marketing engagement

Why So Many Tech Products Fail: Lack of Marketing Engagement

I’m one of a handful of people that have been taken through formal CEO-breadth training by having worked in or audited marketing, accounting, finance, manufacturing, planning, security, operations, sales, research and development, and the office of the CEO. One of the common recurring themes when looking at a failed product is inadequate marketing engagement and funding. It’s almost a generic problem in the technology industry today.

In companies led by engineers, it often seems like marketing is an afterthought or embarrassment, a point of view that greatly reduces its effectiveness and increases the likelihood that the resulting product will fail. Let’s explore the role of marketing in tech firms today and why this behavior is damaging so many otherwise successful products.

Marketing isn’t magic

Marketing is like sales at scale, and it is a force multiplier for sales. Marketing, when done right, improves trust in the company, increases consideration for the products, and creates distance from competitors. But, unlike what many engineers, executives, and even some marketing executives, believe is that it isn’t lying at scale. However, the distinction is often nuanced because it does represent the firm and products in their best light, and that often means omitting information that might have resulted in a negative product outcome.

But I want to be clear about this: It isn’t magic. Marketing can’t take a product that has no customers and turn it into a lasting success. For marketing to work, several elements must be in place. This includes adequate staffing, adequate funding, deep knowledge of the intended customer and market, the ability to manipulate potential buyers, and a belief in the product. Too often, none of these elements exist at the needed scale, and “belief in the product” is left out entirely.

Why marketing engagement is important

One of my most memorable experiences as a marketing executive was having a product planner walk into my office demanding I develop a product plan for a product I’d never heard of. When he explained the product, which my firm had spent over $20M creating, I couldn’t conceive of a customer that would want to buy it, so I asked, “Who is the customer for this product?” After giving me a blank stare initially, he said, “Well, if you need to know that to do YOUR JOB, I guess you better find that out.” I tossed the guy out of my office with a few ill-considered comments. After another $20K in studies, we found there was no customer for that product because it attempted to fix a problem no one had.

What happened to me is seemingly standard in the tech industry. Engineering and Research & Development create and refine a product. Then, when it’s almost ready to ship, they run to Marketing and ask it to do “their job” and create a marketing plan. Not only is Marketing now developing a plan for a product it doesn’t know well, but it also has no skin in the product’s success since it didn’t help conceive it, yet Marketing generally owns the critical customer information needed to conceive a successful offering.

Steve Jobs’ Apple

What made Steve Jobs’ Apple different was that, in effect, Jobs was Marketing, and he was hands-on in the creation of the offerings. While that capability has clearly degraded with Tim Cook, Apple was so successful launching products during Jobs’ tenure that people flocked to the company. His work remains the example of how to build products people line up to buy. If Marketing is adequately staffed and funded, it knows what customers want in a product, what it can most effectively market, and which features will have the biggest impact on sales volume.

And if Marketing is involved in the planning process, it will not only be better able to create a successful marketing campaign; it’ll be invested in the result, which assures a higher level of execution when the product comes to market. It becomes Marketing’s product and instills a passion that will be passed through to the customer in the collateral. Just as important, Marketing will help prevent the kind of thing I experienced: Creating a product that no one wants, uses colors that won’t sell, or omits critical features that would otherwise assure the product’s success.

One of the interesting stories I tell with regard to marketing was the launch of Windows 95. Unlike any product before or since Windows 95 engaged Marketing early and there were people lining up to buy the product in lines that exceeded Apple’s years later. The product was so successful it exceeded Microsoft’s capabilities to support it and rather than beefing up operations to assure that never happened again, Microsoft instead got rid of the Marketing folks, and both the breakage and the lines are things of the past. This is a showcase of the strength Marketing should have and the weakness it does have.

Wrapping up

Often, the problem has been that because a firm doesn’t understand how marketing works, it doesn’t staff it properly and either puts people in marketing roles with no marketing experience or hires marketing people and doesn’t assure they have or acquire both marketing and relevant product or industry experience. Obviously, if they don’t understand marketing, they’ll do a poor job, but if they don’t understand the product, they’ll also fail. They don’t need to be engineers, but they do need to understand how the offers benefit the customers that use them as well as how they are used.

Finally, unlike Apple, which tends to keep product diversity down so it can properly fund marketing for each product, tech companies tend to go for quantity over quality, meaning that most unique product offerings (particularly those that are unique and different) don’t have enough marketing funding to convince people to buy them. The typical shotgun approach to product creation is incredibly wasteful, as showcased by the difference between Apple’s margins and every other tech company in their space.

In the end, Marketing needs to be integrated into product development, and product development needs a marketing focus on quality over quantity so that margins and sales can be optimized and success for each product better assured.

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