B2B Marketing CAN Be Creative, Compelling, and Share-Worthy: Key Lessons from Carla Johnson via a B2B Newbie

Fisheye.TruckAs a marketer who has recently found herself in B2B after many years of B2C marketing, not only did I take copious notes while watching Carla Johnson‘s talk at  the BMA KC on January 31, 2017, I started researching and digging around because for the life of me, I still cannot come up with the creative brand that I want to be more creative than…

Let me back up a little for those of you who have not watched her talk in its entirety (seriously, though, take the time to do so because it’s well worth the time investment)! Carla has coined an accurate term that many of us experience in real-life, every day: BRAND DETACHMENT DISORDER.  You know, that brand that you are so sick of hearing about that you turn off and tune out when you hear about them–even when it is second or third hand?  I can name three of those brands easily and without too much thought.  But the challenge that Carla Johnson issues is much tougher (for me anyway)–she challenges us to fill in the following sentence:

“I CAN be more creative than (Insert Favorite, Best, and Most Creative Company Here).”

And who doesn’t love a good challenge?  But how the heck do I get there?  Carla has a road map for that and I am going to provide you with my current experiences as a concrete example of how to suss out a highly creative and compelling campaign that will not only engage your current and potential customers but will also endear you to them.

We have to start with the premise that Carla Johnson starts us off with,

“Creativity is something everybody can do at any time.”

Okay, I believe that and while it may take work, it is highly likely that I can be creative in promoting this valuable business to the businesses who need our services.  But it gets even better than that because I have the excellent fortune of working for a B2B business that is incredibly interesting, fast-paced, and compelling.  Additionally, there are so many exciting and gripping stories that I can’t see how one wouldn’t’ find what we do compelling.

“Connect the dots” between our services and the people I need to reach.   

For the most part, the people I need to reach are television producers, many of whom have been in the game for many years and have seen, well, a heckuva a lot.   IMG_7062Again, I was taking copious notes during Carla Johnson’s talk so I know that after considering how to best connect the dots between our services (giant Ku Band and C Band satellite trucks and a guarantee that every live-shot and satellite media tour will come off without a hitch) and the television producers I need to reach, I must now consider what those television producers are worrying about how the services my company provides can solve that problem.

*Lightbulb comes on* Ratings!  Producers care about ratings.  We can help them increase their ratings.  Now I just need to engage them. *Gulp*

FEAR kills creativity. 

Carla Johnson expounds on that statement and provides fantastic examples but the gist is that I not only have to consider my own fear and how it may be crippling or stifling my creativity, I need to remember that a highly creative, “out-of-the-box” campaign may also be frightening to company leadership.  But Carla has an answer for that and one that I can back up with evidence,

“Small steps with creativity = Huge Outcomes.” 

Remember that even if the step you want to take is a giant leap (like a Red-Rover, Red-Rover leap), the organization and the audience might not be ready for that leap so start with a small step.  Execute a small creative leap (for free through your owned media) and track the results.  The data will speak for itself.  If the creative baby -step doesn’t work, re-work it and try again.  I can actually hear Bill Murray from “What About Bob?” talking to the camera during the Good Morning America interview, “I couldn’t be happier about ‘Baby-Steps.”

“Inspiration can come from anywhere.”

As Bob would say, “it’s the horse-sense of it all!”  Yes, creativity can come from anywhere and for many of us, thinking on those creative lines does not stop when you pack it in for the day.  Creativity needs to be nurtured and whether it’s watching the series Abstract on Netflix or reading the Wall Street Journal cover to cover, there are ways to seek out and further develop your creative sensibilities.  I would humbly add that being a good listener can also aid in honing creativity.  I find I learn and observe differently when I keep my mouth shut.

“Creativity is a muscle.” 

The creative muscle, like all muscles, gets stronger with use.  Many of us train our brains as we *ahem* get longer in the tooth with tools like Lumosity and the New York Times crossword puzzle, so why not exercise the creative muscle by visiting a museum, watching the best live shots on YouTube from the past three years, or flipping through an anthology of great American artists and their work?

“The content should pay for itself.” 

Having spent much of my career with a meager budget, that statement gave me so much pause that I rewound to make sure I heard it correctly.  Carla Johnson was talking about one of her clients who feels that content should be so compelling that it is shared by virtue of its intrinsic value.  In fact, he would prefer to not pay to get the content out in the world, he would rather the content stand on its own merits. I couldn’t agree more!  Earned publicity through owned channels is a brilliant goal and an excellent test of the creative mettle if you will.

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While I am still searching for the company that I want to be “more creative than…” I am optimistic, confident, and inspired that creativity within B2B is achievable!  Thanks Carla Johnson!

 

 

 

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Writing for the Audience Rather Than at Them

Every time I drive past this gas station in the Ozarks (yup, weezums in Missoura like people to say what they mean ana mean what they say) I smile–not only because it’s funny as heck but because clearly, the proprietor knows her audience.  She  does an excellent job of speaking their language and relating to them which is what is at the core of good copywriting.

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Listening to Jeff Julian and Jonathan Kranz discuss copywriting at CM World 2016 in Cleveland was a huge treat and a pretty much made my day because they confirmed what my instincts have been telling me: it’s good to be empathetic.  Jonathan Kranz (author of Writing Copy for Dummies) does a fantastic job of walking us through his learning curve and poses a series of hard questions that prompted me to re-frame how I think of copywriting.  Many of us start a project with the end goal in mind (if we’re going about it strategically, anyway) and oftentimes in copywriting, that goal is to sell.  But what if we conceive of the end goal not by asking the question, “did you sell?” but rather, as Jonathan asks, “are you real?” and “will you tell the truth?”  Of course, selling matters but the whole point of any communication with our customers ought to be relationship development.  Long term relationship development.  Would you want to be in a long term relationship with someone who was always and only trying to “sell” you or would you prefer to spend your time and energy on someone who offers intrinsic value by being authentic, compassionate, and in the end, helpful in solving problems?  Kind of a “no brainer,” right?

The approach Jonathan Kranz advises for copywriting, applies to consulting as well (incidentally, you should Google Jonathan Kranz and click on the second link that you see).  As Jonathan and Jeff note, we are far more likely to place trust in someone who admits they are not perfect, have made mistakes along the way, and most importantly, learned from those mistakes than we are likely to trust someone who is blustery and claims to be infallible.  The takeaway from this for me is that copywriting as well as client meetings need to be real conversations, meaning we are actively listen and empathize to understand as well as converse openly about mistakes and learning experiences.

When I was teaching, I often utilized a neat feature of McGraw Hill Textbooks: case studies.  I found carefully examining the case study to understand what happened behind the scenes of some of the biggest PR events in my lifetime was incredibly illuminating.  We got to examine how and why Johnson and Johnson took immediate action during the Tylenol scare of 1982 and what the creative process was for the “Got Milk?” campaign.  These case studies (because they were written for textbooks) always included a lesson–what the professionals learned along the way and better still, how they learned from their mistakes.  I agree wholeheartedly with Jonathan Kranz and Jeff Julian on the statement that being honest and forthright about one’s fallibility and the lessons learned from being fallible is far more endearing than the pretense of perfection.

I got further confirmation on the power of listening and being empathetic from  Marketing Prof Ann Handley, who points out in her article, Why “targeting” customers is the wrong approach, that use of the word “targeting” is an indicator that we may be going about it all wrong.  img_0934Ann asks, “What if we didn’t target customers, but instead sought to serve them?” Oh yeah!  The customer is always right, even when it comes to what words we use to communicate with them.  That means we need to be pathologically empathetic with the customer.  Along with that empathy, there also ought to be, as Jonathan Kranz puts it, “something of intrinsic value for the customer,” meaning we need to literally put the customer first and by doing so we find the copy becomes more real, more authentic, and hopefully, a lot like talking to a friend.  As someone who possesses what could arguably be too much empathy at times, I was delighted to read that empathy is a great asset to the copywriter and concurrently to the marketer as she talks to clients.  Turns out wearing my heart on my sleeve isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

 

 

Trial and Error Even in the Big Leagues: This is How We Learn

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Note that my friend “Accident Andy” here is smiling.  Sure, he has a couple of cuts and a splint but he’s smiling because he’s proud of his of trial and error.  Andy sits on my desk and encourages me as I develop the site for my budding small business(es).  I put Andy on my desk after listening to Jeff Julian interview Nicole Smith on Getting Scrappy at Dell.

Nicole Smith blew my mind when she told me that there were only eight people on the team that launched Tech Page One at Dell.  Incidentally, I have spent some time on Tech Page One and it is truly a wealth of information from education to entrepreneurship and, obviously, tech.  Here I sit, day after day, developing sites for various purposes, beating myself up, thinking (at times) that I have no idea what I am doing and then I hear Nicole tell me that she and the team developed Tech Page One on WordPress!  Holy cow!  They did so because they could test more effectively in that environment and essentially earned their way to success (and budget) through trial and error when they developed the highly customer-focused Tech Page One.

That was my other big takeaway from listening to Nicole–always be customer-focused.  I need Accident Andy on my desk (no reference to super-dude Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media here, I just like alliteration) to “feel heartened,” as Nicole Smith puts it, regarding my trials, tribulations and errors.  

More importantly, Accident Andy helps me to remember to focus on the customer and not my ego.  I liken the problem of being overly focused on my own business objectives and not putting the customer first to a server, who upon coming to the table to take the order, turns sideways and asks the customer, “Does my butt look big?” rather than taking their order.  A silly analogy sure, but I think it makes clear how easy it is to get myopic when developing a site and site content.

For example, I am getting really hung up on UI patterns.  My knee-jerk response is to develop something unique and user-friendly all at the same time.  I am beginning to see that really isn’t realistic for someone at my skill level (which is quite honestly, a tetch lower than basic).  Heck, the reason that certain UI patterns have become so commonly used is that they are user-friendly.  It is here that I have an opportunity to stop thinking about how special and unique I think my business is and start thinking about the customer and how they will be able to find what they need as quickly as possible.  It is likely that customer really doesn’t even think about the UI pattern at all.  What the customer does think about is getting the information they need and/or the product they want as quickly as possible.  As Jerry Cao puts it, “…we’ve changed the way we consume the web, which has resulted in a lot of common UI design patterns. Design patterns have matured and as such, there’s little in the way of innovation when it comes to UI patterns…There’s no real reason to reinvent the wheel. UI patterns must guide users through a smooth experience.”

Clearly, the time I devote to trial and error should not be wasted on UI patterns that others have determined work and work well, but what type of design is going to best feature my business and enable customers to navigate quickly and easily.  The other thing Accident Andy reminds me to think about is the path to purchase (for retail sites) and the path to donations (for non-profits) because if there are too many clicks or (ugh) dead ends that take the user in a loop, they’re going to leave.  Jerry Cao provides a great overview of 6 Web Design Trends and I used his article to spur some additional thinking on micro-interactions and what the best, most customer-focused micro-interaction will look like on my site.

Micro-interactions open up a world of questions from, “When should there be a pop-up to sign up for the newsletter?” to “What is the best language to use when allowing a customer to opt-out?”  Thanks to Google Analytics  the the genius of Nicole Smith’s advice, I get to try, test, determine error, and try again.  And silly me if I get too complacent and think that I can do that only once a year!  Website improvements need to be ongoing so as to effectively keep up with the demands and expectations of our customers and how lucky we are to have that kind of instantaneous feedback as well as the ability to make adjustments and changes based on our customer’s needs.

Here’s the thing: I certainly haven’t figured it all out yet.  My site is far from perfect right now.  But like one of my friends in Web Development once told me. “That’s what the undo button is for.  There’s nothing you can’t undo.”

 

 

 

What Happens When You Stop Learning

As marketers we are all acutely aware of the importance and the challenge in trying to keep up (heck, trying to stay current) with the plethora of tools and sites and practices intrinsic to successful marketing practice in 2016.

I would like to take this opportunity to say, “Hey, good for you!”  The fact that you are reading this post is a testament to your own curiosity and your understanding of the importance to keep learning.  To go a little further and try to literally make your day, I will share with you what happens when you stop learning (this is the part that you get to read,  and take a deep sigh of relief because you’re still learning and doing as much as you can to stay current):

  1. You nod during conversations all the while knowing you have no idea what you are nodding about and this makes you feel crummy.  (Had a great conversation with some Web Developers recently who told me that many of their clients “do the nod” during meetings and then freak out when the developers implement what they nodded in approval to which makes for a really awkward follow-up conversation.)
  2. You get defensive and angry because you are not speaking the same language as the people around you.  (Note, this is not an age thing at all.  I am rather long in the tooth but when I hear a term I do not fully understand I do one of two things: ask for an explanation or conduct thorough research privately).
  3. You slow others down.  (Because now they have to explain it to you and because most people are nice-they really are-they will try to do so without sounding surprised or patronizing and in doing so may inadvertently throw in two or three more terms or processes with which you are unfamiliar.  That causes your brain to lock up and you end up missing or misunderstanding the entire explanation).
  4. You compromise your own ROI.  (I have been with organizations that have outdated Websites that do not utilize Google Analytics and as a result, they are not able to calculate return on investment not only for the site but for paid, earned and owned assets as well.  This is truly a marketers nightmare because most of us live to measure and compete not only against others but also against ourselves).
  5. You stay humble.  This is sage advice from AJ AGRAWAL in his 2015 article about this importance of learning.  He nails it when he argues, “When we are looking to learn as much as possible, there’s less of a chance that we will come off as arrogant.”
  6. Lastly, and perhaps most dangerously, you get out of the habit of learning.  Curiosity, like many things, can be cultivated as a habit and as far as habits go, it’s probably the best habit to have.

My grandmother, who lived to be 96 years old, was the most charming and engaging woman I have ever known.  The reason?  She was forever curious.  Even into her 90s, Gram worked to stay current in the world and would ask questions to clarify her understanding.  When I asked her what her secret was for staying young, she answered, “I’ve kept my brain and body active.”  She did so through daily walks and conversations with people around her and through voracious reading.

In conclusion, here are a few (often cited, often referenced because they’re among the best) resources to stay current in marketing and business:

Ted Talks (hopefully a given).

Enterprise (through Aji)

Orbit Media

Content  Marketing University 

And always and of course, your local public library.  Please don’t be nervous to ask your librarian for some guidance because librarians love to help you, they really do.

But again, none of this applies to you because you found yourself here.  Nice work!  Keep learning.  It’s the best way to rock on with your bad self.

 

 

 

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