Mark Nardone of PAN Communications: "You can't look at the customer journey in a linear way – it's a pretzel, a rollercoaster, a maze."

With a career in marketing spanning more than 25 years, Mark Nardone still characterizes himself as a student of the evolving profession.

“I learn from our staff, our customers and influencers every day,” he said. “Otherwise, if you ever stopped learning, you could become a failed marketer.”

Nardone is executive vice president at PAN Communications, a mid-size, independent, integrated marketing and PR agency, where he heads up brand marketing and business development strategy. Nardone is also responsible for creating and overseeing PAN’s voice of the customer (VoC) program.

The Dangers of ‘Content Overload’

After graduating from college, Nardone went into business with his father who was a commercial property developer. However, Mark’s brother, Phil, suggested pursuing a career in communications might be a better fit.

“At an early stage in my career, I saw the impact technology was going to have on business and I’ve stayed true to that focus,” Nardone said.

Mark Nardone joined PAN in January 1995 shortly after his brother Phil had begun the business. The two brothers had already worked together at another agency. Nearly 25 years on from starting at PAN, Nardone described the secret to fraternal harmony at work, which adds a unique flavor to the agency.

“It’s been respect, honesty, transparency, focus and dedication,” he said. “When we walk through the doors, we’re running a business; when we leave, it’s OK to hug as brothers.”

The rapid pace of change in digital customer experience and marketing has been a constant theme over the years, which has challenged marketing and brands to rethink how they engage with customers. “Today, it’s almost content overload,” Nardone said. “Marketers and brands sometimes create too much content, which lacks personalization, so then they can’t connect with customers effectively.”

Nardone is a speaker at CMSWire’s DX Summit taking place Nov. 4 through 6 at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Chicago. He will be giving a workshop at the conference titled “Managing the Empowered Customer: How to Build a Voice of the Customer Program That Fits into Your Marketing Formula,” on Nov. 4.

We spoke with Nardone for his thoughts on the current state of digital marketing; lessons learned from his experience with PAN’s VoC program; and best practices for creating customer advocates.

‘Think Differently’ about How to Use Your VoC Program Knowledge

CMSWire: In your opinion, what’s the current state of digital marketing? What’s going well and where are improvements needed?

Nardone: At a high level, there’s a double-edged sword situation here. Digital marketing is still trying to find its lane inside organizations and brands. It’s not a bad thing that digital marketing doesn’t have boundaries — it can run across HR, finance, and impact sales when done right. Digital marketing has so much potential.

However, digital marketing isn’t getting the necessary respect on the budget side, and is still fighting for that investment. That narrative has to change. The customer is your most valued asset, second only behind your employees. A head of finance shouldn’t be challenging marketing on why they need to budget for digital experiences. Marketing should be transforming alongside the business, and these digital experiences are what directly impact the overall customer experience. You can’t devalue that kind of investment.

There’s been a lot of progress, but we need to continue to improve collaboration among colleagues, for instance, between CFOs and CMOs. Another great example is how your HR team works with marketing on recruitment and company culture. Cross-departmental collaboration is critical for any organization.

CMSWire: How do you see today’s concept of what a marketing department does changing re its role, influence and importance within an organization?

Nardone: The mindset has to continue to shift. Marketing is a customer experience play, an organic growth play, a hiring and purpose play, and an employee communication play.

Marketing has started to evolve right across an enterprise. If you’re working for a brand, everyone has to be a marketer. All your employees need to understand what your company does, the value it brings, and to share that information.

Five to seven years ago, there were silos across a marketing department — content, social and demand generation were siloed — and marketing hadn’t quite established a voice of the customer (VoC) framework. The CMO was responsible for bringing everyone together, but he or she often treated each silo separately.

Those walls are now down. The focus is no longer only on individual contribution, it’s much more about unification — the coming together and collaboration as a team, and the alignment and optimization of everyone’s skills.

CMSWire: What has been your biggest success so far with the PAN Voice of the Customer program which you built? What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned from issues you’ve encountered and overcome with your VoC?

Nardone: Our biggest success has probably been alignment. We have always been a persona-driven agency, and we have adjusted our VoC to focus not only on CMOs, but also mid-level managers who are now empowered to make or influence decisions, such as content marketers and communications managers.

We’ve continued to align our VoC by title, by industry and by development stage. We ensure that our VoC efforts are personalized. We approach the CMO at a mid-stage healthcare company differently than a CMO at an emerging-growth B2B tech brand — their needs aren’t one and the same.

The worry I have is that some marketers may just take a VoC program and bring it into their department or structure because it’s the next shiny object. They need to slow down and think about the value behind VoC efforts. For instance, you don’t need to be working with hundreds of customers at a time.

You really need to have an ear to the ground for customer pain points and triggers, which can easily come out in your VoC program. If a customer shares that they’re worried about their brand’s performance on social media, that is a trigger. Don’t ignore it. Work to improve that area so you can retain that customer.

CMSWire: Why is it so important that any VoC program is an integrated part of an organization’s overall marketing strategy from the get-go?

Nardone: The VoC carries a lot of credibility and presence through multiple functions within a brand. Think differently about how you can use that program.

For example, VoC could be a wonderful recruitment tool for your organization as employees become inspired by your culture and the passion you have when working with your customers. VoC can also impact your organic growth opportunities as one customer sees how another is utilizing your products or services. Such revenue opportunities are endless when done right.

So marketing nowadays had better have a dedicated line item in the budget for VoC and you should have a full-time person driving the program.

CMSWire: Why do you think some marketers still don’t realize the value of building customer advocates?

Nardone: Some marketers have been trained to think they are responsible for top-of-the-funnel or mid-funnel customer awareness, that they convert the leads, and pass them over to sales to close deals. Some look at VoC efforts as a rainy-day activity, when in reality it should be a top-line item. The mentality has to change.

You can’t look at the customer journey in a linear way — it’s a pretzel, a rollercoaster, a maze — and a customer could drop off any minute and impact your brand’s equity. For example, you might have a customer well on their way to becoming an advocate, but they’re not quite there yet. How can you leverage emotional marketing to better connect and take the relationship to the next level? This is where VoC strategy comes into play.

CMSWire: What advice would you have for organizations keen to start or restart their customer advocacy programs?

Nardone: Customer advocacy doesn’t mean ‘be my biggest cheerleader.’

There are different types of advocates, for instance: 1) Customers you’ve recently onboarded, where the advocacy focus is on why they selected your product; 2) Customers who’ve been live on your product for six months to one year, where the focus is on their experience using your product; and 3) Customers who are two to three years out from implementation, where the focus is on the impact your product has had so far on their business, as well as additional products or services that might be of interest to them.

You may also need advocates who can talk directly about how your product is innovative and how it enables them to disrupt their industry.

You want to balance the different types of customer advocates you have. At any point in the maze of a prospective customer’s journey, you can offer them a very focused conversation with the most relevant customer advocate to their specific needs.

CMSWire: In your Twitter profile, you mention the key role golf plays in your life. Why is the sport so important to you and what do you like about it? What parallels have you observed between playing golfing and practicing marketing?

Nardone: Golf challenges me as an individual. I’m really competing against my mind. I find golf to be a wonderful way to balance work and life as well as being a great stress reliever.

With golf, like marketing, I’m learning continually. As I’m playing golf, I’m always thinking about a new approach to a shot and I’m looking at the conditions, both internal, my mindset, and external, the weather.

You need patience. If you’re not patient in a golf game, you can miss critical moments in your swing or approach. In marketing, it’s not always the best strategy to rush to be the first to market, you can benefit from slowing down and learning from experience.

Learn from your mistakes. In golf, you can try to correct a bad shot in the moment. The same is now true of marketing because it’s so agile. Within a day, you may see a campaign that’s not resonating, and then be able to pivot that campaign to achieve a better result in three to four days.

Accountability is key. In golf, you’re accountable to yourself for a bad score or a bad day in general. In marketing, it’s about measurement and being transparent. Those are not new concepts for marketing, but have evolved due to the use of data analytics, so you can have a 1:1 personalized interaction with a customer.

Learn more about the Digital Customer Experience (DX) Summit.