Marketing trends are always changing, and it's so important to stay relevant. What are the latest trends, and how does one stay abreast of them? Is it better to be an early adopter or to see which trends stick? To address these questions, we’re asking experienced CMOs and marketing executives to share their “Top 5 Marketing Trends That Leaders Need To Know.” As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben LeDonni
Thank you so much for doing this with us! To start, can you tell us what brought you to this specific career path?
Sure! I was in my Master’s Program for Computer Science at Villanova University, and a college friend of mine, Jonathan, asked me if I could build him a website for his dad’s tile and marble business in NYC. This was in 2002, when building a website wasn’t as easy for a local business.
I took on the project, using my technical expertise. The design wasn’t pretty! I never claimed to be a designer. But, the website worked and he was ahead of the curve for the time, with a website for his business that showcased photos of projects and tile samples for people to browse. That started my thinking around being able to create websites as a way to make money.
Since then, I’ve started the business and grown from freelancing to a team of 17 full-time “holistic digital marketing geeks.” This team includes great designers, marketers, developers, marketers, and account managers that are savvy in not only website design, but digital marketing strategy, SEO, Social Media, HubSpot, and much more.
Now, we have a heavy emphasis on servicing B2B clients. I’m happy to say that my company still works with Jonathan, though he’s at a different company. Luckily for him, we now have designers that ARE good at designing websites!
Our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a funny mistake you made when you were first starting?
Ha! I’ve got a good one, but it’s embarrassing and I learned 2 important lessons. Early on, when just starting out, I realized that there were a lot of local landscaping companies and they all had very poor digital presence, including outdated websites and no ability to be found on Google. I thought, “if I could demonstrate the value of an investment in their digital presence, I could sell them all website design and SEO services”.
So, I got a list of all of their mailing addresses, printed and shipped them postcards, and waited for the phone to ring. But it didn’t! It didn’t ring because the number we had on the postcard was wrong. We printed the wrong phone number! Lesson 1, always triple-check your creative (copy/design) before you hit print (or launch/publish for websites).
But, we were lucky enough to include an email address and our website, so we did get some conversions through that campaign. And, that’s when I learned my second lesson. Every lead I spoke to had the same story. “We would love to do this, but we don’t have money right now”. Our campaign was sent in early Spring, and I learned that landscapers were still collecting money from Winter snow removal. Not only were they an audience that didn’t see the value to invest in marketing, but they didn’t have the money to pay for it.
That’s the second lesson, which is one that we preach to our clients: “know your audience”. The more you know about them, the more effective your marketing and sales will be. We now do Customer Journey planning for our clients, which outlines what motivates their audience to act (we call them “triggers”), why/ when they buy, and more. It’s Marketing 101, but since I grew into learning marketing as a technologist, I had to learn that the hard way.
Again, luckily, there are people on my team that know this, and more advanced lessons way better than I do, so we won’t make that mistake again.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?
There are so many! Where do I even begin? Mom always said “show me your friends and I’ll show you where you’re headed”. First and foremost, the support of my wife was tremendous. I never would have set out to start a business if she hadn’t supported me since day one.
Because my wife had a good job with health insurance and we knew we could get by with what she made, I was able to give up a high paying job to start my business. We were newly married, no kids, and a low cost mortgage. She bet on me when we got married and continues to trust my decisions to this very day.
Also, I have to mention another colleague that has become a friend, as he’s helped me so much. I met a successful businessman when I was brought in to develop a web application project for him and his business partner. We met at a small coffee shop back in 2010, in Philadelphia, and he told me “I’m going to make you a millionaire” then walked me through the projections for his startup. He trusted my team and me to build his web application, brought me on as a partner, and we worked on it for about a year and a half before it shut down.
The startup never went anywhere. But, he always sought to make good on his promise by introducing me to anyone that he knew that needed our services for website design, development and digital marketing. He values the work that we do, trusts us (and me) to deliver, and has done a lot to help my business and me personally. I wouldn’t be where I am without his help.
The lesson I’ve learned is to surround yourself with people who believe in you, as they will help you get where you want to go. And if someone doesn’t lift you up, rethink your relationship with them. For every person trying to help you move forward, there could be one or more holding you back.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything differently?
Success is subjective and feels like a moving target. I feel successful because I’ve been able to give my family a good life, employ a team with work that gives them agency, and do what I love, day in and day out. But, on any given day, it feels like there’s so much more that I want out of life.
A tipping point for me, though, was having the right people on my team, aligned on my company’s vision. There’s a great book, by Patrick Lencioni, called 'The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.' The same lesson about having the right people surrounding you outside work, applies for relationships inside the office.
I believe in hiring based on culture first. Does the person I’m interviewing believe in the mission of our business? Do they share the same values? Are they passionate about what we do? Are they students of their trade?
The team that works with (not for) me at Creative MMS is amazing. Our clients tell us all the time. They tell each other. So, the tipping point for my business was when we had the right people in the right seats, rowing in the right direction. When a team has that dynamic, everything else just works.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
I would say it's our ability to translate business goals into marketing and technical strategy, with a clear action plan to bring that strategy to life.
We had a well-known radio personality in the political sphere come to us recently with a challenge. He had a “platform”—as in a ‘voice’—but didn’t have a proper technical “platform” to serve as the foundation to reach his audience. He was spending hours every morning curating content for his audience.
By understanding the goals of the work he was doing, and pairing that with the marketing and business technologies that exist, we were able to bring to life a much more efficient web platform. This new platform allowed his team to spend less time on the administration and organization and more time on making progress towards their goals. Additionally, the platform allowed for revenue generation through advertising, as our marketing team built their strategy into a custom end product.
Our ability to listen and understand the goals then leverage what we know to bring business solutions to life is a differentiator for us. I like to say we are a team of “holistic marketing geeks” and it really is true!
Are you working on any exciting projects now? Tell us about it!
One that comes to mind to me at the moment is a progressive strategy towards using AI to innovate for a business. I can’t say much about the application to the industry. But, with all the rage about ChatGPT, we’re evaluating these newer technologies to apply to a legacy business that has a lot of potential from applying modern tech.
I think it will help people by providing a streamlined interface by leveraging AI. I also believe it will help our client by providing an efficient, modern solution that levels up his business by technology. All in all, how AI helps humanity is a bit “TBD”, but it could provide some streamlined efficiencies to things we do manually these days, much like the internet streamlined delivery of mail.
As a CMO, you’re at the forefront of the marketing space and leading diverse teams. What resources or tools do you use to stay abreast of the ever-changing landscape?
First and foremost, I leverage social media tools to follow the latest news and information. The benefit of some of the social algorithms is that you get out what you engage with. So, I’ve “trained” my feed to show me very good information on the latest tech trends, business news, and marketing stories.
I also LOVE podcasts. I listen to Two Bobs for agency information, the Hustle’s Daily News on what’s going on in tech and business, and Marketing Against the Grain. The last two podcasts are owned by HubSpot, so I have to call out how good HubSpot is at putting out fantastic Martech content. As an agency partner of HubSpot, we drink the Kool-Aid because they preach what we practice.
In your experience, is it possible to forecast upcoming trends? How does this process work?
I believe a trend emerges when you prove a new idea’s effectiveness. So for us, we predict upcoming trends by generating ideas about how tech may be used, then use scientific methods to apply and test their effectiveness.
We’ve lived through 2 major web trends: responsive design and the rise of content management systems. In both cases, we saw the ideas coming then started to test out what would happen if companies adopted the idea, and its effectiveness. Since they both were effective for solving business goals, it was obvious that the trend would emerge and evolve.
I believe the same thing about Web3 and AI tech. There are many ideas about how they will be used. Some companies (Nike, Starbucks, etc.) are testing applications and generating revenue. Once they prove effective uses of that technology, the trend will continue to evolve and emerge. We’re starting to test them with ourselves and our clients.
In marketing, would you say it’s better to be an early adopter of trends or wait to see if they stick before allocating resources?
I think businesses, like people, have risk profiles. In some cases, there’s major failure in not being an early adopter in a trend (think Blockbuster for Digital Video). And in other cases, there's failure (think Google Glasses for AR). For a company like Google to invest time and energy in the emerging technologies and new trends is a no brainer. They have no choice as their business is all about being current and relevant.
For a small business that can’t afford to put the time and energy into new trends, it may be too risky. This is why we see marketing and technology strategy emerging as an investment by smart companies. Because, before a company dives into a trend, they can weigh the pros and cons of that effort.
Personally, I believe that you need to have one toe in the emerging trend, but keep solid footing on your core business. This way you can shift weight if you need to but maintain what’s standing you up as a business.
What are some of the past trends that you embraced? What results did you see from them?
The biggest one we embraced as a company was using WordPress as a website platform. We’ve been designing and developing websites since before content management systems (CMS) were introduced. So, when WordPress was emerging as a blogging platform, they released a feature that let you set the homepage as any page you created. Once I noticed that, I believed it could be the right CMS for business websites. We had one toe in the water on it, tried it for a few clients, then found it hugely successful.
Now, it powers over 43% of the websites on the internet. So, by being ahead of the curve in using WordPress as a CMS, we were the right agency for many clients looking to be able to administer their website themselves, back when the industry was all about paying developers to make every change. These types of innovations are at the core of our business, which is why we are now experimenting with new AI tools and Web3 technology.
Can you share a time when a strategy didn’t deliver the results you expected and what you learned from the experience?
Of course! It happens, especially when portions of your strategy test boundaries you haven’t pushed yet. One that comes to mind for my business is around the products we’ve created. We’ve launched numerous products that we have built over time, such as a Content Resource Library Plugin for WordPress, a Product Finder Plugin for WordPress, and a few industry-specific WordPress themes that we built, but none of them ever showed significant upside. I launched each of them with a very sound technical strategy, around good use cases that we had seen from many clients.
But, I never actually did the proper planning around marketing to generate the sales to justify the time invested in each product. The lesson was really just last year, when we worked with a product specialist who helped us define the problem set and revise the product, marketing, and overall strategy. And that lesson is really to prove the product before building the product. It wasn’t that the marketing strategy failed, but that we didn’t find the tactical marketing that worked before building the product. Now, we have a plan and a course and have proven it will work, but it feels like we got there a bit backwards.
What factors should leaders consider before jumping on a trend?
The first factor, and most important, is to ask: does that trend help towards your business goals? Too often people jump on a trend without thinking about what the outcome could or should be by doing so.
The second is how that trend will reach their audience. Will a marketing trend be able to reach your audience? For example, it’s much more sound to use TikTok for marketing if your audience is much younger and you sell a consumer or brand product that would resonate over reels and videos. But for a small-business insurance company to do so may be a progressive and lucrative idea, but be carefully considered based on the target audience and potential upside. If your target audience is older males, then TikTok may not be the right platform to jump into.
A third factor I’d look at is whether your competitors are doing it. If you think of business as running a race, and you can see a competitor getting ahead by doing something, you need to at least consider whether it’s worth doing. That doesn’t mean you should dive right in, but if they aren’t doing it, it could give you a competitive advantage. And if they are doing it, you may need to do it as well to stay relevant.
Based on your expert insight, what are the top five marketing trends leaders should know about in 2023?
1. Heavier Emphasis on Strategy. While I know strategy is not really a tactic, there has been a really big increase in the amount of emphasis business leaders are (and should be) putting towards strategy; specifically, how to reach their audience with proper marketing. There’s all sorts of new tools and we’re seeing that businesses, especially B2B companies, are defining and refining how they use those tools to reach, attract, and convert their audience.
2. Data and Personalization. Marketing these days needs to be personalized for your target audience. We always say “design for everyone or design for no one—it is the same thing.” What that means is that you really want to design or market directly to the persona or audience you are trying to reach. So, make sure that you are leveraging your data to be able to organize things such as your CRM, be it HubSpot or Salesforce or something else. Use the data to segment and personalize the message to your audience, targeting them where they are and when.
3. Artificial Intelligence and ChatGPT. Artificial Intelligence (AI) including automatic content creation (text creators or image creators) like ChatGPT and DallE-2 are all the buzz right now. They became a major factor towards the end of 2022. It’s to the point where Google is on “red alert”, trying to figure out what to do about the impact ChatGPT might have on search engines. This will also have an impact on marketers because these tools will provide, not only upside an opportunity as far as differentiation, but potentially efficiency in the way they may be able to create contact or do research. As a matter fact, we’re doing strategy for clients on how to leverage these tools right now
4. Web3. I’ve been a big proponent of Web3, which goes way beyond cryptocurrency, and builds upon new emerging technologies like Blockchain, which can bridge the gap between customers and their audiences. Web3 empowers brands and companies to be able to reach their audience with far greater engagement. It also gives the user the ability to hold their own certifications, awards, memberships, and other information close to their chest and release that information to companies when those companies are using blockchain / Web3 and connected via wallets. I believe in the future that we will browse the internet with our connected wallets between websites, sharing our information and buying online via new technologies like Metamask and Coinbase Wallets. It’s already starting and gaining momentum.
5. Social Media Trends. This touches a bit on my first point about strategy, since you need to have a solid strategy about how social media plays into your goals. There is always a new emerging social media app. For example, BeReal has just gained popularity and is used by a lot of millennials already. In 2022, we saw the rise of TikTok, and watched it take over platforms like Instagram, and even Google, as far as how many searches were done onTikTok by the younger generation. So you need to be “in the know” on the current social media marketing trends. That doesn’t mean you should leave the legacy platforms behind, but you need to make sure you have a solid social media strategy to effectively reach your audience.
Lastly, if you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to many people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
We all need to seek to understand before being understood. If I could inspire a movement to bring a lot of good to a lot of people, it would probably be to inspire parents to teach their kids how to be good humans, by ensuring they seek to understand everyone is a person. As a husband and dad to 3 kids, with a non-profit that seeks to inspire others to do more for those that can’t do for themselves, we’ve learned that kids are naturally good. If educated on how to be good and do good, they will. That means they need to be exposed to the world, and how others live their lives, so they can understand them.
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