It's never been easier to start a company. During the last 20 years, the time and cost of starting a business decreased substantially worldwide. But it's a double-edged sword: more competition, more choices, more channels, more noise…
In this context, customer acquisition is arguably more challenging than ever.
If you’re a startup founder currently facing this challenge, you maybe feel:
Paralyzed: “Where to even start?”
Overwhelmed: “I’ve tried everything, but nothing is working.”
A bit lost: “Am I doing this right?”
If you feel that way, I hope this post can help you and bring some clarity.
Common pitfalls to avoid
In my experience, here are the main pitfalls you should try to avoid:
A strategy that you can’t afford: these days, more often than not, startups kickstart customer acquisition with Facebook and Google Ads. While those channels are almost inevitable when scaling, they’re not the best to start with when you have a limited budget and runway. Be mindful of your burn rate.
Reinventing the wheel: many startups try to copy tactics used by more established companies. These companies have more resources and can afford to think long-term. Choose a strategy that you can realistically execute upon with your current resources, and that could pay dividends immediately.
Compromising: saying no is hard, and it can be tempting to onboard any customer that would like to test your product. But will they get it? Will they stick around? The most important for growth is retention and as a startup, it’s critical to zero in on the customers who care the most about the problem you solve.
The sweet spot is to find customer acquisition initiatives at the intersection:
Where to start?
Well, it depends! :)
When founders ask me this question, I tell them to forget about the lengthy process of personas, funnels, and marketing mix and draw this simple 2x2 matrix instead:
Why? If we simplify, there are only two types of potential customers for your product:
people actively looking for a solution
those who aren’t
And there are only two ways to get in touch with them:
leveraging touchpoints that already exist
building new ones
How to use this framework?
Here are some prompts and examples to help you fill in the matrix:
When potential customers search for ——— (keywords related to the problem you solve) they usually find ——— (list of websites ranking for these terms). Among them, we could partner with ——— (selected website) by ——— (your initiative).
When potential customers ask questions about ——— (questions related to the problem you solve) they usually do it on ——— (popular group or forum in your niche). We could join the conversation by ——— (your initiative).
When they compare or review ——— (alternatives) they usually find ——— (list of review sites and comparators). We could be included by ——— (your initiative).
Example of initiatives: partnerships with affiliates, requests for article updates, joining and participating in an active community, listing your company on review sites….
We could help potential customers searching for ——— (keywords related to the problem you solve) by building ——— (your initiative).
We could help potential customers having questions about ——— (questions related to the problem you solve) by building ——— (your initiative).
We could help potential customers to compare and make a decision by comparing ——— (alternatives) with our product by building ——— (your initiative).
Example of initiatives: landing pages for SEO, FAQ, guides and blog posts, user-generated content (forums, community…), reviews, and comparison pages…
Most of our potential customers also care about ——— (related topics relevant for your audience). Their go-to is ——— (leading publications in that space). We could partner with ——— (selected publication) by ——— (your initiative).
Most of our potential customers follow and trust ——— (influential profiles in your industry). We could partner with ——— (selected profile) by ——— (your initiative).
Most of our potential customers also use ——— (adjacent products and services). We could partner with ——— (selected partner) by ——— (your initiative).
Example of initiatives: native advertising and PR, guest content, influencer marketing, strategic partnerships…
We could inspire our potential customers who also care about ——— (related topics relevant for your audience) by building ——— (your initiative).
We could raise the interest of our potential customers who follow and trust ——— (influential profiles in your industry) by featuring ——— (selected profile) in our ——— (your initiative).
We could provide additional value for our potential customers also using ——— (adjacent products and services) by building ——— (your initiative).
Example of initiatives: content hubs, interviews, ambassador program, collabs, integrations, product directory, marketplace…
This is just a framework; results will differ based on your creative inputs.
The prompts are suggestions only; use other questions if you like.
You don’t need to follow this order (quadrants) but it can help with prioritizing.
Tools that can help for market research
If you’re looking for some data and fresh ideas, I can recommend these tools:
SEMrush: for competitive analysis and keyword research.
AnswerThePublic: for finding relevant questions in your space.
Sparktoro: for identifying sources of influence for your audience.
SimilarWeb: for estimating traffic volumes (competitors, partners…).
Wrapping it up
If you felt paralyzed, overwhelmed, or lost about getting started with customer acquisition, I hope this post brought some inspiration and clarity to your journey.
Whether you use this framework or not, here are some key steps to keep in mind:
Start with market research: map customer intents and touchpoints, focus on the places they already know and trust before building your own channels.
Experiment and iterate: all initiatives won’t be a hit. Document your learnings and move on to the next one. Start small and stay consistent; it’ll pay off!
Add layers over time: scaling user acquisition is all about adding layers and building repeatable systems, but it’s only possible with solid foundations.
If you found this framework valuable and would like to try it for a brainstorming session with your team you can get my template for free. Just let me know if you need help.
Have fun baking!
Thank you for reading,
Illustrations by Gustav Bodin