Episode 37: To Boldly Go Where No Marketer Has Gone Before

Many CMOs take their client base for granted. Even though they may put a lot of time and effort into building that base and retaining customers, most marketers are fortunate enough to have an existing network of consumers to work with. When Trip Hunter set out to promote Silicon Valley’s first-ever ComicCon in 2016, he needed to start from square one. Trip’s genius advertising prowess—along with some help from Steve Wozniak—helped the con bring in over 60,000 attendees. Great Scott!

Silicon Valley ComicCon wasn’t Trip’s first crack at delivering a dynamite marketing strategy. He’s been implementing cut-through tactics for nearly 20 years with brands like Renegade, Fusion-io, and Primary Data. A strong believer in the “no risk, no reward” theory of marketing, Hunter is the quintessential renegade thinker!

Trip Hunter discusses some of his boldest marketing ambitions on the Renegade Thinkers Unite podcast with host and former business partner, Drew Neisser. You can listen to the episode here. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole podcast, you can check out these sample questions and answers below:

Drew: There were a lot of comic cons already when you started this two years ago. How did you make sure that Silicon Valley ComicCon was unique?

Trip: Steve Wozniak is one of the partners of both companies that I work at and he wanted to do a ComicCon that was not just about pop culture. He wanted it to include science and technology because in his mind, these two things drive each other. And so I don’t think there are many shows out there that balanced content between technology and pop culture as well as we do.

Drew: What role did social play in the overall marketing program?

Trip: We started with nothing two years ago—we had no social following at all. So it takes a while to build that up and once you kind of hit a certain level, it starts to grow pretty quickly. But one of the reasons that I think it was successful was, we focused on creating ownership. So we weren’t just talking to people, we were engaging them and asking them how they wanted to shape the event. That empowerment allowed them to recommend guests; one person said I want to do a cosplay show for dogs. I don’t think anybody had done a doggy cosplay, and that became a huge component.

Drew: How did it go?

Trip: The press loved that! That came directly from the people that we were listening to. So again I think it’s about listening and then giving people the ability to help shape and create the event.

Drew: What was one risky marketing stunt you pulled off at Primary Data?

Trip: For the launch of Primary Data, we wanted to do something that was also big and about moving just because moving data is what we do, and so we brought Nitro Circus into South Hall, which is a building at the San Jose Convention Center. These guys have these massive ramps that take all day to set up. The first guy goes off the ramp on his motorcycle—this is an enclosed building and the ceiling is 80 feet in the air—and as he goes by one of the giant lights he reaches out and taps the light. I went over and said, “Well, I’m not sure this is going to work.” And he said, “No, no it’s going to be fine. That light was a good three feet from me.” So we changed things around, but the next time he went off it, he did a backflip and it was right next to the ceiling. It didn’t seem to bother anybody, so away we went and Nitro Circus did a big indoor show and people loved that.

Drew: What was the story there?

Trip: Again, it had to do with moving data: showing that moving data is difficult, but also showing that there are very few people that know how to do it. Nitro Circus in this instance was one of those very special groups that knows how to do this and nobody else does. At Primary Data, what we’re trying to do hasn’t really been accomplished yet and so we’ve kind of put ourselves in that vein. Now granted, that’s a pretty thin line. It’s about Nitro Circus—they’re just amazingly cool to watch, and for a launch party, it doesn’t take much more than that.

Drew: What is the toughest lesson you’ve learned when it comes to marketing?

Trip: For me, the toughest lesson has been staying up with the evolution of marketing and I think it’s really easy for us to become complacent in the channels that we’ve tried. Just because it worked before doesn’t mean it will work again. It is one of the things that Silicon Valley ComicCon has taught me especially as I move back to B2B marketing is the importance of social and all of the different channels working together harmoniously.

Marketing Clean Water, A Career Journey

My son asked me the other day, “Which superpower would you prefer Dad, teleporting or flying?”  I knew my answer right away but I was surprised when he told me most of his friends choose the other option.  As it turns out, these folks just want to get to where they want to go which makes the idea of teleporting extremely appealing. But for me, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey and I can think of nothing cooler than the ability to fly (without a plane) a la Superman. It’s no wonder that I risk life and limb daily riding a Citibike all over Manhattan rather than taking the seemingly safer and slower subway.

Today you, my loyal readers, have just such a choice. You can spend a little time meeting Snehal Desai and getting to know his career path from college to becoming the Global Business Director for Dow Water and Process Solutions.  Or you can teleport directly to Part 2 of this interview in which we cover how Dow Water approaches consultative selling, stays relevant with an ever growing user base and is working to help solve water issues around the globe. As the old knight suggests, “choose wisely.”


Drew: Can you tell me about your career at Dow and how you got to where you are today?

Snehal: I work for Dow Water & Process Solutions, a division of Dow Chemical. I’m currently the Global Business Director. My background has always been sales and marketing, although I’m trained as a chemical engineer and chemist.

Drew: I imagine the combination of a chemical background and a degree in business was very appealing to Dow. Are there other members of the Dow team with similar backgrounds?

Snehal: Increasingly. When I joined the company, I was an engineer, and then I went straight into selling. It wasn’t until a few years later that I actually went back and got my MBA at Northwestern. It was a bit of a reinvestment in myself, after I realized that I was going to stay on the business side. Today, more than ever, there is a convergence of business and technology so having an MBA ends up being pretty important. We hire a lot of people on the selling and marketing side who are either business or technical-minded; in some cases, they have both.

Drew: How was it working towards your MBA while working full-time at Dow?

Snehal: While I was selling, I was living in Chicago and that gave me an opportunity to attend Northwestern. I then moved from a selling role into a marketing role right after I graduated. I spent about 16 years in Dow between selling, marketing, new business development, and working with a host of other science and technology platforms. I should also note that Dow gets into almost every industry. We support packaging, agriculture, and cosmetics. There are a lot of things that our technologies fall into, but my background has primarily been in the water space.

Drew: And you have been with Dow Water ever since?

Snehal: No. Right around my 16th year, I decided to try something different so I left Dow and went to work in two start-up technology companies. After seven years, I realized you need a lot of money and patience if you want to get involved in clean tech and sustainability. After coming to that realization, I actually returned to Dow as the Marketing Director for the water business, which is where I first started in the company back in 1987. I took on the general manager/business director role for Dow Water Process Solutions.

Drew: What does being Global Business Director for Dow Water and Process Solutions entail?

Snehal: I have the P&L responsibility for our global business. We are very focused on advanced separation and purification technologies that are utilized to clean water, and a host of other process streams. We have a global operation, roughly a billion dollars in revenue, 1,700 employees, 10 manufacturing sites, and several research centers. With all of that you have to operate profitably, reinvesting in people and in resources.


Drew: Can you talk a little bit about what consultative selling means?

Snehal: In consultative selling, you’re focused on customer problems and how you might be able to help them find solutions. In the water industry, it’s around having reliable operations. If you’re a water chemist, a power plant or microchip plant manager, and you’re putting out the next iPhone, the last thing you can afford is having your water system go down while you’re in the middle of production. What that really comes down to is being able to help that operator make his system the most reliable.

Drew: So the customer is the focus here. How do you develop a relationship with the Dow customer?

Snehal: For instance, when you have a conversation with a customer, you might catch them in year 1 of their product’s 7-year life, or you might catch them earlier. The bottom line is that you want to keep a relationship with them over the lifetime of that product so that they can get optimal use out of the technology.

Drew: Can consumers expect a call towards the end of the product lifespan?

Snehal: You just touched on one of our main business issues right now. In the early days, we could call many of our customers, and have a very intimate conversation about when it is time for them to change their products. However, we’ve gone from hundreds of customers to tens of thousands of installations. Now, we’re talking about how to integrate digital in a way that allows us to maintain some of that intimacy.

Drew: I’m sure that Dow being a global company makes the challenge even harder.

Snehal: Definitely. The business challenge right now is scaling this intimate consultative model in a manner that allows us to get not only to the thousands of installations. It’s also dealing with the brand becoming more global today than it was 20 years ago. I used to be able to do all my business in English, but now I can’t. Can I do all my business in my time zone? No. Oftentimes, what we’re finding is that many of our clients are doing what all of us do, which is going to the web first.

Drew: How are you dealing with this move to digital? Do you have customer service team active online?

Snehal: Our customers really try to help themselves before they really want to talk to anybody. So now, we have to make those tools and some of that decision-making information available to them online. Additionally, we have very smart people contact them and walk them through their issue.

Drew: How do you make sure that when you are consulting that you are acting as a truth broker and not solely promoting your brand?

Snehal: To be honest with you, sometimes I would prefer if our folks were the kind of people who understand how they could solve the whole problem without technologies. But oftentimes, we have people that are very close to the problem that they’re trying to solve. For instance, you could use ultrafiltration followed by reverse osmosis to purify unclean water. But the fact of the matter is that if the water isn’t that bad in the front end, you might not need ultrafiltration. In that case, we’re not going to recommend that process. Instead, we’re going to tell you, “Here is the trade off. Here is what you get if you did it but that’s going to cost you.” A lot of times there is no reason to advocate for anything other than one piece of the puzzle because it’s the only one that is needed.

Drew: What role does brand play in the selection of these replacements parts for Dow Water?

Snehal: It plays a big role because, as I said at the beginning, we pride ourselves on reliability and trust. I think that’s fundamentally what people in our business are seeking; they want to trust what they’re about to rely on to produce their water. We spend a lot of time showing how our products are working around the world. Doing this in our 35 years of business has resulted in a large amount of repeat buyers. The Dow brand isn’t necessarily just a product. It’s also the people, it’s the reliability, and it’s the warranty.

Drew: How do you battle staying both trusted and current?

Snehal: Over the years, we’ve done a nice job finding the early adopters that are willing to embrace a change in scheme, a new operating technology, or are willing to partner with us to deploy it. We really cultivate references all over the world and then push the technology. Competition in the marketplace also drives us to continue improving and innovating.

Drew: I know Dow is doing a working to help ease the water crisis in Southern California. What measures do you take to stay up to date on the issue?

Snehal: I’ve spent more time in the last year-and-a-half in conferences that you wouldn’t think that Dow would be a part of. It’s part of a conversation that says, “Here are all the things we can do. Here is what your role could be. Here is what Dow’s role is in helping us get to that outcome.” We’ve also joined a few advocacy groups like the Value of Water Coalition, which aims to answer a few questions: “What are we doing to invest in your water infrastructure? Do you know that we are severely underfunded? Do you know that before you put the road over the top of the water pipe, maybe you should fix the water pipe?”

Drew: How is Dow addressing the lack of water from a marketing standpoint?

Snehal: We’re really focused on this concept of courageous collaboration. That focus requires us to engage with a variety of stakeholders to get this topic on the table because it’s not a problem everywhere. In those places where it’s a burning question, we want to be a part of the conversation. Our technologies may or may not fit at that moment, but we’re at least informing the dialog.

Drew: Courageous collaboration is a very interesting term. What does the courage part of that phrase mean?

Snehal: We are challenged with engaging with people who may not always share the same point of view. But if you listen, you have a chance of finding out that you have a lot more in common than you thought. I think that the courageous part of it is being willing to engage with people that we wouldn’t traditionally think of as natural customers. It’s thinking about your ecosystem in a much broader way, and then acting as a speaker and a listener in that conversation.

Drew: How do you approach change?

Snehal: There was a period of time when to do something different would have been seen as very risky, “Why fix it if it isn’t broken?” But I find that even if there isn’t a better way to do something, there is always another way. It doesn’t have to be big bets, but the important questions are “What do you choose to experiment on? What do you choose to pilot?” I’ll tell you that over the last 18 months, I’ve spent more time in non-traditional venues which allowed me to see things that I might not have seen if I went to the usual places.

Drew: Can you tell me about the Water Academy series?

Snehal: It’s a resource for the new class of water engineers and water treatment professionals. We have traditionally built that content around the North America or the Western European market. Now, we have so many people from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America that are joining. We provide people with information on how to best pick and maintain systems, how to design, etc. We provide all this content through video, and we do Q&As through our LinkedIn community page.

Drew: Is all of the Water Academy content available via mobile?

Snehal: Absolutely, it’s important to think about making the content bite-sized, and highlighting the most important information. That’s very different than a two-hour seminar on everything you need to know.

Drew: On the homepage of your website, there is a search bar that says, “What can we help you find?” Is that a relatively new thing that you’ve added?

Snehal: People come to us for what they know they need, but there could be a lot of things we could do for them. If a person had a big question about something related to water, even though that may not be something that we do, we can direct them to a sister division, or a customer that does it.

Drew: Have you thought about adding a feature that can identify new customers?

Snehal: It’s definitely part of our thought process. We’re looking to use technology and interface with individuals on our team to personalize experiences and help people more easily find what they’re looking for.

Drew: Are you incorporating social listening into your research and if so how?

Snehal: We did two pilots in social listening, in which we focused on a topic in a region of the world to see what we would find. It was pretty fascinating because residential water treatments or point of use water treatment is a big trend in India. We ran an experiment with a provider to do social listening to see what people were talking about, particularly on the consumer side. We found that there was a lot of conversation going on around the topic of water and home water treatment.

Drew: How are you using social platforms for social listening?

Snehal: We’re looking more on LinkedIn and forums where people are asking each other questions. We’re experimenting where we can, and we find a lot of it is relevant to us so we’re just keeping our eyes open.

Lost Opportunities to Engage During #Blizzard2016

This past weekend, New York City had one of its biggest snowstorms ever, and, as usual, this presented an opportunity for brands to engage in the social conversation. Not surprisingly, New Yorkers expressed a lot of joy, surprise and down right frustration across social channels. What was surprising is that as the snow and chatter piled up across Gotham, most brands stayed pretty much out of sight. We believe this was a lost opportunity. [Note all of the research for this article was done by our social analyst Andres Monsalve]

NETFLIX: #Netflix&Chill.

Across the social chatter, it was pretty obvious that #Netflix&Chill was going to be present and dominate a huge part of the conversation.



Did Netflix use this opportunity for their benefit? Not so much.








These were their tweets about #blizzard2016:

Could Netflix have taken advantage of this social happening in a more buzz-generating fashion? Most likely yes. For example, Netflix could have rolled out a group of special releases for the #Blizzard, encouraging their users to watch a few and of course, chill. Or bundle a bunch of bad weather related films into a binge-watching marathon.


For many New Yorkers, spending two days in one’s tiny apartment can feel a bit like a jail term. Some people were worried about suffering cabin fever during this “extremely long” period of confinement. In order to bear with this suffering, many find a bit of alcohol a welcome companion. Note that NYC now has the 5th largest number of craft breweries in America. However, most alcohol brands did not engage in the conversation at all and ignored the opportunity to “come to the rescue.”

Brooklyn Brewery, at least, demonstrated how to use #blizzard2016, enlightening us with this innovative way to take advantage of the snow.


The real unsung heroes in this blizzard were the #FoodDelivery guys as thousands of New Yorkers stayed in and ordered out. As George Herbert Palmer said about the postal workers once, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” The men and women who deliver food ‘round the clock truly help make NYC the greatest city in the planet, and New Yorkers recognized this during #blizzard2016. More than 600 mentions were about tipping your delivery guy more than 20%. Unfortunately for their brands, neither @Seamless nor @Grubhub chose this as an opportunity to join this conversation and support the folks that make their service possible. Like empty seats on a plane, this was a lost opportunity.


The big winner in joining the blizzard conversation was the @NationalZoo who shared a gleeful video of #TIANTIAN, the panda, rolling in the snow. #TIANTIAN garnered more than 13,000 mentions over the weekend and stole our hearts. What can we say? Guess we all have a soft spot for furry animals playing in the white stuff. Here is the video of #TianTian enjoying #Blizzard2016.

Responding to social conversations like the #2016Blizzard in real-time is tricky business, requiring a great deal of preparation and then, lightning fast wit. Clearly most brands rode out this particularly storm but perhaps others will plan ahead for the next big opportunity. We hope so.


The Non-Linear ROI of Social

I’ve spent a lot of time recently obsessing about the ROI of Social Media.  Not just because current and prospective clients want to see some kind of a return on the services Renegade provides (although that’s a damn good reason in and of itself) but also because it’s a fabulously complex Kobayashi Maru-like challenge.

Consider for a moment all the roles that social media can perform for a company including customer service, recruitment, research, product development, awareness building, crowd sourcing content, referral/lead generation, and yes, even direct sales in a few cases.  Now try to unbundle those roles and show straight line ROI for any of them with the exception of the last one.  Good luck to you.  (By the way, smarter minds that mine like Lux Narayan of Unmetric have concluded http://onforb.es/14mn0NX  it’s just not possible.)

Thinking that social media could be my route to the answer, I sent out this tweet:

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 9.23.13 AM



Rob Moore, CEO of Internet Media Labs and a fellow IBM #SmarterCommerce VIP Influencer (which has become an invaluable micro-social network!) was kind enough to respond leading to the conversation below. Rob offered a terrific example of “Non-Linear ROI” which brought us both some comfort that all the social networking stuff we do actually does pay out!  If you have similar tales to share, let me know.

Drew Neisser: First, can you provide a short description of Internet Media Lab?
Rob Moore: Internet Media Labs is a NYC based new media & technology company.  We build technology to help businesses and brands build and manage social relationships more effectively.  We also run a cool co-working space and produce a web show, #InTheLab.

Drew Neisser: Talk to me about how you measure social ROI in terms of your own business?
Rob Moore: Social ROI for us takes many forms, and it is important for businesses to recognize that there are many forms of Social ROI that can be quantified and measured.  Of course, there is the obvious – we make a social connection that becomes a buyer of one of our products or services.  But there is also tangible ROI that comes in different forms: from connectors – people that introduce you to others that ultimately buy – and amplifiers, people that share our message about our products.

It has to be noted, however, that none of this happens without a significant investment in relationship building.  We have amazing social relationships and networks that will have significant impact on our bottom line for years to come.

Drew Neisser: ROI in your case seems like a very non-linear non-direct marketing process. Is that a fair assessment?
Rob Moore: Absolutely.  Up to this point, I would say that most of our ROI would qualify as originating from non-linear connections, i.e. someone that introduced you to someone else, that invited you to speak at a conference, that resulted in a business opportunity.  That is pretty non-linear!

One important thing to recognize as well is that many of those originating relationships happen as the result of seemingly “random” intersections – the serendipity of social.

Drew Neisser: So you met Linda Bernstein (@wordwhacker), who is clearly an influencer and she has been evangelizing on your behalf which lead to various leads which you will close at some point. That sounds like ROI to me. Do you think it’s possible to actually create a model that puts a value on your nurturing of people like Linda?
Rob Moore: First of all, I need to state for the record that it would be impossible for me to put a “value” on my relationship with Linda, she falls into the PRICELESS category!  But that said, you can absolutely model and attribute value to your social relationships, especially when you apply what I call “social forensics” to the analysis: mapping and identifying the true origin of that revenue you just booked.

When you are able to do that, every social relationship can be assigned a potential future value.

I want to be clear that I don’t look every person I meet on Twitter with dollar signs in my eyes.  Rather, I look every new social relationship as an opportunity for mutual discovery, networking and advocacy.  By being authentic and agenda free, trust is formed and friendships are created, the by-product of which is magic!!!

This works both ways for IML, by the way.  We have sponsored many an event, used services, or paid commissions to people and businesses that we have met through social media.  As a matter of fact, our social media ROI balance sheet is a little in the red right now – we need to do something about that!

Drew Neisser: Is this kind of networking / relationship building with influencers scalable?  If so, any thoughts on how?
Rob Moore: It is scalable, but it doesn’t happen without a plan and significant commitment. My friend Angela Maiers (@AngleaMaiers) coined the phrase “Tactical Serendipity”, which I love.  Tactical Serendipity means putting your self in position to take advantage of the random intersections that happen every second in social.  If you can identify where you best social relationships have come from, put yourself in a position to attract more of them – you can scale great relationships if you know where to find them.

Drew Neisser: Also, you’re a seasoned vet with a proven track record which makes it a lot easier for you to network with other influencers like Linda.  Could a junior person at your company have done this? Is this sort of networking something you can teach people?
Rob Moore: Yes I believe this type of networking can be taught to and mastered by almost anyone.  Surely my depth of business experience has been an advantage to me as I have engaged in social, but there was a massive learning curve for me as well.  I think that learning curve can be compressed, though, to accelerate success and positive outcomes.  For junior people, this can be achieved through coaching and mentoring, for senior people new to social it is often just a matter applying existing skills sets and knowledge to well defined social relationship building strategy.

FINAL NOTE: This is just my opening salvo on Social ROI.  Expect a lot more on this subject in the near future.  There are folks out there (like Syncapse) working of formulas to calculate Social ROI and I can’t wait to dig into those…

Guerrilla Marketing Insights

Business Insider ran a feature today on guerrilla marketing which included a couple of quotes from yours truly.  Here are my notes from my interview with reporter Bianca Male.

What is the best way to define guerrilla marketing? And what is it most definitely not?

Guerrilla marketing is a state of mind not a particular channel. Guerrilla marketing is about making more out of less, combining innovation and elbow grease to cut through. Guerrilla marketing can also be defined by what it isn’t. It isn’t traditional media like TV and print. Today’s guerrilla marketers capitalize on social media with a vengeance; listening, researching, conversing, engaging, supporting and ultimately selling. That said, just using social media channels like Facebook doesn’t make you a guerrilla. Using Facebook in a fresh way like Burger King did with Whopper Sacrafice is guerrilla. It simply isn’t guerrilla if it isn’t newsworthy.

How can a business decide if a guerilla marketing campaign is right for them?

There are a few highly regulated industries like financial services and insurance that make considering guerrilla approaches a risky proposition. That said, just about every other marketer big or small can benefit from guerrilla, its just a question of risk tolerance. Guerrilla marketing typically carries some risk since it requires a brand to step outside its comfort zone and do something they’ve never done before. Guerrilla marketing done right is newsworthy. As I said earlier, It isn’t guerrilla marketing if it isn’t newsworthy. One of the risks of guerrilla marketing is that it simply won’t cut through as planned simply because it wasn’t original or it was just a dumb idea. Another risk is that the guerrilla idea was a mere moment in time and didn’t include sustaining elements. One of my favorites: Renegade launched the HSBC BankCab in 2003 with a search for the “most knowledgeable cabbie in New York” which got tons of PR and concluded with a one-year contract for Johnnie Morello. Seven years later Johnnie is still on the road providing free rides to delighted HSBC customers in a vintage 1982 Checker Cab.

How does a business develop a guerrilla campaign? Any guidelines?

The article I just wrote for my blog on Fast Company provides several relevant guidelines. Generally, its best to start by setting clear objectives followed quickly by doing your homework, really thinking through your category, brand and consumer. Ideally, this process will yield a true insight that can be transformed into a big idea. Then its time to think 360°, imagining all the ways your idea can come to life, online, offline and in-between. It often helps at this point to imagine the story headline you’d like to see, the tweets you’d like to read, the photos you’d like to be taken and YouTube videos that you’d want to view. Talk to some PR professionals you trust to make sure these story ideas might in fact find purchase in your ideal media outlets. Google your idea to make sure it hasn’t been done the same way you’re planning to do it. Guerrilla programs usually start when a client says to us, “we don’t have any money but we’d really like to get some media attention.”

One of my favorites: A few years ago, Panasonic was introducing a new line of alkaline batteries called Oxyride that were far more powerful than Energizer. Since they didn’t have the budget to compete directly, Renegade came up with a truly guerrilla program called “Neuter your Bunny.” This tongue-in-cheek “public service” effort focused on heightening awareness of the benefits of bunny neutering. Turns out it calms the male bunnies down and prevents female bunnies from getting cervical cancer, a disease that otherwise strikes them with remarkably frequency. So Panasonic Oxyride batteries established Neuter Your Bunny day, donating 5 free neuterings and $10,000 to the House Rabbit Society. And despite the fact that PETA gave Panasonic an award for caring, the American press thought this was veiled yet hilarious competitive campaign writing headlines like “Panasonic Wants to Neuter Energizer” in over 30 publications from Time Magazine to Newsday.

Is there anything a business should NEVER do when it comes to guerrilla marketing?

It is generally not a good idea to do something that will cause someone on the team to go to jail. If you have to break the law to get attention then you probably need a different business model. Try not to annoy your target. A street team performer once shoved a donut in my face in order to get me to stop and go into a bank branch—this was not a fun experience for me or productive for the bank who would never ever get my business after that. Try not to think of guerrilla as a moment in time or as a simple street stunt. This will limit your horizons and the potential impact. And never tell the boss that your guerrilla program is going to be a hit before it becomes one. Its always better to under-promise and over-deliver especially with often unpredictable guerrilla endeavors.

CMO Insights: The Importance of Innovation

In October 2008, Barbara Goodstein, Chief Marketing Officer of AXA Equitable was only slightly nervous as her company launched an unprecedented customer retention program called MyRetirementShop.com.  Creating a “retirement portal” more focused on “value add” than lead generation, Ms. Goodstein was moving her company into unchartered territory, delivering a “marketing as service” program that became far more successful than even she had anticipated.

Since its inception, MyRetirementShop.com has attracted over ½ million visitors who spend a whopping 11 minutes browsing highly relevant content from top experts like Kiplingers, Service Magic and MyRecipes.com.  Current customers were quick to thank AXA for this resource with not just words of praise but also by buying more AXA products, generating revenue far beyond the program’s cost. The press responded to this innovative marketing approach with over 200 stories that yielded an equivalent of $4.0mm in paid media coverage.

Since the old proverb “success has many fathers but failure is an orphan” also applies to marketing, it is often difficult to get the real story on what it takes for innovations like MyRetirementShop.com to come into being.  In this case, however, after an extensive interview with Ms. Goodstein in which she reviewed the development process, it became very clear that her journey has provided a textbook case on innovation, yielding the following seven critical elements of success.

1. Innovation Starts at the Top

Ms. Goodstein is no stranger to innovation.   Having guided the highly effective 800-Pound Gorilla advertising campaign for AXA into being four years ago, she knows a big idea when she sees one and she knows how to stretch a budget for maximum impact.  But she is also the first to acknowledge that “innovation more than anything starts at the top” and that if her CEO, Kip Condron, didn’t encourage and support innovation, her efforts would never see the light of day.  With senior management saying, “We should try multiple creative options and see what’s going to work,” and encouraging innovation with financial incentives, the virulent skepticism that typically inhibits new idea development is diffused if not silenced.

2. Listen to Your Customers

The impetus for MyRetirementShop.com sprung from an annual study AXA conducts among its customers. According to Ms. Goodstein, “We built MyRetirementShop.com on years of data that revealed the topics that were most relevant to pre-retirees, so we just had to take all of this content and make it accessible.”  Pre-retirees noted their interest in everything from home and family to health and fitness, from travel to finance, from self-improvement to entertainment.  So it came as no surprise to Ms. Goodstein that these topics gained traction with their target.  The only surprise was divergence between the expressed interest in volunteering and concierge services in the research versus the actual behavior on the site.  Ms. Goodstein speculates that disinterest in these areas may be more a reflection of current economic realities than the ultimate value of the content.

3. Make Sure It’s Truly Innovative

Before developing MyRetirementShop.com, Ms. Goodstein and her team did an extensive review of retirement portals and competitor’s websites.  When it was clear there was nothing like it out there, the AXA team then “did our own screening to find the best possible content providers.” According to Ms. Goodstein, “It took over a year to line up all the partners, and an internal SWAT team dedicated to every area of the site” to pull it all together. To insure relevance, they insisted that all the content had national reach and users could even “drill down by zipcode.”  And though much of MyRetirementShop.com content exists on other sites, AXA is the first to aggregate it all in one place, and is the only retirement portal without highly intrusive advertising.

4. Service First, Then Branding

The intention of MyRetirementShop.com from the beginning was to be a service – not an advertisement, a service that would help retain existing customers, and one that would reflect the deep expertise of AXA Equitable and its sincere commitment to help consumers with retirement planning.  “We wanted the site to be value add” noted Ms. Goodstein, “and we didn’t want it to be a commercial for us.” This commitment to service had a strong influence on the design of the site, which has almost no AXA ID other than their 800-pound gorilla who serves as “branding anchor and host.” The now familiar gorilla sits on top of each section and offers a “pithy audio message” that Ms. Goodstein anticipated “would create more of a connection” with site visitors.

5. Service First, Then Sales

Once the site was launched, AXA representatives were provided with a number of tools to share it with existing customers.  Direct mail, email and brochures described the content and invited customers to visit the site.  Then the unexpected happened, this so-called retention program started generating sales. “For $40 worth of DM, our reps generated an incremental $60,000 in sales,” added Ms. Goodstein with glee.  Suddenly the sales team that usually put the kibosh on programs considered “non-revenue generating,” embraced the site, acknowledging its power to increase sales among existing customers and even to attract new ones.  By providing a genuine service to its customers and prospects, AXA found a friendly way to break the ice and renew the conversation about retirement with a now receptive target.

6. Innovation Requires Perseverance

MyRetirementShop.com took over two years from conception to launch, with multiple hiccups along the way.  Getting the technology right was challenging and the site, which was developed by internal IT resources, went through several iterations.  “It took us a while to get it right,” acknowledged Ms. Goodstein and of course, she did not have “universal support initially.”  Importantly, AXA Global and top management voiced their confidence in the project, which Ms. Goodstein gained by outlining a clear vision, defining the content with crisp wireframes and by providing prototypes that fueled expectations.  By demonstrating what it would look like and never wavering from the quest, Ms. Goodstein and her team were able to build consensus from top to bottom, setting the stage for its ultimate success.

7. Don’t Rest on Your Laurels

Despite exceeding expectations on every metric, Ms Goodstein and her team continue to seek ways to improve MyRetirementShop.com.  New original content is in the works that will simultaneous enhance the visitor experience and increase the natural page rankings on the search engines. New content partners that could increase consumer appeal are being evaluated.   “We are also going to change the enroll button so interested visitors can reach us more easily” added Ms. Goodstein who marveled at the unexpected benefits of a true “value add” program, “Because we are willing to work so hard, people want to connect with us.”

Bottom line: Marketing innovation is neither easy nor linear, requiring support from the top, a clear vision from the start, steadfast determination along the way and ultimately a desire to do right by the consumer, a consumer that will thank you many times over with not just words of praise but also their pocketbooks.