Review MarTech Conference Boston 2017

I attended MarTech Boston this year (at the start of October: here’s a link to the event next year). But I almost didn’t go. I have a healthy scepticism of the MarTech world – a lot of noise and hype but, from my own experience, not a lot of impact where it counts, on the bottom line.

But still, you never know – conferences are often best for serendipitous finds. And we’d heard good things about last year, so we decided to go for it.

I went with our head of IT (it is after all, a Mar-Tech conference), and we turned up for the first day, as a say, with a scepticism bordering on defeatism. And I’m afraid it didn’t start enormously well. I often think marketing is its own worst enemy – every buzzword I hear, every declaration of how some vague unproven idea will improve revenue 10-fold, undermines the view of marketing from non-marketing folk and those of us in the industry as well. After listening to a couple of talks about the impact of AI and Blockchain on marketing, I started to look in to early flights home (and least we’d save on the hotel bills).

But then, completely by chance, I went to a great talk on the afternoon of the first day. Surprisingly, this was actually a vendor talk (from Marketo). Normally vendor talks are thinly-veiled sales pitches, but this was a panel talking about Account Based Marketing and the use of tech to help with this style of marketing. And something began to click. I then talked to a couple of the presenters afterwards, went to a few of the vendors they recommended, and I believe I was converted.

Before I go in to the things we found and what we came back with, a general point. The mistake I think the MarTech movement makes is to over-complicate and confuse their audience. There’s a well known infographic from chiefmartec.com, which shows all of the vendor options available:

When you see this, what do you think? I think – “There’s too much here, I feel option paralysis, I’ll never be able to navigate this landscape, I’ll go do something else”. The job of a marketer is often to make things simple for customers – “Here’s the obvious solution to your problem, we’re making it really easy for you to make the right choice.”. This graphic does not do that!

What does do that is talking to people. I met some great people at the conference, who have helped me enormously. So without further ado, here are the exciting things we found, from talking to folk. It’s also worth noting as well that a) I’m not associated with any of these vendors, and b) We haven’t tried them yet! My write-ups of what they do are based on their spiel and a bit of reading up afterwards. I sincerely hope they do what they say..

 

Redgate has an extraordinary catalogue of great content. Everything, from in-depth articles, how-tos, videos, books, documentation, whitepapers, and much more. We know it’s all amazing quality but – how much is it used? How much does it help us win deals? Are our customers actually reading/viewing it?

Enter LookBook – this technology allows you to target particular pieces and groups of content at specific accounts, and then track the customers’ engagement. For example, if you find that big client A has started reading lots of content all about one of your offers, it will record this, measure their engagement, and send a signal to a sales person – “Big Bank is heavily engaged with proposition X – why not give them a call?”. Invaluable for Redgate – we’ll really know if our mountain of gold content is being read/viewed and by whom.

 

This is actually the one I’m most excited about. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but we currently use HubSpot – and I’m less than impressed. We pay a lot, and it really doesn’t work for a business like ours. To be fair, we’re not their target audience (we’re too big, they’re more focussed on growing startups), but we’re certainly looking for a replacement.

Going to MarTech, I wanted to speak to Eloqua, Marketo, Salesforce Pardot – the obvious alternatives for marketing automation. But now I’m thinking again. Something I picked up time and time again in Boston was that the current main players for marketing automation are all, frankly, looking a little long in the tooth – they’ve all been around 10 years plus. The market is ripe for disruption, and Engagio might just be leading the charge. Started, amongst others, by the ex-founder of Marketo, Jon Miller, who is CEO of Engagio, I was really impressed by their vision (essentially, to be the new marketing automation platform), their team (he seems to be pulling in all sorts from the industry), and how they’re positioning themselves – firmly in the camp of Account Based Marketing, and measuring engagement from customers. I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid yet, but we’re certainly going to look in to it, to help fix our difficulties with measuring engagement and nurturing our Accounts.

 

An interesting, more focussed one this. Not sure about you, but I worry about the lack of transparency in the media/advertising world. Do we really know where our graphic ads are being placed? How often? Can you trust the agencies that place them? How do you know what the audience is? We’ve been burnt by programmatic advertising, and we’re looking for something better.

Terminus claim that they can target media ads directly at specific accounts. How great would that be? Craft some ads, for say, the Finance industry, draw up your list of 500 target accounts, and away you go. I’ll love it if this works..

 

The final big find, that I was very excited about, was Allocadia. It’s quite simple actually – it’s an online spreadsheet that basically links your spend to return (for example, from Salesforce Campaigns). It’s simple, but it’s the root of all marketing performance management. We need to be able to see, in one app, what we’re doing quarter-by-quarter, what’s working, what isn’t, whether our spend is effective and so on. Simple, but I think it will actually be pretty revolutionary.

 

So that was most of it. We also had some good chats about replacement marketing automation platforms – really it’s all about your size. From talking to other people in our position, I think we’re way too big for HubSpot – but too small perhaps for the likes of Marketo and Eloqua. That puts Salesforce Pardot in a good position. But then as I say, what about Engagio!?!…

Using Azure Machine Learning Studio as a Marketer

I’ve been playing with Microsoft’s Azure Machine Learning Studio (https://studio.azureml.net/), this last month. We’ve been doing some analysis of a recent customer survey, and wanted to run some cluster analysis. Not rocket science, but equally, not something particularly do-able in Excel. So what should we use? SPSS? R? SAS?

Azure Machine Learning Studio (AMLS for short) is a newcomer – the name sums it up pretty well. It’s a Studio (so, not a language like R), it is for Machine Learning (not just for basic stats) and it’s cloud-based (not a downloadable). Oh, and it seems to be very cheap/free (I managed to do all my work in the free tier). But the question is – can a humble marketer grapple with it to get a real job done? Not just a “Hello World” app, but something useful?

My experience with this sort of project, is that there are three things that stand in your way of getting to a useful result:

  1. Knowing what you’re doing What the clustering algorithms actually mean, when you’re allowed to use them, interpreting the results correctly, that sort of thing.
  2. Data-mulching. I’m not sure if this is a real phrase, but it’s the task of struggling with the data sent to you in some horrible format (Excel 97 spreadsheet with missing values, unusable column names, ambiguous answers and so on) and turning it in to something neat to be used by your algorithms. In my experience 80% of the elapsed time on a project is data-mulching.
  3. Learning the tool. Okay, your data is clean, you know what algorithm you want to use – but you’re not there yet. Do you know how to load that data in to SPSS? How to pull out a subset for training in R? How to cross-validate in SAS? You have to learn to the tooling too.

Where AMLS excels is in (2) and (3). For item (1) – there’s information about what the various algorithms do, videos and background information, but these are no substitute for a decent course in ML, or Data Science! And nor would Microsoft claim it to be. They do offer some courses in this field (e.g. https://www.edx.org/course/principles-machine-learning-microsoft-dat203-2x-4), and obviously you can learn from lots of places. But if you don’t know your SVMs from your ANNs, you’re not going to get that here.

That’s fair enough – so what about (2) and (3)? I’ve had terrible trouble with both in the past. I’ll take each in turn.

There are two real problems with data-mulching – firstly the endless idiosyncrasies of different datasets. The format (CSV, other delimited types, SPSS format, Excel formats, problems with escape characters etc. etc. ad nauseam) is only the start of it.  You then have issues of missing data and the multitude of methods for dealing with it, classification of manually entered data (or free-text analysis), combining of multiple datasets (with lookups) and so on. But then, the second problem is the iterative nature of fixing these things. You think you’ve fixed that problem with classifying a particular column in to groups (say), then you realise you’ve missed something and have to do it over. The whole thing can be very time-consuming.

Microsoft have recognised this pain and provided lots of easy to use tools for cleaning and processing data. On the left hand side of the studio are a variety of tasks that come out of the box, each with a series of parameters that make them easy to figure out – and there are a large number of data manipulations available.

The great thing about these is how easy they are to use. Not only is there likely to be something that works for you instantly (e.g. replacing missing data with zeroes, or average values) but then, when it doesn’t work first time round, you can just fix it and run again. You’re not re-processing data, reloading it and so on. The studio works by allowing you easily link different tasks (like these) together – and it deals with the complexity of data formats, and the right things going where they should. For example, if you want to filter your data (for example, to remove invalid rows) – you can apply a transformation like one of the above mid-process. But if you realise later on that “Oh, I shouldn’t have filtered some of those”, you can easily amend the transformation and just re-run. It really is very easy. And the best thing I found was that, if you do want to do something particularly hairy (for me, I wanted to filter out rows based on sum of a number of different columns) – there’s the “Apply SQL Transformation” task which lets you write SQL against your dataset very easily. Great!

 

The best thing about these being easily swappable task modules is that it makes the job of iteratively figuring out your data cleaning and mulching problems much much quicker. The experiment that I ended up with (see below) is the end result of lots of swapping in and out of various ideas and modules. I’ve ended up using some quite simple SQL Transformation and Data Splits – but it took a while to get to that simplicity.

I’ve actually tried both the classic K-Means clustering algorithm, and some Hierarchical Clustering too. Did I have to re-create my dataset for each? No! Adding in alternative methodologies is very simple. NB: I would re-iterate my point (1) however – one small issue with this sort of easy-to-use app is how easy it is to do, say, a K-Means Clustering of a dataset. But is the input data valid? What does it actually mean when you’re doing this clustering (all too easy to over-ascribe meaning, or under-ascribe meaning to clusters)? And so on. As can also be seen here though, I also managed to run an iterative process to “Test the optimal number of clusters for this dataset”. Something which in other applications has been a real pain – this was as easy as linking together out-of-the-box templates and hitting Go. Really impressive.

The second point is about learning the tool. This is really tough in this world – these are complex processes. It’s very difficult to create a drag-and-drop interface that allows you to cover the vast array of Machine Learning methodologies. For me this is about knowing your target audience, and catering for that audience. I’m not a full-time data scientist. I don’t have 3 months to re-learn SAS (I knew it once, in a bygone age…), and I want results quickly. But, it needs to be powerful enough to do something more than basic stats – clustering, neural nets, Bayesian algorithms, that sort of thing.

Again, I think they’ve managed this. There’s a lot of UX work that’s gone in to this app – it’s pretty trivial to drag things across, and figure out what goes where. It’s not perfect, still a few bits that could be easier. But for someone who doesn’t want to spend weeks learning something, the learning curve was pretty shallow. R is an extremely powerful language, but there’s no way I would have got to these results as quickly.

And that last point is key as a marketing person. My objective was “I want to quickly generate solid clusters from this (pretty messy) dataset and have confidence in them”. Not “I want to change careers in to being a data scientist”! When you’re trying to draw conclusions quickly, but still want the results to be robust, well presented and explainable, the tool performed extremely well. Sure, if I was working at Google on Skynet (or whatever it is they’re doing), I’d probably have something more advanced. And if I just wanted to work out the standard deviations of a few columns, AMLS is unnecessary. But for the sorts of tasks a marketing person might be interested in – clusters, segmentation, finding relevant vs irrelevant customer attributes, churn calculations – it’s great. And note when you do want to go to the next stage there are ways of adding in Python and R modules which I’m sure will satisfy the more advanced data scientists out there.

Overall, great job Microsoft!

What a 10-year-old Learned about Entrepreneurship in One Week

My daughter has just spent one week selling a product on Etsy and, although we’ve stopped the experiment now (see later for why..) I feel that she learned more in one week about the world of entrepreneurship than she would have in a year of classroom teaching on the subject. But what I personally found useful was how it reminded me of all the important basics of creating, marketing and selling a product. Forget the basics at your peril!

What was the product? Slime. Yep – slime. For around £2.50 plus P+P, a 100ml pot of slime can be winging its way to you from a kitchen table in Cambridge. Why would anyone want to buy a pot of ready-made slime? Below is the list of things I believed she learned from the week (and I found very useful as reminders) and the first is on this very point…

  1. You need an expert in the field, who understands the market. When my daughter told me she was going to sell slime, all I saw was weeks of disappointment (“Well, we had fun trying didn’t we!?”) as the orders failed to materialise. From my perspective (knowing literally zero about the “slime market”), I just couldn’t see how anyone would want to buy the stuff.
    How wrong I was. In the space of a week, we received 9 orders, 3 in the first day. I asked “Who’s buying this stuff, I just don’t get it!?”. Only then did I find out, from talking to my daughter, that there’s a whole sub-community, mostly on Youtube, of kids posting videos about slime, discussing techniques for making it, assessing different consistencies and so on. She knew the market, knew there was the possibility of making some money from it, and pushed through my scepticism (a scepticism based on ignorance quite frankly).
  2. Get on with it. She had the idea on Saturday night, Sunday night we were “live” in the market, Monday we got our first order. And the reality is that, until you’re asking for actual money, you don’t really know what will and won’t work. All the things we thought would be problems (marketing, getting anyone interested), weren’t. And the things that we’d never even thought of, became problems (more details below). Perhaps we might have been able to work out what those things were going to be beforehand, but I doubt it. The quicker you’re out in the market for real, the quicker you know what’s really blocking people from parting with their money. Of course, it’s scary – suddenly having a problem with order #1, thinking “Why didn’t we think of this?”, but there’s nothing like an insistent, paying customer to focus the mind..
  3. Your real problems will only be exposed once you’re asking for money. Continuing the point above, here’s a list of some of the problems that we hit in the first week. Sure, with hindsight some of these seem obvious, but we didn’t spot any of these till we actually started selling:
    • Two items went missing in the post, and our P+P price on the site was unrealistic. We’d assumed normal postage was 100% reliable. For one customer we ended up having to send “Registered Post” which blew our P+P budget out the water. If we increased the P+P charge on the site (for a higher level of service), this would make the overall price very unattractive. This was certainly a problem for profitability.
    • We got the quantity wrong. Initially we sold in 40ml pots. But it’s as much effort to make 40ml as 100ml, and 40ml was too small an amount to be “fun” for customers. We changed from 40ml to 100ml on day 2.
    • Quality control was a problem. We didn’t have a set recipe, measured out each time. One person complained it was too rubbery, another that it was too sticky. So we fixed the production line to follow an exact recipe each time.
    • There was an enormous difference in the cost of ingredients. Going to B&M to buy PVA glue rather than Sainsburys cut our unit costs enormously.
  4. The channel is everything. Initially my daughter wanted to just create a website to sell the slime. Instead we looked at 4 options – “Own website”, Amazon, Ebay and Etsy. Eventually we settled on Etsy because it’s specifically targeted at people looking for this sort of thing. And the reality is that, for a small percentage fee, Etsy provide a complete and ready market for you. It took about one hour to load up photos and descriptions, and their search engines and reach did the rest. I don’t think this would have happened with Ebay or Amazon, and certainly not with our own site (which would have needed marketing from scratch). So, find a channel, ideally an existing marketplace, full of your customers, and half the (marketing) work is done for you, all for only a small fee (and 90% of something, is better than 100% of nothing).
  5. For consumer goods, feedback/reviews/social media is immediate and vital. And good customer service is essential. The first order didn’t go well for us – within a day we had a (rather unpleasant) email saying that the recipient would post a poor review on Etsy if we didn’t fix the problem immediately. We did of course – we sent another pot through, were apologetic and accommodating by email, and we fixed the problem. But an early poor review on Etsy would have killed us dead. It also taught my daughter a lot about writing nice, helpful, “customer is always right” emails..
  6. Over-deliver in the early days. For the first few orders, we packaged up pot of slime nicely in wrapping paper, wrote a hand-written note, thanking them for the order, sent more than specified (around 70ml instead of 40ml), sent on the first possible day (instead of “1-3 business days”, as advertised) and so on. For this we got some lovely feedback, and people posted nice comments on the Etsy site. It cost nothing, really, to do these things – just care and a bit of effort. Thinking about “ROI” or that “This will never scale!”, completely misses the point – you need to build a following and you need evangelists for your product. What harm is it to give a few away for free (we did give one away for free, to someone who offered to post a review on Youtube)? Sure, we had to pay a few pounds extra on ingredients, but so what? It’s just early investment. Doing things that don’t scale in the early days, things which just require personal effort and care, will pay back in multiple ways.

Saying all this, we stopped after a week. It’s stressful being an entrepreneur. A couple of bad reviews*, and the re-emergence of homework have led to us pausing the experiment, perhaps until the next school holidays. But I feel that she learnt an enormous amount in that week. And I found it useful to be reminded of the basics – relevant however simple, complex or slimy your product is.

 

* I can’t believe anyone is interested, but if you are – the primary problem with producing slime in the UK is the unavailability of Borax. It’s now extremely difficult to get hold of this ingredient in the EU, and it’s very important for good quality slime. Instead you have to use substitutes, like contact lens cleaning solutions, which contain Boric Acid. Maybe when we exit the EU, this will revitalise the slime industry 😉

Over-deliver on Your Promises for Free Advertising

Very interesting to see that Atlassian are going to buy Trello for $425m. Crikey – 19 million users in a few short years is pretty impressive and I’m sure it will be great for Atlassian.

It reminded me of when we adopted Trello at Redgate – it spread like wildfire through the organisation. I don’t know who picked it up first, or from where, but within a week or two there were countless conversations, “You have to check out this new Trello thing – it’s great!”. And next thing you know, everyone’s using it, or at least tried it.

What’s the point – that everyone loves great product? Of course. The point is that, from a marketing perspective, what you’ve got here is people doing your job for you (raising awareness of your product, recommending it) for absolutely free. That’s a pretty good return on marketing investment. And how do they do that? By creating a product that over-delivers on the promises they’re making. When you try it out (which is, of course, very easy on a free version or free trial – you don’t have to argue with a sales rep before you get to see the thing), you’re actually more impressed with the product than you thought you’d be.

We’re all used to the opposite. You hear about a product, or find it through Google, and read the blurb – lots of claims about great functionality, ease-of-use, everything you’ll ever need. Then you try the thing – and it disappoints. Bits of obvious functionality aren’t there; usability is poor; a feeling of being hoodwinked in to something. I’ve rarely found in this situation that I’m willing to recommend that product – certainly not pro-actively, but even when asked “Would you use X?” (I’ve got an example below from this week even). Nobody recommends a poor product because it reflects badly on themselves – you don’t want someone coming back to you in a few weeks saying “Why did you recommend that piece of crap? Don’t you know what a great product is? I’ve wasted hours on it”.

Here are examples of products over-delivering, being about right, and under-delivering:

  1. Over-delivering. Well, I would say this, but a key part of Redgate‘s business model is that the products are better than what we say. Our marketing claims are pretty modest (maybe it’s a British thing), but we consistently find when talking to customers that they are enormously impressed by the free trials. Comments like “So easy to use”, “I kept finding great things that it did!”, “Surprised at how complete the product is”, “You’re going to have to prise this out of my cold, dead hands”. Then separately, when we asked customers last year “How did you first hear about Redgate?”, the number one response is “Recommended by a friend or colleague”. As a marketing department, we couldn’t ask for more.
  2. On-par. I’ve just bought a Chronos – a disc that attaches to the back of your existing watch for fitness tracking etc. It basically does exactly what it says on the website! No more, no less. I’m happy with that (I don’t feel conned). If someone asks whether it’s any good, I’ll say Yes. I’m probably not going to effuse about the thing on social media, but it does what it says on the tin.
  3. Under-deliver. We’re starting to use HubSpot more aggressively at Redgate (more on that in later posts). It sells itself very strongly – essentially a platform that allows you to manage all of your marketing activity in one place, report on success, optimise, send emails, manage and nurture leads etc etc. So far I’ve been nothing but disappointed – and the issue is the delta between the claims and what it actually does. It claims to have a full reporting suite – but it’s severely lacking in functionality. It claims to be easy to set up nurturing programs – it just isn’t. Every area I try, I hit blocks (“Why can’t I do that? Surely I can?”) or usability issues (“What, I need to re-enter those details by hand manually?” or similar).

In the third case, someone asked me this week what marketing platforms I’d recommend. My answer “We’re using HubSpot, but I’m not particularly happy with it – I’d try the market leaders (Marketo, Pardot) first.” So I’m recommending products I’ve never seen, over the incumbent.

HubSpot isn’t completely terrible – to me, it feels like a v1.0, with obvious areas for improvement. We’ll persist and work around it’s faults. But the point is – they’re not going to get free marketing from me recommending the tool, because recommendations are generally based on actual usage, not on advertising blurb.

To finish, there’s an obvious point here that often, as a marketing department, you have the product you have, you may not have the influence to get the product changes that you want, so you’ve got to sell what you’ve got. And you certainly can’t go out with a message “It’s okay I guess. It’s got some quirks and the competition is better, but hey, why not give it a go anyway?”. You’d get fired. But, you should have influence on the product – if it really is a nightmare to use, if it’s really unclear how it works in-product, if the bit of functionality that’s missing is the one thing that all of your customers are asking for – you need to petition to get that stuff fixed. In simplistic dollar terms, is $20,000 spent on advertising worse or better than $20,000 on a UX engineer to fix some of the obvious usability flaws in the product?

Year End Book Review – The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

I thought I’d end the year on a book review. It’s not a marketing book, but it is the book that I’ve found most useful and influential this year working in marketing. So I guess in a way it is.

The book is the rather ostentatiously titled The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself by Sean Carroll. Phew! It sounds a bit “much” – there are many books like this around, essentially trying to bring the incomprehensible (quantum physics, amongst other more approachable subjects) to regular folk. I enjoy them, though I’ve long since accepted that I’ll never really understand quantum physics*.

But that’s not why I found it so relevant or interesting. The bit that was so insightful was the section on Bayesian reasoning and beliefs. And the insight that, whether you like it or not, everyone comes to the table with subjective, prior beliefs about any given subject (based on their own history and experiences) – and trying to ignore that is a pointless exercise.

Bayes Theorem is a way of trying to calculate and work out degrees of belief or credences. In essence, it’s a process for trying to work out whether a given proposition about the world is true or not, given a series of observations. A simple version of the theorem is that:

Well what does that mean, and what has that got to do with anything, let alone marketing?

A simpler way of explaining this equation is to describe the process. I’m trying to figure out the credence of something (i.e. whether or not a given proposition is credible). For example, whether my opponent has a particular poker hand, whether someone is lying to me, whether Brexit will be bad for the UK, whether Trump will be a good president, or whether using Twitter is useful for B2B marketing.

You may or may not have evidence for any of these things. But the interesting and important part of this equation is at the end – the prior credences given by individuals to a particular idea. An essential part of Bayes Theorem is that:

Prior beliefs matter. I.e. that everyone has a prior, subjective view on a given topic. And that this prior subjective view manifests itself as, often strongly-held beliefs on any given matter.

Why does this matter? Many, many discussions about a topic begin with people stating their beliefs on a subject – “I think Twitter is vital for a strong digital marketing strategy”. “I think social media is a waste of time for B2B marketing”. How can such mutually exclusive views co-exist (and so many do, in the world of marketing)? I think it’s primarily because there is so little evidence of efficacy and impact in marketing. It’s not that marketing techniques don’t work, it’s just that the hard scientific evidence about what exactly does work, how and to what extent, is woeful. I did a science degree at university and spent much of my 3rd year in tutorials ripping apart published papers (on psychology – my specialism) for experimental inadequacies. And these were papers published in the main psychology journals of the day. If these pre-eminent scientists were making experimental mistakes, the standards of scientific discipline in marketing are 100 years behind.

What’s the problem with this? The problem is that the hard evidence for almost all claims made my marketing gurus and agencies is pretty much absent. Now this doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t still carry out campaigns and activities based on our beliefs. What it means is that you need to accept a little humility when making strong arguments for particular strategies. Most of the arguments start from the prior beliefs of the participants – that they bring to the table based on their past experience (or “path-history”).

So rather than trying to argue that someone is objectively right or wrong on a given subject (how often have you heard yourself make far-too-bold claims for marketing strategy?), accept the beliefs that they bring to the table, see the perspective that they are taking, and try to work with those different beliefs. Understand that everyone is coming in to an argument with prior beliefs; beliefs built up over years of their subjective experience. Bayes Theorem then gives you a formula for how to update your beliefs given evidence, though we all struggle to do that I know. I’ve found this very useful this year, helping me to understand why people come to the table with particular views that seem so different to my own.

But I do thoroughly recommend the book. One of the few to combine philosophy, quantum physics, biology and theology so well in such a readable way.

 

* I find the Core Theory quoted at the end of the book beautiful in its simplicity. It seems to explain everything in such a neat style, but I’m lying if I claim to really comprehend this:

There are Three Types of Marketing – Inbound, Outbound and… Plain Rude

Reading one of the vast number of content marketing pieces from HubSpot, I noticed the following from a basic piece on What is Digital Marketing?, after paragraphs about the virtues of Inbound marketing techniques:

Digital outbound tactics aim to put a marketing message directly in front of as many people as possible in the online space -- regardless of whether it’s relevant or welcomed. For example, the garish banner ads you see at the top of many websites try to push a product or promotion onto people who aren’t necessarily ready to receive it.

Now HubSpot obviously have an agenda here – their whole business model rests on the validity of the Inbound marketing approach over Outbound approaches (such as “garish” banner ads ), and so they’ve over-stated their belief in the inefficiency of ads. But are ads really garish and intrusive? Are they really “push” advertising (rather than the “pull” of good content)? What’s the problem here?

Since becoming CMO of Redgate and, perhaps foolishly, updating my LinkedIn profile to reflect this, I’ve started receiving endless emails from agencies, recruiters, marketing data organisations and so on. And many of these are what, I would call, if not rude, certainly intrusive and over familiar. These techniques have been written about elsewhere – this week alone I’ve had:

  • Use of “RE: Our conversation” in the subject line (really, I don’t remember this!?)
  • Taking names from my LinkedIn network and saying “Your colleague <Insert Name Here> said I should speak to you…” – when I know that’s not true
  • Assumptive closes (“Shall I book 20 minutes in for a chat on Wednesday?”)
  • Stalking (early messages which seem innocent enough, chatting about marketing issues, but then soon turn in to sales patter)

…and so on.

I find all this pretty intrusive. But isn’t it just the same thing as “garish” banner ads, intruding on my field of vision, when I’m trying to get something done on the Internet? Interrupting my work when it should be me in charge of my flow (as per the Inbound model)?

I think this is to overstate the intrusion from banner ads. Firstly, yes there are very interruptive ads which fill the screen, and you have to either play “hunt the X” to try and close them, or wait 15s before you can move on. These are pretty annoying. But most graphical ads aren’t like that – they’re well branded rectangles, which are as ignorable as you like. As a marketer I hope you’ve picked up on the branding, noticed a message, that the ad has lodged somewhere in your subconscious, so that next time you’re looking for a solution you think, “Oh yeah, who were those Redgate guys?”. But of course, you might just ignore them (and I’d be very surprised of you clicked on them – we all know the stats on banner ad click-through rates), and that’s fine.

I don’t feel this is nearly as intrusive as aggressive cold-calling and emailing – these are marketing techniques too, but exhibit the worst traits of “push” marketing – interruptive, based on your timetable, not mine and quite frankly, not leaving me with a particularly positive experience of your company. A well designed ad, perhaps with humour, certainly beautifully designed isn’t in the same category.

As I say, HubSpot have an obvious agenda – to push the Inbound model and disparage outbound techniques, but the latter shouldn’t all be tarred with the same brush. Ads are as popular as ever on the web, and as more options for personalisation and targeting become available to graphical media – combined with the deluge of mediocre content – I feel this un-intrusive channel will have a resurgence.

But you’ll never find me pushing the dishonest cold-call/email (“I spoke to your colleague yesterday about how we could help you..” – no, you didn’t!). That’s truly interruptive marketing, which does nothing but damage to your brand.

Your Primary Job as a Marketing Leader is to Prioritise

I’ve just finished the excellent Complete Guide to B2B Marketing by Kim Ann King. It’s very “List-ey” – it’s full of To Do lists (“Want to figure out your budgets for media spend? Here’s a 7-point list of how to do it”), which I really like. Many marketing books are rather waffly and vague, so a practical guide is always welcome.

But, here’s the rub – by the end of the book it would be very easy to feel completely overwhelmed by the list of things you need to do to be running a world-class marketing organisation! From reading the book you’d be left with the impression that you must be doing all of the following:

  1. Fully integrated web, marketing, customer and predictive analytics
  2. Implemented full experimentation and optimisation platform
  3. Full marketing automation
  4. Advanced personalisation and targeting across all channels
  5. Complete oversight of the marketing funnel from out-of-funnel to leads to MQLs to SQLs to closed
  6. A clean, de-duped and pristine CRM
  7. A full inbound/content strategy
  8. Deep and extensive planning cycles from data to goals to strategies to tactics to results and back round again – carried out quarterly
  9. Segmentation, positioning, messaging, buyer personas and so on for every product group and segment
  10. A Brand awareness plan for new markets
  11. Demand generation activities across all stages of the funnel
  12. Full retention marketing plan for your “existing customer” segment
  13. A plan for organisational enablement for all of the above including budgets, staffing, forecasts
  14. On top of all this, keeping on top of new developments in marketing, self-education and so on

..and this is just scratching the surface. In fact she’s very open in the first chapter about how the role for anyone in marketing today can feel overwhelming, that there is so much to keep on top of.

How do you cope with this? All of the things above seem vital, important – how can you be doing your job properly unless you’re doing all of the above?

I’ve also just re-read Porter’s great article on Strategy (https://hbr.org/1996/11/what-is-strategy – you need an HBR subscription to read it unfortunately). One primary point he makes is to ask the question “What is a strategy?” and one of his tenants that qualifies an activity as “strategic” is whether or not you are making choices to not do something. For example, if at your business you want to “Improve the reporting system so that we can see product performance better” – this might be a big project, but you’re not choosing to not do anything. No-one would choose to “Make reporting worse so that we can’t see what’s going on”. All you’re doing is improving your business effectiveness.

However if your company had two products, A and B, and you said that “We’re only going to sell product A going forward and stop selling product B” – that’s strategic, because someone else could choose to sell product B instead (or stick with both, or neither).

How is this relevant to Kim Ann King’s book? You have to make choices. You have to make choices about which elements of marketing activity you are going to focus on, and to which you are going to say No. This is your job as a marketing leader, to prioritise and say no to things. Anyone can take the list above and propose “Doing all of the above”, but that road leads to a lack of focus and burnout.

How do you choose? It’s the simple, but difficult job of understanding your business, and where your problems are. To take an example from my own organisation, Redgate. There’s a section in the book about “Building a community site, with content to build trust and inbound for your brand”. But, we are fortunate to already have this (a couple of sites, http://www.sqlservercentral.com and http://www.simple-talk.com). It’s not that these can’t be improved, but is it a priority to start a new community site at Redgate? No it isn’t.

This is an easy one though – when you’ve already ticked something on the list. What about all the things you haven’t done yet? This gets more difficult, but then this is your job. Should you spend the next year cleaning and de-duping your CRM system so that you can implement advanced personalisation and targeting? Or re-branding your company? Or building analytical capability for the future? Or implementing a MarTech platform? Or experimenting with new channels?

The job is to diagnose – what are your current problems? What is currently holding your business back, your constraints? What work could you do that would move you towards your company goals next year? This latter point is vital – if your company objectives are about growth rather than, say, cost-cutting, or process improvements, this suggest different activities.

What’s very important is to recognise the different go-to-market strategy and type of company that you work in, compared to others. Perhaps my one criticism of this book is that, though it purports to be specific to B2B marketing, there’s not enough opinion on what is most useful for B2B marketing, and what’s more relevant to B2C. There’s some (e.g. that LinkedIn is more relevant than SnapChat) and there is more of a focus on lead nurturing through to sales people (more relevant to the high-value/low-volume world of traditional B2B), but there isn’t quite enough direction on “This activity is popular about B2C marketers, but really is a waste of time for you”.

This is where your job comes in – what sort of B2B org do you work at? At Redgate, really we’re B2BC. We’re absolutely selling software to businesses – there’s no way Jo Public is interested in SQL Server comparison tools. But, where most traditional B2B orgs are high-value/low-volume with all that entails (low lead volume, high ATV, significant sales nurturing, multiple buyer personas in each org etc etc), we are much closer to B2C in our business model – low ATV, high volume, mass (1:many) digital marketing and so on. So for us, certain activities are more relevant than others. As an example, most marketing automation platforms use a nurturing model based on slowly taking leads through a number of stages (awareness, leads, MQLs, SQLs etc), using personalised content – based on in-depth data and analytics for different customer segments. This is needed because often B2B organisations have complex offerings that need to be explained and “sold” to companies, so that they understand the benefits of spending $500k with that vendor.

But – what if this isn’t you? What if you sell software for $400 that, quite frankly doesn’t need explaining in this way? What if it’s pretty darned obvious what it does, and the free trial tells the end-user everything they need to know? In that scenario, is it worth investing millions of dollars in a new marketing automation platform? What’s the uplift going to be – will you ever get payback?

It’s these hard decisions that you need to make to ensure you and your team don’t get overwhelmed with new activities. You’re making strategic decisions when you decide not to do one thing and instead do another. May be you put marketing automation off for a year (despite the overwhelming message from the industry that you have to be be doing it ) and focus on finding new customer segments instead? Maybe for you, it’s about starting a significant community platform this year, and everything else can just keep ticking along?

Once you’ve decided, there’s then the equal challenge of leading the change through your organisation. Every idea (automation, branding, content, channel, sales support etc etc) will have its advocates in your company. You need to hold on to the logic for why you’ve chosen A, not B, and try to get that adopted through the company so that everyone is working to the same goals. The strategy is just the start of the process…

Write Content That People Actually Want to Read

This feels like a pointless blog post – the think I’m going to say seems so obvious, I shouldn’t need to say it. Still, I see examples where this doesn’t happen, so perhaps it’s worth re-iterating the point.

Here’s the incredible insight – if you want people to read content that you write, then it has to be genuinely interesting or useful for them. Erm, that’s it.

Standard marketing practice is to find customers, acquire them and retain them – not complicated (extremely difficult! But not complicated). Inbound marketing turns the first of these on its head – you help customers to find you; then you acquire and retain them. And the main point I want to make here is that for any of this to work, the content you create has to be something people actually want to read, comment on and share. I don’t know why this point needs to be made but, as I say, I see examples all the time of content created which ticks the boxes for the marketing department (it’s about our products, tick!), but which no-one in their right mind would ever actually be interested in.

There are 1000s of books, articles and blogs on inbound marketing – about being non-interruptive, matching the customers’ journey (rather than forcing them down an artificial journey of your own making), the importance of SEO, of remarkable content and so on. For a great primer, I’d strongly recommend HubSpot’s book Inbound Marketing: Attract, Engage, and Delight Customers Online (and more on them later).

But the model is simplicity itself – whether you’re B2B, B2C, appealing to Gen X, Y or Z – customers today don’t like being interrupted. As a marketer you need to gain their permission to interact with them. How do you do that? By creating things (blog posts, videos, webinars etc) that they genuinely find interesting. If people find it interesting, they’ll share it on social media, comment on it, link to it from their own sites. This leads to Google rating it – and your domain – highly in search results for a given topic. People then find it (for free, not via Adwords), and because the content is strongly associated with your brand, customers find out about you, see you as a thought leader, trust you and give you permission to tell them about your products.

As I say, simple (just not easy). But at the heart of the model is the need for content customers genuinely want to read or view. Otherwise the whole model breaks down – the content isn’t actually read, it isn’t shared, no-one comments on it, and all that work just gets lost amongst the billions of other web pages out there. The worst culprits are thinly-disguised adverts for products. If, for example, a product’s unique proposition is that it works in a certain way, then endless articles about how you, the customer really have to work that way – may seem clever (“It’s not about our product really, it’s advice on how we think you should work! Honest!”), but the customers can generally see right through it. It’s hard to give concrete examples, without naming and shaming companies, but just this week I read an article from a company about how their very specific methodology for implementing software development practices was obviously the one and only way of working. So blatant!

And yes, this gets a tick for being relevant to your company, and the marketing team are happy because they’ve done their job of producing some content about their product, which isn’t just a glossy advert.

But who would share this article? With their friends and colleagues? “Look Twitter followers, can I share with you a blatant advert for someone’s product?”. I’ve almost never seen this happen in the real world. Why not? Well I don’t know about you but I find it slightly embarrassing sharing what is, clearly, just company marketing with people I know. Of course as marketing folk we’d love this to happen, but it’s not realistic.

What people share is content that’s genuinely useful or interesting. NB: It has to be in your domain – I could post an article about Radiohead’s new album coming out this summer. Might get a few readers, but they’re not the same people who are likely to want the software produced by my company.

The masters of this, IMHO, are HubSpot. Look at their marketing blog – http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing. As the headline states – “Where Marketers Go To Grow”. And the articles are exactly that – if you work in marketing they repeatedly write content which I find genuinely interesting and useful. Things that help me do my job better. And I share them with colleagues at work, because I think they might find them useful too. Sometimes I share them on Twitter or LinkedIn. Why on Earth would I do that? It’s certainly not because of some allegiance to them or because I want to promote them – why would I do that? Weird. I do it despite the fact that it comes from a corporation, because of the quality of insight. And obviously because all their articles are about sales and marketing – and sales/marketing software is what they produce – then the impression that HubSpot “Know what they’re talking about” only grows in my mind. And when we came to look at marketing automation software – HubSpot was right up there at the top of our list.

And this is what you have to produce too.  Stop thinking about flogging your product and start thinking about what people want to read in your domain. If you sell bathroom tiles, what about some articles showing off inspirational ideas for your bathroom from top designers? You can imagine someone sharing this with their other half, “What about this as an idea for us?”. If you’re a taxi service, articles about getting around big cities for new visitors? Shared as “I found this about transport in Detroit, let’s use it for our trip next week”. If you make machine-learning software for banks, how about some simple how-to articles on current methodologies, that a potential customer can share with her boss to explain all the clever stuff she’s working on?

I don’t think it’s complicated – something in your domain that people actually want to read. Sure, you then need to make sure this leads to opportunities for your business, and that takes a little faith and measurement. But it’s all based on a foundation of great content – without that you’re just doing traditional advertising in a different format.

If a Brewery Can Innovate, So Can You

This weekend we went to Southwold and Aldeburgh – two of my favourite places in the UK, for various reasons. One of these reasons is the Adnams Brewery, based in Southwold. It’s been going for over a century and has always produced wonderful beer (as well as other drinks).

But a few years ago I noticed a new range of beers in the shop. It’s a new brand – “Jack Brand” in fact, and includes 4 or 5 beers, all of which I can happily say are really interesting, new beers. They are to an extent riding the wave of “Craft beers” of various sorts, the beers are often quite hoppy and will appeal to customers who like that sort of thing (including me), but that’s not quite the point.

The thing that’s most impressive is that a company working in what is generally perceived to be quite a staid industry has managed to do some interesting commercial innovation. And they’re a small company too, I doubt they have enormous research departments to look in to this sort of thing.

They’ve innovated in terms of the product (they’re not just re-labelling something else, but have come up with new, different tastes) and the brand. I also like the names of the beers (e.g. the one pictured – “Innovation IPA”!).

And I’m pretty sure it’s been very successful – I’ve seen the beer in a lot of pubs in Cambridge and it seems to be doing well.

So, if a brewery can do it, why can’t you? If they’ve managed to get their marketing team and their brewers together and come up with something this successful, what’s stopping you from doing the same? Of course there are 10s of thousands of articles and books on how to get the innovation process going, how to manage it in a standardised way and so on. But I’m not sure it’s that complicated – I’d be surprised to learn that the small group of people at Adnams spent months instigating a complex innovation process at the office.

So the question is, what’s stopping you re-creating something like this in your business? A new representation of an existing product? A new, innovating way of using your product a different way? A new pricing system (monthly payments, daily even, free for non-commercial etc etc!?)? A radically cheaper, stripped down version for a different market? Or a much more expensive version with added services for a different market? Different brands for different groups of customers? Combinations of your products for different people?

And the list goes on – many of these innovations are easy to implement, but they’re often not easy to make happen, particularly in larger organisations.

And maybe that’s why Adnams managed to do this so easily – they’re a small company, presumably with little red tape and a culture where these things can happen without too much pain. What can you do at your org to foster this sort of activity? Do you block new ideas or nurture them? What can you do to help?