A Highly Human Approach to Digital Marketing

Coastal.com CMO Braden Hoeppner believes that e-tailing success requires a blend of ethnography and analytics. His Vancouver-based global company sells eye glasses and contact lenses to consumers in 150 countries. Successfully sustaining that global reach requires a local approach with a personal touch.

What’s your passion in marketing?

My primary passion is at the intersection of customers and digital. I’ve spent most of my career in the digital realm, and I strongly believe in a range of approaches to find out what customers want and need. It is the marketer’s challenge to uncover those desires—regardless of how they’re expressed or even if they’re expressed—and then develop solutions for them. Leveraging digital tools to help create those solutions provides endless opportunity. Online eyeglasses are a perfect example. There weren’t a lot of people running around six years ago saying, “I want to buy my eyeglasses online.” It turns out that consumers really did want a different way to buy eyewear—a more affordable way, a more convenient way, a way with a greater selection—that disrupts the old way of doing things.

What “range of approaches” do you use to identify consumer preferences?

We constantly analyze customer and consumer data. We’re a big Net Promoter Score company, for example. It’s crucial for us to use a lot of digital tools, which we do on a daily basis. However, it’s just as important for us to talk to people on the street. We’ve done studies where we took a dozen people from our marketing team, teamed them up in pairs, and sent them to a shopping mall to talk to anyone they found with glasses. Our people would ask questions like, “What was your best glasses-shopping experience?” and “What was your worst glasses-shopping experience?”

The figure represents the increase in mobile traffic to Coastal.com’s website from January 2011 to January 2012. “Like all e-tailers, we knew mobile was coming,” Hoeppner says. The surge in smartphone- and tablet-equipped site visitors motivated a strategic shift, but not before Hoeppner and his team gained a better understanding of the surge’s timing.

“As we investigated the data more closely, we saw that newly received technology gifts were being turned on in the final week of December.

That added fuel to the longer-term shift. It also caused us to pour a lot more thought and action into our mobile strategy throughout 2012, before the next post-holiday surge.”

We brought all of that research back and sat down together to gain a deeper understanding of how people buy eyewear and what frustrates them about the process. And then we brainstormed ideas to address those frustrations and other issues we discovered. In the digital world it’s very easy to simply look at visits, page views, and clicks. You see these numbers in your analytics dashboard and you forget that there are actually human beings behind the data. We want to make sure we address the real needs of the people on the other side of the screen.

Did you have an aha moment when you realized the value of balancing digital and real-world marketing?

It was more like an aha experience, and it occurred at a previous company. The company was B2B, but it maintained a massive consumer Web portal for its business clients. Historically, the website was designed for the B2B organization where all the revenue was coming from. But the fact of the matter was that end consumers, our clients’ customers, were using this website to get to our clients. One of my responsibilities was to communicate this to our business partners while selling them on the need to redesign the site to better meet the needs of end consumers. My argument was that the new site would benefit them: We will drive you more leads. It was a tough sell, and the site-rebuilding process was disruptive. Once we finally launched our new website and put our new marketing into place, we increased leads by 50% overnight. That experience proved to me that when you put end consumers at the center of your assessment of the market, you uncover new things that you wouldn’t have uncovered otherwise.

How do you integrate this passion into your daily routine?

For one, we’re collecting and analyzing a lot of voice-of-the-customer input—survey feedback and other customer analytics—on a daily basis. And, a key aspect of my role is instilling a customer mind-set into everybody. This involves education. It also requires me to challenge perspectives. I constantly ask questions: “How are customers going to perceive that?” or, “How is this persona going to use that feature that you’re proposing for the website?” or, “Why did we post that to social media; who was that targeted to, and what were we hoping they would do in response?” It’s one of my responsibilities to continually challenge our team to always put the customer at the center of what we’re trying to accomplish.

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.


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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