By Mike Antonczyk and Matt Hirschland Ph.D.
As we count down to the holidays and the new year, we know that means more than just choking down bad fruit cake, last-minute panicked present buying, and a few extra pounds around the waist.
Those may be mostly just my issues. What really keeps many marketers awake at night is not anticipation of Santa, but what content we will trot out to wow customers and clients in the new year. In this Part III installment of our “Dear CMO” series, let us lighten your burden a bit with a couple of approaches that are sure to help you sleep a bit better as you plan your channel strategies for success in 2016.
First, by way of a quick recap, in “Dear CMO, Part I: Why Your Content Misses the Mark”, we detailed findings and shortcomings in content marketing approaches when it comes to actually securing customers from these investments. In Part II “Dear CMO, Part II: Place the Voice-of-the-Customer at the Center of All You Do”, we focused on correctives, in the form of concrete approaches to making these marketing activities much more customer-centric, drawing upon examples from our work across industries and company types.
Picking up where we left off in Part II then, the ideas here are fresh takes on channel strategies that have proven successful in securing deep and fruitful customer engagement for our clients, and for our own company.
With some planning and forethought, these can be easily replicated. Doing so will help you move past purely lead gen activities and into more robust relationship building with your customers. These approaches will also help create a “stickiness” that solidifies these relationships over time, while creating raving fans along the way and a more direct and prominent client-facing role for the marketing function.
The strategies come in two different but related forms – creating and delivering experiential customer workshops and the use of influencer activation strategies – both designed to capture the imagination of new and existing buyers while providing you with valuable insights that will fuel sales and inform a range of important business decisions.
Experiential Customer Workshops
Let’s begin with the idea of creating and delivering experiential customer workshops. In practice, these are small, engaging sessions for a few – up to 100 participants at a time – that immerse participants in a range of decision-making activities addressing their most pressing business challenges.
In some cases, they focus on one activity such as a competitive war game that has them building a new business to pressure-test or beat their own. Here participants play the role of their own competitors working to take market share from their own firms by detailing the competitive and other moves they would make. In other cases, the sessions are comprised of multiple activities ranging from customer journeying and rapid prototyping exercises allowing participants to “walk a day in the life” of their own customers while learning new problem-solving techniques.
In sum, experiential means putting people to work: taking them out of their comfort zones, but ultimately equipping them with new skills and ideas they can apply immediately.
The reason this type of workshop is such a big and growing part of what we do with our clients is simple: the marketing executives that hire us and the clients they must engage are demanding something different and meaningful. A few of the reasons we commonly hear for this include:
- Few buyers are willing to sit through one more PowerPoint death-march.
- It’s getting harder to connect with decision-makers at large events. Increasingly, senior leaders eschew attending conferences, instead sending other, more junior people in their stead to endure long-winded key-notes and sparsely attended break-out sessions, many of which they can often see on YouTube.
- The guru or “sage-on-a-stage” format is great, but it often feels like a fly-by and it is hard to get messages and lessons to stick with participants in terms of meaningful action and follow-up.
- Executives are less enamored with merely gaining insights and want solutions they can apply directly to their businesses right away.
- As a corollary to #4, buyers increasingly want capability transfer that equips their own people to act.
While a day spent doing deep-problem solving with customers may sound like fun, the natural question arises: What the heck does any of this have to do with engaging my buyers with my products and services? The answer is that by offering your buyers (and potential buyers) an experience that addresses the central challenges they face and places your people, products, and services at the heart of the solution, you’ve captured and entered into rarified and sought-after air. By providing such an experience, you simultaneously accomplish three things:
- You put customers and their challenges at the center of your efforts
- You learn and hear important and often unguarded things about the issues they are facing and how you can help
- You offer something that feels (and is) fundamentally different than what they get from most anyone else
Influencer Activation Strategies
An often-used customer strategy for B2C companies, activating compelling influencers on behalf of your products and services, seems lost on many B2B companies. We’d argue that because of this deficit, engaging influencers as a second strategy for 2016 is actually very fertile ground and can pay powerful dividends for B2B companies. By influencer activationwe mean deploying groups or individual influencers to carry sought-after solutions directly to your targeted buyers in engaging and sustained ways.
You may be wondering about the wisdom of an influencer strategy for connecting with likely B2B buyers. There are two primary reasons for executing one:
The first is that so few of your competitors are likely pursuing this as a customer channel. Second, research continues to show that “buyers still look first to their peers when seeking an opinion regarding the B2B purchasing decision,” so engaging this decision-maker set in directed, meaningful and novel ways becomes an important intervention opportunity. Combine the two and you have fertile (and virtually untouched) ground on which to operate.
Our approach to executing a B2B influencer playbook de-emphasizes paid spokespeople or social media influencers. Instead, it is much more about partnering in robust ways with recognized influencers who, more often than not, have surprisingly similar interests to yours (e.g., engaging with business decision makers, sharing their research with the right audiences, seeking more sustained and meaningful chances to affect real change). To do so, we advise and pursue a three-step process for starting such a program:
- Identify a handful of the world’s most important trend influencers in specific domains you care about – distill this down to the one or two individuals or organizations whose outreach goals are aligned with your own.
- Co-create content and solutions with them – engineer delivery of these through multiple channels including experiential workshops (see section 1).
- Engage customers directly with these influencers in conjunction with your own experts – do so in programmatic ways the ensure recurring touch points and an ongoing conversations.
We are seeing an upward tick among B2B companies in the use of this type of influencer partnership strategy. Some recognizable examples of this include: Dan Gilbert, a renowned social scientist, writer and Harvard professor who makes appearances about risk and planning for Prudential; Hal Sirken, a managing director at Boston Consulting Group who challenges BCG’s own customers on achieving operational excellence; and author Ori Brafman whose partnership with the U.S. Army is helping create more resilient commands, along with the tools required to do so. There are many more examples of this type of influencer deployment in both expected and unexpected ways. In our experience, the outcomes from this type of collaboration is far better in terms of enriching discussions with customers and the commercial outcomes that follow than they would have been without it.
Fluid by design
Pursuing either of the strategies described here means learning to let go a bit. It requires a willingness to embrace formats that are not “canned,” and are fluid by design. But it is precisely these factors that make them real and effective channels to learn from customers – while demonstrating your depth of understanding along with the products and solutions you provide.
So please sleep easy as 2016 nears. You now have two powerful tools in your kit for engaging customers and fueling your content strategies that capture the imagination of buyers in new, powerful and proven ways.
* This article originally appeared on www.act-on.com