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Building Customer Engagement

The following was transcribed from a recent interview with April Mullen of Braze on The Agile Brand with Greg Kihlström podcast. 

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Braze recently released its 2023 Customer Engagement Review, and there are a number of interesting insights found within it, relating to the customer experience.

Today we’re going to talk about 3 of the key insights within this report, and to help me discuss this topic, I’d like to welcome April Mullen, Senior Director of Content Strategy at Braze.

[Greg Kihlstrom] So why don’t we start by you giving a little background on your role at Braze, as well as, for those that may be a little less familiar, a little bit about what Braze does?

Sure. I’m the senior director of content strategy at Braze. This means I lead our global content team, and we create content that fuels awareness and pipeline for marketing activities happening across our marketing organization. And so my team and I work really hard to create content that is differentiated, helpful, and truly drives value for our customers and future customers. And as far as what Braze does, we’re a customer engagement platform that powers customer-centric interactions between consumers and the brands they love in real-time across channels. And to give some examples we, do this for both out-of-product channels like e-mail, mobile push, Web push, and SMS, but also in-product channels like in-app messages, in-browser messages, OTT and TV messages, which is super-exciting. And then we have this product called content cards, which allows you to embed personalized content in your app or website. And so it’s really exciting, every day, to see brands like Burger King, HBO Max, although they’re now called Max, using our solution to create amazing customer experiences.

Wonderful. So we’re here today to discuss Braze’s 2023 customer engagement review. And we’re going to discuss three key insights that it highlights. So the first insight from the report is that, in the face of economic instability, brands are focusing on retention. So what do companies that are focusing on retention do that may be a big shift for some companies and teams?

Yeah, and before answering those questions specifically, I want to take a moment just to talk about the big shift happening as it pertains to retention. So in our study we found a 36 percent rise in companies investing the majority of their marketing budget in customer retention. So it appears that retention might finally be getting the attention it deserves. And in 2022, just to give you a comparison, 45 percent of brands said they spent more than half of their marketing budget on retention, versus 33 percent in 2020.

So I’ve noted that measurements like customer lifetime value, or CLV, should be top of mind for brands as well. What kind of measurements, including CLV and others, should brands be thinking about when they’re focusing on retention?

Yeah, as far as measurement goes, CLV is obviously a very good metric, as you mentioned. But other things I see brands doing are measuring return on investment; like, that is a huge theme this year; payback period on their cost to acquire customers, that spend to speed up return on investment; the time between purchases and ways to tighten that window; customer satisfaction; increasing average order value; net promoter score. These are still very important. And I’ll get on a soapbox for a moment, but I feel like engagement has a place, too. You know, I’d say that’s more of a leading indicator, but I hate it when people call engagement metrics “vanity metrics” because I don’t think they are. They just show some level of interest that could lead to a conversion event, and we should take it seriously and really try to drive continuous engagement so that, at some point, that does actually become something that people would consider not a vanity metric.

Yeah, I think a lot of brands may call them vanity metrics because they haven’t quite tied them to, whether it’s acquisition, retention, whatever the case may be, right? So, in other words, kind of attributing engagement as part of the lifetime value of the customer. So the second top trend in customer engagement in 2023, as outlined in the report by Braze, is that data management remains a big challenge. So I’m sure many listening to this podcast can relate to this, but to get more specific, can you talk a little bit more about this? What are some of the key data management challenges that brands are currently facing?

Yeah, we’re seeing two challenges when it comes to data management. We found that the first thing is there’s too much data. Eighty percent of companies say they are collecting way too much, resulting in information on hand that they can’t really use effectively. And then the other one, the other challenge, is around capability gaps. So 42 percent of marketers said the top challenge within data management is working with internal data scientists, BI teams, who don’t understand marketing priorities, while 38 percent cited a lack of data skills among marketing talent. So, two pretty monumental challenges that are faced by marketers when it comes to data management.

Yeah, and so how do these data management challenges affect customers? What does it feel like as a customer when there are data management challenges?

I mean, it’s just the experience is bad. You see it every day with companies that, you know, you might do something with them online, and then you go in the store and they really just don’t know who you are; they don’t recognize the loyalty you’ve had; they don’t know that you’ve been a customer for 15 years and you’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars, maybe. You know, it’s out there in the wild every day. Sadly, I feel like that is more commonplace than, kind of, the good experiences that consumers expect. Consumers are way ahead of us when it comes to their expectations and then in what a lot of brands are delivering.

Yeah, and so realizing there’s probably a lot of different types of challenges, and certainly different challenges in different industries, but, just generally speaking, what’s a first step for a brand to take that’s facing some of these challenges?

Yeah, I think there are several things that marketers can do. They need to be more intentional about the data that they collect, in mapping their collection strategy to concrete use cases, metrics and goals. I feel like a lot of companies, you know, they want to hoard a lot of data, but that’s actually the wrong way to go about it because what happens is, again, this challenge unfolds where they have too much data; they don’t know how to use it; and even sometimes they still don’t have the data that they need to power use cases that they come up with. So we think looking at data measurement factors like frequency of orders, customer count, order value, average sessions per user, a lot of different engagement metrics, those are good things to collect. 

Another thing is, you know, marketing product and data teams have to align to avoid data silos, because that introduces opportunities for errors and it serves as a barrier to real-time messaging. And it just creates a lot of work, like it almost becomes just an assembly line of passing work around to other teams, but then it’s producing a lot of over-work and a lack of efficiency and still not leading to the result that the marketers want and the consumers want. And then marketers that strive to build closer relationships with their data counterparts, they’ll be able to better test, experiment and evolve customer experience in order to improve successful business outcomes. So we have a customer; I don’t have permission to name them, but they’re a fast casual chain, and they meet every single week with their data counterparts, even their finance folks, and they have this cross-functional, almost like board of directors, where they consult and they talk about things so everyone’s on the same page; everyone’s fluent in what they’re supposed to be doing. And that includes their data collection strategy and what’s going to be a priority in terms of their BI team getting involved in making sure that they’re delivering the right thing.

And so for those listening, in addition to that example that you just gave, what does doing this well look like? You know, brands that are leading, what does this look like, either from the customer perspective or even internally?

Yeah, there are a couple brands that come to mind. So Max, they built a survey based on viewers’ preferences and history. So they have all this rich data on people’s viewership. And they used the data from that survey to create a campaign; it was around Harry Potter, which is obviously a really fun and popular franchise. And by doing this and using data across channels and really engaging their users, they drove a 3 percent lift in viewership. So they’re taking this digital survey; they’re using the information and creating more targeted recommendations. And it drove a 3 percent lift in viewership of the featured recommended titles within the campaign and a 3 percent lift in session starts, and a 6x higher click rate in connection with the in-app message. So it really worked, in terms of taking someone who might have just been kind of left to their own devices to go and just watch whatever, which is fine, but they wanted to make sure that people knew that there was something exciting there that would be relevant to their interests. And it definitely worked in terms of the engagement. 

Another company is Gympass. If you think about working out, it can be very personal, based on the type of working out you like to do and the frequency. So they did personalized messages based on data related to users’ interests, and they collected this via in-app surveys, habits, behaviors, such as people creating an account or searching for a specific fitness or wellness activity. And they used this feature we call Canvas Flow – it’s kind of like a workflow blueprint – to create a flow of multiple campaign stages that help a user advance on their health journey. And it drove 25 percent of net new revenue associated with Gympass’s new subscriber revenue stream. And it increased the volume of signups by 3x. So, actually good marketing here is actually helping to make people healthier and put them into workouts that are really interesting to them. So that was pretty exciting.

Yeah, that’s really great to see. So the third key insight from the report by Braze is that siloed teams are a barrier to progress. You touched on this a little bit earlier, but I want to dive in a little bit more here. So what do you mean exactly by siloed teams, and what does this feel like to those teams within an organization?

Yeah, siloed teams are those that don’t seek collaboration across the organization on a regular basis, to have a diversified view of the customer, their needs and performance. And this really, for teams internally, what it does is it makes your BI team, that you might be requesting data from, they may have no idea what type of end experience you’re trying to drive. You might just be putting in a ticket, making a request for certain fields to be added, but maybe they know of another field that could be even more valuable to the end objective, if there was a conversation and this wasn’t all just being held via ticketing and internal bureaucracy. Having everyone kind of understanding what the end objective is starts to help people think in ways of being innovative. You know, if you think about silos, they don’t really encourage innovation and group-think and solving really, really tricky problems that customer engagement marketers are often tasked with solving. So bring people together. And we found in our research that the best-performing brands are over two and a half times more likely to have marketing teams that meet with cross-functional teams several times per week. It starts by setting up a regular cross-functional sync with teams across your organization that can bring problems and solutions to the cross-functional group. And it’s often problem-solved through the diverse perspectives of group-think that have the most significant impact.

Yeah, definitely. I’ve certainly seen that in my work, and I’ve worked with organizations to kind of break down some of those silos as well. And so, as you mentioned, these teams perform better that are not as siloed. What does this feel like to the customer? You know, how does that feel when there are less barriers between kind of arbitrary departments and teams and things like that?

Yeah, it’s a situation where you maybe open an app and it’s already recommending something. Basically, you want your customers to feel like there are just a series of these magical moments happening. And I know we like to use the word “moments” a lot in marketing, but it really is about, “Oh, I’m thinking about a thing; I open the app; and it’s almost like it read my mind, but not in a creepy way. It feels like a happy accident.” That is really what we’re trying to deliver. Even in, I think, moments of anxiety, we often, as marketers, like to mostly focus on the things that are just about driving revenue and making recommendations. But what about the pain points that your customers have, like what are the things that are causing someone to make a return, or maybe you’re a travel company and your customer is missing their flight? And it’s super-important to think about those pain points because, often, if you can help your customer overcome those pain points through data, real-time data, across channels, that’s really where the game-changing experiences start to drive loyalty.

Yeah, what’s a way that a brand could take even some small steps to start breaking down some of these silos so they can reap some of these benefits, both internally as well as to their customers?

Yeah, again, I think it’s around just putting a stake in the ground and saying, “We’re going to meet at x intervals with these people.” I’m even doing this myself here at Braze. I’ve set up a small cross-functional group where we’re meeting and we’re talking through the different things we’re all tasked with managing, and trying to figure out, “How do we all work together?” Even just right now, we’re establishing, “Where is the overlap? If we were a Venn diagram, where are our overlaps, and how can we help each other?”

And so I’d say it just starts with being human and getting together. And I know people hate having too many meetings, but just keep them short and sweet, but make sure you’re doing them at regular intervals, and that really starts to, just through conversation, you can start to see, “Oh, I’m working on this thing and you’re working on that,” or, you know, “We’re all trying to solve this one thing. How can we all work together to make that happen?” So, yeah, just simple humanity and getting together and meeting.

About the Guest

April Mullen is currently the Senior Director of Content Strategy at Braze. She has over 16 years of experience as a marketer for brands, agencies and has spent the last decade focusing her career in the martech niche.

Outside of Braze, Mullen has been an Adjunct Professor of Digital Marketing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis since 2013. Mullen was named to DMNews’ 40 Under 40 list in 2018 and DMNews’ 2019 Marketing Hall of Femme Women to Watch list. She contributes thought leadership at conferences and through writing for industry publications, including Forbes and MediaPost.

About the Host, Greg Kihlström

Greg Kihlstrom is a best selling author, speaker, and entrepreneur and host of The Agile Brand podcast. He has worked with some of the world’s leading organizations on customer experience, employee experience, and digital transformation initiatives, both before and after selling his award-winning digital experience agency, Carousel30, in 2017.  Currently, he is Principal and Chief Strategist at GK5A. He has worked with some of the world’s top brands, including AOL, Choice Hotels, Coca-Cola, Dell, FedEx, GEICO, Marriott, MTV, Starbucks, Toyota and VMware. He currently serves on the University of Richmond’s Customer Experience Advisory Board, was the founding Chair of the American Advertising Federation’s National Innovation Committee, and served on the Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Marketing Mentorship Advisory Board.  Greg is Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certified, and holds a certification in Business Agility from ICP-BAF. 

House of the Customer by Greg Kihlström is now available.
House of the Customer by Greg Kihlström

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