How Marketing Teams at Startups Are Finding Success in 2021
How Marketing Teams at Startups Are Finding Success in 2021 Pixabay

It’s 2021, and startup marketers are facing an uphill battle. Consumers are closing their wallets, businesses are trimming their budgets, and investors are watching eagle-eyed for signs of success or failure.

Only 27% of CEOs say they’re confident they’ll see revenue growth in the next 12 months, and 70% of CMOs say marketing budgets have been slashed. Consumers are in a similar position, with 36% saying they’ll spend less in the next 12 months, close to double the share who said that before the pandemic.

Even though vaccines are rolling out, consumers and businesses alike aren’t yet ready to spend freely. While the market is challenging for all companies, it’s particularly tough for startups that don’t yet have an established reputation. Many startups lack the reserves to make it through the “winter,” and often need to prove themselves to investors who could pull the plug on their funding.

Only around 12% of startups say that they are experiencing significant growth at the moment. Revenue has dropped for 72% of startups, and while it fell by 32% on average, close to 40% saw it plunge by 40% or more.

Startups have to draw on all their marketing magic to produce all the audience interest and qualified sales leads possible.

Grow a strong community into a powerful partner

Never overlook the power of enthusiastic early adopters. A strong community of fans can spread the word about your product much further for free than you could achieve with paid marketing.

Word of mouth recommendations are trusted far more than any brand advertising, so invest time and effort to nurture relationships and build brand ambassadors, whether you’re in the B2B or B2C space.

“Marketing fueled by relationships is equally important,” points out Nir Pochter, the CMO and co-founder of Lightricks, a startup known for its suite of apps, including Facetune, Boosted and Videoleap, that help companies and influencers create eye-catching visuals. “Figure out who in your local area has influence on your potential customers and offer for them to try your product for free, or invite them to a talk or workshop. Build relationships with people who can become your brand ambassadors.”

Unlock intent data to open the door to more sales

Specific content engagement behavior and keyword search patterns can reveal which leads have sales intent and are looking to buy, and which are still in the comparison or early information-gathering stages. B2B startups, in particular, use intent signals to build effective sales and marketing funnels that nurture leads until they display sales intent.

Account-based marketing (ABM) and inbound marketing both use intent data to identify the most promising accounts, but startups need as much intelligence as they can get, to keep lead nurture processes as efficient as possible. With a narrower market and limited funds, it’s even more important to focus your attention on prospects with the highest levels of intent.

“Sales and marketing teams can’t afford to waste time on poorly qualified leads that fall at the final conversion hurdle - the sales call. Sales and marketing need to align their efforts to build comprehensive nurture funnels that identify the right leads and engage them with personalized and relevant interactions,” says Ilan Kasan, CEO and co-founder at Exceed, an intelligent AI assistant that automatically nurtures and qualifies leads for sales meetings.

Today, much of the sales cycle takes place without the direct involvement of a human sales agent. A recent TrustRadius poll has found that 57% of buyers already make decisions without talking with a vendor rep, and most buyer research happens anonymously, making it hard to align sales and marketing on the right leads – unless you use intent marketing.

Yet only 40% of software companies use buyer intent data for lead generation, and just half of those apply it to ABM, according to TrustRadius. Even fewer use it for ad retargeting. “Intent data lets you shine light on that dark funnel and uncover those anonymous prospects who are already interested in what you have to offer,” says Sam Huisache, a TrustRadius research associate.

“It’s a solid way to build a more sustainable sales and marketing pipeline—especially when you choose a strong, low-funnel source of data.“

Many leading product review platforms offer downstream intent data as a service, but startups are mostly familiar with these platforms for lead generation, social proof, and customer referencing than for intent marketing. This data is a powerful signal when it comes to identifying high-intent accounts for outreach, placing CTAs for visitors with high purchase intent, and targeting ads to high intent buyers.

Put assets to work to extend your reach

Startups don’t always realize the full value of their assets. A good website, an effective webinar, and even a highly viewed video are all powerful assets that can advance your sales – but only if you put them to good use. For example, place a link to your top video in every email you send using an email signature generator to get it before more eyes, and share the landing page for your webinar on all your social media channels.

Your product is itself your strongest asset, so invite people to try it out with free trials. Lightrsicks’s Pochter notes that “First and foremost, the success of our product line is really about the quality of the apps. The technological capabilities and the simplicity were unprecedented, and so when we started to heavily market our products, we had a real advantage.”

Given that great product experiences will sell themselves, savvy marketers need to view their challenge as being about driving awareness. After a year of pandemic living, B2B contacts have limited tolerance for high-pressure pitching, which makes it even more important to use your assets well in your marketing.

Leads want to see exactly how the product will help them improve, rather than your boasting. “Write out a list of what your potential customers get out of using your product or service,” says Pochter. “How will their lives, workflows, creativity, experiences, etc. change if they do business with you? This is the core of your marketing. Talk about how awesome they will be, not how awesome you are.”

Virtual events can still be appealing

Just the word “Zoom” is enough to turn people off today, but don’t write it off. The right virtual event can still draw online crowds. Events like roundtables, digital-only conferences and webinars have no geographic limitations, so reach out beyond your normal event crowd to new potential leads.

“Post-webinar interaction with leads needs to be swift and personalized – use your data from the webinar in your interactions with freshly-generated leads,” says Exceed’s Kasan. “Data such as whether the lead stayed until the end of the webinar or dropped off mid-way is key to starting a conversation that will feel informed and relevant.”

To succeed with virtual events, you need to keep them short, interactive and a bit outside the ordinary. It can also be a good idea to appoint an exciting MC who can keep people enthused, moderate Q&A sessions, and stop people from wandering offscreen when a session ends and “forgetting” to return.

Use chat and other software to facilitate virtual networking and encourage attendee reactions and interactions. Jay Baer, founder and CEO of Convince & Convert, writes that “one of the built-in advantages of online conferences is the ability to use the polling function of the software to ask questions of the audience and get instant, mathematical results. You should train your presenters how to use this polling feature to make sessions more interesting and interactive.”

Finally, ensure all presenters have top quality audio and video. Bad audio is so damaging that Baer believes it’s better to have a pre-recorded session with good audio than a live, interactive one with poor audio.

Startups can still achieve marketing success in 2021

All is not lost for startups trying to gain momentum in 2021. Despite the difficult conditions, the right tactics like virtual events, leveraging the power of community, working your assets, and applying intent marketing can help you drive sales and sustain revenue today, tomorrow, and for the long term.

Jurg Benders is a product development, customer acquisition and SaaS expert based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He has co-founded a series of successful companies, including Quel and Odyssee, and he has driven growth as a product lead at INK361 and GE's e-business unit. Today, Jurg serves as a board member at, a medical communications platform, and as the head of product and growth at Preppr, a social media planning and scheduling tool.