Social, Startups

How 3 Unicorns Started Their Marketing on Twitter

twitter unicorn
This guest column is by Matthew Yeoman, Editor, blog

Every startup that’s currently working somewhere in a garage or shared office space has the dream that they will be a ‘unicorn’ company. One of those special companies that becomes so ubiquitous that they’re seemingly instantly adopted by the world.

Unicorn companies are few and far between. According to a recent evaluation, the top 3 in the world, who are using Twitter for their marketing efforts, are:

  1. Uber: Getting you places for cheaper. What’s a taxi?
  2. Xiaomi: Affordable hardware from China.
  3. AirBNB: Getting you places to stay for cheaper. What’s a hotel?

These are three of the most talked about companies in the world. The conversation about them started on Twitter many years ago, with each one using the 140 character platform in some way right from the start. Looking at what they were tweeting back then can serve as both a positive and negative example for your unicorn startup company.

How Uber went from San Francisco to the world

Uber really knew that they were on to something when they started. Their early tweets are …let’s call them confident:

That was the first tweet from the @Uber account, but they had been using the now defunct @Ubercab handle for a few months before this. They went on to tweet:

There was plenty of confidence going around, but absolutely no decent Twitter marketing. This is a mistake made by many startups early in their Twitter marketing. They’re tweeting about how awesome they are, but not showing people how awesome they are. There’s no effort put into explaining what they’re about, what they’re doing, or giving themselves any relevant exposure.

Do any of those 4 tweets above, taken on their own merit, tell you a single thing about Uber? No. And many of their other early tweets are exactly like this.

Over time the hype surrounding Uber grew. Their growth was owed more to their idea than their Twitter marketing at this point. One thing they experienced, and handled well, was the fact that people all over the world wanted to talk to them. Uber was originally centred in San Francisco, but they would still engage with people early on regardless of where they were:

This was ‘big picture’ engagement. They knew that if they succeeded they would have to expand, and confront these problems. They started using Twitter to learn about their industry, and their potential customers, before they expanded. Twitter is a place where market research can be done. Uber’s early adoption of it helped them learn about their market ahead of time. Every startup can learn from this. Don’t just broadcast your company: Learn about your market directly, and run Twitter Polls to make it even easier to learn more.

Xiaomi experiences a common startup problem

In the world of startups, your early days have a common thread: Not enough experts. Many begin their company with people who are very good at a few things who are relied upon to do other tasks which they are not so good at. For a startup like Xiaomi, a company based in China with a limited number of English speakers, they did the best they could on their English speaking Twitter account:

English text, but a Mandarin speaker in that video there. Not ideal at all! The argument here that will probably never be settled is:  


  • Is ‘done’ better than perfect, or


  • Should you wait until it’s perfected.



Xiaomi decided to go with ‘done is better than perfect.’ Hiring on native English speakers wasn’t as big a priority as perfecting their product perfect was. Every startup faces a similar decision in their early days, and my preference is always for ‘done is better than perfect.’ Knowing their limits in the early days, Xiaomi relied on images, other people’s content, and user generated content marketing for their Twitter content:

None of this content was retweeted or commented on in droves, but it at least got their account going while they looked for someone who could start tweeting content like this:

If there’s anything to be learned from Xiaomi’s early Twitter marketing it’s that you are going to have to make some tough choices in your early days. You can’t do everything perfectly. But you can do some things well enough, and lean on others (such as your early adopters), until you get to a point where you can hire that perfect help.

Airbnb: From an air mattress to world-wide dominance

Before we go further, do you know the story of Airbnb? If not you may wonder about their name. What’s with the ‘Air’? A Michael Jordan tribute? Too many Air Bud marathons in the early days of the company? Nope! The story of Airbnb is that the founders were trying to solve a small housing problem: They couldn’t pay their rent. To get some cash they rented out 3 air mattresses in their apartment, at $80 each, and promised a breakfast. Airbed ‘n’ Breakfast, as it was known back then, soon started getting ready for their big launch during the 2009 Presidential Inauguration:

A lot of people turned up for that, and a lot of them needed hotel rooms that simply didn’t exist. Airbnb was there to help fill the void by helping private individuals connect with people who needed a bed. This idea has grown in the last 7 years …just a little.

With their Twitter marketing in those early days, Airbnb focused on direct communication with both individuals who could help them directly grow their business:

And potential influencers who could spread their brand further:

Most of these early attempts failed at making any direct impact. No retweets. No likes. No replies. It’s hard out there for a startup, even those set to revolutionize the world!

They did not give up. Their next step was to push a ‘Crash the Inauguration’ campaign. They set up a website/blog for it, a really bad 2008-style one, and got to work on Twitter:

Airbnb twitter marketing

They were a small company back then, but they had huge goals, huge ambition, and they were going to match those goals and ambition by taking advantage of the biggest thing going on which related to them: The aforementioned inauguration of President Barack Obama, and the housing crunch for those who wanted to be there to see it happen.

Over the days which followed the launch of their Crash The Inauguration blog, full of all things 2009 Inauguration (including the lack of housing!), they used Twitter to speak with everyone they could who mentioned a desire to go to this event. The Inauguration became the centre of everything they were doing online, and their engagement strategy on Twitter played a huge role. You can see dozens of tweets, perhaps hundreds, from Airbnb responding to people who worried about getting a place to stay in the months leading up to the event:

Airbnb have shown us quite clearly how you can better launch your little startup by latching onto something much bigger than you. They didn’t do this in a way that was dishonest. They went directly to a need that they could fill – providing places to stay – associated with the event and went all in. This is a truly gutsy tactic that you can learn from.

Be a Twitter marketing unicorn: Your startup can succeed

The 3 unicorn startups listed above all used Twitter in unique ways. Each one found some way that their startup could find success, and grow quicker, thanks to Twitter. Those ways would be:

  1. Uber: Engaged with people on a large scale, far outside of their target market at the time, in anticipation of their growth. They also used Twitter as a way to do market research.
  2. Xiaomi: Made tough choices as to what they were going to focus as they built their brand. They made the choice to push out content that wasn’t great, and then got their customers to create content for them to help fill the gap.
  3. Airbnb: Launched the brand on Twitter alongside a large event whose momentum they could borrow from. At the same time they were also engaging with everyone, from individuals to big influencers in their industry, to drive hype towards this one event.

Your startup may not be able to use each of these techniques, or even want to, but I guarantee that you can use one of them. Your business may never be valued at $68 billion like Uber, but you can start growing much quicker right now by following the examples above.

Feature Image Credit: Twitblog

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