Convincing a marketing skeptic

Designing and executing effective marketing programs is a tough gig at the best of times. Yet, on top of everything else, many marketers are saddled with having to convince skeptics on the value of marketing in the first place.

Pretty much every small business has (at least) one marketing skeptic. It’s the person who remains unconvinced of the ultimate effectiveness of marketing as a business function. The one who wonders whether all this hippie talk of “feelings” and “brand narrative” isn’t just a thinly-veiled communist plot to overthrow the country.

Marketing skeptics can come from any walk of life, and may be embedded at any corporate hierarchical level – from the CEO down. Marketers inevitably run into creative and budgetary blockades thrown up by such cynics.

What’s worse is the public display of indifference (at best) from such denouncers gets noticed throughout the company. Their influence effectively works against your best efforts to integrate marketing-centric thinking within the organization. Without their buy-in, your chances of success aren’t looking great.

So how do you convince a marketing skeptic? How can you convert them from cynical detractor to a supportive advocate?

Marketing skepticism is partly our own fault

Part of the reason why marketing is seen by some as being inconsequential fluff can be blamed on marketers themselves. We talk to civilians (the people existing outside our little bubble) as if they know what we know.

We’ll use insider jargon and acronyms in our explanations and justifications. But by trying to sound clever, we end up alienating the very people from whom we’re trying to elicit support.

Using marketing jargon outside of the marketing department ends up reinforcing the naysayer’s perception that marketing’s all about intangibles and hocus-pocus.

To be taken more seriously we need to read the room. We need to adapt our language depending on who’s asking the question. Finance types like the CEO or CFO like to hear about ROI, LTV, and conversion rates. Hit them with words like saliency and share of voice and watch their eyes glaze over.

It’s a vicious cycle. A business owner knows they have to employ a marketing person. However their experience with marketers hasn’t been great. So they employ someone with little experience or education in order to keep costs low.

The (ahem) ‘marketer’ dives straight into tactical execution. But they’ve ignored the basics of where every engagement should begin – diagnosis, analyses, strategy, segmentation, targeting, positioning, and all the rest. This is usually because they don’t know what marketing is. Alternatively, it’s because their boss is expecting an immediate tangible deliverable (since they don’t know what marketing is either).

Inevitably, results don’t meet with the business expectations of the organization – and marketing (in this case rightly) gets blamed.

Why didn’t the ‘real’ marketers, the ones who know what they’re doing, get a look in? Because the people playing at marketing have screwed things up, made life harder for everyone else, and tarred every marketer with the same brush. While there are plenty of marketing qualifications out there, none are mandated. Today anyone with a passing interest, regardless of experience or education, can call themselves a marketer.

The 4 types of marketing skeptic

Marketing skeptics broadly fall into four categories:

  1. The KPI Fascist is the person who’s looking for a direct, cause-and-effect correlation between every marketing cent spent, and a corresponding sales result. Their myopia is based on thinking marketing is a cost and nonessential option, rather than an integral component of the value creation process. They’re often egocentric narcissists.
  2. The Technocrat is commonly the business founder, or maybe the CTO. They think the reason people buy things is purely down to features, flashing lights, or the choice of programming language they used. This is the “if we build it, they will come” or “our product sells itself” type of person. They boast about their prowess in using Microsoft Excel.
  3. The Manipulation Objector thinks marketing is about brainwashing, trickery, and subterfuge. They voice their ethical objection to what they see as Machiavellian practices, putting us at the same level as founders of religious cults. They often have too many cats at home, and are usually vegan.
  4. The Rigor Fanatic thinks marketing, like every part of the business, can (and should) be driven by process, pragmatism, and logic. Unless there’s a rational, repeatable ‘machine’ in place, any commercial result attributed to marketing must be examined with caution. They see marketing in the same way they see logistics, or manufacturing. The idea that human beings don’t always act and think in the same way, often behaving irrationally and emotionally, escapes them. They probably wore a Pocket Protector at school.

The opinions of each of these category types are based on erroneous, out-of-date, caricature-based assumptions of what marketing actually is. Again, I think much of this is down to people’s historical experience with ‘those who call themselves marketers.’ They’re skeptical because they’ve been burned in the past.

Why marketers have a marketing problem

Most non-marketers have a distorted view of what marketing actually is. Ask them and their answers usually fall into two groups:

  1. Sales support – passing qualified leads to the sales team, designing slide decks, or posting on social media. This includes sales activation work such as promo ads and email blasts. Also things like planning trade show logistics or ordering stress ball giveaways.
  2. Prettifying – taking something already produced, the creation of which we had no involvement, and “making it look nice.”

Now while the above is most definitely part of marketing’s function, there is a copious amount of other marketing work happening below the water line. At least, there should be.

Doing the tactical stuff without having first done the work that dictates its nature produces insipid, uninspiring, generic communication. Such work fails to move the needle in terms of mental availability, brand development, or – most importantly – sales conversions.

For proof of this, you just need to take a look at 90% of small business marketing output we see today. Customers find it increasingly difficult to tell one provider from another, since everyone looks the same and says the same thing. Creativity and emotional reasoning have been frozen out of the process. Most times, you could change the logo to that of your competitor and no-one would notice the difference. It’s little wonder marketers are looked upon with derision.

Much of what we call marketing today has been devalued from a marketing function to a communications function. It’s become a targeting-optimization game – a competition between algorithms. Any pretence of effectiveness, salience, or distinctiveness has been consigned to the bin.

For years, marketers have been on the back foot, told time and time again that we’re a cost to the business. What’s worse is that we’ve come to believe it. The reason marketers are spending all their time on ineffective programmatic advertising or banal social media posts is because they’re desperate to justify their existence.

How to turn a skeptic into a convert

So how do we change the minds of the cynical, wary, marketing skeptic? We start by earning their trust, so they understand the process methodology which underpins what we do. We show them what marketing actually is from a strategic and operational standpoint, rather than just a tactical one.

The first step lies with educating non-marketers to the work that happens before a single piece of consumer-facing collateral is produced.

Take the detractors on the important journey of diagnosis and strategy stages that underpin any successful marketing project. Show them how market orientation identifies consumer needs, and how this data is used to create (or reframe) products and services that address pain points.

Demonstrate how you take research data to compile market segmentation. The drivers, behaviors, and purchasing commonalities that allow you to make decisions on targeting, messaging, and positioning.

Enlighten them to the tangible, qualitative-based data that allows you to make emotional and creative messaging that’s both resonant and relevant. Messaging that builds mental availability and distinctiveness at the point of buying consideration.

Cajole them into accepting the premise that customer-perceived value is subjective and context-dependent. Acknowledge that, sometimes, you can’t draw a straight line between marketing efforts and sales results. At the same time, they must accept there’s a place for irrationality and experimentation. Just because a particular channel is easy to track, doesn’t mean it’s inherently more valuable than channels where attribution is less clear.

Finally, champion the value of a blended marketing model that combines creative execution and channel definition. The goal is to find the ideal mix of both, to build the most effective marketing engine for your particular business.

Educate the marketing skeptic into what marketing is actually about. Once they understand the underlying diagnostic, research, and strategic stages, you’ve half a chance at getting them on side. Unless, of course, you don’t know how to do any of this. In which case, stop thinking you’re a marketer. Know your limits, move aside, and let the grown-ups get on with it.

You’ve been reading How To Convince A Marketing Skeptic on KEXINO, a marketing blog for startups and small businesses by Gee Ranasinha.
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