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Start-up ventures embrace uncertainty and put the customer first – two skills that digital marketers would do well to mirror.

Digital marketing teams and start-ups have more in common than one might think. Both (usually) are understaffed, both need to wear several professional hats at the same time, and both fight an uphill battle to sell ideas to their stakeholders.

Yet, despite their similarities, there are fundamental differences in the way the two operate and how they go to market.

Here are two lessons digital in-house teams and agencies can learn from start-up entrepreneurs.

1. Become comfortable with uncertainty

If the last decade is any indicator of what the future holds for the marketing and advertising industry, the only thing certain is uncertainty.

We are still witnessing rapid and constant transformation – new platforms, new consumer behaviors, new business models, and there is no sign of things slowing down any time soon.

While it is in the very nature of start-ups to face and deal with extreme uncertainties and changes, larger corporations and businesses often fall into the perfectionist trap.

Perfection can of course be something good, but for many companies, as the old saying goes: ‘Perfect is the enemy of the good’.

This is certainly the case for agencies, which can spend too much time refining their products, campaigns and initiatives and testing them in artificial environments, rather than assessing and evolving them directly in market.

Being comfortable with uncertainty also means keeping up with fast changing consumer trends – and being ready to act on them. If you’re not moving fast enough today, you might be irrelevant by tomorrow.

For many large companies this would require a major cultural shift from traditional hierarchies, departmental silos and approval processes towards more nimble structures that embrace failure as opportunity to learn (Read more...) refine their focus.

It’s not impossible though – many big names have shown the way. Flickr for example started off as an online role-playing game, and PayPal was originally envisioned as a cryptographic firm.


These companies were only able to evolve after implementing and accepting a constant process of trial and error.

Now I’m not talking about drastically changing business models, but about changing the way we approach digital marketing.

Let’s not kill good ideas because they aren’t perfect. Let’s instead take our minimum viable product to market and use real-time feedback to make it better, or in some cases, make its best performing elements work harder.

PepsiCo’s Doritos Mariachi case is already a few years old now, but still serves as a good example for, amongst others, real-time content evaluation.

Doritos developed a framework to monitor the effectiveness of every piece of social content they put out into the world, which in turn helped them to ensure high-performing content was pushed harder through all social media channels.

2. Get up close with your customers

Many big companies claim that their approach to marketing, and to business in general, is customer-centric. This usually manifests itself in terabytes of big data, numerous focus group reports, various survey study analyses, and dozens of social media dashboards.

All this data is of course very helpful for developing insights that lead to effective marketing campaigns. Being an analytical and digitally centric strategist myself, I greatly support these methodologies and think we should continue to practice them.

An undesirable byproduct of so much data at our disposal, however, is that we run the risk at looking at customers as numbers rather than human beings whose lives we want to add value to.

Start-ups usually don’t get the luxury of having research and insights teams help them navigate the consumer landscape. Instead they have to learn about their customers’ problems, concerns, and motivations firsthand by observing, and simply talking to them.

A direct conversation with your customers can quite often reveal useful insights that otherwise might get lost in the sheer volume of data provided by other research methods.

But more importantly, talking face-to-face to consumers can make you seem more empathetic towards their needs and concerns. In the long run this brings you one step closer to seeing the world through your customers’ eyes. And in my book, that’s an essential skill for running a customer-centric business.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to culture. In order to stay relevant to people’s ever-changing lifestyles, bigger companies need to adopt a more fluid and nimble way of developing ideas and bringing them to life.

Big business is recognizing the need to stay relevant and innovative by aligning with start-ups.

In Asia, insurance brand AIA sponsors an accelerator course for start-ups in Hong Kong, in part to help foster ‘change’ within the organisation.

For the digital marketing industry – which by its very nature is the most entrepreneurial form of marketing – it’s essential to allow digital marketers to be at the cutting edge of this transformation.

Allow them to dream big, experiment, and also to fail. Failure is an important part of the learning process, and a key step towards change.

What else can digital marketers learn from startups? Feel free to leave your comments below.

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