Other Voices: Ann Handley, MarketingProfs

This post marks a milestone for the group at B2B Voices as it is our 200th since we launched four years ago. And to help us celebrate, I was able to convince Ann Handley, chief content officer of MarketingProfs, and co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules, to spend some time with us.Handley

You are clearly very busy. Tell me about how you process information and content.

I try to touch things once (email, social updates) when I can. I’m pretty controlling when it comes to my work, so I don’t outsource well or shortcut much. In other words, this is actually me answering these questions, and not a robot. Surprisingly, huh? (I’m kidding.)

I wish I could say that I have a secret weapon or cool tool that makes me incredibly efficient. But the truth is straightforward: I’m pretty disciplined in my approach, is all. The key is simply staying on top of things, and not getting too distracted while you’re doing so: For example, when I’m writing I shut off email so that the constant alert of incoming mail doesn’t divert me. Otherwise, I’m like the dog Dug in the movie Up. (“Squirrel!”)

There are so many comparisons of B2C vs B2B communications and how B2B seems to lag, particularly in social media. Do you think B2B communications is misunderstood? Or is it just that we are more focused on our work and approach?

I’m not sure whether business-to-business communications is misunderstood, or whether social media is simply misunderstood by B2B companies. I wish more B2B brands used social platforms not just as a way to amplify their content (to repost blog headlines, for example), but as true storytelling platforms. I wished they used them more thoughtfully: As a way to tell a larger story, and express their value and mission.

Here’s what I mean: MarketingProfs is a B2B training and education company, and we’ve found great success in using Pinterest and Slideshare as platforms to showcase our lighter side – through our Marketing Humor board or our presentation about how to ruin your presentation. Those efforts tell a small part of a broader story: We are approachable. We are human beings. We love what we do. We are serious about marketing, but we also think that marketing doesn’t have to be boring. (It shouldn’t be, in fact.)

What’s your biggest pet peeve when it comes to marketing?

How much time do we have…? Here are two:

1. People who don’t walk the walk.

2. Brands (and people) who speak Frankenspeak instead of using the language of actual human beings.

If you were advising a client and they could only use one social media platform what would you recommend and why?

I get this question a lot from people. But often the unasked question there — the question inside that question, if you will – is: How little can I get away with doing? Here’s the thing: Social media represents a rich opportunity to market in a whole new way. It’s not a task or channel, it’s a mindset.

I’d advise them to forget about social networks, and to focus instead on content. It’s more useful to focus more on creating great content for your prospects and customers (published regularly through a blog or similarly flexible content management system) and focus less on specific platforms. That can come later. Focus on your message and story first.

Data. More data. And more data. What do marketers need to think about when it comes to metrics and evaluation?

There’s no magic data elixir that applies to all businesses. If there were, I’d bottle it in beautiful packaging, set it in a velvet-lined box, and drive around the country, trading it out of the back of my car for ounces of gold.

It’s more important to figure out what marketing metric matters to you: It might be sales, but it might be something else, too: Customer engagement or sharing metrics, or the length of time between a lead generated and a sale. In other words, it depends.

But at a high level, look at your lead generation, sales, and sharing metrics. Those are ones that will give you a pretty solid sense of how well your marketing is driving business.

We’ve seen a real evolution of how people interact, communicate and share information in the past five years. What strikes you as the most relevant change for B2B companies during this time?

I’ll share the change I like best: I love the way that some B2B companies are embracing social media and content for what it is: An opportunity to connect in unprecedented ways with people who they are selling to.

I especially love it when I see B2B companies take that opportunity to lighten up a bit. I wrote about a few of those companies on American Express’s OPEN Forum recently. (The OPEN Forum platform itself is also a great example of a B2B company embracing the opportunities inherent in social media and content, by the way.)

What’s the biggest challenge ahead for communicators?

A big challenge for forward-thinking communicators in 2013 is how to produce the kind of messages and content that truly engage. While most companies understand the notion that they need to be producing content, many are still producing drivel. Producing enough content, and producing the kind of content that engages, are still major challenges for B2B marketers.

Think of your marketing through this lens: Is this marketing truly useful? Will my customer thank me for it?  I believe that last question is the Holy Grail for marketing. It’s what I hope all companies aspire to, and it’s a fundamental theme that I focus a lot of my work around.

Finally, it was good seeing you, so when are you coming back to London?

It was so great to see you, too. I love London! Soon, I hope!

If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy some OtherVoices:

R “Ray” Wang on customer engagement

Michael Pranikoff, PR Newswire on B2B digital communications

A Q&A With Jeannie Walters, Founder, 360Connext

A discussion with Mark Ragan, Ragan Communications

A brief interview with Kipp Bodnar, publisher at SocialMediaB2B.com

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!

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.

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.



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

B2B Companies Need to Be Prepared for Crises Too

I attended a Minnesota Business Marketing Association breakfast yesterday that served as a reminder that crises can happen to B2B companies too, not just cruise ships. Unpleasant things happen – planes with executives crash, workers strike, products fail, plants close, tornadoes strike.

The speakers were Jon Austin, former spokesperson for Northwest Airlines and now with his own firm, and Paul Omodt, VP at Padilla Speer Beardsley and a former PR person for the Northwest chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association. When I was in college in the Twin Cities, I saw Austin in the local media more than I saw the White House press secretary. You can imagine the issues they had to deal with.

Jon Austin at Minnesota BMA on Crisis Preparedness for B2B

Here’s the quick takeaways:

First, yes you probably need some kind of crisis plan, even as a B2B company. Think of Arthur Anderson.  Respected, in business for like a hundred years, and then thanks to the Enron collapse, out of business in the blink of an eye. Austin noted that what killed Arthur Anderson was not the lawsuits filed, because those took 10 years to get through the courts. Instead, in the first month or two after the Enron collapse, they had clients calling them up say, “We love you guys and know you didn’t have anything to do with what came down in Houston, but we just can’t have you signing off on our financial statements.” Reputation damage killed them.

As Austin put it: “Dinosaurs were pretty dominant at one time, and now they’re pretty damn dead.” Don’t be a dinosaur.

Second, drill on crisis plans. It’s time-consuming to put these things together and it can be a relief just to finish but without practicing their implementation, they are still likely to fail you. For one thing, people panic. Is this a crisis?  Do I really pull the trigger on this plan now?  Practice makes them comfortable. Second, it’s a great way to learn if it really works, if the roles are all covered. You don’t want to find out you haven’t adequately prepared for the likely contingency that your CEO will be oversees, your phone system will be swamped, and your email wil be down. It’s a chance to be comfortable with the plan and identify any weak spots in it.

Remember 9/11? Austin was with Fleishman-Hillard by then, working on the United Airlines account. The crisis plan called for flying all the key crisis team members to Chicago as a central coordination point. The team hadn’t considered the possibility that U.S. airspace could be completely closed down. Fortunately, Austin was able to drive to Chicago from Minneapolis, but you can bet all those airlines learned from that experience.

The more realistic the rehearsal the better. We have a great product offering that I’ve written about before called Firebell  for drilling on a crisis. The strength of Firebell is it’s been designed to simulate a crisis on a social world, letting you see not only what happens on the local TV news but also what happens on your Twitter account, Facebook and other social channels. (blog post on it or email me)

Finally, keep the plan refreshed. A reorg can eliminate a team of people important to executing the plan. New products are developed and old ones are sunsetted. New markets are entered. Crises are not viewed the same all over the world.

Interesting comment from Omodt – some insurance companies will lower your company’s premiums if they know you have an effective and up-to-date crisis plan in place – something to look into.

In closing, says Austin: “Be a mammal. Don’t be a dinosaur.”

Live from Minnesota Blogger Conference

Well we are through the morning keynote by Lee Odden and the first breakout session at the Minnesota Blogger Conference at Allina Commons in Minneapolis. Not surprisingly, Arik Hanson and his colleagues have put on a really nice event here.

My mission has been to find out what we can do here to make our b2b blogs better.

So far, I have in fact picked up some great ideas along with some things to maybe experiment with.

So 3 things to start:
1. Content is King but Creativity is Queen: From Lee Odden of Top Rank Blog fame. What this means for me is that yes we must take our substance seriously, but it can be so much more impactful if cleverly conveyed. Which leads to …
2. Lots More Visuals: I attended a session on Tumblr, which has really been breakthrough in making posting lots of different formats easier. The expert, Patrick Rhone (his most popular site is Minimal Mac) describes it more as a clever content curation platform than blogging platform but I think those lines can get blurry. I have some concerns about the reliability of the platform, especially on Internet Explorer, after watching, oh, about ten crashes, but it has a lot of promise and you can bet WordPress is learning from Tumblr’s growing popularity too.
3. To Stand Out, Stand for Something: From Lee Odden again. This may be obvious but I do think it’s hard to keep a good focus on one domain so you really stand out in that domain. There’s just too much competition out there to be everything. You can always add another blog.

I’ll try to post again here.