MODcast Episode 3 – Crafting a Narrative with Martech with Annalisa Church

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Welcome to the third episode of MODcast, from data-driven marketing agency MODintelechy. On this podcast, we sit down with thought-leaders and innovators across industries to learn how they got to where they are and what marketing strategies helped them along the way. We sit down with Senior Director of Marketing Technology at Akamai Technologies, Annalisa Church, on being a technology early adopter and the importance of messaging that resonates in the era of digital transformation.

Scott:

Welcome, Annalisa Church, to the third installment of the MODcast. Annalisa is the senior director of marketing technology at Akamai, and we go back, as you reminded me, about 10 years. Over her career, Annalisa’s developed and implemented high-level marketing programs and campaigns for leading corporations, such as small companies like Dell, IBM… That was sarcasm. She’s been recognized for her ability to tackle challenges head-on, execute sound decisions, and… I can vouch for this one… take full ownership for results. Annalisa has deep proficiency with a broad range of traditional and digital working methodologies… very important, especially these days… applied across the full spectrum of customer touchpoints. Most recently, her expertise is focused on the areas of nurture campaigns and complex behavioral marketing programs, and we can talk a little bit about that. Welcome to the show.

Annalisa:

Thanks. It’s great to be here. This is fulfilling one of my dreams to be on a podcast.

Scott:

You know? Hey, it’s good. Right? I know I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve actually, even though we go way back, I’ve learned a lot in the process. I don’t know what it is about this format versus casual conversations, where more stuff just comes up. Anyhow, just jumping in. We’ve had the pleasure of working together at Dell and now at another technology company, Akamai. So, you started in marcomm and sales support back in the day, and now firmly a thought leader in market technology and global marketing. Do you mind talking a little bit about that journey and how that’s different, either from a mindset perspective or really just any perspective? Because that’s a pretty big term.

Annalisa:

I know. I think it’s thematic for marketing, too, a little bit, though, or the evolution of marketing over the years. Is it kind of embarrassing that when we started… because you think about, I don’t know, even 15 years ago, you definitely had a good connection with a mail house and you were thinking about, like, NCLA and you had an ESP. You had an email service provider that sent emails on your behalf, and then over time, you brought email in-house and you had a whole challenge around, how do you get leads really fast to sales, and how do you transform digitally? And so I think for many marketers, it’s actually kind of a natural transition to become more technologically focused, that it’s a technical function now. And I think it’s a little bit like evolution versus revolution. I don’t think it was really like, I woke up one day and I was like, “I’m going to be great at marketing technology.” I think it’s, you got a few tools in your tool belt, direct response goes down, digital goes up, and that kind of changes the landscape of what you have to know as a marketer. It’s been a fun evolution.

Scott:

Yeah. I mean, so, you’re talking about mail houses and ESPs, which, by the way, a lot of people are still using both. Right? Although-

Annalisa:

Sure, and not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s totally fine.

Scott:

Right. No, no. Well, and I think direct mails will make a comeback at some point, right? ESPs, maybe not, but that’s a whole ‘nother show. So, from the marcomm… Because I’ve seen this, right? I’ve seen marketers who come from marcomm, they start to go to digital, and more on the technology side, but I don’t think they make the turn a lot. Right? And by that I mean, there’s maybe just a different mindset or hesitancy around technology. Right? So, folks maybe can talk to it, but don’t get excited about it. And I know you. I know you get excited about it. Was there a moment where that clicked, or has that just always been there?

Annalisa:

I think it clicked right around the time that at Dell, we first bought a marketing automation platform. We bought Eloqua, and honestly, I think we kind of bought it and we didn’t maybe know exactly what we were going to do with it and spent a lot of discovery around that, and we were really… Prior to marketing automation, I just really thought of email as just something you push out. You just push it out and you hope for the best. You hope that people go to the website and that they buy a laptop or they buy a server.

Annalisa:

With automation, you’re kind of trained like, oh, every action has an equal reaction. And so if you start to think about, well, how do you want your customer prospect to respond? And then when they do or when they don’t, it becomes a tree, and so the technology really enables that thought process. I think I always have been excited about it because the praying for results is a little bit harder than understanding how the technology works and understanding what you can get from the technology, if you’re willing to set it up correctly and spend the time. I think I will say, at home, I’m also the chief technology officer here. So, I fix printers and I’ve always liked technology, so I think that’s also part of it. I’m an early adopter of technology. My husband is usually kicking his feet and screaming about a change. We just went to fiber from cable modem and my husband was very worried that he was not going to have the same internet experience.

Scott:

Right. Well, no, that’s interesting. I mean, I would say then, yeah, that’s almost in the background, right? Because I was my parents’ IT person. I started out in IT. It was a little bit too backroom for me, which is why I went to where I went, right? Marketing and marketing technology. You get a little bit of best of both worlds, at least from my perspective. Right?

Annalisa:

I agree with that. I typically am not your marketing person who wants to look at something and be like, “Oh, this is so great. It really resonates.” I want to know how it works, what we’re going to see from it. I want to see it work. I want to see the data.

Scott:

Right, right. And a little bit of skepticism, which now I’m a chief skeptic. Well, I always have been, but…

Annalisa:

For sure with marketing technology, maybe any technology, I’ve definitely learned, everybody’s demo is kickass, and then you get the tool and you’re like, “Oh my God, this is a lot of work.”

Scott:

Yes. So, on that front, right, you try a lot of emerging technology. What are some of the things that you’ve learned as you were breaking that glass in an organization?

Annalisa:

So, yeah. I think there’s a tendency sometimes to think you need to one-up the technology that you have. I don’t want to spend any time doing that. I definitely want to think about how you broaden the stack, and broaden it in service of what your goals are. So, I think every once in a while, there’s some new technology that comes out. Maybe it was ABM, a couple years ago, where people kind of mixed up ABM as a technology versus a thought process, and I remember looking at the ABM tools and going, “Well, I mean, I think they were just giving you extra data about your customers. I don’t think we needed a technology platform labeled ABM.” But in contrast, I think in marketing, we have this huge problem of, we have lots of data. There are stats out there, like 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years, and it’s all over the place in marketing, and so any tools that are data aggregators and orchestrators that help us process a lot of data quickly and then figure out what the next best action is for our customer, I think those are technologies that are totally worth investing in if you’re in marketing. So, it kind of depends on what you define as emerging and where you think the business need is.

Scott:

So, yeah. I mean, that’s a good segue to… and this is always-

Annalisa:

Your favorite thing to say. “It’s a good segue.”

Scott:

Right. Well, it allows me to skip topics, right? Rather than just skipping topics, I’m like, “I’m going to skip a topic.” Completely over here. So, you talked about ABM. Talk about data aggregation, like customer data platforms, CDPs, right? These are all three-letter acronyms. CRM. How do you get the wheat from the chaff? How do you separate that? Right? Because like you said, right, ABM, account based marketing, that’s like B2B marketing. You market to an enterprise or an account, not just an individual. Right? And software vendors are coming out and attaching to ABM, ABM, and it’s valid on some level and there are some tools, but to me, it’s overplaying an old concept. How do you separate that? Right? What is your method, if you will, to really… that like, “Is this worthwhile or is this just more noise?”

Annalisa:

This is one where I’m like, “Ah, I feel like being around a while is helpful.” I think if you’ve been doing this for 10, 15 years plus, you’ve seen the evolution of different platforms collapse or adjust over time, and I just feel like when I heard about ABM, I’m like, “Oh, isn’t just like account planning? Shouldn’t we just be doing that? Maybe that’s a problem that we’re just not doing it.” So, I couldn’t figure out why you would need a special ABM platform. Maybe you need special data. Maybe you need special things about your account set that tells you that there’s a group buying decision and you need different identifiers for those people in that group buying decision. But shoot, that just sounds like really good account planning to me, so I don’t know what the platform would do for you.

Annalisa:

And then other things like adtech, the adtech space is a really good one, too, in that for a while, everyone was really excited about adtech, and people probably still are, and it’s great, but it’s probably not going to replace some of the known activities that you do. It would never supplement a lot of your direct response that you might do through email or through some of your SDR outreach. So, it was really a matter of, well, how much do you invest in that versus how much are you going to use it for your integrated portfolio?

Scott:

So, do you… and for the kids out there… well, I shouldn’t say that, right? Is there any hack to just having more experience, right? Or how do you get that faster, right?

Annalisa:

Well, I think the way I got it faster over time is you do have… I would think of it like a board of directors, people that you can go and bounce ideas off of and ask a lot. So, I definitely don’t have all of this knowledge natively. I mean, you know, Scott, I’ve used you for the past 10 years and been like, “Hey, we’re looking at this. What do you think? What’s your opinion?” And so I think there’s a lot of value to building out a network of people that kind of know, and they can be vendors, like software vendors, I have great relations… There’s some that I have great relationships. There are consulting partners that you’ve worked with. There are people at other companies. In general, I keep in touch with a lot of folks at Dell because it’s so confirmational every once in a while to cry or laugh about your technology state.

Scott:

Right. So, I mean, you talked about software vendors. Who do you think is doing it right right now, and maybe who’s doing it wrong?

Annalisa:

Well, I mean, I don’t know if I want to call out names, but I would say, of categories, I see categories of growth versus categories of retraction. So, I think categories of growth are people that are super interested in data and analytics. And I guess I’m… I hate to use the word artificial intelligence, but things that are really about making your data work for you and heavy data investment. I am more skeptical of some of your more tried and true technologies that have been around for a while. So, I feel like that’s matured and there’s only so much more investment and time you should put into them, other than maintaining. And so, I think your CRMs and your marketing automation platforms are your workhorses, but we might be at the point where we’re steady state with them. And I definitely wouldn’t recommend, in most instances, a rip and replace of either one of those. If you have something that you’re happy with, just stay with it.

Scott:

Yeah. I’m getting it less and less. It’s funny you say that, “We’re really not happy with this platform,” and I go, “Well, it’s the proverbial devil you know,” right? I’m like, “Well, you can trade out for this one. Here’s the pluses and minuses, but is it worth the business disruption,” right? Because that’s always my question. Right? And I’m like, “That’s not a normal consultant thing to say,” right? But-

Annalisa:

No, definitely a loss of revenue for you, but yes, that’s right. There’s only so much that you get out of a flip out of technology to technology. I think for us, the goal is definitely, how do we broaden and make better in new ways?

Annalisa:

Oh, digital events. I don’t know if people are talking about digital event platforms, but I feel like it’s kind of tone deaf if we don’t talk about the fact that there’s no more in-person events, if you’re a B2B company, right now, and I think it’s been so interesting to look at digital event providers in that it’s clearly a stepchild to what in-person events have been, and I do wonder if we’re going to start to see different, cooler things than what we have now, from a digital event perspective. Like, how cool can you make them? And I hear of some companies that are just making it on that have their own platforms for digital events, and then you could be like us, who are trying to figure out what your event stack is, and it’s kind of tough because the vendors are busy. And I don’t think that digital events have ever had to take off like they are having to take off now.

Scott:

Right. Well, as an aside, I may have something to kick the tires on.

Annalisa:

Oh, that’s good. I’m actually looking for something to kick the tires on.

Scott:

Yeah. Yeah. I haven’t vetted it, but it’s actually a friend of mine’s event marketing firm, and basically he developed it because, well, there’s no live events, as we know. Yeah. No, that’s interesting. Right? I mean, I think you’re going to see a lot of new technology and a lot of consolidation. We’re recommending for startups, not enterprises, right? Like, going with, like, HubSpot, right? Because you get a lot of stuff in one suite, and going away from… And again, Salesforce is great from a CRM perspective, but if you’re not a large company that doesn’t have the resources to do all the customization and the work flow and everything else, we’re recommending against it, not because it’s bad, right? But just, you’re going to spend a lot of time and money, and again, that’s like the anti-consultant. Right?

Annalisa:

Yeah. Yeah. One of Salesforce’s blessings is also sometimes its curse in that it’s an amazing blank slate, and at times that is a blessing, and other times, that could be a curse, especially if you’re starting out.

Scott:

I struggle with this, so maybe I get a tip from you. How do you… Because we run into this. How do you convey that a new technology is not just a technology, it’s process change, it’s change management, it’s changing how you market, potentially? And a lot of times I think people, rightly or wrongly, “Oh, the tool’s going to automagically do my job for me,” right? For lack of a better term.

Annalisa:

Yeah. If you’re the anti-consultant, I’m the anti-marketing technology person. Usually someone will come to me and say, “I worked with this technology at my last company and I feel like we should have it here,” or you go to some conference and there’s some amazing demo. I think… And I will say, any technology is totally worthwhile for your business needs as long as you’re willing to put the time and effort and resource towards it. So, it’s rare that you can just have a technology and you just install it and it’s nirvana. Actually, I’ve never had that happen that I can think of.

Annalisa:

So, this maybe is something that you mature into as a technology person, as you start out with just being very excited about all of the possibilities with technology and the more technology rollouts that you have, the more the light bulb goes off that, “Oh, gosh, we’re going to ask people to work a completely different way, so maybe we should start talking to them about that before we roll out the technology, and maybe we should really envision, is it going to make people’s lives awful or is it going to make them better, and what are the puts and takes of that?” I have learned that change management does not happen like a launch plan. Change management is a perpetual activity that you are doing with people, and you have moments where you walk through the Valley of Death and moments where you are on the clouds with it.

Scott:

Yeah. No, that’s very wise. Right? And that’s why I say, because… And maybe it is experience, right? I always beat that drum. And I feel like I’m the old guy that walk in and I can hear the eyes roll. Right? I have a stock slide that is like, “Martech is people, process, and technology.” That’s just my lead slide, right? And I just say, “Hey, I’m just going to get this out of the way,” right? This is a technology thing, but it’s really people and process. It doesn’t have to be, but if you want to be successful, it should be, right? So, all right. Well, let’s move on to, maybe, the travel side of business. So, we sort of backed into a theme of adventures and marketing on the podcast. So, give me a cool story where your marketing career has taken you, maybe somewhere unexpected. It could be travel, maybe a different thing.

Annalisa:

Yeah. I love to travel, and I’ve been very fortunate in my business career that I have been able to travel a lot. It’s kind of hard to imagine that now, as I’ve been home for, like, 20 weeks, but it’s definitely taken me across the globe, and I’ve been in places like Australia and India and Panama, France, Montpelier, France. Beautiful places. Japan and Singapore. I think what I didn’t expect is having to go to Japan, and we had to go to Japan because if you’re a global marketer, you can relate to the way that the Japan marketing team always is a little bit different than the way that the rest of the field marketing teams may want to operate, and so there’s a lot of cultural nuance there that I think changes technology requirements.

Annalisa:

And in this instance, there was basically a huge mistake that occurred in which a Japanese email was sent out with a Chinese headline. That’s basically borderline war, and so the Japanese team was so upset. Went all the way up to top leadership, and we essentially decided to go out there. I went out there to really formally apologize and to build relationships. And speaking of adventures and marketing, first of all, if you ever have the chance to go to Japan and Tokyo, I had no idea I was going to fall in love with it as much as I did. I love it. I want to go back on vacation in Japan, because it’s a super amazing place. And the food… Talk about a country of perfectionists. Beautiful food, pristine streets, just beautiful. But I have read a lot of books, and I happened to be reading about pachinko, which is about Koreans in Japan and these gambling houses, pachinko parlors.

Annalisa:

So, I happened to very politely mention, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to see a pachinko parlor.” Not really. Like, for six months, I’d wanted to see one, since I read this book, but… And Japanese hospitality culture, they made that happen. So, I walk into the office at 9:00 in the morning and they’re like, “Oh, we’ve got a little cultural tour we want to take you on,” and they rushed me straight over to the pachinko parlor. Pachinko is not straightforward, I learned, and it’s actually probably not my game, but I got to see the pachinko parlor in Japan. So, it was a huge adventure.

Annalisa:

The other great part about going to Japan, if you have a Japanese team that you work with, is it’s a relationship culture, and so you build a lot of inroads by spending time with the people. For you, if you’re an American based in an American company, you really learn that it’s kind of isolating to be an American company’s Japan offshoot, in that it’s a 12-hour difference. And for us, at Akamai, English isn’t necessarily required in the Japanese office, and so I think at times, probably it’s a little bit baffling about how the people in the global office want to communicate with the people in the local Japan office. So, it’s a super interesting adventure. An amazing adventure, really. So, that’s my adventure in marketing.

Scott:

Very cool. Yeah. I mean, I’ve shared, I’ve been to a lot of places, but Japan’s top of my list.

Annalisa:

Yeah. Japan is so cool. It’s one of the coolest places I’ve been.

Scott:

I’d love to go to the Olympics next year, assuming that whole thing happens, but…

Annalisa:

Oh, yeah. Yeah. It’ll be hot. I was surprised at how hot it was in the summer. And also, you won’t be able to buy anything there. I’m too big to fit into clothes there. So, don’t plan to get any beautiful high-end goods in Japan.

Scott:

Nice. All right. That’s a good one. So, we talked a little bit about this. I don’t want to sound like a viral TikTok challenge, but I do. What would you say to your younger self if you go back 10 years? And maybe talk about a TikTok you like, too. Second question.

Annalisa:

I know, right? Wouldn’t it be great if I could just whip out a TikTok right here? Like, something… I can’t.

Scott:

I don’t even have TikTok on my phone, to be fair. So, I’m a bad marketer.

Annalisa:

I had a concept during quarantine that every night our family would learn a TikTok dance. It just failed miserably. You can’t do it with a three-year-old and an 11-year-old and a husband who’s like, “What? What is this technology?”

Annalisa:

What would I tell my 10 year younger self? I think I definitely would tell myself that you catch more flies with honey versus vinegar. So, there has definitely been some softening over the years, and that always being vinegary doesn’t necessarily get you everything you want. You can go with it in places fast. It doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to go along with you, which I think is another lesson I’ve learned, is, I want to move fast. I want to make progress. I like big results. Sometimes it takes others a little bit longer to get there, and I think this kind of ties in with the change management plan for how much time that you have to spend with others to get them to see your vision or to understand how you can go together. And I think the third part is, because technology is so complex and the people process part is complex, you better learn to tell really good stories. You can’t just tell people, “You need the technology just because it’s good.” There’s a whole story and a whole vision that you need to build around the investment.

Scott:

And that’s an interesting topic, right? Because that’s a marketing core competency, right? Yeah. I mean, do you mind talking about that a little bit? What have you learned in building that story? What’s worked? What hasn’t worked? I’m guessing for your tactics, “If you don’t, you’re not going to keep your job,” is probably a bad one.

Annalisa:

Yeah. That’ll only get you so far, especially when you’re talking to your boss. Yeah. So, everyone on my team right now probably kind of hates me for this, but I make everyone on my teams become ultra-efficient and proficient at storytelling. It’s actually, I think, a lost art. And early on in my career, someone took me aside and spent a lot of time with me on building out stories, and what I’ve learned about storytelling is that people learn better with anecdotes versus facts and figures. So, you always try and sprinkle in things that really resonate with your audience, which I feel like as marketers, we should be really good at, right? But how do you make a story really relatable, and how do you make it something that people will remember when they walk away? So, will they remember that you can send out a million emails in a month? Maybe, maybe not. But will they remember the time that they received an email and it really was close to what they were looking for on Zappos, and wasn’t it kind of interesting how Zappos reminded them that their shoes were in the cart, or something like that. It tends to resonate a little bit more. So, I feel like we should all strive for that.

Scott:

Yeah, no. I mean, like you said, right, there’s the pendulum. Traditional marketing, I would say it was really good storytellers, right? Like admin stuff, right? Not so much on the data, Silicon Valley, very data, data, data. So, how do you knit the two together? Which, I think it’s ongoing. I mean, that’s what we always go for, but sometimes we’re probably a little guardrail to guardrail, too, right? Play a little bit too much on the data side and then like, “Oh, yeah. We’ve got to have a resonant message,” right? Or a story that people actually care about and understand. Right?

Annalisa:

Right. How do you weave this data into a story? I do listen to podcasts a lot, and news podcasts and science podcasts, for parallels about what we do in marketing, because sometimes I think if you have a parallel that has nothing to do with marketing, it resonates, especially with your non-marketers, and then where I am today, at Akamai, it’s so science-based and engineering-based that a lot of times that sort of anecdote really makes a light bulb go on.

Scott:

And do you find that even works with data-driven people like that, more so? It just doesn’t matter, right?

Annalisa:

I think so. Yeah. I think you should always have, in your storytelling, true… I think of it like, “So what? Who cares?” So, tell the story, but so what, who cares? What are the data? What’s the bottom-line impact that you’ll see?

Scott:

Right. Well, and that’s probably rarer, what you just said, than… Again, I won’t name names. Right? But we work with a lot of folks where it’s all over the board, but sometimes, I would say, it errs more towards storytelling, still. We work with some data-driven clients, but I think there’s still… That’s why I said, you’ve made the transition and played in both worlds. I think a lot of folks have not fully embraced the data side, at least that we have worked with. Right? I think they’re getting there and they’re somewhere on the journey. All right. Well, is there anything you want to get off your chest? I know we talked about ABM. You and I have ranted about that before. Annoying industry trend?

Annalisa:

This is where I’m like, “Oh, you’re going to have to cut this out, Scott, because I’ve got no advice for people.” I feel like the whole thing’s good advice.

Scott:

Yeah. I just want to make sure… We’re good. I mean, we can call it a wrap.

Annalisa:

No, I have no advice. No more sage advice. So, keep on keeping on. This too shall pass, my friends. We will all get through this.

Scott:

Right. There we go. Annalisa, thank you so much. Awesome.

Annalisa:

Yeah. Oh my God. Thanks for doing this. This is so much fun. I’m like, “We should do a podcast every week.” It’s so fun, Scott.

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