2Y3X meets… Jim Sterne
Interview: Jim Sterne
Jim Sterne leads our North America West office. He is the founder of the Marketing Analytics Summit (eMetrics Summit), co-founder of the Digital Analytics Association, and creator of the Analytics Cohorts mutual mentorship program.
As a consultant, Jim has 40 years of experience in sales and marketing, and 20 years of deep-diving into the digital analytics industry to inform how he helps clients to harness the power of data. His clients have included Pfizer, Microsoft, IBM and many more.
Jim is an author of a dozen books on advertising, marketing, customer service, and web analytics, he has spoken and shared insights all over the world, and has lectured at Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Stanford, UCLA and USC.
Could you talk a little about your background? What types of businesses do you usually work with?
I got started in sales of technology. My first job was selling Apples to people who had never touched a computer before. I graduated to selling business computers to companies that had never owned a business computer before. That meant lots of explanation about what it is and why you should trust it. I then moved on to selling software development tools, to enterprise and government. And that’s when I moved into marketing. I would go to the marketing department and say, ‘I need this, this and this’. And finally, they said, ‘Well if you’re so smart, you do it’. And so I moved into marketing and I’ve been there ever since.
Then I tripped over the internet in 1993 and focused all of my attention on explaining why online marketing is the thing to do. And several years later, at the turn of the century, I focused my attention on analytics because my opinion about how bad your website is was just my opinion. But if I can show you the numbers, I can show you what is not working, and if you test this you can find out what works. And that has consumed me ever since.
I started the business conference in 2002. The audience created the Digital Analytics Association in 2004. And I have been leading the industry, tracking the industry, writing books about the industry ever since.
So the companies I work with are on the one hand, any company that cares about the numbers and wants to get data-literate. Anywhere from ‘help us understand what we should be measuring’ all the way to ‘how do we bring machine learning into our enterprise?’ On the other hand, the Digital Analytics industry itself. So the agencies, the vendors, and the practitioners of the industry who are trying to measure online success.
How did you come to be involved with 2Y3X?
Through People-Centred Internet, which is a nonprofit organisation aimed at making sure that getting the other half of the population of the world online is equitable for the users rather than being just profitable for the vendors. Felix Velarde is part of that organisation and we met several times at different conferences. And in our conversations, he explained the 2Y3X philosophy and I was just so very impressed with the methodology that he said, well, maybe we should work together.
I want to learn how to make it actually work. Reading the book is just so clear; it’s so logical. Follow the bouncing ball and you’re done. But you actually have to follow the bouncing ball. And this is going to be a challenge. This is a cultural issue. It is a problem of people living up to their commitments, and it is a challenge for the consultant to get people to enrol; get people to push themselves outside of their comfort zone. And that’s something I’m interested in learning. And growing the company!
I’m intrigued by the fact that I’m connected to a lot of Digital Analytics agencies. So they’re not advertising agencies; they’re professional services, but they operate just like an agency. They have clients, they have their consultants who do project work, they get accounts and lose accounts. It is the same professional services model.
I’m intrigued because what Felix is able to do with clients in the advertising world is partially based on the 2Y3X process but is hugely dependent on his experience. His knowledge of the industry and putting people together. I can do that in the Digital Analytics world. If somebody says, we’re doing great, but we have this one hole in our talent, I can say, well, gee, here are three people to talk to.
Are there any particular issues that you get really excited to fix, regardless of who the client is?
The core thing for me – from the very beginning – is customer centricity, which people still don’t get. In 1994, I read Don Peppers and Martha Rogers’ One to One Future. And I thought, well, of course, it’s all about being able to leverage a database in order to know exactly what an individual wants. And we’ve been trying to achieve that ever since.
My first book was World Wide Web Marketing. The second was Advertising on the Web. The next one was Customer Service on the Internet. So I went to Peppers and Rogers and said, Hey, Customer Service on the Internet – Will you write the foreword, please? They said yes!
It’s so central to sales and marketing and messaging – how somebody interacts with you electronically, and my focus has always been your electronic relationship with people.
Could you share one thing or a few things that you would like to help change in the marketing or digital world?
Well, first of all, data literacy. You know, there’s the Mad Men approach of ‘I know better and I have a vision’ and if you’re Don Draper, you come out with something brilliant, like, it’s not a projector, it’s a memory machine. It’s a carousel of your life. That’s brilliant. And creatives are to be revered for the value of their genius. But there’s also data and it is not scary and it’s not impossible. Their are people who can do the heavy lifting of mathematics to reveal insights that spur creative. And so data literacy means being comfortable with data enough to be able to build a team and convince others in the organisation to participate.
What do you find more fascinating than terrifying when it comes to data analytics?
It’s a window into psychology. Say I have a product and I’m selling it to 25 different kinds of people, I can have 25 different messages about the product. And if I watch their behaviour online, I can figure out how to best communicate with them. And so that’s a tool. How do you use the tool for good or evil?
That’s where customer-centricity comes in. There are 25 different kinds of people who will respond differently to this product. And so I can do 200 kinds of messaging in order to sell more. Or I can say there are 25 different kinds of people who are interested in this product and I can help them get the most value out of it for them and create a relationship with them. If I look at the numbers and watch how my marketing is improving the relationship, I can make my products and services more valuable to my customers.
So you help marketing professionals get a sense of what might be up ahead. Do you have any ideas of what we might expect in the digital world next?
How far in the future are we looking? Today, it’s machine learning. I explain what artificial intelligence is to individual marketers. How to use it, when to use it, and what skills should be focused on in order to remain relevant in a world that has AI in it.
The far future is very weird and completely confusing to people. There’s this notion that customers will own their own data. So right now there are 1000 websites and 100 apps that I have put my data into and they own that data about me. Instead, I’m going to take my data and put it in one place that I control and I allow them access. If I change my address, I change it in one place. Facebook doesn’t need to know my address, but Amazon does. So I give Amazon access to that. Friends and family can look at all of my pictures, and my doctor can look at all my medical records, but not my personal stuff.
And then on top of that is an artificial intelligence agent that does my bidding and it works for me, not for Amazon, or Google, or Twitter. It makes recommendations and it makes the decisions that I allow it to make on my behalf. That means marketing people need to start creating systems that can talk to customers’ systems.
My agent tells me my dishwasher is going to fail within 30 days. It goes out and looks at all the options. Then the people who are selling dishwashers negotiate with my AI, so that I get a message from my agent that says, I’ve done the research. Here are the best three models. Here are the decision-making points. Which one would you like installed next Thursday?
Are there any books or podcasts (business-related or not) that you’ve found useful or inspiring and would recommend?
The ones I am listening to are very industry-specific. Digital Analytics Power Hour is my personal favourite. It’s essentially about people who measure stuff. It’s funny and an amazing insight into my industry.
In order to learn about machine learning, there’s a podcast called This Week in Machine Learning and AI. It is a data scientist interviewing other data scientists about artificial intelligence and I understand about 30% of it. It’s data science, literally the science. So it’s fascinating to keep on top of what the hard parts are, and how amazingly powerful this is, and yet how little we know and where the stumbling blocks are.
The Marketing Book Podcast is by Doug Burdett who runs an advertising agency. He interviews authors about their marketing books. And it’s a great place for book summaries if you don’t have time to read the full thing.
Any advice for business leaders who are struggling in these difficult times?
I’m seeing people get more accustomed to this… I don’t even want to call it a new normal because it’s this afternoon’s new normal and tomorrow morning’s new normal will be different. It’s all about COVID. And also about raging wildfires and about elections and politics and systemic racism all over the world. I’ve reached a point where there is so much to be anxious about that I just stopped.
I’m not going to close my eyes and ears and go off in the corner, but my time is better spent building than lamenting.
My recommendation then is: be flexible. Your customers have different needs than they did six months ago. They don’t know what’s going to happen next either. Now is the time to focus on being human.
Tom Peters said in a Stayin’ Alive in Technology interview several months ago, ‘Now is not the time to worry about your CV skills, but to work on your eulogy skills.’ When people eulogise you, they don’t say, ‘she increased profits three times over two years’, they say she really helped people. She was a person who would stop in the middle of the road and help somebody out. And that’s the thing you want to be remembered for.
The advice is to be as human as possible. You know you’re going to have meetings with important people whose dog will bark and whose kids will run into the room. Get over it. You’ll remember those who were kind. That’s the important thing.