What would lean startup marketing look like?

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Ryan Skinner

30. 01. 2012 | 4 min read

What would lean startup marketing look like?

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Lean Startup go for it

You just can’t deny the attraction of lean startup methodology. It brings the frisson of an all-night party to the blood, sweat and tears world of the entrepreneur. A quick primer:

1) It was coined by Eric Ries, a software entrepreneur inspired by Toyota’s lean manufacturing methodology.

2) It builds upon the roots of agile project management.

3) It’s all about producing software quickly, releasing it and studying its success, or failure, and then iterating (called continuous deployment).

4) It endorses “minimum viable product” – a bare bones product with only those features that distinguish it as a functioning product. Nothing more.

5) It replaces development cycles of weeks or months, with cycles of hours or days.

6) It aims to quickly and rigorously test our assumptions about what the market wants, and ruthlessly weed out wasteful thinking.

Now that cloud computing power can be purchased incrementally and software tested quickly, lean startup’s gaining ground. Arguably, it’s already succeeded at killing off thousands of business ideas that would have come to the market D.O.A.

Intuitively, we know most business ideas are doomed; there’s no market interest, or the timing’s wrong. Lean startup’s about finding that out before you’ve lost two years of your life to the effort.

Lean startup applied to marketing
And instinctively I see parallels to my work in marketing. Like startups, marketing is full of failed ideas, waste and shattered dreams. If lean startups can rapidly expose their product to the market’s whim, can’t marketers do the same with messages?

Boards of directors spend weeks, months, even years, strategizing on their marketing, and then roll out a big putsch with bombast and big budgets. Then, what? Silence? A damp squib? A flicker of interest?

Given the time and effort that go into these marketing campaigns, expectations are impossibly great. Sometimes they may even be met, but what’s the batting average? Probably not great.

The same technology developments that have enabled developers to deploy continuously and quickly, have enabled marketers to communicate continuously and quickly.

What does continuous marketing deployment look like?
I’ve written before about using the company blog as a skunkworks – a place to experiment openly with your business model, your audience and your product. CMS like WordPress, Tumblr and Drupal enable marketers to go live and mix it up instantly.

Obviously, social channels provide another ground to bounce and iterate ideas and messages.

But I can imagine even nimbler and quicker marketing executions. You start one morning with a team of three and determine to produce a minimum viable video product by day’s end. It wouldn’t need to be Hollywood quality, but simply carry the basic kernel of the marketing idea – minimum viable marketing.

The same thinking could be applied to webinars, eBooks, podcasts, emails, and even some visual collateral. The thinking: Develop an idea at minimum time and expense, release it and discover quickly if it’s a dud. Then iterate. Do it again, based on feedback.

There are a few pretty formidable show-stoppers to lean startup marketing, however:

1. Lean startups have little to lose from failures.
Expectations to the business and its professionalism have not really developed. How can a company with real products and real expectations signal that its marketing was tentative and exploratory?

Potential solution: Start by admitting that all marketing is tentative and exploratory; it’s in the nature of the act. But, with tone and style, we can communicate “DRAFT” explicitly. If it’s a video, we talk to camera, explain ourselves. If a blog post, we go first-person, and share the experiment. “I believe this, but I am not sure. So we decided to investigate a little…”

2. There’s zero – or very low – appetite for failure in most businesses.
How can you square that with a methodology that has as its purpose rapid and frequent failure? (At the same time, how many marketing organizations are effectively one big failure-in-motion, where communicating effectively to a market was long ago replaced by a series of deliverables detached from their successful reception.)

Potential solution: Measurement could help. Much of our marketing fails us, but either we do not measure, or we game the measurements to suit our ends. It’s a hellish situation to be in (as lies cover lies). A dollop of honesty, willingness to fail, measurement and steady improvement set a new and better course.

3. It’s a pretty basic tenet of branding that you remain consistent in your messaging.
One core idea is expressed again, and again, ad infinitum. How does that jive with constant, iterative change? Would you not merely create confusion in the market?

Potential solution: Surely the most biting criticism of lean startup marketing, there’s no denying the danger experimentation could have on a brand’s integrity. One poorly tuned message might tell your market that you’re not right for them. A solution may be to do your experimentation outside the main circus tent; for example, we in Velocity communicate differently on our Facebook page than here on our blog. A sub-brand, beta site or clearly marked experimental project may avoid this danger.

If you’re willing to agree that marketing can be highy valuable, you have to concede that it is often also very wasteful.

To some degree, we’re all already practicing lean startup. Only a few years ago, marketing messages for the corporate brochure, event stand, advertising campaigns and the like were months, if not years, in development. Today we spin much quicker.

But might a lean startup marketing methodology put us into another gear altogether, with less waste?

Published in:

  • agile

  • experiment

  • iteration

  • lean startup

  • marketing

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  1. Doug Kessler

    January 30th, 2012

    Faster! Sharper! Less process and more market impact!

    I really like the ‘do more, faster and iterate’ approach.

    Check out the Extreme B2B Marketing deck that goes along these lines:


  2. Jason Ball

    January 30th, 2012

    Great post.

    Too many marketers spend their lives endlessly reacting (too slowly) to events. By the time they have the ‘perfect’ answer, the opportunity has passed and the world has moved on.

    Keeping it lean and fast offers the opportunity to get inside this cycle and begin to be the company that everyone else must react to. And that’s a pretty powerful position to be in.

    For those interested, some of this thinking (including that of Eric Ries I believe) is based on the ideas put forward by American fighter pilot John Boyd who created the idea of the OODA loop.

    OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act, and is all about getting inside the decision cycle of your opponent. There’s a good article at: http://venturehacks.com/articles/certain-to-win

  3. Giles Farrow

    January 30th, 2012

    Lean startup has a lot to teach marketing.

    My biggest takeaway is validated learning.

    A/B testing is useful but doesn’t explain why one is better.

    Instead prepare a vision for why people want to buy. Set out your underlying assumptions / hypotheses. Test them using quick MVP marketing use this data to prove or disprove your theory.

    That’s validated learning.

    Now you know why a marketing approach works, you can do more. And invest more on marketing you know is going to work

  4. Stacey Hylen

    February 1st, 2012

    Great question that a lot of companies should be asking. With the digital age marketing can and should be moving faster. You can test messages and ideas on social media sites to see what your market responds to and wants and interact with your customers and prospects. Then you can run with the feedback you have received.

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