Tag Archives: B2B marketing

Marketing Failure at Professional Services Firms: Who’s to Blame?

imagesKRCJCX00The Hinge Research Institute – a division of one of the nation’s smartest B2B marketing consultancies – recently published the results of its survey of 530 professional services firms representing accounting and finance; technology; marketing and communications; architecture; engineering and construction; legal; and management consulting disciplines.

In its report, 2015 Professional Services Marketing Priorities, Hinge examined current business challenges and approaches to implementing marketing initiatives at small and medium-sized firms, with annual revenues ranging from less than $5 million to more than $100 million. Owners, partners and principals represented 60% of survey respondents, marketing professionals represented 23%, and the balance were operational or senior level decision-makers at those firms.

Although this was not the intention of this study, or the expressed conclusions of Hinge, the research findings provide insight into why marketing fails to deliver a reasonable return at most professional services firms.

Failure to Connect the Dots

In the Hinge research, here’s how small and medium sized professional services firms ranked their current business challenges:

  • No surprises here. “Attracting and developing new business” (72.1%) is understandably the most significant challenge for any business;
  • However… “Strategy / Planning Issues” (26.8%) are either something professional services firms believe they have under control; are not greatly concerned about; or fail to associate with new business development.

Activity without Purpose or Accountability

The apparent disconnect between strategy / planning and actual marketplace results is reinforced in the marketing initiatives that professional services firms planned for 2015.

According to the Hinge survey, the focus of most professional services firms is on the tactical aspects of marketing, reflected in their plans to:

  • Increase the visibility of their brand (57.9%) and their experts (54.5%)
  • Upgrade their websites (54.9%)
  • Make clients more aware of services (53.5%)
  • Create content marketing programs (47.2%)

Conversely, the strategic aspects of marketing are all at the bottom of the 2015 to-do list for most professional services firms:

  • Develop marketing strategy / plan (45.5%)
  • Find stronger competitive advantage (40.8%)
  • Conduct research on target market (33.8%)
  • Conduct client satisfaction research (22.7%)

It might be argued that strategic marketing tasks did not make the list of 2015 planned initiatives because professional services firms already have those disciplines covered. But our own experience counseling professional services firms over the past 20 years suggests otherwise.

One of the first questions we ask a new or prospective client is this: “Do you have a written marketing plan?” Most often, and consistent with the Hinge study, the answer we receive from them is “No.”

Who’s to blame for unmet expectations in marketing professional services: The senior managers who focus on tactics without a strategic foundation? Or the marketing professionals who should know better?

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B2B Conferences: Essential Marketing Tactic…or Waste of Time and Money?

Regardless of industry, B2B conferences and seminars can be a significant waste of time, money and opportunity. But the conference sponsor is typically not at fault for the lack of return on this marketing investment. It’s often the result of poor planning, lack of creativity, laziness or unrealistic expectations by the companies that participate in them.

Here are three issues you should address, in advance of investing in a conference of any kind:

Do I understand the inherent marketing value of conferences? Before it became a “pay to play” world, there was some brand stature and inherent 3rd party endorsement associated with participation as a keynote speaker or panelist on a conference agenda. Nowadays, however, even if you’re invited to speak, attendees will likely assume that you’ve paid for the privilege, so the brand cachet is diminished.

The real marketing value of participation in any conference agenda is not based on what you say to the 100 attendees during your 15 minutes on the podium. Instead, it’s based on what you do, both before and after the conference, to reach, influence and engage the 1,000+ or 2,000+ decision-makers who were either too busy or too important to attend the event. In many respects, a conference simply provides a legitimate reason to communicate with those individuals who are most important you.

Do I have the internal discipline to make conferences a worthwhile investment? Because conferences are expensive, inefficient, haphazard and difficult to evaluate, you must establish an internal discipline and specific strategies to harness their marketing value. For starters, you need access to a robust, accurate database of your clients, prospects and referral sources. Possessing a list of conference attendees, either before or after the conference, is of lesser importance.

You also need to create a detailed communications strategy – tailored for each event – that addresses how you intend to:

  • Share intellectual capital associated with the event (either generated by you or someone else), and how to
  • Leverage that intellectual capital to drive engagement with your target audiences either before and / or after the conference.

For example, if you’ve given a conference presentation, you can send highlights of your remarks to your database shortly after the event, and offer to send them your complete remarks or PowerPoint slides. Or you can convert your presentation into a bylined article for publication in an appropriate business or trade journal, and then send target audiences the published piece along with a personalized cover note.

If you’re not on the podium, you’ll need to be more creative. For example, you might send your target audiences a “Sorry I missed you…” communication that provides your insights on the conference’s highlights, or expresses a contrarian viewpoint related to its underlying theme. Or you might even consider hi-jacking the conference agenda, by inviting high-value targets to a roundtable discussion / reception at a very exclusive venue near the event. (Conference sponsors do their best to prevent this type of guerilla marketing.)

In all cases, the strategic goal is to amortize the time and money you’ve invested in the conference, in order to reach a wider and sometimes more appropriate audience. By using the conference credibility (or its related topic / theme) to showcase your intellectual capital, drive top-of-mind awareness and foster direct engagement, you’ll have a much greater likelihood of yielding a connection between the event and tangible business metrics, including new client engagements and revenue growth.

Are my expectations for this conference realistic? Sometimes lightning actually does strike: you’ll make a connection at a conference that eventually leads to new business. But most of the time, putting your company’s logo on a lanyard, participating in a panel discussion, or sponsoring a mid-morning coffee break will lead to absolutely nothing. If there were a consistent direct connection between conference participation and business growth, there would be a very long waiting list for sponsorships.

If you understand that conferences will always be a low percentage marketing strategy, then you have a clear choice. You can either:

  1. Avoid conferences altogether, by hosting your own private events or programs.
  2. Leverage your participation to showcase intellectual capital with a wider audience.
  3. Simply enjoy the camaraderie, the golf / tennis / beach, and the nightlife…and hope for the best. In short, conference participation is similar to all other marketing-related tactics. Smart, focused and strategic will always produce better outcomes than “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

In short, conference participation is similar to all other marketing-related tactics. Smart, focused and strategic will always produce better outcomes than “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

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Why Your B2B Marketing Isn’t Working

Inconsistency Kills Most B2B Marketing Strategies

Inconsistency Kills Most B2B Marketing Strategies

There are two major reasons why marketing is ineffective at B2B firms, regardless of size or industry:

  1. Marketing is viewed as triage. The company applies a collection of tactics (often labeled as a “marketing campaign”) only in response to a problem; typically involving the loss of a key client, or decline in revenue. When business is good, little or no time is invested in marketing. When business (inevitably) takes a dip, marketing becomes a priority. This classic behavior is depicted in the “Sales / Service Volatility Curve” chart above.
  2. Marketing is expected to deliver immediate results. Either because the company views marketing on a cause & effect tactical basis, or because marketing triage must quickly revive an ailing company, the marketing function is given little time to produce tangible results. It’s no surprise that Chief Marketing Officers have the shortest tenure of any corporate function.

Individually or collectively, both of these circumstances drive the #1 reason why B2B marketing does not work:

INCONSISTENCY

The sad truth is that very few B2B firms either understand the marketing function, or have the discipline to design, implement, measure and stick with a marketing approach that builds brand equity and market engagement on a consistent basis.

As an alternative to changing careers, and to establish the infrastructure and internal culture necessary for the discipline to succeed, we offer marketers (and B2B business owners) the following simple path:

  • Create a Written Marketing Plan. Include goals, strategies, responsibilities, timelines, budgets and ways to measure results. Without a Marketing Plan you will not succeed. And unless it’s a written document, you do not have a Marketing Plan.
  • Gain Senior Level Commitment. The corner office must understand, endorse and support the Marketing Plan. The Plan must also be properly staffed and funded upfront.
  • Do a Few Things Very Well. Marketing’s success will be based on the quality and effectiveness of a limited number of strategies / tactics. Less is usually more.
  • Build and Nurture your Database. Direct and easy access to your company’s clients, prospects, referral sources and opinion leaders is essential. Without this pipeline, the marketing value of the content you create is close to zero.
  • Create Meaningful Content. Self-serving white papers and client case studies have very limited appeal. Generate content that validates your company’s intellectual capital, on topics that target audiences have a genuine interest in.
  • Drive Top-of-Mind Awareness. Leverage your thought leadership content by sharing it directly with target audiences on at least a quarterly basis. More importantly, use content to initiate two-way conversations that build relationships in advance of sales.
  • Connect with the Sales Force. There’s no better way to find if and how well your marketing strategies are working, or to gain an understanding of the marketplace.

Most importantly – with apologies to Glengarry Glen Ross – B2B firms must:

A…..Always

B…..Be

M…..Marketing

…for the discipline to be effective. Otherwise, the traditional short-term, hair-on-fire approach to marketing will keep your B2B firm from ever reaching its full potential.

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Why and How to Market Your Firm’s Brand Integrity

As the limitations of a virtual marketplace continue to reduce most B2B firms to commodities, it’s become increasingly important to communicate not just what your company does, but to generate interest in what your enterprise stands for. This task of expressing your firm’s raison d’être involves far more than sticking a “Mission Statement” on its website.

Prospective clients not only want to know what makes your firm unique; before they put you on their short list for consideration, they also want assurance that your company is a “safe choice.” Decision-makers at every level are unwilling to risk their career on selection of an outside firm that may fail to meet expectations, or even harm their firm.

Regardless of whether your firm is the leader or an upstart in its marketplace, brand integrity matters. And it’s a corporate asset that needs to be marketed.

Unfortunately, telling target audiences and opinion leaders that your company is smart, honest, unique, innovative, creative, cutting-edge, trusted, etc. never succeeds. People require hard and soft evidence to support their own conclusions about your brand attributes, notably its integrity.

So how does a B2B firm market its brand integrity through online and offline channels? Here are 10 tangible and intangible factors that, on an individual and combined basis, can drive marketplace opinion on brand integrity:

  • Transparency: Is information regarding your firm’s philosophy, products / services, processes and people available and easily accessible? (Acid Test: How much digging is required to gain a basic understanding?)
  • Consistency: Is all information kept up-to-date, and relevant to current market conditions? Does bad news get communicated to your clients as quickly and openly as good news? (Acid Test: What’s the frequency of content generation, and the number of direct and indirect “touches” with target audiences?)
  • Enthusiasm: Does your firm appear genuine and enthusiastic about communicating with external audiences? Or does communication appear to be treated as a necessary evil? (Acid Test: How often are innovation and fun baked into those efforts?)
  • Values: Are your company’s core values expressed in a compelling manner? More importantly, are those values demonstrated through its actions? (Acid Test: Are they aspirational and inspirational? Is there tangible evidence that values really drive decision-making?)
  • Clarity: Are explanations clear, devoid of technical jargon or mystery, and easily understood by all outside audiences? (Acid Test: Would an 8th grader get it?)
  • Culture: Is there a visible common culture, beyond shared academic credentials or charitable activities? Are there tangible signs that employees are valued, have a unified vision and enjoy working together? (Acid Test: Other than the annual mud run photo, do employees appear to be engaged as a team?)
  • Associations: Who and what are the people, organizations, ideas and causes associated with your firm? Are those associations respected, credible and trustworthy? (Acid Test: Is the firm actively connected with the outside world?)
  • Validation: How is your firm’s value proposition validated by objective 3rd parties? Do reliable sources express open support or inherent endorsement? (Acid Test: Do credible media sources cover the company? Do clients identify themselves by name and company?)
  • Leadership: Are efforts made to share / promote your firm’s intellectual capital in a helpful manner that’s not directly self-serving? (Acid Test: Do other opinion leaders reference your firm’s ideas or contributions? Are white papers just poorly disguised sales collateral?)
  • Persona: Does your firm appear to be run by interesting human beings, or hide its personality behind an opaque, institutional veneer? (Acid Test: Does the overall impact of public-facing communication project warmth and sincerity, or distance and arrogance?)

Marketing tactics aside, companies looking for a guiding principle on brand integrity are well-served by heeding the advice of the late John Wooden, basketball coaching legend, who said, “Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

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Re-Thinking the “Best B2B Advertisement of the 20th Century”

the-man-in-the-chair-mcgraw-hill-885x1024In 1958, Gilbert Morris – an account executive at the Fuller Smith & Ross ad agency – created the, “I don’t know who you are,” business-to-business advertisement for McGraw-Hill Publishing Co. that 41 years later, in 1999, was named the “Best Business-to-Business Ad of the 20th Century” by Advertising Age’s Business Marketing magazine. Quite an achievement.

The iconic print display ad featured an executive in a bow tie hunched forward in a swivel chair, scowling into the camera. (In fact, Gilbert Morris himself was depicted as the executive in the ad.) To promote the practical value of corporate advertising, the ad’s body copy read:

“I don’t know you.

I don’t know your company.

I don’t know your company’s product.

I don’t know what your company stands for.

I don’t know your company’s customers.

I don’t know your company’s record.

I don’t know your company’s reputation.

Now, what was it you wanted to sell me?”

The 56 year-old McGraw-Hill ad concluded with this:

“Moral: Sales start before your salesman calls – with business publication advertising.”

What may have been a revolutionary B2B marketing concept in 1958 is now well understood by B2B marketers. Market awareness, brand impressions and 3rd party endorsements all matter. Sales and marketing must be integrated. We’ve got all that.

But if Gilbert Morris were writing ad copy in 2014, his advertisement would likely reflect very different marketing obstacles for B2B companies. Perhaps something like this:

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Confucius Say: Your Case Studies are Worthless

confuciusThe most noteworthy article on B2B selling was published in a 1966 Harvard Business Review article (#66213). In “How to Buy /Sell Professional Services,” author Warren J. Wittreich explains the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic selling.

Extrinsic selling occurs, according to Wittreich, when a B2B seller relies on successful work that’s been performed for other customers, as a means to validate the seller’s capabilities and potential ability to perform for a prospective customer.

The weakness of extrinsic selling is that it requires a prospective customer to make a leap of faith: to believe the service provider will provide a level of success that matches or exceeds the work performed for the seller’s past or current clients. Extrinsic selling is a “trust me” approach, employed by a great number of B2B product and service providers.

Conversely, intrinsic selling does not require a prospective client to base its selection of a seller based on work done for others. No leap of faith required. Instead, it engages the prospect in a meaningful dialogue that (1) addresses their specific situation; (2) demonstrates — on an immediate, first-hand basis — the seller’s understanding of the situation; and (3) validates the seller’s ability to help the potential buyer. Intrinsic selling provides buyers with a significantly higher level of confidence in the seller’s capabilities, and leads to an engagement or sale far more frequently and rapidly than extrinsic selling.

The B2B marketer’s task is to equip the sales force with methodologies and tools that help initiate and facilitate intrinsic selling. This goal is rarely accomplished through anonymous or identified client / customer “case studies,” which are widely used, that prospective clients rarely read, and often carry the same level of credibility as references on a job applicant’s resume. (Would a company ever publish examples of its past work that were not portrayed as highly successful?)

Create Tools to Engage Prospects

One example of effective B2B intrinsic selling involved Phibro Energy’s introduction of energy derivatives…which enabled large companies to manage price risk related to gasoline, jet fuel and heating oil. To capture the attention of CFOs of those companies, and to convince them that energy derivatives were a viable risk management strategy, Phibro’s sales force needed more than brochureware. A prospective client needed to understand exactly how energy derivatives would benefit his company.

To establish an intrinsic sales dynamic, Phibro equipped its sales reps with a worksheet that calculated the range and depth of the prospect’s energy price exposure. Then, by applying a sophisticated algorithm, the sales rep was able to show exactly how energy risk management could improve the CFO’s company’s balance sheet.

Phibro’s energy exposure worksheet not only enabled their sales reps to establish an intrinsic sales dynamic, it cast the sales rep in a consultative role, and positioned Phibro Energy as a resource that could help reduce economic risk and lower operating costs.

Marketers at most B2B businesses, as well as many B2C firms, have similar opportunities to build interactive disciplines and tools — both online and offline — that can empower their sales reps to leverage the power of intrinsic selling. In taking this approach, they also benefit from the wisdom of the marketing master, Confucius, who purportedly wrote:

 I hear…and I forget.

I see…and I remember.

I do…and I understand.

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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%.

57

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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