In 1998, Sharat Sharan started ON24 as an online video news platform and, during the dotcom bubble, pivoted the company to serve marketers with the first business-to-business video marketing platform, inventing what we now call a webinar.
Under the leadership of Sharan, ON24 is today the global market share leader in webinars and virtual environments. More than 1,000 enterprises of all sizes rely on ON24, including IBM, CA Technologies, Merck, JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte, and Credit Suisse.
Sharan was formerly Vice President and General Manager of Hearst New Media and Technology and Vice President of the Hearst New Media Group. Prior to joining Hearst, Sharan was responsible for business development at AT&T Wireless Systems and a member of the AT&T Bell Laboratories technical staff.
Providing one-click access from any computer or mobile device, ON24’s solutions are integrated with leading CRM and marketing automation platforms, enabling marketers to optimize demand generation, enhance lead qualification and accelerate opportunities in their sales pipelines.
Additional applications for the ON24 product portfolio include virtual training, talent development and town hall meetings.
Today, ON24 has more than 400 employees, eight global offices across North America, Europe and Asia, and hosted 85,000+ live webinars in 2016.
1. What’s new and in the pipe for the company?
Every marketer wants to be data-driven, but with most of today’s marketing technology, the data you get doesn’t tell you much about your prospect. At ON24, our mission is to help marketers be engagement-driven – engage prospects at a scale of millions and generate the high-quality insights they need to accelerate prospects through the buying cycle. Our customers currently average over 50 minutes of engagement per webinar – beyond the level of attention and interest that attendance rate signals, it also creates a treasure trove of highly informative data points when you think about all the different interactions and behavior that happen within that timeframe.
Achieving engagement at scale is at the core of our webinar marketing platform, and drives its future development. We’ve recently added new capabilities to analyze webinar engagement into actionable insights for nurture campaigns, extend the reach of webinar content with on-demand events, and then slice and dice that content to target unique buyer personas.
It’s an exciting time for ON24 and the entire industry because we believe marketers no longer need to choose between high-quality data or high-quantity data. Instead, with our technology, marketers can create compelling digital experiences that engage hundreds and thousands of prospects at an individual-level while gaining a deeper understanding of their interests and desires at the same time.
2. What does your company provide that’s unique?
Year over year, the number of technologies in the martech stack multiply. Each of these new capabilities have transformed marketing and made it easy to reach thousands and thousands of customers and prospects at the same time. But, I think for all that marketers have gained in efficiency, they have lost in engagement.
That’s where our webinar marketing platform is unique—what other tool in the martech stack enables businesses to have an interactive conversation with thousands of their prospects for almost an hour, and use that interaction to improve insights into their leads? Certainly not an email that averages about eight seconds of engagement, and definitely not a white paper where after a download you’re blind to the reader’s behavior. In-person events are very engaging, but they aren’t scalable and are resource intensive.
I believe ON24 is the only marketing technology that can deliver engagement at scale and empower marketers with data analytics from that interaction to improve customer insights for more qualified leads. For example, LinkedIn found that leads who had a previous webinar experience converted to a sales-accepted-lead at rate as high as 86 per cent and, further down the funnel, Microsoft converts over 7 per cent of their webinar attendees to purchasers. As a CEO, that’s data that translates into real business impact and why we’re on track to hold over 120,000 webinars this year.
3. Why did you start ON24?
We started ON24 as a 24-hour multimedia news platform that focused on the retail investor, like a version of CNBC or Reuters. But, two major trends converged that resulted in our pivot to martech — the rise of digital marketing, and the fast-growth Silicon Valley companies around us that all needed a way to efficiently market and sell an increasingly complicated product. A lightbulb went off, and we realized that the same digital transformation that was reshaping the news industry would also forever impact traditional business communications. That’s when the idea for the business-led webcast was born, and we shifted our focus to helping companies create digital experiences where they could directly engage their customer.
After transitioning to a webcast-as-a-service provider, we realized that three quarters of our customers were using our technology for marketing and demand generation. We’ve now matured from a full webcasting service into a self-service, data-driven webinar marketing platform where over 1,600 businesses delivered 85,000 webinars last year, with an average viewing time of over 50 minutes. And, that’s really our core mission and my inspiration, to help marketers achieve engagement at scale through the power of data driven marketing webinars.
4. What are some challenges or hurdles you’ve had along the way and how did you overcome them?
In 2013, I led ON24 through a major strategic business shift from a full-service webcasting provider to a self-service webinar marketing platform. This was the right decision, but some of our most strategic enterprise customers worried they might lose the easy, high-touch experience they relied on from ON24. I knew the way to handle this was not simply sending out an email to our client-base; I decided to hit the road and directly address customers’ concerns.
Well, I got a lot of very valuable feedback from our customers, feedback I wouldn’t have received from an email or phone call. And, I understood that with a dedicated customer success manager and quarterly business reviews, our self-service model would give our users freedom to maximize the value of our platform and leverage it in unique ways we never would have thought of ourselves. Learning that saved me a lot of time, money and trouble. The whole experience taught me that the best way to solve a business challenge is not to bury your head in the sand. Getting out of the office and talking to customers is the best way to work through difficult times.
5. What is the best business advice you’ve heard?
Be able to pivot. With technology today, the only thing that is constant is change. Your business needs to stay flexible to adapt. Entrepreneurs need to check their ego at the door and do what’s best for the company — even if it strays from their original vision.