Interview with Vinay Bhagat, Founder and CEO, TrustRadius
Tell us about your journey as a tech-entrepreneur.
I founded my first company Convio in 1999. We were a SaaS platform that helped nonprofit organizations use the Web for fundraising, communications, and advocacy. Over time we grew the company to over $80 million in revenue, took it public and were acquired for $ 325 million in 2012. It was a great learning experience and motivating to have a big impact raising billions of dollars for charities. I’ve found that I like to work on meaningful problems which make a difference in people’s lives.
While building Convio, we purchased a lot of different enterprise systems to run our business. I observed that our teams struggled to make good decisions based on incomplete information – often just information provided by sales reps. When I asked them what sort of information they wanted to make better, more confident decisions, the answer was authentic feedback from peers just like them, already using the solution, so that they could enter a relationship with their eyes wide open.
I also observed that our sales teams encountered material friction in deals when they were unable to share relevant examples with a prospect. They’d often ping our marketing team looking for case studies, customer quotes etc, and supporting all the variations of customer use case, segment, geography etc, was very challenging.
The ultimate catalyst was my shopping experience for a high-end coffee machine for my wife. I went to Williams Sonoma first, and the sales person recommended a product they had in stock. Seeking independent advice I asked a friend who recommended a specific brand. I then went online to look for reviews, and in addition to using Amazon and Costco.com, I found an amazing site called CoffeeGeeks.com that had really helpful, in-depth reviews that discussed factors like reliability, maintenance, coffee quality etc. It blew me away and I pondered why nothing of that quality existed for the B2B world. Hence the idea for TrustRadius was born.
What is the most exciting part about leading a global B2B marketing technology review platform?
We are part of a tectonic shift that’s happening in B2B purchasing across the world. Modern B2B technology buyers put more trust in their peers’ opinions than vendors, and sometimes more so than analysts who have not used a product themselves. They want the “real scoop” before they spend too much time on an evaluation, and certainly before they make a purchase. This phenomenon is ubiquitous. It’s global and spans all sizes of company as there’s a basic human desire to know the truth and not be misled. Moreover, we have become conditioned to seek peer perspectives in every facet of our personal lives as consumers, so it’s natural to see the trend cross over into B2B.
There have been a proliferation of “review sites” and not all platforms are created equal. As a result, there’s a tremendous amount of confusion for vendors as to how they should engage and with whom. Our mission at TrustRadius is to be the most trusted and most useful review platform for B2B technology buyers and sellers. Accomplishing that mission has been no easy task, however we think have made some important decisions that distinguish us in the market including an acute focus on data integrity, the pursuit of high-quality reviews that actually help buyers make a considered purchase and helping technology companies strategically leverage content from reviews in their own channels to boost conversion and accelerate deals. We take trust very seriously – after all it’s in our name. We don’t carry ads on our site, nor do we engage in paid lead generation (pay per click, CPL) as we’ve seen that can lead to a pay to play model, which jeopardizes trust with buyers.
How have software review and recommendation platforms evolved in the past two years, with the explosion of new tech solutions?
The explosion of new tech solutions has provided an awesome opportunity for review platforms to make a mark. Traditionally analysts have waited until products and categories were relatively established before initiating coverage. Whereas many tech buyers want to be on the cutting edge. It’s common to see review sites cover categories and products far ahead of analysts now.
There has also emerged a stronger demarcation between types or review platforms. The incumbent review sites in our space monetize through paid lead generation. They have strong SEO and their sites are finely tuned to drive “conversions” – conversation requests or external clicks. Their review content tends to be shallow and they do little to police the integrity of their data. Their models have not evolved materially in the last two years, though the acquisition by Gartner of three major properties has led to sharing review content among their properties, and increased pricing.
We have sought to distinguish ourselves on two dimensions – being the most trusted source for buyers and operating as a platform vs. a site. We have always placed a strong emphasis on fraud prevention and quality control, human screening every review before it is published. In late 2015, we also introduced an algorithm called trScore that mitigates the bias present from vendors gaming ratings. In simple terms, we put more weight on trusted review sources, e.g. data that we source independently. More than 60 percent of our reviews and ratings are sourced independently of vendors. To our knowledge, we remain the only company in our space that is trying to tackle this problem. Our reviews average 400-500 words, and we prompt reviewers to come back to update them over time. Content quality matters a great deal if you are making a considered purchase. A star rating with a few lines of text is adequate for a simple, inexpensive tool, but not an enterprise solution you intend to run your business on.
Over the last 2 years, we’ve morphed from being a review site into a customer voice platform. We believe that most considered B2B products are actively marketed and sold, so it’s necessary but not sufficient to be a destination for active buyers. We have found that helping vendors inject authentic customer voice content across their buyer’s journey/marketing and sales process, drives material gains in conversion. It’s common for us to see a 30 percent lift in conversion on lead forms when syndicating targeted review snippets to the page. Our Salesforce.com integration makes it easy to for reps to back up every claim they make while prospecting and advancing deals with relevant customer quotes.
Which industries are particularly keen on leveraging real-time tech solution reviews? How do SMBs/agencies benefit from these review platforms?
We have seen adoption across a wide variety of software segments ranging from horizontal software categories like Marketing Automation, BI, security, developer tools, as well as vertical oriented solutions like restaurant management and nonprofit software. We’re now seeing some interest from hardware/converged systems and tech services firms.
Smaller companies can particularly benefit as reviews can level the playing field versus traditional more expensive forms of marketing. It is however important to note that reviews are not only an SMB phenomenon. More than 80% of the Fortune 100 have written a review on TrustRadius and we work with some of the largest software companies in the world who themselves sell to large enterprises. Reviews are becoming a ubiquitous phenomenon in B2B.
In 2018, what should be a CMO’s strategy to deliver unique brand messaging without compromising on the customer experience?
I believe B2B CMOs need to embrace the language that their customers use. All too often, B2B messaging is overly complicated and frequently sounds too similar from brand to brand. As a result, it’s very hard for buyers to distinguish between what brands are saying. I believe CMOs should listen more to their customers and mirror the language they use when describing their product/solution.
As your messaging is codified, backing your claims at every stage of the buyer’s journey (on your website, in your campaigns, in your sales messages) with believable customer evidence will both inspire more confidence with buyers and differentiate you.
What startups in the tech ecosystem are you watching/keen on right now?
What are you currently reading?
I recently read and had my management team read the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. I also read his accompanying book, the Five Tempations of a CEO. Both were excellent frameworks for practical application. I am currently re-reading the Challenger Sale and have bought a copy of the Challenger Customers. It’s pertinent to our situation as we are building a new category.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was getting my first company off the ground, a successful VC told me be intellectually honest, in other words, don’t drink your own cool aid.
Tag the one person in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read:
I don’t have an answer to this specific question about who I’d want to have answer these questions. I’d love to hear from leading tech CMOs like Christine Cefalo at Workday, Maggie Chan at SAP, Carrie Palin at Box, Dan Rogers at ServiceNow, and Robin Matlock at VMWare about what they think about the role of the customer’s authentic voice in marketing today.
Thank you Vinay! That was fun and hope to see you back on MarTech Series soon.
Vinay is a technology entrepreneur with a passion for taking on challenges that help improve the world. He is the Founder and CEO of TrustRadius, a customer voice platform which helps professionals safely and comprehensively research B2B technology products and services, and helps vendors create demand and accumulate/ harness social proof to improve win rates, deal velocity, and sales efficiency. Every review is screened and every reviewer authenticated. Our average review is 400 words, and our longest over 3,000. Each month more than two million B2B technology buyers are exposed to content on our site and via our syndication network.
TrustRadius is the most trusted review site for business technology, serving both buyers and vendors. We help buyers make better product decisions based on unbiased and insightful reviews. We also help vendors leverage the authentic voice of their customers across their sales and marketing channels. Unlike software directories, TrustRadius optimizes for content quality and data integrity. Our reviews average more than 400 words, nearly four times the industry average. Every reviewer on TrustRadius is authenticated and every review vetted by our Research Team before publication. We also ensure product scores represent true customer sentiment by correcting for selection bias. TrustRadius also helps vendors unleash the power of reviews in their own channels. We get their customers on the record at scale, then distribute that content where it can have the greatest impact. In the past year, over 100 leading technology brands have joined our customer voice platform to scale their social proof, increase conversion, win deals and capture user feedback.
The MTS Martech Interview Series is a fun Q&A style chat which we really enjoy doing with martech leaders. With inspiration from Lifehacker’s How I work interviews, the MarTech Series Interviews follows a two part format On Marketing Technology, and This Is How I Work. The format was chosen because when we decided to start an interview series with the biggest and brightest minds in martech – we wanted to get insight into two areas … one – their ideas on marketing tech and two – insights into the philosophy and methods that make these leaders tick.