Founding a startup during COVID-19 has its share of challenges. If you manage to identify a need and finance the launch of your company in this tumultuous time, a new set of challenges awaits: bringing in new customers. Shifting consumer behavior means that you’ll want to look closely at your online presence and digital marketing opportunities as you launch, allowing you to gain traction in the current market, but also positioning yourself for post-pandemic success.
Building an Online Presence
Leaning into a digital presence during COVID-19 will help insulate your business from the closures that many brick-and-mortar companies faced during the pandemic, and may face again in future outbreaks.
There are a few steps that you can take to build a strong online footprint, whether you are a company that operates completely online or one that has a physical presence.
Ensure That Your Online Brand Is Strong
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, e-commerce increased more than 30% between Q1 and Q2 of 2020. This means that for many shoppers, their first stop is online, whether doing research or making a purchase. Invest in your website, social media, and Google My Business profiles to ensure they are updated and instill confidence in your brand.
Social proof is an essential element of any successful business, and with the shift to digital during the pandemic, reviews of your product or service are increasingly important as people are less likely to be able to experience it or meet with you or your team in person. Reviews from trusted sources are a great way to provide the social proof that will help you grow your business.
Provide Digital Booking, Reservations, and Purchasing Options
As shopping increasingly moves online, it’s natural that people will want to buy, book appointments, or reserve online as well. To meet consumers where they are during COVID-19, consider how much of the sales process you can provide digitally to reduce the amount of time people need to spend in your store.
Marketing Your Startup
Effective marketing is crucial during any company launch—and during COVID-19, you may need to deviate from the traditional playbook. A marketing strategy including search engine marketing, social media, email marketing, and public relations tailored to your target audience can help you bring brand awareness to your startup.
Deciding on Marketing Spend
Allocating a marketing budget can be a tricky endeavor, particularly for a pre-revenue startup. The Small Business Administration recommends spending 2%-3% of your revenue for run rate marketing and up to 5% for startup marketing—but notes that the budget really depends on your industry, business size, and growth stage.
Early stage businesses often spend up to 20% of sales on marketing. The SBA recommends that small businesses with revenues of less than $5 million should spend 7%-8% of revenues on marketing, including brand development costs, such as your website or other promotional materials, and promotional costs such as advertising or marketing campaigns.
Paid Search Marketing
In an email interview with The Balance, Jackie LaVana, the owner of Boston-based boutique marketing agency 126 North Digital Marketing, said that paid search marketing—the ads you see at the top of a search engine results page, as well as on other ad networks on sites you visit—can capture an audience that is actively looking, or has “intent.”
LaVana advised that businesses just starting up consider including a budget for paid marketing, even if they are planning to incorporate an organic search engine optimization (SEO) strategy into their marketing. The budget required for a paid search campaign can vary based on product or service.
“I would determine how much you are willing to pay to acquire a customer or lead and then back into what you should spend based on benchmarks for your industry,” LaVana said. “If you know you want to pay $50 to acquire a user, and you know the conversion, click-through, and cost-per-click rates for your industry, you can back into how much traffic you will need, and also if that’s a realistic expectation of how the channel will perform for you.”
While it is possible to create and maintain paid search marketing on your own—through a Google Ads account, for example—it can be complex, and consultants can help you work through some of the tricks to learn what works and what doesn’t for your audience.
“Even if you ultimately want to manage ads yourself to save money, I would work with an expert in digital marketing to set you on the right track,” LaVana recommended. “They can help you set up a strategy needed to reach the right audience and measure the results effectively.”
Social Media Presence
A strong social media presence is an expectation for most brands, both B2B and B2C—though the most important platforms to focus on may differ. For B2C brands, a focus on visual platforms like Facebook and Instagram is important, whereas many B2B brands find more success on LinkedIn.
You’ll want to consider both your organic and your paid social media presence. Your organic presence is what you post to your page or accounts without any ad expense, typically only reaching people who are already followers of your page. A paid social media presence, meanwhile, requires an ad spend and allows you to target a specific audience.
Some things to consider when it comes to your social media presence include:
- Growing your organic followers: Depending on the social platform, you can grow your followers by interacting with other people or businesses on the platform (commenting on or liking posts), or by using hashtags to help get discovered by people within your industry. Increasing your follower base not only helps your posts reach more people, but it also helps increase brand trust when a potential new customer visits your social media profile.
- Building on-brand content: You’ll want to consider your brand presence on social media in the same way you do your website. Ensure that any graphics you are using are on brand with fonts and colors, and that the messaging you are putting out is in your brand voice. Many people may visit your website rarely, but if they follow you on social, they’ll see your brand each time you post—so take it seriously.
- Creating a paid strategy to generate followers and leads: While search engine marketing is great for products or services that people are actively looking for, if you have a niche offering, people may not even know to search for you yet, LaVana said. Social channels can be helpful here—if you understand your audience’s demographics, you can target them on social platforms, so they are served relevant messaging about your company.
Public Relations Campaigns
Many small businesses don’t think that public relations (PR) campaigns are within their reach, but it’s quite possible to do your own PR or hire a consultant to help you. PR, or earned media, means something that someone writes for you unpaid—so it is editorial content and does not cost you as advertisements might. If you have a newsworthy story, this can be a budget-friendly way to get the word out about your launch.
To prepare, consider your target audiences and what information you might have to share with them that is newsworthy. Some ideas for launch PR include:
- Outreach to local press: If you are a locally-based business, consider reaching out to local newspapers, magazines, and business publications that might be interested in your story with a press release or simply an email that you’re launching.
- Trade journal outreach: For B2B companies, trades are an oft-overlooked part of the go to market strategy. Consider where your target audience is reading and reach out to trade journal editors about your launch to work together on a news item or feature.
- Influencer outreach: If you have a consumer product, you might consider reaching out to influencers with a social media presence that matches your target audience and asking them to check out your product and review it if they like it.
While many influencers require paid sponsorships, if you find niche personalities or micro-influencers with fewer than 10,000 followers, they are often happy to work with you in exchange for a sample of your product.
Your PR campaign might also include pitching national reporters on any trends that your business fits into and that are newsworthy at the time, contributing articles to relevant publications, or speaking at events and conferences to gain exposure and brand recognition.
Long-Term Planning for Success
Speaking to The Balance via phone, Ken Alozie, SCORE mentor and managing partner at commercial financing firm Greenwood Capital Advisors, said that COVID-19 has created a more volatile business environment, and to survive long-term, it’s important to be on top of the changes and ensure that crisis mode doesn’t lead to bad long-term decisions.
“Business owners are scrambling to keep up [with government programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program],” Alozie noted. “One thing that may be overlooked sometimes are the HR and legal ramifications of these decisions. So, I think companies would be wise to be sure they are in compliance with employment and labor laws, and that they have good advice in those areas.”
With the ongoing uncertainty around a second wave of the pandemic, Alozie also believes it’s wise to consider how you may go virtual with your business.
“The companies I’ve seen growing through COVID have a virtual element,” he said. “Or, they have been able to transition to virtual or remote during this time.”
In a separate phone interview with The Balance, Jennifer Neundorfer, managing partner at venture capital investors January Ventures, said that rethinking the go-to-market strategy is also important for businesses so that they can generate market traction quickly and demonstrate value for investors. “That might mean thinking about a go-to-market strategy that is not a long enterprise sales cycle,” she suggested. The pandemic has made it very clear which companies are able to grow quickly and which are flat or shrinking—and traction is necessary to get investors interested at this time. “Still, companies with strong leadership and demonstrable traction are demanding a premium,” Neundorfer pointed out.
Alozie also signified the importance of planning for different scenarios during COVID-19, including projections for different states of being open and closed during any future shutdowns.
“If you’re looking to raise capital, investors will want to know how you performed during COVID, and what your projections are under these different assumptions,” he said. “Businesses need to be prepared to discuss and demonstrate this if they are looking for funding.”
Startups That Have Succeeded
While we are only a handful of months into the pandemic, there are companies that have demonstrated success despite—or sometimes because of—the difficult circumstances we’re experiencing. Nearly all of these companies have one thing in common: a strong digital element or online presence.
Alozie works with a health care client that had already started a transition to telehealth before the pandemic hit, but leaned into it further during the shutdown. By shifting to a telehealth model, the client also discovered they could expand their customer base beyond their region, he said.
Peer-to-peer coaching and tutoring platform EdLyft, a startup that is part of January Ventures’ portfolio, has also grown exponentially, having launched in beta two weeks before the national COVID-19 shutdown.
“They are leaning in hard to a trend that was already there, but COVID has accelerated their adoption,” said Neundorfer. “They’ve done a great job harnessing the demand.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also points to a variety of startups that have met increased consumer demand based on behavior shifts—including gaming, food delivery, and home fitness companies.
A Potential Opportunity Awaits
For companies that are able to adapt to changing consumer behavior, reach their audience through online channels, and be flexible in the face of changing circumstances, there’s a chance to build a business.
Neundorfer indicated that the changing way that we work is also enabling many founders to start their companies. “We are seeing a lot of people start companies because of this massive opportunity, but also because they are at home, working remotely,” she said. “They have more flexibility in their time, or may have even been laid off. We’re seeing an interesting intersection of rapid market change and opportunity coupled with talent on the market.”