Entering the Product-First Era Why the Product and Not Marketing is your Startup's Silver Bullet

It is without a doubt that we are entering the product-first era.

The era in which the quality of your product will be the #1 lever of growth for your business.

Simply put, bringing a new product to the market won’t be enough anymore.

And, “silver bullet marketing” won’t help you either.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the best product always wins.

But, to survive in the product-first era, you need to have a product-first mindset.

Want to know how we got here and how this era will look like?

Keep reading.

Contents

Chapter 1: How Marketing Looked Like for Different Generations

Chapter 2: Entering the Product-First Era

Chapter 3: How to Build a Product-Driven Organization

Chapter 4: Last Thoughts

Chapter 1: How Marketing Looked Like for Different Generations

The first marketing efforts started the time of the industrial revolution.

Mass production raised the need for mass advertising.

Simply put: someone had to buy all these products.

The ads back at that time were based on two things:

  • Smart taglines,
  • Great copy.

These two things were enough to sell since consumers were not as educated they are today.

Here are some ads from the 1920s and 1930s:

These first marketing and advertising efforts were very successful for one more reason: people were not exposed to the same number of ads as they do today.

This means that they were more “open” to advertising messages, and more willing to listen to what companies have to say.

Fast forward a couple of decades, companies were still using advertising as a way to reach consumers, and sell to them.

Here are some ads from the 1960s and 1970s:

Have no doubt about it: the ads of that time were truly ingenious.

And, the fact that were successful—in terms of revenue generated—makes them even more appealing.

Baby boomers were the generation mainly exposed in the ad messages of that time.

What is really interesting, is the fact that most baby boomers—people who were born between 1946 and 1964—feel nostalgic about the ads of that time.

Also, there seems to be an emotional attachment between them, and the products of that time.

For example, many people of that age still believe that their “Luckys” won’t harm them, since “the doctor says it’s ok.”

Lucky Strike Ads
Image Source: eBay

Thus, ads at that time heavily influenced the way people:

  • Think about products,
  • Feel about products.

A few years later—in the early 90s—the internet came along and changed everything.

A simple tagline was not enough to sell anymore; and, people started searching for products and experiences online.

Some of the biggest players in eCommerce were born at that time:

Amazon Website 1994
Image Source: dailymail.co.uk

The generation mainly exposed to the advertising and marketing messages of that era was Generation X. (People who were born between the early-to-mid 1960s to the 1980s.)

Right around that time, the first traffic acquisition actions started from internet companies.

Here is the first banner ad ever created by the Hotwire—a digital offset of the infamous Wired magazine—on October 27, 1994:

The First Ever Banner Ad

It is without a doubt that the internet revolutionized the way new products were introduced to the market.

However, the best product wasn’t always the most successful one.

Simply put, marketing and advertising were still influencing consumers’ perception of quality.

But, along with the internet came one more thing: over-commercialization.

People were—and still are—bombarded by the hundreds advertising and marketing messages they are exposed to daily.

Customer acquisition has become more expensive, and marketing teams have become more aggressive in their effort to attract new customers.

  • Social media
  • Online ads
  • Content creation
  • Referrals
  • Affiliates

Companies are using all these tools and channels to get traction and turn a small percentage of that traction into paying customers.

The advertising and marketing landscape has started to change, and marketers have realized one simple thing: that product-first companies are the ones that usually win.

Of course, this means that having a better product is essential, but it’s not enough.

What are the characteristics of the “product-first era” and why it’s important for businesses?

Find out in the next chapter.

Chapter 2: Entering the Product-First Era

According to ProfitWell:

“Overall CAC is up nearly 50% over the past five years.”

Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) Has Increased
Image Source: ProfitWell

This means that marketing teams are struggling to find ways to acquire new customers, keeping the balance between the Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC), and the Lifetime Value of the Customer (LTV).

Also, something significant is that Ad Blocking penetration increased year-after-year.

In the USA alone, Ad Blocking penetration rate has increased by more than 10% between 2014 and 2019:

Ad Blocking Penetration Rates (USA)
Image Source: Statista

So, two things are clear by now:

  1. That is more difficult (and more expensive) to acquire a new customer,
  2. That consumers—potential customers—are less willing to hear what we have to say.

All these indicate the need for moving towards a more “product-first mentality.”

The product and NOT marketing should be our primary concern.

Product-first companies are the ones that will survive and move forward.

The reason is simple: people are tired of smart taglines and nice ads; they want more substance.

For example, SEO software Ahrefs manage to grow their ARR by +65% year-over-year:

  • Without VC funding,
  • With a team of 30,
  • Without any salespeople.
Ahrefs Year-Over-Year Growth
Image Source: Medium

How did they manage to do it?

By focusing on the product, and the value it adds to their users.

However, most companies find it difficult to market their new products or to increase their current customer base because their marketing efforts are not effective.

If only that was true.

As Slack’s CEO Stewart Butterfield, put it a while back:

“… even the best slogans, ads, landing pages, PR campaigns, etc., will fall down if they are not supported by the experience people have when they hit our site, when they sign up for an account, when they first begin using the product and when they start using it day in, day out.”

There is no doubt that we are heading to a product/service-first era.

Be careful though: the best product is not the one that always wins.

Having said that, if you have a better product than your competitors, and wait for new customers to come in without any effort whatsoever, then you are in the wrong direction.

Marketing will always be necessary, but in the context of a stellar product, and an excellent experience for the users.

In that product-first era:

  • Product—and not marketing—is the No.1 lever of growth,
  • Users expect great experiences, both online and offline,
  • Having a great product is NOT enough.

You may be wondering:

“Ok, but, how can I build and run a product-first company?”

In the next chapter, I will give you some guidelines on how you can achieve exactly that.

Chapter 3: How to Build a Product-Driven Organization

Building a product-first company is not easy.

When I say “product-first,” I don’t mean that you have to add one feature after another.

After all, the fact that a product has many features is not an indicator of a great product.

Adopt a product-first mindset

It’s easy to say, but extremely difficult to implement.

Adopting a product-first mindset is the first thing you should do.

Here are some ways to achieve that:

  1. Empower communication between different teams within your organization (i.e., your marketing team and your product team)
  2. Have your sales team work in customer support, so that they are aware of the friction points that current users have to deal with
  3. Do NOT prioritize product development tasks that require much time to implement
  4. Find ways to gather as much customer feedback as possible, before launching new products or adding features to your product
  5. Allow everyone in the team to contribute with ideas that could potentially improve your product
  6. Hold bi-weekly or monthly product reviews, where you will evaluate your product’s current status, and measure the value that your customers get
  7. Run user experience tests before every big launch or marketing campaign, to make sure you know the friction points of your UX

As you can imagine, adopting a product-first mindset is more than just holding a product review meeting every other week or every month.

Above all, you should get everyone aligned with your product vision.

You should always stress the importance of building something that will actually deliver the value it promises to your customers.

This is the only way of building a product-first organization.

Start with the product; everything else will follow.

Chapter 4: Last Thoughts

There you have it.

Now, you know how we’ve transitioned from traditional marketing strategies to marketing that is focused on the product.

You also have a handful of tips when it comes to building a product-first organization.

Forgive me for repeating myself, but if your company is not moving forward, you don’t have a problem with your marketing.

As Tim Soulo, the CMO and product advisor at Ahrefs puts it:

“Most stagnant companies don’t have a marketing problemthey have a product problem.”

Focus on the product and the value it adds to your customers.

But, be aware that you also have to communicate that value to:

  • The right people,
  • At the right time,
  • Without being intrusive.

What are your thoughts on the product-first era? Are you paying enough attention to your product, and how do you communicate that value to your customers and prospects?

Let me know by leaving a comment below!

About the Author: Aggelos M

Aggelos M
I have over 8 years experience in Digital and Growth marketing. Currently, running Growth Sandwich, a London based Product Growth Lab. Before turning in Growth Marketing and Product Growth, I had the chance to pass by head marketing and head digital positions in Athens and London, work with numerous tech startups but also build and run companies. In my spare time, I am consulting ambitious startups about their Growth and Business strategy.