"Kevel has evolved as we've rebranded. As we picked up funding, our go-to-market strategy has drastically changed. For the longest time, it was heavily dependent on inbound leads, and we've since started to focus a little more on building an outbound team for cold emails, building out our account-based marketing strategy.
If we hadn't have done these, we wouldn't have seen the recent growth we've had this year. It's crucial to adjust based on the stage of your company and market dynamics to what that go-to marketing strategy is. That should change.
As an example, as a marketing team, we have different quarterly goals: This quarter, I want to focus on site traffic. This quarter, I want to focus more on social proof, et cetera.
Identifying those micro-goals and adjusting your strategy allows you to capture the fact that stories evolve, companies evolve, and you can't stick to just the same tactic and execution every year.”
- Chris Shuptrine, VP of Marketing, Kevel
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From Revenue Rhino, I'm Brad Hammond, and this is The Lifelong Customer Podcast. We're interviewing successful sales and marketing leaders in discussing ways in which they're building lifelong relationships with their customer.
Brad Hammond: 0:19
Welcome to The Lifelong Customer podcast. I'm your host, Brad Hammond. And today, I have Chris Shuptrine from Kevel. He’s the VP of Marketing there. And Chris, it’s really nice to have you on.
Chris Shuptrine: 0:29
Yes. Yes, excited.
Brad Hammond: 0:31
Really excited. So can you tell me a bit about yourself and about Kevel?
Chris Shuptrine: 0:36
Yes. So I'm currently the VP of Marketing at Kevel, and we're a SaaS platform for publishers who are looking to drive new ad revenue generally through innovative ad units like native ads or sponsored listings. Right now, Kevel is almost 100 employees, and we raised a Series A last summer. And I've been the VP of Marketing here for 5 years now, a little over 5 years. Started with no team but now the marketing team is 4 people.
And in regards to myself, I've been in marketing for over a decade. Before that, I was doing customer success for a couple of years. And back in college, I studied English, was hoping to be the next best American author. And then found a job right after college, 2008, had to find something, right? Working in an ad tech company doing search engine marketing.
And ultimately, I stayed in that space, ad tech, enterprise marketing for -- yes, since then. And I really have enjoyed it, the challenges and opportunities that go along with enterprise marketing as compared to consumer-based software or CPGs, anything that is a different -- definitely has a different strategy than what we do.
Brad Hammond: 1:59
Totally. So tell me about what marketing looks like at Kevel. What are you guys up to?
Chris Shuptrine: 2:04
Yes. Marketing at Kevel covers a lot of functions. So we oversee messaging, positioning, go-to-market strategy, driving inbound leads, managing the websites, identifying outbound opportunities, crafting pitch decks, doing all the contents, managing advertising shows and so on. So we do essentially all like the quintessential marketing projects that you can think of.
And we are a very collaborative group with our sales team because being in enterprise software, our sales process is heavily sales-driven, but that really allows for marketing to get involved and assists because every sales touch point is a marketing touch point, right? It's a brand experience. So it's important for marketing and sales at our company to work hand in hand.
Brad Hammond: 3:06
Very cool. So let's dive into today's topic, which is how to tell your company's story, how to use social proof, how to craft the messaging for growth and all this stuff. So let's dive right in and tell us about how you're positioning your company's story and all that stuff and some of your experience there.
Chris Shuptrine: 3:27
Yes. We've had an interesting ride. We've been around 10, 11 years. And as any company that as a startup, been around that long, like you're going to have gone through changes and pivots. And when we started roughly around 2010, we were a traditional ad server. We were helping companies show ads on their sites, generally like standard banner ads. And the behemoth in that space then and still is, is Google and their Google Ad Manager ad server product.
So we decided -- we realized after a couple of years that we just weren't going to compete with Google, and we had to really look at other opportunities for our company. Also back then, we were called Adzerk, A-D-Z-E-R-K. And we decided that where we succeeded was in this infrastructure story around, hey, we have APIs instead of just throwing a tag on your website or an SDK in your app.
You could actually use our APIs on the back end to send an ad request. We'll send you the details in a JSON response, and then you can insert that data onto your site. And there's a lot of benefits of this, including being able to show like native ads, you think like Facebook's Promoted Post or Amazon-sponsored listings. All of those, they built themselves. They're not using a third-party tech to display those.
And we decided around -- about when I joined 2016 to really focus on that messaging. And when I joined, we were 15 people. 3 years later, we were 20 people. So we still did not see a lot of growth in that time. And a big part of that is even if you have a good product and you have a good message, we're leading with like, oh, build native ads, right? Do what Facebook did. If it's not aligned perfectly with what the market is looking for, it's not going to succeed.
And what we ended up doing is focusing less on the ad unit itself, hey, build native ads, and really trying to tell the infrastructure story. And this was helped a lot by like Twilio and Stripe and all of these API companies that help you build complex platforms. Sort of riding the coattails of that trend and switching from, hey, build native ads to we are an ad serving infrastructure, build the exact ad platform you want regardless of ad units. And that really resonated with the market.
And it goes with the flexibility, the customization, the engineering story and not trying to be like you should build exactly this. And with that, along with some like social proof that happened around that time, that I'll talk about a little bit later on as well. We started to see more growth. And about a year ago, we rebranded to Kevel, K-E-V-E-L, and the idea behind the rebrand was we didn't want to be beholden to just ads.
Customers use us in a variety of formats that they may not consider ads like these promoted listings, sponsor listings or optimizing internal promotions, just the content on their site in general. But also when you see a company with the name with the word ad in front of it, you're going to be thinking ad network. They're trying to -- they want to pitch me to join their ad exchange so that they can give me their advertisers they're bringing to the table.
And we really want to step back and say, no, like we're a tech platform. We're independent. We don't provide advertisers and switching to something that was more of a coined word enabled us to more easily do that.
Brad Hammond: 7:18
Totally. I imagine a lot of B2B marketers, especially at startups, find themselves in this place of there's some go-to-market changes. There's product market fit, and then there's actual marketing component and telling the company's story and the messaging and all that. How do you go about handling that? So obviously, if the company is working on product market fit, go to market, you're working on marketing and messaging. How do you keep updated day to day with how we're going to market, then telling that story? And what are some of the tactics that you've used to kind of keep current and keep updated with all the changes going on?
Chris Shuptrine: 8:01
Yes. That's a good question. And I would say the strategies we take there is keeping a close eye on competitors, having a list of who's doing what, checking their site every once in a while to see if they've pivoted or updated their messaging. Also keeping abreast with all industry papers. We have a nice Slack channel that pings us with every new article from like Digiday, AdExchanger and a couple of other sources.
And even if you're just reading the headlines there, you can see what's being talked about. You can see the stories that people want to pursue and read. So you don't even have to like read the whole article to get a gist of what's going on in the industry. But I think like the biggest indicator of whether you're doing something right is -- I mean this isn’t a revolutionary statement, but are you getting inbound leads? Are you getting responses to outbound messaging? Are you driving sales?
And really looking at, all right, if I'm testing this messaging on my site, what does my conversion rates look like? Because it is a leading indicator if your conversion rate goes up, after you've tweaked your messaging, that resonates more with the audience. And then same with like pitch decks and measuring the conversion rates between different stages of the funnel once it gets to stay, once it gets sales and really trying to understand what is and what isn't working.
And I think it's that feedback loop that pushes you to be aware of any -- if there needs to be like a change or a pivot. One thing that we do that I think is one of the most effective tactics that we've employed is on our contact form. We ask for what are they looking to do with Kevel? And there's a lot of mixed opinions about forms, right, like you should ask as little as possible to increase that form fill-out rate versus adding way too many forms and the person saying, I don't want to do this.
But that single handle has given us so much data that it's enabled us to shape our messaging. As an example, one reason we decided to focus more on that, like build a custom ad server infrastructure story, is we went back and looked at all of our inbound leads, what people were putting in, and like 30% of them use the phrase ad server. So this was even when we were doing the native ads messaging. And we were like, all right, we're leading with this message, but they're clearly thinking of it like this.
Let's switch to this. So when you're asking people what they want to use you for, they are telling you in their own words how they identify you, and that needs to be aligned. If that's not aligned, people who may be interested in that server aren't going to see that word in the right spot and not reach out. So I highly recommend that to anyone.
And as a side note, I did test removing it once. And I think the decrease in conversion rate was like 5% Yes, right? Went from 10% to 9.5%. Like it was nothing in the grand scheme of things. The incremental value was worth whatever decrease in leads we got.
Brad Hammond: 11:24
It is so much more value. Yes, that's a great insight. I imagine when you're thinking about this go-to-market product market fit and messaging all this, there's all sorts of different seats at the table. I imagine marketing, sales and the CEO or GDM leader. Like how is this driven? Is it largely -- for you, was it driven by marketing? You guys testing messaging and then working it backwards into the product and product market fit?
Or was there like sales learning things? And then it's like, hey, we learned this thing, here's the messaging. Or maybe the CEO is like doing his own research project. Where was it driven behind? And if it was driven from multiple places, how did you guys get all together and sync up on where to go and direction to move?
Chris Shuptrine: 12:15
Yes. For Kevel, it's historically been a little bit more marketing-driven than maybe other companies would have seen. That said, as I mentioned before, there's a strong collaboration with sales. So there's a really great feedback loop with that team to understand what they're saying, what they're hearing. And that just gets ingrained in the marketer’s head. And then when figuring out like what it tests out, that becomes part of the equation.
Also, what I've found to be effective is doing AB tests on the website. And when you're looking at like, oh, hey, this messaging performs X percent better, that's data points you can bring to the table and say, I really think we should pursue this because we know it's working. I think in different companies, product will have more of a say than others. And I think with our company, we do have that feedback loop with product as well as one should.
But the really nice thing about Kevel and where I feel fortunate is there's never been a situation where I've been like the market is totally moving this way. We need to pivot the product this way. Like we have a vision for our product that has aligned with what the market wants. Just our messaging hasn't always been a fit there. So it's more like the product is what customers want and like how do we tell that story in the right way.
Brad Hammond: 13:48
I love that. So what are some of the land mines or mistakes that other marketers can walk into when trying to figure out this messaging and testing and all that?
Chris Shuptrine: 14:01
Yes. I think not doing AB testing and just going with gut and saying, this is going to work better. There have been plenty of times I've said this is going to be the best, and it ends up being the worst performer. You just really don't know. I think not being quick enough to pivot as well and to adjust your go-to-market strategy. So as you can imagine, as Kevel has evolved, as we've rebranded, as we’ve picked up funding, our go-to-market strategy has drastically changed.
And for the longest time, it was heavily dependent on inbound leads. And we've since started to focus a little bit more on building an outbound team for cold emails, building out our account-based marketing strategy. And if we hadn't have done these, like we wouldn't have seen the recent growth we've had this year. So it's like important to adjust based on the stage of your company and market dynamics to what that go-to-marketing strategy is. And that should change.
I mean, as an example, as a marketing team, we have different quarterly goals. And we're like, this quarter, I want to focus on site traffic. This quarter, I want to focus more on social proof, et cetera. And like being able to identify what those micro goals are and adjusting your strategy allows you to capture the fact that stories evolve, companies evolve, and you can't stick to just the same tactic and execution every year.
Brad Hammond: 15:29
Totally. So as your messaging evolves, does the target user persona evolve too? Has that changed? Or has that largely stayed the same for you guys?
Chris Shuptrine: 15:42
Yes. So it's an interesting conundrum, right? It's like if you've got the right messaging, should that change? Should your target audience change? And if it does, is that like a pivot in the market? Is that a pivot in the product? And I would say for us, we really honed in on the target market early. We knew that we are serving 2 different buckets. One is the technical product or engineering side, looking to build their own product, use API. They're aware of Twilio, Stripe, et cetera.
And the other is the business side that knows they should monetize or they see Facebook and Amazon driving this crazy ad revenue and they're like, we should do that. So we've always known those are our 2 markets. And for the last 5 years, those continue to be our core markets. And whether we're fortunate in that or you're like, Chris, you need to adjust it right now because you've been doing it too long. You're clearly wrong. Who knows?
But I think it's important that if you build something people like, if you have product market fit, that shouldn't change too much, right? Like you should go out there. You should keep telling the same story if you really believe it and you know there's value there. If you are switching up your messaging like substantially or your target market substantially, I think it's a sign that like you're not -- like you don't have product market fit right now.
And I think we have had that for the last few years, and it's been a lot of just tweaking the messaging to make it more clear what we're doing, the value add versus necessarily like, oh, our target audience is not who we thought it was.
Brad Hammond: 17:27
That makes sense. That's more on product market fit versus messaging. Okay. Well, what final place do you have, just wrapping up here, for other marketers out there that are looking to tweak their messaging, tell their company's story, all this kind of stuff?
Chris Shuptrine: 17:45
Yes. I think I'll reiterate an earlier comment. So every company is different. And it's not just your products. It's not just your target market. It's your team. No other company has ever had a marketer like you on the team, a CEO like you have. Every company is going to be comprised of different people with different skill sets. Nobody's had the timing in the market like you have.
There are so many different permutations that are unique to you. This means like never take blanket advice from somebody like me because I'm in my own specific stage of a specific company with my own specific skill sets. You really have to look at everything that's unique to you and your company and your product and then customize your positioning, your go-to-market strategy based on all those factors.
Like don't tell yourself, oh, I'm a one-person marketing team, but we're going to have a crazy -- we're going to produce a lot of crazy, amazing content this quarter or this year if you're not a great writer, right? Like you may be great at other things. So you really have to acknowledge weaknesses and faults and like budget, right? You can only do so much with so much budget, and then adjust based on all of that data.
Brad Hammond: 19:04
Totally. Well, it's been amazing to have you on. Thanks so much for joining, Chris, and I appreciate the conversation today.
Chris Shuptrine: 19:12
Yes. Thank you, Brad. I was happy to join.
Brad Hammond: 19:14