Companies' transition to the mobile world seem to dominate news around their product announcements and earnings. Will that new messaging platform make the more mobile friendly? Is their design optimized to show people information (and ads) on mobile? How does the cost of an ad compare between the desktop version of the site and mobile? These are just a few of the questions that trail Facebook, Twitter, Google, and many others as they chart their path of dominance.
One reason for these questions is the rapid growth in smart phones. 58% of Americans have a smartphone and it is very quickly becoming the primary way they interact with important online services. However, while the goal of being in front of your audience is a key driver of mobile adoption, so is the extreme targeting allowed by these ads. Below is a personal example that drove this point home to me.
On July 4th, I went to Whole Foods to gather some party supplies for people coming over to celebrate and watch some fireworks. I did not check-in using any service, however, that didn't mean my phone didn't know where I was with its GPS system. While still in the store, I got a Push alert to my phone and email to my inbox, advertising $10 off $50 spent at the store. Alas, I didn't claim the deal, because I didn't check my phone while shopping.
Catching someone in the moment or at least mindset has long been the goal of advertisers and mobile is letting them do that like never before. Imagine walking by a lunch restaurant and getting a Push alert that you can get free fries with a burger -- that would convince me to buy there. We're still in the early stages of this transition, but it's going to progress rapidly.
Also, as consumers, it's important to understand that these type of ads coming directly into our life are the price we pay for all of these free services and for giving up personal information. Some may find that creepy, and it certainly can be. Advertisers will have to walk a thin line of not getting too personal, but I'm all for more Whole Foods savings when I'm in the store.
Startups, especially funded ones, are known for trying tons of flashy marketing ideas to try and draw attention to their idea or product. Whether it's sponsoring expensive parties or hiring celebrity endorsers or spending lavishly on PR, the idea seems to be to make a big splash and get in front of as many people as possible right away.
I'm not here to argue that these techniques have not worked for some people (Foursquare's SXSW unveiling was certainly a success), but a truly underrated startup marketing technique is the consistent email newsletter. I'm not just talking about email newsletter strategies for services firms, but also for social startups like Tumblr, Quora, Twitter, etc or product startups like Chubbies, Warby Parker, etc. It may not be the sexiest startup marketing tactic, but it works.
Many have called email the original social network, and that's because of its effectiveness of tying together large groups of people and how it lends itself to passing around content, and that's why it's so effective for marketing. Email remains the stickiest app of all: we're all on it, checking often, and are likely to click through on compelling content.
If you closely watch any successful social startup, they always seem to eventually start incorporating more and more email newsletters into their marketing. Twitter sends you the best tweets from your network in a given week, Tumblr sends weekly emails with the best posts from around the network, and it seems LinkedIn's online strategy is solely becoming emailing (spamming) posts from thought leaders.
As an example from my life, email is probably the only way I interact with several startups like Quora; I'm sent content every week, and if I'm intrigued, I'll click through and read it -- by using an email newsletter, Quora converts me from someone who would never use the network to someone who racks up 3-5 pageviews per week. In addition to the immediate boost of getting me there, it also keeps the network top of mind and makes me more likely to randomly check it in the future or advocate it to others. Without that newsletter, I would've forgot about Quora years ago rather than being a weekly reader, casual upvoter, and very occasional contributor.
Many startups think their startup may not be the best fit for a newsletter or they don't have the time to write one, but I'd challenge you to think through your options, and you can do it with an easy manual process of just inserting the best content into an email template. Some advice I recently gave to the founder of a website that lets you create and curate lists was to send out the most interesting lists each week to the network - for now, it didn't even need to be based on interest, just choose a nice variety. If you're a social-management tool like Buffer, blast out new features and also the most shared content. If you're a messaging app, let users know if other friends signed up this week and update them on new capabilities in the app.
You're working hard on your company each week and users are interacting with your site or product each week; leverage the work going in on both sides by incorporating it into an email. It can be once a week or once per month, but I'm sure that any frequency will drive people back to the app. The big social networks and product companies have demonstrated they value email newsletters, and it's smart for startups to start prioritizing them, too.
I recently read about Buffalo's new business plan competition to try and spur entrepreneurship in the area. It's called 43North and is offering $5 million in total prizes to businesses and a $1 million grand prize. With every municipality east of Silicon Valley undertaking "entrepreneurship initiatives," I'm usually a little skeptical, because they often seem to lack a real system in place and are just trying to capitalize on buzz; a city can launch as many Incubators as they want, but without a network of support, access to funding or mentors, and a community united behind the project, those spaces fail to really spur any true change in an area.
However, after thinking about Buffalo's initiative some more, I think it's a really good idea. And that's coming from personal experience.
My partners and I launched NMC while still in college, and the motivating factor for the company was the Carolina Challenge, a business plan competition sponsored by UNC. We were lucky enough to win that competition and take home the $12,500 prize (essentially $1 million to a college student). I think I can safely say that without the Carolina Challenge, NMC wouldn't exist; however, interestingly, I do think it would exist even if we hadn't won the competition.
That's the beauty of business plan competitions -- they dangle a carrot in front of you that encourages you to do a lot of the hard work up front. We had to spend a lot of time thinking about what we wanted to do, writing our business plan (which quickly got pitched out the window after a few months in business), validating that to judges, and making connections in the local business community as we traversed the competition. All of those things had to happen before we won or lost, and I distinctly remember all of us agreeing to act on our idea regardless of the final outcome, because of all the work we had already put in and the value we saw in it.
Someone getting cheap space at an incubator doesn't necessarily have to go through all those steps, and it makes them less likely to be fully bought in when times get tough (and they will).
And how did that investment from the community turn out? NMC is now 8 years old, employing a dozen people in the area, helping the local tax base, and contributing to the community in many ways (including fun windows). We're not Google or Facebook, but I'd say it worked out well for that relatively small investment, and we've also tried to pay it back to UNC by helping with the competition and speaking to entrepreneurship classes on campus.
There are definitely plenty of ways to spur entrepreneurship in an area and many are cheaper than $5 million, but I really respect what Buffalo is doing and it seems to be outside the box of what most communities are trying (incubators, pitch days, etc.). It wouldn't surprise me if one of the biggest successes to ultimately come out of the process is someone who doesn't win the grand prize. I'm excited to see where this goes!
And your reward for reading this whole post is getting to see what we looked like when we won that competition 8 short years ago (get a haircut, bro)...