The Report

By nurturing relationships, sailing through the ranks

By nurturing relationships, sailing through the ranks

Posting in Cities

Aubrey Sabala embodies her vision for the future of marketing with a personalized touch that grows client lists and careers alike.

It's a chilly December morning, and I'm on my way to meet Aubrey Sabala at Sweet Revenge, a one-room cafe in New York's West Village neighborhood. I arrive a few minutes early for our interview and look around for a table. She's already seated in the corner, warming her hands with a latte.

I'm meeting with Sabala because she presides over marketing at Sailthru, a startup that helps businesses like The Huffington Post and Business Insider personalize their communications to customers. Her job, in effect, is to help enormous technology companies relate to their customers on a personal level.

“I'll have the Savory Oatmeal Skillet,” she tells the waiter when he comes to take our order. She's famished, she says, after skipping last night's dinner for a department cocktail hour. This is hardly an unusual occurrence -- social events with colleagues reign supreme in Sabala's life. Her attention to relationships extends to clients and customers. It's as much a job requirement as it is a strategy to grab the brass ring.

Unsurprisingly, Sabala's resume over the last decade reads like a who's who of Silicon Valley. She's had desks at Google, Ask.com, Digg, AOL, and Facebook. When I ask her what she's proudest of from those years, Sabala answers without pause: “Mentoring and helping grow others' careers.”

“A lot of people say, 'Oh, there aren't women in technology,' ” Sabala says, amid the din of the room. “Actually, there's a ton of women in technology. The issue is, the roles that are held by women are traditionally valued less, or they're perceived as valued less. There's a lot of women in operations and sales and marketing, and the success of the entire company needs all those roles there.”

Sabala has an extraordinary level of comfort with making things personal. Her first role in tech was account strategist for Google in the early aughts. While leading a team training in London, she noticed that her audience had stopped listening to her during a technical computer exercise. Their attention had drifted to their screens while they whispered across the room.

“Somebody had found my personal website,” she says, with good-natured annoyance. “They were all just going through all my photos.”

There she was, a woman in her early twenties, trying to command the attention of European business leaders while they're giggling over pictures of her out with friends. Sabala admits momentarily feeling frustrated, but she soon recognized it as a instantaneous way for her to bond with the team. She had become someone with whom they could relate. “You know, we're all human,” she says with a smile.

Sabala works to instill humanity in the employees she supervises at Sailthru. “I was telling them last night [that] I want them to feel very comfortable to make mistakes," she says. "Make those mistakes, and then say, 'OK, what are we going to do now?' and learn from it. That environment of taking those big risks, and fail,” she adds, gesticulating with her spoon. “Totally do it, that's where you learn.”

One of Sabala's greatest learning experiences came from working at Digg. She met founder Kevin Rose while rock climbing, and he later hired her to manage marketing for the social news website. It was her first role marketing to users, not clients. And she faced an immediate crisis.

“Around the time I started at Digg, there was something called the 'Digg Revolt,' ” Sabala says. The website's approximately 20,000 users had formed a very active community, and Rose's January 2008 announcement of changes to the site's algorithm -- which changed the way user submissions were promoted -- quickly angered them. Some saw the changes as a way to penalize top contributors for their popularity.

Suddenly, Digg had a problem. “They were requesting a lot of changes, and the site was being built based on their feedback," Sabala says. "But Digg wasn't doing a very good job of letting them know that their feedback was being heard and actually incorporated.” Enter Sabala.

“In my first week of being there,” Sabala remembers, “by Friday, I'd put together two big programs. One was to go to the top six cities and throw a party to meet directly with users and bring the founders to make them more accessible. And the second was to do online town halls that were live-streamed, where they could interact directly with the founders in real time.”

It was a formative experience. “I can’t imagine what I'd being doing if I hadn't been at Digg,” she says. This summer, she wrote an article about the experience for TechCrunch.

I look down at the table between us. In contrast to my half-empty burrito bowl -- from which I've been sneaking forkfuls during our exchange -- Sabala's oatmeal remains largely untouched. She's more focused on our conversation than her apparent hunger.

In 2010, Sabala left Digg for AOL. Her mission was by now a familiar one: reassure AOL's customers that the Internet giant was relevant and listening. In one example, she had the company sponsor free Wi-Fi at the Lollapalooza music festival and erected a cabana where festival-goers could recharge their mobile phones. AOL saw a 4.5 million-person spike in use that summer.

Sabala and her work were soon noticed by Facebook marketing director Randi Zuckerberg, who poached her to lead consumer marketing for the social network as Zuckerberg went on maternity leave from the company in early 2011. A big focus: building buzz for Facebook Live, the site's then-new streaming video channel.

Sabala's first suggestion? Help Facebook get face-to-face with its users. “I said, 'Why don't we do something at South by Southwest?' ” she recalls. So she set up 17 celebrity interview sessions during the interactive edition of the Austin, Texas-based festival series. “The way people got tickets to this was, they were all free,” she explains as the waiter removes our plates. “You just had to come find us, the marketing team. There was a lot of buzz around it. It was about being able to really make sure that as we were trying to build up Facebook Live, our presence was felt at this notable event, in a very noisy space.”

In late 2011, Sabala moved to New York City to fulfill a lifelong goal. Sailthru took notice. She had fostered enough relationships in tech and marketing that the company was following her career from afar. When Sabala moved into the company's backyard, its executive team reached out with an offer crafted with her in mind. Sabala accepted.

“It's more of a data and analytics company than anything else,” she says of Sailthru, “which ties back to my Google Analytics days. It's really allowing marketers to create super personalized digital relationships with every one of their customers, and it's doing it automatically. It's taking all of that behavioral, Google Analytics-type data, and allowing clients to create a very robust data profile based on user's explicit interests -- like saying, 'I want to hear your newsletter about sports' -- as well as their implicit interests, which is, they're getting the newsletter about sports but they're really only clicking on lacrosse.”

Sabala sees this personalized approach as the future of marketing. “I think people are thinking more about how people interact with a brand,” she says. “Because every individual consumer is different, and your personal interaction with a brand will be a little different than mine.” She motions toward the other patrons in the cafe. “You might think this is a nice, cozy coffee shop, but I might be obsessed with the bartender. Everyone's a little bit different.”

“What you see the savvy marketers do,” she says, “is being able to respect their users' preferences. They might not want to get an e-mail, and you can see that because they haven't opened it for the last two weeks. A lot of the advice we give our clients is, stop sending e-mails to those users. Which is very non-traditional advice.”

"Users are getting so much information," she says, glancing at her iPhone sitting on the table. "My phone probably buzzed here about 10 different things. You probably got 15 different e-mails. You're getting so much. How do you sort through it and make what’s really important stand out? It's respecting the user, letting them state the preferences that they have, and then understanding when something isn't working. Because there is so much [information being delivered], people aren't loyal the way they used to be. So to maintain that customer loyalty, you have to be respectful of the way you're interacting with them.”

Sailthru has garnered attention for its unlimited vacation policy and emphasis on a sociable company culture. It's an obvious fit for a Digg veteran like Sabala. “We have Sail Ale Thursdays, where everyone goes and has cocktails. There's a Secret Santa next week. People want to spend time together. It's not forced. I have another group of friends too, but I spend a lot of time with these people, and I'm lucky that my team feels the same way. We're going ice skating today.”

But didn't they all just hang out last night? At her departmental cocktail hour?

“Last night we just went and had a cocktail,” she says. “Today we're doing a little marketing team off-site. We're going to be dorks and go see the [Rockefeller Center] tree, and take photos, and go ice skating.”

No protest there. It's New York City during the holiday season; the town is at its most glamorous. The desire to skip the office to take in the sights along Fifth Avenue -- we can all relate, right?

Which is, I think, exactly her point.

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure