Picking up the Slack: CMO Bill Macaitis on why word-of-mouth is central to the unicorn's success

Will Railton
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I’m constantly surprised when companies don’t know the top three reasons people are recommending their product, says Macaitis

"We're selling organisational transformation," says Bill Macaitis, chief marketing officer of Slack – Silicon Valley darling and contender for the fastest growing B2B software-as-a-service company in history.

Slack is more than a workplace messenger. It is a communication and collaboration tool which facilitates meetings, provides access to shared documents, and breaks down silos between apps by integrating Twitter, Trello and others, so users need not leave Slack all day. And selling that comes with a unique set of challenges.

First, how do you convince businesses that they have an internal efficiency problem at all? “After all, we’ve been using the same workflows and email for the last 30 years,” notes Macaitis. Second, how do you explain to managers who already use workplace messengers like Skype that Slack is a superior alternative? And third, how do you sell an operating system for teams which enables seamless switching between all apps and services and automation tools?

Macaitis tells City A.M. how an emphasis on Slack’s brand and unwavering attention to customer relationship management have fuelled his firm’s meteoric rise.

Slack is a unicorn with 3m users, but it is still a young fast-growing company. What marketing techniques do you use?

We try to focus on the benefits the customer sees at the end, like the improvement in productivity. Part of that has been telling a good narrative, so we leverage a lot of videos.

Ultimately, there are lots of go-to-market strategies, like outbound and inbound marketing, but I believe in a relentless focus on the customer. A brand is the sum of each experience someone has of your company.

I’m constantly surprised when companies don’t know the top three reasons people are recommending their product, and the reasons they don’t.

Word-of-mouth is huge for us. If a customer loves you to the point where they’re willing to recommend you, you’re going to scale faster. Every recommendation on Twitter could be seen by 100 or 100,000 other people. When the company was starting up, our chief executive Stewart [Butterfield] manned the Twitter account himself to address customers’ questions, ensuring they had a good experience.

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Word-of-mouth allows you to spread to different organisations faster. It’s very cost-effective. Even now, we have three times as many support people as sales people, which is very unusual.

But we look to accelerate that organic growth through paid advertising and content marketing. We’ve conducted 39 home-page tests to see which message resonates best.

With such an emphasis on the brand side, how have you leveraged B2C marketing techniques to sell to businesses?

One of the reasons Slack has been so successful is that all our founders came from the B2C side. It has been built simply, with the user in mind.

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B2B marketers don’t typically leverage paid advertising like we do. Or it’s not as targeted. Slack sells to SMEs, media outlets, governments, firms in the financial and creative industries – it almost mirrors a B2C audience. So we can do things like national ad campaigns; we launched one in the US in April.

What are the most important metrics for measuring success?

I’m a big advocate of net promoter score (NPS). If you put “:nps:” into Slack, you pull up the “Bill” custom emoji. NPS essentially asks: “how likely are you to recommend this company on a scale of one to ten”.

I believe that it’s one of the best leading indicators of future success. The firms with the highest NPS scores – the Googles and Amazons – are in the stratosphere.