9 Clouds Takes Nashville: Conference Recap of Marketing United 2017
I may not like country music, but boy, am I a fan of Nashville.
This April, my husband and I visited Nashville to attend the third-annual Marketing United conference. Put on by the chic email marketing platform Emma, this marketing conference brings engaging speakers from the world’s best brands to educate and inspire.
Since my husband Troy and I are both digital marketers — and since we’ve never been to Nashville — we thought it’d be fun to go together. (I’m grateful that 9 Clouds is willing to invest in my professional development in this way!)
Needless to say, the trip was fun — and refreshingly educational, too. Just check out my husband’s Marketing United recap video for proof.
For a more thorough recap, keep reading to get my take on Marketing United 2017. I’ll start with the basics, move on to a day-by-day play-by-play, and finish with my number-one takeaway from the conference.
Fast Facts for Marketing United 2017
- WHO: An intimate gathering of around 1,000 attendees from around the world
- WHAT: The third-annual marketing conference held by Emma
- WHERE: The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN
- WHEN: April 19 – 21, 2017
- WHY: To share creative ideas, inspiring thoughts, and practical tips for marketers and brand managers everywhere
Conference Schedule of Events
In elementary school, whenever we missed class for a vacation, we had to keep a journal of our time away and share it with the class.
This is my journal, and you are my classmates.
I’ll try to keep it brief, but there was a lot of marketing goodness to share with you all.
If you’re interested in attending the conference in 2018, this schedule of events should give you a good flavor of what to expect. I also included my favorite quote from each speaker, so you can get a little taste for each session.
Prefer the bite-sized version? Scroll down to get my number-one takeaway from Marketing United 2017.
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
While Emma customers were busy participating in the exclusive pre-conference festivities during the day, Troy and I were saying sayonara to Sioux Falls and heading south.
Once we got settled into our hotel (the beautiful Westin Nashville, where Emma had reserved a discounted block of rooms), we took a stroll downtown — and the bars were already bustling.
Between the live music spilling out every open window and the bright sun beating on our backs, it didn’t take us long to realize (happily) we weren’t in South Dakota anymore.
After a snack at Jack’s Bar-B-Que and a drink at Honky Tonk Central, we ventured over to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where the Marketing United conference (and that night’s welcome party) would be held.
We were greeted with smiles, swag bags, and our official conference passes. As you can see, I was pretty proud of my professional name badge.
Troy and I spent the welcome party mingling with other attendees and hitting up the sponsor booths, where we scored many a free T-shirt.
You’d think a reception like this could be stuffy, but between the free refreshments and the Nashville skyline pouring through the floor-to-ceiling windows, it was much more fun than we’d anticipated.
Troy and I wrapped up the night with a long walk to (and long wait in line for) the famous Hattie B’s, where we’d heard we could taste some of Nashville’s best hot chicken.
And yes, the walk and wait were worth it — one hundred percent. ?
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Following a light breakfast, everyone gathered in the CMA Theater to hear opening remarks from Emma’s founder, Clint Smith.
Clint offered us a warm greeting, complete with a fun welcome video from Emma employees. He then introduced us to our conference emcee, the incomparable Jay Baer, and our first keynote speaker, Scott Stratten.
Scott Stratten (of UnMarketing fame) kicked things off with a session titled “Everything Has Changed & Nothing Is Different.”
In his characteristically blunt yet passionate way, Scott illustrated the importance of ethics in business.
As marketers, we all know how easy it is to be tempted by the allure of new tools and techniques — what we here at 9 Clouds call the “bright shiny syndrome” — but if a channel doesn’t make sense for your brand, don’t use it.
Your brand integrity is the most important thing you have to protect. So protect it!
“Whatever people think when they see your logo — that’s your brand.”
Next, Matthew Luhn took the stage to discuss “The Art of Storytelling.”
If you want people to make an emotional connection with your brand, you need to tell its story. And in order for that story to be effective, it must be memorable, impactful, and personal.
Matthew outlined five key ways to create inspiring stories for your business:
- Have a great hook.
- Offer a promise of change.
- Connect with the right audience.
- Make your stories authentic.
- Use the pattern of story structure.
“People love to go on a roller coaster when they hear a story.”
At this point, the conference separated into breakout sessions, so we could choose which topic we wanted to attend.
I picked “Email, Social, Content & Cocktails: How Tito’s Handmade Vodka Crafts a Cohesive Brand Experience” by Josie Fox and Katy Gelhausen of Tito’s Handmade Vodka. (Because, I mean, why not?)
Unfortunately, Josie and Katy did not offer any free vodka samples during the presentation — but they did offer a few fun examples of content marketing strategies they use to help nurture brand evangelists for Tito’s.
“A story is a lot like a drink. Keep it simple.
As soon as you layer on ingredients, you need to make sure they work together.”
Next, I headed to Ben Jabbawy’s presentation, “Capture, Grow & Convert: Everything You Need to Know about Building Your Email Audience Right Now.”
Ben is the founder of Privy, a platform aimed at helping websites grow their email lists through dynamic forms, banners, pop-ups, and more. He shared how these tools — when shown at the right time, in the right place, and to the right site visitors — can help increase conversion dramatically.
We’re big fans of marketing automation at 9 Clouds, so Ben’s emphasis on targeted messaging resonated with me. And considering 98% of your web traffic will leave your site without converting in any way, we should do whatever we can to get visitors to engage.
Here are some personalization methods Ben suggested using to increase your email capture forms:
- Search terms used
- Device type
- Page landed on
- Number of sessions
- Referral path
“Everyone on your site behaves differently.
So why do we treat them all the same?”
After a yummy boxed lunch on the rooftop patio, I attended a lively session by Curtis Midkiff of Southwest Airlines called “Last Night a DJ Rocked Your Brand.”
Everyone knows Southwest rocks at creating a fantastic customer experience. (Especially compared to some airlines recently…)
After hearing from Curtis, it’s clear to see why. He and his team of “social listeners” use social media to monitor and respond to customer feedback. Their agile approach allows Southwest to come up with quirky marketing ideas that humanize its brand.
Curtis shared three “lessons from the booth” for brand management:
- Listen, listen, listen.
- Have a plan, but be flexible.
- Connect with the crowd in a real way.
“We are all brand DJs.”
Perhaps the most practical of the sessions I attended, this panel was full of hands-on tips and tricks for email marketing.
My main takeaway was that while there are lots of different ways to make your emails stand out — personalization being a key one of them — all your decisions need to be based on data.
Keep trying new things, but always bring your strategy back to your buyer personas and your key performance indicators (KPIs).
“No email we send at Nest is exactly the same — and we send millions of them.”
Next, I attended “Data-Driven Design” by Oli Gardner, cofounder of Unbounce.
In this energetic talk, Oli took us through a dangerous thought process we’ve all experienced: trying to convince ourselves to implement a new design trend — without having any solid data to back it up.
As Oli pointed out, though, designers are salespeople. And if marketers are willing to buy their wacky design idea, why shouldn’t they sell it?
By making our design decisions based on data rather than trends, we can remove the emotion from the equation and offer content that is more user-friendly — and thus more likely to convert.
“Being trendy doesn’t make it right.”
Following a brief break for Coke and cobbler, everyone reconvened in the CMA Theater to hear from the cofounder of Netflix, Mitch Lowe.
In a chat with Jay Baer, Mitch shared his passion for industry disruption in “The Story of Netflix: Marketing Innovation & the Next Wave of Disruption.”
First with Netflix and now with MoviePass, Mitch has taken the entertainment world by storm with groundbreaking ideas that change how people consume media. “Netflix started trying to solve small problems,” Mitch explained.
Whatever your industry, you can find opportunities to shake things up. With predictive analytics, constant A/B tests, and “someone in your organization who is not politically correct,” you can pinpoint — and solve — problems in your industry that you didn’t even know existed.
“Focus on value first, monetization second.”
Right after Mitch came Aaron Draplin, the founder of Draplin Design Co., with a talk entitled “Pretty Much Everything: The Whole Story Behind Our Book.”
And “pretty much everything” just about sums it up. To be honest, it was tough (though entertaining) to follow the thread of Aaron’s speech, which was laced with political statements, ’80s songs, and professions of love for his girlfriend. But that’s just how Aaron rolls, I guess!
In the end, I think the point Aaron was trying to make was that to do work that matters, it has to matter to you. Appreciate the place you’re in. And whatever challenges spring into your path? Be prepared to kick their ass.
“I tricked graphic design into hiring me.”
Once the day’s sessions were all complete, everyone moved upstairs for more cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and swag stealing.
By this point, Troy and I were thoroughly enjoying ourselves at the marketing conference. I may or may not have caught Troy wiping his hands on a tablecloth when he thought no one was looking (at which point I promptly pretended not to know him).
After the cocktail reception, Emma hosted a rooftop afterparty at the fabulous Acme Feed & Seed.
Along with more food and drinks, we enjoyed a live band, stunning views of downtown Nashville, and the opportunity to “network” in a decidedly non-networking setting. It was refreshing to recap the day with fellow attendees in such a casual (and cool) environment.
Hey, when in Nashville, right?
Friday, April 21, 2017
Okay, so after a late night of bar-hopping (and an overslept alarm), we may not have made it back to the Country Music Hall of Fame right at 8:00 a.m. So we may have missed a few minutes of the first session.
But I was still impressed by the speech given by bestselling author Ann Handley, “Challenge Your Marketing Assumptions (and Get a Free Puppy): An Intervention.”
No, she unfortunately did not give away free puppies (though she did announce she was donating $5,000 to the Humane Society of Silicon Valley, which is pretty neat).
But Ann did challenge our marketing assumptions by urging us to constantly be creating content for our audience’s wants and needs, rather than our own. Duh, right?
However, considering only 32% of marketers are using an audience-first approach, it’s clear we all have room for improvement here.
“I think we’re going to see a resurgence in long-form content.
We’re hungry for more substance and value.”
Next up was Jeff Middlesworth, chief product officer of Emma, with the presentation “Emma Spring Launch & Sneak Peek into the Future!”
Since I’m not currently an Emma customer, this session promoting Emma’s newest products wasn’t totally relevant to me or 9 Clouds. But it was still interesting to hear from Jeff about how his team develops products to take friction out of the user experience.
“Great marketing is personal, goal driven, and creative.”
My first breakout session of the day was “Setting the Agenda: Closing the Gender Gap through Media, Marketing & Advertising” by Erin Friedman and Jenny Leahy of Microsoft.
If you’ve seen any of Microsoft’s recent ad campaigns, you’ve probably noticed an emphasis on diversity and gender equality. That’s the work of marketers like Erin and Jenny, who are working to increase awareness and provide more opportunities for women in the workplace (especially STEM).
I was inspired, not only by their noble causes but also by their focus on driving action through marketing campaigns. Microsoft didn’t just make thought-provoking videos about girls in STEM — it also hosted coding events for girls around the world, partnered with National Geographic to connect girls with female scientists, and worked with LinkedIn to create a futuristic “career explorer” to help girls turn their passion into action.
As marketers, we should always be thinking about the next part of the conversation.
“Inclusion is a core part of our creative process.”
The next session was one of my favorites.
In “Find the Red Thread: Your Secret Weapon for Finding & Telling Your Story,” business speaker Tamsen Webster drew a line between branding and brand.
Your branding, Tamsen says, is the message you want your company to convey. Your brand is what actually manifests.
So if you want to build a better brand, don’t start with “branding” — those flashy marketing gimmicks that serve as Band-Aids for a bigger problem. Instead, start with the “red thread” — that unique element that makes your business meaningful and ties everything together.
I love this idea of purposeful marketing. It’s easy for marketers to lose sight of the larger goal, but when you relate your efforts back to your company’s manifesto, it’s easier to be passionate about the value you’re offering.
“Marketing doesn’t move people. Meaning does.”
After another sun-splashed lunch on the patio, I attended “Nissan and 360 VR Experiences” by Robert Brown of Nissan.
Since I work for an automotive marketing agency, I figured this was an appropriate session for me. And it certainly was interesting — not only did we get to hear about Nissan’s partnership with Star Wars and their joint foray into virtual reality (VR) marketing, we also got to see the VR experience in action, as they showed a live demo onstage.
VR isn’t something most companies can invest in right now — and, as Robert admitted, you shouldn’t adopt a new technology simply because it’s new.
But if you do have a purposeful use for it, and you really understand the potential impact, there is a time and place for trying new tech.
“50% of something amazing is better than 100% of mediocrity.”
Next, I listened to Shawn Herring from Torchlite discuss “The Strategy Behind Turning a Marketing Plan into Action.”
After opening with a couple of classic clips from Office Space, Shawn shared his frustrating experiences in trying to create (and actually accomplish) marketing plans in the corporate world. Since 9 Clouds is a pretty laid-back place to work, I couldn’t really connect to that frustration, but it was clear that many people in the audience could.
To help marketers turn their strategy into action, Shawn created a framework that breaks marketing into three main things:
- People (“Who will…?”)
- Campaigns (“What will…?”)
- Technology (“How will…?”)
Once you’re aware of how each piece fits into the puzzle, Shawn argues, you should have greater clarity about the journey that your marketing campaign will take, who will be riding shotgun, and how you can get ahead of the gaps.
“Less than 50% of marketing plans actually get done.”
Next, Emma‘s chief revenue officer Ethan Zoubek gave a gripping talk titled “Be Free: How to Stop Freaking Out when Work Gets Hard.”
Sharing an example from his time in sales, when he was desperate to land a big account, Ethan explained how there are essentially two sources for all decisions — fear or love — and how we actually get to choose which source we base our decisions upon.
The best way to eliminate fear, especially in a business setting, is to create space for ourselves. To do so, Ethan suggested three practices:
- Slow down.
- Name the source.
- Let go.
By breathing deeply, fixating our thoughts on love, and admitting when we don’t know the answer, we can achieve a sense of peace even when work is stressful.
“We are responsible for the emotional wake that we leave.”
The final session of Marketing United may have saved the best for last.
In “Play @ Work: What’s Your Red Rubber Ball?” Kevin Carroll, the founder of KC Katalyst, gave a fun (and funny) presentation on the importance of play.
Kevin — an extremely endearing man — recalled how as a child, one red rubber ball helped take him from abandoned outcast to welcomed friend when he started playing sports with his new neighbors. From then on, he said, “Play allowed me to connect.”
We can (and should) infuse the idea of play into our workplace culture. As a “creative katalyst” for Nike, Kevin helped create an inclusive environment through playful initiatives like toilet tag and the famous Nike tag commercial of the early 2000s.
While “no dream is microwaveable,” Kevin provided five key ingredients to achieving your dream (as a marketer or just a human being):
“Play is a universal language. We all speak ball.”
After a few closing words from Clint Smith, it was time to say goodbye to the Marketing United conference.
Well, after a few beers, that is.
Amidst a light Nashville drizzle, we all Uber-ed over to Emma’s headquarters, where a live band and an array of local beer vendors were waiting to receive us. Troy and I enjoyed kicking back with the Emma employees and exploring their super-cool space (especially their themed conference rooms, such as the “Chamber of Secrets.” Good one, guys).
Troy and I were having such a great time, in fact, that by the time we were ready to leave, we realized most of the vendors had already packed up and gone.
Considering we came to the conference not knowing whether we’d even want to attend the afterparties at all — that’s pretty high praise for the planners of Marketing United.
My #1 Takeaway from Marketing United 2017
Okay, personal trip diary done. (I’ll spare you the details of our missed flight the next day and subsequent
hangover layover in Dallas.)
Now — how does my experience at Marketing United benefit you as a marketer?
If there’s one thing I’ll remember from the marketing conference, it’s this powerful quote from emcee Jay Baer of Convince & Convert:
“Marketing is all about creativity, humanity, and authenticity.”
Creativity, humanity, and authenticity.
Throughout the marketing conference, speakers kept coming back to those three important core values.
It doesn’t matter what email platform you use, how many subscribers you have, the size of your ad budget, or anything else. All that matters is that you engage your audience with respect, provide them with unique value, and — above all — treat with them like an actual person.
Creativity, humanity, and authenticity.
That’s all you need to know.
For More Digital Marketing Goodness…
If this conference recap of Marketing United whet your appetite for more marketing goodness, there’s more where that came from.
First off, you should read “The Top 10 Takeaways from Marketing United 2017” on Emma’s own blog. They wrote a way more concise recap than mine.
Second, you should go ahead and save the date for Marketing United 2018. It’ll be in Nashville on April 9 – 11, and if it’s anything like this year, it’ll rock your socks off. (Music pun intended.)
Can’t wait that long? You should maybe just subscribe to our marketing blog in the meantime. You’ll get a weekly email featuring our latest articles on digital marketing, automotive news, ways to improve your community, and more.
(What, you thought you’d get through a 3,500-word post without a shameless plug?)
You can always reach out to our team, too. We’d love to hear your thoughts on Marketing United or anything else!