Marketing Post-COVID: Tom Butta, Chief Marketing Officer at SignalFx and Sprinklr

Brian Erickson:
Thanks for joining the Cardwell Beach Marketing Podcast. My name is Brian Erickson, Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Cardwell Beach. In this series, we’re interviewing senior marketers across industries to develop perspective on what marketing will look like in a post-COVID-19 world. Today’s guest is Tom Butta, who has served as Chief Marketing Officer for cloud monitoring software company SignalFX, which was acquired by Splunk in October of 2019 for $1.05 billion.

Tom has also been CMO of Sprinklr, AppNexus, PTC, and Red Hat. In between CMO gigs, Tom was consultant in residence at the venture firm Andreessen Horowitz and the public software company Citrix. Tom, thanks so much for joining us today.

Tom Butta:
Thanks Brian, it’s a pleasure to be with you.

Brian Erickson:
So you’ve helped a variety of B2B companies establish their brands in crowded markets. What advice would you give to B2B companies that are looking to establish a brand position during the COVID-19 era today?

Tom Butta:
I think it’s really important that you figure out how to position your brand in a way that is truly strategic to the companies that you are serving. Are you, in fact, potentially vital to their own strategic interests? Do they need to, and should they be relying on you to effectively drive their business? A lot of companies make the mistake of sharing and marketing what they do and how they do it, and they do it from an inside out perspective. But I think in this time, and in any kind of a crowded marketplace, you have to figure out a way to rise above the noise. There’s a number of things that you rely on, and I think those are, as I said, important at any time, but also important in times of stress, which is what we’re in right now.

Brian Erickson:
Absolutely, and if there ever was a time to rise above the noise, there is a tremendous amount of noise going on currently.

Tom Butta:
Yeah, it’s not atypical, there’s always a variety of folks that take the relatively easy way out and they just glom onto commonly-used words. Whether it’s AI or ML or cloud, you just see a ton of folks using. Digital transformation you see as well. These are completely abused terms. It’s really important that you figure out a positioning platform that enables you to rise above that.

Here’s some techniques that I’ve used, and there’s kind of a common playbook that we’ve been able to deploy that has helped each of the brands that I’ve worked on. I think the most important attribute that you want to position around is value. What kind of value are you creating? What kind of value are you able to help the company create and capture? There’s ingredients to how you go about doing that.

The first is in a category that’s got a lot of noise, the thing that most people will turn to is someone who can help guide them, not advise them. They’re going to look for people who can make sense of the noise, who can help them understand what’s going on, and then who can help guide them to a future that they are targeting, but that you might help bring clarity to.

The second is to guide. So everything that we’re doing today is about a journey to someplace, whether it’s the completely cloud native organization or it’s a completely digitally transformed organization, whatever it might be. You’re on a journey. Most companies are starting from some place. It helps for them to know A, where they are, and B, where they’re trying to get to and what it’s going to take.

So if you can provide some level of guidance on top of this clarifying voice that’s helping them understand it. So, “Oh okay, that’s what that’s all about. I’ve got it, and now I understand where I am and I understand where it is I’m trying to get to, and I can see now the criteria that is used to evaluate where people are as they move forward in that journey, so it helps me to understand what things I need to do.”

But all of that typically is the kind of work or the kind of content that appeals to people intellectually. I’ve created value roadmaps, I’ve created value models, I’ve created maturity models, I’ve created self assessment maturity models, I’ve created indices that help you understand how are you doing versus other people. Those are all good, solid, informative pieces of content, but people typically don’t make decisions about what to do based upon how good that content might be. They have to feel something, and so the third thing that you want to do is you want to surprise people.

You want to interrupt their life in a way that appeals to them in a surprising way, and often that’s appealing to them emotionally. So here’s an example. When I went to work at PTC, it was a CAD company that had actually created this 3D modeling software that was revolutionary in the computer-aided design space. For 10 years or so they had this extraordinary success ride, they got to over a billion dollars in revenue. Problem was that other companies had come along, were offering similar types of products over time that were actually a lot easier to use, as well as a lot cheaper.

When I got there, they had decided that perhaps what was needed was not just a CAD product, but a collaboration product and a data management product. You, in fact, needed an entire product development system because R&D shouldn’t be dictating what products should be developed, it should be the entire enterprise. So we repositioned the company around this new emerging space called PLM, or product lifecycle management. We found that there was no playbook on how companies could create winning products.

That playbook did not exist at an enterprise level, which is when we created the very first value roadmap, a roadmap on where the value opportunities were, what the strategies were associated with them, what the business initiatives were, what kind of competencies you would need to fully capitalize on this particular path. But we have to interrupt business as usual, and so the surprise element was we found out about a meeting that we were going to be hosting for a hundred Wall Street and industry analysts.

This was three or four months after I started. I didn’t even know about it until six weeks before the event. And so after spending all this time with the product team and understanding who our customers were, I realized that we were actually making products that were part of your everyday life. And so what we did is we simulated what a Wall Street analyst’s day would look like from the moment they woke up until they arrived at the meeting. And we created this 90 second video that showed someone whose alarm was going off, and there was a speech bubble that said…

It was a Palm Pilot at the time, and from that moment this really funky music started playing and everything that person did from the moment of jumping out of bed to taking a shower to using the toilet to getting changed and making his coffee and getting in his Dell computer and at his home office and sitting on his Aeron chair and into the elevator and signing in, all of these products that… Looking at his watch, looking out the window and seeing an Audi, all these products that he was using and seeing were actually PTC customers.

The meeting opened with this video, and then afterwards we said, “Thank you for being with us today. Actually, you’ve been with us all along.” And so that’s what I meant by a surprise element. It showed the breadth of our experience with all of these different companies, but here are the people who are analyzing this company every single day, and yet we were a part of their lives in a way that they had never, ever thought of for.

Doing something like that was an entirely new way of conveying our customer, and we tapped into a use case and we created the surprise element, and it really changed the relationship. That was the third thing, and then like I said, the last part would be sometimes brand leaders really need to give, and we’re certainly seeing a lot of that today during this crisis. There’s an awful lot of companies that are doing things, they’re leveraging their manufacturing facilities or their warehouses to the greater good.

It doesn’t take a crisis for you to think through ways to give. And I’m not necessarily talking about donating money, I’m talking about ways that you can give something back, say, to the community. Here’s some examples of that. So when I was at Red Hat, we had an allocation of stock known as friends and family. Guess what we did with the friends and family stock? We provided an allocation to every single person who was in the open source community.

Anybody who is a registered open source developer had access to friends and family shares, which was amazingly generous, actually. These people had a chance to get in on the very first public offering of what became the most valuable open source company ever. And those shares, by the way, when we went public, was the second highest opening in NASDAQ history. It was during the internet bubble and the stock just… These people made a fair amount of money from it, but it was a very, very surprising thing to have done. It was about giving, and so it really helped them understand that Red Hat truly was committed to open source and to the people who had been in it. That’s an example.

Brian Erickson:
When you talk about brand leaders needing to give right now, I think that’s an obvious thing, right? There’s a very clear path to that, but it’s interesting to hear that story where you’re in the middle of dot com bubble, it’s a boom time and you’re still giving back. I think that is helpful to see how that translates to a different sort of period.

Tom Butta:
Another example is when I was at AppNexus, which was the leading ad tech company that wasn’t Google or Facebook, so needing to hire engineers that were every bit the same level of the engineers that were going to work at Google and Facebook. One of the ways that it was able to build a really good reputation for itself and actually attract a lot of interest was it used some of its space, it was like a million dollars worth of real estate, which for a startup is a lot, and it used that auditorium to host meetings for the New York tech community founded underneath Mayor Bloomberg in his Made In New York campaign to host their meeting.

And so what it did is it drew attention to the brand because the office spaces are actually really cool. It caused people to know who we were, definitely drove interest in the company, not only folks looking at the company as a place to go work, but also it was a company that actually was… It seemed to be a lot bigger than we truly were.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah, I had actually attended a number of those town hall sessions. There was some really good ones there. I have a couple of friends that were working there at the time and they had invited me as a guest. So I went, and there was some really great content that you guys had put out.

Tom Butta:
Yeah, and I had a team, I had one person whose full time job was to actually… It was almost like a venue manager. Two other people who were effectively internal producers, they help people produce their content if they needed help. They were serious improv people, so typically we’d have a lot of fun with it.

Brian Erickson:
Nice. So to sum that up, you would say clarify, guide, surprise, and give are really the pillars right now.

Tom Butta:
The pillars of how you can position yourself and do the kinds of things that you need to do to create value. All of those things create value.

Brian Erickson:
And so you make the distinction between advising and guiding. Could you elaborate on that and define that a little bit more specifically? What is the difference between those two terms?

Tom Butta:
I’ve been around enterprise software and enterprise sales people a long time. Typically the good ones always say that we want to be the trusted advisor, and I always correct them and give it meaning, they understand the difference. I said, “Actually, what you really want to be is the trusted guide.” The difference between an advisor and someone who guides is actually quite large. An advisor can simply create a presentation and present you with information that provides you with the advice that you would need about things to do.

Someone who guides is helping you to understand the issues, they’re helping to own the problem. They’ve been through the path, they’re more forward than you, they understand what the pitfalls are, they understand where the opportunities are. They understand how to go about capitalizing on those, but how to be best prepared to do so and they can help guide you on this path forward, because I think that everybody is on some kind of a journey.

Fortune 2000 companies are having to reinvent themselves in many cases, even the new companies that are disruptors are going to be looking out for the next level of disruption, or they’re trying to figure out how to scale. As they try to convince the Fortune 500 that they’re of value, they need to do so from a highly credible place because these folks are looking for help, even if they don’t necessarily admit it. If you provide it in this journey, guidance kind of way with experience of having been on the front lines, there’s a lot of value there.

Brian Erickson:
So with so much of our lives being lived online right now, both personally and professionally, just working in enterprise software, how do you think the current pandemic is changing our relationship to technology? And how is that going to affect the way that we market to folks that are potential customers?

Tom Butta:
When I was at Sprinklr we surfaced our core belief that people never forget how you make them feel, a riff off of what Maya Angelou once said. Because we’re so tethered to technology and we rely on it so much, especially without face-to-face interactions, you need to make sure that that technology works. And you need to make sure that the experience that you’re providing, whether it’s a B2B experience or it’s as a consumer, that that experience is as good as it can be.

People never forget how you make them feel. If you understand that, then you understand that customer service isn’t just about customer support, it’s the new marketing. You have issues with whatever it might be, if you get on the phone with someone on a help desk or a customer service desk, there’s an opportunity for them to not only cement the relationship but to potentially help you see that there’s other things that maybe you should be doing that’ll help turn that around, as opposed to let me get off the phone as fast as possible because it’s costing us money. That’s the old way of thinking.

Brian Erickson:
On a broader scale outside of just the technology world and enterprise software, how do you think marketing as a whole is going to change post COVID-19?

Tom Butta:
If you don’t know how to do digital, your digital presence isn’t as good as it can be, if your ability to understand who your customers are as human beings, as opposed to data points, if you don’t understand the power of data and being able to use that data in real time to drive innovation and personalized experiences, then you’re in for a lot of trouble.

So those are the things that companies have to be excellent at, and I think the idea of having these big conferences… I’ve been at AWS Reinvent, they got to 60, 70,000 people. CES is over 100,000 people, Salesforce’s conferences over 110,000. There’s a lot of people, I just don’t think you’re going to be seeing that much anymore, certainly not in the near term. So you have to figure out how to create community on digital community, how to do virtual events. To the degree there are in person types of events, I think those will be used more for special occasions, probably a lot smaller.

Brian Erickson:
So there’s definitely going to be a big impact, long-lasting impact on conferences and the events industry as a whole, right?

Tom Butta:
I think so.

Brian Erickson:
Definitely seeing that as well, and maybe the end of an era for the handshake, right? I’ll be doing the Spock live long and prosper moving forward.

Tom Butta:
I guess, I guess.

Brian Erickson:
At this current juncture, nearing potentially 20% unemployment, many marketers are going to find themselves in transition. What skills would you say are the most important for marketers to emphasize to remain competitive in the job market if they find themselves there?

Tom Butta:
I think the fundamental skills that will be required will be really, really, really good at communication. People underestimate how important it is to communicate well, and in most cases that’s really the written word. Creating content that’s written from a customer’s perspective, that’s written in a way that’s helping to provide guidance and understanding and clarity. I think that’s hugely valuable, as opposed to these data sheets that are just talking about your product without regard to the human being that’s on the other side of that that’s trying to absorb it.

Communications broadly and writing in particularly is going to be key, and then on the other side of that is data and data analytics. You have to be very, very comfortable understanding data, demanding more and better data, seeing trends about how people are interacting with your website, with your digital products, with your apps, with the software that you’re using. You need to understand there’s been drop-offs. That kind of data analytics, I think, is going to be really important.

Brian Erickson:
Definitely measurement is more important than ever. People are trying to cut the fat, right? So you got to make sure that you’re precise and not throwing things at the wall. Or if you’re throwing things at the wall, you’re measuring them.

Tom Butta:
You’re a marketer, you’re typically looked at as a cost center. But if you can show that you can create value, and if you can prove that you can create pipeline, if you can prove that you can help grow customer relationships and their share of spending with you, if you can prove all of those things as a marketer, then you’re going to actually be able to help the company prove that it too can create value for the customers that it serves. You’ll be surfacing those customer stories and you’ll be surfacing those ROI analysis, that’ll help bring proof to all of that.

Brian Erickson:
So putting the consultant in residence hat back on for a second, hypothetically, if you were in that role consulting with a startup cloud service today, what is one specific takeaway or tactical piece of advice you would give to marketing leaders at a newer tech startup?

Tom Butta:
It would be to truly understand the problem that you are set up to solve. Every technology leader is usually the thought leader in their space. Your customers who are facing that particular problem see that you actually can relate to what it is that they’re dealing with. And yes, you have a solution, but more importantly, you can relate to it. You’ve been through it, you’ve had experience with it. Feeling it, sitting inside your customer, listening to what they have to say.

Listening’s not talking, not selling. Really listening and understanding and seeing them work and try to work through their issues. They might say that something is a problem, but they express something else much more deeply. Paying attention to those signals is really important.

Brian Erickson:
Ultimately, people are buying emotionally, right? And people are very good at identifying their own problems. Not necessarily identifying the solutions, which is why they need a guide in the first place.

Tom Butta:
That’s right, that’s a good way to put it.

Brian Erickson:
Great. Tom, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today, very much appreciate it.

Tom Butta:
Brian, it’s been great. I’m happy to answer any other questions if you have them, or if any of your viewers have questions I’m sure you’ll provide my contact information. I’m on Twitter, I’m on LinkedIn, all the usual places. I write for Forbes, so there’s lots of places you can find me.

Brian Erickson:
Definitely make sure to check out some of Tom’s other great content, add him on LinkedIn. This is Brian Erickson with Cardwell Beach. Thanks again for listening, and please make sure to check back for more senior marketers sharing their perspectives on what marketing will look like in a post COVID-19 world.

Sign up to receive our weekly marketing advice.

Share This