Ep. 325: Carolyn Guss is VP of Corporate Marketing @ PagerDuty, the company keeping your digital operations running perfectly with their real-time operations platform. Prior to their IPO in April 2019, PagerDuty had raised funding from some of the best in the business including a16, Bessemer, Meritech, Harrison Metal and Elad Gil to name a few. As for Carolyn, prior to joining PagerDuty she spent 5 years as the GM of Method Communications San Francisco Office and before that spent time on the other side of the pond with a close to 7-year stint at Orange as Head of Corporate PR and Head of US Communications.
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In Today’s Episode We Discuss:
* How Carolyn made her way across the pond from Head of US Communications at Orange to GM of Method in SF to then playing a key role in the marketing team at PagerDuty?
* How does Carolyn think startups and larger companies can replace the leads that are lost from having no events in a COVID-19 world? How are PagerDuty shifting their strategy? How does PagerDuty think about brand marketing? Does it have to be tied to a number directly tied to revenue? What are the challenges with brand marketing?
* What does Carolyn believe is the right tone to approach customers within this time? How can one be supportive but also drive towards business objectives? In terms of tone, what is the right tone to approach the broader team with? How does PagerDuty gain a sense of company morale at scale? What tools do they use?
* How does Carolyn think about the benefits of transparency both with employees and with customers? Is there an extent to the benefits of transparency? Can one ever been too transparent? How does one think about this in a very corporate perspective with PagerDuty now being a public company?
Ep. 326: Gusto’s Lexi Reese walks you through scaling high performance teams. Is trust earned or given? How do you communicate for impact?
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This podcast is an excerpt from Lexi’s session at SaaStr Scale.
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Below, we’ve shared the transcript of Harry’s interview with Carolyn.
Harry Stebbings: Welcome back to the official SaaStr Podcast with me, Harry Stebbings. And if you’d like to leave feedback or suggestions for future episodes, I always love to hear your thoughts. And you can do so on Instagram at HStebbings1996 with two Bs. But time for the show today and I’m thrilled to welcome Carolyn Guss to the hot seat today.
Harry Stebbings: Now, Carolyn is VP of Corporate Marketing at PagerDuty, the company keeping your digital operations running perfectly with their realtime operations platform. Prior to their IPO in April 2019, PagerDuty had raised funding from some of the best in the business, including: Andreessen Horowitz, Bessemer, Meritech, Harrison Metal, and Elad Gil to name a few.
Harry Stebbings: As for Carolyn, prior to joining PagerDuty, she spent five years as the GM of Method Communications in the San Francisco office, and before that, spent time on the other side of the pond with close to a seven-year stint at Orange as Head of Corporate PR and Head of U.S. Communications.
Harry Stebbings: But now I’m delighted to hand over to Carolyn Guss, VP of Corporate Marketing at PagerDuty.
Harry Stebbings: Carolyn, it is such a pleasure to have you on the show today. I’ve heard so many great things from the one and only Jen, and so thank you so much for joining me today.
Carolyn Guss: Thanks, Harry, for having me here. It’s a pleasure to talk to you. We’ve obviously worked with SaaStr for a long time. Really enjoyed the relationship. Jennifer Tejada, our CEO, has always enjoyed speaking at SaaStr, so it’s great to be chatting to you in an unusual time for all of us.
Harry Stebbings: It is indeed an unusual time, but we so appreciate that. But I would love to start with a little bit on you, Carolyn. So tell me, how did you make your way into what I call the wonderful world of SaaS and come to be VP of Corporate Marketing of PagerDuty today?
Carolyn Guss: So like you, and as you can probably tell from my accent, I started out my career in London. I was running corporate comms for Orange, the large French mobile operator. We had 200,000 employees and were part owned by the government. So it was about as far away from SaaS startup land as you can possibly get. But it was a great experience, grounding me in tech. We launched a lot of products in emerging markets. Mobile was really booming at that time. We were getting into digital TV. But as time went on, I could really see the level of innovation that was coming out of Silicon Valley, in particular, but SaaS companies more broadly, so managed to find my way to the West Coast of the U.S. in about 2008. But my startup experience was actually a PR firm called Method Communications, where I worked with some of the most exciting companies. So Domo, Nutanix, Qualtrics, PagerDuty, of course, Robinhood. So many of the really exciting tech companies were really broken out by Method. And I ran the San Francisco office for the agency.
Carolyn Guss: So during that time I met Jennifer Tejada and the team at PagerDuty, worked with them through their IPO. What I really learned in that time was that PagerDuty was a pretty unique experience for me. It’s a complex technology, but it touches all of us every day. PagerDuty is used by the likes of Netflix, Zoom, Nordstrom, Gap. And many of us don’t realize that the digital experiences that we’re having and the apps and the websites that we’re visiting are working great because PagerDuty is there, used by the teams behind them. So I got excited about the mission of the company and the opportunity to really up level the marketing story because it is a complex technology. And so started talking to the team about the opportunities to work together and about six months ago came over from being an agency partner to PagerDuty to running the corporate marketing team.
Harry Stebbings: Can I ask, because it’s a very interesting transition. Because obviously at Method you work across a very broad landscape of clients and customers, and then obviously with PagerDuty, much more of a focus purview. How was the transition for you and how did you find that going from quite broad to quite focused?
Carolyn Guss: Absolutely. There was a real transition. I’d been working with PagerDuty for 18 months and I felt I really understood the business, but actually I didn’t. I was one step removed. So coming away from knowing lots and lots of companies a little bit to knowing one company really deeply, I think it’s helped me deepen my impact. What’s broad for me now is my remit. So I’m looking after internal comms, so really helping with the culture of PagerDuty. I’m looking after marketing, so events, brand marketing. And I’m looking after PR and communications as well. So how are we showing up in social media? Opportunities like this, talking to you, getting our voice out there in the media and making sure we’re well differentiated. So the breadth of my activities has grown and I think that’s kept me really engaged and excited to learn.
Harry Stebbings: Totally. And I think the breadth is what’s so fascinating. I do want to dive into a couple of those specific elements you mentioned there, and particularly placed in the context that we’re in, obviously the rise of COVID has meant a lot of marketing plans are quite simply out of the window in many cases. So I’d love to discuss how you think about changing strategies and pivots in the face of COVID. And you mentioned events there. Always a huge source of leads for B2B companies. How do you think about a lead replacement with such a large marketing activity now really gone?
Carolyn Guss: Absolutely. Events were a huge part of generating marketing qualified leads for PagerDuty and we had two different types of events. One is large scale customer events and the other is community events. It’s more focused on developers that use the platform. Obviously none of those events can take place at the moment. So what we did first was we mapped all the different events that we host and we mapped the value of leads that we expect to get from those events. And then we looked at how we can replace these with different digital channels. It was really a cross-functional effort with sales and marketing and product and a growth team that’s responsible for all our digital and web presence. And we’ve broken it out into a few areas.
Carolyn Guss: So most immediately we’ve pivoted to replace events themselves with virtual events. So we had an event in London, customer event, and we took that virtual. Required a lot of communication and fast action. And then the other thing that we’ve done is to create a series of webinars. So one of the things about PagerDuty where we really excel with events is that we provide a lot of community resources and information and best practice sharing. So it’s really easy to just take that and deliver it over a webinar. These webinars aren’t particularly about product push, they’re about the things that you can do to improve your own incident response and make sure that your own digital operations run well. So we had a ton of these resources already available in written form, so it’s just about having some of our execs or our experts take them out as webinars and promoting those to our customers.
Carolyn Guss: And then the next thing we’re doing is really doubling down on our digital media spending. We haven’t been really focused on above the line ever. We’ve done one or two brand campaigns, but it hasn’t been something that’s at the heart of PagerDuty marketing. We’ve been almost quite scrappy in our marketing, I’d say. So we’re taking some of that budget that was used for events and we’re moving over to things like sponsored content, web page takeovers, radio advertising. And the reason that we feel like that’s a good pivot for us right now versus the direct nature of events is because fundamentally PagerDuty keeps the Internet up and running and the whole world has just gone offline and online with shelter in place. So more than ever, companies need our services. So we are looking to cast a much wider net right now and get that message out there. So we definitely have brand awareness goals as well as marketing qualified lead goals with this shift that we’re making.
Harry Stebbings: You’re teeing me up so nicely because there’s so many things I just want to unpack from that. My first is if you take it in order, you mentioned the shift to virtual events there. A big one for me is how does it compare from a results basis in terms of MQLs, and what have been your initial takeaways from the first few that you’ve done now?
Carolyn Guss: It’s early to answer that. We have a certain number of MQLs that we expect to get from an event based on how that event performed in the past. We’ve been running our major user event, for example, PagerDuty Summit, for four years. So we’re preparing dashboards to figure out what we can expect to get from webinars and what we can expect to get. But I wouldn’t say that we have the answer just yet, Harry. I think that it’s possible we’re going to see that, but then equally PagerDuty’s really built on land and expand. That’s been the best sales motion, or the biggest sales motion that we’ve experienced as a company.
Carolyn Guss: So right now what we’re seeing is a ton of extra usage on our platform from existing customers. So what we want to do there is make sure that we’re offering resources and being really, really supportive to those customers. So I don’t actually think that we’re going to be able to say if we’ve got this number of leads from an event, the virtual equivalent of that event will get the exact same number of leads. I think it’s about taking a different approach and really leading with supporting our existing customers for that land and expand motion and then getting the broader awareness out there with bigger digital media spend so that we can be adding new logos.
Harry Stebbings: Totally agreed with you there, especially on the awareness. The awareness is an interesting one because brand marketing, there’s different views on brand marketing and awareness. And I guess my question to you is how do you think about and assess brand marketing and how do you respond to often people’s thoughts that it’s untraceable, it’s untrackable, and it’s therefore challenging as a core strategy in itself?
Carolyn Guss: So brand marketing, we ran our first brand campaign in the fall of last year. We rebranded and we ran campaigns for the first time ever. And I would agree that for a company with our culture, it’s not as obviously trackable. With our land and expand model, what we’ve always done is just really look to drive people to trial through our website. And that’s obviously extremely tangible. We know exactly how many people are coming through to trial and then how many people are becoming customers. So the brand marketing campaign, we looked at it differently. We weren’t expecting a brand campaign to generate leads in the same way that we see from our website. We were really looking at it as a way of building value in the PagerDuty brand and helping us to differentiate from other companies that are in our market or in adjacent markets that sometimes people will confuse with us.
Carolyn Guss: So we’re not necessarily expecting brand marketing to drive to very hard metrics. That said, we will be tracking those metrics and we will be running the exact same dashboards on marketing qualified leads to understand how it’s performing because there’s always the opportunity to improve and iterate. So right now, what we’ve done is created a plan for April for digital marketing spend. We’ll be benchmarking that and then we’ll iterate on our plan for May.
Harry Stebbings: Totally get you. Can I ask, you said that about using the same framework and I like that. It makes me think of something that CMO at Pendo, Joe Chernov, once said on the show. He said that all marketing activities have to be tied and held accountable to a number directly tied to revenue. Would you agree with him in terms of having to be tied directly to revenue, or is there a broader purview and a nuance to that?
Carolyn Guss: At the high level I do agree. And we use Pendo ourselves to understand exactly how we’re driving to revenue. There’s nuance within it, though. So if I think about my team, I have customer marketing in my team right now and we absolutely tie to revenue of customer marketing. We create a number of assets, we push them out through webinars, through other types of digital campaigns, and we track MQLs. If I take public relations, we don’t track to MQLs of public relations. That’s really for building brand.
Carolyn Guss: So ultimately, as a VP of Corporate Marketing, I am tied to a number, but I take my nuance within that as to which vehicles I’m using to reach that number. So my spend may be greater in one area than another depending on how I’m tracking against that number. So I think it’s about being able to pull different levers and I do think there’s some nuance in there.
Harry Stebbings: Absolutely. You mentioned the customer marketing team and it makes me think to the time that we’re in today because it’s a time where tone is something that you have to think a lot about. So I’m intrigued, given the time and actually moving to the conversations themselves with the customer, how do you think about adopting a tone of support and care, which is obviously very necessary in an uncertain time right now, but also a need to impact revenue and business objectives with the tone as well?
Carolyn Guss: This has been a really big conversation for us. So back in February, we started to see on our platform that our customers were labeling the types of incidents that they use PagerDuty for with pandemic or coronavirus or COVID-19. So we could understand then that our customers were experiencing some kind of business impact as a result of the situation. And so we began to think through, how do we support them in that situation? We were seeing some customers having really surging demand for their product. And you can imagine it’s companies in online learning, video conferencing, collaboration tools.
Carolyn Guss: And what that means is their teams are working around the clock and are working really hard to keep things running. And so it is not helpful for us to say buy more PagerDuty licenses. It’s really about showing them supports that if they’re spinning up an incident response team fast or they’re really scaling their ability to fix incidents on their networks, then it’s about us showing them with webinars, with videos, with white papers, how do you do that fast. So we have something called Incident Commander Training, which is how you train people to run major incidents. And as you can imagine with growing demand on networks, there’s going to be more people required to step into that job and help the core team keep the systems running perfectly.
Carolyn Guss: We have something called Virtual NOC Training because everyone’s just gone home. Companies were used to having a NOC in their office and they could all have a sense of the health of their systems and suddenly everyone’s gone home. So we’ve provided training on how to create a virtual NOC. So we’re already leading with a message of here’s best practices and support that we can provide to you. And we believe that that will lead to growth for us down the line. But it doesn’t feel right at the moment to be pushing product and license messages.
Harry Stebbings: I totally agree with you in terms of not feeling right there. I guess my question is it’s almost customer success, but it’s also definitely marketing. And I think more and more today we’re seeing marketing being pushed further and further down the funnel with the creation of that content being used to support and make their clients as successful as possible. Do you agree with this almost merging of the roles of marketing, especially around content, with customer success?
Carolyn Guss: Absolutely. We’re very much hand in hand with customer success now and I think account based marketing is something that’s growing within PagerDuty. Because we began with the land and expand motion, but we really, as we move up into larger companies, need to help with that expansion and that’s where customer success and marketing are hand in hand. We’re generating a lot of materials and then customer success are really personalizing them and having those conversations. But then we’re looking to amplify that, I guess, by having the same messaging show up in different kinds of channels where these customers are going to turn up. So yeah, very much cross-functional effort for us. It already was and it is so now more than ever.
Harry Stebbings: You mentioned the cross-functionality there between the different teams. It’s an incredibly hard thing to achieve. I guess my question to you, subsequently, is what do you think you do to allow yourself to do that, A, efficiently, but also with speed being cross-functional, and also being remote now too?
Carolyn Guss: We had actually just had, before all of the coronavirus changes began, we had gone off site with all of our leadership team to talk about how do we improve cross-functional working in PagerDuty and eliminate silos. And there was areas where it was working really well, but we needed to challenge ourselves to be better and more agile cross-functionally. And then of course this situation arose and it forced it to happen immediately and it forced it to happen in the most challenging way, which is with everybody going remote. So the way that we kicked it off was that we created a framework, crisis management framework, and it has four functional teams and those teams are all made up of people from different functions. One of them is about really protecting and promoting the welfare of our employees. One of them is about supporting and engaging our customers. Another one is about the resiliency of our platform. Because we like to say we are always on. When you’re down, we’re up and we’re helping you. And that promise is so important right now. And then the last one is about financial preparedness in our business.
Carolyn Guss: And so those work streams are not run individually by product or individually by finance or individually by sales and marketing. They have cross-functional team members across all of them. So that’s a new way of working for us. So it’s really accelerated a way of working that we were trying to accomplish. And I think that’s something I bet other companies are experiencing too, is that in times of crisis, it allows you to focus on what matters the most and you can work cross-functionally because people talk straight to each other and they just go and figure out who the person is and find them immediately. They don’t wait or put it on their to do list or hold back better opinion. So I think we’re going to see a huge improvement in cross-functional behavior and we’re kind of excited about it. It’s one of the real benefits of this situation that we keep talking about inside PagerDuty.
Harry Stebbings: I totally agree with you there, especially in terms of the massive transition overnight and forcing things that maybe would have taken slightly longer. I guess my question is, diving slightly more deeper into the granulars of navigating team morale, team culture in the shift, got to have this tone of empathy and support. So how do you think about the comms strategy around showing that empathy and support to the team in these very challenging and uncertain times?
Carolyn Guss: We’ve always had an internal comm strategy of ultra transparency. And when I joined PagerDuty it made me a little nervous because I was thinking, well, if we’re being this transparent to the employees, what if this gets outside of the business? But it’s really what we believe in in our culture. So that’s interesting now because we’re having AMAs every week, sometimes twice a week, with our executives. And anybody can submit a question that’s publicly seen by all of the employees. And people really want to understand what does this mean for me? So we’re being really honest. As a business we’re in a really strong cash position, but as I told you earlier, we’re still trying to figure out what this is going to mean for our pipeline. So we’re being really honest and transparent, but we’re really striking a balance there with a lot of support and empathy and also with celebrating the wins that we have.
Carolyn Guss: We are landing great deals still. There’s wins across the business with product teams, with sales teams, with marketing. So we’re really celebrating that more than we ever would. But in going back to the AMAs, what we believe is just a really, really strong cadence of communication right now. So Jennifer, our CEO, gets on video frequently. Other members of our executive leadership team do and they post that to the company. The AMA is run twice a week. We have updates to policies and FAQs that run twice a week. So it’s been sort of hyper communication.
Carolyn Guss: But we’ve also been polling the employees. So we use the survey tool called Culture Amp. We’re polling the employees weekly because the situation is so fluid, to understand are we’re getting it right, are we striking the right tone with you? Do you feel connected? Do you feel like you can carry on working in this way? Do you feel like you can carry on in this remote situation? So we’ve really been able to get a good pulse from the employees on how they’re feeling. And I think for many people their job is a highlight for them right now. We’re busy, we’re leaning into this, but it’s stressful. You’re at home, you feel heightened levels of anxiety. So we’re also trying to think ahead about what the needs will be. If we’re all going to be working from home for a long period of time, which is a possibility, what are people’s needs that we need to be able to predict? What about mental health issues, what about burnout issues and how can we support our employees there?
Harry Stebbings: Listen, I totally agree with you and I’d just highly recommend espresso martinis continuously throughout the day, on that note. And I do want to ask you, transparency is fantastic as a core ethos. My question to you is does one ever have to be careful about being too transparent? And if you were advising other comms strategists and professionals thinking about us within that companies, are there any limits to transparency?
Carolyn Guss: Yes, absolutely. Responsible transparency, I think, is the key. We need to make sure that anything that we want to talk about quite transparently today, we can see that through. We’ll lose trust of our employees if we end up having to go back on a commitment that we made. So we want to be transparent, we want to answer all questions and we do have that as a core part of our culture, but we don’t make big promises or make big commitments about the future. And I think part of that is being a new publicly traded company, as well. It’s part of the muscle that we’ve developed.
Harry Stebbings: No, I totally agree. I think that’s a real muscle that’s developed when you go public. And transparency is also tied to being real and being very authentic. In terms of authenticity and real, how do you think about being both transparent and real? And I guess on the real side, how do you think about that? If it potentially disincentivizes the team, say… A lot of founders that I work with say, hey, we lost a key client. I don’t know whether to communicate that back to the team. It’s yes, it’s not transparent, but I’m thinking about morale and I’m thinking about culture in a difficult time. What should I do? How would you advise them in those cases? You want it to be real and transparent, but you also have to think about wider morale and morale maintenance. How do you think about that?
Carolyn Guss: We think about it through the lens of vulnerability as a leader. So when we have a miss as a business, we talk about it with our senior leadership team and we talk about the learnings. We have a big culture of postmortems inside PagerDuty. It comes from the DevOps methodology that we were really built on. So anytime we feel that we’ve failed, lost, or could have done better, we host a postmortem and we really talk honestly and vulnerably with each other. So people are quite used to that. So then when is this a bigger deal that has more impact we’ll talk about it with our senior leadership team and we’ll be vulnerable there. And then we’ll ask them if it’s appropriate for you when you’re leading your teams, if you’re having a quarterly business review or just a stand up, bring vulnerability because it helps other people feel, it helps your employees feel that if they’re experiencing a challenge right now and they don’t know what to do about the challenge, they know that they’re safe with you, that you can relate to that.
Carolyn Guss: Because I think as much as we want to celebrate the positives now more than ever, if all we do is talk about the positives, it’s going to feel kind of disingenuous and we’re going to make employees, I think, disengage. So we look at it through the lens of vulnerability. It’s not that we’re specifically trying to share bad news so that everybody can level set. We’re looking to use it in a very intentional way.
Harry Stebbings: No, I totally agree. And I think absolutely vulnerability, actually, in many ways inspires a lot of strength in the team. But I do want to dive into my favorite element of any episode, being the 60 Second SaaStr, Carolyn. So I say a short statement and then you hit me with your immediate thoughts. Are you ready to dive in?
Carolyn Guss: I’m ready.
Harry Stebbings: So it’s been an incredible career in the marketing world for you, but what do you know now that you wish you’d known at the beginning of your time in marketing?
Carolyn Guss: Truncate. I used to be rather long winded, still am a bit, and not really be able to influence and land my points and couldn’t understand why I’d have to repeat something three times and it still felt like people didn’t get it. So I do a lot of media training with executives, preparing them for short soundbites. That’s actually a crucial skill in all parts of marketing because you need to influence and you need to sell a message. So thinking about the three points that you want to land and truncating the way that you land them.
Harry Stebbings: I think I could clearly do with some of your media training. I have that wonderful British bumblingness. But I do want to ask, what’s the hardest element of your role with PagerDuty today?
Carolyn Guss: Devising for good versus perfect. PagerDuty sets a really high bar, and yet we have to be very agile and move fast. So there’s the balance of being okay to ship something that’s not yet perfect, but it’s good enough when we always want better and we always hold ourselves to a higher bar and strive for more.
Harry Stebbings: ABM, is it a buzzword that’s just used too much these days, or is it a new, innovative and fundamental shift in the way we market?
Carolyn Guss: I think it’s a pretty fundamental shift in the way that we market. We were talking earlier about the relationship between marketing and customer success. One of the things that we’ve experienced in PagerDuty is we have many, many customer contacts. It is not a top down model in PagerDuty, it’s a bottom up model. Developers come in, they buy the product. It really expands through the business as a viral growth. Many teams and executives start using PagerDuty. We have to have an account based marketing approach. We have to have an account based marketing approach where we touch all of those different contacts with the right type of messaging for their need. So we feel that marketing is getting more personal than ever and that is a fundamental shift.
Harry Stebbings: If you could change one thing in the world of SaaS today, what would it be and why?
Carolyn Guss: Oh, we’re so inside in Silicon Valley we forget about the world at large. We forget about the fact that they don’t know what SaaS means, that they don’t use our tools, although they may be impacted by our tools. SaaS companies are used by traditional businesses across the world, but we tend to forget that and live in our Silicon Valley bubble. So I would love for all of us to get a broader mindset and just challenge ourselves every day on the assumptions that we make.
Harry Stebbings: Final one, but who in SaaS marketing do you think is killing it today and why do you think so?
Carolyn Guss: Zoom is killing it today. And this may be an obvious answer or a timely answer, but I feel Zoom’s always been killing it because they really put their ethos and their belief first. The narrative is that they want to make people happier. I mean, who doesn’t buy into that? And this is a B2B company, predominantly. And then I think they also really live through that values. They’ve given the product away for K through 12 educators and that’s a hard thing to do. That’s causing massive scaling for their business. But it’s living by their values that they should do good in the world. So I think they’re absolutely killing it in SaaS marketing right now.
Harry Stebbings: That’s awesome to hear and I couldn’t agree with you more there. But Carolyn, this has been so fun. I’ve absolutely loved doing it. So thank you so much for joining me today.
Carolyn Guss: Thank you, Harry. It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you.
Harry Stebbings: Absolutely loved having Carolyn on the show there. And such exciting times ahead for PagerDuty. And if you’d like to see more from us behind the scenes, you can do so on Instagram at HStebbings1996 with two Bs. I always love to see you there.
Harry Stebbings: As always, I so appreciate all your support and I can’t wait to bring you another fantastic episode next week.