Category Archives: Marketing Strategy

Marketing Lesson from Ian McTavish: 7th Generation Scottish Bagpipe Maker

McTavishOn a trip to Scotland in the 1980s, from my rented car on a road outside of Glasgow, I spotted a crude hand-painted sign nailed to a tree that read, “Ian McTavish Bagpipe Maker.” I slammed on the brakes and took a sharp left turn up a narrow, dirt road. I had long wanted to play the bagpipes, and in a heartbeat decided that bringing home an authentic set of Scottish bagpipes might help to cross that item off my bucket list.

At the end of the dirt road there were two simple stucco structures, each one about the size of a detached two-car garage. One structure appeared to be a home, with a front door sandwiched between two small windows, and a raised porch. Although it had no signage, the other building had a single, large dirty window, and appeared more likely to be the bagpipe maker’s showroom. There was no vehicle, no barking dog, or any sign of human life. But the showroom door was wide open.

I knocked on the open door and called out as I stepped into the main room, which contained a workbench, some tools hanging from hooks, and a pile of wood scraps. I had imagined a display of bagpipes in various stages of completion, but saw nothing resembling the instrument, in whole or part. Just a dirty room with no apparent purpose. I spent a minute looking at the tools and wondering if I had turned down the wrong road, and just as I decided to leave, a gruff voice from a back room barked, “Whadya want?”

As I jumped to attention, a large, bearded man appeared from a back room, wearing a kilt, black tee shirt and work boots. His boots, knees and hands were covered with mud. He repeated his question, louder. Flustered, and still unsure I was in the right place, I asked politely, “Are you the bagpipe maker?” “Whadya want?” he asked again, providing some comfort that I had a reason to be standing uninvited inside this cranky Scotsman’s workshop.

Finally answering his question, I stammered: “I’m interested in buying a set of bagpipes. Do you have any that I can look at?”

“No,” he said.

After a long pause, he added, “I make pipes to order. There’s none to show ye here.”

“OK then,” I said, searching to create a conversation, “How long does it take you to make a set of pipes?”

“It depends…” he growled, growing impatient with my questions.

I persistent, “What does it depend on?”

“It depends on the weather,” he snapped.

Attempting to decipher his answer and to carry the conversation, I asked, “Does the weather affect the aging of the wood that you use for the pipes?”

He gave me a look of disgust and said, “No. If the weather is nice, I’ll be in my garden, and I won’t be in here makin pipes.”

At this point, having groveled sufficiently, I prepared for my exit with one last shot. “My ancestors are from Scotland, Mr. McTavish, and I’m here visiting some of the places where they lived. I’ve always wanted to learn to play the bagpipes, and was hoping you might be able to help me. But I can see that I’ve disturbed you and I apologize for wasting your time. So good day.”

As I turned toward the door, his said, “Hold on, young man.” His voice softened a bit and he took a step toward me. “I’m the 7th generation of bagpipe makers in me clan, and I make the best pipes in Scotland. You Americans come over here and try to buy me bagpipes so that they can hang em as a decoration over their hearth. But I only make me pipes to be played.”

When he paused, I said, “I’m not going to hang them on the wall. I’m going to learn how to play them.”

He moved even closer, and poked me in the chest, “OK then, lad. Here’s what I’ll do fer ye. Go back to America, find yerself a tutor, and learn to play the practice chanter.”

“I can do that,” I said.

“Good,” he continued. “Then when ye learn how to play the chanter, make a tape of yerself so I can hear what ye sound like. Then, if I think ye play the chanter good enough…ye tell me how much money ye want to spend, and I’ll make ye the best set of bagpipes that yer money can buy anywhere.”

“OK,” I agreed. “I’ll do that.”

He scrawled his address on a piece of paper, and handed it to me. We shook hands and I drove off.

Over the years, life got in the way, and I never got around to sending Ian McTavish an audio tape of my skills on the practice chanter, and as a result, I never had the privilege of owning a set of his bagpipes.

But Ian McTavish, the 7th generation Scottish bagpipe maker, taught me an important marketing lesson I’ve never forgotten:

If you create a product or service of high quality, then you’re entitled to set the bar as high as you like, with respect to those seeking to buy it. It’s difficult to be selective about who your customers are…but this “less is more” discipline makes for happier, longer-term relationships between buyers and sellers…and it never hurts to step away from your business to spend time tending your garden.

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3.5 Reasons to Skip Industry Awards

awardFor certain industries, such as financial services, that aggregate performance-related data – for example, in annual “league tables” ranking investment banks by the number or size of M&A transactions they’ve underwritten – there is some logic, as well as an objective basis, on which firms can claim to have outperformed their competitors.

But for most industries – lacking any quantitative basis or objective means on which to base relative performance of its individual companies – there are several reasons why participation in industry award competitions intended to recognize superiority or “excellence” can be a waste of resources, as well as a brand liability.

With the understanding that industry awards represent a substantial worldwide economic enterprise…here are 3.5 reasons why your ___________ (law, graphic design, accounting, management consulting, public relations, engineering, financial planning, advertising, technology, healthcare, beauty, payroll, etc.) firm should not participate in award competitions:

Reason #1: Your Awards Won’t Have Significant Influence on Prospective Clients

Fundamentally, awards are a form of extrinsic selling, and demonstrate your firm’s ability to do good work. But prospective clients are always more interested in what you can do for them, not in what you’ve done for others. Awards require prospects to make a leap a faith; to believe that your work for them will match or exceed your work for your other clients. And for some prospects, that’s a leap too large to take.

Most prospects also know that award competitions are not accurate barometers of the quality or consistency of the work you will provide. At best, awards may address the personal needs of some decision-makers who are more concerned with protecting their job (should your firm fail to deliver), rather than selecting the most qualified service provider.

Reason #2: Your Award Creates Another Content Beast that Must Be Fed

Because most award competitions are annual (and recurring sources of revenue for the sponsoring organizations), they have a very limited shelf life, in terms of your firm’s ability to promote the recognition. Most award winners proudly post the award icon on the home page of their website. But your “2016 Most Innovative IT Firm Award” begins to loose its luster around the month of July in 2017, as clients and prospects begin to wonder why your IT firm isn’t the winner of the 2017 award. If your firm has lost some of its magic, perhaps they should be looking at this year’s most innovative IT firm.

Like all other types of content designed to position your firm’s brand, industry awards are beasts that must be constantly fed. If your firm is unwilling or unable to make the commitment to pursue a particular award every year (and to risk losing, which is a strong possibility), then either pass on the competition altogether, or take down any award icons from your website that are more than a year old. Otherwise, your firm will be perceived as the 24 year-old who still wears his high school jacket with the varsity football patch. Living in the past.

Reason #3: Your Time is Better Spent Servicing Clients and Soliciting Prospects

Entering any industry award competition, if your firm is serious about winning, takes time and resources. For some firms with strong competitive instincts, this often becomes a lengthy, arduous process involving strategy sessions, dedicated teams, and even outside consultants who specialize in award submissions. (Yes, they do exist.) For large firms with deep pockets and low levels of marketing ROI accountability, award competitions can provide some level of validation for those executives looking to impress their CEO. But for small and medium-sized firms, where every marketing dollar is expected to yield tangible business results, award competitions make very little sense.

Rather than seeking brand credibility through what is a relatively weak 3rd party endorsement tactic (compared with earned media exposure, public platforms and direct client endorsements, for example) companies of all sizes are better served by re-directing award-related resources to strategies that foster referrals and increase the effectiveness of their direct solicitation process. Instead of hoping that your prospects will be impressed by your industry awards (if they happen to visit your website), build awareness and brand equity among target audiences with content that consistently showcases your firm’s intellectual capital in a non-self-serving manner.

Reason #3.5: The Award Selection System is Stacked Against You

Although the selection process for awards competitions varies greatly, all awards are subject to human bias and political / financial factors that are beyond your control, and that will always influence the outcomes. Even in “blind” competitions, if the basis of an award is subjective, relies on the opinion of a “blue ribbon panel,” or involves any type of voting / scoring system, most competitors will end up wondering why the designated winners were any more innovative, effective, attractive, or otherwise superior to them. Judging is always highly subjective, and never an accurate reflection of the best idea or solution.

For a host of reasons that are rarely discussed (such as the advantage of entrants who are advertisers in award competitions sponsored by industry publications), the award selection system is stacked against most competitors.

Their inherent weaknesses notwithstanding, and despite this particular rant, industry awards are not in any danger of losing momentum, and will remain as one component in the marketing tool kit. But the easiest tactics, like award recognitions, are not always the most effective or enduring ways to help your business grow. Think of industry awards as a car radio: they make noise, and can be nice to have…but it doesn’t help you reach your destination.

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7 Signs that You’re NOT a Thought Leader

wise-man-guru-mountain-top-photo

Thought Leadership is perhaps the most widely used and consistently abused strategy in professional services marketing. There’s diverse opinion regarding what it is, and fuzzy expectations with respect to its benefits.

Our simple definition is that Thought Leadership is a content marketing strategy designed to leverage intellectual capital as a means to engage target audiences. The practical benefits of Thought Leadership are delivered through the power of “intrinsic selling.”

Without getting overly theoretical, here’s what we mean by that:

“Extrinsic selling” occurs when a seller’s credibility relies heavily on work they’ve performed for other customers. This requires the prospective customer to make a leap of faith; to believe the service provider can match or exceed what’s been done for others. It’s a “trust me” sales approach.

Conversely, intrinsic selling does not require a prospective client to base their selection on work done for others. Instead, it engages the prospective client based on ideas, opinions and advice that enables them to make their own objective decision regarding the seller’s potential to add value. Because no leap of faith is required, it’s a more powerful sales methodology.

The intellectual capital embodied within Thought Leadership is what provides you with credibility, and gives potential buyers the confidence to do business with you. It also serves as a sophisticated sales hook designed to grab their attention.

It’s easier to understand what Thought Leadership is by examining the behaviors that are contrary to its fundamental principles.

So here are 7 signs that you’re not cut out to be a Thought Leader:

  1. You call yourself a Thought Leader. Worse yet, you call yourself a “visionary.” Thought Leadership is not a mantle that can be claimed. It’s a market perception that’s earned over time, and an unofficial stature that’s assigned to you by others.
  2. Your editorial content is self-serving. If you’re unwilling to provide insights, information and recommendations without making yourself the hero, or without directly plugging your firm’s products / services, then you’re not really practicing Thought Leadership.
  3. You lack original or interesting ideas. Repurposing “archived” content (a/k/a other people’s thinking), or providing summaries or news reports of information that’s available elsewhere, will likely position you as an industry parrot, rather than a Thought Leader.
  4. You’re not a true student of your craft. Bona fide Thought Leaders are constantly focused on the current state and future direction of their professional discipline. They appreciate that a rising tide floats all boats, and unselfishly share what they know and think.
  5. You think Thought Leadership has a goal line. If you’re looking for instant gratification, and don’t completely believe, at the outset, in the long-term value of Thought Leadership as an ongoing marketing strategy, then simply scratch it off your to-do list.
  6. You refuse to share the spotlight. The most effective Thought Leaders seek to manage, rather than control, the conversation. Rather than pushing their own viewpoint, they define and promote topics and identify people worth paying attention to.
  7. You’re unwilling to work hard. Consistency is the most significant hurdle in the quest for Thought Leadership. To establish a level of top-of-mind awareness required for your target audiences to form and sustain a positive opinion, you need to generate relevant content on a quarterly basis. And that requires personal (or enterprise) discipline.

Just to be clear…the most effective Thought Leaders are not in the game for altruistic reasons. They expect a tangible return on their investment, in terms of market engagement.

Toward that end, a Thought Leadership strategy must ensure that your intellectual capital – whether it’s initially presented in a public platform (such as a seminar), through earned media (publicity), or owned media (social) channels – is also delivered directly to all relevant target audiences in a manner that’s not self-serving, and that fosters two-way conversations.

For example, rather than publicly touting that you’ve been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, you should leverage that media exposure in a more nuanced, sophisticated manner. You can expand on the underlying topic in a direct communication to clients, prospects and referral sources, soliciting their thoughts, and referencing the Wall Street Journal article (rather than your specific quote in it) as a catalyst for the discussion.

This long-winded perspective is not intended to dissuade you from seeking Thought Leadership status. To get started, you should identify a relevant, respected Thought Leader, study how they’ve earned that status, and then simply jump into the pool. Once you’re comfortable in the water, there will be ongoing opportunities to tailor an effective Thought Leadership strategy.

In true Thought Leadership fashion, please share your opinions, experiences and frustrations involving this battle-worn marketing strategy.

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B2B Marketing Needs One Giant Step…Backwards

Vest Pocket BrochuresIn the dark ages of B2B marketing communications, circa 1980, the goal was to get your snail-mailed communications past the office gatekeepers (a/k/a “executive assistants”), and onto the desks of your targeted decision-makers.

Most often, however, the sheer volume of first-class mail processed every morning by office gatekeepers made it more likely that your personalized pitch letter and costly sales brochure would end up, unopened, in the garbage can. Dead on arrival.

But starting in the mid-1990s, corporate adoption of email communication changed the dynamics of direct marketing.  First-class mail volume dropped from a peak of 59 billion pieces in 1996, to 23 billion pieces in 2013 — a 61 percent decline.

So in theory…this significant reduction in snail mail volume meant that the bar for getting materials past the office gatekeepers was lower; making it far easier to get your marketing materials into the hands of intended targets.

But that’s not what’s happened.

Instead, in lemming-like fashion, B2B marketers largely abandoned snail mail as a viable marketing communication channel, and adopted email as their “direct” medium of choice.

Now, 20 years later:

  • The sheer volume of email, even with clever Subject lines, makes it nearly impossible to gain the attention of targeted decision-makers; and
  • Misguided “eco friendly” practices (notably, failure to appreciate the paper industry’s stellar record of sustainable forest management) have fostered a generation of lifeless marketing collateral that’s either viewed onscreen, or downloaded and printed in PDF format on office printers.

As a result, today’s B2B marketers are failing to capture opportunities to connect with prospects through physical materials, in a business environment where the arrival of personalized, first-class mail is often a unique event; prompting most gatekeepers to ensure that it’s delivered to the intended target.

In addition to capturing this marcom window of opportunity, marketers would be well-served to take an additional giant step BACKWARDS…by developing “Ink on Paper” collateral materials that build brand stature.

What marketers will gain by recapturing the lost art of Ink on Paper includes:

Visceral Impact – Pixels on a screen have no weight, no dimension, no texture, no smell. Ink on Paper places something physical into a person’s hands. They open the cover and turn its pages. It’s a sensory experience that communicates on human terms, and that cannot be replicated by a flimsy PDF reprint created on a laser copier.

Personality – The range of creative expression using pixels is limited by the fixed dimensions of a flat glass screen. Ink on Paper lives on a canvas of unlimited graphic possibilities, in terms of size, shape, color and physical features. It provides an opportunity to stand out from the crowd, to express yourself more effectively, and to make an impression that’s likely to be remembered.

Permanence – People scroll through computer screens at hyper-speed. The volume of information is unlimited, and no intellectual commitment is required of viewers. Ink on Paper moves in slow motion, forcing readers to pay closer attention to its content.

Whether they sit on a desk or in a vest pocket, high quality printed materials suggest that the people and company who produced them actually exist, have nothing to hide and can be trusted.

Practitioners in most disciplines are often quick to embrace new tools and methods that enhance their results and professional satisfaction. But a much smaller number of those professionals understand the importance of sticking with, or adapting, existing tactics that work well. They do not fear appearing out-of-touch or old fashioned.

Seasoned marketers who have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in their wholesale adoption of digital communications, as well as more recent arrivals to the marketing profession who have always lived in a paperless world, would be well-served to reconsider Ink on Paper as a medium.

No marketing communications program is truly integrated without high quality print collateral.

Try using those materials as the basis for a snail mail campaign with clients or prospects, and see what happens. Ideally, do it before your competitors discover the opportunity.

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What Type of Marketing Cry-Baby are You?

conflict-resolutionWhen a client complained to me recently about the difficulty of competing against larger companies, I had a flashback to when my kids were in grade school. Often, when they complained a whiny manner (with or without tears), I’d start singing one particular verse of the well-known kids’ song, “The Wheels on the Bus.”

As my kids started to whine, I would sing:

“The babies on the bus go wah, wah, wah

Wah, wah, wah…wah, wah, wah

The babies on the bus go wah, wah, wah

All through the town.”

As my kids whined louder, I would sing louder. And they would eventually storm away, totally frustrated. Over time, my kids got the message that I had zero tolerance for Cry-Babies. Eventually, I would only have to sing an extended warm-up note of the song (“The…..”), before they would stop whining and walk away.

As an abusive but somewhat responsible parent, I usually tried to have an “adult conversation” with the offending Cry-Baby to resolve the underlying problem, but only after the whining had stopped.

Over the course of my business career, I’ve run into several grown-up “Marketing Cry-Babies.” Whenever they start to whine about marketing-related challenges, I’m always tempted to begin singing the “babies on the bus” verse, but career risk and loss of client revenue serves to made me think twice.

Here are the 3 most common types of behavior exhibited by Marketing Cry-Babies. See if you fit into any one (or all) of these categories:

The “I want it NOW!” Cry-Baby: This marketer demands instant gratification. To him, marketing is a casino, complete with slot machines, craps tables and roulette wheels. With money to spend, he jumps from game to game – feeding the slots, placing chips on spaces – hoping to hit the jackpot. He doesn’t remain very long at any game, and believes that if he plays them all, he’s entitled to win something. When he runs out of money or grows tired of not winning big, this Cry-Baby will leave the casino angry or disappointed that his marketing “investment” has failed to pay off.

“I want it NOW!” Cry-Babies don’t understand that long-term strategy and tactical consistency are the most critical aspects of marketing success. My adult conversation with them goes like this: None of the “games” in the marketing toolkit – publicity, advertising, social media, videos, conferences, newsletters, blogging, direct mail, etc. – either individually or collectively will ever deliver an immediate jackpot. To be a consistent winner in the marketing casino, you need to really understand the risks and potential rewards of all the games; only play those games with odds that are in your favor; commit to playing those games long enough to win; and be willing to change how you’re playing the game – rather than walking away – if you are not winning.

The “It’s All About ME.” Cry-Baby: This marketer believes clients and prospects have a genuine interest in her company’s ideas, experience, success, etc. So the firm’s public-facing materials and “thought leadership” are promotional and self-serving. White papers and editorial content are poorly disguised sales pitches, and offer no helpful information or insights. Lots of time is devoted to winning industry recognition; far less time is invested in managing the customer experience or supporting the sales force.  This Cry-Baby can’t understand why all her marketing activity doesn’t improve revenue or client retention.

“It’s All about ME.” Cry-Babies don’t appreciate that clients and prospects aremost interested in how you can help with their particular problem or opportunity. My brief adult conversation with them goes like this: Clients and prospects don’t really give a hoot about your white papers, industry awards or client list. You need to learn what they need, how they think, and why they’re frustrated or optimistic. That effort demands two-way conversations, and direct market engagement. Based on those insights (which can change with great frequency) you’ll need to (re)direct all of your marketing efforts to resonate in their world, and not yours.

The “That’s Just Not Fair!” Cry-Baby: This marketer is convinced that the cards are stacked against him. There’s never enough money in the budget. The competition can’t be beaten.  Management doesn’t understand marketplace dynamics. Sales reps don’t know how to convert their leads. This Cry-Baby always has a reason for marketing’s lack of success, and lots of excuses not to try harder (or at all.)

“That’s Just Not Fair!” Cry-Babies are either afraid to fail, or afraid to succeed. Either way, they are hard-wired to whine, and often not worth having an adult conversation with. But here goes anyway: Having money to throw at marketing does not ensure success. Larger competitors can have greater bureaucracy that slows marketing momentum, and too many chefs in the marketing kitchen that dilute strategies and tactics. Big firms can get complacent, and be afraid to try new solutions. Regardless of budget or existing brand recognition, smaller firms can always gain competitive advantage through creativity, tenacity and a burning desire to steal the lunch from competitors, regardless of their size or reputation. Being the underdog can be a marketing asset; but you need to give people some good reasons to root for you.

There is some recourse, however, for all types of Marketing Cry-Babies who insist on whining. They simply need to spend more time on the golf course, where that behavior is always appropriate, and where you’re encouraged to attach a “crying towel” to your bag. Fore!

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Time to Kill Your Company’s Zombie Blog?

zombieWhen pressed to explain why their company has a blog, many CEOs will admit they were either pushed by marketing counsel to create one, or believed they needed a blog because their competitors have them. Few CEOs understand the purpose of a blog, and most members of that small group are not convinced that their blog delivers any tangible value.

CEOs and marketers who are currently deciding whether to establish a company blog might consider these 3 reasons to forget the idea altogether:

  • You’re not convinced there’s a connection between your blog and your business objectives.

The intranet is a graveyard of dead company blogs, representing well-intentioned, half-baked and underfunded efforts to benefit from content marketing. Many of those blog casualties represent efforts to “put a toe in the water,” as a means to determine whether the company should make a serious, long-term commitment to a blog.

Unfortunately, a blog is much like a marriage, but without dating in advance of a commitment. First, you must conduct due diligence, then you make a long-term commitment…for better or worse. Many blog failures, in fact, are the result of reluctant brides (doubting CEOs) who are willing to give conditional or temporary approval to proceed, which often serves as sufficient rope for the marketing department to hang itself.

CEOs and their marketers are best served, and their blog is most likely to succeed, if senior management understands its function, benefits and limitations, and is 100% committed to a very long relationship.

  • You’re unwilling to provide your blog with the necessary resources.

A sizeable number of dead and useless blogs are doomed to fail because they lack the economic and human resources required to create and sustain an effective corporate blog.  Unfortunately, the typical blog development strategy consists of these 3 steps:

  • The IT Department will add a new “blog” page to the website.
  • Content creation will be an internal group effort, with people / departments taking turns contributing blog posts on a regular basis.
  • The Marketing Department will manage the content creation process, suggesting topics and prompting individuals to contribute their posts according to a schedule.

Three months later, the Marketing Department grows tired of hounding would-be content contributors, and management is not seeing the expected increase in lead generation or even website traffic. Posting frequency drops from weekly to monthly to quarterly. The corporate blog gradually becomes an internal albatross and an external brand liability.

CEOs and their marketers are best served, and their blog is more likely to succeed only if senior management allocates the resources to hire or engage the editorial horsepower necessary to produce high quality content on a consistent basis that:

  • Supports the value proposition and related core messages
  • Engages target audiences
  • Is associated with measurable business goals
  • Strengthens brand stature

Lacking the proper resource allocation (which does not mean simply adding blog management to marketing’s plate), and not making specific individuals accountable for its success are two ways to guarantee your blog’s failure.

  • You don’t have a well-defined content marketing strategy, or you’re unwilling to stick to it.

Even with management’s full support and proper resource allocation, many blogs become editorial Zombies: moving and breathing, but with no heart and soul, simply sucking the lifeblood out of their corporate hosts.

Without an intelligent content marketing strategy that’s directly related to your company’s brand positioning, competitive landscape and sales initiatives, your blog wastes corporate resources and represents an opportunity loss. If blog activity is not driven by a strategic plan and editorial calendar that’s endorsed by senior management, and if your blog agenda is usually based on a frantic search for content – from any source, and regardless of its relevance – then your blog is one of the living dead on the internet.

CEOs who understand the power of an effective blog, and who have the backbone to support content marketing as a viable means to advance the enterprise, deserve to be rewarded with a program that delivers bona fide thought leadership and market engagement; not a constant stream of repurposed news items, self-serving photos from the company’s latest mud run, or press releases and job postings that your customers, prospects and referral sources will never care about.

If your company has already created a Zombie blog, and is unwilling to take the steps necessary to bring it to life, then it’s time to drive a stake through its heart. Just take it down. No one will miss it. And your company’s internal harmony, balance sheet and brand reputation will all benefit as a result.

 

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Making the Short List: Get into the B2B Game or Go Home

Struggling to make ends meet as a young teacher, I pursued a part-time job as a waiter at a popular local restaurant, where I was told there were no positions available. I completed an employment application…just in case…and handed it to the restaurant manager, who thanked me, and placed my application on top of a very tall stack of papers on his desk.

As I left his office, I asked the manager about my chances of getting a waiter’s job there. “You see this big pile of applications?” he chuckled.

Not satisfied with his answer, I asked, “When a waiter position becomes available, how will you select which candidates to interview?”

The manager replied, “That’s easy. I just pick 3 applications from the top of my pile.”

So I made him an offer. “I really need this job. I’ll come back here every few days to complete a new application, so that mine stays at the top of your pile. Or you can hire me as a busboy right now, and I’ll clear tables and wash dishes for as long as it’s necessary, if you promise to give me the first waiter position that becomes available.”

I served as a busboy for two months before I earned a job as a waiter, which helped to pay my bills. More importantly, the experience provided some valuable insights about “making the short list” that continue to have direct application to our B2B marketing business.

“Making the short list” in B2B marketing means that your firm has been chosen by a prospective client as a candidate for an assignment. At least 3 candidates, and as many as 5 or 6, are typically included on a potential client’s short list.

For a B2B firm, making the short list is always a priority, and here’s what my restaurant experience taught me on the subject:

Provide Good Reasons to be on the Short List

The restaurant manager had a few good reasons to put me on his short list. He knew I was motivated, and different from those applicants who were willing to participate in his selection process.  More importantly, I positioned myself as a safe choice by giving him an opportunity to evaluate my potential as a waiter, based on my actual performance as a busboy.

Your B2B firm must find meaningful ways to differentiate itself and showcase tangible assets. Claiming your firm “has 80 years of combined professional experience,” for example, is not a strong value proposition. Having a blue chip client explain, in a short video, her selection criteria and experience with your firm, is far more likely to earn you a spot on a prospect’s short list. Third-party validation also addresses career risk: the prospect’s fear that hiring the wrong outside resource will affect their own reputation, bonus or employment status.

There are many ways to differentiate yourself in a competitive marketplace, but most often they require some original thought, clever packaging and elbow grease.

Put Your Firm into a Position to Make the Short List

Unlike my tenure as a busboy, you won’t be able to demonstrate value directly to a potential client in advance of an actual engagement. But for starters, your B2B firm must maintain a consistent presence on all the radar screens that your prospects monitor. “Fist-call capability” is how well your firm puts itself in a position to be noticed by target audiences, and it’s the key factor affecting your chances of making the short list.

What’s surprising in our current B2B world – where at least 70% of the short list selection process in made online, in advance of any direct contact – is that so many B2B firms have ineffective or outdated websites; provide no catalysts to drive traffic to their website; generate no content to validate their intellectual capital; and fail to properly leverage social media tools, such as LinkedIn, that prospective clients use to discover candidates for their short list.

Many B2B firms believe that simply doing great work for existing clients will drive all the referrals and word-of-mouth recommendations necessary to put them on short lists, or allow them to avoid having to compete at all.  Their lunch is often eaten by competitors who not only do great work for clients, but also don’t rely on others to put them on the short list.

Increase Your Odds of Making the Short List over the Long Haul

The most difficult aspect of marketing for B2B firms involves transparency: never knowing when your prospects are ready to buy. I was prepared to re-apply for the restaurant’s waiter position every week if necessary; but that level of persistence is more likely to eliminate a B2B firm from short list consideration. A more sophisticated, strategic, nuanced approach is required.

To drive consistent top-of-mind awareness with target audiences, you’ll need to do far more than simply show up all the right radar screens. Over the long haul, your B2B firm must communicate directly, consistently and effectively with its clients, prospects, referral sources and employees.  This is an easy concept to understand, but it’s the exception rather than the rule in B2B marketing. We are more likely to see B2B firms with great thought leadership that’s not appreciated by their target audiences, for lack of an effective CRM system; B2B firms that religiously push out canned newsletters and curated content that diminishes their brand stature; and B2B firms that fail to appreciate how their employees can serve as either brand ambassadors or terrorists.

There’s a profoundly simple, Yogi Berra-esque message here: you first need to get into the game, if you’re hoping to win it. In a business world increasingly driven by RFPs and RFIs, and where gaining and maintaining visibility with decision-makers is essential, B2B firms need to add “Short List Participation Rate” as a key performance indicator for their marketing investment.

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Checklist Marketing: Too Many Shoes in Your Suitcase?

Many companies view marketing simply as a checklist of items they believe to be essential: Website…check. White Paper…check. LinkedIn and Twitter Accounts…check / check. Client Newsletter…check. Trade Show…check. Blog…check. Publicity…check.

But marketing strategy is not akin to packing for a trip. “Shoes” may be on your checklist of items to put into your suitcase, but depending on your destination and itinerary, you may need dress oxfords, high heels, running shoes, slippers, golf shoes, sandals or hiking boots. Or perhaps you only need the shoes on your feet.

Marketers often throw far too many shoes into their suitcase, either because they see competitors wearing them, or they wish to avoid explaining why their company lacks the trendiest footwear.

Unfortunately, it’s this collection of shoes with no real reason to be in the company’s suitcase that causes the greatest problem for the marketing function, in terms of justification of related costs and contribution to enterprise goals.

To wean our B2B clients off their shoe fetish, we apply a “Marketing Diagnostic” planning tool, consisting of 10 simple questions. Here are the first two questions it asks:

1. Does your firm have a written marketing plan?

Although it’s the most essential marketing task, most firms do not have a written plan. A marketing plan need not be lengthy, take months to prepare, or require the services of McKinsey & Co. Effective plans can be developed in a few whiteboard sessions, and be contained in a 2 – 3 page document that address these key questions:

  • What is our value proposition and competitive advantage?
  • What is our target market and who are the decision-makers?
  • What specific business goals / benchmarks are we seeking to accomplish?
  • What tactics will we use to engage with and nurture our target audience(s)?
  • What budgets, timeframes and responsibilities will we assign to those tactics?
  • How and how often will we measure results and make course corrections?

The two most important aspects of a marketing plan are, first, that it ensures organizational consensus regarding the firm’s strategic purpose, where it wants to go, and how it intends to get there.  Secondly, it provides accountability for results. In many cases, it’s that fear of accountability that discourages firms from creating a marketing plan.

2. Do all of your marketing tactics have measurable goals linked to business outcomes?

This diagnostic question involves the most difficult aspect of marketing: demonstrating tangible outcomes that justify the time and expense invested in marketing tactics. The classic complaints against marketing sound like this: “We’ve attended the XYZ conference for 3 years, and it hasn’t generated any new clients.” Or “We were mentioned in the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, and no one has contacted us based on that exposure.”

However, when you examine those marketing results-related complaints more closely, you’re likely to discover that (in the case of conferences) the firm failed to build an integrated strategy to communicate properly both in advance of and following the event, and did not leverage the conference-related content to reach a broader audience. And in the case of publicity, the firm likely generated the wrong type of media exposure (regardless of where it appeared), or simply hung the coverage on their website like a hunting trophy, instead of using it proactively to engage with their target audiences.

This second diagnostic question, regarding the practical benefit of marketing activity, is actually an integral part of the marketing plan development process. Every tactic that’s included in your marketing plan requires its own response to “How will we measure results?” Some tactics can be measured in terms of direct business outcomes, such as lead generation. But tactics that are unlikely to generate direct results, such as media exposure, will require a plan that combines related tactics. For example, to benefit from your published bylined article in a trade publication, your strategy might include sending a reprint of that piece (along with a non self-serving cover note) to targeted audiences, as a means to generate the awareness and conversations that precede transactions.

Both Do-It-Yourself marketers and professional marketers alike rationalize their activity on a tactical basis (number of white paper downloads, website traffic, “Likes” and “Re-Tweets,” etc.), and fail to either design or connect the marketing dots in a manner that’s likely to drive meaningful business results. This disconnect is the #1 reason why marketing is held in such low regard, compared with other professional disciplines.

If you’d like a complete copy of our 10 question “Marketing Diagnostic” planning tool for B2B firms, just shoot me an email through LinkedIn, or to gordon at andrewselikoff dot com. It includes a self-scoring system, allowing you to know exactly how you stack up, marketing-wise.

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