Community marketing for a bootstrapped startup

What advice would I give to a bootstrapped startup?

I haven’t thought about bootstrapped marketing in a while. Then a cold email from a Toronto founder got my gears turning. They asked if I had any tips for a young, bootstrapped tech company.

This post is what came to mind.

Connect your brand to your user’s pain points.

The content you produce when you’re tight on resources should align to your mission as a brand. This hits on your core purpose as a business — your “why”, per Simon Sinek — that transcends any specific product or feature. This gives you room to grow as your offering expands beyond your existing product.

Good, relevant content is a raw resource. It can help you with paid campaigns, user activation, user retention, and so much more.

Don’t dwell on search traffic alone. Sure, broad content can bring in search traffic. But to what end? It might help lift brand awareness, but it’s less aligned to your user’s pain points. Where do people go from there if they’re not a fit for your product or service?

You’re not a publisher. More pageviews doesn’t mean more revenue.

Weave your product into an original content series.

“Customer as hero, brand as guide” is an old marketing trope because it works. It’s not about what you can do for your customer. It’s about what they can achieve with your help. You’re Yoda, not Luke.

Consider the “shot on iPhone” series from Apple. Their users’ creative work is the focal point of the ads. They don’t talk about the features that let you take beautiful photos. It’s implied.

What’s your version of “shot on iPhone”? What’s your original content series? One that portrays your users as the hero, with you as the guide, and your product as the tool that helps them succeed?

Show up where your users spend their time.

The right message shown to the right people in the right place at the right time. That’s the core of advertising. If all goes well, a small percentage of the people you reach will pay attention. If all goes really well, an even smaller percentage will take action.

Advertising is a transaction. You pay to interrupt. It works for scale and reach. It’s great for raising awareness. But it’s a poor substitute for word-of-mouth referrals and relationship building.

That’s where the hustle comes in — or, one of my early employers put it, “shoveling the gravel”. It’s the hard work, moving one stone at a time, that lays the foundation for something much greater.

For a bootstrapped startup that means hanging out where your potential users are. Online communities are great for this.

Lurk for a while to see what users are struggling with. Note the recurring challenges that align with your brand. These are all potential pain points for your content to cover.

Contribute to discussions and answer questions once you’re familiar with the group. Every helpful post you make helps build your credibility.

Don’t limit yourself to thinking about content on the platforms you own. Be a contributing expert for others: Write guest posts. Appear on podcasts and webinars. Present at meetups and events.

You’re shoveling another small piece of gravel every time. Each guest appearance is a chance to point back to the content on your your site. You’re link building as you go, lifting your site’s SEO and referral traffic sources.

Turn your users into a community.

What happens when a user signs up for your product? You likely send them an activation email to confirm their account. But then what?

Send new users an email that welcomes them to your user community. The email might come from your founder or community manager. Whatever the case, make sure the “reply to” email address doesn’t bounce.

You can do a few helpful things in that welcome email:

(Re)introduce your brand and mission. A single paragraph will do the trick. It’s a small gesture that adds a touch of personal warmth. It also reinforces the user’s decision to try your product or service.

Point your new users to the resources that’ll help them get started. That could be a product walkthrough (video + text), a new user webinar, or Help documentation.

Point new users to your user community platform. IMO this should be one central destination. It’s where users share tips & requests, find help, and connect with other users. It’s also the place where you’ll share product updates and invite feedback.

I’m a fan of Discourse, Vanilla, and Invision Community. Likely because I grew up on the web with old-school message boards. Salesforce Community and Khoros are two popular platforms for enterprise. ZenDesk recently added community features (Zendesk Gather), so there’s a more seamless integration with support workflows.

Collaborate with your top users.

Your top users are a valuable asset. They’re a source of deep insights into your product and the people you’re trying to attract. They’re also a source of testimonials and advocacy in your early days.

You should be able to identify your top users through your platform analytics. Mixpanel and Baremetrics have user profiling features that can help here. You could also identify top users through their participation in your user community.

Bring these people together into a superuser program. Give them special treatment. Invite them to a private backchannel with your team. Include them in beta tests. Empower them with all the resources they need to both improve and advocate for your product.

Bottom line? Always be helping.

My perspective on community marketing anchors on proactive communication and support. Leading by helping will earn you more long-term brand trust and credibility. This good karma goes further than competing on features or pricing alone.

There are prerequisites for this to work, though. Your product has to perform as expected and actually ease the pain for users. You have to close the loop on reported issues and feedback. And you have to be transparent and candid about the work you’re doing.

“We value your opinion” and “your call is important to us” are meaningless if it’s not backed up with action. It’s easier to do that in a bootstrapped startup than a slow-moving enterprise.

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Cover image by Sawyer Bengtson on Unsplash

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