How Sara Varni thinks: a chat with Twilio’s CMO

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Doug Kessler

02. 03. 2021 | 11 min read

How Sara Varni thinks: a chat with Twilio’s CMO

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You gotta admire Twilio.

They turned a pretty nichey-geeky thing (um, virtualising comms infrastructures and making them available via APIs) and turned it into one of the world’s hottest B2B companies.

It all started as a really easy way for companies to build SMS messaging into their web and mobile apps. Today, that’s still the heart of the business but Twilio has grown a lot, adding all the customer comms channels (voice, chat, video, email…) and making some impressive acquisitions (including SendGrid in 2018 and, Segment in October 2020).

Today, they’re a $25 billion company with over 200,000 customers and a billion in revenue (by the time you read this, all these numbers will no doubt be higher). If you use Uber or OpenTable or Netflix or DoorDash… you use Twilio.

Through it all, Twilio has managed to stand for something. To be clear and different and to have an actual brand while still doing all those hard, B2B things. Like marketing to both developers and business buyers. Or resonating with specific people (okay, personas) even when the platform can do So. Many. Things.

I wanted to talk to Sara Varni about all this, so I had my people call her people (okay, I sent a begging email) and, graciously, she accepted.

Sara’s been CMO of Twilio for about three years, having spent nearly eleven at Salesforce (most recently as SVP of Marketing for Sales Cloud).

She’s one of these people that instantly puts you at ease. The attentions of her Australian Shepherd dog may have been part of that, but I could tell right away Sara’s a marketer’s marketer (a weirdly rare thing to find at CMO level). I couldn’t wait to interrogate the heck out of her. And boy, was I not disappointed. Here goes:

Twilio clearly cares about brand. How do you balance short-term pipeline related things with longer term brand building?

That’s the eternal fight a CMO has to make. There are always going to be short-term pressures, especially when you’re growing as quickly as Twilio—and every year you’re asked to be more and more efficient with your marketing spend and still hit certain targets.

I had a boss at Salesforce who used to say, “Pipeline cures all ills.” And, of course, you’re off the hot seat quickly if you hit your pipe number. But if you’re not also focused on how you’re creating awareness and organic interest over the long term, you’ll wake up one morning and find it’s harder and harder to generate pipeline. You can’t just start at that mid-funnel level.

It’s an ongoing conversation. If you invest in Q1, Finance will want to see those results by the end of Q1—but that’s just not how brand and awareness work. It’s a mix of art and science and you have to have some faith that, if you invest consistently, you will see that pay off over time. I’m a big believer in that.

And, of course, there are markets where we are much less well-known compared to North America. So the brand building work is essential, foundational work.

So what kinds of things do you do to build brand?

Brand building takes many forms. There’s a place for the traditional things like commercials and billboards but the money goes fast and there’s a lot of waste. So we invest really heavily in content.

Twilio’s 2015 billboard on Route 101 was a bit hit. Andy Raskin wrote about it here.

It’s about really earning the right to speak to your audience and not just showing your product all the time. Content helps you build up credibility in the space you’re playing in. That will really pay off over time.

Some of this is long-term, brand-building content. So I really protect that budget. There are only a few buckets in the budget that I treat as sacred. Brand and Events (until recently!) are my big ones.

So things like our State of Customer Engagement report (in its second year) where we’re just basically surveying both customers and non-customers about what’s relevant to them and where things are going in the coming year. It really has zero to do with our product, and that’s what I mean by earning the right to speak to your audience.

Hot off the press, The State of Customer Engagement, 2021.

Twilio has so many different use cases across an organization. How do you avoid ‘white noise’ generalities and actually stand for something relevant in different people’s minds?

One of the trickiest parts is training a sales team to be prepped for so many different possible conversations. One prospect might be asking about SMS marketing campaigns and another wants to know about VoIP for a contact center.

So on the sales enablement side, we try to focus on our top ten use cases and get everyone really trained up on those.

And the conversations vary a lot by depth and detail, too. A CMO might not want the technical stuff but a CTO might really want to drill down. So sales people have to be prepared to pivot and find the right altitude for each conversation.

Okay, that’s for Sales. But how do you manage all these different stories on, say your website—when you don’t know who’s in front of you?

We always try to have a strong ‘Push and Pull’ strategy.

When it comes to Pull tactics it’s really about our developer community. Developers are not going to click on your display ad campaign. What they want is really strong, hyper-focused blog content and our actual documentation. We try to make it easy on our site for developers to get really quickly to the code they’re looking for. And let them get back to their project. It’s not a big ‘digital transformation’ content play.

On the business side, it’s more the Push strategy. People may have heard about Twilio and we need to make it clear what we do and how it applies to them. Or we need to get on their radar in the first place with some provocative, relevant content.

For that, I like a departmental lens: to talk to specifically to sales, marketing, service and operations people. That gives us the context to be specific and relevant—to focus on their core use cases. Now we’ve got a more focused conversation and can zero in on the things that are most important.

Is Twilio creating a new category?

I definitely think that we are. We’re not really replacing anything that companies already have—we’re usually a new addition to their tech stack.

Broadly, we’re in a Customer Engagement Platform category rather than in just simple connectivity. As we’ve worked with customers, we’ve moved upstream and now deliver more value and functionality out of the box. And as we do that, we move into more of a customer engagement place.

So our Twilio Flex contact center product is a good example of that. It started as just combining some of our ‘primitives’—like SMS and Voice—and it became a full, programmable contact center solution.

But we can’t just shout about Customer Engagement all over the website or we alienate developers. They still want to do real, practical things today. It’s a balance.

Okay, the big question: how do you market to developers—people who usually hate marketing?

Hah! Yeah, when I was leaving Salesforce, my boss was really happy for me and all but he said, “The rule of marketing to developers is you don’t market to developers.”

And I’m thinking, “Oh great. I’m coming from Salesforce, a marketing juggernaut, with all these mascots and these events that are bigger than any concert I go to… what am I gonna do with developers?”

But when I take a step back now, three years later, I don’t take that idea so literally. When you market to developers, you’ve just got to be super authentic. They’re people first, but I think they do have a lower tolerance for marketing speak and hype and over-selling.

In that sense, maybe all marketing should be more like marketing to developers!

A developer audience does affect things like launch timings, though. You can’t launch something with big fanfare and then not have it ready to try six months later. Developers want to try it now. If you can’t give them at least a Beta, don’t go talking about it.

Your website content features a lot of actual product documentation. Isn’t that usually thought of as post-sale content instead of pre-sale?

That’s one of the main ways developers get into our site and get into Twilio in the first place. So we’re hyper focused on making sure our documentation is really high quality.

We’re constantly experimenting with that and we have different ways of measuring the effectiveness of our documentation. It’s a big factor in our developer brand and one of the first things developers say about us: “Wow. The documentation is really good.”

Is this mainly a Product-Led Growth go-to-market strategy? With free product that then ramps up?

We have both a bottom-up mentality, which is like PLG, for developers; but also a top-down approach. And we’re always trying to shorten the fuse between that developer interest and a more business-minded decision maker who needs to do strategic things.

As far as Product-Led Growth, we’re always trying to look at our developer journey and to recognize points where they seem to be raising their hands. You have to be super careful because developers don’t want a call from your inside sales rep asking them about budgets and timelines.

But if you can do it in a way that’s helpful, they will appreciate it. If you say “Hey, I see that you’re experimenting with our SMS API, here’s some documentation” —if we suggest something that could help, in a natural, seamless way, I think you can accelerate that conversion without putting on the hard-sell.

Devs get Twilio. But how do you get business leaders to start thinking about what’s possible?

One thing we’ve done for some of our enterprise customers is host all-day Enterprise Hackathons. The business people come with a use case or a challenge and the developer teams will come along too. And these mixed teams break up and get to work. And we bring some of our developer evangelists on site to help.

At the end of the day, they’ll do like a Shark Tank-style demo and competition and it’s awesome because you know the business is seeing new possibilities and the developers love it because they’re getting to learn a new skill.

It can really accelerate that proof of concept process. Something that might have taken six months or a year to get off the ground is now happening in a day. And that can really shorten that fuse between developer interest in and a line-of-business conversation.

Of course, that’s pretty labor intensive, so we’re thinking of ways to scale that to more accounts.

‘Think like a developer’ feels so central to the Twilio culture. How does that change how you do marketing?

Jeff Lawson, our CEO, just published a book, called Ask Your Developer [DK note: a great read and an important book] and he talks about developers as creative problem-solvers.

One part of that is the idea of experimentation as the prerequisite to innovation. In the marketing team, that experimental mindset is a big part of who we are and how we work. One example:

In my first year as CMO, we had Tony Hawk, the super-famous skateboarder and entrepreneur, on the stage for our first Signal event.

The developers are always looking for cool ways to demo what Twilio can do, and one of them had an idea about building an app called Hawk Or Not. It was a face recognition app—working with a partner—that played off the way people are always coming up to Tony, saying he ‘looks just like Tony Hawk’.

So this is a big live event and kind of a big moment for me, a new CMO, sitting in the front row (thinking about how short CMO tenures are!), and we hadn’t really tested the app and Tony walks on—nicest guy in the world. He’d just been told about the app a few minutes before and he was totally up for it.

He steps on stage and the developers launch the app and the cameras… and it works! And the crowd just erupted. And I thought, “I’m in the right company.”

Of course, you also need the kind of content and demos that are grounded in the real world. But to be able to take risks and have fun, that’s a big part of the Twilio DNA.

I try to push the team to not just think about marketing as incremental. To have something in their annual strategy that they want to put on their LinkedIn profile or that they’d mention in a job interview.

We’re always asking, “What do you have on your list this year that’s going to drive hockey-stick impact for Twilio?” so it’s not just full of things that might be marginally better.

Having a clear, approachable voice feels like a big part of the Twilio brand. Can you tell us about that?

I walked into a great brand and a brand team that I truly believe is one of the most talented in our space, and they’ve had all these cool things that were already part of the company from early on.

It’s also important because we’re serving a lot of consumer brands. We’ve got to be an engaging brand because they all need to be engaging brands.

It comes down to knowing your customers. The developer community really values brevity but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate clever or witty language—and they love inside jokes.

You’ve got to use those things sparingly and make sure you’re still getting to the meat of what you want to say. But life’s too short to just talk about business benefits all the time. You’ve got to have a little fun with it.

See what I mean? I came away from my talk with Sara really energized about bringing some of her passion and smarts and some of that Twilio mojo to Velocity clients.

One of the takeaways for me is how marketing isn’t so much a separate function in a company like Twilio. As a provider of APIs, everything they do is about helping customers achieve their goals as quickly and simply as possible. That can’t help but soak into their marketing too—in everything from super-clear documentation and focused, persona-based buyer journeys to deep content, developer-inspired experimentation and a friendly, fun voice.

Marketing as an expression of culture. How cool is that?

Published in:

  • B2B marketing

  • CMO interview

  • Sara Varni

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