The role of the modern Chief Marketing Officer is a tough one—you’d be hard pressed to name another position that requires a wider range of skills. There’s typically direct responsibility for revenue performance, although the marketer’s impact on a business’ bottom line is less cut-and-dry than their counterparts in sales. And many CEOs simply fail to understand the nuances of the role and the future building benefits of marketing investments made in areas like “brand” where the return on investment is not immediately recognizable on the balance sheet.
As a result, it’s not surprising that the average tenure of the tech CMO is dwindling—a recent survey of tech companies found that over half had replaced their CMO in the last two years. That’s pretty wild if you think about it, but the source of the problem is quite clear to me:
CMOs are failing to build trust with their CEOs and leadership teams.
Salespeople constantly talk about the importance of building trust with buyers, and marketers reflect often on the importance of social proof and building a trustworthy brand. But for some reason the importance of the CMO building trust internally doesn’t get discussed nearly as often—yet it might be the single most important skill for a marketing leader to develop.
This post explains what I’ve learned about building trust as a marketer—why it’s important, how to go about doing it, and how to position marketing as a strategic driver of business growth.
The impetus for this post was reflecting on the marketing leadership roles I’ve held and how the process of building trust with leadership has been different in each. I’ve played the following roles at various tech companies.
Here’s an overview of how the trust building process has differed in each capacity.
People talk a lot about wanting to “be their own boss,” but one of the benefits that I don’t think is talked about enough when it comes to running your own business is the speed at which you can execute. When you report to yourself, the amount of time you save on reporting and explaining your decision making to others is hugely significant. This is one of the reasons why we’ve focused on building a self-managed company at Outseta—by supporting truly autonomous decision making, we want everybody on our team to be able to move fast and act quickly without any worry about bureaucracy—not just our founding team.
But just because I’m a Co-founder doesn’t mean I don’t need to develop trust within our team—the decisions and investments that I make directly affect the lives of Dimitris, Dave, and James as well. While that’s the case, I have another huge advantage at Outseta—I worked with Dimitris previously for over 5 years (and James to a lesser extent), during which time we built inherent trust in one another.
As a result, I don’t need to spend time rationalizing or explaining all of the decisions I make at Outseta—the team simply trusts that I’m acting in the best interests of the business. This doesn’t mean that I’m making all of the right decisions or investments—far from it—but it does mean that I’m given the benefit of the doubt. This is empowering and allows me to execute at a dramatically faster pace than I otherwise could.
Said another way, this is the best case scenario. It’s also why you see many high performing teams built by people that have worked together in the past.
As a marketing consultant, I’ve played roles ranging from strategic advisor to independent contributor to interim head of marketing. The challenge in each case is the same—the company is hiring you at a lower level of commitment than a full-time hire, usually with the expectation that they will see some ROI relatively quickly.
The process of building trust in a consulting capacity really focuses on the sales process. Companies look for evidence of past success in order to start building trust, then typically probe into the consultant’s approach and perspectives until they reach the point that there’s enough trust established to feel comfortable making the hire.
From the perspective of the consultant, the success of most consulting engagements hinges on clear expectation setting from the get-go. What will be delivered, and over what timeline? What investments are being made in long term growth, versus those designed to show ROI more immediately?
When you’re consulting, you’re building trust with every single interaction. Teaching, setting and resetting expectations, explaining the process, gaining alignment, and teaching some more. These are the keys to building your own credibility and winning repeat business.
I’ve been hired to lead marketing teams at four companies in a full-time capacity now. At each, I was paid a significant salary given the stage of the company and was largely responsible for driving the growth of the business. I also came into each of these roles without any pre-existing relationship with the CEO, the person who was ultimately responsible to shelling out the cash for my salary and entrusting me with their business. It’s only natural that they would keep a watchful eye on my performance, while pushing me to drive results.
Building trust when you’re hired in a full-time capacity is an ongoing effort—as with consulting it likely starts during the interview process, but will typically persist for several years thereafter. Ask any CEO who on their team they trust completely, and their response is almost always someone they’ve worked with for a decent chunk of time. Trust isn’t built overnight.
The infancy of the relationship is particularly important—in a full-time role building trust is less about hitting specific performance targets and more about educating the CEO and other executives on your perspectives and process. Your goal is to position each of the marketing investments you intend to make appropriately and make sure that you have buy-in from the team on the work you’re committing to. CMO tenures are cut short when the investments you’re making aren’t in-line with the objectives and goals of the business.
Just as a CTO may have to explain the importance of technical projects to a CEO, the CMO needs to educate the CEO on the various ways marketing can drive their business. If you’re lucky enough work for a CEO with a strong understanding of marketing, great—this is very much a cheat code. But this tends to be the exception rather than the norm.
In a full-time role it’s always worth the time and energy it takes to explain your strategy, pull together relevant reporting, and build a personal relationship—all elements that help to establish trust. Building trust is a prerequisite for success that can’t be skipped.
Now that we’ve looked at trust building from the perspective of a few different roles, let’s look at a few common misconceptions about building trust and a few specific scenarios that you’re likely to encounter as a marketing leader.
Many CEOs and marketing leaders end up with strained relationships simply because their definition of what it means to build trust is misinformed. Here’s a few common scenarios often mistaken for developing trust.
The most common way that CEOs look to assess the effectiveness of their marketing investments is via marketing attribution. They look to the CMO to develop a marketing attribution strategy that shows the exact return they’ve realized on all of the marketing investments they’ve made—in terms of leads, in terms of customers, and in terms of revenue. This represents logical thinking—particularly as the footprint left by digital marketing interactions has been heralded as the catalyst of the data driven marketing that simply wasn’t possible until recently.
Personally, I used to be obsessed with marketing attribution—I built sophisticated attribution models that gave weighted values to every measurable marketing touchpoint and spent countless cycles improving marketing attribution strategies.
Today, I don’t.
Part of this is a recognition that most of that work was largely a waste of time—buyers’ journeys simply aren’t linear and almost always include touchpoints that can’t be measured. Beyond that, with new data privacy laws attribution is actually becoming more difficult and less possible than it was 5 or 10 years ago.
So how do you deliver this message to a CEO who is relying on attribution to assess your performance without losing credibility?
The answer I’ve come up with here is quite simple, and one I vehemently advocate for. Put a simple attribution strategy in place—it could be first touch, last touch, it really doesn’t matter all that much—then declare a primary system of record for attribution related data and stick to it. The key with marketing attribution is not the accuracy of your measurement, but rather consistent measurement over time that lets you identify trends in each marketing channel’s contribution to leads, customers, and revenue.
“The key with marketing attribution is not the accuracy of your measurement, but rather consistent measurement over time that lets you identify trends in each marketing channel’s contribution to leads, customers, and revenue.”
Joe Chernov, CMO of Pendo, calls this aiming for consistent imperfection—I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. The idea here is pretty simple; regardless of the attribution strategy you select, if you improve performance in any of your marketing channels you should see that reflected in your attribution reporting. In the context of most of the SaaS start-ups I’ve worked with, Google Analytics is suitable for your high level marketing attribution reporting. Marketers should also study channel specific reporting to understand how each channel reports on performance versus the performance reported in your overarching system of record, but this is more information than is necessary for reporting at the leadership team level.
Putting an attribution strategy in place is by no means a fail-safe substitute for developing trust. Taking the time to candidly discuss attribution strategy and its importance with your executive team is often a more effective means of building trust within your team than the actual attribution reporting itself.
Another common pitfall that CMOs and CEOs fall into is a belief that generating results is how trust is built. While driving business results tends to make most other problems disappear, that certainly doesn’t mean that trust has been established. Rather, the results are simply deprioritizing the importance of establishing trust and masking that trust may not have actually been established at all. This quickly becomes apparent if the results suddenly don’t look so good.
Whether we’re talking about a software start-up or a professional sports team, most teams that are hugely successful aren’t overnight successes. In fact, the strongest teams are often built out of years of struggle—they learn to keep showing up, to communicate candidly, to play their respective roles, and to make incremental improvements over time. When success then “suddenly” happens, the trust built up through the times of shared struggle is often a defining characteristic of the successful team.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of developing trust as a marketer is getting buy in from your CEO on long term investments that won’t show any short term ROI—sometimes for years. Investments in brand, content marketing, and SEO are all common examples, so let’s take them one by one.
Search engine optimization is by all accounts playing “the long game.” Realistically, it often takes 6-12 months to start seeing any meaningful results from SEO. As a marketer, you have to sympathize with your CEO here—if you’re asking to invest money in SEO, you’re asking to incur expenses for a long period of time before you have any real evidence of ROI. That’s a tough situation for anyone to be in, and is the primary reason why so many companies have failed relationships with SEO consultants.
SEO when done effectively is the gift that keeps giving—I encourage most companies start early with SEO, but investments here need to be made at a level that the business is comfortable with and can sustain over at least a six month time horizon.
Investments in “brand” are even less tangible than SEO—this could be anything from buying a new font for your website, to taking a customer to dinner, to starting a podcast. Chances are these items have costs, both in time and money, yet won’t directly drive new revenue in a measurable way in the short term. Particularly in the world of start-ups where companies often have limited financial runway and/or investors who are expecting to see hockey stick growth at your next board meeting, it can really tough to rationalize investments in something as intangible as brand.
Yet, we all know in our heart of hearts that brand matters. I grew up in a generation where 8th graders shelled out $45 for holey t-shirts blazened with the word “Abercrombie” on the chest—an inferior t-shirt sold at a premium price solely on the basis of brand! There’s a parallel for every age group. Few purchases of any kind are made without some consideration of brand, yet tech company CEOs too often feel that brand doesn’t apply to them.
My advice here? As a marketer you certainly need to understand the short term needs of the business you’re working in—particularly when it comes to the financial survival of a start-up. But if you find yourself working on a team that’s not willing to make longer term investments in their brand, this will likely come back to haunt you further down the road. Look for a new team.
Content marketing is a broad catch-all term—there’s certainly content that can be created to serve all stages of the customer acquisition funnel. But while that’s the case, I advocate for marketers to position content marketing as a long term investment in two areas.
While content marketing can certainly help with customer acquisition, that tends to happen over the long haul as your content helps you improve your SEO rankings and build a favorable and differentiated brand. Said another way, I don’t advocate for publishing content and immediately assessing the value of that content by directly attributable leads, customers, or revenue.
Case in point? Outseta. I started writing content on the same day that we began writing code for our product, and for the first 18 months or so I really didn’t see any directly attributable impact on our business from all of the content I created. But by the time we were two years in, about 80% of our leads were discovering Outseta through the content I’d published. Imagine if I had to justify this investment—where I’d spent the majority of my time over two years—to a CEO looking for immediately attributable results? This never would have flown. But now two years in we have a sustainable spigot of leads signing up every day after interacting with our content.
My experience aside, consider a much more established and well known SaaS company—Close.com. Last year they embarked on a massive content project, hosting their first virtual summit. They got some huge names is tech—from Hiten Shah to Noah Kagan—to participate in the event. They recorded a total of 55 interviews and spent literally hundreds of hours coordinating and promoting the event. Guess how many directly attributable sales this generated?
But if you think this content won’t benefit their brand or their search engine rankings over time, you’d be crazy.
I’m not suggesting that content marketing investments shouldn’t result in some conversions, customers, and revenue—you should be able to measure when this does occur and seeing some conversions in the short term is great. What I am suggesting is that this shouldn’t be how you assess the “success” of your content.
More and more companies are catching on to this way of thinking. Wistia’s goal with their content is simply to build brand affinity. Drift measures the success of their content in terms of “love.” Jay Acunzo, another well respected content marketer, advocates for a metric called Unsolicited Response Rate that I love—how many people directly reach out to you once you hit publish to let you know that your content was really helpful to them? This is far from attribution, but it’s a wonderful immediate measure of the usefulness and brand building power of the content you’re publishing.
Now here’s the rub… so far in this post, I’ve made the following points:
Taken collectively, how is a CEO supposed to feel about these points? How does this not come off as punting accountability?
In my experience, the best CEOs are smart and very much open to logic and reason. The biggest mistake marketers make is they assume that these points are understood or they use them as an excuse for poor performance. Marketers need to strike a balance of long term investments and short term initiatives designed to help you hit more immediate goals. And there are instances—like investments in paid advertising—where it’s OK to look for a more immediate return on investment. There’s simply too much money flying out the window not too.
Here’s a snippet from an email I sent to a CEO.
“The common trap that I want to articulate goes like this—companies invest in this area (content marketing and brand) too late, because it doesn’t show immediate return. They prioritize immediate return lead generation campaigns to boost growth, raise some money, then get a big check. The check comes and growth expectations are higher than ever before—but the company has lost their audience by prioritizing short term lead gen, has exhausted their sales pipeline, and doesn’t have the benefits of brand/SEO beginning to accelerate and lift them up because they didn’t make these investments 12-18 months prior. Facing pressure to grow, they invest heavily in paid ads only to see lackluster returns as the cost of paid advertising is rising for all channels. This is a dreary picture, but it’s a plague within SaaS companies which is why I’m drawing attention to it (that’s my job).”
Not only is this my worldview, but this sort of email in my eyes is a necessary step in building trust. And of course while drawing attention to these challenges is key, you also need to show the CEO a path forward and how each of these channels can be used most effectively.
I’ll leave you with some tactics that have been helpful to me in developing trust after I’ve made the points I’ve mentioned above.
First, ask the CEO to consider their own behaviors. For the CEO that’s pushing to see directly attributable results from paid advertising, ask them “When was the last time you clicked on a display ad, filled out a form on the company’s website, had a sales demo, then bought the company’s software?” The answer is quite often “never,” the CEO is left saying, “Shit, you’re right—I don’t do that. I don’t know why I would expect other people too, either.”
Second, suggest that the primary metric that marketing’s performance is based off of is revenue. Not only is this music to a CEO’s ears, but revenue doesn’t lie. While your long term investments should take some time to show up on the balance sheet, a new marketing leader in any capacity should also be able to move the needle in the more immediate term.
Third, insist on spending time in person with the CEO and other members of the leadership team. Talk about both business and your personal lives. Better yet, break bread. Remote work is a fantastic thing, but if you think about it it’s pretty bizarre that many companies are now hiring people that they’ve never even met in person. I don’t care if the person you’re hiring has the greatest reputation and resume in the industry, spending time together face-to-face is jet fuel for building trust. Prioritize it.
Finally, bring specific, tangible examples from your past experience to support your points. If you can’t do this, I recommend connecting your CEO with other, more experienced marketers whose credibility is undeniable to help sing a similar song and bring validity to your perspectives. Next thing you know, the CEO might even hire that person to work alongside you or act as a mentor. This shouldn’t be seen as threatening—the stronger your team, the most trust you’ll ultimately build.
Building trust internally as a marketer is hard, but it’s absolutely worth the time and effort. It’s often not until explicit trust is built that marketers truly have the freedom to pursue the bolder strategies and marketing investments that have the greatest potential to drive the kind of growth we’re all looking for.
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