Inside My Brain

Thoughts about startups, tech, marketing, and life

TAG: Marketing

Marketing is the easiest and hardest job at the same time

Marketing word cloud

Marketing is really easy. And it’s hard. Both at the same time. I learn that everyday.

NYU Stern is one of the best universities in the world for finance. And I got my MBA there in marketing (though Stern is pretty good at Marketing, too).

At Stern, the finance majors would constantly poke fun at all of the marketing folks for taking the easy route. While these finance people were using spreadsheets to calculating Betas and IRRs, we marketers were learning about fluffy stuff like “brand” and “engagement.”

And I’ll admit that when I was was an engineer and consultant way back in the day, I thought that marketing was easy and fluffy as well.

On one hand, it’s true. On the other hand, it’s not.

Marketing is easy, anyone can do it

Post something on Twitter? That’s social media marketing.

Write a blog post? That’s content marketing.

Pay another company to slap your logo on their materials? That’s partnership marketing.

Talk to someone about a product? Is that really marketing? Yeah, that’s word-of-mouth marketing.

It’s true, anyone can do marketing.

Executing marketing tactics is easy. In fact, any conversation that you have with anyone about anything is marketing for that thing.

Yeah, marketing is really, really easy.

Anyone can do marketing, but can they do it well?

Yes, anyone can do marketing. The question is whether they can do it well and achieve the goals set by their boss and company.

You can execute any of the tactics that I mentioned above. But how are they working? Are they producing leads, users, customers, and revenue?

Here’s why marketing is so hard.

So many channels

I mentioned four 4 types of marketing channels in the section above. That’s only a fraction of all the marketing channels that are available at our disposal. Here are a few more that I can think of off the top of my head:

  1. Pay-per-click advertising
  2. Online forum marketing
  3. TV advertising
  4. Radio advertising
  5. Affiliate marketing
  6. Mobile marketing
  7. Guerilla marketing
  8. Email marketing
  9. Public relations
  10. Event marketing

Here’s a Google sheet with many, many more.

The difficulty in marketing is experimenting with all of these channels, prioritizing which ones to focus on, and determining which are most effective.

True measurement is difficult

Awesome segue – how do you determine which channels are most effective? You need to be able to attribute leads, customers, and revenue to each channel. That’s proven to be pretty difficult as well.

John Wanamaker famously said that “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

So true.

Yes, online marketing has made that easier. If you run a Google Adwords ad and a user clicks and buys your product, you should be able to attribute that sale pretty easily, right?

But what if that user heard about your product from her friend prior to Googling it? Or what if they saw a tweet from your company last week that made them think about you? Or what if they saw a recommendation of your product on Amazon before hearing about your product from a friend or seeing your tweet that made them think about you?

Is it correct to attribute that sale to that Adwords ad entirely? No, it’s not.

Even though we now have access to so much data, gleaning real insight from all of this data has become increasingly difficult.

So how do you truly understand which channels are working, and which aren’t?

Attention is scarce

There’s so much to do nowadays. No one has time for ads.

Everyone fast forwards through commercials during the shows they DVR. Shit, they don’t even DVR anymore – they’re watching Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Consumers spend tons of time on social media. And while the potential to reach these billions of social media users is huge, these audiences are super fragmented and distracted that it’s so much more difficult to engage and interact with them.

It’s really hard to get attention nowadays, no matter how easy it is to write a tweet or blast out an email.

I’m sure that you’ve concentrated 100% of your attention on reading this amazing blog post, but your phone probably buzzed and pinged you with notifications from text messages, Twitter, Snapchat, email, whatever. Thanks for paying attention, though, I appreciate it!

Trust is being breached

Look at all of the data privacy issues Facebook is dealing with now.

Consumers are sick of ads following them around all over the internet (this is called “retargeting”). Even though retargeting works, it’s super creepy.

Tech companies have access to troves of user data that they leverage to serve us personalized (aka creepy) ads all the time.

And consumers hate this.

You need a unique combination of skills

To be a good marketer, you need a broad set of skills.

You need to be creative to come up with engaging copy, a unique market position, and eye-catching designs. But you can’t just be creative.

You need to be analytical to experiment with different marketing channels and measure how well all of these channels are performing. But you can’t just be analytical.

You need to be strategic to see how all of the different channels and moving parts fit together. But you just can’t be strategic, you need to be able to execute, too.

You need to understand psychology, technology, data, strategy, tactics and operations. You need to understand how sales people, designers, programmers, and customers work and what makes them tick.

It’s difficult to learn all of these skills.


There are so many marketing channels, attention is hard to come by, trust has gone out the window, and competition is continuously increasing.

With marketing, you can’t just circle an answer or highlight a cell in your spreadsheet. There’s no formula that you can follow. You have to experiment, measure, make assumptions, measure again, and experiment some more. It’s a never ending process.

So yes, while executing marketing tactics is easy, doing marketing well and proving that you’re doing it well can be really difficult.

Do you think marketing is easy or hard? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Let Your Personality Shine in Your Product

A couple of years ago, the folks at startup accelerator Y Combinator put on a series of lectures called “How to Start a Startup” at Stanford University.

My favorite lecture was lecture 7, “How to Build Products Users Love“, which was presented by Kevin Hale, Founder of online form company Wufoo and now Partner at YC.

There is a TON of great information about user onboarding, customer support, and much more.

But the enduring theme that I took out of the lecture was how to incorporate your personality into your product to make it something that your users love to use.

With Wufoo, they did things like include interesting microcopy, like having “RARRR!” pop up when you hover over the dinosaur login button:


Wufoo login microcopy



Another example was from one of Wufoo’s customers who included some hilarious microcopy in their sign-up form:

Corkd form microcopy


Every time you open Slack, they’ll have an amusing message waiting for you to start your day:

Slack quote


Of course, you need to build a product that provides value to the user, is fast, doesn’t crash all the time, has solid design, and has all of the other baseline things that a good product should have.

But these little user experience details count a lot, and incorporating your personality into your product wherever possible can delight users and keep them coming back. It can build trust, put a smile on users’ faces, and make them feel loved.

While product designs will differ, many products that do similar things tend to feel the same. There are many online form tools like Wufoo that get the job done. But the microcopy and other details that reflect the company’s personality can be the difference in winning or losing that customer.

Have you encountered a product where you saw the company’s personality shine through? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Quality vs. Quantity – which should you focus on?

There’s a never-ending debate between quality and quantity, especially in my worlds of marketing and startups.

It’s hard to have both quality and quantity at the same time; they have an inverse correlation.

The more you do, the lower quality your work will be. The higher quality your work is, the more time it will take for each task, and you’ll complete fewer tasks.

So which is more important?

There’s a big debate about quality vs. quantity in the marketing world.

Content creation is a key part of marketing, and many companies try to pump out lots and lots of content so Google can index all of their articles and they’ll be higher on the search rankings. Sometimes this works, but it’s a grind and can cost a lot of time and money.

Then take SEO master Brian Dean. His blog, Backlinko, garners almost 120,000 unique visitors per month and a 7-figure income. And he has only written 32 articles in just over 3 years. That’s less than one blog post per month! He writes super-long articles that have a ton of value. That’s clearly quality over quantity. Not everyone can create these very long, in-depth articles, though.

Now let’s talk about the startup world.

Conventional wisdom says to do one thing and do it well. Hone in on a single problem, research it, perfect it, create a solution for it, and focus, focus, focus.

Then there is this guy who has launched 12 startups in 12 months. He built and tested a bunch of ideas to figure out what had the most potential.

Or there are venture capital firms that make only a few investments per year but focus on industries where they have expertise. Then there is 500 startups, who is playing moneyball and investing in a large number of startups (way more than 500) to diversify and spread out their risk.

It comes down to your particular situation, your mindset, what resources you have, and what you can execute.

I think there are pros and cons to each approach and you have to find the balance of what works for you.

This is day 18 of my experiment to blog for 30 consecutive days.

New Partnership with Exhilarator

Exhilarator Logo

I’m proud to announce that I’ve forged a consulting partnership with Exhilarator, a unique “startup factory” based in DC, and will provide them with marketing consulting and business development services.

Exhilarator Overview

Exhilarator is so unique because it is part accelerator, part services company, and part events company, all focusing on scaling startups.

The accelerator accepts 4-5 consumer tech startups on a rolling basis, houses them in their offices in Georgetown for four months, and provides them with business model refinement, customer acquisition, mentorship, and anything else that will help these companies grow.

The services part, with which I’ll be most involved, helps entrepreneurs execute on their vision. Whether the entrepreneur has an idea that needs validation or looks to grow her existing company, Exhilarator can provide these services on a fee basis. I’m partnering with Exhilarator to both bring in new business and help execute client projects.

Finally, Exhilarator runs SwitchPitch, a series of events that helps startups enter into strategic partnerships with large, multi-national corporations looking to get projects off the ground. If you’re a tech entrepreneur in NYC, check out the upcoming SwitchPitch NYC event on October 1.

The company is all about scaling startups and it’s doing it three different ways, two of which that actually bring in revenue. Really smart.

How This Opportunity Unfolded

I first met Exhilarator Founder Michael Goldstein last year at a startup conference; at that time, I was working on my failed smart calendar company Dokkit and he was running his accelerator named Endeavor. After the event, we immediately connected on LinkedIn but didn’t interact with each other too often after that.

Then a couple of months ago, Michael reached out to inquire about my consulting work. We met for coffee and chatted about the projects that I was working on and what he was building at Exhilarator. I thought the concept of Exhilarator just made so much sense and I was really interested. We met twice more and decided that a partnership would be a good fit, and recently pitched our first project together.

This is a great opportunity because it combines the two worlds that I’m involved in and passionate about – marketing and startups. I’m really looking forward to a long, mutually beneficial relationship with Michael and the Exhilarator team.

And if you’re a startup or small business and need help launching and growing your business, please reach out!

Like this post? Then follow me on Twitter – @mikewchan – for future updates.

My Favorite Recent TV Commercials

I’m a big fan of great commercials, and they’re one of the reasons why I first became interested in marketing. With attention-sucking technologies like DVRs, social media, and mobile apps, the ability of a TV commercial to grab viewers’ attention and connect with them on a substantial level is really important for brands, especially since buying TV air time is really expensive.

I think most will pinpoint creativity and humor as the key parts of a great commercial. But a great commercial goes deeper; the ability of a commercial to be in sync with the company’s brand and connect with a target audience is paramount to the marketer in me. Here is a list of TV ad campaigns that I really like, both because of their creativity as well as their strategic value.

AT&T’s “It’s Not Complicated” Campaign

The message and delivery of these ads are “not complicated” at all, but this campaign has layers upon layers of complex awesomeness.

Everything links back to the campaign’s core aspect of not being complicated. AT&T boils their competitive advantages down to specific facts, such as having the largest 4G network, the fastest 4G LTE network for iPhone 5, and  saving on phones and plans. They then deliver these facts through simple phrases like “More is Better”, “Faster is Better”, and “Saving is Better than Not Saving” (no duh!). Better yet, they have these messages delivered via hilarious children and comedian moderator Beck Bennett, whose dry, straight-faced personality is perfect. The campaign also morphs to take advantage of popular events such as Mother’s Day and the NCAA Tournament.

AT&T has a home run campaign on its hands, combining key aspects like creativity, humor, relatability, and brand strategy. Check out these great commercials here. I definitely want more!

Allstate Insurance’s “Mayhem” Campaign

My favorite part of this campaign is the personification of disasters that can happen to us at anytime in our lives. We’ve all left our sunroofs open when it rains, made some questionable driving moves listening to our GPS, or have no idea what a water heater can do, and the Mayhem guy portrays these situations in dramatic, treacherous fashion.

Insurance is a commodity product, so these companies have to be really creative to connect with potential consumers. Allstate does this perfectly by personifying distaster and relating to our everyday lives.

You can see Allstate’s recent “Mayhem” commercials here.

IBM’s “Smarter Planet” Campaign

Over the last decade or so, IBM has remade itself from a product-centric company that sold computers and servers to an organization that is more focused on delivering services. Thus, the old commercials that highlighted products and features have given way to those that highlight IBM’s employees and the impactful work they’re doing.

That’s why I love IBM’s “Smarter Planet” campaign – it’s so perfectly reflective of the company’s corporate and brand strategy. When I watch these commercials, I truly get the feeling that IBM has brilliant employees who are working on projects that will improve the world and make it a smarter planet. There’s no fluff involved here; IBM just shows the problems they’re solving and the people who are solving them.

You can see a bunch of IBM’s “Smarter Planet” commercials here.

Let me know what you think in the comments; I’d love to hear your thoughts on these campaigns as well as others that you like, and why.

My next post will highlight the TV commercial campaigns that I like least. That should be fun!

Like this post? Then follow me on Twitter – @mikewchan – for future updates.

Breadth vs. Depth – What’s Better For Your Career?

I’ve thought a lot and have had many discussions about this throughout my career. Should I be a generalist and build a broad base of skills and knowledge so I can be flexible and work different jobs in many industries, or should I go deep into one specific skill and/or industry and become a specialist? What’s best for long-term success? Forbes and the Harvard Business Review thinks generalists will rule the future; I tend to agree but I don’t think it’s that cut and dry.

There are some careers where it’s necessary to be a specialist, otherwise you likely wouldn’t have a career. College professors and scientific researchers come to mind; you need to be an absolute expert on a particular subject to be successful.

On the other hand, industries like consulting, which is where I started my career, breeds generalists. Consultants, especially in the early stages of their careers, work on a wide array of projects across many industries. As they become more experienced, some may focus on a particular function (such as strategy, marketing, or operations) or a specific industry (e.g. healthcare, technology, consumer packaged goods), or a function/industry combination. But overall, consultants are armed with a broad array of skills and knowledge that many take with them to executive positions at other non-consulting organizations.

So, like with many questions, the answer is, “it depends” – on your goals and your personality.

If you want to start or lead a company, having breadth is a must because you have to understand all aspects of your business, including sales and marketing, product development and management, engineering, finance and accounting, human resources, and more. Sure, you can outsource or hire specialists to handle many of these functions, but you must have at least a cursory level of knowledge of all of these to effectively run a company.

You can also do really well by being a specialist. You can focus on a particular sector of finance (e.g. fixed-income investing), marketing (e.g. email marketing), engineering (e.g. Java programming) or any other function, and be the go-to guy or gal in that specific field within your organization. Additionally, you will presumably really like what you do, since you’ve found enough affinity for it to specialize.

I’m in the generalist camp. Like I mentioned earlier, I started in consulting and enjoyed jumping from client to client and working on different types of projects. As a marketer for the Washington Caps, I liked touching many different aspects of the business, such as CRM, database marketing, advertising, mobile, social, and analytics.

And in my current career of launching a tech startup, I believe being a generalist will serve me well. The various marketing and strategy roles I’ve played will help me acquire and retain customers and map out the future for my company. And I’ve broadened my skills even further by learning programming so I can work more closely with software developers and add value to them when I can.

So for me, the preference for being a generalist boils down to a couple of reasons: 1) I want to start and lead a company, so the generalist business skills are necessary, and 2) I would probably get bored if I focused on only one specific function. And while I think a broad array of skills is powerful, augmenting that with some deep knowledge of a particular industry makes for the best recipe for professional success.

What do you think? In your field, are you a generalist, specialist, or a mix of both? What pros and cons have you seen being so?

Everything is getting smaller and shorter – how small is too small, and how short is too short?

shrinkageseinfeld_300“I just got back from swimming in the pool, and the water was cold…significant shrinkage!”
– George Costanza, “Seinfeld”

Everything is getting smaller and shorter by the minute. True to Moore’s Law, we now have powerful computers in the palm of our hands. Our primary forms of communication are now 160 and 140 characters long. Our “videos” are now 6 seconds long.

Seth Godin wrote a great blog post over three years ago about the bandwidth-sync correlation in communications. It’s clear that the bandwidth of modern forms of communication are now minuscule, which has resulted in an increased frequency of said communications, which has caused stress and angst for us to simply keep up.

There are definite benefits to the shrinking world, but how small is too small and how short is too short, especially when it comes to communications? Facebook has made us less personal. Tweets are written, read, maybe retweeted, then basically forgotten. Text messages come and go. Vine videos are viewed and lost. On the other hand, blog posts, articles, and novels live on, and movies and TV shows are watched over and over again.

As a technologist, I love how everything is getting smaller and more powerful. As a marketer, it’s becoming harder to tell a story. As a human being, it’s difficult to stay on top of everything flying at me, and sometimes I wish life were simpler.

How has the shrinking world impacted you, both positively and negatively? What are your thoughts on this subject?

New Partnership – Thorn Technologies

Screen Shot 2012-12-07 at 5.44.21 PMGreat news! I just entered into an agreement to work with a software development shop called Thorn Technologies, one of Baltimore Business Journal’s top ten fastest growing private companies!

Our engagement is really broad and will include strategy work for Thorn Tech clients, sales of current products, building of the Thorn Tech brand through content creation and social media, and potential collaboration on startup projects. This will be much more than just a consulting gig; it will be a true partnership.

Thorn Tech has extensive experience building consumer-facing mobile and web applications, but they also excel at building back-end enterprise software, which allows them to provide unique, end-to-end solutions for its clients. Thorn Tech’s expertise fits really well with my experience designing and developing mobile apps and working with enterprise apps like CRM and marketing automation software.

I first worked with Thorn Tech President Jeff Thorn while I was at the Washington Capitals. He was a subcontractor for Acuity Mobile (acquired by Navteq), whose SMS platform we used to deliver text messages to our fans. Jeff also built the Caps Fantasy Challenge, which was a fantasy game delivered over SMS, online, and mobile web. Jeff is a really smart guy and he’s also a fellow Lehigh University alum!

I’m really looking forward to a long, mutually beneficial relationship with Jeff and his team. And if anyone needs software development work, please let me know!

Everyone’s an expert now, but who really is?

With the advent of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, it’s easier than ever for someone to get “published” and to be an “expert”. Case in point – this guy (pointing at myself).

But what really constitutes an expert nowadays?  Is it the guy or gal who creates the most blog posts and distributes it to the most friends and followers on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn? The one with the highest Klout score?

Back in the day, you were an expert if your work was included in a respected publication such as the New England Journal of Medicine, the New York Times, The Economist, etc. But now with user-generated content sites such as Huffington Post and Bleacher Report and the aforementioned social networking sites, it seems that everyone now has an expert opinion. I don’t mean to break this down into black and white; it’s just that I subscribe to many industry blogs and newsletters and have realized that a lot of the content sounds the same.

So have there been so many experts all this time, and now they just have more media to broadcast their expertise? Or do we go back to those respected publications to identify those true, distinguished, proven experts? Or somewhere in the middle?

I really don’t know, so let me know what you think!

More Important in Marketing – Data or Creativity?

I read an article on Clickz yesterday called “Data Geek or Creative Genius?”  ( that touched upon the argument of which is more important in marketing today – creative ideas or data-driven decisions. The bottom line is that these aspects must work in synchronization to produce effective marketing that drives business results. Yeah, it’s kind of a cop out (like saying “it depends”) but it’s true.

I wrote about this topic in the SportsBusiness Journal in 2009 ( and have reposted the article below.

What are your thoughts on this? It would be great to hear from marketers from both sides of the spectrum!


Let science of marketing drive creative solutions

Published September 21, 2009

Greg Economou’s article (SportsBusiness Journal, Aug. 31-Sept. 6) about the art and science of selling was spot on, and I believe that this philosophy could and should be applied to marketing in sports as well.

Sports marketing is many times inextricably defined by big events, captivating advertising, eye-catching design of signage and collateral, and sometimes simply slapping a logo on a product. Of course, these artful elements of the marketing mix are imperative to success, but the science of marketing should be applied to drive decisions regarding these creative components.

The first scientific element of marketing is market and consumer insight (or more boringly named “market research”). To start, properties, agencies, and brands must have a detailed, thorough understanding of their fan base, including demographic characteristics and psychographic/behavioral traits, in addition to analysis of the competition and the overall economy. Additionally, companies must use research to understand what their fans think about the positioning of the brand in order to properly develop effective advertising, engaging design, and exciting events. For example, Red Bull understands that their core audience is typically young and involved in high-energy activities; thus they allocate their sports marketing funds to extreme sports such as surfing, motorbiking and flying and highlight these activities in their advertising to really connect with their consumers and differentiate from their competition. I highly doubt you’ll see the Red Bull logo on the Pro Bowlers Association sponsor roster any time soon nor will you see Red Bull’s primary competition leapfrog them in market performance.

Second is testing and measurement to drive decision-making about the use of marketing assets. This can be broken down into two types of measurement: testing of key performance indicators (KPI) and measuring financial performance, or return on investment (ROI). 

Regarding testing KPIs — let’s say you’ve just designed a few handsome e-mail templates to send out to your fan base. Everyone in your organization looked at a few of your designs, threw in their 2 cents, and chose design No. 1 to launch. Art had great influence in the decision, but where’s the science? Instead of using just a few insiders’ eyes to choose, you can use your fans’ eyes to select the best design. Most e-mail programs have A/B testing capability, where you can send multiple designs to different segments of customers, see which designs resonate more by comparing open rates, click-throughs, etc., and select the best template based on these KPIs. Testing has been historically applied in direct marketing, but isn’t used enough in the digital sports world, where it is much easier and cost-effective. This can be applied to Web sites, landing pages, microsites and most other digital assets. 

In today’s economy, ROI is a hot topic, and why not? Who wouldn’t want to know how much money you’ll make from sponsoring a property or holding an event and compare that to the cost of your initiative? Bank of America stated that for every sponsorship dollar they spend, they obtain $10 in revenue and $3 in earnings. With their huge stable of sponsorships, they’ve obviously put a lot of work into measurement, and rightfully so (after all, those TARP funds didn’t grow on trees). Though measuring ROI isn’t easy, any kind of financial measurement will help sell initiatives to upper management. 

I’m not downplaying the art of marketing, as it’s clearly very important; all I’m saying is that the science of marketing should be the driver of a lot of creative decisions. A thorough understanding of research, testing and measurement will help sports marketers become more effective in executing creative ideas.

Mike Chan
Washington, D.C.