Why modern marketing is so hard: A frank Q&A with Liz Pearce


By Matt Heinz, President of Heinz Marketing

2015MAY-LiquidPlanner-016I’ve known Liz Pearce for a couple years now, and every time I get an opportunity to speak with her I become more impressed with her skills across functions.  Her resume is impressive enough (Google, Amazon) and the story of how she joined Liquidplanner as a marketing consultant and eventually rose to CEO is unique.

The fact that like me she’s a productivity junkie just makes me like her that much more.

But it was a comment she made over lunch a couple weeks ago that became the spark for the below recorded and transcribed interview.

Liz was between marketing executives and managing the marketing organization herself.  In the midst of explaining the places they were focusing, she stopped and said “You know, if you’re doing marketing right these days, it’s really hard.”

To hear a CEO say that must be music to modern marketer’s ears, but I wanted to get more of the context, story and opinions behind that.

Here’s an edited account of our follow-up discussion

Matt: You mentioned the other day that doing marketing right is actually very hard. Unpack that a little bit for me.

Liz: Sure. You know, I think there are so many facets to marketing, and there are so many channels for modern marketers to play in, that being good at it requires both very broad and very deep skills and often times very technical skills as well as creative skills.

You have to be a true business person to be a good marketer. And furthermore, marketing is expensive. So to be successful you have to be efficient, and that means you have to optimize. And optimization is time-consuming and difficult.

Let me just rattle off some of the channels that a modern marketer has to be well-versed in (I’ll use B2B because that’s my current domain): Corporate website, search engine optimization, search marketing, paid lead programs, PR, analyst relations, email, social—I mean the list of places that you should be is never-ending.

The work to manage any one of those channels can be a full-time job, which most organizations, at least small growing ones, can’t support. So you wind up trying to hire people who can do some of everything and just hope that they can get enough data and information to prioritize their efforts.

Matt: Right. So, I could argue that this isn’t a lot different than a lot of jobs. I mean every job in a start-up is hard. It’s hard to be a developer, it’s hard to be a product person. It’s harder to be a salesperson today than it has ever been.

Why do you think in particular there seems to be so much pressure on marketing? Or, is there more pressure on marketing than other groups? Or is that just us marketers looking at this with sort of anti-rose-colored glasses?

Liz: I think there’s more ambiguity (in marketing) than there is in other domains. Compare and contrast to sales: Everything in sales can be tracked and attributed to revenue, whereas you traditionally don’t have clear attribution in many aspects of marketing. This is changing quickly, but that change is not evenly distributed. Brand, for instance—any good marketer would argue with you that having a strong brand is instrumental in the success of the top companies. But how do you quantify that? How do you justify it? How do you back it up? Your brand is almost esoteric, in a way?

You could make the same contrast to engineering. You’re building product. Does the product work? Is it easy to use? All those things can be measured, and that isn’t always necessarily true for marketing.

Matt: One thing you haven’t talked about in terms of why it’s hard for marketing is the tension between “We want long term results” and “We want immediate results.” Things like, for instance, investing in a content strategy. That is not going to generate material pipeline in the first month.

It takes a while to grow, but marketers are asked to invest in these long-term programs that can develop sustainable repeatable predictable results while [someone is asking] “Hey where’s my leads this week?” In your organization, how do you manage that balance?

Liz: There’s a leap of faith, right? It’s almost like managing a portfolio of financial investments. Some of your resources have to go to the long game and to laying the proper foundation for future growth. That includes things like content and brand and even things outside of marketing like your service reputation.

And then you also have, to use a public company analogy, to hit your quarterly earnings. You have to get the leads in the door to feed sales. Or, you have to get enough eyeballs to your site that you can reasonably convert some number of them into paying customers. A lot of times those two jobs are done by the same person.

Matt: Yeah, and it can be hard to just figure out where you put your focus when you want to build for the future, but you’ve got those short term deliverables that are, on one hand, keeping you from being able to invest in long term because you’re constantly in the fire drill mode.

But on the other hand, you earn your right to care about those long term things, those long term investments in building a brand, building a real marketing engine, by hitting those short term numbers. And I think the challenge is that it’s not black or white, there’s a shade of gray in there somewhere that most marketers have to figure out.

Liz: I think the short term stuff in some ways is easier. In the channels where you expect to pump a certain number of dollars in and get certain amount of traffic or number of leads out, whatever that deliverable is (eyeballs or conversions or customers or whatever), there’s a certain promise being made about the return that you can get. And if it sounds too good to be true it usually is.

I think attribution analysis and really isolating the variables in any test is extremely challenging for most businesses unless you have a fully-funded marketing organization, including engineering resources because getting all the tracking codes in place, dealing with all the integrations, all of the operational stuff is a ton of work. If you’re investing there, you’re stealing from other aspects of the business. It’s not plug and play.

And the problem gets even harder when you incorporate, let’s say, a sales organization that may be evolving and changing just as fast as marketing. So, the ground’s moving beneath your feet, and to have a well-oiled machine is a serious effort. You’re probably always going to feel like you are leaving stones unturned.

Matt: Are there places where that pressure, that challenge, is heightened? Is it in a venture-backed organization? Is it in an emerging market where sales is hard enough as it is, let alone trying to pay attention to prospects that don’t yet care about you?

Liz: The problem has certainly got to be harder for smaller organizations that have fewer resources and less awareness to begin with. Newness has appeal, so I think a lot of times new ventures get a really exciting burst of attention at launch or upon entering into a particular market.

That, unfortunately for most companies, fades more quickly than you’d like, and it can sometimes feel like you’re back at square one. Getting to repeatability and consistency and to get that drumbeat of attention that every marketer wants is a labor of love.

Matt: What are your recommendations to marketers, both those that are doing this work as well as those who are managing this (VP, CMO) to manage up and manage laterally to the C suite, to their sales counterpart? How do you effectively communicate what it takes to be successful? You don’t want to sit there and make excuses, but how do you communicate what’s required to be successful and to deliver for the organization?

Liz: I think the one thing that marketers have in their back pocket is that they’re oftentimes pretty good storytellers. And I think the way to really promote marketing within organizations (you know, you kind of have to market the team itself, right?), is to tell some great stories about how efforts (even if you don’t have full attribution) lead to different types of wins.

So whether that is a positive review that’s posted as a result of an email campaign or inquiries from followers in an important social media channel, or some other example maybe of how you’re supporting the sales organization. Storytelling about the team’s efforts goes a long way, and it helps people feel more connected to the work that’s being done.