Monday, July 9, 2012

Startup Marketing

Today, I'm super excited about Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's Summer Fest. We took my kids to The Magic Flute on Sunday afternoon. I wasn't expecting much, as this opera company is the smaller and lesser-known one in Pittsburgh. (Can you believe my awesome adopted city has not one but two opera companies?) I was blown away by the quality of the singing, the excellence of the orchestra, and the overall quality of the production and inventiveness of the staging.

Unfortunately, the house was perhaps one-third empty. This problem got me thinking about startup marketing. How would I have known about the terrific quality of this production except by word of mouth? This is the first summer that Opera Theater of Pittsburgh is performing a summer series, so that might explain the lack of knowledge. Their basic marketing was clearly on target; I found out about the performance by direct mail. I assume the opera company got my information from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's shared database. But what about other targets such as people who live in or near Fox Chapel where the performance took place?

These days, a lot of startups wishing to expand quickly are using social crowdsourcing deal sites such as Groupon and Living Social. If you have a business with expiring inventory, such as a theater with a limited number of seats or an event that can't make you money once the date has passed, these services can be an excellent option as long as they don't degrade the experience of higher-paying customers by making the large crowd an unpleasant experience. Startups have to take care that they are able to meet the demand, however. I had an experience with a lawn service recently that had to refund me the money because they could never make it out to mow. That's worse than no marketing at all.

A better potential approach is to rely on your existing best supporters. For Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, what about a campaign to give season ticket holders free tickets if they sign up a certain number of friends? Or for us, a discount on next weekend's performance of Candide if we bring four other friends? Or even just a simple plea to existing supporters to Facebook, blog or tweet about the summer series based on their loyalty to the brand?

Right now, we're trying to leverage these relationships at Vocollect. As the industry leader in voice-directed distribution center work, we have a lot of extremely happy customers who are willing to serve as references and/or refer us to other potential customers. It's a lot easier than finding and convincing companies who have never heard of us, and it tends to lead to more like-minded companies and therefore better sales close rates on new deals. All that's required is some database work, internal coordination and a commitment from the executive team that "share of wallet" matters.

For early-stage companies, that means getting a few great wins and wowing those customers with your service and abilities. It's not an easy task, but some of the fastest-growing companies that have survived for a long time seem to take this coddling of early customers to heart. That's an attitude even seasoned companies can use.

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