Can you lead digital and social marketing in your role?

6 Senior-Level Steps To Digital Marketing Success

CMO EXCLUSIVES | August 15, 2013

by John Parker
Adjunct Professor
Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management


I’ve spent my career in a range of roles that should enable me to stay on top of marketing strategy and technology–large corporate CMO, principal at two different leading consulting firms, startup CEO, etc. Now I am affiliated with a leading business school, have a broad network of cloud computing and social connections that is growing by the week, and most people I reach out to are happy to discuss new developments. I even travel to San Francisco and Boston once in a while.

But I can’t keep up.

And I doubt I am alone. Many friends and colleagues listen with interest when I talk about digital marketing issues, but one recent dinner conversation was particularly revealing. I asked a long-time friend if he thought his industry was going to be turned upside down like so many others. His reply was, “Without question–I just hope it doesn’t happen until after I retire!”

But this answer won’t work for many of us. So when it comes to digital and social marketing, what is a senior executive to do?

Allow me to suggest a series of six steps that will allow senior executives to lead digital and social efforts that can deliver value in the short term, while remaining flexible enough to continue evolving with the market.

1. Commit personally: Senior executives need to understand what they want from digital and social. Fortunately, the highest-level goals are generally quite clear. Companies have unprecedented opportunities to build steadily strengthening connections to customers, prospects, and partners. As a result, they can achieve higher margins, lower acquisition costs, and lower customer churn, thereby raising customer lifetime value. Clearly laying out these expectations is a great way to start.

There are many ways to show leadership in the process. First and foremost, most executives are already using capabilities for their own interactions by embracing mobile devices, joining social networks, and even managing communications through CRM systems and social network pages. As good leaders and managers, they can review and participate in regular “lessons learned” discussions as teams work through the what and the how. Finally, and perhaps most important, they can contribute content in the form of video pieces, scripted interviews, and even blogs as a signal of the importance they place on new approaches.

2. Understand customers. This should come as second nature for successful senior executives. Asking the key questions is an important step–such as what customers need and like, what messages will resonate with them, what devices are they using (PCs vs. smartphones, with tablets as the second screen?), and how do they communicate and consume information (Web page views vs. emails vs. social network engagement). Perhaps the most important question to ask is where the customers are spending their time. How much time are they using (and staying within) particular social networks?

The market structure of the customer base has implications for subsequent decisions. A company may have many small customers who aren’t well-organized, and not have strong relationships with them. Or perhaps a company has fewer, larger customers organized into groups, but there are still few strong relationships. A third scenario is where a company has a defined set of customers and prospects, strong relationships with many of them, and a clear path to identify and reach the rest through connections.

In any scenario, social has greatly enhanced a company’s ability to understand prospects and customers. Social networks are now forums where people openly share their likes, needs, and frustrations. Social “listening” is an easy step forward and can inform better results in a range of areas including product development, sales, and service.

3. Map the pieces: This is perhaps the most challenging step. The overarching goal is to create an “ecosystem,” or community, of some sort–in short, a company’s own network that includes customers, prospects, and partners. This enables increased engagement with existing members, while promoting growth by adding new members.

A place to start is understanding where the company stands across three distinct digital approaches–search engine marketing based on static Web sites and perhaps email marketing systems; permission-based inbound marketing based on attracting opt-in members and then building engagement through customer relationship management systems and content nurture streams; and social marketing and social sales based on understanding and leveraging social networks.

One key question to ask is, “What should be at the center?” Conventional wisdom of the past few years has been to move through search engine and email marketing (requiring an email marketing management tool, and an increasingly interactive Web site) to permission-based inbound marketing. This means developing the company Web site into a hub that prospects, customers, and partners will be drawn to, but the same prospects, customers, and partners also enroll in outbound nurture streams managed through CRM and content management systems. In a situation where a company is marketing to a stable network with strong relationships, the CRM system may take the central position rather than the Web site.

In either case, this can be resource-intensive, and seems to be changing with the rapid rise of social and mobile. Leaders of smaller companies may choose to build around social network pages, focusing on one or two networks, publishing in group forums, and perhaps de-emphasizing Web sites entirely. Larger companies likely should choose to cover all of the bases, which will require deploying a social management platform, too. And many industry observers see CRM and social platforms converging over time, with prospects and customers increasingly adding and updating their own information to their records.


Developing a company presence on chosen social networks is an important step, but the real benefits come from achieving local leverage by encouraging a wide range of employees and partners to develop their own social presence, as well. This, in turn, means encouraging many semi-autonomous pages; therefore, a social policy governing content needs to be in place first. Content management to ensure both quality and compliance comes next, and social monitoring will need to be done well, too.

But as a reminder, executives need to understand and articulate how the structure reflects the approach to growing customer lifetime value. One consideration when mapping the pieces is the source of potential network members–the current customer base, referrals, contact lists, opt-ins through offers and landing pages, and members of social networks all need to be considered. Another consideration when making these choices is the anticipated range of outreach approaches. What combination of direct communication, ad-driven offers, and blogs and posts will be used to reach and increase the number of prospects and customers over time?

Having worked through all of this, senior executives will have developed a sense of the pieces–including Web sites, email systems, CRM systems, content management systems, social management platforms, and possibly others–and how they can work together to support growth in customer lifetime value.

4. Assemble the components: Once the pieces are mapped based on the shape of the customer opportunities, the next challenge is to assemble a specific set of components with an eye toward flexibility and cost effectiveness. Given the remarkably rapid rate of innovation, leaders need to avoid being locked into expensive commitments that won’t be easy to continue to change. A series of principles can really help here.

First and foremost, keep it in the cloud. Choosing Saas (software-as-a-service) systems and products reduces up-front investment dramatically, and allows companies to benefit from continuous improvements without the cost of installing new versions on their own. This approach also allows companies to start with just a few licenses, and once things are working as intended, the investment to support a large number of users can be made with much more confidence.

Second, executives should help their teams strike the right balance between choosing the best package for each purpose–the best CRM system, the best email marketing system, the best social management platform, etc.–and achieving seamless integration between the packages by buying them all from two or three sources. The key here is to maintain a single, high-quality set of customer data that all of the pieces tie to, so that complete pictures of all interactions are readily available and can support the business of marketing and selling.

Finally, build, test, and monitor prototypes until they work perfectly. Investing extra time and effort at this stage can make the step of expanding the system much quicker and less expensive, as well as making broad implementation much smoother.

5. Engage the organization around content, and marshal the resources to make it successful. Once a system is developed, it has to be used to full effect to capture the available benefits. And in today’s world, that requires a large, steady stream of content. Types of content include articles, blogs, white papers, contests, games, webinars, videos, posts to discussion groups, tweets, and infographics (to name a few).

Increasingly, content generation is evolving into a companywide responsibility, rather than simply a marketing responsibility. Senior executives need to embrace and then encourage this.

Although this is a relatively undeveloped area, management processes that reward the generation and dissemination of great content will undoubtedly lead to great value. And social management platforms that enable rapid and easy sharing of existing content, along with monitoring for compliance purposes, are already enjoying rapid growth.

6. Constantly measure and monitor in order to learn and improve: Last but not least comes the question of measurement. This falls into two categories. First of all, activity metrics do matter. Questions such as the number of subscribers (or connections, or followers), the engagement of subscribers as measured by click-through rates, numbers of likes and retweets, and number of subscribers opting out can all provide useful insight on how to keep getting better. The network a company builds through its efforts is its “social capital” and is a valuable asset.

But, ultimately, financial metrics have to prevail. ROI for digital and social marketing efforts has become a widely discussed topic, and skepticism is gradually fading. But at the end of the day, margins should improve, acquisition costs should drop, and churn rates should decline–hopefully all at the same time!

Finally, it will never be wise for a company to rest on its laurels–the pace of innovation shows no signs of slowing, and today’s winning approaches will often soon be yesterday’s news. Keeping an eye on what leading companies from across a wide range of industries are saying and doing will always be wise. Fortunately, in this increasingly social world, they like to talk about it.

Full Circle
So let’s return to where we started. I can’t keep up. Not many of us can. But the senior executives who understand this and build their efforts with this in mind, will likely be the consistent winners going forward. What are you waiting for?

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