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Leadership Edge with Erika Tepler of Panion

Erika is the Head of Marketing at Panion, a startup that works to connect people based on their interests and values. She is a career-changer who is passionate about life-long learning. Check out to learn more.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, or readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Inever fit in as a school teacher. My ideas were always a little bit out there and I always felt like I thought differently than my colleagues. So many teachers will tell you that they love kids, love teaching and a teacher is exactly what they’ve always wanted to be. I never felt that way.

I found it fascinating for a very long time because I worked with refugees and other immigrants, but eventually I knew I wanted a change. So, I started studying. I took some basic marketing courses online and then I dug into HTML and started a coding camp.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Years ago I was working for a company that delivered food to college kids. This is before the Seamless era. I was sure that our market wanted nostalgia food. Why? Well, I had a hunch. I went to a food show and came back and convinced my boss that we needed to order a ton of fish sticks.

I was convinced that frozen fish sticks were going to fly off the shelves because it would remind the college kids of their childhoods. I had a vision that late at night, when the frat boys were searching for a munchie, fish sticks would appeal like nothing else.

I guess I sounded pretty credible because the company listened to me… Oops. It turned out that absolutely NOBODY wanted those fish sticks and we sold ZERO boxes before they expired. When was the last time you ate a fish stick? Did you like it? If you even remember the answer is probably no.

Now if I have a hunch, I’ll check it against some data. Just because I’ve got great fish stick memories doesn’t mean everyone else does.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

Like I said, I started to let my hunches lead me to data. The data would have probably told me that college kids order a lot of ice cream and cookies, not food that has to be prepared (yes, microwaving is a lot of work for a college kid!).

So obviously, looking at hard data and using that to guide a decision really changed the game. But everyone does that these days. I think what has made the most difference is collaboratively looking at the data. Sure, you can’t change the numbers but there are ways of seeing it from a different perspective and there are certainly ways of diving in that are different.

When I started really working collaboratively with designers, UXers and developers, I was able to get a broader picture of the data and new insights that I wouldn’t have found on my own. The UX perspective on a funnel of marketing data broadens my own. They tend to ask different questions and focus on different points.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At any startup you are going to work closely with people who have very different roles but at Panion, I think our collaborative work is extraordinary. There’s no push to stay in one’s lane. While our graphic designer isn’t a marketer, I run things by him all the time because I value his creative mind and unique approach. While our individual KPIs might be a bit different, our ultimate goal is shared. I can’t have another fish sticks debacle.

I think our product is really special because it connects people in a truly personal way. You find people who get you based on common interests, values and goals. We had two users who became friends because they are both writing books and both are passionate about insects. Now they are attending each other’s weddings! That kind of quick connection is unusual these days.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

People who have strong connections with people around them are healthier and live longer. Panion exists to give everyone access to those kinds of meaningful relationships. Our society is hyper focused on dating when so many of us really crave deep platonic connection.

We want to leverage technology to bring people together based on common interests and shared values. I’m simply inspired by the idea that someone might have a more fulfilling life by finding friends who really understand them using our app.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Collaborate with unlikely people. Sometimes an unusual perspective can reinvigorate your interest and that perspective might come from someone outside of marketing. As marketers we should always be curious and absolutely fascinated with whatever problem we are trying to solve.

Of course, it’s hard to maintain an intense interest in everything we do. So calling on colleagues outside of our department for ideas can help refresh our curiosity, calling our attention to new pieces of the puzzle we hadn’t noticed before.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I was sick of teaching and took a quick visit to a friend in Berlin. He sat me down and gave me some real talk about my situation. He said, “If you think differently from the people around you, that doesn’t mean you are innovative, it means you are in the wrong place.”

He had been working in marketing for a a while and found it both exciting challenging. He helped me map out my skills and plan my pivot while we drank great German beers.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There are hundreds of memorable marketing campaigns that have become part of the lexicon of our culture. What is your favorite marketing or branding campaign from history? Can you explain why you like that so much?

This is easy for me and just super classic. I don’t know how many times my friends and I tried to see how many licks it took to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll pop. We were trying to incorporate that into science experiments in school and convincing our parents we needed them for science class!

The animation was old-school at best but there was just something so catchy. Not only does it get you to buy it, the campaign is designed to speed up consumption. The ads actually encouraged you to eat it incorrectly- singing the praise of licking but suggesting that you bite through to get to the good part.

There are tons of amazing campaigns that have totally changed how we perceive of an item- like “Got Milk” of course. But pushing junk food into science class and getting kids to chomp through it at light speed is simply astounding to me.

If you could break down a very successful campaign into a “blueprint”, what would that blueprint look like? Please share some stories or examples of your ideas.

Your blueprint is going to depend on your product and budget but I encourage everyone to start thinking about an audience with a problem. Why do they have this problem and how are you going to present the solution? Then clearly identify your touchpoints based on data. What has worked before?

Not enough data yet? Research what your competitors have done. Observe closely. Define your timeline and budget. Even if your budget is 0, make sure that’s in your plan so you can refer back to it. When you choose your channels make sure they cost 0!

Companies like Google and Facebook have totally disrupted how companies market over the past 15 years. At the same time, consumers have become more jaded and resistant to anything “salesy”. In your industry, where do you see the future of marketing going?

Young people are getting more and more used to consuming and ignoring massive amounts of digital input and getting really skilled at ignoring advertising. Moreover, search engine optimizataion is getting sophisticated and there are fewer and fewer “hacks.” My boss was super focused on backlinks and keywords and I said, “Yes, that stuff is important but what’s WAY more important is having an awesome blog that people want to read.”

Marketing requires providing real value at every step of the way and that’s extremely challenging. There are fewer and fewer tricks to things. First you need an amazingly valuable product but the future beyond that is customer centricity.

We need to be using lots of data to identify what our customers really want and then appealing to those desires with a flawlessly valuable product. This is going to take lots of collaboration and dialogue across departments.

Can you please tell us the 5 things you wish someone told you before you started? Can you please share a story or example for each.

  • Don’t listen to experts. When I first started a lot of over-confident people tried to sell themselves to me as experts. The more “experts” I talked to, the more contradictory information I was given.

  • Ok, listen to experts. I had to learn to weed out information. In the beginning, I would change my strategy based on one person who called himself an expert. I’ve stopped making U-Turns based on a piece of advice and now I gather lots of information to make data-driven decisions.

  • Be an expert. Research, ask for help, experiment, fail early and often and improve.

  • No really, it’s okay for you to take on that role. Sometimes it’s hard to think of myself that way because there’s always someone with a more important role and more experience. I often think this is internalized sexism and fight past it. I think to myself, “What would a man do?” and attempt to rewire my thinking. Women are taught to defer to others and we have to unlearn that.

Can you share a few examples of marketing tools or marketing technology that you think can dramatically empower small business owners to become more effective marketers?

Right now I’m in love with Clevertap. I love looking at all the data and then designing targeted campaigns based on drop-off. They are really taking off and the tool continues to improve. Moreover, their customer support team is just full of rockstars. I’m also freaking out about Crystal. The plugin gleans info from a LinkedIn profile and predicts their personality giving you insights into their communication style. It even drafts emails for you! However what I really enjoyed using it for was looking at my own profile to learn how I could become a better coworkers and engage in more effective communication with the diverse group of people around me. Try it out and you will flip!

What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?

I use classes on Coursera to keep refreshing my knowledge. It sounds so nerdy but I also listen to an informative podcast called “The ASO Show” by Gabriel Machuret. Benjamin Shapiro’s “Voices of Search” is a great way to stay updated on the evolving world.

I’m not in love with the social media side of my job so “Social Pros Podcast” is really helpful. I’ve found lots of support on Slack spaces like Online Geniuses whenever I have questions about everything from strategy to technical tools.

Who is your hero? Can you explain or share a story about why that person resonates with you?

Easy. My mom. She gave up her career to raise us and then once we were out of the house, she pivoted fast. She went back to school and now she’s a state politician. I couldn’t be more proud.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

We have a perceived sense of anonymity online, which seems to have given some people the guts to be unkind to others. Somehow, when we have a machine speak for us we lose empathy. I would like to inspire a movement of radical online kindness.

As a teacher I saw so many kids suffer because of the horrible things their peers texted or posted and I think we’d all end up much better adjusted if we could stop this behavior from a young age.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m personally somewhat boring but Panion is awesome. Check us out on Facebook as @Panion Instagram @panion_app and Twitter @panionapp.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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