Crowdsourced Marketing:  Hey, We Can Put on a Show!

The plot of so-called backstage musicals usually centers around the production of a show, often created to avoid imminent financial peril, as you’d find in many of the depression-era Our Gang movies.  Invariably, as the characters realize their predicament, someone shouts the solution, “Hey, we can put on a show!”  (The ticket sales from which presumably generate enough money to save the day.)

The purpose of this post is to discuss one of the more serious forms of software marketing desperation, which I refer to variously as a backstage musical, a bake sale, or what one might more contemporaneously call crowdsourced marketing.

Since I’m mixing more metaphors than someone burning the midnight oil on both ends, let me quickly elaborate on each:

  • Backstage musical. Think: “Jimmy can tap dance, Mary can sing, and John plays the trumpet.  We can put on a show!”
  • Bake sale. Think: “You make the brownies, I’ll make the cookies, and Anne can make the cupcakes.  We can have a bake sale!”
  • Crowdsourced marketing. Think: “We can have a Sales town hall, set up a Slack channel, and call a meeting with Product to figure out how to generate sales.  We can crowdsource marketing!”

In all three cases, the presumption is basically, if only we had professional performers, bakers, or marketers, they’d know what to do, but since we don’t – well, let’s throw it together the best we can.  For the Our Gang financial dilemma or the classroom fundraiser, that might be good enough.  For your marketing department, it’s not.

I’ve spoken to CEOs who ask:

If we have all the performance data and conversion rates by (marketing) channel, and we understand that things aren’t purely linear but opportunity generation happens over time in response to numerous touches, and we can test the effectiveness of a various messages used in various segments, then how are we supposed to take all that information and decide what to do?

If only, I think, you had a strong head of marketing.  That is their job.  In most marketing organizations, it’s not their only job and they may have delegated a lot of it to the head of demandgen, but wafting through all that data and all those ideas, building a plan, getting buy-in to that plan from sales, selling it to the CEO, and maybe the board — well, that’s what of head of marketing is supposed to do.

You can’t hire an agency to decide it for you.  You can’t decide it in a board meeting or a call.  The CEO can’t decide it after looking at some reports.  The CEO and/or board can and should question any proposed plan, but making that plan is the head of marketing’s job.

And, let me be clear, it’s hard.  Which is precisely why no one else can really do it.   It’s a mix of art and science.  It’s a mix of re-running proven campaigns while testing new hypothesis.  It’s a mix of proven messaging and new messaging to address new trends, products, or partnerships.  It’s knowing the channel performance data cold, but also knowing the limitations on its interpretation and the scaling opportunity and cost per channel going forward (think:  exhaustion of low hanging fruit).  It’s hard.

There are zillions possible combinations.  There is no one right answer.  No report will ever tell you or John Wanamaker which half of the marketing budget is wasted.  Attribution throws a drowning victim an anvil, not a buoy; the best we can likely do is to make attribution suck less.

Believe it or not, I’m actually a big believer in crowdsourcing certain aspects of marketing – but not the plan.  The plan needs to be made by someone who understands the market and who is immersed in the data of the business.  If you don’t trust your marketing head to make the plan, you need a new marketing head.  Period.

When it comes to crowdsourcing and marketing, I believe there’s a time and a place for it.

  • It is extremely effective for review. Share a draft logo and you might learn it’s too close to an indirect competitor’s.  Share a draft name to learn it’s a bad word in another language.  Share a draft webpage to find errors.   Share a draft white paper to get your arguments torn apart.   Many marketers (and most agencies) are afraid of this because such feedback can interrupt your timeline.  But it can also help you catch mistakes, before they go live.  The great thing about marketing is that everyone is going to get a chance to review your work anyway.  You may as well find problems before the launch, not after.  Don’t be an unveiler.
  • It’s great for brainstorming. It’s great to sit down with a bunch of sellers and say, “tell me what would make your lives easier.”  Or, “I noticed we’re having troubles with our demo-to-close rate, what can we do to help improve that?”  Be ready for the usual answers and bring data to address them – e.g., “no one’s ever heard of us.”  Whip out your recent awareness study to present the actual state of relative awareness and then describe your plan to address it.  Some marketers develop a fear of ideas because they see each new idea as work.  Don’t be that person.  Love ideas.  Get as many as you can and then pick the best ones.
  • It’s great for guerilla marketing. We’ve got no more budget, but we still have a problem.  What can we do, on the cheap, to help solve it?  This often comes up in the context of field and/or regional marketing.  It’s arguably a form of brainstorming, but not the kind where you are at the start of an exercise, generating ideas.  Here, you’re in the middle of it, things aren’t going according to plan, and people need help.  What we can we do (given our constraints)?  The best marketers will go sixty minutes after the official end of the day, wringing brains, asking:  any more ideas, anything else anyone can think of?   Sometimes you get the best ideas on the third wring.

In this post, I’ve tried to convince CEOs to not turn their marketing into a bake sale.  If you’re a CMO and you feel like your CEO or CRO is trying to do just that, then you need sit down and have a talk.  You are a professional, you’re immersed in the data, and you understand the business.  Ask them to work with you to make a plan, explain in detail why you’re proposing what you’re proposing, and listen carefully to their ideas and concerns.

Then, as depression-era Grandpa Kellogg would say, “plan your work, and work your plan.”

If everyone else nevertheless insists on a bake sale, you probably have a bigger problem.

One response to “Crowdsourced Marketing:  Hey, We Can Put on a Show!

  1. Thanks for examples of good marketing crowdsourcing – agree on all 3. In the “bad” column, accountability dilution is another consequence. Marketing can be totally accountable for great ideas they embrace from other functions (even when they don’t work), like your examples. But if a Marketing team is executing an idea forced upon them by “the rep in Pennsylvania,” or “the new CFO,” when it doesn’t go well, they don’t have a foundation to agree on why it didn’t go well, or how to do better next time.

    I think about it in this simple-but-imperfect way, adapted from an old quote about religions. “You’ll understand my concern about crowdsourcing Marketing when you explain your concerns about crowdsourcing Engineering, Sales, or Accounting.”


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