CMO Corner: A Chat With American Lung Association CMO Julia Fitzgerald

Posted on by Kaylee Hultgren

With 20 years of experience leading marketing teams across a variety of business categories, from CPG to retail franchising to B2B2C to nonprofit, American Lung Association CMO Julia Fitzgerald is sure of one thing: Regardless of an organization’s business model, the fundamentals of effective marketing are essentially the same.

It all starts with knowing the narrative, she says. “What is your value proposition, what is it that you do, who do you do it for, and how do you do it differently than everybody else?” she told Chief Marketer this week. Then it comes down to branding, followed by evaluating—and optimizing—the team structure.

Below is our conversation with Fitzgerald, spanning a plethora of topics, including common marketing mistakes brands make when measuring ROI; ways to analyze and pivot your current strategy for more profitable outcomes; lessons learned from marketing in the private sector; and why consumer sentiment and AI are the trends she’s paying most attention to.

Chief Marketer: This is your first role in the nonprofit world. What have you learned from your experience working in the private sector?

American Lung Association CMO Julia Fitzgerald: I’ve been a CMO for just about 20 years, and I’ve spanned all types of different business models. I’ve been in CPG, retail franchising, B2B, B2B2C, and now finally not-for-profit. Yes, this is a new business model, but what I find in marketing is that regardless of the business model, what makes effective marketing work is essentially the same.

CM: What are those commonalities?

JF: It starts with with knowing the narrative. What is your value proposition, what is it that you do, who do you do it for, and how do you do it differently than everybody else? And next comes down to branding. How does your target market identify you in the marketplace? What does your branding say about you both visually, and your voice? My next piece is to look at the team structure. Is the marketing team set up to do the challenge for the organization? Marketing changes so frequently. So, do we have the right combination of people and agencies to do what we need to do?

And then it starts to get a little boring. I do a calendar audit. Because I frequently find that, especially with midsize organizations, you’re out of sync. If your really big get happens in January, don’t chase the semi-big win in November and then not be prepared to win in January. It’s looking at the calendar. Are we backed off enough to really make this happen? And then, you get to the part where everybody wants to start—and that’s the digital ecosystem and digital advertising. Whenever I come into an organization, [people say], “are we going to do a TikTok? Are we going to use influencers?” Right down to the delivery system, skipping all those other steps that I just mentioned. And while that is the sexy new stuff, it needs to come later—and it also needs to come after the content strategy.

The other part of marketing that I find ubiquitous from one business model to the next is “content plus the delivery.” You have to have the message, and then it’s how you’re going to get it out there. I tell my team that it’s the music and the words to make the whole song. You’re working on a content strategy. What’s the message? What do we want people to do? How does this need to sound before we decide if we need a micro-influencer or a TikTok campaign? And then the last piece is using KPIs and reporting to motivate that virtuous cycle. Is this working really well for us? Or, this is not worth the time of day—and taking it back to the beginning.

CM: Let’s talk ROI a bit. In your experience, what are some common marketing mistakes that brands make when they’re measuring ROI?

JF: I would say the first mistake is not to measure. Number one is not giving careful thought ahead of time to how would you measure success. The other part is inconsistent measurement of your KPIs. If you’re only going in occasionally and checking, and not looking at through lines and trends, it’s hard to understand what’s happening. I see that a lot when we look at organic traffic to our websites versus the paid traffic. If you only pay attention to it once in a while, you don’t get the whole picture.

And then the other one is staying attuned to where you’re spending big dollars. I think most marketers these days see that with digital advertising—understanding what’s happening to the cost-per-clicks, what’s happening on the investment side, and then what’s happening on the conversion side. Is this channel still working as efficiently as it used to, or did something shift and now I need to shift my mix?

CM: How do you recommend analyzing your current strategy to find out what’s not working?

JF: This is where you can look at the qualitative and the quantitative. When it comes to digital, the numbers start to tell you. Where this is a little bit harder is on the metrics that don’t move as quickly, such as awareness or consideration or participation or building up a certain market segment, because you can’t get a week-by-week KPI that tells you the direction that it’s headed. That’s where it’s incumbent on a marketer to have some feedback. Who else is really interested in this KPI? Is it your retail partners? Is it your board members? Is it some of your best customers? Having informal feedback circles to tell you: Are you hearing more buzz about this? Are more people inquiring about this? Are you feeling better about our position with your existing customers? That’s where you need to look at your whole ecosystem, from your customer to your clients, to decide who else can tell you if you’re winning on this or not.

CM: How would you go about pivoting to a more profitable strategy?

JF: First of all, are the people on your team nimble thinkers? When the conditions change, whether it’s the pandemic or inflation or one of the major factors that impacts your business, how good is your team? Have you staffed up with people who can do this? In a midsize organization that is especially important.

The second is staying aware of what the other options are for you. If you go back to digital, it could be channels. Our performance on Facebook was changing dramatically for a while as people were walking away from it. And Twitter… that really took a hit. Not that we do much advertising on Twitter, but we even had grants and people that we’re working with say, “Hey, do not use this channel.” So then all of a sudden you say, what channel can I use?

We get pushback, because as a public health organization, we do some work with partners who are federally-funded and now prohibited from having anything on TikTok. It’s understanding where else the target customer is consuming information and how you can still reach them. And being aware enough of your customer and where they show up, so that if one option is now off the table or not performing, you can look at the other options and meet them where they’re showing up.

CM: How does audience engagement differ in the nonprofit world compared to the roles you’ve had in the past?

JF: In some of my past roles, it was selling something very concrete, a product or a service. And what we’re providing [at ALA] is something that I don’t have to sell. It’s just information for people who can use it. That took me a while. My call to action is, “Here, I think this can help you.” Then the other part is selling the concept of what the American Lung Association does for public health, and finding people who care enough about it that they want to help us along our way and donate. That’s very different. The parts that are similar is finding motivators. What is it about our mission that would motivate other individuals to help us?

The other great thing about working for the American Lung Association: At every company I’ve been with, you drive to have the best possible bottom line. At the end of my first year, we made more money than we thought we had. And instead of saying, “There’s the bottom line,” my boss said, “I can’t believe we had this much more money. We could have funded another research.” I just loved that, taking whatever surplus win there is for the organization to push more good out into the universe.

CM: What are your greatest challenges as the CMO of ALA?

JF: Budgets. Typically, when someone asks me about marketing budgets [in the private sector], I could say, on a year of a new product launch, I have about 20 million, or 12 million… With American Lung Association and a lot of not-for-profits, that depends. So much of our budget comes from grants, from partnerships, from the ebb and flow. So while there is some predictability, it’s about, what does this year bring? It goes back to that flexibility and the ability to be resourceful with what is available each year to try to hit the goals.

CM: Lastly, what trends should marketers be focusing on this year? What do you have your eye on?

JF: AI. I wrote a book called “Midsize,” and I finished most of the writing in June or July. It takes a while to get these things fully made. I was writing about the future of this chat GPT thing and how that was going to come sometime in the future. And then on November 30th, it came in hard. So, the future’s here. The first thing I did was grab my team together. We are all writers. We produce content, so we have to figure out how we use this as a tool. It’s not going to stay free forever, but this is a game changer. It’s not going to replace writers, but the efficiency is amazing. And I don’t think we fully understand yet how this is going to change the whole landscape.

The other thing we should keep our eye on is consumer attitude. Coming out of the pandemic was a dark time. That might be the biggest understatement that we have today, but the tone was more somber, more serious. And as we’re emerging out of that, you are seeing that consumers are responding to more upbeat messaging, more solution-oriented messaging, versus darker and focusing on the problem. Marketers should keep their eye on the overall temperature of the public, and especially different segments of the public.


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