About Aaron Pearson

Aaron Pearson is a senior vice president in the technology practice of Weber Shandwick, a global communications firm. He is also an adjunct instructor at the University of St. Thomas Opus School of Business, where he teaches a master's course in communications technology. His B2B experience includes industries such as healthcare, manufacturing and agriculture, as well as functional audiences from IT to HR.

SXSW: R “Ray” Wang on Customer Engagement

I had an opportunity to sit down with R “Ray” Wang, CEO of Constellation Research, in San Jose a month ago, and discussed his 9 Cs of Customer Engagement. As I have a SXSW Interactive video sharing those 9 Cs courtesy of Software Advice and CRMSoftware.tv, this now gets to be a SXSW post!

Video: 9 Cs of Customer Engagement

Wang brings strong B2B credentials, having been a top enterprise apps industry analyst before becoming a founding analyst at Altimeter and now CEO of his current firm. Constellation has concentrated particularly on disruptive technologies like gamification, social CRM, enterprise social media and digital content marketing.

sxswThe 9 Cs break down this way:

  • People-Centric Values: Culture, Community and Credibility
  • Delivery and Communications Styles: Channel, Content and Cadence
  • Right Time Drivers: Context, Catalyst and Currencies

You an watch the video for a discussion of these in more detail or read more on Wang’s HBR blog post from last year.  I’ll highlight a couple of particular note.

First, Content.  He rightly observes we are in danger of drowning in it and tuning out. I saw a survey of B2B marketing pros indicating their No. 1 concern was generating enough content for their content marketing efforts. The bigger concern to me, given we’re buried in content, is whether it’s any good. Which means what? It has to add value, it has to not be about your product – nobody cares – and it has to be creative and compelling. Too often that last factor is taken for granted. After all, this is business right, so it doesn’t need to be entertaining.  Well, as the classic Corning Day Made of Glass video shows, you can make a dry video and get 500 views or you get get 21 million that entertains as it educates.

Second, Catalyst. For B2B marketers, we are engaging ultimately to sell or reinforce loyalty (to sell). How we give our audiences a catalyst to take the next step needs to be handled deftly and in appropriate proportion. I come back to Bodnar and Cohen’s 10-4-1 rule (my interpretation is basically 10 curated, 4 original content, 1 marketing call to action as a general guide). The 1 only works if you do the 10 and the 4. But the 1 – the call to action tweet or button to landing page or post – needs to be both compelling and super simple for the audience to follow through on.

Watch the video or read the post for more on the other seven. I welcome your thoughts!

SXSW: When Creative Content Projects Go Awry

Sometimes all you need is 15 minutes.

In a mini session at SXSW Interactive yesterday, Craig Peters, CEO of Awasu Design, provided some great tips to keep creative content projects (digital or not) on track. As this has become an increasingly important part of what we do in this era of branded content, I paid close attention.

The premise is this: We act like our clients (and even if you’re in-house, you most definitely have clients) know all about the steps involved in launching a website, developing a video, whatever. Why should they? And so then we’re surprised when we go through the wireframes in a roomful of people, and things start going badly. We may get the “product” produced in the end, but can be left with a sense that the overall engagement wasn’t what it should have been.

Complexity of the engagement story can vary. This example is fairly simple. Courtesy Awasu Design.

Complexity of the engagement story can vary. This example is fairly simple. Courtesy Awasu Design.

Peters, in “How Design Leads Set Up Projects for Success,” simply contends that we partake in a little storytelling for our own projects. Ever deal with “swoop and poop,” in which a well-meaning exec drops in on a project to provide that’s either off-base or inappropriate for the project stage? That doesn’t have to happen if you lay out the story of the project for all the stakeholders at the beginning, letting them know what’s going to happen and how we’re going to get there.

Of course, he has a couple tricks to help, which is nice. These include neat little one-pagers describing said wireframes and other parts of the project (why we do them, what’s going to happen, etc.) as well as a variety of timeline formats that visually and creatively tell the story of the engagement. I’ve provided samples here for your enjoyment.

One-sheet overview of a wireframe explaining what happens and why. Others can be created for stages like mock-ups or usability testing. Courtesy Awasu Design.

One-sheet overview of a wireframe explaining what happens and why. Others can be created for stages like mock-ups or usability testing. Courtesy Awasu Design.

One more day for me! Love to hear your own SXSW experiences, either here or via twitter.

Aaron

SXSW: Vertical Communities Seeing Growth

I attended a SXSW session yesterday called “Professions Go Social,” which looked at how new profession-based social networks have emerged to extend B2B social networking beyond LinkedIn, moderated by Altimeter Group’s Rebecca Lieb. Some of the networks are doing quite well.

For example, Jay Hallberg, the co-founder of Spiceworks, said they have built a community of more than 2 million SMB IT pros, supported by 1,500 advertisers.  Spiceworks designed a very user-friendly place where these pros can talk to IT vendors about what to buy, and also talk among each other. It’s sort of an iTunes for IT. Hallbert says there are no barriers put up to discourage IT pro engagement – no freemium tricks, no charge for charge for support, just totally free.

Another panelist, Kirk Simpson, is a co-founder of Wave, which makes small business financial software, but also launched the Wave Pro Network as a community for these professionals to connect with real professionals in accounting and bookkeeping.

One of the key points was that these specialized communities have been built with the unique workflows of their industries or professions in mind, something a LinkedIn can’t do. I had an opportunity to develop a proposal for a company that wanted to market to golf course superintendents, a niche community if there ever was one. Do they have their own vibrant online community? You bet they do, TurfNet! Their forum not only covers niche topics like irrigation system pressure monitoring, integrated with educational webinars, and with a mobile version for an audience often on the course rather than in an office.

The key with all these sites is to get to a point where a lot of pros feel like they need to be on them. From the in-depth conversations I had with golf course superintendents, I know Turfnet made it, and they actually use a paid membership model. Hallberg indicated that reaching three percent of the addressable workforce segment might be the point at which those positive network effects kick in.

 

SXSW: Consumerization of IT Trend Shows No Sign of Slowing

I was able to hit two sessions yesterday afternoon in the Four Seasons here at SXSW, apparently ground zero for us more sober “enterprise” types, one on enterprise mobile apps and one on gamification + Big Data (“datagamify”). What connected them, in my mind, is the consumerization of IT. This is the concept that employees are increasingly expecting their experience with technology in the workplace to be as simple, fun and engaging as their experience with technology in their personal lives.

Long crowds await the SXSW Interactive opening keynote.

Long crowds await the SXSW Interactive opening keynote.

Eric Lai from SAP observed that 80 percent of the Fortune 500 has adopted iPhones and 65 percent of them iPads. Predictably now, the fastest growing category of apps in the Apple App Store is enterprise apps, and by 2016, that market will be worth more than $7 billion a year (IDC data). And yet Alex Williams from TechCrunch noted that most of these enterprise apps are ugly and that hurts usage. Employees don’t want manuals to learn how to do things anymore.

Meanwhile, the gamification advocates are motivated by a sense that life is a game. Plotting your career, for instance, is viewed in some ways as a game. We can now use apps and Web experiences to enhance these gaming aspects of our lives, to encourage our audiences to learn and engage.

One of the areas where these trends both come into play for B2B is around online customer communities. I suspect that tolerance for complicated, dry, blandly designed internal and customer communities by the users of those communities will wane. It won’t be enough to have one that functions.  Making it work – in other words, generating great engagement – will require more attention paid to elegant design and fun experience.

SXSW: We Still Need to Get Together in the Real World?

How ironic that 25,000 digitally connected interactive pros have to fly to Austin each year to network with each other and find out what’s new, right?

Actually, it’s not ironic at all that SXSW Interactive should be so valuable to them, and it’s worth understanding why as we consider the continuing value of customer events and trade shows in the B2B marketing mix.

SXSW Interactive Opening Party 2012 - Credit: JoJo Marion

SXSW Interactive Opening Party 2012 – Credit: JoJo Marion

Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman point out in their excellent book, Networked, that research shows we are actually seeing more friends offline at least once a week. Moreover, heavier Internet users appear to be the ones most significantly increasing the number of friends they see in person. The Internet and social technologies do not replace in-person meetings. Rather, they reinforce relationships and create new relationships that must be strengthened by at least the occasional in-person meeting. Otherwise, those ties remain weak.

Meanwhile, virtually every study I’ve ever seen shows the most influential source of information in B2B purchases comes in the form of word-of-mouth from people the buyer knows and trusts.  The more we can strengthen and reinforce the relationships within our customer communities and from our best customer advocates to other people, the better off we’re going to be! (Assuming, of course, we have an awesome product or service that’s generating said advocates.) It’s the power of our audiences talking to each other, not just brands talking to audiences.

Bottom line:  Creating and activating a strong customer community means using periodic live events – organized for networking and engagement – to grow strong relationships, and then sustaining them with smart social media engagement strategies the rest of the year.

B2B Voices @ SXSW

Kate and I will be down in Austin the next few days with 40,000 of our close personal friends to see what’s what at that SXSW Interactive thing. I’m going to be paying particularly close attention to the conference from a B2B point of view of course. (Follow me on Twitter!)

I’ve noticed that although social media has been a hot topic now for a few years, it seems like it’s becoming more disruptive to the status quote just over the last few months. For example:
• Increasingly we’re incorporating paid into our traditionally earned media focused campaigns. It’s now the norm.
• Agency roles are getting all mashed up. The client doesn’t care what you call yourself but only whether you can be effective at helping them grow audience engagement.

Instagram Co-Founder Kevin Systrom interviewed by TechCrunch Co-Editor Alexia Tsotsis at last year’s SXSW Interactive Conference. Photo by Carlos Austin

• We’re getting better access to the website analytics we need to understand how our communications programs are changing who comes to the website and what they do when they get there.
• We’re measuring success not just by the volume of mentions but on the nature of conversations.
• We’re getting far more analytical and tech tools are becoming more sophisticated.
• Brand journalism is absolutely exploding.

In addition, we (as an industry) are also shifting conversations beyond just “new ideas” to changing business processes and organizational structures within agencies and within client marketing and communications teams. This change management focus is a natural function of moving beyond pilots and tests to full scale program and campaigns.
So that’s the lens through which I’ll be looking at everything down in Austin. Stay tuned!

How to Share a Great Story

I believe very strongly in an approach to campaigns that my agency, Weber Shandwick, calls Content Fusion.  It basically says instead of starting with, “Hey, we need a news release about X,” we should start with the story and THEN determine the all the ways in which we can tell that story effectively.  It works like this:

  1. Every company (or brand) has stories to tell.
  2. Every story can be told in a variety of formats – video, text, images, audio.
  3. Every formatted story can be carried in a variety of content vehicles – news releases, blog posts, ads, bylined stories, etc.
  4. Every story ultimately finds a home in a variety of destinations – including “owned” spaces like your website, “shared” spaces like your Facebook page, and “earned” spaces like a news site or third party blog.
  5. Social sharing and compelling content should lead to conversation that refreshes the story and continues to spread it through the online ecosystem.

I get asked, however, whether this works for B2B or just for Coca-Cola?  And if it does work for B2B then does it only work in theory or can you actually get the organization to embrace this approach?

First answer:  Yes, it works brilliantly for B2B. Look at the pick-up of this video about 3D printing.  Only it’s not really about 3D printing is it? It’s about people. Content Fusion is only as good as the story.

Second answer:  To do this well, the organization’s marketing and communications leaders need to empower people to think outside their “lanes.” If a client comes to me needing a media relations solution, which I still hear all the time, then we’re already in trouble.  There’s nothing wrong with media relations at all – it’s critically important for most organizations. But now we’re already in a box. We’re already cutting ourselves off from two-thirds of the possible destinations for our story.  We’re also probably not being given the budget to create compelling content because you wouldn’t go to all that work and investment just for media relations.  It only makes sense when you have the whole online ecosystem to work with.

I get excited when a client says something like this:  “We have a problem.  We need to launch into a new market space, and we’re not known for that, and the influencers and potential customers might view our intentions with some skepticism. What should we do?”

Or this:  “We really need to build our reputation for understanding how the consumerization of information technology is disrupting businesses and how to harness that disruption for good.”

Give us a communications or a marketing or corporate reputation challenge and give us the freedom to literally architect a solution and see what we come back with.  Hopefully we’ll come up with an amazing story, package it in multimedia fashion, publish it from Sharepoint to YouTube (or whatever is appropriate), and support it with paid search or social ads plus some good media relations work to ensure it’s seen, then finally we’ll listen to our audiences to discern how they’re engaging with our story and be prepared to respond or adjust fast. That’s how it works.

Use the Force of Your Influence, Luke!

Much has been made about often-provocative attempts to measure social influence, driven particularly by companies like Klout, Kred, Traackr, Appinions, and now apparently LinkedIn. I’m a tough critic of the effort myself, though I certainly praise the effort and find the tools useful at times.

Anyway, according to the new Klout, my most “influential” moment of the past 90 days is when I posted this on Facebook:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s great that I had some engagement, but I really really hope I’ve had a more influential moment than that! And anyway, so how did I influence people? I had some engagement, which might indicate I have the potential for influence, but friends, there ain’t a whole lot of influence actually happening here.

What’s especially puzzling is Klout can tell I’m influential in some way around B2B marketing topics. Yet none of the big “influence moments” reflects that. We may be making progress, but we’ve got a ways to go.

 

You Can’t Make a Great Cake Without Quality Ingredients

A prospective client I met with a couple weeks ago asked us about ways to address their challenges in gaining industry exposure as an “ingredient brand.” I gave an answer, which I’ll share with you, but it got me thinking. In a way, MOST B2B companies are ingredient brands.  If what you make is a step removed from impacting regular people in their day-to-day lives, you’re an ingredient brand to them. Think about everything from servers, smart grid software tools, and B2B professional services to machine tools, medical systems, and commercial airplane manufacturers, not to mention literal ingredients in processed food. In each case, there is an organization and a third-party professional between you/your product and the general public.  That organization might be a healthcare provider, a consumer packaged goods company, a commercial airline, a retailer.  

I will grant there are deep ingredient brands for which earning attention and gaining resonance with the public is harder. For everyone who is at least one step removed from “everyday impact,” however, there are about three approaches you can use to break through the clutter.

  1. Humanize your company.  People are people. If you have creative minds and compelling stories about your people and you can tell them in relatable ways – including through video – you’ll get attention.  This can happen both through executive equity programs as well as through fascinating tales of your own star employees.
  2. Decommodify yourself and figure out why your differentiation really matters. There are certainly true commodities – corn, flour, oil, lumber. For everyone else, two questions: First, what truly makes you distinctive? That’s the easy question. Second, how does that differentiation help your customer make a better product or deliver a better service? You need to be able to memorably articulate this before moving on to No. 3. So you’re the first to support a faster chip. Is that going to be about forecasting hurricanes better? Catching more bad guys? Making cooler movies?
  3. Partner with your customers.  You’re an ingredient brand, so focus on positioning your customer as the hero, rather than yourself. If you focus on storytelling with the customer’s story in mind, you might find them a lot more amenable to publicity than if you’re asking them for an explicit public endorsement. You’ll win by association, especially if you are thoughtful about who that customer partner is. One of our 3D printing clients collaborated with a healthcare provider to tell the story of how the provider’s custom-3D-printed prosthetics changed the life of a young patient, enabling her to hug her parents for the first time. The healthcare provider started getting calls from other hospitals around the world AND the 3D printer company saw a significant increase in visibility, SEO positioning and website traffic. Win-win.

We are increasingly involved in helping upstart renewable chemicals companies – these are  ingredients all the way. But people want renewable and greener products – whether diapers or health products. It’s petroleum-based chemicals that are the true ingredient commodities. There’s an opportunity to help their customers – like consumer packaged goods companies – tell a fresh story that makes them a hero – and increases the value and visibility of renewables.

Know why you matter, humanize your story, tie it to big trends in partnership with customers. You’ll start to see that ingredients really matter.

Klout Gets Closer But Can It Ever Arrive?

Those who know me are aware that I’ve long been a Klout skeptic. Anyone who mostly does B2B communications should be, quite frankly.  How pointless is it that we walk around bragging about some sort of “Klout” score?  I’ll keep that 75 score in mind the next time I have a new mobile data management application to market.

As of today, however, Klout has rolled out the results of another round of tinkering with their algorithm.  I gained about 10 points, so of course now I’m a huge fan!  ;-) 

To be fair, I do use Klout from time to time as another data point despite its limitations. When you’re helping a client get a new or revamped Twitter presence off the ground, it can be encouraging to use Klout to simply show that the world is noticing.  Also, although Klout doesn’t give as much attention to topics, there have been instances when the site has helped uncover other relevant peers in a space.  And the fact is that a score of 10, regardless of how relevant the person or how niche the subject, doesn’t bode well for their social impact.  Finally, and not insignificantly, basic Klout is still free. Better alternatives like Traackr and Appinions cost hundreds of dollars per month.

And while Klout’s efforts to get people to obsess over their Klout scores seems vain to me, the corresponding efforts to make the formula behind their Klout score better should only be encouraged. They’re making it easier to understand what’s driving your score (that feature is still coming) and introducing new data points like Wikipedia activity. All good.

Still, I’d like to see a lot more attention given to topics.  I’m influential on “Minnesota” and “B2B”? What does that even mean?

Meanwhile, I would really caution marketers – especially in B2B – that we’ll probably never get an uber-powerful, magic list of just the right influencers.  One of the points made in The B2B Social Media Book by Jeffrey L. Cohen and Kipp Bodnar’s book is to not over-target. You can’t know with enough precision today (or anytime in the foreseeable future) who exactly is going to be the key to spreading that great story about your brand or product.  If you have something compelling, cast as wide a net as practical.

 Read more about influence on B2B Voices:

How Are You Measuring Influence?

Social Influence Matters! No it Doesn’t!