On this episode, I was joined by Imaan Virani, Global Customer Marketing Manager at Adthena. She started off in the consumer marketing world at General Mills, then moved into product marketing and customer marketing in the tech world. We talk about how to lay the groundwork for the first several months in a new role, the resources she leaned on to learn about customer marketing and how she got buy-in to launch a community. There’s a ton of great advice in this interview, especially if you’re just starting off your career in customer marketing. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Imaan.
Margot Leong: Hey Imaan, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. I’m super excited to have you on.
Imaan Virani: I’m very excited to be here. Thanks so much.
Margot Leong: Can you tell us about your journey to customer marketing advocacy, kind of where you are now?
Imaan Virani: So I guess I’ll just start from the beginning. I did a bachelor of commerce in university, had an interest in marketing early on. And I feel like when you’re in that environment pursuing a business degree, the very natural progression is to go into CPG marketing. So that’s kind of where I started off. I was working as an associate marketing manager at General Mills, which was great because it was a chance to work with some really big brands, large consumer budgets, get a strong foundation.
I think I realized though that I wanted to pivot my career into tech and that’s when I realized that there’s actually a bit of a skill mismatch there. And I chose to do a course in product management, actually with BrainStation. I’m not sure if you know it, it’s a digital skills academy that’s now quite global. Through that certification, I became familiar with the world of product, product marketing and then joined my current company, Adthena, as a product marketing specialist. I’ve now been working at Athena for two years and at about the one year mark, my role grew to become the global customer marketing manager now, where I lead all of our advocacy and marketing initiatives for customers.
Margot Leong: You were previously in sort of the consumer side at General Mills, and you said you noticed there was a bit of a skill gap and you were like learning product management and product marketing. Is that not as common on the consumer side?
Imaan Virani: Yeah, I know it’s an interesting question. I think there are lots of parallels, at least between brand management and product marketing. And to be honest, to some extent, customer marketing as well. I think the learning for me was that tech companies, they hire a lot of product people and they typically only have one brand. If you think about like a Salesforce or an Asana, there is really only one brand, but there’s a number of different products.
So they’re more interested in hiring marketers that can either effectively position those products or who can target their customer base and create really awesome programs for those customers. So I feel like that’s the distinction on the product side.
On the CPG side, you tend to manage either a parent friend and you’ll do all of the consumer marketing for that brand, or it’s a portfolio, so in my case, I was managing a portfolio of natural and organic brands. You might actually be familiar with one of them: Annie’s healthy macaroni and cheese that’s popular in the States.
Margot Leong: We talked about this on our first call.
I mean, I’m a massive fan of Annie’s Mac and cheese and yeah, I think it’s pretty popular at least over here in SF.
Imaan Virani: Yeah. So I would say it’s a great chance to work with those budgets, focus on the consumer insight and think like, okay, if our target market is these busy moms, how are we going to show them how our products make their life easier? But there’s definitely been learning from that experience that I can still apply to the B2B world, which is cool.
Margot Leong: My understanding is the way that you storytell or the way that emotion plays into decision-making when it comes to B2C, it can be quite different then how you would think about approaching someone on the B2B side, whether it’s a decision-maker or whether it’s someone who would be working on a day to day.
But anyway, I’m excited to get into that, but I think first is understanding a little bit more about Adthena, so can you share a bit about what the company does.
Imaan Virani: So we are the leading search intelligence platform for paid search advertising. And what that means is we help digital marketers understand how their search campaigns are performing and how they can get better results. We have a platform that helps us do this, using a patented technology that we call internally, whole market view. And that’s really what gives these digital marketers full visibility on what their competitors are doing.
But honestly, I think what makes us stand out compared to our competitors is that we have this human element of dedicated customer success managers that actually finds insights in the data and then guides our customers to give them ideas on how to improve their strategy. And I think that’s where we are really different from everyone else out there. The landscape is really busy with all these other tech vendors and I just think you actually need to have that human element to supplement the data, to truly get full value. And you know, we’re grateful. This is where we are recognized by customers as well.
Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. So something that we wanted to spend some time really focusing on is about the importance of when you’re joining a new company, how do you think about laying the groundwork, right. How do you think about the first three to six months there? Because having that strategy when you first join and being very thoughtful about how you hit the ground running can really set you up for success in the long term.
Imaan Virani: So thinking about the first three to six months, I think it can be challenging when you are starting a function from the ground up, because there are so many things you want to work on. And I guess part of my challenge was seeing what other companies are doing in customer marketing and wanting to do all of that, but realizing that we have to start with the foundations and with those quick, easy wins, before we get to a lot of the more complex or more exciting programs. I think I spent at least the first couple of months on researching best practices so seeing what else is out there, but also treating everyone inside the company as almost my own clients, like my stakeholders are the people that I need to help impact at the end of the day.
So I would spend time sitting down with these directors of customer success and account management to figure out what projects are they working on? What is keeping them up at night? And how can I allocate my resource of one person, basically me, to help them in the most immediate way? And I actually think that is a great tip for anyone starting out in a role like this. If you find ways to deliver value early on, then you kind of build credibility with your partners in the business.
And then once they see the results or the rewards of that effort, they are more bought into working with you on these more longer term projects that could spend a quarter or a couple of quarters. But I feel like you need to build up that credibility at the beginning first.
As marketers, one of the things we’re really good at at times is thinking very big picture about how we want things to look, gold standard, but sometimes you kind of have to bring that down to the ground. Think about what you can execute now. So for example, we had an account that was a churn risk and needed to see higher platform usage in the app.
And I kind of took this opportunity to sit down with the account managers, understand what the problem is, and then put together a very tailored customer marketing campaign just for that account. Now that particular campaign is not necessarily scalable. It’s not like it’s part of a broader program, but it really helped that one account, and we were actually able to re-engage a core stakeholder after 60 days of being dormant in the application and not responding to their own account manager emails. So to be able to prove that impact on one account level was great because then we can hopefully allocate more resources to this kind of thing.
Margot Leong: You know, this is just sort of generally the advice they give to early stage startups which is, you know, do things that don’t scale at the beginning. And I actually think that this applies very well to what we’re talking about is, when you’re starting out new, sometimes you can get mired in everything has to be scalable, but if you don’t move as well and sort of deliver some quick wins, basically like that will also hinder your ability to even move in the first place.
Imaan Virani: Yeah, for sure. I think it’s about using the tools that you have at your disposal. Some have more developed systems than others, but at the end of the day, I knew that there were some channels that were available to me. So email is definitely a channel, in-app comms, sometimes it’s creating bespoke content or a particular set of slides that that account manager can use in a renewal discussion. So for this particular account once I understood the desired use cases for this account, I actually put together a four point email nurture campaign to be sent to all of their core users.
And each email had an insight from their data set and the platform that would hopefully hook them, bring them into the app. And then every time we sent out an email, I’d report back on the engagement results and who was showing up in the app so that the account managers knew when it would be a good time to kind of swoop in and hopefully ask for a meeting to try and discuss the renewal questions.
Margot Leong: I really liked this idea of partnering on a specific account and being able to utilize the resources that you have to help out this team and I’m sure all of that was really helpful and important for the CS team to be able to see.
So knowing if they become more engaged overall as a result of the work that you’ve done at that more granular level, what kind of metrics did you report on when it came to helping out with things like this?
Imaan Virani: It’s such a good question. I feel like this is something I’m still struggling with or working on. I mean, the good news is we have proven that these tactics work and they work at influencing those contacts to become what we call influence leads. So certainly we can send out content. We can engage contacts on that level, but where we are trying to bridge the gap now is how does that actually impact the opportunity and impact the revenue from that client?
So, I feel like the impact is happening there behind the scenes, but we need to do our homework on figuring out an attribution model that all the stakeholders agree with and also what can be reflected in Salesforce because I feel like you need a lot of systems to talk to each other.
I do feel like a lot of the initiatives that fall under our remit, they are measurable, but maybe on a little bit of a longer time horizon and the KPIs can be a little bit prickly to knock out, but I mean, it’s still important to do that, right.
Things like case studies, G2 reviews, like we need to be doing this for the business, but mapping it back to impact is kind of where it gets a bit hard I feel.
Margot Leong: Tell me a little bit about your evolution, because I know that when you started at the company, you started out on the product marketing specialist side, and then you evolved and moved into customer marketing. What was that journey like for you? How did you decide that you wanted to go into the customer marketing side of things?
Imaan Virani: That’s correct. I started off in product marketing and to be honest, I think it was, as a company, kind of our first foray into the power of customer marketing. Just as context, we were switching over to new pricing and packaging for our solutions. So I had been working with our internal customer stakeholders on a comms campaign around making that transition and we actually saw really great results from that campaign in terms of transitioning customers over.
And I think that’s when a light bulb went off and management head’s saying that customer marketing has so much potential to source upsell ARR or improve our advocates. And then I think that’s when they discovered that there is truly a business need for customer marketing and advocacy. And similarly, I felt like this is an area where I can really apply my skills and do that on a global level, so impacting our customers across Australia, North America and EMEA. So probably a natural transition on both ends.
Margot Leong: How did you learn what you needed to learn about customer marketing and advocacy and what that should look like based off of the current stage of the company?
Imaan Virani: Sure. I’m so excited to answer this question because I feel like I have spent so many hours trying to figure it out myself. So I’m glad to share my learnings so they don’t have to go through the hours like I did. It honestly started with independent research and I think one of the best resources out there is Adobe’s Marketo blog. So I had happened upon it in my research, but they have dedicated articles just on customer marketing.
And for me, I think I had a lot of aha moments just reading all about it from Adobe’s perspective, at least because it gave me a framework for what customer marketing looks like at other companies, which is really useful. Beyond that, I took advantage of LinkedIn and networking. So tried to organize a chat with another customer marketer at least once a month, asking for 30 minutes of their time and honestly getting sign off internally for a little bit of budget to apply, to just say, thank you genuinely for these professionals who are offering their guidance. And now I’m grateful that every month, every quarter, I have a little group of customer marketers that I can check in on and benchmark to see what programs they’re running and how we can learn from each other.
The last one is the customer marketing Slack community. I would highly recommend that every customer marketer joins it. It’s super engaged. Everyone is very helpful. And they run tons of virtual events for customer marketers as well. So all three of those really helped me.
Margot Leong: I love this idea of taking advantage of LinkedIn and networking and I love this idea that actually you’ve got sign off for budget to say, thank you because that’s not something I would’ve ever sort of thought about, is I would just pay for it out of pocket, you know, but I love that you actually were able to do that.
Imaan Virani: I think a lot of it is positioning and how you frame it. So I took it upon myself to figure out what customer marketing should be and build that for Adthena. And I would like to think, years down the line, as the function grows, the pillars of what we do in that foundation is something that I can still hopefully call my legacy if that’s not being too dramatic.
But I’d like to think that these chats, as much as they help me, because I’m expanding my own network, they’re really helping Adthena, because I’m bringing in case studies of how customer marketing is done at other companies. And at the end of every chat, I write up a little summary. I send it to my VP, who I report to, my stakeholders, sometimes even the CEO, just to say like, Hey look like this is how Zendesk does some of their customer marketing, this is what I’ve learned from another SaaS company. So I think giving them those insights makes it easy to also get sign off for just a little bit of budget to help say thank you to those folks who are offering their time.
Margot Leong: You mentioned to me that when you took on customer marketing, you started realizing there would be a lot of value in creating a customer community. And so you were actually sort of able to make the case, and I think this is a perfect segue into just positioning again and for a lot of people, I think it can be scary to ask for things, to basically present that case. And so I find all of this really, really interesting, especially because it’s something that I’ve struggled with in the past. So can you tell me more about that story? Sort of the soup to nuts, what was the sort of catalyst for realizing that you needed a community?
Imaan Virani: Yeah, for sure. So as mentioned, we didn’t really have a customer marketing function before I started working on it. So I think w we were faced with this very stark reality that, okay, we have a limited resource, team of one over here. So how can we best use this resource to deliver the most impact and value for our customers? I guess recognizing that we were looking for programs and initiatives that can hopefully accomplish a number of different goals at the same time.
And when we thought about our pillars, if we knew that, okay, our goals are around upsell and cross sell, retention and advocacy, and somewhere along the way, creating that sense of belonging, then boom, like community actually does help with all of those pillars in one way or the other. So it makes a lot more sense to spend time, budget and energy on that versus some other initiatives that only really impact one pillar.
Margot Leong: Okay. Got it. How did you even happen upon community as a thing that would help to accomplish a lot of these goals at the same time?
Imaan Virani: Yeah, so I think there’s something to be said about the state of affairs in 2021 as well. I mean, in a pandemic, customers expect more from their companies. And I think in this day and age where there’s not as much trust in brands, I think we realized that, you know, our customers really need to hear from other customers versus just hearing from corporate marketing all the time. So we definitely wanted to elevate the voice of the customer somewhere, and community would be a great way of getting those peers together and talking.
And I think the first step that we had to take was just figuring out, what’s the vision for our community and what do we want it to achieve? Literally, two things, two slides. If we can agree on that, then we can actually map out a path forward for how we go about doing that.
Margot Leong: That makes a lot of sense. Tell me about how you made your case and who you needed to get buy-in from essentially to launch something like this.
Imaan Virani: So because it was such a complex project, I started off just asking my manager if I could spend 20% of my time on community, like scoping it out as an idea. And my ask was, just give me enough time to put together a proposed vision, outline some of the goals that the community can achieve and some of the expected outcomes we can expect to see if we were to actually launch it.
That was, at first, an independent exercise. And then I basically got face time with people and set up time with all of the key stakeholders to get their feedback. And that set of slides, the vision, goals, and outcomes, it was dynamic and changing with the feedback. So when I sat down with the customer leaders, I understood that the focus should be on retention and sharing best practices.
But I would get different feedback from say the product team. And I realized that, oh, there’s also like a product feedback angle we can take, or maybe integrating with our product advisory program. I think getting their feedback in early on and honestly spending a quarter on that was such a good use of time because it actually enabled us to execute quite quickly later on because everyone was quite aligned from the biggest.
Margot Leong: Yeah, it’s balancing basically short-term wins with long-term focus, right. So then you’re spending, you know, X percent of your time in a quarter almost on laying the groundwork for something that will maybe pay off dividends in future quarters. But in the meantime, it’s not the only thing you’re spending your time on. You’re probably still working on other initiatives that can garner quicker wins within the course of that quarter, essentially.
Imaan Virani: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s why it had to be 20% of the beginning, right. Because we knew we weren’t going to see immediate impact from deciding what your vision and goals are in the quarter, but you can build up. And then when you finally get to launch, then you can start seeing the engagement and impact trickle in.
Margot Leong: Community can fall under all these different buckets, different departments can lead it and focus on very different things as a result. And some communities are solely support focused or some that are very focused on advocates, sharing best practices and networking with each other. So I’m curious as how you sort of thought about what the focus would be, and then also, who would run that? Who would moderate that? How would you split that out?
Imaan Virani: It’s so funny hearing you say this, because I feel like it’s like a direct reflection of some of the things I’ve worked on, which is good. At first off, I will say that there’s actually a great book on building communities. It’s called building brand communities by Carrie Melissa Jones. I think she’s quite well known in the community building space, but I actually did read that book during that quarter, when we were doing our vision and goal setting. So very useful book for anyone who is also launching a community concept.
It was very important for us to figure out what we want the community to do. So we know it was not supposed to be a support community. We have a support team that’s dedicated to resolving tickets for that purpose. So what we did want to do is focus on delivering value to customers, because if you think about it, if you’re building your community solely for obtaining product feedback or sourcing upsell ARR, that’s kind of all benefiting you, it’s benefiting the company, but we really wanted to make sure we nailed on the customer value first.
So we have centered it around sharing best practices, getting smarter with the platform, expanding your professional network. Once we earn the trust from our customers and make them feel like, yes, this community is worth them participating in, we can start leveraging it for our own purpose, which would be to like drive our roadmap or you know, help us see where else we can promote, et cetera.
Margot Leong: I love that focus. I mean, I think anyone who’s probably listened to this podcast a few times probably knows. I just kind of rail on about, is this truly a win-win? Are you doing this just because you want to see an uptake in engagement? What is the actual value to the customer? You’re not going to have, I think, a truly blossoming community unless you actually are very clear and intentional about what the focus of that is.
Imaan Virani: No, it definitely helps. I think for us trying to segment our audience even further. So for example, we cater to both agency users, so folks who would work at search marketing agencies and actual brands, so like an automotive brand, like Volkswagen, for example, but we have decided to tailor our community, just to agency users, just to specific personas, because the more targeted we can get with the value proposition of the content, the more value we’re delivering back to that audience, right. So I’m hoping it will pay off.
Margot Leong: You launched this relatively recently, right? So congratulations.
Imaan Virani: Oh, thank you. Yeah, just a few weeks ago. It’s nice to have the launch under our belt, but now we are laser-focused on engagement, getting users to pop in the platform and just seeing how we can improve it and give customers more value.
Margot Leong: And what platform are you guys using to run the community?
Imaan Virani: So we are using Zendesk, we use it as our help center already, but they do have a community offering. So from a customer journey perspective, it made sense to keep everything in the same platform, it’ll create the least amount of friction for our customers.
But yeah, vendor selection in itself is quite a hurdle. We looked at, I want to say almost 10 different community vendors, and we did so many demos, so many comparisons on features, and even from a pricing perspective, it really ranges. Definitely tough to even select a vendor for this kind of thing.
Margot Leong: What were the top criteria that you had that basically this platform or this solution helped to address?
Imaan Virani: Yeah, yeah. It’s taking me back to a Google sheet that I probably spent way too much time on. There’s a lot of criteria out there and there are so many gorgeous community platforms available. I think a realistic challenge to be honest is price point, because if you’re launching a new concept in market, community as a concept, it’s difficult to get sign off for like an investment that’s approaching 50,000 pounds annually, for example. So we kind of knew that we had to look at an MVP that we could test out with this, which guided a number of our criteria.
But beyond that, we just wanted a vendor who could effectively deliver our value prop, which was around best practice sharing, and would still have like the brand look and feel and be a good user journey from once they log in and post comments, et cetera. So I feel like those were the key categories for us.
Margot Leong: One of the last questions that I’d love to know is, basically I know that your role has evolved. You’re sort of squarely on the customer marketing and advocacy side of the house now. And I’m curious, you’ve helped to launch this community. How are you thinking about the current balance and how you would split out, like your focus for your role, whether it’s on the more engagement and life cycle side, or there’s also focus on the customer story side. And then of course you’re also doing community how are you thinking about that right now?
Imaan Virani: Yeah, no, it’s a good question. Probably one I should spend more time thinking about, to be honest. I think we need to treat community almost like another product. I mean, granted I’m not on the product side, but in some ways it has a roadmap of its own, right. We would hope that it grows and has a number of different sections going forward and maybe caters to a number of different personas as our customers.
So I see my role with community as leading the strategy behind how community should be growing and what campaigns are helping drive engagement for that base. But I think every community needs a dedicated community manager to handle day-to-day operations. So we would probably look at hiring that person to manage that.
And I think beyond community, the next focus for us is really just unlocking our advocacy. So I think we do a great job on case studies and reviews currently, but there’s so much runway in terms of creating more customer focused content and events, maybe like having customer round tables. So I feel like that’s a big priority for the organization as well.
Margot Leong: One of my last questions that I’m excited to just get your thoughts on is your time on the B2C side, right. From a brand standpoint is my understanding with B2C, there’s a lot more focus on how do we tell that story that sort of tugs at the heartstrings because B2C purchases can be a bit more spontaneous, can be a bit more emotion driven versus, B2B. There’s actually a lot of crossover that’s starting to happen between that, but how has that influenced your approach in B2B currently?
Imaan Virani: Yeah, for sure. It’s such an interesting question too, because I think it’s so easy to categorize and say B2B is all logical. And I get it, how, you know, in the B2C world, yes, we are tapping into these emotional drivers, tugging the heartstrings, as you said.
But I think the learning for me has been that, even though B2B can be a logical buying process, there’s still a person at the other end of your comms, of your assets that you have created. So even though you’re talking about those logical drivers, you can still tap into the emotional aspect of what your B2B brand stands for and how that user will feel as a result of using that product.
I have role models in this space. I think about brands like Asana or HubSpot, which definitely do deliver material business value for those teams, but also what it means to be working with a brand like that and what they stand for in terms of customer service, level of product quality, how easy it is to use. And so I think there’s a very powerful element of what does your brand stand for and how can that actually help with your customer marketing campaign?
Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. And I think brand trust is kind of at an all-time low, but I think what people are looking for from their brands is, what are the humanizing aspects? And so it’s really exciting to think about customer marketing and advocacy because we’ve just really get the opportunity to get to know our customers so in depth and are able to bring that back to the rest of the company.
Imaan Virani: Yeah. And I think that it honestly even touches on similarities with corporate culture. Like we have corporate values as every company does, but I feel like we live and embody those values with our customers as well. And so our customers know that we take their feedback really seriously. We build our product roadmap in response to the features they want to see. You know, we’re always trying to raise the bar with the data and reports that we provide. So, those kinds of things can help build that emotional bond and trust as well.
Margot Leong: Thank you so much for coming on, Imaan. You know, last question is how can people connect with you if they’d like to learn more about what you’re working on or pick your brain on some of the things that we talked about during this interview?
Imaan Virani: Absolutely.
That’s very kind. LinkedIn would be the best place. Otherwise I also write and publish articles on imaanvirani.com, and so you can find me on there as well, but yeah, happy to connect with any fellow customer marketers or folks in the customer advocacy space.
Margot Leong: That’s great. Well, I will link to your website and also your LinkedIn in the show notes, so people can reach out via those channels. But yeah. Thank you for coming on. This was a fantastic conversation.
Imaan Virani: It’s been a good conversation on my end too, and I hope that your listeners found it valuable.
Thanks for tuning into this episode of Beating The Drum. For more interviews with advocacy leaders and tips on creating customers that will sing your praises, head on over to our website, beatingthedrum.com. If you enjoyed today’s show, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts and don’t forget to rate and review us. If you know someone that would be a great fit for the show, I would love to hear about it. You can reach out at beatingthedrum.com. Take care, everybody.