Don’t overlook the importance of investing in your expansion sales pipeline.

New business is important for any company, but conversion rates are often low and closing timelines can be drawn out.

Expanding business with existing clients is key to growth, and it requires its own set of considerations and tactics.

In this episode, Chris Willis gives a comprehensive guide to expansion marketing. The CMO at AI content analytics firm Acrolinx, Chris has over 20 years of experience growing tech companies and has focused on optimizing marketing for expansion sales pipelines. His best practices for expanding business with existing customers includes: 

  • A tiered approach to existing client marketing needs 
  • Creating campaigns specific to those top tier customers 
  • Developing “champion enablement” contacts within target orgs 
  • Effectively tracking expansion marketing efforts 
  • And much more

If you are looking to boost sales numbers quickly or want to remain relevant to your existing customer base, you need to listen to this interview with Chris. You’ve got your new sales pipeline flowing, now it’s time to do the same with an expansion sales pipeline.

Mentioned in this episode:


Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered. Insider secrets for digital marketing success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.

Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. The topic for today’s episode is engagement’s role in expansion pipeline creation. Here to speak with me is Chris Willis who is the CMO at Acrolinx, an AI platform that uses a unique linguistic analytics engine to read content and provide immediate guidance to improve it. Technology is transforming how the world’s biggest brands create high performing content. 

Chris is responsible for all aspects of the Acrolinx marketing strategy. He is a specialist in content governance, AI, and pipeline management with over 20 years of experience growing companies in the technology sector. Before joining Acrolinx, Chris has leadership roles in marketing, creative, technical, and business development at companies including Perfecto, KPMG-CT, ModelGolf, and Cambridge Technology Group. Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris Willis: Thank you, Steffen. Nice to be here.

Steffen: Chris, before we before we discover or talk about today’s topic, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get started in marketing? And how did you end up where you are currently?

Chris: So I started out in technology, actually, right when when the the internet hit, and was doing development work. I had become a self taught web developer back in the early 90s. And that carried me into roles in user experience, user interface that led me over to Europe. And that was the KPMG-CT experience. KPMG was a KPMG-CT was a joint venture between Cambridge Technology Group on the MIT campus. And here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and KPMG management services and Amstelveen. We were designed to be a prototyping organization, helping companies build their businesses on the internet. 

So building some of the first automotive supply chain applications, Bond trading applications, early visual Java development. And that led me to an opportunity to start selling in that region, working working hand in hand with customers to identify those opportunities with the internet. And when it was time to leave Europe, I came back and started working with several people, small group of guys that were putting together a company around largely software implementation and financial services companies. And so for a number of years, we were all doing everything. And I guess around 2003 timeframe, the room spun, and everybody sort of fell into a corner. 

And as it turned out, my corner was marketing. And we started hot, you know, what are you gonna if you’re the new marketing guy, why don’t you launch a whole new product in a new category that doesn’t exist? And okay, let’s do that. We built one of the first package mobile applications before there was a Blackberry, an iPhone, an Android device. It actually started running on Palm Pilot at the very beginning and move to Microsoft devices with slider add ons that made them wireless, and then eventually Blackberry came out. And that really turned me on to the process and the art of marketing. The whole product launch aspect of it. Developing a product, launching that product. And then sustaining the growth of that product was was really the beginning for me.

Steffen: Interesting. Interesting. Now. How did you end up in AI? Was that choice joining Acrolinx because you wanted to expand your your horizon, or what made that position so interesting?

Chris: The experience at Acrolinx is really, I mean, you’ve heard the commercial for Hair Club for Men of I’m not just a member, I’m the president. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I’m I was I wanted to be a user of this product. But my company was too small, to be able to effectively get the value out of what we do. We didn’t have enough content. But here’s the thing. So my last company was an Israeli software company. My best writers were very technical English as a second language writers. And so they wrote amazingly intelligent and content badly. And the editorial process was very, very painful. Because I couldn’t, it wasn’t a correctness issue necessarily. I can’t read the sentence. But why can’t I read it? Is it because I don’t understand the technology? Or is it poorly written or what’s the problem? 

So I can’t just fix it and pass it to the next person. I have to go back and forth with the original author over and over and over again. And what made it even more frustrating is that we wrote a book while I was there with 26 authors, 20 of whom were English as a second language. So the cost of copy editing, the time associated with copy editing, was astronomical for that one specific project. And when I identified Acrolinx, in the market, the idea of being able to tell a platform how I want content to sound from a tone of voice standpoint, from a personality standpoint, what clarity level I’m trying to write to, for the audience that I care about. The words that I care about, as an example, we were a testing company. I didn’t however, want to use the word test, because our audience was DevOps. DevOps aren’t testers, they deliver quality software, say quality, don’t say test, but I can’t even tell you what we did without saying test. 

So assume that everybody that wrote for me wrote the word test, millions of times. We’d have to go in and change that every single time. The idea that there’s a governance solution that does all that at the point of first writing, says, hey, smart writer person, I can’t read this, this is not clear, you’re not using the right words. Here’s some things that you could do to make this better was was really exciting for me to discover. And when I met the founder of the company, the original creator of the product, we really hit it off around the utility that I saw on a product for me and for marketing. And traditionally, this company has sold primarily to technical documentation, product manual teams, in large manufacturers and large technology companies. I saw an opportunity to come here and be assistive in helping to move this into a wider market space. 

So the the idea of the company was for me was about being able to really care about the product that I sell. Like, I’m gonna say this and I’m gonna use the company name, and I feel bad about it. But if you work at SAP, you might not have to care about ERP. It’s a huge company, they do a lot of things, and you have a great job, and you probably make really good money, but you don’t wake up in the morning, you’re like, enterprise resource, here we go. Everybody that works at my company, loves what we sell. It’s a really neat place to be.

Steffen: Now today, we want to talk about how to expand the pipeline. What role does your marketing team play in customer expansion?

Chris: So I love this topic. We’ve been asked to over the course the last several years, create campaigns specifically designed for different tiers of our customer base. So customers $150,000 a year and more. Customers 50 to 150 and then lower than that. And so we head out into the world to start that process. And it’s hard. Looking at it from from where I sit to see the impact that we have. And that’s troubling because I look at my team. And and this really is it’s beyond a marketing initiative. It’s really a full front office initiative. We have marketing involved, we have customer success with involved, we have sales involved. And what I know about the business is that our KPIs are strong positive. 

This is a great part of our business. We tend to close expansion deals fast, we win some substantially more deals than we lose. And when we get a customer, we tend to keep that customer for a really long time. So what I was looking at is that we need to find a way, especially at tier one, to increase conversion rates do deals faster, essentially. Get more deals done in less amount of time. And in tier two, we need to start kicking up the number of opportunities we’re creating. We need more at bats. But we’re doing all this work. And I’ll get to the work in a second. And on paper, what it looks like is that marketing through the BDR organization creates new business opportunities. 

And sellers through conversations that they have somewhere in the middle of the night, results in expansion opportunities. And so from an ROI or even a budgeting standpoint, it’s hard to support the work that we’re doing in that expansion space because I can’t, from a first touch or or even sort of consolidated attribution standpoint, I don’t see it on paper. I can’t open up Salesforce and see the impact that we’re having. And so this past couple quarters, we really dug into what we’re contributing. And so let’s take a step back and talk about what we’re what we’re doing. 

Steffen: Yeah, that’d be great. 

Chris: So this this tier one customer campaign is really a customized account based approach towards these customers with high expansion potential that started with bulk content, or contact creation. So let’s let’s go out and focus on titles beyond who we’ve sold to. So specifically, you’re going into marketing going into tech docs, post sales, education organizations, and now even inclusive of the diversity and inclusion organizations inside our biggest customers. That list creation that we did on our own, started the outreach. So we can now go out and contact these folks and start creating some awareness. But that’s not really doing much to create leads, these are not leads at this point. We next lead into champion enablement. 

So with the person that we work with in the organization, creating them very account specific content that they can use internally to market, what they’ve done, not necessarily us in our product, but what they’ve done to drive value inside their organization. And those champions like to have that conversation because again, it’s not about talking about like, hey, go sell Acrolinx to other people in your business. Go sell the value you’ve created. You’ve accelerated content creation, to keep up with the speed of product development in your organization. You’ve done that with less editors, with less budget and your self funding projects elsewhere in your organization that never existed before you found that savings. Go tell that story internally, because that’s going to raise questions about how you did it. And that’s where we’ll come in, and have that broader conversation. 

Steffen: Yeah. 

Chris: And then leading into very targeted digital outreach around that champion. Account specific webinars, virtual events that activate that pool of contacts that we’ve created. And so we’re doing, we’re doing a lot of work, like this is this is almost a full time job for us in 2020. Because 2020 was a great time to do this, right? New new customers, or new prospects aren’t going to generally buy anything in the middle of a terrifying pandemic. As it turns out, I guess we didn’t know that before. But new business opportunities, were not growing dramatically during the pandemic. But our customers already who use our product seemed like a great place to spend our time. 

So we spent almost all of our time doing that. And again, looking at paper, looking on paper, I want to see that line of we did these things. And then we saw these opportunities created, I see the connection. And I couldn’t. I mean, you could say, well, these people were involved in campaigns, but I don’t love just tacking somebody on because they were they registered for a webinar. That’s why they, that’s why they move forward. That’s why the opportunity was created. I really want more than that.

Steffen: Yeah. And yeah, it’s interesting that you kind of responded to, to the fact that the pandemic, slowed down your new lead generation with looking into how can we expand business with existing clients? How did you motivate people in those organizations to actually become ambassadors. And, you know.

Chris: Because everybody was looking for a win in 2020. And so our customers, I mean, we’ve had customers now this company is in its 20th year right now. And we’ve had customers that have been with us for over 15 years. And it’s a testament to the value that they get from the product. And people tend to want to talk about that. I can come back to that in a bit when we talk about virtual events. And to help activate some of this, our customers tend to be some of our best sellers. And so they’re already excited. But again, the motivation is they want to tell their story internally, because they’re making a difference. Great things are happening. I mean, one example that I can think of off the top of my head is we don’t translate. We’re not a translation engine. What we are, though, is great at helping companies create source content that’s ready to be created. Create the clarity, the consistency of language, the modular content that can be created for far less money. 

So if you run a content organization, designed to create educational content inside your business that’s translated into 30 languages for global use. Wouldn’t it be interesting if you could help your companies save 50% of their translation budget associated with that content in a single year? And that person wants to tell that story. Not because they, I mean, they do care about us, but that’s not the reason. They want to tell the story because they’re killing it, like they’re having a great year. They’re driving impact in their business and they want their managers to know. And their managers managers to know. So they get that exposure. And that was, that’s huge for us is that people really are experiencing real value that they can, they want to talk about.

Steffen: That’s, that’s really interesting. Now, you already mentioned a few activities, a few tactics the second ago. Can you dive into that a little bit more? What tactics are moving the needle for you in expansion marketing?

Chris: So the things that tend to create the most impact are the high touch activities. So the thing that’s been great for us, this was simply fate I think. I booked a conference for Arizona for May of 2020. I booked that in 2019, when I was innocent, and had no idea what was coming, and we didn’t cancel it right away, we’re like, well, you know, you never know what’s gonna happen with this, let’s just ride this out for a little bit. And in doing that, it gave us the opportunity to maintain the money that we’d already paid. We didn’t know that that was going to happen. But it did. The conference planning organization that we had hired, was able to negotiate a great refund from the facility where we were having the event. And they banked it for us. 

And so the first thing that I did during the pandemic was give back 100% of my budget. Let’s save some money. And yet I have this pool of conference money being held by a virtual, essentially a virtual event provider. And so let’s, let’s do some virtual events. And so I talked about the creation of that, that contact list, and the activation that we do, through email marketing, to reach out to them and these these lesser high touch events like webinars that lead towards the identified identification of people that can come to these virtual events. And these virtual events that we’ve been doing it, I don’t feel like it’s anything crazy, it’s 20 to 40 people on a zoom call, and we’re not selling, we’re listening. We’re starting a conversation and getting out of the way of like minded people that want to talk about what they’re up to, in their workplace. 

And there happens to be several of our customers on the call as well. And when customer when the prospects on the call, ask questions, we don’t answer them, our customers do. And that’s more than I could ever hope for. And we don’t set it up that way. It sounds sort of calculated. But it’s not. That just happens in almost every single one of these. So we went from doing it as a test at the end of 2020. Well, I guess we did the first one, at the end of q3 in 2020. Now it’s something that we do almost on a bi weekly basis. And so the activation, that early stage, work in the pipeline to activate those those leads, that’s really awareness work that helps them to know who we are. And for us to start identifying who we want to invite to are more high touch events. And those high touch events result in actual phone meetings with these high priority customer resources that turn into opportunities in the pipeline.

Steffen: That’s pretty interesting. Now, how do you prioritize your activities? Do you go a specific way?

Chris: So like I said, we have, we have two tiers that we’re working right now tier one and tier two. Tier one is that high value most highest ARR customer. Tier two is the second level down, we have three and four underneath that. So the tier one tends to be the highest touch, we go at the individual account level. We build out individual campaigns, individual events, at an account level. Tier two, there’s more automation, there’s more standard deliverable. It’s not as customized. But it’s interesting, because we see different results in tier one than we see in tier two. Based on what we what we need in both of those phases. In tier one, I just want more velocity. 

A big part of the way that I measure my organization and that I’m measured is through pipeline velocity. In tier two, I want creation. We haven’t done as much in tier two. There is a lot more greenfield inside our existing customers. Let’s generate excitement and generate more opportunities. So the automation allows us to do more in tier two without the high touch and more high touch in tier one, but we’re running both at the same time right now.

Steffen: Now, does expansion marketing follow the same funnel model as new business? Or is it different?

Chris: It is its own separate funnel, with its own conversion rates, its own sales cycle tracked completely differently.

Steffen: Can you can you elaborate? So how is this? How does it look like?

Chris: So our expansion conversion rate is, right now and we’re talking on the first day of a new quarter. So I don’t have the disposition of numbers for the end of last quarter. But as we were entering towards the end of this past quarter, conversion for expansion is 65%. Conversion for new logo is 25%. The sales cycle, an opportunity created in q3, for an expansion deal will close in q4. An opportunity for new logo created in q3 will close in q1. So you, what I tell our reps is you can save your next quarter with expansion, there’s nothing you can do about new logo. 

So we’re, the creation of these expansion opportunities and the ability to close them quickly is really critical to the ability to be agile as a sales organization. If we lose an opportunity mid quarter that we were counting on, you can save yourself with expansion. Can’t really do that with new customer.

Steffen: Interesting. Now, early on, you said it’s hard to measure the success of expansion marketing. And if that’s the case, how do you prove the value?

Chris: So good question, because that is a question that the board asked. So how do you how do you know what you’re doing is working. And so we used Engagio, do now part of Demandbase, to be able to track engagement across these campaigns. And it never really struck me that maybe this, this direct line that I’m looking for isn’t where I’m looking for it. I’m looking in Salesforce. I’m building reports in Power BI to be able to see this and create this direct line. And maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Because when I looked at engagement, in Demandbase representative of actual actions taken by that contact pool. You know, a website visit and email open and click or download a call or any number of other activities, this intentional act exists, it’s being tracked. 

And you know, our sales reps have access to their engagio Demandbase reports on their accounts. And they can see not only that, for instance, there’s engagement at a customer, but who it’s with and what it’s about. They use this information to prioritize their outreach events. So looking at our tier one, you know, again, I wouldn’t expect to see number of opportunities increase very much because we have a good number of opportunities. But as engagement went up over the course of 2020, what we did see is a direct correlation in conversion rate. So as we started, as we ended 2019, our conversion rate was 51.8% from creation to close one. As we exited q3, or I’m sorry, q2 of this year, we had more than tripled engagement inside that same patch of accounts, and seeing our expansion rate go to 78.6 in that same pool. 

So what we’re seeing is that this tier one marketing outreach, doesn’t have this direct line of a lead comes in and goes to a BDR. The BDR sets up a meeting, early stage opportunities created. And it all tracks really nicely with lead sources. That doesn’t happen. What happens is, the sales rep gets on the phone with the champion, the champion introduces him to somebody that somebody might recognize us, might not and an opportunity is created. But that’s not real, what’s actually happening is we’ve activated all these folks inside of this organization, and they’re calling into their champion, and they’re getting introduced to us. It’s completely different than what I thought. And so as this engagement in our tier one customer base increased, we see this rising conversion rates, velocities faster, we’re selling more in less time. And we’re selling, we’re closing successfully more of our opportunities. 

But here’s the next thing. It’s not the same from tier to tier, because as we look at tier two, again, that’s our customers that spend a little bit less than that top tier. That group hasn’t seen as much attention in recent years from us. So sort of mid year 2021. This year, we launched an engagement campaign with a lower touch more automation than the tier one. Designed to surface accounts that are ready for growth, and you know, the campaign reached full force, like I said in about q2 of this year. But our initial outreach, to test the waters showed an immediate upward trend earlier in the year in engagement and an increase surprisingly, in opportunity creation. So when we ended, or when we started this process, our opportunities, let’s say we had 20, new opportunities a quarter being created in that tier two, we have, again, tripled that number, over the course of the last four quarters, as a result of being intentional in that space. 

So while I don’t have that direct line of BDR, to meeting, to opportunity, I have the line between the engagement created in the account, and our ability to create opportunities. And that’s been really exciting for us as a team, a full front office team, because it recognizes the work that marketing is doing. That customer success is doing. That sellers are doing as a team to create this end result. We don’t really think about marketing and sales attribution in this organization. And we don’t really want that battle. We do everything pretty well together. And this is a great representation of what happens when a team works as one to create some sort of an impact. It’s that engagement goes up. And there’s going to be a reaction, whether that is conversion rates or opportunity creation. I can’t actually wait to see where it is in tier three. We haven’t started that campaign yet. But that’s we’re seeing that direct correlation of activity resulting in business.

Steffen: I guess it’s really important, as you said that all units whether it’s customer service to make sure that the client’s questions are answered that they feel heard and everything else is working closely with marketing and the sales part in order to achieve the results that you mentioned. Now, what’s the difference from a conversion rate perspective between tier one and tier two? Obviously tier two as you said, you’re spending less time because it’s a more automated approach over tier one. Does the conversion rate drop significantly? Or is it just you know.

Chris: It’s about 25 points behind right now. It’s too early for me to have told the board. I didn’t really even talk about that in in at the board level, because I don’t, it’s too early to see the real impact in conversion rate, because we’re just starting to create these opportunities. But the expectation is that once we’re full speed heavy into this, we should see creations start to level off and conversion start increase.

Steffen: Interesting. Chris, unfortunately we have come to the end of today’s podcast episode. Thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast and sharing your your knowledge on expansion marketing. It’s definitely something we haven’t talked about here. So I hope that the audience likes the topic. If people want to find out more about you and Acrolinx, how can you get in touch?

Chris: I’m available on LinkedIn at CP Willis and Acrolinx is at www.acrolinx. com. That’s a c r o l i n

Steffen: Perfect. Well, thanks everyone for listening. If you’d like the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at Symphonic or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.

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