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How to Mine Other Industries for Breakthrough Ideas – Mary Cate Spires
The Agents of Change

Many companies steal ideas from what their competition is up to. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help you stand out or grab the attention of your ideal customer. Instead, look to other industries for ideas and then make them you own. Marketing expert Mary Cate Spires shares how she identifies related industries, discovers what’s working there, and then makes it her own in a brand new category.

Rich: My guest today is the leading expert on using data and research to improve marketing ROI. She has worked with dozens of prominent brands from all over the U.S. including Smart Bug Media, HubSpot, and the Arbor Company, to drive leads, ROI, and customers, through digital marketing efforts.

With a degree from the University of South Carolina in public relations and over 10 years of digital marketing experience, she is widely regarded by marketing executives to influence marketing strategy and achieve results. Her insights have been featured on ABC News and in noteworthy publications and podcasts like Chief Marketer, HubSpot and Maiden Voyage.

She helps leaders build a strong customer base to experience high return on investment. Her unique approach dives deep into data and research to help businesses make marketing decisions work smarter not harder.

Today we’re going to be talking about how to find great ideas from other industries and make them our own with Mary Cate Spires. Mary Kate, welcome to the podcast.

Mary Cate: Thank you, so excited to be here.

Rich: So, I know that we’re talking about why or how to go find ideas that may be outside of our industry. But I guess my first question would be, why aren’t we just looking at what our competitors are doing?

Mary Cate: Well, I do think we need to be looking at what our competitors are doing. That is extremely important. But sometimes some of our industries can get stuck in our ways and we all just end up doing the exact same thing over and over again, and there’s no movement forward. So by being able to look to different industries, we can get new ideas and test them. If they don’t work for the industry that you’re in, that’s okay too, but at least we’re trying something new.

Rich: Okay. All right. That makes sense. And certainly I’ve seen certain industries get a little bit stagnant in all their ideas on how to market and advertise. But I guess then I’m wondering whether we’re a digital agency or we are an accountant or we’re selling pizza, how do we decide what are the industries that we should target? Is it just random or do you have a plan for that?

Mary Cate: Yeah. So I think one of the easiest ways to do it is to think about your product and your customer’s buyers’ journey and think of what’s similar to that.

So it might be, let’s just use a car for example. You do research to buy a car, typically quite a bit of research. So what other industries do you make a big purchase that you do research for? A house. So let’s look to the property management or to real estate and see what they’re doing. So it doesn’t have to be the same, but it can be a similar journey and start there.

And then I also like to just observe my own habits. I’m a sucker for Instagram ads. I have bought quite a few things. And one of the things I like to do is when I do get sucked in is to think why, and what made that interesting to me. And if it worked for me, and I’m somewhat similar to my target customer, then that might be something to try in my industry as well.

Rich: A lot of good things in that answer. So, I do want to dive a little bit deeper. So I understand your example with Instagram ads, for example. But what if we’re not like our typical client? What kind of recommendations might you have there? Or how do we know if we’re not like our typical client?

Mary Cate: Yes. So I always say the very first step we should be doing is customer research, actually talking to our customers and interviewing them. I subscribe to the buyer persona method of interviewing our customers and understanding what actually drives them versus just demographics. You could actually not be your target audience, but still be driven by the same types of things. And so that does allow you to take on your own experiences to learn from them. But it really all starts with your customer and understanding their wants and needs and what they’re looking to get out of you as a business. And that’s where you can start making those parallels.

So a big client that I have is in senior living. And while I am not looking for senior living or even looking for senior living for my loved one, I have seen what people look for when they’re looking for an emotional decision or have made emotional decisions. And so I can think back to that experience and just kind of almost rewatch myself do something.

So for me, the first thing I do is go to Google, because I don’t know what I don’t know so I try to grab some more research around that. So that is kind of, it’s just making parallels. And again, especially with digital marketing, you can test just about anything and it’s not that expensive, so it’s okay to be wrong. You don’t want to be crazy wrong, but failure is still a result that we can learn from.

Rich: Absolutely. So, as we’re trying to identify these different industries, we might see something out there that we really like, it resonates with us. But how, without looking at their numbers which we don’t have access to, how do we know that something is working for somebody else or maybe they’re just making a bet on the wrong horse? Is there anything that we can glean from what they’re doing? Is it a matter of time? Is it a matter of looking at multiple examples within that industry? How do you usually approach that?

Mary Cate: Yeah, definitely. So typically multiple examples in one industry and then you’re bigger players. So I really like to look at the hospitality industry when I’m doing research for my senior living client. And I go and look at the Marriotts and the Hiltons of the world, because they have a lot bigger budget than I’ll ever have. And so they’re able to test things at a bigger scale. And odds are, if you’re seeing it, they’re probably not testing it anymore.

And so by being able to look at those bigger players in that industry, that’s an idea. And then of course if it’s been adopted by quite a few people in that industry, then that’s a way as well. Inbound marketing, content marketing really got started more with your B2B and kind of those really tough to understand purchases. And it became popular because it was working.

Rich: Now earlier you were talking about the emotional impact in terms of some of the things that you were seeing out there. So I’m also thinking like there’s tactical, there’s platforms. What are some of the things that you’re looking at – the messaging – what are some of the things that you’re looking at where maybe you start to scribble down here’s some ideas that are working in automotive or working in travel or whatever it may be, and start to decide what do you think are the first things that you might want to go?

Mary Cate: Yeah. So I’m always keeping an eye out for just fun marketing ideas. I personally hate billboards, but I read every single one of them, because you never know what’s going to catch your eye. You’re always looking for good ideas. But I always start with my own data. So what is the data telling me that I need to be working on?

Most recently an example I have is the sales qualified leads I was driving weren’t as qualified as I wanted them to be. Okay, how could I make them more qualified? Digging into the data further, I realized my Google ads weren’t converting where I thought they should be converting. So now I’m going to go try and do some research around Google ads, how people are disrupting Google ads, what things I can try, what partners I can work with. So I like to look at it from where can I improve, and then go find those ideas while also paying attention. Because you never know what Facebook or Instagram ad again is going to sucker you in. And you scribble it down for another day when you are ready to test that out.

Rich: All right. So let’s say we find a few things. Maybe it’s messaging, maybe it’s visuals, maybe it’s the channel, whatever it may be, that seems to be working in another industry. How do we tweak it to make it our own?

Mary Cate: So again, I’m going to have to say, it goes back to your customers. We want to know what’s driving them. What do they want from us? And that’s how we can tweak it. Obviously, we want to stay true to our brand. If we’re really focused on educating people, we need to come at it the same way our brand would.

And again, I really approach digital marketing from a buyer-centric way and just trying to help people. And so if we are creating something that’s going to help our target customer, even if it’s not successful, odds are we probably helped someone, so great job there. But really by focusing on it from your lens of your buyer is you’re going to be able to make it your own.

Rich: Okay. You had talked earlier about continually making changes. So once we’ve decided on what we’re going to go after, we’re going to use this new approach that we saw working in another industry, we’ve made it our own. What do you do or what do you recommend in terms of evaluating its effectiveness in our own campaigns or in our own marketing? And then what do you do to iterate and continually improve the results with that new idea?

Mary Cate: Yeah, absolutely. So again, I like to focus on that one main goal. This is the opportunity I found, I want to test something around this. I’m going to create… I treat marketing as almost a science experiment. I’m going to create a hypothesis around that and then test it.

Like we’ve been saying, I typically like to test run for about three months. If they’re going really poorly, of course, I’ll shut it down. But I like to give it a little bit of time to breathe and see how it’s going to perform. And I set goals on that. My goal here is to increase the quality of my leads, and I’m going to track that through my sales qualified lead to opportunity rate.

If after three months I’m happy with how much that has improved, then I’ll roll it out on a bigger scale and I’ll continue to do that. And I typically will find the next goal to focus on if I’m able to roll it out successfully. If it doesn’t work, I kind of go back and address that hypothesis based on what I learned from that test. And I keep going until I’m happy with my results. But I like to take off small chunks of my marketing strategy and slowly make changes based on those opportunities that I find in the data.

Rich: Okay. So it sounds like you love the data, you love to play in there. So what type of metrics and KPIs are you looking at?

Mary Cate: So I look at a lot of different things. My favorite thing to look at is cost per lead, cost for acquisition. So I really understand how much that is costing me. It then leads to ROI. We know the typical value of a customer. And then it kind of looks back at what goal I’m tracking. So if I’m trying to improve leads, I’m going to look at my visitor to lead rate. I love conversion rates in general. I feel like they tell a better story than just looking at straight numbers. You can actually understand what’s happening in that journey. So conversion rates pretty much all the way from website to lead, down to opportunity to customer, and looking at all of those. And those really tell me the biggest story.

Rich: All right. Now, obviously one of the big stories right now is the fact that Google Analytics is going away. We’ve got a year when I’m recording this. When we’re recording this, we’ve got a year and three days. I’m curious to know if you’ve played around with GA4 at all, and what other platforms you’re currently using as you try to evaluate whether these different approaches are working for you?

Mary Cate: Yes. So I just recently migrated a client over to GA4. Let’s just say I was really happy to have some partners that understood it better than I did to get it migrated. It does tell a good story once you get in there. It’s a little cleaner, which is nice. I personally grew up on HubSpot when it comes to digital marketing. I love HubSpot because everything is in one place, and you can see that full journey. That’s my personal favorite. If I’m working with anyone that doesn’t have a full marketing automation software like that, where everything’s in one place. I do like to use dashboards. I’m currently using DashThis. So that’ll pull in everything. I’m a big believer in spreadsheets, so I’ll put everything in my little spreadsheets and then throw it up into the dashboards to be able to start to see those historic trends.

Rich: All right. And talk to me a little bit more about creating a test. I’m just trying to think about somebody who’s sitting there. They’ve got to report to their boss or they’re working in an agency and they’ve got to report to their client. How do you set it up from beginning to end to say here’s something we want to test, and then basically how do you shape that in a way that you’re able to tell a story, whether you’re telling it to yourself or you’re telling it to a client?

Mary Cate: Yeah, absolutely. So I find that main goal. I’ll give you a test I’m currently running right now. So I want to increase my marketing qualified to sales qualified lead rate. So my hypothesis right now is that I need better lead nurturing for this client, because I get the marketing qualified lead in, but then they never convert to sales. Okay. Something is missing there. So one thing we’ve tested is showing retargeting ads for the next stage in that journey. We’ve also tested new lead nurturing campaigns, more targeted lead nurturing campaigns.

So I’ve run a couple of these tests at the same time. I really like working with multi-location companies. So being able to run multiple tests in different locations to kind of speed up the process a little bit. But I let it run and I typically have something to control to keep the science experiment going, but I have something to compare it to.

So let’s take lead nurture. I have my original lead nurture campaign versus this new one I’ve created. And after three months, or at least enough data has gone through it, enough people have gotten the campaign, I compare the goals. How many people enter this campaign? How many actually became a sales qualified lead? If that percentage has gone up, I am one step closer to pushing my MQL to SQL rate higher. So that worked out. I’m going to roll that out further.

I still keep an eye on it because I want to make sure nothing gets funky, we don’t want to mess anything up keeping an eye on it. I’m always watching that one metric I’m trying to influence. If it starts going down, I dig deeper to understand what’s happening. My lead nurturing is working great. Is there anything I can tweak there or should I try something else? And that’s where I’ll go do research, look into different industries. How is the automotive industry nurturing their MQL? They’re doing a lot of texting. Maybe we should add texting to my lead nurture. And so I’m slowly building on it so that I’m really understanding what is affecting that change so we can keep moving forward instead of just guessing at it.

Rich: I’m thinking about somebody who’s sitting there at home, listening to this and saying that’s great for you, but I have an in, I have a business and there’s no other similar industries out there. There’s nobody for me to look at. How do you overcome that concern and how do you help that person actually discover that there are similar industries, even if it doesn’t seem so at first glance?

Mary Cate: I mean, it makes sense, right? We all think that our world is different, it’s special. And that’s true, right? Every industry has an industry for a reason, but there’s still little aspects that are the same.

So my original example was just comparing the research process to buy a car versus the research process to buy a house. You’re still buying a big purchase. It’s a small line, but it’s still similar. We’re going through a similar process. So by really breaking it down, and maybe it’s a couple different things. I keep going back to senior living, but that’s healthcare and hospitality. So, you know, it’s two different things that you can pull from. So you can kind of just, again, talk to your customers, listen to what they’re saying and see what that reminds you of. Oh, that’s kind of similar to X, and then go see what those people are doing.

Rich: Yeah, you could also say that as you think about it, senior living is also very geographically specific. So either you’re traveling to a place or it’s a local place. So that would be maybe one other aspect that would be like that.

It’s also a big, possibly lifetime decision. Whatever you choose, you may be stuck with for a long time. So very different than an impulse by grabbing a stick of gum as you’re in the checkout counter or something like that.

Mary Cate: Absolutely. Even restaurants. I mean, what else could there possibly be like restaurants? Okay, well, when I need to go eat I Google ‘restaurant near me’. What else do I search near me? I of course can’t think of an example right off the top of my head, but it’s just thinking of things like that. And just trying to find those parallels between the same action you take.

Rich: Spas, that’s one. Yeah.

Mary Cate: Oh my gosh. You’re right. Yeah. Massage near me.

Rich: It’s not only that, but it’s also something where you don’t choose one restaurant you’ll go there for the rest of your life. So it’s something where you can continually try new places as well.

Mary Cate: Absolutely. There’s different types of things. It’s fun. It’s almost a journey to learning more. And if you really like to learn things, I just find it interesting to see how other industries have made things work.

Rich: Absolutely. So if somebody has never done this before but they like what you’re putting out there, what would you say the first steps for them would be? What is the first thing once you realize, my industry has been stagnant – or even if it’s not – that I need to go outside my industry and really come up with something that feels fresh for my industry. What do they do next?

Mary Cate: Definitely do your buyer research and understand every step of that buyer’s journey. So what does a typical buyer go through, and then start dissecting that. Then go finding those parallels. But you have to start with that buyer. If you get that wrong, you’re just not working with the good foundation.

Rich: And if you have been in business for any length of time, would the recommendation be that maybe reaching out to some of your current or past customers?

Mary Cate: Absolutely. So I love interviewing current and past customers. I’ve interviewed lost customers. Why do they choose a competitor, if they’re willing? And even current leads, what are they currently going through? As long as you’re talking with sales, making sure you’re not messing anything up for them. But yes, I always recommend talking to the actual person instead of just making assumptions.

Rich: It sounds like you have a series of questions that you might ask. Do you want to throw out a few additional ones that you might ask your current client base?

Mary Cate: Yeah. So actually I read Adele Revella’s book, Buyer Personas, six years ago, I think. And I have done it her way ever since and it’s worked out really well. And she recommends coming to the conversation with one, one scripted question, taking me back to the time when you realized you needed X and. Active listening. And of course asking questions in the moment, but really letting the customer lead you through their journey.

I used to do it a different way where you came with all these questions, “Oh, and how did you feel about X?” And you still get great information. But I feel like you get really what the customer is saying in their own words instead of prompting them, when you just ask that one question.

Rich: That’s a fantastic place to start. And before I let you go, one more question. So for the people who are out there and maybe they don’t have customers they can turn to, maybe this is a fairly new business, any suggestions on where they might start the process?

Mary Cate: So you’ll laugh at me. I typically recommend looking in the industry that you’re in and what the typical customer is. There’s usually some good research.

Also again, if you do have those assumptions, you can at least try to ask, depending on what your industry is, you can talk to people even if they aren’t your customer. And I love surveys. It’s not as great, because you’re not hearing directly from someone. But you can a really good survey, pay a little bit for people to take it who hit the demographic you want to hit. And sometimes you can even offer them a gift card or something if they’re willing to actually get on the phone with you and then you can interview someone.

Rich: Nice. We had a client recently who believed that the customers would react one way to a specific offer or one of the challenges that the customers would have. I actually went to Reddit and I found a sub-reddit discussion group around this particular topic, and saw that the emotions that people were feeling were much more raw, and I started grabbing some of the words that they were using and showed them to the client. And it was very eye-opening for them. So whether it’s Reddit or a LinkedIn discussion group or a Facebook group or whatever, I definitely think there are places where you can hear what people are really thinking about a product or a competitor or anything like that. So just more places that you can go and get good ideas.

Mary Cate: I love that. I’m going to use that for my next research for sure.

Rich: Please do. Mary Cate, this has been great. If people want to learn more about you or anything that you shared, where can they find you online?

Mary Cate: Absolutely. So pretty much anywhere I am Mary Cate Spires, with a C. marycatespires.com. And then all social media handles @MaryCateSpires. I like to keep it easy.

Rich: Excellent. We’ll have links to all of those in the show notes. Mary Cate, thank you so much for coming by today.

Mary Cate: Thank you so much for having me.

Show Notes: 

Mary Cate Spires helps her clients improve their marketing performance with actual data research, to take the guessing out of marketing strategies that drive results. Check out her website to learn more, and grab a copy of her book so you can put her methods to work!

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.