Agents of Change
Developing personal vs personalized experiences
with John Watton, Head of EMEA Marketing, VMware (ex Yext)
Our Agents of Change series with business leaders and pioneers talks of how to drive sustainable success in a changed world.
Join Agent3’s Chief Revenue Officer, Paul Mackender and Yext’s VP of Marketing, John Watton as they speak of the major changes to B2B Marketing over the last year. Along with discussing the key innovations that are propelling businesses forward in the B2B space, John explains how Yext are exploring the opportunity around developing personal vs personalized experiences.
So hi, I’m Paul Mackender, I’m the Chief Revenue Officer here at Agent3, and as part of our new content series Agents Of Change I’m really pleased to be here with John Watton, who’s the Vice President of Marketing for Yext. Thanks for joining us, John.
Hi, Paul, it’s great to be here.
And as we talked about recently, the thing which we’re going to talk about is why B2B marketing’s such a brilliant place to be today. But before we get there and dig into that detail, I think one of the common questions we want to really address on this series is, just professionally what you’ve seen as being the sort of major changes in the last 12 months, and really how you’ve coped with that change, John.
Yeah, well, no problem. That’s a very relevant question because I’ve been at Yext now for just over a year and I joined two weeks before the first lockdown. So, professionally, it’s been an interesting year because I’ve worked in a company where not only am I getting to know the company, I haven’t yet met a lot of the people in the company. I’ve existed virtually like everyone, but I’ve never had the chance to meet a lot of my team, for example. Professionally, it’s been an exaggerated crash course in how to work with virtually all my organization remotely and try and build those relationships.
So that is a challenge when you’re a marketing leader and you’re trying to bring the team together. I think in terms of what we do as a marketing team, actually the two weeks I had before I came into the company before the lockdown, I guess my brief would have been to transform what was already a high performing marketing team, but put in place and things that definitely needed to change and develop.
And they were broadly around, you’re going to laugh now, digital and data-driven and these things. And of course, we’ve had to go full speed at that over the course of the last year. So, of course like everyone, we’ve seen that acceleration. I think we’ve coped very well as a marketing organization. And we’ve had to do that remotely where many of us have never met.
And so not only do we have to accelerate the change in how we do our marketing, our customers are going through that same pace as well. So at the end of the day what we’re trying to do in marketing is convey value, obviously bring new companies into the solutions and offerings that we have, as well as make sure that our existing customers extract the maximum value they can out of what we do.
Great. And, John, when we set up Agent3, which was a few years ago now, the name came from what we thought were the three agents of change in marketing, which were data, technology, and creativity together. To what degree do you think that the focus on those three agencies has come to the fore more than ever in the last year?
Oh yeah. I mean, absolutely. I mean, I’ve been in marketing now, in B2B tech marketing, for several decades, I won’t get into exact numbers. And for the last, I would say, 10 years I’ve been really, really excited to be a B2B marketer. It wasn’t necessarily a sort of role that people would say that about. And really it comes down to the three things you mentioned, which is, the data, technology, and creativity.
On the technology point of view I think the epiphany for me was back in 2007, 2008, I was a beta customer for Marketo, so when they had the lead management system I was their first international customer. But I was working in a small startup with a handful of people and they really showed me the power of technology to automate, and scale up, and punch far above our weight. That then gave us data and insight in terms of what was working, what wasn’t working.
So all of that together, I would say the data and technology gives you the ability to communicate and the ability to understand where you need to be and what’s the forming well. But as marketers, we still need to do the things that consumer marketers were doing back in the fifties to make a box of soap powder jump off a supermarket shelf. We have to cut through. And the digital noise that’s around, that was around back then in 2008, 2009 and is even bigger now in 2021, means that we still have to cut through, we need to stand out. So creativity, I think, in terms of the creative story that you’re conveying, is a really important part of B2B marketing.
I think, irrespective of the size of business you are, how much more you can do within marketing. You don’t need to be a large enterprise with a crazy budget to achieve some amazing results. I mean, again, Yext are a massively growing business that you’re looking very exciting because it’s in a really cool space. How are you approaching it? Are you doing anything innovative or different with your team?
Yeah, so I guess over the past year, just over a year, one of the main things I’ve been trying to do is just put in this consistent management system. It sounds very boring, right? As marketers we don’t like systems and processes, but you need to understand what’s working what isn’t working. You need to understand what your goals are. You need to understand what success looks like. So you need to standardize very quickly on what your core KPIs are.
So that’s one of the main things I’ve been doing is, just keep it to some simple KPIs. Think about the customer journey, and think about each stage of the journey and what would move the needle? And therefore, when we are running activities, which stage of the customer journey, do those activities land on? And therefore, what is the key KPI?
Because what I find in any marketing organization, there’s always lots of great stuff going on, but it’s a little muddled in terms of what the purpose of those activities are, outside of just doing good stuff. So the classic one is running some kind of event, be it offline or online. Is it about accelerating existing conversations? Is it about acquiring new prospects? Is it about increasing the footprint in our existing customers?
And often those things are like, “Yeah, yeah, all of those things.” Well, when you think about content, those sorts of different audiences, new prospect, accelerating a sales conversation, or creating a bigger footprint of a customer is totally different content. And you’re never going to deliver a great experience if you try to cover all those bases. So we now kind of align to each of those phases of the journey, understand what the activity’s trying to achieve, and measure that cleverly.
So I think the state of B2B marketing is such that a lot of the innovation is just around joining those dots and integrating them together. And that’s what I’ve been doing. And then at each stage, we’ve tried some different things, have been very successful.
So the top of the funnel, we like to sort of illuminate our story in creative ways. So we have a whole campaign at the moment which is about telling our story in a really stand-out way and doing a lot of nostalgia marketing, because that’s really big now. So yeah, I won’t go into it all, but we’re just using the creative idea of comparing what it was like in the ’90s to what it’s like today, and having a lot of fun with that.
Because I think personality, humour can all have a good role to play. So we’re just launching that now, so stay tuned for more results on that. But really, the team is trying to think of, coming back to that creativity, creative ways in which we can stand out and cut through, given that we’re all in noisy, competitive markets as well.
I think another theme that we’ve touched on before, and we’ve certainly seen with our customers, is this shift to a SaaS-based world.
I was speaking to a core AE of one of our customers the other day and even he was saying he feels his role has shifted from selling to actually working with the customers, more account management in some respects. To help the customer use their technology more. And I suppose with that goes a change, possibly, to loyalty. What’s your view on that change that it’s brought?
Yeah, I’ve seen that in several organizations I’ve been at, where we have been a SaaS business and the impact it has a marketing. And also on the selling organization, as you mentioned.
So, typically, marketing organizations in most tech companies is focused on customer acquisition. So it’s permanently now they’re generating leads. Leads, leads, leads, leads, leads, leads, a pipeline for the business. But in a SaaS business marketing needs to step in a bit when it comes to existing customers, and making sure they’re getting the most value out of your solutions, your offerings.
And of course there’s a renewal cycle, which although you may sell monthly subscriptions, typically in enterprise SaaS, which is where I’ve worked, at the likes of Yext, as well as Adobe and Silverpop and others, you typically renew on a two or three-year cycle. So you’ve got a notional monthly amount, but it really renews after two or three years. So renewal is a big issue.
So I think long gone are the days of enterprise tech companies being sort of drive by selling, come by, sell a lot of software, then come back in a few years times how it’s going. So we all have to get involved in that customer cycle, the renewal cycle. The sales team and the marketing team as well. So I’ve seen that shift over the years with marketing do more customer marketing and thinking about making sure our customers are happy with their investment.
And I’ve seen sales organizations measured moving from gross revenue to net revenue. Which is a big change for salespeople, because they’re used to bringing in new revenue into the door, but I’ve seen some companies now say, “Okay, but we also have money going out when customers don’t renew. So you need to be focused on net revenue rather than gross revenue.” So it’s a big shift for us in sales and marketing.
And, definitely, what I love about SaaS is accessibility, as we’ve talked about. It puts it in the reach, typically, of smaller businesses, which is really exciting. It’s quicker to get up and running. It’s easier to access, and all those kinds of things. But also it means for technology providers that in some ways you have to be more honest, because the cost of switching is a lot easier. Typically people have options, whatever software segment you’re in.
So you have to build more relationship. You have to be more transparent. Yeah, there’s that sort of honesty to it, which I really like. It’s about building a relationship, just not throwing something over the wall, selling them, and, as I say, moving on to the next one. So I really like it.
And what’s exciting for us in marketing is that means we get a lot closer to our customers. So we get to work with our customers. We share their great stories. We run sessions where we bring them up to date with the latest releases and the latest innovations in our solutions. So I always think that’s a real powerful thing for a marketer, to really understand the customer and be very close to the customer, because that just helps us then, when we’re trying to tell our story out to the prospect world.
And we, as you know, we spend a lot of time looking at behavioral data, propensity, first and third party intent data, and the sources, and have a managed service to help our customers navigate that. I suppose what we’ve talked about, again, is largely positive. We’re in a great situation, I agree. I think it’s a wonderful career to be in B2B marketing.
Just flipping it slightly though, what’s your view on compliance, and privacy, et cetera? I think a lot was brought to the fore with GDPR, and that’s been held up, but I know it’s a lot more than that. I also assume, as well, from what I know about your business, it’s also a great opportunity for the people like yourself in Yext.
So can you talk a little bit about that, please?
Yeah, I think things are changing in that area, driven by legislation and also generally by sort of consumer intolerance of just being spammed, bothered, hassled. There’s a lot we can do now. And I think always with technology it’s, I always say, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
I mean, I can press a button now and send something to everyone in our database. We can put pop-ups on every single web experience. There’s a lot we can do very easily without a lot of effort. But it doesn’t mean they’re good ideas, and does it doesn’t mean we should do that. So you have to think responsibly about really building, I think, ultimately an experience. It is about the experience that you give.
Now, the assumption is that this is just going to continue accelerating and all of our information will be known by every brand. And we’ll know your inside leg measurement and everything about you. And that marketing will go to this hyper-personalized, targeted approach where we’re targeting middle-aged marketing managers in west London with two kids, who support football team X. And I don’t think that’s the case. And that’s what we’ve seen, as you say, with some of the regulation coming in.
So I don’t think now it’s a question. I think a few years ago we thought it’s going to be really personalized, we’ll know everything about everyone. I think it’s much more about providing a personal experience, rather than personalized. So it’s about humanizing the experience, giving the great experience and, in the moment, tailoring that experience to the needs of the individual. And as you say, that sits very well to what we do at Yext, because what we do at Yext is basically provide an AI-powered search experience for brands to give to their customers, and allow customers to ask any questions they want and get an answer. And that can be out in search, in search engines, but it also can be on their website.
And it’s an amazing indication of intent. I think we’ve known that on Google, looking at searches, what are people searching for? It gives us a good idea of intent data, but if you’ve got that same experience on your website, it’s incredibly powerful because you can see what people are asking of your brand on your website.
You can change the experience based on that question. You can give them an answer. And you can make it much more personalized, without having to know that individual on your website right now is Freddy the finance guy, at this FTSE 100 company, with these sorts of needs and requirements. So you get an amazing amount of intent data that allows you to drive a personal experience. And what couldn’t be more personal than giving the exact answer to the question that you want to ask?
And unfortunately if you’ve tried asking questions on websites, 90% of the time, I might go as far as saying 99% of the time, you just get that Google search experience from like 20 years ago, which is a whole bunch of blue links. Which is like going into a shop and saying, “Oh, I want to know, can you just tell me what the delivery time currently is on the beds that you manufacture?” And then the shop assistant saying, “Well, I don’t know, why don’t you just read some books on the shelves over there and find out?” So the experience, particularly on websites, is pretty poor.
So I think there are many technologies that really open up this new kind of world, which is, we’re closing down an old world of tracking everything that everyone does, and cookie-ing everyone, and that sort of thing. But there’s this great opportunity in other ways of providing that personal experience versus trying to do that personalized experience.
Yeah, great. And I think customer experience is one thing that you’ve talked about. So almost to wrap this up, I suppose to think about is, what would you say is the lasting impact, if you like, of the pandemic, or where we are today in B2B marketing? Is it about an even greater focus on experience, like you’ve been talking about? Or is there something else you’d point towards?
I think the two things are experience and using data. There’s lots of predictions on what will happen now as we come out of the lockdowns, and things return to some sort of normality, whatever that may be. Whether it’s remote working, hybrid working. Whether it’s, in our world, right, B2B marketing was very reliant, in most companies, on some kind of physical event. Will they come back? Will people want to go to that?
I’m not one that says it’s either end of the spectrum. I don’t think that, you know, “We’ll never do that again,” or, “Everything will be different.” I think it will be somewhere in between. But I think the learning that we’ve had as we’ve navigated the last year, to continue to try and bring an experience to both prospective customers that we want to introduce to our world and hopefully convert to a customer, or keeping our existing customers running over these difficult times, is that it is a mixture of that.
It’s using data to drive our investment and the activities that we do that ultimately builds amazing experiences for prospects and customers, so that they get the maximum out of the relationship. Whether it’s coming into our franchise, as it were, or continuing to be a customer of ours. And I think that’s the biggest shift.
I think everything else, whether doing more or less events, and everything will be virtual, and we’ll either do no more Zooms or we’ll completely be Zooms, all that stuff, I don’t know. It’ll be somewhere in between. But I think coming out, those are the two things that I think really we’ve made that learning from the last year.
Brilliant. Well, John, thanks for chatting as always. This Zoom has been really enlightening for me, so good to see you. And thanks again.