CMO Interview: Irina Chuchkina of Thunes (part two)

Thunes is building a proprietary global network of direct connections to local payment brands for an improved and more connected cross-border payment experience. Part one of our interview with CMO Irina Chuchkina is here.

Irina Chuchkina of Thunes

Q.      Irina, how are you using data and analytics to improve your marketing? Can you share some of the KPIs you use to manage your marketing efforts?

A.      Marketing is both an art and a science. And data is a very important tool that is supporting not just the scientific aspects of the marketing mix, but also the creative one, giving us important signals. 

In the ‘scientific’ area of marketing – demand generation – we use data to look at the funnel efficiency, as well as the efficiency of our channels. At the lead level, we analyze typical metrics such as number of leads, their quality, and conversion rates. This helps us to understand which strategies are most effective and which channels need to be optimized. We then look at the marketing-led pipeline, the quality and quantity of the opportunities, as well as the average size of contracts. And of course, we look at the overall ROI of the investment, although, to be fair, in enterprise businesses, the ROI is taking a long while to properly estimate because sales cycle is long.

On the more creative side — communications and brand — we also try to look at the efficiency of our programs and try to quantify the improvements in our brand and reputation, looking at mentions, share of voice, engagement rate on social media posts. But this is also where the combination qualitative and quantitative lenses should be applied: how do people respond to a post? What do they comment? We try to understand the sentiment and investigate their behavior: how do they interact with our emails, how much time they spend on each page. We don’t really want to send blanket communication to as many people as possible. It’s all about relevance, and their reaction matters to us. This is where the art comes in.

We also need to make sure that our existing customers are considered. How do we engage with them? How do we educate them on our new features and enhancements, and offer them new services? How do we influence those opportunities?

It’s not groundbreaking, but something we’re really excited about. We also continue to shift towards account-based strategies and track KPIs associated with account-based marketing. We have identified those target accounts and have a clear plan on how to engage with them and tracking their engagement and progress through the funnel.

Q.      How are you organizing the marketing department at Thunes? Are you running a global approach with centralized teams, or have you created country-specific teams? Or do you have industry-specific teams?

A.      I joined Thunes about two years ago to build a marketing organization virtually from scratch. I was the second full-time person on the team. And we’ve gone quite far since then. But it continues to be a small team—we’re only seven people distributed globally between London, Paris, Barcelona, and Singapore. For a Series C company, a team of seven people in marketing is definitely on the smaller side, but we really have a very mighty team.

The marketing team at Thunes is organized into three workstreams: 

The first one is demand generation and digital marketing, which is responsible for the marketing stack and all the systems and tools we are leveraging, as well as the processes related to inbound and outbound lead generation — basically, new revenue. These are the ‘scientists’, people who really understand data and build scalable systems and leverage digital channels.

The second stream is responsible for partner and field marketing. Their responsibilities are twofold. One, they drive engagement with our existing customers and continue to deepen those relationships. They are responsible for supporting revenue generation coming from our existing portfolio of accounts, driving our engagement with them, and maintaining a dialog. Two, which is sort of a subsegment, this group is also responsible for our event and conference participation. The field marketing aspect of it being on the ground and making sure that we have a presence at all those global conferences and events, which continue to be a rather big part of our strategy.

The third stream is related to brand and reputation, which includes content, social media, and communications. This is where we spend time crystalizing the Thunes narrative, making sure that we create the right, relevant content, that we work with media and journalists, that we are part of the conversations, and that we create conversations ourselves. We have just one person running all of these projects at once and juggling many balls.

We have a fantastic and really multi-talented team that has a mix of highly versatile skills and is able to pull way above their weight to structure, conceptualize, plan and execute all of these projects!

To manage all this, we rely on an ecosystem of vendors —we have great agency partners, freelancers, contractors, and experts, who help us execute.

Q.      How do you look at the decision to use a PR firm, marketing agency, or advertising agency versus doing it in-house? Do you suggest one global firm or several regional ones which might know their specific markets better but create a management challenge for you?

A.      We still work with agencies that are a little bit more like boutiques rather than global conglomerates or the big media houses. This helps us massively to maintain agility and efficiency, and to enable a more dynamic approach. There’s a lot of ad hoc as things move really quickly and we really need that speed in our day-to-day operations. 

At the same time, we try to select agencies that already have either pan-regional or, in some cases, global expertise —so strong, but privately-owned, mid-sized agencies. And we’ve seen pretty good success. 

For example, our PR agency is based in the UK, but they also have a network of partners for some of the ad-hoc work we may need to do in Latin America, or the Middle East or in Asia. But it’s good to have that central core close to where we are.

One more factor which I am finding quite important for lean organizations like ours, is finding an agency that can cover a few areas within a single house: our creative agency, for example, can execute a broad range of things: from big, high-impact video production, to daily graphics and animation, to website and email marketing, and finally, social media. That’s what creates a lot of value for companies of our size. 

Imagine a PR announcement: it can be brought to market in so many different form factors and vehicles. Beyond the core PR story, how can you relay it in an email or on social media, or create a piece of content out of it? How do you connect it back to your events? How can it be used to support sales? 

If you have an agency or a team member that has the full, complete picture, and can connect all the dots, that’s where synergy can really be achieved. If an agency specializes in just one thing, a one-trick pony, such complex ‘campaigns’ become really difficult to orchestrate.

Q.      What’s involved in managing a global marketing program in multiple languages? Are you simply translating ads and content from one language to another, or are you customizing your approach in each market?

A.      No, we don’t localize much. Typically, in cross-border payments most people are using English as their business language. From that perspective, we don’t have to customize and localize our content and channels. Perhaps one exception from that rule is China, where things are a little bit more unique.

Q.      You‘ve lived and worked in many different countries. Has that experience made you a better marketer?

A.      It certainly made me a humbler marketer because the more experiences and the more models you are exposed to, the more you realize how little you know!

Any global company operates on three levels: 

  • The first level is the headquarters – the global center of decision making, with the heads of each of the functions and global strategy. 
  • The next level is the regional hub – a hub overseeing business on the continent. 
  • Finally, the third level is the team or office in each of the markets. This group is typically the most connected to the reality and understands the nuances of ground operations. They are also the most exposed to the local business culture. But they have blind spots: most markets think that they are unique, and global principles won’t work for them, everything needs to be tailored.

That in-market experience taught me to embrace the local consumer and business culture (as opposed to trying to change or shape it), as well as the power of local partnerships and localized channel selection.

Then as I became a regional marketer, I realized that one of the benefits that comes with that regional experience is that you are quite close to the market but exposed to different patterns. During my years of living in Singapore, I was part of the APAC team, so I saw very, very different ways to do business, very different consumer patterns, and very different business environments. If you are in APAC, you have Australia and New Zealand which are quite advanced economically and technologically, and then you also have the two super-economies: India and China, each with its unique set of attributes and features, and they each require a lot of attention. And then you have Japan and South Korea, both very, very interesting and with deeply established cultures. You also have emerging markets like Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Pakistan. Each has its own personality and style. Then you have slightly less developed markets such as Myanmar and Cambodia… And as you travel around the region and spend more and more time operating in these markets, you also start to realize that while each country is unique, you can also see some patterns and commonalities between them, and some broad categories that you get to operate with. 

Then finally, at the global level, everything you try to do needs to meet the requirement of scale. You must come up with scalable systems and strategies and tactics that have to work in as many markets as possible. It’s not always easy! But that’s where the benefits of working in all those markets and at each level come together.

Q.      What does a good marketing stack consist of? What software do you use to manage and measure a global B2B marketing effort?

A.      At the core of every B2B machine you have the CRM platform that is aimed at making sure you keep track of and track engagement with your future business as well as your existing business partners and clients. Then you have all the adjacent tools for marketing and engagement, as well as data and business insights.

On the marketing side, the really core tools are related to segmentation and email marketing. We’re working with Salesforce and our digital marketing is built around Pardot, which is part of the Salesforce suite. We also are integrating additional account-level data enrichment platforms that are helping us understand our prospects a little better. In some cases, it’s just baseline information about locations, number of employees, revenue, or web traffic data. Then we are also integrating other systems that are helping us track engagement. We have just started our journey with 6Sense, which is a fantastic tool supporting our account-based strategy, and we are also integrating outreach tools to equip our sales teams for additional productivity techniques and tactics that will help them keep track of their customers in more effective ways. This is just the core of it, and this is an ever-evolving set. 

A little bit separate from these, we also have the website and all of the systems that support that, the social media tools, and then the reporting and analytical tools that help us review the data and focus on how efficient we are.

Q.      Should the CMO manage the marketing technology budget?

A.      Absolutely.

Q.      I believe any successful marketing campaign is informed by a deep and nuanced understanding of your customers. What is your approach to market research?

A.      Market research has two different issues. First, you really need to make sure you understand your own clients. For that, I think that the scalable way is asking them questions — NPS plus a few additional questions. The net promoter score gives us a pulse check and can bring up quite a lot of interesting qualitative insights. We can reveal things that we do super well, as well as some of the blind spots. We do it regularly, with some occasional enhancement and some level of segmentation. But again, NPS is just the baseline.

Then there is the qualitative research: typically via one-on-one interactions. This is done via shadowing calls and listening to conversations, speaking to people at conferences and asking them honest questions about what they are looking for from a solutions provider. What are the best partnerships like? What do they consider best practices? What are their biggest struggles and where do they see the most friction? Have other companies managed to solve this? We compare notes with competitors sometimes, too. It’s a relatively small community and a lot of people know each other. 

Second layer is understanding our customers’ customers. This can be quite tricky. I’ve mentioned that we cover the world with our services. We also have a broad range of customer segments with quite a lot of use cases, so how do you prioritize your data collection – for ourselves and to produce relevant reports for our clients? There’s no silver bullet. One quote that I’ve been borrowing a lot is saying that Marketing & Sales represent a “relentless and shameless pursuit of relevance”.

So we try to be relevant to the business of our customers, understand what do they care about the most. Do they care about the evolution of payment technologies? About consumer trends that will bring the most change in the next couple of years? Where are they looking for best practices in their industry, and are they following examples from another part of the world? 

We all seem to be living in our own bubbles so we are trying to expand horizons for people and give them content that will help them be a little more successful in their roles within their companies. Sometimes that means we need to show them consumer trends, sometimes we need to show insights based on their peer group. Sometimes we give them tips on payment integration payments or integrating specific payment methods that they might not be super familiar with.

Some companies (the lucky ones) have big content teams that are concentrating on creating research and reports. We don’t have the luxury of covering the universe, so we have to be very selective.

Q.      But Thunes recently raised an additional $72 million. (No one invests that kind of money unless they believe in the marketing plan, so congratulations.) How will you invest additional resources that will be allocated to your department?

A.      We have a marketing vision and a direction. We are trying to accelerate toward that vision and these resources are going to give us more tools, more ways, and more hands (hopefully) to get there. It’s going to help us scale along the trajectory that we’ve defined for ourselves.

Simultaneously, there are a few ideas and hypotheses that have brewing, and we might be investing a little more time and effort into making them a reality. These are just the experiments that we’d like to try – but some quite ambitious. But before we get to those — as much as these might be fantastic experiments that we will all be super proud of — it really has to be aligned with the rest of the organization, the vision, the strategy, the product roadmap, and the M&A aspirations. That’s where we are now looking to spend more time: working together to refine the company’s long-terms ambition. I really believe in the power of cross-functional collaboration and the alignment that is realized by working with other stakeholders throughout the organization, starting with the CEO.

Q.      Why is ESG important to Thunes?

A.      When I was describing the Thunes brand to you, one of the things that came in our core character is being responsible and taking responsibility. That manifests in not just in being compliant with the rules and regulations. It’s also about taking responsibility when it’s not mandatory or imposed on us — something that you want to do voluntarily even if nobody knows about it, the effort that you make even when no one is looking.

We want to build a sustainable long-term business that doesn’t prioritize growth over everything else. We want to create value not just to the shareholders but also to the broader community.

Q.      What do you anticipate will change the most in B2B marketing in the next year or two? Do you think AI is going to have a big impact?

A.      AI is going to play a role, not only in marketing but in overall productivity. A lot of time is still spent on things that shouldn’t require it: typing and searching emails, dealing with budgets and invoices, or manual forms and spreadsheets. Many processes can be improved across a variety of functions through the application of AI. It’s just a productivity enhancer. 

I’m also a big user of ChatGPT as well as Wordtune – they’re fantastic for copy works, or to help with an outline of a report. But then I edit heavily on top of this. This is just a tool. It’s not going to displace humans entirely.

One of the things that I’m hoping will change in B2B marketing is becoming more human-focused. B2B marketing should be taking a lot more inspiration from consumer / B2C marketing, bringing in more creativity and more storytelling. Imagine case studies that touch the cords in our hearts. That’s what B2B marketing has been missing.

Q.      Are you hiring?

A.      We don’t currently have any open roles but I’m expecting we will have some fairly soon. People can check our careers page and reach out to me if something interests them. 

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