Jake Sorofman

A member of the Gartner Blog Network

Jake Sorofman
Research Director
1 years at Gartner
16 years IT industry

A former CMO, Jake Sorofman analyzes digital marketing strategy, trends and practices, with an emphasis on mobile, social and content marketing. ...Read Full Bio

How Does Your Brand’s Story Compare to the Next Best Alternative?

by Jake Sorofman  |  July 30, 2014  |  2 Comments

The best marketing has always been about telling great stories—stories that engage audiences on an emotional level. The mad men of Madison Avenue have known this since the dawn of time (or Times Square, anyway, whose modern incarnation roughly coincides with the rise of mainstream marketing. But that’s another story itself).

Today we’re all part of a tribe of storytellers. Or aspiring storytellers. Marketers tell stories because they recognize their audiences are fragmented, signals are scrambled, attention is scarce and we only earn engagement when what we have to say substantially exceeds the value and relevance of the next best alternative.

Stories are what help us turn a brand promise, into a point of view, into a narrative that soars.

In theory, at least.

Consider the possibility that that your audiences’ next best alternative is perhaps more inherently valuable and relevant than your particular brand of fabric softener. Consider, for a moment, the possibility that your audience is already fully saturated with stories competing for attention.

Their cups runneth over, cognitively speaking.

They are, in a word, oversubscribed, as they say on Wall Street.

You get the point.

Consider these possibilities and you’ll understand the challenge of brand storytelling.

It’s a topic that my colleague Richard Fouts and I will take on with “Digital Storytelling and Content Marketing,” a free public webinar we’re hosting on Wednesday, August 13th and 10am and 1pm ET.  

Richard, as you may already know, is equally passionate about brand storytelling. He’s published some of Gartner’s best research on the architectures of effective brand stories (see “How to Tell Memorable Marketing Stories” [Gartner subscription required]) and he’s a prolific blogger and presenter on the topic.

Together, we’ll discuss both the art and the science of what makes brand stories come alive—and how to source, package, amplify and optimize these stories at scale with modern content marketing techniques.

It should be a great discussion. You can register here. While we can’t promise to make your fabric softener more interesting than Aunt Sally’s cat, we’ll show you what it takes to turn ho-hum into human and how to turn your brand storytelling efforts into an economically scalable content marketing machine.

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Category: digital marketing     Tags: ,

Analytical Marketers Discern Patterns; Visionary Marketers Create Them

by Jake Sorofman  |  July 24, 2014  |  4 Comments

The fact that human beings are uncomfortable with ambiguity shouldn’t come as any great surprise. We are, as a species, wired to seek order where it doesn’t exist—to turn vast expanses of cognitive clutter into orderly arrangements that tell coherent stories that we can readily comprehend and assimilate into our understanding of the world.

This is, in a sense, how we’re able to sleep at night.

More often than not, the technique we use to do this involves patterns, which are the recognizable forms that emerge from the messiness of scattered information. Patterns are what I like to call the big animal shapes (fellow parents will understand) that become the simple operating instructions for navigating the uneven terrain of ambiguity.

In software engineering, patterns are used to inform and enforce best practices, the design templates that provide general guidelines for good architecture and programming.

Patterns are also evident in marketing, most notably within data-driven techniques where we peer into the past (and future), using analytics to shine like into dark corners to illuminate the way forward.

But this is largely a rearview mirror view of patterns. Patterns are also something marketers can dictate and influence, not just discern. Patterns can be created a priori to influence desired behaviors and outcomes. Think of it this way:

  • Patterns are how we tell stories, weaving shreds of information into the coherent building blocks of our narratives. Patterns manifest as the sequential arrangements in our argumentation, the logical architecture supporting the arc of our storylines.
  • Patterns are how we drive action, manifesting as the ordered lists that propose what to do first, next and last. In the face of abundant choice or in early markets without proven and well understood patterns or precedents, customers often default to what’s simple and prescriptive.
  • They also default to what’s popular. Another pattern that influences behavior is social or collaborative filtering, where ratings, reviews and personalized suggestions help cut through the clutter of choice. Cognitive psychologists have long known that, like it or not, people tend to follow the herd, aligning to the mean. Here, the mean is made visible as proposed operating instructions.

Patterns are how we tell stories. They’re how we drive audiences to take action. They’re how we mobilize movements. Patterns are how we lend a much appreciated shred of order and simplicity to a complex world.

Analytical marketers may ask: What patterns can I discern from the past? But visionary marketers ask a different question: What patterns can I create to influence the future?

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Category: digital marketing     Tags: ,

Digital Commerce is No Field of Dreams

by Jake Sorofman  |  July 15, 2014  |  1 Comment

In the movie “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner is famously egged on by a voice that tells him, if he builds it, they will come. He takes the voice at its word and, as promised, a ballgame ensues.

He built it. They came. If only everything were so simple!

It turns out that hanging a shingle is rarely enough to stimulate such demand. Marketers know this all too well. But many digital commerce leaders are more like Kevin Costner walking through that cornfield.

I’ve had conversations with digital commerce leaders who live in the isolated world of merchandising and site operations with only the faintest notion of what happens upstream. They run their commerce operations based on an article of faith that, if they build it, their customers will surely come.

They will, right?

Well, not quite. Not long ago, I spoke with a commerce leader who admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that, in her company, there was a yawning, Grand Canyon-sized gap between digital marketing and digital commerce. Here, when storefront performance wanes, the remedy isn’t what you might expect. Crank up the marketing spend? Run a promotion? Experiment with some new segments? Wheel out a campaign? Nope. Here, their solution is more like rearranging the deck chairs while the ship lists in the moonlight.

But that’s another movie entirely. The point I’m trying to make is that these commerce leaders are coming to realize is that such romantic field of dreams notions are only useful for impossibly earnest movies starring impossibly earnest actors like Kevin Costner. In the real world, where the rest of us live, this sort of thinking goes by a different word entirely.

Here, we face the harsher realities of doing business online: an abundance of choice and transparency that makes competition for your customers something more like “Gladiator” than “Field of Dreams.” 

That’s why digital commerce leaders are beginning to see that marketing is the rate limiter of digital commerce. Without a digital marketing strategy, your digital storefront is more like that lonely Iowa cornfield. All hope and potential, a stocked storefront with no takers in site.

Contrast this with the commerce strategy at Burberry, for example, which has transformed its brand from hapless to hip, from moribund to modern with digital marketing infused into differentiated and distinctive commerce experiences. Here, commerce is anything but a shingle hung to flap creakily in the breeze.

At Gartner, we’re seeing a growing appetite for marketing savvy in digital commerce operations. My colleague Jennifer Polk tells us that marketing’s impact on digital commerce has more doubled (see “The Evolving Role of Marketing in Digital Commerce”; Gartner subscription required).  

It’s a healthy shift and one that perhaps should come as no great surprise. After all, a digital marketing strategy is what makes digital commerce a business, not a dream. Or hallucination, as the case may be.

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Marketers Should Speak Less and Listen More

by Jake Sorofman  |  July 8, 2014  |  2 Comments

Here’s a confession: I have a low threshold for verbosity.

Why? Because I believe in the poet’s principle that words have more power in tight arrangement. But I also think that long, meandering rhetorical runs can be self indulgent, something you’d expect from the prattling dinner party guest with the coiffed mane and tight turtleneck whose gums flap to their own breezy ministrations on who knows what.

If you ask me, such free-associative fire hoses fail to respect an audiences’ intelligence and time—where the former is often abundant and the latter is often in the shortest of supply. Of course, this verbosity often comes from a place of enthusiasm, not narcissism—but, in either case, it alienates audiences.

I’ll admit that this aversion to long-windedness probably makes me seem more uptight than I actually am. But I do have a point to make beyond such revelations of my own personal peccadilloes.

My point? Marketers need to stop flapping their gums before audiences fall asleep in their soup.

As marketers, we have an obligation to communicate with economy and efficiency. Why? Because attention is hard to earn and easy to lose. Marketers should make a commitment of respect to their audience, upholding this vow with every clear, crisp, compelling and contextually relevant interaction:

  • Clear means speaking like a human being.
  • Crisp means that, all else equal, less is generally more.
  • Compelling means being artful and unexpected—unordinary.
  • Contextually relevant means listening actively and responding accordingly.

These principles apply to all manner of communication. The best conversationalist respects their interlocutor. The best marketer respects their audience. They both listen more than they speak.

In work and in life, we’re all inundated by pleas for our attention. Attention, like diamonds, gold and perhaps truffles, is now among the rarest of commodities. Handle it with care—and don’t take it for granted. Because, as soon as you do, it yours to lose. And, I assure you: you will.

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Category: digital marketing     Tags: , ,

Four Types of CMOs

by Jake Sorofman  |  June 24, 2014  |  7 Comments

A lot is said these days about the CMO’s preparedness to navigate what is, even by most conservative measures, fairly extraordinary digital change.

Today, the CMO is expected to meet the connected consumer on a self-directed buying journey with compelling, relevant and resonant offers and experiences.

That’s no small task.

Last year, I wrote “The Rise of the Digital CMO” to take a closer look at whether the CMO is ready. The conclusion? Today, there’s a conspicuous gap between expertise and authority: digital natives have the former; CMOs have the latter. The gap is often bridged with a variety of new senior roles—like the chief marketing technologist, for example.

This post led to an ongoing Gartner research series that seeks to codify what makes digital CMOs different and finding real-life exemplars to illustrate these principles put to practice.

To make sense of this evolving role, I’ve also been giving thought to CMO archetypes, a system of classification that helps identify the biases and traits of different types of marketing leadership. Here, the goal is to use classifications to guide self identification, where traits and characteristics help CMOs find their power centers, their flex zones and their areas of conspicuous weakness.

Start by reviewing Gartner’s Intelligent Brand Framework, which defines the four disciplines of the modern marketing organization:

 IBF Image

Next, look in the mirror.

If you recall, the goal of the Intelligent Brand Framework was to promote “whole-brain” thinking, encouraging a balanced view of the skills required for modern marketing organizations and counteracting the myopic tendencies that are so common in the age of shiny, bright and new.

The truth is that the Intelligent Brand Framework applies to both organizations and individuals. After all, it reasonably follows that any measure of the traits and biases of an organization probably also roughly translates to the traits and biases of the leader his or herself.

Therefore, let me propose four types of CMOs, based on this same classification:

1. Observation—this CMO is led by the voice of the customer, going to extraordinary lengths to understand their patterns and preferences. Above all else, they’re biased to believe that all truths come from this domain. This type of customer centricity can yield powerful insights and alignment with a target buyer, but it can also create a sort of myopia. Henry Ford may or may not have said* that, had he asked his customers what they wanted, they would have told him “faster horses.” It turns out that most customers aren’t all that visionary.

Find this CMO: Leading a focus group.

2. Inspiration—this CMO is a natural visionary, energized and directed by the universe of possibility that they conjure up in their own dreams (or hallucinations, as the case may be) and cultivate from crowds of customers, employees and other communities in their midst. This CMO rarely meets a challenge with a conventional solution. While continuous innovation can be a reliable source for sustainable competitive advantage, innovation for its own sake does not a profit make. Marketers must also become scale operators with an eye on the prize of repeatability.

Find this CMO: Impatiently challenging dogma.

3. Automation—this CMO is the exact opposite, focusing on operational efficiency to create a machine that drives predictable and repeatable growth. Often identified as a performance marketer, this CMO uses data and measurement as a precision weapon and automation as the robots to carry out his or her duties. This CMO is the CFOs best friend until strategies run their course. As innovations grow stale, operational excellence yields diminishing returns.  

Find this CMO: Closing the loop on marketing spend.

4. Engagement—this CMO is a natural storyteller and, at root, a highly social animal. He or she finds energy in human relationships, online and offline, in person and at scale. Here, the goal is to build affinity based on authentic dialogues that create trust and shared values. The goal, of course, is to turn this affinity into loyalty and advocacy that return appreciable business value over time. Despite the undeniable human virtues of this approach, when over played, it can be construed as pandering and it’s sometimes too abstracted from the actual goal of ringing the cash register.

Find this CMO: Tweeting at the speed of thought.

The best CMOs aspire to embody each of these classifications. But in navigating a path for personal growth, it’s useful to start with a view for where you are and what you want to become.

(*) Whether or not Henry Ford actually said this remains in dispute, but it has become important and colorful folklore for describing the fallacy of customer-led innovation.

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Have You Moved the Needle Today?

by Jake Sorofman  |  June 17, 2014  |  3 Comments

The discipline of getting stuff done is among the various topics that I tend to obsess over. Why? Because (wait for it …) there’s a verifiable causal relationship between efforts and outcomes.

Beyond such incisive crackerjack wisdom is what may be a more meaningful explanation for my curious obsession in this area: We often confuse full calendars with worthwhile contribution; we forget that each unit of effort isn’t valued equally.

Effort, like any other currency, should be managed to highest yield.

Still obvious? I invite you to look around your own organization to see for yourself. I bet you’ll find a lot of people lulled into the false comfort that busy means productive and productive means valuable.

Not always, it turns out.

As a marketer and a CMO, I’ve tried to live by two very simple operating philosophies:

#1: Operate with a bias toward external action.

Too often, we allow the formation of pristine strategy to distract us from the important work of getting stuff done. Former Allied Signal CEO Larry Bossidy wrote an excellent book on this topic. If you ask me, there’s nobility in swinging the hammer—and it’s clearly essential to achieving any outcome.

What’s perhaps less obvious is that internal action is rarely as valuable as external action. Of course, sometimes internal efforts lead to external action. In very large companies, it takes a substantial internal focus to line up the resources to execute at scale—for example, to put the might of a large marketing organization, distribution channel or sales force to work on your behalf.

The difference here is that such internal efforts are in-line with external action. When they’re not, your efforts are often wasted, an exhaustible currency sacrificed in the name of corporate habit.

When this happens, either find an internal path to external action or look outside of your four walls to see how you can move the needle yourself.

Hold yourself accountable to this sort of external action every single day. Allow yourself the twinge of disappointment on those days when you’re unable to deliver on this doctrine. Post a reminder that encourages reflection on an all-important question: Have you moved the needle today?

#2: Learn what moves the needle for the business and do more of that.

Every business has its own levers that disproportionately impact growth and profitability. These levers often include the likely suspects of new customers, customer expansion, retention, and cost of sales, which vary to a greater or lesser extent based on how your business makes money over time.

Once you understand the levers of your business, create a metrics strategy that shines light on your contribution to these all-important areas of performance. Here, the key is to find intermediate metrics that fit neatly between the most granular measurable moments—the things that you can directly instrument and control—and these highest level goals.

Once you understand the direct relationships between these two things, you can begin orienting your teams’ effort around what moves the needle for the business.

And when in doubt, you can do more of that.

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Category: digital marketing     Tags:

Are We Witnessing a Content Marketing Correction?

by Jake Sorofman  |  June 10, 2014  |  4 Comments

No single topic hits my inbox and feeds with quite the same regularity as content marketing. Part of the reason is surely selection bias, since it’s a key topic in my research agenda. But I also think it’s one of those foundational disciplines in digital marketing that you couldn’t possibly shake even if you tried. Why? Because the content supply chain feeds multichannel audience engagement strategies. Today, it’s both a control point and a bottleneck for most digital marketing programs—in other words, it has the potential to become a rate multiplier, but it mostly acts as a rate limiter for digital marketers who lack content supply chain maturity.

So if content marketing is so important, why in the world has it declined in priority for digital marketers? In Gartner’s 2013 Digital Marketing Spending Survey, content marketing ranked second only to paid media, consuming an average of 11.6% of overall budget. But the 2014 Survey told a different story. Here, content marketing fell four places in priority, falling slightly behind mobile marketing with an average allocation of 9.3% of overall digital marketing budgets.

Why the correction? I have two explanations:

  • The Big Pause—content marketing, it goes without saying, is a resource intensive discipline. If 2013 was the year of exuberant experimentation, 2014 marks the attendant hangover. Today, we see marketing leaders reigning in a portion of their content marketing spending until they can reliably measure its performance, point to business impact and achieve the scale and control currently afforded by paid media.
  • Light Dawns on Marketing Spend—more mature content marketers have successfully instrumented their content assets for measurement, shining light on performance and allowing them to reel in the stuff that simply doesn’t work.

Both of these scenarios point to a net reduction in spending on the content supply chain. Does this mean that content marketing is a lesser discipline? Hardly. It just means that it’s growing up. There’s a substantial appetite to scale up content marketing investments, but that’s unlikely to happen until transparency, accountability, scale and control are consistently achievable.

Once that’s happens, we’ll see spending accelerate again. Who knows? Maybe earned will overtake paid once content marketing becomes a discipline that can predictably turn dimes into dollars.

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Five Types of Brand Storytellers

by Jake Sorofman  |  June 3, 2014  |  1 Comment

Most marketers know that the better-faster-cheaper platitude is an old dog that no longer hunts. This is among the various tired devices and overused crutches that ring hollow to today’s audiences (problem-solution-impact is another that comes to mind; remember that one, B2B marketers?). Fortunately, many marketers have put them out to pasture, relics of a time when such brand-forward chest-thumping and predictable perfect-world posturing actually worked.

In their place is brand storytelling—which, of course, this is no new invention. The best marketers have always been brand storytellers. The difference is that, now, everyone is getting into the game.

But, like ice cream and neckties, storytellers come in many different varieties. The question is: What kind of storyteller are you? What kind of storyteller do you aspire to be?

Don’t know? Here are five archetypes to help guide you.

  1. The Evangelist—this storyteller narrates a path to a beautiful future paved with practical advice that gets audiences from here to there. Their goal is change and their method is pragmatic. The evangelist dispenses spoon-fed wisdom to guide you from as-is to to-be.
  2. The Skeptic—this storyteller is a bit of a rock-thrower, disrupting conventional beliefs by being, well, disruptive. Proven highly effective in politics (and cable news), this technique is best suited to times of high dissatisfaction with the status quo. Judge it right and your ideas may sound like flat truth telling. Judge it wrong and you may sound like a crank—and you and your ideas may get tuned out (like cable news) for the faux drama they may or may not be.
  3. The Jester—This storyteller brings levity to the party, using humor as the storytelling canvas. Wry observation, irreverence and iconoclastic, off-center narratives catch audiences off guard and delight with wisdom wrapped in wit—or wit wrapped in snark. Done well, this technique can win wide audience attention. Done poorly and you may ask: Is this thing on? Try the veal.
  4. The Helper—this storyteller, like the evangelist, is full of helpful wisdom. But, unlike the evangelist, they’re a bit lighter on the ideology. In fact, that point makes this storyteller not really storyteller at all, but really more of a brand publisher. Here, it’s more about FYI than POV. The helper aims to serve audiences’ needs first. For that, this storyteller is much appreciated.
  5. The Visionary—like the evangelist, the visionary seeks to illuminate a beautiful future. But they’re really more into tilting at the stunning architecture than paving roads for passage. Like the best TED talk, the visionary gets you to see things differently—and then leaves you to make use of that insight. The vision helps you see clearer, reach further, do—and perhaps be—better.

Truth is, most storytellers move between these archetypes, playing the visionary one day, the evangelist the next and perhaps trying their hand at the jester from time to time.

But the best storytellers are keenly aware which archetype suits them and their brand—and they stay true to that knowledge.

What type of storyteller are you?

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What’s Two-Speed Marketing? It’s Like Interlocked Gears Set in Motion

by Jake Sorofman  |  May 29, 2014  |  2 Comments

Maybe you remember the public debate I aired with Gartner analyst Jennifer Beck, which was instigated by a pronouncement that I used to bandy about to occasional jeers and eye rolls:

Campaigns are dead.

Well, it turns out that reports of the campaign’s demise were perhaps just a bit overstated. In my defense, I never meant dead, dead. I meant dying. No, not dying. Changing.

OK, so I was still wrestling with the right set of words to describe the sea change we were witnessing on the front lines. That sea change is what we’ve come to describe as two-speed marketing:

Speed one? Campaigns: time bound, centralized and tightly orchestrated.

Speed two? Continuous: decentralized, organic and conversational.

 Two Speeds

Like interlocked gears of different sizes, speed one spins lockstep with the cadence of the flywheel. Speed two (which, as you can see, is smaller) spins much, much faster.

I think the gear metaphor accurately captures the dispersion of energy propelling today’s marketing organizations.

If you’re like most marketers, you’re probably executing at both speeds on some level. But the question you should ask is whether your energy is diffused or amplified.

Diffusion happens when these two speeds work in competition.

Amplification happens when they work in concert.

Modern marketing is about learning to coordinate this energy so both speeds spin together. What links the gears? Your strategy itself—goals, themes and points of view.

Speeds one and two may differ dramatically in tone and technique, but they should be unified in their purpose of moving the needle for the business.

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Want to Deliver Exceptional Branded Moments? Close the Loop

by Jake Sorofman  |  May 22, 2014  |  1 Comment

For marketers, delivering exceptional customer experiences is about hiding the seams. It’s about making paid, earned and owned channels complement and amplify each other in mutually reinforcing ways.

But in order to pull this off, marketers need to learn to close the loop. Too often, customer experience is a vague promise, an intractable ideal that marketers can’t really deliver upon in practice. Why? More often than not, it’s because they haven’t really closed the loop: 

  • Across channels—where paid, earned and owned touch points are aligned and coordinated across media, method and message to achieve coherent brand storytelling.
  • Between moments of truth—where each interaction informs the next, adapting to a consumer as they wind and wend their way through the decision journey.
  • Across organizational silos—where the seams are erased between the organizational silos that stand in the way of exceptional branded moments. Here, seamless handoffs between marketing, sales and support help organizations consistently achieve and sometimes vastly exceed customer expectations in the service of daily customer interactions.

The highest performing customer experiences happen when organizations walk the talk, investing beyond the window dressing of customer-centric philosophy and finding ways to deliver exceptional branded moments that surprise, delight and renew brand affinity in ways that are both scalable and repeatable.

Closing this loop depends on a digital marketing hub, which brings together:

  • A unified audience profile to inform relevant experiences;
  • A content supply chain to feed the beast with rich and engaging stories;
  • Collaboration and workflow to align people to plan, execute and respond apace;
  • Orchestration to automate repeatable procedures and actions at scale; and,
  • Analytics to fully close the loop, so each interaction informs the next.

In any large-scale operation, logistics are often the unheralded hero. Anticipating and coordinating resources to meet a future point of need in an underrated skill.

In a sense, the best digital marketers are masterful logisticians. They’ve closed the loop to run marketing like a flywheel-driven machine, like a profit-driven business and like an instrument of customer delight.

Of course, doing this is easier said than done. But as product and service advantages erode in the face of hyper-competition, its customer experience that becomes the new competitive battlefield.

How do you make customer experience your competitive weapon? Start by closing the loop.

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