How Did Freshworks Change Their Marketing Approach Almost Instantly When COVID-19 hit

b2b marketing guest interviews Sep 17, 2021

In Conversation with Sandeep John, Head of Field Marketing, South East Asia at Freshworks

Listen to the full podcast: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1824245/9210466 

Back when COVID-19 first happened, APAC was one of the first regions that got hit. And it was a tough time for marketers. All the roadshows, conferences or field events had to be paused or somehow transformed into virtual in a very short timeframe. You weren’t exactly sure how long it would last. And that made planning 10x more difficult than it already was. 

This time, we have got Sandeep John who is the Head of Field Marketing, South East Asia at Freshworks. He shared with me what that experience was like for him and the processes that he had to go through with his team to assess the whole situation and decide what to do next. 

Here are some of the key learnings that I was able to capture from our conversation. 

 

How did you go from studying Mechanical Engineering to becoming a sales leader and now a B2B marketing leader? 

So I was born at a time in India that essentially when you finished school, it was really about whether you had to become an engineer or a doctor. That was it. And my choice at that point was mechanical engineering. 

But after working 2 years in that field, I knew that it wasn't the place for me. So I decided to get out and do an MBA which gave me a lot more perspective. It showed me there was a whole new sort of canvas out there apart from being an engineer or a doctor.

And that led me to first selling outsourcing services, then moving to tech sales and getting a chance to explore this whole tech ecosystem before joining a company in the FinTech space. And my role there changed everything for me. 

The company was an established company, but we were starting a new business unit. So fortunately, the CEO trusted me enough and appointed me to basically own this new unit from sales, marketing, working with products to whatever needed to be done. That entrepreneurial kind of role exposed me to multiple things and at that point I kind of discovered I am more connected with marketing than anything else. 

Even when I joined Freshworks, I wasn’t in marketing yet. I was hired to help build out the SDR team. And an opportunity to join the marketing team presented itself in front of me and I took it. This is a great time to be in marketing and I love where I am at now. So a crazy journey. 

 

Did having a sales background help you in transitioning into your marketing role? What were some of the challenges? 

I think one of the things that helped me very well was that I understood the sales guys. I knew exactly the challenges that the sales were facing. Because at the end of the day, they are the ones who are on the front line. These are the folks who talk to customers, putting products in front of their faces every day. 

I know a lot of great product marketers or marketers would also go out there, talking to their ICP, understanding their customers on what’s working and what’s not. But you will never truly know what’s happening on the ground if you don’t talk to the sales team. 

So one conscious effort I took was to start talking to my sales guys more often. Build that relationship and alignment between marketing and sales which was very important to me. And I think that really helped me. 

Some of the biggest challenges that I faced when I got into marketing was that, I always believe sales is very much one-to-one. But marketing instead is one to few or one to many in most cases. You're building campaigns for a larger data set of people. 

So I had to change my mindset and switch to the fact that you've got to think of the larger picture. You got to think of the larger ICP and these are their challenges. This is what they might need. And look at running stuff based on this common challenge that they got. This was a big change for me. 

 

What are some of the information that you can only get from talking to sales but not directly from customers? 

I think the biggest challenge is even getting customers. In products, one of the biggest things they do is to identify win-loss metrics in terms of this is why we are winning or losing against our competitors.

It is easier to get win conversations but difficult to get lost conversations because not everyone is going to be super open about the fact that why they have chosen a competitor. I might not be open to having this discussion with you even if you give me incentives to show up, right?

A lot of the times I feel like the sales representatives on the ground have better control of that. They can actually tell you this is why I'm losing. This is why we possibly lost that deal. Again, it's a theory or a story based on what they think. That is one.

The second thing is that with sales, there are multiple conversations they're having. So they're winning deals, losing deals. And if you talk to a number of sales guys, you will actually get to understand your customers in some sense in a short time. And this can be a quicker and easier approach for you to understand your audience. 

Again, there is no better way to do it than actually talking to the customer yourself. But sometimes in the absence of that or when you don't have as many conversations, this really helps you understand why you're losing or why you're winning against someone. And both are equally important.

 

When COVID-19 first started, how did you and your team go about analysing the whole situation and decide what to do next? 

I can remember this very clearly. It was March 2020 when this just took off. For us, the first thing was do we need to put out any fire? Is there something out there that we are trying to exhibit and we need to sort out first before going back to any future planning? 

Originally we had this 5 or 6 cities road show planned in South East Asia and it was going to happen in March. It was almost 2-3 weeks before COVID-19 really hit and we had almost everything in place. But as a business unit, we decided overnight that there was no way we could travel so this road show wasn’t going to be happening. 

Then we had to act quickly on it. And the first questions we asked ourselves were, was there anything we need to get started first? So we had to convert all of our physical events into digital formats almost like instantly. We knew this was happening and didn’t take any chances. We just made that happen. 

At that point, we weren’t exactly confident about doing a physical event virtually like how to watch your platform or host multiple sessions. This was all very new to us. But the advantage of us having done it so early made us understand that this could actually work. Back then, people were interested in coming in to listen, engage and learn. That was the first thing that we needed to sort out. 

So the next thing is that we had no intention of stopping. We knew we might get lower responses from companies or prospects as they were also in the middle of figuring out how to navigate through the crisis. We weren’t expecting great things to happen but that didn’t mean we should slow down our activities. 

Then we just switched our effort to our digital side of business which were webinars, content syndication or any digital format that could truly help us. Also thinking about what other formats we can do online. We knew that the biggest impact of not being able to host events was that you can’t physically meet people in person or shake hands with them. This still plays a critical role when you are trying to build your network or relationship with your prospects. 

So for us, we were trying to find ways to augment that such as virtual roundtables with only 6-10 people. We had to really think on our feet and figure out what are the best ways to keep those high touch campaigns but with a virtual format. 

 

You mentioned Freshworks is a big fan of doing educational webinars as a top of funnel approach and not looking to convert your attendees directly. So how do you measure if they are contributing to revenue or making an impact? 

I think we are fortunate enough that today at Freshworks, we have technologies that can even tell us exactly what kind of campaign worked before. We have a dashboard to tell us the channels, content format and exactly which webinars generate the biggest impact for the company in terms of pipeline and revenue. 

This is something that we've built over the last two or three years at Freshworks. Before that, it was very difficult because it was just using spreadsheets to try to make sense of the data and find out if a particular deal was influenced by campaigns that we ran before. 

But today we actually have a good sense of what kinds of campaigns are really working for us. A simple guideline we always use is that if I am spending X amount of dollars, am I getting a minimum pipeline of 10x. And we can measure that thanks to this dashboard we have built. 

Our metrics are now even more complicated because we can go down to granular levels of saying which campaign, how much is the deal? How much pipeline did it actually close? When did it close? How long did it take to close? So for example, we know that if we launch a campaign by this time, before the SDR follows up or sales sets up a meeting, technically we know by when this deal might close. Today, we have the ability to see all of that. 

And I can use these data to justify the money that I am putting in for the next webinar. I can see a webinar like this has actually worked in the past. But there is still room for experimentation because we know people have got massive digital fatigue in general. So there is some room to experiment with newer tactics, the newer things to sort of drive pipeline.

 

Can you share one or two campaigns that you run and they were able to bring business or revenue back to the company? 

So one is of course the WhatsApp campaign that we ran. Freshworks has the integration with What’s App in our ecosystem and we realised that people were using it extensively for customer support or selling during COVID-19.  

And we were quick enough to put our message out there in the market by running a webinar. We had some great turnout and conversation based on this campaign. It was an integration that was already on the market. But it all came down to the timing and understanding of your audience about what information they are looking for online and what kind of help they need. 

The second one is something that we did this year called the CX Mandate Report. We spoke to a bunch of customer experience leaders across the globe and what we did was to localize that report for South East Asia. We piggybacked on that one report and we converted it into a webinar, we used the same theme to host a roundtable and also turned it into a one-pager and ebooks. 

That campaign was great because there was a South East Asia section within the report. So we can really localize it and say hey, this is what your peers are saying in your regions. These are all their challenges and do they resonate with you? 

So I think that was a really good campaign because it was local and current. We just used that one content piece and did like a bunch of things around it. 

 

What are some of the lagging indicators and leading indicators that you look at for your campaigns? 

Our north star or the main lagging indicator is always pipeline. Because that’s what all of us are working towards. 

But our leading metrics can be like multiple buckets. So have SAL, SQL, MQL, MQA. So generally when we are building our targets in marketing, they are very clear. We would be given a pipeline target and also here are the number of MQLs and MQAs you need to bring into the system. Because we have historical data saying that they will convert to SQLs and SALs. And then of course, the pipeline. 

So those will give us an indicator at least telling us the pipeline will also look positive. 

 

One advice to the up and coming B2B marketers who want to be a marketing leader in the future? 

I'll say never stop learning. Always be curious. 

And this is what I really love about marketing. Some stuff that you do today might not be relevant tomorrow. So always be curious. Always try to understand if there's anything interesting out there that you can learn from. 

A lot of the times, I would see something from B2C industry and I'd just take that and try to adapt that idea for a B2B model. You never know where inspiration might strike from. So always be out there. 

And the second thing is that in order to be successful in whatever marketing role that you are doing in the company, there are three things that really matter. One is really understand who your customers are, understand your products and understand the reality by talking to sales. 

Like spend time on your products. Do demos if required. Talk to your sales guys if that's the closest you can get to your reality if you can’t reach out to your customers. By just having those conversations, it helped me with so many things. 

Focus on those things and whatever role you're doing in marketing, you will be successful.  



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Connect with Sandeep John on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sandeepjohn/ 

Listen to the full podcast: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1824245/9210466 

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