For Truth Initiative, The Experience Is Its Message

Customer experience can be a squishy concept for organizations that don’t sell a product or service—such as Truth Initiative, a national public health organization aiming to create a culture in which young people reject tobacco.

For Truth Initiative, The Experience Is Its Message

by Stephanie Overby

Posted on 11-07-2017

Customer experience can be a squishy concept for organizations that don’t sell a product or service—such as Truth Initiative, a national public health organization aiming to create a culture in which young people reject tobacco.

“In many cases, it’s a difficult concept to apply day to day,” said Truth Initiative CMO Eric Asche. But it’s no less important.

Asche’s goal is to engage individuals in such a way that they begin to think and behave differently. That’s an ongoing challenge.

“I have to check my bias at the door and approach our consumer with an open mind and great humility,” Asche said. “I’m never going to be in a position where I think this job is done and we’re giving each other high-fives. The moment we do that is the moment we lose market share.”

CMO.com talked to Asche about managing a marketing funnel with the goal of getting someone not to buy a product, balancing the twin goals of personalization and uniting a community, and having honest and nuanced conversations with customers. At the end of this article, we also present a related podcast, in which Asche spoke to “Marketing Today” host Alan Hart about Truth’s “zealous focus on the consumer” and the future of marketing.

CMO.com: Would you say your company is an experience-led organization?

Asche: We don’t use that term “experience-led,” but we are attuned to the spirit that’s behind that language. We don’t have a tangible product or service like most for-profits. For us, experience is how we get an individual to internalize our mission to the degree it will have an impact on how they think and behave. That means we need to understand what motivates an individual when it comes to their personal decisions about smoking.

Smoking kills one-third of users who start at a young age. It costs the U.S. $150 billion a year in lost productivity and another $170 billion a year in health-care costs. This product, when used properly, will kill you. If the decision to smoke were grounded in logic or merit, our argument should prevent anyone from initiating. But that’s not why someone picks up a cigarette. Our challenge—and our opportunity—is to create experiences so they can take ownership of making the right decision: the decision to not start.

CMO.com: How are you structured internally to execute your mission around experience?

Asche: We think about engagement with consumers in the same way a for-profit company would; we’re competing for market share just like they are. But we’re pushing consumers through the funnel so they don’t make a purchase.

The ways in which we measure our progress of moving consumers through the funnel vary a bit compared with companies focused on moving products off the shelf. We are believers in a theory of change model that focuses on KABs—the knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs that are connected to behavior change. The theory argues that knowledge is the basis of establishing a better subset of attitudes, and that ultimately leads to positive behavior changes.

Like any marketing organization, we leverage big data to understand our engagement performance and how to improve it. Preventing someone from smoking is not like giving someone a chicken-pox vaccine. You can never be certain that you’ve inoculated them from the risk. People are heavily influenced by the world around them; social influences have tremendous power. So our goal is to have an ongoing dialogue with them throughout their day so we are there when they need us.

We look at data to show where we’re getting traction and where we can invite people under the tent for a longer conversation. We look at macro brand health indicators like brand relationship and recall all the way down to video view counts, sentiment analysis, and engagement on social media.

CMO.com: Will the same experiences have the kind of impact you’re hoping for across your audience—or is there value in personalization?

Asche: We focus on youth and young adults broadly. There are some universal truths about the audience. But there’s an opportunity—and a need—for us to personalize and individualize the message in a way that’s most relevant to each individual story.

At the same time, we want to identify what unites our audience and rally them around this cause. It’s a real tension for us. We believe this issue can be a uniting cause; this generation has the opportunity to eradicate smoking. So we do want to deliver that message as an invitation for all. But once we get them into the “purchase” funnel, we segment them and message those segments in different ways to get them more active and engaged over time.

CMO.com: Is there a tone you strive for when communicating with these cohorts?

Asche: Other than never saying, “Don’t smoke,” we take a lot of latitude. There’s room for different approaches, and many times we’ll vary our tone by platform or channel. We can present the issue through a social justice lens when talking about the exploitation of vulnerable communities and, very quickly, switch gears to reflect pop culture by highlighting what the world would look like if there were no more cat videos on YouTube.

Regardless, when your organizational name is “Truth Initiative,” you open yourself to very high expectations—particularly when we find ourselves living in a “post-truth” world. Emotional resonance can be as important as the actual saliency of the facts.

We are striving to honor the expectations by having honest conversations with the audience, even when the facts can seem a bit murky. We do our best not to overreach. One example: We get asked all the time if e-cigarettes are dangerous. The truth is it depends on who you are. If you’re already a smoker, it may be a less harmful choice, although we can’t say that it’s safe. But if you’re an 18-year-old who doesn’t smoke, it is certainly harmful because trial could lead to a nicotine addiction for someone who otherwise wouldn’t smoke.

Being transparent about such a nuanced topic is very important. At the same time, we can’t overstate what we know because we’re fearful. We have to tell the truth.

CMO.com: What’s the biggest lessons you’ve learned about delivering valuable experiences to this audience?

Asche: We think of ourselves as a brand that’s focused on participating in, and helping to shape, a broader cultural narrative. We are incredibly focused on producing work that resonates with our audience, whether it’s a 30-second spot or a social influencer post or original content with a partner like Adult Swim.

When we get it right, it’s incredibly impactful. We see the phrases we’ve coined—like Catmageddon—show up on Urban Dictionary or a campaign trending organically on Twitter. But when we get it wrong, there’s a heavy price to pay. If we’re a little behind or a little off-tone, the feedback is quick and fierce.

When you want your brand to be on-culture, speed is everything. We never want to look like the dad who’s trying to be cool. While constructive and necessary to hear, that kind of consumer feedback stings.

CMO.com: How important is it for your organization to keep pace, experience-wise, with the digital giants, such as Facebook or Amazon or Google?

Asche: Our product is our message, so being present on those platforms is incredibly important. We were an early adopter of the Snapchat discover platform, which quickly became a killer app for many brands. We’re constantly looking at what’s next. What kind of data can we get? What can we glean from a new platform?

At the same time, we have to make trade-offs. We don’t have an infinite budget. Our appetite is, in many cases, bigger than our stomach. There’s always a temptation to chase the next shiny object in the experience chain. And while we never want to be last, we have to be intentional about our choices and understand the ROI.

CMO.com: What will the customer experience of the future look like?

Asche: We are looking at how brands like Amazon and Google leverage data to cater to individual needs at scale. In addition to the sheer number of people in their funnel, they play a vital role in a consumer’s day-to-day life. There is a growing expectation that brands will meet consumers where they are—and that expectation is only going to intensify. Brands will be challenged to be more nuanced and to become more diffused in the media landscape.

At the same time, Millennials and the Centennials behind them expect brands to do good. And not just to be able to tell a good story for earned media purposes, but to earnestly do good in all areas of their business.

A brand like Truth is well-positioned to partner with other brands that want to make a real impact and connect with a socially conscience audience.

The future is going to be complicated and challenging but invigorating. If it scares you a little bit, it should. But if it paralyzes you, you’re probably in the wrong business.

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