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Q&A with Paige O’Neill, chief marketing officer of Sitecore

30-second summary:

  • It can be useful for senior marketers to have some prior experience in PR and product marketing
  • Successful marketing leaders ensure ongoing alignment between different areas of the business
  • Marketing in a pandemic requires empathy and willingness to take a hard look at your playbook to adjust with the times
  • You can no longer fully control your brand’s message — instead, focus on having conversations about the right sort of topics
  • Marketers should primarily be judged on their impact on revenue
  • AI will be at the forefront of content curation (and perhaps even production) going forward

Marketing is no longer one-way traffic: More communication channels means more customer feedback — and that’s not all. It’s all well and good opening the “Pandora’s Box” of feedback, but if you’re not prepared or resourced to act on it, what’s the point?

One thing is clear: brands have to be increasingly comfortable embracing this new, symbiotic relationship with their clients.

We chatted with customer experience expert Paige O’Neill, CMO of Sitecore, to hear her thoughts on this new normal — and to look at how companies can adopt a truly customer-centric approach going forward.

Q) Can you give us a brief insight into your professional journey and how you became CMO of Sitecore?

I started my career in public relations and I made the move over to product marketing while I was at Oracle. I learned so much there — during those 9 years, we were doing so many things that, at the time, were at the forefront of marketing. As a result, I leveraged all that information and directly transitioned into becoming a head of marketing.

I’ve since been fortunate to work across a range of companies. I’ve been the CMO of public companies, two or three early-stage startups, and now obviously Sitecore as well… I think my journey to being a marketing leader has centered around a combination of the opportunities that I got at Oracle, which was a real hotbed of learning, as well as at the intersection of PR and product marketing.

This is a powerful duo — on the PR side, you start to understand what messages resonate, and then on the product marketing side, you’re actually shaping the message itself.

Q) What have been your two biggest challenges at Sitecore so far, and how did you deal with them?

Whenever you join a new organization as a CMO, you need to first take stock before doing anything else: what are the top priorities, why exactly has the business hired a new CMO, and what are some of the major challenges at present?

Then, as you progress, you inevitably unearth further challenges — though it sometimes helps to look at everything from that initial ‘newbie’ perspective. For instance, if a new CMO were to come in at this very moment, what would they identify as being the critical priorities?

One of my main challenges has been making sure that Sitecore’s not only a well-known leader in the technology and web content management spaces (which it has been for a decade or so), but that it’s also a leader in marketing circles. Over the past 5, 6, 7 years — or whatever the timeframe is — the buying process has changed pretty fundamentally.

The modern CMO is now pretty involved in all technology decisions, so we really needed to learn how to talk to marketers. As a result, our messaging has changed a fair bit in recent years.

Over the past month, we’ve obviously all been challenged in ways never seen before —alongside most organizations impacted by the pandemic. Seemingly overnight, we had to re-evaluate our planned marketing playbook and examine each communication under an entirely new lens.

As a marketer and as someone working with customers in the marketing space, the challenge we all face is the need to position our organizations appropriately during a time of global crisis with genuine messages about how you can help and contribute without being tone-deaf or opportunistic.

At Sitecore, we immediately outreached to clients and partners to see how they were and ask what we could do to help. We are taking time to lead with empathy towards what our customers are going through in both their work and personal lives.

For those customers seeing a dramatic spike in web traffic, like our healthcare customers, we immediately increased support and bandwidth at no charge – to help them aide their customers during this time. As with every brand, it’s a challenge to get the balance right, but we continue to come together as a team to support each other, our customers and the business.

Q) Based on your experience, what advice would you give someone who is starting their journey as a marketing leader?

There’s a certain piece of advice that’s always served me well: when you’re moving into a new leadership role, make sure that you have alignment from multiple different parts of the business. In fact, this is an ongoing process — you want to constantly reaffirm this alignment and make sure it doesn’t shift underneath you.

A big part of that is obviously building relationships, so you’ve got to make sure that your relationships are solidified across all your company’s key groups.

You also have to constantly ask yourself if you’re working on the priorities that are the best for the business. Those priorities could well change — hopefully they’re not changing every other week or every other month, but there’s a good chance that they will naturally change over time.

I think you’ve got to be mindful of this going forward. I see a lot of leaders digging in and saying “this is what they hired me to do and so this is the priority”. Sure, but the business has changed, and if you’re not going to change with the business then you’re not going to be successful.

Q) How has the role of CMO changed? What further evolution do you see coming to it?

I’ve mentioned this already, but the technology we all use has completely changed — as a result, the CMO is now expected to be much more tech-savvy than ever before.

To be frank, this probably makes a lot of CMOs (especially in non-tech industries) pretty nervous, and understandably so — suddenly, in order to be as effective as possible, they need to understand everything about website technology and digital experiences. Coming out of the current crisis, I think this will be especially true.

I think the other thing that’s changed is this whole movement around customer experience. When I started, marketing was a one-way form of communication; we’d come up with a marketing message, put it out, and there wasn’t really a channel for customers to give us any sort of feedback. Nowadays, however, we’re getting so much feedback all the time across a range of different channels.

I also think the notion that marketing “controls” the brand has gone by the wayside. To be honest, there’s no real control over your brand’s message — you’ve hopefully got a platform to talk about topics you want to talk about, but you’ve also got to make way for all the customer feedback that you’re constantly receiving.

Many CMOs are also struggling to adapt to the demands of digital transformation. In some cases, they might not be ready from a technological standpoint — whereas, other times, they might not be ready from a wider cultural standpoint.

The role of a CMO is so much more wide-ranging nowadays than simply focusing on branding and messaging. In fact, many of the larger B2C companies (and I guess some B2B companies, too) are deciding that they need to divide up the role of the CMO — for instance, by hiring a digital transformation officer as well.

Q) How would you like your CEO to measure your success/performance?

I think that’s a really great question. I have a few thoughts, but first and foremost, CEOs should look at the overall impact on the organization’s revenue.

Gone are the days when we used to be able to get away with saying “oh you can’t measure that” — nowadays, we can measure everything, and we know exactly what the marketing department’s contribution is.

I think the second main area is to measure your brand’s perception globally, to measure how many people are aware of your brand and your offering. In fact, this was one of the main things that I was hired to come in and improve for Sitecore.

Over the next few months, a major factor to consider will be to look at how your organization has responded to the crisis, what lessons can be learned and whether strategies are being put forward to be ready for future instances as well as with consideration of how the pandemic has shifted short- and long-term behaviors and expectations for your customers.

If I were evaluating the performance of marketing leadership, these would be top-of-mind for me this year.

Q) In your opinion, what makes for a good customer experience? What advice would you give brands to improve/maximize their CX offerings?

I feel like I say this at the beginning of every answer, but I do believe that it has to be tailored to the individual organization: the industry, the stage of the business, and so on… However, for the most part, customer experience has to actually start with the customer.

A lot of companies say that they want to understand the customer, but unless you’re willing to conduct lots and lots of research before and then put this feedback into practice, there’s no point. It’s like opening Pandora’s box — your company actually needs to be prepared/resourced to implement the customer feedback that you receive.

It has to start with understanding the overlap between your customers’ daily pain points and why they would want to interact with your brand. You shouldn’t think about your customers’ experience from a features standpoint, but instead by looking at what specific problem you want to help your customers solve.

From there, craft your customer experience strategy so as to give them those answers, and show them that you really empathize with the challenges that they’re facing. As we deal with impact from the pandemic, these challenges have only become magnified.

With consumers driven to use services like online and mobile ordering for delivery and pickup of groceries and household goods as well as greater reliance on e-commerce with most brick-and-mortars closed, I think we’ll see more people across broader demographics continuing to use these services for their convenience.

Q) Can we talk a bit about Sitecore, your offerings, and how, in your opinion, you’re the go-to tech offering in CX space?

Yeah, sure. We’ve been a leader in the Gartner Magic Quadrant for web content management for well over a decade. And we’ve also been a leader in the relatively new Gartner Digital Experience Platform Quadrant for three years or so.

I think Sitecore understood pretty early on that not only was the web going to be the center of communication as companies and customers alike entered the digital age, but that it was going to also be a conduit to all other channels that customers were getting their information from.

As the needs in the market changed, I think Sitecore really began to grasp that not only is digital content at the center of what we’re trying to do, but there’s a whole content lifecycle there that sits under the umbrella of customer experience.

Recognizing this, we set a goal for ourselves to be the best in personalization from a technology standpoint — I think we’ve since achieved that goal. Our current goal is to really think about content holistically and to understand just what type of impact it can have on the overall customer experience.

Right now, we obviously see it particularly important for both experience and commerce capabilities enabling e-commerce and direct marketing for brands with consumers staying home.

Long-term, however, it’s really about understanding how convergence is unlocking new capabilities for consumer experiences with value across channels that’s much greater than the sum of its parts.

Q) What tips do you have for someone looking to implement Sitecore’s XP?

First and foremost, they’ve got to have a strategy that includes buy-in from the senior executive team about why they’re implementing a digital experience platform. It’s not just a marketing technology, it’s a technology that needs to be thought of from an infrastructural perspective across both the marketing and customer success departments.

These companies are actually looking to change their business model, so there has to also be a certain amount of cultural change too. For example, one particular client is going from selling their product almost exclusively through resellers to starting to sell direct-to-consumer.

It’s a 180-degree change of their business model, and I think so many companies that are going through these types of technological implementations are also facing these fundamental business changes.

So it actually goes way beyond the technology — the entire approach has to start with the executive team, and they need to lead this cultural shift. Every company I’ve spoken to that has executed a successful digital transformation has talked about the importance of cultural change over almost everything else.

Q) Can you give us an example that best shows how Sitecore benefits its clients?

At our Sitecore Symposium customer event last year, I came across one of the most powerful customer stories I’ve ever heard. I was on stage with one of our non-profit customers, a Canadian charity that builds hospitals for kids.

Even though they’re a non-profit, they realized that they had to approach digital marketing and digital transformation like any for-profit company, and they leveraged the capabilities of Sitecore to build out an entirely new content strategy.

This was coupled with a rebrand, as well as a lot of work on their overall messaging — their ultimate goal is to build a new children’s hospital. Right now, they’re effectively leveraging our platform to deliver their message, execute their campaigns, and successfully raise the money they need to build their new hospital.

In light of the pandemic, I would look again at businesses like Foodstuffs, a grocery chain in New Zealand, as well as Pet Supplies Plus—both are companies that have promoted their online and mobile ordering features for pickup and deliveries to support social-distancing efforts and help keep customers and employees safe.

Q) Looking ahead, what are your plans for Sitecore going forward?

We’ve done a lot of heavy lifting since I’ve been at the company in terms of re-messaging, re-branding, re-architecting our content strategy, and even modernizing our own Sitecore technology platform.

Now, I think we need to go global with that message; I would really like to be spending a lot more time, energy, and effort on a global awareness campaign. We’ve also been focused on communicating more with our customers to hear about their particular needs during the pandemic and help us identify areas where we can best support their businesses going forward.

Q) What are your predictions for the martech space in 2020?

Currently, digital is providing a lifeline for many businesses. For the reasons previously mentioned, I think you’ll see more organizations retargeting marketing efforts towards digital marketing, commerce and personalization. With demand coming both within organizations and from consumers, we’ll see heavier adoption and reliance on these solutions that will have a lasting effect on consumer behaviors long into the future.

I think you’ll also find businesses re-evaluating their current systems and prioritizing the need for multichannel strategies that can help safeguard their organizations against similar market changes into the future.

Additionally, with increased demand for digital, more marketers will realize that their current ways of developing content is just way too hard. So going forward, I think that marketers will need to leverage the promise of AI technologies and SaaS offerings.

This might involve spending more time measuring content performance before building this data back into the AI capabilities of technologies like Sitecore. For instance, we might start to get performance-based recommendations about either content that we should be serving up next or content that we should be developing next.

All of these things would add a tremendous amount of value for marketers — we currently spend a tonne of time trying to measure content performance and going through the painstaking process of working out what content we need to generate going forward.

Q) A lot of the vendors I have spoken to think the market is moving towards an ‘open marketing ecosystem’. What are your thoughts on that, is this the way forward?

I think it’s absolutely impossible. I mean, we’ve got thousands and thousands and thousands of martech tools and the notion that those could all be made open source is, I think, frankly preposterous.

Marketers have invested a tremendous amount in existing tools and technologies — why would we suddenly just make everything open source? Maybe I’m missing something there, but I just completely don’t understand that line of thinking.

Q) Which tool in your personal tech stack can you not do without and why?

My team is unbelievably excited about our Content Hub technology, in particular our digital asset manager. We’ve recently acquired this company called Stylelabs that has given us a whole new suite of tools.

This has eased the whole process of:

a) Content development collaboration and,

b) Serving this content up onto the digital experience platform.

This sounds like something we should’ve been able to do for a long time, but for some reason, these tools haven’t worked together in the past. It’s been revolutionary for my team — it’s increased their overall throughput by about 50%.

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