The curse of the familiar

Sometimes the greatest value I can offer a client is a fresh, outside perspective.

For example, I worked with a client recently that was making a major proposal to a customer. As I talked with them, several things became clear:

  • They were so familiar with their unique value that they assumed everyone knew it. As a result, they never articulated it directly in the proposal.
  • They were so deeply involved in the details of how they could help the customer, they didn’t see the high-level strategic value they brought.

In other words, their familiarity with business details kept them from seeing the big picture.  In this case, having an outsider’s eyes brought fresh perspective and new energy to the process.

The curse of the familiar can be less extreme:

  • Using the same Powerpoint slides you’ve always used because they’re already done and they’re easy – even if you’ve been modifying them for years.
  • Not revisiting a website that’s been up for two or more years without substantive change.
  • Using the same format or formula for a customer story that you’ve always used, without looking for new ways of telling the story.
  • Writing the same types of white papers you’ve written for the past years, without changing style, layout, or approach.

We like the familiar because it’s easy and, at least the in the past, it worked. You can’t possibly start everything from scratch or you’d never get anything done.

But it’s important to take a fresh look at what you’re doing and how you might improve it – particularly in technology marketing. Here are a few ways to ‘inoculate’ yourself against the curse of the familiar:

  • Keep current in new trends in your industry or others that are related for your prospects. Read blogs and articles, watch webinars.
  • Take classes from thought leaders. In technology marketing, MarketingProfs is a great place to do this. The membership pays for itself in inspiration.
  • Network with others in your profession – meetings and conferences can be very helpful.
  • Try new tools and media – whether ‘pinning’, creating infographics, slideshares, screencasts, videos, etc.  In technology marketing, it’s critical to stay current with the new tools.
  • And, occasionally, bring in the outsider who can provide a fresh perspective. As a freelance marketing consultant, I gain fresh perspective from every new client.

What do you do to keep fresh?  I’d love to hear other ideas.

Survey says: Don’t trash those white papers yet

I love it when research comes out to back up my positions.

A couple weeks back I posted a blog called Old Marketing Channels Never Die – the premise being that with all of the buzz about social networks, videos, infographics and other content formats and channels, the traditional channels cannot be abandoned.

So now I find that Everything Technology Marketing did a survey of B2B marketing professionals on the LinkedIn B2B Technology Marketing community to identify the top marketing formats and channels.  If you haven’t seen it, I’d suggest you peruse the data.

The point that jumps out is that the content formats that are rates as most ‘effective’ are old familiars:

  • White papers
  • Case studies
  • Live presentations
  • Online articles

And live events, websites and email are still the most effective channels.

Yet there may be an inherent bias built into the survey if participants can only judge the content formats with which they have significant experience. Some of the newer content forms (blogs, podcasts) have a high number of ‘neutral’ ratings. I have to assume that is because the marketing professionals who answered the survey hadn’t yet worked with those channels. And no one is really effective right out of the gate with a new format.

Also, look lower on the chart and you’ll find many marketers having success with newer channels and formats. Video in particular is deemed effective by two-thirds of those who responded to the question, blog postings nearly 50%, and eBooks about 30%. You can either take comfort in the strong performance of familiar forms, or pay attention to the success that others are having. I’d suggest the latter.

What’s the take-away?  Don’t abandon the tried-and-true marketing methods like live events, and white papers, but find ways to leverage these efforts in other marketing channels and formats –  make a video from your live event, or a series of blog posts from your papers. At the very least you’ll start learning what works well in the new formats and channels.

Where are the social media failure stories?

I’ve attended a number of webinars about using social media in marketing, and keep hearing wonderful success stories — sometimes stories about the same companies over and over. (Zappos again? Really?)

For all the social media success stories you hear, it’s worth asking – where are the stories of the efforts that didn’t pay off? Because what we have is a case of survivor bias – we’re missing half of the story.

I first encountered the idea of the ‘survivor’ bias in financial markets. People sell their poorly-performing stocks, take losses, and then tell you how well their portfolio is performing because they’re only holding the ones that ‘survived.’ They sound like stock-picking geniuses!

Customer case studies are subject to the same bias. No company is going to write and publish a story about how a customer failed to make their technology work — although wouldn’t that make interesting reading? You can probably get those stories by taking the sales people for drinks.

I’d love to see the real stories of companies (names redacted) that have invested in social media and are still waiting for the payoff, or found that other traditional marketing channels are delivering better results in terms of leads and sales. Not the big public flame-outs, but just the misdirected effort type of stories. I’m not trying to be negative – on the contrary, I think that we can learn as much from the failures and missteps as we can from the successes, and sometimes more.

Some leading bloggers are trying to be cautionary. Jay Baer has had a couple of great posts lately, including The Five Dangerous Realities of Social Media for Business, and Train Wreck: The Three Types of Self-Destructive Corporate Tweets.

And research is starting to come in as well. According to Forrester, investments in Facebook profiles aren’t paying off in revenue for many retailers – see Facebook Doesn’t Click For eBusiness Retail Companies.

Research is great, but stories communicate powerfully to people in marketing and beyond.  For every great case study presented, there’s a handful of companies that jump into social media expecting great things, without a firm grip on the right strategy for their business.

Obviously, social media is simply a channel or tool in the marketing mix – it can be used effectively or waste marketing effort and time.  And by learning from the missteps, you can avoid making them yourself.

What do you think – would a ‘failure’ story compilation be helpful? Is it already out there, or do any social media mavens want to take up this cause?

Content marketing: What’s your subtext?

In theater, subtext is the message that the actor is delivering beyond or behind the explicit dialog. It’s an important core of so-called method acting.

What does subtext have to do with content marketing? Everything.

One of the core tenets of content marketing is to generously give content of value to the reader – by giving you will build relationships. In his blog What type of content should my company produce? Mitch Joel refers to this as value-based content.

Or, as the Content Rules book so aptly puts it, “Share or solve, don’t shill.”

But … content marketing isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Behind every generous best practices white paper or actionable e-book, there’s a subtext. Readers will feel or sense the subtext. It’s not cheating, it’s what makes content marketing work.

Examples of good content marketing subtext
The exact subtext will vary with every piece and with the stage of the prospect in the lead lifecycle. Here are a few examples of explicit value compared subtext:

Customer story:

  • Explicit message: Here’s how company X solved their problem, and some lessons learned along the way that might be helpful to your business.
  • Subtext: We’re helping companies like yours – maybe we could help you.

Best practices white paper:

  • Explicit message: Here are useful best practices that you can act on to solve a real business problem.
  • Subtext: We understand the business problem – you might want to talk to us when you’re ready to take action on this problem.

In every piece of content you generate, it’s worth identifying that subtext, to be sure that it comes through loud and clear. Sometime it’s as simple as “We’re good people here, not just corporate shills.” Sometimes it’s more subtle, as in “Our approach is really better than what you’re doing today.”

Beware of inadvertent subtext
Think of the bad actor who inadvertently sends the wrong messages (I’m not sure of my lines… is that my uncle in the second row?) The same thing can happen to your content marketing.

For example, a best practices white paper that’s filled with jargon and unclear might give the reader the following message: “I’m not even sure what our solution does – only the engineers get it. You should buy our stuff anyway.”

Website content that is rife with “all about us” text and with nothing about the business problem sends the following message: “It’s more important that I make the CxOs happy than that I serve the you, the reader.”

And a poorly researched paper tying your technology to current “hot topic” (compliance initiative, cloud computing, etc.) may communicate the following: “I don’t think you’re smart or attentive enough to research this on your own, so if I just mention this buzzword enough I can scare you into at least talking to one of our sales guys.”

Do you have other examples of inadvertent subtext in marketing content misfires? I’d love to hear them.

Content marketing and the inevitable sales objections

Into every sales cycle a little rain must fall – prospects get cold feet, someone raises an objection, the IT group puts up a roadblock. In her excellent book eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale, Ardath Albee calls these “step backs” in the sales cycle.

How do you handle those inevitable questions and objections? Do you wait for prospects to come to you with an objection, then provide a carefully crafted answer? Do you rely on the training and quick thinking of your sales staff?  Or do you address them head-on in the rich content you make available throughout the sales cycle?

When I first started in marketing, sales objections and their answers were closely guarded secrets, buried in sales guides and internal documents provided to sales.  No one wanted to put the possible objections in the prospects’ minds in the first place.

Today, everything has changed. You can’t sweep possible objections under the rug, and leave it to your sale team to answer them as they arise.  Why?

They’ll find out anyway.  Your prospects are researching actively their options, talking with others on social networks, or communicating with other vendors.  There’s not much point in hiding concerns if they’re common ones.

You may not get a chance to defend yourself.  Given the long nature of the B2B sales cycle, prospects may raise a concern before they have engaged with your sales team.  They could dismiss your solution before you’re personally engaged with them.

The better approach is to address those concerns head-on. For example:

  • Discuss potential risks and how to mitigate them in your papers and solution collateral.
  • Create specific papers for stakeholders (like IT organizations) that may raise concerns about integration or security.
  • Integrate objection handling in customer stories where appropriate.
  • If the personal touch is important, offer a podcast or video that addresses the concern and make it available on your website.

By openly airing potential objections, you can smooth the sales cycle while earning your prospects’ trust.