Archive for March, 2009

Ask most marketers and they’ll tell you it’s critical their business deliver an outstanding customer experience. But I wonder how many brands really drill down to this level: When does the customer experience end?

My family and I spent part of last spring break at a ski resort on Minnesota’s North Shore. The weather was pleasant. The skiing, fine. The condo we called home for three days was certainly serviceable. Friday night, our last, my teenager and a friend shared laughs and memories while coloring Easter eggs. All in all, a memorable experience.

Lovingly Made, Left Behind
Next morning, we hustled to pack for the nearly five-hour drive home.  Twenty-five minutes in, my daughter gasped, glanced over her shoulder, then pivoted back and asked a panicky rhetorical: “Who brought the eggs?” 

The delicate dozen — placed carefully back in the carton for safe transport home — had been left on the condo’s kitchen counter. 

With one brief, wordless glance, the parents shifted into recovery mode. I looked for a place to U-turn. My wife dialed the resort, where the front-desk operator said she’d attempt to get a message to housekeeping.

Within 60 minutes, we were back. The housekeeper’s SUV was parked in front of our unit. Hopeful, my wife stepped inside, where she was greeted by two cleaners, but no eggs. The guy who collects the garbage had come … and apparently tossed the eggs.

So we spent the next few hours driving, recalling, wondering.  The pink, blue and yellow baby’s blanket, nowhere to be found just 10 minutes after we left a four-star hotel in Boston. My brown belt, disappeared within minutes after I left that hotel in Washington, D.C. And now, a dozen colored eggs. Stored neatly in their carton. A day before Easter. Left alone less than an hour.

Owning the Experience

Really? Even if you’re the garbage guy? You don’t pause or think twice? Maybe run the carton over to the front desk, 100 yards away, on your way to the dump? Just in case the customer calls or returns?

Your business is to host people who are away from home. There’s a good chance young guests will be arriving with favorite old treasures, or going home with new ones. It’s more than likely adults will lose track of items. Things will get left behind.

But there’s also a good chance the customer will miss the item and call you on it. After all, since kindergarten there’s been a lost-and-found. Hasn’t there? 

This is not a rant on the hospitality industry so much as a thought for businesses of all kinds:

If customer experience is key to your brand, then it pays to chart that experience on a timeline. Where and when does it start? Where and when does it end? Does it end? And who plays along the way?

It’s a huge challenge, but worth tackling. Getting everyone bought in to ensure the customer experience continuum, unlike last year’s Easter eggs, goes untrashed.


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It’s hard to go a day without seeing a news report, often several, with fresh research regarding consumer insights, B-to-B marketing trends or online marketing best practices.

In fact, sometimes the data stream gets so heavy, you feel like a salmon fisherman standing on shore, trying to drop a fly in front of the one fish in a school of thousands that might just be a bit more meaty, a tad more catchable. Which one is it? They all look the same. And this river is flowing so darn fast.

Recognizing this challenge of data overload — research factoids that are here today but swept away tomorrow (just when you need to find them) — Touch Point City will be keeping its eyes peeled for marketing, sales and brand data points that might be especially meaningful, perhaps even seminal.

As we collect a few of them, we’ll serve up a post, then archive them on our “Data Depot” page. Ideally, over time, Data Depot will become your scannable warehouse of not just interesting facts and forecasts, but important and useful ones, for planning or defending communications and content strategies.

So, here’s Data Depot installment No. 1:

Let’s Assume They’re Online

Do you still find yourself in strategy and brainstorming meetings where someone will say about the target audience, “Yeah, but do we really think these people are online?”

Last week a handful of data points flew through my inbox to suggest that, indeed, it might be time to stop asking this question.

African-Americans Online
Citing it as evidence that the “digital divide” — the gap between Internet “haves” and “have nots” — is narrowing, research by eMarketer in February 2009 found that nearly half (48.7 percent) of U.S. African-Americans use the Web at least once per month. By 2013, eMarketer projects, the figure will be 56 percent.

For comparison, eMarketer found these online-at-least-once-monthly rates among other U.S. ethno subgroups: Asian 73.5 percent, White 67 percent, Hispanic 50.8 percent.

Grayhairs Get Tech
People in their 50s, 60s and 70s are using technology at rates very comparable to younger folk, according to a joint survey by TNS Compete and the Consumer Electronics Association. Among other findings:

  • Consumers 50-59 are as likely as those younger to own,
    or plan to buy, an HDTV.
  • 80 percent of people 60-69 used a cell phone in the past week,
    just slightly less than the rate of people 18-34.
  • 71 percent of people 60-69 and 52 percent of people 70-79 used a search engine in the past week, compared with 77 percent of people

Social Media Surge
According to a study by Netpop Research:

  • Since 2006, the amount of time people spend online has increased 18 percent, while time spent on entertainment has dropped 29 percent.
  • 105 million Americans contribute to social media, with 7 million qualifying as “heavy” users (6 or more social media activities).

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“If you have knowledge, let others light their candle at it.”
                                                                     Margaret Fuller (1810-1850)

As a fan of trivia games in general, I’m obsessed with the TV quiz show Jeopardy. On the road, when settling into a hotel room, if I come across an episode I’ll drop everything and focus. Once I’ve sized up the categories and the competition, people in adjacent rooms might hear a series of staccato ehhh! sounds as I “ring in” and blurt answers (in question form, of course) before the real contestants beat me to the buzzer.

jeopardy1I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this affinity for the test-your-knowledge format. In fact, trivia games and quiz shows might have something to teach us about content marketing. Consider:

  • Simply being approached to participate in a test of knowledge gets some people’s emotions, intellect, even adrenaline revved up. 
  • There’s an inherent promise of value and possibility in a quiz — you’re either going to learn (education), or have multiple opportunities to showcase and be affirmed in your knowledge (validation).
  • Information, interaction, calls to action, feedback, reward, measurement — all occur in a steady stream of small increments, so there’s a natural type of continuity and engagement to a Q&A “touch stream.”
  • Conceptually, the organization delivering the content is automatically coming at the audience in a value-add way. This is about information-sharing, learning, fun — it’s not a hard sell.

When deciding on a content marketing strategy, it’s easy to fall into “here’s the whole story” mode. Assemble an article, a white paper, a robust collection of news and information, and make it available to the target. 

But another model to consider, perhaps as a change of pace or another touch point within a broader campaign, is the quiz format.

Identify subject matter around which the audience and the brand have shared interest. Then parcel out relevant information in the form of test-your-knowledge quizzes, questions of the day or week, longer-form continuing ed courses or your own, unique “did-you-know” execution.

Here’s my current favorite example:

When parents register their high schoolers for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a key step toward college admission, the folks at SAT invite student and parent alike to receive The Official SAT Question of the Day via e-mail. 

The Official SAT Question of the Day

This feature gives students 
a chance to practice (and parents the opportunity to
feel humbled), thanks to a daily stream of multiple choice math and language/
grammar questions of the type students face on the SAT.

I registered my high school junior months ago. She took the test weeks ago. Yet here I am, still eagerly awaiting and answering daily questions (all the while confirming what a smart move it was to choose journalism over math as my college major).

Is your key audience parents? Teachers? Chefs? Engineers? Travelers? Teenagers? It probably doesn’t matter. 

To spice up your content marketing approach, consider taking “Content Marketing for $500.” The answer: “Test their knowledge.”  The question: “What’s another way to achieve engagement and add value with my target audience?”

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Several major brands, including Citi, General Motors and AIG, have received tons of free visibility lately — but not the sort of coverage any business would wish.

In recent months these three colossal companies, in particular, have garnered headlines and blog buzz for receiving tens of billions in emergency investment, loans and other backing from the U.S. government.

Crisis doesn’t necessarily make for a marketing opportunity. On the other hand, it does represent a brand moment of truth. So it pays to ask yourself a hypothetical:

If it were your brand receiving historic levels of emergency backing from government (and thus, from taxpayers), what would your communication strategy be? More specifically, to what degree would you — should you — be publishing content that:

  • acknowledges and explains the crisis situation and its implications?
  • provides context, defines technical terminology and anticipates FAQs?
  • speaks candidly and clearly to near-term plans, risks, responsibilities?
  • invites questions, comments and other forms of interaction?

To gauge how these three mega brands are handling that complex question, Touch Point City visited their Web sites. Here’s what we found:

Disclaimer: While a public Web site is by no means a 360-degree view of all a corporation might be doing to tell its brand story, it’s a good place to start. 

If there’s anything atypical going on at the Citigroup of companies, you wouldn’t know it from the home page. There are no text or graphics elements referencing emergency government funding. In the left nav, near the bottom, a single header speaks to Citi’s “Homeowner Assistance Program” for consumers facing home foreclosure.

Under “About Citi,” and another tier deep in “Press Room,” there’s a news release describing a common stock exchange that will let Citi boost equity on its balance sheet “without any additional U.S. government investment. ”

Another tier deep, an Executive Commentary from CEO Vikram Pandit welcomes the “vigorous global debate now unfolding on regulatory reform,” and calls for “transparency, a level playing field and systemic oversight” as guiding principles.

But overall, judging purely by its Web site, Citi seems to be taking a business-as-usual approach to communication — or lack thereof — around the government rescue and its ramifications.

Here again, at least at the ultra-clean home page level, plus a few tiers down, no obvious text or navigation clues to suggest anything abnormal in the works at GM.

Eventually, deep under “About GM,” halfway down a page of news release links, there’s this: GM Statement Regarding the Company’s Position on Restructuring, plus a second release regarding the government’s newly appointed Task Force on Autos.

Meanwhile, GM’s corporate blog, FastLane, has a number of recent posts that speak to the current state of affairs. One, dated March 12, is a video titled The Case for GM. In it, CFO Ray Young speaks to GM’s go-forward strategy and discussions with the U.S. government. The post, at last viewing, had three comments, including one detailed list of ideas for achieving long-term viability.

In a pair of other posts, Steve Harris, VP of global communications, weighs in on GM’s challenges and plans, including its desire to avoid bankruptcy. Harris’ posts, delivered more in real-speak than corporate-speak, attracted more than 110 comments. 

Perhaps because it’s received the most government money of any company (a reported $170 billion), or because its Financial Products division is so embedded in the global credit crisis, AIG goes furthest with crisis-related content.

For example, there’s significant home page real esate devoted to a box titled AIG Moving Forward: Protecting Customers, Repaying Taxpayers. A click leads to sub-pages where content addresses AIG’s restructuring plan, “What Happened?”, and details on government investments and loans.

The sitelet also hosts a “Customer Center,” featuring a very basic FAQ for consumers who hold AIG insurance policies, along with a brief “Thanks for sticking with us” letter from goverment-appointed chairman and CEO, Edward Liddy. In addition, there are RSS feed options for receiving progress reports on AIG’s restructuring and divestiture.

At times of crisis, content has powerful potential to maintain constructive dialogue with the market, sustain customer relationships and stabilize brand equity. When the time comes, will your bias be to communicate or stay quiet? Is your Web content management process nimble or gnarly? Will you have a blog or other social media channels by which to engage interested (or angry) audiences?

Now might be a good time to revisit your crisis comm plan, to assess how ready you’ll be to respond if historic events thrust your brand into the spotlight.

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In 2008, the Winterberry Group saw a dip in DM spend, and volume, for the first time in 45 years of tracking.

In 2008, the Winterberry Group saw a dip in DM spend, and volume, for the first time in 45 years of tracking.

Like the dinosaurs of days past, has print direct mail begun its own inevitable trudge toward the tar pits?  

That’s clearly the question raised by new research from the Winterberry Group.

As reported in eMarketer Daily this week, Winterberry noted a
3 percent dip in DM spending in 2008, the first drop in year-over-year DM spend in 45 years.  

Winterberry also cites research by Mintel Comperemedia, which recorded a
12 percent drop in DM volume — the actual number of pieces mailed. Both data points are captured in a Winterberry report titled, A Channel in Transformation: Vertical Market Trends in Direct Mail 2009.

Winterberry points to the popularity of digital media, recent tough times in the financial services sector, and rising postage and production costs as factors fueling the historic DM decline. Oh, and incidentally, its report predicts another
8 percent to 9 percent drop in DM spending for 2009.

Have we seen the zenith of print DM? Winterberry data crunchers seem to think so. Their report states, “Direct mail has seen its influence as a high-volume, mass-oriented response driver all but vanish.”

What do you think? Here’s my initial take: Print DM is purportedly a $50 billion industry, which means it’s an economic iceberg unlikely to melt overnight. However, the forces weighing against continued widespread use of print DM aren’t exactly shrinking away, either. If anything, use of digital channels, rising production costs, plus desire/pressure among marketers to operate in environmentally sustainable ways will put even more downward pressure on the use of  DM.

Still, assuming it’s likely to be in the marketer’s toolkit for some time, how do we plan and execute DM as effectively and efficiently as possible?

In future posts, Touch Point City will occasionally look under the hood at print DM, to see if we can identify insights and best practices that will help make your future campaigns as productive as can be.

Meanwhile, please feel free to comment with any of your favorite cost-saving tips and success strategies.

Bar chart credit to eMarketer.

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Everybody knows that effective selling requires attentive listening. But in order to listen, sales reps must get customers and prospects talking.

John Warrillow and the team at Warrillow & Co. believe they’ve discovered the query to crack open productive dialogue with small businesses (<100 employees). Warrillow & Co. specializes in helping big companies (e.g., American Express, Staples, Xerox) have the insights and best practices necessary to market and sell effectively to smaller ones.

Guess which of the following is the penultimate sales question:

a) What’s your budget?
b) What will it take for you to say “yes” today?
c) Tell me a little bit about your business?
d) How do you differentiate from the competition?
e) What do you value most in your supplier relationships?

If you guessed “d,” give yourself an “A” for acumen. Here’s why, and why big companies often struggle to get it right.

“What we’ve found in speaking with small business owners is that they expect sales reps to demonstrate business acumen when they call on them,” Warrillow said. “One of the big challenges large, enterprise companies face is that they typically take their most junior, greenest sales reps and task them with calling on small businesses. And when you think about the hierarchical structure of small business, the owner is at the top of the chart.

“Contrast that with charging your most senior sales people to call on, what, maybe a manager level in a Fortune 500 company. Yet you’ve got your 22 year old, right out of school, calling on a jaded, 58-year-old manufacturing CEO who has seen everything — 500 times. It’s a complete mismatch.”

Acumen = Training and Communication
Because big organizations are unlikely to reassign top sellers to smaller accounts, Warrillow says the solution to this inherent misalignment lies in training and communciation — doing a better job of empowering reps with acumen. “The confidence and the savvy to go toe to toe with the business owner,” he said. “Without it, business owners will just spit them out, very quickly.”

How does asking the “best” question look and sound? Warrillow offers this example: “You run a bike shop in Minneapolis, Greg Lemond country. There must be another nine or 10 bike shops in Minneapolis. How do you differentiate? What makes you special? That demonstrates to the small business owner that the person asking the question has a degree of business maturity.”

Now, here’s the real power behind the “what makes you different?” question:

It positions the sales rep to demonstrate how her product
or his service can support, even sharpen, the customer’s point of differentiation.

“So if the bike shop dealer says, ‘What makes us special is we let our customers pay in installments,’ you can see how a bank might play a role in helping finance that type of offering. If the sales person is able to glom on to what makes them special, and even enhance that value proposition, that’s going to be a great conversation.”

Which, come to think of it, means the best small-business sales question isn’t really so small. It just might be the key to getting any customer or prospect, no matter their size, engaged in win-win dialogue.

NOTE: If small businesses are a target for your business, get to know Warrillow & Co. Among other things, they conduct research, sponsor knowledge-sharing summits and publish a weekly newsletter.

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If current market conditions have your sales-support budget in a limbo contest — how low can you go? — here’s a relatively inexpensive way to bring fresh thinking and possibilities to the next conversations your sales force will have with potential customers: 

  • Pull out a printed copy of your organization’s core capabilities presentation — the one your sellers rely on when they need to deliver the company’s best, most comprehensive features and benefits pitch.
  • Starting at slide 1, count how many times your organization is referenced. By name. “We.” “Our.” Stop when you get to 10. Place a Post-It there.
  • Now, starting again at slide 1, count how many times your customer or prospect is referenced, directly or implied. “You…” “Your…” “Businesses today…” “Homeowners…” “Decision makers like you…” Stop at 10 and place a second Post-It.
  • Finally, check the two Post-Its. Which one takes longer to reach? The “You” or the “I”?

If it’s taking quite a bit longer to reach a critical mass of “You,” then there’s a good chance your killer sales presentation isn’t so much killer as it is deadly. Your sellers are probably spending way too much time and verbiage speaking to company history, mission, size and scope, and not nearly enough establishing context and relevance around the win-win dialogue they’re hoping to establish with customers and prospects.

Mid-size and larger companies might spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars conducting research to identify customer insights. Those insights typically drive extremely smart segmentation strategies and well-crafted advertising messages.

But it’s often the case, come time to get across the desk or in a conference room with the target, that those insights go out the window. Even in the largest and most sophisticated of organizations, it’s common for the developers of sales-support content to fall back on “who we are” and “what we do” long before they’ve established “why you should care.”

By contrast, in a world where customers are seeking more value and relevance, the most powerful sales conversations are most likely to start and end with a focus on you — the customer, their customer, their direct and indirect competition, and the evolving sales and marketing dynamics of their business.

News headlines. Case studies. Third-party research. Quotes from subject-matter experts. All these and more can be the material from which to develop and inject a strong dose of “you” into the front end of your core sales presentation.

And from there, seguing into “who we are” and “what we do” suddenly sounds a lot more like a solution, and less like a self-centered soliloquy.

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