How They Happen and How to Avoid Them
A recent post on LinkedIn, authored by a startup CMO, argued that marketing should focus on quantity of content output rather than quality of output. The argument for “shipping” new articles and content every week was that it seeded SEO, web traffic, and engagement with prospects which ultimately led to more pipeline volume. Needless to say, this was quite the controversial post, with a long thread of heated comments.
My response: “No wonder marketing has such a bad reputation.”
Now don’t get me wrong, there are some situations, perhaps with simple products, where quantity over quality of content makes sense. But what if you’re marketing highly competitive, complex technologies targeted at some of the smartest, most discerning tech buyers in the world? As I argued in my “Product Marketing Fails” post, in enterprise technology contexts a superficial approach just won’t cut it. Only 30% of respondents in IDG’s Technology Content Marketing 2019 study said their organizations were more than moderately successful at content marketing. I will go even further here and argue that a superficial approach can lead to a marketing performance spiral–a runaway process made up of random acts of demand generation and sales enablement that fail to yield any significant ROI-positive marketing contributions.
Like an aircraft pilot caught in a death spiral, disoriented and unable to see the horizon, marketers in a performance spiral fail to anchor execution to their particular market situation or phase of the product lifecycle. Spirals are characterized by a number of mistakes. Poor buyer targeting. Inconsistent messaging. No unique, interesting, or relevant insights. No voice of customer. No market validation. A superficial hot take on everything. Campaigns see increasingly poorer and poorer performance. Good content gets drowned out by bad. Prospects really don’t want to hear from you anymore.
When in a spiral, the gap between product, sales, and product marketing grows wider with each campaign and tactic. Marketing turnover is high, as is friction between departments. Expectations for marketing’s contribution to revenue are repeatedly missed. Sales teams build their own shadow product marketing organization in which reps trade their own decks and content that “worked” to help close deals. The spiral also turns into something of a bubble, where marketing becomes almost completely disconnected from the product, customers, and sales.
Marketers stuck in a spiral, however, aren’t usually there by choice. They exist in organizations that tend to reward activity versus outcomes. You know, the “what has marketing done for us lately?” kinds of places. To make up for resulting shortfalls in pipeline, sales leaders increasingly pressure marketing to engage in unnatural acts and gimmicks to close the gap. The unnatural acts and gimmicks become the norm and crowd out a more substantive approach to market. Marketing teams, in turn, become increasingly more efficient at being ineffective.
So let’s talk about what a marketing performance spiral looks like, how teams end up in them, and what it takes to get out of one.
Building for Repeatable Growth
Building for repeatable growth generally happens in three stages, each aligned to the product lifecycle; a proof of concept phase to demonstrate market receptivity for a minimum viable product (MVP); a product market-fit phase, wherein the initial learnings from market and customer feedback for the MVP are incorporated into the product to achieve a tight fit with target use cases and customers; and lastly a go-to-market-fit phase where learnings about the ideal customers’ need states from the MVP and PMF phases are translated into a repeatable approach to customer acquisition.
Spirals can occur when companies fail to understand where they are in the product lifecycle or try to take shortcuts in the go-to-market-fit phase. Sometimes this means prematurely launching “vaporware” in the MVP phase without a fully-formed understanding of the target market or viability of the product. Confusing product-market-fit with go-to-market-fit is another entry point into a spiral. Finally, companies with a weak product marketing process may see early sales-led product adoption as validation for scaled-up marketing programs and thus try to skip the hard work of achieving go-to-market fit.
The Blind Leap
A common leaping off point into a marketing spiral is “launching” prematurely–or some might say blindly–somewhere after the MVP is complete but before true product market-fit is achieved. While some sub-scale marketing experimentation is needed in the MVP-PMF phase, it should be deliberately designed to field test offer strategies and develop customer proof points. The results from these tests and customer evidence can then be codified and embedded in the go-to-market-fit phase. Marketing programs that scale up too early, in lieu of sales-led growth, are destined to perform badly.
Lost in Translation
Another entry point into a marketing spiral can occur when the lessons learned from the product-market-fit phase are not adequately translated into prerequisites for a strong, repeatable model for growth. There are certain foundational things that must happen before you attempt to do customer acquisition at scale. In a strong marketing organization, this “translation” from nascent understanding of marketing requirements to go-to-market fit happens in a disciplined and deliberate way, usually led by product marketing. If done well, your marketing programs will have a much better chance of achieving repeatable growth.
Confusing the Terrain
Another common mistake that can lead to a spiral is not understanding what type of demand you’re marketing against. SiriusDecisions created an excellent model for assessing demand type which is quite useful for assessing marketing terrain. The three types of demand in the SiriusDecisions model are New Concept, New Paradigm, and Established Market.
New Concept – for new concept offerings, most buyers are not aware of the problem being solved by your solution. In new concept scenarios, your market targeting should focus on a small, but receptive segment that is still large enough to support your next phase of growth. Once you’ve successfully penetrated that niche, you can use it as leverage to expand your target market definition to the next most receptive segment in your category. With new concept demand type, your marketing programs should be focused on market validation and buyer education. Marketing must clearly define the who, what, why, and how for the new offering and stair-step prospects into a buyer-ready state.
New Paradigm – in new paradigm offerings, the product category is already established but you’re bringing a new, more effective way of solving problems for customers. The shift from on-prem to cloud CRM is a good example of this. New paradigm is among the toughest marketing problems to crack. Pragmatic buyers may consider their existing solution “good enough” and not be receptive to a new offering. The cost of switching to a new solution may be higher than the status quo, at least in the short term. Marketers have to make the case for change–which means making strong arguments and providing proof for why buyers should consider shifting to the new paradigm. Comparative offers and case studies–before and after stories–validated by industry analysts and thought leaders are the key to unlocking growth for new paradigm demand type.
Established Markets – In established markets, the offering is ubiquitous, purchased by nearly all buyers in a given market. Cloud CRM, otherwise known as Salesforce.com, is a good example of this. Virtually every company uses cloud CRM now, where for a long time it was controversial in some enterprises to move their valuable customer data into the cloud. If you’re brave enough to take on an incumbent in an established market, you have to focus on delivering some combination of strong feature differentiation, competitive pricing, and/or a higher level of service. If you are the incumbent, you have to defend your core business while expanding your solution set to cross-sell new offerings into existing customers.
Getting in the Growth Zone
So, how do you build marketing programs for scalable, repeatable growth? No matter where you are in the product lifecycle or what demand type you’re marketing against, there are six prerequisites that will set up your downstream marketing programs for success. You might think of this list as a marketing operating system–core principles and content upon which the rest of your marketing programs depend for effectiveness.
Ideal Customer Profile – Developing an understanding, both qualitatively and quantitatively, of your ideal customer profile is perhaps the most important translation step when emerging from PMF to scaled-up go-to-market programs. Objectively, you should strive to have accurate data for your current customers and prospects, with attributes like company size, industry, and titles that you can use to model your buyer profile. Are certain industries, departments, or titles more prominent in your closed-won deals and/or opportunities? This is critical information, particularly if you’re in the early phases of developing a new market. Do your homework and interview customers and prospects to ensure you understand their needs and the underlying drivers behind their buying decisions,
Recommendation: Make sure you have accurate data to model ICP. If you do a forensic analysis on your customer data, it’s almost guaranteed to be riddled with errors and misclassifications. Also remember, your ideal customer profile does not represent a monolithic group of buyers. Defining your key cohorts and their common traits will help you simplify your approach to market with an audience-based approach. In sub-scale marketing organizations, organizing cohorts by use case is often the most efficient way to structure your marketing programs.
Messaging Framework – Messaging discipline is made up of three parts. Structure, clarity, and consistency. Structure means you have a clearly defined marketecture that maps the puzzle pieces of your platform, products, and solutions into a cohesive framework. Clarity means you have thought through each element of your marketecture and created clear, resonant messaging that clearly articulates the strategic, economic, technical, and professional value propositions for your target buyers. Consistency means you have propagated this messaging across all of your sales and marketing assets in a consistent way for each asset. A strong messaging framework is critical because it acts as a common lingua franca that aligns marketing, sales and product to communicate with buyers. Alignment reduces friction, and less friction means more growth potential. SiriusDecision’s 2018 Benchmark Report found that emerging growth companies which have strong alignment between marketing, sales, and product experience up to 36% higher growth and 28% greater profitability.
Recommendation: See my Three Steps to Better Messaging post for more on this critical step. An ad hoc approach to messaging will lead to many problems downstream in your marketing programs. Repetition is the key to breaking through with buyers. Salesforce disrupted an entire market with two words, “No Software”, repeated over and over and over (and over). If buyers hear different product descriptions and value-props at various touchpoints on the buyer journey, they will not have a clear understanding of your offering. As a result, your sales team may have to spend an inordinate amount of time educating buyers in the early stages of the sales cycle.
Buyer Journey Mapping: Buyer journeys are a hot topic in B2B marketing, so it’s remarkable that so few really get this right. 60% of respondents in IDG’s B2B Content Marketing Trends study said their #1 challenge was creating engaging content. I introduced the notion of buyer mindset mapping in another post which discusses the importance of addressing four different dimensions of buyer requirements; Strategic, Economic, Technical, and Professional. However your buying stages are defined, each stage must address these four dimensions. There is a tendency to add complexity to buying stages and forget about the underlying psychology of addressing different need states for buyers. Layering buyer mindset into the equation will ensure your marketing content helps cover all the bases for developing buyer readiness, which in turn yields greater sales effectiveness and efficiency.
Recommendation: Start with simple stages. The old AIDA model (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action) never hurt anyone. Then layer in mindset dimensions where appropriate. You can always add more complexity later as you develop a more nuanced understanding of what buyers need to advance in their decision-making process.
Customer Success Stories: If this list were in order of priority, customer success stories would sit at the top of the list. If there is one thing that cripples enterprise marketing programs more than any other, it is a lack of peer references. A survey by Demand Gen Report found that 97% of B2B Buyers cited testimonials and peer recommendations as the most reliable content type. Remember Geoff Moore’s Crossing the Chasm? The number one priority on his list for getting across the chasm is–peer references! The lack of customer success stories is particularly problematic if you don’t have much brand awareness with buyers. Enterprise technology buyers might try something new from IBM or Salesforce without evidence, but not from a no-name startup.
Recommendation: Incentivize both buyers and your sellers to commit to case studies at the time of contract signing. I repeat–incentivize both buyers and your sellers to commit to case studies at. the. time. of. contract. signing! Your marketing and sales efficiency will suffer if you do not have a programmatic approach to getting customer reference commitments. Deals will be harder to close. Leads will be harder to convert to opportunities. Opportunities will be harder to get over the finish line. Your overall marketing and sales efficiency will suffer greatly if this isn’t a priority.
Thought Leadership: Now that you’ve done the hard work of building your ICP, messaging framework, buyer journey map, and hard-hitting customer success stories, you’ve earned the right to become more adventurous and start asserting thought leadership. What exactly is thought leadership? On a fundamental level, it should emanate from some unique insight or set of insights related to your product. What do you know about the core problem your product solves that none of your competitors do? Which performance benchmarks can you assert leadership in? How will customers’ worlds change after adopting your product? The answers to these questions form the basis for good thought leadership.
Recommendation: Every company that has made it to product-market-fit has some unique insight. You might have to dig to find it. Talk to customers, dig into your usage data, establish and validate performance benchmarks. Even Apple, with its raving, global customer base, validates its product claims with third-party benchmarks. Find points of differentiation that drive value for your customers, quantify them, and then package them up for all the world to see!
Reputation: Think you can get by without investing in AR/PR programs? In rare situations, you can. If you have created a truly magical product and have a product-led approach to market where customers can experience and share the product without interacting with a salesperson, then you can get away with minimal investments in reputation. Magical products can do the selling for you. If you don’t have a magical product, then you need to get the analysts covering your space on board to validate the viability of your product, its position in the category, and how it relates to your competitive set. The first thing buyers do after becoming aware of your product is conduct a Google search. What kind of market validation will they see? If all they find is your astro-turfed, SEO-optimized blog content, then good luck! In its 2019 B-to-B Buying Study, Sirius Decisions found the top two asset types for all buyers were analyst reports, either those provided by a vendor or from an objective source. Media articles and publications followed at #3.
Recommendation: Analysts will help you, along with strong customer references, to get the trade media on board. That’s the flow for unlocking the power of reputation and then amplifying it out into the world. Customer References > Analyst Coverage > PR. If you mix up this order of execution, you will have many problems. Analysts want referenceable customers. Journalists want referenceable customers and analysts.
Your Long Range Strategic Marketing Bomber
Now for the cool part. If you’ve done a good job of solving for this list of growth prerequisites, you will have the equivalent of a long-range strategic bomber for your marketing and sales enablement programs. Your targeting for outbound programs will be tight because it will leverage data and insights from your ICP. Your messaging will be clear and consistent across all your content assets. Your buyer journey map will identify precisely what assets you have on hand and those which you need to create. These assets will be highly substantive, incorporating material from your customer success stories, analyst coverage, and thought leadership material. At this point your demand generation and sales enablement content will practically build itself. All your downstream programs will benefit from a deep pool of hard-hitting, persuasive content that genuinely resonates with buyers.
Getting in the growth zone is hard work at the front-end of the process but building this foundation for growth will provide the thrust you need to cruise to higher altitudes for more friction-less growth. Make sure you’re giving your product marketing team, especially new teams, the time and space to lay this foundation for growth. The hard thing about hard things is they usually take time. If your existing marketing programs are struggling, assess them against this list of pre-reqs and then be honest with yourself and your team about how you got to where you are. A hard reset will be painful, but worth it in the end. Staying in a spiral of poor execution is not an option–we all know how that ends.