Marketing: Leading the Way

First published June 10, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

At last week’s national Business Marketing Association (BMA) conference in Chicago, three marketing executives from three well-known B2B brands each made an interesting comment:

“In the 3M scheme of things, marketing wasn’t even a second-tier priority. It was fourth or fifth tier at best. But in the future, marketing needs to lead 3M.” — Jeff Lavers,  Vice President of Marketing, Sales and Communications, 3M

“Emerson didn’t even have a CMO before me. They didn’t believe they needed one.”– Kathy Button Bell, CMO, Emerson

“We’re announcing a marriage at GE. We’re not sure how they’ll get along, but IT and marketing are about to become married. We’re combining the two functions.” — Beth Comstock, CMO, GE

Wow! Three iconic B2B brands, each rethinking the role of marketing within their organizations. Is this a wave?

What Marketing Should Be

The reason I love marketing, at its purest, is because it’s the connection between an organization’s business model and their customers. Marketing owns that essential bond. But that’s a responsibility that has been abdicated by many organizations, and never explicitly acknowledged by others. That connection, that reason to do business in the first place, is ignored by a startling number of companies.

Marketing should be the voice of the customer, driving product development, service delivery, operation — indeed, every aspect of the business. That’s what Lavers was hinting at in his challenge to 3M. Companies need to be driven by their customers. Marketing should be accountable for keeping the two firmly in sync. But somehow, in the past several decades, marketing has become cheapened, to the point that the function was essentially abolished in many org charts.  3M relegated it to a seat way at the back of the bus. Emerson never even bothered to put in on the corporate directory until 10 years ago. Marketing needs to be put back on the org chart, right at the top.

The excuse in the B2B world was that there was no need for marketing. The channels owned the relationships with the customers.  But the digital marketplace is re-forging relationships between manufacturers and end customers. Suddenly, brands matter. Customer feedback matters. Conversations matter. Marketing has to be the one constantly reminding everyone inside the corporate walls that those connections are vital in the future.

The Marketing – IT Connection

So that explains the import of the comments from Jeff Lavers and Kathy Button Bell. What of the impending nuptials between marketing and IT at GE? What are we to make of Beth Comstock’s BMA announcement?

This signals a fascinating shift in the practice of marketing. If marketing takes over the wheel and drives the company forward, then IT has to provide the infrastructure to help it win. This will be an uneasy shift of power. IT is used to being the control point within organizations, though marketing folks would use a different label: “bottleneck” or ” black hole” is one I regularly hear. With the shift in importance of marketing, IT dragging their heels will no longer be tolerated. In their drive to be nimble, marketing will be pushing — and pushing hard. I see no signals here that indicate potential wedded bliss. Essential? Yes. Easy? Not on your life!

If America’s iconic B2B brands are now ramping up for a new kind of marketplace, one where they take back accountability for end-to-end relationships, we are definitely dealing with a new normal. But I fear many in the C-suite ponder the prospect with the same reluctance they would have about giving the kids the keys to the Porsche.  Sure, we’ll go fast, but we will be driving off a cliff?

B2B Experts: Face to Face

Later today, I’ll be heading down to the Bay area for our B2B Expert series, Face to Face. We’ll be talking about The BuyerSphere Project (more on that next week in this blog as I start the countdown to the book release) and how B2B buying as changed in the digital market place. Bill Barnes (Executive VP, Business Development at Enquiro), Andrew Spoeth (Enquiro’s Marketing Director), Greg Jordan (from our Northern California office) and I will be joined by an illustrious group of experts:

  • Graham Mudd, Vice President, comScore Marketing Solutions
  • Patricia Neuray, Vice President National Sales, Business.com
  • Jon Miller, Vice President Marketing, Marketo
  • Matthias Blume, Chief Analytics Officer, Covario

Graham will be kicking us off with “The State of Search” and then I’ll do a brief overview of the major findings of The BuyerSphere. We have a panel presentation on putting the findings to work in practical ways and then Jon Miller wraps us up with a case study of Marketo’s own highly successful marketing campaign.

The event is tomorrow morning at the Sofitel Hotel in Redwood City. If you’ve registered, we’ll see you there. And if you haven’t, I think we might have a couple of seats still open.

Get It or Die: Online is Your Core Business

First published June 11, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In a recent survey, we asked B2B buyers how they prefer ordering the things they order all the time. Sixty-three percent said they prefer to order them online. The next largest group was the 15% who would go the traditional route of ordering from a local office over the phone. Another 12% said they’d prefer to order from a real live sales rep. In a recent presentation to a client, I kept that pie chart of results up for a while, allowing it to sink in, because I think the implications are astounding.  After it sunk in, I asked what I believe to be a fundamentally important question: “Look at the chart and ask yourself, how closely does your company’s strategic direction and resource allocation match that pie chart? That’s where your customers are going, and they’re moving fast. Are you going to be there when they get there?”

“getting it” vs. “Getting It”

Lately, I’ve also talked a lot about “getting it.” To me, there are two levels of getting it.  There’s the safe level: the proficient e-business unit that understands search and executes effectively, realizes that online strategies have to be planned across channels, is struggling to put attribution models in place that work, and is continually testing and optimizing landing pages. If we look at digital marketing alone, they understand it and are skilled practitioners. This level, “getting it” with a small “g,” is rare, although there are several examples to look at.

But then there’s “Getting It,” with a capital “G.” This is the company that realizes that online forms the core of the customer experience and that everything else has to support that — if not today, then in the very near future. This is the company that is rapidly and aggressively moving to digital as its primary way of doing business, that is already making the painful but required transitions and is willing to cannibalize its traditional core in order to support the move to online. Outside of pure online plays, this level of “Getting It” is so rare as to be basically nonexistent.

Digital Butt-Covering

Companies pay lip service to “getting it,” but they’ve hedged all their online bets. They have treated online as an incremental revenue channel, putting in rigorous ROI thresholds so that it can be separated from the core business and risk can be balanced against returns and investment, thus minimizing it. E-business is a siloed sandbox, relegated to the sidelines so it doesn’t rock the mother ship.

What these companies fail to realize is that this safe, incremental approach to moving online is probably the riskiest thing they can do. Here’s why.

Online is a discontinuous innovation in consumerism of all kinds. It’s a huge step forward for the buyer in almost every way imaginable. It’s easier, more convenient, more useful and more effective. If people aren’t buying online, they’re researching online. And no matter how much they’re doing both those things, they would like to do more. The only thing holding them back is a lack of destinations or a quality user experience on the destinations they do have to choose from.  Your customers are adopting online at an incredibly fast rate.

By easing towards online at a safe, incremental rate because you’re mitigating risk to your core business, you’re allowing your critical mass of customers to get in front of you. Whenever a mass of customers is underserviced, someone will fill that gap, and you can bet it will be a nimble, online pure play that’s moving at light speed compared to you.

Internet Speed Defined

Jim Lecinski from Google’s Chicago office has a chart he loves to show in client presentations. It slaps you upside the head with the reality of “Internet speed.” He first recounts a typical conversation with a client that falls squarely in the first category of “getting it.”

Jim: “What are you doing with your online campaigns?”

Client: “Oh, we have a lot happening. We’re expanding our keyword list next quarter and we’ll optimize that campaign over the following quarter. In Q3 and 4 we’re going to run some experiments with social media that we’re excited about. For the next fiscal, we’ve built more into the budget for better tracking and attribution. That will help as we move to cross-channel optimization because we’ll get great data showing us what’s working and what’s not. That will also allow us to step up our landing page testing and optimization.”

Jim: “So, you’ve got your plans set out for about 18 to 24 months ahead?”

Client: “You bet. We’re moving very quickly.”

Then Jim shows them the Google Trends graph that reminds them that both YouTube and FaceBook went from zero to Internet domination in under 24 months. Further, few people had heard of Twitter 12 short months ago.

That’s Internet Speed.

That’s “Getting It.”

The Search Insider RFP Panel: Truer than You Know

First published May 14, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Another Search Insider Summit is in the can. And one of the most interesting panels we had was the one put together by Aaron Goldman about the RFP process in search. Aaron picked up from where he, Steve Baldwin and Janel Landis left off in a string of columns talking about the frustration of RFPs and RFQs. Aaron posed the question of whether the RFP process was fundamentally broken to a balanced panel of clients (represented by  Olivier Lemaignen from Intuit and Tom Bombacino from Restaurant.com) and agencies (represented by Tom Kuthy from Resolution Media and Janel from SendTec).

It was a fascinating session. We heard from both sides about the challenge of finding the right search partner. Panel members said the RFP process was overly rigid and bureaucratic, an attempt to avoid risk that ended up putting agencies and marketers into an adversarial relationship right from the start. Tom Kuthy said he often refuses to play the game, either trying to change the rules to a more mutually enjoyable alternative or just picking up his ball and going home. On the client side, Olivier was sure that RFP stood for “Request for Pain.”  Surely, the panel agreed, there has to be a better way.

Where Have I Heard This Before?

I found the panel so enjoyable not because of Aaron’s able “steermanship” — although he was his usually engaging self — but because the stories of pain we heard rang so true to my past experience.

As luck would have it, Enquiro is midway through an extensive webinar and white paper series on organizational buying behavior. It caps off several months of research that involved talking to hundreds of B2B buyers about how they make purchase decisions. And what I heard on Friday afternoon at Captiva was exactly what we heard time after time from these people. B2B buying is a huge pain in the butt.

There’s a sales maxim that is often quoted: “People want to buy, but they don’t want to be sold.” While this is generally true, there’s an interesting variation in the B2B world, which, as vendors, we all live in: “B2B buyers definitely don’t want to be sold, they’re ambivalent about buying, and the only thing that really matters is covering their ass.”

Here’s the Rub

When we buy things for ourselves, there’s usually an element of risk, but also one of reward. Human decision-making balances the two against each other. And we do it by gut instinct. There’s often a degree of rational deliberation, but the engine that drives consumerism is emotion: the thrill of possession vs. the fear of loss. There is a yin and yang to most purchases that carry an element of pleasure. That is why we love to buy. But some purchases, like life insurance, carry no inherent reward. There’s only risk to consider. Buying life insurance is no one’s idea of fun.

Most B2B buying is like life insurance. There’s no reward side to the equation, only risk. If we make the wrong decision, we can lose our job. If we make the right decision, we don’t get a new car, or a TV, or even a new pair of shoes. We just get 10 tons of ball bearings, or a new search agency. Where the hell is the fun in that?  Avoiding risk is all there is to most B2B buying.

Buyers and Doers

Now, some people are occasionally thrilled about B2B purchases. These are the people that get to use the new equipment, or software. They’re the ones that get to work with the new search agency (fully staffed by exceptionally fun people), taking a huge burden off their shoulders. Surely there’s an element of reward in it for these people? Yes, and that’s why they almost never give the final OK to a purchase. They’re too highly motivated to buy, so somebody needs to apply the brakes. In our research, we call the people wanting to buy the “Doers” and the people applying the brakes the “Buyers.” It’s the Buyers who insist on the RFP process. As far as the Doers are concerned, RFPs are a waste of time.

Tom and Olivier were “Doers.” They had little time for the ass-covering pretense of RFPs. On the vendor side, no one likes an RFP. But what we were missing on Aaron’s panel was a “Buyer.” I’m pretty sure the procurement people at Intuit are in no great rush to scrap their RFP process.

In Search of B2B Landmarks

First published September 27, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This week (actually, right about the time you’ll be reading this column) I’ll be talking to the American Business Media Publishers Summit in Chicago about online opportunities, from a user’s perspective. As I was getting ready for the address, I realized there’s a substantial piece of the B to B market that’s missing online. I call it a market enabler.

Looking for Landmarks

Think of our typical progression when we begin researching something online. If it’s new territory, the first thing we need to do is to find a landmark to navigate from. From that landmark we tend to navigate out from it. This is true both in the online and real world. Think of Google as everybody’s favorite landmark. It’s the starting point of nearly all our online navigation, because we know we can always get back to it if we’re lost. In fact, it becomes the vehicle of our online navigation in almost all cases. The only time we deviate from it is if we have enough familiarity with a certain section of the online landscape that we can find other online landmarks without it. For example, if I’m planning a trip somewhere, I usually don’t start at Google. I either start at one of the travel tools I have bookmarked (Farecompare.com, Kayak, Sidestep) or at my favorite travel community, Tripadvisor.com. I’ve been down this path before, so I’ve memorized other familiar landmarks. Otherwise, I always start at Google.

But there are some things we look for in our landmarks. We want them to be recognizable. We want them to be authoritative. We want them to be comprehensive. And usually, we want them to be relatively agnostic. We don’t want to be pushed in any particular direction. We want to choose our own paths. We want a neutral marketplace that allows us to compile our own consideration set, not have it built for us.

Making Life Easier

It also helps if our landmarks incorporate some strong navigational and comparison functionality. One of the best things about the travel sites and tools I’ve mentioned is their sophisticated search and filtering capabilities. They beat Google at this particular game. They’re a more useful landmark to navigate from within. And increasingly, they’re incorporating authentic community dialogue and reviews with the search functionality. I can search, sort and qualify, all in one place. They make the difficult job of planning a trip easier. They’re market enablers, because they allow us to compare alternatives more effectively. If we look at the two best examples of market enablers, eBay and Amazon, they share all of the above characteristics.

So, let’s return to the B to B marketplace. In our B to B survey, we found that almost everyone starts with Google, because most of the time when we research B to B purchases, we’re starting in unfamiliar territory. We have no landmarks. And while we usually end up going fairly quickly to vendor sites, the survey found a strong desire to find an unbiased landmark as the market’s middle ground. Yet, no enablers have strongly established themselves in this position. There is no eBay or Amazon, or even a TripAdvisor, of B to B. There are vertical engines, including Business.com, Knowledgestorm, KellySearch, ThomasNet and others, but none have dominated the landscape to this point.

Sorting through the Haystack

In a recent B to B panel I moderated, consultant Karen Breen Vogel mentioned that these vertical properties do restrict the scope of the search, so rather than looking for a needle in a haystack, you’re looking for a needle in a needlestack. While this is true, it can still be a pretty painful process if you’re looking for the right needle. The problem is that the B 2 B marketplace is vast and fragmented. Also, there are no obvious affiliation or revenue opportunities, as there are in the travel business. There isn’t an obvious money trail to follow in the B to B world to make enabling the marketplace a potentially lucrative proposition. Most of the players have morphed over from being directory publishers in the offline world, and are still following the paid listing model. Unfortunately, this doesn’t lend itself to the neutral marketplace favored by researching buyers.

There are few purchase processes that are more difficult or taxing than a complicated B to B one. Sorting out potential vendors can be a long, tedious and frustrating process. First of all, there’s no emotional investment. This isn’t planning a vacation. This is your job. Secondly, the risk level is extremely high. Screw up, and your job may evaporate. While the potential to make money may be obscured by the challenges, the buyer’s need is painfully obvious. And I can’t help thinking, if eBay could do it, given the immense diversity of its marketplace, there must be a way.

Shedding Some Light on B2B Purchasing

First published May 17, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This week, we released our latest B-to-B research study based on a survey of almost 1,100 respondents. Today, I wanted to share a few high-level findings with you.

The Mirrored Worlds of Online and Offline

One of the challenges in B-to-B marketing is that you’re not marketing to just one person; you’re marketing to an organization. So you’re marketing to different people within that organization at different times. This adds a significant amount of complexity to business-to-business marketing. We wanted to capture this aspect of the B-to-B buying process, so we grouped respondents into four different categories of buyers: user buyers, technical buyers, coach buyers and economic buyers, the one who actually sign the check.

Another thing we wanted to look at was the impact of both online and off-line influencers in the purchase decision. How important was visiting a Web site, compared to seeing a vendor at a trade show or an ad in a trade publication?

In the study, one thing became clear. Online influences have gained a tremendous amount of ground over traditional influences. In fact, they’ve even caught up with the traditional off-line winner, word-of-mouth. The vendor’s own Web site was listed as the most important influence, together with word-of-mouth from a colleague or peer. Close behind were search engines, distributor Web sites and word-of-mouth from a friend.

When B-to-B buyers enter the purchase cycle, online activity is a natural result of off-line brand awareness. As the buyer becomes aware of a potential product or solution, the first reaction is to turn online to find out more about it. Across all phases of the buying cycle, including awareness, research, negotiation and purchase, over 85% of respondents said they will go online to help them make the right purchasing decision. This online activity was highest during the awareness and research phase, with a full 92% of respondents indicating that they would turn to online resources then. The percentage was lowest during negotiation, but even so, two out of every three respondents indicated that they would go online during this phase.

The Search Intersection

Also, the vast majority of purchasers start their online journey at the search engine. Although this varies by phase of the buying process, over all phases one in two users turn to a search engine first to help them find the online resources they’re looking for. This is highest during the beginning of the purchase process, in the awareness and research phases. At the awareness phase, 65% of respondents indicated the first place they would go would be a search engine.

There’s also a distinct evolution in the use of search engines as buyers move through the purchase process. Near the beginning, the first places they turn are the major portals, and the overwhelming favorite is Google, the first choice of 77% of the respondents. By the way, in a simulated search we incorporated into the survey, 74.2% of the clicks happened on organic listings. This matches up quite well with the organic/sponsored breakdown we’ve seen in other studies.

But as buyers begin moving through the phases, the role of the vertical B-to-B search engine (such as Business.com or Knowledgestorm) becomes more important. Buyers use these engines to build their consideration set and dig deep for the information about the product or solution alternatives they’re considering. While only 7.3% of respondents indicated they would turn first to the B-to-B vertical engine in the awareness phase, 22.1% indicated this would be their first choice during the negotiation stage.

K.I.S.S. Works for B-to-B, Too

The biggest influence for the B-to-B buyer? The vendor’s own Web site. But when it comes to accessing information on that site, simpler is definitely better. Buyers said they were looking for clear, extensive product information provided in an easily transferable, text-based format. The No. 1 priority was clear pricing information. This was followed closely by extensive product information, comparisons with competitors and downloadable papers and product sheets. The least important factors to the buyer were things like podcasts, webinars and online chat functions. B-to-B buyers are very task-oriented; they want to get in, find the information they’re looking for and get out. They have little patience for linear multimedia presentations that force them to gather information on the vendor’s timeline, not their own.

B-to-B purchases are often complex, long-cycle affairs that generate a tremendous amount of online activity. The wonderful thing for the marketer is that much of that activity funnels through a search engine at some point. This gives the marketer that understands this process a tremendous advantage, because it’s easier to determine the most traveled intersections online. But that understanding is the key. I hope research like this adds to our rather limited body of data on B-to-B purchases.

Connecting the Dots with a Global Marketplace

First published May 3, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Late last week I got to spend a couple of very enjoyable days in the desert heat of Tucson together with the sales team of ThomasNet.com. I was the guest speaker at their national sales conference. This week, likely as you read this, I’ll be in New York for the SEMPO Planning Retreat, and in another day or so, I’ll be on a plane to Florida for the Search Insider Summit. I get back for one week, briefly acclimatize myself and then it’s off to China for Search Engine Strategies. The point of rattling off my travel itinerary, other than gloating about the frequent flier miles I’m racking up? All this hopscotching around the globe can be tied together with one common theme. It was topic of my talk in Tucson. While preparing for it, I found some interesting details that speak of a groundswell of change that will impact every industry.

What Web Site? I Don’t Need No Stinking Web Site!

One of the challenges faced by ThomasNet, or for that matter, any online property that is targeting industrial manufacturers, is in convincing some of the advertisers of the need for establishing a Web presence. These are traditional and, very often, conservative businesses that have been around for decades, and they cast a jaundiced eye at anything too new, too trendy or anything that even vaguely smacks of “geekiness.” In many cases, they’ve been turning out steel widgets and doodads that have a very specific niche market. They know their customers, and their customers know them. So why would they need a Web site? Why would they need to advertise on a search engine? And why do they have to worry about a global marketplace? All the reasons can be summed up in two words: things change.

Agents of Change

In 1990, the travel industry was a relatively stable place. Travelers went to the local travel agents and the travel agents acted as the channel for the information from various airlines, cruise lines, hotel chains and vacation companies to the consumer. They served a vital part of the value chain in the industry. And with something as highly personalized and variable as travel, it was hard to imagine how these travel experts could ever be disintermediated.

Even when the Internet started to gain traction and the first online agencies popped up in the mid-’90s, travel agent’ place seemed relatively secure, because of many of the same reasons we currently hear from manufacturers: They knew their customers, their customers knew them and the exchange of information back and forth between the two parties proved the value of this relationship.

In 1995, the number of single-office travel agencies peaked at almost 22,000, according to the Airlines Reporting Corporation. And then things changed. The online travel agents upped the ante. They demystified travel and opened up control of information to anyone who had Internet access. Airlines and hotels readjusted their booking channels to be able to go first to online agencies, and ultimately, direct to savvy travelers. Online communities formed that allowed travelers to connect with others who’d been there, seen it and done it, getting firsthand advice of where to stay and how to get there. And by 2004, the number of single-office travel agencies had been cut in half. Less than 10 years and an industry was decimated. Things change quickly!

Look East for the Future

In 1999 Intel Chairman Andy Grove said, “In five years, all companies will be Internet companies, or they won’t be companies at all.” Grove may have been a touch optimistic in his timing (imagine, someone over-hyping the Internet in 1999), but I don’t believe that takes away from the importance of his message. One of the mistakes that travel agents made, and the mistake that many small manufacturers are making again, is to assume that just because they’re not interested in a global market, all other competitors are likewise uninterested in their market.

The balance of power in the manufacturing world is dramatically swinging eastward. Another sobering fact that I came up with in the preparation for my presentation was the fact that in the U.S., there are currently about 14 million jobs in manufacturing. In all G-7 countries combined (U.S., Canada, the UK, France, Italy, Germany and Japan), there are about 53 million manufacturing jobs. In China alone, there are almost 110 million jobs in manufacturing. A manufacturing powerhouse the likes of which we’ve never seen before is gearing up in Asia. And those Asian companies are desperately eager to learn how to use the Internet to connect with new markets right here, in our backyard. To add to what Andy Grove said, not only will all companies be Internet companies, we’ll also have to become global companies. At the very least, we’ll have to be acutely aware of our global competition.

And that brings me to the other destinations on my travel agenda. One of the things the SEMPO board will be discussing this Thursday in New York will be the driving trends in search. Globalization will be near the top of the agenda. Then, a few days later in Florida, at the Search Insider Summit, we’ll be gathering together in the Everglades to talk about emerging issues. Search’s expansion beyond its early consumer-based, direct-response successes into areas like manufacturing and other business-to-business verticals is almost sure to be discussed. Finally, I have to see for myself the economic explosion that’s happening in China. I was a little shameless in wrangling myself an invite to speak at Search Engine Strategies. But it seems that no matter where you go, one thing remains true. All roads lead online, and they all intersect with search at some point.