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Is Your Client Newsletter a Marketing Albatross?

albatrossClient newsletters are the most widely used, often abused and hotly debated 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 B2B Firm Needs a Client Newsletter

Marketers want you to believe that your firm needs a 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. 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. It 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 them. 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 people 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, 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 services 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 often 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 also falls 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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Make the Short List…Or Die Trying

accept_reject july 8 2012

For most B2B companies, there’s no reliable way to predict when a prospective client will purchase their product or engage their services, regardless of what their “marketing automation” expert promises.

This is particularly challenging for professional services firms – legal, accounting, investment advisory, technology, management consulting, recruiting or marketing – where top-of-mind awareness (getting people to remember you) is a critical part of business development.

Firms that have made an investment in establishing meaningful initial contact with prospective clients – notably through face-to-face interaction – will often make one of three errors:

Inconsistent / No Follow-up: These companies might send a “Enjoyed meeting you” email, and / or connect on LinkedIn, but will not establish a method for consistent and relevant contact with prospects.

Inappropriate Follow-up: These companies will send the firm’s standard “package” of sales and marketing materials, and then plug prospects into a mailing list to receive whatever information the marketing department generates…regardless of its relevance to a prospect’s specific needs.

Excessive Follow-up: These companies subject prospects to a constant barrage of email, direct mail and telephone contact that makes their firm appear desperate for work, and often kills any chance of their being hired.

The effort to generate top-of-mind awareness is a means to an end, not the goal. The business objective is to earn a position on the “short list” of 3 or 4 qualified firms that are called in by a prospect as a candidate for selection. (Or ideally, as the only firm under consideration.) If you’re not on the short list, you’re not in the game.

Making a Prospective Client’s Short List

B2B firms that are most successful in consistently making the short list apply the following disciplines:

  • STRONG CRM — Effective database management is essential for firms that are serious about communicating with clients, prospects and referral sources. Overlooking or taking shortcuts in what admittedly is a tedious task will submarine any effort to build top-of-mind awareness. Senior management must make CRM discipline a priority.
  • PROCESS CONSISTENCY— B2B firms often start out with the best intentions to communicate regularly with target audiences, but lose momentum for two reasons: they’ve not assigned adequate resources, or they are not truly committed to the program. To succeed, firms must communicate with target audiences at least on a quarterly basis, and that contact should not be postponed, skipped or stopped. Consistent application is critical.
  • RELEVANT CONTENT — Some firms do a great job on CRM and contact consistency, and then hurt their brand by pushing content that’s overly self-serving or of little interest to their targets. Canned newsletters, boring white papers or news items announcing the firm’s new senior partner or service offering do not drive interest or top-of-mind awareness. Content based on intellectual capital, showcasing insight, experience and opinion, and providing helpful ideas or guidance, will be read and remembered.
  • PATIENCE — In golf, the best putters are those who envision the path of the ball to the hole, and then commit to that line. They believe their putt will drop. Firms that succeed in making the short list believe that consistent, intelligent contact with target audiences will yield results. They also have the patience to wait for what sometimes can be a very long putt to drop.

Your firm’s chances of making the short list on a consistent basis will be driven by its ability to drive purposeful top-of-mind awareness among existing clients, prospects and referral sources. That function should be the marketing department’s #1 goal, and their performance metric should be the firm’s short-list engagement.

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Sales and Marketing Alignment: Facing Professional Culture Clash

quote-i-don-t-like-that-man-i-must-get-to-know-him-better-abraham-lincoln-17-61-18The most recent survey of Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) shows that not much has changed over the past 10 years. CMOs continue their struggle to make the connection between marketing activity and company performance, and they continue to shift the blame for their failure.

Despite the fact that financial results are rated as the most important factor in a CMO’s performance-based compensation, executive recruitment firm Korn Ferry’s CMO survey found that the majority of senior marketers claim they cannot make a direct correlation between their efforts and company performance.

The reason CMOs give for the disconnect? Nearly a third of the survey respondents suggest that their CEO “doesn’t understand the CMO role.” Specifically, they feel their boss fails to understand the complexity of brand building; the importance of a customer-centric approach; and the correlation between marketing and revenue generation.

Averaging job tenure of just 4.1 years – the shortest of all C-suite positions – CMOs are unlikely to win either sympathy or contract renewals from CEOs (with average tenure of 8 years), who are increasingly impatient with CMOs’ lack of results and accountability.

Tactics and Tools Fail CMOs

An oversimplified description of the CMO’s role is to promote the brand, and to generate viable leads for the sales team. To accomplish those necessary goals, and create some tangible evidence of their contribution to their company’s top line results, CMOs continue to rely heavily (or exclusively) on a large and growing inventory of marketing tactics and tools.

In addition to traditional methods such as advertising (a/k/a “paid media”) and public relations (a/k/a “earned media”), the marketing tool kit now includes everything from Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) programs and Marketing Automation software, to Account-Based Marketing (ABM), which is the latest shiny object promising to deliver ROI Nirvana to CMOs.

Unfortunately, as the complexity of the tools and tactics increases, they become more difficult for CMOs to manage (and explain), and more likely that their CEOs will believe that marketing is disconnected from what they believe is most important…which is revenue generation.

Attitude Adjustment Required

If the most measurable portion of the CMO’s role is lead generation; if the sales force is an essential asset to convert those leads into clients or revenue; and if clients and revenue are what’s used to determine CMO compensation and tenure…then why does “marketing / sales alignment” continue to be a significant challenge for most companies?

The simple answer is that there is a longstanding culture clash between marketing and sales professionals. Sales reps believe that marketers are disconnected from customers and marketplace realities, never get their hands dirty, and provide them with leads that are worthless. Marketers believe that sales reps are self-interested, don’t understand the company’s strategy, and waste the leads and tools they are given.

In this ongoing tug-of-war, marketers will always stand to lose, because revenue trumps branding in the corner office, and because sales reps can more easily claim direct responsibility for revenue generation.

Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, studies people and teams seeking to make a positive difference through the work that they do. Her research suggests that fixing this marketing and sales professional culture clash starts with an attitude adjustment, and requires a new way of working together.

Lessons from a Chilean Coal Mine  

At a recent TED conference, Professor Edmondson explained the concept of “teaming,” where people come together to solve new, urgent or unusual problems. Recalling stories of teamwork on the fly, such as the incredible rescue of 33 miners trapped half a mile underground in Chile in 2010, Edmondson shares the elements needed to turn a group of strangers into a quick-thinking team that can nimbly respond to challenges. At many companies, sales and marketing teams are strangers to each other.

Here are three key points from Professor Edmondson’s TED presentation (well worth 13 minutes to view) that CMOs should consider in any serious effort to work effectively with sales professionals:

  • It’s difficult to learn if you believe that you already know the solution to a challenge or opportunity. Situational humility – simply acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers – is a necessary starting point for effective teamwork.
  • We need to be genuinely curious about what others think and bring to the table. The key to success in building an effective team is learning the strengths of others, and conveying what you can contribute to the effort.
  • Society has conditioned us to view each other as competitors. To wit: for me to succeed, you must fail. This underlying cultural bias needs to be eliminated, in order for sales and marketing teams to work together effectively.

There are no simple solutions to the challenge of marketing and sales alignment. But it’s more likely to be improved within a company by focusing on the hard work of listening and communicating, as Professor Edmondson suggests. CMOs need to begin that journey by looking inside themselves, and not to outside providers of marketing technologies.

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Preserving Brand Equity in a Corporate Turnaround

brand equityWith rare exception, companies assign very little planning or resources to proactively managing the effects of a restructuring on its brand equity. While financial and legal considerations will always be the primary focus, a tangible sophistication gap has long existed between workout arrangement skills, compared with what’s required to preserve a company’s goodwill among internal and external audiences during a corporate restructuring.

Brand communication is considered a fuzzy management science by many legal and financial professionals and can be discounted by the C-suite as well. However, in our digital age, rumor and misinformation can incur permanent damage to a company’s reputation with lightning speed. A communications strategy largely consisting of press releases or cryptic statements from management falls far short of what is required to protect an enterprise’s most valuable asset — its brand.

Why Brand Equity Matters

A brand is the promise a company makes to its customers. Brands help customers understand what a company knows, what it stands for, what it will deliver and why they should trust it. Brands involve far more than a firm’s name, logo or website. Simply put, marketing is what a company does to promote its brand. Brand equity is what people believe the company is.

Marketing academics and practitioners promote plenty of convoluted definitions of brand equity. For the sake of this discussion, brand equity is best defined as the sum total of market perceptions, customer loyalty and employee engagement. If those three factors drive a company’s revenue, then building and protecting brand equity must be a strategic priority, particularly when the enterprise undergoes any change or event that may negatively influence those factors.

Brand equity has always mattered to companies. What has changed over the past decade, primarily as a result of the internet, is a company’s loss of control over information related to its brand and the democratization of influence. A company’s senior management and traditional media sources no longer have exclusive or primary control over brand equity. Anyone with Facebook, a Twitter account or a blog — including employees, customers, competitors, short sellers or dedicated troublemakers — can erode (or bolster) brand perceptions. Restructurings provide perfect opportunities for those opinions to be heard and considered.

Preparing A Game Plan

During a restructuring, it is critical that preserving a company’s brand receives the same level of attention by senior management as financial and legal considerations.

Anything short of that commitment can signal to employees, customers, business partners and other key stakeholders that their interests and concerns will take a back seat to the personal agendas of the corporate owners. Post restructuring, the rebuilding of trust and confidence with audiences that shape a company’s brand equity is far more difficult (and expensive) to achieve, because negative and incorrect facts and opinions have online visibility that can last for many years. As the classic FRAM oil filter commercial suggested: “You can pay me now…or you can pay me (much more) later.”

With an upfront commitment in place, most of the heavy lifting in creating a game plan to protect a company’s brand equity in a restructuring is front-loaded: strategic planning, delegation of responsibilities and a sense of urgency are the critical success factors.

Here are some primary considerations in preparing and implementing a game plan:

Treat Restructuring as Crisis Communication

In terms of its potential to inflict long-term damage to brand equity, a restructuring can be as significant as a product safety recall or financial fraud. Most audiences won’t understand the purpose or logistics of the transaction. Many will assume restructuring is simply a tactic to enrich senior management. The overall impression will be that the company is in trouble or going out of business. Don’t underestimate the significance of the turnaround or the sense of urgency that’s required to communicate properly with key audiences on a real-time basis.

Refine the Core Messaging

How well and how consistently the company explains what’s happening and what’s likely to occur will have the greatest impact on how audiences respond. It is critical to provide an accurate, clear and concise description of the reasons for the transition and provide insight into the company’s plans and expectations. It is critical to express empathy for those affected, especially for those who have lost their jobs. Internal pressure from legal advisors to say very little about the restructuring or to communicate in legalese often requires pushback from management.

Tailor Core Messaging for Each Audience

There is no “one size fits all” strategy when communicating a restructuring event to diverse internal and external audiences. Because employees, customers and business partners all have very different motivations and concerns, the company’s core messaging must be tailored to address the “what’s in this for me?” factors relevant to each target audience. The substance of the messaging remains the same. The tone and details will change relating to areas of greatest concern for each audience.

Select & Manage Communication Channels

Tailored communications are of little value if they are not delivered to the intended audiences through an appropriate channel. Employees, for example, will respond more positively to email, and face-to-face (or televised) meetings/town halls, than they will to statements posted on the company’s website or intranet. Communication with business partners may best be managed through personal phone calls from their company contact. Ideally, establish dedicated channels (an internal microsite, for example), and do not mix restructuring-related information with normal course business communication. In all cases, the most damaging scenarios occur when an important audience receives restructuring information from a third party or indirect source — the news media or on social media — before hearing it directly from the company.

Apply Listening Tools & Respond Immediately

Several online tools, with capabilities far beyond GoogleAlerts, can provide real-time insights into where a company is being mentioned and what’s being said. This window into market sentiment is a necessity during a restructuring, but it will be of tangible value only if a company has the capability to respond immediately and appropriately to rumors and misinformation. Keep in mind that each social media channel has its own protocol and culture and requires specific skills to communicate effectively. If a company lacks channel-specific expertise in social media, engaging outside help is essential.

Centralize All Communications

With lots of moving parts — multiple audiences, tailored communications, different online and direct channels — the potential for inconsistent messaging and inaccurate information is very high. To manage those risks, establish a very simple and strict protocol with respect to how and when transaction-related communication is managed. The game plan should include individuals covering multiple disciplines. A single individual should be responsible for implementation and keeping the team informed of progress and problems at all times.

Start & End With Employee Communication

Employees have a personal stake in the company’s future and a direct influence on customer satisfaction and loyalty. At all times, depending on how they are treated, employees can serve as strong brand ambassadors or insidious brand terrorists. Because a restructuring strategy’s success will rely, in some measure, on their cooperation and support, a communication plan should be heavily weighted in tactics designed to keep them informed and to give them a voice in the process.

Anticipate Unpleasant Surprises

Plans designed to protect brand equity during a restructuring rarely follow the script. Part of the initial planning process should include a whiteboard session to address all the possible “what if” scenarios, ranging from union problems to negative media coverage to legal or regulatory problems. It’s unrealistic and unproductive to create detailed communications strategies for all of these potential issues, but considering them in advance enables identification of their early signs and a quicker response should they occur.

Despite the negative connotations, restructuring can serve as an opportunity for a company to demonstrate its true character and to build respect and loyalty from existing and new audiences. If, as Hemingway suggested, “Courage is grace under pressure,” then a company’s behavior during a restructuring — in terms of what it says, how well it manages the process and how it backs up promises — can significantly strengthen its brand equity.

To accomplish this goal, advance planning is more critical than good intentions. A company of any size, without a deep bench of internal talent, and lacking specialized communications experience, can preserve the brand equity it has worked so hard to establish. That effort starts and ends with a commitment to transparency and an acknowledgement that brand equity is a very fragile asset.

Note: This article was published in the November / December 2017 edition of ABF Journal, found here: ABF Journal Nov/Dec 2017

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Why Your Company’s Blog Doesn’t Make the Phone Ring

old-phone-1412853453JkLAll of the hours devoted to blogging, at some of the nation’s largest and smartest companies, does not appear to be time well spent…if the goal of a blog and other forms of content marketing is to generate new business.

If there’s a disconnect between your firm’s blogging and new clients related to your content, here are 8 possible reasons why:

Your topics are boring.

Avoid topics that have been (or are likely to be) covered by other firms, or topics that may be considered old news by the time your post is published. Select blog topics that are of immediate or continuing interest to your target audiences, and cover them in a unique manner.

Your headlines don’t grab attention.

With a few seconds to grab a potential reader’s attention, headlines are the most critical element of a blog post. Invest the time necessary to write a snappy headline that addresses the “What’s in this for me?” question.

Your posts are too long.

You’re competing for eyeballs and attention against all types of online and offline content, as well as everyday distractions. You need to state your case in fewer than 750 words. Fewer than 500 words is even better. Make your point, and leave them wanting more.

You don’t provide an interesting point of view.

People read blog posts to gain insights and opinions. If you’re simply presenting facts, your posts are probably a snooze-fest. The potential for you to make your blog a marketing device lies in your ability to present provocative, unique or contrarian viewpoints. Strive to be a thought leader; not a news service.

You have no blogging strategy.

If you’re selecting blog post topics on a random or opportunistic basis, then you’re lost in Tactic Land. Create a simple editorial plan that identifies key blog topics related to your firm’s value proposition (why people should hire you), and integrate those topics into a content production calendar to ensure that you cover those topics over 6 months or a year.

You don’t blog consistently.

A blog’s marketing function is to drive top-of-mind awareness with your clients, prospects and referral sources. If you are not generating original content with some regularity, probably at least once a month, then don’t bother blogging at all. In fact, if your last blog post is more than 2 or 3 months old, it’s a brand liability.

You don’t merchandize your blog content.

Another way to increase readership of your blog is by re-purposing its content, in whole or part, in places where it’s likely to be seen. For starters, they should be published on LinkedIn, both on your personal profile (as a long-form blog post like this one), and as an “Update” on your firm’s corporate LinkedIn page. Posting it on Twitter makes sense only if you (or your firm) have a reasonable number of Twitter followers. If your content is interesting and not self-serving, you can also look for opportunities to have it published in an industry blog, or convert it into a bylined article for a relevant trade or business magazine.

You don’t drive traffic to your blog.

Unlike “Field of Dreams,” simply having a blog does not guarantee that any readers (particularly potential clients) will ever benefit from your intellectual capital. You need to promote your blog posts, individually and collectively. As a first step, every quarter send your database of contacts (hopefully you have this) a nicely designed email featuring 2 or 3 of your best recent blog posts, with an “In case you missed this” cover note.

If it’s done correctly, your blog can and will deliver a meaningful marketing ROI. In most cases, this means working smarter, and not necessarily harder, on your company’s blog.

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10 Ways to Market Your Brand’s Integrity

Statue of LibertyRegardless of whether your company is an established leader or an upstart, brand integrity matters. And it’s a corporate asset that needs to be marketed.

Unfortunately, simply 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 company communicate its brand integrity through online and offline channels? Here are 10 tangible and intangible factors that, on an individual and combined basis, can drive market opinion regarding your company’s brand integrity:

  • Transparency: Is information regarding your company’s mission, core values, 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 existing stakeholders (including employees) 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 firm’s core values validated 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 company’s value proposition confirmed 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?)
  • Thought 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 company’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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Should Marketing Automation Customers be Pre-Qualified?

dead duckFor decades, the ONLY way to produce any type of printed material – ranging from sales & marketing brochures, to annual reports and informational flyers – involved a multi-step, time / people-intensive, costly process requiring a copywriter, graphic designer, a typesetter and a printing press.

That longstanding production method was made obsolete over a 5-year period, with development of “What You See Is What You Get” screen technology, combined with the invention of laser printers and graphic design software such as PagerMaker.

Introduction of this new technology called “Desktop Publishing” rocked the business world. It not only changed how companies produced printed materials; it also changed who was responsible for producing them. And that created a different problem.

Armed with Desktop Publishing, many companies failed to grasp that their new technology could not replace professional skills such as graphic design, copywriting, branding and marketing required to produce effective print materials. In the hands of people lacking those communications skills, desktop publishers generated materials that, at best, were ineffective, and often hurt their company’s brand reputation and sales efforts.

The error of many desktop publishers? Believing that the new technology was a plug & play solution, rather than a tool to make people more effective.

Fast-Forward to Marketing Automation: History Repeats Itself

Most marketers understand the evolution of Marketing Automation technology. In a nutshell: legacy sales management software (CRM systems), combined with the emergence of email and social media platforms, have provided marketers with new ways to reach and influence target audiences directly and indirectly.

That capability, bolstered by access to data regarding customers and their online behavior, has led to a proliferation of technology companies peddling a mind-boggling array of Marketing Automation platforms intended to increase consistency and precision during every stage of the customer journey.

The reality, however, is that the Marketing Automation industry has a failure rate of 60%*; not because of its potential, but because of the inability of end-users to harness the technology properly.

The error of many companies using Marketing Automation? Believing that this technology is a plug & play solution, rather than a tool to make people more effective. Déjà vu.

Can Marketing Automation Save Itself from Extinction?

To operate a motor vehicle, you need to possess some basic knowledge of proper behavior as a vehicle operator. You must also pass a skills test, to demonstrate your ability to apply the rules of the road; to use the technology in a responsible manner.

As an industry, Marketing Automation is in trouble for that reason. More than half (and likely many more) of the operators of Marketing Automation products are likely unqualified to use them. They lack a basic understanding of marketing fundamentals, and put their companies at financial and reputational risk by using the technology in an irresponsible manner.

Using the automotive analogy, too many marketers are attempting to drive an 18-wheel tractor trailer through busy, narrow city streets without knowing how to shift the rig’s gears or apply the brakes, and lacking side-view mirrors. So when they eventually crash the vehicle, or give up the keys because they can’t out of first gear…they will attribute their failure to the truck’s manufacturer, not to themselves.

With a significant failure rate, and despite the rosy outlook from vendors and consultants, fewer customers will be lining up for Marketing Automation. (Watch for industry consolidation as major players fight for their share of a shrinking market.)

So how does Marketing Automation save itself from extinction? Here’s a highly improbable solution: Require that prospective customers are pre-qualified to purchase your product. Demand proof that would-be customers understand marketing fundamentals, and can demonstrate the potential to succeed (and to become loyal, enthusiastic brand ambassadors) by proper application of your product. Customers who don’t measure up…can be referred to competitors.

Qualification Standards for a Marketing Automation License

Here’s a list of basic skills that Marketing Automation providers might require of prospective customers, in advance of a sale:

·     Know Who Your Customers Are – Many companies have only a fuzzy understanding of their target markets, or know why those customers should buy from them.

·     Work from a Written Marketing Plan – Here’s the acid test: if your marketing plan is not written down, then you don’t really have a plan…because there’s no accountability.

·     Create Effective Public-Facing Assets – Most websites are outdated, unappealing and incompatible with mobile devices. LinkedIn is also an important due diligence tool, but most companies display a hodge-podge of personal profiles, and demonstrate no consistency in how the company is described in those profiles.

·     Build Database Discipline – If a company lacks the internal discipline to collect and keep current its own database of clients, prospects and referral sources, how can it benefit from an automated system that requires that raw material?

·     Produce Exceptional Content – If a company can’t or won’t consistently produce relevant, interesting, non-self-serving content, then Marketing Automation will fail. Garbage out, garbage in.

·     Align Marketing & Sales – This is the toughest hurdle, because it’s cultural. Sales and marketing professionals must agree up front on lead generation goals and processes, and demonstrate mutual respect for each other’s roles.

·     Leverage Online & Offline Analytics – In addition to having access to online performance metrics, companies need to talk directly to customers and prospects on a regular basis, to ensure a connection between marketing strategy and business outcomes.

There’s no expectation that any company peddling Marketing Automation would ever apply any pre-conditions to a sale. And despite best efforts to educate and support customers, the industry’s failure rate is likely to increase as a result of the customer shortcomings reflected in this laundry list of prerequisites.

And if the history of the marketing function serves as a guide, there’s no expectation that companies will ever stop trying to make marketing a science. Or that marketers will stop wanting technology to provide easy solutions to a business discipline that will always require lots of human thinking, and lots of human creativity and effort.

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*Editor’s Note: Admittedly, the 60% failure rate statistic that’s found online may be outdated, and tough to defend, in terms of research rigor. (For starters, how many companies are eager to admit a costly failure?) It’s certainly a statistic that raises the hackles of Marketing Automation companies.

To justify this article’s premise: here’s a more recent and credible insight from eMarketer into how highly companies rank Marketing Automation, which may reflect their level of success with that technology. It also raises other, perhaps more troubling issues, such as why “Social Media Analytics” is ranked so highly.

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Managing Brand Strategy…When Your Name is on the Front Door

selldorf-home-olvrAny business founder / owner whose surname serves as their company’s brand name has a unique challenge. If (s)he’s built a successful business that relies on the efforts of its employees, the founder of an eponymous business eventually will need to address brand transition; particularly if it’s a B2B or professional services firm.

Brand transition involves shifting market perceptions of the firm away from the individual founder(s), and toward an enterprise-based brand positioning. Over time, this means moving brand perceptions away from “Smith & Company: Jack Smith’s business,” and arriving at “Smith & Company: The business that Jack Smith built.” Or better yet, eventually “Smith & Company: Who was Jack Smith, anyway?”

The brand transition strategy goal is to have a company’s stakeholders – including clients, prospects, referral sources, vendors, etc. – understand that its value proposition is based on the collective talents and experience of all the people who work there; not solely or largely on the individual whose name is on the front door.

When it comes time for a founder to sell or step out of their business, a marketplace identity that relies heavily on that individual’s personal credentials, relationships or charisma will serve to erode the brand equity they’ve worked so hard to establish. It can also reduce enterprise valuation, and handicap the near-term effectiveness of the company’s new owners; particularly when those new owners are the marginalized employees who intend to grow the business.

Ideally, and years in advance of considering their exit strategy, founders of eponymous firms will have the foresight to consider the internal and external advantages of building a strong management team and showcasing that group’s intellectual capital. This requires a founder to put the welfare of the company ahead of their desire to promote themselves. And this can often be a tough task for people with strong personalities who’ve leveraged their ego-driven determination to build a successful venture over 20 years or more.

In our experience, many company founders give little or no thought to the task of shifting market perceptions away from themselves, and have not considered the benefits of a more institutional (and scalable) brand presence. Or they will recognize the issue with very little time left in the game, and then seek to apply some quick or simplistic remedy, such as advertising, to change market perceptions.

Other than ignoring the brand transition issue altogether, company founders have two options:

Re-brand to a Generic Name: To wit: “Smith & Company is now SmiTech Consulting Group!” This can be a viable strategy for eponymous firms at any stage of their lifecycle. These initiatives involve lots of planning and moving parts, and include heavy investment in communication tactics over at least a 6-month period to re-educate stakeholders.

Even with careful planning and coordination, a portion of brand equity will be lost in any re-branding effort, because some stakeholders will never remember the connection between the old and new brand names. Over time, however, re-branding to a generic corporate name can be worth the near-term market confusion for eponymous firms.

Go Cold-Turkey: Forget about orderly brand transition. Founders looking to jump-start an initiative to build an enterprise-based brand should consider going cold turkey, simply by disengaging themselves from the marketing & sales process altogether. This can be accomplished in a discrete manner, or in a more dramatic fashion.

One company founder we worked with, for example, called in his senior team and asked them what immediate and longer-term steps they would take, with respect to business development, if he died of a heart attack that morning. (He was the company’s top rainmaker.) After assuring them that he had no medical problems, the management team spent several hours in a white board session that provided the raw material for a very effective brand transition plan that the founder endorsed and implemented with great success.

The tactics generated in that company’s “cold turkey” planning session were neither complex nor sophisticated. Instead, they were straight out of the Marketing Communications 101 playbook, and included:

–      Thought leadership content based primarily on ideas of interest to clients; not related to the accomplishments of individuals at their firm;

–      Sharing the spotlight across the entire organization, involving all types of editorial and public platforms;

–      Reconfiguration of all public facing materials, notably the firm’s website, to reflect the collective strength of their organization;

–      Internal recognition and encouragement for all employees to promote the firm.

Many notable eponymous firms have succeeded in brand transition: McKinsey, Ernst & Young, Skadden Arps, Korn Ferry, etc. The back-stories are unavailable on how those firms accomplished that goal, and whether the change was managed in orderly fashion, or was the lucky result of internal chaos.

Although we’ve not found any research on this topic, we suspect that for every brand transition success story, there are at least 10 examples of firms that have failed; not simply in terms of brand identity, but more importantly, in terms of the company’s survival. Too often, a founder’s unwillingness to acknowledge the contributions of employees ensures that there will be no brand legacy when they leave the business…and sometimes in advance of that.

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Industry Conferences and Seminars: How to Extract their Real Business Value

dog-and-ponyRegardless of industry, 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, outright laziness or unrealistic expectations by the companies that participate in them.

Here are three issues marketers 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 often 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 helpful, but 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 often times 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 behavior will always produce better outcomes than “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

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First Aid for Media Burn

breaking-news-2Regardless of how well a company communicates with the press, it stands a good chance of being “burned” on occasion. From minor misquote to major hatchet-job, these real and perceived offenses occupy the attention of senior managers and their advisors, whose polite clarifications and outraged denials fill the “Letters to the Editor” section of every business and trade publication.

Unfortunately, no standard methodology exists for redress of grievances with the press. In the business of keeping everyone else honest, the news media is “one of the worst sectors in keeping themselves accountable,” according to American Lawyer editor Steven Brill.

There are, however, several field-tested procedures and certified blunders that can serve as a rudimentary first aid manual for companies. Initial triage for media burn—the decision about whether to act at all—should involve an objective appraisal of the injury’s potential for actual long-term damage, rather than a knee-jerk mission to set the record straight.

Some facts, figures and quotes, although they may be wrong or misleading, are just not worth squawking about in public. First City Bancorporation of Texas’ clarification in Business Week regarding the date of its chairman’s law degree (1956, not 1969) served only to portray that company as a nagging nitpicker. On the other hand, silence can be viewed as tacit approval of what has been reported, and misinformation no longer simply fades away. Electronic data retrieval systems, which store nearly every piece of print or broadcast information, now ensure that a news story, regardless of its accuracy, will have a life of its own.

Most reporters research current story assignments by reviewing what has been previously reported. In a classic case of this media “snowballing,” facts and opinions expressed by a California newspaper regarding Pacific Lumber Company’s tree harvesting practices—which cast the company as an environmental villain—eventually turned up in another Business Week article. Two years later, that same information provided the hook for a Fortune piece, which subsequently spawned a Reader’s Digeststory and “20/20” TV documentary.

Once the decision has been made to correct a misrepresentation in the media, a company should act quickly to document and state its case. Don’t be afraid to make some noise. A letter sent to an appropriate editor, rather than the reporter involved, should present extremely specific objections and clarifications. Very often, says Newsweek senior writer Jonathan Alter, “these letters start out, ‘There are so many errors that I can’t begin to list them…’ Right away my eyes glaze over.”

Pen Is Still Mightier Than Sword

If warranted, an initial complaint letter may be prepared by legal counsel; however, sabre-rattling at this early stage is often counterproductive. This letter should propose a reasonable solution to the problem, ranging from a mention in a corrections column to a full-scale retraction. But unless an error or bias can be proven conclusively, as most never are, an editor will stand by the story and consider the case closed. This is where more sophisticated remedies for media burn may be appropriate.

One very effective means of counteracting negative media exposure is to address the matter in head-on fashion by taking opposing viewpoints directly to target audiences. In response to a Consumer Reports article on home water filters which it considered incorrect and misleading, National Safety Associates distributed to its sales force a copy of its president’s letter to the editor of that publication; thereby helping company reps to handle the negative publicity about their products. If the stakes are high enough, direct communication with employees, shareholders and customers is in order.

Display ads with a message, a common device in proxy battles, can also be used to rebut negative editorial coverage. More often, however, companies withhold or withdraw advertising to punish “unfriendly” media outlets. The best known example involves Mobil Oil and the Wall Street Journal, but the tactic is still used frequently, with far less fanfare than the Mobil incident. Economic blackmail often backfires, however, as editors assume an even tougher reporting edge in order to demonstrate that their opinion cannot be purchased.

Boycotting relationships with the media provides a small measure of short-term gratification, yields no beneficial change, and displays an unhealthy level of arrogance. The traditional “Letter to the Editor” is often the least effective means of expressing an opposing viewpoint. Although this is a well-read section, most letters are boring, overly self-serving, assume that readers remember the original article, and can confuse the matter further. Additionally, publications such as Barron’s and the Harvard Business Review provide journalists with an opportunity to respond in elaborate fashion to the objections of letter writers.

Seasoned politicians appreciate the futility of debating anyone who controls the microphone; most rebuttal letter writers learn that lesson the hard way. A more effective use of the “Letter to the Editor” platform is to request support from a friendly, credible third party. This technique was applied by Safeway Stores Inc. following negative front-page coverage in a national newspaper. By no coincidence, the rebuttal from it s CEO was accompanied by supportive letters from company suppliers such as Sunkist Growers Inc. and Kellogg Co., an employee, a competitor, and even the chairman of the National Easter Seal Society, who confirmed Safeway’s generosity. In most cases a single letter should do the trick.

As a rule, companies prone to media burn display a chronic reluctance to announce bad news, and refuse to admit error. Chrysler Corporation’s guilt in a car odometer resetting scandal was defused effectively by chairman Iaccoca’s immediate apology and personal assurance that the mistake would not be repeated.

Que Sera, Sera

First aid for media burn calls for gracious acceptance of two important facts of business life: That an unflattering or dead wrong portrayal in the press should be viewed as an ongoing and acceptable risk when running a company; and second, that for better or worse, your firm’s long-term reputation with reporters, editors, and other important audiences is influenced by how well you manage the trauma of media burn, not simply by how adept you are at avoiding it.

[Editor’s Note: If you’ve read this far, you know the examples and sources cited in this piece are sorely outdated. This article was originally published in 1994, in the Journal of Business Strategy. Notwithstanding 20+ years and huge shifts in the media landscape, I stand by the relevance of the “media burn” guidance it offers.]

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