The following and attached posts were written over a pain-killer inspired 48-hour period a couple of years ago while recouping from a knee surgery. These post capture some thoughts and ideas that were on my mind in the weeks after my 18-month stint ended as Yelp’s first marketing VP in May 2008. While some ideas already sound dated, others are standing the test of time.

Table of Contents of this site (posts to be read in no particular order):

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Let’s try and define “marketing” shall we?

There isn’t a business term that I know of that means so many different things to so many different people than the term “marketing.”

Particularly in the industries that I’m most familiar – namely growth-oriented consumer Internet companies – there is a vast spectrum of opinion about what marketing actually is.

In one alarming trend (for marketing weenies like me), there’s an observable groundswell within parts of Silicon Valley that has eroded, in some cases, the importance of the function and role of marketing. The notion is that marketing strategy and programs are superfluous (and soft) in the face of simply beta launching world-class products loved by their audiences. This perspective is especially true, I’ve found, amongst the ever-growing cadre of technology-oriented founders, many of whom have emerged from the post-Google world – a company founded and run by engineering talent and who have created the world’s most financially valuable brand (recently valued at $86 billion in brand value) in an organization with a single VP with the word “marketing” in their title out of 54 listed top executives.

Which is, frankly, hard to dispute. But, we’ll get to that later.

In the meantime, in the interest of contextualizing the discussion on endorsement marketing a bit, humor me in allowing me to share my thoughts on the definition of marketing itself.

The American Marketing Association (whoever they are) recently revised their definition of marketing in October 2007 as follows:

Definition of Marketing: Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

Wow, pretty rough stuff from a bunch of marketing experts who should know better about messaging and positioning.

Personally, I’ve landed on my own two definitions (yes, two definitions) of marketing which differ significantly based on overall scope, and are useful depending on the context in which you are thinking about marketing.

The first, which, a colleague aptly referred to as capital-M “Marketing”, is the broader act of bringing to market products or services that exceed the expectations of customers in addressing a real customer want or need.

The key idea here is the broader concept around “bringing to market.” With big-M Marketing, bringing to market piece holistically integrates (1) insights derived from understanding actual customer wants and needs, (2) developing awesome (and profitable) products and services that meet exceed those needs, and finally (3) getting the word out about these products and services in a way that will make customers actually pay attention, care, and act on them.

Let’s pause for effect here. It’s the basic fundamentals of building a real business, whether you are in the organic pickle industry or offering financial planning services. Markets are made when products or services meet customer needs. Full stop.

However, I dare say most people in business really only think that (lower-case m) marketing is solely about the 3rd part of this equation. For most people, “marketing” equates to “getting the word out” as measured primarily by how many new customers have you acquired.

People used to call this sort of stuff MarCom – short for Marketing Communications – and in big companies it’s not uncommon for MarCom to have entire dedicated organizations who focus exclusively on messaging to stakeholders (customers, employees, investors, partners).

MarCom folks sometimes get a bad rap for being spin-doctors who are seen as tradeshow-going, PR firm-picking, ad agency-schmoozing, color-picking, boondogglers who build brand-definition documents, throw parties, and only very occasionally gather actual customer insights through research.

Depending on how disconnected these functions can be from the broader Marketing objective, these roles can be death-traps. Particularly in today’s emerging consumer Internet companies, most of those activities listed above have become obsolete. They are expensive and especially un-measurable in terms of developing ROI (return on investment) on money and time spent. And because those activities tend to be fuzzy (i.e. difficult to measure and quantify), they especially don’t stand up well against modern “Internet marketing” techniques which rely much more on science than art.

While my general management instincts feed a personal bias toward being more big-M oriented than small-m oriented in nature, what matters most is that organizations and teams make sure that they are on the same page on marketing in regard to bringing stuff to market versus getting the word out. Word.

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Endorsement Marketing is the New Marketing

Black is the new black? Endorsement marketing is the new marketing? 40 is the new 40? Wait, what?

Let’s face it. When was the last time you tried a new restaurant, bought a book, picked a hotel, or went to go see a movie without having heard something great about it first? Have you ever actually picked up the Yellow Pages and chosen an interior designer based on their ad? Or, are you more likely to call or email your friend and as her who she used?

We are inundated with consumer messages on a near constant basis. Most of these messages are deemed by my hero Seth Godin as so-called “interruptive” messages – marketing messages that are literally designed to interrupt you in whatever you are doing to deliver a message (like a radio ad, or one of those annoying screens that you have to click through to read an online article that you want to read). Interruptive marketing is soooo marketing 1.0.

This cacophony of disparate messaging has made it really hard to get your message out there. Hence the emerging wave of emphasis on how to market in what some folks are calling today’s “Age of Recommendation” – getting your message delivered in the form of authentic endorsements from actual people, notably your customers and 3rd party trusted experts.

Let’s start by consider some of my favorite and successful modern-day consumer phenomena:

  • Zappos
  • Tivo
  • Prius
  • Clifbar
  • Google
  • In ‘n Out Burger
  • Yelp
  • JetBlue
  • LinkedIn
  • Trader Joe’s

True, some of these products and services have some (and in some cases a lot) old school media advertising and behind them. But I’d argue that’s not what has what has made any of these, and other similar phenomenon successful.

The real success of these and others like them comes from exponential growth that’s derived from a phenomenon that some folks off-handedly refer to as “viral” marketing, but in actuality is slightly more nuanced.

When you think about it, viral marketing is really just the notion of something that grows exponentially on it’s own. But what’s really important is knowing what derivative is causing the virus to be viral in the first place. In the case of Hotmail, it was the “want free email” in the bottom of every email sent in a first-to-market webmail environment. When you combine something that’s viral with the concept of the so-called recommendation age, then I believe you truly have a shot at magic. Magic, that when fueled can be so powerful in its effectiveness that it merits it’s own marketing buzzword: “endorsement marketing.

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Endorsement Marketing: What it is.

Endorsement marketing is a really basic idea. Endorsement marketing is literally the idea of getting the word out about your product or service by letting other people gush about your stuff instead of you.

Because, let’s face it, happy customers or trusted experts singing your praises is WAY more believable and effective than you telling me directly. And with communications being what they are now, endorsements can fly around faster than ever.

There are three important kinds of endorsements that matter.

One, endorsements from actual friends, family, colleagues or anyone that you actually know in some interpersonal level. Those are the most trusted kind.

For example: Your neighbor raving about the fish tacos at the new tacqueria in your neighborhood. Your dental hygienist mentions how much she liked “Juno”. Your colleague gushing about her new Prius. See how easy and obvious this is?

Two, you can get an endorsement from a stranger, and those matter too, so long as they are deemed to have credibility. Think about the reviews you’re read on TripAdvisor or maybe Yelp where you don’t necessarily know the reviewer, but you detect that they are not acting in a self-interested manner, and are giving you their most honest opinion on a place. Those are also trusted.

For example: The butcher raving about the marinated flank steak to the customer in front of you. The guy on the plane next to you playing with his iPhone. The woman proudly clutching her Coach shopping bag.

Three, endorsements come, tacit or otherwise, from complete strangers who possess some form of suasion over followers. Think Oprah talking about a book. Or Robert Parker mentioning a wine he likes. Or Michael Arrington gushing about a cool new widget. Or when a radio station DJ talks about the new bed that they like. Oh, wait. That’s paid for. Forget that.

Which reminds me, there’s a very simple and yet incredibly important and powerful book written by Andy Sernovitz called, get this, “Word of Mouth Marketing.” It’s incredibly accessible, to the point, and Andy makes his ideas come to life with examples, and more importantly actionable things you can do to kick-start word-of-mouth about you amongst your customers. This is a book anyone interested in marketing should pick up and read.

For example : See that? OK, so I’m not Oprah, but there you go. If you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed it. Trust me, it’s a good read.

So which endorsements are the most effective?

In general, the more you trust or empathize with a particular person, the more powerful that person’s endorsement is. Hearing a stranger on the street rave about a nail salon means less than the other mom in your playgroup.

The difference in value can be attributed to the authenticity and purity of intent underlying the endorsement. Paid shills are too easy to spot as phonies. So think of the value of an endorsement as directly correlated with the authenticity of the endorsement.

Let me say it another way. What makes an endorsement trustworthy, is the actual purity of the authenticity of the endorsement. When a paid celebrity spokesperson talks about a product in an official capacity, consumers mostly can see right through that and often will dismiss the message as being un-credible. If someone mentions something because they love it and want everyone to know about it, it’s a whole different ballgame.

To make the point, think about product placement in TV and movies these days. We are now so hyper-sensitized to commercial messaging that when we see Bud Light featured in a reward challenge on Survivor, it comes across as contrived, and loses some effectiveness. But, when Karen yodels “Yahooooooooooooooooooo” after Grace quips to Will that he couldn’t find a woman’s g-spot if it were listed on Yahoo Maps, well, that cuts through the clutter.

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Why Endorsements Matter

Endorsements are your best friend in reducing friction at every layer of the 4A funnel and driving customers to your business. Let’s go through it:

Awareness: Endorsements (person to person, and trusted experts – especially media) raise awareness better than almost anything I’ve seen.

Acquisition: Endorsements fuel acquisition by making your other acquisition efforts much more effective.

Activation: Endorsements inspire people to get started, and persevere as they get up your usability learning curve.

Activity: Endorsements inspire your existing users, and they start to do more.

Enough said, right?

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Your Product is Your Buzz-Generating Engine

Buzz marketing. Despite it being an annoying buzzword (um), think about what buzz marketing really means. It’s people talking about your product. Seth Godin in his classic “The Purple Cow” discusses at length the power of being “remarkable”. Literally, he points out, the word means “worthy of being remarked upon.” In other words, buzz-worthy. As in, so awesome, people can’t help talk about it.

Your product itself IS your most important buzz-maker. When products are incredibly awesome, satisfying and delight customers, most of the rest of the equation practically takes care of itself. Hell, a monkey could drive that train. Did I mention Google’s $86 billion brand yet? That was sarcasm, folks. Just remember this and repeat after me: Bring remarkable products to market. Bring remarkable products to market. Good.

Now that you have the engine humming along, you just some fuel in the form of people talking about you.

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Acting on Endorsement Marketing

The best possible scenario is when it’s brain-dead easy for your zealots and even more casual users to endorse you with or without them knowing it. Best of all endorsing you is actually built-in to the product itself.

Hotmail. YouTube. Facebook. PayPal. Friendster. Plaxo.

These examples are classic “viral” phenomenon (where growth accelerates growth simply as the thing builds its own momentum like a well-designed virus) which is not the same thing as an endorsement, but is similar. In these cases, the endorsement is tacit – implicit in the referral is the endorsement of the underlying service.

When you don’t have this viral component into your own product, you have to then shift to trying to kick-start a chain of (authentic) endorsements from people motivated and inspired to rave about you.

How to Ignite User Endorsements

How to Ignite Trusted Expert Endorsements

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