Last updated on June 5th, 2019 at 09:00 hrs.
Sunlight gushes in as I sit down with Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Sari Aapola in Efima Oy’s wide-open Helsinki office on Mannerheimintie for a chat about marketing and thought leadership.
The streetside is all windows, allowing natural light to illuminate the large central space of the office floor and shine through the glass fronts of the opposing working and meeting rooms.
Right in the center, a big, empty grandstand seems to be waiting for an audience. It will soon be filled for the company’s monthly all-hands meeting.
Apparently, the monthly team meeting helps the business process and financial management software firm maintain a strong team identity with a culture of openness, where sharing of customer successes as well as challenges is being encouraged.
“I always look forward to these meetings,” Sari says. “That’s where you can feel the team spirit. It’s never boring and always fun.”
Painting the bigger picture
Throughout her career, she has been helping businesses, in particular Finnish technology companies, to turn their marketing practices more strategic, effective and accountable.
Occasionally she still provides external training, as evidenced by her involvement with the internationalisation programme ‘Software from Finland to European Markets’ on the topic of international marketing. The programme, which ran until May this year, was run by growth consultancy Pro Growth Consulting Oy, sponsored by the Finnish Software & E-Business Association (Ohjelmisto- ja e-business ry) and supported by the Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment (ELY-keskus).
When speaking to the dozen SaaS companies that take part in the programme, Sari emphasized the importance of linking marketing to strategy: “I tried to paint the bigger picture before other speakers would get into Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), campaign building, inbound, measuring, conversion and all that.”
(For transparency: I’ve been engaged in the programme on the topics of doing business with the Dutch and digital marketing in the Netherlands.)
Happy people make happy customers
Sari suspects there is more to it than a correlation: “We promote the idea that happy people make happy customers. I’ve worked in bigger companies with a lot of politics. There is no politics here. It’s very transparent, very open and very honest. It’s really great to work in such an environment. That’s why I’ve decided to continue growing this company.”
She ran Fiskars Power Systems’ marketing for Europe, the Middle East and Africa through most of the 1990s. “That was my leadership training,” she says.
In the new millennium she worked in Basware’s global marketing and global product marketing. The financial supply chain solutions provider has been a success among Finnish software companies. And yet Sari felt it was difficult for Basware to receive the appreciation it deserved.
“We often talked about the fact that we had great products but didn’t seem to get the credibility for it, the recognition in the market. That motivated me to try and figure out what thought leadership could be and how it could support marketing and sales.
Awareness of the buyer’s journey
Sari left Basware to move to Germany for personal reasons, and then started to write her book, ‘Sustainable Thought Leadership’ (link to Amazon.com), which was first published in English in 2009. Through her firm Keynotes she then spread her gospel of sustainable thought leadership.
“I worked with smallish tech companies that required help in marketing. At some point, Efima had become my largest client and was growing really fast. When the opportunity presented itself, I joined Efima as CMO in 2014.
“I was able to build Efima’s marketing from scratch, as well as the marketing of our Dooap software. The launch of Dooap in the United States has been the highlight of my career. A lot of good things are happening in this company and it’s a story I really wanted to be part of.
“The biggest problem with technology startups back in the day,” Sari explains, “was that they really didn’t have an understanding of what they could achieve with marketing and what they should be doing.”
Since the book was published ten years ago, Sari feels that things have improved somewhat, largely thanks to advances in digital marketing: “People have started to become aware of the buyer’s journey. This has made many Finnish engineers realize that they need to understand what people do online and how they look for information in this world.
Don’t just start shooting around
“First, someone may be just browsing. Through the information they consume, they become aware of something they might be interested in. Then they define their need in more detail. At some point they actually want to choose something and finally they become someone’s customer. All those phases have different requirements for marketing content.”
“Having said that,” Sari continues, “what they often still don’t get is the link to the business strategy, the choices that need to be made as a starting point for good marketing. Do your math and make well-informed choices about which market you want to focus on and whom you want to serve. First create your business plan. Then build your marketing on top of that. Work on your target personas. Don’t just start shooting around.
“Still too often, marketing is like an afterthought, a youngish person being hired at some point because, hey, we need some web pages and sales slides. And then that person is working from one task to the next, maybe running some stand-alone campaigns, desperately trying to get leads without having the bigger message thought through.
“You have to dig deeper with your business canvas and always think about how you are different in the market. Be very clear about what your offering is. Is it a product, a service, or a combination of both? How will you package it and build a marketable concept around it? Your way of working, your business model, and all the ways in which you can differentiate yourself are building blocks of a value proposition that makes sense.
What the customer is really buying
“Without linking to the business strategy first, the hierarchy in messaging about the brand and products is very difficult to build. And by the way, this exercise cannot be left to one person in charge of marketing. It has to be a joint effort involving the founders of the company, the managing director, and whoever else are running the business.
How can you turn the internal quality of an organisation into something that can be marketed and sold; something of a Unique Selling Point (USP)?
“Well, in the end, sustainable thought leadership, which I consider to be key to getting recognition in the marketplace, is not just about marketing messages and being smart with content. It is much more about your actions, the way you do what you do in all your encounters. In order to be seen as a thought leader, you need to be able to deliver on your promise. And employees are the ones who do the delivering.
“Business is always about people. A prerequisite to success is that you are interested in your customer. That’s something people sense immediately. Think of what the customer is really buying. They are buying a change to something and they’re considering whether you and your offering are able to help them accomplish that change.
“‘Do I want to work with these people? Will they help me achieve my goals?’ I believe these questions are much more important than individual product features, especially in B2B relationships.
Sales and marketing aligned around the pipeline
“A lot of things have changed for the better during the past few decades. One of them is agile ways of working. I’m a great believer in the lean startup method and in testing things. Starting small, with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), and then testing one’s hypotheses. You can apply that not only to software development, but to marketing as well, right down to the product name.
“Another factor making digital marketing more effective and fun is that it doesn’t have to cost as much as it used to. In the old days you’d make everything ready for print and then hope for the best. Nowadays you can test things affordably and focus on improving the content, which is really great.
“With the ‘Software from Finland’ group we also discussed how nice it is that digital technology enables marketing and sales to be so much more aligned nowadays.
“With the Dooap team I regularly sit in in sales meetings and we talk a lot about Marketing-Qualified Leads (MQLs) and Sales-Qualified Leads (SQLs). We look at the pipeline together to see where the bottlenecks are. Should we get more inbound content to build the beginning of the funnel? Or do we have a challenge in closing deals, so perhaps we need more sales enablement tools?
Global strategies and local messages
Internationalization is an important theme within the ‘Software from Finland’ programme, and there is some emphasis on the Netherlands as a foreign destination. Do you see tension between marketing at home and abroad?
“The basics of how you build your marketing are the same in Finland and elsewhere. You just have to keep in mind that people in different countries are… well, different. They live in different cultures and therefore have different assumptions.
“I don’t believe in localisation that has gone too far. I do believe in global branding and global product strategies. But you need to take into account differences in maturity between local markets, as this will have an impact on your spearhead messages, ie. how you get your target group’s attention.
“When I was working for Basware, Finland was very much ahead in digitizing financial processes. I had fierce discussions with Dutch people about localisation. I somehow had the idea that Holland could not be that far behind. I visited the Netherlands quite a bit and spoke at local events. Gradually I started to realise what they meant. There was a difference in what resonated with Dutch Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) compared to their Finnish peers.
A case for external content sourcing
“I learned that they were much more interested in the purchasing side than in the actual invoice management side. As it turned out, the purchasing culture was different. Finland was rather free in how companies were allowed to purchase things whereas, in the Netherlands and other markets, there were stricter rules about purchase orders.
“By the way, in terms of sourcing, I know that money is often tight and therefore it seems tempting to hire a junior marketing specialist. But if I was a small company founder today, I would start working with an independent expert part-time, rather than hiring a young, inexperienced person whom I don’t have the time to mentor or manage.
Thank you for making that point, Sari 🙂But seriously – and at the risk of shooting myself in the foot -, should content marketing ultimately be a core competence of the internal team, rather than a service you purchase?
“I think there is a balance to be found whereby you actually manage the whole thing while still working with external partners.
“Once you’ve worked out your strategy, thought through your target groups, described your customer personas and all of that is anchored internally, then you will be able to manage the process as you bring in an outsider who is, for example, a competent writer. By collaborating with your internal people, he or she can become equally knowledgeable about your strategy. Then you can brainstorm together what the themes and topics should be. And that person will learn how to write and ghostwrite.
Ghostwriting at every level
“At Efima we engage in different levels of ghostwriting all the time. We have people who like writing and therefore write a lot themselves. They get support from our marketing team in shortening, editing, creating compelling headlines, etcetera. At the other end you have people who only have a topic idea and you can ghostwrite the content for them. You can sit down together to brainstorm and build the whole logic of the content that way. And then there are these in-between situations: people who write sort of half-ready copy and are not really fond of editing.
“So I think there is a way to bring in outsiders and be very efficient with it. But it would make sense to really work long-term with that resource. If you do just one-off things, you won’t get the learning curve and the depth of understanding which you need for them to truly communicate with your brand’s tone of voice.”
Last question: Is there a good book or other resource, classic or contemporary, that you think should be in every international marketer’s library?
Sari: “I’m a great fan of Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’. That book crystallized my thoughts about figuring out the fundamental choices first. And the importance of building on top of purpose: building something that inspires employees as well as customers.”