Use Content Marketing to Establish B2B Thought Leadership

Online Thought LeaderAt our company, my team and I have the pleasure of being involved in a lot of content creation, curation and propagation initiatives. Sometimes, a company is new to content marketing and sees the benefits of being a thought leader/branded authority but they aren’t sure how to get there. In other cases, the company has taken some initial steps towards thought leadership but has plateaued and wants to get to the next level. Either way, there are are six essential questions about content marketing that need to be answered before you get too far along the path.

  1. Can we be industry thought leaders?see the benefits of being a thought leader/branded authority but aren’t sure how to get there.
  2. If so, what do we talk about?
  3. Can we create enough quality content?
  4. How do we get people to read our content?
  5. How do we get people to engage with our company?
  6. How do we measure results and get better over time?

Great questions, yes? The first three should determine your go vs. no-go content marketing strategy and the second three how to make it happen assuming the decision to proceed is affirmative. I’ll cover the first three questions in this article and the final three in the next.

Can we be industry thought leaders? First of all, is it you who is going to be the thought leader, is it several individuals in your company, or is it the company itself? And do you have enough knowledge and stature to be a credible industry spokesperson? By the way, the fact that you don’t have these attributes going in isn’t a show stopper. There have been many cases of individuals who are relatively unknown who emerge within a year or two as well-followed and well-respected industry opinion leaders.

What do we talk about? This is the key question. As mentioned above, you need to have “perceived” expertise in a specific area (hopefully backed up by genuine expertise). However this must be matched by another factor: There must be a sufficient enough number of people interested in your topic area that are willing to read or listen to what you have to say; and this audience should provide real business value. In the business world, it is not enough that people find you interesting – you want them to engage and either buy something or encourage others to do so.

Assuming you have the critical audience numbers, try to avoid the temptation to be just another voice spouting the same content. While this may seem like a safe path, it is rarely a good idea to be perceived as just like your competitors. You need to create a perception of differentiation. To establish yourself and/or your company as a branded authority, you will first have to decide the breadth of your focus. Marketing yourself with a very broad focus (e.g. general practitioner) is a different proposition than a narrow niche focus (e.g. specialist). There is truth to the statement, “the riches are in niches” and across most industries, those who have a reputation for specialization earn more and face less competitive pressure.

How do we create enough quality content? Let’s talk about your options for quantity and quality of content. People naturally feel angst about creating a steady stream of fresh worthy content. As a book author and eight-year blogger, I agree – this is not easy. You may need to opt either for a more consistent flow of okay (decent) content or go for a model where you produce fewer pieces of content of higher quality. A good example of this is the type of evergreen content I write for CustomerThink – in-depth articles of 1000-1500 words that are meant to be “evergreen.” By this I mean the content will still be valid and useful for years to come.

An alternative to creating your own content is to become a content curator. Content curation is the process of discovering, compiling and propagating (sharing) content in a particular subject area. The key is to present content that is fresh, relevant and high quality. Many content curators present externally discovered content alongside their own. For example, our GreatB2BMarketing blog not only contains my original posts but also a “Guest Experts” section where we reproduce articles from smart people in the B2B marketing industry.

You can either create (or curate) the content yourself or hire consultants to do this for you – but either way, don’t underestimate the amount of time and effort required. Fortunately, there are some useful (and sometimes free) tools to help you either find ideas for original content or curate third-party content.

Content Marketing Tools:

Buzzsumo: Very easy to use and free. Just input your search term and Buzzsumo shows you the top content in terms of engagement and shares. This tool will help you find topic areas that have high potential marketplace interest.

Buzzsumo

Quora: This is a question and answer site to learn about what people are talking and writing about. As with Buzzsumo, you simply type your search term and Quora will show you all the content on that particular subject. You can also ask your own questions and get answers from a wide variety of experts (and not-so-much experts).

Hashtagify: While primarily used for Twitter marketing, you can use Hashtagify to find great keyword ideas for keywords to use in your blog posts. For example, the top hastags identified when you start with “B2B Marketing” are: sales, digital marketing, content marketing, marketing, SMM and CMO.

SEMrush: This is a great tool for figuring out what your website (and your competitors’ sites) really looks like to search engines in terms of organic and paid search. This will give you some ideas not only for articles and blogs, but also helps to ensure that your website content portrays your core message.

Hootsuite: Hootsuite is well known as a social media management program but you can also use it to track what industry leaders are saying about a particular topic or series of topics. This can be a great source for tracking and socializing curated content.

For more thoughts about B2B content marketing, read my recent CustomerThink article titled, 6 Keys to Transform Your Marketing Content from Subpar to Superior. And stay tuned for my next post where I will answer the final three questions about content marketing and content curation.

Boost Your Success with B2B Marketing Systems

Marketing SystemI’ve been reading a lot about the benefits of systemization in business, including the eMyth Revisited by Michael Gerber and Work the System by Sam Carpenter. Both books, which I highly recommend, teach the doctrine of working “on your business”, not just “in your business”.  And what is true for general business is just as true for marketing systems.

By a “marketing systems approach”, I will borrow from what Josh Kaufman wrote in the foreword to Work the System: “Fundamentally, every business is a system: a collection of processes that, together, reliably produces an intended result. The more you focus on improving your business systems, the better results you’ll produce. It’s as simple as that.”

Yes it is as simple, and powerful as that. There are dozens of functions/tasks that can benefit from a documented marketing systems approach. A few examples include: sending press releases, posting blogs, web content, creating buyer personas, managing an online or live event, developing case studies, creative briefs, lead follow-up, and much more. As just one example, following is a partial list of procedures for sending out an email:

  1. Establish goals for the program
  2. Set-up the campaign in your MA/email system
  3. Compile the list
  4. Craft the offer
  5. Create the email template
  6. Write the email text
  7. Edit/proof the email text
  8. Create and testing a landing page
  9. Test on multiple email clients
  10. Test the salutation
  11. Test each link
  12. Test the auto response email
  13. Launch the campaign

As mentioned, this is only a partial list but each one of these tasks, if not performed correctly, can create significant problems. This is where the expression “The devil is in the details” comes from. How often do you get an email where you are addressed as Dear [firstname], or where the links are broken or the landing page has serious flaws? All of these errors can be partially or fully eliminated if procedures are consistently followed. But they can’t be followed if they aren’t documented.

Benefits of a Marketing Systems Approach

A well-documented set of marketing systems can help you:

  • Maximize your time. The systems approach is all about doing things correctly the first time, with little need for do-overs. This should allow you more time to spend on the things that you enjoy and create more value to the business.
  • Require less supervision. You should write your procedures so a relatively inexperienced person can complete a task without direct management.
  • Lessen your dependency on each individual. Have you been in a situation where only Suzy or only Tom knows how to complete an essential task and they are not available? Written procedures are the answer to being held hostage by anyone’s presence.
  • Reduce the error rate. Just like the earlier email example, following procedures can eliminate many common mistakes
  • Save money and aggravation. A former colleague told me a sad tale about how their company paid a large penalty (thousands) for using an unauthorized photo in a blog post. Our blog post creation checklist would have prevented this because there is a line item requiring that the source of each graphic be verified.

I’ll leave you with two non-marketing examples of how systems (or a lack thereof) can help or hurt a business. From the positive side: every time I leave the gym where I work out, the person behind the counter bids me farewell, saying something like “Thanks for coming” or “Have a great day”. I’d like to think this is because they only hire really nice people, but the fact is – this is an operating procedure (system) of the business. When a customer leaves, they are always given a friendly goodbye. Not sometimes, but always.

The negative example is a hotel my wife and I stayed at recently. There were two problems: The coffee basket contained two packages of decaf but no high-test coffee and there was no shampoo.  Although this is a hotel in a city we visit quite often, we will never stay there again–all because their housekeepers did not have a system in place to put the right items in each room they cleaned. They probably get it right most of the time, but a disciplined and documented system would ensure they get it right every time. And the difference between “every time” and “most of the time” can be the difference between being a market leader and a failed business.

6 key Rules to Expand Your B2B Marketing Influence

Marketing Influence NetworkingMarketing influence is a timeless subject but the ways we capture and communicate are constantly evolving. I originally wrote about this subject in 2011 and updated the material for my 2015 book, Winning B2B Marketing . And whether you are a one-person consulting shop, work for a mega corporation, or anything in between, you need to constantly expand your Circle of Marketing Influence.

Starting with your organization at the core, everyone that you can possibly do business with can be pinpointed somewhere in relation to the center.  As those individuals in the outer reaches of our marketing influence are brought closer, they become part of your inner circle. Those nearest to the core are friends, former colleagues, loyal customers, prospects in an active sales cycle and others you have direct influence on. Those farthest away comprise your total addressable market (TAM) but many or most of them may not even know that you exist.

Traditional lead-to-revenue (L2R) models track this movement through the marketing and sales sequence using terminology such as suspects, leads, qualified prospects, opportunities and customers. The idea is to locate individual suspects in the larger universe (TAM) and convince them to engage and then make a purchase. By contrast, in today’s pull marketing world, the idea is to broadcast powerful and consistent messages to the cyber universe and give people good reasons to engage with you. The key point is that prospects choose to engage with you – you do not have to chase after them. And they are much more likely to engage if they are already in your sphere of influence.

Over time, the inner- and middle circles grow as people become closer to you. Because you are providing the right message at the right time, people are educating themselves and they willingly engage – not because of the persistence and brilliance of your sales people and you pushing yourself on them, but rather because they actually need your products or services and are searching for a solution. The complexity of the sales process decreases, the sales cycle shrinks and your close rate goes up. This is what we call a winning trifecta!

Let’s take a look at how the circle of influence relates to your business.  The Inner circle is comprised of your key influence group including employees, partners, customers, active prospects, personal contacts, and blog contributors. The Middle circle is the moderate influence group and includes contact lists, blog readers, suspects, social media followers, group members (e.g. LinkedIn), affiliates, industry experts, press, and analysts. The Outer circle is the low influence group and includes your potential prospect universe/TAM including email lists, direct marketing lists, occasional blog readers, media readers, and suspects.

The Starting Point: Where you are today Marketing Influence Before

This first graphic shows where you may be in your current evolution as a company or individual, particularly if you are in a fairly new business. Sadly, even some older companies have a small circle of marketing influence. In this case, the size of your inner circle and contact lists are small in relation to the entire prospect universe (total addressable market). And it is also true that marketing is usually more expensive at this stage (relatively speaking) because you often have to spend marketing funds to first educate suspects before turning them into prospects. In fact, even though your goal is to build a strong push model, it may be necessary to do a fair amount of push marketing at this stage.

The End Game: Where you are going

Marketing Influence AfterThis second graphic illustrates the impact of how your consistent marketing and targeted outreach efforts will help you grow the number of key influencers and moderate influencers. Over time, these parts of the circle of influence will become a rich source of low-cost qualified prospects and customers. Also important to your fiscal health – your marketing campaigns can evolve from push marketing to pull marketing and you will generate leads and new customers at a much lower acquisition cost. In our practice we’ve seen the impact of building up the marketing influence database as it results in a two-third reduction in cost-per-lead over a two year period.

Rules for Expanding Your Circle of Influence

We’ve talked about the why, let’s now discuss the how. Follow these six rules to expand your marketing influence.

  1. Be intentional.  Amazing how I meet someone who has 300 LinkedIn contacts and they tell me their goal is to expand their network to produce better results. My advice to that person is to start today and add relevant connections throughout the year, with a goal of 500 connections (adding one per business day). A year later, I look at their profile and they have 320 connections. I call these accidental connections because a few people will connect even if you take no action.
  2. Be methodical. Expanding your circle of influence takes time and a bit of work, but not so much time or effort if you spread the effort out. To start, block 2-3 hours per week on your calendar to devote exclusively to social media and network building. The investment will take a bit of time to pay off, but it will pay off.
  3. Be available. Don’t ignore your network and then scramble to catch up when you need something. We all have those people in our lives who only reach out when they want something (job, reference, etc.) but are otherwise silent.
  4. Be valuable. If you have content to share, make sure it’s the good stuff not just a rehash of what everyone else is offering. Not to say that you need to give away your trade secrets but it is usually better to offer something unique.
  5. Be generous. Following up on the previous rule, you should willingly share information, references, comments, compliments, congratulations and so forth. You are planting seeds for the future.  Just like with real seeds, some will produce fruit and some will fall on barren ground. The point is that you have no idea which seeds are which – so do not try to be Machiavellian about your networking. If you are available and add value to enough people, you will gain in return. That’s the way life works, both at home and the office.
  6. Be realistic. Good networking is about quality of communication but it is also about quantity. If you wait until the perfect opportunity to reach out, you may have to wait a long time. The point is to communicate often enough to remain top of mind (without being annoying).

The Circle of Marketing Influence is an excellent way to remember that your mission in B2B marketing is to continually expand the number of people who know what you do and why you are the obvious choice in your market.

Porter Gale wrote a book titled “Your network is Your Net Worth”.The title really says it all.  Build your network, expand your influence and reap the benefits.

When It Comes to Marketing, Should you be Credible or Incredible?

Marketing CredibilityI got the idea for this post when listening to one of our Fusion Marketing Partners’ clients present at a webinar. The company official who presented was not particularly dynamic or polished but he did a great job of presenting the information in a thoughtful and logical manner and he definitely had what I term “marketing credibility”. As someone who studies and practices communication for clients and our own company, I read and listen to many so-called gurus who represent themselves as experts in their space.

Here are some statements I have heard or read recently that fall into the incredible category:

  • “Our xxxx software always outperforms our competition.”
  • “Our special xxxxx supplementation is guaranteed to make you lose weight”
  • “We have 100 percent customer satisfaction.”
  • “My normal consulting rate is $10,000 per day” (but you can join my private coaching group for only $500).
  • This timeshare will probably go up in value big time.
  • “Buy this stock now because it will double in price within six months.”

Don’t know about you but I tired of these incredible claims. And yes, I did once buy a timeshare and learned a painful lesson (fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice and shame on me). Yes, people fall for these claims and yes (with a few limitations) it is pretty much a free market where you can say anything you want. But unless your goal is short-term sales, regardless of the cost in brand reputation, it’s best to be in the credible camp. I wrote an earlier post on the subject of incredible marketing claims.

Our goal when building marketing credibility and thought leadership for clients is to help prospects and customers know, likeCredible vs incredible and trust the client. Perhaps the third of these attributes (trust) is most important. People who know you and like you will still not buy from you if they don’t trust you.  Here are six strategies to build and keep trust and credibility:

  1. Be honest.   In every situation. This is so important because once lost, trust is hard to regain. We marketers are trained to put our best foot forward and to project the most optimistic picture of our product and/or services. But beware of making statements that are so outlandish that other things you say, even if true, are questioned.
  2. Meet your commitments. I have a professional services provider I have been working with for many years regarding dozens of different matters. Yet the past six months have been one missed deadline and one unfulfilled promise after another. I reluctantly (and sadly) have to say goodbye to this provider because their credibility well has run dry.
  3. Admit your weaknesses. Again, this is hard for us marketers but it does help you connect with, and build bridges to, your client.
  4. Take the high road. Factual statements about your strengths vs. the competition are fine, but make sure you are more focused on why you are better instead of why the other company is bad. When you go on the attack, you may damage your opponent but sometimes do more damage to your own reputation. When in doubt, keep it positive!
  5. Hold your fire. Even if you take the high road, there is no guarantee that you and/or your company won’t be on the receiving end of someone else’s criticism/vitriol. As I painfully learned earlier in my career, it is usually better to let things pass than engage and escalate the situation (exactly what the critic wants you to do). Yes there are exceptions to this rule – no one likes a doormat.
  6. Be genuine. This is a tough one because when you are communicating, you have a tendency to want to please the people you are communicating to and tell them what you think they want to hear. But remember that the biggest rewards go to those who are seen as unique and special, not to those who imitate others or are always saying what’s convenient or flatters the listener. In this world of imitators and false prophets in the marketplace, a “real” person is always the preferable partner.

I’ll leave you with a really good quote from Ann Voskamp about credibility in writing: “Good writing, from my perspective, runs a lot like a visual on the screen. You need to create that kind of detail and have credibility with the reader, so the reader knows that you were really there, that you really experienced it, that you know the details. That comes out of seeing. “

I think Ann is saying that when it comes to credibility, seeing is believing. People with marketing credibility give their supporters (and their detractors!) observable evidence that they’re up-front, honest and dependable. And they never forget that in the long-term, being credible almost always beats being “incredible”.

 

 

Boost Revenue with the Right B2B Marketing Funnel

Marketing FunnelOne of the most important decisions to be made when designing a lead-to-revenue (L2R) strategy is the type of B2B marketing funnel model to support your revenue goals. There are lots of permutations but fundamentally, it comes down to a choice between two major flavors: wide or narrow funnel. I’ve talked to CEO’s who want a large number high-quality leads at a low cost-per-lead. While this sounds great in theory, there is almost always a trade-off between quantity and quality – unless you are willing to spend exorbitant sums to achieve this goal.

Let’s explain by taking a closer look at the two funnel models. Note that I have simplified the number of steps involved but this should still give you the idea.B2B Marketing Funnel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wide Funnel – Type A: As the graphic illustrates, this type of funnel is designed to create lots of activity early in the lead-to-revenue process by casting a wider net. The goal is to get lots of suspects to opt-in, and use personal (usually telephone) or automated methods to qualify suspects and turn them into prospects. You ask for very little information (e.g. name and email address) in order to encourage response and your content offer is targeted at those who are earlier in their buyer’s journey. In this model, you attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff after the opt-in.

Narrow Funnel – Type B: This funnel model is narrow at the top, because the goal is to generate fewer opt-ins – but with a much higher average quality than type A. To accomplish this, you offer content that is useful for prospects that are closer to a buying decision and you ask for lots of information from the prospect. This will definitely reduce response from those who are early in the buyer’s journey and in this model, you attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff before the opt-in.

Note what the two B2B marketing funnels have in common. First, you still have to go through the same qualification and selling steps and once the leads are qualified, you should achieve the same conversion metrics with either model. In other words, you can be just as productive with either model from a revenue standpoint. Second, the costs to fill the top of the funnel may be the same with either model, although you can save some expense because of the reduced cost of personal lead qualification on the narrow funnel.

Funnel B has the advantage of keeping your inside and direct sales reps focused on prospects that are more likely to buy in the short-term. This is because you are using your marketing messaging and opt-in process to discourage those not currently in the market for your products or services. However, the narrow funnel has a huge disadvantage – you don’t get to keep talking to the people who opted-in but were not yet ready to engage.

Using the examples above – if you implement Funnel B, there are 600 inquiries that you don’t get a chance to nurture and convert into qualified leads at a later date. And remember, once you have paid for the initial acquisition, you can often convert these prospects into opportunities at little or no cost. Our experience shows that you can often get another 50-75% sales downstream from the pool of those not ready to engage in the short-term. Again, using the above numbers, this would cost you another 10-15 sales.

So which B2B Marketing funnel is right for you? For the reasons mentioned in the two preceding paragraphs, I usually recommend the wide funnel (type A), but there are exceptions. Best to carefully consider the ramifications of each approach and make the right decision before you lock in your marketing programs.

Use Pull Marketing for Easier and More Productive B2B Sales

Pull MarketingIn a recent conversation, a B2B sales rep told me something to the effect: “I hate my job because no one wants to talk to me. They don’t answer the phone, they don’t return my voice messages, and they almost never respond to my emails.” He also mentioned the fact that his sales cycles were getting longer, more people were involved in each deal and the entire process was more contentious. Other than that, everything was great (just kidding on this last part!).

This sales rep happens to be a nice person, but being nice is not much solace when you are working in a system that is set up to be adversarial and often painful. The model his company employs is called “push marketing” and the idea is to find out where the suspects are and push our way to them. The opposite end of this spectrum is what my company, Fusion Marketing Partners, practices, “pull marketing”.  Pull marketing is inbound focused – the idea is to get prospects to come to you.

Charles Green wrote a very interesting article about this titled, If Selling Is Too Hard, You’re Doing It Wrong. He talks about how much of selling is a competitive struggle between buyer and seller: “When we think this way, we spend an awful lot of energy. It’s hard work—particularly because much of it is spent trying to persuade customers to do what we (sellers) want them to do. And getting other people to do what we want them to do is never easy (if you have a teenager and/or a spouse, you know this well).

I’ve seen sales training where reps are encouraged to use aggressive and high pressure tactics on prospects. This is definitely a push model. From a marketing perspective, push tactics include cold calls and emails, overly forceful sales letters, and unsolicited pitches. LinkedIn has become a hotbed for aggressive sales tactics and this has caused many otherwise open networkers to be much more careful about accepting new connection requests.

Pull marketing is a great antidote to this competitive struggle because you are more often dealing with prospects who already have expressed an interest in what you are offering. Instead of hiding, they are more likely to accept the attention of a sales rep. The process becomes one where you help them buy instead of trying to sell them something. After all, most people like to buy but few of us enjoy being sold. A pull-oriented, buyer-centric marketing and sales model is more pleasant (and productive) for both the buyer and the seller.

Following are some of the characteristics of the push vs. pull models.

Push vs Pull Marketing

By the way, there are often instances where we can’t find enough pull traffic to fill the sales pipeline and we then use some push marketing methods to meet lead and revenue objectives – adding push marketing tactics over time. At the end of the day, pull marketing creates an environment of cooperation between the buyer and the seller so reps feel like they’re contributing to a win-win outcome, not endlessly bugging prospects who have no desire to talk. B2B sales reps (like the friend I mentioned above) love this change in marketing strategy because they see an easier, more enjoyable and more profitable light at the end of the tunnel.      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Be a Branding Rock Star

Branding Rock StarTo paraphrase the Dicken’s classic, A Tale of Two Cities, I’ll cover the best of branding and the worst of branding, starting with the worst. I read a Chicago Tribune article two weeks ago about how the company that owns Devry University is changing its name to Adtalem Global Education.  The rebranding comes just months after DeVry University agreed to pay $100 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit alleging it misled tens of thousands of students about their post-graduation job and income prospects.

Just in case you are wondering, the company says that the new name comes from a Latin translation of the phrase “to empower” and also says the rebranding has nothing to do with current legal difficulties.  According to Adtalem CEO Lisa Wardell, the new name “makes clear our purpose to empower students and our status as a global education provider.”

It’s hard to believe the timing of the rebrand was totally divorced from the hit to the company’s reputation but even if it were true, I’m puzzled as to why they chose the name Adtalem. Many companies (including those with big budgets) do a very poor job of rebranding and sometimes end up with a name more puzzling than the original name.  Here are three lessons to be learned from this particular rebranding exercise:

  1. Don’t call your company (or product) something that requires a Latin translation. I’m sure “Adtalem” seemed very chic when the powers that be bantered around names in the conference room. Perhaps the person who suggested the name even got a bonus for his or her creativity but it doesn’t seem like good branding to me.
  2. Don’t name your company after your dog, a Greek god, your child’s teddy bear, a blending of the founders’ names, or anything else that causes prospects to ask: What the heck does this company do?
  3. Unless you have strong venture funding and/or the type of story that drives viral awareness, pick a name that is at least somewhat descriptive of what you do.

AOL’s Branding Roller Coaster

Perhaps the best rebranding occurred in the 1990’s, when a little-known company (at that time) changed its name from Quantum Computer Services to America Online (AOL). I had some dealings with Quantum/AOL at that time and thought then and now that the rebranding was simply brilliant. What better way to express the fact that you were an American company whose goal it was to bring the entire country (world) online?

I am bringing up the AOL rebranding from a couple of decades ago because of its tie to current news. As reported by theVerge.com: The next chapter in Yahoo’s strange journey from cornerstone of the early internet to aged Verizon subsidiary is a bold rebranding. After  Business Insider first reported on a potential Yahoo name change, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong tweeted  to confirm the details: “It’s now official: After the Verizon deal closes and it gains control of Yahoo’s core web assets, Yahoo and AOL will merge to form a new entity called Oath.”

This name change is getting plenty of attention and a lot of it is unflattering. And it’s kind of sad to see a company with that many resources do such a poor job of branding.

Be a Branding Rock Star

If you really want to see some examples of branding rock stardom, let’s look at some bands with mediocre names that hugely benefited from new names.

  • MAROON 5 started life as Kara’s Flowers
  • VAN HALEN’s original Name was Rat Salad
  • NIRVANA began as Pen Cap Chew
  • LINKIN PARK’s original Name was Xero
  • BLACK SABBATH was first known as Polka Tulk Blues Band
  • THE WHO began as The High Numbers

The exact impact of the name change for any of these bands is impossible to measure. But common sense tells us that the new band names are way more valuable than the old names. And the moral of the story: When it comes to branding, be a Van Halen and not a Rat Salad. Be an America Online and not an Oath.

If you would like a quick way to evaluate the health of your brand, take the free online Brand Health Assessment and Scorecard. 

Niche Marketing: Four Rules to Guide Your Success

Niche MarketingFirst things first – what do I mean by the term niche marketing?  Our friends at Wikipedia say that niche marketing is “the subset of the market on which a specific product is focused. The market niche defines as the product features aimed at satisfying specific market needs, as well as the price range, production quality and the demographics that is intended to impact.” BusinessDictionary.com has a great take on this: “As a strategy, niche marketing is aimed at being a big fish in a small pond instead of being a small fish in a big pond.”

I’ve had execs from B2B companies complain that they just aren’t getting any traction in their market. They are faced with larger competitors that have a lot more people and dollars to devote to marketing and sales. Often, the problem is not just the competition but also the fact that their internal resources are spread across too many product lines, too many industries, too many messages, and so forth. Unless you have more money and time than you know what to do with, you are probably best off to heed the words of those who proclaim: “The riches are in the niches”.

Here are five benefits of being a marketing specialist instead of generalist:

  1. It is much easier to showcase your expertise if you focus on specific niches. Niche marketers need to work hard to stay on top of their games instead of belting out generic platitudes.
  2. As a specialist, you have the opportunity to stand out from the crowd and show empathy and understanding for your target prospects.
  3. You can charge higher prices and achieve better margins. There is a premium to be gained when you have a specialized solution.
  4. More brand loyalty. Customers love companies who specialize in fulfilling their unique requirements and will reward such firms with allegiance and high margin revenue.
  5. Greater levels of expertise. The more you focus on your niche, the more your expertise (real and perceived) will blossom.

The potential disadvantage to B2B niche marketing is that by defining precisely what you are, you are also defining what you are not (everything else). This can limit your ability to scale your market presence or force you to undertake an expensive rebranding program. Better to figure this out early. And if you organize your web presence correctly (e.g. by utilizing micro sites) you can cast both a fairly wide marketplace net while still appealing to profitable niches.

Here are four important rules for niche marketing:

  1. Don’t muddy your message. Hone in like a laser on what makes you unique and special and most importantly, what your prospects and customers need to know to have a better professional and/or personal life.
  2. Align the rest of the organization around the marketing message. Niche marketing doesn’t mean just throwing some industry-specific keywords onto your website. Your product strategy, service plan and sales model need to be in sync.
  3. Stay one step ahead of your customers. As a player in a specialized business game, you had better understand the rules and trends of that game. You don’t have to know everything, but you must know enough to be seen as a trusted authority.
  4. Stop trying to be the best. This is not the most intuitive advice but makes sense when you ponder it. One of my favorite business thinkers is Michael Porter, noted economist, business adviser and business professor at Harvard. Porter urges companies to stop trying to follow the herd by being the best (when measured by what other firms do) and instead strive to be different. Read this HBR article for more on this subject.

One other smart thinker when it comes to niche marketing is noted copywriter Bob Bly, who stated in a recent article, “The secret to making more money as a copywriter … author … consultant … speaker … freelance writer … independent contractor … Internet marketer … or in virtually any other business on Earth – is to become a highly paid specialist — and pick a lucrative niche market with huge demand and limited competition.”

Go forth and Get Rich in Your Niche!

 

Eight Critical Brand Health Questions You Should Be Asking

Brand HealthComplacency is a deadly risk to the health of your brand.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of my job is helping B2B clients “brand” their companies, products (or services) and create a personal brand for executives.  I’ve written a lot about the subject of branding, including my recent article for CustomerThink titled, Six Steps to Ensure Your Brand Strategy Supports Your Lead-to-Revenue Framework. Because this subject is so critical to most company’s revenue and growth, I thought I would share answers to eight critical branding questions that directly affect the health and well-being of your company:

  1. How important is brand health to my company’s success? My obvious answer, with a few exceptions, is that it is extremely important. As a former colleague once told me, “Do you think it would sell as well if they called it ‘cold dead fish’ instead of sushi?” Great companies work hard to create and maintain a positive brand image and it pays off big time. Visit the Brand Health Scorecard for a quick way to measure your brand health.
  1. What can we do if we sound just like everyone else? The first answer is: Don’t be like everyone else. The second answer is: Do whatever it takes to differentiate your company, products and services from a marketing perspective and then go make this happen company-wide. But don’t change the branding if you aren’t prepared to make the other changes that reinforce the brand.
  1. Should we brand using a narrow or wide focus? Most of the time we advocate a more narrow focus. As they say, there are “riches in niches”. However, there is a big caveat. Don’t brand yourself so narrowly that it boxes in your ability to expand in the future. This can be a delicate balance that requires a lot of time and attention.
  1. What are the biggest branding mistakes companies make? I see so many mistakes that it’s hard to pick just a few. Perhaps the biggest is failing to take the issue seriously and complete due diligence on your brand decisions. Many go forward with a weak or even a harmful brand. Another fatal flaw is to let ego override a good branding advice – e.g. “I don’t care what the experts say, I want to name this company after my dog.” Don’t laugh – this type of thing happens every day.  A third mistake is to do a good job in top-line branding but fail to follow through on the rest of the company’s messaging. You know this is a problem when people look at your website and say, “What they heck does this company do?”
  1. How do we know if our brand is working? Here are five ways to tell:
  • Results: If you are losing market share and leaking revenue, there is a good chance that your branding deserves some of the blame.
  • Quantity: How often are people talking about your company and its products or services?
  • Quality: Who is talking about you and what are they saying?
  • Website traffic: Are you getting more unique visitors and do they spend more time on site? A decline in either of these numbers is a bad sign.
  • Congruence is a customer experience (CX) measurement that indicates whether the current brand aligns with your customers’ experience from initial contact through usage of the product or service. Net Promoter Score (NPS) is another way to measure this. 
  1. What is the risk of ignoring the issues surrounding our brand health? Of course, there is the option to “do nothing”. Complacency and inertia are strong forces that are very difficult to overcome, especially if you have achieved a modicum of success in the past. The biggest factor driving change should be (as mentioned in #5) a stagnant or declining sales pipeline and waning revenue.
  1. Does my company need one or more thought leaders? Great question indeed. The answer is yes, but only if you have a credible executive, who has worthwhile things to say, and will share his/her thoughts on a regular basis. Of course it helps if that individual can be depended upon not to jump ship to the competition. Such an individual is like gold and is far preferable than content coming from a generic source such as “marketing” or “admin”.
  1. How do we fix an under-performing brand? Before attempting any type of brand improvement, it is a good idea to know where you currently stand. Brand ScorecardA good way to find out is with the free Brand Health Scorecard. The scorecard measures six different categories of brand performance. It will take you only a few minutes to complete the questionnaire and the results will start you on the path to brand success.

Moving Up the Relationship Hierarchy

Marketing RelationshipYou often hear marketing and sales pros talk about how to turn vendor interactions into meaningful relationships. I find it rewarding to work with our clients to implement strategies that move these relationships from being considered a vendor at one end, to a partner at the other. In some instances, the relationship will spend some time in the consultant and trusted advisor modes as the intermediate steps. And while this hierarchy model is generally thought to refer to services organizations, it can also apply to product companies – especially if there is a service component involved.

The following chart shows various relationship attributes and how they apply when you are at different levels of the Value Hierarchy. As you can see, the further up the food chain you go, the greater the rewards. In fact, a trusted advisor or partner can often command 5-10 times the compensation of a vendor.

Mladen Kresic, CEO of K&R Negotiations (and noted sales negotiation expert), has a great perspective on the hierarchy as it applies to sales in his recent blog post, Breaking the Master/Servant Sales Relationship. Kresic stated, “Moving from the master/servant paradigm isn’t about gaining the upper hand in a brute power scenario, but rather about moving to a peer-to-peer relationship where mutual benefit flows from mutual respect and acknowledgment of exchanged value. From our experience, the master/servant trap is an easy one to fall into, even with some of the world’s top-tier service organizations.” The “servants” Mr. Kresic is referring to are definitely stuck at the vendor end of the spectrum.

So what can you do to get to the top of the food chain and stay there? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Never take your place in the hierarchy for granted. Whether it is your spouse, your marketing peers, your business partner, or your client, you need to continue to earn their trust.
  2. Under promise and over deliver. We have a tendency when dealing with a new customer/client to say things to please them. I got in trouble a couple of times earlier in my career by telling the CEO or VP of Sales, “I’m sure we can deliver all the leads you want.” Yes I knew that hitting the lead target would be difficult, but I wanted to please and score a few points.
  3. Be impeccable about deadlines. Having hired many vendors and consultants in my career as a marketing executive – a few of whom became trusted advisors or partners – the one thing that separated the latter from the former was the way they either met, or did not meet, their deadlines. No one likes to chase you to do what you already promised to do.
  4. Go the extra mile. Yes, this is another cliché, but your willingness to do the unexpected and unasked for, can be a huge contributor to the strength of the relationship.
  5. Listen. Yes, your relationship is based on some type of commerce. But your customer/client is also a human, with all the goodness and baggage that entails. If he or she considers you a trusted advisor or partner, they may share both negative and positive parts of their work or personal life that have little to do with your existing contract. You may be tempted to brush this off to get back to the business at hand, but resist the temptation, open your ears and close your mouth (unless asked to do otherwise). It will be an investment that pays off for you and your client.
  6. Stay in touch. Regardless of how your relationship ends, stay in touch with your ex-clients/customers. Send them useful articles; make yourself available for quick calls, comment on their social media posts, and whatever else you can do to be of assistance. Some of our best clients have been with us while with multiple companies. They have become friends and I believe they consider my team and me to be trusted advisors and partners.

If I had to sum up these six strategies in a single overriding concept it would be: Always make the relationship as important, or more so, than the transaction.