Most of us ended last year the same way we began it: reflecting on our personal and professional journeys to date. 2021 marked more than eight years since I founded SalientMG. For most of that time we’ve been a remote-first firm so the pandemic didn’t change that dynamic, but we’ve found our path in parallel with many of the growth-stage companies that are our primary clients.
We’ve seen our own exponential growth over the past year and, like any other company, that’s meant reexamining our organizational structure, gaining (and losing) team members, and helping some clients “graduate” to independence in their marketing efforts. It’s happened through the strength and experience of our team, but also by recognizing that “business as usual” must be reexamined in light of all that’s changed.
I decided to look back at the very first post on this blog to see where we’ve been and how our new normal compares. Not surprisingly, our client roster has changed, but our commitment to help clients “find their critical salient points–and use them for explosive success” has not. Our world and the priorities of users and consumers have shifted, but the basic marketing challenges facing growth-stage companies have not.
In fact, most of the recurring issues I’ve seen in my two decades of marketing underscore some universal truths about trust, control and working to a vision. The specifics may change somewhat based on a company’s maturity or industry, but the overarching themes do not. So, in the spirit of reflection and in honor of our anniversary year, I’m sharing these eight lessons about marketing that I’ve learned over the years:
- Talent. The right mix of marketing experience is critical for your company’s success. You need strategists with the experience to know how to address the changes growth-stage companies face and tacticians who can expertly execute to plan. The most impactful marketing operates like an ecosystem with each skill set strengthening the other as your company and its needs mature.
- Strategy. Unfortunately, an inordinate focus on vanity metrics often relegates marketing to tactical, short-term thinking. Some business leaders even believe marketing is a function that can be turned on and off without impacting its efficacy. And not enough companies look beyond the metrics and KPIs for “filling the funnel” to recognize the long-term value of positioning their executives and supporting employer branding.
- Value. The true value of marketing is not just in its reach to the right user or consumer audience; it’s in where it sits in an organization, able to serve as both an external and internal brand ambassador. Too many times companies sprint ahead with an “need-to-know-basis” internal communication approach, which becomes a major hindrance as they try to scale. Marketing can serve as an information bridge between company goals and what’s actually happening with the brand in the market.
- Money. Marketing is consistently underfinanced. Often that starts right out of the gate, when founders are raising funding and fail to budget appropriately. Then marketing ends up fighting for the remnants of whatever the sales and product teams don’t use. Yet everyone from private business consultants to the U.S. Small Business Administration recommends you spend 7-12% of your total revenue on marketing. Without budget there’s little opportunity to plan, which perpetuates the view of marketing as a tactical function and not the strategic contributor that it is.
- Power. When senior executives are sitting at the table charting a company’s future, a marketing leader should be part of that group. We all know how the game of “telephone” alters a message as it passes through our own filters. Marketers must engage directly with other executives and board members if they’re going to move the needle on expectations and company momentum. I’ve found the most successful founders are those who allow marketing professionals to be the experts they are, but also make the effort to learn and understand the art and science of marketing for themselves.
- Partnerships. Just as different marketing functions shouldn’t operate in a silo, marketing as a whole shouldn’t operate separately from other business areas, particularly product and sales. Often in tech companies the CEO establishes the culture–either as a sales-driven or product-driven organization. Yet marketing heads can be the most invaluable assets to establish relationships that drive every function in the company, and marketing can shape a culture that mirrors the brand personality your audience and potential employees have come to expect.
- Content. Content is king–particularly in modern marketing where far more users and consumers want to engage with a brand on their own terms. That means recognizing how content has evolved beyond pushing an agenda into an engagement tool and a growth driver. Content done right offers an opportunity for your brand to break through the clutter and show some personality. Because even experienced marketers can become too focused on the numbers and lose sight of the creativity that’s inherent to marketing.
- Flexibility. If there’s any group that’s constantly dancing on the edge of uncertainty, it’s marketing. There’s been an overwhelming rise in the number of new marketing-specific technology options, there are cyclically new generations to adapt to and, in the wake of last year, new consumer behaviors heralding a new world order. Marketing has to be flexible to adapt to trends or turns in conversation. That’s why you need the right people with the right financial resources to set a plan that can be shifted when necessary rather than cobbled together on the fly.
It was true eight years ago and it’s probably more true now: “Today’s digital/mobile world is ever-changing, ridiculously competitive–and a constant battle.” The accelerated digital shift came with difficulties for some, but also exciting opportunities.
Marketing has never been and will never be a one-size-fits-all proposition. Reflecting and reframing who we are makes us stronger in our priorities and convictions moving forward. And it’s that strength–even in the face of these persistent challenges to effective marketing–that makes me value the opportunities to battle for my clients’ best interests and help them put their best foot forward, no matter where they are in their journey.
(An abridged version of this blog post was published in December by MediaPost)