If you are an early-stage startup founder, it’s fairly likely that you’d have to reach your first customers without a real marketing budget. This makes online communities related to your offering an obvious choice for your marketing efforts.
Unfortunately, you wouldn’t be the only startup in the world that’s trying to growth-hack its way to success by plugging its offering and content in relevant Facebook groups or subreddits. This has led to online communities developing a very strong immune response to self-promotion.
In most groups, explicit self-promotion is forbidden, and the moderators would be happy to remove your posts or even ban you to protect the community from being flooded with promotional content and outright spam.
Moreover, even if you get past the first line of defense, explicitly promotional content will likely get pushed away by the members of the community - people are not going to interact, or they are going to use negative interaction mechanisms whenever possible (report, downvote, etc.), which would result in fewer people seeing your proposition.
The uncomfortable truth is that there is no easy solution to this problem. Whatever your approach, you need to provide real value to the community in order to get the desired effect - interested eyes on your offering.
There are generally speaking two approaches to the problem.
1. Become A Valuable Member Of The Community
The straightforward approach is to become a member of the community and to provide non-commercial value regularly. If you engage, provide information and opinions, reach out to people, and try to be useful, then it’s fairly likely that the more active people in the community would remember you.
Once they do, they would be much more likely to react positively to your efforts to share your offering - you would be viewed as an insider, which makes a big difference.
Of course, this is a very costly approach, and you need to carefully consider if it makes sense. Wasting your time engaging with a community for months just so that you can post about your project once is a waste.
This approach makes sense only if the community is very close to your target market. If it is, engaging would bring other benefits - you’d be closer to your customers, which would help you understand them better. Moreover, you’d be up to date on the latest trends, which would help you refine not only your offering but your marketing strategy.
2. Make Self-Promotion a Second-Order Effect
If becoming a member of the community is a bad idea based on a cost-benefit analysis, this means that you’d have to be creative in the way you promote yourself.
Since blatant self-promotion is what triggers all of the defenses, whatever your creative approach, your general strategy would be to create publications in which getting people interested in your project is the secondary effect of your message, rather than the prime reason for your post.
A typical example is sharing informational content from your blog. The topic of the content should be one that provides value to your target audience (and the communities, in which you want to post it). You can include references to your own project and professional experience in the content, but it shouldn’t be the main focus of your post. This way even if the community doesn’t allow you to post a link to your blog, but instead requires you to paste the text, readers would become aware of yourself and your offering.
In conclusion, if you want to use online communities to jumpstart your startup product, don’t spam. Instead - engage in a way that creates value for the community, and think of your self-promotion as a second-order effect.
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