Talking Marketing Strategies in a COVID-19 World: Interview with Joshua Schnoll, Marketing VP

An Interview with a VP of Marketing: Marketing Strategies, Growth, Innovation, & Teamwork in a COVID-19 World

We sat down with Joshua Schnoll, VP of Marketing at AppDirect, a subscription commerce platform that gives businesses the freedom to grow, to talk about marketing strategies in a COVID-19 world and beyond. Joshua shares insights and thoughts on how strategy has shifted, the implications of this time on growth, brand, innovation, and teamwork, as well as what kind of mindset leaders should be adopting as this crisis continues to unfold.

Obviously, our world has been greatly altered in the past months. How have your marketing strategies changed with it?

Most importantly, we’re hyper-focused on empathy. Empathy for everyone: teams, customers, future customers…even vendors. When we renegotiated with the hotel where we consistently do AppDirect’s Engage event, we approached it as a mutual decision. How can we do the right thing, for each other?

Just because COVID-19 has changed everything doesn’t mean we’ve stopped marketing at AppDirect. We’re just thinking about marketing strategy within the context of the moment. Our subscription commerce platform helps large telcos offer SaaS and IaaS solutions to SMBs. So, we immediately pivoted to create solutions and content for remote work. Zoom might be the application that most associate with remote work, but the reality is much broader. Security, document management…we’re helping firms understand what they needed to make the full transition and providing those solutions to them.

Clearly, our events strategy has also changed. We’re taking a conservative approach. Large events (over around 50 people) won’t be back until a vaccine is found, shifting us to a full digital strategy. That means weekly webinars, small virtual executive discussions where non-competing customers can discuss strategies, and virtual customer round tables that host a broader audience.

Do you think these shifts will last long-term? Or prove to be more ephemeral changes?

I was having this debate with some of my friends, asking the question: will the conference world rebound after this threat has passed? I believe that as social creatures our nature is to want to be around other people. When you get out of the office and travel to a different place, even if it’s a few blocks away, it’s enriching in a way that virtual events simply are not. The serendipitous meeting that occurs in the hallway, the session you mistakenly walk into that proves to be amazing, the great food you eat while meeting customers…those are simply impossible to replicate digitally today. As many collaboration tools are out there, collaboration is never more productive than when in person.

That being said, I do think that the number of in-person visits will reduce and 25-30% of what we used to do in-person will be remote. There will be more virtual events, as everyone builds that muscle in a way they hadn’t before.

As a marketer, you’re inherently interested in how your consumers, your people, are connecting with your brand…engaging, buying…how do you think today’s marketers should be thinking about connecting with people/users in relevant, compelling, meaningful ways?

I think it’s important to keep your long-term strategy in mind and not lose that. The context customers engage in has changed radically, and we need to react to that – but with an eye still kept on the strategy. Think holistically about the customer experience. Your company strengths are the same, but customer needs may have shifted and the world in which people live is altered. How can you meet them where they are today? I think patience is big here. This is a scary, uncertain time for people. Be relevant, be empathetic, and be patient. That’s where I’m focused.

Let’s talk digital. As you know well, the business world was already moving there. Will COVID-19 accelerate or transform the shift to digital? In what ways?

It’s funny – we help firms transform their digital commerce and our greatest competition has always been the status quo, not some competitor. In fundamentally changing your business, shifting to subscriptions, and enabling digital solutions, fear and risk are often what hold businesses back. And COVID is like a wrecking ball to the status quo. Things we once considered unimaginable are the current reality. We’re seeing a number of clients that had slow-rolled digital transformation efforts now fast-tracking them, if they have the resources. I’d say it helps to be partly down the road. Take K-12 education. If a school district hasn’t even thought about what learning platform they’d invest in and now they have to transition to fully digital, that’s going to be difficult. The more work you’ve done, the easier this is.

A lot of businesses who were previously thinking in terms of growth are now thinking about security, stability, staying afloat…do you think it’s possible to drive growth during this time? How?

It really gets back to the hierarchy of needs. For firms that are suffering devastation from an immediate shutdown of their sector, I’m not sure they can think much about growth. Other sectors are different. I think we all need to have patience for growth. Don’t lose those growth ambitions, but be patient.

How does brand play a role? Do you see the role or importance of brand shifting as well?

Like we’ve discussed, this is bringing long-term implications for marketing, messaging, sales…. And brand must lead and play a role. Ask: how does the brand want to show up in the world? And use this strategy to guide how to move forward. Letting brand lead right now is really important. It’s not necessarily about optimizing for revenue, it’s about optimizing for a long-term relationship… and if you focus on making the brand relevant in a new context, and act appropriately, you’ll reap the benefits.

Interestingly, with constraints often comes newfound innovation… Do you see your business, and others around you, adopting more creative, resourceful, or innovative strategies?

AppDirect was founded in 2009, at the height of the Great Recession. Sticking with the status quo never works. This is a time to be more creative and resourceful. Think of ideas like “Goat-to-Meeting” – the animal sanctuary that started offering virtual tours and goat or llama cameos for company or school virtual meetings – that would have never been invented in a pre-COVID world. They’re finding new ways to connect with people and keep their not-for-profit farm going. Just the other day, our team was planning on how we can meaningfully connect with customers over a nice dinner. We’re looking at how to get meals and wine delivered to make a virtual dinner session feel real and special.

What mindset should a VP of Marketing be taking on during this time? What kind of thinking is working for you? What kind of thinking is working against you?

The productive mindset right now is a creative, strategic mindset. And I think, importantly, an optimistic and hopeful mindset. I don’t think this is the time for pessimism. It’s about the art of the possible. When you adopt a mindset of possibility, things get interesting and innovative. COVID has erased the separation between work and home, work selves and personal selves. And there’s something in embracing that informalness, that connection, that authenticity. And lastly, I think gratefulness for what we do have. For me, a great team of people. A company that is able to weather things. Health. Family.

How are you keeping morale up amongst your team and employee base?

We’ve gone through phases at AppDirect. When we first shifted to remote, we were really focused on making sure everyone had what they needed and were safe. We ran daily team stand-ups, we checked in regularly, we over-communicated on purpose. Once people started to realize that we were in this for the long haul, our approach shifted. It was clear that the most valuable commodity to our employees was their time. So to keep morale high, we enabled people to control their own time. We reduced the number of check-ins and increased flexibility so that people could have more time with kids and significant others. At the same time, we’ve been prioritizing team recognition. Acknowledging and celebrating the great effort everyone is making with small rewards like care packages for home.

If you need help adapting your marketing strategies, your brand, business, or culture during this time please reach out.

Emotive Brand is a brand strategy and design agency based in San Fransisco, California.

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