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  • Tyler Harman

8 Deadly Diseases of Marketing

As someone who's worked with hundreds of startups, I've seen a huge spectrum of different founders, products, teams, organization, and so on. Some massively successful, some keeping their heads above water, and some that were massive failures.

Being a failure isn't a reflection of the founder or the product or the team. Instead--and this is a little dramatic--I believe the founders and their organizations were "infected" with a deadly disease that wreaks havoc on their operations, and without treatment, their misguided priorities and beliefs will send them to an early grave.

As an homage, to W. Edwards Deming, here's the list:

Disease #1. Not being consistent with marketing efforts.

Marketing a product is a lot like pushing a car that's out of gas. When you first start pushing the car, it doesn't budge. You wonder, "is the car still in 'Park'?" Then, after you keep pushing with all your might, it moves an inch. After a moment, it starts to crawl forward. Next thing you know, you're jogging next to the car as it cruises down the road.

In marketing startups, we all start from zero. Usually, the team starts pushing, and nothing moves, so they stop what we're doing and try something else. Or more commonly, they push and the car moves an inch, but they expected it to do a wheelie and sprint down the road, so they stop, and try something else. They fire agencies, hire new ones, try brand new ad campaigns, new ad channels, create new ads that our customers don't recognize, and never gain momentum.

For contrast, marketing companies that aren't startups, you have a good deal of momentum already, so it's hard to tell what's effective and what's not. So, people start and stop new campaigns all the time and you can't notice any difference in performance usually for months or even years. For marketers, that's great because there's very little accountability. For founders, that's hard because there's very little accountability.

Quick aside:

I guarantee that if Chick-Fil-A would have just gotten started today, a group of 24 year-old digital marketers (with 12 years of social media marketing experience) would have ditched the 'Eat Mor Chikin' Cows after the first few months.

Disease #2. Firefighting instead of fireproofing.

Founders are either going from emergency to emergency fixing broken urgent things, or they're chasing short-term returns and not moving the ball forward. The truth is, founders could spend all of their waking hours putting out fires, 24/7/365, and never ever get to their main job: which is building a company, a team, building processes, improving products.

Don't spend all your time building sandcastles by the edge of the water. Over time, they will wash away, and you will be left with nothing. Instead, build things that will last for a long time, like Parthenons. Giant buildings with lots of columns that hold the structure up. Start with the four corners to hold the building together, and then you can take your time and add as many columns as you want.

Disease #3. Deference: Letting builders design your products.

Most builders, engineers, web developers, etc. build things through "the path of least resistance." Don't rely on them to both a) design the thing and b) build it. This means it's in your interest to find a thoughtful designer before you bring in your builder (and not just visually/aesthetically, but function, how it works, etc.). If you've been on those calls with builders, they're usually telling you what you can't do instead of coming up with creative solutions.

In the end, you get a watered-down product that doesn't do what you wanted it to do. It's called building "by default", and requires no creativity or vision.

Extra Tip: If I've said this once, I've said it a thousand times, don't let them build everything "from scratch" either. A custom website sounds great in theory, until you think about getting to Version 2, or even Version 1.1, or if that builder gets run over by a bus and you have to find someone else to take over. Because once it's built, now they're the only people that can work on it. Nobody else knows where they put the scissors, plus if you ever want to move the scissors, it's a whole thing.

Disease #4. Delegating your marketing to marketers.

We're talking about delegating crucial components and big ideas to junior marketing folks who don't have the vision or resources to tackle these problems--and worse, they don't even realize their limitations. You hired them to execute tasks, not create the 5 year plan for the organization, so don't put that on them. Include them, definitely, but don't delegate the whole thing--that's your job.

Something I've said before, "real marketing" is done at the Founder or Executive or C-suite level. You have be the person to set up the pins, first, and then after they're set up, let the marketers knock them down for you. Otherwise, you end up with marketers imposing weird rules and expectations on projects for no good reason, and killing good marketing ideas before they get off the ground. If you leave them to their own devices, they will drive themselves crazy.

Disease #5. Managing only what you can measure.

There's a famous Peter Drucker quote, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." This is usually interpreted by 'data worshipers' as "if it's not a metric or KPI, it's not important." But not only did Drucker NOT say that, he very much believed in the things you can't measure. But at the very least, maybe he said something like that sarcastically or out of context.

To the data worshippers, just because you can measure it, doesn't mean it matters. In fact, you might be measuring things just because easy to measure! Instead, make a list the important things that matter to your business, and then find thoughtful ways to manage them.

Disease #6. Expecting an advertising budget to fix a marketing problem.

You need to be working on your marketing problems long before you start to think about spending money on advertising. Unfortunately, most marketing agencies (ours included), usually don't get brought in until they're ready to start spending money, they're in a rush, and need ads up 'yesterday'.

If you haven't read The Startup's Hierarchy of Needs yet, we talk about scaling up and expanding before you're ready. If you're losing your shirt with every sale and you decide to scale up, all you're going to do is scale up your losses.

You can't spend your way out of a problem. It will catch up with you.

Disease #7. Prioritizing "testing" over quality.

Testing is extremely valuable when done under the right circumstances. I love a good A/B test, people have different opinions, or a team is torn between a few different ideas, so they test them!

But most of the testing I see on a daily basis is more like a "throwaway shot" at the buzzer. Throwing noodles against the wall to see if they stick. It's uninspired work hiding behind this facade of "testing". Anything someone don't like, "we're just testing." It means nobody has to stick their neck out or stand up for an idea. Not to mention, the money folks spend under the guise of testing! It's easy for marketers to forget, we're running a business here.

Here's how this happens: Someone wants to do a quick test of an ad campaign or a new homepage on your website, for a week or two then look at the results. But after that week or two, they're onto another project, get too busy, or just forget, and those temporary ads and homepages, they become permanent.

Instead, lead with quality. We're not throwing noodles agains the wall anymore, we're making a really good bowl of spaghetti.

Disease #8. Chasing "magic bullets."

All we need is a new audience, or this new analytics tool, all we need is to get TikTok up and running, we need to copy popular memes. Get this famous guy to post about us, try advertising on a podcast ONE TIME.

It's tempting to try these shortcuts, because what if they work? We all know the truth, but we're just hoping maybe this is the exception to the rule. So from magic bullet to magic bullet, we try, we get our hopes up, then come back down to reality. Thomas Edison said, "Opportunities are missed by most people because it comes dressed in overalls and looks a lot like work."

In conclusion.

These deadly diseases of marketing burrow deep into your mind and influence your decisions. The justifications for letting these diseases in are very reasonable, surprisingly reasonable, so it doesn't take much effort to be swayed. Worse, when you're on those calls with marketing experts, they will sound so confident when they tell you about these great diseases, you'll be eating out of the palm of their hands.

The point is, they're hard to avoid. So instead of trying to avoid them "cold turkey", just be cognizant of when you've "fallen off the wagon", and get back on.

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