Is Marketing Passé? You Be the Judge

Steve Case, founder of AOL, just wrote an article for Mashable about Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp. The article is titled 10 Lessons We Can Learn From WhatsApp. While I am an admirer of Mr. Case and agree with much of what he stated, I sharply disagree with one of his 10 lessons.  To quote from the article:WhatsApp

“Marketing is passé. Viral is the new marketing, and great products increasingly sell themselves. WhatsApp built its massive audience with no traditional advertising or marketing. They just created an awesome app and made it compelling enough (and easy enough) for people to tell their friends. And it spread like wildfire.”

Gee, if it were only that easy: Create a product that customers love, let them tell friends and colleagues, watch it go viral, and sell the company to Facebook for $19 billion. However, no matter how hard we try, the large majority of us will never have an opportunity to launch a product that goes viral to such an extent. It’s like saying, “Just hit a tennis ball like Roger Federer or a golf shot like Tiger Woods and your fortune is assured.” That may be stating the obvious but the reality is that athletic success of that magnitude is most often a blend of extremely hard work, timing, being associated with the right people (parents, coaches, etc.) and having the right gene pool.

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It’s similar with product or company success. In order to go viral, it is not enough to offer something that people like: Your timing and marketplace environment must also be impeccable. Some good luck is also helpful. I once worked at a software company that was on a rocket ship path, eventually reaching almost $2 billion in annual sales. One of the founders admitted that the initial goal was to eventually reach $20 million in annual revenue. The company happened to hit the market at exactly the right time, their competitors made a few unforced efforts and the products were widely praised. But here is the point: even with all these factors working in their favor, the marketing was also superb.

Remember the statement that is often credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.”  This was the 19th century equivalent of the “marketing is passé” argument. But it was not true then and it is not true now. For every WhatsApp that comes out of nowhere as a viral phenomenon, there are dozens of other companies who use smart and relentless marketing to achieve success.

Where I do think Steve Case has a valid point is to not rely on traditional marketing or advertising. It’s usually (not always) better to get the word out through pull marketing and social media methods. Even viral marketing success stories often start with relentless content marketing and sharing of the message through every possible channel. Creating an inbound marketing success story takes an awful lot of elbow grease. Pull marketing is definitely less expensive than push marketing, but it requires time and intelligent attention to succeed.  If a byproduct of this pull marketing effort is the next viral marketing Cinderella story, good for you. If not, you can still write your own success story—perhaps not as profitable, but quite compelling and profitable nonetheless.


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One comment

  • Jacob February 27, 2014   Reply →

    Great conclusions here. I’ve always said you can build as great a mousetrap as you want, but if it stays in your house and you don’t tell anyone about it, good luck selling the thing. I think at times people confuse viral marketing with luck and just hope things will work themselves out.

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