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“Don’t Be Afraid of Technology” – Interview with Nick Allen

Mike Sędzielewski
Mike Sędzielewski
July 7, 2020
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“Don’t Be Afraid of the Technological Side of Marketing” – Interview with Nick Allen

Our first interviewee is Nick Allen, a growth leader, the first lifecycle marketer at Lyft and former Director of Retention at IPSY. Nick is currently involved in growth strategy consulting while he launches Cutback Coach, his new startup focused on helping anyone who regularly drinks alcohol build healthier habits around their drinking.

Key Takeaways

  • There is no such thing as a non-technical person, don’t get trapped in this mindset! Don’t be afraid to take the bull by the horns and experiment with more and more technical tools. 
  • The marketing world is now saturated with highly-technological solutions – as a CRM Manager you can either be continuously blocked by your development team or try to figure out stuff on your own. 
  • When faced with a new technology leviathan, read the documentation carefully and learn the tools the hard way, by trial and error. 
  • Small technical wins build on themselves. In learning new tech, start with small, contained projects that build on the skills you already have but push you into new territories.
  • He’s building something pretty cool using 2-way SMS to help anyone who drinks alcohol build mindfulness about when and how much they drink. You can check out the beta here.

Before we discuss what tech skills help you in day-to-day work, let’s talk about your story in the CRM world. How did you get into your first job?

I started my career over 10 years ago in the lifecycle space at a company called Citrix. My first job out of college was a lifecycle marketer role. Back then it was a completely different role to what I’m doing today, but it helped me to get started in the technology space. The campaigns I managed were strongly email-based, with small business-focused B2B activities like webinars or virtual meetings. The job required deep technical knowledge to support and execute even the most basic lifecycle efforts, things like creating dynamic content or getting hands dirty with XML.

After 4 years, I moved on to start my own business. It was an online platform for roommates. The founder role forced me to expand the technical suite and to explore how to go to market without an engineering background. A lot of my growth mentality comes from overcoming these challenges, you know, being naive and figuring stuff out on my own, trial and error, checking documentation, and getting stuff working by the end of the day. 

Indeed, sounds like a huge learning opportunity, how did the business go?

Although I learned a lot, unfortunately I had to shut down the business after a couple years. The first job I applied for then was a growth marketer position at Lyft, a major competitor of Uber. That was 2013, the early days of ride sharing space.

In hindsight, I think this was the moment when my career took a turn to a pretty deep technical expertise in lifecycle space. When I joined the team, the focus was on driving passenger and driver retention, but the campaigns lacked personalization and were very manual to execute. Lyft retention strategy was largely batch and blast: send a weekly community newsletter without content that would help passengers and drivers get most of the platform and also get over the hump of experience that was uncommon at the time – which was jumping in a car with a stranger and taking a ride. It now seems very normal but it was a bit of a leap of faith back then. 

I spent a lot of time thinking about tools and technology that would allow us to move from a single batch and blast experience to what I thought was a better opportunity – to better understand passengers and drivers, find out where they get stuck in the funnel and to deliver the right message to them in an automated way; getting passengers and drivers into active, habitual usage through individualized experience. 

How did you achieve that from the technical point of view?

A lot of that was about bringing in new marketing technology and working with my counterparts on the product and engineering teams to set up new data pipelines to unlock deeper personalization. We wanted to make sure we have the right data, synchronized in a reliable way which we can use to build fine-grained segments and ultimately experiment. We wanted to understand what kind of messages, timing, or promotions work with which types of audiences to support early onboarding experience and a long-term retention strategy.

To do so, we replaced Mailchimp with Salesforce Marketing cloud for email automation, and brought in the more developer-friendly Appboy (now Braze) to open up the push channel and allow for more sophisticated triggers and automation.. With its API and webhooks, Braze allowed us to launch more sophisticated initiatives, integrated with internal services and 3rd party tools. 

It was a smart move. During 4.5 years at Lyft, I watched the company grow 100x in terms of top-line rides, while my team grew from 1 (me) to 15.

Helluva ride, then you moved to another fast growing company, but in a completely different space.

Right, I spent the last almost 2 years in IPSY, a global personalized cosmetics brand. This industry wasn’t really my cup of tea but the company had an interesting challenge. Every single IPSY customer goes through a pretty in-depth beauty survey. When signing up, we ask about your needs, habits, and favourite products right off the bat.

In other words, 100% messaging personalization opportunity from day one and the challenge was to put the data to work.

A lot of my philosophy throughout my career is based on the question: how do you introduce  strategic friction in the user experience in order to collect the data that you need for delivering deep personalization. Translating it into day-to-day tasks, it’s about collecting enough information about users to create an experience that feels different from generic batch and blast programs. The only way to do that is to ask for information and be smart and strategic enough to turn that information into action and leverage it to deliver experiences that each individual signup will resonate with.

That’s true but that also requires technology. It seems like you tapped into API-first platforms pretty early on in your career. You were one of Braze early adopters, right?

I believe we were one of the first of major tech companies to bring Braze in at the time. I became an evangelist for the tool from the early days, helping the team understand what the platform can do and where other tools fall flat. 

What stood out to me was event-based automation, like triggers based on user action not just on time, a really intuitive UI and great handling of real-time data. Platforms like these are game changers for both marketers and product managers. 

Speaking of event- or attribute- based automation, can you describe one campaign that worked really well?

I think an example that comes to my mind is the one at IPSY. As I said, every single member goes through a 20-something survey about brands and products they like, hair- and skin-related. The product itself is driven by algorithms (IPSY uses the data to create a personalized cosmetics subscription box) so we wanted to use the data for messaging too.

We combined the preferences shared with us with the purchase history to create campaigns with upcoming products, highlights, or promotions that were highly relatable. Scenarios like – you told us you like product X, so you might be interested in Y. 

On a philosophical level, the only justification for making the signup harder is putting this data to work so that it builds better customer experience. And that’s the job of the lifecycle marketer – collect data and think of how to put them to work from day one. Surprisingly, this isn’t that obvious as I’ve seen many companies doing surveys but not using the data, providing generic experience for their audience.

At Voucherify, we’ve also noticed that putting data to work is something digital teams often struggle with, can you tell me more about how you cope with this?

To me, putting data to work is what differentiates less and more sophisticated growth programs.

Some of that comes from underlying architecture —  how your data exists in your own internal services and how you make it accessible to 3rd party marketing tools and ultimately for product and marketing teams to make use of it.

One large challenge for companies that have not invested in data pipelines is moving data in a structured way from the source of truth to the point they can act on it.

In my consulting career, some projects I was part of struggled with data infrastructure – it was basically in data management dark ages. My role was to break down and rebuild data pipelines in order to make rich user data accessible so that it could be processed by 3rd party systems.

The project I’m in right now is in the health and wellness space, focused on helping anyone who regularly drinks alcohol build habits around their drinking. The first thing we focused on was the onboarding experience. Every action users take has meaning and is immediately piped into CRM — things like quizzes about habits, goals, and a roadmap of what you want to change. From that point forward, we are making a bet that own-stated goals are a better way to succeed than us trying to force goals on you.

What does your data pipeline look like?

We partnered with Braze, as a backend and a brain of the system. Signup surveys run on Typeform, a low code platform which feeds data into Braze. We made a big bet on SMS as a two-way communication channel.  

The campaigns use Braze-to-Braze logic: we send a text, listen to the response and base on it we create events in Braze to trigger another set of communications. So it’s kind of user data processing and delivery at once.

Besides that, we use Amplitude for understanding what’s happening in the funnel and Airtable as a long-term database for understanding interaction holistically.

All in all, it's a really low-code setup.

Low-code tools require some knowledge on how to orchestrate technology. How did you learn that without prior experience as an engineer?

It’s a good question. Looking back at my career, I’ve fallen into a lifecycle role early on and this, I think, opened me to be more technical than I would identify myself when I first came out of university. 

But the biggest thing for me is not being afraid of the technical side of marketing.

Ultimately, especially in the growth marketing space, the more tech you are, the more you can do without being blocked. You don’t need engineers, you don’t need to wait for the end of the spring. And the faster you’re going to move, the faster you’re going to learn, and ultimately the more you’re going to accomplish.

Last week I stumbled upon an interesting observation – lifecycle marketing is now a business of APIs not RFPs, your experience seems to show that too.

It’s very true. This means you have to be self-sufficient especially in the technology side of growth space. Your team will run worse if you need to rely on devs with an experiment or idea you have.

To me, the more I can do by myself, the better. Even if it’s hacky. As long as I can get the MVP done and get some learning, I’d go this the hands-on way.

This was a big “aha” moment to me. It doesn’t matter if it's scrappy or not scalable. As long as you can get something out the door and validate the idea, this is worth doing.

With this philosophy in mind, it becomes a lot more interesting. But it required a mindset shift – hey I could either wait or I can do it by myself straight away. That started with writing HTML, dynamic content language like Liquid or in case of Exact Target Ampscript — you know, take some data and put it into messages in a contextual way.

Now, I want more data to access, so I started thinking of APIs and grabbing information from the server. When you have an open mind, you can do this, even if it’s scary and intimidating at first — because it’s a code. Usually there’s amazing documentation and all it takes is willingness to start the process of trial and error. 

So, HTML, dynamic Liquid if-else statements, getting data from APIs, then SQL to understand how data works.

Let’s take my current product as an example. I’m now building my own stack and this means I’m the only one that can unblock myself, and creating scripts that use APIs and webhooks really helps me to push things forward.

It’s kind of a progression. The key is not to be intimidated by the fact that it feels a little bit out of your comfort zone. 

A progression is a good summary, but what would you recommend to a newcomer who doesn’t know much about tech stacks?

I think the very first step is mindset shift. It’s a false dichotomy between people that come out thinking I’m tech vs non-tech. That becomes like a self-fulfilling prophecy in my mind. 

If you don’t believe that you can do that stuff, you can stop everytime you see code or any of this kind of programmatic logic. You’re going to stay stagnant and you’re not going to build a technical skill set.

Whereas if you come out believing in yourself – “I am smart and I can learn this stuff,” this will change how you approach things that seem uncomfortable at first.

Just reading through is often enough. Read the docs and you’ll find the words that are human-readable and use that as a starting point. You’ll find yourself like: “Oh. I actually see what this is doing.”

To recap, I’d say the first thing is the mindset shift, then building a safety net to start small experiments. If you asked me to write a proper JSON, I couldn’t do it. But given the starting point and an environment for trial and error, I would feel comfortable to figure it out eventually.

Speaking of environment, would you say talking to devs helps as well?

Yeah, it’s definitely helpful. To some extent you can be friendly with devs. The essential thing here is to make it clear that you want to learn versus the attitude of having developers do the work for you. The best way to approach a developer is to tell them: “this is my starting point, point me in the right direction please.” This can be intimidating at first, so I try to go as far as I can by myself before asking.

Being open-minded for technology and humble to developers sound to me like must-have traits for a junior lifecycle marketer. I’m sure this will help many people develop in the CRM space. Thank you for sharing your story and I wish you the best with your new venture!

Thanks for having me!

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