I know you hate paying for social media and content marketing

The reluctant success of content and social

 

Here is an actual quote from an actual client two weeks ago:

“I pay you this money and I see you doing these things on Twitter and Facebook and my LinkedIn, and I don’t understand it. Like that article you put on there last week, which I didn’t think was interesting at all. But then I look at my web traffic and I see that it’s going up and it’s coming from your links. So I guess I’ll keep paying you. I still don’t understand it, though.”

I hear some version of this comment with some regularity: I work with a lot of small/mid-sized businesses, all of which have super-tight marketing budgets, and usually no in-house marketing department. So I’m generally working directly with a VP or President who knows their business really well, but doesn’t have a lot of experience with marketing.

The problem is the classic one: You can set up as many A/B tests as you want, track your clickthroughs til you’re blue in the face, and evangelize about engagement rates until someone invites you to a fake TEDx talk, but at the end of the day it’s still just as difficult as ever to draw a straight line from a single tweet to a single sale.

Remember print ads in magazines?

I’m old enough to remember the received wisdom that brands couldn’t expect a significant uptick in sales until they’d run a given single-page ad in a magazine for 3 months in a row.  (I say ‘received wisdom’, because all we had in those days were survey-based data and they were about as reliable as the cell reception in the back of the Metro grocery store at Yonge and Eglinton, which is to say, ‘not very’.)

It’s called ‘build’: The idea that if you provide a consistent message in a consistent format in a consistent channel for a significant amount of time, eventually consumers will take the action you want. And it worked.

Social media and content success is all about ‘build’

Social media and content marketing seems immediate: The tweets responding to some pop-culture moment and go viral, the blog posts commenting on this week’s hot-button topic, the comment sections that go nuts for 24 hours.

But sales success – because, ultimately, all this engagement and clicks and sharing and commenting is only effective insofar as it drives sales – still depends on build.

Which is why I liked this infographic.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever buy banner ads or do some targeted programmatic. But short-term bursts of ‘advertising’ just won’t get you the results that the build of long-term social media and content will.

Sarah Welstead content marketing

 

Want your marketing to work? Answer these questions first.

You know you need some marketing.  But where do you start?

For small-but-fast-growing companies in the B2B space – which is mostly where I work these days – marketing is often a leap of faith. You know you need some kind of marketing, because you have to ‘get the word out there’ and your website looks like it was designed in 1992. But how can you prevent that smooth-talking marketing consultant from leaving you with a dysfunctional (but so sexy!) website, empty pockets, and zero incremental revenue?

Well, despite what the Big Data guys will tell you, it’s always going to be tough to draw a straight line from $1 spent on marketing to $1 earned in sales.

But the best way to get the most out of your marketing investment – and avoid costly marketing mistakes – is to know as much as you can about your business and where you want it to go in the next couple of years. Saying “We want to sell more stuff!” and then hoping for a marketing strategy that will magically make that happen won’t work.

Here are the 11 questions you should ask before you spend any money on marketing.

The 11 answers you need if you expect your marketing to work

1.  What are your top 3 business goals for the next 12 months?

All marketing initiatives need to be tied to specific business goals – with specific revenue numbers.  There’s no point in increasing retail sales if what you really need is to increase sales via sales brokers.  Answering this question will also help you arrive at a realistic marketing budget.

2.  Where do you see the business in 3-5 years?

While the answers to #1 should be highly specific (“Increase revenue on X product by X%”), the answers to this should be more ‘visioning’, like “We’d like to be the leading provider of X in X area”).  However, it’s important to keep this realistic:  If you’re currently the #10 player in a saturated market, know that 3 years probably isn’t long enough to get to the #1 spot.

3.  What are your top 3 most pressing business issues?

Are you suffering from a lack of awareness?  Not being considered in the competitive solution set?  Not being able to communicate with customers?  Operational delays?  Confused employees?  Marketing and communications can help with all of these – and sometimes it’s more effective to spend marketing dollars training and educating employees than to build a fancier website.

4.  Which of your products/services is currently making you the most money right now?

The product/service with the best margin may be the best place to start spending marketing dollars, because you’ll get more bang for your buck.  Once you’ve tested the market, you can invest in other products/services.

5.  What are your top 3 barriers to sale/sales objections right now?

Are your salespeople having trouble getting meetings?  Are they having trouble closing them?  Are potential clients having a hard time finding you, or are they worried about your credibility in the marketplace?  Do you have a great sales team but a confusing message?  Before you start undertaking television advertising, it might be best to focus on sales materials or a more coherent brand identity.

6.  What are your 3 most lucrative target markets?

Small businesses always want to sell to ‘everyone’, but a limited marketing budget just won’t let you reach 22-year-old urban dwellers and 60-year-old senior executives. Identify the 3 target groups that buy the most, and sell to them first.

7.  Do you have a ‘brand story’?

Do you know what you sell, why it’s different or better, and how it will make the lives of your customers and clients better?  In my experience, most small-but-growing businesses do have a compelling story – they wouldn’t have made it this far if they didn’t – but it’s not being clearly and consistently articulated.  Sometimes this is where an outside marketing consultant can help the most.

8.  What are your current communications assets (website, infosheets, social media, etc.)?

‘Marketing’ really includes everything that your business uses to communicate with stakeholders: This includes the big stuff like the website or online advertising, but it also includes stuff like infosheets and promo items, RFP templates and graphics, conference materials and even reports and email footers – all of these things have a role to play in building your brand and communicating who you are to clients, employees and other stakeholders, and they all count as part of your overall marketing mix.

9.  What are your customers/employees/other stakeholders saying about the way you’re communicating with them right now?

Employees who are on the front lines, talking to your customers and each other every day, probably have a more accurate picture of your customers than you realize. Ask them what they’re hearing – and don’t dismiss the answers.

10.  What does business success look like?

Business success can be reducing the sales cycle, attracting investors, recruiting better talent – there are plenty of factors that contribute to the bottom line that go beyond “sell more stuff”.

11.  What does marketing success look like?

Marketing can’t be successful if you don’t know exactly what you want it to do for you – and again, “sell more stuff” isn’t specific enough. Do you want reduced customer acquisition spend, increased customer retention, more brand awareness, more cross-selling opportunities…? Marketing can help you with all of these, but only if you know what you want when you start.

Write it down.

I know you think you have better things to do. But I promise, if you take a couple of hours to codify (i.e. articulate, then write down) the answers to these 11 questions, your marketing efforts will be exponentially more successful than if you don’t.

 

The twisted path of social media attribution

Sarah Welstead social media marketing

Sarah Welstead social media marketing

The other day, I happened to notice a Facebook post from a friend: “Taking a trip to Quebec this summer. Looking for recommendations about places to go/stay.”

I haven’t seen this friend in a while. Like, it’s probably been 20 years since we’ve actually seen each other in person even though we live in the same city, which sounds bad when I write it down like this, but [insert something about modern living, social media, and how the internet ruins relationships blah blah blah] – but he works in media, we share some music interests and I remembered us having some conversations about design and architecture back in the day.

So I immediately thought of this modern ‘cabin’ I’d seen in Quebec.

I should clarify that when I say “seen”, I mean “seen online” – I haven’t actually been there. But I do social media for a couple of real estate/architecture-adjacent clients who like to tweet and write about interior design, plus I often seem to fall down rabbit holes about tiny homes on YouTube. So in the past couple of months, one way or another, this cabin had popped up on my radar more than once, and I had spent a few minutes looking at pictures of the interior on more than one occasion.

The problem, of course, was that I couldn’t remember its name, or where I’d seen it. All I remembered was that it looked interesting and minimalist, was in Quebec, and that it was available for short-term rentals. It took me a few minutes on Google, but I tracked it down and then posted the link to my friend’s Facebook feed.

Three hours later, he’d booked the place for a week (around $2000).

Social media marketing success! But how do you track it?

This is the problem with social media: Based on the story I’ve related above, it’s easy to say that [social media = sales], and in this case we can even say [social media = $2000 in sales].

That sounds terrific! And we quantified it!

Except no one on the other end of this – i.e. the person running the social media or other marketing efforts for the Villa Boreale – has any way of knowing the role social media played in the sale they just made, or just how it worked.

They may ask my friend how he heard of their cabin. He’s going to say “from a friend”.  He’s not going to say: “From a friend via Facebook, who came across it on Twitter, and then tracked it down through some Instagram pictures.” So on the big marketing spreadsheet in the sky where they try to connect ‘marketing dollars spent’ to ‘revenue earned’, this is probably going to go down under ‘word of mouth’. Which is wrong. Mostly.

So what can we know about measuring social media marketing?

Since it often looks like this:

Sarah Welstead on the difficulty of measuring social media

(Yes, I know. If I were any good at diagramming this stuff I’d have a degree in semiotics.)

There’s nothing worse than someone who highlights a problem and then just sort of leaves it there without a solution, so here are my handy bits of advice for you regarding the measurement of your social media marketing efforts:

  • Accept that you’ll hardly ever be able to draw a straight line from $1 spent on social media to $5 in sales. But you know what? This is true for about 95% of marketing initiatives – social media shouldn’t be required to follow different rules
  • ‘Engagement’ isn’t always the holy grail. I didn’t like, fave, retweet or comment on any of the posts I saw about Villa Boreale – but that doesn’t mean they didn’t influence my behaviour
  • ‘Word of mouth’ is a big umbrella, under which social media relationships and real-life relationships have a whole ecosystem of their own. Stop trying to separate social media from everything else
  • It’s a longer game than you think. If I’d seen Villa Boreale just once, I might not have remembered it. By seeing it repeatedly, over a few months, it stayed top of mind. An effective social media strategy is long-term and consistent
  • Social media works best when it’s done on more than one channel. My diagram up there looks a little ridiculous, I know – but it’s also representative of the way people use social media. Hardly anyone uses just one social media channel, and everyone’s usage patterns are unique. You don’t have to be on every social media channel in the universe – but you should definitely be on more than one.

 

 

One of your target groups is better than the others. Market to it.

Not all target markets are created equal

Do you really know who your best customers are?

Not all target markets are created equal

Okay, so the other week I talked about how it’s crucial for small businesses to get specific with their marketing goals. And last month I talked about how small businesses need to answer some very detailed questions about their business before they spend any money at all on marketing.

Look how theme-y I’m getting! Pretty soon I’ll be doing the 12 days of blogmas or something.

Just in case you haven’t spotted the theme yet, here it is: When small businesses start throwing money at marketing without doing their homework or getting very specific with their goals, they often always spend more than they need to for less than they hoped. And probably start saying things like “marketing is useless” or “marketing consultants are idiots”. (Only the second of these is sometimes true.)

Narrowing down target markets is the worst part of my job

Most of the time, when I tell clients that it’s important to articulate clear business goals so they can tie their marketing efforts and results to them, they’re totally on board. It’s easy to understand that you can’t reach goals if you don’t set them.

It’s when we get to identifying the target market(s) that we always run into trouble: “We have no ideal client!” the businesses say. “We want to sell to everyone!”

Except even McDonald’s isn’t selling to everyone – or at least they’re not trying to sell everything, all the time, to everyone. That’s why Happy Meal ads feature kids, while McCafe ads feature mildly hipster-type 30-somethings: They have different target markets.

So I can assure you, with some confidence, that your commercial office moving service, or your financial planning consultancy, or your large-scale aquarium maintenance business should also not be trying to market to ‘everyone’.

I get it. If you’ve spent the past few years of your life pouring all your time and energy into your business, the thought of losing even one potential customer makes you feel a bit sick to your stomach. But if you’ve spent all that time building your business, you’ve probably learned that chasing the wrong clients is futile: The cost of acquiring them is too high, they keep you up at night because they’re never satisfied anyway – they just don’t deliver a good ROI.

(And as so many Canadian companies saw with the Target debacle, even if you do, once in a while, land one of these unicorn clients, they can still be the kind of nightmare that demands 90-day payment terms and then skips town.)

Marketing is the same: Chasing long-shot target markets will cost you more money, time and resources than you can afford. So while I know it’s painful, you’ve got to define one or two ideal customers and then spend most of your time marketing to them. A year or two from now, when the cash is rolling in, then go ahead and broaden your scope – you’ll be able to afford it.

How to start defining your ideal client: 5 steps

If you want to get more out of your marketing dollars, you have to make decisions based on actual facts. Here’s how to determine your ideal client:

  1. Stop relying on anecdotal information. It’s easy to get sidetracked by compelling anecdotes about unexpected, easy, or huge sales wins. But repeating an anecdote at every sales and marketing meeting for 2 years doesn’t turn it into ‘data’.
  2. Pull a list of your clients from the past 12-24 months. 99% of the time, you’re going to find that your most profitable clients aren’t actually who you thought they were.
  3. Segment your client list by industry/vertical. When they actually sit down and do the numbers, most B2B SMBs discover that they’re making 85% of their revenue from a shortlist of 3 or 4 key industries. That’s where you should be spending your marketing dollars – until you’ve saturated those or have a specific business mandate to expand to other verticals.
  4. Ensure senior leadership – including the sales department – is on board. One of the biggest hurdles to marketing success for SMBs is when the CEO, the VP Sales and the VP Marketing can’t agree on which target market(s) should get the most marketing support. It dilutes the marketing message – and the marketing budget. Don’t spend any money on marketing until everyone’s on the same page.
  5. Create a profile of the individual decision maker(s). In B2B marketing, companies often don’t think about demographics/psychographics: They get focused on marketing to an industry or organization, and forget that, just like in B2C marketing, there’s an actual person who has to make the final purchasing decision. Knowing exactly what that person looks like, and what motivates them, will help you focus your marketing efforts more effectively. (And don’t forget to create profiles for the decision influencers, too!

 

“Sell more stuff” isn’t a marketing strategy – and won’t get the results you want

when marketing goals are hazy, results can't happen

when marketing goals are hazy, results can't happen

Marketing can’t deliver results if you don’t know what those results should be

The other day I had a conversation with a new client. He wants to grow his business aggressively (from $1.5 million to $5 million in revenue) in the next couple of years, and knows he needs marketing support to do it. But he hasn’t done a lot of marketing so far, and while he’s an expert in his field, he hasn’t had much experience in sales and marketing.

Here is part of our exchange:

ME: “Can you tell me a little more about your sales goals for the next 6-12 months?”

HIM: “I told you. I want to grow the business.”

ME: “Yes, but as we’ve discussed you’ve got a wide range of products and services. Which ones do you want to focus on?

HIM: “All of them. We need to sell more of everything.”

ME: “What does your business plan look like? Where do you see the bulk of your revenue coming from in the next 6-12 months?”

HIM: “We need to double our revenue by next year.”

ME: “Where do you see the incremental revenue coming from? What’s making you the most money right now?”

HIM: “Everything. We need to sell more of everything.”

ME: “But you said you didn’t want to spend more than $2500 a month, right?”

 

It’s hard to achieve goals if no one knows what they are

Many – maybe most – small businesses are afraid to get too specific with their sales and revenue goals: “If we concentrate too much on one area,” they fear, “we’ll miss opportunities in other areas.”

And it’s true that the nimbleness of small businesses – their ability to respond to changes in the marketplace and adapt their service offerings accordingly – can be a tremendous advantage.

However, when it comes to marketing, this strategy usually just results in chaos, overspending, and an inability to judge whether a particular marketing initiative has been effective.

Marketing isn’t like accounting. But you have to at least try to make the columns add up.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that marketing is often more art than science – and even the science bit is often alchemy. It’s tough to draw a straight line from $1 spent on marketing to $5 in revenue.

Big-data types can talk all they want about profiles and predictive modeling and one-to-one targeting, but until they figure out that I don’t actually live in Ottawa and that I am not interested in hiring a painting contractor in Virginia and that I am definitely not buying anything from Zulily, I am going to continue to believe that successful marketing consists of gathering all the information you can, then making some choices.

6 steps to setting marketing goals that are more likely to get results

1. Pull your actual sales data so you know exactly what you sold. Anecdotal sales stories about that one time you sold a whole bunch of random stuff to that healthcare center in Boston aren’t good enough. Most of the time, your sales data will tell you that, in fact, your best, easiest sales are of your top 3-4 product/services.

2. Figure out what’s driving customer acquisition. This is, in my experience, the biggest unknown for small businesses – and yet it can be the greatest source of information for marketing purposes. If 90% of your customers are referrals from other customers, then you should probably use marketing to encourage more referrals, instead of spending a zillion dollars on a fancy website that no one visits anyway.

3. Segment your customers. Again, stop relying on anecdotal information and look at the list of people/businesses who’ve actually bought stuff from you in the past 12-24 months. You’ll almost always discover that 85% (or more) of them fall into 2-3 easily identifiable categories (same industry, same function, same location, etc.).

4. Identify your high-margin products/services. It’s (usually) more profitable to sell $50k worth of stuff at a 50% margin than $200k of stuff at a 5% margin. So why focus marketing efforts on both?

5. Articulate the business goals – and be specific. Yeah, okay, you want to sell more stuff. But why? And what? Maybe you want to drive gross revenue because you’re looking at an exit strategy; maybe you want big profits because you want to give your employees a raise; maybe you want to push a monthly service because you want to stabilize cashflow; maybe you want to build the brand to attract investors. The more you know about your business goals, the better you’ll be able to determine what your marketing should focus on, how much to spend – and what marketing tactics will get you there.

6. Go after the low-hanging fruit first. Seems obvious, right?  Except, like I said, most small business owners fear that if they focus on the obvious, they’ll miss out on the mystical unicorns of untapped customers. But here’s the thing: I promise that if you spend 12 months focusing on the low-hanging fruit, the mystical unicorns will magically appear. Business is funny that way: The more successful you are selling your core products and services to your core target markets, the more likely it is that you’ll start selling to everyone else, too. Plus, you’ll be so profitable that you won’t have to go chasing unicorns any more!

 

I know, I know – all this talk of business analysis and goal setting means I’m taking all the fun out of marketing, which is supposed to be about Big Ideas and cool websites and getting a YouTube celebrity to endorse your product. It can be like that – as long as you’ve done your homework first.