Cover Story: Direct Marketer of the Year: Sandy Carter
Breaking her ankle in 17 places during a ski trip wasn't what Sandy Carter's friends and colleagues meant when they called her a "force of nature." They were referring to the IBM general manager's ethos, typified by her reaction to sitting out the 2006-2007 ski season. During that time, Carter wrote her first book, "The New Language of Business: SOA and Web 2.0."
"It's kind of related to my career," Carter says, laughing, "in that you think you're so busy. You're always so busy. But sometimes things happen and they seem really bad. But then they turn out for good."
In 2009, when the rest of the direct marketing world was complaining about yet another shakeup of the Internet ecosystem, saying social media marketing and gamification weren't tied to a return on investment (ROI), Carter and Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM proved them wrong. INNOV8 2.0, now "CityOne: A Smarter Planet game," was the No. 1 lead generation asset for WebSphere software when Carter was the vice president of service-oriented architecture and WebSphere strategy, channels and marketing. Before the article about that feat could reach Target Marketing magazine print subscribers, Carter was promoted to Vice President, IBM Software Group Business Partners.
When editors chose her as Target Marketing magazine's 2013 Direct Marketer of the Year, Carter's title was Vice President, Social Business Evangelism and Sales at IBM. Now general manager, her new responsibilities are immense. IBM expects her to help its clients capitalize on their share of an estimated "$500 billion of opportunity by 2015" through Big Data, cloud, mobile, social and analytics "business ecosystems."
All the while, Carter continues to innovate and give back to the direct marketing community. She tweets, blogs and authors books. She speaks at conferences, including her August 2011 keynote at what is now called the Integrated Marketing Virtual Conference and Expo. She mentors, organizes events and leads professional groups, employing the positive "let's get the job done" attitude her friends and colleagues say is synonymous with Sandy Carter.
"I tell people Sandy is simply amazing," says Clarissa Felts, vice president of collaboration, diversity and inclusion at Mooresville, N.C.-based Lowe's Home Improvement. "She is able to break down complex problems and diagnose how to overcome challenges and make them into opportunities."
Carter says that's something she's always enjoyed.
"I think that's the power of marketing, right? A great marketer," Carter says, pronouncing it marketeer, "can relate to his or her audience and help them to understand the value, without them really having to understand all the nuts and bolts underneath the value, right? It's the difference between dead fish—going out and marketing dead fish—or sushi. It's the way that you present the idea. And if you can present it in a way that people are attracted to, then they get excited about your product."
On a Roll
Carter earned her Master of Business Administration degree in managing technology and marketing from Harvard Business School and joined IBM in product development in 1989. Rather quickly, she saw marketers trying to sell dead fish instead of sushi. She stepped in.
"I was actually [working] on the part where we would actually produce the product," she says of her first seven years at IBM. "And it was so cool and the marketing folks didn't grasp it. Didn't grasp the value prop[osition]. Didn't really understand the differentiation. And so I would go and help them to do that. And it just was so exciting to see the light bulb go on when they finally got it and they said, 'Wow. This is really cool.' … I would say probably that was my first 'aha' moment when I decided, 'You know, maybe it's not sales. Maybe it's not development. But it's probably marketing that's stolen my heart away.'"
Right away, Carter had the advantage of diverse experience she could leverage in her marketing career, says Judith Hurwitz, president and CEO of Newton, Mass.-based consultancy Hurwitz and Associates. A skill Carter eventually added that improved her marketing even more was her sales experience. Carter understood the importance of ROI.
"If what you're doing doesn't impact revenue, then you're not going to rise further in the organization," says Hurwitz, who met Carter in Texas, where Carter started her career with IBM.
Agreeing with Hurwitz but speaking more generally, Carter says marketers tell stories, and stories have to have endings. She thinks of the "happily ever after" moment as the ROI. This, despite reading the "5 Surprising Marketing Trends for 2013" article in Forbes about Fournaise Marketing Group research saying 73 percent of executives don't think marketing "significantly" ties to creating revenue.
"I think lead gen is good," Carter says. "But that's an in-process metric. I think marketing's value will be weighted against sales growth. And I think that will change completely the [key performance indicators] KPIs that marketing will drive to. And I think that was Judith's point … align your business goals together and you're really focused on ROI—not, 'Oh, I produced three leads at this event.' Well, they never closed. Or they were the wrong client. Or they weren't interested in your product. That, to me, is not a metric. A metric is something that really impacts the growth of your business."
"What I always appreciated about Sandy's work and where I've seen her be most successful," Hurwitz says, "is a lot of marketers want to look at the big picture, 'What's the driver?' and they go in that direction. What Sandy did—that was very different, that we worked very closely on—was this idea of 'entry point.' So she really understood … you can't just say to a customer, 'Hey, buy this technology. It's cool.' Customers have to be very comfortable that they can actually take that technology and be successful. … She'd put it in terms of, 'If this is your problem, start here.' Start small. Start with something that really addresses the specific pain of customers, and then grow from there."
That approach, for instance, is evident in CityOne. The game explains IBM's technology and the problems it solves to the water/energy and banking/retail verticals during game play.
"One of my very favorite marketing [accomplishments was to] create that game," Carter says. "It was fascinating, because what it enabled me to do was to activate the social media skills. It enabled me to capture something super fun. My customers actually had fun while giving me information about themselves. It was different. It was wildly successful. Not just in one market, but multiple markets. And it enabled me to go to market in a creative, different way while capitalizing on the social/mobile trend."
While gamification became one of IBM's top marketing tactics, she credits her boss at the time—Steven A. Mills, Senior Vice President and Group Executive, Software and Systems—with encouraging her in taking such a chance.
"It was great to have that support from a senior leader at IBM who was willing to let us try to experiment," Carter says.
He was also willing to accept some social media marketing failures.
"At IBM, we were looking at several categories," Carter says. "And we wanted to see how we could leverage marketing to really grow our insights on a category. For us, it was around a technology area. And so we decided to experiment, which I think social is really great to do with. We experimented with things like YouTube and then Twitter very, very early on, saw immediate impact, made some mistakes, recovered quickly, failed fast, and started over again and just saw tremendous impact in that particular brand that I had focused on at the time. So it really came about just as a way to experiment and to take a category that we were marketing to the next level."
Carter Pays It Forward
"I think the really cool thing is that now I have a [vice president] of marketing that reports to me and I understand and value that marketing," Carter says. "So you're going to see us do a lot of really cool things. My team has already come up with a lot of social campaigns they want to run. We will now focus on startups and getting them on the IBM platform. So you're going to see us leverage a lot of social to garner their support—just in getting partners interested in the IBM platform and understanding what's happening. You'll see us leveraging many different tactics.
"But direct marketing and social will be critical ones," Carter continues, raising her voice and speaking quickly through a smile, "I had a meeting with my marketing team … and it was really cool, because I understood everything they were saying to me. They didn't have to pause and dumb stuff down. I directly understood what was happening and we could make some really quick changes in what we're doing to leverage more social."
More social, Carter says. As of September 2013, this is what is already happening in social, according to IBM. The company's internal social media footprint today includes:
- IBM Connections: IBM's workforce of 433,000 use the tool
- Communities: more than 170,000 communities
- Wikis: 99,500 wikis, 1.6 million pages, 92.4 million views
- Blogs: 428,000 users, 74,500 blogs, 244,000 entries
- Bookmarks: 64,600 users, 1.6 million bookmarks, 4.8 million tags
- Files: 1.18 million files shared, 44.8 million downloads
- Instant Messages: more than 50 million instant messages/day
IBM's external social media footprint today includes:
- Facebook: 198,000 employees, 250,000 "People for a Smarter Planet" followers
- LinkedIn: 304,000 employees, 16 million first-order connections, 692,277 IBM followers, 343,000 IBM alumni
- Twitter: 32,000 employees
- Blogs: Thousands of individual IBMer blogs
- IBM YouTube channel: 4.5 million views
- A Smarter Planet blog: 50,000 visits per month to the site
- developerWorks: 8 million community profiles
- Greater IBM Connections: 100,000 IBM alumni members
Jeremiah Owyang, Partner at San Mateo, Calif.-based Altimeter Group, himself a big name in social media, says Carter connects with those outside IBM in a way that transcends all these numbers.
"[She is a] business thought leader, but a practitioner," Owyang says. "She knows her stuff. She articulates it incredibly well and she represents IBM in a very professional, yet human way. You know, IBM, let's be honest, is known as a big, giant, blue logo. Very corporate. They wear suits. And she's a warm, smiling woman who connects with people at a human level and truly lives social business as that type of person."
Carter Is Giving Back
Carter is a woman in the overwhelmingly male-dominated field of technology. (See The Tech Gender Gap sidebar.) It's a fact Carter acknowledges but doesn't dwell on.
Hurwitz alludes to Carter's push past the soft sexism of lowered expectations. When Carter became a mother, Hurwitz says "some people assumed that … she would be less driven and have more of a softer approach … but I think that they were probably disappointed, because she was as driven as ever."
Still in an upbeat tone, which Carter maintains except when she speaks with intensity about her love of marketing, Carter cites Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book, "Lean In." Carter says she finds it "fascinating" that women are introduced by name, title and number of children; while men are introduced by name, title and number of career accomplishments.
"I'm proud of being a mom and being able to achieve what I've been blessed to achieve while being a mom," Carter says. "I think it's important for people to know that they can do both. They don't have to sacrifice being a mom. Nor would I ever want someone to sacrifice that."
Years ago, the need for camaraderie among IBM women prompted Carter to found the "Super Women's Group," which now has 18,000 members. The group is linked to Women in Technology International (WITI), where Carter chairs the advisory board and recently "initiated, developed and led a very successful social media campaign for the WITI Summit," says Carolyn Leighton, WITI's chairwoman and founder.
In 2010, the organization inducted Carter into the WITI Hall of Fame.
"I believe that people are people and you're put in positions because of your performance," Carter says. "But I do feel a great deal of responsibility to help other women be successful. … [Retired IBMer J.T. "Ted" Childs Jr., now a workforce diversity consultant,] taught me, early on, that it's everybody's responsibility to pull someone through. That's what he called it. Reach back and pull someone through.
"And I feel because of who I am," Carter continues, "I have a great responsibility to do that. To pull others through. To help. And doing that, not because they're women, but doing that because I see talent and potential and just know that they might need a little nudge to be more successful, a little confidence or a little extra push. And I do feel a great sense of responsibility to do that, based on where I am."
Even as Carter alludes to currently mentoring talented marketers, she has some thoughts on what they and other marketers will need to consider in the future.
Mobile is important to know, but it has been for a while now, Carter says. Pay attention to the cloud, she advises. And definitely stop thinking of customer funnels. She sees it as a circle, with consumers and customers entering and exiting "all over the place," causing the need for a perpetual campaign.
"To be a great marketer today, you have to be able to use technology," Carter says. "Use the analytics. In fact, a lot of IBM research shows that marketing and IT getting together and partnering today is the most powerful partnership that exists out there. And so I think that a lot of marketers came up … on the agency side, or they're just on the creative side, and they're fearful of the technology. I think it's changing a little bit with the next generation, but I think a set of [a] generation today is a little fearful of that technology."
To be great at social, says Carter, "you have to know how to optimize your searches. You've got to know what your keywords are. You've got to be comfortable tagging. You've got to be out there blogging. You've got to be using the technology.
"You can't just be sitting back and coming up with pretty words," Carter continues. "You've got to be able to frame 'em. And I do see that as a big challenge for a lot of marketers today. They're afraid of the technology. At IBM, we have a type of skill. It's called a T-shaped skill, where you're broad at something and you're deep at something. And the best marketers that we can see are those that are deep in marketing, but they have that breadth of understanding the technology—how to use analytics so you can analyze the output of your campaign; how to use the social tools so that you can reach your client much more effectively. How do you deal with Big Data so that you can do a focus group on the fly? And if you're fearful of those things, you're not going to take advantage of listening to all those watercooler conversations that are happening around the world."
If marketers are too scared to dive in, just dip a toe in the water, Carter suggests. Start by using tools that do a lot of the work for marketers.
Carter Going Forward
Her friends and colleagues agree on plenty about Carter, so the main difference in what they expect for her future is which type of company will be able to boast about her being its CEO.
"There is no question in my mind," Owyang says. "Sandy will be the CEO of a top 10 company."
Leighton thinks it will be a Fortune 500 or 1,000. "No limits," says Gary Swale, director of business development at South African company Knowledge Dimension, which uses IBM social business software.
Carter may have a more literary goal—bringing thrillers into the 21st century. That genre's authors seem to think email is cutting-edge technology.
"In 10 years, I would love to be an author of fiction books, teaching marketing at a prestigious school," Carter says.
As surprising as that may be to many, Carter points out that she does see the world from a different perspective. To her, everything's about marketing.
"I think the biggest inspiration about marketing, to me, is the creativity," Carter says. "Now IBM produces this 'CEO Study' … and in that CEO study, it shows that CEOs like breakthrough thinking and creativity. And I think marketing affords you the ability to think outside the box, [to] come up with a different way to break through the noise and to be different—to solve the problem in a different fashion. And that's always been something that's been exciting to me, coming up with that creative solution. And I think that's really what inspires me and really keeps me coming back for more and more and more."
That thought goes back to her point—that great marketers tell great stories, complete with happy ROI endings.
"One of my favorite quotes is, 'Tell me the facts and I'll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever,'" Carter says. "That's what marketing is. It's about telling a story, getting someone engaged with you—engaged in social or engaged with a message. And to me, [those are] the words of wisdom … figure out the story behind something as you're trying to market it. Because I think stories always sell."
So by now, it's clear why Swale and Susan Blocher, vice president of marketing and communications for IBM PureSystems, call Carter a "force of nature."
"You can't help wanting to work with her," Blocher says, "because so much of what she does is industry-leading and innovative. She is able to create this incredible momentum around everything she works on. She once told me that her mom used to call her the 'Energizer Bunny' when she was a kid, and I think that is a great descriptor. She is relentless about driving marketing, reaching out to the entire ecosystem and helping to make IBM relevant to our clients."
It sounds a bit like Carter's friends and colleagues are wishing her luck, telling her to "break a leg." That sounds familiar.