CMO profile: Building the brand and customer base for a SaaS business

BigCommerce global chief marketing officer, Lisa Pearson, talks about the customer-led strategy that is helping the ecommerce software vendor go upmarket

When Lisa Pearson joined Australian-grown BigCommerce as its global marketing chief, she faced a significant brand job spearheading the company’s push from SMB into mid-market. But heaven forbid the ecommerce software business’ staff see it as a rebrand.

“Rightly or wrongly, I told the team not to refer to this as a rebrand. Because then nobody will buy into it. That’s the ugly truth,” she told CMO. “If I’d said we’re going to rebrand the company, it would have instantly be proxy for new CMO is going to spend a lot of money, that’s what they always do.

“But I’m not buying Superbowl ads, I’m delivering a user journey that’s right for our buyers. So let’s call it that. It’s the language of business that makes these things much more palatable.”

Bringing a commercial, revenue-driven mentality to marketing has also seen Pearson pivot her team away from judging success on the volume of leads generated, towards revenue delivery.

“The team didn’t have any ideas on what was converting, average revenue per user, or how long it takes to close. All they knew was they were crushing lead volumes. So it was a shift to say as a department that’s not the right metric,” Pearson said. “Chasing volume of leads generally incentivises unintentionally poor behaviour, so I turned the team towards being compensated on revenue delivery. That wasn’t universally well received. But sales and marketing has to be in lock step. You need to thread responsibility all the way through.”

In addition, Pearson restructured her team into SMB and mid-market units, partnering with sales and product to organise against that framework. Instead of a roadmap “co-mingling” future products and plans being developed, or sales teams selling to anyone, BigCommerce is now operating along target customer lines.

“It was a shift for the company to have organisational design led by a new CMO. But it often takes an outside voice to say well duh, of course we should do that,” Pearson said.

“We had been so busy trying to grow, we hadn’t stopped to think about it. That’s been a really big priority for me. Then we had to make sure we had the right talent for mid-market and enterprise, because the people who know high-velocity marketing won’t suit the way these other customers buy. They have different requirements, are more high touch, are more event-oriented, want thought leadership, and have buying centres with multiple people weighing in making decisions. The content we create also has to resonate with the CIO, head of procurement or line-of-business owner.”  

Externally, Pearson’s task was to bifurcate the ecommerce software vendor’s website, and realign the BigCommerce masterbrand to the emerging mid-market opportunity. A sub-brand, BigCommerce Essentials, was introduced to encompass the traditional SMB heartland.

“You’d think the master brand would be what the company had been successful in originally, but ‘big’ went with the bigger business focus,” Pearson explained. “It took persuading – no one liked it when I got there and said we need to bifurcate our website, this is the anchor versus sub-brand, and if you come to our site as a mid-market prospect, you’re going to be directed to a sales person, you’re not going to receive pricing, you’ll see thought leadership content; whereas if you’re small business you choose your own adventure.”  

But tackle it she did, all in the name of helping BigCommerce better realise growth.

“There are so many versions of the CMO role; I have full revenue responsibility, so if we don’t hit our plan, it’s on me as much as our CEO or head of sales,” Pearson said. 

Being misunderstood

Unlike a head of finance or engineering, Pearson agreed chief marketing officer is not a universally understood role and there are wide variances in remit.

“Tech companies perhaps have more latitude as they don’t have so much of a pre-conceived notion of marketing, and they’re also in a faster-growth mindset. They’re more agnostic to the discipline perhaps than more established companies,” Pearson commented. “But really good CMOs do think of themselves as chief growth officers.”

They also know their customers. Pearson learnt this in the first 10 years of her career in advertising on New York’s Madison Avenue, working for big Fortune 100 brands such as Procter & Gamble and American Express. Both brands exhibited a customer-first mentality and deep, rich understanding of who they sell to, she recalled.

“It’s a discipline I don’t see that often with other marketers. P&G knows everything about the archetype of the ideal consumer – whether they use a tissue and use the trash can or put it on the nightstand,” she said.   

It was when she moved to Austin, Texas after running a digital agency that Pearson stepped into technology vendors. For the last 12 years, she’s held a variety of B2B leadership roles, from EVP and marketing chief for Bazaarvoice, to strategic growth initiatives at Dell, and CEO of data management company, Umbel.

“It’s one silly but true thing Beth Comstock, GE's former vice-chair, says: B2B doesn’t need to stand for boring-to-boring,” Pearson said of the state of the B2B marketing right now.

“I do think there’s a formulaic rigour around B2B marketing that’s good on one hand for a CMO, as it’s about accountability. But it’s also easy to make marketing a highly operational function that lacks energy and creativity. I don’t have an original point of view in this, but I do believe B2B buyer is a consumer buyer first. They’re buying software or managed services with the same spirit they make purchases as consumers. They’re learning about businesses in a way that is hard for CMOs to control and that’s a good thing.”  

It was while working at Bazaarvoice and across user-generated content Pearson became an advocate for customers sharing their stories in an “utterly uncensored, authentic way, articulating their point of view on what they purchased from you, on your own property”.

“I have a gravitational pull towards letting people learn the way they want, where they want and from authentic voices. And in our team, we do a lot to try and just let customers talk for themselves in an unedited way,” she said.

“Whether that’s on our site, or on third-party review sites, or via affiliate marketing. We don’t control the message and we’re not right for every business. It’s OK for companies to learn that very early in the exploratory process.”  

Shifting from SMB to mid-market

Customer-led storytelling, however, hasn’t been the biggest change at BigCommerce since Pearson joined 18 months ago. Having celebrated its 10th year last year, the company has been moving away from its point of origin in Sydney, focused on small business merchants, to mid-market buyers internationally.  

It’s a shift requiring unlearning everything successful in the first decade, Pearson said.  “There is nothing in a tactical program that’s the same for a first-time business owner versus selling to a CMO of a Fortune 100 company. It’s very different selling and marketing motions, different product and service requirements,” she claimed.  

“For me, the interesting shift is not how to compromise or cannibalise anything that’s made our company a success, and to preserve, defend and grow that business while going upmarket.”

This is where brand experience really comes to the fore for Pearson. “My primary focus over the past year has been less around validating the marketing approach – there’s a great deal of trust around that – and more about how to take on this new market with utterly different requirements,” she said.  

Up next: How Pearson built a personalised customer strategy for the SaaS player, plus priorities of a modern CMO

The new customer target

Building customer insight has been a huge part of achieving this aim. Pearson said BigCommerce has articulated seven primary buyer personas it’s ensuring it has value propositions for. Target customers vary from the CIO or IT leader, who may hold the purse strings, to the CMO or ecommerce leader, who owns ecommerce program of work.

“We can go in with a pitch great for the CMO, but if it doesn’t clear the bar for the CIO or CTO, or clear security, we won’t sell. It’s a strange thing to appeal to so many different stakeholders in the decision,” Pearson commented. 

“Our best, winning content shows we were able to help our customer deliver demonstrable ROI, that we were able to do it in a way that was highly secure, with a lower total cost of ownership than competitors. Then when we’re showcasing customer success, do we have enough breadth? We could have case studies all day long showing conversion and revenue impact and it might still not be the right thing. Are there consumers able to purchase where they want? Did we help deliver a beautiful customer experience? That’s what’s going to resonate with the CMO.”

Pearson said change has had to occur while teams keep the BigCommerce engine running.

“Customer segmentation wasn’t an understood thing in the company: Who buys us, why do they buy us, what else are they buying and how do they learn? I didn’t want to say we were going to stop or not do anything until we mastered the buyer personas, so it’s being about doing both things at the same time.”   

As for focus areas going into her second year, international expansion is top of the list.

“There is a great opportunity for us in lots of markets, but doing so with no investment is not an approach that’s wise. Our sales team will always advocate for it, however, so there is a healthy friction around that,” Pearson said.  

The second priority is partners, and Pearson is working to up the ante on supporting BigCommerce’s channel network.

“It’s efficient marketing for us, the deal size is higher, the retention is higher... So we’re looking to free up the things that aren’t performing as well to further support this,” she said.  

“The third is customer marketing. I believe I own revenue retention and it’s incumbent upon marketing to address it. If we are providing content that helps customer implement faster and get value faster, feel nurtured and supported by a company at the vanguard of what’s happening in ecommerce, they’re much more likely to stay and grow.”  

The thing about SaaS business growth is it develops over time, Pearson pointed out.

“We have been blessed with good retention and low churn, and decent NPS [Net Promoter Scores], which means no one perceives this as a broken area. It’s good it’s not, but to me there’s a great growth opportunity there,” she said. “Over the past year, we have launched new features and services we should be selling to our customers.”  

More widely, Pearson saw CMOs requiring strong business orientation both in capabilities and mindset, an ability to be persuasive, and assertiveness.

“A lot of marketers have that locked in syndrome, where they see all the opportunities and challenges but don’t feel emboldened or empowered to advocate for change or resources. They believe they should stay in their line,” she concluded. “Business acumen and persuasiveness will help overcome that.”  

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