CMO50 2020 #19: Natalie Ashes

  • Name Natalie Ashes
  • Title Head of marketing and ecommerce
  • Company GraysOnline
  • Commenced role September 2018
  • Reporting Line COO and CEO
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Marketing Function 28 staff, 9 direct reports
  • Industry Sector Retail and ecommerce
  • 2019 ranking New to CMO50
  • Related

    Brand Post

    There are two skills GraysOnline marketing and ecommerce chief, Natalie Ashes, is convinced are key to being a successful modern marketer.

    The first is talking to customers. “No matter what you think you know, you don’t,” she tells CMO. “You are not the customer and making assumptions will get you into trouble.

    “Customers give such valuable insights and they usually have quite a bit to say. Email, call and listen in on the call centre, and do whatever you need to do to get as close to the customer as possible.”

    A funny example of this Ashes points to relates to the launch of GraysOnline’s first big video production campaign. Before making the final edits, Ashes told her marketing team to show it to customers via a Zoom call to get their feedback.

    “We spend two days calling customers and seeing their reactions. The feedback we received was not only about the campaign but about other nuances with the brand and the digital product and have really helped us build a roadmap,” she says.  

    The second modern marketing must is saying yes to every experimental channel, using data to drive your decisions, Ashes continues. “Think about your marketing strategy as a boat, its travelling in a direction but the wind is the data, the wind is steering you ultimately and you need to change and pivot towards successful channels in order to drive results,” Ashes advises.  

    Data-driven approach

    This combination of customer insights, data and circular engagement be seen in the work Ashes indeed was put into practice when GraysOnline literally launched boats as a new category on its site. The average time to sell a boat was six months. However, with six-day auctions the bread and butter of GraysOnline, the team knew it could significantly cut down this timeframe.

    Ashes’ gameplan for launch included a preliminary survey to 300 boat owners, which found 75 per cent would consider selling their boat through GraysOnline. A survey of 700 new and existing customers was then used to inform channel strategy, themes, messaging and imagery, and a fresh partnership was struck. Testing and experimentation with new website layouts was also key, including insights from third-party site testing to optimise the final sales product.

    An MVP product was launched, delivering valuable insights and importantly, resulting in majority clearance rate figures on boats sold.

    Innovative marketing

    Another example of data and experimentation in action is the multi-channel marketing campaign Ashes led when GraysOnline was given the job of selling down retail stock after another business closed its doors. Ashes says 27 channels were initially identified, each hit with niche, targeted messaging. Her team dynamically pivoted budget allocation based on the best-performing channels and leveraged data to influence the spread of products auctioned to optimise final sale price.   

    Along the way, Ashes and her team dynamically improved the Web experience after realising customers were confused with pick-up locations, and also secured consent for further marketing interactions with consumers who didn’t end up converting through the retail stock sell-off.

    The result was a 100 per cent clearance rate through significant engagement with hundreds of thousands of unique visitors.

    Business smarts

    At a more macro level, Ashes’ task is to provide the strategic direction and plan to evolve the traditional auction website into a leading online marketplace.

    “This meant shifting the strategic agenda, the executive mindset, the culture and operating model; and developing a data-driven capability,” she explains. “I educated and led the executive, senior managers and operational team through the transition using regular reporting to unequivocally validate the power of a data-driven strategy.”

    A data warehouse and data layer was introduced, with Web-based dashboards deployed across the business to democratise data access and highlight key performance indicators and marketing metrics customised per department. Marketing and development teams also embarked on transitioning to agile ways of working, gaining scrum certification so they could embrace an iterative working style. In addition, the booking assets process was overhauled to improve efficiencies and an app rolled out to further standardise and streamline booking.

    “This strategy has been acknowledged by the CEO and board as underpinning significant growth for FY2020,” Ashes says. “Today, the business’ strategies are formed in data and we have real insight into cause and effect. The agile process has meant the marketing and technology teams are producing measured, iterative and data-driven results.”

    This kind of cross-functional emphasis is also something Ashes focused on after GraysOnline ventured into the classic cars market. In a bold bid to make its mark in this space, GraysOnline had brought on three classic car specialists. It was clear combining their specialist skill with that of the marketing and digital teams would provide the best chance of success, she says.

    Knowledge sharing workshops, lead gen to build trust, a video framework for the classics team to shoot their own footage, setting up a dedicated Facebook group for classic car enthusiasts formulated on marketing’s guidelines and automation collaboration through tools including JIRA have ensured the teams are aligned and in sync, Ashes says.

    “Both teams would say ‘they don’t know what they would do without the other,” she adds.

    Customer-led thinking

    Data in the form of Net Promoter Score (NPS) insights also took centre stage during a recent effort to deliver more positive customer experiences that would, in turn, lift Grays’ bottom line.

    “Based on NPS, it was evident customers were delaying their bid to the end of the auction but then often forget that the auction was ending. Feedback included statements such as ‘I wish you would remind me when the auctions ended as I have missed five cars now’,” Ashes explains. “This was both disappointing from a customer experience point of view and also negatively impacted the business’ bottom line in terms of number of bidders and final bid price.”

    Through iteration and experimentation, a two-part strategy materialised. The first part was enabling customers to register their interest in an auction prior to release. The functionality for new and existing customers to be automatically alerted before an auction ends was then rolled out, with customers able to specify their preferred channel and time.

    “This capability enables marketing to communicate forthcoming auctions and to stimulate interest before they are live on the website,” Ashes says. “Since the auction alerts launched, excitement and tension has increased in the customer base.”


    Such adaptability and quick thinking came to the fore when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. “I recognised this was a time to question every decision we have made in the last 24 months and reinvent ourselves, pivot and be agile,” Ashes says.

    One swift decision made was to switch from only investing in digital to take advantage of increased newspaper sales and cheaper advertising costs in print media, leveraging the shift in consumer behaviour towards QR codes. More than 2000 always-on campaigns across SEM, social, display and SEO were updated to incorporate contact-less delivery, working from home and safety communications inline with Government sentiment.

    When Victoria went into stage 4 lockdown, Ashes deployed a virtual inspections capability in four days. “This allowed customers to inspect cars and heavy machinery via a recorded Zoom call. On day one we were booked out,” she says.

    To encourage vendors to not hold off selling, Ashes and her team set up a Canva template enabling vendors to see there was ongoing and significant traffic on the site. This was shared on Linkedin and used as a vendor acquisition tool.

    In addition, Grays expanded its categories, fast-tracking the roadmap for caravans to leverage need for local holidays; real estate to replace physical auctions with online auctions; and businesses for sale for businesses unfortunately forced to close.

    Universal voucher codes offering discounts across the Grays website were also created and posted on social, display and emails, going viral quickly.

    Results included a 50 per cent rise in unique visitors year-on-year, a 95 per cent lift in the home and wine categories, and a 96 per cent leap in new customers. Customer sentiment also improved overall.

    It’s clear Ashes brings true innovative thinking to GraysOnline. But she’s the first to agree ‘innovation’ is too often construed as having to be new and cutting edge. She instead sees innovation as something that comes in many forms.

    One of Ashes’ key ingredients to innovating marketing, for instance, is to “go niche”. “Don’t use big bang campaigns to try and reach everyone. My favourite saying is ‘Don’t scream to a crowd, whisper to small groups’,” she says.  

    “Also, try every channel. A good way to determine the priority is to let your customers decide. We recently implemented a sharing feature on our website and were really surprised that the top sharing channels were WhatsApp and Weibo. This led us to create experimental campaigns within these channels.”  

    Don’t forget about the ‘old’ channels either. “Email and SMS might not be as glamorous as other channels but they get cut through when done right,” Ashes says. 

    Last, but certainly not least is having real-time dashboards and access to data readily available. “Get the team and stakeholders interested in data by empowering them to see the results in real time. This is a great way to get buy in,” Ashes says.

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