Tim Hill began his career, sales bag in hand, in the electronics industry. But he knew that if he wanted to advance, he needed to impact strategy, not just revenue.
That’s why, after successful executive positions heading up global marketing and sales at GE/Gates Energy, Iomega, and Software AG Americas, he jumped at the opportunity to join Blackboard, a multimillion-dollar education technology company based in Washington, D.C., as head of global marketing.
That was eight years ago. Two years into the job, the company’s then-CEO asked Hill to start a professional education division to focus on selling solutions and services to the public and private sectors. Under Hill’s leadership, the fledgling division grew fivefold and tripled its number of clients.
“We’re best-known for our share of the higher education market for our learning management system (LMS),” Hill says. “And while we’re most well-known for our work with post-secondary institutions, after a recent merger with Edline, a leader in parent-student engagement, our largest client base is in K-12, with roughly 18,000 schools.”
The company works with tens of thousands of higher education, K-12, professional, corporate, and government organizations. In addition to being the market leader in the LMS space, Blackboard is the outright leader in mobile campus apps, emergency notification, and Web conferencing in education.
A year ago this month, Hill was invited back to the more complex position of president of global marketing; today he heads Blackboard’s 80-person global marketing team. In an exclusive interview with CMO.com, Hill discussed what went into a global rebranding initiative; what was so “arrogant” about his idea for a users conference; how digital media has impacted the Blackboard brand--as well as his career; and how he demonstrates marketing’s effectiveness to the C-suite.
CMO.com: This is your first anniversary as president of global marketing. Talk about what the past 12 months have been like.
Hill: It has been not only a challenge, but a lot of fun. We went public about six months before I came on board in 2004, and then we were acquired by a private equity firm, Providence Equity, in October 2011, so we’ve been private for a year. We also made multiple acquisitions both before we were acquired and since then, so it has added complexity to our branding, our messaging, and our channel strategy--and there’s nothing I love more than a challenge.
CMO.com: What has that challenge entailed?
Hill: Marketing is part science and part art, and our challenge was, how do we communicate the value proposition and the brand across these connected but different types of solutions in the education industry? We measure everything, from our clients to our channel partners to our demand increase and lead generation. All the indications are proof that the initiatives we have done in marketing working closely with sales have worked.
CMO.com: You helped Blackboard launch a global rebranding effort and establish a strong Web presence. What were the secrets of making these successful, and how did you accomplish those?
Hill: We’ve got to reach over 30,000 clients globally who use our technology each and every day, so we have to reach them virtually and reach them as individuals vs. this traditional broad-brush approach. What I wanted to do, which we did, was establish three specific things.
The first one was across all the marketing functions, sales functions, and client support we put this manifesto out there: No more boring content. I wanted us to be a content producer, to talk more about the industry, and the challenges that educators (whether corporate space, higher education or K-12) and students are facing in this new age of education. To do that, we had to really focus on relaunching our brand, and that included going through a pretty in-depth rebranding initiative. We made it cross-discipline/cross-functional, so it wasn’t just a marketing initiative, but a corporate initiative, and then we had to get that message out through all communication vehicles globally because we are in more than 100 countries around the world.
CMO.com: And the other keys?
Hill: Second was really establishing our social and digital channels with a dedicated team that went beyond traditional social marketing. We wanted these efforts to be focused on awareness building, raising certain issues and challenges in the marketplace, and putting out digestible pieces of content that people could comment on and make it go viral. We wanted to grow the pipeline because we did have all these new products.
The third thing we did is we really focused our annual users conference on the client vs. being a focus on the products or company. We had record attendance of more than 3,200 attendees, and this was our biggest opportunity to be face-to-face with our clients and partners. We had 30 guest bloggers from the education industry, multiple journalists, and more than 300 partners who came as well.
CMO.com: Talk about the genesis of the company’s global user conference, its value, and how it has helped the company grow.
Hill: When I joined the company eight years ago, my first users conference was very product-oriented and wasn’t focused on the industry and solving challenges. I came up with the concept of Blackboard World (BbWorld), kind of harkening back to the first rise of Apple with Macworld. Some people were concerned that it sounded a little arrogant, but we were the dominant player in the marketplace—still are—and we wanted to attract a broader audience: not just practitioners, but CIOs, academic deans, presidents of institutions, etc.
CMO.com: Looking at the education vertical, in general, do you feel it’s traditionally slower to embrace change? Can you give an example of what you’ve seen and how you have responded with your position?
Hill: In the past, change was usually a top-down process, led by campus administrators, district leaders, and other officials. Shifts were slow and phased: an orderly rollout from the administration with little urgency or room for consumer choice. But now, enabled and empowered by the technologies that have at their fingertips, students—who we at Blackboard call “active learners”—are encouraging real change at their institutions, driving the move to mobile and cloud computing, data-driven decision making, and social learning. At Blackboard, we’re all about providing educators with the tools, resources, and guidance to embrace the active learner with native mobile applications and virtual classrooms and learning management systems that look and feel like the social systems they use on a daily basis.
CMO.com: What are some innovative ideas you have come up with in your marketing efforts for Blackboard?
Hill: The manifesto of “No more boring content” is everywhere. We were one of the first education technology companies to establish a true social digital team of experts that we brought on board to create a social and digital internal agency that product marketing client support, product management, and our vertical marketing team can go to to really focus more on digital assets vs. traditional parts of the marketing mix. Internationally, we follow those same key tenants, but we actually took a step back because most of our international geographies are green field, not established saturated marketplaces, so we had to do more traditional marketing and beefed up more intimate, press-the-flesh education events. We were able to adapt our go-to-market strategy based on the specific market itself.
CMO.com: You’re known for pushing the envelope a little—be it by things like flash mobs or mock protests. Why is it important to do this to be successful?
Hill: To attract attention. That’s the art of marketing: creativity. I’ve been around the block, and the one thing I lament is there’s such a focus from undergrad and grad school to entry-level marketing training on metrics and the science or marketing. Of course that’s important, but a marketer who doesn’t have the creativity, the art side, to break through clutter and do things that create attention and are thought-provoking, if you can’t do that, you’re just a plodder.
CMO.com: From your out-of-the-box thinking, which are you most proud?
Hill: This year’s BbWorld had so many components that delighted the attendees and then went viral through the blogs and Twitter. That event was probably the best the company has ever had and resulted in increased sales and better pipeline. The flash mob, an expanded trade show. . .the entire event was a joy to be at, and I think we forged some of the best relationships through our creativity.
CMO.com: How has the advent of digital media changed your job and the brand itself? Explain the role that social media has with the company and your involvement with these social avenues.
Hill: I’m pretty adaptable. Even though education companies can be innovative, they can be a little slow to adopt new technologies, and I wanted us to move quicker. I wanted us to integrate what we were doing on social and digital media, measure it, and ensure that our campaigns were tied to that social and digital media, that our sales force was trained on making sure that any touch a client had was entered in, whether it came from Eloqua, a campaign, or gathered from a client. It’s really about IOB–Impact on Business–how are we using technology to impact the business?
CMO.com: With all the “channels” you have to deal with, how do they measure what works for marketing, and how do you prove this to C-level?
Hill: The first thing we do is a little unusual in our space, [though] a lot of CMOs are getting there. I have heads of vertical marketing doing field or channel marketing globally. In partnership with the head of sales for each platform, we develop and sign SLAs on lead generation, opportunities, and the number of deals and dollar volume that will be marketing-sourced–where a marketing campaign or event or promotion actually led to a deal. Then we do a great job training our marketing folks and sales reps on entering and tracking dynamically this important information. What comes out is credible because it came from a client volunteering the information, or the salesperson is trained to enter the right codes so we can track from a lead into an opportunity and a deal. It’s added tremendous opportunity for marketing, and then it’s easy to convince the executive leadership that you’re really having an impact on business.
CMO.com: Talk about your relationship with the CFO and CEO; how do you all work together?
Hill: We had a real “C” change in the past six months, with a new CFO (Bill Davis) who joined us from Allscripts, who came from a little bit of a different model, but he’s definitely a measure-oriented CFO. Our [current] CEO (Michael Chasen) is in the transition phase, and our new CEO (Jay Bhatt) just joined us from Progress Software, and he’s just been on board seven weeks. We also have a new president of sales. Those are my three key targets: to get my exec team in front of them. I have been very successful with that in a short time. They are totally up to speed in what we’re doing with product marketing, what we’re doing with vertical or field marketing, how we budget, and how we plan. When you have that many new senior executives coming in, you have to be aggressive and get in front of them. Show them what you’ve done, what your team is capable of, and let them know you are committed to working with them to take the company to the next level.
CMO.com: Talk about Blackboard’s goals for the next year, next five, and even further out.
Hill: We’re just beginning a new strategic planning process that the new CEO has used in his background, and it more closely mirrors how I was brought up in business. We’re going to be very much focused on building a vision of where education and education technology is going in the next decade, and then we will build technologies to match that vision. The key thing is we’ve got to execute with basic blocking and tackling on the short term, while actually repositioning the brand and where we are going. For me, it’s an exciting change. I’d like to have our marketing project thought leadership and project the future, and it starts with the vision of the CEO. This new team coming in is chartered with doubling the size of this company over the next six years, and marketing has to be a leader in making that happen.