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Inside B2B Influence: Sarita Rao of AT&T on Growing B2B Executive Influence with Social Media

Posted on Sep 13th, 2021
Written by Lee Odden
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  • Inside B2B Influence: Sarita Rao of AT&T on Growing B2B Executive Influence with Social Media
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    Sarita Rao AT&T
    Inside B2B Influence is a podcast and video series that goes behind the scenes of B2B marketing and highlights insights with top business executives on marketing for B2B companies. We’re doing our best here at TopRank Marketing Blog to elevate the practice of growing influence within and outside of B2B brands to drive thought leadership, create demand and grow revenue.

    Episode 16 of Inside B2B Influence features a discussion with Sarita Rao (@saritasayso), who is President, Integrated and Partner Solutions at AT&T. Sarita contributed her expertise to the State of B2B Influencer Marketing Report last year and I have been following her closely (and learning) on LinkedIn and Twitter ever since.

    For any senior executive wondering about how they might best use social networks to better connect with their staff and company employees, customers, prospects and the industry at large, Sarita is a great example of what you should do.

    While the brand she works for and the level of seniority she’s achieved impart a certain level of general business influence, Sarita earns even more influence about the topics she cares about most on a daily basis. She’s a living example of how to build thought leadership and influence around the things she’s passionate about and engages on through social content.

    To learn more about how a senior executive at a Fortune 11 company is able to be so effective on social channels, I invited Sarita to the Inside B2B Influence show. We talked about a range of topics from the value senior executives bring to their teams, customers and the business when they are active on social channels to smart advice for up and coming women business leaders.

    Highlights of this episode of Inside B2B Influence with Sarita include:

    • What prepared Sarita best for her current leadership role
    • How social media engagement has impacted her career
    • Advice for B2B executives on becoming more social online
    • Advice for women who aspire to senior business leadership roles
    • Insights into collaboration tools and technology for interacting with current and prospective customers
    • Tips on making connections with employees more human
    • How Sarita is helping to redefine customer experience at AT&T
    • An example of what real human conversation and interaction looks like in today’s business world
    • The importance for today’s modern sales or marketing leaders to be active on social channels

    You can listen to episode 16 (How B2B Executives Can Grow Influence with Social Media) of the Inside B2B Influence podcast here:

    Watch the full video of my interview with Sarita here:

    Transcript – Inside B2B Influence Episode 16: Growing B2B Executive Influence

    You have had an incredible career at AT&T. What in particular prepared you most for your current role as President, Integrated and Partner Solutions?

    Sarita: You know honestly, I think it’s that I love this job. It’s like accumulation of all the things I’ve done. So I’ve been with AT&T gosh, 30 years. Thank you for not mentioning that, I just did though. But I’ve been with the company for over 30 years and I’ve had everything from sales to program management to marketing. And if I think of my last job in marketing, it really taught me about taking the complexity out of what we do in a technology environment. It can be rather complex.

    I think things are complex when we make them complicated. There are simple ways to approach just about everything. @saritasayso

    My team has both direct and indirect sales and we take some of our more value added services and really help our customers get through the complexity of network transformation. So I will tell you it’s a collection of everything. It’s taught me the importance of taking something big and making it something understandable. And I think that’s as important whether you’re doing it in marketing or whether you’re doing it in sales. I’d really say that in this job, where I actually helped launch the wholesale business so I also have that segment, feels like I’m coming home to a good group of corporate citizens and we have the opportunity to move the needle. So, it’s really a collection of multiple things.

    You are pretty active on social networks like LinkedIn and you’ve become a business influencer with thousands of followers. Do you feel being publicly active on social networks and in the industry played any part in your career advancement either in terms of visibility, networking or knowledge?

    Sarita: Right. I appreciate the compliment, I’m not sure about the influencer part. I do social for a couple of different reasons: One, it’s to connect my team, right? Across my career AT&T whether we’re on a direct team together now, or part of the larger AT&T ecosystem, staying connected is really important to me. I think that helps in many different ways.

    I would tell you consistency for social media is important, but if I think of what I do today, since I have both indirect and direct sales, it’s a great way to connect with my customer base as well, for them to see what we’re up to. So I see multiple advantages of social.

    Social Media is great way to amplify the work that your team is doing and frankly, our next generation of leaders. @saritasayso

    During this pandemic, I will tell you, I used Twitter more to stay connected with the team because we were also remote from one another. I kind of joke that we weren’t socially distant, we’re physically distant. I found things like Twitter as a quick way to connect with the team, because you didn’t have those hallway conversations anymore and so forth. So I probably upped my game a little bit in social for Twitter, but each one of the platforms is, you know better than anyone, has a different purpose and a different reason.

    While the number of business leaders active on social channels has grown, not everyone is comfortable with “being out there”. What advice can you share for business and sales executives who want to be more active on social networks?

    Sarita: First I think you have to have the innate desire, right? Because then you’re going to be consistent and you’re going to speak with passion about things that you’re interested in. I don’t think you can be on social and be robotic about it. It has to be the authentic you. But you also need to remember each of these platforms is meant for something else.

    I don’t do Facebook. Facebook is very personal, right? I don’t do business content on Facebook. Do I stay in touch with some friends via Facebook? Yes.

    LinkedIn is a different experience, Twitter is different and so forth. So there are different ways that I think, as a leader or in that business world, you’ve got to think about what you want to be and how you want to be out there on social.

    And then for me, there’s a couple of different ways that you can build your brand because that’s effectively what you’re doing on social media. First and foremost: personal and professional, they go hand in hand. It can be difficult to separate your personal life from your professional life, but make sure the content that you’re putting up there represents your best self. Again, I go back to, remember what the platform is for, I think that’s important.

    You have to speak to be heard. @saritasayso #executiveinfluence

    You have to speak to be heard, right? Ultimately, social media is going to give you a platform to share your ideas and connect with others.

    It’s also a fantastic way to get a temperature, right? Some of the surveys that you can do of what folks are thinking outside of your world, especially in an environment where we’ve all been a little secluded from each other. I like using some of the different social polls and so forth as we’re thinking about, “how do you get back to work?” It’s a nice way to reinforce some of the thinking.

    It’s important to always be yourself, to be authentic and not be robotic. @saritasayso #executiveinfluence

    It’s important to always be yourself, to be authentic and not be robotic. I think that’s really important. Determine the right platforms. What’s the one you’re most comfortable with? What you can do on Twitter is very different than what you can do on LinkedIn. Make sure you’re investing in the platforms that can get the message that you want, put out there.

    I love the use of hashtags, but let’s make sure they’re relevant. Let’s just not use hashtags and emojis for the sake of using hashtags and emojis, but make sure they’re really relevant. The reason why you’re using a hashtag is to connect in that conversation. It’s not just to put a hashtag out there. So let’s make sure you’re using the right hashtag.

    They say content is king, but context is just as important. @saritasayso

    They say content is king, but context is just as important. There’s a ton of content out there, but not all of it’s being consumed. So make sure you’re in the right context as well. I think those are some of the things that I would suggest folks look at. One of the things I had the good fortune to learn as I was starting my social journey was that social media is really a combination of art and science. So success really depends on the commitment you want to put towards it. But whatever commitments you’ve put towards it, make sure you’re consistent about it. That’s some of the advice that I’d have.

    According to data reported by LinkedIn, 60% of marketing professionals are women as are 52% of CMOs. As a successful woman with a background in sales and marketing leadership, what advice can you share with other women in business who aspire to your level of success?

    Sarita: Great numbers, by the way, I did not know those. It’s great progress and yes, there’s always room for more growth, but that’s a fantastic direction. It’s been really exciting seeing in social media, a lot of the changes and movement of some really strong marketing leaders, so that that’s been exciting.

    I think from an advice perspective, first and foremost, I would say think broadly. Don’t limit your thinking. Think broadly, ask those questions. Which, to me, is really having that element of never ending curiosity.

    Curiosity is just so important. Because you just never know what you’re going to uncover and when you ask those questions. @saritasayso

    I loved going into marketing. I have an accounting degree by the way. So I remember when they asked me if I would look at marketing, I’m like, I have an accounting degree. And what that opened myself up to is that I always had to ask questions because I didn’t know the answer. And even when I know the answer, or I think I know the answer, I learned even more. So to me, curiosity is just so important. Because you just never know what you’re going to uncover and when you ask those questions, it allows folks to think about that answer. And sometimes they’re learning something in that too. There’s a great conversation always to be had there.

    And then be agile. People think of agile as a process word. To me, being agile is the fact that you’re constantly ready to move, make quick and easy movements. It doesn’t have to be these huge, massive shifts. Sometimes we wait to make these big, massive shifts. Sometimes it’s just tweaks and adjustments along the way.

    It is really is about thinking broadly, having that never ending curiosity and then being agile. I think those are the three pointers I would give, not just in the marketing world, but, in a career overall.

    As we start to emerge from COVID, what unique tools or initiatives are you using to interact with current and prospective customers? 

    Sarita: All of them, right? Everything from what we’re on right now, whether it be Zoom or WebEx or Microsoft Teams, pick the one that you feel the most comfortable for those engagements.

    I will tell you with those conversations, because I don’t have to get on a plane and pack my luggage, unpack my luggage, do all that other fun stuff. I can actually see more customers now, which is fantastic. I just picked up a global team, they’re in 26 different countries and I got to meet them all sooner, versus getting on a plane to go see all of them. We found different creative things to go do.

    Even with our customers we do this. We have an advisory council and when we meet with our customers, we’re in meeting all day and they’re giving us insights and we’re showing them what we’re about to go look at. They’re giving us their feedback so we can kind of shape our product portfolio with their insights. But in the evenings, we’re still doing the social hour, right? Something we would have done when we were all in person. There’s something very rewarding about that.

    We had a celebrity chef do a client dinner. About 20 clients were on this. And we got invited into their homes. That wouldn’t have happened before. So we got invited into their homes and they brought their family on the journey with them, which again, we wouldn’t have had that opportunity before.

    So yes, trust me, I miss and crave face-to-face meetings. During this little bit of a break we had right before the Delta variant, we were back in our briefing center and it was absolutely exciting to go meet with one of our partners. We were face-to-face and we took the photos and did that stuff. And we advanced a lot of our conversations. So, it was a different conversation than some of the other experiences, but I will tell you, they both have their charm to them.

    I see it as an exciting opportunity from a hybrid work perspective. I think customers are far more open. They’re not waiting for us to get on a plane to visit with them. And I think the team as well. @saritasayso

    So, I see it as an exciting opportunity from a hybrid work perspective. I think customers are far more open. They’re not waiting for us to get on a plane to visit with them. And I think the team as well. Think about everything our teams have gone through, each of us as humans has gone through, many people homeschooling their children. To know that we could build an environment where they could still do that and still be very present at work and be really comfortable…I mean, if a dog was barking in one of our backgrounds right now, we wouldn’t say cut video, right and start again? This is us, right? And I think there’s something very charming about that.

    All relationships have an emotional component whether they’re with industry experts or your own teams. For many, those relationships are happening through online meetings. How are you and your teams making digital more human?

    Sarita: Absolutely. I have done a cheese tasting at 5:30 in the morning because that worked well in Asia. Right. It was a great way to bond with the team. Cheese at 5:30 in the morning  not so much. If you think about it, during the first couple of months of the pandemic we all built our home office space and tried to find the place we could all be at home. We upgraded our cameras, we figured out the microphones, we hung guitars and ukuleles in the background. We started personalizing the space, right?

    There’s this great Twitter handle called room rater (@ratemyskyperoom) where they rate the rooms and so forth. I think we all became conscious of that. I think one of the best selling books on Amazon during the first month of the pandemic was, I don’t remember the name of the book, but about reading and looking at the titles of the books on people’s bookshelves.

    So we have that element and then many folks have kind of also managed to become teachers to their children and many adopted new pets and many just spent more time with their family and we’ve invited each other into our homes. We’ve had people comment on the space that we’re in. During the pandemic I was traveling between Dallas and where my family lives in Chicago. Folks knew where I was simply by looking at my background.

    So it all did become personal. But if I think of what I encouraged my team to do first and foremost, I asked them to set boundaries. It’s really easy to be in front of these machines hour after hour after hour. I always ask them when they’re kind of working from home to take a moment to disconnect. And if you can’t disconnect, take that moment to go for a walk maybe while being on a call. That’s okay. Maybe we even take a moment to turn the camera off so you can have that time. Setting boundaries has been kind of an important guidance for my team.

    Some parts of the organization did “no meeting Friday”. You actually saw a lot of folks on social media talk about doing a no meeting Friday.  I’ll tell you when I came into more of a customer facing organization, I’m like maybe we alleviate video because ultimately if your customer is available Friday, we should be available Friday. The business doesn’t shut off. So I think no meeting Friday is something that has nuances to it.

    I think you have to set a stressless tone. If someone’s child comes in a room or, or a dog is barking, you know, I see it as a good sign that I have fewer people apologizing for that. @saritasayso

    I think you have to set a stressless tone. If someone’s child comes in a room or, or a dog is barking, you know, I see it as a good sign that I have fewer people apologizing for that. They now know it’s okay. I think that’s really important to set that stressless tone and take a vacation. You still need to take a vacation, right? Even if we were in the world of lockdown where you couldn’t travel as much, just a day away, a two days away is still really important. Find something, to go off and do and take your mind off of work.

    For me also staying connected to coworkers, to family, friends that was really important. I used to love walking by someone’s office. I was just talking to someone earlier today where he was like, “you’d always pop out of your office, you’d ask a question”. He goes, “I feel somewhat disconnected from that”. I’m like, there’s still ways to go do that.  I used to do this way back when I first started with the company. When we first went to a full go home environment is I would do howdy calls where I would just pick up the phone and call someone to say hello. I think folks like that. Something else, I have gone through so much stationary during the pandemic, a lot of handwritten notes. I think there’s something kind of special about getting those. We lost that art. Sometimes getting those handwritten notes was nice as well. It was another way that I tried to stay connected.

    Customer experience is a focus and key differentiator for most B2B companies. How are you redefining the customer experience at AT&T to build trust and deepen relationships? 

    Sarita: I would tell you when the pandemic first started, small businesses really struggled. And continue to with the open and close environments. One of the best examples I have of how we leveraged social media for our customers is our efforts with small business. As they were going through some of their challenges, we looked across our business to say, what can we go do to help?  There’s an agency within AT&T as part of our Warner media family, Fullscreen, and, there were at a slow period. So the employees there got together and they built the social media playbook. So you have this professional agency building a playbook on how you establish your social media environment when people can’t come into your store and see your products and services.

    They showed us this and this is beautiful. It’s a high cost for a small business to get that advice. It’s not just about opening Instagram and wallah, you’re there. There is a science to this as we talked about earlier. So we took that playbook and we offered it to our customers, to the community at no cost by any means. And that was just a fantastic tool. And we used social media to get that playbook out there to thousands and thousands of customers. That’s one way.

    We also had different customers connect in different webinar experiences so they could learn from one another. I think those were a couple of the key ways.

    We definitely used our digital space. We created an area specifically for small businesses within our AT&T business environment. We created a handbook on how you build a virtual business. How do you take your physical to your virtual business and so forth and shared that as well. So what we tried to do is, was take some of the things that larger companies have more easy access to and make those available to smaller businesses.

    One of my favorite phrases from the pandemic, I remember a team member said, “Sarita we’re in this together”. I remember hearing that and I’m like, you’re absolutely right. We are in this together. @saritasayso

    One of my favorite phrases from the pandemic, I remember a team member said, “Sarita we’re in this together”. I remember hearing that and I’m like, you’re absolutely right. We are in this together. And then I heard that phrase time and time again, and I’m like, wow, did we hear it from them or did they hear it from us? But the beautiful thing was that everybody embraced it. So it’s one of my favorite phrases, we’re in this together.

    In the State of B2B Influencer Marketing Report, you shared a quote about the importance of authenticity and that people naturally trust other people more than brands. You also mentioned, “Working with credible B2B influencers can help build brand authority through real, human conversations and interactions.”  Can you share an example of what “real, human conversations and interactions” looks like?

    Sarita: We brought Barbara Corcoran on to help us. She has done a series of webinars, we’re still doing them and I encourage folks to go watch them. You can’t get more real. Barbara also brought her friends in, like Rachel Ray. So someone that’s both inspirational and aspirational, right.

    If you have somebody that is going out there to start that business, they’ve seen these individuals grow those businesses. What I loved about Barbara is we always offered up a Q and a section and it was like, “well, I’m thinking about starting this”. And she just said, you’re too late. You’re too late if you don’t start now. So she was directive and motivational as well. We’ve seen how Barbara has built so many successful businesses through her work. So I think it was a very relatable and it was somebody, again, that simplified something that was rather complex. She brought emotion.

    Folks say this isn’t emotional. It is emotional. So she brought emotion into it and she brought a sense urgency where urgency was required. And this wasn’t anything that we charged our customers for. This was about us contributing to the community because that’s what small businesses are about, right? It’s the community. So I think Barbara was just a huge hit and just so incredibly authentic. That’s what I really liked. And I think that’s the power in bringing the right influencers on board.

    How important do you think it is for sales leaders to be active on social networks and build community?

    Sarita: Yeah. I think it’s key that you have to have a sort of full cadre of what your plan is. But social media, in my opinion, is one of the most important aspects of marketing. It provides incredible benefits but you have to know where you’re reaching your customers and where your customers are. For me the focus is, as you know, is LinkedIn and Twitter. I don’t use many of the others because that’s not where my team is or my customers are. So I think that’s going to be really important that you know where you reach your customers depending on your business. There’s others, where Instagram is going to be really important for that business. So just make sure you understand where you should be telling your story. I think staying active and up to date is important and staying relevant and the messaging of today is really important.

    Social media, in my opinion, is one of the most important aspects of marketing. @saritasayso #executiveinfluence

    I think it’s anywhere, right? Social really goes anywhere from awareness to consideration until the customer is ready to buy. So there’s multiple ways of looking at it. So I think it’s  definitely relevant. I think you see more brands investing in social for their messaging because you get that broader reach and you get a greater return from that perspective. But again, remember to be active where your customer base. If you’re using it for customer acquisition remember to be active where your customers are.

    More brands investing in social for their messaging because you get that broader reach and you get a greater return. @saritasayso #executiveinfluence

    Thank you Sarita!

    You can find Sarita on Twitter, LinkedIn and you can learn more about AT&T Business on their website.

    Be sure to stay tuned to TopRank Marketing’s B2B Marketing Blog for our next episode of Inside B2B Influence where we’ll be answering the B2B marketing industry’s most pressing questions about the role of influence in business to business marketing.

    You can also download The State of B2B Influencer Marketing Report featuring insights from a survey of hundreds of B2B marketers plus case studies and contributions from marketing executives at brands including AT&T Business, Adobe, LinkedIn, IBM, Dell, SAP and many more.