Category creation in competitive B2B tech with Daniel Frohnen, CMO at UpKeep
Category creation is often a necessary requirement for B2B tech companies wanting to stand out in a highly competitive space.
This FINITE Podcast episode takes a deep dive into category creation to find out just what it means, what it should look like and mistakes to avoid (buzzword overkill!)
This episode covers:
- What category creation is and examples of new tech categories
- Category creation at UpKeep
- Is category creation just the use of buzzwords?
- Are some categories not worth pursuing?
- Is category creation expensive?
- Does company culture impact the category?
- The challenge of pursuing existing categories
Listen to the full episode here:
And check out more of the FINITE B2B marketing podcast here!
Hello everyone and welcome back to the FINITE podcast. If you've ever been a marketer for a tech company in a new and exciting space, you may have encountered the challenge of category creation. What can be a particular challenge in the highly competitive B2B tech space that many of us work in, is trying to deliver new and innovative solutions to customers.
Today on the podcast, we're going to dive into category creation, what it is, the different types, how to do it well, how it can be expensive or maybe not so expensive. We'll be joined by CMO Dan Frohnen, who's currently CMO at UpKeep, a B2B SaaS solution in the maintenance management space. He's the former CMO at Sendoso, and has an extensive history of marketing leadership in B2B tech and SaaS. It's great to have Dan on the podcast today, and I hope you enjoy this episode.
The FINITE community is kindly supported by The Marketing Practice, a global integrated B2B marketing agency that brings together all the skills you need to design and run account-based marketing, demand generation, channel and customer marketing programs. Head to themarketingpractice.com to learn more.
Hello Dan, welcome to the FINITE Podcast. Thank you for joining.
Thanks so much for having me Alex, excited to be here.
Looking forward to talking. We're talking all about category creation, a subject that I think spans so many different parts of B2B marketing and marketing generally. But the B2B marketing landscape, an area that you've got experience in and some strong and good perspectives on, which we're going to look forward to talking through.
To begin with, I will do as we always do, let you tell us a little bit about your background, how you got into marketing, your career path and a little bit about what you do now.
About Dan’s background in B2B and current role
Sure, happy to. So my name is Dan Frohnen and I'm chief marketing officer over at UpKeep, which is an asset operations management platform that really helps maintenance, reliability and operations teams run their maintenance on assets in manufacturing, healthcare, adjacent industries like that.
And I've been in marketing for about 20 years now and found my way into tech about seven years ago now. And, B2B tech marketing is just a blast. It moves so quickly, both from the technology that you're actually marketing and selling, to the companies you work for, but then also the technology that you're using to actually do your job.
So I've got a lot of different perspectives on a lot of different topics around B2B marketing, just based on how fast this thing moves.
And tell us a little bit about the team at UpKeep and what the marketing team structure looks like.
Yeah. So the team, I think we're about 10 people now and really, the pillars of the marketing team right now are marketing operations. So all systems data, making sure everything's flowing properly with a demand gen team that has program managers and content. And then we have a product marketing team that is small but mighty, a customer and community team and then our SDR organisation.
What category creation is and examples of new tech categories
Cool. Let's dive into this topic because it's one that I've been really looking forward to talking about. I mentioned category creation, I guess it always helps with some of these episodes to start with a bit of a definition almost. Maybe you can define for our listeners when we talk about category creation while we're actually talking about?
Yeah. I think it's really two things. It's either something that has truly never been done before and it becomes its new category or it's taking something that has been done before, but either taking a new approach to it.
Maybe you're taking the existing categories and saying that they're actually a business process and they're called something else. I think about it in that way. And I think the big connection between the two is storytelling and narrative, which is a core part of any marketing team's mandate with any company they're in.
And are there any obvious examples of category creation that immediately come to mind or that our listeners might think of? Where they'll go yeah, I get what that means, or companies that you think of have really defined the category recently, or not so recently.
Yeah, two different examples. I think Tesla is the one that we would all know around the electric car. And they've really taken that and almost made themselves synonymous with being an electric car. Is it a Tesla? And then I think some other ideas and thoughts around category creation,
I think about a company like ActiveCampaign and what Maria Pergolino has done over there and their marketing automation for small business. But they've called it customer experience automation, and really thought about it as an end to end journey and how they can help those customers of theirs across the entire journey and coin something much different than just marketing automation.
Who would you say the first movers were in marketing automation? I guess HubSpot often gets put in the bucket of having defined the category a little bit further ago, But I didn't know who came first and the history of marketing automation tools.
Category creation at UpKeep
Makes sense. What about your own business now at UpKeep? Because I know that there are some quite niche, but very defined categories, category groups within the landscape you operate in.
Usually my way of having a look is going on the website of the company, looking at the VH1 or that the title yours is CMMS software. So maybe you can talk a little bit about what CMMS is and when that was defined as a category.
Yeah, there's a few interesting categories within the space that UpKeep plays and their CMMS, which is computerised maintenance management software, there's enterprise asset management, there's asset performance management, and then there's industrial IOT.
And we actually rank and have analyst validation in almost all of those categories, right? Whether it's G2, whether it's software advice, whether it's IDC, Gartner, we're on the radar and ranking in all of them. And it's interesting to have customers come to you to solve different problems.
And that's where we really arrived at the fact that, okay we're not a CMMS, we're not an EAM or not any of those things singular, we're actually an asset operations management platform. And based on where you are in your company's life cycle around how you're maturing your operations around your assets, we can help you in all these different ways.
And that's really how our category was born, thinking about where we do well, the existing market and then how we can best serve our customers.
How long has the CMMS been? It's a bit of a tongue twister that keeps wanting to trip me up every time I try to say it. But how long has CMMS been around as a category?
I think analysts have been talking about it for 20 years now.
I'm just always fascinated by when these things reach a critical mass. Cause there are obviously people out there who sit down in front of a computer and type in, I need a CMMS software or they begin searching for CMMS software product solutions.
And it's like, at what point did that become a term that they even became formally recognised, talked about? I guess it's often led by analysts maybe initially. And then it works its way into industry conferences and trade shows and all of that kind of stuff.
Exactly. That's exactly right. And the concept of a CMMS, I think it's been around since the late 70's, early 80's too. With true on-prem desktop software. So it's kind of evolved with web 1.0 mobile first and now where we're going with everything being connected and data just flowing everywhere.
Interesting. You talked a bit about there being different types of category creation, which I hadn't really thought about before. I think I'd always just thought of it as you know, you've got a new, innovative product that hasn't existed before and so you need to define your own category. But actually you referred to almost like aggregating existing categories to define a new one, which sounds a bit like what you're doing UpKeep, but maybe you can talk a bit more about that.
Yeah, it's definitely what we're doing. And where I learned that technique was during my time at Aptus where Aptus had built a CLM product contract, lifecycle management. But then, the founders there very much had a vision where contract lifecycle management is extremely important, but the quoting tool in front of it, which is CPQ is equally as important.
And then the revenue recognition, and then eventually e-commerce, and that became quote to cash, which became a business process and not just a singular point solution in your tech stack. When I joined up, I saw some similarities here, right around the different categories, the adjacency to them, it made a ton of sense that it was actually a business process in a company maturity thing, more than anything else.
I think for every CMO, marketer, CEO, whoever is out there listening to this, it's important to look at a couple of different things when you're looking to market your product. One is how are people going to find you? Are there existing keywords that people are already looking up?
And if there are then it's to your best interest to try and attach yourself there so that you're not trying to create something from scratch, right? But if you are in a situation where you're creating something from scratch, then that's where that new sort of category creation comes in and evangelising and creating that awareness from day one sort of technique.
Is category creation just the use of buzzwords?
The more I think about it, I think actually there's a lot of examples of that aggregate. I mean, you referenced ActiveCampaign as an example of packaging up what have traditionally been different verticals of marketing automation or other things I was thinking a bit about.
We recorded an episode talking about the SurveyMonkey Momentum expansionary brand, which you might have seen. Maybe there's a slightly skeptical side of me, which is like, is there a bigger value advantage to achieving that category creation? Is it sometimes maybe a little bit forced or I'm struggling to find the right words.
But I feel like sometimes it can be almost a signal to the market more than how much value is there. I always think about digital experience platforms as a term, because I see that being used across so many different categories of technology, from website hosting to CMS solutions to... I have seen all sorts of things call themselves digital experience platforms.
And it seems like in a lot of these companies there is this uphill battle for creating value for the market, elevating that positioning trying to position themselves, not necessarily as more valuable than they are, but you almost feel like there's a little bit of buzzword bingo being used. Pick valuable words and attach them to us and the market will respond. And again, that's me being maybe unfair and skeptical, but I always like to challenge these things. I wonder what your thoughts are on that?
So it's a really good point. Even with my own websites that I've worked on in the past, it's like you go around the internet to B2B tech and you go, the value prop is exactly the same for this company as it is for this. But they do nothing even remotely similar. And that's where I think context is so key here. Right?
And I think about Sendoso, which is the last company I was at and a similar kind of situation. They coined the term sending platform, but then they could tap into direct mail automation, swag management and stuff that was known. But eventually it became synonymous with those categories and competitors started using it.
And that was a way to take a word like sending, which is an action word and attach it to something that was physical, which was direct mail and gifting. And always showing like what the sending platform does right there, because the sending platform could also be email. It could be text messages, right?
So, similar kind of concept there. I think you've got to bundle it and have the context right there. Otherwise it's just noise. Bottom line, show the utility very quickly and then show the value very quickly.
Are some categories not worth pursuing?
Do you think there's times where category creation is just not even worth pursuing? Cause I guess there are some very defined categories and very defined market segments where you can enter into them and you can just have a better product that works better and offers a better experience and you can compete fairly and you can win without any serious differentiation from a positioning perspective?
You're just a better business with better service and better products and all of those kinds of things. But then it feels like some of the examples we just talked about, even once they've achieved those things, category creation almost feels like the next evolution to some extent. Do you think it's always something that businesses will almost eventually by definition end up arriving at? In some form or maybe where that's just not the right path?
Yeah. I think at some point businesses have to arrive at category creation, otherwise they become commoditised. So I think of tools like Asana and Trello and AirTable, and there's just a ton of them out there. And when there's a new entrance into the market, it's always, we're cheaper than Trello. We're cheaper than this one. We have more capabilities by the way, you could have all your teams doing this and we're cheaper.
So it's a race to the bottom, right? So, the best companies and the best leaders in these spaces actually start to create categories. They go, that competing tool may be the low cost option, but it doesn't have as much functionality for a marketing team or a product team.
And that's where categories are born because it's about being differentiated, being focused on a certain customer and then serving that customer better than anyone in the market and leading that market. And you can only do that with some sort of focus. So I believe, to break out of that commoditisation, you have to eventually go in that direction.
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Is category creation expensive?
I think that the examples you gave of Asana and Trello and those kinds of things, which I guess in my head, if I put them in a category would be project management software. But it made me think about Monday, monday.com, which I think is maybe one of the slightly newer relative to the market.
But also one of the very successful businesses in that space who seemed to have coined the term work OS, work operating system. So again a step above and elevation and differentiating from project management software. Which is still kind of, if I hear monday.com,
I think probably a management tool. But having just looked at their website, they're obviously on that kind of pathway as well. So, interesting. I was thinking a bit about, just before recording this, the costs associated with defining a category. Because I guess when we talk about category creation, a lot of marketers might think that's just an insane amount of work, resource budget needed to define a category.
Any perspectives on that? I may be thinking about the aggregation side, I'm kind of pulling together categories that already exist. Is that almost like a slightly cheaper hack to defining a category, potentially?
It can be cheaper, and I think the important thing is actually understanding where your audience is and what you need to do to connect with them. And I think about a company like GainSight, where they literally created the job title, customer success manager in the software category around it. And they slowly but surely built this amazing GainSight conference that had a ton of people there and a ton of thought leaders.
And it was like the banner event every year and that costs money. But it doesn't cost all that money right up front because it's incremental investments that you start to make as you're gaining more and more traction. So I think, whether you're creating a new category, whether you're aggregating categories, whatever your strategy is, I think the important thing is to start by getting the messaging into your existing messaging, testing it, seeing if it resonates.
And if it does, then you start expanding from there. And really at the end of the day, whether it's digital ads, whether it's a main conference, whether it's virtual events, whatever it is, your company's already making some sort of investments. It's actually about tying those investments together and having one brand with one voice, with one message to your audience.
And at the end of the day, that's really what it is from an investment standpoint. I think the bigger part about category creation doesn't get talked about a lot and the guys at Play Bigger who really wrote the book on it, it's not just about the marketing strategy, it's actually about the product strategy and the company strategy as well.
And that's actually, in my opinion, more of the expensive part, because if you don't get that right, then you're building something for no one. So, the company has to be aligned. The product has to be aligned around it and then the marketing team has to take it to market in that way.
Does company culture impact the category?
And it sounds like the whole culture of the company has to be then aligned around that. If that's the ethos, then it's a whole team of people that believe in a mission to build something bigger and better, which hasn't existed before. Which is interesting because again, I'd never thought of categorisation in that way before.
I think I'd naively always thought of it as quite a purely marketing challenge, but I guess people have to be living and breathing it in every conversation internally, externally for it to be effective. Have you seen that be done in particular ways or I guess examples of where you've thought about creation in that way really worked it into everything across the business?
Yeah. And it has to start with the Founder or the CEO of the company. They have to live it, they have to breathe it, they have to talk about it constantly. They have to reinforce it constantly and it has to be a part of their vision and their mission. And if that's there, it ends up in the executive team's DNA. It ends up in all the team's DNA. And it just becomes this very holistic strategy for a company, where the nomenclature that you're using in your businesses is your category and your mission is building that category. And it just becomes the thing that you're doing across the entire business.
And so would you say that having that strong mission built into culture is really needed to build a category? Like almost without it, no matter how big your marketing budget is and how loud you shout, actually you may never achieve the new category being defined?
I definitely believe so. And they're the main reason for it is because in this day and age, everything is so transparent now. You can go by and do 80% of your research before you even talk to a rep, right? And you can go read about employees at those companies on Glassdoor and you can go read customer reviews.
And if something is not authentic or what it's presented as, people are going to smell it out really quickly. And people do not want to do business with people or businesses that are not authentic full stop. And they can see right through it and they won't have it. So that's where authenticity and the mission really matters.
I was thinking back to the previous question, is it an expensive activity? I guess, a lot of people, and I think you gave some really valid points there, but I think a lot of marketers would think to define a new category, we have to be everywhere, be more visible.
There's a lot more brand led marketing brand, in air quotes relative to, I think a struggle that a lot of marketers face now is relatively shortsighted demand gen focused, get the leads in the door, which short term might deliver some results in three months might deliver results.
But in three years, what type of business have you got? What kind of brand have you built? Which makes me think that naturally it has to be a more expensive activity to build a category because you're still having to execute on that short term demand gen focus stuff. But at the same time, you're investing budget in making the market aware of almost a whole new way of talking about things and a whole new way of thinking about things. Is that a fair summary?
I'd say it's a fair summary for sure. And I think of different ways that you can create category buzz and one of the key ones is advocacy in your customer base, right? Like that's going to be important whether you're building a category or not. So if you are building a category and your boss says, you know what, I need you to focus on demand gen then yeah I'll focus on demand gen.
But one of my strategies within demand gen is going to be customer referral. And I'm going to be using these customers to start to tell the category story with. And for me that's how you start to get it off the ground. If you think about any lean marketing program where you're not going to get huge investment dollars, they're always going to be incremental and you have to think about how you can get it into anything and everything you do, same thing for lead gen, right?
Like, they're in your database, how are you going to start to re-educate them on your category? And how are your sellers, or maybe you have an outbound BDR team. How are they trained to be able to tell the story, because they're the front line. So, I think you have to be obviously looking for the places that you can prove and do incremental investments, but you can still start a fire with a very small amount of kindling.
The challenge of pursuing existing categories
What about the challenge of pursuing intent, going after existing categories where there's search volumes, particularly high intent channels. Often high intent SEO, particularly pay channels where you're bidding on terms that obviously you have to bet on time as well. There's already volumes behind them, otherwise they wouldn't be delivering, but at the same time, you're then trying to build a new category.
And maybe UpKeep is a good example in terms of, you've obviously decided that CMMS software is the one to focus on, at least for now from an SEO perspective. But then once people are on the site, you're talking about asset operations management and you're talking about different categories.
So is it a case of just sometimes having to accept that you've got to go where the search volumes are and then you deal with that challenge once they're on the site and through content and through nurturing and other things?
Absolutely. So I'm a big believer in, if someone's looking for a CMMS or an EAM or whatever it is, you should be able to drive them to a page that's relevant. But then as they're looking through the website, they go, they seem really great at CMMS. But they're also talking about this here, that there. And then to me, that's okay, have as much context as possible when they hit your website.
But then when they get into an actual sales process demo, whatever it is, that's where you start to say, I'm hearing your business problems, here's how we solve it. It's actually through this process, we call asset operations management and then it becomes part of the education journey.
Because who are we to say, you're wrong for looking for a CMS. Like if that's a known term, then we want to meet you, but then we'll educate you. And that becomes a partnership more than just selling you something. And that's the whole point.
Yeah, I completely agree. And I think that approach is the only one that makes logical sense. But I come across a lot of often more content marketers, brand marketers who are like, we don't want to be talking about CMMS, for example, that's not what we want to be in, that's not what we want the market to see us as.
So we can't have it anywhere on the website. And then your digital marketing, SEO, paid team are looking at looking around at, well, what are we doing now then if we can't go after those terms? So I think it is, often internally within marketing teams, can be a slightly difficult conversation to have to take everybody on that journey. I don't know whether that's been your experience too, but I guess the data exists fortunately to show where the volumes of search data are.
Exactly. And I think back to a few companies ago, I was at a company called Schedule and the CEO was very passionate about the mobile workforce and the category we were in was actually field service management. So we created content to be known for field service management, but we also created content and eventually built the awareness of mobile workforce management as well.
And I think you have to always look at both sides of the coin and invest for the future, but also invest for the now. Otherwise you won't have the ability to have a future with the category you're trying to create.
Yeah, absolutely good advice. We've talked about a few different examples. I'm interested in the cultural piece and just thinking about, you talked about CEO, founders, leadership team were really living and breathing this stuff. How have you seen that trickle down effect across the rest of the business other teams?
Because I think it can be, particularly if defining category comes a little bit later in the journey, you've got a whole company which has been thinking about your businesses as a certain thing in a certain category. You're almost changing your identity, which can be a scary thing for BDRs and SDRs and account people.
And just talking about things differently. I guess there's all kinds of training and it starts at the top as you alluded to. But any other experiences or advice on how that can be navigated?
For me, I find that iterating is the best way to go. So, giving a sales team some messaging and saying, go test this. And by the way, in this first call deck, we're showing the platform this way. Now here's how you talk about it. So small change. And then do a training workshop internally and talk about more of that.
And by the way, we just released a thought leadership piece, here it is. And then eventually you get to a place where it's like, we've baby stepped our way up to, this is how we're going to talk about ourselves going forward. And I think for us in particular, it's about a five month process, right?
We're about three months in and we'll actually fully roll it out to our teams at the beginning of the year so that we're not context switching too much on them. Not distracting them from being able to do the job at hand, that they're focused on day-to-day, but putting all the things in place so that it's natural for the company and for them.
Yeah. It makes sense. I was going to wrap up with a few final quick fire questions. You talked a little bit about marketing technology moving quickly and things moving fast on that front. It sounds like you've got a marketing ops team internally, so you're investing there and the tech side of marketing is important to you. Are there any favourite or maybe new or MarTech tools, technologies, things you've been playing with or things that you're excited about?
I'm a huge fan of 6sense, which is intent plus engagement.
Yeah we had Latane on the podcast not long ago. I'm hearing more and more about 6sense everywhere I go.
So huge fan of 6sense.
Cool. Good shout out. What would you say your biggest challenge is right now?
Gosh, I think the biggest challenge for our team in particular, and I think marketers at large is just segmentation, right? Cause there's so many different ways whether it's the size of the company you're selling to, or the persona or the industry and really figuring out how you want to segments that so you can get the most out of your resources and give your prospects and customers the best possible experience.
And finally, looking ahead to the bright future of B2B marketing, anything you're particularly excited about anything that you're looking forward to maybe 2022 and thinking that the future is bright for B2B marketing?
Yeah. I think we just continue to see this amazing trend of very savvy buyers who force both sales and marketing teams to think about them first versus thinking about well that's marketing's job or that is sales' job. And so I'd say customer experience is probably the most exciting thing and there's so much amazing technology at our fingertips to be able to make that as seamless as possible.
Awesome. Well, we've covered a lot that flew by for me. We've touched on so many interesting and insightful and useful points for anybody that is even any way in or around the category creation and the B2B marketing world. So thank you for sharing everything. You've obviously got some great insights and experience there and thank you for joining us on the FINITE podcast.
My pleasure. Thanks Alex.
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