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Marketing Operations

Marketing Operations for Startups: The Ultimate Guide

July 5, 2022
February 3, 2022
Mae Rice

At a startup, "marketing operations" isn't usually in anyone's job title, but marketing still needs to run efficiently. How do you know if it does — and if it doesn't, how do you level up operationally? We asked three experts.

Table of Contents

When you search LinkedIn for “director of marketing operations,” you get 2.8 million results. 

That’s probably overcounting — are there more directors of marketing operations than people in Seattle? — but marketing operations leaders are definitely common. 

Nearly 49% of marketers work with a marketing operations leader, Gartner reports

Nearly 49% of marketers work with a marketing operations leader.

But people leading entire marketing operations teams tend to work for mature companies. To an early-stage startup founder, “director of marketing operations” might sound as senselessly specialized as “director of sending one email.”

A startup marketing team’s first hire is often a generalist: “a Jack or Jill of all trades,” as Spot Meetings’ co-founder and CEO Greg Caplan told MarketerHire. 

Next, they might bolt on a few channel specialists. But most likely, no one has “marketing operations” in their title until years, if not decades, into a company’s lifecycle.

Startup marketing teams still need to operate, though. And if operational efficiency doesn’t get folded into someone’s job description early on, the team will run into problems later.

Their data might be dirty, and getting dirtier. Their HubSpot account might need to be rebuilt from scratch. 

What is marketing operations? Marketing operations describes the logistics work that makes a marketing team run efficiently, as a standalone unit and in collaboration with other teams. It can encompass tasks like hiring marketers, allocating marketing budget, and collecting and storing marketing data. 

“What I see a lot is when companies grow, they have to … take off all the duct tape they’ve created for years because they didn’t set up their systems correctly,” Clearbit marketing operations solutions consultant Daniel Murray told MarketerHire. “They didn’t have someone thinking futuristically.”

In other words: no one was thinking about marketing operations. At the same time, you don’t want marketers thinking so futuristically that they’re ignoring present business needs. 

So how do teams know they’re striking the right balance between execution and operations? 

We asked three experts on startup marketing for signs a startup’s marketing processes and workflows need more attention, signs marketing operations are humming along smoothly, popular operational tools — and much more. Let’s dive in.

The experts

Startup marketing operations in 250 words

Marketing operations is the logistics work that keeps marketing teams running efficiently — but the nature of that work changes as startups grow. 

You can’t figure out how to collect and store data on the customer journey until you have a tech stack,  after all. 

Here’s how our sources explained marketing operations at different stages.

Marketing operations at an early-stage startup, defined

  • Early-stage means: <10 total employees; marketing headcount of zero or one
  • Early-stage marketing operations refers to: hiring, setting goals and timelines, allocating budget to marketing (and specific marketing activities). “All four need to be done at the same time and constantly revisited at the same time,” Toy said.
  • Early-stage marketing operations projects include: hiring a marketing leader; buying and setting up a CRM, setting quarterly and annual goals
  • The role leading early-stage startup marketing operations: a founder with marketing experience, usually, or a director of marketing (on a team of one)

Marketing operations at a later-stage startup, defined

  • Later-stage means: >10 employees, and the marketing team has people (plural) on it — but the organization is less than five years old
  • Later-stage marketing operations refers to: “the people, processes and insights” that let marketing scale without sacrificing quality, Murray said. 
  • Later-stage marketing operations projects include: aligning with the sales team on the type of leads they want, big-picture reporting on all channels’ performance, documenting marketing processes, integrating new martech with existing systems
  • The role leading later-stage startup marketing operations: a growth marketer with team-building experience, often, or a fractional CMO 

4 signs your startup needs to invest in marketing operations

Many startup founders think of marketing operations as an optional “support function,” Murray said — and that’s a mistake.

Think about it: If Uber approached delivery the way some startups approach marketing operations, ”they would hire a bunch of drivers, the best drivers, the fastest drivers, and then just let them figure out the rest,” Toy said.

Sounds more like a NASCAR race than a scalable business. It’s certainly not what Uber has done — they invested so heavily in logistics technology, they’re expanding into freight deliveries

Here are a few signs you need to run your marketing team less like NASCAR, more like Uber — and invest more in marketing operations.

1. Your marketing systems are clogged with dirty data. 

Dirty data might mean duplicate data, or data only one of the many marketing softwares can read. 

For instance, clients’ first names might be labeled “first name” in one marketing data set, “first-name” in another and “f-name” in a third, Murray said — which slows down anyone compiling a client list, and can lead to system glitches. 

Worse — those inconsistencies make it harder and harder to find the information you need. 

“If you keep adding junk into your system, and [you’re not]... continuously auditing and cleaning and de-duping, it's hard to find the gems,” Murray said. “Bad data equals bad marketing decisions.” 

“If you keep adding junk into your system, and you're not continuously auditing and cleaning and de-duping, it's hard to find the gems.”

2. You don’t know which channels drive your growth. 

During explosive growth, everyone’s running on all cylinders, and the omnichannel funnel looks good — so, often, marketing teams don’t dig into channel-by-channel performance.

“Facebook could be performing horrible… but you don’t have deep [enough] insights to know that,” Murray said.

You might not even want to know that. Why look for trouble when you’re performing well as a team? 

Well, because ignoring channel-level performance makes it hard to double down on what’s working and leads to inefficient spending.

3. Your popular new marketing software “doesn’t work.”

In Murray’s experience, a lot of startups buy powerful marketing technology, but don’t hire people experienced enough to set it up correctly or make the most of its features. 

Instead, they haphazardly use 10% of what a tool really has to offer, and complain it doesn’t work for them. 

“A lot of times it's just because marketing is a four-person team and they don't have time to think about operations,” Murray said. “All they have time to think about is growing, growing, growing.”

“A lot of times it's just because marketing is a four-person team and they don't have time to think about operations. All they have time to think about is growing, growing, growing.”

Tools multiple roles need to use — like CRMs, project management software, and collaboration tools — pose especially tough operational challenges. 

Running them efficiently requires org-wide buy-in and agreed-upon best practices.

Caplan has noticed this with a visual collaboration tool that his team at Spot uses. “We have a couple people that really love to use it,” he said. A couple more people — “more passive users” — have to use it, because the others do. 

Is that tool working for the team? Creating enough value to justify its price tag? It’s a tough call — and tougher if no one’s focused on marketing operations. 

4. No one on the marketing team has worked at an org that scaled before. 

If no one has a sense of how a mature marketing function operates, no one knows your end goal, or what sorts of obstacles to anticipate along the way. 

“It’s hard to know what’s coming,” Murray said. “What is efficiency supposed to look like?”

“It’s hard to know what’s coming. What is efficiency supposed to look like?

Caplan knows, and that benefits Spot. Before he founded the startup, Caplan served as interim CMO of Cameo, and led a “much bigger marketing team.”

He worked with dedicated operational support, and saw “more data-driven goal-setting processes and projections” firsthand. 

Now at a one-year-old startup, Caplan doesn’t have the data to set goals the same way, and he handles operations “much more day-to-day.”

But he has a sense of his long-term operational goals. Experienced people like Caplan “eyeball” decisions with imperfect measurement, Toy said — like a “really good chef.”

Without anyone like that, marketing teams tend to struggle with strategic planning and growth pressures.  

The most popular tools for starting (and scaling) a marketing operations strategy

The most essential tool for operationally optimizing a marketing team? 

“You just need someone who's done it before,” Toy said. “That's it.”

Well, sort of. You’ll also need some martech. Your experienced hire can help you shop for the right technology for your startup’s stage, business model and target customers.

If you’re looking for tool inspiration, though, here are some startup staples mentioned by Murray, Caplan and Toy. 

The marketing operations starter stack

Typically, early-stage startups begin with two or three lower-cost tools, Murray said. These might include…

  • Marketo: This SaaS marketing automation platform, owned by Adobe, enables dynamic nurture campaigns, personalized content and much more. 
  • HubSpot CRM: This freemium CRM works great for startup marketing teams because they can buy a la carte premium features — like email marketing functionality and extended in-platform call time  — as they grow.
  • Google Analytics: This free analytics tool tracks all the most common website KPIs, from sessions to bounce rate. Plus, it integrates with Google Ads.
  • Facebook Ads: Though about 35% of marketers have shifted spend away from Facebook Ads since iOS 14.5’s release, it’s still the paid social platform with the widest reach on earth, which makes it hard to quit.

The marketing operations scaling stack

As startups mature, they’ll usually layer in or upgrade to more enterprise-ready tools. These might include…

  • Salesforce: This full-service CRM is highly customizable, and so scalable it’s used by the biggest company in the U.S.: Walmart.
  • Segment: This customer data platform lets marketing organizations spin up cohesive customer profiles from data spanning tons of touchpoints.
  • Tableau: This analytics platform helps marketers build intuitive, actionable data visualizations and dashboards.
  • Drift chatbots: These AI-powered cartoon robots  — often hovering in the bottom right corner of a website — can answer FAQs, collect customer data and drive conversions.
  • Amplitude: Spot added this product data platform to its tech stack, Caplan said, to improve full-funnel attribution and gain more granular product usage data.

4 questions to ask yourself before you buy martech

Murray recommends thinking through key strategic questions before investing in any tech:

  • How will this tool serve our marketing department’s goals?
  • How will it improve the buyers’ journey?
  • Do we have the budget for this tool?
  • Do we have enough time to use this tool effectively?

You want robust answers to the top two, and a confident “yes” for the bottom two. 

Buying tech just because it sounds cool, or you hear it’s popular, is a recipe for frustration and inefficiency. Buying the right software for your business leads to operational success. 

Speaking of which… 

5 examples of strong startup marketing operations in action

When done well, marketing operations can boost marketing ROI and customer engagement metrics by up to 25%, McKinsey found.

Done well, marketing operations can boost marketing ROI and customer engagement metrics by up to 25%.

What does marketing operations look like when it’s done well, though? Most startups don’t have the analytical horsepower to isolate the effect of their marketing operations — so here are some other signs your team is thriving operationally.  

1. The marketing team has “the right amount of the right people.”

This means leadership knows how much time and headcount they want to devote to each marketing channel and tactic. They can answer questions like… 

  • Can this responsibility be executed in five minutes? Two months? 
  • Can one team member do it? 
  • Can it be outsourced to a freelance marketer?
  • Can it be part of someone’s job — or is it a full-time job on its own? 

In later stage startups, leaders can turn to models that forecast organizational needs and ROI to decide on headcount for marketing channels, projects and beyond — forecasting sales development representative (SDR) needs can also fall to marketing ops, Murray noted.

At younger startups, a predictive model might be “directional, but [you] don’t have quite enough data to really have a deep model,” Toy noted.  

Marketing leadership also needs to know how to hire people with in-demand skill sets— even during the Great Resignation

“It's definitely a competitive market out there,” Caplan said. “It definitely changes timelines.”

2. The martech stack is no Cadillac — but it can scale with the org. 

Most startup marketing teams can’t afford a Salesforce CRM — and it’s fine to start with a scrappy martech stack, connecting cheaper tools with Zapier or Trade.io.

“Even marketing ops people put duct tape on, because when you're at the beginning… you don’t have the budget to buy the nice shiny tool that you want,” Murray said.

“Even marketing ops people put duct tape on, because when you're at the beginning… you don’t have the budget to buy the nice shiny tool that you want.”

The key is to start with a simple tech stack that you know you know will integrate with or migrate to fancier software easily. That way, it can grow with you, Murray explained.

3. Marketing leaders make prompt, data-driven decisions. 

In other words: It’s easy to access relevant, actionable data. 

This can take some doing. Often, the people who set up data warehouses and business intelligence tools aren’t sure what decision-makers want to know about marketing efforts, Murray noted. 

But strong startup marketing ops instill confidence across the marketing team that “we’re tracking everything… [and]  making sure campaign-level stuff is getting through,” Murray said. 

“We’re tracking everything and making sure campaign-level stuff is getting through.”

4. “How to” questions get answered with documentation. 

In a startup that’s thoroughly thought through the role of marketing operations, there are well-documented processes and templates for getting marketing campaigns and initiatives over the line — and marketers are more likely to hear “look it up” than “ask Fran” when they have questions.

This is especially important for growth-stage startups with global expansion on the brain.

“Companies that are setting up to scale right now… they're hiring people to help document because they need to copy and paste a playbook,” Murray said. “If they want to open in a new country, they can just give their marketing playbook to some other region.” 

“Companies that are setting up to scale right now, they're hiring people to help document because they need to copy and paste a playbook.”

5. Sales gets quality leads from marketing. 

It sounds basic, but effective marketing operations ensure that the marketing, sales and customer success teams — assuming they’re all separate — share a definition of a qualified lead and the company’s target demographic. 

In other words: no silos.

Great marketing operations ensure that “the marketing handoff is good to sales,” Murray said — and that the overall top-of-funnel customer experience is seamless.

Why marketing operations is a key startup consideration in 2022

In today’s marketing landscape, it’s short-sighted to undervalue marketing operations, Murray said.

“There’s never been more technology,” he said. “There’s never been more data.”

The 2020s have been marked by a rash of new privacy rules, too, from iOS updates (which transformed paid social performance data and muddled email open rates) to the upcoming sunset of third-party cookies (which will upend marketing data management more broadly).

“You need someone to help build that efficiency… earlier,” Murray said, “so you’re not stuck two years down the line,” reliant on non-compliant systems and processes. 

“You need someone to help build that efficiency earlier, so you’re not stuck two years down the line.”

Operationally-minded growth marketers and fractional CMOs can help you scale within marketing’s new normal — and we can introduce you to one in as little as 48 hours. Hire an expert marketer with MarketerHire today.

Mae Rice
about the author

Mae Rice is editor in chief at MarketerHire. A long-time content marketer, she loves learning about the weird and wonderful feedback loops that connect marketing and culture.

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