Marketing in a Tech World: Chatting with Narrativ

Mike Mallazzo is a red sauce perfectionist and the head of marketing at Narrativ, a media technology start-up building a better internet for shoppers. He is an alumnus of LinkedIn, Dynamic Yield and the Medill School at Northwestern University where he once crawled into a dumpster in the name of journalism. His writing on the future of media, commerce and technology has appeared in Quartz, Entrepreneur, The Next Web, AdWeek, AdExchanger, MediaPost, Internet Retailer and the Chicago Tribune.

StyleSage: Can you give us a quick background on Narrativ? How was the company started, and what’s your mission and vision?

Mike: Of course! Narrativ is a media technology company building a better internet for shoppers. Our patent-pending SmartLink technology rewires publishers that review commerce – whether it’s Wirecutter for the best headphones or GQ for the best dress shirt.

We’re on pace to deliver more than $600M in advertiser revenue in 2018, working with partners such as New York Magazine, Ulta, and Dermstore to tap into $25B of annual consumer spend. In June 2018, Narrativ was recognized as a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum for “building renewable link technology to democratize commerce.”

Our origin story is pretty simple: When our founder, Shirley Chen ran marketing at Moda Operandi, her goal was to guide shoppers from discovery to checkout as seamlessly and elegantly as possible. However, she realized that through no fault of the retailer’s, the consumer journey was often interrupted by broken links, links to out-of-stock items, and other fundamental technology gaps that benefited internet monopolies. So she built Narrativ to create a fundamentally better experience for publishers, retailers, and shoppers alike.

StyleSage: Tell us a bit more about your marketing background. What drew you to it initially, what do you find most challenging about it, and what excites you the most?

Mike: For me, it was less about marketing and more about finding a career where I could work to build a new business model for journalism. I remember being in journalism school at Northwestern surrounded by brilliant student reporters and being the only one who cared about the plight of the industry. Everyone else was just gleefully cynical about being unemployed or underpaid after college. Keep in mind, this was 2010- the New York Times still hadn’t launched its paywall and we didn’t even have a fundamental answer to the question of whether anybody would pay for journalism.

I took a circuitous path through tech to get here but ultimately I’m thrilled to be at a company that is at the forefront of innovation in digital media. Along the way, I also became enamored with eCommerce, particularly the all-encompassing Leviathan of Amazon and how so a company rebuilding the media and commerce infrastructure was literally the ideal fit.

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StyleSage: When you work in a younger company, sometimes you have to be resourceful and scrappy to get things done – marketing included. Can you give any advice to marketers in early-stage companies about how to make the most of limited resources?

Mike: Start by assuming that nobody cares about you, your product, your brand or your story. As a young company, you have to earn respect. The greatest threat to start-ups is irrelevance.

Start by assuming that nobody cares about you, your product, your brand or your story.

The most important thing for a tech start-up (particularly in B2B) is to tie your brand story to a larger zeitgeist. For technology companies, that generally means coming up with a firm positioning and angle about where you stand vis a vis Google, Amazon and Facebook. It’s their world – we’re just marketing in it.

Additionally, a start-up marketer has to ruthlessly prioritize, often saying no to objectively reasonable requests. The most dangerous trait for a start-up marketer to have is a Boxer from Animal’s Farm “I will work harder” mentality. I joke that if work only 25 hours per week but spend them doing the right things, you’ll already be miles ahead of the competition.

StyleSage: How do you think marketing for tech differs from marketing in other industries, say consumer goods?

Mike: Above all else, the main difference to me is that CPG marketers have to be perfectionists while tech marketers have to be hustlers.

CPG campaigns have to be perfect. Often millions of dollars are on the line and consumers are watching Hot consumer brands will get attention- the question is whether it will be positive or negative. For B2B tech companies, 90% of what you do won’t get noticed. I feel that the best companies hustle like hell to make sure there is a lot of 10%.

CPG marketers have to be perfectionists while tech marketers have to be hustlers.

Tech marketers have to be fast. I think of marketing in the same way that technologists view the concept of minimum viable product (MVP). If you aren’t embarrassed by the V1 of your marketing campaign, you launched too late. There just isn’t time to be perfect in tech marketing. Have an incremental improvement for your hero copy? Ship it! By the time you perfect the message, one of your competitors will be saying exactly the same thing.

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StyleSage: A tech marketer wears a lot of different hats – from product marketing, communications, branding, to demand generation. How do you prioritize your time amongst these different areas, as well as your investments in each, in order to achieve your goals?

Mike: I’m going to shamelessly steal a framework that I stole from last boss and break down the job of a marketing leader as being about three things: awareness, leads and tools.

All companies need these three things but the percentage varies by company and can change from week to week.

For most startups, the first marketing hire should be a demand generation superstar. Most companies need leads and revenue before they need killer market positioning. At Narrativ, we’re in of a bit of a unique situation where our marketing needs are more top of the funnel which plays a bit more to my skillset.

The best marketers are excellent at one aspect of marketing and merely competent at others. I’m a content guy so I try to spend at least half of my time playing to my strength by writing bylines, research reports, industry commentary, etc. As our needs change as a company, I’ll hire folks to fill the gaps. (Hint hint, performance marketers.)

StyleSage: What do you believe marketing’s role is as it relates to the overall strategy of the company?

Mike: For most tech start-ups, I think marketing’s role can be boiled down to “make people give a damn” about your company. That applies to press, analysts, investors, prospects, customers etc.

For most tech start-ups, I think marketing’s role can be boiled down to “make people give a damn” about your company.

StyleSage: Setting aside education, which skills do you think are most important to success as a modern-day tech marketer? What role does the organization play – in the way it treats marketing – that sets it up for success?

Mike: Honestly, I think that the most important skill is resilience. A lot of the sh*t you try isn’t going to work. You’ll run “growth experiments” that actually cost your company website visitors and conversions. Your killer brand tagline will fall totally flat. You’ll spend hours and hundreds of dollars on a press release nobody reads.

Additionally, you have to be 100% willing to kill your best ideas if the data doesn’t support them. Earlier in my career, I tried to rig data and research reports to fit the story I was trying to tell. It just didn’t work – let the data speak to you and then craft the story.

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StyleSage: Which marketing-specific metrics do you believe define the success of your work as a marketer?

Mike: I’m rolling out a new framework for Q4 that I’m actually pretty excited about. As a team, we’re finalizing five broad theses that “we believe” about the future of media and commerce and where Narrativ fits into it.

Next quarter, I’m measuring every single thing I do in marketing on whether or not it supports the advancement of one of those pillars. Essentially, I’m taking the framework that top VCs use for deciding whether or not to make an investment to define marketing objectives and ultimately success. Check back with me in Q1 2019 and I’ll let you know how it went ☺

StyleSage: You work for an extremely impressive female CEO, Shirley Chen. What have you learned, working alongside her?

Mike: Shirley is a true visionary with an unbelievable mix of tenacity and thoughtfulness. I’ve learned a ton working alongside her but if I had to distill it down to one thing, I’d say it is how to rally a set of people around a vision. What we’re doing here at Narrativ is hard and at times seems, dare I say, impossible. But Shirley constantly pushes our team towards true vision of grandeur while making sure we are grounded in pragmatic goals and OKRs. In just four months, she’s made me rethink my entire view of what is possible for the future of media and commerce, and I come to work excited every day to help build it.

StyleSage: What’s up next for Narrativ? Any exciting developments underway that you can tell us about?

Mike: Right now, the lion’s share of our focus is on building the best possible product for publishers by bringing an entirely new set of features to the commerce content game.

This fall we’re launching a new product that makes consumer trends not only available but enlightening to editors. By providing publishers with consumer insights and data, they can write more relevant content for their readers, ultimately fulfilling our goal of helping shoppers find what they want at the best prices online.

We believe in data democratization and in data’s power to elevating the quality of service journalism online. Making product-level data available to publishers requires matching products at Google-esque scale which falls outside the purview of most incumbent technology companies. Google has matched millions of product nodes for search, Narrativ is doing this for content.