Somewhere over the past fifteen years or so (!), what used to be referred to as simply ‘Marketing’ has evolved into two separate and often competing departments: ‘Media’ and ‘Product.’ Unfortunately, many organizations still use the legacy ‘Marketing’ label for what are really just ‘Media’ teams; ‘Product’ is often lumped into ‘Operations’ and, as we once used to joke at NewSub Services, Inc. (now Synapse Group), weekly MOps meetings are really just Marketing vs. Operations meetings where both departments jockey for position, power, and the most comfortable chairs in the conference room.
This evolution of marketing into media snuck up on me, and now that the two personal projects I was working on at the beginning of this year are mostly complete (hint here), I’m beginning to evaluate full time employment opportunities again. What I’m finding, however, is that the opportunities to which I (as an individual contributor) am most drawn are now referred to as Product Management roles and not Marketing roles. The Marketing roles are, by and large, glorified Media roles and are less compelling (unless you are a people manager and will be spending <10% of your time individually contributing … but as I explain below even those roles can be fraught).
Three ways marketers are losers? Allow me to explain.
1. Marketing can’t really improve conversion rate
Or, put in a way that won’t make lawyers cranky, marketers’ ability to improve conversion rate is limited.
When Marketing does not own the funnel where conversions actually happen, their success is limited by Product’s ability to effectively convert traffic. Any optimization decisions made by Marketing are limited and potentially suboptimal, as Marketing often does not have end to end visibility at worst or end to end control at best.
Putting the FUN in funnel
For example, when I was the Senior Product Marketing Manager for a lotto subscription product known as EZPicks, I ran an acquisition test against an internal email list.
- Neither cell’s email subject line said anything about a premium
- The control cell’s email creative did not mention a premium; the test cell’s did
- Both email’s linked to a landing page that offered a premium
Absent visibility into end-to-end analytics, I might not have known that despite more clicks on the test cell (which mentioned a premium) it was the control cell that drove the most overall subscriptions. If I had been optimizing on email CTR, which many marketers are forced to do, I would be optimizing incorrectly. In addition, if I hadn’t had the ability to determine this marketing test in the first place and thus get a landing page with a premium on it built, this test would not have existed.
Another example is in the credit card space. When I was at Digitas, we created a few banners for the American Express Blue card to see what kind of messaging drove new cardmembers. Not only was this the wrong success metric — we should have been looking to drive maximum aggregate cardmember NPV — but we didn’t really have access to the data to improve our success metric from the get go. (When you are an agency, you ‘enjoy’ a classic Marketing problem, because you hand everything over to a client and lack a holistic viewpoint.)
What happens in Vegas usually involves Instant Approval and a bedazzled pimp cup
Anyway, the lead messages tested on these banners (circa 2002 or so) were something like
- 0% APR
- Special security doohickey chip feature thing for safe online shopping (I’m paraphrasing)
- Instant approval
By and large the banners that demonstrated the highest CTR were the instant approval banners, so of course we Digitarians were recommending that this become a lead message in emails and other marketing channels. But what did the backend numbers say? Turns out people who were responding to instant approval messages were doing so for a reason — they were going to max their instant credit line and then never pay their balance, and/or they had just lost their job and were worried about not getting approved for a credit line moving forward. Either way, no bueno for the NPV of cardmembers acquired via the Instant approval banners, but as marketers optimizing on approved cardmembers how were we to know?
Finally, in my last stint as an FTE I was in charge of SEO, PPC, and Social Media for a lead gen company in the higher ed space. Unfortunately, much of what needed to happen to improve SEO were changes on the product side, and my team had no control over the product. Ditto for PPC on the landing page and offer prioritization engine front. And with Social Media, there was nothing for which we could drum up enthusiasm as we did not control on-site content. You can imagine how much fun it was to be a marketer in that environment.
Related to this, another reason that Marketing loses to Product?
2. Marketing cannot prioritize Product’s release cycle
If my team had been able to dictate the order in which Product prioritized its releases, our efforts would have been much more successful and life would have been less frowny-face for yours truly.
Another example is from my first role as an FTE at the higher ed lead gen company. B2B clients could not easily pay for their advertising with a credit card, and since their ads were annual buys (usually), this made auto-renewal an easy and obvious opportunity. As with AdWords, it would have been much easier for both the clients and for the company to allow them to “set it and forget it” subscribe to their ad buys. But for many reasons, including that Marketing did not own Product (and other reasons I won’t get into), this project never made it onto the priority list at all.
Back in the credit card space, at Citi Cards the marketing channel teams had zero control over product features, even if we (the channel teams) knew exactly what prospective cardholders were looking for. Product development remained a ‘push’ activity: consultants monitored the space and R&D teams made lots of decks and who cared what the people were seeing on the ground in terms of actual search queries and landing page abandonments. Granted, as with the Instant approval example, you don’t always want to give people what they want, but there are intelligent ways to capitalize on traffic (such as by creating secured cards and/or instant approval cards with very low credit lines).
I have no idea where either this pint glass, or Citi shareholder value, went
Of course, both the clients-can’t-subscribe-to-advertising-buys and prospects-want-a-card-with-feature-X examples above can be attenuated if their are transparent product feature forecasting and collaborative cross-departmental prioritization efforts, but this is not always a given. Absent an open, collaborative, accountability-driven environment, Marketing will become very sad over the money left on the table, time and again, by Product.
Of course, marketers aren’t just losers on the quantitative front. There’s a qualitative loss, too.
3. Marketers are the book jacket; Product is the story
In the manner that Marketing has been redefined over the past decade or so, Marketing has been relegated to shelf placement and book review and jacket design concerns. Product gets to tell the story, and as someone who is literally an award-winning creative writer on the side, not controlling the narrative makes me ornery.
How do users navigate a space? With what impression do we want to leave them as they do so? How can we architect choice to advance the story we’re trying to tell?
What I do in my free time. I wish I were kidding.
When I think about the projects that, as an individual contributor, I found deeply engaging, do they look more like Marketing or more like Product?
- Multi-phased landing page and microsite tool creation (my final rotation at my most recent employer)
- Building CreditCardio.com during PHLSW
- Managing the phased approach to the launch of the Beliefnet.com social network
- Owning BlinkRewards and Jackpot.com
- Futzing with the bajillion domains I own (#32)
- Helping build American Express’ application winback tool
- Owning the InstantPoints and Internet Magazine Cross-Sell platforms at NewSub
Blame those oafs in the game of Adventure (which I started playing at the age of six; insert buckteeth here). By golly, by today’s current naming conventions, I’m really more of a Product person, especially now that Marketing = Media (= Agency).
Of course, for roles that are dominated by people management, it doesn’t matter what you do, because the interesting bits are helping your people develop and contribute. But if you are “up against” product and your team can’t succeed and you can’t influence the prioritization queue (which is opaque)… then Marketing loses. Every time.
The three questions I’m asking myself as I consider my next career move?
- How much control does my team have over customer NPV?
- How much control does my team have over the product release cycle / priorities?
- How much control does my team have over the customer narrative?
If it’s less than 50% for any of these, then there has to be an operational / business process infrastructure that ensures transparent, collaborative, accountable discussions between my team and the team that has majority control.
And if not? Then I’m simply setting myself up to be a loser.
And me? I like to win!
So depending on how an organization is structured and infrastructured, it may simply be that Marketing loses and Product FTW. Where ANP will land from a departmental POV is simply TBD on an organization-by-organization basis.
Career regret #782: Not interviewing with Ari Paparo while he was at DoubleClick for a potential Product Management role. They were eventually acquired by Google, Ari now owns two homes and seven yachts, and, well, yeah.