Ted Skinner is not your typical VP of Marketing. A self-described “data nerd,” he transitioned from being a data analyst and consultant to running the marketing function at Rhythm Systems, a provider of software and consulting for mid-market companies to achieve successful business execution. Since taking over, he has methodically transformed marketing into a data-driven, demand generation engine that partners with sales to drive growth.
About the same time that Ted moved over to lead marketing, Christine Rutherford joined Rhythm Systems to lead Sales. She brought considerable experience selling to CEOs from nearly 8 years at PwC and another 11+ years at Oracle. Given this background, Christine is also a proponent of data-driven decisions.
As is common with many mid-market organizations, the marketing function was primarily focused on building awareness of the brand and educating visitors with whitepapers, downloads etc. Ted’s assessment was that, because of all this content, there was “lots of traffic to the site, but leads were scarce because we weren’t asking for the order.”
This sent Ted down the path of defining the ideal customer, so he would know where to focus his efforts. But when he interviewed the consulting team about the characteristics of an ideal client, he realized they were giving misleading information, based on observations of the current state.
“Many of our best clients have been with us for up to a decade or longer,” Ted described. “We were therefore alongside them as they grew, but that skewed how we should be looking at new, potential clients.”
So Ted turned to the data to find answers (something we always advise at Yield). Ted put his analysis skills to work and thoroughly examined customer buying patterns over time to determine Lifetime Value (LTV). He then grouped clients into cohorts and extracted common attributes from each group. This gave him the initial data set necessary to focus on an ideal customer profile.
In Search of Quacking Ducks
Ted and Christine worked closely together to identify the best customer segments on which to focus. They quickly discovered, however, that they did not have the data necessary to properly target those potential buyers, so they started asking for additional qualifying data on forms.
Once the team started working with more data-informed prospects, it was time to “blow up the lifecycle stages” of the marketing and sales funnel, because they no longer made sense with the enhanced process. That helped identify additional data gaps. Since you can only ask for so much information on a form before completion rates fall, Ted leveraged, Clearbit, a data tool, to augment customer profiles.
In parallel, Christine was starting to build out an outbound sales practice. Until this time, the firm relied entirely on inbound and consulting relationships to win new clients, but the time had come to expand these efforts if they were going to hit growth targets. Using the customer segmentation analysis, Christine went to Ted and said, “I need more ducks that look like this.”
So Ted made changes to content and scoring to deliver more “ducks” to Christine. And they were successful. Unfortunately, the prospects they delivered weren’t always ready to buy (low intent). This meant the small (but mighty) sales team was spending time qualifying and nurturing prospects, which reduced the amount of time spent on higher value-added activities. So Christine modified here request to , “I need more ducks that look like this and are quacking.”
Ted calls these Quacking Ducks, "Product Qualified Leads." This is an astute observation. In our experience working with mid-market companies, it is common to see companies fall into the traditional trap of Marketing having its definition of qualified leads (MQLs) and Sales having its own definition of leads (both SQLs and SALs), with the assumption that both buyer fit and intent are captured in each. Because Rhythm has a small sales team, they don’t have the luxury of using scarce sales resources to identify real intent, especially given that they sell to the CEO (who tends not to answer the phone). The onus is therefore on marketing to identify the appropriate level of intent, which requires a higher threshold for consideration, which in turn requires … more data.
The term “Product Qualified Lead” originated in the software as a service space (SaaS), where users of a free trial or freemium offering where actually already using the product. The nature and degree of this usage helps signal to the sales team the opportunities with the highest intent, because they a) fit a specific profile and b) are already experiencing value from the product.
Ted and Christine realized that they needed their own version of a “starter” package for services that are otherwise a significant commitment. So they worked with the firm to develop a service offering specifically for Executive teams that was a shorter, more targeted engagement, giving customers an easier entry point into the Rhythm Systems methodology.
The changes made by Ted and Christine now allow a small sales team to “punch above their weight,” by using an intelligent, data-driven system to identify “quacking ducks” on which the sales team can focus and quickly close.
Speaking of data-driven engines, let’s take a look under the hood
Rhythm Systems is fortunate to have a “data nerd” like Ted running marketing. It is extremely rare to find someone who is not only proficient at data and technology, but thoroughly enjoys it day-to-day, while at the same time being willing and able to work closely with sales to drive an outcome.
Google is our Front Page
“Google is the front page of our website, not Rhythm Systems.” Ted's perspective on how people use the web and their website is 100% right, but extremely rare, even in 2019. As we've seen repeatedly at Yield, many companies spend tens of thousands of dollars launching a new or revised website and focus entirely on the design and user experience while spending little (if any) effort on the underlying architecture and data layer, which is what Google’s search bots need to bring you the visitors you are targeting.
Ted redesigned the Rhythm Systems website by starting with four critical elements:
- Develop a thorough, data-informed understanding of the ideal buyer (persona)
- Extensive research to reveal how this persona defined their problem and searched for solutions that Rhythm wants to sell
- Design the architecture of the website and related content to match #1 and #2
- Provide the targeted persona with a journey that is relevant for them and clearly define the website’s purpose
In the case of Rhythm Systems, they had clearly defined their targeted personas and thoroughly understood, through research of relevant search behavior, how their targeted persona was looking for solutions. In addition, once on the site, they made the decision that the primary call to action was no longer “download something,” but more directly, “book a meeting.” This decreased leads, but increased quality and therefore improved the output of the sales team. Remember, it’s about driving growth, not “vanity metrics” like MQLs.
CRM and Marketing Technology
Rhythm is fortunate in that they have one system for both marketing and CRM, Hubspot. Hubspot certainly has its constraints, as does any tool, but we find that companies can achieve far more when they use the technology they have well versus simply adding complexity with additional tools in the stack.
Rhythm Systems would probably be considered a “power user” of Hubspot. It serves as their customer CRM, so all activity, from lead to customer engagements, lives in one place. They are also doing an excellent job of utilizing landing pages with progressive form fills (capturing new information each time a visitor returns), drip email campaigns and lead scoring.
Speaking of lead scoring. There is probably no other feature more mis-used and abused then lead scoring. We see so many companies base their scores on random activities that have no confirmed correlation to outcomes. Things like email opens, clicks and downloads push visitors over the wall to sales, who then burn time pursuing these leads, only to learn the lead was doing research for a college term paper.
Rhythm, by contrast, uses a thoughtful, data-driven rubric that is continually refined based on sales performance. The process started with Christine’s sales team mapping the behaviors they experienced in the typical sales process. Ted then built a scoring model based on these behaviors. They then took actual customers and back-tested their behaviors against the scoring model to identify gaps and make adjustments. Rhythm is using Infer’s predictive sales & marketing platform to build and manage it’s scoring algorithm.
Single Version of the Truth for Reporting
Because Rhythm is fully reliant on Hubspot, they leverage the platform's native reporting tools, which is much less complex than having multiple separate tools. Regardless, Christine and Ted operate on a holistic view of performance, with both departments held responsible for the pipeline. It is their joint responsibility to understand the origin of every deal and every touchpoint, human or digital, that contributed to moving it through the process to becoming a customer.
Ted also relies on reports from the various platforms including Google Analytics, Google Search Console and LinkedIn, as well as website user journey mapping from Hotjar.
It's refreshsing to see a simple approach reporting. While Hubspot's reporting isn't the most robust, Rhythm is proof that having everyone manage the business by looking at key KPIs on shared dashboards is what makes the difference. Being tool-agnostic at Yield, we tend to prefer collecting customer data into a warehouse to make future stack changes and more in-depth analysis much easier, but we're also not fans of adding complexity to systems that are working really well.
The Rest of the Stack
Ted is constantly on the lookout for tools that help support his mission of better understanding and engaging their target customer so that he can deliver the highest quality “quacking ducks” to the sales team. He has just as much focus on sales success as Christine, which is how a modern, data-driven customer acquisition engine should think.
Additional tools in the stack include LinkedIn Demographics Manager, to help provide insight on the companies and seniority of website visitors, and Wistia, a video hosting platform.
A Word About Content
The majority of this post is spent covering strategy and the data and technology necessary to execute that strategy. An equally, if not more important component of success, in which so many companies under-invest, is content.
Because Rhythm Systems is a blend of software and consulting, they have built into their DNA the concept of “crowd sourcing” content. Every consultant is responsible for publishing key learnings from their experiences. What has changed, however, is that this content is now more action oriented, with a balance of consulting, sales and SEO.
Christine and Ted work with the entire Rhythm team to develop content that speaks to key themes that they know, both through customer interaction and validation through data, are relevant to their CEO prospects. This content is the fuel for their data-driven growth engine.
Now that Ted and Christine have developed a solid "Rhythm" for marketing and sales (pun intended), Ted wants to continue to turn the dial on customer segmentation, acquisition and engagement. To do so, he intends to explore data routing tools like Segment and Rudder, which enable the collection and routing of website "event data" to multiple systems or data repositories in real time. This provides incredible flexibility to design a user experience across platforms and visibility for analytics and reporting regardless of the platform from which the data was derived.
Rhythm has also experimented with online chat in the past, using Hubspot's built-in chat tool, but had limited success. Ted is considering experimenting with other tools like Drift.com or Qualified, mostly because they offer more advanced logic and journeys to provide a more personalized experience.
Lastly, Rhythm may lean more into paid digital advertising, now that they have much more robust, data-informed customer profiles, which is key to delivering cost-effective success. The team is treading lightly here, however, because they know that, to be successful, they have to be prepared to commit to a disciplined process of frequent testing and analysis, another reason to explore the data routing tool mentioned above.
If you are a marketing, sales or product leader at a growing, middle-market firm and you feel there is untapped potential in your organization, we encourage you to take a look at our Growth Maturity Scorecard to assess the areas on which to focus.
Alternatively, you can always contact us to chat directly about your growth challenges and opportunities.