Growing a startup is challenging, but also extremely rewarding. In this post, we will focus on organic (not paid) growth. Also, we will touch on a few key advantages and disadvantages of this strategy.
Organic Growth (The Early Days)
In the early days of search (e.g. Google Search), simple SEO/Optimization/Content Marketing tactics were enough to rank high in Google Search - catapulting startup's awareness and growth (e.g., website traffic, signups, purchases, etc.)
The same was true with social media. Early adopters experienced impressive growth because there was plenty of space for new incumbents. For example, in the early days (first 3-5 years) Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube were not taken seriously by large organizations - most marketing executives didn't even consider social media as a marketing channel.
This early reluctance by many large brands to optimize for Google Search, or to take social media seriously, created an opportunity for many startups to fill the void. All of a sudden newly created businesses were driving more traffic and awareness to their business than some Fortune 500 companies.
The State Of Organic Growth Today (What Changed?)
As is the case with all marketing channels, over time they become saturated, making it much more difficult to stand out. Today, we live in a world where 500,000+ websites are created every day, where 400,000+ hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every day, and where large companies are spending millions on digital assets (Website, SEO, Social Media, Apps, Email, Data, etc.).
In summary, early (little known) organic growth strategies are now well-known best practices. For example, prioritizing content marketing, optimizing for search, building backlinks, utilizing hashtags, focusing on long-tail keywords, and so on. These are all standard practices nowadays, so naturally, to stand out today you have to do something different or much more strategic.
This may sound discouraging but in many ways, this is why digital marketing and organic growth are so compelling. If you catch the early wave or find a gap in the online space, you can transform your business in a few years.
Also, because everything is measurable, you can quickly determine whether or not your organic growth tactics are working. For example, a few years ago we advised most of our B2B clients to prioritize LinkedIn because organic reach was so great. However, today with increased competition and algorithm changes, it is harder to reach the same level of awareness and engagement.
Do we tell our clients to stop using LinkedIn? Of course not, we just have to be more strategic with topics (content), timing, hashtags, and so on. Digital marketing channels are evolving every year, so staying ahead of the latest trends is essential.
What Is More Important To Your Startup, Time Or Money?
This is a crucial question you have to answer. With organic growth, you are regularly exchanging money for time. In other words, organic growth takes more time but less money. Let's look at two examples to illustrate this point.
- Social Media: A startup may need 5 social media posts for every 1,000 impressions. On the other hand, it may only take one boosted (paid) post to reach the same amount of impressions.
- Search: It may take 6 months of content marketing to draw the same amount of website traffic as 1 month of paid advertising (e.g., Google Ads.)
You can think of advertising as a FastPass at Disneyland - paying extra is your best way to get through the crowd.
Growing Organically With Content Marketing
Content marketing and social media have matured over the last ten years, so naturally, there is no shortage of content online. Therefore, it's getting harder and harder to grow organically.
This is why it's essential to do your market research and identify where there are gaps in the market - which topics and keywords are underrepresented.
Content Marketing is by no means a short-term endeavor, so you have to think carefully about your content strategy. The Internet is full of ‘general’ content, so if you create 'general' content, you have no chance of attracting potential customers.
Instead, find your niche, specialize, and don’t fall into the trap of creating content that is not related or only somewhat related to your core competency.
Growing Organically With SEO
Ranking high in Google or any other search engine is a lot more difficult today then it was 5 or 10 years ago. Gone are the days of finding large untapped markets.
Today's search algorithms are incredibly sophisticated; therefore, there are no shortcuts or tricks. To rank high on Google, you have to:
- Create high-quality content
- Have a mobile friendly and secure (SSL) website
- Prioritize User Experience (ease of use)
- Obsess over data/analytics (e.g. Google Analytics, Google Search Console, Keyword research, etc.)
- Get quality backlinks
- Be patient
Why You Have To Focus on Quality
There may be a handful of industries where quantity is more important than quality (e.g., celebrity news). However, most startups should focus on quality rather than quantity. For example, instead of creating 10 average blog posts, create 3 high-quality posts.
Also, you don't need all your content (pages) to do well (rank high). In our experience, most high traffic websites have a handful of high-performing pages that are responsible for most of the traffic - it's not unusual to see 5% of the content responsible for more than 50% of the traffic.
The same applies to social media; less is often more - if you don't have anything useful, helpful, or interesting to say every day then don't post every day. In most cases, a handful of high-quality social media posts every week will do much better than spamming your audience multiple times a day with useless content.
Obsess Over Data
The good news is that most analytics tools are free. For example, Google Analytics and Google Search Console. Also, all social media channels have a wealth of data and analytics available to you.
Today, we have all the necessary tools to measure every marketing campaign in great detail and track every step in the customer’s journey. With the emergence of SaaS (software as a service), every startup has access to all the necessary tools for data-driven marketing.
There is certainly no shortage of analytics, marketing automation, and CRM tools to fully embrace data-driven decision making.
There isn’t a digital marketing channel which cannot be tracked in great detail.
Keeping a close eye on data/analytics is extremely important because it helps you:
- Understand your customers better (e.g. What type of content they are interested in, or where they are in the buying cycle)
- Track effectiveness of your current campaigns (e.g. calculate the cost per acquisition)
- Identify gaps and opportunities (e.g. new market segments)
- Recognize trends sooner (e.g. how the product/service is purchased or consumed)
It is easy to argue about opinions, but it’s difficult to argue about data. Every growth related campaign will have data behind it. You just have to collect and analyze it.
Patience Is Imperative
Organic growth and organic lead generation strategies take time, so if you are looking for a quick boost or a quick return on your investment, then organic-only is not the right strategy.
Most organic growth strategies take at least 3-12 months to materialize.
If you are looking for immediate results, then advertising is your best option. As we mentioned earlier in the post, trying to grow your startup organically means you are willing to trade your time to save money.
Growing Organically With Social Media
Can you grow your social media channels organically? Yes, but it's becoming harder and requires more time and effort. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media platforms are squeezing out organic content with paid (sponsored) content; consequently, many startups are seeing their impressions and reach drop. Further proof that it’s becoming more difficult to get a message across if you don't have the funds to boost your social media posts/content.
Fundamentals for organic growth on social media is no different to other channels - specialize, produce quality content, track data, and have patience. Additionally, find your unique niche and voice, and post consistently.
Most "overnight" social media success stories took 3-7 years.
Also, reaching a certain number of followers should never be your primary goal, because not all social media followers are created equal - we often see brands with modest followers (e.g., 10,000) generate more leads and sales then brands with 100,000+ followers.
Loyal followers are extremely valuable because they will spend more. Also, they will advocate for your brand.
Work On Your Personal Brand (It Will Help You Grow Your Startup)
If your startup's underlining strategy is organic growth, then building your personal brand is vital. Most people fear the unknown, so naturally, your startup is a much riskier proposition than a mature business (with years of experience).
Until you have a portfolio of clients/customers (to reduce this fear), you the founder have to ease this concern by demonstrating expertise with:
- Blog posts
- Speaking opportunities
In summary, as a founder, you need to be visible and do everything you can to ease customers' concerns - by demonstrating experience and thought leadership.
Furthermore, it is no secret that we buy from people we know and like, so having a visible founder always helps. If you are not sure where to start or how to build your personal brand, start with simple questions:
- How do you want to come across?
- How do you want people to describe you?
- How should people remember you?
- What are the 2-3 qualities they should take away?
By answering these simple questions, you can better choose the right channels to build your personal brand. For example, if being funny is an important attribute you want to convey, or if being very casual is one of your major traits, then LinkedIn is probably not the right social media channel for you - your customers don't want to be humored on a professional platform like LinkedIn. Other platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or Twitter are more appropriate.
There is no question that a founder with a well-developed personal brand will help their startup, so it's something you should seriously consider, especially if you are trying to grow organically.
Everything we have discussed so far requires dedication and long-term commitment, so it should be evident by now that growing your startup organically will take time.
There are no shortcuts, yet paid advertising is the closest things to a "shortcut" in marketing, so if you are looking for immediate results then advertising or other forms of paid marketing have to be in the mix. On the other hand, if you have enough time and runway then focusing only on organic growth is a risky but plausible strategy.
Founders often ignore this last point. No question, marketing strategies that only rely on organic growth are much riskier (compared to organic + paid) because everything is focused on long-term - making it difficult to capitalize on new opportunities quickly.
For example, businesses that jumped on Google, YouTube, and Facebook/Instagram Ads early got a fantastic return on investment, because ads were very cheap - compared to today.
Missing out on growth opportunities is hard to swallow.
This one of the reasons why marketers and growth experts see advertising as an indispensable tool for growing a business. In fact, most well-executed growth strategies include some level of paid promotion/advertising, even if the core strategy is organic.
How much should you dedicate to organic vs. paid? The ratio is typically driven by the business model, market segment, desired growth rate, competition, opportunity, and the level of funding.
Even if your ratio is 90% Organic and 10% Paid, dedicating some resources to paid growth (e.g. Pay-per-click Ads, Affiliate Marketing, Influencer Marketing, etc.) will significantly increase your startup's chances of success.
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