How WebMD Has Changed B2B Marketing Forever

webmd2Many B2B companies, and professional services firms in particular, do not succeed at marketing for two major reasons:

  • Failure to understand that the vendor selection process has fundamentally changed.

Prospective customers now turn to their personal networks and publicly available information — via digital and social media channels—to self-diagnose their problems and to self-prescribe their own solutions. In this new WebMD World of B2B Marketing, making the short list of potential vendors relies heavily on being visible and appearing smart in appropriate online channels on a consistent basis.

To appreciate the magnitude of this shift in how customers select outside resources, consider 2012 market research conducted by the Corporate Executive Board’s Marketing Leadership Council, which surveyed more than 1,500 customer contacts (decision makers and influencers in a recent major business purchase) for 22 large B2B organizations spanning all major NAICS categories and 10 industries. As depicted below, the survey revealed that the average customer had completed nearly 60% of the purchase decision-making process prior to engaging a supplier sales rep directly.  At the upper limit, the responses ran as high as 70%.

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The implications of this research are clear: B2B companies that fail to “show up strong” in the online world are missing engagement opportunities with potential as well as existing clients.

  • Failure to respond properly to the new vendor selection process.

Unfortunately, many B2B companies that understand the new dynamics of vendor selection have responded in knee-jerk fashion, by saturating every possible online / digital channel and social media platform with content that neither reaches nor resonates with decision makers in their target audiences. Although buyer selection habits have changed, when it comes to brand awareness and positioning of a company’s value proposition, less is still more. And this chart explains why:

Attention Web

The online world makes it easy to obtain information, but extremely difficult to gain attention over all the noise. Increasingly, B2B firms are learning that simply having all the online visibility tools – company blog, Twitter account, Facebook page, LinkedIn profile, etc. – does not guarantee marketplace attention. They’re also learning that tactics designed to feed those online beasts – most often “currated content” from 3rd parties – can be akin to the “throw some shit on the wall and hope something sticks” marketing approach.

The firms benefitting most from the new WebMD World of B2B Marketing apply traditional marketing disciplines: they stake out intellectual territory that supports their brand with insights that are relevant and interesting to clients, prospects and referrals sources; they drive top-of-mind awareness (and new business inquiries) by ensuring that those target audiences receive their insights on a consistent basis; they create opportunities to engage, rather than talk at, decision makers; and they use online tools to enhance, rather than replace, direct communication with existing and prospective customers.

 

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The Attention Web: What B2B Marketers Need to Know

For B2B marketers who are too busy to keep up-to-date on every marketing trend and buzzword, here are a few thoughts on all the current noise about the Attention Web:

  • Attention as a marketing asset is not a new concept: Top-of-mind awareness has always served as a cornerstone of effective B2B marketing.  In their 2001 book, The Attention Economy, social scholars Thomas Davenport and John Beck proposed that in today’s information-flooded world, the most scarce resource does not involve ideas, money or talent. They argued that unless companies learn to effectively capture, manage and maintain attention – both internally and in the marketplace – they will fail. Here’s one way to understand what’s happening:

Attention Web

  • Pageviews, Likes, Clicks, Shares and Downloads do not measure engagement: Now that the advertising industry is using actual data to evaluate online behavior, smart B2B marketers can validate what they’ve always suspected about the metrics that are used to measure the effectiveness of the content they produce. There is now hard evidence that shows the number of clicks, comments, and shares are not indicative of how much time people spend engaged with the actual content. One recent study, reflected below – produced by Chartbeat and based on a boatload of data – demonstrates that there is no relationship between how often a piece of content is shared and the amount of attention the average reader will give that content. The good news for B2B marketers is that there are now editorial analytic tools that can provide attention and engagement metrics and insights.

article sharing

  • Attention, engagement and business relationships are driven by quality content: Beyond whatever products or services they sell, all B2B companies must establish credibility and trust with clients, prospects and referral sources. Initial inquiries and longstanding relationships are not nurtured by bombarding target audiences with aggregated content from 3rd parties. The most successful B2B firms only associate their brand with highly relevant content, most often home-grown, that supports their value proposition, stakes out intellectual territory, avoids self-serving claims and truly differentiates their company from competitors. Less can be more, when it comes to B2B content.

 

  • Don’t rely on the internet exclusively to generate market attention. For B2B firms, direct communication (email, snail mail, face-to-face, etc.) with target audiences remains the most effective means of gaining and maintaining engagement. If you’ve created high quality content, ensure that it earns an adequate marketing ROI by consistently putting it in front of the right people; don’t expect them to find your content by themselves on your company website or blog, on LinkedIn or through Twitter. Those online channels should be considered a secondary, rather than the primary means, of generating attention and engagement through content.

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Peter Drucker on “The Four Roles of the CFO”

Dr. Peter F. Drucker, Management Thought Leader

In the early 1990s, Highlander Consulting was engaged by Phibro Energy to help introduce energy derivatives to Chief Financial Officers at corporations with substantial exposure to fluctuations in oil, gasoline and jet fuel prices.

As part of an integrated marketing strategy, management legend Dr. Peter F. Drucker, then serving as a professor at Claremont Graduate School, was engaged to serve as keynote speaker at the Phibro Energy Risk Management Forum, held at The Metropolitan Club in New York City.

Dr. Drucker, who passed away at age 95 in 2005, chose to speak on what he called, “The Four Roles of the CFO.” His remarks before more than 200 CFOs appear to be as relevant now as when he spoke to them nearly 25 years ago.

Here are some highlights from Peter Drucker’s presentation, which can not be found in any one of his 39 books:

The CFO as Information Officer:

“The original role of the CFO was to be the information officer of the business…Accounting, which is information, is changing today more than it has changed in the last hundred years…CFOs will have to make an important decision for their companies not very far down the line, on how to get rid of the pernicious rift between information that is concept-focused, which is accounting, and information that is transaction-focused, which is computerized information…

“The notion that you should split these two universes of information between the Chief Financial Officer, who is responsible for financial information, and the Chief Information Officer, who is responsible for non-financial information is not a good idea…

“The only reliable information we have available to us basically is “inside” information, mostly in our accounting systems. And yet, the events that really determine the success of business do not happen on the inside…So CFOs have a big job ahead: bringing together information channels, and learning an accounting system that’s going to be very different. It will require an ability to get “inside” information by manipulating figures quickly, and combining it with “outside” information, which is largely anecdotal today.”

The CFO as Financial Advisor:

“The Chief Financial Officer must think about the financial consequences of projected policies and actions, not only in terms of costs but in terms of the allocation of scarce resources…So the chief financial adviser’s job is to think about opportunity costs, and most CFOs don’t do this…As a CFO, you must think about what a policy or project is likely to return. Also think about the consequences if it doesn’t work…So the chief financial adviser basically is a conscience, a financial conscience.”

The CFO as Productivity Manager:

“There is a third CFO function, which is managing money for the business. I’m not talking of the treasury function; that is only a small part of it. The biggest part of this involves managing the productivity of capital…It’s my view that you can increase the productivity of capital in any organization three percent a year compounded, by just plain hard work, provided it’s allocated properly. And this is a function which is not, bluntly, on your professional agenda today…

“Top management doesn’t think financially. They think in terms of next quarter’s dividend, and that’s not thinking financially. They don’t think in terms of the financial impact of business decisions and the business impact of financial decisions. And that, I think, is your biggest educational job ahead.”

The CFO as Asset Protector:

“The fourth dimension of the CFO’s role is the preservation and protection of assets. This is a duty of a company that benefits not only the shareholders, but also society…The stupidest thing you can do is attempt to predict the future. Brilliant people have seen that those who predict eventually come to grief. Truly brilliant people understand that they must make external fluctuations irrelevant to their business…

“The protection of assets involves making sure that the risks over which you have no control are managed, and do not interfere with the conduct of the business. Losses based on fluctuations of commodities are no longer permissible, any more than it is permitted to have a factory burn down without insurance coverage. These are manageable risks.”

If you’d like to receive a copy of Peter Drucker’s complete remarks at the Phibro Energy Risk Management Forum in 1991, just shoot me a note.

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My Life in Jellyfish Bay: The Things We Say and Do to Kids

There’s no shortage of Catholic school horror stories based on cruel and twisted treatment of grammar and high school kids taught by nuns, back in the days when these “Brides of Christ” wore black & white Medieval wardrobes featuring rosary beads long enough to hang by the neck any wise-acre who brought a Duncan yo-yo to class or tried to peek into the girls’ bathroom. Mistreatment by Catholic school nuns produced such a wealth of stories – some funny, others not-so-much – that successful books, board games and Broadway shows have been built around the shared experiences of former kids who survived the ordeal. Like Vietnam vets, but with no medals for valor.

Prominent in my personal inventory of Catholic school memories is the time I spent living in Jellyfish Bay: a designated row of 5 desks at the back end of Sister Anthony’s 6th grade classroom reserved for “people who have no backbone.” Students sentenced to Jellyfish Bay – according to this 4’5” elderly troll whose face featured no fewer than 3 moles with long black hairs protruding – were failing to live up to their potential in her class. Although I can’t recall how many weeks or months that I was known to my classmates as a Jellyfish, I remember vividly the humiliation I felt each time a visitor would come into our classroom. On each occasion, I’d slink down in my chair, Jellyfish-style, as Sister Anthony explained to them why we were sitting in Jellyfish Bay.

I’m confident that my many personal quirks, self-doubts, shortcomings and character flaws were either shaped or hard-wired by my time in Jellyfish Bay and by similar indignities during 12 years of Catholic school education.  But that abuse did have an upside, in terms of making me hypersensitive to the long-term impact of the things we say and do to kids.

During my high school and college years, because I liked working with kids, I served as a day camp counselor for summertime employment. After I graduated from college, I taught school for 5 years. In my final year of teaching, at a large public high school, I was sitting in the library one afternoon when a very tall, athletic-looking male student approached me. In a deep baritone voice, sounding older than his years, he asked, “Are you Mr. Andrew, who was a camp counselor at Robinson Day Camp?” I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I should cover my face or hide under the table. “Uhh….yeah, that’s me,” I offered.

The student dropped his macho stance and his voice, and explained, “My name is Billy Campbell. When I was 7 years old, you were my camp counselor. One day, you told me that I was the fastest runner you had ever seen in your life, and you gave me a blue letter “R” made out of felt cloth.” As he spoke, I recalled that we would give felt letters to campers as awards for various achievements. “Right…,” I said, pretending to remember the incident.

He continued his story. “Well, I remember that day. I stuck that felt letter on the mirror in my bedroom, and it’s still there. I’ve looked at it every day over the past 8 years, because it makes me feel good about myself, and gives me confidence. And I’m on the J.V. football team here. So…I just wanted to thank you.” Billy shook my hand quickly and walked away. I mumbled something stupid to him, as I fought to hold back tears.

That one moment, that solitary acknowledgement from a kid I’d long forgotten, whose life I had touched in a positive way, was well worth all the time spent in Sister Anthony’s Jellyfish Bay. At least in the eyes of Billy Campbell, the fastest runner in the world, I will always have a backbone.

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Client Newsletters: Empty Suit of the B2B Marketing Mix

Most Client Newsletters Deliver No Tangible Value

Most Client Newsletters Deliver No Tangible Business Value

Client newsletters are the most widely used, often abused and hotly debated B2B marketing tactic for professional services firms of any size. Here are three highly subjective myths and realities to help your firm determine whether it’s a worthwhile tool, or how to improve your current newsletter.

MYTH #1:        Your Firm Needs a Client Newsletter

Marketers want you to believe that your firm needs a client newsletter. But traditional newsletters – containing commentary ranging from tax legislation to new technology, or who’s joined the firm – are not a marketing necessity. In fact, at many firms their client newsletter is a marketing albatross. Each issue involves a frustrating hunt for timely information of genuine interest that has not already been provided to clients by another news source. Some firms avoid this pain by slapping their logo on boilerplate content purchased from a 3rd party, but those firms can pay a bigger price, in terms of brand damage. Canned content says to target audiences, “We value our relationship, but we don’t really care enough (or know enough) to produce our own newsletter.”

REALITY #1:     Your Firm Needs to Drive Top-of-Mind Awareness

The intrinsic purpose of tactics that communicate with clients, prospects and referral sources is to reinforce the perception that your firm is smart, trustworthy and prepared to help. Beyond keeping and growing existing clients, your primary marketing goal is to drive top-of-mind awareness with target audiences. That way, when a prospect is seeking assistance, there’s a greater likelihood your firm will be selected, or at least will be put on the “short list” of candidates. If that’s the goal, then consistency and quality of the contact are critical; neither of which necessarily require a newsletter format to accomplish.

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MYTH #2:        People Want to Learn About Your Firm’s Success

It’s nice to think that clients and prospects really care about your firm’s growth and accomplishments. The sad truth is that your success is more important to your competitors, and to current and prospective employees than it is to clients who generate revenue for the firm. Blowing your own horn can also backfire. When your firm touts that a senior partner has just published a book and was a guest on CNBC, your target audiences may wonder why that partner isn’t focused on client matters rather than self-promotion, or whether the cost of his book’s publicity tour will result in higher hourly rates.

REALITY #2:     Your Clients, Prospects and Referral Sources Care about Themselves

Understanding that all people are self-interested can make you a better marketer. Rather than creating newsletter content that’s based on what you know, on what you’ve done or on what you can do, focus instead on the ideas, talents and accomplishments of your target audiences, regardless of whether your firm played any role in their success. This is a very tough concept for many B2B firms to understand and embrace: that the most powerful form of thought leadership does not involve pushing out your own ideas. Instead, it involves deciding what ideas merit the attention of your target audiences, as well as what voices are worth listening to. True thought leaders seek to manage the conversation, not to control it.

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MYTH #3:        A Newsletter is a Cost-Effective Marketing Tactic

The old saw, “Cheap is dear” rings true when it comes to newsletters. If it’s created in-house, few firms actually track the hours required to write, edit, approve and publish their newsletter. If it consists of cut & paste content, few firms consider the cost of producing a newsletter that very few people will read or respect. Regardless of content, only a small number of professional service firms proactively work to expand their newsletter’s reach, to maintain an adequate CRM capability, or to properly leverage readership analytics from open and click-thru rates, if their newsletter is delivered online.

REALITY #3:     Your Marketing Requires More than a One-Way Conversation

Newsletters are one-way conversations. A fundamental marketing objective is to engage clients and prospects in a conversation regarding their specific needs and opportunities. Despite the buzz regarding social media, that channel can also fall short in terms of engagement. If your firm’s traditional and social media marketing tactics do not serve as catalysts to drive Face-to-Face discussions and Word-of-Mouth referrals, then their “cost-effectiveness” can never be measured on a meaningful basis.

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Stop the Insanity. Fire Your PR Firm in 2014.

The attribution is unsupported, but Albert Einstein is often credited with the quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” Its source notwithstanding, the axiom applies perfectly to the great number of companies that retain PR firms, year after year, to generate publicity that will have little or no impact on tangible business outcomes.

Over the past 5 decades, to rationalize hefty monthly fees, the PR profession has successfully promoted three underlying assumptions:

  • Any publicity is good publicity.
  • The more publicity, the better.
  • Publicity generates revenue.

Here are just a few reasons why it’s insane for most businesses to base their marketing strategy on any of those assumptions:

  1. Lots of Media Exposure is Worthless. The “worthless media” category can include one-off quotes or mentions in round-up stories that also reference your competitors…if you’ve gained no unique mindshare.  It can include appearances on network and cable TV…if the topics have a short shelf-life, or are unlikely to be of interest to target audiences.  And it always includes exposure in advertorials (regardless of the sponsoring publication’s stature) and feature articles in pay-to-play vanity publications…because you gain no credible 3rd party validation.
  2. Counting Media Clips is a Zero Sum Game. PR firms often justify their value by the sheer volume of media exposure they generate…regardless of whether it stakes out intellectual territory, supports a client’s value proposition, or differentiates them in the marketplace. The goal should be to create an arsenal of effective credibility tools; not simply to generate clippings to hang like hunting trophies in the “Media” section of a website.  This zero sum game is also played in social media, where scorecards of “likes” and “followers” are used as hollow substitutes for meaningful business metrics.
  3. It’s All About Merchandising. Business leaders must address two key questions in advance of seeking any publicity: “1. What type of media exposure will benefit us most?” and “2. If we gain that exposure, what will we DO with it?” Responses to Question #2 must provide clear direction regarding how it will support the firm’s sales and marketing strategy; how it will be used to drive leads; how it will initiate meaningful conversations with clients and prospects; and how it can be leveraged to gain other opportunities for targeted exposure.

Most PR firms fail to deliver on the potential of their craft because performing it correctly requires really hard work, takes time, and demands accountability for business results. Your role as a responsible client requires that you hold your PR agency’s feet to the fire by expecting results that have a measurable impact on your company’s balance sheet. It also means that you must provide your agency with the time and guidance necessary for them to deliver something more than a pile of useless press clippings.

If you’re unwilling to make that commitment, or if they’re incapable of delivering on your expectations, then it’s time to stop the insanity. Fire your PR firm in 2014.

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Should PRSA Sanction Public Relations Practitioners?

In his bi-weekly column on customer service, “The Haggler,” New York Times writer David Segal addressed a long-standing and well-founded gripe that many journalists have against public relations practitioners who send out press releases and other solicitations in wholesale fashion; regardless of the content’s relevance or likely interest to the journalists they’re pitching. According to Segal, hundreds of thousands of these unsolicited pitches – or “P.R. Spam,” as he calls it – “belly flop into the email systems of journalists every day.”

The relationship between journalists and PR professionals has always been contentious. Reporters claim PR people block their access to sources, and sometimes to the truth. PR counters that journalists often don’t care about facts, or twist them to suit their editorial agenda. But because the press can deliver exposure and credibility that PR craves, journalists have always been in a more powerful position. As a result, effective public relations involves pushing a company’s or client’s agenda (or products and services) without being a pest, and ideally, by being helpful to reporters who are in a position to reciprocate with media coverage. It’s a dance that both sides understand.

Over the past decade, three developments have upset the already rocky relationship between PR and the press:

  • Email, and “blast email” in particular, has become PR’s most frequently used communication device. Standard PR procedure at most firms and agencies is based on “shotgun” tactics designed to reach as many media sources as possible, relevance or interest notwithstanding.
  • Database companies, notably Cision and Vocus, empower PR people to create enormous lists of journalists in a matter of minutes. What was once a painstaking research process now involves a few keystrokes.
  • The internet and a fundamental shift in how news is reported have greatly reduced the number of journalists. Conversely, more schools are pumping out graduates with PR degrees. So there are now significantly more PR people chasing a much smaller number of journalists. And many newly minted PR people have not been taught the unwritten rules of effective media relations.

Why should serious PR practitioners care about the behavior of the growing number of people within their profession who display no regard for fundamental media relations protocol?

In his column, New York Times’ David Segal reports that he has removed his contact information from the 5 leading media database companies. Calling on other reporters who also seek fewer unsolicited intrusions in their mailboxes, Segal provides detailed instructions on how they can delete their listings from those databases.

But it matters very little whether Segal is the canary in the coal mine for this issue, foreshadowing mass defections of journalists from online databases; thereby making those tools useless. In fact, PR may also be better served without them.

What does matter is that this sloppy, lazy, abusive practice of media harassment by so many PR people increasingly harms the stature of the profession, and makes it even more difficult for serious practitioners to work effectively with the press.

Public relations has fought for decades to be recognized as a bona fide profession, similar to medicine, law or accounting. But until the profession is in a position to self-regulate – to reprimand or sanction, in transparent fashion, individual practitioners or organizations that harm the reputation and effectiveness of the discipline – PR can never be considered a legitimate profession. It will remain a business function, nothing more.

If the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), in its role as the industry’s trade association, has serious interest in protecting the reputation and collective interests of the nation’s public relations franchise, the issue highlighted by David Segal provides an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership by reversing a troubling trend. An online “complaint box” for journalists to identify abuse, combined with a “Wall of Shame” to call out repeat offenders – both featured on the PRSA website – might be an effective first step in changing industry behavior.

Any other ideas?

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