Tag Archives: marketing strategy

A 9-Step Marketing Success Recipe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Strategic Ingredients

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

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

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

Three Practical Ingredients

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

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

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

Three Tactical Ingredients

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

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

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

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

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

Bon Appetit!

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Two Reasons Why Marketing Fails at Small and Medium B2B Firms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A…..Always

B…..Be

M….Marketing

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

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Write Effective Pitch Letters to Grow Your Business

mailbox-planet-mailbox-rentalsOver the past 20 years, most of my firm’s new business has been generated by unsolicited pitch letters sent to targeted prospects. These brief, tailored messages – sent either by email or snail mail – have not only enabled us to maintain a consistent pipeline of clients; but more importantly, we’ve built a practice consisting of high-value companies and people that we wanted to work for. And we’ve never resorted to advertising, sponsorships or other expensive, low-yielding tactics to promote our brand or services.

The simple truth is that properly researched, well-crafted pitch letters are probably the most effective way for any type of professional services firm to build its client base and grow revenue. Unsolicited pitch letters, when they succeed, can also be an extremely effective way for your firm to avoid the RFP process…by anticipating their needs, you enable the targeted company to skip the beauty contest altogether.

Here are 5 of the many lessons that we’ve learned about how to use this powerful marketing tactic properly:

The Secret Sauce is NOT the Pitch Letter. For every pitch letter we send out, my firm invests at least an hour or two researching the target company. We review all of the target’ s public facing information to understand its value proposition, competitive landscape, leadership, reputation, marketing & sales sophistication and apparent resources. Our research goal is to identify either a specific problem or an opportunity where we think we can add value. Lacking this insight, you have no tangible basis for an effective pitch letter.

Your Pitch Letter Must be About Them, Not You. Your targeted decision-makers receive scores of pitch letters and phone solicitations from your competitors. Nearly all of those firms will mistakenly talk about themselves, and what they’ve done for their clients. But the only thing that’s of interest to prospects is what you can do for them. So you need to first let prospects know that you understand their problem / opportunity (because you’ve done proper research), and then offer to share your ideas on that topic. (Yes…you’ll need to have some ideas to offer.)

Grabbing Their Attention is Goal #1. Using email, your pitch letter will not be read unless you incent the target to open it. This is no easy task, given the volume of email most decision-makers receive every day. Your subject line should be serious, rather than cute or clever, and should generate some curiosity. Also try to mention the name of the target company in your subject line, so that it’s not discounted as a canned letter or mass mailing. You should also consider mailing a hard copy pitch letter, in addition to, or in lieu of an email pitch. These days, a hard copy letter is more likely to be noticed than an email.

Stop Selling and Start Listening. The only goal of your pitch letter is to start a conversation, ideally face-to-face. This is your opportunity to discuss the target’s issues and your ideas. Sometimes you’ll miss the mark, sometimes you will nail it, and sometimes they’ll have a need or problem that’s unrelated to the one you’ve identified. If you ask smart questions, take notes, and focus on understanding their business and personal circumstances (instead of seeking to walk out with a signed contract), you’ll establish the foundation for a relationship that might lead to revenue at some point.

View Selling as a Numbers Game. Timing is every in life, including business development. You can research a great target, identify their problem or opportunity, and be in a position to add value, but for 100 different reasons (unrelated to you or your pitch), the prospect is not willing, able or ready to engage you. So the only way you can address the random nature of sales is to increase the number of doors that you knock on. If you’re serious about leveraging the power of pitch letters, you’ll need to send them out on a consistent, disciplined basis. Think of your program simply as a long-term seed-sewing process, and shoot to send out 2-3 well researched pitch letters every week. Over time, you’ll see tangible results.

There are many more tactical aspects involved in the art of pitch letters – what content to include and avoid, which individual to solicit, what attachments to include, how to monitor and follow-up, etc. – to cover in a single blog post. But simply getting started, and establishing a pitch letter routine are the two most critical steps.

What’s presented here, combined with overcoming a fear of failure, is all you’ll need to get started on the path to building your business through pitch letters. Happy hunting.

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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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3.5 Reasons to Skip Industry Awards

awardFor certain industries, such as financial services, that aggregate performance-related data – for example, in annual “league tables” ranking investment banks by the number or size of M&A transactions they’ve underwritten – there is some logic, as well as an objective basis, on which firms can claim to have outperformed their competitors.

But for most industries – lacking any quantitative basis or objective means on which to base relative performance of its individual companies – there are several reasons why participation in industry award competitions intended to recognize superiority or “excellence” can be a waste of resources, as well as a brand liability.

With the understanding that industry awards represent a substantial worldwide economic enterprise…here are 3.5 reasons why your ___________ (law, graphic design, accounting, management consulting, public relations, engineering, financial planning, advertising, technology, healthcare, beauty, payroll, etc.) firm should not participate in award competitions:

Reason #1: Your Awards Won’t Have Significant Influence on Prospective Clients

Fundamentally, awards are a form of extrinsic selling, and demonstrate your firm’s ability to do good work. But prospective clients are always more interested in what you can do for them, not in what you’ve done for others. Awards require prospects to make a leap a faith; to believe that your work for them will match or exceed your work for your other clients. And for some prospects, that’s a leap too large to take.

Most prospects also know that award competitions are not accurate barometers of the quality or consistency of the work you will provide. At best, awards may address the personal needs of some decision-makers who are more concerned with protecting their job (should your firm fail to deliver), rather than selecting the most qualified service provider.

Reason #2: Your Award Creates Another Content Beast that Must Be Fed

Because most award competitions are annual (and recurring sources of revenue for the sponsoring organizations), they have a very limited shelf life, in terms of your firm’s ability to promote the recognition. Most award winners proudly post the award icon on the home page of their website. But your “2016 Most Innovative IT Firm Award” begins to loose its luster around the month of July in 2017, as clients and prospects begin to wonder why your IT firm isn’t the winner of the 2017 award. If your firm has lost some of its magic, perhaps they should be looking at this year’s most innovative IT firm.

Like all other types of content designed to position your firm’s brand, industry awards are beasts that must be constantly fed. If your firm is unwilling or unable to make the commitment to pursue a particular award every year (and to risk losing, which is a strong possibility), then either pass on the competition altogether, or take down any award icons from your website that are more than a year old. Otherwise, your firm will be perceived as the 24 year-old who still wears his high school jacket with the varsity football patch. Living in the past.

Reason #3: Your Time is Better Spent Servicing Clients and Soliciting Prospects

Entering any industry award competition, if your firm is serious about winning, takes time and resources. For some firms with strong competitive instincts, this often becomes a lengthy, arduous process involving strategy sessions, dedicated teams, and even outside consultants who specialize in award submissions. (Yes, they do exist.) For large firms with deep pockets and low levels of marketing ROI accountability, award competitions can provide some level of validation for those executives looking to impress their CEO. But for small and medium-sized firms, where every marketing dollar is expected to yield tangible business results, award competitions make very little sense.

Rather than seeking brand credibility through what is a relatively weak 3rd party endorsement tactic (compared with earned media exposure, public platforms and direct client endorsements, for example) companies of all sizes are better served by re-directing award-related resources to strategies that foster referrals and increase the effectiveness of their direct solicitation process. Instead of hoping that your prospects will be impressed by your industry awards (if they happen to visit your website), build awareness and brand equity among target audiences with content that consistently showcases your firm’s intellectual capital in a non-self-serving manner.

Reason #3.5: The Award Selection System is Stacked Against You

Although the selection process for awards competitions varies greatly, all awards are subject to human bias and political / financial factors that are beyond your control, and that will always influence the outcomes. Even in “blind” competitions, if the basis of an award is subjective, relies on the opinion of a “blue ribbon panel,” or involves any type of voting / scoring system, most competitors will end up wondering why the designated winners were any more innovative, effective, attractive, or otherwise superior to them. Judging is always highly subjective, and never an accurate reflection of the best idea or solution.

For a host of reasons that are rarely discussed (such as the advantage of entrants who are advertisers in award competitions sponsored by industry publications), the award selection system is stacked against most competitors.

Their inherent weaknesses notwithstanding, and despite this particular rant, industry awards are not in any danger of losing momentum, and will remain as one component in the marketing tool kit. But the easiest tactics, like award recognitions, are not always the most effective or enduring ways to help your business grow. Think of industry awards as a car radio: they make noise, and can be nice to have…but it doesn’t help you reach your destination.

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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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Checklist Marketing: Too Many Shoes in Your Suitcase?

Many companies view marketing simply as a checklist of items they believe to be essential: Website…check. White Paper…check. LinkedIn and Twitter Accounts…check / check. Client Newsletter…check. Trade Show…check. Blog…check. Publicity…check.

But marketing strategy is not akin to packing for a trip. “Shoes” may be on your checklist of items to put into your suitcase, but depending on your destination and itinerary, you may need dress oxfords, high heels, running shoes, slippers, golf shoes, sandals or hiking boots. Or perhaps you only need the shoes on your feet.

Marketers often throw far too many shoes into their suitcase, either because they see competitors wearing them, or they wish to avoid explaining why their company lacks the trendiest footwear.

Unfortunately, it’s this collection of shoes with no real reason to be in the company’s suitcase that causes the greatest problem for the marketing function, in terms of justification of related costs and contribution to enterprise goals.

To wean our B2B clients off their shoe fetish, we apply a “Marketing Diagnostic” planning tool, consisting of 10 simple questions. Here are the first two questions it asks:

1. Does your firm have a written marketing plan?

Although it’s the most essential marketing task, most firms do not have a written plan. A marketing plan need not be lengthy, take months to prepare, or require the services of McKinsey & Co. Effective plans can be developed in a few whiteboard sessions, and be contained in a 2 – 3 page document that address these key questions:

  • What is our value proposition and competitive advantage?
  • What is our target market and who are the decision-makers?
  • What specific business goals / benchmarks are we seeking to accomplish?
  • What tactics will we use to engage with and nurture our target audience(s)?
  • What budgets, timeframes and responsibilities will we assign to those tactics?
  • How and how often will we measure results and make course corrections?

The two most important aspects of a marketing plan are, first, that it ensures organizational consensus regarding the firm’s strategic purpose, where it wants to go, and how it intends to get there.  Secondly, it provides accountability for results. In many cases, it’s that fear of accountability that discourages firms from creating a marketing plan.

2. Do all of your marketing tactics have measurable goals linked to business outcomes?

This diagnostic question involves the most difficult aspect of marketing: demonstrating tangible outcomes that justify the time and expense invested in marketing tactics. The classic complaints against marketing sound like this: “We’ve attended the XYZ conference for 3 years, and it hasn’t generated any new clients.” Or “We were mentioned in the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, and no one has contacted us based on that exposure.”

However, when you examine those marketing results-related complaints more closely, you’re likely to discover that (in the case of conferences) the firm failed to build an integrated strategy to communicate properly both in advance of and following the event, and did not leverage the conference-related content to reach a broader audience. And in the case of publicity, the firm likely generated the wrong type of media exposure (regardless of where it appeared), or simply hung the coverage on their website like a hunting trophy, instead of using it proactively to engage with their target audiences.

This second diagnostic question, regarding the practical benefit of marketing activity, is actually an integral part of the marketing plan development process. Every tactic that’s included in your marketing plan requires its own response to “How will we measure results?” Some tactics can be measured in terms of direct business outcomes, such as lead generation. But tactics that are unlikely to generate direct results, such as media exposure, will require a plan that combines related tactics. For example, to benefit from your published bylined article in a trade publication, your strategy might include sending a reprint of that piece (along with a non self-serving cover note) to targeted audiences, as a means to generate the awareness and conversations that precede transactions.

Both Do-It-Yourself marketers and professional marketers alike rationalize their activity on a tactical basis (number of white paper downloads, website traffic, “Likes” and “Re-Tweets,” etc.), and fail to either design or connect the marketing dots in a manner that’s likely to drive meaningful business results. This disconnect is the #1 reason why marketing is held in such low regard, compared with other professional disciplines.

If you’d like a complete copy of our 10 question “Marketing Diagnostic” planning tool for B2B firms, just shoot me an email through LinkedIn, or to gordon at andrewselikoff dot com. It includes a self-scoring system, allowing you to know exactly how you stack up, marketing-wise.

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