By Geoff Roberts 12 min read
I read an article recently on ESPN after the Boston Celtics took a 2-0 lead in the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals about LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and the organizational fatigue the Cavs are currently experiencing. The Cavs have recently made several deeps runs into the postseason, resulting in longer than normal seasons. Media scrutiny has been relentless. Players and coaches have come and gone. And off-court distractions have been plentiful as LeBron and Co chase a nearly impossible dream of trying win championship after championship in LeBron’s pursuit to match Michael Jordan’s 6 NBA championships.
The article got me thinking about a different sort of fatigue that I’ve been feeling in my own career and industry; the world of venture capital backed marketing technology start-ups. I’ve known that this feeling has been there for a while now, the embers smoldering, but more recently the feeling has really started to burn in earnest. I call this feeling marketing technology vendor fatigue.
Marketing fatigue has been written about before, but to me the issue is much deeper than the volume of marketing messages we must sift through or the plethora of technology decisions modern CMOs must make. I want to talk about false narratives, next to impossible growth goals, and the underlying root causes of this issue.
For me, marketing technology vendor fatigue is caused by being repeatedly bombarded by marketing technology vendors with messages and content telling me that I have it all wrong – there’s a new way to do marketing, the next-generation way, it’s going to transform everything, and I better get onboard!
In short, 99% of the time this is complete bullshit. To make matters worse, the world of VC backed marketing technology start-ups is relatively small and very much an echo chamber, resulting in marketers like myself being hit over the head with these largely false messages over, and over, and over. On Facebook. On LinkedIn. Via email. At conferences. And every… single… other… channel.
Ultimately I’m writing this article for a few reasons, which I’d like to state up front:
First and foremost, I’ve found by talking to other marketers that I’m definitely not the only person that feels this way. Which provides an opportunity for martech companies to better understand their buyers and show a bit more self-awareness in their own marketing strategies.
Second, there are very clear and logical reasons why this occurs. I’d like to inspect those.
Most importantly, because this comes with an opportunity cost that is often at odds with what’s actually best for customers.
Let’s dive in.
Defining marketing technology vendor fatigue
First, let’s start with a definition.
marketing technology vendor fatigue - The feeling that results from being relentlessly bombarded by messages from marketing technology vendors telling you that their tools represent a new, transformative, or revolutionary way of doing marketing when their technology very clearly supports a time-tested fundamental of marketing or a pre-existing marketing channel. Most often repackaged ideas, concepts, or strategies; hype.
While that may sound harsh, for me, that’s the root cause of the issue. We live in this crazy tech enabled universe where for some reason it seems unacceptable to simply say, “Hey, we offer an email marketing tool. Or an analytics tool. Or a live chat tool. It’s rock solid. Our differentiator is teaching you to leverage this channel or tool better than anyone else.” That’s not very sexy, is it? But I’d argue that message is actually a really good thing.
And what if it’s the truth?
We’re leaving our values as consumers at home
Seriously, when was the last time you heard that message? There are companies out there doing this, but they seem to be the exception rather than the norm and they are certainly much more prevalent with technology products outside of martech. Basecamp is a company that comes immediately to mind. Wistia, another.
I yearn for a world where more martech vendors are OK saying “This is what we do, we do it really, really well, and ultimately our technology is an enabler rather than a marketing strategy in and of itself. Let’s teach you the fundamental marketing strategies our technology supports; or how to make the most out of the marketing channel our tool supports; that’s how you’re going to crush it!”
That would be refreshing.
There’s a strange phenomenon at play here, too. To borrow a tech stereotype (always dangerous, but one that I’ve found to be true), many tech start-ups are filled with employees that are regular consumers of craft beer or craft coffee (I’m guilty as charged). Heck, many of these companies even have exotic craft beer or coffee on tap within their own office kitchens. Given the choice of drinking a Heady Topper or a Heineken, the Heady Topper is chosen. A Guatemalan slow drip coffee from the local corner coffee shop versus a large black from Dunkins? You know who wins here.
Another such example where this phenomenon is on display is the music industry. Music buffs celebrate “underground” or “indie” bands, yet when their favorite artists or bands achieve the acclaim or success that their talent warrants they are often shunned as “having gone mainstream” or “selling out.”
The point here is most of the companies guilty of causing marketing technology vendor fatigue are filled with employees who as consumers, value companies and products who purposely stay small, who keep it real, who are more than happy to do their thing and do it really well without the need “transform” or “next-gen” anything. Without the need to become the next Starbucks.
Yet when it comes to their professional careers, they’re all too quick to jump on the bandwagon. To chase building that unicorn. To become a cog in the hype-wheel. To focus on growth at all costs.
Why is that?
Root causes of marketing technology vendor fatigue
The reasons why marketing technology vendor fatigue exists are not terribly difficult to uncover, but they don’t seem to be discussed all that often. I’ve boiled it down to three primary culprits.
First, competition. It’s well documented that there are over 6,000 marketing technology vendors out there, and that estimate is probably conservative. With so many companies vying for the attention of marketers, it makes logical sense that you need to either make a lot of noise, consistently, or say something different than all the other vendors in order to stand out. Or both. Next thing know you have carefully crafted and spun messages suffocating you from all angles.
Just this past week, during the course of my “normal” online life I was touched or interacted with 41 times by a single marketing technology vendor. 41!
Have they delivered their message? No doubt. Have they done it with consistency? Sure have. But if that’s what we’re calling “good” marketing these days… that’s just not something I want to be a part of. We can do better.
The second culprit I personally sympathize with more, because it has to do with time tested sales fundamentals. In order to sell effectively, you need to develop pain in the eyes of the buyer. Only once pain has been developed, realized, and the buyer feels urgency to act to relieve that pain are you able to introduce your company’s solution as the antidote to that pain. I view this very much as a truth, but even with that being the case I’m certain that you can alleviate your potential customer’s pain without needing to “transform” their approach or corral them into joining your “movement.” If you have a better solution for me, if you can improve my efficiency or process, just say so and I’m all ears.
An example of this can be found in Andy Raskin’s article The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen. Andy helps venture-backed start-ups tell their stories and craft their messages, and he’s one of the best in the biz at it. I’ve personally learned a lot from his articles and I’m quite sure his work has generated fantastic results for his clients. But just pause to notice the language used in Andy’s framework - he suggests that you name thy enemy, that you frame your customers’ problems as monsters, and position your product’s features or capabilities as magic gifts capable of slaying those monsters.
I get it, and I even believe the framework to be effective. But with 6,000 martech vendors all slaying monsters at once, how can the end consumer not feel exhausted? How can I not be lost in a dizzying spell of marketing technology vendor fatigue?
The third culprit is perhaps the biggest source of the issue; the vast majority of the companies that have caused my marketing technology vendor fatigue are heavily backed by venture capital. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with raising VC money; it can represent a completely appropriate accelerant of growth or in some cases, a necessary means of building your company.
But with very few exceptions when you do raise VC money, you forfeit the right to build your company completely on your own terms. As Kim-Mai Cutler, Partner at Initialized Capital recently put in her article the The Unicorn Hunters, venture capital represents “Rocket fuel with strings attached…. When a company accepts venture funding, it commits itself to steep expectations for future growth.” When you raise VC money, you are more often than not committing to (trying to) build a Starbucks.
Rand Fishkin’s new book Lost and Founder breaks down this commitment and the often-neglected flaws of the VC model pretty clearly. VC’s are betting on beating the public markets, which extrapolated over a 10-year period means that VC firms need to earn roughly 3x their initial fund size over 10 years just to beat the public markets.
Take the example of a VC who raises a $100mm fund and invests $30mm into your martech company. Assuming your company is the lucky one, the 1 in 10 investment that turns out to be the (successful) fund’s home run, you need to take that $30mm and turn it into $300mm in the next 10 years.
Needless to say, that’s damn hard to do. Next thing you know you’re “creating” categories and flooding the market with your message at every turn. Your chasing growth at all costs, and I’d argue your increasingly creating marketing technology vendor fatigue amongst your buyers.
So what’s the solution?
The marketing technology Eden that I envision
The truth of the matter is spinning your marketing technology product as something new, something majorly transformative and disruptive, and flooding the market with your message at every opportunity can be massively, massively effective. It can build brand awareness, it can position your product in the eyes of your buyers, and it can generate enormous returns for your company and investors. There is absolutely nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach.
That said, if there’s a shift that I see it’s that consumers of these products – particularly more experienced buyers with the power to make buying decisions – are increasingly seeing through the hype and choosing to transact with companies that share the values that they hold as a consumer (a good thing!). They want companies that are authentic, that will keep it real with them, that share their values. So let’s call bullshit on ourselves, at least a little, can’t we? Let’s at least tone down the hype machine and instead reinvest our time and efforts into the things that matter more to our customers.
On a positive note, I think that we’re already starting to see some momentum in positive directions. What I’ll call SaaS 1.0 companies underinvested in what’s come to be known as “Customer Success;” SaaS 2.0 companies have started to double down in this area and are realizing the benefits of doing so. My hope is that SaaS 3.0 martech companies tone down the hype, and instead invest additional time and effort into:
Better, more personal self-service experiences.
Look no further than Amazon’s world domination and the countless statistics highlighting the extent to which consumers prefer the ability to self serve. B2B marketing technology software companies have a long way to go on this front.
No matter how great the self-service you provide is, at some point prospects and customers will want to talk to a real human being. And it’s really, really damn simple what consumers want when this occurs – they want a prompt response, from someone who knows what they heck they’re talking about.
The best customer software in the world serves little value if the person responding to the customer service request isn’t knowledgeable enough to craft a high value response or takes a week to reply. The best live chat tool in the world is worthless if it’s not staffed with a knowledgeable sales or marketing person on the other end who is able to provide an immediate and thoughtful response. It’s almost never the tool that’s providing that fantastic customer experience or delivering the fantastic growth marketing technology vendors want you to believe it will; it’s the people leveraging that tool.
So invest more in your people and less in your hype! If you sell SEO software, hire more experienced SEO consultants. Send your staff to a SEO bootcamp. Whatever it takes.
Besides reallocating some of your companies energies in these directions, you can also be part of the solution as a consumer. Whatever your marketing technology need, one thing that’s for certain is there’s no shortage of high quality tools out there to fulfill that need. Actively seek out the companies that are doing things on their own terms, that will keep it real with you, that have invested their time in their people and in you as a customer. Revel in discovering the awesome products that exist that no one else knows about, and when you find them, share them with those that are close to you.
We revel in doing this with coffee, with beer, with AirBnBs as opposed to Marriots. Why not do this with software, too?
It’s not surprising given the competition and prevalence of the “Silicon Valley mindset” in the marketing technology space that the issues outlined in this post exist, and that a growing number of marketers are feeling marketing technology vendor fatigue.
And if you think about it, it makes sense that this space is filled with people with a knack for creating carefully spun messages that represent little more than hype. If you look back 50 or even 20 years that’s to a large extent what marketing was. Those were our roots, and the progress we’ve made by stepping away from that past and embracing data driven marketing has now earned marketers a seat at the strategy table.
A very good thing.
But I’m of the belief that we can still do better, that we can be more real, and that we can actually still achieve better business results by focusing less on “slaying monsters” and more on providing better customer experiences while continuing to reallocate our budgets towards processes and people that make customers more successful. Even if that results in diminished reach, for SaaS companies I think a more direct path to revenue growth is the increased customer loyalty and customer lifetime value we could realize if we turned down the bullshit, just a bit.
Can you relate?