Bootstrap Marketing

Marketing on a budget. Ideas that don't suck.

This article was published on May 11, 2011.
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A quick Google search for "bootstrap marketing" brings up a bunch of useless nonsense. The results are either in the form of "Top 10 Bootstrap Marketing Tips" or "Bootstrap Marketing 101" guides. They're outdated and uninformative — full of obvious suggestions such as: "you should blog" and "use Twitter to get the word out." Not to mention that all the ads are hurting my eyes. So here are some things you can do that won't cost you a penny and will hopefully give you an "aha" moment.

Bootstrap Marketing

Let Your Users Market For You

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is unquestionably a first step. I'll agree with anyone on that. If you rank well you'll bring in great leads on the right keywords. SEO is not dead and SEO should not be avoided; but given how competitive most search terms are these days, I'm seeing more of an emphasis on having your users to market your site for you rather than rely on SEO.

I'm not talking about the "email your friends" pop up or referral programs. You should aim to create a service that users will benefit from sharing a page of — their page. An example of this would be showing off a user's activity on the site in a way that benefits them the more often it's seen. This is an everyday occurrence for social network services such as Twitter, Facebook, About.me, Flickr, and LinkedIn, but what about sites without social networking components?

What we realized early on with Carbonmade is that one reason to have an online portfolio, among others, is to show off your work to your friends. (We had thought the main reason would be to get work.) Friends of artists tend to be artists, so placing a Carbonmade logo at the bottom of the page that redirects back to our homepage gets us signups. For example, a friend of Dave Gorum sees his portfolio and thinks: "How'd Dave Gorum get such an amazing online portfolio?" The friend sees the Carbonmade logo at the bottom, clicks, and signs up.

We don't have to plaster a garish advertisement on their portfolio alerting the viewer to our services. We only have to leave a logo at the bottom of the page. We now see more referrals from portfolios in our system than we do through all search engines combined.

Not only that, but search engine referrals don't even rank second for us, even though we rank first in Google for "online portfolio" and "free online portfolio." Facebook ranks second. Our users link to their Carbonmade portfolio as their website in Facebook, their friends see it, and their friends sign up.

One of my favorite examples of this approach to finding new sign-ups is Kickstarter. People who create projects on Kickstarter are extremely motivated to share their Kickstarter page with as many people as they can to get backers. Kickstarter needs to do very little to help fund these projects, because the creators of the projects will do the majority of this work on their own. I've backed nearly ten projects on Kickstarter, but never once from using their Discover Projects feature; in every case my backing came from seeing tweets and receiving emails about new Kickstarter projects.

This idea of creating a page — portfolio in our case, project in Kickstarter's case — that's worth sharing is all about motivating the user to derive benefit from sharing the page. Think about how you can create this benefit for users. Having them share the page with this in mind will be far more effective for you than a typical Twitter or Facebook button on the page.

Give Paid Accounts Away for Free

Something we've always done is given away VIP accounts — a paid account for free — to anyone we feature on our Examples page, to friends, friends of friends, or to anyone who uses our system in a really neat way. Since launching in December 2005, we've given away just under 500 of these.

We've even gone so far as to switch paying users to VIP accounts — I can think of at least a few dozen cases off the top of my head that we've done this for. Why? At the end of the day, we work on Carbonmade to make people's day rather than make a buck.

People might argue that this is cheapening the paid plan. We don't think so. It's strengthening our brand. When you put a smile on people's faces by treating them in an unexpected way, you've not only made someone's day, but you've also got someone who will sing your praises for years to come.

Sometimes you have to Issue Refunds

Having a relaxed refund policy is a bit of a double-edged sword, but it is important. In our Terms of Use, we have a strict no refund policy — and you should too — but sometimes you find yourself backed in a corner about issuing a refund. That's okay.

There will be situations when a user emails demanding a refund. You could play hardball, but at the end of the day, is it really worth the headache of fighting them for their $12/month (in our case)? With everyone in Twitter, Facebook, and blogging, is it really worth risking negative feedback? You can even skillfully turn the person into a fan by not hassling them over a few extra bucks.

You don't want to let people walk all over you, and there have been times when we've denied refunds, but for the most part you want to be liberal about giving people their money back. At the end of the day, if people are going to walk away from your business, you want them walking away on a positive note.

Customer Service That's Not Simply Lip Service

Excellent customer service goes without saying, almost. People confuse responding quickly and succinctly with having great customer service. That's a start, but it's not enough. Great customer service — something Zappos termed "delivering happiness" — is achieved only when you've not only answered someone's question, but also put a smile on that person's face.

How do you do that? Mike, Carbonmade's customer service guy — although we've dubbed him more appropriately "Morale Specialist" — answers all incoming Carbonmade email. The difference between reading Mike's responses and email responses from other companies is the Mike has this knack of being able to relate to anyone emailing in. I don't know how he does it, but he's genuinely moved by every email that comes in and knows how to respond sympathetically. Everyone loves Mike.

If you treat customer service as a chore and responding to email as something you simply have to check off your list every day, then you'll fail to capture the hearts and minds of your customers. And that's marketing. Mike leaves everyone who has emailed in happy that he was there for them and helped them through their problem; and — on more than one occasion — the person has asked to hang out with Mike. Find yourself a Mike.

Streamline Your Marketing Site

Companies love to tell you everything about their service, product or website on their marketing site. Do you think prospective users care about every single feature? No! You need only highlight a few things you do really well. It's a lot more powerful this way. Remember your high school English teacher telling you "less is more"? The same goes for a marketing pitch.

Carbonmade is a perfect example of this. If you visit our marketing site, all you see is "Your online portfolio." in big letters. Why? Because the vast majority of people landing on Carbonmade only want to know that we do what they're looking for.

For the minority of visitors to your marketing site who want a bit more of a taste, give them two things: (1) a live demo where they can play around with what they're getting and (2) some examples. You don't need to detail every feature. Your users can see them for themselves.

Showing Off That Your Website is Active

People want to know that the website or service they're joining is active and that the people making it are involved. Twitter does this by showing examples of people who are using it when you first sign up. We do this by posting real-time numbers of our statistics on the front page of our site.

Another way we do this is by featuring Carbonmade users on our Examples page. We pick great users in our system who make great work and/or use the features of Carbonmade well. We post those users and their work on our Examples page, and then send our notices on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook about new features. This shows both that we are active and that we are taking the time to look through peoples' portfolios.

Figure out a way to highlight the activity of people on your website and show it off to your community. There's little that's more off-putting than having a stale marketing site with infrequently updated content.

Building Your Founder Reputation

One of the things I pride myself on is being approachable. Being approachable doesn't only mean showing up at as many events as you can fit in — related: How to Network — rather it's in the vibe you give off. When I go to an event, of course I talk to as many people as I can to help spread our brand and get the word out, but more importantly I'm not pushy and I don't lead with it.

Both at offline events and online, I want people to know that they can talk to me about anything. I'll listen and I'll respond. I'm happy to talk about startups, your startup, my startup, or nothing at all about startups. I just love meeting new people and having great conversations. Not everyone has the patience for this, but it's led to many connections and new friends that have benefited Carbonmade.

As you begin to build up your reputation, more people will talk about you and your startup when you're not even in the room: "Oh, did you hear what Carbonmade did?" You want to be on the tip of peoples' tongues, whether they're other startup founders, press, or people in the street.

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