Being Mansplained To And The Opportunities That Are Missed

July 25, 2018

by Peter Zaballos

I’ve certainly been aware of mansplaining and am generally sensitive to it. But I have seen it happen less than I have had women remark on it. And they remark on it with a sincerity and authenticity that is breathtaking.

It was on a recent business trip when I experienced this myself, first hand. I was traveling with a woman who is on one of my teams, and we were visiting some of our sales regions to review our marketing plans and priorities to get feedback and engagement. One of those invaluable investments of time that ensure we develop campaigns that are relevant and have impact.

And before I go further, the story I am about to tell involves really talented, experienced, and caring people – we have an awesome culture and that’s one of the many reasons I love being here. But that is also the point. Even with talented people in a great culture, this can happen.

That’s certainly one way to approach this

At the first meeting we had a handful of sales reps in the room, and before I’d even gotten to the overview of our plans one of the reps spent literally ten minutes explaining how demand generation worked. Ten minutes.

How his prior company did it. The concept of a buyer’s journey. The need to ensure you have marketing plans directed all the way through from the top of the funnel to the sale.

Some of his pronouncements were on target — many interpretations of how marketing gets done from the vantage point of a sales rep. I sat there and every so often responded with “that’s certainly one way to approach this.”

But it was ten minutes. Of him explaining to me what I’ve been doing for more than 20 years. And I’m really good at marketing. A two-time CMO. The first CMO at my current company. But he explained it all to me.

When the meeting ended, my female colleague and I shared a laugh about it all. To me, it felt like a single occurrence.

No way, really? Is that how you do that?

Two days later we met with the entire sales team for the region. And as I was reviewing our plans for marketing, there was an active discussion and then a series of mini lectures on how to do our marketing well, which culminated with a discussion of competitive analysis and a sales rep reminding me “don’t reference our competitors directly in our marketing.”

At this point I lost patience and — in front of everyone — replied “no way, really? Is that how you do that?”

When the meeting wrapped up, I pulled my colleague aside and asked her “is this what mansplaining feels like, is that what happens to you?” And she rolled her eyes and said “yes, all the time.”

So when I saw the awesome tweet featuring an “Am I mansplaining” flowchart from Kim Goodwin I felt like I understood this a bit better.

Men, study that flowchart. Commit it to memory.

The opportunities missed

But what really happened in my exchanged with these talented salespeople here was a series of missed opportunities. By leading with explaining and not questions, it both annoyed me and focused my attention on being explained to, and not on exploring what we could all be doing together to ensure our marketing had the greatest impact possible.

It would have been awesome if these conversations had started with “can you tell me about how you’re going to approach marketing?” instead of “this is how we did it at my last company.”

And when you consider that what happened to me were isolated instances on this trip and that it happens to women systemically – the greater issue is how much opportunity is unexplored when men talk over women, when men lead by explaining and not by asking questions.

We lose all lose as a culture by letting mansplaining persist, but women bear the professional and personal consequences of confronting it every day, of having their ideas ignored or talked over.

As I have posted before, men just glide through life feeling little if any of what women feel every day — encountering obstacles, biases, and mansplaining and being talked over.

On this business trip, I visited this landscape but so easily could return to my male-centric journey through my career. Women are not so fortunate. Men can help here. When you have that urge to explain, ask a question.

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There is no “career path,” just a network of relationships

March 30, 2018

And how you get from one adventure to the next

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater College of Business and Economics, on the subject of career paths. And the title of my talk was “There Is No Career Path.”

I wasn’t all that that creative. Steve Jobs made this point in his Stanford Commencement speech in 2011, six years before he died. His point was that a career path is only visible in hindsight. The “path” is produced by following your interests and talents. But I want to take that a step further.

My observation is that your career is a product of the relationships you develop along the way in your job along with following your interests and your talents. Notice I didn’t say college alumni networks. One of the points I made to the UWW students was I attended two of the top five universities in the world (Berkeley and MIT), and my alumni networks have produced zero jobs for me.

Networking

But the relationships I developed at LSI Logic, at C-Cube Microsystems, at RealNetworks, and as a venture capitalist at Frazier Technology Ventures have produced six incredible jobs, and have formed the foundation of my career.

When you unpack “relationships” there’s a lot to examine. For me, relationships are formed by establishing trust and credibility with the people you work with and for. And you do that by doing what you said you would do. By speaking your mind. By being honest. By acting with integrity. By being in a culture that aligns with your values.

Your network of relationships is fundamentally about about your personal brand.

That’s right, your personal brand is made up of the people you work with. How well you communicate to them. How well you support others. And that all involves . How you treat them. Those experiences, those memories persist. They’re your personal brand.

Finding the next adventure

And here I am, at another juncture where I am about to move to my next adventure. I left my role as CMO at SPS Commerce in early January, to return to Seattle. Family reasons draw us there, and I really wanted to get back to my roots – building category-creating technology companies.

And it’s this network of relationships that is guiding me. Which made me think of another set of conversations I’ve been having with folks I know – about how instrumental these relationships are to discovering your next adventure.

I’ve been employing the method that has propelled me to where I am now, and which I know will get me to where I want to be next. It involves four activities:

Hone your story – What this means is having clarity about what it is you want to do and what you’ve done to prepare you for this, and it’s being sober and humble about what you’re really good at. And finally, it’s about being compelling about why this next adventure is right for the role and for you – and for whoever it is you will work for.

“Your story” is what you say after you meet someone, you exchange pleasantries, and there’s a pause. You then tell the story. Why you’re there with them, why there is context, and you paint a picture of your future that they might be able to help you with.

Lots of conversations – This is the foundation of the process. This is where you start speaking to lots of people who might be able to help sharpen your focus, sharpen your story (you’ll be telling that to them), and who might know someone else who you might meet. But fundamentally you are asking someone to spend time with you. To help you.

It’s awesome your contact will meet with you, so be considerate of their time. Thank them. And make sure you see if there’s anything you can do to help them. It will make you feel less bashful about asking for feedback, or to be connected to someone else.

Considerate networking – Expect and insist on “double opt-in introductions” – this means the person connecting you someone needs to check with that person to confirm they’re interested BEFORE making the introduction . Only after that person agrees to be introduced, then expect the introduction. This means there’s mutual interest in the conversation.

This also introduces an obligation to responsiveness on your part. That means as soon as you see that email connecting you to the other party, respond promptly – before the other party has to. Your contact is doing you a favor, so demonstrate grace by making it easy for them for them to find a time and place to meet. And while you’re at it, be considerate of the person who made the introduction. In your reply, move that person to the bcc line of the email. That way they will see that the connection has been made, but they are not burdened with seeing the 7+ email exchanges that went into finding a date and place to meet.

Let go of the outcome – This is the hardest part. The only part of this process you can control is your ability to meet with people, tell your story, and explore where this all takes you. What it won’t do is provide a linear path to an awesome next role for you. But enough of these sincere conversations, where you’ve been considerate and forthcoming, will produce a conversation, at some point, that will point to a person or a role, that is exactly what you’re looking for.

It’s that simple. I can tell you every one of the awesome opportunities I am exploring right now have followed these four steps. And it has had nothing to do with where I went to school.

And like with you career – there is no deterministic path you can see stretching forward. Just a network of relationships guiding you down the road.

 

Why video games are awesome preparation for life, and careers. By Peter Zaballos

March 23, 2018

And why adults get video games wrong

Recently, my world has been totally rocked with the multi-player game “7 Days to Die” which is a zombie apocalypse game that my children and I play together, even when scattered across the country. Sunday at 7 is our time, and we generally play with me in one city, each of our kids in other cities, and some of their friends in other cities as well.

7DTD is a game where every seven nights (in game) a zombie horde attacks, and the rhythm of the game is to spend your time between hordes preparing. It’s all about cooperating, and dividing up the work – where the work can be scavenging supplies, making building materials and tools, crafting weapons and ammunition. And developing a plan to defend ourselves. We all log on, and setup a group phone call, and there’s a constant stream of updates, suggestions, and help.

Here’s the base we’ve created. My main skill is converting rocks and sand into concrete. You can see how we put that to use. BTW, this base was shredded later that night (horde night). We survived, but the base took tremendous damage. Which caused us to assess what had gone right, wrong, and what our next defense setup would need to look like. We figure out what’s working, what’s not, and adapt. This is what I do at work every day. Except for the zombie horde. At work it’s competitors.

7DTD base

It’s an easy way to spend five hours without even realizing it. And it is a rock solid environment to hone the kinds of skills any of us needs to get through life, and succeed in our careers.

But every week it’s the same focus. We develop a plan to build defenses, a plan for how we’ll cooperate and support each other because we all have different skills and resources. And like all plans, they become obsolete the moment the zombie horde arrives. Here we are at night, my avatar’s name is RaceCondition (inside computing joke there) and the view is from one of my son’s avatar. We’re all so relaxed because since hordes swarm every seven days, and it’s day 58, we can more easily gather like this at night (in this shot we’re at an abandoned city looting).

7DTD crew

But before going on, let me tell you about how my children (and their friends) and I got here.

It may be that our family is unique, but I really doubt it. Our kids grew up playing video games. Freddi Fish was a big hit when they were little. They played them on the desktop computer we had way back then.

But even then the play had a strong social component to it, since we had four kids in five years, there was lots of group play involved. Two or three of our kids would be crowded around the monitor watching the other play, and there’d be banter throughout the game.

When the subject of getting a video game console came up, my wife and I proceeded cautiously. We’d “heard” so many scary stories about them. About how people’s kids would disappear for hours/days/weeks into a basement TV room and waste away there, living this solitary existence staring into a screen.

What we got wrong about video games is how incredibly social they are. And how much the games foster problem solving and collaboration.

We started slowly, with a Nintendo Wii. And it was fun. Mostly family fun. And soon the topic of an Xbox surfaced. Their friends had them, and over time we reluctantly agreed. There we some conditions, the biggest was that the kids would need to pay for it themselves, along with the games they wanted. So they saved, and did.

What ended up happening totally surprised us. This was full-on social pandemonium. There’d be upwards of a dozen kids at time in our basement – some playing – but most watching the others play. And the conversations, laughter, and screams of delight that grew and grew as the games progressed could be heard throughout the house.

We also witnessed our kids spending so many hours playing with all their friends and spending those hours talking…about the game, about life, about anything and everything. And there’s a growing amount of research showing video game play does create better career skills.

Which is why I was so touched when our youngest child, four years ago, suggested I learn to play Halo. He was patient, it took me literally almost a year before I didn’t feel completely incompetent. But we played through Halo 2, then Halo Reach (as far as our children are concerned, the franchise effectively stopped there). Eventually I would even get invited down when all the other friends were there and play with them, and hold my own.

I went on from that to play through Portal, Portal 2, and Bioshock Infinite. All three of these are phenomenal problem solving games with awesome story lines. Portal 2 is worth playing just to experience Stephen Merchant as the voice and personality of Wheatley – likely the single best voice performance in a video game, ever..

The more I observed how our kids played these games with their friends the more it looked like the environment I like to foster on my teams at work: goal-focused, team-oriented, sharing data to make better decisions. The more it looked like the environment I strive to live up to in my User Manual.

So of the many good decisions my wife and I made as parents, one was being open minded about video games, and trusting our children to make good decisions about how to embrace video games. We learned a lot as a family there, that has helped prepare our children for career success.

International Women’s Day – and why it is essential. By Peter Zaballos

March 16, 2018

Here’s my belated post commemorating this important day

Last week week we celebrated an important and urgent topic. Treating women equally. International Women’s Day. Treating women equally to men is the goal, and I’ve written about what I think that looks like.

But every day we see what it doesn’t look like. And this is easy for me to write, because I’m a man, and I don’t see and feel the many ways women have it harder to make it through their days.  I saw something recently, last week, that reminded me of the importance of this topic, and why we have work to do to achieve equality.

I ran right into that last Friday. I was listening to a new podcast about legendary business rivalries. The podcast is called Business Wars (I’m not linking to it because I don’t want to inadvertently send them traffic). During an episode on the Nike/Adidas rivalry there was a sponsor ad for Plated – one of the many meal delivery services.

The host of this podcast is a man. And this is how he described Plated’s offering:

“I was so impressed by the quality of the delivery, and my wife was blown away by the step-by-step instructions, the whole family was knocked out by the flavor…”

I had to skip back 30 seconds to listen to it again. Did I really just here this male remark at how his wife, and only his wife, was surprised by how easy this meal was to prepare? Isn’t that one of the gender stereotypes we’re trying to remove from daily life? The wife in the kitchen, the husband standing by?

I dashed off an email to Plated (the only address I could find was their customer support contact – help@plated.com) and to the podcast’s publisher, Wondery via their PR firm (jon@RLMPR.com also the only email address I could find). Here’s what I sent (could have edited it better, but I was pissed off and impatient):

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 10.36.22 AMAnd guess what? I got a machine generated auto-reply from Plated, and nothing from Jon Lindsay Phillips, who is the Executive Director of RLM Public Relations, listed as the media relations contact for Wondery. It’s been a week now.

I held off on writing this post until now to give either Plated or Wondery a chance to respond. Hoping to hear them acknowledge the mistake and vow to fix it. That was disappointing.

I’m no longer subscribing to Wondery’s podcasts and I have no interest in supporting companies like Plated who promote gender stereotypes.

The surprising thing is I had been pointed to Business Wars by Reid Hoffman’s “Masters of Scale” podcast, which is outstanding. And Reid Hoffman is someone who is a strident supporter of women’s equality. My next stop is to drop him a line. As an avid listener of his podcast, I expect to hear back pretty quickly.

Women have a hard enough time being treated fairly, without companies like Plated putting more obstacles in their way. Or rather, perpetuating obstacles that urgently need to be removed.

In the meantime, men and women can make dinner. And do. And men and women can support each other at home. And do.

Why marketing is a lot like software development. By Peter Zaballos

March 14, 2018

Four reasons why marketing is as important as code for tech companies.

We’re living in the golden age of marketing right now. The mechanics of marketing and its impact on the business have changed dramatically in the past three years. Put another way, when I hire marketing talent, anything anyone has done more than 3-5 years ago I literally don’t care about or evaluate.

In the past few years I’ve seen marketing shift its focus from providing air cover to sales teams to now being the group within the company that’s determining the messaging and tactics that salespeople can best put into action. The data tells everyone what’s effective, impactful. Fewer opinions, more facts.

SW DEV STRIP

There are four reasons for this:

First. Marketing is a quant business. Everything is instrumented – you know who is responding to which offers, who is engaging with what content, what paths they take. Over time you can correlate engagement to value, and use data to find where and how prospects find you, and what signals the right time to present them with an offer or a call to action. This is a quant-jock’s delight. And data analysts are the new “must-have” role on a marketing team.

In today’s marketing you also have the advantage of short feedback loops which lend themselves naturally to an Agile approach to campaign management. Deploy a campaign, use data to validate assumptions, refine the campaign, repeat. My last marketing team collaborated with our DevOps agile coach to embrace the sprint/retrospective approach, and the team held daily stand-ups to ensure they were cohesive and focused on the most valuable activities.

Second. Google, whether we like it or not, is enforcing quality. What this means is that Google’s ability to interpret page intent is staggering. You genuinely need to be developing content paths that answer the questions your audience has, and legitimately guide them to a solution. If your bounce rate, or worse, your conversion rate is too high or too low, you’ll get penalized. It’s fundamentally obsoleted the marketing tactics that came before this.

It’s as structural a change as containers have been to DevOps. It’s creating a situation where I don’t care what you did three years ago – the search marketing tactics that worked back then no longer work today. Yes, we’re all still focused on the customer journey, but Google’s ability to assess whether that’s a productive journey you’ve created is what changed. This is a good thing. The companies with clear and differentiated positioning and value propositions, who create high quality content paths will win.

If you’re in marketing and you haven’t embraced this new world of content and data-driven optimization, you can still find a job, it just won’t be an interesting one. Just like in software, if you aren’t a full stack developer, if you aren’t learning new languages every year, you can still find a job, somewhere. It just won’t be an interesting one.

Third. Developing an effective marketing presence requires a system architecture. The category definition, positioning, awareness development, the demand generation – requires an architecture. Your category definition and positioning are that architecture, and inform how you will take your solution to your prospects and customers. Like with building software, you need this architecture to build the services that create the go-to-market “product” – the combination of campaigns and tactics you’ll put into motion.

One of my favorite marketing books is not about marketing at all, or rather, on the surface it’s not about marketing.

Building Microservices

The book is Building Microservices and while its purpose is to help the reader understand this new-ish phase of modern software development, it also describes how organizations can function efficiently. How “loosely coupled, trusted” relationships between organizations can produce resilient, agile performance.

Agility is important. There’s an abundance of data that modern marketing teams have access to today, and scrutinizing this data, and adapting campaigns and tactics are a critical success factor. Add to that just how much the mechanics of marketing have changed in the past three years (due to a large part on the above second point), and you have a landscape that looks a lot like…software development. Containers didn’t exist five years ago at scale. Serverless computing? Same thing.

 

Finally, the impact of marketing takes time to create. Just like any significant software development.  Assuming you have your category defined and your positioning solid, it will take 6-12 months to get scale from your demand gen. That means you’ll be iterating and iterating, refining, optimizing conversion rates, a lot.

It’s never been a better time to be in marketing. It’s never been a better time to be a CMO. You and your CTO will have a lot in common. And it’s likely your CTO will get jealous at some point, with more and more technology, and data, flowing into marketing, CMO budgets might just become bigger than CTO budgets.

 

 

Why User Activation Is Demand Gen. By Peter Zaballos

March 8, 2018

And why it’s super hard to measure

And it really is an essential component of demand gen. Essential.

Let me digress for just a bit.

Assume you’re zeroed-in on your category, your demand gen is solid and scaled, and now you’re creating a steady, growing stream of prospects to your sales team. And they’re closing them at a brisk pace.

As hard as all that was, now the real work begins. That solution to the problem you promised the prospect? It now needs to be delivered through the product experience. The very first time that new user signs on.

Saved DNA

I wrote about this in my blog post on conversion optimization of demand generation. That new customer found your product because of how it was marketed to them. The very first time a new customer experiences the product, it has to align with the value proposition your promised. So, how do you know if you’re delivering on that promise?

It’s super hard.

And it’s super important, because customer acquisition is pointless without retention. Jamie Quint explains this exceptionally well in a guest post on Andrew Chen’s blog, and goes further to highlight that retention is the core driver of virality. That means retention is a core driver of your…demand gen. Right. Full circle.

First of all, you need to look at each user in the context of a group of users called a “cohort” – usually this starts as the collection of users whose first experience with your product happened during the same timeframe (day or week typically). And you can see how the cohort segments into usage activity patterns – some will be super active, some moderately active, and some not active at all.

This can get you started, but doesn’t really tell you a whole lot. You really need to know two other “hard to define” metrics.

First – what constitutes a meaningful action for that user in their first session? That means you don’t just need to understand the core functionality of your product, but how that first time user is going to interact with that functionality to get something they consider valuable done. This is exactly where your product team and your marketing team should have a happy collision.

Didn’t your marketing start the acquisition process by trying to figure out what the exact words that prospect would use to describe their problem? At the very beginning of the customer journey? Well, now the product team needs to deliver the solution in the form of an experience, in terms that the converted prospect (now customer) will recognize as valuable. To them. Of course it’s not that simple (buyers may not be users, but buyers did buy solutions to problems your marketing team zeroed in on).

Second – how frequently will that customer be expected to use your product? You need to know this to establish the baseline of your entire measurement approach. Is it hourly? Daily? Weekly? You may think you know when you’re developing the product, but product design is focused on personas and assumptions about usage. Now you’ll need to check those assumptions through cohort-based analysis of real world people. Amplitude has a great blog post about figuring out how often people use your product.

And everything I just described is virtually impossible to measure with Google Analytics. That free tool is awesome for measuring website activity, but is architecturally incapable of measuring cohorts (believe me, my teams have tried, hard and GA is miserable at cohort analysis). There are some really exciting companies filling that void who have designed cohort-based tools specifically for behavioral product analysis. Amplitude is one – who offers a free versions that you can use to instrument your product and get plenty of data, and then of course have much more sophisticated capabilities you pay for.

Finally, retention is made up of “activating” a customer – making sure they have not just a successful first experience, but that they have a second successful experience and then ensuring long term customer “adoption.”

This is where Product owes an obligation to Customer Success to ensure that customers activate, and then the success team can drive long term adoption. So the product team should own understanding what value needs to be delivered in the first two uses of the product. This will take intensive focus on data, cohort behavior, and many, many iterations with the product design and dev teams. Customer Success should be a part of this process because they will need to take those two experiences and ensure they become hundreds or thousands, or more.

What’s worked well is to have a weekly meeting with Product, Product Design, Development, and Customer Success, where the product manager leads the analysis of usage, and the resulting product and resource development to ensure successful activation. You can think of this as a smooth handoff of customer accountability:

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 11.27.29 AM

In my last role the company had gotten to scale without any focus on product usage or product usage measurement. I was fortunate to have a whip-smart product manager who spent an entire year of these weekly meetings getting grounded in the basics, and bringing that cross functional team to have a clear and compelling understanding of what drove the first two experiences.

And bringing this back to where I started. Product activation is a critical step in your demand gen strategy. It’s why a lot of CMOs have responsibility for both product and marketing, and if not, it’s why CMOs need to have super tight and trusted relationships with their product colleague.

Product led organizations build categories. By Peter Zaballos

March 6, 2018

Part four: Product has the obligation to set the tempo of transformation 

Every business needs to have a laser focus on the needs of their customers. Look no further than Amazon, who has a legendary, systemic, DNA around customers. Literally their customer obsession.

A few years ago I had an opportunity to speak with an Amazon exec about the business he was running and the priorities he had in building it. This business was a direct competitor to a business of Apple’s, and I noticed the Amazon exec was using both an iPhone and a MacBook Pro. I asked him, “why are you using products from your competitors, effectively helping fund them?” – his answer was disarmingly reflexive and sincere. He simply stated “why would it serve my customers better for me to use products that made me less effective at doing my job?”

MountEverest

What does this have to do with product led organizations?

Bringing a category to life and Amazon have the same customer focus.

I wrote earlier about when you’re building a category it’s important to not listen to your customers – don’t let them dominate your near term product priorities. You owe your customers the maniacal focus on your bold vision, and bringing that to life over time, not attending to their long list of improvements in their limited field of view.

Which means product will have complicated relationship with sales and customer success. Sales and customer success are faced daily with enormous input and demands about the here and now. And they should focus maniacally on how to win today’s prospect sale and ensure today’s customers get the value they were promised. But the product team needs to be super careful to include only the most critical few of those customer and prospect needs in the roadmap. The category is the high order bit here.

Your category gets built by bringing tomorrow’s promise to life. I’ve seen companies falter and stall when they take their eye off the category defining focus and shift it to the priorities of their sales teams or their customer success teams. Worse, if the next 90 days of your backlog is the only commitment to your roadmap, you’re never going to build a category. You need to have appropriate commitments to what needs to get done three, six, nine, and 12 months from now.

The product leadership needs to behave like the CEO of their product. That means to operate with a strategic purpose and context. Sure, they need to hear the near term need from sales and customer success, but like a CEO, they’re measured on their ability to perform today but also ensure the company realizes its potential. This is so wonderfully captured in Ben Horowitz’ now legendary 20+ year old essay, Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager. If you haven’t read this. Do so. Now.

Focusing on the bold future can introduce some awkward dynamics to organizations not used to thinking with a category mindset. In a product-led organization, sales and customer success are going to feel pressure to keep up. They’re going to have to become capable and fluent in understanding the trends and priorities that make the bold product vision important. They will need to fully internalize why the category is strategic and important and be able to explain it to their prospects and customers.

In sales or customer success led organizations, the opposite occurs. The product team will need to simplify and reduce the vision and explain the plan using the terms of today. No matter how well you do this, you’ll never build a category. You’ll just hit a forecast. For a while.

I’ve heard some executives at tech companies use the excuse that “we can’t let the salespeople know about the roadmap, because then they won’t sell what we have today.” If that really is true, then that’s the tell-tale sign that the company in question is not a category builder. Because category builders have salespeople who are experienced and savvy enough to sell what you have today, and who can also convey the compelling nature of what is coming. And why buying today’s product puts that customer on a more compelling and secure future.

No one less than Steve Jobs understood this with his typical clarity. Observing that the difference between technology companies that function as sales organizations versus technology companies that function as product companies is that the sales-led organizations will revert to today’s product. They’re not wired to think about or develop big, bold new products.

Companies like Salesforce have mastered “product-led” organizational behavior. Just watch one of Marc Benioff’s keynotes and you’ll see him talking about capabilities that likely won’t be real for years, but speaking to them as if they’re here now. Their salespeople know how to straddle these two realities. They know that you’re going to be better off getting on the platform now and be better off over the years as the promises get delivered.

Product-led organizations build categories, and categories are the product of a bold vision that the marketing organization communicates and aligns the company around, and a product strategy that brings the category vision to life. And that’s good for your customers. Give them something they can’t envision. It’s never been a better time to be a technology company CMO.

 

More on why optimization is the foundation of marketing. By Peter Zaballos

March 1, 2018

Finally, data-driven marketing

In my earlier post about conversion rate optimization I realize there’s a lot there to unpack. I thought I’d go into a bit more detail.

And in that earlier post I took a very liberal definition of CRO – which could confuse folks. I’m expanding the topic of optimization (of which CRO plays a huge role) to cover the entirety of the customer journey all the way to satisfied, enthusiastic user of the product. Let’s just refer to this as optimization.

For the marketing team, there’s likely three orgs at work here – an SEO team optimizing organic traffic volume and patterns, a CRO team looking at how to make the most productive use of that traffic, and a product team (product managers and product designers) ensuring the user experience pays off.

Optimize orange

Optimization isn’t just throwing an A/B test up and seeing what happens. It’s about getting super focused on understanding the journey that a visitor is taking and the purpose of the journey. And then using data inform where you focus and improve that journey. This is easy to do for one particular customer’s journey, it’s super hard to do at scale for everyone you are targeting.

While to people deep into marketing this is well known, I’ve lost track of the number of executives, salespeople, and partners who don’t really understand this.

At its simplest, optimization is about examining the path a customer or prospect follows in getting a solution to a problem they have. And then it’s about ensuring that the solution they found really does solve the problem.

The path to the solution follows the “customer journey” model popularized by Hubspot, which I like because it helps you understand what type of engagement is most effective based on where that prospect is in their journey.

At first the prospect is looking for information – to help them understand what kind of problem they have. This means you need to understand the problem AND the words the customer us using to describe their problem. Their words.

On the last marketing team I led, we’d use the prompt of “there’s someone awake at 3am, they can’t sleep because of a problem at work. We need to know the words they’re typing into Google at 3am to describe their problem.”

Your content describing the problem needs to be fully search optimized for those terms. And that piece of content they find needs to also provide a set of terms that visitor is going to remember and use to describe the kinds of solutions to their problem. Because if you do your job well with this first piece of content they will search for more. Ideally follow a link in that first piece of content they found.

This creates the next set of content. And the terms in the first stage of content now align with the terms in this second set and your search optimization needs to be heavily focused on this second set terms. Now you’re providing more specific information about the kinds of solutions to the problem exist. Helping guide the visitor to a solution they can choose (ideally yours).

In this second phase you need to provide a set of specifics about solution capabilities, advantages and drawbacks, and how to select. Again, this content needs to be optimized to get the visitor from the first stage to this content, as well as provide specific terms that will guide the visitor to your solution in this next phase.

There are three types of search terms to optimize for: navigational, transactional, and commercial. Up until now we’ve been dealing with “informational” search terms and strategies. The visitor is not prepared to make a buying decision yet. So “transactional” search terms and strategies would be premature and would send the visitor elsewhere. And data will tell you this. If you’ve got a low conversion rate across phases, that’s where you need to dig in and figure out why.

At this third stage, the visitor wants a specific solution. Yours. Now you show up with a set of search terms that are about transactions. They are about selecting the solution. And the visitor is ready to buy.

You can see how complex this gets. At every juncture connecting these three stages of the journey, there’s a different strategy for optimizing the conversion at each stage.

And we haven’t even talked about how this can change by persona, by type of company and size of company.

But the optimization doesn’t stop there.

Let’s assume the visitor has chosen your solution to evaluate. They fill out your form and submit it. You have literally minutes to contact them. That’s because at the pace we all work today, that prospect will have completely forgotten the form submission and your company by tomorrow. On my last team we got our repose time to under 10 minutes. That’s right, within ten minutes of that potential customer sending in a form asking to be contacted, they were on the phone with a sales development rep (SDR).

And let’s assume that the SDR qualifies that opportunity, and an account rep made a sale. What happens the first time the customer (likely not even the person who purchased) uses the product you sold them?

That too has to align with the terms and expectations set during that journey. Because the cycle doesn’t end with the sale. In a lot of respects the real journey begins with the sale. It causes that customer to want more of the product they bought, and be interested in learning about the other products they might not have considered originally. A happy, satisfied customer is what also causes more prospects to learn about you by sharing their experiences. And one of those people they tell will head to a browser, and type in a phrase that should bring them to you, and the process starts all over again.

For CMOs today, this whole landscape is pure gold. optimization is measurable, it connects words to actions and connects prospects to products. It’s everything you’re responsible for, and it now is informed and driven by data. What could be better?

Why conversion rate optimization is the most important role in marketing. By Peter Zaballos

February 26, 2018

And it’s as important as your product

Why? because conversion rate optimization is the function that reveals the truth of your brand, your product, your business. Holistically.

It’s where you have to think deeply about the problem your customer or prospect has, and the information path they will follow to find a solution. But it doesn’t stop there.

Many marketing orgs look at “conversion” as the final step. But it’s really the beginning of the customer journey. It’s when all that carefully crafted terminology has to be aligned to what the customer experiences with the product you just sold them. The customer journey is about delivering value. And having a happy customer come back. And bring their friends and colleagues.

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I was having a conversation with a senior exec at a successful cloud application provider last month, and they mentioned that they were having a hard time converting free trial users to paid subscribers. They were asking my opinion about what communications strategies I’d used in the past to boost these.

My first thought was, “you may be too late to do a whole lot about it.” If the content path that caused someone to find your solution – all those carefully crafted conversion junctures – did not line up with the first experience of the product, then you’re stuck.

No amount of in-app or email or chat communications will fix that. You might make the bad situation a bit better, but you really need to see this as a continuum of your brand promise. It’s what creates the words that draw a prospect in, and the experience they have with your product.

Like with almost everything today you get one shot at establishing trust and a relationship. Whether you’re a marketer or a product manager. And as a marketer you’re ultimately marketing a product experience. So there’s got to be tremendous coherence and alignment between what you market and what happens the very first time that former prospect becomes the user of your product.

Activation is different from retention. Retention looks past that first experience and presumes activation. Activation is converting the promise of a solution into…an actual solution to a problem. Retention is ensuring that the solution is durable, compelling, and lasting.

So if I were to pick one discipline that a marketing org should master it’s conversion rate optimization. Above any other. It’s the moment of truth for your business. It’s measurable. It quantifies your ability to deliver value to your customers.

And this is why it’s awesome to be a CMO and to be responsible for Product and Marketing. Because you are accountable to the business for ensuring the brand promise gets delivered. Everywhere. Every time.

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Category creation – Why a messaging pivot is frequently essential. By Peter Zaballos

February 19, 2018

Part Three: The fallacy of “Everything is working, we just need to tell the story better”

So your CEO has articulated a bold vision of what is possible for your customers. Fundamentally different from what they have today. A change so dramatic they can’t imagine it. But you can.

This all got written down. And these words matter. A lot. They didn’t come easily or quickly. At the beginning they were directional, not precise. Intensive scrutiny and many iterations produced the exact set of words that describe the change you envision, and the category you’re creating.

Now you shift your focus to putting those words into action. And those words will inform and bring to life the go-to-market orchestration that will position you as the leader, the creator of this new category. They will inform the demand generation, the events, the company communications and training, and most important, the experiences customers have when they use your product. Let’s call this your category story.

The category story is the collection of words and visualizations that tell the market, your customers and prospects, and critically your employees about your role in bringing the bold future to reality. It’s the core creative idea that fuels any of the forms of the media you will deploy.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral

The story can and should live in lots of people’s hands. It’s what gets amplified through marketing. Evangelized through events and workshops. It fuel’s the virtuous circle of adoption. It informs every step of the buyer’s journey. It creates the triggering events that makes someone open to switching from what they’re using now, to the future you inspire them to join.

The reality is that a lot of companies formalize their category vision after they’ve shipped their product. After they’ve sold it. After they’ve figured out how to create demand.

When I was a venture capitalist, I lost track of the number of Series B and Series C financings I was pitched where the CEO would sheepishly admit that they’d “shipped their demo.” It worked well enough to get traction and funding. And that part of the next financing was to finish and fix what had gotten them started.

So a lot of companies need to make this pivot to build their category while running their existing business. With demand gen working. Salespeople selling. Customers using the product. Going back to what I wrote in Part One, category creation is for the bold and means you’ll need to make some pretty scary choices to leave the familiar past behind to realize the category’s potential.

It’s crucial that you amplify the category value proposition. Not the tactical value prop that got you here. The chief warning sign that’s you’re falling into that trap is believing…

“Everything is working we just need to tell the story better.” 

But that’s the wrong story. The old story is made up of well thought through campaigns and tactics, but without the purpose of creating your category dominance. The old story may produce near term success, but it sure won’t build your category.

This is the “make or break” juncture for the business. You can certainly amplify the tactics that got you to where you are today. Increase the paid search budget targeting potential buyers of today’s tactics. Scrape for more organic visitors by tuning the search performance of your pages to the value prop of today. Train your salesforce to sell what got you to where you are today.

You’ll just dig the hole you’re in a lot deeper. You’ll acquire customers and partners who aren’t aligned to your category vision. Who won’t evangelize it’s potential for you. Whose product and service feedback will be a distraction from your category progress.

So when I’m asked by executives and CEOs about how to scale their growing business and how build awareness of the role their solution plays in the market, I always go back to “what is your category and how is that aligned with your growth campaigns?”

This is where the CMO’s marketing organization needs to carry the responsibility to transform words into bold actions. If you start from anything else, you’re applying bandaids to a wound that won’t heal, and will instead get worse. And more bandaids won’t fix that.

With category alignment you can build kickass marketing campaigns. Your events will bring your ecosystem together and send them off evangelizing your value. Your paid search and your organic search will be aligned and fill your demand gen funnel.  The C-suite at your prospects will see the value in standardizing on your solution.

That’s the kind of foundation durable leadership can be built. Category leadership.