A couple of years ago I was given an incredible opportunity to build a marketing department from the ground up. The truth is that I had no idea what I was doing.
Previously, I had dabbled in email marketing and web design before doing a bit of communication and branding for a nonprofit, and then I took a job as a social media marketing consultant. So I did have some marketing experience, but definitely not enough to seamlessly design and execute a complex marketing strategy while managing a team of marketers.
But those are always the most fun and exciting moments of your career, right? When someone believes in you and gives you once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something you might not be qualified to do on paper (even though deep down you know you are perfect for it).
So I decided to jump head-first into my new role, give it hell and learn as fast as possible.
And overall it went pretty well. Sure, I made some mistakes, did a few stupid things and spent a lot of time figuring out stuff that now seems totally rudimentary, but I was also able to build a brand that is now well-known in our local market, create content that people look forward to downloading and set up a full-blown marketing automation system.
I often think about how much time I could have saved and stress I could have avoided had someone sat me down at the beginning and taught me the big lessons I muddled through along the way.
So in an effort to lend a hand to rookie marketers and new heads of marketing, here are the six big lessons I wish I knew before I built a marketing department from the ground up—the ones that will save you a lot of time, frustration and money.
Lesson #1: Marketing does not exist within a bubble
For most companies, a truly good marketing strategy is one that integrates marketing into other key departments like sales, product development, and human resources. But if you’re new to marketing or if you’re building a marketing department for the first time, it’s easy to adopt a bubble mentality and simply focus on the things that we traditionally think of as marketing: your blog, the website, content marketing, events, Google Analytics, etc.—things that don’t require much collaboration with other departments.
This is understandable given that most new marketing departments are short on resources, both in terms of money and people. Moreover, within technology companies marketing is often viewed as the bells and whistles you add to a product once it’s ready to launch, or even after it’s gone to market, when in fact marketing should be an integral part of the product development process from the get-go.
Treating marketing as something that operates completely outside other departments can lead to several problems: sales messaging that is out of line with the company mission and value proposition; a product that does not speak your customer’s language or address their pain points; a product development plan that does not prioritize the features that are most important to your users.
But there’s good news: the rise in popularity of the term “growth hacking” has made people in leadership, engineering, and sales aware of just how crucial it is to integrate marketing into product development processes from the very beginning (and it’s given marketing a much cooler name).
Since good marketing is interdisciplinary, marketers need to become expert relationship-builders. They need to make friends across other departments and learn how to influence people so that their colleagues enjoy working with them and are eager to make things happen in order to please them. Marketers need to be able to talk effectively to salespeople, engineers and graphic designers (which at times can feel like switching between Spanish, German, and French).
Lesson #2: Keep it simple, especially in the beginning
A common rookie marketer mistake is to think that a good marketing strategy is one that includes all the popular marketing tactics, like SEM; display; social media; a beautiful, responsive website; a blog; a full-blown content marketing strategy, and so on. Everyone is always talking about this stuff, so we should be doing all of it, right?
One of the smartest decisions you can make when building a new marketing department is to keep things as lean as possible. This way you can focus on quality over quantity, and you can put energy into the channels and tactics that will give you disproportionate results.
How do you avoid wasting money and time on things that won’t work? How do you know where to market before you even start? By talking to your target audience.
Actually, this should be the very first thing you do––design a survey for people who represent your target customer with the goal of understanding the following:
- Where do they get their industry news? What blogs, websites, newsletters and magazines do they read? Who do they follow on Twitter? Which brands and personalities do they follow on Facebook?
- What kind of information are they looking for regarding your industry?
- What are their major pain points? What keeps them up at night?
You can complement your survey results with online research about your target customers. Follow people who represent your target audience on Twitter, see what they’re asking about on sites like Quora or take a look at what they’re saying about competing products in reviews and write-ups.
You can do two key things with this information:
- Understand how to market to your audience (what kind of language to use, what keywords to put in your copy, where to advertise, where to guest blog, which influencers you need to convert into product ambassadors, and so on)
- Determine what features and benefits will make your product most attractive to your customer.
The book Nail It then Scale It: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Creating and Managing Breakthrough Innovation has a great section on how to utilize a deep understanding of your customer to create a killer marketing plan. Read it!
Once you’ve identified the channels and tactics that are most likely to get your product in front of your customers’ eyes and designed a lean marketing strategy based on this information, you’re off to a great start. But starting simple is just half the battle; the other half is keeping your strategy lean over time. After all, opportunities to make things more complicated always come up.
What culprits are most likely to throw you off course?
- Your boss – If you run a marketing department it’s quite possible that you report to the CEO or COO (i.e., someone who is not a marketer and who is doing a million other things besides managing you). In this case, it’s likely that your boss will ask you, “Why aren’t we doing PPC?!” “Why don’t we have a blog?!” “Why don’t we have a fancy team page on our website with everyone’s name, job title, and life story?!”
It’s your job to explain to them why the company is present in some channels and not others, and why certain things are higher priority. Use the data from your marketing research to back up your position, and be adamant about keeping things lean.
- Perfectionism – Whether it’s your own or your boss’s, perfectionism is your enemy. Why? Because it is the opposite of lean. Instead of proofreading everything a million times and obsessing over the color scheme of your new ebook, pick one or two things that you are going to do exceptionally well, and be happy with about 80% perfect for the rest.
Lesson #3: Customer research is not a one-time thing
Once you’ve designed and executed an in-depth survey to get inside your customer’s head, don’t simply stop there; find ways to continue to learn about your customer and use this knowledge to improve your marketing strategy.
No matter how diligently you researched your customers in the beginning, there will be things you missed. Moreover, they’ll be things you will only be able to know by tapping your existing customer base or loyal mailing list down the line.
If people download content from your website, use progressive profiling in your forms in order to ask them new questions about what they do, who they are and what they want to learn about. Design periodic surveys for existing customers in order to understand how you can make your product better, and talk to leads who didn’t end up buying from you in order to understand why. You can also ask webinar attendees what they thought of your content.
Constant feedback and new information about your audience are key to tweaking your strategy in the right direction.
Lesson #4: Get a solid analytics & testing strategy in place as soon as possible
In a field like marketing—where new social media platforms make their debut on a daily basis and algorithm updates constantly change how you should do SEO or what makes people see your social content—it can be a challenge to prioritize which areas of marketing you want to learn deeply, which you simply want to be proficient in and in what order you’re going to learn it all.
If I could go back in time I would make understanding how to do analytics well a top priority from the very beginning. Why? Because in order to create an effective marketing strategy you need to determine which channels work, and which don’t, as quickly as possible—something you do by culling insights from key metrics.
Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of time and money on tactics that aren’t doing your business any good.
Analytics is an extremely complex topic, and you definitely can’t learn it overnight. Each channel has its own quirks when it comes to measuring, and there are many different tools for collecting data and ways to set up your digital marketing infrastructure.
Here are a few resources to get you started:
- Technical MKT
- Web Analytics: An Hour a Day
- Digital Marketing and Measurement Model
- The Beginner’s Guide to Startup Analytics
- Marketing Analytics 101: How to Measure the Effectiveness of Your Website
Lesson #5: Document systems to withstand turnover
Even if you have an amazing company culture or are a wonderful manager, at some point a key employee is going to leave. It’s inevitable. Unfortunately, when someone leaves you’ll have to teach a new employee how your marketing department works, which can be incredibly time-consuming.
If you’re managing a marketing team or even just a few freelancers that you work with regularly, you’ll want to invest time in documenting the key systems that keep your marketing machine running smoothly. This way, when a new hire comes on board you’ll have in-depth explanations of how things work that she can review and learn before coming to you with questions.
What does documenting a system look like? It can be anything from a detailed social media marketing plan laid out in a PDF to a flowchart explaining your lead nurturing strategy or a Google Doc outlining each step required to produce your monthly webinar.
Not only do these documented systems help you transition between employees; they also mean you don’t have to memorize every detail of your marketing strategy.
Lesson #6: Setting up a marketing automation system is a ton (A TON!) of work
One of the most laborious parts of building a new marketing department is getting the lead capturing and marketing automation system in place.
This was probably more complicated for us than it is for most companies since much of our material is in two languages (English and Spanish). Regardless, if you’re doing this for the first time you are in for a ride.
Designing a system for sorting and following up with new leads based on where they came from and what they are looking for is complex, especially when you’re integrating multiple tools, like a customer relationship management tool and marketing automation software.
If I could do it again I would have simply hired an expert in marketing automation to help us set this up and train the marketing team. It’s a little extra money, but it is well worth the time you’ll save trying to figure it all out on your own.
Building a new marketing department is both incredibly fun and incredibly overwhelming. Truth be told there’s no magic bullet that will make you get it 100% right the first time around, but if you keep these lessons in mind you’ll be well on your way to creating something amazing.
Now we’d love to hear from you: What’s one thing you wish someone had told you before you built your marketing department (or before you started out as a marketer)?
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