Richard Honiball
EVP, Global Chief Merchandising and Marketing Officer, Navy Exchange Service Command

In this virtual roundtable recap, Rich Honiball, EVP, Global Chief Merchandising and Marketing Officer, Navy Exchange Service Command, led a meaningful discussion about content marketing, influencers, and what happens when things don’t go according to plan.

Honiball explained the world-wide Navy Exchange Service Command oversees six primary businesses, with close to $3B billion in revenue and 300 locations around the world. With 14,000 associates, roughly half of which are affiliated with the military, whether that be active duty, retired, reserve, or through family, Navy Exchange is led by purpose-driven marketing and the ability to give back, he said.

When Honiball took on his role, almost 100 percent of the marketing budget went to traditional print marketing, and he said he initially set aside the idea of doing experiential or content marketing.

Yet, he quickly learned through Navy Exchange’s customer appreciation events, that the market was perfect to engage with their followers.

“What I quickly realized is, we didn’t have a content marketing team; we didn’t think of content as marketing within the Navy Exchange – we just did what we thought was right for our customers,” he said. “And we had these amazing stories to tell, and that’s what really sparked us wanting to have these conversations and organize it in a better way.”

“We were not, and still aren’t leading edge, but we have this amazing content; and how do we use that to engage our associates and our customers,” he continued.NEX Cares. Serving those who server wherever they are. The Navy Exchange is here to server those who serve wherever they are in the world. Through our more than 300 locations across 92 locations around the world, or through our web site. We are more than just a store, we are a support system for our sailors and their families. Through events like Homecomings and NEXCares we are able to express this commitment to our customers.

Through their #NEXCares event, in which kids can create care packages for family members deployed overseas, Honiball said they not only created an experience for their customers but sparked a conversation with how other customers could become involved. Through shares on social media, they found they went from having loyal customers to advocates because they were engaging in a way with their specific community that retailers simply couldn’t.

The “We Believe” Campaign, a holiday campaign, began thanks to a survey that found that, while a large percentage of their associates believe in the mission of the Navy Exchange, like many organizations, a small section of associates were not as engaged and we set out to engage both them and our customers. We Believepromoted surprises, giving back, and random acts of kindness at the holidays, making it less commercial and more about content and emotional engagement, Honiball said.

“Within our own network, it really went viral,” he said.

The campaign inspired two-way dialog, and, in saying the Navy Exchange believed in its customers and associates, they found those customers and associates believed in them as well.

We Believe. How do we create an emotional connection with our customers? During the holiday season, it is an opportunity for us to show our belief in Navy and family values. We are more than just a retailer, we believe in more than an exchange of goods and services, we believe in making a difference in people's lives.

Defining Content

So just what is content? That can fall under a wide umbrella.

“I think content is everything,” Honiball said. “Content is anything that is put out there that is more authentic and more willing to connect with a customer and engage with them in conversation.”

Navy Exchange focuses on generated content, from stories to videos, photos or tweets. That created content is the next layer of paid marketing, or paid digital ads, he said. And that creates a two-way conversation, rather than the one-way push of advertising, emails or print materials

Influencers and Micro-Influencers

Honiball, a big believer in influencer marketing, said it’s one of his main avenues for getting content out there to spark conversation. Internally, they define influencers as someone who is a customer and advocate, is engaged, and has people paying attention to what they say. That can be because they hold a certain position, or more likely that they have a following on social media or in other avenues.

“We don’t have the ability to, and even if we did, I’m not sure I would use it, to pay influencers to market our content,” he said. “We engage with micro-influencers who are already engaged with the brand.”

For the Navy Exchange, that’s people who are already customers but may have more of a reach or a larger audience.

“What we’re really trying to do is share it where they are,” he said.

His focus is on the content, and passing that off through different channels, then watching who engages with it.

When things don’t go as planned

Sometimes, those conversations take a wrong turn, and Honiball said it’s important to address it head-on and get ahead of it.

“We may post something that someone takes the wrong way, or it may be indirect, or we have a site issue and someone is posting on social media and it can flame out of control,” he said. “We monitor on a regular basis, and we’re not afraid to take the hit, take the responsibility, and have an authentic conversation with the customer as to how we can do better.”

Sometimes, that’s not in private, but rather right there on a chat page or within a Facebook post, he said.

“Nine times out of ten, we not only calm the fire, but we create advocates,” he said. “Customers find it refreshing that we get out ahead of it, and we own it, and we’re not afraid to have the conversation.”