October 22, 2014

The last of the anti-social marketing tactics

Taglines are the last bastions of a classic, one-way marketing messaging strategy, preserving marketing’s perceived right to tell customers what to think.

In truth, customers have never listened, except in a few cases of companies with the budget muscle to pound the tagline into customers’ heads over and over again though mass marketing and TV.

In B2B marketing, we’ve never been given the right to tell customers what to think, much less the budgets to pound a tagline into their minds. I’ve spoken to hundreds of CIOs in my career as a journalist and I can tell you that at best, they ignore taglines; at worst, they feel their intelligence insulted by them.

And yet we keep spending hard-earned shareholders’ dollars creating these shallow soundbites that are supposed to protect our brands, even though the transparency of the internet, and now social media, have rendered such defenses useless.

Not that the defenses were much more than Maginot Lines to begin with. I recently did a search on some well-known B2B technology brands and compiled their taglines in the list below. Many of these companies compete with one another. Can you imagine being a buyer surfing providers’ websites and seeing even a handful of these in quick succession? I put them in alphabetical order so that you can feel the “Power of Repetition” in the words and “Experience the Selling.” I mean, some of them are just plain incomprehensible, communicating to buyers that we live in “A Certain World of Connected Freedom for Caring People to Passionately Inspire the Valuable Impact of More Enterprise Silliness”:

  • A world of communications
  • Agility made possible
  • Applying thought
  • At the speed of ideas
  • Building a world of difference
  • Building tomorrow’s enterprise
  • Confidence in a connected world
  • Creating business impact
  • Cutting through complexity
  • Experience certainty
  • Experience the commitment
  • Freedom to care
  • Inspire the next
  • Passion for building stronger businesses
  • People matter, results count.
  • The power to know
  • The power of we
  • The power to do more
  • Results realized
  • The value of performance
  • Working with clients, not just for them

It is also interesting to note how many well-known B2B technology companies do not use taglines (at least not that I could see on their home pages): BMC, BT, Cisco, Deloitte, EMC, Juniper, Lenovo, Microsoft, Nokia-Siemens, Oracle, Pitney Bowes, Xerox. Are the marketers at these companies not doing their jobs? Or have these companies decided that they are going to stop trying to sell themselves in a couple of hackneyed words and instead do it through relationships and experience?

There’s even one company, IBM, which inverts the focus of the tagline from internal “capabilities” to something that customers may actually care a whit about: Smarter Planet.

'a Smarter Planet' logo

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Actually, calling Smarter Planet a tagline does it a disservice. Unlike traditional taglines, which generally hang on the corners of websites like misplaced socks, with no discernible connection to anything around them, Smarter Planet is paired up with a lot of interesting thought leadership content that lines up with IBM’s business strategy—it’s a business theme rather than a tagline. I predict that we’re going to see a lot more B2B companies moving in this direction in the coming year.

What do you think? What am I missing about the value of taglines?

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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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The crisis of buyer information in B2B and how to fix it

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The other day, I kept getting calls on my cell phone from the same number. Never left a voice mail, (which my gut was telling me should have been a signal), but the number was local. Could it really be that someone I knew was trying to get hold of me?

So, like a fool, I finally called back (the iPhone makes it so easy to do!). With the kind of maddening irony that makes me flash on doing capital punishment-inducing physical harm to a fellow human, I heard a recorded voice say, “Thanks for calling back. If you would like us to stop calling you press…”

Too bad you can’t slam an iPhone.

Pushing the easy button
The episode reminded me of the sheer desperation, sociopathic lack of empathy, and .0000000000000000001% response rate it takes to do direct commercial marketing via the telephone these days. Some of you may not even be old enough to recall what it was like before the National Do Not Call Registry came along. Don’t ask. You think Wall Street and the banks are evil now? You should have seen what they did to doddering seniors’ life savings via the telephone.

It got me thinking, what if a similar easy button comes along for online marketing? We keep hearing that at some point web users may truly be able to stop you from learning anything about them. The “voluntary policing” being done by the ad industry today online is at best an uneasy truce with an internet public not yet bothered enough, too lazy, or too uniformed to do anything about shutting off the cookie oven for good. Certainly, you know that the kinds of douche bags who practice the aforementioned cell phone marketing are no doubt out there somewhere hatching an internet cookie scheme that will so outrage the American public that the little old ladies (and men) will finally rise up and demand relief, just as they did with telephone marketing.

Obviously, this is less of an issue in B2B than B2C. Cookies help us learn more about our website visitors, but you won’t learn nearly as much about the spending patterns of B2B executives through web cookies as you do with B2C buyers.

Privacy is a concern in B2B, too
Yet even in B2B, we have a growing concern over privacy in lead management. Anecdotally, we hear that content gets exponentially more clicks when there’s no registration form attached to it. And people’s B2C experiences have a habit of leaking over to their B2B behavior. Generally I think we can say that the trend and sentiment among B2B buyers is to hand over less information over time rather than more.

So how to stave off this impending crisis of buyer information? It may seem facile, but social media are the answer. Rather than trading information for value or simply stealing it through invisible cookies, what if we actually did it the way people do in real life: through a personal relationship?

Buyers click more on pages with people
Buyers want to get to know your subject matter experts. They really do. I saw a terrific interview recently with Ethan McCarty of IBM, who talked about how IBM is working to get its employees involved in internal knowledge sharing through social mechanisms. You should read the whole thing, but one bit jumped out at me as great data for proving why we need to get more personal with buyers:

“Through A/B testing we have found that pages with IBMers on them perform significantly better than those that do not have IBMers on them. For example, if we have a web page that is designed to get visitors to click deeper into our site, the presence of IBM experts on the page improves both the performance and the overall feedback we get about the page. It’s kind of no surprise—when we are transparent, people trust us and feel better about the experience. What was interesting to me is that this is even the case when they don’t interact directly with the IBMer on the page.”

Marketers who let their subject matter experts get more personal with buyers will win in the end.

What do you think? Are you making plans for a post-buyer information age? If so, how?

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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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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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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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15 things marketers should stop doing and thinking in 2011

Here’s a list of things I wish we would stop doing and thinking as of December 31st:

Social media

  • Social media cause people to waste time at work. Companies have a long and pointless history of resisting new forms of communication. From Facebook to email to putting telephones on employees’ desks (remember, the telephone started as a “consumer” communication technology, too), companies think that every new wave is going to lead to gajillions in lost productivity. Dude, this stuff isn’t heroin, okay? The problem is not with employees or with the communications technologies, it’s with the premise that employees come into work determined to waste time. Guess what companies, people wasted time at work long before Facebook came along. If the company is well managed, people who waste time will get fired. People who sell your trade secrets on the internet will go to jail. Stop wasting money on pointless, ineffective efforts to block this stuff and start finding ways to make these channels pay.
  • Social media relationships are shallow and meaningless. We all know twitter can’t start revolutions or substitute for gazing meaningfully into someone’s eyes over dinner, but what I don’t understand is why the critics can’t see a link between the bonds that we form on social media and the deeper links that we forge offline. For example, the viral relationship model of Twitter adds a new dimension to relationships, it doesn’t subtract. You meet tons more people than you would in more traditional permission-based environments and some of those relationships will wind up becoming the kinds of deeper, more meaningful exchanges that the critics say we are losing through social media. I’ve formed a handful of excellent business relationships on Twitter this year—we know each other on sight and (gasp) we’ve even spoken to one another. Now, are a handful of real relationships a good return considering that I have 1400 followers on Twitter? Yes, because these relationships would not have happened otherwise. Shallow relationships don’t have to remain that way and existing relationships don’t have to go all shallow just because you start interacting in social media.
  • Interactions substitute for relationships. Many seemingly logical, intelligent people send me automated direct messages (DMs) when I follow them on Twitter, making them seem like robot spammers rather than people. They think that by throwing that extra interaction in there that it is somehow going to deepen our relationship. Soon, we’ll be able to automate our social media relationships through bots that can judge sentiment. The theory is that social media powered by humans doesn’t scale well. It’s nothing new; authors automated their interactions with readers centuries ago with the printing press. Just don’t go believing that these interactions can ever be substitutes for a human relationship.
  • Filtered conversation reduces risk. The ultimate risk in business is that your customers stop buying from you because they don’t trust you. Preventing employees from speaking to customers because they might make a mistake ignores this much bigger risk—which existed long before social media came along. Customers want to speak to the people they will be working with. That’s why employees and subject matter experts should be on the front lines of social media rather than marketers or PR people.
  • External social media marketing is more important than internal social media collaboration. We did some case studies at ITSMA this year that showed that companies could easily blow up half their offices and do away with most of their administrative and bureaucratic structures without a single customer noticing. The technology for virtual collaboration is finally catching up to the promise of internal knowledge management that we’ve been hearing about for years. Plus, it can make both employees and customers happier than they are now.
  • More volume creates more influence. In traditional media, influence comes from sheer numbers—the more subscribers to your newspaper, the better. But influence in social media isn’t purely a numbers game (though numbers can certainly help). It’s also about the degree of interconnectedness. There’s a scary analogy here, to viruses. Viruses ultimately benefit more from infecting 100 people who travel widely across the world than from infecting 10,000 people in one place. The most influential people in social media will be those who can combine large followings with diverse groups of followers who themselves also have many diverse followers.
  • Social media has ROI. Unless you are selling products, and inexpensive ones at that, it is impossible to track a tweet or a blog post directly to a sale. For expensive, complex B2B products and services, social media can improve relationships with customers and increase awareness. Do you call that ROI? I don’t. ROI should be measured on a higher level—as in the ROI of all of marketing to the business.

Mobile

General Marketing

  • Analytics can wait. We need to close the loop on what buyers do with our content and use that insight to predict what they will do next. Buying marketing automation tools or social media analysis tools aren’t enough. You need people who know how to create analytical processes and algorithms and all that stuff. Wall Street is already trying to make sense of the massive river of online conversation for business purposes. We need people who can do it, too.
  • We must measure the ROI of social media (or any other individual marketing tactic). CEOs don’t care about individual tactics; they want to know whether marketing in general reduces the time to revenue and improves the productivity of sales. We need to start measuring the larger impact of marketing rather than measuring activity or individual tactics.
  • Publish it and they will come. We have a crisis in marketing channels. All year, marketers have been telling me that they are having a harder and harder time getting noticed in traditional channels like white papers, email newsletters, and events. This is a typical comment: “I’ve got plenty of content. It’s getting people to pay attention to it that’s the problem!” We need to mashup some new channels out of combinations of new and old to stand out and be heard now. A few examples of things that ITSMA clients did this year:
  • Describing what you do is thought leadership. Creating compelling offers and descriptions of products and services is an art, it really is. But it ain’t thought leadership. Customers want ideas for fixing their problems and proof that they can trust you. Most companies still try to sell what they have rather than figuring out what customers need.
  • Sales support is marketing’s primary role. Many companies think that they are maximizing their investment in marketing by limiting it to sales support. What they don’t realize is that buyers have removed salespeople from the earliest stages of the buying process by doing their own research with colleagues, peers, on the web, and in social media. Marketing is most effective at this stage, when buyers want nothing to do with salespeople. Marketing organizations that don’t break out of the sales support role will be trapped in a Catch-22 of increasingly poor performance and waning confidence from the business side.
  • Email will always be cool. Hey, we’re humans. We resist change and we have irrational hope for the future. So we keep doing stuff we’re comfortable doing for longer than we probably should rather than embracing new stuff. Email is inconvenient, impersonal, slow, rife with spam, and not particularly intelligent. But we’re used to it. The kids have already dumped it in favor of texting and social networking. Email won’t go away tomorrow but it will gradually be starved of all meaningful human interaction until it becomes a graveyard of official business communications and, wait for it, marketing. We should probably start planning for email’s funeral now so we don’t miss it.

What things do you wish we would stop doing and saying in 2011?

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How to make social media add up

Back in the eighties, when newspapers were only beginning to disappear, I worked for a local paper in a very competitive (journalistically, anyway) part of the world: the moneyed, New York City suburban area of Fairfield County, CT (Greenwich, Stamford, etc.).

Among the five different newspapers that covered the same turf as I did was the New York Times, which had a section called “Connecticut Weekly” on Sundays. In this section, the Times would do something that drove me insane with envy and jealously.

Just as in the main daily edition of the Times, all the news that’s fit to print for the “Connecticut Weekly” section didn’t include sweating the small stuff, the slowly developing, often tedious stories that are the bread-and-butter of local weeklies and dailies desperate to fill their pages.

During the weeks and months that I slaved away on developing stories like a proposed new office development, dutifully updating my readers on every little shift in their fair city’s mood and shape, occasionally something of real interest would happen. A neighborhood might get really angry and stage a rally protesting development, for example.

The predatory strike of summation
In instances like this, the Times would hire a talented freelancer to swoop in like a predatory bird, scanning everything that me and all the other beat reporters on the other local papers had written on the subject in the months leading up to this point and nail the story with a killing strike—a single, cogent, engaging, original (never plagiarized) narrative leading up to the dramatic denouement of the protest. I was so obsessed with following the breadcrumb details of stories like this that I rarely looked up in time to preempt the predatory strike—my only satisfaction came from seeing my serial accounts shifted from their usual spots somewhere deep inside the pages of my newspaper to a brief, fleeting appearance on the front page.

Well, this week I finally have my revenge on the Times, thanks in part, to you.

How to use social media to create thought leadership
In the nearly three years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been relentlessly chronicling my pursuit of the developing story of social media for B2B marketers and absorbing your comments and real-world stories. And while I know that others have already made the predatory strike in terms of trying to sum all this stuff up for marketers, at least I can be the first to digest and transform my stuff into a proper summation narrative. This week, we released my ITSMA Special Report: “How to Fit Social Media into your Overall Marketing Strategy and Make it Stick.”

The report is a combination of the reporting I’ve done here on this blog, case studies of social media that I’ve done for ITSMA, and two surveys that we’ve done at ITSMA over the past three years. But it’s also more than the sum of its parts. In combining all this stuff together, I was forced to create a summation narrative that made sense of all the different pieces. In the process, I discovered five important steps that B2B companies must take to integrate social media into the overall marketing strategy.

Why creating a summation narrative is better than reuse
Putting this report together has made me realize the value of turning the breadcrumb trail into a summation narrative. You’d save yourself a lot of time if you made this part of your content strategy from the beginning. Here are some reasons why:

  • Create a larger goal. About the time that we did our first ITSMA social media survey, I realized that I should begin trying to write about all of the different areas that we were asking about on the survey so that we could come up with something more definitive than a bunch of numbers. Having this goal in the back of my mind helped push me to continue to blog about social media even though so many others were doing the same thing. At some point, I thought, all these little posts are going to add up to something bigger.
  • Motivate yourself to write. As I started investigating and writing about the different facets of social media that we were looking at in our research, it all became like a puzzle with missing pieces. I became driven to fill in those pieces.
  • Create new IP. What drove me especially crazy about the summation narratives that the Times did was how the process of summarizing the story forced the writer to create logic that linked everything together. What were the precipitating factors that had led to the neighborhood revolting against the office development? How were they connected? These aren’t questions that occur to you when you’re focused just on the individual pieces of the story. When I started putting together our social media report, I had to do the same thing. In creating logic to link all the different pieces I had together, I created new IP.
  • Anticipate the next big change. Once you’ve created a larger summation narrative, it becomes easier to see when the world has changed. It’s much harder to see the big changes when you’re focused on the little pieces. Just as I didn’t see the neighborhood insurrection as the defining moment in the office development story, IBM, for example, became so focused on optimizing the individual pieces of its portfolio back in the eighties and nineties that no one saw that the bigger narrative had changed: IT was moving from selling individual boxes to fixing bigger problems with a mix of products and services.
  • Move beyond simple reuse. Sure, regular readers of my blog will recognize some sections of the social media report from some of my posts here, but in nearly every case I had to add more to weave these pieces into the larger picture. Needing to create a larger linking logic gives new life to older content.

I know I’ve been telling you to reuse and re purpose content, but now I realize that there’s another important opportunity in this strategy: creating a summation narrative. What do you think? Have you done this with your content?

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Is the era of PR over?

Among the many interesting ideas thrown around at ITSMA’s annual conference this week was that the era of PR is over.

As in dead. Don’t do it anymore.

First, let’s define what PR means from the perspective of the customer (i.e., a journalist) and the customer’s customer (i.e., the readers of the journalists’ publications). Looked at this way, there are only two types of PR: Guard dog PR and placement PR. Let’s look at each in more detail.

Guard dog PR. These are the internal corporate PR representatives. Unless the company they work for is a startup or otherwise desperate for attention, these people tend to be ground down by the risk management aspect of their jobs over time. Much like IT people, they don’t hear much from anyone inside their companies unless something goes wrong. Then they get plenty of the wrong kinds of attention. The pressures on the guard dogs lead to a lot of problems:

  • The emphasis is on risk avoidance. The outsized focus on the negative from the people that sign internal PR people’s checks inevitably turns them into risk-averse guard dogs. After all, the only real foolproof way to keep your people from saying stupid things is to not let them speak in the first place.
  • Message control cuts out half the conversation. Our lives are filled with good and bad, yin and yang. It’s called being human. But guard dogs don’t have that luxury. If they are to avoid risk, they must stick to the positive—or at least the not negative. Like that last phrase, what ends up coming out is crap that doesn’t sound human.
  • Your customer hates and avoids you. Journalists have always hated the system represented by the guard dogs. This hatred sparked a (not quite) equal and opposite reaction: investigative journalism. Journalists try to get around the guard dogs whenever and however possible, which often makes the situation even worse for companies.
  • The rigors of the job breed mistrust. Like the people behind the counter at the DMV, most guard dogs have had just enough bad experiences with people to make them wary and mistrusting of everyone. And frankly, the demands of the job favor those who come to mistrust naturally. These aren’t the people you want talking to influencers and customers.
  • Nobody reads your content. Back when we had a strong press, the fact that press releases were self-aggrandizing crap didn’t matter. In order to differentiate themselves from the many other journalists receiving the same releases, self-respecting journalists never used anything from press releases in their stories. They dug deeper and created original content. Today, the few remaining journalists don’t even have time to read the releases anymore. They do their research on the web. And customers never read the releases.
  • Press releases are not substitutes for real content. As the media melts away, companies can’t link to or highlight objective sources on the website. That means many companies have nothing to offer visitors to their websites besides press releases and offering descriptions. In B2B, that’s not going to build relationships with customers.

Placement PR. The second type of PR is based on getting the company’s thought leaders into publications and other externally-sponsored venues. Occasionally, the placement PR people are in-house, but in the vast majority of cases the placement people are contracted through PR agencies. This does a number of things. First, it focuses the agency on some clear goals—cranking out press releases and getting press mentions—and gives the guard dogs a degree of separation that helps with risk management. For example, if the agency-managed interview leads to bad press, the guard dogs can show that they are managing risk for the company by blaming and firing the agency (agencies are used to this and work with many different companies in order to manage the ever-present risk of getting fired). However, there are as many problems with this model as with the guard dog model:

  • Lack of focus. PR agencies generally serve as many different clients as possible in order to maximize their resources and profits. This usually means an avalanche of poorly written, completely untargeted press releases, and interview pitches that show no understanding of the target influencer’s publication or audience.
  • Metrics that favor activity over results. Agencies’ goals and metrics are usually based on the needs and wants of the guard dogs rather than on the needs and wants of the target customer—the influencer. This means that metrics are based on merely making contact and shoveling crap out the door rather than helping influencers meet their goals.
  • The emphasis is on contacting rather than helping. In fairness to PR people, if their metrics were entirely based on placements in articles, they’d all starve. Journalists can only do so many interviews and many of those don’t make it into articles. But most agencies overemphasize contacting—annoying phone calls, emails, etc.—at the expense of helping.
  • The pool of targets is shrinking. PR people have always outnumbered journalists, but these days it looks like a beehive surrounding the queen. Meanwhile, companies’ appetite for exposure continues unabated, which just increases the noise that the few remaining journalists are hearing to an unintelligible level. Companies that aren’t cutting the number of placement people are wasting their money.
  • The process is incredibly expensive and inefficient. The process of getting subject matter experts placed in publications or other third-party content channels is awful for everyone involved. The agency must go through the guard dogs to get permission for the subject matter experts to speak, then they must get the attention of the busy interviewee, then they must coordinate with the busy executive and the external parties to make it all come together. The inefficiency and expense of this process for the agencies was tough to justify even in the glory days of trade journalism, conferences, and trade shows. Now, it’s even harder to justify.
  • Control kills placement. I could always tell when my interviewees were coached and under a tight leash. They were uncomfortable, guarded, and hurried. And they never said anything of value. The entire process was focused on trying to use me and my publication for corporate messaging—as though that’s what my readers wanted. I’m sure many of these PR people went back to their companies proclaiming success after one of these interviews. I never used any of it.
  • Trust requires fewer resources. Most of the hundreds of CIOs I interviewed over the course of my career were happy to be interviewed. Most had no media training, and many spoke to me without PR people on the line. The CIOs instinctively understood that they were spokespeople for their companies while also understanding that spouting corporate pabulum would not get them quoted. And they knew the value of being perceived as a thought leader, both within their companies and with their peers. I think some guard dogs and agencies perpetuate the myth that their subject matter experts will crack under questioning and that companies need to spend lavishly on legions of PR people to prevent the inevitable disaster. It’s a myth.

I don’t hate PR people
Look, please don’t think that I dislike PR people or don’t understand their value. As a journalist I met up with some real pros that got it. They understood my publication, my audience, and my needs. They would work hard to get CIOs and subject matter experts to agree to talk to me in an open way. They didn’t coach CIOs to talk only about how they used the products and services of the company. On the contrary, they asked me to explain the story I was working on and supplied that information to the CIO or their subject matter experts prior to the interview. I truly valued these PR pros and always told them so.

But the death of the media and the rise of the web and social media mean that the traditional model for PR, already creaky and inefficient, is becoming indefensible. What do you think?

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