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The Journey Is Everything: Lessons From the World's Leading CMOs

The journey is everything.

Bo Dietrick/ExactTarget

Think about this for a moment. It sounds like what parents tell their children about life: Try to enjoy the journey. Life is about what you learn along the way, not where you arrive once you get there.

But this phrase also has powerful connotations for marketing, where understanding the journeys our customers are undertaking — every day, in millions of unique ways — has revolutionized the way we define innovation and success. It was also the theme of Connections, the digital marketing event of the year, hosted by the Salesforce ExactTarget Marketing Cloud last week in Indianapolis.

At Connections, I had the privilege of leading a panel of marketing heavyweights — the very people who are helping reinvent our industry. Beth Comstock is GE’s first chief marketing officer in 20 years; Gabriel Stricker is chief communications officer for Twitter; and Nick Besbeas is VP of marketing for LinkedIn. Each of these leaders offered fascinating insights on the future of marketing, and each brought it back to the center of the business universe: The customer.

Here are a few of the top takeaways. To watch the full Webcast, click here.

The journey is everything

When I asked each panelist to reflect on how the customer journey is shaping marketing at their respective companies, Comstock jumped in. “I think the journey is everything,” she said. “I think it’s a great rallying cry for every marketer.”

When it comes to some of the big-ticket items GE sells, including jet engines, “You can’t just sell a customer a jet engine,” Comstock explained. Instead, you have to sell a holistic message that will resonate with your customers’ needs, and their customers’ needs.

“You have to understand that journey from the CFO’s office, the CEO’s office, the CMO — whether it’s a chief marketing or a chief medical officer — the entire C-suite,” Comstock added. “That is exactly how our company’s reinventing itself right now.”

Listen up!

This prompts a natural question: How do you figure out what your customers want?

“One of the best tools that any marketer can have is just the tool of listening,” Stricker noted. He sees marketing’s role as “the bridge between the company and the user base” — and as such, he said marketers must understand their users’ needs, wishes, dreams and aspirations better than anyone. “When you get in front of a customer, you learn a lot,” Besbeas said. “You hear about things that are real needs, and it may just nudge you in a direction that you didn’t think to go.”

Both described company cultures that emphasize collaboration and pervasive innovation.

At Twitter, Stricker said, “There’s been a tremendous amount of innovation that has boiled up from the user base.” Twitter’s users — not its executives — invented and promoted the hashtag. “It’s been this really virtuous cycle of seeing what was existing in that community of the user base, figuring out how to surface what the best of it is, and then ultimately incorporate that into our innovations.”

To build community, be authentic

Community was another common theme, especially in the era of customer engagement. The dynamic has changed, Stricker observed: Where companies once tried to “manage the conversation,” they now realize they must participate. “The consumer is in control. Really, it goes back to authenticity: How do you engage in an authentic way and have a conversation that adds real value?”

Real-time and long-term are complementary

For Stricker, a key advantage of community platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter is their ability to engage with users along two distinct planes: The immediacy of real time, and the depth of a much longer-term customer relationship.

“So much of what we’re seeing is this series of incrementally compounding short-term interactions, real-time interactions with people, that build out this long-term, journey-filled
relationship,” Stricker explained. “And I think the most effective marketers are able to see the fruits of that over time.”

Do your homework

In order to cultivate these kinds of rich customer relationships, though, it’s imperative that marketers come prepared. “In a connected world, our customers — our customers’ customers — know everything about us before we show up,” Comstock said. “You have to be much more imaginative, much more relationship-driven from the beginning. The expectation is, they’ve done their homework, and you better have done your homework.”

Find the intersection of purpose and need

Besbeas took this idea a step further. “A connected world means the consumer’s in control,” he said. “We really need to think about our purpose as a company and what’s relevant to our customer, our member — and the intersection of those two circles is incredibly powerful.”

For marketers, he explained, this means learning to see your company’s message through your users’ eyes. The potential benefit is tremendous: Products that align more closely with market needs (and, consequently, sell better). “People aren’t just buying products anymore; they aren’t just engaging transactionally; they’re making more considered decisions about the companies they engage with,” Besbeas said. “It’s an awesome time to be a marketer.”

Marketing is about innovation

In every company, though, continuing to innovate can be a challenge. Comstock addressed this by instilling a simple message in her team: “Marketing is about innovation.” Traditionally, she said, “innovation” might have been confined to the R&D or engineering departments. Giving marketing part of the responsibility for innovation represented a significant shift, but to Comstock it made perfect sense.

“Marketers have to be the force for the company that knows where the world’s going,” she said. “Where are markets going? You have to be there and interpret that for your customers. That requires you to innovate.”

Of course, with innovation sometimes comes failure, so it’s up to marketers to measure results, refine processes, and keep iterating and improving on ideas. Comstock described the difficulty of coming back with bad news: Customers don’t like a product, or the timing is off. “The reality is, if you rally around that customer, and you make sure that customer and the company’s purpose are aligned, it makes it a lot easier.”

Take the jobs no one else wants

Comstock also discussed how accepting unconventional assignments can lead to big opportunities. She described “one of the best jobs I ever had” at a company most people thought would fail. Comstock decided to take the job anyway, even though people thought she was crazy to do it. In retrospect, she says, “It was the best job, because we had nowhere to go but up. And that just taught me such a lesson. I saw opportunity.”

Besbeas recounted a similar experience. “The biggest accelerators in my career were when I took a smaller job with a more defined scope — less pay, smaller title, but I saw an opportunity,” he said. “I believed it could be something bigger, and I made the bet.”

Think big

We started the panel with a discussion of the “connected world,” and how today’s rich and connected data ecosystem can inform marketing. In a rapidly changing, increasingly complex world, though, it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture. Toward the end of our discussion, Besbeas exhorted attendees to “think big about the impact you can have.”

For my final question, I asked the panelists to fill in the blank: “Capturing customer attention is …” Besbeas chose “nirvana,” and Stricker said “profound.” Comstock had the final word. “Essential,” she said. “We have a saying: ‘Mindshare before market share.’” She pointed to her head: “You can’t sell anything unless you’ve got it up here.”

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Lynn Vojvodich is executive vice president and chief marketing officer at

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