I remember my days in corporate America and can say with conviction that nothing compares to the tactical training you receive in a large enterprise. Our guests today, Ilene Rosenthal, is an industry veteran who took her experience working at Young & Rubicam to carve out a niche consulting practice. Ilene now offers fractional CMO services through her agency, White Space Marketing.
About Ilene Rosenthal
Ilene Rosenthal is the Owner and CEO of White Space Marketing Group, LLC—a career culmination of her experience in the marketing and advertising arena. Ilene’s extensive history as a hybrid marketing expert is the foundation for the proven, on-the-ground, in-market marketing strategy and planning for mid-market B2B and B2C companies.
Ilene’s accomplishments span the healthcare, financial and tax services, building and manufacturing, human resources, and not-for-profit industries. Her brand resume includes Kraft Foods, AT&T, Merck, J&J, Pfizer/Warner-Lambert, SAP, American Home Products—among others. Ilene received a Bachelor of Arts in Government Studies from Clark University and an MBA in Marketing from New York University-Leonard N. Stern School of Business.
What propelled you to launch your own agency?
Ilene Rosenthal: Well, how long do we have? No, just kidding. I started my marketing career after getting an MBA. I went to work for Young & Rubicam and I was there for 16 years, which might not be a record, but it was a really long time. Honestly, everything I do today in marketing, everything I do as a business owner, I learned there. It was an amazing experience, wonderful people, enterprise businesses, all about strategy. It was way back in the day before research people became planners. So, account people were really the strategists on the business. I got to work on iconic brands Jell-O, and Rolaids, and Citibank, and Merck. It was an incredible, incredible training.
After I had my two kids, I took a small break. I lasted about, I don’t know, nine months. Then, I went back to work at SAP as a consultant in their digital marketing group, which was really the first time I was able to transition from being really a brand marketer to being a one-to-one digital marketer. After that, I went to work for a small healthcare company in Westchester, New York. The difference between working for enterprise brands where if you grow the business by 0.1%, they have a party at the Puck Building, as opposed to small businesses where you walk in and do a few things and their business grows by a hundred percent.
It was totally stimulating to me, that I could make a difference to small companies and midsize companies, was really motivating after all those years in enterprise land. So, that’s when I started White Space, to do just that.
How big is White Space? How many people are in your team?
Ilene Rosenthal: Sure. So, we grew pretty quickly. Up through 2019, we had about 15 people, which was the combination about half were employees and half were contractors. We always contracted out the creative, the writing, and the design because different clients had different needs as it relates to budget, quality, time, et cetera. But recently, in the last year, we’ve pivoted to a much smaller team because I have really dedicated my time to working with business CEOs and business owners on marketing strategy. So, I still have a small team here that services my current retainer businesses, but I’m doing a lot of work at the fractional CMO and strategy level.
What is a growth architect fractional CMO?
Ilene Rosenthal: I’m so happy. It’s such a great thing. It’s great when you love your work. Sherri, have you heard the expression, it’s hard to see the label when you’re inside the jar?
That’s basically the whole thing. At the heart of things I’m a strategist, which in its most simple terms, what does that mean? It means that I help companies allocate resources where marketing can work best for them. So, it’s really in fact a financial job, in a way, it’s a strategic job, but it’s also a financial job. How to spend money wisely because everybody’s afraid they’re going to waste money on marketing. So, I start by looking at their business and where they anticipate revenue, where their revenue history has really yielded success. We try to plot out a roadmap that really focuses their marketing strategies, just on the things that are going to have a result when they need it.
Because companies tend to spread things too thin. They spread limited budgets over a number of different channels among multiple audiences. So, they don’t see the impact that they want because they’re not focused enough, so I can can help them focus.
But you’re not coming up with a particular granule, like this is the idea for a PR campaign in terms of strategy, right? Explain it more a little bit more because I’m fascinated. Yeah.
Ilene Rosenthal: Sure. It depends on the business, right? So, we do a lot of messaging work. So, in fact, in order to create a brief for a creative team that’s going to actually yield an amazingly motivating and compelling piece of creative work, there has to be a strategy that’s focused on a particular customer need. There has to be a messaging construct that is very clear and very focused, because that’s the way good creative comes to life. If you give a creative team too many things to talk about, it gets muddy, it’s oatmeal, it’s wallpaper. But when you give them a crisp idea that’s anchored in a customer pain, then they can really go off and do their thing.
So, that’s really what I did. I learned that at Y&R, for sure. When we do marketing, sorry, when we create messaging constructs for businesses, if that’s what they need at that time, then that’s really where the creative stuff begins to happen.
What do you think the biggest challenge small and mid market companies have when they’re faced with planning, marketing strategy?
Ilene Rosenthal: Focus, honestly, it’s as simple as that. Focus. They have more than one customer. They want to do too many things with limited dollars. The other thing is that a lot of small companies will spend critical time working on things like imagery, which I have. This is not to say anything about branding. I believe in branding wholeheartedly with every ounce of me, but they’ll spend a lot of time on a website build, on colors, or design when the messaging isn’t focused. They can’t expect something that’s beautiful but doesn’t compel to actually work in the marketplace. So, I try to pull people back to the job they want marketing to accomplish.
What is the job that piece of collateral needs to do? What’s the job that that website needs to do? Because it’s not just a business card, right? It has to compel people. It has to drive action. I think a lot of small businesses think that if I just have a good brand identity, everything else will fall into place. So, I’ve actually been known to say, “We’re going to keep your suboptimal website up right now, just leave it alone. We’re going to create a lead generation exercise to bring more people into your database so that your sales team can begin to, for example, nurture some of those people across the buyer journey.” Once we do that, we’re actually going to understand better what that is.
Sherri Langburt: Yes, what your website should look like.
Ilene Rosenthal: Now that we’ve learned something, we’re going to go off and create a website that does the right thing.
Sherri Langburt: We’re guilty of that. I don’t think we’ve updated our website in three and a half years. We’re doing it now, but due to resource constraints, because it’s like, where do you focus? You have to focus on where things are coming in. So, I agree with you, technology and consumption trends, especially now with COVID, everything is shifting so quickly.
How do you actually build a successful digital marketing strategy, given all the changes and the rapid advancements?
Ilene Rosenthal: So, I’m going to say something that might be sacrilegious, but technology is always changing. That’s just part of what it is. So, I feel like there are often more than one tech solution to solve a problem. The bigger challenge is consumption trends. So, it’s not to say that I don’t … I have to stay on top of technology all the time because that’s the path, that’s the tactic to solving a particular problem, but there’s always going to be different technologies. I’ve seen companies get very sidetracked with the new shiny MarTech thing that they want, where they might not spend enough time sitting back and saying, “Do I need that? Do I need it now?
What do I need to do first before I spend money on that software subscription? Do I need to get my house in order before I spend money on that?” So, I worry less about tech because I feel like there’s so much out there. There are lots of things to consider, all of it is expensive. All of it requires some kind of commitment. Sometimes it even requires shaping your internal staff to be able to use it. So, before we do that, let’s look at the customer and consumption trends and how we stay on top of that. Just another thing about digital marketing, I try to be channel agnostic.
I think all marketing is digital or all marketing includes digital, even when it comes to PR. I think I start way back, which is what is the channel that is going to work best based on what you need today. I think different companies have different levels of patience. Everybody’s patience is rather thin these days because of the economic challenges of this year. But there are clients I’ve worked with where they have said, “Actually, we want you to do this particular thing. We want to create authority in our leader as a key opinion leader in our industry or an influencer. We’re willing to take a year to get there.”
Because they recognized that it will take a year to get there, map out a plan that helps us do that among different sectors or different industries or different audiences. They’re willing to, and they accept the fact that things take time. You’ll walk into another situation where a company needs a 12-month strategic roadmap for their marketing, but actually before they can get there, they need to fix their revenue problem in the next two quarters. Well, we’re going to start with the more immediate need and digital is likely to be the channel that makes the most sense there.
So, I hope that answers your question. It’s sort of, if digital is the right channel, then what are the right tactics within that channel? But there might be others that, it might be a content marketing push that ends up being the intersection between digital, and social, and PR, and sales. If you have a content strategy that’s delivering your message in a strong and powerful way, that’s been proven and vetted among your customer base, well, you can use it across all your channels.
What are some underutilized tactics from a marketer’s perspective that people are not really considering right now that they should be?
Ilene Rosenthal: So, this is going to sound terribly unsexy, but one of the biggest omissions I see companies make is they look outside before they look inside. I’ve been working with companies who have assets in their company, like a large database that has not gone through a list hygiene process, where they can get rid of the garbage and keep and create a really strong list. Before they start paying for paid channels or advertising, they could just create some really powerful one-on-one email campaigns to test concepts, to warm up cold leads, to nurture warm leads. Sometimes it’s right in front of you and they can’t see it.
So, while we’re waiting to build the website, while we’re waiting to create a strategic roadmap for the year, let’s create two or three email tests against different targets. The email addresses, you have already in your database, they are there. Let’s try them and see if you can stimulate anything from a database of people who actually know what you do. You don’t have to start from scratch. They’ve gotten your newsletters. They perhaps were lapsed customers. So, I find sometimes companies don’t remember to look inside to see what they have already, that they could implement almost immediately to get going.
Sherri Langburt: I hope everyone listening when they listen, can just rejoice that we’re all going through this together, but you bring up a great point. I know you were just talking about one example, not taking it literally, but email marketing has helped. People just overlooked email marketing. It has built BabbleBoxx as a business in general. Little things, we went through a list of people and took the effort to figure out, “Oh, this list has a thousand people on it and let’s see who moved on.” In fact, we found 600 people over the past three years have moved on because that’s the nature of the industry.
Sherri Langburt: People move on after a year or two or three and the response rate was unbelievable because they were now new. So, again, I was taking your example but email marketing to me on a business to business perspective is one of the most valuable drivers for growth.
Ilene Rosenthal: Here’s another underutilized concept. I’ve seen this literally for 20 years. So, I believe, Sherri, that repetition is the most underutilized idea in marketing, because we all think we’re all sick of our own stuff. “Oh, I’ve seen that message before.” But let’s just use email as an example, because I love email. Let’s say among a list of people who know you, like your known universe, you have a 25% open rate, 25%, 30%, 35%. We would all rejoice. That’s fabulous. So, that means even among people who know us and like us 70% might not even be opening our emails. So, I always suggest that we try to take a look from the outside.
If you send an email campaign out, even if you have your sales team reach out and something goes to voicemail, don’t give up because people might want to hear from you if you have the right message, and they’re a poised target audience. Just ignore the fact that you’re sick of your own message. Ignore the fact that you feel like you’ve seen this message over and over again. We are all inundated with messages and half of us don’t even realize we’ve seen that message before, or we saw it and we thought, “Yeah, I’ll get back to that later.”
Sherri Langburt: Then, they lose it and they don’t remember who sent it or how they got it.
Ilene Rosenthal: Exactly.
I know and I believe in that, but sometimes it’s hard when you’ve written someone two emails, like what’s the 30? It’s always hard, like what’s the next entry point? But to your point, really successful salespeople, they’re able to just stay on top of someone for like two years. Two years later that person says, “Now, the time is right, and let’s go.”
Ilene Rosenthal: Well, let’s go back to content marketing. If you have a message, like a content strategy that’s built on a couple of strong messaging pillars, you do some of it in email. You surround your customer in all the places where they might be. If they’re a B2B company and they’re in LinkedIn. I will take my LinkedIn, I love LinkedIn, I spent a lot of time talking to my universe on LinkedIn. I’ll take some of those ideas and I’ll deploy them into a blog, the very same idea will blow it out and make it a longer piece. Those people in my blog subscription will get that. I might take it and publish it somewhere on medium.
You can take the same wonderful content and repeat it in different channels. So, it doesn’t feel like you’re sending the same thing out over and over again. I just think sometimes we throw the baby out with the bath water because we’re tired of it when there are endless channels in which we can deploy a really powerful message and have a good shelf life.
Sherri Langburt: Particularly when the algorithms of some of these social channels where 2% of the people are even seeing your message anyway.
How much of a digital marketing plan is focused on social media versus the other elements that you’re going to add in to your plan?
Ilene Rosenthal: So, I always ask what is the role of X in achieving my marketing goals? So, what’s the role of social? What’s the role of my website? What is the job I think LinkedIn is going to do? What is the job this email campaign is supposed to do? What we’ll try to do, if you have the opportunity to run your marketing through a number of channels, you can make a decision that all my channels need to do the same thing. It’s all lead gen, or you can say, “I’m going to use social in a different way.” So, here’s a good example. You might send out an email campaign that’s really designed to drive people to a webinar and generate leads, or generate a nurture program for your warm leads, let’s say.
But you might also use, let’s say, LinkedIn or maybe a professional page on Facebook even to share the voice of your company’s leadership. I think that is so brilliant because people, social is an authentic, should be an authentic and real channel. It’s where people want to hear real voices. You see this in the data from LinkedIn, which will tell you that Ilene Rosenthal has many more followers than White Space Marketing Group. People want to follow people. So, I feel like the role of social for many of my clients and certainly for my business is for people to get to know me, to hear my voice.
I’ve had people call me who are inquiring about our services who say, “Well, I already know what you think about these things because I’ve read the stuff you’ve written on LinkedIn.” Which is kind of remarkable, I’m happy about it, but it’s always surprised me. They get a sense of me. When we start a robust social program for a company, I’m looking for the voice, I’m looking for the human aspect of that business that can be brought to life in social. I, in my heart, believe that that’s really how social thrives. It’s not that it doesn’t do anything if it’s a corporate voice or whatever. But, really, I think that’s where people want to engage. People want to engage with people and even on LinkedIn as a B2B marketer, I’ve seen that be a real channel that has a lot of legs.
Where do you say influencer fits into this whole digital mix of strategy? I know particularly with the core focus of these small and emerging mid-tier brands, it’s very cost-effective or it can be, but how do you take advantage of this channel for your clients?
Ilene Rosenthal: So, I hope it’s okay with you if I say the following, which is influencer marketing can also go wrong. I don’t mean the big sort of problems that we see in this area because of celebrities or anything. But I think that the way I see influencer marketing working most powerfully is when you can get the aspiration right. What do I mean by that? Does your audience want to solve a problem in the way that somebody that respect it does? Okay, I have a problem and I see this person is encountering a problem and they’re an influencer in my field, so I can trust this product, or service, or approach, or is it a popularity contest?
Is it a popularity contest? In the B2B space, companies use, you’ve heard this term, a KOL, a key opinion leader, that’s really just business speak for an influencer.
Sherri Langburt: Yes, of course, a subject matter expert.
Ilene Rosenthal: Right, exactly, exactly. So, to me, providing value, that’s what we want influencers to do for our client’s business. We want them to provide value to my client’s customers. Not to toot their own horn, not to … At least in my world, in these spaces that I work in, really, I want my clients to provide value to their customers. That’s the only reason prospective customers will care about them. I want influencers to share that responsibility. I have an example of a company where one of our clients in the home design space, they will not align with just any influencer.
People shopping in the home design space are looking for professionals, designers, et cetera, in the space who might use certain products. That’s an obvious channel, but my client has a very particular take on a certain part of home design. They will not align with some of the most popular people who we’ve even suggested to them because they’re not perfectly poised to represent their brand the right way.
So, does that mean you take the direction of working with one or two influencers rather than like 20 at a time, or the bigger influencers rather than the smaller influencers given that feedback and what you’re saying?
Ilene Rosenthal: It’s such a good question. I think it also depends because if you can work with five influencers in a particular space that are all aimed at the right thing, you can get the value to your brand faster. But I think there’s value in being picky and just limiting the number of influencers you bring into your world. But I think you have to acknowledge that that means the breadth, the reach will be limited because it’s particular, it’s very focused, it’s very narrow. So, it’s like comparing or weighing quantity with quality, I think.
That’s something we struggle with, because we came into working with this company and said, “Oh, you should speak to all these influencers.” They really taught us that in this particular space where they have a very vertical idea for their business, that really it was better to be limited and have a slow growth influencer strategy rather than a prey and spray influencer strategy.
Sherri Langburt: Yeah, and it’s interesting, you talk about the popularity contest because there definitely is an element of that and people just like writing it in and like, “Okay, I did this post.” So, do you see that a little bit changing now? Because I feel that the influencer content has, some of it and hoping it has kind of taken a different tone instead of it being very, look at me, look at me, look at what I’m doing, look at what I’m wearing and how great everything is. Some more educational, informational comfort building.
Ilene Rosenthal: A hundred percent, a hundred percent. In fact, I think some of the influencer driven programs out there are going to have less and less traction over time because of just that. It’s almost like any time there’s an overload of something people pay less attention. So, the more garbage there is out there or the more high volume, you can’t see the difference because it just becomes noise. We’ve seen this in digital advertising.
Sherri Langburt: But that is interesting you bring that up because what I find is that so many brands out there, companies, they don’t see the bigger context. They don’t see like, “Wait a minute, if I’m going to leverage an influencer for, let’s say recipe, they’re going to create a recipe and they’re going to post it on their social channels. Wait, now, I could use that recipe if I pay them more for my website, or for my newsletter.” Or, “Wait, they took product shots. I don’t need a recipe developer because now I … ” There’s so many other ways in which influencers could be built in.
Ilene Rosenthal: Interesting, yeah.
Sherri Langburt: It’s like the marketing silos don’t talk to each other. It’s like being in a big, huge company, and like this division is not talking to that division. So, I just hired a recipe developer, but that division just hired someone to do a marketing campaign who developed the recipe. That’s where I think that there could be a lot of optimization.
Ilene Rosenthal: Definitely. Welcome to my world. That is my world, where when I come into a company, I have a view, a horizontal view. Because departments don’t talk to each other, sales doesn’t talk to marketing, digital marketing doesn’t talk to regular marketing, whatever that is. So, I think it’s good to have a bird’s-eye view for efficiency in particular. I think efficiency is going to have a lot of weight moving forward. It always has. But I think the idea that we can improve efficiencies by cross-pollinating more than we were used to doing, particularly as you go up market and company size.
Ilene Rosenthal: The bigger the company, the more silos, the more departments, the more layers. I’ve seen it across the board, in these larger companies. Even solid mid-market, there’s just a lot of right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. It pays to have a view that’s channel agnostic, that comes in and says, “I see this here on one side and that on the other side, and they’re the same thing. We can be efficient and we can be more powerful in our messaging.”
What do you think, in this chaotic world that we’re living in, and it’s dogs barking, doorbells, and pajama bottoms, what do you see for 2021?
Ilene Rosenthal: It’s such a good question. I’m going to get a little philosophical on you, Sherri, and just say in a world where there’s such uncertainty and such risk in so many places, I’ve said to my staff, to my clients, focus. Focusing on the things that matter the most. You can see how this relates to one’s personal life, right? With the crazy COVID and risk of illness or financial struggles. Focusing on your family and on the things that matter, of course, it’s important. It’s the same in business. Focusing on what you do well. Focusing on where you can actually foresee results soon.
I always say, take the long view, but maybe for 2021, we need to take a medium view. What can get us through the next year? What can make 2021 the year of recovery, the year of looking forward, of optimism? That’s really where I’m centered in some way. It’s all about setting priorities and sticking with them and doing what matters.
Sherri Langburt: That’s very inspiring. Thank you. I have learned so much from you and thank you for taking the time today.
I will leave you with my one last question, which I always ask, is name an influencer you love to follow but hate to admit that you do.
Ilene Rosenthal: So, I’m not shy. So, I don’t really hate to admit, I just love Sara Blakely of Spanx.
Sherri Langburt: Oh, okay.
Ilene Rosenthal: I don’t hate to admit it. I love to admit that I follow her because she’s a person who has revealed the vagaries of failure, the risk of trying, the funny business of becoming a big company after you were a small company. So, I unabashedly follow her and love to read her stuff.
Sherri Langburt: I do too. So, it’s all about that spirit of being an entrepreneur on your own and then making it to be one of the most successful women in America, which is amazing.