Patrick McKenna: “Email is simple, cheap and effective”

One-to-one communication is more critical than ever. Think about the restaurant down the block from you who needs to communicate if they are open, when you can get takeout, when you can dine outside, when you can dine inside and so on. Having that correct information pushed and presented to their customers frequently is incredibly […]

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One-to-one communication is more critical than ever. Think about the restaurant down the block from you who needs to communicate if they are open, when you can get takeout, when you can dine outside, when you can dine inside and so on. Having that correct information pushed and presented to their customers frequently is incredibly important.

As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Patrick McKenna.

In 2003, he launched DMi Partners in his hometown of Philadelphia and has since propelled the agency into a global digital marketing leader. With decades of industry knowledge and unique insight into client needs, he leads DMi with the belief that each challenge requires its own distinct strategy and a reasonable appetite for risk.

Building a client roster that encompasses disruptive startups to Fortune 100 companies, Patrick excels at crafting campaigns that shatter expectations and drive brands to higher levels. To execute this vision, he has built a world-class team at DMi and established a culture that reflects his enthusiasm and passion for trailblazing new marketing territory.

Patrick has structured DMi with a guiding principle that can be encapsulated in a word — growth. Growth in client success, employee development and DMi’s top and bottom-line. It is what unifies every client and campaign. Always be growing and pushing the envelope on what a marketing campaign can accomplish.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My path to marketing was a winding one. I was pre-med at Harvard but decided to go in a different direction as I found myself more drawn to politics and business than medicine.

I had the opportunity to work for Joe Kennedy in Boston at an incubator for profit and non-profit businesses. He had a very talented team, and I was able to help them startup two businesses. I learned so much, and it was exhilarating to start a business. I desperately wanted to start something up myself.

After moving back home to Philadelphia I reached out to my old college roommate, James Delaney, who was looking to do the same, and so we decided to go in together.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

As we were graduating from college, we had a front row seat to watch the dot com bubble of the late 90s burst. While this created short term challenges, James and I agreed that the dynamic nature of the internet marketplace at that time made it an ideal place to develop sales and marketing expertise. We felt that if we could become experts in digital marketing we could leverage that expertise as an agency, in joint venture relationships and through businesses that we started or joined as a partner.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

If you run a business over a period, you inevitably go through hard times: financial crises, growing pains and mistakes along the way. It is unavoidable. We made an acquisition in our early days that didn’t work out despite a lot of time, money and energy invested. I have always taken the approach that every misstep is a learning opportunity.

We certainly never considered giving up, though. From day one, I was committed to the business. I find that the commitment of starting a business grows roots quickly. Whether it is commitment to clients who are putting their trust in us or commitment to employees who have staked their careers on us, it is incumbent on us to take that commitment seriously. I guess thinking a level deeper, that sense of commitment is a deeply driving element of who I am and it has been a principal driver in my life.

So, how are things going today?

2020 has, of course, been a tumultuous year but we have made the necessary adjustments in-house and have worked with our clients to ensure that their marketing programs are best positioned for success.

Our founding partners always stressed that the three keys to business are cashflow, cashflow and cashflow. As a bootstrapped business, that has been a focus for us from the beginning. As a result, we have been able to deal with problems that pop up and tackle opportunities that present themselves. I think that was a particularly advantageous characteristic to possess in 2020.

We have actually been very fortunate. I think the biggest area that we have had to focus on is making sure that we are all taking care of each other. We are very lucky to have an organization where people look out for each other. It’s something that happens naturally when our team is together, but it requires more purposeful attention when we are all remote.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

This is not business-related per se, but I distinctly remember a moment in college when James and I were at the Jersey shore for a weekend. We were sitting on the beach with our friends, and we started digging this hole in the sand. No shovels, just our hands. We had to decide whether we were going to keep digging or just stop.

I remember looking at each other and it was understood that we were taking this thing all the way. We just kept going until we had dug a hole that was about six feet deep. That personifies a little bit of who we are and that when we commit, we are going to see it through.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I believe that what makes us stand out is our commitment to partnering with clients and doing whatever it takes to help them grow. A good story that illustrates that is back towards the beginning of DMi when a client of ours, Mitchell & Ness, needed to sign licensing agreements with each retired baseball player whose jersey they wanted to sell, and they needed to sign them quickly.

Overnight, we went out and helped sign those players up. It was not what we were being paid to do, but it was extremely important to the client, so we helped. That night I was on the phone negotiating terms with Willie Mays, the estate of Mickey Mantle and other Hall of Famers to make sure that the job was done and the deadline was met.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

The biggest challenge that we have had is getting our team members to take time off. With the COVID-19 situation, most people are not traveling or taking vacations like they normally would. Time off is important for each of us, and we have had to work with our team members to make sure they are taking the personal time that they need. When you build a culture that promotes clearly defined goals and the emphasizes communication, team members are more likely to trust their colleagues to carry the load when they step away.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are a lot of key figures for me, but Michele, my wife, is the one who keeps me centered and is that anchor point for me. She will see if I am overexcited and encourage me to reel it in. If I am anxious, she will help me find perspective in the problem. Small things in the day-to-day from her help me stay focused on what I need to get done.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

One-to-one communication is more critical than ever. Think about the restaurant down the block from you who needs to communicate if they are open, when you can get takeout, when you can dine outside, when you can dine inside and so on. Having that correct information pushed and presented to their customers frequently is incredibly important.

We are seeing large companies turn eCommerce on and off, which needs to be communicated effectively. For clients who had not previously engaged in eCommerce this was the impetus to begin, because they needed a way to get their products in the hands of customers. Other clients, like large CPG companies, whose products were selling off the shelves quicker than they could produce them, had to turn off eCommerce because it was more important to ensure that the products were available through traditional brick and mortar outlets.

One of our clients, Rastelli’s, is an online butcher shop and experienced a surge during the pandemic. Shoppers simply could not find products due to lack of availability. We made sure that Rastelli’s was discoverable online and executed a highly successful partnership and affiliate marketing campaign to meet the demand of the moment.

We have seen similar increases from brands specializing in at-home fitness equipment, and at-home goods as well. As these clients sold through inventory, it was important to have proper communication channels to ensure availability informed the front end marketing as well as the back end customer communication.

Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Know who you are and tell that story consistently to your target market. Where we see brands fail, that identity is not established, or they are trying to be too many things to too many people. They are not telling that story consistently or conveying it effectively to their customers.

If you can do that, your market is out there, and they will come to you directly. But if you are confused on any one of those things, you are opening yourself up to lose out to the bigger players.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

There are generally three big mistakes that people make. The first is not having the business properly capitalized.

The second is investing in non-critical elements of the business. Building all the technology needed for the business in six months when they could instead focus on what they need to build the business today. You want to be nimble and agile, building for today while thinking about tomorrow.

The third is not paying attention to customers or delivering on their expectations. On the front end, that means making sure that the proper sales and customer service channels are established. On the back end, having the correct servicing supports in place so that you can communicate directly with customers quickly and efficiently and provide multiple points of contact.

In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Communication via email. Making sure that you are communicating to each customer on a one-to-one basis with the most pertinent information at each point in time. During the shopping process, if they fall out of the shopping cycle, when they place an order and so on.

Each one of those touchpoints is vitally important for a positive experience, creating return customers and to have them recommend your brand to others. If that is executed effectively it will create a flywheel of revenue that self-propagates over time.

Email is simple, cheap and effective. But because of these traits it is often overlooked.

Can you share a few examples of tools that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?

The ability to create a simple and efficient mobile shopping experience that provides multiple ways to pay — Apple Pay, Google, Amazon, PayPal, etc. — will make buying from a brand more accessible and attractive to potential customers.

Another tool that is often underutilized is creating strategic, reciprocal partnerships. These synergistic relationships can combine captive customer bases that benefit all parties. For example, I mentioned the online butcher shop Rastelli’s earlier and their spike in popularity coinciding with empty supermarket shelves during the pandemic. They leveraged a partnership with Sun Basket to introduce Sun Basket customers to the great products from Rastelli’s, which could be ordered safely from their own home to be delivered right to their door.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?

There are numerous tools and technologies that we have used to improve on-site conversion rates, but there are two areas that we see slipping through the cracks of the conversion rate conversation which are incredibly important and complimentary.

The first is that too often companies do not think about attacking the entire conversion funnel when they develop their strategy, or they generalize each tactic into being focused on a single aspect of the conversion funnel. Companies that successfully maximize their conversion rate are able to find the ways to target up and down the conversion funnel from each marketing channel.

The second is attribution. While attribution remains a wonderfully buzzy word in the digital marketing world, it is rarely implemented in a manner that can produce the proper insights needed to maximize the effectiveness of the front end marketing.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

This comes back to knowing your story, being true to it, communicating that consistently and making sure the product delivers on it. From social media to influencer marketing to public relations to affiliate marketing, all of these channels provide direct lines into individual customers. These channels also enable the brand to leverage the authority of others through endorsements, personal stories, shared equity and rankings.

One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?

The two most important steps with bad reviews are to listen and then communicate. In that order. Reviews can be an effective feedback loop for a brand to see how customers are receiving their products. We recommend paying close attention to them and addressing whatever element of your business applies. Once you have listened, responding in a positive and helpful way can yield your most loyal customers and fervent brand advocates.

Regarding unfair things said about a brand, those tend to happen most frequently to brands that don’t live up to who they are in some way. Even for companies who get that right, there will always be outliers, but the positive experiences and feedback will drown that out.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business?

We have discussed a number of them already: making sure the business is well capitalized in the beginning, managing cashflow effectively, knowing who you are as a company to communicate that identity and paying attention to your customers by implementing feedback loops to hear what they are experiencing.

A fifth that we have not covered is hiring wisely, because talented teams win. That talent might be in-house, at an agency or through consultants. If your marketing team is stocked with the right professionals and working as one, they will put the business in a position to be successful.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

There is so much social change going on in the world right now, it is an amazing thing to witness. At DMi, we try to foster a passion for advocacy and encourage employees to get involved in their communities. We do this in a number of ways, but one that I think would be great for more companies to adopt would be to offer paid time off specifically for service. At DMi, these days are separate from other forms of PTO and they are to be used solely for service opportunities. Our team members use these days to support organizations that are critically important to them personally and to their communities. I make sure to use my days every year.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

My pleasure, thank you!

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