How to Build a Brand for Technical Products with Twilio’s CMO Sara Varni


Over the course of this series, we’ve profiled plenty of companies whose products make sense to most of us in business (not to mention the few companies who have the enviable task of marketing to other marketers — ahh, the dream, right?). But what if your product is highly technical in nature? How do you market to technical people when your marketers are definitely not? And how do you balance the need to target enterprise decision-makers and frontline developers and technical team leads? All that and more in this episode, featuring the CMO of tech giant Twilio, Sara Varni.

You can get Exceptions on Apple PodcastsSoundCloudSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play Music or wherever you get your podcasts. Or listen to the full audio version below 👇

Like this episode? Be sure to leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review and share the pod with your friends! You can connect on Twitter with @jayacunzo @twilio @saravarnibright  @Drift @hypergrowth_pod.

Subscribe & Tune In

Apple Podcasts Spotify SoundCloud

Full Transcript

Jay Acunzo: Welcome back to Exceptions, the show about why brand matters more than ever in Be to Be. This is a collaboration between me, Jay Acunzo, and Drift. I’m an author, a speaker, and the founder of an education company called Marketing Showrunners. We provide content to marketers making original series like podcasts and help them build passionate audiences. Drift is a software company that leads the category that they themselves named conversational marketing. They believe in a better experience between how businesses buy from other businesses. On the show today, we talk to the CMO of a hidden tech giant, Twilio.

Okay, so Twilio itself isn’t so hidden, especially if you’re in the marketing world then you know their brand but the product is often hidden, despite just often how ubiquitous it’s become, powering some of the world’s some of the most important tech products. Twilio is the back end system that enables products to integrate with things like phones and calling phones, voiceover IP, messaging, and more. In this communication age we live in, Twilio is kind of like an operating system for a lot of the products that we all use. Twilio’s customer roster showcases its power. Twitch, Nordstrom, Lyft, just to name three, and 60,000 other companies use Twilio. They’ve raised $262 million in VC, have offices scattered across the globe, and they were named to Fast Company’s 2018 list of most innovative companies.

As a marketer, I wanted to understand from another marketer how would you describe this technical product, and how do you market a technical product to technical people? That sounds a lot harder than what a lot of us do, which is market to marketers, market to sales people, market to HR. We learned about that from the company’s CMO and about balancing multiple audiences while going enterprise with your brand. Let’s talk now to Twilio’s CMO, Sara Varni.

Our audience is mostly marketers, so I guarantee they’ve heard of Twilio, guaranteed that 90% of them would admit they don’t know what Twilio does and if pushed, probably 95%, so just explain what changes for the customer once they work with your tools. What are they able to do that they couldn’t do before?

Sara Varni: Twilio is a Cloud communications platform. We deliver a series of communication and APIs that are embedded in a lot of the apps people use everyday so when you receive a notification from your Uber driver telling you that they’re outside waiting for you, that’s powered by Twilio. If you receive a notification from your dentist asking to confirm an appointment, that’s normally Twilio behind the scenes. If you’re a company like Medtronic who needs to send alerts, and notifications to diabetes patients about the levels of glucose in their bloodstream, that’s powered by Twilio.

Jay: I worked in VC for three years and it was a seed stage firm so we’d talk about just the different types of entrepreneurs and different types of areas we wanted to invest in all the time, not uncommon at any stage of VC, and one of the categories at one partner was really interested wasn’t a sector so much as like the type of business. There were different phrases that we use, so enabling business or enabling layer was one of them. He liked picks and shovels business, because it really was a sort of back end like enabling where you know, Twilio enables the magic of many digital experiences. When you’re building a picks and shovels business and you’re the CMO, how is building a brand different for that kind of product versus building the brand of maybe one of your customers like an Uber or a dentist, like people that the end consumer touches, is there a difference in how you approach it as a marketer?

Sara: Yes, absolutely. I think you have to think about it from two different angles and essentially, in my role I’m constantly managing two different funnels. One of those is very developer-centric so how will a tool like Twilio make a developer’s life easier either through making it faster to build an application, make it better in the way that they will approach an application, and so making sure that we are providing the right documentation, the right content, the right access to other developers in our community to make sure that that hits home with them.

On the other side, we have to communicate to the owners of the business or the line of business management to show how the end result of that ingredient, which is Twilio will have an impact on their core business metric. If I’m marketing to a CMO like myself, how can I show that by delivering campaigns via text message, you’re going to see an increase in your response rates.

Jay: I think, I don’t know if this is a marketing-specific thing but because I’ve only ever worked in marketing, but every time marketers talk about team organization and org charts, I feel like everybody lights up. Everybody wants to know how do you structure your team, and I think maybe it partly speaks to just how rapidly this industry has changed and continues to change is how you structure the team and the types of talent you bring on, so I’d be curious to know, you mentioned two funnels, you mentioned two groups of people, do you have a bifurcated marketing team or how would you go about structure? How do you structure your organization because of those two audiences?

Sara: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think we have a couple groups when it comes to content that are definitely bifurcated. We have our developer evangelism team that includes both developer evangelists but also our doc writing team, so they’re constantly thinking about what are the right events we need to go to to talk to our community, what’s the right content we need to engage that community? Then on the other side, we have product marketing organization that’s more focused on how we target a business buyer and how we build content that would be relevant for them.

Then across both those teams, we have some shared services like our brand team, like our marketing operations team, which is really trying to take the full picture of our business and so in that sense, we’re not managing the funnels in independent groups, our marketing operations team is really looking at how something like a developer sign up might materialize into engagement with that business user down the road and vice versa. I think it’s really important that we have one view on that so that we are maximizing synergies across those two communities.

Jay: What’s something that you would absolutely encourage people to do if they’re marketing to marketers that would be the height of insanity and a terrible idea when you’re marketing to developers, because they’re very different groups in the way they behave and learn, and sensibly the way you would try to earn trust?

Sara: I think it’s all about authenticity, and that doesn’t mean that you can be inauthentic with business users but more in the way you build that relationship. I always joke, you’re never going to make any friends at a hackathon walking around with a lead scanner, that’s just not the way that market works, it isn’t.

Jay: Why does marketing have to work that way though? That’s what I want to know. It’s like I hear that and I’m like man, I wish that didn’t happen at marketing events too.

Sara: No, and I mean that’s completely fair but I think for better or worse, it’s more tolerated in your traditional kind of convention format or traditional trade show. That’s just a known quantity. Maybe one day that’ll be fully eliminated from anyone’s kind of tool belt. The number one rule of marketing developers is don’t market to the developers. You need to make sure that whatever content you’re building is useful to them and it’s not kind of weighed down by marketing fluff.

Jay: Yeah, so lead scanners is definitely one of those.

Sara: Right. One of my good friend’s former colleagues from Sales Force always used to say, “Our content is about good stuff, no fluff.” I think the same applies here at Twilio. We’re really careful not to over-promise in any of our marketing. We’re very transparent in terms of when features and products will be available because we definitely don’t want to write checks that we can’t ultimately cash.

Jay: Is there a difference in how you’ve noticed that people learn in these two groups? The thing I don’t want to do is stereotype here, Sara, so please check me if that’s happening. I do massive groups, marketers, developers, like we’re painting with just the broadest strokes possible here but I think one of the things you said that resonated with me so deeply was you need to earn permission. I think everybody gets on board with that intellectually and emotionally not so much because people have numbers to hit. They find ways to either forget that or rationalize why they aren’t doing that, and that’s why you get I think people on LinkedIn trying to connect with you and sell you in the same breath.

It’s like too soon everywhere you look. Given that that is your lens and your team’s, how do you approach that differently for marketers than developers?

Sara: I think one really obvious way in how developers versus the business audience consumer information is that developers want to get hands on right away. If we announce a product, they want to get their hands on that code as soon as possible whereas on the business side of the house, in my experience I found that people get the most from learning from their peers. Hearing the challenges that they’ve gone through either at a different phase in their company or for a different sector or whatever the different components might be, and learning how and figuring out how they can learn from those mistakes or challenges to do a better job when they’re faced with the same opportunity or challenge.

Jay: Got it. Yeah, that makes total sense. I want to go through the evolution of Twilio’s marketing but just to understand that, can you just share like where did you join the company its evolution, and at that point how heavily was it focused on just developers versus the growth you’ve experienced where you’re expanding to more of an enterprise or business audience too?

Sara: Yeah, so I mean Twilio is definitely a developer first company, our CEO is a developer himself. I think he wanted to take a fresh look at the communication space. He was one of the early CTOs of StubHub, he tried to set up his own telecom stack and found it to be completely cumbersome and that opened his eyes to a new way of doing things and that’s how he started Twilio, so it’s definitely been developer-centric from day one. Up until very recently, the business was largely self-service so people would go online, get what they needed, get up and running, swipe a credit card and be off and to the races. As time went by and we wanted to build more strategic relationships broadly with our customer base, we started to build out a sales function and that’s largely been in the last 18 months to two years, and that’s when I came on board. I joined about a year and a half ago.

Now I’m tasked with setting up the fundamentals of how a marketing and sales organization can-

Jay: I’d love to, this is such a ball of hair that you can I could kind of just like rip at because there’s no one right answer and I feel like everybody understands the mess if they’ve encountered it. What got you here won’t get you there. I think especially in the startup world where everything is moving fast and there’s a camaraderie and an excitement and a kind of romanticism of the possible. It’s like what could we do to disrupt things or what could we do to build a better way of the world? There’s that emotional pull in our industry and that can I think also create some friction when it’s time to evolve.

For example, I can think of one company in particular where the content side of the house had run their publishing a certain way for many years and it worked. It was kind of like a very quirky personality and kind of quaint approach to building community, and as they tried to scale it, the people who were hired into the team clashed with the people who’d been there for a while because they don’t get it. That’s kind of like the implied reason the friction existed. It’s like well we’ve been here for a while. The old way served us well, they’ll continue to serve us.

Again, total ball of hair here, how does one, as an executive, how do you start to make sense of what you keep and preserve, what you remix and reinvent, and also the people part of that whole equation?

Sara: Yeah, I mean I think it’s a delicate situation that you kind of always have to be aware of and mindful in the tactics that you’re employing. For us, we’ve always had a foothold in developers from startups, full stacked developers, and Twilio’s always been known for creating these amazing demos that are very fun and very visionary. As we evolve, I definitely don’t want to lose any of that magic. We often call it the Twilio magic. At the same time you know, as I’m starting to talk to new audiences, I need to make sure that what we are demoing is grounded in a real life situation.

I always push the team to say look, we cant just do a demo of a T-shirt company. We have to think about what is that larger company enterprise demo that really shows off all the power of the Twilio platform but still has all that innovation baked into it. I don’t want us to turn into some corporate borg that loses that Twilio magic and really what differentiates the company and makes it special.

Jay: Yeah, I think it’s this, from the outside looking in, you always put like the big moments come out and you’re like that’s the story of that company or that team you know? It’s like founder saw a problem, inspiration, conflict, like you have these oversimplified business stories just spitting across the web, and that’s fine because it gets you into their larger story but when you get behind the scenes you realize there’s a lot more detail that whatever, a 45-minute podcast can’t capture. I think what this does to the concept of evolving or reinvention is it makes it seem like to evolve, you have to take radical steps. Like everybody is obsessed with innovation and I think people see it as big new things, big new changes.

But I think behind the scenes, it always happens bit by bit. You’re always making constant tweaks and updates, so it’s not like Twilio did the same thing until whatever, $50 million in revenue and then switched to this new thing, wholesale right away, in a binary fashion to get to 100. It’s never that stark. I’d be curious to know, what’s a project that the marketing team still runs and operates? I mentioned the blog for that past example because it’s just where I came from with content marketing, but what’s something that Twilio’s marketing team has been running for years now that you’ve witnessed evolve in a really healthy way? I’d love people to see how that actually happened.

Sara: Thinking about our first party events for example, we now run an event series called Engage and that’s a roadshow that we take to over 20 cities a year globally and now we not only have content and hands on training for developers at these events, but we also have a program around what it means from the business side to use Twilio products and how that can have an impact. We have a customer panel that comes on from both technical and non-technical backgrounds and we’ve evolved that content to speak to this new audience.

Jay: Well, I think that’s a good example of like there’s so much surface area to an event that there’s like you can find probably little ways to tweak it. You mention a panel, it’s a very visual way for people to [grock 00:15:29] this idea, people who are listening that is, that if you have an agenda, you can tweak the agenda, right, to match your evolving brand, and goals, and audience. I’m curious, did it start as just like really gritty hackathon-style meetups or do you know where the event series began at Twilio?

Sara: I mean largely we would host some of our own hackathons first party but largely our event strategy was third party and going out and meeting developers where they were and we evolved our event strategy to not only accommodate that but to also talk to a new business user and be more proactive in creating our own kind of draw to get people to take off an afternoon and learn about communications and how they can move a lot of that functionality to the Cloud.

Jay: You would go to events, then I don’t know if you were there for this but do you have a sense for what happened after that?

Sara: Yeah, so I think as we started to build the sales team, we decided that we wanted to host more of our own first party events as a reason to get people on the phone and also just a reason to meet people face-to-face, so we evolved our programming to create this full day event series where in the morning, we would have hands on training for developers in a format that we call super class and people could get hands on with Twilio. It’s also a game-ified approach to learning Twilio. We have a program called Twilio Quest so they go through a series of challenges to get skilled up on Twilio and that would happen in the morning.

Then we encourage them to stay for the afternoon themselves and also invite someone from the business that they support to come and attend the afternoon programming and there we’d have a keynote talking about the future of communications. We’d have a customer panel where we’d bring in customers from different industries and different segments to talk about how they had used Twilio and most importantly, from different roles too so we might have some technical folk on the panel but we also might have non-technical roles. Then we’d wrap it up with networking and happy hour so that people in similar roles could meet each other or could learn from each other’s projects and build a relationship. We were facilitating it but you know, help build connections within our community.

Jay: That sounds like a well fleshed out event agenda with the two-part days and all that. What were some of the early changes as the company continued to grow that the event reflected?
Sara: This event series is now just over a year old and we’re continuing to learn what our users want and we’re continuing to evolve the series as we move forward just in terms of striking the right balance of technical and non-technical content. I think we’ll continue to expand the programming so that we might have multiple tracks. I think there’s also an opportunity to have more of a demo experience for people on their breaks so they can talk to Twilio experts that are there and get their questions answered. I can see ways that this will evolve over time.

How do you gather that feedback because obviously that’s got to be the lifeblood for not the event series but just marketing team overall, especially because we keep going back to that theme but it’s evolving beyond just the core audience that you’ve had for years so when you’re running that event series outside of just the qualitative observation in the room, how are you capturing and then implementing that feedback?

Sara: We survey the audience immediately after the event. We look through that data in great detail, and we also, we share it broadly across the organization to hold all of the kind of content owners very accountable whether you’re presenting that content, whether you built it, because we want to constantly make sure that we’re refining it and making it better, but you want to make sure that you’ve got a good video teed up to queue other presenters that might go on the roadshow. You want to make sure that you’ve got a demo readiness kit, all those things so that you can roll out to many more cities than you could if you didn’t have those tools behind it, but we’re not opposed to making tweaks here and there if we’re getting consistent feedback that parts of it aren’t working.

Jay: You mentioned more cities, you mentioned more tracks, are there other things you’re thinking through that would be a way to evolve, or expand, or least change the event for the better?
Sara: I think in areas or cities where we have a concentration of focus, like if we’ve got a region that’s heavy towards contact center, making sure that we’ve got the right content for that audience, also just making sure that we’re fostering enough networking opportunities for people to learn from each other, I think that that’s where people tend to get the most out of the events. Sure, they love hearing about our vision for our products and hearing from the customer panel, but I also think there’s nothing better than our customers and prospects learning from each other and I think that they probably get the most value out of us forging those connections for them.

I’m always fascinated by the difference between traffic, audience and community, and I feel like maybe with an event, there’s no such thing as traffic but audiences like we’re here to grace you with our wisdom, Seth Godin has audience. He’ll come in, give a 45-minute speech, people love it, it’s great, he’s great, and then he leaves. It sounds like you’re heading towards and have experienced this already with the developers, community. Community is not A to B, it’s more like it’s A to B, then B back to A, and then it’s also like B to C, and D to F, and F to D. There’s all this inner-connectivity that a community has that somebody with audience doesn’t have. There’s still trust but there’s not that inner-connectivity. Why is that idea, community and inner-connectivity, why is that so important for Twilio’s brand?

Sara: I think it’s important because you don’t know necessarily where your path is going to lead you with Twilio. You could have as a product manager, you could use Twilio on a project that you have in front of you and then that might lead to X, Y, and Z and I think it’s always great to just have that community of people that role-wise look like your role so that you have someone to kind of bounce ideas off of and say hey, have you encountered X, Y, and Z? Have you thought about approaching something this way and being able to get real world feedback from similar people who’ve been through that exact situation just like yourself. I think that that’s really the value that you see in building a community.

Jay: I want to end on just a couple questions about the idea that we talked about before about the Intel Inside the ingredients or the hidden company, or hidden product behind a lot of great experiences. Intel Inside I think gets a lot of public notoriety now because they found a way to brand and make public and overt something that most people don’t understand goes on, which I can see pros and cons to, because I think on the one hand the people you’re necessarily selling to maybe don’t care, but on the other hand, I don’t know, maybe the business side starts to clamor for their product more. I think there’s good and bad. How do you build a brand, which so many people construe as air game, as broad as possible awareness, blanket the world in your logo, how do you build a brand when you have that back end ingredient-type of very crucial but still ingredient-type of company or product?

Sara: When I am marketing Twilio as a brand, I just always want Twilio to be tied to innovation or associated with innovation and I want people to realize that some of the most innovative brands on the planet are powered by Twilio technology behind the scenes and if you think about companies like Airbnb or companies like Uber, companies like Lyft, they’re making the headlines today, but they’re not necessarily creating brand new products from scratch. Airbnb didn’t invent the hotel, Uber and Lyft didn’t invent the taxi. They created a new experience around that brand and a new way to communicate specifically around that product, and I think that that’s where Twilio really comes into play and is making a difference for these start ups and these organizations that are disrupting their industry.

Jay: Is it more case study-driven? I don’t know, it’s almost like celebrating not your own personal mission or products but what your customers are doing and I know every brand would say they do that but it’s almost like when you are an enabling technology, it’s like touting all the examples you gave me at the beginning of the show is like when you get this message, Twilio is there. It’s hidden, and I think it’d be really hard to be a brand marketer or marketer at all when you have a product that’s hidden. I don’t know, does that seem to resonate?

Sara: I think the developers are very savvy and they are very choosy in what they will use and if they don’t feel like a brand aligns with their values, even if it meets the functionality that they need it to meet, they are not likely to use it and so I think it’s really important that Twilio as a company is definitely promoted to our developer community in a way that shows we’re focused on innovation. We are focused on creating a diverse workplace. We are focused on making sure that we are kind of constantly pushing the envelop when it comes to communications, that we’re not just accepting the status quo and so in that sense, Twilio still is very much an ingredient brand. We need to make sure that our values and our corporate mission aligns with that developer community and the things that they prioritize in their value structure.

Jay: What are some of the more remarkable projects, companies, things that Twilio enables that you’ve seen that you personally love? Obviously there’s a lot of large companies but I’d be more curious to know in addition to those, what are some just like the cooler more exciting things that you love to site that people have built on top of your platform?

Sara: I think that’s one of the most fun parts of my job is hearing about all the different customer use cases. If you think about a lot of the [doc-less 00:24:57] companies, we have an IOT product and so a lot of Lime Bike for example, every Lime Bike has a Twilio SIM card embedded in it that allows people to track the location of that bike so people might not realize that we even have a wireless product but we’re powering a lot of that [doc-less 00:25:19] economy, whether it’s bikes, or scooters, or skateboards, you name it. We are often part of that equation.

Then all the way to the other extreme of powering communications between financial advisors and their clients at Morgan Stanley. That seems like people don’t realize that that’s not a very simple activity to pull off. There’s so much compliance around how financial advisors communicate with their customers for example. There’s so much risk around an advisor leaving and all the information kind of walking out the door with them. Now with Twilio, they’re able to communicate directly with their customers in a much more personal engaging way and it’s also fully compliant, so if that advisor chooses to leave Morgan Stanley, all that information stays with them or stays with Morgan Stanley and they’re not put at risk. There’s just a huge range of ways that people were using Twilio every day.

Jay: Given that you just got so excited about that, why is this work meaningful to you personally? I get why it matters to Twilio, I get how you’re approaching the marketing but for you as Sara, why is this meaningful work?

Sara: It’s meaningful work for me in a couple different ways. I love managing a team, I love helping people figure out what their career path looks like, what motivates them. That’s always very rewarding to me, but I think specifically Twilio as a company, I’m a mom of three and any experience that can help save me time, that can help me spend more time with my family and focus on what matters to me, is a great piece of technology in my books. Knowing that Twilio powers so many new ways that brands are engaging with their customers and saving them time and getting them relevant information is really rewarding to me and to know that we’re empowering a new wave of developers to build this next generation of experiences. It doesn’t get better than that.

Jay: Huge thank you to Sara for her time and thank you for listening to Exceptions.

This was episode 16 of 20, and we’ll be ending the show at 20 episodes. It’s kind of a nice round number don’t you think? Nice amount of brands that we profile, but don’t worry because if you like what Drift is doing or what I’m doing creatively, you have options. You can search Seeking Wisdom in your podcast feed and find Drift’s flagship show and through that show, they’ve launched a bunch of other shows. Then as for me, you can also search your podcast feed for Unthinkable. That’s the show about creativity at work that I’ve been running for three and a half years now, which is crazy. It’s a little bit more story style and heavily produced than Exceptions but you know, it’s still me.

Search your podcast feed for Seeking Wisdom or Unthinkable and know that we still have four great episodes of Exceptions left to go. All right, until next time, don’t build yet another commodity company. Be the only. Be the exception. See ya.