Marketing Debt happens when startup marketing departments are underfunded and understaffed.

Just like Technical Debt, marketing debt means that a lot of shortcuts were taken that will eventually undermine the health of the organization. In the case of marketing debt, there will come a time when sales start to flounder because Marketing hasn’t had the time or ability to create a scalable, repeatable lead gen model via multiple, holistic channels.

This results in Sales not getting what they need to get their job done.

There are a lot of reasons why you should care about marketing debt.

Remember The Startup Curve?

Startup Curve

Marketing debt accumulates through the Trough of Sorrow all the way through the Wiggles of False Hope. Marketing debt is part of the reason why these crashes and wiggles happen, and lowering your debt is one of your biggest obstacles to get over into the Promise Land.

Most companies start to focus on alleviating their marketing debt after they have raised their A Round. Until then the focus and budget has been on sales, because without sales they wouldn’t have reached their A Round, but without solving marketing debt, the company will not reach its B Round.

Now that you’ve determined that you have marketing debt, or you haven’t, which in that case there are plenty other articles you could be reading right now, how do you start to lower your marketing debt?


The Marketing Audit

What are you doing now and what do you need to be doing? Determining this has a lot to do with your sale amount and your funnel. It makes no sense for a product that is $10 a month to have SDRs, Inside Sales, and AEs. For the purposes of this post, we’re going to focus on companies that sell to mid-size companies up to enterprise and have an average sale over $50k.


How Strong is Your Brand?

“Strong brands have been shown to be effective strategies for achieving sustainable profits and returns. Furthermore, strong brands also demonstrably enhance shareholder wealth via higher firm stock [prices].GfK MIR

People see you before they can read your message or hear what you have to say. Are you claiming to be the BMW of XYZ for the enterprise but you look like a Yugo?


Branding is critical for companies that sell to enterprise. Having a strong, consistent, well-designed brand makes leads easier to get and deals easier to close because people trust that you if you care enough to pay attention to your brand, you’ll take care of theirs as well. Also, in today’s world of hyper-commoditization in SaaS, design is one thing that isn’t easy to copy. In addition, people have the automatic assumption that we are what we look like thanks to the

Also, in today’s world of hyper-commoditization in SaaS, design is one thing that isn’t easy to copy. In addition, people have the automatic assumption that we are what we look like thanks to the Consistency Principle Heuristic. That applies to companies as well. Poor design makes you look untrustworthy. We all judge books by their cover, at least in the beginning. Why add friction?

Poor design makes you look untrustworthy. We all judge books by their cover, at least in the beginning. Why add friction?

We all judge books by their cover, at least in the beginning. Why add friction?

This means enterprise deals have a stronger emotional component than most other sales. Someone’s job could be on the line if they choose the wrong option or the implementation doesn’t go smoothly. No one wants to be the one with their head on the line. That’s why, according to

No one wants to be the one with their head on the line. That’s why, according to CEB’s research on the Consensus Sale, there are now an average 5.4 decision makers that need to sign-off on every enterprise deal. In addition,

In addition, Circle Research has found that only 39% of B2B companies actually have a strong brand – which means your company has an opportunity to win over your competition by creating a strong brand.

Of course, “brand” is far more than just a logo and a consistent look and feel.

According to Circle Research, “A strong brand – we call it an Alpha Brand – has seven key features:

  1. It is prominent, understood and inspires affinity
  2. It is based around a single clear anchoring idea
  3. It is perceived to provide a better solution
  4. It appeals to the emotional as well as the rational
  5. It recognizes ‘one size fits all’ doesn’t work
  6. It is built to have multi-dimensional appeal to all stakeholders
  7. It is true to its word”



“To find a unique position, you must ignore conventional logic. Conventional logic says you find your concept inside yourself or inside the product.

Not true. What you must do is look inside the prospect’s mind.” Positioning, by Al Ries and Jack Trout

Get your team together and ask them (and yourself) the following questions:

  1. Who are we as an organization?
  2. Why do we exist?
  3. What do we do?
  4. Who do we serve?
  5. What would success of [Company] look like to you?
  6. What’s the good news?
  7. What’s the “not so good” news?
  8. What do we need to keep in mind?
  9. What are our goals?
  10. What is our offer?

Most importantly – be honest with yourselves and with everyone else in the room. These aren’t easy questions, but you won’t be able to create a strong position without answering them fully and honestly.

Keep in mind, you don’t own your brand reputation. Your customer does. All you can do is manage it. Does your organization on the inside reflect who you claim to be to the world?

If you’ve never worked on positioning before, and even if you have, Simon Sinek gives an amazing explanation on the power of positioning in his TED talk “Start With Why.”



How clear is your message? Can someone understand what your company does from first glance at your website? Can you explain what you do in a 1-minute elevator pitch? What about 30 seconds?

How do you explain what you do and why you do it? What tone does your messaging have? Humanistic? Funny? Technical?

“…to introduce a new product category [you] must carry in a new ladder. This, too, is difficult, especially if the new category is not positioned against the old one. The mind has no room for what’s new and different unless it’s related to the old.

… it’s often better to tell the prospect what the product is not, rather than what it is.” – Positioning, by Al Ries and Jack Trout

Does your message reflect how you look? How you act? Are you keeping the promise of your words?

Mailchimp takes this so seriously their Voice and Tone guide is public for anyone to review.

Buffer is known for its transparency in all decisions. This is reflected in their message, their blog posts, and their actions. Buffer doesn’t just say they believe in something, they follow through with it – and they are rewarded in turn with brand loyalty from those who think like them. Their brand is strong.

The Funnel Audit

If your average sale is above $50k a year then in all likely you have, or will have, SDRs, Inside Sales, AEs, and Customer Success:

  • Sales Development Reps – Builds the lists and does the initial outreach
  • Inside Sales – BANT qualifies
  • AEs – Closes deals and manages accounts
  • Customer Success – Helps with onboarding and overall success of your customer using your product, and can help upsell


Customer Experience

Let’s look at some of the ways to fill the lead gen funnel:

Outbound  Events  Advertising   Inbound  Earned Media  Referral
e.g. Building lists, cold email workflows, cold calling, ABM e.g. Conferences, trade shows, CABs, PACs, hosted evenings – your own or going to others  e.g. SEM, Facebook, industry publications, ads in newsletters, print, billboards, paid article placement e.g. SEO, blogging, guest blogging, Twitter BOTs to landing pages, giving away Case Studies, White Papers, and datasheets, webinars, etc.  e.g. Press write ups, reviews, industry pundit and analyst outreach e.g. Partner programs and incentives for customers (plus all of the materials listed in Inbound)

Let’s look at these in terms of the Stages of the Funnel (see above):


Building Awareness

Think about how we buy. We don’t purchase something the very second we hear about it the first time. We need to hear about it several times, dozens, even hundreds – before we reach a minimum trust rate where we will even consider purchasing it.

That also holds true for B2B sales, because while we might be selling to businesses, those businesses are filled with humans.

So how do we build awareness?

This is where PR is your best friend.

I’ve heard plenty of companies say that they don’t see any ROI from PR. There’s a reason for that. People see your name in an article and they don’t necessarily go directly to your site and buy. What they do subconsciously is have a mental checkmark by your name that says, “Social proof – this place is good enough to be mentioned in publication XYZ.”

And then they look for other cues to show that your company is worthy of their attention.

That’s the strength of PR, getting in front of a lot of eyes and growing your mindshare to your target market by going after the right publications. After you have shown up in enough articles, ads, friends posts, events, etc they are ready for your outreach.

Outbound marketing helps bring them to your website.

I don’t recommend buying lists, but I’m all for researching and building them. There are several companies that you can use for business intelligence if you have the budget, and if you don’t there’s always LinkedIn and Email Hunter. Targeted lists do better than wide lists in terms of results.

Targeted also means targeted content, which has a higher response rate as it is aimed at the reader and is more likely to build engagement.

If you’re going after top tier enterprises, then Account Based Marketing (ABM) is the way to go. Also outbound, ABM requires a collaboration of marketing and sales at a level these two departments typically don’t do. Marketing controls the message and delivers the materials, and Sales controls the delivery.

Each team gets to focus on what they do best and together they land the large deals. There are companies out there that help do ABM at scale – Demandbase (ABM for ads) and Folloze (ABM for enterprises that do complex enterprise sales using direct outreach) are two of the leaders in this realm.


Consideration Stage

Your website, blog, and available materials such as webinars, white papers, case studies and datasheets all come in to play here. Consideration means that the prospect knows that they have a problem, and they are considering companies that solve their problem. It does not mean that they are considering your company at this stage. SEO is critical here.

Your message being on point is crucial as well. If you can’t be found in a search, or if your message doesn’t resonate within the first 8 seconds on your website – you do not exist.

How do you do what you do better than your competitors? Positioning comes into play here. Brand matters. Transparency of information and thought leadership help as well.

Who are your Partners? Partner marketing brings with it a level of trust that many other types of outreach do not. Your prospect is already spending money, or considering spending money, with your Partner.

Bringing you on with them can lower your own sales cycle time and get you from the consideration stage to the decision stage.

We Develop Mindshare


Prospects Decision Making

You’re now on the shortlist – how are you maintaining interest while arming your evangelist inside of the organization?

Do you have a repository of helpful content that enables them to educate others so they can bring your business in? At this point, it’s all about what you can do for the prospecting account.

You are the enabler, but the real salesperson is inside the company you’re selling to.



You’ve gotten the account.

You might think this is the end, but it’s actually the beginning. If you’re a SaaS company you need to keep that account, and most likely you’re looking to upsell. How you onboard, the first actual experiences your customer has with your service and team, these actions need to be spot on.

Mistakes can happen (and they will, trust me) but your team need to find them, own up to them, and fix them. You Customer Success team is the most important part of this process – giving them everything they need to be successful is how you will win.

Making sure that your brand holds up to the promise you make is how category leaders are made.


Final Thoughts

Lowering your marketing debt and building your brand isn’t simple, but it’s the differentiator that all unicorns and other strong companies have in common.

In the beginning, spending your time and money on sales makes sense – but there comes a time in your growth where that isn’t enough, when your marketing debt is too high. That’s when it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate your marketing channels to build a scalable, repeatable lead generation model.

That starts with making sure your positioning is on point, and then builds out to message, design, channels, methods of engagement, and materials.

You don’t become a category leader without going through this process.

Have any ideas, comments or questions on this topic? Tweet me at @shiraabel. I’d love to hear your thoughts.