Marketing isn’t really that hard, when you work with a superior product

How do you get someone’s attention?

Traditional agencies advise creating flashy ad campaigns. Digital agencies suggest giving away free stuff.

And Huffington Post contributor Allen Burt recommends creating a brand purpose — because millenials like that kind of thing.

Obviously, there is no right answer to this type of question. But I can’t help but disagree with much of what I hear.

Throughout my decade-long career, I’ve participated in hundreds of conversations with business leaders. And I’ve witnessed many of them overthink our opening question… A lot.

For a long time, I also held the notion that marketing was hard. I assumed the key to success was some tactic I had yet to discover.

So, I paid so-called experts thousands of dollars in an attempt to bridge the gap. Sometimes, I learned worthwhile tips; others, I wished I’d spent the money on a new pair of headphones.

It wasn’t until I met Ahrefs founder and CEO Dmitry Gerasimenko, that I realized what I was doing wrong.

Marketing wasn’t difficult — I was making it difficult.

Here are three of the “marketing secrets” I’ve learned while working for Ahrefs, an SEO toolset powered by big data.

1. Your product is your marketing.

Recently, YouTuber Marques Brownlee asked Elon Musk how he got people excited about Tesla, aside from the product.

Amusingly, Musk didn’t answer the question because it was flawed — product was the answer:

“The key is to have a product that people love,” says Musk. “If you just like something, and it’s OK, you’re not going to care that much. But if you love something, you’re going to talk.”

People buy Tesla’s cars because they are exceptional — no other vehicle can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 2.3 seconds flat.

They also love cars so much they can’t help themselves from telling coworkers, friends, family and strangers online.

The fanatical base even spawns waiting lists for models that have yet to be built. Which is why the company doesn’t need to spend a dime on advertising or endorsements.

Tesla is the ultimate example of a “product-first company.” Unlike “marketing-first companies,” product-first organizations prioritize investing resources in engineering, product design and UX.

Obviously, the strategy works phenomenally well for Tesla. But does it benefit smaller organizations?

Yep, our bootstrapped SaaS has also experienced success by word of mouth. Ahrefs has seen a rather fast-paced and consistent growth (~60 YoY for the past 3 years alone) while ignoring many conventional marketing tactics.

Dmitry founded Ahrefs because no one else in the industry was doing what he envisioned possible. As a result, our SEO toolkit now boasts a lot of highly unique features that our competitors struggle to replicate, as well as the second best web crawler after Google.

Not only does Dimitry prioritize product development, but he also bans famous marketing tricks.

That means strategies like luring people to email lists with freebies, and betting on competitor keywords in Adwords, are off limits. Why?

  1. He doesn’t believe in tricking people to get what you want, AND
  2. He prefers investing resources in strengthening our SEO tool’s technological foundation — not too surprising considering his background in hardware and tech.

Instead of tasking team members with running A/B tests, or developing automated lead nurturing sequences, Dimitry prioritizes maintaining the industry’s best data and features.

Thus, our core strategy is presenting potential customers with something superior to anything else they have tried before.

Which brings me to my next lesson…

2. Marketing can’t carry bad products

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” — Abraham Lincoln

For the first time in my career, I’m marketing a product that’s useful, incredibly competitive and very hard to replicate.

It’s crazy how this one change has made my job 10X easier. Honestly, I struggle with calling what I do marketing.

The majority of my time consists of a) Ensuring our product reaches the right audience and b) Explaining all the awesome things they can do with it.

A lot of companies sell mediocre products, while expecting sales and marketing to “do their magic.”

Translation: Work overtime experimenting with new tactics, software and psychological tricks.

Meanwhile, everyone ignores the huge elephant in the room — they don’t really know what separates them from the competition.

Oftentimes, there isn’t anything especially unique about what they’re selling. And that is what makes marketing hard.

Take McDonald’s. The company spends billions of dollars on advertising campaigns to make their hamburgers appear superior.

But it’s an illusion — McDonald’s is selling a convenient commodity of comparable quality to other fast-food providers.

Compare this to Tesla, who converts prospects into customers by allowing them to test-drive vehicles. They don’t need to create an illusion because the reality of their product is already awesome.

So, one might say there is no “marketing” involved.

In their book Marketing Warfare, authors Jack Trout and Al Ries discuss the importance of continual product innovation for businesses in today’s crowded marketplace.

One of the book’s most interesting stories is that of “New Coke.” During the early 1980s, Coca Cola found itself increasingly losing customers to competitor Pepsi.

Upon conducting a series of blind tests, the company learned the majority of participants actually preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi.

In fact, were it not for Coca Cola’s large number of exclusive vendor contracts, Pepsi would have outsold them by a landslide. The company responded by modifying its Diet Coke recipe with corn syrup to create a sweeter alternative dubbed “New Coke.”

After running additional blind tests, Coca Cola was certain the majority of consumers would prefer the new formula — over both regular Coke and Pepsi.

Unfortunately, the company’s executives underestimated the nostalgia their loyal customers would have for the original formula, and the project was abandoned. Despite the “sunk cost,” Coca Cola continued to innovate based on customer research.

In the following years, the company released several successful products like Coca Cola Zero. Today, the company sells more than 800 low and no-calorie beverage products.

This is how marketing should work — continually, engaging with customers to innovate upon existing products and services.

3. Innovation generates buzz

In recent years, marketers have spoken a lot about the importance of generating “buzz.” What does that mean?

Knowledge@Wharton defines buzz marketing as:

The practice of gathering volunteers to try products, then sending them out into the world to talk up their experiences with the people they meet in their daily lives.

In other words, buzz marketing is nothing more than strategic word-of-mouth marketing. It’s not uncommon for large companies to spend thousands of dollars to have people try their products.

Ahrefs employs a similar marketing strategy, but we don’t pay influencers to use our products. Our “tactic” is to provide an impressive product experience that generates word of mouth.

Which is why we’re religious about creating educational content that helps our customers reach their SEO goals.

For instance, visit The Ahrefs Blog or Ahrefs TV, and you’ll find practical usage case studies illustrating exactly how to drive results.

This simple process is sufficient enough to generate buzz for one reason: Our commitment to continual product innovation.

As a product-first company, there’s never a shortage of new product features and improvements to talk about:

Instead of experimenting with growth hacks, our marketers are laser-focused on ensuring Ahrefs’ visitors understand a). What they can do with the toolkit and b). What makes our product the best.

In other words, our marketing team is the communication bridge between our customers and developers.

Not only do we internally communicate what the market demands (i.e. how to improve the product), but we also explain the capabilities of what our developers have created to our customers.

In my 4 years with Ahrefs I realized that company’s constant focus on releasing new features that can’t be found elsewhere delivers a higher ROI than any marketing tactics that we’ve tried.

Would this approach work for everyone? I’m not sure, but it helped us create a community of loyal customers who don’t hesitate to mention Ahrefs in both public and private discussions.

The bottom-line

Most stagnant companies don’t have a marketing problem — they have a product problem.

Marketing professionals can only do so much when working with a mediocre product. Without a truly useful product, that can’t easily be replicated, standing out will always be an uphill battle.

What about you? How does your organization approach marketing? Do you have any tips for achieving growth with less stress?

Please share your experience in the comments below.

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