Scrappiness, Storytelling, And Search Queries With SolarWinds' Kyle Sutton
Sean Lane: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Operations, the show where we look under the hood of companies in hypergrowth. My name is Sean Lane. It's a pretty obvious thing to say, but there's a lot going on inside of the hypergrowth companies that we talk to for this show. Things move fast, there's new technologies, new tools, new buzzwords, they're thrown around all over the place, but here's the reality, the channels through which we market to our customers, they're going to change. The ways we engage with prospects, those are going to change too, but the people on the other side of those interactions, they're going to remain constant. And I'm not nearly smart enough to have reached these conclusions on my own, I got a lot of help from today's guest, Kyle Sutton. Kyle is the senior director of marketing at SolarWinds, a publicly traded IT infrastructure company with a market cap of$ 6 billion. And in our conversation, Kyle teaches me about storytelling, about how to learn about your users based on the questions they ask, and why scrappiness is the trait that he looks for on his teams today. Also, be sure to stick around until the end for the advice that Kyle gives in our lightning round of questions. To start though, I was interested in some of the experiences that led to Kyle's path to SolarWinds. prior to joining the company he worked on the agency side and I wanted to learn how that agency experience impacted the marketer that he is today.
Kyle Sutton: So, I think the biggest thing there was that being on the agency side forces you, in very many ways, to do a lot with a little. You have a big idea, the client doesn't have budget. Maybe it's not in scope, maybe it's not part of what you're hired to do, and it forces you to develop a resourcefulness, a scrappiness that doesn't always develop when you start on the brand side. Maybe you see it in the context of a startup, but if you walk into an organization where you're all of a sudden incredibly well- resourced, it's tough to get scrappy. So, I would say resourcefulness and scrappiness were probably the two biggest takeaways from my years in the agency game.
Sean Lane: And so, now that you have that resourcefulness and you've come in, because I completely agree with you about the scrappiness part. I also think the out of scope part is really interesting because it probably forces you to get better at focus. And it forces you to prioritize the thing that is actually the main thing, is that fair?
Kyle Sutton: Yeah, in a big way. It puts you in a position where what you're doing is looking at an objective and mapping the path for the best way to get there, regardless of whether or not that's in your remit. So, I'll give you some functional examples. I got started in marketing on the search side of things, this is 2006, 2007 and, at that period of time, it could be argued that the role of marketing was just to deliver traffic, but this is the nascent stages of what became the revenue marketing function. And a lot of us began to develop this idea that traffic alone isn't enough, we really want to help the business actually convert. We want to deliver a real ROI. And so, you're very quickly doing things as a search marketing guy, like page analysis, Hey, here's what I think we should say on this page to convert these users, because here are the keywords that we're buying. Hey, here's what a competitor is doing, here's what a user expects for this experience. We're not aligned. And so, to be really honest, man, taking that approach of, I'm just here to deliver against the objective whatever that takes, and even if it means expanding into a new thing, that for me has been the golden ticket. That's good on the brand side, that's good for upward mobility, and that approach has been incredibly valuable.
Sean Lane: Have you had to then take that same approach and share that back with your team? Because not everyone's going to have necessarily come from that level of experience or they might come into a billion dollar company like SolarWinds and not have that same scrappiness either in their roots or in just their level of experience from other companies.
Kyle Sutton: Yeah, it's an interesting question. I think it's a thing that you can cultivate. But I think in a lot of cases, there have to be some seeds of that in the person. I'll always give my team direct feedback on, Hey, let's tackle this problem in this way, don't be afraid to think outside the box. I encourage people routinely to make me uncomfortable. If you're not failing at something, if your ideas aren't getting slapped down regularly, you're probably not bold enough in how you're thinking about bringing these opportunities to the table. But man, at some level, there's some things like intellectual curiosity, like tenacity that, by the time you get to my team and you're your mid senior in your career, if you haven't had those light bulbs come on for you, it's tough to turn them on, to be really honest. I can take somebody that has that perspective, and they may be rough around the edges on the functional skills, and cultivate it. It's almost like going back to your first job as a kid and you're working retail and you see two kinds of workers where somebody will come up and ask somebody on staff, a question and staff A will say," I don't know," and walk away. And staff B will say," I don't know, but let me go find out for you." I like to work with that second individual. If you're that first person, those skills just aren't there and I don't know that I'm the one that can instill them, to be really honest.
Sean Lane: All of Kyle's advice and lessons here really boil down to that approach he mentioned. He said," I'm here to deliver on the objective." Whether that objective is something brand new to him or something he's been doing for years, his approach is to just deliver on the objective. It sounds simple, but we've all seen that worker one that he's talking about, the person who just shrugs their shoulders at a problem and moves on with their day. To be successful on Kyle's team though, you need to be the colleague who says," Let me go and figure that out." And it's not just that, he cares more about the fundamentals in building a marketing organization than he does the frills or the buzz around the latest hot tool or technology.
Kyle Sutton: What I see go wrong in a lot of very technical marketing organizations is that, because we have access to good size budgets and really interesting technology, is to jump out and to start building your channel strategies, to start building your go- to- market, by looking at all the things you can automate, and that's a misstep. There are a couple of foundational things in the way we approach building these campaigns. Number one is that any piece of marketing technology, whether that's Marketo or Drift, and as you're aware, we use both, they really exist to take a thing that works well in a one- to- one interaction and deliver them at scale. So, I'm not looking at a phenomenal tool like Drift as a mechanism to show me how to have conversations. I'm looking at Drift as a mechanism to take conversations that are already happening on the phone and, over a really long qualification process, and streamline the time from the hand raise to the in- person bit. Same thing with marketing automation. I'm not looking at Marketo to help me figure out what assets to deliver. What I'm looking to do is take what happens in a good one- to- one relationship, where somebody knowledgeable from the side of the business shares valuable resources with prospects and customers, and I'm looking to do that at scale. What does it take, 27 years to build a decent sales person? I'm trying to do that basically over a matter of weeks.
Sean Lane: And they're accelerants, right?
Kyle Sutton: Right. Without having to add bodies. So, that's the first piece. The second is that the value of these these platforms... It's a phenomenal time to be a marketer, because we have more research than we've had in a very long time. There's really no excuse for not having an incredibly deep understanding of who your audience is. Yeah, there are a ton of tools to look at, the market has evolved a bunch, but the cop- out I hear a lot is, Oh, well, hey, we don't have a license to inaudible. Those are really advanced tools, man, open up the AdWords keyword tool and look at the queries in your space, and you're going to get a really good understanding of how your audience is thinking about your services. Because, functionally speaking, a query is basically a question without the wrapping of natural language. How much can you learn from digging into the questions that people are asking? And so, that's the way we challenge our folks. Yeah, we do programmatic, paid social, ABM, we're doing all the things a company of our size has to do to play in the space. But our roots are in understanding the audience and building things that move them to action.
Sean Lane: That's so interesting. I want to go deeper into that point you're making about the search queries themselves. So, you said earlier that Marketo is going to be part of the acceleration of a conversation. Drift's going to be something that's accelerating a conversation, but the Marketo program you build doesn't say, Oh, you should put this in the program. And so, you said the gap there is, what do you show them? And I'm curious how you and your team look at those search queries and look at something that you might get for keywords and then translate that into what you show them.
Kyle Sutton: Yeah, great question. So, for us it's a combination of things. So, in a lot of ways, search queries are almost the quant representation on their own. You'll see a list of keywords and data in terms of query volume, location, monthly peaks and valleys, et cetera. The qual element really is the wrapper of what those things mean. So, for example, I'll take one of our products. So, Backup is one of our big products and, as the name would imply, it takes data from servers and user machines, backs them up in a secure environment, so-
Sean Lane: That's good marketing right there.
Kyle Sutton: Well, it's an old category, so it's not new, we're not breaking in, building a thing and this is a cost of entry play. So, I can see what the volume is, I can see all the different ways somebody will search for the Backup product. But to really understand how my audience is using it, I'll take that data and then jump over to the Reddit forum, for example, that's relevant to my space, and dig into the conversations that are happening there. And the combination of the two gives me some really great insight into desire from a feature perspective into pain points, in terms of how people are using the product, what they're not seeing, a knowledge gap. So, educational opportunities, those all form the basis for what we do from a channel perspective.
Sean Lane: While tools like Drift and Marketo can act as strategic accelerants in Kyle's business, he coaches his team to really hone in on the users. What questions are they asking? Where do they ask them? Where's their knowledge gap? He is truly trying to understand where those users are coming from before applying what he learned to all the channels that are available to marketers today. And that order of operations, while probably harder, is pretty important. You can't just start with the tool or the channel and expect real results. I found Kyle's point about the maturity of his space particularly interesting. The IT infrastructure space and this Backup product that he's referencing are relatively mature, and that influences how users are going to search for his products. But what about the rest of us? How do we know where our company's products fall on the maturity spectrum in our given markets?
Kyle Sutton: So yeah, it's a good question, because the maturity thing is a, is a big factor. So, the way I explain it to folks is in the context of healthcare. So, I worked in pharma for a lot of years doing basically the same thing, digital marketing, marketing to healthcare professionals and patients. And what we discovered there is that search, and by extension, people, is a very fluid thing in that people's understanding and the way they search, morphs over time. So, when a condition is new, people only know to search for the symptoms. So, let's pretend for a moment that search was a really big thing when some horrendous condition like lung cancer was discovered. At the beginning stages, people are going to search for stuff like shortness of breath, bad cough, whatever the symptom is. Fast forward a handful of years when there's much more education in the space, and you see the searches get really specific, I'm looking for small cell carcinoma of the left, whatever. Because people are very, very educated. So, I think the same thing applies in the context of the product at a very basic level. Do we see people just searching for the problems that your product solves, or are they searching very specifically for some flavor of a solution? And that's how you take the temperature on where the market is. And, candidly, at SolarWinds we have products at all ends of the spectrum. So, we play in some very mature spaces, we also play in some spaces that are functionally almost new categories. So, we have to be adept at digging into both, and that's one of the ways we do it.
Sean Lane: And so, if I'm on your team, is my role then to take some of those earlier spaces? Is my job to move people along in their education, or do I have to meet them where they're at? Teach me. If I were coming into your team, how do I translate all of this behavior that we're finding from those really early that people don't even know the right names for, what's my role as a marketer there if I know that that's where they are in their evolution or journey?
Kyle Sutton: Yeah, absolutely. The thing we tell people is that your role is to meet the prospect where they are, and take them to where they need to be, and that's the way we think about it. So, going back to that metaphor of the question, your job is absolutely to acknowledge that original question and to provide some context for why our offering may be a better solution, even if there's a disconnect. But just like in any, you could argue that in a lot of ways building experiences and content is almost an extension of a service job, and service job 101, your first step is to answer the question. It doesn't matter like how great the pitch is, if you don't necessarily tick the box on that thing that brought them in the door. And that's how we think about it. So, going back to the product example, if somebody is searching for let's say a solution that doesn't really fit the need, I'll give you a concrete example. So, antivirus for a long time was the gold standard for protection at the the system level. But, functionally speaking, antivirus is a dead technology now, because it's super easy for bad actors to get an attack that's a one-on- one that's built for your system. And so, what you have to monitor for is actually malicious behavior, not just a malicious threat. So, anti- virus works on a dictionary of known threats. I'm going to look for file name.exe and know that's a bad file, but the next step is to monitor for, Hey, looking at everything in your system, what's actually happening, and is there a thing we need to mitigate? We make a decent investment in antivirus keywords, and we're pitching people on going the other way and moving to the next generation of technology, which is endpoint detection and response. We meet people where they are and take them to where they need to be. So, that's the model.
Sean Lane: This is particularly interesting when you think about companies that are creating new categories or selling a product that is new to its audience. Obviously at Drift, we have created a category, but no one was searching for conversational marketing three years ago. And while we recently introduced a new category again, of revenue acceleration, we can't just sit around waiting for people to start searching for that term. What we can do is find those people who, for example, are looking for better alignment between sales and marketing, or for those that are looking to create a more tailored experience for every visitor to their website. As Kyle says, the first thing you got to do is just answer their question, then you can help the customer move along that maturity spectrum. And there's a tried and true method that Kyle turns to, to help move customers along that spectrum: storytelling.
Kyle Sutton: I know over at Drift, you guys are massive story folks as well. That's DCs, he's a massive, massive advocate of this also. And I think it's totally true that if you look at the things that move people to action, it's narrative. 10 times out of 10, it's narrative. If you look at the great stories of our generation, the structure is largely the same. So, the question becomes, How do you take that understanding of user intent, that understanding of product market fit, and then weave it into a narrative that people care about? If I understand user intent, if I know what your goals are as a business, if I know the problems that keep you up at night and I can weave my product story into that narrative in a way that helps you be successful in a place you otherwise would've failed, you're always going to do really well. And that's critical to what we do as a next step. It becomes, where does this reality fit in the context of the business journey? And, as I said, business journey is even the wrong thing, because if you get to the root of it, it's a human journey. I never lost sleep because I didn't have a great chat technology or conversational marketing technology in my life. I lost sleep because, Hey, I'm getting traffic, but my conversions aren't where I need them to be. What do I do about that? And a solution like Drift became one of the levers we pulled to solve that challenge. And so, that's where it fit into my narrative. And that's what was compelling for me.
Sean Lane: Yeah, it's so interesting when you think about it from not just the brand story or a case study or whatever that you're sharing on your website, but the actual people behind it. I mentioned to you that we've had a lot of our second half kickoffs and we've had a handful of customers that have come through. And one of the things that stuck out to me about we had both CMOs and CROs who came and talked and, at the end of the day, they don't really care about the nitty gritty features and functionality and integrations of the tool. They care about the outcomes and they care about the results. And the fact that their conversion rate on their website, your conversion rate on your website is the thing that keeps you up at night. All you want to know is, is this thing going to increase that conversion rate, or is this thing going to increase the productivity of an SDR or of a rep? And so, that part to me is so interesting that if you really do take all the lessons that you just told me and strip away all the technology and get to the core of what the user wants and what the behavior is, it's not necessarily just to their brand, it's what is going to make that person's job better.
Kyle Sutton: It's exactly that. If I've heard DC say it once, he's probably said it a thousand times, is that humanity hasn't really evolved in the way they make decisions for very many years. That's an evolutionary thing. So, yeah, today we're making a decision in the context of a inaudible product or whatever, but man, at the core of all of it, the fundamental question is, how does this thing help me survive? And how does it help me thrive? And if we can position our offerings in a way that answer those very fundamental questions, the world is your oyster, so to speak.
Sean Lane: I have to tell you I've become mildly obsessed with the Harmon Brothers website since you brought it up to me. They have this ticker on their website that just shows the cumulative views of all of their videos across all their clients and it's 1. 4 billion views. And so, that has become a thing that I check back on the ticker to see where it's at.
Kyle Sutton: It's fascinating, right? And so, for folks that haven't heard of them, the Harmon Brothers, they're basically a video marketing agency out of somewhere in Utah, and they're their angle is producing these videos that just balloon sales in really amazing ways. So, if you look at their portfolio, it's folks like the Squatty Potty, it's Camp Chef grills, Purple Mattresses, and if you look at their work the common thread in their video, for me, it's two things. It's one, they tell stories incredibly well. And then number two, it's the type of content that you want to engage with, regardless of whether or not you're in the market for that product. It's actual entertainment. So, if you look at where consumers are relative to exposures to ads, the data is there, man. It's super clear that we're very quickly moving to what is, in a lot of ways, almost a post advertising world. Storytelling really is the only thing that keeps you viable. Between ad blockers on the web, between the number of users that don't necessarily do traditional television any longer, we live in a lot of ways in an ad free bubble. So, if we're not delivering a thing that creates intrinsic value, why is anybody going to listen? So, the Harmon Brothers are doing it incredibly well. And what's funny is that, in a lot of ways, I think maybe the representative of the next generation of storytellers and people just think they're a video shop, but their real superpower is the ability to tell an incredible story, for sure.
Sean Lane: Yeah, and I think it's just becoming the norm. This used to be this big... You think of Dollar Shave Club, that was, I think, the first example that really caught a ton of people's attention just because it was so rare and unique and now things like Squatty Potty and others, this is the norm now. You have to have that level of either opinion or flare or something unique that you bring to the table in order to get attention at all.
Kyle Sutton: No, you definitely do. And I think one of the things that is a blessing and a curse of a bigger brand is that you can actually be really lacking on the story side and just mask that reality by pumping cash into inaudible. So, going back to the earlier discussion on, why is scrappiness a valuable asset, well scrappiness is incredibly valuable because it forces you to, when you're in a situation where things are tight, where you've taken some professional risks, you're really intentional about squeezing every ounce of effectiveness out of every touch point and interaction. And I think some of that can get lost as a brand scale. So, you can be terrible at story and crush it on paid search and you'll probably hit your numbers for many years to come. It'll be expensive, but if you're putting a dollar into the machine and getting three out, you can mask that for a crosstalk. But what inevitably happens is that you're going to find a ceiling. You can only buy so much in the funnel demand and then at that point you have to go higher up in the funnel. And if you're not wired for it, you're going to have a heck of a lot of problems. And that's just the reality.
Sean Lane: Before we go, at the end of each show, we're going to ask each guest the same lightning round of questions. Ready? Here we go. Best book you've read in the last six months.
Kyle Sutton: Oh man, that's a tough question because I'm reading a ton right now. I would say probably one of the most actionable has been Storynomics by Robert McKee. And so, it's basically a guide to the economics of telling stories. So, the things we just, we discussed earlier, the post advertising world, the structure of a story, how this is being applied in the context of big brands and media, phenomenal read on that topic.
Sean Lane: Nice. So, I usually have Operations folks on the show and I usually ask them about their favorite part about working in ops. And so, I will pose it to you. What is your favorite part about working in marketing?
Kyle Sutton: Yeah, what I love, man, is that no two days are the same. You're really challenged to flex in several different directions and shift gears at a really rapid clip. So, literally Monday I may be working with somebody on the media team to get into the weeds on why cost per qualified opportunity isn't doing what we want it to do, and it's a very data- driven exercise. The next day I may be sitting down with someone from the creative team who's building a new web experience or writing a page of copy. And what I'm doing is taking insight from a very technical research we talked about earlier or, for example, last year I spent a ton of time on the road and talked to 500 prospects. And taking that insight and pouring it into what becomes the story we tell on that page. So, math on Monday, science on Tuesday, it's a good time.
Sean Lane: We'll have to do a whole other episode about that road trip. I feel like that would be super interesting.
Kyle Sutton: You spend a lot of time eating catering at chain hotels. I don't recommend it, but it was good to talk to people with another story for another day.
Sean Lane: All right. Least favorite part about working in marketing.
Kyle Sutton: Oh, man. I don't know, marketing is a thing I love very deeply. I can share with you the frustration. So, it's good to be invested in what you're doing in terms of hitting your number, in terms of driving outcomes for your customers, driving outcomes for your own business, but I found that that can be a two- edged sword. So, that same investment that will drive you to the go the extra mile for your projects, for your business, can also... you take it really hard when things don't necessarily land your way. So, you walk a fine line between caring very deeply about your work, and not letting your work define your identity. And I think it's true whether you're in marketing or making bread for a living, that's what you do, it's not necessarily who you are. And that balance is always tough to find.
Sean Lane: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. Someone who impacted you getting the job you have today.
Kyle Sutton: Oh man, I've been really privileged to have a number of mentors over the years. Man, I can't even list one person, but I can give you three or four.
Sean Lane: That's totally fine.
Kyle Sutton: Okay, I'm sorry. I got my job in marketing, man, because one of my customers at the retail job I was working in college, we just got to be friends. I was an IT major, an undergrad and we just hit it off. And he said," Hey, have you heard about this digital marketing thing?" And I said," No," and that was the first start. Second major mentor for me was someone I actually met in undergrad who was a media buyer at basically my first foray into the pharma space, and he helped me get a foot in the door where I didn't otherwise have one. And the year I did it, the agency literally paid dividends for the entirety of my career. And then lastly, the mentor I've had for the last 11 years was basically, at the time, the CMO of an agency where I was working. I'll tell you how long ago it was, this is in the AOL instant messenger days. I get an inaudible message from this guy, and he goes, Kyle, have you ever done any consulting? And I thought it was a setup. I thought, Okay, this guy is a C- level exec at the agency where I work and he's trying to see if I'm moonlighting and he's going to slap my hand, so I ignored him. The next day I get a call. Kyle, have you ever tried consulting? And basically this guy showed me a model for engaging clients in the space that has also served me throughout my career as well, both in terms of exploring new projects in terms of picking up new skills, it all ladders up to what this guy told me that randomly at 12 o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon. And so, this particular individual man has been my career Yoda, for lack of a better phrase. And a lot of my success I attribute to the wisdom I've gleaned from those relationships.
Sean Lane: That's awesome. Last one for you. One piece of advice for people who want to have your job someday.
Kyle Sutton: I'll say, man, look looking at all the articles lately around the trajectory of the CMO, which is where this career path terminates inaudible.
Sean Lane: Is that what you're saying?
Sean Lane: Thanks so much to Kyle Sutton for joining us on this week's episode of Operations. If you liked what you heard, please subscribe, you'll get a new episode in your feed every other Friday. And if you really liked what you heard, leave us a six star review on Apple Podcasts, six star reviews only. They really help other people to find the show. One last plug for you: if you haven't read Kyle's blog, post on the Drift blog about the diversity and inclusion problems inside of marketing, you've got to go check that out again. Again, it's on the Drift blog, you can find the post by Kyle there, well worth the read. Thanks so much for listening, that's going to do it for me. We'll see you next time.