If you're trying to find the best marketing channel for your startup, here's a set of simple questions to help narrow down the list.
But first, Peter Thiel said it best:
"Most businesses get zero channels to work: poor sales rather than bad product is the most common cause of failure. If you can get just one distribution channel to work, you have a great business. If you try for several but don't nail one, you're finished.” - Zero to One.
That’s it — you just need to master one channel. But how do you choose which one? The good news? This is actually a very simple decision. The bad news? Picking a channel is the easy part. Getting it to actually work is harder.
What is a channel vs. a tactic?
A channel is a way to get in front of customers, and it’s made up of a group of tactics that require similar skills and assets to execute. For example, cold emails, InMail, and tradeshow sponsorships are all tactics in the “outbound lead gen” channel.
Fortunately, most tactics will fall into 1 of 6 channels:
SEO & inbound: Intercepting relevant prospects who are looking for help
Paid advertising: Buying ads
Organic social & influencers: Building an audience with engaging content
Outbound: Reaching out directly to prospects
Viral or product-led: Customers bring you more customers
Partners or resellers: Someone else sells your product as part of their business
How do you decide which marketing channel is right for your business?
All 6 channels fundamentally “work.” The hard part isn’t “testing” a channel, but figuring out which one your team can master. And mastery is hard… For example, SEO is a “winner-take-almost-all” game, where the top 3 results (out of 500,000) get 70%+ of the traffic. Online ads are sold via auction so the company with the best conversion funnel and the deepest pockets will win. Organic social and influencers…the top 1% get almost all the followers, likes, and clicks. And I don’t need to tell you that direct sales is fiercely competitive, and prospects are inundated with pitches they usually ignore.
Simple questions to help you prioritize channels for your startup.
With all these factors in mind, which of these channels can get you closer to the top 1% in the world? I’d boil that down to two factors:
Best alignment with your business (structurally)
Best alignment with your team’s talents.
Here are some questions to help you decide:
SEO & inbound: Is there any search volume, are people even looking for something related to the thing you sell? And can you create great content and build enough domain authority to rank for it?
Paid advertising: Is the product so easy to show or explain that you can “hook” someone with just a glance? Do you have good direct response copy and design, experimentation and data skills? Can you afford it?
Organic social & influencers: Do your prospects follow influencers? Do you have a remarkable product (i.e. visually stunning, a great story or cultural caché)? Can you secure deals with top influencers in your space?
Outbound direct sales: Is your product hard to adopt and integrate? Is it expensive enough to be profitable after you pay your sales & sales ops teams? Do you have the ability to attract and develop sales and lead-gen talent?
Viral or product-led: Is your product naturally a multi-player experience, meaning, will customers bring more customers naturally as a part of using your product? Can you do great UX design and rapid product experimentation?
Partners or resellers: Does your product naturally sit downstream of another product or service, or help somebody build their core business? (e.g. Shopify wanted to partner with Stripe and PayPal to help their new sellers get up and running.)
Most importantly, instead of constantly testing various channels, pick your best one and focus on mastering it. It takes time to master a channel, so experiment constantly. (And when an experiment doesn't work, take time to figure out why using this post: "How to debug a failed marketing experiment") For more detail on this approach, I strongly recommend the “Drive Growth by Picking the Right Lane” post on the First Round Review, it’s by Dan Hockenmaier and Lenny Rachitsky. I hope this helps!