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A Conversation with Sara Varni, CMO, Twilio

In our latest installment of CMO Conversations, we sat down with Sara Varni. Sara is the CMO of Twilio, a cloud communications platform that is taking the world by storm.

With over 3,000 employees, offices around the globe, and their business on the rise, Twilio is one of the fastest growing technology companies. What does Twilio do? They empower companies to better engage with their customers by giving them a platform to build voice, text, chat, video, and email communications. Odds are you’ve interacted with Twilio technology recently without even knowing it. That notification you received when your Instacart grocery order arrived? That welcome email you that landed in your inbox after you signed up for Netflix? Or that telehealth video call you had with your doctor–those experiences are all powered by Twilio. 

Our founder and CMO Kraig Swensrud sat down with Sara in the Qualified studio to chat about her career path and what makes her tick as a marketer. During their conversation, Sara shed light on how she approaches building out a marketing organization, as well as what she thinks about ABM, Conversational Marketing, and virtual events. Here are some highlights from their conversation. 

Sara Varni, CMO Twilio, stops by the qualified.com studio

Kraig Swensrud (KS): Welcome, Sara! We go way back, having worked together on the Salesforce marketing team over a decade ago. Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell me about your background and how your experience at Salesforce set you up for your role as CMO of Twilio? 

Sara Varni (SV): I have a pretty unconventional background. I started my career as an equities trader in New York on the Nasdaq desk. It never felt right to me; I wanted a more creative career. I went to business school and landed at Salesforce in 2007. At the time, Salesforce was much smaller than it is today. I started on the AppExchange team and it was basically the wild wild west of cloud platforms! There I was, trying to get Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) to bet their whole business on a platform that was barely launched at the time. 

Salesforce was an amazing training ground. I spent nearly 11 years there and I got to work on three product lines, from our AppExchange ecosystem, to a small business product for contact center management, to our flagship Sales Cloud product. Throughout each role, I learned a different set of skills that set me up for my job today.

KS: How did the job as CMO of Twilio come about, and how did you decide it was the best move for you? 

SV: George Hu, the former COO of Salesforce and the current COO of Twilio, reached out in 2017. I had always wanted to be a CMO, and Twilio was a platform that I truly believed in. When we worked together at Salesforce, George always challenged me to be the best marketer. He would ask “What’s the headline we want? What’s the money slide for this? How do we pitch this solution?” In meeting with George about Twilio, I got excited to stretch those marketing muscles again. 

On top of that, a huge selling point was that Twilio was the exact same size as Salesforce was when we started. It had 1,100 people and $400M in revenue. For me, that’s my sweet spot. 

“To be able to join a company at that phase of growth, where the foundation is poured but is not fully dried... that’s the best setup.”

KS: Twilio is on a tear. What’s top of mind for you as a CMO of a multi-billion dollar publicly traded company that continues to grow at a breakneck pace?

SV: In today’s world, we need to make sure we’re aligned as an organization on which use cases are the most relevant for our customers right now. Things like contactless delivery, remote contact centers, or telehealth have come into focus as we navigate the new normal.

Twilio helps companies connect with customers in the new normal
Twilio is empowering their customers to engage with their customers in the "new normal"

Outside of that, I’m constantly looking ahead to set the foundation for the next year, the next 3 years, and the next 5 years. I’m asking myself and our team:

  • Are we placing the right bets internationally? 
  • How are we thinking about our website? 
  • How are we scaling for the largest enterprises in the world, versus just being a self-service organization, which is where we have our roots? 
"As a CMO, you really need to be clear on your vision with your team. Or else you can look up in a year and realize you’ve just been reactive. You need to look forward and set the company up for growth."

KS: The roots of Twilio are in this massive developer ecosystem, but the direction is to penetrate larger enterprises. How do you think about Account-Based Marketing (ABM) to fuel this effort? 

SV: When I first started at Twilio, I thought about two funnels: our developer funnel and our line of business funnel. What I’ve since learned is we have one big funnel and the developer funnel feeds the line of business funnel. As marketers, ABM helps you connect the dots within your most important accounts and create revenue opportunities for your sales team.

When it comes to ABM at Twilio, it takes form in a few different ways: 

  • One part is identifying developer activity within an account and flagging that behavior for our sales team. If we see signups within an account, that’s a signal that a project is underway.
  • It can also take form in high-touch programs for our top accounts. We’ve been doing enterprise hackathons where we host American-Idol style hackathons for big customers like U-Haul. People break up into teams based on the challenges they’re trying to solve and at the end of the day they pitch what they’ve built. It’s a win-win. The company’s developers get free training from our Twilio evangelists, and on the flip side, we’re able to accelerate a proof of concept process that could have taken over a year. 

KS: Let’s talk about another strategy that’s core to B2B marketing: your website and Conversational Marketing. How do you think about these marketing functions? 

SV: When it comes to the website, we need to be focused on conversion and generating as many leads for our sales people as possible. But it’s bigger than that. You need to make sure that you’re surfacing the right content for your personas and your buyers. That means delivering the right customer stories and the right level of personalization.

That’s where Conversational Marketing comes into play. If you’re in the business of selling technology to other businesses, you need to deliver the most personalized, customized engagement experience possible.

"With brands like Qualified, you can know where a visitor came from, have an engaging conversation, and get them what they need as quickly as possible. That’s the modern experience that visitors expect from a website."

KS: We were both part of throwing the world’s largest technology conference–Dreamforce. Twilio has had a strong event strategy to date with your SIGNAL user conference, field marketing events, developer meetups, and so forth. How are you thinking about event marketing in this new digital-first world? 

SV: We’ve realized you can’t take this “lift and shift” mentality; you can’t take what we did in the physical world and expect it to work online. People will get zoom fatigue and they won’t sit on a day-long agenda. 

You have to embrace a Netflix mentality. What is the content that will get someone to binge watch and consume episode after episode? It’s also in positioning. Instead of tracks, it's channels. Instead of sessions, it's episodes. We need to think about how we can deliver the most engaging content possible to our viewers today. 

Twilio's annyal Signal Conference will be completely virtual
Twilio's annual SIGNAL conference will be completely virtual

Thank you, Sara, for stopping by the Qualified studio and taking the time to share your CMO insight. Until next time!

Posted on
July 8, 2020
by
Maura Rivera

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