January 23, 2018

How Do You Market Something That’s Worthless?

I come from an industry (publishing) where the cost to produce the product has dropped to zero. Today, anyone can go to WordPress.com, set up a Web site, and begin publishing news and information to the world – for free. (I know, tell you something you didn’t already know, right?)

It Won’t Stop with Virtual Goods
But here’s the new wrinkle. The publishing industry is imploding because its products can be produced entirely via bits and bytes and therefore, the marginal cost, as Jeremy Rifkin puts it so eloquently in this interview and video, has dropped to zero. It becomes extremely difficult for a publisher to sell a Web site subscription when so much is available for free.

But what happens, asks Rifkin, when you cross the line from the virtual to the physical? Seems pretty hard to bring the cost of producing a cell phone to zero right? And remember how economists have been saying that localized service jobs (plumbing, hair cutting, etc.) are immune to this kind of disintermediation?

Not so, says Rifkin.

Beyond the Hype of 3D Printers
What’s refreshing is that Rifkin doesn’t just list the in-vogue economic disruptors of the moment, the 3D printer and the Internet of Things, as the reasons why physical products and services will go the way of publishing. Rather, he combines them together into a compelling vision of overall economic transformation.

The missing piece of the puzzle that fell in place for me as I listened to him talk was that since the World Wide Web came along we have been continuously training generations of people to do things themselves and in collaboration with others. For example, we figure out how to get a free WordPress blog ourselves online or through word of mouth and then we learn how to collaborate with others through social media.

Pretend the Industrial Revolution Never Happened
In a sense, we are training people to pretend that the industrial revolution never happened and that we can go back to making things the way we used to before factories and steam engines came along: by ourselves or in small (or, thanks to the near ubiquity of the internet) large collaborative groups.

Given access to the same easy-to-use, free tools that I use for publishing, I could produce a cell phone that does exactly what I want it to (my iPhone 5S doesn’t). But it won’t look like something from a Lego box because of another important development: I will be able to gather data about what the cell phone can and should do and what it should look like from my friends and the general public. These things all have GPS devices in them that only do location today, but will do much more very soon. Already app writers are pushing the boundaries of GPS on cell phones.

Monitoring – the Good Kind
As we become more comfortable having monitors on ourselves all the time (which means we will also very soon need something equivalent to the Bill of Rights for data), we will demand them on our products and vehicles, too. And that will give us access to extraordinary amounts of valuable data that until recently were only available to governments and big companies, as well as apps that make analyzing and interpreting that data as easy for us as it is for them (okay, so it’s not so easy yet).

We will have the power and information to invent or at least easily assemble many things that we have relied on companies to do for us and it means that for companies, innovation, rather than plants and machines, will be the key to survival.

My question to you is, How do we market in a world of zero marginal cost?

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Why salespeople should sell ideas: an FAQ

We all know the increasing importance of ideas in B2B marketing. But idea marketing doesn’t start and stop with marketers. For the program to be successful, those ideas must find their way into the hands of salespeople. And I’m not sure that salespeople share the same passion for ideas as we do. I think they need to be convinced. Please tell me if you think the following does the job:

  • Relationships are what matter in selling. Why should I start selling ideas instead?
    Relationship selling skills matter more than ever. Idea selling isn’t a replacement for any current selling skills. It is an additional tool.
  • But why are ideas so important now?
    Buyers are spending much more time online than they used to. A (fairly old) study by Forbes and Google found that 80% of C-level executives perform at least three web searches per day. That was in 2009. No doubt that number has continued to go up—especially with the rise of mobile and social media.
  • What does online search have to do with selling?
    As buyers do more searching, they are stretching the buying process earlier and earlier, to the point where they may not have a specific product or service in mind when they search. They are looking for inspiration and guidance on the business problems they face. Increasingly, they are going to the internet for that guidance before they speak with salespeople.
  • So you’re saying there’s a part of the buying process that doesn’t involve salespeople?
    No. I’m saying there’s a new part of the buying process that comes before buyers have decided what they want to do. They assume that salespeople can’t help them at that point. And for the most part, they’re right. Most salespeople are still focused on selling specific products and services.
  • C’mon, nobody goes in pitching anymore. I ask them about their pain points and work with them to resolve them.
    Well, ask buyers and they’ll tell you that you should know their pain points before you even walk in the door. They want to start the conversation with their pain points and work forward from there—without talking about what you have to offer them. They are looking for good ideas, facts, and data about how to solve their specific business problems. That’s what they’re looking for on the internet—why shouldn’t they expect it from their providers, too?
  • But I don’t have access to that kind of information.
    Maybe not, but someone inside your organization does. Every B2B company has subject matter experts (SMEs) who are working with customers to solve problems and have deep backgrounds in customers’ processes, industries, and functions. The trick is to discover those sources of ideas in your organization and capture their wisdom for wider distribution.
  • How do we find and tap into those sources of ideas inside the organization?
    Sales and marketing need to work together to develop an idea network—a group of internal and external SMEs that can help develop and vet new ideas and put them into the hands of salespeople. The big strategy consulting firms have been doing this for decades. But it’s only since the rise of search that buyers have begun to expect this kind of original thinking from all their providers. In a recent ITSMA survey, 88% of B2B buyers said that ideas are important or critical for providers that want to make it to their short lists.
  • How do I get these ideas in a form I can use with customers?
    Besides creating idea networks, B2B companies also have to become publishers. With the decline of B2B trade publishing, B2B providers have to pick up the slack. But it can’t be with warmed over brochures. Traditional forms of marketing are still incredibly value later on in the sales cycle, but at the early stages, companies must produce articles and surveys that can compete with what the journalists used to provide. The management consulting companies have built small publishing engines—with dedicated editors, writers, and other publishing experts—inside their four walls. B2B companies that are serious about idea selling need to do the same thing.
  • Great, so you want me to dump a bunch of whitepapers on my customers?
    No, you have to work with marketing to get those ideas translated into a form you can use with customers—whether that be idea salescards, demos, etc. Sales and marketing need to work together to figure that out. This is where many marketing groups fall down; they stop short of translating the ideas into usuable sales materials. Companies need to become as good at idea sales enablement as they are at idea publishing.

Does this look like a realistic list? What have I left out?

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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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Why our thought leadership is broken

All of our talk about marketers becoming publishers is incomplete. We can’t just become publishers, we also have to become advertisers.

Let me explain.

For centuries, publishers had an uneasy, co-dependent relationship with advertisers. A wall existed between publishers and advertisers. Publishers (the good ones, anyway) gave some of the most prominent pages in their newspapers and magazines to advertisers in return for a lot of cash, access to a targeted group of customers, and editorial independence from advertiser influence.

Marketers, meanwhile, didn’t have a wall, so they filled their content with self-aggrandizing references to their own products and services that pissed off readers and sent them to other sources for advice.

What’s the point?
Lately, as traditional media fall away, marketers are getting the message and creating content that looks just like the stuff that readers love from traditional media: news, advice, and new thinking that is not meant to manipulate them into buying something. And they’re linking this content to their social media management strategies.

But that’s only part of the answer.

Ironically, a lot of this new content is pissing off readers in a new way: they like the content but they don’t understand why it’s there, where it’s going, or what they should do with it.

Marketing through association
This is where the advertising part comes in. One of the reasons that companies used to like to advertise in publications like Fortune and BusinessWeek and in trade magazines like CIO was that they could associate their companies with the smart content that these publications produce. The association was subtle, not overt. It may have taken quite a while before a reader started to associate a company advertising in a magazine with the subject matter covered in the magazine. But it happened.

Of course, then the internet happened and advertisers got tired of subtle. They demanded that readers click on their banner ads on publishers’ websites before they’d pay. Readers, long accustomed to the subtle approach, may have looked at those crappy banner ads but they didn’t click and the publishing industry has collapsed as a result.

But from the ashes of publishing, subtle association is making a comeback. The same web analytics that have destroyed publishing are now getting marketers fired because nobody’s clicking on their white papers and surveys.

Partly that’s a quality issue, but it’s also an issue of B2B marketers taking the publishing analogy too literally. They duplicate the content they used to see in trade magazines without providing the context that magazines provide for why that content is there in the first place.

Idea marketing as checklist
For many B2B companies, idea marketing is a check box on a marketing list. They think up all the different things that magazines offer to readers and then make a list: Surveys? Check. Interviews with industry luminaries? Check.

But readers are left to wonder, what’s the point? Why are you giving me all this stuff? What does it mean?

A new way to make idea marketing relevant
Marketers need to invent their own version of subtle association. The publishing model of ads next to content won’t work, of course. Putting ads for your own company next to your own content is silly.

Instead, marketers must create a clear line of sight for readers. They need simple, clear, visual messages that integrate with but don’t detract from their idea marketing content and make a reference to the services that they offer. A simple entry point leads to deeper and deeper related content. And all this deep thinking relates, by association, to the services that you offer.

The nice thing about online is that its hierarchical structure makes this kind of integration easy.

Here, marketers need to tear down a wall of their own creation—the one that separates the ad agencies from the idea marketing content producers. The two have to work together to create themes that are thoughtful and that are about getting readers interested—it’s about leading the horse to the idea marketing bucket. Rather than just shoving readers’ muzzles in the bucket of surveys and white papers, we lead them there with some short, clear, visual themes that are focused on issues that matter to customers rather than on silly ad tag lines or collages of the logo.

Association in action: Smarter Planet
The best example of this that I can think of is IBM’s Smarter Planet. I’m guessing that the term came from an ad agency. But it straddles the issue of green in a way that seems to show knowledge of the target audience and the kinds of ideas they might be open to receiving through such a campaign.

Most CIOs wouldn’t mind being green, but their businesses evaluate them on cost and efficiency. If they can be greener while cutting costs and becoming more efficient then great, but they won’t respond to a purely green message or content. Using “smarter” rather than “greener” seems to encapsulate and get beyond that dilemma in a way that only a good ad copywriter can.

Themes send a signal to the organization
Much as a good simple teaser headline on the cover of a magazine leads readers to the well of deeper content that is the feature story, so too does smarter planet serve as a simple way to lead readers to a bunch of what we would consider traditional thought leadership content: case studies, whitepapers, and a few links to services that CIOs could use in their own departments (with IBM’s help, of course).

The theme (as opposed to an ad slogan) is something that IBM’s marketers can use in many different channels, like social media, and sends a clear signal to the organization that Palmisano probably won’t complain if you decide to write a few post about the intersection of green and efficiency on your blog.

We’re building the publishing engines in our marketing groups, but I think we’re leaving this larger issue of themes and marketing by association out of the process. What do you think?

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