Like every industry, digital marketing also has their list of “best practices” that you’re told to follow. And while there is certainly some truth to that, Caitlin Halpert from 3Q Digital, can attest that with a little creative “pushing of the boundaries”, and letting the data from your creative testing do the talking, you just may find you’re driving more growth and efficiency through these new ideas.
Rich: My guest today is the VP of growth at 3Q Digital, the world’s largest independent agency, which works with clients including Waze, MailChimp E-Health Skechers, TurboTax, and more. She’s responsible for driving growth, efficiency, and new ideas to enable 3Q to best serve current and future clients, and specializes in data focused digital marketing experimentation to push past best practices to drive the performance for agency clients.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, she held positions at Dealer.com and iSearch Media before joining 3Q. She has spoken at Hero Conf, SCM, PDX, SMX East, SMX West, SMX Advanced and IRCE. And today we’ll be diving into creativity with Caitlin Halpert. Caitlin, welcome to the show.
Caitlin: Thanks for having me.
Rich: I’m excited to be diving into this. Now you work with some pretty big companies at 3Q, ones we’ve all heard of. What was your path to working there?
Caitlin: That is a funny story. So I was actually a paralegal for my first year out of college and it was a terrible experience for me. I had no interest in being a lawyer and I was just looking for job postings and ended up at iSearch Media, which eventually became part of 3Q Digital. So I’ve had a pretty long career at essentially the same company, aside from a few blips in there. But it’s definitely the right fit. So even when I left for a few months, I ended up coming back to 3Q Digital because I think it’s a great place.
Rich: Now moving into the creative realm from law seems like quite a shift. Was this a planned thing or did you just find yourself like, “Oh my God, I love the creative agency life”?
Caitlin: You mentioned that I went to Dartmouth. Well, no one told me in college that I was supposed to use college to figure out what I was going to do with my life. So I didn’t. And then I used working for the first few years to basically try different things. So definitely no plan back there.
Rich: All right. Now these days it feels like all digital marketers are talking about is AI, or chat bots, or how to tweak your Facebook ad targeting just the slightest bit to get an increase in ROI. You’re instead focusing on creativity. Why do you feel that’s where we should be putting our attention?
Caitlin: Yeah, I mean, I think that the AI that is built into platforms like Facebook and Google is great. It can self-optimize to a great degree, but we have to really set that AI eye up for success and feed it the right information. We feed it boring ads. We’re not going to get exciting results. And you know, some of the most creative ideas are things that you can’t iterate into from where your ads are today. So you know, the AI is only as good as the inputs that you give it.
Rich: What do you mean by that, that you can’t iterate to a better ad? What are you saying exactly?
Caitlin: Yeah. Let me give you an example. The best campaign example I heard of that really highlights this point is last year was at a conference and someone from GasBuddy was talking about a campaign they had, or it was a competition for the best fill-up. And it was a competition for a gas fill-up and men named Phillip. So this is a unique concept that you’re not going to A/B test to get to that point. You have to have come up with some creative idea, and then you can test that creative idea and maybe iterate on that. But you have to start with creativity,
Rich: Or you just have to have Siri misunderstand what you were trying to get at. But either way you need a human being in there at some point.
Rich: So why do you think that, like, you’re talking about moving past best practices and yet so many people are just focused on best practices. What is it that you feel is limiting about focusing on best practices too, that will keep us from exponential growth?
Caitlin: I think that the platforms are constantly changing and therefore you need to constantly update what best practices are and that ultimately all of your competitors are probably doing the basic best practices. So you’re not going to really get ahead and continue to drive growth if you are doing the same thing that everyone else is doing.
Rich: Yeah, I totally agree. And I have obviously been in this business for a long time, been doing this 23 years, and I’ve been talking about and preaching best practices for the longest time. And I think that’s important because we should all be focused on, or all be paying attention to best practices. But at this point they almost feel like table stakes. It’s like filling out a resume and saying, “I know how to use Microsoft Word and Excel”. Well, doesn’t everybody. And I think that’s the issue with a lot of best practices in digital marketing these days is that that’s like what you need to do just to play the game much less than succeed at it.
Caitlin: Yeah. And on top of that, best practices don’t apply the same way to every brand. And so you should be testing if that best practice makes sense for you and thinking outside the box, and not feeling confined that this type of ad should look a certain way or that we’re redesigning a landing page so all we need to do is follow landing page best practices, and it’s going to work better. That’s not necessarily the case.
Rich: Absolutely. And best practices don’t always equal best results. I’m sure a lot of the marketing departments in the companies that you work with are all about measurable results. They can’t quantify creativity so they’re just looking at things that they can measure, like click through rates, customer acquisition, and so on. How do you get them to reevaluate the way that they’re looking at things so you can be more creative with them?
Caitlin: I think it comes down to having a clear process to follow. I mean, creativity isn’t just random ideas that you’re throwing out there to see what sticks to the wall. And we really try to walk them through a process that starts with a deep customer understanding and then taking that understanding to formulate a hypothesis. What’s our theory on how we’re going to be able to better speak to our customers, our potential customers? And then from there your ideation is founded in in fact and data, but still allows you to get away from what you’re currently doing.
Rich: You mentioned the customers. How do we actually better understand our customers and what they’re looking for so that we can create solutions that make sense for them?
Caitlin: Yeah. At the most basic level, Google and Facebook have audience insights that give you some at least starting point understanding about demographics. But the best way to understand your customers is to talk to them, send an email survey to your current customers. If you have a sales team, build in a process where you’re getting direct feedback. Your customers, especially your best customers, probably are interested in giving you feedback and telling you about themselves and why they like your product or service.
Rich: When you are trying to come up with creative ideas, when you’re sitting down either just with your internal team or with these other marketing departments that you may partner with, what are some of those first steps beyond just the customers that you do? Do you guys have a set process, which I know some people might think, that’s not very creative? But do you have a set process for trying to generate ideas that are going to take things to the next level?
Caitlin: I would say we don’t have one single process, but my best advice to help when we don’t know how to get out of the same old ideas that your team has come up with, is to not stop at your first round of ideas. The first ideas are going to be the most obvious and you have to get them out of your head. And then from there you can get farther from that starting point.
So I like to use a type of a mind map that can help expand your thinking. So, your first campaign idea or concept is your starting point. And then you’re kind of adding nodes out from that that are related to that first node. And then you’re building from the secondary nodes and kind of getting farther and farther away from that original idea and forcing your brain not to keep tying everything to that first idea, but really it comes down to being fearless. You have to take some risks to reap meaningful rewards.
Rich: When you’re talking about being creative, it feels like there’s so many different directions we can go in. There’s the creative initial idea, perhaps what the strategy is behind the company. It could be something like the campaign itself, like the whole fill up and Philip idea that you mentioned. It could be about new platforms to go after. Is there a process, do you start with let’s create an idea that’s going to raise awareness or drive sales and be creative around that, and then start to figure out some of the other pieces? Or is it really more organic and just things happen as they happen?
Caitlin: I do think it starts with understanding where your customers are. So that’s the first thing you should figure out, where are they spending time, so that you have an idea of where you can reach them. And then you can dig into what are the ways that I can reach them in that medium? Are they younger? Are they on Tik Tok? What are the ad formats that are available on Tik Tok? And then you’ve given yourself some parameters to then think about what a Tik Tok campaign could look like.
Rich: Now it’s interesting because I’m sure some people may find that the restrictions put on them by the confines of an ad platform or a social post or something like Tik Tok, or even a tweet – especially maybe a tweet – prevents them from being creative. But I know other people feel that restrictions can actually spur creativity. Which do you feel is more true?
Caitlin: I definitely think that the restrictions are helpful. I mean, it’s really challenging to start from a completely blank slate and just think what ideas we could have. It could be in any form. It could be a video static, it could be augmented reality. And having the constraints that are built into a specific ad format, you only have so many characters or you have so many images that you can put into a carousel. You can think about how you can use the built in structure in a creative way, like a carousel. You know, there are multiple images that you can use. You can think of it as this is a storyboard, so how can I use a storyboard to tell a story with my carousel ad on Facebook?
Rich: Yeah. I definitely agree with that. You know, just thinking about those people who really figure out exactly when they’re going to post to Instagram so they can get a perfect alignment of nine images showing up that tell a story that’s greater than the sum of the whole, for example. And a lot of people seem to be very good at it, designing something within the confines of a specific platform.
Caitlin: Definitely. And I think another thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t just focus on one type. It’s great that a Twitter ad maybe has specific confines. But our testing, especially on a platform like Facebook and Instagram, shows that a mix of assets is really the key to success. So we hear from a lot of our clients, “Oh, video’s the only thing that’s worked for us, or it has the best results. So we just keep making video ads”. And what we find though, is that if you introduce other ad units into the mix that you see overall lift. So yes, on surface level metrics the video ads maybe have higher engagement rate, higher conversion rate. But overall from that campaign you’ll drive better results if you add in more diversity in those ad types,
Rich: Interesting. It’s almost like bringing in different types of food groups. Even if one food group is the healthiest, it might not actually give you a better all-around diet or something like that.
One thing that a lot of us do is we take a look at what our competitors are doing. You know, we want to see what else is out there. How do we make sure, however, that we’re avoiding any sort of ‘me too’ comparisons with competitors? A lot of people just seem to emulate what they see out there without ignoring our competitors. Is there a way to generate ideas that kind of go in a different direction?
Caitlin: Yeah, I think it’s critical to understand what your competitors are doing. And there’s probably a reason that they’re doing it. But if you’re just trying to chase them – especially if they’re a larger competitor – you’re probably doomed to failure because they’re larger, they have more data, and they can make decisions faster, and they’re constantly going to be ahead. Instead, and you can map out what are your competitors doing, what channels are they on, and use that to find white space. Find out that they aren’t on Pinterest. I can test Pinterest as a channel and know that I’ll have less competition with who we’re up against head to head.
Rich: Most often I find that a lot of small businesses often have to find those niches or those underserved areas to kind of really make a mark. And then of course, then there’s some opportunity to grow there, but going up against Goliath on Goliath territory can be quite a challenge.
Caitlin: Yeah. I mean, everyone is on Facebook. That doesn’t mean that you should invest all of your advertising dollars on Facebook. You can certainly get creative and the smaller you are, kind of the craft area, you can probably see more success.
Rich: What are some examples of the companies that you’ve worked with where you had to bring them a creative idea and show them that it was worth taking a risk on? Can you share any examples of companies you’ve worked with?
Caitlin: What’s coming to mind, because it was very recent, is a little bit of an opposite example, but I want to use it here. We had a client come to us and ask us for a new homepage design. And we recommended that we do some research first to understand exactly where there were points with their customers on their homepage. And they declined that. They said they wanted to take a big swing. They just wanted something fresh. They hate their home page and thought it took too, too long to test. And so we are still working on convincing them that, Hey, big swings are great, creative ideas are great, but it only takes you so far. It has to be founded in something and that a big swing and a miss on your homepage can have some really serious impacts if you don’t actually understand why we’re making changes. What are we hoping to do? Getting back to what’s our hypothesis, what’s our theory, but still doing a dramatic departure. Like there is this balance that we need to strike. And that was something that I was really focused on with that e-commerce client.
Rich: That’s really interesting. So they just weren’t happy with their homepage performance, wanted something brand new, almost didn’t care what it was. That almost feels like it’s just for them and not for the end user. So if you were to convince them in the future, or if you run into another client who is a little bit more open to your methodology, walk me through the process of what you would do to better understand the needs of the customer so that when you take that big swing, at least you’re pointed towards the outfield.
Caitlin: Yeah. I mean, we really like to directly ask customers what motivates them. Why are they making this purchase? Why didn’t they complete the purchase when they were on the website? Or why didn’t they come into the store to get at what their decision criteria are? And then we can figure out their decisioning on X value proposition. We don’t even have that value proposition on our homepage, or, it’s even at the most basic level we thought all of our customers were women. Turns out we actually have 40% of our customers are men. Maybe we should test out imagery. That includes men on the homepage.
There is a wide variety of ways that you can think about who are your customers? How are they making decisions? And using that to inform the decisions that you make, even in a creative way, because ultimately creative is subjective. You can say, “I don’t like that ad. I don’t like that landing page”, but that doesn’t really help you get to what will be better or a creative solution for that. You need to have some idea on why is it bad. Why does it perform badly and how might it perform better in a way that thinks outside the box? So it is this fine line that I’m trying to give here were founded and some level of data, but not just iterating little small changes at once.
Rich: Absolutely. And so what are some of the tools, or what are some of the processes? I know that there’s a lot of things like Crazy Egg and Hotjar to measure how people are using a specific page on our website. Certainly there are surveys of customers who are there. What are some of the tools you’re using to be able to gather data either from customers or people who opted not to buy in a specific situation. And I’m thinking more specifically about online rather than offline in this case.
Caitlin: Crazy again, Hotjar actually is the tool that we use most often to gather feedback from customers on the website. Whether it’s an exit intent survey or heat mapping. And then when it comes to surveying customers, using Survey Monkey is a great tool. And then there are other tools out there that you can even do a virtual focus groups of your target demographic on the usability of your website. So you can pay a little bit of money and get five people to kind of walk through the process on your site and give you feedback. In a way that’s obviously more affordable than getting people into a room and using a large survey firm to do that for you.
Rich: I think this is important because sometimes people think that creativity is really just like an endless canvas of ideas with no function or no form around it. And really what I’m hearing from you is you’re just coming up with creative ideas based on the confines of what are the problems, who is the audience, what are the platforms. So there definitely is some restrictions. And that’s what helping you come up with creative ideas to create exponential growth.
Caitlin: Definitely. I think that is the core of it. And a sprinkling in creative ideas just for being different can be valuable, too. But the smaller your businesses, the more you should really be founding that in some level of data, because taking a big swing and a miss is going to be painful.
Rich: Absolutely. So how do you measure this? A lot of people are probably saying being creative is great, but I know I can measure the ROI on my Facebook ads without necessarily being more or less creative. What kind of ways do you prove to your clients that these things are worth their investments?
Caitlin: I think you still test them. Instead of doing iterative A/B testing, you can do these big idea concepts A/B tests. So you could find a medium where you have a lot of volume to some initial concept testing. And those are the places where you would test your big creative ideas that are very different to get some initial data on, “Hey, actually, this does work better than the boring ads we’ve been running for the last few years”.
Rich: Makes a lot of sense. This has been fantastic. I’ve definitely enjoyed this, Caitlin. I’m just wondering if people want to learn more about you, if they want to learn more about 3Q, where can we send them?
Caitlin: Yeah. 3Qdigital.com is a great place to learn more about our work and where we found success for our clients. And then you can follow me on Twitter which is @Caitlin_Halpert. Unfortunately, both my first name and last name are hard to spell. I’ll spell them for you, C A I T L I N, underscore H A L P E R T.
Rich: Awesome. And of course we’ll have all those links in the show notes. Caitlin, this was fantastic. Thank you so much for stopping by today.
Caitlin: Thank you.
Caitlin Halpert drives growth, efficiency and creative ideas to her clients, specializing in data-driven digital marketing, all while pushing past “best practices”. Check out her business’s website to see how they’re doing this for their clients. And reach out and connect with her on Twitter.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.