The list of tasks that the marketing department has to cover is long. A frequent mistake is that marketing gets overly tactical and focuses just on the execution of marketing initiatives and campaigns.
Marketing leaders own the difficult task of finding the right balance between long-term thinking (without falling into the trap of pontification about abstract concepts that will not result in tangible outputs) and tactical excellence (without falling into the trap of getting stuck in details).
Supporting the Search for Product-Market Fit
Particularly in early-stage startups that have yet to find sufficient product-market fit (PMF), marketing plays a key role in reaching this point.
How marketing can support PMF:
- Run small and controlled campaign experiments that test different kinds of messaging against different target customers.
- Use A/B testing on your website and on other assets to explore further what people are reacting to.
- Consistently measure the marketing funnel to identify any shift in prospect behavior that might point to a better or worse PMF.
- Monitor the competition and pay attention to signs they might have found an advantage of PMF (and also identify strategies that don't seem to work for them).
Create the Marketing Plan
Marketing departments have finite resources, and obviously much more so in startups than in larger companies. It is therefore crucial that marketing leadership comes up with the right priorities and temporal distribution of marketing initiatives to get the best possible impact for the business while staying in the limits of available human and financial resources.
The result of a planning process is the marketing plan. It should normally be completely revised once a year in the context of the overall strategy process and revisited every quarter to accommodate changes in the market environment (more frequently if specific relevant events are occurring).
It typically contains the following information:
- General strategic goals for the marketing organization. This is often informed by the general strategy process and refined further on a department level.
- Current status: Analyzing where the company currently stands in terms of marketing helps to align all stakeholders in terms of where priorities have to be set. Components can include:
- SWOT analysis of current marketing
- Competitive analysis
- Insights on target markets, customer personas and buying cycles
- Brand and product messaging
- Priorities and tactical goals: Where does the marketing organization have to set its priorities to achieve its overarching strategic goals, given the environment described above? Which specific goals will the marketing organization achieve and how are they measured?
- Major initiatives: Which key initiatives (not more than 2-3) will the marketing organization execute in the next 12 months? Examples include product launches, launches in new geographical markets, or entirely new channels.
- Channel strategy: Which marketing channels are going to be used, with which resources and at what time?
- Budget: Which financial resources will marketing require and how are they allocated to the different initiatives and channels.
- Dependencies: Marketing obviously doesn't operate in a vacuum. Which deliverables from other departments are needed at which time? For example, a successful product launch will require that the product organization actually finishes the product in time and that sales is ready to be trained and start outreach campaigns.
Marketing Plan Execution and Refinement
Once the marketing plan is defined, execution can be kicked off. This consists largely in executing major initiatives, running campaigns on the marketing channels that the company plays in, and measuring results in order to constantly improve outcomes.
Marketing in today's digital environment is very much an "always-on" function, but at the same time also has to execute larger initiatives such as product launches that require a concentrated effort. It is therefore necessary to plan well ahead to make sure that major initiatives don't cannibalize necessary ongoing work.
Needless to say, startups typically operate in a very dynamic environment. It is therefore essential to constantly measure the marketing plan against reality and adapt if the original assumptions turn out to not be accurate.
Collaboration with Product
Marketing should have a close connection to the product organization since these two departments share a lot of key deliverables (e.g. customer personas, product positioning).
Furthermore, marketing is also an essential source of market feedback for the product group. In addition, it is often very helpful for the planning process in marketing to have deep transparency into the development process on the product side.
A common best practice is for a representative of the marketing department to sit in on major planning sessions of the product group to understand more deeply what is coming down the line. Marketing and product executives should also have regular one-to-one meetings to exchange plans and perspectives.
Collaboration with Sales
The sales department is probably the closest collaborator and ally of marketing, and yet there are tensions between these two groups in most companies at some point.
Both collectively own the marketing/sales funnel up to the time of purchase, and therefore there are often conflicts that arise from different expectations, different perspective of performance and other different priorities.
The best way to avoid conflicts is transparency over goals, performance and measures taken. In particular, measuring the funnel properly and with a common framework is crucial.
Most companies use a methodology that distinguishes between a marketing qualified lead (MQL) and sales qualified lead (SQL).
- An MQL is a prospect that marketing assumes is part of the key target customer groups (i.e. matches a persona) and has express sufficient interest in the product to justify a sales outreach — for example, website visits, downloaded content assets, or webinar participations. An MQL should also have verified contact information to enable a sales outreach.
- An SQL is a prospect that was verified by the sales team through an outreach activity to have sufficient buying interest, the necessary budget and decision authority (or at least recommender position) to justify further sales efforts.
If expectations between MQLs and SQLs differ too widely, it's necessary to drill into the underlying reasons. For example, if only very few MQLs ever convert to the SQL stage, it might be a sign that marketing is casting too wide a net, but it could also mean that the sales team is not ideally prepared to take a customer to the next step of the journey.
Next to lead generation, marketing often supports sales with all kinds of deliverables, such as sales collateral, outreach templates, competitive battlecards, etc. In some cases, a marketing department might have a dedicated sales support function that can even create customized sales deliverables for large prospects.
Plan, Build and Run the Marketing Tech Stack
Marketing has become a discipline in the last couple of decades that is heavily supported by technology and increasingly needs sophisticated tech to perform its tasks. Marketing departments therefore rely on a stack of tech elements that enable it to do its job. These might include:
- A customer relationship management (CRM) platform
- Marketing automation software, including a customer data platform
- Social media management and analytics software
- Ad campaign management software
- Attribution tools
- Website and mobile analytics
- SEO tools
- A/B testing tools
- Content and brand management tools
The list goes on, and the individual components are getting increasingly complex and powerful.
Marketing departments need to decide who will build and operate this staff. Most typically, it is something that an IT department will support, but there are marketing departments who build out their own tech teams.