03.03.20178 min read

5 Marketing Tactics that Small Businesses can Learn from Billion Dollar Startups

When your vision is large and your budget is small, it’s easy to throw your hands up in the air and say, “I’ll never be able to compete with the big guys!”

But here’s the thing…all the big guys were small once. You can learn from their examples and use the same principles they used to drive their growth to help your business along (just at a smaller scale).

Don’t worry if your budget is small (or even non-existent). Use the following marketing tactics from billion-dollar startups to level the playing field for your small business.

1. Offer referral incentives

The startup space is full of billion-dollar unicorns that built their networks through referral marketing (aka, offering users a gift in exchange for enrolling new users).

There’s Airbnb’s personalized referral scheme that gave both the referrer and the referred credit towards their next travel bookings. You’ve probably also heard of Dropbox’s popular promo that gave users on both sides of the referral free storage space (which drove much of the company’s $116 million in revenue in its first year).

Large companies may implement these programs in a more sophisticated way, but the core premise behind the tactic is simple: Give customers a reason to send their network to you.


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2. Delight your customers

Imagine that you’re a San Francisco city dweller who’s sick of fighting for nonexistent cabs or piling onto crowded city busses. Now, imagine that a new service comes along that lets you hail a luxury sedan that arrives quickly—all with a simple tap on your smartphone. Talk about delight!

That story (obviously) comes from Uber, and while you might not have the $66 billion valuation of the car-sharing giant, you can still win with your customers by focusing on delighting them.

According to Rachel Goodman Moore, quoted in the Customer Delight Playbook, customer delight entails:

Providing a remarkable experience to users that focuses on their needs, interests, and wishes that leaves them so satisfied, they can’t help but go out and sing the praises of your brand.

Different avenues for delighting your customers that work as well for small businesses as they do for large companies include:

  • Making sure your website is user-friendly and intuitive
  • Managing customer expectations to avoid disappointment
  • Surprising customers by over-delivering
  • Making your customer service experience seamless
  • Looking for opportunities to make your customers happy

3. Turn customers into advocates

Now that you have these happy, delighted customers, turn them into advocates for your brand.

Consider the way Twitter leveraged the excitement of the SXSW festival in 2007 to both engage new users and connect them with brand advocates who would deepen their relationship with the platform. Michael Tunney, writing for NextShark, describes the promotion:

Instead of buying a booth for the SXSW trade show like everyone else, Twitter instead negotiated with SXSW to set up “tweet visualization screens” in the main hallways where the action would be. They then added a feature where you could text using your phone and your tweet would show up on the screens. And if you weren’t already a Twitter user you’d automatically begin following Twitter “ambassadors” who were at SXSW.

One of the best parts about leveraging this strategy as a small business is that you might have to do virtually nothing to take advantage of it. If you’ve been good about delighting your customers, you may already have advocates out there, spreading the news about your company of their own accord.

If, however, you want to take a more formal approach to customer advocacy, you’ll want to:

  • Define what customers will get in exchange for formally advocating for your brand (this could be as simple as a discount or sample product)
  • Reach out to engaged customers immediately after positive interactions with your brand (for example, right after successful support cases)
  • Emphasize that the invitation comes because you appreciate the customer’s willingness to engage with your brand
  • Monitor brand advocacy work and distribute accumulated benefits as they’re earned

You can find more detailed program guidelines and tool suggestions here, but don’t make things needlessly complicated. Start small, and remember that you can always improve upon your program as you go.

4. Leverage exclusivity

Though it now boasts more than 1 billion monthly active users, Gmail proves that, when you’re just starting out, exclusivity can be one of your best weapons. The program remained invite-only for three years following its launch, creating buzz and anticipation that ultimately led to more than 350 million users converting from other email providers to the service in its first five years.

You aren’t Google—but you don’t have to be in order to leverage the power of exclusivity. For instance, you could:

  • Give brand advocates beta access to your newest products in exchange for their feedback
  • Offer special discounts or promotions to valued customers
  • Limit attendance in your next webinar or coaching program to a small number of seats
  • Release a limited number of copies of an in-demand product

5. Create killer content

Finally, we like to think of content marketing as the great equalizer. There are so many content formats out there that, no matter where your skills lie, there’s a medium for expressing the value you have to share with your followers.

”Content marketing is the great equalizer” @sujanpatel


When personal finance platform Mint was first launched, founder Aaron Patzer remembers his marketing strategy as being essentially “whatever we can do, basically, for cheap or for free.” In practice, that meant identifying an absence of financial blogs targeting young professionals and filling in the gap with useful information that wound up playing a huge role in attracting new users.

While it may be more difficult for companies to stand out with killer content now than it was in 2009 when Mint was getting started, smaller companies can still win these days by laser-targeting the pain points of the customers they serve. Content that provides clear, compelling value to readers will always be a strategy for success.

A Small Business Guide to Content Marketing - Download Now



Sujan Patel is a leading expert in digital marketing. He is a hard working and high energy individual fueled by his passion to help people and solve problems. He is the co-founder of Web Profits, a growth marketing agency, and a partner in a handful of software companies including Mailshake, Narrow.io, Quuu, and Linktexting.com. Between his consulting practice and his software companies, Sujan’s goal is to help entrepreneurs and marketers scale their businesses.

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