Start before you have a product
If you already have a product, don’t panic – it’s not too late to start. But it’s worth pointing out that the more you do before you have an actual product, the easier it will be to get the first paying users. You might want to ask, how on earth am I gonna market something that doesn’t even exist yet? The answer is, you don’t need to market your product, even if you already have one. What you need to market is the solution to the problem.
Suppose you don’t clearly understand what problem your product is solving or what your solution might look like. In that case, we highly recommend visiting the Railsware blog and reading articles on new product development, Lean Canvas, or value proposition. Further in this article, we’ll assume that you know the problem (pain) you are solving with your product.
Marketing as product idea validation
Before we jump into the section where you can start making notes with ideas and plans for your product, I want to share one more strong argument on why you should follow the proposed recommendations and avoid the conventional marketing trap (more on that later).
While your product is as fragile as a newborn baby and doesn’t have a consistent stream of paying users, it’s better to focus your marketing activities elsewhere. For one thing, you have to get constant feedback on your product and stay in touch with your audience. But how?
Make your customer development and product idea validation a top priority and pursue them publicly. While interviewing your prospective audience about the problem you are solving, don’t just take notes. Go a step further and show the demo of your product. Run as many interviews as you can manage to schedule, and make the number of your cust dev interviews a success metric. During calls, identify who is most interested in your solution and make the final marketing push – sell your product.
At the early product stages, you can’t afford to bet on long-term marketing investments without getting an immediate result (here we don’t assume your product is boosted by venture capital; in this case, marketing efforts will be shaped by your board, not this article). Early marketing should facilitate learning about your target audience and their behavior patterns, and getting hints for future product evolution. Essentially, your marketing must serve this goal, not be built on this knowledge.
Don’t start with these 3 black holes
Remember the conventional marketing traps I mentioned above? All of the articles about new product marketing suggest diving into one of these (or even all 3 together) – SEO, PPC, and Digital PR. While these are great channels for user acquisition, they do come with a significant cost; as long as we are talking about the marketing of a new product, these channels do more harm than good. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
- SEO. If you’ve ever heard anything about SEO, it’s probably that it takes time. And indeed, there are no shortcuts. To get the first traffic from search engines, you need to build a scaled content creation process which is both an expensive and time-consuming effort. Not to mention that you need strong expertise in content strategy and day-to-day SEO operations (content briefs, link building, site development) to achieve predictable results.
- PPC (or Performance Marketing). The idea of paying for traffic from search engines, social media, or other platforms might look like a bulletproof option until you dump the first few thousand dollars into them and get zero purchases in return. Even if high customer acquisition costs don’t scare you, you’ll still have to dedicate time and effort to adjusting your positioning, finding the proper audience, and experimenting with messaging. All that while your product is still in the development phase, your website is unpolished, and user behavior is unpredictable.
- Digital PR. Less popular with product marketers than the previous two, but still seen as desirable by founders. PR or its younger brother Influencer Marketing can bring a lot of attention to your product, or even to the idea of a product. But it can hardly bring you loyal users, who came to solve their problems, and not to jump on a trend.
The most common argument on why not to invest in SEO, PPC, or PR in the early stages is that all three are focused on the awareness stage of the marketing funnel. This means you would have to use additional marketing materials and campaigns on your website to convert your traffic.
Some other time wasters
We have already debunked the 3 most popular marketing channels. But there are a few other tactics I see marketers fall victim to instead of attracting paying customers. I’m talking about Reddit (or Quora if you are more into B2C) and Product Hunt.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Reddit as an occasional user. Maybe that’s why I don’t recommend using it for marketing. It’s a great place to have a laugh, a chat, or even build your personal brand. But it’s bad for selling products or services. People simply don’t come to Reddit to buy things. Let’s picture a scenario where someone asks a question, finds your product in the answers, and buys it. With a 3-5% conversion from a thread to purchase (which is hardly achievable), you would still need hundreds of threads on your topic to get at least a couple of paying customers. And there just aren’t that many of them.
Meanwhile, a Product Hunt launch campaign is a great thing to add to your CV and a total waste if you’re searching for someone who will pay for your product. People rarely buy anything they have just found on the web. Especially if we are talking about B2B, software, or services. The attention span needed to upvote a product from a list is 2-5 seconds. No chance you can generate the trust and loyalty needed to make a purchase. At best, you will achieve curiosity.
Structuring your marketing assets
So, what should you do instead? First of all, ask yourself what digital assets you already possess. It’s unlikely you decided to build a product for a niche you know nothing about or for people you’ve never worked with. Real-estate CRMs are built by people who have worked in real estate, sales automation tools are built by salesmen, and marketing tools are built by marketers. So, let’s say you are a software engineer who decided to build and market a simple dev tool aiming to become a profitable SaaS. As a side-effect of your software engineer career, you might have:
- Domain knowledge about the problem you are trying to solve
- Network and communities
- Relevant social media subscribers
- Personal brand
- Readers of your personal blog
Identify your strongest assets and prioritize their development over any other marketing idea. They are the rocket fuel for your future product growth. In a situation where you start with a blank sheet and a marketing expert to help you, one way or another, you will try to build one of those assets from scratch. SEO will start with generating visitors for your site, PPC will try to build trust and recognition, and PR will leverage the brand.
Let’s look at some digital assets and see how you can leverage them to get the first paying users for your dev tool as a software engineer, without any marketing experience or knowledge.
Case 1. You have around a thousand software engineers subscribed to your Twitter or Linkedin.
No matter how you accumulated those subscribers – via active posting, thought leadership, or by subscribing to your colleagues at every company you worked at – your social media audience should become your first beta users and paying customers.
Openly discuss what you are building, invite people to try out your solution, and ask for feedback. The worst-case scenario here is that you will get a bunch of feedback on your product.
How to practice this approach? 1. Don’t be afraid to repeat what you are building whenever necessary. 2. DM people who you believe can benefit from your solution and invite them for a 30 min demo. You might be surprised to find out how responsive they are and how much they are willing to spread the word about your product.
Case 2. You participated in a bunch of industry events as a speaker and occasionally contribute to specific tech communities.
If you read the previous case, you might already have an idea of what to do. Expose what you are working on in Slack, Discord, and Reddit communities and invite people to try it out and share feedback. Don’t hesitate to start charging for what you offer if you receive a positive response. People are willing to try new things; they will enjoy the feeling of being early adopters.
Also, develop a portfolio of public speaking events, reach out to the same events or relevant podcast hosts, and pitch yourself as a speaker/guest. Pick a topic that will one way or another lead to what you are building and encourage the audience to give it a try. It takes years of active marketing to build the trust of podcast subscribers or conference attendees. But you can get it sooner by leveraging what you previously earned.
Case 3. Domain knowledge + blog visitors. Ok, what if you have zero network and no social media subscribers? But you have been blogging for years about your coffee preferences and cloud infrastructure. And you know that a few hundred random people read your blog each month. This is a perfect foundation for scaling your content marketing without a team of marketers.
Apply this simple tactic. Create a series of blog posts around the problem your product solves and introduce your tool. To be sure you are blogging about something that people are actually interested in, navigate to Keywordtool.io and get the list of questions people are asking on Google. Those questions will be your blog post ideas:
Don’t forget to ask for feedback on your tool, leave a channel for communication, and try to engage with every reader who shares feedback. Every time you find someone enjoying your solution, start charging. The moment you get your first paid user, congratulations, you are a content marketer.
Ok, but what if I have zero digital assets but still want to market my product? No worries, we’ve got you covered. In the next chapter, we’ll talk about marketing ideas and tools for starting from scratch.
Ideas for new product marketing
Promote a landing page with a product waitlist
You will need a landing page to execute almost all the marketing ideas shared in this article. So why not start by creating one? Use any page builder you like, pick the simplest template and briefly describe your product. Add screenshots of the interface (no matter how dull it is), and share user feedback on the page as soon as you get some. You do not need a $ 100-per-hour copywriter, designer, or expensive domain name. Pick a distinctive product name, choose an available domain that is easy to spell and pronounce, and you are good to go.
Once you have a page, promote it on Facebook (it’s better to avoid Linkedin at this stage as it’s usually much more expensive) to your target audience. The easiest way to do that is to form an audience with Job Titles as the target. For example, if you are building a dev tool, Job Titles for your audience would be – Software Engineer, Senior Software Engineer, CTO, Web Developer, etc.
To create a high-performing ad, leverage these three parts:
- Articulate a problem
- Promise a solution
- Mention the benefits of using the solution
If your product is still in development and is not ready to acquire first users, simply collect a waitlist. The list will prove to you that there is a need for your solution and once you have the solution you will have a list of super-warm prospects who are ready to try it. But don’t just drop a link in the email. Go as personal as you can, invite people from the list to a live product demo session, send short tutorials on how to use the product, and ask for feedback.
Build an audience on Twitter or Linkedin
In the previous section about leveraging digital assets, we described how to reap benefits from a social media following. But what if you don’t have an audience? The good news is that it’s never too late to start building one. Throughout 2022, the internet was brimming with guides on how to build an audience and tools that can help you do that.
Audience building on social media can be achieved through 2 key foundations:
- Regular content posting (up to daily)
- Direct engagement via private messaging with your target audience
Don’t only count on your creativity and management skills, use these tools to organize the routine:
As for inspiration, you might find interesting the case of Aleksandr Volodarsky, who regularly promotes his engineers’ marketplace. For example, his thread about AI got 1.6 million views and wraps up with an invitation to try out his product. Aleksandr posts such threads on a weekly basis.
Build a private community
Umar Ashraf has a community of around 250k stock traders on Instagram. But the most interesting part lies under the hood of his Instagram numbers. Umar interacts with his community on a daily basis – consultations, Q&As, and video conferences – promoting his trading approach and educating other traders. The moment Umar released his trading journal platform, he already had a huge list of loyal and highly targeted people ready to at least try the product. Access to a community and its assets creates a long-lasting effect of exclusivity and privilege. This kind of brand engagement can’t be achieved with any other marketing strategy.
To understand how to build a community, we need to understand why people join communities in the first place. I would divide all professional communities into 2 groups:
- Learning communities
- Network communities
People join the first type of community to get access to information they would not easily find otherwise. So, in this case, your key role is to provide content of the highest quality, either by yourself or by moderating others’ content. You can write regular how-to guides, list other resources, and provide unique case studies.
The value of the second type of community is its people. Your role here is to ensure that everyone is represented, has a voice, and feels appreciated. To do that, you can focus on webinars, Q&A sessions, and surveying your community members.
To host a community you might go the traditional way of Slack or Discord, or pick something more tuned like:
To start selling after you have built a community, present your product in a format your community is most familiar with. Grant early adopters access, ask for feedback and apply it to your product. When customers feel that they have an effect on the final product, they are more likely to remain loyal to your brand.
Co-create content with your desired customers
This technique is a mix of account-based marketing, sales outreach, and content marketing. Here’s an algorithm of what to do:
- Create a list of 50-100 companies/individuals you believe would benefit from your solution.
- Research them to understand what type of content they are interested in: blogs, podcasts, events, etc.
- Brainstorm what sort of topics could cover their product that you can confidently contribute to.
- Reach out to the responsible person and pitch your content idea.
- After collaborating on content, structure your own order into the pitch.
This approach has several winning advantages. First of all, in most cases, you won’t need to pitch your product separately because it will genuinely appear during your content collaboration. Second, during content collaboration, you will build trust and relationships that can’t be gained via any other conventional marketing campaigns.
Also, even if you didn’t manage to sell your product after this campaign you will still have other benefits: network expansion, content contribution, probably a link to your landing page, or even just a brand mention.
Here’s a quick roundup of all the points we mentioned above:
Branding MBA in one chapter
After building (not finding) your working channel for acquiring paying customers, next up is to craft the proper messaging and positioning so you can scale your growth further. For that, I will introduce the concept of 6 elements of messaging, proposed in Jenifer Havice’s Finding the Right Message.
- Struggle. The question or a problem that your customers have.
- Fix. How does your product remove that struggle?
- Hesitations. Any questions customers might ask when deciding whether or not to buy your product.
- Awareness Level. How aware are your audience of the problem and your new product?
- Differentiators. Why is your product better than others?
- Success. What do customers get after solving the problem? For example, saved time, earned money, confidence, security, etc.?
Structure the information you get during customer development and demo sessions with your prospects, according to these proposed six elements. Avoid personal guesses, because they will always be influenced by your initial product vision. Trust your audience and use their words to describe the problem/solution and the success they want to achieve after solving the problem.
Turn all six elements into one unified story and put it on your pages, outreach emails, and ad copies. Now, perhaps you have too many hesitations about the proper headers, ads, and mottos. Or perhaps you’d rather bet on your own vision, not your customers’ words. Use Wynter.com to test your messages with relevant audiences; it’s much cheaper than testing messages via PPC or PR campaigns.
Pro tips instead of conclusion
- Become an ambassador for your product. No one can market your product better than you. People are more likely to engage with a product when they know who’s building it.
- Don’t invest heavily in your site. Use site builders and free design templates for the first pages of your product.
- Don’t overpromise in your marketing copies, and don’t pretend to be bigger than you are. If you are building a dev tool that saves a few hours of programming a week, say it directly in the headers of your pages. Avoid slogans like platform, all-in-one solution, toolset, etc. Those words do not trigger anything in your customers.
- Never count on simple scenarios. For example, people will read my article and buy my product. Or some of my 10 thousand subscribers on Twitter will buy my product. Instead, build as much engagement as possible in the shortest period of time. When they read an article, encourage them to subscribe to the waitlist, invite them to an in-person product demo, and help them set up the product. Users will start paying because they know and trust you and because they see that the product works.