Leila Nazari

Campaign Strategies of Tech Unicorns, Revealed | by Leila Nazari | Jan, 2021

A look beyond the surface at smart campaigns used to get to $1B and beyond.

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Blog posts, emails, display ads, retargeting ads, content, videos, case studies, whitepapers, SEO, surveys, social, virtual events, webinars, news stories…

In 2021. that might as well be a list of campaign tactics used by nearly every tech company. While channels are often a commodity, the way they are used can be positioned as a strength.

In part 3 of my series on how B2B tech unicorns build disruptive brands, I’ll share not just how unicorns are leveraging the web and physical world to reach their audience but also the behind the scenes of what are driving those decisions.

Specifically, I’ll explore the answers to frequently asked questions like, how are campaign decisions being made? What are some of the most promising & new channels? and how is account-based marketing being used?

With that, let’s dive in.

You would think most companies keep their campaign strategy a secret. One company turns that hypothesis on its head. In the spirit of openness, Gitlab, known as a leader in open-source tools for developers, has decided to share its marketing handbook online.

In the guide, the Gitlab team shares their multi-channel campaign approach. The team focuses on having two dimensions clearly defined:

  • Value — why a prospect would be interested in making a change in the first place.
  • Use case — the specific situation in which a product can be used.

The idea is simple. Create campaigns that clearly articulate why someone should care, and what it is he or she should care about. The company puts so much focus on creating customer-centric content that it has established a team dedicated to doing just that. The Strategic Marketing team comprises subject matter experts who deeply understand and can explain the value of the product to prospects.

This value-first approach makes a lot of sense when there’s an established market, but what if the market is still mostly unaware of what it is they need?

In an interview with product hunt, the founders of Brex, a fintech company that offers corporate banking solutions for startups, described how they use content loops to drive awareness. The idea is simple, target your demographic based on what they are searching for, serve them content to draw them into the site, then retarget them with paid ads.

However, the magic lies in the strategy. The team discovered that keyword targeting of in-market buyers was less likely to turn into opportunities than running Youtube ads where potential customers were not yet in the research stage (or thinking about) corporate banking solutions but looking up related startup content.

Their ad is reminiscent of an Apple iPod commercial, complete with attractive visuals, clear value statements, and a catchy tune. No surprise, it also has been viewed over one million times. See for yourself.

Brex Youtube Ad

UIPath, the leading robotic automation platform, found that one of the most successful lead gen channels involved retargeting visitors who had yet to convert into leads through Linked InMail conversation ads. This feature lets you send personalized messages to the inboxes of specific target segments. With this approach, UIPath was able to convert 67% of the leads that engaged.

While investing in LinkedIn seems obvious, Facebook seems so. However, Zenefits, an HR software leader, was able to cracked the code and make it work for them. The team ran 375 different experiments to eventually find a significantly lower cost per acquisition and a greater average order value than through other channels.

They were able to achieve these results by fine-tuning their target parameters leveraging third-party data from a provider called Clearbit. The results showed that educational content performed much better than product-driven messaging.

Marketing has long been a vehicle to get attention. Often, when you least expect it. New York subways and northern California interstates? It turns out several B2B tech companies — C3.AI, Monday.Com, Brex — to name a few, have all invested in billboards before they were a household name, hoping perhaps to become one.

Living in New York, I can pledge first-hand that it was impossible to miss the Monday.com takeover of the subways. Their messaging adorned the turnstiles, walls on the platform, and banners inside the subway.

Monday.com | C3.AI | Brex billboards (image put together by author)

While it’s difficult to measure the impact, out-of-home advertising does make sense for companies with a broad audience and a heavy concentration in one particular city or location (or did until the pandemic).

Plaid, a company that offers developer tools and APIs for consumer banks, has taken the opposite approach, by taking a narrow, targeted approach.

In a conversation with Saastr, the CEO shared that they have always been “developer focus.” As a result, they acquire most of their customers through forums, hacker news, and Reddit. The company understood well that to gain the trust of developers, you need to engage and embed yourself into the community, not just push ads. Visa just acquired them for $5.3B.

In a similar vein, UIPath has taken it upon itself to invest heavily in using its website to tackle “the industry’s most pressing issues and concerns, such as the current state and future of robotics automation across a variety of industries, while at the same time positioning UiPath as a thought-leader in this field.” By building up search result rankings for trending new concepts, the company was able to see a 4x growth in traffic in just a year.

The idea is simple: Proactively target the best-fit companies with your messages rather than hoping they stumble upon find you. To this day, I am still shocked that ABM requires countless hours of explanation to get organizational buy-in.

That said, the tides are starting to turn. Of the 25 unicorns I analyzed, I could validate that over 75% of them have hired an ABM leader and/or are actively engaging in ABM activities.

One of the first steps with any ABM strategy is picking which accounts to target and segmenting the list. Gitlab shares that they segment their accounts across 3 groups, one-to-one (completely personalized communication) 1 to a few (roughly 50 accounts), and 1 to many (75–100 accounts).

While nailing the segmentation approach is essential, The CMO of Thoughtspot would argue sales alignment is perhaps even more important, saying “Segmentation strategy is critical, but it just doesn’t’ fly at all if you don’t have sales bought in. If they’re not ready to segment accounts and narrow the focus to a reasonable level, then it won’t work.” In just 5 years, the company has grown to a valuation northwards of $2B, so perhaps they are onto something.

One common ABM strategy to get buyers’ attention involves direct mail. But does it work? Outreach.io, the leading Sales Enablement Platform, decided to run an A/B split test. They sent the clever direct mail package shown below to a list of 500 prospects in their target account list who had previously been contacted but never responded. They also had a control group of 500 accounts that did not receive the box.

Outreach.io Direct Mail Campaign

The results were promising. The prospects who received the swag responded at a 26% higher rate, with three times as many meetings booked. Direct mail itself wasn’t the reason this worked. The company nailed the strategy. The value of their platform connects back nicely to the items included int eh direct mailer. They nicely juxtapose a modern wireless charging pad with the old-school flip-phone. And equally important, they followed through, coordinating timely follow-up with the SDR team.

Direct mail happens to be just one ABM activation channel. Gitlab highlights two digital tools in their ABM tech stack. The team uses Demandbase for personalized 1:1 advertising to target accounts and Pathfactory to create personalized content web pages.

Tipalti, an accounts payable software solution valued at over $2B, brought in 6sense, an account-engaged platform, to help them identify buyers showing intent. Armed with additional data on how target accounts were engaging with their brand in real-time, Tipalti provided visibility and tools, such as a content suggestion matrix, to SDRs so they could reach out with more personalized messages based on searched keywords of target accounts.

The latest way to run ABM campaigns that have grown quickly in popularity is the conversational chatbot. Companies like Thoughtspot, Zenefits, and TripActions all mention that they use chat capabilities on their website to engage key target accounts in a dialogue in real-time. With better routing and tight integrations with Salesforce, solutions like Pardot and Drift have made this possible.

Marketing was never about one channel or one approach, but including an account-based targeting approach is just smart business. Now that we have the data-trails and knowledge to engage our best fit-prospects proactively, it should be a no-brainer.

This list is far from conclusive. With so many possibilities available at your disposal, marketing leaders and founders should get intentional about when and how they invest in adding new engagement avenues.

At a minimum, you must understand what stage in the buyer’s journey your ideal customer profile is, what problem they have that you can solve, what level of awareness they have of that problem, and what channels they use to seek out information. It’s okay to experiment, but it’s more important to have a reason beyond, “I heard it worked for someone else.”

In Steve Blank’s Startup Owner’s Manual, he shares a useful strategy to begin thinking about the buyer’s journey. He writes that people typically fall into one of the following 4 levels of awareness:

  • Aware of pain and actively searching for a solution
  • Aware of pain but not actively searching for a solution
  • Aware of pain, and have cobbled together a solution
  • Have pain but are unaware there’s a problem

Knowing the answer to this question will help build an engagement plan that is rooted in context. If you know the typical mindset of your ideal customer, then you at least have a starting point. And knowing where to begin, is half the battle.


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