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Engineering Word of Mouth with Daniel Lemin

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Research suggests roughly 75% of students use word of mouth to help determine what school to attend, yet few schools have an intentional strategy for generating positive word of mouth.

In this episode, we talk with Daniel Lemin, co-author along with Jay Baer of a new book on the topic called Talk Triggers. Daniel lays out an actionable framework higher ed marketers can use to create the kinds of unique and memorable talk triggers students can’t help sharing.

Links in this Episode

Websites: talktriggers.com and daniellemin.com


Jarrett Smith: Hello there. Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with the brightest minds in higher ed in the broader world of marketing to bring you actionable insights you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment efforts.

Jarrett Smith: In this episode, we’ll be talking with Daniel Lemin, co-author, along with digital marketing luminary, Jay Baer, of a new book titled Talk Triggers. In Talk Triggers, Daniel and Jay explore word-of-mouth marketing and they lay out a practical framework for engineering word-of-mouth marketing into any organization. We discuss why novelty alone isn’t enough to generate quality word-of-mouth, the process organizations can follow to identify their own opportunities for talk triggers, and we examine several examples of schools that have created their own talk triggers at different points along the student journey.

Jarrett Smith: Daniel’s done a terrific job researching and demystifying how to actually implement word-of-mouth marketing strategies in organizations, so, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Daniel Lemin.

Jarrett Smith: Daniel, thank you so much for coming to the show.

Daniel Lemin: Thanks for having me. It’s good to be a part it.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for a while, and I know that you and Jay Baer have written a really interesting book called Talk Triggers, and it’s all about how organizations can be more intentional and strategic with their word-of-mouth marketing. I think this is the perfect topic for higher ed, so I really can’t wait to dig in.

Daniel Lemin: Yep, for sure.

Jarrett Smith: I’d love to just cut to the chase. What exactly are talk triggers and why is it worth it for those of us in higher ed marketing to pay attention to them?

Daniel Lemin: Yeah. You actually use a really important keyword in the opening preamble, which is the word “intentional.” Word of mouth is a thing that matters to every kind of business. Whether you’re a dentist or an undertaker or a higher ed institution, word of mouth matters because that’s what people look to to make decisions.

Daniel Lemin: Broadly speaking, word of mouth influences around 90% of purchase decisions. It specifically influences 20% and, the research we did for the book, we can attribute 20% of purchases made directly to a word-of-mouth trigger of some kind, a word-of-mouth conversation. The thing about it is most companies, most organizations don’t have a strategy for word of mouth. They have an email strategy. They have a lead generation strategy. They may have a social media strategy, but they don’t have an actual word-of-mouth strategy, and that is why we wrote the book and why it’s so important.

Daniel Lemin: I actually found some research looking for some data for this conversation around the role of word of mouth in higher ed, so, to your point about why does it matter for higher ed, I’ve seen some research from the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations. Their research said, “75% of students use word of mouth to identify the institution that they attend,” so, if that doesn’t make us all sit up and take notice of it, I don’t know how else to convince you, but I think, no matter how you look at it, it’s an important part of our marketing environment.

Jarrett Smith: I was scanning some of the available research on word of mouth and as it relates to higher ed also in advance of talking with you, and I came across a dissertation that was talking about the fact that in higher ed specifically, because you have this very highly considered purchase decision ultimately, but it’s also a product that you cannot test drive, there’s really no way to try out the institution, you just have to take a big risk and hope that you made the right choice, they were arguing that word of mouth is particularly influential and can, perhaps, be helpful in that it can sometimes uncover attributes that maybe the prospective student had not considered previously.

Daniel Lemin: Yeah. It’s one of the more anxiety-provoking decisions we make from a purchase perspective. Where you choose to have dinner has less impact on your life than where you go to school, so I can understand why that causes [inaudible 00:04:25] for people, but it also illustrates why people value word of mouth so strongly because just taking a college campus tour, just asking an advisor, “Where should I go to school?” doesn’t actually answer the question.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, and I guess I was curious, maybe this question is too broad, why do you think talk triggers or word of mouth work? What is it about that that is so important?

Daniel Lemin: It really comes down to trust. We’re in this weird era in our global environment today where trust matters more than truth, and that’s unfortunate for a lot of reasons, but it really comes down to who do you trust to help you make a decision? That’s friends and family, co-workers, colleagues. It’s people you know, people who are like you. When we look at … It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy. Friends and family are probably at the top of that from a trust perspective just because we know them. They’re not just people like us or my people, so I think also a lot of the reason you see in families, generations going to the same school. They know it’s predictable. They know what it means. They know what it’s like. There’s tradition there, so, yeah, I mean, I think it comes down to trust.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. One of the things I like about this particular book is that you guys actually invested in a good bit of original research to go along with it and you did some formal research around how people perceive organizations that are maybe doing something to try to appear different. What did you guys uncover with that?

Daniel Lemin: There were some interesting findings. We have a lot of case studies and a lot of original research, and one of the most surprising things was the impact that word of mouth had on the sales mix, but also the fact that it isn’t actually everyone who is talking about a brand. It was only about a third of customers. Even in the highest performing examples we’ve had, Cheesecake Factory, DoubleTree Hotels, both very, very strong word-of-mouth companies, still only a third of their customers are talking about it, and so I think that’s one of the reasons it’s been overlooked over the years, because that number isn’t everyone. It’s like, “I’d rather invest in the other two-thirds of my customers,” but, in fact, that one-third is really important, and if they’re not talking, no one is.

Jarrett Smith: Right. I know you also uncovered a segment of folks that is maybe a bit distrustful or maybe a little skeptical of organizations that are trying to do something overtly different. Is that something we should be worried about before trying to incite word of mouth?

Daniel Lemin: Yeah. The interesting thing about it, so we put people on four different categories in our research, one of them was skeptics, and what was interesting is skeptics were actually more influenced by word of mouth than some of the more ad- and-marketing-friendly folks, so, because of that trust thing, people were like, “Well, I don’t trust the university’s marketing people as much as my friends,” so it tipped to the other direction for the skeptics, so that’s helpful. I mean, if you’re trying to win over a skeptical crowd, a talk trigger is a good way to do it.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. Yeah, so let’s talk about some examples. I know we … you can some higher ed specific examples, but I think just out there in the broader world, what are some of the best examples you’ve come across? Like you mentioned, this book is loaded with them, and I have a few of my favorites.

Daniel Lemin: The foundation of it, it’s important I think that we describe what is and what isn’t a talk trigger first, and the reason for that we is we assume that it’s promotions and campaign stuff. Actually, the examples we found that worked best are a little bit more operational in nature, so there’s something different about the way that a company runs its business that is not only noticeable, but people talk about it.

Daniel Lemin: A classic example of this is DoubleTree Hotels. If you’ve stayed in a DoubleTree Hotel, you may be familiar with the procedure when you check in. The person says, “Welcome to DoubleTree. Thanks for staying with us,” reaches down under the counter, opens a drawer and out comes a warm chocolate chip cookie that they’ve baked in the hotel, and that’s it. People talk about that cookie like crazy. It isn’t something that they do ad … They do advertise it, but it is an actual operational element of how they run their hotels.

Daniel Lemin: It’s actually quite complex in their case. They have ovens and warming drawers and all kinds of crazy stuff, but that’s distinguished from a thing like Geico with its gecko. The gecko is cute, and people talk about it, but it’s not an actual talk trigger because it doesn’t really exist at the operations. It’s marketing. It’s, in their case, a mascot, a slogan.

Daniel Lemin: I think sometimes in higher ed we think about our mascots being talk triggers, Ohio State with Brutus, and, for sure, I mean, that’s the case, but that isn’t going to win over any non-Ohio State fans. I mean, it’s not going to win over a prospective student, right? I think we have to think about what is it operationally we do at university level, higher ed level that is different?

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. That operational difference, I think another example of that that you mentioned was New Zealand Air. In the book, you talk about, “Oh, New Zealand Air has these really great safety videos.” They have Bear Grylls. They have Lord of the Rings themed safety videos, and those are great and those are a talk trigger, but that isn’t necessarily the most powerful one that they have in their arsenal. What really gets the most airplay is their Skycouch, I think they call it, where it’s in economy seating and you can remove the armrest and, basically, your three chairs become like a futon, and that’s really what people talk about. That really gets to that deeper operational level that you’re talking about.

Daniel Lemin: Yep, and what’s great about that, in their case, it’s part of the product, but it’s the thing. When a customer sees that, they’re like, “Shoot, why doesn’t every airline do that?” Why doesn’t every hotel have cookies at check-in? Why doesn’t every blank do blank? That’s when you know you’ve hit a talk trigger. When you see it, you’re like, “Yeah, why don’t all universities do that?”

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, that’s super interesting, and what I think is also interesting about it is that it would not be easy for other airlines to just copy that. Conceivably, they could. New Zealand Air did it, but it’s not the sort of thing that you can see the leaders of, say, Southwest jumping on board with quickly, “Yeah, let’s do that, too.” Interesting.
Daniel Lemin: Yep.

Jarrett Smith: You’ve obviously formalized this quite a bit around what makes for a great talk trigger. What are the key characteristics of a really good talk trigger?

Daniel Lemin: They share some traits that are foundational. One is that, by their nature, they are remarkable. I think that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. We call them the Four Rs, so remarkable is the first. One is that most often they’re somewhat reasonable in nature. It’s not an over-the-top gesture of shock and awe designed to, “Wow, I can’t believe they’re giving away, you know, stuffed, full-size bear for every matriculation.” It’s an operational thing more so than a promotional thing. It’s reasonable.

Daniel Lemin: The third is that it’s generally relevant to the experience. If, when you checked in at your dentist, he gave you a warm chocolate chip cookie, you might go, “That’s a very curious place to give me a warm chocolate chip cookie,” although the gesture is welcome. However, if he offered you a five-minute chair massage at the end, you might be like, “Okay, that sort of makes sense.” That was a stressful experience. Relevance is an important one because it helps us refine what are the promotional things versus an operational element.

Daniel Lemin: Then the fourth are … talk about reasonable, remarkable, relevant, it’s really important. The fourth one is that it has to be repeatable. If everybody who interacts with you doesn’t have the chance to have that same experience, it actually becomes an anti-talk trigger. It becomes negative word of mouth because it feels like you’re picking and choosing your favorites, and that’s not going to work long term.

Daniel Lemin: Those are the four really foundational elements, and it works for universities. I mean, we could brainstorm probably several hundred ways that that comes to life.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, and I’m glad you said that because I think about the typical university, if there’s such a thing, and it is such a hugely complex organization, so, with so many facets to it, and some of them are in some ways I think a bit like that economy class airline seating where it’s like we take it for granted, we assume this is the way it’s always been and the way it should be, and so we all just roll with it even if the experience is still a little subpar in some cases …

Daniel Lemin: As expected, yep.

Jarrett Smith: … exactly, more as expected, so I think that’s great, so, jumping into some of those higher ed specific examples, if you come across any that you thought, “Okay, this is a pretty good example of a legitimate talk trigger in a university setting.”

Daniel Lemin: I think my favorite one is actually … It’s a school in New York State, Alfred University. Theirs is just connected to the campus tour, which is an obvious place to have talk triggers, and I think it’s actually probably the most logical place to start, but, there, they do their campus tours on a conference bike built for seven people.

Jarrett Smith: Wow.

Daniel Lemin: It’s not just like, “Oh, here’s a tour of seven people.” You’re on a bicycle together in a circle going around the campus and, if you take the tour, you get a shirt that says, “Tour Hard with Alfred University,” on it.

Jarrett Smith: Oh, that’s cool.

Daniel Lemin: I think that’s fun because it’s fun. I mean, it’s a meaningful part of the experience. You have to tour somehow, and it’s a fun thing. If you Google it, like, “Alfred University tours,” you’ll see pictures of it, and it’s actually connected for them to their brand ethos, which is I forget exactly what they say. They’re a little bit different or something like that.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. Interesting.

Daniel Lemin: It’s five or six of those bikes, and you’re in business. That’s pretty easy to make that happen.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, definitely. I came across a couple, and I wonder if these meet your standard for a talk trigger. One of them is Orgo Night at Columbia, and so … Organic chemistry, I guess the students calls it Orgo for short is obviously an incredibly difficult topic, and the night before finals many of the students officially are studying in their library, the marching band actually comes in to the library to entertain the students to give them a break and they sing songs and tell jokes, and, apparently, it’s been this ongoing tradition for quite some time. Now, does that meet your criteria of, okay, this is a talk trigger? How do you think about that?

Daniel Lemin: Yeah, I think it can. What can happen over time, what was once unexpected becomes expected and known, so then you stop talking about it at that point.

Daniel Lemin: Andy Sernovitz, a guy in the SEO business, he famously described this as the chocolate problem. The point is that everybody loves chocolate. Chocolate is delicious, yet who really among us talks about chocolate? Despite the fact we all love the chocolate so much, it’s had to say something different about chocolate that hasn’t been said before, so it’s the same thing.

Daniel Lemin: I mean, Ohio State, I’m from Ohio, so I keep referencing Ohio State, they’ve got Brutus. They’ve got the marching band, and, at some point, you come to expect that that’s the case, which doesn’t make it bad. At that point, you maybe have the [bandwidth 00:16:22] to make a new [inaudible 00:16:22] that they can make some other magical part of it, although, I don’t know, Ohio State always seems to find a way to outdo themselves with the marching band.

Jarrett Smith: Daniel, I know we talked about Alfred University and what they’re doing with the tour, and obviously that’s very early on in the student journey, but, I wonder, do you have any other examples of maybe following that journey a little further? Maybe somebody’s enrolled. They’re now attending the school. What sorts of things have you seen out in the world that are interesting to you?

Daniel Lemin: That’s a really interesting thread because it’s really meaningful to think through your own university’s student journey. Every school is a little bit different, and it could be dependent on the type of content you have, the type of student experience you have.

Daniel Lemin: Everything starts with the tour. We talked about Alfred University. There’s another school that has an interesting tour experience in Florida. It’s Eckerd College, itself really known for marine sciences, and so, for them, they do their tour on a boat. Makes sense. That’s connected to that specific university, and they’re known for their boat tours.

Daniel Lemin: That’s really the first step. Then you also have campus life once you’ve been convinced to attend, and there is a lot of opportunity. Pomona College in California is famous in fact for its dorms. They have some of the nicest probably university housing in the country. You’ve got campus life, and you have graduation experience as another point of potential optimization.

Daniel Lemin: There’s a school in Japan, the Kanazawa College of Art. It’s a design school, and so, building on that theme, they allow students to design their own graduation gears, so it basically looks like a comic-con happened at their graduation with people in costume, so you can design your own graduation costume. There are some really crazy photos. Just Google them. You’ll find some really crazy graduation photos, and then Smith College as well is slightly different tradition, a little bit more understated. They have a thing called the Diploma Circle. When you graduate from Smith, you don’t actually receive your own diploma in the folder. You get someone else’s.

Jarrett Smith: Interesting.

Daniel Lemin: You have to do a swap after the ceremony to find your own diploma. It’s just a tradition they have, the Diploma Circle. Those are a few, and you look at those different inflection points. You realize there could be gaps all along that that you could just do something a little bit different. That gets noticed.

Jarrett Smith: Right. One of the things that really stands out when you talk about some of these examples back to back to back is how they’re all different, and the best ones seem to tie into something intrinsic about that school or that culture, so it makes sense that the art school would make this a project, that you’re going to design your own graduation capping gown. It makes sense that Smith is a more understated school, so they’re not going to do that. That wouldn’t be successful there or, like we’ve come back to it a couple of times, with Alfred, it’s one of their value propositions, that we do things a little differently here, so you’re going to ride on a bike during your tour. It’s not just some kind of gee-whiz thing that isn’t really tied into the identity of the school. At its best, it really is relevant and says something about who they are.

Daniel Lemin: That’s exactly it. It allows you to see the difference. When you see a talk trigger that’s working, you’re like, “That makes a lot of sense.” It’s not just a layer put on by a committee from a meeting, which is why we say it’s important to start at research, not at ideas. A lot of schools offer campus tours on bikes. There’s only one that I know of that does it on a conference bike. I don’t think Harvard would probably offer a thing such as that. It wouldn’t make sense, but for Alfred it does. It makes total sense.

Jarrett Smith: Right. You’ve been alongside a number of organizations as they’ve tried to roll these sorts of initiatives out. What are the common hangup points that you’ve seen as folks contemplate maybe intentionally doing something like this?

Daniel Lemin: The most common one is not enough research because you end up shooting from the hip versus looking at the student journey in this case very intentionally. That’s the biggest one is a lack of research, because what it then leads to is a lack of courage. If you feel like, “I don’t know why we’re doing this stuff. I really don’t want to take that much of a chance,” then you will not be as courageous. You won’t take chances that are quite as big, so that’s the big one I think.

Jarrett Smith: One of the things you said was that, the talk trigger, a good one is something that is really presented to everybody. Everyone has equal access to it. You don’t want to appear as if you’re picking and choosing who gets it and who doesn’t, but, obviously, with a large university, you have numerous colleges, each that are quite substantial on their own, so, in that context, is it really important that the talk trigger be something that would apply broadly across the entire university or could it be restricted to a department or a college?

Daniel Lemin: I think it’s yes to both. It’s great if there’s a university-wide talk trigger. Is it unhelpful if the college of engineering has its own? I think the answer to that is that’s helpful so long as every student in the college gets a chance to experience that. I think it’s entirely relevant.

Daniel Lemin: An example of that working I think is Arizona State University. If you’re familiar with their basketball team, they do things differently in Arizona. The Arizona State Basket Team certainly follows that model. They have a thing called the Curtain of Distraction. I don’t know if you’ve seen this. It’s crazy.

Jarrett Smith: I haven’t. I’m not actually a basketball guy.

Daniel Lemin: Not really?

Jarrett Smith: I don’t know much about sports ball.

Daniel Lemin: It’s worth going to find some videos of this happening. On the visiting team’s side of the court, when they’re doing a free throw, there’s this little curtain behind the net, and they fling the curtain open and out comes all of this distracting stuff. They dress up in costumes. They’re just trying to distract the team and then, when their free throw is done, they shut the curtain again, the Curtain of Distraction, and it’s not all of their sports team. It’s just the basketball team there. It’s known for it. It has been shown to actually give them like a 1.7-point advantage in a game over the years. They’ve had it for many years, so that’s a sub-sub-sub-talk triggers. Not all sports, just a basketball team. Maybe that’s probably a good thing.

Jarrett Smith: I can imagine folks listening to this and saying, “Okay, interesting. There’s some interesting things we might be able to do in the space. There’s some examples out there in the broader world of companies doing some interesting things, but how would I justify this? How do I measure this? How do I justify putting time and energy towards a project like this?” How do you think about that?

Daniel Lemin: Yeah. This is part of the reason it hasn’t typically been done before. Either someone had the willpower to do it in a small business, they just thought it was a better way to do it, or there was some other reason for it or just happened by accident, but the thing about it is it’s directly connected to the metrics that matter to your business.

Daniel Lemin: Alfred University’s campus tour team, their entire purpose is to get people into the funnel of consideration, and if the tour is so great that people come in, it draws people in, you may not convert them yet, but you’re giving yourself a chance to. In that case, it can boost inbound leads or boost tour dates, so that’s a meaning metric.

Daniel Lemin: In other cases, for some of the other examples we’ve talked about, DoubleTree Hotel, it’s an interesting example because DoubleTree Hotel was not otherwise known for much of anything. In fact, they can be quite inconsistent, the brand, and yet they have circumvented and short-circuited potential disappointment by giving you a cookie before you get in the room. It’s actually a strategic choice to delight you before anything else happens. Let’s just put it that way. Depending on what you identity as the operational need in your business, then you start seeing where you can move metrics with a talk trigger, and that’s when it becomes very realistic.

Daniel Lemin: I was just talking with a client prior to this conversation, they’re in the real estate business, and we were finally honing down how much should we spend on doing a thing like this, so we got to their average customer lifetime value, all of the metrics that go into their marketing decisions, and we landed on around 10 to $11 per person. If it works, then we could start chipping away budget from somewhere else and invest a little higher, but once you know where you have gaps in your student experience or faculty experience, whatever it might be, you figure out, if we were to fill that, what does it do for our business? That’s the missing link, I think, for a lot of organizations who would, otherwise, like to do it.

Jarrett Smith: Interesting. One of the things that I really like about this book is that you’ve got a ton of great examples. You also give a lot of good advice I think on how to evaluate these things and also how to engineer them intentionally. Obviously, folks want all the nitty-gritty details on how to do that. They should go out, check out the book, or you can dive into it some depth, but at a high level, how do you go about engineering these kinds of experiences, these talk triggers?

Daniel Lemin: We put a system in the back of the second half of the book. It’s actually a whole system on how to do it in six different steps, and, broadly speaking, the steps are around a listening campaign, research, figuring out and identifying where you have gaps by doing probably the scariest thing for any marketing person in the world. To talk to real live customers, prospects, that’s pretty terrifying because it’s not what we do every day, but when you start doing that, you see obvious gaps. We could do way better at that one little thing, and that would be very noticeable.

Daniel Lemin: That’s one element. The second element is idea creation. That’s the one everybody want to do. I mean, you want to skip all the other stuff. You’re like, “Let’s just get in the room and solve it. Let’s come up with ideas.” If they were that easy, we all would have done it last week or last year. You don’t do that until you have the research. That’s a really important thing we learned. Companies that do this with some intent, they do it based on research, not based on gut, so that’s the second, and the third is testing and measuring the thing. The idea is not, again, to get everybody talking about this particular idea. It’s to get around a third of people talking about it, which is a weird metric. Success is 33.33% out of 100. That’s what we’re celebrating, but it is in fact.

Daniel Lemin: The other thing to realize is we assume, when we think of word of mouth, we think of Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, all of which matter, but half of all of it still happens offline, outside of the reach of surveys and that kind of stuff, so how you measure it may in part be based on a population of people, but, also, you have to assume there’s a lot you won’t see and hear directly.

Jarrett Smith: You mentioned that 30% or so that would be successful. What’s on the low end of that? If I’m testing out a couple of ideas, what you recommend in the book, before you roll it out, probably dip your toe in the water, what’s the minimum response rate I should be looking for to know that I might have something worth pursuing further?

Daniel Lemin: It in part depends a little on what you’re testing and for how long, but if it’s something you’re just doing quickly to see how people react, if you get 10 to 20% of a sample population talking about that idea, you’re in pretty good shape at that point. You know that people have proactively noticed it. You assume it’s one out of 10 people or two out of 10 people notice it enough to say something about it. That’s important because there are equal numbers of people who noticed it and maybe said something and didn’t do it on Twitter or would amplify it some other ways, so between 10 and 20% is a reasonable effort for a short-term test.

Daniel Lemin: If you’re going to take Alfred’s conference bike, you rent the bike for a week and offer every fifth tour on the bike, see if people notice it happen, photograph it, mention it, then you start to feel, you know it in your gut. You’re like, “That’s working for us.”

Jarrett Smith: Right, we’re actually seeing people take note of this thing. Daniel, this is a really interesting topic, and what I love about it is you take something that can be a little hard to understand and measure, but you all do a great job of making it really concrete. If folks want to find out more, want to engage with you, what are the best places to do that?

Daniel Lemin: We have a really great website for the book, talktriggers.com. There’s actually a bunch of free stuff there, so, if people want to taste it before they order it, that’s a good place to do it, and then I’m findable pretty much wherever you would expect me to be, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, all those places.

Jarrett Smith: Very good. Thank you so much.

Daniel Lemin: Thank you.

Jarrett Smith: The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service marketing firm dedicated to helping higher education institutions drive enrollment, increase yield and capture donors’ attention. For more information, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave us a review on iTunes and, as always, if you have questions, suggestions, episode ideas or just want to reach out and say hi, drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co. See you next time.


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Jarrett is our VP of Strategy and the torchbearer for all things digital. Since joining us in 2014, he’s made it his mission to help clients seize the power of smarter marketing strategies—and reap the rewards.