The New Startup Marketing Paradigm

Man working at a creative office using his computer and people moving at the background stock photo

By Peter Mansfield, CMO, UNest

Last weekend, I did something unusual. I spent an evening poring through decade-old startup marketing advice. We don’t think of it as such, but 2013 was a more straightforward — even halcyonic — era for marketers. Life was so simple back then! This tranquility was reflected in the advice I found, with bloggers suggesting their readers “embrace experimentation” and “be prepared to change gears.”

Quaint, isn’t it? How could they have known that, just one decade later, the entire marketing industry would become embroiled in an existential crisis? That success wouldn’t hinge on your creativity but rather on how you circumnavigated seismic technological and economic challenges.

No amount of gear-changing can overcome the rising consumer mistrust (or, worse, dislike) of the advertising industry. I’ve yet to encounter an experiment that can wipe away the harmful effects of Apple’s App Tracking Transparency, which abruptly closed one of the most valuable sources of targeting data available to mobile advertisers.

The past decade saw the marketing playbook completely rewritten, particularly for startups that must also reconcile their ambitions for rapid growth with their limited financial resources. Strategies that once served early-stage businesses well — like buying Facebook or Google ads and waiting for customers to trickle in — are now prohibitively expensive.

Marketing has always been a complicated, high-stakes game. It combines the science of data-driven precision with the art of messaging and branding. But now, it’s even trickier.

Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t say this because I’m profoundly despondent about our industry. Change is an inevitable part of life, much like adversity is. And many of the hurdles I outlined above — like Apple’s App Tracking Transparency — were a direct (and predictable) response to the advertising industry’s excesses.

I’m the opposite of despondent. Even with the past decade’s hurdles, startups can still amplify their voices and connect with potential customers. Sure, the old playbook is hilariously out-of-date, but that means we can write our own.

Many of the chapters in this new playbook will feel as familiar (and obvious) as the advice offered in 2013. “Create your original content for social media” is 2023’s equivalent of “embrace experimentation.”

But other voices are less obvious with the possibility for bigger rewards. Consumer-facing startups would be fools to, for example, ignore the potential offered by radio. To the ill-informed it looks like a dying entity, much like Blockbuster Video did in the late 2000s. But if you move past the stigma, you see some encouraging trends.

Radio is the medium with the most significant overall reach. It is the preferred medium for those aged 35 and above, according to the 2022 Nielsen Audio Today report. This relevance holds, even when you look at younger audiences. For those in the coveted 18-34 demographic group, radio is the second-most popular medium, trailing mobile by just a few percentage points.

While many early-stage businesses may be tempted to stick to digital realms, believing they will make targeting and monitoring their campaigns easier, this perspective ignores the massive overlap between traditional broadcast radio and digital channels.

Behind every FM/AM radio station, you’ll find podcasts, streaming, online video, and a presence on social media. Radio businesses aren’t monoliths. They’ve adapted to the new digital world. And so, startups can have their cake and eat it. This is something my company, UNest, knows well.

Following a six-market regional trial, we signed a nationwide deal with iHeartMedia that gives us access to its massive audience across the various mediums it uses — digital, broadcast radio, podcasts, events, and social media. And so, we get the best of all worlds: from the incredible penetration of broadcast radio where grandparents, aunts and uncles, and family friends can hear about something the young parents in their lives could use, to the ability to target podcast-based campaigns to ensure we’re speaking to parents or parents-to-be during the latest episode of The Big Take or Stuff You Missed in History Class.

UNest is a fintech business. We offer a financial app that helps parents save for their children’s future. Or, put another way, we’re the last business you’d expect to advertise on traditional broadcast radio. And yet, this medium has served us incredibly well because of the breadth of its reach. Everyone listens to something. iHeartMedia understands that, and now we get to use it to our advantage.

That’s the best thing about rewriting the startup marketing playbook. You get to start from scratch—tabula rasa. You can discard your prejudices and figure out the solution that works for you. With a blank slate, you can think about where your potential customers are and how to reach them best.

As someone once wrote in 2013, it is an opportunity to “embrace experimentation.” And embrace it, we must.

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