Selling to B2B customers has been changed forever by the Internet. A truism maybe, but it’s surprising how many B2B marketing organisations are still structured as they were in the pre-social-media dark days. Most still have separate people (sometimes if it’s a big company they’re discrete departments managing arrays of agencies) responsible for advertising, PR, events, the web, brochures and white papers. For many, if not most, traditional marketing still takes 80-90% of budgets.
This seems odd given how the nature of early-stage selling has dramatically altered, from one-way, outbound communications to much more of a conversation over an extended period. This issue came up at a presentation I did to CEOs from tech companies at Dave Darsch’s wonderful CEO Collaborative Forum in Barcelona last week and I thought it was worth talking about here.
A few years ago, your sales department controlled every aspect of a prospect’s transition through the sales funnel from initial interest to closing the deal. Your salesmen - if they were any good at least – policed the prospect’s access to information about your products and services, making sure - via pressure on marketing – they got the brochures, data sheets, presentations and case studies they needed when they asked for them. It was good news that vendors were pretty much the only source of information about their technology.
Apart from corporate issues like branding, handling investors and the like, marketing’s job in those days largely consisted of renting assets owned by other people – TV companies, exhibition and seminar organisers, the advertising sales departments of key printed media – in order to generate ‘leads’ that were passed to the sales team. Companies were set up for interruption-based, broadcast-style communications, built around their agenda and timescales – although some made exceptions and brought product launches forward or held them back for Cebit, GSM World Congress or another important industry show.
This world has gone for ever, particularly for the early-stage information gathering that initiates a purchase process. Fragmentation of media has created an information source explosion: happy and disgruntled customers freely comment about technology, self-proclaimed industry experts blog about pressing user issues offering analysis which covers the entire gamut from hagiographic through fair to critical and downright offensive. Customers and non-customers comment on blogs or make videos to express their happiness or dissatisfaction. The days of controlling the conversation with a customer or prospect are long gone. And the value of renting prospect lists from media companies has diminished. In B2B, marketing today should be about creating and owning your own list, moving from renting assets to building them.
That’s a tough challenge and it starts with earning the right to participate in the conversation with customers and being set up to do it. For amusing evidence of this, see the funny video (in fact two videos) on YouTube made by country musician Dave Carroll from the band Sons of Maxwell after his guitar was damaged during a United Airlines flight.
Look too in the ‘related videos’ sidebar to see how United completely lost control of that interaction with a disgruntled customer. One can only imagine the consternation and confusion mounting in United’s marketing department as the issue spiralled – within three days over a million people had watched the video – and the total is over 5.8 million people now. Maybe if United had responded with a YouTube video of their own making fun of the whole episode and themselves, apologising and offering to pay for the damage they would have earned some kudos and avoided the brand damage.
So, the Internet has transformed the sales process, particularly in its early stages. What many B2B companies are finding is that they’re set up to produce material for late-stage buyers, things like data sheets, solution briefs, technical white papers and online product demos, but they are not prepared to handle the “trusted advisor” role that’s become increasingly important in early-stage sales and marketing. They’re good at brochures. But brochures are only valuable when the hardest part of marketing is already done. A brochure will never move a market. Buyers now understand how to actively and aggressively manage their own buying processes – and have become increasingly cynical and sceptical about what vendors say.
Getting the interest of customers and prospects online is all about being willing to put your own agenda aside, put yourself in their shoes and work hard to produce information that prospects find so useful that they are impelled to share it with others inside and outside their company. Having a process, structure and willingness to produce really great content lies at the heart of this. It should be better content than you’ve probably ever produced before, designed to incite actions from your target audience and change their behaviour, to change the way they think about you and what they say.
This calls for someone new in the organization – let’s call her a content strategist – whose role includes
-stewardship of overall company positioning and messages (including willingness to adapt as market or competitive conditions change)
-defining what content is to be produced (including why we’re publishing it)
-identifying which media – e-books, video, podcast, white paper, viral – should be used and in what combination and what the schedule is
-deciding what channels should be used to elicit interest and how they should be used together
-monitoring social media networks (daily) to identify what people are saying about the company and choosing when and how to respond
-managing all online interactions with customers and prospects
-setting goals for campaigns and measuring the success of them
-deciding when to hand real sales ready leads over to the sales force (and being ready to be measured on her performance).
This feels like a daunting, but fabulous, job for someone. I can think of a couple our clients who already have a person in this role. I can think of many more who could use one. Do you think your organisation needs a content strategist?