When it comes to marketing technology Bala Kudaravalli thrives on simplicity.
With over 16 years of industry experience, Kudaravalli is an expert in creating and implementing best-in-class marketing experiences. Now, as the Marketing Technology Director at Salesforce, he’s using his expertise to solve the marketing technology puzzle that enables an omni-channel customer experience and drives real business growth.
We caught up with him to get his insight on the ever-changing intersection of marketing and technology—and how it can empower teams to be data-driven and laser-sharp in execution.
Must-Know Marketing Technology Advice from Bala Kudaravalli, Marketing Technology Director at Salesforce
We’re talking a lot with marketers about the internal impact of technology on organizations, and then also how that translates into customer engagement. In your opinion, how has technology simplified, or complicated, a marketer’s job?
Bala: Marketers now have more technology choices than ever; Scott Brinker’s MarTech landscape highlights the explosion of vendors in this space. The complexity marketers face is in figuring out what technologies can best help them accomplish their objectives. More than ever, digital proficiency has become a key skill required by a marketer, without which it is challenging for them to make an impact.
Digital proficiency has become a key skill required by a marketer. – Bala Kudaravalli, @salesforce
One of the primary functions of marketers is to engage with and educate prospective customers, so they can make an informed buying decision. Historically this was accomplished by outbound/push marketing—whether you liked it or not, companies sent you email, snail mail, brochures, etc. In recent years, advances in technologies and the enactment of privacy laws/regulations enabled consumers to pick and choose the information they receive (opt-in, opt-out, subscriptions, etc., also known as “pull marketing”), thereby forcing marketers to think hard and be smart about determining how they reach out to prospects, and with what content and tactics.
Having a digitally-savvy team increases the chances of getting the right mix of marketing technology in place that, in turn, allows the marketer to 1) have greater control on engaging and delighting prospective customers, and 2) help increase the ROI on marketing programs. It’s a long but worthwhile journey.
What technologies are foundational for a B2B company, and what value do they add?
There are 3 tenants of marketing technology: the who, what, and how. – Bala Kudaravalli, @salesforce
From my viewpoint, there are three tenets of marketing technology:
- The WHO: Model and Identify Prospects (Profile Store) – Provides the capability to identify who your prospective customers are by ingesting user interaction, profiles, and CRM data
- The WHAT: Content Creation System – Allows content creation that resonates with your prospective customers
- The HOW: Orchestration/Demand Gen Engine – Orchestrates campaigns across channels by identifying target audiences from “WHO,” pairing them with relevant content from “WHAT,” and syndicating and distributing effectively
These foundational outcomes of marketing technology are complemented by many others, such as analytics and optimization, display tools, etc.
With a mature marketing technology stack, a CMO can make better, more informed decisions. For example if the CMO has a $1M demand generation budget, there are technologies that can help identify the right market mix model (% spend on various channels email vs. display vs. SEO vs. events, etc.) for optimal ROI. This market mix model leads to the creation of campaigns in the “HOW,” the orchestration engine which executes campaigns, by identifying audience segments from the “WHO,” the prospect profile store, and pairing them with relevant content from the “WHAT.”
I’ve also heard you talk about the people behind the technology—that technology can’t simplify everything for you. It’s about hiring the right people who can use technology to do great marketing.
It’s now table stakes for marketers to know how to leverage tool sets within their discipline. – Bala Kudaravalli @salesforce
That’s right. Technology is an enabler; it arms the marketer with various sophisticated tools and requires skilled resources to effectively leverage what it has to offer. Without the right digital team, you might be barely scratching the surface of what these tools have to offer, thereby missing out on invaluable opportunities to engage with customers and giving your competitors with savvy digital teams a leg up. It’s now table stakes for marketers to know how to leverage tool sets within their discipline—be it creative, UX, demand gen, content marketing, etc.—by honing their functional knowledge/experience. The key is to have a learning mindset among the team.
Do you see technology as one area of marketing, with distribution and content creation as separate, or do you see them as a combined, single role?
Technology is pervasive across everything we do; it’s the common thread that connects all marketing disciplines. However, each discipline (data, web, content, analytics, email and social campaigns, display, etc.) requires specialized expertise. Hence, you’ll find separate tools and teams focused on these activities. I wouldn’t say that tech, multi-channel, and content should be combined into a single role, but it’s essential that these disciplines work together to enable a unified digital experience for the prospective customer.
When identifying your audience and distributing to that audience, where do you get your analysis to make these determinations?
Current technology provides us with a number of signals/data points that can be used in identifying a target audience. The whole DMP (data management platform) market uses customer and prospect profile data to try to figure out the common attributes. Then, it attempts to augment that data with external data sources—personal data, affiliate data, or third-party data. Once you bring all that in, then you need to have logic to merge, match that data, and group the audience into certain segments.
B2C does this well. Let’s say you go shopping at Nordstrom.com: You make a purchase, or you browse items on the Nordstrom site. For the next two weeks, you’ll be targeted with a display ad from Nordstrom on whichever web page you visited. That’s because they know who you are and what you’ve browsed, and they’re trying to offer you a promotion, attempting to convince you to make more purchases.
In the B2B world, this level of engagement is yet to mature. There are very few companies that have cracked it, due to the complexities and differences in B2B buying cycles.
In the B2B world, this level of engagement is yet to mature. There are very few companies that have cracked it, due to the complexities and differences in B2B buying cycles. It requires piecing together multiple technologies that demand highly specialized skills and collaboration across disciplines. But if you’re able to do it, then you can model a lot of scenarios and arrive at a particular segment that is highly targeted for a specific use case, and go after them.
Segmenting based on behavior is a powerful tactic that many marketers are focusing on, especially when talking about marketing-driven customer experience. How do you see customer experience and marketing fitting together?
Intelligent segmentation is piecing together prospect profile info w/ interaction data across touch points. – Bala Kudaravalli, @salesforce
Intelligent segmentation is piecing together prospect profile information with interaction data that is captured across various touch points. Now, add in customer interests, demographic information, etc. and you’re able to identify people who share common attributes and can be grouped into segments that drives context based targeting.
Once you have segments, then you can use channel-specific tools with personalization capabilities to drive engagement/customer experience. Again, you need to have a tool to align with three core tenets: the ability to model and identify your target audience, a demand gen engine that allows you to syndicate to multiple channels, and relevant, up-to-date content.
With all these different tools and channels, all needing content, can you talk a little bit about integration of both technologies and teams? How do you get tools AND teams to talk?
As you grow bigger, unless you make it a conscious effort, it’s a lot of work to connect all of the dots. The issue of getting teams to talk and avoiding silos is very prevalent. In order to break down silos across teams to deliver a unified experience, you need to have leadership support and to align on a common set of KPIs. Specifically as this relates to content, creating a persona-based content strategy goes a long way. Just be careful not to get hung up on creating every persona possible, which could be counterproductive. Focus on the 20% that give you the highest value.
If you are able to connect all the dots and teams are collaborative, then to the end user, you tell a very compelling story on why they should consider making an investment in your product or service.
With multiple technologies integrating and merging within an organization, simplicity can seem unattainable, but that’s what you love to do—simplify the complex. For organizations attempting to simplify their tech integrations, what’s your number one piece of advice?
You need to know where you’re going, which means having a vision and an end goal in mind. There can be multiple paths to reach the end goal, just always be focused on what needs to be done to take the next step that will get you closer to attaining the vision.
Look at what would be an ideal state for your marketing team. How can we do better? What’s that vision, the goal, we would like to accomplish? How do we see us working together? How do we see us using technology? Note that your vision should not be unachievable, and your vision should not be something that is five years out, but it’s something in the near one to two years.
If you’re able to craft that vision and then socialize it with the executives and get support, half the battle is won. The next step is to slowly map out the different ways in which you can get from where you are to where you want to be. That’s a really hard part because people are afraid of change, and it can take time to see the benefit of moving to a different way of doing things.
To me, reducing complexity starts with trying to paint a vision that’s compelling, and rallying the troops behind that vision. Then it’s all about execution, which is not easy. The execution part takes time, and there could be so many priorities that we work on, so many distractions that come our way, but it’s the focus and determination to get it done that makes things successful.
What are your biggest priorities in the upcoming years, and what’s your vision for your role at Salesforce?
The biggest thing that we want to accomplish is to create a unified digital experience for our customers.
What is the benefit, from your perspective, on delivering this unified, consistent customer experience?
We want to better engage with our customers and prospects. As they start to interact with a company, the assumption is that they’re looking for information about products, or they’re looking to learn about something within an organization’s portfolio. Irrespective of which channel they go to, they should get a consistent message based on their interests and interactions.
I’ll give you an example. Let’s say Anne goes to a company’s website looking for social media tools. They know Anne is visiting because the company’s digital team keeps track of who is going on the website, what web pages she’s browsing, etc. Then, Anne goes to LinkedIn to follow this company. Anne has now provided signals that she’s interested. At the same time, she’s also browsing their website product pages.
In an upcoming marketing campaign, Anne falls into a target segment. Now, imagine if the campaign, the segment that she was pulled into, does not have the data point that Anne looked at social media tools. Accordingly, Anne receives a random ad—communication for a different product this company sells. Now, would you prefer to see a random ad, or would you be excited to see an ad for a product you need?
Of course, the product you need.
At Salesforce, my team is focused on the top of the funnel, so fixing user engagement for different channels is key. If I’m able to engage prospective customers upfront, they’re incentivized to provide correct information; then, I’m able to provide more qualified data for others to leverage further down the funnel. The sales rep can see the journey that any prospective customer had with us, and then they can tailor the information to that prospective customer.
Where do you see people really struggling when it comes to delivering that consistent customer experience? What’s that big challenge that needs to be addressed, or isn’t being addressed by many organizations?
It’s a combination of things. Coming from an IT background, I look at things in terms of people, process, and technology. Do we have the right people in place to do it? It goes back to skills. Then process: Do we have the right process and right organizational structure to make it happen? Then finally: Do we have the right technology to make it happen? This happens everywhere, and these three fundamentals, either individually or in combination, are what causes issues with customer experience.
How do you think companies prioritize customer experience, specifically in terms of viewing technology as not only essential to delivering that consistent customer experience, but also as a priority worth investing time and resources?
In large companies, we’re often on separate teams, so people have their own goals and their own incentives. If across the board we’re not incentivized with the same KPIs, then it becomes really difficult. However, it depends on the maturity of the company.
If you’re in a growth company, then there’s always so much to do; you’re keeping up with the growth. Next, you need to connect the dots. Having that unified experience is important, and the urgency to make that happen is much greater if there is strong support from executive leadership. If not, you’re incentivized to just keep running along, making sure you meet your numbers and hit your KPIs.
In other companies, it’s a mixed bag. For companies that are mature, they’re probably not growing that fast and have a stabilized growth curve. For them, it’s mostly looking for, finding, and executing increased efficiency. What that means is they might have funding constraints, challenges on whether to spend on operational efficiency or marketing programs.
So it comes back to prioritization and the ability for the leadership to see it through. There will be recognition in the ranks that you need to provide a unified digital experience, and that’s a no-brainer. The will to make it happen is what is determined by the maturity of the company and its life cycle, and the leadership having that stake in the ground and saying, “Yes, this is priority for us. We need to make this happen.”
It sounds like customer experience needs to be part of a bigger picture. How do you communicate that big picture to your executive team?
Leaders are always looking for ways to do things better and make the company more efficient. So the good thing is, at least in the technology industry, people are always open and willing to listen to you. If you’re able to paint a compelling picture, they will take you seriously.
The key is to make sure you go with a clear vision. You’re not asking, you’re trying to socialize an idea. You’re saying, “Hey, this is what I think we could do. By doing this, we can achieve X, Y, and Z. Is this something of interest to you?” Then leave the door open.
Once you can get leadership to realize the importance of customer experience, what are the best ways to track or measure it?
I believe in leveraging both analytical and simple ways of measuring customer experience. A simple way to do it is just go and check yourself. As an individual user, as a prospective customer, go to the website or go to any of the channels. Start engaging with the company, and you’ll automatically notice if all the dots are connected properly.
This user test is a big indicator. I could do the same thing with a lot of analysis, but if I’m able to get it with a simple quick test, why not?
Often, there will be a need to conduct data analysis, and I am all for it. But you have to be sensitive to going overboard on analytics, when a simple test will suffice.