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Culture / DevOps Tools

Entrepreneurship for Engineers: Do Engineers Hate Marketing?

The truth: engineers hate bad marketing. Here's how to spread the word about your startup's product without alienating potential users.
Feb 4th, 2022 6:00am by
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Entrepreneurship for Engineers is a monthly column by longtime New Stack contributor Emily Omier that explores the concerns of developers who want to build tools for other developers — and build a business around their innovations. We welcome your feedback, and ideas for future columns.

Just as there’s a persistent myth about how much engineers hate salespeople — and expect that the product should sell itself if it’s any good — there’s another myth that software engineers hate marketing. Is there any truth in this?

“I think it is true that like most people, engineers hate bad marketing,” said Michael Ferranti, chief marketing officer (CMO) at Teleport, which offers a Zero Trust security solution.

Engineers are people, after all, and most people don’t appreciate the “used car sales lot” approach to marketing, whatever it is they’re buying. They expect marketing to be respectful and to be knowledgeable, both about the product and the overall ecosystem.

So what exactly does good marketing look like? What do founders need to do themselves and what can (and should) they delegate?

Bad marketing can be pointless or even counterproductive, but good marketing works. And marketing isn’t just about getting sales in the door, either.

“One of the things that founders don’t think about is that marketing isn’t just for selling, it’s for adoption,” said Kris Bondi, CEO and co-founder of Mimoto — a provider of near real-time, identity-based breach detection and response — and former CMO of LogDNA and Bitnami.

Things like brand reputation matter for things like fundraising and potential acquisitions, too. “The difference between a 5x and a 13x in your valuation could be the perception of your company and the value of your brand, or people understanding what your vision is,” Bondi said.

Start with the Fundamentals

First of all, it is possible to do too much marketing, too early. If your product isn’t at a place where you’re comfortable with people using it, you should probably hold off on any big marketing push, Bondi said.

Beyond that, it’s important to have some marketing fundamentals in place before you ramp up a media campaign.

“Blanketing the internet with ads is not really going to help you if people don’t understand what you do,” Ferranti said.

Startups “will kind of put the cart before the horse in their marketing, and try to scale up before they’re ready, or try to kind of do like these growth hacks,” he added. “Like, let’s run a free trial, let’s do a promo. But fundamentally, people don’t understand your value yet. So focus there, make sure the value is clear.”

Start with the positioning and the messaging — how you will label your company and what problems you’re going to solve for users. “The messaging and positioning is incredibly important because that’s the base you use to even write your website,” said Zhenni Wu, senior director of marketing at BlitzzIO, a real-time data migration and replication platform.

And getting what’s on the website right can be trickier than people think because you have so little time to make an impression.

“When someone comes to your website, it’s got to click very, very quickly,” Ferranti said. “They’re not making a buying decision based on the headline, or the tagline. They are saying, ‘Do I want to invest the next 30 seconds of my time?’ And then they’re saying, ‘is it worth me investing the next five minutes of my time?’”

If a visitor to the website needs to read two paragraphs before understanding why the product matters, the risk is they won’t make that time investment and will bounce before you get a chance to showcase all of your product’s awesomeness.

Know and Respect Your Audience

If you’re marketing a technical product, it’s important to get the basics right. Marketing done well is really a form of education, so it’s important that it actually comes off as knowledgeable.

This means understanding what vocabulary the audience uses, how they work and the problems they are trying to solve. Doing something like writing “API (application programming interface)” instead of just “API” can alienate the developer audience and work against the company.

Usually, a technical founder wouldn’t personally make a gaffe like that, but what does happen is that founders will hire marketers, either outside agencies or as employees, who don’t have any experience in the specific industry. Finding marketers with relevant experience can be hard, but if you can’t find someone with experience marketing to engineers you should expect the technical team to be part of the marketing process at first.

“I know some founders wanted to scale up content marketing, and they hired agencies who don’t know anything about technical products, and then kind of just using those SEO techniques, try to produce content at scale,” said Wu.

“Sure, your organic search will increase, but you will see your bounce rate go up as well, because the target audience will immediately spot whether this piece of content was written by someone who understands the technology.”

Don’t Violate the Public’s Trust

And, unfortunately, this needs to be said: don’t lie. If a capability is on your product roadmap for six months from now, don’t say that it’s available right now. Trust is important for any company, and violating trust is what gets marketing a bad name.

Trust violations can be relatively small, like using SEO to get a blog post about setting up your product to rank on searches that are only tangentially related, or they can be huge, like outright lies about what the product does.

They can also be unintentional, as when you lead people to believe that the product provides certain benefits when it actually does something else much better. Whatever you do, building trust should be a core goal of your marketing program and you should make every effort to avoid trust-killing campaigns.

It might seem like marketing is full of pitfalls, but the truth is that technical founders often have an advantage — if you’ve created a company to solve a problem that you personally have experienced, it’s easier to have empathy for the audience and to create authentic, respectful marketing campaigns. And technical founders can and should use that for the company’s benefit.

“If a founder is good at speaking or is good at writing, they should be jumping on that right away,” Bondi said. This can include writing for the company blog, speaking at conferences and meetups or even developing a personal following on Medium before the company even launches.

When the time comes to ramp up efforts beyond what the founder(s) can do, just make sure to work with people who have experience both in marketing and in your specific space.

Marketing Is Everywhere

“Everything is marketing,” Ferranti said. “The name of your company is marketing, the person you decide is the target buyer for your software or service is marketing. Obviously, the words you put on your webpage are marketing. How your employees interact with the open source community is marketing.”

While you might have a marketing department in charge of thinking through campaign strategies and taking up the bullhorn, it’s a mistake to think that “marketing” is done only by the marketing pros.

This also means founders cannot totally outsource marketing. They have to be able to tell their own story and the company’s story; they are also responsible for establishing things like company culture and relationships with the open source community.

But marketing is not just about telling people your company and product exist. It’s about educating people and helping them solve problems. There’s no reason software engineers wouldn’t enjoy marketing done right.

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