Thoughts on B2B marketing and PR in the new age…..
Author: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.