Welcome to Q&A with Marketing Leaders, our interview series built to provide SaaS marketing leaders with the best insights and actionable tips on how to improve their marketing planning by learning from the best marketers in the industry.
In this edition, we spoke with Ahin Thomas, VP of Marketing at Backblaze.
Founded in 2007, Backblaze is a leading provider of cloud storage. With two core products, Computer Backup and B2 Cloud Storage, it differentiates itself from other solutions by being astonishingly affordable and easy to use.
Ahin is a seasoned marketing athlete with a track record of creating systemic solutions, enduring value, and developing great talent. Having worked in industries from Textile Design, Home Appliances, Wine, and Data Storage, the common thread through his experiences is his passion for creating and sharing great stories. Outside of marketing, Ahin is a cooking enthusiast that usually has some music on… only occasionally to the chagrin of his wife and daughter.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a marketer?
I actually started out my professional career as a songwriter!
In retrospect, I should have known that I wanted to be a marketer once I realized what I liked about music – crafting the story. But I didn’t actually know it until I got into the marketing world at Sears and was able to get some practical experience. Seeing how crafting a narrative and then executing against it can create sales and deliver solutions to people with real problems was inspiring.
What do you think is the most important skill that today’s marketing leaders need to have?
I think that logical thinking is super important for marketers.
The tools that we have at our disposal today are incredible. The analytics are robust. The talent is getting better every day. With so much horsepower at our collective disposal, Marketers need to be very focused on what the primary objective is and pinpoint the activities that we need to perform to drive success.
Take a portfolio approach to a given marketing mix – some % of your budget should be spent on testing new tactics and channels. But resist the temptation to try “the Snapchat” because someone on your board thinks its the new hot channel.
What trend had the biggest impact on B2B SaaS in the past few years?
For me, it’s the “consumerization” of B2B.
I think we have collectively had the shocking realization that decision makers want to feel empowered that they are getting the right solution to solve their problem. Once they have found that solution, they pretty much all want it in place yesterday. When viewed through this lens, the approach to selling a razor blade isn’t that much different from acquiring a customer for your software platform.
How do you decide what channels to include in your marketing plan and invest in?
It’s trite, but it’s true: We look at a combination of what is performing and what is most likely to lead to our objectives.
I believe in taking a portfolio approach to a given marketing mix – some % of your budget should be spent on testing new tactics and channels. But resist the temptation to try “the Snapchat” because someone on your board thinks its the new hot channel.
It’s part of your job to survey emerging channels and form a loose opinion on what objectives they might be relevant for. But, from there, engage where success or failure will advance your mission.
Allow the time for organization-wide alignment, create a company-wide focus during the planning cycle, and try to limit the time it takes to execute by maintaining a state of preparedness.
How do you set your marketing goals?
The first steps are understanding and shaping corporate goals – both in terms of revenue and strategy. What kind of growth are we looking for at what margin rate? Which specific business line(s) do we want the revenue from? One of marketing’s primary responsibilities at this stage is to provide input into what is possible and realistic.
With the business goals set, we then look at how we’d go about achieving them as a Marketing team. Usually, we start with the revenue goal. “Grow business X by 20% and maintain margin.” We then ask ourselves “what has to be done to make that happen? Well, we can probably improve our conversion rate by X using the following tactics… we can grow traffic by Y because we did that last year… oh, look at that! 23%. Excellent.”
From there, we try to break it down quarterly. Ideally, you’d have monthly granularity, but that’s usually only really applicable on something like a rolling 6 months. The best planning process allows for iteration – we’ll take that quarterly plan back to corporate planning so others can see what we’re thinking. Maybe Sales thinks “hey, that’s cool, we can actually leverage that” or they say “hey, that’s cool, but I have these channel partners that could use more/different support.”
The keys? Allow the time for organization-wide alignment, create a company-wide focus during the planning cycle, and try to limit the time it takes to execute by maintaining a state of preparedness.
How do you evaluate your marketing plan? What defines success?
It’s important to define success before embarking down a path. In my mind, I ask myself “what has to be true in order for us to feel like it’s worth our time”. Sometimes, the answer is easy “it hits the CPA target.” Other times, it’s more complex like “well, if we can launch a multivariate experiment without my involvement and get statistically valid results… then we have proven that we’ve developed that capability as a team. For today, simply having the capability is our success.”
This seems like an appropriate time to talk about “failure”. Saying “I love failure” is probably overstated. I like to win, but failure is an extremely valuable component in any marketer’s journey. The key is setting yourself up to learn from your failure. If you try something and can say “if it works, then we get X benefit… but if it fails, then I know that this path isn’t right for us even though we thought it was a viable route”, my guess is that 9 times out of 10 it will have actually been worth your time.
Make sure your objectives are clear – at the end of the day, you need to drive the organization’s goals. Make sure your team knows what those objectives are.
What is the most challenging aspect of marketing planning?
Creating the appropriate cycles.
There is a constant tension between over planning and “winging” it. I don’t have the perfect answer for how to judge the right balance. The way I like to think about it is in terms of “alignment”. If the Marketing team all answers “what’s the strategy for the next 90 days” in the same way, you probably have achieved the right level of granularity. Similar question for organizational collaborators. In any sales enabled organization, if the VP of Sales can’t speak coherently about the Marketing plan (and vice versa), then you probably have an alignment problem.
What marketing planning advice do you have for other marketing leaders?
Make sure the objectives are clear – at the end of the day, you need to drive the organization’s goals. Make sure your team knows what those objectives are.
From there, listen. Listen to the Marketing team, listen to non-marketers inside your organization, listen to interesting songs. Make sure you are taking input from the insiders, make sure you create space to gather new ideas from outside your day to day operations… then put together a plan and make sure your team is clear on it.
Ahin talked about how to handle and learn from inevitable failures in marketing. How do you learn from failure and apply your learnings to the marketing planning process?