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“To avoid burnout, go scratch your creative itch” with Twilio’s CMO, Sara Varni

As a part of my series about “Marketing Strategies From The Top”, I had the pleasure to interview Sara Varni, CMO at Twilio. Sara is responsible for growing Twilio’s community of developers while simultaneously bringing Twilio into the enterprise market. Prior to Twilio, Sara was SVP of Marketing at Salesforce where she was responsible for […]

As a part of my series about “Marketing Strategies From The Top”, I had the pleasure to interview Sara Varni, CMO at Twilio.

Sara is responsible for growing Twilio’s community of developers while simultaneously bringing Twilio into the enterprise market. Prior to Twilio, Sara was SVP of Marketing at Salesforce where she was responsible for the positioning and go-to-market strategy for Sales Cloud, the world’s leading sales platform. At Salesforce, Sara held various leadership roles, including marketing for Desk.com and the Salesforce AppExchange. Before joining Salesforce, Sara worked in mobile strategy at E! Networks. She holds a BS in Business Administration from Bucknell University and an MBA from The Anderson School of Management at UCLA.


Thank you for joining us Sara! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was born loving advertising and marketing. I grew up out in the boondocks and so I spent a lot of time in the car listening to the radio with my mom going to school, soccer practice, piano lessons, etc. I can basically sing any jingle now from 1982–1992. I was a student council nerd and running for office in middle school and high school were examples of some of my first campaigns. I remember running for yard and safety officer in sixth grade and I did a modified rap of Will Smith’s ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’ that said, “If you don’t vote for me, I just won’t understand.” These experiences all helped me to take rejection well too.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m embarrassed to say I had a few to choose from here. Early in my career at Salesforce, I was presenting for a room of about 500 Texans as part of our roadshow in Dallas and I had forgotten to turn off the notifications on my laptop. One of my best friends kept IM’ing me about when we could meet up for happy hour. I definitely had to do some maneuvering to get the presentation back on track. In the moment was mortified, but the crowd was great. The moral of the story — be prepared for whatever you might encounter with a live audience, know the high-level points you always want to make and always turn off your notifications.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

The tipping point for me was when I started to do things that weren’t included in the traditional marketing playbook. I remember years ago we hosted an event called Business App Bootcamp at Salesforce to capitalize on the momentum we were seeing from app developers building for the iPhone. Salesforce hadn’t hosted an event like this and I had to make the case for it, come up with the format, the branding, the speakers, etc. I’ll be honest, I was scared to death that no one would show up, but the event ended up being a huge success and was a game changer for our ecosystem. I don’t always get it right, but this event affirmed for me that to really drive change, you have to take some risks and swing for the fences.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Twilio is a developer-first company, which means building and creating is in our DNA. Every person from our engineers to the executive team, approaches the work with a unique builder spirit, which is then passed on to our customers. One of our core values — draw the owl — reflects this ethos really well. Back when the company was first starting, a meme kept circulating that showed how to draw an owl in two images. The first step is to draw two circles. The next and last step is “draw the rest of the owl” without any explanation of how to get from two circles to the beautifully detailed final product. The meme and what it stood for really resonated, and came to represent the builder/creator mentality that defines Twilio. To the company, drawing the owl means there’s no instruction book, it’s ours to write.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My team is gearing up for SIGNAL, Twilio’s annual customer and developer conference. SIGNAL has been one of the most valuable ways to engage our customers and developers over the years. At its core, Twilio is about empowering doers, builders that create with the tools we give them. These folks want to get their hands on the technology we offer and build with it right away. SIGNAL creates that unique, experiential environment that enables builders and customers to see and interact with the magic of Twilio in new, tactile ways.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Go scratch your creative itch. It’s easy to get in a rut if you only focus on your company and the tasks in front of you. I always recommend that my teams get out of the building and try to grab ideas from the world around them. This might mean visiting your local MOMA, watching all of the Super Bowl ads or even meeting with a friend from another industry for coffee. As a B2B marketer, I’m constantly thinking about marketing tactics that resonated with me in the B2C world and how I can translate them for a business buyer or campaign. For example, when the Tasty cooking videos became all of the rage, we built similar demo style videos for one of our new products.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I think different people help you through different phases in your career. From working with people like Leyla Seka I’ve learned how to push myself out of my comfort zone and take risks. This extends further to people like Shannon Duffy and Jamie Domenici who taught me how to run killer campaigns alongside a sales team and people like Mike Rosenbaum who taught me how to act presidential, no matter how stressful a situation might be. The combination of employees, peers, and managers I’ve worked with over the last 15 years have made me the marketer I am today.

There are hundreds of memorable marketing campaigns that have become part of the lexicon of our culture. What is your favorite marketing or branding campaign from history? Can you explain why you like that so much?

I’m a sucker for a good story. I loved the “The Web is What You Make of It” campaign in 2015 from Google. They made a web browser emotional and communicated the power of their apps through various life events like a child growing up, a parent dying and a couple going through a breakup. I still remember these ads vividly and often use them as an example for any of my teams when I want us to create a more emotional, ‘pull at the heart strings’ type of piece.

If you could break down a very successful campaign into a “blueprint”, what would that blueprint look like? Please share some stories or examples of your ideas.

The ideal campaign finds the perfect intersection between company relevance and global relevance. I’ve loved the Dream Crazier ads from Nike. They’ve found a great way to highlight some of the recent breakthroughs in women’s sports while subtly reminding people of the role that Nike plays in these athlete’s lives.

Companies like Google and Facebook have totally disrupted how companies market over the past 15 years. At the same time, consumers have become more jaded and resistant to anything “salesy”. In your industry, where do you see the future of marketing going?

There’s a really interesting shift happening right now. Twilio recently released a report that found that people want their interactions with businesses to be real, two-way conversations that build over time, rather than one-off interactions on channels they didn’t choose. More and more, there’s an expectation that businesses need to reach out to customers on the right channel at the right time with personalized content. This type of thoughtful customer engagement is a critical part of building brand loyalty and positive customer experiences.

Can you please tell us the 5 things you wish someone told you before you started? Can you please share a story or example for each.

Hire the Best: Never be afraid to hire your replacement. It will help get you out of the weeds and be able to operate at another level.

See the Opportunity in Stretch Projects: Be open to extracurricular projects even if they aren’t squarely in your job description. This is where you are likely to learn the most, interact with more senior leaders and prove yourself as a leader.

Focus on the Last 5%: Words and details matter. Write like you would talk and make sure you test your content in the market. Super crisp, memorable messaging is often the difference between good and great marketing.

Get Out of the Building: Meet with your target profile of customer as often as you can and build a network of peers outside of your company. This will help give you perspective and ensure that you are building more well-rounded programs that will resonate with your buyer.

Market Your Marketing: Especially in B2B, one of the biggest levers for your campaigns can be your internal employees. Don’t forget to communicate what you and your team have been working on and make sure to have clear calls to action or “CTAs” for your internal teams to promote your programs.

Can you share a few examples of marketing tools or marketing technology that you think can dramatically empower small business owners to become more effective marketers?

I typically recommend tools that give you “the blowfish effect”. In other words, tools that can make you appear way bigger than you actually are as a small business. Marketing technology like Marketo, Outreach, and of course Twilio can help you build customized communications at scale.

What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?

I love books like ‘Made to Stick’ that focus on how you can fine tune your marketing to go from good to great. I’m also always inspired by entrepreneurial stories. I love listening to podcasts like How I Built Thisor listening to a good pitch off at industry events.

Who is your hero? Can you explain or share a story about why that person resonates with you?

My 8-year-old son Parker is my hero. He’s autistic and approaches life in an entirely different way. I’ve loved watching him grow and come out of his shell. He reminds me that to be a truly high-impact marketer, you need to think about messaging and programs that can resonate with all types of people.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would love to inspire a massive mentorship movement for women. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by strong role models (both male and female) for the bulk of my career and I want that to be an experience that all women can access across the globe.

How Can Readers Follow You Online?

You can follow me on Twitter at @saravarnibright.

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