To outsource or not to outsource — that’s the question when it comes to many B2B marketing initiatives.
April Dunford has worn a myriad of titles over the course of her career. A self-described engineer by training and metrics-based marketer by trade, the Canadian marketing executive has seemingly run the marketing gamut, serving in senior-level marketing positions for big corporations like Siebel Systems, IBM, and Nortel, and executive-level roles for a handful of technology startups.
Today, Dunford is an Independent Marketing Executive (or, what Dunford also calls a “temporary marketing exec”) who does project-based marketing work for growth-stage technology companies and big corporate brands alike. And in that role, she’s acquired one playful title that she gets a particular kick out of: Marketing Gun-for-Hire.
Because she’s been on both sides of the table, Dunford can relate when expansion-stage B2B technology companies find themselves deliberating between executing new marketing initiatives in-house, or outsourcing them to qualified — and often more experienced — freelance consultants like herself. There’s no right or wrong answer, Dunford says. It largely depends on the scope and complexity of the project, and its long-term value to the business.
Dunford recently sat down with OpenView to talk about when and why expansion-stage B2B companies might want to outsource marketing initiatives, and which factors they need to consider before choosing to go with a hired gun.
Why is the outsourcing versus hiring in-house debate seemingly more relevant for growth-stage technology companies?
Because I think that’s when the biggest transition in how companies view marketing occurs. In the earlier stages, the founders might have managed basic marketing initiatives or activities, or hired a junior person to help them execute those things. As a company begins to scale, however, those founders either need to re-direct their attention to areas of the business that better align with their strengths, or take on the more operationally-focused duties required of a growing company’s senior executives.
The expansion stage is also the time when a lot of companies begin to accept outside financing or venture capital, and that influx of cash allows them to step on the gas a little bit. The business can start investing in marketing initiatives that it couldn’t afford or justify before, and the company begins to look at marketing as a more specialized department with its own unique needs and skill sets.
At that point, does it make sense for a company to outsource marketing until it can determine the activities that are most valuable to the business, or is it better to hire specific roles in-house and have those people learn on the job?
It really depends on the activity or role we’re talking about. For example, you can’t outsource your marketing strategy. That’s like outsourcing how you make money, or deciding which products you’re going to build. A great marketing strategy is very specific to the exact business you are in, so anyone building that needs to have a very deep understanding of his or her customers, their buying process, and the company’s product offerings. That strategy is critical to your business and it’s far too important to have a consultant design it for you.
That being said, when it comes to tactical execution, it’s hard to build a team that has expertise and experience in every aspect of marketing. For example you might determine that to take your business to the next level you want to increase your investment in content marketing, advertising, strategic partnerships, media relations, and email marketing. Yet, you are still a startup so you won’t be hiring someone to look after each of these initiatives separately. That’s where getting some outside help might make a lot of sense. An outside expert can help get programs up and running quickly, while at the same time passing their knowledge and experience on to the in-house team. The in-house team can then take over that work and continue to improve the programs by making them more and more customized for your business.
For example in content marketing there are great experts out there in video, podcasting, blogging, infographics, e-books, and a host of other specific tactics. Working with an expert on a project often will give the in-house marketing folks enough insight and expertise to do the next project alone or with a smaller amount of outside support.
Most of the work I do is focused on processes and best practices. My role is to work with the executives and the marketing team as an advisor to help them develop more discipline with how they execute marketing planning and operations. I always work very closely with the in-house marketing team, both because that team has a much deeper understanding of its market than I do and because the ultimate goal is for that team to own the execution moving forward.
What other factors should a company consider when it’s deciding whether to outsource marketing or hire in-house?
I think long-term value is critically important. If, for instance, you want to create a video but you only plan on publishing one video per quarter, then hiring someone in-house and buying all of the equipment needed to produce a video — cameras, editing software, etc. — is probably cost prohibitive and inefficient. If, however, you want to start a company blog, publish several case studies every year, and totally revamp your Web content, then hiring an editor or writer in-house makes a lot of sense.
You have to look at the specific marketing tactic you’re hiring for and consider its long-term value. If it’s something that produces significant value to your business in both the short and long-term, and you plan to continue doing it for years to come, then hire someone in-house. If you’re simply dipping your toes in the water and attempting to test whether a specific tactic could be valuable to your business, then hire a freelance consultant, run some tests and decide later if you want to bring that expertise inside the company.
When companies do outsource marketing, what can they do to find and hire high-quality freelance consultants?
I think the most important thing is to ask people you trust for personal referrals. The best consultants are the ones whose customers will sing their praises to anyone who will listen. You should always seek a referral before you cast your net any wider.
If you can’t source any referrals, then I think companies need to create a very specific statement of work before reaching out to consultants. The more specific you are about the work you want to hire for, the better your chances are at getting a consultant that has the right expertise for your project.
Lastly, it’s important to consider outcomes and how you will define or measure success. Factor that information into your interviews with potential consultants and have them provide examples of their work that have produced those outcomes. If they can’t do that or they haven’t worked on a project like the one you want to execute, then keep looking.
April Dunford is an independent marketing executive who has helped numerous expansion-stage businesses build and scale marketing departments that continue to drive profitable revenue growth. Dunford is also the founder of RocketWatcher, a content resource site for marketers, and an in-demand speaker, having delivered keynote speeches for MarketingProfs University, Forrester Research’s Product Marketing Summit, and the International Startup Festival.