Lessons Learned: Significant Brand Discoveries That Shaped Work Tech

Lessons Learned: Brand Discoveries That Shaped Work Tech is a four-part blog series by Bret Starr highlighting unique strategies and best practices learned by The Starr Conspiracy since 2006. 


We’ve made a couple of discoveries in my career that I’m pretty proud of. You’re not going to read about them in medical journals, Popular Mechanics, or National Geographic, but I do believe they have had an impact on technology marketing.

I know they’ve had an impact on Work Tech, because they had a very real and measurable impact on brands like Taleo, SuccessFactors, Ultimate Software, Virgin Pulse, and Achievers. Many of these brands benefited in big ways during the Global Financial Crisis in part due to the brand discoveries in 2006 and the strategies we created to leverage those discoveries.

These discoveries, along with a lot of new lessons we’ve learned in the last 10 years, are still helping create market leaders in Work Tech. We can’t wait to tell you some of their stories.

Part 1: List/Offer/Creative

My first software marketing job was in 1997. I was waiting tables at Good Eats Cafe in Austin when a tech founder (who was sitting in my section) offered me a job on the spot. And I accepted. I started (with no experience) as one of the first 10 employees and ended as a sales and marketing executive, managing both a large sales group and marketing team all the way up to a then-blockbuster acquisition by a software giant. Thank you, Bubble!

I had no idea what I was doing in marketing. But one thing that has defined my career (and my life) is my ability to research arcane topics, rapidly synthesize information, formulate new models, and apply them in the real world. And so, in 1997, I went to the public library (gasp) and the book store (shriek) and checked out or purchased every book on marketing I could find (including textbooks).

There were a few helpful ones (especially the textbooks). But the paperbacks mostly sucked. Especially Geoffrey A. Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, which I believe is not only a bad book but a damaging one. That book has done more to screw up B2B marketing than HubSpot. (But more on both of those topics in later articles. In short, there is no such thing as a Unique Value Proposition, and Inbound Marketing is a hoax.) 

Anyway, back to me.

In 1997, we were in the first wave of digital transformation in marketing. One day I was sending out postcards and fax blasts, the next day I was building websites and sending “e-blasts.” It happened that fast. But as many marketing people who had more experience than me struggled during the first wave of digital transformation in marketing, I quickly found my footing by anchoring new digital marketing strategies in old-school research and validation.

I’m glad I was there when we were still sending millions of direct-mail units every year. Because most of what I know about marketing, I learned by licking stamps.

One of the models that I created early in my direct-mail days was the List/Offer/Creative (LOC) model. Essentially, I devised a pattern for improving campaign testing by categorizing all elements of a direct-mail campaign into three categories: list, offer, and creative. Might not sound earth-shattering, but it allowed for the development of rapid testing cohorts (or cells) and insights into direct-mail results that could be used to improve new campaigns in a matter of months! (You know, you had to design the campaign, send it to the print house, visit the print house to make sure it was being printed right, get it back from the print house a couple of weeks later, drop it at the post office, wait for it to be bulk-sorted and mailed, and then wait another six weeks or so before you reached “peak response” as you picked up business reply cards from the P.O. box every day, logged them in a spreadsheet while paying special attention to the small code in the upper right corner, and then walked from desk to desk handing them to salespeople like Glengarry leads). 

Believe it or not, I loved it.

The upshot of the LOC model was that the most significant impact on response rate was driven first by the list, second by the offer, and third by the creative. In other words, bad creative with a garbage offer — when sent to the right list — would outperform a beautiful campaign with an amazing offer sent to a garbage list.

And that’s just the way B2B marketing worked in the ’90s.


Stay tuned for the upcoming entries in the Lessons Learned series:

  • Lesson 1: List/Offer/Creative
  • Lesson 2: The Fourth Dimension: Brand.
  • Lesson 3: Takeover Strategy
  • Lesson 4: Impact on Work Tech