This interview first appeared on CMO.com.
Rose Hamilton is the CMO of Pet360, an online shopping destination, community, and resource for pet parents. Also in the Pet360 portfolio of sites: PetMD, billed as the largest online library of pet health information; PetFoodDirect, a retailer of pet food, medications, and supplies; BlogPaws, a professional network of pet bloggers; and dozens of other Web sites offering pet products at reduced prices.
Hamilton is now four years into her first role as CMO. An ecommerce and retail vet, she has focused on direct response marketing, brand-building, consumer analytics, and insights for most of her career. She was VP of ecommerce at Ann Taylor and LOFT, where she managed online marketing strategy and analytics, and has held executive positions at Chico’s FAS, Best Buy, Wilsons Leather, and US Bank.
These days, Hamilton and the management team are working on integrating the Pet360 brand with PetSmart, which acquired the company in August. In an exclusive interview with CMO.com, she discussed the company’s focus on consumer engagement; challenges with marketing automation–“I don’t think the technology is there yet”; and the channels that best resonate with her audience.
CMO.com: Tell me a little bit about Pet360.
Hamilton: The business began as PetFoodDirect in 1998 by Jon Roska Sr. and his son John Roska Jr., with the goal of helping pet parents get their food efficiently and quickly online. Over the course of time, we brought in investment and had a new CEO come onboard. The company was still PetFoodDirect when I arrived [four years ago], but we’d also acquired the PetMD brand, which consists of health and wellness content.
The whole content space was very interesting to me. We had the PetFoodDirect Web site, which was a subscription-based model in which people signed up for delivery to their homes. We determined that we needed a new brand where pet parents could find answers to their questions and find products that are right for them. It seemed like such a ripe area for innovation. The brand eventually became Pet360. Pet360 has been around for two-and-a-half years. There are several brands in the Pet360 portfolio: OnlyNaturalPet, which is in the naturals space; our media division, which partners with outside companies that are interested in reaching pet parents and advertising to them across our properties; PetFoodDirect; PetMD, which has thousands of articles of pet health and wellness topics; and Pet360. We also have an entire network of other Web sites as well.
CMO.com: Why did you join Pet360?
Hamilton: This is my first CMO role. I’ve worked for a lot of very iconic big-box retailer brands. In those organizations, you tend to be product-focused and not necessarily customer-focused, and I was very excited with what I could see happening at the intersection of consumers and technology with the advancements in digital. I saw the population of pet parents being such an engaged and interactive audience, loyal and passionate about their pets. It felt like a great opportunity to do more in the digital arena.
I was very curious and interested take on a role where I could broaden my responsibilities, No. 1, and, No. 2, where I could create a platform for consumer engagement in the digital space.
That’s tough to do when you have the distractions of multiple channels. In the digital arena, you have the chance to focus on engagement. It’s a very different model thinking about a pet parents engagement model vs. a commerce, transactional experience. What’s compelling to me is the combination of digital technology and customer-centricity. Having the ability to be nimble, take advantage of all the changes in technology, and leveraging them has been really interesting.
CMO.com: What are your responsibilities?
Hamilton: My role has evolved over time. While I began as a functional chief marketing officer overseeing the function of marketing, over time my role has also grown to have general management and P&L responsibility. I oversee everything that’s touching the customer, which includes technology, product development, merchandising, and all of the marketing touch points. These touch points include site experience, email marketing, acquisition marketing, creative, and literally everything that has an engagement element—content creation, editorial, social media, and advertising choices.
At the end of the day, I’m responsible for the strategy and execution of the profit and loss of Pet360 Inc. across all of our brands. It’s a very broad general management role.
CMO.com: What functions within this role are your sweet spots?
Hamilton: First and foremost, I absolutely love putting the pet parent at the core of how we choose to do everything that we do in this organization. We have a culture that’s built around a customer-first focus. I will always lean on customer-centricity in my thinking, but the digital arena has really enabled us to think about how we’re building an experience of engagement for customers every day.
So rather than thinking about traditional customer acquisition and customer retention, the whole team is thinking about customer engagement and how we’re delivering engaging experiences across the board. The customer experience is one of my favorite places to do things differently, to evolve the brand and the culture internally. One of the biggest opportunities is engaging pet parents in social media, in arenas where they’re speaking to us. That customer feedback is so intriguing to me, and it’s how our customers are helping us build, differentiate, and grow the brand. Those are the areas where I probably have the most fun.
CMO.com: How are you leveraging data to inform your decisions?
Hamilton: First, understanding what type of pet someone has from a registration point of view is what helps us power personalization on the site. So being able to leverage registration and signup and learn more about that customer who’s visiting the site is critical to how we build personalization. But in addition, it’s how we’re able to execute on that knowledge and watching not only how people register with us, but what they’re willing to share with us about their pets. We’re also looking at how they’re interacting on the Web site and building our targeting capabilities based on where they’re going, how they’re experiencing the site, and creating a custom experience for them.
CMO.com: What do you use marketing automation for primarily?
Hamilton: We use marketing automation for our email campaigns and targeted advertising—really all the way through site experience. We leverage data for prospecting, email, CRM, lead nurture—everything that’s a touch point. We’re trying to leverage automation in every way we can.
CMO.com: What are some of the challenges you’ve had in using marketing automation?
Hamilton: The challenge is customers feeling comfortable with wanting to share their information with you. I would love it if I knew everything about every person who’s arriving. Being very creative, finding ways to engage with customers, and figuring out how to gain their trust so that they want to share information with you is really critical in the world today.
CMO.com: How do you do that?
Hamilton: It’s as simple as showing value to begin with and showing what you’re capable of offering. Once we have your email address, we’re able to tailor the experience to you and help educate you on all the value we’re able to bring to you. It’s about building the relationship and building trust.
We can also understand what you’ve purchased. As an example, we have something called the Safety Center where once you’ve purchased with us, we know what brands you’re buying, and if there’s ever a recall or an issue with a particular brand, we let you know by email. That’s a valuable asset to a pet parent, and it helps build the trust between us and the pet parent. We also use quizzes and polls to gather information and an understanding about you along the way. There are fun ways to be able to do things like that—it doesn’t have to be straight registration.
CMO.com: Is there anything that you’d like to do with marketing automation platforms that you’re not able to do now?
Hamilton: That’s a really good question. I think as the world continues to evolve, and consumers are bouncing back and forth between their mobile devices, desktop, and tablets, the ability to follow that individual across platforms and across devices is challenging. Almost every marketer would like to see a holistic view of consumers across every device and platform and how they’re engaging because each platform is so different.
I’m excited to see the advances that will allow us to see engagement by individual across different platforms that are optimized by platform. I don’t think the technology is there yet. There’s a lot of opportunity around revenue streams and new ways of creating engagement that I don’t think the world has gotten to yet. I’m quite sure we’ll get there eventually. That would be nirvana for me.
CMO.com: What percentage of your marketing mix is paid digital spend?
Hamilton: We think about it as earned, paid, and owned. The current mix is predominantly online today. While I can’t share specific numbers, we’re always adjusting the mix based on what’s happening and ways to maximize performance. We want to take advantage of what exists today and new opportunities that come along. We do some offline advertising.
CMO.com: What’s the fastest-growing media channel for you?
Hamilton: The biggest opportunities in the world today revolve around owned and earned media; they have the most untapped potential. It’s not necessarily the paid placements where it’s push advertising. There’s so much opportunity in the digital arena around engaging with and targeting pet parents with relevant messages. So when I think about owned and earned, it’s everything from thinking about how we have great stories to tell with our content, to how we engage through the social media outlets, and even all the way through public relations. We create topical information that is a value-add to consumers.
Email continues to be important and is an engagement metric for us. Email has been around for years, but the [ability] to deliver a great experience and cause people to want to engage with you continues to be an opportunity. The more we understand how pet parents are engaging with us in the different segments of customers that we’re targeting, the smarter we’re getting. Marketing automation is clearly continuing to grow as evidenced by how many phone calls I get from parties with new platforms and ideas. These technologies help us be smarter about the choices we make.
CMO.com: What channels are resonating the best with your pet parents?
Hamilton: From an engagement POV, we drive a lot of repeat engagement through email, mobile, desktop, and social media. And then a pet parent might have a need one day around trying to diagnose a symptom, so they’ll visit us at PetMD and find our symptom checker to learn a little more about an issue. It depends on the day and the needs of the pet parent. And the needs change—having a puppy is different than having a senior pet.
This is a lifestyle engagement brand, and there are different needs at different times. That’s what we’re here for.
CMO.com: What are your biggest priorities for 2015?
Hamilton: First, building brand differentiation with our content assets, continuing to build and optimize what we do with sharing content, and being the authority in our space of pet parenting. Second, building our experiences across all the different digital touch points—there’s more to be done on that front. We’re learning more about our customers and leveraging digital product development to create differentiation for our brand.
We also want to expand our pet-centric platform—meaning the interaction between commerce, community, content, and media—how all four of those different disciplines come together to create a growing and evolving pet-centric focused engagement strategy. And, finally, developing our test-and-learn focus around customer feedback. We’ve only scratched the surface there, and there’s a lot more we can do on that front.
CMO.com: Do you have any overall advice for fellow marketers?
Hamilton: As a female executive and a mom, as I look back on my career, I’ve learned that you just can’t do it all. The best advice I received was there is no balance; you have to create your own balance. I’ve learned a lot here as I’ve taken on more responsibility across more functions. I’ve learned about the need to lead in a different way and to inspire others in a different way. It’s something I’ve worked a lot on since I’ve been here. I’ve learned to take feedback from those around me and to seek it. I think we have such a great culture—it’s nimble, and we learn and are not afraid to take risks.
CMO.com: Can you provide an example of where you embraced a failure?
Hamilton: Our Petoolah brand. When I arrived I had a proposal for a flash sales Web site. That was a thing we would test and try. We built an amazing brand and site and did a lot of consumer research on it. It was a beautiful site, but we couldn’t make any money on it. It cost us too much to have it up and running. It was very hard to pull the plug on it.
When we finally did, we staged an Irish wake, had a eulogy, a tombstone, decorations, and threw a big party to celebrate Petoolah and all the effort that went into it. It was all about getting the organization comfortable with a test it, try it, fail culture. This happened nine months after I arrived.
We took the learnings from that as we built the 360 brand. It was a great example of how you take a culture that had a fear of failure and celebrate it so people know it’s OK to fail. It was a turning point in our culture and development to say, “We’re going to try lots of things, and, guess what, they’re not all going to work out.” We learned a lot from the experience and wouldn’t be where we are today without it.
CMO.com: Where are you with rebranding after merging with PetSmart?
Hamilton: There’s not much I can say because we’re in the middle of the transition. The acquisition is still new and figuring out what, if anything, changes remains to be seen. We have to figure out how to leverage each of the brands in a uniquely differentiated way. We won’t know much more until the back half of 2015. There’s a lot of work that has to go into how all the brands fit together.
CMO.com: Of course, I have to ask: What kind of pets do you have?
Hamilton: I have the cutest two-year-old Maltipoo. She’s a rescue pet who came from a woman who had brain cancer and passed away. Her name is Princess. My daughter also has a three-year-old Beta fish named Fishy.