The DNA of Great Marketing

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Over the last decade, the marketing function has experienced a massive transformation in both its perceived and real potential to help scale revenue growth.  B2B marketers have benefited from advances in a variety of areas:

  • Maturation of digital marketing, demand generation, and ABM strategies
  • Increasingly sophisticated (and complex) marketing tech stacks
  • Better (but still imperfect) targeting and attribution
  • A growing appreciation for positioning strategy
  • Emerging best practices around category design

By harnessing these improvements and others, B2B marketers have more potential than ever before to make an impact.

But, what’s the flip side of all this progress? Confusion. The No. 1 pitfall implied by the dizzying array of available and emerging strategies, programs, channels, frameworks, and technologies (...and yes, opinions!) is that in their quest to cover all these bases, marketing leaders risk a debilitating lack of focus. Every incremental initiative they add to their team’s plate has the potential to dilute the rest.

With so many paths open to the b2b marketer, is there some common DNA to great marketing that can shine a light on the right path?  Here’s my take on six core ways of approaching your marketing effort that can make a real difference for the sales team, and the business.

1. Take messaging rigor seriously

At the core of any winning marketing strategy is positioning.  The factor that will largely determine whether you lead or follow the market is how you position your company and products.  Indeed, your message is what fuels your programs, your content, and your sales conversations. That said, for many teams, messaging is not treated with enough operational rigor in terms of how it’s rolled-out.  Far too many prospects experience multiple versions of your story throughout the buyer’s journey. There’s inconsistent messaging used on your website, your tradeshow signage, your email promos, the voicemail left by your SDR team, the slides used by your sales reps.  The net effect is that instead of each subsequent impression you make on a prospect amplifying or creating lift for the next one, the very opposite is happening: Each prospect “touch” is actually creating drag. In other words, applying some basic math, instead of 1+1 = 3, you’re lucky if 1+1 gets you 1.5.

Prevailing marketing wisdom says that the company with the most differentiated message that clearly articulates the outcomes you can create for a customer will win in the market.  However, without rigorous follow-through on how you “activate” your positioning strategy, even if you’ve come up with an “A-grade” message, you leave a ton of room for a competitor’s clearly and consistently-driven B-level message to break through the noise to gain mindshare and business that should have been yours.

2. Don’t be data-driven, be results-driven.

It’s near blasphemy to deride the value of data-driven marketing.  But hear me out.  

The blessing and curse of marketing as we start 2018 is that almost every program your team runs can be measured and optimized. As we’ve continued to add new shiny toys to our marketing tech stacks, there’s even more that we can measure and optimize. The trouble is nobody has time to optimize, let alone deeply review, everything that can be measured. Raise your hand if someone on your team has come to you exasperated, tired of spinning cycles pulling information for reports that nobody reviews or takes action on.   

The motivation and inspiration behind the notion of data-driven marketing is well-founded. As “modern marketers,” we’re all determined to create as much distance as possible from the old days (way back in the 2000s!) when most marketers spent lots of money on stuff without the ability, or perhaps the inclination to measure. In the quest to forge data-driven marketing teams, we find ourselves investing a lot of money in systems that can track more stuff, and a lot of our team’s time pulling reports from those systems to share with others.  But, the resulting information overload leaves dangerously little time for marketers to actually take advantage of all this new data to do their jobs more effectively.

So, do we stop measuring? Of course not. But here’s what we should do when we measure: Instead of hanging our hats on the notion of being a data-driven team, we should strive to be results-driven. This seems obvious and what marketing leader would declare that their team is not results-driven?  But, to be truly results driven requires you and your team asking a couple of the simplest but most important of questions before investing significant cycles or dollars on any initiative or program: “If we do this, how do we know it’s working? How will we know to stop doing it or to start doing a lot more of it?”

Basic stuff, yes. But, if most of us take an honest look in the mirror, we're likely getting distracted in trying to get it all done in the limited time we have, and we are not asking this question. We must ask the question and ensure that there’s clear team alignment around the answer and around the specific metric that you’ll use to grade success of a program or initiative.  By simply asking the question and pegging the target KPI, you’ll quickly narrow the pool of data you need to go after, as well as the systems and process work you need to implement to consistently get at the answers that matter.

3. Focus on clearing bottlenecks

If the ultimate aim of your marketing effort is to help the sales team close business, the best way to move the needle in any given time period is to focus on clearing bottlenecks. Since every marketing org has limited cycles and budget to invest, the marketing teams that leave their sales partner cheering are the ones that resist just executing “the plan.”   Instead, the most effective marketers are constantly working with their sales partners to identify the factors creating a drag on sales growth so they can prioritize the programs and initiatives that deliver results.  

You identify bottlenecks by getting really close to your sales team, their challenges, and the data that matters (see No. 2 above!).  Are a lot of “qualified prospects” falling out of pipe, or eventually disqualified?  Are reps getting enough meetings?  Are your reps having a hard time articulating a differentiated, compelling story?  Are qualified leads falling through the cracks?  Is there a basic awareness issue (e.g., when your sales team calls in to target prospects, how often have they heard of your company)?  

With a proper diagnosis in hand, you put your marketing team in position to quickly make the difference by creating the programs that can address the major issues. It can be the difference between the company missing and hitting the number.

4. Identify your team’s “core,” then double-down

Whether you’re just kicking off the marketing engine at a start-up or driving a scaled marketing effort at an established public company, no marketing team or budget is large enough to do everything well. And, as mentioned above, if you’re focused on clearing bottlenecks and getting good at answering the question “what’s really working,” it seems you’d naturally start to focus the effort and put more emphasis on the arrows that are having the most impact.  

That said, many marketing orgs get caught in the trap of going into auto-pilot, executing a whole bunch of programs.  They feel they’re leaving potential impact on the table by neglecting a channel (e.g., How can we NOT do paid search?). Or they have a hard time defending a decision to not sponsor the big event where the CEO is concerned the competition will grab all the mindshare. Or they hesitate to push back on the board member questioning why you’re not investing more in PR.

Great marketing will come out of those teams that bring focus to a few key efforts. These effective teams know where they want to double-down and where they want to take chips off the table. Based on the product or market you are serving or the unique perspective your CEO brings to trending subjects, traditional PR may pay-off. For others, putting on a marquee event might be a foundational piece of the demand-creation puzzle. Some teams go all-in on content development, direct marketing, customer marketing, ABM, best-in-class website optimization and/or building a social presence.  Very few teams do all these things really well. 

Sure, it can be painful for most marketing leaders to admit that they’re not in position to score an A+ on everything.  But, the ones that identify the “core” of their program mix early on and then test/learn/optimize from there will help their sales teams win.

5. Apply peer pressure

Any marketing team worth its salt, has some form of customer marketing in its toolbox.  But a couple of case studies does not a great customer marketing effort make.  It’s about really putting your customers in the lead to credibly articulate the value of your solutions in context of their broader challenges and goals.  This serves two purposes. It enhances your credibility as a company that has earned staying power by adding real value to other companies that your prospects respect.  But, it’s also about peer pressure.  You want your target prospects to feel that there is a real “movement” under way.  You want them to feel increasingly uncomfortable that there’s a train that’s leaving the station and they’re at risk of being left behind.  

6. Put a real focus on team development

So much of B2B marketing as we know it today didn’t exist a decade ago, and best practices continue to evolve at a blurring pace.  There’s been a ton of specialization within the marketing organization, and the war for marketing talent makes it difficult to hire and grow a team that can do everything well. So, what’s the answer?   

The profile of the individuals you’re looking to hire needs to be indexed towards athletes hungry to learn and grow, and you need to invest in their education and growth.  Encourage your team to get out the office, to spend time in the field, at events with structured or informal learning opportunities, and to network with other marketers  If you set a development goal that every member of your team create a support group of at least three peers at other companies, they’ll bring new learnings into your org, they’ll benefit from marketing “plays” others have already experience running, and they’ll feel some real developmental growth which is key, especially on small teams where near-term promotional opportunities may be limited.

These are just some of the elements that you can weave into your marketing strategy to set it up to impact the business in a big way.  In upcoming posts, I’ll be digging in further on how to build each of these into your team’s own DNA.

David KarelstrategyComment