Ping Identity CMO Kevin Sellers on Organizational Alignment and Keeping a Steady Hand During COVID-19

Editor’s note: This interview is part of Mission North’s “Marketing Risks Worth Taking” series, an ongoing forum with marketing leaders who are sharing their perspectives about adapting to a new reality. 

Ping Identity marketing chief Kevin Sellers works at a company that serves more than half of the Fortune 100 companies, providing them with cross-organization security software that’s essential for today’s world. That said, the job of any marketer is to increase the number of such customers rather than resting on laurels, and Kevin has a broad perspective on how the work-from-home pandemic has transformed marketing and sales alignment.

We were grateful to catch up with Kevin after six months of the new normal for the 10th edition of Dispatch’s ongoing conversational series, which features the best and brightest in marketing. Our Q&A has been edited for length.

How has COVID changed B2B sales?

We have both SaaS sales, which haven’t been affected much, and enterprise software sales. For enterprise software, the selling motion has traditionally relied on significant in-person engagement; so the transition to doing everything over Zoom was very difficult and definitely had an impact on our business. But the team pivoted quickly, leveraged executive presence much more, which is easier to do in a virtual environment, and we accelerated some automation capabilities to make the deployment of our products more efficient. We have seen a strong recovery in our sales and conversion as a result.

How has your team been measuring success? 

In marketing, it is easy to get enamored by what I call “activity-based marketing” and forget that no amount of campaign traction, website engagement improvement, social follower increase or share-of-voice measure can or ever should take the place of driving revenue. All marketing has to point to the finding and converting of revenue opportunities, so we have stayed focused on growth, quality and conversion of our pipeline.

We are a closer team, a more trusting team and a more open and honest team as a result [of seeing each other in our home environments]. Difficult circumstances can pull people apart or bring them together, and I can definitely say that this has brought us together.

How has WFH changed your organization?

In a pleasantly surprising way, it has brought us together more. As you work virtually with your team, you get to see them in their home environments. You see the pet cat walk across the video camera, the kids crying because of some slight they experienced from their sibling, and a personal dynamic that is absent in the more sterile work environment of an office. Personality emerges from simple things like how people show themselves via virtual backgrounds and other online situations. You also see the stress and challenges of work, family and school all being managed by people. So, I would say for sure we are a closer team, a more trusting team and a more open and honest team as a result. Difficult circumstances can pull people apart or bring them together, and I can definitely say that this has brought us together.

How has this pandemic changed the whole idea of “being nimble” for marketers?

The pandemic presented all of us with a situation for which there was no playbook. Not 2001, not 2008-2009, nothing. This was all new and nobody had solid answers for what to do and how to engage your audience. That meant we had to analyze what was happening—what content and messaging was still engaging our audiences and what was not? We saw interesting aberrations and changes that we had to address, and we had to do it quickly. But as we did so, I noticed a lot of the changes we made—that we thought would be more appropriate for the time—just didn’t end up doing all that well.

What happened?

We pivoted very quickly on one of our campaigns to be more directly aimed at the work-from-home reality, but we’ve since found that sticking with our authentic, tried-and-true messaging is ultimately what moves the needle. I think a lot of us in marketing over-estimated how different things would be during a pandemic. Our audience responds to great content and well-positioned messages that help them solve problems—during a pandemic or not. A steady, consistent hand will win the race every time.

Our audience responds to great content and well-positioned messages that help them solve problems—during a pandemic or not. A steady, consistent hand will win the race every time.

Are your sales and marketing departments in any way more aligned now than before?

I literally talk to my colleague who runs sales every single day. That didn’t happen pre-pandemic. The sales teams have had to adjust to selling virtually and that is a lot harder than it sounds.

How are things harder?

So, the level of analysis on the pipeline, discussions about how we engage prospects, the quality of the pipeline at each stage, the industries we are attracting, etc. are all happening at deeper levels than ever before. We also see ourselves a lot more aligned on the ultimate goal of driving revenue and not just programs or activities. Together, we own our pipeline and the health of it, and the pandemic has made that even more clear than before.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned as a businessperson in the last few months

Big, external shocks can often knock us off-center, and we feel the need to throw out the baby with the bath water because of “unprecedented times” that have us thinking we have to have something so original and amazing or we will get left behind. Frankly, most of the marketing that took place at the beginning of this phase was not that good. Organizations—and brands—need a steady hand at all times and with so much noise happening all around us, that is more important than ever.