If everybody has your attention, nobody does. That's a problem — but it also paves the way for 2020s new currency: meaning.
Join Paul Campillo, Typeform's Director of Brand, as he explores why becoming a meaningful brand is more critical than ever — not just for your business, but for society.
This time Paul took a trip to Boston to see Chris Walker, CEO of Refine Labs. During the conversation, the masterful marketer presented his vision on how to grow demand by engaging people from the get-go. Here's a taste:
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If you're looking for the transcript, keep reading…
Paul Campillo PC): We're in Boston, we're talking to Chris Walker, CEO of Refine Labs. Chris is a masterful marketer and you're gonna know his name after this episode.
Chris Walker (CW): When I started my company, Refine Labs, I would have CMOs or VPs of marketing at companies that I aspired to work with on my podcast and I would just talk and understand them and understand what they were going through and that's the easiest form of market research for a marketer.
PC: Today, we're gonna talk about how to generate demand for your products and your company. Enjoy the conversation.
From biomedical to Turkish blankets
PC: I felt like I had to talk to you and I kind of don't want this to go on the camera. One thing I was telling the crew, I was like, this guy intimidates me because he has all these acronyms in his head and I'm like, SDRs and MQLs and all these things.
CW: Yeah, I'll talk through it.
PC: Yeah, but one of the reasons why you're here is because I think people need solid ground when it comes to marketing principles and I really wanna break some of that down but before we get into that, give us a little background about who you are and how you've come to found Refine Labs.
CW: Let's do it. I studied electrical computer engineering in school with biomedical, I thought I was going to design medical devices. That's what I thought I was going to do. What that education taught me is how to challenge pre-existing assumptions in a methodical way and it taught me how to think about things at a systems level. In microprocessors you have a bunch of stuff coming in. There's things going on, you got a bunch of stuff coming out and now I think about a revenue system like that.
CW: I got out and started coding products and I was like, I don't know if it was because I didn't like it or because I wasn't good at it or most likely both but I figured out that I was more interested in the application of what we were doing than the actual building of the product. The company recognized that for me and moved me into a product management role, full stack product management from development of the product all the way to promotion and sales readiness and different stuff like that.
CW: I learned all of what I would consider foundational strategic marketing principles that I feel like a lot of marketers are lacking. A lot of marketers get out of school and think it's all about social media or content or promotion but miss the part of, you need to understand deeply who you're communicating with, especially in a B2B environment where you're selling to someone that's not like you.
CW: During that period of time while I was doing all those things, I also built several eCommerce companies from my bedroom, mainly because I wanted to learn. I would import blankets from Turkey or different things from Asia and I would bring them in and I would get to brand them. It's commodity product, rebrand, private label it, sell it on Shopify and Amazon, figure out how to run Instagram ads, figure out how to run Google ads, figure out Amazon search ads, where you have a product that costs $60 and you know that it might cost a good $24 and I need to get that customer for the remaining $36.
CW: I learned those things, I made a lot of mistakes, I ran $1,000 of my own money on Amazon search ads and swung and missed and now I don't make those mistakes again because you, I think, feel like you feel them more. I would run Instagram ads on Saturday mornings and I would watch the real-time Google analytics and I would watch the money being spent and I would monitor them and I would really understand what was going on and I was only spending a couple hundred bucks.
CW: What I found is that when I ran the ads, people would click, get to the cart and not complete the transaction but other people would come through Google search and buy and it was the first time I saw the effect of how social drives awareness that drives conversions later through another device, which is the reason, if everyone understands that thing, I'll try and explain it a little bit differently. I see an Instagram ad for a pair of shoes, I look at the shoes, I leave and then the next time I need shoes, I go to Google and I search the brand that I remember and then I buy it. I think a lot of people understand that effect.
Real insight comes from real people
CW: So I saw that and then in 2016, I got into my first venture funded company because the company didn't do demand gen before, I had a blank slate, which a lot of marketers don't get. I had a blank slate to define, what are the metrics that matter? When I'm going to increase my budget from $500K to $2 million, what am I gonna say to the CEO?
CW: I feel like I just used a lot of common sense and put together a different model that was based, not on leads but based on pipeline and revenue and when you score against pipeline and revenue, you do things a lot differently than what marketers do today and then over the past two years doing it, not just in one company but in 30 or 40 total over the past two years, the learnings have rapidly accelerated and over time, I see that as our competitive advantage.
PC: Out of everything you just said, one thing really sticks out to me and that's: begin with the customer. Why don't marketers know their customers better? I'm sure you've asked them.
CW: Yeah, but it's interesting because in 2013, I was that marketer, you know what I mean?
PC: Were you running the eCommerce stuff or?
CW: When I was in B2B and I was doing marketing based on what executives told me or what the sales team told me and I would just take what they said and then essentially just do what they said, then what I found when I started going out and talking to customers is that you actually see it in a completely different way than the sales team would see it or anyone would see it.
CW: I went into every single company and found insights that nobody else saw within three months that people had been at that company for five years just because I feel like I asked different questions and that's a skill that I've developed over almost 10 years now. Why don't marketers do it and I think the number one reason is because they're not incentivized to do it.
PC: What compelled you to do it?
CW: Some industries outside of SaaS, marketing tends to be less specialized and more strategic and so I feel like in SaaS a lot that strategy becomes disjointed over several leaders but I was just encouraged by the company because our company operated in that way, which is: our marketers are strategic. We need to understand customers, we develop messaging, we test messaging before we roll it out to the sales team.
CW: I lean into segmentation a lot. I feel like the further you segment, the more relevant that you can be to that type of buyer or that type of person. Since we started the company, we've gotten more and more narrow in our ICP (ideal customer profile) while I find that other companies get more and more broad.
PC: Right, so when you're talking about segmentation, can you give an example of that?
CW: We sell marketing services, demand gen, generation services, however you wanna call it. We could sell that to everybody, we could sell that to B2C, direct to consumer eCommerce, we could sell that to med devices, we could sell that to SaaS, we could sell that to healthcare, financial services, for like a Bank of America, Standard or whatever.
CW: You could technically take what we have and sell it to everybody and then we started to make choices about, who are we best equipped to serve based on the problem that we're solving and when you put all those things together, you end in this, from all the companies in the country to about 10,000 or 15,000 total accounts that we're targeting that are very similar in their business model, which is the basis for the targeting.
Build a relationship with your customers
PC: I learned not too long ago about three different indicators. Everyone talks about the lagging. People talk about the leading because it's more directed about what you're contributing to the company but no one ever talks about current and the current indicator is what's happening now. The sparkle in their eye, the exchange in the comments, what they're feeling in the moment, their reply to you. When did it become important to get that reaction?
CW: When you have a B2C product, it pushes you to find things that actually work and it's very clear to know whether or not they're working because you're doing stuff and then you're seeing whether you get sales.
PC: I was listening to Jerry Seinfeld on the Tim Ferriss Show and he was talking about that you get your data right away if you're a comedian because people are reacting to you in the moment. There's the, hey, let's go over here and let's build some creative and let's build a landing page and put it out there and then you're just waiting around versus...
CW: During that process, I figured out how to publish Instagram content every day, which I now use on LinkedIn five years later for my own company. I learned how important it was when somebody left a comment to comment back to them, to engage in the conversation, to build something like that. I watched the people that commented seven times and we had conversations and then those people's names were on the orders that came through and so I saw some of those details.
CW: I understood as we grew our Instagram following from zero to 5,000 people over a short period of time, that the people that were buying the product were the people that were following us and engaging with the content and things like that. When we turn the ads on, more people bought stuff and when we were heavy on organic and the audience grew, more people bought stuff and so our paid social ads, the best performing ones involve copy that is action oriented, something that someone could do with the product.
CW: Close your books in five minutes, get 900,000 font types straight away or whatever. You know what I mean? Giving someone an action where it's like, I didn't know that I could even do that, works really well for us because what fascinates me is that people might know your company name but they do not understand in any level of detail what your product actually can deliver for them and why it's different than the other seven competitors in your category. I think companies do a very poor job of communicating those things to people in times before they're in buy mode.
PC: But the mindset there is not what the product is capable of but what the product helps--
CW: What somebody can do with it. It's not like this much RAM or this security feature or different things like that, it's like, here's what you can do with it.
PC: Let's take a couple of steps back. If you're taking on a new client, can we break down how you would approach from, I don't know, you go in and you assess the situation and you probably try to understand the mindset of the people you're gonna be working with.
CW: A good thing, I think for us about our customer acquisition model is it's 100% inbound with a very narrow ICP and so therefore, we attract people that already believe in the things that we're saying. Therefore, it's not like I need to convince anyone of the things that I talk about. Either people believe in our thoughts and wanna work with us or they don't and they don't, which just makes it a binary decision for us, which is good.
PC: When you say ICP, what do you mean by that?
CW: ICP is ideal customer profile and so when we get in there at first, the first step is to quantify, not only for the CMO but for the entire executive team about what's happening right now. We do a thing called the marketing performance analysis that goes deep into their ad spend data, a lot of our customers are already spending $50,000, $100,000, $200,000 a month in ads to get leads and they run it with direct attribution lead gen on all channels.
CW: So when you have that, you can very easily assess, we spent this much money, we have direct tracking and we can see what we got out of it and when you do that process, you find that it's terribly inefficient. Cost per lead is but...
Being generous pays
PC: Generally, what are they doing?
CW: We're gonna spend $600,000 a year on LinkedIn ads for people to download our content, so we're gonna build an ebook once a quarter and we're gonna spend $100,000 promoting it and when people download it, we're gonna celebrate because we got a lead but when you track how many people actually read the PDF, less than 10% of people actually...
PC: How would you track that?
CW: You'd have someone download it and then you would send an autoresponder email for someone to click through and read it and less than 10% of people that downloaded it clicked through.
CW: The goal of content is for it to be consumed, not to get someone's email address. When I saw that effect, I started changing what we did to just give people the information, knowing that if the information was good, it would create more affinity to our brand, give them information that they didn't know and move them further along to considering our product. I've had a 100% ungated content strategy since 2016.
PC: Why is it so effective to give away the farm or be super generous?
CW: Yeah, I mean, the reason that it works better is because you're just giving the people the information in the way that they wanna consume it with no expectation in return. I believe that it changes, not only that you give the people the information but I think that it dramatically changes the content that you create.
CW: If you can switch your mind off this content is not so I can get someone's email address so that I can make a meaningful impact on what they're trying to do or so I can accomplish this specific goal that they know something that's important for them to know as they consider our enterprise SaaS product or different things like that.
CW: So I break down into just a pure communication framework of, a majority of the market feels this way. What they felt was correct 15 years ago but now this new clinical trial came out that says what they believe is no longer true and so I'm going to make sure that the entire market knows that this study came out and that they read it and the easiest way to do that is to guarantee delivery of the content to all of the people that should have it and give it ungated.
PC: Do people ever ask you why you're so generous, why do you give so much away for free?
CW: I've never really thought about that before.
PC: You know what I mean. I mean, you're constantly on LinkedIn.
CW: Yeah, I give away our information that some companies pay $25,000 a month for and the reason that I do it is that I recognize that information is a commodity.
PC: It seems like this attitude or this mindset or whatever you call it is a core part of generating demand.
CW: Yeah, it's executing the behaviors that our customers should execute. Basically the model at this point is like, I know that our customers aren't just going to do a podcast. I need to show them, so I get to show them. I also get to understand once we've done 131 episodes, how much our company's grown since we started it and knowing when I have sales conversations, how many people reference the podcast in the first five minutes.
CW: The goal is to just be three or four steps ahead of where the market and our customers are so that we can basically pave the path for where they can go when they're ready. These are the things that you should do along the way because we've done them, we know how to measure them. We know how effective they are, they've been validated and so in the future, I see our company setting the way that companies execute demand generation in the future and also be more focused on forward-thinking innovation.
PC: But you didn't run a podcast for the past three years, it's only been one year, right?
CW: It's been a little over a year.
PC: A little over a year, so to know ahead of time that that could lead to generating more demand, was that just an experiment? What were you thinking there?
CW: We were experimenting with, we who's me at that point, I was still an employee, I was experimenting with Instagram, YouTube, blogging and LinkedIn and LinkedIn hit one time where it was like, you post something and 150,000 people see it and then you're just like, forget all this other stuff, this is where I need to be. It was obvious that it was going to work after I saw that and so text posts then added video and then we moved into live events. We hosted live events with influential people in sales, SaaS sales and marketing, where it was me and them chatting and an audience and then COVID happened and so the live event strategy, which was building the brand, helping us move up market, generating a lot of demand was shut off.
CW: We had to cancel our events in March and April and so we pivoted to a live Zoom that would replicate the format of a live event with me and Gaetano DiNardi and when we had done that, it was very easy to rip the audio and put it onto a podcast. That was sort of how we got there. We do a podcast differently than most people do it. Most of the other people get someone together and they just interview guests and then they just build their thing off of the brand of the guest.
CW: Our podcast is mainly created from us and we have live Q&A, we take live events, have guests on podcasts. We do internal things where people on my team are talking through strategy. We do live consulting sessions and so the different content types that we're able to test inside of a podcast or other things that I think a lot of companies wouldn't do because they wanna stay safe. Being able to continuously push boundaries, I think, is just what I do.
Leads vs. demand
PC: You started Refine Labs because they wouldn't let you do what you're doing right now if you're working in house for a company.
CW: Exactly, I started this company because I couldn't find a company that would let me do marketing the way that I wanted to.
PC: But they'll let you do it now outside of the company?
CW: Yeah, it's a really interesting kind of framework but I worked in enough companies and I had my podcast at four episodes that got killed by the executive team, you know what I mean?
PC: Like, what's the ROI on this...
CW: Exactly, I don't talk about these things in theory, they're things that I've actually experienced about podcasts getting killed because there's no attribution or because it happens to slow or because companies are obsessed with leads and so the way that I get people on board is by modeling the behavior that they should be doing, it attracts them to the things that I'm saying.
CW: I communicate our narrative very clearly consistently in places where people pay attention and when they're here, when we start engaging, it's more so getting, not just the marketing team on board, it's getting the company on board with this stuff because it's going to impact sales downstream, it's going to impact how the CEO looks at things.
PC: When you say get them on board, you're talking about, get them on board with leading with brand?
CW: With changing the model. The first step is changing the model away from, we need direct attribution leads so that our sales team could do sales to people that don't wanna buy right now. That's what they're doing.
PC: But in a sense, you're telling them to lead with brand a little bit?
CW: To lean into creating demand in the market versus capturing demand. Creating demand can get up through paid product marketing. There's a lot of brand components in there but it doesn't have to be all brand.
CW: You're spending all of this money, you're doing these things and this is how many customers you're getting and this is how much it's costing you and based on our benchmarks of looking at a bunch of companies, including the ones that we work with, you're not doing very well. There's a lot of opportunities to do better. In order to do it better, you need to first change the way that you think about marketing.
CW: You need to change from a lead gen model to a demand generation model or a brand and demand model or whatever you wanna call it and to get out of the lead gen mindset and then the next thing that you need to do is you need to change the metrics that you score your marketing team on. Then the last thing you need to do is change the, and then once you change the metrics, you empower your marketers to change the things that they actually do.
CW: To be honest, I think a lot of companies overinvest in SEO and I don't think that buyers use a search engine the same way that they did in 2007 when HubSpot built their company. I think that search engines get used in a different way today.
CW: Right now, I think the obvious places for a B2B company, depending on whether it's paid organic strategy or both is LinkedIn organic, a podcast, some type of community-based live event strategy that can feed a podcast, paid Facebook and Instagram, paid and organic YouTube. I think those are a really good set of mix and then potentially influencer marketing if you're feeling progressive, and a podcast, those are the places where B2B buyers are. There it is, everyone knows, that's where we market. The important thing is, what are you doing inside of that?
PC: The creative matters.
CW: There's a huge variable about, everyone here now knows that LinkedIn paid and organic is great but how do you make LinkedIn work for you?
PC: What are some of the general patterns that you're picking up on or signals that you think are very universally applicable to anyone listening to this show?
CW: I think there's a clear pattern across hundreds of companies that I've interacted with that transactional marketing is not working nearly as well as it did in 2008. It's very clear, I think that people have a different way to buy things and I think that they care more about a brand in a lot of cases about the thing that they're buying, especially a more considered purchase.
CW: At the same time, I see most sales leaders, as marketing continues to change, not taking the time to understand the changes, marketers doing marketing that they know would never work on themselves. I see that all the time. I've never bought a product from a trade show, I've never clicked on a banner ad and bought something, I've never downloaded a piece of content on Gartner's website and then got pushed into your CRM and bought something from you. Not leaning into the qualitative data enough.
PC: Not being close enough to the customer.
CW: Not being close enough to the market, to the customer, to the prospect, I just call it the market. Not close enough to the market to feel where it's moving, to feel when things have shifted, to feel the insights, to feel how people at a large scale feel.
The future of Refine Labs
PC: Let's talk about Refine real quick. What's the aspirational--
CW: The big end point?
CW: Our objective is to fundamentally change how B2B companies do marketing and that is an infinite game, which is cool that it doesn't end. Right now, we deliver that through a high touch consulting model. We are involved with our customers, we spend a lot of time inside of their data, we run the experiments, we watch them work, which is an incredible setting long-term, when you think about the idea of us having 200 SaaS companies at scale, where we are executing experiments in a very organized way.
CW: Somebody is running something that's creative, it worked for that company. You run the same experiment across 200 companies, you understand the nuances of it, it works across the board, it only works on this type of buyer or this type of company size or whatever the nuances are and you take all those learnings and then you publish them in a place where other companies could then have access to that intellectual property on something that they could innovate so they could use and go and reuse at their company.
CW: That's a part of the vision, the core thought being that as a marketer in-house, I know that I couldn't do a lot of the stuff that I'm able to do right now because I was in-house and restricted by metrics and the CEO doesn't believe and I'm scared what my coworkers are gonna think if I run ads on TikTok for the software or whatever. It gives people more confidence saying that, somebody's already done this at 200 companies and it worked for these 75 of them and we're like them and then over time, I think using that as one kind of feeding point to a content first platform that provides a exceptional level of ongoing education for marketers to change how companies actually do marketing.
PC: Is that more like a learning platform that you're thinking--
CW: It's not like a learning platform. I would compare it more to LinkedIn than a learning platform. It's a content first and then engagement only by the users. We would be the publishers of the content. Maybe Netflix is a better way to say it, Netflix with an engagement where marketers can come in and consume a lot of different information, which a lot of it is coming from the things that we're doing right now that we know work better.
CW: We don't have all of the answers but we have the skills and the knowledge to figure out whether or not something's going to work, which allows us to push boundaries, which allows us to be more creative and it gives our customers a lot more upside if we're able to hit some of those experiments right 'cause they get the learnings from all of the experiments that are happening. I think it's an interesting model that I haven't seen explored like this before.
Play the long game
PC: What's the average return on a post or on a campaign, especially when you're going super high level because I mean, we've seen at Typeform. People have signed up after being exposed to the brand for maybe four years.
CW: Totally, and that's probably what it is for everyone. They don't have the data to really track it like that. On LinkedIn, it's clear that there's about a 30-day lag when we use our model. A 30-day lag from touch to conversion because it's set up in a 30-day window and you can run campaigns and then you just see when the first conversion registers and you have a sense about the time lag.
PC: You're talking about the posts that you're creating?
CW: For ads.
PC: For ads, that's okay.
CW: Again, on the brand side, I'm not thinking about any individual posts about how it drove a lead. It's not part of my thought process when I post something. I think that's why I'm able to be generous, why I'm able to write things that help people, why I invest in engaging and spending a lot of my time doing that. I don't think about it in that way, I think about it as a collection.
CW: I know that CMOs that come and work for us watch hundreds of my videos before they ever wanna talk to me. I know that the people that listen to the podcast also look at my LinkedIn videos and I know that the LinkedIn videos get people into the podcast and so they're working together. I know that some people like our YouTube show. It doesn't matter to me where they consume. I'm just putting out information consistently in places where they look. I think the take home is that no one touch point matters in a brand marketing move, it's the collection of all of them.
PC: All right, well how do you help people bring their best self to work as a CEO?
CW: I think by step one, modeling the behavior that you think that people should do. It's very easy for me--
PC: This is a theme for you, by the way.
CW: Yeah, it's very easy for me to encourage people to post on LinkedIn if I want them to do that because I do it every day. Then the next step is creating an environment where people can do their best work. I think that comes from assembling the right team that has the right attitude, that has different experiences, that lives in different locations, that thinks about things differently. I think as part of it, watching where people gravitate to and then giving them stretch projects based on the things that you're seeing.
PC: Stretch projects, meaning?
CW: To explain it, putting out an idea of something that someone could work on but not being like, hey, this is your project. Just like, what would it be like if we tried this? When you say it in a group where you know one person, you might take ownership over it and then you get to see. It's interesting to see whether people see that opportunity and then take it or whether they don't even notice it.
CW: Some of those things have been interested as I've grown as a leader, you get to see initiative, you get to see true about whether or not people really want that stuff and it's fine either way because if they didn't want the initiative and they didn't wanna try, maybe they didn't like it. Maybe they weren't gonna do good on it. There's a reason that they didn't latch onto it and so those are some of the things that we think about.
Define your brand
PC: Jeff Bezos said that a brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room. What do you want people to say about you when you're not in the room?
CW: He challenges things that I saw but didn't know how to challenge. He illuminated things that I thought were true but didn't know how to explain them or see them. He showed me a path to be better.
PC: Great, thanks, Chris.
PC: Here are my takeaways from talking to Chris. Number one, don't just stay close to your customers, stay close to your market. Chris does this in a very unique way through his podcasts and engaging with people on LinkedIn.
PC: Number two, always be learning and I wanna emphasize one distinction. Chris learns by doing so, get out of your comfort zone and start doing things. Number three, you wanna live and breathe the behavior you wanna see in others. This is a critical point that Chris emphasized over and over and over again. Thanks for watching this episode of Meaningful and don't forget, let's make every interaction count.