Engineers As Marketeers, Marketeers as Engineers

What’s interesting about this weekend’s debate over Fred Wilson’s contention that “marketing is what you do when your product or service sucks” is that it re-enacts an old battle: engineers’ wariness toward marketing, and marketing folks’ distrust of engineers’ build-it-and-they-will-come naivete.

But the truth is that the battle-lines between the two sides just don’t exist anymore. Some of the most effective marketing is built into products rather than applied after the fact. Just look around:

  • Zynga builds games using Facebook, so it’s easy for players to invite their friends.
  • Cubeduel asks users to “share the awesomeness,” via contacts on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
  • Yelp’s feedback system encourages reviewers with praise like “Funny,” “Useful,” or “Cool,” which encourages more reviews, and better search-engine placement.
  • YouTube makes it easy to embed its video anywhere on the web, extending its reach far beyond
  • Urbanspoon automatically links back to blogs that cite Urbanspoon reviews, updating a leader-board of the bloggers who have written the most reviews. This creates more buzz in the blogosphere.
  • OkCupid systematically captures stats on people’s dating patterns for use in blog posts that generate massive publicity.
  • Every website on the planet is now built to maximize links and keywords for search-engine placement.

Marketing gurus like Rand Fishkin and Dave McClure who violently disagree with Fred are the same ones helping companies re-design their products, not their marketing campaigns. Engineering gurus like Paul Graham and Hadi Partovi are obsessed with customer acquisition, not better algorithms. And the best entrepreneurs are now product-marketing centaurs who develop their products from the start to be viral, to be search-engines friendly, to be social.

This integration of marketing with product development has been a long time in coming. Engineers have become more self-sufficient and entrepreneurial, updating their products every day or every week in a way that brings them closer to the rhythms of the market. Marketeers have become more analytical and product-focused. It is much more likely today that the two took the same math classes for the first few years of college.

All of Fred’s critics who insist that the sizzle is more important than steak have hardly noticed that the steak is increasingly made out of sizzle (a development I’m not entirely comfy with). The modern-day version of “the medium is the message” might be that “the product is the promotion.”

Now of course, there are other forms of marketing which have very little to do with product development, and those are also important. But the folks who are defending marketing as a separate discipline are the ones most likely to approach it in real life as a joint effort.


  • Blake Williams

    “…have hardly noticed that the steak is increasingly made out of sizzle” Can't wait to drop that in someone's lap this week.

    • GlennKelman

      Aw gee, thanks!

  • znmeb

    Uh … no! The best engineers are disciplined professionals with impeccable time management skills who *listen* to marketing. But unless the *customer* is himself an engineer. you simply *must* have marketing and sales professionals to translate between the customer and the engineer. You need sales to prospect and *qualify* accounts, otherwise the “engineers who are doing marketing” piss away their time building stuff for themselves.

    • GlennKelman

      But I like it when engineers build stuff for themselves, at least in the early days.

    • niallsmart

      Sure, nothing the world needs less than product engineers pissing away their time on things like Twitter, Facebook, Quora, HipMunk, DropBox, AirBnB, etc.

  • honam

    Great post. The best brands start with the consumer experience, which is deeply rooted in the product. I think it doesn't have to involve engineers or high tech. Take Cirque du Soleil as an example. They have delivered a consistent experience to consumers over a long time. Now, when they come up with a new show, most people just sign up to see it because they enjoyed the last few shows and expect a certain type of entertainment (well trained performers, amazing acrobatics, choreography, visual flair, etc). As a result, their customer acquisition costs are much lower than ever before and lower than that of competitors. Same applies to many other brands. Apple is perhaps the best example of a trusted brand in tech today. People expect a certain type of product and experience using their products (from opening up the packaging to actually using it). When they launched the iPad, people expected a certain level of fit and finish, ease of use and “magical” consumer experience. If Apple had failed to deliver then their brand would get tarnished and consumers would be less excited to try out the next new, new thing from Apple. They could not get away, for example, delivering an unpolished product like Android. It would ruin Apple's brand. Yet, such a product does not ruin Google's brand because it is consistent with their brand image – cutting edge products for tech savvy people vs. mainstream users.

  • Mark Benz

    Agree great post. Honam describes brand/product recognition, not marketing or engineering. Correct that CIrque for example could have near zero customer acq costs, but choose to advertise a bit (at least in vegas) anyway. Word of mouth is all they need. At the other extreeme is VISA, who really need no ads at all but continue to spend on advertising and product placement like there's no tomorrow. As an engineer, I see their waste as ridiculous. Show me the return on that investment vs doing nothing at all!