Q&A … With Neal Sharma

The president of fast-growth digital-marketing firm DEG assesses America’s Facebook-Induced wake-up call on data privacy, mistakes that companies make with their social media efforts, on-line reputational threats and more.

Q. What are the top mistakes execs make when trying to fabricate a digital presence for their companies?

A. The biggest mistakes I see people make is they’re too insular, they’re too worried about their story or what they want to get out into the world, and as a result they don’t take their customers under consideration. What they should really be focusing on is what do their customers care about, what do their prospects care about, how do their prospects want to hear from them, in what methods or modes or devices do their prospects or customers think about them? When folks do their digital marketing plans, they look around the capabilities, their offerings and their services they might have here at their businesses without considering “how does somebody else want to experience that?” or “what do they expect to understand?”

Q. How do owners go about delegating social media duties to someone who may or may not have their workplace history or nuanced understanding of the company and its client relationships?

A.  I think it’s critical. The voice in your social media presence is what communicates the authenticity. And if that person that you have in charge of your social media does not understand your voice, doesn’t understand your authenticity, it’s not going to convey the message you want to send in those channels. So when you bring on somebody new, I think the bigger thing to remember is that they can’t engage in social channels episodically—it can’t be something that they do with 1/8th of their day or 1/17th of their day, where they’re engaging on social channels on behalf of your company, but then they’re off doing operational work or off doing something else. Because what will end up happening is, they’ll have very stilted or episodic conversations with your customer base or your prospects. It has to be a much more concentrated, consistent delivery.

Q. What’s the solution?

A. That’s why many folks come to outside agencies to do that work for them. An outside agency is always going to be more studied about your brand. They’re going to take time to learn about your brand, to understand you, really be able to communicate authentically as you. If they’re wrapped up in your larger marketing perspectives they may understand what you want to get across and what you want to get accomplished better than someone inside your four walls, and they’ll have the time to do it. 

Q. What are some things coming in the future that can be game-changers here?

The No. 1 thing I’ve been speaking about for the last year or so is artificial intelligence. And AI, the way to think about it, is it’s a subset of machine learning. So machine learning is taking a bunch of inputs that happen from the world, everything is throwing off data now, so everything you do online, as you learned from Facebook, everything you do on Facebook, but even your devices, your Alexa, your Google Home, is throwing off a ton of data about your interests, about how often you’re en-gaging, what more you hope to learn about you as a consumer. All this data needs to go somewhere, and does, and over time patterns emerge. What AI can allow you to do is take those patterns and that data and apply it to something useful.”

Q. Such as?

A. For example, often times before we place an ad or do a direct marketing piece, we can know the efficacy of that before we run it. So we can say, OK, here’s the target audience we’re hoping to target the ad to, gears the messages that we’re putting into play. And through AI-enabled technologies, we can have an understanding about whether or not that’s going to be successful or not, or the likelihood for it to be, before we even run it.  So that is a game-changer in terms of marketing efficacy.

Q. How do you toe that line of using people’s information but using it correctly?

A. It’s funny, I read an article this past week or two when the Facebook stuff bubbled up and it talked about it being the “dirty little secret of marketing.” This has been going on for decades in different forms. A lot of these data aggregators have known things like your magazine subscriptions a decade and a half ago, as well as your party affiliation, as well as your general sociographic interests, like whether you like food and wine or whether you like vacationing. They know a lot of this from your credit card data, your offline subscription data, and so all online did was take it to a level of granularity that I think was part of the natural progression anyway. This is something that’s been happening in targeted marketing for a long, long time.  

Q. Should consumers be concerned?

A. One of the things that Facebook did that I think felt way too intrusive, on Android devices it looked at the logs of your phone calls and the logs of who you texted. That is not aggregate analysis, that is hyper-specific analysis, and I don’t think the world is exactly ready for that. To sort of say, “Hey, based on your interests and based on what you’ve clicked on and read, we think you’re interested in food and wine,” that makes you feel part of a larger group.  Rather than saying, “you called your mom yesterday and made a reservation today on Open Table”—that’s the degree.  Lastly, I think privacy, security of that data, is critical. Hacks are now almost a weekly event, and so as a result, I think it’s going to make sure that we can engender trust with our consumers is the idea that the data is kept as secure and private as possible

Q. What is your advice for companies and potential negative backlash? Can you ever really prepare for it or prevent it?

A. Being prepared for it, I think, is the No. 1 goal. The other is, this is an environment where trust is the most important attribute of a relationship. Companies that are very transparent and are very forward about their positive steps and their missteps are the ones that are going to succeed. It’s good PR advice but it’s even more relevant in this hyperactive news cycle and this ability for something to go from very small to very big. Confronting it directly, engaging positively and constructively, not being defensive about it, acknowledging where you made a misstep but then also acknowledging where you’ve rectified or where you have strengths, are going to be the best ways to interact with a public that is always looking for reasons not to trust you. So give them those reasons to trust you, and do not give them reasons to distrust you, are the most important anecdotes of that.

Q. Why are you proud to base in KC?

A. I think Kansas City has the absolute Goldilocks situation. It is a large enough and significant enough city on the national scale to have national impact and import. Some of the greatest brands that America has known, from Hallmark to Russell Stover’s, have been headquartered here. So it has this wonderful impact on a national scale so it’s not so small, but it’s not so big that you lose the human interaction, the human connection between folks that are in this city. Folks around here are absolutely looking out for each other, are hoping to see people win, are going out of their way to help support people who win. I’m talking about the scions of business that … have had generations of success (and gave so much guidance) to the start-ups. And you won’t find that in a lot of other cities where a start-up founder can meet somebody who has a publicly traded business and they can meet and interact in a very casual and real way.

Q. How’s the regional talent pool holding up to support your growth?

A. I recently gave a panel speech on the idea that, it was focused around the ‘brain drain’ and my argument was, maybe we ought to be thinking, not only how do we keep kids graduating out of our universities in the Kansas City area by offering things that make it appealing for them to do so, but those who might leave. The next best priority that we ought to pay attention to is how we draw them back to Kansas City when the kinds of things that they value start to shift: great standard of living, great place to raise a family, great place to be able to access opportunity as the highest levels of the city and of the economy. So those are kinds of things not afforded to people often on the coasts and I think Kansas City offers that proposition. As long as we can maintain that notion, we can draw folks that are from here, back here, and I think we’ll be able to keep folks here before they can even leave in the first place.

Q. In the digital marketing side, is there room for print? Is it a viable channel still, too?

A. For sure! Again, I think it becomes about knowing your customer: How your customer wishes to interact with you, how they wish to transact with you. Print absolutely has a place in the pantheon of different modes of communication. What you’ll notice about communication is all these things are additive in nature. When we added Facebook and Twitter to our lives, for example, we didn’t necessarily wholesale replace other ways of communicating. When we added text, we didn’t wholesale replace picking up the phone and talking to somebody. But you innately know when to pick up the phone and talk to somebody and when to text somebody. You just do! They’re all forms of communication that are at your disposal. The same thing goes for the media mix of a company. There are times when it’s absolutely appropriate to send a print piece or do a print advertisement to a customer or a particular customer in a particular scenario, and there’s other times when it’s absolutely inappropriate to do so. It all depends on what that customer expects, how they wish to communicate with you, and what they feel would be more relevant. We call that ‘marketing to the moment.’ You have to understand the moment of somebody picking up an Ingram’s Magazine: Where are they? What kinds of things are they interested in considering? Are they in a more thoughtful mode? Probably. Are they in a more consideration-oriented mode? Probably. So probably not the best place for an advertisement of a Snickers bar. Unless we have a thesis of that when people are reading Ingram’s is when they might be hungry. But it’s very appropriate for a lot of other places that want to communicate with folks. I think it’s all about understanding the customer, understanding their moment, and then marketing to that particular moment. And that’s why we focus on marketing to the moment at DEG.