As Co-Founder and Executive VP of C-4 Analytics, Justin Cook develops next-generation marketing strategies by blending proven marketing techniques with the evolving science of data and analytics. And with great results: C-4 Analytics’ clients regularly become leaders in their markets, and the company earned a top spot in Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500™, placing first in the Internet sector and 10th overall among eligible North American companies, and was recognized as one of the fastest-growing privately held company in the United States by Inc. Magazine’s Inc. 500 List.
Justin is a former litigator who was named a “Rising Star” in his field by Boston Magazine, and was named the 2017 Entrepreneur Of The Year® by EY.
We were thrilled to sit down with Justin and get some of his insights into digital marketing for the forward-thinking dealership.
This interview is in loving memory of Phil Murphy, former Account Director at C-4. Would you like to say a few words about Phil before we begin?
Of course – Phil was family. I know a lot of companies say things like that, but the culture here is different – it’s very collaborative, we are truly supportive of each other. Phil had this unshakable confidence and this easy way with people. He was always willing to step in and support anybody who needed help with anything. He believed that anything could be done with hard work, and he instilled that belief in everyone who worked with him. He had a real impact on the way we do things here and the work that we do, and provided a great example of what can be accomplished. We are really going to miss having him as a part of our everyday life, and I think all we can do is carry on what he taught us.
Can you speak about anything specific that he taught you?
He taught me a lot about leadership and perseverance. It’s funny because we taught him about the automotive space, but he taught us so much about how to work. He was a real leader. I constantly learned from him by watching the way he interacted with everybody, how he would set goals and make sure to accomplish them. He was a true leader and is going to be missed.
Thanks for those words, we can all learn lessons from such a great legacy.
Let’s get into your work, Justin. You started out in law, so what drew you to digital marketing?
I think it can be argued that I started out in digital marketing, and then had a hiatus in law before returning to my roots. I always had an interest in digital marketing. I had an early SEO company at the dawn of the internet, and started an internet consulting company when I was in college, which was a result of my co-op program at Northeastern University. I ended up with a lot of lawyers as clients, because I was doing co-ops in the law field. That grew into a career in law.
After graduating from Suffolk Law School, I accepted a position at one of the top litigation firms in Boston. Aside from handling a full load of wrongful death cases, I did the marketing for the firm. I did SEO, paid search, content, and conversion optimization for about 30 different websites. My work generated over 40 million dollars of settlements for the firm and their co-counsel networks.
After seven years, I decided to leave and focus solely on digital marketing. I teamed up with Michael Weiss, the co-founder of C-4, who at the the time was building these multi-million dollar platforms for hospitals and higher education institutions. We started C-4 literally out of a closet that we rented in a building that my dad owned in Revere, Massachusetts, above a bridal salon. My dad actually set us up with our first pitch, which was a local dealership, Lexus of Watertown. At the time it was number 49 in the country in terms of sales. But the GM had a plan– he wanted to be in the top 10 by the end of 2011. We did an analysis of their competition, and told him we thought we could get him there. We walked him through the strategy that we would deploy to do so and he wrote us a check on the spot. Within 6 months, he was number 9 in the U.S.
That’s a pretty good way to start!
It was, and we learned a lot from it. It also helped get our name out there because people in the industry took notice.
Tell us a bit more about C-4 and how it differs from other digital marketing agencies.
I think the major difference is that we really develop a fully customized solution for our clients based on their goals and an in-depth assessment of the marketplace. There are a lot of good companies out there, but most agencies and service companies put their clients on a program that worked previously for one of their other clients. They often use recycled keywords and ad copies with pre-determined information, which is a formulaic approach which we believe just doesn’t work.
We start by looking at data. That’s probably what we do better than anyone else. Where and why is our client winning or losing? Is it a location, is it in a demographic? Are they losing to a competitor or a different brand altogether? Is the process in the store effective? Once we recognize the areas in which we can grow their market share, we give each client a dedicated team that works closely with them to help them get the most value from their digital marketing, and there’s real accountability. We beat the formulaic approach every time, and we do it with a much higher return on investment for our clients than our competitors because of the way we approach the market and the data that we use in our deployment.
So let’s get into the numbers. What are some of the metrics and figures that are most important for midsize companies to track?
There’s one real metric that matters more than anything, especially in the context of automotive, and that is market share. Customers’ market share has a profound impact on the viability of their business going forward. The more cars you put on the road, the more you’re going to get back for service, and the more customers you are going to get back for new cars and leases.
I would say that cost per acquisition is a very close second. Are you increasing sales faster than the guy next to you, and if so, at what cost? Any business that can increase its market share growth while controlling its costs will dominate its industry. And keep in mind that there’s no website data for market share cost per acquisition. Those numbers have to be distilled from multiple sources. This might be why there’s such a problem with accountability, because we are chasing market share at a lower cost per acquisition, but everything is measured by traffic. It’s easy to say– oh your traffic is up 20%! That’s great! But you have to ask, is it up 20% in your hometown where you have a 95% market share, or in the town over where you have 2%? That’s what businesses need to be evaluating. Your video went viral? Awesome. How did that affect your market share or cost per acquisition? We make it a point to teach our clients about the bigger goals that they need to achieve. Traffic and technology and shiny objects are all worthless if they don’t meet your business goals.
Can you discuss some of the tools that companies in the industry can use to reach more customers?
So right now I think you need three things: pay-per-click advertising on Google (especially mobile) and, to a lesser extent, Bing; top placements in Google Maps; and an ever-evolving ad strategy for Facebook.
Today, many people are using mobile for Google searching. The first organic result can be halfway down the page. So if you aren’t buying pay-per-click on mobile platforms, then you aren’t even being seen. Google Maps is great because even customers who skip the ads typically don’t skip Google Maps listings. And in terms of Facebook advertising, the major challenge is that, like Las Vegas, users on Facebook want to stay on Facebook. They don’t want to visit your site. But if you know how to used advanced segmentation for audiences, it can be an extremely powerful tool. Advertisers need to treat Facebook like a separate and distinct channel that runs parallel to their other marketing efforts, and they need to understand how to measure it and do it correctly.
What are some of the biggest mistakes a company can make in setting a digital marketing strategy?
I think the answer is in the question. It’s setting a strategy. I don’t think digital strategies can ever be just set– they have to evolve and change with market conditions and shifting human behaviors. Even if you find the perfect strategy that works right now, odds are it won’t work in six months. Companies need a set of outside eyes watching their digital performance constantly. You need really smart and savvy digital specialists to navigate the constantly shifting world of digital marketing, or you are going to find yourselves getting buried by your competitors. A company can have really talented individuals internally, but those people are intrinsically motivated based on what their supervisor wants them to do. Outside eyes that work with 100 different clients within different markets can see things that you typically don’t see if you’re sitting in a silo.
At C-4 you work with a variety of different industries. What are some of the unique challenges of automotive and some ways to approach them?
I think there’s a unique squeeze that occurs only in automotive, between competing dealerships and manufacturers. Think of OEMs as Coke bottlers– they don’t care where the customer buys the product, they just want him to buy more Coke. But to the dealerships, the only thing that matters is getting the customer to buy from them. To complicate matters, dealerships have to compete against the manufacturers of the product that they sell. This doesn’t happen in any other industry! In the context of pay-per-click for example, this competition can happen nationally at tier 1, and then regionally at tier 2, and then of course between each dealership at tier 3. This serves only to exponentially drive up the cost in specific markets. A dealership can be running a great campaign, but then the manufacturer comes along and decides to outbid them on ads and they send potential clients to whoever is closest by mileage. These challenges only exist in automotive.
In terms of ways to approach them, I think this is where having an experienced marketing services partner is so valuable. We can spot these issues the moment they occur, and make a decision about the best way to react. We help our clients come up with a strategy to get their customers back. Sometimes that means fighting the manufacturers, and other times it means letting it slide because we can get leads from other sources. Each decision needs to be informed by what is happening in the market at that moment.
What do you think is going to be the impact of artificial intelligence on digital marketing?
I think it’ll have short and long term effects. In the short term, AI is going to help us streamline big data and analysis. In the long term, to be honest, it’s probably going to take away a lot of marketing jobs. Oftentimes with big data, it is difficult to sift out what matters and what doesn’t from all of the information within an industry or market. It is time-consuming and expensive. AI can be used to see only the most meaningful data, allowing for much better ad targeting and greater levels of personalization. Even going a few years back, AI has been used to follow basic sets of rules to achieve certain goals. Now, because of increasing computer power and the availability of more data, it seems like AI will soon be able to figure out rules on its own. At AutoLeadStar you guys are doing this too. AI needs hundreds of thousands of data sets, which are becoming easier to acquire. Provided that the data sets aren’t inherently biased, I think it’s really revolutionary. AI will be able to sift through all of the data a lot more effectively and efficiently than an analyst would be able to.
What are some plans at C-4 for the coming months?
I think one of the most exciting things that I’m personally looking forward to is the shift toward actually trying to optimize campaigns around increased profits for dealerships rather than trying to lower CPCs. Because of AI and the amount of data we have, we are able to understand correlations better, to see what is bringing in the most profit. Instead of lowering the price of a car after it hasn’t sold, we will be able to recognize the reason why it hasn’t sold, and make changes. And a human won’t have to look and make a decision about every vehicle– AI can go through the information and “decide” why each hasn’t sold. So the idea is that you don’t lower the cost of a vehicle by $2,000. Instead, you spend $20 or $30 more to sell that vehicle, because you can see that the reason it hasn’t sold isn’t price, but rather visibility. So in essence, you spend $30 to market that specific vehicle and make an additional $2,000. No one else is doing that right now. And that’s something that we’ve been working on and are already beta-testing right now and has proven to be very effective.
Thank you Justin for such a rich, informative conversation! Looking forward to seeing great things from C-4!
Learn about how AI can get more leads for your dealership. Try Falcon by AutoLeadStar!