February 26, 2020No Comments

Go Ahead and Steal This 20 Stories Marketing Exercise

Use this 20 Stories marketing exercise to gain insight into what is already working and where you can double down to get even better results.

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June 29, 2019Comments are off for this post.

The Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Solid Startup Marketing Plan

I would like to help you create a solid marketing plan for your startup, and we’re going to start by poking holes in an Instagram ad I saw recently.

In it, a well-known author, whose book I have read and even recommend on occasion, was shilling half-truths.

“Most marketing dollars are wasted,” he said.


“Marketing is easy.”

Umm... Disagree. Marketing is simple but not easy. There's a significant difference.

“Watch my three five-minute marketing videos, and I'll help you....”

Uh-oh. We have now taken a detour into a sideshow tent. A huckster in a shiny top hat is touting a miracle cure made from castor oil and pay per click ads. Take twice a day and all of your business ailments will disappear!

When you look past the glitter and hyperbole of that Instagram ad and the emotional contortions triggered by clever copywriting, what will you see? A salesman promoting a marketing program. I don't have a problem with sales or programs. Both are essential for growing a business.

I do, however, have a problem with the promise of “easy.”

Marketing your startup isn't "easy."

When is long-term success in a desirable area—business, life, creative expression, committed relationships, faith, health—ever easy to come by? The word “easy” is fishier than an ocean breeze blowing through a salmon canning factory in July.

Marketing is simple, not easy, the same way a marathon is simple, not easy. When running a marathon, you put one foot in front of the other one. You keep doing that for 26.2 miles. Eventually, you cross the finish line. If simple were the same as easy, then my hips wouldn’t have felt like they were coming unsocketed. I wouldn’t have been sore for a week after the Music City Marathon.

What our marketing stuntman was trying to say was that you can take a definitive step today to improve your marketing. What he neglected to say was this: Once the excitement and novelty have worn off, you must keep putting one foot in front of the other. Consistency, not miracle marketing elixirs, will help you form new habits, build stamina, and produce results. Consistency trumps everything in marketing, and though no single step is all that hard, putting together 55,000 of them is.

Have I got you nodding your head in agreement? Good. We’ll move on to the reason you’re reading this post: creating a solid startup marketing plan.

Team Balernum puts together a lot of marketing plans, and I’m going to guide you through our framework. You can use it on your own, or you can hire our painfully attractive team to bring you donuts and create the plan with you.

Step 1 - Start with P.R.O.S.E.

P.R.O.S.E. stands for Products, Relationships, Opportunities, Services, and Experiences/Events. In this exercise you list the ways you make money in each of those five categories.

The goal is to capture every way your business makes money (or could within a short timeframe).

(This exercise may feel more like business development than marketing strategy for some folks, but it’s an important for reasons I’ll explain shortly.)

Step 2 - Think through ROI and ROT.

Once you have a complete list of the ways you make money, you must ballpark your return on investment and return on time for each one.

  • Which Products, Relationships, Opportunities, Services, and Experiences/Events make you the most money?
  • Which cost you the least to deliver or fulfill?
  • Which are inexpensive in terms of time spent? 

One of our clients is a founder who also owns a pharmacy. He has a Pharm.D. and can compound custom medications. Some of those prescriptions have a crazy profit margin—like 99% crazy. For example, we discussed one medication that costs the pharmacy $3 in raw ingredients and materials. They turn around a charge $1000.

That margin seems too good to be true, and it is. Our client hadn't factored in Return on Time. (Isn't ROT a lovely acronym?) He is one of the few pharmacists in our area who can make this particular medication, and he recently had to spend two hours on a Sunday doing it.

The pharmacy has many other offerings with a “worse” profit margins, but they’re also more scalable because they don’t consume his limited inventory of time. His staff can handle fulfillment and free him up to focus on the startup.

When marketers talk about marketing, we love to toss out terms like “metrics,” “KPIs,” “LTV,” and “ROI.” ROT is just as important, yet marketers rarely bring it up.

Should your startup send an eblast and generate a metric crapton of sales for Proprietary Gizmo #1 if fulfilling all those orders is going to eat up an entire Saturday? Yes, the tactic “worked.” It generated ROI. However, it also made you miss your daughter’s dance recital. Is that why you’re in business?

At Balernum we discourage our clients from marketing certain products and services if that growth will have an adverse effect on company culture and on lives outside of work.

Now for Arts & Crafts Time!

Draw two circles and label them “Good Profit” and “Fast Delivery.” Put all of the revenue-producing stuff from the PROSE exercise inside one or both of the circles. Where do they overlap? Focus your marketing efforts on the offerings in that sweet spot.

Step 3 - Set goals.

The marketing plans we create with founders bring detail and color to these areas:

  • Goals
  • Strategies
  • Falsifiable Hypothesis
  • Measurement
  • Timeframe
  • Tactics
  • Activities
  • Schedule
  • Tools
  • Team
  • Budget

We’ll always appreciate Wayne Gretzky for reminding us that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

With that in mind, what is your first growth goal? Assign a dollar amount to it. What is the average value of one of your sweet spot offerings? Take your revenue target and divide it by that number.

Fill in this goal statement:

By (specific date) I want (X number of) sales with a value of (X number of dollars) per month. That revenue will then be used strategically to (fund Phase I of your Top-Secret World Domination Plan).

Step 4 - Do more of what’s already working (aka, pick strategies).

Lots of founders and business owners develop Shiny Object Syndrome as soon as they get serious about marketing. If it’s new and fancy and all the cool kids are doing it, it must be more effective then your tried-and-true strategies, right?

Tradeshows? Gross!

Sexy infographics, content marketing acrobatics, and Snapchat singalongs? Sign me up!

Don’t chase that shiny squirrel just yet. Do this first:

  1. Go back to your sweet spot and make a list of the last 20 sales you made for each offering.
  2. Write down the name of the customer and how she found her way to you. A Google search? A referral? A lead from an industry event? A new relationship from a meetup? A contact form submission from your website? A walk-in at your brick-and-mortar location?
  3. Next, write a one- or two-sentence story about the path that each sale followed.
  4. Now look for patterns. How do you get new business most often?
  5. Finally, take a look at your marketing budget and activities. Does your spending line up with the activities that generate new business for you? Are you spending most of your time on those activities? Are you spending time and resources on any marketing tactics that don’t appear to produce results?

You should now have greater clarity around which strategies are already generating sales for you. Instead of chasing shiny objects, I’d recommend doubling down on your most effective strategies for a specific timeframe—say, six to twelve months.

Here are some examples:

  • Email Marketing – Send two email newsletters per month.
  • Content Marketing – Write and promote two blog posts each month.
  • Events – Attend two industry events per month, meet at least five new people at each one, and schedule at least two one-on-one lunches or coffees.
  • Instagram – Post daily, add an average of three new followers per day (or roughly 100 new followers per month), and welcome every new follower in a direct message.
  • Facebook Ads – Create and run Facebook ads with a starting budget of $10 per day to split test ads and benchmark clickthrough and conversion rates.
  • Webinar – Host one live webinar per month for three months to benchmark conversions and ROI.

Nathan Barry told me that he scaled his SaaS, ConvertKit, by emailing bloggers and giving them demos. He won new customers one by one using… direct sales. What could be more boring than that?!

Nathan’s article is worth the read: “Direct Sales for Bootstrapped SaaS Startups: from $1,300 to $725,000 MRR.”

Step 5 - Formulate a hypothesis.

I picked up the phrase “falsifiable hypothesis” somewhere, and I wish I could give credit where credit is due.

Answer these two questions for each of your chosen strategies:

  • What do I expect to learn?
  • What do I expect to happen?

Any good experiment requires a hypothesis that can be disproved. If you’re going to commit to sending two email newsletters per month for twelve months, then take the extra step and write down a guess about the results.

For example, you might believe that email marketing is an effective way to generate sales through your e-commerce website. And sending more emails will generate more sales; educating your audience about your various products and sharing free, valuable content will contribute an extra $2,000 per month.

Actually sending the emails will help you to validate or invalidate those assumptions.

Whether you were right or wrong, you’ll be in a better position to become a smarter marketer.

Step 6 - Choose your metrics.

It’s hard to know if your marketing efforts have succeeded if you don’t measure anything and thereby attribute sales to specific strategies, tactics, and activities.

That’s why we advise clients to decide what they’re going to measure in advance.

For email marketing, metrics might include open rates, click-through rates, and attributable sales.

Tracking these numbers in a Google Sheet just once a month will give you a pulse.

Word to the wise: It’s easy to get lost in analytics and attribution. It’s also easy to get fixated on “vanity metrics”—numbers that make you feel good but don’t grow your bottom line.

Unless you’re really, really good with analytics and have significant experience running a marketing program, I’d recommend that you stay focused on what really matters: sales. You can geek out on the nuances later when you’re rolling around in a bathtub full of cash.

Finally, Brad Feld’s thoughts on “Three Magic Numbers” are must-read for any founder.

Step 7 – Set a timeframe.

Maybe your marketing experiments will work. Maybe they won’t. You don’t want to give up too soon, and you also don’t want to stubbornly persist with dead end strategies, tactics, and activities.

By time boxing your marketing experiments, you set an appointment with yourself. You will take a step back from the daily marketing hustle, review results, and reexamine your hypothesis:

  • What has happened over the last six months (or insert timeframe here)?
  • What have I learned?
  • What are my metrics telling me?
  • Am I seeing positive ROI?
  • Is that ROI worth the time I’m investing (i.e., positive Return on Time)?
  • Should I continue with this strategy?
  • Why or why not?
  • If yes, how can I optimize?
  • If no, what should I try next?

The goal of marketing isn’t a perfect track record of positive ROI but being less and less wrong with each experiment. Fail forward.

Step 8 – Choose relevant tactics and activities.

Each of your strategies will require tactics. For example, if you commit to email marketing, then you may use tactics like one-time or limited-time offers, seasonal promotions, training delivered as a sequence, giveaways, and so on.

In the activities department, you’ll obviously need to write the emails, schedule them, send them, and measure the results. You may also need to field people’s questions and take other actions dictated by the response.

For example, if individual emails generate higher than average sales, then you might want to resend those emails to all of your Unopens. Or, if certain people finish an email course or nurture sequence, you may need to move them to a different segment or sequence.

Allow me to state the obvious: Different strategies require different tactics and activities. It’s helpful to know what all you’re committing to before you get started because certain tactics and activities consume more time than we realize—e.g., writing high-quality email content and writing intelligent responses to people’s questions.

Rather than underestimate the time required and overcommit to too many strategies, you’d be wise to commit to doing fewer things better.

Step 9 - Set a schedule.

How often will you be sending emails? What regular activities enable you to do that? When exactly will you knock out those activities?

For example, you may write an email on a Tuesday, edit and schedule it on a Wednesday, and send it on Thursday morning. You may take a look at your metrics and add those them to your GSheet the following Monday afternoon.

A well-defined schedule will help you balance marketing with your other work and responsibilities.

Step 10 - Choose your tools, team, and budget.

Will you use Mailchimp or ConvertKit? What writing app do you use to create email content? Who is responsible for various tasks and activities? How much are you going to spend on marketing in general and on running specific strategies?

You may be able to tell by now that I believe ambiguity is your enemy. Ambiguity thwarts consistency, and consistency trumps everything in marketing.

You shouldn’t be running and gunning from week to week. You should know who is writing emails, what that person is writing about, when s/he will be finished, and when the email will go out.

Don’t improvise. Do follow a clear plan. Clarity grows confidence. Confidence produces decisive action. Decisive action leads to tangible results, positive or negative, that bring fresh clarity.

(Can we now join hands and sing, “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King?)

Parting Thoughts

The individual components of your plan matter less than your commitment and consistency. Only doing something consistently and measuring results precipitates real market feedback and positions you to make more informed marketing decisions. Consistent marketing and controlled learning will eventually convert your marketing spend into investment.

The 80/20 Rule is often at play in marketing. 20% of your effort produces 80% of your results. More strategies and more tactics won’t necessarily produce better results. In fact, the pursuit of more for its own sake leads to misery, kind of like overeating at a buffet.

A marketer’s job is to use trial and error to find out strategies and tactics comprise the 20%. Trial and error requires us to make mistakes. Go figure.

So make a startup marketing plan. Stick to it for six months or a year. See what happens. Stop doing what isn’t working, and use the reclaimed time and resources on new experiments. Double down on what works.

Marketing isn’t rocket surgery. It is trial and error coupled with careful observation.

Want free help documenting your plan?

Put in your name and email address below, and we’ll send you the download link for Balernum’s Marketing Map template. It’s the same one we use with clients, and thanks to this blog post, you now know exactly how to use it to create your startup marketing plan.