[Revised 2024] Why Virtual CMO Services is a Tricky Landscape

Eliza Jaskolski
Talent Manager at HireCMO

Have things absolutely changed? And is it risky?

After the era of COVID-19, many startups (and traditional businesses) around the world came to realize that their day-to-day business activities can still be conducted remotely! Since then, it has led to many companies being more open to hiring for remote roles on a part-time or full-time basis.

Fast forward to 2024, we now have managers, directors, vice presidents and c-suite members taking remote calls from their vacation homes and still operating like business as usual. It's "the new normal" and it doesn't exclude ever-so-important roles like the Virtual Chief Marketing Officer (CMO).

And no, it's not risky. I'll explain why.

Working remotely may have been shunned in the early 2000s. But since then, technology has pushed the boundaries of how teams work together. Based on my conversations at HireCMO, it seems that high-performing executives are more concerned about "getting the job done" as opposed to being hung over about the color of your t-shirt on that Zoom call. There are exceptions, though.

For some high-priority engagements, having the team on-site working physically together can drastically improve the results you'd get, compared to everyone operating virtually. It can make a big difference, yes. But such scenarios should be handled on a case-by-case basis. Some startups (like Twitter, I'm sure you've heard) are bringing all hands on deck and making it mandatory for employees to come into the office. Whereas other companies are welcoming a hybrid model, where 80% of the team members are expected to come into the office 1-2 times a week. I think that's fair.

But what about the chief marketing officer? Should they be subject to the same rules or given special treatment?

What is a virtual chief marketing officer?

A virtual CMO is a c-suite executive who mainly operates remotely but is fully available to your Board, Investors and operating teams to lead your company's marketing efforts at all levels.

I'll be honest. The advantage of having a virtual c-suite executive role within your company might not sound the most pleasant at first. After all, the decisions made by these individuals can have drastic negative (or positive!) impacts on the health of your startup.

But I'll tell you why it's a slightly different case for virtual cmo services. The answer lies in the nature of their work. Let's dig in.

Amongst the 50 different things they do (yes 50), a virtual chief marketing officer can design, optimize and execute the following:

  • Establish, train and nurture your marketing team or build your marketing department up from zero
  • Prioritize and provide oversight for your startup's marketing efforts and conduct market research on your initial target audience, target customer personas, competitors, pricing and much more
  • Define and adapt your overall marketing strategy (across all channels)
  • Strategize your marketing budget and help decide which growth objectives it should be spent on

I browsed through 30+ CMO job postings from reputable companies and created another blog about it, if you'd like to read about what a chief marketing officer is expected to bring to a marketing team. You'll notice the more early-stage the startup is, the more vague and loosely tied the job description is. The more mature, the more in-depth and broader their requirements. It's interesting.

And so a lot of the marketing efforts expected from a chief marketing officer actually align very closely to the objectives of the founding team - i.e., scale the business sustainably. Here's where it gets more fun.

With the exception of highly critical marketing efforts such as brand positioning, refining product messaging, conducting internal marketing interviews - most of the work on a virtual chief marketing officer roster revolves around the internet! I would say, 80% of it. Why?

  • How're you testing and refining campaign results for Google and Meta Ads?
  • Need to check the effectiveness of your SEO? Guess where Google Analytics is hosted?
  • Want to hire influencers on TikTok? Where's that done?
  • Forgot to run another A/B test for your landing page? Hmm..
  • Need to re-design the marketing creatives on Canva?

Yes, I am picking some strange, niche examples - but the point is that most of internet marketing can be executed online through video calls and screen sharing as long as there is an agreeable cadence which suits the needs of the marketing team (type of mentorship, level of guidance, handholding, etc. required).

This is also why we're noticing a large influx of marketing gigs being available online for freelancers from all over the globe. It's not a hoax. It works. And having a virtual chief marketing officer available at the click of a button is no different - their actions just have more impact on your business. Which is why you should rely on trusted, reliable sources for hiring a virtual cmo. My recommended? HireCMO. Abandon your marketing chaos already, come talk to us.

How to recruit a chief marketing officer

Wow, glad you asked. There's a lot that goes into this response. But, regardless of the working arrangement (i.e., virtually or physically at the office), here are the most important items you should look for when interviewing candidates:

  • Context/Purpose: Do they understand your startup's mission and how you help your customers? Are they aware of how the Product team, Sales team and Marketing team all need to align on how your product delivers on its promise?
  • Fundamentals: When you ask them about how they look for opportunities to scale a brand, does the candidate ask intelligent questions to you? Or are they hell bent on executing a hundred tasks and hoping one sticks? Although testing your marketing hypotheses is what ultimately brings results to execute on, a great CMO will ask you questions before he recommends a random goose chase.
  • Experience with Mentorship/Training: Not every great executor is actually a good mentor. If you do have an existing marketing team, you need to think about how they would absorb tactics/strategy from your new chief marketing officer. Will this person block time on their calendar for the newcomers on your team? Is she secretive about her work, or is she open to sharing and even learning from her own mistakes? Key item.
  • Depth of Knowledge: As you and I both know, marketing programs are always evolving along with new ways to do digital marketing, content marketing, search engine optimization, etc. Does your new virtual cmo put time aside each month to learn about these new trends? Is he complacent? Or does he get frustrated/amazed when he comes across a polished marketing strategy guide he hasn't seen before? Little things. Big tells.
  • Organic/Paid Channels: Have they actually executed marketing campaigns in the past that generated results? If so, what were the results and if they didn't succeed at first, how did they tweak their marketing strategies to increase their ROI?
  • Measuring Results: Anyone can spend $50,000 and launch a variety of marketing strategies and marketing campaigns hoping they reel in a few customers. But the real question is, how exactly would a CMO measure marketing success? Do they have a process (even if high-level) in place? Or are they just BS-ing you with random tactics?

I'll be writing a blog on what questions to ask a virtual chief marketing officer. Although I know 40-50% of the questions, I'll need to speak with high-performing CMOs based in US, CA and EU to come up with a solid list I can share with you! :)

In the meantime, if you want to resolve your marketing conflicts and get charmed by our CMOs, come have a virtual coffee with us at HireCMO! Virtual CMO, virtual coffee haha.

When to hire a fractional CMO

Did you know that the average CMO tenure in 2020 and 2021 was around 40 months—the lowest in more than a decade. There can be multiple reasons why this is happening, I'm not sure to be frank - but, the key takeaway for you here is that regardless of how long a CMO decides to stay with you, your job as the founder/leader, is to ensure you leverage their time to the best of your ability.

Now how exactly would one do that? Hear me out. It's called a "fractional cmo". On sales calls, I've seen founders get chills down their spines when I mention "fractional cmo services" because it apparently implies that the hiring team would not receive the "complete benefits of a full time cmo". But this couldn't be further from the truth.

Think of fractional as "as needed" for your company. You're not getting less than you should. You're only paying for results and time that you need, as they come. That means,

  1. Low risk and no $100,000 severance packages: Not needing to hire yet another overpaid executive who only plays back whatever he hears on Board meetings (right?!). And if after working with them for 4-6 weeks, you don't see the results you expect, you can always let go without a hefty severance package. There, you just saved $100,000 reading this article!
  2. Cut the onboarding, get to the chase: At HireCMO for example, I personally take great care to make sure every client is 100% comfortable with their virtual cmo before spending a dime with us. Instead of spending 2-3 weeks interviewing a candidate, and then another 2-3 weeks onboarding them into your company, HireCMO cuts that timeline in half plus, your CMO gets to work the moment you cut us the cheque. There's no time lost in employee training videos, water cooler chats or office banter. Your virtual cmo will know your marketing objectives/challenges, and gets straight to work with your team.
  3. Stay recession-proof, friend: As some very notable tech founders have pointed out, the decade of complacency that's infected Silicon Valley startups needs to go. It's time. Companies are having to shed thousands off employees and 6-figure salaries to de-bloat their teams and increase efficiency. And marketing isn't an  you may know, marketing programs are often the most impacted when companies begin cost-cutting. But, here's the hack. With an on-demand/fractional cmo, you're able to turn that permanent 6-figure salary into a variable 4 or 5-figure per month cost which you can then adjust based on your company's priorities! It's almost cheating because you get to have the smartest brains in marketing, sit down with you and aggressively scale your growth. And for what? $50,000? Come on. That's a steal.
  4. Bring multiple brains on: Working with an established platform like ours (haha I'm biased of course) allows you the option to choose from multiple CMOs who scaled SaaS, DTC and eCommerce companies. Plus, once they're plugged into your business, they can hire operators on your behalf and execute on the marketing strategy they built with you. It's truly an unmatched tactic to scale your business without spending north of $250,000 getting a full time person. Just get a virtual cmo :)

Balancing your Marketing strategy and Marketing Efforts

Conducting market research is a required skillset for founding teams at all companies, and is not just isolated to chief marketing officers. The marketing tactics you use today will be vastly different from the traditional marketing that many are used to. And it's up to the virtual cmo (and yourself) to build out your marketing function, create an MVP marketing strategy and keep testing your hypotheses to determine what works vs. what doesn't.

I might sound like a broken record by now, but marketing strategy isn't a "2-dimensional" world anymore. Customers now have a lot of information available at their fingertips to instantly compare your value proposition and product features with 10 other competitors in minutes. It's tough. And the one who'll define a marketing strategy that carefully considers all the angles, will win. But the fact is that if you want to speed up your progress and cut the learning curve in half for new territory (e.g., deciding whether to hire a TikTok influencer for your brand, determining if paid ad spend is the right customer acquisition channel, thinking how to present a defensible growth roadmap for your next fundraising) it's always recommended to work with someone more experienced than yourself!

I may sound like I'm trying to sell you a virtual cmo, but really think about it. Who did you go to in University? Who taught you how to ride a bike? How did you learn about "growth hacking"? There was always someone who taught you the ways. And why should it be any different growing a business that means so much to you?

Closing thoughts on the Modern-Day Virtual CMO

We've covered a lot here today. Here's a summary:

  • A virtual cmo will help refine your company's vision for growth by being your guide in the dark tunnel. They have the lamp you're looking for.
  • Be extremely careful when hiring for this influential marketing role. Too many charlatans who'll complete one LinkedIn Marketing course and think they're gods. I mean, come on.
  • The world's work habits are changing, so don't be too alarmed if your next c-suite hires prefer to work remotely. What matters is the expectations within your contract with them, the number of hours/projects they have committed to, associated timelines, etc.
  • And lastly, hire a leader you can rely on. You're not hiring a Fiverr consultant. You're bringing on a seasoned executive to clear your marketing fog and fortify the vision for your company's growth. Why settle for less?

And oh, you're welcome to have a coffee with us anytime. Just come say hi at HireCMO :)

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