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Top 4 Challenges in Marketing for Startups and How to Overcome Them

Founding a startup is a lot like jumping off a cliff and building an airplane on the way down. It takes equal parts enthusiasm, balls and whole lot of faith that you’ll survive to tell the tale.

You’ve got your idea in place and you’ve even written out a business plan that you’ll never use, but now you’re faced with getting this thing in front of people. Enter marketing. Marketing a startup is a whole different animal than marketing a traditional business or corporation.

For starters, you don’t have any brand recognition to get you in the door, your budget is usually limited and a lot of times (but not always) you’re dealing with your potential customers in a completely digital atmosphere.

Jonathan Russell, CMO of Bizdaq described it perfectly when he said, “Often purely digital businesses become a little disconnected from their customers.”

To sum it up, marketing a startup can be a challenge. But, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Learning from other startup’s marketing challenges AND solutions can help you avoid going through them yourself.

We talked to dozens of business owners and developed a list of four most common marketing challenges for startups, along with actionable solutions. Yeah, you’re welcome.

Marketing Challenge 1: Competition. Or as I like to say, other businesses vying for the same customer dollars you are. Even if you’ve got a truly groundbreaking business idea that’s never been thought of before, you’ve still got other businesses vying for the attention and money of your target market. And it’s your job to convince them that they’d be better off spending their hard earned money with you. It can be a tough gig.

Shelly Wood, an attorney and startup founder chimed in, “The biggest challenge is to be competitive with other firms on fees.  The location of my office has 3 surrounding firms... So it is going to be a challenge to be competitive.”

Her sentiments are common among startup business owners. How do you stand out with so many competing businesses vying for attention?

Solution: Your competition doesn't matter. Okay, it kind of does, but not in the way you think. Instead of scouring your competitors’ websites and social media pages to figure out what they’re doing that’s so special so you can mimick it, pay attention to what they’re NOT saying or doing instead.

Related - 3 Reasons Your Competition Doesn’t Matter to Your Marketing Strategy

Your unique selling proposition always lies in what you have on offer that your competitors don’t. Or if you can’t offer something different, at least communicate what you have in a different way.

Case in point, when Burger King was competing head to head with McDonalds, they were able to steal some of the market share with the simple slogan “have it your way.” Truth be told, customers could always ‘have it their way’ at McDonalds as well, but because they failed to point it out, they left money on the table.

Candice Galek, CEO of Bikini Luxe talks about how she competed with major swimwear companies for search engine rankings, “In order to overcome [stiff competition for keywords] we have focused on sharing the images across social media and Pinterest and we have found that we can quickly get our images to rank well and get more exposure. We received over 5 million visits last year.”

In other words, find a way to be different or at least market yourself in a different way and you’ll win some of the market share.

Marketing Challenge 2: A barrage of marketing options. The rise of popularity in digital journalism and social media has given rise to an influx of digital marketing options, in addition to the traditional marketing avenues that have existed for decades. For startup business owners the myriad of marketing options can be overwhelming and confusing.

“OVERWHELM!   New (and old) entrepreneurs are hit with so much information about what is necessary and imperative in order to put themselves out there that it difficult to discern what is right for any particular business,” said Kathy Ekhart, a success coach.

Solution: Focus on finding out who your target audience is and where they hang out. Once you’ve deciphered who your marketing will be geared at, you can narrow down your marketing options.

For example, there’s no need to use social media if you’re targeting nursing home residents. Likewise, employing a Pinterest strategy may be unnecessary if your target market doesn’t like to consume their content visually.

If you decide to go the route of hiring a professional marketing agency to do your bidding, check out this helpful deep dive into choosing a marketing firm. “3 Tips to Choose a Marketing Firm: What Agency Is Right For You?”

Bottom line: Target market. Find it. Study it. Live it. Breathe it. Dominate it.

Marketing Challenge 3: Staying focused. Marketing challenges aren’t limited to nailing down the best marketing strategy. Even the best marketing strategies can fail, if your team is distracted by other obligations or opportunities.

Startup business owners, moreso than traditional business owners, often have outside jobs or school obligations to contend with, in addition to running and marketing the new startup. Jumping on every potential collaboration opportunity for the new startup can also add to this distraction.

Failure to focus AND take action on your marketing will leave your startup dead in the water.

Solution: Outsource your time and learn to say no. Thanks to technology (and other brilliant startup founders), marketing automation tools are abundant. Simple tools such as Hootsuite can save you time on automating your social media postings. More advanced tools like InfusionSoft or Vocus can automate your media relations campaigns, sales pipelines and everything in between. Automating can save you time, money and a whole lot of stress.

Also, learn to resist the temptation to jump on every opportunity that comes your way. It’s easy to get excited about new partnerships or opportunities for your startup, but consider whether or not the opportunities really align with your target market and your branding guidelines before you jump in.

Marketing Challenge 4: Limited Marketing Budget. Startups usually operate on a shoestring budget, and even startups with massive funding have investors to report back to on every single penny spent. The problem is that startup founders perceive this to be a disadvantage when it comes to implementing a viable marketing strategy. Marketing costs money, right? Yes, but there’s a way to overcome that.

Solution: Focus on lean marketing and free resources.

Anthony West, a startup founder at PhotoNoteIt, discusses the all-too-familiar frustration of dealing with  a limited marketing budget and he also talks about his solution, “For most of our Startup life (thus far), we’ve had little to no funds that could be dedicated to a big marketing push; meaning, paid advertisements on and offline were not in the for-seeable future. However, we have taken advantage of all the free tools available to promote our company to those we know on our social feeds who have in turn promoted for us on their social feeds.”’

Businesses of today have a major advantage over businesses of decades past: free information at their fingertips. If you don’t know how to do something when it comes to marketing, odds are you can figure it out (for free) by investing a little time on Google or online business magazines.

If you don’t have time to do it yourself, getting laser focused on your target market and hiring a freelancer or marketing agency to take on just a few marketing tasks directed at that market can be an affordable alternative to hiring someone full time.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; startups aren’t for the faint of heart. But if you’ve got a compelling reason behind what you’re doing, the right team in place to make it happen and the fortitude to make it through the tough times, you can succeed in marketing your startup.

Craig Wolfe of CelebriDucks offers a bit of parting inspiration, “I’m a big fan of Milton Hershey who failed in business so many times that it seemed there was no hope for him. And yet, not only did he persevere and make it work, but gave away his life’s fortune while he was still alive donating it all to doing good for others. That’s the way to live your life!”

This is Part 2 in the “Startup Marketing Success” series. For more startup marketing tips and 3 real life startup success stories, head on over to “3 Small Business Marketing Success Stories You Can Learn From”.

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