If you are a blockchain startup, open source project or decentralized protocol and believe that you don’t need the right kind of marketing to succeed, think again.
“Marketing” has traditionally been a weakness in the early lives of many tech startups for a variety of reasons. Most startups are often led by young or inexperienced CEOs or project leaders who come from a strong engineering or product mindset. These founders either don’t understand or don’t appreciate the value of marketing, and certainly that comes from a lack of experience or education on the subject. Most blockchain companies/projects founders are no different.
At the root of this situation lies a common and fundamental misconception: not knowing the true meaning and functions of marketing.
Wrongfully, marketing is prematurely equated to shouting about a product prior to having it ready for the market to try. Others think that marketing is about hiring a PR firm, polishing a website, publishing a blog post, promoting on social media, designing a great logo with new colors and fonts, or producing videos about your product.
Unfortunately, during the ICO frenzy days, the term marketing has been bastardized around excessive usage of the above named activities. Therefore, marketing has received a bad rap in blockchain circles because it has been equated to pumping bad ICOs where the marketing consisted of purely unchecked promotion.
In the past few months, I have had several conversations with founders of blockchain related projects and companies who clearly didn’t seem to understand, let alone appreciate the value and priority they should be giving to doing a better job at marketing. When I challenged them on their marketing, or broached the topic, the responses ranged along the following flavors:
- We’re not ready for marketing until the next product is released and announced
- We have it in the budget for next year to hire a PR firm
- I’ve been doing videos that will air as advertising later
- We prefer to deliver first, and then talk about what we have done
- Marketing is expensive and we don’t have the budget now
- We hired a design firm and redoing our website with a new visual identity
- We don’t need marketing, we focus on our community on Reddit
All of the above are the wrong answers, and point to not understanding the various parts of marketing.
Marketing is a Process
So let’s start with the basics and further discuss what marketing is, or is not about. First, there are 3 parts to marketing:
- Product marketing – explaining what the product does (features/benefits), and how it is differentiated from others. Goal: Positioning the product.
- Corporate marketing – positioning the company and communicating its messages in a variety of means. Branding and Marketing Communications is a big part of it. Goal: Generate Awareness and Preference.
- Customer marketing (sometimes labelled as field marketing, direct marketing or content marketing) – getting in front of your target market to generate adoption, leads and sales. Goal: Generate Adoption and Loyalty.
The kind of marketing that is often deficient in blockchain companies or projects is Marketing Communications, i.e. how to strongly and clearly message in a few words what your project, company or product do for the user/customer. But this must be done as a continuum. Messaging is not a single shot of sound bites around a launch event. To make it even more effective, it must be customized to the specific audience you are trying to reach: customers, investors, employees, media, influencers, partners, etc.
The process of creating the messaging is a complex exercise that has several layers designed to answering the WHY, WHAT and HOW of your value proposition. Many companies nail the WHY (Elevator pitch), but don’t follow through with the WHAT (Competitive positioning and Core value proposition), or the HOW (Product/Solution messaging and Technology differentiation).
Marketing is a process that evolves along a series of objectives, from Awareness, to Consideration, to Trials, and then Loyalty. Different tools are effective for each one of these steps. For example, thought leadership focuses on the awareness aspect and trying to shape the market by educating it. The brand leadership helps to influence the prospect’s perception towards you. You want to gradually progress from letting your target market care, understand, believe, then act to try your product.
Brand Strategy First
Here is the right order of progression for the following activities:
- Brand Strategy
- Positioning Statement
- Messaging Elements
- Visual Identity
Sadly, a common mistake I see is starting with the visual identity and thinking that it is branding. Often, that is the result of being led by an inexperienced CMO or one that came from the PR/Communications side, or when the organization has hired a brand design firm instead of a brand strategy firm. Most brand design houses (and some PR companies) will tell you they will take care of your messaging and branding, but that is the tail wagging the dog. Brand strategy takes a very unique skill, and there are few brand strategy experts that do a great job with it. One brand strategy firm with whom I have had experience working with, is Brandsinger.
In a nutshell, if you are not occupying a position in the minds of users/customers (and the prospective market), then your brand value is zero. Someone else will come and articulate their value proposition better than you, and will subsequently occupy that position. If you are first to deliver a product, it may not matter. You need to be first in occupying that specific position in the minds of your target market. The battle is a battle of the minds, as rightfully spelled out in the seminal book on that topic Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind, a classic book that I have perhaps read over 20 times (over a course of 25 years), and almost memorized and put into practice accordingly. The sequel to that book, – Marketing Warfare, is also a must read marketing classic from the legendary Ries and Trout, the two authors of that series of work.
Let’s give it some blockchain and cryptocurrency flavours.
Bitcoin occupied first the digital money position and still does to this point. Ethereum exploited a weakness in Bitcoin,- its ease of programmability and development platform potential, and it currently owns that position. All other (newer) blockchains have to attack Bitcoin or Ethereum as the reference points. Most of them have to raise the volume and intensity of their marketing in order to make an assault on these established leaders. It is always more expensive to attack than it is to defend a position.
ZCash and Monero have exploited the privacy niche. Coinbase occupies the safety ladder in cryptocurrency exchanges. Binance is trying to attack it with a me-too strategy focused on scale, and they are extending their brand with new services. LoomX has been good at becoming a Layer 2 leader for Ethereum. Take any other segment. For example, when you think file storage, you probably think Storj or Filecoin because that’s the position they are occupying. When you think prediction markets, you probably think of Augur or Gnosis. And when you think of stablecoins, Maker comes to mind.
Back to Basics
For those of you who know me from the blockchain market only (over the past 6 years roughly), you may not know that I’ve previously spent a long career in sales and marketing with a variety of positions and experiences in direct sales, field marketing, corporate marketing and several startups as founder and default chief marketer. More specifically, since I exited the operational world via my last startup in April 2013, I’ve written extensively about startup marketing in the early years of this blog. All of it still applies, as I focused on explaining the basics of market positioning, marketing strategy, messaging, brand strategy, and related marketing topics.
There is no point re-inventing marketing for the blockchain sector. So, I’m going to link to some basics that I’ve already written about. Here, I collected the 12 most pertinent blog posts into a single one that links to them: Startup Marketing Compendium of 12 Posts on Positioning, Branding, Messaging and more. Then I wrote one more, The Biggest Blind Spot of a Startup CEO is Ignoring Their Brand.
So please go read that series, and if you need help implementing some of that, don’t start by hiring a PR agency. Rather, take an introspective view, and hire the right marketing person first.
Another common weakness with blockchain companies is they fail to tell their stories in non-technical terms to the market. It is not enough to excite the developers.
And don’t just focus entirely on social media publishing. Unless you have 1 Million+ Twitter followers in your target audience, promoting on social media will only make a dent in your awareness goals.
Remember, marketing is not just writing a press release. It is not shouting from the rooftops. It takes finesse, planning, thought, accuracy, targeted actions, and iterations to get it right.
And timing is so important. Sometimes the marketing is way ahead of delivery, and sometimes it is way behind it, but when the timing and sequence are right, that’s when the magic of results happens.
Allow me repeat this: marketing is a process. Learn it, acquire experience in it, practice it, but don’t be amateurish about it.