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.