Ashley Abdullah is the Director of Marketing & Communications at eMerge Americas, where she drives Growth and Engagement for the brand.
eMerge Americas is a platform that connects the dots between startups, investors, higher education institutions, corporate enterprises and government officials. It's all for one objective to spur investment and innovation across the Americas, to create a sustainable and thriving tech hub.
They host an annual tech conference each year in Miami Beach, Florida. In 2019, the conference hosted 16,000 people from 40 different countries, and had over 100 startups that competed in the Startup Showcase.
There have been over 800 startups that competed in the startup showcase thus far in the 7 years eMerge has been in existence, those startups have gone on to raise close to $500 million in venture capital.
I sat down with Ashley to learn about her journey in the marketing field and her insights in growth, comms and in PR best practices.
How did you get into Marketing? What was your path?
Ashley began by saying that her background is in media “I do not come from the startup world, which is surprising. Prior to joining eMerge Americas just two years ago, I spent 11 years at a company called Univision Communications. It's the number one Hispanic television network in the US.”
Throughout the 11 years at Univision Communications Ashley held multiple roles, beginning in operations, overseeing multiple markets, sales and multiple roles within marketing.
Ashley went on to say “Ultimately I was responsible for leading a cross-functional team that promoted all of the shows within our prime time lineup. For example, whenever you see a television promo promoting a new series on a channel that you’re watching, I was part of the team that put together that multi platform campaign, promoting those big properties - whether it was a telenovela, a movie, or the Latin Grammys.”
“All of that was part of the training that ultimately led to my role at eMerge Americas, because I leverage all of that media experience and brand marketing to refine and enhance the eMerge content. We're transitioning to become a digitally native type of brand, similar to TEDx. You don't think of TEDx as the conference, you think about the content you can see on their YouTube channel and share across the social platforms you use.”
Ashley says that she is transitioning the eMerge content for digital re-consumption, and then repurposing it to be a multi platform offering, whether it's across digital channels, social media, or email, all to engage startups and entrepreneurs with the eMerge brand.
What kind of Demand Generation activities do you do at eMerge to drive Growth and Engagement?
Ashley says that email marketing is their number one channel. They also focus on social media channels where they do both Organic and Paid campaigns.
She continued by saying “There is seasonality to our paid campaigns, which ramp up when the conference is scheduled. We had to postpone the 2020 conference due to the global pandemic, so we’ve mostly been focused on creating relevant content to engage our followers, network and subscribers.”
“We had to really adapt to meet our network and subscribers with what they needed. We began by immediately looking for partnerships to put up a COVID-19 Resource Center.”
Later, amid the national conversation surrounding the social protests, eMerge partnered with Wyncode, a Miami-based coding organization, to host a hackathon to create digital solutions addressing racism. People sought to do something that was meaningful and impactful. So, alongside Wyncode and the Mayor of Miami, arrangements were made for the hackathon winner to present their solution at the eMerge Americas 2021 conference.
The eMerge weekly newsletter, entitled The BRIEF, became a very powerful tool intended to be an opportunity to engage once a week with their audience. It's a resource that their audience looks forward to receiving via email, which is evidenced by how it gets shared across social media each week..
In addition to social media posts eMerge has a mobile app that is activated when their annual conference approaches. “The intention is for our app to be another channel to consistently engage with our audience year-round, through push notifications and exclusive content” said Ashley.
When it comes to your email marketing, is there a certain day and time you send the newsletter out?
Ashley went on to say “Yes, we always send it out Tuesday mornings.”
“I like to do A/B testing for the newsletter times. We email to the first group at 7am, then the next group is at 10am. It has been consistent since we launched the newsletter. Best practice is to allocate 3-4 hours between tests,” says Ashley.
“The reason why we have always done that timeframe and that specific week day is because the analytics indicate that the amount of email opens are significantly higher within that morning window between 7am and 10am. If we go outside of that window it starts to taper down. The reason why we always landed on Tuesdays was because naturally Mondays are not the best day for email marketing; people are busy, and then later in the week those opens tend to drop off as well.”
How do you do your A/B testing and what software do you use?
Ashley says that they split the list into two. The first half gets the 7am email, testing two different subject lines that get sent to 25% and 25% without changing the content.
The winning email/subject line is selected at 10am, then at 10:01am it's triggered to send to the remaining 50% of that list.
Ashley uses HubSpot for their email marketing, and Salesforce for the CRM. “We basically import lists from Salesforce to send email out in HubSpot because that's the best way for us to manage the analytics on the opens, which we see in HubSpot” says Ashley.
For design Ashley says they use a platform called Bee Free. A graphic designer creates the email template or a particular creative for email, then loads it into Bee Free to ensure that it’s device responsive. The HTML code is uploaded to HubSpot for the email list distribution.
What would be a typical path for a user to enter the eMerge list to start receiving communication?
Ashley described that there are a couple ways, they go through either marketing or sales funnels. For example, a marketing channel that’s driving conversions could be a lead gen campaign from their website, newsletter signup, a social media campaign or virtual event registration.
Another way is a sales funnel via contacts coming from Salesforce, which are directly entered by their sales team.
“There are layers to it, it’s not just one name within a certain company that may be targeted for a certain campaign,” says Ashley. “It’s more like ‘here's a particular account that we may be approaching, these are the initial contacts who are the decision makers and separately the marketing team that is a part of that.’ Within one particular company you can have close to 30 contacts, so segmenting is crucial.”
The segment is selected depending on the campaign that Ashley is sending. For example, if it's a marketing-specific campaign it may not be going to a sales list. But if it’s a campaign that can influence a sales decision or something that's going to their sales list - that segmentation is built out within Salesforce. Then the list is imported into HubSpot based on the markers that are filtered within Salesforce.
Ashley says that there can also be a situation where a lead may have come in through a marketing channel attending their conference, but then later became a contact for the sales channel - so she needs to be able to distinguish it to determine if a contact should be targeted to market a promo on conference registration tickets versus a sales package that they are putting together or a sponsorship opportunity. She needs to be able to segment all of that out and be able to dig deep to determine who's where.
When it comes to advertising, did you find any channel working better than the other? Are there any experimental ones like Twitter or LinkedIn?
Ashley said that for eMerge there is a mix of channels that are used. Since being at eMerge Ashley has tested and experimented with different channels and tools. She gave an example “as part of our 2019 digital strategy we used a small allocation to test a platform called Addaptive, which takes AdWords and Display Advertising and puts the ads on sites where it’s more likely for our network to be found.” She said that this experiment had a neutral net effect in terms of whether she would put more money on it.
Ashley says that they constantly experiment and it’s important to understand how channels work and what adjustments need to be made internally to run ads. “I think that there are different ways to make creative assets more effective on different platforms. It’s all about adjusting the messaging and the creative according to the platform and how your target audience interacts with it.”
In terms of channels, Ashley listed Linkedin, Twitter and Instagram as some of the paid strategies they experimented with and didn’t get significant results in 2019, but Facebook advertising was by far their most successful channel because their audience naturally just tends to be found on Facebook.
“At the end of the day, it’s about understanding where your creative asset is best suited. Each platform is different. You need to understand how your audience engages with each particular platform,” says Ashley.
Ashley continued “Outside of that, out of all of our experiments on each single channel - whether it's across social, paid, website, and email marketing - the format that performs exponentially better for us is always video content! That's why I've been leaning more into video content over static content, because we know that we're going to get significantly more engagement with video.”
What do you call good performance in terms of conversions? What KPIs matter?
Ashley said that their number one conversion goal is event registration, second is signups for the newsletter via lead gen funnels throughout eMerge’s website.
In addition, Ashley looks at clicks and email opens, but ultimately what she’s reporting upwards is how much a campaign converts into adding contacts into their database or how many event registrations are garnered.
What’s your CTA in ads and how does your funnel look like?
Ashley said that the CTA is driving to the registration page on the eMerge website. From there it takes to a separate registration site which is handled by a third party to process the purchase transaction.
Since the user journey has different steps, Ashley looks at any drop off in the funnel. She can see each step within that process or the funnel and conversely how long a user is staying within each step. For example, if a user lands on step one and they’ve been on that page for about 15-20 minutes, then they proceeded to step two and three, she is able to look at how that user's behavior progresses to conversion - this infromation gets summarized into a master report for her.
Who is your target audience?
Ashley says it really depends on the campaign. She went on to explain that as they prepare for the annual conference before beginning their marketing promotional strategy, they define who their audience is, outside of their usual startup entrepreneurs and corporate enterprises, depending on the content pillars.
Content pillars range from cybersecurity and health tech for example, as well as an eGOV summit including government officials focused public and private partnerships.
“So what I'm doing is segmenting those audiences and developing creative assets and formats to speak just to them” says Ashley.
She has multiple campaigns that run at different times that occasionally overlap. “There's an overall campaign promoting the conference and the conference experience itself, but there are micro campaigns promoting each content pillar.” For example, if you attend the eMerge Americas conference for 4 days and you are only interested in the cybersecurity track, you’ll receive messaging for that content, and you’ll also see relevant speakers and hear about opportunities for networking.
Ashley mentioned that campaigns sometimes also overlap with tags, let’s say for cybersecurity and women in tech. In that case,those lists will receive multiple campaigns according to the segment.
In a given year Ashley says she can have over 60 micro campaigns in over a four month period leading up to that conference. “Some of them intersect, so whenever I'm writing out a campaign brief for my teams I'm literally listing out mindsets, target consumers, and all of those potential audience segments that can overlap. That way we know when within that particular campaign we need to create different messaging, different video elements and overall different creatives for that same campaign but different audiences.”
When you have 60 different campaigns, how do you capture the audience categorization at the moment of conversion in your CRM?
Ashley said the tags get set based in the creative and not the landing page. Because all audiences land on one page, so it's figuring out which creative converted the lead.
For example a person could have received half of all campaigns whether it's through email, social media, paid, and/or organic. When they click the ad and convert - the data point for segmentation is what creative initiated a visit to their homepage, then registration page and ticket purchase.
For example, a lead could be segmented for cybersecurity, but within the cybersecurity content pillar there could be six different creatives. Then the questions to ask would be “was the lead exposed to all six and only reacted to one?” Or “were they only exposed to one and reacted to that one?”
She’s looking at what creative a lead saw, and then what was the final creative that converted. The tag from that creative is the tag that’s passed to the CRM.
The registration system gets the trackers to report time in each stage of the funnel and where the lead came from. They have an analytics team that sets up all of those things.
This concludes my conversation with Ashley. I learned a lot, and I hope you did too. To learn more about eMerge Americas visit emergeamericas.com, and to connect with Ashley you can find her on Linkedin at Ashley Eden Abdullah.