Chris Walker is VP of Marketing at the American Kennel Club, America’s largest dog club organization, founded in Philadelphia in 1884. Chris is a pioneer in social media marketing for brands and has had an interesting and phenomanally successful career to date. He spoke with IrishCentral about his current role with AKC, some of the challenges brands face on social media as well as offering some advice for people starting out in their careers.
How long have you been in the US?
I arrived in the Summer of 2007 and started work with Sony Music a few weeks later. I was able to leverage the 1 year program of continued education in your field and I had just completed my degree in "Marketing and Music Business" so jumping into the record label world was a perfect fit for me.
How did you end up in digital media?
I'm a nerd, just a nerd who had a father who came from big-time marketing and advertising. So it was a combination of being a geek and having the pedigree I guess. Loving music also allowed me to get very into MySpace and other social platforms, in the early days and was able to study the best practices and apply that to allow artists to be successful on the platform. I came at it from a different angle - I always looked at it from the consumer side and what did the consumer want from digital media as opposed to what did we want to show the consumer - it allowed me to think like one of my Irish mentors, Shane Lennon, and was following his customer centric model without knowing it. It allowed me to form a niche very quickly. I think that is important, be a specialist in your field and use that as an opportunity to refine your skills and develop an understanding of all aspects of your industry.
Career highlight to date?
Wow, quite a few, Sony obviously had some great moments, helping great stars come to light and the success we had in the urban genre around 2008/9 was amazing. We had Usher, T-Pain, Chris Brown, R. Kelly - we were all walking on sunshine and they were on top of the world. Personally for me I loved UGK and working with Bun B and Pimp C - two phenomenal talents having had so much success in their careers but having never had a #1 album, to have worked on their first #1 album was a source of great pride for me. Business wise, 2012 was some year, being part of a year of over 100% revenue growth was incredible and helping an emerging company build their inbound marketing and lead system was special. But AKC has been great, its my first time in the big seat and building something for the future in terms of communications, marketing and product is a challenge and I'm just really enjoying it. I came in with all my challenges in the millions - millions of fans, millions engaged and bring millions of dollars and to have delivered 2 of 3 in the first months, with the road-map for the third hitting its micro-goals shows that the future is bright. I think its refreshing that a major brand will trust someone in their 20s to lead this kind of initiative and I hope it starts a new trend of companies employing what I term the "strategic executor" - someone that can plan and also execute upon the plans. Also, I think its the first time I feel settled and see myself there for the long-term and I'm over the moon with the success of our customer acquisition strategy and the products we are rolling out at the end of this year will be game changers. Honestly, I have always had my career based on revenue quotas and have been blessed to have had strong teams that have always broke our revenue quotas everywhere I have been. I think thats the real highlight, that I'm fortunate to have had Fortune 200, startups and established brands have the faith in me to ask for revenue and have been blessed enough to have always beaten my numbers.
Challenges facing you in your current role?
Digital Transformation - thats major and always a tricky one. We are really having to overhaul many pieces and you never get a clean build when you have substantial revenue coming in but you know revisions need to be made more if you want to grow significantly. You have to have that success on the fly so that is a dilemma you need to solve early. Managing teams in 2 locations is always a struggle and I think shifting to a proactive stance is challenging when you have been used to reacting. We have owned the dog space for a long time and are a very successful company but the board and management have laid down the goal to take a $60M company to a $250M in 5 years. What a challenge, but one we embrace fully and feel very positive about.
What are your plans for AKC in 2014/2015?
Customer acquisition, we want to grow our audience significantly and we grew by 60% in 2013. We want to keep going as we want to have the largest database of dog owners in the world. Thats the marketable audience for everything we do. We also want to start to launch new products that improve the relationship between a dog owner and their dog. We have some great pieces in development and have launched two MVP products in Good-Dog Helpline and Reggie Box that are doing well at market currently. Also, growing WOOFipedia will be key, it is fast becoming the #1 consumer site for all dog owners and doubling its audience month over month.
Advice for people at the start of their career?
Be humble, thats the number one misstep I see from people coming up. Your education means nothing and only shows potential. We are in a "what have you done for me lately society" and the key is to find people that are working on things you can believe in, do what you can to get on teams that are growing and give everything to get tangible experience. Don't focus on money, that will come, find projects to work on you can be proud of. Use the digital channels and build your own brand - be aggressive on LinkedIn and Twitter and most importantly don't be afraid of failure or rejection - it really does make you stronger in the long-term. Be a specialist - have a niche, that's critical too.
What metrics should brands be measuring on social media?
Engagement is the critical element. Social Media is a communications platform and you have to treat it as such. How many people are enjoying your posts, how many are commenting and how many are sharing. How many are then using this as a real time customer service engine. I speak with this one as an authority, you have to not think primarily about making $ through social - it can come but not until you build your social channels into real-time communication and then nurturing platforms. It also has to become part of a multi-touch content machine for you to see the true rewards out of social.
How difficult is it leading a distributed team?
Difficult, you need face time with staff. Skype and other tools are great but you need your staff seeing your work ethic, hearing you talk, seeing you move the needle on a day to day basis. How do you glean meaningful insights from your social following? Talk to them. Too many people are afraid to have 2-way conversations with their audience. Thats the real goal of social - its the new telephone. You have to talk to your audience. You also have to develop a nurturing and lead scoring element to your audience. I tier my audience into five sections and I track as they progress to the next level. It also allows me to see what compelled the audience to progress to the next level. I told you I was a nerd. What advice would you have for companies on social communications? Firstly, you have to understand the audience and you have to set realistic goals and stages for social media. If you want to sell products through social and that is where you want to start - leave it alone. The metaphor I use, based on my background, is social media is the new record store - think like HMV at home in the early 2000s. You have a group of like minded people buzzing around the record store, looking for something that appeals to them. You are the salesman, the other customers are the salesmen and women. Woo, them engage them, connect with them and start up the dialogue. Help them find what they want and then give it to them, then give it to them again and then continue the relationship.
What social channels should brands be focusing on?
It depends on your audience. Study your demographics and psychographics. Once you know who is buying and why they are buying then apply that to you key social media channels. In music, we drove millions from Myspace and then Twitter primarily - Facebook was secondary. In the healthcare space, we drove over $3M in sales via LinkedIn nurturing and reverse engineering the ad platform. At AKC, the audience is living in Facebook and Instagram with Twitter and Vine secondary, Pinterest tertiary. Get in where you fit in.What are some common mistakes brands make with their social strategies? Thinking $ way before they are thinking about anything else. If you are looking for social to be a revenue stream - you have to build the audience, you have to nurture the audience and then you have to sell to the audience. 3 step plan that needs to be executed by an expert. The other mistake I see is an executive mistake. CMOs are afraid to learn a little about social and make the assumption it is a young person's game. They hire a recent college graduate and over pay them instead of spending a bit more for a social media expert that can actually put a strategy in place and build something great. Spend $70K a year for someone that has done it rather than $40K a year for someone that hasn't.