January 23, 2018

6 lessons on how NOT to market to customers

Here’s the kind of pressure that social media puts on us: After not posting anything to my blog in nearly six weeks, I feel compelled to offer an explanation. Isn’t that sad?

Hey, but that’s how it is. Social media are like a school of sharks; keep moving forward or sink lifelessly to the bottom.

Well, I have an explanation, or an excuse, and a damned good one at that. I broke my hip about four weeks ago (my bike slid from underneath me on a rainy morning on my way to work). More specifically, I broke my femur at the hip, which left me with a decision to make: pin together a 51-year-old femur (with its attendant wear and tear) or lop it off at the top and get a brand new, shiny fake hip. Since I can’t resist that new hip smell, I opted for the stainless upgrade.

Now, don’t think I’m looking for an outpouring of sympathy. I’m telling you this because:

  1. I don’t want to lose any more credibility and subscribers than I already have during this lull in activity (as any social media “expert” will tell you, six weeks may as well be six years—unforgivable, unimaginable, and definitely under caffeinated. As one “expert,” (who showed no evidence of ever having blogged herself) once sneered to me, blogging is as easy as “doing email.” Oh, I guess that’s why my inbox is so crammed all the time.)
  2. During my time on serious, hard drugs (narcotics, shh!) I realized that I really have become one of you marketing types. Any time anyone delivers a service to me now, I immediately start thinking about how the service is “being positioned,” and whether the “value proposition makes sense.” I’m a goner. A marketing geek. (I thought drugs were supposed to prevent that sort of thing.)

All of which is a lead-in to this week’s entry, which is what we as B2B marketers can learn from health-care marketing.

The answer is: nothing.

Healthcare marketing is awful, practically non-existent. Sure, healthcare knows how to sell drugs, but in terms of preparing the customer for the experience of service delivery, fuggedaboudit. Here are some examples:

  • Educate the customer—or don’t. Many of us in B2B can be proud of how we educate our customers and prospects on the business issues they face—from current regulatory changes to future “sea changes.” We help ease them into the idea that they need our services and solutions to solve these problems so that the experience of spending all that money feels a little less like stepping off a cliff. Here’s how a doctor introduced himself to me in the emergency room: “Hi, I’m Doctor X. We’ve looked at your x-rays and you’ve broken your hip. You’re going to be going to surgery. Somebody will be in to talk to you about it.” And then he excused himself and left the room and I never saw him again. I wanted to get right up and walk out of there. Oh wait, right…
  • Whatever you do, don’t let the customer meet the people who will actually be doing the work. Unfortunately, this one does often ring true in B2B, at least in my experience in consulting. Send your top dog, most empathetic, articulate, industry-savvy, alpha salesperson in to market the service, and then show up to do the work with the freshly-minted biz school grads and the interns.
    In the trauma ward of the hospital, perversely enough, it’s the opposite. Twenty-something interns come in and tell you how awesome the trauma surgeon is and how awesome your experience is going to be. Then the interns show up again together later on in a big group trailing behind an older, more confident surgeon (surgeons seem to have no shortage of confidence and gain more as they age), making it clear that the interns are still being educated by this person and/or institution, thereby calling into question any of their assessments of the awesomeness of the surgeon. But this guy still isn’t the surgeon. He’s a colleague. Then, as you are lying on a bed outside the O.R. waiting to be worked on, you meet the doctor who will be doing the work. (Thank goodness for Google—the day prior I found that he got five-stars on a health review site! Operated on a New England Patriot!)
  • Delight the customer with an upgrade—for awhile. In both B2B and B2C, we’re getting better about throwing unhappy customers a bone. A discount here, an upgrade there. The short-term costs are marginal compared with the longer-term goodwill they buy. When I finally made it out of the ER and was given my hospital room, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a huge room and I had it all to myself, in a newly constructed wing of the hospital. And the nurses were unbelievably attentive. One of them finally acknowledged that I was in the intensive care unit for heart patients (there wasn’t room for me in orthopedics) and that she was “used to giving constant attention to people with zippers in their chests.” Caring for me was “like a vacation,” one of them said. I was in heaven. All the ginger ale I could drink and nurses compulsively asking me what I needed or wanted whenever I opened my eyes.
    Then, the day after surgery, the nurse informed me that I was being moved to be “with my own kind” over in orthopedics. Now, the only time I got ginger ale was when it was delivered on a tray with green Jell-o and chicken broth at mealtimes. But the reduced attention did come with a benefit—I got a little “drug remote” with a red button I could push to administer my own morphine. Later that day, they took away the remote and gave me a roommate.
    Could you imagine after clawing your way to the suite upgrade at a hotel having the desk clerk say, “We’ve found a room like the one you were originally supposed to get—with cleaner carpets this time—and we’ve taken the liberty of moving all your stuff from the suite into that room. Enjoy the rest of your stay.”
  • Segment your audience. In B2B we pride ourselves on knowing our audience. We have marketing designed for the C-level executive, the buyer, the influencer, and the front-line types. Meanwhile, 51 is pretty young for hip replacement. I’ll probably need to have it done again if I hit the average life expectancy of an American white male and manage to hang onto some form of health insurance. Most people who have hip replacements are older. That must be why the exercise sheet they gave me pictured a balding man with white hair and extra lines drawn in his face, a floppy tank-top t-shirt covering a paunch, and spindle appendages meant to approximate arms and legs, wheezing his way through leg lifts. Motivational.
  • Market your strengths. The highest production-value material I received upon discharge was a two-color, 24-page glossy magazine entitled “A Guide to Taking Warfarin.” (They put me on blood thinners for a few weeks after surgery.) The guide to what I should do after having a hip replacement (including exercises) was five Xeroxed pages stapled together.
  • Above all, empathize with the customer. I think we do this pretty well in B2B. We hire marketers and salespeople with direct experience in the customer’s industry so that they can talk to and sympathize with the customer’s pain points. During one of my two two-minute conferences with the doctor in charge of the orthopedics wing (not my surgeon), I made the mistake of asking what sort of pain killers I could expect to receive upon release. He interrupted me with, “No one said hip replacements aren’t supposed to hurt.” Thanks, Doc.

Of course, I can’t complain. I have health insurance, I’m walking again, I’ll be able to ride a bike again, and the accident could have been a lot worse than it was. But healthcare sure could use some help on the marketing front. Anybody got any ideas?

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How to measure influence in social media marketing

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Measuring influence is the new obsession in the social media world—adding another layer of anxiety to the dark cloud of existential dread that is marketing ROI.

Social media present us as individuals seeking status within a community, which is something that humans have been working at since our days as monkeys. Indeed, science tells us that monkeys would rather look at pictures of high-ranking members of their troop than eat. The only difference between us and the monkeys is that we usually remember to eat while we watch the Oscars or check our Twitter follower counts.

Influence is the ability to affect others in their thinking or actions. But we need validation that it is happening. Since social media leave digital footprints, companies create complex algorithms to come up with simple answers to measuring social media influence. These fall into two categories:

  • The number generators. These tools assign a number to influence based on factors such as popularity, number of connections, and share of conversation. The best of these is still Technorati, because blogs are, in and of themselves, the most influential channel within social media. Face it, unless you can come up with enough to say to sustain a blog, it’s difficult to become influential. Others include Klout and Twitter Grader, which focus on the social networks. Another category of tools “gameify” influence by giving us fake shiny objects as rewards for engaging others. These include Foursquare and Empire Avenue. But all these numbers have little use beyond the ego stroke.
  • The monitors. These include the proprietary tools that look across all the online channels to determine how brands are being talked about. These social media monitoring tools have more use for marketers, but they require significant human intervention and can easily become very expensive versions of the number generators if not used with a goal in mind.

How to measure social media influence in a marketing context
Influence is usually presented in the context of figuring out who is engaging us and who we should be engaging with. But I think as marketers, we need to think bigger. I’d like to suggest that we look at influence as part of an integrated marketing strategy. In this context, influence has little to do with algorithms and more to do with something that marketers have been measuring for a long time: perception.

The two most important components of influence
I see successful marketers getting their companies to set two reference points to measure influence across all their marketing programs:

  • Who we are. Through surveys, both qualitative and quantitative, marketers ask their target audiences to tell them how they perceive the company. Classic versions of this are unaided awareness (“Name five IT services providers”) and aided awareness (“Have you heard of x company?”).
  • Who we want to be. This is where the strategy comes in. This reference point is in the future and requires careful definition. It requires all the key players in the company to decide how they want the company to influence the market in the future. For example, many ITSMA members are companies that began by selling B2B products but are now trying to become known as full-service solution companies. They have built or bought services divisions and created services offerings, but they cannot yet influence their target audiences to see them as anything other than product providers. Marketing’s job is to influence buyers to move from the existing perception to the new one—using all the available tools at its disposal.

Over time, we measure our influence by asking our target audience if they see our companies as we want them to be seen. Looked at this way, measuring influence becomes simpler and clearer.

What do you think?

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How do you know when you’ve reached the next level in social media?

I was thrilled to run a social media workshop this week with a large B2B technology and services provider (and ITSMA member). The great thing about the experience was that this company is already doing social media. In other words, I didn’t have to spend any time defending the honor of social media and explaining why they should be doing it.

This was all about the how.

But even the how was different. This company has established a highly visible presence in social media—indeed, it has won an award for it. The marketing team wanted to do the workshop because, as one executive told me, “We’re committed to social media and we’ve done some good things, but we want to take it to the next level.”

That got me thinking. Exactly what does that mean? What is the next level of social media in B2B and how do you know when you’ve gotten there?

We could all use some way to gauge our progress, especially in large, dispersed companies and marketing organizations. So let’s try to define what the ground level is so we know when we’ve established the base level of organizational social media skills. Here’s my take (I hope you will help me with your thoughts).

  • There is cultural permission to speak. Companies need to give themselves permission to engage in social media, both within marketing and in the broader culture of the company. I speak to many regulated B2B companies who (still) don’t believe their employees can engage in uncontrolled conversations with customers and prospects. The company I worked with this week no longer has that problem.
  • Internal social media is thriving. Most B2B companies I work with are much farther ahead with internal social media efforts than with external. I’m committed to the theory that companies can’t be effective at engaging in social media marketing until they’ve gotten the hang of it internally first.
  • Basic social media governance has been established. I’ve yet to see a B2B company have any success in social media that doesn’t have a social media policy, at least some training, and an informal social media center of excellence.
  • The organization views social media as important to relationship building. Unless social media is embraced by respected subject or experts outside marketing and PR, you haven’t gotten past the first level yet.
  • Social media is integrated with traditional marketing. Most companies need to use social media as adjuncts to traditional marketing practices before they can feel comfortable going farther with it. Social media supports an event, or an offering introduction, then ebbs. It’s hard to go to the always-on mode with social media at first. Most companies just don’t know how to sustain it. But at least they are testing and practicing.

I think this defines the base level of social media capabilities—the things you need to have in place before you can begin down the long road of perfection. What do you think? Do you agree? What would you add or change?

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Eight attributes of a thought leader

Social media are growing up. The initial thrill of connecting to a bunch of peers that we’ve never met is giving way to the desire to get something useful out of those connections. Interesting research from Edelman shows that there has been a decline in trust in “people like myself” and “regular employees.” Meanwhile, trust in “credentialed experts” and “company technical specialists” is rising—we’re getting so desperate we even want to hear from the CEO.

Clearly, there’s a growing hunger for thought leadership in social media. Our prospects and customers want us to cut through the noise of social media just as they’ve wanted us to cut through the noise of every other communications channel that came before. Thought leaders themselves must be better-rounded than in the past, as comfortable online as on stage or in an interview.

I’ve been interviewing ITSMA members about their thought leadership programs as follow-on to our recent thought leadership survey and asking about what makes a good thought leader. Based on these interviews and on my own experience working with thought leaders, I’ve started a list of key characteristics (please add your own attributes to this list):

What are the personal attributes of a thought leader?

  • Relevant experience. At a minimum, a thought leader must have experience that will sound relevant to your target audience. But they can’t merely seem like a peer; they need to be perceived as an expert. Usually, that means experience that is deeper than the target audience has, or breadth of experience working across multiple companies or industries, or all of the above.
  • Presence. Hard to define, but you know it when you see it. These people aren’t just comfortable in their own skin; they know how to take over a room or an interaction in an un-threatening way. Like most mammals, our first encounters with strangers involve a subtle sorting out of who is dominant and who is submissive. Those with presence can make others willingly go submissive, and therefore make them receptive, without anyone minding.
  • Rapport. This is beyond just good people skills; it is the ability to adjust to other others’ individual pace. Thought leaders (like successful presidents), can meet all sorts of different people at their own level without pandering or patronizing.
  • Curiosity. Thought leaders are endlessly curious, not just intellectually but also about people. Their rapport with customers extends to a genuine, ego-free interest in the problems those customers face. Good ideas aren’t enough; those ideas need to be informed by a wide-ranging exposure to other inputs and opinions.
  • Synthesis. Thought leaders see the threads of insight lurking within a complex stream of information and use them to create a new idea or a new way of looking at an old problem.
  • Storytelling. One of the most important attributes of a thought leader is the ability to weave insights into a cogent narrative that brings ideas to life for others.
  • Courage. Not all new ideas are met with a warm reception. Thought leaders can’t be afraid to question the status quo and defend their ideas from critics. But this courage must be tempered with patience in the face of harsh criticism. Taking the high road in these situations is the highest form of courage.
  • Empathy. Accusations of elitism and being out of touch will follow thought leaders who can’t see things from the perspective of others.
  • Humility. This isn’t just about admitting when they’re wrong, it’s acknowledging that they don’t know everything at each step of the way. The goal isn’t just to be ingratiating. Humility contributes to success by making others feel welcome to contribute their own ideas and feedback.

What other attributes do thought leaders need to have? Which of these attributes are most important? Please give me your thoughts!

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Should sales enablement be owned by sales rather than marketing?

I’m wondering if it’s time to take sales enablement away from marketing.

What do I mean by sales enablement? I heard a great definition from my former ITSMA colleague Jeff Sands the other day: Sales enablement is helping salespeople be more credible with customers.

We all know how sales enablement got started in B2B. Marketers helped salespeople put words to the insanely complex products and services they were trying to sell.

Sales enablement used to mean brochures
These words, mostly in the form of brochures, specification sheets, and boilerplate PowerPoint slides, helped salespeople—especially those new to the company—get a conversation going with prospects.

But then the internet came along.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to say, “and then everything changed,” because it didn’t. From what I can tell, the internet didn’t disrupt the basic model for the sales enablement process; it just moved much of it online. Salespeople remained dependent on marketers for information. The internet didn’t make it easy for them to enable each other. Knowledge management systems, for example, were difficult to use and difficult to keep up to date. Salespeople mostly ignored them.

Social media changes sales enablement
But then social media came along and it really did change everything. Salespeople are becoming heavy users of social media, and it takes less than a minute to set up an internal-only micro blogging network, wiki, or online community for them to share their own words with each other.

I know what you’re thinking: when it comes to anything besides selling, salespeople have the attention spans of gnats. They’ll never set up one of these things themselves much less contribute to it.

The link between sharing and fatter bonuses
If they don’t it’s because they don’t see the link between sharing information and fatter bonus checks. Yet as more salespeople start using social media, the link will become more obvious. Sharing information in a way that doesn’t overly sap productivity (hard to do before social media came along) raises all boats. Aberdeen Research has found that salespeople that share information with each other make more money than those that don’t. That same report also found that salespeople that coached one another also made more money.

Who should own the process?
So my question is, now that the center of gravity is shifting from content (brochures, specification sheets, etc.) to conversation (tips on handling an account, coaching videos from sales peers and external experts, etc.) should responsibility for all this stuff remain with marketing? If so, why?

I’d really like to know what you think.

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15 qualities of a good social media voice

When people ask about how to use social media tools like Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook, I suspect that they are really asking about how they should sound in those tools.

After all, the tools themselves are dead simple. You need a second hand on your watch to track how long it takes to set up a Twitter account, for example.

But developing a social media voice is a more complicated proposition.

A good starting point is to create a social media policy for the organization. But these policies are more like guardrails than signposts. Writing style guides can also help, but who has time to plow through them? Employees and subject matters experts need active support from marketers to develop their social media voices. In ITSMA’s social media survey, 68% said that marketing is the catalyst for social media. It’s worth our time to develop a brief guide to social media voice for employees that takes into account the unique attributes of your target audience.

I humbly offer these guidelines in the spirit of the B2B marketing guild. I’d love to hear your additions, comments, rants.

Here are some of the qualities that social media voices should have:

  • Authentic. I’m loath to use this one because it gets trotted out so often, but social media ups the ante for saying what you mean and meaning what you say at the time you’re saying it. In social media, buyers can connect synchronously with you and with their peers, they can react instantly, and they can do so through easily accessible tools like Twitter. Obfuscation used to be a way to buy time in an era when buyers had to write letters to the company president to get their complaints heard (and they had few ways to determine whether others were having the same problems). In social media, obfuscation only brings a swift, often large-scale, backlash.
  • Relevant. In social media, it isn’t just what you say; it’s the company you keep. Creating a responsive social media network means focusing on a subject that you know well and sticking to it so that people know what to expect from you. Remember that it’s as easy to disconnect from people in social media as it is to connect with them. Lack of relevance is a ticket to deletionville.
  • Empathetic. The best social media voices have a clear understanding of what it feels like to stand in their audiences’ shoes. We need to understand their experiences and offer content that fits their needs.
  • Generous. Sharing is the currency of social media. For example, Twitter updates that come with a link to something deeper to read (such as news, opinion, tips, research, and thought leadership) are more likely to be passed on, or retweeted, to others. Rarely do those links lead to paid content. Those who make their content freely available will have many more readers than those who don’t. Besides, it makes us feel good. Acts of generosity, it turns out, light up the same primitive, feel-good areas of the brain as sex and food do.
  • Responsive. Just when we think no one is listening to what we’re saying in social media, we’re likely to receive a message—often from someone we’ve never conversed with before. If we ignore these messages, we can hurt the feelings of those involved and lose opportunities to have interesting conversations that could contribute to our social media success. Blog comments, for example, should all receive a response from the blogger, even if it’s just one message thanking everyone for their time and good thoughts.
  • Helpful. Our helpful deeds in social media are often seen by many others who spread the help farther and enhance our reputation. Subject matter experts who answer questions on the Answers section of LinkedIn, for example, can grow their connections and build traffic to their blogs.
  • Original. It’s okay to link to news items or interesting blog posts, but chances are that many others have already done the same thing. The strongest social media voices are those that regularly contribute original ideas. Blogs are a great hub for creating and sharing original ideas, because readers can contribute to and refine the thinking (as I’m hoping you’ll do here!).
  • (More) Informal. Social media are designed to elicit conversation, yet most of that conversation happens in written form. That means we need a new standard for ourselves. We should make our writing sound more like the way we speak (when we’re at work). One way to judge whether you’re being too stiff (or overly casual) is to read your writing aloud before posting it. If it sounds too stuffy, overly long, or overwrought, simplify it. On the other hand, if it sounds like you aren’t old enough to have a driver’s license, put more thought into it.
  • Timely. Everybody loves a scoop. Gaining a reputation as the first with the latest news in your chosen subject area increases your relevance among others in your network and helps attract new followers. However, it helps to do a little research before sharing to make sure that the tidbit hasn’t been re-tweeted a million times already, or that there hasn’t been some change in the issue since you discovered it.
  • Persistent. Social media voices that appear and then disappear for long intervals create mistrust and apprehension. Was this just a passing fancy? Are you participating just to push messages? Do you have so little say that you needed a month off? The unwritten rule for blogs demands at least a post per week, for example. More than a month and people will begin to delete you from their RSS feeds.
  • Inspiring. As my friend Laura Nicholas points out, the best social media voices try to inspire others to action. For example, try looking at a perennial problem from an entirely different angle and asserting new ideas and thinking. You may inspire someone to share what you wrote because they see the value and want to enlighten others.
  • Grammatical. Sure, social media are more informal by default, but informal doesn’t mean you should sound like an idiot. Indeed, the more personal nature of the communications makes good skills even more important because all the misdeeds can be easily tracked back to their source. It’s okay to split an infinitive now and then, but the really obvious stuff—misspellings, misunderstood words, crappy punctuation, and internet shorthand (unless you are really short on space)—reflects poorly on the reputations of the communicators and their companies.
  • Communal. Just as we communicate differently in conversation than we do in writing, we have a different voice with groups than we do with individuals. In most cases in social media, we are speaking to a group. Depending on your reach and focus, the group can be homogenous or incredibly diverse. In B2B, it’s likely to be diverse, at least in terms of ages and backgrounds. Your voice should sound reasonable to everyone in that group.
  • Dialectal. We always hear that it’s wrong to use a lot of jargon, and in general it is, but only because most B2B marketers are usually trying to reach a general audience of both business and technical people. On the other hand, if you’re only trying to reach the techies, jargon may be expected, as marketer Jed Sundwall points out in this excellent presentation, Finding Your Social Media Voice. We need to understand the particular dialects of the audiences we’re trying to reach with social media.
  • Contextual. Social media are a lot like party conversations. Much depends on how long the conversation has been going on and what has already been said in your absence. The smartest blog comment sounds dumb if the point has already been debated in the comments section. Conversations in social media have a habit of diverging from their original course. Participants need to stop and assess the waters before plunging in.

What do you think? What are other important qualities to have in a social media voice?

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It’s official: Marketing owns social media management. Now what?

We just completed our ITSMA survey on social media. I’ll be reporting some of the major findings here and at ITSMA.com over the coming weeks.

But one finding sticks out. Marketing owns social media management. That’s right. It’s our job.

In our survey, we asked, “In your company, is marketing the catalyst for social media being used by others in the company (product development, HR, etc.)?” 68% of our respondents said yes.

That means that if we are to keep up with our competitors, we’re going to have to take the lead on developing a strategy not only for marketing with social media, but for getting the rest of the organization involved as well.

Will social become a silo within marketing?
This has big implications for how we organize marketing. The biggest implication is that we cannot afford for social media to become a silo or an add-on to our existing marketing organizations. Marketing as a percentage of revenue for technology services companies is at an all-time low—less than 1%. The Great Recession certainly has played a role in that, but the percentage has been dropping more or less steadily since before the dotcom crash, when it averaged about 3%.

Back then, we could still run lush print ads, design fancy brochures and whitepapers, create monster trade show booths, and wine and dine CIOs at the Super Bowl. And to business people, that all represented value. Salespeople and businesspeople could see the talent and creativity in the ads and brochures, relationships being made at the events, and the business cards in the fishbowl.

Today, we do a lot less of that stuff. That’s not to say that these more traditional tactics don’t work anymore and should be abandoned. But we have to find ways to stretch the dollars we do invest in those tactics farther. And we have to use other tactics that, in and of themselves, build trust and relationships with buyers.

That’s where social media comes in. So much of what I see out there today treats social media as a standalone. But the real successes I’m hearing about in B2B use social media to support and extend more traditional tactics. Such as using online communities and social media to build up interest and discussion about our traditional live events both up to, during, and after those events.

Reorganize in an integrated way
So the question for marketing becomes, how do we integrate social media? That was the number one goal of respondents in our survey for the coming year.

Social media consultant Jeremiah Owyang has a good post about different ways that he sees companies organizing for social media that you should check out. It will jog your thinking. But the question I have after reading his post is how does this fit with our existing models of marketing?

As I told Jeremiah in a comment on his post, I don’t doubt the rigor of his (as always) insightful thinking. But I wonder, are companies really reorganizing around social—and should they?

From our research we see that marketing tends to own social media for the rest of the organization. So we’re really looking at how much the marketing function is going to change as a result of social. Today, we see most marketing organizations divided up between corporate and field marketing (central and local) and basically divided up between marcom and everything else. So the real question is how does social impact the ways that we organize marketing today and how does it integrate with the things we already do?

I don’t think we can afford to create a social media silo inside the larger marketing organization. Do you? How are you fitting social into your organizational models?

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Social media raises the bar for customer intimacy

Social media is raising the bar on customer intimacy.

Though it has become a generic term, customer intimacy was first coined by Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema who worked at CSC/Index back in the 90s when I was a thought leadership marketer there. Rooted in Michael Porter’s timeless work in business strategy, Treacy and Wiersema took it a step further with their three “value disciplines.”

The theory is that every company competes in three disciplines:

  • Customer intimacy. These are companies that go out of their way to build close customer relationships. They are focused on lifetime customer value and are willing to incur short-term costs in order to build long-term loyalty and satisfaction—Nordstrom and Amex are a couple of B2C examples.
  • Operational excellence. Customers rely on these companies to deliver reliability and quality at a low price. FedEx is an example, having invented the guaranteed overnight shipping model.
  • Product leadership. These are companies that rely heavily on innovative, exciting, status-conferring new products to hold customer interest. Apple is the most obvious example here (Sony used to be).

Treacy and Wiersema argued that all great companies strive to be leaders in one of these disciplines while maintaining a reasonable level of parity with competitors on the other two. Though the theory was criticized at the time as being overly simplistic, it has held up remarkably well and continues to strike me with its simple (not simplistic) clarity.

Where’s the customer intimacy revolution?
You could argue that two of the three disciplines have already had their revolutions. The quality movement let most companies achieve a high level of reliability and consistency (for example, most car companies score very closely in quality rankings these days), and the venture capital movement (along with 3-D design software) has created a ready avenue for unknown product innovators to gain the spotlight.

Customer intimacy has remained the poor stepchild. There has been no revolution—no breakthrough in process or practice to raise all boats. Hard to manage and to scale, highly reliant on the vagaries of human nature, most companies continue to have poor relationships—or worse, no relationships—with their customers.

Social media is making that fact plain.

But you know, I’m tired of hearing people say we need to get closer to customers. Where’s the 21st-century revolution—the customer intimacy version of the quality movement—to show us how? We’re all struggling to move from the traditional arm’s-length, temporary campaigns to the always-on, direct relationships inherent in social media management.

The good news is that we may look back on social media as the movement that made high levels of customer intimacy as achievable as product quality seems today.

Intimacy through content
I think so because social media is starting to give us a way to scale intimacy. We can do it with content.

Social media reduces the incremental cost of content. We know that in B2B, customers and prospects respond best to ideas, news, research, and how-to—not sales pitches.

Social media is a channel for raising the level of intimacy that we have with customers and prospects with that content. Think of social media management as filling in the gaps. Chunks and snippets of white papers sprinkled through social media like breadcrumbs in the forest let us deliver value and build trust by providing content at a higher level of frequency. Social media that connects one live event with the next one lets us continue to build the relationship. Most of this is content we were going to produce anyway. Social media lets us spread out the cost while also increasing the frequency of touches.

Unspoken intimacy
We tend to think of intimacy as being personal—something for the salespeople. But we can do it by reliably delivering valuable content. Magazines have been doing it for years. Consistency, relevance, and quality create a very intimate relationship with readers. I will never forget the live encounters I have had with readers while attending trade shows when I was at CIO or my bike magazine—people I had never seen or spoken to before—who approached me to tell me how much they loved or hated my magazine without even introducing themselves. In their minds, they had already developed a deeply intimate relationship with the content that they associated me with, and they felt passionately enough to speak it to a complete stranger because I was associated with that content.

It was very easy to strike up a conversation with those people because we already had a lot in common. And I knew that I would probably never see or hear from many of them again because I didn’t have a channel for communicating with them directly once we parted ways—except through the articles I wrote and edited. Few people bothered to write letters to the editor, just as few people contribute to communities or post comments on blogs today. But that doesn’t mean that the intimacy isn’t there. Our intimacy exists mostly through the content—we just have to find ways to surface it.

Social media increases the frequency of those kinds of contacts. I can’t help but think that as the different social media channels continue to evolve, customer intimacy is going to take a leap forward.

What do you think? How should social media evolve to let us create customer intimacy more easily and economically?

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