Slack’s Holly Chen on Blending B2C and B2B for Growth

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by Vanessa King on July 25, 2018 - 6 minute read

Slack is one of the fastest growing SaaS companies of all time.

Its early success can be credited to word of mouth marketing. Nowadays, it relies on a mix of digital marketing channels to drive growth.

The brain behind that strategy is Holly Chen, Slack’s group growth marketing manager. Chen manages all of Slack’s digital marketing activities including brand awareness and user acquisition.

Before joining Slack, Chen led website marketing strategy at Google, served as a product manager at Gucci, and had a stint at the United Nations. Her unconventional path is a good fit for Slack, which isn’t your typical B2B company.

“Slack is pretty unique in terms of the brand image and the creative strategy. It’s fun, it’s playful, it’s not stuffy, and people remember that,” she says. “For Slack, it is actually a classic example of using B2C tactics to acquire B2B users.”

In an exclusive interview, Chen explains exactly how Slack has built demand through brand marketing campaigns. Her blueprint includes four actionable takeaways for marketers: invest in research early on, prioritize performance campaigns first, measure brand marketing and tie it to outcomes, and don’t be afraid to experiment with new channels.

Know your audience before spending money

Before running brand marketing campaigns, it’s important that companies truly understand their audience, Chen says.

Instead of sticking to the classic B2B persona types based on job titles and industries, Slack used Jobs to Be Done. This type of persona framework helps marketers better understand people’s motivations and needs when considering one product over another.

“Ultimately, when we market to a business we’re still talking to a person,” Chen says. “We’ve developed customer segmentation based on user psychology... we really put ourselves in the shoes of these different personas and their pain points and what they care about.”

Discovering these pain points early on helped Slack create brand messaging that resonates with target audiences and moves the needle faster.

“All of us have felt the pain of having an overwhelming amount of emails getting at us, and 20 different people chime in on long email threads and that frustration and that hopelessness. If our campaign can cater to that pain point and that need, that makes it more effective.

Beyond messaging, investing in persona research can also open up new ways to grab user attention. For Slack, that means not being afraid to have a little fun. Its first advertising campaign included inflatable unicorns, ice cream cones, and kittens, and its video campaigns look more like a Disney movie than a B2B ad.

“We’ve done research that the more playful ads actually perform much better than the more serious and corporate-y ones. So it does make a difference.”

Prioritize performance marketing first

When it comes to brand marketing, most companies make one of two mistakes: they invest in brand marketing too early and declare it a waste of time, or they never invest at all.

Chen says striking a balance somewhere in the middle is ideal.

“Brand marketing builds long-term equity and performance marketing benefits from the demand created by brand marketing,” she says.

Here’s the catch: brand marketing is wasted money if your marketing strategy isn’t already fine-tuned to move people through the sales funnel.

“I would first focus on performance marketing to capture the low-hanging fruit and then when that becomes an efficient acquisition channel, I add on brand marketing to blow it up,” she says.

“Brand is costly and it’s hard to measure, so it’s critical that when there’s brand marketing there’s a really solid performance marketing strategy to actually reap the benefits.”

Want more insight on setting up performance marketing strategies? Check out our in-depth interview with Jackie Davis of HelloSign.

"The more playful ads actually perform much better than the more serious and corporate-y ones."

Measure brand marketing like other campaigns

It’s common for performance-obsessed companies to dismiss brand marketing because it’s hard to tie back to revenue and user acquisition.

That’s mostly true, but Chen points out that there are several ways for companies to measure the impact of brand marketing campaigns… and you don’t need an advanced attribution engine to do it.

Chen says Slack uses a number of tactics to track their brand campaigns:

  • When Slack runs TV ads, her team works with external partners to measure brand search lift.
  • When Slack runs out-of-home ads, the company captures users around that geolocation and shows them further digital advertising.
  • When Slack runs video campaigns, they include companion banners across different touch points.

These examples show how Slack connects the dots between brand marketing and user acquisition, and underline Chen’s earlier point about getting performance marketing in place before investing in brand.

Regardless of channel, follow-up campaigns are key to turning brand ads into results.

“For brand messaging, it’s really about evoking that emotion and creating that intrigue. So get that Slack brand in front of people and for performance, a lot of times we follow up with more concrete messaging about the benefits and pain points that we can solve in people’s lives.”

On the simpler side, marketers can also use incrementality tests to tie brand marketing channels to results, Chen says.

“You can do geo-holdout, you can do control-exposed. What’s really important is to think about the volume and whether you can actually have enough to have a statistic result.”

Stuck on where to start? Chen recommends looking at branded search first, then moving on to your highest volume channels.

"We know that 70% of B2B buyers under 40-years-old and 50% of those over 40 use mobile before buying a B2B product."

Go where your audience goes—even if it’s not a common channel

Chen’s final tip to running successful brand marketing campaigns is to be where your audience is, even if it’s not a common B2B channel.

Chen is currently hiring a mobile marketer and content marketer, two channels that are traditionally difficult to tie back to concrete results. This hasn’t stopped Slack from investing.

“We know that 70% of B2B buyers under 40-years-old and 50% of those over 40 use mobile before buying a B2B product. And we know that 50% of B2B queries are made on smartphones,” Chen says.

“B2B buyers are becoming younger, and they are on mobile and we know that we need to be there. The challenge for B2B marketers is measurement. It’s difficult to tie desktop and mobile together. It’s hard to give proper credit to the research and activity on mobile, especially if you’re using a last-touch attribution model.”

Slack’s solution is to look at mobile more holistically with desktop and to map out the cross-device user journey. Her team is also rethinking its strategy around content marketing for enterprise users, which have a longer nurture path than smaller teams, she says.

Slack will be testing both gated and fully open content offerings.

“The goal of the content campaign is mainly to create that trust with our potential customers. We don’t necessarily need an email address to later market to them. If they're not willing to even create a free Slack team, then that means they probably don’t have that trust yet to even be open to be marketed to.”

Hear about all of this and a whole lot more:

Listen to our full podcast to hear Chen go into detail on all of the above plus:

  • How Slack uses B2C tactics to stand out in the B2B sphere
  • How marketing at Google and Slack compares to smaller companies
  • Her best tip for running successful campaigns
  • A deeper dive into Slack’s mobile marketing strategy