The 10 questions that'll differentiate your B2B brand

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As customers, we are surrounded by choice. In every sector, in every geography, there are thousands of options clamouring for our budget — options that span products, services and ‘solutions’ of every kind. 

Just look at the current Marketing Technology Landscape graphic to see this writ large.

Thing is, most of us as buyers never consider all the options. Why would we? Life’s too short. 

The idea that we will fire up the Google machine and carefully consider all the alternatives is a myth. As is the thought that once we have our shortlist, we’ll go merrily skipping across social media to find out what everyone is saying about every option on the table.

Not going to happen.

Instead, we’ll work on some pretty basic gut-feel…

  • Have I heard of these guys?
  • Do I have a good impression about them?
  • Has anyone I know used them? (And do I trust their opinion?)
  • Is there anything that makes them better than the competition?
  • Am I going to lose my job if I make the wrong decision?

These rules of thumb (heuristics if you want to get fancy) are how we make decisions in almost every sphere of our lives. B2B purchases are no different.

Yet too many B2B companies still operate as if every customer was a 100% rational, cost-benefit weighing psychopath who will see the self-evident benefit of selecting their product based on the 200 new features added since the last release. 

Yeah, right.

But differentiation is hard. It means asking a bunch of tough questions while turning up the bullshit detector to 11. So it’s easier to focus on tactics instead (look, you can engage with us on Instagram!).

Fortunately, the motivation for working hard at differentiation is pretty clear. If you don’t, you’ll fail as a business. Harsh? Ok, if you’re lucky, you’ll simply underperform your competitors and have to spend a whole heap of cash to make up for your meh. Better?

So what does it take to get to a point where you have a clear picture of what makes your brand different (and why anyone should care)? Well, start with the following 10 questions.

1. Who are we and what do we do?

Yes, start with the real basics. Remember, this is not an excuse to go off on one about how you’re a highly innovative time-as-a-service provider resetting the global paradigm of an hours-based economy when what you really sell is a cloud-based diary. 

The keep it simple stupid rule applies here. When you boil it all down, what do you actually do for customers?

We get this in our workshops when we hear things along the lines of: We’re re-engineering cloud-based security for a mobile age. Well, I’m really happy for you. Now, what do you do for customers? Because at the end of the day, they are the ones that really matter.

2. What market are we in?

I know, I’m killing you with the complexity of these questions. But it’s surprising how re-examining the market you play in can open up new opportunities (or alert you to new competitive threats).

Again, customer-focus is key. When it comes down to it, you’re in a race to prove value. So you may think of yourself as in the financial services software market but what if you’re really in the market of making your customers more agile or more resistant to uncertainty or more cost-efficient? That can begin to differentiate you from competitors opening up new possibilities for telling a more compelling story.

3. What do we sell?

Again, simple enough. But again, be careful of bland talk of solutions, it’s a meaningless term. Let’s say you’re in the CRM market. You could easily (and accurately) say you sell a suite or solution or platform. But so does everyone else. Unless you’re Salesforce, that’s not going to cut it. 

But diving into the product, you might determine that among the 1001 things it can do, it is better than most at mining into a contact’s history and delivering interesting insight to a salesperson. So while you do sell a CRM system, the value you sell is a CRM system that helps salespeople unlock profitable hidden connections. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Now, I can imagine you coming back with a “But you just made that up, our product doesn’t have that kind of distinctive benefit.” 

Well, a couple of things... 

It probably has more distinctiveness than you realise, it’s just a matter of digging deep enough and resisting the lure of the bland me-too features that everyone talks about. 

Or, if it really has no inherent differences at a product level, create differentiation through how you do business. 

If it’s worse than that, quit and get a job with a more interesting business. Seriously, what are you doing wasting your time there?

4. What does success look like?

Too many businesses get stuck implementing tactical activity without focusing sufficient time and effort on the bigger picture. 

The first thing is to be clear about what we will see when we succeed in creating a powerful, differentiated brand. What will happen in the market? In the business? In the minds of our customers and prospects?

How will we measure this success? What will we see in pure revenue terms? When?

Once we have a clear picture of success, we can judge all activity on how likely it is to get us closer to our end goals and prioritise what we do accordingly.

5. Who are our buyers and what are they buying?

So, who buys from us? Who do we need to influence?

In a B2B sale, this can be complex. While there has been a tendency to focus on the C-suite in recent years, the reality is that in many sales (even those deemed ‘strategic’ in nature) the C-suite is not a driving force. They may approve the purchase, but no more than that.

We can often split buyers by type: decision makers (who can say yes or no), economic buyers (the money), influencers (with specialist knowledge or a vested interest) and end users.

We can go a step further and also consider anyone who may wish to sabotage the sale for their own reasons (eg, it’s a threat to their role/power base).

From here, we need to look at what each is buying. Each will have their own agenda and priorities. So while we may need to sell efficiency to the economic buyer, we may need to think ease of use for the end user. 

6. What’s our value proposition?

As mentioned above, we’re in competition to demonstrate value to customers. This is the value as they see it (not what we may wish them to value).

There are heaps of ways to express a value proposition. We tend to use a version of Geoffrey Moore’s from Crossing the Chasm:

For <TARGET MARKET> who want to <KEY CUSTOMER OBJECTIVE>, we are <CORE DESCRIPTION> that enables customers to <KEY CUSTOMER VALUE>.

So, for our own business, we’d end up with:

For ambitious B2B marketers who want to drive qualified leads and accelerate the sales pipeline, Considered is a content-led demand generation agency that enables them to deliver greater results, faster.

Importantly, this is not copy that will appear anywhere, it is simply designed to help you clarify the value you offer customers.

7. What are the biggest problems you help solve for your customers?

Your customers don’t particularly care about your business, they care about theirs. For your product or service to get onto their radar, it needs to have a pretty straight line impact on something that matters to them.

So this could be things like:

  • Helping them get to market faster
  • Removing cost from their supply chain operations
  • Accelerating data performance across a wide area network
  • Securing their most important asses against cyber threats

Whatever it is, it needs to be important and relatively urgent for the customer to fix. Ending up with three or so is good.

8. Who or what is the competition?

No business operates in a vacuum. There is always competition. Even if you’re first to market, there’s likely to be another way for customers to solve the same problems you do. 

While you shouldn’t be defined by your competitors, you should have an in-depth understanding of where they fit into your customers’ thinking. Are they the safe choice? Are they the ones that everyone loves to hate? Are they the rule-breakers?

Try reverse engineering a value proposition on to each major competitor. Then reduce it to a simple sentence/claim. Now reduce it to a word that best sums it up. This will show you the broad territories each is trying to dominate.

You can then decide whether you can deposition them out of that territory or find a more differentiated area to compete within (we generally recommend the latter).

9. How are we different and better?

So we now have a clearer picture of the competitors, how do we stack up?

Chances are, you won’t be better in every way but you need to be better in some of the key ways that count for customers (you see the theme here?). You need to be able to carve out some clear blue water that will give you scope to tell more engaging, more profitable stories. Stories that will make you relevant and memorable.

If you’re already pretty dominant in your market, incremental improvements may be enough. If, however, you are up against a competitor with major market presence, the differences will need to be more significant and more valuable to offset the gravity of their brand.

10. What barriers do we need to overcome?

If only we could simply set out a differentiated position and get on with it. Life would be a lot easier. But, back in the real world, there will always be obstacles to progress and success.

Being clear about what these are offers a clear route to ensuring they do not become insurmountable barriers.

These may be external, such as a negative perception of a previous product or a specific dynamic in the market.

They could be internal, such as misalignment between departments.

Some will be complete blockers that need to be overcome before anything else can happen. Others will be points of friction that slow progress.

Again, once we’re clear on what we need to overcome, we can make active plans to deal with it.

This is just the start

The 10 questions above are simply the beginning of a process. They represent about half of what we cover in our workshops. Importantly, they are more focused on delivering input for our thinking. The next critical step is to turn them into output that means something to customers and which supports the objectives of the wider business. That’s where the real magic lies.

Get external help 

Now, of course you’d expect us to say this, but if you’re trying to differentiate your brand, you should get a third party involved to help.

The reality is, in any positioning exercise you will struggle to see outside the walls of your own business. You will have a tendency to believe your own hype. You’ll be hamstrung by your history.

A third party will ask the questions you may not. They will challenge you to think more broadly. They’ll put themselves in the position of the customer and call bullshit when needed. And that, is invaluable.

Want to talk about your brand? Drop us a line at hello@consideredcontent.com.

 

The 3 critical audiences for every B2B marketer

The 3 critical audiences for every B2B marketer

In B2B marketing, we’re used to segmenting our audiences. Often this will be by vertical or stage of the sales cycle or geography. Chances are, however, that the only audience that really gets considered most of the time is customers/prospects. After all, they're the ones spending the money. Stands to reason that they’re the ones we need to influence.

The problem is, by only focusing on customers, you could be harming your results. Because, in a B2B environment, you need to look at both external and internal audiences to be successful. More than this, you need to consider the overlap between them.

Fundamentally, there are three groups you should consider:

  1. Customers and prospects
  2. Your sales team and channel partners
  3. The C-suite (specifically the CEO and CFO)

While everyone talks about sales and marketing (mis)alignment, it’s actually at the intersection of these three groups that you should place most of your focus.

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In Thomas Barta and Patrick Barwise’s excellent new book, The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader, they talk about operating in ‘the V-Zone’. This is the intersection of 'customer needs' and 'company needs' where true value is created. They see this as a critical component for how today’s marketing leaders can increase their effectiveness and influence within an organisation. It’s where the big strategic issues can be found (keeping marketing leaders out of the weeds of the never-ending tactical options that take up too much focus in many marketing departments). 

I would argue that this offers two parts of the picture but lacks an activation element (which in B2B is sales). In its defence, the 12 Powers approach is totally focused on marketing leadership and how it links to business strategy, so sales would probably be seen as one of the tactical outputs. The book is also not specifically focused on B2B where sales has a different quality (than FMCG/retail). It’s a great book though, you should buy it.

So what does this intersection look like? Let’s look at each part of the equation individually before bringing them together.

Getting under the skin of customers and prospects

Understanding customer needs should be home turf for most marketers. However, many struggle to invest the required budget to discover something that is unlikely to deliver payback in the next quarter. As a result, they tend to use general assumptions or, worse, make-believe personas in the place of real insight.

We’d argue that this kind of research is always money well spent as it will deliver a dividend across everything you do thereafter — from how you target customers, to what you say to them, to what you say about them within the business. What’s more, it doesn’t have to be as difficult or time-consuming as many think (contact us to learn how).

Importantly, this is about understanding what customers really need not what we wish they needed (wishing doesn’t make it so). More than this, it’s about recognising the needs that we can ultimately help address. It’s sounds obvious but too many content marketing approaches get distracted with things that customers may find interesting but which don’t lead back to any kind of revenue impact for the business.

Understanding the CEO’s strategic objectives

In many ways, getting a grip on the company’s objectives shouldn't be a problem. After all, marketing sits within the business. But the reality is often more opaque. In our recent Revenue Rift report, the #1 barrier to marketing hitting its pipeline and revenue targets was ‘Lack of clarity from management’.

Now, of course, this is a two-way street. Senior management should be clearly communicating where the business is headed. However, marketing is also responsible for extracting the information and interpreting it within a marketing context.

All too often, marketing will simply look at a small part of the overall business objectives (eg the sales targets — of which a proportion falls under marketing’s remit). This will significantly limit marketing’s value to the business. 

The core objectives will differ from company to company, but a number of usual suspects are likely to appear:

  • Growth — of course, though in recent years there has been a shift from simply looking at this from a new-name-new-business perspective to one that places greater emphasis on generating more value from existing customers
  • Talent — both attracting new, highly skilled employees to the business and retaining your existing best people 
  • Trust — in a world where trust is a fast-diminishing commodity, CEOs are increasingly worried that lack of trust could negatively impact the business (whether this is a lack of trust from customers or shareholders)
  • Digital — how the business will compete in an ever-more digitally enabled age, where new competitors can quickly appear with innovative business models unencumbered by legacy structures
  • Innovation — uncovering new thinking and new approaches (digital and otherwise) to keep the business ahead of the competition (or capitalise on new and emerging customer needs)

While marketing tends to place most of its focus on just the first of these, it has the opportunity to deliver significant impact across all five. In doing so, it can move from a tactical operation that’s the first to have its budget cut to one that's core to what really matters to those that hold the purse strings.

Becoming a force multiplier for sales

Here we do come to the issue of marketing and sales alignment (this came in as the #3 barrier to success in the Revenue Rift report). Without sales and marketing being on the same page, both departments will fail to reach their full potential.

Importantly, this is not about marketing simply serving the sales function with ‘leads’. Nor is it about sales simply actioning those leads fed to it by marketing. It must be a meaningful collaboration that delivers a multiplier effect to the business as a whole.

There are a number of aspects to this:

  • Having a shared language about what success looks like — What are the overarching objectives? What are the timescales? What are the barriers? Who is responsible for what?
  • Agreeing who we’re targeting — What is a ‘lead’? Are we going broad or deep? When should a lead move to sales? When should it move back? Is it about leads at all or should we be more  focused on sales and revenue?
  • Identifying where to place our efforts — Do we primarily need more leads or do we need to convert more of what we have? Should we focus on existing markets or open up to new ones? Where are the points of friction in a sale? Can these be either eliminated or minimised?
  • Creating the right kind of content and communications — Are we creating the right kind of stuff (that sales will actually use)? Are we delivering the right kind of messages at the right time? Are we clearly focused on moving prospects through the sales cycle?
  • Knowing what’s working (and what’s not) — What are we measuring? Is that meaningful for the business? Do we have both lagging and leading indicators of success? Is everyone clear on the results? 

Success really does have a significant impact. MarketingProfs research has shown that businesses that tightly align their sales and marketing functions get 36% higher customer retention rates and 38% higher sales win rates. Not too shabby.

Bringing it all together

While succeeding with any of the three key audiences will deliver benefits, finding the sweet spot in the middle will pay exponentially higher dividends.

This is why in our own strategy workshops we aim to have input from all three groups. This means carving out some time in our internal audiences’ diaries (or at least getting an interview call with the CEO or CFO or both) as well as carrying out some customer research (even if that's simply conducting a limited number of phone interviews).

Ultimately, we’re looking to focus on a core group of real-world customer needs (three is ideal, no more than five), the core strategic objectives for the business as a whole, and the addressable points of leverage for sales. But what if we were just to focus on two of the audiences?

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If we go with real-world customer needs + strategic company objectives we’re likely to be in the area of long-term value creation (the V-Zone in The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader). This is a good thing. It means marketing can play to its strengths in customer knowledge and sync with senior management in terms of what really matters to the business. It is, however, a long term play. The result will be a strong brand that resonates with customers and supports the business’s vision but it will take time.

If we go with combining points of sales leverage + strategic company objectives it'll probably result in the kind of traditional push marketing you get in heavily sales-led organisations. You see this in businesses that are highly product focused and which believe that people would buy their products if only they knew about them. Sometimes they’re right. More often they’re not.

Finally, if we go with points of sales leverage + real-world customer needs we’re likely to see a reasonably effective demand generation programme. This will have the benefits of marrying what customers are looking for with what we’ve got to sell. It will deliver results faster but runs the risk of underachieving against the objectives that really matter to senior management.

The optimum result will be to focus dead centre. This will bring together what matters to both customers and the business with a way to deliver against it in a timely manner. This means taking a multi-perspective view of the challenge. It will almost certainly mean creating an integrated approach to the resulting activity. But it will be a solution that delivers the kind of success that really counts in B2B today.

The Minimum Viable MarTech Stack

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Today, you could be forgiven for believing that B2B marketing is primarily about deploying new and ever-more specialised technology rather than any notion of finding and profitably serving customers. 

One look at the, now frankly useless, Marketing Technology Landscape supergraphic tells us that MarTech is a massively expanding market (or else that marketers and agencies are suckers for bright shiny new things and/or supposed magic bullets). The latest version assaults the eyes with over 6,000 logos. (Stare at it too long and you’ll begin to see subliminal images that’ll haunt your nightmares.)

While 'the big red leads button’ is yet to materialise and a definite pong of snake oil hangs in the air, the reality is that it is difficult to successfully do B2B marketing today without at least a baseline of technology (the oft mentioned MarTech Stack). Sure, you can work around a lot of it, but it’s just easier and more measurable if you don’t.

Of course, major tech brands and those already drinking the MarTech Kool-Aid have already amassed an impressive array of different products and services. So much so that many even compete in the annual Stackies to show off their solutions (and raise money for a good cause).

Microsoft's and Cisco's MarTech Stacks in all their glory

Microsoft's and Cisco's MarTech Stacks in all their glory

But, for many B2B marketers, the cost and complexity of rivalling these systems is simply a non-starter. With limited teams, skills and budget, they need to make smarter choices. But with so much complexity, it can be difficult to even know where to start.

And that’s where this article comes in.

We’re going to assume you have some basic technology in place (eg for writing stuff, for creating basic content, accounts for your chosen social media etc). Here, we’re going to focus on what we believe is the bare minimum you need — the Minimum Viable Stack (MVS) — for marketing your brand and products. 

We’ll split it by the key tasks you’re likely to need to do on a weekly basis.

A place to send people to

You already have a website of course, but making sure it is responsive and easy to update is key. You should be able to do this yourself without being held hostage by your web design agency. 

There’s a fair chance that WordPress will be fine for what you need though, for more power under the hood, Drupal offers a step up. Do not be tempted to host your site yourself, use a commercial hosting provider (if it is WordPress, use WP Engine). 

Somewhere to store your content

Make sure you have a way to house pretty much any kind of content on your site. In some cases this will simply mean embedding content from elsewhere (eg video on YouTube, Vimeo or Wistia). Other times it’ll be about hosting files for download (the ever-present PDF). Additionally, you should be able to pin key pieces of content so that they stay at the top of the page until you decide to replace them. 

You will also want to be able to easily put up dedicated landing pages and be able to gate some content behind a form. You may be able to do this within your core site, if not, use Unbounce or your marketing automation system (more on that later).

If you decide you want to get more serious about how you host and serve content, use Uberflip.

Somewhere to hold data

If you’re in B2B, you probably already have a CRM in place. Chances are it’s Salesforce. If you don’t have one, or if what you’ve got is a bit crappy, replace it. Go for either Salesforce or Pipedrive. If you really have no money, HubSpot’s CRM is free.

Importantly, make sure that anything else in your stack plays nice with your CRM. Life's too short for messing about with manually moving data between systems.

On a more general point around integration, if you’re having problems, you may well be able to solve them using Zapier

A way to automate email campaigns

Regardless of whether GDPR has decimated your database, you’re going to want to be able to send good looking, personalised emails, structure them into campaigns to nurture prospects over time, and track how everything is performing. You’ll probably also want to embed forms on your site that mean you can easily add people to lists and allow them to download more valuable content (again, arguments over GDPR notwithstanding).

This is where marketing automation comes in. You could go the Marketo route if you have more time, money and ambition. Way cheaper but much less powerful is something like MailChimp (which is getting better on automation). However, as we’re talking about minimum viable options, go for Active Campaign (it’s super easy to use and also has a built-in CRM).

A tool to help you rank higher in search

You may think you know what people in your industry search for but you’re probably wrong. Or, at least, not as right as you’d like to be. Having an SEO tool to see how you’re performing, spot new opportunities and do all the fiddly research you don’t have time for is now pretty much a must have. Choose Moz.

A way to distribute content

Beyond your own database and inbound website traffic, you’re going to want to expand your reach. You’ll want to do paid search activity through Google (in its various forms) and run both ads and InMail campaigns on LinkedIn. You may also already have retargeting/remarketing in place, again probably through Google. 

Beyond this, if your allowable cost of sale is high enough, you can also look at paid syndication. Use NetLine.

And for social, if you’re that way inclined, Buffer and HootSuite will be your go-to options.

Tools to judge if it's working

I’m guessing you probably already use Google Analytics to see how your site is performing (and maybe to track conversions from paid activity). In addition, many of the tools above have some form of analytics built in. You could also go for something more dedicated such as Kissmetrics

If you’re serious about tracking what you do all the way through to revenue, go for Bizible.

Expand from here (maybe)

Once you have your Minimum Viable Stack in place, you can expand out into more specialised solutions. But, before you do, make sure you really examine whether you need to. While many services are not break-the-bank expensive, all carry a cost in time and complexity. Are you sure it’s really worth it?

Ultimately, MarTech is a tool. It should make you a more effective B2B marketer. It is not a replacement for the discipline of marketing as a whole — there is not an app for that.

We expect many people to disagree with our choices here. There is almost certainly something we’ve missed. And, of course, your mileage may vary. But if you’re struggling, hopefully this has been useful.

Good luck.

(If you disagree or think there is a must-have solution to add to the MVS, let us know at hello@consideredcontent.com.)