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April 26, 2023

5 Low-Cost Ways to Optimize Your Marketing for Challenging Times

piggy bank with dollar bill in it

During uncertain times like these—when many startups and young companies may face lower revenue growth and sparser access to capital—we at Norwest lean in more than ever to help our companies drive capital- efficient growth and extend their cash runway.

To look at cash preservation from a marketing perspective, I facilitated a discussion with more than a dozen GTM leaders in B2B SaaS. The event was hosted by Norwest portfolio company, Workato, the leader in enterprise integration platform as a service (iPaaS). Thank you to Workato’s head of marketing, Bhaskar Roy, for inviting me. The cool thing: the gathering was held at the Chase Center in San Francisco. So, after we talked shop for an hour, we watched the game from a private suite. (The Warriors beat the Pelicans that evening 120-109.)

To frame the discussion, I shared the top five money-saving marketing trends we’re seeing across the Norwest portfolio (and one bonus idea!) that can help companies extend their financial runways during challenging times.

1. Generative AI Boosts Your Creative Horsepower

Generative AI applies artificial intelligence to content creation, such as ad copy, blog posts, emails, images, and other marketing materials. It can save time, boost efficiency, and free up talent for higher-value tasks. It’s a tool to supplement (not replace) humans. Using generative AI can accelerate and amplify an individual’s work, as in these oft-cited analogies: it’s like a digital camera for photographers or Excel for accountants. You still need people to provide a deep understanding of the audiences you are trying to reach, the competitive differentiation you have, the marketing strategies you employ and your unique voice in the market.

Generative AI accelerates and amplifies an individual’s work—like a digital camera does for photographers or Excel for accountants.

Keep in mind that generative AI is trained to give you an answer, even if it’s wrong—thus the term “AI hallucinations.” AI has no actual knowledge or sense of context, which is why human involvement and review is so critical. Getting an answer is one reason why generative AI is good for content creation—since it’s always easier to edit something than ideate from a blank screen—but can be dangerous for research, education, and search.

To use it effectively in your work, identify the areas of marketing strategy where you see friction—such as content that isn’t generating the desired interest level from the target audience, or bottlenecks in the content-creation process—and then look for the right AI tool to reduce that friction. Always lead with strategy, not tools.

2. Self-Reported Attribution Demystifies Business Drivers

Marketers are leaning away from expensive and sometimes inaccurate attribution tools by investing in self-reported attribution, which is generally defined as direct feedback from prospects on how they learned about your company. This information is often collected via an open-text “how did you hear about us?” question on forms. (Beware of using drop-down picklist choices, as those can bias the data.)

Self-reported attribution will demonstrate to your CEO and CFO that your best leads may be coming from your investments in content and channels that are hard to measure—think about videos, podcasts, LinkedIn posts, and other brand and community channels … the so-called “dark funnel.” My friends Sarah Scudder and Will Allred, marketing leaders at Norwest portfolio companies SourceDay and Lavender, respectively, swear by self-reported attribution to understand where to place their marketing investment bets. True, the dataset might be small if your volume of form submissions is low, but I have it on good authority that the data clusters around key channels such as word of mouth and social.

3. Owned Channels Fuel Upstream Demand

As paid budgets get squeezed, scrappy companies are leaning into brand-building, activating their teams and customers as influencers to drive awareness and demand without paying for every impression. This means leveraging channels like your website, social, podcast, communities and other owned properties where you have an audience and create content worth sharing (pro tip: most viral B2B content is entertaining—maybe even tongue-in-cheek or controversial—and motivates your audience with its usefulness or timely insights). To expand reach, consider collaborating with your ecosystem, much like my friend Udi Ledergor at portfolio company Gong does so successfully.

Scrappy companies will lean into brand-building, activating their teams and customers as influencers to drive awareness and demand without paying for every impression.

Udi talks about how to get members of your team to become social evangelists by sending them calendar invites with pre-written social posts that they can cut and paste into their favorite platforms. Remind them what’s in it for them: by regularly posting valuable content, they will score points with the algorithm and gain more impressions while adding followers.

We also pursue this approach at Norwest where we engage our senior advisors, portfolio leaders, and ecosystem partners to share their invaluable perspectives through blogs, short videos, and social posts.

4. New MQL Definitions put the “Gate Debate” to Rest

Gating whitepapers and ebooks used to be a surefire way to produce qualified leads, but many believe those days are gone forever. We see more and more portfolio companies ungating educational content, only passing high-intent inbound MQLs to sales, such as contact-us and demo request forms. For companies that want to continue gating, consider guarding only the highest-value content and/or holding back those leads until you can gather more data about intent, or the prospect takes additional actions. Remember: one webinar signup does not an MQL make! . As lead volume decreases, that frees your team and budget to focus on driving higher-quality engagements with target buyers in your ICP.

We see more and more portfolio companies ungating educational content, only passing high-intent inbound MQLs to sales.

To make your hard-earned MQLs even more effective, research the buying-committee contacts within your target accounts and arm your SDRs with the information—along with intent data from sources such as ZoomInfo, Bombora or Lusha—to inform their outbound and follow-up approaches. The name of the game is to arm your SDRs with as much contextual information as possible. Along with behavioral queries and intent data, your sellers must also be well-informed about how the accounts have engaged with your brand.

When this data is operationalized, sellers can multithread their outbound efforts with confidence, reaching several influencers and decision makers in an account that’s signaling they have “need” and to improve opportunity creation and win rates.

5. Fractional Talent Plugs Holes in Your Marketing Org

A prominent trend we’re seeing in our portfolio—especially among early-stage companies—is a move toward fractional marketing talent, especially at the senior leadership level. Companies with smaller budgets that are still trying to gain product-market fit often don’t have the budget (nor do they need) a CMO yet, but they still want the benefit of higher-level strategic thinking.

With an abundance of senior-level talent available due to layoffs or late-career pivots away from operating roles, hiring fractional resources is an attractive option. Companies can hire a CMO-level contractor two days a week and then surround that person with people that can execute the strategies. At Norwest, we recommend resources like Right Side Up and 621 Consulting for sourcing fractional marketing leaders.

Bonus: Lead with Love to Drive Increased Employee Engagement and Retention

Laila Tarraf is an executive coach, board member, and people leader who believes that exceptional organizations are created when people connect to their common humanity and bring heart into the workplace. One of our portfolio companies, Simpplr, invited her to speak on this topic—read the full summary of her talk. Her core messages were insightful:

    1. There’s a new definition of power in the workplace: a skillful blend of tenderness, nurture, and compassion that is every bit as powerful as the more forceful approaches of the past.
    2. Honoring people, celebrating diversity, and focusing on employee engagement and retention have a profound impact on creating a positive workplace culture.
    3. Active listening is an essential part of employee communication. Let others feel heard, cared for, and valued. If you can’t provide an answer right away, that’s OK. People usually just want a bit of empathy or a chance to brainstorm.

Parting Thoughts and Considerations

Cash preservation tactics are likely to evolve and remain fixtures in our 2023 marketing strategies and beyond. To navigate the uncertain economic environment, we’re leaning into the power of our community. Creating space for the marketing leaders in our portfolio to discuss shared challenges is a small, but mighty way we’re supporting our companies.

This year, Norwest has started to host “huddles” for our marketing leaders to talk about what’s top of mind for them. It’s been inspiring and validating thus far and I’m looking forward to sharing their collective insights in future blogs. Whether you’re a current or future marketing leader in our portfolio, I’d love to hear from you to shape the topics of future huddles. What’s on your mind?

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