DX Leader Todd Unger: "Our quickest wins at the AMA have come through analytics and testing"

What do a horse racing publishing brand and an association for physicians have in common other than each organization being well over 100 years old? As Todd Unger found, it’s the desire to reinvent customer experience and to digitally transform.

“While a very different context, the underpinnings of what needed to be done were remarkably similar,” he said. “Identify the target audiences more clearly, build a more compelling product and experience proposition, fix the digital marketing funnel and leverage content marketing to increase our audience and magnify the impact of our mission initiatives.”

Unger is currently chief experience officer and senior vice president, Physician Engagement, at the American Medical Association (AMA) where he leads membership, marketing and organization-wide digital initiatives. He joined the AMA in February 2017 from the Daily Racing Form, where he helped transform the horse racing print-centric brand into a digital media and betting platform as chief digital officer and CMO.

Find Your Own ‘Productive Disruptor’

“Daily Racing Form was the first digital commerce business I ever worked on,” Unger said. “That’s where I honed my skills in digital marketing, content marketing and commerce analytics — all of which have been incredibly important in my work at the AMA.”

Unger charts his interest in brand transformation back to the time he spent working in advertising at Leo Burnett in the 1990s. He came up with the idea and positioning for GladWare Plastic Containers, which pioneered an entirely new consumer products category.

“It changed the whole trajectory of my career,” he said. “Seeing the reaction to a tagline I wrote — ‘the containers you’ll love to use and afford to lose’ — taught me that people can have an emotional connection to almost anything, even a plastic container!”

Unger’s focus at AMA is to be a ‘productive disruptor,’ a term coined by Russell Reynolds Associates to refer to digital transformation leaders who can engage and energize an entire organization. “It describes a new breed of digital leaders who can turn a bold digital vision into reality fast, shift a culture toward speed and innovation and break rules without driving the organization off the rails,” he said.

Unger is a speaker at CMSWire’s DX Summit taking place Nov. 12 to Nov. 14 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in Chicago. He will be giving the closing keynote titled, “CXO Perspective: Inside the AMA’s Prescription for 3x Growth” on Nov. 14.

We spoke with Unger for his take on how organizations can improve digital customer experience and get started with digital transformation, as well as some lessons learned by the AMA.

Identify Your Target Audience and How They Interact Digitally With You

CMSWire: Where do you see the primary gaps today in the kinds of digital experiences companies deliver to their customers and the DXs those customers are expecting? How should companies work to close those gaps?

Unger: It’s amazing that 20 years after I left traditional marketing, there are still so many silos in organizations that prevent the execution of superior customer experience in a digital environment.

In the customer’s mind, there is no difference between marketing, product and design, and content — they just see and experience what you’re offering them. To deliver rapid growth in a digital context, you need an operational and strategic leader who oversees and unifies these areas since they’re so intertwined and tightly consumer-focused. 

Keep in mind, people are not just out there waiting to experience your brand. They’re binge-watching Netflix and only paying attention to the things they care most about.

So, don’t wait for customers to come to you. Market the experience — take it to customers, wherever they are, before, during and after they interact with your brand. Content is key here, but it must be strategically developed and distributed to work.

CMSWire: What advice do you have for organizations keen to embark on an overhaul of their DCX as part of a digital transformation initiative but who are uncertain how to begin? How should they measure their progress?

Unger: Focusing on 'digital transformation' can just be too big and intimidating. So, start smaller and faster. 

Step one is identifying the target audience and how they interact with you digitally now. At the AMA, we started by analyzing what kind of content our audience was interacting with, and it led us to a completely different segmentation model. That in turn changed everything else — our proposition, content model, digital marketing and product development.

There are lots of ways to measure progress, but the most important thing is having a clear set of metrics. For my role at the AMA, it’s about driving membership, retention and audience for our mission initiatives. On the topic of metrics, I’m reading John Doerr’s "Measure What Matters." His book has given me a better framework for thinking through enterprise-level objectives and key results.

Our quickest wins at the AMA have come through analytics and testing. We’ve doubled conversions on email and on the website through constant A/B testing. We’ve plugged every hole in the funnel by painstakingly tracking every step through it. The constant drumbeat of these 'wins' changes culture, increases the appetite for more change, and decreases the fear of getting rid of things that aren’t working.

CMSWire: What lessons learned would you share with other organizations about the AMA’s digital makeover? How have you ensured that all members feel part of the undertaking, particularly that their opinions have been heard?

Unger: One of my first interactions at AMA was with a physician who wasn’t a member and who didn’t think that the AMA represented him. But it quickly became apparent he and many other physicians like him didn’t know what the AMA was achieving on behalf of physicians and patients. So, job No. 1 became clear and was a clear, straightforward problem for all of us to work on.

Addressing this issue, however, involves a lot more than just shouting more loudly. It means fundamentally rethinking how we create, package and distribute content to a digital audience. We’re building an ongoing experience for members and non-members that simply wasn’t there before. When we started looking at the role of the digital marketing team as generating leads for our mission-related programs, it gave us a new and clear direction.

We’ve enrolled our members in this effort too. They told us that they wanted a more interactive experience with AMA, one that recognized the great work they were doing. So, we literally did that.  Our ‘Membership Moves Medicine’ campaign celebrates how we all move medicine together with fantastic digital photography, video and storytelling that features our members.

CMSWire: At what stage is the AMA currently in its digital transformation and customer experience journey? What’s the next major step in that journey? How important has data been to understand member experience?

Unger: I’ve never seen an organization proceed more rapidly on digital transformation than the AMA, and with such fast results. 

Our membership growth rate is up significantly. Retention is up. Our monthly audience is up over 40 percent since we launched our content marketing program a few months ago.

We’re working on the third iteration of our app since its launch last year, and we’re launching a new, more media-driven website in December. We’re live streaming portions of our upcoming annual meeting.

To get to the next level, I spend a lot of time teaching colleagues around the AMA about digital publishing, content marketing, analytics, testing and digital marketing — and showing them how we can help them get the widest possible audience for the work they do.

This is an organization that truly believes in data, so it’s been exciting to unleash an era of rapid experimentation and celebrate wins together. 

CMSWire: When and why did you first start riding horses? What similarities do you see between the skills needed to learn to ride and those required to embark on a digital transformation project?

Unger: I started riding about five years ago when it became apparent I wouldn’t see my wife and daughters on the weekend unless I joined them!

Here are five key lessons I’ve learned from riding that fit perfectly with my perspective on leading in a digital environment:

  1. Lead with your eyes and legs. A lot of people think that horseback riding is about steering with the reins, but in reality, you lead by looking where you want to go and communicating with pressure from your legs. Literally, walking the talk.
  2. Keep a leg on. You’ve got to keep the pressure on the horse when you go over a jump. Otherwise, it will stop, and you’ll go flying.
  3. 'Fix it forward.' This is a favorite quote from my instructor. When things are going wrong or getting messy, don’t stop. Fix it in motion.
  4. Don’t be afraid. When you see your instructor literally raise the bar, it can be a little scary, and your horse can sense this. I’ve learned to just set that fear aside and take the jump.
  5. Caring is part of the lesson. For every hour of riding, there’s an hour of tacking and untacking the horse, and this 'relationship time' is just as important as the 'work.'

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