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Michael Kaye on Bringing an Integrated Mindset to Comms While Bringing It Daily
Mixing Board Studio Session
Michael Kaye is the Global Director of Brand Marketing and Communications at OkCupid, one of the world’s largest dating apps. And since this session was conducted, he now also leads Brand Marketing and Comms for Archer, a “social-first” dating app for gay, bi and queer men. Michael has been featured in ABC News, Ad Age, Business Insider, Bustle, CBS, CNN, Cosmopolitan, Elite Daily, Forbes, Good Morning America, The New York Times, PR News, PRWeek, VICE and The Washington Post.
In 2018 Michael joined Mercy College as an Adjunct Instructor where he taught three courses through 2021, and in 2022 Michael joined the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University (NYU) where he currently teaches Public Relations Principles and Practices.
In this Studio Session, Michael and Mixing Board Founder, Sean Garrett, talk about why all comms people should be thinking outside of earned media, why you should have a social-first mindset when talking to press, and why comms teams are sitting on more powerful data than they even realize.
SG: Tell me about what you’re doing now. How did you find yourself in this role?
MK: I’m currently a Director of Brand Marketing and Communications within Match Group. For the past four years, I have been supporting OkCupid, leading their PR efforts across markets. After a few years, I started to absorb influencer marketing and social media. And for the past year, I’ve been working on Archer, a new dating app for gay, bisexual, and queer men that we are announcing this June. For this new app, I am leading all the marketing. Under that umbrella, I’m focusing on influencer marketing, social media, guerilla marketing, corporate sponsorship, partnerships, and all communications and public relations.
I stumbled onto Match Group after receiving a random message on LinkedIn. In spring of 2019, Melissa Hobley, who was the Chief Marketing Officer at OkCupid, reached out to me on LinkedIn. She had an opening on her team and wanted to have a conversation with me given my agency experience and my nonprofit volunteer experience. She felt my personal values aligned really well with the OkCupid brand. We wound up talking and I wound up joining. She’s now the Chief Marketing Officer at Tinder, and a mentor to me. But a random message on LinkedIn is how I ended up here.
SG: That’s a good lesson — check your LinkedIn messages! What was your first job when you started there? What were you doing?
MK: I started as a PR manager. Originally I was focused on the US market, but we had all these really exciting plans for global expansion. Keep in mind this was my first in-house role, my first time working in a global position. I never worked for a dating app. I barely had tech-comms experience. But I wound up launching us in Australia, Germany, Turkey, Israel, and the United Kingdom, and managed all those markets, while also handling the United States comms work, from strategy to execution.
We had no agency support in the US, but I managed the agencies that I hired in all those international markets, which made this the perfect role. It felt like I still had that agency experience, because I was working on strategy and execution in the US, but then still had the in-house experience because I was managing agencies in all these different countries. I then moved on to become Senior PR Manager, Associate Director of Global Communications, and now Director of Brand Marketing and Communications.
SG: You’ve moved up a complicated corporate environment pretty fast and got your hands on a whole bunch of different things. What allowed you to do that? Or has it been just: right place, right time?
MK: I’ve always been really ambitious, and hungry for more at work. I’ve found it to be really important to not let “corporate” pigeonhole you into a certain niche area. Especially in this market, where the media landscape is shrinking. Focusing solely on earned media felt a bit dangerous.
If we go back to the beginning of my career, because I started at boutique agencies, I always had these hybrid roles. My first internship out of college, I was doing traditional comms, but also social media content creation and social media management. I’ve tried to bake that into each of my roles at different agencies. Even if I’ve worked at PR agencies, I have found ways to manage influencer marketing programs or take over social media for the agency.
As soon as I got to OkCupid, we’d been around for almost 20 years at this point, I realized the marketing team was brand new. We formed in 2017. It’s still an entrepreneurial scrappy environment. I learned quickly that if you have an appetite to do something, here is the place to do it and you’ll feel empowered. I’ve always been really interested in storytelling. It felt really natural to slowly get more involved in what we were doing on the social media front at OkCupid, because PR and social work so well together. After doing that for a little while, it was easy for me to start getting involved in influencer marketing.
SG: Were you in meetings where people are sitting around the table and saying, “We need to find someone who knows how to do influencer marketing.” Or “We really need to up our social game.” And you’re like, “I can do that.”
MK: It’s a combination of my own ambition and having a really strong manager. I mentioned Melissa Hobley, her background is PR. She started at PR agencies and has found a way, throughout her career, to create more integrated roles, and has now taken the marketing industry by storm. A couple years ago, we had a conversation where she said, “You need to get on a CMO track and here’s how we can do it. Here are the things you’re already doing that are going to fall under the marketing umbrella and here’s where I see you have the ability to explore more.” It was a combination of my own interest, but also her really pushing me to say, “You’re great at PR, but you don’t have to be a PR person only.”
I started to recognize that when we started building this new app. That’s when we expanded my role. I’m getting to do all these things — I’ve never really tackled guerilla marketing or been involved in out of home advertising. But it’s so interesting to me now.
SG: This is a big conversation that we have in the comms world, about how this is all effectively comms, regardless of what the tactical output is. But there are still a lot of people who work in this industry who have a harder time making that mental leap into these other kinds of outputs. Whether it’s out-of-home, social, or influencer. What’s your advice? And maybe this is also something you teach at NYU, but how do you get young comms people into that integrated mindset? Now that you’ve been taught that, how do you convey that to people coming up in the industry?
MK: If you’re not willing to adapt to what’s happening, you are going to fall behind. I’m not trying to encourage anyone to jump into something that does not feel natural or they are not passionate about. There has to be some level of interest. Last year when we started expanding my role, I had this panic moment where I thought, I’ve done PR for almost eight years. I feel really comfortable in this space — am I going to excel in these new areas the way I have in PR? I started to take a step back and look at the common thread between all of them. I reframed my thinking around this new role and said, “Oh, it’s all storytelling. I’ve been doing that for years.” I am now storytelling through articles, social posts, influencer content, and a billboard. Once I thought about it that way, it felt more authentic and natural to me.
I remember reading an article in Adweek about how the future generation of CMOs are going to be today’s social media managers. That’s when I started to make an effort to take on more of the social media work here within OkCupid, and now Archer. I’ve done social in a previous couple of roles and as a millennial I grew up with social media, but I still recognize that I’m not the expert. This summer, I’m taking a semester off from teaching and instead do a certificate program in social media marketing. I genuinely feel you learn the most from actually doing the work, but I do like to have that foundational knowledge. Everyone should find an area of interest that’s a little bit outside of their day-to-day and find a way to bring that into their work. You can’t just focus on one specific area. I used to be a specialist, but becoming a generalist has accelerated my career path.
SG: If I branch out and try something new, I do sometimes understand how it can positively impact my core skills. Having new and different knowledge and extending yourself in these different places, when you go back to your “core”, you’re actually better at your core because of all these different things you do. How have you seen that manifest for you?
MK: I semi-quickly became the brand spokesperson for OkCupid, and how I go into interviews today is very different from how I tackled them three years ago. I remember my first couple of interviews, you can tell they’re super scripted. I went into it saying, these are 15 key messages that I need to hit and I need to get every single point across. Once I started exploring more in the social space, it reframed how I go into these press interviews. Now I don’t think I have to remember these 20 talking points. Instead I go into a conversation and say, what is one sound bite that people are going to want to tweet? If I don’t know what that is, I’m going to really struggle. And the story’s not going to land as well as it could.
During the pandemic, a lot of press was interested in how the pandemic was impacting dating apps, specifically, activity and engagement on our platforms. I was prepping for an interview with The New York Times, and I had all the data points around how many people said they want to get the vaccine on our app, how many people are masking, or going on virtual dates. But the soundbite that I kept at the top of my mind was, getting the Covid vaccine is the hottest thing you can be doing on a dating app right now. It didn’t mention our brand, but it felt like something that would stick with people.
That quote made it into the article, but it also became the article’s subtitle. That quote was then pulled into articles from Vox and Good Morning America, and it was tweeted hundreds of times. We saw that one soundbite get picked up all the way to The Japan Times. I would not have been as successful in that interview had I not had a social first mindset going into it.
SG: One key thing, a social-first mindset is just knowing what travels, right? Data travels. And making interesting data travels further. Tell me about how you’ve approached data storytelling? Data can be incredibly boring if done poorly. How are you constantly thinking about mining the data that you have on all these various apps to provide context on what you guys are up to?
MK: I never worked with data prior to OkCupid. I probably had one or two clients in the past that had commissioned surveys for an infographic, but honestly had no experience beyond that. When I got to OkCupid, I learned about the product. For anyone who’s unfamiliar, we have in-app questions and that’s how we connect people all around the world. There’s thousands of them and they’ve gotten almost 10 billion responses since we started. When I started to learn about the dating app landscape I realized there are tons of competitors out there — that’s one full strike against me.
Another strike against me, was we are a legacy brand. We’ve been around for almost 20 years. We are not the new shiny toy on the market, which makes it less interesting to media. And third, every other dating app, at least within our own portfolio, has teams that are triple or more the size of me. I’m the only comms person for OkCupid globally. When I started, I realized there are all these roadblocks. How do I find a way to break through the noise? For me that was learning to work with data. After a couple of weeks of fumbling, I went to the data science team and said, “You need to train me as if I am a data analyst joining the team.” I wound up learning how to use all the platforms that they were using.
Even today, I’m still the one who pulls the data for press. I am so comfortable working with numbers. It’s become second nature to be able to look at a set of thousands or millions of responses and understand how you can find a story within these numbers.
When I first started, I would look at a question response and see 60% of people said this, 40% said that. That was my story. Then I realized that’s not a story, that’s simply sharing a data point. I learned how to slice the data by demographics to find interesting trends and how to look at changes in the responses over time. Do people feel more strongly or less strongly about a given issue today? If so, why is that happening? And then using that data to tie OkCupid to timely moments, to historic moments, to shifts in culture and society. It’s been a journey for me working with data, but I have absolutely fallen in love with numbers.
SG: That’s so cool that you learned how to dig in and do the analysis. Are you also playing with the visualization of it?
MK: I had to. Now, I have reporters who will come to me and say, “You answer me the quickest, you are the most helpful comms person out of all the other brands.” It’s because I don’t have to go through a long chain of command. I don’t have to outsource this to a data team and wait for them to be able to pull it. It happened this way because of necessity. But it definitely has benefited me. And we use those numbers well beyond press. Data is behind a lot of the content that we put on social. I’ll notice a trend amongst our users, we lean into that on social, and it drills back to data.
But I use data, externally and then internally. Internally, it’s really helped me because I’m able to prove the impact of the work I’m doing. For example, over the pandemic, I was able to show leadership that people who are coming into the app after reading an article are spending more on our platform than other users who have downloaded and registered on OkCupid. When we had to think about marketing budgets during a pandemic and really turbulent times, PR has never been affected because I’ve been able to prove the impact.
We also look at new users. I’m able to see, is there a bump of new users that correlates to a big press story or something else within the comms umbrella? We normally think of marketing having all this data and comms people are left stranded. But we can look at almost all the data that they have access to.
In February, at the beginning of this year, I added questions that were generated by ChatGPT. I pitched it to a couple of journalists and it blew up into a huge press story for us. Then I was able to show the impact it’s having on our users. Did it bring in a ton of new users? Not really. But we kept digging and found that the first 24 hours after that story broke, we had the highest rate of logins since the previous November. People were seeing what OkCupid was doing and turning to the app. That was a really interesting new benchmark for us to look at.
SG: At the most basic level, access to that data just has so much power internally. Not just access, but being able to understand it. Not having access to that, you’re working with one arm tied behind your back.
MK: Most comms teams are definitely sitting on more data than they realize. For example, this is something that I didn’t work on and I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to it, but we use a platform called Mopinion that asks our users, “How did you hear about us?” via a quick in-app survey. The responses we offer change over time depending on what we’re doing — if we have TikTok content, press, or out of home running, etc. And after a while I asked, “Have we seen any changes in people saying they’re coming here because of press? Because they read an article?”
My first full year in the role, we got more press than any other year in our 15-year history, at the time. From those surveys, our team was able to see that the amount of people coming in from an article was also increasing. That just proves the impact of PR. We looked at that across markets too. The markets where I had agencies on the ground, when we were debating, do we pull out of that market? Do we not put any marketing spend behind it anymore? We were able to prove PR’s impact and keep the agencies on board.
SG: So now you’re looking at all this data, but one of the things you’re disassembling is, “Who are these people using these apps?” Obviously have a lot of different audiences and they can be broken down in many different ways — sexual orientation, genders, all sorts of different life statuses. How do you manage the prioritization of those audiences and your connections with them? Especially when you’re thinking about social or influencers? It’s a wide array of people that you’re dealing with. How do you prioritize?
MK: We’re really lucky because of the data that we have on our users. It’s really easy for us to understand what’s top of mind for our consumers in every single market. We obviously know that yes, millennials are our biggest target. We always focus on women, but also LGBTQ+ people. We see how people feel about the biggest issues of today, like climate change or Black Lives Matter or reproductive healthcare. That drives a lot of partnerships that we do with nonprofits. We know a lot about our users from how they answer our matching questions.
We also monitor how people are identifying on the app, and how that changes over time. That semi-helps us figure out who we’re marketing to. We’ve seen that almost 20% of daters in the United States today identify as LGBTQ+. That’s up from 18% in 2022 and 17% in 2021. I say semi because we’ve always really catered to this community since 2004. And our questions are the biggest driver in everything we do, from comms to marketing to partnerships, the influencers that we partner with, the content you see on social. The questions and the data from the questions make me feel like I am friends with all our daters. We know what they’re looking for.
SG: You teach PR. Tell us about your class, your curriculum. how did you even do that, get that role in the first place? And what have you been focused on conveying and how has it changed over time?
MK: I’m very competitive. When I first started on the agency side, there was a colleague who was getting a master’s degree. I thought, I’m going to get one too. I immediately applied that week, got accepted at American University, did the accelerated program, and graduated. I didn’t think it was even going to help that much with my day-to-day. But I graduated in 2017 with my masters, and I did it while working full time. By 2018 I was teaching. I used to have a crippling fear of public speaking — really bad anxiety, shaking, panic attacks. I was working at Ruder Finn at the time, and I went to HR and I said, “I’m going to have to become more comfortable with public speaking, so if there’s any opportunities for me to present to the intern class, could you let me do that?” And they did.
That same person that I went to said, “In a couple weeks I’m going to Fordham University and I have to do a presentation. I can handle talking about the agency’s history and the internship program, but I think you’d be better to talk about what PR people do. Will you tag team it with me?” I did the presentation and I left thinking, this is such a great way for me to learn how to speak publicly. I wound up pitching myself to all these different colleges and universities across New York. I spoke at NYU, Marist College, Mercy College, LIM College. When I was at Mercy, the professor walked me out to my car and said, “You should be teaching this class.” I thought he was kidding, but he wound up hiring me and I started teaching the following semester.
What I loved about that experience, which filters into my NYU experience, is that they gave me complete freedom. I did not have to follow a syllabus that they provided me. I created my syllabus from scratch. I created every single lesson plan from scratch. I modeled my class after your first five years at a PR agency, because after graduating with a degree in comms, nothing transferred over to the real world. I took nothing out of my academic experience that I brought into my day-to-day at different agencies.
My students begin the semester with media monitoring reports. They draft pitches. They draft press releases. They come up with a PR plan and a comprehensive comms plan. They have to think about how influencers can bring a campaign to life. I thought, what did I do as an intern all the way through senior account executive, and that’s what we’re doing in my classroom.
SG: Do you think the students in your class are going to go into comms? How are they thinking about comms differently from the beginning of the class to the end?
MK: My goal is always to help them figure out if comms is right for them. If it’s not, that’s okay. I’m not here to brainwash them into entering this industry, but I am hopeful that I instill a love of comms in them. Most of my students do wind up going into comms, which is always really exciting to see. In my opinion, what resonates best about me with them, is that I am teaching what I do every single day. Every lesson has real world examples. It’s not theory based. Here’s how you do it, here’s how you get it done, here’s how I did it in my own career.
I also bring a diverse mix of experiences into my classroom. I’m a certain type of comms person. I’ve pretty much always been in consumer, and for the past four years I’ve been in tech. There’s so many more opportunities to explore outside of the path I took. I want them to know that what I talk about day to day might bore them and that’s absolutely okay. So every class has guest speakers. I’ve brought in people from Instagram, Twitter, Verizon, different startups, freelancers, contract workers, journalists from The New York Times, agency people from healthcare to corporate to crisis. They get to hear about all these different areas of PR.
I do that to show them there are a lot of options out there. There are a lot of opportunities for you. I also do it to always emphasize that you need to start building your network now, you can’t wait until you graduate. I’m a first generation college graduate. I barely knew what PR was when I entered the field. I didn’t have any connections, which was really, really tough for me. This past semester at NYU, at least two of my students walked away with internships through guest speakers. The point is for them to start meeting these people, connect with them on LinkedIn, send follow up notes, have conversations with them, and hopefully get opportunities.
SG: As someone who didn’t know anyone as you came into this industry, which frankly wasn’t that long ago, you now have over 13,000 followers on LinkedIn. You are literally a comms influencer. So from your own personal brand standpoint, how do you leverage that? Why is it useful and do you recommend that for other comms folks?
MK: Absolutely. We need to PR ourselves. I’ve been doing that since I graduated college. I have been on LinkedIn forever. Even when I was an intern, I understood the value of building my network through the platform and also building a brand for myself. I’ve learned more and more every single year, it didn’t come naturally from day one.
My favorite LinkedIn memory was when when I was an intern at Olson, which is now called ICF Next, working in their New York office. At that time, it was 2015, I had been using LinkedIn so much to share our client news, but also my thoughts on different campaigns or different work in the industry. I became the most viewed Olson employee on LinkedIn. Right below me was the CEO. I remember when leadership visited the New York office, someone walked in and playfully said, “Can someone tell me who the hell this Michael Kaye kid is?” That moment has stuck with me. I’ve really learned the value of LinkedIn.
I have my job because of LinkedIn. Again, Melissa and I did not know each other, but because she saw me talking about all my agency experience, issues within the LGBTQ+ space, she reached out.
SG: I became aware of you on LinkedIn, too. You’ve done a great job there. Maybe at the beginning of your career it’s stair stepping, it’s truly networking. But at a certain point you’re leveraging that network for other things. And just being generous with your perspective.
MK: You should be doing this at all times. I’m not looking for a job but I’m still very active on LinkedIn. It’s helped me in several ways. When I look for agencies, I now have a network in countries all over the world that I can tap. When I’m looking for guest speakers for my class — I already have guest speakers lined up through next year. And I’m a team of one, so sometimes I need to talk to other comms and PR professionals. I’ve made a lot of friends through what I’ve built there.
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