Mapquest Shows Importance of Culture, Employee Engagement to Competitive Survival at LSA16

There were lots of great sessions at LSA16. It would be extremely difficult to say one was best or pick a favorite. However if someone held a metaphorical gun to my head, I’d have to say the discussion with MapQuest’s Brian McMahon was the one that I continue to think about.

I asked McMahon to talk about the connection between the company’s culture, its brand and product strategy. He gave a detailed overview of how MapQuest had to revamp its culture to become more competitive and how the reinvigorated culture was shaping brand and product strategy. It was a great discussion. The slides are below but don’t fully capture that.

Unfortunately I fear very few people “got it.”

The connection between culture and brand or product was a theme woven throughout the show and appeared in various sessions, including ReachLocal’s discussion of SMB retention, Google’s 10X thinking, James Kane’s loyalty presentation, Eric Groves’ NPS session and the final discussion on how to differentiate in a highly commoditized market, featuring Milestone Internet Marketing, Yahoo, Dialog Tech and Tiger Pistol.

Commodity panel

Legacy players in the local space, even long-existing internet companies, must reexamine their operations, culture and employee practices to remain competitive. One of the compelling statements that Alain Stephan, SVP Customer at Dialog Tech made on the panel “Winning the Customer in a World of Commodity Marketing Services” was that employee engagement and the company’s commitment to training was a fundamental part of its differentiation strategy.

This was a fascinating and insightful point. Most people think about differentiation in terms of product features or pricing, not in terms of employee engagement. Another point here is that certain kinds of “fundamentals” may be as or more important than specific tools or features to succeeding in crowded markets. For example, ReachLocal’s refocus on service has dramatically boosted retention.

A related issue that ultimately goes back to culture, and came up in multiple discussions, was “innovation” — or perhaps more accurately creativity. Everyone talks about being an “innovator” but it’s a word nearly drained of meaning. Yet companies willing to experiment, take risks, try things and allow their employees to exercise creativity will continue be in a much stronger position than companies simply thinking about short term revenue maximization. This is fundamentally a culture issue.

I don’t mean to suggest that innovation or cultural change is easy or straightforward. Inertia is powerful and there’s also a structural logic in the market, especially if you’re a public company, biased toward short-term thinking — the next quarter’s revenues, etc. As one high-profile example, Yahoo has tried to transform but been repeatedly punished for not sufficiently “maximizing shareholder value.”

In some cases, however, change becomes imperative. MapQuest was going to become essentially a wasting asset if it didn’t undertake the kind of deep self-examination that McMahon described. A similar fate will greet others, even those that may currently be market leaders, if they don’t develop a way to create a “living” culture that can absorb and adapt to change.

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