What metrics are your company looking at to gauge your performance – and that of your clients – when it comes to marketing? How could you do a better job marketing, measuring and reporting those results? The answers, according to Dustin Clark of Element Three, lies in your marketing value chain. By using this strategy, you’ll be able to not only see your bottomline, but explain exactly how and why you got there.
Rich: A long time leader at marketing consultancy Element Three, my guest today has helped grow the digital department into one of the finest in Indianapolis. He’s helped numerous Fortune 500 companies and household brands like Airstream, AWS Marketplace, Intuit, and Bitdefender, navigate the digital marketing landscape, and he spoke at HubSpot’s conference inbound in 2018.
When he’s not writing on the forefront of marketing or helping clients with their business strategies, you can find him jamming with a guitar or at home with his wife and two children. Today, we’re going to be diving into your marketing value chain with Dustin Clark. Dustin, welcome to the show.
Dustin: Thanks so much for having me.
Rich: So tell me a little bit about your path to becoming the digital marketing director over at Element Three. Have you always been interested in digital marketing?
Dustin: Yeah, I think early on in my career, which goes back probably for a few more years than I care to count nowadays. But I went to school for journalism, but what kids nowadays talk about, “the .com bubble”, the bubble burst while I was in school. So print was a thing when I went in and not so much a thing when I graduated. And so that was kind of like, all right, this digital thing is happening.
And so as I got into communications, it always was a signal that was kind of growing and people that had talent in it or interest in it got those opportunities to grow in that way. And so early on it was like, I don’t really want to do bill stuffers and brochures and no annual reports my whole life. It would be cool to get into websites and email and those types of things. So it just kind of grew naturally from there. And from there the journalism side has always served me really well because in digital, there’s such an emphasis on technology, on data, on the different signals that Google and other things that are sending us. But a lot of times you find folks are missing the human side. And so knowing how to ask questions and talk to people has been a real benefit as I’ve grown into digital marketing over the years, just to be able to kind of have that “let’s not lose track of the audience” side of things as well.
Rich: It makes a lot of sense. So let’s jump in with some of the basics. What do you mean when you say the “marketing value chain”?
Dustin: Yeah. So I like this idea in business, the idea that a value chain is the range of activities needed to create a product or a service. And I think about marketing really kind of in a similar way in that there are a lot of different activities and metrics for those activities that kind of lead from someone becoming aware to where of us all the way through to them becoming a customer, and then even post-sale what’s it like for them to have a good post post-purchase experience. And so there’s several different, depending on people’s sales cycles, several different aspects that go into that.
But what I’ve seen in marketing so far is that a lot of folks will get really, really excited about a certain metric or a part that they understand. And in marketing, the old adage was always like sales versus marketing. And man, that’s a bad stage to get into. Because if you don’t understand how your marketing metrics and your marketing activities are impacting the sales organization and their ability to sell a product, then your ability to talk about how well your marketing can perform breaks down really quickly.
So the idea of kind of relating it to all the parts and pieces that have to happen in order for something to be created. it’s kind of the same idea. If we’re going to make a positive sale, make a positive impact on revenue, then we need to be able to articulate why a social share or an email click or a webpage visit, why do those things matter? And why does improving them matter and what impact is that going to have on the overall sales chain?
Rich: So it sounds like a lot of us have a very myopic view, and we’re just looking at one very small element. Which might be important to the whole marketing value chain, but it might not be. It’s on us to understand and perhaps explain how this one thing fits into the bigger plan that ultimately ends in a sale.
Dustin: Yeah, for sure. And I think most people come about it honestly, too. You know, digital marketing is such a wide umbrella term now, where it’s easy to specialize in social media or specialize not just in email but you could specialize in a specific platform. You can be a Marketo specialist, or Salesforce Marketing Cloud, or HubSpot, or a website specialist or whatever the channels may be. And so we get kind of trained early on. Like I came up through SEO and so keyword volume, and click throughs from keywords, and looking at meta titles and meta descriptions and what impact does this have on click-throughs and traffic? That’s where I started. And so for a long time organic search was the holy grail. And how can I increase this specific traffic channel?
And thinking through all that we come about it honestly, because in any way a kid that learns to start to put words together has to learn to put together letters first, right? You have to draw your letters and trace them and do all that stuff. You have to learn what impacts email open rates, subject lines, click-through rates, all that stuff. But then I think what happens is people get locked into that myopic view where they’re like, “Well, I’m a channel specialist”, or even if they’re broader and they know a couple of different things, they know what impacts those specific mediums. But then they kind of forget the bigger picture of how does this all work together?
And what I’ve found over the years is talking with executives, stakeholders, people that are usually in control of the purse strings, control the budget. You know, you get excited like, “Man, if we could just get a hundred more opens, we’d get 10 more clicks. And man, that would be amazing”. And they might hear “10 clicks” and be thinking like, “what do I care about 10 clicks?” But when you can articulate what that click will add. Every 10 people that click on this email that we sent out, one person became a customer. If we send this out and get this many more clicks, than we can guarantee that many more customers. And so it’s just that idea of how do we attach the metrics that we care about as marketers to the metrics that our stakeholders care about, so that we can have an intelligent conversation around really what ends up being micro conversions.
Rich: All right. So let’s talk about this, because obviously some people who are listening may be focused on just one element of the chain, and they only have control over that one element of the chain. So how can we take that one metric that we have been responsible for and been rewarded for doing well in the past – so that’s all we care about – how do we turn that number of likes or number of followers, or even click through rate or search volume, how do we understand the bigger picture if we’re just one person working in a marketing department and we don’t have the whole picture at our fingertips?
Dustin: Yeah. I think a lot of it has to do with asking the right questions and seeking the right knowledge. So being able to kind of dig into your analytics, whether that’s in a social platform or in a website analytics program, hoping that things are set up correctly within there that you can see. In conversions, things like ‘contact us’, things like ‘add to cart’ if it’s an e-commerce site, and just kind of digging beyond that look.
So if you’re in social, can you put a filter on it so that you can see what conversions came through the social traffic channel. If you’re in something like a HubSpot or another automation platform, can you look at what conversions were influenced by the channel? And try to use that idea of a pending, and I always think of it as kind of where your metric sits, then figure out what metric exists on either side of it and try to figure out that. So if it’s an email open, then okay, what happens after the email is opened, when it’s clicked? What happens after the email is clicked?Okay.
Well then they go to the landing page, and then start understanding your landing page metrics. You know, what’s the time on page, what’s the next thing that they clicked through, or a call to action button that they’re supposed to do on that landing page. Understanding the purpose of what happens there. And you really kind of start with your metric and then move up and down the chain, right? You moved backwards towards, you can almost move backwards all the way up to, this customer was never aware of me before and what activities did they take that drove them to my social platform or my email platform or whatever that is. And then backwards all the way into what’s the final sales activity that happens.
And you may not get there, right? You may not get all of those answers, but I try to think through what’s in front of me and what’s behind me. Let’s figure that out and then keep asking that same question until you kind of come up with, okay, now I don’t know this answer. But if you can demonstrate that and show the work that you’ve put into that, and then you can take that to maybe somebody that does have the answer, and hopefully they’ll be willing to give it to you.
But I’ve found in my career that even if they’re not, if you could make an educated guess and start to have conversations like, “Okay, I don’t know what the lifetime value of a customer is, but I’ve been able to figure out the metric chain from my social click or my email click all the way over to this moment where I know they convert. Let’s just say based on the pricing on your website and how long I think someone might use this product that it’s got a lifetime value of X. If I improve this metric here, then I’ll be able to improve X times, whatever that variable is.”
So not to get too much into algebra, but it really is kind of that idea of how do we set this up so that when we show incremental value, it ends up being real value at the end. And if we don’t know what that value is, even just showing them the calculator that we create on how to put that together can start to help someone that maybe does know the answer get excited about, “Oh, Hey, wait a second. I didn’t know that if we did that up here it could have a 10x response somewhere down here in the chain, let’s start talking through this stuff.”
Rich: And so what I’m hearing from you is what we really need to do is we need to understand what the client’s ultimate goal is. And that could be that some people are working internally, so it’s about finding out from the boss or the head of sales or the head of marketing. Other people might be external so you need to talk to the client, but you may not know every single segment of the funnel. But you can start to see where your piece fits, and then it’s about making those connections.
The other thing you seem to be talking about is if I want to get, I mean we should all know exactly what the goals are in a perfect world. We should always know what the client wants or what our boss wants. Hopefully we do, but it’s more than just that, it’s about the ability to be able to explain what our piece of the puzzle does to what their end goal is.
So do you have any advice or any experience around telling those stories that then get the buy-in from the people who have the purse strings?
Dustin: Yeah, for sure. I mean, the way that you just articulated the question is perfect. Like trying to find out what the business school is. I was talking with Tiffany Sauder, the President CEO of Element Three, it’s been a couple months back and we were talking about building training programs and how do we educate new people coming into the agency on how we do things the Element Three way. And one of the things that we were kind of talking about and I remarked back to her is that, I didn’t really unlock the potential in my career until I stopped thinking like a marketer and started thinking like a businessman, and started thinking in terms of revenue first rather than those marketing metrics first. But that’s not an easy progression to go through unless you’ve gone through business school or you have the appropriate training to do it. And like you said, you have the information at your fingertips.
But what you can do and what you can train yourself to do very easily is to just ask smart questions and to ask the questions ‘why’ from an opportunity like, “Hey, I’m just seeking to understand so that I can make my part in this better. And if I’m going down the route, the wrong route, help me understand what the goals are so that I can figure out if this channel is worthwhile or if we need to invest in another area”. And that could be looking at another skill, looking at another platform, whatever it is.
But I think the two things that I always try to keep in mind in that storytelling is kind of what you articulate, what is the end goal, and asking those smart questions to our business leaders to say, “What do you want to happen at the end of this year?” If you’re sitting at the end of 2021, and you said, what made this year a wild success, how would you answer that? And hopefully they’ll say something like, “Oh, more leads or more revenue”, or whatever that might be. And then you can ask a follow-up question, “You said more revenue, how much revenue did we get per sale”? Right. And then you just kind of whittle away at. You know, thinking big picture and then asking smaller, more articulate questions until you get down to like, okay, now I have a piece of data that connects back to my metric.
But then on the other side of that, in order for us to be good marketers we can’t just be thinking about our business and we’ve gotta be thinking about the audience as well. So then you kind of have to take that microscope and pull one slide off of it and put another one back on there and say, “Okay, now I’m armed with all this great business knowledge of what we want to achieve, why does the customer care? Why should the customer care? When is the customer going to care?” And you almost start that same process of asking those questions of the audience in the same way, kind of get a big picture and then try to whittle it down until it kinda matches what you’re kind of the master over a year realm of expertise.
Rich: So, not only is there a marketing value chain, there’s a customer value chain or a value chain that the customer is looking through. Which, you know, a lot of people would call it the customer journey. So understanding what that journey looks like and making sure that you’re providing value along the way, it’s ultimately how you make those revenue or other goals you or your boss have set up for you.
Dustin: For sure.
Rich: This is great. And it’s really interesting just hearing it because obviously I’m an agency guy too, and those ongoing conversations with clients. You know, there’ve been times when we’ve said we’re just going to write down the top one to three goals that the client has stated at the beginning of the project, we’re going to write at the top of every single document so everything will always come back to that specific goal and that’s going to help everybody fall in line. We rarely do that, but it’s still, it’s a good idea to be able to do it. And that open communication between you as the marketer and the person who is paying you, whether it’s your boss or an outside company, is critically important too.
So if somebody hasn’t done any of this, if they’re listening to this and they realize that they have had the blinders on all along and they’ve really been excited about engagement rates or search engine rankings – which are important, but in the abstract don’t mean anything – what are some of the first steps that you would recommend they take so that they can really start understanding the big picture and seeing the marketing value chain in its entirety?
Dustin: Yeah, I think learning everything you can about the business that you’re in, or the business that you’re working on if you are an agency and you wear multiple hats. But understanding the industry, understanding who the customers are. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was from a pragmatic marketing course where one of the principles of pragmatic marketing – which is kind of a product marketing framework – was “the answer to the question is probably not in the building”. And that has served me incredibly well over the course of my career. Sometimes the answer you seek is just not next to you. You have to pick up the phone or you have to, maybe not in these times, but get out of the building and go visit somebody and say, “Hey, help me understand why you bought our product or help me understand why you bought the competitor’s product”.
It’s really, really hard. And sometimes in the digital age we think, “Oh, I’ve got Google right here at my fingertips. Surely I can figure everything out”. This goes back to kind of the keyword days where people are like, “Well, I was able to get into Google and I found out all the keywords”. And that’s great if the competitors that we’re looking at and our own website that we’re looking at is actually answering our clients or our customers questions correctly. But what if we’re not, what if we’re not serving up the right contact because nobody’s bothered to talk to the customer and ask them what features of my product made you buy it? What did you consider when you were looking at other products?
So not to go back to that journalism thing, but you know the what, when, why, where, how. The idea of becoming a research specialist, not that you have to do tens of thousands of dollars into research. I would rather someone just start at one person and have a conversation and ask them questions, than to get intimidated by, oh my God, in order for this to be statistically relevant, we’ve got to ask this many people this many questions.
Start small and just start having conversations. Listen a lot, write down some questions. I’ve always found that going into interviews with customers, I try now to only have a couple of big open ended questions and just let their answers drive what questions I’m going to ask next. But learn to interview, learn to ask questions, learn to kind of think open-endedly so that you can get people to first bond rather than just yes or no. You get them to describe what they’re going through and what their search process looks like or their shopping process or what emotions they were going through when they decided they needed a solution. And just kind of start to drive those things and ask those types of questions, because that’s where the answers lie.
Rich: Makes a lot of sense. I want to circle back around to something you mentioned earlier, which is this idea of incremental value. And I’m wondering if you could just speak a little bit to that and how the idea of incremental value or incremental change works its way into this entire conversation.
Dustin: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Incremental value to me, this was never more finally demonstrated then working with a client – we were working with a client in the RV industry – and as a department had just started offering conversion rate optimization services. And in digital marketing, whether it’s email or a lot of times in paid media, anytime you’re dealing with landing pages and you’re trying to get someone to take a specific action on that landing page, conversion rate optimization could be a wonderful tool to find out how you can improve conversions on that page.
Testing anything from button colors, subject lines, copy imagery, you can test a thousand things. And we were presenting these reports back to stakeholders at the clien, and we were like, “Look, look, we got a .25% conversion rate increase”. And everybody on the digital team was really excited because we’re like, man, this was statistically relevant. We ran the test for a month, we had 30,000 visitors to this page. This button outperformed this button. This is going to be great. And they were like, “Who cares? It’s 0.25%, why does it matter?” And that’s where that value chain, the idea of knowing what metric comes after that, and after that, and after that, so we could build essentially a math problem that was like, “Okay, when we did this, we had 10,000 visitors to the site. We increased the conversion rate by 0.25%, which means we now have 500 clicks as opposed to 400 clicks before. And we know of those clicks at every 100 clicks, 10 people become an opportunity and two people buy. So wait a second. If I just went from eight sales to now 10 sales, and I know that a sale is worth $100,000 in lifetime value, then you paid the agency $5,000 bucks to do a conversion rate optimization test on 10,000 visitors a month and the outcome was two sales a month, which then ends up being $1.2 million at the end of the year.” Like, is that worthwhile to you?
And I’m making a drastic example, the numbers weren’t really like that. But the drastic point should help illustrate why incrementality matters. It could come back to be just a small bit of bump in a conversion rate. Especially when you’re looking at e-commerce or things that have large sales volumes, whether it’s the amount of purchases or the price at the end of the purchase, a small incremental value could actually mean lots of dollars and cents in the end.
Rich: It’s interesting. And that’s why it is so important to understand the whole value chain here, but that’s almost the exact opposite example of something that I see all the time. When you see the blog post, “I did this and I saw a 500% or 1,500% increase in conversions or email subscribers or traffic in just three days!” And I’m always like, yeah, but were you starting from scratch? Like, if only your mom had visited in the last month, I don’t think those numbers are very impressive. They look great, but it’s about understanding not just the number, but the context in which that number. And that tells the real story. So excellent point.
Dustin: Yeah, for sure. One of the things I think through with reporting all the time is like, whenever we are working with something that we’re starting from scratch or looking at a baseline, a lot of times you’ll hear us say this baseline is going to look great for a couple of months. And then all of a sudden we’re going to be in month six and you’re like, “Well, it’s not going up 100% anymore”. It’s like, well, that’s because we’ve been running it for a long time. Understanding the context behind that. That’s actually a great point, knowing that. Don’t walk into the room and be like, “We’ve got 1,000% increase”, and not be able to either sustain it or to tell a story that, you know, year over year numbers somebody comes back and they’re like, well, wait, we haven’t grown at all. It’s like, well, you got to understand the full context of it for sure.
Rich: Yeah. What is that line, “There’s lies, damn lies., and then statistics”, or something like that.I’ve often liked to say, “best practices don’t always equal best results”. So when do you think we should use best practices and when do you think we should break with them?
Dustin: You know, I trust my gut. I trust the gut of my teams. I think sometimes I say I trust my gut, but it’s almost like I trust my understanding of the audiences, and then that gut. If we’ve done our research and have spent the time getting to know a business and know their customers and know how this marketing value chain, like you mentioned, the buyer journey.
If we really understand that and we have an idea or we see an opportunity that might violate a best practice, I’d say let’s try it and see what happens. For me, I am a data guy, I’m an operational guy, I like to know my data up front before I make decisions. But there’s no growth without risk. And so you’ve gotta be willing to call some shots and take a few leaps of faith here and there to see if something would work. Obviously I would say start small with those types of risks, “bullets not cannonballs”, I think is one of those sayings out there. So how do we start with a bullet not a cannon, but still be able to take those risks and try things and see how it impacts your business? And then the things that look to be positive, put more budget there, try bigger risks and go down that route. But yeah, I think you’ve got to look at things and look at your audience.
And it’s funny because you know, brands that have red or primarily primarily red color schemes in their brands, a lot of times they’ll want to put red buttons. And having worked in the e-commerce world for a long time, we had a couple of arguments with some NFL teams and HR teams here and there around the idea of, “Hey I know that this is your maroon or this is your red and you want everything on the page to kind of look like your brand, but let’s test what would happen if we added a green ‘go to cart’ button”. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t. But that’s one of those things where the web style guide says all CTAs must be this color. And it’s like, well wait a second, this is an ‘add to cart’ CTA. They’re used to seeing this color on other websites and that’s, I mean, this has been 10 years ago. So you know, that gets broken all the time now. Not every ‘add to cart’ button has to be green. But back then it was like, “Hey, every experience that they’re having outside of your website looks like this. Maybe we should look like this and see if it has a positive impact”.
Rich: Absolutely. What I like about this conversation, we’ve really talked a lot about data-driven decisions, the marketing value chain, but there’s still room for creativity, customer input and of course, ultimately a gut check. And then you can still measure that when you’re all done, but it’s important. Like you can’t just survive on numbers. There’s gotta be a creative input. There’s gotta be something remarkable that people are going to grab onto.
So yeah. Fun conversation. I definitely, it was great talking to another agency person about all this sort of stuff and seeing that we face some of the same challenges. Dustin, if people want to learn more about you or Element Three, where can we send them?
Dustin: Elementthree.com is the agency’s website, it’s a great place to find out about our services, read what content has been going on. I, myself, participate in it seems like a webinar about every other month on elementthree.com, so we’ve got a lot of cool things going on there.
Our president, Tiffany Sauder, she’s got a website coming out and a new podcast called Scared Confident, so I’d stay on the lookout for that. She talks with business leaders and talks a lot of big picture stuff. So I really love pairing the tactical marketing advice that you get on elementthree.com with her advice in business and leadership you get on her website and her LinkedIn.
And then again, me personally, LinkedIn Dustin A. Clark, middle initial “A”, is a good place to find me. I try to pay attention there as much as I can. And I don’t use Twitter and Facebook too much for lots of different reasons, probably because I am in marketing. I watch them, but I don’t use them. But yeah, LinkedIn and the website are a good place to look me up.
Rich: Awesome. Dustin, appreciate your time today and thanks for stopping by.
Dustin: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.
Dustin Clark loves digging into the nitty gritty data and using creative tactics to solve complex issues and deliver maximum value for his clients and customers. Check out Element Three’s website where you’[ll find great value in their webinars and blog posts.
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.