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CMO Confessions Ep. 32: John Steinert of TechTarget

Hello webinerds and welcome back to another edition of CMO Confessions, our B2B podcast featuring opinions and perspectives from the top leaders in marketing and sales today.

In this episode, Cheri Keith, Head of Strategy and Research at ON24, is joined by John Steinert, CMO of TechTarget. Cheri and John discuss John’s career path, his advice for new marketers and his perspective on the wealth of MarTech solutions combined with the lack of marketing training available to professionals.

As always, you can find the full episode of CMO Confessions on Podbean here an edited transcript of our conversation below.

You can learn more about John and his career through his LinkedIn page here and his Twitter feed here.

If you’re interested in listening to our growing podcast series, you can find all of our episodes here in Podbean. Alternatively, you can also find us on both iTunes and Google Play stores.

Welcome to another episode of CMO Confessions.

Table of Contents:

The Journey to TechTarget
Working With Tenured Colleagues
Advice for Career Pivots
Pet Peeves in B2B Marketing
How Selling a MarTech Solution is Exciting
Future Plans

Cheri Keith:

Hello, and welcome to CMO Confessions, the weekly B2B marketing and sales podcast, where I speak with amazing guests about what it really means to be a marketing leader in today’s business world. I’m Cheri Keith, Head of Strategy and Research at ON24.

In today’s episode, I’m joined by John Steinert, CMO of TechTarget, a purchase intent provider for B2B sales and marketing. John, thank you so much for coming on today.

John Steinert:

It’s good to be here. Good to talk to you again. Nice to see your face.

The Journey to TechTarget

Cheri Keith:

Yeah, of course. I’m going to start with some questions around where you are today, what it’s like working at TechTarget. And then we’re going to jump into some more questions about maybe some of your pet peeves and you know what it’s like being a marketer working at a marketing tech and services provider.

You’ve been the TechTarget CMO for just over four years now. What’s that journey been, being there so long?

John Steinert:

I don’t know if it’s “so long.” I’d say being there a very short time, one of the interesting things about our company is how long people stay. Compared to my peers in the organization, I’m a relative newbie and there continues to be a ton to learn. And then I try to add my little bit.

Cheri Keith:

All right, how long are some of these crazy tenured people there then?

John Steinert:

So, our company is 20 years old. We started in ‚Äė99. So, going on 21. We say that we’re almost legal. We became public in 2007 now so we’ve been really transparent for quite some time.

Long-timers, including people who are many years earlier in their career than I, have been there the entire time. The leadership team, with the exception of me and a couple of other people, average about 15-plus years.

Working with Tenured Colleagues

Cheri Keith:

Wow. Are there any challenges in working in an organization where there are so many people that have been entrenched that long?

John Steinert:

I think there’s the obvious challenges: catching up to them, what they know about the company, what they know about what we do, how well they understand it, how they understand the customers. There’s a lot of embedded knowledge and we’re still a small company, relatively small compared to places I’ve been, but there’s a lot locked in people’s brains, so you have to stay cognizant of that. You have to really work with them to learn as much as you can from the people who’ve been there.

Cheri Keith:

Are there any projects that come to mind that have been particularly challenging over that tenure? Perhaps pulling on the idea that there are some people who are so knowledgeable about the customer based on their exposure at the company?

John Steinert:

Well, I think the nature of the company is that it’s sort of changed its direction or modified its path a number of times over that 20-year time span. And I think that culture and the people involved are remarkably nimble in doing that. So, they’re not particularly set in their ways. Their long careers are not built in a particular area. It’s still got this really entrepreneurial culture where people are very interested in taking their raw talent and taking on new assignments.

You could think of the history of the company as having some very distinct milestones. The company was essentially founded as a publishing company. Today it‚Äôs a major publishing company, the largest internet publisher in the enterprise tech space. So, there’s a massive volume of original content that is still created by the company.

As we all know, the media industry has evolved dramatically, and the company saw this early on. So, starting with this foundation of information products, they learned and built an infrastructure that said, “If we create these information products correctly, they will assist buyers of technology who are looking for information to support those purchases. And then if we can gain their permission, we can actually learn from the buying behaviors that are exhibited by these folks. And we can work with the sellers of technology to help them understand the buyers more directly.”

The question then became, “How do you do that? How do you serve that up in a way that the marketplace will accept it?” And the early days were simply about delivering leads. But, more and more as the infrastructure evolved, it was about what is leading up to these engagement behaviors and how can you refine the information capture, shape the content to stimulate behaviors that signal buying, and then package that for vendors so they can use that information to bring what they do to the people who are looking for solutions of those kinds.

So, we go from a media company to lead gen to data supplier, and those transitions have been really nimbly handled by this entrepreneurial and innovative culture.

Advice for Career Pivots

Cheri Keith:

That’s really interesting. I think right now, there are so many pivots happening, especially in the CMO‚Äôs world with the world being in upheaval and all live events being canceled for the very foreseeable future.

Are there any takeaways as a CMO who’s been through some pretty significant changes internally at TechTarget that you would kind of share as best practices for CMOs that are thinking about their own pivots just within their team, but also at their company level?

So many, whether they be event providers or anyone who really relied on an in-person presence to sell their product or even their product themselves, have had to make one of those changes. What would your advice be for those people?

John Steinert:

I think you’re onto something here. And I think it’s a couple of things. One is if you’re a practitioner and your bread-and-butter is doing field marketing activities, let’s hope you built your core skillset to make pivots in applying what you understand about customers and what you understand about marketing techniques, so that you’re not locked into one technique.

As a manager looking across multiple channels, I always think that it’s really useful to think in terms of the portfolio of options open to you and not to place too much emphasis on any one particular channel or technique should something happen to your ability to leverage that channel. So, if you’re overweight¬†on something like events now, you’re going to have to rebalance. We see a lot of folks saying, “Well, this worked really well last year,” and you see people jumping on board and overweighting happening. That’s normal. What really helps is to have the skillset to pivot as quickly as you can.

Cheri Keith:

Absolutely. I definitely am hearing a lot of themes around not being locked in and making sure that you’re nimble both at the company, but also within your own career.

Do you have any times in your career where you’ve had to make a pivot that might be interesting before joining TechTarget, potentially?

John Steinert:

Yeah. I wanted to talk about this positively, but there is this trend, and it gets to my pet peeve a little bit. There is this trend in marketing that marketing pretty much reflects economic conditions because so much of marketing can be a variable spend. When the economy goes south, marketing people seem to be, or in my experience, have been disproportionately affected. And so, my marketing career has been incredibly long. And I’ve been personally affected by these dramatic shifts in variable spending. But, I will say that B2B marketing, where I’ve been for 80 – 85% of my career, is less affected. Furthermore, by¬†constantly trying to skill myself, I’ve always recovered reasonably fast. It’s never been easy. I’m not sure that any career path is particularly easy.

So, what I’d say is this, and I think younger people are doing this naturally now that you have to manage your own career, you have to maintain and expand your skill sets. And you have to look forward, as well as doing what is right in front of you. And do that, both in good times and in bad times. In a bad time, you look beyond the bad time. In the good times, you look beyond the here and now. Then, disruption is less painful. It’s always a huge growing experience. It can be frightening, but we get through it.

Cheri Keith:

That’s really interesting. And I think you’re right, there are a lot of marketers right now who are going through some pretty tectonic career shifts. But like you said, in B2B, they tend to weather the storm more.

And I’ve seen a lot of event marketers that I’m personally friends with, jumping right in. And like you said, leveraging their knowledge about how to customize experiences for an audience so well, and being able to apply that by learning more about the digital opportunities that are out there. More about the different marketing tactics. So, I think we’ll see that new breed of marketer with more event planning experience be really helpful for the rest of the marketing organization where they’re able to land.

Pet Peeves in B2B Marketing

John Steinert:

Yeah. I agree with you. It kind of gets to my pet peeve.

Cheri Keith:

Yes. Tell me about your pet peeve.

John Steinert:

My pet peeve is, and I’ll speak to the SiriusDecisions thing in a second. My pet peeve is that we have not yet, in B2B marketing, found a way to provide enough education to our teams. The first part of it is, nobody studies B2B marketing in college. They might study B2B sales in a very specific type of business program, but they don’t study B2B marketing. And I can’t really understand why that is because it takes so long to learn. There are so many different parts to B2B marketing. It takes so long to learn them. We’re really slowing everybody down because first, they’re not trained when they come in.

And second, we don’t have structured training programs to accelerate their growth. So, contrast that to, at least our sales organization, where we train every week formally and, many times beyond that for the people who are just coming on board. So, why it is that marketing organizations, or companies as a whole, don’t structure marketing training the same way they do sales training is beyond me.

So, the SiriusDecisions thing is, I have always said, “You’ve got wonderful training materials,” but they’re not pushed hard enough. So, for some reason, I just don’t see it. Except with Summit, which is a huge training opportunity, but completely overwhelming. The track training that’s available is something I think the industry really needs. And I’d be fascinated, or I’d be excited when an organization figures out how to become the standard for training for marketers across portfolio marketing, product marketing, executional marketing and even the technical elements and marketing ops.

Cheri Keith:

That’s really interesting. I think we’ve seen some data show that CMOs have a priority on training. It always ends up in the top 10, but you’re right. No one’s really nailed it. There are whole teams dedicated to sales enablement, like you were mentioning before, but we just don’t see that on marketing enablement.

It’s been my experience that it usually just falls to the manager of those people, not even a department head to actually train people. So, if a director has a manager under them, a manager’s job to ensure that the specialist is trained. There ends up being many [inaudible]¬†the marketers come up to speed. What do you think of that?

John Steinert:

Yeah, it’s a huge gap and when we talk about pivots you make in your career, it now is incumbent on each person to train herself. And I can’t say that loudly enough. If for some odd reason, B2B marketing has captured your attention. So, the obvious reason is that B2B marketing is a great career, right? There’s clearly a huge need for marketers. You can have a long and wonderful career. You can rise really high in an organization. But, it’s not quite as flashy. It’s harder to tell your friends about it. It’s not easy, cocktail party conversation, but it’s endlessly fascinating. So, it’s not a flashy kind of job, at least for many of the career paths. But, if you find the complexity, the rigor, the endless options fascinating, then make the effort to gain new skills.

You have to do a lot of reading. And if you do that, you grow yourself. You protect yourself and it opens doors for you. So, if your organization is not offering that in a formal way, what I’m saying is, you gotta be self-starting. You gotta look after yourself and you’ve got to pursue that on your own. And I’d say that’s probably one of the greatest ways marketers can use things like LinkedIn to develop networks and to ask questions, like, “What should I read next?” of people like me and you. Because when they do, marketers are remarkably friendly about that kind of thing. The community is not that large of B2B marketers, especially B2B tech marketers. And so, we tend to have big networks and we tend to like to help people.

How Selling a MarTech Solution is Exciting

Cheri Keith:

I think that’s a really interesting point because you’re right. There’s not necessarily always the secret sauce, because it all comes down to how you’re actually going to apply it internally. So, you can be very open and share¬†your learnings as a marketer with another marketer. But, let’s take this positive spin on that then.

So, we’ve gone over the pet peeves, what excites you most about B2B marketing? And it’s interesting because you do work at a company that’s very cutting edge and a lot of the work they’re doing in order to help inform marketers. So, you can look at it from that perspective or also your own perspective as leading that organization.

John Steinert:

Yeah. It’s very difficult to answer the question, “What excites you most?” The thing that excites me most day to day, is how fast it’s changing and how competitive it is because we sell a solution. We’re in a very competitive space. If you read those market landscape things where there are 5,000 or 8,000 MarTech solutions, it’s just craziness. And so that makes it endlessly exciting day-to-day. Terrifying at times. Confusing at times.

You have to learn to keep focus, but at the same time, observe what’s going on because you don’t know what wonderful new sort of innovation or capability is going to prove useful. So, that’s very exciting. More specifically, we’re finally getting to the point of using data in marketing. Really hands-on use of data to improve what we do.

And so, it kind of started with the involvement of predictive modeling, but now it’s getting into the behavioral data space, which is a sort of more agile approach. If you look at what’s just happened, obviously this is a Black Swan situation that we’re in, but we were talking about if you lose one channel, how do you pivot?

If you think about a predictive model being built on historical data and the historical data is no longer valid because we’re in an unprecedented situation, you’ve got to find a way to pivot to something different and related. So, if you’re building up your data skills, you’re understanding the data you have. Now is the time to start understanding the data you don’t have and trying to be more agile as you adjust to whatever is going on week to week in the marketplace.

Cheri Keith:

That’s definitely one thing that was top of mind for me the other day, actually. I was thinking as¬†we were upscaling our current team about how we want to be more data-driven because we as an organization need to do better at that. But, there actually aren’t a lot of training on how to use data for marketers. So, I think that’s a, maybe we should go start a company doing that and be co-CEOs. How’s that?

John Steinert:

Yeah, it’s a big thing. It really is hard. I think you’ve got the operative term there. It’s “use the data.” So, we can get stuck in just looking at the¬†data, but then what do you do? And that really is the sticking point in becoming a data-driven organization because you have to have this action orientation.

That requires something that we can learn from sales, I think. One of the most wonderful things about salespeople and if you compare salespeople to me in particular, but maybe I can stand in as sort of a general example of marketers. They are much less risk-averse. So, they are always forward-looking, forward-moving and very much sort of like an athlete‚Ķ [inaudible]¬†goalie, if you’re scored on, you can’t dwell on having just been scored on. You can’t be distracted by that. You have to look forward because if you dwell on your mistakes, you won’t have the emotional focus to continue getting better, to get ready for the next play. And so, salespeople are really daring.

Cheri Keith:

Hmm.

John Steinert:

And marketers are not so daring because they’re afraid that somebody will criticize their work. It’s in public. It’s large scale. Maybe mistakes can have a big effect, but that tends to make us a little bit more conservative in things we do. So, my point is when you get the data and it’s telling you to do something, you’ve got to do it. You gotta do it. And if it’s behavioral data, you gotta do it fast because the longer you wait, the more opportunity you’re missing.

Cheri Keith:

You’re right. Salespeople definitely tend to put themselves out there more than marketers and I think acting on the data quickly is so important. But, also it takes courage sometimes to act on that data, because it could be showing you something that you did in the past was wrong or not working. And I think that’s where you often¬†see marketers getting afraid of using the data because they view it as they were doing something wrong rather than because we¬†have new information and we have to act on the new information.

It doesn’t mean that what you did in the past was wrong. It just means, “Now we have more information and now we are making different decisions.” I think that’s been my experience, so far. I’m not sure if that resonates with you at all, though.

John Steinert:

Yeah, absolutely. How do you get culturally to an experiment-oriented organization? How can you create a bigger percentage of your total effort that is open to experiments? It takes a huge amount of energy. It requires real creativity, and that’s hard for people. But, it’s essential to improve marketing performance.

So, getting stuck in your job, not being prepared for pivots, not being risk averse is all part of the same sort of cultural change that we want to create in marketing. We can foster it by training, but we also have to foster it as managers by celebrating efforts to try different things. Obviously, they have to be wisely chosen. It’s not simply, “We’re going to buy this new tool and we’re going to do this stuff because we’ve heard it’s cool.” There should be real rationales. It’s helpful to write these down. Anytime you document your rationale, it sort of forces you to reflect a little bit before you pull the trigger on something.

Cheri Keith:

Yeah. I think, the mis-purchases of MarTech are, maybe there’s a way to layer that on top of all these crazy landscapes that we see to be like, what percentage of these technologies are purchased in haste, and ended up being returned after a few years or not used or underutilized? I forget the exact statistic, but it came out of Gartner. It was like 58% of MarTech capabilities go unused. It just can’t be that way.

John Steinert:

Yeah. I think the reason that we buy stuff now, still, is not because it’s helping drive the business outcome that the organization is trying to get to, but that it helps us do our particular job. The odd thing is that doing our job may not be helping the business outcome very directly. And that’s a very difficult thing for an individual to grapple with. It is the job that I do. The best thing that can be done to improve business results. That is very hard to answer as an individual. This is the job I’m assigned. So, it’s the one I’m going to do. And it’s super hard because we’re doing it all manually. So, I needed a tool and I can show I’m going to save labor by buying a tool.

So, now we have the tool and then only later do we realize that this particular channel or how we were trying to engage with this audience was not effective at all with that audience. So, then we have to abandon both the tool and sort of downsize the channel. I would say it’s really helpful to try to understand what the actual impact of what you do every day is on the business. And as you plot your career, you plot your path, try to get closer and closer to things that are more directly impactful, if you can.

Cheri Keith:

One piece of advice I heard early in my career also was to always attach your star to another rising star and learn from the people who are navigating it well, because they tend to have the best advice rather than going to someone who might be not the one who’s always looking at continuous improvement and training.

John Steinert:

Yeah. I think there’s another piece to that. It is to keep¬†your eye both on the ball, where it is, and also on where it’s going to be. So, if you’re going to connect with other people who are inspired in some way, that’s really good. Look for inspiration beyond what you do every day. Constantly ask yourself if you can get from here to there, but also really focus on delivering what you’ve been asked to do. Because that’s how you gain recognition by having done what you were asked to do and more. So, unfortunately, so many of us are asked to do tasks, enough tasks in a day that there doesn’t seem to be time for more, and I don’t have a solution for that kind of overwhelming amount of work. I’m a really bad example of how to balance work and life.

What I found is a career that I really am interested in because there’s so many different aspects of it. Now I’m mature enough so that I don’t have kids to take care of anymore and I can spend even more time on it. I’m not recommending spending as much time as I seem to spend, but I am recommending doing the job you’ve been asked to do well and innovating on top of it. So, I think it’s essential to do both those things. How you get it done is sort of a challenge. But, nobody I know who moves faster than average, who realizes some of their ambitions, has done it by having bigger priorities outside of that job. They’ve had other priorities and they’ve learned to balance those priorities, but the job actually is a priority for them.

Future Plans

Cheri Keith:

Yep. It’s always a juggling act. And as someone who has kids on the smaller side, I know it for sure. I’m just glad no one came bombing into the podcast today.

I have one more question for you before we closeout. We are heading into the summer months, but are there any projects that you are looking at over the next few months that perhaps you’re really looking forward to or ones that have been on your radar that you haven’t had a chance to tackle that you’ll be tackling?

John Steinert:

Yeah, as we always do, we have a summer release. That summer release, I think is going to be really exciting for the market. It should be terrifying for our competition and it’s all-around contact level, opt-in contact level intent data.

The way I started out this conversation was I talked about publishing and it is what we publish and how we publish that elicits real purchase intent signals. More and more we’ve found that to make these signals particularly useful to sellers, they have to be really clear at the individual level. And so, the more information you can provide that is useful to having sales conversations and to enabling a sales organization, and even a product organization, to understand and work to solve customer problems the more value you can get out of the data. And so, we’re really focused on how do you let the people who are interacting with the customers, how do you give them access to data at the granularity that is particularly actionable for them?

So, we’ve got the summer release, we’re doing all the things we can to explain and beta it right now. And then they’ll roll it outright at the end of their quarter and the market will be awed and thrilled that we’re helping them to this extent.

Cheri Keith:

Well, it sounds like you have a full plate with that and obviously wish you and the team the best of luck. We’ll all be sitting here very excited to see that come out at the end of the summer, then.

John Steinert:

Good. I’d love to come back and tell you all about it.

Cheri Keith:

Yes, of course. Well, thank you so much for your time today, John. I know I’ve enjoyed our time together and your takeaways about the need to have marketing training, nimbleness, and looking at the data. I think our audience will definitely benefit for that.

So, thank you for your time and thank you, Audience, for tuning in.

John Steinert:

Good to be here.