As marketers, we all think and feel that we can transform consumers’ lives. But how many of us actually know what it means to serve transformational consumers, moving them from unhealthy to healthy, from renter to homeowner, or dreamer to entrepreneur? Tara-Nicholle Nelson is an expert in this area, having coined the term “transformational consumer.” As a seasoned senior marketer who has worked at Trulia and MyFitnessPal, she has a keen perspective on what makes people seek change and stick with it.
Listen to our podcast or read an excerpt of our conversation below. (But really, listen to the podcast because it’s awesome.)
RampUp: Can you provide a snapshot of who you are and how you came up with the term “transformational consumer?”
Tara: I have a master’s degree in psychology. I am a trained lawyer. When I was a lawyer, I represented real estate brokers and learned a lot about real estate. I decided that was a field I wanted to go into so I could give people trusted, solid advice that was at the intersection of real estate and lifestyle design, which is what people are looking for when they buy homes. I went into real estate and ended up writing a book about real estate for women that was ultimately licensed by HGTV as seed content for a real estate startup they were launching. That shifted my career path to digital and content marketing.
From there, I worked at Trulia and ran their content marketing programs. I left there and had a consulting firm, during which time I realized there’s a consumer group who sees all of life as a series of behavior change projects to get healthier, wealthier, and wiser. I call them transformational consumers. I’ve gotten really good at driving the results of a digital business with content that helped those people make progress on their life aspiration journeys.
Then, I was the chief marketer at MyFitnessPal, and I was there from the time we had about 45 million customers. We grew to 120 million customers and were eventually acquired by Under Armour. Most recently, I’m the founder and CEO of my own startup called SoulTour, which is a personal growth school that seeks to push the service to the transformational consumer to the next level.
RampUp: What has driven you from one position to the next?
Tara: I know how to help people create the changes they want in their lives and businesses. Almost all of my past jobs had some form of that.
At MyFitnessPal, I was talking to people about weight loss and fitness but secretly slipping them messages about how deeply worthy they are and embracing radical acceptance. That’s always been what I wanted people to understand and know, because once you know that, everything else gets easier.
RampUp: A lot of folks aspire to work for a brand that is transformational or be transformational marketers. What is your advice for people who may also want to slip in more uplifting messages?
Tara: Just do it. People want it. People crave it. We all know what the headlines are like. The digital world in particular can be very toxic. The companies and brands that are daring enough to publish content that deeply addresses people’s craving for upliftment are the ones that people read, watch, and want.
It’s just good marketing. I encourage marketers, brands, product designers, and anyone who wants to make or sell a thing at any level, to deeply understand their customers’ real-world journey. I do not mean the customer journey within your website, app, branded channels, or even with your product. I mean the customers’ real-world journey of trying to solve the high-level, human-scale problem that you exist to solve.
For example, Trulia is a real estate search engine, so there’s one level at which you could define our problem as helping people find homes. But, what we thought we were working on is helping people make the wisest possible decision about the biggest purchase they’ll ever make. Which, by the way, is way more fun to work on.
When you look at your customers’ problem as that and you map the journey that they go through, then you can spot the patterns in their actions, emotions, and universal stages they experience along the journey. From here, you can also spot common patterns in quit points and progress triggers.
A big superpower is to spot patterns in their natural language, the language that comes out of their mouth at different stages. There are phrases you can capture if you listen to your audience on Reddit, for example, or on any channel that they don’t think you’re on where they’re just talking to each other naturally. Get on Reddit—you’ll spot patterns.
Here’s an example from Trulia: In America in particular, everyone in the market for a house asks, “Should I rent or buy?” Answering that is a prerequisite in every person’s decision making. Once you know what their questions are and how they are phrasing them, and what helps them make the decisions they need to move from stage to stage, you are in prime position to publish content that engages.
So, I don’t care whether it’s a weight loss thing, or a health food thing, or an all-natural body and bath product, or cleaning products, or banking, or finance, or even some travel. There are anxiety points that people have along the way and if you can address them and help them build confidence, people will read it over and over again. They will write you love letters.
At Trulia, somebody wrote me a note once that said, “This blog post saved our marriage.” I thought, well, I don’t know what was happening in your marriage, but I do know that that’s an amazing note to get back.
RampUp: What was the blog about?
Tara: The blog was about this process I went through with my customers back when I was selling real estate called Your Vision of Home. Instead of asking people to fill out just the checklist—we want two to three bedrooms, this kind of style, or whatever—I would actually do a lifestyle design exercise with people where I’d ask them to tell me what their vision of their life was. What does a day in your life look like in this home?
People would share things that were more important for their home buying choice than just a number of bedrooms and baths. They would share things about how they actually wanted to someday quit their job and have a business in their home. That actually impacts your space needs, and it also impacts your mortgage needs. You don’t want to spend necessarily to your edges if you know that you envision quitting your job in the next couple of years.
Anxiety shuts down access to your brain’s highest functioning. I cared about reducing people’s anxiety when making big purchases because they make better decisions when they’re not stressed.
RampUp: What brought you to the insight of people aren’t just looking for a three bedroom, two bath—they’re looking for a home where their life plan can take root and flourish?
Tara: That insight was one I got from sitting in the car with a lot of buyers. I was representing buyers as a broker and seeing people say they wanted one thing and then make decisions that didn’t make sense to me.
As a trained psychologist, I would do the shrink thing and say, “Just tell me what you think you want your life to look like afterwards.”
Customer insights work. You have to know what people’s real life is like. I could not have created good, transformative content without that pattern spotting that I was able to do by being in the car with buyers.
At MyFitnessPal, they had one marketer who was hanging on for dear life when I got there. One of the first things I asked was, “What do we know about customers?” They had done some usability studies with people who use the app already in San Francisco. I had to say, “Guys, San Franciscans do not translate to anyone else.” We’re just not normal, especially not when it comes to food and digital adoption.
So, we redefined our research. We reframed our customer as essentially anyone who was trying to live a healthier life. That’s our audience because our mission as a company was to reverse the status quo dynamic in which it’s so much easier to live an unhealthy life than it is to live a healthy life right now.
We went to six cities around the country and talked to people in their homes where they’re making decisions about food. We went into their pantries and fridges. We went to the gym with them. We talked to their partners and family members. We found out everything about what sparks someone along this transformative journey to why people shop and buy those dollar menu items at fast food restaurants. We sat in the drive through with moms ordering food. We really wanted to deeply understand them.
It gives you superpowers as a marketer when you have that level of deep understanding of how people solve the problem that you exist to solve. You will hear problems phrased in ways that you’ve never talked about them in your company. The language with which you publish your content will change.
We went from doing blog posts about workouts for people with knee injuries to what to do when you have bad knees. Nobody says, “I have knee injuries.” They say, “I have bad knees.” When you work at this level, your entire marketing elevates in terms of its ability to connect and feel relatable.
RampUp: Writing is a big part of what you’ve done throughout your career. How can writing help marketers, whether they’re on the analytical or creative side, bring more of themselves to their jobs?
Tara: I think of it in a couple ways. One is: The practice of writing every day changes the way you think. If you can learn to turn your inner sensor and editor off a little bit every day, as we do when we free write in the morning, you cleanse your emotional slate. Marketers could really use this on a daily basis. Frankly, I think marketers pick up a lot of the anxiety off of their leadership teams.
For marketers to thrive in their careers, develop the ability to boldly make business cases and push back against metrics that don’t make sense, I think having a daily writing practice that manages your emotions is invaluable. My career changed by a factor of many when I started doing that.
Two: I think you have to have a solid basis in analytics and business math to be able to make business cases persuasively. That’s a difference I’ve observed between marketers that get to VP or CMO level and the marketers that end up staying marketing managers. You either have the ability to make a business case to run projections, to tell both the creative story and project how that will impact the business, or you don’t.
I think there are great marketers that have the opposite balance to me, too, who are much more analytical. They’re more growth type marketers that are great, but still have some of the human piece. And, I do also see a lot of people with either/or. I think you only get so far in your career if you don’t have some basis in both.
RampUp: It’s been fascinating to talk to you.
Tara: Thanks so much.
Are you helping your audiences transform their lives? If so, we’d love to interview you for RampUp! Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.