Marketing lessons from 2020

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Something a little different.

I asked a whole load of marketers I like the following question:

What’s the most significant growth/marketing lesson you learned in 2020?

I expected a good amount of diversity in the responses and I was not disappointed. I've tried to pull out a few themes here from the best responses.

Stay flexible, friends

Coronavirus. I expected a lot more coronavirus in the responses. But the only person who brought it up was Corey Haines of Swipe Files:

"The market and the state of that market determine an undeniably large portion of your success. Through Covid-19, we saw demand for online meeting and remote collaboration products and services absolutely skyrocket," he says. "New categories were created overnight and many businesses pivoted to accommodate the state of the market."

Keep a close eye on the market and be ready to adapt when it changes.

I don't think anyone can deny that. This year was wild for marketers and we all had to stay on our tip toes the whole year just to stay above the rising tide of changing attitudes!

"I saw many businesses adapt early on and have success capitalizing on positioning and marketing themselves around the pandemic as well as a significant amount of businesses get left in the dust who failed to adapt quickly enough. Keep a close eye on the market and be ready to adapt when it changes."

— @coreyhaines

Talk to your customers

"If 2020 taught me anything it's that 2021 is going to be the year of the customer. We have got to put the customer front and center in everything we do as marketers," says Val Geisler.

This year was a particularly wild year for customer acquisition. I know many companies who won, many who lost.

The companies who won were the ones that have clear relationships with their customers and a strong alignment to their problems/pain/concerns.

"Operationalizing, for your team, how you deliver value across the customer’s experience is a matter of survival," says Georgiana Laudi, co-founder of Forget the Funnel.

When a marketplace is volatile, there's any number of levers that you can pull. But wisdom in this situation is knowing that there's only a certain set of things that you can actually impact.

Center them in your brand and you'll have a customer not just for 2021 but for years and years to come.

"If you understand, identify and operationalize your customers' leaps of faith, their success milestones, you can be systematic in how you optimize them," Georgiana continues. "What became so much more obvious to me this year is that with a framework like this in place, focused research, like sending a single question email at the right time to your customers, can lead to a revenue-generating breakthrough."

I can definitely speak to that from personal experience. I can't tell you the number of times that an email sent at the right time has saved business, made business and the wrong message at the wrong time... well... that has the opposite effect.

Val again: "I know a lot of people say they are but the customers aren't feeling it. Talk to your customers. Find out what matters to them. Then create solutions to their problems. Center them in your brand and you'll have a customer not just for 2021 but for years and years to come."

Strong advice.

— @valgeisler, @georgianalaudi

How important is brand?

In B2B SaaS, until you're already a huge company, you're unlikely to get any medals for talking about brand or running brand awareness campaigns. We're all focused on conversion.

But Harry Dry of Marketing Examples makes the case for building brand alongside all other marketing work:

“We're all marketing to niches. And niches are a smaller place than you think. Word travels fast. And 'word' is your brand's reputation. Have this in mind when making decisions. 'Is this building my brands reputation, or eroding it?' Because that's the invisible multiplier which creates and destroys momentum”

That's the invisible multiplier which creates and destroys momentum

I like this approach. It fits in really neatly with the more conversion focused work that we do in SaaS.

It's more about aligning the work and output of a marketing or growth team with the brand as a whole rather than focusing on big campaigns and flashy slogans. Neat!

— @harrydry

Does story matter?

In 2020, Jimmy Daly (previously Animalz) started a new company with Walter Chen (also ex-Animalz). Superpath, a career resource for content marketers.

When you're starting a new company, there's any number of things you could focus on as a marketer so I was intrigued to hear about Jimmy's focus on story:

"I started a new business this year and had to think about growth from scratch. I had no traffic, a tiny audience, no brand, product ideas but no products," he says. "It all started with a story and that's what I've hung onto all year. The rest of the marketing is evolving fast, but I never really appreciated how important the story is until I didn't have anything else."

I never really appreciated how important the story is until I didn't have anything else.

I love that. And it really comes through in the Superpath brand. Here's their about page, for example.

The question this raises for me: how can I better use story to elevate my output in 2021?

— @jimmy_daly

Is the funnel dead?

Personally, I like the idea of TOFU, MOFU and BOFU. It's helpful to place a buyer on a continuum that I can easily communicate.

But also, it's not clear that this is the best way to think about customers. Especially in businesses that are built on recurring revenue.

"The biggest thing that I've learned in 2020 is how much the entire customer journey matters, not just the marketing 'funnel,'" says Brendan Hufford. "In a time where new customer acquisition can be brutally difficult, doubling down on existing customers for expansion is where a lot of companies were able to stay afloat and even gain ground in 2020."

Someone recently pointed out to me that even pre-conversion, I really can't know whether a piece of content would be at any particular stage of the funnel: after all, how can I know what the missing piece of the jigsaw is for them to become a customer?

Doubling down on existing customers for expansion is where a lot of companies were able to stay afloat and even gain ground in 2020

But I also like Brendan's point about expansion and retention. These are so often neglected in marketing.

How much more powerful is it to build a business that retains revenue extremely well and adds new customers moderately well?

Very much.

— @BrendanHufford

Trust the process

Surely everyone in growth listens to Ramli John's podcast Growth Marketing Today, right?

"One of the most significant marketing lessons in 2020 for me is that good work takes time," says Ramli. "Often, marketers look for the quickest path to achieving results. But much like baking a cake, when you rush things and don't trust the process, your cake ends up becoming soggy and undercooked."

Trust the process and the results will follow.

Ramli has spent years building an audience around his fantastic podcast. And these aren't just 'any guest he could find' kind of shows.

His episodes have been consistently high quality.

One more word from Ramli: "For me, it took three years of podcasting with Growth Marketing Today when I started seeing the impact and results I wanted. Trust the process and the results will follow."


SEO experiments

Many times, I've referred to Kevin Indig's frameworks for content and SEO. So I was really happy to read his answer to the question of his most significant growth lesson this year:

"The most impactful growth lesson for me is the idea of running SEO projects like an experimentation framework. SEO is like a set of bets you place, similar to investing by the way. You try to maximize returns over the long-term and can estimate how successful a bet is," he says.

I think this is one of the things I like most about SEO and content. If you look at the search tools, you can get a pretty good estimate of how likely you are to rank for a keyword.

You really have to test most SEO best practices and figure it out for yourself

But taking that one step further, if you've built up the right data, you can also use this as a leading indicator of revenue.

"If you look at SEO from an experimentation angle, you can create an agile process around many small experiments with scoped effort and returns. It's a much more flexible approach to SEO, and I think the reason this is so impactful is that you really have to test most SEO best practices and figure it out for yourself."

Kevin says that he's going to share more insight on this at some point but as he's just started his new role as Director of SEO at Shopify, I think we're going to have to wait for him a little longer!

— @Kevin_Indig

Communities were big this year

It seems like the world and his wife has a community this year (do people in other countries say this?) I got invited to join approximately a million paid communities (money making schemes mostly) and around a trillion free ones (advertising mostly)

But I also took part in three really high quality communities for the first time this year. My favourites were an extremely closely curated Twitter and Swipe Files.

In the latter, I met Amanda Natividad.

"Communities are flywheels. Whether it's being active on a social media platform like Twitter or LinkedIn, or joining a private community in Slack or Circle, use these communities to meet people, engage with their content, and test your own thoughts or ideas," she says. "The more active you are in online communities, the faster and more efficiently you'll enable your own marketing efforts."

It's a great point. I'm not averse to sharing openly about things like revenue figures. In fact, I quite enjoy that.

The more active you are in online communities, the faster and more efficiently you'll enable your own marketing efforts

But Amanda's idea of testing content, thoughts and ideas is really strong and something I hadn't fully appreciated until I read her response to this question.

Being able to go to a closed community of high quality people like Swipe Files and ask for feedback on a project (like I did with Positive Hüman before starting it!) gives:

  1. Objective validation of your ideas – it's hard to know whether something works or not before you ask others
  2. A group of people who might be your earliest fans – I don't think you should use communities exclusively for your own benefit, but I do believe that they're give and take. Why shouldn't you get some value if you're creating value for others too?!

— @amandanat

On open communities, I think we've all probably dived headfirst into Twitter as marketers. That's actually where I got to know Andrea Bosoni of Zero to Marketing:

"[My biggest lesson was] probably how important it is to build relationships. I started using Twitter basically at the beginning of the year. And building relationships with other people opened a ton of new opportunities," he says.

Totally true. Most of the cool stuff I did and got to try out for the first time in marketing came from being on Twitter and just sending DMs to people who I found interesting.

I've made friends all over the world who are genuinely brilliant.

I could never have done this if I didn't have the ability to DM someone at any time about any topic.

Absolutely wild.


Say yes first, freak out later.

I'm actually going to end this post out with Samar Owais. She's one of the nicest people I've met in marketing (also, watch out for new email teardown videos with her in the new year)

When she sent back her answer, I decided to publish it without comment because I love the ethic and it sums up so much of the idea behind calling this site Positive Hüman – good people doing good things, staying optimistic all the time.


Do the work - even when it flings you out of your comfort zone and scare the crap out of you.
It's a piece of advice I've long been given but didn't follow until this year.
It sounds deceptively simple but it's excruciatingly hard in reality.
My workaround to following this advice was, "Say yes first, freak out later."
So I said yes to starting a newsletter, creating a course, speaking on podcasts and conferences and teardowns and masterclasses and guest expert sessions.
And every time I'd freak out later. But then I'd do the work and deliver.
Not going to say that I aced it the first time I did it. I sucked big time the first few times. But then it got easier.
And when it did, I remembered something Joanna Wiebe talks about a lot: It doesn't get easier. YOU get better.



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