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Great businesses are built by creating a quality solution to a top-of-mind problem and effectively taking that solution to market. It’s much tougher to do when you’re a bootstrapped startup — a new venture that isn’t taking outside investment. But it’s still doable.
Here’s the seven-step marketing playbook to build your audience, create sales opportunities, and, over time, scale your marketing pipeline — all on a minuscule or non-existent budget.
Related: 10 Free Marketing Tools Every Entrepreneur Can Use
1. Build a website to capture bottom-of-funnel interest
You have to solidify the bottom of your funnel before the top. Otherwise, any interest you create will leak out. Customers will choose a competitor, an alternative solution or simply do nothing.
Your website does not have to be fancy — it can even be a single page — but it must answer these four questions that every buyer asks:
What do you do?
How much does it cost?
What does it look like?
How do I start?
Tell viewers “We do this thing for this group of people,” give your pricing, show the product or give details on services offered, and provide a call-to-action (book a demo, start a free trial, etc.).
2. Start as many customer conversations as possible
The quickest way to bootstrap growth is to talk to as many in-market customers as you can. Leverage your personal network, go to events (local meetups are great and usually free), ask for referrals, comment on social media posts, and reach out to strangers.
Ask for critical feedback on how your solution can best solve their toughest problems. Apply what you learn from these conversations to your website, product and pricing. Use their phrasing and descriptions wherever you talk about your product.
These feedback conversations are invaluable for finding product-market fit and channel-market fit. They tend to flow into sales conversations, too, creating your first pipeline.
Related: 3 Ways to Stretch Your Marketing Budget
3. Use social media to build in public
People want to be part of your story, and “building in public” is simply sharing your story with the public as it’s happening — what you’re doing and why it’s important, your challenges and successes.
For your personal profiles, choose two or three social media platforms where your target audience spends their time. Post about your work, comment insights on others’ posts (particularly from people with larger followings), and start conversations.
For your brand’s profiles, use the same platforms to focus on educating your target audience about what you do, why it matters, and how your product works to make their lives better. This takes time, but it’s crucial to your digital marketing foundation, and you’ll be thankful for it as you grow.
4. Bring in website traffic through SEO
People are searching for how to solve their problems online. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a set of tactics to help you show up in those search results. You should optimize every page of your website for search (dive deeper here), but what you most need to focus on at this stage is building out content.
Take the questions you get from customer conversations. Create one piece of helpful and authoritative content — a blog post, video, podcast, or infographic — to answer each question. Prioritize which questions to create content for by which are most important to answer before your target customer can buy.
If done well, this will bring people to your website and provide extra resources to use across social media and email.
5. Strengthen your reputation through email marketing
At this stage, email marketing is a tool to further educate people who are already interested in you and what you’re building. Think of it as another format or distribution channel for the content you’ve been making.
Create a well-designed, branded email template for educational lessons, product announcements and company updates or milestones. Expand your newsletter over time by asking website viewers and social media followers to subscribe.
Focus on sending quality content rather than lots of emails. One great lesson every month will be more impactful to your marketing and revenue than one “so-so” lesson every week.
Related: How to Protect Your Email Marketing Reputation
6. Leverage your good work for online reviews and PR
People research your company before making a buying decision. You need to make that research easy, and you can leverage the work you’ve already done to-date.
Start with online reviews. G2, Trustpilot, Capterra, Facebook, Google, TripAdvisor or others can be good platforms, depending on your industry. Pick one or two to start with, and ask customers to share their experiences.
Then reach out to local and industry-specific news outlets about sharing your story — the one you’ve been “building in public.” Look for writers and reporters who cover your particular topic (ie, don’t pitch the sports editor about your healthcare startup).
As you craft your pitch, keep their audience in mind. What about this story will appeal to their audience? Hone in on that. It may take time and relationship-building before you get a bite, but this work is important to influencing customers to work with you.
7. Double down on what’s working
As you find traction in one or two channels, lean into them. Have other employees or founders help, and consider spending money (if you have it) to boost performance.
Don’t give up on your other work yet, though. It will take time (months) for any of these to start showing progress, especially organic search and earned media (PR). But it’s all needed and worth it.
Related: 5 Steps to Make Winning Marketing Bets