Can You Run a Marketing Program With Zero Goals?
So much of marketing, it seems, is geared toward growth and traction, particularly when it comes to startups and technology. We are pressed on all sides by tracking metrics, pivoting, learning, and growing—a sort of exponential growth mindset that envelops, well, everything: content, social, email, community. If you haven’t measured it, then it doesn’t count. If you can’t measure it, you’re better off without it.
We’re surrounded by this movement at Buffer, kind of like a stone is surrounded by a stream: change is flowing around us and we’re deciding whether to tumble along or stay still.
Today’s marketing teams seem quite focused on growth and traction.
Can you run a marketing program with an emphasis on neither?
And one of our favorite follow-up questions: What happens if you do?
How to run a marketing team that runs itself
What marketing looks like for a self-managed, whole, purpose-driven team
We’re striving to be a Teal organization, as described in Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations. The idea is that organizations evolve over time toward higher and higher paradigms with Teal being the most recent iteration.
Looking at the chart above, schools and government and churches might be the Amber formal hierarchies, most Fortune 500 companies operate in Orange, some cool folks like Southwest and Ben & Jerry’s run Green.
We’re aiming for Teal.
Reinventing Organizations summarizes the main characteristics of Teal organizations as these:
- Self-management. Everyone follows their interests and passions.
- Wholeness. Everyone chooses to bring their whole self to work.
- Evolutionary purpose. The organization grows organically in the direction that it’s meant to.
This is the path we’re on at Buffer, and we’re learning tons as we go.
One of those areas of learning is with marketing.
What does marketing look like for a Teal organization?
The book had several great insights and examples to get us thinking. Here are a few of my favorite quotes that point toward a possible route for our marketing team.
In comparison, Teal Organizations’ approach to marketing is almost simplistic. The organizations simply listen in to what feels like the right offering.There are no customer surveys and no focus groups. Essentially, marketing boils down to this statement: This is our offer. At this moment, we feel this is the best we can possibly do. We hope you will like it.
Most business leaders would feel naked without budgets and forecasts. I put this question to Carlson: How do you deal with having no forecasts to compare people’s performance to? For instance, how do you know if the guys in Germany (where Sun has a plant) were doing a good job last year, if you have no target to compare against? His answer came shooting out of the barrel:
“Who knows? Who cares? They are all working hard, doing the best they can. We have good people in all the places around the world and if I need that sort of scorecard I probably got the wrong person. That’s just the way we operate.”
FAVI believes we should think like farmers: look 20 years ahead, and plan only for the next day.
“In the new way of thinking, we aim to make money without knowing how we do it, as opposed to the old way of losing money knowing exactly how we lose it.”
It’s a bit risky to think about running a marketing campaign with the sole goal of “hoping people like it.”
It also feels quite great to afford ourselves that freedom.
For the last 2 to 3 years, about every day, I would wake up, open my laptop and type the letter “g” into the Google Chrome bar and hit enter. Chrome would auto-complete it to “growth.bufferapp.com”. It was like a daily ritual to check on Buffer’s growth numbers from a number of different angles. Revenue, new users, daily actives, monthly actives.
Growing, increasing our monthly revenue, our traffic, our user base, that was the number one priority in my mind. It only hit me very recently, about 4 months ago now, to pose a very simple question “Why grow?”.
One thing that’s so fascinating with everything that grows is this: It has a limit. Organically, nothing grows forever.
With your startup or any type of company, it seems that no matter how big you’ve grown, you’ll always want to grow bigger. It seems completely unthinkable today, to say that for example Apple or Google would announce “we’ve grown enough, we’ll stop here”.
Would it make sense then that growth fits more as the result rather than the focus?
If you are constantly after growth and there’s no end in sight, what does that do to the mindset of your team? Any effect could well be subconscious, a longing to continue pushing, achieving, striving to be the best or the biggest. I’d imagine it’s a slow burn. Eventually you wake up and realize you’ve been chasing growth for 5 or 10 years without knowing it.
Is that what we want for ourselves?
An example of Teal marketing that worked
We had the privilege to see one of our blog posts republished on Medium’s official blog. And from our side, we did very little:
- No outreach
- No coordinating
- No planning
- No strategic goal in mind
We wrote the article because we thought it might be useful for people. The Medium team was so kind to spot the article and reach out about a possible republication. And before we knew it, there the post was, sitting on the Medium blog.
Like Leo said in his Facebook update:
It’s really hard to measure things like this on the outset and even harder to plan for something like this to happen (although I catch myself wanting to do so often!).
I’ve come to think that maybe genuinely trying to help others with useful content will lead to great things, and it’s ok to leave one’s intentions there, everything else will follow.
How growth and traction fit with Teal
One of the leading factors we’ve held to in this transition to Teal is a strong sense of intuition. We let intuition guide us in our marketing decisions. We trust our intuition, which has been informed so much by our past experience.
Where do growth metrics fit with intuition?
I often see myself going about my work in a pendulum fashion—I’ll swing to the extreme in one direction (too far, probably) and then come back the other way. I’ve done this with blogging, being quite regimented about a set publishing schedule and then not regimented at all.
I want to be mindful of this as a possibility with intuition also.
Our founder Joel shared some great thoughts with me on what might be a possible middle ground, where the pendulum might eventually settle. His advice went a little like this:
Don’t let the tracking drive the decisions.
Use metrics to inform. Use intuition to guide.
You can’t know everything about the impact of a campaign. You can’t know how it feels to someone on the other end. Metrics can only go so far.
Moving forward: How to organize marketing without a set goal
I’m at the point where so many different ideas are swimming around my head. I’m thinking toward growth and feeling excited to track new experiments, create new processes, and get things all smooth for our marketing team. I’m also thinking toward doing nothing out of the ordinary, just helping people.
In his book Growth Hacker Marketing, Ryan Holiday describes the role of a growth hacker as one who focuses on only what is testable, trackable, and scalable.
A bit later on in the book, almost as a foil to the definition of growth hacker, he says:
Marketing, too many people forget, is not an end unto itself. It is simply getting customers. And by the transitive property, anything that gets customers is marketing.
Getting customers seems like exactly what we’re doing at Buffer. We’re just going about it in our own very unique way.
I mentioned earlier the analogy of a stone in a river. Perhaps it’s more like this analogy from Seth Godin’s book Poke the Box. Instead of stones refusing to budge, we’re logs letting the current carry us forward.
Like a rock in a flowing river, you might be standing still, but given the movement around you, collisions are inevitable. The irony for the person who prefers no movement is that there’s far less turbulence around the log floating down that same river. It’s moving, it’s changing, but compared to the river around it, it’s relatively calm. The economy demands flux.
Our BHAW at Buffer: Help as many people as possible
I’ve adapted Jim Collins’s BHAG version of goal-setting (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) into our Big Hairy Audacious Wish: to help as many people as possible.
We recently had the chance to chat as a Buffer marketing team about the purpose and mission for what we do. Here’s an early look at what we’ve come up with so far for our mission:
How this fits with our values:
- Positivity and happiness. Put a positive spin on all we create, looking out for the good of others.
- Transparency. Share everything, absolutely everything we think might be useful.
- Self-improvement. Try new things, experiment, grow personally so that we can share our learnings.
- No ego. Put the reader/customer/commenter first.
- Listening. Slow down and hear others’ problems.
- Clarity. Communicate clearly.
- Reflection. Be willing to sit and think on bigger ideas. Ship things, but not in a hurry.
- Live smarter. And help others to do the same. (Tied in nicely with transparency and self-improvement.)
- Gratitude. Remember the lessons we’ve learned early on and pay it forward.
- Do the right thing. Help others.
How we measure helping others
This is one we’re still iterating on. We’d love your thoughts!
Who we’re helping
First, I think it’s useful to recognize the people that we’re able to help with our marketing efforts. It’s a bit of a bigger list than I originally thought.
- Buffer customers
- Anyone who shares to social media
- Anyone who’s interested in new perspectives on business, productivity, work, culture
- Our Buffer teammates
The first few are maybe a bit obvious. We of course would like to help our customers share better and easier to social media. We’d love to help any social media sharers who might be interested in our learnings. We’re grateful for the chance to be on this journey at Buffer and to share everything on the Open blog.
Beyond that, our marketing helps our Buffer teammates. We help those in customer support by writing articles and guides that can be shared as resources in support tickets. We help our customer development team by writing stories that can inform our product processes.
And we help ourselves. We get to experiment and explore new areas of interest and to grow as individuals and social sharers
It all falls under the umbrella of helping people.
So how can we find a way to measure the amount of “helping people”?
Is “helping” a metric?
It’s a good question and one I’m not sure I’ve found the answer to yet. Here are some ideas.
For social media
- Follows. People find our content helpful and want to hear more from us. (This probably doesn’t apply to all who follow us, but some at least.)
- Engagement metrics: Clicks, reshares, comments, likes. Each of these is a signal that the content is helpful or useful or valuable in some way.
- Sentiment. How do people talk about us online? What is the general vibe? The analysis here is likely quite intuition-based.
- Volume of conversations. If positive conversation picks up around a certain topic or campaign, we can believe it was successful.
- Time on page + social shares. This combo stat shows that readers are both finding the content worth reading and, when finished reading, worth passing along to others.
- Unique comments. How many individual people found the content worth responding to?
- Email replies. How many people send us email regarding content we’ve made?
- Long-term traffic and social shares over time. Tells us whether readers continue to find the content valuable into the future.
- Incoming links. Do others see our content as valuable and helpful?
- Inbound.org and Growth Hacker upvotes. Signals from the community that the content is helpful.
- Email newsletter signups. People find our content valuable and would like to learn more and stay connected with us.
The one thing missing from this list: Conversions.
Are Buffer signups a signal that our marketing efforts are helpful?
I’d love your thoughts here. I’ve gone back-and-forth between two minds and have currently settled on Yes, conversions are helpful. We believe that Buffer is a helpful tool that positively impacts your social media sharing. Therefore, getting people to sign up for Buffer would be a way of helping.
Do conversions carry extra weight in the big picture of how we choose what to work on next? I’m not quite sure. My gut is that they’d be equal to any other metric listed above as everything points back to helpfulness.
What this might look like at Buffer day-to-day
I take a lot of inspiration from the amazing workflows and deep thinking of others, especially how they organize their marketing efforts.
One method in particular has caught my eye recently. Based on Brian Balfour’s method for creating and analyzing marketing experiments, Rob Sobers built a Trello template for how to see new experiments through from idea to implementation (and beyond).
The full 9 stages to work through are:
Phew! That’s quite a bit of stages. It definitely feels like a great process to see an idea through. I think it might be a bit too far from away where we’re aiming with our Teal marketing.
That being said, I’d be keen to adopt bits and pieces.
Here’s a very trimmed down version.
Ideas and brainstorms
This list contains all the random ideas, all the larks and what-ifs we can imagine. Anything goes, and anyone can add something here.
Some ideas might be a bit more fleshed out than others, with additional detail added to the Trello card. This can happen either in the “Ideas & Brainstorms” stage, depending on how fully-formed the idea is to begin with, or it can happen when an idea moves into the “Pipeline.”
Cards first arrive in the Pipeline when we’re ready to act on them. At a glance, the Pipeline would always be the current list of all active experiments.
The cards at this point have a bit of extra information on them. Each experiment includes a spec, which can either be listed out on the card itself or written down in a hackpad with the link included on the Trello card.
In general, experiments might include the following elements:
- Overview – What the experiment is
- Hypothesis – Why we think it might be a cool idea to try
- Specifics – What the experiment will involve, how it will look
- Results – What happened
- Learnings – What this means
- Action items – Both for during the experiment and for afterward
Here’s a quick look at a sample hackpad:
And here’s a possible look for a Trello card:
Within the pipeline, an experiment can be at different stages, as denoted by a label.
- Orange = Planned
- Yellow = In Progress
- Green = Complete!
- Purple = Analyzing
- Black = Systemizing
- Teal = Success!
- Pink = Maybe Later
Once complete, the card moves here where it’ll sit forever so that we can check back on what we’ve tried before.
A Buffer wrinkle: A decision maker for each experiment
One unique element that is a bit specific to us at Buffer is who decides whether an experiment was successful enough that it can become part of our marketing process.
As a self-managed company, we’d need to choose a decider.
This means assigning each of the above Trello cards to a person who can then make the final decision on an experiment’s success, taking into account the metrics involved and also the intuition of how things felt.
For choosing a decision maker, we follow closely to the process described in Dennis Bakke’s The Decision Maker:
- Proximity. Who’s close to the issue? Are they well acquainted with the context, the day-to-day details, and the big picture?
- Perspective. Proximity matters, but so does perspective. Sometimes an outside perspective can be just as valuable.
- Experience. Has this person had experience making similar decisions? What were the consequences of those decisions?
- Wisdom. What kinds of decisions has this person made in other areas? Were they good ones? Do you have confidence in this person?
Performance measurements vs. goals
In iterating on our Teal structure, we’ve found it important to have someone be responsible for each area of Buffer marketing and for this person to have a method of accountability.
We view accountability more in terms of performance measurements instead of goals—e.g., time on page can be a measure of performance for blog posts, and it’s not necessary to aim for a particular target time.
Overall, a person’s contribution to an area would include these factors:
- Responsibilities – whether you act, advise, and/or decide for an area
- Commitments – kind of like an area job description
- Performance Measurement – what you’ll look at for progress and accountability
- Status – whether active, background, or done as necessary
What are some specific metrics you can use to measure if your marketing is based on helping others?
It’s a big question for us, and one we’re still in the midst of answering. Courtney wrote a great post about all the different marketing KPIs out there. She found 61! At Buffer, we’ve measured many of those in the past, and we continue to measure many of them—they just aren’t quite why or how we make decisions any more.
I’d love to keep you updated on how this develops for us and which directions we choose to take next. And if you have any thoughts at all, I’d be so grateful to learn from your ideas!