Startup Marketing and Sales
by April Dunford

Subscribe for Updates via Email

Be amazed when updates magically appear in your inbox

Weekend Startup Marketing Reading


Here’s this week’s batch of interesting stuff for startup marketers.

The folks from the startup Pipedrive, a pipeline management tool wrote a great post looking back at how they grew to 1,000 paying customers. The post includes a great discussion about how they learned to say “no” to customers that wanted one-off features, how they ramped up their growth by spending more time with key influencers and removed as much friction as they could in the their sign-up process. This is a great lessons learned post.

An older article on Demand Gen Report, “Why Demand Generation Shouldn’t be Focused on Marketing Qualified Leads” inspired this post this week from B2B Digital Marketing called “Looking beyond Sales and Marketing Alignment“. The original article looks at the problem of Marketing’s continued struggle to provide good leads to sales and proposes that the solution to the problem is better orchestration and coordination between Marketing and Sales. We are focusing too much on MQL’s (Marketing Qualified Leads) when in a perfect process all leads should be marketing influenced as well as sales influenced. In the second article, the author takes this line of thinking one step further to make the argument that sales and marketing should just be “aligned” but actually “integrated”. These are two great articles to read if you are struggling with lead generation process issues related to a salesforce.

Over at SingleGrain there was a really interesting post on using competitive research to analyze a new market. This post describes the process the writer used to launch a new online business website from a very SEO-centric perspective. He describes the tools and methods he used to determine traffic potential, assessed demographics, analyzed key words and how he researched competitor’s tactics. A great read and useful even if you aren’t launching something from scratch.

Lastly, Michele Linn over at Savvy B2B Marketing had a good post on how to be a better listener in content marketing. The post describes how she monitors and discovers content from a variety of different sources using a variety of devices in a very streamlined manner. If you feel like you are spending too much time on Twitter, your inbox is overflowing and your RSS reader is a mess, this is the post for you.


Startup Marketing: Does the Competition Matter?


I have heard people make the argument that startups shouldn’t think about their competitors. I agree that many spend too much time worrying about how their feature set stacks up against another offering’s feature set. On the other hand, prospects are evaluating your solution against alternatives (which may not be products) and communicating how you are better than those alternatives is a key part of great startup marketing. Simply put – you should care about competitive alternatives if your prospects do.

Startups are not Big Companies

I very rarely see useful competitive analysis done by startup marketers, mainly because they are trying to do it like big companies do it. The big companies I’ve worked for have had departments dedicated to creating large detailed check mark matrices that showed how our feature set compared to competitive offerings. These matrices almost never included any feedback from customers. Needless to say, the products and their markets were very mature.

This approach completely falls apart within the context of a startup. Your competitors, from a customer point of view are almost never so easily defined. For startups, your offering is often competing with “do nothing”, “hire someone to do it”, use spreadsheets/documents/paper, or some other solution that might be completely unsuited to the task but is free/easy/what has always been used. Comparing features of one of these alternatives to your startup’s offering to makes absolutely no sense in this context.

A More Customer-Centric Approach

In the context of a startup the only competitive analysis that makes sense is the one that is happening in side the heads of your prospects. The more you understand about that, the more you can use that knowledge to improve your marketing.

Instead of the traditional competitive comparison matrix, a more useful competitive alternatives snapshot for a startup would look at what customers perceive to be the major benefits of the alternative, what risks they see that might stop them from choosing your solution and how you might address these issues in your messaging.

An Example

Here’s an example for CRMster, a fictional solution aimed at mid-sized consulting businesses to help them manage their customer information. The points here are just to give you some ideas about how this might look:

Competitive Alternative Benefit customers perceive Risk in selecting your offering Value of your offering Proof points
Do nothing – we don’t use a CRM tool and that’s fine by us Free
Zero effort required
Budget spent on this will mean less money for other thingsConsultants will have to learn the tool and record data they don’t today More accurately predict future workloads so you can budget/staff accordingly and increase your profitability.Gives consultants access to more complete customer information making it easier to do their jobs. 3rdparty data: Research shows companies using CRM are X% more profitable.Customer data: CRMster customers have x% average increase in revenue/profitabilityEnd user quote “CRMster makes collaborating easy. I want to marry it! ”Customer case studies
Manage customer data in spreadsheets FreeEveryone knows how to use a spreadsheet Budget spent on this will mean less money for other thingsConsultants will have to learn the tool Eliminate the need to consolidate spreadsheets – a process that is time consuming and introduces errorsEasier, more effective team collaboration means projects are delivered on time, on budget. Customer quote: “Consolidating spreadheets was a pain and our data stank. CRMster lets us accurately forecast our business.”Customer quote: “CRMster got our teams working together better so we could deliver projects on budget”End user quote: “So fun to use I gave up playing Angry Birds at work!”Analyst opinion: “Folks using spreadsheets are big losers”
Use CRMFree, a free CRM tool Free Budget spent on this will mean less money for other things Expert customer supportProvides features for consulting companies that generic CRM tools don’t have. Analyst data: X% of CRM deployments fail because end-users don’t get good support.Customer quote: “Their support is so great we send them chocolates on valentine’s day”Press quote: “If you are a consulting company you are an idiot if you buy anything else”Customer logos, case studies
Use BigWig CRM, a CRM tool for mid-sized businesses of any type A safe bet: an established brand CRMster might go out of businessThe software might be unproven, buggy crap CRMster is way cheaper.Provides features for consulting companies that generic CRM tools don’t have. Pricing and guarantees.Screen shots, product demosTeam bios – emphasizing successes and background in this market.Investor profiles, investment announcementsCustomer logos, case studies

For this example, only the last couple of rows get into any discussion of product features and even there those aren’t the only considerations. The other thing to notice is that the feature discussion can happen as part of a higher-level theme (we’re better because we are cheaper, more targeted to this market, or a more elegant solution) rather than a checklist of niggley esoteric features like you would for mature products in a mature market. If you are going head to head with an established player in the market you’re doing it because you have something radically different.

The Output: Better Messaging

The next step is to look at the themes and develop key messages that highlight your differentiated value while addressing the potential big concerns. I’ve written about messaging here and here and I’ll talk more about how you would take the next step and construct messaging upcoming post.



Lipstick on the Enviropig: A Tale of Messaging and Manure


We marketers are optimistic by nature. We’re trained to see the most desirable aspects of the products we sell and minimize the potential drawbacks. This optimism can be a problem however if we lose sight of how customers actually perceive our products and start to believe everyone sees them the way we wish they did. In my first marketing job my boss gave me some very wise advice:

Don’t get caught smoking your own marketing

Which brings me to this example. Here in Canada, the University of Guelph announced a research project called “The Enviropig.” From the site:

The Enviropig™ is a genetically enhanced line of Yorkshire pigs with the capability of digesting plant phosphorus more efficiently than conventional Yorkshire pigs. These pigs produce the enzyme phytase in the salivary glands that is secreted in the saliva. When cereal grains are consumed, the phytase mixes with the feed as the pig chews. Once the food is swallowed, the phytase enzyme is active in the acidic environment of the stomach, degrading indigestible phytate in the feed that accounts for 50 to 75% of the grain phosphorus.

Simply put – this pig can digest phosphorus from pig feed more efficiently than regular pigs. This means the pig doesn’t need to get fed expensive phosphorus supplements and also produces manure with less phosphorus. Phosphorus in pig manure is a major source of freshwater pollution. Hey, less pollution, that sounds pretty good! The site even goes so far as to helpfully point out that raising an Enviropig is just like raising a regular pig:

…the technology is simple, if you know how to raise pigs, you know how to raise Enviropigs!

The obvious pig, er, elephant in the room however is the fact that we are raising these pigs, not to consume grain and produce manure, but to feed them to ourselves and our children. What are the risks involved in ingesting a few months worth of eggs over easy with a side of Envirobacon and pulled Enviropork sandwiches? The folks in Guelph decided that the best approach would be to simply avoid that question. Their discussion of “Societal and Ethical Issues” (notice the word “health” is avoided) contains nothing on the subject (although they do assure us that the pigs are very “fit”).

This head in the sand approach didn’t work out so well for the Enviropig project. The backlash was quick and loud. The “Frankenpig” was criticized by consumers, food groups and politians but most of all by environmentalists who quickly pointed out that:

  1. Regular old pigs are pretty environmental when not raised in gigantic mega pig farms and
  2. Pigs are being fed grain which they are not able to fully digest and changing the pig’s diet or adding supplements to it would also help fix the problem with no genetic engineering required.

Of course both of these things would be costly for conventional pig farmers.

So upon closer inspection, the Enviropig wasn’t a solution to an environmental problem at all. All the marketing in the world couldn’t change the fact that the Enviropig didn’t benefit anyone but pig farmers looking to grow cheaper pigs.

Consumers and the general public reacted with a hearty “hold the bacon!” Last week the project lost its funding from Ontario Pork and the University announced that the pigs will be euthanized. Optimistic marketing wasn’t enough to make those pigs fly.

So here’s the marketing lesson. You can’t ignore how customers perceive your product. Saying it’s great does not make it so and failing to address customer concerns won’t make them go away. Optimistic messaging won’t turn a crappy product that nobody wants into a winner.

Read This

Weekend Startup Marketing Reading


There’s a ton of great posts on startup marketing that I come across every week. Here’s my selection of the best with some color commentary from me.

Startup Marketing: How to Earn Customers Without Paying for Them – this is a video of a talk by Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz that is full of chunky marketing goodness. About halfway through he touches on the problem of attribution which I think is a HUGE one for marketers, particularly those that are heavily invested in content marketing. How do you track a funnel and measure what’s working when you have integrated content resources working together in a programmatic way? If a person sees a Tweet, watches your video, reads your blog and then clicks on a a search result to make a purchase, how do you attribute that lead? There is also a great discussion around organic search rank and how social plays into that as well as a great Q&A session at the end. The video is long but in my opinion, well worth the investment of an hour of your time.

How Perfect Pricing Got me 1500 Sales in 2 Days and Perfect Pricing Part Deux are two great posts from A Smart Bear dealing with a couple of experiments in pricing (ebooks in both examples but the lessons I believe are relevant beyond that market). The first post walks through the author did pricing research, decided on tiered pricing and the results that showed his higher priced product performed better. I am not sure this is really a price anchoring experiment in the way the author suggests but for me it spurred a lot of good thinking about segmentation and pricing. The second post is a great follow-on from another author who took a different approach and charged a much higher price for his ebook. His strategy, rather than tiered pricing, was to focus on a single segment that was willing to pay a higher price because they understood the value of his offering. If you sell on the internet and are thinking about price points, these 2 articles are great reading.

Over at the CMI Institute blog there was a super post this week called 6 Start Me Up Tips for Novice Content Marketers – In my opinion the highlight of this post is the “Message Matrix for Product Launch” example. On the surface this looks a bit oriented toward big companies (we startup marketers don’t usually don’t do things like style guidelines given our teams are so small) but the examples of how you would document messages by elements and key audiences is spot on.

Have a great weekend.

Keyboard close-up with three smiley keys

A/B Testing: Knowing What Works Doesn’t Tell you Why


I read a great post today called “Throw Everything you Know About Ads Out the Window”. The author describes how he ran a very simple test of two ads to see which would work better. You can see the two ads here.

The first ad was very professional looking with good looking graphics, nice fonts and a green call to action button. The second ad was in his words “some shit ad I made in 5 mins in Microsoft Paint.” The ad was a hand drawn picture of a car with the hand written words “Need for Speed!!! Play free!!”  He tested the 2 ads for 15K impressions each and found the low tech ad generated a clickthrough rate of 0.137% versus 0.049% for the more professional looking ad.

Whoa. That’s quite a difference.

His conclusion that, “every idea you have is worth testing no matter how crappy it is”  is a smart one in my opinion, but also trickier than it might sound.

Your Test Results Tell you What Works but not Why

So we know the second ad generated a better CTR. Now what? Here is a list of reasons the second one might have gotten more clicks:

  1. Novelty – we are inundated with ads and something that looks very different is interesting and click-worthy.
  2. Freeresearch shows that this a bit of a magic word for folks and it appears much more prominently on the second ad.
  3. Less Text – the second ad had much less text and is easier to read.
  4. Single Image – A single image might make the ad easier to process.
  5. Simplicity and Flow – The second ad is much simpler and it flows simply from top to bottom. The “professional” ad is more complex and flows right to left and top to bottom.
  6. Weird Psychology – Maybe that hand-drawn ad reminded us of the doodles we made we were 5 years old and a Proust-ian nostalgia swept over us and gosh darn it we just had to click!!

OK, so the last one isn’t all that likely but hey, anything’s possible. So what does this test tell us? It tells us that we can improve our CTR in one (or maybe many) of these ways. It’s giving us some clues about what hypothesis to test next but without those tests, the “why” around the increased CTR is not clear.

CTR is not the Same as Conversions

Another important thing worth pointing out is that there was no mention of conversions after the clicks. If I look at some of the possible reasons that the CTR might have been higher I could see that maybe some folks are clicking just to see what the heck this crazy ad is all about but aren’t really serious about taking any other action. While the test might have proven the second ad generated more clicks, it did not prove the second ad “worked” better from a business perspective.

industry analysts

Industry Analysts: Can You Buy Coverage?


I had a B2B startup founder ask me if it was possible to buy placement in a Gartner Magic Quadrant. The question shows a fundamental misunderstanding that the big industry analyst firms like Gartner Group and Forrester are “Pay for Play”. That simply doesn’t make any sense.

You care about analyst coverage because customers care. Customers care because vendors can’t purchase it.

The only reason marketers care what some industry analysts have to say is because some customers respect their opinion. The moment customers suspect that this opinion can be bought, they would stop paying for their advice. These markets where an analyst opinion really matters are often those where the decision is made by a purchase team that doesn’t have the time/skill/money/risk tolerance to perform a complete evaluation of every vendor in the market. They trust analysts to educate/advise them enough to quickly get the vendor list down to a more manageable size. It varies by market/geography/company size of course but if you are selling to a Fortune 500 IT buyer in North America, you may not get on a short list if Gartner doesn’t cover you (if you are selling to consumers, you probably should stop reading this right now).

You can’t buy love. But you can purchase a date.

So the entire business model of an analyst firm depends on customers trusting that the analysts are not biased for or against certain vendors. Vendors cannot purchase coverage in a report, nor inclusion on a Quadrant or Wave. Analysts do cover companies that don’t pay for their services. So does paying an analyst firm increase your chances of getting favourable coverage in their research. Heck yes it does! But it doesn’t guarantee they will write nice things about you. Purchasing a contract gives you their attention. It gives you the ability to interact with them regularly (the biggest mistake you can make is pay for the contract and not establish regular meetings with the analysts, more on this later). This leads to several things:

  • A better understanding of how the analyst firm views the market
  • An opportunity to educate the analysts about the value of your offering and your point of view on the market
  • The opportunity to influence their thinking about how the market is evolving
  • Advanced warning about upcoming research and the ability to respond to questions and surveys before the research is published
  • The opportunity to introduce them to your customers, further illustrating your offering’s value and increasing your chances of coverage.
  • The ability to establish the credibility of your company and your depth of knowledge of the space, increasing the credibility of your offering in the eyes of the analysts.
  • The ability to establish relationships with the analysts (hey, they are people too and it never hurts if you all know and like each other).

So buying the contract is a bit like buying your love interest dinner at Le Bernardin instead offering to split the bill at McDonald’s. It won’t guarantee that you’ll fall in love but it will increase the odds that they’ll show up so you can make your case.

The often-ignored but equally important reason you want to work with analysts – to learn from them

But here’s the thing. Coverage isn’t the only reason you want to work with an analyst firm. It may not even be the main reason you want to work with them. You want to work with them because you can learn from them. They spend all day thinking about the markets you are in. They spend a significant amount of time talking to customers. They know what your competitors are up to. Who else in your market can give you this kind of perspective? How valuable this perspective is to your company depends on a lot of things but here are some things I’ve used analysts for:

  1. Feedback on messaging and positioning – they know the terms the rest of the market is using and they know how customers express themselves. That puts them in a unique position to give you feedback on how you are expressing your value proposition and your terminology. They also have a firm grasp of what your competitors have and can help you understand what really differentiates you.
  2. Competitive insight – we are all under non-disclosure when we talk to analysts so they can’t tell you anything that isn’t already in the public domain (well technically anyway). but it isn’t always easy to keep up with what the competitors are doing especially if you are in a crowded market. Part of the analyst’s job is to stay on top of who’s doing what in a market.
  3. Customer insight – Analysts do a lot of customer briefings. I find myself asking questions like “Have you ever seen a company with this problem?” or “We think that customers using competitor X’s product tend to look like ABC. Would you agree?” You should never trust any one person’s opinion as the final word on a market but the insight you get from an analyst can help you understand where to look next.

Now don’t get me wrong – I have worked with analysts that I though had a spotty level of knowledge of their market, had obvious biases toward certain vendors and seemed to be incapable of constructive feedback. Every profession has a few that maybe should be doing something else with their lives. Fortunately for me that has been the exception rather than the rule.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you will have a much deeper understanding of the particular slice of the market that you play in than any analyst you will meet. They on the other hand will probably understand the broader market better than you do. You need to keep this in mind when you are filtering their feedback.

Two big cautions for startups!

  1. All of the good stuff that you get from analysts only happens if you do the work. You have to establish a regular calendar of meetings with multiple analysts. You have to prepare for those meetings. You have to find customers that are willing to talk to them. You have to have interesting new news to talk about. You have to complain like heck if your analyst is a dud. If you simply sign the cheque and wait for the good stuff to come rolling in you are wasting your money. Without an analyst relations plan, it’s pointless.
  2. Don’t forget your other marketing priorities. If you are a B2B startup working with analysts is going to be on a long list of things you have to do including lead generation, sales support, enabling your salesforce, building content for your site and campaigns, securing customer references, etc. etc. You have to weigh working with an analyst firm against the other things on your list and take your budget into account. If you only have $60K to spend on marketing, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone spend half of that on a Gartner contract. Even though I think analyst relations is very important for certain companies in certain markets, you need to be smart about it and make sure it makes sense for the value you will get.


pitching bloggers

Pitching to Bloggers (and Journalists) – Tips for Startups


Most early stage startups don’t have the budget (or the desire) to hire a PR agency to help them get news coverage. Getting coverage for a startup is (in my opinion anyway) easier than it has ever been – there are loads of online publications that cover startups and they’re easy to find and contact. But as least favorite engineering prof used to say to me “April, just because I say it’s easy, doesn’t mean you can’t mess it up.”

Here’s my list of Do’s and Don’ts

Do This

  1. Cultivate relationships before you need them – Did you ever have a friend that only called you when they wanted something? Don’t be that person. There’s generally a ton of runway pre-launch you can use to establish relationships with bloggers and journalists. Meeting face to face (at events, social gatherings, industry meetings, etc.) is always the best way but I’ve had good relationships that started out with me commenting a lot on their blogs, sharing their content, and linking to or blogging about their content on my company blogs. The goal is to get a better understanding of the person (what do they like/dislike, how can help them out, etc) at a stage when you aren’t asking for something.
  2. Have something newsworthy to talk about – this isn’t just about having a great product, it’s about having a great story to tell that people will want to read about (and yes, great products make this easier). Why should people be excited about your news? How does it relate to other newsworthy things (market/buyer/cultural/economic trends for example) people are interested in? Most startups are great at tying their solutions to technology trends which works well for tech/startup publications. If you want more mainstream press your tie-in’s will need to be more mainstream. I talked to a startup recently that got good coverage tying their product news to the Occupy movement, and another that had a great story related to wedding planning that launched at the time of the royal wedding. You need to answer the question – why is your news interesting right now?
  3. Pitch writers that are a good fit for your news – I’ve seen few examples where folks have been successful by blasting large lists with a generic pitch. Do your homework and understand what the writer covers, their likes and dislikes, whether or not they have written about other companies in similar markets and if so, what were the stories like. Build a personalized pitch that includes why you chose to pitch them specifically. If possible tailor your story angle for the publication or for them personally.
  4. Make it as easy as possible – I like to have a media page that I can direct folks to where writers can get quick easy answers to basic questions (i.e. who/when/why was the company formed, who are the noteworthy employees/customers/partners/investors/advisors involved, what is the value the company delivers and to what markets) and get easy access to logos, screenshots, video, graphics etc. Write your press release so that it’s easy to copy sections from it to create a story (hard to believe but this happens more than you would think). Video and/or images (I seem to be the only person on the planet that’s sick of infographics) that compliment the story work well because they make it easy to create a visually interesting post.
  5. Kiss butt (a little) – Just like regular folks, bloggers generally like working with people who are nice to them more than they like dealing with jackasses. In my opinion, putting a little sugar on it just helps move things along. Tell them you loved their most recent post, say thank-you when they cover you, send them a happy holidays note – this stuff seems simple but so few people do it that you will stand out when you do. Just be careful not to spread it on stalker-thick.

Try to Avoid This

  1. Phoning people (or pestering them on social media) – What’s the definition of zero? The likelihood anyone will return your unsolicited phone call. I could have also said the probability that a blogger will pick up the phone when you cal,l but you get it. There’s a reason most folks don’t publish their phone numbers. Most publications have a preferred method of contact for pitches that they publish (usually a dedicated email address that is monitored) and going around it just annoys people. This goes for sending private messages to people over social media. Those channels are full of spam and using them when you don’t know the person makes you a spammer too.
  2. Getting the names and/or genders wrong – My name isn’t Apple but I get a lot of email addressed to her. It’s hard to take people seriously after they have mistaken me for a fruit. Also confusing someone for a member of the opposite sex is just no way to start a relationship.

What am I missing?



Infographics – The Lindsay Lohan of Content?


I’m sick of infographics. I’m sad about it too because I used to love them. I was excited about the potential for infographics to help us get more visual in the way we communicated messages and told stories. Sadly this isn’t the way it played out. We got beautiful graphics alright. Lovely ones. But somewhere along the way Infographics became all about the look and the story was forgotten. They’ve become the web version of shouting “Hey look a rainbow!!” and we look, even though we know most of the time it’s a trick and there isn’t a rainbow there at all.

I’m worried that Infographics are becoming the Lindsay Lohan of content – People still click on the links to see the sordid photos but they stopped paying to see her movies a long time ago.

Let’s look at an example. Last week I came across this one – The Best and Worst of Marketing (if you built this, I’m sorry for picking on you but this post needs an example and unfortunately, you’re it)

infographic best and worst marketing The Best and Worst of Marketing
Infographic by Marketing Degree


Does it look great? Sure it does.

Now what’s it trying to tell us? It lists the “best undergraduate marketing colleges.” In terms of what, you might wonder? Most difficult to get into? Most CMO graduates? We’ll never know because in teeny font at the bottom we see the list of sources which include such specific references as and the website for the University of Pennsylvania. I supposes that’s how they made #1.

Moving along we see a list of best and worst paying marketing jobs. The best ones are a couple of Chief Marketing whatever jobs and then there are 3 Director level titles. Where are the Vice Presidents? Obviously we’re underpaid.

Then we have the best and worst marketing campaigns, best and worst marketing slogans and worst marketing slogan translations. Like there is a way to actually measure or rank any of that.

What is the story this graphic is trying to tell me? That if I don’t go to the University of Texas I run the risk of writing a slogan that translates into “it takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate” in Spanish? I have no idea. The graphic is a set of random marketing tidbits (I can’t even call them facts or data points) prettied up by a graphics person for the sole purpose of getting me to the page. It worked – I’m here. I’m here and I’m baffled.

Has it educated me? No. Has it inspired me? No. Did it make me want to take any sort of action at all? Nope. What we have here is a hot mess of “data” that doesn’t tell a story.

We Can Do Better

Don’t be me wrong – I don’t think all Infographics are terrible. There are some great ones out there. I’ve mentioned Eloqua’s Content Grid here before and it’s a good example of one that’s really useful and informative. I’ve used it a handful of times in the past month when I’ve been trying to describe how different types of content is relevant to different prospects at different stages of a deal.

(totally random aside – I loved Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence. Here’s a post where he highlights the work of Megan Jaegerman from the New York Times that was done over a decade ago. Again, I wonder where we went wrong on this stuff)

But for every graphic like that I get a dozen like this, or this, or this.

When our content becomes the equivalent of tabloid journalism, I’m sure we can generate clicks and some short-term attention. We all like looking at interesting pictures. But great content needs to inform, educate, motivate, inspire or enrage. If our content can’t do that then we’re no better off than the scandal-prone starlet who’s embarrassing photos still fetch a fee but can’t land a movie role because the audience no longer pays to see her movies.

In marketing terms what I’m saying is this – it’s nice you can drive some traffic with those pretty pictures but I don’t believe you are driving any business.


Bad Smell!!

Lousy Marketing Messages: 5 Causes and Solutions


I was chatting with a startup CEO about marketing messages and how important it was to create a great story. His company has an awesome story and even though they only have a junior part-time marketer on staff, their messages are great. “I don’t get it,” he says to me “I see all this lousy messaging out there and yet we manage to do it! What’s wrong with people?”

That got me thinking. Why is there so much bad messaging out there? Here’s what I think:

1/ The Team Stinks at Message Creation – The company has a good story but the team stinks at message creation and can’t translate that story into compelling messages. In my example above, the company happens to have naturally great storytellers on staff so they don’t have this problem. Not every startup is so lucky.

Solution: Hire or rent some marketing talent. If you go with a consultant make sure they come with super references and make sure you stay heavily involved in the process. The output will be better that way and the team will get a better understanding of how to create messages. Caution: keep reading because this might not actually be the problem.

2/ Marketing Doesn’t Get It – The company has a good story but marketing (or whoever is creating the messaging), although great at message creation, lacks the understanding of either the offering or the market to really understand or believe the story. Messages are then created based on this (incomplete or flawed) understanding, resulting in weak messaging.

Solution: Either spend more time with the marketing folk making sure they get it or if that doesn’t work, hire someone with a background in your solutions and your market.

3/ Message by Committee – The company has a good story but everyone (including the IT person, the lawyer, the accountant and the late night pizza delivery guy) is allowed to edit it resulting in a watered-down mess that is a mere shadow of the great story the CEO tells in a sales meeting.

Solution: Let marketing work on drafts and narrow down the reviewers to a couple of folks maximum. In my experience marketing should create the messages with input from the CEO and a review cycle by the head of sales. That’s it.

4/ The Story Sucks – There is no compelling story to tell about the company or product therefore no matter how talented the marketer is, at best you will get mediocre messaging.

Solution: If you have any market traction at all this won’t be the case but some very early stage startups will land here. Usually there’s a story but you will have to talk to a bunch of happy customers to extract it. If there aren’t any happy customers, well, the offering is the problem and all the marketing in the world isn’t going to fix that.

5/ It’s Cultural – In my opinion, truly terrible messaging (from a company that’s not about to die) results from a perfect storm of institutional indifference and lack of marketing talent. First you have (incredibly bad) messaging created by developers, admin staff, indifferent contractors or pizza delivery folk. Next, the company does not believe messaging is important, thus creating the conditions where these lousy messages are allowed to see the light of day. Or maybe the second condition allows the first condition to occur. Chicken meet egg.

Solution: Marketing talent can only take you so far here and in my experience good marketers won’t stay where they aren’t appreciated. If you figure out how to fix this one, short of fixing the culture, I would love to hear about it.

(Side note: I can almost forgive startups for landing in this last state – if none of your founders have a marketing bent you might end up here. Strangely however, I find the worst messaging happens in mid-sized companies that did some great marketing when passionate founders still had a hand in it but later lost their way through a combination of bored/boring management and not being willing/able to pay for and retain decent marketing talent.)

The Ingredients for Great Messages

All of this points the way to how you create great messages. The ingredients are:

  • A great offering
  • A team that gets that message creation is important
  • Someone on the team that’s good at message creation

Marketing talent alone, isn’t going to cut it.


Portrait of a weight loss male with thumb up

Hiring Marketers for Cultural Fit


Culture fit is always a big deal when you’re hiring but it’s particularly important for marketing jobs which are notoriously difficult positions to fill successfully at a startup. Marketers are also really hard to interview – their great communication, interpersonal and sales skills make them potentially full of bullcrap very difficult to read.

I’ve been building a team where culture fit has been one of the biggest challenges. The folks I’m hiring not only need to deal with a TON of ambiguity (and a certain amount of chaos), they also have to be able to deal with a spectrum of language and culture issues in an environment where successful teamwork is critical to the job.

Here are some things I am working into my interview technique to help me asses culture fit that I think would be useful for anyone hiring a marketer at a startup:

  1. Process-related questions – in general I like process-related questions when interviewing marketing folks because anyone can say they did things like “developed and drove programs” but it’s hard to figure out what the person’s exact contribution to the effort was (especially when there was outside help involved). Asking things like “Walk me through the process you used to build that” or “Describe the steps you took to get that project done” are usually good ones to get into the details of someone’s role. They also let you see how a person sees themselves in the context of their own team. Are they working with other folks or just doling out tasks? How are they interacting with their management team? How are they making decisions and moving projects forward?
  2. Have them describe their best and worst jobs – Yeah, it’s a bit of a cliche question but I still like it because of the number of times I get a totally surprising response. Again, pay attention to the people-related stuff. Did they clash with other people on their team? I’m totally sympathetic to folks who have left a job because they didn’t like their direct manager but a repeating pattern of lousy managers makes me worry that the employee is difficult. What were the aspects of the teams and culture at their other jobs that the candidate loved and hated?
  3. Pay attention to the questions that folks ask – Personally I love it when candidates ask a lot of questions about the work and I worry when they ask a lot about the organization structure and/or compensation in early interviews. I find that star employees know that the job is the main thing and compensation and titles are something to sort out after you know the job is a great fit.
  4. Have them talk to lots of people – I think startups are better at this than big companies but sometimes they forget to do it with marketing candidates. Your company culture is the people you work with. If everyone can’t feel good about each other at the end of an interview, they sure won’t at the end of a product launch.
  5. Trust your gut – I have one critical position that’s been open for a while and I’ve interviewed so many candidates that I’m starting to let my guard down on this one. I have had a couple of mediocre candidates slip past the first interview stage because I’m starting to get desperate. The good news is that my team promptly shoots them down but I’ve still wasted everyone’s time with a round of interviews that never should have happened. Interviews are like first dates – everyone is on their best behaviour. If there’s something that rubs you the wrong way in the interview it is almost guaranteed to make you insane 2 months down the road. Always trust your gut if you feel like something doesn’t click.

As I was writing this I was thinking about how both sides (candidate and interviewer) have to be wary of the issue of fit and interestingly I think most of these questions work for both candidates and managers.

What do you think – do you have any interview tips to share?

Newer Posts
Older Posts