Having gleaned many insights from our research on entrepreneurs and marketing, we went back to the results for more nuggets.
We learned the need for a little marketing expertise can sneak in at very early stages when no one is thinking about it. One example is when pitching to investors. A brief review of investor presentations and materials by a marketer pressure-tested and saved a pitch made by one of our interviewees.
But let’s fast forward and assume product development is humming along and someone mentioned it’s time to get serious about brand building. That’s where lessons learned from technology innovators who’ve walked the same path kick in. Tech stars in our research that came to grips with investing in professional marketing more often than not struggled to find the right hire or consultant.
“As much as we wanted her to be, our product manager was not one-stop shopping for marketing,” said a founder of a health tech start up. "Having decided to carve out promotion,” he said, “we looked at marketing job postings to create our perfect one. I thought we did a good job including everything we wanted in that position description. Yet it took us 8 months and many interview dead ends to realize we had been overly ambitious.”
It’s common for entrepreneurs to shop for marketers hoping to find the full spectrum of capabilities in one person. But like engineering, marketing is multi-faceted; even more specialized now given the explosion of digital. Looking for one person with the complete landscape of marketing skills can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Likewise, choosing someone too highly specialized may paint startups into a corner.
Breaking it down
The frustration we heard can be summed in this phrase: “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Here are profiles of four types of downstream specialists often thought to be one person. It’s likely you’ll find a combination of skills, but not everything, in an individual.
Communications Program Strategists. These are holistic thinkers who are both business-minded and creative. As early arrivals or outside resources, they can help position your brand competitively and influence your commercialization strategically. Some personally execute on content development and channel management. Good problem-solving partners, communications strategists can tap service suppliers as you move into execution and can integrate many moving pieces.
Message and Content Developers. Entrepreneurs often focus on their web sites and events first, but don’t spend much time figuring out how best to state their value, not to mention how to stay on message. Yet establishing a differentiating set of messages comes first. Equally important is writing content and stories that consistently illustrate those points over time. Good writers can help young businesses map out consistent messages to effectively engage each of your audiences -- investors, thought leaders, the media, customers, and employees.
Account Service Managers. These professionals are facilitators for buying creative services. They excel at execution but need strategic direction. Once the desired tactics are defined for them (“we need our CEO to get on YouTube!”), these marketers manage the creative process across multiple outside suppliers and channels. They are often thought of as talented “product managers” of collateral material, videos, events, and other solutions toward company visibility and lead generation.
Digital Deep Divers. The growth of the web, mobile tools, and specialty software has given rise to marketers who specialize in digital. This category could be divided further into channel managers (social media, email marketing, web sites, apps) and marketing operation managers (campaign automation, search engine optimization, search marketing, analysis and metrics reporting). Even channel managers may need strategic direction. All will need a constant flow of content. Don’t assume they write it.
Your ideal starter depends on the bandwidth you have on board. Your tech stars or award-winning sales people may come up with many tactical ideas, but can they provide the direction needed by an account services manager or writer -- and have the time to do so? If you have a product manager, can that person stretch to spend time with customers, with field sales reps, with your R&D people, etc., and also handle day-to-day interactions with creative suppliers? The more technical or complex your product or service, the more you need a marketing partner that can think strategically.
Avoid these stumbles
A common mistake is to place administrative assistants or recent college graduates into a marketing role as a company’s first marketing hire or contractor. They thrive best working under the direction of seasoned marketing professionals already on board.
It’s also not unusual for small businesses to want their early marketers to come equipped with media contacts given the desire to make themselves visible in their industries. However, the press doesn’t use marketers as sources for news. Some PR techniques can be woven into marketing strategies but young companies would do well to outsource media relations.
Another temptation is to bring in a graphics person who is a whiz at design software to save money on production. Unless your volume of promotional materials is high, this is actually an expensive move. Such services are easily outsourced to design studios with artists that specialize in a variety of visual styles and are equipped with the latest tools. Not all charge Cadillac prices.
Your starting line up
Rather than going hyper tactical, small tech teams and even sole proprietors will benefit most from a combination of holistic thinker and project manager who can focus on your professional brand, market visibility, and competitive advantage. But beware. Turning to a well-known, high-priced consulting firm for a potent injection of wisdom upfront may not be as effective as acquiring ongoing advice and services from those who have worked in the trenches at companies that rose to success in your space.
No matter where you are in your evolution, invest in getting your strategy, messages, and plans on steady footing first. At that point, move into small-scale testing with a limited number of content distribution channels. Bank on an in-house communication channel specialist only when you know the top few ways to reach your audience and you have a reliable content pipeline.
Ever notice the confident presence many startups display on the web? Unlike large organizations, promoting breadth and depth of products and services, today’s entrepreneurs shine on minimalism and visual boldness.
This polished exterior may say “we’re fresh and contemporary” but doesn’t address important marketing basics. All too often when product innovators establish their web presence, many cross marketing off their list. “No time,” “no money,” “no need,” they say. “We keep everything inside The Family,” often meaning that the founders perform all because the work is anticipated to be relatively simple or the investment not a priority.
But a peek behind the curtain, by way of research conducted for our service provider network, revealed a set of marketing challenges young businesses at first didn’t know they had but were actually holding them back. For this study, we focused on health science and technology companies with an employee count ranging from 4 to 50 but the findings may apply more broadly. Interview subjects who had eventually tapped experienced independent marketers, often as a stepping stone to a downstream marketing program, revealed their learnings about the early value of such resources. They concluded that developing awareness, preference, and leads would take more than sales finesse and a marketing intern.
The hidden benefits of leaving DIY marketing sooner rather than later
What was the “Aha!” that changed their thinking and accelerated their business results? Here’s the question posed and a few stories from the interviews.
How would you describe the most unexpected function played by your external marketing resource that helped you advance your business?
Other themes included “weaver,” a person who would integrate and optimize the tactics being pursued already, and “reality checker,” someone unencumbered by peer pressure or the fear of a bad evaluation who told it like it was when it came to outlining the steps that could not be skipped for product launches or campaign development.
How to know when DIY is over?
For these former DIY marketers, a jack-of-all-trades approach all too quickly ran out of steam. What advice would they give up-and-comers for recognizing the winds of change?
“The time to act is rarely recognizable from the inside,” said one new venture leader who is on his third startup. “And it’s particularly hard to take a step while products are in development, although that’s the best time to seek outside perspective that will challenge you before you start making mistakes or missing the train.”
Many say they held back because they couldn’t justify allocating funds for agencies. “A reason that doesn’t add up,” said a founder who changed his mind after understanding how to find affordable expert help that did not reside in agencies.
The advice offered most often? A conversation with an outside resource is a safe start because there’s no commitment. More often than not, outsiders enjoy being tapped as sounding boards and don’t expect a service agreement will always follow. A business relationship will fall into place if the fit is right.
Nobody likes to clean out the closet, but if you've been in business for a while, chances are you have valuable reusable content in a marketing storage room or your digital asset management system.
Looking to stretch their marketing dollars, a client recently turned to us for help. They needed to ensure a steady stream of marketing content for 2016 to engage the company's newly minted sales reps, support two product launches, and maintain a strong company brand. Their internal team was already on the job developing new material for several marketing channels but there was a concern that the demand would exceed the ability to supply.
A discovery process turned up assets still consistent with their strategic directions, saving them production time and money.
Promote your made-over content inside
Many companies invest heavily in content but report that it reaches only a small percentage of intended audiences. Tell your customer-facing employees in sales, field service, and remote customer service about the content when it deploys. Park your content in a highly visible, obvious digital place and refer to it frequently (multiple links from internal web sites and emails help). A word of caution, though. "Obvious" to you may not be so "obvious" to others.
If you don't have time to rummage through your assets for sparks of green, bring someone in for a day or two to sort and identify hidden potential. A little mining this winter can help fill your 2016 editorial calendar, save a bit of money, and perhaps even contribute to your work/life balance.
Your smart phone digital camera makes it a snap to shoot video on the fly for posting on the Internet, so it’s no surprise to see enterprising young companies seize the moment as part of brand building with their thought leaders.
This approach is free and fast, so what could be better? Dropping your smart phone in favor of more rigor.
Putting your thought leaders on a digital stage to stand up for your innovation goes hand in hand with high expectations from your audience, your stakeholders, and thought leaders themselves. Pull all the pieces together professionally, no matter the challenges, to deliver high value for your brand.
What are you trying to build?
Video can be great for conveying complex topics in a personable and easily understood way. If you haven’t yet mapped out your project’s strategic intent, have a conversation with your thought leader well in advance of shooting to get on the same page.
In preparation, ask yourself, “what are the reasons this really busy person would want to commit to the production?”
A few that have proven successful for others:
Education. It’s an opportunity to be among of the first to illuminate others on a breakthrough that may have far-reaching positive impact.
Collaboration. In speaking about experiences with your innovation, your thought leader is likely to catch the attention of peers who are interested in working with her, or your organization, in future endeavors.
Global influence. Unless you’re putting this production under password protection, her voice will orbit the Earth a few times and impact more individuals than she could possibly reach addressing audiences from a podium at a conference.
Access to private media. Your company or organization may have proprietary channels that aim straight at an audience your thought leader may want to influence. This could be an e-magazine, private portal, an opt-in email newsletter, or a user forum. All are great vehicles for your video.
Cachet for her institution. Your thought leader may work for an emerging center of excellence that will gain greater stature through your project.
Each of these has implications for how you’ll execute and perhaps even how you work with your thought leader into the future. Agree on the ones that make sense for your mutual objectives.
Make peace with the professionals
Professional video folks will provide flawless footage when it comes to lighting, editing, and a little bit of film wizardry. They are part of your brand development team and will do right by you. Invest here.
That frees you to focus on other matters.
Tame the elements that can make or break you
Messaging. Your thought leader must be “on message,” and if you’re in a regulated industry, the message, whether spoken or in supporting materials, will have to pass review.
This frequently sends everyone into a scramble at the last minute. Instead, find staff on your team or among your marketing suppliers to help with editing, renderings, etc. well ahead of time. Arrange for a subject matter expert to be present at the filming to catch any spoken verbiage that appears to wander off track.
Schedules and runaway budgets. When sending a video crew to your thought leader’s location, align everyone around a Plan A, B, and C in case your script doesn’t unfold as intended. This is critical when flying teams out of town.
Imagine your thought leader getting pulled away by an emergency or a meeting more important than your shoot just as you’re ready to roll the cameras. It happens. When planning, build plenty of buffer time, perhaps making the trip a little longer than you think you’ll need. Better to play it conservatively than go home with no footage, having to inconvenience your thought leader with a new shoot schedule, and a bill that may double by the time all is done.
Permissions. Remember that anyone appearing on camera, and in some cases the institutions involved, will have to sign permission documents for the production. Much more documentation will come into play for those in regulated industries. If shooting on location, permission for bringing cameras into certain types of facilities is a requirement that’s on the rise.
Thanks, but no thanks
Okay, I know what some are thinking. You’re a start-up company, or a lean and fast organization. You’ll be just fine capturing a few words from your thought leader on your smart phone camera while at a conference.
Do yourself a favor and resist the temptation to make quick takes your standard practice. After all, any thought leader production could be a game changer for your business.
And this project is part of your thought leader’s personal brand. It’s personal. She expects smart, top-notch results.
What do you say?
You’ve decided to embark on a series of customer success stories. You’ve thought it through, identified angles sure to click with your audiences, and connected with individuals in your company’s front line to help you identify subjects. But a couple of weeks have passed since your conversations with your sales or service people and you don’t have any leads.
Although your colleagues’ packed schedules may have prevented them from getting to your request, it’s also possible they weren’t clear on the vision or how to approach their customers. The devil is in the details and if you didn’t engage your front line appropriately from the start, your project may fizzle.
Here are a few best practices for onboarding your front line.
Create a document that articulates the vision
A project brief, written or visual, will enable you to have a productive conversation with your colleagues up front and serve as an ongoing reference tool for both of you. Lean toward one page or one graphic and resist the temptation to create a PowerPoint deck. Outline objectives, the desired outcome with examples, and steps with timeframes. Include one or two compelling reasons why customers may want to take on this project.
Book a meeting to go through the game plan
Consider inviting a helper, someone who understands the end point and can explain it from an additional viewpoint to those whose help you’re seeking. Train your colleagues on why this proposal could be attractive to their customers and -- here’s a key point -- ask them to think about specific customers whose scenarios may predispose them to jump on this project. Do a little brainstorming right then and there to refine the strategy.
Encourage questions so that you can address all potential concerns, for example, how much control the customer subject may or may not have over the finished content. Book a follow-up meeting.
Examine the proposed customers up close
Once your prospects are identified, flush out why each one could make a good story. At this point, you don’t really know so surface all the positives and negatives.
To do this, reserve an hour with each account manager, the person who knows the proposed customer best. This person may not be the same one you originally engaged. Discuss the account manager’s relationship and history with the customer. Approach this almost as if it were the actual customer interview complete with prepared questions. The difference is you’ll be getting the story from your front line’s point of view. This preparation is an invaluable investment.
Before you exit this meeting, make sure you’ve accomplished three things:
Even with the customer having agreed to the project, it may still be difficult to reserve his or her time for an interview or to reschedule if the customer gets pulled away from the appointment. Take time to establish whether you should be coordinating with your interview subject directly, through your front line colleague, or through the customer’s assistant. If available, an assistant may be invaluable in moving the action along.
Ask your original colleague, or the account manager, if he or she wants to be present for the customer interview. If the decision is bounced over to you, invite the account manager.
A worthwhile investment
Don’t underestimate the amount of work and detail it takes to identify the best subjects for your vision, secure willing customers who will deliver, and get on their calendars. If you can’t invest the time, outsource the work.
Although there will still be much more to tackle before completing your project, reaching the customer interview stage – well prepared and with the right customer -- is a project milestone worth cheering about. Congrats!
A PR disaster
A new CEO or merger
A technology upheaval
All are substantial reasons corporations take a hard look at their brand platforms. But if you are a smaller business or independent consultant, there's a chance you'll benefit from a good look at what your brand outerwear, those messages that differentiate you from the pack, says about your business. All businesses evolve over time and there’s no brand police to warn you when your current messaging is about to expire.
What are subtle signs your brand messages are expiring?
You built your business on attracting a particular type of customer. Instead, you attracted another. Learn what attributes attracted your most promising customers and use them to develop a new suite of messages, maybe even a new brand name if necessary.
Perhaps you’ve built a reputation as the premium (or low cost) provider in your category and it’s worked extremely well. But now the market has shifted and that positioning is no longer making sense. Don’t stick to it because it worked so well in the past. The past is over.
Sometimes, your customers tell you what they really value about you or your business but it’s not what you expected to hear. If the feedback is consistent but not conveyed in your original messaging, it may be time to freshen up that outerwear.
Poke around to learn what problems you’ve really solved for your customers. Not just the obvious ones; the ones you set out to solve. Understand the accidental ones, the burdens you’ve lifted from your customers’ shoulders, the ones they feel most excited about because they had no idea their situations could be so much improved.
Consider the case of Right Click Advantage
Right Click Advantage began as Learn at Home Computing, an educational business conceived to raise the computer proficiency of older adults in the comfort of their living rooms. The service couldn’t have been more accessible and supportive. But that market segment didn’t yield enough motivated customers. Budding entrepreneurs looking for business-level computing skills, on the other hand, appreciated the computer educator’s high touch and became customers. A rebranding as Right Click Advantage with a new set of value propositions enabled the business to present itself compellingly to this broad market.
As Right Click Advantage evolved, it listened deeply and read between the lines of customer feedback. It learned that customers really valued hand-holding. One might be tempted to call it business coaching, but the customer experienced it as nudging, nurturing, hugging, inspiring, and reassuring. So Right Click Advantage found the closest match – mothering – and branded its latest support service “Your Marketing Mom.”
Is it trending positively?
If you’re not hearing any alarms, your brand outerwear may have made the best dressed list. But if you want to be sure, send a third party to touch base with your customers. Someone else may be able to assess your standing more objectively than you.
Many businesses consider its brand platform untouchable especially if there’s a strong legacy of quality, service, or similarly positive reputation. Unless you have the brand equity of Coca Cola, don’t dig in your heels. Social media, recommendations, and new players in your space can change your competitiveness quickly. Build reminders into your annual business plans to check the relevancy of your brand strategy.