In August 2013, team communication app Slack launched in preview mode, garnering 8,000 signups within 24 hours.
Two years later, Slack has 500,000 monthly users, $12 million in monthly revenue, and a rumored valuation of $2.8 billion. In a market crowded with options, how did Slack become one of the fastest growing enterprise apps ever?
Bill Macaitis has the credentials to weigh in on that question. Formerly a marketing leader at Salesforce and Zendesk, Macaitis joined Slack in November 2014 as the company’s CMO. This month, Macaitis spoke to the crowd at INBOUND15 about Slack’s approach to marketing, answering questions from the audience about everything from company culture to content marketing to hiring quality talent.
For SaaS CEOs and marketers, Macaitis offers an invaluable peek into a wildly successful growth strategy.
Generating Buzz by Offering Customers a Great Experience
In its first year, Slack didn’t have a marketing team and relied solely on word of mouth to gain new users. Macaitis’ debut as CMO meant the company could adopt a more formal approach to marketing, but that hasn’t detracted from Slack’s focus on organic customer acquisition.
Says Macaitis, “I definitely think word of mouth is one of those key drivers for any SaaS company. We want you to have a great experience. Every single experience you have with Slack shapes whether or not you’re going to recommend us.”
Macaitis explains that Slack is careful not to pat itself on the back too much and keeps the focus customer-centric. “Ongoing word of mouth is an intentional strategy,” he says. “It’s our primary driver.”
Planning for Growth: Simplicity is Key
There is no typical Slack client. The app serves tens of thousands of users from every market segment imaginable, from scientists at NASA to TV production crews to high school robotics teams — not to mention major brands like Stripe, Spotify, The New York Times and Box.
With such a varied customer base, how does Slack plan for growth? Macaitis says the answer lies in prioritizing simplicity. “Look at all your markets and find out how they’re similar, rather than different,” he says. “Make it a simple product. If you just keep adding features, you make the product more difficult.”
Does Slack prioritize any segments over others? Like most SaaS companies, Slack started with a focus on SMBs and is moving upmarket, Macaitis says. He cites LinkedIn as a source of market intelligence. “We work with LinkedIn to see which visitors come to our home page, which verticals, what function they’re in. We see every single function, across all industries. It’s pretty amazing seeing how applicable the product is to all segments now.”
Starting Off Inbound … and Staying That Way
While many companies are just beginning to implement inbound sales teams, Slack has always taken this approach. “We’re still all inbound,” Macaitis says. “We don’t have an outbound sales team.”
“We’ve all bowed down to the lead god before and I thought there was a better way to do that. I’ve really shifted to customer-centricity. I’ve never liked how, when a lead came in, it got routed and you have to talk to this person. It’s a really crappy experience.”
Instead of a traditional, commission-based sales force, Slack has a customer-centric account team that fields inquiries from inbound leads. “If you have questions, great. If you want to do self-service, great,” he says. “It’s really about putting the decision in their hands.”
How to Use Your Blog Well, and When to Try Another Channel
Most of Slack’s original content comes in two flavors: blog posts and podcasts. The Slack blog, “Several People are Typing,” educates users on product updates, highlights customer success stories, and offers readers a peek into Slack’s company culture.
Recent posts include titles like:
- “Inclusion and Diversity at Slack”
- “722 Ways to Say, ‘I Got Your Message’ ”
- “How a High School Robotics Team Uses Slack”
As a “huge, huge fan of content marketing,” Macaitis recognizes both the opportunities and limitations of corporate blogging.
In his previous role at Zendesk, his team saw a single, top-of-funnel, awareness-level post reap major rewards. Titled, “10 interview questions for hiring great customer service reps,” the post appealed to the brand’s ideal buyer persona and offered up information on a topic that persona was clearly looking for. It remains in the top Google search results for its intended keywords.
At Slack, Macaitis has taken a slightly different approach. The blog serves as a platform for mid-funnel, consideration and decision-level content. To generate awareness and get new prospects into the funnel, Slack produces “The Slack Variety Pack,” an original podcast “on work, life and everything in between.”
One particular episode, “Parents Try Very Hard to Describe What Their Kids Do,” is a good example. Featuring interview clips with parents who, humorously, are struggling to describe their kids’ job responsibilities (“I know he posts stuff on Facebook … or for iPods or something”), the podcast was widely shared and did a great job getting the attention of people who hadn’t yet heard of Slack.
“We’ve always put out content that fits our brand — that’s fun, that’s human, that’s personal,” says Macaitis. “Blogs are great, but not everybody goes to them, and they can’t be the sole source of your content. We use ours for product education and letting people know when new features have launched. Our podcast doesn’t talk a lot about Slack. It has stories about work and life, stories that are inspirational and engage our customers. It’s fun, and it’s a nice first interaction.”
Hiring In-House Talent vs. Outsourcing in SaaS Marketing
As the first marketing hire at Slack, Macaitis built his team from scratch. How did he structure it, and which hires did he make first? “I always look at it as a couple of tiers,” he says. “The first teams I’d build out are analytics and ops, then content marketing, because it’s such an ongoing good source of inbound growth.”
How do you know when to outsource? “We use a lot of agencies,” he says, “but that’s really a function of your cash situation.” When asked how a SaaS company should decide what to outsource and what to build in-house, he says, “If it’s your core competency, build it. If not, outsource it.”
From One SaaS CMO to Another
When asked what advice he had for software and technology marketing leaders and aspiring CMOs, Macaitis offered the following words of wisdom for SaaS growth.
“Constantly learn — learn as much as you can. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Get mentors. Provide value. And be a good teammate.”
We’re so glad we got the opportunity to hear Macaitis speak, and look forward to following Slack as it continues to grow!