How to Think Like a Modern CMO

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CMOs are reinventing themselves and redefining the C-Suite.

Rebekah Iliff, chief strategy officer, AirPR
Rebekah Iliff, chief strategy officer, AirPR

The CMO is rapidly becoming one of the most high-profile positions in the C-Suite; thus, markedly more important to the overall function of any organization. With their access to customer insights, technology decision-making prowess, and ability to break down silos with creative gusto and communication skills, the CMO may just be the hottest ticket in CXO-town.

But understanding what motivates and drives the CMO is often the equivalent of understanding the preferences and thinking process of the opposite sex: both invigorating and infuriating. Not because the CMO is intrinsically mystifying, but because the very nature of the modern-day CMO requires them to develop a mild case of data neurosis, a penchant for out-of-the-box thinking, business strategy know-how, empathy for the customer's situation, and—wait for it —CEO-level leadership prowess.

Did I mention a proclivity for being able to talk tech?

The genetic makeup of the modern-day CMO

As OneSpot CMO Adam Weinroth aptly observes from his own experience at a rapidly growing technology company: “CMOs have to be both analytical and adaptable, rolling and thriving with continuous change. It's an interesting combination of left brain and right brain characteristics, where creativity is absolutely essential to see around corners, data analysis is required to make decisions, and execution is needed to deliver actual results.”

This concoction of soft and hard skills, combined with the sheer amount of information descending upon the CMO from divergent forces, is almost enough to turn even the most “normal” of humans into one with a seemingly mild case of schizophrenia.

Weinroth adds: “Marketing is the ‘wild wild West' right now. It's about keeping up on everything from content marketing, programmatic advertising, and social media enhancements all the way down to specific mobile apps that are coming out every 32 seconds. There is no CMO handbook that tells you how to utilize all of these things, or how they'll make your business more successful; and it all changes every seven months. So it's never a matter of being ahead, it's more about asking, ‘How do I keep up?'”

 Customer obsessed: Key drivers for the evolving role of the CMO

According to Kabbage CMO Victoria Treyger, who has watched the marketing role evolve since her days at American Express and Travelocity, three main factors are driving this current CMO evolution:

1. Presence of a strong customer voice that provides real-time feedback and two-way communication between brands and their customers

2. Proliferation of new channels where brands interact with customers

3. Rapid innovation in technology solutions to capture all of this customer data and empower the CMO to take action

 “Customers are telling you every minute through social channels, through blog posts, and reviews exactly what they like and don't like about your brand,” she says. “The power of customer recommendations and reviews has never been stronger both for driving conversion and for building your brand.”

At the core, a CMO's role is about understanding the customer. It's the one thing that truly sets them apart from other C-suite posts. Anything the CMO finds useful is going to come squarely back to answering this question with a resounding yes: “Does this help me understand my customer in more detail?”

The great convergence

What's more, the convergence of the CIO-CMO roles is a departure from the past relationship where tech and marketing were less about real-time collaboration and more about the CIO recommending a technology solution, then the CMO reporting on efficacy. Now, many of the technology decisions are being made on the CMO side of the house, with minimal input from the CIO.

OneSpot's Weinroth, who says this convergence is experienced 10-fold inside a tech startup, offers insight into how the modern-day CMO operates: “Every piece of technology that we consider purchasing goes through a ‘self-test.' If I don't get it, it's a turn off, or I don't see value in it, then it's hard for me to get interested. If other people are raving about it then I'll try it.”

According to Weinroth, when it comes to talking tech to today's CMOs, the most important questions that must be answered as “net positive” are:

  • What is the cost of the solution?
  • Who will manage it?
  • How does it integrate with current systems?
  • What is the training required to implement?
  • What are the “hidden commitments” of the tech?

Big data, little data, and gut

The CMOs of yester-year weren't armed with the massive amount of data and insights that they are today. For the modern-day CMO, this is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, big data is extremely useful if distilled into actionable insights; on the other, it has the ability to hinder creative thinking if all you're doing is staring down the barrel of numbers, graphs, and charts.

“All the data and sources of data we have at our fingertips are extremely powerful,” Weinroth says. “But what makes great marketers is having intuition and being able to connect the dots in terms of anecdotal, or qualitative, data. There's no big data set on the planet that can replace creativity and taste.”

Treyger's take? “With so many new customer touchpoints and so much data being generated every minute, the explosion of technology solutions that capture, automate, and gain true insights from all of this customer data makes sense and is much needed.”

Both Weinroth and Kabbage's Treyger agree that gathering customer feedback in real time and understanding it at a granular segment level is what marketing is meant to be. But the ability to be responsive to customers and deliver personalized (rather than one-size-fits-all communication and services) still requires attunement and empathy that falls outside the big data box.

How CMOs measure success

Ultimately, CMOs are still being held to the fire to perform in terms of revenue.

Are their marketing efforts contributing to sales and supporting overall company growth? And are the marketing activities, in aggregate, helping customers at any point in their lifecycle: discovery, presale, onboarding, mid-engagement, and post-engagement?

If you're selling to the CMO, figure out how you can make their job easier contributing to their bottom line. Be empathetic to their position, and stay laser-focused on their pain point: the customer.

If you're an aspiring CMO, take note about what's required for the modern-day role; and know that if you can master the variety of skills demanded for the title you'll have impact far beyond just the traditional marketing walls.

Rebekah Iliff, chief strategy officer, AirPR

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