Tag Archives: B2B marketing

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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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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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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Make the Short List…Or Die Trying

accept_reject july 8 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making a Prospective Client’s Short List

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

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

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

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10 Ways to Market Your Brand’s Integrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” he said.

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

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

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

I persistent, “What does it depend on?”

“It depends on the weather,” he snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can do that,” I said.

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

“OK,” I agreed. “I’ll do that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Avoid conferences altogether, by hosting your own private events or programs.
  2. Leverage your participation to showcase intellectual capital with a wider audience.
  3. Simply enjoy the camaraderie, the golf / tennis / beach, and the nightlife…and hope for the best.

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

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How to Sell to Companies that are Out of Your League

jim-carreyThe most enduring injustice in the world of B2B marketing is that, very often, a firm with strong brand perceptions will be selected over a more qualified, but lesser-known firm. The old adage, “No one was ever fired for hiring IBM,” still rings true in every industry. And firms that understand this market dynamic, and work to build a marketing strategy to address the underlying human issues, can gain market acceptance and compete effectively against larger and better-known competitors.

The central, unspoken issue embedded within the selection process for any type of B2B firm is easy to understand. All decision-makers require a certain level of comfort and confidence necessary for them: 1. To propose a relatively unknown candidate to their “boss” (however that’s defined), and more importantly, 2. To rationalize their selection of that unknown candidate; and worst case, to defend their decision should their selected provider fail. Avoiding responsibility for a bad decision is always the top priority.

By taking either of these two steps, decision-makers put skin in the game. Their personal welfare – notably, keeping their job – will always be far more important to them than selecting the most qualified firm. So regardless of your firm’s size or brand stature, this inherent “career risk” is the key obstacle that must always be overcome.

Here are three ways your firm can achieve that goal through marketing:

Don’t Exclude Your Firm from Consideration

Small firms can exclude themselves from consideration by large prospects in two ways. They either focus exclusively on quantitative characteristics of their firm (and refuse to acknowledge the human side of decision-making)…or they never attempt to solicit companies considered to be “out of their league” (either for lack of inertia, or for fear of failure.)

Although it would be reckless to devote all or most of your firm’s marketing efforts to “low probability” prospects, excluding them altogether represents an opportunity loss. Solely from the standpoint of marketing skills development, and regardless of the outcome, pitching your firm to tougher prospects will increase its effectiveness in those leagues where it is “entitled” to play. Most high handicap (struggling) golfers will attest that they perform on a much higher level when paired with better players. That same performance dynamic holds true in marketing your firm.

The opportunity loss in not hunting for larger game is that you can never know a prospect’s current situation, mindset or future plans. They may be unhappy with their current provider and are seeking a change, or their new strategy may involve hiring a smaller firm that can provide a more personalized level of service. It’s always better to lose (and to learn from your losses), than it is to not enter the game at all.

Think and Act Like a “Safe Choice”

If your small firm is prepared to acknowledge that market perceptions are at least as important as its credentials (an enormous hurdle for many firms), then it’s half-way toward the goal of competing effectively against better known brands. The other half of your quest to be considered a “safe choice” by prospects involves thinking and acting exactly like your most successful competitors, in terms of marketing communications.

Here are the five marketing assets applied by successful firms:

– A well-articulated value proposition: Until you have a clear understanding of why and how your company is of value to clients, and are able to express that in a clear, concise manner, don’t invest in any marketing tools or tactics.

– An effective website: As the mother ship of your brand, and the most important public-facing expression of your firm’s value proposition, your website needs to go beyond “what we do” and “who we are.” It must also provide insights into “what we believe,” “how we think,” “how we operate” and address “who validates our credibility.”

– Bona fide thought leadership: This self-generated content showcases your firm’s intellectual capital, which builds confidence in its potential to succeed. Bona fide thought leadership does not promote your firm, or attempt to sell its products or services.

– Inherent third-party endorsements: These credibility tools can take many forms, ranging from published articles in respected publications, to speaking engagements at industry conferences. The quality of these types of indirect endorsements are more important than frequency.

– Top-of-mind awareness: To maintain familiarity with your brand in the marketplace, your firm will need to pro-actively reach out to its current and prospective clients and referral sources, ideally on a quarterly basis. The information you send to those target audiences must be relevant and of interest to them.

Associate with Established / Trusted Brands

If your company has little or no brand stature, one of the quickest and most effective ways to change that dynamic is to directly associate your brand with specific firms or individuals who already possess the market credibility and respect that you’re seeking. There are a number of tactics you can apply to benefit from this brand-related “halo effect.”

For example, your quarterly outreach to target audiences (referenced above) might feature interviews with respected industry leaders, or with well-known subject matter experts. Or your firm might host a series of by-invitation-only webinars, or in-person roundtable discussions, featuring recognized authorities in a particular profession or industry.

Regardless of the specific halo effect tactic(s) you apply, the underlying strategy remains the same: to create an editorial product or host an event that enables your firm’s brand reputation to be positioned – in the minds of others – as being in the same league as the well-established third-party brand(s) that you are promoting.

Many firms possess some of the marketing assets outlined here, and fewer firms possess all of them. An extremely small number of companies are able to apply these tactics in a consistent manner, or view marketing as an ongoing business discipline, rather than a list of items to be checked off.

If your company understands the human dynamics of decision-making, and applies an appropriate marketing strategy to build its brand stature, it will be capable of competing at any level, and is unlikely to remain small or unknown for very long.

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