You may know marketing analytics entrepreneur Adam Covati as co-founder and CTO at social media metrics provider Argyle Social, or as the co-organizer of Web Analytics Wednesday in the N.C. Research Triangle.
But did you also know:
- there’s money to be made when marketers know the answer to “boxers or briefs?”
- Adam’s four stages of social media metrics?
- why he recommends working at smaller companies?
I interviewed Adam last month near his office in Durham, NC. He really seems to “get it.” For more insights, follow him on Twitter, read his articles on the Argyle Social blog, or sign up for the Argyle Social beta (I just did).
Smart Product Management: Getting Inside the Customer’s Head
Speaking with Adam, I was struck by how much he focused on understanding customers’ needs. His business philosophy is about solving problems, not about doing technology for technology’s sake.
By working for smaller companies that sold their services to bigger companies, he was exposed to a wide variety of perspectives. He started as a developer/programmer but then moved to marketing and product management. He mentioned a myth about marketers at large companies:
“A common misconception is that big companies can afford to hire very expensive people who are very good at things. I found that big companies hired the same people as everyone else does.
“At any level, marketers need solutions that are easy. They’re all really busy, they need stuff fast. They need to be able to point and click. They have a lot of data but most marketers don’t have the time to think about how to use it.
“At the bigger companies, you do have more resources and you can sometimes afford to have people focus on more detailed things. You can have someone who’s more technical. But [as a vendor], you’re never gonna be as successful if your products are very restrictive or very difficult to use.”
“Keep things simple. Provide power but not at the sake of usability. Provide ‘proof points.’ Until you can prove ROI, you’re gonna have a hard time getting a real budget.
“[When I did email marketing,] we couldn’t get a particular client to spend $500 on an improved email template, but once [we proved that the CEO was getting $1 million a year in revenue from the emails alone], he saw that value and he said, ‘Yeah, all right, do it!’
“For a lot of people, they think social media is about conversations and interactions. And it is. But it’s not only about that, right? It’s not just an art form. You need to know that it’s providing value, too.
“Now, if you can’t prove an ROI, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do [social media]. But if you can start to try to prove that ROI, then maybe you can start to get more budget.”
Later, Adam highlighted the importance of having a product manager or another wears-many-hats liaison to translate between developers and customers (or marketers). After I joked about sounding like the guy on Office Space who “takes the specs from the customers to the engineers,” Adam said:
“It’s a very important skill to have and I think a lot of people underestimate that. Being in the area I’m in, I found that a lot of social media applications are built by tech guys who don’t have someone in between [them and the customer].
“There are a lot of tools out there [where] some guy was like ‘Oh, I can do that in Twitter. I can build something for Facebook.’ But it doesn’t meet a lot of needs. It does one very specific thing and it’s not very usable by marketers.”
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Profiting from the Marketing Data: Boxers or Briefs?
Adam shared an anecdote from several years ago, when he was advising a large retail manufacturer that sold a lot of underwear online:
“I was working with them on their email marketing. They had a ton of data about what their customers are buying on their website. And I said, ‘Well, do you know if people buy boxers or briefs?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah! Actually, we know their preference.’
“I was like, ‘Okay. So when you do your email marketing, why don’t you show boxers for guys who buy boxers and show briefs for guys who buy briefs?’
“It may be subtle but when you’re talking about sending out to 150 thousand, 400 thousand, 1 million people, it could be a lift.”
He mentioned how it’s important not to overwhelm clients with their data:
“I went in and I looked at the data they had. And it was awesome. It was kinda like being that kid on a playground. You know, I was like, ‘Oh, you can do sorts of stuff!’”
“We sat down for two hours and we came up with all sorts of stuff but the biggest thing I did before I went crazy is that we came up with a plan for them to do one change to their email every other week.”
Ultimately, he succeeded in making the clothing etailer more of a data-driven marketing organization:
“So it opened their eyes. Within a couple of months, they were really branching out and saying ‘How else can we customize?’ Because they slowly went there. They realized it wasn’t a lot more work.
“And that was a huge thing for me to realize: [marketers] are just really overworked like everybody else. They’ve got a lot of tools at their fingertips but they’re just trying to get their daily work done. [Marketers can’t] spend out a lot of time figuring out what they could do.”
Adam mentioned the importance of using numbers to prove that sales are coming from specific channels. When he cited the 40-person company where the CEO was running the $1 million email marketing program, I pointed out that they should have hired someone for $60,000 a year, so the CEO could focus on building the business. Adam said:
“The other side of it is until you could prove that they made a million, they couldn’t justify the purchase. We had to actually get them to implement conversion tracking. And then they saw that they were making a million. Then they could justify that purchase.”
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Adam Covati’s Four Stages of Social Media Tracking: From Zero to Systematic
I’ve noticed that the big challenge about social media marketing is that a lot of companies do it, but almost no one can measure the dollar impact. Argyle seems to solve the “prove it” part of the equation.
Adam outlined his four-step framework for how companies approach social media measurement:
- “The first level is just ‘no idea.’ It’s just like, ‘Yeah, we do it because we think we have to.’ And there’s just a sense of urgency to do it. Marketers are understanding they need to be in the social space, but they don’t really know why so they’re there and doing something. But that also means they don’t have goals and they’re probably not really doing a lot of value. At stage one, you have no grounding.”
- “The next level is that you’re at this ‘anecdotal stage’ where you kinda know what you’re trying to do and you may know that ‘Oh, yeah. We got that deal.’ or, ‘They found about us on Twitter.’ or, ‘When we tweeted a bunch about this thing, we saw sales go up.’ So once or twice you’ve seen something that kinda proves it, but you don’t really have any real proof. There are a lot of marketers at this stage. And that’s a good place to be because you know you’re effective, and you can go up from there.”
- “The next stage is where you start to have some ‘proof points.’ This is where I’m starting to see more marketers but it’s still not a lot. I see some people maybe using bit.ly and they may say ‘Yeah. I got 100 clicks on this link. I got 400 clicks on that one.’ And you start to measure a little bit but there’s no real structure to it. That helps but it’s problematic ‘cause there’s a lot of burden on the marketer. Like everyone else, you’re overworked and you don’t have time. You end up with these crazy Excel spreadsheets and if you miss two or three things, you’re missing data points.”
- “This led us to Argyle, which is really a systematic approach to tracking. It’s really taking this level of analytic marketing that we find at applications like Bronto or Unica, for email marketing or pay-per-click. It’s very systematic and it’s all controlled. You can measure everything, but you don’t have to do all that work to measure. It all happens automatically when you use a good platform.”
Adam elaborated on the benefits of using a centralized analytics platform:
“Anything that goes through the engine, we track all those clicks. We know everything about the referrals, who’s clicking and when and where. And the idea is that, you may not be thinking about everything you wanna know right now. But you’ll already have all the data at your fingertips.
“When you use a platform, you can have everyone from the [CEO] to a customer service rep tweeting and posting on Facebook and so on. And they don’t have to worry about tracking. And one analytics person can log in and see what everybody’s doing.
“When you go to Google Analytics or you go to Omniture, whatever it is you’re using, you’ll have contextual data. [At Argyle] we’re fond of saying that Twitter or Facebook doesn’t drive traffic to your website. What drives traffic to your website is the content that you place on Twitter or the content you place on Facebook.”
Adam mentioned Argyle’s recent “Social Media Marketing Report,” which surveyed companies’ involvement in social media. When they asked about time and money invested, they found some surprising results:
“With Argyle, Eric and I pulled together a survey and we asked people about the budget they had for social media. A lot of people spent less than $500 a month, or $20 a month, or even $0 a month. But interestingly enough, most people ended up having at least half a person work on social media.
“A lot of people I talk to say, ‘We don’t spend any money on social media.’ ‘Well, how much time do you put?’ ‘I don’t know. We’ve got somebody spends an hour or two hours a day.’ That’s a piece of time! I mean it’s not 20% but have to include benefits and whatnot. You need to understand the [social media marketing] ROI on [staff time].”
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Changes in How People Perceive Entrepreneurship: From Insult to Frenzy to Normal
Adam graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2001. He noted that perceptions of entrepreneurship have changed substantially in the past 50 years:
“I think we’re all very biased by the world we live in. Fifty years ago, [saying someone was] an entrepreneur was an insult. It was like if you didn’t work for a big company like benefits and such, you were some fly-by-night kind of guy.”
It’s even changed a lot in 10 years. Going to college during the dot-com boom, Adam said there was a perception that startup employees were always on the verge of becoming millionaires or going broke in a week:
“There was this idea of startups being this hot place, with corporate race cars and ridiculous expense accounts — stuff like that. Everybody wanted to be in the start-up and that was the exciting thing to do.”
I remember that same buzz about dot-coms when I was in high school around that time. Today, Adam remarked, startups are small, scrappy companies, but there’s not necessarily the boom-bust dichotomy.
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Keeping Up with Trends: Diversify Your Sources
I asked Adam what he reads, follows, and attends to keep up with the latest trends. He mentioned Twitter has become a terrific aggregator and filter:
“I used to have a ton of blogs in [Google Reader], somewhere around 200 — a lot of which were industry blogs when I was in email marketing. Most of that is replaced now by TweetDeck. I have a couple of different columns running where it separates people into different interest groups. Mostly Twitter, though I did keep Facebook and LinkedIn. I usually have anywhere between three and five screens up.”
For in-person events, he mentioned organizing Web Analytics Wednesday with I-Kong Fu, and how he goes to TIMA events when he can. He remarked that many people resist going to networking events or otherwise connecting with new people:
“There are still a lot of people out there who don’t get out a lot. They don’t go to a lot of business type events. They think, ‘Oh, it’s boring.’ [But] your network is so powerful. It has been amazingly helpful to me. Friendships, fun, business connections, learning about things, and opening doors. For any kind of aspect, whether it’s a personal thing or a business thing, I found that it really helps.
“One thing I really love about Twitter — and social media in general — is that it lowers barriers. If you want to understand what’s going on, you want to stay in touch with people. Back in the days of when I was doing product management at Unica, we were kinda isolated. When you run a platform, when you have aspects of every tool, half the world is your competitor. Even for people I interacted with regularly, I had to call them or email them, and that’s a big barrier when everyone’s busy.
“With things like Twitter, I’m constantly putting stuff out there and if it’s relevant to you, it feels almost like I’m telling you personally. Especially if it’s someone where you’ve had even one personal interaction with, you have a little better connection with them. Now you’ve lowered the barrier because you’ve said something to maybe a hundred, maybe a thousand, however many people follow you. And it’s very quick and easy to react. ‘Cause you can’t spend more than 30 or 40 seconds responding because you’re limited to 140 characters yourself.
“The barrier is so much lower, that it encourages interaction so much more, that you build relationships. And these are people who may be in another town or the other side of the world. And you’re interacting with them on a frequency that is just so much higher and you’re aware of what’s going on in their life even if you’re only casually keeping up on Twitter or Facebook.”
He cited the value of Reddit as a source of interesting content and as a cross-medium sounding board, once he filters out the stranger submissions.
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Hiring and Motivating Teams: Seeking Passion
Adam shared his thoughts on hiring a team, including the importance of finding passion:
“[Fog Creek Software CEO and industry thought leader] Joel Spolsky covered it really well. He has that huge article on interviews. One of the things he said is when you interview someone, especially a programmer, they’re not always the best around people and so they may be a little nervous. But when you get them talking about something [they’re interested in], that nervousness is gone. This person has this passion about it that makes them forget about being nervous. And so, I look for that.
“I look for people who you can get into a conversation with and they start throwing out ideas. Someone who’s not afraid to challenge me. [In a recent Argyle interview], I started talking about some of the stuff we’re gonna be doing. [The candidate] started thinking about it and throwing out ideas. [I realized] when we give him a problem, he isn’t just going to come up with an answer. He’s going to think it through.
“I ask about previous projects, you know: ‘Oh, what’s something you worked on recently?’ That can be a little difficult, especially if they didn’t like what they did before. [But then I can ask], ‘Did you have a side project?’ I can see if they have passion about something.
“And the question is, do I think it can translate? Part of it is, do I think they’re gonna find this interesting? It’s not always easy to find that out.”
He talked about the benefit of hiring contractors for small initial projects, and about giving ‘homework assignments’ to prospective developers:
“I’m giving them something small, and I’ll see what kind of questions they’ll come back with. I’ll see what they produce and how they work. ‘Here’s a little programming project. Just write me a really simple blog. I’d like to see this, that, or the other.’ Of the people we end up hiring, they might have hacked this or that, but they really went to town on another aspect.
“Some people [complain that it’s] a lot of work for interviewing. I said, ‘Well, do you want to spend four years of your life working with this company? This will be your life.’ If you’re not willing to jump in up front and give it your all right up front, are you ever willing to?
“[Some] people really jumped in and did something really fun. Maybe they learned something new, or they’re excited to show you how it works. I was like, ‘This person got into it. They have that capacity.’ Now if they don’t get into it when they’re working a job, that’s my fault.”
He shared about motivating teams, especially when they’re stuck, or when marketing or customer service asks for something that’s difficult to implement:
“It’s my job to work with them that they can feel empowered. We start talking about solutions. It’s like ‘Alright guys, you’re smart, help me out with some ideas there.’ I’m not just gonna give you a list of things to do. Let’s do this together. And I’ve found that developers sometimes find the best solution to the problem once they feel a little more empowered, [instead of] just being dictated to.
“You want to solve this problem. You think it’s interesting. Oftentimes you spend your whole day coding, but a lot of developers don’t want to just code. They want to think about the problem and then come up with a solution and then make it happen. It’s about taking a story to the development team and having them figure out how to do it and how to implement things.”
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Career Advice: Pitch in at Small Companies
I noticed a theme to Adam’s career experience and anecdotes. By working at small companies, he could get involved in all sorts of things. He noted that it isn’t a match for everyone. But by pitching in, it sounds like he assembled the experience that positioned him perfectly to launch Argyle Social today.
“When you wear all those hats, you’ve been there and you’ve done everything. And you can get better [at understanding] how the pieces of the organization work together. When you do that, you can work a lot better with them. It really enabled me later to work with marketing, engineer, sales, and finance departments.”
He explained that when marketers or developers complained about sales people, he could say, “Well, have you been in a sales call when the software doesn’t work?” He continued:
“When you’re a small company, you’ll pitch in everywhere. It’s harder at a really big company to be like, ‘Oh, can I go on a sales call?’ or ‘Can I see what marketing’s doing?’ Or they’re like, ‘No!’”
“I found that the smaller companies are more willing to give people chances, if you really wanna move fast. I was leading a team of developers a year out of college, and the reason was because I’ve worked at start-ups so they’ve just thrown stuff at me.
“At bigger companies you tend to get these very specific tasks. It wasn’t like I could just go to my boss [at the smaller company] and be like, ‘Hey, how do I do this?’ They’re just like, ‘We need this. We need this.’ And I would say ‘Okay. I just need to figure it out.’
The early experience helped later, because he could say he’d done it before:
“That kind of attitude and atmosphere really helped me later on [at bigger companies], when someone asked for help and I could say, ‘Well, I’ve done a little bit of that. I can help.’”
He mentioned how doing something he’s passionate about makes the day fly by:
“I just love diving in and doing it. If there’s anything I can impart, it’s that I think there are too many people out there who need a job. It’s such a large part of their life and they’re not passionate about it. And I think that’s painful.
“In the middle of your career, it’s [important to] stop and ask yourself if you’re enjoying what you do. My day flies by. I’ll look at my computer and think, ‘Oh, it’s Friday.’ It seems like it’s always just Saturday because the weeks just fly by.
“I think if you’re not doing something you’re passionate about, that’s a lot of your life to spend working. [When] your job is more fulfilling, you accomplish more. You’re more successful. You just do something you enjoy. I think that there are just way too many people out there who have a passion and are afraid to do it. The people who work at Bronto are awesome. I love what I did there but I’m very happy that I’ve left to do this ‘cause the time goes by even faster.
“It’s kind of generic, it’s almost Hallmark-y to say it, but my business partner Eric and I just love what we’re doing and we try to reflect it in our product. That’s huge because I think people really like that. The people we talk to or give demos to or work with already, they can see that. And when they make feature suggestions and we get excited about that and say “Oh, that’s awesome!” and we implement the suggestions, they get excited about it, too. We make the product better because of it.”
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Thanks for sharing your experience and insights, Adam! I’m looking forward to exploring the Argyle Social beta program.
This is the 11th in my series of interviews with marketing experts and business leaders, in North Carolina and beyond. If you know someone I should speak with, let me know and I may be able to feature them in a future profile.
Photo courtesy of Adam Covati