Startup Lessons: Marketing

This is the 4th installment in the Startup Lessons series I have been writing in the wake of my experience with Get Satisfaction. We are getting into the topics that are much more specific to Get Satisfaction, therefore I have an obligation to redact certain details that are confidential however in the spirit of shared learnings I will cover as much as I feel is appropriate.

To recap, here is the series thus far:

1) Hiring
2) Dynamic Org Structures
3) Product First

4) Marketing. and all that implies: What can you say really, if there are 2 things that a startup in tech should be good at, it’s product and marketing, everything else succeeds or fails on the basis of being good at those core activities.

Get Satisfaction was blessed – and I mean truly blessed – with the kind of brand that most companies in the space would kill for. It is at it’s core an aspirational brand message about all of the promises that the social technology revolution has presented to companies as they remake how they interact with people. I really loved telling the story of GS for this reason alone, it is about what is possible by empowering people, customers and employees, rather than saving a few dollars here or picking up some extra revenue there.

The problem with aspirational brand messages is that if you don’t back it up with hard hitting marketing that converts goodwill into revenue, you are wasting it or worse, educating the market about how to evaluate competitive products.

We did very well in 2010 and 2011 with a highly differentiated creative marketing strategy but then we had our VP Marketing leave just after the B round closed (awkward.) and the role went unfilled for the better part of a year. Actually, it was worse than that, we had a consultant that one of our investors recommended and that was a disaster that resulted in a botched website project, what I thought was a stupid book project, and a lurching repositioning of the company to traditional enterprise software. Disaster.

The last issue is particularly sensitive for me because at the time I was responsible for the freemium business and nobody was trying to understand what this part of the business needed in a website. The result was, predictably, a website that catered to the old world traditional call-to-action of “call us and talk about enterprise”. Not surprisingly, the new customer acquisition ramp for the monthly subscription business flattened out dramatically almost immediately when this site launched.

We did eventually replace the marketing consultant with a VP Marketing but by then the damage was done. Brand voice was lost, our demand gen was wonky because of the confusion we were creating around our market focus, and “shit wasn’t getting done”. Remember what I wrote about in my first post in this series about hiring and how bad hires are a cancer?

Even after putting in place a full time marketing leader things didn’t really get that much better. I think this goes to the dynamic that executives in this industry, and others for that matter, exhibit which is in times of challenge they go back to what they know. I do not believe that Get Satisfaction should have been directed at large enterprise sales opportunities as a primary revenue source, but that’s what happened and our marketing reflected that in spades.

My stated preference was to point the marketing at the upper SMB and mid-market buyer, also called the departmental buyer, and qualify 100% of the business off what was coming in from the web funnel. The is what companies like Yammer, Hootsuite, and Zendesk have done, they drive the traffic to the site and skim the enterprise opportunity funnel off the top. The objective in this approach is getting people into a rich product experience and then converting them or upselling them into an enterprise buying lane, rather stating a preference or making them choose up front.

Succeeding at zero to low touch web direct sales models is not a challenge to take lightly, it requires an intense focus on web traffic generation and instrumentation of assets for funnel analytics. It also requires that people think outside of their comfort zone of campaigns, PPC, webinars, and landing pages. in fact I feel more strongly than ever that in order to be successful with this customer acquisition model that tech companies need to act more like media companies with a distinct editorial agenda and content strategy. For this kind of model to work you need a lot of traffic. paid, sponsored, and earned traffic, all of the above.

Even if we did all that I am not sure we would have been successful because at the core we were underinvesting in marketing, both people and spend. However, it is hard to fault us for not investing more in marketing because we clearly had not solidified the Magic Number math that is essential for justifying increases in marketing spend.

There was a bigger issue with the marketing performance that all companies need to be aware of. When you marketing team has as a primary objective enterprise demand generation, well what they measure is enterprise lead generation. Meanwhile, GetSat also had a line of business that was dependent on getting people into the website and into a product experience that converts into a monthly subscription relationship, therefore we had a real sync problem that would not have been resolved with more money thrown at it.

When you measure your marketing spend solely on the basis of lead generation, the slippery slope is changing the definition of lead to juke the stats and show improvement in the specific activity you are measuring. This is something I will forever be aware of, measure the result instead of the activity.

I will close by highlighting something really special I saw happen at Get Satisfaction. Based on the early product work and what we discovered as the first iterations of the business came together, it was clear that social technologies were driving a consolidation of the customer lifecycle that all companies are subject to, with customer support and marketing coming together for the purpose of serving the customers you already have while using that momentum to acquire new ones. Whether or not we did this well in the business is not the point, the fact remains that we identified an important shift in the market well ahead of competing companies. While we did not fully capitalize on this, in no way does that take away from the innovative work that was done to develop a differentiated marketing story to compliment the product.

The False Dichotomy of B2C and B2B

Ray Wang wrote a summary of CRM Evolution that I found particularly interesting, and one point in particular resonated with me because it aligns to something I have been talking about at Get Satisfaction for a while now… B2B and B2C distinctions are dead.

The segmentation of business (B2B) and consumer (B2C) behaviors is a false dichotomy to begin from, what really matters is the customer lifecycle and renew-ability of the relationship. Is a purchase cycle highly deliberative in nature, does the post transaction phase focus on repetition of purchase or a shift to services and add-ons, how does the retail experience inform purchases, and much more.

Cars and diapers… that’s what I keep thinking about.

A car is one of the major purchases a consumer will make and represents the pinnacle of brand-to-customer lifecycle in the b2c space. It involves peer review, needs assessment, technical evaluation, financing, service agreements… all like B2B as we know it today. Once the transaction is complete the relationship shifts to one of services between the dealer and the customer involving maintenance and accessories and the lifecycle repeats with a lower entry bar at each interaction.

Diapers are a situational purchase that is effectively commodity driven, in spite of diaper manufacturers touting specific feature benefits the fact is that buyers view diapers as fungible. As a result companies are now shifting to marketing the relationship they have with a customer around the journey of newborn to potty training. The entire point of the marketing strategy is to ensure that you reach for Pampers every time you are in the aisle for the 3+ years you will be buying diapers and that is because you trust the brand more than competitive offerings, and interacting with your customer community, wherever it is, is essential for sustaining the customer relationship.

B2B purchases also span the highly deliberative capital expenditure to the fungible commodity and the buying impulses for each map precisely to each end of the spectrum in the consumer space, yet because the person making the purchase has a business card and pays for it with company funds we call it B2B. It doesn’t make sense.

The marketing and sales tactics for B2B and B2C may be different but the point is that thanks to the Internet the differences are now outweighed by the similarities. For software companies the reality could not be more stark, in order to survive and prosper in future years the need to create multiple channels to market that address how SMB buyers are behaving is critical and that means delivering through an e-commerce channel, adopting marketing techniques that are common in the B2C space (ratings/reviews, SEO, promotions), deliver information products, and adopting pricing/packaging strategies that scale from the very small to the very large without becoming overwhelmed time/cost of sales on the very large end of the spectrum.

B2C and B2B is dead.

More on this topic (What's this?) Read more on Ray at Wikinvest

Woolly Mammoths

My friend Jim Fisher pretty much sums it up insofar as traditional enterprise software sales is concerned. I have often said, and written here, that customers have gotten better at buying software than we have at selling them software, but at the same time question what it is that we replace this system with then buyers fully understand that the current model benefits them and are thus reluctant to accepting change. Maybe at the end of the day it’s less about a new sales model and more about wringing costs out of everything else in order to afford the cost of sales and still deliver a decent margin?

The day of the enterprise software sales person is over. The idea of closing the multi-million dollar perpetual software transactions by flying around the world, doing major wining & dining and closing the deal in the Red Carpet Club has gone the way of the Wolly Mamoth. The adoption of the SaaS model, Sarbox, and new corporate procurement procedures have changed forever the way business applications are, and will be, acquired. The fat cat 1k sales guy is only relevant in software companies with revenues north of one billion. Small companies thinking that they can justify a business plan by adding enough of the $1.5 million dollar quota carrying relics are doing nothing but a disservice to their investors.

[From jimfisher.com]