The Power of Customer Connections

January 3, 2023
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At startups, marketing is often deemphasized compared to product development, meaning marketing teams often receive less money and less attention than other parts of the business. Marketing, though, can have a massive impact on whether or not a product succeeds. After all, if no one knows about your product, can it succeed?

In this episode, host Rachael Lewis-Krisky speaks to Wendy Zajack (she/her), Professor of Marketing and Media Relations at Georgetown University, about the best way for a company to focus on impactful and appropriate marketing strategies with limited resources.

With more than 20 years of corporate experience in public relations, marketing, media relations, and internal communications, Wendy thrives on working to make complex topics easy to understand, exciting, and relevant to broad audiences. Now, as a Faculty Director and Associate Professor of the Practice for Integrated Marketing Communications and a Design Management Communications program at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies, she now spends her time thinking about the intersection of education, communications, and technology and how to thoughtfully deliver tailored, personalized and impactful curriculum to adult learners.

Wendy Zajack Professor Wendy Zajack with students at their graduation.

Episode transcript.

[00:00:00] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: Welcome to ‘Making Work Work,’ the DigitalOcean Podcast, where we explore everything about work - the tech that makes it possible and the people that make it happen. And of course, that’s never as simple as it sounds. I’m your host, Rachael Lewis-Krisky.

[00:00:14] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : For startups, marketing can be under prioritized compared to product development. And granted, without a great product there isn’t anything to market. But with less money or less attention given to marketing than other parts of the business, how can you successfully get your product out there?

I’m speaking with Wendy Zajack, Professor of Marketing and Media Relations at Georgetown University, about the best way for a company to develop impactful marketing strategies with limited resources.

Let’s dive.

Professor Wendy, welcome to ‘Making Work Work.’

[00:01:17] Wendy Zajack: Thanks so much. I’m thrilled to be here.

[00:01:19] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : For me in particular, I’m very excited to talk to you because I’m actually in grad school right now along with working at Digital Ocean. I’m a graduate student at University of Southern California, and I always love the spirit of academia. It’s kind of addictive even, because you get to really suss out a topic, in a way that sometimes in your job, you don’t get to overly analyze . So I’m really excited for you to kind of bring that spirit on our show and talk about marketing in this unique way.

[00:01:45] Wendy Zajack: Yeah. And I think, um, it’s such a great point. I like you, I got my Master’s degrees, part-time, so I’m a huge advocate, if that’s a possibility, doing it that way. I think I love learning and I think the thing that’s so cool about marketing and communications to me is that it’s a field where no matter what, you have to keep learning. So if you can do that in a academic setting, I think that’s amazing.

But I also think there’s so many great ways to continue to learn out there. Free content, webinars, um, just kind of watching what’s happening in the world. So it’s a field where you can never stop, uh, if you wanna be really good at it.

[00:02:28] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : And speaking of learning new things, there’s always new trends in marketing. Most recently we’re seeing social media shopping, AI, content marketing as examples of these kind of newer, um, approaches to reaching audiences. How important is it that, startups and marketers on smaller teams stay in tune with these ever changing trends?

Or even is it risky and kind of too time consuming for smaller teams where consistency and like one straightforward strategy might be more appropriate when they have less resources.

[00:02:59] Wendy Zajack: Yeah, it’s a super great question and maybe the good news side of it is that big and small companies are all in the same boat here. Everyone is trying to figure out what’s the next great thing? What trend should I jump on? Should I be making TikToks? Should I be in the metaverse? Um, and so I think being aware of everything that’s happening out there is really, really important.

The example I always think about is, um, during Covid QR codes, which had previously kind of felt dead, um, suddenly made an unbelievable emergence. I wouldn’t have predicted it. I don’t know that anyone was saying, Hey, QR codes are gonna be the next big thing, 'cause they had kind of been around for a while and they couldn’t find their place.

Suddenly you have a pandemic. You have restaurants that are like, Ew, we don’t wanna print menus because we don’t like germs anymore. And suddenly QR codes have been everywhere and it’s really become a part of sort of the way we live. So you wanna be aware of what’s happening and then you wanna watch what’s going on.

And I think if you’re a small business, particularly because you have such limited time, you have such limited resource, watch where your customers are and what they are doing. Marketing to me is really about figuring out where your customers are and where they’re living and how they’re living.

So, you know, if they’re living in the metaverse, and there’s certainly some small businesses that have customers living in the metaverse, I’m thinking about gamers, right? You need to be in the metaverse. That’s where your customers are living and you need to be marketing in there. Everybody else right now, you know, I think it’s a wait and see.

Do I think it will? I do, do I think it’s gonna happen in the next, two years? I’m not sure. And I think it’s gonna depend on what kind of business you are and what your customers are looking for from you.

[00:04:59] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : Would you say there’s a sort of assumption that a organization has to be in every channel to reach all audiences and have the same strategy for all platforms? Is that a mistake that you see that’s pretty typical?

[00:05:11] Wendy Zajack: Yeah, I see that. all the time. And again, I don’t wanna just pin it on startups because I see companies doing the same thing. How many of us have gone to, you know, a brand that we might like and go to, maybe their Instagram channel? And there isn’t much happening on it, right? They’re not really doing a lot with it, but they have one. But it’s kind of been abandoned.

So I, I think, yes, I think that we feel like, we need to be everywhere, right? We wanna plaster our messaging everywhere because we’re not sure where people are gonna see it. And that absolutely is a real challenge of marketing. But I think, again, we wanna be driven by where our customer is living and what they’re doing and focus on the channels- and by channel I mean, you know, whatever the social media, it could be the newspaper if they’re older customers. It could be tv, it could be anything, right? We wanna think about what are the spaces and places that they’re kind of hanging out in and we wanna be able to reach out to them there.

Do a few things really well, don’t do a lot of things poorly. And I’ve done it myself as a marketer, even in big companies, you spread yourself so thin that you’re not really doing a good job anywhere. Take a breath. Take a step back- and I know this could be super hard for a business that’s just going forward and running all the time- and really think about what are the spaces that my customers are already interacting with me in, um, and can I do a better job there and do more things there? Then as you grow and maybe you get budget and maybe you get staff, you can look at expanding that out.

[00:06:56] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : I appreciate that that advice applies to all size of businesses.

[00:07:01] Wendy Zajack: exactly. I, I think that, you know, the the marketing, I like to say, and I tell my students this all the time, there is an art to it and there’s a science to it. So the science are all the analytics and data that we can think about and research that we can do. And, when you pop into even like an Instagram or Facebook or Google Analytics, right, they give you all these kind of, uh, areas and you can check off all these boxes and try to get it to your customers.

But then there’s also the art, right? There is the piece about figuring out a, an interesting message, a way to reach out. Maybe something different that’s gonna help you cut through the clutter. So I think that as we’re thinking about marketing, we don’t wanna forget about either side. We wanna make sure that we’re kind of balanced in the art and the science of it.

[00:07:52] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : Absolutely. To sort of bring that as a broad concept down to earth a little bit, do you have a good example that might help listeners contextualize this a little bit.

[00:08:00] Wendy Zajack: Yes. So, um, for me, part of this kind of process in thinking about a company, I always start with who is my customer? I work with a lot of students that are working with startups. I teach a class that’s called Capstone, where our students are consulting with a lot of different companies. And the company will tell the student, Well, my audience is kind of everything, everything, everyone. Right? And I can understand how you feel that way.

Uh, let’s take for example, an ice cream shop in DC. You standing outside of it, you might really see everyone walking up. So it’s hard to think about, okay, well who is sort of that, that ultimate customer?

So you wanna think about within those ice cream lovers, who are the ones that are really coming all the time? Are they families? Maybe? If you’re in a spot in DC maybe where it’s a lot of, um, you know, single people, maybe it’s sort of single people that are just looking for a treat. So, start understanding not just how to get the message out there, but who do I wanna get the message out to? Right? and I think if you start there with that, who that customer is, then I like to think about, okay, how do I get my message out about my great product, my great service, and find them in the space that they’re in.

If you think about your daily life, I’ve never found all the sources for these, but some people say you are exposed to somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 messages a day. And that could be anything that could be getting out of the metro and seeing a billboard, that could be a popup, that could be an Instagram ad, that could be anything.

So imagine as a company, I’m competing for your time with those 8,000 other messages that are happening throughout your day and I wanna make sure that I’m. Reaching out to the people that are best, ready to hear that my ice cream lovers and that are really going to connect with my brand and connect with my message.

And in a way, it’s so simple of a concept, , and it sounds, if I’m saying it, you might be thinking, Well, that sounds super obvious, Wendy, of course. But in reality, to do it and to do it well is incredibly hard and really requires deep understanding of what your customers are doing.

We’re so focused sometimes on what our offer is, what our product is, and what we’re delivering, that we forget that we are delivering all that to a consumer. And whether that’s consumer is a business, whether that consumer is a government, they’re actually a person. And So I have to think about what, how do I get them to pay attention to what I’m saying in the course of their 5,000 to 8,000 message day?

[00:11:03] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : There’s this principle from entrepreneurial author and speaker Steven Blank, where he says, “Get out of the building”; Meaning you’re not gonna learn everything about your customers by just sitting on your computer. So do you think there’s too much focus on digital marketing or are there other touch points that we should also include in our strategies.

[00:11:21] Wendy Zajack: Yeah. And I, I think there are parts of marketing as we’re talking about in the beginning that are constantly changing—new channels, right? If I think about throughout my life, social media didn’t exist when I was in my twenties. Cell phones barely existed, right?

So there’s so many different ways that now we can communicate, but at the end of the day, we’re still communicating with a human being, and I could not agree more that talking to them, interacting with them, watching them; there’s still nothing better. And I love marketing for that reason because you know, human beings are predictably unpredictable. We do weird things. we do unexpected things. Um, and so I think that’s the behaviors that marketers really need to think about.

And even if you are, uh, doing marketing as a piece of something else, which in a lot of small businesses, you’re thinking about sales and then you’re thinking about marketing, right? You can still really think about that customer. I think couple things are gonna happen. It’s also gonna bring you really cool, innovative business ideas.

I mentor with a group of high school students that are in an entrepreneurship program in northern Virginia, and that’s the first thing I tell them when they’re doing interviews. I said, It doesn’t even matter to me what your questions are. Listen to what your interviewees are saying, because you may hear completely different problems than you were thinking you were solving.

And so I think this, this understanding and dialogue is really important.

Again, I’m sympathetic. If I’m running a small business, I’m thinking about getting my product together. I’m thinking about staff. I’m thinking about finances, funding. But I think giving it even a little bit of time, and a little bit of thought will pay off in all those other spaces as well.

[00:13:21] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : Absolutely. And, it’s clear from what you’re sharing that startups and SMBs can end up doing everything everywhere all the time, and in the process validate that approach through probably their data. So I wanna know if you can talk a little bit about almost an obsession with, you know, digital marketing, KPIs, and analytics. Um, and is that almost to a fault at times?

[00:13:45] Wendy Zajack: Yeah. it’s a great question and I think something that’s changed a lot in my career in this space. Now we have endless data. And yes, we can become analysis paralysis. We can become obsessed with looking for exactly that right market, that right channel.

Um, I think data. is amazing because it can tell you very quickly if you’re in a space that nothing’s happening. So for example, as population shift, and I’ll, I’ll use Facebook as the example. When you’re an old Gen Xer, like me, I started on Facebook. I’m still on Facebook, right? I live there. It’s still a way that I communicate with my friends. If you . Ask my kids why they’re on Facebook and they’re all Gen Zs. So this is the kind of new and up and coming generation, 24 years old and down. They would be like, The only reason I’m on Facebook is to communicate with you and Nana.

So I think as we’re thinking about data and looking at that, if I’m a younger brand and if my, say my audience is millennials or, or even Gen Z and I have a Facebook page and no one’s coming to it, that’s a really useful piece of data. Maybe I don’t need to have that page, or maybe I don’t need to spend as much time in that space. Right? If on the other hand, I’m seeing all my customers on TikTok, maybe that’s an area that I need to explore, if I’m really trying to get at that Gen Z population. So I think data can be super useful.

It can also tell me if I’m, I’m putting out messaging on whatever platform and people are interacting and engaging with me, then I can say, Okay, wow, they really content that’s about this, right? You know, I always say to my students, Put dogs in something and like the hits will go way up, right? Back in the stone ages when I was doing a lot of website blogging, I looked at my analytics and I said, What topics are getting the most reads? So I’m gonna wanna lean into those topics, right? If I have a topic that I find interesting, but nobody else does, I probably wanna do less of it.

So I think data is amazing, we absolutely should be looking at it, but I think it’s not gonna tell us the exact answer. It’s not gonna tell us who we need to target specifically for our unique product. It’s gonna just help guide us to know that what we’re doing is on the right track. And then because it’s marketing we need to be flexible and ready to pivot.

There have been so many times in my career where I thought, This is it. This is amazing. I love this campaign. It’s gonna just be amazing. And it wasn’t. And there were other times where I was like, I don’t know. Not sure this is gonna fly. And it did. so I always think there’s not really a right or wrong in any of it. It’s what’s working in your market and with the customers that you’re trying to reach.

[00:16:51] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : So if analytics aren’t the only thing that a marketing team should be or a marketing solo person should be focusing on, what kind of self reflection can an organization do to figure out an impactful strategy that doesn’t stretch their resources too thin?

[00:17:07] Wendy Zajack: Yeah, and I, I mean this is, so, this is sort of the ultimate question in a way. I think everything to me starts with research. And research I think can be a scary term for some people 'cause they’re thinking, they’re remembering those library days. But it’s really thinking again about that obsessive focus on the customer. Who is it? and what am I trying to get them to do and where are they?

And you can use all the things we’ve talked about. You can use your analytics. You can use your web metrics. You can use your social media accounts if you have them. You can use point of sale, if you’re, uh, running a restaurant, right, you can use all those kind of data points.

But obsessive focus about your customer first and foremost.

[00:17:54] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : It sounds like you’ve seen organizations kind of write their goals and make assumptions about their audience and what they want to achieve, and then create a strategy around that and then say, what is the analytics and how did that strategy do? So it’s sort of like they’re working backwards. Whereas maybe there should have been research and data points and customer validation first, that then informs the strategy. So they’re not basing all this money and time on an assumption.

[00:18:22] Wendy Zajack: Absolutely. I came from the telecom industry, so the average life cycle of a product in telecom is a decade. 10 years. So it’s gonna be in the market for a long, long time, and there’s not gonna be a lot opportunity to refresh. The development teams would literally go away for a year and say, Here’s the product. So it’s insane, right? Because as things are changing so rapidly now, you can’t have that lack of touchpoint because the market is moving so fast.

So what started to happen, like many places in the tech industry, and we see this everywhere, we developed a process which some people call like agile where the process of product development is constantly evolving and constantly in touch with customer needs.

There is no reason why marketing should not be as agile, as flexible. So I think this is what my strategy is. I want go out to consumers, I wanna validate it, I wanna test it.

And again, I think sometimes we think, I can’t do research because I can’t hire a research firm, or I can’t do research because I can’t do a focus group. I don’t even know what that is.

When I’m obsessed with something, which is a lot of things because I have all these students working on different things. I will find anyone anywhere who will talk to me about whatever it right? I’ve been known to go to my dentist and have him explain his filtration system because one of my students was working on a filtration product.

So, curiosity about the product, the world around you, I think goes a long way. And I think we forget how easy that is at times to reach out to.

[00:20:06] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : We’re all overthinking it a little bit. Aren’t we?

[00:20:09] Wendy Zajack: Yeah, I mean in some ways yes, I think it’s very easy to get, obsessed in thinking about the tactics. And this is the one biggest thing that I think I’d say my students struggle with. I’ve been in marketing 25 years, I still struggle with. I go first when I’m thinking about marketing to a tactic. I need to start a TikTok rather than where I really need to go first. Okay, maybe I do need to start a TikTok, but why? What is my customer value? And, and so I think just flipping it a little bit, so what I do is I open a Google Doc, I put my tactics on a page, and then I’m like, Wendy, get back to thinking about the customer.

We love tactics because they’re fun. We feel like we’re doing a lot. We feel like we’re accomplishing things. We can point to them and say, I did 10,000 tweets last year. Well, great. But if I got nothing out of those 10,000 tweets, you know, was it really worth my time and energy?

And I think this is so true for smaller businesses because that time and energy is such an insanely valuable commodity. So focus on what you’re gonna do and how you’re gonna reach your customers and do it amazingly well rather than trying to be everywhere to everyone, and at the end of the day, almost being nothing to no one.

[00:21:39] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : Customers, customers, customers. It’s very clear that that’s, that needs to be the focus. Right? But when there already is a deep understanding of the customers, and they have a strategy they’ve been doing for a while. And at what point can an organization say, All right, we’ve outgrown this strategy and we are ready to scale up and expand? How can they even tell?

[00:21:59] Wendy Zajack: I think when you feel like, Yeah, I’ve kind of saturated that market, say you’re seeing flat growth of a period of time, then I think you can say, Wow, I really feel like, I’m doing well here. Who’s my next best market, to go after? I think of this in terms of like, almost like concentric circles. So your target audience is kind of in that middle, and then who’s outside of that.

So I think any time your business is sort of going through a change is a great time to look at your marketing and if your business is sort of stagnant, right? I, I feel like, wow, I’ve just kind of tapped out here and I wanna grow to the next level. And, and where are those customer?

[00:22:39] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : When we’re talking about marketers, we’re referring to it pretty wide swath of people. We have people in advertising, we have content creators, we have influencers, we have video producers and people in PR. You know, it’s a lot of different expertise and mediums and channels that these folks are working with.

Is there anything across the board that you think is kind of fundamental to marketing and that you believe should be kind of advice for all marketers?

[00:23:07] Wendy Zajack: Marketers have to be citizens of the world. They have to be observers of human behavior in every dimension. So how do you become that if you’re not that?

First of all, I start by day by scanning all kinds of news. And I try to scan everything from sort of political things, which is not hard in DC to you know, fashion or things that I might not normally look at. I try to have a really broad understanding of what’s happening both in the US and if I’m thinking globally, what’s happening in the world? Understand what’s happening in larger trend because all of it is going to affect customers and human behavior.

I think the other biggest thing is be super curious I think the thing that’s, that’s helped me so well in marketing is that I’m very curious about everything and everyone. And I, I, I’m from the Midwest, so I’m blessed with the ability to make a conversation with anyone. It drives my kids crazy. But even if you’re not that, be curious and I think that really will help you become a better marketer.

And the last piece I think is as marketers, we need to have deep, deep empathy. And I think this has become even more critical as we are in entering into a time where there’s a lot of racial diversity, political diversity.

So how do I make sure that I’m not stereotyping or that I’m not looking at a problem in a particular way that might be upsetting to someone else? I think the only way, the only tool I know to go after it is to have a deep, deep empathy and be really thoughtful about those types of communications. And I think that you have a great chance at a career in marketing if that’s what you wanna do, but even if you’re doing it as a side thing to grow your business, I think those are also things that are gonna be super helpful to you.

[00:25:10] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : And I’ll piggyback on that and say that empathy has to be a active conscious effort. We might be empathetic people, but we have to generate empathy for situations that we don’t normally experience to figure out how to best react to it instead of being reactive to it.

[00:25:26] Wendy Zajack: Yes. I mean, couldn’t agree more. And I think I was also lucky to, be an empathetic person, but you’re absolutely right. I’ve built on that skill by activating it, by teaching myself, by learning, um, how to really understand different situations and it’s an ongoing skill, Uh, it’s never over and you’re never done with it. I feel like I’m developing continually as a human being and my understanding of other human beings. I mean, it doesn’t get much better than that.

[00:25:58] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : As we’re approaching the end of our conversation, I have one closing question that is important to me because I always am curious what are the things that kind of are the foundation of someone’s perspective that might not have anything to do with their expertise, even if it informs it. So in the case of, um, your work in marketing there’s a lot of things you probably consume outside of that field that have informed the work that you do, and whether that’s a TV show or a book or an activity, could you share anything with us that has helped inform your work, even though it, might have nothing to do with it.

[00:26:34] Wendy Zajack: Yeah, I love that question. I haven’t, I haven’t thought about that, but I, I actually, I attribute a lot of my success to life. I was a Montessori kid. So uh, if you’re not familiar with Montessori, it’s a sort of a style of education that gives you a lot of agency in what you choose to learn about.

I only did it for preschool, but it was a very impactful part of my life. And I feel like that that ability to explore what I wanted and to feel like I could do that, uh, and that that was valuable, I actually think has probably made me probably a great marketer. It’s probably helped me be a better mom, although my kids may, you know, not agree with that at times. But no, I, I think it’s, made me be a better friend. And I think it is, um, always embracing, um, Whatever, whatever I sort of was interested in and, and being okay to go seek it and find out more about it.

[00:27:35] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : Well, Wendy, thank you so much for this lesson in Marketing 101. I hope all of our listeners and marketers out there are taking the time now to reflect on, you know, what they do and how they can make the best impact for their organization By mostly connecting with people.

[00:27:50] Wendy Zajack: Yeah, exactly. Thank and thanks so much, Rae, for having me on. The other thing I will say, we’re in a world where there’s so many amazing tools, insights via just starting with a Google search. Um, So you know, take advantage of that and educate yourself on it, either formally like you’re doing in a Master’s program but if not, just, you know, so many great free programs, free talks. Take advantage of the knowledge that’s being shared 'cause I think there’s so much helpful stuff out there right now.

[00:28:21] Rachael Lewis-Krisky : Thank you, Wendy.

This has been ‘Making Work Work.’ Whether you’re a listener or a customer, the work we do wouldn’t be possible without you.

Special thanks to all the people that make my work work, my DigitalOcean colleagues and friends.

Our music is composed by Mirco Altenbach.

On this episode, the end credit song is by DigitalOcean’s Nick Dombroski, an Engineer on the engineering platform team.

Our employees are diverse in experiences and talents, so we’re excited to bring you a unique original song from one of our sharks nearly every week. Hang out and listen to the rest.

Check out for more info.

Until next time, I’m Rachael Lewis-Krisky. Keep swimming friends.

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