Tech Marketing in 2014: No Time for the Guru

It’s always a good thing when a friend gets an exciting new job. Double that if the job is with an excellent company which is experiencing high growth in a newly emerging category. But it’s not often that your friend’s new job has the potential to help redefine a profession (in this case, technology marketing). My friend Peter Thomson’s new role as Chief Marketing Officer with the equity crowdfunding platform, Seedrs, has the potential to do just this. Let me explain why…

Tech and marketing have always had a rather ambivalent relationship. There are many reasons for this, but the most significant is also the most obvious – tech companies are, at their core, engineering companies, and engineers and marketers have always seen the world differently. I suspect that this is partially because, whilst both require creativity, their creativity is expressed in completely different terms.

Creative engineering is expressed in solid rational terminology based on inherent principles by solid archetypes such as engineers, programmers, mathematicians and architects. Whereas, the best moniker we can attach to a superlative marketer is ‘guru’ as if their skills are capricious, quasi-spiritual and divinely bestowed. As you may have guessed, I hate the term ‘marketing guru’.

Guru Josh
Sorry, Guru… I’ve no time for you

So how did the term arise? Gurus (of any kind) are so-called because they seem to have an intuitive grasp of deeper truths about human nature. For a long time in the marketing world, these deeper truths did appear to be beyond our understanding.

Customers are incredibly awkward creatures and data was frustratingly scarce. Why would a lifetime Nike customer, who loves all the ads, and owns a wardrobe of Nike clothing, one day walk into a shop intending to buy a pair of Nike shoes but somehow walk out with a pair of Pumas? This sort of behaviour drives marketers insane and we wanted to know why.

Marketing’s role in customer insights

Until the last 15 years or so, things were pretty hazy to marketers, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. We would conduct focus groups, track purchase behaviour through loyalty schemes, hire ethnographers to observe customers “in the wild” (in shops), and conduct link tests on our TV ads whilst surveying customers in direct marketing campaigns.

We poked and prodded our customers hoping gain just a bit more insight into what made them tick (and what would make them like our products and brands more). No one in the outside world really saw this, and to be fair, marketers were either too humble or too boastful to admit it. So labels like “guru” flew around to explain why some things worked and others didn’t. It was rubbish, of course. Most often, those who succeeded did so because they worked harder to gain insights into the way their customers thought or behaved.

The really good marketing professionals passed their customer insights throughout their organisations; affecting everything from the way the company logo looked, the decisions surrounding product development, even to the greeting given by the company receptionist. Companies like Unilever were built on this customer-centred mentality. They didn’t have the full picture of the customer, but as technology advanced decade by decade, they were getting better.

Marketing insights in real time

Things, though, took a quantum leap with arrival of the Internet, bringing marketers a whole new world of insight. We now know in ultra-fine detail what works and what doesn’t, who our customers are and where they came from, why they bought Product B over Product A, we can look under almost any parameter we know, and in many cases, we can do it live. Those marketers who always wanted to know “why?” now have only to ask and a torrent of data can be called forth in response.

Data does not replace human decision making, because forward looking projections (even based on probability) still require bold marketers to make decisions and take responsibility. But my, what a powerful set of tools we began to accumulate! Each new technical advance has brought with it new insights, and it only looks better for the future.

Engineers and marketing

Which brings me back to tech. Ironically, despite being the instrument of the advance of the capabilities of the marketing community, the technology  industry itself retains a rather backward perception of marketing.

This misperception about marketing’s remit leads to some strange anomalies – marketing is seen as subservient to tech, yet the tech world’s biggest exemplar is a marketing driven company, and when the tech community alights on a fantastic new marketing tactic, they feel compelled to call it anything except marketing! In this environment, marketing is all too often a commercial afterthought. I love the tech industry, but as a marketer, the way technology underestimates the remit of marketing has been a persistent irritant to me.

Peter Thomson
Peter Thomson – Seedrs CMO

But perhaps my friend Peter’s new role at Seedrs signals the beginning of a change? I’ve known Peter for a while now and he is certainly one those who asks, “Why?” But more than just asking, he then uses all the information at his disposal to seek the answers. He’s both analytical and creative, and an excellent communicator with both a strategic and tactical skillset and a wealth of experience.

He’s also been around the block a bit, and trust me on this, grey hairs make a marketer. The last thing you want when explaining how you plan to spend millions of VC dollars on a marketing campaign is a kid with a squeaky voice in a shiny suit.

The marketing is the product

Peter has been given a wider mandate at Seedrs than most professional marketers think to ask for (or are given when they do ask). He is aiming to integrate the front-of-the-funnel promotional activity with a nitty-gritty hard work of product development and design. This brings the product and the marketing back into a single seamless experience for the customer.

As I’ve argued in the past, growth hacking is just modern marketing done well. So Peter’s role could be thought of as a growth hacker, except that it doesn’t need to be. It’s just marketing done the way that it always should have been.

Design thinking is the other area where technology companies have recently been super-excited about something that’s actually been part of marketing all along. The design, effectiveness and desirability of the product itself has always been a part of marketing. It’s only that this was forgotten by many technology companies in recent years.

So when I look at the scope of the role that Peter has been given at Seedrs, it makes me pretty excited for them, and it gives me hope that perhaps at last, tech no longer has time for the guru.

3 thoughts on “Tech Marketing in 2014: No Time for the Guru”

  1. Thanks James, Seedrs is going to be an amazing adventure. The combination of design thinking and growth hacking will really round out our approach to marketing. For Seedrs, we need to create a virtuous cycle of the product, marketing and word of mouth.

    1. Agreed. The mistake made by b2b companies is that they don’t need ‘marketing’ because they confuse marketing with advertising.

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