Ten steps to launching and establishing your brand online and on the cheap.
We love startups. There is nothing quite like the excitement and optimism of conceiving, launching, and building a new company. It’s like the exhilaration of a new relationship, where everything is fresh and you’re learning new things every day. At the risk of being cheesy, it can be a lot like falling in love. Those who’ve started companies know what we’re talking about.
There’s the courting phase, when you’re working through the business plan and getting to know your new company. There’s the initial commitment phase when you launch to the public. And there’s the honeymoon phase when you bask in the glow of birthing a new brand. The honeymoon quickly ends, of course, but don’t let that ruin this romanticization. Let’s stay focused on these first three phases.
We recently met with a couple friends to offer some advice on starting their new venture and doing it at a minimum of expense. We realized that there is somewhat of a formula these days to launching a new brand. By “launching the brand” we mean generating buzz and awareness with your initial customers or audience. This combines the age-old rules of brand building with the new tools of social media and online marketing. Regardless of the type of product or service you’re offering, these 10 steps are fairly universal when it comes to getting things off the ground. Best of all they’re free, which is to say you don’t have to come out of pocket to do these 10 things.
Before you dive into the 10 steps, though, there are a few prerequisites. You need the brand name and domain, which should be one and the same. You should have a working logo with an established color palette. And you should have a clear idea of what your company will do and what it stands for. You don’t need a mission statement, as Guy Kawasaki humorously describes, but rather a simple mantra. “It’s for the employees,” he says. “Why do you work here? Why do you exist?” The mantra is a constant and guiding principle in our 10-step startup guide.
Step 1: Start your blog. We’ve said it before, and as we described in Can a Blog Lead Your Business Strategy?, it is fundamental to starting any new company these days. While the principle is nearly universal, though, the strategies and objectives of your blog can vary widely. It can serve as a two-way communications channel for any or all of your stakeholder groups. It can serve as a customer acquisition tool. It can humanize the company by giving it a personal voice, and it can establish the people of the company as thought leaders (a trendy way of saying “experts”) in their space. The point is that your blog can be launched on the day you decide to start working on this new company. You can build a relevant audience before you have an actual product to offer. All your blog has to be is relevant.
In terms of the execution, we recommend hosting your own WordPress blog so you can benefit from the various performance and feature plugins that are available. The Thesis theme is one of our favorites, as it’s pre-optimized for search and makes it quite easy to customize. Just be sure that your blog reflects your brand in terms of color and tone. It’s likely to be the first page you’ll design and the first time anyone will meet and interact with your brand.
Step 2: Dedicate an email address to all things social media. This is a simple best practice to help you and others at the company manage and collaborate on your various social media efforts. It could be email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Either way, this account will handle all incoming email from those various social media accounts.
Step 3: Dedicate a Google Reader account to your brand. Use this universal email, and build a Google Reader account specifically to monitor your space. Strategically and collaboratively add RSS feeds from news sources and blogs that cover your industry or market. This is a simple and efficient way to keep tabs on what is going on, who’s doing what, and how your market is evolving. Use the star feature to bookmark important articles that you may want to revisit at a later time. This is the primary listening device for your market and will become a valuable resource in many ways.
Step 4: Start Twittering. Ah, that almost sounds cliché, but that’s because it works. Smart Twittering is what makes the difference. There’s been plenty of discussion and debate about branded Twitter profiles. “No one wants to follow a brand,” they’ll say. Apparently Whole Foods’ 109,520 followers (as of this moment) didn’t get that memo. In fact, the only question one should have about Twittering is whether it provides value and contributes to the conversation. Just because the profile has a face and a person’s name attached doesn’t mean they aren’t posting worthless or spammy Tweets.
While we do recommend starting a branded Twitter profile and managing it with all the integrity of your brand, the founders and employees of a company should also Twitter on the company’s behalf, possibly integrating the brand and link to their Twitter bios.
Your branded Twitter profile page should support the brand with corresponding colors and imagery. Using it effectively can give you exposure to bloggers, influencers, and other valuable contacts in your space. It serves as a listening device, whether directly or through Twitter Search, to monitor what is being said about your space or brand, and it can drive people back to your blog. Indeed, you should think of your branded Twitter profile as a complement to your blog, a place where you micro-blog in 140 characters about topics that may not deserve a full blog post at that moment.
Should you auto follow people and send them an automatic DM response? That’s certainly debatable, but it requires a separate blog post to fully explore. Just know it’s a matter of opinion.
Step 5: Sign up for Constant Contact. This is a very inexpensive email newsletter solution with a free trial. In your pre-launch phase, you can have a basic splash page with your logo that does two things: (a) links to your blog and (b) asks people for their email address in order to be notified about your launch. Constant Contact provides the code you’ll need, which displays the email address box and a call to action. This can be customized in many ways to be consistent with your brand.
Email is still a very effective marketing channel, especially when you’re providing valuable content. If you’re driving people to the splash page via Twitter and other methods, you’ll want to take that opportunity to gather emails from interested people. Constant Contact makes managing email lists and designing a newsletter or email announcement very simple.
Step 6: Comment on blogs and become a guest blogger. Leaving a thoughtful comment on a blog is one of the greatest complements you can pay to a blogger. Use your Google Reader (Step 3) to monitor blogs and then comment on posts that are most relevant i.e. those most likely to be read by your brand’s core audience. Link back to your blog or site in the URL field and/or a signature in the comment itself. Above all, provide some value and resist the urge to blatantly self promote.
Once you’ve left a few comments, you can reach out to see if that blog might be interested in a guest post, complete with your credentials and a few ideas. You should be able to include a short bio (plug) in the post with a link back to your blog or site. And you may be able to re-post that content on your blog after a week or so, depending on their guest blogging policy. This is a great way to generate brand exposure, promote your expertise, and earn some valuable links.
Step 7: Setup Google Alerts. This is a complementary listening method to your Twitter and Google Reader. A daily or multi-daily alert for your brand goes without saying, especially once you’ve launched. But you should also have alerts for competitors, trends, and relevant keywords. These alerts will often provide you with articles (links) to Twitter and blog about. You’ll discover new blogs to add to your Google Reader. You’ll be inspired to comment on those blog posts, and you’ll find great material for your own blog. Depending on how many alerts you set, you may want to use your social media email address for some or all of them (Step 2).
Step 8: Enter your brand at Usernamecheck.com…or its equivalent. Unfortunately, this great tool could not support itself and had to shut down. Usernamecheck scanned 50 or so different online services and checked to see if your username (brand) was taken or not. Securing your brand’s username with services like Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, Digg, Gmail, Yahoo!, etc. has become almost as necessary as securing your domain name. Be sure to grab all of the big ones right away.
Step 9: Do you start a Facebook Group or Facebook Page? Here is our rule of thumb. Groups are for broad topics, such as causes or common interests. Pages are for brands. That’s more or less how Facebook intended it. We recently helped launch PopRule, a social news site for politics. Instead of starting a Facebook Group for PopRule, we started one around the company’s mantra: All Politics is Social. If your company or brand stands for something, if your mantra has a broad appeal that isn’t dependent on your brand, then it could be a great candidate for a Facebook Group. You can still associate your brand with the Group, as that was the inspiration behind it. Once your brand is established, it then becomes a candidate for a Facebook Page, which requires that people want to become a “fan” of the brand itself.
Step 10: Build your other social media profiles. If you’re serious about your corporate blog as a source of information and value for its own sake, as opposed to just a customer relations channel, you might consider joining blogger networks like Technorati, MyBlogLog, and BlogCatalog. If you’ll be producing videos, you’ll want accounts with YouTube and TubeMogul among others. And your presentations can be shared publicly on Slideshare. The nature of your business can often dictate which of these takes priority and where you can generate the most value.
These 10 tips assume that your business idea has been well thought out. Great marketing is no substitute for a good business plan. It’s also important to track and measure the success of these efforts. For example, you should use Google Analytics and WordPress Blog Stats to see where traffic is coming from and gauge the quality of that traffic.
Have you launched a brand? Have you used any of these tactics? Let us know what worked and what didn’t.