A big hello from Raleigh, North Carolina. Welcome to another episode of B2B Marketing & More. My guest is Paul Cowan, CMO of FreshBooks, a SaaS-based platform, accounting software used by many small businesses and freelancers.
Today we talk about how to bridge the gap between marketing and product experience.
In this episode:
- Why is there a gap between marketing and product experience?
- What happens when the user experience doesn’t live up to the marketing hype?
- How to provide value for the customers?
- How can businesses ensure that the product experience addresses their target audience’s biggest pain point?
- What does it take to bring features into a product in real-time?
- How to gather feedback and perform testing?
- How to differentiate from the competition
- What defines a good customer support process?
- How can a business carve out a unique market area?
- What is the role of the marketing team in product experience?
Quotes from the episode:
“I think the last thing within the tech world is the return to the creative messaging. I think in this kind of race for features and promoting features, we’ve lost sight of what a brand represents and making sure that’s articulated to customers.”
“One of the guys on our web team went and helped daycare-hang drywall in his local area. It’s things like this that we have focused on as an organization. Focus on these grassroots ways to help owners, whether through those initiatives or the philanthropic type of activity or just core-support services. ”
Hi, big hello from Raleigh, North Carolina. Welcome to another episode of B2B Marketing & More. We talk about everything B2B-related, from DemandGen, pay, advertising. Sometimes, we even touch on the marketing development, also career development of B2B marketers. Today, I have a very, very special guest, Paul Cowan. Paul is the CMO of FreshBooks, a SaaS-based platform, accounting software used by many small businesses and freelancers. In fact, several of my freelancers use that to invoice me directly. Welcome, Paul.
Paul Cowan: Thank you. It’s great to be here, Pam. I’m glad to hear that our platform is invoicing you.
Pam Didner: Many, many times.
Paul Cowan: Yes. Good.
Pam Didner: There’s one thing I like about your platform. You always have some nice little quote, all on the front, and before you kind of take me to your invoice platform, I like that. That was cute, a nice little touch.
Paul Cowan: Yeah. It’s definitely by design to help the user experience overall and just give customers a little extra, instead of just taking them directly to an invoice they have to pay.
Pam Didner: That also touches the topics we want to talk about, advertising and the product experience. Anybody doing advertising or even marketing communication is a promise. A promise you make to what your product will deliver or messages you want to communicate for what your product will do. Basically, from my perspective, if marketing is done right, you say what you will do, and you say it correctly. But there are times, and I have seen it, where the user experience didn’t live up to the marketing hype. Can you share some experiences with us or some examples, and what was the outcome of that?
Paul Cowan: Yeah, sure. In the SaaS organizations, through the 2010s, there’s been a lot of product-led growth companies and companies that rely on their product to do their selling, conversion and that type of activity. It’s interesting because a lot of times, we’ve been losing a bit of the positioning aspect in the differentiation aspect of marketing or advertising in favor of just creating great customer experiences within a product or relying on that or trying to be first-to-market.
I’ll give some examples of some things that I think have been some not living up to the hype. I was a founder of a food company back in 2014 when a lot of money was going into the food space and companies like Maple and Munchery. You were starting in New York or the Bay Area.
Pam Didner: Yeah.
Paul Cowan: I founded a company called Feast in Toronto, and we were very much the same thing. Great kitchens, have a full stack, manage your production to delivery. That whole model just didn’t work. Because it relied on the premise that people cared a lot about their food quality, which they do to a certain extent but often didn’t, and they cared about speed. I think everybody was kind of focused on how we can get the best chef-quality meal to someone’s doorstep in minutes. People just didn’t. That wasn’t a big problem for them. You could get lots of chef-made meals in lots of different places. They’re just really wasn’t that desire, the demand from a customer standpoint to want that.
I think an analogous to that as well is kind of this box-food category. Like the Blue Apron, HelloFresh folks in this space, where they’re promising this wonderful experience of you being able to craft these wonderful chef-made meals at home. Yet, what you’re getting is excessive waste and work.
Pam Didner: Yeah.
Paul Cowan: When you’re getting this experience of what you’re being promised of, and then if you make the food cost comparison, if you just went to the grocery store and picked up the food, you’re like, “Oh, I’m paying three X the price of, for this food that’s…” Yes, it’s delivered to my door, but I still have to do a tremendous amount of work. So, I could probably get that in delivery. Why not just pay a little bit of a premium and get that. I think those are two pretty big examples. I think the issue is just not understanding the customer or not solving a customer pain point. Suppose you’re not satisfying something or manufacturing a need for something that just doesn’t exist in a major way. In that case, your company may be a great niche product, but it’s never going to scale.
Pam Didner: I hear you low and clear. I use Blue Apron for a little bit, probably three or four weeks, and nothing against the company. Their website is great.
Paul Cowan: Yeah.
Pam Didner: The customer experience is very seamless. I think they also did a great job in terms of marketing themselves. They got themselves in Costco. They got themselves in all the marketing channels. They even set up a kiosk in the mall. They try the omnichannel. I think in the end you are right. Whenever I get the package from them, the first time I got it, there’s one thing that was very kind of a sense of excitement.
Paul Cowan: Yeah
Pam Didner: You know what? Everything is proportioned, everything is managed, everything is measured, you opened it, and you cook. Then, over two or three weeks, the thing that popped into my mind is, how much waste I created.
Paul Cowan: It’s crazy.
Pam Didner: I was like, “Is that solve my problem?”
Paul Cowan: Yeah.
Pam Didner: I understand it does create a sense of convenience. I know there’s a value proposition. I go with it. Whenever you create a specific product, especially a SaaS-based platform for food delivery or even that sharing experience, but you are right. In the end, you have to look at the problem you’re solving and do your customer need that.
Paul Cowan: Yeah. Every company, especially in the SaaS space or this customer experience area, needs to dial in on whether it’s called a magic moment, your aha moment, or whatever it is. What is that thing that you’re going to be doing to drive and provide value in that experience so that you’re getting the value and utility out of it? So, it’s incredibly important to be able to achieve that.
Pam Didner: Yes. We talk about the customer experience is supercritical, and it’s product-led. Still, sometimes the product-led type of experience doesn’t address the overall big customer pinpoint.
Paul Cowan: Yeah.
Pam Didner: At FreshBooks, what are you doing to ensure that the product experience addresses your target audience’s biggest pinpoint?
Paul Cowan: Yeah. We focus on the small business are the very small business like your solopreneur, freelancers up to companies of 20-50 people, but we kind of tap out there. Our focus is really on owners and what are the owners’ pain points. Whether it’s QuickBooks or Xero, other accounting software often just focus more on the accountant, and that’s where their legacy has come from. So, they built great products for accountants, but when owners get into the products, they have a really hard time using them on a day in, day out basis. That’s the feedback that we hear.
So, we’re trying to create a system where it’s the owner’s tool day in, day out. Then accountants can have the utility that they need to go in and do the types of things they need to do. Whether it’s the bookkeeping, closing the books, filing taxes, or doing all of that stuff. With that, we’re always focused on what our owners are looking for. With them, none of them is excited about doing their finances. None of them is jumping at a bed and clapping their hands and saying, “I can’t wait to go and do my invoicing.”
Pam Didner: I agree. I mean, most of the time, like, “Do I need to do these expenses now?” Because if you don’t take care of your expenses regularly, it piles up very quickly. All of a sudden, there’s 20 receipts you have to do, “So much work.”
Paul Cowan: It’s such a lived pain. We’re in this catch-22. How you create an experience within your product, they’re not spending much time in it. Sometimes, making sure that we have a sticky product that people come into every day may not be the best thing to integrate with someone’s workflow. So, we try simplicity, and ease of use is the number-1 one thing we’re always doing. We are just trying to create the best user experience within our platform specifically built for owners, which we kind of dial in on.
Pam Didner: How do you gather that feedback, and how do you do testing? How do you bring the features into your product in real-time?
Paul Cowan: Yeah. We’ve got a pretty extensive road-mapping process in terms of looking at the future of the types of things we’re doing. Whether it’s an expansion of users, growing revenue within our existing user-base or going into different markets.
We’re always looking at where the future of the industry is going. Also, we run this voice of customer activity. We bring together all the different areas, gather customer feedback, and collate all that data to get the existing customer experience through the support tickets and conversations that that team is having.
We do tons of customer interviews worldwide, whether they’re facilitated through marketing or our UX team or whoever. Anytime we have these interactions, we’re bringing it together to learn across the board and look at these different pieces and bits of information to connect the support tickets to everything. We understand the relative gains from the different pieces we’re putting into the product and what people are looking for. A lot of it is just breaking up the roadmap to have the little enhancements and feature enhancements that need to happen on a day in, day out basis. Along with the big rocks that need to be developed. Whether it’s doing something like bringing a completely new feature-set into the product or suppose it’s doing something to bring a completely new vertical or customer-type into the product. In that case, it’s doing both of those things to make sure we have that.
But I think the interesting side is that most of this research in many organizations is done individually within their departments. The hard part is how do you bring together disparate pieces of data.
Pam Didner: Look at all the information that you gather and then make changes as necessary. That’s always hard. That’s very, very hard. It doesn’t matter which organization that you go to.
Paul Cowan: Yeah. The other challenge is how do you differentiate markets? So, I’ve been at FreshBooks for just over two years. I always like working in organizations when I know the customer because I’ve been the customer. You’re always closer to the product and understanding what you’re looking for.
Paul Cowan: I always balance out how we differentiate versus the competitors. When I came in, you looked at all of the competitive ads and what people were doing. We’re all saying all-in-one accounting and then a list of features. Then, carving out the market area that is unique to us is the hard part.
Pam Didner: How do you do that? Can you share with us?
Paul Cowan: Yeah, for sure. We did a pretty extensive brand overview, which started long before I started at FreshBooks. Which was dialing into what we were all about and what is the space we owned. Of course, it’s all about being built for owners. Still, it’s unpacking that and understanding what is it about owners that makes them tick and what are the things that we need to dial in on.
We know that all owners universally, whether you’re a solopreneur or running a 20-person ad agency, the adage it’s lonely at the top, exists across the board. There’s this feeling of isolation that all owners have. Not knowing exactly what it means to understand their finances, be prepared for tax time, or attack their bills. They often regress to the one thing they’re good at, which they do in work. We try to make sure that we understand this pain and understand that challenge and act in our above-the-line communications, demonstrating that we get that.
Then in the product, how do we add value to their day with every single turn of what we’re developing. We know that they may not know all of this stuff on the back of their hand. They may not know the right process to do all this stuff, so how do we make sure that we’re helping them through that?
Pam Didner: Let me paraphrase it. A lot of things that you were talking about is you started from the core of the company. Why does your company exist? You’re creating the software while you are creating the software.
Paul Cowan: Yeah.
Pam Didner: So, you have a clear understanding that the target audience that you go after is small businesses and very small businesses, which is very, very clearly defined. Once you have that defined within the small businesses, you go after the decision-maker. Who is the decision-maker? It’s the owner. So, you very much tailor your message directly to the owner. But even with the owners, they have a different industry segment, freelancers. A graphic designer is probably very different from the people who own a small E-commerce store or local shop in a small town. So, you look into a different owner segment, and they try to understand what they’re pinpointing. You make an effort to deeply understand your target audience, which is the small business owners. I think that’s very, very critical, and I always say, “Understand your customer,” and I will say, “Deeply.”
I think that is one thing a lot of marketers, including myself, sometimes overlook. We feel we understand our customers, but do we understand them deeply, really understand their pinpoints and what they do regularly. It’s not about their hobbies, is it not really about what they’re, they like hiking, or they don’t like hiking. It’s none of that. I think it’s more understanding of some of the challenges. Can we find common challenges across all small business owners?
Paul Cowan: Yeah. The challenge in B2B marketing is unlike other categories. When you’re in this SMB or VSB world, the small business or the very small business, it’s a different problem-set that you’re dealing with. It’s interesting because there’s such a wide variety of customer types and maturity in their business. It’s very difficult to then find that common thread that exists across all of them. A lot of business owners are in business to do something. They’re all in it for different reasons. Whether it’s personal fulfillment, whether it’s, they’ve been thrust there because they lost their job. Or maybe they’re doing it for the balance of time and only life or whatever it might be. The end game and that end emotional benefit of what they’re doing it.
So, there’s a massive amount of variety for it. So, being a highly emotive marketer in B2B is very difficult because there is no comment thread. Unlike if you’re doing sports equipment or if you’re doing something, if you’re in the yoga apparel business, there’s the endgame is a little bit more apparent from an emotional standpoint. So, B2B marketers often regress down to the obvious insight around saving time.
Pam Didner: Effectiveness and the cost.
Paul Cowan: Totally. Although that’s like a motivator, everybody starts to look like, “We’re in the sea of sameness.” Whether you’re a bank, a lender, accounting software, or you’re doing communications management. Everybody’s always promising the same thing. Hence, it becomes very difficult for anybody to stand out. I’m on the journey to carve out this unique area for FreshBooks to live into and make sure both from a brand and product standpoint. We live into it as well.
Pam Didner: What is a specific tagline or a unique differentiator that you describe FreshBooks?
Paul Cowan: In some recent campaigns, we articulate is, “You’re not alone.” What we do is that we try to show people how we’re along with them on their journey of growth, whether it’s personal or whether it’s a growth of their company. When we unpack that into what that means from a FreshBooks standpoint, our mission is to look at how we can do extraordinary things every day that help owners grow.
So, it’s not necessarily about the endgame of growth. Still, it’s the day-to-day things that we do as an organization to help owners in pursuits that they’re looking to do. Our area of differentiation is that we don’t want to look like a big corporate model if Intuit is or an Adobe like large companies. We want to demonstrate how we get customers in that deep and intimate way you talked about before. Focus on the grassroots initiatives and what they would do that is completely unexpected, like picking a phone up when they call us. Most people would expect to go through an IVR or leave a callback number or something to that effect. But we pride ourselves in a won-many-awards for our customer service.
Pam Didner: Do you have a very big support team, then?
Paul Cowan: It’s a support team that actively manage it in terms of what we do. I wouldn’t say that we overinvest against industry norms. Still, we manage our support team in different ways to ensure that they get on the line with customers when they need to.
Pam Didner: As quickly as possible.
Paul Cowan: Absolutely. We ran a program when COVID hit last March when all the lockdowns happened. We were focused on a program that we called, Roll Up Your Sleeves. We asked FreshBookers all around the world: “If you’ve got a skillset and would like to volunteer your time to our customers, identify what it is and we’ll go out to our customers and see if they need some help.”
Down in Atlanta, one guy I dealt with, a graphic designer, and all of his customers were in the event and live entertainment business. He’s like, “I got to pivot because all of my business is gone.”
Pam Didner: You have to learn how to do stuff online. Yes.
Paul Cowan: So, I just sat there, had a couple of calls with him. We talked about different ways that he could approach it. He needed this sounding board to just run different approaches off and give him some examples of products or services that he could create, package, and take to market. One of the guys on our web team went and helped daycare-hang drywall in his local area. It’s things like this that we have focused on as an organization. Focus on these grassroots ways to help owners, whether through those initiatives or the philanthropic type of activity or just core-support services. He was trying to demonstrate to folks that we understand and live and breathe this every day.
Pam Didner: Grassroot is very, very important. I emphasize grassroots marketing more than paid marketing and a paid effort. Do you do a lot of pay, as well?
Paul Cowan: Yeah. We play the attrition funnel game like everybody else in the SaaS world. So, we have a pretty amazing performance marketing team at FreshBooks. We’re spending a lot of money, and search captures all the intent traffic, affiliates marketplaces, referrals. We do a lot of podcast advertising. Our upper funnel stuff is focused on other digital platforms, all the major socials, YouTube, and OTT. We’ve done some experiments in the past with DRTV and with radio, and other things.
We keep experimenting there, but the core bread and butter of what we’re doing is in the performance space and, of course, investing a ton of time and effort into SEO. When we are constantly developing new products, we have to also make sure we’re addressing and moving into these new categories in both the SEO and SEM spaces. So, it’s constantly keeping the team busy.
Pam Didner: It sounds like you dialed up pretty much all the channels if all possible. Your primary focus is search engine marketing, which is pay surge and followed with basically affiliate marketing. That makes a lot of sense to me as well, strategically.
Paul Cowan: Yeah.
Pam Didner: Then, the next thing is a social media platform. That also makes a lot of sense, especially you target a very, very small business owner. I think that’s wonderful. Can you talk to us about how many users you have and in by countries or countries?
Paul Cowan: We’re a private company, so we don’t disclose our user count or revenue, but we’re in over 160 countries. Over 24 million people have touched the product over the 15 years of the company being in existence. We’ve touched many people over the years and have got a lot of data in terms of learning. In terms of what they like and don’t like about it, that’s for sure.
Pam Didner: With that being said, how do you scale your marketing at the country level?
Paul Cowan: The main focus right now is English markets. We just acquired a company called FastBill in Germany, so that’s our first push into the European markets. We’ll be doing the translation into both our product and within our go-to markets. We acquired a company last year called Facturama that’s based out of Mexico. So, they’re helping us move into doing more Latin American countries and getting things stood up in Spanish. The biggest challenge, especially in the accounting space, is that tax laws are different in every market you go into. It’s unlike other SaaS organizations that might just build one product.
Pam Didner: One product, homogenous across multiple regions, but accounting software tends to be slightly different.
Paul Cowan: It has to be much more tailored to the market based on the different things within those markets. We look at shoring up our core capabilities. Like most organizations, we believe in the platform ecosystem. As the accounting suite, we can be the endpoint for many integrations or a lot of the stack that a small business may have. By making sure we’re doing the appropriate integrations and the appropriate partnerships with other companies, then that’s another kind of key area that we focus on as well.
Pam Didner: Yeah. So, you also recently revamped the FreshBooks brand. Can you talk about in terms of the rebranding effort that you do? Why do you need to rebrand? I mean, FreshBooks was a pretty solid brand to start with, so why does the rebranding have anything to do with the growth, for example?
Paul Cowan: What was very interesting is that a company had been on this two-year journey of rebranding efforts. It started by reaffirming the commitment to the customer. It was like, do we understand and believe the customer? What can we do to be meaningful in the lives of the customer? The company had already gone through the change-management process of affirming what the brand was. And the brand commitment was to the organization. I was the lucky recipient at the end of it all to say, “Okay, great. Now, all we need to do is to market like this. This is the easiest thing to do.” The hardest part is the change management with the organization. It was more about an experience internally than the customer because the customer doesn’t care if we change the logo.
Pam Didner: Most of the time, they don’t care.
Paul Cowan: Then, it was like, “Let’s take it to market and kind of demonstrate to our customers that we understand them.” The crux of it was all still centered on. We just really want to make sure that we understand who we are as a company and what we’re trying to do in our customers’ lives. That was the rebranding effort and why we did it
Pam Didner: It’s you guys do it for yourself. Not necessarily like just do it for the sake of like, “Oh, that’s to rebranding.” It’s more or less the company journey, if you will. I like the word that you use. It’s a reaffirmation.
Paul Cowan: Absolutely.
Pam Didner: It’s also another way to rally the employees.
Paul Cowan: It was like, here’s where we are, here’s where we’re going and just making sure we all understood it. It was like, we are renewing our vows to our customers of the ones we had today and the ones we would have tomorrow
Pam Didner: So, I want to ask you very quickly, the last question is, for 2022, you are looking ahead, you talked to us about some of the marketing plans or initiatives that you are planning to explore or try?
Paul Cowan: There’s a couple of areas that we’re focused on. One is the cookie’s demise, and we don’t know the exact dates that any of this will happen. What we’ve been focused on is planning for that. Our team is doing a few things. One is, we’re dialing up our partner market efforts. I think there will be a new age of partner marketing and how we can start building ecosystems of brands instead of ecosystems of media companies.
When we’re building, we’re all building these same giant attrition funnel. Kicking people out, closing 5-10% of the people we’re attracting every month, and tossing the rest of the fish back in the water. There’s just an efficiency play that can be had across all like-minded marketers. I think that there’s a big effort there. Brands as media companies, I think this was a big thing in the 2000s about the Red Bull Studios and BMW and everybody making these feature-length movies and stuff. I think it’s a little different. I think there’s probably a bit more brands as media companies. It relates to how we can produce some top-of-funnel content, collect primary data on customers, and start to build out content that way. So, looking at how HubSpot bought the Hustle. Even back, if you look at how Casper bought Sleepopolis and the review sites. I think there’s just going to be a little more of a focus on how brands can start to look into that world a little more, especially within the SaaS space. I think the packaged-good marketers have done it. They forgot to build any primary data, where the SaaS companies have a lot avoided that.
Pam Didner: Right. The SaaS-based company have that capability.
Paul Cowan: Yeah.
Pam Didner: CPG they are a traditional company. They tend not to think about data so that they can monetize the data. Still, a SaaS-based platform is a completely different way to monetize their products. So from the very get-go, data means everything right for the SaaS-based company.
Paul Cowan: I think the last thing within the tech world is the return to the creative messaging. I think in this kind of race for features and promoting features, we’ve lost sight of what a brand represents and making sure that’s articulated to customers.
Since we’ve all gone down this path of performance marketing and optimizing against SEO and SEM, we’ve lost differentiation in the market. I think we need to go back to making sure that we’re doing the types of things we’re focused on, ensuring our creative messaging is resonating. Our creative is differentiating brands in the market instead of just talking about the latest, greatest feature that we’re launching as a product organization.
Pam Didner: Many of us are using the same marketing channels as you do, but I do agree in terms of partner marketing is something that can dial-up and leverage the big ecosystem, and a lot of tech companies do that and do that very, very well. If you look at Intel, you look at HP, any kind of global tech company that has done that for a long period. So, I agree with you.
You mentioned that I love the cookie-list world regarding the pay media moving forward if they are not using cookies. How do you track that performance? What can you do to make sure that you continue to get the data? I think that will be a challenge for everybody, especially the company that spends a huge amount of money is paid.
Then, the third thing you emphasize is to continue looking at yourself, understand who you are, and find that unique differentiator. I think that’s hard, but I do agree with you, and the value proposition and messaging are supercritical. So, the value proposition and the messaging are like a living document or living being, if you will.
Paul Cowan: I know.
Pam Didner: You have to constantly evaluate that. So, I love all the insight you brought to us. I would like to ask you two questions.
Paul Cowan: Yeah.
Pam Didner: Number one is what shows are you Binge-watching right now?
Paul Cowan: Well, I just finished the last season loaded to Netflix of Homeland because I walked away from it. I don’t know.
Pam Didner: You just watched the last season.
Paul Cowan: Yeah. So, I caught up with that, and I’ve been watching a lot of the Apple TV+ stuff. So, I watched the whole…
Pam Didner: Ted Lasso
Paul Cowan: Yeah. I watched all of Ted Lasso. Loved it. It was great.
Pam Didner: Yeah. Everybody loved that, everybody loved it.
Paul Cowan: So, it was pretty fantastic. So, I’m good there. I’m also a secret junkie of the UK. Australian home renovation shows, especially this one called Grand Designs, because they track home renovations over 14 years.
Pam Didner: 14 years.
Paul Cowan: Yeah. I like to do a lot of that kind of stuff on my own and just finish building a place upon a Lake North of the city here in Toronto. So, I have a deep heart and appreciation for what it takes to build something.
Pam Didner: Excellent. What is one place that you always want to go to?
Paul Cowan: Anywhere, right now. It’s funny up here. I’m in Toronto, and we just have moved into opening everything up again. Even right now, there’s still this hesitation in going out all the time. So, we’re planning our first trip and going somewhere. I’m probably going to head out to the mountain in British Columbia, the interior, and make the ski trip as quickly as possible.
Pam Didner: Very nice. Excellent.
Paul Cowan: Awesome.
Pam Didner: Thank you so much for coming to my show, Paul.
Paul Cowan: Thank you, Pam. It was awesome to be here
Pam Didner: Excellent. If you like this episode, please subscribe to your favorite listening platform. If you watch it on YouTube, feel free to subscribe and comment below. All right. Take care. Bye-bye.
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