In social media, the only constant is change. Algorithms are continuously updating, new trends emerge daily and platforms frequently release new features.
At this rapid pace, marketers and brands must constantly rethink their social strategies.
In short, unpredictability is the name of the game.
“Our space is always evolving,” said Aaron Rankin, CTO and co-founder of Chicago-based Sprout Social. “I don't think that’s ever going to let up. There’s going to be new networks, changes and disruptions at existing networks, new social phenomena and so forth.”
“The amount of innovation and the speed of that innovation happening in the marketplace is incredible,” President Ryan Barretto added. “It requires us — across the entirety of the organization — to be moving fast and to be truly listening to the voice of our customer.”
In this state of rapid change, one might assume that actions are not always deliberate, thoughtful and methodical. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive — in fact, these are attributes that Sprout Social champions.
“We need to be in this constant state of reinvention in order to grow,” SVP of People Operations Rachael Pfenning said. “That requires a lot of intentionality in the way that we work.”
To Rankin, an emphasis on intentionality complements — and helps amplify — Sprout’s company values like “solve hard problems.”
“Intentionality lets us cut through noise and prioritize long-term solutions,” he said. “It’s about reducing complexity and eliminating the options that we think aren’t going to work as effectively. That’s how we can really focus our time on what we believe is going to be the most impactful innovation.”
“Intentionality lets us cut through noise and prioritize long-term solutions. It’s about reducing complexity.”
“Doing a few things really well is going to get our customers a lot more value than doing a bunch of things sort of mediocre,” Rankin added.
Pfenning echoed that sentiment. “We have this saying: ‘We act with purpose and focus.’ We encourage the words ‘no’ and ‘not now’ in pursuit of progress,” Pfenning said. “We also talk a lot about the 80/20 rule here: 80 percent of outcomes come from 20 percent of inputs. We drive everyone to evaluate their work critically to identify and prioritize those inputs that are most impactful to the business.”
LESS IS MORE
Sprout partnered with Stanford to provide a leadership course for the company’s senior leaders. For Barretto, a big takeaway from the course was the concept of ‘less is more.’
“One of the topics was this idea of subtraction; for you to truly prioritize and focus on the most important things, you also need to be really thoughtful and intentional about the things you’re not going to do,” Barretto said. “That subtraction language has now become part of the vernacular at Sprout, where people aren’t just asking what you’re focusing on, but what are you also cutting from the list that was there before?”
Intentionally Exceeding Expectations
Sprout’s goal is “to be a joy to do business with,” Barretto said. To achieve this, he explained that the company aims to overdeliver on the expectations of its customers.
This focus requires a proactive approach, ensuring the company is poised to act on areas of opportunity. For example, Barretto points to Sprout’s ahead-of-the-curve delivery of TikTok management and support capabilities.
“We were engaged behind the scenes with TikTok before there were any APIs available,” Barretto recalled. “When those APIs became available, our product team was one of the first in the industry to build those products and put them in the hands of our customers.”
And when Sprout and Salesforce announced their partnership, Sprout’s team acted with intention again, focusing efforts on a seamless and joyful customer experience.
“Our product team went deep into figuring out the points of connection between Salesforce and Sprout that will really add value to the customer,” Barretto said. “We ensured that when customers have Sprout and Salesforce together, their experience is better and their data is enriched in a totally new way.”
For Barretto, instances like these reinforce the benefit of having a future-thinking and empathetic approach.
“We’re paying a ton of attention to our customers,” he said. “That really guides the things that we do; then, all parts of the business rally around how we execute so that we make the experience a special one.”
ALL ABOUT THE ESSENTIALS
Sprout invited Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less — a book that advocates for paring down to what’s truly important — to speak at an event for its team. The concept resonated with Sprout colleagues. “It lets us prioritize the stuff that is going to matter the most, because there’s so many different things that we could be doing,” Rankin said. “How do we focus on the things that matter most and make sure that those are amazing?”
Intentionally Choosing a Difficult Path, Because It’s Right
Rankin points to Sprout’s 2017 acquisition of competitor Simply Measured as an example in which intentional action shined through.
“In my view, most software acquisitions don’t go well,” he said. “I think it’s often because most of the upfront planning stops with Excel and financial statements. Oftentimes, for a whole host of complicated reasons, when products are acquired, they’re never intentionally reimagined. There’s never this creative process to explore how to absorb B in A. Then you end up with half-hearted, uninspired and, unfortunately, ineffective software.”
The acquisition, and the mission to integrate Simply Measured’s capabilities into Sprout, required introspection.
“We felt strongly that, in order to capture the value that we saw in their product and deliver on what our customers needed, we had to admit that this wasn’t just one-plus-one-equals-two,” Rankin said. “Rather, it was about creating something entirely new from scratch.”
Rankin described it as a “really hard choice” that required the team to be “intellectually honest with ourselves” in order to produce the most optimal results for the business, its employees and its customers.
“Basically, what we were saying is: We’re not going to use our product. We’re not going to use their product. We’re going to build a third, new one and sunset the others,” Rankin explained. “That was hard to accept because we knew it was going to take a long time, it would be difficult and it would cause some internal and external strife with managing the change.”
But the heavy lifting was worth it.
“Getting Simply Measured integrated effectively enabled us to rebuild and reimagine a third of our platform in a way that was really defining for our category,” Rankin said.
The acquisition and subsequent integration also proved fruitful as a learning experience, with a lesson that has stuck with the company to this day.
“It taught us that even though speed is super important in our space, striving to get to the best outcome, and being intellectually honest with ourselves about which one that is, is really the root of success, and the root of our intentionality,” Rankin said.
As Sprout has grown in size, the ripple effect of its decisions widen, and this lesson has become all the more important.
“We don't have the luxury that we had when we were a young company where we could make changes and there weren’t a lot of ramifications for customers,” Rankin said. “Now, we make changes and it affects more than 34,000 customers. It comes back to focusing on long-term customer value, thinking deeply about the best way to get there and then methodically iterating towards that.”
CLEARING THE CALENDAR
You won’t find packed calendars on Wednesdays at Sprout. The day is reserved as a “focus day” clear of internal meetings. “If you have a full day of reactive things, and others are controlling your agenda, there’s no time to be deliberate or proactive,” Pfenning said.
An Intentional Approach to Environment and Development
“We think of culture as a product,” Pfenning said. “We build product for our customers, fix bugs, add new features and get feedback. We take that same mindset and apply it to our culture. We need to be constantly improving it and treating it with care.”
That mindset has become particularly important in an era of remote and hybrid work, which has opened up more choices for workers.
“We know that having a thoughtfully designed hybrid workforce requires intentionality. Our whole vision is rooted in flexibility, intentionality and connection,” Pfenning said. “We’ve empowered our team to choose where they perform best — be it at home, the office or combination of both.”
Part of reinforcing a culture where people are valued means not just focusing on what’s working well for them in the present, but what the path forward also looks like. That’s where programs, like the newly launched “career studio” — which serves as a learning and development forum for team members to get relevant skills — come into play. Pfenning said the company also piloted a “leadership accelerator program” for U.S.-based BIPOC team members.
“Investing in our team’s growth is huge. That is something that we continue to double down on every year. We’re committed to creating an environment where we can make people better,” Pfenning said. “To do that, you have to be in this constant state of learning and development.”
Also crucial to its culture is the strategic growth of teams the company can retain for the long haul. Pfenning emphasizes Sprout’s recently overhauled careers site and consistent communication with candidates during the hiring process.
“Intentionality is all around our hiring process. It structures the resources that we create to give candidates all the information that they need on what it’s like to work at Sprout. We err on the side of transparency,” Pfenning explained.
“A targeted recruitment marketing strategy, a clear and thorough hiring process, and building a diverse talent pipeline doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of effort and work across the whole,” she added.
Barretto said that he shares words of wisdom with new hires — and while those words are targeted to incoming talent, they’re illustrative of the widespread approach that ties together different-but-complementary parts of the business.
“For us to be the company that we want to be, we’ve got to continue to evolve,” he said. “Our true potential is always right in front of us — and it requires constantly challenging our thinking and iterating on ourselves.