In this Episode #4 of the Rethink Podcast, Act-On CMO Michelle Huff interviews Scott Brinker, the cofounder and Chief Technology Officer of ion interactive. They discuss the evolution of inbound marketing, the marketing technology landscape, interactive marketing, and what it means to be a modern marketer.
Scott is also known in the MarTech industry for his ChiefMarTec blog, being program chair for the MarTech Conference, and for his super infographic that attempts to capture every marketing technology tool out there.
As Scott says in his intro, he has been at the intersection of marketing and software development for his entire career. That is a perspective invaluable to marketers.
Enjoy the conversation, and we hope you can get one or two takeaways that you can bring to your business.
“That puts marketing in this position where the scope of our responsibility is larger than just communications. It really is this notion of experiences. I think the first thing about being a modern marketer is you really embrace the customer experience as the domain in which you’re optimizing things, not just how did a particular communication piece go.”
This transcript has been edited for length. To get the full measure, listen to the podcast.
Scott, maybe if you could take a few minutes to introduce yourself, your background, and then we can dive into some of your thoughts around what’s going on in the market.
Thank you, Michelle. Wonderful to be here. I’ve been at the intersection of marketing and software development essentially my entire career.
The hat I wear most frequently is the cofounder and CTO of ion interactive. But what’s been fun over the past few years is in addition to my own company, I run a blog called chiefmartec.com, which now has an audience of around 80,000 readers who are other marketers and marketing-oriented software developers who are pulling these pieces together. I’m the program chair of the MarTech Conference, and, most recently, I’m the author of a book about this wonderful entanglement between those two worlds called, Hacking Marketing.
For inbound marketing, and I guess given your background also being a CTO, how have you seen technology impact the world of inbound marketing?
It’s really been a phenomenon, right? At the highest level, the technology has empowered customers, prospects, and consumers to take control of the buyer’s process, whether it’s individual consumer purchases or in a large organization that’s making a B2B buying decision.
It’s no longer as nicely controlled by our own marketing teams as we, at least once, thought it was.
Exactly. You could always kind of control that conversation when they first talked to sales. But now they’re doing so much of that beforehand. I think the technology has also allowed us to better track and gain a lot of the data around who’s coming in, who’s touching the information, and through what channels. I guess from your perspective with marketing becoming more data driven, how do you see this focus changing inbound marketing?
Ideally, it is a virtuous cycle. As the buyers takes control of the process themselves, the one thing we have going for us is because now most of those touch points are happening in digital channels we do get some visibility into it happening. We’re getting metrics, we’re getting these insights. The software we’re able to leverage as marketers is making it easier and easier for us to aggregate that information, associate it with these individuals, and be able to really use that to tailor how we work with buyers on the terms they’re both explicitly and implicitly telling us they want.
Along those lines, what have you been seeing that’s working well?
I’m a big fan of quality over quantity. One of the challenges we’re wrestling with is just the sheer volume of content and messaging that is out there in pretty much every field at this point. There’s a lot of competition for that attention. To the greatest possible degree, we can be using our creative talents as marketers, combined with the targeted insights from the data dimension of this, to say Ok, it’s not about cranking out five blog posts a day, it’s about putting together the right materials targeted for those specific segments we’re going after.
It’s going find its way up into their field of view, when they look at it and they get it, they’re like, Wow, this is great, these people know what they’re talking about.
I guess, in some ways, my philosophy is that one of the best business partners we have as marketers is our head of sales. A lot of what we do is amplify what they do. They can only do it at a one to one, and we get to do things at scale.
On the flip side, one thing we’re good at as marketers is learning from trial and error. We throw things out there, we experiment, sometimes we fail, and we learn from it and move on. It’s always nice when we can learn from other people’s failures so we don’t have to try them on our own.
From your point of view, what have you seen not work well?
You said one of the magic words for me around experimentation. Just a few minutes ago, I was espousing to you that I’m a strong believer in quality over quantity. But the truth is nobody should take my word for that. Every business has its own dynamics of how it resonates with its particular target audience. And if there’s one thing the technology has really provided as a gift to us, as marketers, is we now have the ability to very easily test, to do A/B testing, to say let’s run this as an experiment.
And it really becomes what you said at the beginning, it’s the sort of data driven approach. In some ways it takes a little bit of the pressure off of us of having to always be right about our gut. It’s an experiment.
You have the infamous super infographic. It really captures every marketing technology tool available. What’s your philosophy of who is included? Are you just trying to capture everyone? Or what was the inspiration for this?
It’s turned into quite a project. When I started it about five years ago, I found 150 companies. I remember at the time thinking, Wow, 150, that’s a lot. This most recent one has somewhere on the order of 3,500 marketing technology companies. And the crazy thing is, it’s not even complete. There are literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other companies that I’ve heard of now that aren’t on there. There needs to be a caveat here that for the most part I’m including almost any marketing technology company that seems to be in some way legitimate, they’ve got customers, they’ve got some sort of funding.
But you still have a tremendous variance in the size and the maturity. They’re definitely not all created equal. But if you sort of step back at the highest level and just look at it as an indicator of how much innovation is happening around the marketing function today. I kind of feel like that’s, maybe more than anything else, what it really signals.
Do you think marketers are taking a look at the landscape and just trying to find a silver bullet? Or do you think they’re trying to cast a wider net?
I really should have a very large disclaimer on that graphic that says, Please, do not use this to select marketing technology vendors. Because the reality is, that sort of technology first way of, Oh, wow, look at all the technologies out here, who’s doing what here, who’s doing this. It’s the wrong way to go about developing most of the capabilities that we as marketers should really be focused on. It’s really important to flip that process to be: We have a certain strategy of what our company is looking to deliver, who the audience is for that, what are the channels and touch points that are most relevant and important to them. Start with that plan, and then identify what technologies are we going to need to be able to enable that. You definitely want to evaluate technology through a lens of which are going to be the foundational elements of our company’s marketing tech capabilities.
As I said earlier, not all of those tech companies are created equal. Some of them are very innovative and experimental themselves. But innovative and experimental isn’t always what you want when you want to be able to rely on a piece of software you know is going to be there for you for the next five years. It’s important to select your core technologies through a very rigorous process of a partnership or relationship that you want to have with a company you trust.
I think once you’ve gone through all of that, and you’ve got things working and adopted in your organization, to then start to branch out and consider with which new tech options can you experiment. That’s a decent time to peek around the landscape in a more exploratory fashion. But I definitely wouldn’t start that way.
Not only do you run a company, write blogs, and keep this 3,500 vendor infographic maintained, but you also write books. In your book, Hacking Marketing, there’s a term you frequently use, modern marketer. What do you mean when you use the term, modern marketer? And what sets a modern marketer apart from others from your point of view?
I think there’s two key things. One of them is external facing. It’s like what the responsibility is, what the scope of marketing is. And then the other is a little bit more inward facing of, OK, how do we actually accomplish those goals.
The big outward facing one is marketing had largely been in the business of communications. The company did something innovative, and it was our responsibility to communicate that innovation to the world. That’s still a big part of what marketing is today. But in this digital environment where marketing is now very often responsible for a set of touch points like our websites, possibly a mobile app, social media channels, a marketing automation program, these are things that aren’t just communications. They have actual real utility and functionality, like the services they’re able to offer our prospects and customers. That puts marketing in this position where the scope of our responsibility is larger than just communications. It really is this notion of experiences. I think the first thing about being a modern marketer is you really embrace the customer experience as the domain in which you’re optimizing things, not just how did a particular communication piece go.
And then the inward side of that is really the skillset. It all lines up. Traditionally, we have a great set of skills around developing those communications, optimizing how we get the communications to the right people at the right time. And that’s great, wonderful; we still have to do that. But as we get more and more into that responsibility for delivering experiences, we now have to start to incorporate more talent around leveraging the software that drives those experiences, thinking about things like UX (user experience); in some cases, even a little bit of programmatic logic. OK, how are we going to structure that marketing automation campaign? What are going to be its triggers and its conditions, and for whom? That’s a new skillset for the modern marketer.
I couldn’t agree more. A lot of times we want to be the modern marketers. We want to be innovative. We at least don’t want to be totally left behind while everyone’s running and we look around and realize we have a lot to catch up on.
When I advise companies, if I could prepare for one thing, what would it be? Without sounding flippant about it, it would be change. This is why I really advocate for things like developing those muscles around agile marketing. Predicting the future is hard, but we can be pretty certain there are going to be new channels and new touch points coming at us over the next few years. And those of us who get more comfortable with adapting to them as they come out, we’re going to have greater success.
60 percent of B2B marketers say producing engaging content is challenging. You guys create interactive content at ion interactive. Can you tell us why you decided to tackle the interactive content problem?
At the beginning of this conversation we were chatting a bit around the challenges with content. Although buyers want to consume content in a way that lets them control their journey, the truth is the marketing profession as a whole is now generating far, far, far more content than the audience can ever sort its way through. It really becomes this competitive situation to find the ways to break through that noise.
We’re definitely excited that while the vast majority of content is passive in nature, that the audience is just being asked to read or watch or listen to it, that this new emerging group of interactive content, things like quizzes, and assessments, and calculators, and things like that, really is a way to turn that from a passive to a participatory experience.
When we were saying how as marketers we can learn from the sales team for how you want one-to-one engagements to go, certainly in like B2B marketing, I would say interactive content is almost like a way of bottling a sales engineer into a marketing format.
Yes, and make it a better, more tailored, continued conversation with them, right?
Absolutely. I think it’s a fun way to also look at the opportunity for marketing and sales to deepen their collaboration. Because those become insights now that become very relevant to the individual salesperson who ends up connecting with that prospect.
That’s true. What’s your vision for where you believe interactive content will go in the future? Where’s it headed?
It’s one of those skills that as marketers develop it, I think kind of the sky’s the limit. We have gotten so good at leveraging the creative aspects of passive content. I mean we produce just incredibly beautiful and compelling passive content. This interactive dimension is pretty new to us as marketers.
But to me, that’s what makes it so exciting, the opportunity for us to learn and get better at that creatively. I kind of look forward to what marketers are going to be producing with that over the next five years. I’m quite certain it will exceed my imagination.
I am always inspired by a lot of the different marketers and creative minds out there.
Scott, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time and sharing your thoughts and ideas with all of our listeners on this podcast series.