When should tech businesses start advertising and what’s the best way to do it?

Jonathan Trimble, CEO of creative business And Rising, on when technology businesses should consider spending money on advertising.

You teleport to 2023 and it’s good news. From the apps on your devices, the names in your fridge, to what adorns a teenager’s clothing, everything has been disrupted and changed. Entire categories of things previously unimagined have emerged for the better. There’s nearly a trillion GBP of opportunity in the foreseeable future and our job as scaleups is to secure our piece of it.

Yet 75% of VC is at risk of not seeing a return and many ideas will never make it at scale. The number one reason cited is ‘market has no need’ and shortly behind is ‘lack of marketing’. For those trained traditionally, these two things are considered the same.

The reality is that claiming a place in people’s lives at any scale (including B2B customers) requires being better, plus being heard and with the right economic unit cost. As the John Doerr adage goes: ideas are precious but easy, execution is everything. Many startups experience fantastic growth, but end up being over-skewed to early adopters unable to cross-over to the mainstream. Others get lost because every new trend comes with a venture or ten and it’s a winner-takes-most world.  

Marketing gets a bad rap as a place money goes to die. For tech, in particular, engineers think marketing is for those that have a donkey league product. They have a point. There was a time marketing could turn a can of stale beans into a household staple by buying attention. But if your basic platform and idea aren’t generating their own network effects, raising funds to have ‘marketing’ perform some kind of wizardry isn’t an option.

However, equally guilty are startups onto a good thing that don’t put their foot on the gas fast enough. Or have identified a base idea, but need to pivot and go large with it. Between engineers who doubt marketing and traditional marketers that overstate it, Think Bigger’s study of 35 tech category dominators, gives you the answer. Both are right.

One thing traditional marketing must get over is the velocity, agility and economics attached to bringing new ideas to market over old world brands. Equally, one of the things scaleups must embrace is the force multiplier of great channel planning and great creative ideas that typically can’t be found internally. True external agencies of note are mostly pointed at protecting those shelves from 2023 disruption, pumped full of revenue that dates back to the nineties, if not the fifties or earlier. But there are contemporary options available that will plug the right kind of fresh and challenging thinking into the mix working as an extension of your team. The right team dynamic and being open to put this thinking into action is a critical success factor.

The timing of that first investment is often debated. The reality is that you can never be too soon if early success signs are there at a mainstream level. Many wait too late, until PR, performance, tube cards and Facebook marketing maxes out and competition heats up.

Whenever you are ready, here are some things to think about, if nothing else than to get the right conversations going:

  1. Focus – now is the time to pick an audience and distinguish why they chose you. Crossing over is ironically about reducing your target to increase your appeal. Trying to appeal too wide is what the CEO of Hubspot calls the “optionality tax”. The discipline will also help product development.
  2. Focus part two – do one thing (channel and idea) really, really well. There will be plenty of overspill into other channels, but don’t overcomplicate a strong centre of gravity for your plan.
  3. Unit cost per acquisition is the only name of the game. But don’t muck around, go for the highest reach, highest impact possible.
  4. Hire great planners who get DR, not DR specialists that think they can plan. A daytime-only TV package might promise crazy response rates, but isn’t your audience at work? DR monkeys promise a lot usually backed up by some form of ad-tech measurement and optimisation. Many plans entirely miss the mark as a result.
  5. Everything communicates – now is a good time to join it all up. Consistency doesn’t mean doing everything the same but it does mean tightening around your new lead idea. In this way make marketing a function of engineering and build something for the longer term, not just the short.

Finally, find a simple way to say ‘hello’ and go for cut-through. The difference between a vanilla approach and one with chocolate sprinkles is double-digit, plus percentage points in effectiveness. Be big, bold and brave. You’ve been living closely with your product for some time, everyone else hasn’t. Their brains are busy and they don’t care. Whatever it is creatively you think you should be doing down the line, do it now before somebody else does.