For better or worse, I tend to be a short-term thinker. Marketing vision does not come naturally to me.
I prefer doing the work rather than dreaming about the work.
You need both, of course: dreaming and doing. When it comes to the dreaming, I hacked my way there by turning it into “doing,” and finding a clear and obvious blueprint to follow in order to come up with the dream.
For our marketing vision, I relied heavily on Jim Collins’ Vision Framework. He breaks vision into a five-part exercise:
- Core Purpose: Each person brainstorms a purpose to discuss as a group. All purpose statements are filtered through a test of criteria until a winner is chosen.
- Core Values: Each person brainstorms a list of values. Each value is filtered through a test of criteria until three to five are chosen.
- Story: Write an article that you would love to see published about your organization in 10, 20, 30 years from now …
- Vivid Description: From the story, pull out three to five snippets from the article that serve to bring your envisioned future to life. Run them through a test of criteria to see if they’re vivid enough.
- BHAG: Create a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG) that encapsulates the vivid description and links to the core purpose. Run it through a test of criteria also.
(All the tests are available in Jim Collins’ article.)
It took a couple days to brainstorm, a few more days for group feedback, and that was it! We have our marketing vision at Buffer.
Here’s what we came up with. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Marketing Vision Exercise
Be champions for change. Inspire the next generation of growing businesses.
- Genuine in our interactions
- Inclusive of fresh ideas and new perspectives
- Generous with our knowledge, our learnings, and our time
- Optimistic about the future
- Cohesive within our team
Be the most others-focused marketing team on earth.
Provide value to others with everything we create and share. Constantly deliver Wow! moments.
We will be known for our unique approach to marketing: transparent, creative, inclusive.
We will do high-quality work, as good or better than what the very best brands agencies could deliver.
We will question the norms. Why are we doing this? Can we do it another way?
We will be a constant conversation in other team’s Slack rooms: “Did you see what Buffer did?” “Have you read their latest article?”
We will innovate through experimentation. We will not be afraid to try something unusual, something we believe in. We will embrace failures on the path to delivering new and unique value.
We will have an outsize impact.
Five years from now, our marketing team will challenge the definition of “marketing.” People will know us as editorial, PR, community, conversion.
We will run an in-house agency to better support the Buffer team and product, to fully understand the jobs that our customers need done, and to assist businesses who are driving positive change.
When we deliver value to our audience, growth will take care of itself.
Exercise: Write an article that you would love to see published about your organization in 10, 20, 30 years from now …
Featured article in the New York Times, June 1, 2028 …
The $100M Startup With No Marketing Team
Ten years ago, the Buffer marketing team was a small, cohesive group of ten. Today, the team is 50 people - or no people at all, depending on how you look at it.
One of the hallmarks of the Buffer brand over the last decade has been its atypical approach to marketing. The team emphasizes the customer journey, the brand experience, and the success of others; they emphasize these elements to such a degree that what they’re doing could scarcely be called marketing, which is why you won’t hear the word “marketing” spoken much at all.
“Marketing carries with it certain connotations - not all of them good,” VP of Marketing Kevan Lee said. “We value the relationships we create, the people we can help, and the stories we can tell. This helps us approach our work from a perspective that’s not tied to any particular phrase or funnel: We do the work that is valuable, we do work that helps others reach their goals. In doing so, Buffer grows quite naturally on its own.
“When you deliver value to your audience, growth takes care of itself.”
Growth has indeed been taken care of at Buffer. The company reached $100 million in ARR this past year - a steady, sustained rise of $10M per year on average. And true to form, Buffer has done it with an untraditional approach to marketing: there is no sales team, there is no lead qualification, and the ads budget is a meager $5,000 per month, which the company matches 1:1 with donations to non-profits for underrepresented groups in tech.
Rather than traditional areas of marketing, the team organizes itself into different disciplines:
- There’s an editorial arm of Buffer with a team of 20. Editorial runs the company’s two online publications (each with over 50M visitors per month), one about small business growth and the other about workplace culture. In addition, editorial is responsible for the company’s award-winning monthly magazine (circulation: 150,000) and its serial podcasts (100,000 weekly listens).
- There’s a 5-person PR team, which is involved in arranging the team’s keynote addresses, TV/print/radio appearances, and press placements. (Full disclosure: this is the 25th time that Buffer has appeared in a New York Times article.)
- A 5-person community team, which runs an online community forum with 5,000 weekly active users and manages Buffer’s live training and educational courses. This year, the team has organized Buffer’s first worldwide meetup: a synchronized get-together in 40 cities across the globe.
- A 5-person conversion team. This team floats between product and marketing and is responsible for showcasing Buffer’s best-of-breed product suite.
The remaining 15 teammates are part of Buffer’s in-house agency, Revive, which exists to serve both the Buffer team and its own customers. The agency model began as an experiment to better serve the growing product marketing needs of Buffer and has since been spun off into a full creative agency that serves its clients by providing business support, marketing advice, and workplace strategy. The innovative model includes an internship program for underrepresented groups, and Revive boasts a 100% placement rate of interns into full-time jobs at the companies they’ve served.
All these different teams combined make for a 50-person marketing department - or no marketing department, depending on your view.
This approach has been labeled many different things over the past few years: “zero sell,” “unmarketing,” and “the genuine doctrine.” It’s all detailed in the recent book, Another Way Through, that’s been published by Buffer in conjunction with Penguin Random House. Here’s an excerpt:
“We have goals, just like marketing teams do. But our goals are vision-based and long-term. We figure out where we want to go, then we locate the mile markers that tell us if we’re getting there. We dream about the work, we do the work, and we revisit and reflect. We might plan for the next five years, but we are comfortable changing those plans every year.
“It’s an amazing place to be: the freedom to do work that you’re proud of, work that delivers value to people you care about, and to have faith in the bigger picture. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”
Have you had a chance to create a vision for your team?
I’d love to hear about your experience!
Note: This is a message I shared internally with the Buffer marketing team. I’m excited to make it transparent here (with a few edits for clarity). You can check out more transparent articles from our team in the Medium publication, Crumbs.