HRExaminer Radio

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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Mark Willaman, Founder, HRmarketer
Episode: 125
Air Date: October 30, 2015


Mark has over 20 years of executive-level experience in business-to-business marketing and software product development. He is currently the CEO of HRmarketer and fisher VISTA, companies he founded in 2000. HRmarketer is one of the oldest and most respected marketing software products in the the HR marketplace, providing companies with research and tools that help improve their brand visibility. The fisher VISTA agency helps companies improve their brand awareness and raise their credibility by providing expert assistance in three crucial areas: messaging, content and PR.Mark entered the HR space in the 1990’s when he joined LifeCare, an early stage benefits technology firm that grew to become one of the largest companies if its kind. While at LifeCare, Mark led a team that introduced one of the first web-based HR technology products for the delivery of employee benefits. Prior to LifeCare, Mark spent two successful years at Johnson & Johnson as a member of the team that introduced one of the first recombinant DNA technology products.Mark is also the founder of ShirleyBOARD, a free web-based service that helps people who are caring for aging loved ones share information with remote family members. The product is named in memory of his mother, Shirley, who died of Alzheimer’s.Mark received his BSBA in Marketing from the University of Denver and his MBA from Pennsylvania State University.

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Begin transcript

John Sumser:                        Good morning and welcome to HR Examiner Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser and this morning we are coming to you live from beautiful downtown Occidental, California. The place where innovation got its start in California, tucked up in the redwoods, near the ocean and the Russian river.

Today, we’re talking with Mark Willaman, who’s the founder of HR Marketer. HR Marketer, if you’re not familiar with them, is one of the most amazing tools available for communication and the execution of marketing, in the HR technology and HR space.  Mark, how are you this morning?

Mark Willaman:                  I’m tired, John, but I’m doing great. Good to be here.

John Sumser:                        That’s Mark’s way of complaining about the hour. We do these early in the morning on the west coast. Mark, why don’t a moment and introduce yourself to the audience?

Mark Willaman:                  Well, I’ve been in this space, my gosh, the HR space since around 2000. Was actually in it, John, I think you know this, for about seven years prior to 2000, when I worked with one of the first employee benefit technology firms, it was a startup back in Westport. The company is still around today, doing fantastic. That was my introduction into the space and then around 2000, came to Santa Cruz, California and started HR Marketer and still doing it today. Helping brands in the space get more visibility and help them out with their marketing.

John Sumser:                        You worked in your earlier part of your career at Johnson & Johnson, is that right?

Mark Willaman:                  I did. My first job out of school, yeah. I tell people I sold drugs, I was a pharmaceutical sales representative.

John Sumser:                        That would explain why you wanted to move to Santa Cruz.

Mark Willaman:                  It was recombinant DNA technology drug, there’s not a lot of demand for that in the Santa Cruz circle. No, it was actually quite exciting. I had an internship when I was getting my MBA, at a very small startup within J & J, called Ortho Biotech. They became the, they were making this recombinant DNA technology that helped people with anemia, and it became one of those multi-billion dollar block buster drugs. It was really exciting because it was a little startup within J & J, just fun to see the whole process play out.

When I graduated from school, I spent several years in marketing and sales at the company in New Jersey and had a tremendous time, it’s a great company, learned a lot. Then I had a roommate from school say to me, basically, “Hey, why don’t you quit this great job you had at J & J and come work for nothing in my brothers living room? Help sell this great new employee benefit type of product?” Of course, I did it. That was the beginning of my HR career, HR marketing career.

John Sumser:                        The origins of HR Marketer were that it was, I don’t know that everybody in the audience will even know what this means, but it was an extension of the clipping service idea or the directory of media professionals. How did you decide to focus on HR and do that inside of HR? It was kind of back water at the time.

Mark Willaman:                  It’s a funny story, like a lot of entrepreneurs, I was forced into it by desperation, I didn’t want to start my own business. I actually wanted to go to work for another company in the HR space. We did well back east so I took a little bit of time off, burned out, but I wanted to get back into it. That was the initial bust, there was nothing happening.

What I realized, I thought back of when I was doing marketing for this other firm and I realized, when you go to all these trade shows in HR, you meet all these brands. They’re all trying to get speaking spots at the same shows, they’re all trying to pitch the same journalists. They’re all reading the same trades. Believe it or not, you laugh today, but it was actually a business back then. I said to myself, “Why don’t we just aggregate all this information and put it in a usable format and just sell a subscription to it? Like the Lexus-Nexus of HR marketing?”

That’s what we did and it wasn’t really software so much as a data base of information, all the journalists in the space, a little bit of info about them. All the trades, the ad-cals, the speaking opportunities, the awards, the conferences. We packaged all that into a web based app and started to sell licenses to it. Believe it or not, a ton of people started buying it. That was the beginning of HR Marketer.

John Sumser:                        I remember in the early days, you had this little, tiny office in downtown Santa Cruz. It’s quite an adventure that you’ve been on. You removed form that core business into something that increasingly resembles a software subscription. These days, you have incredible tools for managing social media and the impact of social media in, I believe not just HR, but in other areas as well. Let’s talk a little bit about that evolution.

Mark Willaman:                  Yeah, once again, we don’t plan these things, we’re forced into it through desperation. Social came around and, as obviously you know, it disrupted everybody’s business and it darned near killed our business. All of a sudden, for a whole variety of reasons, people just didn’t value the static data bases of lists or information as much as they used to. We still sell a lot of that, but not enough when social came out, to really sustain the business. We got whacked pretty hard with that.

Then we had to figure out, well geesh, how do we reinvent ourselves to stay relevant? What we realized was, okay, there’s all these tweets and Facebook and LinkedIn and blogging and sharing of content. The idea came about, what if we just scrape, and I mean that in a respectful way nothing illegal. What if we just, we’re good at aggregating information, what if we just aggregated all that information and allowed people to, instead of just looking at a list of journalists, to type in key words that maybe they’re trying to build their thought leadership around. Return a list of people, whether it’s influencers, analysts, journalists, whoever, trade magazines, that are currently engaging or writing content about that topic.

That was this idea we thought was this fabulous idea and then it ended up taking us several years to actually build something that could do that. We did that. We continue to sell licenses to information, then something really interesting happened in the last year. We’re selling our software, people are doing all this fun stuff with it. I actually have to attribute you, because years ago you said to me, I don’t know if you remember this, John, you said, “You know what the problem with HR Marketer is?” I said, “What, John?” I remember you were sitting in my office. You said, “You just remind people everything they should be doing, but they’re not doing.” It was an interesting comment because fast forward to social and a lot of our customers would tell us, “The one problem I have with your software is it’s overwhelming, there’s too much information.”

What I realized was, it was like we were showing up after you brought our product and I’m dumping 50 boxes of information on your desk. I’m telling you, “Okay, John, any question you have about the market place, all the answers are in this box. Anything you want to do in marketing, it’s all, all the answers are in this box.”

Edward, our lead developer, lead engineer here and I were talking about a year ago and we came up with this, just causal conversation saying, “You know, what we really ought to do is ask a brand what are your goals? What are you trying to do? Then, instead of dumping those 50 boxes on their desk, actually sort through it for them. Put a couple of neatly stacked piles of paper on their desk, that all they have to do is edit and approve?” That was the beginning of what we recently launched called our Get it Done social platform, which actually does a lot of the administrative work for people, to allow them to focus on the strategic stuff.

This ties into what we were talking about earlier, which was the mission we’re on right now, especially with social, is to solve what I thought were two really big problems. Number one was, there’s not enough time to do this stuff, at least to do it right, social marketing. Number two was the problem of automation. That’s what we’re doing these days, is trying to make people and brands more authentic and more real, by helping them put the information to more strategic use.

John Sumser:                        Let’s talk a little bit about automation. You have a clearer view because of the work that you do, you have a clearer view of the trends in the use of social media for marketing purposes. I think what you’re seeing is an extraordinary amount of unsophisticated automation executed without regard for the human impact of the automation. Is that a good way to say it?

Mark Willaman:                  It’s a lot more elegant than I would have said it, but yeah, it sounds good. You’ve got to back up for a second, because you’ve got to ask yourself, why are we seeing so much automation? Automation isn’t bad, some of the things at Hub Spot and Marketo and tools like that are doing, are actually quite useful. If you go and download a white paper on a certain topic from a company, then you’re pushed out something that relates to that in a future month, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s quite useful.

What I’m seeing is the automation, we all get this on social. I got real excited one day when a major influencer in this space actually thanked me for being one of his best re-tweeters of the week, something like that. Then I keep reading and I see the dreaded, powered by Commune.IT, and I knew he didn’t send that. I know it’s not a big deal, but it took me back a little bit. The more we start paying attention to all of these automated thank yous and these automated direct messages, there’s something missing and it gets too spammy and it just takes something away from the conversation.

I actually was emailed the other day, somebody said, “Hey, have you ever heard of this product?” I’m not going to mention the brand, not important. I said, “No.” I went and checked it out and he said, “Is your product like this?” I said, “Absolutely not.” John, what the basic premise of this product was, we’re going to help you auto-share a bunch of content on social, that you haven’t read. Then thank the person who wrote it, for writing such a fine piece of content. Then, this is the work flow, then send what I would consider a spammy email to the person, asking for a sales appointment. Then if they don’t respond, auto sending three more emails, asking if they got your previous automated emails. That’s the product and people are buying that.

When you add all that up and there’s a whole lot of auto following and auto re-tweeting. At the recent HR technology conference, there was an individual, again, I’m not going to mention a name. They tweeted 25 hundred times over a three day period, do the math, assuming they’re sleeping at night. You can’t do that yourself. That’s the automation, but I think there’s a reason that it’s going on and you really can’t blame a lot of brands.

Most brands, if you have a whole social media team, God bless you, you’re really fortunate cause I think you can be really personable and do a lot of really good things on social. Most small and medium size businesses, especially in the HR space, don’t have that. They have one person that probably has another job, another responsibility at the company, maybe spending 30 minutes to an hour or so a day on this stuff. To do it right takes a lot of time. There’s a lot f administrative work that goes into being good at social. There’s no time for that. Why wouldn’t you rely on automation tools? I think that’s why the automation is occurring. I think, John, I do think it hurts brands reputation, I think they become these ghosts and I think they miss opportunities for real engagement.

John Sumser:                        I’ll tell you what’s interesting, Mark. The information environment is so cluttered right now, I’ve been on the receiving end of a ton of the stuff that you’re describing, and it never occurred to me that it was pure automation. I think, I believe, I’ve even written thank you notes to people for being persistent. Really. Why would I spend my time trying to figure out whether or not that was automated, so the first 20 times you see it, it’s not clear what it is. It takes somebody like you to point out what’s going on. I wonder if there isn’t a subsidiary business for you, letting people know what’s actually going on in the social media flow?

Mark Willaman:                  You know, John, you raise a good point, too because it may not bother you, you may not have noticed, but what are the results of the individuals, how effective are they being with you? What are they trying to do in their automation? Are they trying to get your attention, are they trying to get you to jump on the phone, to have a meeting with them? I don’t know the types of automation that you’re getting, but I would ask, is it working? How often are you, are you more likely, if I send you a personal communication that clearly I took the time to write, to respond to me, versus the stuff that you’re getting right now? Everybody’s different.

My experience in talking with a lot of brands is they’re not really getting that ROI, they’re not doing what they feel they could be doing on social, to actually make the investment in social marketing worthwhile. I think a bit of that is because of the over reliance on automation tools.

John Sumser:                        It’s a really interesting question, it’s a really interesting question. For me, I have a crazy, busy universe, in which lots of people would love a free moment of my time, or to have their promotional article appear in one of my outlets, or to get some sort of endorsement. There are vastly more people who are interested in having a piece of me than I’m able to give. The problem for somebody who’s trying to reach me is that they have to stand out, in spite of the noise. What works to stand out? If you recommend something, you Mark Willaman, recommend something to me, I’ll go pay attention to it, if it comes into my email box, without somebody recommending it, I may scan the headline. I may even scan the first two or three lines of the email, I don’t have time to read all that crap, I just don’t, I just don’t. I wasn’t put on the planet to read your email just ’cause you send it to me.

I think people have a real problem, because I’m just like every other media outlet in some ways. People have a real problem breaking through the noise. The service you’ve always provided is helping people break through the noise. The question is, does this thing that you’re doing help break through the noise? My bet is that your clients who take what you do, which I would describe as teeing the ball rather than hitting it, allows them to give a better showing, but it takes more time and energy to do marketing, I hate to say properly, but effectively. It takes more time and energy to do that marketing effectively, and sometimes people don’t have that. They’re in a lottery.

On Thursday, I might have a phone call that didn’t happen, so I find myself with 20 minutes on my hands that doesn’t have an easy plug for, so I go look at social media or go look at my email and bingo, they’ve got my attention by accident. That’s the best they get, they get my attention by accident.

Mark Willaman:                  You just said something that was, I think was really key. That is that to do it right does take time and why don’t we spend the time? I think that being great on social, does not require high volume and huge networks. I do think that the early adopters got that one wrong. A lot of times, as early adopters, and we’re all early adopters. You and I, I would think are some what, were early adopters in social. Just because you’re an early adopter doesn’t make you an expert at it, we all have a learning curve. What you said was interesting just a moment ago, about there’s not enough time, so what are we supposed to do as marketers? I think the question is why isn’t there enough time? An hour, even 30 minutes, to 45 minutes a day, of really focused, personal attention on social can accomplish quite a bit.

The question we try to ask, at least from a software development perspective was, why can’t we use technology to automate the administrative stuff, which doesn’t necessarily require a personal touch, that would free up time for an individual to actually spend their limited time of 30 minutes or 60 minutes a day, to actually be much more authentic and personable on social? If you can get, with that time, a couple of new relationships built, that will lead somewhere and be mutually beneficial, you’ve probably accomplished a lot more than you would have done if you were recklessly re-tweeting and sharing a bunch of stuff you haven’t read, and shooting automated emails to people for a month.

That’s the way we looked at it, is you’re right, there’s not enough time. Let’s use technology the way it should be, to improve the work flow so the administrative stuff is done, by a computer, which it can do and allow you then to sit down and be more personable.

John Sumser:                        I tell you, this week, I’ve been practicing my marketing. I am not the most disciplined or consistent marketer. This week I needed to talk with maybe 50 people I met at HR Tech last week. I went through the long list, writing everybody a note, and it’s hard to do that, it’s really hard to do that. It takes a long time to move from, there’s Mark Willaman and he’s got this HR Marketer business and I’ve met his wife and his kid, so I want to write him a note that’s special to Mark, then I move to the next person …

Mark Willaman:                  Are you talking about an email note or are you talking about a hand written, on a piece of paper?

John Sumser:                        An email note, an email note.

Mark Willaman:                  Like a LinkedIn or just write an email?

John Sumser:                        We have a conversation, we spend a half-an-hour in Las Vegas, so I want to say thank you and follow up and try to move closing some business forward.

Mark Willaman:                  Why was that so hard for you?

John Sumser:                        Because each individual letter is an individual relationship so you have to think about each individual relationship and write from the perspective of each individual relationship. That is the equivalent, emotionally and psychically of 50 phone calls.

Mark Willaman:                  Yeah, that is a lot, that’s overwhelming in some ways.

John Sumser:                        Right. Over the course of that, I realized that I could use a script to make that a little easier. I’ve got a script, but the script still had to be tweaked to every one of those things. It made the, what am I going to say here, part easier, but it didn’t make the tailoring part easier. My take would be that people automate because it’s not just a little hard to develop leads into business, it’s really hard to develop leads into business.

It’s the work of only very specific kinds of people who can do that at volume. Great marketers do that at volume and mediocre marketers automate it. I’m at best a mediocre marketer. The idea that I can automate and not have to think about it, even if it wasn’t effective, has some appeal because it’s not hard.

Mark Willaman:                  Yeah, but what you just described, I wouldn’t consider automation. You actually wrote those emails …

John Sumser:                        Oh no, it absolutely wasn’t automation, no. I spent three days doing that, and being able to get it done in an hour…

Mark Willaman:                  Yeah and these were people that you met already, so the relationship … I think a lot of what you’re seeing on social, they’re far behind you. They haven’t had that face-to-face yet, they haven’t even met you yet. They don’t know you, you don’t know them, they’re trying to use automation to begin a conversation or relationship with you. That’s challenging. It is a numbers game, so if you send out a thousand of those, I’m sure someone’s going to respond, but it’s going to be a pretty low percentage.

John Sumser:                        I think you’re working at the edges of technology and I mean the believing edges of technology, not the fringes. Working on something that lots of people haven’t considered. I’m not sure that you understand how important the work that you’re doing is. Because you’re getting into the intersection between people and technology, rather than the pure automation that you’re trying to help people correct. It’s a fascinating project, Mark.

Mark Willaman:                  Yeah, it actually, it really is. Because the use of automation, it’s really looking at the purpose of technology, what is the purpose of technology and computers? At least in B2B software, often times, it’s to help the work flow get done in a more meaningful way. To help people do their jobs in a better way. There’s this fine balance between over relying on technology. I think it’s human nature for us to see this great technology, whatever it may be, and think, hey, I can do less work.

That’s not always the case. It shouldn’t necessarily be the case. It should be, okay, it might free up some time I don’t have to spend doing this stuff that’s really not contributing to what I’m trying to get towards. Instead, I can spend more time actually doing what I should be doing. It’s a balance, but I think right now we have in social, for a lot of brands, social marketing, it’s a work flow problem. We know what we need to be doing each day, and we either don’t have the time to do it, or over automating it. I think if you can use technology in a more strategic way to help us get all this social stuff done that will have a positive return on investment, then I think we’re looking at the proper use of technology. It’s fun experimenting with it.

John Sumser:                        Just to summarize, the new HR Marketer software, Get it Done, does something that’s the equivalent of putting the ball on the tee so that you can practice your swing. It’s not, what’s out there a lot of places, which is something that puts the ball on the tee and hits it for you. This is a higher end approach to doing marketing in the contemporary environment that makes the case that the most important part of marketing is the relationship. Is that fair?

Mark Willaman:                  Yeah, and you say you’re not a marketer, right? That’s pretty good, that’s not bad. It’s a good description.

John Sumser:                        I didn’t say I wasn’t a marketer, I said I’m really crummy at the mechanics of it.

Mark Willaman:                  I’m not so sure about that. We have this software, I really would invite people, if anybody’s listening, to go to HR Marketer and check it out, it is interesting. At the very least, I think it’ll get you thinking differently about what you’re doing in brand marketing and social marketing. You summed it up pretty effectively, where we’re not going to auto follow, we’re not going to auto share, we’re not going to auto re-share or do any of that stuff. We’re going to get you just close enough, in a very strategic way, so you can just scan and approve and get these things done, hence the name Get it Done.

What it does is just leverages all this information that we already have and once you personalize it, does a pretty good job at just taking care of the administrative work so you can be more strategic.

John Sumser:                        Great. Would you take a moment and reintroduce yourself to the audience and tell them how to get ahold of you.

Mark Willaman:                  Okay. Well, again, Mark Willaman, I’m the founder of HR Marketer, here in Santa Cruz, California. We build a software that helps brands in the HR recruiting talent management space do a better job at getting visibility and supporting their other marketing initiatives. You can get in touch with me a couple of ways. You can go to, there’s information there. You can find me on LinkedIn and you can send me an email How’s that, John?

John Sumser:                        Great, thanks so much,, that’s great. Thanks so much for taking the time to be here. I really enjoyed our conversation. We’ve been speaking with Mark Willaman, who’s the founder of HR Marketer, you can find them at They’ve got a new release to their marketing tool set, called Get it Done, that automates the marketing process in social media, up to the point that you have to put your personal DNA in the process. They’re always at the forefront of automation in marketing, inside of the HR space.

Thanks for the time again, Mark. Thanks everybody for listening in.

Mark Willaman:                  Thank you, John.

John Sumser:      You’re welcome, it was great. Have a great afternoon. The sun is coming up in Occidental, California and the weekend is on the way. Thanks. You’ve been listening to HR Examiner Radio

End transcript

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