One of the most dramatic, eye-opening data points I’ve seen lately comes from a recent Marketplace Pulse article suggesting ecommerce has seen a 44.5% increase over the past quarter in the US.
As impressive as 44.5% of growth sounds, it pales in comparison to seeing it in graphical form. And, as Marketplace Pulse points out, that’s the fastest increase in over two decades, pushing e-commerce share of total retail to 16.1%. And for even more drama, if you take out auto sales and bar/restaurant revenue, online sales accounted for 22% of overall retail sales. More than one out of every five dollars…now that is some serious drama.
Such rapid and dramatic changes in consumer behavior, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, is causing companies to react just as dramatically in order to stay connected with their customers. Which means the way they market and advertise is constantly changing, whether your selling to individual consumers or other businesses.
Interview with Robin Bordoli of NextRoll on the Impact of The Pandemic on Marketing
To dig into how these seismic changes are impacting ad and marketing technology usage by companies of all sizes, I recently held a LinkedIn Live conversation with Robin Bordoli, CEO NextRoll, a provider of data platform and account-based marketing (ABM)and D2C (direct to consumer) technology. Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation. Click on the embedded SoundCloud player to hear the full conversation.
Small Business Trends: What has been the biggest impact on both B2B/ABM and D2C (Direct to Consumer) marketing during the pandemic?
Robin Bordoli: It’s absolutely true that February, March and April, the world basically hit a pause button. So buying decisions get delayed, investment decisions get delayed, you retrench into what am I doing right now? What’s absolutely essential? And that was the first impact of COVID-19. But the second one, which is longer lasting and more structural is a shift from offline activity to online activity. It’s an acceleration of digital transformation. So what that means in our AdRoll business, which is the business that serves direct to consumer marketers, is that consumer behavior means I’m no longer going to my local store or I’m no longer going into a physical store, I’m actually ordering more online.
And what it also means is there’s been a rapid growth, I sometimes like to describe it as a Cambrian explosion of direct to consumer brands like brand new companies getting born that are selling stuff for your garden, home fitness equipment, new ways to entertain yourself. There is an explosion of these companies as people are spending more time at home and categories are getting born as well. If I can’t go to my gym, I need to exercise, maybe I do need some dumbbells at home, maybe I need some exercise bands, maybe I need some wobble boards to help with my core strength. So that’s one big shift, offline to online, which was already happening but if you go look at some of the data that’s now getting published, the growth rates of e-commerce as a percentage basis is the highest it’s ever been year over year, over the last decade.
B2B Sales Go from Face to Face to Digital Interaction
So we’re seeing that in the numbers now. In the B2B/ABM space, which is where our RollWorks business operates, it’s similar in that before companies when they were selling, a lot of the selling they would do would be face to face. They would be going onsite to a customer, they would be going to a trade show and having face to face interactions. That activity has also gone online and gone digital. So now I’m selling over Zoom or I’m selling over LinkedIn live or I’m selling over Google Hangout, Google Meets, or the trade shows. The trade shows haven’t gone away, they’ve just gone virtual. Look at Okta which is a big customer of ours, and they hosted Oktane, which is their big customer event. And they went from, “Oh my God, it’s going to be in person to I’ve got to do it virtually now.”
When that happens, then those digital signals means you can be much more targeted and efficient about how you run marketing and sales, because what used to be offline and invisible is now online and connected invisible. So that shift to online buying behavior for B2B buyers is also an accelerant for our business as well. So that’s a couple of ways and so if I go back to those shapes, the V, the U, the W, and the L, there’s another one that’s being talked about now, which is the K. So the reason the K shape is being talked about is for some companies, they’re actually coming out of it and accelerate, they’re going up the-
Small Business Trends: Oh, the escalator.
Robin Bordoli: Staircase, and some actually for the other side and going down the staircase. So there are companies, there will be winners and losers in this structural shift. The ones that are optimized for a digital businesses are the ones that are disproportionately benefiting from this.
Small Business Trends: What’s been the biggest needed change for marketers in the pandemic who are trying to connect with customers who are scared, who have had to change their way of doing traditional things overnight, and how are marketers having to change their messaging and their approach, not just change their technology, but change the way that they’re listening or the way that they’re addressing customers and going forward?
Robin Bordoli: If there’s one word that you need to have front of mind as a marketer in this environment, it’s empathy. You can’t just deliver the same messages in a rote form, and automation, automation, automation, it’s about empathy and walking in the shoes of your customers and understanding. It’s interesting for our businesses because our marketing team is marketing to fellow marketers. They’re not marketing to folks in IT or engineering, they’re marketing to other marketers. So in some level they should be able to immediately be empathetic because they understand the role, but I think the second aspect of this, and this is a larger commentary, not just about our business, but about all business, which is I think one of the new norms that is emerging is being human, being authentic, being a little bit messy.
We’re on our camera’s right now. This is my bedroom. You can see behind our house is under construction right now. So this is our bedroom and it’s also our TV room with our kids. And my daughter could walk in any moment. My son could walk in any moment and bring me lunch, bring me a coffee. One of the new norms we’re establishing was that’s okay. And by the way, not as it is okay. But if you see that, you should say hi to that person. You shouldn’t make them feel awkward. So I think empathy is so, so important as a leader in these times to be open, to be authentic, not to try and have a veneer up that we’ve got all the answers and we’re buttoned down, that’s sort of gone away.
Be real, be authentic, be open, be vulnerable in that as well. And then the other aspect of that is there’s definitely a… Thought leadership in my mind is a slightly poisoned term at this point. Thought leadership has a sense of people talking down to you. It’s a little bit like, “Oh, I’ve gone up to the mountains and I’ve got this with me and bringing it down to you, and I’m not telling you exactly how I got it or why I got it, but it’s magical and it’s mystical and just trust me.” And so we almost think of ourselves as the anti-thought leaders. And what we want to think about is practical, pragmatic, real world advice. And so we’ve done things like seven minute webinars where you’re going to get seven real, real actionable tips in seven minutes, come on for seven minutes because by the way, who’s got 30 minutes to spare these days?
So come on for seven minutes, listen, we’ll follow up with the materials if it’s resonating. But experimenting in both different formats, as well as what we actually deliver. And so we did, for example, a canceled events guide when this started to hit hard in February and March, and the first trade shows were getting canceled, for a B2B marketer that’s incredibly scary because typically as a B2B marketer, that might be about a third of your budget. So you think, “So where I spend a third of my money has just evaporated overnight. What do I do?” So we came out with a canceled events guide of, okay, here’s a playbook, very specific to this. So it wasn’t thought leadership. It was okay, here’s a very detailed playbook to think through how to now actually navigate this particular situation. So I think that’s the other aspect of it, Brent is be human, be real, be open, be a little messy. It’s okay. That’s what…
How to Go From Empathy to Business Growth
Small Business Trends: Empathy is great. But how do you go from empathy to growth? Great question from Anand Thaker.
Robin Bordoli: Empathy is about establishing a connection. Growth is then actually using that connection to bring about action or change. So I don’t think of them as separate. We’re not just there to put an arm around a marketer and commiserate, we’re there to have empathy to connect and then actually give them something concrete, constructive, pragmatic as to how to face the challenges that they’re now facing. So for example, in the B2B market, in the ABM world, one of the natural things that happens when you have a macro economic crisis is a sudden narrowing of your aperture. It’s like, “Well, I can’t take on new projects. I’ve got to just focus on what’s right ahead of me this week, this month, this quarter. I can’t think about next year. I can’t think about two years or three years from now. I want to make sure that what I’m spending dollars on right now is working right now.”
And that actually plays into ABM. The fundamental promise of ABM is just spend money on the accounts that matter to you and can become your customers rather than the spray and pray. What’s been the dominant demand gen methodology over the last decade, which is lead based, and the analogy there would be fishing with nets. So let me create some content, put big nets out into the ocean, scoop up all these fish, 90% of them aren’t relevant to me and I throw them back and 10% I keep, they’re the accounts that actually buy for me. We’ve moved to a world where actually the data and machine learning capabilities are now such that you can be much more targeted to the accounts and the right people within accounts and making sure you’re spending money just on those accounts in a much more targeted way as well.
So to a certain extent, COVID-19 actually reinforces that. In these moments of crisis, you tend to shrink and focus. And that’s already the message of RollWorks and account based marketing as well. I think that empathy and growth, they’re not enemies, they’re companions and you need the empathy to create the connection with customers, and then you need the value and the technology to deliver growth.
Small Business Trends: B2B buyers are looking for deeper relationships with vendors or brands. Are ads limited only to the first interactions? How can ad-based tech deepen these relationships beyond the impression?
Robin Bordoli: Yeah, it’s a great question. In our RollWorks business, we think about account based marketing and B2B buyers; here’s the fundamental problem as a marketer you’re trying to solve. There’s three parts to the problem. The first is you’re trying to identify who are the best fit accounts. Who are the accounts and the people in the accounts have the best likelihood of becoming customers for my business, not generically, but my business. So there’s an identification problem. The second then is the engagement problem. So how do I engage those buyers as early in their buying journey as possible, and then stay connected throughout the entire buying journey? And then the third is how do I measure what’s working and do more of what’s working and less of what’s not? And those are the three fundamental problems as a B2B marketer you’re trying to solve. The RollWorks platform starts with that first bit, the identification.
So looking at what are the best accounts and the best buys from a fit perspective, from an intent perspective, and from an engagement perspective. So that’s the starting point. If you move into the engagement part, digital advertising is the only channel that has the potential to stay with a buyer, both connect with them at the earliest possible point in their journey, and then stay with them throughout their entire journey. Email can’t do that because email, they have to be known to you before you can start to do that. So you’ve got to remember journeys, if you go and look at the data, B2B buyers today spend 83% of their time in the buying journey not engaging with vendors. They are doing so much work before they engage with a vendor that if you only wait until they’ve engaged with you…
Small Business Trends: Forget it.
Robin Bordoli: They’ve already made up their mind, or they’re just confirming a few things. So the power of digital advertising is that it can start in the buying journey’s much earlier and then actually progress across that. Now in order to do that effectively, the messaging has to change as that buyer goes through different stages. So that’s where personalization comes in. Personalization, is this the CMO versus the individual person that’s going to be using the technology? Where are they in their buying journey? Are they just starting to become aware of this category? Are they about to sign a contract? Have they actually closed, because this isn’t just to get them initially, but you want to continue to reach out to them around expansion and other use cases. So the power of digital advertising is core to account-based marketing. As email was to marketing automation, digital advertising is to ABM because it’s a different problem that you’re trying to solve.
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This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.