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Developing Marketing Acumen

Alfred Lua / Written on 05 August 2020

Hello there,

I shared some thoughts on email onboarding for SaaS products last week as I'm in the process of updating our onboarding emails. If you are curious, you can send up for a trial here and see the existing onboarding emails. I'd love any feedback!

I signed up for a few products that have similar complexity as Buffer, such as Intercom, ConvertKit, Mixpanel, and Privy, to check out their email onboarding. You might have noticed that these are not Buffer competitors. That's because I'm hoping to learn from companies that are not in the same industry. I'd love to check out more companies' email onboarding. Are there any you think I should check out? Thanks in advance!

Today I want to discuss marketing acumen.

Marketing acumen

In the product world, people talk about having product sense. In the design world, designers talk about having design taste. I think in marketing, we should talk about having marketing acumen.

What is marketing acumen?

In his book, Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs, Ken Kocienda described design taste:

Taste is developing a refined sense of judgement and finding the balance that produces a pleasing and integrated whole.

Kocienda was a software engineer and designer at Apple who worked on Safari, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. In the book, he goes on to explain how to develop judgment:

We all know what it's like to have a literal knee-jerk reaction and the similar figurative feeling we have when we instantly like or don't like something. I like perfectly ripe strawberries, and while this response certainly satisfies one definition for "taste", I can't say much about my preference beyond enjoying the sensation of sweetness. A lack of specific thoughts isn't a big deal when picking fruit to put on top of breakfast cereal, but such gaps are an issue in creative work. Persist too long in making choices without justifying them, and an entire creative effort might wander aimlessly. The results might be the sum of wishy-washy half decisions.

Developing the judgement to avoid this pitfall centers on the refined-like response, evaluating in an active way and finding the self confidence to form opinions with your gut you can also justify with your head. It's not always easy to come to groups with objects or ideas and think about them until it's possible to explain why you like them or not, yet taking part in a healthy and productive creative process requires such reflective engagement.

I think the same can be said about marketing acumen. One way I might define marketing acumen is this: having a refined sense of judgment on marketing campaigns, branding, and materials such as copy, imagery, and website design, and understanding why it works or doesn't work for a brand.

Making judgments

I used to judge marketing stuff just by whether I think it is good or bad. "That's a great campaign." "That's a bad ad." But to develop my marketing acumen, I know I need to go deeper than that.

For example, Nike released a new commercial last week. My first reaction was "wow, that's amazing!" I have watched it more than five times. But that doesn't help me develop my marketing acumen. Why is it good? What did I like about it? What could be better?

If you haven't watched Nike's latest commercial, I'd highly recommend checking it out:

Why did I like it? The first thing that stood out to me is the video editing, combining so many pairs of footages in perfect synchronization. Having edited some videos before, I know this isn't easy even when you have the footages ready. Second, the research that went into the video is massive. 4,000 footages were watched, and 72 were used to represent 24 sports.

Why is it good? Nike is a multi-sport brand. So showing as many sports as possible in the commercial represents the wide range of things they sell and makes the ad resonate with as many people as possible. Also, this commercial fits nicely under its brand, which has always been about inspiring athletes. Your brand isn't what you said it is, it is what you do repeated. Nike has certainly done countless marketing campaigns aimed at inspiring athletes.

What could be better? If I had to pick on something, and this will might sound ridiculous, I think the video editing is so good that the video overpowered the message. I was awed by the video and didn't capture the message until I watched it a few more times. In comparison, the second commercial in the campaign, Never Too Far Down, brought across a message more clearly. To be clear, the video is very well done, at least a million times better than what I can do now if I were to judge by the number of views. Also, I have read people comment on the soundtrack. I did not even think about that, which is something I can work on.

Without going through such a thorough analysis, my judgment on marketing stuff will always remain shallow. I try to do this with any marketing campaigns and materials I see now. Does this onboarding email compel me to take the action it wants me to take? Why does this product demo feel good? What made me click on this ad?

Practising the craft

While making evaluating other people's work is important, it is also essential to do the work ourselves. Coming up with campaign ideas, writing, creating videos, and so on.

When I was writing for the Buffer blog, I developed a strong content marketing acumen for what works, at least for us, through a lot of hard work. I feel that good content is relevant to the audience, useful, reliable, easy-to-read, and most importantly, right. I developed that acumen because I was thinking about content all day for about two years. I was always on the lookout for new ideas and read many articles to improve my taste. I wrote at least two articles every week. For each article, I came up with about 20 headlines. It was hard work but it paid off.

Now, I'm trying to do the same for product marketing. I come up with new ideas for every product launch, pay attention to other companies' product launches, sign up for products to see how they do onboarding, and write about other companies to analyze what they have done well. I don't feel I have a strong acumen for product marketing yet probably because I have only done this for a year. If you have any advice for me, I'll appreciate it.

My book list

Besides that, I think reading is another good way to develop marketing acumen. It exposes us to new ideas and helps us learn about what other people, marketers or not, think about things. You will notice below that I've read quite a number of books on psychology and how people think and behave because I think that is a key aspect of marketing.

Here are the books I've read and would recommend:

Here are some of the books on my reading list that are related to marketing:

If there are any books you think I should read, let me know. I'll be grateful for any recommendations.