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How WebMD Has Changed B2B Marketing Forever

webmd2Many B2B companies, and professional services firms in particular, do not succeed at marketing for two major reasons:

  • Failure to understand that the vendor selection process has fundamentally changed.

Prospective customers now turn to their personal networks and publicly available information — via digital and social media channels—to self-diagnose their problems and to self-prescribe their own solutions. In this new WebMD World of B2B Marketing, making the short list of potential vendors relies heavily on being visible and appearing smart in appropriate online channels on a consistent basis.

To appreciate the magnitude of this shift in how customers select outside resources, consider 2012 market research conducted by the Corporate Executive Board’s Marketing Leadership Council, which surveyed more than 1,500 customer contacts (decision makers and influencers in a recent major business purchase) for 22 large B2B organizations spanning all major NAICS categories and 10 industries. As depicted below, the survey revealed that the average customer had completed nearly 60% of the purchase decision-making process prior to engaging a supplier sales rep directly.  At the upper limit, the responses ran as high as 70%.

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The implications of this research are clear: B2B companies that fail to “show up strong” in the online world are missing engagement opportunities with potential as well as existing clients.

  • Failure to respond properly to the new vendor selection process.

Unfortunately, many B2B companies that understand the new dynamics of vendor selection have responded in knee-jerk fashion, by saturating every possible online / digital channel and social media platform with content that neither reaches nor resonates with decision makers in their target audiences. Although buyer selection habits have changed, when it comes to brand awareness and positioning of a company’s value proposition, less is still more. And this chart explains why:

Attention Web

The online world makes it easy to obtain information, but extremely difficult to gain attention over all the noise. Increasingly, B2B firms are learning that simply having all the online visibility tools – company blog, Twitter account, Facebook page, LinkedIn profile, etc. – does not guarantee marketplace attention. They’re also learning that tactics designed to feed those online beasts – most often “currated content” from 3rd parties – can be akin to the “throw some shit on the wall and hope something sticks” marketing approach.

The firms benefitting most from the new WebMD World of B2B Marketing apply traditional marketing disciplines: they stake out intellectual territory that supports their brand with insights that are relevant and interesting to clients, prospects and referrals sources; they drive top-of-mind awareness (and new business inquiries) by ensuring that those target audiences receive their insights on a consistent basis; they create opportunities to engage, rather than talk at, decision makers; and they use online tools to enhance, rather than replace, direct communication with existing and prospective customers.

 

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An End to B2B Social Media Madness

20070805-humanLemmings

Rapid, lemming-like adoption of social media tools by small and medium-sized B2B firms – fueled by an army of self-proclaimed social media experts – has resulted in wasted dollars, missed opportunities and heightened distrust of the marketing function in the C-suite. As if CMOs needed another cause for termination.

The past decade’s social media debacle is akin to introduction of desktop publishing in the early 1980s, when personal computers arrived in the business world. New software programs enabled companies, for the first time, to design and produce their own graphic materials in-house. Every company needed desktop publishing; corporate bean counters promoted the cost savings; anyone who learned how to use the software claimed to be a graphic designer, and the trend resulted in the most unprofessional and ineffective marketing & sales collateral every produced. Over time, even the bean counters came to understand that misapplied technology can be very costly.

The impact and potential of social media is far more significant than desktop publishing, but this also means that its range of casualties and cost of misapplication are exponentially greater. Simply, there are far too many B2B companies that are either:

–  using inappropriate social media tools,

–  not using appropriate social media tools correctly, or

–  missing opportunities to use appropriate social media tools.

At the risk of generating a firestorm of debate from social marketing gurus armed with clicks, likes, re-tweets and other forms of meaningless ROI validation, and based on the social media casualties we’ve seen or treated first-hand, the following guidelines are suggested for small and medium-sized B2B firms:

  • Focus on Your Website. This is the online mother ship of your brand. Don’t bother with social media tactics unless this tool is all that it can be. If your website has not been refreshed and updated in the last 3 years (which means more than simply sticking press releases in the “News” section), then your company is due for an overhaul.
  • Blog Correctly, or Don’t Have One. A company blog is the most effective way to leverage social media. But if you are unable or unwilling to generate meaningful content on a consistent basis (at least twice a month), or to merchandise your blog content properly (which means taking specific steps to promote the content with target audiences), then do not start a blog. If you already have a blog and you’re not meeting those goals, then shut the blog down. It’s a brand liability.
  • Forget Facebook, Twitter and Google+. These are primarily personal and B2C social media platforms, and there are few good reasons why most B2B firms should be investing any time or resources there. In terms of demographics, it’s telling that Twitter’s top 3 profiles belong to Justin Bieber, Lady GaGa and Katy Perry, but if your B2B firm needs quantitative evidence to support dropping these social media platforms, here is some recent research from Pew Research Center:

PRN_landscape_social_media_users

  • Use YouTube Selectively. YouTube can be a very effective social media channel for B2B firms. But your video products must be sophisticated, professionally produced, and no longer than 3 minutes. Resist the temptation to include sloppy, home-made productions, or hour-long webinar presentations. They reflect poorly on your brand, and few people will watch them. Ensure that you develop ways to drive consistent traffic to your YouTube channel.
  • Build Your LinkedIn Presence. LinkedIn is 3x more effective for demand generation than either Facebook or Twitter. LinkedIn has become an essential part of the business world’s due diligence process, and your company is conspicuous by its absence. Unfortunately, few companies take full advantage of LinkedIn’s social media potential. Their corporate profiles often do not contain adequate information, they do not merchandise blog-related and other relevant content, fail to connect through industry user groups, and their employees’ profiles are inconsistent and sometimes unprofessional. Most B2B companies would be well served to invest 100% of their social marketing effort through LinkedIn.

Very often, the root cause of dysfunction and disappointment related to the application of social media tools by B2B firms has less to do with the shortcomings of the various platforms, and more to do with the lack of a coherent and articulated marketing strategy. Chances are, if a B2B firm is spinning its wheels in the morass of social media, they’re having similar challenges with traditional marketing communication channels as well.

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Do Most CEOs Lack Social Skills?

Do CEOs need charm school, rather than business school?

According to a new study sponsored by Domo and CEO.com, CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are participating in social media channels significantly less than the general public. The study claims that 70% of them have absolutely no presence on social media.

On the major social networks, including Facebook, Twitter and Google+, the participation of Fortune 500 CEOs was minimal, with only 7.6% on Facebook, 4% on Twitter, and less than 1% on Google+. In comparison, more than 50% of the U.S. population uses Facebook and 34% uses Twitter.   No Fortune 500 CEOs are on Pinterest.

LinkedIn is the most popular social media site among Fortune 500 CEOs, with 26% on the network, compared to just 20.15% of the U.S. general public. Of that group, ten Fortune 500 CEOs have more than 500 LinkedIn connections, while 36 CEOs have 1 LinkedIn connection or none.

Six Fortune 500 CEOs (or more likely, their PR departments) contribute to blogs, and only one of the six CEOs, John Mackey of Whole Foods, maintains his own blog.

Given the demographics of Fortune 500 CEOs, none of this news is jaw-dropping. Older, well-established corporate guys (and gals) in the business world’s stratosphere are not wired for social media.

But here are some potential take-aways from the research:

  • The propensity of C-level executives at companies of all sizes – well below the Fortune 1000 level – to invest time on social media outlets is extremely low. Top decision-makers spend most of their day dealing directly with people within their own sphere of influence. And most C-level execs still are not convinced that social media is anything more than a technology hula-hoop that will eventually run out of steam.
  • Marketers attempting to reach and influence C-level decision-makers are still best-served by leveraging the channels that are used and respected by that target audience…including traditional business media sources and professional forums; and by seeking to influence the 2nd and 3rd tier corporate executives who provide insight and guidance for  C-level decision-makers…which may involve selective use of social media tools.
  • Aspiring CEOs may still be more likely to reach the top of the corporate ladder by joining the right country club, rather than by having 500 connections on LinkedIn.

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Should Companies Manage Their Employees’ LinkedIn Profiles?

Everything Counts in Brand Management

LinkedIn has become an important business channel, not only for individuals to showcase their professional credentials, but also for companies seeking to promote their value proposition and to establish or manage brand awareness.

LinkedIn is no longer simply a social media tool that enables corporate executives to put themselves in play for a better job under the guise of “networking.” LinkedIn also is no longer just a digital marketplace for consultants, freelancers and agencies seeking new clients. For better or worse, LinkedIn has become part of the world’s due diligence process: a public resource that enables employers, customers, regulators, competitors, prospective employees, referral sources, vendors, creditors, shareholders, research analysts and journalists to look beneath the covers, and to establish an opinion (or decision) not only regarding individuals, but also the companies they work for.

Although LinkedIn provides companies with an opportunity to present a basic or enhanced (for a hefty fee) corporate profile, what most businesses either fail to recognize – or are reluctant to address – is that the content, quality and consistency of individual and collective descriptions of the company embodied within their employees’ LinkedIn profiles can have a significant impact on brand perceptions. (These brand implications are less significant on Facebook, which is not generally viewed as a business channel.)

To illustrate the point, simply in terms of brand clarity and consistency, here are 5 different ways (grammatical shortcomings and typos included) that High Street Partners – an 80-person Boston-based consulting firm – describes itself through various LinkedIn profiles of its employees:

“High Street Partners is an international business services firm. We simplify the management and control of international operations, empowering our customers to capitalize on their growth opportunities in foreign markets.”

“High Street Partners (HSP) is the leading professional advisory firm in the international expansion space. We offer a range of cross-border finance and administrative services to organizations with new or existing global operations, including entity set-up, payroll, accounting, tax compliance, advisory and HR services.”

“High Street Partners provides international business services to companies operating overseas. These services include international accounting, tax, global cash management, HR and compliance solutions that mitigates a Company’s risk when operating in foreign markets (www.hsp.com.)”

“Our cross-border solutions enable the HQ finance and HR teams to quickly and efficiently implement expansion plans, establish appropriate entities, get overseas employees paid, and navigate unfamiliar overseas tax codes and compliance regulations.”

“Providing financial, tax and compliance services to companies in their international explansion.” (sic)

There are (at least) two fundamental issues involving LinkedIn:

  • The employees’ right to describe themselves any way they see fit on social media sites, and
  • A company’s right to protect its brand reputation through accurate and consistent descriptions of the enterprise that are posted on social media sites by its employees.

Although the underlying issues related to freedom of expression and corporate intrusion frequently serve as catalysts for heated protests and endless debate, there is really no good reason why both employee and corporate interests cannot both be served, if the process is managed in a reasonable, respectful manner.

At the risk of over-simplifying an issue that can quickly escalate to union grievances, CEO town hall meetings, picket lines and national media coverage, perhaps the company’s Chief Marketing Officer can initiate the change process with an internal memo along these lines:

Dear Valued Employee:

We are encouraged to see that so many of our staff members are using LinkedIn to develop professional networks. Increasingly, social media tools like LinkedIn are playing an important role in personal and corporate life.

While we recognize and support your personal right to participate in social media sites, we would like to ensure that the descriptions used in your LinkedIn profile to describe our company are consistent with the guidelines we’ve established to enhance understanding and appreciation of our corporate brand.

Toward that end, we would greatly appreciate your cooperation in using only the approved description of our company for your LinkedIn profile. This company description is located on Page 3 of our Employee Handbook. In fact, we have recently added some additional suggestions regarding LinkedIn profiles, which you may find helpful.

Thanks for your support on this important issue. If you have any questions or concerns on this topic, please let me know.

Your Friendly CMO

An alternative approach regarding brand presentation in employee LinkedIn profiles is to do nothing. Maybe it’s an issue that’s too insignificant or considered not worth the time. But companies with enduring world-class brands understand that everything matters. That’s one reason why you never see a dirty UPS or FedEx delivery truck.

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Jimmy Webb and the Power of Storytelling for B2B Companies

Music critic Miss Universe on "A Hard Day's Night" movie set

Songwriting legend Jimmy Webb has written some of pop music’s most enduring ballads, including Wichita Lineman, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Galveston, The Worst That Could Happen and the rock cantata MacArthur Park (simultaneously heralded as a musical masterpiece and the worst song ever written.)

The 66 year-old Oklahoma native now lives in Long Island and performs year-round at small venues in the US, Canada and abroad. Baby boomer fans pack the room to hear Webb strain to hit his own songs’ high notes, to listen to his tales of life on the road, and to get the real stories behind how and why he wrote specific songs.

At a show last weekend in New Jersey, Webb told fans about his first trip to London in 1964, where he fell in love with Miss Universe, who he met on the set of the Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night. According to the rambling story, in his attempt to impress the beauty queen – who had been cast as an exotic dancer and appears for 6 seconds in the film – Webb invited her back to his hotel room, where he sat her down next to him on the piano bench and performed his then unrecorded version of MacArthur Park. Unfortunately for Webb, the 7 ½-minute song failed to put her under his spell. She told him it was a silly song and left. Or so Webb’s story goes.

For the 450 people who heard Webb’s London adventure, all of whom have listened to MacArthur Park for decades, their musical experience has been forever re-shaped. When they hear that song in the future, it will provide a different context or a different meaning. Now, instead of cakes left out in the rain, they’re more likely to envision Jimmy Webb serenading Miss Universe in London. That’s the power of storytelling.

Social media and technology provide efficient ways for people to tell stories. But according to Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, “The human brain has been on a slower evolutionary trajectory than the technology. Our brains still respond to content by looking for the story to make sense out of the experience.”

Writing in Psychology Today magazine, Dr. Rutledge notes that, “When organizations, causes, brands or individuals identify and develop a core story, they create and display authentic meaning and purpose that others can believe, participate with, and share. This is the basis for cultural and social change. This is a skill worth learning.”

Increasingly, in B2B communication, companies focus on the medium and the technology, rather than the underlying message, its meaning or purpose.  In our world of websites, blast emails, podcasts, webinars, analytics, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, marketing automation, smart phones and mobile apps…it’s easy to forget that the quality of a company’s narrative drives people to notice, participate or care about what’s begin sold – whether that be a product, service or a philosophy.

We’re all familiar with how the big brand companies such as Harley Davidson, Jack Daniels, Levi Strauss, IBM and Ben & Jerry’s have leveraged their corporate narratives to build awareness and market interest. But most small and medium-sized companies, and B2B firms in particular, are at a loss to understand how the power of storytelling can showcase their core values, mission and marketplace differentiation. But this goal can be accomplished…not by cooking up elaborate tales about the company’s founders or its early struggles… but rather, by pulling back the curtain on how and why the company makes decisions, and by using real-life examples and incidents to provide interest and context.

A great example of effective storytelling involves Davidson Trust Company, a Devon, Pennsylvania-based investment manager with around $1 billion in assets under management. In a series of columns published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Davidson’s CEO Alvin A. Clay III used stories to establish relevance for his thoughts on issues of importance and likely interest to his firm’s current and prospective investors.

In one of his columns, Davidson’s CEO described how his father – a longtime professor at Villanova – had been the beneficiary of kindness as a young man, and had devoted much of his teaching career returning the favor to others. In another, Mr. Clay recounted a heated debate he had experienced with other business leaders, and how that exchange had shaped his decision-making process regarding publication of his company’s ethics statement on its website. In all of Clay’s columns, he used storytelling to deliver insight and to position the Davidson brand in a genuine, credible and memorable manner.

At his concerts, Jimmy Webb spends more time telling stories than he does on singing his songs. And these events typically end with a 10-minute standing ovation.

Earlier this month, Davidson Trust Company received its own standing ovation. Publicly traded Bryn Mawr Bank Corporation (NASDAQ:BMTC) announced plans to acquire Davidson.

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Using Negative Publicity as Negotiating Leverage

Shakedown of BMW of North America

The disclosure last May that Facebook had hired public relations firm Burson-Marstellar to initiate a smear campaign against Google’s “Social Circle” raised the hackles of many PR practitioners who labeled the tactic as unethical.  Although there’s no direct reference to the practice of using accurate information to disparage a competitor’s reputation in the PRSA’s Code of Ethics, it certainly can be classified as a bare knuckles strategy that most companies would not attempt.

A related behind-the-scenes tactic that’s more widely practiced (often by law firms on behalf of their clients) involves using the threat of negative publicity as a negotiating ploy. In many high-profile divorces, disputes involving celebrities or sports personalities, corporate mistakes or shortcomings, and misdeeds of senior executives, the direct or implied suggestion that unpleasant, embarrassing or damaging information will be disclosed to the media often serves as an effective bargaining chip.

Having witnessed the power of negative publicity, I decided to use it for personal advantage in my dealings with BMW of North America involving the lease of a 1992 318i, which over the course of less than a year had 27 different problems – including engine failure, faulty muffler system and a sideview mirror that simply fell off the car.  After multiple trips to my local BMW dealer, I felt it was time to bypass Lemon Laws and escalate the issue.

So here’s the strategy I developed:

  • I created a simple tombstone ad that read: “Looking for Reasons NOT to buy or lease a BMW 318i ? Call me. I’ve got 27 Good Ones for you.”
  • I drafted a press release entitled “Irate BMW Owner Places Ads in New York Times and Wall Street Journal After 27 Problems With 318i,” that detailed the car’s various issues.
  • I compiled a comprehensive list of automotive editors at every major publication.
  • I drafted a letter to the CEO of BMW of North America that said, in effect, “As a courtesy, I thought you would like to see the advertising and press release that’s scheduled for distribution next Wednesday.”
  • I FedExed the letter, the advertisement, the press release, and the editor list to BMW headquarters in New Jersey.

Two days later, I received a call from BMW’s head of service, who opened with, “Mr. Andrew. I understand you have a problem with your 318i?”

“In fact,” I responded, “I’ve had 27 problems with the car.”

“Have all of those 27 problems been fixed to your satisfaction?” he asked.

I countered with, “What is BMW’s slogan?”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“What’s your tag line, your advertising slogan, the phrase BMW uses to distinguish itself from other cars? “ I said.

He said nothing.

“Doesn’t BMW claim to be The Ultimate Driving Machine?” I asked.

His tone of voice changed. “What do you want from BMW, Mr. Andrew?”

“I want a new car.” I said.

He laughed. I didn’t.

“Here’s the deal” I said. “You give me a new car, or I place the ads and distribute the press release on Wednesday. It’s your call.”

After a very long pause, he asked, “Can you give me more time than that?”

I said, “You have until Friday. Thanks for your call.” And hung up the phone.

On Thursday, I received a call from my local BMW dealership, asking me to bring my car in as soon as possible for “an inspection.” When I arrived at the dealership the next morning, I noticed that all of the parts & service staff were wearing ties. I asked the service manager (who was also wearing a blazer with a BMW logo on the pocket) why everyone was dressed so formally. He pulled me aside, and whispered, “Mr. Andrew, I’ve worked at this dealership for 7 years, and no one from BMW of North America has ever been here for any reason. Today the head of service for all of BMW will be here, and he’s coming to look at YOUR car.”

Bingo!

Here’s what BMW offered me: If I paid for taxes and registration, they would swap the 1992 4-cylinder 318i clunker for a brand new 1993 6-cylinder 325i.  I took the deal, and never had a single problem with the 325i while I owned the car.

The lesson in this for people looking to use negative publicity as negotiating leverage, is that you must:

  1. Possess truthful information that’s likely to cause tangible reputational / brand damage
  2. Convince the other party that you have the ability to disseminate that information credibly
  3. Demonstrate that you either have nothing to lose, that you have a few screws loose, or both

The lesson in this for BMW of North America is that by dealing with me fairly, they created a lifelong customer. I believe BMW does live up to its Ultimate Driving Machine claim, and I currently drive a 2011 328xi for that reason. But the assumption BMW should have made in its negotiations with me is that there was no way a guy who was too cheap to drive one of their 7 series cars would have made good on a threat to place ads in the NYTimes or WSJournal.  I was bluffing, but with negative publicity as a card I might be holding, I won the hand.

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3 Ways Social Media Will Fail Marketers

All communication channels have limitations

1. Social media will not increase word of mouth influence.

Research by Keller Fay for Google shows that 94% of word of mouth conversations occur offline, and most often, those conversations are sparked by information found on the internet and television…and not on Facebook, Twitter or other social networking sites. Based on those offline conversations, consumers most often rely on internet search for additional product / brand information, which is considered to be more credible (+25%) and more likely to lead to purchase (+ 17%), when compared to information found through social media sources.  Marketers are best served by focusing on improvement of their SEO capabilities.

2. Social media will not drive customer experience.

Social media does not improve or replace the customer service channels that have the most significant impact on brand impressions. Multi-channel customer experience research by RightNow / Loudhouse showed that consumers are open to using social media to post opinions, but when it comes to interaction, 50% of consumers want to use online self-service tools, phone (18%), or email (19%).  Marketers are best served ensuring traditional channels deliver a customer experience that validates the company’s brand promise.

3. Social media will not reduce the marketing burden.

Similar to all other communication channels, social media involves ongoing discipline and a commitment to continually learn and improve performance and results. Establishing a Facebook page, Twitter account or company blog represents an obligation to dedicate the financial resources, appropriate skills and senior level attention necessary to make social media a strategic marketing asset. Marketers are best served walking away from half-hearted or short-term commitments to social media.

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Are Journalists in the Misinformation Business?

Can Journalists Survive the Internet Age?

Do mainstream journalists – trained to present both sides of an issue they’re reporting – contribute to the public’s interest in and acceptance of information that’s known to be wrong?

An new study presented at the 61st Annual International Communications Association Conference, analyzed how the mainstream media reported on Sara Palin’s 2009 Facebook post, which read:

“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide…whether they are worthy of health care.”

Despite the fact that both PolitiFact, an arm of the St. Petersburg Times, and FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenburg Public Policy Center, both immediately debunked the veracity of Palin’s death panel claim…in the month following her Facebook post, the top 50 newspapers in the country published more than 700 articles about the claim, while the nightly network news ran about 20 stories on the topic.

In that mainstream media coverage:

  • More than 60% abstained from calling the death panels claim false.
  • Of the 40% who debunked Palin’s claim, nearly 75% of those articles contained no clarification as to why they were labeling the claim as false.
  • In 30% of cases where journalists reported that the claim was false, they included either side’s arguments as to why their side was right.

What was the impact of the lack of clarity generated by this journalistic “procedural objectivity”?

  • One poll released nearly two months after the Palin posting showed that 30% of the American public believed that proposed health care legislation would “create death panels.”
  • Three months following the posting, the number of people who believed in the death panel misinformation rose to 41%.

According to the study, the dilemma for reporters playing by the rules of procedural objectivity is that repeating a claim reinforces a sense of its validity — or at least, ensures it as an important topic of public debate.

The larger question raised by the study is whether traditional journalism can survive the internet age. According to the authors, the new focus of journalists should be substantive objectivity: to verify all information on which they report, and to not give a platform to facts known to be false or to unfounded accusations.  This is a major sea change for old school journalists, or at least for those who have survived.

The authors warn: “If we don’t see a greater degree of this substantive objectivity, the public is left largely at the mercy of the savviest online communicator. Indeed, if journalists refuse to critically curate new media, they are leaving both the public and themselves in a worse off position.”

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