Ecosystem Marketing part 2: A conversation with Scott Brinker

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Doug Kessler

18. 02. 2022 | 13 min read

Ecosystem Marketing part 2: A conversation with Scott Brinker

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This is a follow-up to the post B2B Ecosystem Marketing: Three App Marketplace Plays, in which I make the case for investing more marketing resources into the massive B2B app marketplace opportunity.

It’s an interview with Scott Brinker, VP of Platform Ecosystem at HubSpot—and the brains & brawn behind Chiefmartec, the definitive blog and community for marketing technologists. Oh, and he wrote the book on agile marketing: Hacking Marketing. Oh, and he’s the guy behind the famous, annual Martech Supergraphic, the visualization that launched a thousand debates (the data behind the graphic feeds a very cool, free tool called Martechbase, by our own Agustin Rejon).

This smart shouldn’t be this nice.

Few people know more about the power of B2B app marketplaces than Scott. His day job is building a healthy app ecosystem for Hubspot, the CRM platform for the rest of us. And it’s working: IDC forecasted that  revenue for partners in the company’s app ecosystem will rise from $2.1 billion in 2021 to $4.2 billion in 2024. That’s just the app sales part of a $19 billion partnership opportunity (which includes services and commissions on HubSpot sales).

Your logo here: the mighty Hubspot app ecosystem, organised Brinker-style.

That kind of growth is why we’re writing this series. Because Ecosystem Marketing may be one of the biggest opportunities in SaaS—and best practice is only starting to emerge.

Luckily for us, Scott’s default setting is generosity: he’s always sharing his time and knowledge with fellow marketers like us. So I exploited the shit out of that to bring you this:

Why did you take the VP of platform ecosystem job at HubSpot?

It was really one of those, “You had me at Hello” moments!

I’d been working for six years in and around the modern martech landscape. And I saw ecosystems as both one of the greatest opportunities but also one of the greatest frustrations—there was all this innovation happening across martech, but open platforms didn’t seem to be emerging.

It was the opposite of how it happened in other markets. For example, in mobile devices, there was the platform (like Apple IoS) and then all those apps emerged around it and thoroughly plugged into it—and it all just worked for the user.

With Martech, there was hesitation on the part of many of the major players to really lean into the idea of platform ecosystems. The strategy that the big platforms were pursuing at that time was still to either build or acquire. As if they could be the single source for everything you need.

That strategy was pretty dominant and so it kept people from even thinking about an ecosystem as actually an opportunity for growth, not a constraint to it.

So when Brian and Dharmesh reached out to me, asking if I’d be willing to come help HubSpot become a true platform and lean into that ecosystem—I was like, “Absolutely. Let’s do it.”

How many apps were in the marketplace when you joined four years ago? I know you broke the thousand mark recently.

Probably under 100 at that point, and a good chunk of those were because HubSpot built the integration to other products—which made sense to get things started.

So the mission I took on was to make it less of a partnership motion and more of a platform motion. That’s a really different mindset with lots of implications across the company.

So 10X in app growth: how’d you do that?

I can take very little credit for it! There are basically two primary things that drive healthy ecosystems:

First and foremost, you actually have to have true extensibility in your product—if you don’t open up the API, it’s a non-starter. HubSpot had some of that already, but they were committed to investing more in it.

So that’s where it all begins. Then the second thing is, frankly, the biggest factor: the scale of the total addressable market you can offer partner apps. When HubSpot had 10,000 or 20,000 customers, with a certain budget profile, it’s a harder sell. It’s not an attractive enough market to invest in.

But as HubSpot grew, both in total the installed base and in attracting larger companies doing bigger adoptions, then the opportunities for companies to build things on top of HubSpot became really attractive.

The 100,000 customer milestone felt like a real tipping point, when inbound interest in integrating with us just took off.

Then, on top of the investment in extensibility and the growth of the customer base, there’s the program layer: how do we put structure around this, and good governance, you know, to create a fair and level playing field and to make it an easy, good experience for developers and product teams. But the coolest program in the world is completely worthless if you don’t have the other two factors.

What department owns the integration with HubSpot from the vendor side of things? Is it the channel partnership team or the product marketers? Are marketing teams stepping up to own this?

This is still a pretty new motion so it hasn’t settled down to one answer to that.

I’d say it’s probably 50/50 partnerships people and product people. The marketers tend to get involved a little bit later like once something’s actually been built; when there’s a clear commitment from the team.

Then marketing and the go-to-market channel teams will then come in and take advantage of that integration.

To me, marketplaces should be one of the chapters in the product marketing playbook. They’re the natural people to figure out, okay, what’s our ecosystem strategy and what’s our operating system for those channels?

You’ve mentioned that the average HubSpot customer has seven app integrations in their stack. Is there a small cluster of no-brainers you see every time, or is it really diverse?

It’s definitely a long tail. So at the head of the tail are the obvious integrations like Outlook or G-mail—whatever email client the customer is using. Then things like Zoom and Slack are very popular ones.

But it doesn’t take too long before you start to get to the really long tail, with specific integrations for different use cases and sectors. That’s the beauty of the platform model: SaaS companies with specific domain expertise—or deep process knowledge—adding that depth and coverage to a broad, horizontal platform.

Does the best-integration win or the best-marketed integration?

Well, the definition of “the best” integration can be quite nuanced—it’s really about: does it best-serve the needs of the customers your marketing it to? Because if you push people to your integration and it doesn’t actually meet their needs or expectations, they’ll write bad reviews and you’ll wish you hadn’t pushed people to it.

Certainly marketing has a huge role to play in this, just from a visibility perspective: if people don’t know about the integration it doesn’t matter how great it is.

But you have to be careful to not let the promotion get ahead of the product. Once you can fulfil that promise, it comes back to marketing’s job, with, “How do we break through the noise, how do we make sure that the right people are actually even seeing it?”

Have B2B SaaS marketing teams come to grips with the marketplace opportunity yet?

in B2B markets it’s still relatively new, but it’s changing fast. If we look at the consumer apps in the Apple and Android app stores, there’s a real discipline about how you market these things systematically and effectively.

In B2B, you’re starting to see the platform marketplaces—whether HubSpot, Salesforce or platforms like AWS, Shopify or Atlassian—these have become significant growth engines for their partners.

More and more companies are now seeing them as a big part of their go-to-market. So you have pretty large companies that have grown up entirely on the back of those ecosystems.

It’s taking off like crazy, so we’re probably—right now—at that nexus, where it starts to become a defined discipline. People are writing the playbooks today that others will eventually follow.

What makes companies successful in marketplaces like HubSpot’s?

It’s a wonderful combination of things. It starts with the quality of the product and then the integration itself. Those are actually two separate dimensions: you can have an amazing product, but if the integration into the platform is not very good, it just won’t get people excited. So that’s the baseline.

Then discovery becomes a factor. We’re always happy to do things like press releases and social announcements and all that sort of stuff.  But that isn’t really what moves the needle. Two or three things that I’ve seen really successful partners do is, first and foremost, they really invest in their marketplace listing.

Not everyone does that. Even with some big companies, you can see listings with a sort of generic screenshot and some lightweight text that doesn’t really describe how the integration works. It’s not a compelling pitch.

Feels like a big miss for the lazier ones—and a massive opportunity for companies to leap out of the pack.

It’s crazy, because when you think about it, a visit to your marketplace listing is a sign of serious intent. Here’s someone who’s searching for your kind of solution and is considering evaluating your product. Talk about intent! 

It’s the same dynamic you see when people are doing searches in Amazon—you really do want to put a good foot forward at that moment.

The ones who invest in their listing—with, say, a well-produced video walkthrough, a clear description of how the integration works and its value, maybe customer testimonials, and great reviews and ratings—they can dramatically out-perform the average listing.

We could do a whole masterclass just on managing ratings and reviews. Step number one is actually just showing up: inviting your customers to review your integration, engaging in those reviews, even when they’re negative (a big opportunity to solve a problem).

What are the best marketplace performers doing beyond investing in the listing?

The next big thing is to engage in the community around the ecosystem. Companies like HubSpot have really large online communities, where the power users help each other out.

There’s just a ton of opportunity for solutions partners to come and engage in that community. Not by going in and spamming people (for the love of goodness, please don’t do that!). But by actually engaging to understand what people are talking about and contributing to those conversations.

It starts with just having someone in the team whose job is to build reputation in these communities by being a good citizen within the ecosystem.

It’s another flywheel effect: once you’ve got loyal customers and loyal channel partners, you can really get a lot of value from that over time.

An acronym I hadn’t seen before is ASO: App Store Optimization. Do you share a lot of data about a partner’s listings to help them optimize?

At HubSpot, we definitely have further to go with that. We’re providing pass-through data on actual outcomes—people installing—but we’re nowhere near the granularity of data that would help people to truly optimize their listings.

So those who are doing ASO are still doing more manual work. But we’re tracking that process to look for ways to add value for partners.

It feels like the number of partner integrations a platform has is becoming a major selling point, not just a nice-to-have. Are you seeing that?

Oh, yeah. It’s become a very important question, “If we’re gonna adopt this, it has to work with everything else we have—we’re not going to rip and replace everything”.

Documenting this has become a mini hobby of mine. Over the last five years I’ve collected every single survey I come across about why martech buyers buy—and, every time, integration is number one, number two, maybe number three.

It’s kind of funny: product managers and marketers keep asking this question and the answer keeps coming back, loud and clear: buyers want integrations.

It used to be a feature that was very much considered ‘below the line’ but that’s changed now.

And for a lot of the SaaS startups I see, integrations are a primary feature. For them, it’s like bootstrapping your go-to-market: “I know you already use platform X. Why not try this thing that adds new functionality and value to Platform X?”. It’s just an accelerator.

Do you guys do some kind of quality assurance that says an app is going to work well on HubSpot?

Yes, we have two levels today. It starts with a relatively modest review process that we use when someone is just getting listed. Then, after they’ve gotten a few customers, they’ve started to prove out the use case and we have enough API traffic to analyze, we have a certification process.

It’s an added trust signal in the marketplace and also unlocks some of the additional marketing opportunities that we reserve until someone’s reached that certification level.

For SaaS companies, is there a danger that the platform owner can just decide to add your functionality to the core—and put you out of business?

This is a potential issue in every ecosystem. I still remember when there were hundreds of flashlight apps in the iPhone app store and then Apple decided to put the flashlight in the iOS. It’s like, “Oh: that’s that, then”.

There are a couple different strategies for this. Most platforms are very much playing a game of horizontal scale, so if what you’re building is a horizontal feature that’s core to the market the platform is playing in—and you’re not going super deep with it or super vertically specialized, then it’s a bigger risk.

You do see companies actually still succeed even when competing with the platform’s own functionality. An example: HubSpot added conversation intelligence as a feature, in a market where we have partners like Gong, who specialize in this. And a huge number of the HubSpot customers who ended up adopting that feature were folks who actually never even had conversation intelligence before and they couldn’t have even afforded Gong.

So in that case, I think we helped grow the market and probably ended up driving more customers to Gong, when they were ready to go deep on conversation intelligence. We introduced the concept to a much broader set of people.

So I think the ecosystem relationship is still viable. It’s very much to the credit of Dharmesh and Brian early on, when they set the goal for the ecosystem as making the customer experience better. Yes, we’re going to compete with a set of our ecosystem partners at different times, but we’re ultimately going to be guided by customer choice. And so we’re not going to exclude people from the marketplace or cut off APIs or anything.

We also have a policy to try our best to give a partner a heads-up if we’re going to enter the market or compete with them at some level. We don’t always succeed in this, but we do our best. We really don’t want partners to get surprised by that.

So anything else you would say to a B2B brand that wants to make the most of the ecosystem opportunity?

I think it’s a great opportunity, right now, because this isn’t yet a mainstream motion.

It feels like the early days of search marketing—and getting into it early creates big opportunities. Marketing is a constant search for the greenfield and a lot of these ecosystems still have a lot of low hanging fruit.

So my two pieces of advice: invest the effort to treat this like a marketing channel. And do a good job on the product. Internet rules apply and reputation matters.

There are entrepreneurs who are building products exclusively for the HubSpot platform. That gives them the opportunity to go even deeper in crafting the whole experience so it feels like it’s native.

Any great examples?

One company I would point to is called Org Chart Hub, out of the UK actually. They let you easily build and store org charts for your target accounts, right inside HubSpot.

Their product is beautifully crafted for this, a super-intuitive plugin for HubSpot. It’s an incredible experience. And then they certainly followed the best-practice for their marketplace listing and their community engagement is phenomenal.

They’ve built a pretty impressive business on that.

Didn’t I tell you this guy was smart and generous?
Thanks, Scott!

Explore some more:

The first post in this series, B2B Ecosystem Marketing: 3 App Marketplace Plays.

For a drill-down into Scott’s experience growing the Hubspot app marketplace, read his excellent post, The Power of Combinatorial Innovation and 4 Other Lessons on the Journey to 1,000 Apps.

Hubspot’s App Marketplace.

Scott on How to Build an App Store Devs Will Love.

Scott on Platforms, Networks & Marketplaces.

Clement Vouillon’s excellent post, How To Leverage SaaS App Stores for Your Go-To-Market Strategy.

Clement’s terrific Google Sheet, an App Store Landscape of 50+ App Stores compared.

I interviewed Scott once before, discussing how his famous Martech Supergraphic is an example of great content marketing. But that whole Chiefmartec thing?—the blog, the event, the Supergraphic, the tweets—isn’t even this guy’s day job. It’s a f*cking hobby. (When someone’s side hustle runs circles around whole companies, something’s going on).

Published in:

  • App Exchange marketing

  • B2B app marketplaces

  • B2B marketplace marketing

  • ecosystem marketing

  • Hubspot app marketplace marketing

  • Salesforce App Exchange marketing

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