Five things startup CMOs shouldn’t do


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CMOs have had some bad press recently.

First, there was the news that the tenure of a CMO is shorter than all other C-suite members. Then we heard the CMO was dying (like everything else in marketing land), only to be replaced by a CGO (Chief Growth Officer).

The role of CMO certainly has its unique challenges. It’s arguably the most exposed role in the C-suite. After all, everyone is a customer, and everyone can critique good or bad marketing. Marketing is the external face of the company, the cover to a book, to be judged by all who see it. Yet scrutiny is also extremely helpful; unlike other C-suite members, the CMO has the help of his or her customers to guide decisions, so things aren’t all bad.

Start-ups are clearly ignoring all the noise about CMOs dying. In FinTech, we’ve seen many new companies employ some very smart and experienced marketers to help transition them from plucky unknowns to mass-market Goliaths. Start-up CMOs have unique challenges to tackle: little to no brand equity, undefined customer segments, small budgets. Sometimes, they’ll arrive before a product or service has been fully realised, and will need to create everything from scratch.

This requires a very different attitude and accountability to that of a more corporate player. Start-up CMOs will work to identify the brand positioning, the uniqueness of the brand, the key messages they want to communicate to customers and, most importantly, establish the size of the market and its respective customer segments.

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However, instead of itemising a checklist of what I think start-up CMOs should focus on, I’ve listed five things I think they shouldn’t do (which makes a much more interesting and possibly provocative list). This comes from my own and many of my peers’ experience. 

1. Don’t try to create demand

A wise man once said: the market always wins. If the market is travelling in the same direction as your business, your chances of success are much higher; if the market isn’t going your way, you’re pretty much screwed.

Even the most innovative companies, like Google and Facebook, launched in competitive environments where there was demand for similar products.

You have to be a brave CMO to try to educate customers about a product or service they don’t know exists yet. You will more than likely fail. Always establish the market demand before you join a company. Don’t be bedazzled by the shiny and new, unless of course you have fervent belief in the product.

2. Don’t go to conferences

There are lot of marketing conferences to go to. But, most start-up CMOs don’t really need to learn about AR, VR and viewability. You’re much better off going to meet-ups or start-up groups than spending two days walking around aimlessly, meeting vendors of technology you’ll never use and hearing about how AI is changing the world and going to steal your job.

Don’t spend time speaking at conferences either: wait until you’re not a start-up anymore.

3. Don’t use an agency for strategy

I love agencies. I used to work in some. However, start-ups shouldn’t use agencies for strategy. For one, it’s very expensive, but that isn’t the main reason not to do this. No agency will really be able to understand how to grow your business, no matter how smart they are. Agencies are great when you need someone to implement your strategy.

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4. Don’t buy media attribution

I remember the first large media attribution study I did for a client in 2003. It took a year, it yielded underwhelming results, and we didn’t action anything off the back of the data. These disappointments continued with me for many years until I realised a few things.

The first is that short consideration purchases don’t need advanced attribution measurement. The second is the fallacy that display impressions somehow magically work further up the purchase funnel. They don’t. The third is that the price you pay for media attribution tech can supersede the value you get from it.

Don’t get me wrong, you need a measurement framework to understand what channels are driving performance. You don’t need some whizzy tech to tell you that your most common conversion path is someone typing your brand name into Google. Companies will try to sell you all manner of tech, but most of it will be a waste of money for a start-up.

5. Don’t bother with influencer marketing or social media to grow your business

I’m being deliberately trite. Some companies (The Body Coach, Lolly Wolly Doodle) have used social media to build their brand organically and make it famous. Other brands use social media to connect with their customers to provide support (Sainsburys, O2).

I would say these are anomalies rather than the rule. Most branded social media profiles are full of irrelevant posts that receive little to no attention from consumers. Unless you’re a hunky bodybuilder, a magnetic fashionista or an expert gamer, you’re unlikely to get the sort of traction you need through social media. Paid media is much more effective at driving traffic. Influencer marketing is a distraction: most bloggers will have fake followers and little to no influence. 

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So, don’t be swayed by large follower volumes — unless of course you can get Kim Kardashian to sell your product.


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