The 3 Challenges Of Startup Marketing

Are you running marketing as an afterthought?

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Challenges of Startup Marketing

i) Marketing is overwhelming

Following the marketing and sales funnel from awareness generation to pre-sales, conversion and post-sales, marketing is long, wide and deep, and each stage requires distinctively different marketing and sales activities. Marketing is also multifaceted; it’s analogue (human sales) and digital (web and social marketing), visually and contextually creative yet data driven and engineerical, and every activity is a moving target because humans are unpredictable.

  • Specialist marketing functions: modern day marketing requires a lot of specialist functions across the various stages of marketing; such as in social and web experience, visual design, contents creation, marketing data and analytics, and management of marketing automation platforms. The spectrum is pretty wide and many of these functions are marketing technology related and evolving by nature. Startups need guidance for understanding and determining which of these functions are essential to their marketing operations, and support for accessing these specialist resources.

ii) Good marketing leads are hard to find, and the “hired gun” trap

Next, there’s also the resourcing issue of finding a good marketing team lead. Let’s take an example of an ideal Head of Marketing hire:

  • Good project manager
  • Natural at sales
  • Capable and and/or able to direct contextual and visual creative work
  • Up to date with the latest social and digital marketing stack
  • Domain expert in the field of the startup’s product and business
  • Technically adept and communicative with product development and operations, etc.

iii) Good marketing “habits” don’t come naturally

I see the following three traits repeatedly surface across organizations as obstacles against marketing success. They are all rooted in our innate human behavior and social conditioning, telling us how challenging it would be to introduce alternate good marketing “habits”.

Marketing as an afterthought

While avoidance psychology, as earlier mentioned, is a major contributor to the “let’s get our product out first, we’ll worry about marketing next” tendency, this is also a reflection of a “we know what the customer wants” leap of faith fallacy. This is another psychological flaw (generally called “cognitive biases“) we humans inherently have. The problem of this thinking is that it’s pretty much a straight road to product-market misfit. While conviction and determination is a commendable, stubborn beliefs often have no foundation. You may know something about your customer, but not everything.

Ad-hoc and linear marketing

When marketing is done as an ancillary exercise post product development, they tend to be done in either (a) a non-planned, reactionary way, or (b) planned but in a traditional “waterfall” project management way. The former results in ad-hoc marketing where you are perpetually running after one marketing task after another. This may be okay if the product is self-selling, but that is hardly the case. The latter results in linear marketing; you envision your end goal, then work backwards on planning, implement the marketing program, and at the end you find yourself far off the goal (guaranteed!). Waterfall project management works well for projects where there is little or no uncertainty with the end goal. Most start-up projects are all about conquering uncertainties, linear marketing can’t handle that.

Hand-over culture between product and marketing teams

As with waterfall project management, traditional hierarchical functional organization structures are still common in start-ups, because that’s what we are used to. Together with that comes the culture of well defined functional roles, where individual workers are evaluated on the basis of how well that individual performed the function. For team roles in a traditional organizational structure, marketing is the marketing team’s job and a clean hand-over protocol is expected between the product and marketing teams. Again, this will work in a business that has little or no uncertainty (e.g. a canned sardine manufacturer selling into supermarket chains); it doesn’t for startups dealing with lots of product and customer uncertainty.

How to Fix Startup Marketing

I focus on the following four areas to help startups become strong marketing organizations:

  • Embrace third party specialist marketing resources and platforms
  • Nurture marketing leaders
  • Adopt Lean and Agile

Written by

Complexity Handling, Enabling Conversations - Behavioral Coach (ICF ACC), Agile Scrum (PSM II, PSPO), Lean, Design Thinking Trainer, Facilitator -

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