Many start-ups think they invented hot water. They think that their product or service is so earth-shatteringly exceptional that customers will naturally flock to it in droves. Guess again. Thousands of other startups have great ideas, hundreds of other startups are doing something very similar to what you’re doing. Isn’t this about your start-up? Are you really the Uber of sector X or the Airbnb of sector Y? Then feel free to stop reading.

For the founders who are a little less sure of themselves, and realize that they will have to work harder to convince consumers: let’s take a look at how you can be unique today.

The Mad Men are dead

In the glory days of advertising – the era of Mad Men – it was simple. If you wanted to sell more, you just had to throw even more money at your advertising. Make sure the consumer can’t see past your brand. Ram your messages and your slogans into their heads. Large consumer brands like Coca-Cola, but also many car brands or tobacco companies, have grown large with this approach.

Today that approach is dead. The avalanche of advertising, bad advertising too, has made people distrust every advertising message. Personalized marketing has backfired, we are increasingly annoyed by intrusive ads from companies that mistakenly think they know us. We’ve developed blinders that make them not even see many ads.

As a company, you have to send out very strong and relevant messages to get the younger generations to stop scrolling on Facebook.

Word-of-mouth advertising: golden oldie is more relevant than ever.

So as a start-up, how can you make sure that your message reaches the target group that needs to hear it? Simple: find your early adaptors and create word of mouth.

Word of mouth was once the only marketing technique available to enterprising people. But the oldest trick in the book is again the most relevant today. That makes sense, in times of plenty and noise, a personal recommendation from people we trust is still the quickest way to get us to reach for our wallet. This can be a friend, a colleague or a neighbour. But it could just as well be someone who we look up to, but don’t even know personally.

Few entrepreneurs have yet to be convinced of the power of word-of-mouth advertising. Only, they think they can’t control word of mouth themselves. You’re wrong. You can perfectly build a strategy for word of mouth. You must build a strategy for word of mouth.

That strategy stands or falls with a
talk trigger
. Whether it’s unique packaging that immediately catches the eye or great customer service, you need to give people something to talk about. That could be something very simple. A colleague leased a car a few weeks ago. When it was delivered, he got a bunch of flowers with it. On the way from the parking lot to his office, at least five colleagues talked to him about the flowers. Was it his birthday? Something good at home? Got a big client? Each time, he told them that the flowers were a gift from leasing company X. Guess which company all these colleagues think of first when they want to lease a car themselves

Talk triggers should support your company’s DNA.

The leasing company in my example clearly places a high priority on customer service. But any stop in the customer journey can be a trigger. As long as it respects your company’s core values.

Lifting trendsetters and pioneers on board

Every brand – everywhere in the world, in every sector – has to convince consumers to give a new product or service a chance. Even Apple and Amazon once had to fight for their very first customers. Once you’ve activated the right talk triggers, it’s time to target those early adopters who believe in your product or service from the start. To the pioneers and trendsetters who later like to say: ‘I was a customer when they were still small and unknown’.

Fortunately, there are also techniques available to convince those coveted early adopters.

  • Use digital channels to find your early adaptors. Linkedin,Twitter, Facebook, Product Hunt, Kickstarter,… All tools that can help you find your early adaptors. How exactly to go about that is worth an additional blog post. But you can, for example, search Twitter for hashtags that fall within your domain, and start a conversation by leaving a valuable comment. Don’t go posting a sales pitch here! Above all, show that you have a unique perspective on that domain, and the attention for your product will follow.
  • Make sure they are part of your story from day one. Talk to your customers, give them access to beta tests, … When consumers are involved in your story from day 1, chances are that afterwards they will also become the ambassadors for your product/service to the rest of the world. The fact that your mother or neighbour has a rock-solid belief in your start-up is a nice bonus, but you’d better make sure that you bring on board ambassadors who have great respect within your target group and an even greater network. Industry experts and influencers. Real influencers, not Instagrammers extolling any brand for the right price. For example, you can make a podcast (very popular these days) and invite the ambassadors you have in mind as guest speakers. That’s how you gain their trust.
  • Be prepared to pivot Early adaptors expect a flawless customer experience, from purchase to set-up and use. You have to be constantly willing to take any feedback seriously. It’s not always easy to radically change the plan you had in your head, but put your pride aside and dare to pivot when your early adopters steer you in a different direction. It is the fastest and most agile start-ups that ultimately make it.
  • Build a case around these customers. If the early adaptors believe in your start-up, you can use their case studies and testimonials to create a snowball effect. Another no-brainer that no one seems to apply: don’t rattle off your own sales pitch at events and fairs, but let your ambassadors tell you how they became better of your product or service. Much more credible than the rather transparent ‘We of WC-eend advise WC-eend’.

Before social media existed, word of mouth required a great deal of patience. Word of mouth was almost literally word of mouth, so it took a while for the snowball to spread from the early adopters to the masses. Today, one tweet from the right industry expert can make your product go viral.

Opinion piece written by Dimitri Devroe, Strategic Marketing Manager at Birdhouse Services.