot of people, and that human connection feels rewarding and productive. But quantifying that productive feeling and being able to name tangible outcomes are where people often fall short. Events take a lot of time and focus away from everyday startup activities. Post-event follow up takes even more time and must be done promptly in order to achieve the intended results of attending the event.
This doesn’t mean events can’t be great under the right circumstances. Hoewever, in most cases, they are a really expensive and distracting activity that’s not a good fit for an early-stage, cash-strapped startup.
Our General Partner, Sid Sijbrandij, has written before and fully believes that growth solves all problems. Avoiding in-person marketing events isn’t an exercise in extending runway or being frugal, it’s a strategy that allows startups to stay focused. Marketing events are a huge, all-hands-on-deck effort that can take weeks or months to fully prepare for. And if you’re not investing in preparation time, the result of attending the event is likely to be dismal.
Event preparation at a bare minimum may include things like training everyone on the company’s pitch and outlining specific goals and success criteria. Next level preparation, such as setting up the booth with physical marketing materials (like well-designed and highly visible company signage), TVs for digital display, iPads for contact capture, swag, etc., takes precious time away from building your company. If you’re sponsoring a booth, do you have strong messaging that will stand out, and how are you incentivizing people to visit the booth and sign up? I’ve witnessed companies exuberantly handing out $100 bills to those who would enter their names in the company’s CRM system with zero pre-qualifications. As expected, the payback cycle on such an investment disappointed all.
When rationalizing your attendance at an in-person event, don’t just say, “We’re attending for exposure/recruiting/community building.” Assign a number to your goal so you can evaluate if the event was a success or failure. For example:
The problem many startups run into is that they don’t have an interesting enough story to tell and haven’t narrowed in on the right audience yet. They aren’t able to attract the people they set out to talk to. An in-person event is a really expensive place to test or validate a product direction or marketing message. It’s more economical to run A/B tests online where it’s not only cheaper, but you have better access and control over the data.
The worst-case scenario is when a startup chooses to attend an event that isn’t representative of their target audience and user base. After paying for travel costs and entrance fees, the company has absolutely nothing to show for it. A similar situation happens when a startup decides to sponsor a booth but has no plan for how to capture and follow up with leads. At mature businesses, there are large teams dedicated solely to event marketing and handling all of the logistics. It’s common to underestimate what’s needed to effectively capture and follow up with leads from an event. For example, follow-up should happen within 24-48 hours after the event. This is incredibly difficult to do if your entire team is traveling post-event.
Attending an in-person marketing event is expensive. The cost can be justified if there’s a good return on investment but most startup founders don’t know if an event will result in a positive ROI and don’t know how to measure it. What happens is lots of money is spent with no tangible result to show for it.
Content marketing is one of the most effective ways to let people know you exist. Companies that get content marketing right from the start tend to see higher rates of success due to the ratio of attention versus how much time it takes to get that attention. For example, you can write a blog post in a day but it takes weeks of prep work and a lot of money to attend an event.
Billions of people read content on the internet every day compared to the thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people who attend an event. People often spend time on online forums or blogs consuming information before considering a live event. Even as an attendee with a free guest pass, the cost of attendance is high in terms of the opportunity cost on time spent compared to outcomes.
Content marketing is an underappreciated marketing growth strategy for early startups. Because software startup founders tend to be technical, writing can be an uncomfortable exercise that is avoided. But taking the time to write weekly and share content in the forums and places where your audience hangs out can significantly improve your chances of success. Creating great technical content builds trust and community around your brand and can support recruiting efforts. Articulating your point of view on your market and industry gives investors a clear line of sight into your vision.
Setting up a content marketing program is relatively straightforward. Designate someone as the directly responsible person. This could be a founder or someone you contract to manage the program. Next, figure out the best places to publish and share your content. Where do your potential customers hang out? What kind of content gets shared, upvoted, and commented on? Use this to inform your next step of starting a pipeline of ideas and start workshopping those ideas into interesting, attention-grabbing titles. Choose the top three most interesting titles to start working on and consider hiring a freelance writer to help with production. A good writer will be able to interview you on the subject matter and do independent research to churn out a workable draft.
It’s hard to control the outcome of events and they take a lot of time and effort. Comparably, a single person within your company can write content, test, and iterate to figure out what resonates. Tracking success is as simple as setting up Google Analytics. Overall, content marketing is a more efficient way to gain early attention. It’s more cost-effective, easier to track, and friendlier to experimentation. Avoid in-person marketing events and stick to early marketing activities that can be executed quickly, like writing blog posts and creating video content.