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Interview with Sharat Sharan, President, Co-Founder & CEO at ON24

On Marketing Technology MTS: Tell us a little bit about your role and how you got here. (what inspired you to start a martech company)

I serve as CEO and co-founder of ON24, the leading webinar marketing platform that helps companies engage customers at scale and deliver meaningful data and analytics on those interactions. But, if you had asked me fifteen years ago if I’d be leading the company that invented the marketing webinar, I’d probably ask, “what’s a webinar?” We started ON24 as a 24-hour multimedia news platform that focused on the retail investor, like a version of CNBC or Reuters. But, two major trends converged that resulted in our pivot to martech — the rise of digital marketing and the fast-growth Silicon Valley companies around us that all needed a way to efficiently market and sell an increasingly complicated product. A lightbulb went off and we realized that the same digital transformation that was reshaping the news industry would also forever impact traditional business communications. That’s when the idea for the business-led webcast was born, and we shifted our focus to helping companies create digital experiences where they could directly engage their customer. After transitioning to a webcast-as-a-service provider, we realized that three quarters of our customers were using our technology for marketing and demand generation.  We’ve now matured from a full webcasting service into a self-service, engagement-driven webinar marketing platform where over 1600 businesses delivered 85,000 webinars last year with an average viewing time of over 50 minutes. And, that’s really our core mission and my inspiration, to help marketers achieve engagement at scale through the power of data driven marketing webinars. MTS: Given the massive proliferation of marketing technology, how do you see the martech market evolving over the next few years? Just like the assembly line ushered in the industrial revolution, CRM and marketing automation technologies are what started the entire martech ecosystem, giving us a powerful foundation to efficiently market at scale.  But, marketing isn’t just about increasing the quantity of customer interactions, it’s about deepening their quality. The technology we use must give us the ability to do more than just scale. I believe that today’s marketer needs a new layer in their martech stack focused on delivering engagement at scale, enabling marketers to reach hundreds and thousands of prospects on a personal level. And, when you do create an experience that captivates an audience for nearly an hour, the incredible amount of behavioral data you can gather makes future sales and marketing interactions all the more personalized. As this engagement marketing category evolves, the marketing automation layer will also need to change along with it so that these rich data points can be integrated into campaigns. MTS: What do you see as the single most important technology trend or development that’s going to impact us? The rise of the millennial buyer will be a game-changer for our industry. We’ve known for a while that approximately 60% of buyers self-educate before talking to sales. Think about that ten years from now when a majority of the workforce consists of millennials. There’s no doubt the number of self-educating buyers will increase, and we’re going to see decision makers who may never talk to sales. This means marketers, and marketing technology, will be responsible for engaging customers throughout their entire lifecycle. It’s a huge challenge, and why I believe we’ll see more and more technologies that help marketers meet customers wherever, however, whenever they desire and use that touchpoint to understand what customers might want next. MTS: What’s the biggest challenge that CMOs need to tackle to make marketing technology work? Today, there really is no excuse not to know our customers. Marketers need to find a way to integrate the entire martech stack to provide a 360-degree view of their customers and build campaigns that are informed by every touchpoint across any channel. There’s a lot of conversation around consolidation in martech as a solution to the integration problem, but I don’t think that’s the answer. Instead, the major marketing platforms can differentiate by maximizing the value of the martech applications built on their platform and strengthen their respective integrations. That’s how we’ll be able to leverage cutting-edge, experimental technologies like virtual reality, interactive video, live messaging, etc. to engage customers and build a relationship with them. MTS: What startups are you watching/keen on right now? In the martech space, I’m really interested in technology companies focused on scaling customer advocacy. Influitive, for example, is a start-up who helped ON24 build a robust community of customer advocates that act as our brand ambassadors. There’s nothing more powerful than a customer success story to explain the value of our product. I’m also always watching other start-ups backed by Goldman Sachs’ private venture fund. When we partnered with them to raise our last round, we were really impressed by their financial diligence and global network to help us scale our business. Symphony is an interesting start-up that Goldman Sachs is incubating to provide a secure messaging platform for the banking sector. Their emergence demonstrates that businesses still need specialized, enterprise-grade technologies to get work done. I think that start-ups building enterprise applications that enable workplaces to communicate and collaborate as seamlessly as Facebook or Snapchat have a great opportunity for growth over the next few years. MTS: What tools does your marketing stack consist of in 2017? Our marketing stack is built on a strong CRM and marketing automation foundation; we’re currently using Salesforce and Marketo. As a CEO, I think it is so important to have a single view of the truth for every customer that I can see in real-time. That’s what keeps me informed on the health of our business and ensures we’re aligned internally around every customer touchpoint. But, the value of CRM and marketing automation tools are only as worthwhile as the data they contain. We leverage our ON24 marketing webinar platform to engage our customers and prospects at scale, generating high-quality leads informed by the data we’ve gained from that engagement. Then, we further put that data to work with technologies like Conductor, DemandBase and Optimizely to further personalize the customer experience. I think the most important take-away here is that no technology is a silver bullet to build a customer relationship. B2B companies need a technology stack that enables meaningful engagement with customers and prospects throughout the buying lifecycle. MTS: Could you tell us about a standout digital campaign? (Who was your target audience and how did you measure success) One of our greatest successes over the past few years was an integrated marketing campaign called, “Where’s Your ROI?” that challenged marketers to evaluate their marketing programs based on business impact and cost efficiency. We wanted marketers to realize that you can’t treat every marketing program equally; the cost of customer acquisition is a critical consideration. By changing the conversation from speeds and feeds to ROI, we spoke to our customers as strategic advisors instead of transactional software vendors. We took that message to market through email, digital advertising, organic social media, PR and an on-site guerilla activation at Dreamforce. The marketing-qualified leads generated by the campaign resulted in a win rate of nearly 30%, exceeding our goal of 25%. MTS: How do you prepare for an AI-centric world as a marketing leader? The beauty of AI, and technology in general, is that it makes the science of our jobs so much easier and way more accurate — predicting pipeline, scheduling an email follow-up, anticipating the piece of content a customer may like best and so on. By taking away the burden of that manual work, we gain the time and energy to create great experiences for our customers. I’d much prefer my team use their talent to humanize campaigns and make them unique than manually calculating projected pipeline. I think the important thing for marketers is not to get caught up with the latest shiny toy. AI has huge potential, but any brand can adopt a new technology. Businesses that remain true to their values and build customer relationships will win. THIS IS HOW I WORK MTS: One word that best describe how you work. I’d have to choose two words –  passionate and focused. It’s easy to get excited about the next big idea, but having the discipline to execute on it determines success. MTS: What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Salesforce is an invaluable tool for knowing where we stand in real-time and managing a responsible business. I think a CEO must stay grounded in the numbers and make data-driven business decisions to build a company that lasts. MTS: What’s your smartest work related shortcut or productivity hack? Set aside two to three weeks a quarter to go on the road to meet with customers face-to-face. Hearing their direct feedback saves a lot of guesswork and heartburn in the long run. And, investing in the relationship over time builds the trust you need for a sustainable partnership. MTS: What are you currently reading? (What do you read, and how do you consume information?) Two books, which I’ve read multiple times and I believe have helped shape my career include: On the Brink by Hank Paulson Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson MTS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? Be able to pivot. With technology today, the only thing that is constant is change. Your business needs to stay flexible to adapt. Entrepreneurs need to check their ego at the door and do what’s best for the company — even if it strays from their original vision. MTS: Something you do better than others – the secret of your success? I think the secret to ON24’s success is based on the people I’ve hired. I think I have a pretty good eye for people who will be successful, and that’s the most important asset to your company. Good people have a domino effect, they make everyone better – people in different departments, people who report to them, everyone. They’ve taken ON24 to a place I didn’t imagine was possible back when we started the company. MTS: Tag the one person whose answers to these questions you would love to read: Marc Benioff — he helped pioneer the SaaS business model, and changed how business software is bought, which in turn, has transformed the way we market, sell and support customers. Plus, I admire his commitment to philanthropy and giving back to the local San Francisco community. MTS: Thank you Sharat! That was fun and hope to see you back on MarTech Series soon.