Panel discussions

How digital marketing can help start-ups scale faster

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MMA Women Managers’ Forum

We started Women Managers’ Forum in Madras in 1994. Women have so much to give for India and Indian business.  They are so skilled. How can Indian business grow without tapping into the intellectual genius of women? With that objective, we started Women Managers’ Forum with emphasis on women being managers.

At that time, very few women chose career as an option. Home making was their first option.  Some who chose career as an option chose to be in music, dancing, medicine, and advertising or as being Chartered Accountants. As I was desperately scouting for talents for my company, I realised that women had lots of talents. It was with a purely selfish objective of getting smart managers for our company that I started the Women Managers’ Forum in MMA.

Initially women hesitated a lot. Many said that they did not want to do anything against their husbands. I had to convince them that it was not against their husbands but it was for them. Some said they didn’t want to do anything against men. I convinced them that men are not against women.  Yet, I had a lot of difficulties in the last 25 years. 

Over a period of time, India started looking at women as national resource, not just in one or two areas but including in armed forces, where they might risk their lives during battle. More women started coming into business management.

India does have another important and crying need. In the year 2000, when China and India started building their economies, both had 40% of the population below poverty line. In the last 20 years, China has made significant progress and only 5 to 10% of their population is below poverty line whereas India has made virtually no progress.

Some authors like Pallavi Iyer who have studied China write that the poor people in China are far better off in their lives while the poor in India are utterly and desperately poor. Their level of poverty really hurts us deep in our core. So, India has a huge need for increasing its Gross Domestic Product. We are at about 2.7 trillion dollars whereas China is at 13 trillion dollars. There is no question of catching up now. Nor is the Chinese approach available to us. China is an autocracy; there is no limitation on the number of working hours or the working conditions and safety norms.

India is a democracy and we have to respect everyone’s rights. We have to care about occupational health and safety and which is a good thing. How then can India increase its productivity and gross national product? I think India needs a large number of start-ups. 

Fortunately start-ups are somewhat sheltered from bureaucracy and officialdom. A thought occurs to me that if one person in a house has a stable income, the other person can take a risk. Women also now want to do something much beyond home making. They have become much more capable and can manage house making easily. They want to prove themselves, add to their family’s income and make a name for themselves.

We in MMA want to make all this possible through MMA Women Business Forum. This is not a managers’ forum but a business forum. We want to draw in a lot of Indian women to start-ups. When we had the first few meetings, many said that they made the initial steps but find it difficult to build it and scale it up. They find marketing to be expensive. There are economical ways in which one can go to social media and scale up their business.

With this thought in mind, I requested two powerful women to come and speak to you and support those of you who want help. As start-ups help Indian GDP grow, I would particularly like to motivate women coming out of colleges and those who work at home. If you can spare some time towards a start-up, it can help India, our motherland.

We are also open to linking you up to incubators. For example, IIT has an incubator cell; we can introduce you to them or someone else. We are also planning to bring coaches for entrepreneurs. In whatever ways possible, we will try to help you. These are not just my ideas but Ms Anusha Shetty’s. Her aim is to energize this forum. 

Anusha Shetty: I started a company way back in 2005 and I am fortunate to have been mentored by Mr Balaraman. Everybody needs positive energy, blessings, good mentoring and a lot of self-motivation, commitment, hard work and a great idea. All these result in a good company. I am excited to be part of MMA’s Women Business Forum and would be happy to empower women to start companies and achieve their dreams. 

Keerti: When you start as a start-up co-founder or founder, you are donning several hats and doing so many things. When do you start dedicating your time to digital marketing? Should you have some customers before you?

Krithika: Start-ups have different kinds of issues and questions.  It’s a different scenario for growth stage start-ups, which want to scale up. Initially, the focus is all about the product and getting the first few customers to experience the product.  There’s no particular time that you can pinpoint as the ideal time to get into digital.

If you are already having a corporate profile like LinkedIn and other platforms, even before launching your start-up formally, you can put out some sort of an idea there. You can get guidance. You can get mentors and people to collaborate to enhance your product itself. You can seek ideas and figure out ways to improve the prototype. Here itself, there is an opportunity to start your digital journey and wet your feet in the digital platforms.

As an entrepreneur when you start seeking feedback, actively engage in the digital world and find out the pulse of the people. Today, there are 3.8 billion people on digital. Even otherwise, you can start your profile and start building it. If you have a product, then all the more, you have to enter into digital world. Engage with your friends and family in the initial stages, get some feedback and start making the content work for you.

Experiment with what people like and do not like, how you should position your product and which platform works for you. In the initial stages, as you don’t have a huge follower base, you don’t have to really worry about making mistakes. That’s when you can try out these platforms. There is no set rule as to which one will work for you. You have to find out what is working for you as an individual and a professional and pick the platform that works best for your audience, considering your business and product.

Then start slowly putting out content and find out: What does your audience look for? How can you help your audience online? With this approach, you’ll eventually land on the best hack for your start-up.

Anusha:  This is a phase for trial and errors.  Let’s just take some examples. Assume that you are fabulous in cooking and you’ve decided to sell some gourmet food or you have a fabulous fashion sense and you’ve decided to start designing clothes and sell them. Initially, you’ll obviously do it with your ecosystem. You’ll send it to your family and close friends.

It is better to go digital as the consumer is completely digital today. We have 1.3 billion people in India. Everybody believes that advertising is the best way to communicate to the market. We know TV has the maximum reach. But there are close to 600 million people on the Internet, which is as big as TV today. So digital is your big mass media platform.

The beauty of digital is that you can do it easily unlike advertising or TV where you need to go to an agency.  Everything is simple and sweet. If you’re starting a company and you have a product in fashion or food, after you’ve checked its pulse with your immediate ecosystem, go online with an e-commerce website which allows you to transact. There are a lot of plug-and-play ecommerce sites available- Shopify, Shopmatic and so on at a subscription fee of say 50 rupees a month.

There are two kinds of communication in digital—push and pull. In push, you are pushing content and information to an end consumer on the other side. In pull, the consumer is pulling content towards him/her.

They have beautiful plug-in templates. You just have to enter your brand name, take pictures from your phone of the products and upload them. You can save these templates, start transacting and connect them to your bank accounts. It’s all self-help and very easy. You don’t even need to go to complex e-commerce websites. These are e-commerce marketplace aggregators. They have done all the work for you, including the payment gateway work. All you have to do is to put your products up and just explore it. The minute your product is ready, then you are ready to start doing digital marketing. 

Keerti: So, growth and marketing go hand-in-hand because when you’re working on your product, you’re not going to perfect it in 10 days or one year; it’s a constant journey. The feedback from the users does inbound marketing for you. Word of mouth goes around.

You mentioned that with different aggregators around, you need not be very tech savvy.  Having online presence is fantastic. But at the same time, it’s extremely difficult to get visibility. When you search for products, so many start-ups and brands come up. What could be some good cost-effective growth hacks or strategies that you can adopt to get traction on digital properties—be it a website or an app? 

Anusha: There are two kinds of communication in digital—push and pull. In push, you are pushing content and information to an end consumer on the other side. In pull, the consumer is pulling content towards him/her. When you Google search for some information related to wedding, Google throws up results. This is pull communication. Make sure that you are part of this pull content. You must create lots of pieces of content such that the end consumer can discover you.

The second one, push communication, is an easy game. Let’s take the same wedding example. You have to identify your target audience—the mother who is the decision maker, or the bride or groom. On Facebook or Instagram, you can place the ad and direct it towards your target. You can put it in such a way and instruct Facebook and Instagram that whoever is looking for information on wedding, your ad should reach them. You can also choose filters and make sure this person is between 20 and 25 years of age and so on. 

You have to exist where the search engine is giving content and where the brand needs to push content.  Today, in the digital world, unlike the TV, you can choose who should see your ad—should the person be from village or town? Should the person have an iPhone or certain luxury products? Youngsters use Instagram and elder people use Facebook. So choose the platform wisely. You also have to figure out where consumers search for information on Google, in what categories they search and in what categories they’re not searching.

In the beginning stage, you can focus on push content by showcasing to the customer. We are ourselves consumers of various products and categories.  If you are looking at a gaming consumer, you must be on platforms where there are younger age groups. 

Krithika: I just want to add to what Anusha said on push and pull part of communication and micro-targeting. Have searchability as a goal. Also, have a proper content bank across many platforms to improve discoverability. This is something that everybody should invest their time and effort in, at the beginning stage.

Learn to tap the conversation commerce. Many people may be asking for things related to your product. For example, you could be offering some gardening solutions. When there is a digital conversation on gardening, you can provide a neutral solution to them and build trust. Eventually, get them to visit your own space.

Social listening is listening to conversation and also hearing what the community is actually saying about the product that you are putting out. This is also very important and it has helped many start-ups.  

Keerti: So pull marketing is nothing but organic traffic where you are not directly spending to acquire a consumer, but you’re doing activities which make your brand presence in the online world. If somebody searches for say, gourmet food, because you’ve been active in commenting on blogs or people have written good reviews, you automatically start getting that organic traffic.

Push marketing is more towards acquiring users through mediums such as Facebook and different targeting options. 

Anusha: It all sounds so scary. Many may feel like it’s a very difficult thing. I’m sure you’ve created a Facebook page for your product. On the right top, you will see something called ‘Boost Your Page.’  Just go and try it on your own and you will suddenly see how easy it is. You may have to do some very simple spend—50 or 100 rupees.  The words and jargons are intimidating while you’re listening but when you start trying it, it all gets very simple. So you must try it on your own. That’s the beauty of digital. You don’t even need an agency. 

Keerti: How do you know if you should do push marketing or pull marketing? Is there any way by which you can decide which one I should focus?

Anusha: It’s not a simple answer because it depends on the category of the product. Your consumer is the person who will decide where you need to focus, especially in the early stages. As you go into your growth phase, everything is important.

V Balaraman: Pull marketing really helps you to widen the market. Push marketing is the foundation to begin with but it can be expensive. Pull marketing takes longer time and it works through rational understanding of the consumer’s need and a creative and emotional communication.

Learn to tap the conversation commerce. Many people may be asking for things related to your product. For example, you could be offering some gardening solutions.

Krithika: The platforms can be many and we can experiment with push-pull and find out what is working for you. I would bring it down to a simple concept and it works well for every client or organization—Test, test, test, rinse and repeat.

V Balaraman: If you are sure of your target customer, you can use Push. When you don’t know your target customer, then you need pull. 

Keerti: Is digital marketing as effective for Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities as it is for Tier 1? 

Anusha: It’s a myth that Internet penetration is highest in urban India and it doesn’t work in rural India. I’ll give a simple example. Take IRCTC and I’m sure each one of us has done our bookings on IRCTC. It is one of the oldest digital app for train bookings. Their revenue as of last year was much higher than all of Amazon put together in India. In the last two years, Internet penetration is more in rural India than urban India. Rural is big today on the Internet.

The second big myth is that it’s mostly men and not women on the Internet. It is almost equal: 40% women and 60% men. The third myth is that it is only for the younger generation. The fastest growing age population today on digital is 50 to 60 years. 

V Balaraman: How much of that is because of the mobile phone?

Anusha:  95% of rural India logs in from a mobile and not a desktop. Now with Jio playing an even bigger role, this number has exploded in rural India.  As an agency, when we present to clients, I have made it mandatory that we present on a mobile because everything looks glamorous on a desktop, but that’s not how a consumer sees it today. The mobile screens are of different sizes. If you’re able to do the right thing on any mobile, then you’ve done your job really well.  Almost every phone is becoming a smartphone, thanks to Jio again. Pre-Covid, 350 million people were on smartphones.

V.Balaraman: The surprising thing is that people who are not literate are able to handle a mobile phone, make phone calls and receive messages. Years ago, when I was on the Board of Nokia, they started addressing farmers on weather information. I was very skeptical and wondered how farmers could read English. But I was absolutely wrong. Farmers look at their mobile phones to find out the weather forecast.

Keerti: For B2B product offerings, will digital marketing be effective?

Anusha: In fact, digital space is the easiest option for B2B, because, the options are not cluttered. You can focus on a few things and you are home. Two things are important. One, get your website right. It should be the final destination for knowledge and information. Put lots of videos, explain your products, processes and quality. Two, get your search engine marketing right. When companies search for your category of products, you must be discoverable and they must land on your website.

Keerti: How much does it cost to acquire a customer on digital?

Krithika: Even for as low as 200 or 500 rupees, you can build your network of followers. It depends on the outcome that you want from a particular theme or campaign. Try small and then go big. It is quite subjective and it is up to one’s appetite. These days, influencer-marketing is a big thing. You can figure out if there are known influencers in our circle. Give them a sample or hamper to try out. Then they can post a video. What is important is a relentless focus on tracking the results and fine tuning your product and /or campaign.

Anusha:  In digital media, there are 3 kinds of costs:

1)        Fee for the ad or content creating agency, if you want to engage them. This may vary from 50K to 15 lakhs. If you are in the initial stages of your start-up, I would suggest that you need not hire an agency, as it comes with a cost. Try it out yourself. As you grow bigger, you will have marketing budget and then you can hire an agency.

2)        The production cost for the promotional video that the agency may do. You can even shoot a video on mobile and edit it with available software.

3)        The media cost which is the cost to Facebook or Instagram for posting your content to targeted audience. This can start from as low as 50 or 100 or 1000 rupees.  Facebook will keep a count of the audience, charge a nominal cost per person, say 30 paise. You can choose your target audience. Once the money that you paid has exhausted, they will stop posting your ad. The more you pay, the more will be your reach. This is how it works. Depending on your budget, you can decide the options. The choices and capabilities vary as per the budget. If you have limited marketing budget, you can directly go to Amazon and they will promote your product at a cost.