Get Your Eye Off the Ball!

Marketing people in technology companies don't know what winning looks like. It's not that we marketers don't want to win. We do. But we have a collective difficulty aligning our departmental goals so that they are in sync with the rest of the company. Think about the goals that most marketers have. It usually takes the form of an epic to-do list: let's see, well, we should do a few trade shows, maybe create a new logo, produce some T-shirts, and oh yeah, generate some leads for the salespeople. Well, guess what? Those aren't the goals of your company! I've never seen "leads" or "T-shirts" on a mission statement or balance sheet. With typical marketing department goals, we constantly focus on the flare-up du jour and thus always focus on the wrong thing. This also gives the marketing profession (at least within technology businesses) a bad rap as a bunch of flaky slackers. No wonder marketing is called the "T-shirt department" in some organizations and is often the place where failed salespeople end up.

This lack of clear goals reminds me of seven-year-olds playing soccer. If you've ever seen little children on the soccer field, you know that they operate as one huge organism packed together, chasing the ball around the field. On the sidelines are helpful coaches yelling, "Pass!" or "Go to the goal!" Yet as the coaches and parents know, this effort is futile: no matter what the adults say or how many times they practice, the kids still focus on the wrong thing—the ball—instead of the goal.

That's exactly what we marketers do. We fill our lists with balls and lose sight of the goal. But do you know what's even worse? Our coaches (the management team at our companies) actually encourage us to focus on balls (like leads) instead of real objective goals. The sales vice presidents and CEOs of companies happily provide incentives for the marketing department around leads.

What we marketers need to do is align our departmental objectives with those of the company. For most technology companies and content publishers, the most important goal is profitable revenue growth. In newer companies or emerging technologies, this usually means generating new customers, but in mature businesses, the management team may need to be more focused on keeping the customers that they already have. When a company is a market leader in a flat or declining business, 80% of revenue (or more) may come from existing customers. So as a marketer, I need to know details. I want access to the specific plans for revenue growth or customer retention. I need to understand what exactly the sales department's priorities are for the upcoming period. I want to know where sales are expected to come from (perhaps by vertical market, or geography, or job title of the customer), and I want to know what percentage of existing customers we need to renew. Then, and only then, I'll work on developing a plan to achieve those goals.

Working from the perspective of company objectives for revenue growth and customer retention (the goals), rather than focusing on made-up metrics for things like leads, yields surprising changes in the typical marketing plan. For example, that trade show that you've spent $50,000 on each year may not be all that important after all; and that expensive direct-mail campaign focused on some job title, such as CIOs, that the salespeople are not actually targeting just doesn't make any sense. In fact, many marketers find that the list of things they expect to do that's sitting on their white board actually decreases when they stop chasing around the ball willy-nilly every day.

Although marketers are mainly to blame for the focus on the wrong things, CEOs must take some responsibility. If you're leading a company, please work with your marketing professionals to make certain they understand the company's goals. Try to set up an incentive plan for marketing that isn't based on things like leads or press releases but rather on achieving company metrics like revenue growth. When you meet with your marketing team, ask them about the plans and programs they are implementing to achieve the goals that you and the management team have established.

Ultimately, when marketers focus on the same goals as the rest of the organization, we begin to contribute to the bottom line and command respect. Rather than a rolling of the eyes and snide comments about the T-shirt department, we're seen as part of the strategic unit that positions itself to pass the ball to get it in the goal efficiently.