11 min read

Corrections are great times to get things right

Corrections are great times to get things right
Photo by charlesdeluvio / Unsplash

A little while ago when the tidal wave of bad news broke for the tech industry, I started writing a little piece…which grew into a bigger one…which became the article you’re about to read. I’ve had to rewrite the intro a few times as things have changed. The situation is fluid.

At this point, we’ve seen layoffs, hiring freezes, a VC pullback, and a lot of talk about “free cash flow.” There’s been doomsaying and glass-half-full-ing.

I think it’s safe to say that the correction we’re living through is real, that it’s still in motion, and that we’re in for a bit of a ride.

I have faith that things will be OK. The world needs technology in good times and bad. There are many important problems left to solve.  

But I think we can be honest with ourselves and say that our industry has gotten a little overheated and indulgent. We flew close to the sun.

Corrections are scary, but they’re also great times to get things right. Because let’s face it. Tech marketers have gotten some things wrong.

I’ve done it. You’ve done it. It’s OK. May the person who has not sinned cast the first stone.

We can and must do better. But before we can heal, we need to take our medicine.

So I’m going to name 11 ways I think tech marketing has gone wrong, and offer my hopes for how we get back on track again.

Wrong 1: Making growth the most important thing.

Have you ever worshipped at the altar of Hypergrowth? Bowed to the gods of Blitzscaling? I have. But deep down, those words always made me queasy. Well, it turns out that dumping gasoline on growth without being mindful of business fundamentals probably wasn’t such a great idea.

Marketers need to shift our language and our tactics to focus less on acquiring customers at breakneck speed and more on building sustainable, healthy businesses. There’s a whole lot to that, and I’ll say more about that as this piece progresses. But the first thing we need to do is change our mindset and help our colleagues change along with us.

Wrong 2: Buying customers via artificially low pricing

Over the past five years, you could have gotten a screaming deal on everything from software to housing to glasses, meal kits, razors, juicers, mattresses, and car rides, all sold to you at a huge loss by a VC-funded startup hoping to win your business.

But when you massively discount your product, you’re not winning customers, you’re buying them.

At this point, maybe you’re thinking that marketers don’t price products and thus don’t deserve to be called out for this.

I would argue that regardless of who makes the call, pricing a product is an act of marketing. (Witness the second of the four Ps.)

And if you choose to discount your price, that’s a form of marketing spend. As in, dollars, deducted from the marketing budget. Mind-blowing, I know. That’s how the CPG world has operated since the dawn of time.

I’m going to make a bold statement here and say that if pricing decisions are marketing, then marketers can belly up to the bar and get in on them.

We can work harder to understand the value our products create (...or don’t create), and what they are worth in the eye of the buyer.

We can study the psychology of pricing, get familiar with behavioral economics, and evaluate the impact of pricing models.

We can survey the competition and look for innovative pricing models that might work for us.

Then, we can show up with informed opinions about what things should cost. Even better, we can come up with methods of winning customers that don’t involve bribery.

Wrong 3: Making startups the ICP

We’ve reached a point where the world has a lot of startups that sell software to startups that sell software to startups.

(I confess that at moments, this phenomenon has caused me existential anguish. I’ve been in meta-scenarios so bizarre that I’ve wondered if I’m living in a simulation. If you want to hear about them, you’ll need to buy me at least two beers.)

If you work in this industry and you have a pulse, you know that lean times are coming to SaaSland. That’s gonna hurt.

We all talk about crossing the chasm, but if we’re honest with ourselves, the majority of our buyers are early adopters.

If you find yourself stuck selling in to companies learning the words “free cash flow” for the first time, I have good news. There's a great big world out there filled with people who don't work in Silicon Valley but could really use some help solving problems.

We marketers should look into unexplored industries, geographies, and use cases. There are a lot of them.

Early markets are great for showing momentum, but in a world where we care about business fundamentals, we’re going to need customers we can win and hang on to. That means finding ways to reach more people and offer more value.

We can be the tip of the spear.

Wrong 4: Reacting to the competition instead of working for originality

The first job of any marketing effort is to be noticed. Being noticed requires standing out. Blending in is the opposite of standing out.

I know these are simple and obvious points, but many marketers either miss them entirely, kid themselves into thinking their not-at-all distinctive marketing is actually different, or…I’ll just stop there.

We have lazy-walked into a reality where tech companies look and sound and market the same, from our company names to our branded hoodies to our UI patterns to our ebook titles. That’s a big problem that leaves marketers especially vulnerable.

It’s not that hard to hire a decent freelancer or two, show them competitors’ websites, and have them start making stuff, right? Maybe your company doesn’t need a marketing function at all?

If our job is merely to make OK-enough stuff that looks tech-company-ish, then outsourcing the entirety of marketing might be a pretty good idea.

The most successful marketers in the world know that our highest calling is to make the companies we work for easy to see, find, and buy, and hard to forget. And the best way to do that is to be different.

Just look around you at your buyer’s context and your competition, and do something unexpected. It’s not that hard.

Wrong 5: Making investors more important than customers

Have you ever witnessed a marketing team that sweats investor presentations more than major product launches? I have.

Marketers live in a world choked with perverse incentives. We get pats on the head because we put the billboard on the boss’s commute. We get our budgets renewed because we spent them last year.

When we have investors who’ve given us millions of dollars, we want them to be happy. That’s very normal. But investors aren’t customers. Even expert category veterans don’t know your business like you do. And it’s definitely not their job to approve your marketing.

If they want to offer advice and guidance, you should listen. If they want you to show your progress, you should show it. But not at the expense of creating value for customers.

The best investors know this, by the way.

Wrong 6: Making incrementally better features the biggest point of difference.

"Hey, we do the same thing as somebody else, just a little bit better" is not a winning marketing message.

We ship tech products made by product people and engineers who care a lot about features. There are a lot of them (most likely including the CEO), and very few of us. The gravitational force pulling us toward incrementalist messaging is strong.

We have to push back. Our industry (and our buyers) are growing up. Tech stacks are thick, and attention spans are thin. Products are becoming entrenched. Cognitive and budgetary switching costs are growing higher.

In a world where we need to win, retain, and grow profitable customers, we need our products to be seen as indispensable and a joy to use. That requires reaching people on a deeper level.

Be more than a marginally better feature set.

Wrong 7: Using mumbly, jargony messaging.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. A deeply knowledgable, visionary technologist strikes out on his own, builds a product, and finds a market among similarly technical experts similar to himself.

Traction is strong, and everything is going great. Investors take notice. A funding round happens, and now it’s time to scale.

The CEO hires a sales team and stomps the gas. And then…not much happens. The company discovers that once they venture outside of their super-technical fanbase, nobody’s interested.

People don’t understand what the product does or why it matters. There’s no sense of urgency. Opportunities and deals aren’t happening. Revenue stays flat, and investors get worried.

Every tech company that wants to go upmarket or expand horizontally will eventually need to impress people who don’t understand what they do.

That requires a simple, relevant narrative, and a strong, clear, business case. If your pitch is choked with jargon, you will accomplish none of those things.

The most successful companies make a strong case in plain English while demonstrating the power and expertise underlying their product. This isn’t easy to do, but it’s incredibly worthwhile.

And yes, it’s marketing’s job to do it.

Wrong 8: Engaging in magical thinking about market math.

OK, you’ve done some research and uncovered a massive swath of humanity that collectively spends eleventy billion dollars on the kind of things you sell. Wonderful.

The only problem is that upon closer examination, you might learn that 99.9% of those dollars are already being spent happily. And that changing to another provider is a massive pain. And that 99.8% of those people have no clue who you are.

Markets move much more slowly than marketers' brains do. They change along curves and trajectories that play out over time, and it’s our job to influence those trajectories.

I’ve seen a lot of people kid themselves about the basic facts like the size of their market and their ability to penetrate it.

A factoid that says X dollars are spent on your product category doesn’t mean much. If a category is established, a much better question is what percentage of buyers change products every year, and of that smaller group, how many can you reasonably hope to win based on your ability to reach them?

Beyond that, conversion rates tend to be fairly predictable. Only so many leads become opportunities, and only so many opportunities become buyers. We do ourselves no favors by projecting that we’ll blow away industry benchmarks around this stuff.

Wrong 9: Creating categories that don't need to exist.

I know, I know. We all read that book everybody was talking about a few years ago and said, “Yes! I want to be a pirate!”.

Or maybe you didn’t. In which case, I salute you.

If you missed it, the idea is that you come up with a new moniker for whatever it is your product does, call it a new category, write a dramatic story about why it's earth-shatteringly important, run a bunch of PR stunts, and then throw a big, expensive event that blasts your category on the global map and positions your business as its “King.”

Or, in other words, you make yourself into Salesforce in 1999.

It’s an attractive idea. A lot of people have tried. Some have succeeded (...sorta?).

I think that even the writers of that category book would say that creating a category is really, really hard. Also highly expensive and tremendously risky.

What the writers of that book probably wouldn’t say is that they are part of the Category Creation Industrial Complex, a large and very profitable sector filled with analysts, consultants, and review sites who sell category creation to companies while simultaneously working like rabid dogs to convince everyone else that new categories actually exist.

Just think about it for a second. There’s a direct correlation between the number of categories and Gartner’s revenue potential.

The unvarnished truth is that a G2 landing page or analyst quadrangle doesn't make a category. An excessive, over-fussed marketing event doesn't make a category.

Huge masses of people naming a type of thing and buying that thing make a category. It’s an organic process that takes years. Occasionally, a company comes around and drives a new category.

That is very hard to pull off. And it is definitely not the only strategy available to you, and probably not even a good one in a world where marketing budgets are going to be smaller and monitored more carefully.

Think it through.

Wrong 10: Fiddly, overcomplicated GTM teams and tech stacks.

Shoot me for saying it, but do we really need 27 disparate pieces of technology to run a marketing team?

We have allowed ourselves to become the proverbial man with a hammer who thinks everything is a nail. We make software, believe in software, and think more software is an excellent idea.

Perhaps we should slow our roll, just a little, and ask ourselves what we really need to efficiently deliver the outcomes we’re hired to create.

But I also think there’s some deeper reflection to do.

One of the most alarming realizations I ever had was when it dawned on me that many of the ideas I held as fundamental truths of marketing were actually takeaways from Marketo ebooks published in 2007.

We have allowed the language of martech to seep into our consciousnesses. We have given the software we use the power to dictate what we do.

If you learn to do your job from someone trying to sell you something, you’re not going to get objective best practices.

We need to be thinkers, strategists, and problem-solvers first and software operators second.

Wrong 11: Targeting ourselves out of business

This is a tricky one.

Tech products get traction in the market by focusing on smaller groups of people. We go narrow and deep, obsess over our customers, and (hopefully) create products people love.

Those people tell friends, our market expands, and tech businesses grow.

Spurred on by our martech overlords, marketers have also absorbed the gospel of going narrow and deep. We get very specific and clinical about precisely who the ICP is, how we’ll reach them and what we’ll say.

That’s not a terrible idea. If we reach out with messages that feel relevant, people will be more likely to listen.

But…in most cases, marketing’s job is to scale the product. And if the product has captured a large part of a tiny market, that means marketing needs to make the market bigger. And if marketing has to expand the market, then targeting just a small sliver of the market is a bad idea.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a marketer which means it's your job to scale your company’s business. You’re not going to find a lot more customers without making a lot of people aware of your product.

Go wide. Be loud. Find ways to expand your reach. A lot of research has shown that buyers are much more heterogeneous than marketers think.

It might very well be that your notions about who your ICP is or isn’t are the very thing that’s holding you back.

Less wronging, more righting

That’s pretty much it. My list of thoughts and hopes on what we can do better and how we might get started. I realize that I’m scratching the surface on a lot of these points, and I’ll try to get more specific and actionable in future posts.

I do want to reiterate a point that I put on the Useful Heresy about page. My writing is full of opinions and exhortations. My tone has an edge. When you hear and read that, you’re hearing the sound of my thoughts and sense of humor.

I want to consistently and constantly own up to the fact that I don’t know everything, make mistakes, and am capable of getting things wrong. My goal is not to insist that I am always right and bend the world to my vision. I’m trying to figure out what I think and share those thoughts with other people, in the hope of helping them figure out what they think. If you strongly disagree with something I write, and in so doing get better at advocating for your point of view, I think that’s fantastic.

There are as many ways to do marketing right as there are to do it wrong. My wish for myself and for anyone reading this is that we can all move away from things that don’t serve us and closer to the path of realizing our truest intentions and becoming our best selves.

Good luck.