Notion’s Marketing Secrets for Small Teams with Big Dreams
Notion’s all-in-one workspace for notes, tasks, wikis and databases has received accolades from industry media and CEOs, earned a spot as Apple’s App of the Day, and is a Product Hunt favorite with more than 4,000 upvotes.
Oh, and they hit a $2 billion valuation last month.
Those are some pretty great results for a small team—only about 50 people in the whole company—that needs to navigate the challenges of selling a horizontal product serving multiple audiences from single-player scenarios to enterprise deployments.
Despite these challenges, Notion has successfully built a unique brand and earned a loyal following, so I was delighted to have the chance to speak with their head of marketing, Camille Ricketts. Camille started out as a journalist at The Wall Street Journal, transitioned into marketing with Tesla and founded First Round Review.
Camille and I talked about how Notion uses the power of being human to win (and keep!) loyal customers, how the company differentiates its brand in the marketplace, and why they founded a thriving user community.
Notion: A small company with a big audience
Notion strives to solve problems in a delightful way. They serve three distinct audiences:
- Individuals who use it in single-player mode
- Small businesses or teams who adopt it self-service
- Enterprises that use it department- or company-wide and typically interact with Notion’s sales team
Camille explained that this broad range of customers drives Notion to be serious about segmentation. Getting to a high level of specificity in their key content—like onboarding emails—enables them to connect effectively with prospects and users. It’s all about understanding how different personas use Notion and how they benefit from it.
The inherent risk of pursuing so many different audiences at once is that the increased surface area of each associated task can spread you too thin. To mitigate that risk—and conserve resources—Camille recommends taking the time to identify the most appropriate beachhead market for each type of content.
Small teams like Notion’s need to be super efficient with their time and resources, so it makes sense to be thoughtful about which people will be the easiest to convert. Once you know which audience will be quickest to recognize your product’s value, tailor your test content to that group.
Pick a place to start, and then broaden your reach over time as you increase bandwidth.
Pro strategies for the small marketing team with big goals
The horizontal nature of their business means their small team has a lot of ground to cover, but Notion still manages to do an outstanding job with their marketing. Camille says that their success isn’t strictly about efficiency—it’s about being clever, honest and human. It’s also about making sure the team has the right resources:
Dedicated design and development support
Notion’s marketing team includes a designer and a developer who are 100% allocated to marketing. This relieves Camille and her team from having to beg, borrow or steal design and engineering resources from other departments and projects.
Having dedicated resources means that the marketing team can build, iterate and test quickly—that gives them a very real market advantage. As Camille explained, working with this team closely on content allows her to determine how design can help tell a particular story and then quickly get the whole thing into the wild.
“User love” and a strong community manager
Ben Lang runs Notion’s B2C community. He’s constantly creating content, coordinating events and generating a ton of momentum and word of mouth.
Get this: Ben was originally a member of the Notion community before coming onboard to run it. He had a Notion fan site called Notion Pages, and people were submitting templates to him and having valuable conversations with him. It was his idea, based on his interactions with other users, to evolve that page into a community called Notion Pros, which is composed of ambassadors selected from the broader audience.
Camille and Ben chose their ambassadors through an application process. They also took note of who was engaging with the Notion Pages website and who was promoting the Notion brand on Reddit and other sites. They put together a simple landing page describing the idea for Notion Pros and received hundreds of applications. They chose 20 people to start, with long-term plans to scale the program thoughtfully as the need arose.
Having a strong community lets you tap into existing user love. Not only does this group provide Notion with invaluable insights about what kinds of engagement users want most, it also serves as a kind of auxiliary marketing team. With these people engaged and evangelizing the Notion brand, it can seem like Notion has a ton of people on the ground who are everywhere at once—an effect that’s extremely attractive to a small marketing team like Notion’s.
In return for their time, support and insights, Notion Pros get a closer relationship with the company, opportunities to participate in beta tests and feedback groups, monthly AMAs, and even—in some cases—pathways for them to build Notion-fueled educational and consulting businesses.
Honesty, humility and transparency
Camille explained that both the inner Notion community and the broader audience respond best when the Notion team is “very human” in their communication.
When a feature ships late or something isn’t going exactly as planned (it happens), their approach is to just be real with their customers.
Like many folks, all @NotionHQ just switched to full remote AND we’re super new to this 😅
So we started making a list of the best advice to build this muscle 💪
What should we add? (We’ll keep updating!)https://t.co/xUzkosIyR2
— Notion (@NotionHQ) March 11, 2020
The power of B2C tactics in a B2B market and brand differentiation
There are two huge trends influencing marketers that sell to businesses. First, the people working within companies have more say over the tools they use. Software purchases used to be a top-down mandate, but now there’s a lot more bottom-up adoption.
This dovetails with the second major trend: an increased realization that buyers within companies—whether at the top or at the bottom—are still people. And that means that they respond best to good storytelling and great design, just like they do outside of work.
These trends are the reason Notion uses a lot of B2C marketing tactics even though they’re technically selling B2B. The truth is, the lines are blurring as business buyers set their expectations based on their interactions with consumer brands.
“Brand isn’t just about what you say or even how you say it. It’s also about what you do.”
Which brings us to another secret weapon Camille mentioned: the Notion brand. Camille credits the company’s founder, Ivan Zhao, with lending his own unique and passionate voice and tone to the brand. Notion’s marketing team focuses a lot of time and attention on nurturing this brand voice because they know it’s an incredibly important part of how they differentiate themselves in the market.
Camille further explained that brand isn’t just about what you say or even how you say it—it’s also about what you do. People often think about differentiating their content or their content delivery, but true differentiation starts with a deep understanding of your audience.
This isn’t just about making educated guesses about a surface demographic. It’s about really digging in so that you understand—and have empathy for—the problems your users are trying to solve.
Once you understand the problems, it’s all about:
- Adopting a problem-solving mindset to meet their needs
- Figuring out how to articulate what you actually do differently to resolve their challenges
Vague statements and fluffy claims won’t cut it. You need demonstrable, provable, relevant value.
Leveraging brand in this way is the difference between flooding a space with poorly targeted SEO-style content and delivering highly strategic and tailored content that actually helps solve user problems. You listen to your customers, you figure out what they really need and then you deliver that in your marketing.
Things to watch out for
So where do companies get tripped up when trying to build out a unique and differentiated marketing function? Camille said that the two biggest mistakes have to do with content development.
1. Unrealistic expectations
Too often, content marketers get saddled with impossible tasks like hitting critical volume really fast without any real appreciation for how long it takes to create content. For instance, they might be required to drive a certain number of conversions each month, and then they’re told that to meet this goal they need to publish three to five posts each week.
It’d be nice to keep up that kind of cadence, but not all organizations have the resources to pull that off. What usually happens is that budgets tighten quickly, and the marketing team (or person) gets burned out. Ultimately, quality suffers.
2. Missed opportunities
The second mistake: Failing to understand that every single piece of content says something about your brand. This can work for you or against you—it’s your choice.
Quality over quantity—always. As the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. And as most people know from experience, you can screw up a relationship at any point along the way.
In Camille’s experience, the solution to both of these challenges is to take the time to do things right. When she was developing First Round Review, she was so grateful that the leadership team understood the realities of the process enough to give her the latitude to try different things over six months. (She added that it’s actually optimal if you can give yourself close to a year for this discovery process.)
Finding your groove with this kind of marketing requires a lot of testing and a lot of listening. Experiment with different things, get to know people and see where they gravitate, and then optimize and scale from there.
This isn’t a process that you want to shortcut. You’re building a brand and a marketing foundation.
Take the time to get it right, and you’ll have all kinds of opportunities in the future.
More with Camille Ricketts
To hear more insight from Camille, listen to the full episode of BUILD.
The success of our businesses will largely be determined by our ability to let go of old assumptions and habits, many of which have served us well, and create the dynamic conditions that allow us to speak to our customers in ways that are personal and important to them.