Extending Yourself: 5 Questions To Ask Before Hiring An Agency


Extending Yourself: 5 Questions To Ask Before Hiring An Agency

Jennifer Davis 4.25.19.JPG

In order to enable a customer-centric enterprise, marketers often work closely with agencies. Choosing and onboarding an agency for success is often the key to success of the marketing leader and their teams ability to hit their objectives. Here are five common questions that marketers should ask when selecting agencies.

Why do we need an agency?

Michelle Reape is the Director of Marketing for AssureSign, an e-signature provider, having spent time in companies like Beazer Homes, Revenue Analytics and the consulting firm North Highland where she led marketing campaigns across industries like financial services, life sciences and healthcare. She advises companies to find an agency if they do not have in-house capabilities. “For example, if you don’t have public relations or digital experience, it’s imperative to leverage the skill sets of agencies or people who do,” Reape said.

Joe Koufman leads AgencySparks, a firm that connects brands and agencies and added “companies should consider hiring an agency, if their team is missing a capability or needs additional capacity. Capacity is when the company just does not have enough 'arms and legs' to do the marketing work. Capability is when the company is missing some expertise in a specific marketing discipline, like email, social media, mobile, etc.”

That said, some companies build in-house creative, strategy or execution teams rather than relying on agencies or freelancers. If the work load is steady and understood, it can be successful. However, Koufman is skeptical of the model where companies build in-house agencies or big consultancies absorbing marketing agencies. “Talented marketing executives go to work for agencies for a reason,” he observed. Sometimes the talent you need to grow your business or execute your campaign prefer working in the highly diverse and dynamic environment of an agency, over working for a client. Other times, brands choose a hybrid model, where strategy and specialty work are done by in-house leaders and other production tasks are done by third-parties.

How do we pick an agency?

“Usually, 50% of the reason that brands select a new marketing agency partner is capability,” Koufman offered. “The other 50% is chemistry. At the end of the day, brands want to work with agencies that they like, trust, and compatible with their teams.”

“Depending on your budget and goals, it will dictate the type of agency you will need to be successful,” Reape observed. Even the term agency can vary. Koufman explains that it can be “anything from a one-person marketing consultancy to a massive holding company. For instance, WPP is now over $20 billion in revenue and made up of a slew of different types of agencies. Global consulting firms are snapping up agencies to deliver not only strategy, but also execution.”

Do we need more than one agency partner?

“Given the companies that I’ve worked for, it is very rare that you have one agency what will do everything or has the capability to do everything.” The term “agency” itself can be pretty broad. Koufman sees these same trends. “Currently, some brands are seeking a stable of specialist agencies rather than one agency-of-record. The upside is best-of-breed capabilities. The downside is the need to manage multiple agencies.”

How do we select the right partners?

Sorting from amidst the agency options and vetting agencies and proposals is a challenging process. This is further complicated by time pressures. Reape recalled a situation where she had to move a project from one agency to another mid-stream. “I learned the power of your network is crucial when you are looking for an agency to partner with.” Asking for recommendations from other leaders or marketers is a good place to start.

Reape recommends asking some specific questions to avoid problems later. Asking, “Do you have specific references or case studies where you’ve solved a similar problem in an industry that aligns with my business?” will allow you to gauge how much you will need to familiarize them with the problem and what expertise they have to bring to bear on your particular issues. Asking, “Have you ever had a project that went off track, if so, why, and what did you learn from it?” shows how self-aware they are and how committed they are to professional growth, even if it requires admitting their wrong.

Should we go with a big agency or a boutique firm?

“I have a slight bias against massive marketing agencies because I feel clients often get the ‘B’ or ‘C’ team working on their business,” Koufman observed. “The smallest client for an agency receives less attention - alternatively, the largest client for an agency is the top priority.” Reape agreed. “I like for my agencies to always consider me to be one of their largest clients. It’s all about the client experience. If an agency makes you feel like you’re the most important client, they are responsive, and do excellent work, and are good to work with, you will continue to throw that agency business,” she said. That said, the experiences can be as unique as the companies and personalities involved, so testing the relationship for chemistry and commitment is a good start.

This article was originally published on Forbes.com.


Hire Fast, Fire Fast: New Strategies For Competitive Marketing Job Markets


Hire Fast, Fire Fast: New Strategies For Competitive Marketing Job Markets

Annelle Barnett of Marketing Mob speaks to new hiring strategies in today's competitive market for marketing talent. Photo credit:  Jason Seagle  for AgencySparks.

Annelle Barnett of Marketing Mob speaks to new hiring strategies in today's competitive market for marketing talent. Photo credit: Jason Seagle for AgencySparks.

Building a customer-centric enterprise relies on employees building relationships, acting on insights and growing alongside the needs of customers. Underlying this is an assumption that marketing teams have the personnel they need and that they are up to the task. In today’s competitive job market, companies are changing their approach in order to stay competitive, not only in the eyes of their customers, but in the fight for talent.

Annelle Barnett runs a marketing recruiting firm, a job board, and produces and hosts the popular, Marketing Mob podcast and webinar series. I joined her for a talk in February 2018 and we had a chance to chat recently about the new trends she sees in staffing.

“In the past, it was often advised to 'hire slow, fire fast' with the idea that you would spend a good bit of time doing your due diligence to ensure you’re setting yourself up with the best chance for success when selecting an employee,” she recounted. Managers are taught that it is best to take the required time to hire the best candidate with the most relevant experience and the best cultural fit. However, things are changing. “Whereas it used to take days, weeks and sometimes even months to make a hire, that is no longer the case today. Especially with high demand positions, like digital marketing and agency account positions.” Time is not a luxury that most employers enjoy today.

“Due to the competitive landscape, candidates are hired in a matter of days and even hours,” she continued. “Things can also change at their current employers. I’ve had situations where a candidate was promoted while in the interview process and they took themselves off the market.” It is a highly dynamic space and “if you’re too slow to react to finding a great candidate, you will miss out and lose your amazing candidate to someone else, perhaps to your competitor.” Nimbleness is winning the game in talent acquisition.

Filing open roles also has practical implications on productivity. If an open position is filled in January, they have 11-12 months to contribute to the goals for the year. If that same position stays open until July, the employee is only going to be half as productive that first year. Hiring fast, Barnett continues, “allows the employer to move forward, expediting productive contribution.”

If you find yourself in a battle for great talent, what can you do to speed up your hiring processes?

First, audit and measure to provide a baseline. “If it takes more than 1 month to move a single candidate through the interview process, they should consider reexamining their hiring strategy,” Barnett advised.

Second, build your process for speed. “Calendar availability of hiring managers is the number one factor that slows down an interview process,” Barnett observed. “If a company or hiring manager is ready to hire, it should be one of their top priorities.” Blocking time for interviews, being ready to reschedule, or even being available after hours or before the workday (when passive candidates who are currently employed might have more flexibility) can all expedite the process. “Have offer letters ready in advance and get them out quickly,” she continued.

“Candidates get excited about positions. The longer the offer letter takes, the more anxious they get and that excitement starts to wear off. It’s like when you’re having lunch at a restaurant and the service has been fantastic through the entire meal but then the check takes 20 minutes. The guest often forgets everything that happened before the delayed check and they will reflect that in the tip. It’s just as important to finish strong in the hiring process. The candidates are paying attention.

And finally, “I’d say the most important thing to remember is flexibility and letting go of the way things used to be,” she concluded. “There may need to be more trusting of your gut and intuition than checking every box.” Employers would do well to remember that “great candidates get scooped up quickly by companies with more nimble processes.”

This approach to hiring has implications on the organization that extend beyond hiring decision speed.

The first obvious downside to a “hire fast” strategy might mean more turn-over. “By hiring more quickly, the chances of making the wrong hire are greater,” Barnett observes. Not every hire will be a good fit. They might not actually have the skills for the job or perhaps they bring with them toxicity that could spread to the rest of the team. “A disgruntled employee has the potential for disrupting the entire company or team culture,” Barnett adds.

The impact of a bad hire can be substantial, so a “fire fast” mentality has to be adopted. “Firing fast means that an employer would let go of an employee as soon as it’s recognized that the individual is not the right fit for the role,” she explains.

This might require the organization to be prepared to spend more in severance, outplacement services, or working with employees to place or coach them into new roles within the organization. In high-impact or customer facing the roles, the risks of “fire fast” can be dramatic as you don’t want customers to lose confidence in the brand. Barnett says that in some cases it is useful to have “a training period for a month or so before the employee becomes client facing to ensure the right hire was made” before key customer relationships are fully transitioned to new hires.

Care must be taken to not fire too fast, however. “By firing too quickly, you may miss out on a great employee because you didn’t take the time to coach them or move them to another position in the company that is a better fit for the individual,” Barnett said. If the employee is a good cultural fit and has the right attitude, often a better role can be found to put their strengths to use. “There may also be some repercussions online with employer reputation” with this strategy, Barnett warns. “If employees are fired often, the employer brand may take a hit from bad reviews on sites like Glassdoor.” Managers should always work with their human resources and legal teams to ensure compliance with applicable laws and practices, which vary dramatically by state or country.

In order to attract talent and maximize productivity, many companies are changing their hiring practices to a “hire fast, fire fast” strategy. This approach might not always be a fit for every company, but in highly competitive roles and dynamic markets, employers may find they no longer have a choice.

This article was originally published on Forbes.com.


When Small Is Big Enough: Success Strategies In Niche Segmentation And Customer-Centricity


When Small Is Big Enough: Success Strategies In Niche Segmentation And Customer-Centricity


Whidbey Telecom is a 110-year old independent telecommunications company based in Langley, WA on Whidbey Island, which lies 30 miles north of Seattle between the Olympic Peninsula and the I-5 corridor of western Washington and forms the northern boundary of the Puget Sound. With 100 employees, the companies provides internet, security, video entertainment and phone services to over 10,000 businesses and residential customers, most who live in rural locations. The company’s success provides insights for niche market segmentation for other industries, brands and leaders looking to build deep and lasting relationships with their customers.

Chris McKnight has served as the chief marketing officer for Whidbey Telecom for several years, coming from a background in sales and marketing leadership for technology, advertising, finance and experience marketing agencies in Seattle, Los Angeles and New York. He knows about innovation and the telecom industry relies upon it. But in the niche segments, innovation must be relevant. “The company’s history and culture is a rich tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship,” McKnight recounts. “In 1908, we pioneered Whidbey Island’s first telephone service. In the 1960’s we were the first to put our lines underground to improve service quality – we get many wind storms – and in 2004, we were the first independent telecommunications company west of the Rocky Mountains to provide Internet service.”

However, innovation for its own sake doesn’t ensure customer satisfaction. Here McKnight relies on research. “Market segmentation and personas are incredibly important to our customer-centric approach,” he said. “We start at a high level with published lifestyle segmentation data that match our households and then it becomes more proprietary as we supplement the data set with information from focus groups, surveys, and user data.”

This affects how he thinks about his role at the company. “My mission as CMO is to know the market better than anyone else in the company and to be the voice of our customers. I'm only able to do that by having frequent and ongoing interactions with our customers in the field and taking on sales opportunities,” he said referencing his background in business development roles. “Account relationships can provide enormous insight and data into what customers need and want in support of the overall marketing strategy.”

Based on their unique knowledge of their customer, their approach to service is a departure from the mainstream. "Since 80% of the residents are over the age of 60 and fall into the late-adopter category, we play an extraordinary role in educating and helping our customers adopt and adapt to today’s rapidly changing technology environment,” he continued.

“We maintain a 24x7 tech support team, and we extend our support to topics that other companies do not like how to use your email, how to download an app on your iPhone, or how to connect your computer to WiFi,” he explained. “We also staff a team of 10 customer service representatives in our Customer Experience center, so customers can come in and talk to us about their services, pay their bills, and get advice on new technology for their homes.” There are niches within niches as well, within the elderly population. Those that are 70+ often have a child or caretaker that works with them on their Whidbey Telecom account. “We are often conferencing in a child that lives somewhere else in the world, with one of our customers, to make sure they are getting what they need.”

The service stories at Whidbey Telecom take on mythic proportion. “Once the installation team pulled over to help a car that looked like it had broken down on the side of the road, only to find out the person was having a heart attack and managed to save their life by driving them directly to the ER,” McKnight said. “Once the CEO, George Henny, was swimming at the gym when he overheard someone say the internet was down. Jumping out of the pool, he called tech support wrapped in a towel to get the issue resolved right away.” In the island community, these stories travel fast and help build the brand. “We are proud to provide free WiFi and high-speed fiber optic internet to the community center in Pt. Roberts, were 22 different community groups use the building and community with the rest of the world,” McKnight said.

To their customers, service is personal. To Whidbey Telecom, it’s good business. “Not everyone wants to be scaled and automated into a non-human customer experience. This is where premium products and services live, and they are a very profitable place to be and a really enjoyable place to build a career.”

McKnight says his customers have enriched his life in many ways. “On the surface, many are laid back retirees, but when you get to know them, you find out they've run major global corporations, fought legendary battles, and invented the things we now take for granted today,” he said. “I don't think we're doing a good enough job as a society of sharing their stories and passing on the knowledge they've spent their whole lives acquiring and I think it could make our lives a lot easier if we did.”

To date, three customers have baked McKnight cookies in his tenure at the company proving sweetly that small is big enough

This article was originally published on Forbes.com.






“This is the day of dramatization. Merely stating a truth isn’t enough. The truth has to be made vivid, interesting, dramatic. You have to use showmanship. The movies do. Radio does it. And you will have to do it if you want attention.”

Dale Carnegie


3 Ways To Build Your Brand On The Right Assumptions


3 Ways To Build Your Brand On The Right Assumptions


Teresa Caro, the senior vice president of marketing at Atlanticus, a financial services company marketing under the Fortiva family of brands, has spent her career helping brands connect with their customers, often in new ways. She worked for social media agencies in the early days of those platforms and helped brands like Chick-Fil-A, UPS, Wells Fargo, and Coca-Cola with their marketing strategies. We had a chance to talk recently about the need to unpack assumptions and her insights provide guidance to marketers and business leaders seeking to align marketing and sales and to put the customer in the center of their business.

Assumptions Can Hide Misalignment and Breakthroughs

“My biggest learning throughout my career is to never assume,” said Caro. Even fundamental things like the company’s financial goals might not be obvious. “Every company seeks to be profitable, yet, depending on the company goal, profitability may not need to happen until a later date.” She recommends digging deeper into the business goals to understand how marketing affects future results. “Will the company be sold in five years and so scale is the priority and profitability is less important (at least right now)? Is the company a public company and so profitable growth are the priorities? Are we operating in a highly commoditized space so more focus needs to placed on brand awareness, perception or differentiation?” The answers to these questions lead to very different plans. “I have even worked with brand manager clients who want to be perceived as more ‘innovative’ compared to their other brand managers, so we did less around the ‘tried and true’ and pushed more into sparkly objects,” Caro recalls from her agency days. In any case, understanding the underlying motivations can lead to real breakthroughs and uncover areas of misalignment. “Once that long term goal has been identified and translated into short term plans, next it is important to layer in the target audience.” Caro said it is important to consider all the stakeholders, “not just customer or consumer target audiences, but also internal, external, investor, board-type audiences.” Consider how your business plans, product positioning, or even messaging will resonate with all the stakeholders.

Measurement Requires Management

“Regardless of industry, the biggest assumptions are typically around measurement,” Caro observed. “What needs to be measured, is it being measured, is it being measured the right way, is it being reported on correctly, is it being analyzed appropriately, and is it being tested and optimized” are the questions that she advised asking. “Furthermore, do the right people have access to this data and do they understand how they can make an impact on these numbers.” If data isn’t understood or actionable, it isn’t useful. “In other words, people who are really good at creating reports, may not be good at analyzing them. People who are good at analyzing them, may not have the domain knowledge needed to make recommendations to different departments,” she said. “The most fascinating discovery I have made is the number of marketing organizations that don’t have an analytics person on their team or that they have to share them with finance and accounting,” she noted. This is likely to change in the coming years with a growing emphasis on data and analytics, but it is a gap in many small and mid-size marketing groups today and impacts the ability to make smart, data-driven decisions.

How organizations make decisions and use data to drive marketing plans can vary widely. “Many brands assume TV commercials always work, largely because it is the tradition in the company to always include TV commercials in their brand plans,” she said. “Content marketing has become another ‘you-just-have-to-do-it’ tactic in marketing plans.” Whether or not it is the right choice for the business, product, or sales approach. “For the record, there are ways to prove TV commercials work, as well as content marketing,” Caro summarized. “It goes back to the assumptions around measuring the right way, with the right tools.” And making sure those measurements tie back to the business strategy overall.

She warned against acting on data without first validating. For instance, Caro warned that a company shouldn’t use lookalike modeling, in which new prospects are pursued that match attributes from current customers, without validating that those current customers are the most valuable or profitable. They risk filling the pipeline with prospects that will not drive the business goals. Similarly, “rolling out social media and other forms of communication without validating other departments, such as customer service, can support the ramifications” is a recipe for brand damage. Metrics are exceptional tools, but they are only tools to be used by management to make smart decisions, even if that means rethinking traditional approaches or revisiting what has worked in the past. “Debunking of assumptions requires a business case and a leadership team willing to take a risk,” she added.

Brands Are Themselves Assumptions

It has been said that your brand is what your customers think and say about you without your involvement. In a sense, they are themselves a set of assumptions. Assumptions about how the product might perform, how the price compares to the competition, where the product can be purchased, and what the customer experience will entail. “When someone asks me to ‘brand position’ a company, I have found a lot of work goes into helping them understand all that goes into a brand,” recalled Caro. This includes not only “advertising, but PR to customer experience and everything in between.” It extends beyond marketing functions to sales. It extends beyond customer-facing roles to those who support the experience in factories, development teams, or billing departments. Good marketers “help their executive leadership or clients understand that what he or she decides to do as it relates to brand, impacts all aspects of the organization,” Caro said. “And, with a limited budget, not everything can be done.” Before your customers can make the right assumptions about you as a brand and a company, the organization has an opportunity to decide “what they want to be known for and how they want to reinforce this message.” And to give that priority across their entire business strategy.

This article was originally posted on Forbes.com.


4 Ways Successful Marketers Can Think Big And Start Small


4 Ways Successful Marketers Can Think Big And Start Small


Melissa Craig-Fink is the marketing and operations manager for Panther Residential Management who manages traditional and non-tradition multi-dwelling residences in several eastern US states. Throughout her career in marketing - working for brands like Quizno’s, Sports Clips, and the Ritz Carlton, and now as a department of one in real estate - she knows the challenges of balancing strategic and tactical priorities on long-term and short-term horizons. Here are some lessons she has learned that will help any marketer and business leader be successful.

Take Risks

“When I worked at Quizno’s in franchise marketing, digital advertising was a new concept and the marketing team was nervous to jump into that space,” Fink recalls. “It is funny to say now because I am a raging fan, but at the time we were not all convinced, and the marketing team was reluctant to manage the project.” This was over six years ago when many were still experimenting. “Although I was not very hopeful that digital would drive customers to our doors the way our traditional outreach had, I agreed to do it.” The rest is history, she said. The program was a success and she was forever changed as a marketer. “My mindset now is that everything is moving towards digital. Now, my role is primarily online reputation management and digital advertising. Roles that I wouldn’t have believed would exist just a few years ago.”

Be Prepared to Change

“Your market changes every quarter,” Fink explained. “You need to look regularly at your customer base, talk to your on-site teams and get fresh eyes on the changing demographics, and then shift your strategies.” This is true of any business, but especially in highly dynamic markets like residential real estate. For instance, Fink has had success targeting around universities for changing student populations.

Being responsive is critical to Panther’s business and to Fink’s role as a marketer, as future tenants are likely to be referred by today’s tenants. “People shop for apartments online, but not just on our website or properties, but in their friends’ social feeds, review sites, and places where we can only loosely influence what is said and shown about our properties,” she explained. “We try to be very responsive, answering positive or negative reviews within 2 hours and inviting those with complaints to speak to us directly.” This level of responsiveness requires an openness to change. “Our leasing agents have been nervous about invited angry customers to speak to them personally in the past, but that is how issues are resolved and negative reviewers turn into positive fans.”

Managing through emotional reactions is the key to finding actionable insights. “If you are defensive, ask yourself why,” she suggested. “If you can take the emotion out of it, you can remain empathetic to the complaint and find an opportunity to fix problems.” Alternatively, “you can defend yourself and make the assumption that the thing that people have complained about is not an issue, but if you see the anecdotes piling up, chances are you have a problem.”

The Answer Might Be Simple

Prior to her joining the company through acquisition, Panther lacked a marketing team. “A lot of things were blamed on the lack of marketing,” she recalled. “If we had just assumed that, we would have made some mistakes. For instance, in one of our properties, they noticed that lease booking and property tours were down and the cause was not obvious but was being attributed to lack of awareness. “Instead of just blaming brand awareness and jumping into a promotional campaign, I visited the properties and shopped the comparable properties close by and in the price range,” she recounted. “Sometimes the problems were so obvious it was comical. I would suggest that we needed to update the colors in the model, provide customer service training to the leasing office, or make simple changes and those began to make a big difference.” Simple changes that made all the difference.

These observations can happen physically on the property or in an analysis of the data. “In the franchise world, everything had tracking codes and I could create reports to show what was working with the IT department,” she said. “In apartments, I had to create the reports, work with vendors to create them, or uncover the data that existed in our current systems that no one had been utilizing.”

“Model homes are key sales tools for apartment leasing and sometimes there isn’t budget for a major refresh of an apartment, but even in those cases there is a lot we can do.” One model in Memphis hadn’t been updated in a while and had a large number of faux plants. “It looks cluttered and dated and it didn’t reflect the brand well,” Fink recalls. “We removed those plants, decluttered other decorations from the space, changed out the bedding and shower curtain and it looked modern and fresh.” Not all changes have to be expensive or extensive. “It can be as simple as swapping out the welcome rug,” she joked. “Ultimately there are judgment calls, but over time your judgment can inform you how prospective customers would be comparing their property to others in their price range and in the area.” This is true of other businesses and industries as well. The change you need might be a simple fix that no one had done before.

Think Big and Start Small

“Sometimes having a shoestring budget can cause you to think small, but if you get creative you can accomplish more,” she offered. “At Quizno’s, we were able to do an unbudgeted sponsorship of the Nashville Sounds baseball stadium. We chose to do this because we had multiple locations within a 5-mile radius of the stadium and were testing a geotargeting digital platform that would drive traffic.” There were short-term and long-term benefits to the campaign. “Once we decided it was worth recommending, we got owner buy-in and found creative ways to fund it. It worked so well, they rolled it out to other regions, even larger marks like Denver."

"If you continue to think big, you can often find ways to afford it. But if you limit your thinking, you will never know what could have been accomplished.”

“Always test small. In the businesses of retail franchising or apartment complexes, I always test in one or two locations or by segments,” she explained. The same held true in her time in franchise marketing. “If you start big doing a portfolio-wide roll-out, you don’t get the work the kinks out and fix things first.” With the growth of digital marketing, there is an assumption that data is more readily available than it might be, so finding things to test that can be measured is key. “Marketers are in the data analytics business,” Fink observed. “You must learn how to slice and dice your data into a format that is legible and actionable.”

“Innovation can happen at companies of all sizes and business models,” she said. “Larger companies might have more resources, but if there is a management buy-in, even small companies can do creative things.”

Fink had her concerns going from larger companies like Ritz Carton or Quizno’s to smaller companies like Panther Residential Management, but she has since concluded that “all businesses need an open mind and strategic thinking,” so she continues to find ways to think big and start small.

This article was originally posted on Forbes.com


Two Ways to Extend a Business


Two Ways to Extend a Business


“There are two ways to extend a business. Take inventory of what you’re good at and extend out from your skills. Or determine what your customers need and work backward, even if it requires learning new skills.”

Jeff Bezos


Blocking And Tackling: Marketing Lessons From American Football's New Spring League


Blocking And Tackling: Marketing Lessons From American Football's New Spring League


The Alliance of American Football kicks off this spring, building on the traditions that have made American football the largest sports audience in the country, while innovating around player and fan experience.  This balance of innovation and tradition has lessons for every marketer or business leader seeking new growth.

The Product Needs to be Worthy of its Market Share and the Company of its Employees

Any company seeking to be successful must have a high-quality and attractive product that provides a good value for its customers.  This is true in professional sports as well. David Livingston, the president of the new Atlanta Legends team, joined the organization this summer with a background in corporate partnership with Spectra and the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as brand management and executive leadership experience at IMG and Procter & Gamble PG -0.09%. Although the league is new, “the Alliance is a professional sports league, coached at a high level,” he explained. “There are over 475 years of professional football experience at the executive and coaching levels.  The teams want to win.  They have established systems to build out their rosters and their offensive and defensive schemes in play.” In the Atlanta market, the team has signed former University of Georgia quarterback and leader of the SEC career touchdown list, Aaron Murray and 13 year veteran NFLquarterback, Michael Vick in his coaching debut as the offensive coordinator.

Any team is only as good as its players and according to Livingston there are plenty of exceptional players to fill rosters for spring football. 1200 professional football players get cut every season around Labor Day when each of the 32 NFL teams trims their roster down from 85 players to 53. “These are accomplished college and professional football players that are no longer allowed to pursue their career,” he continued. “They could go to Canada and play under different rules and face limits of how many Americans are allowed to play.  They could switch to Arena Football and play on a smaller field, with fewer players, and different rules.”

They expect players to move from the National Football League to the Alliance and visa versa. “There is a high level of interactivity between the Alliance and the NFL,” he explained. “This is nothing minor about this league, although there is a development quality and component to it.”

“A person who might be the 3rd or 4th man on an NFL team can get more reps in practice, get more playing time, and even start here.  We are complementary to the NFL. That additional playing time translates to player development and to more game footage.  Not only do fans get to watch more football and broadcasters have more premium content to air, but NFL teams also get more game tape to review of these talented players.”

“One of the hallmarks of the Alliance league will be engagement with the players,” Livingston added. “We expect these players to have a lifelong career arc.  After they retire from the league, we are providing opportunities for them to go back to school, get career training or utilize a fund to ensure that they continue to do big and great things even after football.”

Take-Away: Whether it is a start-up or an established business, the company needs to have a high commitment to delivering an exceptional product and customer experience. That often means entering markets where the right talent can be found to fuel the growth. And knowing that your developing employees might be honing the skills and gaining experience to make them valuable to other companies is a welcome risk you take to pursue excellence.

Embrace Technology as a Game Changer

Fan and community engagement is now a requirement in professional sports and that is being formalized in this league. “All Alliance players are on standard contracts which include incentives to them to get engaged with their communities,” he continued.  “Not only on social media, but through commitments they make to organizations and projects that are important to them.  It is critical that players engage with the communities.”  This player-to-fan engagement extends to new platforms.

“Every fan has a smartphone and they are used to engaging with that device during the game, whether they are in the stadium or at home,” Livingston observed.  “Our proprietary app includes fantasy elements and encourages engagement.”  Wherever legal, there is a sports betting platform associated with the alliance. We expect fans to be engaged with what is happening, watching each and every play.  This new digital-first strategy has attracted venture capital and we are bringing the sports experience into the modern environment where today’s sports fans live.”

“The Alliance was formed to bring together a much more organic relationship between professional football, the players, and the fans,” he offered.  From the start, the Alliance represents a game (professional football) that will have a game (app) that can enable gaming (betting).

Take-Away: Utilizing technology in new ways can create new customer experiences and enable new business models.

Align Strategy with Capitalization

“The Alliance itself is a start-up, but the idea of extending the professional football season has been around for a long time,” said Livingston.  “Football fans are the largest sports audience in the US and during the regular NFL seasons there is high interest in the games themselves and in things like fantasy and big data gamification,” he continued.  “Those tend to drop off, however, after the Super Bowl, as they don’t translate as well to baseball or basketball.”

Others have tried and failed and many attribute that failure to one of capitalization structure, relying on individual franchise owners to share a commitment to success. “The Alliance is a single entity league. This means that all the teams are owned centrally,” Livingston explained. “I am one of eight presidents each running their own business units in our structure.”

All teams are owned by the league under the name Legendary Field Exhibitions, LLC whose investors are said to include Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund (whose investments include Airbnb, SpaceX, Facebook (FB -1.03%), Lyft, Oculus,and Spotify), The Chernin Group (TCG, which owns Barstool Sports and other media and entertainment properties), Jared Allen (former football defensive end), Slow Ventures (whose investments have included Evernote , Nest, Pinterest, Slack , PillPack, and Nextdoor),  Adrian Fenty (former DC mayor who is special advisor to Andreessen Horowitz), Charles King’s M Ventures (a former agent turned investor, who has represented Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey), and Keith Rabois (whose technology investments and executive roles include PayPal (PYPL -2.1%), LinkedIn (LNKD +0%), Slide, andSquare (SQ -2.24%).  MGM Resorts (MGM -0.84%) International has also made an investment in the platform with an eye to in-game sportsbook betting.

“This is different from the NFL and previously failed spring leagues of professional football where each team is a franchise owned by individual investors who make investments based on their own preferences or personal economic factors.”  The Alliance is made up of the Arizona Hotspots, Birmingham Iron, Atlanta Legends, Memphis Express, Orlando Apollos, Salt Lake Stallions, San Antonio Commanders, and San Diego Fleet. Although each of the cities vary, “with different sizes and media structures,” he continued, "this central ownership ensures that all of the team get the appropriate allocation of resources for the various markets.”  And that strategy is attracting a new type of investor.

Take-Away: Investor and management must be aligned to ensure that the strategies of the organization are getting the resources and prioritization necessary for success.  Unified ownership, in this case, could help the entire league execute their digital-first strategy and attract the talent to ensure the quality game play that will be required for the league to grow.

Disclosure: Some of the companies in which investors in the Alliance may also invested, could be customers, competitors,  investments by Amazon or affiliates, may have been acquired by Amazon or its affiliates, or maybe among investments made by competitors.  Amazon has a relationship with many professional sports organizations.

This article was originally published on Forbes.com.


A Good Use of Time


A Good Use of Time


“It’s not a question of whether being in a meeting is a good use of an individual’s time; it’s a question of whether it is a good use of the company’s time.” – Rick Jackson


4 Lessons On Customer-Centricity From CaringBridge


4 Lessons On Customer-Centricity From CaringBridge


Chances are good that you have seen an invitation to CaringBridge from friend or family member who was experiencing what they call a “health journey,” whether that was a difficult pregnancy, a cancer diagnosis, or an accident.  Since it’s founding in 1997, over 740,000 websites have been created across 235 countries and territories globally. From its humble beginnings, it has lived at the intersection of technology, community, and medical incidences, when the founder Sona Mehringwas asked to update people on the status of her friend’s premature baby.  “Instead of making dozens of emotional and time-consuming phone calls, she decided to use her computer science background to create a website,” recalled Brigid Bonner, chief experience officer of CaringBridge responsible for all aspects of product development and marketing.  The child only lives a few short days, but left a legacy known as CaringBridge to help other families and friends in similiar situations.

This non-profit organization has lessons for other marketers, especially those who have customers experiencing trauma or stress.

  1. Everyone is Battling Something, Be Kind

    We have all seen this phrase on bumper stickers or on social media memes, but it is especially true for CaringBridge. “Our customer is anyone, whether it be the patient or their caregiver, who is experiencing a health journey,” said Bonner. This diverse set of constituents can be challenging. “Our service helps anyone, anywhere going through any type of illness or injury - mental or physical, long-term or short term – who needs to connect with their family and friends and receive support.”

    Roughly 90% of the several hundred thousand daily visitors to CaringBridge come to visit a friends’ site. “Users tell us, and research has proven, that the value created for both authors and visitors connected to each other through CaringBridge is therapeutic and immeasurable,” reported Bonner. The site has demonstrated that by connecting us at a human level, caring can go viral.

    Advice you can use: “As families and friends increasingly live in far-flung places, and with our increased reliance on technology to connect us, CaringBridge is a revolutionary leader in filling a need through the power of community,” said Bonner. Everyone can use community and the more than your offering and customer experience replicates this kind of care, the more it will be shared.

  2. Community Can Be Capital

    “Ninety percent of all funding comes from those who have experienced the power of CaringBridge firsthand,” Bonner stated. For people at their most vulnerable time, “a CaringBridge site is literally a sanctuary of communication and helpful support that afford users with privacy controls which determine how, when, and to whom their information is shared, if at all.” Choosing this business model allows them to remain a free platform and to be advertisement-free, which they feel critical for building trust and a great user experience.

    Advice you can use: People will support causes, tools, and approaches that make their lives easier. There are a number of different business models that might apply to your organization and that could have been considered by CaringBridge. Finding the one that best serves the mission, honors the customers, and serves the financial needs of the business is critical.

  3. Customer Experience is Everything

    “Convenience, control, safety, and trust is at the center of how we design our user experience,” continued Bonner. “Health journeys can cause a huge upheaval in the lives of individuals and their loved ones and the last thing they need is a stressful experience. Coming to terms with the life change they are going through, and the often confusing medical and financial jargon that comes with it is challenging.” At a time when people are reeling from bad news and learning new vocabulary, they don’t want to have to learn a new technology. Setting up a new website in less than 3 minutes, without automatic selections or complicated choices, is critical to making the CaringBridge experience work, without sacrificing privacy and control.

    As you might imagine, CaringBridge cares a lot about privacy. Although everything is self-reported, the information that authors are trusting to the organization and the friends they invite to read it is incredibly sensitive. There are multiple privacy features that allow the content to be as private or public as the author wants. They can track visitors, decide the level of interaction they want, and they can change the setting at any time.

    Advice you can use: Life is stressful enough, your user experience shouldn’t be. CaringBridge user survey feedback, usability labs, and user testing to refine their experience. Knowing your customers well is the key to simplifying the experience.

  4. The Experience Extends

    I recently had an experience where a contact of mine was mentioned for work anniversary in an email from a shared social media platform, when in fact he had died a few years ago. It made me sad and caused me to think about the implications of death in our digital world. Bonner agreed that the remembering or celebrating of “milestones can be delicate, especially for those who may have been in an end of life journey.” As a result, they do not auto-trigger messages on key dates, however, they do let the author (who is in many cases the caregiver of a loved one) determine was those “milestone moments” are and it is their journaling activity that triggers notifications to family and friends. “In this way, we know there is always a substantive update, and the CaringBridge community is still there to offer love and support. Some authors will continue to journal for months or even years after a loved one has passed.” In this way, the experience is extended in duration, along an axis of time.

    And the extension of services and care also add breadth to the offering in the midst of the health journey. CaringBridge has a “Ways to Help” area that users can use to coordinate the myriad of other types of help they may need in one convenient place. For example, “users can set up a planner to arrange visit schedules or request meals. They can indicate which medical facility their loved one is in. They can also connect or start a GoFundMe campaign straight through their CaringBridge site for cases where personal financial support is needed to offset medical expenses.” It is this expansion of services that make it

    Advice you can use: The community that arises around an experience can extend both in breadth and duration and is powerful. This has implications for other industries or services who can be challenged to think beyond their immediate product adoption or use cycle to extend to other offerings and services.

This article was originally posted on Forbes.com