Marketing has never been harder than it is today

By boris, February 11, 2014

There are more start-ups being launched than ever before, while at the same time there are more ways to reach an audience. As a result, consumers and companies alike are being bombarded with marketing messages…whether it’s in a social media newsfeed, in an email inbox, or through content marketing. Cutting through that noise has become really difficult.

At the same time, the marketing strategies have become more complicated to excel at, particularly for small start-ups with minimal resources. There’s always been an inherent tension in marketing: on one side, the creative, free-thinking, “sudden genius” that builds a brand over time, balanced by the data-driven approach that relies on metrics like conversion rates and methodical a/b testing. Like the Yin and Yang, one cannot exist without the other. But both camps have dramatically changed over the years – which makes today’s marketing so complicated.

First, on the creative side…

Consumers today expect to have a different relationship with brands and businesses than in decades before. Social media essentially gives consumers a megaphone and they expect a two-way dialogue. Perhaps more importantly, consumers are looking to connect with the human side of a business, and only want authentic stories and messages from their brands. All of this requires a new tool set: marketers need to dig deep to become authentic storytellers.

On the data-driven side…

Just a few years ago, metrics folks mainly focused on search engine marketing (including both paid and organic) – with the single mission of appearing higher in rankings and getting noticed in a search engine’s results. Today, there’s a whole new landscape. With social media, there’s an explosion of micro-targeting opportunities. For example, marketers can hone in on new moms of a certain age or married men who drink coffee and own a dog. Likewise, mobile has introduced a completely new distribution platform with a very different set of rules than traditional search engine marketing.

The bottom line

It’s difficult to find the right talent to fill both the creative and data-driven roles, much less to find the Yin and Yang in the same person. Few CMOs in large companies would consider themselves to be strong in both disciplines.

As story-telling and hard-core data-driven marketing become more important and more complicated, we are looking for founders that are great in both disciplines, or at least recognize that both camps are necessary to gain attention and relevance with today’s audience.

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  • Konstantin_Monastyrsky

    Boris, thank you for sharing your insights and perspective.

    The recognition of the shift to the “content is king” in VC community is quite encouraging because the content-based companies like mine are still undervalued and underappreciated among investors. (Or so I think.)

    Following similar principles (i.e. over-the-top content + heavy duty analytics), I bootstrapped an obscure medical website ( through one-of-a-kind storytelling, albeit, with a lot of substance. It is on the path to attain >US$1 million revenue in 2014 with no investors, no debt, no fixed costs, and no employees.

    Our conversion rate from the “sticky” visitors is 1.5%, and the repeat order rate is 38%. To keep undesirable clients away, we banned landing pages, calls to action, subsidized shipping, and money back warranties.

    Not having the skills or means for applying heavy-handed SEO tactics to the site ended up a blessing. We are hitting all of the right searches organically with almost 200K monthly visitors, and growing.

    Let’s talk about scaling up. With the right kind of advisors and investors, I see the company going to $200 million in less than three years.

  • bwertz

    Congrats on the traction.

  • Konstantin_Monastyrsky

    Thank you! I am not looking for investors until we get to $2 million in annualized revenue (1st quarter of 2015), but can definitely take advantage of strategic guidance and preparing for due diligence. Please let me know if you are interested in discussing this further outside of the comment area.

  • Chris Neil

    Its “Moneyball” marketing. You need it to be at the table. If marketing doesnt drive a measurable piece of the revenue – then you have to question their value. Sales can only say they are developing an account for so long before they are called to justify their salary. Marketing is the same, “developing a brand” has a place and its end goal is lowering the sales barrier. However, spending huge budgets on brand awareness with no impact on sales doesn’t mean its hard to be in marketing, it just means you need to be accountable.

  • Awesome post. The good thing is – all the theory needed to learn this stuff is available online, contributed by people like you, people with experience. And the tools needed to apply that knowledge are free and easy to get started with.

  • Although I’m biased, I think storytelling has become more important than ever given the growing amount of noise. It’s the ability to develop stories that engage, educate and, heck, entertain target audiences that will separate a startup from the competitive landscape.

    Of course, storytelling is not easy because it involves creativity and having having a strong understanding of your audiences. But I think startups willing to do their research, homework and focus on creative storytelling can be successful, even if they don’t have large marketing budgets.

  • bwertz

    agreed – but great storytelling is unfortunately hard to do and therefore rare to find

  • My favorite topic 🙂

    You’re right that startup marketing is not easy. The difference between marketing in a big Co. and a growing startup is that in the big co, marketing is about pulling many levers. It doesn’t matter too much what order you pull them in. You just have to do a lot.

    But in a startup, the trick becomes what to do first, then second, then third, etc. If you miss the order of marketing activities, it’s not as effective.

  • So in your opinion what are these key/foundational marketing activities that a startup must do to make their efforts as effective as possible?

    Perhaps you have a post on it?

  • Storytelling naturally comes through if you’re developing a sound thesis. The more your thesis relates to effecting more lives, the broader your market.

    I’m currently putting together a crowdfunding video, and the core messaging of that will be to give who will be the core evangelist users of what I am doing a deeper understanding of me, why I am doing it, and what I am wanting to provide them.

    In the end storytelling is for relationship and trust building – so it’s important to not break trust either, along with treating others kindly; Don’t lie, don’t over-promise, don’t be dishonest / be genuine.

    If you’re not really interested or passionate about something it will show through in your storytelling – and this is where people will become disinterested. This is why a good speaker can hold your attention for so long, they have a well-built story that is just now part of who they are – and will reflect and influence everything else in their mind and life.

  • Does your business meet Boris’ or Version One Ventures’ investment thesis? I don’t know enough about your business to know.

  • Hi Matt, It really depends on each startup’s situation. I wrote a quick post on the whole marketing system.

    In your case, I’m suspecting that growth hacking would be a good tactic initially. Getting your position and messaging right is important, as well as assessing where you think you are in the proverbial product-market fit.

    In a nutshell, focusing on demand generation is essential early on, i.e. figuring out how you can attract customers/users in a consistent manner, where you understand the cause and effect relationship between marketing and growth.

    Happy to talk separately, if you tell me more where you are in your evolution.

  • PeterJ42

    Most marketers actually don’t understand what spreads the word about a product, what creates value in people’s minds or the complexities of people’s buying decisions (there is NEVER only one decision maker).
    They are running harder and harder because the wrong road actually leads nowhere. While things like SEO, Content and data can drive incremental improvements, they don’t achieve the instant awareness and change in purchasing habits which are needed for a good startup.

    But product/Market fit will. If you really have seen a gap in the market and a seam of demand and create the right product to fill it, the “at last, just what I needed” factor will drive word of mouth. Giving it a push with ways to drive referrals helps. From there an influencer strategy takes it the rest of the way, if you remember that you need to convert 10 people, not one, for a sale to happen.

    It isn’t really that hard.
    But the trick is to stop doing what you’re doing now. Stop wasting 80% of your time on old-fashioned stuff which doesn’t work and you’ll have plenty of time for the things which do.

  • Konstantin_Monastyrsky

    Matt, if what you mean by the “investment thesis” is this quote from the Focus page:

    “We get most excited about strong founder teams that address large (hundreds of $ millions +), capital-efficient markets with a truly unique product and an easy-to-understand business model.”

    …then, yes, except for (a):

    (a) Strong “founders team:” Not yet. That is why I am not yet on the market for investors, but only for advisors.

    (b) Large addressable market. Yes, except our particular niche is in the “tens of $ billions +,” not “hundreds of $ million +.”

    (c) Capital-efficient markets: Yes.

    (d) Truly unique product: Yes.

    e) Easy-to-understand business model: Yes.

  • It all depends what you are “touting”.

    If you want another gazillionth of some indicator of social traction for your investor metrics – then yes its getting harder – because getting even throw away compliments thrown in your direction takes a little attention.

    If on the other hand you have even a part of the solution to a big problem, that is in the hands of a small numer of very influencial people, it is easier than it ever was. If that problem is more accessible than previously, if tech tools reduce infrastructure to a commodity it is.

    Indeed if you have a real message – then news is more newsworthy than ever before, because the markets are bigger.

  • Thanks for replying.

  • I’m launching a crowdfunding campaign March 15th — might get moved to May 1st — though still undecided.

    Campaign will gain exposure, start to build relationship with the core evangelist users, and hopefully bring in enough money. The relationship building and getting my core messaging out there in a physical and highly ingestible form is most important though.

    I interviewed Michael Stone, someone who I’ve been practicing under when I’ve had time and when he’s been around, for the crowdfunding video. He’s a Buddhist philosopher and yoga instructor – he has 4 or 5 books published. Unfortunately he’s moving to Vancouver soon as a home base. I have 18 minutes that I’ve cut down to 1 1/2 to 3 minutes of material I’ll use. Hopefully I can include the Buddhism joke he said in response to me asking him for a joke..

    I was finally ready to start testing properly yesterday after having to refactor the main structures, and so over the next month will be getting users doing everything – and optimizing the user flow, fixing bugs and UX issues, etc.. My preference would be to develop all of the great features before launching and telling them to the world, though it’s a chicken/egg problem right now – need an audience and need money for features to matter and be possible to implement.

    I work well under pressure though, so sticking to March 15th will hold.

    I have thought of just pre-selling one of the rewards before launching the campaign, to see if I can raise enough that way. With the logo designed, I had a beautiful pendant handcrafted from it. Everyone I have shown loves it, many have stated they will buy it. It’s 1×1 inch. The photos are of an unfinished/unpolished pendant.

    Anywho, can talk in more detail on Skype.

  • simpleERB

    I don’t agree. I would argue that marketing was just as hard in its infancy when a) businesses had little or no access to expert advice and b) consumers weren’t used to getting it. Like everything else in life, it is a moving target.

    I would also hazard that the guy who came up with the wheel had a pretty hard job persuading people to use it, given the relative slow rate of its spread in early cultures.

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