The fuel & the engine

A simple metaphor to help you create an efficient marketing function

To build a successful marketing function you need to produce great fuel and craft a well-running engine. Your fuel needs to be custom made for your engine and your engine needs to be custom made for your fuel.

This analogy is the simplest way I’ve found to throw away the marketing jargon, ever-changing marketing job titles, and complicated frameworks and explain the mix of things you need to create an efficient marketing function. If you keep the fuel-engine concept in mind, you’ll get the mix of marketing activities correct, the right set of people on your marketing team, and high impact work out the door.

In this newsletter:

This post is a (sort-of) complement to our most popular newsletter, “How to Organize your SaaS Marketing Org.” You can read either first, but they are better together (much like fuel and engines).

1) What’s the fuel and what’s the engine?

2) How to create a strategy and team based on the fuel-engine concept

2) Fuel-engine fail modes—and how to solve them

4) Opportunities for marketers: jobs and angel investing

What’s the fuel and what’s the engine?

The fuel is all the stuff that you say (out loud, in writing, or visually) to your audience—whether that be short-form copy on a website, a long-form blog post, an image in an ad, or an explainer video. The engine is all of the channels and processes you use to get the fuel out to your audience, plus the tools you use and the metrics you use to track your marketing and growth efforts. When you combine the fuel and the engine, your business grows fast.

But, startups usually over-index on one. Meaning, they spend way too much time creating fuel and sacrifice building out a good engine, or vice versa. This happens through hiring the wrong mix of people and by choosing the wrong mix of marketing activities.

When your fuel-engine mix is out of whack, it holds you back from not only growing and building a brand quickly, but also from diagnosing what’s holding you back. For example, if all you do is create fuel, and it doesn’t drive growth, you might think, “We need a different, better kind of fuel.” That could be the issue, but first you should make sure you have a good engine to distribute the fuel.

The fuel-engine diagram below is not comprehensive, but gives a solid overview of what I classify as “fuel” and what I classify as “engine”. You’ll notice that many things, like sending out an email, involve both fuel (creating the email itself) and the engine (sending the email based on the right marketing automation rules to the right audience). 

How to get the fuel-engine combo right through marketing strategy & hiring

Set balanced goals  

  • Make sure your goals balance fuel projects and engine projects, so there’s a clear plan to hit KPIs.

  • If all of your goals are KPI goals like “drive x qualified leads” you are likely putting too much emphasis on the engine and not leaving time to focus on the fuel as well. 

  • So, make sure you have goals around the project work needed to create the fuel that will drive these qualified leads.

  • Our newsletter on setting marketing goals goes into more detail.

Use the GACC Brief

  • Use GACC (goals, audience, channel/distribution, creative) brief at the top of everything you create. Yes, there’s a newsletter on this too.

  • Writing a GACC ensures you’ve got a solid engine plan for each piece of fuel you create.

  • Create mini-funnels (engines) for every major piece of content (fuel) you create. This means mapping custom journeys on how your audience will discover your content, what action you want them to take after consuming the content, what happens during sales or onboarding if they came through that piece of content, and what email drips correspond with that content.

Hire the right mix of skillsets/roles

Some roles mostly create fuel, some roles mostly build the engine, and some do both. The “do both” roles are critical, as these roles make sure the fuel and engine come together to make the vehicle move (these roles are in green in the org chart above).

  • Build a well balanced team of fuel-focused roles, engine-focused roles, and “do both” roles.

  • Hire back and forth, 1 fuel focused person, 1 engine focused person, 1 combo person, as you are building an early team. This may not be possible or make sense with every hire, but over time make sure you’re keeping the balance.

  • Running a campaign, planning a launch, doing a virtual event, etc. involves both fuel and engine skillsets. So, demand gen managers, events managers, and community managers need to have fuel skills, engine skills, and know how to combine the fuel and engine.

  •  Similarly, PMMs (product marketing managers) need to know how to create the right fuel for the right engine.

    • PMMs are great first marketing hires since they are experts at combining the fuel and the engine

    • PMMs tend to be able to pinch hit on either the fuel side or the engine side as your team scales (mixing baseball metaphors with car metaphors...who am I?)

    • PMMs are responsible for understanding the audience, and know what fuel and engine works best for that audience. Newsletter post on the role of PMMs here.

    • For more on marketers with hybrid skillsets, our newsletter on early marketing hiring talks about pi-shaped marketers (much like T shaped marketers but with 2 vertical lines) and why they are an asset to your team.

Fuel engine fail modes—and how to solve them

Empty tank: All engine, no fuel

If you’re putting too much focus on the engine, but not enough on the fuel, you might say (or hear) things like:

  •  “I just need a growth marketer or demand gen person as my first hire; no need for product marketing and content marketing now”

  • “I want to triple leads, let’s just increase ad spend with the same as creative and hire no one else”

  • “Just do more outbound campaigns that drive to the request demo page”

In all of these situations, you’re thinking about the engine, but not thinking about the fuel that will power it. To drive scalable, efficient results you need to add value to your audience—this requires great content, design, and messaging customized for the channel and audience segment.

Check Engine Light: All fuel, no engine

If you’re spending way too much time creating fuel, but not building out an engine, you might say (or hear) things like:

  • “Our goal this quarter is to write 5 case studies”

  • “I don’t know if my web copy works or not, my A/B test is taking forever.”

  •  “I have no idea if that blog post ranks for SEO”

  • “No, I didn’t make a distribution plan for that ebook I spent 50 hours creating.”

In these scenarios, you need to make sure that you are not only focused on making things, but also focused on distributing things. The number of things you create isn’t the measure of success, the impact it drives is. If no one is coming to your website or blog, no one will convert, and you’ll never learn what resonates. In short, make sure you have a plan for how you’ll drive your audience to everything you create.

Unleaded fuel, Diesel engine: Fuel & engine don’t match up

If you’re creating a lot of valuable content and orchestrating a well running engine, but you aren’t getting results, you likely have a fuel-engine mismatch.

  • “Our content marketing team never talks to our growth marketing team.”

  • “We are getting so much traffic to these blog posts, but nothing is converting”

  • “We rank really high for 25 really irrelevant keywords”

  • “Our email drip has really high open rates for email 1, but really high unsubscribe rates”

  • “Our events are really well attended, but it’s all the wrong people”

  • “We have a lot of marketing contractors, but no one to put it all together”

When your fuel and your engine aren’t working together, it means you either don’t have the right strategy for your audience or you don’t have enough team oversight from people who understand both the fuel and the engine to connect the dots. In both cases, hiring a product marketing manager or a leader with an understanding of all areas of marketing—who can help you understand how to make the fuel and engine work together—will likely help.


I start many conversations with founders by explaining the fuel and engine concept and this provides a lot of clarity on who to hire and what needs to get done. And in general, using the fuel-engine concept, rather than using overly-complex marketing jargon, is a helpful way to communicate about marketing cross-functionally.

Remember the fuel-engine concept when hiring, planning, and executing, and I guarantee you will see improved efficiency from your marketing function.


Opportunities for marketers

If you are a marketer interested in angel investment opportunities, let us know. We’ve made 30+ investments over the past year and would love to share deal flow with marketers.

Angel Invest with Us

If you are looking for a new role, we do a few free coaching sessions a month for candidates looking for new roles and make lots of intros.

Reach out to us about your job search

And here are some great roles from our job board:

First Marketer or Head of Marketing

PMM:

Content:

Growth:

Other:

Go to Job Board

Thanks. We’ve been busy at MKT1 and appreciate the support. If there’s a topic you’d like us to cover, let us know. Team@mkt1.co