Gusto CMO Tolithia Kornweibel on Helping SMBs Navigate COVID-19 and What a Marketing Win Looks Like Right Now

Editor’s note: This interview is part of Mission North’s “Marketing Risks Worth Taking” series, an ongoing forum with marketing leaders who are sharing their perspectives about adapting to a new reality. 

Gusto CMO Tolithia Kornweibel has been in the trenches and has seen the coronavirus’ impact on Main Street America. Her company’s customers total more than 100,000 small-to-medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Think everything from aluminum cans distributors, car dealers and accounting firms to nail & hair salons, local floral chains and coffee shops. Many of these types of businesses have been hit hardest by COVID-19 shutdowns. 

In addition to a stellar marketing background that includes a notable run at Esurance, Tolithia—because of what she recently seen with SMBs—brings real diagnostic clout to how this crisis is impacting the backbone of the American economy. Gusto, a payroll, benefits and HR platform, has for the last few months focused on helping SMBs understand all of the different federal aid packages available to them, among other assistance-minded services. 

With those ideas in mind, Tolithia made all the sense in the world to be the seventh edition of Dispatch’s ongoing conversational series with the best and brightest in marketing. Our Q&A, below, has been edited for length.

How have COVID-19 and social distancing measures impacted your SMB customers? Do you have data to share around the impact?

Our customers have faced heart-breaking challenges, closing shops, losing revenue, laying off valued team members. It’s absolutely devastating. Consistent with the national news, we’ve seen big numbers of folks losing their jobs. We saw layoffs increase in one month from February to March by over 10X, which hurt teams across all industries and geographies. Within that, we’ve seen the hardest hit are younger and lower-income workers. 

And meanwhile, our small business customers need relief. We’ve seen our largest customer service volumes ever, but by helping teams in their times of need, we’ve also registered our highest Net Promoter Score ever—85 for the month of April. Nine out of 10 of our customers are aware of the Payroll Protection Program offered through the CARES Act, and so far we’ve helped thousands of them get approved with more than $1.3 billion in aid by building new products and integrating options and advisory information in our app, on our website, and through our call centers.  

What kind of quick changes did you make to provide resources to your customers?

We pivoted in a week from an “inbound marketing” team to an advocacy and advisory team providing distributed and direct access to help. An example of a resource we created is our relief options finder. At the same time, we’ve always built our public and in-app content to be useful for small businesses. For instance, you can get access to all the resources on our website via our Small Business resource hub

We pivoted in a week from an “inbound marketing” team to an advocacy and advisory team providing distributed and direct access to help.

How has the larger situation impacted your marketing mindset?

Two major changes so far:

  • Our mindset shifted further toward using earned and paid media to deliver value to current and future customers wherever they are—interacting with our marketing should be useful on its own. For example, we are using Instagram stories to keep our audience updated on the headlines of what’s changing, and they are agnostic to whether that drives to our site, really ever. And being comfortable putting our talent and time into building great content assets on other brands’ owned properties if it helps their customers, like with our webinars with partners or coalition promotions, without expecting reciprocation. Basically, it’s the opposite thinking compared to “inbound” marketing.
  • And rather than having the point of view that we are distributing our product by attempting to build awareness, affinity, and demand, instead we’re focused on democratizing access to the value we can give to current and future customers.

What has been the biggest shift in your strategy?

By March 16, everything we did in marketing was different than before. Our strategy instantly changed from helping small businesses thrive, to helping them survive. Obviously, we changed our volume and tone, but to not have done that would have been tone-deaf stupidity, so don’t give us credit for that. What I’m proud of the team for is that they instantly reframed their decision-making as to how our marketing efforts could demonstrably help small business survival. This was not a top-down edict. It was the automatic result of building the biggest-hearted, biggest-brained marketing team possible at a company that is built on customer love.

How has Gusto broken through to a small-to-medium-business audience that is overwhelmed with managing layoffs, closures and federal aid programs?

The typical marketing response to crises is to express concern, maybe join coalitions, maybe do some discounts. That’s conventional and so-called best practices marketing: be empathetic, reach out, try to get known as a brand people trust or identify with. Our marketing aims to be much more than that: marketing as a product or a service. If it doesn’t do something good for you to interact with it, it wasn’t good marketing.

What does a marketing win look like in this environment?

This is where I go much more conventional: a win looks the same to me in any environment. Did we get a customer, a more loyal customer, or the potential for a customer, with what we did?

How is being nimble in this environment different compared to before?

Customers that are in need of relief can’t wait. Each day that goes by increases the chances they’ll never get back. Time has never been so precious.