In this episode, you will learn how to set up a one-year strategic marketing plan and lead your team to success. My guest today is Kevan Lee, the Director of Marketing at Buffer.
Tune in to hear us discuss your big picture gameplan, how to lead a team effectively, and Kevan’s personal career path. He reveals insight into the transition from content writing to strategy and what happened when he tried to take marketing shortcuts in the past.
Listen to this Episode:
- The difference between your company vision vs. strategy
- How Kevan created Buffer’s one-year strategic marketing plan
- Why step one of a marketing strategy starts with your purpose
- The powerful vision framework exercise for creating goals
- Which marketing channel is the number one driver for new signups
- How to determine which projects are your first priority
- Why marketers today should become multiskilled generalists
- Simplified One Page Strategic Plan for Every Team by David Cummings
- Vision Framework by Jim Collins
- The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life
- Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman
- Reforge: Growth Programs for Experienced
- Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur by Derek Sivers
- Forget the Funnel by Georgiana Laudi and Claire Suellentrop
- @KevanLee on Twitter
- Kevan on LinkedIn
- Mark Ritson: 4 Steps to Creating a Rock-Solid Marketing Strategy
Louis: Bonjour, bonjour! Welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarketers.com, the marketing podcast for marketers, founders, and tech people who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier. In today’s episode, you will learn how to set up a one-year strategic marketing plan, so you can get shit done with your team and lead your team effectively as well. We are not necessarily only going to talk about a one-year strategic marketing plan. We’ll also talk about marketing strategy in general and how to lead a team with this.
My guest today comes from a company I really deeply admire. I don’t say that lightly. Buffer, which is the social scheduling platform who are very well-known for their transparency. They are the reason why I actually started a remote consulting company a few years ago that failed–but that’s for another story–and why I’m working remotely right now actually with Hotjar. That’s when I discovered that companies like Buffer were working remotely.
My guest started as a content writer and have worn many hats since then, product marketer, partnerships, social copywriter, and manager. He’s now the director of marketing for Buffer, managing a team of 10 people. Buffer is a company receiving more than a million visits a month on their blog which is quite an impressive feat.
Kevan Lee, welcome aboard.
Kevan: Thank you, Louis, great to be here.
Louis: Everyone talks about strategy. I read it almost on every single blog post, or blog I visit. People talk about this one strategy you should use to growth hack your success, or three strategies you should use tomorrow to do X, Y, and Z.
Without giving too much about my opinion about the word strategy, and what it actually means, I’d like to hear from you. What does it mean to you, strategy?
Kevan: Yeah, one of my teammates put it quite succinctly for me once in this analogy. We were trying to decide the difference between vision and strategy and tactics, because, oftentimes, we use these words interchangeably, or people assume one thing and someone else does another.
The analogy she used is that the vision is where you’re going. The strategy is how you’re going to get there, and the tactics are the turn-by-turn directions. That was very clarifying for me. I’m able to now filter those words into a nice, tidy box.
Strategy for me is: If you’ve already figured out where you’re going to go, strategy is how you’re going to get there. As part of my role, I both need to figure out where we’re going, and how we’re getting there. Then, I like to pass along the tactics, the what to the team itself.
Yeah, strategy’s the car we’re driving or the route we’re taking to get to our destination.
Louis: It’s as much as where you’re going, it’s also where you’re not going, and what you’re not going to do, right?
Kevan: Exactly. Yes, exactly.
Louis: When we think of marketing strategies, you summarize it quite well and quite simply. Vision is where you’re planning to go. Strategy is how you’re going to get there.
Louis: Tactics are, repeat, so that’s–
Kevan: The turn-by-turn directions, yes.
Louis: The turn-by-turn directions, exactly. When we think about it, it’s an empty word to a lot of people. It’s like, why is it needed? Why do we even need to set up a marketing strategy? Why do we need a marketing team or a strategy when you lead a business? Why is it important for you in your role to have a marketing strategy?
Kevan: Yeah, that’s a good one. I came up through the tactics. I started as a writer for a blog. I was very much in the day-to-day details. Having been in that world for many years, and how easy it is to get tunnel vision and just to be very consumed by the work and not be able to pick your head up and see, oh, where did we actually end up?
I picture like you’re tunneling through the ground. You could be the world’s best tunneler, but if you never stick your head out of the tunnel, then you might not know if you’re actually headed in the right direction or not.
Strategy is having this. It’s how we’re going to get there. Vision is where we’re going. Having these components, it helps make the work feel more purposeful, makes the work feel like you’re headed on the right track.
Ideally, there are these outcomes that you want to achieve. On a day-to-day basis, they could be an outcome of a blog post or write this email. But, bigger picture, a vision could be to change the world for remote workers or teach someone a skill they didn’t have before. Then, how to get there is maybe choosing which channels to go into, these bigger decisions. It all trickles down into the work that you’re doing on a day-to-day basis.
Without that strategy, without that vision, I guess some of the work feels a bit aimless. I didn’t realize that until I was figuring out strategy and vision, the actual importance of that kind of stuff.
Louis: Tell me more about this, because I can feel there is a turning point in your career, where you switched from being very tactical to having to think strategically, right? Especially as a writer, I don’t want to insult you, but I know from experience thinking about a lot of writers, they probably don’t have a lot of time to think strategy.
They have to deliver a blog post every single day, right? When did you discover that setting up strategy, setting up vision was really important?
Kevan: Oh, I think I’m still in the process of reminding myself that it’s important. To a degree, strategy feels like one of those, I guess strategy feels somewhat a bit more art than science which I struggle with. I struggle with both art and science. I prefer very tangible things. Though science is a bit more tangible to me I guess. You can quantify it. You can measure it.
Yeah, so strategy it’s an ongoing debate within myself. It’s like, what impact is this strategy actually having? Spending time thinking about strategy is so hard to prioritize when there’s so much other work to be done.
That’s a huge struggle that I have. It’s like, “Oh, how can I spend a week talking and thinking about strategy? When I could have been spending a week writing this or putting this campaign together or measuring this or that or the other thing.”
I have to remind myself that one week of strategy setting makes a huge difference for the 10 people I manage. It makes a huge difference for the work they do for the whole year. It’s a different way of measuring productivity I guess, when you are at the strategic level, because you don’t get the feedback right away. You don’t get that feeling, that dopamine rush of hitting send or publish on something.
I get that it’s important. It’s still very hard to prioritize and feel good about actually spending the time doing it.
Louis: When did you start actually, when was the first time you went through this exercise of setting up a strategy for your team?
Kevan: Let’s see. I’ve been directing the team for a couple years now. Honestly, when I started leading the team, I don’t think I did strategy for several months. I think I looked to other people in the company to set marketing strategy for me, or I just stayed on the same marketing strategy that we had before and just stayed on that same path.
It probably took me maybe even a year into the lead role to actually sit down and think, “Oh, I need to actually be thinking about the strategy that we have.” Does it make sense for us still to be doing content marketing after so many years? I didn’t even realize you could reach a ceiling on content marketing. Should I even be considering this kind of thing?
All these questions I didn’t even know to ask and, obviously, didn’t know the answers to at the time. Yeah, I’d say it took about a year before I was fully on board with strategy. I’m not on board with it yet. A year to start getting on board, to buy my ticket for it.
Louis: What was the process for you? What was the way you set out to say, “Okay, you know what? We’re going to have a strategy for Buffer in 2017-2018, and we’re going to do X, Y, and Z.” How did you do that?
Kevan: Like you said at the opening, you can hear a lot of advice out there for, you should do this strategy, or you should try this thing, and you should be doing this type of work. That’s absolutely true. There are so many different templates out there to look at and companies to emulate.
One of the things that I’ve tried to do in my life and career, it’s a parenting philosophy that I’ve adapted to a marketing philosophy. It’s that you never should on your kids, and you never should on your marketers or your plans.
Whenever I hear that word should it’s always a trigger for me. I don’t ever want to feel like I should have to do anything. It should be a choice. It should be me figuring out on my own.
That was how I went the strategy route. There’s a lot of different templates to follow. I looked at many of them. Some of them were like, “This is the way that you should be doing it.” I challenge that notion a little bit. Maybe, immaturely, I push back at being told what to do in some ways. I wasn’t going to go that route.
Then I stumbled across this one, it’s one that’s been pretty useful for us. It’s a one-year strategic marketing plan. It was originally from a guy named David Cummings and just took his template and ran with it.
I’d say it was useful for someone who hadn’t had a background in strategy to have a template to follow. I think that made it more, it felt like I was shipping something at the end. I could follow a blueprint and feel like I had done something by the end of it, rather than just sitting there and thinking, “Oh, maybe this is a strategy.” The template helped a lot especially the first time around.
Louis: I think in the next few minutes, what we’re going to do is we’re going to go through this template and trying to look back at the time where you set up a strategy for Buffer. How you went about it, maybe the mistakes you learned from it, and how you would tell listeners how to do the same exercise, trying to really go about it step-by-step. What should you do first?
Maybe you can run through the template you use in terms of the different items that are there, briefly. Then we can dive into how you actually agreed on each of them. Because I suppose it’s not chronological, you don’t follow each one-by-one. You don’t do them one-by-one.
Kevan: Exactly. The marketing plan, it has a few different sections. It starts with a purpose, and this is the company-team purpose: Why are you doing what you’re doing? I guess it’s a bit of vision in that sense.
There’s a core value section: What values guide the work that you do? The target demographic for your product, the promise of your brand, 200 words on what the brand is, an elevator pitch which is a bit longer, so it lets you go into a bit more detail. Basically, the pitch you give someone if you only have an elevator ride to convince them to use your product.
Then some numbers. So, a three-year target, where you want to be in three years, where you want to be at in the current year. Then goals and priorities, so you can break it down, based on cycles or quarters, however, you work with your team.
Louis: Perhaps, could you give us an example from Buffer? Maybe not all the ones, but at least, I would say the purpose, core values, target demographic. I think people would, because most listeners I know, know of Buffer. It probably would be nice to put that in perspective. What’s Buffer’s purpose at the minute?
Kevan: Yeah, so the purpose is to give people a greater voice on social media. At the minute, the purpose has shifted a little bit to help small businesses grow. It’s somewhat of an aspirational idea that you want to get at, a bit bigger than maybe the exact benefit of using the product. We try to zoom out a little bit when it comes to the purpose setting.
Louis: Then your values I suppose. I remember you updated your values recently. You even posted it on your blog. What are your top three values would you say?
Kevan: Yeah, for the values exercise we’re lucky that the company has a set of values too, so we could have just cribbed off of those. That would have been nice and fast and easy.
But, basically, we took those, and we said, “Well, what is, given this template, this foundation of values, how do we conduct our work? What difference does it look like within our marketing team?”
We ended up with a few. We had high-quality work. We had honest, authentic, a few others, and then a big key for us is, “Always do the right thing for our customers and community.” Maybe, an overall guide would be empathy is probably the theme of the values there.
Louis: Then your target demographic, because you said, yeah, you’re switching a bit from to help small businesses grow. Recently, you expanded your offering with Buffer Reply or Respond, was it? Which one-
Kevan: Yes. It used to be called Respond, now it’s called Reply, yup.
Louis: Oh, okay, that’s why I’m confused.
Kevan: Does a little bit of both.
Louis: What target demographic did you pick just for your own strategy?
Kevan: We ended up with small businesses. We also cater a bit to personal brands, so we’re in the midst of choosing a target customer company-wide at the moment. For the most part, it’s small businesses. Then, we’re going to be more specific in the coming months about what we mean when we say small businesses.
Louis: Right. I’m just going to go and run through the items again, and then, we’ll try to go through the exercise of filling those out together, step-by-step: the purpose, the core values, target demographic, the brand promise, the elevator pitch, the three-year target, the annual goals, the quarterly, monthly, and cycle goals, and the priority projects.
As I mentioned, it doesn’t sound like we fill this one-pager one item at a time. It sounds more like you fill the gaps here and there together. There might be some steps that are not that simple when you’re starting out.
How would you advise listeners to actually fill this page and potentially using your own experience? Where do you start? What is step number one?
Kevan: Yes. Well, the very first time I did this, I did go top to bottom and just filled it in like a Mad Libs. It was maybe not the easiest or the best way to go about it. I would say step one is to figure out the purpose, figure out the vision, purpose-vision, that bigger idea.
Louis: How do you go about it?
Kevan: That’s an excellent question. It typically comes from the company itself. This purpose that is on our sheet is basically our company vision. Very easily, I just copied it from our company vision.
If you’re leading a marketing team, hopefully, you’re part of those conversations and can shape it at the company level. Then, it’s basically fill-in-the-blank when it comes to the marketing.
Louis: Let’s say, you’re not the marketer, the marketing director. You’re actually the CEO or C-suite, and you need to figure out a purpose that doesn’t sound fluffy, yet, that is inspirational enough. Do you have any tips to help people figure that out?
Kevan: Yeah, I can give you another exercise. We do use this marketing one-pager still, and we’ve also added what’s called a vision framework. It comes from Jim Collins, and it has a bunch of different elements to it. It has core purpose, core values, so, some of the similarities to our one-pager.
It also has something called vivid description and BHAG, and the BHAG stands for big, hairy, audacious goals. In the course of going through this vision framework, there’s questions to get you thinking about, okay, what gets you excited in the morning?
What kind of work could you be doing that even if you weren’t paid for it, you’d still be doing? Once this job goes away, what kind of work will you still be doing after this job?
It really gets at the things that you’re personally passionate about. I think at that CEO, founder, personal brand level, entrepreneur level a lot of the work that you do probably has to have some element of that in order for it to be work that you can be excited about and be excited about why you’re putting in all the work to make the thing work.
We use that vision framework exercise. We did it earlier this year, and it was super useful. Especially, the vivid description part, where you describe what your company is going to look like in five, 10, 15 years. We wrote a press release. Well, actually, I wrote a New York Times article–a fake New York Times article–just to see what life would be like if all of our dreams come true. Then, you work backward from there.
Louis: Yeah, and that’s something I discovered from you actually a few months ago when I stumbled upon your profile again. That really was a nice thing to see.
This exercise is basically, as you said, it could be a press release set in the future, it could be an article in The New York Times. But, it’s really about the things you’ve accomplished. The things you want to accomplish in the next five, 10, 20 years. It might sound fluffy but, actually, works really well to focus on what matters the most. It’s quite interesting.
I never worked on the vivid description thing, but I did work on my purpose quite a lot for the podcast, and why I’m doing it. I finally managed to go through a purpose that is simple enough I can say it in three words. I love to say it every time I can, which is, “I fight marketing bullshit.”
I love it, and it doesn’t really say where I’m going. But, I think there’s going to be enough marketing bullshit out there for the next 50 years that I think I’ll still be trying to fight it.
But to go back to the exercise then, how did you go about doing this vivid description? You said you wrote it, but how did you … Did you meet with your team? Did you have three calls with your team? How did you go about understanding that this is actually where I want to go as a team?
Kevan: I did zero calls with my team, which, in hindsight, might have been the wrong move.
Basically, my approach to it was, I feel like I have a very strong intuition of knowing what Buffer is about, what my team values, historically, what we have done, what’s worked for us. Given that information, I felt pretty solid about moving forward with it.
I went through the vision framework exercise all by myself, and, after I had done it, I shared it with our CEO. He and I spent, we probably spent a couple weeks on it, but, truly, it was asynchronous. It was, he would look at it one day, and I would look at it the next day for 15 minutes each, so a total maybe a couple hours together on it.
The reason why I went, so I did it and, then, went up to the CEO with it is because it needs to be aligned with our company, our overall company direction. If marketing is headed off in one direction, and products are headed off in a different direction, things aren’t going to work. We had to be pointed in the same direction.
I feel like I’m close enough to my team that I know–this sounds super egotistical–but I know what they think and where their hearts at, so it was a pretty easy sell once I was done with it from the higher level, and then I shared it with them and got their thoughts and not much changed there, because it was all pretty good to go.
Louis: From someone who probably doesn’t have the intuition that you have, because that’s not a trait that a lot of people have. Or someone who maybe works on their business on their own or has a small team–how do you advise people to actually come up with this vivid description about where you’re going to go as a company? What you’re going to accomplish?
Kevan: I think in the way that the framework works, you start with your purpose and your values, and then, from there, the vivid description fills out. Definitely, start by understanding where you want to go, and what’s going to guide you, what values are going to guide you to get there.
A lot of it for me was, what would be exciting for us as a team? What would make a real difference in the world? What would making good on this purpose look like if we were to…
For instance, let’s say we want to give people a greater voice on social media. Well, what does that actually look like, what it could look like? A lot of different things, it could be that small businesses find new channels, and everyone becomes a social media expert in a way or we’re able to give that to them.
Well, what does that look like? It means, maybe we build out a whole library of courses, and we are the go-to social media educator. Then, oh, education. Well, maybe that could mean we get certified courses, or we start some higher education programs where we’re actually training people.
If you think training people–oh, cool, maybe we’re actually putting people into these jobs or having internship programs. It spirals pretty quickly, as you can tell. There’s lots of different directions to take it.
I would encourage you just to go down those routes and see, oh, if we were to explore this, what would that look like? What could this look like? If that sounds like an exciting path, then figure out, okay, what would it take to get there?
That’s the basis I work toward. Our vivid description had things like, we’re going to build out an editorial team. Then, mine went to, oh, cool, it would be fun to have a magazine someday. That would be cool and innovative. The magazine’s in there, and all these different things.
You don’t have to do them all, but just that actual process of dreaming big and thinking big that informs the strategy that you set in order to get there. You can check that strategy every so often and see, is it still the path you want to be on? Is it still the way you want to go?
Louis: There’s something quite similar. I’m just remembering now, and I’m actually having to google it, because I’m going to not remember the name of the book. I’m going to find it in the next few seconds.
But, I read it, that’s actually Seth Godin who recommended this book on this podcast. It’s about this teacher, this art teacher I think or music teacher that at the start of every year, he makes his students write a letter to themselves that they’ll have to open again in one year.
But, the exercise of writing a letter to yourself just saying, “Dear Future,” or I think it’s more like, “Dear Past Myself, In one year, I will have done X, Y, and Z. I’ve achieved X da-da-duh.”
The moral of the story is that through this exercise, these students would keep going to class. These students would be super engaged, and they would be much more willing to participate, much more willing to have good grades and all of that just through this exercise.
I think it’s something quite powerful for people’s brain. I’m going to find the name, The Art of Possibility. That’s the name.
Kevan: That’s great.
Louis: It’s a great book, and I think it goes back to the storytelling part of our brain. It goes back to the fact that we need vivid description of things. We need stories. We need things that we can imagine in our head to be engaged. I think that connects very well with that.
This vivid description, we’re spending a bit of time on it, but I think it’s absolutely critical. As you said, if you don’t know where you’re going to go, then all the rest doesn’t really matter.
Kevan: Yeah, it’s an interesting concept too. I’ve done some counseling before and therapy and coaching. I’ve been involved in these processes. I haven’t done it like I’ve given coaching to people. I’ve been coached, and I’ve been counseled and things.
Often, I will have, these types of exercises will come up in that kind of setting too, where picture your ideal day, what does it look like? Then, knowing that, how do you get there? What can you change today that will get you closer to that ideal day? Where do you want to be in five years, in 10 years, in life? Then, work backwards from there.
I noticed that I have quite a, I think idealism is one of my personality traits. I took a test once. It told me that. I feel like I know, I have no problem thinking up ideal things and working toward that, and I think it’s a useful trait to have when it comes to vivid description and vision-setting stuff.
Louis: In fact, that reminds me of when I started my consulting business. I actually had printed pictures of my family, pictures of the future house I want to own, and a few things like this, just planning out for the future. You’re waking up for this.
Actually, I looked at it back a few months ago and realized that I completed almost everything in there without actively thinking about it, without saying every day looking into it. But, it just naturally happens when you’re very clear on where you want to go. The universe has a way to bring you to this path. Obviously, it’s not the universe. Let’s be clear, it’s you who is working on it every day.
But unconsciously, your brain has understood that this is where I want to go, and you’re taking the right decisions then based on that, right?
Kevan: Absolutely. It’s similar if you take it down a level. I think we’ve seen this as a concept called scoreboarding, which is basically if your team has a goal make that goal visible. Show it in Slack once a day, and everyone looks at it, or put it in the front of your travel board. If you’re in an office, stick it on the office wall or make a screen that has the progress on it.
Just seeing that number and seeing that outcome. You’re right, subconsciously, you’re aware of it and working toward it, even when you’re not consciously, even if you don’t know you’re doing it, so absolutely.
Louis: That’s for the inspirational, the purpose, the goal setting, the big picture thinking. The next part of the template is a bit more, should I say, tactical, a bit more grounded in facts and grounded in science, should I say, the target demographic, the brand promise, the elevator pitch, the three-year target.
How did you go about setting those up for Buffer? Especially the target demographic, people do seem to struggle a lot with that, in picking the right audience and the targets and all of this jazz. How did you go about it?
Kevan: So, the target demographics. Some of that comes from our product research team. We can just take their findings, and, say, if you don’t have a product research team, some of the stuff we’ve done in the past is to survey our customers or survey our audience, find out some common demographics that they share.
If you can get even more specific, you can put those folks into different cohorts. Then, see this cohort here of maybe small business owners, what kind of revenue do they bring in on average? What’s their lifetime value? What’s their acquisition cost? You can bucket them in terms of which ones actually are successful using the product, and those become your target customers. That’s one way of doing it.
When it comes to the three-year targets, you’re getting all my dirty secrets of how I wing some of this stuff. A three-year target for us is basically what do we do in one year and multiply it by three. And we add a little bit so it looks good. I have no process beyond that.
Our three-year target is to have 250,000 paying customers who find value in Buffer. Honestly, we have 80,000 today. 80,000 times three is 240,000 plus a little bit. That is the dark science behind setting targets.
Louis: No, I appreciate your transparency. Coming from someone working for Buffer, I’m not surprised. But there you have it. I think it’s over-complicating those kinds of things can really slow you down.
It sounds like from your answers, you’re not, even though you are taking those seriously, it’s important to have those goals, it seems like you are taking other things more seriously, such as, how to get things done every day, how to make sure that your team is happy, how to make sure they’re productive, how to make sure that they feel empowered to do stuff, right?
I just want to go back to what you said about target demographic. Because we talk about it a lot on this podcast, how to identify your ideal buyer and customer research, we’ve talked about it many times.
One thing I haven’t shared on a podcast yet is to look at the RFM methodology. Which is used in e-commerce mainly, but it works really well for other stuff. Which is recency, frequency, and monetary value. Basically, looking at people who’ve bought the most recently from you, who bought the most often from you, and who bought the most from you.
Usually, when you look at the intersection of the three comes the ideal buyer person, the ideal buyer profile. I don’t want to make overly generalize everything, but most of the time, it’s the Pareto Law or even worse. It’s like just 20% of customers make 80% of your revenue. I would definitely recommend people to do that first, before they pick a target audience that is very vague.
Now, as a business like Buffer, you mention, small business is your target audience. I would say that most companies can’t and shouldn’t pick such a broad audience until they are at the scale that Buffer is. They really need to focus on a very, very small amount of people first.
Kevan: I think that’s very fair to say.
Louis: Moving on to the three-year target. Basically, the formula is you multiply by three whatever big goal you have.
Louis: Then annual goals. I suppose you also, you draw a line, and you start looking at, okay, working backward again.
Kevan: Pretty much. You multiply a monthly target by 12.
Louis: I’m more curious then about the things you decide to do. And the things you decide not to do because I think that’s the meaty part of the strategy. As I mentioned in the intro, it’s as important to say that we are not going to do this, that it is to say we are going to do this.
In Buffer and in general, how would you advise people to select the right thing to do and not going overboard, or how do you advise people to do that?
Kevan: When I think of saying no to things and saying yes to things, I think there are a couple of reasons to say no. The first is we say no to anything that’s not within our values, so having that value statement up top is a great place to start. That will eliminate some options right away.
The second thing I think you alluded to, is that time element of there’s so many different things to try. Why choose this over this, or what if you try to do it all? That’s definitely not a good recipe too.
I’d say if you’re just getting started one thing that we found really useful is the Bull’s Eye Exercise which is from the book, Traction. It’s basically an exercise that runs you through, I guess, 19 or 20 very popular, common, useful, different tactics and channels. It helps you identify which one has the biggest potential, and which one will work for you initially. That should get you going with a couple of channels, and that’s a great place to start.
I joined the Buffer marketing team at a point in time when content marketing was already quite established for us. I stepped into that role and was able to keep it going. Now, we have a few established channels. We have content. We have PR. We have community. Those ones are in social media, and they do great for us.
We’ve shifted now. We want to continue to do great things there, but we also want to expose ourselves to new opportunities. Maybe there is a new strategy out there that could work, and we want to validate that or invalidate that.
We take the 70-30-10 approach. Where 70% of our time and resources are dedicated to the channels that we know are working. Where 30% are dedicated to exploring new channels that have been validated by others, and we think might have potential and, then, spend 10% just doing wild and crazy stuff.
That has helped us say no to certain things and say yes to other things. I think it’s helped. If we don’t say no to certain things, I guess we limit our time, so that there’s only a chance to do the work on certain things, 30%, 10% of the time. But, anything is still out there in possibility, it’s just we’ve boxed ourselves and only have some constraints about how much time to spend with that kind of stuff.
Louis: I have to do the math though. That’s 110% in total, so is it-
Kevan: Oh yes, isn’t it? It’s 60, 30, 10.
Louis: All right, 60, 30, 10. Cool, there you have it. I think for Buffer’s case you are known to have grown using content mainly. Am I right to say content marketing is still the number one driver of new sign-ups?
Kevan: Yeah, our number one driver is word of mouth, then search, and then content marketing.
Louis: Search comes from content, right?
Kevan: It comes from content and word of mouth, yeah, people searching Buffer and coming to us from there, yeah.
Louis: Branded search, unbranded search. The reason why I’m coming to that is I would also, based on the book, Traction, that is a great book, I would also advise, especially, if you’re starting out or even in established business to focus your attention on those one or two channels, one or two key projects that really should deliver the most yields for your business and avoiding picking 10 channels and try every single one of them, and say none is working right.
In this day and age, competition is fierce. There’s a lot going on. If you try one thing for a week, like content for a week and think it’s not, oh, it’s not working, we’re not going to do that. It’s going to fail.
How do you pick those top projects? Those top activities that should be crucial for your business?
Kevan: Yeah, we always try to start with a minimum viable test. If there’s something that you think is worth trying, then what’s the smallest scoped project that will get you results that you can base a decision off of.
Let’s say if it’s content marketing you’re exploring, rather than going out and starting a blog and giving it six months to see if you reach certain goals, you might try guest posting one or two places, or you might start a Medium publication and grab other folks contributions, so it’s less of a time commitment or cost for you up front. Start small, know what will be a significant result for you and, then, test against that result.
Another way of doing it is observing what’s working for others in your space because it’s almost like learning what they have already validated. There’s risk in that, of course. You’re borrowing tactics and, potentially, flooding the market with similar type stuff and just jumping into a place that’s very competitive already. But, that is a way to short-cut it a little bit, if you see stuff working.
You could also look outside your own industry, for instance, not industry, outside your own market. For us, we might not copy what Hootsuite and Sprout Social are doing.
We might look to a company like Intercom or Hotjar or someone else that’s a tech startup, or a marketing tool, but it’s not a social media marketing tool. We can borrow tactics from there and know that they’ve already been validated to a degree. There are a couple different ways to make the starting process a bit shorter.
Louis: What about the skills that you might have or the interests that you might have? How do you factor that into testing new things?
Kevan: Yeah, that’s a good one. I think for marketers it’s almost a requirement now that you are quite generalist with a lot of skills. Especially, if you’re a marketer on a smaller team. Or if you’re not a generalist with a lot of skills that you’re open to learning quickly, or you’re open to finding solutions quickly.
We try not to limit ourselves based on the skills that we have on the team. We try to approach it from a mindset of, if we think it might be effective, let’s gain those skills, let’s learn those skills and figure it out.
For instance, we don’t have anyone on the team who’s an ads expert. We don’t really do much in terms of ads. But we wanted to explore that channel recently. We had someone on the team who was very good at jumping into something brand new and learning it. We had him jump into that and learn it and get a base-level understanding of whether this channel makes sense for us or not, and it worked.
Kevan: The channel didn’t work, but he worked in figuring it out for us.
Louis: Yeah, ads are getting more and more expensive. For this year then, what are the top three plans for Buffer?
Kevan: We’re in this cool season of marketing life at Buffer where we’re doing some really big, foundational things to our product. We’re excited to get to the point where we can start shouting about all that cool stuff that’s happening there.
In the meantime, it’s a season of life for us where we can be the ones shipping stuff and launching things and making some noise. Engineering is marketing is one of the channels that you’ll read about in the Traction book. But that’s one that we are going to dig into a bit more in the coming months. Hopefully, ship some new tools and some new features. Probably, stand-alone things, stand-alone apps.
We’re definitely going to do more on the content side of things. It’s going to look a bit different, so we have a podcast that’s been growing pretty well. We have a new strategy on our blog. We’re going to expand into a content library that people can go to for resources, turn the existing blog into more of a magazine publication-style content. That’s a pretty exciting one for us.
Then we’re also exploring the referral, the viral ambassador side of things. We technically are starting an ambassador program at the moment. But again, doing that minimum viable test route and seeing if this idea makes sense, or if we need to try a different type of idea. We’re in the process of discovering what that looks like for us.
Louis: Exciting. Switching gears now, because that sounds all nice. But, I want to go back to your career in the past. I know you’ve been sharing a few struggles, a few challenges with me already, which is nice.
But if you had to pinpoint the biggest marketing fuck-up of your career, the one that you remember, the big lesson you learned from that, and it can be three months ago, it could be six years ago, what would it be?
Kevan: Oh, I can think of a lot. A very small one, well, I don’t know if it was small, I sent out our CEO’s home address in the footer of an email to all of our customers once. That was not great. His parents got a few notes but that was all.
I don’t know if this one counts. This is a very, one of those strategy-artsy-things I don’t really understand. But not having the same strategy on the marketing side, or not interpreting strategy the same way on the marketing side as we do on the product company side.
We recently went to more of a funnel approach, or I guess a funnel approach to how we assign different metrics to different areas of the team. The Pirate funnel, for instance, marketing owns awareness and acquisition, and product owns activation and retention and revenue.
I took that very literally. I was studying number targets, and you’ve heard how I set number targets, so I don’t know how literally that actually was. But mine was very numbers-focused and theirs was more vision-focused. Just that generic split, I recognize now as a mistake. Where I should have spent more time getting on the same page.
I’ll give you one more. I could keep going for a while. But one more was, I think in the content marketing days–I was deep in content marketing maybe two, three, four years ago. Things have changed a little bit since. But it’s a competitive space when you’re trying to grow a blog and get attention to your content. There’s a lot of less than ideal things that you can do to get the word out there.
I did some things I’m not super proud of, like pitch guest posts or invite guest posts solely for the purposes of a backlink. I was very tempted to buy followers at one point just to goose that. I was going to write a blog post about it. I think my conscience felt okay since I was going to write about it.
Just like these shortcuts, I think the shortcuts are always so tempting when it comes to these highly competitive channels. I’ve definitely fallen for a couple before.
Louis: Tell me more, because that’s part of the other question I wanted to ask you in terms of the sleazy, shady marketing tactics you might have used in the past. Pitching guest blogs, so you can get a backlink. You would treat that as being sleazy, and a lot of people would say that’s quite smart. I appreciate that.
What other stuff? Buying followers as well, that’s pretty sleazy, all right. What other things have you tried or thought of trying in this dark area of marketing?
Kevan: Well, I’m lucky that we don’t do sales at Buffer. And we don’t really do lead capture, lead gen, lead nurture, lead scoring. We don’t really do much with leads. I’ll just start off by saying that has probably spared me from lots of mistakes that would have been perfect for this section. There’s lots of different lead things that can happen.
But even with that, I’ve either been tempted or I’ve done it. I’m sure I’ve done it, just not treating our email lists with a lot of respect, treating them more as these transactional lemons to squeeze more and more out of.
That can take the form of a lot of different things. It can take the form of us running our list against our user list and finding which ones are not Buffer users. And then blasting them with CTAs with no real value-add in that email. It can be using that list to try to send traffic to webinars or these co-marketed things that we are–
You might have noticed this from our chat, I’m not a super pushy person. or at least I don’t think I’m a super pushy person. When I’m connected with someone who’s pushy, I’m a people pleaser. I want to please them.
Maybe, three years ago, you would have received an email from me asking you to sign up for a webinar, solely because I wanted to please this other person that I was working with on a webinar. In the grand scheme of things, it probably just felt like a normal webinar invitation. But that’s not the right motivation to be sending email stuff out. I’m going to try to meet a quota for someone else that doesn’t even work at Buffer.
There’s a few. I can keep going if you want, but maybe I’ll give you another one. Well, let’s see. I don’t know, this wasn’t black hat at the time or bad at the time. But we would heavily promote our blog posts on Twitter and other social media. I think the ratio–and we talked about this on the blog–the proper ratio of promoting content on your social media feed is like, let’s say, nine of everyone else’s content to every one piece of your content.
We completely did it backwards. We did one of everyone else’s and nine of ours. Which worked and was great, and we wrote about it and told people, “Hey, try this out.”
I don’t know if I regret saying that, or if I’d fully backtrack on it. But, looking back now, I can see that wouldn’t fit the strategy that we have at the time like we have at the present day for our social media accounts.
It might have made more sense back in the day when social media was a bit different. But just that very nature of flipping things to be so self-promotional I think is a thing I would not do today. I’d hope I wouldn’t do it today.
Louis: Well, I can definitely put you in the white hats marketing section or box, should I say. Because all the stuff you shared, they’re probably gray hat. But even then I would say–
Kevan: Not that bad?
Louis: They’re all right. I can-
Kevan: Well, that’s good.
Louis: Yeah, I can tell you a few other things we’ve seen. Yeah, there’s just no other … There’s just plenty of other black hats, sleazy, aggressive tactics out there, and the ones you mention are definitely not that much out there. They’re not-
Kevan: I’ll clear my conscience then. That’s great.
Louis: Yeah, they’re not good marketing per se. They’re not the perfect, good marketing. They’re not terrible either. But thanks for sharing all of those, because that was quite insightful to understand more of who you are, and why you are doing certain things.
You seem to have a very good understanding of who you are as a person. Maybe that explains, the mention you did coaching, counseling before, and it sounds like you probably got a lot of insight out of those. I don’t want to extrapolate. Maybe that’s something that, would you encourage people and listeners to get a coach to talk to someone, a therapist, a counselor?
Kevan: Absolutely. I was really lucky too. This could be–if you don’t want to go that route–just having management be a key thing for your company. I was really lucky to have a wonderful manager when I started at Buffer and taught me a ton of different things about life, marketing, and all this stuff.
I continued to be managed really well. I think I’ve learned that myself that I take it very seriously, the privilege of managing other people. Sometimes I may treat my manager as a therapist in some ways, which he might not like.
But there’s also going outside the company for therapy or coaching. Just like self-awareness is so important I think in life and in marketing too. It helps you understand yourself, and it also helps you empathize with others.
Louis: Yeah, absolutely, I concur. I talked to a counselor recently about my anxiety that I suffer from off and on. It definitely helps. I know not everyone has the means to pay for a therapist or a counselor. But I would encourage if you’re feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, to talk about it to someone. Whoever it is–family, colleague, friends, because that helps a lot.
Louis: Switching gears to something a bit less serious, should I say, but what do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 10 years, 20 years, 50 years?
Kevan: In terms of hard skills, I think we talked a bit about this idea of being a generalist or at least being, having a growth mindset when it comes to trying new things. That’s a super key mental state to be in.
Specifically, when it comes to skills, I think skills like basic HTML CSS is something great to know at this stage. If you want to get even deeper into coding that can be a great skill to have as a marketer.
Data analysis and understanding data at a theoretical level so that you’re drawing the right conclusions from the data that you see. But also, from maybe even learning SQL or learning some different data analysis techniques can be really useful. Then the generic stuff too–like storytelling, writing, all those good things are great to have.
Then to take it up a level, I’d probably say a couple of things that will set you up on a great path is to really bring empathy into the work that you do and to think about the things that you’re doing, how are they being received by others. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
You yourself get tons of marketing coming your way all the time. You experience this stuff as a consumer. What feels good to you, what doesn’t feel good to you, and extrapolate that to the work that you do.
It’s interesting the question about, what will help you in 10 years? I almost want to answer with that question. If you think 10 years ahead, I think that is one of the most helpful things. If you’re always thinking a bit more long term.
For instance, I’m doing some very tactical work at the moment. I’m helping to try to grow one of our blogs, and I’m just in it. My head is down, and I have no idea what’s happening all around me. I’m going down these wormholes. It’s like, “Oh, well, I’m never going to grow this, because this thing isn’t like this, and this isn’t working. Let me try this.”
Then I need someone else to pull me out of it and think, “Oh, well, you don’t have to be checking the numbers daily, because they’re not going. Who knows what conclusions you can draw from checking them daily. Check them monthly, check them every 14 days. Zoom out a little bit and see the aggregate of the work that you’re doing.”
That’s been super helpful, just to have that longer-term perspective. Which I know not everyone has the luxury of doing that if you’re needing to grow today. But if at all possible, pick your head up and look out. It can be really useful.
Louis: Yeah, absolutely. What are the top three resources you would recommend to our listeners? It could be anything like podcast, books, anything.
Kevan: From like a motivational standpoint, I like the concept of just doing the work. If you want to become a better marketer, if you want ways to grow, just start trying stuff, get a side hustle, have a little sandbox that you can play around in.
Then, when it comes to the tangible things, I’d say the Reforge website is great. It’s a website run by Brian Balfour. The marketer, the marketing stuff is done Susan Su. They have a great newsletter. They have great blog content, and they also have a seasonal maybe every couple months, twice-a-year course that you can apply to which is great.
There’s an awesome book called Anything You Want by Derek Sivers, and it’s about business building, but I took a lot of marketing insights from it. I think his approach is very unique and, definitely, has that empathy element to it.
There’s a cool series called Forget the Funnel by Georgiana Laudi and Claire Suellentrop. They’re two wonderful friends and great marketers. They have a really cool perspective that they bring to marketing too which I think is close to yours, Louis. A bit of non-traditional marketing advice that works and gets great results and feels good to everyone.
Louis: Yeah, feels good to everyone. I actually met Claire Suellentrop recently in Dublin. She went to the conference called Learn Inbound. I met her for coffee. I interviewed her on the podcast as well, and I was on the Forget the Funnel episode talking about marketing strategy actually a few months ago. Yes, I would recommend Forget the Funnel, absolutely.
The book you mentioned, can you repeat the title again, please?
Kevan: Yes, Anything You Want by Derek Sivers.
Louis: Never heard of it, so I’ll definitely check it out. Thanks so much for sharing those resources. Thanks also for being open and super transparent about struggles and the mistakes you’ve made. And the way you pick goals for your company and for marketing. I really appreciate that. I know listeners will probably like that very much too.
Before I let you go, where can listeners connect with you and learn more from you?
Kevan: Yeah, so I have a website kevanlee.com. It’s K-E-V-A-N-L-E-E, and I’m on Twitter at Kevan Lee. You can message me on LinkedIn, and then I’m occasionally on our Buffer blogs. You can go to Buffer.com to find more about Buffer and about our content.
Louis: Okay, man. Thanks again for your time and thanks for all of your insights.
Kevan: Great, thanks, Louis.
I’m a no-fluff marketer living in Dublin, Ireland (but yeah, I’m French).
I believe you can treat people the way you’d like to be treated and still generate results without using sleazy, aggressive, hack-y marketing. This is why I’ve started Everyone Hates Marketers – a no-fluff, actionable marketing podcast – as a side project in April 2017.
I’m also the Content Lead at Hotjar – a powerful way to analyse people’s behaviour on your website or app and understand how you can improve their experience.