Too often dollars spent on marketing disappoint. The solution is to own the marketing strategy and build it with real voice of customer (VoC) insight.
The role and timing of marketing is not well understood by start-up companies. Sometimes companies think marketing is another name for market research (which it is not) or marketing is treated like a wonder drug that will fix all ills — lack luster sales, product message confusion or in worst cases, in lieu of a go-to-market strategy. Consequently, I see companies buying branding books and marketing packages that look and sound great but do little to address the problems the company identified. The result is buyers’ remorse and marketing companies getting a bad rap. Here are some tips on when to buy marketing, what to buy and from whom to buy it from.
You develop your strategy; you are the only one that can.
You can get advice on how to develop a go to market strategy, but only you know where you want to go. And if you don’t know where you want to go, figure it out. That means you start with the fundamentals.
Don’t write a business plan
Start by creating an inspiring vision for your company and a mission that states how you will strive every day to attain the unattainable. Next, add some SMART goals that span the next six months. Then add some LATER goals (these can be less SMART but should contain some semblance of reality). At this point you now have a one-page action plan which is better than a business plan that was likely developed to secure a loan or enter a program. Business plans that demand weeks of your time are not business plans, those are make-work-projects that linger once used and rarely actionable or ever updated. I asked two executives (an Owner and a VP of Operations) from two different revenue-generating companies last week if they had a business plan; derisive laughter from both. Providing a marketing company with a one-page action plan (at the right time, which is not what you do at the start of your business) will provide them with a solid foundation of who you are and where you intend on going.
Lock up your ego and talk to your customers
This cannot be stated enough or more clearly. Before you start developing your “innovation” (product or service) start with understanding what problem you are trying to solve. Another way of putting it is, “what job is your solution doing for your customer”? The only way to understand that (and not just assume it) is to ask. Put your ego (bias) in another room, lock the door and throw away the key. There is zero room in your business for “I know everything about my industry, market and customers”. Egos kill start-ups. And the great news is that once you’ve done one interview, the next one is easier and the one after easier again. The goal is to create a customer development program and an innovation strategy that has VoC (voice of customer) research as the central tenet. The number one reason why companies and products fail is we build a product (which includes how we market it) that no one wants to buy. Just this week Forever 21 declared it is closing its doors; after-the-fact analysts believe the owners lost touch with their customers’ preferred purchasing channels (online) while they continued to open new bricks and mortar locations in malls where vacancies are rising and shoppers are becoming scarce. So, when you are ready to hire a marketing company to create the collateral and initiate the tactics to reach your market, you’ll be knee deep in knowledge about your market, your customer segments, their behaviours, the best channels to reach them and the exact competitive advantage you have over everyone else in the same market space.
Hire a marketing company that demands business evidence
The big take-away is that you gather the business evidence that drives the marketing plan, not the marketing company. Your customer development program will give you everything you need to know about your customers’ motivations and behaviours in real time. You know why they buy, when they buy, what they buy and when they aren’t buying you, what they are buying (using) instead. So, if a marketing company is willing to create a brand book and marketing plan for you based on your website, holding a “team” brainstorming session or even a “customer focus group”, show them the door. Hiring a company to do the work that is fundamental to your business success is foolhardy and dangerous. Engage a marketing firm that asks to see your customer data and analysis and asks for the “evidence” that proves your customers’ behaviours and motivations in the marketplace. And make sure that any message or collateral testing is not undertaken by the marketing company or team (“wow, it all tested great”) — hire a third party, objective, trained qualitative market research analyst instead.
And a little foreshadowing and some poignant hindsight; I have yet to see a company build the exact product they planned once they validated their market via customer interviews. Those that do their customer work upfront save precious resources (both time and money). The name of the startup game is to get a product to market before you run out of cash. At the other end of that continuum are the companies who believed they knew their customers (or knew them at one time and believed the market does not change) and built a product without customer input and market validation; I have received cries for help from too many companies asking me to find them a market because they suddenly have a product that no one wants to buy.
Katherine Devine is the owner and principal consultant of Get the Market . She is a Leanstack Mentor, New Product Development Professional (PDMA), Market Research Analyst and entrepreneur. After two decades in the innovation space, her primary goal is to make sure every client literally Gets the Market — figuratively and literally.