For marketing early startups: Deep, not wide

barking up wrong treeWatch a bunch of interviews of founders of successful companies, and here’s what you don’t hear:

We tried eight different marketing channels — AdWords, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, social media, events, retargeting, SEO, guest-posting, PR, and so on. All of them worked a little bit, so together it was substantial — a trickle from each that added up to a river. Then we optimized each of them, improving each a bit more every month, and sure enough revenue doubled every year.

That’s never how it works.

Spreading your precious money and even more precious time over many channels doesn’t get a company off the ground. Typically, successful companies find one channel that really works, and then plumb it to its maximum inventory before layering on additional channels.

How to pick the one channel? Especially since “spray and pray” isn’t a good way to find the answer?

Start with the handful of channels that you personally use and understand. If you’re a Twitter person but rarely use Facebook and can’t comprehend the interest of Pinterest, then spend a few months trying to build a corporate Twitter presence and buy Twitter ads. If you think Twitter is only for location check-ins and people posting satire pieces on Ferguson as if they were true stories, but Pinterest is a cornucopia of heavenly visions, then build shareable images and buy Pinterest ads.

Why? Because success in social marketing channels arises from a resonance between your personality and the norms and language of that channel.

The best chance you have for developing that resonance is when it arises naturally, not because you A/B test your Twitter persona (should I be more humorous and sarcastic or more serious and profound? Or just give up?). If you’re baffled by the Facebook culture, because you think people pretend to be thoughtfully happy and thoughtlessly witty but are simultaneously depressed because that they’re not actually as happy and thoughtful and witty as all their “friends” apparently are, then you’re not going to just jump in there and develop a presence and language that resonates with people who you’re predisposed to despise at worst and just not understand at best.

So, stay with what you know, where you’re comfortable, and focus on doubling your business on that channel. Sometimes, getting outside your comfort zone is wrong. Spreading yourself thin is even more wrong.

1,942 responses to “For marketing early startups: Deep, not wide”

  1. Ok, fine, I *am* a nitpicker, but you write so well that I think it’s worth pointing out the little things: in the second to last paragraph, where it says “depressed because that”, I think you want only one of “because” and “that”.

    I believe there’s a lot of wisdom in the advice to “stay with what you know, where you’re comfortable.” I guess it’s kind of a variant of “To thine own self be true.” But, like many pieces of advice, perhaps it should be qualified with “but not to a fault.” Don’t let staying with what you know become a limitation. There is a time and place for pushing your limits and entering new, unknown territory. There is, of course, the small matter of deciding which unknown territory to venture into. That’s hard because the unknown territory is unknown.

  2. Agree on sticking to what you know to start with, but with tools like Buffer and Hootsuite it’s not too hard to post to and manage two or three core channels. Evn if your message is Twitter focused, you can post that stuff right over to LinkedIn or Facebook.

  3. Jason, I typically agree with you, but not this time. While I agree that doubling down on a particular channel is crucial, I disagree in how that’s accomplished.

    Starting with a handful of channels that you use and understand is dangerous, as that many not be a channel your customers use. For example, I could love Twitter, but if my product is targeted to moms on Pinterest, I will struggle.

    I’ve personally found success asking early customers where they “hang out” online or what email lists they subscribe to for the latest news.

    • Luke I agree and disagree with you. I feel using the social media sites that you know is the best way to start first, then gradually go to a different channel. Yes, you have to consider the fact that the site you are using to advertise your company can be dangerous because it may not be the channel that your customers use. You have a great example there if your product does not target moms but all sorts of people then yes you will struggle if you only advertise on Pinterest. It is a great idea to ask customers where they “hang out” online so you can go there and promote your product or company. I feel it is best to do some research and figure out where your customer base is. I do agree with Jason start with what you know because you could end up not having knowledge of a certain channel and end up failing at your business.

  4. The way you find one channel that really works, is by testing multiple channels and doubling down on what’s working. With your process you’re suggesting just focusing on what you know, which is definitely not a good idea.

    Learn where your customers are and then learn the best ways to reach them, regardless of your past experience. They are your guide, not your skill set.

    • Andrew, I don’t agree. It’s best to get a decent baseline using a channel you understand, then scale from there.

      The chances you’ll get either one performing goes down when you go outside your area of knowledge + takes too much time.

      No different then starting a company, start in an industry you know or tangental then one that’s new to you, cause the probability of acheiving P/M fit goes way down.

      • Hey Dan,

        It’s completely different than starting a company. I don’t think that comparison works in this scenario.

        If your skill set lies in content marketing but, your customers aren’t using that as a channel then your skill set would be wasted there.

        e.g. if your potential customers all meet at specific trade shows but you’ve never done one – You may not know how to host a proper demo which will result in lower performance (like you were saying) but, you have to learn how to increase the performance because that’s where your customers are.

    • Andrew, I do agree with you here. You have to test the waters in different channels and to see what works. You have to learn where your customers are and learn how to reach them. Customers want to feel that personal connection to you. They want to feel connected to that company or what that company is trying to sell. I was always told by my one professor you want to e personal with your customers. You want them to feel wanted.

  5. Hey, I actually kinda-sorta disagree with Jason for once! Kinda. Or to be more nuanced, I’d say that success in social media marketing arises from a resonance between your behavior/output and the natural behavior of the users of the channel you’re trying to get on.

    I love Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and I’ve grown to love Instagram. Where do I do the best marketing? It depends! My t-shirt business does well on Facebook and Instagram, and on some specific special-interest forums. For B2B, I get good responses from marketers on Twitter, but terrible on Facebook- which makes sense on hindsight, because people go on Facebook to check on their friends and socialize- not really to talk about work.

    Agreed 100% on focusing on one channel first, that it’s wrong to spread yourself too thin. But there is no single monolithic Facebook culture- rather, there are a lot of different silos with different styles and personalities. You gotta know where to look.

  6. I believe testing a few channels and then focusing on the one giving the best results is the best way to go. Check out the book “Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers” for a more detailed explanation of what the authors call the Bullseye Framework.

    • Churchill Madyavanhu, I do agree with you here. You have to test the waters in different channels and to see what works. You have to learn where your happy birthday funny customers are and learn how to reach them. Customers want to feel that personal connection to you.

  7. Awesome post! What a lot of first-time entrepreneurs don’t seem to get is that they are selling to other human beings.

    It’s not about endorsing some product on someone because that’s not what people want to hear. People don’t follow brands. People don’t want to connect with brands.

    People want to connect and listen to people like them. And people share things that, for example, represent *who they are*. That’s why I cringe at sharing buttons on landing pages. Who would be motivated to share a landing page unless they are getting a 20% discount?

    The best “social media strategy” would be to simply talk to the people you want to attract. Share things that help them and talk about things that interest them. And in all this, you have to be genuine.

    In that line of thought, I particularly loved this:

    > success in social marketing channels arises from a resonance between your personality and the norms and language of that channel.

  8. Helpful post. As an entrepreneur trying to do everything, I simply don’t have the time to go wide. I’ve chosen to focus on a couple of sites and that’s it. Hopefully it will work, but going deep is the only solution at the moment

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