The DIY marketing approach: How one founder successfully built an email + content machine

This is a guest post by El-ad David Amir, co-founder and CEO of Astrolabe. El-ad shares his experiences doing marketing as a technical founder, and building a successful content + email marketing machine from scratch, one that led to both Sales Opportunities and industry accolades.
Blue Seedling was involved in the process by providing strategic guidance, which El-ad then implemented and executed. If you’re an early stage startup thinking about revving up your marketing engine, Blue Seedling is happy to advise and help.
And without further ado, El-ad’s story…

Astrolabe is a fully bootstrapped five-person biotech startup. Despite our small size, we launched several exciting content marketing projects around September 2019. It has only been four months and we’re already connecting with a slew of promising leads and keep hearing that “Astrolabe is everywhere nowadays!”
During a recent conference, a marketing person from a much bigger company approached me to recount their recent team meeting, where they were trying to understand how a company as small as Astrolabe releases such high-quality content on a regular basis. Soon after that, we received the following email:

Hi El-ad,

I am a sales rep for [leading instrument manufacturer in our field]. I am on your mailing list. The reason I am reaching out is to tell you how impressed I am with your marketing efforts. Your emails are beyond excellent and I think most marketing organizations could do well to follow your blueprint. Kudos to you sir!


OK, enough bragging. How did we make it happen, and what are the takeaways for other startups?

From nothing to a demand-generation content machine in a quarter

I have been working closely with Blue Seedling on our marketing strategy since Astrolabe’s inception. Earlier in the company’s life, our marketing relied on my personal network and on prospecting using email and LinkedIn. However, networks can only reach so far, and prospecting is slow, expensive, and time-consuming, so I decided to finally take the plunge into content-based marketing. I have borrowed heavily from Blue Seedling’s many playbooks in initiating several projects.

One of our success stories is the Immune Monitoring (IM) Biweekly, a newsletter which we now release on a regular basis and was inspired by one of Netta’s talks (which later became a blog post). Here’s one of the recent issues.

The IM Biweekly is done by a two-person team: I do the research and writing, and Heather Dwyer, Astrolabe’s fantastic operations director, takes care of editing and publishing. We decided to launch the newsletter in early October and released the first issue on October 18. Here are three of the elements that helped us achieve this turnaround time and wide reach.

1) Identifying our audience’s needs (and meeting them)

Our target audience is comprised of scientists in the field of immune monitoring. They usually acquire and disseminate knowledge through the academic publishing apparatus, which is very, very slow. On the other hand, immune monitoring advances at a breakneck speed. The various players in this field (researchers, clinicians, managers, salespeople, customer support, etc.) need to know about current developments now, not when they attend a conference in six months or a review is released in a year. There is also a dearth of sources that survey, organize, and collect the treasure trove of content that exists out there.

The IM Biweekly fits that void perfectly. The emphasis of the newsletter is recent developments, ideally in the past month, though sometimes I go back farther if it fits the overall arc of the issue. Our subscribers appreciate the accessible format which helps them connect with the latest, coolest news. The packaging aims for a balance between a casual blog and a heavier, dense academic publication, which is both my personal writing style and a requirement of writing for academics. I do not allege to be comprehensive—that is impossible given the scope of the field. Instead, I pick what I think is relevant, interesting, and most importantly — fun. That last bit might be surprising (is fun really the most important thing?) but remember that people are much more engaged when they enjoy what they’re doing.

2) Building and Expanding the Mailing List

Building a mailing list from scratch is a daunting effort, especially when factoring in the ethical constraint of asking a recipient for permission before emailing. In order to maximize the IM Biweekly’s success, I decided to err on the side of caution and be highly selective with the initial list. I had an easy seed: our customers. I then collected emails from a survey we conducted, sign-up sheets from conferences we attended, emails received via our website, RSVPs to webinars we held, and a few other marketing activities. Finally, I spent several hours combing through my LinkedIn Connections and my email contacts and I chose those people whom I thought would be the right target audience. This effort gave me a list of around 500 emails whom I knew would be excited about this content.

Beyond the creation of the initial list, I take several steps to further broaden our exposure and subscribers. First, any person we touch through a marketing activity is imported to the list (we specifically ask for their permission). Then, the newsletter itself includes a subscription call-to-action, in the event recipients forward it to someone who might want to subscribe. The call-to-action link is to an unadorned Mailchimp form and the goal of this minimalistic design is to clarify that the IM Biweekly is about the content, not shoving a product their way. Finally, I always post the newsletter on LinkedIn, include the subscription link, and promote it through social media. The likes and shares keep bringing new subscribers — we had a 20% growth in less than two months.

3) Creating the Content

We promise our customers that our platform will provide them with state-of-the-art analysis, which means that staying current is one of our biggest business needs. I simply have to know when a new technique or algorithm comes out in order to decide whether to incorporate it into our platform. Furthermore, every biological paper that comes out is a potential customer whom I might want to reach out to in order to learn about her analytics needs and to introduce Astrolabe. In other words, the kind of research that goes into the IM Biweekly is something that I do anyway. There is relatively little overhead in hunting for this content. Then it’s only a question of organizing it into the newsletter, which I relish as an opportunity to identify critical trends and review them on a deeper level. This is pivotal to the success of the newsletter: as a small company, Astrolabe has to be relentlessly efficient in everything we do. I can afford to produce the newsletter on a regular basis because it taps into existing workflows.

The bottom line

In summary, I can distill the above into a straightforward take-home for developing a newsletter for your vertical: identify a content gap in your customer base which you can fulfill through existing mechanisms of your business. This will lower the burden on your execution, allowing you to invest relatively modest resources in collecting an initial email list and building the content itself.

Netta’s take – Lessons for your startup

Not every industry is starved for fresh information like immune monitoring, but we have successfully implemented the playbook El-ad describes in many other industries, like finance, publishing, and grocery. Everyone wants to follow what’s new and exciting in their space, and appreciates someone who does the curation legwork for them.
The steps El-ad took for building an initial mailing list are steps every founder should follow. Yes, it’s time consuming, but it’s free, and you end up with a highly targeted list that’s likely to like your content.
As to content curation, every founder (and really every employee in an early stage startup) should be closely following their industry, regardless of whether they’re producing a newsletter. Google alerts, newsletter subscriptions, analyst webinars, are all great resources you should be following to be on the cutting edge of your space. Fortunately, these sources are also excellent fodder for your curated newsletter.

In short, the DYI path is available to you as an early stage founder. If you’re interested in partnering for advice getting a marketing machine off the ground, Blue Seedling is here and happy to chat.

Lauren is Blue Seedling's Managing Director. She is obsessed with all things content: from blog posts and podcasts to 15-second dance videos.

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