Startups are experiments in risk ⁠— attempts to disrupt the marketplace and change the behavior of customers and investors. Content marketing for startups is especially important because it can serve so many purposes. Whatever stage you’re at — wooing investors, seeking early adopters, building brand awareness or getting ready to exit — content can help you stand out.

Successful content marketing requires a complex mix of creativity and consistency, along with a willingness to pivot based on what you learn.

Learn more about the content marketing needs of startups, why that changes depending on what stage you’re in and how high-growth companies can use content to build their brands.

Why Startups Need Content Marketing

Startups span all industries, products and services, but they are fundamentally trying to gain awareness, get people to act differently and build market share. In many cases, they are spending precious capital on product development or staffing. Content marketing, especially at bootstrapped companies, is a less costly but effective way to build a startup’s image and communicate your value.

“Content marketing for your startup assists you in developing a plan for communicating consistently with your target audience. You’ll be able to reinforce your messages and assist your consumers as they progress through the sales funnel,” says Yanis Mellata, co-founder at Kosy Office. “Remember that simply being noticed is not enough; your brand must also become recognizable to the general audience. You must be aware of your value proposition and how it matches their requirement, in addition to recognizing your brand.”

Content marketing can also be effective in attracting investors, as engaging content can pique their initial interest before your pitch deck and in-person conversations seal the deal.

The Difference Between a Startup and Small Business

To the average consumer, startups and small businesses may seem interchangeable, but these distinctions can have a huge impact on strategy.

Startups are inherently disruptive, and they focus on developing and implementing products or services that disrupt a market. Small businesses include most privately owned businesses, partnerships or sole proprietorships that are below a certain threshold of revenue, depending on the industry. They aren’t necessarily disruptive.

Both of these business models go through different stages of growth. For startups, these stages are referred to as early, growth, late, and exit stage.

Both small businesses and startups are built to develop a customer base and turn a profit, but the biggest difference is how they do so. Small businesses generally need to be profitable quickly, while startups often assume a period of loss while they gain market share.

In terms of financing, both business models can be bootstrapped or financed through outside sources. Small businesses rarely attract venture capital money, however, and they’re less likely to give away significant equity in exchange for funding.

Why Content Marketing Matters at Each Startup Stage

As startups move through different stages, they have different content strategy needs. Let’s take a look at three critical stages of startups and how content marketing evolves alongside startups.

Early-Stage Startups

The “early stage” defines the beginning, developmental stage of every startup. At this stage, startups are focused on product development, market research and finding product/market fit. They’re working on a minimum viable product.

During this stage, entrepreneurs might feel that content marketing isn’t in the budget, that they don’t have the capacity or anything to say, but that’s a limiting mindset.

Doing something is better than doing nothing, and content is a great path to test the ideas behind your product.

“Early stage, test your idea. Write a blog post, write a social post, make a little guide. See how people react to that content because if you can’t get someone to read the blog post, you definitely can’t get them to buy the product,” says Mary Ellen Slayter, founder and CEO of Rep Cap.

Growth-Stage Startups

Growth-stage startups have found some consistency in customers and income. They’re looking to scale that growth and attract further funding so they can pay for additional expansion. In this stage, entrepreneurs are not only doubling down on selling the idea and product, but they’re also differentiating the company from competitors.

“At that stage, you’re still trying to sell an idea, but you’re now trying to differentiate. Differentiate yourself, in many cases, against your competition. And your competition from the other products and services in the same space,” Mary Ellen says. “More often for a startup, the competition is doing nothing. You’re fighting against the status quo; you’re fighting against inertia. And so now you’re going to use your content to distinguish yourself from your competitors.”

The early and growth stages are similar in that startups are still trying to sell their idea and survive. But what separates them is that instead of just working with a still-developing idea, growth-stage startups have a more developed product and customers who have used it.

At this stage, your content marketing can still be experimental, and you want it to differentiate your startup, whether that’s in terms of features, audience, tone or any number of factors. Keep in mind, too, that the content marketing you’re generating for customers (businesses or consumers) won’t necessarily take the same angle or discuss the same topics as content marketing aimed at attracting investors for the startup.

“You’re getting leads, building awareness, but you can also use it to gain insights into what people care about the most,” Mary Ellen says. “What are they stressed out about? Make content about it”

In this stage, many startups will add staff who produce content and manage marketing. The focus is still more on making content and getting in front of audiences and channels you think will be effective, but you might start running deeper SEO analysis and content audits at this point. Growth-stage startups should use content to test and refine messaging rather than demanding each piece of content demonstrate a measurable ROI.

“One of the biggest mistakes I see people make in sort of stage one and stage two is they start trying to hold content accountable like a stage three company would,” Mary Ellen says. “That attitude will kill your content brand.”

Late-Stage/Exit-Stage Startups

Late-stage startups have reliable income streams, strategies and business objectives. They are approaching the point where they’ll look to be acquired or go public. These startups need a more mature approach to content marketing.

They need to be more strategic and targeted in their content marketing, especially as they narrow in on their ideal audience and begin to learn which channels are effective at driving awareness and conversions — and which channels don’t work.

Internally, a mature content strategy also has more formalized workflows, dedicated staffing (internal or external) and clear deliverables.

Late-stage startups should be using their content strategies to support demand gen strategy. “At this point, content is a critical piece of your whole demand-gen engine,” Mary Ellen explains. “At that stage, and it’s only at that stage, that I actually think you should start really putting pressure on people to talk about the ROI of content.”

Demand gen can help accelerate the sale cycle process, improve conversion rates and get your customers more engaged in the decision-making process. Content marketing, particularly at this point, is about getting more engagement with your ideal customer.

When content marketing supports demand gen, you can start investing more in marketing automation, paid social media posts, webinars and other activities that contribute to ROI. It’s at this point, Mary Ellen says, that measuring your content’s impact makes more sense.

“You’re like ‘Hey, that guide, we spent $20K to produce it and a quarter-million dollars on ads, but it led to $3 million in pipeline,’ you start having that conversation,” she says.

Startups That Used Content Marketing Successfully

Here are some success stories of startups that have used content marketing to drive awareness and their value proposition.

Betterworks

Betterworks provides solutions for increasing employee engagement, manager efficiency, and business impact, in large part through the idea of objectives and key results (OKRs). They have a robust content marketing strategy that includes expert-led webinars, deeply researched and writer articles, how-to guides on OKRs and other topics, and online certifications through Betterworks University.

The Mom Project

The Mom Project is a digital talent marketplace and community that connects professionally accomplished underrepresented professionals with world-class companies. The company has two sets of buyers that appeal to through their content strategy: workers and employers. The Mom Project’s content has to key in on one audience or the other while remaining aligned so that, for example, content aimed at employers doesn’t alienate workers or the company’s community.

The Mom Project succeeded by centering content on people who’ve been historically excluded from professional opportunities. The Study blog focuses on advice, best practices and other resources when that target audience is conducting job searches.

The company has also put on events, including The ReCharge Summit on the day after Mother’s Day, which used content and thought leaders to connect the job-seekers and employers that the company wants to attract. Besides the day-of event, the company created blog posts, social content and video clips to amplify the event’s reach and draw attention to what The Mom Project can offer workers and employers.

Coursera

Coursera is a global online learning platform built on big ideas that went public in 2021. The company partners with the best universities and brightest minds to create courses that are informative and easy to manage for working professionals.

In the years before its initial public offering, Coursera wanted to raise awareness, not just to the public at large but specifically to target buyers inside Fortune 500 companies. The startup created a thought leadership campaign comprising high-quality articles, white papers, infographics, videos and more. The wealth and variety of content supported a long-term lead-generation campaign that combined organic and paid channels.

FreshBooks

FreshBooks is accounting software designed for small and medium-sized businesses that helps them easily keep their books organized.

FreshBooks is a competitor to Intuit’s QuickBooks that realized how accounting software could be intimidating for new business owners. From the name and feel to the content to the software itself, FreshBooks created resources that showcased it as a fun, resourceful and effective alternative that could help small-business owners and even freelancers manage their accounting.

This focus on being the company “where small business owners learn to thrive” is seen in customer case studies, as well as ebooks and articles on topics that can be stressful to many solopreneurs and small-business people, such as creating contracts for freelancers.

How to Deploy Content Marketing at a Startup

When executing a content marketing strategy at a startup, remember these four rules of thumb:

Understand Your Content Value Proposition

Your product or service needs to prove the value it delivers and how it meets your customers’ needs. Your content value proposition does the same for the content you’re producing. Have you identified your customer’s main problem and created content around that? Have you helped the customer (or investor) understand how your expertise and product/service connect to their big problem?.  

Talk About Your Idea, Not Just the Product

Obviously, startups need a viable product to go from hype to lasting business, but product alone isn’t what wins people over, especially in your content marketing.

“Don’t talk about your product. Talk about the idea underneath the product and use the content to help you sharpen that and refine it and spread in the world,” Mary Ellen says.

Don’t Focus on ROI Initially

Early- and growth-stage startups face the challenge of building awareness of their idea, product and brand. Content can help generate that awareness, even if it’s difficult or impossible to measure how that directly connects to revenue. Early on, too, your content might be reaching smaller audiences and not honed in on people ready to make a purchasing decision. Worry more about ROI in the later stages, when you’re really narrowing in on the customers (and even late-stage investors) you want most.

Establish the Metrics That Matter

Content marketing has metrics that help show ROI regardless of your business. Use those, and then consider how you can tie those results to common startup metrics, including:

  • Compound monthly growth rate
  • Gross margin
  • Retention rate
  • Burn rate
  • Cash runway
  • Customer acquisition cost

An Intentional Strategy Leads to Growth

Content marketing for startups requires an approach that takes into account how entrepreneurs look at funding, scaling and customer acquisition. While you won’t throw out the playbook that content marketers at corporations or small businesses use, you’ll need to adapt to meet the specific needs of startups at whatever stage of growth they’re in.

Startups aren’t afraid to spend early, but they also need to scale quickly and sustain that growth as they mature. A content marketing strategy that is adaptable and evolves with every stage can be a leading driver of early awareness, later-stage customer acquisition and overall business success.