B2B 23 | Content Strategy

 

B2B 23 | Content Strategy

 

Content is king, as Bill Gates once said. But how can organizations truly optimize their content strategy? In this episode, Vijay Damojipurapu is joined by  Sarah Allen-Short, Vice President of Marketing for Give And Take, Inc. Also known as the Marketing Doula, Sarah sheds some light on how content is fundamental not only in driving sales but in optimizing internal processes as well. She explains how businesses should incorporate content strategy into the sales process and create alignment within an organization. She also explains how she advises clients by providing support, information, and assistance as they “birth” their product. Tune in for some useful tips on how you can advance your business with content strategy.

Listen to the podcast here:

How Content Strategy Leads To Better Results With Sarah Allen-Short

I have with me Sarah Allen-Short who is the VP of Marketing at Give and Take. She’s got a very interesting and varied background all the way from corporate communications to being part of a PR agency to running marketing for small companies and startups. She’s also part of the Peak Community. Sarah, welcome. I look forward to an engaging conversation with you.

Thank you so much for having me.

The question that I always start off the show with is, how do you define a go-to-market?

I define it with the simplest possible definition which is the way that a company brings any new product or service to the market. Whether that’s a new product in an existing market or a new market for an existing product or service, it’s just the way that you do that.

Do you see it as a one-time activity or is this ongoing?

Definitely not. It’s ongoing. If you’re growing your company, you’re always going to be introducing new products, new features, new services, or you’re going to be taking the ones you already have into new markets. I suppose if you sold one widget, you only sold it to retailers, and you did that for 30 years, you might not be thinking about it as a go-to-market strategy the whole time. Even then, honestly, the way the marketplace changes, I think you still would be.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m excited to have you on the show because that content is a key piece within the whole go-to-market engine. The way I look at this is content is the currency for sales, marketing, and go-to-market functions. It’s similar to how code is to a software engineer or software engineering product that are code-based.

I think often B2B companies overlook content, especially thought leadership content because they think they can’t afford it. They think it’s a luxury. When you’re doing it right, it can be very cost-effective and efficient. It can be the engine that drives every single other thing you do. I was in a meeting with one of my clients. I have a full-time day job but I also do some consulting. I was in a meeting where they’re hiring a new designer and a new content writer. They’re asking me to onboard and help train them. I told them, “What you guys do drives every single other thing that this team of twenty does. All the people working in social media, regional marketing, demand gen, everything that every product marketing and everyone else is doing on this team starts the seed of what they do. It starts with what you two are going to create as the actual content writer and the designer. I totally agree with you.

I know you have been in and out and completely in it within the whole content, content strategy, and content marketing world. On a lighter note, when you ask your kids this question, how do your kids describe what you do for a living or what do you do at work?

They say that I worked for Adam Grant because he’s the cofounder of our company. They know that I do marketing. It’s interesting. I might ask them. I have teenagers. I would be curious to hear what they say. I think they probably would say, “You make things sound good so that people want to buy them.” Beyond that, they would have no idea what I do. My very first job out of college was in PR so my parents still think I do PR even though I have not focused on PR in at least nine years. I do a little bit of everything but as a core part of my job function, my dad still regularly asks me, “When was the last time you talked to this journalist or that journalist?” I don’t do that anymore.

Content has the power to be an engine that drives everything else. Click To Tweet

It’s funny, especially with parents. I think it’s imprinted in their brains. They somehow tend to recall the first job that you do. That is your career for the rest of your life.

I put myself through college as a telemarketer. I’m glad they didn’t land on that one. They updated it a little bit after that.

Talk to us about your overall career journey. I know you’ve done work at an ad agency. You also worked on the other side, in-house. Talk to us about your career journey as well as what you do at Adam Grant’s company.

Very early in my career towards the end of college, I was working in advertising. I did that because what I wanted to do was to be a journalist. I thought that if I started working in advertising at a magazine, I could get into journalism because I did not understand that is the worst way to get into journalism. Any reputable magazine has a strict separation between advertising and the editorial side. I didn’t know that, but I got into marketing. I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, which is a town that I was desperate to get out of in my teenage years. When I graduated from college, I wanted to go to DC and started looking for a job.

The first time I got to DC, I was 25. I was on the PR side after being in advertising for a few years. I don’t know how I got the job. What we did was we did stakeholder relations and communications for universities, NGOs, and it was a lot of fun. It was really interesting. I started to learn some fundamental principles. I had a great mentor there. We did some cool projects. I think when you work at an agency, you get exposed to so many different kinds of companies. I was working on a project with Madeleine Albright at the University of Michigan. I was working with the US Forest Service on a project to teach and attract Urban Americans into the forest. I’m trying to get people who live in urban centers interested in the forest. I was teaching low-income people energy-saving skills. It was just a lot of fun. It was fun to live in DC at that time.

I’ll never forget, the very first article that I ever got was in the South Florida Laundry News. I didn’t even know there were magazines for that. This was in the early 2000s but we still did all PR with an actual book called The Yellow Book. Some of your readers will remember. Anyway, one of my clients was a startup that had come out of the University of Michigan that was doing web analytics or customer satisfaction analytics called ForeSee. They were one of my biggest clients and they eventually brought me on full-time. At that point, they were in Michigan, I was in DC. I decided to move back to Richmond because it’s half the price to live in Richmond than it is to live in DC. I had been working with them since they were founded as a consultant. When I came on staff in 2007, I worked with them for about seven more years until they were acquired. That was a huge learning process for me because it was a lucrative acquisition but not an emotionally easy acquisition.

One of the things that we don’t talk about enough in the startup tech world, in the B2B SaaS tech world is the emotions behind an acquisition. After that, I did consulting for 3 or 4 years where I served as a Fractional CMO. My background is all technology, startups, SaaS, B2B, all in that space. I worked for a payroll company, a biotech startup, a marketing services firm, all sorts of things like that. The CEO from ForeSee came to me and said, “Adam Grant is starting a company and we want you as the head of marketing.” Where I work now, Give and Take, we have two solutions. One is an exercise that helps increase generosity in the workplace. The other is a knowledge-sharing platform. Those of you who are familiar with Adam Grant’s work, he studies generosity, particularly in the workplace. His partner in the startup, Wayne Baker, studies asking for help. We help companies teach their employees how to ask for help, exchange knowledge, generously share, how to practice it, and then how to scale it at an organization. That’s where I am now. I’ve been there since 2017.

It’s a very varied and colorful journey. As a context for the readers, I first saw your quality of work and thought process when you and I are part of the Peak Community started by Sangram Vajre and a couple of others. I still recall that you presented the content strategy framework or a template. That was one of the meeting points where I got an insight into how you think about content. If I connect the dots to your all career journey, because you’ve worked at both at an ad agency across diverse projects for NGOs, government and corporate. You’ve seen that spectrum. Clearly, you know how to tell stories. That’s a key part of a content brand.

I know you’re going to ask me about some specific examples. When I was at ForeSee, I had an opportunity to run a pretty large original research team. I saw the power that content could have as an engine to drive everything else that was happening. When our company got acquired, the CEO said that the content strategy was one of the top three reasons that he thought we had gotten the valuation that we had gotten. It can impact much. It’s not just a loosey-goosey write an eBook and see what happens. It can impact market valuation.

I think this is something that’s not well understood by founders and CEOs, let alone marketing leaders. Content plays a key role. As you say, it’s not about just putting out a blog post, a social media post or a white paper on an eBook. It’s a lot more than that. The key point is, how do you tie in? In your mind, you’re a visionary when it comes to storytelling across channels on a given timeline. How do you tell that? If done right, it increases the revenue and growth but it increases the valuation of the company. I want you to reiterate that point.

B2B 23 | Content Strategy
Content Strategy: Everything the product marketing is doing starts with the seed of what writers and designers create – the content.

 

At the very fundamental level, you’re looking at things like MQLs and SQLs. You’re going to increase leads. If that’s where you want to stop, that’s great. What our CEO said to me when we were acquired was the way that we positioned the company in our thought leadership and content strategy, the way that we used our content and thought leadership to get covered in the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, CNN and Bloomberg, the way that we used it to drive leads and expand deals, we had land and expand strategy, and we’d be in with a company and use content strategy to spread our tentacles within that company, he felt like it was a critical part of our success. He put the budget behind it too. We had not an insignificant amount of budget behind that effort. We had a team of 5 out of 15 or 20 marketing people just working on content and thought leadership, and a budget of a few million dollars for that, not including salaries.

I’m working with the same CEO. It’s a lot of fun because he does understand that. If you have a visionary CEO that understands that, honestly, he taught me that. Now that I’m looking back on it, I’m the marketing expert but he believed in it before I did. I think of him as a real mentor of mine. I saw it work so well at that company. Even if you don’t have a visionary CEO who doesn’t understand that content can affect and impact market valuation, that’s hard to quantify. You can at least be talking about SQLs, MQLs or website traffic. There are definite ways to measure content that you can show the value of.

You mentioned that you had a team of five within the content marketing team. You also mentioned a budget of a few million dollars. What percentage of the revenue was that few million dollars? Is it like 5% or 10% less?

I am not sure, honestly. It’s been a few years now. I would say it was probably 30% or 40% of the marketing budget and 30% of the marketing staff. I’m not sure about it relative to the entire revenue of the entire company by the time we were sold. I just don’t remember those details. I should go look because that’s a good thing to know.

The reason why I’m poking you on this is I’ve seen various studies. I was running my marketing teams as well. A big chunk of it was called out for content. I’m talking about a few years ago but right now, with the stack and the tech stack that we have, it’s a lot easier. There is this whole gray area of there are certain things you can measure but not everything. For example, you can keep putting your posts. You can post great content on LinkedIn and social media like Twitter and all those. It’s very hard for you to tie it back to metrics but someone comes and says, “The reason I reached out to you is that I can relate to what you’re saying. I can see the expertise that you wrote on LinkedIn or Twitter.” Let’s dive deeper into that whole content strategy and the execution piece that you did at ForeSee. Talk to us about the situation. What were some of the calls that you’re looking at when you’re talking about and thinking about the whole PR strategy, as well as the thought leadership content?

The situation at ForeSee was that we were a relatively unknown company in a relatively new market that wasn’t defined, which was web analytics at that time. It grew and evolved to be more like customer experience analytics. This was before Qualtrics and any of those big companies were in the game. This was 2001 when it started. We had an academic methodology that we knew could measure online customer satisfaction in a way that predicted the future. What we needed to do was convince everybody of that. This is a little different from some of the things I’ve done at other places. We can talk about that too.

The strategy we took was to do original research and use that to get media coverage. We did a few different studies. We worked with a retail trade publication and we did a survey of retailers and said, “What do you think customers think about all this stuff?” We then surveyed customers and we went out to the media and said, “Retailers don’t know what customers want. They’re dead wrong.” That gave us the idea to start doing research just among customers. What we started doing is what we call the Satisfaction Index. It became the ForeSee Experience Index over time, the FXI. What we did was we went out in a number of industries and channels. We would pay a panel company to measure customer satisfaction. At one point, we did the top 100 retailers, the top 10 mobile sites, the top 20 banks, and the top 10 utilities, depending on the market. We did a number of these studies and that was the bulk of our external budget.

We would release these reports saying that Amazon is number one and Apple is number two. What we did was we leveraged it for all it was worth. We got regular coverage in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times for this study, which is a little harder to do now. We’re not using Survey Monkey to ask people, “What do you think is the best retailer?” We had a methodology we could depend on. We got a ton of PR coverage but then we also went and we marketed to those companies. We said, “Amazon, did you know you’re number one? You should tell all your users.” For a long time, Amazon would put up a landing page on their homepage, “Amazon rated number one in the FXI,” so we started to get known for this.

This was in the early 2000s.

It started in the early 2000s and went all the way through. A few times, they were acquired by Verint. It’s now the VXI. They still do it.

The real magic of content strategy is connecting it to the sales process. Click To Tweet

Going back to when you reached out to Amazon, this was in the early 2000s or mid-2000s.

I would say 2008, 2009 probably in Amazon. The real magic though of this content strategy was connecting it to sales. Once we start to arm sales with, here’s a list of the top 100 retailers, here’s how to go use this to get meetings with all 100 of those retailers, and here’s how to use it to get meetings with the other 9,000 retailers that aren’t on the list and say, “We know what the best of the best we’re doing. We can show you how to do it. We can show you how to keep up.” What we did is a little bit of ABM. It was the early days of ABM. I don’t even think ABM was a term then. What we started to do was we would do a template of a briefing deck and the salespeople could customize it. I’ve worked at so many places where sales and marketing butt heads.

Every place I’ve ever worked at, sales loves marketing. When your sales and you can walk into the room and throw the Wall Street Journal down on the table and say, “Look at our company in the Wall Street Journal,” or you can put down a real eBook or white paper that looks legit, it gives you so much credibility. When you’re a salesperson and you have to email somebody every week for six months saying, “Do you have time yet?” When we are giving them a dribble of content, instead of just saying, “Do you have time yet?” They’re saying, “Did you see our blog post on this? Did you see our eBook on this? Did you see our infographic on this? By the way, do you have time yet?” It makes it so much easier for them. They should look at marketing as making their jobs so much easier. Not as so many sales teams do, the weak link that if only marketing was working well, we would be able to do our jobs well. The real magic is connecting the content to the sales process.

On that point, I want to emphasize this for our readers and for folks who are looking to seriously connect the dots between content to revenue. I think what you highlighted there is marketing doing its job. When it comes to putting out a good blog post and good insights on the website, that’s just the beginning. Additionally, on top, you’re also highlighting the kind of press coverage you’re getting at tier-one publications.

In terms of measurement, you can measure how many what we used to call IPMs, Initial Prospect Meetings, come as a result of one of these emails. You can measure up marketing attribution. When you do a big formal campaign like, “We did this index. We’re doing customized decks for different companies,” you can measure how many deals came in that were initiated by that effort. You can start to say, “You’re giving me $1 million to do this retail study. It brought in $6 million in sales. We should try this again with utilities and banks.” It’s hard in early startup days to worry too much about metrics. It takes a lot of time, energy, and it takes away from doing. In early startup days, you have to try stuff. I think that marketers are not honest enough about proving their own worth. There’s a lot of C-suite executives that are skeptical that marketing can help. If you can’t show them how it does, you shouldn’t expect more budget.

I think the other part that was going well for you was a CEO who knew the value of marketing.

Absolutely. I was someone who believes strongly in content. I hear a lot of people on Peak talking about, “How do I convince my CEO of this and how do I convince my CEO of that? How do I teach them that marketing is important?” I wouldn’t go work for a CEO who didn’t think it was important. It’s just too heavy of a lift. There are CEOs who are raising an A-round and their board is like, “You need to get a CMO now. You need to get somebody on board.” They do it reluctantly and they’re product people. They want all their time and effort into the product. There are a lot of startup founders like that. I wouldn’t go work for somebody like that. It’s too hard to convince them. There are plenty of CEOs out there that get it.

To be arguing from the founder’s side, it’s hard for them. They don’t know what kind of a marketing leader they should hire. Take the example of a seed-stage or a pre-Series A startup. Typically, I’ve seen founders hire someone from a product marketing background and less of demand gen. Here are the pros and cons. With demand gen, it’s mostly about someone coming with that mindset but it’s all about cranking the marketing engine and generating leads. That’s fair enough. If you look at someone coming from a product marketing background, they start thinking about how we position this in the long term. How do we think about the messaging and how does it tie back to the product pieces, the feature? It also goes back to the customer research angle. There’s that debate that’s happening.

In my experience, the biggest challenge in bringing in marketing leadership in a seed or even Series A is finding that balance between strategic and tactical. What I have observed is you’re a $50 million company and the CEOs bring in somebody who’s worked at a $1 billion company. They’re like, “We want to be a $1 billion company and we’re going to bring somebody in from a $1 billion company.” They come into a $50 million company and everything they do takes a year. They want to talk about everything and strategy forever, and they can’t do anything. On the flip side, if you bring somebody in who’s only ever done demand gen type stuff to come in and lead a marketing organization, if they don’t have that strategic piece, they’re not going to grow the company from $50 million to $100 million. I think in that stage of growth, I would say maybe $10 to $100 million, that is the hardest thing. It’s finding somebody who can roll up their sleeves and do work, but also take a step back and think about the big picture.

There’s one set of marketing leader backgrounds or personal characteristics that will be valuable for growing a company from maybe $2 million to about $7 million, $8 million or so. I’ve seen that typically, it’s like a concord product marketing. It should not be someone from a large company. The pitfalls of that are if someone is coming from a large company, he or she cannot roll up the sleeves and do the work. It’s mostly about guiding, but then they don’t have the budget to have a good start. As you said, I think the big challenge is, “Once we get to the $10 million mark, how do we go to the $100 million?” You have been doing brand work to some extent before, but then the brand has to go up a few notches higher than you talk about like going from $10 million to $100 million. That’s where it comes down to what you’re doing around the whole customer experience index and highlighting that book.

B2B 23 | Content Strategy
Content Strategy: The biggest challenge in bringing in marketing leadership in a seed is finding that balance between strategic and tactical.

 

The content strategy can scale for those different sizes as well. If you’re under $10 million, you’re not going to be spending $2 million on research. That’s just not practical. At that point, you’re talking about bootstrapping content. I have a whole process for that to walk people through. If anybody wants to find me on LinkedIn or wherever, I’m happy to share that, but there’s a process that you go through to identify what the topics are, come up with themes and create content that doesn’t cost anything externally. There are no external costs. Assuming you have a designer and a writer on your staff and you don’t have to hire those out. If you have to hire them out, then those would be the only expenses. You don’t have to spend a lot on content. Here’s another tip for convincing your CEO. If you use that content to make the CEO the thought leader, they like it a little better. You can also use that to elevate other expert voices or other SMEs in your company. You can use the content to do that.

When I was the head of marketing at a company named Green Bits, my job back then was to work with a PR agency to figure out how we can position the founder and the CEO as a thought leader, and get on the coverage of maybe a Wall Street Journal or it can be a Forbes publication and things like that. It’s all about that. Think of it this way. It’s rational because the founder knows the industry, problems, customers, product and there’s a reason why they’re a founder. They should be highlighted and promoted as a thought leader.

Here’s a little hack for your readers who maybe don’t know this. Maybe everybody knows this by now but Forbes has these Expert Councils and they are paid to play. I don’t think everybody knows that and they’re not expensive. They’re between $2,000 and $4,000 a year to be on the Forbes HR Leadership Expert Council. Once you get on the Council, you can publish one article per month but it’s somewhat flexible on Forbes. There’s SEO value and legitimacy value for that. When you start having a bunch of Forbes clips on your website and your salespeople can send out Forbes. Honestly, in my opinion, Forbes is not really up to snuff anymore, but the business community still holds it in pretty high regard overall. You can just buy your way in. There’s a little hack for making your CEO a thought leader. Get them on the Expert Council.

Closing off on that, ever since we started that and we started publishing content from our CEO on the Forbes Council, it was a Forbes Leadership Council or something, the website traffic just skyrocketed right after that. When you have funding news to go along, nothing could beat that combination. Switching gears here, I noticed that you have a website known as The Marketing Doula. You have a little story around why and how you came up with that name. Do you want to share a bit about that?

I was a doula. I was a birth doula for about five years as a hobby. It’s funny because I’ve been in startup technology my whole life. A doula is a birth assistant. It’s a person who goes in with the birthing person and helps them while they’re in labor. You can also have a postpartum doula. You can do it in hospitals, home birth or birth centers. It’s just a person. It’s a support that is there for the birthing person to help them. What a doula does is during pregnancy, they provide options and choices. They say, “Here are the decisions you’re going to have to make. Here are the pros and cons of different decisions. I’m an expert on birth. Your partner is the expert on you. Together, we can help you have the kind of birth that you’re hoping to have. We can at least make it better than it otherwise would have been.” That was a total hobby for me.

When people think of doulas, they think of Birkenstocks, crystals and witchy stuff. I’m in startup marketing but I loved it. I attended maybe 50 births. I have a few philosophies of life. One is to help people generously. That’s the Adam Grant philosophy. One is if you catch a person a fish, they’ll eat for a day. If you teach a person to fish, they’ll eat for a week. What I’ve always wanted to do and what I did a lot of when I was consulting was teaching. I always liked to work myself out of a job. If you bring me in to be a fractional CMO or you bring me in to do content strategy, I’m going to teach you how to do it and set your team up so that they can do it themselves. I started to think I just want to have a place where I can share some of the stuff I’ve learned.

Despite the fact that it is 2021 and not like 2003, I didn’t have the guts to try a podcast like you. I thought it was too much work, so I started a blog. I was talking with a couple of friends about the name. I said, “What I do is I doula people through the marketing process. I give them their options and choices. I help them birth their product. Go-to-market as a birth of a product or a service. I’m the one that knows about marketing. They’re the ones that know about their company. Together, we partner to make it a beautiful experience. I can’t use that name.” She said, “Why not?” I said, “Because nobody knows what a doula is. Startup tech is very male-dominated” She said, “Not everybody needs to understand you. I think you should go for it.” That’s the name that I use and who knows. A lot of people don’t like it but it fits so perfectly. When people do get it, they really get it.

For me, I had to do some digging around. You got a good website with a lot of resources. Again, going back to your whole doula philosophy and mindset, which is about helping. I would say to the readers to go check out the website.

That’s what I like to do. I’m giving people real templates that they can use, templates, resources, ideas and lists. I’d love to turn it all into a book at some point. It’s broader than content strategy. It’s marketing in general. You asked me on to talk about content strategy and that’s my passion but because I’ve been a VP of marketing and a Fractional CMO, I have a lot wider experience than just that. I just like sharing it with people that need it.

I am on your blog now. For example, one article talks about 11 Ways to Increase Visibility on LinkedIn.

Content is a great way to get everybody aligned around one message. Click To Tweet

That was an article I wrote with help from Peak Community members. I was trying to help my sales team connect more authentically on LinkedIn and I didn’t know how to do it. I asked on Peak, I got all these answers and I collected them. That’s an example of me getting the credit for being an expert but this is not my expertise, which I tried to make clear in the article. It’s other people’s ideas.

To the readers, go check out those because Sarah has put together a great list of resources, including how to increase visibility on LinkedIn. I’m looking at it. There’s also one other which talks about free media list template and how to track other stuff, how to write a creative brief, how to set goals, and how to name a startup.

I don’t write on it often enough. I use a Q&A format. If you have a question about marketing, you can send it to me. It’s linked on the website and I’ll try to write a post to answer it.

One topic that I’ve seen personally and I’ve heard from others on the podcast is there’s always this challenge of how you work with other teams, including product and other functions within marketing, as well as how do you work with sales, customer support and success. What are your philosophy and approach? You shared a bit about as a market leader, how you help the sales team. Besides and beyond that, anything that you take or want to share?

Not everybody in marketing likes this approach. I like to come at it like how can I be of service to the other teams rather than I’m running the show and they all need to fit in my paradigm. How can I be of service to them? For a product team, what they care about is the product. Specifically related to your question about content, you can create tons of content about the product. Product content is probably going to be lower in the funnel than brand content, but you can do all sorts of content about the product. Once you are helping them out, promoting them as the thought leader or the subject matter expert, they’re going to get on board, especially if you’re doing the work for them. If you’re bringing them in, advise you, give you the ideas, and you’re doing the execution, they absolutely love it. I think that there’s also a way to elevate some customer success leaders. This is more internal politics but you can put their names on things.

Any of your customer success people are going to be the experts on what’s happening with your customers. If you’re doing a case study, put the name of the customer success person who worked with them in the case study. Use the customer success team as a resource for your content, probably lower in the funnel content. When you can partner with the customer success leadership and start to get some internal recognition for the people that are helping you, that helps a lot. You do a program where people from any department can write a blog post for you. You just have to make sure that their leadership is on board with it because if they’re not, it seems like you’re trying to steal bandwidth. It’s so great for employee engagement when you let other teams and then you have everybody brought into what you’re doing. I also think it’s important to market your own work internally.

If you are having success in content strategy or you put out an eBook, let everybody know. Tell everybody. Let them know what you’re doing and that you’re doing these cool things. Content is a great way to get everybody aligned around one message. I worked with another consulting client in the last couple of years that was trying to create a new category. I was having a hard time getting their own customer success, sales and product teams aligned around the definitions around this new category. Creating content that goes out in the world is a great way to do that. It’s so much harder when you get at a big company and you have big silos, but whenever possible, the more integrated and the less silo, the better.

I would add one more to that list. It is what I call customer marketing. This is especially important in a SaaS world, which most of the companies are, especially in the software world. Software as a service is all about recurring revenue and so on. Products adoption and creating ongoing fans and advocates of your product are key. What I do is also partner with someone on the customer success team who is an expert on the account side as well as on the product side. We do a mini-campaign around some specific features.

That’s a great idea. When you have success at the end, you’ve got to give credit to those people when you’re promoting it internally at the company, especially if you’re a marketing leader, but even if you’re on the team, if you’re an individual contributor, everybody always feels like they have to take credit for everything. It makes you look so much stronger if you give credit to other people. Unless you have a really toxic culture, you should always try to give credit to as many people as possible that helped you out.

That ties into what you’re doing at Give and Take. It’s all about generosity, asking for help, and at the same time giving help. We are running out of time here but last couple of questions for you, Sarah. One is, if you were to look back at your career, who would you give a shout-out to? You did mention the CEO and founder of ForeSee. Give 2 or 3 people.

B2B 23 | Content Strategy
Content Strategy: You can create content that doesn’t cost anything externally assuming you have a designer and a writer on your staff.

 

His name is Larry Freed. I’ve been working with him since 2001. For most of my professional life, he has been a mentor to me and a huge supporter of my career. He’s pushed me to develop. I had two mentors early days. One was named Anne Gunning, who was at a company called Kearns and West. She was a model for me of what a woman in leadership looked like. I would say that Shannon Latta, who was at ForeSee and Verint and is now at Nextiva is another mentor of mine for what it looks like to be a woman in power in technology. It is very common that you’re the only woman in the room and there are different ways of handling that. All of them are legitimate and all of them are worthwhile. Something about her leadership style clicked for me. She taught me less about marketing. She knew about marketing but what she taught me was more about leadership and management.

I think this is key, especially for women who are looking to break the glass ceiling. As much as we would like to admit that it is not there, it is there. The first thing is about tackling your own internal imposter syndrome. That’s one. Having these kinds of mentors that you mentioned is critical.

It’s important. I’ll do a plug for Peak here because Peak is the first time I’ve really found a marketing community. I’m a generous person. I give my time and my energy. I get that same time and energy back from other people who were willing to do favors for me, give me information, give me ideas or thoughts. It’s a phenomenal committee.

I want to echo that as well. I joined Peak Community and I’ve seen a lot of value. I get advice on the value that you give without expectations and it’s amazing. Putting out the content or meeting people like you and I met others as well. For the readers, go check out Peak Community.

Neither of us works for Peak. We’re not getting paid to say this. We just like it.

One final question for you. If you had to turn back time and then go back to day one of your go-to-market journey, what advice would you give to your younger self?

I’m going to get in trouble for this. I think it would be that product is way more important than I thought it was. I overemphasized. I was a marketing person. I thought that the world turned on marketing and that good marketing could turn anything successful, and that marketing should be the most important thing. This sounds so obvious but the product is really important. Having a lot more emphasis on product, I do think marketing should come in very early, but I used to think it should come in earlier than I think now. Now, the product has to be in better shape than I thought earlier in my career before you start go-to-market.

The product has to be good. That’s a key part. Without that, you won’t have a solid growing business, but then there should always be that synergy. It’s a cliche and overused on my head. Let’s see synergy. There should be ongoing activities between the marketing team and product team around how do you highlight and showcase the product features that will be more in the middle or bottom of the funnel content pieces? If you go upstream, it’s all about understanding the buyers and the users of the product. If you understand the product features and who is it built for? You start to develop and create that empathy piece between the product organization as well as your market, the buyers and the users. That’s the role marketing should play and will play.

The other piece of advice I would give my younger self is that your goal is always to scale and get to a big company. I don’t like working at huge companies. I don’t like red tape, roadblocks and silos. The single focus on blowing a company up to the detriment of culture and everything else, I might think twice about that, or maybe just take my paycheck and my cut and leave when the company gets too big. That works too.

With that message, if I had to summarize it in one line, it’s about knowing the size of the company where you will thrive. That’s really important. On that note, thank you so much, Sarah. It’s been a pleasure. Good luck to you and your team. We’ll cheer you from the sidelines.

It makes you look so much stronger if you give credit to other people. Click To Tweet

Thank you so much for having me. If anybody wants to connect on LinkedIn, I’m happy to do that. If you need any help, let me know.

For all the readers, do leave a note or do a quick note on LinkedIn saying the one takeaway that you got between the conversation between myself and Sarah. That would be of great help for both of us.

Thank you so much for having me. This has been a great conversation. I really enjoyed it.

Thank you.

Important Links:

About Sarah Allen-Short

As Vice President of Sales and Marketing at a technology startup called Give and Take, Inc. (2017-present), I oversee everything related to brand, content, and prospecting.

I was founder and president of Thrive Communications from 2014-2017, where I served as a fractional CMO, consultant, and advisor for organizations including Livefyre, Amplifinity, Biovigil, Quikly, the Innerwork Institute, Second Stage Partners, Life in 10 Minutes, Richmond Young Writers, Sabot at Stony Point, and more.

As Senior Director of Communications for ForeSee from 2007 to 2104, I built and oversaw the communications strategy that helped establish ForeSee at the top of its industry and supported its fast, cost-efficient growth and a successful exit in 2014.

From 2001-2007, I was a Senior Consultant with Kearns & West, where I developed and executed marketing and communications strategies for startups, universities, public companies, NGOs, nonprofits, and federal agencies. I had a special focus on stakeholder-driven communications that achieved organizational goals and demonstrated meaningful results.

During my tenure at Kearns & West, I worked with organizations like ForeSee, AT&T, the Aspen Institute, Duke Energy, the Edison Electric Institute, the USDA Forest Service, the University of Michigan, the William Davidson Institute, and dozens of others.

Private consulting engagements have included marketing and public relations work with Verint, BryterCX, the Univerisity of Colorado Leeds School of Business, MoveOn.org, the Brookings Institution, toLabor, Birth Matters, Second Stage Partners, the Acuity Project, Life in 10 Minutes, Richmond Young Writers, Sabot at Stony Point, and more.

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B2B 17 | Go-To-Market Approach

 

B2B 17 | Go-To-Market Approach

What does the go-to-market strategy look like for a company that has seen rocket ship growth over the last couple of years? What did they do differently? Vijay Damojipurapu is with someone who has the answers to that. In this episode, he sits down with Jeff Reekers, the CMO of Aircall, to talk about the tremendous growth of the company and their overall go-to-market approach. Moving away from the America-first approach, Jeff talks about how they went to Europe and then expanded into India and other regions. He discusses doing content marketing across different markets, structuring a team and budgeting, investing in the end-to-end customer experience journey, and preparing for the market demand challenges this 2021. Jeff offers so many helpful nuggets in today’s show that you won’t want to miss. Listen in and get inside their secrets to growth.

Listen to the podcast here

The Go-To-Market Approach For Rocket Ship Growth With Jeff Reekers

I have with me, Jeff Reekers, who is the CMO of Aircall. I was excited, eager, and curious to know the story of Aircall’s tremendous growth over a couple of years. Welcome to the show, Jeff.

Thank you, Vijay. Happy to be here and excited to be able to speak with you and to the audience.

Let’s start off with the signature question. How do you define a go-to-market?

The go-to-market strategy is the executional equities behind some other higher layers on the brand pyramid. Click To Tweet

I’m not sure I have anything that’s different from others here. Thinking about how do we take a product to the market successfully that maximizes growth and customer experience, there are a few elements to that. First, understanding the market analysis and what your market looks like. Within that market, what are the different players, competitive landscape, and all these types of things? Thinking about your marketing selection. Whom do you go after? How are you going to target? What are your key differentiators going to be and your value propositions? How are you going to segment that market for success? Thinking about all the different ways you’re going to distribute and sell the product. What’s the pricing going to look like? What are your promotion advertising strategies going to look like? All these types of things have to come together. We do the more specific, so the customer experience and customer acquisition strategy.

That covers the end-to-end gamut of all the way from the product. Of course, it starts with the market, who are your buyers are, what are the pain points, and so on. Once you have that clarity and understanding, you frame your value prop, how are you different, and why people should care, and then you identify the different channels.

One more area we’re trying to think of even before you get to the go-to-market strategy, which you commonly see folks or teams or companies skip and go straight into the go-to-market strategy. I like to think more that this is the marketing person coming out. It’s more like a brand pyramid. The go-to-market strategy is the executional equities behind some other higher layers on the brand pyramid. When we think of our brand equity pyramid, I dare call we’re thinking first at the high end, “What is our purpose? Why do we even exist as a company?” This is like that typical Simon Sinek’s why, how, what statement, whatever that clarifies. Secondly is our brand personality, who we are, and what our voice sounds like.

These two things come first, then we’re thinking from a product competitive landscape side. This is quite critical. I didn’t mention it on the go-to-market side. Specifically, what are your points of differentiation and points of competitiveness? Also, what are you not going to focus on at all as a company? Relevant indifference is what we call it. If you can get those things clarified, your purpose, personality, differentiators, and the things that you’re going to ignore, then you’ve got a good foundation for setting the strategy on the go-to-market side. There are a few layers above that we stress and think about a lot at Aircall, even before we think about the go-to-market side.

You hit upon an important point, which unfortunately a lot of the global market folks don’t pay attention to, which is starting off with the fundamental why. “Why does your company exist?” It starts with that. After that is the what and the how.

I’m sure we’ll get into this. As you grow a company, the why also is going to make customers want to stay with you and it’s going to make employees motivated, engaged, and encouraged. In the early stage, you’re going to get employees that want to grow, excited about the growth. That can be your early-stage mission, but later on, you have to define the why, “Why you exist,” and the true value that you bring into the world, and the unique vantage that you have as a company towards that.

How would your parents describe what you do, Jeff?

B2B 17 | Go-To-Market Approach
Go-To-Market Approach: The go-to-market is thinking about how to take a product to the market successfully that maximizes growth and customer experience.

 

They’re probably going to be more technical and spot-on because my father was a business executive for a long period of time and has a solid understanding of marketing. They may describe it as creates go-to-market strategies for software brands. They might be more on point than your typical parent.

Let’s say maybe even your grandparents. How would they describe it?

“Jeff works in technology or with computers.”

It has nothing to do with marketing. They don’t know that you’re the CMO.

They think generally works in technology is where that would be.

You and I talked about this a bit. Share your story around your personal and professional journey and why and how you took this path to becoming the CMO.

Be good with starting something, but then giving it to somebody else as you formalize and mature your company as well. Click To Tweet

I did my undergrad studies at the University of California, Davis. I played baseball there as well, and then I played baseball for a little bit after college. I did that for about a year or so. I knew that was winding down and I got tired of driving around the country getting cut from one team to the next. I saw the United States as a result of that to my car. At some point, I knew that was winding down and decided to make the journey to move out to New York City. I drove back to California without a strong understanding of what I wanted to do, though I always had marketing in the back of my mind.

I had taken one class at Davis that was in marketing. I don’t know why this was attractive to me, but I heard some stat that among the Fortune 500, the CMO had the highest turnover rates and the general tenure was somewhere around 12 to 18 months for CMO. I thought, “That’s a unique challenge. There’s interesting demand. There’s something that’s not being met there or something that’s not being well communicated or translated between what the expectations of marketing were and what was being delivered.” I thought that was an interesting, high-risk area. That fit my mindset, both combining the analytical and the qualitative portions of marketing.

I moved out to New York and I didn’t know what I wanted to do at the time. I was doing door-to-door sales for a short amount of time to make some rent as I first moved out there. Eventually, I got a job at Forbes in the marketing department there, which was a fantastic experience to be a part of that brand truly. Still to this day, even in my role, I’ll never have the response rate on the email that I had at Forbes. Having that Forbes email address, you can reach out to anybody on the planet and they’ll immediately reply to you.

I then got into the more corporate marketing scene and it still wasn’t certain. I went to grad school at NYU doing night school there and was still exploring. I eventually got into the startup scene with a company called Lawline, which was a legal tech organization that was starting up. That defined my career. I left Forbes to join this company. We had a couple of people starting out and we grew that company aggressively over the next four years. I took a sealable role there early in my career as we grew quite well. That was my path into marketing, I would say. At that point, I was focused narrowed down on marketing and knew that. Plus, the startup scene was where I was meant to be.

What employee number were you at the startup where you joined?

I’m not certain. I started in the customer support team and I was doing part-time work. I was doing a little bit of extra work on top of Forbes. I don’t remember. It might have been the first couple. We got a lot of contracting employees, so I might have been the first few there.

By the time you were entrusted with the CXO role, how many employees that the company has?

We were around them 50, 60, or somewhere around there at that point.

Did you come to Aircall right after?

No. That got me started. I was still early in my career there. We were a smaller organization. We’re a bootstrap company. We stayed around 50 to 100 employees, but I wanted to grow further than that and take the company to $100 million-plus. I did some consulting for a little bit. I started a marketing agency for a bit. I joined a company called Handshake, which was acquired by Shopify in 2017. I was there as VP of demand for about three years, and then I joined Aircall back in 2017.

Some things that stand out for me in your career journey, Jeff, are that you’re not afraid to experiment and accept where and what you’re good at and what you’re not. From early on, you had those blinders on for that CMO role, but you can’t get that on day one. You started off in door-to-door sales, and then switched to tech support and eventually, that got you to marketing and CMO now.

I’ve had a lot of different experiences in sales. I love customer support. Specifically, I love talking to frustrated customers and turning them into raving fans at the end of the phone call. It’s such a powerful part of the brand to be able to do that. I went to school and I studied information systems and more of a technical background there. The unique thing within marketing was being able to combine different disciplines to come up with unique vantage points in the marketing area.

B2B 17 | Go-To-Market Approach
Go-To-Market Approach: If you can get those things your purpose, personality, and differentiators clarified, then you’ve got a good foundation for setting the strategy on the go-to-market side.

 

Let’s talk about what you do. You are the CMO of Aircall. You mentioned about the rocket ship growth over the last couple of years. Talk to us about what Aircall does, who do you guys serve, and what is your overall go-to-market approach.

Aircall is a center software for small and medium-sized companies. We distribute internationally and have a carrier network that can service companies all across the globe. We focus on that small and medium segment making an extremely great customer experience. This is a technical area. We’re talking about phone systems and call center software. You usually think IT set up. There are lots of infrastructures. We make this insanely simple, so somebody could get set up in three minutes with the phone line, integrations, IVR, routing, and all these sorts of things to set up a robust call center software.

Would you say that the customers that you serve are mostly founders of all these small-size companies or even the customer support?

We’re talking anywhere between a team size of three users and upwards of 100 users. Your ACV is close to $10,000 or so. It’s not typically founders. There’s likely some in the mix there. We’re more typically working with the head of sales, head of support, or head of IT.

Head of IT and head of support, I get it, but the head of sales that’s unique.

B2B marketing has gone heavily demand-focused. Click To Tweet

For outbound dialing, many of our teams come to us with the need for sales development or inside sales team, high volume outbound calling, and wanting to know their customers and prospects that are getting inside. Leverage the integrations into whatever CRM system they’re using to automate the workflows and all those types of things.

You also mentioned a unique approach that you guys took from a go-to-market perspective. You didn’t take an America-first approach but more from Europe, and then expanded into India and other regions. Talk to us about why and how that played a key role in your growth.

I’d say there are seeds that were placed immediately by the founding team and our CEO level, which was we wanted to be a global company from day one. That’s our ambition and still is our ambition. An important consideration when you want to be a global company is that you can’t let strategic geography start too late. Let’s say you raise your first $50 million in revenue come from purely Europe, APAC or Australia, or North America specifically, then you launch a new region suddenly, it’s never going to be a top priority for you.

It’s tough to say, “Let’s get that $50 million.” That’s a lot of resources. It’s hard to get started somewhere in, say North America when the core business is somewhere else and it’ll be a harder decision later. We had the mindset from the earliest days that we wanted to be an international company and service customers worldwide. We brought that more towards a more tangible strategy later on. We can then talk strategically about what we can make. Our carrier networks are differentiated and our call quality internationally is differentiated, then we can use that to our advantage. We can break down the differences and nuance the go-to-market strategies per region. I’d say the ceiling for we wanted to be an international company from day one and we have to get these started quickly in order to do that was fundamental, foundational and theoretical.

You mentioned the different go-to-market channels for each of these geographies that varied and it tied to what works. How did you go about figuring out, “Do I need to do SEO inbound in this geography versus should it be more like a partnership?” What is the thought process like?

I’ll say first from international strategies is localization in knowing the markets is key. Maybe if you’re starting with a US-focused company or something like that, try to launch, go-to-market strategy in Europe without being there and understanding the markets in-depth, it’d be impossible to do it. Each market has nuances to it. You have to take each one individually and come up with a go-to-market strategy as though that’s the only region you’re working with. It can’t be side topics. It can’t be a part of the strategy. It has to be focused.

If we’re talking about Germany, “What is the German strategy?” If we’re talking France, “What is the strategy in France?” Organizationally, chart-wise, you have to set up an infrastructure to maximize that success. Set it up and maximize it. Naturally, you’re going to have nuances that are different market to market. This is going to change per product. I certainly can’t make generalizations across the board. In certain markets competitively, it’s easier for us to rank on SEO and organic search, so we’re going to focus on localizing for SEO in that region.

We definitely have a global strategy for that, but in certain regions, that might be 60% to 70% of our revenue. In other regions, it might be more expensive to do that and more competitive. In the US, there are tons of competitors in our space. Keywords are difficult. AdWords is an extremely expensive strategy here. It’s not the same in other regions. We can tailor our approach in ways that are maximized local success and we want to have a global strategy, but then optimize locally as well.

We have certain regions heavily inbound-focused. That’s SEO, organic search, a lot of digital marketing, and traditional customer acquisition-focused. In global, we have that, but then it’s more prevalent in other areas. In some regions, we need to think about our distribution strategy more strategically. How are we going to have a differentiated approach from competitors who maybe have more to invest in that particular region? The US is particularly competitive.

From there we need to think through what is our partnership strategy? How are we going to distribute the product intelligently with those partners and co-marketing? Also, setting up channel sales strategies that we can distribute the product through those with a lot of authority in spaces that maybe we’re not as familiar with and verticals we don’t know as well. We’re going on there but each region is nuanced. We have to come up with a strong approach to each one and do a lot of research to understand those local markets as well.

You invested a lot into SEO and custom keyword research and things like that. What was the role and how much did you invest when it came from a wellness content, education content, and evaluation point of view, and then how you help these guys make the decision?

B2B 17 | Go-To-Market Approach
Go-To-Market Approach: As you grow a company, the why is going to make customers want to stay with you and make employees motivated, engaged, and encouraged.

 

We’ve been doing content marketing since day one. I joined on as the second marketing individual at the company, and then with one marketing generalist at Aircall at the time, and then from there, our first hire was content marketing. The second hire was more content marketing. That was early on a foundational part of what we want to do. We’ve always thought of SEO but through a specific lens. We want to be creating extremely relevant, engaging materials for a few core audiences and that’s where we focused our content.

Our content strategy is having a unique voice and creating relevant materials for a few key audiences. We started with sales leaders and support leaders, and then we also focused heavily on partners. The partners are going to distribute the content through the same persona. The partners were a key part of this as well. We wanted to create a content strategy, engaging unique content, but also make it valuable that partners wanted to jump on there, put their logo on it, and then we could get the brand established through those partners. If we could partner with Intercom or HubSpot to produce content at a level, take the lead on that content, and also produce at a level where they want to put their logo on it and distribute it with us.

That’s what we thought early on with our content strategy. How can we create engaging content for a couple of audiences, but then how do we amplify that message? It’s because we don’t have a brand quite yet. How do we amplify that message? We thought of the partnership strategy as being core and fundamental to that. SEO was the framework within that. That was the overarching strategy, and then SEO and how do we maximize SEO within that overall strategy and making sure we had a solid keyword strategy and such as a part of that. It started with the question, how do we create great content for key audiences?

I’m glad to know that and it’s a validation, so let me share some context over here. I’m working on this manifesto, what I call as Content to Revenue Manifesto. Essentially, how bidding CMOs are driving revenue. What you said validates my thought process, which is the bidding CMOs create the hardest kind of content. It sounds like you guys put a lot of emphasis on that upfront. You may not see the results right away, but then it grows many folds over time.

We’re trying to do that in local markets as well and that’s a great way to build a brand.

Were you doing a lot of primary research where you’re co-creating the content with your sales leaders and supporting IT? Was it more of, “I found those and you had that internal knowledge and what resonates?”

I’d say a mixture of all things. Early on, it was a lot of webinars. We did localized events quite a bit in person with great speakers associated with them. We did our own research. We were still doing annually, for example, an eCommerce support survey where we’re leveraging both our customers and also general market research do whatever tools. We use SurveyMonkey in the past. We’ve used Qualtrics as well. It’s a mixture of things, whether it’s research from our customers, research on the general market, great thought leaders we can bring in, unique vantage points we might have internally.

We leverage our own insights and we use our product. We are our customer and we can leverage that quite a bit as well, which we have in the past. We’ve developed great relationships with our partners. We can create unique content with them based off of what they’re also saying. We tried to be agile with it. Early on, it was more quarterly strategies and monthly strategies about what we’re hearing, what problems are in the market, what seasonality impacts are happening, what’s going on in the world, and trying to be as aware of the path as possible and leverage that in our efforts.

Talk to us about how your marketing team is structured, how many people, what budget and how you think about the big rocks for 2021.

We have a few main teams, 42 members total on the marketing team. For anybody who’s going through a lot of stages in a startup, one thing you want to be mentally prepared for but willingly accept and want is that you probably take on less roles over time because you do a lot of things early on. Be good with starting something, but then giving it to somebody else as you formalize and mature your company as well. Anyways, it’s a business side note.

Our team has 42 individuals on it, so about 10% or so is our total headcount that goes between brand and content. Within brand and content, we have our head of global content who does localization and has content writers both in Europe in the US. We have our studio team and studio is design and development. We have a brand engagement manager who puts together events, podcasts, and other activities for the market. It’s a heavily creative role, and then our PR team as well is there.

We have a demand organization, so we have a VP of demand generation. Her org has fueled marketing within it. A unique way that we’re structured is we have local field marketers in all of our core regions. It includes North America, France, Germany, UK, and Spain. We’re starting to grow in the Netherlands and Australia as well. We have local field marketers for each one of those regions. As well on that team are a partner/channel marketing and our digital team. Our digital team operates as a center of excellence for the local region.

Growth is always ambitious. Click To Tweet

We have one global digital team that is insanely strong, and then they take the needs from all the different teams and create the strategies for all the localized digital assets that we have. Product marketing is heavily a strategic role in our organization, always thinking about 3 to 5-year product roadmap. They’re trying to drive the product roadmap and are focused on A, that research component, buyer research, market research, and competitive research. B, revenue enablement and all the materials our sales team needs to be successful. C, the go-to-market strategy for a specific product or feature launches. The team is quite lean and takes on a large breadth of work. It’s the ultimate of being heavily operational but also highly strategic.

How many product marketers do you have?

We have six on that team.

How did you structure the product marketing automation?

Gabrielle is our Director of Product Marketing. We discuss through that quite frequently. There are a few different ways you can structure product marketing. One is focused on specific activities. More compartmentalized and specialized market research, buyer research, go-to-market, and split those. We’re focused more on having product marketers focus on full service, doing partial market analysis, and owning different parts of the product, and also owning go-to-market strategy for certain products. You can do them both ways and we discuss through that a lot.

We do that full cycle or full emphasis. There’s a lot of positive flywheel effects to that because then you have a team. Each individual in the team is thinking ahead strategically on a roadmap, then you have them also focused on how we’re going to launch a product working closely with product management. They then already know that area, they know the customer well, they know the product area, and then they know how to do the revenue on the employment also. That’s how we’re set up.

Additionally, we have the head of customer experience. We call this the voice of the customer. He thinks more in large organizations who might see this. It should be in all marketing organizations. Internally, we have a concept of the eleven-star customer journey. We put everybody through this exercise of how you can create an eleven-star customer experience from the first touch through the entire customer lifecycle. The first time they hear about us through the end. That team is responsible for analyzing every single touchpoint a customer has with us and making sure it’s a fantastic experience and it’s a smooth transition to the next step.

It’s critical and quite a fun, exciting role, and heavily analytical as well. We also have an ecosystem team, a little bit less common, I would say. Ecosystem oversees our app marketplace, engaging with net new partners, and creating our partner programs. Essentially, they’re creating a flywheel so that we can create free applications on our marketplace, looping them to our customers, and also create a marketing effect that with co-marketing and so on. Last is marketing operations, which we add from a director standpoint. We had marketing ops since the earliest days with a talented woman on our team who did way more than you would ever ask of somebody for a long time. She held the marketing operations done globally for us for a long time. We’re investing more in that and growing our marketing operations for scale.

One thing that caught my attention is the voice of the customer team, which is unique. You mentioned the eleven-star experience. We talked about it, which is inspired by Airbnb’s founding team approach and how they pursued and built an overall experience. Can you talk about the motivation behind that and why you did it?

I heard a podcast a few years back and it stuck with me. There are many great stories in that podcast. It was done on Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman. He has many great lessons between Obama and McCain in that whole story, and then he gave this eleven-star customer journey. The point was they were getting started and they were getting a lot of five-star reviews, but the consumer mind is trained that a five-star review is this and a hotel was a five, so they can give five-star. For them to create something fantastic, they had to think beyond a five-star.

They did this exercise of thinking 6-star, 7-star all the way up to eleven-star experience. Somewhere in the middle there, you can accomplish that. It’s the mindset that we’ve had since day one at Aircall across all endeavors, but then we also think from a customer experience standpoint, in a crowded market, there are lots of SaaS applications out there and lots of options for the consumer. How do we create something that’s radically differentiated on the market, not through product, but through experience? Product is involved, but there’s a longer journey there as well. That’s where that stemmed from.

I’ve not heard of a lot of CMOs in marketing organizations investing a whole lot and people take more time and energy investing in this end-to-end customer experience journey.

B2B marketing has gone heavily demand-focused. Demand is a critical part of the overall marketing. They think that’s coming at the sacrifice of a few things, long-term strategy, market analysis, brand work, and the why. We talked about how critical that is. Also, you own every customer touchpoint as the marketing leader and it goes back to, if you have a C-level team, everyone’s focused on different parts of the company. You can have sales org you, customer org, post-sale org, and so on, but who’s tying it all together? As marketing leaders, “If not you, then who?” It’s the thought there. There has to be one role that owns the journey from beginning to end.

I have seen parts of customer success organizations and leaders do that, but I firmly believe that marketing should be owning that because they had that end-to-end funnel. Not just funnel but even beyond. It’s the entire customer lifecycle touchpoints. Switching gears. Can you share a bit about where you guys are at when it comes to revenue? How do you think about your marketing budget? How do you split it?

I can’t give all of the specifics here. I’ll say that we’re going fast towards our next big milestone being $100 million ARR, fast and ambitiously towards that target.

Is it 5%, 10%, 15% of your revenue? What is the marketing budget like? How do you split that marketing budget across these functions entity?

Budget-wise, as a general rule, we’re coming in somewhere around this. We try to keep the marketing budget about 50% of the total ARR growth that we have. That’s a decent benchmark. I can’t say that we follow it exactly, but for a scaling company that’s maybe doubling or tripling in size and trying to grow aggressively, that’s a decent benchmark to use. I’ll give more advice on budgeting as a whole here. That’s going to one benchmark. Look at that and look at efficiency year over year. You want to know that our marketing dollar is better spent this year than it was last year.

We try to get a little bit more efficient every year with our capital, as well as we look at a few different measurements across the payback period. LTV/CAC, which can be measured in many different ways. It’s decent you’re using it at the same time, but it’d be harder to express externally in the org. We also use the magic number prior month. For us month because our sales cycle is around 30 days. Prior month sales marketing expenses against current month new ARR growth and try to keep that number between 1% and 2%. If it’s getting closer to two, we’ll be agile. We’ll spend a little bit more. If it’s getting closer to one, we try to think about how their marketing spend can be a bit more efficient.

These are some guidelines there for the budget. For how we place it throughout the team, most is focused on a wide is focused on ads and promotion. I’ll say greater than 50% is on ads and promotion, and then we’ve got headcount and professional services. It winds down from there. We’re heavily ads and promotion-focused as a cost to doing business within ads and promotion. On top of that, acquisition focused, making sure our cost per lead stays consistent, and those types of things. I go into more details on that, but about high level, that’s how we thought of the budget.

That’s a good overall summary and you’re covered a good amount of detail as well.

Another note I’ll make on our nuance in the organization is to think about the originalities also. The marketing owns a budget. Of course, we’ve got ads and promotions that we can spend, but we have a strong regional focus. We want the regional head’s P&L statements. If you had France or Germany or APAC, we want you to own that budget. Also, there’s a tight-knit between the local head of the region and the marketing organization. Ultimately, that head of the region wants to invest more budget and say, “Channel, which might exist outside of the marketing budget.” Great. We’re going to shift that budget over and put it into the channel that’ll be agile.

B2B 17 | Go-To-Market Approach
Go-To-Market Approach: Each market has nuances to it. You have to take each one individually and come up with a go-to-market strategy as though that’s the only region you’re working with.

 

Talking about 2021. You guys are growing real fast 2x or 3x every year. What are your biggest challenges? Is it more of the execution challenges? Is it more of the market demand challenges? What are your big challenges when it comes to hitting your 2021 objectives?

Certainly, growth is always ambitious. I suppose the main challenges are A, purely executional and no different than would be in any other organization, then B, a unique challenge perhaps is such a vibrant market that we’re in. This goes back to this CMO being a strategic driver of the business. You can’t just focus on this quarter’s pipeline and revenue. It’s critical. I think of our market and what our ambitions are. We’re not anywhere near done. We continue to 10x this company.

The second big question is, “What are the moves that we have to do now to accelerate in three years?” We need to know that we have a vibrant market. We live in the call center space and the underlying technology being VoIP. Underlying that is a technology like Twilio, for example, that’s putting together carrier networks and setting the API’s infrastructures to this soft switch. Maybe to the side, you’ve got players like Zoom, which started off as a more traditional collaborative video-based software that we’re using.

There’s the underlying technology of VoIP still that sits there. There’s then into the telephony space, and then into the call center space. You’ve got similar technologies in a company like Slack. There’s VoIP infrastructure there. This is true for any market. Thinking big about where the market is. You don’t get that from even Gartner’s report. Gartner’s not telling us what these moves way over here. Somebody could be entering the market in 5 or 10 years.

We spend a lot of time and a big challenge is trying to understand what the landscape is going to look like in five years. What are the trends happening and consolidation going on? What are the customer trends happening? We want to be ahead of that and we need to make decisions now against that. The bigger challenge is making the right decisions and making the right forecasts of what we’re going to see in five years, what we have to do right now and act with urgency against those types of things in a similar way that we would act against them, this quarter’s ARR or something.

I love the way you articulated it. That clearly calls and shows how you guys are able to achieve that astronomical growth. Good companies who scale that fast cannot wait to see what’s coming up in the next one year, then you think about 3 to 5 years downstream. It fires downstream, but you need to lay those building blocks now.

Understand that some of your biggest competitors in five years might not be your competitors now. They might know they might be your competitor in five years. Trying to understand what’s happening there in the broader market is where we put a lot of focus. There’s always the challenge.

I wish we had a lot more time and we can double click into each of these topics, but maybe do an episode at a different time here. When it comes to go-to-market peers in the industry, who do you look up to?

There’s an individual that’s been instrumental in my career as a marketer. His name is Jan Huckfeldt. He’s a former CMO of Motorola. I was lucky enough to be able to work with him for a decent amount of time. I look up to him tremendously when it comes to brand, the voice of the customer, thinking differently about creating a marketing organization, and thinking from the customer’s mindset with a lot of empathy. I’ve learned a ton from him. I would say that’s number one. I’ve learned from many other individuals as well as great people in the revenue collective. Andrew Kail is somebody that has great points of wisdom.

Kyle Lacy, a mutual contact of ours, is another marketing leader that pushes the envelope I aspire to be more like. I’ve learned from a lot of non-marketers as well as I see them building their companies or careers or lives. David Schnurman was the Founder of Lawline. I learned so much from him. Organically, he’s got a great marketing mindset and his father as well. Alan Schnurman is a fantastic entrepreneur. As I’m watching entrepreneurs operate in their element, I learned a ton about marketing. They intuitively know marketing. There’s a lot of lessons learned there as well.

I like the last line that you mentioned. If you want to up your marketing game, don’t focus on the marketing side of things or don’t stop your thing at talking to marketing peers but to entrepreneurs because early on, it’s all the fundamentals. If you look at entrepreneurs, it’s all about the ideal customer profile. They had to iterate the business model quickly. They had to iterate the brand, messaging, and demand quickly. All of these are fundamental building blocks for an entrepreneur.

If there’s one particular learning that I see from entrepreneurs is risk tolerance. Marketing is a game of being tolerant towards risks, taking big bets, and being strategic about that over time. That’s the community where I’ve learned a lot as a side of risk as well.

Understand that some of your biggest competitors in five years might not be your competitors now. Click To Tweet

Let’s bring it home now. The final question is, if you were to go back in time and go back to day one of your go-to-market journey, which in your case would be maybe a door-to-door salesman position, what advice would you give him?

Have fun and you’ll figure it out. Be kind to people. Figuring things out and learning is the best part of the journey and making sure that you treat everybody well along that path. It’s the most important. It is more important than one’s personal success or the things that you’ve lived a life where you have strong values, you’ve treated others well, you care, and you’re empathetic. Maybe if there’s one point of advice is among one’s personal ambition, don’t forget about what’s important in life.

Thank you for your time, Jeff. I enjoyed the conversation. Good luck to you and the team at Aircall. Best wishes.

Thank you, Vijay. I appreciate it being on. It was a pleasure and I love these interviews. Thank you for inviting me on.

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