Sharat Sharan’s Journeys

The keynotes at Webinar World this week, and especially one delivered by ON24 CEO Sharat Sharan, reinforced for me that a transformation is underway, with webinars being framed as data-driven digital experiences.

Sharan has been at the helm of ON24 from the beginning (he co-founded the business in 1998 with the focus on streamed video, becoming a webinar platform in 2003). I sat down with him to ask him about his journey. “Where you start is not where you end up,” he admitted. “I could not have contemplated where we are today.”

In 2000, ON24 had been a successful financial multimedia company. In 2003, it added a webcast platform. “The changes come when you have challenges,” he said. In 2007, Webex was “the big kahuna” in the space, offering online meetings and video conferencing. Then virtual events hit, “the best thing since sliced bread for marketing.” Without a virtual events product, obsolescence threatened. Sharan described the “death march” to the 2008 launch of the offering: “It was a big product, but we launched it, and did very well through the recession.”

By 2012, the virtual events business had started to become a drag. “Half of our sales and engineering were focused on virtual events, but it had become what I never wanted it to be: a virtual trade-show, not a marketing offering.” Low revenues and high churn rates. ON24 as we know it today really started in 2013, with the launch of a self-service webinar product based on a data layer. The following year, Sharan decided to pull the company away from the full-service model it had previously offered, and double-down on self-service.

“It’s almost been four different journeys. What I knew was that we were creating a data-driven webinar platform which was going to be one of the most important things for B2B marketers to develop pipeline. The realization of the last couple of years is the importance of the engagement part. People are calling themselves engagement marketers, which is a good thing.”

The culmination, over the last couple of years, has been content journeys (as described in my reporting from webinar world yesterday). “I don’t know which direction it goes in. Organizations know us because we’re helping their pipelines. They’ll implement more of these Always On and Target experiences, and we’ll do a better job of making those seamless. But then the question is, what next? Let’s see where the journey takes us. But the engagement layer and the data layer will be there.”

Although Sharan had mentioned pipeline, one theme at Webinar World had been that webinars are no longer just for top-of-funnel. With the concept of personalized content journeys, tailored to target accounts, ON24 content can be used to nurture prospects at mid-funnel and almost through to conversion. “More and more people understand that. They have all that content — re-purpose that, generate more leads from it. By curating your content on the content hub, you might generate 30 percent more leads from it. What’s better than that?” The content journey isn’t restricted to re-purposed webinar content: other assets (videos, white papers) can be added.

What’s key for Sharan is how this all impacts the data. The more people engage, the more you learn about them.  “And the more you know about your prospect, the more targeted you can be.”

With the news that ON24 has embarked on a preferred partnership with Marketo, I wondered what signal that sent to customers who are committed to other marketing hubs or MA solutions. “We wanted to make sure that the gold standard in webinar marketing is working closely with what is perceived as the gold standard in marketing automation. For us, I would say that more than 50 percent of our customers integrated (ON24) with a marketing automation platform — because data has to flow to be more effective — and within that, Marketo has the largest footprint. From Marketo, if they can bring ON24 to customers, that helps them too. Our customer footprints are similar — we are an enterprise and mid-market player.”

Is the Adobe connection important too?  “I think we’ll see. Adobe has historically been more a B2C company. Marketo is one of their first attempts to be a little more B2B. This is front-and-center more of a Marketo thing.

Finally, the role of technology in our lives changes at extraordinary speed. Does Sharan ever wonder if webinars will become obsolete? “I don’t want to give a buzzword, but webinars are experiences — full-on interactive experiences with call-to-actions, social media integrations, all these interactive tools. These are not your father’s, or grandfather’s webinar. We could call them something else, but in a world of search you have to be careful. They will evolve, and the technology may change, but the data layer and the focus on engagement is always going to be the same. That has always served us well.”>

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