An Interview with Leslie Marshall, Head of Experiential Marketing at Morningstar
I know what you’re thinking: Head of Experiential Marketing—what is that? Well now, hang on a second. When you think about it, social media is about people connecting with other people through a digital experience. Companies are simply groups of people. Leslie’s role is managing all the ways that Morningstar connects with their audience—where and how people experience and form relationships with Morningstar. One of the biggest ways Morningstar connects with their audience is through their annual Morningstar Investment Conference. While it may not be on par with Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders meeting (the “Woodstock for Capitalists”), it comes pretty close. After all, 2,200+ people descend upon Chicago every year to attend: financial advisors, wealth managers, asset managers, portfolio managers, and sales and marketing executives all make the annual pilgrimage to Chicago.
The unofficial theme of this year’s Morningstar Investment Conference seemed to be “adapt to the disruption.” Some breakout sessions tackled this tech topic, including “New Fintech Technologies and Companies That Will Impact Wealth Managers,” “The Future of Financial Planning in the Digital Age,” and “The Augmented Advisor: How Technology Amplifies the Significance of Financial Advice.” PIMCO had the slogan “Staying Ahead of a Shifting Landscape” across the back wall of their booth. The booths did not consist of only asset managers; there were 20 different tech companies that partner with Morningstar giving demos to advisors.
Morningstar had two tech kiosks of their own: one demoing the latest redesign of the UI (now in the Cloud), giving users the ability to drag and drop and customize based on user needs, and the other showing potential new enhancements currently in a beta test environment. Last year, they gave a survey on bottom navigation versus top navigation. This year, it was a review of emojis and if they make sense representing the actions in the system. Advisors even had the option of getting their own beta login to take home and test the playground and send feedback.
Video was also a big trend with Morningstar’s Live Squad catching everything (live) on video. There were 5,000+ tweets using the event hashtag #MICUS with people quoting speakers, sharing knowledge, and making plans to meet up, big screen Twitter boards broadcasting the event tweets, and charging stations in the rest areas. The Social Hub was staffed with a team ready to answer social media and tech questions as well as guest speakers such as Michael Kitces and Stephanie Sammons talking social strategies. While the majority of attendees were in the typical finance suit and tie uniform, there were actually quite a few in jeans. For a moment I wondered if I was at SXSW, but then realized there were collared shirts, not T-shirts, under those blazers, and no sneakers with the jeans.
I had an opportunity to catch up with Leslie and get a behind-the-scenes view of all the ways in which her audience experienced Morningstar. She also shared with me the initiatives she’s working on in the realm of technology and social media. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.
Congratulations on your new promotion from Director – Events, Magazine and Social Media to Head of Experiential Marketing. Tell me a little about your former role, how you came to your new role, and what it entails.
My former role brings together three areas to showcase our research, the people behind the research, and our products and design, whether that’s live at an event, through print in our magazine, or through our social media channels.
While I still oversee those areas, what I now have layered on is global oversight of the overall experience. One of our goals is to enhance people’s experience with the Morningstar brand at every point they encounter it. Throughout our history, live events have been an integral part of building our brand and an important way that people experience Morningstar. What’s the brand experience? What’s the expectation and how can we exceed people’s expectations? How can we continue to elevate that experience through those properties? This approach takes what we’re doing to a new level and really puts the client experience on the front of it so it’s not just tactical, which is social, magazine, conference marketing, but also strategic.
To do this I will work with our global teams to define our portfolio of branded events and partner with research, product, marketing, and sales on content strategy and themes to carry through the live experience, social media, Morningstar magazine and other media properties. My new role aligns with our company goals from a marketing organization perspective and also from an industry perspective.
With the way people are now organically using tech and social media in their everyday lives, how do you see this fitting in with the company marketing strategy?
I attended the Experiential Marketing Summit where they talked about a customer’s digital experience and how they’re experiencing your brand through your website properties, mobile apps, social media, live events and how the pieces are all connected.
Something that struck me at the conference, and something that I think about when I’m just walking around, in the age of social people are curating their lives… they’re photographing moments, they’re Snapchatting, sharing experiences… what about Morningstar making someone want to share that with someone else? What are the things that we are creating? How can we be on that curated list? That’s something I think about a lot.
I think that is reflected in your own social media; you’re so good at live posting during the events. I follow all your posts—sometimes I feel like I’m right there.
I love it, it’s one of my favorite things. I really enjoy live tweeting from both the US and the UK Morningstar Investment Conferences. It’s fun to give people an opportunity if they can’t be there. I’ve had lots of feedback from advisors who have followed the hashtag and thanked me for sharing, telling me it helped them which is our goal too; we want to help investors with the information that we’re sharing.
I’ve made quite a few business relationships from Twitter and I don’t know that we would have the same kind of relationship today without social media. Through Twitter we exchange dialogue, comment, etc., then when we meet in person it feels like we already know each other. It adds a whole new layer of connection with people.
This was the 29th year Morningstar put on this event. What are some of the major differences you’ve seen over the past few years on the technology side?
I started with Morningstar in 2006 and, at that time, we were using a lot of home grown solutions. But like any company, as you get bigger, sometimes those solutions don’t work well due to scale. A lot has changed since then.
This is the second year we used CVENT (an online event management tool) for the conference in Chicago and it’s been really exciting to see how we can scale our events with technology. We use CVENT in the US, UK, Hong Kong and Australia; we’re onboarding India this year. Part of my role is to take a look at the needs for our global teams and evaluate the tools that will help them get their jobs done without me or our corporate teams getting in the way. It’s been fun for me to watch our teams such as Australia and the UK take the new tools and resources and just run with them. They’re able to do their jobs without having to wait for us in Chicago who are a day behind. They can run their events in a way that’s consistent with the experience we want people to have at all of our conferences.
We launched a mobile responsive website through Adobe Experience Manager this year in the US and we will be rolling that template out globally. We’re looking at global solutions that can be templatized so it’s easier from a design perspective as well as an execution perspective.
I love all the data that comes through. We’ve got great reporting around who attended which sessions, the innovation lab, the booths, the presentations; we’re able to get a heat map of the exhibit hall and the conference. This post-conference data allows us to be more effective in future planning and marketing.
What are some of the biggest trends you saw this year?
We’ve been hearing a lot about robo-advisors and initially everyone thought they would be kicking advisors to the wayside. But this year I’m seeing advisors starting to embrace technology as a partner and as a business enhancer versus a competitor that might run them out of the business.
Certainly the sustainability trend is growing and something that is important to Morningstar is our sustainability rating. We were actually approached by a group of asset managers that use our sustainability ratings wanting to be put together in the same area of the conference. So we created a “sustainability row” this year; these asset managers wanted to show that this is an important trend that they’ve embraced as companies and they see it as an opportunity to offer new services to investors. A lot of times asset managers are competitive, but to see these companies wanting to come together and represent this important trend in the industry together, I thought was really exciting. The idea of coopetition is an interesting approach and we were happy to support that at the conference.
Sustainability Row Participants:
- Sustainalytics: Morningstar uses company-level ESG data from Sustainalytics, a leading provider of ESG ratings and research, to calculate the Morningstar Sustainability Rating.
- First Affirmative
- Azzad Funds
- Saturna Capital
- Appleseed Fund
- Calvert Research and Management
- Eventide Asset Management
- Parnassus Investments
- Pax World
- Domini Impact Investments, LLC
- Brown Advisory
- Miller / Howard Investments
What was new this year at the event?
We wanted to get people excited about some of the new things we’re doing such as the Best Interest Score Card, Behavioral Finance Research and we wanted to engage those interested in doing beta testing with us and giving feedback about our products as we’re in development. To do this we created the Innovation Lab this year. While we hoped there would be attendee interest, it was new and we weren’t sure how it would go over. Turned out it was so busy, our product teams had to send over more team members to support the interest. As we think about conference experiences, this is right on trend; attendees not only want to learn, but engage with the process. That inspires me as we think about our events.
The initiative was led by one of our Live Squad team members, Carolyn Decamp, who worked with our Chief Product Officer Tricia Rothschild and her team to think of interactive activities to engage the advisors.
I noticed there were a lot of tech companies in attendance, tell me more about that.
Yes, this is our third year having our tech partners at the conference which started when we introduced Morningstar’s API and began partnering with different companies whose services connected with our services. It seemed a natural fit to have them at the conference to highlight their products and services and how it connects to Morningstar. It builds out that advisor community and solutions that are available to help advisors get their jobs done. Similarly to Sustainability Row, we created a Tech Row for booths and a tech kiosk area close by. We worked very closely with our Product Management Team on how to build out those areas of the conference so it’s beneficial for the client.
What are your thoughts on mutual fund fact sheets? Fine the way they are or crying out for digital disruption?
This is not my area of expertise. But, I think fund fact sheets are functional as they cover all the bases from a legal perspective. They include what they are required to include. But do they help the investor understand what they are invested in, or could consider investing in? I think fund information should be simple and accessible so people can make decision. Anything that helps to simplify and provide clarity helps the investor.
The 2017 Morningstar Investment Conference coverage says “Morningstar.com offered on-the-ground coverage of the entire conference, including analyst blogs from top panels and video interviews with featured managers.” How did this work?
The Morningstar.com editorial team coordinates all the interviews with conference speakers and produces videos and posts for Morningstar.com site members/visitors. This year the team was live from the exhibit hall floor and filmed a 360-degree video with Russ Kinnel with his MIC takeaways. This team has been covering the conference on Morningstar.com since 1997!
In one of your Tweets, you thanked Bill Winterberg and Creative Marketing Solutions for storytelling through video, calling them members of the “#MICUS Live Squad.” What exactly is the Live Squad?
The conference team itself is small, especially considering the size of the event. The conference touches all areas of the company: research to bring in their content ideas, sales and client service to make sure they’re prepared to interface with clients, the marketing team, the products team, etc. So it’s the Live Squad that brings it all together and executes that vision with a focus on the brand and attendee experience.
One of our main goals this year was to think about how we could tell the conference story through the people involved in the conference from planning the agenda to the Live Squad that creates the live experience. So this year we made a promo video, which was a lot of fun to make. Everyone was so receptive to giving it a try and it turned out really well.
Do you have any favorite quotes from the event?
I was struck by Don Phillips comment on the industry disruption panel: “You take the old boy industry of finance and the young boy industry of tech… we’re not expanding the investing community.” And it’s true, it doesn’t contribute to diversifying the industry or offering more opportunities. Whether you’re an investor or looking for work, there’s more work to be done in this area.
Finance has long been a male-dominated industry and the tech industry has developed in the same way. Don’s comments brought those two things together for me. It’s definitely a challenge we’ve got to work through with financial services now embracing technology to deliver solutions for investors.
And it’s definitely on our radar as a company. We have the Morningstar Women’s Initiative (WIN) group to foster mentoring with women across the company and it’s open to both men and women. I’m currently mentoring a colleague. In the group we talk about how we can support each other through career development, learning new skills and working through some of the challenges we face. If one of us doesn’t have the answer to something, we introduce each other to the people who do.
In our April/May issue there is an article titled Cast a Wider Net that discusses the lack of women in the fund industry and why that’s an issue. It’s based on original research by Laura Lutton and Madison Sargis.
We also hosted a Facebook Live event about Women in Investing based on this same research.
Any lessons you learned from this year’s event?
I’m excited to dig into attendee data and feedback. It’s really all about the attendee experience. We want to use the information to improve the experience for attendees so we can deliver content that inspires them and helps them serve their clients, the investors. One event is really thousands of individual experiences and we want to deliver on a great experience for all attendees. The data—registration, mobile, social, paid/earned media—all of that inspires the team.
I also love how social media expands the reach of the conference. There was an advisor who was following the conference hashtag #MICUS and lamenting that he was on a bus chaperoning a school field trip. We had a nice Twitter exchange and later I mailed him some conference swag and copies of the Conference Dailies. Another advisor had to miss the last day and tweeted asking us to send follow up content. It’s these small moments of one to one connection that I hope have impact with our clients. And if they come to our conference in 2018, that just delights me.
Thank you, Leslie.
Leslie Marshall is the Head of Experiential Marketing at Morningstar, Inc.
Leslie is responsible for bringing Morningstar’s thought leadership to life through Morningstar conferences and events, providing a deeper dive into our research with Morningstar magazine and connecting with investors through Morningstar’s social media accounts. A champion for social media within the organization, Leslie is responsible for Morningstar’s global social media strategy.
Prior to joining Morningstar, Leslie spent 14 years in the publishing industry in a variety of marketing, new business development, and editorial roles.
Leslie holds a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and German from Adrian College.
Follow Leslie on Twitter @LeslieAMarshall
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