Marketing Beyond Acquisition

In my conversations with people in the startup world – from angel investors through entrepreneurs and employees with vast startup experience – I often hear about their perceptions of the marketing role as being pretty limited to acquisition. It is shocking to me how prevalent this POV is. I can’t count the times I heard people saying that “product development defines the product, and marketing gets the customers”. Always in this sequence.There are several factors to potentially explain this perception. First – startups are often strained for resources and people have to divide and conquer. Rarely can teams afford to play roles beyond their own, as people are already overworked with their core responsibilities. Second – timely, cost-effective customer acquisition is a matter of life-or-death to most startups. Whether you need it to actually fund your operations or to hit milestones for investors and other stakeholders, acquisition and CPA are the things that keep most marketing people awake at night.

I’d like to argue, however, that expanding marketing’s role into helping define the product could save companies a lot of headache. Taking the time to identify the value propositions that are most enticing to customers, and how these translate into product features customers would actually engage with (not to mention pay for) is the heart of the marketing discipline. When this process is followed, organizations actually end up with products that cultivate users and possess a lot more viral power. In other words, the role of marketing, in addition to finding customers, is to help create a product that will barely need marketing. There’s only one catch though: it takes a complete marketer to make that kind of contribution, and the skill set of a complete marketer goes way beyond, let’s say, managing a PPC campaign.

Surprisingly so, some large corporations seem to have nailed this type of cross-pollination better than some startups. It’s almost counter-intuitive. While in many large consumer product organizations new product development is a marketing function, in many startups marketing is still handed the product and limits itself to crafting messages and managing acquisition efforts. One hypothesis to explain this is that it’s been generally accepted that growth in the startup world comes from technological innovation, not from great marketing thinking permeating an organization. I would argue that expanding the definition of the marketing role could take success rates to whole new levels.