Ask the expert: financial marketing in a rollercoaster year

An interview with NerdWallet's Kelly Gillease


Projecting an air of calm while markets churn is no easy feat for finance marketers. Kelly Gillease, CMO of NerdWallet, knows how to do it without missing a beat. NerdWallet offers expert articles, personalized tools, and side-by-side product comparisons that help break down complicated financial topics, and makes it easy for people to shop for the best credit cards, insurance, mortgages, and more. As a turbulent year changes everything in finance, she tells us how she’s been able to steer the ship through choppy waters.


"We have a massive opportunity to build on this increased demand and reach people with meaningful, personalized financial advice when they need it most."

Kelly Gillease, NerdWallet

Here’s what Kelly had to say…

Phrasee: NerdWallet does a great job of distilling complex financial stuff down into something that’s manageable. How do you use language to build trust with your audience?

Kelly: First, we work to understand our consumer base and become intimately familiar with their specific pain points on an ongoing basis. Then we leverage clear, easy-to-understand language that helps consumers understand their finances and what money moves they should be making.

For example, banking products involve tons of fine print that’s hard to understand – so much so that it’s often ignored. NerdWallet cuts through the complexity, jargon, and marketing speak to help consumers make sense of each offering – and make an informed decision based on their unique financial situation.

 

Phrasee: This year has brought immense change, especially in the world of finance. How has your team had to pivot?

Kelly: Over the past few months, my team has done an excellent job of adapting to unexpected circumstances to keep our programs on track. For example, we’ve changed our entire content strategy to help our consumers better navigate their finances during these uneasy times. As a result, we’ve had some of the highest engagement rates we’ve ever seen across our social and email channels.

We also had to make major changes to our national advertising campaign, “Money Questions.” The ads showed vignettes of different life moments, and all of a sudden, some of the scenarios weren’t relevant anymore – like people eating at a restaurant or talking about travel rewards.

So we made quick adjustments to reflect the questions that are top of mind for consumers, like building a savings cushion and refinancing mortgages. With so many consumers looking for financial guidance right now, we felt it was important that people know we can be a resource for them – in both good times and bad.

 

Phrasee: This year has been terrible, but has it brought any unforeseen opportunities for your team?

Kelly: The COVID-19 economy is driving unprecedented demand for trustworthy financial guidance, and traffic to NerdWallet is up as a result. More than 160M consumers visit us every year, and we expect this number to climb – especially given our recent entry into the UK market. We have a massive opportunity to build on this increased demand and reach people with meaningful, personalized financial advice when they need it most.


"With so many consumers looking for financial guidance right now, we felt it was important that people know we can be a resource for them – in both good times and bad."

Kelly Gillease, NerdWallet

Phrasee: How willing is your team to try new things right now?

Kelly: Every risk we take is very calculated and rooted in strategy. One of our company’s core values is “Hypothesize, Build, Measure, Learn.” This ethos encourages employees to get to a viable hypothesis and start iterating and tweaking right away. The faster we know whether or not something works, the more we can learn. The goal is constant improvement, not perfection, even if it means we make some mistakes along the way. And there’s no doubt that getting teams comfortable with strategic risk-taking has never been more important.

To make sure we’re being smart about the risks we take, I urge my team to conduct smaller-scale testing, which can teach you a lot before you leap into a larger, riskier project. For example, before launching our first national brand campaign we launched a localized version with a much smaller budget. We looked at the impact it had on one city and were able to extrapolate what the campaign would do for NerdWallet’s brand on a larger scale.

I also find it helpful to consider the worst-case scenario, the probability of it happening and how we would respond. Finally, I ask my teams questions like: What’s the risk of this not happening? What does it mean for us culturally if we don’t take this risk? What is the opportunity cost? Are we just going to be comfortable incrementers or are we smart risk takers? People want to be at companies that push the envelope and take risks, so framing the issue with responses to these questions can help them take that initial leap.

 

Phrasee: How does your team use AI to tailor your marketing to your audience?

Kelly: Personal finance is really, well, personal. We leverage machine learning models to drive recommendations for consumers who volunteer their information. For example, with the help of machine learning, NerdWallet’s Approval Odds feature considers a person’s credit score – and several other factors based on the user’s input – to estimate the likelihood that they would be approved for a particular credit card. NerdWallet is also using machine learning to tailor content recommendations – such as the most relevant articles and guides – to a user’s particular interests.

 

Phrasee: If you could give college graduates a piece of financial advice, what would it be?

Kelly: I want to give high schoolers advice! Decisions about college and student debt are now when everyone’s adult financial lives start and can have a big impact on future financial health. I want to tell every high schooler to think about college as an investment – maximize the return you are going to get. Depending on your career aspirations, you might make the same money having graduated from a state college vs. a very expensive private university, but your ROI? Hugely different. I’m a proud UC Berkeley alum, and this choice was my first smart financial decision!


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