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4 Media Relations Lessons…Learned the Hard Way

Tripped up again…by the “When did you stop beating your wife?”​ question.

Media relations (or press relations) involves risks and consequences that can quickly derail any career, either as a corporate executive or PR agency rep. A misquote can sink a company’s stock price. An innocent “puff piece” can turn out to be an exposé that embarrasses your CEO. An insensitive comment on camera can spark a customer boycott.

Over the course of my career – as an in-house staff member, and as a PR flack for hire – I’ve received several permanent scars, while attempting to generate positive coverage, and while defending against negative reporting. Some of those media scars have been self-inflicted; others were caused by journalists who often play by their own set of rules.

Here are four lessons I’ve learned from working with the press:

1. A Reporter Can Never Be a Trusted Friend.

As spokesperson for the Options Division of the American Stock Exchange, I frequently spoke with a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who covered news related to the Chicago Board Options Exchange. At that time, the CBOE had a significantly greater number of options listings compared with the Amex, but a small number of listings were traded on both exchanges. He considered the competition for market share involving those few listings to be newsworthy.

Our weekly conversations were always friendly. Discussion topics ranged from baseball to poetry, and always ended with him asking me for a comment about market share, with me declining. After several months of weekly conversations, and having exchanged college exploits and family details, I considered this reporter a friend. Tired of declining to comment on his market share issue so many times, I finally said to him one day, “Why do you keep asking me that same dumb question? The CBOE is so much larger than the Amex, and the CBOE only trades options, so why is that a story?” He laughed and we hung up.

The next day, I was summoned to the Amex President’s office. He threw a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times in my lap. The headline of the business section read: AMEX OFFICIAL ADMITS CBOE SUPERIORITY. I expected to be fired on the spot, but instead (and to my great relief) he told me, “Don’t ever let that happen again.” I’ve never forgotten the lesson to always expect to see whatever you say (and sometimes things you didn’t say) in print. Nor have I forgotten my boss’s benevolence.

2. Some Reporters Have Personal Agendas

While representing a major chain of food stores as outside PR counsel, I brought in a Forbes reporter in hopes of having her write a company profile. The food chain had been doing very well, had an interesting story, and there was no negative news associated with the company. The reporter’s 2-hour interview with the CEO went very well. He answered all of her questions in a direct manner, and she did not present any questions that suggested an intention to write anything other than a positive story. The CEO winked at me on the way out the door, as if to say, “Nice job.”

Two weeks later, I picked up the phone, and the CEO screamed, “Have you seen the article in Forbes?” I said no, and he yelled, “When you read it, you’ll know why you’re fired!” He slammed down the phone.

I scrambled to get a copy of Forbes, and read what was a total hatchet job. The reporter had nothing positive to say about my client’s company. My fingers trembled with anger as I dialed the reporter. She picked up, and I asked her, “How could you possible write that story?” There was a long pause, then she said, “I didn’t like the way your client treated his secretary.” Then she hung up. That experience taught me that you can never count on positive coverage. Press relations is always a crap shoot.

3. Admit When You Don’t Know the Answer

As head of public relations at a very large financial services company, I spoke on a regular basis with seasoned journalists who always knew far more than I did about complex, arcane topics. I received a call one day from a Wall Street Journal reporter regarding a press release we had just issued involving a stock split. He asked me a question that I didn’t really understand, but my ego did not allow me to admit to him that I didn’t know the correct answer. His question was simple, requiring me to select one of two possible responses. Playing the odds, I picked one, hoping it was correct.

The next morning, in a flashback from my Amex days, the firm’s CEO walked into my office with a copy of the Wall Street Journal, asking who had spoken with the reporter who covered the stock split. I had picked the wrong response to the reporter’s question, and the error had been published. For a second time, I was lucky to keep my job, but groveled in the follow-up call to the reporter, asking for a clarification in the next issue. I’ve never made that same mistake, and now consider admission of ignorance a badge of courage.

4. A Reporter’s Ego Can Derail Fair Coverage

While representing a new advertising agency, I arranged an interview for the agency co-founders with a well-known New York Times columnist who covered their industry. My clients were elated at the prospect of being featured in such a respected, widely read column. But when the story appeared, some of the key facts regarding the agency were reported incorrectly.

I assured my clients that the columnist would print a clarification in his next column. I called him, and introduced myself, to which he responded, “I know why you’re calling me. And if you push for a clarification, I will never cover your client in my column again.” Offsetting this unpleasant incident, I’ve also had experiences with well-known journalists, including Dan Rather, who’ve kept their positions and egos from affecting their professionalism. 

In media relations you learn to expect surprises, and to roll with the punches. Career risk notwithstanding, you have the potential to educate target audiences, to shape opinion, and to create positive outcomes for your company or client. When those good things happen, the hard lessons you’ve learned and the scars you accumulated all seem worthwhile. 

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How To Make Marketing An Invaluable Function

In its landmark 2018 Pulse Survey of 220 Chief Marketing Officers, the executive recruiting firm Korn Ferry reported that, although financial results were the most important factor in their performance-based compensation, “52% of CMOs say they cannot make a direct and obvious correlation between marketing efforts and company performance.”

At small and mid-sized businesses, the heads of marketing rarely receive performance-based compensation related to financial results or related to any quantitative metrics directly associated with company performance. Their compensation and tenure are often based on fuzzy or subjective factors, including the ability to generate earned media, maintain an effective website, produce relevant content for social media or score highly in brand awareness or customer satisfaction surveys.

By design or default, most marketers are so far removed from the revenue-generation function that they cannot claim to add value to it. Or they find it impossible to demonstrate any role they play in achieving goals that are important to their CEO. In my experience, the sales team typically forgets to ask prospects how they’ve learned about the company or product. And when asked directly, prospects often claim that they can’t recall. Neither of those endorsements, however, would provide strong validation for marketing’s return on investment.

Regardless of company size, the marketing function will increasingly be at risk during tough economic periods, and will never have a permanent seat at the management table, unless CMOs and marketing VPs redefine their role and establish tangible ways to associate their efforts with revenue generation. To survive and grow in their current position, they need to invest more time on tasks that will affect the company’s top-line revenue and less time on what amounts to window dressing.

The Holy Grail of Sales and Marketing Alignment

Marketing and sales alignment must be the highest strategic goal for every marketer. This is no easy task.

Because sales reps have a more direct line of measuring revenue generation, it falls on the CMO’s shoulders to fix the sales-and-marketing culture clash — that is, where sales reps don’t believe in marketing’s ability to hand them worthy leads, and where marketers don’t believe that sales reps know how to properly manage those leads. In this culture clash, there is far less incentive for the VP of Sales to affect that change.

Here’s how marketing leaders can begin to establish a new way of working together with the sales team, and in the process, improve their company’s performance, as well as their professional stature and job tenure:

• Make yourself part of the sales team. Depending on the amount of rancor that currently exists between sales and marketing, it may require some triage or finesse to tell your sales counterpart that you’d like to better understand their world. Do not explain that you are on a mission to “align sales and marketing,” which might be met with suspicion. Instead, simply ask for guidance on ways you can improve communication and practical assistance. Suggest that combined marketing/sales meetings be held on a monthly or quarterly basis.

• Gain a firsthand understanding of the sales process. This requires shadowing on sales calls, which may not be met with enthusiasm by the head of sales or by individual sales reps. If marketing can gain a sense of what actually occurs on sales calls — ranging from how the product or service is described, to the prospects’ questions and objections — it will be in a much better position to craft tools and tactics that are based on market realities, rather than sales reports. Or it may result in a mutual agreement regarding the definition of a qualified lead.

• Gain a firsthand understanding of customer needs and issues. With or without the help of the sales department, find ways to stay on top of customer sentiment. Go deeper than automated online surveys. For example, spend a half-day every month listening in on calls that come into your customer service center. Better yet, reach out to current and former customers by phone (with the approval of sales) to gain an appreciation of why they are customers or why they’ve left.

• Build trust and partnership in small, meaningful ways. The degree of mutual cooperation between marketing and sales depends largely on the personalities involved, and how well they like and respect each other. That relationship can be strengthened over time if marketing finds ways to be helpful without encroaching too far onto sacred sales territory. This can include everything from their pitch letters and PowerPoint presentations to case studies and demos. The initial task is to discover the “safety zones,” where sales will welcome assistance from marketing. 

• Ask for feedback and find ways to compromise. Ed Koch, the legendary mayor of New York City, was known for always asking his constituents, “How am I doing?” What made Koch a great mayor was that he listened to their responses and found ways to address positive and negative feedback. Marketing and sales will always view the world through a different lens, so simply acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers is a necessary starting point for effective teamwork.

There are countless books, articles, research studies, educational seminars and consulting firms devoted to sales and marketing alignment. My guidance is neither unique nor comprehensive. For CMOs and marketers who spend their days creating content that no one reads, and generating campaigns that fail to create customers, I’m simply suggesting they should keep their resumes up to date.

This article was originally published in Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesagencycouncil/2021/01/08/how-to-make-marketing-an-invaluable-function/?sh=4846c08874f5

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Diet, Exercise And Marketing: Self-Imposed Obstacles That Ensure Failure

There are practical reasons diet companies and national gym chains spend most of their advertising budgets within two seasonal windows: in advance of the new year, when people make their annual resolutions, and in springtime, when beachgoers face the prospect of wearing a bathing suit in public.

Despite best intentions, many people who join gyms in January are likely to drop out in February, and many other new members will drop out within the next few months. Countless research studies also suggest that many people who lose weight will regain all of those pounds within a year, and likely add more.

There are valid social and physiological reasons most people don’t do the things necessary to maintain their personal health and fitness. On their journeys, they also must overcome self-imposed obstacles, and in my opinion, three of those are the same reasons marketing fails at most companies. 

1. Setting Unrealistic Expectations

Regardless of our body shape, age and metabolism, we typically seek chiseled six-pack abs and movie-star good looks. In marketing as well, we often establish lofty goals — whether they involve lead generation, revenue growth or new accounts — that require a level of investment or period of time that far exceeds actual resources. Having “stretch goals” can be a healthy practice, but at too many companies, consistently falling short of unrealistic targets often results in shelving the marketing initiative altogether. 

If there is no benchmark data from prior campaigns, companies are more likely to succeed if they begin with very low (or even zero) performance expectations. Whatever outcomes are achieved over the course of the campaign are then closely and consistently examined to determine what’s working and what’s not in order to make necessary adjustments. That way, there’s a much greater likelihood that the campaign will yield increasingly better results over time.

2. Searching For A Magic Bullet

Fad diets and weight-loss supplements can provide temporary solutions for people seeking alternatives that are faster and easier than changing their eating habits or exercising on a regular basis. Similarly, some companies are always seeking a marketing tactic or gimmick in hopes of generating immediate results.

Two current examples of perceived magic bullets include content marketing and marketing automation software. In both cases, companies can mistakenly believe that producing and sharing content, or consistently emailing information to prospects, is a guaranteed fast track to higher market response and business growth. But those two tactics will never deliver meaningful outcomes unless the company produces content that’s of interest to target audiences, and unless it defines and monitors the metrics it wants its marketing automation to achieve. Neither of those initiatives are quick fixes.

3. Lacking A Meaningful Plan

“Lose weight” is not a plan. Instead, a plan might be: “Lose 10 pounds over the next three months by monitoring my caloric intake; running two to three miles on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday; and logging my weight every morning.”

Each time I’ve met with a prospective client over the past three decades, one of the first questions I ask is, “Do you have a written marketing plan?” Some are truthful and tell me no. Others tell me they have a plan, but that it’s not written; to which my response is always, “Then you don’t really have a marketing plan.”

Some companies do have a written marketing plan. Typically, it’s contained in a three-ring binder that never gets looked at — and those companies don’t have a real marketing plan either. As a result, all of those companies have no tangible way to plan, budget for or execute meaningful marketing activity. There is no way to calculate the return on their marketing investment. There is no real accountability — no connection with the company’s sales function or with business metrics that can have an impact on its balance sheet.

Marketing’s Place At The Management Table

Too often, marketing is marginalized as a way to “promote the brand” or to “build goodwill,” and is viewed as overhead rather than a profit center. But for company owners or senior managers who are serious about tapping into the enormous potential of marketing to grow their enterprise, there is a pathway to avoid the three most common self-imposed obstacles:

• Treat marketing as an essential corporate discipline that requires the same level of commitment and long-term perspective as operations, sales, legal, accounting, technology or HR functions. Marketing should not be ignored or reduced when business is good, nor should it be applied only as triage when business declines. Marketing needs to run at a consistent pace at all times.

• Accept that there is no “secret sauce” in marketing that will transform the company overnight. The most meaningful marketing initiatives will take planning, hard work, and ongoing scrutiny and modification to produce results.

• Create written marketing plans that are realistic and user-friendly. They need not be lengthy or complex, and can be as brief as a two- to three-page memo. Your programs should be based on actionable, measurable tactics that are focused on driving market engagement rather than opinion, and that are not sacrosanct. If they’re not working, they’re fixed or replaced.

Management consulting legend Peter Drucker said, “Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two — and only two — basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs.”

Given the actual role that marketing currently plays at most companies, Drucker — who passed away in 2005 — would likely need to modify his bold statement: “Marketing and innovation can produce results; all the rest are costs.”

Marketing’s full potential will be realized only by those companies with the insight to give the function a seat at the management table and the determination to make marketing earn its place there.

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Social Distancing: Marketing’s New Strategic Mandate

beatles-abbey-road-social-distancingLong before the fear of contracting COVID-19 entered our collective consciousness, and thanks to modern society’s reliance on electronic devices, many people were already practicing a form of social distancing. Without leaving our own homes, we text or play video games with friends. Many of us no longer call family members as often.

I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has simply accelerated social distancing, and that it will normalize self-imposed isolation long after it’s over. We may all be in this together, but social distancing has also changed the meaning of what “together” really means. This will likely have a lasting impact on our global society, on how people communicate with each other and on how marketers will reach and influence people in the future.

If these predictions are correct, and people continue to reduce their interpersonal contact, here are some tactical suggestions involving three major categories of marketing activity.

Direct Communication

Many companies have abused email to such a great extent — bombarding clients, prospects and referral sources with email blasts, self-serving newsletters and other useless information — that it’s now extremely difficult to get noticed or gain meaningful traction. But marketers who know how to craft an enticing subject line, and who can write effective copy, can break through the clutter. Include the person’s or company’s name in the subject line to distinguish it from spam, for instance. More importantly, remember that long, rambling messages rarely get read. Less is more, if it’s well written.

I also recommend practicing the art of the physical letter. In terms of visceral impact, I believe there’s still no substitute for ink on letterhead that’s hand-signed and delivered in an envelope featuring an attractive commemorative stamp. Snail mail, which for decades was blocked by executive gatekeepers, is now such a rare occurrence that personal letters often receive immediate attention. I’ve found that letters also make it far more likely that the recipient will remember the communication and take a follow-up phone call from the sender.

Online Visibility

With the exception of sophisticated e-commerce businesses, I’ve noticed that most companies maintain a “brochureware” website that’s rarely refreshed. Many have blogs featuring content that most visitors neither read nor comment on. Very few companies seem to monitor website analytics, and even fewer understand the complex world of SEO. A significant number of companies also maintain a presence on social media platforms and publish posts for a relatively small group of followers, many of whom are not their target audience.

Although most company CEOs or owners would never consider operating without a website — which serves as the modern-day storefront — many of them over the years have confessed to me that they see no tangible connection between their website or social media and tangible business outcomes, such as lead generation, increased sales or new accounts.

As social distancing drives even greater reliance on information that’s gained through online search, marketers will likely need to establish a much higher bar for themselves in terms of the ROI for the content they produce. Repurposing third-party information with (or without) your firm’s introductory comments, or posting online versions of sales collateral — under the guise of thought leadership — is simply noise.

Earned media has the highest value on the credibility scale. Rather than posting a self-serving white paper, work with a vertical trade or professional publication to produce an objective bylined article on the topic. Then, promote that content, which is far more likely to be read and to deliver higher online visibility and sustained Google search ranking compared to any blog or social media post.

Industry Events

The practical business benefits of participation in large conferences, symposiums and seminars have always been difficult to measure. The sales team rationalizes the significant investment of time and expense for these events by claiming the company “would be conspicuous by its absence,” or that they are a cost-effective way to meet face to face with many of the best clients. The veracity of those claims notwithstanding, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely reduce the attendance levels and ROI of large industry events for at least the next few years.

Marketers have always used targeted, efficient means of reaching and influencing large groups of current and potential customers — most often through webinars and other online forums that leverage technology. With the reduced availability and impact of live industry events, I believe marketers will need to step up their game in terms of how they create, promote, manage and leverage online group forums.

With few exceptions, the standard webinar protocol is to create an agenda that (directly or indirectly) highlights the company’s capabilities, and engage a webinar technology firm for logistics. You then promote the event through blast emails and social media and throw any attendee leads over to the sales team for follow-up. If the process yields any new customers, the event is considered a success.

But as the number of online events greatly increases to compensate for fewer industry events, you’ll need to squeeze much more juice out of this tactic. Squarely address and promote the “What’s in this for me?” factor in your webinar content. Make sure your agenda is 100% educational and devoid of self-serving slide presentations. Allow attendees to draw their own conclusions regarding your company’s value proposition, based solely on the quality of the intellectual capital that’s displayed during the discussion. For many marketers, it may be a major hurdle to persuade senior management to make this cultural change.

If your webinar content is truly educational, then you can repurpose it — perhaps as a bylined article or long-form LinkedIn post — for people who didn’t attend the online event.

Beyond adjusting your tactics, consider how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect personal values. In this new world, I believe authenticity, empathy and courtesy will be key factors in decision making, and they should be reflected in everything the company communicates internally and externally.

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Is Your Firm a “Safe Choice”​ for Prospective Clients?

Boots

Prospective clients certainly want to know if you have the experience and skills they need. But before they put you on their short list of candidates for consideration, they first will need some assurance that your company is a “safe choice.” The hard reality is that — regardless of your firm’s ability to add value — decision-makers at every level are unwilling to risk their career or reputation on selection of an outside advisor or firm may fail to meet expectations, or even harm their business.

To make matters worse, prospective clients will decide to include or exclude you from their short list long before they talk with you, or meet you in person. Before reaching out to you or sending an RFP, prospects will determine whether your firm is a “safe choice” based on the same method they use to select a restaurant, a movie or golf course. They’ll form an opinion based on publicly available information they find online.

Unfortunately, simply telling target audiences — in your public-facing marketing assets — that your company is smart, honest, unique, innovative, creative, cutting-edge, trusted, etc. rarely succeeds. Prospects will require both hard and soft evidence to support their decision to include you as a serious candidate.

Most importantly, prospects need to feel confident that when their boss, partner, board of directors or spouse ever has cause to ask, “Why did you hire those guys?” that they will be able to provide a strong, defensible, well-reasoned “CYA” response.

If, as the outdated adage suggests, that “nobody has ever been fired for hiring IBM,” then how do you make the short list of candidates if you’re not IBM, and trying to survive in a world where you’re considered a risk even before you’re given an opportunity to succeed or fail?

Here are some tangible and intangible factors that, on an individual and combined basis, can drive marketplace opinion on whether you or your firm is a “safe choice”:

  • Transparency: Is information regarding your firm’s philosophy, products / services, processes and people available and easily accessible? (Acid Test: How much digging is required to gain a basic understanding of your value proposition?)
  • Consistency: Is all your information kept up-to-date, and relevant to current market conditions? (Acid Test: What’s the frequency and quality of content generation, as well as the number of direct and indirect “touches” with target audiences?)
  • Enthusiasm: Does your firm appear genuinely enthusiastic about its business, and its communication with target audiences? Or does activity seem “cookie-cutter,” and communication appear to be treated as a necessary evil? (Acid Test: How often are innovation, provocative thinking and fun baked into those efforts?)
  • Core Values: Are your company’s core values expressed in a compelling manner, to address the need to know what you stand for? More importantly, are those core values demonstrated through its actions? (Acid Test: Are they aspirational and inspirational? Is there tangible evidence that your core values really drive decision-making?)
  • 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 connections — perhaps reflected thought a Board of Advisors — respected, credible and trustworthy? (Acid Test: Is the firm actively connected with the outside world?)
  • External Validation: How is your firm’s value proposition confirmed by objective 3rd parties? Do reliable sources express open support or inherent endorsement? (Acid Test: Do credible media sources or research firms 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 firm’s ideas or contributions? Are white papers just poorly disguised sales collateral?)
  • Persona: Does your firm appear to be run by interesting human beings, or hide its personality behind an opaque, institutional veneer? (Acid Test: Does the overall impact of public-facing communication project warmth and sincerity, or distance and arrogance?)

Short of claiming a long client list of successful companies that your prospects want to emulate, there’s no magic formula that will increase your firm’s ability to be perceived as a safe choice. But as decision-making regarding selection of outside resources is increasingly based on a Google search, your firm can greatly improve its chances of making the short list by managing its online visibility in a more strategic manner.

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Why Clients Don’t Value Your Ability

Keeping Score for the TeamFor many decades, in medical school physicians have been taught the “3 A’s” of a sound practice management. They are the 3 qualities that their patients will value most highly, in rank order of importance:

  1. Affability
  2. Accessibility
  3. Ability

Regardless of whether your professional field is medicine, law, technology or finance, that same ranking applies to how you will be valued by clients, particularly in B2B businesses.

For better or worse, your clients judge you (or your firm) primarily on a personal, visceral basis. First, they must like you (“Affability”), and then be confident in your commitment to them (“Accessibility.”) Your actual performance (“Ability”) will always be judged by clients on a relative basis, compared with their own knowledge of your craft, and their past experience with other providers in your field.

The sad truth is that your professional capabilities are the least important factor to clients.

This ranking priority may seem illogical to a lawyer, fund manager or a accountant whose view of the world is built on measurable evidence and tangible outcomes. But this apparent anomaly in client sentiment is supported by many real life examples. Insurance companies, for example, report that doctors who admit their mistakes and apologize to patients are rarely sued. Successful stock brokers report that they seldom lose clients for poor portfolio performance, if they are quick to explain why it happened and what’s being done to improve it.

Although client communication is at least as important as actual performance in most service businesses, companies seldom give that task the attention it deserves.

But for firms that understand the business impact of client communication, and have made a commitment to pay more than lip service to the discipline, the most significant challenges involve:

  • Finding the proper communication frequency, channels and content
  • Cutting through the vast amount of information that clients receive each day
  • Applying tactics that reinforce their firm’s value proposition and differentiation

Here are a four ways to improve your firm’s client communication strategy:

Stop Guessing About What Clients Think: One of the most obvious yet overlooked ways to strengthen communication with clients is to ask them for their opinion. Legendary New York City Mayor Ed Koch constantly asked his constituents, “How am I doing?” And it was more than a political gimmick, as Koch always listened to their responses, and applied what he learned to improve his performance and reputation.

You can measure client sentiment on an informal basis, similar to Ed Koch; but you’re more likely to yield meaningful results if you conduct a formal survey either online and / or by telephone. Online platforms like surveymonkey.com make it easy to design, conduct and evaluate a client opinion survey. You can conduct phone interviews yourself, or engage a 3rd party.

There’s a widely used survey methodology that yield “Net Promoter Scores,” designed to measure client loyalty; but for most small firms, you really only need to ask three questions: 1. Are we meeting your expectations? 2. If not, why not? 3. How else can we add value to our relationship? The responses will likely provide some basis on which you can measure client sentiment and make beneficial changes. But the intrinsic marketing value of any opinion survey – regardless of the questions or response rates – is that it lets clients know you care about them.

Focus on Consistency and Speed of Communication: The cornerstone of your client communication strategy should involve regularly scheduled contact; ideally on a quarterly basis, and provide content that’s of genuine interest to them. This does not include your performance / activity reports; news that touts your firm’s “Best of [fill in the blank] Award;” its recently hired employees; or the results of last month’s employee 5k mud run. It should include viewpoints and guidance that’s not self-serving, and helps your clients to succeed. For scheduled contact, consistency also matters. Either commit to calendared client outreach, or don’t start a program.

Your firm should also be prepared, on an opportunistic basis, to communicate with its clients when there is some (internal or external) material event that may cause them to be confused, concerned or excited. This is a critical part of what “accessibility” means: that you’re always thinking of your client’s welfare. Whether it’s a 500-point drop in the Dow Industrials, or a new scientific discovery related to their business, you need to reach out to your clients – by email, phone, text, snail mail – as soon as possible to deliver the (bad or good) news. Ideally, you’ll also be in a position to help them avoid, adjust to or benefit from the information you provide.

Personalize Your Client Communications: Small firms have a significant marketing advantage, because it doesn’t take very much effort or expense to add a personal touch to their communications with clients. For starters, your firm should know and track personal information of key individuals, including their birthday, spouse / partner’s name, children’s names and ages, hobbies, favorite sports teams, etc. No detail is unimportant.

An old adage, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care,” rings true across all lines of business. The more information you have about the personal lives of your clients, the better prepared you’ll be to have conversations about what’s most important to them, and to find ways to reinforce your long-term relationships. Ask about their trip to Belize. Send them a handwritten note when their hockey team wins the Stanley Cup, or when their daughter gets accepted to law school. Send a box of cigars when they win their club’s golf tournament. Treat them to dinner at an upscale restaurant on their 10th wedding anniversary. As long as your efforts are genuine, clients will remember, appreciate and reciprocate in terms of loyalty.

Think Outside the Box during Holiday Season: In lemming-like fashion, around the holidays most companies will send out a greeting card purchased from an online catalogue, imprinted with the firm’s name. (Many companies don’t even bother to sign their card, or to add a personal message.) Holiday season conformity can provide a great opportunity to stand out from the crowd. For example, instead of sending out a holiday greeting in mid-December, consider sending a clever Happy Thanksgiving card, which won’t get lost in the pile of December’s cards, and will avoid offending anyone, based on their religious affiliation.

Another way to stand out is to forgo the traditional cocktail party or reception, where great expense and advance planning can all be for naught if bad weather or a competing event keeps your invited guests from attending. As an alternative, host a fancy catered luncheon for your client’s entire staff at their own office location during the holiday season, where you attend and hand out the egg nog or candy canes. Or avoid the holiday madness altogether, and around Memorial Day send your clients a beach chair, boogie board or cooler (all featuring your firm’s logo) to celebrate the beginning of the summer season.

The real secret sauce of client communication for any business is to manage the effort as an opportunity rather than a necessary evil. Or in the words of Dicky Fox, fictional mentor of Jerry Maguire, from the 1996 movie of the same name:

The key to this business is personal relationships.

Make that your own mission statement, and watch your business grow.

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A 9-Step Marketing Success Recipe

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The first question we ask prospective clients is, “Do you have a Marketing Plan?”

Many prospects sheepishly acknowledge that they don’t have a formal Marketing Plan. This group earns big points with us for honesty.

Some less forthright prospects will claim that they have a Marketing Plan, but when asked to show it to us, this group responds with, “Our plan isn’t written down,” or “It’s being updated,” which really means that they don’t have a Marketing Plan.

There are several good and bad reasons why companies (of all sizes) don’t create a Marketing Plan. Those spoken and unspoken reasons include:

·     “It’s too much work to create and maintain a Marketing Plan.”

·     “We had a Marketing Plan once, and it just sat in a 3-ring binder on the shelf.”

·     “Senior management doesn’t understand marketing. Why confuse them more?”

·     “It’s easier to just keep trying different marketing tactics, to see what works.”

After decades of watching companies either earnestly struggle to create a Marketing Plan, or strenuously avoid creating one, we recently had an epiphany. We realized that most companies should SKIP the Marketing Plan altogether.

Here’s why: The ratio of companies without (versus with) a Marketing Plan will never change. So rather than badgering and shaming the “No Marketing Plan” companies, we should help them focus exclusively on the critical components of marketing that will help them succeed. We call this process the “9 Step Marketing Success Recipe.”

In Betty Crocker fashion, here is a step-by-step recipe for achieving marketing success for your company…completely devoid of all marketing jargon:

Three Strategic Ingredients

Step 1: Determine why customers should buy your product / service. This seemingly simple goal – to understand what’s special about your company – is the most essential element of marketing strategy. Many companies either don’t have a clue, or have an unfounded / unrealistic viewpoint on why people should do business with them. You need to nail this step…because it provides your company with its sales pitch.

Step 2: Learn why customers are buying from your competitors. To gain a reliable answer to the Step 1 question, you need to possess a thorough understanding of the competitive landscape. The most successful marketers know everything about (and closely monitor) current competitors, to gain insight into why customers buy from them. They also work to anticipate new competitors, and explore potential customer solutions that could disrupt the entire category.

Step 3: Learn what your customers want and don’t want. If you’re not having a continuous, two-way conversation with current, prospective and former customers, then you are flying by the seat of your pants, marketing-wise. And you can’t rely exclusively on surveys to gain that market intelligence. Pick up the phone and talk to decision-makers at least once a quarter to really understand what they think and what they need.

Three Practical Ingredients

Step 1: Define what your marketing resources are. Marketing requires money and people. Work backwards to build a marketing strategy. First decide what resources are available to invest, and then determine what strategies / tactics you can afford to apply properly and consistently. Having an “open budget” for marketing makes you a target for the latest gimmick, and is a sure way to waste a boatload of money.

Step 2: Put your sales process under the microscope. Marketing is not a religion. To justify its existence as a corporate function, marketing must help produce tangible business outcomes. Most marketing activity should be related to sales…and the sales function requires close scrutiny in advance of any marketing investment. If your sales process is broken (or non-existent), then your marketing will likely yield nothing of value.

          Step 3: Define exactly what you want your marketing to achieve. Your marketing goals should be directly or indirectly connected to activity that drives revenue. If that revenue connection is fuzzy, or based largely on wishful thinking, then either refine or eliminate the weak strategies and tactics. Be ruthless in your evaluation of all marketing activity at all times.

Three Tactical Ingredients

Step 1: Select ONE effective direct marketing tactic. Most email solicitations go unread, with good reason: they are self-serving, poorly written and lack a compelling rationale for people to respond. But because the email marketing bar is so low, there is plenty of opportunity to stand out from the crowd. There’s also a big opportunity to leverage traditional snail mail, largely because marketers have abandoned that channel in lemming-like fashion.

Step 2: Select ONE smart content marketing tactic. The objective is to showcase your company’s intellectual capital (which is very different from a sales pitch), either through respected print / electronic media sources or social media, primarily to gain online visibility for that content. The marketing reality is this: If potential clients can’t find you by searching online, then you are not in the game. If you prefer to stick with the “We’re a relationship business, and don’t need an online brand presence.” marketing approach, then please let me know. I would like to short your stock.

Step 3: Select ONE consistent tactic to keep in touch with clients, prospects and referral sources. With so much media noise and competition, and because you can never know when people will be ready to engage, it’s important to remind decision-makers that your company is ready to help them. Quarterly communication is sufficient, and will avoid being viewed as a pest. Standard “all about us” newsletters are boring, so provide content that’s meaningful and of interest to your readers.

This overly simplistic, 9-step planning process is unlikely to gain the endorsement of the American Marketing Association. But for the vast majority of businesses who don’t have the time or interest to create a bona fide Marketing Plan, this “9 Step Marketing Success Recipe” should more than suffice.

Compared with some of the overly ambitious, non-productive Marketing Plans that we’ve seen over the years, it’s also likely to produce a much tastier outcome.

Bon Appetit!

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Two Reasons Why Marketing Fails at Small and Medium B2B Firms

failure-arrowsThere are two reasons why marketing fails most often at small- and medium-sized B2B firms. Either or both of these failings may apply to your situation:

You view marketing as business triage. Your company uses a collection of tactics (often labeled as a “marketing campaign”) only in response to a problem; typically involving the loss of a key client, or decline in revenue. When business is good, little or no time is invested in marketing. When business (inevitably) takes a dip, only then does marketing becomes a priority.

You expect marketing to deliver immediate results. Either because your company always views marketing on a “cause & effect” tactical basis, or because marketing triage must be applied quickly to revive an ailing company, the marketing function is given insufficient time to produce tangible results. It’s no surprise that marketing professionals have the shortest tenure of any corporate function in the asset management business.

The hard truth is that very few B2B business owners either understand the marketing function, or have the discipline to design, implement, measure and adhere to a consistent marketing approach that builds brand equity and market engagement over a sustained period.

To establish the infrastructure and internal culture necessary for the marketing discipline to succeed, we offer the following simple strategy:

  • Create a Written Marketing Plan. This need not be in a 3-inch binder; a two-page document is often sufficient. Include goals, strategies, responsibilities, timelines, budgets and ways to measure results. Without a Marketing Plan you’ll waste lots of time and money. And unless it’s a written document, you won’t have commitment or accountability.
  • Gain Senior Level Commitment. The honcho in corner office (which might be you) must understand, endorse and support the Marketing Plan. This involves more than lip service. If your Plan isn’t properly staffed and funded at the outset, there’s no real commitment to marketing.
  • Do a Few Things Very Well. Your marketing success will be based on the quality and effectiveness of a limited number of strategies / tactics. Firms sometimes go overboard, thinking there’s a correlation between the size of its marketing investment and business results. But less can often be more, in terms of marketing ROI.
  • Build and Nurture your Database. Direct and easy access to your company’s clients, prospects, referral sources and opinion leaders is essential. Without an email pipeline, the marketing value of the content you create is close to zero. If your firm’s thought leadership simply sits on its website or social media, you’re missing the opportunity to build relationships with your target audiences.
  • Create Meaningful Content. Self-serving, long-winded white papers and research reports have very limited appeal. Generate content that validates your company’s intellectual capital, that’s easy to read, and focuses on timely topics that people have a genuine interest in. These topics do not include how great your firm is. Allow people to draw their own conclusions.
  • Drive Top-of-Mind Awareness. To be included on the short list of candidates for an assignment or sale, you need to build awareness with key decision-makers. To accomplish that goal, share your content directly with target audiences on a quarterly basis. (More frequently than that, and you may be viewed as a pest.)

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

A…..Always

B…..Be

M….Marketing

…for the discipline to be effective. Otherwise, the traditional short-term, hair-on-fire approach to business development will keep your company from ever reaching its full potential, regardless of its quality or reputation.

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PR’s “Big Lie” is Alive and Well

whack a moleNearly 5 years ago, I wrote a LinkedIn blog post (The PR Industry’s Dirty Little Secret) that called out PR practitioners who use their “close relationships” with journalists – along with the implication that those relationships will generate media coverage – to sell their services to prospective clients.

The “Big Lie” in this sales pitch is that no journalist will ever cover a topic because they know your PR rep.  Further, any PR rep who pitches stories to journalists based relationships is unlikely to have those relationships for very long.

I had not run into the Big Lie for some time, and believed it had become a remnant of old school PR; that clients had finally caught on, and were showing the door to PR practitioners who claimed their media relationships are for sale.

But in Whack-a-Mole fashion, the Big Lie popped up again last week in a discussion with a prospective client, which went like this:

Prospect:        Do you have relationships with influential reporters that can help us get coverage?

Me:                 I’ve worked with lots of reporters, but I would never pitch them a story simply because they know me.

Prospect:        What do you mean?

Me:                 I would only pitch a reporter if I had a story that was worthy of their consideration. That’s my value proposition. I know what journalists want, and I know how to present it to them in a way that increases the likelihood that they will be interested.

Prospect:        But if they already know you, won’t that help our chances of getting the story published?

Me:                 Not necessarily. Have you worked with a PR firm before?

Prospect:        Yes. And I hired them because they had strong media contacts.

Me:                 How well did they perform?

Prospect:        I got absolutely nothing from them. That’s why I’m talking to you.

So apparently…the Big Lie is alive and well in PR Land. And companies are still being played.

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