About a decade ago, when I was chugging along in the old-school analyst business, I hired a kid from the West Coast to learn the ropes.
I think he was just looking for any old job to get him to the East Coast, but, hell, he seemed smart and was willing to work for a lousy wage. After a glamorous relocation (I recall we put him up at the Holiday Inn at Logan Airport for 2 weeks), I threw him some god-awful analyst report on HR technology platforms and said, “can you write something better than this crap”. He’s never looked back.
Jason Corsello didn’t just turn out to be a great analyst and one of the original HR bloggers, but he’s now honing his knowledge to be a real strategist in modern marketing plying his trade for leading strategy and marketing for Cornerstone OnDemand, one of the hottest Cloud-based HR tech firms on the Nasdaq today, specializing in talent management.
I asked Adam Luciano, HfS analyst covering customer experience management, to connect with Jason just to discover how he approaches marketing strategy in today’s environment, and learn a little about Jason’s too…
Adam Luciano (HfS Research): You’ve had a very colorful career to date – can you share the highlights? How did you end up doing marketing at Cornerstone?
Jason Corsello (Cornerstone OnDemand): Phil and I worked together as analysts at Yankee Group (back in the day) and I spent a lot of time researching technology and – more specifically – the HR technology market. I left Yankee and joined a top consulting firm [now part of Appirio] servicing the Fortune 1000 companies, like Starbucks, Nike and Dell with helping create their whole HR and talent management strategy. Essentially we looked at the best ways to recruit, manage and train employees by leveraging technology.
Then, two years ago, I decided to join Cornerstone OnDemand. At the time, Cornerstone had just gone public, and was one of the top three vendors in talent management. In the last year, two of the top competitors have been acquired by Oracle and SAP, now making us the leader on the best-of-breed side in talent management. I joined Cornerstone in the role of VP of strategy and corporate development – meaning figuring out the three-year plan for the business and the buy-build-partner perspective. In year one, we did an acquisition, launched a number of new products and initiatives and formed some very unique partnerships. In the last year I’ve now taken on responsibility for marketing for the sole reason to better articulate our strategy and then communicating that to the marketplace of customers and key influencers. I have been leading our global marketing efforts for about six months now and am really trying to change and embrace all of the new models of marketing today.
Adam: Why the human capital management industry? What’s the appeal?
Jason: I probably never would’ve thought I would be in some sort of HR-related field, but I think most people would probably agree that it’s [HR] not very efficiently run at most companies. From the way HR recruits, to the way they manage performance, to the way they train people is still very inefficient. A number of companies typically spend anywhere from 60-70% of their overall capital expenditure on salaries, so to me there is a lot of inefficiency today that technology can have a huge impact on. Technology is drastically changing the HR industry, much the way it did in the past with the CRM industry.
Ten years ago, Cornerstone was focused on delivering online learning and training via virtual and online classrooms. Today, Cornerstone helps organizations do everything from recruiting and sourcing the best talent, to training and developing employees and partners, to managing the performance of individuals and teams.
What we are now seeing is that the market is shifting once again. There’s so much embedded data in companies that they are not leveraging to get smarter – why are high performers, high performers, how do you know you’re finding your best candidates, and what types of training programs are affecting sales? I think the evolution happening right now is moving from process based to more intelligence based HR decision making.
Adam: So what does the future of the HR function look like, in your view?
Jason: There are a couple of areas… I think collaboration is definitely having an impact on HR right now and so are social technologies. The ability to stay current, and break down the barriers to figure out where the knowledge is, who has the skills and who has the expertise, is changing the way organizational structures are made. It’s really flattening out organizations, and I think this evolution is still in its early adopter phase. At this point, online collaboration and social-media based collaboration are changing the game.
When you look at all of the data that companies have about their employees, they haven’t even touched 1/10th of it. Linkedin knows more about its members than their own companies do. Companies know their employees on an individual level. For example, Jane got a 3.8 on her performance review but companies do not necessarily know at the aggregate level, what makes Jane a good performer, or what makes certain people high performers.
I think Big Data will have an impact too, as there is now so much data to sift through.
Adam: This brings to mind a project that I worked on last year, developing a just in time curriculum model for education institutions. Do you see things becoming more “just-in-time?”
Jason: Yes. Embedded contextual information is becoming more important. We just launched Cornerstone for Salesforce, delivering sales training and enablement from within the Salesforce platform to enable faster time to sales efficiency. For example, if a user changes a status or record type, it triggers a learning event [also known as an object] and the user has an option of educating himself or herself from an online tutorial about a competitor or the latest and greatest new product.
Adam: Now that you’re in a marketing role, is the job as glamorous as it looks from the outside?
Jason: I have dabbled in some marketing roles in the past, but now I am overseeing all aspects of marketing. Marketing is very different than it was even eighteen months ago. By leveraging technology, it’s fascinating how marketing has changed. We are leveraging a lot of new technology and we are now fully embracing marketing automation. We’ve been using marketing automation tools in the past, but there’s just so much more you can be doing with them today.
Most people use marketing automation tools to just do email campaigns or email communications. Now I see over the last two years things like nurturing and scoring have become very important to not only consumer organizations, but enterprise B2B organizations as well. So, essentially you can track how educated a certain prospect is before you even put a salesperson in contact with them to make a sale. Now, I spend a lot of time making sure that the client is smart or educated about what we do, know our brand, that they want to associate themselves with us, and that we are doing all the heavy lifting by the time it is in the salesperson’s hand. Sales should not be focused on educating or getting potential customers brand aware, they are focused on differentiating and really delivering the highest value proposition at the highest price point they can attain. So I think marketing has definitely shifted, in three key areas:
1) Demand generation/automation. There is so much capability in this area now, from social media to tracking tools, to following prospects and understanding their behaviors, to making sure you are front and center to where prospects are going on the internet. It is really an interesting area to be concentrating on right now.
2) Brand awareness and brand building are becoming more important every day. A lot of cloud companies that are five to ten years old are deploying more of their marketing expenditures on brand awareness than anywhere else. If you look at companies like Box or Workday for example, I heard Box is spending upwards of 70-80% of their marketing budget on brand awareness. By getting the brand out and matching their leadership position in technology and innovation, the funneling effect of that becomes very easy. Focusing on brand building is so important, because a brand has so many touch points to an organization.
3) Social media is definitely impacting a lot of things about the way people market today, both inbound and outbound. Meaning that you can leverage social media to increase targeting, so if you know that a potential prospect comes to a product page and “Likes” it on Facebook, you can reinforce that message through sponsored ads or different types of branding advertisements that you can do on social media sites. A lot of that is really focused on just getting that brand awareness, but in effect you also control your messaging and positioning.
Adam: What are your core challenges on a daily basis? What are the opportunities?
Jason: For us in particular, it’s really around the state of our marketplace. Our market today is about a $5 billion market opportunity and the leaders have still single digit market share, which tells us that there’s still plenty of green-field market opportunities … so there is a lot of room to grow. Our focus is getting our brand and message out into the marketplace.
There are still a lot of people that use Microsoft based tools to do talent management, so for us it’s about getting them convinced on why they should be interested in using a tool like Cornerstone. This gets accomplished through traditional ways as well as electronic media. Our goal is to maintain a constant flow of information in the marketplace. We still do press releases, but we increasingly use social media. Social media is a huge channel and is huge emphasis for us. Social media to us is not necessarily about winning clients overnight, but building brand awareness and you can do that very cost effectively. For example, we’ve got 26,000 likes on Facebook, and it does not cost us anything to be able to promote things that we want there. We also create sponsored ads/posts as a relatively cost-efficient way to get our brand and message out there. Those are some things that we are doing on a daily basis to build out our market and make sure that people know the value associated with our brand.
The heavy lifting today is around how to differentiate. I mean, you see this across all technology markets – it’s hard to differentiate today. All technology vendors have really focused on is talking about things like cloud, social, mobile, and analytics. You would not think that it is so hard for us to differentiate that message, but what you need to do is elevate that message so we look different from everyone saying the same thing. So how we elevate it is by focusing on what the impact of those things are, for example: why should we care about cloud, why does mobility matter, why does analytics matter? A lot of our work is focused on elevating that message.
Companies like Salesforce are great examples. We figure out how knowledgeable a company is about our products/services, and track the company via a scoring system. For example, our sales people approach our prospects very differently based on their level of education rendered in our scoring tools. We do this through marketing tools like Marketo.
Adam: How would you say the marketing role is changing in today’s environment? What’s different? Is it really all about Twitter and LinkedIn these days?
Jason: It’s not all about social media, it’s about everything we do being very integrated. You can’t just use social media to say that we use social media. Having a social media presence is not enough; it has to be integrated into everything else that you do. I think that the difference for me from 18 months ago is that marketing departments worked fairly siloed, and this is actually very similar to a lot of other functions. Look at HR, HR is fairly siloed – you’ve got recruiting, you’ve got learning, you’ve got training, and you’ve got benefits. What we are starting to see in HR today is heads of talent starting to oversee all of that, and I would say the whole role of the CMO is starting to shift in that direction as well. It’s not just around sales operations and its not just around lead generation, it’s about a more integrated marketing approach. From making sure that you’re getting the right return on investment to making sure your cost per lead is shrinking.
You need to constantly integrate everything that you do. An example for us is that we do events all the time. To build an effective event, there should be a lot of upfront work – that you know who’s in the event, you can communicate with them in advance, you can prearrange meetings, and you can educate them before the event. After they attend the event, you can also find out if they received a demo, did a salesperson engage with them or not, did they see the product, etc. It’s a very simplistic example, but integrated marketing is where things are shifting. It is about leveraging tools, and we leverage our core tools (Salesforce and Marketo) that build the foundation for us to be able to do a lot of our integrated marketing efforts.
Adam: After having been an analyst, what do you see as the future for HfS, from the marketing side of the fence?
Jason: I think the differentiation for HfS is just being able to be more opinionated and being able to have a point of view. A lot of smaller boutiques that we see are so vendor coin-operated that they won’t take a position because they are afraid to offend a vendor and have their contract pulled as a result. For us, I’d love to see HfS as much more opinionated, even if its critical of our own company. I know marketers freak out about that stuff, but I would rather it be out in the public than behind the scenes so you can manage it.
Adam: Finally, if HfS gave you $10 million to spend on anything you like, how would you spend it?
Jason: Cornerstone was built in a very bootstrapped way, so we did not spend a lot of money in the early days. Our focus was more grassroots and enabling our salesforce to compete effectively. In today’s world, you will likely always be competing for viewship with companies that have more money and resources. For us, it’s less about the dollars and more about having more precision in what we do.
I also think about getting people to know us by building brand awareness in a non-traditional way. One example is putting up billboards. There’s an interesting model around billboards building brands in local markets. We did a billboard campaign and found it to be very effective to our home market of Los Angeles, so I think there’s a lot you can do today to gain brand awareness that doesn’t always have to be online and still carries a punch.
Jason Corsello is Vice President of Corporate Development and Strategy for Cornerstone OnDemand. In this role, Corsello is responsible for identifying key market opportunities, driving corporate initiatives and guiding M&A, as well as supporting product strategy and service innovation. You can read his full bio here and contact him directly here.