CMO interview: Tableau's Elissa Fink on mixing data-driven marketing with human intuition

Tableau's global chief marketing officer, Elissa Fink, talks about how she's combining data smarts with customer centricity and a bit of risky marketing at the data visualisation and analytics vendor

Given Tableau positions itself as bringing the power of data to individuals, it’s not surprising its global CMO, Elissa Fink, is a great believer in data-driven marketing. What’s a little more unexpected is that she’s also an advocate for intuition and gut feel.

“The more data you can look at, the better your intuition is,” she tells CMO. “A data-driven decision is very important, but if there’s something that doesn’t feel quite right about it, you’re probably right and you should look at little deeper and test your theory.

“Human intelligence is a key part of making data work, it’s not just about the numbers. With some marketing decisions, there are so many great data-driven ways to test websites, campaigns and so on, there’s no arguing with it. But I always look at whether that makes sense in hindsight, even if I couldn’t see that with foresight. You can’t just rely on data.

“But data can inform you so well and tune your senses and intelligence into what marketing does and doesn’t work.”

Fink has held the marketing chief’s role at Tableau Software since 2007, first coming across the company’s business intelligence platform while tackling a data problem of her own. Prior to joining the vendor, she was executive VP of marketing at IXI Corporation.

She has also worked at a range of technology startups including Claritas, data math company, Tele Atlas, and enterprise information portal vendor, TopTier Software.

Tableau’s philosophy is that anyone in an organisation can interact with and utilise data if they have the right tools. To do this, the company has developed a data analysis and visualisation platform that works across multiple internal and external data sets stretching from Excel spreadsheets to databases and Hadoop big data set-ups.

Since its launch in 2003, Tableau has grown to 1360 employees worldwide and has 19,000 customers including Rio Tinto, Pfizer, NRMA, Kimberly-Clark and Lend Lease.

According to Fink, one of the biggest challenges for using data in marketing is getting started.

“The trick is to start simple, because you will iterate and get better over time,” she advises. “People know they need to do this, but they see so much complexity. The reality is you just have to get started and you will get there.”

Marketing strategy

Fink says her approach to marketing reflects Tableau’s quest to focus on the achievements of the individual, and is therefore direct and consumer-oriented. She describes her customer base through three main personas: Individuals and occasional analysts looking for something to solve a data problem; the business leader, who knows people need to make better decisions using data; and the “enlightened” IT team “that is realising they shouldn’t stand between the business decision maker and the data”.

“It’s a very consumer-oriented model and a real strength for a B2B company to have: When you can go in and prove quick successes with individuals, they become enabled fans and that helps spread the message,” Fink continues.

“One of the keys to our marketing has been people centricity; a key part of our brand is having people talk for us, as opposed to us talking about us. As we have kept our eye on the three key user demographics – the analyst, the IT person and the business leader – we have also tried to fit the right content for each of those personas across the sales cycle.”

Fink also isn’t afraid to take risks and says playing on the edge of marketing is necessary if brands are to innovate. “The way I look at it is that everyone is zigging, so we should look to zag,”she says. “There is so much clutter and information out there. You have to be able to say: ‘I don’t know if this is a good idea or not, so let’s take a risk, test it and control it a bit, and see how it goes’.”

One more radical decision was to run customer conferences very early on its evolution, a move Fink claims has proved highly successful, pointing to its 5000 attendees in Seattle this year. She’s also experimented with cheeky slogans and campaigns via online and social media, such as the ‘medium data’ campaign run over social channels on April Fool’s Day.

“We saw a lot of Twitter and Facebook activity, and a couple of large accounts contacted us and said they loved the campaign and thought it was time to talk,” Fink notes. “That’s an example of where we had fun and tried something new.

“When things don’t pay off, you’ve just got to admit your error, recover, correct it and move on.”

Marketing and IT dilemma

While Tableau is about helping lines of business becomes more data independent, Fink is quick to point out the ongoing need for marketing to work in a more collaborative way with IT. Part of this is mutual respect between the CMO and CIO of their differences and values.

“Marketing people tend to be creative and fast talking, onto five different ideas at once, while IT people are more concrete and have to be detail attentive,” Fink comments. “But that’s where respect, begrudging or not, is needed from each other.

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“We need to help each other get the best result for the organisation. As a marketer, I don’t know how to put up a database, processes, deal with security. I need IT. And IT needs business input, not just write the report they’ll spec, to enable us to do what we want. There also needs to be recognition that marketing needs to be supported as a function as it can change the business.”

The other key ingredient to modern-day CMO success is taking a leadership position within the business. Fink adds that the greatest marketers of all time, such as those in packaged goods, have owned the numbers and the sales.

“Marketing is really where it’s at – you have the data, you know the markets, and you can get out there and engage in so many ways,” she adds.

Customer-centric priorities

Having joined Tableau when there were just 35 staff, Fink’s ongoing priority is to keep an eye on customer experiences and ensure the brand retains its ‘human’ element as it continues to grow rapidly.

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“We definitely want to make sure we’re building a great brand, the awareness is there, and the demand generation is happening,” she says. But Fink admits this focus on customer centricity is an increasingly challenging as new types of people join and it becomes more decentralised.

“When you join a startup, you have a certain appetite for the way you do things. As you grow, you start to attract many more types of great people accustomed to more risk-averse environments,” she comments. “So I do worry about in making sure our culture of the company stands, and so people understand the right frame of mind to go out and do things with.

“The good news is the people who built the company, who think this way, are all still there, we’re still a privately controlled company, and our CEO is very dynamic with a great marketing and business mind. I feel we have the ability to keep the people-centric direction and formula going.”

To uphold these values, Tableau runs a bootcamp where new employees spend two weeks understanding the culture of the business and helping them embrace it.

“If the culture is embraced by people, and our culture reflects our brand and vice versa, and the way we do business is ingrained in that, then those staff will be more likely to absorb all that and know how to act in future,” Fink claims. “We can’t tell everybody how to act; we have to give them the environment and the tools to figure it out.”

Fink’s role as CMO has also changed with the business and today she assumes an increasingly advisory position. “When I joined there weren’t many people in marketing so you had to be a player; then as we have grown the CMO role has become more of a coach and team thing, now it’s more coach,” she explains.

“It has been an interesting adjustment for me. But just keeping focused is hard. When you’re this big and lots of things are happening, and lots of people have opinions, you have to stick to the essentials that make you strong. Of course you have to consider the market environments and if there are things that require you to change our strategy, but for the most part it’s keeping your eyes on the prize.

“We are very regimented around lead processes and status stages, and we are clear with our sales teams about signals. When you’re growing fast and hiring dozens of people at a time, you need to have that discipline.”

Fink also welcomes the rapid changes technology innovation brings and says she is constantly looking at how new products and services can improve the marketing function. “I like to stay on top of those trends as it enables us to take advantage of things early on and helps us stay at the forefront,” she adds.

Fink’s top CMO attributes

  • The ability to learn. “You need to be open to new ideas and learn,” Fink says. “Although the other side to this is the need to be quite pragmatic in terms of human behaviour, and pick up on things that don’t sound right. Having that human instinct is a real skill. Then when you are looking at new ideas, you have the right sense of judgment.”

  • Authenticity. “There are a lot of people out there with messages and there’s a lot of marketing clutter, and people saying the same thing. So how do you break through while staying true and authentic? That is vital as a CMO.”

  • Passion. “If you love it, you will be so much better at it. You want to work hard at being your best, and the best expression of yourself. That passion for what you do can take you places.”

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