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Dennis Haugan of T-Mobile on curating web content

I had the pleasure of speaking at the same private client event as Dennis Haugan, the Senior Director of Web Marketing Strategy at T-Mobile USA, the American wireless arm of telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom. Dennis spends his days improving customer experience across a wide variety of digital properties, including e-commerce, self service, product microsites, official social sites (on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and mySpace), and retail interactive portals. Dennis was kind enough to consent to an interview that includes his innovative approach to curating social media and other Web content. I think you’ll enjoy it.

MM: Your role seems really interesting. For someone who might might not understand what you do, how do you explain it?

DH: Well, beyond my parents, for whom I have yet to find an effective way to explain what I do, I often describe my role as a digital chef or a digital conductor. I tend to use the chef analogy more because of watching Top Chef too often, but I feel my job to get the right digital content at the right place and time to help our shoppers and customers get the information they need to make their decision. I look at things such as online advertising, paid and organic search, social media, and Web site and retail portal merchandising as ingredients. I need to put the right combination of these ingredients together to make an effective experience. You can think of it as creating the right dish in the case of cooking or music in conducting.

MM: How would you describe the concept of curating content? It is not something marketers grew up doing.

DH: You’re right, we did not grow up really thinking about the combination of content, from a marketing communications standpoint. We would look at copy at the individual piece level, not always the collection. I think with Web and digital content, the consumer was the first one to curate content. They used search to seek out a collection of content, both corporate-produced and user-generated, in order to make an informed decision. While they expected inconsistency in user-generated content, they did not expect the company’s own content to be inconsistent. I believe inconsistent company content undermines consumer trust in the company. I think the consumer feels overwhelmed because there is too much digital content on a given topic, and they are seeking assistance in pulling it together, which opens the opportunity for companies to curate content. Early in my career, I led the B2B marketing efforts for McCaw Cellular (later AT&T Wireless) and I learned quickly that when dealing with big companies and their buyers, you don’t give them conflicting information across your sales team, your presentations, or your marketing materials. Seeing the impact in that marketing and selling environment trained me to think broadly, across all touch points. The same holds true for existing customers. Conflicting information generates calls to your centers because the customer feels the only “true” source is a call center employee.

MM: How has T-Mobile used content curation to cope with the changing landscape in tech media coverage?

DH: I would say, to start, that there is a lot more coordination between our PR group and our marketing communications teams at both a campaign and a social listening standpoint. In wireless, things move fast. We have a lot of invested customers who are passionate about the technology—that means a lot of readers, which in turn means a lot of tech media coverage. We are lucky to have products and services that garner so much consumer and resulting media attention. It is a race to the Web for breaking product news, so you have to be ready to go quickly. By curating content up front for a product launch, we become the single source with the broadest array of information about that product. So it is easier for consumers, customers, and the press to come to our product sites to get early information, and since we use RSS feeds to bring ongoing information in, you can get robust product information(demos, videos, etc.) while still reading the latest highly-rated blog site comments. Having the best content at launch means my sites fare well for search also.

MM: What’s your favorite content curation story at T-Mobile?

DH: I am not sure it has happened yet, to be honest, but we are on the right path. It is not an easy migration from silo view of campaigns/projects and media to a curated view of content at the lifecycle stage. The curation, up to this point, I am most proud of is our Sidekick site which, after years of taking a curation approach, behaves like a community of product evangelists, which is the best outcome you could want around a product. I used our Sidekick site as an early test bed for innovation; it was the right product and right customer base to experiment with. We got a ton of learnings from this site over the last few years and a lot of that has been worked into our experience design approach.

MM: How has the aggressiveness of tech media in leaking secret product plans changed the way T-Mobile communicates about products internally before launch?

DH: You must write your internal communications as if they were external. In this day and age, with everyone being a self publisher and editor of Web content, you have to anticipate that what is published inside might eventually make its way outside.

MM: How do you deal with bloggers and other press who consistently leak product details, but get them wrong?

DH: We run listening reports and do outreach to provide the correct information. The net is that the blogger wants to communicate the right information, because it is in their best interest to do so to maintain the respect of their readership. We time the initial launch of our product microsites to align with the press release, thus they have all the key product details right at product announcement. You have to draw a line in the sand or else you have no date to work with for any product launch. Anything published or speculated about prior to launch is suspect as to its accuracy.

MM: I’ve heard you speak about taking a broad look at ROI across many marketing tactics. How does this square against the current trend in the industry for specific attribution of sales against particular tactics?

DH: I think I would have a much harder time converting folks to a content viewpoint instead of a pure media silo viewpoint if, in fact, attribution for the sale has been solved, but it hasn’t, from what I can tell. You will always optimize at the media level, but I think you have a bigger opportunity when you truly break down these silo walls and you look at how well the mix of media elements is working for you. Often, each media element is optimized independently of the other, and often the ownership and thus the ROI lies with many together, thus you may actually be optimizing against each other. I think a good example of how the two really need to work together is paid search and organic search. And now that search engines value social content so much, you have social mixed in there as well. Consumers today use search as navigation, and it seems to be the unifier of online advertising, social, pr, and onsite merchandising/publishing. The consumer cuts across our media silos, so we need to also. And I believe that your media has to work for you beyond generating awareness and increasing consideration—it needs to support the product throughout its life cycle.

MM: What do you see coming next for marketing at T-Mobile?

DH: Customer Experience Design. I have been evolving the thinking about how we create digital content and how we bring it together for the consumer. I have had to change culture and break down some very solid silo walls in order to get us to a unified way of thinking about digital content, so for me what comes next is to truly begin putting this design approach into production for digital web and retail. I have visions of broadening beyond to other channels once we succeed with these two!

MM: What do you see coming next for this whole space in the industry in the long run?

DH: I think you will see broader adoption of a digital content curation approach. I think it will start out on the Web site digital screens but I see it moving to all digital screens, including retail, wireless phones (of course!), internal retail, and customer care screens. In the end, it is all digital content served up across many digital screens. I think we over-complicate things sometimes with technology silos, so breaking it down to common elements across multiple touch points enables a common view, something many folks struggle arriving at.

MM: Thanks, Dennis, for taking the time to explain these interesting initiatives to my readers.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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