John Alexander Rowley has been helping businesses improve their digital performance for over 15 years. His ethos around customer journey enhancement and a commitment to positive user experience has helped him shape the online fortunes of an array of companies, most recently Thorntons as part of global brand Ferrero.

John Rowley

In this episode of the digital PR podcast OutSpeech, John speaks about the role of digital PR in building customer journeys, how omni channel experiences are more important than ever and how marketers should be prioritising their budgets in the coming years.

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If you want to follow more of what John has to say, the best place to find him is over on LinkedIn.

Introducing John Rowley

Laura Hampton
Hi, I’m Laura. And this is OutSpeech, the podcast where we talk about digital PR, marketing, and more. Today, I’m delighted to welcome a brand side marketer who’s been helping businesses of all shapes and sizes to improve their digital presence for over 15 years. Most recently, he’s been focusing on e commerce growth at Thorntons, as part of the 13 billion euro global organization Ferrero. His passion for customer experience, and his philosophies around profitable customer journeys, make him in my opinion, one of the most innovative thought leaders in the digital space. So I’m really, really pleased to welcome John Rowley.

Hello, thank you. Thank you.

Marketing in 2021

John Rowley
I’m going to try and avoid as much as possible, all the kind of cliche comments of COVID, etc. But it’s, it’s a very different world. Right to well, it feels very normal naturally. But it’s very different. Well, maybe two years ago. So yes, very busy, a lot of a lot of more discussion on kind of a global level around ecommerce and digital and, and some of the opportunities that COVID do offer and it’s not a very often that you hear that said, I guess in the in the news. But you know, and in kind of times adversity, there’s there’s always, you know, opportunity somewhere and I think digital and ecommerce is certainly one of those areas that that’s showing some potential and and certainly a catalyst for growth over the over the coming years.

Laura Hampton
I definitely want to come back to the topic of, of COVID, particularly because you work in a business that has both bricks and mortar stores and an online presence. I think there’s there’s obviously a lot to talk about around that.

But before we get into that, with OutSpeech being primarily a digital PR podcast, I have a question to kick us off, relating to that.

Digital PR and the marketing funnel

One of the things that we often talk about in the digital PR industry is how digital PR is often a top of the funnel marketing activity in the sense that we are raising awareness through the campaigns that we put out, and we are growing visibility through the impacts that we can have on kind of SEO rankings and, and traffic to our websites. And as someone who works a lot to support consumers through that, that marketing funnel and through that journey, what would you say are the key considerations to turn the initial awareness into a conversion?

For the purposes of the question, I think what I’ll do is just break it down into really simple kind of awareness, consideration, conversion phases.


I think starting with awareness, and relating to digital PR and PR, I think it’s really important that the awareness focuses not only on on reach from the outset, but also the quality of that awareness, it’s really easy to make everyone aware of you as a brand, or you as an industry or whatever it may be. But actually, the real value from awareness comes by engaging the right quality of potential shopper or potential customer.

So I think that’s really important to start with. We don’t just want to chuck everything into the funnel and then let the funnel do the filtering. Let’s feed more high quality into the funnel itself.

There’s loads of different ways that digital PR can do that. And then further to that, I think that from an awareness perspective, to have genuine awareness means that the potential shopper doesn’t have a pre existing problem statement. This is something that I talk about quite a lot is is kind of solution marketing, and I’m sure we’ll we’ll come on to that. It’s our job as marketers on a board level, to make them consider what their problem statement might be.

The best example of that I can give is, if we know that somebody is working from home, or they might not necessarily have a problem statement of “I need a desk setup”, for example. But through digital PR, we could perhaps start to tell them that that might be a problem for them and actually offer a solution at the same time, that’s really genuine awareness is driving back.


If we then move through into the consideration stage, I think it’s really key here to talk again, quite a lot about over and under marketing. What I mean by this isn’t above the line or below the line, it’s more so kind of doing too much. So I think a lot of a lot of the time – and again, I’m guilty of this, really – as marketers, we focus in on consideration as the connection between making your customers aware and making the purchase and it becomes a hyperfocus.

The analogy I’d give here is I’m sure everybody listening will have experienced this at least once in their careers. You have that one really overzealous salesperson that just calls you every day. And you know, he’s on the phone two, three times a day saying I want to book you in for for a demonstration of our software. You go ‘Yeah, okay, maybe the time is not right’, a week later they’re back on the phone, that would be an example of over marketing.

And at the same time, if you’ve got that genuine awareness at the early stage, and you’re just sharing solutions to problems, the person that you’re talking to, you might not necessarily have that problem at that time.

But if you’ve got your targeting right, at some point in the future, they’re going to perhaps have a similar problem, they will inherently revert back to going what solutions are there to this problem, they will know of you and actually you can get away with quite a low level of consideration marketing at that stage, because they will come to you.

Then all of a sudden, you’ve flipped what is traditionally seen as an outbound marketing method into something that can be booked with inbound, you actually have your leads are coming back to you. And then from a consideration perspective, kind of moving that right through the funnel.


I think it’s really key to remember certainly in the e commerce world, and in most industries, there’s always some form of value exchange, that’s really simple. With e commerce, it’s it’s somebody giving away money.

And money is really hard to come by. It’s kind of the the elephant in the room with e commerce is people are parting with money, sometimes small amounts, sometimes really large amounts. And but you’ve got to give an experience which equates to that value exchange.

Now, that’s just an e commerce example. It could be could be anything, if people part with money, and they’re not happy, or if people are parting with their data, and they’re not happy in a more b2b world, you’re not going to get that funnel conversion, you’re certainly not going to get the retention at the end of it. So that kind of flows us through through the funnel.

I think to answer the question head on, though, it’s all about that digital PR really driving the quality in offering the problem and the solution to really activate consideration in particular, but then also, if you’ve done your PR, right, you also get a really good level of attention as well

Laura Hampton
I love that so much. And and part of the reason I love your answer is that focus on quality, and I agree with you completely is when we can start those quality conversations that we’re going to see more more output at the bottom end of the funnel.

Solution marketing and PR

And something you were talking about that was solution marketing and helping consumers to find their problem statement. It’s the whole analogy of the salesperson at networking events, when you have someone walk over to you, and they just put their business card in your hand. And that’s all they’re there for. They just want to give you a business card. And to me that is what we’re doing if we try and constantly put out our sales messages.

That’s where PR is kind of akin to walking over to that person before you give them a business card and talking to them and learning about them. And I think that’s possibly what you’re you’re talking about with regard to identifying that problem statement is that not only do you need to show people there’s a problem, but you need to understand them to know that that problem is pertinent to them. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, to build on that if I sell garden sheds for a living and I go to a networking event, and I give my 100 business cards I give them to everybody at that event. I could see perhaps that’s my KPIs that come back with 00 business cards, but if 90 of the people that I’ve given my business cards to live in flats, it’s a complete waste of time. So you’re absolutely right. It’s definitely about honing in and getting the quality as well as the reach.

Laura Hampton
Definitely. Can you can you talk to me a little bit more about the approach that that you’ve taken either at Thornton’s or over the years to identifying that problem statement? And the solution marketing? Is that a lot of kind of audience research and surveys and talking to them? Or is it data driven? Where does it come from, for you?

It’s a bit of both, I think, kind of the whole persona marketing side of things is still today, like really, really valuable. And I think understanding the consumer and the customer. And, you know, sometimes they’re not the same, sometimes they are, but understanding those people not just at a top level of kind of associating a name, and you know, where they live and their age and their lifestyle, all of that’s really important. But it’s just one section of three in terms of personalization you can do.

I talk quite a lot about personalization in three different phases. The first being an individual form of personalization. So we use me as an example individual – My name’s John, I’m 31, and I have a really bad memory, all of those kind of things.

And then from a segmented perspective, you may go, okay, and he lives in Nottingham, and he has x car and all of those kinds of things that would allow me to segment into a particular demographic, perhaps, or, you know, male or certain age, but then kind of moving that on to a behavioral perspective as well. And that allows us to then go, okay, he spends money on this, that and the other, and he will spend more if the quality is there.

I think that three level of personalization allows you to go some way towards understanding what a problem statement and solution therefore may be.

That being said, I’m a big advocate of being data driven, yet at the same time, a lot of it is trial and error. And actually, you can start again, if we’re doing persona marketing, I would definitely be starting with more personas than we actually think we want. And starting to filter those out, and the small variations of change between each one. But fundamentally, the whole, I guess, it’s continuous learning by but kind of the natural evolution of the personas is key. And it has to happen to get really to the nailed on solution. And that’s really how you get the quality up and up and up.

Laura Hampton
I completely agree with you. Persona marketing is something that has been kind of very close to my heart for a very long time from my very early career. So I definitely agree with you that a comprehensive understanding of the audience is really key to any tactic.

PR & SEO in multi channel marketing

And to bring us back slightly to digital PR, and I guess SEO more broadly, how, how do you see those channels fitting into your overall marketing strategy?

And given that I, I know you’ve done a lot of work around digital transformation, and you’re very aware and very good at looking at omni channel experiences, where do those two things in particular fit in for you?

They’re crucial. In as much as any any channel is. I have a concept I don’t know if I’ve stolen this apologies for anyone listening – if I have, I’ll credit you! The, the concept is kind of around this hub and spoke methodology. I don’t think it’s a particularly innovative way of thinking. But that hub and spoke is very much you have the hub in the middle of a bike wheel, for example, which is the end goal, the content that you want to drive somebody to or the checkout page, whatever it may be. And then each of the spokes that go around that hub are your different channels.

Now, I think from an omni channel, kind of thinking, really the connection of all of those spokes is your omni channel strategy, so that the tire to continue the the slightly loose analogy, and really digital PR and PR and SEO, the purpose of those is again to perform the same action.

Now perhaps there are three or four, complete two wheels. That breaks my bike analogy, but perhaps three or four. And one of them is there to try and drive awareness, one’s that are more for consideration stage and you may choose to use PR with just the awareness or the consideration. But going back to the former question, it’s really important that those are all connected by a drive train, see my engineering slight background?

And so I think yeah, that that’s really key for me. And from an SEO perspective, working that back you then get a kind of an order of magnitude benefits because if you’ve got your channels driving to a content page, for example, and that content page then has your SEO optimization then actually again, you start to get an inbound marketing strategy working from an outbound perspective and vice versa as well.

Further to that the ability to do PR and drive that awareness, then if your content pages based on a solution, you’ve kind of said, Well, here’s a problem that loads of people are facing. And perhaps it’s, you know, data driven kind of PR, where you said, eight in 10 people struggle with this. And then you can click through and there’s a potential solution, not only you starting to drive really higher quality, or certainly interested or intent driven traffic to your site, you can start to really capitalize on that.

From there, you can start to then do your remarketing and do you kind of follow up activity, perhaps trying to get them on it to opt into an email, perhaps trying to, you know, give them exclusive offers, or do some influence marketing with that particular demographic, I think, then you start to see how it really can be one thing connecting to the broader picture. That’s how I think about it anyway, certainly a hub and spoke approach.

Laura Hampton
I love that analogy. And I guess in in that particular analogy, that the person kind of driving or riding that bike is always the end customer, you always kind of overlaying the decisions that you make with that really deep understanding, you’ve got of the problems that they’re potentially facing, and this whole concept of the profitable customer journey the whole way through.

Absolutely. And I think, you know, it’s really key to consider all of the all of those folks. It’s fundamental to me, it’s not dissimilar to kind of direct mail, or has radio advertising, which is perhaps seen incorrectly in my opinion, as an older, more traditional form of marketing, and bringing it into kind of a into a modern omni channel, all of the cliche phases, kind of marketing strategy, I think you can have exponential levels of performance improvement. Brilliant.

Covid and the impact on consumer behaviour

Laura Hampton
And, and obviously, we mentioned at the beginning, COVID has been ongoing at the time we’re recording this, we’re in lockdown. And consumer behavior has undoubtedly been impacted by all of those events and and what we’ve had to get used to across the world. So as someone who takes a very user centric approach, what do you see as the most important factors in meeting users needs and creating great experiences in 2021 and beyond?

I like to talk about what I call profitable customer journeys.

That is all about breaking down profitable customer journeys, which in itself is quite a big topic and breaking it down into profitability into customer centricity and into journey management. And if I talked is very, very briefly about each of those, I’ll start actually with customer, because fundamentally, that’s how all strategy should start.

And again, it’s all about that problem and solution marketing. I actually learned about problem and solution marketing when I worked for a different company, trying to sell multi million pound wind turbines to Engineering and Management Software. And very rarely would you see somebody who just wanted to buy, but actually much more often they would have a problem or a potential problem. And so understanding understanding the problem is fundamental to that customer first strategy.

The another really good example of that is in fast fashion. So if I say okay, we’re in lockdown, and Chloe needs to buy an outfit, because she’s got a virtual interview, or she had to be meeting somebody, I don’t know what it is. But in lockdown, they’re kind of forced into an online kind of purchase. And they don’t know if the size will be right than if the colors will be quite right. They don’t have that tactile ability, quite common challenge with with e commerce. So she’s normally shopping in store.

So she has a problem, that problem is that she doesn’t have the ability to have that tactile experience. Now, a good marketing solution to that may be not just to offer the functionality, but to actively market a 14 day refund policy or buy now pay later think solutions.

They’re not just about the marketing event. There’s functionality required there as well. By offering that functionality allows you to unlock a solution to a problem. That’s how you’re going to get customers the first time and certainly how you’re going to keep them if that functionality works.

And I think that’s probably more powerful. With COVID you know, the level of agility that we’re seeing kind of with both small and large businesses to react to COVID, implementing new solutions to face quite a global problem of not being allowed outside in the UK is really key.

I think further on customers, you’ve got the personalization side of things that we’ve covered. So segmentation behavior and individual personalization.

And then I think linking all of that back to PR and SEO as well, I think one of the really key points there is to tell potential shoppers what their potential problems may be. And I’ll quote the phase of Steve Jobs, broadly, which is that users don’t know what they want until they they’re told what they need. And broadly, I think that’s a really critical part of all outbound marketing, but kind of PR, and then digital in particular, to tell them what their problems may be in the future, again, so it’s just back of mind and then it comes to front of mind point that they have that problem. That’s the customer.

Then if we move on to the experience, this very much is stolen from from Google, with their micro moments kind of methodology. So they talk a lot about being there being quick and being useful. But actually, if you’ve done that back of mind, almost pre qualification through your marketing and through your PR, then actually, you’re already there.

Being quick is key too. We focus a lot kind of in the digital world about PageSpeed, etc, really, really important. Equally, though, is is surfacing the right content, like at the point, there’s no there’s no point in having a really fast page that’s got 30 pages, A4 pages worth of content, you have to hunt through it, to find it.

You need to have a page which gives the answer to the problem immediately, really, otherwise people are gonna are gonna leave.

And then being useful is probably the hardest of the three to explain from from an experience perspective. But encourage this, this works about half the time, but I’ll encourage our listeners to have a quick experiment with me. So if you, if you’re listening on phone, we have a phone to hand, just pick it up, unlock your phone and just have a look at what the app is in the top left hand corner of your of your phone. Okay, just memorize it, lock your phone, put it away. And so now you know what that app is.

Now, I would ask the audience, do you find that app particularly useful at this particular moment now, a few nights, but maybe hopefully, people are listening and therefore that’s not particularly useful apps right now. If I now add some context by form of a question, which is tell me to the minute what the time is. I’ve now put some context behind a problem. Unless that app by coincidence was your clock? I’m willing to bet that actually, that wasn’t particularly useful to answer that question, despite the fact that most people when they unlock their phone will have seen the time on the lockscreen and will have seen the time in the top left corner or somewhere on their phone.

So I think I think the answer usefulness, you need to understand context. And that is very much about knowing what the question is the customer wants to answer. And quite often that question is a problem or potential problem or information, they want to find out the answer to, which in itself could be a problem statement, and then offering a solution, contextual solution to that problem. And I think they you kind of get to an experience that can answer most kind of modern customer journeys.

Then very quickly, from an analysis perspective, from a profitability perspective, I think analysis is is pretty much future proofing your business, because unless you’ve done the analysis, you don’t know if your marketing spend is working, you don’t know if your functionality works as well as it could. And it means understanding performance. There’s too many companies that I speak to still that don’t truly understand performance and what that means.

Seeing failure as the ability to progress as well. You know, it’s not all about getting the right first time every single time and fast failure is equally important and continuous learning attribution modeling, I could talk to you for a couple of hours just attribution modeling. In my opinion, it still remains far too elusive, too expensive and or too blackbox for many marketers, that you’ve got fairly large budgets, which even then I’m not sure it’s it’s it’s quite there. There’s there’s proprietary software out there that allows you to do a decent job of data driven attribution modeling, and start to understand why you spend the next pound is removing TV from the marketing stack. What’s the impact of that adding it in adding in radio, direct mail, PR, all of these things need to be seen in a in a micro moment, way. And attribution modeling is the only real way to measure that.

And then the other one that I’m really passionate about activity is measuring the customer experience. I think Forrester did a piece of research back in, I think, 2015, or 2016, which was to look at, I think, about 30 companies across the United States, understand, who had a really good customer experience and looking at the compound annual growth rates, the rate of growth over multiple years, from a commercial perspective. They found something like a five times multiplier, so five times faster was the growth of companies that had a good customer experience versus they’ve had a bad customer experience.

An important to note on that piece of research, that customer experience isn’t just the on site experience, it’s everything from the first point that you hear about a plan, all the way through to, in our kind of world through to a doorstep. So actually the physical products arriving from Amazon or from Thornton’s, whoever arriving on the doorstep. It’s really important to recognize as well, the person who receives on the doorstep isn’t always the person who is doing the experience, up until the point of purchase, I think we really need as an industry to understand the full customer experience, not just the purchase.

I want to be challenging, customer experience doesn’t stop at your brand. We talk a lot about multi channel attribution modeling, where we don’t talk and who knows if this will ever happen, but it’s multi brand attribution modeling. So this could be okay, I’m looking for to buy a car, and I’ve been on the Tesla website, and I’ve looked around, and then I’ve left and I’ve gone on to the Ford website. And in my head, at least, I’m comparing what I’ve just seen on the Tesla site to what I’m seeing on the Ford site. Now Tesla or Ford would never kind of do attribution modeling across both of those brands as competitors. But maybe there’s something that in a confidential, compliant way, should allow us to kind of do attribution modeling on a much broader scale.

And I think, again, PR sometimes can get can get a bit of a bad rap for not being performance orientated. But measured correctly, can fundamentally change performance. And I think it’s proving that that’s really key. That’s my kind of my my view on on attribution modeling, I think there’s a lot more that we should do.

So profitable customer journeys. And, you know, fundamentally understand the understand the customer is, first and foremost, make sure that your experience is continuously evolving, but is there quick and useful. And then make sure you analyze the results and move forward in a nutshell is what I would say and that I found inexperienced is a pretty sure start way to at least kickstart an online journey and experience.

Laura Hampton
I’m absolutely enthralled with what you’re saying. And I think for me the the biggest takeaway, there’s so much for me to think about here, but the biggest takeaway is that focus on on brand and on the customer. I think savvy marketers moving forwards will recognize the importance of quality coverage of putting the right messaging in front of the right people and not just chasing as many links as they possibly can for the sake of it.

Laura Hampton

Head of Digital PR

Head of Digital PR at Impression working with colleagues and clients to deliver link acquisition campaigns that support SEO visibility and wider marketing goals. Regular speaker at industry conferences and contributor to industry publications. In my spare time, I jump out of planes.

Laura has specialist knowledge in Digital PR and Content Marketing.