Lessons in marketing from some of tech’s brightest minds

Make no mistake – getting marketing right is one of the biggest challenges facing startups today. As our own VP of Product, Paul Adams, likes to say, “If you build a great product but no one has ever heard of it, have you really built a great product?”

This week we released Intercom on Marketing, a book which compiles the most important lessons we’ve learned, both marketing Intercom and building products for marketers. To mark the occasion this week’s podcast is a special compilation of some of the many guests we’ve had on the show talking about different aspects of marketing.

You’ll hear from:


Des Traynor on the genesis of marketing at Intercom

Matt Hodges: I was our first marketing hire. Who owned the job of marketing before then?

Des Traynor: At the time the narrative was we don’t have marketing. People like to boast about not having marketing, but actually that’s not a great thing to say. We didn’t say it like that. We said we haven’t done marketing yet. We always figured marketing would be this extra gear, and it turned out to be. People can get a little too boasty or confident about the fact that they have yet to do marketing. They talk about it like it’s a home run, as if all they need to do is hire Mr. or Mrs. Marketing and all of a sudden demand will just fly off the shelves. It doesn’t actually work like that.

Who did marketing? Well, it depends. If you’re talking about who designed a homepage that would have been the work of Eoghan, our CEO, and Frank, our designer. Who was generating the buzz on a day-to-day basis? That was me. I was writing weekly newsletters. I wrote 93 of the first 100 blog posts. We published two to three posts a week back then. I also ran the Twitter account where we’d share all the stuff. Back then, we also used to share links that we’d read from different parts of the world that we thought were good as well. I talked to our customers. I did all the webinars. That was all on my shoulders in a sense. We never would have called that marketing. We would have called that “just keep the buzz going” or some abstract word for that.

I don’t think that was necessarily wrong. Marketing is genuinely one of the hardest functions to hire because they’re really good at selling themselves by virtue of it, but in general, you have a lot of different challenges. One is that not all brands are equal. Not all products are susceptible to the same types of marketing or the same approaches. At the same time you’re in an industry that likes to define itself by playbooks that say here’s how you do this and here’s how you do that. That, in our experience, hasn’t been something that works. Either through stubbornness or through some sharp insight, we’ve decided to do things our own way. That’s what feels better for us, but it doesn’t mean that you have to hire people who are bringing a wealth of raw aptitude and IQ, an open mind about how to do things and an enthusiasm for the role. Someone like yourself actually embodies that for us, but the thinking wasn’t that mature at the time. It’s hard.

Not all products are susceptible to the same types of marketing.

Most startups genuinely think, “We’re going to put a screenshot on the homepage. We’ll put a tagline on it, which will be something like ‘ticket tracking reimagined’, have an email signup and we’re done. Box checked, back to product.” Then there’s this cynical thing that startups have, that at some point they say, “We’re going to bring in someone who’s got striped shoes, striped suits and hair gel, and they’re going to do all the real stuff, but we’re intellectually above that.” Actually, you’re not.

There’s so much beautiful, elegant literature about marketing. David Aaker’s writing on how to establish a brand, for instance. The whole theory of brand architecture is really interesting. Truly, intellectually thinking about how you generate demand and how you create, capture and consume. There’s so much there. You just don’t know it.

Marketers don’t do themselves any big favors. There are lots of good blogs that talk about how to build a product and how to build a business. There’s very little good marketing material out there. I’ve been pushing our team to try and contribute but there’s not as many thought leaders in the marketing space for SaaS as there are for product. To really change this perception we need to get people out there who are well known to be good marketers and yet they’re not the black hat SEO people.

Matt: I’m still here three years later, so things have gone somewhat right. I know a lot of startups really do struggle with their first marketing hire and trying to find the right person. Based on the mistakes that we’ve made and the successes we’ve seen at Intercom, what advice would you give fellow founders looking to make that first marketing hire? Are there any specific qualities, characteristics or skills that they should be looking for?

Des: I think starting with product marketing actually makes sense. Understand that marketing is not a team. It’s not just marketers and they’re all somehow this interchangeable thing. There are different types of marketers and there are different types of marketing functions. That’s really important to know.

Secondly, you need to understand where your first problem lies. We really wanted a sharper way to communicate to the world what Intercom is. That is product marketing. However, if your app is quite clean and tight in scope maybe it’s very self evident. Say you do expense tracking. That’s literally what you do, so maybe communicating that isn’t your first challenge. Maybe your first challenge is actually penetrating Fortune 500 companies or getting all of the world talking about expense tracking. You might have different challenges.

If you’re in a situation where you’re producing a product that is both incredibly valuable and hard to explain, your first challenge is positioning, it’s packaging, it’s, “What is the product?” That’s where we started.

Product marketing is also a good place to start because great product marketers are great product people and great product people are great marketers. You find some intellectual common ground really quickly between those two sets of people that you don’t necessarily find when you bring in the SEO guru. That’s not to be dismissive of the SEO guru. I don’t mean to belittle their work. I just mean there’s less shared ground between how you do keyword stuff on a blog post with how you make product decisions. Product and product marketing are so beautifully joined that it’s a great inroad to start a marketing team from. But again, that only makes sense if you’re that type of product.

If you have a consumer mobile app and you just want to crank up demand, maybe your first marketer is somebody who knows online advertising really well. I genuinely don’t know. But the traits you’re looking for are somebody who gets the product, somebody who loves the product, somebody who is intellectually able to match the people there and understands the constraints of “we can’t build everything and yet we need to build stuff that resonates with our audience”. Someone who understand that some stuff will come later and some stuff will be shipped today. They’re all the traits you need.

Krithika Muthukumar on being Stripe’s first marketer

Stripe's first marketer – Krithika Muthukumar
Krithika: When I joined Stripe about four years ago, I was actually the first person in marketing. My work spanned anything from positioning and branding to developer campaigns, product launches to writing copy. For three years, I was the only person in marketing at Stripe. So I’ve done everything from working with our sales teams to doing co-marketing with some of our largest partners and working on our community efforts for the different audiences that we serve. As of last year, we’ve started building up the team and now we have a small but mighty team of about 12 people here at Stripe.

Adam: What type of expectations did they set you up for on day one? What were the first challenges they gave you?

Krithika: It was an exercise in prioritization and in many ways I had the leeway to set the priorities for the function. You have to make marketing work towards the business goals that you have. At Stripe, there has been three very distinct eras or epochs that I’ve been through. When I first joined Stripe it was literally just the homepage and documentation. I went on a support rotation and was speaking to customers for a couple of days and noticed that many of them had very similar questions – “Do you guys support subscription billing? Do you guys support paying out to people?” And, of course, we did but they had no reason to know.

The first bit for product marketing is always trying to make sure that you’re telling your customers the very basic things about your features and your functionality and your products, so that they can understand what it is that your product supports and can make a decision about whether to use your product or not. That was really the first thing that I did at Stripe.

The one thing that I really try to be mindful of, is to not launch and forget.

The second thing was getting launches under control. We have a continuous deploy process so our engineers would launch things into production and into the hands of customers and would write up a blog post about it, if they remembered to. When I first got there we were establishing things like sending emails to our users, we were establishing new channels such as events or websites or landing pages to get the word out about a new feature or product and really connecting our users with the products as well.

Adam:How do you go about handling prioritization for launches? Are there any guiding principles that you use?

Krithika: Like most companies we have a very loose tiering structure – tier one, tier two, tier three. Tier ones are the launches that will get press support, they’ll often get a landing page, full sales training, whatever we can do to really push that product. The tier two launches are often a blog post or a targeted email message or an email campaign to our users. It might also involve some sales training, it really depends.

I think the meta point is that we’re not trying to get too prescriptive about the menu of launch options that you get. Because we’re trying to be thoughtful and mindful that every launch or every feature has a specific audience in mind and has a specific business need it’s trying to fulfill so our marketing tries to stem from that. So we try to set the business goals and the objectives first and then build the right marketing campaigns around that to really meet those goals.

I think the one thing that I really try to be mindful of, is to not launch and forget. Often marketing can jump from launch to launch and then of trickles out or dies. What we aim to do is to make sure that we are keeping track of the product’s metrics, keeping track of engagement, adoption, usage and influencing those numbers over time. We aim to bake into our processes ways that we can continue to put the product out there, continue to iterate on the messaging. Our end goal is to layer in more stats, more hard numbers, more ways to quantify the ROI that will actually be even more compelling to future prospects and users.

Joanna Wiebe on the value of email marketing

Copy Hackers founder Joanne Wiebe
Geoffrey Keating: You’ve written extensively on helping marketers write email that gets opened and leads to conversions. What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve seen businesses make with their marketing emails?

Joanna Wiebe: Taking email seriously is the number one thing, and that doesn’t mean take it seriously as in treat it like a serious thing, it means treat it like a serious business opportunity. It was about two years into Copy Hackers when I realized that we’re an email business. We would be zero without email, nothing would happen. We’d get some people to our site, but we would never be able to sell them anything or send more content their way or do anything good for them without collecting email addresses. You have to identify the thing that grows your business, and so many times email is that thing.

There are rare exceptions where email isn’t that thing. I’m sure if you’re in gaming, email isn’t going to drive people back, there’s other things that are going to be built in. But if you’re in software, or service businesses, email is how you drive sales.

So number one is take it seriously. Make it a real part of your marketing. People spend a lot of time optimizing their homepage, or redoing their pricing table, and that’s fine if your emails are performing well. If your emails aren’t performing well, go work on that immediately. Then once you’re in there, really assess your emails honestly. Not as somebody who is worried about the UX; assess them as your actual recipient, as the person who is going to get this email on their mobile phone or at their desk, and allow yourself to read through them.

With that comes getting rid of all the crap you think is important when it comes to writing copy. Seven times a day, I hear, “Joanna, people don’t read online.” People do read online, and they will read your emails if they are interesting. People will not read anything, anywhere that is boring, ever. It doesn’t matter where it is. If it’s boring, they won’t read it.

People will not read anything, anywhere that is boring, ever.

People think, “I’m writing about business stuff, or I’m writing a sales email, so of course it’s going to be boring.” Well, don’t make it boring anymore. Try like testing it where it’s not boring this time. That’s one of the biggest things. First take it seriously, then make the them engaging. Often means that you have to shift up your approach.

A one-to-one email often goes over far better than a business-to-many, or a business-to-one email. If it’s Wistia sending an email, versus Chris at Wistia, that’s an interesting test. Test that versus just Wistia sending that email. Or test a Success Manager against the company.

Writing it in the narrative style is another thing, where you open with a hook. Treating every email like it’s a mini sales letter. We did this with Wistia, and I wrote about it on the Copy Hackers’ blog. We tested eight onboarding emails. They have three sequences that are triggered based on different activities that you do, and we worked on the third trigger sequence. This whole sequence comes at the end of the trial in most cases, and it’s where you’re trying to move people from trial user to paying customer. Those are my favorite places to optimize. They’re usually a good way to get a real read on whether what you’re doing is going to move people or not. Because at the end of the day, they either give you a credit card, or they don’t give you your credit card. Then you can learn something real.

Sujan Patel on when to start growth marketing

Veteran SaaS marketer Sujan Patel
Adam: You and I are both in agreement that many startups don’t bring in marketing, in general early enough. Looking at growth marketing specifically, when is a startup ready to move beyond word of mouth, if they’re fortunate enough to have gotten it, and begin experimenting with those tactics?

Sujan: Once you figure out product/market fit, it’s immediately time to figure out what Andrew Chen and Brian Balfour call product/channel fit. It’s immediately time to figure out your marketing channels, and more so trying to find the one or two marketing channels you can use to go from wherever you’re at to that next level. That whole process of first investing into growth marketing isn’t, “Can I get social ads to work? Can I get AdWords to work? Can I do SEO? Can I do content marketing?” You have to invest in one or two.

After finding product/market fit, marketers should look for what Brian Balfour calls product/channel fit. Read more about the concept here.

Look at the biggest companies out there, like Apple and Microsoft. Each company usually has one main channel and two or three secondary channels. It’s never been the case that a startup with limited resources can achieve success at three different things at the same time, so find one that you want to enter in and then as you get that one humming along, go after the next one and then go after the next one.

There is such a thing as investing in marketing too early.

Let’s say you’re trying to raise money. It’s probably not good to go invest into content marketing and SEO as a primary channel to move the needle because they take too long. Spend it on ads or outbound sales.

Adam: From the perspective of a growth marketer then, let’s say they come into startup and there’s a good, long stream of content. They’ve been doing a great job at content marketing for a while, but they’re still working out the product kinks. Can a growth marketer do their job well while the product team works out the product issues? Or does there need to be a great product in place right away for this to work?

Sujan: The product is always a moving target. I don’t think it’s ever going to be perfect. But, there is such a thing as investing in marketing too early. Unfortunately, at my first SaaS endeavor contentmarketer.io, which has pivoted to Mailshake, we made that exact mistake. So yes, you can definitely invest too early.

If you don’t have a product that can fit that channel, then I would recommend not leveraging that. For example, at contentmarketer.io, we had a product that was kind of okay and we were still validating product/market fit. I went to town naturally as a marketer. I built an audience. I built an email list. We started blogging. We got lots and lots of traffic. People even converted into customers. But the feedback we got from the first month was like, “I don’t think this product is right for me. It doesn’t fit.” We wasted that whole channel and we had too many people talking about us. That sounds like a good problem to have, but it’s a really bad one because their first impression of us was a product that doesn’t work for them or a bad product.

In the early days, if you’re figuring out your product and it’s still not fully ironed out, lay the groundwork on some of this stuff. Go lay the groundwork of content that you know is going to be potentially optimized or something that can rank. Go to town on channels that you can turn on and off, like outbound or cold email or advertising. Make sure when you turn them on you get feedback and data, and then when you turn it off until you’re ready to go.

Lucy Allen on taking your startup’s story to press

Edelman PR's Head of Bay Area, Lucy Allen
Jennifer Kutz: What characterizes a really strong story? In other words, what’s newsworthy and what’s something that you can rely on to take to the press?

Lucy Allen: News is the psychology of the unexpected. If your news story doesn’t pass the “so what?” test then it’s not a news story. If it doesn’t somehow surprise the reader or tell them something they didn’t already know, then it’s not news. As an internal communicator or a communicator of any sort, you really need to be harsh on yourself when assessing the value of your news.

The other way I think about this is, business media typically writes about just two things: people and money. If your story doesn’t have a strong human element and can’t talk about the people whose lives it’s affecting, or it doesn’t talk about money in a way that’s meaningful to individuals, to consumers, or that shows how you are moving markets, then it probably doesn’t have the right ingredients for a news story. That’s a good guide mark to ensure that you don’t just get lost in the weeds of your product, but that you think about the wider ramifications of your story.

Business media typically writes about just two things: people and money.

A startup may not have vast numbers of customers or great big partner ecosystem to talk about yet. What you do have is your founders. A lot of the value for those private companies comes from the credibility of the founders. The founders’ story, and not just the story of founding the particular company that you’re working on at the moment, but the founders’ history and credibility, is really important. You can tell that in a series of resume-like bullet points. You should also tell that through the form of your own personal story. What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced? That will resonate much more.

Jennifer: A lot of startups, especially once they become VC funded, think about enlisting a PR agency. How does a company know whether that’s the right decision for them? What’s the pros and cons of perhaps keeping PR in-house or working with an agency? Does company size affect that in some way?

Lucy: There are typically three phases that a startup goes through in terms of their communications needs. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll tie that to the different funding rounds, although of course it’s different for every organization. At Series A, your needs are usually more focused around getting credibility and understanding of your technology. Your proposition is likely to be not part of an existing category.

If it is a part of an existing category, it’s at least a new perspective on it. There’s some education to be done. Getting attention early on is all about making sure there’s an understanding with your very specific target audiences of what it is you’re trying to communicate. That may be best done internally, because those are the people who have an understanding of the technology or the products or the proposition. That said, that’s also the phase where you have a small team. You may not have a marketer or a communications expert in-house, so you many need to turn to somebody externally to help you take that message and communicate it.

Second phase, B and C rounds, is when you’re more likely to be very focused on revenue generation. Almost everything you’re doing is geared around lead generation, customers, partners. The type of PR that you do will change and it needs to be tied in very tightly to your content marketing and lead generation programs.

At that point, the needs become a little bit more complex and where you might need an agency is if you need specialist expertise. You’re starting to need a broader range of expertise and skill sets in-house and you may not have all of those. You might keep some of it in-house but you might work with an agency to bring in some of those capabilities.

The third stage, once you start to get to D and E rounds, expansion- stage funding, that’s when you’re likely to be transitioning from a single product to a multi-product company. You may be looking to expand internationally. You may be thinking about a liquidity event. All of those things require not only additional expertise, you also need to work with somebody who’s done that before. Or they work with an agency partner to help them go through that process. Once you start to look at regulatory challenges and more complex international communication challenges, the safety net of knowing that somebody has done it before is really important.

Everett Katigbak on the true meaning of brand

Stripe designer Everett Katigbak

Stewart Scott-Curran: You focus on communications design and brand design as opposed to product design. That label has been around for a while, but in terms of applying that to business problems, especially in tech, it feels like it’s a fairly new thing. What does that label, communications design, mean to you?

Everett Katigbak: I’ve always been more inclined to help with the narrative side of a company. A lot of the brand is experienced through the product, so people start to intuitively understand what the brand means. But at a certain point you need to start being more proactive and start shaping what that narrative is. For me, a lot of it is taking that feeling that you’re trying to elicit through this thing you’re building and just making it more canonical.

A friend of mine broke it down pretty saliently when he said, “Product is about making something that’s relatively universal to a broader set of people.” You want to solve problems at scale. Brand and marketing is about taking that emotion or that feeling and then making it canonical – trying to make it really connect with someone at human level, which often is very specific and very personal. It’s not really one or the other; they all flow together pretty naturally, at least in the early days of these companies that I’ve been at, because there’s a lot more access to the product team and the original or the early product development cycle.

Stewart: You see a lot of blog posts that say that your brand is more than a logo or visual identity. What do you see as the core components of a brand today? How do you go a little bit deeper than that?

The logo itself really is just a trigger.

Everett: This is the age-old challenge for a designer, and it’s constantly evolving, especially with new tools and new distribution channels for brands to get their message out there. Take the traditional identity of design, which used to be more what designers specifically thought of as brand, like, “I’ll make you a logo and I’ll do these brand identity guidelines.” That’s about visual consistency, or even voice to a certain degree.

There are a number of ways that people talk about brand. People say, “It’s a promise that your product or your company is building,” or it’s really about this deeper thing that you stand for as a company. The logo itself really is just a trigger. It’s meant to remind people of these experiences and these narratives and all of these things that you’re investing in as a company, these deeper things that you stand for today. It’s meant to remind them of who you are and what you stand for and why they want to be loyal or support you as a business.

Kristina Halvorson on getting started with content

Brain Traffic CEO and founder, Kristina Halvorson
John: A lot of our audience comes from early-stage companies. How can should they think about making an investment in content strategy? When and where should young companies start?

Kristina: Even for the very large companies that we work with, I’m often surprised at how – whether it’s at the marketing level or the content management level – people are working with these very large, broad goals, which if you step back and look at them are more of a vision. They say, “We’re going to become the leading provider of content of ‘fill in the blank’ industry for audiences everywhere.” That’s not a strategy, that’s a vision, and an undifferentiated, uninspiring one at that.

Everybody’s got to start with their company vision, their company mission, and so on, but you need to be able to hone in on those longer-term measurable goals, and then gather information about your audience and about your users, which means talking to them.

The heart of any good content strategy is putting your audience at the center of everything you do.

The heart of any good content strategy is putting your audience or putting your users at the center of everything you do. It’s hard for me to think of any content strategy statement that does not include serving prioritized audiences, based on their preferences and to support what their top tasks are when they come to you online. Start by gathering that information, and being willing to really listen and accept what people want instead of what you wish they would want. Without that information I don’t think it’s easy to really undertake any sort of larger holistic customer experience design initiative or to be able to think about the role of content.

Everything from the words we choose for a user interface, to how we are scripting a chatbot, to the information that we’re delivering to people on our websites, whether it’s at the article level or within our email, or an online magazine, or social media platforms, that’s all content. Getting that right, getting it to be consistent, which is difficult no matter what size the organization is, that’s where content strategy comes in. That is where content strategy needs to be informed by those business goals, by those audience needs, and then also by your company’s constraints when it comes to resources.

We’re a small company. We did not have the bandwidth to be able to effectively manage a blog and a podcast, and social media channels, so we made a very conscious decision to focus our resources into events, because that’s what made sense for us.

So start with your concrete business goal, your shorter-term objectives and your audience, and then craft a content strategy that’s going to help you make a decision about where you are going to invest in your content, and where you’re not. Do you use video? Do you use podcasts? Do you have an online magazine? Often it’s, “You have all this opportunity, so go get it”. That is very, very damaging to brands.