Joe Chernov is CMO at Robin, and before that served in the same role at InsightSquared, and was VP of Content at HubSpot and Eloqua. He’s often referred to as one of the most influential content marketers in B2B, and on this episode of the Swipe File, DG and Joe talk about micromanaging versus empowerment, why interviewing is an overlooked skill (for marketing), why having no metric is better than having the wrong one, career transitions to serve the business, and why hiring is the only thing that matters.
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Dave Gerhardt: Hey everybody. It’s DG, and on this episode of The Swipe File, I sat down with Joe Chernov. We had a coffee. Joe is one of the best B2B CMOs in the world. He’s one of the most influential content marketers on the planet, always get inspired when I talk to this guy. We talked about everything from micromanaging versus empowerment, why interviewing is such an overlooked skill for marketers, why having no metric is sometimes better than having the wrong one. We talked about career transitions and we talked about why hiring is the only thing that matters in marketing. I think you’re going to love this episode. Here’s Joe Chernov on this episode of The Swipe File.
You talking about interviewing people?
DG: Is that you what you want to talk about?
Joe: Oh, no. Like this kind of interview.
DG: Oh, you want to talk about this kind of interview? Tell me.
DG: I’ve thoughts on this too.
Joe: I think interviewing people is a skill.
Joe: And I think its an overlooked skill. I don’t mean hiring people, but this sort of interview.
Joe: And as marketing gets more casual, like as business marketing gets more casual, and more about brand and the people, I think that a lot of good ideas get blown in the last mile because the marketing person says, “Well I get the interview.”
DG: Do you ever feel like you go and do interviews with people and you’re like, “This is awful”. I feel like most people that what they do is they say, they have their five questions, like I have my five questions I’m going ask Joe Chernov-
Joe: No matter what he says.
DG: No matter what he says, right? And then what they do is the second you answer that, is then they go, “Next question.” On to the next question.
DG: It’s like, the real stuff, which is why I wanted to do this interview series, because I just want to have a conversation and see what comes out of it. The real good interviews, I think, are when it actually is a conversation, it’s not an interview when it comes back.
Joe: With the people that you’re inviting to participate, you can sort of go wherever that conversations going to go.
DG: Sure. Sure.
Joe: But if you’re sitting down with somebody that’s a scientist or an entertainer, you have such limited domain knowledge that you can’t just take it where they take it.
Joe: And that’s why a professional journalist that does the research and has a background to be able to adapt that’s why you need that talent.
DG: That’s a good point. And knows this space.
Joe: Get somebody from Rolling Stone to interview.
DG: ‘Cause they can know, “Hey yeah, that thing that you did in ’96, that was interesting.” I thought you meant interviewing people this is a better time.
DG: I think that’s important for going forward as a skill in marketing that’s very underrated. There’s going to be more podcasts, there’s going to be more video interviews, there’s going to be more blog interviews. You’ve been doing this for a bunch of years now, I could probably go and Google 55 questions with Joe Chernov type of interviews out there.
Joe: But they’re pretty much next question, next question.
DG: You can’t do that format. Let’s talk about forms. You had a tweet, what did your tweet say? This was last night. Do you remember what it said?
Joe: I just say stuff.
DG: You’re prolific tweeter by the way.
Joe: Yeah, but nothing just resinates like it used to. I don’t think anybody even wants to converse anymore.
DG: Not anymore. You used to have this tweet pinned to your Twitter profile that was like, “The best time to call me is email.”
Joe: Do you know that was a sub-tweet? The funny thing is that was a sub-tweet. Somebody called me, and he was kind of hammered and he tried [crosstalk 00:03:07]-
DG: When’s the best time-
Joe: I responded in email and I said, “Dude, the best time to call me is email.” And then I wrote him again. I said, “Hey, I’m sorry. I’m going to do this, but I’m going to sub-tweet you right now.” So, I gave him a heads up.
DG: I remember that was pinned and had thousands and thousands of retweets. I love that. Oh, there’s the t-shirt design. I just feel like when you tweet, you’re thinking about it. I just am like, “Just say what …”
Okay, somebody’s talking about forms. The form is the symptom. The problem is a lead centric, or lead only KPI for marketing departments. Again, show me how I’m measured, and I’ll show you how I behave.
Joe: That was Tom Wentworth. He was saying something that was very pro Drift, so that’s why you noticed it.
DG: Yeah, no he tagged me in it. He said, “Companies spent hundreds of thousands on the CMS and design just to drive someone to the same old tired, fill out this form.” That could’ve been a Drift ad. I wonder what a conversation-
Joe: I knew he liked that one.
DG: Yeah. So he said, “Or a conversation only at Drift @dgerhardt.” And before I could even chime in, you responded.
Joe: Yeah, I covered it.
DG: Yeah, thank you.
Joe: Look, my point is, I say show me how I’m measured, I’ll show you how to behave a lot.
DG: I think that’s a thing that doesn’t get talked about enough. Which is why do you do what you do? Because look at what you’re being held accountable for.
Joe: A meaningful percentage of bad performers are likely bad performers because they have been given the wrong incentive.
DG: Or they have no clear metric for the thing that they own.
Joe: Yeah, and so I’d rather almost give somebody no clear metric than the wrong one. We were talking about this before. I look at what I do for marketing, varying from company to company, but me at InsightSquared, I do four things. I try to generate demand.
Joe: I also take care of our customers, and try to keep our customers happy, keep them longer. I turn them into advocates. Customer marketing. I have a brand to take care of. Part in parcel to brand is a community around that brand. Then the third is, it’s like a magician knows what card you’re going to pull from the deck. I know where we’re going to take the business in the future. There’s message seating, there’s-
DG: Yeah. Teaching people about future stuff [crosstalk]
Joe: There’s grooming that makes the market more receptive to future product introduction. There are the things you try to do, but all of my metrics are around demand creation.
DG: Or like you can do … You had one, two, three, four. You could be really good at two, three, four, but if you’re not good at the first one, you’re probably not keeping your job.
Joe: You’re definitely not keeping your job. You’ll never have a chance to show words.
Joe: Just really basic here, do I put twenty-five percent budget, twenty-five percent budget, twenty-five, twenty-five there?
DG: No, no.
Joe: You starve these things at the expense of this. Is this the only thing that matters? No, it doesn’t even matter at disproportionately to the others. You could argue no. Especially in a venture backed business where the revenue is not the primary need when you have funding. Look at Drift. You guys are doing an awesome job on the branding, and that’s going to payoff later. That’s where you’re going to get the acceleration.
DG: Right. That’s an important plan. It’s not like you and I started a company and its self funded, and if we don’t hit our revenue goal this month, we are not going to make payroll. Of course we don’t want to miss that, but it’s still … the runway is years, not a week.
Joe: We talked about HubSpot and blog. That’s where those guys had unbelievable foresight.
Joe: Like Mike and Brian. If they took that block and on day one, or on day ninety tried to use that blog as a way to spam people, their subscriber list, they tried to take their blog subscribers and sell them stuff overnight, they would have strip-mined that asset. They played it cool. They let it grow for years, and then they had an asset. And they had something that was motive. It was an unfair advantage. They knew enough to not strip-mined it.
When we started the sales blog, I remember talking to Mike about what metrics we needed to hit before we thought about commercializing the blog.
DG: Turning it into Legion, and having-
Joe: But for a while, just building an audience. Nobody knows that better than Mike.
DG: Yeah. What was your goal? When you launched a sales blog, was it traffic?
Joe: At first it was traffic.
We didn’t put show me how I measure, I’ll show you how I behave. We put a lead gen KPI on it. What are we going to do? We’re going to jam forms into it.
Joe: We wanted to build an audience that we could monetize later.
DG: Yep. What you’re measured on today, it’s not leads? You came up with your own definition for it?
Joe: A lead is a unit of demand. But really, we’re in the business of generating demand. It just can come in different units for different companies. Our unit demand-
DG: One could be a demo request, verse a free tool, try a free tool, verse a webinar. Different conversion rates.
Joe: Those are all different types. So what we have is instead of leads, we have an alert.
Joe: An alert is a type of engagement that we either create as marketing, or detect as marketing. It happens on an owned account. Our sales team sells in a named account strategy. They have a lot of named accounts. This isn’t like fortune fifty. This is the fortune fifty thousand.
Joe: There was a counselor assigned, they’re in territory, and they’re named. Marketing gets credit when we generate an alert, a type of engagement, on one of those owned accounts. There are three types of alerts. And the types are designated by-
DG: Did you come up with this? This is a new thing that you guys ended-
Joe: The types are stratified by historical conversion rates. We have same day alerts. The name of the alert type is the SLA. Same day alert means as a sales rep, if this happens you got to touch them in the same day.
DG: You got to touch them in the same day. What’s an example of that? Is that like a demo request, or something like that?
Joe: Demo request of same day alerts.
DG: Okay, okay.
Joe: At the low end, same day alerts have a six percent alert to conversion rate. Alert to operate at the high end, like eighteen percent. In that ban is same day alert, and they’ve got twenty-four hours to follow up on. Actually, close a business, twenty-four hours if happens after 4:00 PM. The next one down is next day alerts is at a three percent to six percent conversion rate.
DG: So you might get it that day, and as a rep this is, “Hey, tomorrow, here’s what you’re going to do.” Yep.
Joe: And you can follow up that day, but you’re not going to get roughed up if you do it the next day.
DG: Yeah, that’s how it is. Yep. Yep.
Joe: And then the third type is, we call it check alert. That might be … we send a piece of direct mail. It’d be weird to call somebody and say, “Hey, you get that coffee cup?”
DG: “Just checking in.” Are you tracking intent from other sources outside of your website, too? You said there’s two types of marketing alerts. One of them is somebody did something, or you detected that something else had happened.
Joe: Yes. See, that’s a good question. When you think of lead gen, you think marketing only gets credit if it produced the lead. If somebody filled out that form. If you hood winked somebody to giving you their personal information. They didn’t say firstname.lastname@example.org. My job is to try to help sales close deals faster. We use data providers that give us signal as to one of those fifty thousand accounts is doing something that our sales team should be interest in.
For example, if you are looking at our competitors on G2 Crowd, you’re looking at competitor to InsightSquared on G2 Crowd, that information gets fed into our CRM, triggers an alert that’s a next day alert, had a high conversion rate, and they have to follow up within essentially by the end of close business the next day. That was a product that G2 Crowd productized that one hundred percent came from our request based on our learning system.
DG: It came from you?
DG: We use it. It’s amazing.
Joe: Do you?
Joe: So I called them, and they said they were productizing … Like, “We’ll send you a list of people that are looking at your listing.”
My response was, “I don’t really care if they’re looking at my listing. I mean, I do. But they’re probably on my website too. They’ve alerted in other way. You know what I want to know? Are they looking at Brand X’s listing? That would be interesting for me.”
And they said, “Would you pay for it?”
And I said, “Starting tomorrow.”
Joe: It’s the only thing I’ll pay for.
DG: So as head of demand gen, your demand gen person owns that as a channel?
Joe: Our opps person owns that, because our opps person owns the text stack. It’s an API partnership, and so she is responsible for the API.
DG: Will you talk about … I have one more question on this, and then I want to go to the other. You have these buckets by conversion rate, and so you have your next day alert is three to six percent conversion rate. Could that be multiple sources as long as they convert between three and six percent, they get in that bucket?
DG: Okay. So it could be a webinar, it could be an event. The conversion rate is what you use to say, whatever, six to sixteen, three to six, and then zero to-
Joe: To created the tranches.
DG: Yeah, yeah.
Joe: We just rolled this out. This is like V2.
DG: I like that. No, I like it a lot.
Joe: We just rolled this out. What we’re going to do next is we’ve got to figure out now is are there too many in one bucket? And 6 is not a magic number here. It’s just we looked at a histogram, and it looked like that-
DG: Right. Because it could be one percent conversion rate, but a rep is going to have to touch all of those, which is not going to work.
Joe: The trick here, the secret to all of this is the check alert. The last tier is a check alert. There’s no SLA. You don’t have to follow up on this, but we strongly encourage you to bet the record in sales force.
DG: But I bet you if you look at your best reps, the percentage of them that are doing the check stuff, is probably-
Joe: Or if you’re on plan, and you’re not using your check alerts, are you really in it? Are you really hustling? Are you really trying to close deals? The check alerts is a form of marketing entrapment. If you’re not checking them-
DG: You mean if you’re on plan, you could be blowing the number out if you’re-
Joe: If you are on a plan-
DG: Oh, on a performance plan. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Joe: [crosstalk] you are on a performance plan, it’s a great tool for management to say, “Look, they’re on a performance plan, but they’re rummaging around these check alerts.” They’re doing the right thing. That person is going to keep their job.
DG: I love this.
Joe: If they’re on a performance plan, and they’re complaining about pipe, and marketing’s not giving support, and they’re not rummaging around this tranche, then are they in the blame game, or are they really trying to close deals?
DG: Right. Right. It’s an easy game if you only work the leads that close at sixteen percent. That’s what we all want to do.
DG: This is exactly why I want to do this, because this is the deep side. I have one more thing then you got to go. You transitioned your career as a marketing leader from content guy to now your thing is ABM. I think of you as your CMO. ABM is your channel now, but what was the transition from being this content leader, to going to a company and having to basically throw out the playbook that got you to where you’re at?
Joe: I was conflicted.
DG: Was that like a holy shit moment? Or did you know if I want to keep growing, this is what I got to do?
Joe: I just want to solve a problem for the business.
Joe: That content model was the wrong model for InsightSquared.
DG: Yeah. Before I knew you, I knew you because I was reading your stuff, I was following what you were doing, speaking whatever … I think content was the channel at the time, like 2008 to 2012 ish was a sweet spot, which is like you could grow a massive funnel on content. Today, everybody has a blog. Everybody has a podcast. Everybody has video. There is so much noise in content. Nobody’s at home being like, “You know what I wish I had? I wish I had more content from brands.”
Joe: I think there are two dimensions to this, and you nailed one of them. With each new blog that gets spun up, it becomes incrementally more difficult for your signal to be heard.
Joe: Especially if you’re marketing to sales and marketing where those industries have a lot noise in there.
DG: So much.
Joe: The second is the nature of the business itself. The content model makes most sense when you have an enormous addressable market, because you don’t have that many false negatives. If you can sell to anybody, that anybody who comes to your blog is a potential prospect. If you’re my father-in-law who sales software in nuclear power plants, it’s a very constrained market, right? Most of the readers of his blog, if he were to have one, would be false positives, because it’s such a specialized industry.
The difficulties most companies are in the middle. InsightSquared is in the middle. Say our addressable market is fifty thousand accounts. A blog is helpful for brand, a blog is helpful for building community, but it cannot be long-term your primary lead source in the way that it is if you’re a HubSpot that has an enormous addressable market. HubSpot doesn’t care if your Mack Trucks, or a guy named Mack with a truck. They’ll sell to the both of you.
DG: And the product can work for both people, yeah.
Joe: And we care very deeply if you’re Mack trucks, or a just Mack the trucker.
You need to find the fifty thousand companies with a sales opps person in the U.S.
Joe: Yep. That has a board that expects fast growth, that looks for very specific types of rapport, and very specific-
DG: That makes it obvious. That’s where you’re going to start. It’s not that you’re not doing … you’re not creating content, you still care about your brand. How do you figure out where to invest in content?
Joe: The theme, our internal ethos is content that serves multiple masters. I need to create a piece of content … In the content marketing world, they would talk about atomizer content, and it would be on a blog, and then simplified for Twitter, and then it can be a brand’s Facebook post, and then medium came along and summarized it on medium. It’s the same idea, but it’s not atomizing it so much as saying, “I need content that there is a version of it for the blog. But then there is a more product relevant version of it for the sales team, and then a heavily, how-to version of it for the customer, too.”
It’s not about atomizing it in the way that adapting through different channels, but think about marketing as an overlay across the entire customer journey. That’s essentially what those four pieces were that I talked about.
Joe: If it’s an overlay on top of the entire customer journey, and I have limited resources, I need a piece of content to be adaptable to multiple stages.
DG: What’s one thing that’s still driving you nuts in marketing?
Joe: The form stuff, and that has sucked up all the air in the room. Makes me crazy. I’ll tell you a really good piece of advice I got.
DG: Yeah, give me some advice.
Joe: I think about this a lot. Especially … Take Drift, you guys are growing really quickly. Remember, I said to my former CEO when I was at Eloqua, for a while I reported to him. I was grousing about my work load, or something. And he asked about how I was performing in hiring. I had a number of open recs, and he was asking me how close I was to filling them. “Joe, I can’t get to those. I have all these other things to do.” And he said, “You’re upside down on this. The only thing that matters is hiring the right people. You hire the right people, and everything else falls into place.”
I was like, “Oh, he’s got a really good point.”
DG: I love it. That, on top of what you said to me when we were outside, which the micromanaging piece. Those are the two things that I feel like. The right people, and then letting them do what they were hired to do. And then your job is almost like the GM that has to move around the right pieces. You’re not batting. You’re not in the line up.
Joe: If you don’t get the people, you have to be.
DG: You have to be, but then that’s a problem. Because when you’re in the line up, you become a bottleneck. You don’t have the bandwidth to actually do it.
Joe: Let’s say you succeed at extracting yourself from the lineup.
Joe: Now, this is the time where we do sports metaphors, and everybody rolls their eyes.
DG: Okay, that’s fine. That’s fine. No, it’s fine.
Joe: You become the GM, and you’re hovering above it, and you’re just moving around players.
Joe: It’s really hard, then, to figure out if you’re doing a good job or not. Because you’ve grown up judging yourself by batting average, on base percentage home runs, and all the sudden none of those apply to you. That’s one of the areas that new managers and new GMs, if you will, struggle, because all the sudden you have different metrics. The old metrics are more familiar, so you start to seep back into the players in the field.
DG: Okay, one thing before we go. Your busy exec at a company, do you believe in this work like balance? Is it the Jeff Bezos circle? How do you battle it?
Joe: You ready for [crosstalk]
DG: I’m ready. I want to know.
Joe: This is the one I go by, and I’m not saying it’s right. One night I was driving late at night, and I heard this radio show on where it was ask a veterinarian. This women called, and she said, “I have two bull dogs.” This is true.
DG: I believe it.
Joe: And she’s like, “I can’t stop them from biting. And I’m afraid they’re going to hurt each other.” And she was really upset.
Joe: The vet said, “Good news, bad news. Good news is I got an answer. Bad news is you ain’t going to like it.” And so the answer was let them fight. One of them is going to win. They generally won’t hurt each other. And then it gets worse. The one that wins eats first. The one that wins gets let out the door first. You reinforce that hierarchy. They are comfortable with the hierarchy. I think that family and work, unless you let one of them win, will always tear each other apart. You’ve got to pick the one that wins, and then feed that one first.
I reached a juncture in my career when I verbalize family comes first. I try to feed it first. I try to spend my time there first, and I don’t feel guilty about it.
DG: Yeah. I like that. Alright. That’s a perfect place to wrap. You got to go. It’s been great. I appreciate it.
Joe: Is this what you wanted?
DG: Yeah, it was exactly what I wanted.
DG: Exactly what I wanted. So thank you.
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