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Q. I'm set to launch my first social network startup at the end of February. However, to gain some initial interest, I need to market the site in an inexpensive way. What are some different, low cost ways I can do so?
A. It is important for every founding team to be thinking about how to market in efficient, low-cost ways, as it is incredibly challenging to build a long-term sustainable business on paid marketing alone.
In fact, at my VC firm Forerunner Ventures, we are most excited by companies that create a foundation for their business by leveraging non-paid strategies.
Here are a few ways we have seen companies be successful (not in any particular order of importance after point one):
1. Focus on the customer experience. This will typically be my first answer to many questions. The reality is if you build an outstanding service or product people will use it, they will talk and others will come. This is singlehandedly the best way to build viral leverage into your model. Stay close to your core user base, engage in learning from their actions and feedback, and iterate to improve on the experience you're delivering at all times. There is always room to be better.
2. Cross promotions/exposure. Segment your target user bases and brainstorm places where they congregate -- both online and offline. Think about how you can introduce your site into their community. Are you targeting parents? Perhaps you can promote through after-school programs, pediatrician offices and local businesses addressing kids, among other places. This can start as something simply as offering literature about your site at these locations. If your site offers a value-added service (relative to their core audience), perhaps these businesses will be open to profiling your site on their customer-distribution platforms. Most people and businesses are interested in continuing to engage their audiences via content, so give them something to talk about.
3. Content strategies. Establish your brand as a subject-matter expert. Can you identify platforms where your customer is and offer an authenticity and relevant point-of-view through added content? For example, if you're a social network focused on health and wellness, think about other sites or places where your target users go to educate themselves on that topic. Can you approach those places with an offer to author a weekly "experts" column, which should be something that is additive to the experience they are already delivering to their user, while also promoting your community. Again most all businesses are looking to enhance their own customer experience and touch points, so if you can contribute supplemental material to them it stands to be a win-win.
4. Build virality into your product/experience. User get user strategies continue to gain importance in most consumer business marketing plans. What sort of touch points can you build into your offering that lend themselves to sharing? In the case of building presence for a social network in particular, are there relevant questions a new user can pose to his or her existing community, inviting them to answer or engage on the platform? Or are there actions taken within the platform -- anything from signing up for group activities, establishing dates and extending invitations -- that can be shared out naturally to others raising their awareness of the network?
5. Media exposure. Good old-fashioned media exposure is still relevant. Craft a business and consumer story for your company and think about the most relevant places to distribute. There is a lot of noise out there these days, so be sharp about your angle and think about why someone should or would care to publish or read your article. Give them something personal, noteworthy and authentic to dig into. If you can't attract top-tier press, that's okay. Start with blogs while you build a base of support and move on from there.