Congratulations! You’ve done it, you’ve made it this far: you’ve built a product or service you’re willing to introduce to the world beyond your immediate family and emotional support ostrich.
You’ve found something people need and are willing to pay for. You've validated your idea— it's something that will make lives easier, simpler, or more effective. Heck, maybe you’ve even built a small team at this point (you baller, you.) You’ve recruited other people who believe in what you’re doing and are ready to pour their blood, sweat and tears into getting it into the right hands.
Great start. Now what?
Your next step is to take all that potential and turn it into something real.
Today, you start working on your brand. Today, you're going to begin transforming your awesome idea into a recognizable company.
And the best way to do this? Building brand awareness.
To get started, we'll kick things off with a clear definition of brand awareness. But if you're eager to jump ahead and get right to the actionable insights, here are the 4 steps we'll be outlining throughout this guide.
Brand Awareness / n.
A consumer’s ability to recognize your brand and clearly associate it to precise products, services, values, and stories. Though it’s linked, it’s not to be confused with brand equity, which is the brand value or equity derived from how people feel about your company.
Brand awareness is the difference between Kleenex and Scotties. It's why you use a Band-aid and never a Flex-band. Why your grandpa's nightstand is full of Viagra and not Spedra.
You get the picture.
As a startup, getting people to know you can seem like a frustrating chicken-or-egg conundrum. And we won’t lie, it's not a simple path— there’s a lot of testing, experimenting and adjusting to be done. But while much of that journey may not feel linear, there are a few key steps and best practices you need to keep in mind to guide you through the process.
We'll go over each of these steps in this article. But for now, think of brand awareness as your teenage self finding your place in a brand new high school. Perhaps you’ve arrived halfway through the year and the roles of gloomy stoner and resident unicyclist have already been taken. You need to find your people and get on their radar.
Hopefully, at some point, you’ll spot a cool-looking kid at the back of your class. You’ll recognize the band on their t-shirt, or they’ll have a nose piercing you think is badass… have you finally found your tribe?
Next, you need to get a better sense of what they’re all about and help them notice you’re alive and cool. That way, you’ll be top of mind when they start a K-pop band, or a YouTube channel, or whatever it is the cool kids are doing these days. You need to build your define who you are (build your brand) in order to attract the right friends (customers).
It's a fun process, with plenty of room for experimentation and introspective thinking. You'll love it. So, without further ado, here’s how to find your tribe and make friends in a new high school build brand awareness as a startup.
Step 1: Ask questions and gather data.
If we continue thinking about building brand awareness along the lines of making friends in high school, then your first step is to sit down with your potential new amigos and figure out what makes them tick. What gets them riled up? Where do they hang out? What problems are they trying to solve?
You know they like the same bands as you do and that’s a great start, but trust us: it isn’t enough. In order to decide if you want to invest the next 180 lunch periods kicking the can with these cool cats, we need to know more about them.
This is where a little data becomes very handy.
While getting to know your new friends, your ability to connect the dots and see narratives in your data turn into a superpower: a way to sync up with them and learn to speak their language.
As a brand, you need to do the same thing. You should already have at least a basic idea of who your ideal audience is. However, it's now time to get to know them even better. And while you probably won't be able to join their table in the cafeteria, there's still plenty of ways you can get the data you need.
Surveys rock. As far a easy data-collection methods go, they're hard to beat. They come in all shapes and sizes, too. From simple post-purchase surveys to long-form gated questionnaires, there are countless ways you can reach out to your audiences directly and ask for their input.
However, before sending anything out make sure your team has a clear sense of the information you’re looking to gather and the metrics you’ll be using to evaluate success. That way, you can avoid annoying your audience with aimless questions or muddying your results by useless data.
A few helpful tips for building smarter surveys:
- Make sure you only ask one question at a time.
- Keep it as short and concise as possible.
- Collect a combination of qualitative and quantitative data by alternating open-ended questions with close-ended ones.
- Keep language as simple and straightforward as possible.
- Keep an eye out for biased or misleading phrasing or vocabulary.
- Consider incentivizing with gated content or perks.
Website traffic metrics
There’s no talking about brand awareness without talking about Google Analytics, so voilà, we’ve arrived. While those who love it can get lost in GA for hours on end, many of us—present company included—still find the whole thing a bit intimidating. So to kick things off, here are the most important metrics for startups to track, and where you’ll find them.
Website traffic sources will tell you where people are coming from and which sources they trust.
Head to View Report > Dashboard > Traffic sources to see a breakdown of your 4 main source types.
- Search engines: landed on your page after a search-engine search.
- Other websites: arrived at your page by clicking on a link on another page.
- Direct traffic: bookmarked your site or typed in your site address directly.
- RSS feed: actively signed up to be alerted when you publish new content.
Search volume data will tell you what people are searching for online.
Head to Google Adwords’ Keyword Planner and Google Trends to see the volume of searches for your brand name, products and services. Make sure you track over time as you test, to see if you’re increasing reach through the smarter use of keywords and content.
Social media engagement like mentions, reach and interactions will tell you what kind of messaging and medium your audience responds to most.
Create a series of Google Sheets or better yet – use a social tool like Hubspot or Hootsuite to closely track every piece of content and measure differences in activity. Start by looking at your most popular content to find common threads, then do the same with the lowest performing pieces to see if your theory holds the road.
Did you know that Google offers a comprehensive Google Analytics certification for completely free? Through a series of lectures, exercises and tests, you’ll learn the ins-and-outs of Google’s complex data landscape and unlock its potential for continuous improvement and growth
As you weave a more intricate understanding of the way your audiences consume information and search for your services, you’ll find a certain archetype and persona will begin to form.
The last step to fleshing it out and giving it life? Demographic metrics that will allow you to draw a fuller, more tangible portrait of the people you’re hoping to connect with.
From your Google Analytics dashboard, head to Analytics > Admin > Property Settings >Advertising Features > Enable > Save to access a slew of valuable metrics about your readers. Here are just a few you can explore and play around with as you drill into smaller segments:
- Desktop or Mobile
With a first round of qualitative and quantitative data under your belt, you’re just about ready to start creating a first draft of your audience personas: fictional characters that are meant to represent and personify different segments within your audiences. That way, as you craft your first welcome email, you can keep a clear picture and focus on Nina, 33, who works 2 jobs and consumes nearly all of her content on public transit, as she browses on her phone. Or imagine yourself sitting across from Tyrell, a suburban father of 3 who’s surprisingly attached to his minivan and looks forward to his solitary fishing trips twice a year.
It’s been shown that using buyer personas in your email marketing efforts can more than double your open rate and increase your click-through rate by 5x. Hubspot has also found that using marketing personas makes websites 2-5x more effective and easier to use for your targeted user.
With all of this information, your personas will quickly start shaping up, but you’ve still got some recon work to do. Now, you need to figure out what they actually care about.
Step 2: Find your shared values
We know you’re a proverbial angsty teen in a new school, but let's try and carve out some time to be a little introspective and self-aware. Trust us, you’ll be glad you did.
Finding and telling your story
The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
The origin story has taken on a rather mystical role in today’s entrepreneurial community, especially in the startup world, where 7-day work weeks fueled by ramen noodles and endless coffee seem to be at the cornerstone of our collective mythology. But in reality, stories come in all shapes and sizes, and they play an absolutely essential role in boosting brand awareness, because as it turns out: people remember stories.
Recent studies have shown that messages and ideas delivered in the form of stories can be up to 22% more memorable. Fundamentally, stories are about connection, and science has now shown that brain activity actually syncs up between storytellers and their audiences when a story is shared. According to recent Princeton research, our brains even mirror each other as an emotional narrative is built and exchanged.
So what’s your story? And perhaps more importantly, do you feel like your team, investors, and target audiences all know and understand it?
A well-communicated origin story can be one of the most fundamental pillars of your brand, allowing potential customers to relate and connect emotionally with what your brand represents and depicts, and extend those hopefully positive feelings to your products and services.
Let’s put it this way, you’re much more likely to recall the name of that rock-climbing Norwegian metalhead exchange student that was in your class for 3 months than you are to remember that non-assuming, slightly vague dude called Steve/Mike/Jon that sat behind you in French class.
Here are a few questions that will help you craft and define your story:
- What are some surprising elements of your founder(s) background(s) that shape the company and ethos?
- Where was your first office and how would you describe it?
- How did you come up with the company’s name?
- What united and propelled your founders to start this company?
- Tell us about the moment your founders decided to dive head-first and take the leap.
- What problem were you facing and why did you decide you were the one that had to tackle it?
- What was your first product or service?
- What initial reaction did you get to your first product or service? How did that reaction evolve over time?
- Have there been memorable stories centered around first/new/risky/pivotal/high-profile hires?
- How have your vision and mission statement evolved over time?
- What did you find most surprising about your first week/month/year in the startup world?
- What is one of the biggest accomplishments you’ve pulled off so far?
- What’s been one of your biggest failures so far?
- What’s the next big landmark for you?
- Who are the “characters” in your origin story, and what do they care about?
- What drives and motivates you today?
- What change are you hoping to bring to the world?
Life (and brand) Lessons
I don’t know about you, but if I could tell my teenage self one thing, it would be that you don’t need to be everyone’s cup of tea. Trying to be everything to everyone will almost surely leave you depleted, fumbling, and starved for authentic connection
And of course, the same can be said about brand awareness.
Not everyone needs to be or even should be your audience. In fact, if your audience is that broad and vague, you need to go back to the drawing board and narrow it down.
As with any new relationship-building, truly knowing your audience is key. Too little knowledge and context, and you may be trying to introduce Justin Bieber’s latest track to the goth kids, effectively pushing them away with messaging and content they don’t care about or worse… despise.
Missing the Mark
Remember Pepsi’s attempt to piggy-back on what they believed was their audience’s trendy interest in protest and airbrushed revolution? The Black Lives Matter-inspired ad featuring Kendall Jenner couldn’t have been more off target, and it took the global giant Pepsi over 9-months to recover.
With all of the data and information collected in your first exploratory phase, you should be well equipped to start honing in and defining your people. Your first priority: finding out what your audiences truly care about.
Here are a few questions to help you separate the wheat from the chaff:
- Which 3 values do you believe to be the most important to your persona?
- Which 3 challenges or pain points do you believe to be the most important to your persona?
- What 3 values do you think your persona mistrusts or fears?
- Who do they trust for information and advice?
- How do they perceive themselves?
- What kind of causes do they support?
- Whose opinions do they care about?
Looking for more? Put on a new pot of coffee, gather your team and brainstorm your way through this list of 101 Questions to Define Your Target Audience.
Once you get a better sense of how your audience's values and priorities align with your company’s identity, it becomes your job to make sure those values are communicated consistently across every channel and touchpoint, and that your entire team appreciates where your company’s identity stands. The goal here, now that you know who you are, is to present yourself consistently. After all, you’ll have trouble building a bad-boy-underdog narrative in your high school if your Prada-clad mom drops you off at school in a flashy Porsche every morning.
Your mom needs to get with the program or you need to find another way to get to school. Hence the importance of clear brand positioning and style guides.
The official guide to being you
As a teen, I was a rather geeky looking (and acting) kid. My schoolmates would all teasingly mention my button-down shirt covered in images of dismembered doll heads, or my infamous clown pants. I had bad glasses, far too many little butterfly clips in my hair, and a full Coleman cooler as a lunchbox. But it was mostly ok, it was the oddness that had come to be expected of me.
Then one day, I came to school in trendy skate shoes.
The school population was not convinced. What? I thought I could be a skater kid now? Just like that? Nope. Not happening.
As a company, your brand can feel just as delicate and fickle— that’s why consistency is key. As you grow, more and more people will become ambassadors and representatives of your brand voice. While it’s crucial to foster ownership, creativity, and diversity as you multiply those voices, it’s also important for them to have a clear framework and guiding vision that keeps every bit of content fresh, meaningful, and effective.
The best way to do that is through clear documentation. Here are a few of the internal and external style guides you should have in place before you bolster your brand awareness efforts.
- Origin story
- Core values
- Mission statement and tag lines
- Competitive landscape
- Value proposition
- Brand differentiators
- Social media etiquette
- Asset collection
- Logo specs
- Company color palette
- Cobranding guidelines
- How NOT to use visual assets
- Tone of voice
- Writing goals and best practices
- Capitalization guidelines
- Hyphenation and grammar
- Words to avoid
- Copyright and trademark
- Social media linguistic specs
Want to make sure you’re dotting all of your i’s and crossing at your t’s when it comes to defining your tone of voice? Click here to download a list of 15 questions that’ll help guide your process.
Step 3. Consistently demonstrate your shared values
People need to see you at the skatepark with a strange haircut and a fresh pair of Vans if you’re going for the punk rock, skater-girl role. At the mall, you better be sitting with other counterculture cool kids. In class, you can't eagerly raise your hand all class— you need to be consistent.
Using your ethos and purpose as your guide
Now that you’ve done all of that brand soul-searching and created a baseline for your entire team to communicate for and about your company, it’s time to start crafting and sharing your messages and stories. Often, buzzed off the momentum of having finally arrived at a solid brand identity and eager to start sharing it with the world, we fall into a frenzy of content creation and ambitious brand awareness campaigns, and risk saturating our audiences or tiring them with white noise. As a content strategist, I tend to fall into the quality-over-quantity school, finding that fewer well-crafted, strategic messages to the right people are much more likely to make the right impression than a barrage of seemingly dissociated stories.
To make sure everything you share with audiences is consistent with the mission you’ve given yourself, I often recommend companies formulate a litmus test of sorts: a simple question that allows your team to determine how well your post, video or FAQ page aligns with your values and mission.
Here's what that sentence might look like for different brands:
- Mailchimp: Does this message genuinely empower, educate or guide our audiences?
- Canva: Does this help make design feel more democratic, diverse and accessible?
- Twitter: Does this encourage people to create and share ideas without barriers?
- Coca-cola: Does this message inspire optimism and happiness?
- Nike: Does this inspire athletes to get moving and push their boundaries?
- Flying Saucer: Does this support and inform startups as they try to make the world a better place?
Finding people where they are— then being genuinely interesting
No matter how well you’ve researched your target audience or positioned your brand, no one will want to talk to you in the school cafeteria if you’re rude, overbearing, patronizing, or simply boring.
Worse yet, you could be the person who seems unable to talk about anything but themselves; twisting every sentence into an opportunity to bring up their favorite subject and formulating their next interjection before your full sentence is even out— someone that talks at people, not to them.
As with any relationship, a big part of your job is to listen attentively and proactively deliver content and information people actually want. A good rule of thumb? Your goal should always be to add value to the conversation, which will then organically generate valuable brand awareness and equity.
A first step to contributing to the conversation is figuring out where it’s already happening. Meeting people where they already stand tells them you’re adaptable and tuned in to their needs and preferences. From there, you simply need to figure out what questions people need answers to… an answer them!
Here are just a few of the platforms worth exploring in order to evaluate the scope and size of the existing communities and conversations you could tap into:
Once you’ve identified the low-hanging-fruit platforms with the highest existing traffic and direct engagement, identify its strengths and weaknesses, its most popular medium, and the kinds of posts already garnering impressive attention and activity.
Working backwards from there, you’ll be able to cater the content and format of your messaging to play to the platform’s strengths.
For example, maybe you want to target your email list with some truly amazing content. Are people responding most to video content in emails? It’s been shown that using the word “video” in an email title will boost open rates by 19% and clickthrough rates by 64%. Maybe some videos are in order?
Or would it be better to engage with audiences engaging through long, story-driven written content on Medium? After all, the most successful Medium posts average at an 8-minute read, or approx. 1 800 words.
Then again, perhaps your potential customers are turning to Quora for detailed, peer-reviewed answers to specific questions? These days, more than 300 million people turn to the platform every month to talk about 400 thousand topics and seek out helpful, collaborative expertise and knowledge.
So where will you focus your attention?
Keep in mind that just as every cafeteria clique has its own rituals, shorthand vocabulary, and inherent (often times undecipherable) rules to be followed, every platform also has its own local etiquette that needs to be explored and understood before getting up on your soapbox or plopping your food tray down in the middle of a packed cafeteria table. LinkedIn, for example, fosters different ways of interacting, engaging and communicating than Twitter by highlighting formal, academic content in contrast to the short, punchy, hashtag-heavy content most often found on Twitter.
Let me put it this way: if those kids you’re trying to befriend are hanging out in a teacher’s office after debate club, you’ll probably want to plan your approach a bit differently than with a pick-up game of basketball after school.
Communicating consistently, intelligently and regularly
As a startup, chances are you have a limited budget to allocate to your brand awareness efforts, so it’s key to maximize that budget by being strategic and effective. Just as you don’t need to be everyone’s cup of tea, you also don’t need to be deploying your campaigns across every platform since MySpace. Better to regularly post high-quality, well-catered content to only one or two platforms, than to sporadically shoot things out across multiple stages.
Hence the importance of a well defined, well-structured content strategy.
When you’re looking to build awareness around your brand, it helps to think of your content as a constant breadcrumb path of friendly hints and reminders all leading back to what your brand stands for, what it has to offer and how its perceived. As Dawn Papandrea from NewsCred Insights points out, content is the way you demonstrate and validate your vision.
“Content determines how people feel about your brand. Content strength accounts for 71 percent of how a brand performs on 'improving personal well-being,' which determines how 'meaningful' people feel it is. Meaningful brands outperformed other companies by 206 percent in the stock market between 2006 and 2016. And customers are willing to pay more for meaningful brands; according to Havas Group, 'meaningfulness' in brand marketing can increase wallet share up to nine times.”
It’s been shown that 60% of businesses with a content strategy are more likely to be successful than everyone else. Plus, content marketing generates over three times more leads than outbound marketing and costs 62% less.
Content, in essence, is where your brand come out to play— it’s the water-cooler chit-chat, the basketball court banter and the stairway gossip, the very lifeline of your daily interactions with customers and communities.
As such, it’s important to put some thought and planning into how often you’ll be joining the conversation, and what added value you’ll be bringing to the table.
Here are some of the elements to be included in your company’s content strategy.
- Content mission: what are you trying to accomplish with everything you publish?
- Frequency: how many original posts/retweets/answers per week will your team realistically be able to deliver over the next quarter?
- Platforms: which platforms will you be publishing on and what writer/reader personas have been defined for each?
- KPIs: what metrics will you be using to define and track the impact of your message?
- Content Calendar: what day/time will you be publishing what content, where?
#InsiderTip: Quality over Quantity
A solid content strategy is built upon a steady, predictable, and consistent schedule of thoughtful content. So make sure you’re setting up realistic publication expectations your team can actually sustain week after week. The brand awareness and equity built by keeping a regular, tempered content schedule far outweigh that of highly active but sporadic schedules.
In fact, it’s been shown that less than 1 Facebook post a week has very little impact but that more than 1 post a day is perceived as overly aggressive and pushy, resulting in 57% less likes and 22% less comments per post.
Heck, if you play your cards right, your audiences might actually look forward to your next publication. Now that’s a captive audience that knows what you’re about.
Here are some of the latest numbers tallied and studied by Buffer in regards to publication frequency.
- Facebook: 5-10 posts a week/ end of the week
- Twitter: 3-5 posts a day/middle of the week
- LinkedIn: 1 post per work day/middle of the week
Curious to dive into the data and see what publication days and times garner the most traction across each platform? Check out Hubspot’s Handy Infographic here.
Step 4. Grow and evolve alongside your tribe
Relationships are meant to grow just as humans do— that mohawk haircut might not have been so essential to your friendships after all. Allow your brand to evolve and experiment alongside your audiences so you’re always delivering genuine value and human contact.
Always keep testing and adapting
Perhaps you’re now getting hundreds of likes a post, and you’re finding ways to get into active conversations with your audiences online.
That’s great news, but your work here isn’t done.
As your brand grows and evolves, your audiences will be continuously feeding you information about the content and services they want, need, and are willing to pay for… you need to be listening.
In order to broaden the scope of that information and test out new brand messages, it’s also important to commit to constant experimentation and innovation. The good news is, today’s digital space is a powerful playground for constant improvement; allowing us to make small, incremental tweaks in highly controlled environments with incredibly granular data sets.
The world’s best digital brands are already at it. 72% of online retailers test their CTA buttons. QuickSprout even methodically schedules an A/B test every two weeks, finding that 25% of their tests boost their target conversion rate by at least 20%.
Here are just a few of the things you can easily start A/B testing today in order to keep things fresh, interesting and optimized:
- Publication time
- Publication day
- Tag lines and messaging
- Post length or format
- Publication frequency
- Retweets and shares
- User-generated content
- Icons and logos
- Titles and subheaders
Because let’s face it: you and your new crew are bonding over D&D and parkour today, but there’s nothing to be gained from dogmatism when it comes to relationships. Instead, leave room for the possibility that it may be all about Catan and mimosas someday; that by experimenting, you may be opening the door to new points of alignment and new ways to connect.
After all, brand awareness is all about connecting.
Own up to your mistakes and make course corrections
Growth spurts are painful and often awkward to witness. There’s just no way to get people to forget that dramatic voice crack in the middle of a high school presentation, or an overzealous first jab at the whole makeup thing.
As humans running companies to the best of our skills and abilities, we’re bound to take some wrong turns and fumble, and we’ll often find that loyal audiences are willing to forgive, but they need you to handle mistakes with transparency and efficiency in order to do so.
Surprisingly, a well-managed mistake can actually increase your brand awareness and equity. And while it may be a slight exaggeration to say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, brands thrust in the spotlight are given a rare opportunity to step up to the plate and translate their corporate values into swift, effective and sincere action plans to remedy the issue.
Those who believe your efforts to be genuine and decide to stick through change with you will double down on their loyalty.
Take Blue Bell Ice Cream, for example.
After being faced with a dramatic recall due to listeria found in some of their products, they took action and ownership head-on, opting for honesty and transparency as they told customers what steps lay ahead. By the following Spring, social media was ablaze with loyal customers excitedly shouting out to Blue Bell as they looked forward to the ice cream season ahead.
Here are a few golden rules to harnessing your brand values when navigating your mistakes and changes of heart.
- Own up to them
- Explicitly acknowledge damages done or negative impacts
- Take the higher road and avoid aggressive defensiveness
- Provide a formal and tangible apology
- Be proactive and transparent
- Explain the steps you’ll be taking to ensure it never happens again
- Clearly communicate the lessons learned both internally and publicly
- Be human
Ok. Now repeat the whole thing (and never take your audience for granted)
Are there any other loyal followers of the 90s/00s RnB scene up in here? Remember that amazing Back At One song by Brian McKnight?
You're like a dream come true.
Just want to be with you.
Girl, it's plain to see.
That you're the only one for me.
Repeat steps one through three.
Make you fall in love with me.
If ever I believe my work is done.
Then I'll start back at one.
Well, that’s basically how you need to keep audiences and consumers invested in your brand; always reiterating and challenging assumptions by staying in tune with your audiences and proactively engaging with them regular, valuable, helpful content.
In that spirit, we recommend teams revisit many of the cheatsheets and questions in this guide on a regular basis and acknowledge their brand as a breathing, living thing that needs to be purposefully maintained and challenged in order to grow. In each of those shifts lies an opportunity to revamp and retell your story, and you lose out when you fail to recognize or seize it.
When A1 decided to change its name, positioning and packaging, it built a clever and popular campaign around A1 Steak Sauce controversially dropping the “Steak” to explore new meats and dishes, morphing discreetly into A1 Original Sauce. That 2 minute video was viewed over 1,4 million times.
Well, well, well.
Another congratulations is in order, I believe— you’ve made it to the very end of this rather long-winded journey through brand awareness.
That’s dedication: 5 points for you!
I hope you’re reading these last words feeling energize and empowered; some tangible tools in hand to help you spread the word about what you’re doing, and build organic brand equity along the way. If you’re looking for support in defining, crafting and growing your brand, our door is always wide open. Get in touch to tell us what you’re working on, and which milestones lie ahead – or schedule a chat so we can find out more.
As always, feel free to add questions and comment below. In fact, we’d love to know about your efforts to build brand awareness and community. What worked? What failed? Did you discover any hacks you want to share? What surprised you along the way?
Looking forward to hearing from you.