How Digital Strategy Drives a Smarter Conversation

When John Matthew “JM” Upton talks about advising business leaders on strategy he says “leading them into the light” a lot. We get it. JM is talking about helping those executives use digital tools to communicate with, and learn from, their audiences. In other words, he’s helping them have smarter conversations. So it made perfect sense when JM joined Greentarget as our new director of digital strategy & analytics back in March.

And it helps explain how a guy who majored in English, then became an expert in user-centric design, web analytics and demand generation, found his way to B2B communications. After giving JM a few months to settle in at Greentarget, we sat down to grill him with questions from our team about his experience and what he’s got in store for Greentarget clients, and to get a definitive answer on the iPhone/Android question.

You’ve spent a good chunk of your career at consumer-facing companies. What attracted you to B2B communications?

Though much of my professional experience is technical, I consider myself a creative person. I’ve gotten experience in enough elements of web, marketing and content/design that I almost always have an opinion on how something should be implemented; building a new practice for Greentarget is an opportunity to execute my vision and take responsibility for the results.

I’d say also that quantifying what makes content successful is a compelling challenge because there will always be a subjective element. How can we account for taste? What are the right measures to use?

What are you most excited to work on?

Original research that can form the basis of proprietary research tools. Cision is a feature-rich platform that can yield a significant amount of market intelligence if we learn to mine it, which can be a significant differentiator for Greentarget versus our competitors.

How did you go from an English degree to a career as a digital strategist?

I started my career as a copywriter at In a career planning session, the director of e-commerce told me that the three major areas of expertise I’d need to develop were creative, technical and business. Shortly thereafter I had a chance to join the search and taxonomy team to start my technical training, and between consulting and running the analytics team at Ricoh I got plenty of business experience.

That said, I’ve found that liberal arts majors make extremely effective analysts because their college coursework teaches them to think in the right way. For example, during my fourth year of college at UVa (wahoowa!) I lived with four engineers. Their coursework was very linear: Here’s an equation, there are four variables, one is missing, solve for X. My coursework was quite the opposite: Here’s a mass of indiscriminate information (e.g., a Shakespeare play or a novel), find out what’s important or interesting, isolate it and use it to prove a point. In a world deluged with data and content, the ability to pick out the interesting bits and make sense of them will never go out of style.

What’s surprised you the most about GT and B2B/professional services so far?

That campaign measurement and reporting seem like an afterthought or a “nice to have” for our clients – I can’t imagine running any kind of marketing program without building in performance targets, even if they were a total guess.

Tell us about the coolest digital project you ever worked on.

I once did a gig designing a new taxonomy and metadata structure for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a company that sells seeds for small commercial growers and gardening hobbyists. While we were onsite at their headquarters in Maine (which was basically a farm), we found out that one of their biggest issues for online orders was that customers would purchase seeds that were poorly suited for the climate where they lived. This resulted in poor germination rates and a lot of product returns.

In my research, I learned about climate classification systems, which use meteorological data like average monthly precipitation and temperature to designate different types of environments:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration keeps detailed maps of climate classifications down to the zip code level. Building those climate classifications into the taxonomy allowed Johnny’s the option to tag individual seeds with the climates for which they were best suited, so when a customer entered their zip code during checkout, the system could alert the user to mismatches between their chosen seeds and the climate where they lived. At that point, a validation step (“Are you sure these are the seeds you want? You won’t be able to return them”) or a recommendation for another seed within the same category could really cut down on returns.

Unfortunately, this type of functionality was out of scope for our project, and they never implemented it…but I will always remember it as a cool and creative use of data to solve a problem.

Android or iPhone? Explain.

Bring it, iPhone nerds.

The Android operating system is faster, more usable, more customizable and is a much more open ecosystem than iOS. Additionally, Apple has fully embraced forced obsolescence as a design philosophy and tries to make it as difficult as possible to repair their phones (ever try changing the battery or replacing the screen?). Finally, dozens of manufacturers produce Android phones while only Apple creates iPhones, which means they can’t keep pace on the hardware. Compare the iPhone X and the Samsung S8; they’re basically the same phone, except the iPhone X was released six months later, cost $300 more and doesn’t have a headphone jack or a memory card slot.

Regardless of personal preference, I’d say most of the rest of the world agrees with me:

What are the key components of a digital strategy?

Here are a few:

  • Goals/purpose – you’d be surprised how many teams forget or ignore this step.
  • Understanding of the as-is state – if you can’t accurately assess your strengths and weaknesses, it will be hard to build a strong plan.
  • People – do you have the right competencies to enact your plan?
  • Processes – are you prepared to handle the organizational change that results from a growing focus on digital?
  • Technology – do you have the right systems in your marketing and communications technology stack to support your future state?
  • Measurement – a plan for measuring progress versus milestones and the overall success of the effort.
  • Governance – how will you guide the future development of your digital practices and avoid repeating mistakes?
  • Detail – if your strategy is ambiguous, it won’t be effective.

Why do you go by your initials?

It happened organically. My full name is John Matthew Garrity Upton; John Matthew is my first name and what I went by until about four years ago. When I met my wife, all of her friends called me JM; shortly after that I started at Ricoh, where all of my colleagues adopted JM as well. With the two groups of people that I saw the most often calling me JM, it stuck.


A digital native, John Matthew “JM” drives the creative application of data and digital techniques within Greentarget’s public relations practice.

Obsessed with science fiction and fantasy football, when JM’s face isn’t stuck in a book or glued to the latest NFL player evaluations he’s most likely searching for new culinary experiences in Chicago.