Bill Macaitis, CMO at business messaging app Slack, explains his strategy for marketing a Silicon Valley ‘unicorn’, and why AI bots will change marketing forever.
If the key to successful entrepreneurialism is finding a universal truth yet to be commercially exploited, then Slack ought to be an outright triumph.
Email is loathed by office workers around the world. It is inefficient, clunky and unable to handle mass conversations ‘threads’ that induce panic and despair in those unlucky enough to need to trawl through hundreds of irrelevant messages.
Slack believes it has the solution in the form of an enterprise messaging app. The company, founded in Vancouver in 2009 and now headquartered in Silicon Valley, has enjoyed a rapid ascent: it is used by 2.7 million daily active users across the globe, including 800,000 paying customers who have upgraded beyond the free version of the software. Customers in the media sphere alone include The Financial Times, Sky Media, News UK’s The Times, AOL, BuzzFeed, CBS and Dow Jones.
The investor community has been suitably impressed. Slack has attracted $540m in venture capital, and is currently valued at around $3.8bn. It claims to be the fastest-growing business application of all time, surpassing the likes of Salesforce.com and Workday.
“In the old world with software, you’d find a buyer, take them out to steak dinners, play golf, and try to convince them a product that, ironically, they would never use”
To help sustain this growth and create a long-lasting brand, in 2014 Slack recruited its first marketer, with former Salesforce and Zendesk CMO Bill Macaitis joining as chief marketing officer. In the ensuing 18 months, Macaitis has built up a marketing team numbering 30, and is getting ready to begin investing significantly in above-the-line advertising.
The role of his team, Macaitis tells M&M Global, is to “accelerate the inevitable” and create a positive sentiment where consumers recommend the service, above and beyond simply buying it.
“Slack is the beginning of another seminal shift in the technology landscape. The movement from email to messaging was inevitable, looking at all the stats. It had already played out on the consumer side,” he says, referring to the billions of users permanently tapping away on services like WhatsApp, Snapchat, WeChat and Facebook Messenger.
“For a while it was websites, and every brand had a website. Then the world moved to social networks, and everyone tried to have a presence on Facebook, and Instagram, and Twitter. And now you have this shift into messaging apps.”
B2B or B2C?
Despite switching over to the enterprise marketing side with his move to Salesforce some six years ago, Macaitis does not consider himself a B2B marketer in the classic sense.
Rather than spend huge levels of energy chasing one lead after another – usually a corporation’s most senior decision-maker in that field – he believes it is better to approach those individuals as one would consumers for any other project. This is made all the more pertinent as Slack can be introduced to organisations by all types of employees, not just CIOs.
He chuckles at the idea of simply writing about a product update or launch on the company blog and social media feeds, and expecting customers to greedily consume that content.
“In the old world with software, you’d find a buyer, take them out to steak dinners, play golf, and try to convince them a product that, ironically, they would never use. But it’s getting democratised – anyone can bring it into the company, and anyone can use it. That’s why we use paid advertising,” says Macaitis.
Slack has just launched its first national TV ad campaign in the US – a light-hearted clip about a diverse team of animals coming together to invent a new product – which may be rolled out internationally. Created by UK-based agency Nexus, Macaitis claimed he met the team only once, afterwards relying entirely upon communications and the sharing of documents on Slack.
The ambition, he says, is to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and to ensure the marketing creates a positive first experience for prospective users, whether through television, print, OOH or digital ads.
Though he insists the company is obsessed with results – testing, among others, aided and unaided recall, sentiment, share of voice and cost per lead – and registers a strong interest in the potential of programmatic trading, he wishes to avoid irritating retargeting and jargon-filled, uninteresting content.
“Slack is one of the few products you are selling into everyone, all verticals and geographies. It’s almost like a consumer-type product, so we can use mainstream-type marketing to get the message out – a one-to-many model, rather than one-to-one,” he says.
“Ultimately, we look at if someone is having a good experience with us. In many cases, these ads are going to be the very first things [consumers] see, so they are very much brand-centric – you have to understand that B2B is a long cycle. We’re planting lots of seeds, and at some point you’re going to hit the person that brings it into a company.”
Silicon Valley unicorn
Even fast-growing Silicon Valley unicorns cannot have it their own way all the time, of course. The New York Times recent reported that Uber has stopped using Slack, as the service could not handle the sheer volume of communication generated by the taxi firm’s employees.
Quoting Mike Ditka, a former coach of the Chicago Bears NFL team, Macaitis smiles and says, “You’re never as good as people tell you, and you’re never as bad as people tell you.”
“You’ve got to maintain a steady attitude,” he adds. “One of the things we’ve been trying to do is remain customer-focused: how can we improve bad experiences they may be having, and how can we deliver value? If we don’t deliver true value, and if people don’t really feel like they are more productive than on email, then it’s just another tool. That remains our core focus.”
And Macaitis is insistent that the company is on the right side of history, pointing out the rise of sophisticated Artificial Intelligence (AI) bots on platforms like Facebook Messenger – something he believes marketing teams will need to respond to very soon.
“Brands have to think about a reality where they will communicate with their customers within Slack, within WeChat. What will that experience look like?”
“There is such a strong movement into messaging apps – whether that is WeChat, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, across the board. People are spending the majority of their time there. Brands are going to have to think about how they can extend their conversations within these apps,” he says.
“We’re starting to see some really interesting updates, from these virtual assistants and bots that are coming out. From a business perspective, that excites me. Think about all the mundane stuff we do that I would love someone else to do – fill out my expense report, book travel, schedule meetings, order lunch, order me an Uber or a Lyft.
“Brands have to think about a reality where they will communicate with their customers within Slack, within WeChat. What will that experience look like? How do they staff those bots to have those conversations?
“That is without a doubt the future, and where things are heading, and I feel as marketers we have to think about how we’re taking advantage of these new channels,” he adds.