Content Curation vs. Thought Leadership: What’s the Difference?

I came across a Forbes post by Pawan Deshpande, CEO of Curata, published last month. 

In it he offers 4 interesting reasons why he sees content curation heading mainstream.  In a nutshell, Deshpande finds:

1) The explosion of content on the Internet from online and social publishers has created vast quantity at the cost of quality.  Buyers/searchers need help sorting the wheat from the chaff.

2) Curating content creates trust because you aren’t only talking about yourself.

3) Good, relevant content helps win the battle for first-page results on Google.

4) People rely on social media as a resource for the most timely and relevant information. (However, see #1 above.)

Of course, as recent MIT-grad turned chief executive of a start-up focused on content aggregation tools, he would like us to believe that 400 marketers can’t be wrong, and content curation is the next big thing in marketing.  Growing interest in destinations like Pinterest certainly support his view that finding, organizing and sharing online content is an important component of any content marketing strategy.

Many B2B marketers look at content curation as a way to develop a bounty of information that attracts potential buyers like flies. They justify the effort by saying “we curate content to help establish us as thought leaders in… <Fill in the blank.>”  The research Deshpande promotes reinforces this objective by explaining, “85 percent of the survey group said that establishing thought leadership was their main content curation objective.”

However, I found it more interesting that two people commented on the post — Craig Badings and Dr. Liz Alexander – and argued that, while collecting content may be a necessary step to establishing thought leadership, the activity becomes irrelevant if the curator does not apply some interesting or meaningful insight to the work.  A good librarian can point you to the right book, document, etc.  A great curator can tell you the story behind each item and why you should care about it.

This is an important lesson for B2B marketers to learn: content curation is not a substitute for an interesting or provocative point of view. If you need to grow content volume by sharing relevant information in demand generation and marketing programs, start by narrowing your target audience and focusing on the content that helps prospects and clients solve a particular, meaningful problem. 

How do you do this?  Here are some ideas: Get your internal experts — customer support, professional services, consultants, etc. — to share tips and secrets-to-success in a blog, video, or article.  Develop stories that help buyers learn something interesting about who your company is, and what you stand for, without “selling” to them. Bottomline: turning content curation into thought leadership requires focus and being thoughtful about what you choose to feature. It also requires you to engage your internal thought leaders — real or manufactured — in the conversation.

At Xerox, I am part of a group that plans to take our first steps in the direction of using content curation to forge a shared belief — with our customers, partners and industry authorities — that Xerox can be your trusted partner in the health care industry. We want to use this activity to help spread the word about the many things we do to help providers, hospitals, health insurers, employers and state/local governments deal with the rising cost of healthcare and the lack of accessibilty for many.  We will take cues from American Express OPEN Forum for small businesses, the GE Healthy Outlook Blog (part of GE’s Healthymagination program), and Nokia with Nokia Connects. I hope to share what we learn from our journey as we endeavor to expand awareness around Xerox’s role in the world of health and medicine.

Thanking TEDMED Delegates for an Inspiring Event

TEDMED and Xerox Thank Delegates for an Inspiring 2012 Event

How do you leave an impression with over 1700 attendees of TEDMED that is both surprising and personal? Between two and three weeks after the extraordinary event that was TEDMED 2012 concluded, participants received a large, sleek black envelop in the mail. In it came a simple quote, suitable for framing, that speaks to the spirit and inspiration that is at the center of all of  TEDMED.

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out.  It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being.  We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”  — Albert Schweitzer

Cosponsored by TEDMED, Xerox sent this art object to delegates as a way to say “thank you” for being a part of this year’s event and for adding their voice to the thousands of discussions and debates that made TEDMED an immersive, engrossing, and utterly captivating experience.  The quote was wrapped in crisp, white linen which carried a small, personal message to each recipient.

Getting to this result was both gratifying and exhausting. The experience taught me a lot about what inspires me and how the path to inspiration is not always smooth and straight.   Here’s a quick synopsis — and a little “behind-the-scenes” look — at how Xerox, through its fantastic partnership with TEDMED and our creative agency, Pappas MacDonnell, iterated through this process:

1) February: TEDMED plans to hold a Sponsor Celebration Party on the last evening, Thursday, April 12th, at the National Building Museum. Total number of attendees may reach 1,500 and Xerox would like to present each guest with a small gift/favor as they depart the Gala that will leave a positive lasting impression of Xerox.

2) Criteria: Gift should provide a human touch and evoke an emotional reaction. Gift should not require elaborate assembly. It should be consumable or easily portable with a reasonable price point. It must require the recipient to interact with it.

3) The intended experience: Imagine 6 to 10 ambassadors lined up at the exit area hand out the gift, bid each guest a fond farewell, thank them for attending, and personally hand them a token of appreciation. The overall experience is genuine, warm, gracious. It’s an end to a wonderful evening; the gift is a reminder of the time spent together. (Note, while this sounds great, it did not happen as planned.)

4) First round: Agency selected a number of whimsical, packaged food items to meet the above criteria. As TEDMED’s gala plans evolved, we found that early gift selections competed with the extravagant desserts designed for the event. Late in March, we scrub the food gift item and go for something that combines art and experience. We also want an item that we can hand out at the end of the evening. We selected the Schweitzer quote – that also appeared in the TEDMED brochure — as the centerpiece of the experience.

5) Conclusion: Logistical problems prevail and we decide to send the art/gift after TEDMED concludes.  We also decide to add the matte/frame and to make the item of sufficient size so that it doesn’t get overlooked in the mail room.  The result is what you see in the image above.  There were countless other steps required to design and approve the artwork, color selections, embossing, packaging materials, mailing lists,  and postage costs! 

The result, we hope, is a surprising and inspiring touch from Xerox that shows all TEDMED delegates how honored we were to join them this year, add our voice to the conversation about the future of health and medicine and show how we intend to engage in the dialogue going forward. Anecdotally, we heard positive responses from those who received the gift.  If you received one, post a comment here to tell me about it. Were you surprised?  Inspired?  Did you hang it on your wall?  Let me know.

5 B2B Marketing Predictions for 2012

Sourced from http://www.freedigitalphotos.net (see below)

Happy New Year! To kick off 2012, I thought I’d journey back to my industry analyst roots and make a few predictions about the issues most likely to impact B2B marketers during the next 12 months. I can’t say these predications are as well researched as my prior efforts, but – hey! – I don’t get paid to give advice any longer. (Doesn’t stop me from doing it, however.) I based this list of ruminations more on firsthand experience than third-party study and pseudo-science stuff:

1. Marketing automation (MA) interest, purchase, and use will accelerate. Despite claims from the vendors here, the MA market has been slow to develop. As the recession deepened, marketers turned to MA to cut costs and shift expenses from heads to tools. But the automation investment stakes will rise in 2012 as large enterprises move beyond initial trials to tap into the promise of building demand ahead of the sales effort. Sirius Decisions predicts 50% of enterprises will make the jump to MA by 2015 and Annuitas CEO Carlos Hidalgo expects MA purchase intent to double this year. I think the trend is positive, but that growth won’t accelerate dramatically. Experiencing this shift at a big company (Xerox) these past 18 months, I believe that the transition will be slower – and more painful – than these predictions as large enterprises in particular come to grips with the talent, process, and content issues (not the technology) that keep marketing automation on the B2B backburner.

2. Market program focus will shift from building brand and consideration to sales enablement. Marketing and sales cannot survive independently from each other, but only a minority of executives will address this dilemma in 2012. I don’t believe the solution is to make Marketing report to Sales and lose its position at the boardroom table. However, the core marketing conversation must demonstrate how marketing activity impacts sales pipeline and, ultimately, revenue. I see revenue performance management become more than just a buzzword as B2Bers start to demonstrate predictable, sustainable growth in sales, fueled by tighter marketing and sales alignment. Interestingly, notable successes will come from firms that grow sales with existing clients rather than bold moves into net-new markets.

3. The role of the customer advocate will emerge and take shape. B2B marketers have long known the value of the customer reference. Buyers want proof that you did what you say you do for someone else like them. And they want to learn from those experiences. While customer case studies and success stories were the physical and online record of this achievement, lower cost advances in technology will make it far easier for B2B marketers to capture customer testimonial in the form of video or interactive apps, particularly those suited for tablet presentation. I see companies like BrightTALK, ntara interactive, StoryQuest, and Velocity World Media experiencing a bumper year in 2012. Social networks – and plain, old, traditional industry associations and conferences — will let marketers turn clients into advocates by promoting mutual successes and shining the spotlight on customer achievement rather than product features.

4. To increase lead scoring effectiveness, marketers incorporate fit and interest criteria. Sales continues to complain that marketing delivers terrible leads. Lead scoring helps to bring discipline to the lead development and qualification process. But scoring backfires as marketers get too sophisticated too early when rating the value of prospect engagement with marketing activity. Because the threshold always changes, smart marketers will use scoring to prioritize leads, and let sales determine where to draw the line. As a best practice, they will use hard profile information – rightness of fit, account demographics, contact relevance, and audience rating – to augment softer behavioral information passed along with each “qualified” lead.

5. Content marketing will evolve as a separate function within the marketing organizational structure. The Internet has helped to make B2B buyers more sophisticated. Today, over half of the purchase decision is complete by the time buyers talk to sales. To get noticed during the early investigation phase – when the realization dawns to decision makers that the status quo is not working – marketers must produce interesting, educating, thought-provoking content. In 2012 they will quit relying on agencies to do this. The need to publish points of view in-line with thought-leading positions will cause firms (in particular: big ones) to hire or retain journalist-quality writers to pump out content for field and solution marketing programs (demand gen) to consume.

What do you see and how is that view different?  Post a comment here to share your thoughts.

PS: I sourced this image from http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=809

Driving Growth in B2B Companies? Try This Playbook

December is a popular month to spend planning for the next year or reviewing current progress.  I find it is also a good month to reconnect with your corporate strategy and ask “what can marketing do to help create more predictable, profitable, and sustainable growth for my company?” Recently, I read The B2B Executive Playbook, written by my friend Sean Geehan of the Geehan Group. I think it offers a succinct summary of the factors that most affect the B2B business’s ability to thrive, with a unique perspective on one — why it’s important to focus on your current clients as a way to grow revenue. 

I first met Sean in 2009 at the Customer Reference Forum. We stayed in touch through my transition to Xerox and he invited me to speak at his Executive Summit on Business Transformation in February. He asked me to review an early draft of his book and sent me a final copy. (This is all the open disclosure stuff, folks.) I have heard him speak several times on the topic of this book.

The B2B Executive Playbook consolidates principles that apply specifically to companies that sell highly-considered products or services through a direct salesforce to other businesses. Some of the ideas here resemble others we have seen, but are good reminders. The “B2B relationship continuum” in chapter 2, for example, reminds me of research that my former director, Laurie Orlov, wrote on The Three Archetypes of IT. The “Market-Aligned Three-Circle Venn” in chapter 5 calls to mind Jim Collin’s hedgehog concept” popularized in Good to Great.

What Sean does really well, however, is put these concepts in the context of a vitally important B2B best practice — that of engaging with your customers to collaborate on your company’s strategy directions, refer you to other decision makers, advocate for you as a trusted supplier, and do more business with you.  A lot more. 

Case in point: HCL, a professional services firm located in Noida, India.  Paraphrasing the book, HCL lacked a systematic way to interact with key decision makers from their customers prior to 2008. HCL’s Americas President Shami Khorana decided to target their “top 80″ clients  in a formal program to exchange ideas and gain their collective feedback. And to demonstrate a sincere interest in keeping their business. Khorana credits this program, in part, with HCL’s rise from $1.4B in 2007 to over $3B in 2010, with an annual growth rate of more than 20% — even through the economic downturn of 2008/09.

Through other case studies like HCL, the B2B Executive Playbook gives practical advice on how to build and retain key decision maker relationships at the right level of your organization, and how to maintain a select group of the key executive customers in your market who will advise you willingly and buy from you consistently.

Recognizing that B2B companies win or lose based on the strength of relationships with a relatively few, very key customers is the essential insight that B2B executives and marketers can overlook. Consider your 2012 marketing plans, for example, and ask how much you intend to spend on customer acquisition versus retention, loyalty, and advocacy. Reflect on how much time your sales representatives spend with real decision makers versus influencers or users (who can’t sign a purchase order.) 

If you are like most B2B, large enterprises, then you will find a quick read through this book will help to reorient your thinking around those customers who matter most and hold the keys to your future success.

Take a look: I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Tackling Content Management with BtoB Magazine

Last month, BtoB Magazine asked me to speak on a panel as part of its NetMarketing Breakfast Series at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco on February 16. BtoB’s NetMarketing Breakfast events explore how b-to-b marketers use the Internet to communicate with customers and prospects. Together with Kevin Cox from SAP and Pam Didner from Intel, I shared a short presentation showing some examples of effective online marketing campaigns that we executed here at Xerox. 

My presentation examined two case studies: Xerox’s Real Business Live and Xerox Global Services’s Thought Leadership campaigns — both of which feature an integrated array of online, broadcast, and conventional marketing approaches and tactics.  You can download a copy of the presentation from BtoB Magazine’s site if you are interested in seeing more.

As a follow up to this panel, the writers at BtoB asked me to comment on the following question:

“How are you managing content for marketing?”

You can see from my response, that I answered the question quite literally while Pam and Mark Wilson, VP Corporate Marketing at Sybase — who I know from my analyst days and have admired his work on provocation marketing, provided more high-level advice.

Looking at the topic of content management best practices more broadly, I would echo Pam’s advice that “content is king, but creative is queen”. It’s not enough to have interesting content, but you have to present that content in a way that engages the audience and compels them to interact with you. I think good storytelling is key to making content compelling and relevant. As are proper grammar, clear writing, and the ability to write copy that reflects your customer’s concerns, not yours.

Central to any B2B marketer’s narrative should be your clients and the stories they tell about how you helped them to solve difficult problems or to make their business operate more effectively or efficiently.  So marketers, worry more about developing, presenting, and syndicating your content than “managing” it.  Because getting buyers and customers to talk about you is what gets others to notice.

Summit on Customer Engagement 2011, Day Two

What is “customer engagement”, exactly? I don’t think the term is one most business people would recognize as a common marketing function like PR, Marcom, field marketing, or product marketing. The best definition I’ve heard here at the Summit on Customer Engagement is:

“Customer Engagement includes the role, responsibilities, and activities around all the non-revenue value a company/organization receives from its clients and buyers.”

The concept continues to expand beyond customer reference management to include advisory councils, communities (non-developer), events (in particular virtual), and testimonial (written, digital, video, and in person.) You could argue other points, but this list encompasses about 90% of the content shared during this conference.

More generally, marketing should be all about customer engagement. The definition reminds us that: 1) Marketing’s job is to scale the opportunities our firms have too engage with prospects and customers and 2) it’s a two-way street and customers should benefit as much (if not more) than our companies do when customers engage with us.

My view today on customer engagement focused on how Xerox Services uses video to engage our customers.  The examples I shared in my presentation — available here on Slideshare – are by no means ground-breaking or completely innovative.  But the examples demonstrate how Xerox uses video to create a persistent, engaging experience centered on our customers and about how we serve them best.  Key take-aways about the connection between video and customer engagement are:

1) B2B marketers underuse video. In earlier studies I did at Forrester, just under 50% of B2B marketers said that they used online video in their marketing mix - a percentage far less than email and search marketing, but also trailing behind emerging tactics like social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn), Twitter and other Web 2.0 tools.

2) Of those who use it, 1 in 5 say video is effective in building awareness and about 1 in 10 say it works for generating demand.  Wow, that’s terrible — but why?

3) Because about 2/3 of those surveyed said they use video to demonstrate products or (worse) they don’t use it at all.

4) This is a shame because B2B marketers need to be reminded that we sell to other people, not just businesses. And, like us, those people are influenced by experiences that engage their needs, desires and emotions.  And video is one of the best ways to create that kind of experience.

5) New digital cameras, smart phones, and YouTube make video production MUCH LESS expensive than it was just 10 years ago. Production quality matters, but you can get creative on a small budget.

Luckily for me, Xerox Services marketing is overcoming these hurdles and using video to tell our customer stories. We do this by:

Most importantly, with the need to rebrand the company around our ACS acquisition, Xerox Corporate built an interactive environment called “Real Business Live” that includes both customer-centric and full production (affinity advertising that tells a customer story in a co-branded fashion) video to take interactions beyond building the “awareness” that Xerox offers more than copiers and printers to exploration of what those capabilities mean to the clients who partner with us for those services.  Of all the examples share, this one created the most interest.

This brings me back to my first point, engaging prospects and customers today needs to go beyond the purchase process. Regardless of the medium (which is video in this post today), centering on the customer, telling their story, and making sure the story presented is authentic and specific is what makes marketing more engaging.

Live From the Summit On Customer Engagement, 2011 Edition

This is my third time attending Bill Lee’s annual summit for customer reference professionals.  This event expanded beyond reference programs to include a variety of ways to engage with customers and help drive business. You can follow the Tweet Stream at #2011SCE for live reactions. This post describes the value I see this event deliver to the B2B marketing community that worries about what customers say on their company’s behalf.

Setting aside popular social media definitions for a second, this group truly embodies a cohesive, thriving community. Looking around, I recognize a many attendees from prior events. The key theme, using customer engagement to expand the value delivered to customers, remains current and persistent. Bill recalls a conversation with CIO of Cardinal, Patty Morrison, that defines why customers, particularly those in the C-suite, care about how they engage with vendors.  Unlike the common belief that customers references are difficult to acquire and maintain, Patty said that she wants to engage. But, in return, she wants value from that engagement.  As marketers, we achieve this by helping customers like Patty to:

1) Improve how you (as a vendor) deliver service to me (as a client).

2) Measure my participation and report on the value this activity delivers to your firm.

3) Engage me in developing best practices together.

4) Make it easy for me to partner with you and drive business together.

5) Give me new, simple, or different ways to engage in marketing with you.

6) Present new opportunities for me to engage with my peers.

Companies represented in this room, including Saleforce.com, Hitachi Data Systems, Infor, Citrix, Cisco, HP, Microsoft, SAP, Siemens, Intel, and many more, do this — with varying degrees of success — through formal reference programs, social media, online community destinations, events, advisory boards, user groups, customer media (case studies, videos, testimonials, etc.), and knowledge centers. This last approach is interesting because it begins to cross the line between customer engagement and customer support/service.

Why does an event like this attract over 180 participants, and about a dozen sponsors, during these times? By speaking to the key issues that business executives worry about.  Need proof? The IBM Global Survey of 1500 CEOs showed that “reinventing the customer relationship” is one of the top 3 issues concerning top executives.  CEOs know that social media gives buyers more control over the message and dialogue, and company leaders need more advocates to help spread the good word in burgeoning social channels where buyers turn.  CEOs also see great value when their teams involve customers in product development, marketing, and support functions to spur new levels of innovation and to get better intelligence on what the market wants and needs.

Here are the highlights of best practices shared today:

Tom Wong, VP of Customer Mojo, at Salesforce.com shared how the Dreamforce team created an app that engaged over 14K attendees and helped them to network by “matchmaking” their interests with other conference participants.

Asim Zaheer, VP WW Corporate and Product Marketing for Hitachi Data Systems showed how Hitachi blends new social channels, social monitoring, and virtual events into the myriad of traditional customer engagement programs they support. He summarized with advice that reference programs should focus on finding value for customers in participating, simplifying your messages, providing more flexibility for customers to participate in different ways, and moving the sales process along.

Surprise!  Bill collared me to join Leif Pedersen (VP Marketing, Siemens Industry Automation) and Salim Ali (Global VP, Marketing, SAP) on a panel discussion on what customer reference managers should do to become more engagement focused.

Jeanette Gibson, Director of Social Media Marketing at Cisco, shared the enormously rich set of social activities that Cisco uses to engage their customers around user events (physical and virtual), communities, and integrated media/PR.  Cisco enjoys a social-savvy audience, social corporate culture, and a few key executives who are social natives.

Karen Newman, Marketing Director, Global Customer Advocacy, Siemens shared real-life, tactical, practical experience around managing a reference program at a 500K employee company with over $100B in revenue. Challenges with getting sales and executives to support reference/engagement programs was the hot topic.

There’s more to come tomorrow, so I hope you will join in the conversation. #2011SCE

Customer Engagement: Deepen Relationships with Community Marketing

Last week, Forrester published my research about how to deepen engagement engagement with programs focused on your best, most active customers. I think social software and activity will play a huge role here in 2010.  Why?  Because engaging business customers requires contact. To date, these connections revolve around reference programs, advisory boards, executive meetings, and user conferences. As social activity between B2B buyers and sellers evolves, the need to transform online interactions from transactional to relational increases, particularly as marketers recognize that digital approaches can reinforce the intimacy and influence essential to building strong customer bonds. I see the shortest path to successful B2B community building starting with existing customers and focusing on community, not corporate, objectives.

To build upon this idea — and add some perspective on the research — I conducted an “email” interview with Bill Lee, President of the Customer Strategy Group.  Here is what we discussed:

Q. Forrester is showing increasing interest in community marketing, so let’s start with a definition: how do you define community marketing and how do you see the concept evolving?

A.  We see community marketing as the next frontier for B2B marketers to cross as we move from marketing practices focused mainly on broadcast messaging – a practice founded on years of outbound advertising and promotional activity — to a blend of traditional and digital, individual and group, prospect and customer marketing approaches.  Community marketing is about using marketing to engage prospects, current customers, industry insiders, and partners in dialog that transparently and collectively improves the probability of creating effective solutions to the most pressing business problems. It’s about bringing technology and services suppliers into customers’ adoption activities in support of better business outcomes. It’s how Web 2.0 technologies enable new ways to innovate, collaborate, and partner that create more productive business operations.

Q. What role do you see reference programs playing in Community Marketing efforts?

A. Customer references validate product claims and streamline the sales process, both vital activities in B2B marketing.  Reference programs play a vital role in Community Marketing because the community of a supplier’s current customers – not individual accounts — becomes the focal point for revenue generation activity.  In the near future, the customer community helps to attract, engage, persuade, support, and retain future buyers of a supplier’s products and services.  As business buyers embrace the social Web, reference management can play a breakout role in the transition from collecting testimony to building community adoption.

Q. Can reference programs add to the value that businesses must provide to attract customers into their community marketing efforts? If so, how?

A. Customer reference programs can play a vital role in executing a community-centered marketing strategy that not only attracts new customers, but also turns your best customers into advocates within the community. These programs transition from sales support to community build in 3 important ways:

1) Reference customers make community activity intimate and influential, not just interactive.  Involving references in online, social activities — like peer discussions, rating and voting on products, content contribution, and so on —helps create positive product experiences and increases the likelihood that buyers will, in turn, advocate to others.

2) Social referencing involves your best customers in community building. Tapping reference customers predisposed to sharing experiences and speaking on your firm’s behalf is the best way to attract a community following. In B2B marketing, social media value will come from using Web 2.0 tools  to deepen customer relationships after deals close and implementation challenges begin.

3) References deliver content that creates conversation — and value for — buyers. Success stories and insight are the currency needed to sustain ongoing community activity. Because they participate readily, reference customers double their value when they energize community activity and discuss best practices.

Q. You’ve attended a couple of our conferences. What do you see customer reference programs doing that is exciting? What can or should they do to get better, and play a more important role in their businesses?

A. Today, I think the most exciting achievements happen when marketers give back real value to reference customers. The biggest benefit of advocating on behalf of a vendor should be membership in an exclusive community of like-minded participants where interacting with each other, as well as prospects and the public, is part of the draw and reward.  To play a bigger role in business, customer reference managers need to take advantage of emerging social business behavior more. They need to move beyond the physical, group setting and let references engage outside the boundaries of the formal program. Less than 30% of respondents to our earlier survey of customer reference professionals enabled their references to build profile pages, guest blog, rate community-contributed content, or author wikis, activities that permit customers to strut their stuff in the online, virtual world and create broader connections without having to trip through the legal, communications, or approval cycles that plague the production of more formal testimonial or case studies.

More Live From Summit on Customer Engagement 2009

The Summit on Customer Engagement continues Tuesday, October 21.  From yesterday’s session, here are my takeaways from the panel discussion where Jeff Tinker, SVP Wholesale Product and Market Strategy, Wells Fargo, Asim Zaheer, VP Global Product and Competitive Marketing, Hitachi Data Systems and John Pasquarette, VP of Product Marketing for Software, National Instruments talked about their current, direct experience with customer programs. Bill Lee moderated and took questions from the audience.

What do your customer programs look like and what are the best practices that you see work?

Wells Fargo started by focusing customer engagement programs at the B2B user level, but has shifted more dollars and attention on the decision maker level .  They have built online community destinations that successfully attract users (of small business banking products, for example), but now face the challenge of involving large business decision makers and creating deeper relationships with them online. Right now, customer engagement with decision makers happen offline.  To ensure maximum value for participants, they interview advisory board members before each meeting, synthesize what members want to hear from bank and each other, and facilitate this discussion.

Wells launched user community 2 years ago as a separate site with separate registration.  Flat growth in community membership resulted. Recently, they integrated the community into the main Wells Fargo portal to make the community more accessible.  The Wachovia acquisition, and increased interest in industry-specific topics, led to a doubling in their advisory board numbers. To meet this increased demand, Wells is looking at how to do customer advisory meetings virtually.

Jeff sees written case studies get less interest than in the past; current clients want to interact and ask questions of each other — whether about Wells products, how the merger is going, or a host of other topics.

National Instruments —  which John describes as “the Home Depot for engineers” – produces tools that engineers use to develop and test products. Like Wells, customer engagement with end users is going very well.  Unlike Wells, NI needs to help their salesforce, who are all degreed engineers, to have higher-valued, business-level discussion. NI sees community tools and technology as a way to help resolve this.

John says NI executives, marketing, product managers, etc. spend a lot of time with their key customers. For example, an NI team just spent 2 days onsite with Harris learning how Harris uses their tools to reduce cycle  and test time.  Adoption is critical – once engineers move onto the NI platform, they don’t move off. So references — and demonstrating a vibrant community of like-minded engineers to new prospects —  is key to getting them to become customers in the first place. Customer references and case studies help to build that community identity and following. 

Hitachi Data Systems sells storage solutions to large enterprises, deals topping hundreds of thousands of dollars on average. Asim is accelerating their customer engagement activities to learn about – and adapt to — what customers face in this changing economy. HDS customer advisory boards are high-touch, but now HDS needs to move this activity down stream and engage the midmarket. They are working with TechValidate to see how automation can help them to reach into the midmarket further.

So far, HDS has created about ½ a dozen communities on LinkedIn and is currently montioring how prospects and customers use this social network to share successes and horror stories on a community-by-community basis. Community members know HDS sponsors the LinkedIn groups, but HDS actsl simply as an observer and moderator; they do not actively “participate” on these community pages. Currently, the LinkedIn experiment is not connected to customer reference activity.  Beyond this, HDS hosts gated, online communities. Keys to success with these private communities are: 1) Give the participants something of value that they can’t get elsewhere, 2) keep participation volume high– get more than 2-3 folks talking, and 3) make the feedback mechanism direct to HDS short and uncomplicated. HDS finds good customer references actively come from this community.

What do you do about customers/prospects who complain or make disparaging comments in communities?

Jeff talked about how the principles of good customer support/relationship building applies in the online world just as well as the offline.  You have to talk to the people with complaints or gripes; you can’t ignore them.  Don’t defend, but don’t justify either.  Jeff says, “If we are wrong, we admit it. We respond within 24 hours.” At first Wells’ legal department put together 7 pages of guidelines about how to interact in the community – but the executive sponsor stepped in and said “I want simple terms and conditions; we don’t want to stifle dialog”.

John says NI welcomes disparaging comments. Many times a customer, not an NI employee, jumps in to respond.  NI has changed a policy – or said why they can’t – when the customers bring up issues on the community. We regularly survey our customers on satisfaction, which is the final scoreboard for this activity.  John said, “The community provides one avenue of input to our strategy and direction, but we don’t knee-jerk react to all of it.”

Asim advises “don’t get into arguments with them.” Listen, address the issue, admit mistakes when you make them, and let other customers chime in.

How do you concisely explain the ROI of this activity to your executives and board? Especially when putting forth a budget?

Asim explained that justification is not that big a problem at HDS because HDS executives on down all agree they need and want to talk to customers. Customers are HDS’s biggest asset and customer engagment programs help them grow this investment.  But they do look at both hard-dollar and soft-impacts. For example, when some customers had trouble traveling to executive briefing centers to spend time with HDS engineers and execs, HDS looked at the numbers and found they could afford to take the program on the road.  Visiting a dozen cities for in-depth customer meetings is not cheap, but HDS track deal flow and revenue impacted by these events and has seen a very positive impact.  So much so that they plan to expand the executive briefing center roadshow to more cities in 2010.

Jeff said that Wells definitely increased its level of investment and involvement in customer engagement in 2009. To demonstrate the payoff, they highlight the role customers play in the development of products and how much customer interaction help them reduce time to market for new products. Customers cut the guesswork out of the development process.

Following this panel, Bill Lee hosted a “fireside chat” with Dan Crain, former CTO, Brocade and Tim Thorsteinson, Harris Broadcasting, on the topic of “What do Decision Makers Want from the B2B Relationship?”

Bottomline: Decision makers want trustworthy relationships and relevant discussion about industry topics.  They don’t want to engage in customer programs that are product or transactional in focus.

Dan Crain has bought a lot of IT equipment in his career, and gets invited to customer programs all the time. If sales sponsors them, he’s not interested. If the program is run by product marketing or the technical people, he finds much more value.  The most attractive programs center on discussion around industry-level issues.

Regarding social activity
Dan: “Social media is not good for putting out managed information or messages about your company. It’s more about getting closer to customers.”  Communities are not a new thing: the techn industry has had bulletin boards and forums for a long time.  They are a great way for users to interact, although it is debateable whether the new host of social software tools really enhances this.  Microsoft is a great example of how to use forums to interact with users well. In contrast, Dell putting out coupon codes for refurbished equipment on Twitter is not about getting closer to customers. But listening to customer suggestions and request on Dell IdeaStorm is.

Tim said Harris has used social media to automate getting feedback on products or specific ideas.  He feels it social media is better used for automating a focus group than blasting out messages to the community on social channels.

Tim and Dan agree: Buyers who select a vendor to work with want that vendor to be successful. So executives and decision makers will take time to provide references or to participate in customer advisory.

Live From Summit On Customer Engagement 2009

Today and tomorrow the Customer Strategy Group is hosting its inaugural summit on customer engagement – an intimate, executive conference designed for B2B marketers who manage customer reference programs, advisory boards, and the emerging area of online communities.  I will speak later today to about 70 t0 80 marketers and sponsors about “Understanding the Value of Customer Engagement”

Business marketers know customers who give references, participate on advisory boards, and engage in online communities are more valuable than those who are bystanders. But how do you quantify this value and socialize it to the rest of the business – especially in a tight economy when all the focus is on revenue and pipeline?  This forum takes a close look at this question.  In my presentation, I will introduce a model for measuring customer engagement that includes four components: involvement, interaction, intimacy, and influence. Each component requires data collected from online and offline sources that — when done successfully — give marketers a more holistic appreciation of their customers’ actions while recognizing that value comes not just from transactions but also from actions customers take to influence others. I show how marketing messages become conversations, and dollars shift from media buying to customer understanding, when firms adopt engagement metrics to capture the value of customer relationships

Here are the highlights from the morning keynote sessions I attended:

1)       Sean Geehan, who helps B2B executives understand what it takes to drive revenue, growth, and shareholder value. In his work on customer engagement, he has shown that companies that target their customer programs at their “top 20%” customers outperform the market by several factors.  He profiles companies like Harris Corporation, HCL, and Oracle in his upcoming book to demonstrate this.   He sees firms that specifically target decision makers in customer engagement programs (versus end users or middle management) see retention rates of 90% (vs. 72%) and account growth of 12% (vs. 4%).  Most importantly their reference rates are 94% vs 28% — underlining the vital importance of creating customer engagement at the executive level, not simply among worker bees.  I think this has BIG implications for community development in B2B.

2)  Tim Thorsteinson, President, Broadcast Communications Division, Harris Corporation talked about the benefits of customers engagement in face of the seismic shift in the broadcasting market from conventional, US-based TV stations to cable, satellite, government, international and sports. His division sells video equipment in all these markets and 50% of their revenue now comes from products introduced in last 24 months. (They spend about $90M on R&D). Approximately 10% of customers generate 90% of revenue. His main point is that Harris could not have made this shift successfully without creating an executive advisory board – focused on this 10% — to draw insight from and validate their decisions. And these customers deliver value: EAB members drove 16% of Harris Broadcast revenue in 2009.

Observations: He enjoys fairly exclusive access to his dozen or so EAB members since Harris’ competitors don’t actively pursue customer advisory boards. He says face-to-face, intimate, offsite meetings with deep content – but that also feature a fun, inviting locations or activities — is very important to keeping these relationships strong.  No stand-ins allowed; members can’t send substitutes to the meetings. In between Harris uses quarterly conference calls and newsletters to stay in touch. Content includes technical issues, industry trends, but is not salesy.  He knows the EAB is successful because networking happens outside – and Tim believes this would continue without Harris’s sponsorship. EAB members talk about how to make their sector more attractive to Wall Street.  They also want a seat at the table with other industry leaders, where relevant dialog can happen, and where they can talk about the real business problems they face (not technology/ products.) 

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