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Apr 14, 2020

Ashok Rajan, director of the board at Lister Digital and cycling enthusiast, gives commentary on how personalization strategies are more about human connection than technology. He shares a profound customer experience that shaped him, and stresses the importance of "data for purpose." *Hosted by Dave Goldstein and PJ Bruno LIVE at LTR 2019*






PJ: Hello again. Welcome back to another episode of Braze for Impact, your MarTech industry discuss digest. We're back again with another episode of our humanity series. Our guest today, Ashok Rajan, president of Lister Digital. Ashok, thanks so much for being here.



Ashok Rajan: Hey, thanks for having me here PJ and Dave. Very excited to be in this conference. Again, longterm relationships man, it's awesome.



PJ: Let's build them. Let's expand them.



Ashok Rajan: Let's build them. Let's expand them. And it's about the human experience. I don't see, again I am just free flowing here, that even as I see them live in the conference, it's very exciting. Because you guys are ... I was here last year, felt the same vibe. And it's been more, and because this is what we do as well. Like hey, we deeply care about the customer experience. We're not just sitting in thinking, "Hey, what's the channel?" And so on. You want to treat them like humans. Hey, it's another human that I'm trying to influence to do something. And then I feel like, "Hey, that's the vibe that I sense in the conference. It's very exciting to be here. So thank you.



PJ: Exactly. And speaking of humans, Ashok and I are with a pretty rad human in my eyes here. And this-



Dave Goldstein: Here I am again.



PJ: Our good buddy Dave Goldstein, head of Global Solutions Alliance at Braze. Dave, love you.



Dave Goldstein: Love to be a part of this.



Ashok Rajan: [crosstalk] Dave is my cycling brother. We're from the brotherhood of cyclers.



Dave Goldstein: That's right, that's right.



Ashok Rajan: I love it man.



Dave Goldstein: Strong legs in this podcast booth, watch out.



PJ: If you guys saw the quads I was looking at right now.



Dave Goldstein: Thousands of miles among us.



Ashok Rajan: That's right. It's in my to do list to write a LinkedIn article on Zen and the art of cycling, because I think that tells you a lot of a life. Hey, you need to put a lot of effort to climb up the hill, but then no one can take me the love that you feel, the endorphins that you feel when you come downhill man. But you got to work hard. You got to work hard to go up that hill.



PJ: Why don't you take us back now, Ashok, about 30, 35 years where it all started?



Ashok Rajan: Absolutely. So now the age part comes in. So I feel young Dave, so thank you for your friendship, and you make me feel young. But now that he mentioned 35 years. I think it's interesting because the background, my background, is that I actually started before the internet. So now, or what was called is the worldwide web, and in client server technology. So client server technology which was used to, again, do a lot of interactions and how to make them easy. I feel life changed when I attended the Windows 95 release in Long Beach. I think I was about three or four years into my work life at that point. But as I was trying to share the story with you, it was a lot of ... I have this principle FSOGSD. Figure stuff out, get stuff done. So the lot of the ... I consider myself a child of the internet, and I had to figure a lot of things out. So one of the first things I would like to share is first piece of code I wrote that actually went live on the web. It was a program called [bannerad.exe 00:03:22]. That's what I called it, but hey, all it had to do was change the banner based on cookie values. So personalize the banner that was being showed. This is 1995. At that point it was Netscape, I think it's called Netscape Commerce Server or something. And then we went live on the web. So we kept building. The goal, I feel, was always how to personalize the experience. How to personalize the experience based on someone's interests. And so we were collecting information, right? So we're collecting all this information on people's interests, but then we're trying to say, "Hey, how can I change the web experience as they land on the web and they move on?" And then over time, I'll keep my background brief, but I was lucky enough to be part of two companies that were acquired. Great teams, a great group of people. First was 2000, I joined this company called Digital Impact, which was 2000 to 2005, Forrester rated top company for email and digital marketing. Then it was acquired by Axiom. And then I joined Responsys in 2010 which was acquired by Oracle. And these were great experiences for me because, again, even I heard this in the conference today, it's sort of exciting to me. "Hey, some of these things we worked on like in 2001, 2002, I was already building recommendation engines."



Dave Goldstein: What's old is new again.



Ashok Rajan: What's old is new again. Like hey, some of these concepts, sometimes I laugh. And like, "You guys are talking about stuff." Then I feel like your old guy. Then I feel like the old guy.



Dave Goldstein: Go back to my bannerad.exe days, right?



Ashok Rajan: That's right man, that's right. Or even these, some of the challenges that I heard some of the speakers talk about. And these are real companies. So hey, love your speakers in the conference because these are real experiences. They are talking about real world problems. And the challenge hasn't changed, that how do I get data, how do I move these things around? How do I make the optimal decision? And sometimes I feel that, over time as I've observed this, things have changed. Before, there was a time point in time, and I think it will come back in vogue again like bell-bottoms or something. And thankfully I didn't wear them, but I have older siblings that did.



PJ: It always comes back.



Ashok Rajan: Older siblings, I've seen them do that. I'm like, "What is that?"



Dave Goldstein: It's just a matter of time.



Ashok Rajan: But my point is that there was a phase where I felt that things moved to hyper analytics. Like hey, everything was analytics driven and I want this, but I come from a slightly different school of thought these days. But I feel like there's a sort of, I call this the Heisenberg principle of personalization. If you look at Amazon for instance, they do a lot of real time personalization. Of course the personalization is driven by a deep analytics, but it's not like the analytics are real time. And sometimes I joke with people, I say, "Hey, you're fooling people if you say you're real time analytics," because good analytics means that you have lots of data that you've chunked. Lots of data means it's been collected over a long period of time. And any good statistician will tell you the last day or the last minute's worth of data should not influence your model of things that you've collected over 30 days, one year, whatever the case is. Right? So that means analytics can be run offline, but how I'm treating the customer becomes a ... How do I influence the journey is something that happens more real time.



PJ: That's an interesting point too, just because we hear all the time, or I personally do, as soon as that data's captured, the value of it will start to decay over time. But that makes so much sense. You should be able to look back at behavior over the past month or even year to kind of like help dictate, or at least inform some things.



Dave Goldstein: I mean what I found so fascinating actually was just moments ago, Dipanjan Chaterjee from Forrester was presenting his updated research to the brand humanity index. And he was saying that, what is it, 0.5%, a half a percent of all data is actually actioned on. You're actually doing something with that data and doing something meaningful with it. So there's that fine line that you really do have to walk, right? Like you can collect just this wealth of data. But I suppose the key to that is to action on as much of it as you can, because what is data without appropriate action?



Ashok Rajan: No, absolutely. I think Dave, I think this is a great segue because if you start thinking about the platforms and what's the newer generation platforms versus some of the older generation platforms that you have, the thinking, and some of these ideas were regurgitated before. I sort of joke about this and I say, "Hey, you don't bring the mountain to Moses, Moses goes to the mountain." And I use this these days with big data, right? With the proliferation of big data. I feel it's actually a simple engineering problem. The more data that I collect, the more difficult it is going to be for me to move it across systems. To move everything and start duplicating it is just a mindless exercise of, it's expensive, it's too late, it takes time to action. And how quickly you respond becomes more crucial. And so what I find exciting about platforms like Braze is that foundationally it's been built to handle that issue. That it's not now anymore like the old school, "Hey, why don't you give me everything?" I just remember with [inaudible 00:08:54], one of my previous companies since I've already mentioned who they are. I was sitting Nordstrom, and this is a true story. And then the guy was like, "Hey." I'm like, "Hey, give me all your data. Give me all of it." He says, "It's fine. I'll give you all my data. How many years of data do you want?" I said, "I'll take how much you can give me." He says, "Okay, I'm going to give you 10 years worth of data." But here he says, "I'm going to warn you. What's the database that you use behind the scenes?" I said, "So we have an Oracle database." I said, "Hey, I just spent like $15 million replacing my Oracle database with [inaudible] data, so you better have some big system. And I don't think we're paying you guys that much to basically send email marketing campaigns." And they're like, "Hold on. Don't give me any data. I don't want all your data. I only want what's required for my marketing." I think that-



Dave Goldstein: Data for purpose.



Ashok Rajan: Data for purpose. And I think that's a big theme of what I like about Braze. When I look at it, okay, it actually goes back to, "Hey, I'm only bringing Moses to the mountain for salvation, or whatever." He comes to the burning bush for that particular aspect. It's not like, hey now I'm trying to move the entire mountain and say, "Hey, let me get it to your camp, and then you can figure out what you want." It's like, "Okay, it's not going to work."



PJ: Right right.



Ashok Rajan: I think that's a big point.



PJ: Yeah. People just assume sometimes the data equals value, so just give me all the stuff you have, but that can really put this opaque kind of lens over what your goals are. It gives you a little bit more confusion I think.



Dave Goldstein: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I'm fascinated by the paradigm shift that's happened in my own mind since starting to work in this industry almost a decade ago. I walked into a retail store recently whose mobile app I had on my phone. I had given them push notification permissions, they had my email, they had preferences about me, they had my location permissions as well. I live on Long Island so I actually go to a shopping mall. Yeah, I'm a mall walking dad, I'll admit it. And so I [inaudible] the store and of course my expectation, living in the age that we do and being in the space that I'm in, is that, "Hey, what a great opportunity for a geo targeted appropriate message based on the data that this brand understands about me." Right? Of course, nothing happened. But I entered the store nonetheless, because I'm a fan of the brand, as it were. And as I'm entering the store, there's a sales associate at the front standing with a stack of printed cards, the kind where you take your thumb nail or a coin and you scratch them off. And it's like, "Hey, it's a take a scratch off, chance to win X percent off anything in the store today only." So I grabbed the card and I scratch it off and I got 15% off. And of course I'm looking around the store and I was like, "Don't really see anything I want today. I'm not compelled to even use this." And so I kind of walk out, and as I'm walking out I throw it in the trash, right. It just occurs to me like, "Wow, what a missed opportunity. If that experience had been digital, imagine how they could have continued that. They would have known just so much, that I had redeemed and I had this 15% off coupon, and maybe it could have extended to online and other channels.



PJ: Yeah.



Dave Goldstein: How much did they spend to print those cards? And so there's this whole paradigm shift that I've had as I've kind of thought about how brands can leverage the data that they have about people. And I'm sure the brands that you work with and how you think about coaching them to best leverage the data they have and truly digitally transform, you must see this stuff all the time and have to think-



Ashok Rajan: No I'm like, "Hey, my brain's racing actually." I want to share something with you as well. It's interesting, Dave, that you bring this up because you're so spot on. I think there's two aspects to it. And this is where I feel again, you guys are in not ... Braze is not just using buzzwords. I think, again, hey, this is not a shameless plug for Braze, I hope it means something to the people who listen that I truly see this. When you talk about the human aspect of things, you talked about the brand humanity index. And I saw this last year, and I'm like, "Hey, I'm on board this train." I want to share something with you that Nordstrom to me has been the brand, at least personally, we would read books on the Nordstrom [inaudible 00:13:12], that you talk about true customer service. And I'm saying like hey, when you really forget all the tech part first. But you say, "Hey, what's fascinating about Nordstrom's customer service?" And so hey, [inaudible] you would read about all these business cases of, "Hey, they changed the tires for some old lady who drove 50 miles to change some clothes." And they say-



Dave Goldstein: Accept all returns from other stores. I remember that. Yeah.



Ashok Rajan: And sometimes it feels like some urban legend or something right? But I want to share my personal experience with you, which I have now used in the digital aspect. So my personal experience with Nordstrom, again, I love, hey there's something a little bit about me, is when I work with brands, I love to see what it is that they do in their store. So as soon as I started working with Nordstrom, I started shopping at Nordstrom. And man it was interesting, first time I walked around the ... This is, again, 2011. Things are different now. So I'm walking around the store and this guy is just quietly following me around, didn't speak much, but he was just paying attention to what I was doing. And then what he did is, he didn't say anything. And then he said, "Hey, can I have your number?" I didn't buy anything. This was in the men's section where they have all the good stuff. And so then I said, "Okay fine, you can have my number." He says, "I'll just give you a call if I find something that you like." And I said, "How the heck would he know?" So I was, look again, curiosity killed the cat. I'm like, "I'm curious to know how the heck you know what I like, because I didn't speak to you." So then I gave him my number. And then believe it or not, Dave, he calls me after like a couple of weeks. He says, "Hey, I think I picked like two shirts for you. I think you're really going to like this." I go, "Okay, you have me. I'm going to come to the store." And guess what? He's like, "Michael Kors, here's the two shirts I think that will fit you perfectly. Go wear them." And then suddenly what happens is, this is the relationship I had with this guy, that at one point you would laugh, my wardrobe probably had like a dozen Michael Kors shirts.



Dave Goldstein: Get out of here.



Ashok Rajan: I kept all ... He would keep calling me every two months, and he would say, "Hey, I think I have something that you would like." I would go back, the fit would be great. And then it didn't stop until Michael Kors decided to move and start selling those shirts in their own store. But then this guy didn't let me go, right? So for me, I latch onto the concept of, "Hey, personalization is the human experience. Somebody was paying attention." And then of course, again, I was working with the Nordstrom marketing team. I was like, "Hey, you guys should do this." Fast forward to then I'm consulting with Adidas. And then Adidas basically says, "Hey, we have this ..." this is the guy that was running marketing for Adidas in India. And then he goes, "Hey, I want to change the customer experience. What do you think I can do?" I said, "Hey, have you considered this? Like put iPads in all your stores." And I shared with him the Nordstrom experience, but except now this was happening four years after the Nordstrom experience. And I'm saying, Hey, maybe you should have your salespeople just follow around and see what kind of shoes they're looking at. And then see what happens, then put everything, capture this information. Don't let them know. But then, like hey, just ask them, "Hey, would you like to know that if you really liked those Adidas shoes that you were looking at, running shoes, may I call you back if I find something that you like?" And then he calls me. The next year I meet him at the Oracle conference and he's super excited. He's like, "Hey, every store has an iPad, and this thing is working like crazy. Right?" Again, we're talking about stuff that's 2015, 2016. And here what I love about what Brace and what you're doing is hey, now we're talking about location based listing. Now we're talking about hyper personalization. Still the human experience doesn't go away.



PJ: How did he know your size? He just was looking at you and he was like, "I got your number dude."



Ashok Rajan: That's right. He's got my number. And I tell you like, hey, shame that the part that they didn't do well, like Hey I get that what he wants from me is not [inaudible] on Nordstrom is when that person left, he didn't capture that information and leave it somewhere. Unfortunately, I live in the Bay Area, I shop in the Hillsdale Mall, and this guy moved to the South Bay. And I'm like, "I'm not chasing you to South Bay to buy my clothes. I'm like, "Ah, okay." But you're right. Like he was actually sizing me up. And so this is somebody who knew his craft obviously. But that's when I feel that, I'm an old school techie, the more things move digital, I still love the relationship aspect. Relationship doesn't mean it's ... I feel it's about paying attention, it's about listening to people, quietly observing them. So the first thing that you need to do is, hey, you need to listen. There's three aspects that I feel to how things should work. First thing is you need to listen. And you need to listen, but then the next thing is you need to be able to analyze. And the third thing is you need to be able to act quickly. So you guys didn't put me up to this, but hey, when I look at a platform like Brace compared to something else, now you have web services. I can quickly listen to things. The data modeling is super simple. So now I can basically capture the information I need. I can analyze this quickly, and then I can act quickly to send you a push notification. Or send you an email message, or whatever it is that is the right communication style. I think people are ... In general, I hope people realize this, I think people underestimate. That's where I think is the real power of the Braze platform, that it brings things together.



Dave Goldstein: Fantastic context. It's interesting, I was thinking about there's a lot of legacy technology out there. Sunk costs, if you will, whereby folks know it's just not getting the job done. It's no longer fit for purpose. They're afraid of change for a number of reasons, whether it be the money that they've sunk into it, whether it be the fear of moving to new technology and potential hiccups in business. Do you have a philosophy or a methodology that you use to help quell people's fears about, "I'm on this legacy technology that's just not ... It's clearly not working. And the whole team hates using it. We all know there's ... We all hope there's something better out there." How do you talk to those people? How do you actually help them transform and move into the new mobile first era, if you will?



Ashok Rajan: What we like to tell people is that, "Hey look, you have someone like Lister that basically has worked with multiple platforms. We have helped build those platforms. We have the talent and the technology to basically drive these things. And the newer platforms are actually built for absorbing things quickly." So we're here to help them, and then we have really good success stories to show clients that, "Hey, it's not as daunting as you think". As long as, "Hey, you focus on the marketing." Someone say, hey, this is one of my mentors. And I really respect him. He said this a long time back in the conference. [inaudible] I say, "Hey, who was your biggest competition?" And he says, "My IT team."



Dave Goldstein: Wow.



Ashok Rajan: I thought that was the most profound thing that I heard so far. And it's like, "Yeah, amen to that. That's right." Because then, that's why when you bring people that already know how to work with these multiple platforms, then the migration is not such a daunting task. When we have done this day in and day out and we understand the nuances. We have done this successfully in the past and we feel that ... There's two things, right? It's not just about my talent or my team. I'm also saying that platforms like Brace, you make it easy to migrate, but the daunting part is unfortunately it's marchitecture. There is a technology aspect to it, but if you're used to classic database tables and operations, now suddenly you need to learn to work with unstructured data. My advice, or Dave, or my answer is quite simple, right? First, enlist in the right platform. I think these platforms are built for purpose. And they really leapfrog you from where you are to where you need to be. And then finding a great partner I think is important that has done this before and that can easily say, "Okay, I know you liked apples before, but now you have a vitamin C deficiency." And, "Hey, I'm here from Florida to make your orange juice."



PJ: Amazing.



Dave Goldstein: I know you liked meat before, but here's some kale.



PJ: Exactly.



Ashok Rajan: Exactly.



PJ: That's beauty. Honestly, no better way to wrap it up than that.



Dave Goldstein: That was great.



PJ: Ashok, thanks so much for being here. And Dave, as always, thanks for joining me.



Dave Goldstein: It's my pleasure. And Ashok, really, I can't say it enough. It's brilliant to have you as part of our community, and we're just so happy to have you as part of this solutions partner ecosystem. You add so much value to the overall landscape. And yeah, we love working with you. So thank you.



Ashok Rajan: Thanks, thanks Dave. Thank you. Thank you for having me here. Really appreciate the opportunity and I look forward to working with you guys.



PJ: And thank you guys all for listening. Take care.