FIR B2B podcast episode #147: Language matters

Last week Volkswagen tried and failed at an April Fool’s prank that involved changing its name to “Voltswagen” in recognition of its belated line of electric vehicles. The name change was confirmed through its press channels before Volkswagen eventually revealed that it was “only” a joke. Only a lot of people in the media weren’t laughing, believing that they had been manipulated as part of a marketing stunt.

The issue once again emphasized how tone-deaf companies can be in light of their reputations (Remember the whole diesel stats fiasco?) This brings up the topic of how to be cautious about your choice of language. The issue is particularly relevant in this time of hyper-sensitivity to issues of race, gender and disability.

An older article on The Hill has several examples of neutral language, such as using “pro-life” rather than “anti-abortion” to describe sides of that sensitive issue. My podcasting partner Paul weighs in on a recent experience he had writing an article about autism in the workplace: many of those folks prefer to be called “autistics people” rather than “people with autism.” The latter approach, called “individual first,” is favored by people with disabilities but autistic people don’t consider themselves to be disabled. Language has been widely used to shape the gun debate as well.

We’re seeing corporations increasingly weigh in on social and political issues and the need to be sensitive to special interests has never been greater. The most recent example is voting rights bills that are being considered by various statehouses. Several large companies have weighed in on the issue, with language ranging from blunt in the case of Delta Airlines to Microsoft’s more nuanced approach. And media, who likes a good fight, has largely overlooked the numerous bills that expanded rather than restricted these rights, something that the Brennan Center has tracked extensively.

You might want to take some time to review these links to understand how much language matters these days and to think twice about how you express your corporate position. You can listen to our 15 minute discussion here:


Greg Ness has a long track record of helping nurture tech startups to success. Now he’s a “fractional CMO” dividing his time between diverse emerging companies like DigitSecSmartStory Technologies and NetBeez.

Greg has made startups his speciality over the past 20 years, including full-time rose as VP marketing at Vidder, Cloudneeti, Vantage, Redline Networks and CloudVelox.  The concept of a fractional CMO is an interesting one because it allows startups to purchase just enough marketing resources without having to commit to a full-time position. Ness brings a cadre of domain experts with him in a package he calls “go-to-market-as-a-service.”

Working for several companies concurrently means he can quickly cross-pollinate great ideas and also nip potentially bad marketing decisions in the bud. In this podcast, we discuss why marketing needs for startups differ from those of established companies. You can’t just transplant tactics that work for big firms; you need to rethink your tools and techniques to fit each company’s circumstances.

Greg is more comfortable with technology topics than a lot of tech CMOs that Paul and David have met. His Archimedius blog reflects his insatiable curiosity about all things tech and his 20 years in Silicon Valley. In this interview he talks about how he balances his work load among multiple clients, what tech entrepreneurs most often do wrong and what the best ones have in common.

You can listen to our 24 min. interview here.

Marketing in the time of the Covid

I have been doing a couple of podcast interviews with marketing executives over the past couple of weeks: one with Domo (a cloud BI company that I did hands-on tests several years ago) and Talend (a cloud data integration vendor). Both faced big challenges during the pandemic, such as turning their in-person user conferences into all virtual ones and changing their marketing to adjust to the new virtual way of doing business. You would think that the marketing would be pretty much the same even though both companies operate primarily in the cloud. But you would be wrong. When it comes to enterprise B2B software sales, you need road warriors and a personal high-touch. But the old school days of customer wine-and-dine are gone. You have to be more creative about building those connections these days.

Talend hired a completely new leadership team (which interestingly are all women) and as a result went through a series of rebranding efforts. “Data is the difference between surviving and thriving,” says Lauren Vaccarello, the CMO of Talend on our podcast. She watched one of her favorite tea shops close their doors in a couple of weeks and lay off hundreds of their staff. That motivated her to rethink their messaging and start fresh, assuming that everything will change. “We have a product that can help businesses with better and real-time access to their data.”

“We can’t rely on anything, we have to innovate and change what we did a year ago,” she said. For example, they could pull customer executives together in a webinar rather than rely on those who could attend a physical meeting. Not to mention that virtual events were a lot less costly and had a lot higher attendance and engagement too. “From an ROI perspective, we got 5x higher returns than from an in-person event.” Having an all-female executive team at Talend is an interesting experience for all of them. “None of us feel the need to be perfect around each other,” she said. That makes for more intense, authentic and productive collaboration too. “The dynamic is different.”

Domo had a similar experience and just a few days to transform their customer event into a virtual one. It went from about 3,000 attendees to more than 12,000 virtual visitors. And from three days’ worth of sessions to one 90 minute plenary session with dozens of break-out sessions that could be streamed on demand.

One of my biggest beefs with SaaS companies is how hard it is to price their services. Compare Domo’s pricing page with Talend’s  (shown here) — the latter is very transparent and very clear, and a rarity.

I want to bring in a post from Salesforce which talks about ways marketers can fight digital fatigue. The authors cite the average person now spends 7.5 hours daily in front of a screen. They have several suggestions on how to beef up your own marketing efforts during these pandemic times, including:

  • Follow your customers as they change usage patterns and try new products. Stay top of mind and evolve with them. Don’t stop your marketing efforts.
  • Personalization is critical. As customers curate their digital experiences, make sure you have a better understanding of their needs and what matters to them. But don’t cross over into being creepy.
  • Agile is here to stay. Understand this evolution and how customers are responding to your content.
  • Social media matters. Make sure you can engage your customers on the various social platforms where they talk about your products.
  • Empathy is important. Show your customers that you care and respond to their concerns. Above all else, avoid the hard sell and be authentic.


FIR B2B podcast #141: How Domo pivoted to a virtual conference — in just 12 days

Business intelligence software firm Domo had been planning its March 18 Domopalooza conference for nearly a year. About 3,000 customers and partners were expected to flock to Salt Lake City for four days of technical training and meetings, capped by a concert by the Black Eyed Peas. But as quarantines and lockdowns began sweeping the world in late February, Domo made the tough call to take the conference virtual, with just 12 days to make the shift.

Chief Strategy Officer John Mellor spearheaded the shift. In this interview he summarizes the rapid series of decisions Domo had to make to pull off a successful virtual event that ultimately attracted more than 12,000 visitors. There are more details in this story that my podcasting partner Paul Gillin wrote for SiliconAngle.

Mellor turned a three-day event into one 90-minute plenary session that mixed live conversations with pre-taped segments, along with a series of dozens of break-out sessions that could be streamed on demand. He focused on delivering great content, driving a higher attendance and better engagement through a well-defined user community. He also saved a bunch of money, even after paying the no-show fees for the various in-person aspects of the event. In our podcast, he discusses his decisions and why he expects to take a “virtual first”  approach to future events.

Listen to our 21-minute podcast here:

FIR B2B podcast episode #140: Talend’s Lauren Vaccarello On Taking Marketing Virtual

Lauren Vaccarello’s first year as CMO of Talend has been about resilience, psychological trust and safety, along with frequent quick pivots. The former marketing executive at and Box and host of a marketing podcast has had to adjust to working with an entirely new leadership team, leading a full company rebrand (and a second rebrand thanks to COVID-19) and transforming a planned in-person event to a worldwide series of virtual events fielded across three continents in a single day.

In the process, Lauren has learned to think on her feet and how to rewire marketing in this brave new pandemic world. In our interview, we talk with her about the changes COVID-19 has wrought in the B2B world, what marketers still need to learn about digital marketing, how B2B is affected by the surge of e-commerce usage in the consumer world and why Talend is so transparent about pricing (its page is a model of clarity that every SaaS vendor should follow). She also tells why she is excited to be working for an all-female leadership team and the collaboration and shared responsibility they bring to the table. It’s something other Silicon Valley firms could learn from. Listen to our 30 minute podcast here:

Red Cross blog: A life-long learner, profile of Stan Brasch

What makes any of us become an American Red Cross volunteer? Does it happen because of a change in our life circumstances, or because of a particular crisis or other event?

Stan Brasch recalls the moment it began for him: it was about three years ago when he retired from federal government service. He had returned to St. Louis after many years in Kansas City where he served with the Kansas National Guard and later the U.S. Army Reserves for a total of over 30 years.

“I wanted to help with the disaster recovery efforts,” he said. Brasch had already had extensive training for the U.S. Department of Transportation in delivering their own rapid response to emergencies.

You can read more about Stan on the Red Cross blog here.

FIR B2B podcast episode #138: Keeping it real

COVID has given new meaning to the value of authenticity. Paul Gillin and I riff on a few examples:

Marketing Week speaks to’s CMO and what B2B can learn from B2C marketing. One thing is to keep it personal by forgetting about stock photos and telling personal stories. This helps to build trust and deliver better customer relationships. Of course, it helps to have a charismatic and opinionated CEO like Marc Benioff around to inspire the team.

Sprout Social’s Alicia Johnston writes about how to inspire action with your LinkedIn presence. Rather than making your vendor page a promotional smarmy read, take the time to be more aspirational and educational. This can help provide insights and make connections with your community. The piece also discusses ways to experiment to find your best corporate voice and how to time your posts for maximum impact.

Social media influencers are raking in the big bucks, and we think it’s because they build, rather than buy their audiences. But marketers and influencers alike need to keep in mind that paid relationships need to be disclosed, and penalties for failing to do so will grow along with paychecks. But we like this more toward promotion through authentic channels.

Our IT journalist colleague Sally Grotta writes that personal interruptions that once would have been inappropriate are now not just accepted as part of the online conference experience. The interruptions by kids, animals and delivery people make our interactions less formal and more real. Musicians have led the way, with many famous performers inviting us into their living rooms for concerts that seem so much more intimate than when given in a performance hall.

You can listen to our podcast here.

FIR B2B Podcast #137: Invoca CMO Dee Anna McPherson on Building Strong Customer Advocacy Programs

We talk today with Dee Anna McPherson, the CMO at Invoca, an AI call tracking and conversational analytics vendor. That is a mouthful and one of the things she is doing is trying to define and own a new product category. That could be a daunting prospect, except she has done this before when she worked at Yammer (before they were engulfed by Microsoft) and then at Hootsuite. When Yammer began, no one had heard about microblogging, as it was called then. McPherson managed to define “enterprise social networking” as Yammer’s category and the company was off to the races from there. With working from home now the norm, that kind of technology has become the de factor standard for communications among remote team members.

Paul wrote about Invoca last year for Silicon Angle on how they use machine learning to transcribe and classify calls.

McPherson tell us about the importance of customer communication in building strong customer advocacy programs. You need to figure out a way to tell their stories without using the words “customer case study” or “reference account.” Customers really do want to help as long as they aren’t seen as shilling, she believes.  This is a topic we’ve touched on before, such as FIR B2B #118’s discussion about how customers should be your best advocates as well as Paul’s written work on social media marketing. We close out the podcast talking about how things have changed for marketers in the pandemic, how customer supply chains are evolving and how marketers can benefit from this transition.

Listen to our podcast here:

FIR B2B podcast #136: The best and worst Covid-related pitches

Is your inbox overflowing with a virus? Sadly, it isn’t ordinary phishing or malware, but all COVID, all the time, with pitches and experts offered from all walks of life. It isn’t just the infosec vendors either. Paul and I have gotten pitches from genealogy vendors, from vendor selling ink cartridges and those who want to help us build a sales team working from home.

They have plenty of competition. Bad guys have come up with all kinds of scams and ploys preying on interest in information and remedies. Scammers cumulatively  created over 35,500 unique websites related to COVID-19 in the last month according to Atlas VPN research, Some of these sites tried to swindle money by selling masks, hand sanitizers, or even virus testing kits. Amazon removed over 530,000 coronavirus-related product listings due to price-gouging.

All this means communicators need to be judicious about what you are pitching. In this podcast, we look at the best and worst examples that we’ve seen cross our inboxes. For example, we both liked this piece that ran in a local St. Louis magazine. It looked into the role two local university medical research teams – one at Washington University and one at St. Louis University – were contributing to COVID research work. David’s wife is an interior designer, and she has gotten her share of coronavirus-related pitches too. One  pitch is for a bunch of expert tips on organizing your home while sheltering in place. We both liked the practicality of the piece and how it offers some solid suggestions that anyone can use to straighten up while living in isolation. .

The email at left had a subject line “building your sales team for a post-Covid recovery.” That struck us both as opportunistic and being somewhat tone-deaf to the worldwide misery we’ve all been seeing.

Then there is the pitch from Dell below right that is trying to sell printer ink cartridges, with the subject line “working from home made easy.” Needlessly exploitative. It has nothing to do with simplifying work from home.

Finally is the personalized pitch. If you are going to go make a pitch related to an epic tragedy, don’t start with “Happy Wednesday.” It just comes across as unseemly.

So what are some lessons that we learned? First sharpen your pitch and and make it as relevant to your business as possible. Don’t make a reporter have to search for an angle. And it doesn’t hurt to ask a reporter what articles they are working on and offer to help.

Listen to our 19 min. podcast below.

Beating the odds: how STEM women succeed

I recently read Kelly Simmons and Patty Rowland Burke’s Beating the Odds: Winning Strategies of Women in STEM. I have known Patty for decades, first meeting her when she worked at Regis McKenna back in the go-go days when PCs were first coming into businesses. They have written a business book for everyone, especially those men that have filled tech companies with their toxic “good ole boy” bro culture. It takes the unusual approach of talking to several dozen women who have succeeded in STEM careers and studied the common elements of why they have done well while others have failed. Spoiler alert: it mostly isn’t their fault, and the hard part will be fighting this culture to affect real change.

Many younger people, both women and men, don’t remember how bad things were in the 1980s and 1990s, when corporate events included pretty raunchy moments. (I will spare you the details, but you can probably imagine.) Unfortunately, we haven’t really progressed much from these days. I remember when I was in engineering school in the 1970s, having a woman in any of my classes was a rarity. Having more than one per class didn’t happen. Sadly, while there are more women in STEM now, it still isn’t anywhere near where it could be. And where it should be.

One tech CEO — presumably male — told a female engineering manager this: “every company needs someone who is the API between the business and the technical. That’s really hard to find, and not often valued in Silicon Valley.” That is a good point, and I have often found myself in this API role in many of my writing and consulting efforts.

“One woman jokingly described the anxiety she felt in the workplace as ‘like being Jamie Lee Curtis in a Halloween movie, you never know when the guy in the mask with the knife will show up.”

Granted, many women appear at first glance to be less technical and suffer from impostor syndrome. This is usually defined at paranoia that you are a fraud and don’t deserve to be in a position or credited any of your accomplishments. But this isn’t exclusive to women. When I took my first job as the Editor-in-chief at CMP to start Network Computing magazine, I suffered from impostor syndrome myself. I had never started a publication, never held the EIC position, and hadn’t hired many staffers or even knew how to produce a publication. Fortunately, I had a great set of mentors at CMP to help me learn these things and the magazine is still around today, albeit in an online format. I went on to run several other publications as a result of this training.

This reminds me of another Jamie Lee Curtis movie — True Lies — where she doesn’t have impostor syndrome but manages to save the day and win Arnold back (who plays her spying, lying husband). Anyway, back to the book.

It dives into a very important area that I haven’t seen much of in other business books. “We have learned what makes successful women tick, why some of them persevere to lead major technical organizations and teams, and why others drop out in frustration. A senior technical women should not be an astonishing exception.”

The book is also filled with plenty of suggestions to help technical women succeed. One important aspect is to develop male allies and role models. The lack of these prevents many women from pursuing STEM careers. These include men who aren’t enlisted in the “boys club” network and  can support technical women in the company. This can also counter the feelings of aloneness and feeling of “otherness” that can cause frustration and lead many women to resign their positions.

Another helpful idea is to set up a form of reverse mentoring, where younger women are mentors to senior managers to help them better understand their experience and points of view. This is particularly helpful to root out work processes and routines that were designed for all-male environments, and have become so embedded in tech companies. Just search for Uber’s early history if you need further convincing.

So read this book. Send a copy to your manager, and make him read it as well. Only by changing one dinosaur at a time can we evolve as a species. And perhaps be more inclusive to not just women but other under-represented people in STEM too.