A Chicago native, Fred has spent the last 20+ years focused on marketing and specifically how marketing technology enables marketers to understand their customers and connect with them in more meaningful ways. I’ve worked in CPG, non-profits/associations, consultancies and agencies. Fred has been a consultant, a marketer, a leader, and a creator.
Today Fred works at a top 50 independent consulting agency where he leads alliances, analyst relations and marketing for the Digital Experience & Technology division. He has his own podcast, According to Fred, the Podcast, where he talks about the intersection of marketing and technology and how that affects brands and consumers alike.
Whether you are a seven-year-old trying to explain what you were just doing on a video game, to how you communicate in business and in life, we are all storytellers. Some brands tell their stories in more conservative ways, while other brands lean into the risk profile and experiment with what resonates with consumers. How should everyone, from individuals to big brands, tell stories, and tell them well? Fred Faulkner provides a perspective on how to balance the risks and opportunities that come with content marketing.
KRISTINA PODNAR, HOST: Hello everyone and thanks for joining me for another episode of The Power of Digital Policy. Today we are in for a great conversation, as I welcome Fred Faulkner to talk with us about digital content marketing. A Chicago native, Fred has spent the last 20 or so years focused on marketing and specifically how marketing technology enables marketers to understand their customers and connect with them in more meaningful ways. Fred has worked in consumer packaged goods, non-profits/associations, consultancies, and agencies. Fred has been a consultant, a marketer, a leader, and a creator.
Fred, welcome to the conversation. So, thanks for joining us, Fred on the Power of digital policy. I'm excited that you're here, and it's a Friday, so a bang for the buck on the scheduling.
FRED FAULKNER, GUEST: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Yeah, Friday morning is great. Let's get this started right for the weekend.
KRISTINA: I'm with you. So, Fred, your tagline is, you know, the world is changing fast, but the future is bright, which I love, that's the right way to kind of think about things, given our current situation. And I think you're right. But should the tagline be the world is changing fast, but the question is: is the future still bright, according to Fred?
FRED: The great question. I'm still trying to maybe work on some of that, but I'm usually a generally a more optimistic kind of guy. So I still think the future is bright, for sure, because I think with every challenge comes opportunity so, you know, whether it's individuals or businesses and companies alike, we're all facing a ton of challenge right now personally, professionally and but there's always an opportunity to kind of grow out of it. And that means sometimes reflecting on what you're personally doing, and how to grow whether it's making changes at the office and at work to continue to emerge out of what we're dealing with stronger, faster, better. And so no matter how big or so small we're here to weather these storms and I think we've proven through past challenges and our economy and challenges to the business world. We come out of this thing. So optimistically, are is a future still bright? Absolutely. Is it according to me? I think you know overall I think everyone can kind of agree. Maybe if you are the optimistic side, we're going to come out of this thing bigger, brighter, stronger and I think the future is still very much bright.
KRISTINA: I love that. Well, I'm going to go with you and be on the optimistic side of things. I'm curious, tell us just a little bit more about the tagline "According to Fred" because you just mentioned businesses, individuals, personal lives, etc. How important do you think it is for people to be able to brand themselves on a personal level as well as in a business context. You've been able to do a great job 360° all around, what people, what should people be thinking about should be thinking about branding themselves and their business?
FRED: It's a great question. I think it really kind of comes down to your ambition. Right? So, I think everyone isn't influencer in their own way. So don't think of this as like an influencer marketing answer but everyone influences somebody and sometimes that is you may get your own brand just by the pure nature of who you are and I mean think of the you're the mayor of the neighborhood because you know, everything that's going on, you know, so Sally Mayor, might be your brand but in this particular case If you're looking at your career, if you're looking at kind of who you want to be in a your public kind of space, you know, I've done some speaking, I kind of prolific on social media, I certainly try to narrow niche my own personal brand and that's very career ambitious. The name "According to Fred" and how I'm kind of branding it as a funny kind of story, I'll share in a second, but I think individuals by nature, either going to get a personal brand by the pure kind of who you are and then I think others can shape who you are, and what your brand to be in the public place, outside of your family life or in your work life or a kind of a balance between both. So, I think it's important to have it whether it is whether you decide consciously to have it or not, it's a different story for me. I wanted to have a brand that will help if I decide to do more speaking or any kind of give that kind of public persona. So "According to Fred" was the way to do it. How I got the "According to Fred" or how I kind of settled on that because I've had a couple of different websites in the past and tried differently, you know ways to brand it per se but how I got the "According to Fred" as I actually happen to be a really big fan of the show "According to Jim" back in the day. Jim Belushi is a Chicago native. And so, it was a really good show and for one day, I just kind of came to this idea, like what if I just redid it as "According to Fred" because it's just a perspective at the end of the day. All I'm doing is sharing my perspective on what I think, you know the topics I was marketing, where there's technology, whether it's, you know, family life, whether it's where your business is going, it's a personal opinion, back by researcher insights that I've kind of developed over time, but it is a personal opinion. So I don't want to do you know be perceived as anything other than that. The "According to Fred" has happened to come into play by the pure fact that like there was a show that I really gravitated to and just decided to replace, one of the words in the actual name of it.
KRISTINA: So that's a great tagline, but it's also a really great story. So as a marketer, do you think that all marketers need to be good storytellers, whether their storytelling for themselves or for a business?
FRED: I think by nature we are storytellers, I think everyone is, whether you are a seven-year-old trying to explain what you were just doing on a video game, to how you communicate in business and in life think we all are all storytellers. Now, what varying level degree, I think we can all know that there's a varying talent of what storytelling and what storytelling can be so I would actually argue, I'm not a great storyteller in some cases least when it comes to creative writing for marketing purposes, but I certainly can and articulate points and have us tell a story through presentations or through conversations like this. So, I think it's important for everyone who acknowledges that storytelling is an important part of business and communications and marketing in general. What level of degree that you are storyteller, I don't think everyone has to be a great storyteller? I think that's why we have teams instead of individuals for everything or you hire out, or your freelance is because some people are really good at it. So, as marketers, I don't think every CMO needs to be a great storyteller. I think every marketer and maybe a CMO needs to understand what a great story is and how it applies to their brand and how that helps tell a brand story. So, I think storytelling is crucial in the world of business and specifically the world of marketing, but I don't think everyone needs to be specifically a great storyteller themselves.
KRISTINA: How important is it to understand and be able to tell the story, and how do you actually get from telling the story to really good content that engages users, that has resonation with them? Is it something that you develop is it that you hire out? What are you looking for in terms of skill set and bringing that all together?
FRED: Sure, so I would say the way you kind of bring it all together and how you look at it and starts with your understanding and firm conviction to understanding what your brand is and the brand purpose and how the story can formulate around that. So that really comes from your leadership, it comes from your team's, it comes from your overall group that your organization and saying: we all agree this is our brand purpose. We all agree this is who we are and what we stand for, and so how then we tell that story in the marketplace the content that surrounds that be always ladder up to what that narrative ends up being. And, whether you are freelancing and bringing in outside people because you're not seeing the same type of content production that's necessary use kind of understand your team skill sets to know whether that's best to bring in a true storyteller or content writer or team that can help you create that story but is making sure that you are rooted in what that narrative needs to be is that I was around your purpose. The content itself then really depends on who your audience, where they want to engage with, how they want to consume the content we've gone from a very narrative, written word into now video is the most engaging thing and you know, whether it's you know doing YouTube videos or production videos or if it's Tik Tok these days, short-form, kind of meme content, that all content still needs a ladder up to who you are as a brand and what it means in such as a purpose, and so, it's really gonna be that fundamental narrative understanding who the customer is in that story. And then, how does the content resonate with your audience? And that's a balance of art and science of storytelling because the art is the narrative and getting the content created, the science is then using technology and other components of the martech stack to understand the deployment, the optimization, the consumption, and then how is it working and not working with your audience and making adjustments along the way. And that's really two sets of minds that come together because I think storytelling and creative teams think very differently than the data scientists and the marketers that sometimes have to deploy that and that kind of is a very interesting dynamic in today's world because those skill sets continue to evolve and there's no one single skill set that that can really do it all well. You need to kind of bring these teams together or higher or bring in outside people that do the best to make it happen.
KRISTINA: How do you best unite those two skill sets. I mean, how do you bring together the storytellers and the martech folks? I mean, what is the formula? Is there one?
FRED: I don't know if there is one. I'm sure anyone in our agency side, probably say well, of course, there's a formula for that. I would probably, the formula very much changes and I think that changes for a variety of reasons, look at this way. How many different ways can you make a chocolate chip cookie? A lot, right? But it comes down to some fundamental ingredients; you need flour, you need sugar, depends on how many sticks of butter you want to use, there's always chocolate chips in there. But you know, you can have the really big. You can have the short thick ones. There's a lot of different ways. You can make a chocolate chip cookie, but at the same time, chocolate chip cookies are really good. And so I think the look at it the same way, right? You need the components of that the base, you need flour, you need sugar and that might be the part of the team that you build. You know, but the fundamental understanding is you're making a chocolate chip cookie, and you're going to experiment that this week. We're going to make this type of chocolate chip cookie. And then we're gonna see how it goes on the market and like, oh, we know some people were like this, but we've actually not had many sales because we change the recipe. So bringing those teams together, I think it's you know, who's the best baker, who knows how to use that oven as best possible who knows ingredients, a person who's the best kind of the person's going to experiment with the recipe and then how do you deploy it? And how do you have your stain that side of the street saying we're selling cookies with lemonade this week, and give us feedback? How do you like the cookie? So weird analogy maybe but at the same time, I think it's bringing those teams together comes on, the first is you're making a cookie and the second so everyone understands what we're doing and then assembling the teams that can bring in the different value propositions to see what makes the best cookie possible.
KRISTINA: So you're making my heart go pitter-patter, and you're using a great analogy because to me, a digital policy is all about creating those guardrails or that framework and the beauty and the power there, of course, is, that you can define the kind of outliers, the areas where I don't want you to go, but then within that framework, there's so much freedom, and it's really an opportunity, for creativity, for innovation, for growth. And so if you want to get crazy and add some walnuts or some different types of nuts to your cookies, you can do that right because
we fundamentally agree that there's some flour, some butter, some chocolate chips, because we're making chocolate chip cookies, but then it's up to individuals to do that. Do you see people could have set up those types of frameworks in the storytelling and the martech space, where there's a good balance between really what are we not to be doing and then let's get really creative? Let's go get those creative juices going and let's do some really fun stuff, or do you still see it more of a "mother, may I" permission kind of environment? What do you see out there?
FRED: I see both. Here's a great example; it just happens to be a coincidence. We're going to take the brand Wendy's, right, Wendy's has been around for decades. We all know Wendy's face for the restaurant, the red pigtails, they make great burgers, they've experimented, they're doing breakfast now because I want to keep up the competition, but here's the interesting thing about Wendy's because they're an iconic brand. If you're familiar with their social media, they do some pretty innovative things. They're known to be the push the limits and today happens to be in Wendy's World National Roast Day. So this is where everyone kind of comes out and says, hey, Wendy's, roast me and their social media team goes to town, and it gets pretty savage, and it gets pretty epic on some of these responses and what the social media team will respond back to people on Twitter, you know with basically roasting them. Is that what Wendy's wants to be ironically, known for? No, but they're known for taking social media and being able to apply it to their audience in a way that engages them and is those that audience is loyal to the brand with the flavor of satire that they will bring to the table that complements their established kind of known brand as being a fast-food chain that is different than McDonald's and different than Burger King and different than a Chick-fil-A and how they're addressing in providing a service to the market. But I guarantee you that social media team has a guardrail, they know that there's probably limit, they probably push that limit all the time, and I'm sure their digital policy and legal teams are always on edge on whatever today's day is for the Roast day, but they've been given the freedom, the flexibility to do that. Conversely, you can look at a lot of other brands that will never go there at all with that because they've kind of said: our brand stands for this, and we don't go down that road. So our policy guardrails are going to be, "you gotta check through legal, you got to go through those, we don't want to get sued," and so they are there's definitely that kind of perspective and I'm probably says more companies that were well-established companies that have been around for years and decades and hundreds of years, they're probably in that more of that camp because of the traditionalism of probably like still where their brand is in over such a long period of time versus maybe newer brands that are willing to address an audience in a very different more liberal way, but much more kind of experimental way. So I see a lot of it in both perspectives, and I think both flavors work because again, I think it still comes down to where is your audience? And how do they want to engage with you and Wendy's case it's you know can be anywhere from a drive-through and donating two dollars to get free Frosty's for a year, free small Frosty's if you donate to their cause and then you have the flip side, you can get roasted on social media by their social media managers. That is a very different type of brand engagement than established Fortune 50 Healthcare company that is very different purpose, very different what they're trying to accomplish, but they're engaging in a very different way with their audience at the same time.
KRISTINA: So regardless of which camp you are in, whether you're more conservative and maybe a little bit more sensitive to risk or if you're willing to kind of freewheel it a little bit more and take some risks and experiment in both instances I think you need a really strong martech stack, you need to actually be able to stand where you are, where you're going, what's resonating, what's not. You tend to really specialize in this area and do well but looking at that marketing technology landscape, I mean it's vast, it's a little bit crazy. It seems crazy, right 8000 solutions and growing. What do you think the current state is, and how much of that martech people really adopting and using fully? Versus, how much do you think we ought to be?
FRED: That landscape infographic has gotten ridiculous. But in a good way like it's fascinating to see how it's grown over the years and Scott Brinker has done an amazing job and his team has done an amazing job of growing that, but the categories have changed so much as well. I mean, that list started very differently and showed different categories than those that are on there now. You have sales enablement software which was never on there, in the first iteration of it. And they've definitely broken kind of more front-office, back-office kind of technology is that they cover it and track. I think companies when they look at that get intimidated. They try to figure out what they really need and how they kind of stitch that together. I'll say if everyone's looking at their marketing technology stack and they're looking at what they really need. You're not going to need anything from every piece of a category that they have there, certainly the list at 8,000 this year will be very interesting to see how that looks and next year and I say that because there's a lot of startups on that list. I mean, he doesn't even get to his team is in getting to everybody but there's a startup and given the current state and how now companies are retracting spending and doing some of just internal looking and what they need. I'll be very interesting to see how that list grows next year if it contracts and get smaller in 2021. But as you look at like where companies need to go, I mean you need some of this stuff. There's just there's an inevitable right you need CRMs. You need content management. You need some level of monitoring and tracking, and so there's probably some fundamental categories everyone needs to have: people management, analytics, content creation, content distribution, fundamentals right there, after that then it gets into what else do you want to stitch together to make your operations more efficient. You can give more information about your customers. You can have better insights to make better business decisions. And that is probably, what the MarTech list has shown over the last, six years and what has reiterated is that we're marketing used to be: I have my budget and have my money, and "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half." and I forget who actually said it first. Now is like, if you don't know where your money is going and how it's being spent and how you're getting a return on your investment, you don't have the right people running your MarTech stack because it can it's entirely possible to stitch everything together and to understand what is going on with your content creation and how it's being effectively or not used and I think if there's anything with this landscape has shown us is that that now is a reality. The question is how many pieces of information you want to stitch together to make sure you can have that picture as holistic as possible.
KRISTINA: And that journey seems to be taking a really long time for people, everybody kind of says we're in this digital transformation. I'm kind of wondering how many people actually understand what the end state looks like. You are a partner at ICF Next, you are making the following statement: "We're the changemakers" tell me more about really what you think. It is needed for customers to change. How are you changing them? Are they changing themselves, and do they actually understand what the end state is?
FRED: That's a great question. Digital transformation is a big word. It's digital and is transformation. I look at this part of this is a personal view, but I think part of it is something that we stand by at ICF Next too. And I'll get to the changemaker component here in a second, but you know digital transformation, I think companies that we look at it because they want a budget for it. Right? We have to transform; we have to do something to help, to bring ourselves up with our competition. Sometimes I think that transformation story is misguided because they think that they're it's just about updating systems that they haven't updated in years and it is not focused in the root component, which is customer obsession. And what is it that you're doing in the best instance for your customer? Because without customers, your company doesn't exist. So as you are changing, you are transforming your organization, whether its technology you are using, whether it's how you're structuring your organization from an organizational perspective, how it's the culture you're creating, are your breaking down silos. It always comes down to the fundamental factor that you're creating; your business exists because you're creating something of value that a customer wants to buy from you. And so, but your customers change to, right, so the customer you started with and maybe 1970 is not the same customer that is buying from even 2019, and I say that from two lenses, one is that those companies might evolve, your product lines might evolve, your services might evolve. But the second is the actual person who's buying those services from you is not the same person, how they consume content, what they find valuable, what elements of the sales process they believe is more important. What is the ROI that you're giving them on the product and service that you're delivering, it evolves as well. And so to say the transformation is, what is the vision was to end state, I don't know if there's a true vision of end state outside, of what are the KPIs and what are the metrics and one of the business outcomes that you are continually wanting to monitor to know that whatever you're doing is working and so you get to continually transform as those metrics fall below or above what your threshold is of what you deem success to be. So as we look at ourselves as changemakers at ICF Next is if you're looking to evolve and know what those business outcomes are or maybe re-identify with those business outcomes are, we are to help you through that change. Our expertise, our skills, our teams we bring to the table are here to guide you through and challenge you in some cases with insights and respectfully kind of challenge maybe some of your own preconceived notions, or we've always done it this way kind of moments and saying, but there might be a better way of engaging with your audience and creating more meaningful outcomes for your business, and that does require change and change is constant. It is not something that stops, and when you stop chance, these are your competition isn't, and they're going to be then taking your customers away from you. So that's a that's kind of that combination of digital transformation. Yes, transformation happens transformation will always happen because if you'd stop transforming, your competition will catch up and take you over, but at the same time, your customers are transforming, and they're changing, and you need to always continually adopt. That's not an annual budget cycle, that is a continuous Improvement. And if your culture in your company can adopt that mentality that is who you're seeing is be more successful in the long run than let's just take it one budget year at a time.
KRISTINA: I love the fact that you're actually bringing the business outcomes aspect into this conversation, and you mentioned analytics as well. A lot of organizations are stuck in very tactical analytics and KPI gathering. It seems like folks aren't really as focused on the business outcomes and ensuring that the investment in digital is directly reflected in the ROI that the business expects. If we're moving beyond digital transformation and moving probably even into something that's more customer-centric, more omni-channel, how do you see the KPI is changing to support that, what metrics should businesses be looking at? What are you looking at for key indicators around customer engagement?
FRED: I think the indicators vary by industry to industry, but I think it comes down to you. There's a fundamental curve that you are still always trying to work towards, which is attract, acquire, retain. And if for whatever reason you lose a customer, trying to re-engage and bring them back, but ultimately you look at things like on a participation curve. It was getting someone to conversion, and then there's getting someone to actually be loyal has an outcome maybe not on some program per se being an activist for you then having a more of a participatory relationship with that brand with you as a company. So maturity is all across that spectrum and the business outcomes really I think come down to what KPIs, it's just looking at what's the cost of your, it still comes on some of the fundamentals right now. How much does it cost you to acquire a customer? How much does it cost you to retain one? How much does it cost to bring on new product lines and services and get more upsell, cross-sell, and those are kind of the fundamentals that continue to do, but you know, some of the trials will be like, where is your market share going? Are you stealing it from your competition? Are you growing, are you shrinking in that market share with stock prices will come into play. So there's no different KPIs along that spectrum of every component but the business outcome still really comes down to I think is: are your customers, as loyal to you as possible versus going someplace else in a world where you can switching costs in some cases be so easy and so simple to actually having them participate with you as a brand and being your advocates in an extension of you and your company, that's an intangible outcome, but it has such a tangible effect on your organization. If you can get your customers to be almost part of your team without paying them, to be part of your team, that is kind of like the pantheon of where we're all trying to get to you in a participation curve, is beyond loyalty. Yes. I'm going to continue to buy Toms shoes because Toms Shoes gives shoes away but to advocate your friends: Man, you really should be Toms shoes. So that point where Toms Shoes is talking to you about what you love about that brand and your listening, they're listening to you when you're giving that feedback and then having that almost that whole other level the kind of where you have that affinity and identity with that brand that is something you just can't buy, but that outcome is amazing.
KRISTINA: Customers are obviously part of your team, or they should be as you pointed out. But so our employees, I'm just wondering if you're a great evangelist for your own brand. We all know, "According to Fred," but you are a great evangelist for ICF Next and every time I look at your online comments or things that you're posting. It's really the epitome to me of what employees can do for a brand. It's almost as if you're in lockstep with your company in what you're portraying in the digital space. How do you achieve that? Is that a Fred thing, or is that an ICF Next cultural model thing, and how can other organizations model that because like you said, it's a customer should be on your team effort. But so should probably employees, right?
FRED: Employees are absolutely critical to brand success. If you do to have your teams wanting to come to work to do something to do their job to go above and beyond what their job is, that is where you will struggle right you'll struggle with your own retention of your employees will struggle. Well, with the cost of onboarding new employees all the time. It's a challenge, but the companies that have to get the culture part, right certainly win. They win better. They win more. They win more often. For ICF, and ICF Next specifically, that comes down to some of the things that I talked about a little bit earlier, which is we have a narrative, now our narratives continue to evolve as it should, but ICF's narrative hasn't. We've been around since 1967 and have been very focused on building a more resilient world, and when you can have your part of a storyline that says that we helped create the Energy Star program. We have helped thousands and hundreds of thousands of individuals through our disaster management work in relief work with FEMA to help with hurricanes Rita in the fundraiser replenishment down in New Orleans and just you know, something superstorm Sandy, and with the stuff, we've done down in Puerto Rico. They mean from a public service side, you can't help but be proud of the work that we do around that and how that we extend that into your our agency side with ICF Next you get to work with amazing brands like Skittles and Planters and the CPG stuff is easy, but even like companies that we work with on manufacturing or in health care or in energy. There's a ton of brands that we work with that you don't know of, but they're doing amazing things that help move the world in a better place. And so part of that is a little bit of me, right? I'm a marketer by heart. I want to tell stories. I want to kind of advocate for our brand and part of it is this is my job, but also part of it is, we have an employee engagement program and advocacy program that we really want to arm a lot of our employees with the stories to tell, and the stories to share. And they should be proud of what we're doing as an organization, and that helps in a variety of ways. I mean one, it just shows that we all believe in what we're trying to accomplish, and then the second is I think brands want to work with companies that have employees that are that engaged as well. So it kind of really comes full circle from the sunset. It helps us as an organization just keep moving in the right direction and having that employee passion, and the second part is I think brands really like to work with companies that have that passion themselves. They want to be affiliated with brands and agencies that they can bring that to the table to help them in their organization. So it is a little bit of both. I think part of it is very much me, but I think part of it is very much how we instituted some cultural things here at ICF from the beginning and that is a part of his narrative part of his who we are as an organization and the composition of our services and who we bring to the table.
KRISTINA: That's really living in the brand. And so Fred one last question for you because I'm really curious from your personal perspective or even it from the ICF perspective. What is this story that brands are not telling enough or telling it all? What is it that you want to see a brand telling more of?
FRED: That's a really hard question to answer. You know, I love brands be able to tell is just staying to their fundamental truth, right? This is definitely a personal view, so I can't speak on ICF behalf on this one. I don't like brands that shift their narrative to take advantage of that FOMO kind of scenario of like there's something hot that's going on right now, you know to try and engage an audience that they think they want to get to that they're not and they're telling stories that aren't true to who they are. I don't like seeing those because I think it's not it doesn't feel authentic, you know brains hopping on all these I mean, I don't have a specific example brands like well, I use me. I'm not hopping on Tick-Tock anytime soon because one frankly, I just don't believe its content that needs to be created to help accelerate my brand. I don't think it's content that needs to be accelerated outside of if you want to, you know, it's hot and it's fun, but I don't feel that that is an extension of something that I need to be doing to connect with my audience. But there's a lot of brands that feel they do for whatever reason right. They want to be the viral of next hit viral hit of something. They want to garner that media attention. They want to get written up on Mashable or some other BuzzFeed or something else. That's to me, that's extending a story that doesn't need to be told.
KRISTINA: Thanks so much for sharing your story today and definitely helping us break down the brands, the content, the MarTech and all other things that we need to know about from a storytelling and a business perspective because that's what it comes down to at the end of the day. I appreciate your time, and looking forward to having you back again soon.