To Better Know Its Customers, MailChimp Set Up a Business

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If there's anything to learn from 2016, it's that empathy is immensely valuable, albeit immensely rare. While often underdeveloped, empathy is an instrument we wield to help us understand perspectives that are different from our own. Not coincidentally, empathy is also an extremely useful tool in marketing. Knowing what your customer needs -- actually needs -- can do wonders for both business and customer happiness.

Today's companies are going to great lengths to better empathize with their audience. Marketing agency Huge, for example, runs a coffee shop in its Atlanta office to gain perspective on brick and mortar operations, and the role of digital in retail.

But perhaps the most interesting case comes from email provider MailChimp, which recently set up an ecommerce site, Freddie & Co., to walk in its small business customers' shoes. By doing so, it unearthed a bounty of entertaining and informative content. The result of building such a business-within-a-business? The core business got better.

Connection through courage

To hear MailChimp CMO Tom Klein discuss marketing is to hear him speak almost exclusively about his customers. When Mr. Klein started working at the company 15 months ago, he was struck by the fact that this B2B business had built a meaningful brand, with a rich rapport with its customers. "MailChimp has a level of emotional appeal and emotional connection with customers that most B2B brands do not," he says.

MailChimp's customers are often experts in design, creativity and marketing -- a "very challenging audience," he says. To connect with them, MailChimp has internalized their aspirations, acting as a role model for this creative workforce. "We try to model our behavior after the level of creative courage that we would like to inspire in our customers," he says. "I think that's really how we appeal to them without being 'salesy,' so to speak."

If there's anything that visually-oriented professionals appreciate, it's the desire to create campaigns that are aesthetically-pleasing, authentic and, most importantly, a little risky. To convey that it can be trusted with this task, MailChimp demonstrated courage with its own business. Says Mr. Klein: "As a company, we should feel free to be more human, more personal, weirder, and more original, because, ultimately, differentiation is the name of the game."

Commerce for customer-centricity

Rather than hire experts to build the Freddie & Co. operation, the company looked within. "We knew we had a creative culture, so we decided to tap into it," says Mr. Klein. He and his team appointed one employee as the brains and the voice of the operation, even though she had no prior ecommerce experience.

"The idea was that she would chronicle all the things that went wrong," Mr. Klein says, adding that MailChimp sent updates about her experiences in an email series called "What's In Store?"

Aside from providing fun -- and extremely relatable 00 content, the experience uncovered "key pieces of information, like shipments aren't always correct and the design isn't always perfect," Mr. Klein says. Indeed, MailChimp had hoped to find conflict all along, knowing that conflict would lead to resolution and a completed walk in its customers' shoes.

"It's the problem that creates the drama, which results in the understanding that we're after," Mr. Klein says. The experiment seems to have clicked with customers, too. At the time of this interview, the series had an impressive 170,000 subscribers.

After a successful and teachable run with retail via Freddie & Co., Mr. Klein has his sights set on MailChimp's agency customers, as well as those dispersed around the world. Does this means a global digital agency is in the works for MailChimp? Only time will tell.

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