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CMO interview: How Hootsuite's global marketing chief holds her strategic seat at the executive table

Global CMO of social media management vendor also talks about the rise of social as a business-wide capability, and what owning customer experience really looks like

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Marketing leaders who can think strategically about growth, digital and bring the customer voice to the executive table are the ones being allowed to colour outside their box, Hootsuite’s global CMO, Penny Wilson, believes.

“Sometimes you have a CEO that embraces that; sometimes you’re not allowed to colour outside your box,” she tells CMO.  

“You need a CEO who is respectful of the strategic input a marketer can give. It’s that shift from old-school marketer to more of a CX-oriented marketer. Today’s CEOs can also see how disruptive it is if you don’t have that digital side of the equation.

“Being able to help the CEO get the insights from customers and leverage that through the entire executive organisation is super important. It’s not just an NPS score, it’s that whole journey. Marketers that sit at the strategy table – and certainly more and more are doing this – are less likely to be seen just as communications or the people producing brochures.”  

Wilson became the first CMO of social media management vendor, Hootsuite, two years ago. She not only oversees marketing, but also the digital and customer support functions.

One of an increasing number of CMOs globally who didn’t actually start out in marketing, digital is nonetheless in Wilson’s make-up. Having completed a computer science degree, she spent the first 10 years of her career in IT, working on Wall Street for Merrill Lynch.

From there, Wilson worked for failing computer graphics startup, Alias Research, covering operations, customer support and marketing before rising to president. She then joined Macromedia, another struggling, publicly listed company making the leap from CD-ROM technology to the Internet age. Macromedia was acquired by Adobe for US$3.4bn in 2006. A year off was followed by a CMO role at Juniper Networks, then launching a small business focused on brain fitness, before Wilson met Hootsuite founder and CEO, Ryan Holmes.

“I recognised how social was no longer a marketing tool, but a panacea of having a one-on-one conversation with your customer,” she says. “I came in to try and help the company scale things to the next level.”  

Achievements since joining in October 2015 include building out an inside sales as well as partner organisation, and working with the executive team to focus on ways Hootsuite can grow the business.

“Having that wider end-to-end remit has certainly been helpful. We are a smaller company so it’s not like I’m trying to navigate a $4 billion ship, like Juniper. But I do find that because we can have this one-on-one conversation with customers, they’re now expecting it,” Wilson comments.  

“Customers don’t see multiple departments, they see one company. The more you can appear as one company, the better off you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re Nike, or any CPG firm, customers don’t want to know support is a different organisation to product or sales. As long as the CEO is open to it, and sees the opportunity and as a competitive differentiator, then I think CMOs are in a position to offer that more strategic relationship in the business.”  

Social shake-up

What social has done is increased the level of expectation of immediacy, Wilson continues.

“It’s not just a millennial thing either; now we’re all digital and mobile, we all have that same expectation,” she says.  

As it’s matured, social has also become less about marketing and more a broader capability of business.

“Social started as a communications tool primarily, and people used it for brand awareness or protection. Then it started being integrated into campaigns,” Wilson says. “Now that social selling and service has become more prevalent, the expertise that sits in marketing needs to educate the rest of the organisation about social’s capability.”

Wilson points out each company function and employee will have different comfort levels with social, all the way up to the CEO.

“It’s upon us as marketers to make sure we are educating people to do the best job they can for the job they do,” she says. “It’s not about everyone becoming social media manager, but ensuring everyone is comfortable using social, whatever function they have.”

The ability for the whole organisation to glean insights through social, no matter who is talking to that customer, is the other key. To ensure this at Hootsuite, Wilson’s team spends a lot of time listening to customers.

“Marketers used to plan the big campaign and send it out there and if it worked, great, and if it didn’t, oh dear,” she says. “Today it’s all about test and learn, listen and learn. Customers are in the driver’s seat.”

An example of a brand doing this well for Wilson is Hootsuite customer, AccorHotels. As part of efforts to build a more holistic relationship with customers before, during and after their visit, the hotel chain had built a strong centralised communications capability in social media management. The problem was, one team was managing 4000 hotels across 92 countries.  

“The team realised that social is a place where people talk about travel all the time – where and when they want to go, and what they liked when they went somewhere – and it was a natural thing for them to embrace social,” Wilson says. “But they also needed to build an authentic relationship, particularly with millennials. You couldn’t have a central team telling them what to do in Bulgaria, they needed to be local and authentic.”

In response, Accor launched its own Social Desk, a platform with media tools, training, education and content that allows local staff to engage with the community in real time, providing local information and addressing complaints and queries. The platform has seen AccorHotel’s follower base double to 10 million worldwide.

It’s a platform that requires brands to empower staff. One of the stumbling blocks Wilson sees is too many are still fearful of making a mistake through social.

“It’s not about the mistake, it’s about how you handle the mistake,” she claims. “If you make one and need to apologise, then apologise. It’s all part of being authentic, relevant and transparent. And that’s the kind of relationship people want to have with you as a brand.

“The reason United got raked over the coals is not because they made a mistake, it’s how they reacted.  That’s part of the education that needs to happen around social… I also think employees will stay with you if you empower them.”

Personalising the experience

What social also provides is an “abundance of the unvarnished truth at scale”, Wilson says. The important thing is bringing a level of understanding to the data to derive insight. It’s something Hootsuite is now striving to do as a technology provider.

“We spend a lot of time with our listening tools to achieve that. It’s also about the connective tissue between applications,” she says. “At Hootsuite, we don’t try to be everything to everyone. We have a very big ecosystem and we’ll allow companies to plug into whatever DRM system or customer support system they have. Ours can be that customer integration interface.”

Personalisation, meanwhile, has seen Wilson and her team build out personas, and appoint a VP of customer experience.

“We also make sure things are relevant and it is content that is digestible,” she says. “People are being inundated with content, so we’re working to target to exactly what someone is looking for. We spend a lot of time optimising our website, search engine and the product, and providing in-product education.”

Through all of this, it’s vital marketing is positioned as a business growth engine.

“My conversion guys work side by side with the product team. We have about 10 seconds to engage someone. You’ve got to make sure you set it up right,” she says.  

To ensure its own platform meets this need for hard metrics, Hootsuite acquired social ROI and analytics company, LiftMetrix, in February.

“I think marketers overall are being pushed to drive metrics for whatever their spend,” Wilson says. “The biggest conversation I typically have is not with the CEO here, it’s the CFO. They are the numbers people and as marketers, we have the biggest discretionary budget. If there is ever any belt tightening to be done, they’ll swoop in on the marketing side. So measuring the return on social is going to be a really important element coming into 2018.”  

You also need to know your goals as a CMO, Wilson says. “If your goal is customer relationships and awareness, that’s one thing; but you might just want everything to drive my ecommerce engine or lead engine. Or it could be you want it all to drive your product,” she says.

“You have to be super clear about what are the important metrics you’re trying to drive.”  

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