“I can look at a line, see a trend, and figure out what I need to do to change it.” If you’ve said or thought this, you are either Tim Ho or someone else destined for marketing analytics and data storytelling greatness. Tim is the manager of optimization and analytics at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota’s largest newspaper, with a 150-year heritage. We spoke with him at our RampUp Minneapolis road show to discuss his role as a marketing analyst and data storyteller who helps the Star Tribune’s advertisers plan, measure, and optimize ad campaigns, and shapes the publication’s marketing technology strategy.
Listen to our podcast here or read the transcript below:
RampUp: Can you tell me about what you do at Star Tribune?
Tim: Sure. My name is Tim Ho. I am the manager of optimization and analytics at Star Tribune. I oversee the campaign management team as well as the programmatic buying team. For our digital ad campaigns, my team starts ad campaigns from signing the contract all the way through to the reporting analysis at the end to provide recommendations to our sellers for potential upsell or other opportunities. Our job is really to make sure the clients’ campaigns succeed.
RampUp: Have you always been in marketing analytics with publications, or have you worked in other industries?
Tim: I started my career in the defense contracting business as a marketing coordinator. I moved into market research for a company called General Dynamics, which is focused on selling satellite communications to the government, military, and some large commercial companies.
In 2014, I had an opportunity to come over to Cox Media Group in Atlanta to be a senior product analyst working on their programmatic monetization. From then on, I fell in love with digital media and have stuck with it ever since.
RampUp: What attracted you to the analytical side of digital?
Tim: I’ve always been analytical in nature, whether it be quantitative or qualitative data. At General Dynamics, I was focused on qualitative data and providing feedback and analysis to our C-suite on our competitors, the industry, and trends I saw happening.
When I got the opportunity to go to Cox Media Group, I moved to analyzing quantitative data from qualitative data. It was a very natural progression. I’m not, by any means, a mathematician, but I can look at a line, see a trend, and figure out what I need to do to change it.
As I got better in understanding all the digital tactics that you can do in this day and age, I learned that certain tactics can pull certain levers, and understood which analytics come out the end. It really resonated with me.
Now, I figure out the storytelling behind the data and analytics because analytics alone is just numbers. You’ve really made the sell and won when you can tell a story and convey it to a person who doesn’t know digital.
RampUp: Can you give us an example of the sort of data storytelling that you bring to advertisers?
Tim: Sure. I have a perfect example for that. Last year, a local gutter company advertised with us. They sell high-end gutter systems for your house. They had always only done search marketing, specifically paid search, because the owner of the company only cared about how much it cost for him to get each appointment.
It worked for him, but he was averaging about $200 for each appointment. So, I told him, “the problem is, you’re spending all this money on search, yet you are not doing anything to communicate your message out to the market. How are people going to find you if they do not know who you are?”
That was basically my logic to him. He agreed. The company gave us a very small budget for three months to do any other advertising outside of search. This was very uncomfortable for this advertiser. They only did search, and they were very scared about display campaigns and things like that.
So, I designed a campaign to address his awareness problem. I drove people to know his brand through session front takeovers and homepage takeovers on startribune.com. I also took keywords from his search campaigns and placed them into the ads. People in-market for gutters saw these keywords all the time.
Then, I retargeted to bring back prospects who searched for gutter systems and visited his website. We were able to drive down his cost per acquisition to about $50. Gutter systems range in cost from $2,000 to $5,000, and he’s only paying $50 per lead. So, that is a great storytelling win because I was able to show that all the money he’s putting in is going to have an output on his actual cost position at the end.
Now, we do that by having access to search engine marketing (SEM) and Google analytics. That’s how we’re pulling all the data. The key was setting up the campaign in a way where I knew it was going to drive a certain metric.
RampUp: That’s an awesome example. As a content person, I’m looking at publications from a very different lens. It’s exciting to hear how the advertising industry is rallying around trying to get publishers to show their chops around the engaged audience they attract. How do you measure results?
Tim: To measure this campaign, we used our Star Tribune audience analytics tag.
Once they place this tag on their site, I’m able to fire all the marketing tags that I need without needing the client to do it themselves. A lot of these clients, especially if they’re small SMBs, don’t have a development team to place a floodlight pixel, DMP pixel, or any of that stuff. So, this tag allowed us to do that for the client.
Now, there is a trust involved, and there’s terms and conditions like that, but it’s really the key to our business. So, for instance, if I didn’t have that tag, all I would be able to report on is the number of impressions we serve, the number of clicks we got, and what’s our click-through rate. That really doesn’t mean anything anymore. No one really clicks on an ad anymore.
But, with this stat tag, I can show him what pages people visited. With my DMP tag, I show him this is the audience that comes to your site. This is their demographic. This is their affinity. This is what they like to do. They like to golf, they like to play sports—I can share all these unique attributes.
Then, I can actually take that intelligence and cater his marketing campaign to it. I can activate on that audience through the DSPs that we use.
Then, I can figure out what section of Star Tribune he should be on. If he has people that love sports, he should not be buying a variety section. A perfect case with this client is with our DMP pixel, we figured out that a lot of his clientele were actually business people at the executive or director level, so we got him a section front takeover of our business section.
We would never have known this without that tag and without our DMP data. So, the stat tag is what really powers our analytics and powers our marketing efforts for each and every one of our clients.
RampUp: So, it sounds like Star Tribune has a pretty sophisticated market stacking at this point.
Tim: Yes, we do.
RampUp: Are you also involved in testing out new products and seeing what technology would bring in?
Tim: Yes. That’s very much a part of my role. I am constantly evaluating different technologies to see how they can fit in with what we do. The one problem with digital media is there are too many vendors doing the exact same thing. I always have to take everything with a grain of salt, but if I hear anything that I think is worthwhile, I definitely look into it.
I’m constantly evaluating new technologies and how we can really incorporate them into our systems and make it work.
RampUp: Do you find it a challenge to differentiate between the adtech and martech players out there, and secondly, do you find it difficult to then sell in some new investments?
Tim: Yes. That’s a good question. Sometimes it does get difficult when you’re trying to decide between two products, like a DMP versus a CDP. What’s the difference? It really blurs the line. I think what you need to do as a marketer is look at each vendor and evaluate how is their technology going to work for your company’s strategy, versus trying to make your company’s martech stack fit what that vendor is selling.
The difficult part is figuring out what vendors do exactly, how their technology would fit into my marketing stack, and how they would benefit my advertisers in the end. Then, you have to go get the funding for it.
What I do is determine how much of a product I’m going to use. If I’m only going to use 25% of product A, then that means it’s not worth it for me.
But, if I’m going to use 25%, and I have three other departments that are going to use another 25%, then I can get buy-in and share budgets. We can all work together and bring on something that helps the company as a whole.
Right now, I’m helping our digital team who builds our websites evaluate a CDP. When this company first came to us, I knew I was only going to use 25% of their technology, and I didn’t think it was really worth it. But, to my point above, I did think that the product would help the company overall, so I introduced them to other people they should talk to at Star Tribune to try to get buy-in from other departments.
RampUp: That’s great. There’s a lot of exciting things in the mix. Can you give us a couple predictions for future marketing, especially as it relates to publishers?
Tim: Yes. So, I’m going to give you a future, and I’m going to give you a hope, too, because this is what I really hope, and it kind of goes back to people-based marketing and a single view of the customer. I hope one day that these publishers will incorporate Google single sign-on and Facebook single sign-on to their website because truly, with all the devices we have these days, the traditional cookie is going to go away eventually. Publishers cannot build this single sign-on in-house—it’s not going to work.
It’s too difficult to stitch devices together when you’re building the data yourself, or if you’re bringing on a vendor. I know we all don’t like Google and Facebook because they’re a duopoly, but that single sign-on piece really can be used many different ways.
So, maybe this is something that eventually Google is going to make more available to publishers. They’re going to get more data and they’ll get something out of it, but I think the win for the publisher outweighs what Google would get from a publisher, especially if you’re a local media publisher like Star Tribune.
So, that’s where I see the industry going in order to identify that person and advertise to them, showing them what they want and what they like. I love it when I’m on a website or I Google something, and then I go to Facebook, and I see the shoes that I’ve been looking at immediately. I like that customization. I feel like the public likes it, too, even though they’re scared because they think people are following them, but I always ask this question: Would you want to get ads that aren’t relevant to you, or do you want to get ones that are? You don’t want to see men’s shoes if you’re a female. So, I think that as the public gets more comfortable with it, we’ll be seeing a lot more of this customized advertising done at even a higher scale than it really is today.
RampUp: That was the future and the hope as well?
Tim: Yes, it’s kind of hope and future wrapped in one. The reason why it’s a hope is because I don’t think publishers are open to that. A lot of publishers are really afraid of Facebook and Google because now they’re getting into their own content creation, and they are big competitors to go against. Whenever you have to use a competitor’s technology, you’re kind of at their whim.
For instance, the biggest ad server out there is Google DFP. There’s one more, but I don’t even know what they are. I just use Google DFP. It’s the norm, but then literally you are only tied to Google. That’s really the fear, and I hope that eventually there will be a common bond between publishers, Google, and Facebook to get that all ironed out so that publishers like us can use that single sign-on capability and be able to target that customer across multiple devices without having to depend on a cookie.