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The Problem With Tech Marketing: Action-First Versus Strategy-First

The Problem With Tech Marketing: Action-First Versus Strategy-First

If you took a glance at the RJMetrics Pardot dashboard in May 2016, you would see that, on an average month we generated several thousand new leads. These weren’t special months where we launched a mega-awesome campaign, just a normal month. And the leads coming in were from content assets created one, two, and some even five years earlier.

Our blog was visited by nearly 30,000 people every month. RJMetrics has been mentioned in VentureBeat, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and many more prominent tech and general interest publications. Our marketing was legit enough to earn us partnerships with the likes of Hubspot, Zendesk, and Mattermark. When it came to marketing tactics and execution, our team was top-notch, and I’m incredibly proud of the work we did.

But (of course there’s a but) we made a mistake that is so common in the world of tech marketing: we got really good at tactics and fumbled on strategy.

And we felt that pain. Hop in the wayback machine and you’ll see a series of hodgepodge homepage tests. At the time it seemed like a great idea (A/B testing!) but in retrospect, we had a strategy problem. Here’s a tweet that kind of sums it up:

https://twitter.com/KhuramMalik/status/726140096483840000

Yikes. Though to be fair, we were hardly alone in this problem.

The Problem With Tech Marketing

A few months ago, TechCrunch published an article shaming tech marketers for this very mistake — an obsession with technology and tactics while failing to get the fundamentals of marketing strategy right. The author, Samuel Scott puts it simply:

“The biggest problem in marketing in the tech world today is that too many marketers do not know the first thing about marketing.”

His argument is that when digital marketing hit the scene, the first reaction was to split marketing along the lines of “traditional marketing” and “digital marketing.” This left us with a host of digital marketers who know tactics like SEO, CRO, content marketing, email marketing, etc. but don’t understand things like messaging, marketing mix, or the first thing about the four P’s.

I agree with this fundamental point —many tech marketers are bad at marketing strategy. And I agree that the traditional versus digital divide that started happening 20 years ago certainly played a role, but why does it keep on happening? Why aren’t we learning? Here’s my theory.

How Tech Companies Build Marketing Teams

Think about how a startup grows. You have a founder or two, probably both highly technical. They make their first hires, also technical. They start to gain traction and get some funding. Now their investors want to see customer acquisition numbers. So they make their first marketing hire. They will choose one of two paths:

Hire an underpaid junior marketing to “generate some leads” ← very bad idea (young marketers, be wary of this role).
Hire a VP or CMO of marketing

Now, you’re talking about a startup. This is an environment for doers. There is little appetite for a marketing leader to spend a lot of mental energy on strategy. They need to jump in and execute, so these roles tend to attract people who are more action-oriented than strategic. These action-first marketing leaders then hire people with similar mentalities.

You can see this trend play out in the colorful marketing titles tech companies hire for: Growth Hacker, Content Marketer, Director of Video, SEO Manager, Digital Marketing Specialist, CRO Lead, and Email Marketing Manager. You now have a team of people that are focussed on channels and tactics. Who is doing marketing strategy? *crickets*

How Tech Marketers Develop Skills

Let this cycle play out hundreds of times and you have a universe of tech marketing teams with a strong bias toward action. Growth Hackers like Noah Kagan popularised epic “how-to” posts on topics like getting your first 100 subscribers and advertising on Facebook. Look at the front page of sites like Inbound.org and Growthhackers.com and you’ll see a plethora of resources to help you improve marketing tactics — grow your email list, increase conversion rates, get page views and more.

This is not a criticism of these people or communities, these are just the topics that get clicks. These are the resources marketers want. This is how tech marketers improve their skills — they optimise their tactics and channels.

Getting Back To Marketing Strategy

When we set out to launch a new brand, Stitch, in early 2016, it was a chance for our team to fix what we didn’t do a great job at the first time around. This time, we wanted to start with strategy before we jumped into channels and tactics. As a refresher, let’s take a look at the most fundamental elements of a marketing strategy.

1. Target market: Who are you selling to? This is the foundation of your strategy, and it will rarely be defined by marketing alone. In our case, our product team had reams of research around our target market. We knew who they were, the jobs they did, what they cared about, and where they worked.

If you’re a marketing person joining a tech company, this will likely be true for you as well. There will likely be institutional knowledge around your ideal buyer. If this knowledge doesn’t exist at your company, neither this blog post nor any marketing channel or tactic in the world can help you. Go talk to people.

2. Messaging that speaks to your target market: What are the words your target market uses? What are their biggest pain points? What do they have to gain from your product? What’s your big value proposition to your ideal buyer? These are the questions answered in your messaging.

3. What channels and tactics will you use to deliver that message: This is the area where tech marketers tend to spend most of their time. It’s the mistake I made as well.

And the answer to what this is for your business is one giant it depends!

Without someone intimately knowing your target market and how your product solves their problems (messaging) they are 100% unqualified to tell you what channels and tactics are right for you.

No one can help you with that first point. Lots of people will try to help you with the third point. But on that second point, there should be some help, right? Yet when I went looking for resources, guides, frameworks, something! to help me get started with brand messaging, I found very little. The tech industry has developed a shared body of knowledge around how to do customer development, run massive engineering projects, even how to onboard new employees; but if you want to get brand messaging right, well, you’re kind of on your own.

Why This Is A Problem

There are two big reasons why lack of shared knowledge in this area is a problem:

Messaging is an integral part of your marketing strategy. Many startups are in the phase of trying to figure out product-market fit. While you can’t do a clean A/B test of brand messaging, it is still an experiment in its own right. The clearer your messaging, the more accurate information you can gather about your ideal market and how to talk to them.

We’re all solving this same problem, let’s help each other. Every single product launch and every single startup out there is doing messaging (even if most of us are doing it poorly). Messaging is hard, sure, but it’s not magic. There’s no reason for not having some shared knowledge around how to do this work right.

So, I’m making an attempt. I built out a framework for the Stitch launch that was incredibly helpful in message development. And I’m sharing all of it, consider this an open-source marketing project.

This post by Janessa Lantz first appeared on Medium and has been reproduced with permission. 

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