Today’s post is by Amy McDowell, VP of Marketing at Updater.

The company’s truths might be inconvenient, but you need to know them going in.

A true story… X years ago, I started at a new job to help market an innovative product that I was incredibly excited about. It was my first day on the job… the sun was shining, bluebirds were singing, and I couldn’t wait to get started. The hiring team had dazzled me with their “you’ve-got-to-see-it-to-believe-it” technology, the “bazillion-dollar” market opportunity and the “insane” traction they were seeing.

Awed by this group of smart and ambitious movers-and-shakers, I sucked down their Kool-Aid like a kid with ADHD and did not ask much more than “So when do I start?” On my first day, I happily strolled into the office, exchanged pleasantries with my new comrades-in-arms, and fired up my shiny new laptop. Time to work the marketing magic and turn this raw gem into the Hope Diamond, I thought to myself smugly. I logged into the company’s Google Analytics account to acquaint myself with what was (assuredly) stellar conversion metrics that I would be optimizing the heck out of, starting this very minute.

I stared at the report before me.  After blinking a few times, I tried refreshing the page… and then again. 3 conversions to date. WTF?!?!?

There is a happy ending to that story. But suffice to say, there was a LOT of work ahead. The team had a vision of what the product could be and where they wanted it to be, but they were not honest with themselves (or me, for that matter!) on where it was today. And the cringe-worthy metrics really reflected that.

Now that I’ve worked at quite a few companies since that time, I have come up with a handful of questions I always ask before developing a marketing or customer acquisition strategy. (And no, one of the questions is not “Do you have more than 3 conversions to date?”) To borrow a quote from “Field of Dreams”, when it comes to marketing, it’s definitely not “if you build IT [i.e. site visits, users, clicks], THEY [i.e. customers, investors, untold riches] will come.”

When you have the brutally honest answers about your product and market, you can then begin crafting the right marketing strategy to tackle challenges and uncover opportunities. And who knows? You might actually have the Hope diamond in your hands one day…

1.      What problem is your product solving? Yes, it would be great if this product solves all my ailments, from washing my car to programming my DVR. But realistically speaking, it should do at least one thing, extremely well. So, your product keeps me connected with my friends? That’s cool, but is connecting with friends really a pain point? Facebook and a gazillion other social networks are already competing for my connections (affections?), so unless you’re doing something truly unique and differentiated here, I’m not that interested (and it will be hard for me to find someone who is).

2.      Who is your target segment? No, really. Yes, this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Yes, everyone from my grandma to the fetus in my sister-in-law’s womb wants to sign up for it as soon as it’s out of beta. But seriously, who is this product for? If you say EVERYONE, in my mind, it’s the equivalent of NO ONE.

Assuming your product that is truly solving a problem (passed with flying colors on #1), the problem is probably specific enough that it does not that affect everyone equally. There is some segment of the population that is truly pained by it, and going after this group to start is much better/easier/cheaper/more successful than going after everyone.

A good online marketing strategy is not about machine-gunning the internet with spam but rather taking sniper-like aim at your intended targets. Did you say you’re an Asian mom with a newborn that wants to connect with other Asian moms within the NYC area? Awesome – now this is a target segment that I can build a marketing strategy around.

3.      Is your baby ugly? Speaking of newborns, no one should ever tell a mom that her baby is ugly. It’s terribly rude and you should never do it! OK, now that that’s been said, did you know that many otherwise sane and mature business and tech people will think of their products as babies? They’ve gestated the concept for months (years!) and after much sacrifice, love, and hard labor, out pops their firstborn – a brand-spanking-new product/website/service.

So what if it only works 50% of the time? What’s it to you if there are 1000s of other babies – I mean, products/websites/services – that do exactly the same thing? Here is where a reality check is desperately needed. If your product has issues, be honest about them! It doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything until the product is perfect. You have to test the market with your ugly baby. But be truthful with yourself on its shortcomings. Be sure your marketing strategy (i.e. “Let’s do a Super Bowl commercial!”) is not being colored by a product that only a mother could love.

4.      What’s (not) in your marketing tool kit? When I say tool, I don’t mean that annoying interviewee who puts “marketing ninja” on his/her resume. I think of tools as useful things that help you get the job done. In general, if you are marketing a new product, you may not have a lot of tools at your disposal such as historical results, a/b testing software or an existing user base. Heck, you might not even have a Google Analytics account to track what the hell’s going on. But the most critical tool a marketer can have is the active and visible support of the leadership team.

If they want the marketing (and therefore the product) to succeed, they must invest in tech resources, a decent test budget, moral support, etc. to get the marketing machine up and running. If your boss expects you to generate millions of new users on a dime and a prayer, then you know that there is a tool in this scenario and it’s not the useful kind, if you get my drift.

5.     What do you want to be when you grow up? The future is hard to think about when you are mired in the present. But you have to keep thinking ahead if you need to grow your marketing programs. Marketing is a costly enterprise (sorry, but SEO and social media are NOT “free” — not by a long shot). Understanding the current and projected value of an incremental site visitor/user/customer allows you to set benchmark metrics so that you can figure out how far you need to go. If your product or website is not in great shape, you may not reasonably expect a huge conversion rate or break-even metrics on your marketing efforts.

But, imagine your ugly baby, for a moment, after a growth spurt (your early adopters are referring friends!), some braces (improved product feature set), and charm school (UX/UI overhaul). Is it realistic that your CVRs will now be 20% better? 200% better? If so, do the economics (CPL, CPA, margins, etc.) start to make sense for the business? If not, it’s time to re-evaluate the initial marketing efforts and the product/market fit.

amy mcdowell updater– Amy McDowell has been running marketing programs for companies big and small for over a decade. Most recently, she’s headed up the digital acquisition efforts at some pretty awesome NYC start-ups. Currently, she’s the VP of Marketing at Updater, a website that helps new movers file their change of address forms online for free.

2 Comments

  1. Kent Yunk February 11th, 2013

    Great article Amy. I too have been sold by the visions of young and aggressive start-up CEOs. The reality, as you mention, is often very far from the hype. Still, you can have everything right such as a great business model, sales traction, and significant investment and have the market shift crushing your organization and business like a bug.

  2. admin February 11th, 2013

    100% agree. I’ve often had conversations with start-ups that believe if they hire an amazing marketing person (the mythical “rainmaker”), the product will suddenly start selling itself and all their troubles will simply melt away. That is a pipe dream. The more likely matrix of possible outcomes is more like this – Good marketing helps a good product get itself into more hands faster (the best case scenario but rare). Bad marketing can hinder a good product (bleed away critical dollars/time that a start-up can’t afford to waste) but if the product is strong, it may still survive/take off. And everyone can agree that bad marketing for a bad product is basically disaster (New Coke anyone?). The final, unfortunate scenario is that the marketing hire might be great but because the product is lousy, it just doesn’t matter. In the long run, marketing smoke and mirrors just can’t make up for a product that no one wants or needs.

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