The path to Barnes & Noble‘s Senior Manager of CRM began with a fascination for email marketing. As a leader in one of America’s most recognized public companies, Greg Koizim understands the challenges of striving towards a one-to-one experience for all customers. After several years of working for NOOK, Koizim shifted to a role that enables him to help reinvent the company in the retail space and create exciting new personalization initiatives. Here’s what Greg had to say about technology, the future of Barnes & Noble, and why we should say yes to everything.
Check out our Powwow series
Let’s begin with your background; you started out in the fashion world. Why trade blouses for books?
“So, my background is pretty eclectic. I went to FIT Fashion Institute here in New York thinking that I wanted a marketing role in fashion, and after doing one or two internships, it didn’t really pan out as I thought. It felt like some of the work I was doing was very inconsequential. During college, I also interned with BMW North America, where I worked on their website, and that’s really what got me into the world of digital. And then post college, I got a job working as a digital coordinator for a greeting card publishing company, working as an email and affiliate marketer, managing their website, and serving as the blog administrator. But there was something about email that always spoke to me, and I sort of stuck with email in the next few roles. A little over five years ago, I landed this position with Barnes & Noble. I started off working for the NOOK business and then I transitioned to retail and dot-com, and now I oversee all the brand extensions for Barnes & Noble for their CRM program.”
Barnes & Noble is one of those storied brands that has a special meaning or connection to many people. You also worked at Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG), and before that The Conran Shop. What did you take from your previous positions that you apply to your current role at Barnes & Noble?
“From an ethical perspective, I would say, specifically my work at The Conran Shop position was really challenging. I branded the website for their North America operations and led the digital marketing as well. Unfortunately, I think I let the stress get to me, and it didn’t end so well. So, from that, I’ve learned to keep your chin up and always try your best. In terms of skill and practice and learning my trade, everything, all my jobs collectively have taught me so much. With The Conran Shop, I learned how to manage a catalog of thousands of SKUs. I was managing all the different relationships with the various vendors, such as our email service provider.
GLG was, very, very email focused. I’m a self-taught HTML coder, and at GLG, I had the opportunity to really branch out and have a deeper dive into CSS and how inline CSS can be applied to email code and really develop that skill. At GLG, I also developed different landing pages and micro-sites, which was fun and creative.”
Can you share a moment in your career that served as a lesson for you?
“Barnes & Noble is the first publicly-traded company that I’ve worked for. And it has its pros and its cons. And one of the cons is that everybody has a view into the business. They can see the books and how you perform, and the company has had some challenging years. Working on this end where we’re doing everything we possibly can to try to improve the business and we pour our heart and soul into it, it’s disheartening at times. But, I guess, one thing that I’ve really learned is to try to block out the noise and just focus on the path forward and to listen to your heart and keep the ship moving forward. And being in a role where I have a team who looks up to me, it’s very important to be the propelling force. I’m a firm believer in top-down. What you project at the top, everyone else below you will follow. It’s important to me to have a positive attitude despite what’s going on. And I think I’ve learned and developed and honed that from the experience at Barnes & Noble.”
On that note, client behavior has changed quite a bit over the years not only in terms of buying habits, but how they expect to communicate with brands. So, with this shift, how do you and your team adjust your strategy to meet their needs?
“So, it’s interesting what’s going on right now. Customers are really smart, and technology has really enhanced people’s experiences with brands. From an email perspective, what we’ve discovered works well is letting the customer know that you are listening. And that could be as simple as saying, “hey, we saw that you purchased this book and we thought that these other books would be of interest to you.” And that’s something that has been a turning point in our business. It’s something we’re trying to roll out on a larger scale, to let all of our customers know that we’re listening, and we want to improve and enhance their experience with our brand, and more importantly, improve and enhance their reading experience.”
One of the initiatives that came out of this desire is the book club.
“Yeah, it’s brand new. We have our second event coming up, and the first event was really successful. It’s an exciting, great way to get people engaged with the brand, with authors, with books, with reading.”
We’re guessing that when B&N decided to run a book club, a lot of data went into that decision. What are the main ways you and your team collect customer information and what kind do you use?
“We use lots of data. As an email marketer, there are simple data points that can help drive the strategy. Just looking at open rates and click rates and average order value and dollar per email, all those KPIs can help drive the strategy for an email. So, for example, if an open rate is down, the first place to start is the subject line. What was wrong with the subject line? Was it not enticing? What can we do to improve this?
Then I immediately think about doing an A/B test to get even more data to better understand what works and what doesn’t. If the conversion rate is down and people aren’t interacting with an email, then I think you have a content issue or possibly a CTA issue where the customer couldn’t figure out his or her way from the email to the site, but in this day and age, that’s rare. It’s more or less a content issue. And in that instance, there are many things one could do. We have information about customers from the books that they purchase, to the authors they purchase, to the genres they purchase. And, you know, we don’t just sell books, we also sell toys and games and DVDs and vinyl and a bunch of other products, and all of that information we have available.
So, one thing we’re working on right now, and this sort of ties back to what I was saying before about demonstrating to the customer that we’re listening, we’re really working on trying to personalize and provide that one-to-one email experience for all our customers. And that’s been sort of a struggle, but I feel like we’re on a path forward and I’m very excited. I’m spearheading some new projects and I can’t wait to see what the results will yield.”
So other than collecting data on what genres customers are reading how do you personalize the email experience for them?
“We send so many different types of emails, and I want to give the customer the opportunity to optimize and decide what kinds of emails they wish to receive from us. Whereas I see a trend with some other brands where the experience is very minimized. If somebody receives an email and they want to opt out, they land on the preference center, and it just says yes or no. But I’m looking to give customers the opportunity to really decide for themselves the types of emails that they receive. So, we’re working on optimizing the preference center to put in all the different options in there and really give the customer the power.
We’re also bringing in new technologies that will enable us to personalize every message for every customer. It may be showcasing an item in a cart or displaying some items a customer searched for and expressed intent to buy and then for some reason decided to abandon the cart. We’re figuring out ways to capture that and showcase it in our emails. But we’re also trying to incorporate that data with content that’s curated by our merchandisers, so we can have the best of both worlds.
One thing that is really awesome about Barnes & Noble that I don’t know if I can say about Amazon is that we are a company that’s led by booksellers. And, you know, what’s driving our site and what’s driving the stores, is partially automation and data, but then there’s also human knowledge and human experience. We have incredibly avid readers who are putting together curated lists for our customers, so, for us, figuring out the balance between using data, and this advantage of ours—our booksellers’ knowledge—is crucial. We’re currently working on this hybrid solution, and I think it will really help enhance our customer experience.”
You’re starting all these exciting new initiatives in terms of personalization. How else does this impact your role as the senior manager of CRM?
“Well, we’re trying to allow marketing to drive the business for the first time ever. And I would say that Julie Lyle, our former Chief Marketing Officer, tried to help us reach across the aisle and reach out to teams and people you may have never spoken to in the organization. You can imagine Barnes & Noble. It’s a very large organization with many, many different teams. And I’ve had this great opportunity to work with different people within the organization. And I think, at the end of the day, that’s great for many reasons. It creates a team player environment and it brings everyone together. I feel like we’re working on something for the greater good of the organization.”
Why is Barnes & Noble looking more towards marketing to lead the effort to reinvent themselves, especially now?
“Considering what’s going on with Amazon and just retail in general, the retail environment is unstable right now. There are a lot of big brands that have been around for a very long time that are closing because they haven’t done enough to combat Amazon and combat the intelligence and digital education of their customers. I think we were fortunate enough that it hasn’t penetrated the book market the way it has with clothing or some other verticals. But, you know, we have this chance now to try and get ahead of the curve.
I think a lot of people in the organization realized that marketing is that team that’s gonna drive that because we’re the touch points of the customer. At the end of the day, it’s all about the customer experience. There are people who have brand loyalty, but it’s also very easy to lose people today if you are not going to provide them the experience that they want. I think the organization knows that marketing will help to retain and improve those relationships with our customers.”
What’s the biggest challenge in your position?
“I think it’s potentially a challenge to obtain information for every single customer. The end goal is to try to have a one-to-one experience for everybody. But, you know, it may end up being that it’s one to several hundred or one to several thousand, but I would love to be able to have a true one-to-one experience for every single customer.”
Where do you see the publishing industry going in the next few years? I remember hearing when e-books first came out that they would be the end of print and completely take over. Thankfully, that has not happened.
“It’s interesting talking about Amazon and how they’ll undercut a price by so much just to get the sale because they feel that sale will potentially lead to brand loyalty. I think a lot of the publishing houses are realizing that it all sort of comes down to those top 20 to 50 authors who can really churn out massive bestsellers, you know, James Patterson, John Grisham, Danielle Steel, and Nora Roberts…that’s where I see they’re shifting their focus, unfortunately. And I say unfortunately because there are hundreds of thousands of authors out there who probably don’t get the love that they should because it’s all a money game at the end of the day.”
Let’s talk personal book preferences. What are you reading right now?
“Well, right now, I’m reading The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. I went to Israel last year for the first time in my life. And following the trip, someone shared with me some related reading. This book is one of the first major travelogues ever published. Mark Twain went on this journey basically around the Mediterranean in the late 1800s and he was writing for a newspaper column back home. And this book captures everything that he wrote about his experience. It’s incredible to read about the things that he experienced in the late 1800s that I experienced in 2017.”
What were some of the parallels?
“For example, there’s an excerpt where they come over this mountain, which must be in present day Lebanon or Syria, and then they have this incredible view of the Sea of Galilee, and they were all just astonished by how beautiful it was. Although he’s a little snarky, he’s actually quite a funny writer. But I too had a very similar experience on the hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee and just feeling awed by the beauty of it.”
You have your own travel blog. Where did your love of travel come from and what’s your favorite travel destination?
“I think the love probably comes from seeing my parents and my grandparents travel the globe. As a very young child, I collected maps. I’ve always had just an interest in seeing and experiencing the world. And I think as human beings that’s how we learn and grow. For me, it’s a chance to regenerate when I’m not thinking about work and I’m thinking about new and exciting places and experiences.
My favorite place that I’ve ever been to is probably the Basque Coast in Northern Spain, it was so mind-blowingly gorgeous. My partner and I stayed at this beautiful, beautiful boutique hotel. There were maybe eight rooms in this place and it was up on a hillside surrounded by vineyards overlooking the sea. And every morning, we had breakfast on a patio that overlooked this incredible view, and there’s fresh seafood every night for dinner, and it’s also right by the Aquitaine region of France, which is known for its foie gras. So you have flabs of foie gras followed by fresh sea bass, and it was just so beautiful.”
Like a dream. Okay, so for the last question, what advice would you give to someone just starting out in CRM?
“Just to say yes to everything. I think saying yes forces you to step outside your comfort zone at times, but that’s how we as human beings learn. And, I guess, for CRM, I think it’s also important to stay abreast on the technology. Because the technology is really what’s driving it forward right now. And I think it’s important to know what’s out there and that will help make someone a thought leader in their field.”