How To Market Your Minimum Viable Product

Marketing an MVP is nothing like marketing a mature product

“I’m not a marketer.”

That’s exactly what I told Dr. Aaron Dinin when he asked me to speak at his Social Media Marketing class at Duke University last week. As it turned out, that was part of the plan.

“You’re an entrepreneur,” he replied. “You know how to market.”

Dinin’s class is full of entrepreneurs. He wanted me to talk about how to market a product before it actually becomes the product — when it’s still in that nascent MVP stage and no one knows exactly what the product is yet — not the founder, not the marketing team, and certainly not the customer.

“Oh,” I said. “I do that all the time.”

Here’s what I talked about.

When you’re marketing an MVP, you can’t use crutches. First of all, you don’t have brand to lean on. No one knows the name of your product. If you’re a startup, no one knows the name of your company either. No one knows what your credentials are or how much time or science you’ve put into the product. Customers don’t care. It’s all about what you can do for them.

But what’s even more daunting is that you and your product don’t have a track record. You don’t have data. You can’t prove, empirically, that the product will do what you say it will do. You’re the one with arms outstretched, smiling, and saying “Trust me.”

And finally, with an MVP, you don’t know what will go wrong. When something does go wrong, you won’t know what the quickest, easiest fix is. And while you’re pretty sure you can scale to whatever end point you’ve chosen, you won’t know until you hit the first edge case.

Mistake to avoid: Overreach is the first critical error in the MVP marketing plan. We tend to get so worried about whether or not someone will buy the product that we don’t plan for what needs to happen when they do.

Start the marketing plan conservatively. Market and serve with a “one customer at a time” mindset, then ratchet up both the audience and the messaging as the system reaches equilibrium.

In traditional marketing, you’re trying to move as many units as possible with the least amount of effort. And by “effort,” I mean the least amount of:

  • Money on ad spend: Acquiring the largest amount of customers at the least expensive cost of conversion.
  • Time from launch: Acquiring the largest amount of customers in the shortest window of time.
  • Customer touch points: Acquiring the largest amount of customers with the lowest number of clicks.

With MVP marketing, you’re still trying to accomplish the same thing, but instead of quantity of customers, you’re aiming for quality of customers.

Now, traditional marketers of mature products have picked up on the concept of quality of customers, and they’re starting the realize the value of engagement. But for an MVP, engagement, not adoption, is the critical factor in determining the viability of the product, the idea, and maybe even the company itself.

Mistake to avoid: It’s tempting to measure the success of an MVP marketing plan by number of the customers it converts. Early adopters can tell you a lot of things, but their sheer numbers can never give you an accurate idea of the viability of the product.

In other words, just because you have a lot of early adopters doesn’t mean the product will eventually be successful. The vast majority of MVPs are one and done. This means they get a nice bump in initial sales, but customers abandon the product quickly with no new wave of customers behind it.

I don’t have to tell you not to be dishonest, but even the mere perception of dishonesty can kill an MVP. I had a situation not long ago where a mistake in a third-party vendor’s billing system resulted in an early MVP customer believing they were overcharged for the product.

We were able to recover quickly, but I had to stop the pilot to make sure that never happened again. You can imagine, as the social marketers I was speaking to were all too familiar, how easily that could have exploded onto social media. Even when that doesn’t happen, word always spreads.

Mistake to avoid: When you market an MVP, you’re actually selling into a new, just-invented market segment that you believe is on the forefront of the actual market you want to hit. And in order to get the messaging right, you have to make a lot of assumptions about the needs of your market, the solution your product offers, and the value proposition that eventually opens the customer’s wallet.

You can be wrong about some assumptions, but not those that impact the customer negatively, even if it’s just the perception of negativity. To put it more broadly, you can fail to do what you promised and still survive. It might be costly, it might be ugly, but you can get past it eventually. However, if you get a reputation for taking advantage of a customer, which is easy to do when you’re new and you have no positive reputation to fall back on, you’re done.

I run into a ton of companies who say they’re selling artificial intelligence, but they’re not actually selling artificial intelligence, they’re using concepts of artificial intelligence to build what they’re selling. Artificial intelligence is their secret sauce.

Your secret sauce is the component of your MVP that not only makes you better than the competition, but fits the MVP into a new and different market segment.

Customers don’t care what your secret sauce is, and they certainly don’t care how your secret sauce makes your MVP unique and better than your competition. When startups market their secret sauce instead of their MVP, I usually blame venture capital, because venture capitalists very much care what your secret sauce is and they will drill way down into how it works.

But I wind up saying this a lot: No one buys technology, they buy the ease, simplification, time savings, cost savings, and additional opportunities that technology affords.

Mistake to avoid: When you market your MVP, don’t spend a lot of time and words educating your market on how your product or service works. Instead, let them know what they can expect when choosing you over someone else.

At my current startup Spiffy, this comes down to “Open the app. Get your car washed.” There is a ton of patentable technology and other resources making that happen. It’s magnificent. But the customer doesn’t care how we do it, they just want to push the button and watch our van show up.

When you’re marketing the MVP, you have to put yourself in the customer’s shoes, obviously, but you also have to understand what they need to hear.

Customers don’t need to hear how much work went into producing the product or service, how it’s different from the competition, or why the product is a great value for the cost.

Yeah. Customers may want to hear those things, but they don’t need to. They need to hear how the product or service is going to change how they do what they do. Period. They want to hear why that change is going to be for the better, but again, what they need to hear — what’s going to influence their buying decision — is how that change is going to happen.

Mistake to avoid: Telling the customer what you want them to know. You don’t want to market any aspect of the product that doesn’t directly touch the customer. Those things may be important to understand how your MVP does what it does, but your customer doesn’t need to understand your product, they need to understand how it’s going to impact them.

Marketing an MVP is almost like reinventing the wheel every time out, and every plan is as unique as the product it’s selling. But if you stick with these overarching rules, you’ll be able to design a marketing plan for your MVP that gets results you can build from when it’s time to market the real thing.

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I’m a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. Sold ExitEvent. Building & GetSpiffy. Former Automated Insights. More info at

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