WP Engine’s Eric Jones on Digital Experiences After COVID-19, ‘Post-Zoom’ Marketing Events and What Content Works in This Crisis

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. 

Eric Jones has distinguished himself for two decades in technology and venture capital marketing. And as VP of global brand and communications at WP Engine, the WordPress hosting giant, his brand has been at the frontier of focusing on value-based messaging instead of transactional-minded marketing. It’s the tone marketers need to strike during the COVID-19 pandemic, as consumers become far more selective about the brands they do business with. Prior to WP Engine, Eric led marketing at North Bridge Venture Partners & Growth Equity and the New York Technology Practice at Edelman.

All of that—plus his expertise in cross-category digital experience, personalization and content—made him an obvious choice for the fifth edition of Dispatch’s ongoing conversational series with the best and brightest in marketing. Our Q&A, below, has been edited for length.

What B2C realms will be most changed going forward when it comes to digital experience or customer experience?

I think two of the marketing categories that have the greatest opportunity to reimagine their businesses in a more digital way are the retail industry and the hospitality industry, specifically within the food and beverage sector. There’s a popular meme circulating that neatly captures the tipping point of digital. 

For all the uncertainty about what the future is going to be, it’s clear already that it will be increasingly digital. Why? Because digital is simply easier, faster and more convenient, and now it’s also less risky than going someplace IRL. For retail, we’ve already seen quite a few  high-profile bankruptcies. There must be an urgency on the part of business to act quickly and accelerate their move to digital.

How should retailers approach the coming months?

The place to make the stand should be the 2020 holiday season. Planning should begin now. Retailers need to double-down on home delivery and in-store pickup. To get there, they need to rethink their marketing funnel. Working backward this means improving their ecommerce capabilities—using tools like Shopify, WooCommerce, SAP Commerce Cloud, Salesforce B2C Commerce, Adobe Magento or BigCommerce. It could mean selling through the Amazon marketplace or it could mean taking orders through social platforms—Instagram accounts, local Facebook pages—to start. 

The place to make the stand should be the 2020 holiday season. Planning should begin now. Retailers need to double-down on home delivery and in-store pickup.

Regardless of the tools or platforms you use, the advantage of digital is that it allows you to build more complete profiles of your customers than you can get based solely on data from in-store purchases. Further, it’s easier to act on that information and apply it toward marketing or product development in the future, which then has the synergistic effect of further differentiating your product or service in a virtuous cycle. 

For events, are we moving toward hybrid online-offline formats in the “post-Zoom era?”

According to a 2019 Gartner Product Marketing Benchmarks Survey, events (including third-party trade shows and first-party hosted events) rank as the second-best performing call-to-action for delivering marketing qualified leads (MQLs). So events are quite clearly important and yet now that people are getting used to online events there’s probably no turning back to entirely offline. 

What does that look like?

Some key trends we might start seeing in virtual conferences and hybrid online-offline events include:

  • A rise in documentary-style presentations or more produced sessions that inform and engage, with slick graphics and better storytelling.
  • More un-conferences, where the audience gets to choose the agenda; in digital settings, this is greatly facilitated by technologies that make upvoting topics easier and more transparent.
  • Tiered-pricing models introduced for in-person conferences that happen in advance of the content being posted online. Or, attendees get access to keynotes and main stage events for one price but then are charged more for breakout sessions, workshops, certifications, future playback or access to decks.
  • Greater creativity around structured matching and helping attendees network based on shared interests and goals.

It’s definitely going to be interesting. Now, let’s move from the marketer to the buyer. Are consumers or B2B customers and prospects interacting with marketing content differently right now?

We’re seeing a surge in traffic across all our content channels. Candidly, far more than we expected. In Q1, we were tracking growth of about 30% for our content channels, but once March hit we surged 10X, generating the entirety of last year’s content traffic in one quarter. It hasn’t slowed down.

Candidly, far more than we expected. In Q1, we were tracking growth of about 30% for our content channels, but once March hit we surged 10X, generating the entirety of last year’s content traffic in one quarter. It hasn’t slowed down.

What kind of content is working so well?

We’re finding content that provides actionable, detailed and timely information performs best. While that content performed well before, engagement was more evenly balanced with content that was fun or entertaining—far less so now.

Do B2B marketers still “need to think like B2C” as we’ve heard in recent years?

While I hate to admit it, I have to. B2B marketers need to adopt more of the mindset of B2C marketers and truly get to know their customers better, as individuals—their likes, wants, and needs, even getting to the point of understanding motivations. The goal here is to get far more personalized, more individualized with our marketing and communications. Once we’ve started down that path, we need to then assess whether our brand is being truly authentic in doing so.