Many SMBs struggle with modern marketing and feel overwhelmed by the wide array of approaches and technologies. It’s becoming a field of specialists, and it’s clear that simply having a website and running some ads is no longer enough to compete in most markets.
It may seem like an inconvenience or an expensive but necessary evil. But the truth is your sales team needs effective marketing.
What many small-business leaders don’t recognize is that when done right, marketing isn’t a cost center. It isn’t a line item on your balance sheet that keeps growing. When done right, marketing pays for itself many times over. Effective marketing doesn’t just provide leads, it provides educated leads that are a good fit for your business.
This article will propose one of the best ways for many small or medium-sized businesses to grow through marketing: the three-person team. You will be able to compare the typical options you have for your marketing, including outsourcing to an agency, hiring an internal all-in-one marketer, and developing your own lean, high-performing internal marketing team. You’ll see that while perhaps the most daunting, the last option — a small internal team — is by far the best.
To begin, let’s review and compare the most common marketing options you have as an SMB, starting with hiring an agency.
#1: Outsourcing to a marketing agency
The simple solution
This is the most common option because it’s the simplest. The appeal is clear: you can outsource your marketing to experts, thereby keeping your in-house operations simple. Agencies can provide a lot of value because they provide on-demand access to specialists that it would be impractical to hire internally. For example, if you’re a small business, it’s unlikely you’re going to have the budget to hire a full-time graphic designer or SEO specialist.
The problems of scale and strategy
There are a lot of great agencies out there who really do want to help their clients. They will work hard to try and reach your customers. Agencies give you access to their talented team members, but two new challenges arise: scale and strategy. Agencies spread their time across many different clients (more than you might think). It’s typical that an account manager at an agency is working with 10, 15, or maybe even 20 clients at a time. The designers, developers, writers, and other marketing specialists may be splitting their time between even more clients. You will be one of many competing for their attention, and your marketing initiatives will simply be tasks in a queue alongside many other of their clients.
If you know exactly what you need from a strategic point of view, then this execution may be just what you’re missing. But be aware that agencies do not typically create strategies for their clients. This needs to come from someone inside your company, with intimate knowledge of your USPs, strengths and weaknesses, and competitive environment.
All of this relates to the issue of today’s customers. Customers today are typically skeptical, do a lot of research, have a lot of options, and often require a lot of attention before making their purchasing decisions (especially for expensive or recurring products or services). This means that your marketing content needs to be highly targeted. Your messaging has to be specific and clear. It has to convey your specific attributes to your specific target audience. Every detail matters. This sort of customized messaging is very difficult to scale. So, most agencies instead provide standardized services that fit a broad range of business messaging. They are repeatable and scalable for the agency, but not always aligned with what your business requires.
Efficiency and accountability
This raises the issue of efficiency and ROI. As a business owner or leader, you have to be incredibly careful with your time. You need to focus on the activities that no one else can do. Time is limited, so ask yourself, is it best spent monitoring a marketing agency, following up on their tasks and assessing their activities, all to make sure your marketing campaigns are running properly and delivering ROI? Unless you are running a marketing agency yourself, the answer is obviously no.
Another concern is accountability. When you hire an agency, you might assume that they will take on the role of your marketing leader and be accountable for the results. While most agencies use the language of outcomes and ROI, the honest truth is agencies that operate at scale can’t possibly own your marketing success. How could they, if they are running campaigns for so many clients at one time? They can create campaigns, they can optimize campaigns, and they can do what they can to keep you satisfied, but they cannot LEAD your marketing. They simply won’t have enough insight: They won’t be part of your team, they won’t be at the watercooler, and they won’t be talking with your sales and support teams to learn the questions your clients and prospects are asking.
If you’ve hired a marketing agency and assume they are leading your marketing, the reality is no one is leading your marketing. No one is fully accountable. So let’s turn away from agency options and discuss an in-house role with full accountability — the marketing manager.
#2: Hiring a solo marketing manager
Once you’ve identified that an outsourced marketing agency alone isn’t going to be able to achieve your marketing and growth goals alone, the next step is to hire a full-time internal marketer. This solves two problems at once. First, you will have someone reporting to you who is accountable for your marketing. Second, the rest of your team will know who to go to for all things marketing. While a single internal hire won’t be able to do everything themselves, they will be seen as the “marketing guy/gal” within your organization. They will then likely delegate tasks to external specialists, whether that be agencies or individual freelancers.
- WARNING: Tasking one of your regular employees with part-time marketing responsibilities is almost always a terrible idea. If someone is balancing your marketing initiatives with their existing responsibilities, they will have to make choices about what’s most important. Marketing is not a set-and-forget system, and any lead that’s not followed up with immediately and well is a lost opportunity. No one should ever be put in the position where they have to decide if they should perform their marketing responsibilities OR do their other tasks. This path can be incredibly costly to your business.
The challenges of an all-in-one role
The marketing manager will report to the owner or to a leader on the sales team. But this is where the challenges arise. If the owner or a head of sales is overseeing the marketing manager, the expectations of the role can become overwhelming. It’s not uncommon for a marketing manager to be responsible for a long list of marketing tasks. They end up owning everything from social media updates to email newsletters to blog posts to advertising to project management to graphic design. They become the “all-in-one marketer,” a position that is notorious for being overwhelming for the individual and not particularly successful for the company.
In fact, any experienced marketer has very likely been in this position in the past and not succeeded. This reputation will have a direct limiting effect on the quality of candidates you meet when hiring for this position in your organization. The desirable experienced people can easily identify a situation where they are set up to fail, and they avoid these roles like the plague. So who is left applying for them? Typically, inexperienced and overly optimistic individuals who figure, “I’ll learn as I go.”
Finding the right person
Given that the people applying for this role are typically less experienced junior marketers, they will do whatever it takes to make the boss happy. That means taking on more tasks than they are capable of handling and juggling everything the best they can. It’s no surprise then that after 6–12 months, they burn out and you wonder why they aren’t coming up with new ideas. You expected more from them. You expected to see better results and more initiative.
Sadly, a junior marketer managed by an owner or a sales leader is almost always set up to fail. They may be able to manage projects and communicate with a marketing agency or freelancers. They may be able to keep your event calendar up to date. But they aren’t likely to bring short- and long-term strategies. They probably won’t know the best ways to assess successes and failures or how to leverage them moving forward. In short, they likely won’t be able to deliver marketing leadership or the results you need.
So let’s turn to the solution with the greatest chance of success: the three-person internal marketing team.
#3: Establishing a lean internal marketing team, led by a Marketing Director
Not nearly as expensive as you might think
You may be worrying that this article is steering you toward hiring a room full of people and spending far more than you are capable of or comfortable with. But the opposite is true: this article is showing you how to extract the maximum ROI from your marketing budget. As an SMB, you don’t need a large marketing team, and the goal certainly isn’t to grow your headcount as much as possible. Rather, the goal is to develop a marketing strategy and system that provides more value than it costs. Luckily, this is possible with a very small and lean team of just three people. And once you have this high-performing lean team, you will be surprised what they are able to accomplish.
The importance of an experienced marketing leader
To build this marketing team, it’s absolutely critical to have an experienced marketing leader. This is the type of person who avoided your job posting in the scenario discussed above because they saw it as an all-in-one role with no chance of success. The most common titles for this experienced role are Marketing Director or Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). This person should have at least 10 years of marketing experience and strong leadership abilities. They will be in close contact with the rest of your leadership team, and they will have ownership and accountability over your marketing outcomes. This includes control of the marketing budget and the authority to make decisions like vendor selection and hiring/firing of personnel, etc.
The Marketing Director should lead and not get caught up in the day-to-day tasks and processes. The three-person team will be rounded out by two dedicated internal members reporting to the Marketing Director. These two roles can’t easily be filled by freelancers or agencies because they require close connection with the rest of your employees and intimate knowledge of internal operations.
The balance of a three-person team
In addition to the Marketing Leader, the two additional team members are:
- Titles: Marketing Coordinator, Marketing Technician
Attributes: Analytical and technical; skilled at research, project management, campaign monitoring, vendor management, and SEO performance; flexible and willing to learn; able to collaborate with internal and external stakeholders
- Titles: Content Manager, Marcom Manager, Managing Editor
Attributes: Creative and open-minded; skilled writer and editor; skilled at interviewing colleagues and customers to gather insights and then putting everything together into a blog post, video script, email, web copy, etc.; able to collaborate with internal and external stakeholders
You might notice a yin-and-yang relationship between the Marketing Coordinator and the Content Manager attributes, and you would be correct. These are distinctly different roles requiring sometimes opposing skill sets. Therefore, there is little chance of finding one person to fill both positions. First, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to find a quality content creator who is also organized and analytical. This person would need to be skilled at both manipulating language and crafting messaging, and reading dashboard analytics and researching the latest SEO trends. Think right brain versus left brain.
Having a pair of positions is also advantageous for team chemistry. These two colleagues will start working together under the guidance and direction of your Marketing Director, and they’ll inspire each other with ideas and push each other to grow. With a single leader and a single all-in-one subordinate, the dynamics will be far trickier. It’s also difficult to gauge the relative success of either person.
Headcount that pays for itself (many times over)
You’ll be amazed what this small three-person team can accomplish. With your marketing managed in house, you will have full control of your strategy, content creation, and campaign operations. You’ll gain real-time insights into the performance of your campaigns and be able to rapidly leverage them for campaign optimization. You’ll see the quality and results explode.
Your team will still need to rely on agencies or freelancers when specializations are required, but these results will undoubtedly improve as well. Direction will come from your internal team, and the outsourced vendors will be used primarily for execution. They will be given better input, which will result in them delivering better output, and they will also be held to a higher standard with more oversight.
Back to finding that perfect marketing leader
This is really the ideal team structure, and it will provide the best results. The challenge is success depends so much on the abilities of the marketing leader. This is a role you cannot skimp on, and good marketing directors are neither plentiful nor cheap. As we saw at the beginning of this section, this is not the inexperienced all-in-one marketer trying to meet unrealistic expectations. This is an expert, with a track record of delivering positive results for growing businesses.
It’s also important to understand that this is a person who will have authority within your organization. People will report to them, and they will report to you. Right from the start, they must be able to integrate into your company in order to begin laying the groundwork to set you up for success. They will gain a complete understanding of your company’s strengths and weaknesses. And conversely, they can help make sound marketing approaches part of your company culture.
Many companies struggle to fill this role, and full-time marketing director salaries can easily reach six figures. Before you get discouraged, know that there is another recent trend, and that is the virtual or “fractional” CMO. Let’s discuss this option in the final section of this article.
#4: Establishing a lean internal marketing team, led by a “fractional CMO”
This final section will suggest an alternative path: replacing the full-time in-house marketing leader with a fractional CMO.
Like most investments with the highest payoffs, the hardest part is getting started. So how do you find a suitable marketing leader? Are you confident you or your team can select the right person for the job? As we’ve seen, the marketing leader role brings experience, vision, direction, and oversight. This is what ensures your marketing dollars go as far as they can. The good news is, with the small internal team described above, the marketing leader may not need to be a full-time, permanent employee.
You are hiring this person solely for their ability to lead your marketing initiatives and team members. You need only their expertise. If you don’t need them to sit in on every meeting and attend every office event, you can take this expensive role and essentially cut it in half. You can hire a virtual CMO or, as is becoming the more popular term, a fractional CMO.
A fractional CMO is a marketing leader who manages two to three marketing teams simultaneously, working part time for each of their clients. This allows businesses to hire an experienced individual at a fraction of the cost and risk of a full-time permanent hire.
Why a fractional CMO?
Fractional CMOs have become popular over the last several years because, with the increased sophistication of marketing technologies, small businesses have a harder time choosing the right marketing strategies. A better researched, more tailored marketing approach is required, which is rarely possible when outsourcing to a marketing agency. And, as discussed above, the salaries for full-time, permanent-hire marketing directors have risen out of the range of many smaller businesses.
There is the financial benefit of hiring a fractional CMO: Your marketing leader will be spending all their time on marketing leadership, so you’re not paying for the less important peripheral tasks associated with full-time employment in an organization. They will also play a key role in transferring skills to your permanent employees and hiring any new people you need.
But I thought I was supposed to keep my marketing in house?
Hiring a fractional CMO may seem to contradict the earlier advice to bring your marketing in-house, but, as you will see, this is one position which can be effectively outsourced. The difference here is that a fractional CMO will be unlike any outsourced contractor you may have worked with. They will be much more like a part-time internal team member, attending leadership meetings, having their own company email address, and having people reporting to them. More importantly, they will have the same accountability as a full-time marketing director: If they don’t deliver results, they get fired. When combined with the very few number of clients a fractional CMO works with at any given time — two or three — you can see this doesn’t align with what people think of as outsourcing.
A fractional CMO will help with the crucial setup phase of your marketing team: they will learn as much as they can about your company, your ideal customers, and your past marketing efforts. They’ll help define your differentiation in the marketplace. Once they have a good understanding of your business, they’ll be able to hire the other two key members of your team: the analytical/technical marketer and the creative/content producer. These three people will then be capable of launching initial campaigns and gathering essential data for honing your messaging strategy. In other words, getting your in-house marketing off the ground.
Once everything is operating efficiently and the team is paying for itself, the typical progression is that the fractional CMO hires a full-time replacement and moves into a consultative role for as long as is required. Or, potentially, one of the other two team members can grow into the leadership role and be replaced with a new full-time hire.
With a fractional CMO, as with a full-time in-house CMO or Marketing Director, the direction of the marketing department is always clear, the team always knows what to do, and each team member knows who to escalate to when bigger challenges arise.
Pros and cons of hiring a fractional CMO
There are limitations when hiring a fractional CMO. They won’t be available 24/5, as a full-time Marketing Director would be. But despite the limitations that come from a part-time hire, there are significant savings. And it provides a great intermediate step to build the team incrementally, especially if you’re unable to find or afford an experienced full-time Marketing Director.
Advantages of fractional CMOs
- Broad experience – Working with multiple companies allows fractional CMOs to develop a rich and varied understanding of the market, consumer behavior, and marketing technologies.
- Lower cost – Fractional CMO fees are far less expensive than a full-time hire’s salary and benefits package.
- Less risky – A fractional CMO’s tenure depends on successful outcomes, and if things are not working out, you have no severance obligations.
Limitations of fractional CMOs
- Not available full time
- More expensive than junior hires
- Not fully embedded in company culture
Fractional CMOs aren’t for everyone, but they can be a great solution if you need help building a lean, high-performing in-house marketing team.
As a fractional CMO, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of great businesses, helping each of them build an effective marketing strategy and team.
Every business is unique, and that’s why it’s so important to meet you where you are on your journey, rather than trying to provide you with an off-the-shelf solution.
Let’s have a chat, discuss where you are, and see if I can help.