Nutrisystem’s CMO, Chris Terrill, is one of those next-generation chief marketing officers who cut their teeth on the digital side rather than in standard offline marketing. Terrill joined Nutrisystem in 2007 and headed up the company’s e-commerce efforts where he oversaw a complete redesign of the company’s Web platform. Previously, he was vp of product and marketing for Blockbuster.com. Before that, he spent six years at Match.com, where he is credited with creating its Chemistry.com unit. At Nutrisystem, Terrill has done what many marketers have concluded is impossible: He created a social media network. Terrill, who became CMO this summer, talked about that network, what he calls “branded direct response,” and why he thinks Nutrisystem doesn’t need an outside ad agency with Brandweek. Below are some excerpts to the conversation.
Brandweek: Your career path is something we’re seeing more and more where you’re coming from the digital side. How did that role prepare you for what you’re doing now?
Chris Terrill: It was actually pretty easy for me. Even when I was svp of e-commerce here, I was essentially playing a CMO-type role. I did acquisition, conversion, retention and activation and decided on all the creative for the site. Just taking the offline stuff was not a big step. Frankly, when you’re in the [direct-response] space, the disciplines that you work with on the Web—managing the metrics, tracking everything to spend—we do the same thing in the offline world, so that was not a foreign concept. I think it would be harder for someone who is a traditional, old-school non-e-com person to transition into a heavy e-com world.
BW: Was there anything surprising to you about the weight-loss category once you got into it?
CT: I was pretty well suited. Match, blockbuster.com—they were all continuity-based businesses. But there was nothing that caught me off-guard, nothing surprising. I was surprised at the way we impact peoples’ lives, the letters they send in.
BW: It seems to me that the weight-loss category is driven by TV in particular, but do a lot of people go online to get weight-loss advice?
CT: When I first got here, we were just launching a new version of our community. If you look at the numbers of people going online to get feedback, if you look at our community, a lot of people will come in and want to talk to real members. What’s great is, you may have someone come in and say, “I’m not sure about this,” and community members, because it’s so transparent, will say, “Yeah, I may not like every food item, but here are things that I love” or “Whatever you heard, that’s not true; here’s what really happened in my situation: I lost 30 or 40 pounds.” I think you’re seeing more and more people going online. We’ve seen huge growth in our community. We see it as a huge part of people staying with the program.
BW: A lot of marketers have tried to do social networks themselves but concluded they were better off with a Facebook page or whatever.
CT: I get asked this question a lot. If you’re hammers.com, I’m not sure you need a social network. I think dieting and the weight-loss space is perfectly suited to social networking. Here’s a group of people who are going through a really big-life event. They want to get information; they want to be surrounded by other people who are going through the same thing. They want advice; they want support; they want to use the food diary; they want to track their weight loss. That to me was a nice natural fit for social networking. I think so many marketers heard the buzzword social networking and tried to overlay it in situations where it didn’t make much sense. They were surprised why it didn’t work out for them, and they didn’t have hundreds of thousands of people using it like they thought they would. I think there are other spaces whether it be movies, music or dieting where you have a much more natural fit.
BW: You still do a lot of TV advertising. Where does that fit in with your media mix?
CT: It’s the biggest part of our engine. It drives everything we do. The thing about TV and weight loss in particular is, I think that Don Draper on MadMen said it the best: “It’s still about the B&A” when they were looking at a weight-loss client. For us, before and after is important. It’s changed over time, and we present it differently than in the past. But you still see someone’s story and relate to: “Hey, that’s a real person who did it, and I can do it too.” I think that visual component is so important, and you need TV to drive that.
BW: You don’t work with an ad agency? Why?
CT: The reality is, [direct response] is a tough space. If you look at what we’re doing, we’re following the big trends. We’re moving away from the old-school DR to what I consider “branded DR,” which I consider the best of DR and the best of what a branded spot gives you. It’s hard to find those hybrid agencies that can really do that and do that well…It’s a tough balance. It’s a hard thing to get all the power of DR and take it to a higher level where you’ve got a branded component as well. I wouldn’t say that we wouldn’t ever work with an agency, but right now we’ve got a good structure that works for us. I’m going to be curious to see how the big agencies deal with this branded DR space.