G2.com’s Ryan Bonnici on selling to educated customers

Let’s say you’re in the market for a project management app. Do you pick Asana, Jira, Trello or Airtable? Choose carefully; your selection could carry long-term consequences.

That’s why more and more businesses are turning to sites like G2.com, the place to see what others are saying about their experiences with the myriad SaaS options for business. And G2.com’s CMO Ryan Bonnici believes software purchasing will continue to evolve into a more authentic selling and buying experience.

Ryan joined G2.com as its head marketing guy in late 2017, having known that he wanted to be a CMO since the age of 10. Prior to G2.com, he led marketing at HubSpot, where he pulled off an audacious marketing campaign that earned the company $64 million on a $6,000 budget. He’s had a gutsy career path that included taking time off from college and studying remotely while he worked as a flight attendant (which led to a job at Microsoft). I caught up with Ryan for a conversation that ranged from how to articulate your value to educated customers to why he tries to schedule one job interview per day.

Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

  1. Selecting software can seem like a small decision, but it can be the x-factor for your company. It’s the underlying component of work today, and most of our jobs can’t be done without it. That’s why it’s important to make an informed decision based on the experiences of others.
  2. From the used-car salesman to the growth hacker, the process of converting leads has gained a sleazy reputation (fairly or unfairly). Ryan advocates selling authentically and being a trusted partner for your customers.
  3. G2 does a great job of suggesting the first app for new prospects who are seeking a specific solution, but Ryan sees great potential in becoming a trusted partner that solves problems the customer hasn’t thought of yet.
  4. Customers are more educated than ever. That’s why companies need to do a better job of articulating the value their product provides for prospects – instead of just recapping their product’s function.
  5. Most leaders don’t spend enough time recruiting. Ryan is constantly interviewing candidates, because if there’s someone out there who’s better than the current team he’s assembled, he wants them on that team.

If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Jarell Cardoza: Ryan, welcome to the show! You’ve had a bit of a nontraditional career path. Can you tell us how you got your start in marketing?

Ryan Bonnici: I was actually always one of those weird kids that knew that they wanted to be a CMO. Legitimately, at the age of 10, I thought, “I’m going to be a CMO” – before 30, as well. I don’t know why I wanted a weird time frame like that, but I always knew that I loved advertising and marketing and growth and storytelling. I didn’t work too hard in school in my early years, but then in years 11 and 12 of high school in Australia, something just clicked in my head, and I really studied hard and got good grades. Then I started university and did about a year of it and became burnt out.

I think two years of that hardcore high school, getting really good grades, just broke me a little bit. So during the break after year one of university, I just randomly applied for certain jobs, and one of them was to be an international flight attendant with Qantas. I did that for a couple of years while also studying remotely. But I always knew I wanted to get back into marketing – that was what I was studying, even.

I was flying on a plane one day as a flight attendant, and I met an executive at Microsoft who told me that they were bringing onboard a new bunch of younger employees, and Microsoft typically doesn’t hire people out of college. You enter either straight out of college, or you enter with 10+ years experience. So it’s quite hard to get in young, typically. But I went through the interview process with thousands of applicants, and they got it down to 100, and then we all went in for a full day of interviews. Long story short: I started my career at Microsoft on consumer marketing, and now I’m obviously in more of a B2B role.

Building your business on software

Jarell: You’ve been in your role as CMO at G2 Crowd for just over a year now. How would you describe what G2 Crowd is and the value it provides to its users?

Ryan: Sure. We’re now G2.com, formerly G2 Crowd; we recently just changed that name and our website. We’re basically the world’s biggest business marketplace. We help buyers of software and services find the best vendors or the best sellers of the products they need. We’re almost a bit of a matchmaker between buyers and sellers. And the reason why G2 came about, over the last five years, was really because as software has exploded, there are just too many options. That’s not a bad thing, but for a buyer who’s maybe new to a software or new to a category, it can be quite tough. If I look at the latest stats on our site, we have probably 65,000 different software products listed across 1,500 different software categories. There’s just a lot out there.

We understand that businesses today can’t succeed – they can’t thrive, they can’t reach their potential – without software. You and I probably used 10 different pieces of software to actually get this interview to happen. Right now, we have recording software listening to us, we’re using Google Docs for our notes for the questions, we used Google Calendar to get scheduling, we used Zoom for our first call, we use email. There’s a lot of software involved that people don’t realize. So when you’re making those decisions as a startup or as a mid-size company or as an enterprise, the software you select can make or break your business. I know that sounds overly dramatic, but it’s actually true, because typically software is expensive. It’s not easy to change, and so those small decisions actually can be the reason why they’re missing their goals and not hitting their business targets.

“Software is really that underlying component that you can’t do any of your jobs today most of the time without, so we’re really passionate about helping businesses digitally transform through software”

And there isn’t enough attention on the fact that actually a lot of the time it’s because the software isn’t right. Now, maybe you ran the wrong strategies as well, and you didn’t have the right team members or process – all of that is definitely a part of it. But software is really that underlying component that you can’t do any of your jobs today most of the time without, so we’re really passionate about helping businesses digitally transform through software. But we’re helping people find the right software, because we’re not a software company ourselves. We actually don’t care what software you use. I’m not sure what video editing software or audio editing software you’re using right now, but there’s a ton of different ones. If you came through G2.com to look for the best video editing or audio editing software, we have no incentive to push you down the track of one versus another. We just literally want you, Jarell, to use the best software for your business, based on what your needs are.

If Yelp is for restaurant reviews, we’re that for software. But then it’s evolved over the past few years, and now you can actually buy the software through our site as well in some categories, as well as optimize your spend. So we acquired a company last year that allows you to connect up all of your software tools to this product called G2 Track. Then as a CFO, or as a CMO, I can see every dollar that my team is spending on software, if the software utilization is good per person, if we’re spending more per user on average than our competitors who use the software. It helps me make better investment decisions around software.

Selling authentically

Jarell: I think that’s a great insight into some of the ways in which a business can emerge as the landscape shifts. When the way that companies market or sell evolves, it creates these kinds of opportunities for folks to solve new needs. And it didn’t exist before.

Ryan: Totally. And I think some companies took advantage of this early on. There are a few analyst firms that, when they saw this shift happening, realized, “Oh, people need help here.” Unfortunately, they solved the problem the wrong way, by having one analyst who makes the decision and said who was at the top and who was at the bottom. That’s the world’s worst way to help people find the right software for their business, because every company is different. Every region in the world has very different business models. It’s not one size fits all.

Part of what really drove us in the early days was that the co-founders and myself all worked at software companies, and we’ve all seen how broken the analyst model is. When you’re in product marketing – and I know you’ve done this – you have paid for time to sit down with an analyst to schmooze him or her on how great Intercom is. And the more reports you buy, the more your rating goes up. The reality is – and this is what’s super sad for me – most buyers have no clue that that is actually how those grids came about. They don’t realize that it’s really based on revenue at the end of the day.

“The SaaS and the tech worlds are going through a bit of an evolution in a similar way to maybe what cars and car selling went through”

That’s kind of sad to me. And it’s funny: we see a lot of people who come to us after they have bought software based on an analyst’s recommendations, and it’s terrible for their business. Then they start to realize that the model is broken, and they become G2 fans. But a lot of the time, it’s not until they’ve been burned once that they then realized the system they thought was transparent actually wasn’t.

Jarell: Yeah, that makes total sense. And I love the idea of not naming names – there is a grid involved, and we’ll leave it at that!

Ryan: It’s like the SaaS and the tech worlds are going through a bit of an evolution in a similar way to maybe what cars and car selling went through. The only way you could learn about a new car was by going into the showroom, speaking to a sales rep and getting sold. I have never met a person who likes that process. It’s sleazy, it’s uninformed, and you feel like you’re being cheated. And I think partly that’s what we see. There are tons of amazing software companies that have a really authentic buying process. And I can say, having worked at HubSpot and having sat close to sales reps, I frequently would hear them say, if someone told them they needed X, Y and Z, and if that sales consultant knew that HubSpot didn’t have those functionalities: “Hey, I don’t think the tool is right for you. Here are some other solutions.” And they would then disengage. To me that’s really authentic selling, but the reality is most sales reps don’t do that because they have really big targets to hit. And so I think we’re hoping to create another avenue for people to learn about buying software without needing to go directly to the vendor.

Jarell: That’s a really interesting place to be, when you think about the ways in which consumers are using something like G2 to help them make better decisions in a way that just didn’t exist five or 10 years ago. That just wasn’t the way that the process worked. It was: you go to a vendor site, you fill out a form, some sales rep calls and qualifies you, and then you go through this awful process.

Ryan: Yeah, you probably get 20 emails over the next week. Everyone knows that process, right? It’s demand generation 101, and it doesn’t really work as much today. I mean, cold calling and some of these mass tactics work, yes, but the conversion rates are horrible. I think there are newer ways to do it.

Becoming less transactional and more of a trusted partner

Jarell: So we’ve talked a little bit about how many different software products are out there and how broad this B2B software world is. G2 pops up high in search results – really good work by your SEO team! Folks land on your website, and you’re surveying and surfacing information for all kinds of different B2B buyers, through all points of their buying journey. I’m curious how you all think about engaging those folks when they get to your site. Specifically, how do segments or personas or your understanding of who the different buyers might be, or who they might care about – how does that inform the website experience that you create?

Ryan: Look, I’d probably only give us a B+ on that, to be honest. I think we’ve done a pretty good job; I think we’re an A+ in comparison to competitors on the data side of the house in terms of how valid and trusted and verified all of our data is. We have real humans verify each review, and we’re getting close to a million verified reviews on our site. We deny lots because we can see that they’re coming from a competitor’s IP address. They aren’t real customers. But I think in terms of the actual experience itself, we haven’t done a good job of asking people questions.

Let’s say they come to Intercom’s software category on G2.com. Immediately when they look at the G2 grid, we ask them additional questions like, “Are you a small, medium, large enterprise?” And the grid completely customizes now for their company size. So they’d say, “Okay, let’s look at only reviews from other companies that look like the person that’s on our site.” Because the CRM enterprises love will be very different from the CRM small and medium businesses like. We ask them for those different data points, and then our grid personalizes our recommendations automatically.

G2 grid for live chat software
Example of a G2 grid

There are two next steps we’re really driven towards in terms of how we start to do a better job of asking people what problem they’re trying to solve. Companies do a good job of marketing different categories of tools and why their tool is the best one. But often, buyers don’t really know problem they’re trying to solve, or whether or not that software will solve it. So we’re really interested in building guided buying services through our site where you could say, “My challenge is to increase leads.” Or, “My challenge is that my sales reps aren’t closing deals at a high enough rate.” Then it might be sales acceleration software that we recommend. Or a CFO might come to our site and say: “Every month, it’s a complete mess when we close out our books with expenses. How do we fix that?” Naturally, we would then recommend accounting software or expense management software. So, one step is being more problem/solution-focused in terms of how we guide people through the site.

Our users are really loyal in that anyone who typically comes to our site has also left a review on our site. They’ve seen the value of the data and of the site for helping them choose software, and after they use that software, they typically then will leave a review, which is great for us. We have so much data in terms of companies. The first piece of software companies will buy is an email provider: Gmail or Microsoft 365 or something else. After they buy, they’ll typically decide they need an internal messaging system. Then 12 months in, they typically find they need an internal Wikipedia, an internal blogging tool to share information that’s not quick, like an instant message tool, but is more evergreen. It might be an internal blog post that says, “Here is our philosophy on how we make decisions.” We don’t really do a good job yet on recommending: “Based on your stack, here are the five tools that integrate best with your existing stack. Here are the five next tools people buy typically after these.”

I think that’s where we can become less transactional with buyers, and we can be much more of that trusted partner, that trusted best friend almost. I do this all the time, right? I’ll text the CMOs I respect and I’ll say: “Hey, I was thinking about buying this software. What’s your experience?” Or: “Hey, I was thinking of hiring this person. You’re connected with them. Give me the lowdown.” That won’t be enough; it’s just one little data point, right? But I still like to get those data points. But that’s hard to do that for software, oftentimes.

The other thing people don’t realize, is that if you come to our site and log in with your LinkedIn credentials, we also then recommend and show them your LinkedIn connections and what software they use. So you can say: “I’m looking at marketing animation tools. What tools has Ryan reviewed?” And then there’s a little more trust, and you know you can then actually reach out to Ryan (me) and actually ask a question or get clarification. I think there’s a lot of ways we can innovate on the tool, but yeah. It’s still early days.

Selling to educated customers

Jarell: So Ryan, in this new landscape where buyers are educating themselves, not on the vendor’s website but actually with tools like G2, how do you think that changes the way the marketing and sales teams for those products and service need to interact – considering that folks are landing on their site with a lot more information?

Ryan: I think really any site should do what we talked about earlier in the sense of analyzing where someone hits you on your site, where they drop in to the site, if they’re dropping into the homepage. If they’re coming to the homepage through direct traffic, then that’s pretty indicative that they already know a bit about you. If they’re coming to a blog post about your company, then you know they probably don’t know that much. Maybe it’s the first time they’ve ever visited. It really depends. I’m a big believer, though, that wherever someone is, you always want to have a flag or a way for them to raise their hand or to move forward in their journey.

An example would be that when someone subscribes to our blog, they might receive an email once a week with our three or five most popular blog posts from that week. But then in the bottom of the email, there will be a really simple plain text email that says: “Hey Jarell, thanks so much for subscribing to our marketing blog. As we do every week, here are the top five most popular blogs. Hope you enjoy them. Best, Ryan.” And we’ll typically have a line below that says, “P.S. If you’d like to learn more about our software services,” or, “If you’d like to speak to a sales rep,” or, “If you’d like to test out some of G2’s data on the back end, schedule a meeting with us here.” I’m a big believer in not assuming you know where a person is in their journey and allowing them the ability to jump ahead. So that’s one thing.

But there are tons of different ways. We see a lot of traffic, actually, to our site from vendors’ sites. Zoom does this, Unbounce does this; on their homepage it’ll say, “We are the leader in (insert category) according to 5,000 people on G2.com.” People then click through to G2 to learn more, and they come back. So I think assuming they know where you are in your journey, vendors can do a good job at surfacing those data points of social proof and reviews to help you feel more comfortable or confident about the product or service you’re buying.

“Businesses need to do a better job at articulating the value their product gives to their customers and prospects instead calling out what it is that they do”

I think on the flip side, though, where companies can do a better job is where they’re tracking the traffic sources to their sites. An example would be if you have an Intercom profile on G2, when someone clicks to learn more, most marketers would just put in intercom.com. Or they’ll put in maybe intercom.com/products. A really smart data-driven marketer would put whatever URL they want, and then a little question mark with a UTM code that activates a campaign on that page. It might then show additional data, or it might have a “request a demo” form or something that’s a further along the lines. Because you know if they’ve been on G2 Crowd, and they’ve clicked through, they’re pretty qualified at this point. You need to bring in that context and have a pop up for them that only they see because they have that special UTM code.

Those are just some smaller tactics, but I think at the end of the day with regard to sellers of business and their own sites, they just need to do a better job at articulating the value their product gives to their customers and prospects instead calling out what it is that they do. Slack does this really well, as does Asana. When you hit Slack.com, it says, “Where work happens.” That’s their tagline. They don’t say the world’s fastest-growing chat platform, because that doesn’t really mean that much. I’m not looking for a chat platform; I’m trying to get work done. They think through the value people are getting from a chat platform.

I think that’s one of the big changes I made, even with G2 this year. When people came to our site, we said that we’re “the world’s most trusted and comprehensive list of B2B software reviews”. Which a) is a mouthful, but b) reviews are a means to an end. Reviews help you buy software. But software is a means to an end. Software helps you grow sales or reduce the time to close your month. So we then made that shift to helping people understand we help you find the tools and services for your business so you can reach your potential and hit your goals.

Growing the G2 marketing team

Jarell: It strikes me that as a CMO, you’re well versed in all the facets of your team, and broad marketing. But I’m curious how you operate in your role on a day-to-day basis to maximize your impact. Are there certain projects you’re deeply involved in while being an approver on others? How do you balance your time and your focus in a way that keeps moving G2 forward?

Ryan: I wish there was a beautiful scientific formula. If I just think back to when I started early on, our board is what helped me get focused. Our board said to me: “Hey Ryan, here are your three biggest priorities this year. One, you need to grow traffic. Two, you need to build a demand-generation team to support our sales reps. And three, you need to build and innovate on our brand.”

They made it really clear to me what three big goals I needed to achieve. We’re a marketplace, so it doesn’t matter how great our sales reps are, how great our product back end is, if we don’t have buyers coming to our site, the value isn’t really there. Similarly at Airbnb, if you want to go on and rent a house in Paris, but there are no houses, then you’re going to be screwed. So I broke out my team and my areas of focus into those three areas. And then I had a bit of a goal hierarchy around what is the first most important goal and which goal trumps the next.

Early on, I was super involved and hands-on with everything because we were building stuff from scratch, and it was really important to me that the team really understood what it was that I wanted them to do, and that they needed to do. Because some of the things that were being done previously weren’t as effective. I’m pretty hands-on early on, until I start to see the team gets it.

I’m a massive fan of productivity tools. I love Asana; it’s one of the core tools that I use with my team. I’ve used it with all my teams over the last few years. And I really believe in using Asana. It helps me be a better manager. Because there’s nothing worse, once you become a leader, than being disconnected from your team because you’re so hands off, and starting to piss people off when you say: “Hey, like where are we at with this project, give me an update. I need a meeting.” And you don’t realize that everything is actually happening, everything’s all good, and you’re just wasting your team’s time and making them panic. So Asana is really great for me, actually, because it helps me click in to see what everyone’s doing. And if I see a project is too far behind or something, then I can delve into it further. But I don’t need to immediately. So it’s one of those tools that’s pretty important for me.

“With every new hire I add to the team, I ask myself, ‘Are they going to increase the team average?'”

I think where most leaders don’t spend enough time once their team is bigger and more mature is recruiting. It was easy for me to spend a lot of time on that early days, because I had a small team and I needed to fill people. But even then, I probably didn’t spend as much time as I should have. I would oftentimes have not gotten back to candidate emails or recruiter emails to help me get more people because I was so busy doing. I don’t know, hindsight is a nice thing. I don’t know if going back I would’ve again gone back and done more of the job hiring earlier, so I wasn’t having to do as much myself. But regardless, I think when I get to a point where things aren’t as chaotic, it’s easy to become – lazy is not the right word, but it’s easy to be responding to people’s emails and helping them to do their jobs and not thinking enough about actually adding brilliant talent to the team.

With every new hire I add to the team, I ask myself, “Are they going to increase the team average?” And if they’re not, then I won’t hire them. That was something I learned from my boss at HubSpot, Kipp Bodnar. He’s the CMO there, along with the old CMO, Mike. They taught me that the most important thing is the other people that you hire. I remember when started my first day at HubSpot in Boston, Mike left a little Post-It note on my desk that said, “I’m super excited that you’re starting.” And then it had an acronym below that said, “DFIU.” And I asked, “What does that mean?” And he was like, “Don’t Fuck It Up.” But we’d been courting for I don’t know 12 months, before I joined, so I think he knew that I could do the job. I knew that I could do the job as well. But when you’re starting those new relationships with new employees, it’s always a bit of a gamble on both sides.

So I try and spend a lot of my day hiring. A beautiful, ideal day for me is at least one interview a day, minimum. Even if I don’t have an urgent roles I’m hiring for, I’m always meeting with people who do what all of my teams do, because if there’s someone out there who’s better and should be on the team, I want them on the team.

Jarell: I have a last question for you, and selfishly this is one that I’m really interested in. But we recently published on the Intercom blog a 2019 recommended reading list for marketers. Are there any books you’d recommend that were helpful to you that you find yourself coming back to?

Ryan: Even when I was just in high school, I was big fan of a book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. It helps you learn some social psychological human rules – things like reciprocity. Humans hate to be indebted to someone, so if you can do something to help someone, they will feel indebted to you. That’s a big book I think anyone in any business should read to better understand humans and themselves.

Another one that’s specifically important for PR people, or for anyone in brand campaign marketing, is called Trust Me, I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday. If I’m interviewing a PR candidate, and they haven’t read that book, categorically I’m not hiring them. It’s such an amazing book for understanding newsjacking and how to drive messaging, and it’s just very creative and thinks outside the box.

Jarell: That’s a wonderful set of recommendations a really good spot for us to end. Thank you so much, Ryan, for the time and all of the great insight. We’re really, really impressed by what you’ve been able to do in your first year at G2, and we’re looking forward to seeing what you all do next!

Ryan: Thanks, Jarell, really appreciate it. Thanks for your time.

Intercom on Marketing – Desktop Article – horizontal 2019