The Future of Marketing: On AI and ROI With Michael Brenner
Since the pandemic, there has been an evident shift in the world of sales and marketing. In this episode, host Chad Burmeister chats with founder and CEO of Marketing Insider Group, Michael Brenner about his thoughts on the vital role of AI on the future of marketing. They delve into the accelerated advancements in advertising and interesting deployments in marketing that has leveraged AI and generated results. Michael also touches on his book, Mean People Suck. Sit back and get a glimpse into the bright future of the industry powered by the latest of AI technology.
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The Future of Marketing: On AI and ROI With Michael Brenner
I’ve got a guest with me who’s going to talk about some interesting things related to sales and marketing alignment. He is a marketer that also has deep domain expertise in sales. He is able to ride the fence on both of those topics. Michael Brenner is the Founder and CEO of Marketing Insider Group. He has been running that company for a few years now. Michael, welcome to the show.
Chad, thanks for having me.
What’s the book that you have there in the background?
That’s my hero shot there, Mean People Suck, because they do.
Yes, they do. I love that. About 1 in 500 seems to be mean these days. That’s a pretty good ratio and we tend to avoid those. One of my former mentors, Travis, when we’re hiring a lot of people, he’d look over me and he goes, “Chad, can you breathe the same oxygen as this person?” I’m like, “That’s a very good question.” Occasionally you’re like, “I don’t know if the answer is yes on that one,” and we pass on those. I like our readers to get to know you first because it’s fun to follow the cookie crumbs of what did you like when you were younger. It’s your first memories as a kid. What was your passion when you walked out of the house in the morning? What would you do then?
A leader’s job isn’t to tell people what to do. It’s to create an environment where people can thrive.
I was an active kid. There were two sides to my personality. One, my mom still loves to tell the story about how when they would leave to go on a date with my dad, I would cling to her leg. I was a super family-driven homebody. When my parents were around, I love getting outside and running around. It’s what I do with my kids now. When people ask me what my hobbies are, I said, “I got four kids. That’s my hobby. We do everything together and we have a blast.”
I hearing that more and more. I think 2020 has led people to say, “What’s life about?” It’s getting outside, hanging out with your kids and enjoying the scenery. If you think about it from then, what’s the secret blue line or thread between what you love to do then to what you’re doing now? Think of it as it relates to your business life in the Marketing Insider Group.
You mentioned the book behind me. The reason I wrote the book is I’ve had more than 50 jobs in my life starting at age twelve. The majority of them were service jobs as a paper-boy. I’ve worked in coffee shops, waiter, bartender and all that good stuff like a lot of us did. The through-line has been helping people. I learned that lesson early on as a salesperson. I moved into marketing because I thought none of the marketing I was getting from my marketing people was helpful. It drove that passion for the rest of my career. To explain the book, someone asked me why I had so many jobs and I explained that it was largely because I either had a boss or a company culture or colleagues that were mean and didn’t support me wanting to have a career that was successful and impactful, wanting to come to work every day. Too many leaders forget that as a leader, our job isn’t to tell people what to do. It’s to create a culture or an environment of people where they can thrive and do good things that are going to be good for everybody.
I remember I’m 24 and I was in Charlotte, North Carolina. One of the folks came to me one day and said, “I want to move to San Francisco. We have an office there. Can we do that?” I said, “This is why we created Charlotte because of the cost of living differential, etc." I said, "I know a lot of people in the Bay Area. You don't have to stay with this company. I want to see what's best for you." He was like, "Are you serious right now? You're going to help me leave the company?" I was like, "Yeah." This is about life and long-term relationships. It's not about this job that someone's going to be in for 18 to 24 months. It's amazing when you flip the script and focus on being a better person.
Let’s go into AI a little bit. It’s still the buzzword. I’ve been doing these interviews for years. I’m starting to see it progressed a little more at a time. I’m finding that a lot of folks in the marketing groups are leveraging AI to track big data. Which customers should I call? Who should I advertise to? There are also some other more interesting things as well. What are you seeing on the marketing and sales side as it relates to artificial intelligence?
I have a term that I like to try to explain to people. I call it the Paradox of AI. Part of the paradox is the development of technology in general. I saw an article that says, “Artificial intelligence just decided that artificial intelligence is neither artificial nor intelligent.” I couldn’t even wrap my brain around that. It’s so meta like we’ve got machines thinking about whether machines are machines. The point though is the progress of artificial intelligence and technology is an unstoppable train. It’s going to happen. Things that we used to do that were not automated and smart are going to be automated and smart in the future.
However, the paradox for me in that is it requires companies, brands, salespeople, marketers to be more human and more authentic. We’re using automation in marketing. We’re doing a great job at doing that to help salespeople. It’s not about how many calls do you make and can you close? It’s, can you make someone like you enough to trust you to buy from you? It’s still going to come down to that, whether we’re using AI platforms or talking to somebody at a trade show. The real paradox is we’re going to use automated platforms more and more. We also need to make sure we’re focusing on developing the personability and authentic connections that are going to drive sales.
We’ve met with a team of 100 sellers. One of the questions that came up is, “We see these LinkedIn outreach tools and they’re so cheesy.” If you are cheesy and you programmed the tool to be cheesy, then it’s going to be cheesy. It’s a string of 0s and 1s. If you programmed in your authenticity like a link to a video that you’ve created for that person, now it’s authentic. The AI is here. Unfortunately, there is going to be a lot of sales and marketing people who messed it up, but that can be sniffed out in a hurry. To your point, it’s here and it’s progressing. Have you seen any interesting deployments on the marketing side with your customers where they’ve leveraged AI in an interesting way?
Some of the biggest advancements we've seen are segmentation, personalization and look-alike modeling. I’ve got 26 clients. Who are the people that look just like them? In some of the AI modeling that we’ve done for ourselves and we’re working with some clients that are doing it as well on the marketing side, the segmentation gets super interesting. It’s no longer about firmographics or demographics. As one example, we do paid promotion of the content for some folks. We use an interest graph model to build the audience. For example, GE Healthcare is a client that’s looking for radiologists. We’re trying to serve content to radiologists wherever they go, but there’s no list for radiologists. Radiologists aren’t on LinkedIn, at least largely. It’s difficult to find them. The platform that we’re using with this company is able to find them, and then we serve up content wherever they go on the web. It’s been super impactful for them to generate awareness and even ultimately leads for seven-figure radiology equipment that they’re struggling to get people to pick up the phone and answer a call.
My dad was a radiologist. He's retired. My brother-in-law is a radiologist in my dad's same group. They don't use LinkedIn. Tony, the younger, may be on LinkedIn. Certainly, he is on Facebook from a personal perspective. He reads different newspapers. I suspect the platform knows based on the IP address where Tony is surfing.
The pandemic has done nothing but accelerate what was already happening – digital transformation.
It's getting more difficult, but smart platforms like that use AI to find folks. In some cases, they're guessing, but it's good educated guesses that have been A/B tested a million times. For example from a stat perspective, we're able to generate a 10X reduction in the cost per click and 100 times improvement in the click-through rates for some of the content that we're promoting because we're using artificial intelligence to serve that content.
The difference between 99% lower cost or much 10X higher clicks is the difference between sink or swim. I’ve seen it. We have an SEO company out of the East Coast. It’s $3,000 a month is what I’m spending on the paid ads. In the first couple of weeks, we’re at 15, 20 web form fill outs, which is pretty good on a $3,000 investment. Over time, they continue to get better and better. Before you know it, you’re up to a much lower cost per lead. Now we can scale around that model. What are the biggest challenges that you see with marketers? I have to imagine in 2020, stuff changed. There were no more physical trade shows, which should be changing soon, but what’s changed? What’s difficult?
As a former salesperson, my biggest pet peeve has always been marketers that didn’t have an understanding that we need to serve salespeople who are on the front lines, facing customer and lead in revenue targets all the time. That hasn’t changed. Marketers became more aware of the challenge that salespeople couldn’t travel and couldn’t go to conferences. The screaming became a little bit louder. Where also sales and marketers were able to find some common ground is we saw 2X to 3X increase in the amount of organic search. You mentioned search. We have a cloud computing company client. The number of people searching for digital transformation cloud computing technologies went from 10 to 30 from March 12th to 20th, 2020.
It was great for us because we do support those companies to be found organically when those searches happen. It also meant the marketers there had a conversation with sales to say, "It looks like everyone's coming to our website now." We need to work together to make sure that we are not only reaching the right people with content and the things that we do, but that also we’re selling in the most appropriate way. Mapping content to the buyer’s journey. We’ve got the right offers, calculators and click here to set up a call with sales reps.
Those tools became much more important. They’ve always been around. I keep saying the pandemic has done nothing but accelerate what was already happening. Working from home was always a good idea for some people when you can save commute time. Digital transformation was happening. It just happened much faster. That’s what happened. The challenges that salespeople face become more obvious to marketers. The solution of online buying that has been and had been happening for a long time became much more of a priority for both.
You’ve touched briefly on personalization. Hyperise seems to be a tool that I’ve heard 3, 4 times. They have some pretty cool plugins for HubSpot and other technologies. It’s not expensive. We’re talking hundreds of dollars, not tens of thousands. It seems to me that the market is getting to a place where the IP, your know-how of what types of words and everything. There are thousands of tools like Hyperise, but deploying it in an appropriate way to optimize for conversions is why marketing support in the cloud is more effective than staffing a team of people. You probably bring not just yourself but a handful of people to the equation that are experts in paid ads, SEO, all of digital everything else. Talk a little bit about the different tools that are out there. How do you help companies effectively deploy them?
We don’t do the technical implementations. One of the things that I’m lucky to rank for is MarkTech, Marketing Technology. You’re one of them. You’re in the stack. We don’t do the technical. There are smarter folks than me like Gartner, IDC, Accenture and McKinsey that fly in 100 27-year-olds at $200 an hour to solve those problems. The model that I like to have our clients think through is right person, right place, right content, right time. Part of what we do is help them to map content to the buyer journey. They sought to find those buyers. They still have to make sure that they're able to deliver it to the right place at the right time.
The other thing that is interesting is the technology is exposing something that Gartner calls the need for validation and consensus, which is the buyers that a lot of salespeople are targeting aren’t the problem. It’s the CFO that sits next to him or her that needs to be convinced and they don’t even know what they’re talking about. What we call validation and consensus is a big part of what we do because the buying committees in some of these large B2B deployments that we’re working with are 20, 25 people. They don’t know what cloud computing is. They don’t know what a virtual contact center is and some of the stuff that our clients are selling. We’re seeing a lot of that. That’s where we live, in that strategy content mapping. The technologies line up pretty well, the person, place, content time, workflow tools, automation tools, personalization tools like you mentioned, distribution tools like I mentioned. All of those things have to come together to serve the right thing at the right time across the buyer journey.
Where do you think it’s all headed? If you were to have the crystal ball a year from now or even five years is always the hard one. Things progress at a much faster pace than we think, but where do you think we’ll be in 1 or 2 years?
I used to do a prediction post. I write 2 or 3 articles a week. It’s what we do for our clients. I have to do it for myself. I used to do a predictions post. I looked back in 2013, 2014, 2015. I said the same thing, AR, VR, AI. I mentioned all of them. I don’t think AR and VR have taken over or become that much of a part of our daily lives, even though I was predicting it several years ago. I’m going to give up the predictions game. We’ve already touched upon it. I do think automation is going to continue. The challenge that I see marketers are facing is around ROI. This gets back to sales alignment. It’s never going to happen unless the charter and the contract between marketing and sales are clear. I’ve always believed that marketing should carry a number on their back. It’s an easier place to be like, “My logo is blue or yellow. What’s the ROI of that? I have no idea. You’re a CEO. You know that.”
I was at a conference a few years ago. The guy spent 45 minutes talking about his rebranding project and the millions of dollars it took. It was two companies that came together. In fairness, he had a real reason to do it. Somebody asked the question, “What was the return on that investment? The guy was dumbfounded. He didn’t know how to answer it. I’m glad I was never one of those marketers that did logo changes and rebrands. I know it can be important, but the future of marketing and sales is us coming together to define, measure and show to the executive team the revenue that we bring in. We’re not there yet. I love to ask CMOs, “What’s your return on marketing investment.” They’re always like, “I’m not sure.”
A lot of the people who showed up to the golfing event that we did a couple of years ago turned into clients, so that was good. That’s where we’re going. Sales needs to know that marketing is delivering business value in the form of revenue and leads. Marketing will know what works. The consumers and buyers are going to be better off because they’re not going to be bombarded with shit that they don’t want. Everybody wins in this ideal future I’m painting. There is a lot of technology and integration that needs to happen to come together for that to happen. I do believe in that future.
On the brand side, an interesting case study was ZoomInfo and DiscoverOrg merged. Pre-merged, we’re a partner of DiscoverOrg. We had a call from the president of DiscoverOrg and they said, “We want to do a screen share with you.” The reason I was on the top of their shortlist is that we’re putting out a book that had the DiscoverOrg logo on the cover. They were one of three sponsors of the book. They said, “Can you stop the presses for about 1 or 2 weeks?” It turned out to be about a month after this process. They were like, “We’re going to tell you confidentially, we’re going through this merger.” They walked me through some of the stats. ZoomInfo has a good brand in the market across big customers, middle and low, especially in the low.
They measured the tail of all organic traffic and all the clicks they get out of that brand logo. DiscoverOrg was good in the enterprise, but it was about parity with the ZoomInfo level on the enterprise. They walk through the numbers. They wanted me as a partner to understand that they’re not making a dumb decision. They spent $1 million on a consultant to get to that conclusion. They do matter when you’re talking about that scale across a multibillion-dollar market cap company in today’s world. Getting to understand in those terms and what do those clicks mean in terms of revenue, that’s the most important part of that.
This has been fun. Somebody reading this says, “This has been a great conversation,” what would be a good fit? Why would they want to reach out to you? What would be the right company that you could help with?
B2B SaaS founders like you essentially are our ideal target. Generally, they are folks that don’t have a marketing department or a large one or a large budget. They understand the value of attracting organic search traffic to their website. It’s not rocket science. It used to be black magic. It’s as simple as creating thought leadership consistently on your website. Your team doesn’t have time to do it or the money to invest to have people figure out how to do it. For $4,000 a month, we do that for our clients. We average 138% year-over-year growth in traffic, about 75% year-over-year growth in leads. It’s all measurable, trackable return on investment. We keep hearing from founders, “We’re glad you guys take this off our plate because we don’t have time to care or worry about it.” Part of my marketing challenges is, do I market to, "We take it off your plate, so you don't have to worry,” or do I market to, "We give you the return on investment?" We're always testing those two messages. That’s our sweet spot.
The paradox of AI is that it requirescompanies, brands, salespeople, and marketers to be more human and moreauthentic.
Any revenue range that’s good like $500,000 to multiple millions probably?
In the sweet spot of B2B SaaS, it’s $15 million but then we’ve got large tech that are billion-dollar companies.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Michael, on the future of AI. I appreciate your time. Thanks for being on the show.
Thanks for having me, Chad. It’s good talking to you.
About Michael Brenner
Michael Brenner is a globally-recognized keynote speaker on leadership, culture, and marketing. Author of the bestselling book The Content Formula, Michael’s work has been featured by The Economist, The Guardian, and Entrepreneur Magazine. In 2017, Michael was named a Top Business Speaker by The Huffington Post and a Top CMO Influencer by Forbes.
Over the last two decades, Michael has championed a customer-centric approach at organizations large and small. He led sales and marketing for software companies like Nielsen and FullTilt. As an executive at ICR, SAP, and Newscred, Michael’s innovative leadership resulted in massive growth. His workshops and keynotes for Fortune 500 brands and tiny startups have inspired profound personal and professional change.
Today, Michael is the CEO of Marketing Insider Group, founded on the belief that strong leaders who champion their teams are the key to unlocking massive growth.
When he’s not working with clients, Michael travels the world helping even the most bureaucratic organizations break down silos, create cultures of innovation, and build engaged workforces.
Michael Brenner graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in English Literature from St. Joseph’s University (Philadelphia, PA). He lives in West Chester, PA with his wife and four children.