Marketing Guru Bill Sharpe Talks about Going Digital

By Karina Sinclair

At the beginning of his career, when he was still a lowly copywriter writing about technology, Bill Sharpe, co-founder of the marketing firm Simmons Sharpe, was taken down to Cupertino and shown the Macintosh before it was introduced to the public. It was the beginning of a career that saw him build the first analytics engine for Dell Computer, work for clients like Microsoft, Xerox, IBM and PayPal, and sell two advertising agencies to global holding companies. Today, Sharpe is helping businesses adapt to the new reality that was spawned by that first Macintosh. The digital age is upon us, and it has radically changed consumer behaviour across all demographics. Companies can no longer afford to ignore the digital space, but with so many options and limited resources, how is a company to maximize the ROI of their marketing dollars and thrive in this competitive environment?

Sharpe suggests starting with an audit of your business’s current marketing plan to find weak spots. “When we look at business strategy, we look at how your competition has changed. Your best customers. Have you kept up with the changes in digital? Has Amazon moved into your neighbourhood?” Once you determine the key drivers of your business, you’ll have a clearer picture of where to focus your marketing efforts.

Telling stories that sell

Instead of traditional television, radio, or newspaper ads that focus on the hard sell, savvy companies now fight for attention through content marketing. You can develop a better relationship with your customers by sharing fun or useful stories about how your products or services can improve their lives. A garden centre might offer a step-by-step guide for assembling winter planters to boost curb appeal. The harrowing tale of a rock climber dangling from a cliff until rescued makes that brand of carabineer a must-have. Listen to your customers and learn where they struggle. Then share stories to help them adopt your solutions. Even better, ask them to share their stories of success with you.

“Content marketing is actually a better version of advertising,” insists Sharpe. “It’s more informative, more educational. It gives something back. That’s one of the major shifts. Advertising is no longer a one-way street.”

Mobile millennials

It’s also important to consider where people consume these stories. Your messaging must now fit in the palm of a hand.  Millennials “don’t read the newspaper. Don’t watch conventional television. Everything is on the phone,” says Sharpe. Simplicity and authenticity is critical for this cohort. “They’ve grown up very media savvy and their nose for bullsh*t is unbelievable.”

He encourages his clients to consider mobile-optimized video on social media as the go-to channel for reaching this demographic. If you incorporate social media into your marketing plan (and you really should), be ready to pay attention to feedback from millennials, especially complaints. “If they don’t get a response from that company then they immediately take to tech and tell 20 people. And the company doesn’t even know its reputation is getting hurt because it doesn’t respond or is slow to respond.”

With so many social platforms (and new ones starting up all the time), the challenge is knowing which ones to pursue. Define where your customers are most likely to be instead of trying to tackle all the platforms at once. However, be aware that this might change over time. A year ago, Snapchat and Instagram showed impressive growth. Sharpe would have advised a business to put marketing dollars into both. After following the industry closely, he’s seen how Snapchat’s growth has stopped, and Instagram has forged ahead. “Now, I’d say put your money into Instagram.”

Change is rapid. That’s why being able to measure and watch for those changes means you can be more nimble with your messaging.


The real value of digital marketing comes from the ability to measure key performance indicators. Using Google Analytics, you can determine which pages on your website are most visited, where the traffic is coming from, and whether people stay on your site or bounce away quickly. “If you’re not measuring, then you’re not running your marketing the way it can be run,” says Sharpe. Once you can see the trends, you can use this information to test and refine your approach.

By using test-and-refine cycles, you can track the success of your efforts. If something’s not paying off, you now have the data to decide when to reinvest in other methods, such as Google AdWords, pay-per-click marketing (PPC), or local print advertising. Sharpe assures “if you get it right, advertising or marketing stops being a cost and starts being an investment. You want to be able to say ‘we spent $5,000 but it drove $19,000 in sales, so if we scale that and spend $50,000 and earn $190,000 then we’ve got a business.’”

By working with experts and defining your marketing priorities, you’ll stay relevant for your customers. If you show customers they matter to you by delivering messages they care about on the platform they prefer to use, your advertising efforts will go further. That means more money in the bank.