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Good marketing takes time: prioritizing marketing spend at a startup

By Kerry Ok, SVP, Auth0 Marketing

There’s beauty in a blank canvas.

But there’s also that terrifying feeling that comes from knowing you can go anywhere, and do anything.  Welcome to the world of marketing at a start-up.

Want to invest that new series C funding on demand gen? How about making your brand halo shine bright? Eying up that industry veteran CMO with 20 years experience?

There’s a hundred different options available to you. So I wanted to talk about some of my experiences, and the questions you need to ask yourself to find out what’s right for YOUR marketing at YOUR business.

How to prioritize direction when you’re staring down a hundred paths

When you are looking to prioritize marketing spend and direction, you’re going to have a LOT of pressures. From the CEO and board looking for results, to your own internal voice questioning every step you are taking. 

So let’s start by taking a step back.

Don’t just jump into a marketing strategy chasing quick wins, or expecting to create a beloved brand with a packed inbound inbox…because good marketing takes time. You need to look 12 months ahead before you start panicking. And this means being able to set expectations with other internal stakeholders, who will often chase you from day one for proof of your methods. I made the mistake of not doing this in my earlier role, meaning several senior team members and investors turned a critical eye to my methods.

Where’s a good place to start with an early stage marketing strategy?

One of the best things you can do first is just identify the one audience you want to reach….and then start talking to them.

Seems obvious right?

But so many companies want to talk to everyone, all the time, across every channel, and it just leads to a diluted message that means nothing to a lot of people.

What Auth0 did when it started was to just double down on making its brand as attractive as possible to developers. It wasn’t about driving revenue or demand gen, it was just about getting the technology into as many developer hands as possible for free.

Now, this can be another hard strategy to sell into your growing number of stakeholders. Every new series injection of funding means more board members who can sometimes be impatient. But again, it’s about having the convictions to sell in your marketing vision, and not be tempted to just say yes to everyone.

Who knows your audience best?

Remember the earlier temptation of spending all your new money on an industry CMO veteran? Well hold on before you roll out the glitzy press release. Sometimes it pays to look a little closer to home and hire someone with no marketing experience at all.

Okay, now that does sound a little crazy, but it’s what Auth0 did. They promoted the fantastic Martin “Gonto” Gontovnikas ( who you can find doing his thing here) to lead the marketing as he was a developer first, marketer second. He knew what the audience felt, what they wanted to hear, and then he built everything around them. 

Would this necessarily work for your business? No, but it’s a good example of how having someone who truly understands your audience can make more sense when you are starting to build that brand loyalty. Gonto made sure the initial marketers that were hired were also devs. The priority was defined at the start: he wanted to be #1 on the web, build a strong SEO strategy, and develop a tech-forward strategy.

Knowing when there’s a new priority

I would have been nowhere near as effective as Gonto was in this early stage. In fact I think Auth0 would not have been where it is today if they had hired someone with my skill sets at that time. 

But there reached a point where the growth hit a wall, and brand loyalty needed to be turned into actual pipeline. This is where many of you reading this will be at now, and it’s the crucial next step to turn hype and headlines into actual revenue.

It’s also where I get to join the story!

This is when it’s time to start thinking about the demand gen side of the house.

WARNING — incoming talk of bomb threats, creepy campaigns  ….and some more times we went a little over the top with this!

The rollercoaster world of Account Based Marketing demand gen

So, now that you need to start ramping up the revenue side of the house, you need to prioritize the industries you want to double down on, the personas….and then start experimenting.

Account Based Marketing (ABM) is another strategy that does not work overnight. You need to be prepared to spend 12 months at least, experimenting, refining, and often putting out small (and big fires). This is another one of those times you need to be able to set expectations with the stakeholders in your business, and not give the impression that revenue will fly in overnight.

We experimented a LOT with our campaigns at this time.

And we had mixed results.

The good — We sent out padlocked bags to targets, with a CTA to book a meeting with us to get the code to unlock them. This saw a 22% response rate and 9% meetings booked. They helped us grow our pipeline 300%+ year over year.

The bad These early padlocked bags had a lithium battery that resulted in bomb scares being called. 

The ugly   We thought that printing off LinkedIn photos and making a real life Guess Who board game was a great direct mail idea. It was seen as too much, a privacy intruding approach by nearly everyone we sent it to.

So, what I’m saying is that you need to experiment with your approaches. Just knowing who you want to talk to is not enough, you have to find different ways to reach them, and then keep refining until you find the approach that works.

Here’s the takeaway

There’s not a one size fits all approach when it comes to marketing. Just because it worked for ten other start-ups means nothing. You need to be honest with yourself and the other leaders in your organization with what you want to achieve in the long-term. Don’t jump into something for two months, panic, and pivot to something completely different. 

Know what you want to prioritize, and ensure everything is built towards achieving that. 

Oh, and don’t worry about failing (a lot), it’s all part of the ride.

Learn more at Auth0.com.