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Building a Corporate Persona is the Key to Differentiating Your Company

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Take out a piece of paper, and write down what you think makes your company different from its competitors.  Now, Google your competitors and see if you can tell the difference between what you wrote, and how they describe themselves.  If it sounds the same, keep reading.

Let’s say you’re the CEO of a fortune 500 company looking for some advice.  Two top tier global consulting firms are recommended, and based on their website descriptions of “Who They Are” which one would you chose?

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Can’t decide?  That’s the challenge I’m talking about.  Although one firm uses “advisors”, they are describing what the firms do, not who they are, and as you can see, the sound the same.  If some of the smartest guys in the business are getting it wrong, and they’re the “advisors to the world’s leading businesses” you shouldn’t feel bad.

Why is it so hard?   There are two key reasons; the first being in B2B, we are conditioned to think that what we do is who we are.   It’s the Achilles heel of effective marketing communications, the bad habit of over communicating and focusing what you sell (what you do) versus who you are (what makes you different).

Making things worse is when B2B marketers talk about the value of what their company does, they use terms associated with business value, the functional benefit or business outcome of the product or service being sold (e.g. increase revenue, reduce cost, retain customers, etc.).  It’s non-differentiating because competitors use the same language, and that’s the second major challenge to overcome.

Over the years, marketing communication has evolved from talking about how great the company was to talking about what it does for customers.  Thankfully the “we’re number 1″ days are over but unfortunately, the “what we do for customers” has been defined by what the company sells.  It is time to evolve again and speak to more about the “DNA” of the organization.  Research from CEB has shown that buyers figure out what companies sell (what you do) relatively quickly.  It takes them much longer to figure out why they should buy from one company or another.

And surprisingly, when they do make the decision, it often has little to do with “business value” of the product or service itself, and more to do with the emotional connection they feel to it, or to your brand.  Buyers are not the rational beings we once thought, they do business with businesses for very personal reason, according to the CEB research.  As a result, they want to get to know the company as well as they know the product or service.

So, how do you “humanize” the company? Here are some tips to get your started:

  • Ask customers – sounds obvious, but rarely happens.  Ask them why they do business with your organization and others.  You might be surprised by what you’ll learn; it may have nothing to do with your products or services. Use this information to communicate back to them “who you are” in the language and context that is meaningful to them.
  • Survey employees – this may help uncover why the organization can’t get on the same page when it comes to defining the company.  Employees have a tendency to define the company and what it does, based on their own experience with the products they know, and customers they serve.  As a result, they have a myopic view of the organization.  You will find multiple views on your value, and the type of company you are, across your organization.
  • Decide on the type of company you are – pick up a copy of Michael Treacy’s Discipline of Market Leaders.  In it, Treacy and Fred Wiersema define three value proposition types based on business models; Operational Excellence, Product Leadership, and Customer Intimacy.  Use this framework as a starting point to define your organization and its’ language.  It also helps get everyone on the same page.

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  • Create a persona – once you have consensus on the type of organization and its value to customers, it is time to figure how to differentiate it.  In this step, use brand archetypes to help define the company persona. Here’s a free list of 40 archetypes.  Create a working session and have the group discuss how the company views the world, how it reacts to bad or good news, how it speaks — what is the tone?  Keep the conversation away from what the company makes or does, and on the organization itself.

Buyers have changed.  They want to know who you are, because they already know what you do.  And they’re looking for a little of themselves in your brand.  Relate to them on a human level.  Tell them who you are in a way that connects with them. If you do, it will differentiated you, because like people, no two organizations are exactly alike.

Numero UNO: gyro B2B Agency of the Year

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I joined gyro in 2010.  At that time we were called GyroHSR, and were a collection of 9 small to mid-size agencies from around the world that were part of a roll-up.  We didn’t share a common language, system or culture.  What held us together was a vision of being the world’s best B2B agency.

The first year was challenging.  I came into the ad business from the outside.  My experience had been consulting and marketing services.  I naively thought it would be an easy transition, that my world and this world weren’t that far apart.  I was wrong.  Everything seemed to have a learning curve, I spoke a different language and the other side of my brain, long neglected, needed to be developed.

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Over the next two years almost everything would change.  We dropped the “HSR” and became known solely as gyro.  Our investors brought in a new management team and our new CEO & Chief Creative Officer, Christoph Becker would completely remake our creative teams across the network.  But most importantly, Christoph would change our culture, our language and our focus.  And along the way, the right side of my brain began to develop.

During this time, we undertook two intiatives that I think have set us up for the success that we are enjoying today.  The first, was that we believed that “b2b marketing” as we knew it, was “dead”.  Targeting a business buyer by a title, at a business address, during business hours, was an antiquated concept.  We would later prove that to be the case with our @Work State of Mind research conducted with academic institutions and Forbes (click here for the research report).

The second was that ideas needed to be “humanly relevant”.  That behind every business decision maker was a person, and that person made decisions based on emotions.  Our research would show that the buyers journey was, in fact, a very rational process up until the point of the decision…and then emotions took over.

It became easy to differentiate ourselves from competitors, and clients/prospects believed in what we preaching.  As the wins starting coming, our culture started to align around what we call UNO.  One language, one process, one culture, we became unified across the network.  Client teams from across the world began working together to deliver the best ideas and outputs, regardless of the location.  Our work starting winning awards, and the world started to notice.

What’s different about BtoB magazine award today, isn’t necessarily that we’ve been recognized, gyro has won awards in the past.  But rather it’s an external validation point that we are on the right path, and the hard work is paying off.  We won in the “Large” agency category (our first year in that category), going up against the “best of the best,” like Ogilvy.  It’s a litmus test that our vision of being the best B2B agency in the world, and the reason why most of us joined gyro, is being realized, at least in the U.S…and at least for this year.

We not done yet, we still have work to do and clients to dazzle, but for now…we’re Numero UNO, and it feels good.

The Disappearing Sales Process

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Twenty-five years ago, I was a snot-nosed kid out of college who suddenly decided that law school was not in the future.  With a recession on, and needing to pay the rent, I took the first job offered and went into sales.

Having learned nothing about the profession in college, I picked up a copy of Miller Heiman’s Strategic Selling — still have a dog-eared copy on my bookshelf.  I learned everything I could about the buyer types, account management, and the sales process.  “Know the process work the process,” as my first sales manager used to say.

Typically, that process came down to 5-to-7 steps that generally covered the following areas below.

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Over the years, I found that working the process helped give you sense of control.  It came down to the numbers; calls, leads, transaction sizes or conversion rate.  Call on X number of qualified prospects to get Y amount of proposals, at Z close rate, and you made bonus.

But, research from Google and CEB entitled The Digital Evolution in B2B Marketing provides new insight into buyer behavior, and it challenges the conventional wisdom.  According to the study, customers reported to being nearly 60% through the sales process before engaging a sales rep, regardless of price point.   More accurately, 57% of the sales process just disappeared.

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What are buyers doing if they’re not talking to sales?  Well, they’re surfing corporate websites to identify and qualify vendors, instead of the sales forces qualifying them.  They are engaging peers in social media to learn more about their needs, potential solutions, and providers.  And they’re reading, listening to, and watching free digital content that is available to them at the click of a mouse.  No longer is the sales force the sole source of information.

What does this mean for sales and marketing? 

The study recommends focusing efforts in three areas; 1) improve marketing communication integration, 2) develop and activate a content strategy, and 3) strengthen multichannel analytics.  Nothing new or breakthrough here, but the study provides good examples of how companies are executing against each point.

However, I found a number of other points to take from the research.

  1. It is not all bad news – for products or services with low price points and/or margins, having customers self direct themselves through the sales process can help reduce the cost of sale and/or create leverage for the sales force.  In fact, in certain situations an organization will want to encourage and/or incent this behavior.  The research also found that some customers felt comfortable going through 70% of the process before making contact.
  2. Changing buying behavior – an old manager used to say that technology changes fastest, then consumer buyer behavior, and eventually, organizations.  The “57%” stated in the research makes for a good sound bite; the fact is, that number will vary, greatly by customers, transaction, industry, etc.  The point is that change is a constant; the question is how far ahead or behind is your sales and marketing efforts? Are you keeping pace?  The second question is, how would you know?
  3. Content Distribution – as the study notes, the sales force is still the most effective and important communication channel.  When developing the content strategy ensure that the best and/or most valuable content is not in the public domain, reserve it for the sales force.
  4. Time to Take Social Media Seriously – with well-informed prospects, sales reps have to quickly learn what buyers know or perceive about the organization, products/services and competitors.  Social media can help them better understand what is motivating buyers to take action, what buyers believe to be true, and perhaps most importantly, who they believe.

The Future

Business decision makers will continue to drive their buyer process deeper into the sales process.   As a result, relevant content will continue to escalate in value, especially content related to consideration and purchase drivers, and the business application of the product or service.

Social media and monitoring has helped many marketing organizations understand this trend and to make the transition from being content “dictators” to information “facilitators.”

For sales, the research may be an epiphany.  No longer can it be successful focusing solely on an inwardly directed process intended for reporting and planning purposes.

With ever-increasing knowledgeable buyers waiting longer to engage, sales has to transition from being a “product pusher” following a process, to an insight “provider” adding value to the buyers business.  As the study states, sales must deliver “pointed insights and evidence that seek to challenge an entrenched point of view among potential customers.”

Finally, it is time to recognize that we’re not in control, and perhaps we never were.  The traditional sales process is now obsolete; it is now time to follow the buyers’ journey.

5 Reasons Why Pinterest is a Must of Business Marketers

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Pinterest is likely to be the hottest social media platform for business marketers—next year.

Despite the hype and the record-breaking growth rates, Pinterest is not ready for business marketers; the demographics are wrong, the categories are too consumer focused, and there are significant copyright and measurement issues to overcome.

Still, there is ample evidence as to why Pinterest could be huge for business-to-business marketers.  In many ways, Pinterest’s platform has the potential to offer far more value than Facebook and Twitter because of its ability to aggregate and naturally curate content. Here are five areas to watch:

  1. Traffic – Much has been made about Pinterest’s ability to drive referral traffic more than Google+, YouTube and LinkedIn. Traffic generated from pinning and repinning is important but most likely benefits small businesses(in particular, retailers). For larger organizations, the following areas may offer greater potential.
  2. Scannability  Business-to-business communication tends to be content heavy. There is a great deal of written content and it keeps expanding. Much like in the consumer world, business decision makers are becoming far more accustomed to searching visually. The Pinterest platform accelerates the process by aggregating and organizing images by category or theme, making it easy to search. For example, we are redesigning a corporate website for a professional services firm. Its “knowledge center” holds a deep repository of data-rich content and is now being reshaped to look like a Pinterest page to make it more inviting and searchable.
  3. Speed – That’s why it is essential to experiment with Infographics (visit Visual.ly for a starting point). As content becomes more crowded and competitive, audiences typically move faster. The average person reads between 200 to 300 words per minute, but visually it takes only 1/20th of a second to process an image. Mashable’s eye tracking study shows that Pinterest is also changing viewing habits from left to right, to top down the center, improving users’ ability to scan information quickly. Offering a “light visual appetizer” may stop audiences long enough for them to order the full content entrée.
  4. Natural Content Curation – This provides marketers the opportunity to capture deeper insights into audience consumption habits. For example, business marketers tend to organize content along the “buying process,” which is typically defined by steps in the sales process. Marketers may find that business audiences within Pinterest organize and consume content by categories or by a pinboard defined as “applications,” i.e., how they intend to use the product and not how they will buy it. This insight could help define the real purchase path and key influencers (pinners) along that journey.
  5. Affinity Data – As Scott Brave, CTO of Baynote, wrote: “Individual pinning choices are interesting, but there is even greater opportunity to analyze segments of people who express an affinity for a product or category in aggregate.” If available, this information could enable marketers to create new segmentation clusters based on common interests, which could help improve messaging and targeting.

“Clustering” could identify brand advocates, key influencers and connectors, local “hot spots” and new ideas for reaching them.

I realize that there are skeptics out there. I may even end up being one, but as we’ve learned with other social media platforms, if you don’t think there is value for the business marketing, there won’t be. Pinterest holds great potential, but that “potential” will only realized by those who seek to define or dare I say, “pin it.”

B2B Marketers Take Their Seat at the Table

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In 2004, I was part of research project with a professor at the Kellogg School of Management and the CMO Council that sought to understand what CMO’s believed to be critical for their success.  The most common response was a seat at the table with other senior executives.

Four years ago, I was part of another research effort focused on the CMO’s top priorities, and number one on the list was to be viewed by their peers as strategic thinkers.   Finally, I believe the day has come for that to happen.

Marty Homlish, the CMO of HP believes the line between business and consumer marketing is disappearing.  Homlish states,  “ Behind every B-to-B company is a consumer.  The way you communicate to that person is as an informed consumer.”

Technology has allowed work to follow us home and our home life to the office.  It has blurred the line between our personal and business personas.  The concept of being ‘at work’ is now more a state of mind rather than a physical location or particular time of day.

If business buyers – who were once thought of only as rational decision makers – now need to be communicated with as informed and emotional consumers who no longer fit our past perception of work hours and locations, what might this mean for the future of business-to-business marketing?

To answer that question, one must first understand the difference between how business and consumer marketing operate.  According to a Booz & Co and the ANA in The New B2B Marketing Imperative study, B2B marketing has primarily taken an “inside out” approach, focused on the needs of the company and accounts rather than customers.

By contrast, 85% of B2C marketers, who take an “outside in” approach said they were involved in growth initiative decisions which are considered to be strategic such as new market entry, customer relationships and market driven product development.

Additionally, 42% of B2C marketers play a key role in building customer relationships, versus 8% of business marketers.  B2B marketers said that “Customers are rarely driving the process and their input is seldom integrated from end to end.”

If today’s business buyers really are “educated consumers” as Homlish suggests, then business marketers can no longer be left out of customer and product  conversations.  It also means that organizations that target business buyers, who has given lip service to transitioning from being “product led” (inside out) to “customer focused” (outside in) now need to act.  And the tip of the spear for driving that change – is marketing.

By better understanding and influencing the needs, desires and emotional drivers of individual business consumers, marketers will be in the strategic conversation and lead the transition.  This is the key to unlocking the executive suite.

However, the organization is not just going to give marketers a seat at the table and there is a good possibility that executives don’t get it.   As one of the marketing directors said in the study; “Marketing is just not in the DNA of senior management.”  You will have to make it happen.

The study concludes that; “Core marketing capabilities – those that directly influence customers – have the highest correlation to market share growth.”  Senior executives may not understand marketing but they do understand growth.