Hey Kevan. Thanks for joining me. How are you doing today?
I'm good, David. Thanks so much for having me.
Yeah, it's a real honor to have you here. To have someone from Buffer and amazing, amazing company on the podcast. Maybe we want to just jump right in and start off. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about Buffer, what's unique about you guys and why so many of us, as SaaS founders and companies look up to you guys.
Yeah, I appreciate the kind words. So Buffer is a social media management platform and we have products that help with social media scheduling and planning, analytics and engagement. And it's really fun to work here because we do have the products and like the typical SaaS stuff, but we also try to approach work a bit differently. We are very transparent in everything that we do, so sharing our numbers, sharing her salaries, sharing our learnings as we go through through SaaS life, and then we were fully remote. That's one unique thing about us and then we're based on some really awesome cultural values that help guide a guide our work and help us aspire to be better people in all of the things that we do.
What's your favorite like cultural value that you guys have.
There's lots of popular ones like positivity, transparency, I think my favorite one is one about listening because I, I do tend to be more of a listener by nature, so I love that, I have permission to do it since that's part of the, part of the core beliefs here. So yeah, that's probably my favorite.
That's a good one. And I think it really ties into marketing too, so much of marketing is listening to your prospective customer, who they are, what they're doing, and learning about how you can serve them better so that that's really valuable and that's a great time. So let's talk about you when you joined the Buffer team when you guys got and you know, when you joined in and maybe what the company looked like at that time. Maybe you could talk about MRR or the customer size, what it looked like when you joined.
Yeah. I have been a Buffer for four years, I just celebrated my four year anniversary a couple months ago. Thank you. I appreciate that. Four years in SaaS feels like, I don't know, eight years or 16 years or some sort of multiplier I think you have to apply.
I think that's a five times multiplier...
So 20 years and it's, it's been an incredible ride. It's been really great. So I joined as employee number 17 and we are at about 75 people today. When I joined we were doing just under 3,000,000 in annual revenue and we weren't even tracking so many things back then. I couldn't even tell you how many customers we had back then. So we were just kind of doing the basics and uh, yeah, it was, it was one of the, the greatest experience as just being in part of that early stage startup life. It was wonderful.
What were they looking for when, you were reached out you or like what were you looking for when you joined that company? Were there anyone else? Was there anyone else in the marketing team or you're just coming in as a director of marketing?
Yeah, I came in as the other end of the spectrum from director. I came in as a, as a content writer just a very focused niche role helping out on the blog and our, one of our co-founders, he was kind of the marketing half of the founding team and so he was doing some great stuff with marketing and growth and all that. And I joined maybe two weeks after someone else on the team joined as another content writer and she kinda took over more of the leadership role at the start there. She's since transitioned into a people team role. So I'm kind of the last, last few remain marketer from that era, but uh, yeah, I started as a, as a content writer and was lucky to progress up from there.
So it sounds like one of the founders had a major focus on doing content writing, which is why he brought in some content writers. What was working at that time? What was maybe one of your initial, you know, jobs, responsibilities, initiatives given for the content production?
Yeah, yeah. He did some amazing things. His name was Leo Widrich and just fantastic writer. He, you know, probably like most early stage SaaS companies, it was what, what channel is going to work and he tried so many different channels and the one that stuck was content marketing specifically the tactics that worked for him was guest posting. So he would, he would write, you know, one to two posts a day and always be pitching different spots. And then we did have some success on our own blog and that, that was great, which kind of precipitated the need to hire for it. And when I joined, it was interesting time, um, when I was applying for the role, the Buffer blog was known as this kind of scientific productivity, life hacking type of resource and really, really far reaching content that it was on there and write almost right when I joined, we pivoted the entire blogs focus to be completely social media. So we wanted to set up an expertise and authority on social media. So that was probably my first initiative was write some big far reaching great social media content. So that was a fun challenge.
Is that because you guys recognize that the blog was not attracting the right audience and that you wanted to go specifically into the authority in social media or why would the pivot?
Yeah, exactly. So we would have very, very far reaching articles that did not convert and we wanted to flip that and say we're ok if they don't go as far, but we want them to convert higher. So the probably the timing of it was really great. So we were able to establish a pretty good page rank and pretty good notoriety just in, in a big email list and things, but then the pivot really helps kind of centralize the theme of Buffer when you heard about Buffer before you might have heard about us from productivity or life hacking content and the connection wasn't there with social media and we wanted to really make that connection very explicit. And, and you know, with, of course, the goal of maybe driving more signups and more awareness for that.
Did you guys see almost instantaneous, like transitioned to a, I guess success. I don't know what you guys, what'd you guys define as success from that initiative and that switch?
Yeah, I think success was like not not losing a certain amount of traffic, I guess not going too far below the threshold and it worked out great. We had evergreen traffic from the big blog posts that continued for months and months afterwards. So the new posts I was, we were lucky and I think I got lucky, kind of caught lightening in a bottle with a couple of the posts that really took off and were really within our social media niche, the signups and things, they, they came, they were definitely more than what we had before, but our approach to content that's very top of funnel that's very, very much a soft sell. So it was, it was kind of a more of a brand play for us connecting the brand social media and then trusting that the science we're going to come and flow from there.
Speaking about brand, I think this is just an interesting point were you guys, when you came in and specifically as content writers and you and the founding team talked to, was there like brand voice that they told you that you had to do? Was it like a humorous or fun or like how do, how do you specifically talk in a brand voice in content to both attract people to Buffer the brand but also keep them engaged in the content? I think that's a tricky thing to possibly find.
It's really tricky. It's, it's important to establish that as soon as you can and then it's tricky to communicate that to the people who are writing for you and then to actually have that translate out onto the page with someone's reading it. Yes. I remember specifically the things that helped and make Buffer unique in that voice and tone aspect. We, we're transparent so it was share everything that we know, like nothing is off limits to share. So we would write about all the experiments, every single thing we did on the blogs and on social media and it wasn't, it was right about it in a sense that we did not have all the answers, which is kind of a tricky thing to do is like we are an authority on social media and we don't have all the answers. Like we're in this together kind of learning with everyone. Here's what we've learned so far. We're still learning. And that was, that was very tricky. I, I came from a journalism background so it was very much like you write focus content and it's very to the point and you never hedge and at Buffer it was like the opposite of that was very open content. It was very, some of the stuff I wrote was probably, probably very meandering, you know, like get to the point kind of stuff. But it was very conversational, was very, very approachable. I like to think so. I think that that definitely is within our brand's voice and tone and I think it kind of set us apart a little bit in the social media and content marketing space.
Yeah. So I was going to ask if it sets you apart, if you saw a unique distinction like it probably built a little bit of a community following, right? Because of the brand that you created in that voice that you created.
Yeah. I like to think so. It's a lot of this stuff you might read out there is, do this, do this, do this, this works. Everyone should be doing this. I think we never, I, I tried never to use the word shit. It's kind of a parenting philosophy too, is like sometimes I bring parenting into, into work, but try never to use the word shit in my writing because I'm, who am I to say that you should do any of this? It may have just worked for me in what work for others and that's kind of what's kind of unique in this space and I think, I think it did resonate with people.
That's fantastic. So you came in as a content writer. You guys are putting together the new blog, the new voice and new tone. It's all starting to succeed. Maybe tell me a little bit more about when your position started to shift and maybe some of the other new marketing channels and experiments you guys got into as that started progressing.
Yeah, definitely. It was numbers wise, we were around maybe 400,000 a month to the blog when I joined. And my goal is to get...
That's unique visitors?
So I had a pretty good foundation when I joined. But my goal is to get up to a million and above and we're at one and a half million today, which is due in large part to the wonderful folks who work on the blog now. So yeah, that, that continues to be like our number one channel for, for things when we, when it comes to tracking sign-ups to the funnel is interesting because a lot of our signups come directly to our website and you know, we have to do a lot of lot of wizardry to find out where they come from and we attributed a lot of it just to word of mouth. So SEO has been huge for us. It was huge as part of our content marketing strategy. It would identify topics, you know, starting from scratch with a social media blog basically having previously been productivity, I kinda had, you know, could choose any topic at all because we hadn't written about it before. So grabbing some of the highest keywords out there, grab those, wrote about them and we have good page rank, so we ranked for those. So SEO was huge for us. And then, and this was kind of interesting, so the fact that we have a social media product, we, we use social media as a pretty important channel for us, so we're on all the majors, all the major networks constantly experimenting, constantly trying to grow and doing it all organically. That was definitely a big key for us at the first and still is to a large degree. We don't have a very big ad budget at all. So a lot of the work we do is organic and we saw some really good strides with, with things on social from that.
Any big wins you want to talk about from a social media? I think people are always struggling and especially in SaaS to figure out like powerful working social media marketing strategies that don't require ad budgets.
Yeah, for sure. We've, we've shifted a little bit with our thinking, so we no longer view social media as like a pure ROI channel. We view it more as an engagement channel. And so some of the things that we've done to help with that is we do user generated content, which has been really great for us, especially on Instagram. So we, we collect photos from the community and we repost them on our Instagram with attribution and it's, it's a neat like brand play, but it also helps with spreading the word and getting some notoriety for, for the creators and also for us. We do a lot of partnership marketing which covers social media but also extends out into the blog and other content where we'll find other SaaS tools in our space to have a certain size audience or a certain niche that they're in. And we'll kind of work together on a topic that suits both our audiences. And that typically goes out on social subtenants. We'll do some like a Facebook live or Instagram stories takeover for what kind of get get us in front of their community and put them in front of our community. Partnerships like that had been pretty big for us. And then product has been another one which is kind of in that murky, you know, is it social media? Is it something else kind of space, but using community efforts like that has been a key thing. We had some really good growth with a standalone tool called Pablo, which is a image creator and it was great for traction and virality there and then product has kind of become part of all of our product launches going forward. So a neat, neat social and community element there as well.
That's amazing. So every time you do a new feature out on, you also move it as a standalone or do you just have a product hunt kind of launch with just a new feature?
Yeah, it's typically not a standalone. We do, we do try to do that often. Um, that's another channel that we have found to work well. It's just a bit resource intense since we don't have dedicated engineering yet on marketing. We're hiring for that role at the moment, which is exciting. But, so yeah, we'll take an existing product feature and launch some product type. Our rule, we operate off of this, this grid system that we borrowed from Intercom. If the product release is innovative, so no one else is doing it and it's in our, in our perspective, it's designed to attract new customers, then we'll put it on product hunt. If it's geared more toward retaining customers or if it's more of like a catch up feature, then we don't product hunt it. So wherever it falls in that matrix helps us decide what we do with it.
That's great advice. I love that. And with the partnerships do you guys have like a hit list? How are you guys determining who are the right partners for you for either social or blog posting? I don't know if you guys do co-op webinars.
Yeah, that's great. We, we have tried a few webinars before those, we typically don't do those proactively, will typically someone pitches us, we might take those on. The productive ones we've done, there's a few different factors. So size is a big one and we, we can gauge that through public listings on angel list or other spots. Um, we also want to be really conscious of our brand when we do these. So it's not just, it's not just audience size that we look for, we also look for, you know, what, what, what types of messaging do these other brands put out into the world, are they similar to us, what our, what our audience feel hearing from these folks. And other than that, it's just someone willing to willing to do some top of funnel kind of software sell stuff with us. So oftentimes there's a lot of know partnerships tend to be maybe getting a reputation for being a bit harder sell and that's not typically why we do them or what we do with them. We choose to do that more for reach than for signups. So if someone's willing to do that with us, were happy to work with them.
That's also, that makes a ton of sense. And it's a brand awareness and like you said, market reach, stuff like that. What about some marketing experiments that you guys tried that you felt didn't perform like you expect it or something that failed? I mean, it's always easy to talk about the wins, but uh, I'm sure you guys had a few that you guys were kind of surprised by.
Oh yeah. There's, there's just as long if not longer, have a list of those I'm afraid. Yeah. Advertising honestly has been a tricky one for us and there's probably many, many reasons why we've. We went through a period where we spent quite a bit on social media advertising and just did not see the results from it and one of the lessons, one of the takeaways we had from that is that we weren't able to fully control the customers experience so we can make, make some great wonderful ads, but they would all kind of link back to a generic page that we, we didn't really have control over. We as a marketing team didn't have control over, we didn't, we weren't really able to make unique pages or have custom funnels and flows for those things. So that's something we want to do more of in the future.
How come you guys, was that just a company thing and internal thing?
Yeah. Yeah. It's been something we've been kind of figuring out over time is where those things sit through our landing pages. Are they owned by the product teams? Are they owned by the marketing teams? And for the first few years when I was at Buffer, they were owned by the product teams and this year we're, we're owning them on the marketing side, so we're excited to do more, do more of that stuff now too.
Yeah, yeah, that'd be a big win for you guys moving into marketing. We've always seen that as marketing ourselves, but I think um, it will give you more flexibility in being able to split test quickly and do stuff like that. Is, is always a fast win there. But yeah, I can see that advertising is hard and the other ones as well.
Yeah, just another one on advertising. We tried, we tried podcast advertising, so I'm no offense to any of your sponsors or any other podcasters out there, but it was tough. Like, I don't know. I don't know how people can, I don't know. I don't know what people think when they pay for advertising space on podcast. It was really tough for us to measure that in a way that we felt comfortable doing more of it. Probably just a failure on my part...
Were you looking for like direct ROI from that?
Anything. I don't know, like we, we had like maybe the reach numbers from it, but beyond that it was kind of a guess as to how effective it actually was.
And this episode is completely 100 percent sponsored by Buffer. I'm just kidding. We want, we want the paycheck after. We'll talk afterwards, but that's fine. What about monthly KPIs or quotas, things that you're trying to hit every month. You guys have all these different channels, the ones that you know are working now and you're running your team, where do you go looking for? What does that look? What does that break down to?
We had a really good session just kind of planning for the year ahead with our whole executive team at Buffer and we came back to the concept of the pirate metrics funnel. I basically said, well, if these are the general generally how our funnel works, like who owns what different parts and pieces and that was really clarifying and useful really good exercise and we came away from that, that marketing owns awareness and marketing owns acquisition and so I took my team and we talked about it and we ended up splitting into two different squads within marketing, so one squad is fully focused on awareness and doing stuff that reaches a lot of people and then the KPI that we tracked for that is reach and that's a combination of a number of different elements, so like blog sessions, page views, social media engagement, things like that, and the other squad is all about acquisition. That's acquiring new Buffer users, so free signups because we're a freemium product plus trials to our main Buffer product and to our newer reply product which does social media engagement. So that's kind of how we've divided things for the time being.
That's awesome. Very simple and I liked the way you kind of kept the focus. Each of those teams, everyone knows exactly what they're working for and their team and they can just work for for it. And what do you think has been the biggest win? I guess maybe for let's just say sign up generation for the acquisition?
Yeah, we have a lot of low hanging fruit, which is really exciting and we haven't, maybe this goes back to the some of my misses in the past few years, but hadn't really spent a lot of time optimizing our acquisition funnels at all. It was we were very top of funnel with most things, so we're really excited for the potential. They're one of the things we've just started experimenting with is more SEM, more Adwords. We think there's a lot of potential there. We don't. We have, we spend, let's see, less than $2,000 a month on that at the moment and a really excited for what we can do there just in terms of the content we already have and the opportunities out there and then a lot of on-page stuff like we just mentioned, marketing hasn't owned the landing pages historically, so we're really excited to create some new, maybe some SEO landing pages about some of the features of Buffer and we've seen some good numbers so far just in the small tweaks that we've done in different pages. So we, we now own like our business page which is for our business plans and have seen some increases there. So yeah, it's, there's a lot of potential out there so I'm excited for what we can do in the future.
No, I love that. I think you guys are going to have a ton of fun getting into split testing and heat mapping softwares and figuring out where people are going because so much of that is behavioral marketing. Basically. You guys are now going to get the chance to really dive in there.
Do you have an tips for us for heat maps softwares or recordings or anything like that?
Well, I would say that we're also sponsored by Hotjar who I love and I'm just talking about is a great software vw. Visual website optimizer is another one we love. Um, so those two have been really great for us as far as split testing, heat mapping and hotjar has the ability to even have recordings so you can see like where users are moving their mouse and all that kind of stuff. So behavioral tracking, so we love that stuff. Something fascinating. Yeah. Good. So you guys are gonna have a ton of fun and I guess I was going to ask you what you guys are looking at in 2018, are you guys looking at any major marketing shifts or changes that are happening in the marketplace or maybe things that need to be improved?
Yeah, there's a couple of different things. So as, as a product, we are shifting from a single Buffer product to a, a multiproduct platform Buffer. So a Buffer's kind of, kind of summer to the intercom model, I guess where you sign up for intercom, choose. Yeah, you kinda choose from this menu of options. So that's how we envision Buffer in the future. So we'll have the main publish product which is scheduling and planning will have a reply product which is social media engagement that will have an analyzed product which is social media analytics and kind of an all a cart system in the future. So like market wise, that's kind of. I guess that's our biggest, our biggest thing that we're looking forward to in the year and the marketing team. One thing that we are excited to be doing is hiring engineer who's going to be fully devoted just to marketing stuff. So I don't know, like my. All my wildest dreams are going to come true. I think like all the weird random absent ideas I've ever had a sorry for this person who's going to have to pick, pick out all the, don't know, a separate the wheat from the chaff, I guess among all those ideas. But this person should be great. We're looking for someone with a really strong designer because we feel like there's a lot of potential for us to, oh, not only the pages of Buffer and the absence of micro-sites and things, but to also own kind of the look and feel the from the brand side, so we did a really big branding project recently that we're working on still internally and we're excited to release that and kind of make everything a bit more on brand and cohesive. I think that's one of the lessons that I've learned is it's wonderful to be scrappy and to hustle and to do all these things when you're a young early startup and as you mature and grow up, sometimes there's kind of a shift that may need to happen where you. You do start to do things more consistently. So we're. We're in the midst of that change at the moment and I think.
Well, let me ask you on speaking on that subject, it sounds like you guys are doing a lot. It looks like you're now trying to organize it better, but how do you. How do you not get overwhelmed? How do you stay focused on the things that matter and not do 10 engineering marketing projects and just say, hey, we're gonna do one where new landing pages, we do this. Like how do you stay so focused when you have so much opportunity and you guys are an amazing growing team?
Yeah, it's. That's a great question. It's. It's a tough one. We've experimented with things like ice scores in the past or will rate each project idea on how big of an impact, how easy it is to do. We've done a bit of the Brian Balfour's growth machine and followed his kind of the scientific method of how to choose experiments and things to try and I wouldn't say that neither of those are like official Buffer marketing priority frameworks that we use. I guess what we, what we often do is we tie it back to our goals, which are somewhat of a new thing. We've recently did the squad, how the two squads split up in the last few months and each squad has such a clear goal. Now I don't even have to set priorities, which is wonderful. That's like, that's like my ideal is letting others who, whom I trust and respect and think they can make these decisions on their own and like giving them the, the context of how their choices will impact these larger goals and then each person can kind of make that decision for themselves given the information they have around them. So I don't know if that sounds like a cop-out answer or not, but I think everyone's kind of figuring out on their own their own way within the larger context, in the larger umbrella of these, these goals that we have as a team.
No, not at all. I think you said it fantastically, which is you guys sat down from the cutting, like a high level and you created the goals you want to have. You've created teams that have focused individual goals and you've given them autonomy to make the decisions that they need to make to hit those goals with the framework provided of, of how to make those decisions
Very well said, much better than I did. Yes, that's great.
You said it perfectly. Using the perfectly but no, that's really fantastic advice and I'm a big believer in like giving people autonomy but showing them like the, the mindset barriers to think through like here's how to think through this decision because you get unique genius that you would never think of often and that's why you hire great people as you want them to come up with the ideas that you can't and that's what you have in the.
I think it might even go back to that listening value earlier too. Like it's, you can learn a ton from the teammates that you have and you know, hiring smart people and wonderful people is a great asset to, to lean on for sure.
Totally, totally agree. And that's all been great advice, but we're gonna quickly move over to the lightning round questions. I hate to cut the conversation short because there are so many, so much good stuff coming out of it, but the lightning round questions basically I'll just ask you some quick questions. You can answer them with the first thoughts that come to your mind, but just really a great way to get some good education. Uh, you ready to go? Sweet. Let's do it. All right. What advice would you give for early stage SaaS companies starting marketing?
That's a good one. Short answers. Ok. I would say to give data more priority than you might think. It often feels like maybe that's one to that you can add later later on or skip over for now, but I think there's a lot of potential if you start with a good data foundation from the get go.
Do you think that setting up the data points or just knowing what data you're looking for? I think it's a bit of both.
I think it's knowing what data you want, setting the goals around that, but also having the, the operations and the infrastructure in place to track it properly. It's something we, we kind of added in after the fact that Buffer and we're starting to catch up and I think it's so much harder to catch up as you scale than it is to just put it in place when you begin.
Absolutely. Totally agree. What marketing skill do you think is vital for marketing teams to improve and build on today?
There's a couple. I think copywriting is one that is probably just part of my core being as like a former journalist and as a former content writer. I think copywriting is key and a couple others that I've seen recently that that could be some differentiators is kind of a data mindset, so whether that's in general, knowing being comfortable in and around data or if it's a technical understanding of SQL or other languages, I think that can be really powerful and then kind of further on the SQL end and if you do have some programming or some technical skills, that can make a huge difference. Especially on a small team when you're trying to do a lot of different things.
Yeah, it's a huge role in. This is like a data engineer, like a data scientist. Basically. A lot of SaaS companies are looking for that. What about a best marketing resource, education resource you'd recommend for marketing?
I would recommend Hiten Shah twitter feed, which has been a wonderful asset for me. He's. He's a great guy. It's @hnshah
It's a really good feed. I follow, so I love it. What about your favorite marketing tool you can't live without?
Oh, Trello. I could do. I could do every single thing in Trello like you name it. I would run a blog and Trello. I would hold meetings and Trello, like I'll find a way to make it work. Trello is my favorite.
It's amazing. We do onboarding, we do our marketing, we do content creation, engineering. Everything that we do at our company is in Trello, it's an amazing tool. I love it. what about, what about a brand business or team that you admire today?
Well, Trello would definitely be one that I admire, but I already used them. So, um, I'll say Wistia, they are, I don't know much about the internal workings of their team, but just seeing the way they carry themselves in the brand, their emails, their landing pages, the videos that they put together, it's, it's a feel and an, a, a voice in a tone that I, I want us to aspire to. So I love everything that they do.
I totally agree. We are huge fans of Wistia. Really big, we'd like to watch everything that they do and try to learn from them because they have created such a good brand. Such a good feeling when you watch them. But uh, yeah, that's a great answer. Awesome. Kevin. Well that's all my questions. I really just want to thank you so much for coming on. The show was incredible to have you. Was incredible to have you and we got to cover a ton of stuff. So, thank you so much for taking the time today.
Thanks so much for having me on.
Wow, that was a pretty incredible episode. I just love the way that Kevin brought so much energy today and was really able to talk a lot about what has been working there at Buffer and I love the value statements, so check them out. (...)