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The Difference Between Sales and Marketing in the Internet Age

The Difference Between Sales and Marketing for Modern Online Business

I have been hearing this classic debate since my business school classes thirty years ago and it still rages today – “What is the difference between sales and marketing?” It seems that everyone is still confused, and nobody likes any of the answers given. Perhaps because all the answers seem to disagree with each other. But we still have to ask question ….

What Is The Difference Between Sales and Marketing?

In the good ‘ol days, the simple explanation of the difference between sales and marketing was that marketing generated leads / opportunities and sales acted on them. Well, that and the observation that sales people favored martinis at lunch and wore flashy jewelry while the marketing team sipped wine at night and preferred stylish suits. I’m not certain any of that was ever true. But it’s certainly not true now. Things are a lot better, but more complex. And there are a lot more questions. What about branding and advertising? And what part does product and market research play?

So with all those questions and complexities, where do we begin? I think that one of the reasons so many businesses – and even established business leaders – have so much trouble defining the difference between sales and marketing is that they still misunderstand what sales and marketing actually are. That confusion starts at the top. So, let’s start by taking about the difference between objectives, strategies, functions, and tactics.

Objectives, Strategies, Functions, and Tactics

Everything starts with an objective – or at least it’s supposed to. This is true not just in business, but in every activity where humans organize themselves to do things. Someone, somewhere, decides that something needs to happen, so a strategy is plotted to accomplish that objective.

Too often businesses big and small call out objectives like “get more sales” – which is virtually meaningless – and then tell their sales and marketing teams to go out and get it done. Perhaps we will write a blog post about how to set an objective that is meaningful, actionable, and achievable. In fact, I just added that to the list. But for now, let’s assume that we have a solid objective and move on to strategies. [We finished that post on setting SMART goals and objectives, and you can find it here.]

Strategies are the specific things – the detailed plans – that we are going to implement to achieve the objective at hand. This is a very important distinction because all the time I hear companies discussing their “sales strategy” and their “marketing strategy.” The truth is that sales and marketing strategies are meaningless without each other – along with the strategies of all the other business departments. There is no “sales strategy” nor is there a “marketing strategy,” there are only all strategies that are working together to achieve the same set of objectives set by leadership.

Said another way, both sales and marketing are “functions” that serve strategies to achieve an objective. But it goes deeper than that. Because each job function employs tactics to implement the strategy, and each tactic is made up of a series of tasks. So where most companies measure sales and marketing efforts as separate departments – siloed and competing against each other for oxygen – the truth is that they are built together. Sales without marketing and marketing without sales is wasted effort.

The Difference Between Sales and Marketing Life on the Cororate Farm

When we view sales and marketing this way, we can start to see them not as separate departments. Rather, they are different functions deploying tactics to implement a common strategy.

Using a military analogy, marketing fires artillery and sales storms the beaches. But one without the other loses the battle. Done correctly, they are a part of the same force inter-operating and in constant communication to achieve a result. This means that the real differences between sales and marketing are functions, tactics, and tasks.

This might sound like I’m splitting hairs. But it is even more important to think of these things when you’re doing business online.

The Difference Between Sales and Marketing Business Organization Pyramid

Sales vs. Marketing in a Modern Online Business

My big wake-up call came about ten years ago. I was working for a software company and we had an inside sales team. But some days I would come into the office and read my reports and discover that we had made tens of thousands of dollars in sales overnight. Seemingly, no sales person was involved at all. Customers just went to our website and plopped their credit card down to make major software purchases – sometimes thousands of dollars at a time.

I have talked to a lot of other professionals who had a similar experience. And this experience taught everyone some false lessons … for a while. Of course, it’s easy to see how one could start to think that all you needed was a great website and then the magic would happen and everyone would get rich. Of course it doesn’t work that way … at least not for very long.

Doing it Wrong for 100 Years – The Sales and Marketing Journey

Digging in to the results, I discovered a fascinating insight. All those business analysts and organization gurus had been getting it wrong for over one hundred years. There was never a natural line of marketing to sales. There really is no “sales funnel.” This was an artificial formality foisted upon consumers by regimented business structures. Customers wanted to behave differently.

Sure, the concept of siloed sales and marketing departments and a formalized sales funnel worked OK at the time. But that was because big businesses controlled everything from the flow of information to where products were stocked on the shelves. You can even read in the old business books about “guiding” prospects into the sales funnel. Companies built the funnel and structures as a way to control customer behavior and organize a sales person’s activities – their tasks. The internet has radically changed all of that. Now customers set the timetables and agendas and have more access to information than ever before, and that makes them more powerful.

At the software company, customers would find us online – sometimes they’d see and ad or find us using a search engine, other times they would be recommended to us … lots of ways. Then the customer would flow in and out of our “sales process” and marketing materials. We’d also see them go to our online technical documentation – things like help files and user forums that were “designed” for existing customers. They would call in to the sales team and get a demo license to test, then seemingly disappear for months at a time.

The truth is that all those tens of thousands of dollars in sales that simply arrived overnight had been interacting with all our sales AND marketing efforts for a long time … sometimes even more than a year. Then they just decided to buy. Why did they make that decision when they did? All kinds of reasons … far too many to list here. The point is that when left to their own devices, the customers chose their own path most of the time and didn’t care one bit about our sales cycle – they did not recognize when or where they went from “lead” to “prospect.” All we could do was measure and watch what they actually did – the customer’s natural behavior – and then try to remove obstacles along the way and maximize their experience.

This meant that everyone had to be doing sales and marketing all the time. All the sales and marketing messages had to be cohesive and harmonious across all kinds of functions – from social media to technical documentation and from phone rep to website design. Achieving any objective required that the dividing lines be redrawn or completely erased. The sales and marketing “tasks” were still different, but they were inextricably intertwined – each giving constant feedback to the other in a never-ending loop of iteration and customer discovery.

Birth of a New Business Role – the Chief Revenue Officer

I am not the only one who has recognized this interplay. If you are old enough to remember the 1980s and 1990s, companies would have a VP of Sales and a VP of Marketing. There have been a few shifts in executive titles since then. But these days modern companies have created the new title of “Chief Revenue Officer” (CRO). This position embodies all the responsibility elements of traditional sales and marketing roles and expands on them – especially in the research areas of product creation and pricing strategies.

Generally speaking, a CRO’s responsibilities cover everything that has an impact on revenue. Here are some highlights.

The Chief Revenue Officer CRO has Modern Responsibility for Sales and Marketing

I should also point out that a lot of companies have created the role of CRO in their organizations, but have not changed the way they think about the sales and marketing functions. Those companies are adding the new title as more of a fashion statement than a transformational shift in business organization made possible by advancements in technology. They are missing the point.

So What is the Modern Difference Between Sales and Marketing?

All this adds up to an interesting twist in the fabric of business management. There is still a difference between sales and marketing, but the difference is now relegated to tactics and tasks where it more naturally belongs as opposed to stifling siloes of competing corporate warfare.

It’s just one more way the internet has changed everything.

Thanks for reading!


About the Author

Jeffery J. HardyCommunication Strategist
Upendo Ventures
Jeff is a 25-year veteran of communications serving the technology fields. He has worked at the super-large tech behemoths of yesterday and the small entrepreneurial shops of tomorrow across the landscape of software, hosting, and cloud. He is a communications and social science nerd — and that means he creates a lot of content covering messaging, technology, leadership, and economics.

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