Sara Varni on The Orbit Shift Podcast


Sara Varni, CMO of Twilio on the four horsemen that drive startup growth

Sara Varni, CMO of cloud communications company Twilio, talks about the four horsemen of a marketing org who drive startup growth.

Sara Varni has spent more than a decade scaling marketing organizations for various enterprise SaaS companies, including Salesforce, where she was most recently the Senior Vice President of Marketing for Sales Cloud. Twilio clocked $1.76 billion in revenues last year, up 55% year-over-year, and is showing no signs of slowing down.

In this episode of The Orbit Shift Podcast, she talks to us about the four horsemen of a marketing org — Inbound, outbound, sales reps, and partner organizations and how companies can leverage these pillars for hypergrowth. She also talks about building marketing channels and how to budget for them, how to get field marketing right, and how to create compelling customer stories. 

Edited Excerpts

Q. Walk us through what you do at Twilio.

Sara: My role at Twilio includes several things covering the customer lifecycle of someone using our products. That can start with developer relations and building mindshare with developers at small meetups or third-party conferences. That can also take the form of website construction and thinking about the optimal customer journey to get our prospects to the right piece of information, they need to convince them to use our products. It can also be PR for promoting our products and promoting our company as a great place to work; where people can build their future career. 

Q. Twilio made the transition from a self-serve model to a top-down sales model. How did you make this transition and what did it mean for marketing?

Sara: Our joke at Twilio is that we’re a 14-year-old company with a 3-year-old sales organization. I had the huge benefit of walking into a company that had a healthy self-serve funnel with a really vibrant and enthusiastic developer community backing it. 

Over time, we saw the need to build relationships, not just with developers but also with the people that run the business units that are ultimately defining the projects for those developers. And we wanted to make sure that our foray into less technical roles didn’t come in conflict with the developer community that had made us so successful. 

There are two things that we had to be really careful about. One was understanding the data in the self-service funnel and figuring out the right time to engage with those inbound leads. You don’t want to make the mistake of running a standard enterprise software playbook on a developer funnel, because developers do not want to be called by an inside sales rep and they don’t want to be bothered with the latest event invite. You need to identify when that person is raising their hand to get help to move them through the funnel. 

The second thing was we had a ton of content for developers through our blog, which is a huge source of inbound interest for us. We had to expand our portfolio to have content that spoke more to a business buyer that was focused on why you should care about customer engagement and communications APIs as opposed to how you can implement this and get your project done. That took an investment in hiring employees that had that domain expertise and were strong at building out a full funnel of content. 

Q. So what are some of the marketing channels that work for you?

Sara: First and foremost, to build a healthy funnel. Your main investment should be in content and a strong writing team. Then you need to figure out what the intersection of your company’s relevance and global relevance is. 

Hurricane Ida is globally relevant right now, at least in the US News, but it’s not necessarily Twilio relevant. On the flip side, SMS APIs are relevant for Twilio but they don’t have global relevance. So it’s important as a marketing team to identify what that intersection is. 

Two years ago, when WhatsApp launched their business API; that was perfectly in the crosshairs of global relevance and Twilio relevance. We made sure to invest in our content efforts so that we would rank high with that launch and be in the top three or top five search results. 

In terms of paid channels, we have our go-to’s and we always try to make sure that we’re maximizing our SEM spend. We have found channels like YouTube to be powerful for developer engagement with short bite-sized videos that get at a particular developer topic that is interesting at the time, or a use case that we think is taking off. 

Radio has been one of our best investments not just as a tool to get people aware of our product but also as a great recruitment tool. 

Q. To sum up, what’s your approach to content and your strategy there?

Sara: You’ve got to think of the full-funnel that you’re trying to build energy around. If you’re in an organization where you’re trying to define a category, you want to focus on content that has little to do with your product and more about the broader landscape and why people should care about the space in the first place. 

As you get further down the funnel, you want to make sure you’re trying to collect the lead, and you need to be really careful about what the give-get is for that audience. 

Things like in-depth demos have more meat behind them and it makes it worth it to the person to provide their information versus you pushing them to something like a customer story that they could find with the right search. It’s key to zero in on what’s worth a login and/or what’s worth providing your information. 

Then the final piece for anyone out there who is marketing to developers is investing in great documentation that will bear fruit over the long haul. If your documentation is complete, thorough, and easy to work with, that is a huge brand accelerator for developer-focused companies.

Q. What’s your strategy for events? 

Sara: It’s been a crazy year for the events landscape. I’m hopeful that the world will start to open up and we’ll get more to pre- COVID life, although I do think there’s going to still be a hybrid element that lives on. 

We do a complete mix of events. Everything from a small meetup event with 10 to 12 developers all the way to sponsoring a show like Dreamforce with 100,000+ people. In terms of tracking ROI and how to get the most out of them, it’s important to take a long-term view. 

Third-party events are great for acquiring new logos for your business and for expanding awareness in certain markets. But they’re not necessarily going to show up in your funnel in the short term. It’s really important to have a long view on that because that can have a really high RoI. It’s just that the timeframe is a little bit different. 

In terms of first-party events, there’s no better selling mechanism than to get your existing customers in the room with your prospects. You can step out of the way and let them do the selling for your company. When it comes to RoI for first-party events, I think more about the maturation of the pipeline versus creation. We always think of our first-party events as a way to move someone further down the funnel. 

Q. What are some of the lessons you learned scaling the organization from a people perspective? 

Sara: From a people perspective, it’s really important to evaluate where the company is in its journey, and map the right operators to that point in time. Even though I had a deep network of colleagues from Salesforce and people that I loved working with, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense for me to recruit people from there. 

They’re used to being part of a big organization at scale. They might not necessarily be able to rewind the clock and build from that earlier phase. It’s about recognizing how much building is required of the role you’re looking to hire for and where that person is in their own personal journey. Can they see around the corner for what’s ahead? And are they going to be the person that can be in the seat for three to five years? 

Finally, depending on what level in marketing you’re hiring for, you definitely want people who can recruit themselves, are strong people managers and can think about how to build a team.

Q. Talk to us about the four pillars of inbound, outbound, sales reps, and partners with which you grow your marketing organization.  

Sara: I call them the four horsemen — inbound, outbound, sales reps, and partner organizations. 

If you are a 100% self-service business, then inbound will be your only horse. But as you gradually grow a sales team, and move upmarket, you’ll see that inbound percentage come down, and you’ll see all of the other horsemen come up. 

In a more mature, self-service business just starting to get into the sales motion, you would probably see something like a 70% inbound contribution, 30% other horses, and then over time, as you’re starting to penetrate more of the enterprise market you can expect that to flip. That’s my rough rule of thumb. 

For inbound it’s going to be all about traffic and how they’re getting people to your site. You also need to make sure there are no kinks in the pipeline hose. For example, you might get a bunch of leads that are in a queue and not being followed upon. That will deteriorate the quality of the leads over time. So inbound needs to work closely with the head of inside sales to make sure that they’re staying on top of any leads that come in and doing the most with them. 

With outbound, the key thing is making it drop-dead easy for the average outbound rep to leverage your campaigns. Constantly keep in touch with them about what email sequences are working, what content is working, and make it easy for them to know where to get the content. They have to focus on getting things out the door, and then on follow-ups. 

For sales, reps make it easy for them to see signals in your self-service funnel that might be interesting from a prospect perspective, and minimize the number of systems they have to go to. If you can have one single pane of glass, that they can log into every morning and identify where they should be best spending their time, you’re going to be better off. 

With partners, I would say keep it simple. If you overcomplicate tracking and attribution, it can become operationally more expensive than the leads are actually worth. Pilot with a couple of partners, and get that motion down before you scale it out.

Q. How do you look at customer stories and how do you use them? 

Sara: Customer stories are key to having marketing that is memorable. Especially for a platform like Twilio. Showing that end-user story and showing how the product actually surfaces in real life is important because Twilio is an ingredient brand. It’s not as easy to understand right out of the gate what it can do for you. 

We spend a lot of time trying to harvest customer stories from all different segments, and industries, and really get to the details of what made their experience building with Twilio special. 

For example, we’re going through what the story should look like for a food delivery service. Someone said ‘look, they use SMS to deliver messages to people that their food is on their doorstep and we do it with 99.9% reliability’. That’s fine, but it doesn’t pull at the heartstrings. What if we changed it and said, this company is one of the leading food delivery services in the world and the reason that they’re where they are is because they build incredible trust with their customers. For working parents who are on Zoom all day, going through COVID and trying to keep all the plates spinning, they now know that they’re going to be able to put a healthy meal on the table. And they know that they can trust this company to do that.

There’s a big difference in how you cast the story and what is going to sit with people. So it’s really important to get to the human element of these stories because sometimes that’s what’s going to stick with your prospects the most.

Q. If our listeners want to get in touch with you how can they do that?

Sara: They can follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter

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