I’d be a semi-rich man if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone point to one of the spectacularly successful companies that have exploded onto the marketplace over the last few years and say, “They didn’t do any marketing. They just …” and then fill in the blank with some seemingly trivial thing, like “They just went to South by Southwest,” or “They just did social media.”
I heard it again just last week when I guest lectured to a University of Ottawa MBA class, with Twitter and Facebook held up as the examples of companies that “didn’t do any marketing.” As I told the students, Twitter and Facebook are no more examples of predictable startup success than buying a lottery ticket is an example of sensible retirement planning. I drew a bell curve in the air and said that if that bell curve described the distribution of success for a given collection of technology startups, then Twitter and Facebook — and here I moved several meters to the right and stretched my right arm out — are way over here. They’re not even outliers; they’re in a completely different orbit.
And still the mythology persists. I can understand it. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are all wildly successful companies, and who wouldn’t want to emulate them. The truth is, though, that most who do, fail. We hear about the (very) odd one that succeeds but, by definition, we hear nothing about the failures, of which there are countless.
Indeed, the road to Austin, Texas is littered with the corpses of marketing-phobic young companies whose founders believed that all that was required for them to experience Twitter-scale user-adoption and mega-billions personal wealth was to launch their little app at the annual hipster-fest known as South by Southwest.
And even if your grasp of marketing is so tenuous that you believe it consists of nothing more than a set of tactical outreach activities, then you still need to understand that “going to SXSW” is marketing, that “doing social media” is marketing.
Even more critically, though, those things are tactical marketing activities. You don’t do them — you can’t even begin to understand if you should do them — until you have completed a marketing strategy. Strategy is the process of envisioning the future state of a company and then working backwards to plot the activities required to achieve that state. A tactical plan is the set of activities, complete with timelines and budgets and some ability to measure progress so that you can be certain you are actually on the right road to that envisioned future state. A marketing strategy, properly conducted, starts well before the tactical phase. It begins with identifying the customer, moves through product definition, analyses the environment into which the product or service is going to be launched and then — and only then — describes the tactics necessary to get it all done.
You can do all of this and still not be guaranteed of any success for the simple reason that most ideas fail to gain traction. But if you do it, you will have a far better chance of ending up in the fat part of the bell curve of success.
Or you can “just go to SXSW.” Good luck with that.