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.

Tuning Into Talk About Your Industry Can Pay Off for Your Brand

Research is showing senior communications executives are worrying more about perceptions of their respective industries, not just their own companies or products.  In fact 51 percent of senior corporate communications professionals believe consumer attitudes towards their industry impacts their own jobs, according to a recent survey conducted by Spencer Stuart and my agency, Weber Shandwick. That’s higher than other forces such as the economy or product quality issues.  And the companies that seem most sensitive to industry perceptions are those that have divisions or product lines that are both B2B and B2C. Apparently, the firms with the widest variety of stakeholders have the most to lose from negative public opinion.

Chief Communications Officers increasingly worried about perceptions of the industries they work in.

Meanwhile, of 15 business or market forces expected to influence corporate communications budgets over the next year, this same study finds social media trends comes out on top, followed by the state of the global economy, and the globalization of the business.

Taken together, it looks to me like we should ensure we are doing a good job of monitoring conversations and trends on social media (and traditional) channels, not just about our own companies and brands, but about our industry as a whole. We need to recognize the actions of our peers can significantly impact our own companies’ reputations.

Fred Reichard, bestselling author of The Loyalty Effect, says in his follow-on book this year, The Ultimate Question 2.0, that the pursuit of what he calls “bad profits” by industries too focused on short term earnings than on the loyalty of their customers and other stakeholders can soon lead to new regulations or restrictions for everyone in that industry. Thing about how resentment toward financial institutions after the 2008 recession led to legislation to protect consumers from predatory practices. Or consider how the Affordable Care Act is a result, in part, of a lack of pricing transparency between insurers and healthcare providers, and of how difficult it has become for so many people who need coverage to get it. “Customers must conclude that businesspeople lie awake nights thinking up new ways to hustle them.”

But let’s turn this on its head. Being in tune with what is frustrating your customers in your industry is one of the best ways for marketers to spot great business opportunities. It worked for Salesforce, whose motto, No Software, spoke to their commitment to freeing enterprise software customers from license and maintenance contracts in favor of what was then a pioneering cloud computing model. The message was that customers stayed with Salesforce out of loyalty, not just contractual obligation.  Their business was driven by customers’ negative perceptions of their enterprise software industry peers, which opened up an opportunity for a new way of doing thing, just as it has for B2C brands like Zappos and Apple Retail Stores.

Here’s to more social media listening and responding to what really matters to customers and prospects, and less talking just to talk.



Where Was PR at the BMA International Conference?

I got a lot of great insights from attended the BMA International Conference in Chicago the last week of May, which brought together a great mix of corporate and “agency” types to discuss B2B marketing. That included the power of Net Promoter Scores, the differences between marketing transactional and complex sales,  where creativity in branding comes from, and what makes a successful marketing communications campaign.

Guy Kawasaki at the BMA Grow Conference (photo courtesy BMA)

What I heard precious little about is public relations. I didn’t see evidence of many PR attendees, and I didn’t hear more than the occasional passing comments about it in presentations. Moreover, PR is poorly represented in BMA’s own B2 awards, while piles of categories are dedicated to traditional advertising.

I don’t know why this is, though it’s probably always been that way.  When I got my MBA in marketing, it was pretty obvious that most marketing students and professors regarded PR as a mysterious niche capability hardly worth mentioning. But that was a decade ago.  Meanwhile, year after year, PR agencies outgrow their advertising counterparts (albeit from a much smaller base), and on the B2B side, most of our clients regard us as their crucial partners in building their brands, advancing awareness, rallying influencers, building thought leadership and building engagement through social channels. I think those are all pretty important, don’t you?

I do believe that PR pros often do a poor job connecting their results to objectives that the CMO appreciates, and even less at doing it in a way sales appreciates. Impressions and clip counts aren’t going to do it. We need to have an open dialogue with sales and marketing to understand where the problems are in the marketing funnel and align public relations efforts accordingly. Maybe the need is awareness, maybe it’s correcting misperceptions about the brand, maybe it’s about providing resources to help prospects research, maybe it’s about activating customer advocates AFTER the sale. But I can tell you that I would design the PR campaign very differently depending on which of these issues is first and foremost.

Then I believe we need to be more aggressive in helping our sales and marketing colleagues envision what is possible through PR across owned, earned and shared media platforms. We complain when they don’t “get it,” but where were we when they had their quarterly retreat or annual summit? Too busy tweeting?

We’re doing some awesomely powerful work with digital storytelling, video, events and straight up media relations. Let’s make sure we’re clear on how that work is helping drive the business.

BMA Report: Social Media and B2B are Peanut Butter and Chocolate

I got to see my friends Jeffrey L. Cohen and Kipp Bodnar, authors of the B2B Social Media Book, last week at the BMA Conference. You’ll recall I published a Q&A with them and a review of their book earlier. As Jeffrey said:

The notion that social media marketing is a business-to-consumer-only activity is most misunderstood. Many conservative B2B companies think that just because there is less volume of conversation around their company, products and industry, that social media is not for them. This ignores the benefits that social media brings to search, and the ability to leverage and share the knowledge and expertise imbedded in B2B companies to build and nurture relationships required for lead generation.

Jeffrey and Kipp had the unenviable task of waking up the crowd at 8 in the morning after what was for several attendees a rather late night at the House of Blue (not for me, but I heard some stories). Of course they did a great job, and kicked off what was a top-notch Thursday.  Here are a few vendors who, in Kipp’s words, are “crushing it.”

BreakingPoint Systems – Check out their blog here.  In the Q&A I had with them earlier Kipp said they were generating a 2,800% ROI on their social media efforts. They sell network testing equipment, which is a high-consideration and long buying cycle B2B purchase, and they have done a great job of SEO and moving potential buyers to action.

Fluke Corporation – Can you believe this manufacturer of test and measurement equipment has 45,000+ likes on Facebook? I mean if you don’t think industrial and social goes together, look at what they do. Lots of video, lots of photos, lots of engagement, really fun.

GE – Admittedly, the products depicted are partially consumer, but there are plenty of B2B products on GE’s Pinterest page too, withy 667 pins and more than 2,100 followers.  How about boards like From the Factory Floor and Making Data Work?  

Great photo on the ClearRisk Facebook page.

ClearRisk – Another successful B2B corporate user of Facebook, ClearRisk provides risk management solutions for the insurance industry. The Facebook presence prominently features their blog and ebook and also includes plenty of multimedia and other valuable content.

Live from BMA International Conference: Tapping Into P2P Side of B2B

I’ve been at the Business Marketing Association’s annual conference this week in Chicago with several hundred other B2B marketing professionals.  It’s been a lot of fun and the speakers have been quite interesting.

One of the overarching themes that has come through is the degree to which B2B is about P2P (people to people, right?). And that fact has a lot of implications for us. The biggest one is that there is a lot of emotion involved in becoming a customer, even in a business buy.

One of the more interesting sessions was by Tim Riesterer, author of Conversations That Win the Complex Sale: Using Power Messaging to Create More Opportunities, Differentiate Your Solutions and Close More Deals. He shared the rather disturbing fact that 6 out of 10 pipeline opportunities in complex sales – common in B2B – ultimately result in a “no decision.” I can tell you from our own experience at Weber Shandwick that no decisions are in fact a problem.

BMA Conference

Tim Reisterer Talks Status Quo Beat-Down at BMA Conference

He shared another stat, this one from Forrester Research. Sixty-five percent of B2B decision-makers say they choose to buy from a company that establishes the “buying vision.” In contrast, only 35 percent say they make those decisions based on a fair-and-square bake-off. The bake-off is about the “why us.” The vision is about “why change.” People will only change if they think they’re at risk.  You need to tap into that reptilian part of the brain because that’s the one that makes decisions, and it will overrule the analytical brain without you even knowing it. You need to make it clear that the pain your customer is living with is bigger than the pain of change. Sell them on that vision. Not just on what you get from us, how we do it, and why we’re the best option.

More insights from BMA in Chicago to come!

10 Topics for My Social Media Marketing Class

10 Topics for My Social Media Marketing Class

I’m doing my third go-around this spring teaching Transformative Social Media Strategies, an executive education course at the University of St. Thomas Opus School of Business. This time I’ll be joined by Roman Gaponenko (@romanholiday), a colleague of mine with a particular passion for measuring all this social media work. The fun starts May 2 and runs Wednesday evenings for four weeks in downtown Minneapolis. We work hard to give B2B and B2C both their due.

Here are just 10 of the observations that I hope to talk more about over the course of the class:

  1. For all the activity everyone’s undertaking in social media, so much of it is not especially strategic.
  2. When marketing people own social media – which is common – they are often unprepared for the next United Breaks Guitars.
  3. It’s rare to have the persona of the company align well with the persona of their social communications – and super cool when it does.
  4. Let’s not confuse being an influencer with being popular.
  5. A community manager for a consumer lifestyle brand brings a very different skill set than a community manager for a group of golf course superintendents. But both are skilled positions.
  6. Social is becoming VERY global.
  7. Social media requires organizational alignment and executive sponsorship to scale and have real impact.
  8. Opportunities for marketers to bring the “real world” and social world together are immense!
  9. There’s a fine line between viral and not.
  10. Watch out for the impact of Big Data on social media marketing.

We’re going to have fun.

In Search of Great ‘Future of Work’ Stories

I’m happy to be leading a judging team again this year for the Constellation Research SuperNova Awards and encourage everyone to check them out and see if you have a program that fits. Deadline is May 31!

The focus is on leaders and teams who have overcome the odds to successfully apply emerging and disruptive technologies for their organizations. Vendors, the focus should be on your customers. This year, my category is Future of Work, which is an interesting topic open to lots of creativity. Maybe the best way to look at the subject is to look at what a few of our judges have been writing on the subject, either in general or in their industries of interest, on some of their blogs. I’ll publish more of these in a bit so you can meet some of the other judges.

I'm leading the Future of Work judging panel. Please enter!

Yvette Cameron, Analyst, Constellation Research – Thriving in the Future of Work

Thriving in the future of work requires evolving traditional ways of thinking. It involves moving beyond standard “hire to retire” processes to those that “engage and inspire.” It demands an evolution from transactional systems to engagement and experiential systems, bringing context to people-centric applications to drive agility and flexibility.

Dennis Howlett, Blogger, Irregular Enterprise – Of Chickens and Eggs

In my experience companies rarely fail solely because of outside economic conditions or other externalities. They fail because they crush themselves from within. What made them great ceases to serve them going forward but because we can’t truly see into the future we always rely upon the past. It is the path of least resistance yet the path that is so fraught with the very risks the business is seeking to avoid.

Charis Palmer, Editor, Business Spectator – Running Gartner’s Post-Modern Tech Gauntlet

Gartner’s “postmodern business” is like Salesforce’s social enterprise, on steroids.

It’s Gartner’s way of describing what it will take for CIOs and IT managers around the world to shift their thinking to cope with the consumerisation of IT, and the massive trends of mobility, social media and cloud computing.

A world fuelled by what Gartner global head of research Peter Sonderguard calls the explosion of information, collaboration and mobility, enabled by the cloud. 

Valerie Khoo, Founder, Sydney Writers Centre

Watch some of her take-aways from SXSW! 


Biz Tech Is Back

It never really went anywhere, but information technology did seem to fall from the public interest for a few years. As a communicator, getting people interested in enterprise technology was tough and the community of industry journalists focusing on it withered. It got some playful attention now and then, like when Larry Ellison made proclamations about how ridiculous cloud computing is while announcing another consolidation acquisition.

Now Oracle is acquiring SaaS companies, business intelligence is for anyone on any device, data centers are booming, everything’s becoming connected, and we’re having fun again!

What happened? It’s more than one thing, but the consumerization of IT is the fascinating trend for me because it has huge implications for B2B technology marketers.

I'm leading the Future of Work judging panel. Please enter!

Consumerization of IT refers to the general grassroots take-over of a lot of aspects of business technology by the masses of employees. Evidence: Gartner notes the role of business technology is rising, while formal IT budgets stay flat or fall. People are bringing their own devices to work (BYOD), finding their own business applications in the cloud for business intelligence or scheduling or business process management, and downloading mobile apps that give them virtual access to their desktops. They are developing new models for customer service and employee training using social media platforms like YouTube and creating shadow employee collaboration environments with enterprise social platforms like Yammer.

It’s either absolute chaos in the makings or it’s some sort of wisdom of the crowds at work. We don’t know that yet.

Two issues then for the tech marketers: Our target audiences are different, and the roles of IT leaders are changing.

First, we must recognize that increasingly we need to reach thousands of people at each company, not just a “buying team.” The masses of employees – especially mobile knowledge workers – are, at a minimum, powerful influencers. They may be the customers themselves, depending on the IT offering. Suddenly, B2B starts to look a lot more like B2C, doesn’t it? The brand matters, video matters, try before you buy matters. Impressive spec sheets and TLAs? Not so much.

Second, there’s more of an interest in the CIO not just as guiding big infrastructure decisions but as a “Chief Innovation Officer “ or “Chief Intelligence Officer.”  Read Constellation Research CEO Ray Wang’s fascinating post on the Harvard Business Review blog from a year ago. There will always be highly technical IT decision-makers but more may be coming from line-of-business. They will use skills not to control but to create and enable – to make it easier for innovations to come from anywhere and for information to be used in new and unexpected ways.

I look forward to talking about this more in the year ahead!

Search Marketers Pack ‘Em In at BMA Gathering

It was a packed house last week at the BMA Minnesota monthly breakfast meeting to hear three local B2B pros talk search marketing. Clearly there’s interest in what can seem like a mysterious black art. (relevant infographic from Webmarketing123 below)

The local BMA team has the balance right here with two marketers sharing real-world experiences and one consultant-side specialist to go deeper into the science. In this case we had Nina Hale bringing the consultant perspective, paired with Heather Hayes, interactive marketing supervisor at Stratasys, and Craig Berdie, search marketing manager at 3M.

Hale observed that paid search marketing and natural SEO are great complements to each other. We all like the credibility and lower cost that comes from great natural search placement. On the other hand, when people click on those search results, we can’t control as well where they go, while with paid – while more expensive – we can set up campaign-specific landing pages to track ROI and optimize campaigns more effectively.

I found it interesting that Hale believes B2B buyers don’t want to see B2B ads on Facebook. I’m not sure it’s true. I would say, however, that you probably do need to be promoting a different kind of content to be effective in that more consumer-oriented “entertainment” environment. I believe it’s less effective for straight product or service promotion but could be quite effective for promoting engaging thought leadership content. But of course, that’s not as lead-gen-oriented, and thus the ROI is harder to assess.

All that said, Hale notes that having a good social presence – even without a huge number of followers or a lot of engagement – is quite important to the search engines. At this point, it’s probably the primary reason to consider a Google+ presence.

Hayes then shared the Stratasys approach. Stratasys makes 3D printers, ranging from lower-cost desktop models to huge systems that can “print” pieces several feel long. (disclaimer: Stratasys is a public relations client of ours) She talked about the need to balance keywords that generate lots of clicks with keywords that convert to leads, which is a great point.  A click is not an end in itself.

The other key part of Hayes’ effort besides the science of keywords is a detailed multi-channel content calendar. This builds in discipline to generate consistent content and also ensures that the content is aligned with the keywords. She confirmed what Hale said about the value of having a good social presence, claiming that engineers (her target audience) don’t engage well on social media but they effort improves their search results. She did note correctly that younger engineers use these channels more. (I saw that last year with our work with IEEE.)

The final presenter was Berdie from 3M. That company has really stepped up its commitment to search optimization, and in fact, they have an SEO Council in place to serve as a center of excellence.  Berdie observes that SEO was “once seen as shady” and is now seen as “a legitimate practice.” They get C-level support now because they have been disciplined about detailed analysis about which pages are getting exposed to search and how they are doing. Because they are able to show a significant potential financial pay-off, they are getting some funding and staffing increases to expand what they do in search. They expect every piece of content they produce to consider keywords.

All of the panelists said personalized search presents a new challenge. Personalized search refers to the way companies like Google give you personalized results to your search queries. Just because your company is listed first when you search on key terms yourself doesn’t mean the same will happen when your neighbor does it. Personalized search reduces access to information about how your search efforts are doing. For instance, Berdie says he has no access to information for the approximately 30 percent of searches on Google from logged-in users. On the other hand, the whole point of personalized search is to improve the relevance of the searches people do. That means that search should be working better. But it’s harder to track and assess.

I’d like to see more collaboration between folks focused higher up on the marketing funnel – like myself – and those farther down – like most marketers in lead gen roles. It’s great to see how we can benefit each other by producing the most compelling content that generates lots of engagement and conversation but that also motivates the right people to take action and move towards purchase interest. A healthy marketing communications program is carefully balanced across these phases.

SEO Captures Biggest Share of B2B Digital Marketing Budget

A Brave B2B Social Media Book

A couple weeks ago I published here a Q&A with Kipp Bodnar and Jeffrey L. Cohen on their new book, The B2B Social Media Book: Becoming a Marketing Superstar by Generating Leads With Blogging, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Email and More. Here’s my review of the book itself:

Kipp and Jeffrey have chosen to bravely go right to the heart of the matter: how to apply social media for B2B lead generation. While there’s more to social business than lead generation, it’s refreshing to read a book that says it’s okay for social media to bring you more leads. It will help us earn the budgets from senior executives to further develop social channels. As they said in the book, “Social media marketing isn’t about hugs, kisses, rainbows, or any other fluffy happy words.” Engagement, in a marketing sense, needs to lead either to new sales or repeat sales.

Kipp Bodnar and Jeffrey L. Cohen

Kipp Bodnar and Jeffrey L. Cohen, Authors of The B2B Social Media Book

The authors correctly note that compelling content is essentially the fuel that makes social media marketing work. They explain how to leverage blogs as central hubs of content to move prospective customers to the all-important Call to Action that leads to positive ROI for social media investments (“Tweeting a landing page doesn’t kill a puppy.”) They also correctly note that reach is underappreciated in B2B. In most B2B segments, we do need online advertising, media relations and other reach-generating tools to introduce new audiences to our content and value propositions.

That said, there are certainly creative alternatives to corporate blogs. Facebook can be used in similar fashion.  Sophisticated social hubs like Cisco’s The Network also work, though they are much more expensive to maintain. A blog is a great way to start. And of course, ideally, you’d use all these things.

I would also argue that the chapter on calculating ROI is overly simplistic, especially if your business model is built on long-term customer relationships.

Finally, it’s also important for readers to understand there are realms of social media program management that are just as important and that are beyond the scope of this book, including customer service and customer relations, employee communications, and corporate reputation management to name a few (think topics like social media crisis management or online customer communities for ideation). In practice, a marketer must collaborate effectively with these parties to thrive in this interconnected world.

But that’s not what this book is trying to cover (and in fact, Kipp hinted that perhaps B2B customer communities could be their next book). From tradeshows to Twitter to the mobile Web, Kipp and Jeffrey have given you a crisp tome on bringing real accountability to B2B marketing to generate tangible results in social media. Remember that engagement is a means to an end for a marketer, not an end in itself. This book is a very good guide.

It’s Time for B2B Social Media Marketing to Generate Leads

A B2B Voices Q&A  With Kipp Bodnar and Jeffrey L. Cohen

I just finished reading The B2B Social Media Book: Becoming a Marketing Superstar, by Kipp Bodnar (day job at HubSpot) and Jeffrey L. Cohen (day job at Radian6), hot off the presses this month. I recommend it. Despite the title, it doesn’t try to encompass everything you need to know about B2B social media marketing.  Rather, it tries to open the lock box to social media lead generation. Frankly, that’s the way we’re going to get a lot of B2B companies to start to take social media more seriously.

I’ll follow up with a longer review but I had a chance to ask Kipp and Jeffrey a few questions after reading the book, and here’s what they had to say!

Aaron:  You both obviously have a lot of passion for B2B marketing in general, and social media specifically. Why? Where did that come from?

Kipp: It is what I have always done. Since the beginning of my career I have worked with B2B companies mostly at marketing agencies and then here at HubSpot. I love the challenge of B2B. B2B marketing is the ultimate in problem-solving and storytelling. It is awesome.

Jeff: I, too, have always worked for B2B companies, including marketing agencies that focused on B2B and companies that sold through distribution. It is more exciting to live in a world where the product quality and company knowledge are the basis of a sale, rather than the correct Pantone color. The longer sales cycles require companies to build customer relationships that can be nurtured, rather than offering promotions and discounts.

Aaron: What is most misunderstood about B2B social media marketing?

Kipp: For me it is reach. In traditional marketing, B2B companies obsessed over narrow targeting because executing marketing tactics was expensive. Social media has changed this. Narrow targeting hurts B2B companies online. Bigger reach is needed to generate word-of-mouth and leads online. Even if a social media follow isn’t a potential fit as a customer, they have the opportunity to share your content with someone who is, but this is impossible to predict. Thus the need to actively build reach online. 

Jeff: The notion that social media marketing is a business-to-consumer-only activity is most misunderstood. Many conservative B2B companies think that just because there is less volume of conversation around their company, products and industry, that social media is not for them. This ignores the benefits that social media brings to search, and the ability to leverage and share the knowledge and expertise imbedded in B2B companies to build and nurture relationships required for lead generation. 

Aaron:  Why the intense focus on lead generation in the book?

Kipp: Lead generation is the genesis of B2B success. Marketing must generate leads and revenue to survive. Yes, branding, public relations and other aspects of marketing are important, but they can’t compensate for the lack of a solid lead generation strategy. If lead generation is sound, all of those other aspects of marketing can supercharge it. 

Jeff: We know that social media adoption is very slow for B2B companies, no matter what online surveys say. We chose this important slice of social media activity, lead generation, because when success, it demonstrates real value of social media. It is much easier for C-Suite executives to endorse rolling out social media across an organization if it has already generated revenue through this one approach.

Aaron: I especially liked your more integrated focus on bringing prospective customers along a path from initial reach to signing on for content (like liking a page) to ultimately responding to a call to action and becoming a lead. Give us an example or two of who does that well.

Kipp: Breaking Point Systems down in Austin, TX is crushing it. They sell network testing equipment, which is a high-consideration and long buying cycle B2B purchase. We featured their vice president of marketing, Pam O’Neil, in the book. They have an awesome blog, a website that is super SEO-optimized and a social media presence that is engaging and drives traffic and leads back to the website.  Pam told us that they have a 2800% ROI from their online leads. 

Clear Risk is a finical services company in Canada that is also doing a great job. They have an awesome Facebook page, Twitter page, LinkedIn Page, blog as well as a calls-to-actions and lead generation offers. 

Aaron:  What about nurturing existing customers?  Private B2B communities are big in some industry segments like enterprise software, for instance, but this seemed to be less of a focus in this book. Why?

Kipp: Honestly, that is another book. You’re right. Lead nurturing as well as customer retention is huge revenue-centric application for social media. We just didn’t have the real estate to cover it properly in The B2B Social Media Book, so we decided to save it for another one. We think that having a solid customer generation strategy is the right first step, and too many companies still need to improve that. Lead nurturing is the next step.