9 Steps to a Winning Startup Marketing Plan
“Marketing is expensive. And tedious. And not our focus right now.”
If any version of that statement comes up for you on the regular, I don’t blame you. Marketing can be really overwhelming—for any company, let alone a startup—and if you don’t know where to start… Well, it’s hard to start.
That’s why, in this guide, we invite you to pause the rush just for a little bit. This will give you the time and mental space to build a startup marketing plan. The good news? It doesn’t have to take months to get there. And your marketing plan doesn’t have to be a 75-page aesthetic presentation with fireworks at the end.
All it takes is a bit of intentional research, thinking, and documentation so you can drive the right people towards your business. Not just this month, this quarter, or this year—but for many years to come.
What Is a Startup Marketing Plan?
It can be tempting to go all in on other areas of your startup before focusing on marketing—fundraising and product development understandably seem more urgent.
But a startup marketing strategy will build an audience for every launch you’ll run, support your case in fundraising conversations, help you get more press coverage, and enable you to build a company that lasts.
In short: it’s the foundation for long-term success. Which is why you need to get started on it.
Psst...you want to discover the tactics for leveraging social proof to enhance customer perception and total contract value? Our article has the details.
How to Create a Startup Marketing Plan in 9 Steps
Whether you’re a marketing team of one or have the resources to hire a bunch of marketing powerhouses, you can’t skip these steps to build a marketing plan. It will act as a blueprint for both the long-term goals you want to hit, and everyday tasks and activities. Let’s dive in:
1. Conduct a Market Analysis
“Whoever gets closest to their customer, wins,” wrote Bernadette Jiwa, a storytelling advisor and the author of 10 books on marketing and storytelling.
In other words, to meet the needs of your potential customers, you need to actually know what they need. Not just guess or assume, but be truly confident there’s a match between what your startup is doing and what your customers want to buy as a solution.
In fact, "no market need" is one of the leading reasons startups fail—35 percent of startups reported it as the driver behind their failure.
The good news? That doesn’t have to be you. With market research, you can maximize your chances to hit the right spot with your ideal customers—both with your product and the way you market it to them. You’ll also have a better shot at attracting investors, finding gaps in customer expectations, and standing out in the market.
You can take two routes when it comes to market analysis, and it’s best if you can combine them:
- Primary research: Original data you collect through experiments, interviews, focus groups, surveys, and observations
- Secondary research: Existing data you curate from tools like ZoomInfo and Crunchbase, and resources like McKinsey, trade associations, journals, CDC, etc.
The goal is to assess your target market’s needs, challenges, characteristics, and purchase behaviors. As you run your analysis, take note of:
- Any relevant demographics, like age ranges, job titles, income ranges, and locations
- Words and phrases customers use to describe their needs or pain points
- Products, services, and solutions they consider when looking to solve a pain point
- Price ranges they find acceptable for specific solutions
- Content consumption habits, like channels and formats they opt for when researching and/or learning
Also, don’t forget that if you already have a customer base, that’s a fantastic place to start exploring your market’s problems and decision-making process.
2. Define Your Target Audience
Your next step is to develop and document an ideal customer profile (ICP), or a description of a company that would get significant value from using your product, and provide significant value to your company. Take 5-10 attributes that represent your ideal customer. If you sell to B2B customers, those attributes might include:
- Funding status
- Company size
- Type of customers they serve
- Key decision makers
The idea is to have a set of guidelines that will guide not just your marketing efforts, but enable every team to focus on the same, ultimate target customer. For example, teams can reference it to:
- Hire full-time or freelance pros, like marketing team members, SEO consultants, freelance writers, graphic designers, and more
- Qualify leads against clear criteria to make sure they have the potential to convert and get value from your product
- Plan future product updates and launches
ICP is usually used in a B2B setting—hence the focus on the company as a whole vs. an individual—but you can use it in conjunction with a buyer persona. It’s more commonly used in B2C sales and marketing, but it describes the individual that buys your product, so it can help you better understand the role, goals, pain points, and interests of the decision makers you market and sell to.
Want a ridiculously accurate, useful, and actionable ideal customer profile? Grab our ideal customer profile kit that includes checklists, questions, and templates to define your target customer with serious precision.
3. Run Competitive Analysis
“I want to blend in with my competitors,” said no sales rep, marketer, or entrepreneur ever.
Use competitive analysis to learn what your competitors are doing well and what are their blind spots—this way, you can build a marketing plan that brings you on your audience’s radar and helps you stand out.
First, make a list of your direct and indirect competitors. Direct competitors are often obvious: if your core product is an all-in-one ecommerce software, other fully featured ecommerce solutions are your clear direct competitors. But so are WordPress plugins, website building tools, and even ecommerce developers. Those would be your indirect competitors.
To find your competitors, lean on software review platforms (G2, AlternativeTo), keyword research (Semrush), ads on social media and search engines, insights from LinkedIn, and your conversations with potential and current customers.
Then, run a SWOT analysis for your most relevant competitors, which includes:
- Strengths: Internal strengths that give a company a competitive advantage, like skills, expertise, resources, or unique selling points
- Weaknesses: Internal weaknesses like a lack of resources, outdated technology, or insufficient training
- Opportunities: External opportunities that can be leveraged for growth and success, like changes in the market, new technologies, a new product line, or untapped customer segments
- Threats: External threats that can negatively impact performance, like increasing competition, changing regulations, or economic downturns
Check out the table below for an example of a SWOT analysis of a software company, and grab our free SWOT analysis guide and template.
4. Develop a Unique Brand Identity
Your brand identity is a set of characteristics unique to you—appearance, messaging, and personality—that help your customers form an image of you.
A strong brand identity is the one that would make your audience and your customers recognize your product and content even if you stripped your name from it.
So how do you form a brand identity that makes you magnetic to your ideal prospect? Here’s how:
- Develop a unique selling proposition. Based on your research of your target market, customers, and competitors, identify the main differentiating factors your product offers. Make your USP short, sweet, and to the point.
- Create a visual identity. This includes logos, color palettes (try out tools like ColorKit's free color palette generator), website design, and typography. Based on your budget, you can work with a consultant or an agency, or hire an in-house design lead.
- Develop your brand personality and messaging. What tone of voice and personality traits does your ideal customer best resonate with? You’ll use that across your website, social media marketing, blog posts, emails—everywhere.
Solidify your brand identity by documenting it and building templates based on it, so every team member can easily reference and implement it for a consistent brand image.
5. Define Your Marketing Strategies
The worst thing you can do in your marketing plan is building marketing campaigns from scratch every time you’re launching a product, a feature, or an update.
There are dozens of marketing channels and probably more than 100 marketing tactics you could try. If that sounds exhausting, that’s because it is—and it’s why it’s crucial to be focused, intentional, and clever about the direction you choose to take.
It all comes down to:
- Who your audience trusts, like public figures, organizations, brands etc.
- Which social media platforms they go to look for education, entertainment, or a combo of both
- How they consume content, like long-form vs. short, listening vs. watching vs. reading, and so on
- How your value proposition fits into those channels and formats
The best marketing efforts are those that will give you the results you want in your business. That could be as simple as having a company blog, nailing LinkedIn, and leveraging on-demand product demos.
Right now, it’s about narrowing down your options to a few that you can go all in on. You can always expand, scratch, or tweak your efforts later.
Let’s unpack specific digital marketing strategies in the next two sections:
5.1 Develop Lead Generation and Conversion Strategies
The tricky part about startup marketing (and often marketing in general) is that it can be tough to determine what it is exactly that gives you real results (read: actual, paying customers).
You might be getting lots of traffic and engagement and struggle to convert that into sales, or you might see solid sales numbers despite lower marketing results than what you wanted. You might even sit in a vague space in the middle and not know how to generate predictable results.
Best way to avoid this? Boil your content marketing strategy down to two areas before the purchase takes place: lead generation and lead conversion.
Uncover the secrets of 10X content marketing with insights from our AI article.
Your lead generation efforts focus on reaching the right people and drawing them closer to your mission as a startup and, ultimately, your product. It’s about increasing the pool of people you can educate and engage with (because if no one knows you exist, even the best conversion strategies are irrelevant).
Here are some essential ways you can grow your traffic and generate high-quality leads from it:
- Publish core pieces of content: Blog posts, podcast episodes, or videos that live on your website and use search engine optimization (SEO) to target people searching for answers and guides on specific topics every month
- Use organic social media: Consistent social media posts that are in sync with your core content can drive traffic from LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok
- Use community platforms: People lean on Reddit, Quora, and industry forums to find answers to their questions, so it might be worth building a presence there
- Partner with relevant people and/or brands: If your target customers trust certain organizations or influencers, build partnerships and campaigns with them to reach their audience; examples are webinars or guest blog posts
- Build original resources people would pay for: Use your expertise to create downloadable templates, custom tools, ebooks, checklists etc. and offer them for free
- Use paid media: Leverage ads on search engines and social media channels to target specific interests, behaviors, and demographics and increase your reach
For real-life examples, check out our 22 lead generation ideas that brought Close 300k+ leads. Here’s one of them from our long-form guides:
Next, you’ll want to move those leads further down the funnel or even convert them into customers (if you offer a self-serve purchase option).
That means you need to product-focused marketing strategies, which includes:
- Case studies: Showcase the journey of successful customers with numbers and real-life applications of your product
- Product demos: You can offer an on-demand demo like we do at Close, or a recurring session like Figma’s weekly product demo
- Automated email marketing: Send nurturing emails to hot leads, like those that signed up for a free trial, to engage them with the product, give them tips, and help them see their first success with your product (A.K.A., hit the "aha moment")
- A/B testing: Experiment with resources you use for conversions, like email subject lines, product demo length, or case study format to find versions that bring the most conversions
A quick recap on marketing strategies: you need both the lead generation and lead conversion strategies for a truly successful marketing plan in the long run. Start as simple as you need to—it will give you the data to reflect on and optimize later on.
5.2 Develop Customer Retention Strategies
A common mistake in startup marketing? Winning a new customer and not bothering with what happens after the sale.
As part of your marketing plan, make sure you’re engaging and looking after your existing customers. What’s the point in spending all that effort on lead generation and conversion, only to lose the customer a few months down the line?
As part of your strategy, consider these two approaches for customer retention:
First, build deeper relationships. Customers have trusted you enough to give you a chance, so make it worthwhile. What brought them to you? What support do they need? How else can your product, features, and future updates help them?
You can use your CRM to keep track of all interactions, customer service conversations, and other notes to give your customers what they need. This CRM information can then guide your marketing, sales, and customer support teams to create a delightful customer experience together.
And second, make it easy to be your brand ambassador. Happy customers are the best foundation for referral marketing. Build a referral program that rewards customers who send new leads your way—word of mouth is a powerful growth engine.
(Pssst: check out the seven best CRMs for marketers.)
6. Set Clear Marketing Objectives
Doing marketing without marketing goals is like driving a car with no destination while hoping you’ll end up at a beautiful place you vaguely pictured in your mind.
Skip the aimless drive with the help of SMART goals, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. It works when setting sales goals, and it works equally well when defining your marketing objectives.
A quick refresher on what each part of the acronym means in practice:
- Specific: Focus on well-defined goals (like landing page traffic) vs. generic or vague (like brand awareness)
- Measurable: Make sure there’s a way to measure your progress towards the goal
- Achievable: Your goal can be a stretch, but it has to be realistic (if you generated 50,000 website visits last month, aiming for 300,000 the next month doesn’t make sense)
- Relevant: The goal should be a building block towards the overall goals of the business
- Time-Bound: Define a time frame and an end date for the goal
Here are a few examples of SMART marketing objectives you can lean on for inspiration:
- Generate 100 new leads from LinkedIn ads (specific and measurable) in September (time-bound) based on our previous result of 85 LinkedIn leads (achievable), as they have proven to convert into high-value customers (relevant)
- Partner with six tech influencers for product demo videos on YouTube (specific, measurable, and achievable) in Q4 (time-bound), because they reach software buyers in mid-sized businesses (relevant)
- Grow email subscribers to 5,000 (specific and measurable) in the next six months (time-bound) from the current 1,500 subscribers (achievable) because subscribers that turn into leads tend to convert at a higher rate (relevant)
You get the gist. Take into account your resources (we’re tackling that in the next section) and bigger goals to set your marketing objectives—you can reflect and tweak them as you learn.
7. Define Your Marketing Budget
“But how much will all of this cost my startup?” The real answer is: it depends.
If your startup is well-funded, you might not be intimidated by any size of marketing spend to get the results you want. Bootstrapped startups, of course, will have a different story going on.
Here are some core marketing expenses you need to consider to define your marketing budget:
- The cost of people: Core staff salaries and/or agencies, consultants, and freelancers like writers, PR reps, SEO consultants, etc.
- The cost of tech: Marketing tools for social media management, design, email marketing, automation, CRM, video hosting, online forms, content optimization, etc.
- The cost of media: Paid ads on social media, YouTube, and/or search engines
If you already have revenue, some experts suggest you should spend between 6 percent and 20 percent of it on marketing. If not, Baremetrics suggests to keep your marketing spend below or around $1,000 per month.
While that won’t cover the cost of salaries and consultant fees, you can start without those and focus on using powerful tools to create and optimize content—and your own, internal expertise to generate content that hits the mark. As your revenue grows, you can invest into team members and experts that will help you scale that
If you aren’t sure this can work, hear it from Close’s Steli Efti:
And if you wonder whether you still need a marketing plan even if your budget is near zero, the answer is yes! It will help you make the most of your marketing efforts now, and help you scale them in the right direction in the future.
8. Define Metrics and KPIs to Track Progress
The best thing about a startup marketing plan is that you can connect the results you get to the activities you did. If something’s working, you can double down on it, and if something is not, you can tweak your strategy or eventually discard it.
To make that possible, you need key performance indicators aka KPIs. Avoid the urge to make this more complex and fancy than it needs to be. Here’s what metrics to track:
- Organic reach like website traffic, specific pageviews, views on social media
- Organic engagement like time on page and pages per session for the website, likes, comments, shares, and saves for social media
- Paid ad metrics like click-through rates and conversion rates based on the ads’ goals
- Visitor-to-lead conversion rates for different gated resources you offer
- Email open rates across various sequences, like welcome, onboarding, nurturing, etc.
- Email click-through rates for different links and call-to-actions
- Sales conversion rate for each channel
The goal is to see what your return on investment is and whether your marketing efforts contributed to your business goals.
9. Create Implementation Timelines and an Optimization Process
Finally, you need to make sure your plan sparks action week after week, month after month. This means you need two things:
First, an implementation plan. Create timelines for each strategy you outlined earlier, and use your SMART goals to be as precise and realistic as possible.
For example, setting up a company blog with the first ~10 posts can be a month-long project and a priority, along with setting up a basic social sharing strategy. In the second month, you can build a welcome email sequence for new subscribers and map out a workflow for a recurring weekly newsletter, while continuing to publish weekly articles on the blog.
Use a project management tool to break these projects down into discrete tasks, assign responsibilities, and count on them to be done.
And second, an evaluation and optimization process. Determine the frequency at which you’ll reflect on your marketing results and plan your next moves.
For example, you could have a check-in with the key people on a regular basis. The question you’re looking to answer is: where are our current results as they relate to our SMART goals? Based on the answer, you can tweak planned activities for upcoming weeks, or add new ones to your roadmap.
Let’s say you’ve learned that an email sequence has a fantastic click and conversion rate, but less people are opening it than you predicted. You can tackle this by A/B testing subject lines, preview text, or email frequency to see how it affects opens and if the clicks and conversions stay high.
Rinse. Repeat. Win.
Want a Thriving Startup? A Startup Marketing Plan Is a Must-Have
Let’s recap what makes an impactful startup marketing plan:
First, you need a deep understanding of the market you’re serving: not just your target customers and the pain points you’re solving, but your competitors as well. This lets you build a unique brand identity that attracts the right prospects.
Then, you define marketing strategies and goals that contribute to your overall business objectives. This way, you’re making sure you’re not wasting your time, money, or energy on activities that won’t make a difference.
And finally, you need an implementation plan and a way to reflect on results, so you can keep improving your marketing efforts and generate leads, sales, and repeat customers for a healthy, thriving startup.
P.S. Happy customers are those that trust you to look after them in every scenario, before and after they buy from you. A CRM will help you do exactly that—it holds all the info you need about a customer, from when you first market to them all the way through to conversion and beyond. See what’s possible with a 14-day free trial of Close.