Digital Marketing Channels For B2B Startups: The Ultimate List
“Should I invest in SEO or PPC?”
It’s a question that I get asked regularly, and to say it opens a can of worms is an understatement. In most cases, this really boils down to Google AdWords vs. content marketing (+ link-building). The answer usually lies somewhere in the middle. Technical SEO is a given for any web-based startup.
Let’s frame the question differently… Which digital marketing channels are most pertinent to growing a B2B startup, and which ones should take priority?
Funded startups are in a great position, because they have a budget to work with. With smart iterative testing, the most effective channels can be identified quickly. However, it’s not quite as simple as that. PPC and social advertising will demonstrate ROI super fast. Overnight, in some cases. An email shot with clear sales-led conversion goals will do the same.
But for SEO (in the link-building context), content marketing, and organic social, things are a bit different. This can be a slow-burn, which only pays off after months of investment. There is a clear philosophical difference between the performance marketing vs. brand-building mindset. The first gets you direct results from spend, and the latter fosters trust and views channels holistically as part of a complex buyer journey.
A note on integration
Overall, it’s unwise to perceive the different elements as wholly separate entities. Practically speaking, when people are comparing products or services with your competitors they aren’t in a linear mindset. A lot of businesses don’t see direct conversions or return on investment from spending money on the awareness stage of the funnel, but this depends on the startup.
From a budgeting point of view, it’s important to know where you’re spending money and getting ROI. From a campaign management point of view, it’s better to see digital marketing as an integrated myriad of channels, with output that impacts the many different elements.
Shifting budget between different channels
Now for an admission. I can’t tell you exactly how to distribute budget, because I don’t know your business, your market, or your industry. There are too many nuances. But I can tell you how to identify the best channels, and I can highlight the areas to test with your given budget.
Let’s assume you have a pot of money allocated to growth. For most of my clients, this is the case – although some pots are bigger than others. In today’s world, digital marketing is likely to power customer acquisition, and therefore these growth funds should be pumped into online channels.
However, this isn’t the perfect recipe for all businesses. The B2B world still benefits from events, for example. Some B2C brands can only scale through above-the-line advertising. For the purpose of this article, I will be looking at online channels pertinent to B2B startups.
Keep reading for some key advice about where to focus.
The unique nature of funded startups
The primary ambition for funded startups is (quick) scalable growth. In layman’s terms, this means a front-loaded investment push, designed to get the ball rolling and gain significant market traction.
Also read: Exposing the unsustainable growth tactics
Customer acquisition is key, and effective onboarding is essential. Retention is equally as important, as you begin to generate a solid customer base for ongoing growth. These are the critical areas. Some growth experts propose that retention is in fact the most important aspect for sustainable growth, but it is getting harder.
With this in mind, and considering the pace of growth that is required, your test budget should be geared towards paid media. This is almost without exception. SMEs and established brands both operate differently; perhaps in a more gradual fashion, employing a balanced mix of channels which are integrated over time according to their effectiveness in achieving business goals.
Funded startups need explosive growth.
I’m confident in the assessment that paid media trumps owned media for fast-growth startups. The reason for this is simple; owned media (e.g. blog content or video) will take a long time to build up to get meaningful momentum.
So, what are the channels to test, and how best can you test them?
As a high-velocity B2B startup in its early stages, paid acquisition is where the majority of your budget should be allocated. You should specialise in rapid iterative tests, in a lean manner.
A constantly-evolving platform, AdWords remains one of the best online advertising channels available. The data-driven goliath offers advertisers comprehensive targeting options and unrivalled access to millions of potential customers. AdWords can guarantee first-place position in the search results (depending on a number of factors), or it can present your ad as display banners to a targeted audience.
According to Unbounce, PPC visitors are 50% more likely to make a purchase than organic visitors. It is an instant route to market, with no delay. AdWords campaigns also generate useful data about your audience’s online behaviour. This channel is very effective for immediate lead generation, as you can tailor ad content and keyword targeting to different stages of the buying process.
How to test:
Using Google Keyword Planner, plug in your website and its competitors. Extract the list of keywords and score them for relevance. From this research, you’ll be able to set up test campaigns using relevant keywords. Of course, there are nuances in how you target ads which depend on your business and its audience (demographics, device, timings, etc.). In truth, whilst anyone can set up AdWords in principle, in practice you’ll need someone with expertise to draw meaningful conclusions.
The ever underrated Bing Ads are the hipster alternative to Google AdWords. Indeed, Bing has been seeing somewhat of a resurgence, and has snatched market share. According to Smart Insights, 873,964,000 searches per day are made on the Bing search engine. Of course, this is dwarfed by Google, but it still represents an opportunity for startups.
Studies have also shown that Bing Ads is cheaper than AdWords; up to 33.5% cheaper if you believe reports. One (albeit narrow) case study by Ollie Gill reported a 63.23% cheaper CPA when using Bing, although as he states, this fluctuates according to campaign and client.
It speaks volumes of the industry narrative that this paragraph is dedicated to comparison, rather than discussing Bing as its own beast. Indeed, AdWords is often the best solution, but experimenting with Bing should be on the radar. Despite the bad rep, it might offer a pleasant surprise.
How to test:
The same principles apply to Bing as they do with AdWords. If you’re testing PPC, you should try both channels to see which has the best ROI. Establish the keywords that are most relevant (and feasible for your budget), and set up test campaigns. Measure closely, and adapt to reduce your CPC. Remember, for both AdWords and Bing, you need collateral such as optimised landing pages. It’s no good driving paid traffic to your homepage.
Target specific groups according to demographics, interests, job titles, followers, etc. This is too tempting to avoid, and has catalysed growth for many startups. The more advanced the targeting becomes, the more marketers invest in social ad campaigns. Global social ad budgets have doubled over the past few years, from $16 billion in 2014 to $31 billion in 2016. It was reported to exceed $35 billion in 2017.
Paid social media enhances the reach of your content, and helps to drive leads through optimised landing pages. Fast-growth B2B startups will reap rewards from fierce and sustained higher-budget paid campaigns, centred around a very specific lead generation goals.
Don’t forget the law of diminishing returns. By repeatedly pumping budget into the same creatives and targeting, you eventually hit the point whereby conversion rates go down and CPA increases. For this reason, it’s important to incrementally up the budget of paid campaigns, and to tweak creatives and audience targeting.
How to test:
The startup world doesn’t allow for tentativeness. Social ad testing must be done with conviction and fluency. You might consider the following major platforms:
- Facebook Ads
- Twitter Ads
- Instagram Ads
- LinkedIn Ads
- Pinterest Promoted Pins (B2C / e-commerce, mainly female audience)
- Snapchat Ads
Facebook is the most developed of the bunch, which is also of benefit to Facebook-owned Instagram. LinkedIn has a clunky interface and a poor review process, and Twitter can sometimes be a shot in the dark due to lack of in-depth data. However, each has its pros and cons. Your first step is to install the relevant pixel / conversion tracking on your site, which can be used to develop custom audiences.
Snapchat is typically reserved for the bigger budget brands, although they’re making an effort at capturing the VC-backed startup market with Snapchat Accelerate. Pinterest is most suited to B2C startups.
Selling a product or service on social is difficult, although it becomes easier when remarketing to warmer leads. Unless you’re offering something low-cost with a compelling discount/offer, startups (especially B2B) are best served in targeting awareness-stage audiences with a low-commitment lead magnet like a PDF download or webinar signup. Again, audience research and iterative testing is key. Don’t blow your budget on one campaign; split it smartly to get the data you need to scale thereafter.
In truth, affiliate marketing is best suited to B2C organisations, and it has been used to great effect. According to Business Insider, approximately 15% of all digital revenue is driven by Affiliate Marketing. Marketers benefit from performance-based results, immediacy, and shifting of legwork over to affiliates.
In terms of budget, you need the capacity to pay affiliates as a percentage of the sale or lead. Unless you establish your own network, you’ll need to account for the cost of joining an existing one. These costs are usually minimal, so won’t break the bank.
Here are two great articles on getting started with affiliate marketing:
- Affiliate Marketing Made Simple: A Step-by-Step Guide (Neil Patel)
- How To Boost Your Growth With Affiliate Marketing (Kissmetrics)
Next, let’s move on to organic channels.
If you’re looking to experience quick growth and make a mark on your industry, the paid channels outlined in this first section should be the focus of your startup. Of course, this assumes that you already have an optimised responsive website with kick-ass copy and design. If not, get that sorted first.
In most scenarios, the cost-per-lead of content marketing comes out much lower over long timescales. Whilst paid channels provide immediate route to market, shelling out for impressions and clicks measures as more expensive when compared to “earned media”.
Therefore, startups which gain market traction and nail customer acquisition might look to transition to organic channels, and shift the balance of budget accordingly.
Content marketing & SEO
Content is often considered as a long-term strategy, and one that will cumulatively achieve ROI. That said, content might be the fuel that feeds your paid campaigns. This is especially pertinent when using paid channels to grow an email list (via content with lead magnets). The return on this, of course, can be measured according to how you value the conversion; i.e. what is an email signup worth to you?
So, whilst content is by nature an “organic” channel, content marketing principles and nurturing your audience can (and often, should) be supported by paid activities. This is why it’s impossible to give you a clean percentage budget split between paid and organic, because a startup growth strategy integrates different channels at the same time.
As we know, B2B organisations have a longer lead time. 47% of B2B buyers view 3-5 pieces of content before engaging with a sales rep. This means that whilst the emphasis should be on paid channels, content production is essential for B2B startups. This affects your budget allocation.
It’s important to separate the goals for each campaign or piece of content. For the sanity of everyone involved, let’s look at content marketing in a narrow context, one which is most common; the performance in search engines which drives inbound conversions. In essence, content for SEO purposes.
So, the question is, where can you allocate digital marketing budget to increasing search visibility with content? Here’s an overview of content types that drive business growth, and ways to test performance.
People are becoming ever-more visual creatures. But this doesn’t mean that the written word has lost its power.
On the contrary, research shows that the average word count for content on Google’s page 1 is 1890 words. Text-based content is still important, and excels when visuals are brought into the mix.
You may wish to allocate budget to the following written content.
1. Blog articles
Blog articles take various formats; editorials, how-to lists, long-form guides, curated roundups, audio or video transcriptions, written interviews, and everything in-between. Your budget must be allocated to resources for strategic thinking, not just the creation stage alone. Without strategy, your content will flop.
Why are you creating blog posts? Is there too much competition for these keywords? These are questions that must be answered before you hire copywriters, and that takes resources.
Purpose and benefits:
A blog is a flexible marketing channel, adaptable to meet various business goals. Primarily, startups use a blog to publish posts (read: landing pages) that don’t interfere with core website navigation. A vibrant blog helps to acquire backlinks, forge brand identity, and reach bigger audiences. It can be the door through which prospects find you, where CTAs convert that reader into a qualified lead.
Good writers don’t come cheap, and an effective content strategy also demands investment. ROI will become apparent after time, whereby the content starts to generate conversions. Rankings are notoriously volatile, so it might take 3 months before an article has settled.
Even after that time, a distribution push and some backlinks might boost performance, or a competitor might come from nowhere to blitz your position. You should endeavour to keep a significant chunk of content evergreen, so it doesn’t go out of date quickly.
Investment is front-loaded in terms of creation. For high-impact blog content that has a chance to rank, build authority, and get links… you’re looking at a minimum of 20 hours work. This is just a guideline. Distribution / promotion budget must be planned as part of the process, and not considered as a totally separate entity. For ease of flow in this article, we’ll talk about distribution later.
- Never allocate budget to a blog for the sake of it. Determine whether you have a realistic chance of competing for target keywords before channeling cash into writers. Consider this as a slow-burner, and allocate funds according to the cumulative impact. Don’t expect immediate returns.
2. White papers and eBooks
Like blog articles, the main time investment for a whitepaper is in the production of the written content, although you should also factor in the design stage thereafter.
Purpose and benefits:
Downloadable white paper guides are excellent lead generators for B2B organisations, especially when paired with paid social media advertising and/or Google AdWords. If promoted by these means (targeted correctly), expect instant measurable ROI from the email signups, leads, and new contacts.
Written guides also offer ongoing collateral content for organic social promotion, and provide an opportunity for converting blog readers (acquired via SEO) and nudging them into the sales funnel.
Similarly to blog content, research and creation is the main initial cost (barring distribution). A flagship eBook often provides a super lead magnet for B2B brands, and might be the central column that paid channels use for support. Startups can measure the ROI of an eBook by calculating the value of each download. This is derived from tracking conversions through the sales process.
- If you’re a B2B startup, consider investing budget into a flagship white paper or eBook (series). This will feed your paid acquisition channels. Measure twice, cut once. Focus on effective distribution, and don’t take a machine gun approach. If your content represents ROI, test new campaigns and invest further.
* A quick note on web copy:
Startups must also consider optimising their static website content when allocating digital marketing budget. A navigable website structure combined with in-depth, readable, and keyword-optimised web copy will encourage search ranking performance and a high conversion rate. Furthermore, startups using paid campaigns will need copywriters for ad text and landing pages. This is not to be underestimated.
The incorporation of visual media is essential in today’s world. Traditionally, visual content has been some of the most expensive, but this is changing as competition grows and tools improve.
Consider allocating budget to the following visual media.
Videos can take a number of formats; company overview clips, interviews with staff and/or industry influencers, explainer how-tos, animated designs, factual documentaries, and everything in between.
Purpose and benefits:
Some research suggests that video can actually increase conversion rates by an astonishing 80%. Other studies show that around 70% of the top hundred search listings include video on the landing page. Without the burden of slow connections, online video has arrived in a big way, and it’s here to stay. To ignore video would be to lag behind your competitors.
Some suggest that strong video content (particularly on YouTube) has direct impact on rankings, although this is disputed, and the 2017 SEMrush ranking factors report lists on-page video as a minor factor.
Video can be expensive. Quality videographers cost money. For product-based B2B startups and SaaS vendors, a walkthrough video is essential. Onboarding is also a prime area for video, which is where marketing automation, copy, email, and visual media combine for greatness.
Animated video has become more affordable, and minute-long summary clips might cost just £250 if you find the right designer and provide a tight brief. These are ideal for supporting blog posts, but shouldn’t be the priority if budget is tight. Expect to pay much more for voice-overs and customised graphics.
- Every brand (big and small) should embrace video in the long-term. Some startups need it from the beginning of their journey. Test whether your acquisition and onboarding process is streamlined by video. Quality video will make a dent in the budget.
2. Graphics (Infographics)
Data can be confusing and mind-numbingly boring if displayed in its raw form, but when it’s visualised in graphical context, the very same information becomes shareable. Infographics are liked and shared on social three times more than anything else, and whilst some are questioning their survival, the principle of visualising data into a consumable format is sturdy.
Purpose and benefits:
Infographics are a unique way to communicate data – ideally your own unique and newsworthy data. They also offer superb support for more in-depth written content pieces, as reinforcement of the points that are made within it. They are very linkable assets, and are proven to be sought by digital journalists for mainstream news outlets. This impacts SEO, as outlined by Neil Patel.
Funds will need to be allocated to the research, design, and outreach. Original research consists of time-consuming surveys and questionnaires. You might wish to outsource this process, at a cost. It’s harder to measure the ROI of an infographic, and the main benefits are long-term SEO implications. For this reason, infographics shouldn’t be a core priority for startups in their early growth stage.
- As with eBooks and white paper guides, the scattergun approach will guarantee waste. Invest in research, and tap into current trends. Mainstream media outlets seek easy ways to communicate complicated news, and you can oblige. Don’t hop on the infographic bandwagon without having clear goals and uniquely compelling data.
* A quick note on visual content
Different elements of your visual content can be devised from the same piece of initial research, thus reducing the amount of hours needed to research and prepare for each. Furthermore, videos can have their audio stripped and uploaded as a podcast to services like Soundcloud and iTunes. This repurposing will streamline your operation.
There’s a wealth of high-quality free imagery available online for your regular content, but investing in professional photography may also be worth considering – depending on your product or service.
When people ask “should I invest in SEO or PPC?”, there’s no way they can comprehend the complex mixture of integrated marketing tactics.
Content is nothing without distribution. Paid campaigns need a spine of content. Link-building needs outreach and content. “PPC” pertains to Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and different social advertising platforms. It might be used to drive direct sales (likely to be B2C) or it might be used to build an email subscription list for future nurturing (B2B). These tactics interact, but must be bound by a tight strategy which is aligned with the business goals.
So, I guess, I’m saying that splitting your digital marketing budget is a fluid affair.
Organic social media
Organic social media updates can be prepared and scheduled in advance, which makes the process more efficient. However, brands must maintain a hands-on approach in engaging with ad-hoc requests, queries, and complaints. This is important to remember when allocating resources to everyday work.
Purpose and benefits:
Brand awareness is the key driver for organic social media. It’s also about nurturing your community and generating engagement. Google is reportedly taking social signals into account when considering rankings. Many experts suggest that effective social campaigns can directly impact SEO.
Organic social also provides a route to guest blogging opportunities for link-building and PR purposes (see section on outreach later).
If you’re pre-scheduling updates, you’ll need to allocate time to research, post creation, and scheduling. Once a process is in place, this can be outsourced cheaply or undertaken in-house. Daily management is most important when you have a product that needs support. Customers actively seek service via social.
- It’s hard to make a mark on organic social. The big brands have an established audience, but the truth is that going viral is vanishingly rare. Furthermore, the platforms are choking organic reach to push marketers into paying. My advice; keep your chosen profiles ticking along, but don’t invest much time or energy in cracking organic social.
I’ve experienced phenomenal success on LinkedIn (a story for another day!), but that’s as a consultant. For consultants and individuals, organic social interaction is key. For startups and early-stage brands, it shouldn’t be the first priority for budget.
* Additional notes on organic social media:
You have a plethora of channels to choose from, some which are more pertinent to your brand than others. At a glance, you have Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Vine, and Periscope. It takes time to find the right channels, but research the successes and failures of similar brands for an idea of what could be most relevant.
Typically, startups will initially focus on just two.
Startups can leverage existing audience groups through a relationship with third-party influencers. In truth, influencer marketing principles should permeate content and social at all times. Marketers should always be on the lookout for reaching wider audiences, and the inclusion of influencers and thought-leaders is one way to achieve this extended reach.
But there is a narrower form of influencer marketing. This consists of paying influencers to promote your product or service on social, or providing another form of compensation (free products, vouchers, etc.) in return for a mention/review. Sometimes influencers can be brought on-board as affiliates. This form of influencer marketing is most suited to B2C startups, although not exclusively.
Purpose and benefits:
Generating awareness is pretty much the only purpose of influencer marketing. This has obvious benefits.
“Traditional” influencer marketing will require budget. You’ll be looking at a minimum of $1,000 per 100,000 followers (per post). For well-known celebs, this increases drastically. Sprout Social did a solid roundup of average costs, which is worth a read.
- Startup brands seldom launch with a heavy weighting on influencer marketing. That said, depending on your audience and industry, the use of micro-influencers (< 1,000 followers) may be a worthwhile test. These average at $83 per post, according to Sprout Social. As with all digital marketing channels, iterative testing is essential to avoid blowing the whole budget on one ineffective activity.
Outreach is human-to-human contact, designed to build relationships and harness mutually-beneficial outcomes. This is an essential element of distribution, and comes into play when content marketing is forming part of the marketing mix. Outreach may be conducted via any form of communication, most commonly email or social media.
Purpose and benefits:
Outreach has a number of purposes. You may get influencer involvement in content, which leverages their audience for promotion. You may be requesting that a blog replaces its broken reference link with another that points to your article (link-building). You may be seeking guest blogging opportunities. The benefits are primarily for SEO and brand awareness.
More than anything, outreach is a time investment. If you establish processes, templates, and rules, outreach can be outsourced at a relatively low cost. However, the setup takes time, effort, and expertise. With good research, the legwork can be done without too much thought. Consider outreach as an inseparable partner of content marketing, and should be accounted for in the same allocation.
- Automated outreach must be treated with great care to avoid spammy tactics. Quality wins over quantity, in terms of links and the influencers you can get on-board. Account for the man hours.
Email marketing is a stalwart, and continues to be one of the most popular methods of converting leads into sales. It’s a great channel for content promotion and distribution to a targeted audience.
Email increases the level of quality traffic to your site, and improves engagement (an important indicator for Google). Fast-growth startups benefit from building an email list, often with the aid of sponsored social and supported by content.
Purpose and benefits:
According to research by Campaign Monitor (okay, hardly objective!), you’re six times more likely to get a click-through from an email than from a tweet, and email marketing has an astounding ROI of 3800%. Email is primarily used for onboarding and retention.
MailChimp provides an excellent free starting point. For most startups, this is sufficient to get underway without any budget required. Consider the resources needed for email creation, and you may choose the path of buying an email subscriber list (between $100 – $150 per thousand). This isn’t recommended.
- There’s no reason why you shouldn’t build an email list. B2C startups benefit from the immediate delivery of (personalised) offers, and B2B startups can nurture leads with high-quality content.
You should optimise paid and organic channels alike, which must be considered early.
It’s tricky to select the perfect marketing automation solution for your startup. You can read our comprehensive guide to marketing automation for startups to get a better idea of the best approach. These systems don’t come cheap, but they provide essential functionality for customer onboarding and retention. Automation software can be integrated with CRM to enhance your customer funnel options.
Purpose and benefits:
To streamline your content output, automate time-consuming processes, and enhance personalisation.
Selecting the right automation tool is paramount. In most cases, it makes sense for a startup to build an audience before investing in a solution. Ideally, you want a scalable tool that can grow with your user base. The best tools are expensive, so I’d recommend holding off on a big investment until you know more about how the audience behaves and the areas in which you can make an impact.
- Don’t rush headlong into a comprehensive marketing automation. In most cases, the functionality will go unused. Wait until you’ve built an audience and you’re ready to scale marketing activities.
CRO (Conversion rate optimisation)
I recently published an article about the impact of CRO on business growth, which explains in detail how this scientific art form came to be so critical for startups and established brands. If you’re implementing the right iterative testing methodology, CRO should come into play. Therefore, your budget must account for CRO expertise. It might also need to account for CRO software.
Purpose and benefits:
CRO will help you make the marginal gains that are so important to growth and retention. There’s no magic formula that can be applied to every business, so I can’t guarantee that changing one button from bold to italics will increase signups by 4000%.
CRO is a specialism, and reaches far beyond basic A/B testing. Conclusions must be met scientifically, and this often means allocation of budget to an external consultant. This might also be supported with software which ranges from free to $500 per month. Again, check out my article on CRO for a breakdown of the most effective tools for improving conversions.
- In testing the performance of different channels, you need to test different approaches within each channel. Conversion rate optimisation will collect the most conclusive evidence as to which channel performs best in which circumstances. Therefore, CRO is an essential investment for every startup.
In principle, I advocate an integrated approach. You must have a holistic perspective; how each pillar is supporting the bigger building, working together to maintain a strong frame. It’s about blending the channels for the best results. The balance of budget can be adjusted accordingly after testing.
This is a reason why digital marketing is a specialised skill-set; it takes time to understand the nuances of different channels, and to spot the best channels for ROI.
Budget should be seen as an investment, rather than a cost. The most volatile period is at the beginning of every campaign; a time in which sensible but committed testing is required. From there on, you’ll get more efficient as successes and failures become apparent.
For B2B organisations, there’s a much longer sales cycle than for B2C. For B2B, you’re looking at less volume, higher quality content. For B2C, it’s usually more immediate offer-based output such as discounts, vouchers, competitions, and the like. And as we’ve already seen, there’s a big difference between the channels for a gradual-growth SME and a disruptive investor-backed startup.
It’s easy to decide that one particular channel isn’t working, whereas the reason for its inefficiency is a failure of strategy and execution. For example, if you use the wrong keyword match type on Google AdWords, you can burn through a hefty budget quickly with little to show for it. This might lead the mistaken belief that PPC is not for you.
Yes, it’s a minefield. But with evidence-based planning, solid expertise, and repeated testing, the most pertinent channels and strategies will be revealed.