When I talk to any startup and the subject of marketing comes up, it often begins from a very tactical perspective. Entrepreneurs often want to discuss what marketing channels they should pursue, what their marketing mix and budget should look like, what a good cost per acquisition is for their industry and so forth. These are all valid questions for them to ask at a certain point in time, but not before they answer four very important strategic marketing questions first:
- Who is my ideal customer?
- What compelling problem am I solving for them?
- How is my solution different than the alternatives available to these customers?
- How do I plan to make them rabid promoters of my brand?
Make no mistake. If you jump ahead to the tactical marketing questions first and execute your marketing plan, your efforts will fail every time. It’s one of the few guarantees that I can make as a marketing professional.
Even when startups make the effort to try and answer these questions, I find two challenges still get in the way of success. The first I call Entrepreneurial Bias and the second I call Entrepreneurial Inertia.
Startup Challenge #1 – Entrepreneurial Bias
Entrepreneurial Bias is a by-product of human nature that is magnified by particular character traits common to all entrepreneurs. We like to see ourselves as rational human beings who collect external input that we logically analyze to make decisions. In reality, our minds work very differently. We each have beliefs that we cling to as immutable facts. Then we go around looking for input that supports our beliefs and blithely ignore input that contradicts our beliefs. Psychologists refer to this behavior as Confirmation Bias. Do you find this hard to believe? Then check out this article from Bloomberg News that describes this effect in action on Facebook. The article was based on a study led by Italy’s Laboratory of Computational Social Science and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of of Sciences.
Successful entrepreneurs share many characteristics in common. One of these is extraordinary willpower. Willpower is defined as:
The inner strength that enables you to make a decision and carry it out. A person with strong willpower will assert decisions even in the face of strong opposition or other contradictory indicators. A person with little willpower will give in easily.
Willpower is a critical trait for entrepreneurs. There are many uncertainties involved in launching and growing startups. There are also hundreds of crucial decisions that need to be made, often with very little good data to rely on. Most people, when faced with these circumstances, freeze up. Entrepreneurs are able to charge through these obstacles to make decisions with confidence.
Willpower also manifests itself as a weakness when it comes to Confirmation Bias. Entrepreneurs are much more likely to overemphasize feedback that supports their beliefs and decisions and to overlook and ignore feedback that undermines them. So even when they are asking the questions, they are more prone to overlook key feedback that their customers are sharing with them. This amplification of Confirmation Bias is so strong, it warrants giving the phenomenon its own term, which is why I call it Entrepreneurial Bias.
Startup Challenge #2 – Entrepreneurial Inertia
Entrepreneurial Bias can be overcome (in fact, we’ll be discussing tactics to do just that in future articles). Over time, however, entrepreneurs inevitably must face the next obstacle to marketing success – Entrepreneurial Inertia.
Agility is often cited as the most important characteristic for a startup to possess, and rightly so. Startups must often make decisions without the benefit of much data in an environment that is evolving at breakneck speed. They must pivot toward opportunities as circumstances change, essentially feeling their way to success in an incremental and iterative fashion. Development movements like Agile Development evolved specifically as a reaction to this challenging environment. The 12 principles of Agile Development are encapsulated in the Agile Manifesto. Here’s a short list of the ones most relevant to this conversation:
- Customer satisfaction by early and continuous delivery of valuable software
- Welcome changing requirements, even in late development
- Working software is delivered frequently (weeks rather than months)
- Close, daily cooperation between customers and developers
The main idea behind Agile Development is the notion of frequent feedback with customers. Build a little software, get it into users’ hands and see what they think. Adjust your plans as needed based on their feedback and then repeat the process.
What’s surprising is how often startups fail to apply these principles to their marketing efforts. Most startups tend to gather market insights, when they do at all, in an ad hoc, one-off fashion. Usually it’s in reaction to some pain they are feeling, and the exercise is intended to make this pain go away. Once the pain goes away, it’s back to business as usually. That is until the pain returns again. The problem with this approach is that it is highly inefficient. Often by the time you feel the pain, it’s too late. The market and your competitors have passed you by.
Entrepreneurial Inertia is the resistance entrepreneur’s can exhibit toward the continual, iterative process of gathering and internalizing market feedback crucial to the strategic marketing process. To overcome Entrepreneurial Inertia you must master both aspects of this process. You must systematically and continually gather market feedback and then apply learnings to your marketing efforts quickly and iteratively.
Of these two aspects, the process of applying learnings in a systematic and iterative fashion is the most well understood and applied discipline. One example of the maturity of this discipline is the recent movement called Agile Marketing, which borrows concepts heavily from the Agile Development movement. Agile Marketing is defined as:
A tactical marketing approach in which marketing teams collectively identify high value projects on which to focus their collective efforts. Teams use sprints (short, finite periods of intensive work) to complete those projects cooperatively.
Agile Marketing is the culmination of a maturation process that began in the late 1990’s with the birth of digital marketing and later accelerated in the early 2000’s with the availability of platforms that could deliver detailed campaign statistics in near real-time.
Although Agile Marketing is an important component of success, it is not the most important. At best it can validate and optimize a marketing strategy, but it cannot conceive of one. In order to accomplish that feat, one must master the art of systematically and continually gathering market feedback and iteratively formulating effective marketing strategies. We call this approach Agile Marketing Intelligence.
In our next article, we’ll describe best practices around Agile Marketing Intelligence and how startups can leverage these techniques to formulate winning marketing strategies that fuel growth.
About the Author
Dave Geada is the CEO of DBS Marketing, a strategic marketing consulting firm that helps startups successfully grow their businesses. He’s a marketing professional with over 15 years of technology marketing experience working with leading brands like Network Solutions, Computers Associates and Rackspace. Most recently he’s worked with local San Antonio brands like Geekdom, Codeup, BoldBrush, Pressable and Grok. You can reach Dave at [email protected].