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Incorporate Empathy into Marketing Strategy for Authentic Connections

Liz Austin

Liz Austin

former Vice President of Marketing and Branding at McGraw Hill Education

Liz Austin McGraw-Hill Education

In times of crisis, it’s important to focus on the wellbeing of your colleagues and coworkers first and foremost. Then, infuse that same level of empathy into your marketing strategy. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes to create authentic brand connections.

Quartz Network Executive Correspondent Britt Erler sat down with Liz Austin, former Vice President of Marketing and Branding of McGraw Hill Education to discuss these focus areas along with recent trends for CMOs and marketing leaders to examine since the pandemic began.

Liz share ways to:

  • Infuse empathy into your marketing strategy and professional relationships
  • Establish a clear vision and communicate goals along with ways to accomplish them
  • Develop a brand strategy and consistently serve that narrative
  • Avoid the overly aggressive product pitch in favor of a more human element

Quartz Network: Could give us some background on your career?

Liz Austin: I’ve worked across all aspects of marketing for nearly 20 years. They call that full stack marketing today. Everything from events to digital to product marketing to demand generation operations. I’ve worked for large global corporations, from Thomson Reuters to my last gig at McGraw Hill Education, so a wide range of sectors as well.

Quartz Network: What do you think marketing leaders can do to help lead their teams and keep them motivated, inspired, and productive during these challenging times brought on by the pandemic?

Liz Austin: First and foremost, I believe that leaders really need to have massive amounts of empathy. So, you’ve got to really know your people, understand them as a whole individual. I can guarantee that everyone on your team is facing a unique challenge. Some will want to talk and some will want to keep that privacy shield. But that’s okay. I think it’s really important to show them that you care about the wellbeing of them as an individual. During times of crisis, I think that’s more important than ever.

One of the things that I faced in my first job, and was reminded of recently because it was 9/11, was when I worked on Wall Street. I saw how our leader literally spent more than a week tracking down every single member of his team and calling over the phone. That really shaped my view on leadership, and how I wanted to be as a leader. That empathy that he showed us, that understanding and caring during what was one of the most unprecedented crises that we’ve ever faced. I think empathy can really go a long way, just showing that you care about your team as an individual.

Then, I have managed remote teams. I think what can happen is like the sense of loneliness can occur because people can’t interact face to face. It’s really important for leaders to make time for personal connections. For example, if you have a weekly meeting set with your direct reports, don’t always cancel it, because that signals to them that you don’t care. That can happen because you just get busy. So, it really shows the team that you value their time, and you’re important to them. Taking time out, learning about their family, their personal life, all those things are really important.

I have heard that some leadership teams have taken the time to meet with every single person in their organization. Obviously in larger corporation that’s not scalable, but it’s possible with some midsize to small employers. That can create a strong culture and sense that you genuinely care about your team.

Then you have to be able to be inspirational. That means appealing to the hearts and minds of the team. So setting that clear vision. A lot of companies are pivoting, so the vision may be something new. So, setting that in place, and then communicating clear goals and how to get the team there. Then, you really have to do everything in your power to make sure that they achieve those goals. So if you have to move mountains, you have to move mountains. because what will happen is the team will see you doing that, and then give back 100%.

Quartz Network: How do you feel about the concept of marketing with empathy and is it effective? Is that a strategy that leaders need to train their team on or is it more common sense?

Liz Austin: As marketers, it’s a bit of common sense. I think what we’re getting away from is that overly aggressive sales pitch or product pitch, and really pivoting and thinking about it from the consumer or the buyer’s perspective. In the past, especially in a B2B environment, you can tend to start feature dumping and doing really aggressive sales pitches and those sorts of things. I think this whole shift in the environment has really brought some of that more human element. The brand story and the brand narrative. It really important for every company to get that piece really straight.

If you don’t have a good brand strategy, everything you do in marketing has to serve that narrative. The only narrative is the human narrative. People are the ones buying products, whether you’re selling enterprise SaaS solutions, or you’re selling meal kits, or whatever.

Quartz Network: What should CMOs and senior marketing leaders focus on daily?

Liz Austin: If your marketing organization hasn’t done messaging and positioning review, and that flows through all your digital properties and sales materials, that’s something that I think should be top of mind for CMOs. Does it still make sense? Do you need to pivot? Does the business model make sense? Those are the questions that every commercial leader should be asking.

I also think that if you’re in a B2B environment, you need to get really close to your sales team, and start thinking about customer and market segmentation prioritization. This speaks to account based marketing, but are there addressable segments that you serve that are either surviving or thriving? And how can you personalize your marketing towards those specific opportunities?

Then, of course, I think just getting under the hood of your spending and scrutinizing that, because your C suite is going to do that. You’re going to have to defend what you’re spending in terms of marketing dollars. We’re doing that under the lens of effectiveness and ROI. Where are we getting the biggest bang for our buck? And we’re going to pour gas on the on those specific things.

So, if you don’t have the right operations in place to answer those questions, then CMOs should really be prioritizing ROI and measurement, obviously.

Then, although it’s shifted a little bit to an employer market, as opposed to a candidate market, I think your talent is still key. You want to make sure your top talent isn’t looking to leave. You still have to reward and retain your top performers because they’re the ones that are making the difference in the organization. So even though you’re seeing the shift, keeping your best and brightest talent should really be top of mind for everyone.

Quartz Network: There’s been a lot of discussion on investing in the brand versus investing in demand. And obviously, we’re seeing a lot of on pull back on marketing investment, and that may continue to happen. Should we prioritize one over the other?

Liz Austin: I don’t think it’s an either/or. Demand is critically important, because the rest of the organization can understand the impact on revenue with demand, right? But you can’t build a band without brand awareness.

I did see something recently from Gartner that CMOs were prioritizing their brand. All marketing should be in service of that brand strategy, or it gets more difficult to defend that investment. So, you really must think about ways to present it to the rest of the organization. Generating demand is still critically important because businesses have to meet their targets and revenue goals. Companies that invest in brand are going to be the winners on the other side.

Quartz Network: How can a brand connect authentically to their customers and prospects without coming across as opportunistic?

Liz Austin: It ties into your brand strategy. Instead of that feature dump, or roadmap, or aggressive sales pitch – what are you doing to create value in your market? What problems are you solving?

Really good valuable content will never go out of style. Content that isn’t focused on your product, or trying to sell something, but is really there to educate and inform, brings authenticity to the brand.

So, it’s really putting yourself in your prospect and your customers shoes. Then as we get further down the road, in terms of authenticity, people are going to be releasing statements about social issues. I think buyers are going to hold companies accountable for action, right? Instead of just having a statement or putting something out there in the market, identify specific things that you’re doing to help create a better world.

Quartz Network: Can it be a hindrance for companies that come out with these social statements?

Liz Austin: I recently heard about some big companies that had pulled back on certain suppliers, because they felt that the company wasn’t diverse enough and it didn’t fit in with their values. So the suppliers lost the business. I think people are really looking for action and commitment across the board. And I think you’re going to continue to see that in the future.

Quartz Network: What other trends are you expecting as the pandemic continues, just based on the shifts we’ve seen happening so far?

Liz Austin: We touched on demand generation earlier. For many years we’ve worked under this waterfall and QA model, and it’s really served marketers well. But I think we’re kind of getting to the New Dawn of the next generation of that model. Because big data and technology are really providing some tremendous opportunities get focused about your accounts. And I think it’s going to move from, “Is this lead qualified,” to, “Is this prospect engaged and ready for conversation with us.”

I think that you’re going to see a lot more account-based marketing and things like big data. The ability to see what the customer is doing across the entire buyers journey is really exciting.

With the disruption in the environment, and how comfortable people are getting digitally, we’ve been forced into thinking buyers are going to be much more comfortable with many more non-human touches in that buyers process. So, what’s going to happen is you’re going to see some of what used to fall on an enterprise sales team’s shoulders now coming over to the marketing side.

 I don’t think human touches will ever go away and we’re always going to need salespeople, Marketing is going to have to scale up with scrutiny over investment. The only way to do that is to leverage technology in a smart way.

Quartz Network: Is that something most companies already have in place, or will they need to start to while retraining their teams on how to utilize?

Liz Austin: There are good building blocks in place and our tech space has exploded. I would imagine there will be some consolidation. If we go into recession, we’re going to see some consolidation of the MarTech providers. There are really good building blocks in place. Most companies have a CRM, a marketing automation tool, and some sort of tech stack. What I hope for is a tighter alignment between sales, marketing, and creating those strategies and go-to market activities together. As opposed to sales has their strategy and marketing has theirs. That’s kind of where the friction has come in, because that strategy really needs to be created together, in tandem.

Quartz Network: With the shift to remote work, are companies making more or less money with a remote workforce?  Have you seen a big change in that in the marketing function?

Liz Austin: I think so. I’ve heard statistics saying productivity is up. I think what’s harder, when you get more into the creative side of things, is the ability to be in a room and brainstorm. And there’s obviously great technologies that will allow you to do that remotely. As humans, we’re an adaptable species, so we’ll be able to adapt. Hopefully technology will enable us to continue to flourish in any environment.

Quartz Network: Do you think things will ever go back to pre-pandemic ways in terms of marketing function will the new changes persevere?

Liz Austin: I think the changes we make now will persevere. I think about my dad who’s 80 years old and would have never ordered through ecommerce. He’s totally comfortable doing that now. So I think It won’t go back to the way it was. I do think things like in-person meetings and travel and live events will come back, it will just be a different flavor of what they were.

Quartz Network: Are there any other comments or insights you could give that you think would be really helpful to marketers during this time?

Liz Austin: One thing is really building that strong, cohesive team. What that means is really having a diverse skillset and makeup of individuals across your team. So be thinking about how you can attract and retain the best talent? How can you work with your recruiting team and make sure that pipeline is full.

As marketing leaders, it’s important to stand up and say, “I’m not going to be able to make a hiring decision until my pipeline is really robust and has a really diverse makeup.” We see the statistics time and time again, diverse teams outperform those that aren’t in terms of performance, creativity, innovation. So, for me, that would be one last piece of advice.

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