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Jan 26 2023
Episode 29Vera Shafiq

How to Build a Digital Marketing Strategy That Lasts

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This recent era of uncertainty leaves little room for marketing that inadvertently steers away from maximizing lifetime customer value.

In this month's episode, Vera Shafiq, VP of Digital Strategy at Location 3, explores how and why advertisers must rethink some common but shortsighted marketing tactics that are curbing long-term success. Her conversation with host Noor Naseer touches on strategies for generating long term, scalable, and sustainable results for agencies and brands.

Episode Transcript:

Noor Naseer: Hey everyone, this is Noor Naseer, VP of Media Innovations and Technology at Basis and host of AdTech Unfiltered. I'm coming back with a new collection of episodes after a long hiatus, but we're ready to finish the year strong with incredible new guests. For this particular episode, we'll be speaking to Vera Shafiq. She's the VP of Digital Strategy at Digital Marketing Agency Location 3. Vera spoke to me about the fundamental concept of what digital strategy is, how to engage with clients about it, and a bunch of digital strategy topics that clients are thinking about a lot these days, including the cookie list future, first party data, CDPs and more. Let's get into this episode about digital strategy with Vera right now.

Vera, we're still in early days. How's the year been treating you so far?

Vera Shafiq: The year's been treating me really well. It's been very, very busy, a lot of kind of meeting with clients, and a lot of talk about the things that are coming down the pipe for marketing, which includes privacy issues, the deprecation of third party cookies. So, right now I'm super busy with that and really just laying out a plan for my team to make sure that we future proof our clients in preparation for that.

NN: Yeah, there's an endless supply of things to be preparing clients for and maybe we think that every year, but I feel like that's especially true this year. There's so many things we could talk about Vera, but for today's conversation I think we're going to hit on something in a more evergreen space. We're going to talk about digital strategy. I'll ask you a really simple question to start. What does digital media strategy mean to you?

VS: Digital strategy, first of all to me is, we break it down even further. It's literally a plan of action. And it was original strategy was originally a military term as to how do you win a war or battle? So, in marketing terms, I think it's having that clear plan of action. So, not only for selling a product or a service, but also driving that long-term growth for the business, and I think media strategy pertains to the ways that we are going to implement the strategy. Typically now we talk a lot about digital media, but there's also the traditional media items that we have to consider as well.

NN: What do you think is a misconception that clients have about digital media activation that really needs to be cleared up when it comes to understanding a larger strategic vision?

VS: I think a mistake that business leaders often make is looking at marketing as just a short term solution. Drive as many leads or sales as we can as quickly and as cheaply as we can. That can be dangerous. Problem with it is that it can be really expensive to go this route because you're really only going after the existing demand that's in the market. And that could be limited, that could be hard to find. So, I think by tackling marketing and media activation from a long-term, and I use that term all the time, it's a long-term perspective, using that full funnel strategy, you are simultaneously creating the demand in the market, but then you're also converting that demand into sales. So, you're kind of having this well-oiled machine. And so for me, the full funnel approach really is that long-term efficient way of driving business results and you're going to see much better ROI and ROAS doing it that way. And I think a lot of business leaders and marketing leaders kind of forget that and tend to focus on just like tomorrow.

NN: Absolutely. I think there's nobody who's going to listen to this podcast or frankly nobody who works in media buying, who feels like they aren't really reporting to a client who sometimes has tunnel vision or they're very focused on just immediate results, and somewhat it's understandable, but on the other end it puts maybe too much emphasis on immediate results now without realizing that the full funnel needs to be accounted for. So, with that in mind, how do you impress upon clients the importance of branding when there is so often this obsession with performance marketing and just evaluating ROAS on a weekly or daily basis?

VS: Yeah, so this I think goes hand in hand with that full-on approach. So, that's the age old dilemma for all marketers is, should I be doing branding or should I be doing direct response? And if you are looking for those long-term sustainable and scalable results for your brand, I think it has to be a mix of both. So, from an agency perspective, we see ourselves as our clients' partners and want to have those long-term successful relationships with them. The end of the day educating them and advising them as to how to strike that sweet spot or that perfect balance between branding and performance marketing is key.

NN: Along those lines, something you've mentioned a couple of times is having that longer term vision and a part of that is looking at each one of the audiences that you want to reach or whoever you perceive to be the consumer, the client, the target. And thinking about LTV or the lifetime value, how do you examine that LTV and how does examining weigh into digital strategy for clients that you're serving?

VS: Yeah, so lifetime value is essentially the dollar value that an average customer spends with your brand over the lifetime with your brand, and it's a super important metric. So, we look at metrics such as lifetime value, average order value, frequency of purchase, the average length of that customer relationship. We figure out the lifetime value and then we back into a meaningful metrics. If we know this value, we can actually understand what a good customer acquisition cost should be in order to be profitable. So, customer acquisition cost is the cost to acquire that customer, including your marketing expenses, not just your media budget. And then we can back into what an allowable CPA or CPL should be, and then set that media strategy accordingly. So, it really is important to look at that long-term view because for example, if you were servicing a gym business, one of our clients is a gym and their average monthly subscription fee could be 50 bucks, and then that customer relationship could be an average of two years. Like that client is going to stay with that gym for two years potentially. And during that two year relationship, that average customer could potentially spend maybe 500 bucks on some subsidiary services, personal training products at the gym. So, we take that on to count, we figure out the lifetime value of that customers, for example, 1,700 bucks. And obviously we want that customer acquisition cost to be below 1,700 bucks. We're allow for profit margins and all of that good stuff. So, that gives you an idea of how the business metrics are really important to developing media strategy. And we look at business metrics first and foremost before putting media plans in place.

NN: Obviously you are giving me this background on what it is that you're conveying to clients to make sure that they are on board locked up with you so that they're bought into knowing that you're putting together a media strategy and activation plan that is going to correlate with a reasonable acquisition cost. But there are a lot of clients that need to be reminded of that when they are doing those more regular looks at reporting, basically when they're looking at them with regularity. What kinds of reminders do you share with clients to just keep them on track as far as when they're looking for instantaneous results, when they're evaluating their campaign reports?

VS: Well, first of all, media campaigns such as paid search, paid social, programmatic, those types of things, when they're brand new, when we first activate them, they all need that warmup period before we can actually start seeing optimal results. So, that's often known as the learning phase and that's the time it takes for that ad platform to kind of really warm up, get that machine learning algorithm to understand what are the prospects that it should be looking for, who should it be serving ads to drive the desired results? So, that would be my first reminder is you got to give the algorithms time to work. Don't expect the day after we launch a campaign to start seeing optimal results. We typically like to see a campaign run for at least 90 days before we can see the optimal performance, and then of course that optimization phase, that's a never-ending part of marketing. Continuing to tweak the campaign settings, the creative, the messaging, the bidding strategy and continue to drive better results. So, the reminder is always that once we hit kind of an allowable or a CPL that we are happy with, we're constantly tweaking that, and when running that full funnel strategy, there's going to be a lag period before that demand gen, or the brand awareness tactics start to permeate. We want the top of funnel to have an effect on the lower funnel. So, it's really important to set the expectation before any media activation that it takes time for this machine to start to actually work. It's almost like a flywheel. The momentum starts to go but it takes a while before we actually start to get in the groove of things. And then with organic strategy such as SEO or content marketing, I like to use the metaphor of it's a marathon and not a sprint, and I always remind clients that you're not going to get instantaneous results with these types of tactics. Like SEO is an investment for long-term success and it can be months before we actually start to see tangible results. Search engines need to index your pages, they need to analyze signals, link equity, user engagement, all those things. So, at the end of the day, patience pays off. So, patience is a virtue in marketing, and all the legwork that you do, especially on the organic side is going to results further into the future. And then that all allows you to be a lot more efficient with your budgets.

NN: You mentioned optimization a little bit earlier in our conversation, Vera, so I wanted to ask you, how do you communicate an intentional shift in digital strategy in a way that's going to sit well with clients, especially if they are accustomed to some of the old ways in which they've previously seen programmatic activations take place?

VS: Yeah, that's a really great question especially now in the post pandemic era. And we know that media consumption trends and the way that people are shopping now has changed and that pandemic really drove those seismic shifts in the area. So, we've had to make intentional changes in the way that we do marketing and continue to do that based on seasonality, based on market trends that, and then on top of that, digital marketing tactics and technology itself are changing at such a fast pace that we'll often want to recommend that pivot, or that intentional shift in strategy, and so for some clients it can be difficult for them to accept these changes like we're only human, humans don't like change and that's just normal. So, it's a natural reaction to be resistant to change and nervous about the unknown, but it's really all about that communication, communicating and educating our client partners on the why behind the pivot, and not just the why, but what do we expect projected results to be as a result of that pivot, showing them case studies of how we've been successful with similar pivots or shifts with other clients, that's also a really powerful way to get that buy-in. So, before we even make the shift, they're already invested in the decision and they really trust that it's going to benefit them and their business as a whole.

NN: Can you share an example of how you've been able to activate a pivot or shift for one of your clients successfully?

VS: Yeah, so we have seen, as I mentioned, with the pandemic shifts in the way people consume media and over the pandemic, it turned out that not just young people but even the older generation were shifting to things like YouTube. Watching YouTube's become a huge trend that we would never have imagined it to be. But everything was kind of propelled into kind of movement because of the pandemic people were stuck at home, people started watching streaming video more. So, YouTube has been a shift that we have for several of our client partners actually, but specifically one who has an older target audience and typically have been used to targeting linear TV, cable TV as the medium of choice. We shifted their budgets into not a hundred percent digital, but we took quite a large amount of budget and shifted it into things like YouTube and CTV, connected TV, and it was a change for that client. They weren't used to having such a heavy budget in those mediums, but we were able to show them the data that justified that decision. And we have been able to reap the rewards because we're seeing the older generations really latching onto watching YouTube even on their large screen TVs, which is a huge trend right now. People aren't just getting on their phones and watching YouTube, they're watching it on smart TV as if it were a TV show. And these people are really receptive to advertising messages and are actually acting upon them on YouTube.

NN: I want to pivot into another question and such an important one, especially as we move into this cookie less future, which is about first party data activation. So, it's brought up often, but the reality is that when it comes down to executing an effective digital strategy or digital media strategy, there's work that goes into actually getting the right volume of first party data. So, I'm curious to ask you, as an agency leader, what does it look like as far as working between yourself and your clients that you serve to properly collect and leverage data in a way that's going to garner the best results from the digital media plans that you put together?

VS: Yeah, so one of the pieces of advice I always give my clients is that collection of data should be done selectively and it should be all about quality, not quantity. Because a lot of times we're collecting these hoards and hordes of data, really don't know what to do with it once we have it. A lot of it's just garbage, honestly, garbage in and garbage out. So, to be really selective about what we collect and by being selective, we are going to force ourselves to only collect data that's going to move the needle for our business. And it's also going to allow us to be more ethical in the use of our data. We are going to be respecting the consent and choices of our customers by only selecting and storing data that they're allowing us to store or giving us permission to store. And I think at the end of the day, going into 2022 and 23 kind of notion of clean data is going to be really important. Cleaner our data, meaning the more accurate our data that we are collecting, the better it's going to be for our marketing campaigns and strategy because we are now using real true accurate data rather than stale data, which is something that you know a lot of businesses do have on hand right now. So, I think the name of the game is going to be first party data absolutely has to be collected and it has to be a priority, it's a strategic imperative for any marketing leader and let's just make sure that we're doing it for the right reasons and storing the correct data.

NN: Vera, you just mentioned how it is imperative for clients and brands to be collecting clean data and that surely is a part of clients' digital strategy, but from a strategic leadership standpoint, how do you guide clients on the right path forward to collect data in a way that really is privacy centric or just respectful of privacy, especially as we are increasingly in a world where it's important for brands to be reflecting on that?

VS: It's a mutual value exchange. So, bear in mind that when we're collecting data about our customers or our prospects, we want to give them a reason to share PII with us, their email address, their phone number, whatever that happens to be. If we want that, we have to provide some kind of value and give them an incentive to provide that. For those prospects that don't want us to track them or don't want to collect their data, obviously we need to have measures in place to respect those wishes and so that's where CDPs and platforms like that come in, but I think the key then is going to be to start collecting that first party data but then continually refining and enriching that data by putting surveys out to your customers or prospects. Asking them questions, having them raise their hand and giving you freely and voluntarily information about themselves, not just PII, but about their preferences, about the ways they like to shop, about the ways they like brands to communicate with them. Getting that information from the prospect or customer by voluntary action is going to enrich our data and allow us then to do much better quality marketing going forward and we're going to be able to deliver those remarkable experiences, which at the end of the day is what the job of the marketer is to do. I would also say focusing on retention strategy is something that's going to be more and more important as we go into the cookie less world. We want to start focusing on spending our marketing budgets on keeping loyal customers. That's actually a more efficient way of marketing than trying to get new customers. So, I think it's going to be a fine balance between the two.

NN: Yeah, I think I don't hear that viewpoint often enough in terms of how important it is not just to collect the data but then to keep it clean and keep updating it. I love that touchpoint about making sure that you're having that continuous interaction after you've gotten the data. It's not good enough, more interaction is necessary. And I think of so many of these world class brands that have a lot of first party data, especially the ones that I just have a consumer facing relationship with and what are they doing? They're constantly interacting with me and getting me into a position where I feel comfortable sharing more information with them. So, I'm completely in alignment, seemingly a simple point but not so easy to actually achieve. I want to ask you a follow up question on the back of that, as far as the fact that we are moving into this cookie less future, it's inevitable it's coming up, even if it isn't coming up today. Sometimes I think there is this false sense of confidence that we still have cookies now, so we are not really looking forward to that future in which suddenly cookies will no longer be accessible. So, I'm curious for you as an agency leader, how do you bridge that gap between what we can still do now, which I imagine you still activate with third party cookies as most folks do at this moment in time and then getting clients to acknowledge that we're shifting into a future in which this current data source is no longer going to be accessible.

VS: Yeah, I think the first thing to bear in mind is it's already started the cookie less future has started Firefox and Safari already deprecated the third party cookies a few years ago. So, we've already started experiencing data loss and then Apple's iOS 14.5 update as we all know as marketers in in April of 2021, that's created a huge amount of data loss, especially on Facebook, but other platforms as well. And so if we haven't started thinking about this and taking some kind of action and at least testing some new strategies, we are going to be behind the curve. So, I think it's really important to say, okay, yes, we still have third party data now continue to use it, continue to leverage it, but you should now be dipping your toes into things that don't rely on third party cookies. Things like contextual targeting, things like machine learning and blended data. So, just recently Google announced that they are deprecating Google Universal Analytics for GA four, which is Google Analytics four. That's going to happen in 2023 July to be precise. So, while it seems an early long way off, the marketers need to be preparing for that too because GA four is going to be very privacy conscious, it's going to not rely on cookies and it's going to be a whole new way of really doing data analytics. And I think marketers need to jump into that now and really get used to those metrics and ways of measuring. So, we've already started looking at how do we replace things like behavioral targeting, affinity targeting in market targeting, things like that, even retargeting that are going to really be a lot harder to do if not impossible once 2023 and the death of the cookie happens, and so as I mentioned, looking at that old school method of contextual, which we've had available to us as marketers forever, but looking at how that can now be revived and really help us to drive better results. We are also looking at things like in-app lead gen. So, this would be collecting lead information within the app itself, Facebook, LinkedIn, whatever that happens to be, rather than driving people to the website because once you send people to your website, there is a chance you're going to lose them because tracking's going to go away, cookies will go away. So, finding innovative out of the box ideas of how we can retain that data and still be successful marketers.

NN: July 2023 does not feel far away to me, I'll tell you that much Vera. It feels like it's sneaking up real quick. And of course Google has moved the target in the past, so with a combination of what's happening with cookies and what's happening with GA, I feel like everything that's in the Adtech ecosystem is being impacted from targeting to attribution to measurement. And we don't need to necessarily backpedal into that earlier question as far as preparing clients for the change, but I think these are all going to be a significant test for agencies and for leaders to really convey and communicate clearly to their clients. I'll take it from there and ask you a little more about something you brought up or briefly mention earlier, which is CDP or CDPs. Can you tell me a little bit more about them as far as them being a part of a path forward where clients are looking to collect or segment more first party data?

VS: Yeah, absolutely. It's one of those three letter acronyms again that we love as marketers and it's something that I'm really excited about because I really do think it's going to allow us to use our first party data really effectively. So, what a CDP is essentially is a platform that ingests data from disparate data sources across your business, your website, your CRM, your point of sales system, your mobile app, your offline channels, and it puts that data in one platform and stitches the customer data together so that you have that golden record of the customer, you know that that holy grail that us marketers have been really looking for, and then allows the business to create these really powerful segments and then market to those segments in a really smart way and in real time. So, for example, at any given time, any prospect in your system may have changed an attribute about themselves, they may have already purchased your product, they may have signed up for an email. And the CDP is going to immediately know that okay, this customer, this is what they're doing, this is what their preferences are and this is how you should speak to them or market to them, this is what they're looking for. Are they looking for an offer, a discount? Are they looking for a message, talking to the quality of the product? And then you're able to really customize your messaging that way. So, I'm really excited about CDP and it is a conversation that we're having with several of our clients who really want to learn more and want to start onboarding this type of technology for their business.

NN: In some ways with the answer you just shared, it seems like you already answered the question that I am about to ask you, but I will still go ahead and ask it. Just to be crystal clear with a client, how do you let them know why a CDP is an important part of their future digital strategy?

VS: Yeah, so I guess the first thing would be is first party data important to you as a business? And really the answer should be yes at this point. If not, we would have a conversation as to why it should be, we're losing third party, first party is where it's at, and then really just getting into the nitty gritty with the client on what are your goals, right going into the future. Do you have disparate data sources, storing information about your customers? If you do, CDP is for you, do you have multiple marketing engagement channels? Typically the answer is yes. If that's the case, then CDP again is for you because we are going to be able to send those segments off to Google ads, to Facebook, to LinkedIn, to programmatic and really kind of harmonize your marketing or orchestrate it. And then a question that we often also ask our clients is, do you feel that your marketing could be more segmented? Could it be hyper segmented? Do you think that the messaging could be more personalized? Typically the answer is yes. So again, CDP will help with that, and then finally, privacy and compliance. How important is that to you and your business? And I think the answer again should be very important because as we know, privacy regulations are getting tighter and tighter and it's going to be an imperative to be able to understand the preferences of our customers and respect them, and CDP helps with that as well. It can really kind of tie all of that together. So, these are the reasons why we are recommending our clients invest in the customer data platform.

NN: Sometimes I think for anybody who's done digital media buying before, you're a person who reports to a client, sometimes there's a little bit of fear around sharing a new concept with a client because they might get really excited about it or you don't know if they're the best suited for it. And when I think about something like CDP, it's a pretty significant relationship and partnership to be for an organization or a brand to get invested in. So, I just want to ask you Vera, as a person who clearly is advocating for CDPs with the right types of clients, how do you identify which clients will be well-suited?

VS: Yeah, that's a really good question and pretty challenging, and I think the first thing we want to consider is that client sophisticated in their use of technology, like what does their metrics look like? Now some clients may not be ready for CDP, they may still be working on other things like getting their website experience up to scratch or optimized or maybe this CRM isn't really doing enough for them and they need to focus on that. So, I think jumping into a CDP isn't necessarily right for every client, but I think any client that has a relatively sophisticated tech stack, any client that has those disparate data sources, especially if they have things like a mobile app, they're brick and mortar and they have stores as well where customer data is being collected. Those kinds of clients who feel that they're not really understanding their customer from a 360 degree profile, those are the clients that we'll recommend would be a good fit for CDP.

NN: Why should clients be taking the possibility of building a CDP partnership seriously? And I know it seems like a silly question because of everything that we've mentioned earlier as far as the cookie less future, but I think still thinking about the fact that clients are vetting a lot of different types of solutions simultaneously, they might feel overwhelmed. How do you impart the importance of its consideration in the event that they meet that criteria that you just described a little earlier?

VS: Yeah, well I think the main reason is competition. If you got to keep up with the Joneses, if you don't think about this, don't invest in it, your competition will. And I think that's going to give them a real big edge on the success of their marketing and we don't want any of our clients to kind of fall behind the times. So, that would be one top reason for really taking it seriously. Right now there are hundreds of vendors out there that are offering CDP as a platform, that landscape is getting more and more consolidated and companies are buying each other out, and I think we're going to start seeing some kind of top dog CDPs kind of rise to the top of the cream of the crop. We're going to start figuring out, okay, well these are the players in the CDP space that we should be looking at, and at that point I think it's going to start becoming very commonplace for businesses to start purchasing this technology and leveraging it. So, I think that is the name of the game right now, but really at the end of the day it all boils down to first party data again. If you are making an effort, taking time, investing money in collecting first party data, then the CDP is the next level to leveraging that data. So, you don't want to waste your efforts and then try and manually figure out what you're going to do with it. I think that CDP is going to take you to the next level. So, I think it's an investment well worth making and those will be my two main reasons.

NN:  We still have a lot of the year ahead of us. What are you most excited about Vera, from a digital strategy standpoint as we continue to make headway into this new year?

VS: Yeah, I think you probably already know the answer to that based on a lot of the things I said. I think CDP is one of the things I'm really excited about, just diving into what is a relatively new channel for everyone or a new platform, understanding what the capabilities are and what the outcomes will be once we start to fully leverage these platforms. But I think to boil it down, what I'm most excited about is being able to do better marketing, smarter marketing, more ethical marketing that the consumers are excited to receive and be on the receiving end of. Marketers for a long time have had this reputation of being creepy or being insensitive and a lot of people have blocked ads and really kind of do not appreciate some of the ads that they're being served because they're irrelevant, et cetera. And I'm really excited about getting back to basics and doing marketing in a really organic, healthy way, respecting what our consumers want from us and personalizing it honestly. Because that's really the goal, is to be able to hit our prospects with messaging that really does kind of excite them. And kind of give them a delightful, remarkable experience, and these are things that we can now I think do even with the cookie disappearing because I think the third party cookie actually hindered us in a lot of ways. And I'm just excited to get rid of third party cookies, move on and start doing marketing in a more exciting and organic way.

NN: In some ways, the third party cookie made us lean back too much and put too much reliance on this tool. And then we also were suggesting that all of the benefits of this medium, the digital media opportunity is contingent upon what the cookie can deliver to you. And it was oftentimes sold into clients that way. So, I just love the passion with which you're approaching a world in which cookies don't exist and being an advocate for the utilization of new platforms and the evolution of the tech stacks. So, I'm excited to touch base with you again in the future, Vera, as Location 3 does new and interesting things in the digital media world.

VS: Absolutely. Yeah, me too. Definitely looking forward to keeping in touch with you Noor.

NN: Thanks again to Vera Shafiq, VP of digital strategy at Location 3. Something I took away from this conversation with Vera beyond her knowledge of the topics discussed was her capacity to paint a big picture. I think some of the art of selling in a strategy has been lost in an industry that is now dominated with slinging promises about optimizations taking effect in a day or so and other types of instantaneous yield. Some of the concepts we discussed today aren't turnkey and won't be easy for every brand or marketer to immediately accept, especially when they may need to be doing investment upfront and see results holistically after a waiting period. It seems like going back to the fundamentals of advertising is something we're going to be seeing a lot more of in the future. That's it for this episode. I'm Noor Naseer, more episodes of AdTech Unfiltered coming up real soon.

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