The best way to learn is by talking to people.
Scratch that — the best way to do anything is by talking to people.
Talk to customers. Talk to colleagues. Talk to people in your industry, including competitors. Find out what they care about, what they’re struggling with, and what they’re doing to get better.
Over the past couple years, we’ve been lucky enough to talk to some of the brightest minds in marketing. These are people who’ve literally written the book on brand and growth marketing, from data to storytelling and everything in between.
In this series, we’re going to share some of the lessons we’ve learned from our conversations with CMOs and marketing trailblazers. Below is only a sample of insights gained from each interview. For the full story, be sure to check out the complete episode.
Use storytelling to empower sales.
Great companies are built on the backs of great products, and great products are built on the backs of customers. Great marketers know this, but not every salesperson does.
Selling well requires two skills: empathy and persistence. Customers don’t like salespeople for two reasons: salespeople don’t understand their problems, and in the words of Mike Troiano, AKA the godfather of brand, “they don’t fucking listen.”
According to Mike, the most important thing marketing does is enhance the productivity of sales. And there’s no better or more direct way to do that than to empower the sales team with the tools and context needed to solve a customer’s problems.
We’re both big fans of Simon Sinek, and his idea of “start with why” has, I think, always been fundamental to the way I approach marketing and communication. With a salesperson, what that’s about is giving them the tools to understand, okay, what are the challenges that our customers are dealing with? Then give them a set of discovery questions that enable them to surface those challenges. Help them to walk the customer through the negative consequences of those technical challenges, and paint a picture for them of positive business outcomes that would come from a better way. Once you’ve done that, then you can start to define, okay, what are the technical requirements required to realize that rosy picture?
Mike shared one of his favorite quotes from French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
In other words, if you want to change someone’s behavior, you have to change how they feel, not just how they think.
There are few ways to be effective in business that don’t involve influencing the behavior of other people. Good marketers are students of human response. Same with great product people and salespeople. A product is a response to a customer need.
Experiment — all the time.
Marketing is always changing, and there are no silver bullets. What worked yesterday might not work tomorrow, and the thing you thought would never work in a million years — that might be the campaign you’re telling your grandkids about years from now.
Carol Meyers — a veteran of four IPOs — says the only thing evergreen in marketing is the need to know your customer. You have to understand them and what you have to offer them, and then you have to work like hell to find the right tactics to get that message out there.
It’s important to always be experimenting. Don’t worry about making mistakes. In Carol’s experience, the big mistakes are less about what you did, and more about what you didn’t do.
“We try to do experiments all the time. Usually what’ll happen is someone will propose something and my first reaction might be, ‘Are you kidding me? That’ll never work.’ But I try to hold that in and suspend disbelief, because I really don’t know everything. And things I’ve done in the past that have worked don’t always work at a new company and a new market.”
“So I usually think about, well, okay, what’s the biggest risk that could happen if we spend this money and it doesn’t work? Probably nothing really bad. So go ahead and try it, let’s come back and talk about how it went. And sometimes people really surprise me with things that I thought, there’s no way that’s going to work, and they work beautifully.”
Carol says that as a marketing leader there’s nothing more important than hiring well. And a huge part of hiring well is finding people with urgency around their ideas.
Encourage your team to share their ideas and make sure they feel comfortable doing it. If they bring an idea to the table, ask them why they want to try it, why it’s good for the market, and what the impact is going to be. Have a conversation about it and try to go deeper.
And if it sounds like an interesting idea — try it.
People have to like you.
Don’t forget: you’re selling to people. No matter who you are or what your product is, no matter whether your customer is a CEO or an IT manager or someone in marketing, these are real people you’re selling to. And people don’t do business with people they don’t like.
A lot of marketers get carried away trying to create the world’s best brand. They get caught up in colors and positioning and messaging, and they lose sight of the most important factor — people have to like your brand. If people like you, they’ll buy from you, and they’ll tell their friends about you. Word of mouth is incredibly powerful.
Janine Pelosi, CMO of Zoom, is a maven of brand marketing. She talks about the importance of third-party validation. So much of Zoom’s success has been built on word of mouth. In a world where every company is saying the same thing about their product, you need to get customers to like your brand so that they’ll spread your message for you.
“Early on at Zoom, we were going to be doing things differently. We’re a little bit more old school. We want to bring our customers to the forefront. When I came here, I kept hearing, ‘Zoom, it just doesn’t suck.’ So we ended up putting ‘Video conferencing that doesn’t suck’ on a bunch of billboards all over Silicon Valley, right? Up and down the 101, you’re going to hear it on the radio, the sides of buses, you name it. And it really resonated with people.”
“Now, fast forward a couple of years, we kind of have the opposite. We have ‘Meet happy,’ which people just love, and that kind of came out of a very interesting political climate. There’s just lots of hard things going on in the world, and we wanted a happy message. I think listening to the customer bringing their actual pain point right to the forefront, and then bringing in a great, happy message at the end of the day, really resonated with folks.”
Everybody has an experience with your brand. Every touchpoint, every tweet, every purchase, every moment. A customer’s experience of your brand will dictate whether they keep using their product and whether they tell their friends.
Word of mouth is still the best marketing strategy. And customer experience is the new demand-generation. Make sure customers are happy. Make sure people like you. Happy customers and word of mouth are the most sustainable way to build your brand.
Feedback is the secret sauce.
Talking to customers is important. So is listening. The better understanding you have of your customer’s world, the better decisions you can make around just about everything.
Think about the last decision you made around a piece of messaging. Who wrote the copy? Did you know if it would resonate with customers? What if you could validate it with customer feedback? What if the copy itself came directly from customer feedback?
Leela Srinivasan, CMO of SurveyMonkey, gives a master class in the benefits of customer feedback. She says marketing is all about proximity to customers. She encourages marketers to think of customer feedback as the ultimate in data enrichment.
Use customer feedback to inform your biggest messaging decisions. Leverage customer feedback for surprise and delight. Listen closely for specific details — that’s how to surprise and delight later on. Turn customer feedback into attention-getting, lead-generating content. Use customer feedback to make better decisions around pricing and packaging.
“I’ve used customer feedback, basically, as a really important input into how we’re thinking about packaging and pricing. So designing packages from scratch, based on individuals’ willingness to pay for certain features, to running qualitative research with decision makers, and having them react in real time to different price points, using Van Westendorp and all these other conventions to just try and make sure we have as much input as possible in that final price. Because you can really kind of shoot yourself in the foot if you go to market with something that doesn’t have quite the features set in place that people will pay for, or that it is just priced incorrectly.”
Qualitative input from customers can help you make better marketing decisions across the board. It can help you create what Leela calls a “virtuous customer acquisition cycle” and amass a following of devoted fans.
Even the smartest marketers in the world can’t do it on their own. You need to listen to your customers and use their feedback to help you workshop your ideas. At minimum, they’ll tell you what is and isn’t working. And on a good day, they’ll be the ones making decisions for you and giving you great ideas.
Don’t overcomplicate with technology.
A lot of marketers get carried away with tools and technology. It’s tempting to want to automate and integrate and create the world’s best MarTech stack. And it’s true that a good stack can do amazing things for not just your marketing team but everyone in the company.
But there are downsides to overusing technology. One is that it can overshadow “real” skills and create blindspots in your company. Another is that tools and software aren’t used the same way by everyone. Marketers are used to using tools and want to automate everything, but a salesperson’s day can only handle so many things.
Brian Kardon, CMO at Fuze, talks about the importance of not overcomplicating with technology, especially when it comes to sales enablement. Remember that the average BDR is often a kid straight out of school. You can give them the world’s most advanced dashboard with every metric under the sun, but chances are they won’t know half of what they’re looking at.
Brian takes time to sit down with BDRs while they work. Not in a creepy or controlling way — he just wants to observe what tools they use and how they prioritize the instructions given. He says it’s important to simplify things as much as possible.
“I just want to watch and see how you sit. And I realized that they’re not prioritizing things properly. They’re being pulled in a billion directions for the salespeople that they report to. We have about a 3:1 ratio, one BDR for three sales reps. The sales reps say to focus on these accounts, and they’re being distracted all the time. So they get to doing something, and then they get pushed over here. Then they get pushed over here. The priorities are always changing. So it needed a true north, like here’s what you do every day. And it’s super simple. So most of my time now is spent on the integration between sales and marketing, and not on the technology at all. In fact, I find most CMOs have put in too much marketing technology that they’re not using.”
A technology audit can help you understand which tools are being used and which ones haven’t been touched in months. Efficiency should be the goal of every CMO, so try to do this a few times a year and determine what’s necessary.
In some cases, if a tool is underutilized, it might not be that it’s unnecessary — it might be that it just wasn’t deployed properly or at the right time. The “choke point” as Brian describes it is usually the sales team. They can only handle so many new things. Be conscious of that fact as you build your stack, and make sure you’re not overcomplicating with technology.
Product marketing is a job for humans.
Good product marketing is hugely important. It’s how product and marketing teams learn to understand their customers and speak to them on their level. And yet, as ServiceNow CMO Dan Rogers points out, it’s easy to tell when an enterprise company doesn’t have good product marketing. Usually what it looks like is marketing that doesn’t seem human.
Good product marketers are experts in human connection. They’re pros at taking technical ideas and turning them into messaging. They understand customer experience and know-how customers speak and want to be spoken to.
Product marketers should be integrated into the development process early on. They should be deeply embedded so that they understand the product roadmap and know what customers want. They act as a bridge between product and marketing — and your customers.
“I think a product marketer’s job, number one, is how does the decision-maker talk? What do they care about? Who are they? And spending time with them. And really, no product marketing can be inside-out, it all has to be outside-in. You’ll find the words in the customers’ mouths. And you know, that is something I’ve learned increasingly over time.”
“We have an amazing ADR organization at ServiceNow. They singularly have a gift to express in a minute what others take 10 minutes to express. They learn — it’s almost like water going down the river, it kind of figures out the way between the rocks. The ADRs learn that very quickly. This is the way between the rocks. And if I could only say 20 words, what are the most effective 20 words I could say? And it turns out it’s all about understanding what’s gonna go into someone’s ears and be received well. They can figure out those patterns.”
Good product marketing is all about making a human connection. Talk to customers like they’re technically competent — the same way you would talk to a friend.
Let your product marketers get to know the customer and build that bridge. The more you can enter into the world of the buyer and the things they’re struggling with, the better.
It all comes back to storytelling.
All great marketing begins and ends with great storytelling. Stories are how you captivate your audience and get your message across. They’re what stick in customers’ minds when they make buying decisions, and when they use your product and tell their friends.
Andy Raskin, the storytelling genius behind “The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen,” says to start each story with a big, undeniable change happening in the world. Make it impossible to turn away from — if you look away, you risk falling behind.
The next step is laying out the stakes. Show that there will be winners and losers. Show that there are already winners and losers, and that the winners are adapting — if you don’t adapt now, you’re on the road to losing.
Then, tease the promised land. Show customers the path, and show them what’s getting in the way of that. Show them the obstacles. It’s important that the promised land isn’t easy to get to. It has to be hard, because otherwise why would your customers need you?
“Now we have their attention, they see the stakes, and the next thing they want to know is, ‘Well, what’s it going to take to win? What does it take to be one of these winners?’ All of this has a real analog and movie structure, that’s where I learned about all this stuff. I was pitching a company and it was going really badly until I found this screenwriting book. You think about all the great movies — Star Wars, of course, is a good one because a lot of people have seen it — in that movie, it’s destroying the Death Star. In other movies, it’s something else.”
“Can you do what I call ‘tease the promised land,’ meaning, give a glimpse of it. This functions as both a gold state for the customer, but also a commitment from the company like, “This is what we’re going to get you to.’ In this way, I really see this as the mission statement, but it’s the mission statement from the customer’s point of view versus some kind of self-centered thing.”
Once you’ve teased the promised land, summarize the obstacles and show customers how you can help them overcome them. Then show examples and give proof.
The evidence is important — it’s how you prove to customers that you can help make the story come true. The best evidence is stories about customers you’ve already gotten to the promised land. But don’t call them case studies. Find a more exciting way to use those stories.
Good storytelling isn’t about selling solutions or trying to be the “best.” It’s about selling a sense of belonging to a group of believers who believe in the story you’re telling.
Want to hear more? Check out the full episode on your favorite app
This is only a fraction of the insights we’ve gained from talking to CMOs and marketing leaders over the past couple years. For more insights, check out the full episodes, and stay tuned for more insights from our conversations with today’s best marketers.