Adopting people-centric marketing strategies - Michael Leander [Interview]

About Michael Leander

Michael Leander is the Chief Executive Officer at Markedu. He is an award-winning marketing speaker and a highly rated trainer. He has great insights in marketing training and also teaches marketing management at different business schools. Often known as an entertaining marketing speaker and a true marketing expert, we are extremely happy to have him on our interview series today.

Adopting people-centric marketing strategies - Michael Leander [Interview]

Vanessa Rose

We have the pleasure of welcoming Michael Leander today to our interview series today. I am Vanessa Rose from the peopleHum team. Let’s begin with just a quick introduction of peopleHum. peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work. We run the peopleHum blog and the video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month. 

Vanessa

Welcome, Michael. We’re thrilled to have you.

Michael 

Thank you. I’m very happy to be here. 

Vanessa

Thank you. 

So the first question I had for you Michael was, could you tell us a little bit about your journey you’ve had and what has brought you to where you are today? 

Michael

I think in terms of my journey, I’ve been very fortunate because I started differently than most people. While studying in the US, I had to get a job and happened to get into the door to door selling, which at the time was terrible in Florida, 35 degrees centigrade in a three-piece suit, walking and knocking doors. But it was necessary and it taught me a lot. 

And when I got back to Europe, I was fortunate enough to get into publishing. I always wanted to become a journalist as I was growing up and that taught me a lot about the insights of the industry I’m now a part of and fast-forwarding, I’ve been through various jobs, all of them dealing with the marketing, sales in combination in small businesses, which I have been very happy about because, as you know, in small businesses, you get to do a lot that you otherwise wouldn’t do in a large corporation. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to be managing large corporations as well, and I’ve been an entrepreneur. I’ve started and sold companies for the past 10 years, 11 actually. I’ve been lucky enough to leverage some of these experiences as a trainer, a keynote speaker, and at conferences and events around the world.

In fact, in 51 countries in six continents, obviously, right now I’m not moving too much outside of my own country Denmark but to summarize my career, I think I’ve been so lucky that I got to do a lot of practical things early on in my career. I got to take responsibility for my own action due to the nature of the companies that I was in.

And it’s something I can recommend to everyone who wants to grow. Now, I realize having employed a lot of MBAs and PhDs and so on over the years in different countries, that most people are very busy getting to sort of a management position. It’s like almost they have an expectation from the offset that they will come into a management position within one year or two years, right? 

And I think that’s a mistake. I think it’s really important that people take their time to get to where they need to go because there’s so much we need to learn. And I’m a little bit older than you. Well, actually, I look as if I’m a lot older than you, Vanessa. But the reality is that when I was your age, it was easier, right? Especially in marketing and sales, because today we have so many more channels. And it’s not like the old channels disappear. 

When I say the older channels, I’m of course referring to mass media outlets such as TV, radio, print, outdoor and so on. So, it’s gotten much harder, which in turn means that people actually should be focusing on getting the foundation in place before they’re too busy trying to manage other people. 

Vanessa

That is really interesting. You’ve actually seen the evolution of marketing from traditional means to strategic media.

Michael

That’s right.

Vanessa

So, how has the evolution been? How do you think it has changed? 

Michael 

I’ll say some positive and negative about that. I think it’s obvious to everyone, even younger people, that there’s been quite a significant change in the media landscape over the past, I’m gonna say 5 to 20 years because it depends on where the viewer is based. 

If you’re talking about Northern Europe where I’m based, obviously we’re very early on to adapt Internet and now I guess my first foray into Internet marketing was actually in 1995, I was a part of a team that launched one of the first B2B e-commerce portals, of course, we know in Europe at least in 1996, so that’s quite some time ago. 

But if we look beyond that, the positive is that we’ve come from a mass media culture, right? Well, actually, if you go even further back, we came from a word to mouth kind of culture, right? Where the advertising message spread through people’s recommendation of places and shops and whatever it was 2,3,500 years ago and with print media, obviously we entered that era of mass media and mass advertising where one advertising message sort of had to attract all sorts of different types of people with all sorts of different types of preferences. 

And then we came into a sort of direct era, which was kind of the dirty kid in the class, if you will, right? Because back when I started, anyone who talked about direct marketing, we’re like they weren’t good enough to be in conversation with the brand marketers, right?

So we’ve seen that transition as well and during that time period, direct marketing never really became popular, but those that were direct marketers at that time, and I’m not talking about network marketing, I’m talking about direct marketing as a whole. They made a lot of money for the brands they worked for, if they were on the agency side or if they were on the brand side, they actually made a lot of money, and they were able to validate everything they did.

They were able to provide internal marketing investment analysis, whereas the brand marketers at that point in time, they didn’t really know, right? They didn’t really know what was working and what wasn’t working. Now enters the Internet and now, finally, in 2020 we’re at a time where, in fact, most Internet marketers are direct marketers. Would you agree?

Vanessa

Yeah.

Michael

Because everyone knows nowadays, you gotta measure what you do.

“You gotta measure what you do.”

Lots and lots of people in India and elsewhere are testing what they do. Less and less people, unlike if you go 20 or 30 or 40 years back, less and less people actually believe they know they have the answer. They do believe if they don’t, they have to test to find the answer, right? So the evolution has come from, as I said, essentially word of mouth over mass media.

An era of direct marketing, Internet marketing and actually, now I think we’re kind of with the Internet, also back to word of mouth just in a different way than how word of mouth was functioning, let’s say, 200 years ago. 

The negative, I think, is, of course, that today, unlike when I started in the business, there are so many presumptuous people. Let me give you an example. If I went to India and did a masterclass which I’ve done many times and asked people, what would you prefer and what do you think has the biggest impact on your audience? Is that a short text with a very nice image or nice image with a long text? Which would convert better?

If I was a betting man, I think that 90% of the audience would say, it’s the short text with a nice picture. But the reality, when we do testing, is that the longer text wins nine out of 10 times over the short text, right?

Now, if you’ve studied and you take your craft seriously as a marketer or for that matter a salesperson, you would know there is some logic to this, right? Doesn’t happen by chance. And it’s obviously because of human nature because it hasn’t changed, right?

We might like that short text, a picture, or be more inclined to like that than the longer ones, but if we’re in the purchase mode, right? If we’re actually looking to purchase a service or product, we need to be convinced. Would you agree? 

Vanessa

Yeah.

Michael

And we don’t get convinced just by the picture, right? We need to understand exactly what this is all about. So the negative, I think, is that there are too many presumptuous folks out there. Too many presumptuous folks that believe that social media is everything, right? 

Social media is important, I agree with that and it can deliver results but social media is not today what it was intended to be, right? It was intended to be free, organic, right? Brands could actually establish an audience, for example, on Facebook, and through organic reach, in other words, unpaid reach, they’d be able to generate significant results. Not so anymore. Social media and networks today are really just advertising platforms, right? 

“Social media is important and it can deliver results but social media is not today what it was intended to be. It was intended to be free, organic. Not so anymore. Social media and networks today are really just advertising platforms.”

Facebook, you don’t get anywhere without an advertising portal. YouTube, it takes you a long time to get attraction, unless you’re extremely unique, right? The same goes for LinkedIn, Instagram, and so on, so forth. 

Vanessa

That was such a nice example, plus I think that the audience is harder to please now than ever before.

Michael

It’s definitely because as you know Vanessa, there’s so many things and people and places that want our attention all the time, right? So our attention span nowadays is actually very low compared to what it was. I’m not going to say, it’s a little less than the goldfishes, as many people wrongly say, this is not true. But it is actually very difficult to get an audience to get interested in what you’re doing and also to get them to come back to check your videos. 

You have all these great videos on YouTube, obviously, I took some time to kind of orient myself to see what you all are doing, and you’re doing a really great job from a content marketing perspective. But as you know, it’s not enough to produce the content. You gotta get eyeballs on that content. You gotta get engagement on that content. And for your business as a B2B business, you need to get repeat visitors, right? 

You need to create a sort of a group of people who will come back to listen and learn from all of these videos that you’re putting out on a regular basis, right?

Vanessa

Yeah.

Michael

Not easy, but it can be done if you persist, so to speak. 

Vanessa

So true. It’s not only about creating content but actually making sure that it reaches out to everyone. 

Michael

Yeah, and like I said, let me just give you a comment because maybe some business here are actually interested in this part. We can’t stress that enough that doing a really nice production doesn’t get you anywhere. That’s just a fact. Yes, sometimes the content people produce goes viral. It goes without saying, but many marketers forget and businesses forget that you need a budget to get wheels, if you will, on your content, right? To get eyeballs.

And without it, it’s really difficult to become successful if you measure your success in terms of what helps your business, right? Because the views on YouTube is not gonna get your company new customers necessarily, right? 

You need to draw them into your sales funnel, and you need to get enough for them, for your salespeople to have enough people to work, companies to work with in order to eventually turn them over to become a happy customer that your company wants them to be.

Vanessa

Yeah, absolutely. 

Yeah, but still, we see a lot of startups struggling to establish a brand name today. So what tips would you give them to achieve their goal through effective marketing? 

Michael

If we’re looking at a startup, let’s say a business that’s less than one year old, struggling with all the same things that most startups struggle with, which is obviously the financials. It’s usually a struggle. I’d say not to spend weeks and months to identify everything they want to do in their business.

I think it’s a big mistake that the concept of a business plan obviously needs to, it’s there because of financing potentially. But essentially what we see with most startups is that they start in one corner and then end up in a different corner, right? As they test their service over their offering. 

But in terms of the marketing part, I think it’s really important to get back to some of the old ways that worked really well. If you are in B2B, let’s talk about B2B, right? If you’re in B2B, a startup doesn’t need to focus so much in the first year, the first two years on establishing a glorious social media presence and so on. They need to get out there and get in touch with potential customers. Seriously, it is so important. And yet we see so many startups who don’t know how to lift up the phone and call a potential customer.

Because when your business is new, you might have ideas of whatever you’ve created is really great, right? You might yourself be extremely excited about what you have to offer, but it might be a lot of components that you haven’t thought about that are actually needed in the market, right? How are you gonna learn about that from social media or traditional advertising? You learn that from potential customers.

“When your business is new, you might have ideas of whatever you’ve created is really great. But it might be a lot of components that you haven’t thought about that are actually needed in the market. How are you gonna learn about that from social media or traditional advertising? You learn that from potential customers.”

So, I’m just saying that that’s one thing. And the other thing is to be aware of the sales cycle, which we also call incubation time, right? 

Vanessa

Yes.

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Michael

Very typically for B2B, let’s talk software, for example, something everybody can relate to and an industry that I’ve been part of as a business owner as well as a manager. The incubation time is much longer than you think. I’ve helped entrepreneurs who are looking at a 3-month incubation time from the first meeting and are very surprised two years later that that turned out to be nine months, right? 

So it’s really important, startups, they think about that process. In other words, how do they approach initially? What are the promises? And then how do they keep that dialogue going? If you look at India and for marketers all over the world, you see a lot of spammy emails going out all the time, right? That just talks about me, me, me, me. In other words, the product and how great we are, blah, blah, blah, blah, but doesn’t really try to understand the problems of the prospect, right?

So they need to outline a longer process with many contact points, both digitally as well as in person, if you will, calling on phones or doing offline events in order to accommodate this terrible problem that we have with this incubation time. In other words, we can’t control when the customer bites, right? 

Vanessa

Yeah.

Michael

So some people would refer to this as marketing automation techniques, for example, but whatever you call it, it works. The thing is, you map a process that’s not just three months, but maybe nine months, twelve months, eighteen months, depending on what you’re selling, and then you prepare yourself as a start-up that you’re gonna have to go the whole way, before you actually know how to successfully it can potentially become. 

Vanessa

Yeah. So true. Startups have come full circle to actually using traditional ways to build contacts. 

Michael

Yes, because it turns out that if you’re a startup and you don’t have any, let’s say email database. You don’t have a large social media following. And I have seen lots of startups if they start by trying to build that following on social media thinking that that’s going to get him the big bucks right? But it doesn’t unless you have someone that can do it and start the dialogue.

Vanessa

 So what do you envision, the ‘Future Of Work’ looks like, Michael? 

Michael

The Future Of Work? I think that’s being involved in different things, where we’ve had to work with people who were remote from let’s say the head office, for example. And I’ve been doing that with people from many different parts of the world like India, for example. Iran is another example. The United States, lots of places in Europe, and I think the future of work probably is a combination of structures that allow the individual to provide the most value to their business or their organization. 

And the reason I’m phrasing it this way and the reason I brought in all these different cultures is that, in my opinion, and I don’t mean to offend anyone, they’re simply cultures where the concept of working from home doesn’t work very well, right?

In India, like many other places in the world, lots of people live with their extended family right? Which means it could get really troublesome for them to actually work at home many days in a week, right? Because there’ll be all these disturbances and so on. 

Now in other countries, it’s not like that. Let’s take my country, in Denmark, usually, people just live with their own family, right? And so they might be better able to have more days at home and less days in the business and that’s not the case right now.

The case right now is everyone is very traditional. You’ve got to go to that location every day. You have to be there at a certain time and then you’re off at a certain time. 

I think that needs to change, and I think that is the future of work. But I don’t believe that the locations that people go to today will entirely disappear. I think they will still need to be there. I think there is a lot of value in actually coming together in the physical space and working with your team, your colleagues, so on, so forth. I think we all need that sense of belonging if you will, or reaffirmation that what we’re working on is actually, it’s a good plan or it’s a good project or whatever.

The other thing I want to say, I just may not be up your alley, but I think remuneration needs to change. And not just for salespeople. I think that more people need to be accountable because if they are and if their salaries depend on their own accountability, then working from home or working outside the office is also going to be different, right?

They’re gonna be more driven because they know they’re not just harming their business by sitting watching Netflix for two hours when they should be working, right? They’re actually hurting their own pocket as well. 

And thirdly, I think this whole time thing, something that I actually think is so wrong. We know some people don’t work very well if they have to get up at six am in the morning, right? So why force them to come to the office at eight? Why not say, just put in your eight hours or your ten hours or whatever it is whenever you want, right? But be accountable for what you do. 

The last thing I want to say about future work is what I call the culture of experimentation. It kind of fits into the rest, right? This is for managers, and I tried this in India as an interim manager actually. It turned out, didn’t work very well in India but I’ve seen it work very well in Europe. The culture of experimentation basically means that you don’t try to control people and what people should do and how they should do it as much as we’re doing today.

“The culture of experimentation basically means that you don’t try to control people and what they should do and how they should do it as much as we’re doing today.”

You basically allow people a certain amount of time and a certain amount of budget to experiment with the objectivity, to improve existing, let’s call it processes, if you talk about marketing, let’s talk about marketing assets.

Or you try to develop new projects that you think will help benefit your business. And if you do that, I think you’ll find that a lot of people who aren’t senior employees, maybe junior employees, will actually come up with very significant improvements, and they might also come up with new ideas that will help the business going forward. 

Vanessa

And that is such an interesting concept. I think this will also help in building trust for employees and it will also improve their productivity.

Michael

Absolutely and trust, Vanessa, as you mentioned, that’s a very big thing for businesses, isn’t it? Because I’ve been in many meetings in the past where we would have discussions like, can we really trust her to do her job if she’s working from home? How do we know that she’s not coming up with new dishes or doing things in the garden or going to the beach?

And on the other hand, we feel, if they’re in the office, at least they must be doing something, but you know what? We both know that’s not always the case, right? 

So, and I think if an employee or a team member feels that the company could trust them to be responsible and to be a team player, their behavior will also change, won’t that?

Vanessa

Yeah, true. So, moving on to our next question Michael. 

How do you think the engagement of millennials and the Gen Z workforce on social media platforms are changing with time?

Michael

Okay, so I’m not on that team that kind of divides people and their behavior into all kinds of brackets. I don’t believe in that. And especially now I think we’re past that. Yes, we use millennials and so on as a way to describe those that were especially digitally savvy. And then they had other trades that all the people might say weren’t too good, right? 

Like they think too much about themselves and they can’t wait. They want everything now and so on. But the other part of the question, if I can just address which is from a marketing point of view, let’s say that you have one presence, for example, look at social media and you have only one presence because you find difficult to differentiate, to create different platforms for different generations if you will, or people with certain traits that kind of belong in one community. I think that’s a real challenge, right?

Because if we go back to what we talked about before about where we came from, mass marketing right? We didn’t really bother. But we brought it to the extent that when we chose media, especially print media, we kind of try to understand what type of people actually read this particular newspaper or this particular magazine and if it was our audience, we put our ads there, right? 

Nowadays, if you were to do the same on a sort of micro or macro level, it involves a tremendous amount of work for the marketer because needless to say, if you want to reach out to a 22-year-old, single, college graduated lady in Mumbai, you would communicate differently than if you were trying to reach a 60-year-old married, mother of three, without an education living in the outskirts of Bangalore, right? 

Those are two completely different people presumably, but actually dealing with that aspect in platforms where you can’t control who sees the message is very difficult. If you talk about mobile marketing or, for that matter, email marketing, it’s obviously possible right, to do that. I don’t have the answer to that.

I think a lot of brands that I’ve worked with and that I’ve consulted, have really been struggling with this because here’s the thing, I realize you’re from India, and India is obviously a very large country in terms of population, which means if you are fragmenting your audience, you still have large sizes, you’re way past critical mass, right? 

So let’s say you’re a telco in India. You could easily have 10 different groups if you will, and you could probably attract 10 million people to be engaging with each of these groups, right? Giving you a total audience behind 1,000,000. But look at Denmark, it’s nearly six million people in the country, which is less than Mumbai itself, right? So if you try to do the same in countries like that, you’re not gonna get anywhere because you won’t have critical mass, right? In each of these entities. 

So I think it’s an extremely good question, by the way, the best question so far, because it’s because I don’t have the answer. But I’m going to go look for it, right? Over the next year or two. I’m gonna try to find an answer for that. And so I think, marketers try to be a little bit concrete and answer the question anyhow although I really don’t have the answer, I’m just being honest.

I think what’s important here is that marketers realize that when they do stuff in the digital space, they have to prepare themselves to do a lot more work in order to be more relevant with each of their audience, let’s call it segments, right? So that when they do something for those in the twenties, female in the twenties, they’ll actually do something that resonates with this audience. If they do something for males in their fifties, they’ll do something that resonates with their audience.

I think what’s important here is that marketers realize that when they do stuff in the digital space, they have to prepare themselves to do a lot more work in order to be more relevant with each of their audience.

But at the same time, we have a different aspect that people seem to be somehow challenged with, which is the whole understanding of how do I communicate, for example in social media when I know I both have customers and non-customers following me, right?

My customers, existing customers, active customers, they know the story, they’ve heard the story, they’ve been to the party, right? Whereas the non-customers who are just preferably interested or just came there by chance, they haven’t heard the whole story. You’re following me?

Vanessa

Yeah. 

Michael

So now how do we manage that? The same goes for your LinkedIn streams or wherever it is that you are active in your social media. I think that’s another problem. Brands haven’t solved when it comes to sort of the same aspect, just with knowing customers, as opposed to different generations, right? 

Vanessa

That’s a very interesting way you put it.

Michael

Oh, thank you very much, Vanessa. 

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Vanessa

So, Michael, do you have any last soundbites you’d like to leave our audience with?

Michael

Yes, let’s talk about people, right? Because at the end of the day if you want to be successful in anything, let’s talk about marketing, it’s really all about the people, whom you have on your team, or whom you choose to work with as freelancers or agencies or specialists or what. And I think what’s important for the leader is to work with the right people, people who have the right intentions, right?

And usually, people who have the right intentions are also those that are less concerned with the social status, less concerned with the money they make, but more concerned about making a difference.

“Usually people who have the right intentions are also those that are less concerned with the social status, less concerned with the money they make, but more concerned about making a difference.”

And I think when people interview for marketing jobs or similar, that’s what they should be concerned about. Do I get the right person? Is it a person who’s humble? They may have an MBA from a prestigious school, right? But are they still humble about what they need to learn and how long it takes them to really master different aspects of the job, right? 

In marketing as in many other areas of business, there’s so many moving parts, right? It’s easy to get confused and therefore it’s very important to really fully comprehend and have experience with the foundation.

So you need people who are willing to work, to learn continuously and above all, all the time, are focused on making a difference for the business they’re in. Because if they do, logic tells you that then eventually they will also be rewarded in monetary terms, in terms of social prestige, promotions, and whatnot. 

Vanessa

Really great advice, Michael. It’s so true, everyone needs to be aligned with the organization’s goals to actually make a difference. 

Michael

That’s right. Yeah. 

Vanessa

Thank you so much for joining us. I had a really nice time talking to you. 

Michael

This is my pleasure, Vanessa. I had a very nice time talking to you and some great questions and the great bird music going on outside.