Having built a career by focusing on what she loves to do, Ardath Albee is a B2B marketing strategist with serious conviction. We spoke with Albee, who shared her opinion on campaigns vs. continuums, why companies have difficulty maintaining consistency across channels, and why she’s not down with the age-old funnel construct.
M What is your advice to marketers struggling to transition into the digital space, and also into the ‘outside in’ mentality?
AA The idea of adopting personas is foreign for most companies. They think they know their audiences, but when I start probing they can’t answer the questions. They have an idea in their head of their buyer, but they’ve never really spent time validating those ideas. They know their products better than they know their buy-in, so that’s the thing that they speak about. The problem with that is it’s not engaging and it’s not relevant to the buyers who are looking.
As more and more companies work harder to become relevant, companies that are not making that change to an outside-in mentality are just going to lose. There’s so much for people to choose from now. It used to be that companies controlled the information. They decided what they wanted you to know. Now you can find out just about anything you want. We need technology skills, but we’ve got to change the mindset first.
This thing where you post the title of a blog post with a link on Twitter – it’s just not going to cut it anymore. There are times when I wonder if we as marketers have lost the art of having a conversation, because we’re so used to pushing stuff out that we just don’t do the dialect thing. Marketers have to become more proficient at talking about things that their buyers care about. In order to do that of course, they have to get to know them first.
M We know that the customer life cycle is very much a continuum as opposed to a start and stop process. What is your take on the approach of handing over and, more importantly, what are the implications for marketers’ work prior to hand off?
AA What I see is still that campaign mentality. It’s a stop-start mentality where the campaign exists in a box. There isn’t that interaction across the continuum.
The real issue, depending on which research you believe, is that marketers are taking on a larger responsibility farther into the buying process.
Marketers often operate in their own little world, and they have no idea what the sales person goes through in trying to convert the leads that marketers are sending them. When I do persona projects the first thing I do is talk to the sales people. I want to find out what conversations they’re having, who they’re talking to, what questions they’re getting asked, all of that stuff. When the marketing team sits in on those calls with me, it’s like this light-bulb moment. They start figuring out how they can really be more relevant to sales.
It’s our job, as far as I’m concerned, to make sure sales people are successful in those conversations. The key to all of this is relevance. How do we help everybody in the company be more relevant? Now it’s not just sales people anymore. It’s every frontline employee, or even the developer in the back room who has a Twitter account. How are we going to help those people be relevant too, and stay on brand, and share the right messaging? We’ve got to enable our people to do better.
M Why are you so hesitant towards the funnel construct and, for people who are still working within that frame of mind, how best should marketers be visualizing their customers’ buying journey?
AA My idea of the funnel is turning it on its side. It’s more like a pipe, one that expands in the middle. Traffic just keeps moving. The more relevant you are, the less leakage you have, but what happens in the middle is the buying discussion.
Everybody who has to be involved in the decision comes in at the middle. It’s like a snake that bulges in the middle after it eats something. It doesn’t narrow down. We have to start looking at it from the account perspective. I look at the funnel horizontally, rather than vertically. I don’t really buy into this funnel idea.
The continuum, it isn’t a funnel. It keeps going on. One of the things that I know to be true is if you can’t sell to somebody today, tomorrow they’ll have a job somewhere else, so maybe you can sell to them then. Burning bridges isn’t a good thing. Keep building that relationship as you go.
I also don’t buy into the numbers game either. I think if you’re relevant, you can put 100 in at one end of the funnel and get 90 out at the other. If you’re qualifying and you’re getting the right kinds of prospects, and you really have a narrow focus on your target market, I don’t see why you can’t be more successful.
The technology is there today to help with customer journey. It’s how we’re putting it together to gain the insights we need, and use the data about our customers and prospects to become more relevant and really engage them in an interactive way. Without the right content and the right strategy, you can have all the technology in the world, but it’s not going to do anything for you. I think that’s the problem; we’ve put the technology before the education and the skill sets.
M How can marketers be sure that they’re maintaining consistency of story when there are on average 17 different forms or tactics that they’re working from?
AA Consistency is hard. One of the reasons it’s hard is because we still have that campaign mentality. We look at our content and we say, “OK, in this campaign over here, we’ve got these pieces, but we aren’t paying attention to the blog post that’s written from the different perspective or that our social media team is tweeting something that’s counter-intuitive to the campaign we’re putting out.” They don’t talk to each other. I’ve been on client calls where I’ve actually introduced the marketing team to the social media team within their own company. They’ve never met.
Everyone has to be on the same page. Somehow we need to pull all those silos together. They need to start talking to each other. Part of this is making sure everyone is on the same page so that the message is consistent across channels because otherwise your prospects get whiplash. Then that casts a doubt about whether your company is really an expert in what you’re doing or talking about or not. If we don’t connect all these dots together, the way that your prospects interact with you will become disjointed and fragmented, and they won’t have the confidence to keep moving forward.
And channels just keep multiplying. We can’t just keep assigning different people to different channels and not coordinating anything. It’s becoming a nightmare.
M Could you explain what natural nurturing is and how marketers can incorporate its principles into their strategies?
AA It’s this idea that however you come in contact with people who could be your customers, you are nurturing them. You need to have a consistent conversation, whether it’s publicly available or privately available. It’s not mutually exclusive. People in your database and your nurture track are going to come across your publicly available content. Does it match the story you’re telling? I hate to say it’s that simple, but it is. You need to think about all the different ways that people come in contact with your company.
You have to make sure that just because you don’t know who they are doesn’t mean they can’t be your customer. In fact, a lot of them probably could be and they just don’t want you to know because they don’t want to be bothered by the sales team or whatever until they’re ready. The quality of the content you put out, regardless of whether it’s behind public view in a nurture program or in open public view in social media or your website or wherever, the story has to connect.
M Marketers need to become better publishers. Why?
AA We need to become better publishers because we need to tell better stories. One of the things I think that goes along with that is this idea of time and speed. Quite frankly, a lot of the companies that I work with, their marketing teams can’t publish content on their own, even a blog post. It has to go in the IT queue.
How are you supposed to react to changing marketing conditions, and topics, and real time news, and all that kind of stuff if you can’t publish the blog post you’d like to link to because it’s sitting in the queue?
It’s not that hard. I’ve run marketing automation systems. We’ve got to be more willing to embrace this. That means we have to become better publishers. That means being able to push that button and get it out there.
M What is your take on this new movement of brand journalism, and do you think that’s an effective way to attract and engage customers?
AA I think there’s a problem with it. When you’re unable to take a side on an issue because you don’t want to offend anyone, you end up being middle of the road. This happens when companies don’t know who their target audience is. I guarantee that those customers that are the most profitable for you have a defined profile. If you can put a stake in the ground, then it’s easier to take a stand.
In order to take a stand, you have to really be passionate about that core set of people you serve and, sure, you’re going to lose some, but you don’t sell to everybody anyway. What they need to focus on really is journalism that is really passionate about something and takes a stand, because the people who agree with that or who are interested enough to be curious enough to learn more about it, and think about it, maybe consider it as could become their point of view, those are the people you want engaged.
M Working as extensively as you do in the marketing space as a consultant, what are some of the major pain points that you come across most when speaking with other marketers?
AA Time. I work with enterprise companies where budget isn’t that big of an issue. Mostly it’s time and a lack of knowledge.
I will talk to them about content marketing, content strategy, all this kind of stuff so much that they know they need to do certain things, but they have no idea how to get started or how to do it well or even if they can. Somebody tweeted me the other day and asked me, “What would you say to somebody who says they just don’t have time to create quality content?” My response was, “Tell them to make time. The payoff will be worth whatever it is they have to give up to make that time.”
With knowledge, clients don’t understand how to do it because they’ve never been given the training or the skill sets. It’s like looking at remodelling your kitchen. You’re standing there with a sledgehammer thinking, what do I swing at first?
If you don’t know, you don’t know. You can end up creating a much bigger mess out of your kitchen rather than remodelling it.
M Who do you think is winning at the content game? Who’s doing fantastic work in the content space?
AA It’s hard in the B2B space. You could look at Chipotle and their video about the little farmer. They did a great job with all of that. You can look at stuff Lego’s done. You can look at stuff Red Bull has done, but when you look at B2B companies, it’s really hard. I think IBM’s Smarter Planet is really good. I think General Electric is doing some really good stuff, but it’s not all the time. It’s in relation to specific initiatives.
I see rays of brilliance. Then I see so-so stuff. The first stage is irrelevance, but the second stage, where most companies are, is what I called shifting relevance. They have this capacity to be really relevant, but then they can’t maintain that over time.
Part of the thing that I think is really hard to deal with is viral content. If you create something that does go viral, it’s probably because it’s more entertaining than it is informational. When you’re selling a really complex B2B solution, which is what I work on all the time, it’s hard to do that because there aren’t a lot of entertaining moments in talking about those kinds of solutions.
M What are the most memorable lessons you’ve learned throughout your career as a marketing and social media specialist, and is there anything that you know now that you wish you could have known when you were starting out?
AA One of the biggest things that I learned was to pick your battles wisely. There are some battles that aren’t worth fighting. If you can get partway, then you need to look at things iteratively. You have to stop expecting perfection so that you really have a chance to iterate through.
The other thing is that you have to roll your sleeves up and do the work. In the last seven years I’ve written enough content to sink a ship. It’s how you learn to do all of these things. You have to participate in every part of the process, because what happens one day, if you need a blog post and your writer isn’t available, what are you going to do?
There are a number of skills that you need to learn, not that you have to use them all the time but so that you can build a team of people who can do it well. If you don’t know how to do it, then how are you going to make sure other people are doing the right thing the right way?
I learn something new every day, and I read a ton. We have to, all of us, start doing that. I didn’t grow up with technology. If I can adapt to all this stuff, there’s no reason in the world why other marketers can’t do this too. I just think it’s really important that we all recognise how fast things change. I think it’s critically important that we all keep learning how to do all this stuff. Whether or not we’re really going to do it as part of our job, I think we still need to know how.