April 25, 2014

Is “social media campaign” an oxymoron?

If you had asked me a few years ago whether the traditional marketing campaign had any place in social media I would have scoffed. Just more evidence of marketing’s old-fashioned, ADHD-driven, love-’em-and-leave-’em approach.

I would have had only slightly less disdain for the audience for these campaigns. Fly-by-night opportunists hoping to win your Facebook sweepstakes. Win or lose, after the contest is over, they’d ditch you as quickly as a toddler dispatching a fistful of broccoli.

After all, “engaging” is one of the four components of social media management. If all you do is run contests and campaigns on Facebook, how can you expect to hold onto prospects over the long term?

But then I see something like HP Technology Services (HPTS)’ “Where’s the Humanity in Your Technology” campaign, or Hitachi Data Services (HDS)’ Social Media Buzz campaign. These campaigns were the winners of this year’s ITSMA Marketing Excellence Awards. (You can read synopses of the programs here and here.) The campaigns used two methods that play well to Facebook users:

  • Let them play games. You’ve heard of Farmville, right? Facebook is the fun social network. HP questioned Facebookers about their work styles and matched them to an “IT personality.” Then HP did something cool. It drove them to a microsite featuring a hand-picked group of HP experts (such as these HP cloud experts) with the same “personality.” Visitors could click on the experts to learn more about them and connect directly with them.
  • Appeal to their sense of charity. Many people feel less silly engaging in games and contests if it is part of doing a good deed. Companies are having success pulling in fans by linking to charitable cases. In HP’s case, it was CARE, the aid relief organization.
  • Let them win stuff. Contests, giveaways, and sweepstakes do really well on Facebook. Indeed, HDS initially started publicizing its contest across Twitter, LinkedIn, Google AdWords, and with media partners as well as Facebook, but soon shifted most of the budget to Facebook because response was so much better there. HDS also did something cool. It segmented its offers to get to the audience it really wanted: After running people through a qualification form, the target high-level executives got a chance to win a free IT storage assessment. Non-targets could win Hitachi consumer products and went to a separate database. The strong results from campaign show that C-levels actually are on Facebook and are just as vulnerable to contests as the rest of us.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Koch, you slut. You’re just warming up to social media campaigns because you work for ITSMA and these are the companies who won your contest.

I’m not a slut, I’m a snob
Actually, I’m not a slut. I’m more of a snob. I’m a content guy and I think thought leadership is the best way to build nurturing relationships with contacts in B2B marketing. I still believe that. But my monism was shaken not just by our social media award winners but by something else I saw this week. Marketing automation vendor Eloqua released a SlideShare entitled 10 ways to “solve” Facebook for B2B.

The presentation mostly hypes Eloqua’s Facebook campaign, but a couple of things stood out for me. One was that a sweepstakes drove 43% of the traffic to Eloqua’s Facebook page, far more than other sources.

Plan for the loss of likes
Then came the real epiphany. They actually planned the campaign with the expectation that many of the “Likes” would disappear after the sweepstakes. They planned for it and tried to stanch the bleeding with a steady stream of relevant content to try to hang onto the minority who came for the contest but also had some level of interest in and need for marketing automation.

This is your funnel on Facebook
So maybe this is your funnel on Facebook: Build spikes in traffic with contests and giveaways and then try to slow the losses with content so that the overall pipeline grows somewhat after the giveaways have settled.

What do you think? Can campaigns coexist comfortably with a thought leadership lead nurturing strategy? Or will the campaigns just distract us from the need to do the hard work of a consistent relationship building strategy?

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7 reasons why social media success has nothing to do with social media

This week I was asked to speak on a panel about social media to a group of B2B marketers in financial services. It was great getting the perspective of marketers outside of technology. But they call it “financial services” for a reason: They have all of the same struggles as technology services companies—with the added complication of tons of regulatory requirements.

But when the panel was over, I realized something scary: Most of the success factors we wound up talking about had nothing to do with social media. They had to do with other things that companies have to do before they can successfully engage in social media. Here are some examples:

  • Most C-level executives are not in social media—they’re in search. ITSMA research shows that 66% of buyers seek information themselves rather than waiting to hear from providers. They seek that information through search: 79% of c-level executives do at least three searches per day. They are more likely to encounter our content through search than through the social media channels themselves.
  • Social doesn’t happen in B2B without a culture change. When we surveyed B2B marketers last year, 50% said they do not have a social media policy. It would be easy to say that B2B companies don’t have social media policies because they just don’t get it, or they’re slow and lack resources. But I talk to them all the time and I know that’s not the case for most of them. They hold back because they know that they need the full support, commitment, and participation of the business in social media. Without those things in place, there’s no reason to get into it, because you will fail.
  • Before social media can happen, companies need an idea culture. A lot of B2C social media marketing can come out of the marketing group because consumers are looking for deals, product information, and peer reviews. Marketers can handle all that stuff. But you can’t tweet a 50%-off coupon in B2B. You have to tweet ideas for solving customers’ problems. Marketing can’t do that on its own. Social media is the easy part; idea marketing is the hard part. Top executives and SMEs must commit to making ideas part of employees’ individual expectations. One of the reasons I know that B2B marketers get this is because the number one goal of marketers in our survey was to integrate social media into the larger marketing strategy—to link social media to their idea marketing process and their events—the channels that are proven and where the business has committed to contributing content.
  • The business case doesn’t exist for social media; but it does for idea marketing. When we asked buyers how important good ideas are to the buying decision, 58% of executive-level buyers (people buying more than $500,000 worth of IT services at a pop) say that it is important or critical for making it onto the short list of providers. Let me repeat: More than half of your buyers say that if you can’t demonstrate that you have good ideas for solving their business problems, they won’t buy from you. We asked: If a provider brings you a good idea would you be more likely to buy from them? 30% said yes. Of that 30%, 54% said they’d consider sole sourcing the project. Social media are great for developing those ideas and for making them available to many more people. But first you have to have an engine for creating the ideas.
  • Many B2B companies have already said no to social media. I’ve spoken to marketers who have dipped a toe into social media and pulled it back because they saw that their companies simply weren’t ready. They’ve started blogs where SMEs posted three or four times and then got busy with other things or got bored and the blog went dark. Someone somewhere latched onto that and declared that blogs don’t work. They blame the channel rather than blaming their company’s lack of commitment. Then that gets translated into “social media don’t work for us.” Many B2B companies are just now contemplating getting into social media for the second time.
  • Marketing needs a system of record before it can succeed in social media. Businesspeople don’t care how many Twitter followers you have. They care about the size, speed, and quality of the pipeline. We need a lead management process to act as a place to bring people from social media. In our recent lead management survey, just 53% report consistent definitions of lead tracking that are adopted globally. Only 65% have defined the lead flow process. Without a process for integrating social media into lead management, the ROI of social media in B2B will never move beyond brand awareness and website traffic.
  • Thought leadership is more important than social media. At the earliest stage of the buying process, marketing owns the relationship with buyers. Buyers don’t want to hear from salespeople at this point. We call it the epiphany stage; it’s before buyers have articulated their specific needs. But at this point, buyers are trolling for good ideas, insight into industry trends, and news. Companies must have an engine for providing those ideas in place before they can expect to make waves in social media.

What do you think?

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Is Twitter “social?”

Majority opinion seems to be that Twitter isn’t really a social platform it’s a broadcast medium. A study by Yahoo Research found that 50% of tweets are generated by an “elite” group of 20k users and that those users tend to follow one another rather than branching out—what many refer to as the social media echo chamber.
For these reasons, pundits say that Twitter isn’t much use for reaching B2B customers. But I treasure this “eliteness,” and while older, high-level executive technology buyers are not on Twitter, the younger ones (and those that wannabe C-level executives) are. And in many years of interviewing this audience and blogging to it, they all tell me that they get online to learn, not socialize (even the older ones use online search like crazy.
Twitter isn’t for conversation, it’s for learning.
These days, my audience is B2B marketers and my goal is to help you learn. I have a search column in TweetDeck for “B2B.” I try to check it every day to see what people are sharing. 99% of the time, they’re sharing links to content—blogs, research papers, news stories, etc.—that they think is relevant. I browse through the tweets and look for things that interest me. Then I click through to see if the content is something that I think B2B marketers might learn from. If it is, I re-tweet it or rewrite the tweet if I think there’s a better point to be made about the content than what the original tweeter said.
If I disagree with the content I’ll say so and ask others what they think. Rarely do I see people who believe that the tweet alone is content to be learned from (except those annoying people who think quotes from famous people are worth tweeting). So I treat Twitter like a reporter rather than a cocktail party host.
Learning is social, isn’t it?
The best truly “social” interactions I see on Twitter are organized chats. I’ve been both a featured “guest star” and an attendee and I always learn something. But again, chats as I’ve experienced them have always been about sharing and learning rather than getting to know one another. What am I doing wrong? Am I wrong to believe that B2B audiences will gradually come to social media channels like Twitter to learn?
Many say that marketers are a different breed than “customers,” and what works for marketers won’t translate to the B2B world in general. I don’t think they’re so different. Sure, marketers like to participate in social media more, but that’s because they are the ones charged with making social media happen in their organizations. But just like their audiences, marketers are smart, educated people who like to learn. But I’m left wondering, is sharing content being social?

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The 2 questions on every buyer’s mind

At any moment in time, C-level executives are looking for answers to two questions:

What should I be doing right now?

What should I be preparing to do in the future?

We need to create a mix of these two types of thought leadership content to maintain strong relationships with their target audiences. Here’s why: Marketers who do this are more successful. In ITSMA’s Thought Leadership Survey, marketers with formal thought leadership processes segment their ideas this way 95% of the time. And those marketers tell us that they are much more satisfied with the quality of the ideas from their SMEs than marketers who have ad hoc processes for thought leadership development and dissemination. Among those who parse ideas, most split the pie in half between two types of ideas:

  • Aspirational. These are the ideas that prompt buyers to think about change. Assuming that you’ve done the necessary research to understand your target audience, that change can be on a personal, organizational, or industry level. These ideas aren’t necessarily about predicting the future or painting a picture of how it will look. Often, they focus on a catalyst for change that may not be obvious. Consultant Fred Reichheld didn’t invent the concept of customer loyalty, but by identifying the marker for it, he changed how many companies approach managing customer loyalty. These kinds of ideas are generally most useful at the Epiphany Stage of the buying process, when buyers are casting about for ideas but haven’t formulated any specific plans.
  • Practical. If these ideas were offered up at a newspaper’s editorial meeting, they’d go in the news hole. They identify a current trend, say a regulatory change, and offer perspective on what the trend means and how companies should react. An excellent, though controversial, example of this is the McKinsey article I wrote about a few weeks ago, about how US health care reform will affect employee benefits. Another great aspect of that piece is that when you click through to the article, you’ll see an aspirational piece positioned next to it entitled “Redesigning Employee Benefits,” which advocates taking a product development approach to the employee benefits process. Practical ideas tend to be more useful to buyers who are in the later stages of the buying process, when they have a more concrete idea of what they want to do but are looking for insight into how to do it.

What’s unspoken here is that you need to develop thought leadership that is appropriate to each stage of the buying process so that buyers (and salespeople) can get the right information at the right time. For example, buyers who are in the Epiphany Stage are looking for new ideas and industry news, while buyers who are actively getting ready to buy and are creating a short list of providers will be looking for case studies that profile how their peers have generated business results. Marketing and sales must agree on the alignment of content to the various buying stages so that sales will get the right signals about when and how to approach customers for a sale. For example, IBM creates specific versions of its thought leadership materials for salespeople to use during their discussions with customers.

Do you segment your thought leadership content?

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How social media muteness endangers your company: The crisis at McKinsey

McKinsey recently learned a difficult lesson about what happens when the world takes your thought leadership marketing seriously—and when you lack the ability to respond in the moment through social media.

The trouble started when the McKinsey Quarterly published an article in early June entitled How US health care reform will affect employee benefits,  based on a survey the firm did about what will happen to employer-sponsored health care insurance coverage when the President’s health care law goes into effect in 2014.

A textbook example of pragmatic thought leadership
The article itself is one of the best examples of thought leadership I have ever read. It is bold, clear, authoritative, and based on solid research. It is a textbook example of what we at ITSMA call pragmatic thought leadership: it takes a current issue of concern to the company’s target audience and evaluates what may happen in the near term without any mention of company methodologies or offerings. The piece settles right into the Florsheims of the average HR manager and paints a picture of what might happen to their benefits programs when the law takes effect.

That picture is stark and scary.

The survey predicts that 30% of employers will drop health care coverage for employees altogether, throwing them into the government-mandated health insurance pool of individuals without company coverage. Among employers with the higher level of knowledge about the law, the percentage that would drop coverage rises to 50%.

Such a bold and relevant piece of thought leadership was bound to capture mainstream media interest, and this one certainly did—another coup in McKinsey’s long string of thought leadership marketing successes.

The chattering classes intrude
However, something as politically charged as the healthcare debate is not the normal territory of buttoned-down consulting firms like McKinsey. It was like letting a dumb teenager into one of McKinsey’s glass conference rooms with a stack of fireworks and handing him a match. Something important was bound to get damaged.

And so it did.

Republicans cited the article chapter and verse, because it lent some credence to the idea that the world would fall into communistic chaos as soon as the evils of Obamacare were unleashed. Meanwhile, the White House attacked McKinsey’s survey as an “outlier,” saying that other studies from Rand, the Urban Institute, and Mercer all showed that the law would have little impact on the number of companies with coverage.

Journalists look for trouble and McKinsey stonewalls
The political stir encouraged journalists and bloggers to try digging deeper into the story and that’s when McKinsey got into trouble. When a blogger for Time asked for more details on the survey methodology, she says McKinsey stonewalled. That information vacuum led some bloggers to fill it with questions about the quality of McKinsey’s research and its motives. The biggest credibility blow was struck by a blogger at the New Republic, who pointed out that unlike reports from the firm’s own “semi-autonomous think tank” the McKinsey Global Institute, the healthcare survey did not undergo a formal peer review process. Ouch.

Too late, transparency—and defensiveness
Of course, you know what happened next. On June 20, long after the bloggers had already moved on, McKinsey finally made the survey and its methodology transparent and issued a cranky and defensive statement about the survey that helped things not at all. Here’s why: One of the most compelling things about the article is its boldness. In one passage, the authors take on all those who think healthcare reform will be an easy ride, including none other than the Congressional Budget Office Itself:

“The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that only about 7 percent of employees currently covered by employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) will have to switch to subsidized-exchange policies in 2014. However, our early-2011 survey of more than 1,300 employers across industries, geographies, and employer sizes, as well as other proprietary research, found that reform will provoke a much greater response.”

Wow. That’s pretty unequivocal. Hey CBO, you’re wrong!

All of which makes McKinsey’s too-late response to the criticism all the more mealy mouthed. Check this out:

“Comparing the McKinsey survey to economic estimates, such as the CBO’s, is comparing apples to oranges. While the McKinsey Quarterly article about the survey cited CBO estimates, any comparison is not apt. We understand how the language in the article could lead the reader to think the research was a prediction, but it is not.”

Oh, I get it. We readers are just too stupid to know a prediction when we see one. That wasn’t a prediction, it just looked like one to the uneducated. Maybe if we had all gone to the upper two percent of business grad schools like the folks at McKinsey we would have known better. That’s the height of arrogance.

Companies without a human face will suffer
But hey, I’m not here to say yet again that companies should be transparent in a crisis and respond quickly and in a non-defensive manner to criticism rather than letting it fester. You’ve heard all that before.

I’d like to posit another important piece missing from the McKinsey picture: people.

Despite its prowess in thought leadership—McKinsey is simply the best—the firm is falling dangerously behind in social media. This crisis unfolded online and in social media. All the company needed was to get some of its well-spoken hot shots out there blogging to clarify thinking behind the survey and things would have gone a lot better. Companies that lack a human face and hide behind their brands—no matter how good those brands are—will suffer in the era of social media. That static, institutional explanation of the healthcare survey on McKinsey’s website is like a billboard flashing “We don’t get social media!”

It’s ironic, but there is a person who could have responded to this controversy in a very interesting way. It turns out that a McKinsey internal expert on the healthcare industry, Bowen Garrett, was one of the authors of the Urban Institute paper that claims that healthcare reform will not cause a big disruption in employer insurance. Gee, how about a quick blog interview with Garrett, or a video, or podcast? But McKinsey doesn’t do blogs or anything else timely on its website. It’s a slave to that big (admittedly wonderful) publishing machine called the McKinsey Quarterly.

There are many things that social media can’t do, but one thing they can do is give you the opportunity to turn on a dime and inject thought leadership into the conversation when it is most needed. Companies that can’t do it will suffer the consequences.

What do you think?

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Marketing’s golden opportunity in innovation

Innovation is becoming more external to companies and more social.

When Netflix’s internal engineers struggled to get more than incremental improvements in the company’s movie matching algorithm, the company put the problem to the internet and crowdsourced a 10% leap in accuracy (of course, it didn’t hurt that they offered a million dollar prize). Even funding for innovation is becoming more external and social. A website called Kickstarter lets anyone—not just venture capitalists—fund innovation projects featured on the site.

Social media management and innovation
This shift in innovation has big implications for marketing. ITSMA’s social media research (free excerpt available) shows that marketing is responsible for monitoring social media and for training, governing, and supporting the organization in using social media. I think this means that marketing must be ready to take a larger role in facilitating the innovation process and in being the ears to the ground on all the innovation that’s happening externally to organizations out there on the internet.

CMOs can succeed where CIOs struggled
Marketing is in a similar position today to where IT was in the 90s. Back then, the rise of reengineering and enterprise software systems gave CIOs a unique opportunity to be facilitators of innovation. They were the only C-level executives involved in all the efforts to rethink the ways that companies did work across the entire organization. Sadly, few CIOs took advantage of this cross-company view to innovate the ways that their companies did things. (In CIOs’ defense, few companies felt comfortable giving CIOs the power to do this sort of thing.)

Move beyond brand stewardship
Today, CMOs have the same opportunity that CIOs did back in the 90s. Marketing is essentially in charge of collaboration both inside and outside the company through its leading role in social media. CMOs have to resist the tendency to view this stewardship as simply a continuation of their traditional role as the head of branding and communications. For CMOs, social media aren’t just for listening to what people are saying about the brand or pushing out messages. Social media aren’t even just for facilitating conversation and customer relationships. Social media are also for innovation, and marketing has a major role to play in making it happen.

Examples of the mandate for innovation
In a blog post this week entitled What CEOs Want from Their CMOs, Forrester’s CEO, George Colony, discusses the mandate for the CMO to keep an eye out for what’s ahead. I wrote a case study a few years ago about how IT services firm CSC has an innovation process that is facilitated by marketing.

So the question is, will CMOs step up to the innovation challenge? And will CEOs let them?

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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The prerequisite to effective social media: the idea organization

At the first of ITSMA’s series of road shows this week in Silicon Valley this week (there’s still time to sign up for New York and Boston next week!) I confirmed something I’ve been hearing in my research on idea marketing over the past month: idea marketing requires a deep commitment not just from marketing but from the entire organization.

Eric Wittlake makes this point in a blog post this week and I heartily agree.

But then this got me to thinking, without a commitment to ideas throughout the organization, all these dollars we’re starting to spend on social media will be wasted.

In other words, unless we become idea organizations, we’re not going to have much to say to customers, prospects, and influencers in social media.

What do I mean by an idea organization? Let’s look at some attributes I’m seeing I’m my research:

  • Show commitment to idea development from the top. Some management consulting companies have the commitment to ideas baked into the culture—you simply will not survive as a consultant if you do not create ideas that lead to new IP. For everyone else, a visible commitment from the CEO and other top leaders signals that ideas, not just offerings, are part of all subject matter experts’ jobs.
  • Appeal to their egos. Recognition from peers means a lot to subject matter experts. Some companies get pretty formal about this, creating invitation-only SME councils with entry requirements. For example, one company required that its council members hold at least one patent before they’d be invited.
  • Make ideas part of individual expectations. I’m hearing B2B companies tell me that they are starting to make idea development part of the yearly goals of their subject matter experts. Few go so far as to specify the number of ideas or idea-based content that these people are expected to produce each year, but they have made idea development a part of the yearly review discussion.
  • Give them the tools to think. We’re seeing some companies develop some creative tools for fostering idea development. One company has created an internal portal where project members submit ideas that are vetted and voted on by the project customers. The winning ideas are implemented.
  • Make it competitive. Some companies have companywide competitions for the best ideas or the best white paper. This process is usually facilitated by marketing.
  • Make it visible. You’ll never create an idea organization if ideas are developed in secret. Think about it: if employees aren’t comfortable sharing their ideas with each other, how will they ever be comfortable talking about them in social media? Collaboration—both internally and externally—will help embed idea development into the culture.

Can you start to see that by creating these idea development processes, it becomes much easier for companies to engage in social media conversations that will impress customers and influencers?

What do you think? How are you creating an idea organization?

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3 ways to link marketing to revenue without metrics

I’m looking forward to our annual ITSMA spring road trip. This time, I’ll be speaking about how to tie thought leadership to revenue, starting in Santa Clara, CA next Wednesday, and in New York and Newton, MA the following week. Hope you can join us.

Now, you may think that because I’m using revenue and thought leadership together in the same sentence that I’m going to reveal some secret way to measure the link between the white paper you published last month and the complex solution sale you make six months from now. Alas, no such magic metric exists.

We’re focusing on the wrong things
In fact, our most recent thought leadership survey found that few marketers are measuring much besides consumption of their marketing content. I’m not saying that you should stop measuring consumption; but it’s clear that those kinds of metrics don’t give business people the answers they’re looking for when they ask about the value of marketing. They want more strategic answers, such as whether marketing is increasing the velocity of contacts through the buying process and reducing the time and effort that salespeople need to expend in making a sale.

If you have the ability to measure those two things, then great. But if you don’t, there are still ways to make sure that those things are happening. Here are three ways to do it:

  • Connect ideas to offerings. Too much of our content just tries to look and sound smart—great focus on ideas, but no real connection to how our companies can solve the problem. At the other end of the spectrum are the brochures that masquerade as idea marketing by making the offering descriptions longer and the production values higher. One great way to connect ideas to offerings is to create a business theme—think IBM’s Smarter Planet or Cognizant’s Future of Work. Both of these themes give subject matter experts and marketers plenty of leeway to focus on ideas while maintaining a link to the company strategy and its offerings.
  • Use ideas to attract and nurture leads. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’m constantly beating the drum of integrating content with an automated lead management process. A lead management process gives you the ability to get the right content to the right people at the time they need it.
  • Train salespeople to use and talk about ideas. Creating good idea-based marketing content is hard and takes a long time if done right. That’s why the urge to start drinking kicks in about the time the white paper finally hits the website. But hold the beverages. Most salespeople don’t know what to do with a 20-page white paper. Marketers tell me that if they can get salespeople to even send the thing to prospects and customers they’re happy. We need to do much more than that. We need to create talking points for salespeople to use when communicating to customers and prospects, and we need to find ways to integrate salespeople into the content development and dissemination processes from the start.

How do you link content to revenue? Please give me your thoughts. Hope to meet you live, in-person soon!

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What the slow death of B2B publishing means for marketers

Marketers always struggle with what to do next. There so many channels out there and so little time. But if you step back and think about where the real opportunity is for B2B marketers, it is idea marketing. Start with a good idea and the channel questions will resolve themselves.

B2B buyers are tired of marketing, but they’re not tired of ideas. In fact, buyers are hungrier than ever for good ideas presented in an objective way that target their specific needs. The people who used to do that, B2B journalists, aren’t doing it so much anymore.

This cartoon making the rounds online captures the frustrations of trade journalists--and reveals the opportunity for B2B marketers.

The business model is broken
It’s not that the journalists have gotten lazy; it’s a problem with the business model for B2B publishing. The business side of these organizations is trying to maintain profitability by slashing staff and by maximizing online traffic to make up for lost print ad revenue (and other desiccated revenue streams like events).

But unlike the old print subscription models, where publishers qualified their audiences by setting minimum requirements for things like role in the organization and buying power (which allowed them to justify high prices for advertising), online traffic is essentially random. Today, publishers must substitute traffic quantity for quality of subscribers to get advertisers to buy. That drives publishers to produce a lot of short content designed to reach the broadest possible audience (at least one online story about Apple per day for a technology pub, for example).

Half your ad dollars wasted? Try all of them.
Meanwhile, B2B buyers still hunger for good, specific content just as they always have. But because advertisers don’t believe in print anymore, the economics aren’t there for publishers to provide it. We keep hearing that quote from John Wanamaker about how half of his print advertising dollars were wasted. Trouble is, with online that figure is closer to 100%. Advertisers have abandoned print display advertising that at least had some degree of targeting for online display ads that have no targeting at all.

It’s a no win for everybody except the ad agencies. Publishers are left with a trickle of revenue and B2B companies discover just how uninterested a generic online audience is in their products and services. Meanwhile, Google, which has become the biggest ad agency of them all, gets rich by presenting hungry content seekers with links to JC Penney.

From the ashes of trade journalism, an opportunity for marketers
However, the tragedy that has become trade journalism is an opportunity for B2B marketers.

Providers have the opportunity to fill the content gap themselves. Too bad more of them aren’t doing it. Though most respondents in our How Customers Choose research said the quality of their providers’ thought leadership was pretty good, nearly 40% said it could be better. The number one suggestion for improvement: Focus more specifically on buyers’ particular business segment and needs (which B2B print publications used to be measured on each year in reader surveys).

This longing for personalization isn’t just heard in the context of thought leadership, however. When asked to name the number one factor in choosing a provider, variations on the “know me” theme came through 42% of the time.

Measure relevance, not output
But most marketing organizations don’t measure relevance; they measure output—whether it’s in leads or downloads. Marketers need to invest their money where B2B publications used to invest it—in constantly researching their target audiences and identifying the trends and ideas that are most relevant to them. Then marketers need to provide that relevant content.

When they do, they win business. In our recent survey, How Customers Choose Solution Providers, 2010: The New Buyer Paradox (free summary available), nearly 60% of respondents said that idea-based content plays an important or critical role in determining which providers make it onto their shortlists. But if providers go farther and use thought leadership to help companies clarify their business needs and suggest solutions, 30% of respondents said they are more likely to choose those providers. Even better, more than 50% of this group said they would consider sole-sourcing the deal. And this potential windfall isn’t limited to new prospects. Existing customers are also looking for new ideas. There’s no reason you can’t explore the epiphany stage with them more than once.

Does that help clarify what to do next?

What do you think?

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