The Secret That Defines Marketing Now

What do Marc Andreessen, Paul Graham, and Twitter know that you don't?

What does it say about marketing that the single most important marketing decision is made before the marketer enters the room?

And sadly, companies--when left to their own devices--tend to make the wrong choice.

The decision I'm referring to is a simple one, the choice to make something good, something remarkable. The choice, in the wording of Y Combinator's Paul Graham, to "make stuff people want."

To me this says that traditional marketing--as we know it anyway--is increasingly irrelevant.

Not that the world is some meritocracy. We've all seen plenty of mediocre things get plenty of attention and press.

But you have to remember two things. One, that such "success" was much easier to come by in the old media system where relationships with the few key influencers could guarantee an audience. Second, what did this attention ultimately mean? The first customers were inevitably disappointed and word of mouth suffered. Mediocrity rarely becomes a movement.

Still, change is in the air.

The rise of growth hacking is largely responsible for it. Sean Ellis, a startup advisor who coined the term, put it like this: "The #1 requirement for effective, sustainable growth hacking is to start with a 'must have' product experience."

When we look at the success of billion-dollar brands Instagram, Airbnb, Twitter, Facebook, Zappos, no one asks "Who did their marketing?" Nobody asks which agency they used. Because unlike Nike or Microsoft, the secret sauce wasn't in the ads. It was in the product itself.

With fewer resources, smaller budgets, and less allegiance to the old system, today's marketers can't afford the headwind of trying to push products that nobody wants. The math just doesn't work.

When a product generates rave reviews purely by its own awesomeness, when every time a someone uses a product, they want to broadcast their love for it, and when a product truly resonates with an audience--a defined group of actual people--the equation is quite different.

What changed? The achievement of something known as "Product Market Fit."

As Marc Andreesen explains it "…the life of any startup can be divided into two parts--before product market fit and after product market fit." You could say the same of PR & marketing. There are marketing campaigns before PMF (which are almost pointless) and campaigns after (which reap huge dividends).

Josh Elman, a growth hacker at Twitter, recognized early on that it was possible to "focus on understanding your users and how they discover and adopt your products [and to] build features that help you acquire and retain more users, rather than just spending marketing dollars."

This was Twitter's real secret: It built marketing into the product rather than building infrastructure to do a lot of marketing.

It's a crucial difference. If you're a marketing VP, this might seem like suicide. And perhaps in some ways it is. But I'd rather kill my position and remake it than watch idly by as it slipped into irrelevance.

--Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and gives monthly book recommendations here.

[Image: Flickr user Saxonmoseley]

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2 Comments

  • Adam S. Cochran

    I think it's a bit of a leap to think that the marketing agency is dead. It's just shifted in it's requirements. No longer do we need the print masters and copywriters, we need data analysts, social experts, user interface designers, and product designers. Marketing is less an agency and more an extension of your team, they need to be better ingrained into your business and help bridge the gab between traditional marketing and business development. The marketing agency of tomorrow is integrated, accountable and RoI-Centric

  • Alec Maki

    Agree with the article. But this is not new stuff. Peter Drucker long ago wrote that the purpose of marketing is to understand the customer so well that your product sells itself. The most important and valuable asset a company has is customer understanding. The best companies convert that understanding into magnificent products that customers "must have."

    If we have to have "growth hackers" to do this, I'm all for it. Whatever works.