CNX16 diary (2): Are you experienced?

While the other 4,999 attendees of CNX16, Atlanta, went off to the Georgia Dome to hear Stevie Wonder play his hits, I found myself walking for a couple of miles along some railway tracks, watching freight cars covered with brilliant graffiti lumbering down the line.

And while everyone else here has been talking about customer success and the customer journey, I’ve been asking: What is the customer experience in the digital world?  Haven’t brands always wanted consumers to have a good experience, if only to sugar the pill of buying something expensive? In my wanderings through the dimly lit halls of the Georgia WCC I found three Salesforce customers who each–in their own way–persuaded me that selling an experience was at the heart of their success.

Connected Cars (Beep Beep!)

First up, a conversation with Rick Ruskin, Marketing Lead for General Motor’s OnStar subsidiary, in which I briefly played the role of journalist as idiot.  All because I don’t drive–I really don’t.  I hardly notice cars.  I can’t even tell you the name of the lovely white model on display at OnStar’s Salesforce booth.  A GMC something?  So it was about twenty minutes into our chat that it dawned on me that OnStar’s main objective is not to sell digital in-car experiences, but to sell the cars in which they’re packaged.

It all got much clearer after that.  The structure of OnStar’s business also gave me a partial answer to my main question. GM aside, OnStar itself is selling neither cars, nor–of course–the products its merchant partners offer to member drivers. It’s selling a customer experience; one which, admittedly, is designed to enhance the experience of owning a tangible and expensive product. A Chevy, or a Buick, or a Cadillac (see, I know car names).

The kernel of the idea for connected cars derives from safety and security, but the high value is driven–if that’s the word–by the way cars are inevitably used. Aside from home, work, and maybe school, Ruskin pointed out, people use cars mainly to go to merchants. And there are merchants they go to regularly. “Not only will we take you there,” he said, “but what do you do when you get there?” You might take advantage of personalized offers and deals based on OnStar’s knowledge of their driver members.

OnStar garners valuable first-party data when a driver subscribes: not just demographic and geographic, but also, as Ruskin colorfully puts it, “psychogeographic”–based on choice of vehicle. “Someone driving a Sierra pick-up truck probably doesn’t have the same interests as someone driving a Chevy Traverse.”  I take this on trust. OnStar also knows (on an opt-in basis) where their drivers regularly drive to. “We had complex data, but couldn’t deliver a personalized experience,” Ruskin said.

GM wasn’t the first company to offer a 4G LTE-equipped vehicle (a competitor beat them by a month), but the technology is in all vehicles beginning with the 2015 models, turning them into mobile Wifi hotspots. This connectivity, together with Salesforce marketing tools used to track its six or seven million drivers’ multiple digital touch points, “helps us create a journey which is more engaging to users.” And, of course, monetizable for merchant partners. Not only is the OneStar experience available on devices used in-car, but also on an interactive dashboard display, which also serves as an app store.

“You’ve made a huge commitment when you buy a vehicle,” Ruskin told me. The OnStar experience “creates brand preference and loyalty. It helps keep GM drivers in GM cars.” It also “allows merchant partners to have that connectivity with customers.” But it’s not just a marketing platform: it’s an interaction platform.  Because OnStar is selling the coffee or gas or groceries its partners might offer in relevant, personalized messages. Nor is it selling–not really–cars. It’s selling an experience contiguous and continuous with the rest of a driver’s digital existence.

Makes me wish I was a driver. Almost.

Going to the Chapel (via Standard Couple Timeline)

I am married, but I had to explain to Bart Thornburg, WeddingWire‘s Associate Director of Lifestyle Marketing, that I was his worst nightmare. City Hall, minimal planning, no vendors involved. I did buy some flowers. He took that in his stride. After all, it’s the leading online wedding planning destination for engaged couples, and represents hundreds of thousands of wedding professionals (including venues as well as vendors). Although, as Thornburg explained to me, it monetizes the vendor side of the business, its main selling point seems to be an experience–a romantic and somewhat emotional one–which can actually begin even before a couple signs up for the site. Search strategies put couples on WeddingWire’s radar (“We have a very smart SEO team,” Thornburg says).

One big part of its web presence is a vast database of crowd-sourced reviews for vendors; positive reviews obviously adding to the basic appeal of discoverability. “We also have a ton of editorial content,” Thornburg says: advice articles, photo features on the latest wedding gowns, etc. That content helps WeddingWire personalize a couple’s experience (social activity is also tracked). Browsing behavior is a “hand raiser”–as Thornburg puts it–not only for a couple’s specific interests, but also for whether they’re deviating from the standard timeline.

This concept is basic to what WeddingWire can do for its members. The theory is that the average couple conducts wedding planning according to a predictable pattern–booking a venue, hiring a DJ, printing invitations–along a set timelines. But individual couples do unexpected things. It’s that data which allows WeddingWire to provide the best experience possible. Emphasis intended.

“It wouldn’t be doable couple by couple,” Thornburg admits, if the generality of behavior was not predictable. Nevertheless, emails and newsletters are customized–personalized–at the couple level by taking cognizance of deviations from the norm. (Okay, the experience is romantic, not the explanation.) WeddingWire sends out emails with titles like “Five Months to Go!”–and although there’s common content, “everyone on the list will be getting a fairly different version.” 

“We can be there as equal partners with them,” Thornburg says, “we can see them through their wedding. We want to keep in contact, and we want them to come back and review the vendors.” There are modest incentives for doing so, but many couples are motivated by wanting to help other couples plan an equally successful event.

WeddingWire has been working with Salesforce Automation Studio to deliver the personalized experience. It beta-tested Journey Builder, but felt there was too much to migrate (“and Automation Studio is so robust”). Having seen the migration wizard demonstrated at CNX16, Thornburg says they might revisit the question.

So does delivering a personalized customer experience do anything for the bottom line? Does it differentiate WeddingWire from the competition. Thornburg was unequivocal: “I think it’s huge. From a product standpoint, we have the sheer quantity of high quality vendors. But thinking about how we can leverage the 1:1 digital marketing… It’s about combining the two things in a smart way.”

Ring those bells.

Brokering a Relationally Built Environment

With Alltrust Insurance, I thought I was never going to hit customer experience paydirt. After all, this was surely a very traditional business trading in goods and services–assuming that brokered insurance plans count as goods, and providing counsel to clients’ HR departments counts as a service.

Alltrust’s Director of Marketing, Christian Nicole Mullis, after welcoming me to the South (she’s a native Floridian; I am clearly from somewhere more north, more rainy), explained that Alltrust’s goal isn’t just brokering (“I hate that word”) employee insurance policies, but to “holistically” address and improve health and wellbeing among its clients’ staff. It remains, she said, “a small, boutique firm” with about 40 employees, which “doesn’t want to move away from the personal touch.”

Arriving at Alltrust to tackle business development, from a background encompassing a college degree in marketing and PR, then work experience in sales, Mullis found that–despite the founder’s visionary interest in marketing automatiom–there was “nothing cohesive that was pulling (the company) together” from a marketing perspective. Leads generation? Sales processes? Everything was… Mullis pointed solemnly to her temple, meaning “in peoples’ heads.”

The business had looked at a range of marketing automation solutions, including Hubspot and Marketo, but hadn’t bitten the bullet because “there was no marketing strategy, and nobody managing sales.” Offered the opportunity to take responsibility for marketing (and with someone in the sales seat), Alltrust made decisions on Salesforce–for sales/CRM–and Pardot, just acquired by Salesforce, for automating the B2B customer journey. (Alltrust worked with a marketing agency which had experience with Pardot.) The solutions were implemented as recently as January this year.

It’s important to understand that Alltrust is indeed a specialized, boutique business. It works not only with its clients, but very directly with their employees, to handle those crises which trigger employee benefit claims. Although it can handle business with up to 5,000 employees, the sweet spot is 50-1500, very much the medium-sized business range. And, with a sales team of nine to ten people, it expects to onboard maybe eight to ten new clients per year. This is scaleable, of course, but it’s not a turbo-charged insurance enterprise. So why the need for Salesforce and Pardot?

One reason is that leads were lying idle for months–even years. “We’d like to leave the people we’ve been with, they’d say,” Mullis told me, but follow-ups were unanswered, perhaps because untimely or not precisely relevant. Using the new solutions, “we can deliver info that hits at the right time and right place, and is viable. We’re reaching potential customers we hadn’t been able to reach for years.” Also, she said, “you can pivot and adjust the message,” something scarcely possible with previous manual solutions.

Perhaps ironically, marketing automation, Mullis is convinced, has made connections more personal in what is “really, a relationally built environment. Technology, correctly used, can enhance the value of a relationship. It can start a conversation–or reignite one.”

I asked my essential question. Does Alltrust differentiate itself from competition just through the value of the policies it can offer, or is its standing enhanced by the ability to deliver a personalized customer experience in this specialized B2B space?  “Oh, it’s enhancing it more, and more, and more,” she said. “We don’t want to move away from the personal touch.”

Yet it’s no contradiction–not at all–that they’re talking now about solutions for customer retention, and for building out the whole customer journey. “We had to start somewhere.”

Salesforce covered The Hub’s travel and expenses to attend Connections 2016.

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