MarTech Interview With Ken Willner, Chief Growth Officer at TextNow

Ken Willner, Chief Growth Officer at TextNow chats about a few B2C marketing trends and what it takes for brands today to drive better engagement with Gen Z audiences:


Welcome to this 2022 MarTech Series chat, Ken, tell us about your marketing journey through the years along with highlights into some of your most exciting marketing moments so far…

I have led marketing and business building initiatives for much of my career, starting at some of the largest advertising agencies in the world. I’m currently the Chief Growth Officer at TextNow, which is disrupting the wireless industry by offering mobile phone service for free, supported by advertising. We have more than 10 million monthly active users and we surpassed $100 million in revenue for the first time last year.

Prior to TextNow, I spent time as VP of Advertising and Media at AT&T, where I drove go to market introductions of early mobile applications like mobile web, music, video, gaming and cross-carrier SMS and others in the United States. More recently, I was CEO of Zumobi, a mobile content and marketing innovator which was spun out of Microsoft.

Closer home at TextNow, we’d love to know more about the core marketing and martech that helps drive goals? 

TextNow uses programmatic advertising to ensure that its advertisers have unfettered access to a highly engaged audience in a brand safe, high-visibility environment. We monitor mobile ad trends while offering free mobile service. We’ve also recently begun direct sales, partnering with global brands that want to reach our audience.

For brands that are advertising on the TextNow platform, they’re able to speak directly to our young and diverse audience while providing real value in the form of free phone service. Similarly, our audience recognizes that there is a direct link between the advertisements they see and the value they receive in return, leading to higher engagement.

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For B2C marketers marketing in today’s business climate, what are some best practices that you’d say they need to be more focused on, to drive differentiation and ROI a lot faster?

Utilizing the concept of a value exchange will become increasingly important to marketers as younger age groups grow to dominate the market. Gen Z recognizes when they are being advertised to, and they don’t respond to it. They want to feel like partners in a brand, and they see right through targeted and inauthentic ads that are talking at them instead of including them. The same holds true for their willingness to share personal information in exchange for any rewards. Brands need to offer very specific, genuine and significant incentives to obtain the most critical forms of direct communication, like their phone number.

Through your own observations: what key marketing trends and consumption patterns (consumer side) do you feel will stay at the forefront through 2022?

Social and mobile will remain the dominant channel for marketers. Consumers of all ages, most significantly among Gen Z, are tethered to their smartphones, treating them as an extension of themselves. There is also a rise in second screen engagement, consuming one type of media while simultaneously using apps on our phones or tablets., As such, mobile devices and mobile channels should be, if not already, a top priority for marketers when developing their strategy to reach consumers.

TextNow recently uncovered some key findings into changing consumption habits of Gen Z for certain industries: can you share the key highlights?

One of the key findings is that Gen Z craves authenticity. They are the most vocal generation on social justice and active in driving change, and they gravitate towards brands that do the same. However, running targeted ads will miss the mark. Gen Z wants to feel a connection to brands through their transparent, purpose-driven ads that are aligning with the social causes they care about. Our research shows that mental health advocacy (71%), public health and safety (66%), sustainability (65%) and racial equality (59%) are most likely to draw in Gen Z to make a purchase.

We also found, unsurprisingly, that Gen Z is glued to their phones. Nearly everyone (98%) in that demographic owns a smartphone. Our report shows that 44% are checking their social media channels hourly and that social media is the second most important use for mobile devices for Gen Z behind texting and calling. This means that a robust mobile strategy is the best way to reach them.

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How in your view should marketers use insights and changes such as this to rethink their core marketing themes for the near-future?

Marketers need to think less about marketing to Gen Z and more about marketing with them. This cohort not only wants to feel a connection to brand influencers, they want to be the influencers. They want the ability to control and choose their experience, feeling like they are part of the brands they support. Creating these mutually beneficial partnerships with Gen Z consumers will allow them to feel less like a customer and more like an advocate for your brand.

This goes back to the concept of value exchange. Gen Z wants to feel like they’re getting something out of their relationship with a brand, and not just being advertised to.

As martech and B2C marketing evolves, what kind of martech and marketing practices do you feel will become more crucial to marketers?

As cookies start to phase out, first-party data will become the new form of ad currency. However, it is imperative for brands to have secure practices established first before jumping in. Marketers need to know how to collect and utilize the data in a way that safeguards users’ privacy while maximizing the value of advertising impressions. It is a fine line to walk, but the data collected can help marketers develop a much deeper understanding of users and their preferences. This is essential as we found that 44.6% of Gen Z will steer clear of ads that are irrelevant and non-personalized. Informative data will be key when trying to capture their attention, leading to better and more effective experiences for consumers.

Some last thoughts, takeaways, before we wrap up!

When it comes to connecting with Gen Z, mobile and social remain the priority channels for marketers to get their brands in front of young consumers.

What is new is how Gen Z are looking for brands to scratch beyond the surface of targeted ads. To earn their loyalty, marketers need to build an authentic relationship and demonstrate real value, concentrating on transparent brand messages that reflect their company values and align with the values that Gen Z finds important.

Building these types of relationships with Gen Z early on will help create long-lasting bonds with this group, cultivating loyalty as they continue to gain relevance as a consumer demographic.

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TextNow is the largest provider of free phone service in the U.S. With offices in San Francisco, Waterloo and Seattle, the TextNow app has been downloaded more than 200 million times globally, helping millions of people stay connected with a free phone number and ad-supported calling and texting over WiFi and nationwide LTE network.

Ken Willner is the Chief Growth Officer at TextNow.

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