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6 Marketing Lessons I Learned from Lean Software Geeks

A distinguishing characteristic of South By Southwest Interactive is its scope. Marketers rub elbows with CTOs. Journalists take notes from web developers. Cross-functional learning is the norm.

That’s why I made my way to Lean Startup panel on the Product Lifecycle today. Hosted by Lean Startup guru, Eric Ries, it was an opportunity to dig out some agile marketing tips from the unexpected source of three software geeks: author Mary Poppendieck, Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson, and Spark59 Founder Ash Maurya.

While the theme was geared towards lean startup fans, there was plenty of wisdom for B2B marketing. Here are 6 of those nuggets.

1. Sell Your Business, Not Your Product
“Your solution is not your product. Your solution is your business model,” Maurya said.

Are you selling a set of widgets or a culture? In an environment of competing solutions and services, customers don’t just want technology, they want a partner. They want to feel viscerally that your business model isn’t built entirely on you selling them, but making them successful. If they see your business depends on their satisfaction, they’re more likely to buy in.

2. Be Honest, and Earnest
One of the first things Dickerson did as the newly minted CTO at Etsy in 2008 was issue a public apology. Search was slow, and the company had been applying band-aids instead of fixing the underlying issue.

Many marketers would never admit a mistake publicly  like Dickerson did. But they should. By being transparent about the issues, he was able to retain customers who believed in the business, but had grown frustrated. He bought precious time. But he was also earnest, promising that problems would be addressed and fixed.

It worked. Etsy averaged 39 million unique visitors per month and $525 million in sales over the site last year.

3. Read the Competition’s Playbook
Back in 1984, when Poppendieck was at 3M, the company was selling the relatively new technology of video cassettes. Then a Japanese competitor started beating them with far lower prices.

To keep the business alive, Poppendieck realized they would have to do the seemingly impossible and cut costs in half. “We decided to start out by looking at what our competitors were doing,” she said. They read a book that described the process their competitors deployed, and then radically changed their internal methods.

Too often marketers are tempted to go by the book, even when the competition is passing them by. If you’re competitor is pulling something off, it’s by definition possible.

4. Create a Dashboard-Driven Culture
When Dickerson’s team set out to fix bugs and issues at Etsy, they turned to dashboards to help track and display performance. They made over 60,000 graphs. But they identified the 30 most important dashboards, displaying them on screens everyone could see so each employee shared in the responsibility.

Marketing dashboards are just as invaluable for creating a shared sense of accountability and purpose among your team. By figuring out what matters most, and making it public, your team will push hard to complete individual goals that boost the entire team.

5. Create a Simple Price Explanation
Price can make or break a deal. So framing the discussion around price can be one of marketing’s most vital tasks.

Maurya’s team knew they needed a simple explanation for price. They anchored their price against the costs of solutions they knew their customers were already using. But rather than positioning it against a vendor, they asked potential customers, “How long would it take to do everything we can do for you using just half a developer a month?”

That sparked a realization: The customer would save time and money. They didn’t use an apples to apples comparison, but framed the conversation in a way that truly demonstrated the value.

6. Perform Blameless Post Mortems
When something broke at Etsy, Dickerson’s team would perform a blame-free post mortem. This way the focus remains on diagnosing and fixing roadblocks, rather than devolving into the human activity of assigning blame.

For sales and marketing this is crucial. When a deal falls through or customer jumps ship, the tendency is to point fingers. By establishing a process beforehand where the lost deal can be taken apart, without fear of consequence, sales and marketing can truly get on the same page.

Those are just six lessons I’ve learned this weekend at SXSW. How about you?

Oh, and if you’re in town, join us for our panel with MarketingProfs, Contently and Twitter on Brand Journalism in the Real World this Monday!

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