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Marketing Post-Covid: Michael Gale, Chief Marketing Officer, Wind River

Transcript

Brian Erickson:
All right. Thank you 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 a perspective on what marketing will look like in a post- COVID-19 world. Today’s guest is Michael Gale, Chief Marketing Officer at Wind River, a technology firm that delivers software solutions for industries, including aerospace, automotive, medical, and telecommunications. Michael is also the author of The Digital Helix, which discusses strategies for companies and organizations to adapt to the digital age and a host on one of the two Forbes podcasts. So, Michael, thank you so much for joining us today.

Michael Gale:
Very excited. This will be a fun conversation. So, where would you like to start?

Brian Erickson:
So, let’s talk about weathering the storm. You’re in Seattle over there, and I’m in New York, but the storm is the same for all of us since we’re all remote. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, technology has formed the backbone of how we do everything, basically. Work, socialize, keep our businesses running. How has this unprecedented moment changed the way that you’ve marketed Wind River and the software and services that you provide?

Michael Gale:
Yeah. Let me start with a couple of analogies. But first, I’ll quickly give you some background because if anybody’s heard of Wind River, I would argue they think of the movie. We make embedded software, which doesn’t mean a lot, but if you think about Perseverance, 31 million miles away, that’s our software. That software is allowing Perseverance to run mission-critical, self-deterministic motions on a planet 31 million miles away. If you use Verizon, and you use Verizon’s 5G, that runs on our cloud. So, I think, we are the stuff you don’t see, but we’re also, I think, seeing an enormous amplified value because as things move virtually, things move into machines, you have to have an operating system to work on it.
So, the analogy I’ll give you is this. The car was invented really in the 1890s, frankly, by Benz. But it wasn’t actually until after the first World War that cars became an endemic sort of transportation device. I think that what COVID has done, because there’s a calamitous effect on human life and society, is it’s shaking companies to recognize the stuff we saw before, digital, virtual, “Oh, that’s interesting,” is actually going to be the very core of how we transport around marketing in our communications, engagement, management, everywhere.

We used to be a really, really physical events-based business because a lot of the accounts we work with are in government, huge corporations, major robotics companies like Kuka, and stuff. So, they’re used to physical contact with us about how to build a robotic system, to putting AI into play. We couldn’t do that anymore, so we instantly had that war effect, where we landed our heels in and went from maybe five to 10% virtual and digital to really 95% plus virtual and digital, literally overnight.

So, it was a shock to the system, in a good way, because we sort of knew it was the right thing to do, but it completely transformed skill set requirements, outputs, even technology stacks that we used in less than 90 days. I don’t think it matters how big or small you are. You’ve probably experienced that same tsunami of virtual experience since March, April of last year.

Brian Erickson:
That must have been pretty wild. I’m sure you got a lot of sleep during that phase.

Michael Gale:
Well, fortunately, no, because work and home turned into the same thing just like for everybody else on the planet. So it looked like, “Is that a weekend? No, it’s just an hour off.” Yeah, I mean, I think about the amount of hours the team has worked there, and I’ve seen elsewhere, and I think people are constantly working 70-plus hour weeks, and I don’t think that’s unusual anymore. I don’t think that’s healthy, but it’s that level of energy and effort that is necessary for that sort of transformative change. Even in a small or midsize business, you’re going to go through the same pain. It’s actually… It’s more anxiety-inducing than it probably is in a larger corporation.

Brian Erickson:
It’s strange. Everybody was so afraid on the management side to let people work remotely, and it actually ended up that people are working too much and need to pull back. So the fears were founded, but were just coming from the wrong place, right?

Michael Gale:
Yeah. It was like, “Trust humans. We’re really good, right? We’ll get…” I mean, people have leaned in everywhere incredibly well. I mean, we haven’t measured our latest wave of customer satisfaction, but we had a good year last year, financially. Obviously, we’re a private company, but I think it was a shocking example of how human interaction in a virtual environment can actually in many ways be better than human interaction in a physical environment.

Brian Erickson:
Very, very strange. I mean for most of us, I mean, even beyond your role as CMO, you spend a lot of time thinking about the future of our digital world, and I guess, are there any lessons or best practices that you can share from some of this contemplation, whether it’s from your book or from personal experience?

Michael Gale:
Yeah. There were three, actually. It’s funny. I was speaking at an event in Germany this week, which is the world’s biggest print manufacturing event. It’s been physical for 70 years. It only runs every four years. It’s like the World Cup of events. So, it was all virtual and you could see a certain anxiety from the organizers. I’m like, “Look. All the attendees have been virtual for a year. Trust me. They’re trained.”

But there are three things I think that can get rid of anxiety and I think this anxiety exists for everybody. One is, work out the moments that your customers really care about. If I’m sitting at home with a kid screaming, running around me, doesn’t mean I don’t need the same things I’ve needed before in an interaction, but I might need something a little differently than before. Packaging, simple, easy communication, and not streams of emails, but one simple thing to do. A place where I can go click a button at 8:00 at night and get what I want.
I think that sense of environment and moment has really got to force you to sit on a wall, at home, or wherever, and put up Post-it notes saying, “What are the 10 moments my customers really care about?” Not the big stuff. It’s actually, a lot of it’s small stuff. Really interesting to me. We learned this from service support algorithms. We use an AI engine to work out what people are asking questions about. Really small moments matter an enormous amount. It’s a good chance to sit back and say, “Right, what are those 10 moments my customers, or potential customers, really care about? Let’s focus on those.”

That was a really big learning curve for us because, for a company that’s actually in its 40th year this year, which is unusual in tech, it’s easy to get locked into a sort of predisposition and history. Look, things change. Literally. They literally changed overnight. You’ve got to recognize the customers have different experiences and needs overnight that they didn’t have, or weren’t that highly prioritized beforehand. So, track those 10 moments. Write them down, stick to them, learn from them.

I think the second big lesson was, you’ve got to find highly integrated program management pieces. So, if people come to you and they ask for a brochure, make sure you’ve locked them into a self-selecting journey so that they get the brochure, then they have three choices of what they can do after. You don’t send them one choice. You give them a choice. So, moments and choice are a really big deal in this process.
The third is to keep your metrics simple. Really keep them simple. There’s no need to make it complicated. Basic metrics really matter, and I think particularly in a virtual world where we are drowned in data, it’s super easy to look as if you’re waving when you’re drowning. Just keep that data super simple. The three or four things that really matter, and moments that you really think can make a difference, and give customers choice in everything you give to them. Don’t just push them down one path.

We learned those lessons hard. We see them in the book anyway, but I suppose practically, actually having to work with them, really illustrated, and in fact, we’re generating…returns are two and a half times higher on a third of the budget…because if you get those things right, you can really change the economics of your marketing.

Brian Erickson:
That’s some pretty wild numbers that you can experience with that, right?

Michael Gale:
Oh, yeah.

Brian Erickson:
I guess, if you’re looking at the old school 4Ps, you’re talking about a change in place as a primary mode for, especially on the business to business side, where everything about your product is largely the same, but people are experiencing it in a different place and you need to adapt to how they’re going to consume it and how they’re going to interact with it. I can definitely associate with the screaming kids aspect of working in a different place, and having to make B2B decisions, and purchase complicated things in the midst of screaming there. So definitely, you have to adapt your marketing to that moment.

Michael Gale:
That’s a great heading for an article.

Brian Erickson:
Yes.

Michael Gale:
But it is true. So for example, silly stuff like chat. You can get chat on any website. It’s unbelievably powerful. So, if you’re a small or medium business and you are using web destinations for some form of interaction, use them as brochureware, use them as engagementware. Yeah, you may not have a large customer service support team, but if you’ve got one person in marketing or a person in sales, they can be the person that handles chat when it works. But that ability to be there in the moment is unbelievably powerful.

Michael Gale:
You’re going to learn from it nine out of the ten times. The one out of ten times that it helps you close more business, will grow your business 10%. So, I just think things like chat, simple tracking of what people are doing and are not doing on the site, not complicated stuff, you don’t have to do it that often, it can really make you make better decisions when those kids are screaming around you or dogs are chewing furniture.

Brian Erickson:
Yes. That is, anything that can help you make better decisions in that environment is much appreciated on the customer side, for sure. So, I guess tactically, have you seen any kind of sleeper tactics or marketing channels that you weren’t so gung-ho about before the pandemic, that you’ve just kind of gone all-in on, or have seen surprisingly good results from in the midst of all the COVID-19 restrictions?

Michael Gale:
So, to me, the one that was a shock to the organization, and although I’m actually… I’ve done it for nearly a decade, its change in results was outrageous to me, still blows me away, was LinkedIn. The ability to connect to customers on LinkedIn, and to share a few things… Not “I’d like a call,” then sell, but to share ideas and content. Unbelievable responsiveness to it. It blew me away at every level. We’ve seen this globally and we’ve seen it in very complicated accounts with very senior people. But just people’s willingness to connect on LinkedIn because they’re at home all day long, and their willingness to interact if you have really good content, was outrageous.

I don’t want LinkedIn to now start charging for it, but if I literally want to connect with… Let’s say, with 2000 accounts and each account has 20 real people in it. So, let’s say 10, maybe. You go, okay. You could build a universe probably of 20 to 30% of that in less than three months, where you actually have a direct relationship with somebody on LinkedIn. You could never have done that in a physical world and you couldn’t have done it in a world where we’re all running around an office all day. So, there’s been an enhanced intimacy, I think, with LinkedIn, that is really powerful.

The second thing that really worked well for us, and we thought it would do, but not to the magnitude it does, are content-based webinars. Again, they don’t have to be big, they don’t have to be complicated. But we went from producing, I don’t know, probably five, 10% of our volume of webinars to about 60 to 70%. Actually, our volume has gone up now, this quarter it will be 120%. Those things just depend on expert’s content and some nice packaging, but LinkedIn, webinar, unbelievably powerful.
The third thing is natural search and that’s just obvious and you can’t buy natural search. But making sure your content is as optimized as it can be for the keywords that matter, really are incredible. So LinkedIn, webinar, and SEO were an amazing sort of almost AX3 defensive system that kept things feeling faster and better than ever before.

Brian Erickson:
So, I think that’s an interesting point, a couple of interesting points in there, but specifically, I want to ask you to dive a little bit deeper into the LinkedIn and the webinar aspect, where you mentioned that it wouldn’t have been possible if we were all running around and kind of doing our typical office routine that so many people were comfortable with pre-pandemic, and everybody just kind of in their house all the time, and working all the time. Do you think that the interactions on LinkedIn, the desire for additional webinar content, and maybe even things like Clubhouse where you’re plugged into an audio chat all day, do you think that those are going to persist, or do you think that they’re going to kind of retract and go back to what they were before COVID-19?

Michael Gale:
So, I can’t give an answer because anybody that does that is arrogant but I think we can look at comparisons. Again, I look at TV. TV was really invented in Idaho in 1935. Pretty cool idea, very successful, a little too expensive, but by 1939, 1940, you could feel it was about to reach Main Street. Well, obviously, it didn’t happen in the Second World War because cathode-ray tube was pretty valuable for radar and communication, and there wasn’t any capacity to broadcast. So then, the Second World War, TV explodes, all right. I actually always believed that LinkedIn and webinars have had unbelievable value, but they couldn’t break through the attention span of people because other things got in their way. So, once those other things stopped being in their way, they just exploded in value instantly.

So, I think it’s sort of like a repressed value that’s being revealed that I think will actually get more and more interesting. The question to me with webinars, it’s how will the methodology change? There’s a couple of things we did, I think, that will help. We put a search engine into ours so that after the thing went live, you could actually go back to it, search in the words you cared about, Perseverance, embedded edge, Mars, and out would pop the sections in a webinar to talk about those things. I think what happens is you’re going to start finding searchable content that’s really, really interesting, really quick. I mean, things like Trinity Audio, where actually, you could look at articles on LinkedIn and press a button and it talks out to you while you’re doing other stuff, are really useful too.

But the question becomes if you can’t use old precepts of, “I’m connected with somebody,” it’s a relationship. No, you’ve got moments of connection. You have to fertilize and grow them, and I think the failure will come when people don’t fertilize or cultivate these relationships effectively enough that they really can create value.

It’s almost like passing a digital business card with an acceptance of, “Yes, I’d like to talk to you.” But it doesn’t mean you can sell. The worst messages I get and I get probably 95 out of 100 is, “I have these services I’d like to sell you,” but it’s not what LinkedIn is for. LinkedIn is for a mutual exchange of ideas or sharing the process. Eventually, it may turn into something, but you cannot see it as a sort of instant sales channel. I think that’s where it could really get damaged if it gets turned into a sort of flood where sales requests that have little to any value for somebody. Does that make sense?

Brian Erickson:
Yes, that totally makes sense. On a previous episode, I was speaking with someone. It’s interesting, you mentioned the history of TV. We were talking about how early TV was really just radio with a camera, and you just had two people sitting there with microphones, doing a radio show, and it was being filmed. In terms of virtual events and webinars and whatnot, it’s interesting to hear you talk about architecting the post-event experience, as well as the event experience. I spoke at a virtual conference recently, it was my first one. I’ve been holding out and trying not to do it, but it was very, I would say, it was very early TV-esque where there was a virtual trade show booth, and I had to go sit at a table, a virtual table, and then people would just pop into the room and things like that.

It was like, this feels unnatural. But I think it’s got to happen. We have to go through that awkward haircut phase to get to where we’re ultimately headed, and I definitely agree with you that there’s a repressed value that just needed its moment to be able to be fully realized. I think smart marketers like yourself who are focusing on taking these mediums to the next level will get it figured out. We’ll architect a really engaging, probably omni-channel experience more than a totally virtual experience. But, I think those are some good insights for sure.

Michael Gale:
Yeah, a lot of it is driven by the team. I think what we all learn is that we are greater than the sum of our parts. I’m really lucky to have a very mature, vocal, and adaptive team because they say, “Hold it, there’s something here. Let’s dig deep.” It’s really easy just to get caught in the execution phase or execute 15 degrees from one way to the other. This team, at every level, has actually said, “No, we’re going to sniff around. We’re going to try some stuff. We’re going to fail. We’re going to learn from it and move on and we’re going to keep adapting.” They’ve done a great job of learning to adapt to what I think is a really scary situation, when all of a sudden the whole world that you’ve been used to for 39, 40 years literally disappears in front of you.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah. I mean, it’s definitely the scariest employment situation and just the kind of professional situation that most folks have been through, 2008 included. I guess, if you could give one piece of advice to marketers at technology brands right now, and probably some of this is what you talk about with your team as well, what would you say is the most important thing for them to stay focused on in this scary time?

Michael Gale:
Moments. The idea of moments. What does the customer care about, intrinsically, in a negligible period of time? Moreover, that sort of long arc is the answer. But, if you can appeal to that moment, if you can connect to that moment, the ride may be rough when you’re on the train and if you constantly try to bang away at the train, without opening the doors to get in, you’ll never get in the carriage. Particularly the idea of working at home where convenience and this progression really matter. You’ve got to focus on moments and I can give you two really bad examples.
We obviously, like any other client, do a lot of work with Salesforce. So, for Salesforce to get a conversation with CMO is pretty rare and it’s okay, but when a sales guy turns up and all he wants to do is sell you something new, or more, not actually ask you what you’re dealing with, how you’ve handled this pandemic, instant death. As I said, if I look at LinkedIn, I’m always happy to connect with people. Whenever it comes to cases of, “if I do this, you’ll want it.” I think in a pandemic environment people’s emotional awareness is a lot sharper than ever before. People don’t tolerate a lack of empathy in communication. Moments and empathy are the other two big things I’d say people need to continue to focus on.

Brian Erickson:
That’s some great advice. Those were things that I think were probably underrated before the pandemic, but our front and center, main focus right now in every aspect of just kind of dealing with this whole situation and having some understanding about everybody really is going through this all together and we all need to kind of walk in other folks’ shoes. So, very, very good advice.

We’ve had a lot of ups and downs in terms of unemployment. Hopefully, we’re on the upswing here it looks like. But, how would you take that advice that you would give to folks in a marketing role right now, and help folks that are actually looking for a job, position their skill sets to be able to best succeed in finding new roles and new employment?

Michael Gale:
So, I think that’s interesting. There are two questions you have to ask yourself and there’s no perfect answer. Do I want to go back and do what I did before? It’s sort of like saying to a blacksmith, “Do I want to go back and look after horses when actually I need to teach myself to make Nielsen tires.” I think that illustration of old skill/new skill, you’ve got to ask yourself because I think, for example, a marketer with skills in Python is going to be eight times more valuable than a marketer that doesn’t have skills in Python. Doesn’t mean you’re going to be doing that the whole time but learning Python is probably a 30-hour activity and it has you do levels of analytics instantly that you can’t do elsewhere.

I think the second question is, what do you need to stand for is a post-COVID philosophy? What’s your view of where the world is going to go is more important as a way of illustrating your skills than where the world has been. So, if you want to apply for jobs and say, “Look, I really believe that empathy, engagement, and understanding what the customer’s moments are already important. Having the ability to analyze very quickly, move 15 degrees here, 15 degrees there, are skills you’re going to be really well off. I think if you want to go back and do what you’ve done before and there’ll be plenty of those jobs, they’re going to be difficult and I worry that as the world changes, like the blacksmith argument, it changes much faster than we really recognize.

Michael Gale:
So, what you used to think was relevant a year ago, two or three years’ time when you’re in the middle of a company, may actually not be anything like as relevant as you hoped it would be. Things never return and we built a business after 2008. Very lucky to get it sold because we realized the world was going to be so different after that market meltdown. You’re not going to return to the same nuances you had before. They’re going to be very specific, new nuances that make a difference. That was the long answer. I’m sorry.

Brian Erickson:
So, you have to have strong beliefs and be willing and able to adapt, it sounds like.

Michael Gale:
Yeah. You got to decide whether it’s good because it’s very, I think life is very tough. We have families, income pressures, kids, dogs, neighborhoods, personal development environments. It’s easy to say, “Okay, I think I’m comfortable with this” but the ability to generate that growth mindset capability, but with very targeted skills that have value, I think is where people have to go because we are living in a really adaptive world.

I’ll give you a scary example. By 2030, about $7 trillion of the US economy, which will be about 70% of all the growth that the US economy goes under between 2020 and 2030, is going to be machine-driven. AI, robotics, automation. 70% of the growth is not going to come from humans, it’s going to come from machines. So, if you’re not comfortable dealing with data, you’re not comfortable dealing with interactions between machines and data. It’s going to be really difficult in less than eight years to have an effective career growth model.

So, for example, if you were a nurse back in the ‘50s, it was a solid job and it was well-paid. If you’re a nurse practitioner now, you’re almost a junior doctor. The pay is incredible. There are small shifts in skills over relatively short periods of time, a lot like nursing, which can make a really big difference to you. I think people have to sit back, really reflect on what their best version needs to be, to be successful so that home life, personal career are the best versions of themselves. They’re not just repeating chapters of where they’ve been before.

Brian Erickson:
That’s a great real-world example and I think, it’s scary to think jobs like yours and mine could be replaced by computers pretty soon and in many instances already are and I think you can sit there and kind of just lament it and cower in fear, or you can think about how you can proactively move in a direction that will collaborate.

Michael Gale:
Let me give an example. Google, or AltaVista, Lycos, or any search engine, they were big publishing houses. They printed things, you put ads in them, you bought a database, you sent a note out, you went to an event. That industry, let’s say, had an index of 100 total. As Google got better and better, and Lycos and these other guys tried it, but certainly Google won it. The ad market went from the biggest companies that could afford it all the way down to a single shop selling flowers in Sioux City or Sioux Falls, Idaho because the digital world makes anything available to everybody when they want it.

So, if you were selling ad space in print magazines, not only does this print magazines go, but frankly, even the direct selling of ads went because it went on to Google and you made the decisions yourself based on price optimization. But the reality is, a lot of jobs are going to become automated partly, partially, or fully, but what can’t be automated is new stuff. So, this ability to reinvent yourself gives you the ability to stay ahead of the curve in a way that I think is vital for companies and individuals in marketing to do.

Brian Erickson:
I agree with that. I definitely agree with that. So, awesome. Well, that’s some great advice, Michael. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. Very much appreciate it.

Michael Gale:
Well look, thank you. Reach out to me on LinkedIn. You’ll find me. This is a podcast on Forbes: Futures in Focus. I have to say, I noticed as we were doing this recording, Biden announced that the US wants to radically reduce its carbon emissions by 2030. I’m not sure why he chose the year 2030, and I should take credit because the podcast is called Futures in Focus, the World of 2030, but catch it on Forbes and get with me on LinkedIn. It’s been great to be here today. Thank you.

Brian Erickson:
Well, that’s great. I love real-time predictions and we’ll mark it down. We’ll put the timestamp out with this.

Michael Gale:
Oh, that’s funny.

Brian Erickson:
So, Michael, thank you again. This is Brian Erickson with Cardwell Beach. Thanks to everyone for listening and please make sure to check back for more senior marketers sharing their perspectives on what marketing will look like in a post-COVID-19 world.

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