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The marketer's first task

An analysis on the role of the marketer in the earliest stages of business development.

When you ask someone who's not involved in the profession to define the role of the marketer, it is likely that the first thing that comes to their mind will be some sort of combination of advertising, social media, and sales.

People tend to understand the role of marketing as being foremostly centred around revenue generation and for those who only see businesses from the outside, it is most often by engaging with advertising, social media, and salespeople that they end up spending money and providing revenue to these companies.

As a modern society, we experience adverts and we engage with social media on a daily basis, whilst almost everyone working in marketing will at some point have spent time speaking to users, family, and friends, encouraging them, with varying degrees of subtlety, to like something on Facebook, to sign up for a new account, or to check out their latest promotional video, billboard or graphic.

However, whilst these marketing activities are by nature the most visible, devised with the attention of luring eyeballs and attracting clicks, advertising, social media, and direct outreach (sales) is only one part of the marketer's role, and before a company is in a position to actually sell anything - that is, in its most formative, nascent stage - the role of marketing remains to identify and establish revenue, but its means of undertaking this task are very different to those you commonly see and might reasonably expect.

In fact, the first task of the marketer is to "identify and define marketing opportunities and problems" (American Marketing Association, 2017). It is to confirm the existence of a problem big enough to be worth fixing and for a group big enough, with enough disposable income, who experience the problem acutely enough, who, therefore, would pay enough to enable the business to sustain and grow.

In other words, the marketer's first duty in the development of a business is to prove the potential for future revenue generation.

Often, this will start with some general hypothesis that is formulated in the mind of the founders. It could be that x industry is broken or that y solution is inefficient. In the case of genei, the company where I currently work, the original hypothesis was that the process of reading and researching online was not as productive as it could be. Though this feeling was based upon the intuition and experience of the founders, it could not yet be known whether there was a potentially revenue generating business to be built around solving this problem.

In order to validate these hypotheses, the marketer must at the ideation stage of a business, identify three things:

  • The existence of a problem
  • The size of the problem
  • For whom the problem exists

Let's break these points down into more detail.

Recognising the existence of a problem is perhaps the easiest part. It comes from speaking to others and repeatedly hearing the same struggles and issues. It is about empathy and understanding the pain points faced in the specific process that is being focused upon.

For example, when undertaking this process ourselves, we asked individuals to break down their exact research process into the finest detail possible. We would then work through the process with them step by step, asking them to describe any points where they might have difficulty or find the process inefficient.

At this stage, it is important not to project your own hypothesis onto others. Try to focus on their own individual process and the places where they find stress or unease.

If you are only using online surveys, gathering this level of detail can be tricky. The questions asked in online surveys are limited and generic for all the people who are questioned. For this reason, I would always recommend 1-1 calls where possible. Calls allow you to dig deeper into the processes and workflows undertaken by your target audience and analyse where the exact problem arises. Plus, in the era of zoom, getting on a call with a stranger has never been easier or more normalised.

If, however, you are struggling to find opportunities for 1-1 calls, one thing I would suggest is including a final question at the end of your survey asking individuals whether they would be interested in a follow-up call and if so, to leave their phone number or email address. This way, even if you leave your online survey or questionnaire in a large forum or group, you'll likely end up with a number of enthusiastic leads who are willing to talk through their experiences in more detail.

Once you've spoken to a good number of people and identified a problem or multiple problems, then comes validating the size of these problems.

Validating the size of the problem means two things. The first is that the problem is clear, specific, and definable enough for you and your team to be able to tackle it in a realistic fashion. If a problem is too big or too grand, you're unlikely to get anywhere with it. Think 'the cure for cancer' or 'flying cars'. Obviously, these are extreme examples, but often problems that are too general or too vague to meaningfully address.

For example, with genei, we quickly found that our initial hypothesis - 'that the process of reading and researching online was not as productive as it could be' - was far too general. The problem was too big, too universal, for it really to be tackled in any sort of focused and possible manner. It felt the same as if we were asking people whether they'd like a flying car or a cure for cancer - obviously, most would agree, but none revealed a problem small enough to realistically tackle.

If you feel like the problem you've identified is too general, the best thing to do is to keep digging in order to identify more specific pain points.

For us, whilst many people said they research to be an inefficient process, it was enlightening to hear the different underlying problems they faced in these tasks.

Some people would say that finding relevant articles for their research was the biggest burden on time. Others would say identifying and extracting key information within articles was the hardest part, and others in fact would say that writing up plans in a cohesive way was were they would always slip up.

Each of these pain points are much more manageable in the sense that each offers much more achievable solutions. For example, to help people find relevant articles faster, perhaps a database search of some sort could be useful. By breaking down a more general problem into a more specific one, a more manageable and specific route to solving them became clearer.

At this point, it is important to address which is the biggest of these more specific problems. By big, here, I mean which problem could provide the most revenue if we were to set out to solve it. The way to evaluate this is to a) identify how much people would be willing to pay for you to solve their problem and b) calculate the number of people who exist within this target audience. By multiplying these numbers, we can calculate an overall market size. That is, the potential revenue that solving this problem could generate.

Now, there are some potential caveats. Market sizing is an easy thing to criticise because, for starters, it is nigh on impossible you will capture the entirety of the market, but more so because it can be difficult to accurately evaluate how much potential users would pay for your solution.

When it comes to money, people's decision-making is often complex and unpredictable. For this reason, I have repeatedly found asking whether someone would pay for something and how much they'd pay to be misleading.

Rather, I have found much more value in ascertaining how central the problem is to any wider difficulties or inefficiencies they face. If the problem is holding them back from completing their job, from improving their grades, or from landing more clients, it is more likely to represent a bigger problem and one they are more likely to pay for a solution for.

Quantifying how big a problem is in financial 

terms is a useful way to understand how much a user may pay a solution, and is a commonly used tactic in sales and advertising. For example, if you can establish that a user is missing out on, let's say £100 / month because of an inefficiency or gap in their process, offering to fix that for £50 / month would be a very enticing offer and one that a rational individual would take. If you are able to quantify the loss a problem creates, try halving that to find a ballpark price point.

Adopting this methodology in your market sizing can help you to understand exactly how big a problem really is and, therefore, whether a solution is worth pursuing.

It should also help you to establish your ideal beachhead target market. This should be a group that experiences a problem with enough severity to pay a good price for it, and is also large enough to justify going after. It should also be a group that you are realistically able to serve. If the solution to their problem requires a deep knowledge and expertise of their specific industry, you must question whether it is achievable for you to fix it. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your team should play an important part in identifying your target market. A good founder-market fit will provide a valuable competitive advantage when it comes to starting a business and growing revenue.

By evaluating these three things a) the existence of a problem b) the size of a problem c) for whom the problem exists, ultimately, the role of the marketer in the earliest stage of a company or startup, is to validate and justify the investment of time and money on behalf of the founders and financial backers. A mistake at this stage - by building a solution to a problem that no one has, or by building it for the wrong group - would result in a monumental waste of time and money for everyone involved. Evidently, for this reason, it must be avoided.

It is only through this process of validation that a startup can step out into the market with tentative confidence and its shoulders outspread. The marketer's early sighting of potential future revenue generation justifies the next step in the company's progress, and the focus of my next post: the search for a solution.

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