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Innovative Marketer Series: Jim Connolly of Art.com

Innovative Marketer Series: Jim Connolly of Art.com

Jim sat down with the Jetlore team in early August 2017, to discuss his career in marketing, his experience building successful CRM and customer engagement programs, and the future of B2C marketing.  Read the interview below:


When did you decide on a career in marketing?

Jim: My background is actually in econometrics and predictive modeling, and early on in my career I started in analytics but quickly understood the value of analytics in driving marketing.  It's not an episode of “Mad Men,” it's really a highly analytical position. Early on in my career I joined Vistaprint, and I was the 15th employee. I quickly grew in that organization, managing the retention and CRM programs there, and by the time I left I guess there were over 2000 employees. It was just about a billion dollar company 13 years later.  

So throughout my career I had found that applying either complex or predictive models or even very simplistic decision trees in recommending products was extremely valuable.  Early on in my career at Vistaprint we were actually able to get two patents for developing technologies around how to drive true 1:1 marketing.  There's always been this myth around segmentation but with all the data that's available today you have the advantage of actually having 1:1 personalized marketing.

So you were trying to get predictive 1:1 marketing early on in your career, even before your tenure at Art.com?

Jim: Correct.  One thing that we built at Vistaprint was the ability just to look at "what has a customer purchased in the past?" Being a business card, "what was their design?", "Where were they from?" and in taking all that information, recommend various cross sell products that were available.  Despite the fact that we had all these matching products based on your business card it was pretty difficult to find matching products.  

But by building this cross sell engine that was available both in the checkout process as well as post purchase through email, we would actually show customized products. Whether they be magnets, sticky notes, notepads, post cards, we would show all the customers design as well as their personalized information exactly as it would be printed.  It was really powerful for the customer and really gave them a sense of ownership in the products they were building.

When they open the email it was like I said before, members of my management team - when we send out a million emails, we're sending out one million personalized, unique emails.  

In terms of your early career did you have anyone who guided your perspective in marketing or helped shape your opinions so that you wanted to have that approach to 1:1 marketing?  Or was that just something that you found through analytics?

Jim: I know my college career drove some of it, but while at Vistaprint I was blessed with two incredible mentors: one being Wendy Cebula, who hired me at a previous company called Mothernature.com, and later became the COO, as well as Janet Holian who ran all of marketing and I think is currently the CMO at DraftKings. So, I was blessed with 13 years of mentorship from the two of them, and they really challenged me, and really drove me to look at the true analytics behind all of my decisions.  And then when I had success, they were the first ones to get me additional resources to run with the idea.

I saw at Vistaprint you had a lot of really great opportunities for growth.

Jim: I did.  When you're that early at a company you're thrown at a lot of different projects, which is good. It keeps things interesting.  

Being the 15th employee at Vistaprint, can you describe what that type of growth was like, and how your roles changed from day 1 onward?

Jim: It was interesting, it seemed every two years we had to alter our style because of the rate of growth, particularly when we started opening up offices in different countries.  I would say at the beginning it was very easy where working with the creative team was one person, and the acquisition team was one person, and there was one DBA, and we all sat next to each other so you could just shout over the cube wall and get something done. And as you grew, you needed to scale.  

I think particularly it got complex when we started moving into other countries.  When you were just sending to the US that was fine, but all of a sudden you're sending to 17 different countries, managing translations, you're working with country managers, you're trying to analyze what sells in what country.  We had a product called "Caricature Return Address Labels," where you could actually design little cartoons of your whole family, and for whatever reason, Australians loved them more than anyone else.  So it was trying to figure out "how do we get those insights?"  

One example I have, we were doing cross-sell, and we had an engine where we could say "If a customer has this product, then show these products," and 3 of us worked for an entire week, and made several hundred rules.  I remember the analytics team said, "why don't we just do a simplistic decision tree?" Within 1 day he had created thousands of different rules and we really exploded the growth.

Despite the fact that you were still a very small, agile team.

Jim: Exactly. You had to be, and then the insights became more important because we noticed when we put in this predictive model that it disproportionately benefitted our European countries.  It makes sense, we're a US company, so whether or not we intended it, we had a strong US bias to our marketing efforts.  By simply applying math and putting in a predictive model and letting the data drive your decisions, you're able to overcome that US bias.  So if someone in Germany opens an email, they will get products that other Germans have purchased, and that would appeal to them.  And that was just a really great way to get rid of that US bias from our marketing communications.

Do you have any go-to blogs, knowledge centers, resources, etc. that you'd recommend to marketers?

Jim: Throughout my career there's a few authors. "Predictably Irrational," by Dan Ariely, was really fantastic about how looking at consumer behavior shows that customers aren't always rational. Which is a fascinating concept.  

At Vistaprint we had a free business card product where it was, "business cards free, pay shipping and processing," and we said "should we just charge for the cards and have free shipping?"  Even if overall the cost was lower with charging for the business cards and saying "free shipping" than saying "free business cards," disproportionately customers preferred free business cards and having to pay shipping and processing.  So it's something that intuitively didn't make sense, but by reading through Dan Ariely's book's "Predictably Irrational," and then the follow-up "The Upside of Irrationality," it was really eye opening.  Take your own bias out of it, and test wherever you can.

And then I'd say the other areas where I really gained a lot of insight was - you know at Vistaprint I was there for 13 years, so you had a steady pipeline of new hires coming in - just not being the crusty old guy who doesn't listen to the newbies.  Keep your ears open.

We kept bringing in really strong, analytic people and even one crop of those people ended up founding Draftkings. Three young kids that were really brilliant to work with and if I had just been an arrogant jerk who said "we built this company, we don't need to listen to anyone else," it wouldn't have worked.  I found benefitting from the new lifeblood coming into your company and keeping your ears open is pretty valuable.

Also I would say many times marketers will treat analysts or DBA's as a service center and just tell them what to do.  The greatest success in my career has always come from having partners.  Even at Vistaprint, at one point we were all co-located together and it was really valuable to do that.

So in other words, treating your co-workers and new hires as an additional resource to learn from.

Jim: Exactly - and arrogance and ego can be your biggest enemy.

In terms of the companies that you look to that are particularly innovative in their approach to consumer strategy, what would you say is a good example of a successful marketing/growth strategy?

Jim: It depends on which year it was.  Obviously, for on-site marketing you look to Amazon because they've mastered it, they test constantly and it's pretty brilliant to watch what they're doing.  I would say recently looking at companies in the market that are acquiring customers and have really figured out Social Media - companies like Unique in Germany are really impressive.  Companies that have managed to grow in this new marketplace and really drive their customers to be true advocates is really impressive.  

I'm trying to think of a few that have been impressive lately - I think Lyft does a good job, I think companies like Trulia will keep you engaged even though it's a product you're obviously not buying every week.  I find that their communications are really helpful, like market insights, quality content that I find interesting.  And even some of the news sites, The Skim, they do a fantastic job of really interacting, and the language is playful.  That keeps you engaged.  And then, Zappos, again does a fantastic job. I think their snarky communications are really appealing. 

But it's interesting, it's a lot of smaller players now. There was almost this feeling that the big players were going to push everyone else out.  There's always the Amazon's of the world, but it seems like these plucky new players keep jumping in with new innovative ways to meet the customer where they are, which is on mobile, on social. Getting an email isn't what's going to drive their decision, it's what their friends think, what influencers think.

The channels that you think are going to be most valuable in the future - would you say social media, mobile, and influence marketing are at the top of the list, whereas email was the more mainstream tactic a few years back?

Jim: I think email is coming back, and I think we have mobile to thank for that.  People used to get annoyed by email, now when they wake up in the morning it's really easy to just delete it.  People don't seem to be as worked up by it anymore, which doesn't mean you shouldn't be relevant when you communicate and just spam them.

I would say mobile is the big one.  Particularly with mobile, the statistics around the number of apps that are downloaded and then either deleted or never used in the first three days is pretty staggering.  So if you can be sticky there you have the ability to be with your customer at all times, which is pretty cool.  

If you think about the apps you use everyday... Major league baseball has their Ballpark app, where if I'm walking into a baseball stadium and it's happened at Fenway Park, Dodger Stadium, Oakland Colliseum, and ATT Park, where whenever you walk in, they geo-detect that you're there. And you have offers that say "do you want to upgrade to "Seats in the shade" or "do you want to sit in the third row?"  "Do you want to sit behind home plate for one inning?"  I think that's really cool, and it's playful, and I think the ones that have figured it (mobile) out have almost game-ified it, because that's what keeps people engaged.  Once they do that, I mean, they've really figured it out.  

The Amazon app is just brilliant, because you always have it with you, and you can scan a barcode so you don't screw up and buy the wrong thing.  It just makes it really easy to re-order, and I think we'll see how the internet of things plays out with the Amazon echo, but I have a feeling that could really be a true game changer.

You mentioned Vistaprint, but you also worked at LendingTree and now Art.com - those are several very different business models, spanning B2B and B2C.  How did you change your approach to customer engagement in those very different verticals?

Jim: I think particularly depending on, like you said, the different business models - at Vistaprint you could potentially have someone buy something every week, because we had such a wide variety of products.  When you're at LendingTree, how many times are you going to refinance?  Or how many homes are you going to buy?  You need to put yourself in the customer's shoes to say, "how are we adding value for the customer?"  

You don't want to have a situation where you send out messaging to a customer and they come to your site to refinance but they don't get approved because of their credit score, and then the next day send them a message saying "refinance now."  It's really rubbing their nose in it.  And it's funny, customers would view us as the ones who rejected them, rather than their credit score.  So, once you put yourself in the shoes of the customers, asking "what made sense?" - if you didn't get approved, we should be sending you a different financial product, or maybe tips on improving your credit.

Or we ran into situations where you did successfully refinance. On a Monday you come to lending tree and you sign up, you get matched, you're saving a bunch of money you're thrilled.  Then two days later you don't want to see a message that says "refinance again and save more money." At best it's irrelevant and at worst you create a problem where your partner bank that they signed with already paid for them and then another bank will come and potentially swoop in. It just creates a nightmare scenario.  

And the same thing in Art where we have a wide range of products. We have expensive, several hundred dollar framed artwork where you can design your own framing, all the way down to a Justin Bieber poster.  So they're very different customers.  And if you're buying a poster or a t-shirt, yeah you can buy that once a week.  But if you're buying an expensive piece of art it's a more considered purchase.  Because A: the price; and B: if you buy a t-shirt and you don't like it you could always throw it in the back of the closet.  If you buy a large piece of framed artwork you almost feel obligated to hang it up, and you only have so many walls.  

It's really interesting, you need to catch customers at the time that they're thinking of buying something or thinking of buying a gift, or they're moving, or renovating a house.  You need to hit the customers with relevant content at that time, and it's interesting that with all the tools that are available, my policy has always been that unless a first year college hire can master a marketing tool within one day, you'll never use it.  You have these really complex products where if you need to hire four PhD's and a small army of people, you'll never use it or you won’t use it effectively.  It really shuts out the small nimble teams.

When you first started at Art.com, what areas of need did you recognize, and how did your team prioritize them?

Jim: I think at Art.com I spent a chunk of my early time working on process and tools.  When I first arrived, we had outsourced a lot of the HTML creation and a lot of the campaign building and I quickly realized working with those outsourced resources was A) ridiculously expensive and B) we ended up having to do enough "fix it work" after words that we could just do it ourselves. We realized if we just did it ourselves it would be faster and would save us a bunch of money.

And then I definitely spent a lot of time looking at process, and asking `"where were things bottle-necking?"  A couple of the areas things were bottle-necking were that we were sending to over a dozen different countries and building those campaigns is really difficult.  And also, our campaigns were pretty vanilla.  They were large scale batch and blast, and trying to get more personalized communications is where Jetlore came in.  

The problem I wanted from Jetlore was A) product recommendations and B) automated content, but also we were able to leverage Jetlore to really automate the creation of all of our international campaigns, which was fantastic.

Would you say that Jetlore's primary value was in process improvement or KPI results?

Jim: The KPI results.  I can't remember the exact number and I'm not sure if I can share it, but it was a huge KPI increase.  I'm not signing with anyone unless I can get back what I'm paying for them.  So KPI's and then savings on time - it saved a tremendous amount of work for my team not to have to go through the process of individually creating over a dozen different campaigns per day.  I'd rather have the team focused on testing.

How do you envision the future of B2C marketing?  What do you predict the trends, tools, and resources of the next 5 - 10 years will be?

Jim: It's always hard to say.  There'd be a lot of rich people if they figured out what Twitter would be five years ago.  I think it's all about relevance with customers.  Younger consumers expect something relevant, and if something that's not relevant shows up they get really annoyed.  And we've also seen that with certain mis-steps, like United Airlines dragging a guy off a plane, or a social media video of a guy showing his guitar being damaged while it's being loaded onto the plane.  I hate always using United but they seem to do a really good job at coming up with new material.  As you've seen with the growth of Yelp, which people are looking for reviews and that's what drives it.  

And Amazon - now when someone goes to purchase something, we all do it - you look up something online to see what the reviews are.  If it's got low reviews either on the App store, or Amazon, or OpenTable, you're influenced by that.  So I think B2C marketing will be relevant to the customer but also finding ways to appeal to the customer's current decision-making, which involves friends, family, and overall online reputation.

Everyone wants to be Apple or Tesla with a line around the door for people to buy something they haven't even seen before, because they just buy reputation and are expecting something amazing.  That's obviously the key metric you want to aim for, but in marketing you just need to find a way to get in front of the customer when it's most relevant, when it makes the most sense. And I think we've all had those moments where something's recommended to you and you're like "Oh geez, yeah that makes sense." Seeing a pair of new balance shoes that I just purchased being retargeted to me is annoying.  My wife seeing the scented candle I just bought her on Nordstrom.com retargeted to her on our home computer is not relevant.  I bought it! You won.  Why are you still hitting me?  

The whole concept of "you might also like" only works if I like what you're originally offering. If someone buys a Boston Red Sox hat, saying you might also like a Yankees hat actually doesn't make any sense whatsoever.  It's actually the opposite.  So you have to find a way that, even as you apply all this machine learning you think "does it make sense for the customer, and can you put yourself in the shoes of the customer? Does this make any sense whatsoever?"


We'd like to thank Jim for taking the time to speak with us, and for all of his thoughtful responses. 

Next in the Innovative Marketer series:  Dina Oba, CRM Manager at Nordstromrack.com! Stay tuned!

Go Beyond Personalization To Predictions