The interviews in this series are conducted by Paul Dyer, who is president of New York-based Lippe Taylor.  Over the coming months, Dyer will interview brand leaders who have already moved beyond the 'digital renaissance', so to speak. Through these conversations, he will synthesize the key learnings these brand leaders have accumulated not about transformation, evolution, or the many challenges faced by brands as they adapt to a new digital world, but about how they are thriving now in the 'digital enlightenment.' 

In a reductionist sort of way, this series will strive to break digital success down into its component parts and core themes that are reiterated by seasoned communications leaders across all verticals.

1. Do Things that People Talk About vs Just 'Comms’ing It'
Rather than talking about messaging platforms or communications channels, Dan kept coming back to examples of real life things that his Comms organization is activating in the world,.  Examples Dan cited include the company’s Retail Revival project, which is an initiative to support small businesses in the Midwest, as well as their microlending program in which eBay gave employees each $25 to donate to a Kiva cause of their choice.  These are both Comms-led initiatives with many other internal partners supporting.  Dan attributes the Comms team being the driver of these programs to the significant organic attention they’ve received from the press and in social media. “It’s great to not just be the people at the end that are being told to go communicate something but to be the strategic drivers,” Dan says.  

2. The 'brand as publisher' model is alive and thriving at eBay
In fact Dan goes on to say, “companies that have really strong content creation in the center of their wheel, so to speak, are more effective in terms of their messaging, and message penetration and being able to control their message.”  He describes eBay’s role as a content publisher as needing to walk the line between painting a picture of the future (thought leadership) and being relevant today. 

3. Data from the Business can Inspire Stories about the Business
When it comes to developing the content stories that Dan’s team is publishing, it’s clear eBay is leveraging data well beyond most companies… And not just Comms-data, but “real” data from the business.  This is in contrast to many organizations where “Analytics” is often a measurement function and the storytelling done by the Comms group is concepted independently.  In the case of eBay, Dan gets daily and weekly emails on things like what products or categories are trending, what the most expensive recent purchases were, and what behaviors are unique or illustrative of specific shopper segments.  This kind of real time data requires close integration between the Communications function and the Business Analytics team, but the result is data-inspired stories that are highly relevant.  

4. Disrupting Yourself and 'Getting Stuff Done'
Dan spoke candidly about the importance of having the right mindset.  For Dan and eBay, this means a mindset of continually disrupting yourself, and perpetually trying to … make, ahem… “stuff” happen versus just getting “stuff” done.   Despite the fact that eBay has evolved from being a category disruptor into one of the most well-established players in their industry, Dan believes that maintaining this disruptor mentality is what he calls an existential requirement. 

5. 'Purpose' is About the Mission, not the Message
With so much attention on “purpose” these days, it’s easy to get confused by what this really means.  At eBay, the purpose is about democratizing commerce, and empowering small entrepreneurs worldwide.  This purpose is so inherent in the culture, it didn’t require a lengthy process or consultant-led exploration for Dan to discover it when he arrived.  It was just true because the Founder had lived it and instilled it into all of the employees.  Dan acknowledges this is a tremendous advantage for his Communications team, but also remains vigilant about making sure that all programs are true to that core purpose.

All of these key takeaways are explained in further detail, along with many other important insights from the hour-long conversation below.  You can also download and listen to the full interview in podcast format as well.  Over the coming weeks and months, we will be extending the Digital Reductionism series to include a wide range of leaders in the Communications and Marketing landscape, all with the aim of advancing the conversation about Digital beyond how “disruptive” it can be, or how brands need to “transform” themselves to be more digital-by-design.  Instead, our focus will be on featuring the leaders who are already thriving in this new, Digitally-led world.    

Interviewer: Paul Dyer (PD), President, Lippe Taylor
Brand Leader: Dan Tarman (DT), Chief Communications Officer, eBay 

PD: So you’ve been very outspoken about the idea of empathy in the context of your communications strategy. Can you elaborate on that concept and talk about how you’re really putting that into practice with your marketing communications efforts at eBay?

DT:  So, when I talk about empathy, it’s not in a feel-good kind of way. It’s more about being authentic, number one, and how you communicate as a company — understanding who your audiences are and where they’re at. That’s the definition of empathy, understanding the other person and relating to them based on your own experience. So, when we talk about that in that way, it really means “being effective with what and how we communicate in a manner that is most likely to create engagement.

PD:  Is there anything from the way you’ve seen that put into practice at eBay that you feel like maybe other brands could learn from?

DT:  I think that one of the things about eBay that makes the brand as compelling and vibrant as it is, is that we’ve always been very true to who we are. We don’t try to be something we’re not and we tend to be a very authentic culture, so what you see as a consumer of eBay or what you see from our communications is very consistent with what you would see and experience if you were inside the company. So, there’s no incongruity between our walk and our talk, so to speak … That’s just how we're wired, not only in terms of our communications but our entire business strategy and culture.

PD: eBay was originally a digital disrupter, disrupting the digital marketplace, and now you are this major, established iconic brand and you’re battling against new disruptors. So how do you maintain your disruptor mentality, or do you not need to anymore?

DT:  You must — that’s an existential requirement in this environment. eBay was a pioneer and continues to be a pioneer and you need to think in terms of the broader environment … We have to be very mindful of how to compete in a space with large competitors, and how to differentiate ourselves from those companies because we’re not trying to be a challenger to those companies, we’re trying to be the best eBay we can, and to be both relevant and differentiate ourselves in a broad commerce environment … For us the operating model is perpetual disruption and it’s a very similar thing to Moore’s law, where the pace of change and innovation has only accelerated. So, there’s no time to sit back on your heels, ever. I think that leads to better outcomes for consumers, because every company is in a continual race to innovate and disrupt in a way that returns value, ultimately, to consumers. That’s the world in which we live now, for every company.

PD: Let’s talk a little about some of the things that you do to be the best eBay, like your eBay Retail Revival, the eBay Foundation, eBay for Charity, all cause-related platforms that align with your broader business goal of empowering entrepreneurs. Those feel very aligned with your core business, as opposed to being separate charitable efforts sitting off somewhere else. How did that alignment come to pass and what advice would you give to other brands?

DT:  So, our purpose is to create economic empowerment and opportunity for all. And it’s not something we cooked up in the comms department — it was the founding principle for the company. So twenty-three years ago, Pierre Omidyar, who was an immigrant from Iran, (this is in 1995), decided to test a theory: you could trust a stranger on the internet and sell something to them. So he put a broken laser pointer up for a sale, and much to his surprise, a fellow named Mark Frazier in Sea Salt Island, Canada, was a collector of broken laser pointers. And he bought it from him. It proved to him the premise, that you could trust somebody through the internet as a platform for commerce, and it led him to this notion that you could form small businesses, exclusively leveraging the internet as a platform for commerce and enabling those businesses to reach customers anywhere and not be constrained by geography. So that’s the organizing principle for the business. Today we have, in the US alone, 6 million sellers and businesses and entrepreneurs that sell on eBay. Purpose is the business of eBay. So, when we talk about finding ways to further harness our purpose to contribute even more so to society and to empower small business, there’s a pretty close connection to some of the activities that we’re doing. The CSR program is the program at eBay. It’s a unique privilege to be in a company that authentically does good things for the world.

PD:  When you think about innovation, in particular in the communications function, how important is it for eBay to be the “first” to try new approaches, to experiment with maybe unproven technologies or approaches, maybe versus or while also remaining ROI focused?

DT:  You can’t be disruptive and be an innovator if all you’re doing is tending to your core business and making incremental changes … To that point, we have an entire group that we call N, that is 100 percent dedicated to innovation at the edge. They experiment with things that we know will fail, (some of which will succeed as well), to understand the implications of those things and how they can be integrated into the core. So, things like voice-related chat; everyone wants the chat bot/shop bot that we launched on Facebook messenger almost two years ago. There’s the image search work that we’re doing as well, and other things that are still in the innovation shop and not ready to be talked about.  You have to do that and we invest significant resources in that pursuit, globally. That’s just integral to being a successful business in this environment.

PD:  That sounds like it comes with the willingness to accept that some things will fail.

DT:  Every successful technology company has this notion wired into them: experimentation and failure is the price of admission.
PD:  You mentioned the massive troves of data that you sit on. Obviously, there’s a lot of talk in our industry about data, and how to harness data. In many cases it’s used to make business decisions but not necessarily to inspire communications. So, I’m curious, is that something that you feel like you’re doing from a communications standpoint?

DT:  So, we have an embarrassment of riches in terms of data and we’re very fortunate that we’re able to tap into that data for storytelling … We often see trends in what people are searching for or buying on eBay and we can use data visualization to tell those stories, or we can just translate them into something that we see in writing. So as an example, we sell 20,000 vehicles a week on the mobile app… I get a report every day, and I can show you the fifty most expensive things that were bought on eBay yesterday. It’s often a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, a very expensive diamond. So, we have this infinite wealth of almost real-time data that we can tell stories around and we do that. It’s amazing. So, around the holidays, we can look at what toys or gifts are trending at a state by state level in the US. I can tell what time of day people are more likely to be shopping than not. And so I can cut data any which way you want, and we can go to our analytics teams and make a request of what kind of data we’re looking for and often get access to that data to inform our storytelling in a way that might be seasonally relevant, might be topically relevant.  We’re all trying to deliver messaging out there that cuts through. We look for the “holy cow, that’s cool” kind of data all the time. We also own Stubhub, so often there’s really cool data on Stubhub.  For instance, the number of tickets that were purchased for the Super Bowl on Stubhub; it’s an eye-popping, holy-cow number. Tens of thousands of tickets were bought, it’s interesting. And of course, for us, that’s important, because it would suggest to the consumer that if you want to get a ticket to a must-see event, Stubhub would be the first place you go. And so, we leverage that stuff all the time and we’re very fortunate that we’re a data-centric business.

PD:  When it comes to other brands that you think are doing a great job of telling their story in this digitally defined communications landscape, who do you admire?

DT:  A digital company that’s gone through a major transformation and a category disruptor that you can’t ignore would be Netflix. Netflix, going from a DVD delivery service to having a bigger market cap than Disney. It’s extraordinary and the way that they’ve told their story through content is really remarkable and something to behold and respect … And then there are plenty of examples of other great companies that are not born in the digital space but have leveraged communications. Starbucks comes to mind, particularly how they’ve been bold in terms of addressing challenging issues and being purposeful about them.

PD:  Netflix recently was the subject of a really great book called Powerful by their former head of HR. They’ve talked a lot about the role of culture and internal communications in their overall business success … You’ve got your purpose, it feels like it’s very clear and  part of the culture at eBay and you’ve got the storytelling that you’re doing externally. Are you also doing these internally? How are you connecting with your employees?

DT:  We work very closely, hand in hand with our HR partners and I think that’s an essential relationship, between the comms and people function … Our culture is very authentic, a lot of people come to work at eBay because it is a purpose driven business and I’ll give a couple examples of how we activate purpose in the business; we’ve been working with Kiva the last couple of years for a micro-lending program and one of the things that we did was we gave each one of our employees a $25 credit to make a loan to a Kiva borrower of their choice. And I announced it at a meeting and we had participation of about 10,000 out of our 15,000 employees and people were really energized by it. One of the things that happened organically was that groups of employees would pool their $25 credit, so they would come together in a spectrum of potential Kiva borrowers and almost create an Ad Hoc committee and so they would pool their money and give $100, or $200 instead of the $25 and when you’re talking about lending to businesses who are emerging markets in particular, $100 or $200 actually could be the life blood of the business. So, people were very energized that we were literally putting our money where our mouth was and empowering all of these businesses. We also launched a program that we call the eBay Retailer Revival Project where we help communities that have struggling small business and retail quarters … we launched the first Retail Revival city in Akron, Ohio earlier this year and we brought about 100 or so businesses on to our platform, helping them sell. One of the things that we’ve done is provide mentorship to those businesses and so we have teams of customer service personnel who are literally like a white glove concierge for them … When I announced this I had probably several hundred emails from folks asking ‘how can I help?’ And so, when we talk externally about the things that we’re doing internally, it’s very motivating. We’re announcing our second eBay Retail Revival city on August 10th, it will be another midwestern US city and our ambition is to roll out another one of these every six months or so … our employees are extraordinarily motivated by it because it says to them that we’re really doing something. It resonates for obvious reasons.

PD:  So, you just said there that your employees really respond when you talk about the things you’re doing … On the inside, is the Communications function in a position to do these things independently or is it a function of getting the business units all rallied together? How do you actually make this happen?

DT:  Interestingly, on the Retail Revival Program, up until now, we’ve done no proactive PR or comms around it, in fact I specifically instructed my team when we were about to launch it, not to do anything. Let’s just get the program right. The interesting thing about it is that organically there’s been scores of articles that have been created. If you google eBay Acron, you’ll see scores of articles about. So, it’s great to create the facts, instead of just being in the position to communicate the facts.

PD:  So, what is something that you are struggling with?

DT:  We have 175 million consumers on our platform, our biggest challenge is how do we get the next 175 million consumers? It goes back to your earlier question about how do you disrupt and innovate in a tough neighborhood so to speak. And so, we’re under no illusions of the challenges that we have to reenergize our brand and to also address some of our legacy perceptions that are not consistent with the current reality that eBay is an auction site, that eBay sells primarily used stuff, that it’s like a flea market. Those are stubborn issues and my team and I are directly engaged and addressing those strategically from a messaging standpoint, and we played a pretty significant role in the broader brand positioning of the company and so those are long term stubborn issues that we haven’t fully succeeded on and we know we have a lot more work to do on.

PD:  So, as you think about keeping on top of trends, where do you go for industry comms marketing news besides the Holmes Report?

DT:  I get a lot of benefit from some of the peer organization and groups I’m a part of so I’m very fortunate to be on the board of advisors of the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations. I’m part of the Communications 50 so I have regular one on one peer calls which is really useful, it’s been great. I’m part of Page, I’m part of the Seminar and then I try to talk to my own informal network of peers. That’s usually the best way that I’m able to tap into things I might not be thinking about. And then you have to be a consumer of information. Obviously, all of us are inundated with information to the point of being sometimes numbed, but it’s super important … I’m curious, we should all be curious by nature if we’re in this role.

PD:  What about books? Are there any books you would recommend to people who aspire to follow in your footsteps in the industry?

DT:  I don’t have any specific book recommendations, I just think it’s really important to just be  insatiably curious. And to seek out knowledge whether it’s in a book or from a person or from an experience. I think that always wanting to understand more and to never sit back and say ‘yeah, I got this’, is the best advice I would give somebody.

PD:  So insatiable curiosity and a lot of humility! Dan thank you very much for your time, we appreciate it and I’m sure our readers are going to really enjoy hearing your insights.

DT:  Great, thank you very much!