You work hard on a project for years and then marketing takes over. The underwhelming market response to the baby you sweated over is a bummer. Plus you may not get to do it again because “you” failed. How is an engineer to know if their marketing is going to succeed?

The sad truth is that technical brilliance results in a successful product about 2% of the time. The rest is marketing. Why do you think the heads of most of the successful tech firms are marketing guys? Metcalfe almost killed 3Com. Cisco didn’t take off until a marketing guy, John Chambers, took over. Steve Jobs is a premier, if unorthodox, marketing guy. IBM was put together by a salesman, Tom Watson. Intel has, wisely IMHO, pinned its comeback hopes on a marketer. For the most part, engineers succeed at marketing only to other engineers.

Why? Because engineers are, at bottom, more interested in things than people. Which is great for designing things. But things don’t buy things. People buy things. So marketers are a necessary cog in the process of getting engineering brilliance, or even competence, purchased by millions of people.

Are my marketing people competent?
That’s the question I’ll try to help you answer. In my experience it is difficult to identify good marketing people by personal style, education or experience – you know, all the stuff that hiring processes usually check out.

What to look for
You need to look at their track record to be really sure if they are any good. What are the objective criteria? There are several.

  • When you ask about product requirements they engage in depth. They know what the feature does, how the customer uses it, its priority and what the major competitors have.
  • They can assure you that the market requirements will be 80% correct in two years, which is probably when your project will come to market, and they can tell you why.
  • For existing markets compare their previous business plan market forecasts to actuals. Good marketers make accurate forecasts. Plus or minus 20% is good, 10% is excellent, and 2% brilliant.
  • For new markets – and I mean majorly new, not just “new and improved” – you’ll also want to see incredible listening, synthesizing and feedback skills with customers. Do they probe the customer’s reported symptoms to diagnose the underlying problem? Can they reframe the reported pain points in a way that customers respond to? Are they able to prioritize the needs of different customers, to see the general issues behind the general complaints? Do they identify issues that you can’t or don’t want to try solve and take them off the table; i.e. can they focus?
  • Communication skills. Are they able to briefly and vividly communicate product benefits to different audiences? Execs don’t care about the same things sysadmins do, but they all need to get on board. Don’t confuse skill with style: I’ve seen soft-spoken, almost shy people do it well, while the charming, charismatic schmoozer has failed miserably.
  • Technical appreciation. In every development project there will be trade-offs. Good marketing people can accurately imagine the impact of the trade-offs on their market and their forecast, based on how it would affect their messaging and customer requirements. Part of what makes people happy with products is what they are led to expect it will do, so the messaging can help a product that is missing some features still do well.
  • Do they connect with sales people? Often overlooked in high-tech is the simple fact that if the sales force is excited stuff will sell, and if they aren’t it won’t. Great marketing people understand sales cycles and sales psychology. Their marketing plans explicitly address how they are going to get the sales force motivated to move your product. When you see them in a roomful of sales people, they communicate crisply and command interest. When confronted by an aggressive salesperson – and you want plenty of those – they don’t get defensive and stay results-focused.

But that’s not all
If your company has adopted the – IMHO – meaningless distinction between in-bound and out-bound marketing, you have a built-in organizational hurdle. Sales people and customers respond to intelligent, articulate and informed people who show an appreciation for their issues and a focus on solving them.

In the In & Out structure, the In people have the knowledge, but the Out people do the communicating, so you end up with bland corporate-speak script-reading that excites no one. The only advice I can offer is to try to bring your Out people as close to the project as you can while patiently answering their questions and probing their customer feedback.

The StorageMojo take
Program leads don’t usually get that many bites at the apple. By paying attention to your marketing you up your chances of success, even if the product isn’t everything you hoped.

Comments welcome, of course, from both marketers and engineers. Moderation turned on to keep comment spam, which is getting smarter, at bay.