A Crash Course in Minimum Viable Marketing

Editor’s note: The 2015 Lean Startup Conference is just around the corner (it’s from November 16-19th in San Francisco, and there’s still time to get your ticket!). We have dozens of excellent speakers and mentors who are eager to share their product development, entrepreneurship, and innovation stories–you’ll never see these experts in one place ever again. Learn more about them in our ‘Lean Startup Speakers’ series.

Next up is Ritika Puri, who is the Co-Founder of Storyhackers and the Chief Storyteller at Lean Startup Co. She’ll be giving a talk on MInimum Viable Marketing at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about her here and see this original post here.

Increase conversion rates. Build brand visibility. Generate an ROI. “Prove” the results of your marketing.

If you’re a marketer of any specialty, at any size organization you’re probably under extreme pressure to generate ‘big wins’ and astronomical growth. But there’s a big question on your mind: how do you go from zero to one million (dollars, users, pageviews, etc.) for a new campaign?

For many marketers the process of developing a new campaign concept feels like throwing darts in the dark. You might start testing ideas until something sticks—which is a good first step, but what you’ve probably realized is that trial and error will only get you so far.

Regardless of your marketing specialty—PR, PPC, SEO, content, or otherwise—you need to take careful steps to optimize your chances of success. That’s where the concept of ‘minimum viable marketing’ comes in.

If you’re familiar with the Lean Startup methodology, the concept stems from Eric Ries’s definition of ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP), defined as the minimum product feature set for gathering the most data and learning. Just think of your marketing campaign as a product rather than a promotion. Every blog post, tweet, and even ad creative serves two external clients: your target audience and your company. Imagine that you’re building a connector.

Along these lines, the core value of ‘minimum viable marketing’ is that it helps you detect potential risks and areas of improvement before you’ve amplified your marketing campaigns to six or seven-figure spends.

Here are some techniques for building a minimum viable marketing campaign, coupled with examples, to help you get started.

Step 1: Put ideas to the test before committing to a larger budget

The field of digital marketing is going through a big transformation. What was once a ‘brand building’ function has now turned into an ROI-focused numbers game. Thanks to new digital analytics capabilities, marketers are able to optimize KPIs like customer lifetime value and direct response conversions. Not to mention, there are dozens of marketing channels that are available for companies to pursue.

With so many complexities at play, how do you ensure that you’re taking the right steps forward? To start, you need to simplify your campaign idea and concept. Rather than jumping in head-first with a six or seven-figure budget, start with a few hundred dollars. You may end up losing money, but at least you’ll gather enough data to iterate your way to a successful, sustainable, and scalable marketing strategy.

Consider this video case study from Mighty Handle, an early stage CPG startup with almost no marketing budget.

In early 2014, Mighty Handle had just achieved its initial product/market fit and was ready for the next big step in its company trajectory: a pilot with a handful of Walmart locations. Before the company could test its product with Walmart customers, however, it needed to overcome a big hurdle—packaging.

Even though Mighty Handle sales were going well online, through channels like Amazon, the company’s marketing advisor Anita Newton wasn’t sure what look and feel would resonate with Walmart customers.

So, she launched a series of paid channel ads on Facebook and YouTube, targeting Walmart’s shopper demographic. This approach allowed her team to collect initial data and test concepts without an extensive market research and design budget. After spending a few hundred dollars on paid channel ads, Newton’s team was able to settle on a design.

The result?

The test was everything that Newton could have wanted and more. Based on her experimentation process, she was able to design a packaging concept that resonated with Walmart’s buyers. Mighty Handle is now available in 3,500 Walmart locations nationwide.

Step 2: Interview your customers

If you’re in the tech world, you’ve probably come across the concept of “customer development,” which is a qualitative research technique that UX specialists use to study their audiences. The idea is simple: face test concepts with your audience to uncover opportunities for iteration. If you want to read more about customer development, check out this resource from entrepreneurship professor Steve Blank.

Customer development is a common practice among product development teams and makes it easier for engineers, product managers, and designers to identify opportunities for improvement—potential mistakes to avoid, new feature ideas, etc.

What you may not know is that customer development is a valuable technique for marketing teams too. And the process is simple:

  • Come up with a list of challenges that you’re experiencing with your marketing, in addition to assumption that you’re making about your customers.
  • Translate that list of challenges and assumptions into concrete questions that you should ask.
  • Come up with a list of 15-20 people in your target audience, focusing on the specific segments that you’re trying to reach.
  • Have a 30-45 minute phone call with each of these people. Bonus: take your customers to lunch or coffee.
  • Record each of these calls. Get them transcribed.
  • Read through and mark up each transcription. Identify trends.
  • Summarize those trends into a cohesive list.

Pay attention to the subtleties in your conversation: your target customer’s tone of voice, the word choices that he or she uses, and the topics that get him or her excited. Use these findings to inform the messaging and creative concepts in your marketing campaigns.

Here’s an example of this process in action:

Curiosity.com, a popular website for curated content, wanted to learn if the company’s messaging was on point. After conducting 15 customer interviews, Curiosity found that members of the company’s target audience identified with variations of the word “inspire.” After changing its website messaging to reflect that concept, the company was able to increase its account registration conversions by 50% and improve retention as a result.

A Crash Course in Minimum Viable Marketing

Step 3: Run tests continuously

You need experimentation to uncover new marketing channels: no exceptions. But getting a ‘testing’ budget is hard, especially when you can’t pre-prove the success of your initiative. It all feels risky because there’s a chance that you’ll lose money.  At the same time, however, you need to run experiments to keep your marketing programs alive. For one, marketing ecosystems change over time, and established channels become ineffective or expensive over time. If you were an early advertiser on AdWords, for instance, you probably paid a small fraction of today’s costs per click (CPCs).

So here’s what you do:

  • Take a look at the profitability of all of your marketing programs, successful and unsuccessful. Study your margins to understand where you’re generating the highest gains and losses.
  • After figuring out where your margins stand, figure out how much you can afford to invest into a research and development program. Maybe it’s $100 a day–maybe it’s more or less. Find out what’s comfortable for you.
  • Using the forecasts that you prepared, come up with a campaign budget cap.
  • Once you have your budget cap in place, run your marketing experiments continuously. At any given time, you should be running at least one test.
  • Aim to fail quickly. Don’t beat a dead horse. Nix your unsuccessful marketing campaigns. Iterate upon the ones that are on the fence. Grow your successes, and learn from your mistakes.

As a case study, one finance publisher was able to grow its campaign budget from $100 to $1M by following this approach–starting small, ironing out kinks, and then scaling.

Final thoughts

When it comes to marketing, the best way to get big is to start small. Study the intricacies of your marketing program, and figure out ways that you can improve. When you find something that finally ‘sticks,’ put your full energy behind it. Ramp it up, and make it part of your core operations. Then, start testing again.

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