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Need a good way to check whether your B-to-B content marketing strategy is positioned for success?

Try asking whether you’ve crossed all the “Ts.” Specifically:

  • Have you truly pinpointed your target audience? Residential construction professionals is not a target audience. Remodelers? OK, you’ve set your sights a bit more precisely. Window-replacement contractors? There you go. Now you’ve got an audience whose persona and interests you can truly focus on and seek to serve with your content.
  • Have you strategically chosen a theme around which to concentrate content planning and development. A theme that, ideally, has two things going for it: First, it’s of high interest and importance to your audience in their profession or business (even though it might be quite arcane or esoteric to people outside the audience group). Second, it resonates with your products, services and brand value proposition — but isn’t all about your products and services.
  • Within that theme, are you drilling into content topics likely to be most relevant and compelling to your target. While you’re at it, be sure to consider whether your audience is at a level where “101” how-to topics are going to be most interesting and useful. Or is yours a sophisticated audience where it will take “200-level” and even “300-level” subject matter to get them engaged and seeing you as a thought leader?
  • Are you planning to deliver content, or make it available, via channels (let’s call them touch points, so I don’t blow the “T” pattern) that work well for your audience and their lifestyle.

Content marketing is not rocket science. By the same token, it bears some resemblance to the multi-level levels of content marketing strategychess Spock and James T. Kirk played on the original Star Trek.

If you’re not thinking clearly and precisely about audience and content at these various tiers, your strategy will be fuzzy as opposed to focused.  And a fuzzy content marketing strategy simply will not work as intended.

Worse yet, there’s a good chance you’ll be viewed by the audience as adding to the disruptive marketing and media noise that bombards them daily. If that happens, it’s likely your marketing will be characterized by another T. The one where your audience elects to tune out your message.

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What do you think? Did I miss one or more Ts that need to be considered and crossed to mount an effective content marketing strategy? Would welcome your comments and ideas.

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If your organization hasn’t conducted a customer focus group lately, you should. There’s nothing like listening to customers for a couple of concerted hours to get your blood boiling and brain buzzing.

I was fortunate to attend four, two-hour focus groups recently. The company commissioning these groups provides a ubiquitous B-to-B service. Its customers range from Main Street to multinational.

To this company’s credit, the focus for these groups was content. Specifically, sales-support content. What some organizations would call their sales and marketing “collateral.”

This company’s marketers recognize that while the service is what customers buy, the communications and experiences they have via the sales force are a major factor in whether customers ultimately resonate to their brand.

Thus, if a company hopes to retain and build customer relationships, it had better understand customers’ needs, expectations and turn-offs when it comes to sales-support collateral.


Four Causes of “Collateral Damage”
After eight hours listening to business decision-makers talk about the way companies communicate with them via the sales force, I came away with this:

There are four things your customers probably dislike — maybe even detest — about your sales-support collateral. Eliminate these and you’ve taken important strides to having more, and more engaged and delighted, customers.

1. One size fits all
Does your organization claim to listen, to be a solution provider, but then send the same off-the-shelf capabilities brochure or collection of e-mail attachments as a follow-up to every new sales conversation?

If so, you’re failing to deliver on a brand promise. And believe it or not, customers recognize it.

They appreciate it when a sales rep actually does listen to their needs, then follows up with information responsive to those needs. By contrast, if your reps only pretend to listen — or listen but have only generic, one-size-fits-all content by which to follow up — your customers and prospects are in for a let-down.

If you’re not empowering front-line sellers with collateral system that enables some degree of on-the-fly customization — at least to a modular, if not granular, level — your customers would appreciate it if you did.

2. Selling past the close
A consistent theme from the focus groups: Why does this content look and sound so “salesy?” After all, I’m already a customer!

More than one customer pointed out that, having been a customer for years (decades in a few cases), they felt disconnected and underappreciated when every piece of sales collateral seemed to be written and designed for a newbie prospect vs. a long-standing, supposedly valued customer.

Darn them anyway. Customers have fairly sensitive antennae for detecting when they are being sold vs. informed.

Does your collateral system let you “modulate” tone and message depending on whether you’re communicating with a customer or a prospect? If not, maybe it should.

3. The impersonal touch
Customers are quick to notice when communications feel generic vs. personal.

They might have just spoken with a sales rep hours or even minutes prior. But if the follow-up communication reads or appears stiff, over-designed and templated — as though coming from a corporate marketing monolith vs. a flesh-and-blood person — any warm and fuzzy connection they might have been feeling can quickly diminish or disappear.

In our rush to consistently “brand” all sales-driven communications, care must be taken not to bleed them of a simple, personal touch.

4. Limited shelf life
Customers know the world of business is moving and changing continually. That means they are only so trusting that the information you provide — especially in printed and PDF formats — is current and accurate.

If you have a relatively long sales cycle, and you’re hoping customers will file your collateral away for future reference, don’t bank on it. There’s a good chance they’ll toss it or delete it, assuming things (e.g., product specs, service features, terms of use, etc.) will change soon.

 

A Fifth Element
As the company’s marketers listened to the focus groups, they found their own reason to hate the current collateral system: Inefficiency.

Here they were, spending low seven figures annually to create, print and distribute collateral, and customers were essentially saying: We’re just not that into your sales-support content.

It’s broad-brush, even generic. It doesn’t make me feel listened to and valued. Come to think of it, it’s probably out of date. And you always sound like you’re trying to sell me. What’s up with that?

Given all that negative feedback, it’s hard to imagine customers hanging on to your sales-support content, or investing decision-making confidence in it.

Sound like any sales collateral system you know?


Epilogue: Repairing the Collateral Damage
Did the company’s marketers despair over the harsh reviews?

Fortunately, no. They’re already well down the road toward implementing a Web-based content asset management and delivery application that will drive dramatic advances in how sales provides content to customers.

In a nutshell, this company is reinventing its traditional collateral system by bringing Web 2.0 thinking and technology to it. Making it possible for:

  • Content to be centralized, maintained and quickly, cost-effectively updated online vs. as printed documents or PDFs
  • Collateral assets to be custom-assembled, in collections unique to each customer’s needs and interests
  • Customers to have greater opportunity to self-serve for content relevant to them
  • Having visibility over whether, and how, customers consume engage with the content provided them by sales

If you’re pumping precious marketing dollars into an outmoded collateral system that customers probably hate, time to consider a change for the better.

After all, in this era when we’re all focused on engaging customers in dialogue, and providing them relevant content, a smart place to focus is where you already have dialogue underway: Between your sales force and your target audience.

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In case you haven’t heard, online marketing and media conversation has been buzzing in recent days over an incident involving a request for proposal (RFP). If your business purchases products and services, or competes for new business, through RFPs, you’ll want to read on.

The two parties in this scenario are Zappos, the online retailer, and a marketing agency, Ignited. Mike Wolfsohn, Ignited’s EVP-executive creative director, wrote a Sunday post for his agency’s blog describing Ignited’s experience during a recent Zappos agency search. His post tells of the agency’s chagrin at seeing, via Google analytics, that Zappos viewed only five pages of Ignited’s 25-page proposal (submitted as a blog), with an average page-view time of just 14 seconds.

While admitting to voluntarily joining what he and his colleagues suspected would be a “cattle call,” Wolfsohn states in his post that the “Zappos pitch underscores what’s wrong with the review process.” He argues, “If agencies are going to spend weeks preparing their response, the least any client can do is commit 30 minutes to look at it.”

The headline on Wolfsohn’s post: “Is 30 Minutes Too Much To Ask?”

An article about the post in the AdAge Daily News e-newsletter triggered, at last count, 88 comments, many from marketing and ad agency pros. A majority take Wolfsohn to task for voicing sour grapes over a relatively standard RFP process in which his firm finished out of the running. Fewer express empathy for Ignited and disdain for Zappos’ approach. Several lament unfairness and imperfections inherent in the RFP process itself.


Rules of the RFP Road?
All this hub-bub over a single RFP made us wonder what exactly are the rules of etiquette and best practices for publishing, and responding to, RFPs?

For insight, TPC contacted David Kutcher, president of Confluent Forms, a Northampton, Mass., design firm. Kutcher also is founder of The RFP Database, a Web-based service that aggregates RFPs of all types for efficient distribution by issuers and searching by suppliers.

David Kutcher, founder, The RFP Database

David Kutcher, founder, The RFP Database

TPC: Without delving into the specifics of this case, David, what’s your overall takeaway? What tends to go awry in a situation such as this?

Kutcher: I think everyone is a bit too overwhelmed to think rationally; Zappos received over 100 proposals, which is not really surprising, and Ignited put their heart and soul into the pitch and felt a bit disrespected. It’s completely understandable. I’m not sure anything went awry from a process standpoint, but I think it’s a learning experience for companies that enter into the “cattle calls” as much as it is for companies that release their RFP to the wild.

 In this specific case I might have recommended that instead of releasing their RFP to the wild, that Zappos instead release a simple RFI (request for information) that asks for a maximum of two to five pages of information, mostly as a way to get profile information about firms, examples of their work, etc., and from there, select a smaller number of firms to receive the full RFP.

With this sort of approach you can spend more time with the firms you do a final ask from, but also not ask so much unbillable time from firms who go overboard making a full-blown pitch. Only the firms that make the first cut would be asked to compose that full proposal.


TPC: Is every supplier that responds to an RFP owed a certain minimum level of review and consideration by the potential customer?

Kutcher: I think we all like to feel we should be heard and given ample time to make our pitch, but this harkens back to the idea of a company’s “elevator pitch,” which seems to be becoming a lost art. If you can’t connect with the reader in the first 30 seconds and explain why you are the best choice for the project, then you really should revisit your proposal-writing strategy.

Regardless if they keep reading, the reader is likely just going through the motions at that point, since they’ve become mentally disengaged. If you don’t capture your reader, that’s on you, not the reader. And that’s business; it’s up to YOU to make the sale.


TPC: On the client side, what are common things you see companies struggle with or miss when it comes to conducting an effective, fair RFP?

Kutcher: It all starts with the issuer, and generally the RFP process goes off the rails because the organization didn’t put enough forethought into the RFP. This could be that they didn’t do enough internal research for what they were looking for, didn’t think about how their process would be run, or failed to define the proposal format and information they wanted back, so as to have an apples-to-apples comparison.

Organizations need to fully appreciate that companies put a lot of unbillable time and effort into responding to RFPs. Releasing a poorly written, poorly defined, and poorly executed RFP into the world can ruin your reputation among vendors and, instead of leading you to a good partnership, can leave you with the bottom of the barrel.


TPC: What about suppliers? Are there things they need to remember, or ask the client, on the front end, in order to ensure they’re not left feeling badly treated on the back end?

Kutcher: Suppliers need to ask questions, LOTS of questions, until the point where they are assured that the issuer is serious about their project, has done the necessary homework, is issuing this competitive bid project with the full intention of hiring someone, and that a vendor with no prior relationship has a chance of winning.


TPC: What’s the trend line? Is RFP-driven sourcing becoming more prevalent?

Kutcher: I think the trend in RFPs matches the trend toward businesses using the Internet to conduct business and going online to find vendors outside their local areas. Online business, and RFPs, enable a vendor in western Massachusetts (like my company) to win projects from organizations located in Manhattan, beating out local companies because we can offer superior value and competitive pricing.

Instead of location being one of the primary determining factors, quality, value and ideal fit can be considered first. A well-run RFP process can be the most democratic, meritorious and pragmatic approach to procurement and purchasing, but it all depends on if the process is run well.

rfpdbaselogo
TPC: Does The RFP Database offer tips or tools to help both parties work effectively with RFPs?

Kutcher: We’ve written a number of articles on the subject of RFPs and proposals that can be useful to both issuers and bidders. You can find these articles on our blog.

The RFP Database also can provide help through our sheer library of RFPs. If you’re new to RFP writing, search our site and find some projects that are similar to the one you’re looking to undertake. See what others have done before. Look at how they described their project, their timelines, and get a feel for what you need to have in your own RFP. Call them and find out if they would revise their RFP if they had re-issued the project.

You can also join our LinkedIn group and find some talented RFP writers and strategists to assist you. You shouldn’t feel like you’re reinventing the wheel, and if you need some assistance or have questions, just ask.


TPC: If you had one piece of RFP advice for clients and suppliers, what would it be?

Kutcher: To issuers I would say this: The amount of forethought and effort you put into the process in the beginning will greatly affect the quality and ease of the process and final project.

To suppliers I would echo the words of the Oracle at Delphi: “Know thyself.” If you can clearly articulate why, on paper, you are the best choice for the project, then you really can’t do much more. Don’t fight for being the lowest bidder, the firm that can do it all, or try to wow them with your management team’s bios. Show them that you can rock their project like you’ve rocked lots of similar projects in the past.

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*The comments are both enlightening and entertaining, and we hoped to provide a direct link. But it appears you’ll need to register on AdAge’s site, then subscribe to the Daily News e-newsletter, in order to access the article. If you choose to do so, look for the July 15 issue of the e-newsletter, or search on “Zappos” or “Ignited.”

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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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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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