Marketing for STEM is hard. Learn how you can empower your marketing team to position your technical company for growth.
You may have a stack of vanity metrics a mile high that say otherwise, but the cold reality is your STEM prospects don’t give a damn how many people visit your website.
Just think about that for a minute.
Now I’m not here to convince you to give up your precious KPIs or abandon your favorite marketing automation platform just yet. But if you’re convinced you’re “doing marketing” just because your team feeds you a regular diet of analytics, then you (and they) are missing most of the point.
Fundamentally, your marketing team exists to do one thing: convince your customers, prospects, and industry that your company is the best at what you do. They’re not here to make the company look cool, or to accumulate more Twitter followers than the competition, or to give the owner’s nephew a job (although it’s nice if all of those things happen).
Bottom line: if your marketing team is not positioning you effectively, then your marketing investment is generating a negative return.
In other words, your marketing team is failing.
The great news is that there are several ways you can empower your marketing team to achieve greater efficacy and enthusiasm without spending a lot of money. But to do that, we need to identify the underlying issues that are sapping your success.
So let’s get into it!
1. They don’t understand your technology
Unless you’ve hired marketers who have a background in science or engineering, your marketing team will be made up entirely of people whose experience is weighted heavily toward — wait for it — marketing. Designers, copywriters, web developers, and the like, tend to view the world through the lens of their expertise. Which means they don’t get up every morning thinking about math problems. In fact, there’s a good chance that some of them went into a marketing or creative field precisely to avoid subject matter for which they were not predisposed to greatness . . . say for example science, engineering, or math.
Does this mean they can’t effectively market your technology? Of course not. In fact, I believe not having an intense technical background makes them better able to see things from an outsider’s point of view. In many cases (including my own), they may still have a keen interest in science and technology and may geek out over the chance to share that excitement with others. But it still presents a steep learning curve, especially for someone with absolutely no experience marketing in a STEM-related industry. It is definitely not for the faint of heart.
Solution: Get them involved in your technology development
Invite them to product development meetings. Have them sit in on some customer calls. Bring them into the lab and show them what you do. And if you must send them to training, make sure it’s relevant to your industry instead of yet another weak-sauce conference on lead-generation or social media marketing. Provide endless opportunities to learn about your products and processes and make them feel welcome in your technical community.
2. They don’t understand your audience
If your team lacks technical experience, then there’s a good chance they will also be unfamiliar with science and engineering culture. Since scientists and engineers probably make up a sizable chunk of your audience, well… you can start to see where there might be some disconnect.
There’s also a significant component of your audience that could be non-technical — executives and upper management (read: decision makers), government officials, investors, etc. It is crucial that your team understands what motivates both segments, as one will often work with the other to make product selections and business decisions.
Solution: Get them plugged in to your technical and business communities
Similar to helping them understand your technology, getting your team plugged in to your internal technical and business leader communities will go a long way toward building bridges with your audience. Observing customer calls and going on lab visits are a great place to start on the technical side, and bringing them in for quarterly or annual business planning sessions will provide valuable exposure to the business mindset.
Trade shows and conferences can be beneficial as well, but they require significant time away from the office, along with travel and lodging expenses. And if a member of your team doesn’t have a specific support role to fulfill while they’re there, they can start to get really bored really quickly. That said, it’s usually a good thing to experience at least once, just to see the dynamic of several industry players in one location.
3. They don’t think like business owners
The business owner mindset may not seem intuitive at first since your marketing team is, after all, made up of employees and not business owners. But the paradigm from which your marketing team is operating can have a massive affect on the work they produce, and ultimately will affect the growth you can expect from your marketing investment.
Picture two different teams, Team A and Team B.
Team A is made up of well-meaning individuals who get along well with each other and with everyone in the company. They are responsive to all requests and provide quick turnaround for most projects. The people of Team A believe they are here to provide a service to the rest of the organization. Team A is well-liked by everyone from HR to QC to the C-suite. Why? Because Team A gets things done. And they also produce lots of those metrics you like so much. Because they love you. And they want you to love them. Please be their friend.
Now compare with Team B. The members of Team B see themselves as part of the leadership team that sets the goals and direction for the organization. Sometimes this rubs people the wrong way, especially if said people are used to a marketing team that just does what they’re asked. Rather than sitting quietly through management meetings and awaiting instructions, the members of Team B will voice their opinions, challenge your assumptions, and generate some lively discussion. Team B doesn’t care if you like them, because they know they’re not getting paid to be your friend. Team B believes the success of the business depends on how well they position it in the minds of your prospects. Team B thinks like business owners because that’s what they would want their employees to do if they were in charge.
If you see marketing as simply a “service organization” that cranks out random pieces of collateral or throws together last-minute presentations for your key account meetings, then all you really need is a collection of people (Team A) who do whatever you tell them.
But if you are a savvy business owner, you know that marketing represents a strategic investment that, if done right, will generate multiples of growth in return. And for that, you need a team that takes some pride in ownership of your investment.
Solution: Champion an entrepreneurial spirit and lead by example
If the marketing team believes churning out a bunch of metrics every month like some sort of tribal ritual will make you happy (and keep them out of the crosshairs), then that stack of useless information is all you’re ever going to get. Because like most humans, they would much rather give you what you’re asking for and keep their jobs than to challenge your thinking and risk falling out of your good graces.
4. They don’t have clear direction from company leadership
Setting the direction for your business takes conviction and a tolerance for risk. You are going out on a limb to declare “this is where I think we should go as a company,” and there’s always a chance that you’re pointed toward a dead end. I’m convinced this is why we keep churning out vague corporate objectives every year during planning season — because we can vaguely achieve them and not have to worry about experiencing real failure.
But you have to also weigh the risk of not setting a firm direction. Do you really want to be making payroll on a group of people who are vaguely working toward a bunch of vaguely written corporate goals? I’m guessing not. Vaguely.
The opposite extreme is when you set objectives that are impossible to meet. It’s oh-so-tempting to think you are “doing leadership” because you have set some “challenging” (read: ignorant of the laws of the universe) goals to “stretch” your team. Sadly, you are really just demoralizing them and setting them up for failure.
Solution: Commit to realistic goals and involve marketing in the process
Two things are absolutely required to give your marketing team clear direction: conviction and communication. You (and your management team) need to be completely invested in the direction you have chosen, and you should communicate it to your marketing team as clearly as possible and as frequently as necessary.
The best way to communicate your direction for the coming year is to actually have your marketing team in the room when you roll it out. Handing it off to management in hopes that they will communicate it down through the org chart is like trusting your business strategy to a bunch of preschoolers playing a game of telephone. It must come directly from you if you want it to be clearly understood.
5. They don’t have a good resource for market intelligence
I would wager one of the biggest reasons technical companies view marketing as an expense rather than an investment is that they have totally forgotten to include intelligence gathering into their mix. It doesn’t matter how engaged or strategic your marketing team is — if you can’t provide actionable information about your market, they won’t be able to target it very well.
Solution: Connect your team with experts and prioritize intelligence gathering
If you’ve been in business for a while, you likely have seasoned employees who know your market inside and out. This is especially true of any sales or field apps staff that have spent a lot of time out in the trenches. These people are a gold mine of information for your marketing team and for the company in general. If you don’t have dedicated market intelligence staff (and even if you do), your marketing team should be meeting with your sales and/or field apps staff on a regular basis to share in the tribal knowledge.
Make sure everyone understands that you must have solid, usable market intelligence before you commit to creating a strategy. Declare an end to the practice of shooting in the dark.
A note on hiring for market intelligence
Unless you really know what you’re after, I would be very cautious about hiring specifically for market intelligence. Experienced, knowledgable people who really know your technical industry and know how to find the information you need are going to be hard to come by outside of specialized market research firms. Look for someone with a proven track record that consists of more than just conducting Google searches and pasting a bunch of things you already know into a “report.”
6. They don’t have a strong team leader
You might think the need to having strong leadership for your marketing team would go without saying… but then again we live in a world where companies still think performance reviews are actually useful.
So while I don’t want to take cheap shots at what can be a very lonely and thankless job, it needs to be said that the loneliness one feels in that position is inversely proportional to the strength of one’s leadership. If your marketing leader has done an effective job of building up her team, she knows she does not stand alone because her team stands beside her. Each member feels empowered and respected for his or her contribution. On the other hand, if the team leader is passive, lacks conviction, and frequently complains to her team about having to go to bat for them, then she is effectively on an island of her own making.
Solution: Give them room to fail
Marketing, like research and development, is a scientific endeavor. People tend to associate marketing with creativity and clever advertising campaigns, but the creative is always being tested for its effectiveness in the marketplace. And as with any DOE, we are learning from an iterative process that frequently produces what we might call failure. And at the risk of sounding like a cheesy motivational poster, if we don’t fail, we can’t learn.
If the marketing leader is always under the gun to produce sub-par promotional material or is under the microscope for spending too much money, then they are going to avoid taking risks and trying new things. So give them room to fail. Make it clear that you want them to try new things and that you are genuinely interested in the outcome. Not because you are eager to express your disappointment if things don’t go the way you hoped, but because you have the characteristic curiosity of a scientist and you want to see what they’ve learned.
Conclusion: You’re in this together
Behind most of these problems is the fundamental issue of how the marketing staff see themselves, and how you as a business leader see the marketing team. Do you see them as servants or partners? Do they see themselves as leaders or followers? The paradigm shift must occur on both levels, and can take a long time to actualize. But the results could mean the difference between achieving real business growth versus remaining stagnant.
Make the marketing team a part of your team, and everyone wins.