Marketing for Developers

Amongst my developer colleagues, I find that I'm an anomaly when it comes my stance on marketing. For many of my peers, and I think to the general public, marketing has - rather ironically - been given a bad rep. It's seen as a finicky field: engaged in activities that are hard to measure, and at its worst, it's seen as a spurious profession. I think this reputation is the end result of a lot of bad apples that not only execute marketing badly, but as a result, have ruined it for the rest of the lot.

I very much disagree with this negative characterization of marketing. In fact, I think marketing is one of the most important functions when it comes to running a business, and especially when it comes to ventures engaged in technology. My goal in writing this is to dispel a few myths about marketing, and perhaps reveal why it is personally such a fascinating part of running businesses, especially as a developer.

Marketing is about vision

First and foremost, marketing is about vision - this is especially the case when it comes to branding. When you talk about branding, it is impossible to do so without talking about what your business stands for, its values, and what it believes in. Every great brand does this. Google wants to organize the world's information. Apple wants to build beautiful products that have technology that changes the world. Amazon wants to be the world's best marketplace and destination for commerce. Brands - and the marketing industry that shapes them - are about visions and beliefs for a company...and the people that make it up.

Most people think that branding is just about what others think about what you do. That's not the case. Companies that do branding well also understand that what you say you stand for must be authentic and reflects internally: what you say you stand for to everyone else is also heard and should be reflected by the people who you work with day to day. When the brand and the values it represents are clear, it also gives everyone a clear direction about what is important and what is not. It makes the priorities clear and makes decision making easier.

What features should we build? You can be great at making features - making them performant, solving problems your users really have, quantifying and measuring their success and optimizing them for certain behaviors. But being performant at building a product does not imply you should build anything and everything you could build well. Should Apple create amazing razors? I bet they could. I bet they could design them beautifully, revolutionize the way that we think of shaving, and destroy the existing razor market the way they have so many times with other markets. But they probably won't - it doesn't fit in with the values they have. It doesn't fit with their brand.

What design should we go with? Design is largely about communicating and building an experience. It's about what you want your users to think of you, what you want your users to feel, and how to guide your users. Should Google have designed search in a way that is monochromatic, made queries useable like SQL statements, and gotten rid of images and video in their search results? They probably could, but that's not what they stood for. Google isn't just for the technically minded - it's for everyone and their design reflects that. The important thing here is to say that "Google isn't just for programmers - it's for everyone" is precisely what it means to create a brand.

I know far too many companies that end up working aimlessly because they do not have a clear vision, let alone clear branding that reflects any such vision. They build features because it's the next natural thing to do or what will drive revenue, without thinking about how it fits into a mission and if it reflects the brand that communicates that vision. I know too many companies that design differently on different features each time because they do not have a central message they want to communicate, and I know too many companies that design too narrowly because they think they might have a brand but don't flesh it out to give it flexibility.

It's much like growing up as a person. When you're younger, you can do what you want as the circumstances direct you. You take a job straight out of school because it's the offer that is laid out before you. You date a person because they're the one available at that particular point in time. You probably do these things because you haven't fleshed out what you value yet, let alone be able to talk about it, as you would with a personal brand. If you tried to explain to someone interviewing you what you stood for, you'd realize that certain jobs are for you, and some aren't. But if you don't even know what you stand for, you can't talk about those values. If you tried to explain to someone what's important to who you want out of a life partner, you'd realize there are certain people you would and wouldn't want to date. But if you don't know what's important to you, you can't communicate it, let alone decide with those values. To be able to explain and communicate what you stand for is exactly what branding is, and it helps you make the right decisions you have when you grow up because it forces you think about what is important to your organization and the people that are working in it. The same goes for companies: part of growing up is fleshing out what you stand for, so when you explain what you stand for you have a clear answer, and when you make decisions that affect your employees, your users, and your colleagues, you also have a clear answer then.

Marketing is about revenue

Most people think that marketing is this fluffy activity that has no measurable impact on the business. Marketing seems to make and produce swag like t-shirts and toys for users to have, people say. Marketing seems to only go to events that just generates goodwill, others will say. Marketing does things that are there to "make people feel good," but has no measurable impact on the bottom line, they say. Some may even dismiss my points about vision and self-actualization as spurious. That's fine - but if numbers and hard results are what you want, marketing is also an important piece of the story when it comes to generating revenue.

In every business, you will find yourself selling something. It could be ads, content, services - any number of products. To get people to buy something from you is the ultimate goal when it comes to sustaining the business. Getting people to buy a product means money that is used to fund the rest of the business, which in turn should generate more revenue for the process of creating products and selling those products to repeat and grow. So selling your products is a very important thing to do.

However, most of us should understand that building a great product is not enough to get people to want to buy something. "Build it and they will come" is shown time and again to be a meaningless aphorism. However, I do not mean to say "tell them and they will buy" either. Building a great product is necessary but not sufficient to drive sales. What I'm saying is marketing is also necessary but not sufficient to drive sales: you need both. There have been too many times when people try to argue pointlessly that one is more important than another when you fundamentally need both to do so. Why is that the case? Because they are each different parts of a simple funnel that is core to understanding why marketing is such an important part of the organization:

  1. Someone becomes aware of you and your product
  2. Someone expresses interest in your product
  3. Someone buys your product

Having a great product is important because you need something people will buy. That's absolutely important. Sales is largely concerned with converting people from steps two to three: they are taking people that have expressed interest in your product to buy. You have salespeople calling people you have tracked that go to a product page for example, and ultimately they try to convince them to buy what you are selling. In less mature organizations, the salespeople are also trying their hardest to convert at the top of the funnel as well, from steps one and two: they'll try and prospect and get people to express interest in buying. However, that's not efficient to do.

This is where marketing comes in. Marketing is specifically interested in increasing the size of the top of the funnel that makes everyone aware of you and your product and turns them into meaningful leads that signal someone is interested in buying. From there sales can take those leads and try to convert them actual customers as they always have and focus on that function. Product is there to make sure that what the customer is buying works well and solves the problem the customer has. Superior marketing tries to optimize every part of the funnel from the top all the way down to a sale and so touches almost every part of the company at some level.

So those "fluffy" marketing activities are usually not "fluffy" at all and are in fact meant to generate meaningful leads for sales and ultimately turn into revenue. A great example that demonstrates this activity is a conference. When marketing goes to sponsor a conference, they better have a way for the people they meet to get in touch with a sales rep and maybe even incentivize them with a discount. Marketing should be able to say how many leads they generated at the conference, how well they converted into customers, how much revenue those customers were responsible for, and how that revenue was beneficial to offset the costs of sponsoring the event in the first place. That's the way you attribute meaningful results on the bottom line to marketing, and it's marketing's job to optimize and track every part of the funnel that leads to revenue they are involved in, especially the top of it. This is the same with ads marketing buys on Google and Facebook, this is the same with blog they keep bugging you about, this is why they're so obsessed with tracking and optimizing and A/B testing on so many parts of the organization: it's about providing as many entry points at the top of the funnel and tracking those visitors into leads into customers as they go through the funnel. It's about pulling all of those pieces together into a centralized system that marketing has a large role to play within.

Marketing is about user intelligence

Marketing is also the most well-equipped to understand your customers and users. In other words, marketing understands your market - it's in the freaking name for goodness' sake. When you're in startup mode, it's a very important thing to be talking to your users. You need to understand what their needs are, validate hypotheses about what features you're thinking of building, and use those insights and turn them into features that have meaningful impact.

The problem is that when organizations start to get larger, talking to users and keeping this two-way communication open becomes very difficult to do. Companies begin to isolate themselves and build features in a vacuum, especially when it has historically been commanded by product, engineering, and/or design. Your developers can't be spending time talking to users, they need to be coding. Product is concerned with making sure features are being shipped and originating ideas to solve user problems. Talking to users quickly becomes something sent to the back burner. In the worst case scenario, features get built that do not reflect the needs of the customer or simply don't work because of missing information somewhere along in the process.

This is where marketing comes in. Because the marketing team is the part of the organization that is most user and customer facing at the top of sales funnel (unless sales is right up there with them prospecting), they have the best understanding of the people using your product at a large scale unless product has a dedicated system to produce meaningful insight. This is because in order to do their job correctly, marketing should be constantly measuring, testing, and optimizing business critical funnels across the product anyways - it gives them enormous insight into what your users are thinking and how they behave. That insight should be delivered to the feature-generating side of the organization and taken seriously, or even better, they should be part of the conversation when features are being formed because they would have the best data to understand what will or will not work. As a sidebar, it's why I think data scientists are sometimes most interestingly suited to be within the marketing departments of organizations if they aren't in product or engineering - they can give unbiased, data-driven insights about users that make meaningful impact on feature decisions. It's also why I think this myth about marketing as something hard to measure is so far off base if user intelligence is done correctly.

There's so much overlap here

After reading this, I hope there's a clearer understanding of what function marketing plays in an organization: they can be essential in formulating vision, driving revenue, and understanding users. They perform these functions in a self-actualized, introspective, and data-driven way when done correctly. To minimize - and even worse, to dismiss - the role of marketing would be unwise to say the least.

For many of us that are in startups, it's very easy to overlook the need for marketing. Deeply understanding your values, turning a cool technology or community into something sellable, and becoming data-driven, are all things that many put off until you become a larger organization that is on its way to becoming mature. It becomes terribly difficult to realize that when there are such damning myths about the function of the profession and when you are so focused on building stuff.

But something I think is most fascinating about how marketing works is how eye-to-eye I think it is with how developers work. Developers love working on things that are well thought through and take a meaningful stance on issues related to technology. We stand vehemently for things like type systems and the languages we use, so why don't we boldly take a stance for the companies we work for and that we strive for like marketing helps us do with brands? Developers have the luxury of being able to work in an industry that lets them create and support their livelihood with it. Marketing plays a key role in organizations that allows us to do that by driving revenue opportunities, and also make others feel good about the things we create. Perhaps least controversially, developers love being data-driven. We love thinking about what is performing better than something else, by how much, and why. Marketers do the same, but instead of figuring out what data is moving efficiently, they think about how people are are behaving and why.

Marketing and development have so much in common when they're both done well that it sometimes mystifies me why they are sometimes at such odds and misunderstood to each other. I hope this...you know...helps positions things correctly :)