[Editor’s Note: This is a new series of marketing-focused Q&A’s with Triangle tech leaders by Frank Pollock. Frank is the President of The Pioneer Group, a marketing consultancy, who had previous senior marketing roles with Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills and Frito-Lay.]
I recently had a chance to sit down with Dave Marcello, the VP of Marketing at ReverbNation, an online marketing platform for musicians and bands. Dave is an outgoing, charismatic guy who has lots of opinions about marketing for early-stage companies. As I explained the purpose of the interview he jumped in and began sharing his experiences.
I am writing this column to help marketers at early-stage companies and…
I know of so many startups that have failed, and they fail for two reasons. The first is a lack of focus and the second is that they never figured out customer acquisition/marketing. Marketing is part art and part science and amazingly I still run into the attitude that anyone can be a marketer.
Marketing isn’t like coding where I can go to boot camp and learn how to write code before shipping something. In the minds of a lot of founders marketing is this vague category that covers so many things. For whatever reason too many founders don’t realize how challenging marketing is until their business is floundering.
How did you become a marketer?
I was always creative and a very good writer. After I graduated I went to work for a lifestyle marketing agency and we managed sponsorships for large brands. At about 29 I realized that I couldn’t go to the Super Bowl and work 16 hours a day for a week straight any more. I was in a young man’s business so I took a step back and began working with small companies on the side. As I worked with my side-hustle clients I got a chance to do a number of things including building websites, customer acquisition, guerilla marketing and branding on a limited budget. Those projects helped me transition from a general marketer into a creative marketer.
How do you define “creative marketer”?
It’s something of a loaded term. Some people think marketers are just sitting around brainstorming campaigns and that we are all idea guys. For me, the creativity is in how you use the science. Marketing is a mixture of art and science. If you take away one of the elements then marketing just won’t be as effective. You can have the science and the measurement but If you aren’t artistic in the way you apply the data to your marketing efforts then you only get 60-70% of the value. You can also be creative when you choose to not follow the data. We ran a split test last week and the results were “even-steven.” We chose the test that didn’t finish as high because of intuition and flexibility in our planned promotions.
And, of course, you have to be creative in creating campaigns and content. When I started at my company the website read like engineers had written the copy. They focused on the features because engineers are typically product-driven.
I changed our messaging and our ads. One of the ads I ran didn’t talk about the product at all. Everything in the digital ad world changes so quickly that a campaign that worked last week stopped working this week. I really have to come up with new ideas all the time.
So you left event management and what was next?
I started with small businesses and that led me to the startup world. I just really tried to immerse myself in the community. One day I was in an online forum and I met Mike Hoy, who is now a training manager at Pendo. He had a small music project and I started sharing some of my ideas with him. We eventually got on the phone and really hit it off. I sent him a list of ideas and we tried a few of them. In a matter of a few weeks we had some light traction and the company became BoomboxFM. We bootstrapped a company that was basically Spotify’s discover feature and we did it over email.
We did a little bit of marketing but we didn’t spend any money. Fortunately, one of our first 300 signups was an editor at LifeHacker and he wrote a front-page article about us. That post got us 5,500 sign-ups in one day!! Throughout the day I was struggling with the excitement of the sign-ups and the realization that the sign-ups didn’t mean that we have a business, or that we had a customer-acquisition model. I used the momentum to get more PR by posting on a couple of other sites and doing some interviews. While the PR kept us going we continued to work on the acquisition model.
We eventually decided to pursue Boombox and I moved down to Durham from New York to go through the Startup Factory. Mike and his family put me up in their home even though I had only met him once. His family is absolutely amazing!!
While we were in the Startup Factory I took the three months to learn the marketing tools that I didn’t know.
Let’s take a step back. You have user acquisition, PR and product development going here. Let’s take a moment and focus on user acquisition and PR.
Okay, we didn’t have a business model at this point so we started with the hypothesis that the company could be a media property. That meant that we had to get as many eyes on the platform as possible and I had to acquire them as cheaply as possible. Our first goal was to get 100K users. I didn’t know what would work so I experimented with everything. It was like digging for oil and I was testing out the soil in 30 spots. I tried to do things that didn’t scale very well early on and I used a process of elimination to find the marketing efforts that worked best. We did everything imaginable… email, referral, paid ads. I advertised everywhere you could think of. I even used a tear away flyer at a music festival in Chapel Hill. The headline was “Free Kittens” but the copy was “just kidding, free music.” That was one of the best converting experiments that we ran but it couldn’t scale.
One of the most interesting things that happened was with AdWords. It was the last platform that I tried because I thought that it would be too expensive. Spoiler alert: We killed it in AdWords.
What does “killing it “mean?
At our height we were acquiring a user for $0.32, which was important for us. We were planning on raising money after the accelerator so we had to refine our acquisition model. I think we spent 70% of our money from TSF on marketing and the bulk was on AdWords. We wanted to be able to tell an investor that we have a fire going and his investment would be for gas to go on the fire.
Boombox didn’t work out, so what were you doing between Boombox and ReverbNation?
After TSF, Mike and I tried to raise some capital. We knew that we might have some issues raising money and we were thinking of shutting it down. In NYC I met the founder of AudioKite. The company sold fan feedback and data analytics to artists and labels. He was a developer who didn’t have the marketing chops that I do so I started helping him out. I worked on all of the marketing elements and we went to a lot of events. I also helped him build out the enterprise version since we were really selling consumer research at a low price.
We didn’t want to raise capital so we focused on bootstrapping the company. As we built the business we learned how to pitch other companies on using our service. Eventually, we landed a couple of sizable projects in the $15K range. That led us to look at partnerships, and to begin working with ReverbNation. We spoke to them about white-labeling us and after starting our partnership they acquired us.
You’ve been in this gig at ReverbNation for two years. What are you working on and what is the company working on?
I came into a company that was 10 years old and they had one marketer who was just out of college. Our conversations really came down to asking: What do you believe marketing is? ReverbNation was really built as a product and tech company. The company was started just as MySpace was dying and before Facebook so their marketing was giving away free hosting for artists. I quickly realized that they didn’t have a refined acquisition model. They had never even tried paid ads. A former employee had tried some AdWords but it was clear after looking at the account that he was a tech guy. There was no creativity in his messaging but his account structure was meticulously executed. He never got any traction and so the company leadership didn’t really believe in paid ads. I trained the junior marketer who was already on staff in AdWords and he really went after it.
One of the things that marketers have to appreciate at companies like ReverbNation is that you are always selling the idea of marketing. I have to ask for dev time so I need to convince the VP of Product that what I am proposing is worth pulling devs off a project that will improve the product to put them on a marketing project. There’s a lot involved there. I had to build small wins to gain their trust and maintain that momentum
We are still doing things that they should have been tried nine years ago. The company is 10 years old but we are only in our second year in marketing. I have access to a great team so now I can run a variety of experiments. With our site traffic I can run split tests and have a result within a week or two. The leadership team pushes us to be entrepreneurial and to constantly experiment.
Okay, that sounds exciting. What’s in your tech stack?
That’s an interesting one. When I came in we were deep in MixPanel, especially for conversions. We use Google Analytics, WordPress for our blog and Inspectlet. Inspectlet has been huge for us. I can use the different tools to get a full picture. With Google Analytics and Mixpanel I can see how a visitor got to a certain page but, let’s say that we redesign the site, Inspectlet will let me see if visitors are confused through the heat map. It’s amazing what you can learn just by watching a mouse.
We also do some UX work. We will invite local artists to come in so we can observe them. I will ask them to perform tasks on the website and I can watch them as they go through the process.
I live in those primarily. One big change is we are using Zoho for a new project and we didn’t need a CRM for ReverbNation.
What is the new project?
Right after I started with the company we started experimenting again. The CEO (Mike Doernberg) looks at ReverbNation as a group of people with talent and skills that should be leveraged. After experimenting with several ideas we started a company called PlayMetrics. It’s an application to manage youth, club soccer teams. It started out as a performance-testing platform but we quickly realized that the teams need to operate as a business and they lacked the tools. It has everything you need to run your club with roles for everyone. We started building it for a local club and we shared it with a few others.
I built the brand from the ground up. I spent months conducting research to develop the messaging so we can stand out. That led to the “Club Operating System.” It’s not quite creating a segment but it’s pretty close. Using that term scared people within the organization because we are marketing to soccer coaches, not tech guys. The teams were using multiple tools to do things like schedule, plan practices and communicate. Eventually, a system like that will break down and so we are hammering people over the head with the idea of “everything in one”.
We launched the site about two weeks before a major trade show that we used as our coming-out party. I also started using PPC (pay-per-click) ads to build some awareness. The campaign started right before Christmas and in the first two weeks we had 45 demo requests.
Dave, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. Good luck with Playmetrics.