MarTech Interview With Holden Bale, Head of Commerce at Huge

Holden Bale, Head of Commerce at Huge shares a few digital engagement best practices for B2B teams in this short Q&A:

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Welcome to this MarTech Series chat, Holden, tell us about yourself and more about your role at Huge…

I started my career in corporate strategy for retail, focused on consumer insights. The chance to move into management consulting came up, and I jumped at the opportunity to expand into industries beyond retail while deepening my exposure to other domains, like supply chain, product development, eCommerce, and merchandising.

That led to years doing everything from some of the first omnichannel projects in North and Latin America – helping brands launch ship-from-store or buy online pick-up in store, unifying their online and offline experiences, integrating their supply chains, marketing, and merchandising organizations – to leading large-scale digital transformation initiatives globally.

At that point, I wanted to get even closer to technology and became the principal strategist covering retail, grocery, CPG, travel, and hospitality for a technology & agile transformation company ,which gave me a much deeper understanding of software development and modern digital organization design. But something was missing, and that was more of the consumer and business strategy element.

That led me to Huge. It felt like the right mixture of left and right-brain: a heavy dose of design-thinking, a core of creativity with rapidly evolving capabilities in strategy, analytics, and engineering, and a focus on consumer-centric business outcomes. I’ve been at Huge for almost 4 years now and over 2 years ago, I launched our global commerce practice which has grown 50% since the start of this year.

Tell us about Huge’s commerce  practice and what’s in store for 2022?

 Most of my career has been in professional services, and there’s a tendency in the market – among agencies, consultancies, big technology firms – to do one of two things. First, to organize by digital vs. physical – for instance, having a team that only focuses on eCommerce, or even hyper-specializes in things like selling on Amazon or experiential marketing on TikTok. The second tendency is organizing by industry – having a retail group that stands separately from a CPG group, or a consumer financial services group vs. a hospitality group, and they barely talk to each other.

We approach the problem differently. We don’t silo by digital vs. physical, because for most consumers, there’s no distinction between the two. While we definitely invest in industry and domain specialization, we don’t organize around it as a first principle – because we don’t believe our clients should limit the moves they make by looking at business as usual in their industry. No one’s goal when they wake up in the morning is to do a ‘pretty good job’ compared to their direct competitors. It’s to leapfrog their competitors, to do things that are market-disrupting and to earn consumer love and loyalty.

Our organizing principle is solving the most important challenges in commerce: what does the future of brand engagement look like with the rise of multi-sided social platforms and creator economies, the ubiquity of loyalty programs, and the so-called death of the cookie? How do brands define an evolutionary strategy for their technology, people, and processes to compete in a market where consumers can seemingly buy anything anywhere? Can older brands turn their so-called “legacy baggage” into a competitive advantage, and can younger brands effectively scale what makes them unique? What role does space play today and in the future, including physical (a brand’s stores, wholesale partners), and virtual worlds?

We take those challenges, and layer industry and domain specialization on top of that. Part of our growth this year has led to heavy resource investments in growth strategy, social and web3 expertise, digital org design and modern product management, and technology strategy and engineering.

Huge’s commerce practice recently launched three offerings: the “Experience Stack of the Future” – which is about developing a modern digital experience and eCommerce technology core that’s right for your brand and business; a second called “Commerce Channel Navigator” that is focused on defining integrated selling and marketing strategies across any platform with a buy button (including social, search, and marketplaces); and a third called “Web3 Jumpstart” that emphasizes rapid ideation and exploration of virtual worlds (‘metaverses’) and virtual goods (including NFTs) for brands that are trying to develop learnings in the space and find novel ways to engage with their consumers.

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How are you seeing the digital commerce market grow today: a few observations on this segment and how brands will need to diversify to keep pace?

If we focus on trends that are unique to digital, the primary thing that stands out is what we’ve been calling the ‘commerce convergence’ – or the sense that traditional boundaries that delineated various digital touchpoints are blurring, and that every single digital website and app is developing some kind of commerce functionality.

Because of this, our team sees growing fragmentation of share of wallet in functionally every consumer category, from travel to apparel. Almost every social platform has a buy button, and for the first time in the history of our consumer research program, more than 75% of consumers under 45 years old reported buying through social media at least once.

On the flipside, the eCommerce giants – marketplaces like Amazon, Rakuten in Japan, Mercado Libre in LATAM; big travel aggregators; grocers and multi-brand retailers that get a ton of digital traffic like Walmart – are turning into advertising platforms. Amazon’s advertising revenue alone is literally on par with the combined advertising dollars of the entire global newspaper industry (both around $30B).

This totally changes the dynamics of marketing and selling online. All of a sudden, commerce leaders need to be talking about TikTok and Pinterest while integrating inventory with everything from media outlets to Google Maps, and marketers need to be an expert on running campaigns on Amazon, as well as how to effectively merchandise an eCommerce storefront on Instagram. Many brands aren’t ready for what this shift means organizationally or technologically.

A deeper trend is the disappearance of the distinction of “digital vs. physical” commerce at all.  In our consumer research program, we truly can no longer ask some of our baseline time-series questions to Gen-Z because they don’t understand “channel” preference because their journey is the channel. For instance, in our most recent research, 85%+ of consumers say they “Always” use their phone while shopping in-store, and those uses range from price shopping to learning more about a product to asking friends for advice.

60% of consumers say they regularly – at least once a month – use an online shopping cart as a shopping list for an in-person trip. Practically every brand would call that “cart abandonment,” and see it as a problem to solve. Consumers don’t see it that way. Brands have to operate differently.

Some of the biggest ways in which you are seeing brands today drive experiences through better digital commerce.

Historically, there’s been a big divide between content and commerce. There’s been misaligned incentives, or debates about prioritizing engagement or awareness vs. harder financial metrics like conversion, revenue or lead generation. You can often trace a brand’s view of digital commerce to where they come from: if they’re a retailer that started with stores 60 years ago, they might view eCommerce as a channel for delivering incremental revenue. But, if you’re a newer SaaS company focused on small and medium businesses, your entire digital engagement strategy is brand and product marketing, awareness building, and developing conversations.

Happily, some of the historical dividing lines between content and commerce have started to come down. Companies like Nike are developing connected ecosystems that include exclusivity, like SNKRs, and community, like Run Club. The so-called “DTC darlings” – like Warby Parker and Glossier – changed this paradigm, starting with brand and content-forward stories that then dovetailed into eCommerce.

There’s a much more brand-first, and in some cases human view, of digital commerce from today’s leaders. Looking at our data, many people trust their favorite brands more than their governments. While the current market is challenging the bottom line of a lot of companies, people have started to realize the thing that really matters is customer lifetime value, and short-term hacks aren’t the way to maximize that number.

There’s also always a great deal of value in going “beyond the beyond” in terms of service or novel experiences. Look at a brand like Chewy, in theory, they should be at risk from the big eCommerce players  like Amazon. But through  innovations in digital, like their “Connect with a Vet” program, Chewy  creates uncommon value for consumers, and uses it to reinforce loyalty and engagement with their core product. I think every brand, B2C or B2B, can look beyond the products they sell to identify real human needs and the digital value they can provide to reinforce the value proposition of their underlying business.

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Five thoughts on what it takes for B2B teams and B2B marketers to build unique brand experiences and business journeys in a crowded market?

1. Brand, product, and performance marketing is an and, not an or. It’s critical B2B leaders get everyone aligned that it’s not about brand marketing vs. product marketing vs. performance marketing, but holistically integrating the three. There’s been a fair amount of talk recently about the 95-5 rule: the idea that only 5% of B2B buyers are actively looking to buy at any time. I don’t know that the data is truly that extreme, but it reinforces a simple point that is often missed: pulling back on any one of these forms of marketing will inevitably cost you in the long-run.

2. Be clear about your value proposition. I often have the vantage point of assessing B2B technology vendors – as we do a lot of strategy and technology selection work for our clients – and it still amazes me that I can sit through a presentation and have no idea what the company’s strategic direction is or what their product does. Get to the point early. Let the questions flow from there.

3. Guide me on lessons learned. This is magic I’m always looking for. The best B2B buyers know they don’t know everything, but they know the market is crowded. If you’re providing a service, what can I do to set you up for success? Tell me what your requirements are of me, and what you need me to do. If you’re providing a technology, what are the common anti-patterns? Sure, you may have implementation partners you recommend – and Huge may even be on that list – but be honest: how do people get it wrong? What do I need to watch out for? These are the ‘whitepapers’ I actually read.

4. Enable bi-directional experiences. Between the advance of privacy laws, the general negative perception of retargeting technologies and the rise of customer acquisition costs, every experience you build should enable some form of interactivity and self-guided curation for end-users. If it’s not clear by now – and I’m sure it is to your audience – B2B and B2C buyers may have different cycles and concerns, but they’re the same people. Their expectation of digital and physical experiences are informed by Apple’s Genius Bar, Amazon’s same-day delivery, Disney’s Genie+, grab and go at Starbucks. Look at consumer examples like Modsy, where you self-select a style that interests you, or Spotify, where you pre-set your favorites. Even WeWork allows you to browse by solution and need state. Let me tell you what I’m interested in, and whether I’m in early stage discovery or late stage evaluation.

5. Lean into experiential marketing – on your terms. There’s something to be said for maintaining a baseline of events: being present at conferences, doing curated events and outings for prospects and existing customers, etc. But, that is frequently the beginning and the end of B2B experiential marketing approaches. There’s a real opportunity for B2B brands to deliver experiential activations that are authentic to them, or even in partnership with B2C brands that already have the muscle.

Huge is a growth acceleration company that partners with the world’s most ambitious brands to transform user experiences, harness technologies to maximize return on value, and innovate on their business models to drive loyalty and growth. Headquartered in Brooklyn, NY, Huge has more than 1,200 employees working across 13 offices throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

Holden Bale is Head of Commerce at Huge.

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