In this session from Annual 2018, MailChimp CMO Tom Klein shares his advice for how to build customer empathy by using storytelling and creativity.

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Announcer:  Please welcome Ann‑Marie Alcántara, Tech Reporter at Adweek, and Tom Klein, CMO at MailChimp.


Ann‑Marie Alcántara: Hello, welcome, everyone. This is very official. Let’s start this off, Tom.

Tom Klein: All righty.

Ann‑Marie: Tell us about yourself, where you work, your title.

Tom: Yeah, I’m Tom Klein. I am the Chief Marketing Officer of MailChimp. That means that I’m responsible for both marketing and for partnerships across the company.

Ann‑Marie: Great. Any fun fact to share about yourself?

Tom: I have an identical twin brother.

Ann‑Marie: That’s cool.

Tom: I have an identical twin brother. I often find that people will either encounter me or my brother and, of course, confuse us for each other. You never really know which one you’re going to get.

Ann‑Marie: [laughs] Tell us about your background in marketing and what you’ve done. Any cool campaigns?

Tom: Recently, people might have seen the “Did You Mean?” campaign at MailChimp. Some of what I thought might be interesting for everyone to learn about was just where does that come from. When we start talking about connecting with customers, that was a pretty weird campaign. I wanted to explain a little bit like, “Where the heck did that come from?”

Maybe four or five months before we launched that campaign, we bottled up what we thought was our message of what do we think is actually good for customers when it comes to building a brand. That was being yourself makes all the difference.

It’s a differentiation message around, “Hey, the way that you connect with people is, you kind of open up.” You’re vulnerable. You’re different, and part of being yourself is the way that you connect with other people. Ultimately, if you’re building a brand, that’s how you connect with your customer.

You can be just as weird, or funny, or whatever that is. That’s the way you connect with people. Because we had done that in whenever that was, before the campaign, we thought, “Hey, for Did You Mean? let’s be ourselves, as weird as it is, and at the same time, pay homage to the MailChimp ‘Serial’ ad that everybody knows so well.”

Ann‑Marie: Can you dive into that a little bit more? What does it mean for MailChimp to be itself?

Tom: It’s very hard to boil things down into something that makes sense, that doesn’t turn into marketing‑speak. Given where we are, I’m going to get into a little bit more marketing‑speak. Essentially, everything you need to know about marketing is basically wrapped up into two terms ‑‑ differentiation and segmentation.

What we see with our customers is often that the point of differentiation doesn’t really take hold. A lot of times when small businesses will tend to look at other businesses and just say, “I should just copy that.” The being yourself is basically a way to capture in a term, “Hey, you don’t have to copy other people.”

The way that you connect with customers is you do have a kernel or a concept that you want to bring to life, and it’s got all of your background in it and your crazy ideas or whatever they are. Being explicit about it, whether that’s being a little bit more personal, is absolutely fine.

That’s what the being yourself is all about, is feeling free to just…When we say be yourself, the marketing version of that is “Please deliver a differentiated message to a segmented target.” But that’s not a way we can speak to our customers.

Ann‑Marie: Can you actually backtrack a little bit and tell us what brought you to MailChimp in the first place?

Tom: I met Ben Chestnut probably 10 years ago. I think even before that, I was a MailChimp customer. I’ve worked at a lot of different companies and I’ve always admired MailChimp because of just the tone of voice, how thoughtful everything seems. It was an opportunity for me to continue what has been a lifelong passion of living at the intersection of marketing and technology.

When I was at Nabisco implementing Windows 93, no one could dream of what’s going on here today now. It was a very different world then, but my interest has stayed the same. When I actually caught up with Ben after and got a sense of where the company is now and the trajectory, it was very interesting for me. The clincher was the ability to continue my interest in marketing and technology.

Ann‑Marie: In your time at MailChimp so far, how have you connected with customers? How have you built a romance with them?

Tom: I like the fact you used the word romance. [laughs] It’s very old‑fashioned, but I’d spent some time working for Chanel. That is a brand where it’s perfectly OK to talk about romance.

I think the one example would be, in the middle of 2016, we decided that we wanted to focus on the e‑commerce segment as a business. Our values as a company are humility, creativity, and independence.

The humility part really said, “Hey, do we really know what we’re doing?” We thought as a marketing group, “Why don’t we create an e‑commerce store?” It was called the Freddie and Co.

I found what I thought was probably the funniest person I have encountered at MailChimp [laughs] and said, “It’s a really lucky job to run the store and chronicle what happens.”

Instead of chronicling all of the successes ‑‑ this isn’t about your successes ‑‑ I want to hear about all of your failures. It was really quite a success. She managed the store and then built a newsletter that talked about…

It was a very meta thing ‑‑ everything we do is super meta ‑‑ called “What’s in Store.” What’s in Store now has about a million subscribers in it, but the point is people want to hear about failure.

They want to understand that not everything is, “Follow these 10 steps to success in e‑commerce.” What I wanted to do is try to avoid that on our part and just say, “Hey, we’re going to learn our way into figuring this stuff out.”

Ann‑Marie: How is that translated into the digital age?

Tom: The notion of romance is really storytelling. That’s some of what I wanted to address today, which is largely, we’re all really looking for meaning behind everything.

Almost everything that we buy, we want meaning out of it. Whether it’s a connection with the people that work somewhere, or the people that make your yogurt, or whatever that is, we want to feel good about ourselves.

The romance part is largely telling stories. Give people the meaning that they’re craving. What we see across millions of customers is, a lot of times, people put on a marketing hat. They go, “Oh, I could just say buy, buy, buy. Buy my stuff.” What we’re really trying to get them to do is…

The romance part is tell the story behind the product. Why is it this way? Is this your grandmother’s recipe? I went to a restaurant recently in Brooklyn. We sat down and had a wonderful meal.

It turns out that we were eating…The meatballs were the recipe of the guy that was I sitting across from. That’s the kind of thing that adds meaning to what are really just little moments of life. I think that’s what people really want.

Ann‑Marie: Do you have any examples that have worked that you found in MailChimp like that?

Tom: Yeah. It’s our ethos. It’s at the middle of everything. I would say what we can see is that there are little things like little nuggets of like, “OK, all right. What does this mean?”

If I said, “Hey, you know what? If you put…” We run these contests in the marketing group at MailChimp. We’re always wondering like, “OK, which email will work or which ad will more people click on or which one is going to win?”

The best bet is bet on the weird one, right? Bet on the one that you don’t expect to win. We can see that if you put an emoji in your subject line, people will open it more [laughs] often. It’s emoji. This is not a state secret.

Ann‑Marie: It’s not ground‑breaking.

Tom: Yeah. The same thing goes for click‑throughs. If you put an animated GIF in it. We see it in the marketing of our customers and we certainly try to practice it ourselves.

Ann‑Marie: Are there any particular emoji or GIFs that really work? [laughs]

Tom: I think it’s seasonal. [laughs] People are partial to different ones. We’ve seen certainly in different industries…It depends if you’re in the apparel business or what kind of business you’re in. People like to use ones that are specific to their vertical.

Ann‑Marie: Would a red heart be seasonal right now since it’s Valentine’s Day? [laughs]

Tom: Yes, exactly. I’m sure we’ll see a lot of hearts and all sorts of funny stuff. The message is almost always it’s romancing romance, which is everybody should have complete license to go crazy.

The message there is be true to your heart and put yourself out there. Regardless of whether you’re a founder or really just if you’re a brand builder at all, put your heart into it. That would be a good theme for today.

Ann‑Marie: On this note about brand building, what’s it like building a B2B brand versus a B2C brand?

Tom: I tend to not think that there’s much difference. The challenge is probably what is the role of the sales team. The lessons are kind of the same. One way to think about it is if you’re a B2C brand, the rules are the same.

You’re really trying to create an emotional connection with your customer so that they’re open to your message, assuming that they trust you, they have confidence in your product, they think you’re a competent company, and they think you’re looking out for them.

That’s a trusting relationship. You could probably talk to anybody who’s in sales and find the same thing, which is if your prospect doesn’t like you, they’re not likely to buy anything from you.

It’s the same message. An emotional connection, a positive one is like a window that opens that then says, “Hey, I can communicate with you.” It’s likely to be a positive experience for everyone involved.

Ann‑Marie: You mentioned that the lessons are the same between B2B and B2C. Can you share what you think those lessons are?

Tom: Yeah. If I just said from a storytelling perspective, honestly, on a B2C perspective…I think I mentioned I used to work at Chanel. They were the masters of storytelling. There’s so much meaning in everything. I always wondered why does that brand have a mythical sway on women while simultaneously not being well‑known at all by men.

Some of it has to do with its entrepreneurial history, but there’s a story behind everything that comes out of Chanel, whether it’s a…If it’s a camellia on a shoe, people know that there’s a reason why it’s the camellia, why it’s a symbol, and it’s iconography that’s existed for over a hundred years.

There’s symbols and it’s not always just a story like I’m telling a story. It’s I have symbols of a story that when you see them, you know, “Oh, the reason why the camellia is there is because Coco Chanel thought this about floral arrangements or what have you.”

That is really clear for B2C businesses, but for B2B, mostly it comes down to a more personal level and I think the same things apply. What can tend to happen is on a very sort of B2B business, functional benefits tend to weigh a lot higher.

If you said, “What do I do if I’m trying to sell software to a CIO?” I’ve got security software. I can say either it works well or I can also say it’ll keep you out of trouble.

They’re different messages, but the thinking and the way to structure a combination of features and functional benefits and emotional benefits is essentially the same.

Ann‑Marie: The storytelling is still there.

Tom: Yes, absolutely.

Ann‑Marie: Can you speak to some of MailChimp’s most creative campaigns? You can talk more about the one you mentioned earlier, perhaps.

Tom: We have a running campaign now that’s about the brain. Some of our challenges when we’re trying to take what are complicated word salad technology stuff that nobody understands, we have to worry about, do our customers even understand what marketing is, much less marketing automation.

We have a very functional benefit‑oriented campaign that’s “Hey, working automation is like your second brain. It does the stuff that you don’t have time to do, don’t want to do, don’t know how to do.”

The message there is largely “Hey, how do I leverage technology?” What we’re trying to say to our customers, “Let’s just do smart business stuff so that you can focus on connecting with your customers because ultimately, building your brand isn’t about the technologies that send stuff and trigger things.”

It’s what is the message, [laughs] the story? The story is what flows through the system, not the system itself. That’s the message. We’ve actually seen a lot of positive response like, “Oh, I get it,” and, “I don’t need to be intimidated.”

That’s been effective at both a weird level and a [laughs] business level.

Ann‑Marie: Can you talk more about that? The customer response towards this campaign?

Tom: Yeah. At some level, we’re the world’s largest marketing automation company in terms of just the number of people that use our marketing automations.

We have multiple channels, we have landing pages, we have all the parts and pieces, but we’re still perceived in many areas as…People remember us as, “Hey, you guys were email three years ago,” and they might not know.

The success comes from talking about a bigger thing, but also demystifying it so it doesn’t feel intimidating. It’s been effective because I can see how many people make automations. Do they just get in and say, “Oh, I just want to turn these on and I’m going to send a welcome automation.”?

We’re the ones that we like to talk about or just they’re really basic ones that are…so if I said somebody subscribed to something, one of my favorites is just send a beautiful welcome email that describes…it’s pure romance just get romance back out there.

It’s pure romance about your brand, your story, and where you came from. That’s all it is. Don’t sell anything. Just tell your story right there in that first email and try to connect with another human being. It’ll pay dividends.

Ann‑Marie: Give me a second. Are there any other campaigns you can speak to of MailChimp, especially post‑Serial, that have been really successful?

Tom: Yeah, we have another campaign that ran. Again, this one was about the black hole. The black hole is probably a better example of trying to identify with this kind of an emotional space, because the black holes have this menacing thing. In the marketing world, a lot of people just feel like, “Marketing is a black hole. I don’t know what’s going to work and what’s not.”

There’s a razor’s edge for lots of entrepreneurs that’s like exhilaration. Then there’s terror, and everybody’s back and forth between the two. The black hole is the “I’m an impostor. I don’t know what I’m doing.” There are a lot of negative things there for small businesses.

We wanted to acknowledge it, but also say, “Hey, we’re working hard to try to simplify things, give you new technologies, give you marketing automation, and give you other things like Instagram ads or things that are easy, so you can make the black hole go away, if you will.”

Or at least, probably in that instance, we were focused on, “Hey, we’ve added a bunch of channels inside of MailChimp. If you ran an ad, or if you do a bunch of things in one system, we can tell you if they worked or not.” As opposed to currently, you’re usually trying to say like, “My email did this. My ads did that. My organic traffic generated whatever.”

Being able to see everything in one picture is a really important thing for our customers.

Ann‑Marie: Has it been a bit difficult at all for MailChimp to adjust to really fast changes, like you mentioned Instagram ads, and telling that story to your customers and how to reach their consumers that way?

Tom: I still think we have a lot of work to do. We have a ton of work to do. [laughs] We’ve got a big enough base of customers that we have to do both. It’s an easier story to tell to our current customers. We’re definitely thinking about how do we make it easy to.

The way I described MailChimp a lot of times to folks is, “Hey, we’re like a big bucket of Legos. People need to come and piece them together and say, ‘This Lego goes together, and now I’ve got a TIE Fighter or whatever, like a Star Wars thing. I’ve got it put together. It’s going to do what I needed to do.'”

We’re focused on helping our customers. Figure that out, because I think they don’t always show up and realize “I need a promo code, a landing page, a re‑marketing ad, and a subscription form.” We’re a kit of parts at this point.

Ann‑Marie: Are there any other takeaways you’ve learned being in this industry, working with Chanel and MailChimp now, that you can share with the audience?

Tom: Yeah, back to the storytelling, the way I think about it is this sandwich of, “Hey, I’ve got a lot of features to talk about,” and it’s very easy to succumb to, “Let me tell you about my new feature.” That’s a lot of what you see and feel when you’re looking for it. The features keep coming. The nature of this business is everything is additive and incremental.

There’s a story to be done about features. Then, on top of the features, there’s the land of functional benefits. There’s a lot of that, so people are focused on the functional benefit of, “Hey, because of this feature, you make more money. You’re faster. You’re more competitive. You’re something like that.”

Then, on top of it is, I’d say, probably the area that I’ve learned is the most compelling is that emotional benefit level of, “Hey, I’m going to connect with people.” That drives my philosophy behind storytelling and how to build empathy with people because, ultimately especially in this business, if your focus is you’re the feature of the month, anybody out there can make the feature again.

But it’s very hard to come between someone who’s in an emotional relationship. If you have a connection with people and customers, that’s not a feature‑of‑the‑month club. The nice thing is that, when you create that connection and you focus on the product and serving those customers, they’ll tell you what they want.

In many ways you are, by focusing on those customers that want a deep and emotional connection with your brand, you’re also saying, “No, I’m not serving the feature‑of‑the‑month folks that are the equivalent of ‘I got this Visa card this month,’ or like, ‘Hey, I’m going to do my rollover minutes from this one to that.'” There’s all the switchers. You opt out of the switchers.

Ann‑Marie: Is it hard to convince your customers that emotional storytelling is still so vital, even though they might see otherwise and think, “No, I got to push my features”?

Tom: It’s hard. It’s definitely hard. Our job is to model bad behavior. Where we were a start‑up, it’s been a long time, but we were a start‑up and what we see as our responsibility is to actually model the behavior that we describe to our customers so that we need to walk the talk. That drives a lot of what we’re doing.

Ann‑Marie: What do you have to say to this crowd, any words of advice? You’ve shared a lot of lessons and stories about your career, but any simple advice that’s worked for you, no matter what?

Tom: I probably have all sorts of advice, yeah.


Tom: I don’t know if it’s any good though. [laughs] This is a very different subject from…This is not a necessarily…This is not a B2C audience, so the notion of brand building…it’s hard to know where that fits. I’d still say there’s probably some skepticism. One of the things that’s been effective for me has been, “Hey, let’s apply metrics to it.”

For example, almost everybody who’s in the software businesses is coming from somewhere and going somewhere else, [laughs] because the business changes so fast. I’m on the, “Hey, we were email marketing, now are marketing automation.” I have a story to tell about that.

I’m interested in understanding where do I fit in the category and also how do people feel about us? Ultimately, it’s talk to your customer. One of the things that I’ve worked on is trying to understand both customers and influencers, like how do they feel about our brand? Do I have permission to go there? Do I fit? What are my shortcomings? Ultimately, being humble and asking your customers.

A lot of people love MailChimp, which is great. I love that. When people say that they love MailChimp, I say, “OK, thank you. But tell me, what could we really be doing better? Where do we suck?” That’s the way that you open yourself to listening.

Ann‑Marie: Is there anything else you’d like to share with the audience about MailChimp, maybe what’s happening in the future for you guys?

Tom: The future. The main message I have is yes, we’re marketing automation platform. Our view of things is what we’re trying to do is help customers take work out of their day, but that’s not the objective.

The objective is take work out of your day, do things efficiently, buy the ads that work for you or use the stuff that works for you, but, ultimately, try to make room in your marketing world to communicate.

Everything is about brand building. Yes, measure everything like crazy. If I could say…My thought would be we’ve got lots of great technologies in there but remember to talk to your customer. Be as weird or funny or whatever the heck it is to connect with them because life is short.

People really love to feel like the things that they’re buying have real people behind them. Whether you’re selling software or socks or whatever the heck it is, that’s largely the message.

Some of that is probably for founders or for other people in the room to be a little patient, and give folks some room to say, “Hey, I’m going to build a brand over here. Yes, I’m going to drive my harpoon in one direction or another, all that good stuff, but at the same time I’m going to create an emotional connection with my customers.”

“The next time something bad happens, they’ll trust me. Or the next something times something great happens they’ll listen,” so it’s really worth the effort.

Ann‑Marie: Great. Thank you for taking the time today, to chat with us.

Tom: It’s my pleasure.

Ann‑Marie: I hope all of you guys learned something today and took a lot with you. Thanks again, Tom.

Tom: All right.


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