by, Nicole Beckerman — Every startup has to sell its product or service to survive. Yet startups often find themselves using ad hoc tactics and experimenting on the fly with sales and marketing tools that are merely getting them through another day.
To scale successfully, a startup needs not only a marketing plan but a tactical set of marketing tools that are managed by subject matter experts: Marketing Operations.
What is Marketing Operations?
Broadly speaking, Marketing Operations manages the technologies, tools, digital assets, data, services, and resources that a company uses to perform marketing efforts. Marketing Operations as a functional area is still emerging, and as such, it is continuing to evolve and may look different from company to company.
For most organizations, Marketing Operations responsibilities include:
- Deploying information and assets across marketing and product teams, related departments, business units, and external agencies.
- Aligning resources to maintain consistency, manage creative review & approvals in a single source, provide compliance & audit tools, and manage asset lifecycles from ideation to preservation.
- Optimizing efficiencies across technology investments.
- Partnering with IT to provide security and environment oversight.
As a formal function, Marketing Operations first caught on in larger companies who needed to wrangle dozens of marketing cloud services, software solutions, and tools to work together. These typically included social media tools, marketing automation, CRM software, content management solutions, digital asset management, analytics & reporting tools etc.
As an example, Cisco’s marketing stack is a complex ecosystem of 39 different technologies. A startup may not have the needs of Cisco, but with the accessibility of technology, a startup can and should optimize to meet the basic requirements of a scalable marketing stack. Management of these systems is clearly still important, yet Marketing Operations has evolved further to become the backbone supporting all marketing efforts.
“Imagine an organization as a country, marketing operations is like the roads and bridges that connect its cities, plants, people and resources within the country, and transport all sorts of assets inside and outside the country.” –Luque Wang, Senior Marketing Manager of Global Strategy & Operations at GE Digital
Marketing Operations Evolution
In the future, Marketing Operations will be even more essential for organizations in maintaining costs and driving revenues. Similar to accounting or IT, Marketing Operations will be a foundational cornerstone of an organization whether it is a start-up or global enterprise.
Currently, the marketing technology landscape is exploding with over 6,000 solutions. With these technologies readily available, many marketers are being held more accountable for hard-to-track metrics beyond traffic or likes. This, in turn, drives the need for subject matter experts to work with IT and orchestrate the right balance of technologies. Furthermore, creatives and marketers need guidance and support to define solution requirements, vet and deploy solutions effectively.
There is an imperative to deliver on the marketing & sales plan with rapid, data-driven decisions. With the world moving faster than ever, marketing needs to be streamlined with results that drive both revenue and insights to re-pivot, fix and/or augment the product, service, or the business. This is especially true in a startup environment where small missteps are potentially ruinous.
Benefits of Marketing Operations
If you’re a fast-moving startup, why not just hire an email marketer who also dabbles in social and then turn them loose with no red tape? While you could find some success doing that (or something similar), I’d argue that spending time on Marketing Operations upfront increases a startup’s viability and lays the foundation for scaling.
Getting Marketing Operations right means you can:
- Track customers across their entire lifecycle to understand where they are and meet them at that exact place. This might look like rapid lead routing after a demo request or serving targeted educational content in the early stages of customers using the product
- Bring transparency and accountability to the marketing planning process. When schedules and budgets are accessible, everyone can work towards a shared goal with confidence.
- Get campaigns to market faster (without burning out your creatives) by using automation and review processes.
- Harmonize your content to tell a cohesive story and economically reuse existing assets, aligned with the brand vision.
- Realize ROI of marketing initiatives through data. With processes and technology in place, you can monitor the performance of your marketing efforts and understand how they impact the bottom line.
Simple Best Practices for Startups
At a startup, you likely won’t see a full-time Marketing Operations person managing a complex tech ecosystem, but there are still aspects of the function which can be used:
- Get Serious About Planning and Processes: Leadership, marketing, and any other relevant stakeholders should work together on a comprehensive marketing plan which includes objectives, customer segments, channels, campaigns, and expected results. This plan can then be broken down into detailed tasks, milestones, and deliverables that are supported by defined processes. Processes are often where people skip out and take shortcuts, so strive to create intuitive processes which help things flow easily.
- Monitor Financials Habitually: Getting a handle on marketing spending and budgeting early helps to understand ROI, what assumptions you need to revise, and what’s working well. Integrating detailed budgeting with the marketing planning process is a great start, but follow through with periodic updates and tracking against expectations. Even a simple system to track budgets tied to specific programs and campaigns will yield useful information.
- Build Tech Infrastructure Thoughtfully: With so many solutions on the market, specific recommendations are out of the scope of this article, but in general, the marketing plan should delineate your requirements for your vendors. Rather than being reactive, these decisions should be driven by high-level strategy. Price point, integrations, and workflows are all factors to consider, along with how your marketing needs will scale going forward.
- Understand Your Technology Investment Roadmap: Depending on your business, develop a 3-year financial model including how you will sustain and maintain the technologies in your stack. Have the intent to interoperate via automated workflows while in the near-term testing your vision by implementing, governing and auditing manual processes. Don’t forget that users will provide feedback which will shape what improvements and modifications become necessary for your organization right out of the gate. Have the staff or vendor resources and subject matter expertise to vet, prioritize and solve for these along the way.
- Develop Structure Around Creative Work: The creatives who power your content are a unique resource, and their time should be preserved for doing what they do best. Rather than having them entangled in endless, demoralizing feedback cycles, agree on how the feedback process will work and make sure it leaves them with breathing room to experiment, periods of uninterrupted work, and a set number of revisions where ever possible.
- Use Your Assets Effectively: Make sure your assets are clearly organized and stored in an effective manner. Dedicate a digital asset management system as the single source of truth for your digital assets plus a content management system that can publish out to meet your needs. Enter descriptive metadata once and let the technology pass it on versus burdening your creatives with busy work. Effectively use a style guide, processes, and procedures. In addition, develop templates whenever possible which give a cohesive experience that can be tailored to customer segments.
Factors for the Future
Starting out with a Marketing Operations mindset allows startups to learn from their customers quickly and start working on more advanced tactics like personalization. Once you have a sizable chunk of users you should, for example, be able to learn from their behavior and segment out specific profiles. Your marketing plan should specify what customer information you’re looking to capture to get to this point, and your tech stack should allow you to move into strategies like lead scoring and lifecycle tracking at the right time.
A final factor to keep in mind for a growing startup is change management and ongoing learning. As your Marketing Operations function expands and matures, your people will have to adapt as well. While the ecosystem of marketing technology will continue to become more and more sophisticated, we humans will always remain essential to the marketing process. Making sure you have informed, up-to-date people at the helm ensures that your marketing efforts are on course and reaching their maximum potential.