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What drew you to tech marketing? Honestly, it wasn’t that I was drawn to tech marketing per se. What drew me in were the stories I thought I would have the chance to tell and the things I hoped to learn.

My first tech marketing job was at GitHub. I’d been a fan of the company and the product for a long time before joining the team, and having the chance to market a product I used and believed in was incredible. I knew I could create something real from those experiences. What I also loved about GitHub and what ultimately led me to Slack is that both products require behavior change for people to get value out of them. GitHub changes how you program. Slack shifts how you communicate. In general, though, people don’t like changing their behavior, so to do marketing that makes them want to requires precision and substance. It’s made me a better marketer.

How has your studies in theology influenced your understanding of marketing? Studying theology gave me a crash course in why people build belief systems. All of us are trying to make sense of our place in this massive universe, and, at the same time, we’re trying to say something about who we are. Religious systems provide context for both of those ends for many people. Oddly enough, so do brands. I think this places extra responsibility on marketing to not only be excellent enough to earn people’s time and attention, but also to be aware and respectful of the fact that people have perspectives and interests that are broader than your product.

What did you learn from your experience leading marketing at Slack? So many things! I started at Slack when we were only 300 people, and the company more than quadrupled in size during my time there. Nothing teaches you like constant change.

Of the many lessons I’ll take with me, two stand out the most. First is that it’s well worth it to optimize for delivering value to others. Instead of gating content or creating long forms with lots of required fields, build experiences that do something substantial for your users. For example, at Slack, we reply to every person who contacts us on Twitter, even if it’s just to thank them for their feedback. These efforts go a long way in signaling how Slack will treat you when you become a customer.

Second is that when a company is moving at the pace of Slack, planning is guessing. It’s nearly impossible, with any sense of fidelity, to predict what you’ll be working on two quarters from now. If you can instead give everyone clear goals that help them understand success, and strong guiding principles that help them understand what good work looks like, you’ll find that what a team creates is better than if you had tried to firmly control everything. I was consistently proud of what folks on the Slack marketing team would develop and ship, because it was the right thing at the right time.

What inspired your decision to leave Slack? I’ve had this renewing five-year plan to branch out on my own and work with more marketing leaders, and I’ve just come to a place personally and professionally where I don’t want to keep that dream in the future any longer. Marketing has also reached an interesting inflection point where the more traditional methods of demand generation aren’t working as well as they used to, and no one is quite sure how to measure brand spend or how much brand marketing to do. The world needs better marketing, and I want to play a more focused role in helping marketers answers the questions we are all facing as an industry.

A company can talk, but it also has to listen. You can’t control or limit conversations. You have to earn the chance to participate.”
You’ve written that “markets are conversations.” How so? “Markets are conversations” is the first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto, which is at the top of my recommended reading list for marketers. The point here is that your efforts happen in a much broader context where there’s ongoing public dialogue. Humans are constantly finding ways to talk to other humans about brands and products, especially with platforms today that enable people to talk beyond the scope of corporate messaging, like Twitter and Yelp. Conversations also have a particular flow to them. A company can talk, but it also has to listen. You can’t control or limit conversations. You have to earn the chance to participate.

By nature then, I don’t think of campaigns as conversations, but more that their tactics should have conversational qualities. One of my proudest moments at Slack was when the product marketing team decided that as part of the Threads launch, they’d reply to every person on Twitter who’d asked for the feature. It was a human, empathetic move—hundreds of people had asked for a feature, and we were now getting back to them to tell them it was available. That’s how conversations work.

How can marketers thrive in this age of data and numbers? We should all remember that we are communicating with fellow humans who deserve craft and courtesy, and that when we reduce them to numbers on a spreadsheet, the work becomes hollow. Data is useful, don’t get me wrong, but data can’t be the sole driver of how you develop your programs. If it is the primary input, you might be successful at gaming the numbers, but you won’t create a base of advocacy or increase loyalty for your product. With the tools available today, anyone can bait some people to try out a product. It’s much harder to create active users who will stick with you for the long term.

How should brands balance personalization and trust? There are two truths for me here. First: trust is always earned, and it enables personalization to feel acceptable. Second: personalization efforts should benefit users more than the brand.

Personalization goes over best for me when it comes after I’ve demonstrated some level of interest in your product. If I give you some piece of information about me—say my name—then you can feel free to address me as such. When it happens the other way around and someone serves me an ad that seems to know too much about me, it feels gross.

Another thing I’m seeing lately is that personalization efforts aren’t curious enough or are entirely self-serving for a company. For instance, I’ve had a chair in a checkout cart for a few days because I haven’t gotten around to completing the purchase. Now I see that chair everywhere. A more curious take would be for that company to consider why I haven’t completed the purchase and to personalize its outreach to me in a way that offers something of value.

What is the advertising and creative scene like in Silicon Valley? How does it inspire you? This might be a somewhat contrarian take, but I don’t find the scene in Silicon Valley particularly inspiring. This place is so far removed from reality, and I find that much of the work I come across lacks substance. In the past six months, I’ve been more inspired by campaigns from Nike and John Lewis, to name just a few. They weren’t just trying to be edgy for the sake of it; they had purpose.

What do you think the responsibility of the CMO is today? The expectations of CMOs seem to shift every few years. One day, the CMO is in service of sales. The next week, the CMO is tasked with brand and creative. I think these takes miss a larger point, however. A CMO should be the driver of customer experience, and not just when it comes to ads and collateral. Everything a company does is marketing, from the way office visitors are greeted to billing flows. It all communicates who a company is and what it cares about. When experiences differ from what a company says about itself in marketing, you can bet that people notice. CMOs can deliver a ton of value by helping to align experiences across every part of the company so that what customers are told is what they actually encounter.

What advice do you have for someone just entering the industry? Learn to write. Push whatever you’re working on to the point of delight. Question everything.

Kelly Watkins helps growth-stage companies connect the advances of an ever-expanding marketing toolset with quality and substance in how they market. Previously, she was the vice president of global marketing at Slack, where she oversaw brand, product, platform, and growth marketing, as well as events and editorial. Watkins helped Slack grow from one million to ten millions users, expanding the marketing organization and key programs across the world. She has also led marketing at GitHub and Bugsnag, consulted on brand and marketing strategy for organizations like Intel and the US Department of Defense, and ran communications at various nonprofits. She is a big fan of spicy food, sunny weather, and the Oxford comma.


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