Marketing communication for tech startups: Market leadership through word-of-mouth marketing

Note that the complexity of the marketing communication topic is great and too broad to cover in one article.

This article is one in a series of six that covers the field of marketing communication. The full list of titles in this series includes:

Silicon Valley communication guru, Regis McKenna, advises that a tech startup’s communication activities should be planned and focused on achieving a single goal. The goal for a tech startup should be to achieve market leadership within the word-of-mouth community that makes up a given target market.

This market leadership goal is based on the assumption that companies rarely talk to their customers, and in turn, these customers, as they go through the buying process (see image below), seek advice from a range of other people before they speak to the related company.

The reason for this behaviour is that technology purchases feel risky (because the buyer will always know less about the technology and product than the seller) so customers attempt to alleviate this uncertainty by consulting their own trusted sources of information.

The buying process moves from problem recognition to information searches to evaluating alternatives to making a purchase decision to a post-purchase evaluation.

At any stage in the technology adoption lifecycle, you will find yourself surrounded by a set of third-party players that interact with you and your customers. These parties are what McKenna calls the “market infrastructure.”

Market infrastructure consists of those sources of “authority” whom technology buyers consult to negate their feeling of uncertainty when evaluating a new product. Keep in mind that each stage of the technology adoption life cycle (TALC) typically has a separate set of these third-party players surrounding your target customer.

Thought leadership and word-of-mouth marketing

In the Early Market, one way to achieve leadership within the market infrastructure of tech enthusiasts is to position your company as a thought leader (that is, one who brings something new into a field) in your technology category.

Know your key opinion leaders

To manage your communication activities properly:

  • Identify the key opinion leaders (KOLs) at each stage.
  • Furnish them with an understanding of your technology.
  • Offer a vocabulary to discuss it.

To influence KOLs, you have to establish credibility within the community by providing compelling and factual information that is relevant to the main concerns of the KOLs.

This means staying clear of hype and bombast while at the same time positioning yourself as a thought leader and addressing critical problems that concern KOLs. From a messaging perspective, this means that your story always must be based on your true positioning in the market.

Mapping your market infrastructure

The image above shows the different layers of word-of-mouth influencers that buyers typically turn to for information. Depending on the product or industry, the middle layers might change, but the framework stays relevant.

Mapping this model to your own market infrastructure

Looking at the image, the natural starting point is at the top of the image—your target customer.

In building your own version of this model, consider how the layers of the infrastructure relate to each other

  • Who do your target customers turn to for advice and counsel?

Next, review the Path of Reference.

  • Look at the press (including bloggers) and identify who covers the relevant business and technology issues for your target customers.

Once you know the key players on one layer of the model, ask yourself questions such as:

  • “Who influences the press?”
  • “Where do journalists and bloggers seek input?”

Typically, the middle layers of the model vary the most, depending on your technology and target customer.

Now consider the Path of Influence.

  • Understand how you can influence the various layers in the infrastructure. Keep in mind that from a planning perspective, the layers in the infrastructure model provide the sequence for your communications initiatives.
  • It is important to recognize that each layer in the model has its own interests and path of communication. A few key influencers dominate each layer and your goal is to win the support of these critical players.

Record your information and insights.

  • As you gain information and insights about these key players, log this data in a database. Assign someone (not from your sales or marketing department) to establish a credible relationship with each influencer.

The tools available to build this credibility often include writing white papers or articles in the trade press, and presenting at conferences.