CMO Secrets with Erin Cresta

Erin Cresta, VP of Digital and Demand Gen at Palo Alto Networks joins CMO Secrets to talk sales enablement and conversational marketing.

customer experience demand

Welcome to CMO Secrets. This series features genuine insights and advice from today’s exceptional marketing leaders. Some names will be easily recognized and others may be new to you, but every single one will have been hand-picked for their experience and knowledge in the world of startups, technology and marketing. No pretense, jargon or PR spin here. We asked our most burning marketing questions, and they answered. Get their unfiltered thoughts and opinions and find out how these gurus rockstars marketers got to where they are today. 

(Note: This content was previously published on in September 2019 and has been updated for accuracy) 

Today, we welcome Erin Cresta, VP of Digital and Demand Gen at Palo Alto Networks and former  SVP of Digital Marketing at Docker. Erin is a global marketing executive with over 23 years in information technology, including business intelligence, big data, security, network, and IT management software. She is a mentor/advisor with focus on driving transformation; demand gen innovation; building high performance/highly engaged teams; creating a learning culture; and enabling the field and partners to grow business.

erin cresta

Welcome Erin! Tell us, what’s the best way to fuel your teams with energy? Do you have any tried-and-true tactics to keep projects exciting and rally the troops to do their best?

Create a vision. Build the transformation plan together. Practice radical honesty. I call out problems directly. I expect my team to do the same. You can’t fix things unless you do. Set goals and be clear about your expectations. Build urgency into the culture. Speed and momentum matter! A lot!! Finally, take the time to get to know each other and play together. Open up and share personal stories; talk about your goals, areas for growth, and what makes you feel your personal best; and, celebrate special moments together. This is what makes work fun. At the core, people want to be seen and known; this deepens connection and commitment to each other. When you are committed to each other, you can accomplish great things as a team. The best investment I have made as a leader is to continually practice vulnerability, even when it is hard. It improves relationships and your ability to lead and parent immensely. Huge fan of Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection, two great reads on this topic.

What themes are you seeing in terms of how the B2B tech buyer has changed in the last few years? And what changes do marketing teams need to make to keep up?

I’m not sure it’s new. But in the last few years, it’s really clear that 1) people don’t want to be sold and 2) they want a phenomenal experience. There’s so much information coming at buyers. You stand out when you deeply understand the problems a potential client is facing and can advise. A first email to a prospect with a product pitch asking for a meeting right away doesn’t get read – because where’s the value?? I get 100 of these a week and dump them. The focus on the problem, the relevant use cases, helping the buyer get what happens when they don’t solve the problems, what the maturity roadmap looks like for different use cases — this is critical. It has to come through in messaging, on the Web, in campaigns, in discovery & sales prospecting and throughout the customer lifecycle. So, I see marketing taking on more accountability for sales enablement. Helping reps build digital DNA, teaching them how to leverage marketing content and research, digital signals, and account insights, how to write effectively & nurture. Modern prospecting. I also envision a significant partnership with SaaS product and customer success teams since we have the digital experience data and analytics expertise to help inform and optimize product development and the customer journey.

With more powerful and intuitive marketing tools available, how do you ensure that you’re meeting and exceeding customer expectations, versus scaring them with creepy “we’re watching everything you do” marketing?

The insights that a solution like Engagio, for example, can provide about how accounts interacting on your site, the Web pages that accounts are visiting, the content and programs they are consuming are invaluable for tailoring messaging, helping reps open new doors, and driving successful outcomes in deal pursuits. We’ve invested in teaching our reps how to use these digital signals. Our senior leadership believes in it deeply. A company can really tune its sales coverage model using engagement, predictive intent, pipeline, spend and other data points to assign the most profitable accounts to reps and improve conversion rates. But at the end of the day, it’s about the value you provide and how you help a prospective customer solve a problem. A few years ago when I first took on the BDR team at Hortonworks, I brought in Jim Keenan (author Gap Selling, Not Taught) to do custom discovery workshops and 1:1 coaching with our BDR team. He drilled this into me. We’re working on creating problem/use-case focused content. We teach BDRs and reps how to use content in prospecting and to uncover use cases during discovery calls. We track them when we set up meetings to know what use cases are opening doors. We use testing solutions to optimize the journey on web, and to make decisions about the product path and the offers we serve.

Do you look to any unique metrics or other indicators to demonstrate the success of your marketing efforts?

Both marketing-sourced and marketing influenced pipeline are important. We’re also looking at target account engagement and indicators like meetings and opportunities in high-value accounts. Don’t underestimate the value of improving and measuring lead velocity; it can make a huge impact to pipeline linearity and the sales productivity model. I’d encourage marketers to align on a few life cycle and acceleration metrics too. Can you show how marketing engagement helps increase the deal size or win rate? Use influenced pipeline to help you measure ROI and show the value of marketing engagement through the full journey.

Do you have any advice for creating healthy relationships between sales and marketing teams?

Talk!!!. Listen when your sales team raises problems or criticisms. Try hard not to be reactive. The feedback and input will make you better. I still work on this every day, even with 20+ years in B2B marketing. We marketers have our own language (admit it, we do!!), and we love it. But it’s important to keep things simple and talk in a way that your C-suite and sales teams can understand. Get alignment on the metrics that the business values, and communicate results regularly. Show how you are helping reps be more productive. Being able to demonstrate ROI takes time and significant effort, but there’s always more $ for strong pipeline producing programs that are generating high return.

What kinds of things can or should a marketer do to have their work/contributions really stand out?

Often when I go into a new company I find that people don’t know what marketing is doing. There could be great things going on, but marketing hasn’t communicated to all the right stakeholders, or we’re using language that folks don’t understand. Figure out what “personas” are important to build relationships with internally. Get a regular dialogue going, and nurture them! Encourage campaign and marketing managers to do regular readouts – campaign, event & content performance results, learnings from a new testing strategy. Pick a few industry conferences and share your stories and best practices. It’s a great way to build your network. What you share you’ll get back tenfold – referrals when you need to fill a new position, advice when you’re stuck, learnings and best practices from peers and other leaders.

If you were to build your marketing dream team, what fierce five positions would you start with?

First 5 hires – digital demand gen, ops ninja, analytics guru, content strategist, web experience

When you’re having the most fun in marketing, what are you doing?

I’m a builder. I love to create, innovate, fix complex problems, learn and experiment, analyze & tune. That’s why digital is such a great fit for me. I get bored when I’m not learning!

You’re stranded on an uninhabited island, and your first thought is “I’m going to fall so far behind at work!” What marketing reading materials (emails, newsletters, websites, etc.) do you wish for to help you stay plugged in?

Oh great one! I follow many fellow industry leaders and CMOs on Twitter. Ann Handley, Drift blog. Attend several industry conferences / year – Marketo, B2B Gamechangers, Topo Summit. MarTech, ITSMA, and Sirius events in the past too. Topo is fantastic. Killer use cases from leaders in the top high growth tech companies. Craig Rosenberg curates the best content, hands down. And I love how Topo has sales and marketing leadership in the room together for their exec summit. Also a big reader of marketing and leadership books. In the last year, I dove into Conversational Marketing (David Cancel, Dave Gerhardt), Gap Selling (Jim Keenan), Disrupt Yourself and How to Create an A Team (Whitney Johnson), WOLFPACK (Abby Wambach) and Shoe Dog (Phil Knight).

What’s the best career advice you ever received and who did it come from?

You are accountable for your career and your own growth. Your boss or your mentor isn’t going do it for you. They can help and support, but it’s you in the driver’s seat. Always be learning; read; keep your mind healthy; and seek out people, experiences, and opportunities that excite you. Inspiration from my grandfather who was in and out of hospitals as a kid with polio. He showed me the impact that learning, reading, and a positive outlook can have on your life. And my mom reinforced the value of effort & hard work, moving up over 12 years from a receptionist to vp of sales and marketing at a public company. Whitney Johnson shared a terrific framework for how to drive personal growth in her book “Disrupt Yourself.”

What advice of your own would you like to pass on to up-and-coming marketers?

Get digital and martech savvy. Companies want revenue-focused CMOs; these skillIs are highly valued today. If you want to be a VP of marketing, you have to get experience running different parts of the business. Earn and ask for a new piece of the business to take on with every new role. If you’ve run digital demand/campaigns, go run field marketing. Then figure out how to run marketing operations – it’s essential to being able to drive and measure demand. Keep learning and expanding your knowledge.

Are there any specific companies you think are doing particularly noteworthy things?

Gonna go B2C here. Love, love Nike’s marketing. I’m a former athlete (gymnastics, lacrosse, field hockey, swimming), and a huge believer in the life and leadership lessons you learn from playing sports. I tear up when I watch Nike commercials. Because it’s bold. Nike is inclusive. They tell powerful, digitally engaging stories that make me feel. And, they take a stance on issues I care about.

Time to Rant or Rave: What’s a marketing technology topic that’s getting you fired up right now?

Psyched up about conversational marketing!! There’s a big potential with respect to creating a new lead channel that doesn’t exist yet, and improving velocity and conversion. There is also so much that marketing has learned from pairing the digital and business development teams that can help advance and evolve traditional customer marketing and support organizations. I want to dig into this!

What does the idea of open marketing mean to you?

I’ve worked in open source for several years, so this is a great question! When you get contributions to your software from the world’s most talented developers, something special happens in the culture. Rapid learning; experimentation; deep personal accountability; willingness to try new ideas; and the ability to fail, learn, iterate, and try again. The best marketers are learners, explorers, and scientists who can execute. Ideas can come from across the organization and from the bottom, middle, or the top. They can be inspired by customers, the community, peers, other industries, really from all over.

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