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I was interviewing for the CMO role at Avvo, an online marketplace for lawyers. A board member asked about the plans I would use to market the company. I started by describing how I would fix their website, which was not monetizing very well (for a number of reasons). She stopped me: “What does that have to do with marketing?”
A CEO friend of mine described an executive meeting where they were brainstorming solutions for some strategic dilemmas. Throughout the conversation, the CMO remained silent. My friend asked for her opinion and she replied, “when you guys figure out the strategy, let me know and I will market it.” She was let go a couple of weeks later.
Strategy is marketing.
Kevin Hillstrom writes and consults about catalog marketing. Although he is usually hired as a marketing consultant, Hillstrom found that 80% of the time, the companies’ primary issue is actually a merchandising problem.
Fixing merchandising is a marketing problem.
I joined A Place for Mom (a senior-living referral service) to address the lack of growth. But before I could even get started on marketing, I needed to spend 18 months fixing the sales process and the call center and data tracking systems and account management and hand-offs and collections (and so much more!).
Everything is a marketing problem.
At General Assembly, I thought I faced a marketing problem. As I implemented new strategies, though, I realized I was pushing water uphill. GA had quickly grown into the major provider of practical tech education courses, because 1) it had no significant competition, and 2) there was pent-up demand for these types of programs. After we captured many of the early customers, competition in the space intensified, and we were left fighting for our share of new clients.
Product lifecycle is a marketing problem.
My wife was hired to help a school in Africa with their goal of attracting students from America. She entered the project planning to identify the awareness and marketing obstacles that stood in the way of getting in front of US students. After spending time on a campus without a gym, fresh food, or public transit, she realized there were bigger questions to consider. Upon learning that US students could neither receive any sort of loans nor apply via the Common App (a centralized submission process), she was skeptical that improved marketing would lure many US high schoolers willing to pay $30K/year in tuition.
Product is a marketing problem.
Avvo was running a bunch of TV ads, but they still couldn’t make the economics work. They assumed the challenge must have resulted from ineffectual creative decisions or ineffective ad buys. But the issue was something else entirely — their website created a ton of value and then gave that value away to lawyers for free. Until Avvo improved their fundamental monetization problem, it did not matter if their TV spots were well crafted or well timed.
Over the years, I have advised dozens of companies with their marketing conundrums; time and again, I dig into the details, only to discover that the real issue is something else. Of course, some marketing plans are broken and some marketing problems can be fixed. In so many cases, though, there are underlying flaws in companies’ operations that drag down the effectiveness of their marketing strategies.
The African school has two campuses. Their expensive “flagship” campus is struggling, while the “low cost” one is thriving. Marketing might account for that difference, but the two campuses share a marketing team! The school also offers a “lifelong learning” product that’s growing at extraordinary rates, even though it doesn’t have a marketing team at all. For many companies, marketing does, in fact, pose genuine problems, but those concerns are usually overcome when more attention is paid to improving the product-market fit.
Before you try to solve your growth problem with better paid search and display ads and organic content, it’s best to look at the overall picture and assess where the real bottlenecks are. You might be surprised. Most marketing problems are part of bigger business problems.
Keep it simple,
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Edward Nevraumont is a Senior Advisor with Warburg Pincus. The former CMO of General Assembly and A Place for Mom, Edward previously worked at Expedia and McKinsey & Company. For more information, including details about his latest book, check out Marketing BS.