From food to software: why you need digital transformation

Interview published on the Skuid blog on August 17, 2017.

Michelle Killebrew knows a little something about digital transformation.

She led the strategy for the social business division at IBM, where she expanded the product line from 89 to more than 400 products to help the company’s clients understand and successfully undertake digital transformation. This covered everything from internal collaboration solutions and communication systems, talent management and analytics, digital marketing solutions, infrastructure security, and information technology (IT)—everything an organization needs to transform to meet the customers’ high digital expectations. In her time at IBM, she was passionate about helping to build that story so that IBM’s customers would know where to begin the daunting journey of enterprise transformation.

Not only has Killebrew won multiple awards as a senior marketing executive, she’s been a TEDx speaker and written numerous articles on the topic of digital marketing. I spoke with her over the phone about her newest role, trends we are seeing in digital transformation, and the growing role of citizen developers in the enterprise.

Skuid: Let’s talk about your background a little bit. What is your current role?

Michelle Killebrew: I’m the chief marketing officer for a food technology company called Nomiku. The founders of Nomiku created the first ever sous vide (precision cooking) immersion circulator for the home. The story goes that the founder was working at a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York and had a desire to bring home one of these sous-vide machines they keep in the kitchens of all of the top restaurants. But they were thousands of dollars and really bulky. While on the first date with her now husband, who’s an astro and plasma physicist, they created the first home immersion circulator. This was in 2010. They’ve since had two successful Kickstarters. They’ve been invited to the White House for an honored Maker Award. Now, we’ve just launched our third generation product.

It’s really exciting because it’s bringing Internet of Things technology into the kitchen. But their focus has always really been on the food; with a mission of “how can we eradicate every obstacle between you and a delicious plate of food?” Which is why we’ve just launched our food program, which is revolutionary because of its RFID inventory management capability as well as future opportunities around health data. For me, it’s a wonderful opportunity to be at the crossroads of health, food, and technology, and how digital transformation of all kinds is making its way into every aspect of our lives, including how we prepare our meals.

Before that, I was working in financial services—wealth management to be specific—where they found me to lead their digital marketing transformation. As you may know, digital transformation is especially challenging for the financial services industry at-large. Given the regulations that financial service organizations are bound to, keeping up with consumer expectations has been difficult.

For me, digital transformation is all about customer-centricity regardless of industry, and customer’s expectations are shifting dramatically towards instant, personal, seamless experiences — B2C and B2B.

While we’re talking about digital transformation, it’s a topic that’s on a lot of people’s minds—not just in the tech industry, but in established enterprises. I’m curious if, in your experience, you see digital transformation as a trend that’s been around for a few years and then in a few more years it may go away? Or do you think it’s something that’s here to stay?

It’s certainly not a trend. I think that things will continue to change as technology changes and consumer expectation changes. What digital transformation is today may not be what digital transformation is tomorrow. It’s interesting if we look back at the transformations that have happened in business history, whether it’s through, say the advent of the telegraph or just in terms of condensing that communication cycle. Or in our more recent history with e-business, when we introduced email and the internet to how we operate on a standard business practice perspective—digital transformation is yet another one of those moments in time where we are pivotally shifting to meet consumer expectations which is advancing rapidly.

Part of this, of course, is the fact that we’re all walking around with smartphones in our pockets. We expect to be able to access information, from corporate information to customer information, to any type of information, at the swipe of our fingers. Those expectations are shifting how businesses need to meet their customers’ demands. It’s easy for customers to switch to their competitors very easily with the next click of a mouse or the next touch of their fingers on their mobile phones. There is less loyalty for loyalty’s sake. You really have to win that loyalty from a customer, and integrate that customer experience across all of your channels, to make that experience seamless and desirable for your customers. There’s a really high expectation. I think that that’s really where the pain points of digital transformation are coming from.

We’ve obviously seen it this year in 2017. We’ve been talking about the retail industry shift over a number of years. But I think we saw the closure of 2,000 retail stores this year. We’re starting to see, just now, that it’s impacting areas that I’m certainly focused on with food and technology. Especially with the acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon and some of the other food and technology integrations, with people ordering their groceries online. I think that in other industries, some of this change has been happening a little bit less visibly than perhaps retail. But it’s really coming to the foreground in terms of customer expectations and how they pivot their companies to meet those expectations.

How do you see digital transformation affecting the way employees use technology within the enterprise?

Well, similarly to consumers, employees have high expectations from their employers as well. They expect that they’ve now been groomed with a technology experience. Think about your Apple experience and your iPhone. If you go into an enterprise and you’re still leaning in to lengthy, archaic database systems to get your work done, it’s frustrating. You really don’t have the patience for it from a productivity perspective, especially when you’ve got this “Apple” experience for your personal life. We’ve seen this extensively in enterprise technology; just the expectations of employees with how they’re able to communicate, whether it’s their email systems or their instant messaging systems, how they’re able to collaborate in real time. Document sharing, especially over locations, because you don’t often need to be in the same location. How can you bring those collaboration solutions into a ubiquitous format so that you can collaborate with your colleagues all over the globe?

It’s certainly something that’s just part of that social business category, the solutions for employee empowerment and collaboration. Ultimately, if your employees aren’t happy, your customers will not be happy because your customers are being served by your employees. They’re the frontline of your brand expression and that customer experience. I think over the last several years, digital transformation has really brought home the importance of employee engagement and meeting the needs for their technology requirements. And making sure that the work they are doing is fulfilling and that they’ve got those growth paths. Because it certainly impacts the bottom line.

Do you feel digital transformation is a luxury, or a necessity? And is it strictly for larger, more established enterprises? Or do you feel that’s something that even smaller companies can achieve?

I think it’s for survival. All companies will need to address it. It’s actually probably more difficult for a large company because they’ve got established systems and databases. You really have to think through your data flow and how your systems and processes and people are actually speaking to each other in effective ways to embrace new ways of doing things. For small companies, though, it may be taken for granted that they don’t need to worry about it. But that’s not true. We see this even, say, with small, local restaurants that need to adopt food delivery. Whether it’s on a Grubhub or an Eat24, customers want to be able to either order their food and have it ready for them to pick up immediately, or have it delivered straight to their door. These are just customer behaviors that small businesses need to adapt to as well. Just really being accessible to their clients and thinking through how their clients want to be able to engage with them for communication or for services. That’s why there is a huge market for meal delivery services, like a Blue Apron our our Nomiku Sous Chef Meals, consumers preferences have shifted. They’re extremely time constrained, but want to know what’s in their food, where it came from and have it ready-to-eat on their terms.

Is it something that should always be led by sales and marketing teams? Or, is it something that IT is starting to lead the charge on?

We’ve seen industry-wide that Marketers have really carried the torch. But that’s because they’re customer-facing, and the requisite to change has really been born by the customers’ expectations. That said, for digital transformation to effectively stick within an organization and to be carried-off successfully, it really needs to happen collaboratively between all of the departments. There may be aspects of digital transformation that may be explicit to the department.

Thinking through IT, for instance—it may be restructuring the database or bringing on different technical solutions. However, all of the departments need to collaborate to make sure that they’re not transforming in the wrong directions, that their transformation is happening in a synchronized fashion, so that it truly becomes just as effective across the organization, and that information is flowing. Because the customer experience traverses all departments. Your customer doesn’t care that your call center’s on one system and your email system may be on another. They just know that they’re speaking with you as a brand and want to be able to have their problem resolved as quickly as possible. It doesn’t matter which department spearheads the initiative. It needs to be collaborative between the different departments. There needs to be a clear vision as to what digital transformation means for that particular organization, milestones and roadmaps for how we’re going to get there. Then a real understanding that legacy key performance indicators (KPIs) and measurements of success of before may not be the same KPIs that you need to measure in the future.

If you’re operating differently and you’re then optimizing how that engagement may be expressed, you need to look at a different set of optimized KPIs to reach that goal. And then look at your foundational KPIs and make sure that you’re really focusing on profit and growth margin, if that’s where you are in your digital transformation. Or, if you’re trying to really protect and grow market share, and you have a longer-term strategy to survive the digital transformation and then focus on growth and profit at a later date. That’s one thing that I think is really challenging is that you’re going through and changing systems and practices. But a lot of the reporting and how business has been run and measured in years past needs to be shifted as part of that transformation.

What’s the role of citizen developers when it comes to digital transformation and enterprise technology?

It’s an interesting question. I think the concept of the citizen developer in every single department outside of IT is going to be standard. We’re going to grow into that whether it’s developing marketing apps or HR apps. We can’t operate in waterfall anymore, right? Everything has to be agile. For everything to be agile, you’re going to have a lot more of this pod-style development where you’re going to be able to iterate fast and test it. And then once it proves that it’s worth expanding upon, bring that into a more formalized development process. Because that’s how we’re going to be able to evolve in a very competitive digital transformation world where everybody’s trying to figure it out. Nobody’s written the guidebook because everybody’s going through it together. Quite honestly, that guidebook is going to look different for each organization.

That said, I think that we need to be mindful of not going rogue. As we know, in today’s technical and digital world that we live in, cybersecurity is one of our biggest concerns. We just need to be very mindful that while we may be trying to iterate and develop very quickly, that we have really robust sets of security regulations, especially around customer data or employee data, and to be mindful of the potential risks. I certainly think that the citizen developer is going to be the core to how we reorganize our teams and how we function as we go through this transformation and into the future. But the risk right now is that we are shifting so quickly that we need just to be very mindful of the potential risks that may come along with that.

Dreamforce is coming up in November. Since you live in San Francisco, is it a conference you usually attend? Will we be seeing you there this year?

I’ve been in the lucky position of being able to attend a lot of the satellite events over the years, which has been great for me. I still feel like I’m connected to the community but not necessarily in the throes of the conference itself. The great thing about Dreamforce and being at the amazing event that it has become—and quite honestly it’s truly remarkable, the production level of the event that it’s become …I don’t know how they pull it off—is that there are so many ways to participate in that content, even if you’re not here. People are syndicating or writing a perspective or bringing video live from the event floor. Whether you’re able to make it or not, it’s a wonderful place to bring this whole concept of digital together and get some great minds and hear some perspectives. I’m looking forward to see what the biggest news is this year!

Charlie Moss, Senior Copywriter

Charlie Moss has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Week, Slate, MOJO, VICE and other publications. He has a passion for comic books, Star Wars, and The Beatles.

Redefining Engagement to Understand the Future of Marketing

Published in ClickZ on July 15, 2015.

Media and technology are continuing to merge providing business opportunities that will engage customers in new ways.

Digital marketing transformation is occurring within enterprise companies across the globe as they seek to better understand their stakeholders who have infinitely greater control. This is not new, we knew this shift to the empowered customer has been happening for years, but it seems to have reached a tipping point.

Businesses of all sizes are (truly) embracing the concept of customer centricity and understanding that marketing is no longer a department, because everyone (customers and employees alike) has a voice that can be amplified through social and mobile channels. Every interaction with a customer is part of their experience with your brand. It is why companies are focusing on employee engagement now more than ever - employees are the face of the company to the customer.

Effectively tackling customer engagement today can certainly be overwhelming. Look at this list of over 2,000 marketing technology vendors that's Scott Brinker has compiled.

Above: The Marketing Technology Landscape, January 2015.
Image Credit: Scott Brinker/

And while at VentureBeat's GrowthBeat Summit in Boston last month, Brinker pointedly called out that "the tech is a distraction," but the fact that marketing is changing "in fundamental ways" is what is driving the landscape so radically. We now need to weave a company’s storytelling into digital experience – and digital itself is changing.

Internet-of-Things (IoT) is coming online rapidly. "IoT provides a new channel to reach customers through devices and interaction points", with Goldman Sachs predicting that IoT has the potential to connect 28 billion "things" to the Internet by 2020, ranging from bracelets to cars," says Cynthya Peranandam. This is providing business opportunities to create new revenue streams by effectively engaging customers in new ways.

But let's take a look at some of the near-term changes in the space. LUMA Partners has forecast the top 5 trends for 2015 and beyond are:

  • Programmatic
  • Mobile
  • Omnichannel/personalization
  • Identity
  • Convergent TV

I encourage you to check out LUMA's "State of Digital Media 2015" presentation to understand these trends in detail and how media and technology continue to merge. Review it alongside Mary Meeker's "2015 Internet Trends" report for a full view into current and future state of how we will engage with customers and each other. I find it helpful to stay informed of these trends as they will quickly be upon us to develop strategic engagement strategies as part of our ever-evolving marketing plans.

We live in exciting times and I can't wait to see the incredible marketing that is created on and from these new insights and platforms!

Is Social Technology Making us More or Less Human?

Show Recap

Michelle Killebrew is a “social optimist.” In this episode of The Social Network Show, she speaks with listeners about her conviction that social technology is helping us be more human, rather than less, as many fear.

Ms. Killebrew leads customer-centered marketing strategy for Social Business at IBM. Since earning a BS in Economics at Santa Clara University in the heart of Silicon Valley, Michelle has worked in IBM’s Enterprise Marketing Management division, thoroughly integrating Coremetrics analytics into campaigns. She then headed up IBM’s World Wide go-to-market and demand generation organization in the Smarter Commerce initiative. Now she is refining the definition of social business and creating research-based content to guide businesses in embracing it.

Together Michelle and Dr. J discuss whether engagement with online communication seal us off from genuine face-to-face relationships. Whether we are inclined toward optimism or skepticism, it is important to realize that technology can be used for good or ill. Public engagement in debate and analysis of the issues involved, such as privacy, security, social skills, and human empathy, is crucial, while apathy and defeatism is a worse enemy than any of the threats technology presents.

Michelle Killebrew’s talk on this subject, delivered at TEDx, University of Nevada in Reno, can be watched on YouTube and you can visit her website to learn more about Michelle.

Michelle Killebrew is passionate about marketing, especially innovative online marketing strategies that deliver a superior brand experience – from initial acquisition through to loyal customer – and increase growth and profitability. She currently leads the go-to-market strategy for IBM Social Business, where her team focuses on messaging and solutions that define social business and demonstrate how organizations can embrace this next information revolution in the workforce. Previously, she headed up the worldwide go-to-market and revenue-bearing demand generation campaign strategy for IBM’s new Smarter Commerce initiative, where her team was responsible for marketing B2B/commerce and enterprise marketing management solutions to meet the needs of the empowered customer. Michelle has over 15 years of high-tech marketing and holds a B.S. in Economics from Santa Clara University.

You can connect with Michelle on LinkedIn and Twitter, and read her recent articles on ClickZ.

Jane Karwoski, PhD

Dr. Jane Belland Karwoski is Chief Science Officer of Social Network Intermedia and The Social Network Association as well as the lead host of The Social Network Show. She holds a doctoral degree in experimental psychology and dedicated her early research efforts to combining social, cognitive and health psychology as they relate to the influence of key opinion leaders in spreading best practices.Prior to the availability of formal online social networking tools, Jane developed Genomicus Americus, an e-newsletter connecting North American and South American social scientists studying genetic and genomic issues. She has been a Research Assistant at the Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (Cardiff, South Wales), an ORISE Fellow with the National Center on Birth Defects (CDC, Atlanta, GA), and a Post-Doctoral Fellow with the Center for the Study of Healthcare Behavior (VA of Greater Los Angeles/RAND Health/UCLA). She has held adjunct professor positions in the psychology departments of The University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Excelsior College; and Drexel University.

The Social Business Frontier: Randal Ries on Measuring Progress

Published on the IBM Social Business Insights Blog on April 30, 2015.

“The Social Business Frontier” is a video blog series consisting of a number of short interviews taking a deeper look inside the IBM Research Labs to explore the groundbreaking and innovative social analytics research that's redefining the future of social business. 

In the fifth and final episode of The Social Business Frontier we speak to Randal Ries, IBM Senior Research Analyst, about how IBM is providing an example for businesses to measure the progress of their social business journey. A key aspect of an organization’s transformation into a social business is culture change. In order to measure culture it’s necessary to rely on traditional research methods. It’s Randal and team’s mission to understand employees’ attitudes and behaviors toward working socially. To do this they’ve developed a survey that measures different aspects of a social workplace. Their strategy helped them understand how employees felt about the value of working socially, how their management was embracing social and if there was enough education on how to work socially. Listen in to hear Ries explain how these results helped IBM understand where it is in its social transformation journey and how it can continue to grow as a social business.

Social Business: Shifting From Noun to Verb

Published in ClickZ on March 17, 2015.

Increasingly, businesses need to embrace social strategies in order to succeed in the digital world.

The meaning of the term "social business" needs to and is evolving from being a thing, an end-state, a noun to an action, a methodology, a practice…a verb. The idea that collaboration technology allows us to connect with one another and share ideas is wonderful, but there are fundamental strategies that are even more important.

In 2014, the IBM Social Business Category Management team joined forces with The Economist Insight Unit (EIU) to uncover how different thought leaders in a variety of industries across the globe are enabling social business in their organizations. Leadership driving social business change is diverse — in some cases sprouting up from management systems, in others from customer engagement strategies — but in all instances focused on true people-centric engagement.

The social business phenomenon isn’t just about tweeting and likes – it’s about something far more powerful. As Bryan Kramer explained in his book: "There is No B2B or B2C: It’s Human to Human: #H2H" businesses are starting to behave and sound like real people dealing with other people, rather than "business" to "consumer."

We are at a unique point in time with the concepts of social business truly starting to gain a wider foothold, and as such we see companies at various points in the maturity curve for adopting social principles. They have reached their current state by taking varied paths, and yet these pioneers have one main thing in common: action. They are actively seeking information, methods, and practices that can harness the best of the people inside and outside of the organization. These social business leaders are allowing people to share their stories and forge relationships with each other and the brand – and as change agents, they’re asking the tough questions to push their organizations out of "business-as-usual."

"The first question we had to ask ourselves is, 'Can a bank be a social business?'" a Toronto-based bank’s vice president of social media and digital marketing said at a New York conference last year. "We’re a heavily regulated industry, and we take a very conservative approach."

The study was launched publically about 10 months ago, and beyond the findings of the study itself, we have reflected on the process undertaken to conduct and drive awareness of the study, and have learned some details about the process itself. This effort was social from the start, when we leveraged social media to request nominations for social business leaders in one of five categories: Visionaries, Strategic Thinkers, Culture Shapers, Storytellers, and 'Fully Social' (Adaptive, Open, Entrepreneurial). After the advisory board finished the task of narrowing to 25 leaders and the campaign was launched, we went back to social media.

Now, the beauty of highlighting social business leaders is that they have large networks of followers, so with a social plan and content (blogs, video, memes, and more) the campaign took off.

I love when it works out that the message is the medium and vice-versa. In this case leveraging social media to reach social business leaders through a community-based nomination process that then was able to be shared and amplified through a strategic social campaign. During the campaign promoting the study we featured each of the honorees for a week, which gave us content for 25 weeks to use in our newsroom and our employee evangelism - leveraging their profile videos, creating social tiles, and writing blogs to support the leaders' various social business successes. You can see more about what we learned behind the scenes here.

Top 5 Social Business Leaders From the 25 Leaders Named in the Study

Scott Monty
Former chief of global digital communications, Ford Motor Co.
MAKING MESSENGERS: Using old values to make new connections

B. Bonin Bough
Vice-president of global media and consumer engagement, Mondelez International
FUTURE FACING: Embracing the ethos of a start-up

Gilberto Garcia
Director of innovation, Cemex
SHIFT WORK: Making communication simple within a global enterprise

Marisa Thalberg
Vice-president for corporate digital marketing, Estée Lauder
ONLY CONNECT: Using social causes to connect with customers

Chris Laping
Senior vice-president for business transformation, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers
COMMUN(ICATE): Giving employees a sense of purpose and ownership

Thanks again to our advisory board for selecting such a varied example of inspiring social business leaders: Brian Solis, Cheryl Burgess, Lisa Gansky, Nick Blunden, Maria Winans and my special thanks to Maria Huntalas for leading the project.

People-Centric Engagement through Social Technology

Published on the IBM Social Business Insights Blog on March 10, 2015.

There is no doubt that the future is upon us and the rate of change we experience in technology and its impact on our daily lives are advancing rapidly. Technology has made it possible for us to connect, and now social media has made it possible to do it in a more organic, human way. Facebook and LinkedIn have been around for over a decade and Twitter almost seven years. Together, they’ve fundamentally changed how we engage with each other online – and opaque social technology like Snapchat and Secret are the next evolution in this area.

Millennials who grew up in a social world are entering the workforce and becoming active citizens. What happens next? Social business.

Social business is the next step in the evolutionary process in the day-to-day functions of digitally enabled organizations. Much in the same way that the Internet revolutionized how we all work in the era of e-business; social processes, technology, and mindsets will revolutionize how people in organizations connect, collaborate, and share knowledge. 

With and despite social and other technological megatrends changing how we live our lives, how can we stay focused on being more people-centric—more human?

I share my perspectives in this TEDxUniversityofNevada talk.

The answer is as simple as it is complex. Because of advances in social, mobile and digital communication channels, society has the ability to share ideas quickly and the opportunity to build and iterate off the ideas of others. The more data we create—and we are creating exponentially more data each year—the more human the message must be in order to garner our precious attention.

In order for messages to resonate, they need to be relevant to the individual, which is forcing us to embrace the ancient art of storytelling and bringing the importance of relationship and empathy to the foreground. Information has been democratized.

New Content Economy? What’s Old Is New Again!

Published in ClickZ on February 19, 2015.

As the marketing ecosystem evolves, we can look to our past for inspiration on how to deal with the new challenges we face.

"What will it take to win in the new content economy? The best way for publishers to earn more is to interrupt less. The best way for brands to emotionally connect is through meaningful content. But for the new content economy to thrive, all of these efforts need to happen at scale." - The Rise of the New Content Economy, VentureBeat

I was reading the above article - by now you know I read a lot; philosophically agreeing with B. Bonin Bough’s thought "I'm so scared to become irrelevant so I try to spend time constantly learning what’s new" – and struggling with a massive case of writer’s block for this piece when an epiphany hit: as with most things, we’ve been here before! I actually agree with what is stated in the article, that we, as marketers, need to think through how we properly engage with our audiences given the latest advances in technology. But with that said, the fundamentals of marketing are just that: fundamental. They still hold true even if we think of "modern" ways of applying them.

Recently I had the privilege of presenting at TEDxUniversityofReno. My talk was called "How Technology Can Make Us More Human," focusing on how we, as people and as brands, are leveraging technology to enhance or interrupt our experiences with others. In preparing for my talk, I researched current data points, forward looking global trends – but I also reflected back on past predictions of what our future may hold. I re-read Fahrenheit 451 (written 1953) and 1984 (written 1949) - which, if you haven’t read in a while, I highly encourage you to do so! I’m also adding Brave New World to my "on deck" reading list – and was reminded how our human history is cyclical. Our discovery and re-discovery of how we engage with one another is both fascinating and humorous.

Currently in the headlines as being new and "must execute" trends:

  • Native Advertising and Content Marketing: While I’m sure it goes back further, native advertising in our modern world can be traced back to the 1930’s advent of radio soap operas - where the brands were in charge of creating original content with which to engage their target audience: housewives.
  • Social Technology: This is really a technological application of our human nature in "word-of-mouth" conversation. Applying this to promote products, brands, and services is as old as time immemorial. Yes, we need to continue to refine our methods of speaking authentically through these channels and yes, tools and analytics can help us do this more effectively, but the concept is not new.
  • Relationship Selling: The latest resurgence in building out sales teams is a trend resulting from our over-reliance on technology (marketing automation, etc.) and people’s true desire to seek advice from a human during complex buying decisions. This seems like common sense to me and apparently customers are beginning to demand it, as shown by the business models supporting the headcount to fund for these new teams.
  • Print Marketing: I’ve been saying this for a while now - print marketing is not dead. In fact, as we focus more on digital channels, the physical, tactical, and experiential nature of print makes it even more special, and I agree whole heartedly with Tessa Wegert in her recent ClickZ article on the topic.

What can we learn here? As we are faced with new and more complex marketing challenges, we can look to our past for inspiration on how best to use these seemingly new obstacles. Tried-and-true foundational marketing practices can be re-imagined and re-engineered to meet today’s expectations.

I love that that as people seek to engage with one another, they are looking for more "natural" ways to do so, a la Snapchat. "'You know this conversation we just had? Snapchat is just like that. It’s like real life. It’s just between us and you’re left with nothing but the memory.' It sort of puts the fun back in social again; just like when some of us were kids," says Steve Tobak.

So, as we look forward, take a moment to look back – we’re an amazing human race, and we have likely already thought through similar challenges.

PS – I also love that Millennials have this affinity for nostalgia; I consider it a proof point of the above, plus it makes me smile to see the toys from my own youth on the shelves today!

IBM’s Michelle Killebrew Discusses the Growth of Social Content Strategy

Social media and content marketing go together like peanut butter and jelly. However, creating a content strategy that takes advantage of social media’s growing power isn’t that easy.

In this week’s Innovator Series interview, I speak with Michelle Killebrew, program director of strategy and solutions for IBM’s Social Business arm. Killebrew has spent the last five years at IBM working to improve demand generation and social content marketing strategy on a global scale. Today, Killebrew answers my questions about her approach to social content marketing—as well as how IBM encourages employees to think differently.

Question: What are three ways you know your social content strategy isn’t working, and how can you course correct to see improved results?

1. Listen: The most basic evidence of engagement is a bidirectional conversation with your audience. If they are not conversing with you as a brand, then you are not engaging them in a discussion—you are talking at them through various channels. Be sure to have a community manager overseeing each of the channels that you are interacting in, and arm them with both the tools and policy to effectively respond to your audience. It’s important to understand how your audience wants to be engaged; not everyone uses the same platform to engage brands. And don’t forget to empower your employees beyond those community managers. Your employees can be your best brand advocates, and we all know it takes a village. Encourage all employees to take an active role in social engagement and content creation.

2. Analyze: Look at engagement metrics to see what is resonating. There are many tools and key performance indicators (KPIs) to investigate here; start small and expand to delve into deeper insights. Look at social interaction metrics to see which conversations are resonating, who’s in the conversation, and to determine your share of voice around a topic. Look at site metrics for engagement with the content that you’re driving to. Things like site visits, returning visitors, conversion metrics, sharing metrics can all start to inform how you optimize your content strategy.

3. Think and Learn: Hopefully most of us realize that just because we’ve always done things a certain way doesn’t mean we should persist. Things are changing so quickly that we need to think about why we’re creating content; in the B2B space we’ve traditionally created white papers, but what are we trying to achieve? We’re trying to inform a buyer about something, so we should consider if we can achieve the same goal more effectively with a video, an eBook, or an infographic. Remember that your audience is going to have different content preferences based on things like where they are in the buyer journey, device, learning style, and personal taste. We need to learn from each other. Read trade publications. Be observant of good marketing in action in both B2B and B2C spaces, think about what made it compelling, and apply those concepts to your initiatives. Understand how other marketers are applying strategies around marketing, social, and publication platforms.

Q: How can you improve user experience to surprise and delight your audience?

Understand Your Audience: Think through your audience’s likes and dislikes and create personas and profiles around them. Do you know their major turnoffs and turn ons? Before you even begin designing an experience, make sure you have a baseline understanding of who they are. Blanket campaigns are no longer effective today because we are trying to reach a “market of one.” You need to personalize the experience to their preferences. You should look to your analytics to fine-tune your understanding over time.

Provide Value: Make sure your experience provides the individual with value. You need to truly think of the person you are creating for: What is going to serve their needs? Can you answer a question or entertain them? Can you offer them content to save them time in a way your competitors can’t? People are busy; provide them value—they’ll appreciate it!

Be Beautiful: Literally. Your user experience needs to offer visual appeal and intuitive functionality. In order to compete for attention, your visual creative needs to be distinct and engaging. It needs to capture the eye and pull it in. The design of the user experience needs to be intentional, providing clear calls to action or value propositions for the individual.

Foster Engagement: If your content is good, people will want to share it with friends, peers, other brand loyalists, and, ultimately, the world. When you think about your user experience, part of that planning should be around planned sharability. Make it easy for your audience to share content, engage with others, co-create, and further the conversation, and make sure that you’re part of that conversation, listening to ideas, frustrations, and new opportunities.

Iterate and Optimize: Instrument your digital experiences, look at the metrics, and, more importantly still, take action on the insight! Look at what your audience is gravitating toward and create more of it. Be intentional in your pursuit to understand whether is it theme or format. For instance, is it a high-value microsegment of your audience that you should customize a new experience for? Never stop iterating.

Q: Can you offer some examples of successful IBM content marketing campaigns?

The Rethink Campaign: A demand generation campaign that was created based on the learnings of several years of campaign optimization (from Coremetrics, acquired by IBM in 2010). Thinking through the 11 new audience profiles in eight recently acquired companies we needed to speak to, the value proposition for each, and the type, quality, and quantity of content was the challenge here; its success was based on driving marketing qualified leads (MQL). Ultimately, MQL and sales qualified leads (SQL) were the success metrics here, but along the way we optimized based on conversion and interaction data.


The Economist Social Business Leaders: An IBM-sponsored awareness campaign that co-branded with The Economist and celebrated the achievements of social business leaders in a variety of accomplishments, including internal collaboration, sophisticated customer engagement, philanthropic endeavors, and more. The success of this campaign is based on visibility and awareness: social impressions, site visitor data, and influencer engagement.


Q: What advice do you have for marketers big and small when it comes to social content strategy?

I was asked at a conference recently if a midsize business should split its social channels as it ventured into a new direct-to-consumer model, adding to its bulk manufacturer-to-installer sales model. The product was the same, but the value proposition to each audience was drastically different. In this case, it was fashion versus function. My advice: Split the channels so that you can effectively engage with the audience’s unique perspective (if you can support the channels effectively). We all know that you can’t create a social engagement channel and then not monitor it for interaction, questions, trolls, or worse. If you don’t have the resources to split the channels to ensure that they are unique, develop a content marketing strategy that engages with each audience based on their specific value propositions, especially around key events. As your resources grow, prioritize the most effective channels to support (in a measured way) those audiences.

Q: Are there any in-house mantras for how IBM approaches this discipline?

One of the (many) wonderful things about IBM is that we truly believe our employees are the best representation of our brand; in fact, it has been said that IBM employees are our brand. To this end, we were one of the first companies to create a Social Guideline for employees to engage and advocate on the company’s behalf. These guidelines were created in 2005 (before Twitter, and only a year after Facebook was founded) by crowdsourcing across the hundreds of thousands of employees through our internal wiki. The intention was to unleash the smart and wonderful people of IBM to engage with users, buyers, inventors, thought leaders, students, and the world.

At IBM, our in-house mantra is “You are our brand: Go out and represent our brand!”