If you haven’t looked at the data Facebook has collected on you, I suggest you do so immediately.

Here’s what I learned about myself:

  1. I searched for information about my sons girlfriend—to verify if she was Jewish.
  2. I clicked on pictures of a competitor’s house to see if it’s worth more than mine.
  3. I “liked” an ungodly and embarrassing number of koala bear videos.
  4. The percent of Facebook friends I don’t actually know is 38%.
  5. I’ve saved 21 hours by typing “HBD,” instead of “Happy Birthday.”
  6. I’m being heavily retargeted by stool softeners.
  7. It takes me an average of 0.6 seconds to click on a new notification.
  8. Stormy Daniels refused my friend request–twice.

 

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As marketers and sellers, we’re pretty excellent at pushing our own perspective out into the marketplace: Our messaging, our content, our pitch deck, our value prop. Perhaps this explains why the deluge of B2B content marketing and thought leadership has basically created a giant wall of noise between companies and their target audience.

What we don’t get enough of is the target audience’s perspective. What are decision-makers are really thinking about on the other side of that giant wall of noise we’re creating? How do they go through and perceive the buying process?

That’s what you’ll learn when you visit the How I Buy blog by a company called nudge.ai. Just go to https://nudge.ai/blog and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

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Interviewing a brand strategy firm can be tricky and frustrating.

It’s easy to get caught up in their animated, graphics-rich presentations (with file sizes so large they can’t simply be emailed to you after the meeting, they have to be Dropbox’d); shiny objects (their latest AR/AI/VR campaign); industry awards (“here’s our content marketer of the year award from the content marketing awards show, sponsored by the content marketing association”); and the introductions to team members with an artful array of job titles (Brady the design thinker, Seychelles the UX lead, Marianella the Instagram rockstar).

Sometimes you find yourself 20 minutes into a one-hour meeting wondering when the meeting’s going to start.

Here are some tips for your first meeting with a B2B brand strategy firm to ensure you get what you need–including one HUGE topic you absolutely need to ask about. (HINT: This post was inspired by getting some pretty blank looks when I asked several CEOs who recently embarked on rebranding or branding efforts, “Did the agency interview your customers?”)

Tips for Interviewing Brand Strategy Firms

  1. Contact each agency via their web contact form. Someone should get back to you by the next business day. Deduct 2 points for every day after that. The person who contacts you should be a principal or partner. If it’s a lower level employee or business development person with no branding expertise, deduct 1 point.
  2. Tell each agency the initial meeting is 45 minutes, while marking your team’s calendar for an hour. That should focus everyone on getting to the point, while allowing for 15 minutes of overtime. If an agency squawks that they really need 90 minutes, deduct 1 point and tell them you’re interested in a conversation, not a dog an pony show. If the agency still shows up with a massive slide deck, deduct 3 more points.
  3. Some agencies like to bring numerous staff members in an attempt to demonstrate something called “bench strength.” This only wastes time on introductions and micro-digressions on non-critical topics (have you tried Snapchat filters!??!). Encourage agencies to bring 2 – 3 representatives max and deduct 1 point for every additional staffer.
  4. Start the meeting by asking why companies do or don’t choose them. Deduct 1 point every time they mention, “people,” “service” or “creative.” Add a point for “sales,” “revenue,” “ROI” or “business objectives.”
  5. When they list their full range of capabilities, ask how many they are great at. Deduct 1 point for each capability they say they’re great at beyond 3.
  6. Ask about their staff experience. Deduct 1 point if the average number of years out of college is below 10 and 1 point if their staff’s aggregate experience is less than 25% on the client side.
  7. Now, here’s the 800 lb. gorilla:
    • Count how many minutes before they ask about your customers’ problems, priorities, perceptions and preferences–or talk about their process for gaining insights into your target audience. The over/under is 7. Add a point for every minute below that and deduct 1 for every minute over.
    • Ask which agency executive will lead the customer insights process and which will lead brand strategy. It’s critical that nothing get lost in translation between insights and strategy, so if these are two different people, deduct 5 points. And don’t settle for having a less experienced staffer in charge of insights and strategy. If it’s not an agency principal, deduct 15 points.
    • If the agency doesn’t recommend interviewing customers and prospects, deduct 5 points. If the lead executive personally conducts the interviews, add 10 points.
    • Follow up by asking what percent of their total project hours, on average, goes into understanding your customers’ problems, priorities, perceptions and preferences vs. design. Deduct 1 point for every 10 points below 30%.

BOTTOM LINE: The only purpose of your brand is to make a rational and emotional connection with your target audience. Yet too many branding engagements give lip service to understanding the voice of the customer. Why? Because that’s not where agencies make most of their money. They want you to buy more profitable brand identity, web design, content marketing and digital campaigns, where they can bill out lower level staffers at high rates. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this model, per se; but as always, it’s “Caveat Emptor.” If you’re hiring a branding firm, it’s your obligation to understand what you’re getting and not getting. If you need their help understanding your target audience, this post will make sure they’re up for the job.

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At this point, every B2B company should be exploring and refining some sort of content marketing strategy. We know that customers and prospects don’t just value the insights vendors can provide–they are coming to expect them.

But too many vendors still create content just to fill that dreaded slot in their next monthly e-newsletter–instead of investing time and energy to produce valuable and relevant insights that actually help the target audience do their jobs better. And there’s the rub:

To produce insights your target audience finds valuable and relevant, you have to intimately understand what your target audience needs.

Here are three no-B.S. tips to increase customer intimacy–and the impact of your content marketing:

1. When “content marketing” was conceived, I wish it has been named “insight marketing” instead. This would have helped raise the bar for content marketers to produce useful content vs. drivel. Anyone with a laptop can (and unfortunately does) sling content, but content that doesn’t provide a relevant insight that addresses The Audience’s 4 Ps (problems, priorities, perceptions, preferences) should immediately be scrubbed from your editorial calendar. Replace or rework it with insights derived from actual customer and prospect interactions. What does your target audience struggle with on a daily basis? What are the knowledge blind spots that prevent them from doing their job better?

TIP: There’s an obvious and dead simple way to make sure your content delivers real insight and value: Ask your customers. For example, a great question is: “Let’s say you had a free hour with a renowned industry expert. What’s the first thing you’d ask them about?” They’ll gladly open up to you–and you can use their answers to fuel your content marketing efforts.

2. Most readers can quickly tell when content was written by a non-SME, i.e. a young marcom staffer who may be a good writer but has little or no understanding of The Audience’s 4 Ps. Dead giveaways: An abundance of marketing-speak and one or more exclamation points. The non-SME may have interviewed and SME, but too often, much of the insight is lost in translation…and replaced with vapid narrative.Such content is quickly dismissed by the reader as noise (best case), annoying (next worst case) or detracting from your brand (worst case).

TIP: Read your own content with extreme and brutal skepticism before publishing. The CMO’s job is to be very strict about ensuring that substance and value are obvious to the audience–in their real-world language, not marketing-speak. So don’t just approve a piece of content because it fills this week’s slot in the editorial calendar–or because you’re tired of rewriting it. Send it back again and again until it delivers value to the audience. If the CMO doesn’t understand what the target audience would find relevant and valuable, then you have a much bigger challenge.

3. In the haste to scale the reach of their content marketing via social media, PPC, email, etc., marketers often neglect the audience that most needs–in fact expects–your insights: Existing customers. They crave and often expect knowledge that is personalized to their specific situations; and you as their vendor are uniquely positioned to provide it. Vendors that invest the time and effort to do this will tend to have “customers for life.”

TIP: Don’t just spray content online. Train your sales, sales engineering and support teams on how to (a) review insights with their customers; and (b) help customers take action on the insights by interpreting them into specific steps. By the way, if your sales, SE and support folks hesitate to do this, it might be because the content is terrible. In this case, go back to points 1 and 2 above.

Bottom Line: Consistently creating valuable content requires you to have an intimate understanding of your Audience’s 4 Ps (problems, priorities, perceptions, preferences). The great news is that customers and prospects will gladly share their 4 Ps with you. All you have to do is ask the right questions in the right context–and listen between the lines to understand what’s really important to them.

For a free Customer Re-Discovery Playbook with all the questions you should ask–and tips on how to ask them–please visit www.chieflisteningofficers.com/free.
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When you pack for a trip, you don’t put your entire closet into the suitcase and start pulling out what you don’t need.

But this is the approach companies often take when formulating their messaging. Like the traveler who says, “I need to make sure I have outfit options in Paris,” companies feel compelled to jam everything they do into marketing materials and sales conversations. In both cases, the villain is indecision and an inability to determine what’s most important.

Luggage over-packers risk sore backs and exorbitant overweight luggage fees. Messaging over-packers risk weighing down their audience with so much information that they don’t retain any of it.

The wrong way to “pack” your messaging.

  • Start by pasting in 50 slides from your most recent sales presentation or 4 paragraphs from your About Us section–and then try to whittle down from there.

The right way to pack.

  • Start with a blank document–an empty suitcase if you will.
  • Now, write a sentence that communicates the most essential thing the audience needs to know. (The most essential item for your trip.) This will likely be your unique value proposition or the problem you solve for your target audience.
  • Add a second sentence with the second most important thing the audience needs to know. This should include the value prop or problem, whichever you didn’t “pack” in the first sentence.
  • Now, add the third sentence with the next most important thing. This can be a credibility statement (“We serve 80% of the Fortune 500.”), a claim (“We’re going to be the Uber of microbrews.”) or capability (“We have developed a patented approach to electron fragmentization and deconstruction.”)
  • Now, here’s the key: Stop adding sentences as soon as you have given the audience the gist of your pitch–the basic contours of your topic (capabilities, product, investment opportunity). Probably 15 seconds total. The analogy is trying to close your suitcase to see if everything fits. This is a critical step that gives you a chance to check in with your audience to see if they’re with you–or whether you’ve “overstuffed” your message to the point where they’re confused. This check-in step is a great opportunity for the presenter. It’s where the audience often reveals their pain points, skepticism, lack of knowledge, etc., all of which are important signals that you can use to guide the rest of your meeting. Of course, after the check-in, you can fill in details on a range of topics, such as use cases, product specifications, customer examples, key features–whatever helps the audience fill in his or her knowledge gaps.

So next time you pack for a presentation (or a trip), remember to start with what you need most–and don’t overstuff.

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To: Amazon.com

From: The Powers that Be in DC

Subject Line: The real reason you need to choose DC for HQ2

Dear Amazon:

If we’ve learned one thing here in DC, it’s that when all else fails, you resort to a power-play. You’ve seen House of Cards, I’m sure.

So we’re not going to pitch you by spouting all of the typical reasons why you should locate your second headquarters here. You know, business-friendly atmosphere, educated workforce, innovative, tech-oriented people, great universities, quality-of-life, public transportation, blah blah blah.

Those aren’t differentiators. You want to differentiator? Here you go.

If you don’t relocate here, we will regulate your Starbucks-swilling, low-margin asses back to the Stone Age. We’ll create a special tax just for companies whose name starts with an A, ends with an N and contains a Z. We’ll file so many court briefs you’ll have to hire a thousand more lawyers.

Now that’s a claim no other city can make!

That’s right, go ahead and choose another city. We dare you. We’ll unleash the full fury and might of the Federal bureaucracy–wave after wave of extraordinarily harsh, unfair and unprecedented treatment at the hands of the FTC, SEC, FCC, DOJ and a dozen other federal agencies.

A threat? Perhaps. Extortion? Welcome to the real world. We’re just competing by using the most unique and powerful lever at our disposal.

But there are real benefits here for Amazon.

Think proximity to power. With a DC area HQ, you can drop in and the FTC to lunch anytime (note the $25 gift limit). You’re just a 10 minute Uber ride from the Capital where you can walk the halls, twist arms, line pockets, etc. And you can sponsor tables at all of those fancy political-military-industrial events where you’ll hob-nob with Federati elites.

Think about it.

We won’t make this offer a second time.

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“What do you and your team need to get better at this year?”

It’s a simple question that focuses the customer or prospect on the delta between their objectives and where they are today. They start thinking about the specific tools or skills they lack or that they feel are insufficient to reach their objectives. How do they get there from here?

Their answers will give you insight into whether and how your solution is relevant to their “delta.”

Here’s an example from a recent conversation (remember, it is a conversation, not a survey or interview) I had with a prospective client. Let’s say she’s the Chief Revenue Officer of a company that sells to insurance companies.

Me: To start off, what are the overall business priorities for your organization? And when I say organization, think about the highest level–your company or the division you’re a part of.

Her: Well, the first thing is probably improving customer retention.

Me: Great. Why is that a priority? I can assume a few reasons but want to make sure I understand clearly.

Her: Some of our biggest customers leave because they think they can do what we do in-house.

Me: Got it. Thank you. Given your focus on customer retention, what do you and your team need to get better at to address that priority?

Her: We need to have better messaging to rescue or win back customers who say they’re leaving.

Me: How big a problem is this for the company? In other words, if 10 is a game changer and 1 is “nice to have,” how would you rate it?

Her: I’d say an 8 or 9.

Me: OK, perfect. You mentioned customers leave because they intend to take over your function internally. Can you give me an idea of how that conversation goes? Let’s say you’re the customer who’s leaving and I’m you. In the customers words, what would you say.

There’s a lot more insight to be gained from this conversation, but  finding out what she needs to improve to reach her goals is a key turning point that allows me to really see her perspective and focus the rest of the conversation.

Again, your goal is to get insight into whether and how your solution aligns with their “delta.” My approach is to disarm the other person and get them to lean in by starting the conversation with bigger picture questions. This signals that I’m diagnosing, not selling. That I’m interested in her goals and perspectives and I’m strategic, not just trying to hit my quota. Her answers also give me fodder to provider her with insights–to challenge whether that really is her biggest delta. (Turns out it isn’t.)

If you’re looking for a good place to start to better understand your target audience’s perspective, download my free Customer Re-Discovery Playbook.

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Let’s play “marketing long distance.” You know what I’m talking about…

CMO reads Gartner report that says the customer’s pain point is X.

CMO checks with top sales rep who says it’s more like X+1.

CMO hears X-2.

CMO briefs agency account lead who hears X-2-7.

Agency account lead briefs creative director who hears X-2-7-4+26.

Creative director briefs writer who hears [(X-2-7-4+26)*3]/61.

Writer submits draft which focuses on Y.

Creative director changes it to focus on Z.

Agency account lead recommends edits to focus on Z*5.

CMO adjusts to focus on Z*5 cubed, then sends to CRO for “final review.”

CRO makes changes based on the last customer conversation he had.

CMO approves.

Campaign fails.

No one knows where it all went wrong. After all, they started by understanding the customers’ pain point.

Someone has to own understanding the target audience’s real problems, priorities and perceptions. Then make sure the execution is aligned accordingly.

Shouldn’t that be the CMO?

Do the senior marketers you know REALLY get the customers’ perspective?

How much time do they spend with customers and prospects just listening? Trying to understand what the world looks like from their side of the table.

The great news: Decision-makers are happy to share what they know. You just have to ask the right questions in the right context (i.e. non-sales).

Their answers will give you insights to help clarify your brand or product positioning, sharpen your value proposition and differentiators and focus your messaging.

See a list of disruptive, thought-provoking questions–and the entire listening process–at www.chieflisteningofficers.com/free.

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As a B2B marketer, how could I not click on a banner ad that said, “Meet Alan. B2B marketing’s first feeling machine”?

Well, to say I was disappointed would be a tremendous understatement. And it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say this agency’s AI “experiment” made the agency look silly.

If you’re going to create something that positions you on the leading edge, then you MUST invest enough time and resources to make it a GREAT example.

Unfortunately, in this case, the failed AI experience just reinforced the “shiny object” superficiality that comes to mind for many decision-makers when they think about marketing agencies.

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Marketing’s 4 P’s are obviously outdated–so marketer- and brand-centric. “It’s about OUR PRODUCT.” “WE need a pricing strategy.” You can almost feel the dust flying off of those we-centric, textbook-sounding words. Just look at the image below; even 4 P’s graphics look corporate and dull.

As B2B customers and prospects increasingly control and drive the decision-process, THEIR P’s are the ones that matter. And marketers and brands would do well to focus on them. Here are the Customer’s 3 P’s, as well as questions you should be asking to uncover them.

Priorities

What business priorities do you have to accomplish in the next 12 – 24 months? Not the entire list, just the top 2 – 3–the ones you might get passed over for promotion for not achieving. What priorities are the board paying close attention to? How much of the company’s (or your division’s) future is riding on these priorities?

Problems

What do you and your team need to get better at in the next year? If you replaced yourself today, what would you identify as immediate challenges? How do those impact the Priorities we just talked about? How are you addressing these issues today? What’s the risk of not getting better at them? What are the obstacles to improving?

Perceptions

What are all the ways you’ve thought about to address the Problems above? What else would you consider? What’s your biggest fear in investing in a solution or solutions? How do you categorize or differentiate vendors in this space? Which ones seem to “get it,” which ones don’t–and why? What would make you a customer for life–figuratively or literally?

Bottom line: Re-orienting B2B marketing around the customer’s perspective is critical to success in our new buyer-centric world. Try using the Customer’s 3 P’s–or a similarly market-oriented framework–to re-orient your own thinking and your organization’s.

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