The lively debate around Fred Wilson’s recent post on why he hates marketing continues today as Brian Morrissey, head editor over at Digiday, challenges Fred’s points by saying much of what startups do is actually marketing. In my humble opinion, what’s missing from the conversation is the distinction between what kind of marketing that startups, or any company for that matter, should engage in. For the sake of simplicity, let’s separate the term “marketing” into 2 groups: interruptive and useful.
Interruptive marketing is what you’re used to seeing — a top down approach where marketers try to interrupt the consumer with their messaging. This year at SXSW, interruptive marketing tactics were out in full force. On every corner of the show, in every booth, in every hotel room and at most bars and events, companies of all sizes were seeking to interrupt conference folks with messaging. I absolutely agree with Fred that startups should avoid this kind of interruptive messaging/marketing/advertising at all costs. I would suggest that Fred Wilson actually hates interruptive marketing, especially for startups where time, effort and (if lucky) investment need to be spent wisely. Fred’s advice to startups on why they should seek “free marketing” is dead on.
Here at Outbrain, in the early days we did just that. We wanted bloggers to install our free rating widget on their blogs. After unsuccessfully trying to interrupt major bloggers and attending large publisher events, it became clear that our messaging needed to be useful to the bloggers we were seeking and delivered in a more intimate setting. Pivoting, we started to attend (free) small meetups here in NYC where bloggers gather to discuss whatever they are passionate about. I went to meetups on Indian cooking, spiritual technologies, gluten free NYC dining and…well you get the idea. At these smaller venues we were able to join the conversation and contribute in a meaningful way. We offered a tool to help these budding bloggers understand what posts their readers actually liked. And knowing what posts their readers actually liked (via our rating widget) was key for the bloggers to become better writers. Once we got a few campfires burning (= bloggers who installed our rating widget), the initial user base started talking/blogging about Outbrain, and as a result, other bloggers started installing the widget right from our site (= Fred’s advice on getting “free marketing”). This useful marketing tactic started Outbrain and for nearly three years was the only (useful & free) marketing we did.
Twitter is another example;
They famously spent precious resources to set up large monitors outside conference rooms at SXSW a few years back. Conference-goers would then come out of the sessions and see tweets about what else was happening around Austin. At its very core, this was a form of marketing as Brian Morrissey and others have argued, but it was a form of useful marketing and by definition was helpful to the recipients and thus embraced by the community. For Twitter, well, the rest is history….
In contrast, the problems created by trying to interrupt consumers is the root cause for the tension that Morrissey points out in his post today that exists between the venture-backed folks, agencies and startups. I would suggest the real tension that is mounting is not so much between industry folks as it is with interruptive marketing and the consumer populace at large. Simply put, consumers don’t want interruptive forms of messaging on the webpages they visit, on their phones (mobile or landline), in their mail, on their TV, radio or any other device. As Brian also points out, it was great to see agencies like RGA, JWT, Huge and others have such a presence at SXSW this year. There were also quite a few senior agency folks there as well, many of which I spoke with. Anyone at an agency (digital or not) with children ages 3 – 15 years old knows the majority of today’s marketing/advertising equations are interruptive and by definition broken and doomed. You simply can’t interrupt the next generation. And the current generation isn’t far behind either, with dropping click through rates on most forms of interruptive messaging. This is why agency folks are storming SXSW and will continue to do so.
I’ll bring this back around to Outbrain again because many of us here have staked the last several years of our lives and nearly $30MM in investment on a form of useful messaging. Our technology and network were built from day one (back in 2006) for the sole purpose of being useful, interesting and non-interruptive to consumers while at the same time being profitable for publishers and useful for marketers. Agency folks know they need to find marketing solutions that are both useful (= not interruptive) and that can make a difference to a brand, which means scalable. Finding this mix is not an easy task and thus you will see a lot more agencies at shows like SXSW acting as consultants, clients of startups, advisers, investors and peers. So looking through this lens, marketing that is useful can be incredibly valuable both to a small startup or multinational brand, and in contrast, interruption marketing is a complete waste of time and something that all companies need to pivot away from — quickly — as my 8 year old is getting smarter and harder to reach every day.