An image/headshot featuring Ryan Peña, Paid Media and Social Media Supervisor, Be The Match

Perspectives is a series uncovering routines, inspiration, and insights by marketing leaders shaping the future around the globe.

Perspectives ft. Ryan Peña, Paid Media and Social Media Supervisor, Be The Match Future of Marketing

EDITOR’S NOTE: At the time of this interview, Ryan Peña was the Paid Media and Social Media Supervisor – now National Marketing Manager – for Be The Match, a global leader in facilitating bone marrow and umbilical cord blood transplants to save lives. He believes that the best stories are those that people relate to before they relate to brands.

In his words, he shares: 

  • Why user-generated content and storytelling are valuable for brands
  • How Be The Match pivoted amid the pandemic
  • The importance of connecting with people you look up to

What do you do for a living? What does your typical day look like in your role? 

There isn’t a typical day because you come in with a list of things that you think you want or plan on accomplishing – and then the day happens.

Be The Match, the National Bone Marrow Registry, is where I work and it’s definitely the foundation of what shapes my day. 

We are working on saving lives. Every day, we’re trying to raise awareness – to get people to sign up and be part of our mission and potentially be someone’s life-saving blood stem cell donation. It’s a very exciting and very powerful thing. And of course with that, there are a lot of impactful stories that we feature and bring to life. 

The day-to-day of my life has really centered around that and making sure that everything that we do is impacting the patients who need a life-saving match and finding them a match. That’s through raising awareness and digital properties around the registry and around our missions. 

I oversee a team where some of the team members work on social media and represent our brand channels on social media. I also work with our paid media agency on big campaigns that we use for recruitment, and I am building another new team that is going to be doing some very specific, new, groundbreaking work on evolving our registry and making sure that we provide equal outcomes for all.

What blogs and resources do you tend to look for for inspiration?

I use news aggregates. Google news is my number one app for news, which lets you select the type of things you’re interested in.

Also, just being rooted in the social media space. I really do get a lot of my news and insights from people like you that are in the field as well and putting out information that educates me. I feel like it’s more authentic to hear from others that I’ve either met with or know of from others that I can trust and also learn from and be inspired from. Twitter is a big one for me.

LinkedIn as well – I use that a lot to connect with like-minded individuals in our space, to share ideas, and learn from as well.

What’s something interesting that you’ve learned in the last year?

Based on the nature of the work we do, we’re trying to grow the registry as a global mission – but for Be The Match, we focus on the U.S. Registry (our registry).

We’re always reaching people on digital and that didn’t really change in terms of our efforts, but it got a lot noisier for us because everyone was online even more than before. So from a marketer to marketer standpoint, there were a lot more things being pushed at people to do. 

We launched Couch2Cure campaign, which was really amazing to see and it really spoke to the world that we lived in. All of a sudden we’re all having to sit on our couches and wait for this thing to pass by. So, knowing that you could actually save a life from your couch was a campaign that was a really big aha moment.

We started to play around with donor stories, which weren’t as effective before this, but people were looking for more inspirational stories. Sometimes those patients’ stories, just based on the nature of what they’re going through, are tough to watch and they’re sad, and there was enough sad stuff going on… so we wanted to show the efficacy of a donor and how they not only changed the life – but saved the lives – of people and their families through a selfless act, and that you can still do that while you are living in a pandemic world.

The other broader one that I want to touch on quickly, and I wouldn’t say this was because of the pandemic, but something we did learn over this past year: We’re trained to follow the guidelines of the bigger organizations like Facebook and others, and the experts out there. We know that ads should be 15 to 30 seconds long because that’s what they recommend they are. We followed that path for years and we came across some really compelling stories last year that were over 30 seconds. One was a minute and 20 seconds and we felt so strongly about the stories that we pushed back and we actually went with our agency and said we want to put these in the market and to pay ads, even though they were going against the recommendation. 

They ended up being some of our top-performing pieces of paid digital media content that we’ve ever had. They set all new records. So, if you have a really compelling story, it’s okay. If it’s longer than 30 seconds, people will watch it if it does meet the needs of your audience. 

How do you know when a piece of content is worth putting an investment in or investing in a piece of content?

You want to obviously go with your expertise, your team’s expertise, and understanding what’s worked in the past, and knowing we have something that’s unique. That’s probably the first element. If you have something that is unique, it really breaks through the noise on its own because it’s something that people hadn’t seen before. 

Recently, we put one on the market that we felt really strong about and it flopped. We didn’t see the ROI, the KPIs that we were looking for within the first few days, and so we stopped it. We looked at analytics, data, and heat maps to show who is looking at the website and we made some tweaks based on some hypotheses and what the data was showing, launched it again, and it still didn’t perform.

What’s something that you think marketers should start doing more on social media?

The thing that we should do better at is taking a step back. Social media is the noisiest it’s ever been. It’s the most complicated it’s ever been. You take one platform like Instagram, and it’s not just a photo-sharing app – it hasn’t been that for a long time. It’s a stories app, it’s an IGTV, it’s Reels now. It’s constantly evolving.

Step away first and think about how that experience is from a customer, consumer, or user’s perspective – someone who’s using it casually.

Think about what gets you to pause, think about what gets you excited to engage in something, or why all of a sudden you clicked on a pair of shoes to potentially just check them out, see what the price is, and then suddenly you get bombarded with a bunch of shoes everywhere you look. Think about those experiences.

What are the good and bad of those experiences? What’s annoying? What’s helpful? Use that to your advantage to hone in and fine-tune your own strategy. Truly understand, away from the data, how and why people are interacting and having conversations as a team – as far as what trends you are seeing in your own personal channels. 

What’s something that you think marketers need to STOP doing?

I feel like it’s very easy to get stressed out and worried about all the different platforms, and people talking about Clubhouse and Tik Tok and all this stuff. It’s not that you should ignore it, because I don’t think you should, but I think it’s important to start simple and do your research. At the same time, even if you don’t have the capacity to dig into something like a Clubhouse or a TikTok to see why people are so invested in this and what we need to know. Also, how is this going to evolve other social platforms that we’re currently using?

What’s something that you think marketers need to START doing?

It’s important to look for someone else in your team or hire someone who would love to research and provide information to the organization. 

We did this about two years ago, with TikTok as an example, where we first validated that we needed to be there because we saw through our own personal accounts, people were creating TikToks about joining the registry. They were already using our hashtag and we weren’t even there. We knew we needed to be there at the very least to have conversations with them and let them know that we appreciate them joining. 

So, we started with that for the first several months. We were just commenting back to people, not doing anything else, and building that relationship there.

Then, we started to layer in some other initiatives, but we started validating first. We were like, “who are some crazy people on TikTok that you would never imagine would be on TikTok,” like businesses, and we found a dentist that was on TikTok and verified with millions of followers.

Why was he getting so much attention on TikTok? He was educating people about taking care of their teeth. Who would have thought that would be a great TikTok channel, but it is! People were receptive to it. He did it in a way that fit the platform. That validated for us, that as a life-saving registry, we should have a space there as long as we’re educating and informing people in an entertaining way that’s on-brand (but also fits the platform).

Just dig in and investigate as an individual before you go in as a brand. 

Why do you think user-generated content is so valuable for brands nowadays?

There’s a theme that we’re developing through this conversation, which is really about that human element. The more complicated social gets, the more human we need to get – which is exciting to me because I’ve been in this for 12 years now as a career, and I’ve said it from day one, but now I feel like it’s even more important than it ever has been before.

User-generated content goes away from the brand. It tells an authentic story about the brand, about the mission, whatever it is about the product, service that you’re doing from the lens of a person that has said yes to that mission, that product, that service, whatever it is. And so, obviously, our situation is even more extreme because it’s a patient talking about their need to find someone out there like us watching that could be their only chance for a cure – their only chance for survival. That’s pretty tough to hear, but it comes from them and you hear that plea in their voice… you hear “a donor like this changed my life.” I never thought that something as simple as sitting in a chair for a few hours, donating plasma, could actually not only save a life but change my life.

We hear those stories, so it’s that authenticity that makes it so valuable for brands because people relate to people before they relate to brands. There are tons of studies out there. There are tons of percentages out there, but that’s just the way it is.

It’s human nature. We want to hear from other people that we relate to and people typically don’t relate to a brand unless they’re a target or a very established brand, which, unfortunately, a lot of our brands aren’t. 

What common belief in marketing do you disagree with?

There are layers of this, but the short is that you can predict where social media is going to go. I mean, let’s look at this past year. Who would’ve predicted social media would have evolved this way? I’m sure TikTok and Clubhouse are very grateful for it. Even just a year ago, we weren’t talking about Clubhouse, so you don’t know what’s going to happen.

Whether or not those platforms exist several years from now, you’re going to understand the content and why that content is unique, and how that content and that content theme are going to evolve expectations from our consumers in the future. While two, three years ago, people were thinking, am I going to have to dance on TikTok in order to sell to my customers? Now they’re not thinking that way because they’re seeing that there are other things on TikTok that people want to consume, and it’s not just trending dances.

Now they’re understanding it, but I saw that three years ago when I started snooping around the platform that it was more than just a platform to dance to trending tracks. Again, just stop predicting and really start being the experts that we say we are in the moment – and that will help us evolve to be ready for the future.

What do you think most marketers tend to struggle with?

Focus. That’s probably the number one thing because, again, every platform’s got multiple ways to use the platform now. It’s not as simple as it was before, paid and organic, so it’s focus – and hopefully some of the things that we talked about earlier can help with that of just taking a deep breath, taking a step back, thinking as an individual. 

Now, the fun thing is you can go to your partner or friend or whoever, and you’re on your phone, just doing work, and you’re just going through your own feeds – but you’re researching all the time and learning. So I think it’s figuring out how to stay focused and not let it get overwhelming, but easier said than done. 

What changes are you starting to see in your industry or in marketing?

It goes to what I talked about before – the whole 15, 30-second video and hacking that, and knowing that longer-form content can work in ads. I wouldn’t say that’s a change in the market, but it’s a way of thinking that we have to be more open to, especially as we get more and more tied down to the data and the best practices to try to break through the noise. If you do have compelling content and it’s more than a few seconds, it can work. 

What does the future of marketing look like?

It’s going to, fortunately, need to get more human.

User-generated content, like we’re talking about… our natural gravitation as society is to connect with each other. If we’re marketers trying to connect with other people, as a brand, you really have to put the people first in front of that. So I think, human-focused marketing.  

You hear about influencers, but then there’s also a lot of fake influencers, where they’re talking about something, but it’s not authentic. People are reading into that so quickly now, so it’s really about that authenticity and humanizing the brands as much as possible. 

What person or podcast or book helped shape your career?

This is a deep one for me. It’s going to go down a path that I don’t think anyone’s ready for, but I’ll try my best to keep it short. 

It started when I was a kid. Anytime I was in school, I was the class clown… call me the person that always interrupted the teacher because I always had something to say and made people laugh. I loved being around people. I love the energy that I would get from learning from other people. I just find it fascinating – even when I was a young kid and the deep part of this, I didn’t realize this until a few years ago, but it’s totally what shaped who I am today. 

It was really my upbringing; my father wasn’t really a father. He was physically, mentally abusive to my family and so when I was home, I was trapped. I couldn’t really figure out who I was, but when I was in school, I felt like I was free. I got along with everybody in school, so I didn’t have any cliques. There were always cliques going around. I got along with the bullies, and then I helped the bullies leave the people they were bullying alone because I liked them. I just always like finding ways to connect with people and find the good out of them. 

So, when I was home, there was no hope there, unfortunately. Fast-forward to my early twenties, my father passed away and I felt like, as a family, we were for lack of a better term kind of free to just be our true selves. And that’s when my life was really starting, too; I was in college and all that good stuff was going on.

So, from that point on, I didn’t have any path. I was just working jobs. I was in retail, I was in sales, and I was always connecting with people. Anytime I could do that, I was thriving in my career – and the worst part of my career was right before I got into my career, which was cold sales. Calling people that didn’t want to talk to me was killing me because I could not find a way to connect with individuals. Then, I took to social selling… connecting with people on LinkedIn that I was trying to call. I provided them with value. They got to see my face on social media. They weren’t seeing me on the phone or email and it humanized me. This was back in 2008 and that really woke me up. 

Now we have this tool, it’s been around for a few years, that can help me connect with people that I otherwise would have never connected to and share some type of common benefit, like a mutual, “I’m going to help you with this. How can I help you with other things and provide value to people?” So that springboarded my career. 

I got into my next job, where they embraced social media and they listened to me and they looked at me as an expert, even though I was just doing this because it made sense. It was something that motivated me intrinsically. In 2000, I started my first social media job – and then from there, three companies later, now I work for a life-saving organization. 

It wasn’t just being at the right place at the right time. It wasn’t just speaking up. When I had an idea on how I could connect more people to each other, it came from something that was deep-rooted in my life. I feel like I need to share that with others because if they can pull that out, hopefully, it’s in a more positive way, but if they can pull that out and it’s something that is deep-rooted within them that’s inspiring them to be a marketer or be great at whatever they do, it’s going to be even more rewarding than just a job or a career. 

Who, where, or what do you look for inspiration?

Definitely my two girls. They are a huge source of inspiration for me because they’re four and nine – and everything I do, I want to make sure that they’re inspired by it. Not as annoyed as they probably will be when they’re teenagers, but inspired by most of it, so that’s a source of inspiration.

Another source of inspiration is my mother. She went through a lot, as you can imagine. She’s unfortunately in a long-term care facility now, but I get to see her every week and again, turning a negative into a positive. No one wants that for anybody they love, but I just want to make sure that I take care of myself as much as possible for my kids, so I can be there for them and not have to have them be there for me as much as possible.

What advice do you have for marketers and creatives who look up to you?

Oh gosh… just hearing that, I’m truly flattered and honored that they look up to me. 

I have a lot of people that I look up to. I have a colleague on my team that graduated last year from college. I look up to her, I’m learning stuff from her every single day. She’s making me feel old, but I’m learning stuff from her every single day. Taking me out of the picture, for people that look up to others, including myself, I think the best advice I could give you is to leverage that if you look up to people and you feel like they’re authentic and they have that genuine passion, reach out to them. Because that’s one layer to look up to somebody – and like I said earlier, I get a lot of my inspiration and stay up to date on Twitter, LinkedIn, and other things.

If I see something that I agree with or don’t agree with, or I’m confused about, or I just like this person that I look up to, I reach out to them and I would hope that they would do the same because if someone reached out to me and said, “I look up to you,” which is so weird to say, but if they said that I would right away turn that around after thanking them and just ask them questions… like what specifically interests you about what I do and what drew you to me? 

I’d be curious, but at the same time, I’d want to learn more about them and I’d hope that they would have questions for me because what you’ll find is when you look up to people, most of the time, the struggles that you’re having, they’re currently having or they’ve had. And it can be really comforting to know that you’re not alone. 

You can look up to somebody and be inspired by them when you start having conversations with them; you’re going to find out that they’re just like you in a lot of ways. I think that’s going to help not only as a mentor-mentee kind of relationship, but also it’s going to help you out in terms of how you navigate all the things that you’re going through at that time. So, leverage them. Don’t just look up to them, reach out to them. If they truly are someone that is as authentic and passionate, they’re gonna want to talk to you. 

How do you wind down from a long day of work?

Before the pandemic when I was in the office, which, hopefully, by next year, I’ll be back in the office… I would commute on my bike. 

When I wasn’t on social media, I was just riding my bike to work. It’s a great way to get ready for the day, get my mindset for the day, and then at the end of the day, just work through all the stress – and also release some of that stress from a little bit of exercise and biking. Haven’t been able to do that for a year and a half so now the two things that I do to unwind primarily are: I have to disconnect from work at the end of the day because I have to be a parent and I’m very grateful for that. So, that’s just a natural thing that’s happening and then in the mornings, I prepare for my day and also unwind from the previous day.

I go for a run in the morning, so I do that before everyone’s awake and that way I can just kind of have my own time. So you have to figure out no matter how, if you have family, if you have loved ones, if you’re around a lot of people, you have to find a way to be selfish and just find time for yourself. And for me, that’s four in the morning, which is not normal for a lot of people. 

Also, time with family is really important for me too, which is my evening routine now. I had to evolve through the pandemic, but no matter what, find that mental health space for yourself and do what makes you happy outside of work and what stresses you out.

What are you excited for or looking forward to?

A lot of the things that, unfortunately, were part of the pandemic, like social injustice. Things that were unfortunately heightened by the attention that the screens gave us. 

I’m excited about the fact that all of the things that we talked about, the positive stuff that can happen in digital marketing and social and all that. I feel like our future generations, like Gen Z, are really motivated by the world that we live in right now. They have a voice and the one thing that I love about Gen Z that I’m excited about is their constant desire for individuality. At the core of it, it’s about figuring out who they are as an individual and the choices that they make and the things that they do by, say, whatever it is is all part of their individuality. As marketers, what I’m excited about is being able to acknowledge that and know this is the future generation already up to 24, 25 years of age. They’re already out of school. 

That’s actually our target market for people that we try to recruit to the registry based on age and biology. From a sales perspective, marketing perspective, they’re the future generation of people that we’re going to market to and everything that we talked about goes right to that. If we focus on that user-generated content, that humanization, that authenticity, all those things that we’ve been using as buzzwords over the past several years… and we really hone in and fine-tune those skills, we are going to speak to their individuality and we can sell products, services, missions that define those individuals.  

You think about the power of those individuals speaking about what drives them and what motivates them, and why they said yes to this registry or said yes to this brand… that’s going to have a lot more staying power than, sort of the current state, paying for influencers and all that stuff.

So I’m excited about authenticity. I’m excited about individuality. There’s a lot of other things I’m excited about because I’m a very optimistic person, but I’ll just keep it at marketing for the sake of this interview. 

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