Concept 2: The lean startup approach

The classic product marketing process resembles the launch of a Hollywood blockbuster. First, you find some consumer insights. These are usually provided by an agency, which is constantly screening every possible clientele on the planet. Then you hire a creative, preferably one residing within a known agency. This person will turn the insight into product ideas. Then you test those ideas and pick a winner. The winner is polished to the very last detail, coupled with a 360° media toolkit and prepared for the gigantic red carpet roll out. By the time your product is out, you spent 2 years speculating what your consumers might like. You’re blowing a media firework worth tens of millions into the air, yet you have no validation if it’s going to be a success or not. Doesn’t feel right, does it?

Don’t put all your money on red

Eric Ries wrote the manifesto of a new business culture. His book “The Lean Startup” is an introduction to a new business culture. What should be rather called “the lean approach” is universally applicable and already taught at business schools around the world.

The lean approach starts with two underlying principles that go heavily against the thinking of the corporate product marketer elite.

Even if you’re an expert in your category, you don’t know if your plan is going to work or not. Until the moment you face your consumer in a realistic market context, you don’t know if you have a product-market fit. Let’s be honest about one thing. Most campaigns, products, headlines fail. They remain a painful stream of goods and messages flowing from businesses to unsatisfied consumers. If you have spent 2 years developing your product, failing is expensive. You’ve got one shot, 50/50 to get it right (if you’re really good).

Once you fail, you find out why you failed. You find out what parts of the project may have actually worked and you now know how you could have made it succeed. But there’s no way back, right? Wrong. In the lean theory you keep the cost of failure at a minimum. If it doesn’t cost a lot to fail, you will fail often. You will learn often. You will iterate often. Within 2 years you have no assumptions left. You know what works and what doesn’t. You maintain product-market-fit.

Example: the lean self-published book release

Here’s an example of Lean Marketing Approach applied in real life. Ryan Holiday, the former marketing lead at American Apparel released his best-selling book via following the lean approach:

First he put his thoughts to paper by writing a few blog articles. Once released to his network, he could measure who his target would be, what topics resounded most and what he could improve about his writing.

Instead of publishing a traditional playbook in a yearlong process, he turned those articles into an ebook and published it for free. That way he could validate the concept with a relevant target in a real situation. Further he received hundreds of inputs to improve and expand the product to achieve actual market fit.

Once the actual book was published, some of the contents were adapted back to articles and sent to famous magazines for publishing such as The product became the ad.  Ryan further made sure that the influential early adopter community could buy the book cheaply and fast. Lastly he focused on writing the book in a sharable way, making sentences short and revelations big and exciting, something you could share online with your community.

For a more detailed introduction into the lean startup topic, read the article “Why the lean startup changes everything” by Steve Blank, published in the May 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Anything but space rockets can be done lean

Upworthy is an online magazine launched in spring 2012. 18 months later, by November 2013, it had 88 million unique visitors per month, consuming and sharing its content. They haven’t spent a dollar on advertising.

The founder Chris Huges cracked the ultimate iteration of media content publishing via social platforms. Here are the ingredients:

  1.     Topics that matter to people, e.g. environment, equality
  2.     25 headlines per article and rigorous A/B testing
  3.     Perfect sharing UX to maximize the viral co-efficiency
  4.     Perfect platform integration with key channels Facebook and Twitter

The Upworthy article taking on a recent Pantene commercial received more views and by far more interaction that the commercial itself (links at the end).

Yes, the brand completely failed at creating meaningful content as well as at distributing it. But how is it possible that a new magazine can drive more media engagement by criticizing a commercial than the advertiser P&G, who happens to be the inventor of modern day marketing? Maybe it’s time to get lean.

Are you really playing a different game?

It is not a coincidence that it is the web industry that is revolutionizing marketing. Never before have traditional industry marketers been able to measure the performance and track their business metrics in detail and real-time. Payments, traffic, activity are all clearly trackable, giving evidence of what works and what doesn’t. Software products are becoming relatively cheap to prototype and produce compared to industrial or FMCG products, enabling more failure and hence learnings.

Thinking these new strategies and processes are limited to web companies would be naïve. In the near future the lines between online and offline marketing will be blurred. Everything will be measurable and industrial prototyping will become cheaper than ever. Payments, advertising exposure, conversions will be trackable in real-time. Mobile payment, ibeacons and media technologies are on the rise.

Like Steve Blank said, some large corporations may become the biggest winners of the lean startup. But it’s a fast train and changing a culture takes time. Make sure you don’t miss it.

Suggested exercise

Think of ways to test your product or your media assets in a lean way and in a real environment. A/B test different routes, popularity, collect consumer feedback. Here are a few ideas.

  • Test your print ad design routes via Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest or Tumblr before you spend $100k on an expensive studio production
  • Test your claim as a headline on your blog or Facebook page
  • Post problems or insights and see how relevant they are to your community
  • Find existing questions on your product or the problem you are solving
  • Get insights from bad online reviews of your competitors
  • Find popular user generated content to re-use or leverage as inspiration
  • Use Youtube to test your TV ads with your active community 2 months before air date (don’t worry nobody cares about it unless its a super bowl ad)
  • Test TV storyboards as blog articles first (validate the problem relevance and the solution likability with your target)
  • Test products as limited editions in representative non-core markets before you roll out with a global product launch


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