Episode 12: Scott Brinker

Marketing technology with Scott Brinker VP Platform Ecosystem at HubSpot and ChefMartech blog

Scott Brinker is VP Platform Ecosystem at HubSpot and runs the Chief Marketing Technologist Blog. He is the author of Hacking Marketing: Agile Practices to Make Marketing Smarter, Faster and more Innovative.

We discuss the way that technology and marketing are merging together and what marketers can learn from software engineers. We cover testing, iterative approaches and the importance of strategy.

We also cover No Code for allowing marketers to create automations and workflows without needing to write code. We have a debate on the pronunciation of Zapier, the pioneering No Code platform.

Finally Scott tells us about some the technologies of the future.

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Andrew Veitch: Welcome to the Joy of Marketing with me, Andrew Veitch. This week I’m joined by Scott Brinker. He’s the VP Platform Ecosystem at HubSpot runs the Chief Martech blog, which is known as the absolute authority on marketing technologies. And he’s also the author of Hacking Marketing, about what marketers can learn from software engineers. Welcome to the show.

Scott Brinker: Thank you for having me, Andrew.

AV: So I guess one of things we’ve seen particularly I guess with COVID hitting, is there been a lot of people who were running brick and mortar shops who’ve now been setting up online. And so what from sort of a marketing side, you say are the big issues that they’ve got to deal with?

SB: Wow, well, I mean, it’s like the world, the world was on a steady transition to embracing more and more digital engagement with customers. You know, I don’t know how many of these like digital transformation projects I’d seen over the years that, you know, they have these five year and 10 year roadmaps, and then yeah, with the craziness of 2020, I mean, certainly terrible circumstances. But it was a catalyst that basically forced every business in any mode, it’s kind of either digital or nothing. And so all of a sudden, that, like just pace of companies being able to, yeah, basically, stand up, you know, digital channels were improved digital channels for the way to engage with their customers. I mean, it was just outstanding, the the pace at which that happened, I’m sure none of us want to repeat the circumstances of that motivation ever again. But um, yeah, in one year, I think sort of the whole digital marketing digital business landscape, as we knew, it, just took a really an exponential shift.

AV: And I have to admit from a personal side, in some ways, I felt quite bad, because all of these businesses were struggling so badly. And because I was in e-commerce, I was actually in a business that was rocketing. It was, you know, it was great. But also, of course, you know, the truly terrible at the same time what was what was happening to other people’s businesses? And of course, even more seriously, you know, all the people that suffered, but yeah, I guess, I suppose one of the big things that that the shops are experiencing, though, is that they’ve then got a much wider range of competitors, as obviously, as the standard brick and mortar store. You know, your competitors are kind of, you know, in that same town, but the moment they actually move online, they suddenly find that they’re up against Jeff Bezos and international competition.

SB: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s two things here, first of all, is worth recognizing, I mean, hopefully, 2020 was a moment in time. You know, and I think we all hopefully see, like, some light at the end of the tunnel here, you know, there will be I mean, you already have the sense of just the pent up demand, and we are social creatures, and there’s only so far we can get, you know, with like zoom engagements, you know, I’m clicking around in our browser, I mean, we are, we also crave these experiences in the real world. And so I think, yeah, there will be a second competitive wave, you know, for retail to a certain degree, but also just more broadly, I mean, experiences that are based in the physical world to come back and compete, you know, on a dimension that’s just different, you know, than the purely virtual. Yeah, that being said, you know, if you’re looking at your e commerce portion of your business, which I think now everyone acknowledges even in the face of like real world engagement will continue to be a much larger percentage, you know, just transactions we do. If you’re going to compete up against the Amazons of the world, you have to find a way to create an experience online that is compelling for them. I mean, you know, Amazon’s great, it’s got scale, it’s got all this sort of stuff, but it is, I don’t believe it is the be all and end all of the experience that every person wants for every purchase or engagement that they’re making. And so I think there’s a tremendous amount of space for you know, creative, you know, businesses and marketing in the space.

AV: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. But going going more specifically, on to marketing, obviously, you’ve written a lot about where marketing meets technology. And I know you have a radical view about what someone in marketing is doing when they set up an email automation.

SB: [Laughter] the phrase “radical view”.

AV: I think it’s quite radical!

SB: I’m like a marketing and tech nerd, you know, I’m not a radical! Interesting way to frame it.

AV: What you’ve said which which really struck me is that is that the marketing person is programming and I think that is one of the things that is radically different because you know when somebody is running their their brick and mortar store they’re not doing any marketing activity that is remotely like programming but as they come online they have to actually start working in a very very different way.

SB: Yeah no that’s really interesting yeah certainly one of my themes that I’ve been doing a lot of research on particularly this past year has been this whole collection of what they call no code tools which is actually I think a very broad label for things of like oh I want to configure this automation or this workflow or you know this little web experience and I don’t know how to code. But I kind of know what I want, you know, and so these tools in a very visual way allow me to assemble that and I think you’re right I mean this is definitely a new set of skills. But as I think about it here, I’m not sure if it’s really all that different than what a lot of business owners were doing in the physical world too, I mean like right if you’re running a physical shop over the years you were in that business, you were learning, okay well how do i set up my window display, you know how do i do end cap promotions you know on my aisles, what do I put at the checkout register, you know what sort of flyers. I mean there were basically all these things that you could argue we’re like okay I mean they’re not innate skills that you know that we know it’s stuff basically we learn. Okay this is the mechanisms for marketing and delivering customer experience in the physical world and yeah it’s just now we’re having to learn a different set of skills for marketing and customer engagement you know in the in the cyber world but I think that’s part of what these no code tools and this whole movement towards better user experiences with a lot of these products is that actually make it accessible you know for non engineers to be in a position to help shape the way they want the customer experience to be online.

AV: Yeah and actually of course we were just chatting briefly before we started that both you and I were software engineers before making the move into marketing and I would certainly say though that I definitely found a lot of the skills I learned in software were incredibly useful. You know whether it was testing or or I guess even just the way that you that way that you rapidly iterate when you’re developing software.

SB: Yeah and you’re right that is a very different dynamic than the physical world I mean like if I wanted to you know I’ve got a physical shop, you know, and I have a certain layout in mind of the store and I set it up and I’m like you know I’m not sure this layout is the optimal one. I mean the work like rearranging it is ridiculous and there’s only so many times you can do that and it’s kind of hard to A/B test alternatives, you have to have multiple stores I guess. But yeah, I mean the digital environment that is one of the things that’s kind of magical about it. It is incredibly malleable and you’re right, I mean, software engineers sort of just took this for granted it’s like oh yeah well I tried this, it didn’t work, I tried something different you know it’s a matter of you know minutes but yeah I think the marketing profession overall we’re getting better at it but yeah that’s still just even conceptually this it’s not that it’s even technically difficult to do it’s just this conceptual thing of saying, I have a lot of freedom to be able to rearrange and experiment in a way that I never had before in the physical world.

AV: So I guess if you were the marketing director of an ecommerce store would you be still thinking about traditional route of lots of research putting, together a very detailed marketing plan or would you be more just you know taking more of that sort of software approach of just trying a bunch of stuff and seeing what sticks.

SB: I think a bit of a hybrid you know. I think it’s important to have a strategy to understand like okay I’m in a particular competitive environment, I need to really understand who the customers are I’m trying to serve and I need to have you know a strategy that hopefully leads to a number of hypotheses about how to win. You know I think where the iterative part really comes in, is like okay the actual execution of that strategy. I mean it’s a wonderful position to be in that you don’t have to place all your chips on the table you know in one lump sum and say okay this strategy implemented this way. It’s either that or bust, you can say, okay, this is my strategy. But actually, I’m going to implement in a way that does that experimentation and test my hypotheses. And part of that might just lead me to finding what are the best tactics for executing that strategy. And part of it might actually be feedback that says, okay, actually, my strategy actually might not have been the right one. And here’s what I’ve learned. And now here’s how I’m going to adjust it. You know, but I think it is very important to have a strategy that’s guiding the iteration just so that yeah, if you’re just throwing random things against the wall, the problem is there’s combinatorially more possibilities than atoms in the universe. So it’s like, yeah, the odds of finding something coherent there are small.

AV: Yeah. And I would also say, as well, the strategy as you get into the testing, you probably I want you to test bigger things. And I mean, certainly, I would say, when I look at most of the tests I’ve done, I mean, probably things like price tends to be price and the offer tends to be the thing that really makes a movement, whereas I don’t know, when you’re going to change your font or changing a headline, you know, you maybe get a fraction of a percent here or there, but it doesn’t really, it’s not really going to move the business.,

SB: Yeah there was that story of, oh, my goodness, you know, Google, like, way back in the days, I don’t know if this is apocryphal or not, but like the story that they had actually tested, something like 40 different shades of blue for the colors of, you know, add links to see which, you know, and I guess, actually, if you’re talking just a fraction of a percentage, but it’s a fraction of percentage, you know, against, you know, hundreds of millions or billions of transactions, and yeah, okay, maybe that’s worth it. But yeah, you can definitely get a bit down in the weeds. And at a smaller scale, that just doesn’t make sense.

AV: Yeah, I can absolutely see that. And also go to the smaller scale, you probably don’t even often have the traffic to really actually be able to get a proper result. So I can’t have the Chief Martec guy here without talking about the actual ecosystem. So I’ve, I’ve set up my store, you know, on WooCommerce, Shopify, something like that. I think probably the first thing I did was installed Google Analytics, which I think you know, for that core, that core basic information, what’s going on is probably, I guess, probably still is the first thing that people are going to install, and of course, has the advantage of being free as well. So in what sort of other categories should the sort of smaller business be thinking about next?

SB: Yeah, well, I mean, I think, right, you’re looking at a customer journey. So you know, there’s what are you going to do to attract people at the very top of the funnel? And that might be some combination of you know, inbound marketing around, you know, a content strategy? It might, you know, be involving, yeah, the, the popular word of the day is, you know, influencers, you know, within certain, you know, social networks or, you know, channels. It might be just actually advertising, and who am I trying to reach and through what channels and with that, so, you know, it’s like, whatever you put in place for that, but then I think, yeah, you know, there’s the next step of once you get those first touches, you know, with people like, Okay, how do you how do you nurture that relationship? You know, do you have a subscription option that people sign up? Because they’re gonna get, you know, special offers? And, you know, I mean, is that a compelling thing? You know, it’s like, what do you what do you provide there something that someone sees, and they’re like, Yeah, wow, that’s really great. Versus, you know, they get three or four messages from you in a given day, kind of all junkie, and they’re like, yeah, that was a mistake, unsubscribe off of that, you know, so there’s the technology you put in place to actually execute and deliver these things, you know, there’s a technology you put in place to sort of analyze, you know, and manage it. But yeah, it doesn’t have to be a huge, huge stack, right. I mean, like, you know, you can talk about a handful of products connected to your primary platform that, yeah, frankly, give most businesses 95% of what they need.

AV: Yeah, I mean, just the way I think about that structure is the three R’s of marketing. So the first one is recruitment, obviously, getting the customer second, our retention. And again, obviously, usually in e commerce is probably pretty difficult to be profitable on order one, so it’s probably the retention is where the profit is going to come. And then finally, reactivation, you know, forgetting these lapsed, customers all hopefully some of them at least, to come back. So I guess, in terms of that’s that ecosystem that you’re probably going to be using Google and Facebook, I guess, as the core for recruitment. But then as you get on to retention, I mean, what would be sort of good, you know, good products to be looking at?

SB: Wow, I mean, again, to me, it’s almost less about the product and more about like, Okay, what is? What is your mechanism for retention from? Like, what’s the offer? What’s the reason why people would come back to you? Is it because you specialize, perhaps, you know, in a particular, you know, niche and like in that niche, you basically want to be renown as the expert source, you know, for those customers. And it’s not always about selling them something at that moment, it can also be about like, okay, here are some interesting tips and tricks about what you can do if, if we know you’re like cheese, have you ever wondered, like, you know, how people think about categorizing cheese? I don’t know, making this up? I don’t. But right, you know, it’s like, you become like, if you can become their source of information about interesting things, you know, information about cheese, then yeah, that becomes a reason for them to stay engaged with you, you know, to either visit your blog, or subscribe to your newsletter, you know, and then at that point in time, right, the relationship is okay, anytime they’re thinking, you know, I’m I want to get some of that cheese. And they go to you and you don’t need a lot of technology to do that.

AV: And well that is absolutely true, you really don’t. And I guess the other element on retention is, if people aren’t buying again, is trying to dive in to find out exactly why they aren’t buying so you can change, you know, whatever it is. And I guess that’s another difficulty that we have in ecommerce versus a brick and mortar store. Because in a conventional store, obviously, you can just speak to the customers. And you can very easily find out exactly what they’re thinking what they like about your products, what they don’t like, whereas within ecommerce are just that we’re just that one step removed.

SB: Yeah, it’s true. It’s hard. I mean, there’s obviously things people do to try and get at that, whether it’s, you know, on site surveys, or, you know, follow up emails or, you know, like listening, you know, channels for, you know, social on review sites. Yeah, but, you know, I mean, like, particularly when you’re getting started, and you just don’t have a lot of volume. Yeah, that’s it. I definitely agree getting getting good feedback can be challenging. Um, but, you know, I mean, again, there’s tricks that us traditional marketers, you know, I’ve had in our playbook for ages, like, if we understand who the customers are, we’re going after, you know, to like, even assemble, like, do a little market research and like, assemble a panel, that you know, of what you consider a prospective customers who fit that target market, and pay them to actually say, Okay, I want you to go through this site, and I want to, you know, do this steps. And, you know, tell me, like, what, what do you think in here, what are you feeling? Do you like this? Do you not like it? You know, yeah, this stuff isn’t perfect. It never was perfect. But, you know, there’s definitely ways you can solicit feedback in the digital space that, you know, you borrow some of those, like, you know, physical world, you know, concepts and adapt them.

AV: Yeah, absolutely. And then I guess, as, as the sort of stories get a little bit more complex, inevitably, there’s going to be elements of software required. And assuming that you know, that our our listeners aren’t software engineers themselves, I guess they’ve then got a choice of, you know, do they go out and hire someone to do that that technical work? Or do they try and do it themselves using no code? What sort of things do you think they should get an engineer in to help versus trying to do it themselves? With with no code?

SB: Yeah, I guess it depends. I mean, the interesting thing about no code is I mean, part of what we realize is that, you know, the creation of experiences, actually is a very multidisciplinary mission. Like, you know, I would argue that a designer, is probably even more important than an engineer on a lot of these experiences. It’s like, okay, forget about how to actually coded or implemented, you know, in just what you’re presenting, like, can people navigate this? Is it intuitive? Is that emphasizing the right information in the right way? You know, and so if you’re not a design expert yourself, and you’re doing this is a serious business? Yeah, I wouldn’t wing that, you know, I don’t know if you necessarily need a designer, full time on your staff. But I think you would want to, if not probably contract with someone or, you know, hire an agency that, you know, has that talent, you know, and then like when it comes time to implement, then I think, you know, once you know what you want from an experience perspective and a design perspective, depending on the platform you’re using, it might be actually very easy to implement that design. You know with no code, but if it’s not, then you’ll be able to identify that and say, oh, can we need an engineer to build these pieces of it? And again, whether that’s a full time person or frankly, if you’re just starting out, you know, probably best doing that on a contract basis.

AV: Yeah. And I guess, I think particularly in the ecommerce space. Now, I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing this right, Zay-pee-er?

SB: Zay-pee-er vs. Zapier. They’re phrase is “Zapier makes you happier”. I assume it’s happier but you know.

AV: And that’s even before we get into zee’s and zed’s isn’t it. So that is actually a no code platform, then is that right?

SB: Yeah, they’re generally considered one of the pioneers of that no code movement.

AV: Great. I’m gonna have to admit, I have never actually used it. I think part of it is because because I am, you know, I’m familiar with Python. And so generally, that is kind of the way I will approach things rather than trying to put something together with Zapier.

SB: You know, I’ll say so I actually just did a presentation on a bunch of no code tools. And so one of the things I did was I went into all these tools and set up free accounts and tried a bunch of stuff. And I gotta say, like even Zapier, who I previously used, and then a few years went in, it’s just like, so easy to get it set up and like the things you can like, trigger back and forth between different apps and the recipes, but it was, I mean, I live this stuff and I was astounded. I was like, wow, this is seriously cool.

AV: And what’s the performance like with with Zapier on the sort of bigger data sets?

SB: Yeah, well, so that’s the thing. I mean, a lot of what Zapier, you know, a lot of what they are really good at is sort of workflow that’s happening behind the scenes, you know, something happened, and I want something else to happen as a result of that. But it isn’t necessarily instantaneously being fed back into the user experience at that moment. It’s more like, okay, well, this triggers this, and then, you know, within a matter of seconds or minutes, you know, I want something else to happen. Um, so for me at least in the cases I’ve explored, yeah, performance in seems to be a bottleneck. In many ways. I just feel like this is such a great time to be an entrepreneur, because you have so many of these technologies that are actually now very affordable. They’ve got freemium models, you know, you can try things relatively inexpensively. And yeah, as a as a as an entrepreneur who wants to, you know, who has ideas and wants to see like, oh, could I do this? Can I make this happen? It just feels like, yes, there’s more competition than ever. But there’s also more enablement to actually be able to do this stuff than ever before. And so, I don’t know, on balance, I’m a bit of an optimist. I think that enablement is just incredible.

AV: Yeah, well, no, I completely agree. I mean, if I look back, I mean, I started my first ecommerce business, nearly 15 years ago, we actually had to develop the platform ourselves. Even that development, the tools just weren’t really there soon, that development took a lot more time than it would today. Whereas of course now it would have been a few clicks on something like Shopify, and the whole thing would have been set up in 15 minutes.

SB: Boy, I feel like we’re just getting started, you know, I mean, like, I don’t know, like, at the risk of sounding a bit too, you know, futuristic in this, you know, some of these things around, you know, 5G and augmented reality. And virtually, I mean, like the experiences, we’re going to be able to create for people over, say, the next five years, I think it’s just going to be astounding. And so it’s like, all this opportunity to sort of reinvent, you know, what an experience means to a customer.

AV: Well, I can see that because certainly up to know, from a pure experience perspective, there’s definitely a better experience in a normal store, and normal brick and mortar store than there is online. And probably online is more because you’ve got more choice, and it’s probably a bit cheaper. But it’s fascinating to think that you might have a situation where the actual experience of online becomes stronger.

SB: Yeah, I mean, that’s the beauty about this industry is you know, whatever you and I were to you know, hypothesize could happen. Yeah those could happen but odds are there’s gonna be a whole bunch of things that happen that we didn’t even like imagine and so yeah I think it’s a great time to be an entrepreneur in ecommerce.

AV: Well that’s fantastic thank you very much for joining us this week I thoroughly enjoyed that.

SB: Thank you I do really appreciate you having me.

AV: And I will link to the Chief Martech blog of course in the notes. If you would like to follow the marketing playbook I used to recruit 1 million ecommerce customers then please install Machine Labs available on the Shopify App store. See you next week on the Joy of Marketing.

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