Marketers Who Matter: Mary Harper at Standard Life

by Jessica Ramesh

Mary Harper is Head of Customer and Digital Marketing at Standard Life. She has over 15 years’ experience of digital, helping organisations to create and deliver their digital strategies. She’s also spent time as a developer, which she feels has been a real asset when understanding new technologies. Previous roles include Strategy Director at Line Digital in Edinburgh and Director at Chisholm & Harper in Melbourne. We caught up with Mary to hear about putting the customer first, humanising brand communications and staying inspired

Standard Life recently launched a new-look consumer brand, Standard Life Savings. Can you tell us about the digital strategy behind the launch?

Our digital and business strategy are absolutely integrated. Recent market shifts in regulation, technology developments and customer demand led to a great opportunity to offer a digital-first consumer brand that puts customers in control of their finances. Through effective tools and easy-to-understand dashboards, we’re making it easier for people to get financially fit so they’re much better placed to achieve their goals today and in the future.

It can be tricky for B2B and financial services companies to find the right tone on social media. How do you approach social channels at Standard Life, and what are your objectives?

We approach social in a similar way to other digital channels – they are absolutely customer-led. We think about what our customers consume, who and what they engage with, and we monitor what they respond to. We look at the conversations they’re having: where, and who with. We carry out ‘active listening’ and respond. We have a core thought-leadership plan and also a responsive plan. That means we can join and contribute to conversations. The core thought-leadership plan is based around customer interests and seasonability, where we can proactively initiate conversations. The responsive plan allows us to join and contribute to live conversations using active listening techniques.

Personalisation has been one of 2015’s most prominent buzzwords. What role does it play in Standard Life’s digital strategy?

It started with humanisation – we wanted to co-create everything we do with customers as an antidote to the traditional, more ‘logical’ communications approach in financial services. We are now refining this based on actual behaviours to achieve even more relevancy using various technologies such as multivariate testing, propensity modelling and real-time targeting. It’s early days, but has huge support and we’re progressing a programme of work to improve our capability and effectiveness.

What do you see as the biggest challenge and/or opportunity facing digital marketers in your sector over the next year or so?

It’s perhaps a bit of a cliché, but as digital continues to evolve really rapidly, it is hard to know what techniques to make mainstream versus what’s a fad or a great experiment. This this will remain a challenge, particularly when resources aren’t infinite. Knowing what’s relatively mature and using effective attribution modelling to gauge what’s working really helps, as does allowing space to experiment with the new. We’re big believers in the ‘test and learn’ approach.

If you were able now to offer a piece of advice to yourself at the very start of your career in digital, what would it be?

I’ve been blessed enough to have worked with extremely inspiring and innovative people my entire career. Perhaps in hindsight, I would advise myself to have been bolder sooner. To have tried more things, pushed harder and have had greater entrepreneurial experience, although I have been involved with start-ups, including my own business. Tech, start-ups and innovative networks are now really fuelling the economy. In hindsight, I’d have liked to have been more integrated with this movement.

Looking back over your career so far, is there any one project, campaign or venture that you’re particularly proud of?

It would have to be starting a business at 30 with a three month old baby in tow. I left behind a very promising ‘Big 4’ career when my business partner and I saw a gap in the market for digital. Second to this would be my role at Standard Life which is also new territory for me in a market that had potential but was relatively untested ground. Great fun.

Which other brands’ marketing strategies do you admire and why?

I admire Pinterest because they really get behavioural targeting. Carlsberg really know their brand essence and market it well, with great humour. Also the Swiss tourist board deliver really creative and beautiful social campaigns.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the current state of digital marketing?

It’s a hugely exciting time, where tools and techniques continue to mature and new capability keeps emerging. Digital and mobile-first business models and entrepreneurs who get this and can apply it effectively, are now a reality, creating an amazing creative, disruptive ecosystem that is improving lives and empowering and connecting people all over the world. It’s not all plain sailing – it can be exhausting in fact – but I love it and am inspired by it every single day.

Interview by Jon Fortgang