Note: While this blog overall focuses less on the technical skills of marketing, I just had to publish this post. As noted below, I’m writing it as a tool to help mostly entrepreneurs who could benefit from similar advice I have provided in the past. Enjoy!

Digital marketing is a thing. A big thing. OK, actually if you are into the startup scene then growth hacking is the bigger thing. But across most types of companies, digital (social, mobile…) marketing of some sort is likely to factor materially into the growth plan.

Until recently, efforts to inject digital expertise into marketing teams have been challenging. Academic institutions continue to teach more traditional marketing, leaving the long-established CPG types to outsource the ability to forge new digital ground from the few specialized and proven agencies out there. EdTech companies such as Brainstation here in Canada are thankfully now doing a great job to close the skill supply gap.

And so now, we are able to focus on this new discipline – testing, learning, building best practices while experiencing both failure and success. Digital marketing has got wonderful momentum and is such a mandate right now across organizations that we head straight for it; for many, it’s where the strategic marketing planning begins.

The catalyst for this post is how I’m in my career seeing history repeat itself. A little over a decade ago I was rotated into a maverick little department by my CPG employers; our mandate was to figure out this CRM and digital thing which was back then more about the internet – slightly pre-smartphone era. Turns out this was the perfect role in the perfect environment.

Why? Because I was working in a conventional marketing company yet doing very new things. I saw both sides – old and new. The discipline of the old married with the free-wheeling new. And guess what? They work well together. The process, the thinking, the discipline remains essential; all that’s changing is the tools we use to adapt to new consumer behaviors.

If you immerse yourself too deeply into all this new stuff, you either bypass or forget the good stuff that comes from how we used to work. And that’s where the insight is as I see both entrepreneurs and career marketers continue to fall into the same traps. It’s time once again for me to impart the same wisdom that I have repeatedly shared with my teams, so that we can approach (any!) new marketing models together with the right mindset.

We drive most of our marketing ROI through decisions we make outside of the digital space.

To show you what I mean, I’ll draw you a simplified picture (I need to draw pictures more often; break up some of this text!)

All of the decisions we make to build a business cascade down from bigger decisions, while importantly connecting each to what ends up being a logical chain of thought. The further downstream we go, the lesser the impact of the decision on the performance. This hierarchy would generally look something like this:

Digital Marketing

Although a picture like this seems a little rudimentary, you’d be surprised to understand how seldom it is fully embraced. As a result I’ll present for your consideration a mini-review of the components of the pyramid and why they matter:

Obviously, the value proposition – your marketplace offering – matters the most, and forms the core of why investors will pony up some financial support to a new company. Your proposition absolutely must adeptly and fully tap into a powerful consumer need. A great product that uniquely solves an important problem is the best growth tool you have, for it can create word of mouth and prosperity out of its own inertia.

One of the greatest conflicts entrepreneurs especially experience when the product itself is digital is the urgency to market/promote/grow when the product itself is not fully evolved. I have strong opinions on this matter but that’s for another time and place. Let’s keep going.

Strategy is all about deciding what levers to pull (among the 4 Ps, typically) to grow your business. We try to pull them all but facing the reality of limited resources of all types, we prioritize. This is a huge decision relative to how you approach your business. At the strategic planning stage you will roughly allocate your budget among the many product and promotion options. Do not take this step lightly.

I’ll admit I have made some agency partners a little nuts during this phase, but I’m going to say it’s with good reason. I often hear agencies telling me they don’t want to be at the end of the value chain but instead would rather be seen as a strategic partner. In another breath they ask me what their budget is for the project/time frame so they can plan. OK, then. I tell them that if they are my strategic partner, I’d like their recommendations on how they would drive my business, spend my entire brand budget, and how much of that should go to them. And why. No one has taken me up on that offer yet (which is crazy since they could pitch for my whole budget!); it’s that difficult. Spend time on it.

Targeting is a serious pursuit for the simple reason that you don’t want to be marketing ice to Eskimos. And this type of analogy does happen in real life as a marketer. We fall in love with our product because we worked hard on creating it. Often times as a result, we lose sight of who it’s really for.

A great consumer insight will help you validate your objective while also steering you away from trouble spots. I remember managing the Pepcid heartburn brand in the US and trying to expand our sales among Hispanic consumers, with whom our sales lagged. Short story is we nearly failed, but luckily had picked the right ad agency that passed along insightful information about this market’s loyalty to current products and how they make these decisions. Without that we would have built the wrong creative and not grown share in the way that we did.

Insights are essential at a deeper level to understand what precisely can trigger conversion of a consumer. Many startups fail to dig deeply enough in this area or learn how to glean insight from what the customer even doesn’t tell you. As a result, marketing is approached with a laborious and resource-consuming test and learn mentality, which does have benefits, but isn’t always efficient.

If you do have strong insights – or at least hypotheses – the communication objectives become easier. Before you create content or assets, you simply must know what you are trying to achieve in terms of consumer perceptions or behavior. And if you’ve seen the purchase or decision funnels you know your choices range from awareness to loyalty, with a slew of options in between.  You must audit the current state of your target, the desired state and the messaging required to move them along the continuum to that desired state. This is an extremely deliberate and fundamental process of building a communication plan. Without clarity in this area, you could be setting yourself up to fail in execution.

Once you’re ready, it’s time to build assets. The type of assets you build will recognize budgetary limitations (more on that later) but should be a by-product of the following questions:

  • How complicated is my message?
  • How often will I have to repeat it?
  • How long will the consumer need to engage with my message to internalize it?
  • To what extent will visuals (moving or still) or words (spoken or read) help or limit the delivery of my message?

There are other questions for sure but this is a start. Net net your asset type has to be well reasoned and appropriate in the context of the decisions you have made thus far. I’m networking with a startup that recently produced a video for its web site and for rich media ad insertion. If you turn the voice-over off, you’d have almost no idea what the product is (as you focus on the ongoing visuals of the happy mom with her kids). Right there you’ve wasted your money on this expensive video medium by not charging your visuals to work hard for you. In addition, I picked out copy development issues. If you turn the VO back on and run the video again you have to wait about ten seconds to gain an understanding of the product…and about the same time again to start to understand the product features and benefits. Basic understanding of consumer behavior has told us that people prefer to watch, not listen…and will give you mere seconds to grab them, or they’re gone.

You may decide that for some communication objectives, you have a long road ahead with the consumer to build understanding and credibility. For example, the message may be simple to create awareness, but it could be comparatively complex, time consuming or less convincing to generate conversion. This is where longer form assets other than ad units will need to get built. Out of this objective comes such elements as a content strategy, blogs, web sites and a longer-term CRM plan. Some consumers take time and a deeper impression to engage.

(Now it’s time to press pause. We have audited a number of key growth-driving factors and we’re only now getting to the places where ‘digital’ comes into play. Seeing my point? A lot to get right before we even build out the digital piece.)

And, now, finally, it’s time to implement the part of the plan that connects you, your strategy, your resources and your tools to the consumer.

Your media strategy is about many things. In the context of your budget, you must prioritize reach and frequency of messaging to your target while considering the best environment for your message to help with your branding, messaging and positioning…as outlined in the last section. At this stage, you will give preliminary thought to offline vs online channels, thinking about consumer mindset and behavior and then consequently how well you need to facilitate conversion.

Last comes the channels – the specific places where your messaging comes to life. Once you’ve planned out your business, decided what you need to say, who you are saying it to and how you’re going to say it, you choose the destination – the environment that provides the context for your engagement with your customer. Yes, your digital marketing tactics form the last step in the chain of events that connects you with your shopper.

Did that feel a little long? Well it should. Gives you a sense of what you have to think about – and get right – to give the programs you execute a fighting chance to succeed.

Having hopefully made my point, I’ll leave you with two related nuggets of advice in the form of pitfalls to avoid as you go to market:

  1. Marketing doesn’t start in the middle.

I do a fair amount of formal and informal coaching of both entrepreneurs and career marketers. Going forward I’ll be linking to this article for their benefit (and for mine since I’ll no longer have to repeat myself!).  If I’ve sent you this link, it’s because you have said something to me such as the following:

“I have this web site. How do I get the word out digitally?”

“I’m trying to get more attention to my business. My friends say I should have a blog.”

“I’m looking for tips on how to build a killer CRM program.”

“To promote my app should I make a video or do Google AdWords?”

For all of these, I tend to reply with a simple, “Why do you feel you even need to do this?” If that doesn’t stimulate a cogent response, I provide prompting questions pulled from the above discussion. Point is, I go back to the beginning if I’m not getting the sense all has been thought through. Digital tactics are the answers to the right strategic questions, not the questions themselves.

Even established marketers make such mistakes. Back in the day in my maverick little digital/CRM department I was questioning brand teams on why they even needed a web site (…because, well, you just had to have one…). And to my management, I had to refuse to supply them with an internet strategy for my business, which was something they’d always ask for…because I suppose it was new and hot. I told them I had a communication strategy, and if the internet fit in someplace, I’d surely include it. You don’t build a strategy around only a tactic. You just don’t.

  1. Be careful not to misdiagnose a failure.

Typical one I encounter is, “Oh, we tried AdWords and it didn’t work. What else should we do?” That kinda thing. Deep breath, LZ. We forget that we make a heap of choices while bringing even one initiative to market. I can’t tell you how many times I have recycled ‘failed’ ideas because they just weren’t properly strategized. A simple tweak to the target, communication objectives, messaging or message vehicle could synch up your communication in a way that resonates with the consumer, thus effectively putting the paddles on an old idea to make it work. Done it a bunch.

A word of advice if we ever work together. Inasmuch as I can come up with fresh ideas, I love going back to the ones that underperformed. So, don’t dismiss me with the “ya, we tried that” line; you’ll just make me want to do it more!


I can go down this same discussion path on ‘content marketing’. I love how the startup space continues to invent these new terms for what we have been doing all along. Marketing IS all about supplying the right content to the right target consumer in the right environment. All that’s changing is our tools and options.

So yeah. Marketing is marketing…and you’re either a marketer who can adapt or you’re not. To be fair, it’s not quite that simple but for the purposes of this post, it is. I certainly wasn’t working in the Mad Men days but yup I can relate to much of what they were doing. It’s about the consumer, the product, the messaging – the whole game of using insight, hypothesis and the tools at hand to inspire a thought or behavior. It’s the same game today. We play it more quickly now because we have data and process efficiencies. We speak to our target differently to reflect who they are. We infiltrate new environments because that’s where they engage.

So yes, we have some catching up to do. There is lots to learn about the world of digital because it’s splintering into multiple forms and messing with the flow of human traffic at breakneck speed. There is indeed this whole new glorious universe to wrap our arms around. Digital is unlike any other media channel we have experienced to date so I shouldn’t undersell it. It breeds connectivity and incites sharing. It’s inherently human and can contextualize a marketing program and its messaging like no platforms before it. So yes, we certainly must upgrade our collective abilities in the new spaces.

Through it all, though, I implore you to maintain perspective. Digital marketing is not a discrete entity; it’s a piece of a puzzle, the end of a chain of disciplined and profoundly consistent and aligned thinking. Master and engage the entire marketing paradigm – don’t cut corners or race through it — and you’ll be able to seamlessly incorporate any new business model. That’d be a good thing, for there are many more such models right on our doorstep.


This article was published on LinkedIn about a month after I posted this. Written by an integrated marketer from Kraft, it goes a bit deeper into the role of digital, but reinforces my point about digital isn’t a discreet marketing activity unto itself. Has a great cartoon, too!

TECHCRUNCH got into the same in August 2016 making quite similar points. Their article though is in the context of how Google Analytics has driven so much marketing into the digital space even though it may not be the best choice for a brand. My take on that part is that sometimes too much data can be a bad thing. Since marketers (and their bosses) crave ROI and programming metrics you tend to go where the data is since it’s a place to prove out your success. THAT to me is the danger, not Analytics itself. This was a problem with WalMart and hard goods 15 years ago. WM had amazing data and since they were big, so many brands started to plan their objectives around driving X% growth through this retailer. Short sighted, and was a part of the reason why WM stopped being so liberal with their data.