5 Questions with Twilio CMO Sara Varni

By Sarah Frazier

Editor’s Note: This interview was first published in our Path to CMO 3.0 newsletter, and was conducted by Tricia Gellman. Subscribe to the newsletter here

As the CMO of Twilio, Sara Varni is responsible for growing Twilio’s community of developers while simultaneously bringing Twilio into the enterprise market. Prior to joining Twilio, Sara was the SVP of marketing at Salesforce, where she was responsible for the positioning and go-to-market strategy for Salesforce Sales Cloud. 

In this interview, we asked her five hard-hitting questions on how digital engagement is reshaping our technology priorities, how we work, and how we communicate with one another. 

In a hurry? Here’s the tl;dr version:

  • Digital engagement will never be the same: It’s a given that many businesses fast-forwarded their digital transformation. What’s shocking is by how much.
  • Customer intelligence is bridging the insights gap: Because interactions are scattered across phone, email, text, etc., it’s been hard to really leverage a single view of the customer up to this point. Digital transformation is making it easier to get insights from siloed customer data.
  • Marketing in a virtual world: There was a lot of “what does this look like now” moments for marketers this year. From white-glove, enterprise services to virtual events – Sara suggests revisiting the fundamentals first and then looking at where you can innovate.
  • Imposter syndrome doesn’t stop at the top: Sara – despite her extensive experience in enterprise software – has had her fair share of self-doubts as a marketing leader. But she’s always been grounded by one thought: “I am where I am for a reason.” 

1. Twilio’s COVID-19 Digital Engagement Report had incredible insights into how businesses are adapting in the face of COVID. What findings from the report did you find most eye-opening and why?

To better understand the effects of COVID-19 on businesses, Twilio surveyed over 2,500 enterprise decision-makers across the globe. 

Generally speaking, I think we all know that COVID has accelerated everyone’s plans when it comes to digital transformation. What surprised us about this report was really by how much. In our survey, we found that people are accelerating their roadmaps by an average of six years! We’ve seen customers of all sizes and from all industries become laser-focused on how they can support their end customers and employees in both a physical and digital world. 

I think we all know that COVID has accelerated everyone’s plans when it comes to digital transformation. What surprised us about this report was really by how much.

At the end of the day, this will create better experiences for customers and a better work/life balance for employees – far beyond COVID-19. 

2. What innovations around digital engagement most excite you, and what do you see as the driving force behind those innovations?

There are three major themes I’ve seen emerge from Twilio’s customer base:

  • Digital engagement channels are powering a significant shift from physical to digital: Transforming in-person experiences to digital is no longer a nice-to-have for businesses. COVID has made it key to survival. Businesses are embracing new ways of digitally connecting with their customers faster than we’ve seen before. Twilio’s retail customers, for example, have fully reimagined the shopping experience using video, chat, IVR, and email in just a few months. Healthcare customers are embracing telemedicine, building new workflows for patients that transition from text to chat to full video appointments with a physician. It’s amazing what businesses are building – and in such a short period of time.

Transforming in-person experiences to digital is no longer a nice-to-have for businesses. COVID has made it key to survival.

  • Modern contact centers are enabling a remote, agile workforce: We’re seeing a radical shift to cloud-based, modernized contact centers that allow businesses to continue offering the best customer service, even with a remote workforce and unpredictable volume.
  • Customer intelligence is creating the next era of customer engagement: Every business wants to make sense of the signals from their customers. However, because interactions are scattered across phone, email, text, etc., it’s been hard to really leverage a single view of the customer, up to this point. With a better collection of insights across channels, we’re starting to see a shift from customer communication to true customer engagement. 

3. Many companies pivoted their go-to-market strategies in 2020 in response to COVID. What are some big pivots you and your team made this year?

Given the number of enterprise customers that we serve at Twilio, we have always had a heavy in-person event calendar. 

With COVID, we’ve had to completely reimagine the way we maintain that white-glove experience, but in a virtual world. A great test of this has been our user conference SIGNAL

We’ve had to completely reimagine the way we maintain white-glove experience in a virtual world.

Instead of taking a “lift and shift” mentality, we’ve dramatically shortened the length of our content, and have employed many of our own technologies like Video and SMS to make sure people stay connected and engaged throughout the show.

4. You’ve spoken about the pitfalls of and experience with “imposter syndrome.” What steps have you taken personally in mitigating this feeling? What recommendations do you have for others struggling with this in their own careers?

I think whenever you are in a new role or managing a new team, it’s 100% natural to be nervous and have some self-doubt. The key is to make sure you don’t let those feelings take over so much that they paralyze you from actually doing what you were hired to do.  

I always tell people to remind themselves that they are in the place they are in for a reason. 

Someone saw something in you and this wasn’t just some accident. I also encourage people to build a strong network of colleagues outside of their team and company so they can get feedback and encouragement in a space that feels safe.

I always tell people to remind themselves that they are in the place they are in for a reason. 

5. What aspects of being a CMO do you find most challenging, and how have you learned to work around those challenges?

I think the hardest part of being a CMO is balancing short-term, pipeline-related needs with longer-term brand-building activities.

Building a brand is a long game and you need to have a vision and a multi-quarter roadmap, otherwise, you’ll get pushed towards a bunch of short-term reactive tactics. I always say: “If you don’t have a clear roadmap, you’ll become part of someone else’s.”  

Want more insights from Sara? You can follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter @saravarnibright. 

This interview originally appeared in Drift’s Path to CMO 3.0 newsletter – a monthly email by Drift CMO, Tricia Gellman – that looks at the customer-centric, data-driven, and barrier-breaking marketing trends that drive today’s CMOs and business leaders. Subscribe now 👇