CFO World

CMO interview: Why eHarmony's CMO is wary of digital operators

The online dating site’s managing director Nicole McInnes says leading a successful marketing team takes more than creating a herd of ‘digital operators’

A CMO needs to empower the marketing team to deliver measurable business outcomes or runs the risk of creating a herd of ‘digital operators’, eHarmony’s managing director, Nicole McInnes, claims.

“When I was in advertising, we had these roles called mac operators who used to execute an art director’s vision and ideas purely because they were skilled at the software,” she told CMO. “I think young digital marketers are in very dangerous territory at the moment as they are very close to becoming the marketing equivalent of mac operators.”

According to McInnes, operators know software really well and how to work it, but have not been given broader training on strategy, competitive analysis, audience segmentation and what makes humans ‘tick’.

In order to be successful, digital marketers need to keep data, channels and software in their right place, at the same time remembering the broader marketing elements like strategy, positioning, devising the marketing mix that hits the right target audience, product strategy, future-proofing business and solid competitive analysis to help set the direction.

“To actually become a true marketer, you need to understand so much more than how to simply operate software and optimise based on data,” she stressed. “But it’s hard to see it as those digital skills are now so highly valued. I fear if you don’t also train marketers to understand why to choose a certain channel or initiative or get them focused on how the consumer actually makes purchase decisions, we will have a generation of digital operators and very few potential marketing leaders.

“And once you have the right direction in place, digital, like any other channel will fall into place underneath that.”

Nurturing self-sufficient marketers

McInnes joined the online dating company last May after a year as marketing director for music streaming company, Pandora Radio. She said one of the things she is really passionate about when leading a team is empowering individual self-sufficiency, especially when managing a busy marketing function with only five marketers.

“I’ve been able to do that with the team at eHarmony and give them more and more responsibility,” she claimed. “For example, I have trained two digital specialists now to understand how TV works in the mix and one manages that now alongside her digital channels. Meanwhile, another marketer has branched out into partnerships and experiential. So I know they have options in their next moves that have moved them away from any risk of them becoming digital operators to becoming potential marketing leaders.”

Like any relationship, when people within the marketing team are not aligned, things can quickly get sour and very frustrating, something McInnes experienced in previous roles.

“When you find yourself in a team that is not aligned, where there are competing opinions about where we should be, or where you just don’t understand each other, you start to see divides and friction,” she said. “That makes me especially miserable as I love the feeling of teams and the potential of what a team pulling in the same direction can achieve.”

Another frustration is when a company’s CEO or MD doesn’t actually understand how marketing has a direct impact on revenue, McInnes said.

“Especially when you have data these days to show it,” she added. “If the CEO or MD is still biased against marketing and thinks it’s just ‘colouring in’ or that it doesn’t have a valid place in business conversation, then it’s really frustrating, because I can see how marketing has proved that it has good commercial acumen.

“In this day and age, the data is so clear so you know you are in the wrong place. Even then, they can’t let go of their old prejudices about marketing being the colouring-in department or somehow being in competition with sales. The frustration with this is again lost potential for the team and the business.”

Fortunately for McInnes, the global CEO at eHarmony allows her to make key strategic decisions.

“Our CEO recognises each market is unique and leaves it to country managers to make those decisions,” she said. “That gives me the space to ensure my team becomes self-sufficient as it develops and grows.”

Empowering brands in a disruptive digital age

Among McInnes’ career achievements to date are the successful launch campaign for Pandora in only eight weeks, and a Cannes Lions for her creative projects commissioned by IBM.

“When launching Pandora music in Australia, the odds were stacked against it being successful with only an eight-week lead time and a one person marketing team,” she recalled. “But when it all came together, not only was it a beautiful campaign but all the metrics went into the right direction very quickly - so it was very satisfying and that was a massive highlight.”

Moving forward, McInnes recognised more and more players are entering the online dating space and continue to disrupt the industry. She maintained that for eHarmony, the key is differentiation for the brand as facilitators of happy, long-term relationships rather than casual hook ups or connections of convenience.

“When I first joined, the differentiation was becoming diluted, with competitors copying our style and messaging. Customers were getting confused with our brand compared to our competitors within the marketplace,” she said. “Knowing what our strengths were, we undertook a brand workshop internally and looked at how to differentiate ourselves but also map a path forward in the market.

“We had to position ourselves in a place that was clear to our customers but also made sense. I think that pointed to the fact that we help enable long-term happiness based on a very scientific algorithm, which I think is a very beautiful thing and where the magic starts to happen. So we created the ‘Find your Spark’ campaign to bring that to life.”

The group has also leaned more heavily into the science of what it does. “I feel like now those differentiated strengths are more well-known but at the same time, are better positioned for our future place in the market which is ‘the best place to find connections that create happiness’,” McInnes said.

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