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Kelly Watkins: the secrets of Slack’s incredible growth

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The global marketing leader of the world’s fast-growing collaboration platform says achieving ambitious targets is about keeping things human, reacting to customers’ needs and measuring things that count.

By any measure, workplace collaboration hub Slack has enjoyed phenomenal success. Zero to 8 million daily active users in five years, with customers in 100 countries – more than half of whom work outside the US. More than 3 million paid users and 70,000 teams, with two in three working at Fortune 100 companies. About 200,000 weekly active developers, with thousands of apps in Slack’s directory to help users and teams customise the software.

So how does one of the fastest-growing business applications in history measure success? What role does marketing play in helping the company achieve even more lofty business targets?

Kelly Watkins, Vice President of Global Marketing at Slack, says much of her job is about aligning business and marketing goals. “When it comes to marketing, I’m a big believer in having organisational goals and metrics that we care about,” she says. “I think they enable everybody on the team to orient their work in very particular ways.”

Watkins says companies of every size have similar conversations, and they usually involve finding greater performance and agility in complex, fast-moving business environments. “We’re thinking at the very top level about how we participate in those conversations,” she says.

“We know there are still a lot of people in the world who are unaware Slack exists. We’re trying to invest in building a product that people want to use and love to use. We think about how we educate users, how we educate admins, how we help people learn how to use Slack in ways that help them achieve their business outcomes.”

Watkins says her marketing team is working on three core goals:

Driving brand recall: “How do we help people know about Slack at a deep enough level that they think about us in a context of work or in the context of when they’re trying to improve something at work?”

Bringing in new business: “Marketing is a primary growth engine for the business. We look at how we are helping bring new companies to Slack and help them be successful.”

Having better sales alignment: “We look at the partnership we have with our sales team, and how we can help larger businesses be successful. How are they using Slack in terms of their understanding of the product and what they can do with it?”

Says Watkins: “Those three [goals] really drive how we work, drive how we’re organised, and drive much of how we measure what we’re doing on the marketing front.”

“Measurement is about consistency and enabling everyone in my organisation to have data that drives the conversation.”

Watkins is a believer in net promoter scores (NPS) to get an overall sense of brand impact. “We look at NPS not just in marketing but across the business,” she says. “Virality and organic growth have been key to what’s driven Slack’s success. We aim to build a product that people love and a product people would say to their peers, ‘Hey, you should check this thing out. It’s really worth it.’ I think NPS helps keep our finger on that pulse.

“I don’t think there’s anything ‘out of the box’ we’re doing on the measurement front. From my perspective, measurement is about consistency and enabling everyone in my organisation to have data that drives the conversation.”

Despite already having success outside the US, Watkins says other regions – especially Asia-Pacific – will continue to be a focus for Slack. “We’ve been on a pretty specific journey on the product front over the past year, making Slack available in new languages – French, German, Japanese. We’d love to do more interesting marketing work in different parts of the world.”

Slack’s marketing success

After studying theology and working with a children’s charity at Uganda, Watkins managed marketing at San Francisco-based tech businesses GitHub and Bugsnag. She started at Slack in February 2016 and took over marketing responsibilities at the end of that year.

Watkins believes successful marketers need to understand the human needs of their customers. In a Forbes article, she said marketers have to think of every day as their first day. She calls it “the curse of knowledge”.

“When you know something so deeply that it becomes habitually normal to you, it can be really hard to think about what the experience is of encountering it for the first time,” Watkins says. “I think we [Slack] have always placed an emphasis on marketing that’s very authentic, marketing that’s very human, marketing that really speaks to people in ways they can understand.

“We’re only able to have an organisation that can achieve those things if we work to remember what it’s like to be encountering Slack for the first time.”

Watkins encourages her team to participate in user research, by creating their own projects or working with others. “We’ve just had some marketers who went into exploratory research into some new countries we’re considering localisation efforts – to really get that beginner’s mindset.”

Slack marketers are asked to think about customer sign-up flows or take a day to create a new team on the platform. They are asked to consider what questions they had, what things they found confusing. Slack also has a program allowing anybody in the company to help answer customer support tickets.

“I think it’s those intentional choices that encourage people to be close to the ground, close to our users,” she says. “It’s about putting themselves through the experiences those people are going through early on in their journey with our products.”

Watkins is concerned marketers are losing their “craft” by relying too heavily on data to shape their knowledge. “I think we’re fortunate as an industry to have so many tools at our disposal,” she says. “The [marketing] landscape of services and platforms is incredible. I think that has created this really interesting focus on the tools, above and beyond what you’re trying to do with them.

“I think it’s a challenge but one that can be overcome. For me, it’s about remembering our first principles. At Slack, courtesy is a core value. The other piece is encouraging my team to reflect on experiences outside of marketing. What’s it like to go to an incredible restaurant and have an experience that feels focused on you as a person and your dining experience?”

“You have to develop a profound level of empathy … When you interact with audiences and their needs, that human-to-human connection comes out strongly.”

She encourages all marketers on her team to read Setting the Table, by New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, about hospitality in business. “It’s for leaders who are continuously working to automate parts of how their teams do marketing,” Watkins says.

“It’s something we have to do, but we have to match that automation with continually reminding folks that there are people on the other side of what we’re doing. We need to think of those humans and treat them with courtesy and hospitality.”

This attitude has helped Watkins develop a view of what it takes to be a successful marketer today. “You have to develop a profound level of empathy, where you’re thinking first and foremost about the people interacting with your business. When you interact with audiences and their needs, that human-to-human connection comes out strongly. I think it’s hard not to see yourself in their shoes.”

Watkins says this service-led attitude has been a major contributor to Slack’s ongoing success, and it permeates the business. “There’s a real sense of humility inside Slack,” she says. “We’re continuously optimising and reorienting what we do to improve [our customers’] lives. I think that’s been a lot of the secret so far.”

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Further reading: Turning insights into strategic decisions

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