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Marketing in a Post-COVID-19 World: Heather Loisel, Chief Marketing Officer @ Ricoh, Skillsoft


Brian Erickson:
Thanks for joining the Cardwell Beach Marketing Podcast. My name is Brian Erickson, Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Cardwell Beach. In this series we’re interviewing senior marketers across industries to develop perspective on what marketing will look like in a post-COVID-19 world. Today’s guest is Heather Loisel, who has served as Chief Marketing Officer for organizations including Ricoh, and Skillsoft, and who led SiriusDecisions Consulting and Learning Business units. Heather, thanks so much for joining us today.

Heather Loisel:
Thanks for having me, Brian. I’m delighted to be here.

Brian Erickson:
So first of all, how are you holding up during this crazy time? How have you kind of adapted to the new reality that we’re all living in?

Heather Loisel:
Well, I have to tell you, I feel very fortunate because this hasn’t been a substantial change, from the standpoint that I’ve worked from a home office for a long time, and have been experienced in managing remote teams, and have really taken those skills and experiences and put them on turbo. From a travel standpoint, I’m traveling a lot less, obviously, as we all are. And I have to say, I don’t mind spending a little time at home. So for a constrained period of time, this has been okay. And my thoughts go out to all of the folks that are having a harder time than we are right now. Because there’s a lot of people that are finding the new normal to be difficult. So my thoughts are with them.

Brian Erickson:
Well I definitely agree there, and glad to hear that you’re faring well through this. So you’ve worked across a variety of industries related to technology, from IT implementation at Ricoh to e-learning at Skillsoft. How do you think our new era will change our relationship with technology?

Heather Loisel:
I think that this crisis has been a forced immersion into technology. And there have been situations where people are having conversations about, do you need to be in office? Do you need to be in person? Can you be remote? And there’s essentially been, I think, pretty distinct camps, in that there are people that believe that remote is really effective, and there are people that believe that in-person is really effective. And now I think the in-person really effective [people] are going to be forced into the deep end of the pool about embracing technology.

I also think technology has a greater level of responsibility, because technology organizations— look at remote meeting services—have gotten away with maybe not being as user friendly as they could, or should, be. And I think that that becomes a big challenge for them. So I think people are going to start to use technology more, not because they want to, but because they’re forced to. And I think technology has to fulfill their obligation to make it as easy as possible, and also reliable and secure, because we all know that’s an issue.

And then the last thing is, I think that there’s going to be a real spike in leadership and management skills and techniques for remote teams. Because if you haven’t figured it out, you’re going to need to, quickly. Because I don’t think we’re going to go back to where we were before. I think there’s going to be a new normal.

Brian Erickson:
I definitely agree with that, and I’ve read your article earlier on that topic. I thought it was very well written and very much agree with that point. So most recently at Ricoh, you streamlined their marketing approach within different segments of the market, from small firms to major corporations. I guess, how do you expect these different segments will fare in the aftermath of COVID-19? Because I think it’s going to be different for each of them, and even within those segments, industry-wise, there’s going to be a lot of variance in how people deal with that. So what are your thoughts on that front?

Heather Loisel:
I think it will be different, and I think that there’s going to be a lot of factors that get forced. So, first of all, my primary experience is in B2B. So the perspective that I share is going to be that perspective, in a B2B environment.

I think the first thing is, there are going to be industries where there are winners and losers. And there are winners in organizations, B2B organizations like Cisco or Zoom, or those platforms that are really dependent on, and relying on, remote technology. I think that there are in-person industries, like events, that if they don’t change, are really going to have to find themselves forced to doing something different. So if your business is built around in-person events, I don’t think things are ever going to be the same again. It doesn’t mean that in-person events aren’t going to come back, but I think that there’s going to be a dimension of remoteness to them. So I think the first thing is, there’s winners and losers.

The second thing is, I think depending on the size of the organization, your business model is really going to matter. Because there may have been organizations, particularly smaller organizations, that were financially sound if the doors were open, and they didn’t have a lot of cushion. And now those organizations may find themselves in a situation where they have to fundamentally reduce the cost of operations, or they’re not going to be here. And I think if there were any organizations that were on the bubble, that really, they were going to find themselves in a difficult time. So cashflow becomes king, and I think that there’s an opportunity for all organizations to really look at their business model.

If you’re in a mature, declining industry, very, very difficult times. Because the industry was already declining, so now there is a fight for every last bit of market share. And I think we’ll see some organizations that had already started to innovate, and build new value capabilities, to move up. And I think that there are other ones that will find themselves unrecoverable. And it breaks my heart to say that, but I think that there is a real Darwinian effect that is going to come through with businesses.

And then the last thing is, I think that there’s some really interesting, innovative technologies that are going to go faster than they ever expected. I mean, Zoom is probably the best example. From a $10 million company to a $100 million dollar company, literally overnight. If you think about the growth of an organization, and the maturity phases that companies typically go through, holy cow, they went through it in 30 days. And now they’re finding, of course, there are some other challenges. But I think that those organizations that are nimble, that have smart leadership, that have good business models, and are innovative, are going to find a space that might have taken years to get to, and now it’s standing in front of them. And again, there’ll be folks that will respond well to that and folks that won’t.

Brian Erickson:
It’s definitely an era of disruption, right? And everybody, for maybe the last decade or so, when you said disruption, was trying to disrupt things, and things have gotten disrupted. So I think that’s going to result in a lot of the shifts, like you’re talking about, with Zoom, and other players, where there’s an opportunity. And of course, there will be that Darwinian effect that you mentioned, where it’s going to have a negative impact on folks as well. But it’s definitely… Cards are being reshuffled, and there are major problems that are coming from that, and there are also definitely opportunities.

So I guess coming out of that, my question is, what comes next? Because eventually this is going to end, or we’re going to accept it as a new normal, and we’re going to move on in some way, shape or form. So how do you think marketing as a whole will change in a post-COVID-19 world? I guess from a high level strategic perspective, and/or from a granular tactical perspective. Do you think there’s going to be shifts in marketing mix, and budget allocations, and things like that, over the next six months to two years, as we kind of rebound from the longterm effects of this?

Heather Loisel:
Absolutely. The first thing in B2B marketing in a post-COVID world is, I think that every B2B organization really needs to go back to the drawing board on what their real buyer needs are. Now we’ve talked about buyer needs for a long time, you know, talk about the need, not about your product. Talk about the value, not about the cost. But this is a point where, I believe that buyer needs are really going to change.

So the first thing is, I talked earlier about winners and losers in the industry. You need to figure out what is the place your target audiences is in, in the industry. Are they in an industry that’s going to end up being winners, or are they going to be losers? I think that your message has to tie to that. And the buyer needs now, to me, coming out of this COVID era, I think is more like thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy, where a lot of us aspire to self-actualization. And a lot of companies aspire to a self-actualized value proposition with their clients. But really, post-COVID marketing and buyer needs is food, shelter, and safety. And so I think it’s really important for every B2B organization to really get down to what are the most basic buyer needs.

The second thing is, that I think is going to be critical is, who really are those buyers? Who are they? And can you focus on them with laser-like precision? The reason I say that is, LinkedIn is a tremendous platform for us, right? We all use LinkedIn, and people talk about digital media, and Facebook, and Twitter and you can get to a high degree of granularity around your audiences. And so LinkedIn, I just saw an ad that said, “Reach the right person, at the right time, with the right messages.” Okay, B2B buyer, you now have this tremendous tool, but what is the right person? Who is that right person, and what is that message? And I think that B2B organizations are really going to have to hone in, because the buyer needs that you had before February are not going to be the buyer needs going forward, because of that food, water, shelter issue.

The second thing is, you really have to reach that person, and then connect to them. And if you don’t have a differentiating advantage, and you’re in a mature industry, then it’s going to be a lot harder for you to connect to those buyer needs. I think cost is going to be a major factor. So in the future, we’ve all talked about who are the buyers, and targeting the right buyers, and buyers needs. And I think that that is going to have to be something that people really commit to with a religious fervor. I mean, it’s got to be the mantra that wakes up every day.

I also believe that your customers are your best friends right now. And connecting to those customers has got to be mission critical. Bill McDermott in ServiceNow has a great perspective now, because he has said, “We’re going to make all our workers safe, in terms of their jobs, because we want them to focus on customers.” And the power of that customer experience is going to give you the ability to connect, and have an opportunity where you wouldn’t. Prospect marketing, and getting that new business, organic growth, I think, is going to be really, really hard.

And then the last thing is, and you asked about what marketing was going to be like. I think marketing is really going to have to embrace their obligation for the employee, and internal messaging, and that employee experience. Because you can’t provide great customer experience if your employees are scared, or uncertain, or don’t have the right tools. So I think that there’s going to be a lot of things that are changing in terms of buyers and buyer needs. I think we’re going to be at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. I think embracing current customers, and really understanding where they are, and leveraging that trust, and linking arms with them, is going to be critical. I think you’ve got to take care of your employees, so all those other things that I talked about are possible.

Brian Erickson:
Definitely agree. And you’re not just theorizing about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for food, shelter and water. I mean, you’re actively out there consulting with major B2B brands on this sort of thing, and implementing it on the ground, right? I mean this is not just something that we’re tossing around jargon.

Heather Loisel:
No, you’re absolutely right there. So in my experience with SiriusDecisions, as well as the transformational roles that I’ve had as CMO of Ricoh and Skillsoft, we’re really focused on understanding buyer needs. And that’s why this is so much a part of what I’m thinking about. Because I’ve reached my own point where I’ve said, “Holy cow, the buyer needs have fundamentally changed.”

The second part of understanding those buyer needs, and you’ve talked about the impact on marketing, but the organization has got to think about how all of the customer-facing dimensions align. So sales, marketing, and product, absolutely have to align. And there’s really simple things that organizations can do, and we’ve consulted with them. And they’re going to sound like common sense, but they’re not sometimes.

We would find marketing organizations that would be sending information, and great content, out to lists of people and contacts that the sales organization didn’t have. Or they would be sending out information and getting great clicks on thought leadership and all that, but it wasn’t really their buying audience, it wasn’t who the sales person was talking to. Or we would find that salespeople were using great buyer need oriented content, that they developed because they were sitting in front of buyers, more often than the marketing folks. And sales wasn’t really sharing that back with the marketing team so that their messages were aligned and really relevant. So not only are the buyer needs changing, as we talked about earlier, but there has got to be a real commitment to make sure that sales, marketing, and product are all aligned to those. And organizations say that they’re good at it, but when you get down under the covers, and really look at it from a practical, tactical standpoint, sometimes they’re not.

Brian Erickson:
So if I’m hearing you correctly, you have to do two things well. You have to move down the hierarchy of needs, and then you have to align sales, marketing, and product to this new set of needs. It’s a lot of work and marketers are really scrambling to do this quickly, right? It’s kind of funny. I’m thinking as you’re talking about moving down the ladder, have you seen any of the YouTube mashups, with all the coronavirus ads? I think there’s one that’s titled, “In These Uncertain Times,” where they put the first five seconds of the soft slow piano music, and then they show all the opening lines from each ad. They have a very similar tone and language to them. They start out with, “In these uncertain times, in these troublesome times, in these trying times.” Then they take the next five seconds of the ad and they kind of move through it piece by piece. “We’re in this together, together at home, here we are together at home.” How do you move down that hierarchy of needs successfully in a more elegant way, where you don’t get lost in a sea of sameness?

Heather Loisel:
Well, I think that there’s a real opportunity here, to not talk about where we are today, but talk about where we’re going to be. And the organization that does that most effectively, and the messaging that does that most effectively, are the ones that are going to win. We’re all at a point, I believe, as individuals, as well as businesses, where we are tired of the current situation. And a constant reminder of the current situation is not helpful. What would be helpful is moving forward to, “Here are the things that we can do that can help you recover. Here are the things that we can do that can help you grow.” And I think organizations have got to figure out exactly what that is, tied to those buyer needs, and then communicate it consistently and with authenticity, right? With some proof points across their customers and their messaging.

I’m actually not a fan, right now, of any messaging that says that we understand. Because we’ve got to get over it, and we’ve got to move forward. And I think people are, and organizations are dying for something to latch on to, to be able to move forward into the future. So you look at a buyer need, for example, and let’s say that the buyer need is to optimize costs. Well let’s put that out there. We know that there’s going to be a new water level, new operating level, for your organization. Revenue isn’t going to be what it used to be, so cost can’t be what it used to be, so we’re going to help you.

Another example is, we know that your workers are going to be remote now. Here’s a way that we can help you make it easier for them to connect with their customers. They can’t get on a plane now, so how can you use a new capability, like video, in order to be able to move forward? I think the mix is going to change. There’s a company out there called Drift, which really focuses on video. And if you think about it, people have to get as good at remote personal interactions, as they were at in-person, personal interactions. So how can you do that?

I think that if you are a content provider, and you want your content to get out to all of your salespeople, and all your marketers, I think marketers have got to say, “Hey, how do I make sure that the message that gets communicated by that salesperson, or by that digital channel, or by that remote worker, is the same, and is impactful?” So I think that fundamental transition from, here’s where we are, and it’s bad, to, we’re going to help you define the new normal going forward. And we’re going to help you save costs. We’re going to help you reach your customers. We’re going to help you be as effective remotely, because you can’t be in person, as you would have been if you were in person. I think that those are new value things that we should be offering out to the market, as opposed to, for lack of a better term, wallowing where we are. And we’re in a crappy place right now, and I think that people really want hope. And we should help them get there.

Brian Erickson:
It’s really refreshing to hear, even just spit balling, live, unscripted, hearing you talk through a couple of different avenues, all of which sound much more compelling than what we’re hearing on the consumer front, and also on the B2B front. I get a tremendous number of cold emails, I’m sure you do, as well. And it’s just becoming very much a sea of sameness. So it’s definitely refreshing to hear your perspective, and to hear some different approaches on things.

So you talk about the right messaging, and we’re diving into a couple of different areas that are potentially fruitful. You talk about the right person at the right time, and tactics, and platforms. So with so much of our lives spent online, currently, how should marketers think about finding the intersect and overlap, of these different channel, and audience, sweet spots?

Heather Loisel:
I think that there’s a couple of things that are mission critical right now. One is, at that upfront, defining the who, and the connection point to their needs. So I think that it starts with that. You’ve got to have the good content to start with.

The second thing is really understanding where the watering holes are for those people that you want to reach. And watering holes is a SiriusDecisions term. That is watering holes, if you’ve ever been to Africa, or seen pictures, all the animals go around the watering holes. So where are the watering holes for the people that you want to reach? And getting to those places. And then, I think it’s really critical, and we’ve been talking about this for a while, but I don’t think organizations do it as well as they could, is to look at the data. And understand, we thought this would be a good watering hole, but is it really?

And then the last thing is… And again, I don’t think we’ve been as good about this as we could be, and we’ve helped companies really think through this in terms of their go-to-market strategy is, where are the buyers that you want to reach in their buying process? And have you really thought deeply about what that buying process is? The information that you need at the beginning of the conversation is different than the information you need in the middle of the conversation, is different than you need at the end. And the roles, and the people who are involved, are different.

You have to understand the few people in the buying group. And honestly, I think that there’s a real need to prioritize who is in the buying group, so that you can reach those people at that place. And data is going to help you answer that question. There’s also a really important part of it, which is to constantly go back to your customers and ask them how they did what they did. Their criteria for making a decision may be different now, because cost may be more important. But the process that they go through may be pretty much similar, in that, you still have a CFO, or you still have a CIO, or you still have a CEO, or you still have a Director of Merchandising, or whatever those roles are in the industry that you’re in.

So I think that there’s a real need to understand where buyers are in the process, and recognize that the information that they need at those points is different. The beginning is different than the end. I’m going to age myself a little bit, you don’t go from, “Hello” to “Will you marry me” in the same conversation. It’s kind of like that. There’s a progression of knowledge that people need. And you really have to… Marketers, and salespeople, and B2B organizations, really have to understand where those buyers are in that process and deliver the right content to them informed by their behavior, and informed by data, to understand where they are, and to be able to help them through that buying process.

Brian Erickson:
So it’s really interesting, you talk about shifting the benefit, and the different pain points that people are experiencing. But when you’re talking about it in a B2B context, it’s much more complex. You have multiple buyer personas that you’re speaking to. You have different benefits for each of those personas. You have multiple stages that each of those personas is moving through, which is what you’re just describing here. So it’s definitely a multi-variate sort of equation that you’re dealing with now, in terms of this major shift.

Heather Loisel:
It is, Brian, and so the challenge for marketers, because I can picture myself saying and talking to my teams and having them say, “Well that all sounds great, but we’ve got less money than we did before because the post-coronavirus economy, and business model, is different than going in. And it’s still really complex.” And so my goal is always to ladder back to a pretty practical place. Which is to ask the key question, and that is, “Who will most succeed? Who will be happiest if this thing that we’re selling to them goes well?” And that might not be the decision maker. It could be a Director of IT, who is going to be… Who is most at risk, or who is going to be most successful, if this goes well? And zero in on that person.

Because if you imagine sitting in a conference room, there’s a buying group, and there are different people in the buying group. Purchasing is probably in there, finance is probably in there, senior executives are probably in there. And then you’ve got, say a Director of IT, to keep going on that example. The Director of IT is the person that has to look all the people in the room and say, “I believe that this is really the right decision. We’ve done the analysis, you’ve got the results of the analysis, we’ve done an RFP. But I believe that this is the right decision.”

And so as marketers, as you think about personas in buying groups, not all buyers are created equal. And I think it’s really important for us to think first about, who is that person? Now that doesn’t mean that you stop marketing to all of the other folks, but it means that they’re not all created equal. And focusing and understanding who that real person is, who’s quote unquote, “butt,” is on the line, is the one that you have to make sure you get to first, and throughout the buying process. Does that make sense, Brian?

Brian Erickson:
That totally makes sense. And I guess to wrap all of this together, if you had to give one piece of advice to B2B marketers, and technology marketers coming out of this crisis, what would you say is the most important thing that you can focus on, and you can do professionally, right now?

Heather Loisel:
Well, I think that, I’m going to take this from two perspectives. The first thing is, within the role that you’re in, understand who your customer is, who that target buyer is. Make sure you’re connected with sales, or service, or whoever is talking to those. And become the tiger team, or the support team, for that buyer. Not just in your own mind, but in connection with some other folks in your organization, so you really are aligned on who that buyer is. I think that that connection point, and that consistency within an organization, will help you to do a better job. It will also help create a better experience for your customers. And the companies that can do that are going to differentiate themselves.

From a personal standpoint, I’d recommend kind of a twofold approach. One is, activate your network, and talk to people. Because you will learn things, and you will build connection points that will just help you be better. And if you find yourself in a situation where you’ve got to look for a job, and some folks will find themselves in that situation, you’ll already have your network activated to be able to do that.

And then the second part of the individual is, whatever you do to help keep yourself healthy, please make time to do that. Whether it’s working out, or it’s reading, or it’s meditating, or it’s writing, or it’s spending time with your family, or it’s going for a walk with the dog, don’t neglect that. Because we’re carrying a heavy burden, now. We have to do some self care in this, in order to be able to come through it.

Brian Erickson:
You’ve got to take care of yourself first so you can give, and be a good citizen in every regard. So Heather, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. This was a fantastic conversation. I really appreciate it.

Heather Loisel:
Thank you, Brian. I’m honored to be here, and happy to help. For folks that are listening to this, if we can be of any assistance in terms of activating their go-to-market, and helping them to navigate the future, we’re happy to do that.

Brian Erickson:
Awesome. Well, this is Brian Erickson with Cardwell Beach. Thanks again for listening, and please make sure to check back for more senior marketers sharing their perspective on what marketing will look like in the post COVID-19 world.

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