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Digital Marketing for Startups: How to Increase Brand Awareness

By Mark Benson, MBA; Professor Vishal Sachdev, Illinois Makerlab; Manuel Feldmann, MA, Ph.D. Candidate; Shanshan Thompson, MS; Natalie Papazian, BS; and other contributing Illinois Community Ambassadors.

As most students taking the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Digital Marketing Specialization likely know, brand awareness is an essential initial stage in the McKinsey Consumer Decision Journey, indispensable in cinching the moment of purchase or a return down the loyalty loop. When consumers find a branded product that might fulfill their wants and needs, it is placed in the initial consideration set. After all the possible purchase options are identified, customers winnow them down to arrive at the final selection.  

As a follow-up to our Illinois Community Ambassador’s November 2017 Twitter Chat, “Digital Marketing for Startups,” we would like to highlight ways that startups can increase brand awareness with digital marketing strategies, helping to build a positive reputation for the startup’s brand and making it possible to boost sales when the product is available for purchase.

  1. Create and launch a website. Use UX design tools mentioned in UIUC’s Digital Marketing Specialization and/or identified in required textbook.

Any startup in the digital age must have an online presence in the form of a website.  Potential customers– including seniors– use the Internet at least once a day (Please see graphic below).  Users may want to browse for information and identify possible new products.  A website helps introduce potential customers to the brand, giving them an understanding of the startup’s vision and value proposition as well as an idea of its proposed product offerings

A startup’s executives should carefully plan what the brand’s vision will be, then present it online.  This should take place well before an actual product is available for sale so that potential customers will have an idea of what to expect.  

When creating a website, a startup’s executives should rely on best practices in User Experience (UX) Design.  If a startup’s website is easy to use, these customers will react positively to the brand. Details on UX Design best practices are identified both in UIUC’s Digital Marketing Specialization and the assigned textbook, eMarketing.  In the absence of marketing staff to create the website, a startup’s executives might consider joining an incubator or securing volunteers from colleges and universities who are conversant in digital marketing.    

  1. Include SEO optimized keywords in website content describing the brand and its anticipated product offerings.

Using website content, a startup can amplify details of the brand’s vision, value proposition and salient product attributes that fulfill customer wants and needs.  As the content is created, attention should be paid to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) best practices on keyword choices.  Some SEO best practices are identified in course modules in the Digital Marketing Specialization.

When the brand vision resonates with potential customers browsing online, they will anticipate its future product offerings.  A strong value proposition and reason to believe in the brand will also serve to build a positive culture that inspires current and future employees to create the products that delight customers.  Both are ways to add to customer awareness of the brand and build brand equity.

  1. Transmit brand vision and positive product attributes via social media.

Social media marketing is effective in generating buzz and excitement about the brand’s vision and expected products.  Social media use is prevalent.  More than half of American consumers have Facebook and Twitter accounts and the number is growing worldwide. A typical Facebook or Twitter user frequently logs into these social media to see posted images of their family, read the news and acquire information, such as updates on particular brands.  Consumers derive value from a brand’s social media communication–they may be educated and entertained, and also acquire exclusive insights and discounts that might move the customer from awareness to a point closer to the moment of purchase.

A startup should endeavor to create a digital marketing plan–similar to the one that is created in UIUC’s Digital Marketing Specialization Capstone Course-that articulates the goals of what the startup’s executives hope to accomplish in terms of brand awareness via social media.  If it is possible to measure metrics for website visits and content page views, a startup’s marketers should identify them in the plan.    

  1.         Introduce digital marketing into the product planning and design process.

Startup executives should consider including proven digital marketing techniques into the product planning and design process–including popup surveys, online design contests, and 3D printed prototypes.  Each of these techniques brings the voice of the customer into the product development process.

A. Soliciting opinions through popup surveys

Potential customers who have reviewed content might appreciate having an opportunity to affirm brand concepts and attributes of possible future products.  A popup survey is a way that the startup might obtain information that can be included in the early stages of product planning. The popup survey could collect demographic information–including age–that could help the startup’s executives paint a consumer portrait.  

B. Co-creation – online contest to solicit design ideas

An online design contest might generate a feeling that the startup’s brand collaborates with its customers to make the best possible product for sale. In the course, “Marketing in a Digital World,” John M. Jones Professor Aric Rindfleisch notes two companies that used online design contests to achieve this marketing objective.  Local Motors solicited design ideas for vehicles and created the model it deemed the best (Please see graphic below). Threadless encouraged graphic artists to submit possible future T-Shirt designs and asked customers to vote for the one they wanted to be printed for sale.  (Add graphic on Local Motors from Digital Marketing Specialization course, “Marketing in a Digital World” or own picture of a 3-D printed vehicle.)    

Local Motors 3D Printed Car Designed by “Community Member” Kevin Lo

C. If a manufactured product is to be offered, generate 3D prototypes to present to focus groups to hone and refine the product using customer feedback.

In several UIUC Digital Marketing Courses, instructors validate the use of 3D printers in the product design process.  This concept is introduced in the “Marketing in a Digital World” course that leads off the Digital Marketing Specialization and featured throughout the 3D Printing Hardware Specialization.  After the product design is selected, it may be loaded into a 3D printer to generate a prototype for a focus group discussion.  

  1. After product launch, encourage brand ambassadors to communicate positive attributes of finished product via social media.

           There is great power in word-of-mouth advertising through brand ambassadors.  Brand ambassadors express why they are delighted by brand and product attributes so that potential customers can be reassured as to how worthwhile the brand and the product will be to buy.  Previous steps in creating brand awareness also provide opportunities for brand ambassadors to trumpet positive brand attributes.  Brand ambassadors might be willing to retweet company-created content that affirms the attributes that they enjoy in the product. Brand ambassadors could be helpful after a focus group discussion to let potential customers know that the brand truly cares about satisfying its customers.


Startup executives might find the five strategies to increase brand awareness identified above to be effective before and after the launch of the initial product.  A website, particularly one that has heightened the user’s experience, is a must to build a positive feeling from potential customers about the brand.  Website content maximized for SEO helps to communicate the points of difference that distinguish the brand and its value proposition as well as generate buzz and excitement about the initial product to be offered.  To solicit opinions from customers prior to product launch, three digital marketing strategies may be helpful, namely, popup surveys, design contests and 3D printed prototypes.  These are ways to gather customer sentiment to make the startup’s product responsive to the voice of the customer and set the stage for the anticipated product launch.  Once the product is launched, the startup should encourage word-of-mouth advertising in the form of brand ambassadors who tout why they are delighted by the startup’s new product to build brand awareness with even more customers.  

About the Authors

Mark Benson, MBA, is a graduate of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Digital Marketing Specialization via Coursera. He enjoys collaborating with his colleagues on the Illinois Community Ambassador team. When he is not pursuing additional studies, he appreciates helping guide current students in the Digital Marketing Specialization Capstone Course create award-winning digital marketing plans.

Professor Vishal Sachdev, PhD is a Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the co-founder of the Illinois MakerLab, the first 3D Printing lab in a business school. He is the faculty lead of the Capstone course in the Digital Marketing Specialization by the University of Illinois.

Shanshan Thompson works as an Admissions Consultant in China, helping Chinese students get admitted to top American universities. Currently, she is part of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Social Media Community Ambassador team.

Manuel Feldmann, M.A. is a PR Consultant, FJS. Moreover he is a Political Scientist and a Political Scientist South Asia (M.A.) with a focus on Political Communication and Digital Marketing. He has also a degree in Public Relations from the “Freie Journalistenschule Berlin”.  In addition, he has specialized in Social Media Marketing, Digital Marketing, International Marketing + Cross Industrial Growth and Digital PR through various universities. He is an Illinois Community Ambassador as well as a mentor for all six courses in the Digital Marketing specialization. He is also working on his PhD in Political Science. Manuel is also an Ambassador for Hootsuite and was press spokesman of various music companies. He is also part of the Brandsensations Inbound Marketing Team.

Natalie Papazian is the Digital Marketing Project Manager for the iMBA business specializations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a former Sales & Customer Relationship Future Leader Intern at PepsiCo. She is a fourth-year undergraduate student studying marketing and supply chain management.