A quick note to the marketing manager

I just wanted you to read this excerpt from an email I received today:

Having employees is great if you’re a big company like Microsoft or Google or PayPal or Walmart or many other companies that need people to be at a certain place and at a certain time each day.

But if you only want things done quickly and well, and don’t want to worry about paying payroll taxes and fringe benefits and all that, and don’t want to commit to hiring someone on a long term basis, outsourcing is the way to go.

If I had employees (which I don’t anymore), it would cost me probably an average of $3000+ a month each, even if they spent most of their time doing nothing productive.

You can outsource almost anything that you can explain how to do.

How’s it with your marketing writing? Just that you know, there’s help available.

Is your company’s success hampered by fear?

In today’s business environment of diminishing profits, layoffs and economic gloom, we don’t find many inspiring success stories.

The big question: Why not?

Perhaps we should look at the issue at a macro level. I’m fairly sure the main obstacle is as simple, and at the same time as complicated, as human psychology.

A company fuelled by fear can’t perform

Most of today’s business works in an atmosphere of FEAR. Companies are not really run by the C-suite, they’re run by the shareholders. The shareholders, almost by definition, expect financial gains. They don’t have a passion for the brand or company per se, they want a quick return on their investment. Shares are being bought and sold, keeping the owner base in constant turmoil and losing sight of long-term goals. Shareholders become a faceless mass, an almost supernatural external force experienced as a threat.

Because everyone is afraid, decisions at all organisational levels are made avoiding risk and potential failure. The safe bets inevitably result in mediocrity all around.

The vicious circle of negativity

Many companies have contracted what I call the constant-growth disease. Every new activity, marketing activity in particular, must perform better than the previous one. If last month’s campaign brought in 2 million in revenue and this month’s campaign results in 1.8 million, it is not viewed as 1.8 million more money in the company’s coffers but falling short of the expectation by 10 per cent.

Accounting adds to the fear and negativity. In most companies, accounting is a repressive regime. “Look, this is the number you should have reached. You’re only 75% there this quarter. You better get your act together by the end of the year.” This is intimidation rather than inspiration, cascading down the organisation and paralysing creative innovation. Moreover, as accounting is a rearview mirror, it does a poor job of pointing the way to a brighter future.

Marketing cost-cutting is a slow suicide

When marketing and sales are not delivering the financial results they’re expected to, most companies then try to improve their situation by cutting costs.

In their effort to maximise profits by slashing the amount of money flowing out of the company, marketing often finds itself first on the slaughtering block. Far too many companies regard marketing merely as a cost centre instead of a profit generator. If marketing doesn’t perform (or was the bar set too high to begin with?), it faces budget cuts and staff reduction.

This is insane. If an athlete fails to reach his goals, he is given more training opportunities and support, not made to exercise more with less food.

The marketing, advertising and communication agencies companies hire to produce great marketing results are plagued by the same fears and negativity as their clients. Each successful campaign will set a benchmark against which all subsequent campaigns are measured. Clients want constantly better results with constantly shrinking budgets. Even though this at some point inevitably becomes impossible, the agency fears losing a big client and creates something that satisfies the client and ensures the bill gets paid. Not much passion is involved. Fear at play again.

No wonder long-term consistency is in short supply. Fear has a paralysing effect. To boldly go where no man has gone before requires persistence, money and visionary passion.

How can we find those? Air your ideas in the comments!

Should a start-up go to market design first or content first?

If you’re a start-up, almost by definition strapped for cash, you should be very careful where you spend the little marketing money you have. Design or content? Scroll down…

start-up empty wallet

A while ago a start-up started a discussion on LinkedIn about being at the point where they need to  “establish their identity”, as the topic owner put it. He went on to say that they wanted to crowdsource the design, covering their visual identity and its applications to stationery, website and presentation materials.

As expected, our writer received many answers from design professionals who—understandably—focused on the visual aspects. However, if you are in the same position, perhaps my contribution (which never got posted as I wasn’t a member of the group) from the standpoint of a copywriter who has written numerous corporate graphics manuals and edited dozens more might help you.

First of all, should you crowdsource?

Crowdsourcing is fine for ideas. For implementation, I’m not so sure. In the end, as the owner of your business, it’s you who needs to make the decisions. You know the saying “Too many cooks spoil the broth”.

Second, the topic poster’s specifics.

A) Should we order these one-by-one? Or should we have a one design contests where the winner will provide the whole package?

Identity is always an entity. You can’t build what you are piece by piece. You can’t be a little this and a little that, and make tweaks afterwards. Therefore, you should hire someone to do the whole package.

That said, a contest might not be the best possible idea. If I were starting a new business, I’d rather pick a designer who understands where I’m heading and who is a good fit in terms of personal chemistry. Unless you’re a skilled designer yourself, you won’t be able to judge whether the design you get will or will not work. Yes, I could cut my hair myself, but I’d rather have a professional do it for me.

B) What is a good creative brief? Should we shortly describe who are are, what is our business? In essence define our identity? We don’t want to waste designers time, but want to give enough freedom for creativity.

A good brief for visual design is pretty much the same as a good brief for your written marketing content or, indeed, anything you are going to make public about your business.
Yes, you should describe who you are—more specifically, your value proposition and your positioning in the marketplace. You should outline your ultimate goal. You should let your contractor know how you’ve planned to get to your goal. You should point out some of your most important competitors.

As a friend of mine who runs a reputable design agency once said: “Visual identity is your strategy in visual form.”

C) What is the price range going to be? Is 500USD to 1000USD a realistic budget for the work in hand? I know that we are not going to get Saatchi & Saatchi with this kind of money, but is it enough to get decent results? Do remember that this is a start-up, and one that doesn’t have venture funding… yet.

Regardless of the route you take, crowdsourcing or finding one trusted partner, any amount of money will get you some results. I don’t fully subscribe to the idea “you get what you pay for” because if you have amazing luck in finding your contractor, you could actually get someone who genuinely tries to make it work for you even if you’re not breaking the bank. In that sense, the planned investment range might work. Be warned, though: this rarely happens. Reputable designers will charge more. A lot more.

And now forget everything I said above

When aiming for a certain result, we as businesspeople should always weigh all our options. Sometimes it requires thinking a little outside the box. The key phrase is “alternative investment”. In plain language, “Could I get more out of this wad of money in some other way?”

For a start-up, an alternative investment could be skipping the visual identity altogether. Instead of burning $1,000 on what is essentially branding, I would rather spend that money on something that quickly converts to sales, something that a start-up needs many times more urgently than a nice outward appearance.

In the age before the internet, magnificent sales results were achieved with one single visual identity: a white sheet of paper with text in typewriter font. A totally applicable approach even in today’s networked world.

The point is to craft a message that gets devoured by the people it is intended for. We are moved by books, set in one font without embellishments and continuing for hundreds of pages. We read magazine articles. We appreciate Einstein for what he had to say, not for how dapper a suit he wore.

That’s why you should first make sure you have something to offer that your potential buyers want to buy. Then focus on conversion. How all this is visually designed is secondary. Choose wisely what you really need to invest in.

[Image courtesy of Flickr/NoHoDamon]

The customer point of view – YOU is the key

Jill Konrath talks about how to formulate your elevator speech in this blog post. The advice is good—but I think a crucial element is missing: the YOU aspect, in other words, starting from the customer point of view. Here’s the comment I wrote.

If you really want to get someone interested, you need to address the issues that are important to them. Nobody is interested in you, they want to know What’s In It For Me (WIIFM). Every one of us efficiently tunes out of anything that begins with “I” or “we” because we instinctively know what’s going to follow will be self-serving.

Therefore, turn

  1. “I work with people who are struggling to sell their products or services into large corporate accounts.”
    into
    “If you have trouble selling your product or service to big corporate buyers, you might like to get a few ideas about how to do it successfully.”
  2.  “I help small businesses win big contracts with large corporate customers.”
    into
    “It’s painful that a small seller often gets looked down upon by big corporations. But you know, you totally can win those big contracts. Want to know how?
  3. “I help technology companies who struggle launching important new products into the market and want to improve their time-to-profitability.”
    into
    “Many tech companies’ biggest problem is how to start making money from their new product launches. If you’d like to become profitable more quickly, could we talk?”

There’s always a way to start the discussion from the customer point of view.

Your turn. Are your marketing materials listing what you do—or are you solving your prospects’ problems? Shoot a comment.

Will mocking your prospects increase your sales?

I’ve been subscribing to someone’s email newsletters for a long time, the someone being a person who is widely recognised for his expertise in online marketing. An expert as he is, his newsletters are mostly teasers aimed at motivating the reader to enter deeper into the funnel, and always ending with a call-to-action to purchase a paid training programme, learning materials and what have you. No problem with that (although the constant sizzle without a whiff of the steak might in the end start getting on people’s nerves).

Today’s newsletter tried a new approach. Reverse argumentation is a trick not very often used but can—so I’ve read—produce good results if done right.

So it was no surprise that the headline said “Four reasons NOT to buy…”. No problem with that either, I was curious to know how the story would evolve.

You must have heard that to make someone buy from you, you more or less need to follow the Know–Like–Trust path. I could be overly sensitive, but when the writer suddenly suggests that one of my reasons for not buying his stuff is that I’m so short of money I can’t afford $99, or takes the superior attitude that I must be so deluged with work, miraculously without his help, that I don’t need his humble contribution to my success, I can’t but feel a bit offended.

I had already passed the Know stage. I’ve read his website, accepted good reviews and recommendations about him and begun to think “OK, he seems to know what he’s doing”. That’s why I’ve continued my subscription to his newsletter for a long time.

I had even progressed a bit in the Like department. The guy’s website and his emails seem to imply he doesn’t feel compelled to tout his own genius at every turn, and that he knows his way around words. I quite like his style.

Then I hit a snag with this email.

It’s a bit like he had put up a sign at the start of the path saying “Welcome to the Spring of Marketing Elixir—1 mile”. I’m bouncing happily along the path, liking the scenery and inhaling the wonderful scent of the forest around me. Suddenly, at about the half-mile post, I almost fall into a huge hole. I startle and take a few frightened steps back. What would be my motivation to continue my journey?

It’s been a widely recognised fact for at least about 30 years that in B2B, the seller doesn’t sell, the buyer buys.

I’m the buyer. So let me take my time to buy. There are no shortcuts. And for Pete’s sake, don’t start picking on me halfway through your funnel because I’m not buying fast enough for you. You’ll lose my trust, the final and most crucial element on my path to purchase. Even that $99 is too much if I don’t trust it delivers. As another conversion expert said:

You don’t ever make the reader feel like you’re accusing them of anything.

To come full circle back to the headline, have YOU tried mocking your prospects to increase your sales? Implying that if people don’t buy from you, they must be paupers or idiots? How did it work? How would YOU react to an email like that? Let me know in the comments.

Successful B2B marketing begins with three simple questions

Marketing, in particular B2B marketing, is often paralysed because the questions asked are too complicated. A huge number of parameters must be fulfilled before you can start being successful.

Why make life more complicated than it needs to be?

Successful B2B marketing begins by asking yourself three questions:

  1. Whom do I want to do what when they’ve seen my message?
  2. Why would they change their status quo?
  3. How can I prove the change is worth their while?

Unraveling the answers to these questions gets you far quickly.

If you need help to make it work, I’m waiting to hear from you.

So now you have your customer magazine online. Does it work?

When content marketing is gradually getting a foothold also in the B2B world, it always makes one happy to meet a company that cares to communicate with its customers. Like, for example, one that has a customer magazine. A customer magazine is an excellent vehicle for both creating thought leadership and sharing important information.

A company publishing an online customer magazine deserves a medal not least for having understood one of the requirements of today’s online marketing: the more content you have online being found by search engines, the more likely it is that those who are interested in search terms related to your business will find their way to your website.

But. Stop for a moment and give a thought to your reader experience.

A print magazine doesn’t work online

Regrettably many companies take the easy way out. The online customer magazine is a facsimile of the print magazine—in practice the PDF file sent to the printers. Easy to do and cost-effective, yes, but a lousy reading experience on a computer screen. And there are those who don’t know the difference between hi-res and low-res and simply upload their huge print PDF that takes ages to appear on the reader’s screen. When the generally accepted online patience limit is somewhere between 3 and 10 seconds, there are precious few people who will wait a minute or two to see your marketing material.

Today’s search engines do a pretty good job of indexing the content of PDF files. Nevertheless, a print PDF almost invariably has the same column layout as the print magazine. Imagine a reader who finds your customer magazine through a search term. When she reads the first column down to the bottom, she’ll have to scroll back up to see how the story continues. It doesn’t. This is the breaking point. If your magazine has, say, four columns, the reader experience will be dismal enough for the reader to probably leave your magazine before she’s completed reading the first article.

Many content publishers seem to forget that where a print magazine has a portrait format, the computer screen is landscape. If you publish a facsimile of your print page online, your reader will see about half of it. You automatically introduce scrolling and make your reader stumble.

Clever new technology may be an obstacle to success

Some marketers have discovered applications that make online magazines that can be leafed through just like “real” magazines. I suppose you’ve seen stuff like this. Assuming someone who finds your content through a search engine is really interested in what you have to say, why make the user interface more difficult than necessary? (Load time, minuscule print, text reversed out of a dark background…)

The more easily the content is readable, the better. A leaf-through magazine looks nice and probably has a certain amount of novelty appeal for many people, but if the print is too small to be read without enlarging, what do you actually achieve? Moreover, if you enlarge the page, you instantly lose the text flow. You’ve managed to create an obstacle between your reader and your content. Why would you want your message to be difficult to reach?

Surprise, the net works with HTML

A bit of effort to make your reader’s life easier is always a good idea. You already have the content. Make it an HTML page that’s easier to read online. The native file format for the web is HTML.

True, any reasonably modern browser can probably display other file formats than HTML at least passably. But if you’re not publishing your print magazine in mirror text, why would you force your online reader and her technology make an extra effort?

One company that gets it right is Nokia Solutions and Networks (NSN). They publish their Inside newsletter in straightforward HTML format that loads fast and gives a good overview of the content on its first page. Take a look here. No fancy-schmancy technology trickery; instead, tight focus on content.

What about communication?

In the first paragraph of this post I talked about communicating with customers. Wikipedia tells us this:

Communication (from Latin “communis“, meaning to share) is the activity of conveying information through the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, visuals, signals, writing, or behaviour.

Where is your interactivity? Does your online customer magazine have a commenting system? If it’s in PDF format, no. You already guessed it, I’m suggesting a two-way blog instead of a one-way magazine.

The more hooks you provide to the reader interested in you, your company and your product to connect with you directly and get direct feedback, the more committed potential you will get.

We’re talking about content marketing, right? Something that should produce something on the bottom line?

Enabling comments and feedback you will be opening a two-way channel. A potential customer who reads your message and may even bother to comment on it will be a lot closer to being a buying customer than someone down whose throat you’re pushing a one-way message.

B2B marketing budget 2013 — hard times continue

Now that we’re almost one quarter into the new year, it might be time to take a look at how your B2B marketing budget 2013 will develop. No great surprises here—the situation is not much different from 2012.

The backdrop, at least in Europe, is that 2013 will clearly not be the best of years for the economy. The European Central Bank has lowered its forecast for the EU area’s GDP, now expecting a decline between 0.1 and 0.9% instead of the up to 0.3-per cent increase it said as recently as in December 2012.

What this means for marketers is that the plight they’ve been grappling with for the entire last year will continue.

A blog post written by Kaon Interactive lists the top three B2B marketing problems:

  1. Marketing budgets continue to decline
  2. Complex solutions are difficult to explain
  3. Inconsistency in the message

Although Kaon operates in the United States while I’m in northern Europe, and although the blog post is now several months old, their conclusions fit well into what I’m seeing in the European market today. Add to this the rather dismal economic outlook for the next nine months, and you’ll see why marketing in every B2B should get its act together quickly.

Marketing budgets continue to decline

Reading about the future of marketing in Finland, Sweden and Estonia—to start from the small economies in the farthest corner of Europe—it is clear that most companies are planning to either freeze their 2013 marketing communication investment at 2012 levels, or decrease it.

For the UK, Marketing Week says,

But while company targets may be increasing, marketers will not have more resources to help turn aims into reality. A worrying 60 per cent of those marketers expecting increased company targets in the year ahead report that their marketing budgets will either remain static or be cut.

In Germany, Mindshare’s CEO says,

Das Konjunktur-Barometer des deutschen Werbemarktes steht für 2013 bestenfalls auf Stagnation. (The economic barometer of the German advertising market for 2013 is stagnating at best.)

Even on the basis of this small sample, it looks like marketers are continuously compelled to do more with less regardless of the size of their market.

Complex solutions are difficult to explain

Particularly in B2B contexts, a company’s offering in most cases is not as straightforward as it might be in a B2C market. That’s why the benefits of doing business with you will often get buried under a convoluted effort to explain what it is you’re selling.

Another common problem is that the more complex a company’s offering is, the more marketing messages seem to focus on what “we” do, instead of explaining what “you” could benefit. This focus on “we” is one of the most detrimental factors affecting the efficiency of B2B marketing, as I’ve said a number of times before, even questioning whether marketers are a breed alienated from real life. No wonder CEOs are disappointed with marketing’s contribution to creating revenue.

What is most alarming is that the non-existing contribution of marketing efforts to the bottom line will inevitably strengthen the C-suite’s belief that marketing is nothing but an expense. In bad times, expenses are always put under a magnifying glass, and it doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see that more marketing budget cuts are just round the corner. That’s a huge disservice to any company’s success, despite many authoritative opinions that you absolutely should not decrease your marketing spend in a slow economy.

Inconsistency in the message

If, as the Kaon post tells us, a company finds that sales is using 64 different messages explaining the company’s offering, it’s obvious marketing isn’t doing its job.

All marketing must use the company’s strategic goals as its ultimate guideline. Marketing must always be systematic, and there is no other way to achieve that than knowing your target audiences, their needs and their purchasing paths on the one hand, and the real benefits your offering will bring on the other.

Only then will it be possible to create customised marketing messages that, despite the different needs of the different target audiences, systematically display the core value your company offers.

Stay alive—destroy silos, align goals

Now is high time for companies to take a hard look at their different functions. Everything a company does should point to its defined business destination. If no goals are defined, no wonder important spending decisions are made based on a gut feeling or last year’s numbers, totally forgetting the “where do we want to be a year from now”. In the worst case, even contradicting other departments’ work or creating unnecessary friction between them.

Marketing is too important to be left in the hands of marketers. Every single marketing action must be derived from the company strategy, and marketing messages must support the strategic goals. As different as the messages may look on the surface.

That’s why top management must make it clear across the organisation where we are heading, and the different functions must align their operations with that goal. Used correctly, marketing is a muscle car, but even a muscle car won’t do any good if it’s just left idling.

Automatic marketing budget cuts—a bad idea even in a slow economy

While Western economies are slowly recovering from the recession, the recovery will most probably be slower than we thought and hoped. Some industries will do better than others, of course, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see many companies facing big difficulties in meeting their targets.

As always, a slow economy means tight budgets and continuing frugality for industrial and B2B marketers. If you’ve been thinking of cutting your marketing budget and staff, however, I’d like to point you to some online articles that you might want to read before taking any hasty measures. Continue Reading…