We spoke to four CMOs about the constantly changing space they're operating within. This Q&A includes the highlights and key insights from these CMOs:

Simon Shah, CMO at Redwood Software
Scott Anderson, CMO at Sitecore
Jackson Jeyanayagam, CMO at Boxed
Kristen Alexander, CMO at Certain

Q: Does your marketing strategy tend towards finding customers or customers finding you — and why?

Simon Shah:  Actually both. Neither channel alone would be appropriate and both add to the end outcomes. That is because of the complications to getting to the intended audiences when they are bombarded by contact messages and also at getting to them at the appropriate time in their buying cycle. There are so many channels people can come to, that it becomes very difficult to ensure you are there at the right place and right time. But at the same time, you do need to be ‘found’ and so it is about picking the right channels where customers will more likely find you. Then again, with companies that pursue targeted account-based marketing strategies, it's important to map and pinpoint specific stakeholders in customer accounts and target them directly, nurturing them and supporting them in the buy process as they move from discover, explore, select.

Scott Anderson: Both, actually. We put a lot of priority on smart targeting to make sure that when we reach out, we land the Sitecore message in front of the right influencers and decision makers. When our audience shifts from passive scanning into a buying motion, we want them to be familiar with our brand and the solutions we offer. On the other hand, we also place a high priority on understanding our audiences’ key issues in order to create content that can help them in their jobs. Our goal is not to pitch at them but rather to provide value and guidance for them so they’ll eventually want to engage in a conversation with us when ready. In that regard, our audience tends to seek us out and better yet - they share our assets amongst their own community. When that happens, we know we are doing something right.

Jackson Jeyanayagam: As a startup, we are always looking to identify new, potential long-term customers. Of course, the most ideal situation is when you have reached that point of critical mass where the market is buzzing about your service and word of mouth is helping drive efficiency in your acquisition costs. But in general, being a start-up in a very competitive space, acquiring customers and retaining them in the most efficient manner is always the top priority.

Kristen Alexander: Like any successful marketing team, we use a variety of strategies to reach out to potential customers. Our account based marketing approach helps us to efficiently target key stakeholders at organizations that we think Certain is a good fit for, and our heavy emphasis on attending events gives marketers and event planners who haven’t heard of us a great place to meet and talk to our team face to face. 

Buyers want the truth – warts and all. 

Q: Can you talk about how your organization moved away from traditional marketing language to more authentic storytelling? Why is this difficult for so many brands to do well?

Shah: I think the ‘marketing function’ is sometimes mindless and fear we perform activities because we have always done so in the past, rather than try to understand what is working and course correcting future actions. It is about continuous learning and I am afraid there are far too many of us that don't learn.

Some of the basic tenants of marketing are actually still missing – such as understanding the customer. It's only when, as marketers, we continually seek to learn from customers and prospects can we understand the ‘marketing language’ might just not resonate with intended audiences and can actually put recipients off.

My observation from body language of customers is that overselling and over-marketing through use of language only seeks to diminish credibility. Customers are savvy and very well-informed and have the power of internet and social research at their fingertips. An example here is that buying organizations are always keen to learn what other companies have done, what mistakes have happened along the way and how they can alleviate or eliminate any similar risks. They want the truth – warts and all. 

Anderson:  Well before content marketing became trendy, I’ve always subscribed to the philosophy of storytelling. The old days of broadcast marketing are over. In a world where the sheer volume of information is growing exponentially at an accelerated rate, the average person cannot even hope to discover or consume all the relevant information of interest. How can marketers even break through the noise? That’s where authentic storytelling comes in. 

Long ago, I stepped away from traditional marketing assets and instead hired former journalists and editors to tell stories of interest for our brand’s audience. With a clear understanding of a brand’s value proposition along with audience interests, our storytellers are adept at seeking out what customers care about and crafting stories in the most interesting way.  When done correctly, marketing messages no longer play the role of disruptive advertising and instead become the content that readers seek out and pull through their various filters. Even better, we work with our partner and customer communities to tell their own stories - that’s where authenticity truly peaks with relevance.

Overselling and over-marketing through use of language only seeks to diminish credibility

Jeyanayagam:  For us, it’s in our DNA. From our founders to the customers we hope to attract – we have always prioritized telling our story in the most compelling, informal and real way. You won’t ever see us drop jargon in our creative or speak like a chatbot to our customers. We know our customers have no patience for that, which means we have no patience for that. For the more traditional brands, it’s a bit more difficult because it requires changing a learned behavior that is so embedded in the way they talk to their customer, that changing it to be more genuine and real almost seems disingenuous...unfortunately.

Alexander: Maybe this is an oversimplification, but my barometer is simple honesty. Are we saying things that are actually true and helpful to marketers that are working hard to add value to the business? It’s easy to create punchy taglines, but by focusing our efforts on honesty adding value over flashiness, we win on engagement and better relationships in the long run. It really is the best policy.

How do you view the role of PR and communications within an organization? What’s the ideal relationship between communications and marketing?

Shah:  I actually don't distinguish to two and don't understand the nuances. To me they are part of a complete systemic approach.

Anderson: PR, in its most traditional definition, is typically assigned to influencing press. Press is still one audience marketers need to influence, but not in a way that is too different from our other audiences.

In our marketing department, we determine messages and create content centrally. From there, audience owners are assigned to understand the needs of each audience in our ecosystem and adapt the communications in a way to deliver the most impact to each. Press is one of those audiences. When done right, our message is aligned across all audiences: press, social, analysts, customers, prospects, partners, sales, employees and developers. I view PR as an integral component within the broader marketing engine.

Jeyanayagam: Top priority. PR is one of the most efficient and credible ways for a company like Boxed to tell our story and drive trial. We saw this first-hand with recent initiatives we have launched. These unique differentiators allowed for a wonderful communications storyline that could never be told, at least in an authentic way, through advertising or owned channels…and that’s not even including the tremendous SEO value that it provides. In terms of its relationship to marketing, I have always seen public relations as an important function of marketing and one that should have a key seat at the table from the very beginning of planning. Unfortunately, too often PR is silo’d or an afterthought for how to get “publicity” for an initiative or launch which is such an underutilization of a critical function.

Alexander: If the communications team are novelists who define a brand’s story and message, the marketing team are editors and publishers who tailor the message to meet customers with the right excerpt and spread the storyline to the four corners of the globe. But no one is the star: both groups need to work in lock step and if you’re lucky you’ll find talented marketers that are both inspiring storytellers that can also carry that narrative through to campaign execution. 

Knowing an organization truly shares my same values and does something about it, can make all the difference – even if it means spending another buck or two. Just ask Lyft 

Q: What’s been the most powerful way that data has transformed marketing? And looking forward, what role do you forecast data will play? What about for communications?

Shah:  The challenge with marketing in the past has been it has been hard to measure direct impact to revenue or pipeline — and companies need to understand which part of their marketing spend generates the best attribution to their strategy. Buyer digital activity and tracking of ‘digital footprints’ has helped not only identify what channels are working but also where areas of attention are needed. As an example, with a Google Adwords strategy, conversion rate optimization and A/B testing you can scientifically analyze changes to your messaging and what impact they have with regards impressions, clicks, conversions, attribution to sales pipeline and contribution to revenue.

You can also evaluate the 3 Vs, which are value, volume and velocity of opportunities generated by marketing through the sales funnel as well as understand both the efficiency and effectiveness of your marketing initiatives. And there are now technologies that allow you to track organizational propensity to buy. You can also understand sentiment and what’s trending in terms of topics being discussed socially and through listening, organizations can determine an appropriate dialogue. It's exciting stuff. 

Anderson: The most significant trend that is happening today is that data is aligning around the individual to deliver what they need exactly when, where and how they need it. In the past, consumers would ‘go to’ their PCs to access the digital world. With the proliferation of mobile devices, the digital world is now in our hands, shifting the requirement on marketers to know every customer and shape every experience in real time and at scale. 

In the next era which is already in its infancy - replete with sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the internet of things — we’ll all exist within the internet. As that happens, the notion of data being able to provide real-time contextual knowledge of the individual will be the only way to match the right content and services in a personalized experience that satisfies needs. Interestingly, a lot of marketers don’t see the forest for the trees and are lost in ‘big data,’ which comes with complexity and headaches rather than focusing on insightful data, which is driven foremost by customer needs and a well-constructed experience plan. 

Jeyanayagam: I would argue nothing has had more of an impact. Obviously, I am a bit biased working at an e-commerce company because I am a bit spoiled at the level of sheer volume of data that we have at our fingertips. Between third party credit card data that provides insight into share of wallet to programmatic platforms that allow you to find and track anonymous site visitors (even via direct mail) to hyper targeted social channels, it’s almost impossible for brands not to be focused on qualified, down funnel customers when it comes to marketing efforts and spend allocation. This data has also helped us be so much more accountable for the ROI that every marketing function needs to measure against, including public relations (albeit, still a bit more difficult to measure consistently than advertising). 

Alexander: The volume and quality of data has turned marketing from more of an intuition game to something much closer to a science. We’re seeing more Peter Brands than Don Drapers in this industry, and that’s changing the dynamic in marketing teams, pushing everyone to use data to their advantage. That trend will only continue, and we’ll see wide adoption of technologies that support making smart, quick data-driven decisions. This isn’t to say that the human side of marketing is going away. Marketers who will succeed will be the ones who can surface insights from data and build a narrative that inspires action and deep engagement with their brand

Q: More brands are taking stands on social issues, more consumers are expecting this. What’s your opinion on this?

Shah:  I think this can be an appropriate approach for some brands, especially business to consumer brands. It can also be used as a point of differentiation and add to the strength of a brand. Companies and associated brands all have a responsibility and that means taking stands on some issues sometimes. When consumers buy products they area also buying into the promise associated with those brands.

Anderson: Consumer tastes and expectations continue to change. It’s been the same since the beginning of time. For brands to stay relevant, they need to understand consumer expectations and address them effectively.

Jeyanayagam:  At Boxed this is very close to home as it’s another inherent value in the core business. From fighting the pink tax to immigration bans, we believe very strongly that consumers are expecting, and in some cases, forcing the businesses to take a stand on issues that matter to them…and if they don’t, they will take their business elsewhere. 

That’s not to say that value, price and quality don’t play a role; of course they do – and always will – but that balance is shifting. Meaning, if all things are equal (or even swayed a bit one way), knowing an organization truly shares my same values and does something about it, can make all the difference – even if it means spending another buck or two. Just ask Lyft (of which I am now a frequent customer).

Alexander: For me, it makes sense only when it’s authentic to your brand and highly relevant for your audience. As an example, REI is breaking through the noise with their social approach. Their well-received “Opt Outside” Black Friday promotion is perfectly consistent with their brand and relevant to their audience. Their “Force of Nature” campaign encouraging women to embrace the outdoors is another example. They are not only sharing socially positive messages, but they also carry this promise through everything they do, from creating women’s specific gear to hosting inspiring events. I think it comes down to this: if customers would find it authentic and relevant, it could be a great approach.