A Geek's Guide To Hiring Marketing People

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A Geek's Guide To Hiring Marketing People


The following is a guest post by Jason Cohen.

Interviewing developers is easy.

OK, not easy. You have to generate resumes, you have to sift through the deluge of candidates, you have to pound your network continuously, you have to develop a phone-screen, you have to schedule interviews, you have to ask them questions and get them to write code and be fair.jobs hirint classified

But still, you're a great developer and you've worked with enough other developers that you can tell pretty quickly whether someone else is also a great developer. Do they say the right things? Do they make reasonable mistakes? Do they solve easy problems quickly? Do they give up? You can figure that out.

Not so with marketing folks. What do you ask someone in an interview to determine whether they have the ability to spread the word about your still-v0.9-quality product? How do you determine whether they can not just pull in potential customers but make them truly successful and thrilled with v0.9 while digging up the new features that will actually result in more sales?

For an engineer like me, interviewing marketing people is like interviewing a lawyer: You know there are vast differences in skill level but you don't know how to probe them to determine their skill.

But there's hope. Although you can't ask them to "solve" marketing problems as you would programming questions, there's certainly something you can detect: Do they have the attitude and skillset needed to succeed in a startup environment?

So here's a list of important qualities. Some of these you can ask about directly, others you'll have to intuit from your conversation.

  • Social Media doer. Everyone says social media is important, but does the candidate actually do it? Does she have a sizable Twitter following? Does he have experience getting 20,000 fans for a Facebook page? Does she have a quality blog about marketing? Did he devise and execute a blogger outreach campaign that actually worked?
  • Frugality. Traditional, big-company mantra is "You have to spend money to make money." It's no longer true. Now it's "You can spend money and you might make money." Of course spending money isn't automatically bad either; what's bad is if you don't measure whether the money is getting a return.
  • Customer-lover. A startup lives and dies by its customers. Not some marketer's initial conception of who the customer should be and what the customer should want, or even the developer's conception of which features should be useful, but what actually works in practice. That means the marketing person should be spending as much time as possible talking to customers. If you don't have many customers, it's their job to reach out and start the conversation. It's even their job to find potential customers who didn't buy and talk to them too. Make sure they drive everything from customers, not the other way around.
  • Humility. Startup marketing means working with unknowns. The product changes daily, the definition of the perfect customer changes as new data appears, marketing messages are invented and discarded, and just when you think you've got the right combination the world changes around you. Anyone who thinks they have the answers isn't paying attention. Anyone who thinks something that worked five years ago will automatically work again is wrong. So you need someone willing to admit what he doesn't know.
  • Domain Knowledge. This isn't a requirement, but it sure helps. If you yourself don't have good domain expertise (i.e. you're your own customer, or you worked in the industry), then this becomes more useful.
  • Can distinguish pain from feature. Customers often ask for features, and that's good. But you can't just implement everything they want, how they want it, because they don't have the big picture, they don't have to support everyone else's user-cases, they don't know what's difficult to implement, and they don't know what's idiosyncratic. So the marketer's job is to dig past the surface level "feature request" into the real information: What is the customer really trying to do? What pain is the customer trying to address? That information is critical, and bringing that back to development is one of the most valuable things she can do for the company.
  • Willingness to learn detail. It's a huge red flag whenever someone says "Every company is essentially the same -- we're selling widgets." This is a sign the person isn't interested in understanding your market, your customers, or your product. Fatal Fail.
  • Devotion to measurement. Few people truly embrace measurement. After all, if you don't measure a marketing campaign or a sales funnel, it's easy to explain away any problems and take credit for any successes. If you're measuring, though, you get credit for the successes but the losses are just on you. But you're a startup, so "failure" is only a failure if you refuse to recognize it and do something about it. Of course most marketing efforts won't be super-successful! That's OK -- what's not OK is to blindly forge ahead instead of identifying which ones to keep and which to cancel.
  • A/B tests and similar. A corollary to measurement is a desire for continuous testing like A/B splits for advertisements and web pages. If this people loves "strategy meetings" more than just "trying stuff and seeing what sticks," that's a problem. The goal isn't to be the one who came up with the best idea, it's to find the best idea through any means necessary.
  • Respected by developers. Traditionally developers and marketing/sales have an unhealthy mutual disrespect. Perhaps rightly so, often. But there's no room for that nonsense in a startup. If the marketer isn't a culture-match with the developers, it's not going to work. That doesn't mean they need to be able to write code, but for example someone who loves metrics and wants to talk about statistical significance as it applies to advertisement is probably going to fit in with engineers.
  • Branding is irrelevant. This often comes in the form of "We didn't know whether the magazine ad / tradeshow resulted in sales, but it was good branding / it got our name out there / people will remember us." Coca-Cola needs people to have a warm-fuzzy when staring at a shelfful of sugar water; you just need sales. "Branding" cannot be measured, so it has no place for you. The only branding you need is a strong culture that leeks into everything from the web site to follow-up emails to tech support. A culture, not a "corporate image." A marketer who ascribes value to branding isn't spending time on what's important to you.

P.S. This article was inspired by this question and these answers from Answers.OnStartups.com -- the Q&A forum associated with this blog. Come check it out! We solve problems like these every day.

What do you think? Are these effective in finding good marketing people? What other attributes or questions can you ask? Please leave a comment and join the conversation.

Oh, and if you're interested in more on this topic, there's a chapter in the wildly popular book "Inbound Marketing" from Dharmesh (host of this blog).  Might be worth checking out.

Posted by Jason Cohen on Tue, Jan 26, 2010


I am a spelling nazi and find markteting (sic)....

posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 10:37 AM by Spelling Nazi

I'm marketing LoseThos, an operating system. It's meant to be used with other operating systems, however, I've discovered Linux sees me as a rival. 
I disagree on Branding. Linux has cohorts are crazy zealots who show-up and sabatauge any publicity. In the initial stage, I really need some zealots myself--loyal customers. 
The brand I am is, naturally, is hostile to the Linux mentality in many ways, but keeping a cool head might be best to cleverly chill-them-out. 
For example, LoseThos is public domain and I hate commie GPL licenses. A cool head might be, makes little difference, now, so downplay that. 
I have the potential for a very colorful brand distinction -- Christian, Rock music, non nerdy cool people as opposed to loser IQ obsessed atheists who love talking about Darwin all the time, the usually nerdy mentality. 
I have a decision -- distinguish myself or not raise a ruccus, unnecessarily.

posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 11:10 AM by Terry A Davis

Great post as usual! As an long time marketing executive, I would just comment that, like developers (or any other profession for that matter), marketing people also have functional specialties. The main specialties: 
Marketing Communications - advertising, branding, graphic design, media deployment tactics etc. Per your Social Media doer point, you definitely want these people to be eating the dog food. 
Product Management - product/market fit, product requirements, portfolio management, etc. Per your point about customer lover, particularly important for this position. 
Business Development - customer development, partnership development, deal structuring, etc. Domain expertise is most important here along with being a customer lover. 
Market Research - competitive intelligence, market sizing, customer demographics, etc. 
Having hired many in my career, I found that just because a marketeer is good in one functional sub-specialty does not necessarily mean that they are going to be good at all. It also means that finding one person who is going to be good at all is also a stretch. 
In hiring, make sure you know what marketing problem is most important to solve and hire accordingly.

posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 11:12 AM by Edwin Oh

Sorry for the sloppy post. I'm at the stage where I must pick my target market. My operating system if for programmers. Most programmers are atheists, but the vast majority of people are not athiest. Linux is highly atheist and proud of it. That seems like a moron move, doesn't it! I'm not not an atheist. Opportunity.  
LoseThos has potential to appeal to beginner programmers for several reasons, but it can also appeal to elites. I haven't figured which I should target. 
I'm definitely going for some kind of niche, but I'm not clear. 
LoseThos is for screwing around with your own programs, not web browsing. It is independent, but likely you'll use it as a secondary operating system. 
It doesn't require Linux, but I might shut-up the crazy linux zealots by saying "Works with Linux", even though it requires nothing from Linux. There are many angles this could go. I like LoseThos and Windows. There are plenty of not-yet-atheist young programmers who probably use their family Windows computers.

posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 11:29 AM by Terry A. Davis

GREAT idea for an article. Now if only there was one that addressed the reverse: "Marketing people who need to find and hire outstanding developers." That happens to be my current need... if anyone knows of any good posts.

posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 12:03 PM by Peter Alberti

I've got to agree with you on branding: 

posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 12:05 PM by Bri Holt

Jason, great post...the person you're "interviewing" in your post is more of a product manager than a marketing professional. 
That's not a bad thing, but you should distinguish who you need because you're going to get vastly different applicants.

posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 4:09 PM by Greg

Could not agree with you more about your comments on "branding". We always tell our sub-$100 million customers that, branding is "nice", but lead generation from outbound and inbounding marketing feeds the sales machine and pays the bills. 
For small companies and especially for early stage, venture-backed companies, given our 20 year experience at this, I would throw "branding" into the same old bucket as "PR": mostly a waste of money and effort .

posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 7:52 PM by Jack Derby

Most of the suggestions are really useful for starups who wanted to hire a marketing personal.. 
thanx a lot darmesh, expecting more from you

posted on Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 12:33 AM by Girish Nair

I think this is a great list for a startup wanting to hire that scrappy marketer who can wear a lot of hats. This ties into customer love, measurement and testing, but it's also a good sign if your candidate geeks out on usability testing and customer observation.

posted on Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 10:37 AM by Giff

This is a really good post about a challenge that every technical company founder faces at some point. I'm a sales guy, and I've observed that technical folks see sales hires as different from technical hires, and somehow mysterious. I think the hiring process is the same: 
1. Write a job description that sets out very specifically what you want the new hire to do (Edwin's post above is a great place to start). 
2. Write a set of hiring criteria that set out very specifically the characteristics of someone who could potentially do the job. 
3. Interview using these tools and the suggestions covered by Jason in this post.

posted on Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 10:40 AM by Andy Blackstone

All good points but way too much for one person. Knowing nothing about developers, but a little about brain research, I suspect that having one or two core skills is realistic for developers. Same is true for other people.  
Marketing has gotten so multidimensional, real-time and technological based that special skills are needed. Deeper is often better than wider.  
Critical then, as marketing savvy industries know, is the ability to find, hire and get the loyalty and work of the best outside agencies, people and firms.

posted on Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 8:04 PM by Elmer

Very interesting summary. Found it very useful. 

posted on Wednesday, February 03, 2010 at 2:16 PM by Marcos

Some good points, but I'd have to agree with Edwin and Elmer above.  
Marketing like software engineering, has different specialties and a broad brush comparison just isn't applicable.  
The same is true of engineering. You wouldn't post a blog on "What to look for when hiring an Engineer", because you know not all engineers are the same and there's a massive difference in skill sets between Architects, QA folks, UI designers, Release Engineers and Web Developers. 
My advice would be to ask your marketing friends for a good referral, and then employ that person.

posted on Sunday, February 07, 2010 at 10:00 PM by Clive Bearman

You made me laugh with your branding rule!  
Last week I was attending a very low level event about social media and the marketing director proudly presenting her "case study" kept saying this word every two seconds!  
Of course when I aked her how she was measuring her success with her so-called social media strategy, she answered with a little smile "Interesting question... We are not there yet. Branding is currently our main focus".  
No comment ;-)

posted on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 1:39 PM by Julie Mazziotta

Funny that you talk about this. About the same time you blogged about this we were creating a list of questions to ask during interviews depending on expertise ( SEM, SEO, etc...). We found that these questions were a way to discover if you understood the language and thought process of your trade. I think many of your questions do the same while layering in overall fit into your organization relative to their functional roles. Good post.

posted on Tuesday, March 02, 2010 at 2:40 PM by James Green

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