February 27, 2011

In Defense of Marketing, Polish and Geek Translation

It is with pleasure I can say I never got an MBA and I didn't get a marketing degree. I never even took a marketing class, and when first told I should go into Marketing, I was concerned about having to go door to door to get customers. So don't throw me in a big pile of suit-wearing glad-handing shiny smiling hucksters trying to spin lead into gold.

But as someone who has a dozen years in Marketing roles in the Silicon Valley, I have been watching this weekend's skirmish about the value of Marketing (or lack thereof) for technology companies, spawned by Union Square Ventures' Fred Wilson, (who is a great blogger besides) with considerable interest. I know that we are in an industry that makes rockstars out of code jockeys, and who values warehouses and incubators full of entrepreneurial engineers who site side by side at long tables encumbered by little more than computer terminals and close access to shared cafeterias. But for every company that has managed to subsist primarily on word of mouth from customer to customer, growing without any marketing push, there are many more who would value greatly from the help, and others who actually do make marketing a key component of their efforts. Seeing the difference is obvious.

In Fred's first missive against Marketing, since followed on by two more posts, he stated simply, "I believe that marketing is what you do when your product or service sucks or when you make so much profit on every marginal customer that it would be crazy to not spend a bit of that profit acquiring more of them." He argued headcount dollars should be exclusively focused on product development and engineering, to encourage social hooks, leverage industry events, avoid outsourcing PR, deliver focused SEO and above all, build a great product. Despite the leading quote, which I disagree with, he makes some solid points which parallel my view as well. (His comments in the second post also outlined some of the shortcomings in the first post)

The issue is this. Many engineers have great ideas and are very bad at explaining these ideas. They may have smart ideas and can't get the point across to customers, partners, press, VCs, or any influential folks. Often, engineers are so heads-down in their code they don't adequately understand the competition and their strengths and weaknesses. They don't know what people are saying about their products or those of the competition and don't know the backgrounds of people making comments.

Marketing is not about jumping in to save a sucky product. God help those marketeers who have to work with sucky products. That cannot be fun. Marketing is about translating geeks' efforts for human beings, reducing sales cycles and translating intrigue into value.

Marketing is often called in to help analyze the product to determine its benefits, to collaborate on the feature roadmap, to influence the influencers, and make the many tweaks in the product and the way it is described to graduate it from a good product to an amazing one.

The most valuable technology company in the world today is Apple and they do incredible marketing in practically every respect in how their products are designed, executed, sold and discussed. Wilson's argument could match Apple's, saying their profit per customer is so high that they should spend more, but the company has achieved a cult-like status through delivering through traditional Marketing efforts a way to make you think something which is possibly marginally better than the competition is dramatically so and has no equal. Nike, Sony, BMW and many other household names deliver panache that enables them to drive higher profits and premiums by making equivalent seem extraordinary.

Silicon Valley (and its ecosystem, not geographically limited) seems tilted against marketing as a discipline now thanks to the high profile successes of a handful of companies that let the network effect drive them. Google's product leadership practically all have engineering backgrounds. Twitter and Facebook, LinkedIn and Foursquare all relied on viral mechanisms to grow astronomically with relatively imperceptible marketing. Google famously avoided traditional advertising for most of its life. It's got geeky marketers often feeling like they are on the outside looking in, unable to make an impact at some of the industry's top startups. But have you ever seen the typical cofounder describe their product or give a presentation for any more than ten minutes? Have you seen a product manager sit down with an eager reporter asking more than softball questions, cringing at what they might say, or how their personal oddities could submarine the company's reputation? I have. Many times.

And besides, think of all the many products Google does have that should get a Marketing push that you've never heard of. Google Code? Web Elements? HotPot? Buzz? Sometimes I am tearing my hair out watching companies that should market this stuff sit relatively idle.

My first real marketing job came in 1999, when I was tasked with running a consumer Web company's Web site, writing product descriptions, FAQs, customer support interaction, press releases, etc. At a nine or ten person company, basically anything that wasn't code came my way, made extra challenging by the development team being Russian. So I was constantly translating Russian English into real English and hoping it made sense on the other side. We had a great product for online conference calls, faxing, Web meetings, which was arguably comparable to WebEx. But WebEx had a $35 million marketing budget, including budget for a Super Bowl commercial starring Ru Paul, and we got eaten alive. Working relatively for free, we were lucky enough to be covered in TMCNet and others and attract thousands of customers to our low-end plans before Oracle came calling in mid 2001 to buy the company.

More recently, in my Marketing role with my6sense, there is some of the same element - translating Israeli English to "real" English (they'll forgive me for saying so), and again, being challenged with a fantastic idea with real value, and translating it to customer benefits, finding new opportunities for partners and discussing future roadmap plans. Our recent launch of a Chrome extension for Twitter.com, the first step beyond mobile, gained coverage from practically all the top tech blogs in our space, and pushed significant new customers. We clearly lack some of the social elements in our application for virality today, and have more work to do on the Web site, messaging, etc, but without efforts to expand our customer base directly and through influencers, we would be much further behind.

Marketing often gets a bad rap in today's world because it is seen as a cost center. In my 8 1/2 years at a network storage startup from 2001 to 2009, I started in a role of eMarketing Manager and grew into the role of Director, Corporate Marketing, seeing all parts of the marketing, PR and business development craft - good and bad, through high times and recession. When budgets were eviscerated in 2001 to 2003 following the 9/11 attacks and global economic slowness, I violently made sure I was not part of the problem, but part of the solution,finding ways to bring new customers for free or inexpensively, avoiding high-cost advertising and maintaining high visibility for the company when others were going out of business.
An Engineer's View of the Typical Marketing/Sales Guy

Smart marketing does not have to be expensive - and smart companies would not invest in high costs with low return. I do not believe in high priced sponsorships for trade shows. I do not believe in run of site banner ads and sponsorships. I do not believe in demanding flashy collateral or Web demos when simplicity rules the day. I do not believe in valuing one's success based on Facebook fans and Twitter followers but in real deals, customers and dollars. Smart marketers will adjust to the new world of communication, partnerships and PR instead of digging in their toes and getting outflanked by those more flexible.

What's needed in Marketing for these changing times is for the average Marketeer to get more technical. One must grasp the venues where your products can be distributed, must know how to speak the customers' language, and must be working hand in hand with the product development team to deliver a top-quality experience. We're not rated by how much we spend. We're rated by how much we deliver, and there are too many products out there today - many I get pitched on - that could use a little retouching by somebody who knows something about Marketing.