Strategy| Brand

How to position your SaaS for a niche audience with Rudan Zhang, VP of Marketing at Clubhouse.io

Jun 16, 2021 19 minute read Edward FordEdward Ford

Last updated 16 June, 2021.

This time joining host Edward Ford on the Growth Hub podcast is Rudan Zhang, VP of Marketing at Clubhouse.io. 

Clubhouse is a project management platform for modern software teams, but with so many project management tools on the market, Rudan discusses why Clubhouse decided to intentionally focus on a niche audience segment and how they did it.

In this episode, we cover topics like:

  • The process Clubhouse used to find their points of differentiation for each of their ICPs
  • How they compete with well-known horizontal products
  • How to market to technical audiences
  • The marketing channels they use to reach their niche audience
  • How their marketing team is structured

“The substance of our marketing messaging really needs to come straight from our founders, our customers, our own engineers and product teams,” explains Rudan. “That’s what will resonate with our audience, as they share basically the same profile and the same career goals and day-to-day concerns.”

Stay tuned until the end of the episode to hear what books and marketing resources Rudan recommends, as well as her favorite piece of advice for fellow marketers. 👀

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Links:

Clubhouse >> clubhouse.io/

Product-Led SEO by Eli Schwartz >> 

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Episode transcript

Edward Ford:
Welcome to another episode of the Growth Hub Podcast, and it’s my pleasure to welcome Rudan Zhang to the show, who is VP of marketing at Clubhouse.io. So, Rudan, thank you so much for joining us today here on the Growth Hub Podcast.

Rudan Zhang:
Yeah, thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.

Edward Ford:
Yeah, this is going to be a great episode, as we’re digging into positioning, one of my favorite topics. And, most specifically, Clubhouse.io’s intentional focus on being a project management product for software teams, as opposed to all the other horizontal management software out there.

So, to kick things off and set the scene: Why did Clubhouse.io decide to focus on building for software development teams specifically?

Rudan Zhang:
Yeah, no, we ask ourselves about this focus all the time as well. So, I guess, just to clarify, our primary user base for our web-based app for project management is software development teams, including engineers, and product managers, and designers. So, that’s what we mean when we say “software development teams”.

The reason why we chose to focus on this kind of audience persona is primarily probably because our two founders were engineering team leaders in their previous jobs. So, as a result, they know that software team persona, and that persona’s needs the best. So, basically, we’re building for the persona we have the most knowledge of. In particular, right, they have a lot of first-hand knowledge of software teams’ growth phases, and the pain points in each of those growth phases.

So, that’s sort of the primary reason. And we chose to kind of stick with this segment in particular because the total addressable market is actually not limited by this persona, it’s actually not small at all. When you think about today’s world, almost every company is rapidly evolving to having a software team that writes and ships code, and as long as a team like that exists in a company, they could be using Clubhouse. We have thousands of customers since we launched in 2016, and the variety of companies in our customer base is just staggering.

There’s the mainstream SaaS companies, FinTech companies, travel companies, gaming companies, agencies, non-profits… it’s like healthy food subscription services, what have you. So the [inaudible] is actually quite large. I guess I do want to point out, though, it’s really important actually to clarify, that even though our primary persona is the software team, our goal is never to exclude non-technical teams from the tool.

In fact, we built Clubhouse around the belief that product-led works, PMs and engineers really cannot build good software without constantly involving customer-facing teams directly in the decision-making process. So, like, Clubhouse is a powerful tool to support the workflows more specific to software teams, but it’s also intuitive enough for customer-facing teams to jump in and check status on work, and comment within the workflow directly.

Edward Ford:
Yeah, that’s great to hear, and the quote about software eating the world and every business becoming a software business at the end of the day, so definitely, a good space to be in. And even though you are focusing on a niche, it’s a crowded space even just for R&D focused project management tools. So, how do you differentiate?

Rudan Zhang:
Good question. So, it is a very crowded space, there is no question about it. In our competitive set, there are tools that kind of cater to different types of software teams. One is small teams who are mostly just engineers trying to ship code as fast as possible. And, on the other side of the spectrum, there are larger orgs that have to kind of orchestrate the work of hundreds if not thousands of engineers across many many thousands of squads.

And, so, our differentiation, I think, lies in that it’s one tool that can really scale with teams along that growth journey, from a small startup to a mature software org. So, you don’t necessarily have to switch gears in order to grow, in the tool. I guess, specifically the way that we position ourselves for companies along that spectrum.

For small teams that just need to ship really fast, above everything else, Clubhouse’s beauty is that it’s very simple. And, also like opinionated enough that the teams can start managing their work right away without investing a ton of time and effort just to set up the tool properly. Which is what a tool generally intended for larger teams requires.
On the other side, for larger teams, Clubhouse has enough power features and flexibility that the teams can really customize the tool to fit their existing processes.

And another thing that we try to do really well for the larger teams is that we want to provide visibility to managers and leaders on what’s going on on the ground, once you start having more layers in the work structure as the company grows.

To fulfill both of these promises, sounds like “best of both worlds”, very difficult, to kind of strike the right balance. To fulfill this type of promise, we’re very mindful and very thoughtful in what features we do add, so that we don’t introduce too much complexity or slow performance down.

I would say that’ s like the primary dimension on which we differentiate from our competitors, even in the R&D focused PM tool space.

And then, another differentiation I want to mention just from a marketing perspective is our brand essence, which is joy. A PM tool is not a very joyful piece of software inherently, and then, truth be told, kind of has a bad rep especially with engineers. Nobody really wants to use PM tools. Our thinking is, right, if you spend time in the tool every day, we want to make the experience not painful but actually enjoyable. The core of that enjoyable experience is based on the thoughtful, smooth user experience, and fast performance. From a brand perspective, for example, we also introduce quirky, funny elements into the app, like loading screens, the icons, the illustrations, as we try to hopefully put a smile on people’s faces.

Edward Ford:
Yeah, that’s really good to hear. I’d love to know, how did you arrive at those points of differentiation, and which of those were driven by marketing and which by product?

Rudan Zhang:
We work really closely with our product team, so it’s really only fair to say it’s a joint effort. I think the crucial thing we did, right, is that we really invested very heavily into building the right ideal customer profile along this growth journey of software teams. So, our ICP has four segments, spanning from really small dev works with a single squad, to the second segment which is like the seed or Series A stage, dev-centric works with up to 50 people, in the R&D work meaning the engineering PM and design functions I previously mentioned.

And then the third segment is scaling product orgs with up to, say, a hundred people. And then, lastly, the more mature product orgs with hundreds to thousands of people in their software teams.

The product team and marketing team at Clubhouse invested just a lot of time and effort to flesh this out. This exercise probably took like four or five months, really, to complete. I interviewed customers extensively, and tried to crystallize not just like the persona demographics and that type of data points but really, truly, dig into the pain points of each segment. The team structures, the process needs, the reporting needs in each stage.

Because of the vigor that went into this exercise, I feel like we, as a company, have very in-depth understanding of not only what the customers’ needs are in each stage, but also being able to anticipate at what point the team’s needs are about to change into the next phase.

I guess, practically speaking, in marketing, we kind of refer to this ICP doc constantly. Finding the right acquisition channels for each segment, make sure we tailor the value props and features that we lead with in our messaging for each segment. And also we create customer stories that cover each specific phase in the growth journey. Our favorite kind of customer stories are the ones that actually showcase a customer growing from the smallest segment into the biggest segment.

All that said, I don’t think any marketer could really say confidently that they really arrived at true differentiation, to have completed that task definitively. Our competitive landscape is very fluid, so the marketing team, a product marketer, and the whole leadership team, really, pay a lot of attention to current trends, and new features of competitors, and how our competitors talk about themselves.

We actually have like Slack channels set up where the whole company chips in to share news of known and emerging competitors, whether it relates to their features or their marketing approaches. So, that’s kind of how we arrived at the primary point of differentiation of going from small to big.

And then I guess the joyful brand essence piece of the differentiation… It has taken us quite a few years to really start discovering our true company personality and really developing a brand identity. For this, the most crucial thing that we did was to essentially hire the right creative marketing director and the right designer who have portfolios and styles that align with the direction that we want to go in with our brand.

And to really hang on to that brand identity, to keep polishing everything up, we have bi-weekly meetings between marketing and design to discuss and brainstorm everything that’s brand-related, and try to continuously evolve both our style and tone.

Edward Ford:
Yeah, that’s super interesting to hear, and we’ll dig into marketing channels in a moment, but I’d love to ask before that: Have you found it difficult to compete against some of those, say, bigger, horizontal PM tools that don’t cater to software teams specifically, but are still widely used?

Rudan Zhang:
Yeah, it frankly hasn’t been the primary competitive dimension that we’ve had to deal with to date. Frankly, software teams in general use their niche products almost exclusively. Some people do, when they want to involve more and more of the customer-facing teams and non-technical teams in the process, I think, if the company actually does the shopping of the tool cross-functionally. Maybe there are some push and pull dynamics that end up having the company adopt a more horizontal tool. By large product and engineering-led orgs, we’ve seen that we have a fairly narrow set of competitors. I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone in software development, like Atlassian is essentially the market leader, and, you know, Jira is kind of the de-facto tool. There is a handful of, you know, Pivotal Tracker, Linear, they are generally more or less in the same kind of niche that we are in. Horizontal tools, right, when we think about differentiation against them, is very much really about zooming into the target persona that we care about most to appeal to, which is just the software teams themselves.

Edward Ford:
This is really valuable to hear, your process of differentiation and what you did. I think everyone needs a competitor channel to keep up with what’s happening. But I think, from here, let’s get into marketing specifically. So, how has Clubhouse.io grown to date? What channels have proven effective for you?

Rudan Zhang:
The way that Clubhouse has grown to date has very much been predominantly product-led. This is sort of the preferred way our target customers shop for software, right. They research for tools online or ask for recommendations from their own community. And then they want to get their hands on that tool and try it out.

We sort of follow that kind of natural behavior of the buyers, and invest, I would say channel-wise, we invest quite a bit in SEM to get our name in front of people when they’re searching for a PM tool or an alternative to what they’re currently using.

And then, in terms of the next most important bucket of investment in marketing is actually product marketing. Especially in the onboarding phase, to help the users understand how to use the tool and quickly experience value on their own.

And then other channels that have over time worked for us well include marketing partnerships with other SaaS companies that are also in the software development team tech stack, and essentially offering tools to the same audience that we are. We also do quite a bit of influencer marketing so we sponsor podcasts and newsletters targeting PMs and engineers and designers and also a certain kind of developer in exhilarator communities.

A lot of these ideas, right, for which communities and content to sponsor, we source directly from our own engineering teams, PMs and designers. Basically whatever content they consume, what communities they are a part of, to see what we can get involved with. And lastly I would say that everybody is starting to realize the power of community-led growth at this point, so we are currently building our community efforts and a champions program, hoping to be able to host live events and meet our customers in person soon.

Edward Ford:
Awesome, that’s great to hear. And I think marketing to technical audiences is known to be difficult within marketing circles, so what is hard about marketing to engineering and product and software teams, and how did you overcome that challenge at Clubhouse.io?

Rudan Zhang:
I guess it is a well-known fact that they’re not the most easy-going target audience to market to. And then this group in particular has a very low tolerance for fluffy marketing and pushy ads, right, so we kinda need to tread very carefully with traditional marketing tactics or they could really backfire and actually damage our brand.

Um, so to market to this audience, I think we sort of realized a few things over the years. First is kind of the way to catch people’s attention without being perceived as annoying is when their pain point is actually present, so when they’re looking to switch their PM tool. Then, marketing is actually adding value by popping up. So, this is why we’ve sort of developed a fairly extensive SEM strategy, but have a pretty light footprint in some of the lower-intent channels to date.

And then the second thing I would say is we’ve really realized we need to invest in building trust and credibility, so this is why we always try to build, like when we do influencer marketing, we always try to keep it not transactional but try to build genuine relationships with the podcast and newsletter creators. So, the ideal state is that we actually offer our tool to them for free, and then kind of walk them through some of the cool and powerful features so that they use our tool themselves and can speak about it in an authentic way, rather than just reading an ad script.

And I think this is also why we really value the marketing partnerships with other SaaS companies, right, because there we can mutually benefit from the trust and credibility we have with our respective customer base. And then I guess the last thing I would say about overcoming the challenge of marketing to this group is that the substance of our marketing messaging really needs to come straight from our founders, our customers, our own engineer and product teams. That’s what will resonate with our audience who share basically the same profile and the same career goals and day-to-day concerns.

So, like, our marketing team here at Clubhouse does a lot of listening. We listen to our founders talk about the product and vision, listen to our customers talk about why they chose us, why and how they use our product and why they love it. And we just amplify those messages on the marketing team.

So, in a way this makes our jobs as marketers somewhat easier, because we don’t need to just dream up the messaging ourselves from scratch, we actually often, you know, use customer quotes in our landing page headlines, almost verbatim, and we try to actually do a lot of customer stories and use cases showcasing basically that authenticity.

Edward Ford:
These are really good points. Just to summarize the three points you made: Be there when they have a pain point, build trust through genuine relationships with people who’ve used the product, and then thirdly ensure all the substance comes from customers, founders, and engineers, and marketing is really about amplifying those messages. So, I think if there are any marketers out there listening who are marketing to technical audiences, this could be very very useful. And, I think, from here, then: How have you structured your marketing team based on the channels that you use, and as we just discussed, the audience you’re trying to reach?

Rudan Zhang:
Uh, yeah. So, my, our team has been very lean for a few years, and just now we’re finally at a point where I feel like I have an actual full team, an owner for all the crucial elements of marketing that we need. We’re five, our company is sixty or so in total, and our core marketing is five people, including myself. So, we have a creative marketing director who oversees our brand, our style, and all of the content. He used to work at, his name is Richard, he used to work at another SaaS company that made a tool specifically for software engineers, so he’s very knowledgeable and comfortable with that audience.

And then we have a community manager who manages our social media and events, we have a user acquisition manager who oversees paid media channels, as well as our website optimization experiments.

So, this is like the [inaudible] side of our marketing team. And then we also have a lifecycle marketing manager who manages email and messaging campaigns. So these four plus myself are the core marketing team. But we also work very closely with our product marketing manager who is part of the product team.

And then lastly I would say we’re very lucky to have a dedicated visual designer for all the marketing-related design work, as well as a front-end engineer who builds our website. So, we actually run all the iteration planning with our own little squad for all the marketing-related dev and design work. And it’s just amazing to have those dedicated resources so we can really execute experiments quickly and consistently and also, I think, more than anything else, have a sense of continuity in how our brand and our web presence evolve over time.

And, also just, our front-end engineer and our designer on our marketing squad basically are just building a [inaudible] board for marketing ideas and messaging because they’re essentially part of our target audience.

Edward Ford:
Yeah, that sounds great to have that resource in-house. One thing I would love to ask about the structure of the team: Why did you decide to have product marketing sit in the product team and not the marketing team?

Rudan Zhang:
Yeah, the product marketing manager used to be part of the marketing team, but, you know, over time, essentially we realized that part of marketing, I think, sits, is like basically, flip a coin, looking across companies. They either sit in marketing or product. In our sense it just seemed to make more sense for this person to work more closely on the product side and focus kind of very heavily on the kind of strategic user research, the pain points, ICP, interviews, and because we launch new features all the time, right, like this person is basically a conduit between the product squads and the marketing and sales teams. And kind of disseminates crucial information and positioning about the features to the go-to-market teams.

So, I would say it’s not like, I wouldn’t say that this is like necessarily a best practice to have a product marketing reporting into [inaudible] product but being a close collaborator with [inaudible] with what has worked out for us in our context.

Edward Ford:
That makes sense. You spoke earlier about being a product-led company, and I know you recently switched from MQLs, so marketing-qualified leads, to PQLs, so product-qualified leads as your primary marketing KPIs. So, why did you make that switch?

Rudan Zhang:
Yeah, uh, um, that is an interesting process to reflect on, right. Because our primary growth motion has been product-led, as you say, we did a lot of kind of analysis throughout the years to figure out which signals, essentially, in qualifying leads, tend to have a stronger correlation with two things. One is active usage of the product, and the other one is obviously ultimate conversion to a paid plan. And we kind of have evolved the definition of MQLs and PQLs, product-qualified leads, multiple times in the past two, three years, which frankly is, can be a frustrating exercise from an acquisition perspective. Because every time you switch the definition of your North Star marketing metric, you kind of have to optimize all your channels. However, it is the right thing to do as a still early-stage type of business like ours, to really hang in our customer profile, to channel the dynamics.

So, the way that we define PQLs, just to give a bit more detail, right, because we’re essentially the Kanban board style planning tool, our product-qualified leads are defined as those leads that have created at least four cards on that Kanban board. Based on our product team analysis, this is basically the threshold where a new user shows that they understand how the tool works and are able to start getting value from it. So, that is what we’re focusing on for the rest of this year in optimizing all marketing efforts towards.

You know, in contrast, MQLs, we have defined it based on a bunch of factors like team functions and roles, the number of expected users, like company size, like, the usual, more mainstream dimensions that people qualify leads on, that don’t account for in-product behavior.

We haven’t abandoned MQL just because we are currently optimizing for PQLs. We still monitor both KPIs in conjunction, because we want to make sure that there’s always sort of a way to gauge overall traffic quality based on the way the two metrics move together, right. Like, in theory, if the traffic quality is good, and the product onboarding experience is good, the two metrics should move roughly in the same direction.

So, that’s sort of how we think about our North Stars.

Edward Ford:
Yeah, that’s really good to hear. And you spoke earlier about your ICPs and focusing on software developers and product and engineering teams, but one point of question I want to ask before we jump into our fast five challenge is: Let’s just say that a software development team is using Clubhouse.io for their project management and the company decides they want to get the entire organization on one platform, so on Clubhouse.io, and move marketing, sales, support, etc, off say, like, Trello, say, and onto Clubhouse. What would you say to that?

Rudan Zhang:
Well, we welcome it. This is the direction we would love to go into. As I said before, even though the tool was designed primarily for engineer workflows, the way that we sort of really envision the whole company — and by the way, we do have lots of customers who have their entire company using Clubhouse — um, is that we, sort of, try to make it flexible enough that marketing teams, for example, you don’t need to be using the GitHub integrations, you don’t need to be using the features that are geared towards software teams, right.

Like the general ways, I think, a lot of product-led organizations work process-wise, fundamentally are very similar. People tend to plan out quarterly roadmaps and try to break that roadmap down into you know, chunks, larger chunks of work, and within those larger chunks of work you break them into individual tasks, and then you need to assign owners, and you need to run sprints or some sort of iteration planning to make sure execution is on track, and then you want to be able to, from time to time, pull up from the day-to-day kind of grind to see how work is tracking towards the larger goals. Like that universality in the way that modern software teams work, I think, transcends functions. So, that baseline all exists in Clubhouse, that in a way that really makes sense for every team, no matter what function you’re focusing on.

The real difference is like how deeply you kind of delve into the software-specific [inaudible] features, uh, that we build for that audience, but the reality is: If you don’t do that type of work, you don’t need to touch those features. And the tool itself still works really well for non-technical teams who follow that type of general work-planning-execution process.

Edward Ford:
Yeah, absolutely, that makes a lot of sense, and it’s a great way to build a foundation for expansion, and, well, this was super good, Rudan. We could now move on to closing questions and our fast five challenge. So, to wrap things up, I will ask five questions, and all you need to do is answer as quickly as possible. Are you ready?

Rudan Zhang:
Alright, ready.

Edward Ford:
Okay, first question. What is the one book you would recommend others to read?

Rudan Zhang:
Uh, one book. One book I’m reading right now that’s really good is called Product-led SEO by Eli Schwartz. It’s been helping me kind of rethink our general kind of planning mentality regarding content and acquisition. Product-led SEO by Eli Schwartz.

Edward Ford:
Nice. Second question: SaaS company you love, and why?

Rudan Zhang:
Yeah. I can actually think of two, if that’s okay? Just really quickly, our creative marketing director on my team actually came from a company called Sentry. They… I really admire that company because they were able to give a very technical utility tool a brand that is actually very quirky and fresh, funny, and as a result very memorable. And that’s something that we are aspiring to achieve as well with our brand.

Um, and then the second one, I guess, it’s this company called Miro. They’ve gone through a very successful rebrand in recent years, and have had an amazing growth trajectory afterwards. I admire them because I think they tend to run bold and very innovative experiments with their go-to-market tactics, including high-risk things like pricing. So, I feel like any company who can pull that off confidently is doing something right.

Edward Ford:
Right. Third question: Favorite place to learn about marketing online?

Rudan Zhang:
So, I honestly don’t read a ton of marketing-specific online resources. I do subscribe to general tech newsletters like The Information, TechMe and TechCrunch [inaudible] to stay up to date with industry news. I guess on the marketing side I do read Growth Hackers and Julian Shapiro’s newsletters.

Edward Ford:
Yeah, definitely. Fourth question: Most important growth metric?

Rudan Zhang:
Hmm… I guess in the long term, right, probably LTB. Uhm, for companies that have been around for shorter periods of time, just active usage. Monthly or weekly active usage depending on sort of the customer behavior that you expect.

Edward Ford:
Yes, and fifth and final question: Best piece of advice for fellow marketers?

Rudan Zhang:
Oh… best piece of advice, that’s a high bar! I don’t know if it’s the best, but I do kind of genuinely believe that effective marketing should not be self-serving, it really should be bringing value, adding value to potential customers, right, so almost like apply a product management type of mentality towards marketing initiatives and think about your customer’s pain points and needs, and make sure your marketing activities are kind of offered as a solution to those, whether it’s through truly useful pieces of content or like a really well-curated community, or could even be as simple as being actually funny in your copy or tweet to bring people a lighthearted moment into their day.

Edward Ford:
I love it! Marketing is all about serving others. Well, Rudan, I have to say: This was absolutely awesome, and thank you so much for coming on the Growth Hub Podcast.

Rudan Zhang:
No, it is my pleasure. Thank you for having me.