On this episode, I was joined by Kate Mahon, Director of Global Customer Advocacy at Splunk. She shared how her time in consulting helped prepare her for this role, how to think about where customer marketing fits at all parts of the customer lifecycle and the characteristics of a compelling customer story from a PR standpoint. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Kate.
Margot Leong: Hey, Kate. Thanks for coming on the podcast.
Kate Mahon: Thanks Margot. I’m really excited to be here.
Margot Leong: Would love to know a little bit about your background and how you ended up in your current role in customer marketing and advocacy over at Splunk.
Kate Mahon: Yeah, sure. So the first 10 years of my career were spent working in consulting and agency side, all in marketing roles and overseas as well. I spent a lot of the first bit of my career working in the UK and the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong and Australia. I bring that up because working in consulting and starting a career there, it kinda develops some skillsets.
And one of those is client servicing. Always thinking about keeping the client or the customer in mind and how do you deliver what’s best for them. And then the other side of that is, because it was always marketing agencies or consulting, there’s the creative and the storytelling side of that.
And then the other piece to that is being in an agency or consulting, you’re always working on many accounts, many different customers, so it’s a fast paced environment. So when I went to Splunk and went in-house at a high growth company, it all melded together. It all made sense. That understanding on how to listen and put the customer first and then have that eye for storytelling and then working in a really fast paced environment.
Margot Leong: I have a little bit of exposure to agency life, it’s no walk in the park. You know, you’re at the mercy of your clients a lot of times and from what I understand, there’s potentially a lot of late nights trying to deliver. And so I can imagine some of that pressure translates well to high growth startup environments as well.
Kate Mahon: Yeah, absolutely.
Margot Leong: What was that like, that transition for you from the agency world to being in-house at this type of company, did that feel relatively seamless? Were there was some things that you realized that you enjoy more about in-house versus agency? Like what was that like?
Kate Mahon: It was very seamless and I liked the idea and why I was attracted to going in-house was I wanted to be able to put a strategy together and then see it take off, see it grow over time as well. And so that really attracted me to going in-house.
The other thing I would bring up and why I mentioned it earlier that the element of working overseas, I learned a lot about how to listen and how to understand and listen to the needs of a local market. How things might be done in America doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how it’s done in Kenya or Turkey or Hong Kong. That kind of mindset of listening, seeking to understand has also been, again, a really important skill set in working with customers and bringing that to customer advocacy in what’s the program or activation that we can deliver for the customer that best suits their needs.
Margot Leong: Something that’s really interesting here is understanding about your background, which is largely on the agency side, but really seeing what are those skill sets that really just translate across so many different industries or different roles that work really well in customer marketing, because there’s a lot of people that are listening to this podcast that are newer to the role. And they’re looking at their background and thinking, oh, you know, I haven’t worked in customer marketing, in a traditional B2B, could I really break in or is this the right fit? Maybe my background is not right. And so it’s always nice to talk to people who have not necessarily had the traditional background coming into it.
So that’s really cool to see the skill sets that you have picked up over time, like listening to all these different customers, working overseas. I’m sure that’s translated so well, especially, you know, if you’re thinking about global programs. Customer marketing in EMEA versus APAC versus North America is such a different beast, you know?
Kate Mahon: Yes. And I even look at the team that I work with and they’re all fabulous and incredibly talented individuals and they all come from different backgrounds as well. Some of them have come from agency and it’s been really great to see them come in. And again, they have that eye for storytelling. They can sit with a customer and sit with somebody who’s technical and be able to listen, but understand what’s the broader story that they’re able to get out of it. And then people who have worked, traditionally in a customer marketing or advocacy role or some folks even from product marketing. So it’s really an exciting mix of folks on the team.
Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. And this was your first customer marketing role, right? What was that like for you? To, you know, be a part of leading this function, but also, being relatively new to it as well?
Kate Mahon: Again, it was really exciting. And I had a great boss at the time who was someone I really admired and wanted to work with. So when I joined the customer advocacy team at Splunk, there was also a really exciting time in that, for Splunk, we were going through a brand refresh. And it all came together really beautifully in that a big part of that brand refresh and launch was telling really great customer stories. Big brands that are recognizable and starting to tell customer stories that focus on not just products and features, but outcomes, and how companies and organizations are using data to deliver really incredible business outcomes. And that was a great place to start and work with big brand customers.
And then over the past two years, the scope has grown a lot more and it’s been really exciting to bring customer voice to all different parts of the business and the lifecycle.
Margot Leong: Yeah. I’m super excited to dig into that, especially because this is not something that I’ve heard as much in customer marketing circles is thinking about customer marketing as it fits within the entire lifecycle. What is marketing here to accomplish? And what’s the big picture. And then how do we slot in at different parts of the journey to make that useful. So I’d love for you to speak more about how you think about the life cycle and how customer marketing can be a part of that. That’s a great framework.
Kate Mahon: Yeah, absolutely. And so if I take a step back at where I work, I work at a SaaS company, software as a service and today for a lot of SaaS companies, customers expect a lot from what they buy and how they buy and how easy it is and what that experience is like.
And the other trend really is that customers and prospective customers are spending less time interfacing with a sales rep or a vendor face-to-face, they’re spending more of their time in that early part of the life cycle researching online themselves and talking to peers. And so when I look at and think about the customer life cycle, I stepped back and I was like, wait a minute, everything that this team does and that customer advocacy just in general or customer marketing can do really supports and is in service of that customer lifecycle. And that’s everything from, you know, when we think about awareness, customers who we can tell their stories through PR, those high reach channels in media and customer advertising. Going to the research phase, prospective customers are looking at things like reports from analyst houses like the Gartner magic quadrant. They’re going on to product review sites and looking at comparing products or vendors and looking at what those reviews are in the scores, just as consumers. If we want to look up a restaurant or see where to eat, we might be looking at Yelp. It’s the same practice.
And then going down to that buying piece of the lifecycle and helping to close a deal, a customer, prospective customer, would want to talk to an active customer and understand their experience. And that’s really valuable in supporting our sales folks.
And then going to the adoption and expansion part of the life cycle, bringing in those customer speakers or developing a lot of that customer story content that is amplified through campaigns and events. It’s really interesting to me that it does touch all those different parts.
It’s really exciting as well, to be able to be at this point because we just, as an organization there’s a lot of focus on this area and building it so it’s successful. And again, building so that we’re putting the customer journey, the customer experience, at the center. Very lucky that I’m also at a company where this is a priority and it’s not just a priority, but there’s continuing to make it successful and build it out.
Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. When you have that top-down sort of executive level narrative around, being focused on customer advocacy, it really does make a difference in terms of, just how fast you can move. You listed out a bunch of these pieces within the typical life cycle. I’m guessing that when you started thinking through all of this, some of them I’m guessing were in flight already, but maybe not necessarily owned by your team. Is that correct? What sort of existed at that point and how have you wrangled or thought about bringing that all together?
Kate Mahon: That’s a really good question. And you’re right. I’ve seen this at other organizations as well is these programs all sort of exist at different stages of maturity. And the other layer I think about is the company I’m at is also high growth. It has doubled the number of employees in the three years that I had been there. So it’s growing really fast. And I think for any organization, that’s going through a lot of growth and a lot of transformation, which is great, there’s also the need to be able to scale a lot of systems and programs. So as I’ve come in and into this role and the world of customer advocacy and marketing, it’s really scaling within a high growth environment.
The first thing we did, which was really great was: let’s go collect some data. And so we did a bit of an audit and just went across, conducted interviews with stakeholders across the business. So not just marketing, but sales and customer success and product marketing and really listening to how do they view customer advocacy or marketing. What are their needs? What are the things that are important to them and being able to collect all of those insights and synthesize it into: there’s some patterns here that we’re identifying that the business needs. And customer advocacy can really support this. So let’s invest in these certain areas to build out. And also let’s look at this in the short term and then the long-term as well.
So it helped us just position to our stakeholders, we want to be a really good partner to support your goals and your business outcomes that you’re driving towards. Let’s get some data and let’s get some insights and start.
Margot Leong: I love that. And like, this is also a lot of it’s qualitative data. And also good for relationship building as well. And if I recall correctly, did you work with an agency to help you with this audit?
Kate Mahon: Yeah, we worked with a really great agency that’s been around for quite a while and they’re called Big Sky. And they are just tremendous partners in again knowing what is best in class and they’ve just been fantastic to to partner with, again as we scale in a high growth environment.
Margot Leong: Absolutely. I think it’s like the reality of the business needs become stark, right, when you do this kind of audit. And once you’ve cut through some of the fluff around, like activity-based or generate these many case studies or something then you can actually see, okay, like what is the business actually need real help with? And that’s extremely valuable. And so where there any learnings there that were helpful as you continued forth in your journey?
Kate Mahon: I think one of the most important things, and you touched on this is measuring on things like case study output. That doesn’t tell us anything. And I think it’s when doing any type of planning, ensuring that it’s aligned to the company’s objectives and key results and your organization’s objectives and key results. And so again, working with my stakeholders in marketing or on sales, it’s understanding and knowing how they’re being measured. And customer advocacy is one of those things that just sits across all different parts of the business and can positively impact all different parts of the business. It’s been able to say and align, let’s say for example, we can support with peer reviews and drive that program. And that impacts maybe the type of awards or recognition that the brand gets or the company gets and starts to raise more awareness of the company.
Margot Leong: When you are thinking about each quarter and setting out goals and objectives. I think honestly, like the way to be seen as more strategic is to demand to understand like what are the goals at a true company level? Then just start to map from there and you’d be surprised. A lot of tech companies, especially a high growth ones, maybe not as large as Splunk, right. I think Splunk is definitely a bit more mature. There’s a lot where you’re just flying by the seat of your pants. And and so I think it is really important to not just go off of what someone hands to you as this is what you should be focused on. And oftentimes that can be activity focused.
Everything must align back to the overall company objectives. At the end of the day, you just have to be very in sync with that. And I think it’s just super valuable to be able to say these are the reasons why I think that we should be investing in these areas. And if we’re all on the same page that these are the company objectives, it’s really just more of the little tactical pieces that we disagree on versus the higher level things.
Kate Mahon: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s probably one of the other things I’ve noticed about being in-house and again, I think this is across a lot of organizations and I have peers who have gone from agency to in-house and, it’s a similar thing of we’re doing a lot. But let’s go back to the why. Why are we here and how are we delivering for business impact.
Margot Leong: Yeah, exactly. And honestly like, advocacy can be very service oriented. A lot of times you feel as you’re just constantly supporting other teams and helping them with slotting customers in here or there. And so that means that you’re often inundated with requests. And sometimes it can feel like the busy work is valuable in and of itself. Just like pushing out another thing or another thing and yeah, like forcing to do the why and the first principles thinking especially when it’s just easy to lose sight of that is so valuable.
Something that I’d also loved to talk a little bit about is you mentioned that your time at Splunk, when you first started, the focus was really on thinking about how do we get great stories, right? Stories that focus, not just on products, but features and outcomes and data in terms of how delivers these great outcomes.
I always think it’s really interesting to understand how different parts of your background have influenced how you think about your current role. And so I know that you’ve definitely had some good experience on the PR and comms side. And of course there’s a lot of customer marketers that partner with PR teams. At the end of the day, the customer marketers, you’re the ear to the ground, you’re bringing in customers that you think might be interesting. I’d love to understand what you feel are like the characteristics of a compelling story. One that would be valuable from a PR standpoint, which is very different sometimes from what product marketing might think is valuable for them.
So if you think about it in terms of angles that the media might respond to, how do you think about and gauge what stories would be good and how do you train your team to pick up on those?
Kate Mahon: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think about and I remember talking to the team about this, of what’s the headline. And that’s really what I learned starting out in PR is if you had to synthesize this story, put it in a headline or one sentence, you can’t fit a lot of technical details in there. What is really the story. And it tends to be more emotional and human centered.
So the other thing I tend to look at, and I remember learning early on is FBO. First, best or only, and asking those questions of the customer who has achieved this outcome or done this thing. Are they the first to do something? Are they the best at what they’re doing? Are they the only ones who can do this because of what they’re able to do with insert technology platform or anything like that. So it’s again, trying to go above feature or product components to what’s the real, maybe human element or emotional element of the story. And then how do you synthesize it to a headline?
Margot Leong: Yeah, absolutely. I’m not sure if this was something that was an Amazon way of thinking about it, or it was like an Apple way, but it’s if you’re writing a press release, then you should actually write the news article first and then you can use that to help you think about the press release instead. So exactly what you said. The headline, as it shows up in the press, not the press release headline, right?
Kate Mahon: Yeah, exactly. Because then it’s also about the audience. How do you make something understandable to someone who may not know about your brand or your company. So what’s the thing that can catch the eye and make it easy to understand.
Margot Leong: In B2B, you know, I kind of think about it as like layers of an onion and the outer layer is basically your company, especially if it’s very technical, what you do. And so I think about, trying to find the stories. Basically Splunk is a software company for analyzing and monitoring and searching all this data basically. That’s the top layer and then you have to keep peeling layers to get to what people actually care about within that. And so I really liked this first, best only as like a framework for thinking about that. And you always have that on your radar as you’re talking to the user to think about, okay, like, what are some interesting nuggets here that I can put into a framework that would be interesting for media to push on?
Because the ratio of companies that are interested in getting press to the ratio of journalists interested to taking the press and writing the thing is such a low number of journalists available. And so you just always have to be thinking and doing that work ahead of time when you’re thinking about these stories is like, how can I put them within that framework? How can I find something that would best fit within that? And it really is that human emotional piece.
Kate Mahon: Yeah. Completely. And a journalist is, they’ll want to see data points as well. How has that influenced revenue or what were the results of what this company was able to do because of your technology? It is such an art. And it really is thinking about what’s the story that will help catch that. I mean, it’s a lot like sales and I think again, starting out in PR and working in an agency, you’re selling a story and you’re selling a lot of stories too. You know, you’re pitching those to different journalists and outlets and you have to get really good at understanding what’s the hook. What’s going to be, the thing that will get someone’s attention because they get so many pitches in a day and they have to be able to see something really clearly in a line that would make them interested and want to read more or want to take a call or want to speak to your customer. That was something else I learned early on in the career is there’s a bit of sales to PR. You’re selling your story or again, you’re advocating for your client.
Margot Leong: Something that I would add to that is it’s very common to do like trend jacking within PR. And so that was something that I think is valuable for anyone who’s responsible for understanding customer stories. It’s one thing to learn from your customers and get the stories. But it’s another to ask questions with the lens of trying to coax out things in relation to some of the trends that are going on. That’s also super interesting because obviously reporters are all about trends. Like if there’s something very hot right now, they want to talk to people who know about that and can speak to that, have an angle on that.
And so doing some of the additional work to set up a time with your PR team that’s just maybe a monthly check-in and be like, Hey like, can you download into my brain what are all the really interesting trends that are happening in the space? Right. So that I can better think about customer stories that may fit within that. And that is also a really great way of getting stories that may have more immediate resonance to the reporter when you think about sourcing.
Kate Mahon: Yeah, completely. And I think it’s also looking at the year, building your editorial calendar and thinking there’s always certain events that happen. If it’s we get into August, September, that’s back to school. So if your customer is a university or a school system, knowing that those are times when there tends to be an influx of wanting to write about and develop stories around that. And you have December being a holiday season so that’s a lot about e-commerce. And then, you can look into summer, for example, people go on vacation, travel. If you have customers in hospitality or again, travel sectors, that’s something you can know and rely on every year. Those tend to be a lot of the same patterns. And so even plotting out what are those moments when we know there’s going to be more articles or interest or appetite for stories around those themes that we can position customers.
Margot Leong: Are there any stories that you were particularly proud of that fit this really well in your tenure here?
Kate Mahon: I think about some of the work we did with the US Census Bureau, and that was really exciting because they launched the decennial census. So this was March of 2020. And being able to work with them and be a partner, they worked with technology partners and Splunk was one of those and to be there and use our channels to help promote and in the fact that there was, the census going on and it was an important count. And these are the reasons why it’s valuable. Being part of a moment like that again, and being able to help a customer just further tell their story was really meaningful.
Margot Leong: Got it. That’s great. Uh, And so one of my last questions as I know we’re wrapping up here. I think some of the things that you were talking about with the life cycle, thinking about expanding the remit of what the program was, do all of these things within lifecycle. I have a hunch that it may have contributed to this, but you know, you moved from senior manager to director level this past year. I’d love if you could share a bit more about if you have any tips for how to think about getting more visibility and moving up to that next level.
Kate Mahon: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s a good question and you’re right. I think it’s universal in a sense of, and I think in any role, but make sure that you’re working for a leader and you have executive leaders who see what you do as strategic to the business and understand the value of it or are willing to listen and understand the value of it. I’ve been fortunate to work for leaders who see the potential and the value in what advocacy and in customer marketing can do for the business. So that was one.
And the second piece to that is as we talked about earlier, aligning your goals and objectives for the year, for your group, for your team, but also for yourself, ensuring that those are aligned to the corporate or the business objectives and key results so that it’s no question around if what you’re doing is a value. You should be able to measure this is how it impacts this objective for the business.
And then the other thing I would say is look for ways to expand your scope of work. For me, it was again, and this goes back to the leadership part, but taking on our peer review program and working with the team on that was really helpful.
So I think it’s a few of those areas and personally, for me, I also look at someone’s willingness to learn and wanting to develop themselves. So, I’ve been taking some courses and I’m actually going back to school to get an MBA. I’m really excited about that. I see the potential in this world of customer. And that it’s critical really for any business, but I would love to get that broader business perspective because I think it would just make me more hopefully impactful or think about the role again of customers and customer experience or marketing or advocacy in just a broader way.
Margot Leong: I’m assuming this applies to the people within your team in terms of how you think about getting them to the next level, as well is seeing that hunger to learn , that interest in expanding their scope as well.
Kate Mahon: My team is just so amazing. I feel lucky that they let me work with them there.
Margot Leong: I feel like that anytime I manage a team, I’m like, oh, this is amazing that you enjoy working with me.
Kate Mahon: Yeah. They’re all just so smart and resilient. And again, not only did they just have a great eye and understanding for customer servicing, storytelling, but they always continue to find new and better ways to do things or doing things that we haven’t done before. They’re just so great.
Margot Leong: I think it’s definitely the mark of a great leader where they’re always in awe of their own team, you know? I’m sure that they are similarly in awe of you. If people are interested in connecting with you, what’s the best place for them to find you.
Kate Mahon: Yeah, reach out to me on LinkedIn. I always love talking to people in the industry and hearing what they’re up to and learn from them as well. So I’d love to keep networking.
Margot Leong: This was so great to have you on, Kate. Thank you so much.
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.