How to Apply Lean Startup Principles to Marketing

by Angela Stringfellow on October 14, 2013
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Startups must maximize every dollar, especially when additional investor funding is contingent on early success. Here’s how to apply the Lean Startup principles to your marketing efforts.

1. Experiment, measure, repeat. The Lean Startup model emphasizes experimentation. Gina Rau, a marketing and brand strategist, says she follows a four-step process for applying the Lean Startup principles to marketing: test, learn, iterate, repeat.

Rau’s primary focus is content marketing. For her clients, that means testing out blog posts, email marketing messages, tweets, and other short missives to identify what resonates with their target audiences. This way, they avoid investing time and money in webinars, e-books, or even a full-blown content strategy based on an untested group of keywords with no guarantee of success.

Testing makes success far more likely, although it’s still possible to fail during the full-out implementation phase due to any number of reasons, from a fluke testing result to a shift in consumer attitudes. That’s why the constant experimentation mindset is so important — you must be prepared to abandon ship and change up your strategy at any time you find it’s not working. “The ability to be flexible and iterate allows marketers to tweak the focus until they hit the sweet spot,” Rau says.

2. Take advantage of low-cost initiatives. Digital marketing is one of the approaches that’s most compatible with the Lean Startup model. Greg Stallkamp, CEO of the regional charter airline Lakeshore Express, says digital marketing trumps traditional forms of advertising in several ways:

  • It’s measurable. Many digital marketing initiatives, such as social media and pay-per-click advertising, offer real-time analytics.
  • It’s affordable. In some cases, such as do-it-yourself search engine optimization and content marketing, the only investment required in digital marketing efforts is your own time.
  • It’s easily modified. Social media, pay-per-click advertising, and even re-targeting campaigns can be changed within a matter of hours if you’re not getting the desired results.

“In terms of timing, the effectiveness of a campaign can be measured within the first few days. While this approach may seem premature, the first 10 to 15 percent of the audience is usually a good bellwether for the general market you are going to reach,” Stallkamp says. “If it is resonating with that initial crowd, we’ve found that it will be successful with the general population. If not, the effort should be quickly abandoned.”

3. Know when it’s time to switch gears. There’s no magic formula to figuring out when it’s time to ditch a marketing tactic and move on. But Dmitri Eroshenko, founder and CEO of Relenta, a maker of CRM software, says you should experiment just long enough to know whether it’s working or not.

“It’s a hunch,” he says. “The sense of timing cannot be taught or calculated. It can be cultivated by a large number or experimental cycles.” When you can’t measure, listen to your gut — and your customers. Customer reactions are valuable predictors of success.

4. Navigate the waves of change. You’ve heard the adage “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” But the Lean Startup asks you to throw planning out the window — to some extent. “Planning in business is so ’90s,” Eroshenko says. “Have a goal, yes. Develop the means, yes. Then stay in the moment and do what you’ve planned for the day or a week, tops. Like in [a] battle, the plan goes kaput when the first shot is fired.”

In other words, being in lean startup-marketing mode means you have to be on your toes at all times. When you’re always ready to tackle the next big idea and adapt to change, you’re better prepared to handle the ups and downs that come with constant experimentation — and to stretch your marketing budget to the max.

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