Alex Hunter on branding, startups, the Valley and online marketing

Editors note: Alex is running a half day workshop on “kick ass online marketing techniques” at the Future of Web Apps Miami on February 24th. Find out more.

In this installment of “5 questions for…” we ask Alex Hunter his thoughts on branding, the UK and European startup scene and ways of engaging with your customers in real life. He rounds off the interview with 3 online marketing techniques you can’t afford to ignore.

You have spoken before about the importance of branding for online companies. For many branding appears to be an afterthought. Where in the development process do you think it should be addressed?

Simple answer: ASAP. The sooner you lay down your core values and then feed that into your brand development, the better. Why? Because your values will define who you are and more importantly who you will be, now and in 10 years when I’m looking at you on the cover of BusinessWeek.

Set them early, set them well. And remember, that exercise cannot be successfully performed by one member of the team – it has to be tackled by as many members of the team as possible to effectively incorporate and reflect the DNA of the business.

Some of the hottest web startups in 2009 have clearly thought long and hard about their brand right out of the gate – it’s not just a tick/check in the box anymore, it’s a fundamental requirement for success.

Is the mantra “build it and they will come” still valid in 2010?

No. In fact, I don’t think it ever was. There’s been this (annoying) mentality of “If I build a good app or service, no matter how ugly it is, people will come.” They will not because they’ll never hear about it.

Furthermore, there are competitive apps to almost everything, and if there isn’t one today, there will be one tomorrow, and they will have looked at what you’ve done, they will have learned from your mistakes, they will have considered their brand and marketing, they will have started a Twitter account, they will have started a blog, they will have promoted it physically and they will have promoted it digitally, they will have thought about the presence, the UI, etc.

I think that hiding under a bushel (intentionally or not), and expecting it to develop on its own is a huge, huge mistake. Kevin Rose gave a great talk at FOWA London 2009 about taking your site from 1 to 1 million users and covered some great practical ways to build a userbase and get people talking about your app – I strongly recommend checking it out.

There’s been a lot of articles written about how important it is to be in Silicon Valley to succeed in the web app industry, and a lot of rebuttals. As someone who helps web businesses on both sides of the pond how important is the Valley to the web industry?

Ahh, interesting question. I’ll be honest, when I first moved back to England after an 8 year stint in the Bay Area, I was quite a snob about Silicon Valley being the only place where, by and large, web companies needed to be based to be successful. Now, having immersed myself in the UK web and startup culture, I don’t believe that at all.

The European, especially UK, web and startup scene is strong and I am VERY bullish about it. So much so that most of the companies I work with at an angel/advisory level are in the UK. I think the success of Seedcamp and other startup funding events based in the UK are a really good example of how this trend is playing out.

Now, all that said, I don’t think there’s any need to be isolationist about this. UK companies can absolutely learn from what Silicon Valley companies are doing but the same goes for US companies looking to the UK, Europe and beyond for inspiration and expertise. After all, Last.fm, Bebo, MOO, Qype, Spotify, etc are all UK/European companies who are arguably leaders in their space.

And south-east Asia is so far ahead of the rest of the world on things like mobile and micropayments, it’s not even funny. I’m super excited about the UK startup scene and I’m always keen to meet with young companies so please get in touch! ahunter(at)haebc.com.

In your last Think Vitamin article you talked about the importance of engaging with your community/customers offline. How would you recommend cash strapped startups do this?

I really think that bridging the gap between online and offline is one of the best ways to build loyalty. You’re connecting your users not only with their fellow users (and brand advocates) but also the people that created and curated the app/product/brand/community that they, as a user, have invested their time (and possibly money) in.

And the beautiful thing about this is it’s scalable – you don’t have to be as big as Digg or Yelp to do this. One of the easiest ways to do this, and kudos to Carsonified for having done this in the past, is to simply have a meetup at a local bar or pub. There’s no need to buy everyone a drink (although admittedly throwing a couple hundred quid/bucks behind the bar helps). A simple tweet and/or Facebook event notification saying “Hey some of the team are going to be at Pub x next Monday, it’d be awesome to hang out with you guys!” is all it takes.

Remember to use what you know about your userbase, through analytics and profile data, to identify geographic clusters of users so you’re hosting your events in the best possible locations.

You will be running a half day workshop about “kick ass online marketing techniques” at the Future of Web Apps Miami. Without giving too much away what do you think are the three most important online marketing techniques that web site/app owners can’t ignore?

  1. Allow users to quickly and easily to promote what you do into their existing social graphs. Use Facebook Connect, use the Twitter APIs, and allow users to post their activity on your app into those platforms. This is hugely powerful because the message is so much more relevant coming from the user to their friends as opposed to coming (unsolicited) from you directly to the user’s friends.
  2. Leverage what you know about your users, from profile data, analytics data, etc to provide them with a relevant and tailored experience. Listen to what they want and give it to them. This can be content or product driven (e.g. promoting products based on a user’s past purchase history) but either way, do it and watch your conversion levels go through the roof.
  3. Lastly and probably most importantly, get involved in the conversation that’s going on around your brand. People are talking about you, whether you like it or not – find out what they’re saying, respond, and engage. And not just your PR or Customer Service teams, but the people that actually create the product, write the code, manage the DB, etc. Real names, real people.

Treehouse

Our mission is to bring affordable Technology education to people everywhere, in order to help them achieve their dreams and change the world.

Comments

0 comments on “Alex Hunter on branding, startups, the Valley and online marketing

  1. Excellent article Alex, thoroughly enjoyed reading it – gutted that I won’t be attending FOWA Miami.

    I hope the ThinkVitamin team will be posting the footage from your workshop online.

    All the best,
    krx

  2. I can’t agree more on the view that branding and laying down of your core values should be done asap and during the development stage. If you know your USP and core values well it is actually done easily during development process. To successfully position your brand above your competitor’s continuing fight for your customers, one must develop a brand proposition that when conveyed in marketing and advertising campaigns, will provide an attractive, unique, and relevant message to current and potential customers. THis thing does require a long and a hard thought. :)