In the early days of a startup, marketing is rarely top of mind. Instead, the focus often lies in building and engineering your product, fixing bugs, speaking to customers, and, potentially, securing startup funding from investors. If you’re a product-driven team, whose expertise lies in the technical, building out a marketing function can be daunting.
But eventually, as you find your product footing and move from incubation to acceleration, it becomes time to hire a marketer. Making your first marketing hire at a startup can be the initial step to building awareness about your product, expanding your customer base, and zeroing in on your go-to-market strategy. In a tech landscape that’s crowded with thousands of apps and the latest tech solutions, the concept of “build it and they will come” is a fallacy. In reality, marketing is the differentiator that will make your product stand out.
Knowing who to hire begins with the complex question of what to hire for. From brand marketing to performance, marketing is a broad field with a multitude of sub-fields. Fortunately, by cultivating an understanding of the broader marketing function, and determining the best strategy for your company, you can expand your team with a marketing expert that puts your product on the map.
Before hiring your first marketer, it’s worth considering what introducing the marketing function can do for your business. Aside from freeing up your own time to focus on your area of expertise, hiring a marketer can mean scaling a successful marketing strategy or building one from scratch.
Marketing as a function exists across a wide breadth of companies and across a variety of stages—from a CMO commanding a multi-million dollar budget at a Fortune 500 to a Junior Copywriter crafting marketing brochures for a local lawn care business.
But the skills to succeed as a startup marketer are often quite specific, including a range of “soft skills” that are required in a dynamic, fast-moving environment.
When different types of marketing professionals do vastly different work, it’s not enough to simply say that you want to hire a marketer. There’s a difference between a marketer who sets up programmatic ad campaigns on Facebook and the one throwing in-person events for members of your community. Depending on your type of business and the stage of your company, a specific kind of marketer might be more suitable than another. Understand the different marketing functions and what might be the best for your business.
Growth marketing (also, sometimes referred to as “growth hacking”) is the discipline of using data and experimentation—from A/B testing to personalization—to drive customer acquisition and revenue growth. Growth marketers are comfortable working with data sets, building and testing hypotheses, and monitoring key metrics.
Common titles for this role include Growth Marketing Manager, Growth Strategist, Growth Lead, Head of Growth, and Director of Growth.
Here are common roles and responsibilities of a growth marketer:
Product marketing involves bringing new products and features to market, conducting research through customer interviews and market analysis to ensure a product is well-received and properly positioned. Product marketers are savvy researchers and strategists, finding product answers through market research and customer conversation, gathering insights to develop successful release strategies.
Common titles for this role include Product Marketing Manager, Product Marketing Strategist, Product Marketing Lead, Head of Product Marketing, and Director of Product Marketing.
Here are common roles and responsibilities of a product marketer:
Content marketing is the development and dissemination of relevant written, audio, and video content to drive demand in your products or services from a defined audience. Content marketers are skilled writers, editors, and content strategists with a knack for storytelling and a knowledge of SEO best practices.
Common titles for this role include Content Marketing Manager, Content Strategist, Content Lead, Head of Content, and Director of Content and Communication.
Here are common roles and responsibilities of a content marketer:
Performance marketing is focused on developing paid marketing campaigns—through social ads and search ads—to drive product awareness and customer acquisition while optimizing for return on investment (ROI). Performance marketers are advertising experts with a deep understanding of digital advertising, setting up social and search campaigns that optimize for metrics like cost per thousand impressions (CPM) and cost per click (CPC), and customer acquisition cost (CAC).
Common titles for this role include Performance Marketing Manager, Digital Marketer, Digital Strategist, Head of Performance Marketing, and Director of Performance Marketing.
Here are common roles and responsibilities of a performance marketer:
Social media marketing uses social media platforms—like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram—to market products and services to existing and prospective customers. Social media marketers are internet savvy creatives with their finger on the pulse of key trends, skilled across crafting short-form copy, developing visual assets, and engaging with followers.
Common titles for this role include Social Media Marketing Manager, Social Media Strategist, Social Media Lead, Head of Social, and Director of Social and Community.
Here are common roles and responsibilities of a social media marketer:
Community marketing aims to build a relationship between a brand and its audience and customers by cultivating connections through social media, online spaces, in-person events, and more. Community marketers are masters in the art of gathering, facilitating conversations and connection between community members, with the goal of fostering brand loyalty, creating product evangelists, and driving product adoption.
Common titles for this role include Community Manager, Community Marketing Lead, Head of Community, and Director of Community.
Here are common roles and responsibilities of a community manager:
Brand marketing serves to elevate and boost a brand’s visibility and reputation by building campaigns that emphasize a company’s overarching story. Brand marketers focus on big-picture storytelling, developing brand messaging and multimedia—commercials, billboards, social media ads, branded magazines—to bring awareness to a company’s products or services.
Common titles for this role include Brand Marketing Manager, Brand Strategist, Brand Lead, Head of Brand, and Director of Brand and Creative.
Here are common roles and responsibilities of a brand marketer:
With a variety of valuable functions to choose from, it’s difficult to determine which type of marketing pro you’ll need and what kind of marketing plan will move the needle for your business. To narrow down your options, and choose the right person, assess the stage of your business, your budget, and your marketing aims.
Different forms of marketing can be more effective than others at certain stages of your company. If you’re an early stage company still struggling to find product-market fit, hiring a brand marketer to run costly campaigns is generally not a winning strategy for your marketing efforts. Similarly, throwing money at paid advertising through performance marketing is ineffective if you’ve yet to hone in on your target market.
On the other hand, if you’re slowly but surely forming a customer base of excited users, it can be helpful to intentionally build a community to increase enthusiasm about the product and drive adoption through word-of-mouth. Similarly, content marketing efforts, like SEO and building an email marketing strategy, are often best to start early-on.
All marketing has its costs, but some forms of marketing can be more costly than others. Performance marketing requires an upfront budget to bid on ads and it can take time and iteration to generate a positive ROI. While brand marketers can get creative with low-cost viral campaigns, it often takes some spending to develop compelling branded media and bring a campaign to a large audience.
On the other hand, getting setup for organic social media is free and cost of creating assets can be minimized with low-cost design platforms. Community marketing might take time and effort to grow, but can pay dividends despite the low cost (or $0 price tag) of community platforms like Facebook Groups, Slack, or Discord.
Decide on how much you’re willing to invest in your marketing efforts, including whether it’s best to opt for a full-time hire on a salary or a freelancer charging hourly rates on a project basis.
Ultimately, your digital marketing plans need to be aligned with your company goals and product intentions. If you want to develop a better understanding of your target market and plan on shipping quickly, bringing in a product marketer will help solidify your positioning and enhance your go-to-market strategy. If you’ve yet to land on exactly what works, a growth marketer who can experiment your way to success is a good bet.
Go beyond the vague goal of “growth” and get specific with what you accomplish with your first marketing hire.
By taking the time to understand the type of digital marketing expert your team needs, creating a job description should be relatively simple. Provide as much information as possible about your company, the product, and the role so that candidates can make informed decisions about applying.
Here are a few items to include in your job description:
Hiring a marketer, especially your first marketing hire, will set the tone for the function at your company. Rather than indiscriminately posting job postings across the web, take time to be selective in your sourcing approach to find the ideal candidate.
Chat with existing members on your team to see if they have any hiring recommendations—from previous colleagues to talented members of their professional networks.
Joining a startup is making a big bet—often forgoing higher compensation today for the promise of a meaningful exit tomorrow. Employee referrals are especially helpful in this case—employees can serve as an early advocate for the company. Consider incentivizing employee referrals with an employee bonus referral program to find your first marketer.
If you’re a founder or early employee at a startup, look to your wider network to source your first marketing hire. That includes checking-in with previous colleagues that stand out, asking members of any professional communities you belong to, and tapping your investors to assist in the search.
If you’ve done any early marketing efforts yourself, or have communication channels where you speak directly to customers, use them for light recruitment. For example, if you send customers a monthly product newsletter, add a “P.S.” at the bottom to mention that you’re hiring. If you have social media marketing channels, post about the role. Your early adopters and online following will often be the subset of people most excited about joining your team.
LinkedIn can be a powerful recruitment tool, allowing you to narrow in on potential candidates with laser-like precision. Do you want to poach a candidate from a competitor? You can filter for that. Find someone with an unusual combination of skills? That query exists. Discover candidates with a specific marketing background or certificate? It can be done. Consider signing up for a LinkedIn Recruiter account to expedite your search.
There are an endless number of online communities for marketers of every discipline, filled with both junior and senior marketers. Often, they’re also a place for hiring managers to post and share relevant job listings to find full-time hires and freelancers. Seek those communities out and promote your posting.
Here are a few online communities for marketers:
The best way to determine if a marketer is right for your team is taking the time to get to know them, their previous experience, and future aspirations through the hiring process. Take time to dig into a candidate’s background and to ask questions to assess if their marketing skill set and experience are a match.
Dig into a candidate’s career journey and track record—from the companies they’ve worked at previously to the specific roles and responsibilities they’ve held. Consider whether their background makes them a strong fit or an unlikely match, but be open-minded and weigh interviews and experience above resumes and education.
Aim to understand through the interview process both whether a candidate is skilled in their function and whether they possess the traits of an early startup marketing hire. Ask technical questions about their field, whether that’s content marketing or brand marketing, digging into the past results they’ve achieved at other companies and any startup marketing tools they’ve used.
Also take time to ask generalized startup interview questions that gauge skills like adaptability, agility, and curiosity.
Interviews are an opportunity to put your best foot forward as a company, but also to be realistic and truthful about expectations of potential hires. Be forthcoming with any marketing challenges you’re currently having and what it’s like to work at the company. Leave room throughout the process for candidates to ask questions. Answer honestly.
It’s helpful to gauge what a candidate is capable of by putting their knowledge and expertise to the test. Take-home assignments and test projects are a common part of hiring processes that give you a greater sense of how a candidate approaches marketing challenges.
Keep test projects time-bound, limiting them to under three hours of work and pay candidates for their time whenever possible. Keep test projects relevant, but not so specific that work can be used late; this can be reputationally damaging for your company.
Once you’ve decided on the right candidate, extend an offer and onboard them onto your team. Work with them in the early days to create a 30-60-90 day plan to kick off their role. Work collaboratively to set appropriate marketing metrics that they’ll own. Then, step back and allow them to do their marketing magic.
Check out all of DigitalOcean’s resources for startups and SMBs in The Wave, our startup resource hub, for more company-building advice to help your startup thrive.
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