Tag Archives: B2B marketing

7 Signs that You’re NOT a Thought Leader


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under B2B Marketing, Marketing Strategy, Uncategorized

Manage the Pedigree Factor in Professional Services Marketing

MissP1Institutional pedigree always matters, regardless of the type of professional service you’re selling. But to leverage pedigree as a marketing asset, you first need to understand why it’s important to your target audience, and decide what type(s) of pedigree will have the greatest influence on them. The professional credentials your firm possesses (or creates) are a major consideration in determining which doors to knock on, and which doors to ignore.

Pedigree means different things to decision-makers. In the classic sense, personal pedigree can take into account where you were raised, schools you attended, club memberships, employment history, who you know, and even your race and ancestry. For better or worse, there are many companies that hire employees based largely or exclusively on those external credentials, in order to create a consistent (albeit often elitist) institutional persona.

Whether they’re selecting a lawyer, management consultant or hedge fund manager, there are decision-makers who will always require the classic resume-based pedigree. Conversely, there are plenty of “meritocracy” buyers of professional services who will eschew external credentials and base their selections on the quality of ideas, past performance or future potential.

These suggestions might help you hack your way through the pedigree jungle:

Understand the fear factor in selection of an outside advisor. The old adage, “No one was ever fired for hiring I.B.M.” still rings true. Known brands are safe choices. When an individual selects an outside advisor, career risk plays a significant role in their decision-making. Their personal nightmare is twofold: first, that their selection will fail to meet expectations by a wide margin; secondly, that their own organization will not agree with their reasons for selecting the outside advisor…even if they supported the decision.

Unfortunately for professional services providers lacking strong external credentials, the reluctance to select them is far more prevalent at larger institutions. This is simply because the downside risk of making mistakes is much greater at larger firms. Selection errors may be tolerated at smaller firms, but as a company’s bureaucracy grows, so do the consequences related to selection errors. At big firms, taking a chance on an unproven or unknown outside provider is considered career suicide.

Reduce decision-making risk for prospective clients. If your firm doesn’t possess a strong traditional pedigree, there are several ways you can reduce decision-making risk for prospective clients. The most effective tactics involve generating either direct or indirect 3rd party endorsements that support your firm’s credibility. Here are three examples:

  • Earned Media: Positive exposure in respected, bona fide media sources (Wall Street Journal, Forbes, etc.) is still one of the most powerful ways to build credibility. Most small firms can’t afford a sustained PR effort delivered by an outside agency, but with a modest investment of time, creativity and determination, a DIY initiative can yield media placements that will bolster market confidence.
  • Industry Platforms: Most conferences, seminars and other types of industry platforms are now “pay-to-play” arrangements that extract significant sponsorship fees in exchange for a spot on the agenda. But the inherent 3rd party marketing value of these events is directly related to the credibility of the sponsoring organization. So rather than investing heavily in these events, seek opportunities to participate actively – as an officer or committee member – in professional associations that are respected by your targeted decision-makers.
  • Branded Interviews: This powerful but little known tactic involves alignment of your (lesser known) brand with a 3rd party (an individual or company) that’s well known and highly regarded in your market segment. One simple way to benefit from this “halo effect” is to create a quarterly publication that features non-self-serving interviews with these opinion leaders, covering topics of interest to your decision makers. In addition to driving top-of-mind awareness each quarter, when archived on your website, these interviews will serve to validate your pedigree.

Take advantage of non-performing, highly credentialed competitors. Some highly credentialed firms will coast on their reputations, and are not as hungry or diligent as their competitors that rely on performance rather than pedigree. This market opportunity often involves mid-sized firms that have engaged high pedigree providers, in hopes of receiving first-class service, only to be disappointed by treatment as second (or third) class citizens.

Thanks to internet transparency, these “abused client” opportunities can be easy to identify if you look for them. A straightforward “Are you receiving what you’re paying for?” solicitation can resonate in the prospect’s corner office, and often initiate conversations that lead to engagements where your firm is viewed as a hero simply for providing a level of service that the client deserves.

Conduct a pedigree “sniff-test” before you knock on doors. Marketing success relies heavily on hunting for high potential targets, and not wasting time elsewhere. A prospective client’s own pedigree is a strong indicator of their selection preferences for outside providers. Here’s the sniff test: if a potential client employs people with very similar academic and professional backgrounds, and your firm’s credentials are not a match, then don’t waste your time where you’re unlikely to be considered. Instead, look for pedigree landscapes that are compatible with your firm’s credentials, or seek opportunities where your firm’s credentials will be considered a cut above the prospective client’s pedigree.

Mark Twain once wrote, “In Boston they ask…How much does he know? In New York…How much is he worth? In Philadelphia…Who were his parents?”  The most effective professional services marketers define precisely what’s most important to their targeted prospects, and showcase their pedigree accordingly.

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B2B Marketing Needs One Giant Step…Backwards

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

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

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

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

But that’s not what’s happened.

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

Now, 20 years later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Death of Rolodex Marketing

RolodexSurprisingly, a significant number of professional services firms continue to resist building online brand visibility as a business development strategy. The excuses we hear from them most often include:

“We’re in a relationship business.”

“New clients don’t find us by searching online.”

“Our business is driven exclusively by referrals.”

Although often it’s a waste of time to push back on their refusal to embrace online visibility, these are 3 reasons that we use to plant some seeds of doubt:

The Way People Make Decisions Has Changed Forever

In the pre-internet world, personal relationships, referrals and endorsements played a significant role in the decision-making process. Before making a decision about anything –buying a car, hiring a plumber, investing in a fund, and even sizing up a potential love interest – people communicated directly with friends, family and business associates, seeking their opinions and guidance. For generations, human interaction served as the primary validation process in decision-making.

Over the past 20 years, the internet has dramatically and permanently changed the way that people make decisions. Online research is rapidly replacing human interaction as the primary validation process in all decision-making. We check out Edmunds.com before we buy a car. We join Angie’s List to find a reliable plumber. We read Morningstar.com to gain insight into investment opportunities. We scan profiles on Match.com to evaluate candidates for a life-long relationship. Studies show that business buyers now complete up to 75% of their decision-making process online, in advance of contacting potential suppliers.

The most significant aspect of society’s rapid adoption of the internet is that we’ve raised nearly two generations of young people who have increasingly less direct social interaction with humans, and who rely almost exclusively on electronic devices to supply the information they need to make decisions about everything. Those generations are now starting their own companies, are moving into managerial positions, are raising families of their own…and are making personal, business and investment decisions that affect the fortunes of individual enterprises and the entire economy.

So if your company relies exclusively on personal relationships and referrals to drive engagements or revenue growth…it is living on borrowed time, as relationships become less personal; as human referrals are replaced by online content; and as lack of online transparency is viewed in a negative light by your friends, family and referral sources.

Referral Sources Require Nurturing and Validation

The Old Boy Network may not be dead yet, but it requires a far greater amount of effort to maintain it properly. Here’s why it makes sense to nurture your personal and business relationships through an online presence:

  • Referral sources have many choices. As strong as your relationships may be, peoples’ allegiances and motivations will always ebb and flow. A consistent online presence helps to drive top-of-mind awareness that keeps you high on their list.
  • Referral sources want to refer “safe choices.” Their personal reputation is always at risk when your contacts make a referral, and their comfort level is increased when their recommendation is validated by online content that is consistent with their opinion of you.

Notwithstanding how much time you invest in phone calls, lunches, conferences and rounds of golf, those Old Boy Network nurturing tactics simply cannot compete – in terms of consistency, market reach and “conversation” quality – with what online visibility offers. When it comes to business development, your Old Boy Network is becoming irrelevant.

Reliance on Rolodex Marketing is an Opportunity Loss

Regardless of the size of your Rolodex inventory of family, friends, club members, fraternity brothers, former business associates, vendors and clients…you will never scale your business, on a long-term basis, by relying exclusively on that group of people to drive business growth, either directly or indirectly.

Rolodex marketing may be a reliable way to jump start your firm, but it will fail to sustain momentum, simply because you will eventually overstay your welcome with those sources. Your contacts are a diminishing asset, in terms of business development.

Marketing to your existing contacts always makes sense, as a means to maintain awareness and to encourage engagement and referrals. But limiting your marketing strategy to this finite group is short-sighted at best, and represents a lost opportunity to establish awareness and generate interest among an unlimited universe of prospective customers.

So…If you’re a professional services firm that’s ready to sell the way that people buy; to take greater advantage of your referral sources; and to expand exponentially the volume of potential clients, there are three “bare essentials” of online visibility that include: maintaining a robust website, building a comprehensive presence on social media platforms such as LinkedIn, and consistently producing non-self-serving Thought Leadership content.

However…If you’re still not convinced, good luck with your Rolodex-based marketing strategy. If your firm is a “lifestyle” business, rather than a serious enterprise, your Rolodex may be all that you need…for now, anyway.

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The 2 Most Deadly Sins of B2B Marketing

deadly sinsThere are two major reasons why marketing is failing at your small- or medium-sized B2B firm:

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

  • 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 is usually 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 people in 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.
  • 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:




…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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What Type of Marketing Cry-Baby are You?

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

As my kids started to whine, I would sing:

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

Wah, wah, wah…wah, wah, wah

The babies on the bus go wah, wah, wah

All through the town.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Facing the #1 B2B Deal-Killer: “Do You Have Any Clients Just Like Me?”

In new business development efforts, B2B firms of all types are often challenged by prospective clients with this question: “Do you have any experience working for companies in my industry?”

Very often, the answer to that question can be a deal-killer for B2B firms without an appropriate client list or some other means to demonstrate industry-specific credentials.

Lacking the proper “just like me” credentials, some firms will argue that the skills and experience they currently possess can be applied across all types of industries. And although this may be true, that response typically fails to convince the prospect, and can even backfire. Because most companies believe their situation and the challenges they face are unique, suggesting otherwise usually will end the sales process.

Short of a firm merger or hiring an individual with the experience in a targeted industry, there are a few ways that professional services firms can gain business outside of the constraints of their current industry credentials. For example:

  • Recast Your Value Proposition: Take an inventory of your firm’s experience and capabilities, and identify those elements that are likely to address the current needs and opportunities of the industry you’re seeking to break into. By re-casting your public facing materials, or creating new marketing collateral and thought leadership that’s focused on your target industry, you can establish a baseline level of credibility that serves to offset the lack of actual client work in that field.
  • Seek Expertise in Individuals: Your firm may not possess the desired industry credentials, but some of your employees might. Ask all of your associates if their professional experience includes work either for or with companies in a targeted industry, and “borrow” those credentials, with their permission. Prospects often don’t care where your firm has gained the requisite industry knowledge, as long as they are confident that it exists.
  • Engage Freelance Talent: There are plenty of freelance practitioners with deep credentials in your target industry who are willing to lend their credibility and expertise to help make a sale, if they stand to benefit from the transaction. This is also a way to test the business potential of a new industry vertical without hiring an employee.
  • Earn Your Credentials: If you’re serious about breaking into a new industry, you’ll need to become a student of what makes it tick: the economics, the core issues, the competitive landscape, and how it is currently being serviced by your peers. This means following trade journals; reading relevant books and academic research; attending leading conferences and trade shows; studying the opinions of its thought leaders; talking to people who are considered “experts” in that field; and contributing comments and questions in relevant online / offline industry platforms. Chances are that this work will eventually generate insights, discussions and relationships that foster tangible business engagements in that industry.

What’s important to remember is that, regardless of the target industry, your credentials are only one part of the sales process. Once you overcome the “clients just like me” hurdle, the prospect will be more interested in how you intend to address their specific problem or opportunity. And that’s where you should work to direct the conversation.

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What Your Doctor Can Teach You About Business Growth

For many decades, physicians have been taught the “3 A’s” of a sound medical practice. 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 are 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 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, their past experience with other providers, the career risks involved in making a change, etc.

This ranking priority may seem illogical to a lawyer, fund manager or a physician 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 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 about 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 maintain and 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.

Consistency and Speed of Communication Matter: 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 4 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. Using floor broker lingo, this is a “Fill or Kill” decision, so either commit to scheduled 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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Bare Essentials: Marketing as a Necessary Evil

Business owners across all industries and professions start companies because they have a specific expertise or interest – whether it involves trading currency futures or replacing car mufflers – and eventually discover that selling their product or service is neither in their wheelhouse, nor something they enjoy doing.

To make matters worse, business owners often engage ad agencies, PR firms and outside (and internal) marketing “experts” who are always ready to prescribe a long list of tactical solutions (white papers, blogs, newsletters, publicity, social media, direct mail, conferences, advertising, etc.)…all of which may be more likely to generate distractions and invoices than new accounts or revenue growth.

As a result, business owners are often left confused, disappointed and angry over the lack of return on their marketing investment. Or they’ve heard all the horror stories and avoid marketing altogether, hoping their “connections” will drive new business.

Because marketing is viewed by many business owners as a necessary evil, a common question they ask is, “What are the bare essentials that I absolutely need to grow my business?”

Here’s a very short list marketing essentials for B2B and professional services firms:

 1. A Website that’s Worth Reading: Your website must provide visitors with a clear understanding of who you are, what you do, how you do it, why you are doing it, and who would benefit most from what you do. Your website should also:

  • Use plainspoken, simple language
  • Not ramble on, or seek to dazzle readers with your brilliance
  • Be written by a professional copywriter; not by you or by your attorney
  • Contain graphic elements that support your firm’s brand (avoid cheesy stock photos)
  • Feature a limited number of sections / pages, and be easy to navigate
  • Take advantage of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics
  • Avoid being overly self-promotional
  • Present your professionals as individuals who are real and approachable
  • Use first-class, consistent photography for people’s portraits
  • Consider using a brief video (under 2 minutes) of your key people, and / or an animated video that explains your business
  • Include contact information; not a generic response form
  • Not require a user name and password to gain access to white papers or other content that showcases your firm’s intellectual capital

Even though your website will be “brochure ware” with little or no functionality, it’s important that it be properly wired into Google Analytics or clicky.com, so that you know who is visiting your site, where that traffic is coming from, what information they are looking at, and how long they are staying. If you don’t monitor website traffic on a regular basis, then you are missing opportunities to follow-up on potential interest, and to make ongoing improvements to your website and marketing strategy.

2. A Device that Helps People Remember You:  The key marketing goal for most service-related businesses is top-of-mind awareness, which means getting people to remember you, and to reach out to you when they’re ready to buy whatever you’re selling. Because you can never know when your target audiences (current and prospective clients, intermediaries, referral sources, etc.) will be ready to make decisions, your firm must create an internal discipline and content to remind them of:

  • Your existence
  • Your intellectual capital
  • Your credibility
  • Your potential to help them

To achieve top-of-mind awareness, you’ll need to establish and maintain scheduled, direct communication with your target audiences, either by email or snail mail. The two necessary component are an up-to-date database (or CRM system), and interesting, relevant content to send to them on a quarterly basis. For many firms, the database creation is relatively easy; but content development can be extremely difficult because it takes time and planning.

Here are some ways to make this process simpler and more effective:

  • Create a repeatable format, such as an interview series, a partner letter, or hypothetical (or real) case studies.
  • Your content should not be lengthy, and should accommodate surface readers through headlines, subheads, sidebars, an intro or summary.
  • Avoid canned newsletter formats and do not promote firm-specific news. No one really cares about your firm’s recent mud run or fundraiser.
  • Address topics and issues that demonstrate the firm’s thought leadership, but don’t present it in an overly academic, ponderous style. Make it readable, and skip the complex charts.
  • Add all the content you generate to a “Thought Leadership” section of your website, so that it gains broader exposure and longer shelf-life.

Remember that your marketing strategy here is consistent contact with decision-makers. So unless you commit to communicate on a regular basis, don’t start a market outreach program. If quarterly is too onerous, then semi-annually is better than nothing. Just keep in mind that there is usually an opportunity loss associated with infrequent contact. And if all this sounds like too much work, then skip to Item #3 below.

3. A LinkedIn Profile that Mirrors Your Website: LinkedIn has become an important market research and due diligence tool for all industries. To leverage this online exposure, and because LinkedIn can drive traffic to your website, your company’s LinkedIn profile should have the same look and feel as your website. This graphic and content consistency suggests to outside audiences that your firm has its act together, strategically and operationally. Here are some other ways to benefit from LinkedIn:

  • Make sure that the individual profiles of all your staff members are a reflection of your firm’s professionalism. Although this effort can be like herding cats, at the very least ensure that your firm is described accurately and consistently in all their LinkedIn profiles.
  • Ensure that all of your staff profiles include photographs. Better yet, bring in a professional photographer and provide all staff members with high quality photos for their LinkedIn profiles.
  • Post all of the Thought Leadership content (described in Step 2) onto your firm’s LinkedIn profile as it’s published, to gain additional exposure.
  • Work at building your LinkedIn connections, which should also be added to your database of target audiences that you reach out to on a regular basis.

If you’re looking to do only ONE “bare marketing essential” from this short list, focus on building a world- class website. Your website still serves as the mother ship of your brand, it’s the one place that all prospective clients will visit, and it can kill interest quickly if it’s not professional-looking and distinctive. And if that’s too much of a marketing burden, then you might consider another profession…perhaps as an astronaut or a rodeo clown.

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Connect-the-Dots Marketing: A Gift from Steve Jobs

In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Apple CEO Steve Jobs offered a “connect the dots” perspective on the random events that shaped his life.

“You cannot connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards…

For B2B marketers, this “rear view mirror” approach to connecting the dots in your tactical tool kit makes great sense.

The underlying appeal of any connect-the-dots puzzle is based on seeing a recognizable image appear from an apparent hodge-podge of numbered dots, simply by following a prescribed path.  But for most marketers, if the dots represent possible tactical solutions, then your challenge is that:

  • There are usually too many dots to choose from, and
  • The dots have no assigned numbers to follow

And that’s why Steve Jobs’ advice should be followed by marketers: Start with a specific business outcome you’re seeking, and build your tactical strategy in reverse order. For example:

Step One: Create Your Picture     One reason why average CMO tenure is so brief is because marketers often focus on the dots, rather than on the picture that the connected dots should create. If you’re a B2B marketer, one picture you might want to create is making the “short list;” which means being contacted consistently by prospective (or existing) clients as a candidate for assignments. That’s a picture your CEO understands and appreciates, because it can lead directly to revenue. It also leads to continued employment for CMOs.

Step Two: Ignore Your Dots     With your picture defined, it can be difficult to resist the urge to open the tactical toolbox immediately. But prior to selecting and numbering the dots, you’ll need to sketch the path the dots will follow. Using the “short list” picture, for example, you’ll first need to gain internal consensus on:

  • What your clients and prospects need right now or in the future
  • Why your firm is entitled to be on the short list (your value proposition)
  • How you stack up against other firms seeking a place on the short list
  • What’s likely to exclude your firm from short list consideration
  • How to quantitatively measure the effectiveness of your short list strategy

Step Three: Select and Number Your Dots     With your picture and path well defined, the selection and sequencing of tactical dots in often a no-brainer. To complete the “short list” picture example: your dots will likely involve:

  1. Top-of-mind Awareness: You’ll need to establish an internal discipline designed to communicate directly and consistently (ideally on a quarterly basis) with clients, prospect and referral sources. The old adage “Out of Sight / Out of Mind” rings true in B2B communication, and don’t expect social media to address that requirement.
  2. Thought Leadership: This label for intellectual capital may be a bit shopworn, but your firm must provide its target audiences with content (owned media or earned media) that validates intellectual capital and potential to add value. And you’re more likely to make the short list by providing content that’s interesting and helpful to them, and not simply touting your own credentials.
  3. Distribution Capability: This need not be an expensive or complicated CRM system. You simply need to build and maintain a robust database of targeted individuals, and use a distribution / tracking platform (such as Constant Contact) that gets your content to them easily, and in a professional format.

Step Four: Add Dots Selectively     When there’s little (or slow) progress being made toward completion of a “picture,” the temptation for marketers is to simply add more tactical dots, rather than trying to understand why the existing dots are not properly connecting. In general, additional dots should be applied only if they add incremental value to a picture that’s already completed. For example, if your firm is regularly making the “short list,” but wants to eliminate competitors altogether, you might add a tactical dot involving pro-active outreach (in advance of any short list) to select prospects, to introduce a proprietary or solution tailored to their needs.

It’s unlikely that Steve Jobs had marketing in mind 10 years ago, as he connected the dots of his life experiences. But if you connect the dots in rear-view mirror fashion, we think it’s likely you’ll produce tangible business results that are based on more than just passive, wishful thinking…as the second line of Job’s advice to Stanford grads suggests:

…So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.

– Steve Jobs

Unfortunately for marketers, words like “trust” and “somehow” just don’t past muster in the business world.

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