The power of simple, compelling storytelling in strategic brand communications  

Published 12/04/2024 / B2B SPOTLIGHT SERIES

Insights from Debbie O’Brien, Chief Communications Officer at PagerDuty.

Debbie O’Brien heads up comms for PagerDuty, a global leader in digital operations management that is celebrating its 15-year anniversary in 2024. The company is trusted by nearly 70% of the Fortune 500 and over 50% of the Global 2000 to advance their digital operations – whether that’s at the digital checkout cart or facilitating interactions with banks. 

Debbie grew up in Silicon Valley, witnessing the transformative power of technology, from the ability to carry vast libraries of music in our pockets to today’s AI-driven enhancements. Her professional journey began 25 years ago at Sun Microsystems, which she credits with her first experiences of true innovation and creativity. She then navigated to the software landscape, contributing to giants like SAP, and championing growth at fast-growing organisations like ServiceNow, Snowflake, Informatica, and now PagerDuty.

We recently caught up with Debbie to discuss her view on driving growth.

You’ve worked with a number of organisations that have broken through pivotal growth moments during your tenure. How has strategic communications helped to drive those businesses forward?  

I’ve always gravitated toward midsize software companies where I’m not the first communications hire, but I’m also not one of 200 people with similar roles. I gain the greatest satisfaction from helping to shape the story of a $500 million to a couple-billion organization that is growing, changing, and maturing. I love working closely with CEOs and their teams – especially CIOs and CTOs – to breathe life into the company’s values and overall narrative. It’s very much a collective effort spanning the entire marketing organisation – from brand and content, to field marketing, lead generation, and employee communications.

What’s my compass? Well, it starts with the customer problem that we’re solving. I like to distill CIO and CTO pain points down to three messages. And then ensure that every communication matters, regardless of the platform – from billboards to Wall Street Journal interviews, to new team members comms, you name it! The real key is being authentic to yourself and having a storyline that resonates.

What’s your north star when you’re looking to build a campaign that fuels demand and increases brand visibility?

You need to start with the customer. That means getting to know their needs, pain points, and aspirations. Then you apply that learning to your communications. 

So, some of my top considerations are:

Solving customer problems: When you centralize your comms on addressing customer needs effectively, you build lasting relationships. Your customers will likely stay with you in good times and challenging times since you have demonstrated that you care about them and you will help them be successful. 

Thinking beyond a single product: Many companies start out with a single product, but they quickly branch out into a platform. So, you need to think holistically about what the platform does. Get your product in the hands of potential customers with demos and trials. There is nothing like customers experiencing features firsthand to understand how your technology can benefit them.

Narrative alignment: A brand’s story should resonate consistently across all touchpoints, from marketing to customer support. It’s this clear and compelling narrative that serves as our north star – guiding decisions and actions. Use every opportunity to articulate the unique value proposition of your software platform and tie it back to how customers can save money, grow their businesses, improve efficiency, or become productive.

Light up customer advocacy: There’s nothing more powerful than hearing firsthand how our product helped a customer transform. Whether it’s a CIO or a CTO, their endorsement really amplifies our story. Ensure you effectively showcase case studies, testimonials, and customer success stories to demonstrate the effectiveness and reliability of your platform. This helps build trust in your full platform capabilities with potential customers.

What three things do you look for in a creative storytelling campaign? 

For me, the three cornerstones of storytelling are: crafting a narrative that is simple and clear, which explains in straight-forward language what the product does, and the problem that it solves. 

It’s really important to talk in layman’s terms and not get stuck in the weeds of technology. You need to avoid trying to communicate that your ‘widget is faster’ than the competitors’, for example. That’s imperative, as we are seeing more and more POs reach CFOs and CEOs. You need to ensure that the executive team can understand the technology and its benefits to sign-off on the PO.

Then, it’s really important to understand your audience and emphasise the benefits that your target company can expect from the product. You need to consider how you can align your communications to the customer journey and provide relevant content at every stage. That means everything from a billboard on a major freeway, to a white paper, or a Gartner Magic Quadrant.

It’s about being there at the moment of contemplation or decision – and ensuring that customers are getting what they need, and understand the full breadth of your platform.

Can you tell us about a breakthrough moment, either in your personal career or thinking about a brand or company that you’ve worked for? 

I’ve felt fortunate over the last two-and-a-half decades to work at some great companies and iconic technology companies.

One that stands out is Snowflake. I remember going through the interview process with this company when it was a billion-dollar organization, thinking it had great products, strong sales, and fantastic leadership. But one thing that I felt it could emphasise more was its customers. 

The impact that Snowflake was making on the industry and how it was revolutionizing cloud data warehousing for customers wasn’t immediately obvious when you looked at the website, went to an online event, or read its media coverage. Yet there was something really special about what the company was doing. So, the company pivoted its focus on its solution, salesforce, and storytelling in its industries – financial services, healthcare, media, and entertainment. Then we partnered with customers to really showcase the benefits of its technology. 

We worked with Fortune 100 companies that had previously shied away from vendor storytelling. We held media interviews with them and engaged them in sales conversations. Even though Snowflake was already a brand juggernaut in itself, sharing these stories across sales, marketing, and communications was really powerful and helped turn heads in the industry. 

How do you best align product marketing with brand marketing to drive better outcomes? 

You’ve got to have a compelling narrative – where your head of product or CEO can walk on stage and have that big crescendo moment: ‘Here’s how we’re changing the industry… Here’s what our platform enables our customers to do…’. That’s when those breakthrough moments can happen. 

To capture those moments means creating a day-to-day partnership between product marketing, product management, communications, and the brand team. It’s really important to create that cross-functional collaboration. It covers everything down to: where we’re going to launch, what the message is, and then a continued reinforcement of that message. 

Personally, I’ve seen tighter partnerships emerge between all areas of marketing within the last few years, because the software industry is busier and noisier. And, to really stand out, you’ve got to have a crystal-clear message with benefits.

Is generative AI changing your approach to marketing this year?

Chief Communications Officers are in a unique spot to help guide their organisations’ AI transformations. That could mean streamlining creative and writing processes, helping to draft briefing docs, summarising key documents, or finding images for a website. But, of course, all of that needs to be balanced with ethics and integrity.

I see marketing and legal being partners in the AI journey – putting the guardrails in place so people are safe and protected. All the while, you allow some of the big opportunities and aspirational ideas to come to life. 

The early narrative – that marketing and communications folks were going to be replaced by AI – hasn’t borne out. It’s actually allowing many to move some of the mundane tasks over to generative AI, to help free-up time for bigger thinking. 

Authentic communications, especially at the leadership level, is not something that can be outsourced exclusively to technology.


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