"How and when should I start marketing?" Many companies and new entrepreneurs can easily get hung up on that question.

Whether it refers to determining the tricky questions of when and how to market your new product or service to customers, or figuring out the correct market in which to launch, integrate these four steps into your product marketing strategy to help guide the process.

1. Product Knowledge

The main element here is a deep, unwavering understanding the product. You need to frame the product/technology as it relates to your proposed product timeline and evaluate what stage it currently resides. Doing so defines the timing of when you should go to market and who would be the ideal target within each of the product's stages.

If you aren't sure where your product stands, consider the following points:

  • Are your core features still being developed?
  • Are there enough core features to let someone test and give meaningful feedback that you can act on?
  • Are you ready to show off your product and find a first beta tester or even customer?

How you answer these questions will help you determine what stage you are at, and you can then plan accordingly.

Consider where your product or service resides in the product life cycle: (1) development, (2) introduction, (3) growth, (4) maturity, or (5) decline. Each of those stages varies in length and directly affects how you market and what your timing is.

Once those are fine-tuned and agreed upon in the overall plan, then a company can begin to look into the competitive market scene to unlock more clues on timing.

All in all, remember that product knowledge helps your messaging, the "how," and industry knowledge that relates to it can help determine your "when."

2. Marketing Strategy

Your marketing strategy must also encompass how you would reach out to potential prospects, breaking it out by audience and knowing the best strategies for each—essentially creating a prospect profile of industry, location, size, etc.

It's important to consider ideal distribution channels and whether your strategy will tie in other options (such as advertising, direct marketing, trade fairs, or public relations programs), and, if so, what defines success and budget needs.

The decision for test marketing in smaller concentrated areas versus larger sprawling areas would be factored in the overall approach for how you approach prospects according to their profile.

Your marketing strategy needs to encompass the following:

  • Who your product or service will serve
  • Where to reach these people
  • How to reach these people
  • How to best do the above given the resources you have

Though these seem to be individual considerations, they are intertwined by consequence. Are you reaching teens and young adults for your product? Mobile and social platforms might be good ways to reach out. Does your service help the elderly? Perhaps the phone, television, or radio would be a better vessel for your message. What are the publications that an IT professional would read? Where do you place that whitepaper for a salesperson to stumble upon? Which of these options can you afford currently, or expect to afford in the future? Laying all of those out is in itself a very helpful exercise.

Above all else, if you can test your theories on a small scale before fully committing your marketing strategy, you'll be able to figure out quirks, exceptions, and other surprising revelations that would otherwise catch you off guard.

3. Competitive Landscape

For decades, marketing has focused on attempts to one-up the competition with flashy display ads, promotions, discounts, whitepapers, case studies, and feature-focused product news. However, those usually end up just adding to the noise; so, to be successful and truly stand out to your target audience, it is crucial to have a deeper understanding of the competitive landscape.

Figure out who the top competitors are, along with their value proposition and core messaging. What was their latest release or update? Do they allude to any upcoming new offerings or technologies? What are their challenges, and how to they address them in the market?

Determining from that information whether your product can co-exist, support, or replace the competitors is essential to its relative positioning and marketing message timeline.

A few Web searches are all you need to get started. One of the best things about marketing right now is how content-driven it is. The more you expose yourself to competitor's content, the more you'll understand where they stand relative to you. That understanding will help you think about your messaging and positioning.

Remember to think about competitive forces beyond other firms in your immediate space: Anything that can divert budget away from you is a distracting force that the value behind your marketing message must overcome.

Remember, your product, no matter how disruptive, does not exist in a vacuum, and it will come up against competitive forces.

4. Messaging

Now that you have defined the marketing strategy and you understand the positioning of your product and the competitive landscape, the final component is to define the messaging.

Your messaging is the sum of the prior three steps, translated and delivered to your audience in a way that is compelling. It must be creative, catchy, and, most of all, compelling enough for prospects to take action and convert—whether by becoming a new customer or replacing a product of your competitor.

If you are to be successfully noticed by the prospect in the first place, the key is to customize the messaging in order to be timely, relevant, and personalized without looking like a "cut and paste" job.

And it is not enough to talk to the right people in the right format. You have to have something to say. You have to say something that separates you from the competition and compels people to take action.

Consider the use of comparative language. Are you faster, bigger, sleeker, or cheaper? Your product knowledge comes in handy here, while your market strategy will tell you which part of that knowledge is the key part of the message. If one of those comparisons is outright superior to what exists today, then your job should be fairly easy.

If your specialty is different from the status quo, consider the story you need to tell that will let people know why it matters. Zappos is an oft-cited example, but I think it drives the point home so well. Consumers have been buying shoes, clothes, and accessories for decades while retailers continue to fight one another with price and inventory, but then Zappos came along and convinced people to buy based on how it treats its customers.

Zappos doesn't sell shoes; it sells its customer service... so think about how your business stands apart and how you could market accordingly.

* * *

Follow the four steps I've outlined, and you will be well on your way to knowing the how and when of marketing your product.

Remember, it all must begin by clearly defining your marketing strategy, which would detail the how, when, and where you should market your product, and also include critical items such as details about the timeline of the product launch, your target audience, and the variety of marketing means for reaching your target audience.

Those components are closely correlated with each other or directly linked with each other, so the importance of spending the time to properly plan your strategy will be the key to your success.

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How and When to Start Marketing Your Product: Four Steps to Follow

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image of Oliver Deng

Oliver Deng is founder and CEO of talent sourcing platform headhunter.io.

LinkedIn: Oliver Deng