As buyers continue to use multiple online channels to purchase, how can manufacturers optimize and manage product information? In this episode of The Kula Ring, Sherry Foster, Co-founder & Partner at AscendX Digital, discusses how manufacturers can effectively customize product information to support the customer journey on their own websites and third-party marketplaces. She also discusses the technologies that enable success as brands get into more marketplaces.
How to Optimize Product Information Across Marketplaces Transcript:
Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.
Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, mate?
Carman Pirie: I am doing lovely. Thank you for asking.
Jeff White: Yeah. That’s great.
Carman Pirie: And how is life in your world?
Jeff White: It’s pretty good. I’m six feet away from you, so you know-
Carman Pirie: Yeah. But that’s like now, but that’s not normally the case, and you know, it’s important for our listeners to also get up to date on your personal life, Jeff. I mean, they care about you.
Jeff White: Well, my ribs are sore from a crash last week, so that’s all you need to know.
Carman Pirie: A mountain bike crash, people should know. It’s not like something particularly motorized, vehicular, or anything.
Jeff White: Still reasonably quick.
Carman Pirie: Yes. Yeah.
Jeff White: The ground comes up fast.
Carman Pirie: But you did it to yourself. That’s the difference. Yeah. Nobody smoked you from behind or something. It’s like no, no, you were just dumb enough to be doing what you were doing.
Jeff White: Yeah. No, have you been talking to my wife?
Carman Pirie: Look, shifting to business, I think today’s conversation’s gonna be pretty fantastic. The notion of product information, the importance of product data and how that scales is certainly something that’s been a hot topic of late. It’s been the subject of a number of podcasts that we recorded, but I think today’s guest is going to be able to put a little bit more meat on that bone, which is pretty cool. I’m really excited for today’s chat, so let’s just introduce today’s guest and get into it, because I think there’s lots of ground to cover.
Jeff White: Absolutely. Joining us today is Sherry Foster. Sherry is the Co-Founder of AscendX Digital. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Sherry.
Sherry Foster: Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here. I’ve listened to a lot of your podcasts and they’re great, so it’s great to be a part of it.
Carman Pirie: Look, anytime somebody who listens to the show is actually willing to come on it, we take that as a bit of a win.
Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah. The only other person is our moms. And no, they can’t come on. They don’t have anything to say.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. They keep asking. But in all seriousness, look, first things first. Sherry, please introduce us to AscendX Digital a little bit further, and you, and tell us a bit about how you’ve come to be on the show today.
Sherry Foster: I’ve been in the tech industry for a little over 25 years, mostly in sales and marketing executive roles, but almost exclusively B2B. In that industry, I’ve spent most of my time at HP, at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and at Startek.com. I’m Co-Founder at AscendX Digital, and what we’re doing is we’re helping companies really optimize their digital business. Things have changed, as we all know, and they were changing even before the pandemic, but we’re helping them through understanding their brand and their customer experience, because things, like I said, have changed. Buyers have changed. Their process has changed. The journey that they take on their path to purchase has changed.
And we also help them optimize their digital business through what we like to call product information excellence, and product information is sort of the new oxygen of that B2B online experience. We’re sitting down with companies who either are trying to figure out how to get online and how to take advantage of this new wave, or they’re already online and they’re trying to figure out how to expand either to industry marketplaces, or other ways of selling online.
Jeff White: And you have mentioned to us previously a stat from McKinsey that 70% of B2B buyers are willing to make purchases, almost 100% of their purchases of up to $50,000 online. That’s staggering.
Sherry Foster: Well, it’s staggering to think that they’re willing to spend over $50,000. What’s even more amazing is that in that same study, it was more than a quarter, so it was like 27% or something were willing to spend more than $500,000 in a self-serve online transaction. And 15%, which doesn’t sound like a lot, are willing to spend over a million. That means that they’re trusting the online experience, they’re trusting the product information that’s served up to them, and they’re trusting those brands and those manufacturers that they’re working with.
Carman Pirie: I think that’s a really important point because sure, lots of folks want to talk about how the digital shift has been accelerated almost 10 years in nine months because of COVID, but you know, not a lot of people putting the meat on the bone to the point of getting to this level of the 15% of those buyers willing to spend over a million bucks. A million dollar transaction online is a different world, and it has to be a wake-up call to manufacturers. So, basically, is your phone just ringing off the hook now?
Sherry Foster: Well, it’s ringing. We’re a pretty new company. We kicked off about two or three months ago, so yeah, we’re getting busy, and definitely, people are really engaging with the kinds of things that we’re saying, and they’re asking really good questions. I think some of them are starting to figure out that they need to do something different. I think a lot of businesses have figured out that they needed to be online, but they’re just now starting to figure out that it’s not as simple as just throwing up a couple of descriptions and maybe an image or two and thinking that if you put it out there, they will come. That there’s a lot more to it.
Jeff White: So, not to put you on the spot or anything, but what are some of the most common questions you’re hearing?
Sherry Foster: I think we’re hearing things like, “Well, my product information is online. I’m doing really well on maybe my ecommerce site, but I’m not doing so well on a marketplace site,” or, “My product information is really good. Why aren’t people engaging with it?” Or, “I’ve got product information. How do I translate that and use that? Or can I even use that on a third-party industry marketplace where I want to compete?” Or sometimes they’ll say, “I don’t even know where I should compete. Help me with a channel strategy of where I can take my business beyond my own ecommerce store.” That’s what we’re hearing right now.
Carman Pirie: I really think that interplay, if you will, between the marketplaces and company sites is an interesting dynamic. I think some people get the products out there on marketplaces, but they don’t have an ecommerce experience themselves. And they feel that they’ve checked all the boxes because their product is available online and it worked, right?
Jeff White: Or they’ve got distributors who have their products online and they feel they can’t compete with their own ecommerce site.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. That’s an incredibly common situation. What have you learned about the I guess if you will interplay between marketplaces and company sites and the importance of one vis-à-vis the other?
Sherry Foster: Yeah, sure. I think you start with the customer journey and most businesses need to start there, and they really need to figure out how the buyers that purchase their products or services get to the point of purchase. We know that most, especially B2B buyers, are doing research online. They are searching not only through Google, but on industry sites, and we also have seen research that says that buyers who purchase on industry marketplaces… In the B2B space, about 70% of them will visit the manufacturer’s site before they make that purchase.
That doesn’t mean that they buy on the manufacturer’s site. They may, but they will go back to that manufacturer’s site to, first of all, see maybe where they are headquartered, how legit are they, they want some more technical information. Because as you can imagine, on a marketplace site, sometimes the information, the product information can be limited. Not always, but sometimes it can be limited. And so, somebody may need some more technical specs. They might want to read a manual, or a whitepaper, or chat with somebody, so they may go to the manufacturer’s site.
In some cases, they go back to the marketplace site and why they would do that is that they’re not just buying that particular manufacturer’s product, but they may be buying a wider solution. It may be a part of something else. And so, they may like to shop at that manufacturer’s site. We know that they’re going to marketplaces. We also know that they’re going to manufacturer’s sites.
It’s really important, we believe, that if you’re going to be selling online, that you’re in both places. Especially if you’re in a marketplace, to have a strong site. Because we know buyers are going back and forth.
Carman Pirie: That component of if you will sales validation versus jumping over to the manufacturer’s site to see if I can get it better, cheaper, I mean, I almost… The consumer equivalent is almost like when you’re looking at a marketplace like you’re gonna get a hotel room, and you’re like, “Okay. I don’t know-“
Jeff White: Can I get it better on Hotel Tonight?
Carman Pirie: Well, I always go, if I find something I go on hotels.com or whatever it is, my next step once I find it is to go to the actual hotel website to see if it’s available for the exact same price or cheaper. And if it is, I’ll go there, because I feel I’ll be able to deal with them better from a customer service relationship than via the marketplace. Now, that’s a lot of self-reference criteria and consumer-based criteria that I’m bringing into this. But Sherry, I’m just wondering, is there any data out there that shows what percentage of those buyers or B2B researchers would prefer to buy from the manufacturer website versus the marketplace?
I mean, I think certainly, for the most part, marketplaces tend to deliver a better ecommerce experience than many manufacturers, so I can understand what pushes them to buy from marketplaces.
Jeff White: Well, that is their product.
Carman Pirie: Right. But I just kind of wonder what the… Do we have any insight into the preferences of those? If the manufacturers did offer a fantastic ecommerce experience in that scenario, do we have an idea of the percentage of people that might take them up on it?
Sherry Foster: I don’t have a stat that answers that directly. We do know that they go back to the manufacturer’s site and we do know from studies that at least a quarter of their purchases… if a quarter of their purchases are on the marketplace, then many other purchases are on direct sites, so we know that they’re going back and forth.
But I’ll give you one very recent stat that’s more consumer-oriented, but I think it’s very interesting. Target just announced some earnings in the last few days, just very recently, and their ecommerce revenue was up something like 155%. Somebody did some analysis and for the most part, the products on Target.com were at least 10% higher than you would have found them on Amazon.com. And so, you wonder why that is. Now, I’m comparing two marketplaces, but the point is that those customers who bought on Target value that brand, value that experience, have a connection to that marketplace of Target, are loyal to that. Target’s done a really great job of building up customer and brand loyalty and that’s what marketplaces are doing. Some people feel the same way about Amazon, for example.
Buyers like to recognize a brand. They like to feel connected with that brand. And it may be the brand of the product, but also that purchasing experience. They trust it, they like it, they are familiar with how the search works, they know they can find what they’re looking for, so what you’re starting to see is that there are preferences around the experience of buying the product in addition to the products themselves.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, that makes total sense to me. You know, that in some way the price sensitivity at least decreases if not evaporates-
Jeff White: If you have a connection with the brand already and a desire to work with somebody that you know. And I-
Carman Pirie: Anybody that’s an Apple customer is nodding their head right now.
Jeff White: A special breed. Raises hand as somebody who is that person. But you also found that in the current time, as well, due to supply chain issues and other things like that, that customers are choosing to buy brands that they may never have worked with before. Can you talk a little bit about that and maybe what’s behind it?
Sherry Foster: Yeah, so we have seen stats through COVID that buyers are less loyal, so I just talked about brand and brand’s important, but we’re seeing through COVID buyers are slightly less loyal to brands and that stats are saying that buyers are trying new brands they’ve never tried before. One of the big reasons is availability. They’ll be searching perhaps on a marketplace, something will come up, a brand may come up in search that they may not recognize, or they may not have seen before, but… and remember, they’re looking at the product information. It looks good. They can see in the images, they can look all around the product, they can read the specs, they’re starting to feel comfortable with that product, and it’s available. And maybe they can get it in a really fast time, whereas something maybe they had bought before might take a week.
People are not patient these days, and so we’re starting to see stats around loyalty through COVID that loyalty is dropping. We believe it’s really important for manufacturers, B2B, to really build on that brand and really build that brand loyalty so that you can retain those customers because they are somewhat elusive right now during this time.
Carman Pirie: Well, and I think the reverse may be true for these manufacturers, as well. It’s like it’s time to accelerate that digital presence and begin to outpace your competition in terms of the digital experience that you’re delivering, because-
Sherry Foster: That’s right.
Carman Pirie: … people are out there willing to try some other stuff right now.
Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Carman Pirie: In a more robust way than they have before.
Jeff White: Well, and I mean this certainly speaks to what you were talking about a few moments ago, that they really absolutely need to have their digital home nailed down. Even if they’re not doing ecommerce on it, they need to establish that trust, make the company look real, and have a very solid base of product information there, even if they’re not selling it directly just to validate it, so that when people go back to marketplaces, they feel like, “Okay, this is going to be good quality and I’m not going to get hosed.”
Carman Pirie: Yeah.
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Carman Pirie: Well, look. Let’s fast forward. Let’s just look, everybody that’s listening now is 100% convinced, Sherry. And so, now the question is how do we do this? And I think your product information work really helps untangle this web, if you will, so let’s first talk about that product information challenge across and how the multiple marketplace environment impacts that. And then how do we solve it will be next for those tuning in and seeking to know.
Sherry Foster: We at AscendX have… We talk about this product information excellence, and there are six steps, and you can go to our website and you can read all the blogs about that. But at a high-level overview, the first is that optimized product information content. And it’s not just a title, a couple of bullets and a couple of photos, because you’re competing with everything else that’s out there, and especially in a B2B space where things can be more technical, or higher dollars, like what we talked about earlier. That content has to be really good and it has to be search optimized. I mean, you gotta be found.
Sometimes somebody’s going to your ecommerce or your website because they’ve got a relationship with you, especially in B2B, and they know you, and so that’s great. But if they’re not, and we talked about people buying brands they haven’t bought before, you need to be found. You gotta think about the search optimization of all of that content so that you can be found, but that marketing copy and the images, they really need to tell your story.
I think most people are familiar with the copy, and there are bullets, and product information and people can describe all of that, but I don’t want people to forget also about that image gallery. Especially on mobile, and there are lots of stats to say B2B buyers are buying on mobile with their mobile devices, not just their laptops. A lot of times, buyers will go to the site, they’ll search, they’ll pull up that product listing, and they will scroll through that image gallery before they read the content later on in the page. You need to think about your image gallery as your visual value proposition. How are you communicating your value proposition across the visuals? You better be showing your product, you better be showing it from all different directions if it’s a product.
Think about use cases. Show it in use. Think about who is that target customer that I’m going after. How are they going to use my product? Because not everybody may use it the same, depending on what the product is, so you need to show it in use. Think about annotations on those images. You can easily put certifications and logos so somebody can at a glance just go through that and determine from that gallery that this is the product for me. And then that gets them to move on to the next stage where they can actually read below the fold and get into some of the details.
Carman Pirie: I think this is so incredibly important, and you know, I don’t know, I’ve been in the marketing space now for basically my entire career, and I’m too old now. And you know, every time a marketer talks about the importance of visuals, I think there’s a good number of people whose eyes roll back in their head and they’re like, “Okay, great. Yet another-“
Jeff White: But of course.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yet another person who fancies himself an armchair designer talking to me about the importance of visuals or the importance of brand. The fact of the matter is any scientific… Look at any of the scientific literature. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 to 80% of the sensory information that your body takes in comes in via the eyes.
Jeff White: A wall of text ain’t it.
Carman Pirie: Well, and as much as I think long copy’s a lovely thing, but my God, there is that notion of if you can tell that visual value prop, I love the way that you articulate that. If you can get that nailed, you could probably have a somewhat subpar copy by comparison. But I just don’t think people… First of all, I don’t know that they’re always willing to spend the money to do product photography and image work-
Jeff White: Well, and sometimes they just can’t. I mean, I think of a recent guest we had, Heather, from EaglePicher, their batteries leave for Mars and nobody tells her they need to actually have photos done before it leaves.
Carman Pirie: Take a photo before they leave. Yeah.
Jeff White: Not that those are going in marketplaces, but it’s a similar idea.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Fly up via SpaceX or whatever, take a few snaps. But you know, I think there is something to the fact that as humans, that’s just how we intake information. The eye’s pretty magic. And it trumps all other senses.
Jeff White: For sure. But I mean, there are other opportunities. We’re not just talking about the photography, either. If you really want to enrich that data and you really want to leapfrog your customers, you should be including video, and animations, and 3D models that can be turned around and seen from all sides. It’s a department all to itself within marketing, just the generation of this content. And one of the other things that I don’t want to lose sight of either is just given the number of marketplaces that are opening up and exploding in many B2B industries, each one of them has slightly different requirements for content too, don’t they?
Sherry Foster: Yeah. They sure do. And you know, for businesses that have a great… Maybe they’ve done a fabulous job of their own ecommerce site. That doesn’t necessarily mean it translates into a marketplace, because every marketplace, and many of the companies we’re talking to are on multiple marketplaces, use multiple channels to get their products to market. And everyone is slightly different, so I’ll give you just the simplest of examples, that the title of the product on marketplace A might allow 175 characters, and the title of that same product on marketplace B might have 80 characters. And so, how do you take that product title with your keywords in there and everything else, optimized so that you get found on that first search page, and change that, and not only that, but they’re gonna have rules.
Some will say, “Well, I want your product number at the end. Or I want your brand name at the beginning.” Or whatever it happens to be. But then you get into the meat of those product listings and some sites will allow 10 photos, some will allow 5. Some will allow you to do annotations and some will say, “No, no. We just want your product on a white background.” Others will have 500 characters in the product description, and somebody will have 1,500 characters in the product description. And then the search algorithms on each of those marketplaces are gonna be different, too.
Maybe the product description is indexed for search on marketplace A and maybe it’s not in marketplace B. Maybe a different part of that product listing is indexed for search. It’s really important that you look at the marketplaces, that you really understand how each one works and how to be successful on each one. You take your product information. You’re gonna need to customize it if you want to be successful, but you can do it. And then you can place it out there and syndicate it to those sites, so it’s really important that you understand. And don’t forget too that the buyers may be different on those sites, as well.
The other thing that you really have to consider when you’re looking at marketplaces and customizing your product information, which you need to do, is think about how each of those marketplaces operates, and the search algorithm for example is going to be different. Because each marketplace has their own, depending on what kind of software they’re using to run their marketplace. Marketplace A may index the product description and the bullets in their search algorithm. Marketplace B may index just the bullets and maybe another attribute that’s on that page. The other thing is helping, working with those owners of those marketplaces, and hopefully, they’re gonna give you some idea as to how to be successful. How do you come up first in search and understanding those algorithms? Marketplace A might look at your keywords and marketplace B might look at your keywords plus your sales revenue.
That’s gonna drive it, too. Really understanding how you come up in search, how to optimize that product information on your page, is gonna be really important as you take your content from your own ecommerce store to one of these third-party industry marketplaces.
Jeff White: I can’t count the number of times I’ve had the discussion with manufacturing marketers about the fact that the search on your own site, the search on your marketplace sites, and the search that most people think is the way it works, i.e., Google, are not the same in any way, shape, or form, and none of them are as intelligent or have the AI capabilities of Google. When you’re going back to putting your content on a marketplace, it really is search circa 2001 compared to the crazy learning algorithms that Google has by comparison. And I think it’s really… It can be difficult for people to wrap their heads around the fact that not all of us have the power and the intelligence of a Google search appliance.
Sherry Foster: Yeah. That’s right.
Carman Pirie: Well, what, you’re just gonna say something like that and then leave it for me to-
Jeff White: To pick up the pieces? But I do, I think that that’s pretty interesting, and I don’t want to miss the fact either that certainly from a search engine optimization perspective, and by that I mean the Google and Bings of the world, you can’t just have the exact same, even if all of those marketplaces had the same requirements. You can’t have the exact same text copied and pasted across the six marketplaces, your own site, and your distributor sites. It’s gotta be a little bit different. Can you talk a little bit about how marketers can approach that and what tools might be available to them?
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I’m almost kind of wondering, maybe guidance as to how different it needs to be in some way? Yeah.
Sherry Foster: Well, I mean, in my experience what we’ve seen is working with brands that are in multiple sites, sometimes you can reuse information, because some are similar. If somebody has 85 characters and somebody has 80 characters, you probably use the same line. I mean, it’s not that different. But you know, you go from 85 characters to 185 characters, there’s a lot of real estate you don’t want to miss out on. When we’ve seen companies be successful at this, and I’m glad you asked this question because it’s really important. I think people really forget about the processes, and the tools, and the technologies that can enable this kind of success. There’s a couple of things. First is the creation and the management of that customized product information. And if you’re only on your own site and maybe not too many marketplaces, the legacy homegrown databases can be okay. But once you get onto multiple marketplaces and there’s a lot of differentiation, product information management systems or PIMs are really important to think about, because they allow you to house, have a central repository of that information, your product information. It allows you to very easily pick and choose certain fields to customize and it keeps it together.
A lot of them also have really great syndication tools, so you can go in there and enter some kind of template information so every time it goes to marketplace B, I know it has to look like this. I know that I have to have these attributes because marketplace C has different attributes and different character counts and all that kind of thing. It allows you to set that up and to be able to continually repeat the right information out to all those places.
The other thing that’s important, too, is to be able to have what the industry calls digital shelf analytics. Being able to know when information goes wrong. And this happens all the time. If you think about the process of somebody creating information to actually somebody seeing that information, it can go through multiple steps. It can go through information providers. It can go through distribution. It can then go to a reseller or a marketplace. And every time that that information flows, things can go wrong. Listings can fall off. Being able to know are all my listings there, is the information correct… and we’ve seen some crazy things and don’t know why all of a sudden languages change, or images fall off, or whatever it happens to be, but if you don’t know, you can’t fix it.
You need to be on top of that. You need to be auditing and using automation to do that. But also think about the life of that product information. Let’s say you’ve got 200 or 300 SKUs out there on 10 different marketplaces and all of a sudden some kind of term or technology changes. How do you go and change that? You need some kind of system where you can do sort of a find and replace. And then sort of syndicate and manage that information, because manually changing 200 SKUs on 20 marketplaces, do the math. It’s just a lot of work that generally doesn’t happen.
And then what happens is your information degrades, it doesn’t get around, people read it, they think it’s old, you’re not keeping up, the terms are inconsistent or wrong and you lose credibility and that affects your brand. Having those processes in place, having a good workflow, having tools that enable that is really important as this gets more complex and as brands and businesses get onto more marketplaces.
Jeff White: I think those are great tips for people to understand how to manage and understand how their content is performing.
Carman Pirie: And understand why it’s important and it is an area of marketing, frankly, I think that’s just so ignored. The proper management of product information. You so rarely come across companies that do it well. You know, it’s the exception, not the rule. That’s for sure.
Jeff White: For sure. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: And even manufacturers that are well over a billion dollars in annual sales still-
Jeff White: And that may actually contribute to it, because they have hundreds of thousands of SKUs potentially, and the management of that product information is just onerous.
Carman Pirie: It’s a heavy lift.
Jeff White: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s worth lifting.
Jeff White: Absolutely.
Carman Pirie: And it needs to happen. I mean, this isn’t going away.
Jeff White: No. It’s only gonna get-
Carman Pirie: Let’s bet against online selling and online marketplaces, shall we? Yeah.
Jeff White: I don’t think that’s in anybody’s best interest. Well, listen Sherry, I’d love to wrap up here and just find out is there anything else you’d like to leave with our listeners about how they should be thinking about their product content and how best to optimize that moving forward?
Sherry Foster: Yeah, sure. I mean, just to sum up I would say that if they really step back and start with that customer journey, if they don’t know, companies like AscendX Digital, we can help, but you can also go and talk to some of your customers as well and ask them. Try to find out how they’re doing that because I think you’ll be surprised at the path. It’s not linear. They’re generally going in a lot of different directions. Find out what they’ve read, what kind of research they’ve done, how they got to you in the first place, and what kind of information they are consuming. Your marketing department can help. IT can help with all of that kind of thing. And once you understand that journey, that path to purchase, what those customers are looking for, you can actually start to populate that information with something that they’re looking for.
And if you can speak to that target market in a way that they want to be spoken to. If they’re technical, don’t talk to them like they’re a consumer. If you understand the path they go to and you can place your product information on that journey where they want to find it, then I think you’ll be really far along. That customer journey is the place to start, and then really thinking about how you optimize every single step of the way will get you to where you want to be.
Jeff White: Brilliant.
Carman Pirie: Fantastic. Well, Sherry, look. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your experience and expertise with us today. It’s been a real pleasure.
Sherry Foster: Yeah. Thanks for having me. It was really fun and maybe we can do it again.
Carman Pirie: Indeed. Indeed.
Jeff White: Absolutely.
Carman Pirie: All the best.
Jeff White: Thanks a lot.
Sherry Foster: Thanks.
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Sherry FosterCo-founder & Partner, AscendX Digital
Sherry Foster is Co-founder & Partner at AscendX Digital, helping companies capitalize on the shift through Brand Experience Management and Product Information Excellence. Sherry has spent more than 25 years in the technology industry—leading marketing, sales and operations teams through change, disruption, and digital transformation. Prior to founding AscendX Digital, Sherry held senior leadership roles at HP, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and StarTech.com. Sherry lives in the Toronto area with her family and has an MBA and a BA (Economics) from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.