Sometimes Digitalization Feels Like a Visit to the Dentist’s Office

Nick Marten is the youngest press officer in OTTO Corporate Communications, a company that is currently turning its business model on its head like no other in German online retail trade. The trained journalist and media scholar has had a traditional career in press, radio and television, was the co-founder of a film production company, and finally came to OTTO as a trainee at the end of 2013; since then, he has been committed to driving forward the restructuring and democratization of corporate communications here. In our series #COMRebels, we spoke to him about the joy and pain of digitalization and its impact on corporate communications.

Detecon: OTTO’s transformation from online retailer to platform is unique in European e-commerce. Whenever a company reinvents itself, its corporate communications must as a rule also reinvent itself and play a decisive role in implementing the change – and that, Nick, is what we want to talk about with you today.

Nick Marten: Great, glad to.

You are one of the press officers on the OTTOCOMMS team. Is the designation “press officer” even appropriate in the digital age when everyone communicates with everyone else?

For me personally, it is something of a relic from a time when journalists were still the crucial target group for us communicators. Today, there is a lot more behind this designation, and many live out the role in a completely different way from what we saw just a few years ago. The many and varied channels on which we can speak about the company, tell stories, and establish contacts alone are enough to make sure of that.

One year ago, OTTO announced it was launching a corporate influencer program, and in the meantime, more than 200 employees have been trained as ambassadors. What was the goal of this action, and what can you say about it today, one year later?

We want to use the OTTO job ambassador program to train employees to be ambassadors for our company; in particular, we want to strengthen OTTO as an employer brand. After all, we are competing with innumerable other companies in the recruitment of technology professionals. We know that our colleagues are a decisive factor during the application process. They are able to convey, better and more directly than any recruiter or communicator, just what makes our culture so special and what exciting work is waiting here for applicants. After almost a year, our interim assessment is positive. 200 employees are active on OTTO’s behalf – at trade fairs, conferences, on digital channels. As of now, more than 50,000 people follow our HR channels, and the hits on have risen by 25%.

What advice would you give a company that would like to start a similar program? What is absolutely essential, what should be avoided?

Have patience, do not force any employees to accept a specific role, do not turn them into machines spouting out advertising slogans – and have I mentioned patience? Depending on the specific circumstances of a company, it can take quite a while before you find any candidates for the role of ambassador and even longer until they feel comfortable in their position as ambassadors. Generally speaking, a transparent culture in the company is an indispensable prerequisite for such a program. We are fortunate in that we live in a very open and approachable culture at OTTO. Yet even here, it took the one or the other executive a while to become accustomed to seeing a team member now assuming the role of representative – on stage at a conference, for instance. People need time to change their ways of thinking.

To what extent is the role of the communicator changing?

I believe that we communicators should learn to enjoy a new role. In the future, we will put more emphasis on our position as facilitators and motivators. So our job profile will change substantially. It will no longer be just a matter of managing what messages are played on what stage and when for the company, but will extend to generally enabling colleagues – to the extent they want to do so – to act as independent ambassadors for the company and to communicate contents that fascinate their communities and channels.

Can we then speak at all of correct or incorrect anymore? If someone is interested in the company, he or she will want to gain an authentic impression. How exactly do you brief your influencers, and how much freedom do they have in deciding themselves what they say or do?

An ambassador can be truly successful only if there is adequate freedom. The colleagues themselves know the topics that are of burning interest to their communities, their own target groups. Our interest here is not in the dissemination of PR and advertising slogans. What counts are the empathetic and personal stories that interest other people, that people want to hear and, in the best case, will tell others. That is why we do not hand over the manuscript for a speech to our job ambassadors; we have more of a “how to” manual for them.

Not everyone is a talented story-teller and communicator. How do you give your corporate influencers and employees the skills they need so that they can transport the stories effectively?

There are many different ways and approaches. We have a number of workshops and seminars that we organize and offer internally. Social media colleagues appear at these events and present the most important features of the various networks. How exactly does LinkedIn or Instagram work, what is the goal of the channel, and what contents are suitable for posting here? We ourselves teach the basics in PR and story-telling: How does corporate communications function, and what elements must there be in a good story if people are to remember, share, and like it? We practice this together and develop examples of stories in workshops. Or at least give an idea of the fundamental framework of a potential story. Then there are also coaching programs on our part that specifically prepare people to appear on a stage. We give them tips on what a good presentation looks like and what features make a good storyline on the stage.

You previously mentioned the changed role of corporate communications. The communicator is suddenly the trainer as well. What skills will he or she need in the future in comparison with yesterday?

From my viewpoint, it will become more important that the communicators of the future fundamentally enjoy passing on and sharing their knowledge. With regard to skills, I think about abilities to convey knowledge and a broad and holistic perception of how communication functions, awakens interest, and impacts listeners.

You mean a much more generalist attitude than in the past? There used to be a press officer, an event expert, the web expert, the social media manager, etc. Must communicators now be all-rounders as well as have the ability to pass on their know-how to their employees?

I believe that we must lay an incredibly broad foundation in preparation for the digital communications world. This is, at least, my personal aspiration as well as the aspiration of many communicators in my surroundings. How are we ultimately supposed to teach others modern communications skills – via Instagram stories, for instance – if we ourselves have never bothered to examine and try out these methods? But of course, there will always be experts for specific topic areas.

At the end of this year, the OTTO catalog will disappear, bringing 68 years of tradition to an end. This is a turning point in German mail-order retail business. The OTTO world will then be found only online. Are there instead new digital channels and formats that reach customers wherever they happen to be at any given moment?

The end of the primary catalog is another chapter in our transformation story – but admittedly, the event is more of a side note. The customers themselves have brought this part of our story to an end. They have been buying online for years. More than half of our customers today order via smartphone or tablet. And with artificial intelligence, conversational commerce, and smart speakers, we are already right in the middle of the next digitalization story. It is important for us to test every channel, every format at an early stage with our customers and to gain experience. That is why there is a broad range of tools and channels – from the chatbot in customer service to WhatsApp as a marketing channel to an augmented reality app for furniture purchases to a voice application for the Google Home smart speaker.

What are the hot topics in communications at OTTO that you are preparing to tackle in the coming years?

First of all, we are in the process of breaking in our new newsroom. It has much more of a “magazine” feel to it than a traditional corporate website. But the editorial approach behind it has to be learned. When we move on to the marketing of our newsroom stories, we quickly find ourselves dealing with the topic of messenger communication. We are currently experimenting with WhatsApp as a PR channel, as another option to the more traditional newsletter.

What is digital transformation doing to you personally? Do you sometimes fear you might lose touch?

Essentially, I am a great fan of digitalization. I see tremendous opportunities and possibilities in it. I enjoy trying out new technologies and tools. But despite all this enthusiasm, I have to be completely honest and say this: sometimes digitalization is just about as much fun as a long-overdue visit to the dentist’s office. This is especially true when new work processes, new job profiles, and roles are part of the transformation.

What two apps are indispensable for communicators today in their daily work?

I would say that communicators in the age of digitalization cannot be lone wolves. They need an app that will enable them to interconnect with others on a global scale and follow the latest trends. LinkedIn is an example – for me, it is the social medium that made the greatest leap forward last year and is clearly at the top of my list of network favorites.

Number two for me is something very simple: the camera app on my smartphone that I can use to take photos or shoot films. In my view, it will be rewarding for everyone to acquire and develop good skills with this app – with a mobile reporter attitude, so to speak – especially in this era of moving images. This is certainly not an insider tip, but it is the simplest path to good content.

Nick, thank you for this look behind the scenes at OTTO. We wish you all the best and hope you have a lot of fun experimenting and transforming.

The interview was conducted by Ingrid Blessing and Delila Benard.

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