In this PitchMaps Leaderview, Rachel Spasser, previously CMO of Ariba and now CMO and Operating Principal at Accel-KKR, discusses how B2B marketing has changed in recent years – and what it takes to win in today’s world. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation with Rachel.
PitchMaps: Could you tell us a little bit about your background, and what you’re doing now?
Rachel Spasser: Sure. I’ve been in business development, marketing, and sales now for about 25 years – predominantly in technology. Most recently I was the Chief Marketing Officer at Ariba. We were acquired by SAP in 2012. I worked for SAP and ran their demand generation and customer adoption marketing within their cloud unit for a couple of years before joining Accel-KKR, which is a private equity firm that invests in mid-sized software and technology-enabled services companies.
PitchMaps: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in B2B marketing over the last few years?
Rachel Spasser: There’s been kind of a revolution in terms of marketing technology. So there are hundreds of different types of technology that you can implement to support your marketing processes – everything from the actual creating of content all the way through to e-mail marketing, marketing automation and lead scoring, distribution, and more.
Technology has really changed a lot about the way we market. You can track and analyze and measure and refine, in a pretty short time frame, any of the programs that you are doing. I think that the introduction of technology and the data and analytics has been fantastic, because it really transformed marketing from purely an art to a science. Yet, a lot of the thinking has really shifted so far to a science that you forget that you still have to engage with people on an emotional level. You have to create relationships with people in order to build trust and loyalty.
So I think that swing from the art and the emotion of marketing has gone so far to the other extreme that many of the younger marketers really have forgotten about what amazing copy can do, or great imagery can do, or storytelling. People certainly talk about content marketing, but it’s almost like the content is the means to the end. I think that great content is actually really valuable in and of itself – and then how you choose to distribute it and use it for engagement becomes the science piece of it. But without great content and a means to engage, you can have all the process and technology in the world, and you’d still fail.
PitchMaps: That’s a really interesting point. A lot of people are just thinking, “We have to feed the beast and get more content out there” – as opposed to really thinking, “What are we saying to the marketplace?”
Rachel Spasser: Exactly. I think Google and Twitter and many of these distribution vehicles have almost conditioned us to think more about the structure of content than about the guts of the content, or the meaning of that content. I think that you lose something in translation there, which is the ability to really create a message that will resonate with your audience. The work that you all do at PitchMaps is very interesting, because you really go for the cause. And I think that fundamentally says, “Hey, there’s an emotion here. There’s an emotional element that we need to evoke. How do we evoke that, and what’s our company’s unique way of evoking that?” I think that’s a very different approach.
PitchMaps: What do you think are the biggest changes that we’re going to see in B2B marketing in the next couple of years? Where’s it going?
Rachel Spasser: That’s a great question. I think there definitely has been, even in the last year or so, a lot of focus on storytelling. And so, it seems to me like there is an acknowledgment that over the past ten years the pendulum maybe swung too far, and now we need to go back and really be able to tell stories. I think that the most successful companies are going to be the ones that invest in good storytelling, and acknowledge the fact that – through visual elements and written elements combined – they must have compelling content in order to really break through what’s now just a mass of clutter.
How do you create advocates? Well, in order to create an advocate, someone really needs to be passionate about what it is that you’re doing, and you have to help them figure out how and why they should be passionate. I think again that there’s definitely a creative side to that that’s critical.
PitchMaps: What do companies need to be focusing on right now to prepare for that future?
Rachel Spasser: I think taking a step back and saying, “Why do we exist?”, and “What problems do we solve … and how does that change people’s livelihoods?” In some cases, it changes their life, too. But at a minimum, how does it change their livelihood? How does it make it easier for them to do their job every day, or for them to succeed, or for them to make a difference? So, in your terminology, looking for that cause that’s going to resonate with them on an emotional level.
Then secondly, and maybe I’m very old school, but I still read the New York Times cover to cover because I think that that type of content helps make you better educated and more worldly and understanding of cultures and societies and businesses and technology and … entertainment. I think there still is a place for professional journalists who are writing not for keyword density, but really to make a point. I believe that we’ll see the pendulum swing back a little bit, because I think people are seeking out really meaningful content that’s going to help them succeed.
PitchMaps: A recent Harvard Business Review article said that the essence of strategy is differentiation. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. How can marketers ensure that they are differentiated more clearly?
Rachel Spasser: It seems to me like there are more and more companies today that do very similar things. And so, in essence, to differentiate yourself is a lot more difficult. This is especially true in the technology space because the barrier to entry is relatively low. Differentiating yourself at a level that is beyond features and functions is going to be incredibly critical. Otherwise, the ability to break out from the crowd becomes very, very difficult. For a long time it was about features and functions, and then it became about user experience. Now user experience is sort of table stakes. So how do you really differentiate yourself? I think it’s got to be on almost an emotional or visceral type of level, where people want to do business with you because they can relate to you. And they believe you can relate to them in a way that all of the other companies that do similar things can’t.
PitchMaps: What role does messaging play in that?
Rachel Spasser: I think the more that you can understand the customer or the prospect, the more that you can relate to the issues that they’re trying to solve, to how they’re trying to change their workflow, or how they’re trying to run their companies differently. The better you can message, and the more targeted the messaging is, the more it’s going to resonate and stand out. I think one of the things that marketers suffer from is really trying to make the message more complicated than it needs to be.
In the world of just over-communication and clutter, people are really looking for simplicity, and they’re looking for plain speak. So, I don’t want to have to figure out what you’re trying to tell me. I want to feel like you know me, you know my pains, and you can solve it in a way that I understand. I think for a long time, people were okay with feeling like they didn’t really understand, but they were going to hand this off to someone who really did understand, and could help them solve their problem. Now, that’s not the case at all. They feel like they’re the experts in the space, and they want to understand that you know what they’re talking about and you can help solve their problem in a very simple way.