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Defining your Digital Strategy with the Audience in Mind: A Conversation with Morningstar’s Tara Giuliano

This past summer, I had the pleasure of meeting several of Chicago’s rising female B2B marketing stars – among them Tara Giuliano, Director of Product Management & Marketing at Morningstar.  Tara and I quickly discovered we shared mutual passions for the evolution of digital media and it’s ability to transform culture within in our respective industries.  She is the President-elect of the Chicago Chapter of the American Marketing Association (AMA) and the two of us recently caught up after the chapter’s premier event on evolving media – known as BrandSmart.  Tara shared a few highlights from the BSmart12 event along with her views on how business and technology disruption will start to reshape the financial investment industry and steps brands should start thinking about to prepare their organizations to capitalize on the resulting change.

Tell us about the first social media experience that really got you hooked?  What are the top 3 social media channels you invest in and why?

I guess the thing that really got me hooked is due to my big belief in networking..   I’m naturally drawn to connecting with a lot of different people both for business and personal development.  The number one thing that sold me on social media, therefore, was LinkedIn.  I really feel the tool was made for me, as someone that networks as much as I do!  LinkedIn hasbecome my ‘online rolodex’ – I no longer keep a physical address book or business cards.

LinkedIn also allows me to publish professional messages that are related to my passions – financial services, marketing and mentoring.  It has become my entry point to the social world, with Twitter becoming the next part of my personal branding toolkit.  I like to use Twitter from a PR perspective, because I can follow journalists, see what topics are on their mind, and target stories that fit with their interests.  For example, if someone is writing about a specific topic on Twitter – I can see the angles they are exploring, what they are missing, etc. so when I go to pitch a specific story, I know how how to speak to him or her.  I also follow a lot trade blogs and discussion groups, which are still very much alive especially in financial services.  There is a lot of conversation taking place online that you would never realize existed unless you do your research.

What makes digital media work well in business now?  What are some examples of industries/brands that get it right?

The biggest thing that I see over and over again: the “I need to have a Facebook Page, etc.” syndrome.  It’s one thing to set up the account, but if you don’t have anyone trained to manage it, or bigger yet, no research on the target audience to see how they engage these channels, then you will end up with a lot of mixed activities and no results to show for your efforts.

What I’ve seen work really well are those brands that decide to dig in, observe and understand target audience behaviors within social media channels and then drive a strategy to engage them on their level and execute against that plan.  Virgin Mobile is a great example of this approach.  During the Chicago AMA BrandSmart event, Virgin Mobile described how they uncovered unique insights about their target audience and creatively applied them to their communications.  For Virgin, their demographic primarily consists of post-college 19-24 yr olds who don’t want to use their phones for talk – preferring to use them for consumption of unlimited text/data instead.  As Virgin began to explore the behaviors of this demographics’ data usage, they soon saw a big patterns of celebrity-related website viewership – in fact it was the #1 place this group was spending time when using their phones.  Young adults would visit these sites to catch up on the latest gossip and styles, and then tweet about it and share through their other social channels.

Based on these insights, Virgin designed their entire strategy for the digital space around coming up with mock celebrity stories to post in the top entertainment blogs, including hiring fake actors to go and seed a fantasy celeb’s life – which ended up showing up in real-world publications.  Now, people know and accept “Sparah” (aka Spencer and Sarah) who are essentially the Virgin Mobile spokespeople, as part of the scene.  Virgin could have just put out a bunch of Google and TV ads, but instead chose to take it a step further so their target audience could interact with them.  The annual budget to support this ‘newsroom marketing’ campaign equates to what their competitor probably spends on a single sporting event.  It’s about finding creative ways to do things and communicate for next to nothing.

Where do you think bus-tech disruption will happen next in your industry and what are 3 things brands should do to prepare for and leverage it?

We’re starting to see both business and technology disruption happen within the investment world.  People have investment advice at their fingertips now, with hundreds of sites that provide it by the second.  There are dozens of tools that you can use on your mobile, in your car, etc. to track your portfolio and trade at touch of a finger.  In my industry, I definitely think the perceived value of the financial advisor is going to change.  While advisors won’t necessarily go away, customers see less and less value in the advisors doing tasks that they can frankly do now themselves.

On the other hand, the advisors are also adapting with access to digital channels as a means to dial up how they manage the investments.  We’re starting to see turnkey asset management programs – where the basic investment parts of their jobs are starting to be outsourced, so the advisor can solely focus on the business development and growing client relationships.  Both of these trends are going to bubble up even more as people go towards more digital self-service tools.  The advisor is not dead, but they will need to figure out how to provide more service value and really target their customer segments.  Some customers may have the time, but lack the education; others have the education but no time to act on it and there are still a good number out there who lack both.  Investment advisors or any other similarly-based ‘agent model’ should play it smart and focus on using digital and social media to provide deeper levels of value to their customer base.

What advice would you give to others looking to transform their culture with emerging media?

I think this question ties back to some things I mentioned previously.  Research and planning before diving in to this space is key.  Something I see a lot with emerging media adoption is when leadership says ‘we gotta do it’ without really questioning why they should do it.  There is always going to be some hot new medium / technology to try, – we’ve seen this with Friendster, MySpace, Facebook and now Pinterest, but you just don’t go and do it because it’s hot.  I think it’s really smart to take a step back like Virgin Mobile did at first, to understand the customer’s adoption and behavior within these channels, next develop a creative plan and then go educate the leaders on the plan.  In my case, our product doesn’t make sense to be on half of the social channels out there.  We use it mainly to listen to the market and adjust our product strategy accordingly – its the greatest real-time R&D tool for marketers.

In my experience, the best way to prepare your leadership and start educating them is to showing them all of the discussions that are happening in the digital space, conversations in LinkedIn, trade publications and discussion boards that they are not a part of yet.  Also, showing where people are coming from to learn about your brand, how they are getting to your website, etc. is really easy with simple Google Analytics and other social media monitoring data.  You can’t teach your leadership about everything out that’s out there – you have to be choosy.  Showing them is the way to do it versus trying to talk through all the tools – numbers are what really talk.  On the flip side if your management is really pushing to implement tools and you don’t think that is the right strategy for your organization, there are plenty of examples out there to show how others took similar approaches and failed.  Numbers, voice of customer and illustrative examples should be in your toolkit.

So what’s next?  What are 5 words you would use to describe the investment / financial industry of the future?

Hyper-targeted, powered by data, with a front row seat to the investor’s state of mind.  We’ve got the tools, now it’s up to us to apply them correctly and engage our industry.

A twelve-year communications veteran, Tara Giuliano has worked in all facets of marketing, advertising, PR and communications in the insurance and financial services industry.  She is the President-elect of the Chicago Chapter of the American Marketing Association and is an active contributor and mentor to the local non-profit community.  Tara has worked as a contributing author to several magazine and textbook publications and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Communications from DePaul University.  You can follow her on Twitter @taragiuliano

About Michelle Batten

Michelle Batten is a seasoned digital marketing & advertising leader. She has spent two decades in the interactive arena, working with Fortune 1000 brands + start-ups to define and execute their digital initiatives. An emerging media visionary, Michelle is currently serving as Head of Global Marketing for Mobile & Innovation Intrapreneur for Amadeus, a global travel technology company. She is also the President for the Chicago American Marketing Association. Her passions include culture + tech evolution, mentoring, experiential travel and foodspotting.

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