2 May 2023

5 Tips for Tackling Something New to You in Customer Marketing

Interview with Shannon Howard of Intellum

If you’re anything like many of your customer marketing peers, your journey to customer marketing has been long and winding—gathering a wide variety of experiences as you go. 

Interestingly, it’s these varied experiences that have helped you excel as a customer marketer because you’re able to pull from past experiences to figure out new solutions in customer marketing activities that may be new to you.

Shannon Howard, Top 100 Customer Marketer, sits down to talk to me about this very thing. During the conversation, she provides 5 tips that every customer marketer should keep in mind when trying to tackle something new.

We also talk about:

  • how Shannon got started in customer marketing
  • 3 challenges she’s currently facing (you can likely relate!)
  • 3 pieces of advice for anyone getting started in customer marketing

Looking for a customer marketing solution?

Check out 29 Top Customer Marketing Solutions to Drive Customer Growth and Retention (2023)

Shannon Howard interview

Shannon Howard, Customer Marketing Manager at PeopleGrove

Name: Shannon Howard
Job title: Director of Customer & Content Marketing
Company: Intellum
Shannon’s hometown: Black Mountain, NC

Fun facts about Shannon Howard:

💖 The person you most admire is: My Nana
🥙 Food you’re craving right now: Bread
📚 Book you think everyone should be reading right now: The No Complaining Rule
⛱️ Vacation you’re dreaming about: Costa Rica
📺 The show you’re binging right now: Firefly Lane

How did you get your start in customer marketing?

Shannon Howard: Like many people, I kind of ended up in customer marketing without realizing it. In my first corporate role, I was a curriculum developer. That led to marketing course launches, which eventually led to managing a community of 60,000+ graduates, building out our referral program and experimenting with retention initiatives. 

From there, I ended up in tech because one of my former employees introduced me to the company she was working for. While I originally interviewed for a sales enablement position, I ended up in content marketing. A year later, they promoted me to product management, building out a learning platform that would house all of our marketing and learning content. Part of that role was thinking about learning as part of the customer journey—from prospect to customer onboarding and beyond.

My first formal customer marketing role was at Litmus, where I worked on customer lifecycle, product releases and adoption, customer communications, retention and engagement. 

At PeopleGrove, I spent a lot of time on customer success at scale—creating materials that enabled both customers and CS. That role also included rebuilding our customer community and advocacy work. That was new for me, because I’ve done a lot on customer stories and case studies, but not a lot on building a pool of advocates and having these different advocacy activities. 

At Intellum, I’ll be building out the customer marketing function from scratch, which is really exciting. 

Overall, my journey has been largely unintentional—mostly just what people throw at me and figuring it out along the way.

When you’re figuring out something new in customer marketing, what’s your approach?

Tip #1: Pull from past experiences

Sometimes there are projects I’ve done before that are similar, and I can pull from those. Also, because I’ve worked in operations, acquisition marketing and product management, there are things I learned in each of those areas that are really helpful to customer marketing. 

Tip #2: Spend a year in product management

My potentially unpopular opinion is that everybody should spend a year in product management. It teaches you to have a long-term vision for something, how to break it into phases and take an iterative approach, and how to ship, learn and iterate.

In marketing, we tend to take on these gigantic projects. We bet the farm on this big project instead of testing the waters and learning, then building on it.

Tip #3: Tap into Slack communities

I might Google “How are other people doing this?” Or I’ll go to different customer marketing Slack groups and ask people, “What does your reference process look like? How are you measuring this? How are you tracking things in Salesforce?”

Tip #4: Adapt learnings to fit your own situation

One of the things I’ve realized is I can’t always do what other people are doing because we don’t have the data for it. Or we don’t have the RevOps support for it, or we don’t have the budget or the bandwidth for it. If you’re a smaller, less mature company, you might not be able do the things that someone is doing at a Marketo or a bigger company.

Tip #5: Keep Customer Success in the loop

It’s important to make sure Customer Success is in the loop on all things customer—whether it’s your program, Customer Education, Sales or Marketing including customers in what they’re doing. Otherwise, people are just tapping customers left and right. Customer Marketing can serve as almost “air traffic control” for customer interactions at scale. 

What are some of your favorite Slack groups for sharing information?

Shannon Howard: CMAweekly. Another one’s called Customer Marketing Community. HubSpot started it, and Crowdvocate picked it up and had a community manager engaging people on there. Now they’re starting to do more with it. Those are the two that I tend to lean on.

What are some challenges you’re facing in customer marketing?

1. A big one has been data

My last company was only a few years old. Like most startups, our systems were built up as we went. It’s like building a plane as you fly it. It wasn’t always the most intentional process, and then you’re patchworking things on top of that.

For example, I didn’t have an accurate list of my customers for about six months because we didn’t keep the fields for that report up to date. And the way Salesforce was set up was a little wonky. That was a challenge because a lot of customer marketing is knowing who people are. How long have they been a customer? How many admins and users are on the platform? How are they using the platform? And if none of this data is syncing to a central place, you can’t really segment and target communications appropriately—especially not in real time.

As I talk to more and more customer marketers, a lot find themselves in a similar boat. So just a reminder that this is a fairly normal challenge for us! We just have to learn to be creative in how we work around data issues.

2. Managing change

My last company significantly expanded the sales team to three or four times bigger than what it was. There were also new customer success managers and a new CS leader. And sometimes, when we’re working on programs, we forget to consider those end users and internal stakeholders. Are they prepared for change management?

If we’re introducing, let’s say, a new reference process and the sales team is in the middle of learning a whole new sales methodology, do they have the capacity to take in this new reference process at the same time? Or do we need to let that information settle before we bring in this new process? That’s been difficult to time properly because there’s a lot we want to do and we can do—there’s a ton of opportunity when you’re building a program or function from scratch—but I also can’t move at my pace. I’ve got to move at the pace that everybody else is available for. 

3. Keeping a pulse on what’s on everyone’s plate

At the end of last year, our customer success team was really focused on renewals, which is what they should be focused on at that time of year. But when it came to new strategies or goals in Q4, a lot of the work to communicate these with customers fell onto my plate because the customer success team was busy. We had to work around different availability and figure out who had the bandwidth for what. I think that’s the beautiful thing about customer marketing—you can really be this support for all these different teams to scale what they’re doing.

How do you manage projects where different stakeholders have different priorities? 

Shannon Howard: I think of it like a six-lane highway, each lane being a different project that I’m working on. Where is there a traffic jam or where have people slowed down? And where is there room to continue moving forward? I’ve tried to look at it like that so I’m not just sitting there twiddling my thumbs wondering when everybody else is going to be ready. Where can I make progress? Sometimes the game you have to play is shifting lanes based on where everybody else is at. Respect that other people have different goals, priorities, and projects they’re working on, and move where you can.

Are you using case studies right now, and, if so, how are they working for you?

Shannon Howard: This response is from my previous role, but yes, we’re using case studies. Right now, we have superficial metrics in terms of views or shares from our sales enablement platform, but we don’t have them all attached to deals. That’s something our new RevOps director is working on—attaching case study views or customer story video views to opportunity records. That way we can actually track influence on revenue.

Our sales team is a really big fan of video stories. It’s interesting because the data actually shows that more people are looking at our written stories. But I understand there’s power in video and hearing someone’s voice in their own story, in their own words. So we try to find a blend of both. Obviously, it’s much more production-heavy if you have a video.

Do you have any advice for someone who’s getting started in customer marketing?

1. Start with the customer and the business problems

There has to be an intersection of the two. Some things that we want to do for our customers don’t meet an immediate business need, so they can’t be our priorities. We have to think about both.

I’ve worked for companies that are all-in on references because they’re a high-level contract, it’s a high dollar value. But then other things—case studies, testimonials, reviews, things like that— are more popular with customers. So you have to look at your own customers, your own prospects, the buyer’s journey, and figure out what actually matters most. 

2. Get creative

Last year, I hand-wrote over 150 cards to all of our customers and I customized them with the name of their platform and the name of their school and things that I knew about them because I stalked them all on LinkedIn! You need to figure out what is within your budget to do and be comfortable doing that. It’s OK to not have the budget for things. A lot of us are in that position, especially now. Get creative! What can you do?

3. Start small

I think people want to launch with a top-tier program, whether that’s a customer awards program, customer conference or reference process that uses a nice tool. But it’s okay to be where you’re at and grow over time. Figure out what your business and your customers want, and then remember it’s okay to start small and grow.

P.S. Want more customer marketing insights?

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And just in case you missed it, check out our 2024 Customer Story Trends & Insights Report, where we surveyed 115 customer marketers to gather their insights and experiences with customer stories.

Here’s a preview:

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Emily Amos

As the founder of Uplift Content, Emily leads her team in creating done-for-you case studies, ebooks and blog posts for high-growth SaaS companies like ClickUp, Calendly and WalkMe. Connect with Emily on Linkedin

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