January 23, 2018

There is only one objective in social media: create learning networks

There is too much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth about social media objectives and strategy these days. We all assume that our organizations are unique and that we must devote great sums of time and money to figuring out what our particular motivation is for social media and how we will carry it out.

We’re wired as humans to believe that we are each unique and different—indeed, this perception shoulders the bulk of our self-esteem. And yes, we are all unique. A little. But in most things, we’re the same and we can usually acknowledge that.

Not in our businesses, though. In the course of hundreds of interviews with companies over my career, the “yes but we’re different” mantra was a familiar refrain. Companies that made commodity products would tell me with straight faces that even their financial processes were unique—GAAP be damned—and that they needed to customize their software to fit “our ways of doing things.” This also meant they paid millions extra in consulting fees to change the software and millions more the next time they wanted to upgrade their software.

I find that we’re applying the same logic to social media. Let’s sit down and figure out our unique objectives and strategies before we do anything.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have objectives and strategies for social media. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t assume, as we do by default, that ours are much different from anyone else’s.

There is only one objective in social media and it is common across all companies—even across the infamous divide between B2B and B2C: Create learning networks.

And there is only one strategy for carrying out this objective: Find people who are good at developing and disseminating ideas to contribute to and facilitate those networks.

That’s it.

What is a learning network?
The reason I say this is that another hard-wired part of us is the desire to learn. And learning is integral to buying—especially in B2B. Recommend products and services that you haven’t thoroughly researched and you will most likely be out of a job.

But it also applies in B2C. Toyota’s market share wasn’t built by Toyota’s marketing; it was built by Consumer Reports.

Every buyer wants to learn at all stages of the buying process. But no buyer wants to be sold during all stages of the buying cycle.

The purpose of social media is to create learning networks that buyers want to join. The enticements are ideas and education. That means social media are extensions of our content development and dissemination processes. By creating content that offers relevant, timely, and useful ideas and education for buyers at all stages of the buying process, we create the incentives for buyers to engage with us in conversation and community. Whether it’s blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, or private communities that we build ourselves, the common thread is that by focusing on learning we build and retain buyers’ interest.

Here are the key elements of learning networks:

  • Create an internal learning network. You need to build an internal network that focuses on identifying internal thought leaders and building alliances with external academics and customers who can help develop and test ideas. Primary and secondary research provides the inspiration for some ideas and the objective justification for others. Internal knowledge share sessions and reward and recognition programs provide the motivation for thought leaders to emerge inside the organization and help imbue a thought leadership mindset into the culture.
  • Create a content development process. Using ideas from the learning network, marketing needs to develop content. Marketers must become publishers, with a process for refining and presenting thought leadership content through various vehicles, (such as conference presentations, white papers, social media, etc.). Marketing needs professional content developers who know how to collaborate with thought leaders to develop clear, compelling packages. A calendar helps marketing plan out the frequency and focus of its output. Marketing needs to develop materials that are appropriate to each stage of the buying process, so that customers and salespeople can get the right information at the right time. Marketing and sales need to agree on the alignment of content to the different buying stages so that sales will get the right signals about when and how to approach customers for a sale.
  • Integrate the internal learning network and content processes with social media. Your internal learning network should integrate with the ones you want to build for customers. Internal thought leaders should use social media as a test bed and developing ground for ideas that they later disseminate in more polished form. So for example, a tweet or a posting in a LinkedIn forum leads to blog post, which leads to a video, which leads to a conference presentation, white paper, or private event for top customers.

If learning is the objective, the rest falls into place. Idea- and education-based content is the fuel for building community. The rest is promotion.

What do you think?

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Want to understand your customers’ business needs? Give them an award.

Like most marketers, I spend most of my time desperately seeking to understand my target audience (B2B marketers) and delivering content that they find relevant and engaging. It’s a struggle.

But once a year around June, my life gets a little easier. That’s when I get to sit back and watch the submissions for our Marketing Excellence Awards (MEA) roll in. It’s a beautiful thing. Marketers from around the world tell us in great detail about the campaigns and programs that have netted them the most business results.

We have five different categories for the awards that cover important areas of focus for B2B marketers. The number of entries we receive in each category and the quality of those entries give us a sense of marketers’ shifting priorities from year to year and reveal general strengths and weaknesses of the profession (for example, we’re great at sales enablement and demand generation; we suck at metrics—just not in our blood, it seems).

Everybody wins with the MEAs. For us, it’s an opportunity to build a closer relationship with the winners and generate some great thought leadership. The winners get serious recognition for their work that helps their companies and their careers. If you haven’t considered creating an awards program for your target customers, you should.

I wish I could take credit for the MEAs, but it was developed long before I got to ITSMA. I also wish I could take credit for the excellent eBook that oozes with best practices from this year’s winners. You have to check it out. It was developed by my ITSMA colleagues Pam O’Rourke and Maria Lindberg.

However, I can share some of the best practices we’ve developed for separating the wheat from the chaff in the MEAs. The guiding principles we use to determine the winners are the same ones that guide the success of any marketing program: innovation, execution, and business results. We ask a series of questions designed to reveal how well the entrants have fulfilled those three key principles:

  1. What is the story? We humans are wired for stories. What is the narrative that explains what you are trying to accomplish with this program? Creating the narrative helps project members focus their efforts and will help sell the effort to others inside the business and with customers.
  2. What are the motivating factors? Successful marketing programs always have a compelling call to action. But marketing programs are themselves calls to action. There should be an important business justification that causes marketing to create the program. That justification can come from inside, such as wanting to enter a new market or shore up sagging sales, or outside, such as a new competitor entering the market.
  3. What is the customer need? The depth and creativity of your research can be the deciding factor in whether the program rises above the noise in the marketplace. Research provides the supporting evidence for a new insight into customer or market needs. For example, segmentation could reveal a market that you never knew existed. Role-based research can help personalize your message to the needs of the specific buyers and influencers involved in the purchasing decision.
  4. How do you quantify the need? Research also provides the quantification of the need and the benefits of your solution that are most worth highlighting for customers, such as:
    • Improve efficiency
    • Increase customer satisfaction
    • Increase profitable revenue
  5. Where is the innovation? To be sure, one of marketing’s primary roles is to support sales. But marketing should also be helping drive the business strategy and execution of the company. One of the ways to do this is through programs that challenge the current ways of doing things, both internally and with customers. Marketing programs should help the business stand apart from competitors in the segment. The best signal of success is when competitors feel compelled to respond.
  6. What are the constraints? Of course, all marketing programs come with constraints. Budget is the overriding limiter, but it’s important to quantify as many constraints as possible because the limiters help define the ambition of the project.
  7. How do you measure success? Establishing clear metrics before you start provides guard rails for the project and makes it easier to provide progress reports. Of course, knowing the metrics before you start also makes the data gathering process much easier.

Do you have an awards program with your customers? If you already have one, are you asking the right questions to find the best of the best (and make your life as a marketer easier)? Please comment with a link to your awards program and tips for making the most of them.

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16 best practices for creating customer councils

I was researching the ITSMA archives this week to see what we’ve written about customer councils over the years and discovered some great advice that I pass along here:

  • Research what customers would like to see from a council—make a few calls to lead customers before getting started.
  • Vet potential members careful to make sure they are all genuine peers.
  • Create a set of common objectives as a basis for collaboration, such as:
    • Knowledge creation
    • Market change
    • Policy change
    • Organizational change
  • Consider bringing in a partner to coordinate/facilitate the council
  • Engage customers with broad themes of common interest.
  • Limit the number of members—no more than 25 at each meeting.
  • Use the Chatham House rule: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”
  • No selling—ever.
  • Do pre-meeting interviews to determine top-of-mind issues.
  • Give customers an opportunity to shape your strategy—and be accountable for following through.
  • Consider pairing one of your top executives with a top executive from a customer to build relationship and shepherd participation in various customer programs.
  • Use the customer council to feed an executive education program/forum whereby the content developed within the customer council is presented to a larger audience.
  • Create a reliable content output stream to keep customers engaged and coming back.
  • Consider an external company as a co-sponsor to bring fresh perspective (and to share the workload).
  • Integrate the council into other activities, such as conferences, social media, and reference programs.
  • Offer access to something that customers can get nowhere else.

What would you change on this list? What would you add?

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Real Collaboration with Customers

I’m going to dredge up a buzzword that has launched a thousand eye rolls: “Solution.”

Many B2B marketers still use the word in their marketing materials, but my sense is that it is used as a swap-out word for a product or service-the idea being that a solution sounds more valuable than a plain old product or service.

If you’ve hung around with ITSMA for a few years, you know that we take the word way more seriously than that. We think of a solution as a combination of products and/or services with some extra IP stirred in there that helps customize the whole package to a particular business need of a customer. That means standalone products and services don’t cut it; nor do bundles of products and/or services, because they lack the custom fit that customers are looking for.

Indeed, customers have an even tougher threshold for the word than ITSMA. They define it as an end-to-end relationship that begins with requirements definition and ends with post-implementation support and retirement.

No wonder CIOs shake their heads when marketers use the s-word for everything from servers to razor blades.

But I haven’t given up on the word yet. Mostly because I work with a group of 23 different companies that we call the ITSMA Solutions Council—and they haven’t given up on it. I’m going to one of the Council’s semi-annual in-person meetings next week in London. We’re going to present a report that I think advances thinking about solutions quite a bit. It’s based on research from companies that are actually fulfilling the promise of solutions from the customer perspective.

ITSMA research shows that a critical competence in solutions is integration—the ability to integrate products, services, people, and external providers together into a solution that meets the specific needs of customers. But the interesting thing we’re learning is that the level of integration varies quite a bit. Not all solutions require a mind meld with customers and two-year consulting engagements. Some may only need a tiny bit of customization to fulfill the need.

For this reason, the level of organizational integration necessary to back up a solution can vary quite a bit—even for solutions offered inside the same company or even at the business unit level. For example, within a telecom group of one of our members organizations, solutions drive a close integration of multiple, independent P&Ls. The strategy is driven by the buying behavior of telecom customers, who increasingly come from the business side rather than IT. They demand an integrated solution—a billing system, for example—rather than buying individual pieces of software or hardware. Thus, the general manager for the telecom group has a large number of people dedicated to solution integration, and can draw on resources from other business units to deliver components optimized for that industry.

Meanwhile, in other areas of the organization, solutions are at the opposite end of the spectrum. The primary component of the solution is marketing—a small group of marketers backs the solution with a campaign. There is very little customization or integration necessary, so fewer employees are devoted to supporting the solution. Indeed, the organization has the market-leading software in the category and a team of consultants that can optimize the processes that the software controls. The solution consists of marketing those capabilities together so that the consultants can then customize them for each customer.

So you can see there is a big range of possibilities. However, there is one major constant across all solutions: the need to switch the organizational DNA from transactional selling to relationship-based selling. You can’t sell a solution if you can’t figure out what customers need.

We’re working on a maturity model that defines the different levels of organizational integration needed to support solutions. Clearly, a solution is more than an empty marketing term at these companies.

Have you made real organizational changes to support customer solutions like these companies have?

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