A Highly Human Approach to Digital Marketing

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Coastal.com CMO Braden Hoeppner is all about data—but never at the expense of the personal touch.

How do you help your team when they're having difficulty keeping the customer at the center of their work?

One philosophy I have is that any barrier that you see in front of you in business is really an outcome of perception. I find this holds true for both individuals and groups. My job is to ask questions that help our people shift or expand their perceptions. You can point out the barrier and tell them how to address it, of course, but they may not believe you; even if they do, they probably won't change their behavior. I find that it's far more effective to sit down with them and ask questions that help them view the problem from a slightly different angle. When they do that they almost always come up with fresh ideas and effective solutions. I might say something like, “There's another part of our organization that has a view on this and talking to them may help you,” or, “Here are some new customer survey results that challenge our preconceptions of product X; how do we reconcile that?” These questions stimulate insights that help our marketers hatch a new idea or even conceive a new campaign that I never would have thought of on my own because their perception is unique.

Does this philosophical approach help in any other ways?

It often stimulates more conversations with more parts of the business. This philosophy also ties back to what we do as marketers at a fundamental level: We're trying to change customer or consumer perceptions so they look at our product differently. Right now, only about 3% of eyewear is sold online. Other consumer categories are in the high teens. There are a lot of glasses that are not currently bought online. We're trying to change consumers' perceptions about buying eyeglasses online—to show them that the experience is better for them, whether those advantages relate to price, selection, or convenience.

Tell me about another challenge you encounter as the CMO of a digital retailer?

The speed at which technology is moving is just incredible. For the past few years the e-commerce world has sort of thought, “OK, this is the year of mobile.” Well, the wait is over. We've really seen mobile flip into high gear in the past 24 months. Mobile now generates a significant amount of traffic to e-commerce sites. People are buying things that you never thought that they would buy on a small screen, and this behavior pushes beyond mobile into “any screen.” I look into our Web analytics data and I see that people have bought contact lenses on their Wii or their PlayStation. I've tried it, and it's a cumbersome process. But people do it, so I have to ask the customer questions: How do we make that easier for them? How do we serve customers who want to interact with us in those different ways? I think the number one challenge right now is wrapping your head around quickly changing technology; choosing the right technology that's going to move the business forward. That's tricky because there are a lot of shiny technologies out there that can hold us back or distract us from more important matters.

How do you keep pace with technological change on a personal level?

One way is by being a gadget collector.... The reason I am is if one catches on, I want to have an understanding of what it actually means for consumers, and of how we might leverage it.

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How to Digitally, and Humanly, Detect Consumer Preferences

1. Be inquisitive: Hoeppner urges his people to get out and ask questions—of each other, colleagues, customers, and consumers in general. “In this day and age it's easy for all of us to hide behind our computers,” he notes, “but nothing is quite as impactful as when you actually talk to somebody face-to-face. This is sort of like running—you have to get yourself out the door. And once you do, you've tackled 90 percent of it.”

2. Subject key observations to quantifiable measures: One customer is not a statistically valid sample, nor can Coastal.com marketing professionals conduct in-person interviews with 10,000 consumers every day. “But when you gain interesting insight from a conversation, it should prompt you to add a question to an upcoming survey,” Hoeppner says. “That can broaden your research by addressing the question of whether other people feel or behave in a similar way.”

3. Test, test, test: For a digital retailer like Coastal.com, the cost of testing a new marketing idea is fairly low. Fear is a bigger obstacle. Marketers, as well as colleagues in other departments, may be afraid of the challenges and changes that a test outcome might give rise to. “There may be some important decisions to figure out, but those can wait,” Hoeppner adds. “Get off your tail and ask the questions first, validate those insights in a quantitative way, and then test to validate. We can figure out how to remove any perceived barriers at that point.”

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