Episode #039: Sunshine Levin, Director of Customer and Analyst Relations at SalesLoft
Analyst relations probably wasn't a part of your curriculum in school yet many marketers find they take on this critical role. The question begs: what goes into a well-thought-out analyst relations strategy?
In this episode, we chat with Sunshine Levin, Director of Customer and Analyst Relations at SalesLoft. Sunshine is a product manager turned product marketer turned customer marketer with more than 20 years of experience. Prior to her current role, Sunshine has worked at organizations including IBM and Siemens.
We’re talking about why you need to have an analyst relations strategy, how to develop meaningful relations, who should be involved in briefings, and so much more.
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Stephanie Cox: Welcome to Real Marketers, where we hear from marketers who move fast, ask forgiveness, not permission, obsess about driving results, and are filled to the brim was crazy ideas and the guts to implement them. This is not a fireside chat and there's absolutely no bullshit allowed here. And I'm your host, Stephanie Cox. I have more than 15 years of marketing experience, and I've pretty much done about everything in my career. I believe speed is better than perfection. I use the Oxford comma. I love Coca Cola. I have exceptionally high standards, and surround myself with people who get shit done. On this show, my guests and I will push boundaries and share the real truths about marketing and empower you to become a real marketer. So first question, tell me something about yourself that few people know.
Sunshine Levin: So this is kind of a silly, easy one for me. And few people in the last 20 years know this, but my maiden name is Thrower. So I'll pause and let that sink in. I grew up as Sunshine Thrower.
Stephanie Cox: I can only imagine what you must have heard on the playground in elementary school.
Sunshine Levin: And the double hilarious thing is my mom is very, very strict. She's like," I named you sunshine. Therefore, you go by Sunshine," so I never got nicknames or anything like that. The cheesiest thing that ever happened is when kids tried to make fun of me, they would say," Sunshine thrower loves Moonlight Catcher."
Stephanie Cox: Oh, that's funny.
Sunshine Levin: Yeah. But the advantage of something like that, an incredibly dynamic name is that you do learn about the importance of words. And you learn about the value of people having just a general positive perspective towards you as a result of a name like that. And so I think it definitely had some perks for me along the way.
Stephanie Cox: Well, it's funny that you say that because I was just talking to someone the other day. So I think most people that listen to the show know this. I'm a former cheerleader. And even though I have not cheered in 20 years, I still... My team gives me crap about this all the time. They were doing it yesterday. I'll clap and be like," Let's go." And I'm really positive and upbeat, and it's true. And part of that I think is because, well, my name's Stephanie, which obviously isn't as positive and upbeat as Sunshine, but it's surprising. Things that happened to you as a child influence you forever, and you may not think about it.
Sunshine Levin: Absolutely, absolutely. And with the exception of the couple of years when I was an angsty teenager and I tried to change my name to my middle name, which is Elaine, which no one bit on that attempt, I absolutely leaned in. And you're right. And also, Stephanie, I'm a former cheerleader too, which not many people know that either, so two for one.
Stephanie Cox: Right. It's funny. Everyone's like," You're very positive." I'm like," This is just who I am." It's like, I'm kind of a cheerleader. I always tell people," If you want to do a great voiceover, if you're ever recording a voiceover for a video or something like that, you have to kind of act like a cheerleader."
Sunshine Levin: You have to smile. You have to think this is going to be fun and good, even if it's just boring old business talk. Right?
Stephanie Cox: Exactly. And everyone tells me, they're like," I feel crazy doing this." I'm like," Yeah, I know. But when you listen to the voiceover, it'll sound normal. It won't sound super peppy and upbeat because if you just record it in your normal voice, for whatever reason, it just seems to be a lot more monotone."
Sunshine Levin: Oh, my gosh. So I do some voiceovers for SalesLoft, and I wonder if all of that... This might be everything just falling into place, and it's just meant to be.
Stephanie Cox: Right? It's true. One of the people that does voiceovers at Lumavate, she runs our customer success team, and she's the opposite of a cheerleader, she would tell you. And she has to put her cheerleader hat on. And she's like," I don't like it." I'm like," But you have to do it." And after she did it the first couple of times, she's like," You're right. It just sounds totally different."
Sunshine Levin: I love that.
Stephanie Cox: So some of us, it comes naturally. Some of us, it doesn't. But let's talk about customer marketing, analyst relations. I really want to start with analyst relations because I think a lot of marketers don't have a ton of experience in it. And the reason why I say that is, if you worked at a larger company, and I've worked at large organizations before, there's typically a team responsible for analyst relations. And if you're not on that team, you probably don't have a lot of exposure to analysts. But then as you grow in your career and you become the marketing leader for even a midsize or an enterprise organization, oftentimes, you're in front of analysts, and you don't have a lot of that backing and experience to know how to have a relationship with them. So I think first off, let's start about with: What is analyst relations to you? What does that mean?
Sunshine Levin: Okay. That's a great question. And it is funny. One of the things that we'll often say is" No one says,'When I grow up, I want to do analyst relations.'" I don't think it's on the list of careers that people aim for. It's usually something that you end up doing, which is definitely how I got into it, but I don't ever remember seeing it on the list of jobs anywhere that I was. And so before I was director of analyst relations and customer marketing at SalesLoft, I was doing product marketing, and my side hustle was analyst relations. And the crazy thing about analyst relations is that it's something that you can do without doing well. And so I think that's something that a lot of companies run into. And where you might have, Stephanie, some experience at larger organizations, my general experience is with smaller organizations where there's not a team. It's usually a side hustle for whoever it is. They do something else, and then they have a 20% piece of themselves dedicated to this. And you can put it in cruise control, and you can have decent results. But one of the things that we found out is that if you want to do a program that really, really gets results, and I'll define what I think an AR program is looking for, that you want to have a strategy. You want to have some consistency. And you want to have a cadence with which you communicate and you work with the analysts, and even target certain analysts, if it's not just happening in an organic way. Focus in general, I think, tends to bring results. And it's a matter of getting the focus to do, excuse me, to do those things. So to me, a good analyst relations program is one where, and actually, I kind of outlined it a little bit on accident leading up to this, but a good AR program is one where you know what you want to talk about on a regular basis. So at this point we've gotten to where we guarantee ourselves a quarterly cadence with all of the analysts that we want to make sure are thinking about us. And we've centered that around our launch process, which is quarterly at this point, in the life cycle at SalesLoft. And so it's a really great play where we can communicate with everyone, and then we can really focus efforts and do targeted briefings and schedule conversations with our most important analysts. And with this cadence and this communication on a regular basis, we make sure that we're front of mind. We make sure that they are thinking about us when they're advising other customers about things that overlap with what we offer the marketplace. And so identifying who's talking to those people, making sure that you communicate with them on a regular basis, and that you position things in a way that makes sense for them to just be able to flip it and talk to their customers about it, to me is the most important thing that you want to do. It's about influence, but it's also about listening to them and seeing what they have to say, and converting that into advisory back to the organization. So that's what I see an analyst relations program to be focused on, and what you can do with a good strategy, and let it go into a maintenance mode, which is what we're, I think that we're at right now with the program that I've been a part of. I'm going to say 18 months has been really focused with two years of not so much focus leading into that 18 months.
Stephanie Cox: So I love what you just said, because when you talk about your side hustle as analyst relations, like," Hi, my name's Stephanie. I'm president at Lumavate, and I also do analyst relations." Right? And it's a portion of my job. I've never, to your point earlier around, it's not on your dream list, to do analyst relations. You're not taught about it in college. Most companies that I've worked at, except for, I think maybe two of them, I was never even exposed to it. I knew it existed, but I had no idea. Let's say you're taking on analyst relations, maybe at a smaller company, and you're trying to... And it's a portion of your job. It's not your full job. How do you start to figure out what that strategy should be and where to look for guidance on how often to communicate with analysts, how to communicate with analysts, how to figure out which ones that you want to do? How do you think about... I mean, I think the two behemoths in the area are Forrester and Gartner.
Sunshine Levin: Yeah.
Stephanie Cox: There are other ones. How do you figure out where to invest your time and your spend to create those types of relationships?
Sunshine Levin: Yeah, that's a good question. And it's definitely a lot more art than science. And there's definitely a lot of experimentation that happens in the path to figuring out what you should be doing. We certainly made mistakes. We certainly spent more energy in certain places, where looking back, I wouldn't do it again. And so I'm going to try to answer the question without naming firms because I think that's a little bit unfair. My experience with a certain analyst could be very different than what someone else might experience. But originally, in terms of the evolution of our program, we were doing kind of a... I would say there's three phases of what we were doing as we were building our program. And I could even tell you, February of 2017 is when we started even looking at analyst relations as a side hustle at SalesLoft in particular. And that was a pull situation where analysts would reach out to us and they would say," Could you brief us? We were thinking about... We do this paper. We've discovered you. We want to publish research that's relevant for our customer base that covers you." And we would just go, and yes, and so we'd throw a deck together that was very, very inward focused about how great we are, about our leadership team, about our features. And that would be what our briefing was. And it was very much pull in orientation. And then as we realized we needed to dedicate some cycles, which had to do with two things happening, one thing was our staffing was increasing. Our marketing organization and us as an organization was growing a little bit, so we had the bandwidth to be able to do a little differently, but also we were getting reached out. We were getting invited by more and more and more firms to have conversations, including the big guys that were looking for paid relationships. And so that was kind of step two for us, is figuring out: Where do we want to invest? And the investment had everything to do for us with the folks that were looking at our category, which wasn't on anyone's radar at that point, at least in the analyst community, looking for analysts that were starting to think about our category as something that was distinct and original and important, even though it wasn't. It hadn't reached groundswell with them, I guess. And so that was phase two, is starting to identify who we wanted to have paid relationships with. And so we did, between the two big guys, we did choose to enter a paid relationship with one and not the other. And everything hinged on where they were going with their future research. But we stayed in touch with both of them on a regular basis for whatever we could do that wasn't paid, so that was phase two for us. Then phase three is where I would say we are right now. And we probably have been for the last six to nine months, give or take, which is re- evaluating paid relationships, looking at who's thinking about our category differently because our category has been acknowledged by one of the firms, and is starting to get traction with another firm. And then there's so many niche firms that are coming out and saying," Oh my gosh, this is important. We do need to dedicate coverage to it." And so reaching out and starting to figure out who the right combination of analysts are at the right combination of organizations. And as I mentioned earlier, we did find out that there were some analyst firms that we were spending intense cycles on, and let me describe what that might be. So if someone comes to you and says," We're going to do a research paper on your category," and they want you to fill in a questionnaire, and they want you to provide customer references, and they want you to do a briefing that could take an hour to an hour and a half, and you want to bring your best and your brightest. So you're hitting up your C- suite, you're hitting up all of the leadership. You're building this big... You're taking a lot of time, which is good, if it's going towards something that you're going to then shout from the rooftops like," Look how my organization is positioned in this research paper." That's worth it. But if you find that the audience isn't the right audience for what's being built and going to be published, if they don't fully understand what you're bringing to the marketplace, that it's more just another thing that they do to try and generate revenue, as opposed to trying to help their customer base. We found ourselves in a couple of those cycles, and the outcome was a dud. And I started to think," If I'm going to activate my leadership team for hours and hours on end to build a presentation, to practice a presentation, to show up for a presentation, to answer a questionnaire that could be anywhere from 10 questions to a 100 questions, or in some cases 30 questions, that's actually 142 questions, I want to do it for the right end." And so we have many, many situations where we activated all of those folks and it didn't get the results that we were looking for. And now we're starting to pull out and not engage with those situations, and focus our energy on the ones that we're finding, we're building solid relationships. They're asking us questions. They're engaging with us meaningfully. And they're really trying to understand what we do because they have customers who have challenges that the analyst knows we have solutions for. And so finding those, it's just, you try, you try, you try. And you keep trying and don't give up, and you do waste a little bit of time. And then you find yourself in kind of a sweet spot where you're pretty proud of what you're doing. Did I answer that? That's how I feel like it phased for us.
Stephanie Cox: No, I think it's super helpful. And I think when you lay it out that way, it makes a ton of sense. I think the thing... I know I struggled with this when I took over analyst relations at Lumavate was: What do I talk to analysts about, and how often? Because I think sometimes we have, at least I know I did, this perception of, they don't want to be marketed to. Right? Because they don't.
Sunshine Levin: No.
Stephanie Cox: But at the same token, you kind of have to treat them like you would market to someone, but in a totally different way, if that makes sense.
Sunshine Levin: I agree. I agree.
Stephanie Cox: And I think that's hard to figure out. I remember I was talking to an analyst around just about influencers and how you think about influencer marketing overall, both to analysts, as well as to just other influencers in the community. And one of the things that he said to me was," You should think about it like ABM." Right? A highly personalized, tailored account based marketing approach per analyst. When he said that, it made so much sense. But also, there's this part of me that's like," But that feels like marketing," because it is, but it's not. So how do you think about what, and figure out what they want to know about? I know you mentioned you communicate to them quarterly about your releases. What if your releases or your news is more frequent, like twice a month? What do you tell them, versus what do you feel like is not important for them to know? How do you know that you're giving them the right information to keep you top of mind, but also not annoying them?
Sunshine Levin: It is a fine line. I love that you said the whole ABM thing. That's a much more concise way of describing what I think we're doing in this third phase, where we're at, where we're also deciding. We have kind of a scaled version where I'm sending a communication, but not following up, not offering more than just like," Hey, this is what's happening." And so I think that's a really good way to describe what we're doing with our analysts. But I think one of the things... There are two answers to that question. First and foremost, the ones that you think are the most important for you to influence, ask them. That's one of the things that I've learned, is you can simply say," Hey friend. What is it that you want to hear? What is it that's going to... What piece of information can I give you that you don't already have, aren't already getting?" Because if they are... So one of two things is happening. They either are following you, and they see all the things that you publish on LinkedIn and in the larger marketplace, and they don't need to hear from you for stuff that's the same as what's already in whatever news outlets they're picking up information on you. And then the other thing is maybe they're not that interested at this point in time and what your organization is doing, and so giving them the basics might be the right approach. And the only way that you can know this is by asking. And if you don't have that kind of relationship, or you don't think everyone is going to be fully honest with you, because you will find at least one person who is a friend that you like, that you value everything that they have... That's the person that you say," What should I be telling you on a regular basis?" And then use that to model all of your communications around until you get told otherwise. That's how I would position things. And we've been lucky enough in the last 18 months or two years to run into several analysts in our community that are going to be very honest. And sometimes it's painful. I've had an analyst come back to me and say," I just don't want you to do that. Please don't communicate to me about A, B and C. Please don't file an inquiry that forces me to spend time to do this. Send me the email. If I read it, I read it. If I don't, it's because it's not relevant for the world that I'm looking at right now." And I couldn't have been more brokenhearted, but also pleased at the same time, to know.
Stephanie Cox: Thank you. Right?
Sunshine Levin: Yeah. Yeah. And so I think asking is the easiest way. The other thing that I'll say, Stephanie, is that if you don't have something that's quarterly that's happening, that you can kind of latch onto, I think crafting something quarterly. For some reason, quarterly is stuck in my brain as the right cadence. That may not be true in all situations, but bundling things so that you are sending a quarterly communication, and then breaking that quarterly communication when there's something that's really interesting. That's how I would do it, just generally speaking.
Stephanie Cox: Well, I loved when you talked about, they told you to stop. It's true. I say this even sometimes when you have STRs reaching out to prospects, just tell them you're not interested. They'll stop. Right? Otherwise, they're going to keep doing it and it's going to keep annoying you. So I think that's important. I think the other thing that I think that you said, in addition to just asking is you said, one of the comments you made was," If you have good relationships with analysts, you can ask." And I would tell you, if you don't feel comfortable asking, you have a bigger problem than what you're sending them, which is you don't have a relationship with them.
Sunshine Levin: Absolutely agreed. And you should, whether you have a paid relationship or not, you should be able to ask that question and put yourself in a position where you do have that. You don't have to be friends to ask that question. You just have to have kind of a back and forth a couple of times. And then," Hey, let's be honest for a second. What do you want to know about me and my company? How often do you want to hear from me?" I bet you that would just knock them off their chair and make them like you that much more for future interactions. That's my guess.
Stephanie Cox: No, I completely agree. So one of the things we talk... You've mentioned a lot about releases and that type of content. What other types of content do you feel like is important to send to analysts? Is that ever thought leadership stuff you're writing on? How do you think about customer stories? What is that whole gamut of what you feel like is important that they see you doing?
Sunshine Levin: Absolutely. And so we cheat and we do that within the launch communication. And so our launch communication to our analysts, which by the way, is very, very similar to the way we do partner marketing, and so as... And influencers, we're building out a program for influencer... We're building out a program for an influencer program as well. And so influencers, analysts, and partners, we're doing very, very similar communications to all three groups, where it's quarterly, it's based on the launch, but the way that we position it as a little bit different. So it's nice to kind of have that overlap going on. But what we do is we talk about what the big, sexy thing is. I know it's weird to say that, but the big, sexy thing that's hitting that quarter, or things, and what it does for our customer base or for our prospects. And then we also have typically one quote from a customer for each of the big, sexy things, and that's included in there. And so I do a two part thing where I say," If you want to hear more about what we're launching, let's talk. But if you want to talk to these customers about their experience with this functionality, with what this does for their organization, let me know about that too. I'd be happy to make an introduction." So we bundle those things together in that same communication. When I break, and so when I do things outside of the launch, it's usually for two reasons. I'm picking up a pattern. Everything is two for us today, Stephanie, which is funny because my magic number is usually three, so I don't know why I'm breaking convention. But when we break out of our quarterly thing, it's usually around there's something big and newsworthy. And so just last week we announced an acquisition. And so I had a separate communication that went out to my analyst community about the acquisition. If there were something else that were coming up that was important like that, that's just separate news that we want them to have before it hits all of the other things, so that they can see it first and know about it first, that's where we would go outside of the quarterly thing. Otherwise, we try... Our quarterly communication is pretty tight. It's pretty bundled and covers what we think we want them to know about.
Stephanie Cox: So we've talked about communications, and you've mentioned a little bit about briefings or analyst inquiries. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of those, and how you think about those from a frequency standpoint, and also, who else to involve in your organization?
Sunshine Levin: Yes. So my best friend at SalesLoft is a gentleman called Jacques Bégin, and he is a product marketer. And he is the person that I cannot do any briefing or inquiry without. I don't know if he likes that designation or if he resents it. It could be a little bit of both, depending on the day. But typically, I will drive the strategy and then score whatever the conversation is. And Jacques and I will then partner together to make sure that we have the right content. We're talking about the latest and greatest. We're including the latest marketecture, or positioning, or whatever it is that product marketing is more on top of, than then me sitting in analyst relations and customer marketing. And so the two of us will partner together to make sure that we have the right content, the right guests joining us for those briefings and inquiries. I will say, even though I do generally drive the strategy, and I'm usually the one who's saying," We need to talk to them, the analysts about this or that," he does come to me with amazing ideas. Just to give you an example, something I hadn't thought of, a couple of organizations that are in complementary space to where we perform have recently announced some funding raises and some valuations. And it was Jacque's idea to go and ask the analysts about what they thought that the funding and the valuations meant for the larger marketplace, so that we could... We had our own position on it, but we wanted to hear what the analyst positions were, and that was his idea. And that was a fabulous conversation that we had with multiple analyst firms that went really well. So I couldn't do a lot of what I do without partnership from product marketing. And then we also are starting to see some partnership with, or deeper partnership with product management leadership, as well as just the C- suite in general. Depending on the level of relationship that we have with the analyst firm, it could be... Sometimes it's just we're going to meet with such and such firm. Everyone knows who it is. Everyone values their opinions. And it's easy to get them to join a conversation. And then we do have a couple of cases where it might take a little cajoling or reminding. If we do this, it gets us to this outcome. But in either case, I have a really, really great team that I bring together. Oh, and a sales engineer. Oftentimes, we need to do demos as part of our briefings. And one of the amazing things that's happened in the last year and a half is that we get time with a sales engineer who just... We can give them three pieces of information, and they can do a demo that's five minutes long or an hour and a half, depending on what we need. And they just, they do it with very short notice. And it's such a blessing to have them in our corner.
Stephanie Cox: So I think maybe one thing to leave it with: If there is one thing you wish all marketers would do in the area of analyst relations, what that one thing?
Sunshine Levin: That is such a good question. I think that I would ask just to learn a little bit more about it proactively. And actually, I would say that about all the functions. Marketing has so many specializations now, where the more you know about what each piece of the team is doing and is up to, the more you can serve yourself and your function, and the more naturally it is to help others. And so I would say just be more curious about analyst relations and that bucket of things that you probably don't know what they're up to and the value that they're bringing to the organization.
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