What’s in Your Toolkit: Two (former) Computer Engineers Talk Marketing

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Anand Thaker, CEO and Founder of IntelliPhi, cohosts the Talking Stack podcast and contributed to the now 6,829-company MarTech Landscape Infographic. Intelliphi develops strategies, technology, and training for cognitive and data enabled marketing, sales and customer support.

 

MarTech marries marketing and technology, creating, managing, and using digital tools to to automate tasks, facilitate data-driven decisions, measure marketing activity impact, and drive more efficient market spend. Anand comments that MarTech is not just about marketing and sales enablement. In a deeper sense, it is about understanding human nature and how we connect with each other.

 

Companies that market need to evaluate and understand:

  • Their own organization and how they interact with customers,
  • How customers engage with the brand,
  • What gaps exist in the current processes,
  • What opportunities are being missed,
  • What data do they need that they don’t have, and
  • Long term and short term goals and how those will be achieved

 

Customer data platforms (CDPs), unified customer databases accessible to other systems, provide structure to enable companies to better manage customer and prospect data, understand how the company and these clients engage and interact, and facilitate the appropriate application of AI to the whole body of data. For those using AI, it is important to understand how it learns and what it can and cannot do.

 

Anand can be followed on Twitter @anandthaker, or connect with him on LinkedIn or on his website at anandthaker.com

 

 

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am pleased to be joined today, live and in person, by Anand Thaker, CEO and Founder of IntelliPhi.

 

He has built and sold multiple companies; he’s the co-host of the Talking Stack podcast; he’s a popular speaker; he helped put together the MarTech Landscape Infographic with 6,829 companies on it; and he advises investors and companies in the MarTech space. With that breadth of experience, its’ a privilege to have you here. Welcome.

 

ANAND: Rob, it’s fantastic to be with you. I know we always find each other 6 months at a time or once a quarter, and we always have these lengthy conversations, so I’m glad we’re making good use of that for the podcast today.

 

ROB: Yeah, we’ll let people listen in on the wall while two former computer engineers talk about marketing. Why don’t you give us a little bit of a perspective on your own journey into MarTech?

 

ANAND: We started off in computer engineering and I found my way into the energy space and wore multiple hats in that arena. One of the hats that I enjoyed working on as a developer was working on trying to model consumer behavior/customer behavior in terms of trying to predict to some degree what power consumption looked like.

 

In the finance world, before MarTech came along and finally we’re here, it was probably the best model for human behavior with a lot of the pressures in the financial markets. I operated, worked for companies, and built and sold in that capacity.

 

Then I of course ended up at Silverpop for a while—that’s where we rolled in the same circles—and then eventually started my own firm as well as a couple of other things going on in the mix. I found myself in the MarTech space. It’s been 10 years I’ve been sitting in the space, waiting for us to reach a nice critical point of where we can use data to drive some interesting decisions.

 

ROB: Fantastic. Silverpop, of course, the email marketing platform acquired up into IBM now—I think part of the Watson Marketing Cloud is what they’re calling it now.

 

ANAND: That is correct.

 

ROB: You have this perspective where you have seen literally thousands of MarTech companies. As different brands and particularly agencies are trying to evaluate what should be in their toolkit, how do you even start to navigate this ecosystem?

 

ANAND: I get this question all the time, and it’s a really fair question. I’m not going to give you the “it depends” answer.

 

One of the best things that we’ve decided upon as we advise a lot of companies or help navigate this for a lot of organizations is you really have to spend time understanding yourself first. How do you engage with the brand and what does that look like?

 

That’s where you begin to figure out what are the gaps in your processes, what’s the data you’re really looking for? And then of course defining the goals that you have in terms of the next quarter, the next year, whatever the case may be. How do you achieve that?

 

It all starts with “know thyself” and really understand how you’re engaging with those customers. That’s the first part, because once you understand what kind of gaps you have or what kind of opportunities you want to uncover, those lead to the questions you need to ask in terms of which companies to look for.

 

Now, clearly, we’ve put together—Scott Brinker started it, and I’m grateful and honored to help him along this—now we’ve got a list of that. We made it a little bit easier to curate that, along with many review sites. But really, being able to find good questions to ask about yourself and how you want to operate and engage with your marketplace or customers is the important first step.

 

ROB: Interesting. Scott’s now technically at HubSpot? Is that right?

 

ANAND: He is at HubSpot, yep.

 

ROB: The reason that’s interesting to think through is Scott, and I think HubSpot in general, tend to give freely of themselves in a way that doesn’t feel very slimy or too hands-on. They put on a conference that isn’t “HubSpot” splattered everywhere, and even the people I’ve interacted with at that conference are saying to me, “Really, don’t think of this as a HubSpot thing.” How do you think they’re able to keep that ethos?

 

ANAND: I think that they always think about, how do I elevate other people’s careers? If you’re a HubSpot partner or if you’ve thought about joining, that’s one of the first things that is very deliberate about how they want to help the community of marketers in general. They’ll give away iStock photos, they’ll help you figure out pricing opportunities as partners or as an agency partner.

 

But to the community at large, it’s: how do I help you with your job? That’s the core part of it. All of the feedback, all of the conversations that they have pull back into how they developed the product, how they decided to expand.

 

Full disclosure, I own a lot of HubSpot stock, ever since they IPO’d. It’s a habit from my old financial days of picking good investment opportunities.

 

HubSpot does a tremendous job of nurturing its community. I think community is that differentiator in the digital world where the people in your marketplace are not just your customers, but they’re your product to some degree, and you want to be able to continue to grow that and them as advocates.

 

ROB: To go CNBC for just a moment here, where was the stock when you bought it and where is it today?

 

ANAND: It IPO’d at 30, and I bought it at 30. I reloaded every time the stock took a dip, mostly because of the market conditions. Right now it is close to 130, I believe. I think at one point it was at a quintuple status, meaning 5x. I think it’s a great indicator to show that HubSpot is a great example of why communities matter and why that will continue to play a role for brands for years to come.

 

ROB: I think that speaks interestingly to the growth that has still existed within MarTech. But then as you sit there and look at—there’s probably 7,000 companies you could put on the graphic if you hunted a little bit more around today and this month.

 

Are there too many companies, too little, not enough of the right ones? How do you look at that mix of everything, especially when people are trying to decide where to align their own bets?

 

ANAND: One of the things that we did when I was helping Scott was I wanted to take the slot and move it into a little more data-driven capacity. But I’ll be honest, it was also for my own benefit to really understand the space. I loved the complexities and the dynamics and the interconnectivity. I think it’s a habit from some of the financial world, again.

 

One of the critical factors is understanding that marketing very much aligns really well to how complex our lives are today. One of the things I talked about in the last MarTech conference, in terms of debunking the myth of MarTech consolidating to an extreme amount, is there are consolidations, but it’s not a start of something big because we are still figuring out the human condition.

 

We’re understanding human nature. We’re understanding how we connect with each other. That’s why there’s such a slew of products and there probably will continue to be while the details and the granularity of our understanding of people are increasing.

 

At the same time, marketing is taking a larger role in responsibility across the entire organization. Not just being in your own department; beyond the department, we’re talking about alignment and working with sales in the B-to-B world, or operations or finance or product or legal with GDPR compliance.

 

It’s not a matter of too many tools or too few tools. It’s a matter of really thinking about it in—if there were only three tools, then human beings are very boring. [laughs] We’re very predictable and there’s not much to us. But obviously that is not the case, and certainly the world has changed even in the last 15 years.

 

ROB: I think it might be interesting to look at some of the SEO vendors and tools as perhaps some of the early players in the MarTech space—and email marketing as well. Maybe in some ways their own life cycle is a little bit instructive as to what to expect.

 

You have Conductor perhaps infamously acquired by WeWork, and they say they’re going to make their own marketing cloud. I’m curious about thoughts there as well.

 

ANAND: I think that’s a great example that if you look at marketing tech tools as just marketing—one of the largest categories is sales enablement. To your example with Conductor and WeWork, these tools are about connecting with people. Does that mean it’s just limited to marketing? No.

 

Maybe marketing has a play in it, but I think that’s part of the power of what these tools are doing. It’s more about the study of ourselves than it is the study of just marketing alone. I think it’s a very narrow perspective to think that MarTech is about marketing only. It’s actually about connecting with people and people connecting with each other.

 

We should see more of that continue to happen. We’ll see more companies acquiring MarTech companies that are outside of the MarTech space just for that same reason alone.

 

ROB: It’s interesting to see—in email I think we see cycles now of reinvention. You had your classical Constant Contact, your iContact, your AWeber. Some people still swear by AWeber. Then you have your phase of marketing automation. I think it keeps iterating.

 

Are there any categories you think may be ripe for that reinvention? The old has matured and the new is maybe still very emergent?

 

ANAND: The ad space is going to take a big transformation, generally speaking, whether it’s programmatic, whether it’s traditional ad space, whatever. There’s a tremendous amount of spend that’s happening there. I do herald a lot from the B-to-B space, but even a lot of the work that we’ve been doing lately has been on the B-to-C side.

 

To what you were alluding is a phrase that I’m reminded of, “what’s old is new again.” Everybody keeps trying to say email is dead, everybody keeps saying that search is dead, everybody keeps saying that social is dead. I love all those crazy predictions because the financial guy in my head talks about “there’s opportunity there.”

 

Going back to answering the question, I think advertising is going to be transformative mainly because there’s more control internally by marketers. There’s greater collaboration between marketing and agencies, especially the next-generation agencies, the transformative agencies.

 

We’re also seeing a lot of transparency all across the board. Before, it was, “I’ll pay my agency and they’ll just go do stuff and then they’ll come back.” That’s not the case anymore. It is, “We recognize who we are as a company and how we want to direct our brand.” The agencies are not just tactical drones that go do what they tell you to do; they’re equally experienced. I think that combination is extremely powerful for those brands that recognize the opportunity there.

 

ROB: You mentioned this idea of a transformative agency. The start of that definition seems to start with they’re not just order-takers anymore. But more broadly, how do you think about a transformative agency that’s doing that world right, right now? What do they look like?

 

ANAND: They are the ones that are thinking about the experience across the board. It’s not just “let me do this channel.” Marketers have been going through this transformation themselves; now agencies are also going through that in a similar capacity, where they’re breaking down silos within their own agency.

 

Marcel—Microsoft helped develop this with WPP—the idea of Marcel was to help collaboration and innovation within the agency. It’s not a tool to be sold. I mean, maybe it will be eventually. I think that’s an indicator of harnessing the talent within an agency, being able to bring the customer or their clients into the fold, recognizing their talents, and then being able to augment that.

 

So transformative agencies really are breaking down silos within their own organization, and they’re also translating that unification and perspective to clients in helping them navigate their customer engagement and experiences in the marketplace as well.

 

ROB: Interesting. One thing we’ve seen a lot with our own guests is, within the maturation of agencies, very interesting verticalizations. We talked to an agency in Blacksburg, Virginia that just markets building products. That’s all they do. We talked to people who are just doing local businesses now. What else have you seen that’s interesting and thought-provoking for you?

 

ANAND: I think you mentioned this earlier—there’s going to be a pendulum where we’ll see smaller agencies who take these niches, but eventually they’ll have to grow. There’s only a limited market space, and they’ll start to combine or partner with other organizations.

 

The next thing that I’ve seen that I’ve been most intrigued with is a lot of agencies taking a more strategic go-to-market perspective. It’s not just the consulting firms like Bain and Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey who are alone in that. There’s a lot of agencies who are thinking along those lines—how you help a marketer or a brand think like a CEO, more than just press releases or PR and press management or getting ads out.

 

I think that’s going to be interesting, to see how much more embedded they are in a customer’s success, recognizing that the growth and impact for their clients are much more measurable, they are more transparent, and that develops a greater rapport between the two entities.

 

ROB: One of the interesting new fronts that I think we’re seeing—and I hate to even mention it sometimes because it seems very played out, but it’s almost bimodal in its adoption of artificial intelligence and AI machine learning sort of things.

 

There are layers of this that people now intrinsically trust. When someone does a lookalike audience on Facebook, nobody’s saying—I mean, some people do—“I don’t know if I can trust their AI.” They just do. They’re like, “That makes me more money.”

 

Then there’s other stuff out there. I’ve seen AdHawk, and you probably know Eletype here in town as well. They have this AI management layer on top of AdWords, pay-per-click, that sort of thing. But most people I talk to will trust that about as far as to take recommendations. They won’t hand over the self-driving car to a platform to drive their ads on that level; they want tips.

 

What do you think of the distinctions in thinking there that make it easier to adopt some things more than others?

 

ANAND: Let’s take for a moment the perspective of that marketer. What’s their career like? What are they doing? What does that team’s success look like? How are they navigating that problem, those challenges, those opportunities that are there?

 

AI right now I think is best served in an augmented capacity. Are you going to elevate your career by placing some of these ad bets once you’ve already strategically figured this out or tactically understood what the goals are? Probably the tedious stuff isn’t going to elevate your career. Maybe that’s where you let AI take it.

 

They’re generally things that are very predictive in terms of what needs to be done, so that’s probably where you can let it go and let it happen. Of course, if there’s something that goes awry, then you’ll let the notifications tell you whether you should intervene.

 

However, when you go up higher in the tactical hierarchy and you’re talking about strategy or strategic or trying to figure some of this out—we’re trying to do this with IntelliPhi. We’re way ahead of the game. I think it’s going to be another 5 years before brands and organizations are going to be able to use these types of tools like they are in the finance and energy spaces.

 

Having the AI help you be better at what you’re doing is critical. I think that’s why a lot of salespeople, marketers, and other individuals who feel like their jobs are going to be taken over by AI should really think about what they’re really doing, what is their value-add, and then starting to change over to make sure that they continue to be a value-add even if these tools are going to be in place.

 

Working with these tools to enhance your job or career or success is going to be what’s critical.

 

ROB: As you talk about that, it helps me realize that the places where people can’t help but use the AI enablement is where they’re just going to lose. It gets to a point where if you’re not using certain lookalike audiences and certain augmentations like that, you’re just going to lose.

 

ANAND: Yeah, there’s going to be certain things that are going to be table stakes. That’s part of the reason why, whether you’re using AI or not, just recognizing what it can and can’t do is really critical.

 

I think the best professionals who leverage AI are the ones who understand how it learns. If you can figure out and understand how and why it does what it does—you don’t have to be a rocket scientist, you don’t have to be a programmer, you don’t have to be a computer engineer, even, from Georgia Tech—but if you can determine, generally speaking, why it does what it does, then you’ll understand the rails that you can put it on and trust it to do what it needs to do.

 

But obviously you don’t operate in a bubble. You engage and understand who your audience is in terms of how are they receptive to it. You do your usual testing to understand a human interaction versus an AI-generated interaction, are there differences? It’s another capability that is very powerful and can help you scale, but it only scales if you understand why you use it and where you use it.

 

ROB: Very cool. With your podcast, some of what you address is transcendent, long-term things, and sometimes you’re really helping distill down the latest, the news, what’s emergent, what’s happening this day, this week, this month. What else has been interesting to you recently in August 2018?

 

ANAND: The talk of the town has been customer data platforms, CDP this, CDP that. For those of you who are not familiar with CDP or haven’t talked about it or heard about it, the idea of a customer data platform is it’s a mechanism to house all of your customer data.

 

There are a lot of tools who claim they house all of your customer data, or they want to win the lion’s share of that information. The idea is that the customer data platform extrapolates it from all—one of the challenges in the stack-building exercises is your data is everywhere and you have multiple copies. Integrity is a problem, enrichment is a problem, cleansing is a problem.

 

Having one resource or platform that can, within your company, serve as the de facto place of record or aggregator of all that information to help you understand how you engage or the insights about your customer base—not only your customers, but prospects as well—how you engage and what’s going on in there has been the biggest thing.

 

One of the really major factors in the CDP is it now becomes a company asset. This is something that I think marketers are starting to realize, or just brands generally speaking are realizing. The customer data should be ours to manage, to control, and to do as we need. We shouldn’t have to worry about integrating or connecting a bunch of tools to be able to make that happen.

 

We’re struggling as an industry to figure out, what is the right norm for that? Because once you have the customer data, now AI can be applied appropriately. It’s not AI in this channel, this channel, this channel, where one part of the AI is looking at a tail, one part of it is looking at an elephant’s trunk, and the other part of it is looking at some leathery skin, but the reality is it’s actually an elephant that we’re looking at.

 

That’s kind of where CDPs are becoming the talk of the town. That’s both B-to-B as well as, and probably even more so, the consumer side of the house.

 

ROB: It sounds like a CDP sits somewhere on the spectrum of you might have a CRM on one end and a data lake on the other end that holds all of your enterprise data. How do you navigate to the middle and find something actionable in between? I’ve talked to marketers who are being told by IT, “Use the data lake and use Hadoop and Tableau.” The marketing team is like, “. . . No? Let’s try again.” [laughs]

 

ANAND: That hesitation is the way to interface with that data and having the right data at the right time—we all talk about it. Every marketer, every vendor talks about getting the right data at the right time. Let’s talk about it internally. How does a marketer be more powerful with this information if they can’t access it as easily or require a middleware or have a bottleneck of an individual? I’m sure IT doesn’t want to have to deal with it. Their success for business users is for them to be enabled and empowered to use these platforms in the first place.

 

Data lakes include a great deal of data that may not be associated with the customer and may not have any relationship whatsoever. I don’t want to call it a dumping ground, because data lakes actually do have structure despite its name. Well, it depends on how it’s used, right? [laughs] I think you and I have seen some really bad examples.

 

But the reality is that a CDP provides structure. We’re starting to think about a person rather than just a bunch of data put together.

 

With a CRM, it’s a perspective by say sales and customer success and some marketers, but the accessibility of data at a grander scale is very difficult; to be able to have a larger perspective is also challenging.

 

CRM systems today are not built—they can be, but they’re not built to be effective, efficient tools to harvest, aggregate, analyze, and orchestrate from customer data, generally speaking. It’s a view into that data. Marketing automation is a view into that data. Social platforms are a view into that data. But it’s not the collective view.

 

ROB: Who’s off to a pretty good start in building the CDP of the future rather than cobbling together the past?

 

ANAND: There are a few CDP vendors out there. I’m the advisor on the CDP Institute, so I’m going to try to be as diplomatic as possible without naming anybody out there.

 

However, I will promote the fact that if you are interested to understand what’s going on in the CDP space, you want to find out who the leaders are or how the various vendors are approaching customer data platforms, go to cdpinstitute.org.

 

David Raab is the guy who’s behind the scenes. He’s coined the phrase, he’s taken the lead, he’s defining the space. He’s trying to help everyone understand why CDPs exist, answer the questions of “isn’t that a CRM system versus a data lake?”

 

Even he admittedly will say that it is an evolving case, but the term really extrapolates the idea that customer data and the unique interaction of that information is a company asset. Or at least, those are my words. They’re a company asset. They are literally a piece of equipment or the talent in your firm. It’s not just an appendage or a software that you subscribe to on a month-to-month basis.

 

ROB: Is part of the impetus there helping organizations answer the GDPR question as well, of “where is my data, who owns it, who has access to it, how am I sharing it?” Is that one of the wedges as well?

 

ANAND: It is. I think there are CDP vendors who are working to incorporate that into the platform; however, there are also platforms that actually can connect into a CDP.

 

An example would be OneTrust. They connect into these data platforms to help you manage those while they take care of the frontend of the requests, the acceptance of the cookies, making sure that all of the peripheral, front office type of activities are sound.

 

But having one place for all of that information is extremely useful.

 

ROB: It’s interesting; I’ve started to see some of the CDP opportunity expanding the opportunity for MarTech in places I didn’t expect. For example, we’ve been talking to some sports teams lately about their digital footprint problems, shall we say, and players with 10-year-old tweets who get called out for it and so on.

 

But adjacent to that is seeing the budget for marketing within even the sports marketing world, which is notoriously, shall we say, frugal, but sometimes by connecting through to their customer database, connecting social through into that customer database, and knowing a season ticketholder just had a bad experience with a game—seems like it’s expanding the opportunity for everyone.

 

ANAND: That’s a great example, Rob. I think what you hit on is that marketing is part of operations. I know there’s been a term for marketing operations that’s been emerging, but let’s put that aside for a moment.

 

They are critical and ever-present in all of those aspects of the business. Not just the marketing, not just the arts and crafts, not just the creative, not just the technology on its own. We have to look at this from an operational perspective.

 

How can we be better at it? How can we be more efficient? How can we identify our real VIPs versus other people that we want to become VIPs? Who are our best advocates? If those people do have bad experiences, how do we manage that and how do we turn lemons into lemonade?

 

That’s a phenomenal example of where having a CDP platform or at least beginning with a CDP mindset is critical, even in potentially low margin or low budget situations. [laughs]

 

ROB: It makes me wonder, what are some of those other promises? What we’re talking about there is a promise that social listening has been telling us for a very long time. That’s been the promise of social listening. If you’re in an airline loyalty program, they really want to know exactly who you are without having to have you DM them your customer account number—or at least only have to do that once.

 

It makes me wonder if some of these other promises that have been out there for a while and being digested are actually coming to fruition. Are you seeing anything similar to that?

 

ANAND: I just read an article recently talking about how Twitter has been used a lot for customer service as well as managing the press problems that are out there, and for the most part it was actually a very realistic article. It didn’t talk about that it was awesome or terrible. It was “it’s working, and it’s working well, and it should be incorporated as part of it.”

 

Social listening is great, but it’s very reactive. A little of it is very proactive. I know that many of the social media platforms are working on the fake account problem. Then, of course, there is new emerging advocate or influencer marketing that’s occurring now, and that is coming into question for a lot of people. Do these people really have that many followers? Do they not?

 

I think this is where having more of a brand-specific, unique view of how you view the world or your customers is critically important. Whatever you find is important in those, whether it’s social media engagement or whether you find that it is the customer service part of it. Let’s say in the sports situation, how much are they spending on fan ware or extras at the games or whatever the case may be?

 

I think those are unique things that you’re not going to get from other platforms right away—or at least, not deeper than the superficial, top-of-the-social-arena engagements.

 

ROB: For sure. Is Twitter in trouble?

 

ANAND: [laughs] I’m impressed at how resilient Twitter has been. If you think about it, so many journalists use Twitter. They don’t have to actually talk to anybody; they can just go on Twitter and get the quotes they’re looking for, and they can document them and copy-paste them.

 

Until Twitter figures out a viable business model that works for them, they’re just not diversified enough as a public company. I think it’s interesting—and I know I’m taking a very investor view of Twitter, but . . .

 

ROB: I was just going to say, you’re not buying that stock?

 

ANAND: I never bought that stock. Same with Snapchat. The only social media company we bought into was Facebook, and that’s a whole other podcast for another day.

 

The reality is, [Facebook] has a unique understanding of who we are as users. It’s not the data they’re collecting; it’s actually the connections behind the scenes. I don’t think a lot of the people who are in office truly understand the power of Facebook’s neural net of information and connections that are behind the scenes.

 

I know you’re chuckling because I think you agree that there’s this layer beneath that’s actually extremely powerful. Same reason why Google is where it is in terms of being so powerful in its capacity as well.

 

ROB: Yeah, I think we agree, without getting too deep into it, that without third-party data Facebook would be just fine with their first-party data. Is that a fair summary of the take here?

 

ANAND: Absolutely. They were interacting with third parties because it was more—there’s good and bad in doing that. There’s a number of tools that are not allowing you to be able to engage with Facebook directly now. You have to go through some weaving and stuff. For a lot of companies that’s going to be a problem. A lot of people were trying to leverage Facebook. That was a problem.

 

But, early on, that was one of the best ways for Facebook to capture a great deal of engagement, a long tail of engagement, through other parties. That’s just a natural way of doing software development. I don’t see anything devious going on, or incestuous going on with all of that. That’s probably another part of Facebook that maybe we weren’t aware of. [laughs]

 

ROB: Fantastic. Anand, when people want to get in touch with you, where should they find you?

 

ANAND: Just follow me on Twitter @anandthaker. You can connect with me or follow me on LinkedIn; I’m most active there. I just redid my website (don’t hate me yet, it’s still a work in progress) at anandthaker.com.

 

I’d love to hear what’s going on in your side of the world. If you’ve got some questions, please share them. Rob, it’s been fantastic catching up with you.

 

ROB: It’s always a pleasure. We could go on for a while.

 

ANAND: Oh yeah, absolutely.

 

ROB: Thanks for your time. Take care.

 

ANAND: All right.

ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.

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