Kelly Watkins is the Head of Global Marketing at Slack. She’s taken an unusual path to get there: she established her marketing cred at companies like GitHub and Bugsnag, but she’s also worked as a web developer and holds a degree in theology.
We got the chance to pick her brain about marketing team structure, leadership, localizing campaigns for global audiences, and everything in between. Read on — and, better yet, come see Kelly Watkins speak in person, March 7-8, at C3 in NYC.
Charity Stebbins: You’ve had an interesting path to marketing, one that’s taken you all over the world. How did you end up heading global marketing at Slack?
Kelly Watkins: I definitely didn’t follow a traditional path to marketing, but things I’ve picked up along the way are a huge influence into how I think about and approach my work. I studied theology in college and from there I’ve always been fascinated by the way people build belief systems to help them understand the world.
That interest has taken me from nonprofits to consulting and then to several tech startups where I’ve gotten the chance to learn the art of storytelling, take products into international markets, and build amazing teams.
I came to Slack originally as a Senior Product Manager because I wanted to better understand how product development works and how product and marketing teams could work together more effectively. Not long after joining, I stepped up to run the product marketing team, and then took over all of marketing shortly after. Stewart was the first CEO I spoke with who had heard of and read “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” and that was when I knew the job was for me.
I’ve heard you say that “advice is a dangerous gift” for marketers. If there’s no recipe for success since we’re all functioning in a unique context, what can we learn from each other?
Kelly Watkins: That’s a favorite Tolkien quote of mine, and while he wasn’t talking about marketing at all, I find it to be pretty applicable to our work. We’re constantly hearing about new playbooks and that “one weird trick” that will supposedly enable record-hitting growth rates for the products we’re marketing. That advice is so often devoid of context though, and I often see marketers follow the plan and never achieve the same outcomes.
What works for one product doesn’t always translate to others, and a lot of the time dumb luck has a huge role to play in why things go well. I’m mostly interested in learning from things that haven’t worked well, and get the most from talks or conversations about failed projects or campaigns. I find the efforts that didn’t go as well to be the ones where we can extract the most wisdom and apply it to the work we’re doing.
You’ve shifted the way the marketing team is organized and works today at Slack. What are some signs that tell marketing leaders that their org chart might not be working for them? How have you transitioned the work of the team from functional silos to program-based teams with a common goal?
Kelly Watkins: When I took over the organization, not only was it structured around functional teams, but the org chart shaped how everyone worked. Each group had their own roadmaps and individual efforts, which meant that tactics and programs weren’t integrated or working together to have more impact.” I’ve talked to many leaders at other organizations who find themselves in this same situation where teams are only working along functional lines.
If, for example, you’re seeing the impact of events stop and end at attendees, then it’s likely your organization’s work isn’t connected in ways that move people along through key touch points or tactics. In the past 15 months, we’ve experimented with a few different ways of organizing and have given everyone opportunities to try out new ways of working to learn how to do integrated campaign work.
Today the marketing organization at Slack aligns their work around core programs that have a shared goal, clear audience, and an understood customer journey. Tactics are part of the program effort and are led by individuals who work as part of the program team.
Slack’s CEO, Stewart Butterfield, has said that organic is your #1 channel. Why do you think it’s so important to the business?
Kelly Watkins: Enterprise software is experiencing a major shift from traditional top-down selling processes to new products being brought in by employees who want to use better tools at work. In this new world, user advocacy and word of mouth makes a huge difference because people want to use things that are working well for others that they know and trust.
We’ve built Slack from the very beginning to be focused on end users and that emphasis on craftsmanship and solving real world problems has enabled us to provide real value to people.
What kind of data do you look at to help you continuously understand your customers and global markets?
Kelly Watkins: There are a few pieces of data I tend to keep an eye on consistently – growth and activation rates for new teams and NPS data. This helps me get a sense of whether the people signing up for Slack are adopting and using the product and how they feel about Slack as a result.
Marketing also has a close partnership with the sales team at Slack, so I’m also tracking open pipeline and how that translates into revenue each quarter to inform what programs we might need to add or shift to help accelerate the sales process.
What are some of the ways you approach marketing differently in local/global markets?
Kelly Watkins: We’ve put a big emphasis on localization over translation in how we think about our efforts in local markets and in global ones.
It’s a balance to stay true to the Slack brand while also pushing ourselves to be relevant for people in a market, but it’s one that has proved to be worth it for us over and over again.
For example, we closed out 2017 with two integrated, hyper-local campaigns in Nashville and Salt Lake City. Both the messaging and the variety of tactics used were tailored to each city, and we engaged with people through a multitude of touchpoints – from out-of-home ads, advertorials, sponsored local radio and podcast interviews to local pop-up events designed to increase brand awareness.
What creative or content have you recently admired by another brand?
Kelly Watkins: Here in San Francisco, the SFMOMA recently ran a clever campaign where they would text you art from their collection. I thought it was a smart way for them to connect with existing and would-be patrons who might not have the time to visit the museum.
I also appreciated the Patagonia campaign from late last year in response to the move to reduce our national monuments in Utah. It was bold effort to take a stand and it was one that felt authentic to what Patagonia is as a company.
How would you finish this sentence in the context of Slack’s marketing teams? “2018 is the year of ______”
Kelly Watkins: Focus. Slack was the first in this space and it’s on us to win or lose.
We’ve spent the past six months experimenting with new efforts and tactics, and learning what works for us and the audience we are trying to reach. Now we need to take those learnings and build them into systems that can drive growth at scale.
You’ve said that “greatness takes time.” How can we marketing leaders tell the difference between needing more time to see growth VS accepting that a method just isn’t effective?
Kelly Watkins: It really depends on the method and what it’s intended to achieve. Building a lasting brand is something that definitely takes time, and there aren’t shortcuts to people knowing about your company and your products, and then believing what you offer is relevant for them. It’s about consistency in message and media, and finding creative ways to cut through the noise and reach people.
Growth or customer acquisition efforts are typically ones that show impact much more quickly and give more opportunities to shift and adjust based on the data. There’s a great white paper that Melissa Waters at Lyft sent to me called “The Long and the Short of It,” and it’s heavily shaped my thinking here.