Lifetouch Takes a Digital Approach to Photography

CIO Jon Madrid brings a technology focus to the national leader in school photography

If it’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words, then Jon Madrid, in his first year on the job as vice president of IT at Lifetouch National School Studios, has helped the company create enough words to fill a library.

Through Madrid’s innovative approach, the company known for taking millions of school photos each year has increased business thanks to more customer engagement and a digital-focused approach to the business. “What intrigued me about Lifetouch before I joined was the opportunity to make an impact,” Madrid says. “The company has been around for eighty years and is the leader in the photography industry, but they had not historically had a direct focus on digital and customer-facing experience. The company was creating an entirely new function for that purpose, which indicated to me that this was something they were committed to strategically. That really excited me.”

Previously, the organization had never held a post quite like Madrid’s, giving him leeway in crafting a technology strategy and plan, and also letting him build a team and recruit workers his own way.

Q1

Lifetouch takes millions of portraits every year, and the orders for many of these are still taken in paper form, making it difficult to capture this data for practical customer use. When Madrid first came on board, one of his objectives was simply to achieve “quick wins” in bringing a tech-forward approach to the organization.

“Coming into the role, I wanted to quickly demonstrate the value and power of investing in customer-related technology,” he says. “I had formulated a far-reaching strategy and wanted to illustrate some of the benefits the company might expect over time, but also quickly begin improving our customer experience along the way. From a technology standpoint, the opportunities were tremendous. I had this new focus area that had been created, along with significant interest from the organization to do some really exciting things and the flexibility to shape a lot of things from the ground up— people, processes, technology—everything. I was able to define what I envisioned, supported by my business partners. Then I set out making it happen.”

One of the first things he did on the job was halt a project that was underway but didn’t have clear goals or measurable success criteria. “There was some work that was happening in this space, but it wasn’t tied to any clear goals or objectives,” he explains. “The work made sense in isolation, but when viewed through the lens of the bigger picture, it fell flat. What we needed to focus on first were our objectives and how to align our activities to those. I asked, ‘What is it we are trying to solve and how do we envision getting there?’”

“We offer a tremendously valuable product to many millions of people, but we want to create a customer experience that can be even more compelling and very interactive.”

In addition to stopping or restructuring several of the projects that were in flight, Madrid also championed a customer/digital strategy initiative that brought stakeholders together from various parts of the organization to define their collectively envisioned future of digital for Lifetouch National School Studios. “Even though I had a really solid idea of where I wanted to take things and where I thought we should focus, I absolutely wanted to make it a collaborative effort that involved all parties so that when we were done, everyone was bought in,” Madrid says. “And it worked. When we were done, we had a strategy that was directly aligned to our business objectives and plans, and everyone knew what we were going to do and why.”

Thanks to Madrid’s background and expertise in both technology and digital strategy, he was given the chance to champion and chair that strategy effort by partnering with the company’s internal marketing group as the culmination of the first quarter saw a clear strategy defined.

Q2

Coming out of his first three months on the job, Madrid was able to establish alignment at all levels and, secondarily, allow for a feeder into capital funding requests to initiate these projects. The challenge, however, was he had no team. Part of his strategy  was to heavily leverage contract resources and consult specialists to help get things moving quickly. “That’s been a strong competitive and strategic advantage,” he says. “I brought in specialized researchers and experts in the various fields we had to work in. I was able to find the best talent around and get them here quickly.” In a matter of a few months, he had assembled a handpicked team of nearly fifty people.

With a team now in place, Madrid initiated four key category drivers: online and e-commerce (the ability for customers to conduct business with Lifetouch); digital marketing (reaching out to customers and getting them to engage with Lifetouch); customer data (establishing efforts and initiatives to capture as much information about customers as possible and pull that all into one place); and analytics and insights (having the tools and practices to look at customer activity across all channels and draw insights from that on how to more effectively engage with customers going forward).

A Snapshot of Camera History

While it might be more familiar as the name behind school picture day, Lifetouch’s physical tech advancements have led them as far as the Smithsonian. The standard professional cameras that the organization uses are often not the right fit for the large volume of photos that they have to take, so the organization makes major modifications and updates to its gear, in addition to building brand new models to fit its needs. Two of its designs were added to the Smithsonian Institute’s permanent collection in 2011, the museum recognizing that “Lifetouch tells the story of the American family.” Rather than be content with that prestigious placement, Lifetouch looks to constantly improve its products.

Q3

Lifetouch photographs roughly thirty million students, representing approximately twenty to twenty-five million households a year. “We offer a tremendously valuable product to many millions of people, but we want to create a customer experience that can be even more compelling and very interactive. We’re just scratching the surface so far,” he says. “We want to move to more of a relationship—memory making and memory keeping—and away from the more impersonal, transaction-oriented experience.”

By the third quarter, Madrid was in full stride with his key projects, and made significant progress from a customer warehouse standpoint, which goes live in June. “That’s going to be huge for us,” he says. “Going from fragmented data sets and only being able to analyze at the aggregate level to having a centralized and standardized data repository that gives us a view down to the individual level is extremely powerful. We’re not stopping there, though. We view this as just the first step on the process of continual evolution.”

Q4

Woven in between all of what Madrid has accomplished in his first year on the job is an aspect of illustrating the art of the possible through execution. “As we deliver these big projects, we are finding ways to take some of the anticipated benefits and demonstrating how we can start getting benefits incrementally before the solution is even delivered,” he says. “An example is advocating and evangelizing this concept of test-and-learn capabilities. We’re trying things in testable segments before we scale them to large audiences, and we’re testing features as we’re developing the next releases, then rolling the winning variations into the build.”

One of the factors that has historically been a challenge for Lifetouch is that since the business is predominately seasonal—with high volume in the fall and spring—the opportunity to test initiatives is quite difficult, with code changes needed to test each variation.

A big innovation that Madrid put in practice was the addition of mechanisms that allowed Lifetouch to test products without needing to change application codes. Under this format, pilot programs could be utilized and their impact quantified in order to be ready in time for the next release.

“We’re doing this pretty much anywhere we can because it’s so powerful,” Madrid says. It provides the organization the opportunity to get real-world feedback from customers and test a wide variety of things that would have never been possible before, both in terms of time and cost. “One of the most significant things I have seen from this so far, aside from the revenue lifts, is actually how the teams are operating,” he says. “Instead of deliberating endlessly on features and functions, they just say, ‘We’re pretty close on this, let’s test some variations and see which works best.’ That allows us to focus on the bigger picture and more critical decisions.”

Year Two

Looking ahead to his next twelve months on the job, Madrid is focused on helping the business grow and reach more customers through further advances in technology. Part of that plan includes a loyalty program for customers.

“Some of the things we are doing are foundational for capabilities next year and beyond,” he says. “We’ve set the stage and have positioned ourselves well for continued growth and are already reaping some material benefits, but we have quite a bit more in mind that we would like to do.”