Full Funnel Framework with Victoria Sakal

Lauren Volpi's headshot on a blue background

Victoria Sakal leads the development and delivery of The Vault by Refine Labs. As the world’s first intellectual capital warehouse, The Vault gives members exclusive access to industry-leading research, data, insights, and validated strategies for manufacturing revenue. With a background in marketing, brand strategy, and commercial strategy, Victoria leads growth strategy, covering product, GTM, and product marketing for The Vault in preparation for commercial launch later this year. Here are a few of the topics we’ll discuss on this episode of Long Story Short:

Here are a few of the topics we’ll discuss on this episode of Long Story Short:

 

  • The levels of customer awareness and why they’re important
  • How to leverage data to create hypotheses to test in the market
  • Getting into the minds of your customers
  • The value The Vault will bring to Refine Labs
  • Victoria’s approach to applying research and measurement to optimize marketing
  • What is working in real-time across dozens of SaaS clients
  • The key metrics that indicate the impact of your brand

 

Resources:

Victoria’s list of resources

The Marketing Book Podcast

 

Connect with Victoria: 

LinkedIn

 

Connect with Jeff:

LinkedIn

 

Connect with Sirkin Research:

Website

Twitter

Instagram

LinkedIn

Jeff Sirkin:
Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Long Story Short, the podcast about storytelling and connection. I’m your host, Jeff Sirkin. On this show, we talk to people making a difference as marketers, entrepreneurs, and social impact advocates. We dig into actionable strategies and tactics to help you connect with your audience and keep your finger on the pulse of your market. My guest this week is Victoria Sakal. She leads development and delivery of The Vault by Refine Labs. As the world’s first intellectual capital warehouse, The Vault gives members exclusive access to industry-leading research, data, insights, and validated strategies for manufacturing revenue. With a background in marketing, brand strategy, and commercial strategy, Victoria leads growth strategy covering product, go-to-market, and product marketing for The Vault in preparation for commercial launch later this year.
I had a great conversation with Victoria. We talked about what she is building with The Vault at Refine Labs and the meta view she has across dozens of SaaS clients for what’s working real-time. We dove into the levels of customer awareness and the key metrics to indicate the impact of your brand. So without further ado, please enjoy my conversation with Victoria Sakal. Hi, Victoria. Thanks for coming on Long Story Short.

Victoria Sakal:
Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

Jeff Sirkin:
Yeah. I want to start with where you are today. Can you give us a sense of what your world looks like at Refine Labs?

Victoria Sakal:
Yes. It is a fast and furious world over here where we’re trying to move as quickly and arguably faster than the world around us so that we can equip our clients for success. I sit on a team that is called The Vault. As far as the product that we’re working on, so the idea is that Refine Labs is known for its work with dozens and dozens of B2B SaaS companies over the years. And in doing so, we’ve collected… And many people have probably seen, read, or heard some form of our thought leadership around what works as far as driving revenue, creating demand, capturing demand, and really rethinking marketing so that it’s not focused on just leads and these vanity metric behaviors that typically tend to leave marketing and sales at odds with each other and more focused on temporary reporting versus long-term impact.
So in our work with clients, we’re reflecting these playbooks, we’re collecting data sets, we’re understanding and testing based on the latest tools or channels or technologies out there what really works and what’s the best way to get impact from any of these tools in your toolbox. And so the idea was with The Vault, there’s many people who can’t or won’t or don’t work with us in the advisory capacity. They don’t want us to come in and do the full thing for them. They’re to some degree interested in doing it themself or doing it with us and getting our guidance on what’s the first step, what’s the next step, and how do we build this R&D pipeline that is all in pursuit of driving revenue, which is really the end goal of marketing and sales, whether we get there through lots of different metrics and potentially conflicting objectives along the way.
But the idea is how do we make this accessible as possible start to build a community around that so people can engage and learn with each other? So it’s been an interesting journey, not even six months here at the company yet, and thinking through the product and the offer and the who we can help and how we can help. But then again, that changing environment we’re living in.

Jeff Sirkin:
Totally. And I love that. I mean, my perspective, which I really love, is the idea that it’s really, if you’re going to be working with these dozens of clients, how can you, A, get a meta view across all of them, but more importantly, then be able to share that out? Because right now, there are dozens of clients that are getting the benefit of working with the team at Refine Labs. But then, being able to publish those results and be able to standardize some of the measurement across them and what is working and being able to prove that at scale just opens up an entirely new world and really makes that information accessible to so many more companies.

Victoria Sakal:
The scalability piece of it is so fascinating to me because exactly as you said, I always when I was in prior consulting roles loved working on distinctly different industries or clients because you just learn things that you can apply in one place and test on another. But what’s interesting about B2B specifically is there’s always the I’m unique syndrome where my ACV or my ICP or my industry or the stage of my company, I need to find people who look exactly like me on a number of these dimensions. And that’s not maybe something we’ll eventually get into in this conversation here, but there’s in many cases a formula and levels of consistency that you can compare to. But in many cases, there’s a level of magic that you can take what you can learn from comparables, so to speak. But then, the art of strategy is figuring out what does this mean for me versus hoping that someone’s going to sit down and give you a formula, and all you have to do is plug in your numbers and wish it luck kind of thing.

Jeff Sirkin:
I’m glad you brought that up. I mean, I will say in my more than 10 years of working directly with clients, mostly B2B, they all really do. They’re all special flowers. But ultimately there’s the, “Well, no. It has to be very specific. No. FinTech is different. No. Pharma is different.” And the truth is it’s the idea in English, in literature where there’s seven unique storylines or something like that. I would argue it’s probably the same thing when it comes to go-to-market. So yeah, there’s really a couple of core concepts to be able to get right. And now it doesn’t mean, yes, obviously the nuances do need to be impacted necessarily as a result of the size of company and who they sell to and what industry they’re in. But to your point, I think a lot more of this is really more accessible than a lot of companies even realize.

Victoria Sakal:
Absolutely. And it also comes back to what we’re seeing all over LinkedIn and you and I are notably believers in. There’s a point where your job, your expertise is to know your audience and to know your market and to know your company and to know your industry. And so you need to sit down with your critical thinking hat, carry it against those maybe best practices or formulas to the best that they’re able to be created. There are best practices for a reason. There are bad practices for a reason. But then it’s like knowing and being the subject matter expert in your business and your solution and why it’s unique. You have to have done the work to get to that point in the first place. But then applying that to any best practice is where the magic really comes in. And if you’re looking for just a either cookie-cutter solution from somebody who’s just like you, or just an end-all be-all solve, it’s probably not going to be the way to win.

Jeff Sirkin:
So I want to dig into one of those areas, as you say, is what should marketing look like as opposed to what does it in a lot of cases. And so in a big picture sense, marketers have been at odds for a while in terms of how much of their budget and focus should be on performance marketing or what we typically think of as demand gen versus brand building. It’s this head-to-head. And I just want to get your kind of what’s your big picture perspective on that battle on how to think about those two things separately.

Victoria Sakal:
Yeah. I’ll even actually tie it back to what we were just talking about, this idea of your audience and your consumer that you’re trying to help really. You’re trying to win with them, but you’re trying to help them in order to win. So you start with this idea of they need to be problem aware in the first place. They need to have some sort of problem and then know that they have a problem. Then you start to get into this element of, we talk about category design, but they’re solution aware. And is it a new key category? Are there are a few categories more realistically that a consumer or a B2B buyer is conscious of? Then as they get down into the funnel of the different types of solutions that might best fit their needs, then you start to get to brand aware.
And so this is where the brand awareness plays in, that you need your brand to be salient. You need it to be different and to stand out in a way that’s not just better but different for whatever good reason that is. And it has to be meaningful against that problem. It has to be a compelling way of solving that problem. And then, you start to head down the funnel of how do you… That’s your 0.0 of creating demand. If they’re aware of your brand, then it’s how do you drive affinity for not only the category and not only the type of solution that you’re able to offer, but why they need it, why it’s going to help them now, what’s the pain that’s going to solve for them, or we think tying in a few different frameworks here, we think a lot about pain killers versus vitamins and the urgency being now.
And then you start to build that relationship through credibility, through reliability, through trust, through all these drivers that can sometimes feel really academic, but obviously play a role. There’s an emotional and a rational component to any decision, whether it’s chips off the shelf as a consumer or tech products at the B2B buyer. So you start with that moment of I am, boom, now brand aware, and now the brand’s job is to create demand in me as a buyer for that brand for whenever my moment of purchase is. And then I think there’s an important distinction that many even consumer-side marketers miss. As you get down the funnel, there’s not just affinity, but there’s interest and then there’s consideration, which is only saying you’re not out of my consideration set. A lot of people will hold consideration as the gold star, and it’s actually preference. And then we talk a lot about intent here at Refine Labs as well because it matters if you actually are action-oriented and planning to make the purchase is one step further along the continuum of just being the preferred brand if and when the purchase might eventually happen.

Jeff Sirkin:
I just want to start with this. I really love the framework you laid out because more than anything else, it shows that it really isn’t, is it performance marketing, is it demand, or is it brand, right? It’s really a continuum. And it’s really all along about the levels of customer awareness. And to your point, and one of the things I’ve really been from afar really been impressed by that Refine Labs have been able to do over the years, is to be able to really whittle into each of those specific things and really get into some of the nuance because I think to the big high-level point that yes, it’s really all about where is somebody on their journey today and how can you help them be more aware whenever they’re ready to be able to move to the next step? But it’s not a one-size-fits-all message that necessarily just works or doesn’t work.

Victoria Sakal:
The intersection of the performance and theoretically the short-term movement of the needle versus the long-term, it hits on exactly what you’re saying, where are they today versus where are they eventually versus where are they at their next company, when now there’s an actual need for the thing that they read, and they watched you talk about for three years at your last role. And suddenly, they’re actually a buyer. They’re actually a decision-maker. And another thing, as you mentioned, Refine Labs talks about a lot is the attribution conversation at some point starts to muddy the water where it doesn’t matter when somebody typed in the Google search of your product. If they heard about you three years ago because you started a podcast that you thought failed because only 15 people regularly listened, but this person was one of those listeners and told five friends, but also moved to a new company and became your buyer, then that’s a win.
But it’s something that I in past lives at Cantar, where there’s a lot of research into this and other roles, this dichotomy between the short-term versus the long-term. The immediate conversion versus the foundational base of the brand is always a debate. And it really shouldn’t be. It’s both. There’s capture demand moments where performance marketing helps you be top-of-mind and be at the top of the webpage, and then you get the win, but there’s the brand piece as well, the relationship and the presence and salient. That plays a role.

Jeff Sirkin:
It’s just not linear, as much as we would like it to be, and it’s just not that simple. And sometimes, more than anything else, and I think about this a lot, the idea that we used to refer to it more as the sales cycle, and now almost exclusively refer to as the buyer’s journey. But to me, the reason I think that nuance is so important is it really indicates who’s in control. And I think to me, that’s one of the things we’ve seen so much over the last 10 years with all of the content out there. And now, there’s things that you never used to be able to get before, even down to pricing.
You used to have to go through this heavily-gated guarded experience where you had to fill out a form, talk to sales reps to even get beyond some of the most basic product information, let alone pricing and some of the more specifics. And as a result, it was sort of they were the gatekeepers. But now, as the buyers have become more in control, everything has changed. So now there’s so much more content out there, including your pricing, including reviews. You can see on Google. You can go on a Reddit if you want to see the real reviews. All of that stuff is readily available. And so at this point it’s really just changed the idea. And now to some extent, it’s really a matter of how do we make sure all of the right pieces are in place for the buyers to find, but it’s really still going to be at their pace. We only have a limited amount of control as marketers and sellers.

Victoria Sakal:
So many pieces you hit on there. I mean, I’m thinking of it. It’s been very meta actually in this role here at Refine Labs, working on The Vault, because we are studying how buyers buy, and exactly as you said, evolving buyer journey. We’re studying the things that impact how people buy. So all those elements you mentioned in dark social, for example, Reddit and people’s reviews and conversations versus the Gartners of the world. Or was just listening to a podcast yesterday around the GRIT research vendors list that are pay to play. I mean, it’s like there’s just a totally different dynamic of how people are buying today, and so going through… And then even things like pricing pages and getting demos or getting information as I’m going through looking for different partners for certain elements of what we’re building here. It’s unbelievable how real and how palpable of a pain point this buying purchase is. And I came from a B2C world. So I’m especially sensitive to that being eons ahead of where B2B is.
If somebody goes to buy a phone, it’s not like, “Well, tell me which service area are you. And let’s see if we can get…” It’s like, I need a phone because I dropped my on the sidewalk. And if you can’t help me, I’m going to go next door. It’s just crazy, some of these dynamics, but it’s also crazy… And I think about this a lot in terms of there’s the traditional product adoption curve and you have early adopters, but then you have the very far end of laggards. That applies to marketing practices as well.
And when you think about how you innovate your strategies and your team, and always operating within the constraints of budgets, and the limitations that you might be facing, how can you know where your market’s eyeballs are, know the type of content they’re looking to consume and be there in a way that it’s maybe not expensive to do, but it’s how they’re buying instead of spending all your efforts on A/B testing the language to get a requested demo on your website. Just put the recording on the website and you’ll probably get people who are interested coming forward. That kind of thing.

Jeff Sirkin:
I think that goes back to what you started with, which again, I think really needs to be the north star, which is that at the end of the day, we as marketers are trying to drive revenue. And so often, what that turned into… And this has been my world. I come from the analytics side for 15 years where it was sort of this, well, there’s a formula. It takes X number of MQLs, which turns into X number of qualified opportunities and pipeline. And therefore, that’s how we’ll hit our numbers.
But then what’s happened is that we game the system to basically increase at the top, but those are all going to be lower intent. And so at the end of the day, to your point, even just as you talked about around that podcast example, “Oh. There’s only 15 people listening to it,” but in a lot of companies, if that turned into one deal, if there was somebody that had high intent and that turned into a deal, that’s still better than 1,000 content syndication leads. But I think the piece that gets missed so often is the fact that at the end of the day, we’re really trying to drive revenue. And so sometimes, you’re okay with a lower volume of higher intent, but I think that’s something that it’s just taking a while for companies to get their heads around.

Victoria Sakal:
I will acknowledge though, there’s a complexity there whether it’s a mindset shift or a strategy hurdle that what you’re getting at, and I’m board with it, is this idea that riches and niches, whatever you want to use, you have to know the right person to target, the right type of messaging tone, blah, blah, blah, down the funnel to actually resonate with them and drive that intent. And that could be hard. A spray and pray, high volume approach, general messaging, even if it’s not highly generic, is going to theoretically capture that core niche that you’re trying to resonate with, but maybe even capture some others in. It’s been very interesting in this role to start translating that from in theory to in practice. And how do you define who your ICP is? And what are the steps you can take? And especially if you’re new.
We do this for our clients and we go through your win-loss analysis and we say, “Here’s who you’re winning with. Here’s your best chance of high LTV or attention,” is what are the things that define them, whether that’s firmographics or psychographics as a buyer or any other number of factors. And you can start reverse engineering your ICP. If you’re new, you don’t necessarily have that. And if you’re new, you’re trying to get your product out there, get product-market fit, get your ICP, get critical early revenue and wins under your belt. But all of these things are dancing in motion with each other. So I will acknowledge that some of these things are easier said than done, but there is value in working smarter, not harder, basically.

Jeff Sirkin:
Yes. And I think from my perspective, the issue really all starts with identifying the right KPIs and metrics. And in my experience, marketers default to what’s easiest to measure, which is always going to be how demand is captured at the end of the day. And so I fully believe in the value of brand, and that’s the rising tide that lifts all boats and how you create demand. But what are some of the key metrics? What are some of the validators that marketers should be looking at that can help justify those efforts?

Victoria Sakal:
So the first piece… we’ll start right at the top of where we did before… is brand awareness. There’s a few different ways you can capture that. There’s obviously the survey-based methodology. There’s watching your mentions on social, seeing if more people who are commenting on your posts, for example, are the types of people that you were hoping to resonate with. There’s a lot of research recently in the last handful of years around shared search. Some people might call that bottom of the funnel, but if you’re actually seeing searches around the type of solution that you uniquely are messaging around, that’s a win. If you see more searches around your brand or tagline or whatever, that’s also helpful information. But there’s across any of these metrics we’ll talk through, there’s the survey-based way to capture unaided or aided awareness, for example. But then there’s also the behavioral indicators that help to signal to you if you’re moving in the right direction.
Then as you start to move beyond awareness and you’re trying to build affinity, this is where I’m thinking about it actively for The Vault. Again, taking a lot of the academic recommendations we always had for clients and translating it into practice for this role. But typically there’s things that you know matter for a certain type of a purchase. And so here, using the B2B Vault example, more understanding obviously budget plays a role. Obviously, the reputability of the company or the credibility of the substance of the thing that you’re selling. In our case, it’s IP. It’s thought leadership. Do people trust our beliefs? But that package of things that drive affinity is not going to look the same for every B2B company let alone B2B versus B2C. So you have to have a sense of what drives purchases.
We talked about the buyer journey, but it’s also when they get their buying committee together in a room and they’re talking about potential consideration sets. Are they thinking about, “Well, I know this one the best,” or, “Someone recommended this one to me,” or, “I really trust the credibility of their research. They obviously know what they’re talking about.” You need to know what that formula is going to look like.
Again, there’s different ways to measure that, but you can get into the survey or the behavioral side. And then you want to start understanding the bottom of the funnel indicators. And so that’s where preference and intent, and there’s the behavioral side. But as you start to see people submitting forms on your website or asking to talk to the sales reps, talking to the team to get a demo, to get pricing information, although it should be on your site, any of those start to become indicators that they are getting closer to a purchase. So that’s the continuation where it’s indicators of awareness, of general affinity, then there’s preference or starting to move towards the decision. And then there’s obviously the capture demand under the spectrum.

Jeff Sirkin:
That’s so great. And I really appreciate the comprehensive view because I think that’s the thing that marketers struggle with is they’ve traditionally just measured whatever’s easily available in their CRM, and that’s going to be number of leads, number of qualified meetings. And then you can follow it through the sales funnel. But they’re missing everything that comes before that, everything that comes before that “lead” is created. And so for instance, I just want to touch on one thing that you mentioned is around people coming into your website and submitting forms. I would argue those high intent leads, if you have a contact me or demo requests or trial downloads, things like that, those to me are really those high intent leads. And I’ve done this exercise in my past with clients is doing an analysis of which lead offers, basically what’s the average value of those, what percent of those turn into pipeline opportunities and revenue. And unsurprisingly, we found that contact me was 10 times more valuable than anything else.
But the point is that’s why not every MQL is created equal. You’d rather have one contact me than probably 100 white paper downloads, probably more than 1,000 white paper downloads. But therein lies that whenever you’re now able to tie that back again to the north star of revenue, now you have something a little meatier to go based on. And if you can say, “Look. We’ve been building our brand awareness. We’ve been working on these brand campaigns,” and being able to say, “Yes, we’re seeing some of these early stage, these leading indicators, our brand awareness. We are starting to move the needle. We’re starting to see people mention us more on social.” But more importantly, and this is what’s going to get the board’s and the CEO’s attention and heads of sales is, “But we’re having more high intent leads coming through.” And a lot of that theoretically should be coming in organically in more of a pull as opposed to a push.

Victoria Sakal:
The pull-to-push dynamic is also an interesting one. And that’s where I was just thinking while you were talking is your point earlier. And it goes back to the same thing where it’s working smarter and not harder where you might feel like you’re getting myopic in the type of content that you’re putting on LinkedIn, or that it might not be the highest ROI to have someone dedicated to putting something thoughtful out or a video or a podcast or whatever. But if you’re converting the majority of people who are exposed to that, whether it’s through those self-reported attribution fields in your forms on your website or comments on the LinkedIn post or comments after you’ve converted the sale, you’re getting that signal back that says that even if it was 50 hours a week that somebody was spending on this, you got to sale from it and it’s giving those signals back.
Versus as you were saying before, there’s throwing out your marketing and you’re of course going to get data points around clicks and views because either you’re smattering the Facebook or the LinkedIn feed with your ads everywhere… And again, is leads or view necessarily going to convert to revenue? That’s something for you to work out. Maybe it’s your strategy and it does work. But exactly what you said. It’s measuring where it’s easy to get measured because Facebook and Google want it to be easy for you to measure because you feel like views are worth something. But at the end of the day, you’re accountable for saying how many of those translate to the dollar signs that we’re hoping to achieve so that our salespeople are not spending the majority of their time on dull leads that are not going to convert or having to nurture something for X number more months than they should be. But instead, we’re picking right upstream efforts to invest our time and our energies in that’ll create value down the road quicker.

Jeff Sirkin:
I think the other piece that gets lost is qualitative. I mean, obviously we want to quantify everything. I run a small business, so this is easier for me to say. But I had a great conversation with the prospect beginning of last year, and it went great. She was very sold on the approach and what we might be able to do for her, but it wasn’t the right time. It just wasn’t. And so I took that as very positive qualitative signals that the message I’m putting out there, the positioning of what I do in my services, it worked. But it doesn’t mean it led to a sale. And now fast-forward less than a year, about 10 months later, she came back and said, “Hey. I’m actually leaving that company. I’m starting at this new company and we want to do this right away.”
So essentially, you could argue that, and I didn’t know this in the moment, but that she was essentially pre-sold and it was just a matter of when was the right time. But again, back to the control, the buyer was in control. There was nothing I could do in any way, shape, or form to force her to be ready at the company she was at previously. But now, we’ve been working together for eight months and it’s been great. But again, it’s getting those qualitative signals. And there are so many of them that I think we toss to the side because we say if we can’t quantify it into a number, if it can’t fit neatly on a Tableau dashboard or something like that, it really just doesn’t make the cut.

Victoria Sakal:
The qualitative piece is so fascinating because especially again, having come from a company like Cantar where mass event sizes was the goal. It was 10,000 or busted warning consult. And there is absolutely an art in the qualitative. And we think about and talk about a bit at Refine Labs this continuum of positive signals translating to validated signals. The tricky part there becomes if people… Again, you think about adoption curve. And we are active on LinkedIn. We’re active on a lot of these channels. We might see the engagement or the Reddit post or the comments, and we can either convince ourselves or very clearly see the value of some of those qualitative feedback loops that you’re getting. Other companies are not necessarily going to have those sources.
If they’re not active on LinkedIn in an organic fashion, if you don’t have enough of those conversations that you’re having, if your sales cycle is slower, your ACV is higher and so you’re having only a handful of conversations a month, you might not be getting enough engagement with your market to be feeling like you can trust the handful of one-off qualitative signals you’re getting. And so that’s where it really is a mindset shift that it’s just getting into your market and getting into the mindset of your consumer, spending time out there.
Even if it feels like you’re throwing mud against the wall, you’re seeing if things resonate or don’t. And there’s ways to do it that again, it’s not like you even had to spend millions on a campaign to see it go bust and take that as a qualitative signal. It’s probably a very fair quantitative signal and a waste of money. But it’s a tough mindset shift and a tough almost justification of time and resources to say, “We’re going to test some things. We’re going to get critical mass of insights from somewhere maybe new and maybe a little out of our comfort zone. But very with you on that. The qualitative supplement to data points is… I mean, even I’d be interested to hear your perspective on this data is great, but without the evidence and the interpretation and the context around it, it really only does so much for you.

Jeff Sirkin:
Oh, absolutely. And part of the issue, to be honest, just to go back a little bit in my past, is that there’s almost an infinite number of data points you can point to. And that’s why to me, I really wanted to start with what are the right ways to be measuring things like the brand you’re able to build and how demand is being created because if you don’t start with the right metrics, it’s too easy to cherry pick.
And I’ve run into this where a project or campaign is launching and my intent was always, “All right. We’re going to sit down and define the KPIs in advance and all that kind of stuff.” And sometimes, budget, timeline-wise, it doesn’t get to happen. And so then it launches. And from my perspective, I see myself as being the objective one in the room saying, “Well, it’s not successful based on X, Y, and Z.” Well, they’re like, “But look at this, look at that, look that.” There’s just too much all the time.
And so on one hand, it’s really important to be very clear on what the metrics are and how you’re actually going to measure success. And then to your point, it’s really more a matter of, to me, qualitative in a lot of cases should be then the leading indicators that the quantitative is on the way. But at the end of the day, you start with those north star quantitative metrics that you need to be able to move the needle on but recognizing that a lot of that, especially in marketing, especially in B2B, may take 3, 6, 9, 12 months sometimes to move the needle on those quantitative. And so if you’re pulling the plug, if you’re constantly changing strategies, you’re not actually building up really the value there.
Because I think with qualitative… And as you were talking, the thing I was thinking of is almost maybe more important than quantitative would be what I would refer to as a volume of qualitative. If you’re actually getting real at bats all the time and you’re able to get that real qualitative signal that’s not just, to your point, the one-off. But that comes from, oh, you’re putting out a ton of content. You’re putting out podcasts. You’re engaging with your audience. To your point, that’s when you’re getting the real-time feedback. And what I’ll say in my experience is there’s no replacement for that. There just isn’t.

Victoria Sakal:
Yeah. I mean, I couldn’t agree more. What I’m thinking through now is just that transition of… I spend a lot of time thinking about, especially with what I’m trying to make succeed here, what people’s sticking points are and where their mindset shifts need to be. And we’re lucky with Refine Labs. Chris and the team have done an amazing job of getting our philosophies out there, developing and honing our philosophies in public, but also with data from actual customers over the years. But there’s this idea of how many is enough? Can you really only have 10 customer conversations or prospect conversations? Again, if you have a slow sales cycle and it’s one a quarter, that’s not going to be enough. But how do you get comfortable with what that critical mass is? And that’s where, again, as we think of a research, an R&D pipeline, you have to start to know where positive signals come in and realize that in B2B, your market is only so big in many cases. And there’s only so many decision-makers. And there’s so many influencers for those decision-makers. And so just getting out there and engaging.
And even if it’s a dummy ICP or not quite right ICP, you practice the skill of drawing things out there, seeing the right way to test things and then understanding how to interpret those signals. You’re getting back because exactly, as you said, it’s the volume of the signals. At some point, you start to hear the same things and it might be after 5, it might be after 10, it might be after 50, but it will not necessarily have to be 10,000.

Jeff Sirkin:
Well, to your point, I saw a piece of research, maybe it was this week, that was around how many… As an example, this was in terms of qualitative customer interviews. How many is the right number? And it essentially said there’s a tipping point around five because after five, you hearing a lot of the same things. And so I think to your point, that’s when you know. Once you’ve started hearing that, “Oh, okay.” It’s almost verbatim. You’re hearing some of the same things. That’s when I think you can say, “Okay. I may have talked to eight customers or eight prospects in my ICP.” Not that you shouldn’t talk to 100, but it’s probably not as necessary. You’re going to get a lot more of the same once you’ve already started seeing those indicators.

Victoria Sakal:
I will, again, counterpoint our… I agree with you completely. And as I think through my learnings and doing this really practically and tactically, what can also be a challenge with that is if you have a few different versions of an ICP or you’re trying to hone in on the ICP, there are so many different variables. And so I came from, “Run a segmentation. Have a 50-question questionnaire. Have the data tell you what the right differentiating profiles are. Create a typing tool. And then boom, you’ll find your segments.” And B2B with ICPs and with buying committees and decision-makers, there’s any number of factors. For us, there’s probably 10 or 15 that could play a role. There’s a couple we know are essential and there’s a couple that are probably peripheral. But that’s where it gets tricky where I understand people’s…
But again, it comes back to, you have to have this muscle of talking to and engaging with your market and you start to pick up on you know the companies, you know the players, you know the people, you know their background or persona or whatever, and you start to understand that people of a certain type of company tend to really resonate with us or people with no marketing budget don’t. So just to acknowledge that there’s a lot of different variables. And at some point, figuring out that segmentation can be tricky when you feel like you’ve had five, the critical mass of conversations, but you’re hearing five different things, you might have to go deeper into different parameters.

Jeff Sirkin:
Agreed. But I think to your point, it’s a combination. And this is where I say quantitative and qualitative need to be joined at the hip where you have enough from qualitative to now say, “Okay. Now we want to go test something.” Okay. We think we have an idea either for a new message or a new tactic. So now let’s go test this in a way that will be measurable for us. So you’re now letting the qualitative inform the quantitative. And now you’re saying, “Okay. Yes, there’s still value here. Now let’s do it on a bigger scale.” Or, “You know what? Maybe we were wrong. Maybe that was just… Maybe because it was a different set of firmographics or psychographics that was driving that. So okay. Back to the drawing board.” But I think to your point, it’s not making the excuse not to take action.
And I think that’s the piece is what’s the minimal amount that you can get a workable hypothesis into market is really the way I think about it because again, it’s not that there’s no amount of surveys… And I will say this as somebody who does this for a living. There’s no amount of surveys you can do that’s going to give you 100% certainty that some tactic or some message is just going to land. At the end of the day, you have to do it and there’s no replacement for that.

Victoria Sakal:
It’s been interesting to think about that research piece again having come from a company that was sort of like the MBA in research science and sample design. You get to a company like Refine Labs where clients don’t have the budget or the interest or the time to deal with a research cycle. And on the one hand, the argument is, “Well, actually, there’s a lot of players out there who are disrupting this space.” There’s very slow, expensive incumbents. There’s also very fast, cheaper options. But it’s a whole… I mean, even as I sat down and when I started in my role here and started to map this landscape, as we thought about research we might want to conduct, there are dozens and dozens of companies. There are dozens of companies whose sites haven’t been updated since 1980 and are still existing. So you’re sort of like, they’re obviously doing something right.
But it goes back to, I think, as we’ve been talking about here, there’s ways you can accomplish the objective without having to sink your budget or months of time into it. And there’s different ways you can get those signals, enough critical mass of qualitative signals to take it into some form of quantitative or creative ways you can approach quantitative. But I do think this research piece is something that everybody probably… I would find it shocking if people didn’t know or appreciate that it’s important, but it tends to be so skipped or skimmed over, or just there’s not enough comfort or clarity on what the right way to do it is that people feel like they have to do the Rolls Royce or bust. So people just skip right past it and bust.

Jeff Sirkin:
Oh. Wow. I mean, that could be… You almost opened Pandora’s box. I’m not going to let us go down that road today. I don’t think we have enough time. But I would love to, for what it’s worth. So in that case, are you ready for a couple of not so rapid fire questions?

Victoria Sakal:
Sure. Game on.

Jeff Sirkin:
Okay. So first, what would you say is the most overrated marketing activity either again from your experience or what you’re seeing with clients at Refine Labs? What are some things that maybe marketers are leaning a little too heavily on?

Victoria Sakal:
Yeah. Marketers and companies in general, I think we hit on this before, but this idea of PR and the Gartners and the pay to play solutions of the world. We’ve explored this a bit from the brand, brand side and even the employer brand side, that people are way savvier than they used to be. People know when you’re on some ranking for best employer, just like they know when you’re on the ranking for best MarTech. There’s first of all a lot of other options out there. And second of all, there’s a lot of pay to play behavior going on. So I think appreciate the effort, appreciate a lot of the practices and psychology behind that, but I think as we were saying before, dark social or seeing people mentioning a company again and again in your Slack channel or on Reddit or on LinkedIn is going to go way further than pushing your content out there in an inauthentic but clearly navigated endorsement route.

Jeff Sirkin:
Yep. I couldn’t agree more. So what about the opposite? What maybe is a little underrated and what should marketers be leaning into a little more?

Victoria Sakal:
We I think also hit on this one a little bit, the idea of the scientific method and being willing to experiment and test and learn. I again always come back to why aren’t we doing that? I think we talked about perceived complexity. There’s perceived cost. There’s perceived, there’s a right way to do it and I don’t know the right way. But I think we can start to acknowledge the flaws in what we’ve always done. We’re clearly not getting the results in many cases that we wanted to. And so where can we start to have informed hypotheses, base it on some substantive amount of maybe qualitative data, start to get the signals of the data, whatever that looks like that we need to to guide us in the right direction, and be willing to test an experiment because that’s the only way you’re going to find new unlocks for your business or your customers or for your strategy.

Jeff Sirkin:
That warms my heart more than you know, I think. I mean, I think you hit the nail on the head. And to me, I think that we have marketers that they have trouble understanding that data is a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the whole thing. They either want to make…. I hear this all the time, that I’m data-driven, meaning everything has to be backed up by data. But then as we talked about, there’s a lot that you won’t be able to see just yet. But that doesn’t mean you should just throw the data out completely either. The right answer is a combination of the two.
And that’s why I love the way you framed it around how can you have a hypothesis and test it? And then back to the drawing board again. But it’s really process of going back and forth and then saying, “Okay. Plan B,” or, “Here’s what we saw. Maybe it worked in this segment, not that one.” How do you continue to actually take action? Don’t just sit inside and wait six months to launch your campaign. But how do you actually take action and learn something, but then continue to optimize on that? I love that.

Victoria Sakal:
Yeah. I mean, it probably comes back to just an orientation or alignment around first principles. If revenue’s the goal, so that’s your big capital G, then it’s like, what are the levers you’re going to pull to achieve that? And within this, again, appreciating hypothesis testing and experimentation might not be naturally comfortable, and cultures may not even support it. You have to acknowledge, “Okay. Here’s the fixed way,” or, “Here’s the known known,” even if we know it’s not going to work, and then we’re going to weave an experiment in with it. But it’s the actions you’re going to take or the ideas that you’re going to explore in order to ladder up to those goals. But it’s part of the portfolio strategy as well. Some things aren’t going to work. You think some things might. You aren’t really sure about others. Mix enough of them together in the right way and you should start to get some signals if not results.

Jeff Sirkin:
So on the heels of that, what would you say? What is the most important skill or set of skills that a marketer can possess to help them be successful in their career?

Victoria Sakal:
I think it definitely comes down to curiosity. We talked about people just default to what’s easiest to collect and report. And I think that’s the biggest problem of marketing and branding themselves where they just default to what’s easiest or what the system has designed as the architecture to operate in. And I think the curiosity on who your consumers are, how are they changing, what’s influencing their decisions, what channels are they exploring, how do we explore all those questions or how you keep your environment and your organization is a living element of an ecosystem versus just, “We planted our seed, we launched our product, and now we’re just going to push it forward for 20 years.”

Jeff Sirkin:
When I used to hire analysts, I used to refer to it as intellectual curiosity to me, which was the number one most important thing, which is sure, anybody can say that revenue’s up 20%, but why? It’s then asking yourself that question and then going to find the answer. It’s not a matter of… But it’s just being curious about the next thing. And to me, especially in marketing, as things have become so specialized, where now you have people that are just building TikTok content, let’s say. But they may not understand then who the actual customer is, what you’re trying to get them to do, what they may know or not know about your product or your market at the time. And again, it then becomes more valuable to understand how all those dots connect, but that really comes from curiosity.

Victoria Sakal:
Yeah. It also goes back to the questioning assumptions piece where we talked about, that’s how you test and figure out better solutions. So asking why is always… I always got made fun of that as a kid and in school. I was like, “Why? Why did they do that? Why does that science [inaudible 00:43:20] work that way?” And yet there’s a whole industry built around it. So couldn’t be that off.

Jeff Sirkin:
I always say I was such an annoying six-year-old just asking why. I needed to know why everything happened the way it happened.

Victoria Sakal:
Yep. I’m sure if my mom listens to this, she’ll be whacking her head.

Jeff Sirkin:
And what resources, books, blogs, podcast, newsletter, what what’s been beneficial to you that you would want to recommend to our audience?

Victoria Sakal:
Yeah. I actually posted recently a LinkedIn post about some of the things that have been… As I changed roles, I make my shortlist of what I do want to stay subscribed to. And so now I lean heavily into a combination of go-to-market, product strategy. There’s a little bit of product marketing in there, but then there’s also general. When you think about what makes a business model tick, there’s those elements mixed in. But there’s a few different newsletters I subscribe to, a few podcasts, whether it’s actually The Marketing Book Podcast is a great one for a crash course in anything too, with marketing books. There’s a few VCs that have newsletters that they do a good job of curating either how they think about business decisions or things that are getting published. But I can share the link to that recent post and give some of my personal inbox highlights.

Jeff Sirkin:
Yeah. I’d love to do that. That will be in the show notes for anybody listening. And then finally, before we let you go, where can people find and connect with you on social media?

Victoria Sakal:
I’m on LinkedIn, posting somewhat regularly. I call it the weekly, but otherwise that’s where I spend a lot of my time if not consuming content, posting as well.

Jeff Sirkin:
That’s great. And again, we’ll link to your LinkedIn handle in the show notes as well. Victoria, thank you so much for being here today. And most importantly, thank you for sharing your story with us.

Victoria Sakal:
Yeah. Absolutely. Thanks for having me. It was a great conversation.

Jeff Sirkin:
I really enjoyed my conversation with Victoria. I love her approach to applying research and measurement to optimize marketing. It’s all about leveraging data to create hypotheses and then to test and learn in the market. If you want to learn more about the resources mentioned in the episode, you can find them in our show notes. In addition, we’re publishing the full text transcripts of the episodes on our website at sirkinresearch.com/podcast. Thank you for listening and I hope you’ll join us for a new story next week on Long Story Short.

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