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Episode 6: AJ Alonzo

Director of Marketing @ demandDrive

"(The personalized message) has to be relevant to the person that you're personalizing it for."

In this episode we chat to to AJ Alonzo, one-time sales veteran turned content enthusiast and Director of Marketing at demandDrive, a leading sales development and demand gen agency out of MA.

We find out what made AJ lean towards marketing, what lessons he learned transitioning from a Sales Dev role to a Marketing career, recommendations for others taking that path, and how he feels about the state of Community content and personalization.

Connect with AJ, and for more episodes follow us on LinkedIn as we expand our talks to other SDR leaders.



Hey, I'm really excited to have AJ with us today, this is going to be a good one, thanks for coming on and I'll pass over to you for an introduction!

Awesome. Thanks for having me. Yeah, I'm excited to dive into some stuff. This is my world, I live in it day in and day out. So I um like you said, I started as an SDR, you know, I cut my teeth on that role started in 2013, which for a while didn't seem like it was that long ago. And, and just the other day I mentioned to someone, yeah, like close to nine years ago and I had this moment where I'm like, oh boy, like I've been doing this for nine years.

But I started out, you know, I was, I was using Excel as a CRM, I was punching a physical polycom phone to make dials. So I really learned a whole lot in those first few years as an SDR and then managed to kind of leverage a lot of those skills into my current role as the Director of Marketing over at demandDrive, and what we do is we help companies build and manage SDR teams.

So I was an SDR, I learned a whole lot about what it's like to be a good one and how to manage them, and and now I'm working on creating content to share how we're able to do that for our clients. So it's a very cohesive space that I've been living in for the past almost decade.

Yeah, so literally it is your world like, Sales, SDR and then you've kind of got into the marketing side of things, but it's the SDR focus.


Yeah, I guess going back to 2013, which now like makes me feel even older for saying that's a long time ago. But like, how did you, how did you get into like an SDR role? Was it the typical, I just need to get a job or was it I've wanted to do since I was five years old. How did you get into it?

If you find me someone who wanted to be an SDR, since they were five, send them my way. I'd love to have them on the team. No, I it was kind of the the very typical, like I just need a job situation.

I, in 2013, when I graduated from from college, the market wasn't super hot. I actually remember the commencement speaker specifically kind of giving like a good luck out there nod to everyone as they were graduating, kind of noting that it wasn't the best time to find a job, but I I had sales experience in the past. I had done some like canvassing work. I did some door to door sales and kind of just like I knew the world, so for me it was an easy transition to kind of look at as almost a stopgap for a bit. And then I just fell in love with it.

I don't know, it was just, I had been doing some very like traditional forms of sales where it's, you've got your little black book or you have the book of accounts and you've got to go door to door and you have to build these relationships with people you, you don't really like, and you have no technology.

And then all of a sudden I get put into a world where I have some tech and I have a little bit more freedom and I and I started building up my systems and processes that really worked for me and I just, I fell in love with it.

So here I am, you know, nine years later, kind of still in the world.

I think that's it, I think a lot of people,for you, it sounded like you had a bit of a background in sales, you've done something like canvassing, door to door stuff. So you know, you've kind of got your teeth into the hardest part of it. Like you're doing door to door.

It's it's definitely a lot more difficult to do that than what I was doing as an SDR sitting at a desk behind the phone rather than walking around in 98 degree heat trying to get someone to buy office supplies.

Very different world.

Yeah, I find it quite funny now how a lot of, like, the big thing now is when people onboard at a new company, they get like their onboarding kits, their laptops, all these free gifts, it's like amazing thing. I was like, I never had, like, any of that and I assume like back in like 2013, it was like, it was a bit more traditional, like, here's your phone, this is your job, like what were you mainly doing? Was actually following up on leads? Cold calling? There was no Outreach or Salesloft back then so manual follow up.

No, it was mostly cold, I think every once in a while we would get. and so because I worked demand driving, because we had clients that we were supporting, I would get lists from them, but in, in conjunction with some of the stuff that we were pulling on our end and the list from the client were mostly like, “here's a webinar that we ran and these are all of the registrants”, like go after it and that was like a present to me, because it meant that they at least had some idea of who we were and what we were talking about, but most of it was just straight up cold outbound.

LikeI said, kind of tracking it in, in Excel versus a CRM and, that was a very different time, but it was, it was cold. I had some inbound experience, but it was mostly just, you know, classic cold outbound.

And how do you feel, like, how do you feel about cold calling? How did you feel about cold calling when you were first doing it? And how do you feel about it now?

Very differently! When I was first starting, it was the last thing I wanted to do.

And I think that like, sort of, I started my transition into Marketing, noting that, like, I just had way more success writing emails and I was way better positioned to come up with a message via text and send it to somebody than I was kind of on the phone live during those first like six months as an SDR.

So I leaned heavily on email early on and it was a huge mistake to be honest.

I would say probably a year and a half into the role kind of made the realization that I should have been picking up the phone more often, because I, you can just learn so much more on a cold call, having a conversation with someone, picking out their pains and needs and challenges, and really digging into like why you can help them or why they would even talk to you versus, you know, getting a response back the email saying like, not interested. Not a whole lot, you can glean from that unless you pick up the phone and call somebody.

So, I would say, I didn't realize the value of cold calling early on and now, I mean, I don't do it anymore, but now I really push SDRs to the ones on our team and the ones that we kind of work with at our clients, pick up the phone as often as you can have conversations. It's only going to make you a better SDR if you can, you know, fill up your day with talk time and really get to know people and build relationships.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I like echo that.

I think it's like not only will it make you a better SDR but it will make you a better salesperson, because at the end of the day, like, there's nothing like if you get someone who's willing to speak to you to take that 30 seconds, one minute, whatever it is, and you can do that call and they throw an objection at you, you won't get that objection an email, you've got time to respond, you have to kind of know your stuff, you're forced into it.

For sure.

And then I guess before kind of moving into like, you started off as an SDR, you were kind of into that role.

And when when did you start kind of making that pivot or kind of transition or whatever you wanna call it, into more of a marketing, content, community role?

I would say within the first, so within the first year I really spent like nine of those months understanding what it's like to be an SDR and and for lack of a better phrase, like going through the slog of what it's like to be an early SDR, learning the ropes.

But, towards the end of that first year in the role, I wanted to branch out a little bit and like I said, I wasn't a fan of cold calling, if I could do anything other than cold call, I was looking for it. And at the time, demandDrive didn't really have a marketing department.

We had one guy who was kind of running point, he was a more senior SDR on the team who had been there for like a year, and he was running point on creating some of our blog content and putting together our website and doing like really basic marketing stuff.

And I saw it as an opportunity to pull myself away from the SDR roll and start to build up some skills around like copywriting and putting together messaging and just getting better at writing.

I think it's a key skill that you should have, no matter what role you're in. But for SDRs specifically the better you are at writing and the better you can convey a message through text, you're gonna set yourself up for success.

So, I looked at it as sort of like a way to get away from the phone and build up some extra skills and it just took off from there. Like a very small company at the time, we only had 20 something people. Um,so any help he could get on the marketing side he was going to take. So I jumped in and I was helping him write blogs and put together some basic website content. And so towards the end of like my first year in the role I started to take on bits and pieces of that on a more formal basis, and start to make it more of a focus for my day and and really budget out time, like all right, 80% of today's SDR work, 20% is marketing, figuring all that stuff out.

Nice. Yeah, that's quite good, because I think a lot of people when they when they finish college and they go into like their first role, there's a ton of sales jobs out there, and people don't necessary want to go into Sales, and again ,a lot of people really want to go into a Marketing job, but there's not the tons of marketing or people want to go into like a PR role, Press role, Content role, but there's there's not as many jobs, so I think what you've done it's great, because you've kind of gone in there, you've taken that SDR role, you've kind of got into it.

Did you feel at any point you're like leaving the Sales role, when you transition fully to the Marketing world? Did you feel like I'm now done with sales? “I'm now a marketing person.I'm not a salesperson anymore”or…

I don't think you can ever be done with sales.

There's like, you sell in everything you do! Even now, like I've been the Director of Marketing here for the past few years and I still sell on a daily basis. I'm selling to somebody on a conversation. I'm selling to somebody on giving me some of their time on taking a look at a piece of content that we create.

I don't think you ever stop selling and and I don't think I would be nearly as successful in this role if I didn't have that SDR experience behind me.

Yeah. Nice. I started my career as an SDR as well and I like look back those those first… Any job those first 12, 24 months is such a formative part of someone's career.

If you can just learn and just sit learn from your peers, the senior account execs, sales leadership. It can literally last you your whole career.

Absolutly. It's all about the mindset that you have going into it.

I think for the first few months my mindset was not great and I thought it was going to be a stopgap and this wasn't the career for me when I first like jumped in, and then like I said, you know, I kind of fell in love with it.

So, that shift in mindset, like you said, really sets you up career wise to know like, “oh, this is actually what I want to do” and when you have that, that mentality, you can dive in and really learn absorb, get all of the stuff that you need early on to then form what the rest of your career is going to look like.

Yeah, great. And there's a couple of topics I want to touch on. 2 topics, specifically, one is around communities and one is around like personalizing like messaging in outreach. I kind of think like going into the personalization, makes sense. Like we've discussed here, like, you know, you prefer writing to people, creating that text.

How do you feel about personalizing? How do you feel, you know, within demandDrive around SDRs, you've got SDRs that school spend three hours writing an email for an unsubscribe or like, I'd love to get your opinion on personalization, what it means to you, what works? What doesn't work? Yeah, I'd love to hear.

Yeah, I think so, it works, is my opinion. You have to do it.

But I think that more than just personalizing something, it has to be relevant to the person that you're personalizing it for.

I actually funny enough, I just had a conversation this morning talking about this and the person I was talking with, they were like, “yeah, like imagine that you get an email from somebody and it's, hey AJ I have a dog. You have a dog. Cool. Anyway, do you want to learn more about my product?” Like? No, but you've, you've personalized the email because we both have dogs and that's a connection we can make. But the context of the message still wasn't relevant to me in any capacity.

And I think that's the big thing that a lot of people kind of miss with the personalization element, is it's got to go beyond just “I noticed you went to this school or oh, you're from this town, I'm also from this town”, you have to back it up with actually trying to help somebody and add value in your message. And that does take time, for sure. I don't, I don't think anyone should spend three hours writing an email. That's definitely overkill.

But if you can budget out and in your day and sort of tier your accounts effectively, then you can spend the most time and the most effort on the right accounts and then focus less of that effort on the accounts that maybe don't matter as much.

So I always as an SDR, and I tell SDRs today, I had a top like 25 or top 50 accounts that I was focusing on, and I would budget out a specific amount of time, an hour or two hours during the day to really, on those accounts, make sure that I'm sending the most relevant personalized email I possibly can, they know it's a 1-1 email, I'm only writing this for you.

And then the rest of the day I can spend on reservoir lists or sending out more generic or just like industry relevant emails. That way I'm still hitting enough volume so that I'm not just sending out 25 emails in the day while mixing it in with the high quality that you need for the accounts that really matter to you into your AE. That's sort of my general take.

Yeah, I know and I think that's a good one. Like I think personalization it's a blanket term used by a lot of people. Like you need to personalize more, but personalization can have like lots of different facets to it. So I think you touched that, you can kind of break that down into your tier one accounts, tier two, tier three. You might do different amounts.

Talk to me like, a tier one, like a tier one account, you've got like 10 accounts.

How would you go about like personalizing? What kind of like great nuggets do you, do if you find something on that account on that person, you're like, this is gold. What do you look for, if you're like going into something?


I think my first spot and a lot of people's first spot is probably LinkedIn. Anytime that I find an account where there are active people on LinkedIn, posting or commenting or sort of in some capacity sharing about themselves or about the company online, I'll comb through that and look for bits of information to pull.

Usually, if you know, if I'm talking to for example, if my ICP is like a director level, if I can find something that that director levels, CEO or CMO or CRO, said on LinkedIn, that's A+ stuff for me to pull into my emai,l because their leader is talking about this and if I can tie that back to the value of what my solution brings, it makes the message that much more powerful.

Similarly, I'll look on if if LinkedIn isn't really giving you anything, you can look on the company website, in their new section or on Twitter or other social media to pull out like what's going on and really understand what it's like to be at that company and maybe what it's like to walk in the person's shoes that you're prospecting.

And then you can even go as far as like reading financial reports, if it's an enterprise level company. They have stockbroker meetings where like the you know, the finance individuals are going to talk about like, the the earnings for the quarter and how that's impacted sales and what it means for the direction of the company.

Like there are nuggets that you can take in all of this public information and if you tie it back to the value of your message and sort of how you can help them, that's the connection that you have to make.

But there's a ton of information out there. You just gotta know where to look.

Yeah. And like I think there's nothing that you said there which is like crazy amounts of time that it's consumed. Like, it's basically you kind of like and it's a tried and tested formula that works right. It's “I'm prospecting someone, I'm gonna, instead of just sending them a cadence or a sequence, I'm going to look in, I'm going to look at their LinkedIn profile.I'm gonna see if there's any posts from their VPs, Chief Execs, etc”

And then I think the main point you're making is like, “okay, how can I tie my solution?”. I'm selling to that point. So if their CEO is talking about, we're going to increase our sales organization and because we've got ambitious targets next year, so we're going to hire another 30 SDRs or something like that.

And so you can tie your message nicely into it, and then, company level there, you mentioned, like account news and things like that as well… If you set up like, I know people like adamant in saying that google news reports, daily reports… Do you do anything like?

It's funny that you mentioned that.

I actually, for a time when I was still an SDR at demandDrive, I did a lot of workshops around this topic, about research and how you can sort of like personalize your message. And google alerts was one of the ways that I showed Reps how they could get company news delivered to them on a semi regular basis.

I actually set up, the alert that I set up was just a dummy one, where I was like, look if you want to set up a google alert for, I don't know, puppies, then you go to google alerts, you type in puppies, you get the frequency and set that up and then I never deleted that alert.

So for like a year and a half I just kept getting google news on puppies, which was fantastic. Great way to wake up and I highly recommended.

Um, but I definitely get any any bit of technology that you can find to make the job easier, because you're right it doesn't take a ton of time to do what I talked about, but if you have a system in place where you can make it take less time you might as well go for it.

And if you can pair that with tools and technology to make it more efficient for you to find and utilize that information, it means you have more time to prospect, and that's kind of the goal of all of this, right? So, any bit of tools like that I would, I would jump out and try to use.

Yeah, exactly. I think it's just everyone has their own point.

I speak to SDR, salespeople, and you'll get people who are like fully, like I'm just a cold caller, I love cold calling, but you'll get some people, like I love using LinkedIn, I love social selling, and I don't make any cold calls and I've booked 20 meetings a month, so I think there's different channels for different people, whatever you feel comfortable with, that's having that system and process yourself.

For sure and, and foundationaly, I think all of these people still have and should have like basic SDR skills, right?

Like, you should still know how to pick up the phone, even if you don't use it necessarily to book all of your meetings and you probably figured out early on that you were better at using LinkedIn to build those connections and book meetings because of a lot of the training that you got as an SDR in those first three months, like these are things that you can't just jump to, you can't be like, you know what I hate the phone, I'm going to try social selling, like you still have to have that skill and use it in conjunction with other tactics to help fill up your calendar.

Yeah, I’d like to say, well, ultimately a lot of like majority, not all, but a lot of SDRs would obviously want to potentially go into an AE role and enterprise AE role, which is obviously a very different role quota carrying, managing complex enterprise customers and you need that broad set of, you know, you need different ways, you need to engage with different parts of the deal, the organization.

I guess coming onto, I was reading through your LinkedIn profile and you mentioned about how you kind of had a couple of shots at Sales and one was not using the community and one was like starting to use community.

I'm interested to know like what you mean by that and community specifically, like now and you're a big advocate of it, how that impacts you, what you mean by community, how you didn't use it and how you used it, what was that kind of process or journey about?

Yeah, I think early on it's easy for an SDR to kind of get caught up in their own little bubble of advice and tactics and best practices, especially if you work at a company with more than just one SDR like you have, you know, reps that you can bounce ideas off of and whatnot, but like you're all, you're all trained under the same methodology, you all have the same accounts, broadly speaking, like you all go after the same people. So it's easy to get caught up in in that world and then not experience or understand what other SDRs that other organizations are doing to be successful. And that definitely happened to me early on.

I sort of got stuck in my own little bubble of advice and best practices and do this and do that and it was not serendipitous, that's not the right word, but just kind of like happenstance I had connected with a couple of SDRs at other companies that didn't even remotely come close to doing what I was selling.

It's like a totally different space I'm in, you know, the marketing technology space there in the HR space or in like the finance space, but there's still SDRs and they're still doing a lot of the same stuff that I'm doing, but they maybe tried a different tactic or they're using a specific type of messaging sequence to great effect and for me, just connecting with those few people at first was eye opening in thinking that like, oh there's like other people out there doing the same job as I am, but very differently and still seeing results.

How can I take what they're doing and try it on my side of things and those first few people that I connected with ended up growing to like 5 or 10 to 20 and all of a sudden I have a LinkedIn group of like, 15 to 20 other SDRs who we're talking about tactics and sort of sharing with one another how they're being successful.

And that was that was like my first introduction to the idea of community, that you can have a group of like minded people with similar goals, doing things, different ways, but all helping each other achieve success very rudimentary, obviously, compared to what we see now.

But that was sort of like the first introduction I had to that idea and the opportunity to build something like that when it was given to me, I jumped out because I remembered what it was like to be that SDR who didn't know what to do, and then was helped by other SDRs, and I wanted to give that to somebody else and build a more formal community around that.

Yeah, yeah, I love it. Yeah. And I agree. Like, I think I know when I started it was me and one other SDR and my company and he definitely did not want to be an SDR, so like, he just didn't give a crap one there.

And so I'm just there and now I look at it and I look at the communities out there and some of the advice and once again, there's a lot of noise out there that people have probably never even been an SDR making all sorts of crazy comments, but there's, I'd say like half of the comments, if you look at some of the people they’re great, I look at that and I've been in sales for like 18 years and I look at some of the insight that people who are probably only been in sales 12, 18 months are giving and I'm just like blown away. That took me like 10 years to work out and this guy is commenting on there after like a year.

There are, there are SDRs that we've hired within the past six months that are already like way beyond competency wise, what I did in two years, just because of the resources available to everyone now.

Like I've said this on LinkedIn before and to other people. The job is way harder now than it ever has been. Being an SDR is not, it's never been easy, but now it's especially difficult.

But we've also armed reps with so many more resources now than I ever had or I'm sure you ever had when you first started that, it almost fully levels out the playing field and even gives reps today an advantage compared to what, you know, we were dealing with a decade or 18 years ago, just access to communities, all the tools they have, the courses that you can take online, the people that you can learn from, leagues beyond what, you know, we had and it really has helped accelerate a lot of early SDR careers.

Yeah, it's, it's almost, it's like a proper job now. Well, I would say before, it was like, let's hire in low cost junior sales people, they're not even salespeople, they're kind of SDRs, they cold call. Now it's like, there's a system that, you know, organizations understand the value, they understand that these people, if successful, will be the future sales organization, they can train them in a way they're going to deliver value from pretty much week. One month they're setting up cold meeting booking opportunities.

So now it's like a highly regarded, like, organizations take it seriously, They hire SDRs in a very serious way now compared to what they used to.


Or they have like cohorts of reps that get put into the same class and they all learn through the same training modules and all this stuff where it's like, oh, like, this is, this is real like you fully expect these people to stay here, succeed and help you build the company versus like, like, just burn ensuring a bunch of reps because we just need numbers and that's the way it had been before. So very different.

Nice, nice. And I guess just like, final, final question here. You've kind of gone through the SDR your company now, hiring SDRs training them and bringing them into other organizations. I'm sure you've seen a ton of successful SDRs, maybe some that haven't been successful.

What are like some traits you see with, like the super consistent competent ones, like what other things that you like. Pieces of advice you would give to, like new SDRs or even SDRs, you've been doing this like a few years.

It's a great question.

I think that the two big things that I would want to impart on someone is 1) time management is crucial.

It's easy to kind of just get lost in the day and you can have 100 things that you have to do and, you know, your calendar gets away from you, you go to meetings, you have lunch, you need to take a break you blah blah blah. And all of a sudden you've done 6 out of those 100 things. If you can effectively time block and really make your calendar work for you, then you'll be a significantly more successful SDR, just hands down.

And then sort of alongside that, the ability and sort of forethought of managing your pipeline accounts (goes hand in hand with that).

Because if you spend the majority of your day just doing cold outbound, then you're not necessarily building up the relationships that you need to see sustainable success.

If you can budget out time in your day to make sure that you're keeping the relationships that you've already started alive and that you remind people that you exist and that you're helping them and that you can kind of carve out more space in their brain for your name and your brand and what you do, you're going to see sustainable long term success.

I think a lot of SDRs, whether it's their fault or their manager's fault or the way that the company is structured focused on getting short term winds. They want lightning in a bottle. Let me just get as many meetings as I can today and then I'll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

But if you can take the time to build those relationships and make sure that you have a sustainable levels of accounts to reach out to and sort of build those relationships with them and whatnot, Ithink you're just gonna see a lot more success. It, it helped me a ton, probably like a year and a half into the role when I realized that I saw a lot more success than when I was kind of just, what have you done for me today? How many accounts can I dial? How many meetings can I book, I'll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

Those are the two big things I would say.

Nice. Yeah, I think like that's a reminder for anyone in any sales role. I think like, you know, having that time management planning, whether you're in an AE role and it's like, okay, I want to review my opportunities. I'm gonna go through my account list, I'm gonna look at, you know what my pipeline is for next quarter, what am I prospecting and having that time block sets you up for the whole year.

I've seen reps will just go in, it's a brand new year. They will just do a ton of prospecting, month one and then it just drops off and then they're chasing deals at the end of the quarter.

So yeah, like that, those two pieces of advice, like blocking off time, time management and then I think, let's say, don't just think short term, don't just think, okay, how many meetings?

Like you're building a, like I say this all the time. In a sales career, people are going working until 65, 70 years old and people are starting their careers at 20. That's like a 40, 50 year career. I know it's scary to think of it, but it's true, right? And so if you can start thinking like longer term while still focused on results, that's incredibly powerful.

For sure.

Nice. AJ! I absolutely love that conversation. I appreciate having you on. Anyone's not following AJ, I highly recommend you do and we appreciate your time and we'll speak to you later.

Thank you!

Thanks for having me!

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