The New Meaning of Marketing Debt in B2B – And How to Deal With It

Joanna Szumowska

Joanna Szumowska


Marketing rollercoaster – how not to fall out of the cart? 

The economy is a rollercoaster. Your business is constantly moving in a speeding cart, overcoming challenges around the next corner. It accelerates thanks to intensive technological changes and jumps on the bumps of crises. Passengers – your colleagues and customers – go wild as you make sure that the cart stays on the tracks. 


This is what is happening in B2B marketing and sales departments right now. You try to hop on the wave of trends, while struggling with a tsunami of unfavourable economic changes. Perhaps you are just making important business decisions or are on the verge of the most difficult ones, such as cutting costs. 


This is all the more likely when you have almost nothing in your pockets, and in addition, your organization incurred marketing debt in times of prosperity, ignoring the need for building a strong brand and improving authority. In such a situation, it is very likely that your cart slows down, and there are less and less clients waiting for a ride in a queue. 


What to do in this situation? 


What is marketing debt and how to deal with it? 


Marketing Debt – What Exactly Is It? 

In the Human agency, we have observed the trend of stopping marketing activities by some B2B entities as a result of a noticeable economic slowdown. While discussing this issue during one of our meetings, we referred to the concept of marketing debt and its effects. 


Speaking about it, it is worth mentioning the concept of technological debt, which became the inspiration for this definition. Technical debt, the concept of which is attributed to software developer Ward Cunningham, appears in software development when the development team wants to speed up the final realisation of the project, at the expense of inferior, low-quality code. This actually speeds up the work and makes it easier to deliver the promised assumptions, but in the long-term it accumulates negative effects. Taking such shortcuts can be both conscious, intentional and planned, as well as unconscious, or hidden under the surface of official actions.  


Technical debt inspired us to create an analogy in the world of marketing. If we prioritise the speed of maximizing revenue at all costs, at the expense of sustainable brand development, we may soon start to feel the negative effects of such actions. And we will certainly feel them in the long run. 


Marketing debt directly stems from conditions where lead count is the only acceptable measure of success in an organization, and teams’ efforts are non-integrated. It is born due to the absence of focus on development and building synergy of competences and activities.


It arises as an effect of: 

  • no cooperation between marketing, sales, PR, EB and client service
  • taking shortcuts and choosing ill-considered marketing solutions or less favourable alternatives
  • lack of awareness of the background – market, trends, competition and behaviour, as if the business was carried out in a vacuum
  • denying the need to build authority based on providing substantive knowledge to target groups (as a result of focusing solely on the recipient at the last stages of the decision-making funnel)
  •  lack of knowledge of the target group and insights from sales conversations and from customers
  • disregarding the user’s multi-stage and multi-channel decision-making path, and on this basis, limiting the range of marketing activities and channels in which the brand communicates
  • lack of foundations of the brand and its consistent building in key fields
  • jumping from one idea to another, constantly changing your mind about your action plan
  • trusting only the potential of organic growth
  • leaving the fate of your brand to chance
  • inhibiting or discontinuing marketing activities in a crisis situation.


Such behaviour may continue for years, and its cumulative effects can be seen in all its glory during stagnation or market crashes. It can be the result of a strategic decision at the organisational level, but it can also be the result of ignorance and low marketing awareness in the team.


Helen Min describes the phenomenon of marketing debt in the case of startups, but it can also be applied to other types of organizations where no one thinks about marketing – or does it in an unstructured and ill-considered way. 


According to her, that’s where the marketing debt accumulate (she focuses on the area of tech b2b startups): 


  • In the area of messaging, where messages are inconsistent, sometimes contradictory, as everyone is focused on short-term goals. Even if unpolished messages are acceptable at the beginning, they accumulate in subsequent stages and require more work to make them consistent later. 
  • In the brand area: where brand issues are neglected in the initial stages, separating the brand and product areas. 
  • In the measurement area: where the team’s alignment around key indicators is missing. 
  • In the area of lead for sales: where only salesmen are employed to close the sale, not marketers working on building demand. 


In what areas, in my opinion, is the accumulation of such marketing debt most noticeable? Where is it easiest to diagnose? 


It is largely manifested in: 

  • lack of developed positioning and lack of awareness of its role 
  • inconsistent brand messaging across channels  
  • generic brand messaging based only on SEO assumptions 
  • no agreement between what representatives of different departments say about the brand 
  • a visible lack of thought regarding communication in social media and content – no consistency and thematic framework 
  • incoherent visual communication and CI 
  • inconsistent branded materials needed for sales or PR 
  • lack of basic digital assets and content resources, or fragmentary and ill-considered production 
  • little to no involvement of traders and customer service in marketing activities and information exchange 
  • no conscious employer branding activities 
  • technical problems related to neglected issues: ill-considered and inconsistent automations, inconsistent or outdated digital assets. 


The effects of marketing debt and the risks associated with it 

What effects can such an accumulation of marketing debt have? 


As Adrian Serafin points out on in his article on stopping marketing activities during the crisis, “As the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money”.  This saying applies both to the need for long-term, conscious investment in key areas, such as positioning and communication strategy, as well as to continuous marketing activities during the crisis. 


The key issues relate to the leaky bucket effect. 


This concept is derived from UXD – this effect is created when we transfer traffic from a paid campaign to an unusable page. Recipients quickly realise that they will not find the answer on our website and run away – with their money. Similarly, this concept can be applied in marketing and sales: the effect of a leaky marketing bucket appears when we run campaigns without proper background preparation and strategic brand care. 


As a result, it may cause the indifference of recipients to our message, as well as reluctance, disappointment or frustration.  And this can translate into many risks in the area of business development: 


  • Loss of opportunities at the very beginning of the funnel and a large automatic outflow of users, resulting in a limited number of new inquiries, negotiations and checkouts 
  • Losing clients further down the funnel 
  • High nurturing cost 
  • Getting low-quality, unmatched organic queries 
  • Missed opportunities 
  • Low value deals and low LTV 
  • High customer acquisition and campaign costs 
  • High customer retention costs and low retention. 


If we also stop our marketing activities in a crisis situation, we additionally risk: 

  • Losing current customers’ trust and no chance to build trust of new ones 
  • Getting frustrated and disengaged 
  • Disappointing the users with outdated data, inoperative mechanisms, automations. 


How to Fix Marketing Debt – Do and Dont’s 

When dealing with a plane malfunction, we need to put our oxygen mask on first – we address the priority issues first. 



In the event of an emergency, you cannot blindly press all the buttons in because you can accidentally catapult yourself. Acting in an uncoordinated manner, with no thought or plan, is a recipe for disaster. Also, you can’t press the brake suddenly, because everyone will fall out of their seats. You cannot simply stop your marketing activities and hope that in six months you will start from the same place. 


That’s why you shouldn’t: 

  • Promote the propaganda of success. As Helem Min writes, “Startups often hire outside PR firms in pursuit of short-term visibility and buzz. However, media coverage is ephemeral. Without a comprehensive marketing and communications strategy, these tactics end up doing little to impact the company’s long-term trajectory.” 
  • Deal with pouring water when there’s a hole below the deck – you shouldn’t perform ineffective cosmetic actions and make short-term sudden decisions (such as investing in intensive lead generation campaigns when there’s no refined positioning and related materials and messages)  
  • Chase your own tail – don’t change your mind about who to target in campaigns without a proper ICP and buying committee. 
  • Look for a scapegoat – do not fire employees who are operational performers of ill-considered decisions made at the top. 



Natalie Nathanson in a short but still relevant 2019 article titled Six Ways To Alleviate Risk And Recession-Proof Your Marketing Strategies recommended how to prepare for the coming crisis: 

  • Don’t slash marketing budgets; spend smarter.  
  • Prepare mission-critical value propositions.  
  • Diversify where possible.  
  • Nurture customers.  
  • Focus on right-size offerings.  
  • Build a recession-proof ecosystem. 


Everything seems to have changed since 2019, and the crisis has arrived. But nothing really changed. In the event of a disaster, it is necessary to efficiently analyse the situation, evacuation routes, our resources and limitations, as well as opportunities and risks. 


The key is to start and create a plan, do SOMETHING to start paying off the marketing debt in the area of brand building. This SOMETHING is a quick assessment of key risks to start with. If something is burning and you can see smoke, it must be dealt with immediately. 


Your task is to: 

  • Identify key problems – what is burning 
  • Choose low hanging fruit – areas where key repairs can be made quickly and efficiently. 


Based on the information obtained, make further decisions and steps. Call a crisis meeting. Choose priorities together. Prepare an emergency plan of action now and think about tasks for later. 


If it does not burn yet, but you see that it is already smoldering and a fire is only a matter of time – approach it methodically. Take a look at the individual areas at the intersection of marketing, sales and PR:



Are you focused and does everyone understand and perceive it in the same way? Has the ICP – Ideal Customer Profile, been developed? Has a buying committee been developed? Do we know its needs and challenges? Is the offer developed and refined? Do we know its strengths and weaknesses? 




What has been done? Do we know what promises we give to the client? Is there positioning? Is there a communication strategy? Is there a CI? If so, how was it developed and implemented? Do we know how our customers perceive our brand? Can we locate ourselves on the competition map in terms of communication? 


As the author of the aforementioned article points out:


?In a boom when budgets are plump, ‘me too’ value propositions might be enough to get by. But when a heavy dose of economic reality sets in, marketing teams need to be ready with their best “mission critical” value propositions.” 


This task is critical. 



Communication channels 

Where and how do we communicate? Who is responsible for it? What materials is it based on? How are they prepared and distributed? Where are the gaps and inconsistencies? What improvements can we make? Which channels are crucial for us? 




What sales activities do you perform? How do traders communicate? Are they using positioning? What language do they speak? How effective are these activities? What does the process look like? What channels are effective and why? 



Identify problem areas that require more analysis and work 

Where are the problems most visible? Who, if someone, reports them? What does cooperation in the organization look like? Do you have common goals and activities? Were corrective actions taken and if so, were they effective? What do you want to improve? 



Analysis of the available budget. Prioritisation. Setting goals. 

What resources do you have? What are they used for? Do you have to cut costs? What areas will they affect? How can we prioritise actions? 



Action plan and its implementation 

How can you approach creating a framework of action and plans for specific areas you need to improve? How can you divide the list of operational tasks between teams and individuals? How can you put your plan into action? What resources do you need? When can you start and how long can it take? 



Optimisation of all areas 

How can you approach the topics of production, storage, team cooperation, and reporting to optimise activities in these areas? How can you facilitate the exchange of information? How can you improve team communication so that issues are identified, communicated and fixed faster? 



For Starters – How to Find Yourself and Where to Start? 

If you don’t know where to start, perform a corridor test to analyse your team’s brand perception. Ask your employees 5 key questions: 

  • In your opinion, what is the key value we deliver to our clients? 
  • What are our three strongest points? 
  • What three weaknesses and threats do you notice in our current situation? 
  • Can you identify three chances for us in the current situation? 
  • If you were given a budget, time, and a team – what would be the 1 thing you choose to do? 


This will allow you to identify: 

  • Understanding the offer and value proposition among employees and whether it is clear and consistent 
  • Perception of advantages in the market 
  • Perceiving and understanding opportunities and threats in various areas – and indicating whether employees have the same goal 
  • Prioritisation of problems and perceived personal competences in the team that can be used for optimisation. 


Thanks to the insights of people working in various departments and at various positions, you can understand how they perceive the current situation and how, according to them, problems can potentially be fixed. 


Get into action!  


The worst thing about having debt is pretending it doesn’t exist or covering it with more loans. This approach can backfire on you very quickly. 


And if it’s too difficult – you may need the help of an internal or specialised team that will guide you through the meanders of marketing debt and help your brand sail into calmer waters. 

Joanna Szumowska



Head of Strategy with nearly 20 years of experience. Specialized in B2B tech marketing, she also gained experience in digital advertising agencies and B2C marketing. A sociologist by training with a background in UX, analytics, research, brand marketing and inbound marketing, she is an advocate of a t-shape approach to competency profiling. A promoter of demand generation based on delivering real values for audiences.

Head of Strategy with nearly 20 years of experience. Specialized in B2B tech marketing, she also gained experience in digital advertising agencies and B2C marketing. A sociologist by training with a background in UX, analytics, research, brand marketing and inbound marketing, she is an advocate of a t-shape approach to competency profiling. A promoter of demand generation based on delivering real values for audiences.

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