MarTech Interview with Manu Mathew, CEO at Cohora

In this interview, Manu discusses growth through innovative strategies, emphasizing meaningful customer engagement and brand-owned channels.

Manu, please let us know about your role as CEO at Cohora and how it has impacted the growth of the company.
Back in the early 2000s when digital was taking off, I was working at a leading advertising agency and was challenged by one of our customers in the Telco space to reduce their customer acquisition cost taking into account all their channels in the mix. The customer’s CEO— a former finance expert wanted to know exactly where, how, and why his money was being spent. This challenge drove me and my co-founder to create Visual IQ, where we pioneered the attribution category that would enable marketers to leverage their media & advertising data to gain an accurate and holistic view of performance, better allocate their marketing dollars, and prove the impact of investments. At the time of the acquisition by Nielsen in 2017, Visual IQ had been recognized with several awards for pioneering the attribution space, boasting over 250 clients and 325 employees worldwide. From there, I served as President of the Americas for My role included driving the company’s successful entry into the U.S. market and orchestrating the establishment of go-to-market operations which eventually culminated in a successful acquisition by in 2022.

Shortly after leaving Ad-lib/, connected with an old colleague of mine from the Visual IQ days Sormy Corpen to formally launch Cohora in Jan 2023 focused on post conversion engagement optimization.

Social media is often considered a powerful tool for building brand awareness. However, it lacks in providing the necessary data for meaningful engagements. Could you elaborate on why social media platforms fall short in this regard?
Social media serves as a powerful tool for establishing brand awareness, but its effectiveness in fostering meaningful connections with consumers is limited. The inundation of advertisements, sponsored content, and paid influencers on social platforms makes deciphering the blurred lines between organic and sponsored content a daunting task for consumers. Social media is designed to capture user attention in a short-lived, scrolling environment that prioritizes quick, attention-grabbing content over fostering in-depth interactions. As a result, the third-party data collected also lacks the depth required to make meaningful engagements. While this data aids in targeted advertising, the absence of first-party data or data encompassing information on user preferences, the customer journey, and the resonance of various offers, is a significant drawback. The first-party data collected from user clicks, browsing habits, and engagement patterns can be used to craft personalized and meaningful shopping experiences for consumers. Yet, these insights remain elusive, hindering the ability of brands to truly understand and cater to the nuanced preferences and behaviors of their audience on social media.

How should consumer brands reconsider their social media strategy to have a more significant impact on brand-customer relationships?
As brands reconsider social media strategies in the year ahead, they must seek out non-traditional, non-transactional platforms that benefit both the brand and the consumer. Brand-owned social customer networks are a great place to start. Brand-owned customer channels have traditionally existed through loyalty rewards and membership systems, serving as proxies for measuring customer retention. However, as consumer behaviors experience a digital transformation, capturing the voice of the customer is a critical piece of the equation. The shift toward digital interactions requires a reconstruction of brand-owned spaces, where customers not only engage with the brand but also with each other in an exclusive social network, forming a highly connected network that enhances the overall brand experience and fosters lasting connections.

Could you provide examples or specific approaches that demonstrate how brands can transition from short-term engagement to building a lasting community?
Personalization has become critical for building loyalty and advocacy among a customer base. Yet, with short-term engagements and social media advertising, you can only get so personal. Therefore, brands must find ways to extend that first touchpoint and bring consumers along the journey in a meaningful fashion. They can do this by:

i. Offering valuable content: Brands that shift their focus from promotional content to informative content grab consumers’ attention. A connected brand owned customer network is not merely a platform for customers to engage but also a way of imparting value to the knowledge, skills, or interests of the other customers. The evolution of the content opportunity involves being able to capture authentic user generated content – that is more trustworthy and studies have shown can drive up to 22 times more engagement and conversion activity

ii. Conducting interactive campaigns: Brands can set up creative polls or challenges to gamify engagement and encourage active participation. By rewarding customer micro-interactions, brands are able to incentivize customers to interact with the brand and build a stronger relationship.

iii. Developing individualized offers: It is well known that personalization, though targeted at the individual, goes a long way in building loyalty in the wider shopping base. At minimum, brands should take the time to recognize milestones, such as anniversaries, total purchase numbers, or birthdays with special promotions, giveaways, or exclusive content, shoppers remember these touchpoints and often share their deep discounts or catered experience with others. At an individual level, these are table stakes. Loyalty today is focused largely on the transaction, however, there is an opportunity to think of loyalty differently – a mechanism to drive bi-directional engagement and customer participation in the brand’s long term success. At this level offers can be customized base on behavior and engagement. This lays the groundwork for the growth of the customer base as well as lasting customer retention.

iv. Listening and responding to user requests: When brands listen to their shoppers, they can often uncover common questions, frustrations, or suggestions. By having a forum where brands can surface this feedback and start making improvements or addressing concerns, they develop a reputation of caring about what their customers want and making things right.

How do moving to brand-owned channels provide the necessary data social media platforms lack, and what advantages do they offer in terms of building loyalty and increasing retention?
Brand-owned customer networks serve as an extension of a company’s ecommerce site, enabling the collection of essential first- and zero-party data through polls and surveys, user-generated content like reviews, and interactive communication via chats. These insights empower brands with a robust toolkit of insights, allowing them to stay relevant and top of mind for customers. Armed with data, brands can accurately construct personalized offers, exclusive content, and special promotions tailored to each unique customer’s preferences and purchase history at the right time. This level of personalization fosters an engaging customer journey, culminating an increased likelihood of purchases and helps them propel them along the journey.

Salesmark Global

How does rethinking social media strategy and transitioning to brand-owned channels contribute to increasing the bottom line for companies?
By establishing a platform where customers can openly provide honest reviews and share valuable insights, brands cultivate a sense of connection or immersion that empowers authentic product dialogue. Genuine interactions facilitated within this brand-centric space extend far beyond customer-brand relationships, but instead foster a community where customers can connect with both the brand and other shoppers. With this heightened connection to products and community, loyalty increases. For brands, the outcome is both qualitative and quantifiable with measurable and actionable increases in customer engagement and retention. This translates into enhanced customer trust, retention, and a noteworthy boost in sales.

Can you share insights on how companies can foster a sense of community and engagement among their audience, and why this is more valuable than a large but passive following?
The best way to foster community and engagement among shoppers is to give a social forum in which they can share styling tips, give reviews, and interact with others. Within this brand-owned channel, brands can engage community members using various tactics – polls, games, specialized offers, sharing user generated content, and more. Every interaction and engagement with the brands or with others in this setting builds relationships, trust, and loyalty, which in turn contributes to a more resilient, supportive, and enduring relationship between a brand and its audience. When done right, this engaged audience transforms into brand advocates and micro-influencers. They become drivers of organic and authentic interactions that result in business impact and increase conversions with activities that get the word out about products to new and targeted audiences. These users help to expand organic brand reach, while building up loyalty points based off engagement, measured value, and meaningful interactions with the brand.

Are there specific types of data that you believe are particularly crucial for brands in understanding and connecting with their customers?
Data such as purchase history, browsing behavior, and interactions with customer service are no longer sufficient for gaining deep insights into the interests, priorities, and challenges of customers. Zero, first-party and user generated content (UGC) can help get these insights and use them to build better experiences and interactions for consumers. First-party data, like purchase history and website interactions, holds value in being transparent, consented to by customers, and focused on preferences and intent, extending beyond purchase history. Zero-party data unlocks robust insights into customers– ranging from demographics and interests to indicators of product usage. Brands gain a competitive advantage by using first-and-zero-party to understand customers on a deeper level, deliver personalized experiences, and build emotional connections. With UGC, they obtain the insights required to customize content, product recommendations, messages, and more unique to each customer. Personalized experiences should make customers feel natural and helpful, as well as safe and protected.

Are there untapped opportunities in the realm of brand-owned channels that you believe businesses should explore?
Brand-owned channels have been co-existing in the form of loyalty programs and membership systems for years. Yet, as it stands right now, brands are not using these channels to their fullest capacity. Instead, they’re missing out on myriad benefits, including access to first- and zero-party data and the unprecedented engagement and advocacy that happens naturally in these settings. By going above and beyond traditional loyalty programs, to a unique social network in which customers can leave honest reviews or give insight into how they style their outfits, or which mascara they are loving at the moment, brands foster a sense of connection and empower customers to engage in real dialogue. Having these organic and authentic engagements not just with the brand but with other shoppers results in more advocacy, loyalty, retention and revenue.

What trends do you foresee in the intersection of social media, brand awareness, and customer engagement?
Using data to build emotional connections with consumers: In 2024, successful ecommerce relies on brands using data and technology to personalize customer experiences. Simply analyzing purchase history and browsing data isn’t enough; brands must identify trends in dynamic segments and individual data. As traditional data access declines, zero-party data gains value for its transparency and consent-based focus on preferences. Marketers are shifting spending to brand-owned channels due to rising performance media costs. It’s crucial to earn customer data, as relying on excessive data sources can hinder understanding and lead to inaccurate insights.

Owned channels will be the key driver for personalization: Leveraging first-and-zero-party data in addition to UGC is key to gaining a competitive edge in 2024. Marketers must use these insights to personalize content, product recommendations, and marketing messages, fostering natural and helpful experiences. Ecommerce’s future lies in highly customized customer-centric versus brand centric approaches. Companies should invest now in understanding customers, strengthening bonds, and creating engaging experiences for long-term success. Those prioritizing how they can turn their existing customers into their strategic brand superpower will emerge as winners in the evolving landscape.

Manu Mathew, CEO and Co-Founder of Cohora

Manu Mathew boasts a rich history of involvement with several marketing software-focused startups. Presently, he serves as the CEO and Co-Founder of Cohora, a B2C Customer Retention & Activation platform. Before spearheading Cohora, Manu held the position of President of the Americas for, a creative optimization SaaS business headquartered in the UK. His role included steering Ad-lib's successful entry into the US market and orchestrating the establishment of US go-to-market operations. The remarkable growth in the US market eventually culminated in Ad-lib's successful acquisition by in 2022. Prior to these ventures, Manu co-founded and served as the CEO of Visual IQ, a market leader in the space of cross-channel marketing attribution targeted at the world's largest advertisers. At the time of the acquisition by Nielsen in 2017, Visual IQ had been recognized with several awards for pioneering the attribution space boasting over 250 clients and 325 employees around the globe. Beyond his professional pursuits, Manu finds joy in cooking and is currently navigating life as an empty nester in his free time. LinkedIn.
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