It’s Time for Marketers to Raise the Bar

Episode #023: Brent Bouldin, VP of Marketing, Media, and Customer Acquisition at Choice Hotels International

Episode Information

This week’s episode is the final one in a series of live interviews that we conducted while at MMA Impact.

In the past 10-15 years, we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of change happen in marketing due to the introduction of new technology. It’s astonishing to think about how it wasn’t unreasonable for companies to not have a website 15 years ago when today so much of what we do from a marketing perspective is digital. With the introduction of all of this technology, the idea of digital marketing was created with individuals dedicated to digital marketing. Years ago, the idea of giving digital marketing a separate name and oftentimes team within marketing made a ton of sense because it was only one part of the overall marketing function. However, digital marketing has truly taken over most of what we do from a marketing perspective and it’s rare to have an initiative that doesn’t have at least one digital component. Does this mean it’s time to finally drop the “digital marketing” phrase and just refer to what we’re doing as marketing? In this episode of Mobile Matters, we talk to the VP of Marketing, Media, and Customer Acquisition at Choice Hotels International, Brent Bouldin, about why digital marketing should just be referred to as marketing now, how many marketers are missing out on opportunities for innovation, and why we all need to step up our marketing efforts.


Stephanie's Strong Opinions

  1. Perhaps it’s time for digital marketing to just be called what it really
  2. Don't miss out on opportunities for innovation because you’re only focused on what has worked in the past.
  3. All of us need to raise the bar in our marketing efforts and stop making others regulate our behavior.

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Stephanie Cox: I'm Stephanie Cox and this is Mobile Matters. This week's episode is the final in our series of live interviews that we connected while at MMA Impact. We had a great time at working with mobile marketing leaders at the event and had the opportunity to sit down with some of the attendees to talk about how they think about mobile strategy in their organization. What's working in their business and where they think the future mobile is headed. Today, I'm joined by Brent Bouldin. Brent is the Vice President of Marketing, Media, and Customer Acquisition at Choice Hotels International. He has more than 20 years of experience working in both Fortune 100 companies and Global Professional Services Organizations. He has a proven track record of successfully developing marketing strategies to drive business growth and sustain Channel and campaign performance. In this episode Brent and I talk a lot about the idea that digital marketing may not really exist anymore because it might just be marketing, how Choice Hotels thinks about their mobile and digital strategy, and why he thinks we're on the verge of a radical change regarding consumer privacy. And make sure you stick around till the end. Where I’ll give my recap and top takeaways so that you can not only think about mobile differently but implement it effectively. Welcome to the show Brent.

Tell me how you got started in digital marketing, a little bit about your career.

Brent Bouldin: Sure, yeah. I started my career in management consulting out of undergrad and had aspirations of making a career of that in the strategy consulting field. I went back to business school to make that happen. That was during the dot com bust in the early 2000s and so. I meandered my way through a couple of different jobs, I taught school for a year, I went to FedEx and got my first experience with e-commerce and made my way back into consulting, but started having kids and needed to not travel so much. And so, through a friend of a friend, connected at Bank of America in digital marketing and spent nine years there. First as an individual contributor and then just over time got larger and larger roles. And most recently, I was leading digital media at Bank of America and then a year ago, I joined Choice Hotels International as Head of Marketing and Customer Acquisition. 

Stephanie Cox: So what does that role mean at Choice Hotels? What exactly are you responsible for?

Brent Bouldin: It's kind of all things marketing, right? I've got a team of creative folks that lead the brand strategy from a marketing perspective, for all the 12 hotel brands that Choice has. And then I also have all of the channels, paid search, natural search, social media, display advertising, TV. I've got sort of the marketing soup to nuts, if you will. 

Stephanie Cox: A little bit of everything! So, thinking back across your career and knowing that digital marketing has changed so much in the last, especially, decade. What's been the biggest changes that you've seen that impact your business?

Brent Bouldin: When I first got into this space, digital marketing was sort of a niche if you will. There was traditional marketing and digital was a group of subject matter experts that sat off to the side. And over 10 years or so, the entire world has gone digital  and I don't even know if digital marketing is necessarily a thing anymore because digital marketing and marketing are one and the same. And so, that's been a huge change. And then, there's been a whole lot of discussion and change and evolution in the industry about what works and what doesn't. Everything from banner blindness to ad blocking to viewability and transparency and ad fraud, all those things have just come about in the last 10 years. The tried and true techniques of ten years ago no longer work. And so, you really just have to be agile enough to work with good partners and figure out how do we get our message out there in a meaningful way. And it can't really be the interruption-based model that you saw for years. It's really got to be additive to the user's experience, or else you're getting it blocked or ignored. It changes the entire landscape of how you go about doing good marketing. 

Stephanie Cox: So thinking about mobile, specifically, how has that really changed? We think back to, what twelve years ago now, the iPhone came into existence and now we're all addicted to our phones and don't sleep away from them typically. How has that played a role in how you've seen marketing evolve? 

Brent Bouldin: Yeah, I mean 12 years ago when the iPhone launched I guess people were still, I know I was still using a flip phone and it was like black text on a gray screen. And then with the iPhone, I remember the early evolution of that where people tried to just take display advertising and the techniques that worked on desktop and shrink it down to a mobile screen. And so, you had these tiny little banners that like, they got clicks but that's probably somebody's thumb slipping or something. 

Stephanie Cox:Pinch and zoom!

Brent Bouldin: Yeah, exactly. And so, I think we've learned a lot over the last decade about what works in mobile and how to get meaningful messages delivered. I don't see many of those little tiny display ads anymore or any of those. I'm sure we all remember the ads that were delivered via these never-ending series of browsers that would launch. And you had to close them one by one and, sort of the mobile version of pop up ads, but now we've got sort of in-feed and video that's enabled for mobile and we went through the evolution of horizontal for a while that never really caught on. But it's still I guess TBD if that changes in the future. But I think we've learned a lot about user behavior and thumb stopping and how fast human perception works in the mobile landscape. It's not necessarily just a smaller version of desktop, it's unique and it's got it. Not not just in terms of form factor, but in terms of the way that people interact with content ads in the mobile landscape and it's still evolving. I think 5G will change things even more in the future. But again, we just talked a minute ago about how traditional and digital are no longer unique. I feel like digital and mobile will soon no longer be, because everything is mobile. So I'm excited to see what that means. 

Stephanie Cox: You mentioned 5G which is one of my personal favorite topics right now. What do you think will impact business the most when 5G or what are you most excited about personally? 

Brent Bouldin: I'm most excited about the fact that like when I'm scrambling to download some content before I get on an airplane or something that is going to download in like three seconds and an entire movie in three seconds. We'll see if that's real or not. But the promise of it, at least is fantastic. And I think again, you think about a brand like Choice, where we're still heartland America. We have a large TV. We're still on TV and it still works very well for us. But I think when 5G comes, TV and your pocket starts to be a real thing. Where like, you don't really have to be tethered to a coaxial cable coming in your house or some type of fiber optic cable because the speed that's being delivered over mobile is virtually the same. And so, it'll be interesting to see like does this really change television for good? I think television has changed, over the top and so forth. But this delivery speed could really change short of everything about how video content gets delivered.

Stephanie Cox: So when you think about mobile strategy at Choice Hotels, what goes into your thought process around creating a strategy for how you engage with your customers on mobile?

Brent Bouldin: Well, it's still sort of two pronged and I think this will probably change over time. If you're still in the sort of bifurcated world of mobile app versus mobile web. Particularly for, again, the customer set that we have, which probably skews slightly older and maybe slightly less tech early adoption. Those are still two unique ways that people interact with us. So we have to attack both fronts. We're doing everything from investing in the mobile web to get quicker load times and better functionality on that. But because there's a large portion of people that still use it via the browser. But we're also really investing time and energy on getting the app built out. We invested in it significantly a few years ago, we've got a great app but ensuring that people understand that everything you can do on our website, you can do in that app. Whether that's book room reservations or find rates or interact with your Choice Privileges account and redeem points and adjust your settings for how you want to earn Choice Extras. There's a lot of things that functionality that the Web has that, that some some apps are not duplicative in terms of functionality but ours is and so we want people to know that. We see tremendous uptake on the app and some of our most loyal customers are the people that are using the app and that's good for Choice. That's good for our franchisees. It's good to get those direct bookings where people are coming back to the app. We obviously want to drive as many of the direct bookings that we possibly can and defend our turf against some of the OTAs that are out there marketing aggressively against us. 

Stephanie Cox: So when you think about your app versus mobile app, you mentioned that it's duplicative. Was that like an intentional choice, that you want to be able to deliver the same experience based on however someone wants to consume it? Or how do that kind of kind of come to be? 

Brent Bouldin: Yeah. I mean I think it's again it's being where the consumer is and let letting them choose how and where they want to interact with us. I think what we saw in early versions of the app was there were things that you couldn't do there that. Even early versions, like I mentioned that Bank of America, there was things where you know you're in the app, but if you click certain functionality a little browser window would pop and then you're back in the mobile web. And so, I think in some cases even early versions of that had pinch and zoom functionality. You're in the mobile app, you're in a mobile browser but now you're pinching and zooming inside an app and those types of things are not intuitive. We want the form factor and the capabilities that exist inside of an app to be everything that the user expects and give them the seamless experience across channels. So, we didn't want to do that thing where like, glad you have the app but if you want to do these five things like go back to your desktop or get back on the mobile browser. So yes, it was intentional. 

Stephanie Cox: How do you think about acquisition and how mobile plays a role into that?

Brent Bouldin: I mean, for us, acquisition is bookings. Right? And so, we need to be at that zero moment of truth when someone's in the booking window to drive reservations for our franchisees. And so that means investing in an omni-channel strategy, it's not mobile specific but it is mobile heavy, because mobile is where our volume is growing. We saw a 40 percent growth in mobile last year, we're on track to exceed that this year. So, clearly,  the old fish where the fish are. Mobile is where they are, we want to be there. We need to develop tools and capabilities and for own channels that that allow people to book. And then from a marketing and acquisition strategy, we need to go out and put meaningful creative in front of people in mobile environments that drives traffic for us. We need to be active and and profitable and our approach to our paid search in mobile because a ton of people are searching for us there. We need a strong SEO strategy and local search management because people are out doing the hotels near me and things like that on mobile. That's a huge use case for hotels because people often enough, the use case for hotels is when you're away from home and sometimes people or places they've never been before. So having a really strong SEO strategy, where we're showing up and things like hotels near me. That's important stuff and so we're attacking on all those fronts.

Stephanie Cox: Do you, have you seen any impact on really what's happening with Google from an SEO perspective? With this idea of no click searches, where they're starting to answer questions right at the top of when you search for something. 

Brent Bouldin: Yes.

Stephanie Cox:Has that impacted your business at all or are you guys starting to see that? 

Brent Bouldin: In the hotel space it's a little less than it was. Like I said when I was in banking, we really capitalized on the early adoption of that in banking. Where people would type in queries for information like, what is an interest rate or what is how to save for a budget and we can optimize and grab that answer box share at the very top of the Google real estate. In travel, it's a little bit less query-based, in terms of questions that need to be answered. It's not like, what is a hotel or where how do I find a room to stay in when I'm away from home? Those type of questions don't really get asked and so we don't see quite as much of that changes at the very top of the real estate. I think Google is is still monetizing paid search listings at the very top of the SERP. What I do see changing, though, is Google is becoming a major player themselves with things like Google Hotel Ads, where you can book straight inside of Google without ever leaving the Google ecosystem. And so, we were an early partner with them on that. It's good for Google, it's good for us in terms of, it's a seamless experience for the user where they can book inside of Google. And yet, it's not like getting a booking via an OTA where the OTA owns the customer. Yes, the booking happens inside of Google but the email confirmation comes from Choice and we get to own that customer data on the back end. So we're excited about a partnership with Google there. 

Stephanie Cox: No, that's really exciting. I know one of the big challenges of our time and my experience when you go through B2B2C, where you're selling into big box stores and they own the customer data, so they tell you what the basket looks like. They don't tell you what the person looks like or what their email address is or how do I communicate with them. So that's really exciting. 

Brent Bouldin: Yes!

Stephanie Cox: So, when you think about technology channels that are going to play a role in your overall marketing strategy. How do you determine what to do because there's always the shiny objects in marketing, how do you determine what shiny objects to chase, which ones not to chase. 

Brent Bouldin: Yeah, I think coming back to sort of the mobile space, it's challenging in mobile. Because a lot of measurement solutions and attribution solutions that are out there today are, if not blind mobile, most of them aren't blind to mobile, but they're certainly not as tuned in mobile as they are in desktop and sort of the traditional space. So we have a very strong analytics group inside of Choice that does always-on measurement, we have media mix modeling, we have multi-touch attribution type solutions that we have employed in the past and are looking at again. To help understand what works, what has historically proven to be a high return on investment channels for us. One of the things that I'm pushing for, as a new person in the organization, is to really have an aggressive test and learn agenda where for every media plan or campaign plan that you're coming up with. You have 80, 85 percent tried and true tested and proven. We still need to drive that strong business results for our franchisees but we also need to have 10 to 15 percent of test and learn and that new or next. Either new partners doing stuff we've tried before or just next generation type stuff from a channel perspective, so that we can learn our way into some of these evolving spaces things like booking via voice. We have a partnership with Google for that and that's a mobile type function. As well as some of the in-home device stuff, but those are the types of things where we want to have a portion of our media plans and our campaign plans dedicated to that thing so we can learn our way into that space and not just be caught off guard, when you wake up one day and that's a thing and you've never done it before.

Stephanie Cox: And now you're playing catch up. Well, I think that's important that you bring it up, because a lot of times I feel like marketers sometimes miss out on the innovation. They get so focused on what's worked before, they don't think about what's next. And then they wake up and they're like, oh I didn't realize that this is something that everyone is doing and now I am six months or a year behind. 

Brent Bouldin: That's right. And so, it's tough when you're focused on doing the work all day, everyday. I like to think that the internal team is heads down doing the work. And we rely heavily on our agency partners to keep their eyes up and looking at that landscape, bring that information back to us, help keep us educated. It's hard, it's changing quickly. So leveraging great partners and best-in-class agency support and that kind of thing really helps us be able to do both. Deliver the work with our internal folks and, obviously, stay abreast of what's happening and looking out at the landscape. And not getting caught off guard leveraging those partners that can do that on our behalf. 

Stephanie Cox: So when you think about mobile overall and just, I guess, in general marketing too, what is the biggest challenge that you think businesses face? 

Brent Bouldin: Well, I mean it's changing, right? I mean I think we're on the cusp of radical change. We're in a divided political environment right now, where there's a lot of hot button issues. But I think one thing that both parties will agree on is some regulation around privacy. Around an American version of the GDPR, if you will. And I think that the ability to deliver meaningful advertising, over the last few years, has been largely reliant on our identity strategy that allows you if, even on anonymized basis, to deliver media and marketing to people based on what you know about them. And I think as that becomes more difficult the industry is going to be at a crossroads. Because we're going to have to figure out how do we continue to be a meaningful part of the conversation in a world where delivering personalized messages, which is what we've all been focused on doing, becomes more difficult. And I think that the companies that figure out whether it's things like edge computing or some of those types of things that help you move beyond the cookie and the personal identity. I'm hopeful that we land at a rule that says one to one is not is not kosher, but perhaps one to several. One to a group that, where you can segment, do micro segmentation and deliver meaningful messages to people that are contextually relevant and are not necessarily tied to an individual identity. 

Stephanie Cox: Well, it's interesting that you mentioned that because one of the things for me that I feel like is a great opportunity, is to think about personalization in a different way. So right now, we personalize everything based, to your point earlier, like cookies. Or what if we provide such a great experience that we get consumers to give us their information and want personalized content from us, want personalized marketing. 

Brent Bouldin: I think they switching to an opt-in type model where you opt in. I think the bar is high, right? I think you're starting to see some of the advertising blend where advertising and content quote-unquote are indistinguishable from each other. And if you can reach that point then, that where you're providing content to people that is meaningful enough that they're willing to sort of opt into it and accept your brand message as part of the experience, you're a good marketer. And I think again, like part of what's changing here is raising the bar. And we can't just, it's not interruption based, it's really changing how good you have to be in terms of building messages that resonate. And so, it'll be an exciting 10 to 15 years looking forward. 

Stephanie Cox: I'm excited to see people that start pushing that before they're required to. 

Brent Bouldin: Well, I think you already see that, right? I think you're starting to see branded content. I think of some of the stuff that my kids watch on YouTube, for example, like some of that stuff is, I'll go and they're watching a video of somebody doing an extreme sport. And it's all branded content from Red Bull, for example. And so, there's companies out there that have figured out the best way to get their message out there is through some of this type of activity. Rather than trying to like popping an ad in front of somebody, right before they conduct a transaction. So, again, we heard here yesterday about Amazon, for example, going out and producing movies as a means to drive loyalty to the Prime program. Because the only way to take advantage of the movies that they produce is as member of Prime and so things like that are really fundamentally changing even the delivery models of some of these advertising, if you will.

Stephanie Cox: So if you had a crystal ball and you could look five years in the future, what does the future of mobile look like to you? How do we engage on mobile devices, how we marketing people on mobile devices? 

Brent Bouldin: Yeah I think, again, five years from now mobile and desktop will be one in the same. You know I think about some of these tablet-like devices like Microsoft Surface, everything that we can do on a desktop. You can do that today, but like if I need to crank on a PowerPoint deck, I'm still going back to my desk because I need the mouse, I need to the big monitor. I think that type of thing will go away and everything that you can do will be mobile-driven, not going to have to be tethered to a hard drive in your office, or the network at the office. Everything will be on the mobile device and completely portable. And then I think, honestly, your device will be your primary means of consuming media, all kinds of media television, it already is for music and that kind of thing. So, you know, I think it'll be the control center for your home as you turn lights on and off and all the things. Yeah, they're out there today but the adoption level is not mainstream yet. But all of that will be mainstream and so, in terms of marketing, it's figuring out how do you enter that space in a meaningful way? Whether it is through some of the things we're talking about, where you're providing content that acts as marketing. Or whether it could be the thing that type of thing where you're switching back to some of the more traditional forms of sponsorship marketing, so you can be in the in the events that people are that care about and it'll be interesting to see how that happens. I wish I had a crystal ball that was less foggy.

Stephanie Cox: Don't we all!

Brent raised so many thought-provoking questions during my conversation with him from whether or not digital marketing actually still exists anymore or if it's just marketing. To the idea that one day there may not really be a difference between mobile or desktop. These are the types of questions that we as marketers really need to be thinking about among a host of other ones. Because what we're doing right now is making bets on where the future of marketing is headed. And we all know it's much easier if we're ahead of the game than if  we're behind it. Now, let's get to my favorite part of the show where we take the education and apply it to your business.

There's so many great insights to my conversation with Brent that can really help transform how you think about mobile marketing. Let's dive into my top three takeaways. First can we all agree that mobile and desktop are not the same thing. At least not right now and what I mean by that is consumer behavior on mobile devices is dramatically different than how they behave on desktop. The way we search, interact, purchase, etc. is very different on each device for a variety of reasons. And sometimes that has to do with the experience we as marketers are providing on mobile vs. Desktop. While other times it has to do with the behaviors consumers want to take on each device. We need to make sure we're designing each of these experiences based on how our users will interact with them. We need to just stop assuming that desktop is a bigger version of mobile and vice-versa. 

Next, are you missing out on Innovation? Because you're only focusing on what's worked before and not answering what's next. It's easy for us to sometimes fall victim to this especially when it comes to budget and we're allocating resources, but it doesn't result in us pushing our brand forward.It also doesn't usually cause us to drive hockey stick growth results that we all honestly really want and it can cause us to fall behind are competition without even realizing it. Like Brent mentioned, he's currently trying to have ten to fifteen percent of each campaign focused on innovation area and I’d even challenge you and him to consider upping that amount closer to 20%. That's the only way to ensure you're not getting left behind and are truly taking advantage of the latest technology and ideas available. 

Finally, we all need to raise the bar. That's a resounding message I took away from my conversation with Brent. As marketers, we have a responsibility to our customers to deliver meaningful and relevant message that helps them while also driving results for a business and sometimes we make good choices and have done the right thing and other times we honestly haven't and that's why Tech providers like Google and regulations like GDPR exist because we couldn't police ourselves and we weren't reliable enough to make good choices. We can do better. We must do better you guys, we need to stop forcing other organizations and governments to regulate us because we can't make the right decisions based on what our customers want. We need to put our customers right in the middle of what we do and I'm not talking about the data model. I'm talking about asking them how they want to be communicated with the channels they want to see us on and then actually respecting those wishes. Marketing shouldn't be an interruption based concept anymore it needs to be permission focused which means you have to deliver value in order to earn their permission. I believe we all can do it, but I need your help to accomplish it.

Now, here's my mobile marketing challenge for the week: find a way to ask your customers how they want to hear from you. And I know the best way normally to do that is through both quantitative and qualitative surveys, but you also need something much more informal in order to get a quick pulse and that's what I'm talking about here. And that could be something simple like a poll on social media or asking a couple of customers during quick phone calls. Basically start collecting this information so you can rethink the channels you are using and start delivering the type of experience customers actually want. It's a starting point. I'm Stephanie Cox and you've been listening to mobile matters. If you haven't yet - Be sure to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. Until then be sure to visit and subscribe to get more access to thought leaders best practices and all things mobile.

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