In his new book, Building Your Digital Utopia, Digitopia CEO, Frank Cowell guides readers through creating a digital brand platform that will simplify strategy and align marketing sales and service teams so that they are one powerhouse growth team.
But what Frank is also doing is demonstrating how businesses can create a true, almost old school relationship with potential customers while effectively leveraging the modern tools at their disposal.
Nikki Van Noy: I am joined today by Frank Cowell, the author of Building Your Digital Utopia: How to Create Digital Brand Experiences that Systematically Accelerate Growth.
Frank, welcome to Author Hour.
Frank Cowell: Nikki, thanks for having me, I’m excited to be here with you.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m so excited to have you. Let’s start by talking a little bit about your company, Digitopia, which you’re the CEO of. What do you guys do exactly?
Frank Cowell: Well, really, just like the book subtitle says, we help B2B organizations build digital brand experiences that systematically accelerate growth. What that means is, we’re consulting with our clients on how they can build a better business model, a better go to market approach, by engaging their target audiences with value first, relationship-driven content and then developing a funnel that matches that relationship-driven approach. So, that way, as they’re engaging their target marketplace, all those people who aren’t ready to buy, they’re receiving value, and your brand is standing out. The positioning of the brand is being established.
Those people who are ready, we have ways for them to engage your organization and understand how you’re different. Then for everybody else in between, there are long-term nurturing things that take place.
We help our clients through the consulting and implementation of that, as well as take some of those things off of their plate if they don’t have enough in-house resources. But first and foremost, I think what’s really important to differentiate about what we do is we’re looking to help our clients install this methodology into their organization. They work with an analyst and coach on a month in, month out basis to make sure that those things are happening and we’re helping them push that forward. And then, on top of that, we can help them execute things that they just don’t have enough bandwidth to execute.
Nikki Van Noy: Beautiful. Generally speaking, are you working with companies who don’t have much of a presence in the first place, or who aren’t leveraging their presence to the extent that they could be?
Frank Cowell: I think it’s the latter. Most organizations have a presence, it’s just not being leveraged. They’re certainly not taking advantage of what’s possible on the internet today. We help them figure out how to leverage that, but more importantly, how to get much more strategic with it.
Nikki Van Noy: Let’s start there, to help listeners identify themselves in this. What are some of the most common, either misses or just elements that you see companies not capitalizing on to the extent that they could? Where do people go wrong with this?
Frank Cowell: Okay, one of the absolute biggest misses is that organizations are often too wide in their go to market approach, they’re trying too many buyer personas across too many pain points, they have too many offerings that they’re trying to put out in the marketplace. So, the absolute biggest miss is that people don’t get narrow enough, they don’t get hyper-specific. As we talk about in the book, this idea of hyper-specificity and home in on one buyer persona with one pain point and start there. The fact that they’re too wide is a huge miss.
Then the other miss that I find is there’s just a lack of commitment and consistency in organizations. They try something for 90 days and they say, well, that didn’t work. So they jumped from thing to thing to thing and they never create the most important thing in business, and that is momentum.
I preach this constantly to my team, to people I coach, when I’m on stage speaking. Momentum is the absolute number one thing you’re after, it’s not perfection, it’s not a magical strategy, it’s not some creative campaign that’s better than another, it’s momentum.
You will only ever get momentum if you have commitment and consistency.
In reality, you don’t need the best plan on the planet, you just need to execute the hell out of the halfway decent plan to be able to give yourself that momentum.
Again, one not focusing, you’re too broad and then two, they just don’t execute enough to be able to gain momentum.
Nikki Van Noy: I can see how that’s a stalling point for people because, especially when it comes to all things digital, we’ve been conditioned to think of speed and lack of attention spans and things like that. Just based on hearing this messaging all of the time, it goes against what we’ve been conditioned to do, to think about building momentum and taking our time doing that.
Frank Cowell: Yeah, if we look at how people would go to market in the ‘olden days.’ With air quotes. You know, there was a lot of fear around getting it right because once you put out that TV ad, you can’t take it back, once you put out that print ad, you can’t take it back. Once the catalogue is printed, you can’t pull it back.
That’s the beauty of digital, you don’t have to worry about perfection because heaven forbid, there’s a typo in your blog post, you can actually fix it. It’s okay.
I think what we’re seeing that is resonating today is stuff that looks less polished, less produced, things that look much more conversational and come across much more authentically, that’s the stuff that’s winning today.
So, I think organizations have to reposition in their minds what this format actually is and this format isn’t most of the time meant for a polished, highly produced kind of presentation, it’s a place, it’s a format where you can engage people in very raw, real, human ways.
I think that’s the thing that people have to remember–that this is an opportunity to make things happen much quicker, without having to worry about all the polish and the glitz. Because that will absolutely paralyze you. Again, back to what I said a moment ago, you will never achieve momentum that way.
Nikki Van Noy: There’s so much freedom in that.
Frank Cowell: Absolutely, you just need to act and do. I said it a moment ago, and I will say it again, if you just execute the hell out of a halfway decent plan, you’re going to get much further ahead than people who sit around and deliberate–trying to get everything just right and just perfect, and we need to have a meeting after meeting then let’s have a meeting to then discuss the decision.
Just start doing and do that within the spirit of serving your target audience better than anyone else on the planet. By the way, your marketing and your sales should be viewed as the new customer service. These are your customers, they just don’t know it yet, they’re not paying you with dollars but they’re paying you with their time and attention, and in today’s world, that is a form of currency.
If you start serving them, instead of thinking you’re putting out these promotional things that need to be polished and glitzy, if you serve them with that spirit, they’re going to receive value. They’re going to like what you have to say, they’re actually going to want to receive your marketing. But only if it’s only through that lens and only if it’s within that spirit.
Nikki Van Noy: Do you have an example off the top of your head of what that would look like, that really good strategy?
Frank Cowell: Yeah, let’s say, for example, you have a buyer persona, I’ll give you an example of the one we use at our company. He’s called President Pete. President Pete, he’s the president of a five-million-dollar B2B organization. He is struggling to figure out how to differentiate his organization in the marketplace because things initially started to take off, they’ve been in business about 10 years. But recently, things have been stagnating. More and more competition is coming into the market place. This person is really struggling to figure out how they differentiate their brand.
I mean, it’s all this noise and chaos. Everything they’ve tried to do from a marketing standpoint just doesn’t seem to work. That’s his big pain point. He knows he needs to do something once and for all, that differentiates their brand, but all of these like flavor of the month campaigns just don’t seem to be cutting it. When you take that person with that pain point and you look at how we might serve them, what we’ll do is we’ll make sure we have educational content and information that President Pete can read. It’s targeted just for that person to help him understand how you create a relationship-driven funnel.
By the way, this is where the idea of the book came from. I’m going to use the book in our content as an example because its’ very meta and you can really grasp on to the idea by using that as an example. By teaching President Pete that the reason he’s failing is because he’s not focusing on buyer personas, he’s not obsessing about their pain points, and he’s not creating a relationship-driven funnel, this is why he’s having such a hard time gaining traction. So, through that content and through the book, we can teach President Pete about that.
The next step might be, okay, let’s empower President Pete. So, President Pete, now that he’s learning this information and sharing it with his team, we can give him tools and resources. Now he’ll be able to download blueprints and templates and checklists and spreadsheets, things that allow him to take action on what he’s learned. Then from there, we can inspire him by giving him additional content that shows him what people like him are doing by employing this methodology, by employing these strategies and tactics, and how they’re achieving success.
That’s just an example of how you could put together some content just for that one person around solving that one pain point, becoming obsessed about it, going really deep on that problem with that one person and truly giving value.
By the way, through this process, President Pete hasn’t given us a dime. He has not spent money with our organization, he may have purchased a book, which I would say that you don’t really make money off a book. But above and beyond that, he may have read the free information online and so generally speaking, he’s not “done business” with us but the lens there is that, he is no less a client, he’s no less a “customer” because he hasn’t given us money. He’s actually exchanged his time and his information so, through that, we’re able to serve.
Nikki Van Noy: Do you find, when you’re working with clients, that this idea of providing information like that for free is something that you have to sell them on or is that intuitively making sense to people at this point?
Frank Cowell: I would say it’s a mixed bag, you get some people who see where the world has already gone to and where the world’s come to. Then you have some people who just don’t get it and trying to convince them is not something I’m usually a fan of. In my entire career, I’ve never made it a point to try to strong-arm and convince people of a thing or of a concept, of a place, of marketing, a belief or whatever.
For those people that don’t believe it, yes, they struggle because they think, I don’t want to give away this information. What if my competitors get it? I try to remind them that world doesn’t exist anymore.
You’re holding on to a belief that is outdated and if you do not change the way you think, you’re going to be left behind. So, I try to hit people with that dose of reality but ultimately, it’s that saying, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make the horse drink. That’s my approach. I can show them the reality. But ultimately, they have to believe that fundamentally our world has changed. So, that’s what I try to do with that crowd. Then there’s another whole half of the crowd, they get it, they see how the world has changed. They see that the go to market playbook that we used to have yesterday, no longer works today.
Nikki Van Noy: That makes so much sense to me if I just think about my own habits as a consumer. If I’m not familiar with a company and for some reason, need to purchase from them, first of all, I go down a huge reviewing spiral and then will moderate my purchases because I have an established trust. But there are absolutely companies that provide content where they’ve won my trust and respect way before I ever go to buy anything. Once I finally do exercise purchasing power, I’m not holding back. I’m more likely to make a significant purchase off the bat.
Frank Cowell: Absolutely. In fact, the company HubSpot, who puts out a marketing sales and service platform–some of your listeners may have heard of this platform, they are really big, they’re really popular, amazing company–they live these values really well. By the way, they’ve estimated that B2B buyers have 60 to 80% of their decision already made before they even engage with your brand.
If you’re hearing that for the first time and you’re listening to me, that should scare the you know what out of you. Because you’ve got all these people making all these assumptions about the problems they’re experiencing and the ways that potentially, those problems can be solved and they have yet to talk to you. If you’re not there digitally as a way to be that source of information and inspiration, to help them understand your approach to solving that problem, you’re going to have a hard time winning in that battle.
Nikki Van Noy: The other thing I’d like to dive into, and you touched on this in the President Pete example, but I’d like to be a little bit more on the nose with it–this idea of hyper-specificity. Can you talk to that a little bit?
Frank Cowell: Yeah, what we want to do is, we don’t want to speak in general terms about our buyer personas. President Pete, we’ve given him a specific name, but we want to be really specific with the kind of company he’s the president of. Who else does he deal with inside of his organization, what’s his cohort, what are his exact challenges, what are the exact fears? Who are the influencers for President Pete?
By the way, I don’t use the word influencers like the way a lot of people use the word influencer, we’re not talking about Insta famous people. We’re talking about the people that if you were to say their name to President Pete, he would absolutely know that person and get it and it would resonate.
But the average person wouldn’t know who that is, right? For example, let’s just use golf as an example. If you were trying to engage with a golf enthusiast, if you were to say the name Tiger Woods, he would know who you’re talking about but so would everybody else because everyone knows who Tiger Woods is. But you would have to choose and find a name within the golf world that only he knows, that only that persona knows. That I, who am not a golf enthusiast wouldn’t know.
You’re getting that specific to try to understand who this person is emotionally and bring them to life so that way, as you engage with them, you can speak to those emotions and you could speak to that persona in a way where it feels like wow, this was written just for me.
I’ve often said, if you were looking at some sort of weight loss product, who is better to write copy for the weight loss product, than someone who has been overweight and known the struggle and known the heartaches of that, and then went through the journey of beating that or the person who is studied copywriting? That’s what you’re after. You’re trying to connect with people on such a level, that they feel that someone just like them wrote that message.
Nikki Van Noy: It’s so fascinating to me the cross-section between technology and humanity, which especially now is coming to the forefront as we are in the middle of this pandemic. Our options of interacting are more and more limited to technology and what you are talking about sort of calls that to mind to me.
Frank Cowell: Yeah it really does. I think that is the thing that people have forgotten is that just because we have these digital engagements–I call it the clicks and ticks. You open up your Google analytics and you see a bunch of clicks and ticks. Just because we have these amazing tools to be able to do amazing things at scale, we have forgotten that there are still real relationships being formed and we haven’t viewed it that way.
What I am advocating for in this book is that we must get back to the idea that we are building relationships. We can progress those relationships digitally in many engagements. But make no mistake, a relationship is forming, and so I think you’re right. This recent pandemic has really brought that to the forefront for everybody, that wow, that human connection is more valuable than we could have ever imagined. I think it is a good wakeup call. So, I am encouraging brands to understand that it is about relationships.
Now you can’t go brag about that on your website, that we are the best at relationships because people don’t use that in their buying qualification. They only care about the companies they are doing business with. But if you approach how you serve them through your marketing, through your selling process, through how you service those people, you are going to stand out. You are going to create relevance and differentiation in their lives. And that is the spirit of what I hope everybody who reads this book moves forward with.
Nikki Van Noy: It is such an interesting juxtaposition because in a lot of ways it is this old school business mentality just applied to new ways of doing things that happen on a grander scale.
Frank Cowell: Absolutely, you know it is funny that the more technologically advanced we get, we think we are beyond certain old school methods and modes but the more we are reminded that those things will never go away. That is why there is the saying that people buy from who they like and trust. That is not going to change, that will never change. And so, you have to learn how to apply that in a digital world, that’s the thing that changes. It’s just the tactic that changes. The strategy never changes.
Some Things Never Change
Nikki Van Noy: You know it is really interesting, I have talked to a lot of people about marketing and digital marketing in particular, but I have never had it driven home quite this way before.
Frank Cowell: Yeah, because by the way, there are way too many digital marketing agencies and digital marketers out there–our industry has become so saturated because there is almost no barrier to entry in our industry. This is why there is such a proliferation of this obsession with tactics. Snapchat and you have to be doing email and you have to be doing Twitter and there is just so much. You have all of these gurus out there, you know, “Hey here is how you hack Facebook ads and here is how you do this,” and it is so tactic driven right now because our industry is too easy to get into.
It’s not as if you wanted to start a doctor’s office. You have to go through quite a bit of pain to start a doctor’s office. That is not an easy hurdle. The barrier to entry there is really high.
In our industry, there is almost no barrier to entry and so it creates lots of noise. It creates lots of tactically focused people and it is confusing the marketplace. Very smart business people who know better, end up getting caught up in chasing these tactics. So, anybody who has ever seen me talk and attended any of my webinars or anything like that knows I am all about the fundamentals and regular execution of the fundamentals.
We have to get back to that because otherwise, we are just going to drown in the sea of noise. Because your buyers, in almost every industry, have no shortage of options and they’re able to get roughly the same thing at roughly the same price. That is across almost every industry, so with that kind of commoditization, how are you going to differentiate? How are you going to stand out? So, we have to go back to fundamentals, and we have to go back to this idea of relationships. Figure out who and what you are going to be obsessed about because if you are not obsessed, you are not going to have a fighting chance.
Nikki Van Noy: So going back to a point you just made in there, I think it is very true that every company feels like they have to be on every platform. What do you specifically say to that?
Frank Cowell: Yeah, you don’t. You need to be where your buyer persona is. I think if you take a hard look at your buyer persona–by the way, you may have multiple–but if you read the book, you’ll know that what I suggest is you start with one. That is not to say you turn off activities that are working. That is not what I am saying, but as you look to change how you go to market and change how you create differentiation, you start very narrow.
When you start with one, you really want to examine where that person is. Are they on TikTok? I don’t know, maybe, maybe not. But you need to look at that and ask the question before you think you’ve got to be on all available channels. Surprisingly, you know there are probably very few channels you need to even worry about until you can create momentum.
Because momentum will then create a separation between your effort and your return–a separation between your cost and your top line. With that separation, you can now start to use that and snowball it to your favorite, where maybe you do decide to explore TikTok and do something experimental there. Maybe you now have some breathing room to start being proactive and taking some chances. There is nothing wrong with that but in order for that to happen, you have to dominate in small areas first.
Nikki Van Noy: That makes sense. Is there a brand you can point to that maybe we all know of or maybe it is a smaller brand who has really gone about this in what you feel like is an effective way?
Frank Cowell: So I will use HubSpot again as an example because I think they do this extremely well. They were one of the early companies to pioneer this concept called inbound marketing, whether you call it that or you call it something else, it is this idea that you are going to serve an audience through content information. Look, as a side note, I know that content is really saturated these days, and so what I am suggesting people do is follow the advice in this book, which is to get much more narrow with your focus and build a relationship-driven model in your funnel.
With that as a side note, HubSpot does an amazing job at this and they really obsess about their buyer personas. The kind of content they put out is actually worth paying for, but you can get it for free. The kind of training they give you, which is free and the kind of tools and resources they give you to literally take action is free. So, they embody this in an amazing way.
I think what is interesting is they weren’t one of the ones to own this idea of being an enterprise platform. I am not going to disparage anybody but there is another brand out there that’s a competitor to them that owns the enterprise a little bit more. But what is interesting is that you’ll see that because HubSpot has been very focused about how they go to market and living true to it, they are starting to take a foothold. Because the product is really amazing, and it actually does quite a bit more and it is way more powerful and easier to use than a lot of these “enterprise platforms.” And you can actually see them start to chip away at that and to see that happen against a really entrenched, big player is pretty impressive.
Usually, it is not good business advice to try to go and chip away at a very big, deeply entrenched player. They own a position, find a different position. Find out where there is a gap in the marketplace and fill a different position.
I don’t think HubSpot is explicitly gone out to try to topple that one competitor specifically, but you can see that happening because they live this so well and they continue to wake up every day and serve in this manner. They have grown and grown and grown.
Look at the Data
Nikki Van Noy: That’s great. I love that. One thing that I’d like to discuss specifically just because clearly, we are about to step into this sort of unknown commodity as far as business goes from this point forward. What would you say to companies out there who have spent a lot of resources on their digital platform so far and with things being uncertain they are perhaps hesitant to change gears right now?
Frank Cowell: Well, I think first and foremost getting a handle on what’s actually happening. Are you measuring your efforts? I would go to the data and take a look at who is doing what, why they’re doing what they are doing, what does the data actually show, do you have a history to determine if what you are doing is working or not working? Do you see a positive upward trend? I am really big on people looking at trends and not getting caught up in campaign performance.
That is important at a tactical level, but when you are trying to make strategic decisions, you need to look at trends. Do you have a positive trend upward? And if you don’t then clearly something is not working.
I would go back to the fundamentals and take a look at why you are doing what you are doing, what is the strategy behind it, who are you engaging with, and where do you have an opportunity to be creating the real differentiation and real transformation in the lives of your buyer personas?
Take an inventory of that. What does that audit look like? If there is an investment in a platform that just isn’t serving you, well then, you’ve got to rip it out. There are a lot of platforms that will work. To me, it is less about the platform, even though our approach to platform or my approach to platform, when we talk about it in the book, is to make sure that you have alignment and a cross-process platform.
That is important but the actual tech, again, you know I am a HubSpot fan, the actual tech can be accomplished in a lot of different ways. So, if the tech truly is a bottleneck then yes, you have to rip it out, but I would say start with what’s actually happening. Start with who and why and make sure you have a strategy behind what you are doing. Are you committing to it? Are you relentlessly executing it?
At our agency, Digitopia, we look at this thing that I call KPAs, which are compliments to KPIs. Everyone knows what a KPI is. But a KPA is a key producing activity. So, you can think of a KPA like if you were to show up to the gym and you don’t have mastery over every piece of equipment but man, you really own the stair stepper. You show up and no one out stair steppers you, that is your jam.
That would be a KPA. That’s the thing like, “Hey, I am not doing all of these other things, but I do that and it gets me a huge percentage of the way to my objective.” And so within your business when you look at the various funnels or legs of your digital growth strategy, what are those key activities that if you were to crank them out every single week without fail would get you to your objective in a very big way? Take a look at those things and making sure that you are very methodical about how you look at those things. There is a blueprint tool that is part of the book at the buildingyourdigitalutopia.com website where you can get it.
Nikki Van Noy: So tell me about this blueprint.
Frank Cowell: Yeah, so one of the things that I find is our industry has unnecessarily complicated what a digital growth strategy should look like. Through the book, we try to simplify that conversation and again, emphasize what we have already talked about with value first and relationship-driven and all of that.
One of the things that I think is sorely lacking is when people try to communicate their digital strategy to the executive team, it is usually just too much information. So, what we have developed is a blueprint that accompanies the methodology where you can define for each of your digital brand experiences who the buyer persona is, what I call business math, which helps you understand how you are going to go about acquiring this person and at what cost. Then the flip side of that blueprint is a spot for you to draw in, for you to identify what your relationship-driven funnel is going to be for this buyer persona.
And then surrounding that, what are the engagement and re-engagement activities that you are going to participate in to then engage that relationship-driven funnel? So, this is a strategic document. It is not a tactical document where you have your content calendar coming off of it. But it will allow your team, especially the executive team, to easily understand in one simple view who we’re trying to attract, what the business economics are based on, and what we are trying to do. How are we going to engage them through content offers and engagement and re-engagement activities?
It has absolutely transformed the way executives buy into the process and understand what is going on and why we are doing it. That blueprint tool is just an amazing asset, again just to be true to our own methodology, we give that away for free.
Nikki Van Noy: That’s amazing, a major barrier to entry you’re taking down for a lot of businesses, I would assume.
Frank Cowell: Yeah and if you want a copy of this blueprint, you can get it at the book’s website, which is buildingyourdigitalutopia.com.
Nikki Van Noy: Frank, thank you so much for joining us today. The book again is Building Your Digital Utopia and let listeners know where else they can find you outside of the book.
Frank Cowell: Yeah, so buildingyourdigitalutopia.com is where you can go check out a preview of the book and we’ll have some podcast episodes up there. We’ll have some things you can download as well as some other very cool things coming out. If you are looking for someone to speak or if you want me to speak to your organization, that website will tell you exactly how to do that. If you are looking for an implementation coach to coach you through this type of methodology and getting it installed in your organization, we have information about that there too.
So buildingyourdigitalutopia.com is a great place to start. I am also available on most of the social channels @frankcowell and if you ever want to just shoot me an email that is always a good idea too, firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have a team of people that help me monitor that email address as my calendar fills up pretty quickly and I do a lot of business travel. We can make sure to get any questions answered that you might have about what something like this would look like in your organization or if you just have questions about the approach.
So buildingyourdigitalutopia.com, we are going to continually build out more and more resources there around community and academy and hiring coaches and what not so I would start there. Also, again, if you want to just hit me up direct @frankcowell and email@example.com.
Nikki Van Noy: Frank, thanks again for chatting today and best of luck with the book.
Frank Cowell: Thanks Nikki, I appreciate it.