With 20+ years of experience building and leading demand marketing teams, Doug Sechrist has a proven record of helping companies become high growth, successful SaaS leaders. He’s helped organizations efficiently grow by bringing sales and marketing teams together through process, automation, alignment, and shared KPIs. His previous roles include VP of Demand Marketing at Taleo, Eloqua, Five9, and Infusionsoft (now Keap). These days, he’s VP of Demand Marketing at Zenefits–a HR, payroll, and employee benefits software for small businesses.
1. Can you tell us about your role at Zenefits and how that influences the planning process?
I run the demand and growth teams at Zenefits. My team is broken into the traditional demand generation marketing functions: content, performance marketing, analytics, sales development team, and web. I also run a small team focused on down-market sales.
Each year is based on an aligned operating plan that is fluid, but typically re-built each year starting in Q3 for the following year. First we get all the core KPIs that we run the business on, and align with other key stakeholders like finance, sales, and product to agree on taxonomy. Questions like “how do we calculate close rates” are important to define and agree on now, so we can measure success in the future.
Next, the executive team spends time on top-down planning. We think through board expectations and which key levers to pull to achieve those targets. Then we move to bottom-up planning across teams, figuring out which activities apply the most pressure to push those levers. Finally we bring it all together to create an operating plan everyone is aligned and committed to.
2. Planning, and how to do it well in this new climate are at the top of all marketer’s minds right now. Do you see a dramatic difference in how you’re approaching planning this year versus last year?
It feels like we’re constantly planning and iterating right now. Like every other sales and marketing organization, we did a re-plan in early April. We’re still in that plan, seeing if our previous assumptions held true, and shifting as needed.
We haven’t stopped investing, but we are trying to be even smarter about where we spend our dollars to grow.
The big uncertainty for all marketers is predicting the macro environment, and we can’t rely on historical data. Zenefits is a high growth company, and previously we’ve invested in growth and capturing market share. Now, we’re starting to look more to efficiency metrics like LTV to CAC ratios. I’ve been digging in to understand which parts of our business are the most effective and efficient, and where we need to make adjustments. We haven’t stopped investing, but we are trying to be even smarter about where we spend our dollars to grow.
3. What is the biggest strategy shift you’ve had to make recently, and how did you plan for it to make sure it had a positive impact?
A couple strategic shifts come to mind, the first being our quick, initial reaction to COVID. We jumped on building resources and content for small businesses that focused on policies they needed to know about and actions to take such as small business loans and keeping employees safe. They were struggling, and we felt it was our duty to help them. We focused on that weeks before our competitors, and our organic traffic quadrupled. It hasn’t dropped off either. With COVID ever-present, we’re still seeing nice gains in organic traffic.
The second shift was focusing on the right ICP. Some segments are thriving and now is the opportunity for them to make changes with their software and improve some of their business policies and practices. Other segments are struggling and not in a position to make changes. We want to respect that and support those businesses in any way we can.
The third shift was introducing a promotion to help small businesses that were dealing with the unprecedented challenges resulting from COVID. The offer was free payroll software for one year with the purchase of any of our HR software packages. This has helped some small businesses curb costs in the near term and it has also helped us grab market share in certain segments where cost is a big component of the buying criteria.
4. Due to COVID, more companies have been forced to adopt a level of agile planning. Would you categorize Zenefits as an agile marketing organization and do you think marketers will ever return to a traditional planning season?
We’ve always been pretty fluid in our plans, but we don’t follow a strict agile method. We operate on an agile schedule: every two weeks we launch a new campaign. And we’re always looking for new pockets of opportunity. But agility isn’t only shifting programs, it’s mindset shifts in people. Part of being able to act on that opportunity, is the flexibility to change someone’s role and to let them go after it.
As for a return to a traditional planning season, many companies like the predictability of an annual plan, even if it was difficult to execute on. The problem I find with agile planning is that you’re always talking about things instead of doing them. Planning is great, but no one wants to always be planning. I like a middle ground where you plan for the plan. Create an overview for the year, but leave space for fluidity. This way we think about how we’re iterating over time, in a way that’s not just tweaking plans.
5. It’s not just planning that’s changed recently for marketers, but financial management as well. How has your investment strategy changed compared to pre-COVID?
We have a solid investment plan that hasn’t needed a massive overhaul. Our two-to-three year plan for scaling and growing Zenefits, was built on becoming more efficient by building organic channels and relying less on paid channels. Over the past couple years, we’re consistently spending less money on marketing every year. A lot of growth now comes from early investments in our blog, media site, and SEO strategy that take time to pay dividends.
Something to note is that we’ve never done physical events, which tend to be quite expensive. We’re all digital, making it easier to pivot and try different content assets, themes, and so on. We’ve always had a testing mindset and invested in innovation and experiments. That hasn’t changed for us.
6. You’re doing something unique when it comes to channels. Can you tell us how you think of planning for different channels?
There are two market segments we support: up-market and down-market. Our down-market business is purely inbound, so we cast as wide a net as possible to catch the most people. We don’t spend much time on segmentation or personalization because it’s a very transactional sale. People know who we are, what we do, and there’s organic interest.
When we look at up-market, the nuances of the ideal customer become really important because payroll can be a very complicated product. We focus on targeting and channel mix, I’d call it hyper-targeting. We build strong, targeted, segmented lists to go after using paid channels, email, and sales cadences. The other channel we’re starting to invest in more is referrals. We’re trying to attract partners that refer many potential customers as opposed to one-offs.
This is an area we like to flex our testing muscles. We know what our paid spend needs to be, and how much is earmarked for big investments. Then we reserve 20-30% of our total paid spend budget for testing. Some experiments like email or testing into segments we do without spending anything. After we’ve ironed things out, we start spending on our paid channels and re-targeting more broadly.
7. How is planning at Zenefits different than how you’ve planned at previous companies?
I’ve worked for bigger organizations like Taleo and small companies like Eloqua, and my approach has always been similar.
Planning should be based on data and alignment across functions to create a solid operating plan. The more you know about the business, the more precise you become, and the process starts to change.
At public companies, it’s a more stable process. You know what budget you’ll have, and what everyone needs to do. When your company is still growing, there are more questions. Do we invest in growth? In customer success? Those are pivots that influence the planning process significantly. But it’s also a lot of fun because you have the chance to create a massive impact.
8. With all your experience, what planning best practices would you want to share with other marketers?
The first thing to know is that more is not always good. Early in my career I fought for as much money and headcount as I could get. But when budget cuts come your plans fall apart. I’ve learned to plan for what’s actually needed, hit the numbers, and then ask for more. Typically, you’ll get it because you’ve proven results.
The second best practice is alignment. Key stakeholders like sales, finance, product, and marketing should all be aligned on the overall strategy, taxonomy, and operating plan. KPIs and how they’re calculated are critically important. If you’re taking different views you end up talking to each other about different results and can’t marshal your team behind a concerted plan.
My final advice is to leave room for innovation and upsets. Plans never work out exactly as planned, so don’t put yourself in a position where you need to hit home runs every month across the board or you’ll never hit your targets. Leave room for things to happen and the agility to successfully pivot.