Marketing Research for Startups

I moved back to Southern California in late 2020 after 13 years in San Francisco working on startups. Through work, life, and Tahoe ski leases, I talked to a lot of founders about marketing. The vast majority of our conversations would veer into what they could do better, even with the most successful ones. (Startup founders, always ambitious 😂)

Each conversation started differently, but they often led to the same answer from me: "Do more marketing research". While the founders knew a lot about their customers when it came to product, they didn't when it came to marketing.

The problem

Modern marketing is complex, and it's a lot harder when you're not working with an audience you know well. Some audiences are more competitive than others, but no matter whom you're marketing to, there's a lot of noise to break through. To actually get your message heard, you have to produce marketing that is both high quality and unique (and of course, relevant).

Weak customer insights make this hard and can hold back any of your customer facing marketing projects, whatever your business model or industry.

Despite this, it's common for founders to do deep research for their product, but do little for marketing.

What weak insights can look like:

Strong customer insights

Strong customer insights allow you to address potential customer’s concerns and build trust with your marketing. You get stronger insights by doing more customer research, asking better questions, and finding ways to gather information without talking to customers.

Great insights look like knowing:

While marketing research can be hard work, you're building a foundation for more effective marketing in the future. The better you get at collecting insights, the easier it gets to produce results with your marketing.

Building rich customer insights helps validate your marketing before you even start working on it. Like product development, each new piece of customer information helps you further refine your planning to what your customers actually want to see and hear from you.

You don’t need to be an expert at research for this. I’ll walk you through the details and my process.

What to collect

The data points that will be useful to you depend on whether you’re B2C or B2B, self-serve or sales person driven, what marketing channels you're using, what stage you’re at, and more.

In general, the types of data to collect are:

For example, if you’re selling to consumers, you might want to know the following:

And if you’re selling to businesses, you might want to know these data points:

You likely have some data so you’re not starting from scratch.

Applying that data

Any of your customer facing marketing projects can be affected by not having deep enough insights. Sometimes it’s obvious what you can use the data for, but people generally underestimate the number of uses for many data points.

Some of the different ways you can use this data:

Knowing what jargon and language your customers use is important for building credibility through your:

Knowing your audience’s goals can lead to better:

Knowing the organizations and people that influence your audience can:

Collecting data

When people hear the words "marketing research" they typically think of customer interviews, focus groups, and surveys. These methods involve collecting data directly from your audience.

Indirect methods such as getting data from public sources, commercial sources, internal sources, and using inference are often ignored even though they can provide a wealth of data.

You build the deepest customer insights by combining your direct and indirect research.

Confidence in your data depends on both the source of the data and how many times you've heard a similar thing.

To make this work well, you need dedicated time for data collection. Don't just bolt a set of marketing questions onto the end of a product interview and expect good insights.

How to start

Step 1
First you need a place to keep this information as you collect it that keeps the data organized and easy to access. This step also helps make the process feel more important, which leads to it getting prioritized higher.

Here's a Google Sheets template to get you started.

Step 2
Create a list of all the data points you want to cover in your customer research. As I mentioned previously, the areas to think about are:

Step 3
You likely already have some of these data points collected. Fill in the sheet with what you already know and include the source and date of the info if you have it. 

Step 4
Identify your most important data points and see what still needs to be added to prioritize for the next step. Your goal is a complete picture of who your audience is, but that takes time, so you start by focusing on the data points with the highest value that you’re missing and go from there.

Step 5 
Now that you know what you need, it’s time to do a round of customer research. What type can depend on what data you’re looking for or trying to verify.

Some general options:

Step 6 
Set aside dedicated time on a regular schedule to collect more information and verify what you currently have. I recommend every quarter or more frequently if you have the resources.

Audiences aren’t static. Your current audiences can be further refined or might change their tastes or how they get new information. You bring in new audiences as the product changes and business grows and sometimes completely drops old ones.

I hope this was helpful! If you liked the guide, you can sign up to get future posts right below. And if you really liked the post, I'd appreciate you sharing it!
- Jonathan

About me

I have run growth and marketing at startups like Heap and Periscope Data (acquired by Sisense), helping to generate millions in revenue. Marketing education for makers is a passion of mine and I'm building marketing products to help people grow startups faster.