Aaron Ballew

Episode 3

Aaron Ballew

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Franco Caporale:
Welcome to a new episode of the DemandGen Club Podcast. I'm your host, Franco Caporale. I'm very excited to introduce our guest today. Aaron Ballew, VP of Demand Generation at Ping Identity, the company that provides cloud-based identity management software for enterprise customers. At Ping Identity, Aaron leads integrated campaigns, event marketing, digital operation, and pipeline analytics. Aaron is an engineer to marketer. He holds a PhD in electrical engineering from Northwestern University and started his career in telecommunication before jumping into identity security. Before Ping Identity, he was the senior director of portfolio marketing at GTT, and he also led Demand Generation at CenturyLink. So, I'm happy to welcome Aaron Ballew, VP of Demand Generation at Ping Identity.

Franco Caporale:
Aaron, it's absolutely fantastic to have you on the show today. Thank you for joining us.

Aaron Ballew:
Thank you for having me.

Franco Caporale:
So, I wanted to start today with a little bit about yourself and your background and how did you get started with Demand Generation to end up becoming the VP of Demand Generation at Ping Identity?

Aaron Ballew:
Yeah, sure. Well, it started out as a technical marketing job. So, I am working at Ping Identity. We do identity security and access management software. It's like ... If you're familiar with single sign on and multifactor authentication and then all the guts behind that, that is what we do. And I actually had been training up as an engineer. An electrical engineer after college. I got a job in the telecom industry as a sales support engineer. I actually didn't realize that it had anything to do with sales 'cause I didn't know anything. They happened to call it a "network engineer" and I figured, "okay, here's ... I got a job."

Aaron Ballew:
So, I was the guy who would do the custom configurations and what not to get our customers' networks to talk to our own network. And this is obviously not marketing, but I kind of ... I really went down that path. I was managing an engineering team. I did it for something like 13 years, but meanwhile, I was doing a lot of teaching. So, I was putting myself through graduate school, still in the electrical engineering path. And it was just doing a lot of teaching and I liked talking about engineering and I was kind of building my technical toolkit and that kind of started bleeding over into my work life. And people picked up on that. And so I started getting invited to do like the conference spot, you know? To give a talk on the new technology and I would do customer meetings or like the big RFP pitch, we're in the third round. And we got to really explain all the details about how our technology works and what not.

Aaron Ballew:
So, I would do that and I really enjoyed that 'cause it really, to me felt like teaching, but sort of on a skill level, it was a good practice of trying to translate some esoteric technical idea or solution into a way that people could understand when it would be kind of unfair to expect them to understand it in its normal jargon laden language, right? Like you normally have to be trained in a certain area to be able to follow what's going on when it's in the gobbledygook.

Aaron Ballew:
So, I really did a lot of practice kind of translating the tech stuff into a way that people could actually understand it. And it seemed to be going pretty well. It was really satisfying for me to see somebody kind of have that spark of realization and recognize the elegance of that technical topic. So, then to really answer your question, a technical marketing job popped up and the hiring manager was the Director of Segment Marketing and he wanted to bring a little bit of technical depth into the marketing team and start shifting value propositions from like product and feature attributes towards solution marketing.

Aaron Ballew:
And back then solution marketing was kind of having its moment. The way like ABM is today. It was ... Everybody's thinking like "How do we shift towards solutions?" So, this was his strategy and that guy happened to be ... It's funny how careers just take a really winding path 'cause I'm an engineer sort of in the sales ecosystem and a year or two earlier, I had met him and kind of lit into him about how crappy I thought our marketing was. And remember I was part of the sales ecosystem and I had watched my peers and my role models take a certain tone with marketing. And that's what I had learned. And that guy took my ... I'm not proud of how I behave by the way. But my ... That guy took my bullets with enormous grace, right? Like with enormous composure. And I developed a lot of respect for him. And to this day, he's one of my mentors. One of my cherished mentors.

Aaron Ballew:
So, when I saw the marketing job pop up, it was under him. And you know you might think of it as product marketing, but at the time it was called technical marketing. And I saw it was under him. And because I remembered that encounter and I respected him, I sent him an instant message and I said, "I think you should be my boss."

Aaron Ballew:
And that's how I got into marketing. So, the solutions marketing job went well and our careers proceeded. He was promoted and I took over the segment marketing team, which was all vertical solutions, indirect channels, and ops. And then over time, I built a great relationship with my digital marketing Demand Gen counterpart at that company. And when she moved on in her career, it was just a really obvious fit to merge her team under me. And there you go. Now I've got a Demand Gen organization under me.

Franco Caporale:
This is such an interesting story. Also because you started ... You have a PhD in electrical engineering, right?

Aaron Ballew:
That's right.

Franco Caporale:
So, it's very unlikely to have the hull of Demand Generation with such a technical background history. It's pretty amazing.

Aaron Ballew:
Yeah. It seems that way, but it's going to become less uncommon, I think because of how data heavy mathematical the marketing craft has become. So, I feel really comfortable actually in marketing now and I have a lot of great business problems to work on where I can apply methods that I'm familiar with, particularly statistical methods. Like my focus in electrical engineering was actually signal processing, which is a lot of time series data. So, if you imagine the squiggle going across the screen, which is very similar to financial data, there are a lot of squiggles going across the screen and you can apply a lot of those statistical methods to that kind of data.

Franco Caporale:
And today you are at Ping Identity, right? Leading the Demand Generation team. And I saw one of the quotes that you have that says when a business leader ask what's working, they talk to you. I would like to learn a little more about this 'cause it's very interesting how you have the pulse on every metric on all the fundamental KPIs of the business from your side.

Aaron Ballew:
Yeah, that's right. It does require a little bit of comfort and training with data and I'm not by any means the best at it. You know I'm not necessarily an expert, but there are so many sources of bias, right? And error in how we process and consume data and try to translate that into what's ultimately a conclusion or a decision, right? In business? There's so many sources of errors that can steer you towards the wrong solution that ... It really helps to have somebody in that ecosystem that's got some comfort with statistics and math.

Aaron Ballew:
So, I never really signed up to be the data analysis guy, but it just kind of happened, right? Because marketing was at the center, particularly because of our mar stack was really at the center of all the streams of data coming together. And because I just happened to have some exposure to statistical methods, it just became a part of my job. Not by design, but it just happened. Like people realized, "Oh, well he doesn't just show me a chart, right? He shows me a confidence interval. He gives me a prediction, right? He tells me where the risks are. He points out that this data point we had been looking at actually has all these sources of sending us down the wrong path, right? Because we didn't account for certain things like bias and how we sampled the data" and that sort of thing.

Franco Caporale:
Yeah. No, that's very, very helpful. And actually I'm going to go back in a second and asking you more about the metrics and KPIs 'cause I'm interested in kind of to understand how you guys do it. But first, can you tell us more, a little bit about your team at Ping Identity? How big is the company? How big is your team and what kind of roles within the team?

Aaron Ballew:
Yeah. Well, our company is probably right around a thousand employees, so we're a recent IPO actually. We went public last year in the fall. We're growing quite rapidly and it's actually kind of hard to keep count with how many employees and staff members we have. But I have the integrated marketing and campaigns team who manages the actual execution of our programs into market, as well as the return on those programs. I also have the marketing operations team. We do all the digital marketing, the CRM, and marketing automation, managing all the martech stack. We've also got field and event marketing. Or if you think of it as experiential marketing. We're not doing a lot of physical events these days, but we're certainly doing a lot of virtual events and that's it.

Franco Caporale:
And from a tech stack perspective, what do you guys use?

Aaron Ballew:
So, when it comes to tech, I'll spare you the laundry list, but we obviously use CRM and marketing automation. We have a chat bot, we do personalization and a lot of testing. So, certainly on our website, we really like to do hypothesis testing. Sometimes people call it AB testing, but we actually structure all of our tests in the form of a hypothesis test. We use a predictive analytics platform for our lead and account scoring.

Franco Caporale:
Can you share which ones? I know people like to hear the names.

Aaron Ballew:
Oh, really? Well, our chat bot is Drift. We do a predictive analytics with Lattice Engines, who's been recently acquired by D&B. We have several intent platforms. So Bombora, of course, everyone's probably familiar with Bombora and you may be familiar with Engagio Lead Lander. We've got actually quite a bit of tech and tons of data sources ...

Franco Caporale:
What's your marketing automation?

Aaron Ballew:
Marketo.

Franco Caporale:
Marketo. Okay.

Aaron Ballew:
Marketo. Yeah.

Franco Caporale:
And so how ... Like I want to now go back to the metrics a little bit. How do you measure all the and keep track of all the attribution and the metrics when you, at the end of the quarter or the end of the year, depending when you guys look at the KPIs, what is that you present? What is the things you guys are working towards?

Aaron Ballew:
Yeah, good question. Well, I report every week, right? Not just every month or every quarter or at the end of the year. I actually report every week. I'm watching pipeline by source and segment on a daily basis. And I report on it weekly, like I said, but by Wednesday, like by midweek, I can already tell within about plus or minus 25%, how we'll end the week.

Aaron Ballew:
So, for me, in my role in the business, I'm very focused on pipeline. And I'm looking at not just the pipeline volume in dollars in quantity, but also the conversion rate down funnel, right? So, it's not good enough for us to just fill the pipeline, right? We want to win. We need to close those deals.

Aaron Ballew:
Now, of course, my team looks at the ... We look at the broad menu of all metrics that our marketing practitioners should look at. I mean, certainly we're looking at all the digital metrics and things, but for me personally, as a VP of Demand Gen, I really have two main dashboards. One is a waterfall and that helps me see the efficiency of the marketing engine. I have a really ... We have built our own dynamic waterfall in Tableau that helps me identify strong and weak links in the engine. And my other dashboard that I rely on the most would be a time plot and it's cumulative pipeline being generated by the campaigns with all of our current and former campaigns in a side by side, race, up in and to the right. Now why former campaigns? Well because there's carry over, right? You've got leads that have entered the system from say a former initiative. They're still in the system and getting worked, even though our business requirements may have shifted, our priorities have shifted to a different story.

Aaron Ballew:
So, they're still happening and they're paying off now from investments we might've made a year ago. So, I look at everything, right? Everything. And I've watched them side by side. They're basically competing against each other and it's plain, unvarnished results. So, that way I can see what dollars and deals came in for which campaign, what leads source the deal value is, what closed. And that view actually allows me to watch in real time, the baton pass, right? From prior initiatives to new. So, like this year we transitioned from 2019 initiatives to 2020. And obviously we don't shut everything off just on calendar boundaries. There's a lot of overlap across the years, but we carefully planned the ramp down of older initiatives and the ramp up of the new ones. And I could see on my dashboards when the old program decelerated and the new one grabbed the baton.

Aaron Ballew:
And I'll still ... I'll admit I do dip into salesforce.com here and there when it's a simple thing. When it's ad hoc. But I actually don't find Salesforce to be a great way to visualize the business the way I actually manage the business. It's just kind of a repository of data for me. So, by pulling it all into Tableau and building our own custom view, we can actually do calculations. Dynamic calculations. I can flip a very simple, intuitive dropdown menu or something to get to a very deep level, a very deep cut of the data that I didn't realize I needed until some new business question popped up. Whereas in Salesforce, I'd kind of have to rebuild the report.

Aaron Ballew:
And if you use Salesforce, refreshing ... Running that report and waiting for it to recompile just in those seconds, to me is like a living death. I just can't. I cannot stand sitting there waiting for that to happen. So, that's why we've ingested that into Tableau and then it's just a much more dynamic environment.

Franco Caporale:
Yeah. I completely feel you about the Salesforce part. Salesforce reporting has been my nightmare for the last 10 years.

Aaron Ballew:
Yeah.

Franco Caporale:
But how ... When you say, "I want to see what campaigns have impacted the pipeline and compare pipeline source", what do you refer to? Are you looking at it from a first touch perspective? Last stats, multitask, some combination of that? What kind of model do you use?

Aaron Ballew:
Yeah. Yeah. Good question. So, when it comes to attribution ... Gosh, one of the great unanswered questions in marketing, right? So, we use our own standards and we use different solutions for different questions. So, for the main question that we were just talking about, the question of marketing-originated or marketing sourced bookings, compared to the rest of the pipeline, we use a blend of first and last touch. I have not yet found a solution that's satisfying to me to attribute based on the intermediate touches. I know there's some value there, but in terms of quantifying it, our methods are very rigorous, like very rigid.

Aaron Ballew:
And I err on the side of not counting things towards marketing, rather than on counting towards marketing. I don't want to get into the game that I think many marketers have felt pressured to get into of scratching for credit. 'Cause that's not what it's about, right? My charter is to drive pipeline for the company, not just marketing pipeline and the value of me being able to see whether it came from marketing or some other source is so I can make good decisions about how we generate more pipeline for all of us. It's not about just the marketing department getting a good rating on our performance review. That kind of thing.

Aaron Ballew:
And it's a dangerous thing. I mean, I think a lot of marketers have been pressured into that situation. So, our approach is to go ahead and set expectations and be very open with the business that these are our criteria. They're simple and easy to understand and they're going to miss a lot of stuff that marketing might've helped on, but I don't want to get into that gray area. So, I limit it basically to a first and last touch point of view.

Franco Caporale:
Yeah. I really liked this rigorous system that you've set up to both track the right metrics, but also communicate and set the expectation with finance, sales, operation, and all the other departments. I think a lot of people can of learn from this.

Aaron Ballew:
Yeah. I really encourage people not to take like LinkedIn gurus at face value. You're going to see that PowerPoint where someone was invited to speak on the other one's webinar and they do business together obviously. You have to have be a little cynical, right? You're going to see the post on LinkedIn that says, "Well, if you just did it this way, you'd get 10X return."

Aaron Ballew:
You cannot take those things at face value. You have to take inspiration from that. And they are inspiring. They catch my eye and they inspire me and I think, "Wow, what if we did it that way?" Maybe it would be better for us, but then you can't judge your performance based on that number, which presents a almost false precision. It presents an appearance of precision that's just not necessarily there.

Aaron Ballew:
And maybe the person promoting that data did apply all that rigor, but you don't know what that rigor was and they're not going to reveal it to you. That's their proprietary thing. You do have to dive into that problem yourself intellectually and come up with what's right for your company. So, I don't go from like company to company and then, like some template, just say, "Here's how you should do it." I don't know, right? I have to understand what the standards and what the situation is at that company to devise the correct new expectations, right? The new methods for that company.

Franco Caporale:
Yeah. Unfortunately there's no template that works for every company at every stage. So, every time it has to be adapted based on the situation. And so from here, I would like to start talking a little bit about lead sources and campaigns that you're running today. Outside of probably the usual, but what is ... What are today, your top lead sources and some campaigns that is working really well for you or a specific program that has worked out really well for you?

Aaron Ballew:
Yeah. Well, let's see. There are so many and they're all like my children, right? Every program. It's hard to pick one, but in terms of lead sources, we're actually doing pretty well with webinars and content downloads off our website. We've put a lot of thought into doing fewer but better webinars and fewer but better pieces of content.

Aaron Ballew:
We also get a lot of inbound hand raisers off of our website or via our chatbots. So, we're actually pretty diversified. I don't depend on like just one lead source. In fact, I don't want to do that because then our lead volumes are not as predictable, right? We're trying to build a very predictable, well understood growth engine, particularly because we're public now, right? And we owe our market of investors real numbers that are dependable, right? That they can believe in.

Aaron Ballew:
So, I like the idea diversification, but we've definitely been steering in the quality rather than quantity direction 'cause at this point ... We've definitely reached a point where we like lead volume is not our problem. It's sifting through all of that to be increasingly stingy about quality and our conversion rates. That's the kind of the phase that we're in.

Franco Caporale:
I want to kind of ... I know we have a few minutes left, but I want to touch a couple of aspects. First of all, you mentioned at the beginning "account-based marketing" being the buzz word today, like Solution Marketing was in the past or Inbound Marketing once Marketo and Hubspot launched. What is your take on account-based marketing? Do you guys have an account-based marketing strategy as part of your business today?

Aaron Ballew:
Yes. Yes we do. So, all of those things. And when I say they were having a moment and there's a lot of attention on them, I don't mean to dismiss them, right? There's a reason why they catch the attention of practitioners. There's always a nugget of truth. There's always some goodness in that idea. Those ideas can sometimes be grabbed and used or repurposed for some other reason.

Aaron Ballew:
ABM has a meaning, I think, and people may joke that they disagree on the meaning, but in my point of view, like there is a meaning and it captures to me the idea of intensity, right? Of getting away from the volume game. And I'm sure everybody's seen the pyramid of the one to many, one to few, one to one and all that. Get away from the volume game and really intensely pursue these human beings that you believe play a role in this decision and you don't give up on them, right?

Aaron Ballew:
Whereas in the numbers game you would give up, right? If they're not ready, if they're not interested, you move on 'cause you got 9,000 other contacts to touch, but that's not what it is with ABM. It's this intense pursuit until you really run out of your best stuff before you call it quits.

Aaron Ballew:
And that kind of ABM is expensive. And that's usually what people call one-to-one ABM. And what I see so often and have seen, and maybe this is the non-marketer side of me speaking, right? But I see ABM in everybody's prospecting email coming to me for every piece of software that is remotely adjacent to just good marketing. I see marketing departments putting ABM on their PowerPoint saying "We've run ABM", but really they were not ready or they weren't supported by their broader business in terms of budget and commitment of resources and that sort of thing. They really weren't able to do real ABM. They had to sacrifice. They didn't have enough money or whatever or they didn't have room from the business to grow it over the time that it takes to grow it 'cause you're almost always going these really big logos. And so they backed off one level and ended up with just good marketing. Just vertical marketing. It's basically so many vertical marketing programs are called ABM.

Aaron Ballew:
And that to me is just targeted marketing with messaging that matches your target, your audience. That's just good marketing. We've all been striving towards that from long before ABM became a thing.

Aaron Ballew:
So, my take on ABM is I believe that real ABM, if you can muster the resources and the support within your business to do it right, is a way to penetrate the people ... The companies who are hardest to penetrate, right? The big financial services, bank or something, that everybody has at the top of their ABM list. There's a lot of noise there, right? That kind of thoughtful, intense, personalized pursuit. I think it can work if you compromise, right? And just do decent marketing, then I think all you're going to do is engender some resentment towards the concept of ABM and people are going to call it marketing fluff.

Franco Caporale:
I think there's also a kind of reaction to that whole inbound marketing trend that for many years was just like throw some content out and some good leads are going to come through your funnel and then you qualify them. And so it became, like you said, a number game for many years and people have lost a little bit and marketing teams were kind of like just more focused on that and losing track of their good accounts that they should be targeting with a vertical marketing approach, right? It was kind of lost a little bit, at least that's what I saw.

Aaron Ballew:
Well, there's a role for the numbers game, right? And again, I don't mean to dismiss that. I mean, that pays a lot of our paychecks. There's a role for the numbers game. There's absolutely a role for vertical marketing. I'm just suggesting that we be honest with ourselves and call it what it is, right? Don't call it ABM if it's not. That's my only point.

Franco Caporale:
Or whatever the next buzzword's going to be.

Aaron Ballew:
Right. Well, if you call it what it is then it's not a buzzword, right? It's when you pretend, then it becomes a buzzword.

Franco Caporale:
And so with that, I want to close with one last comment from you on your relationship with the sales team and the sales executive. How do you achieve alignment or at least work toward alignment with the sales organization?

Aaron Ballew:
Yeah. Well, it's a good question. Talking to each other is important. And I mean like really talking to each other, not just through email. So much of just having good relationships at work is just remembering that you're human beings, right? And you smile and you get upset and things are hard sometimes and things are great sometimes. And you have to experience those things together and you just experience it the same way through email and Slack.

Aaron Ballew:
Operationally speaking, it's really mostly thanks to our C level executive team who've implemented ... You know I mentioned earlier, I report every week ... Sales reports every week too. That's part of our model. They've borrowed the weekly business review model from another very prominent company. And we're basically encouraged, forced would be one word, but I think it's an opportunity to show your business every single week.

Aaron Ballew:
So, we teach each other our respective languages of how we monitor our business. And there is no opportunity to just let ... To hide something, right? And there's no need to because then it doesn't become the big once a quarter meeting where you show how everything's going and you're afraid for that not to go well. You take some of the sting out of that by just getting together every week, face to face, and you talk about the stuff. And it is an investment of time, by the way, but it's a worthwhile investment of time. You get in, get in front of each other every week and you talk and you show them your numbers and sales and marketing's numbers are out in the open every single week. Product management sees it. Support sees it. The CFO team sees it. It's openness, right? That sounds like buzzwords. Openness. Transparency. Those kinds of things. But if you just do it, it actually takes all the mystery away.

Franco Caporale:
Yeah. I think another important part is also to avoid that fight for credit that you mentioned at the beginning of the episode and making that a competition versus collaboration.

Aaron Ballew:
Yeah. Yeah. I'll give you ... I'll share a trick that we do that helps to manage that systematically. Sometimes we find something in our algorithm and we go, "This really should have been credited to sales." This was sales source, not marketing or vice versa, and we want to change the algorithm, but that algorithm in that little example is going to benefit sales. So, what we do is make sure it's a small, but very important detail. If we're going to shift that much credit via the algorithm, we shift that much of the target as well. So, that the drive towards accuracy and truth doesn't get muddled with a drive towards credit, right? You can't get a windfall and you can't get punished in terms of your achievement towards target, just by correcting something, right? In the search for truth and correctness.

Franco Caporale:
Yeah. That's awesome advice. So, I hope that everyone took notes of it, because I know that getting the right collaboration with sales and avoiding that friction and discussion and arguments is something that most of the companies are trying to work towards. So, Aaron, this was absolutely great having you as a guest on the episode today. I truly enjoyed the conversation. So, thanks again for joining us.

Aaron Ballew:
Thank you, Franco.