‘When our ears do glow and tingle, some do talk of us in our absence,’’ Roman soldier and author Pliny the Elder supposedly said in the first century AD.
The origin of the saying may be ancient but burning ears are very relevant to commerce today.
In the technology industry especially, there are many and varied online conversations about your company and products going on largely outside of your hearing, posing huge challenges for traditional approaches to marketing. This was borne out recently by a study from American company IDG, a researcher and publisher that specialises in the hitech industry.
IDG recently conducted a survey with more than 1000 people who make purchase decisions about new technology products and services, trying to understand how they went about making their buying decisions. What the study found is that people were consuming lots of ‘‘content’’ (their jargon for information in different formats) before having any direct contact with a company they would buy from. And that they were consuming different types of content at the different stages of their buying process, as they went from having no knowledge of a product through to desiring it and signing the cheque.
People wanted to consume at least two to four pieces of content before even talking to a sales person, and typically used nine pieces of content during the whole process. That’s a lot of interactions with your company, many of them uncontrolled and out of your sight.
Buyers consumed different types of content at different stages of the buying process:
Early on they used items like feature articles, technology news stories, how-to articles, and white papers as most important.
At the midpoint they were typically relying on reviews/ recommendations and third-party research.
Near the end of the cycle, buyers use content such as assessment tools (for example, return-on-investment calculators), product demos, and demo literature.
Almost all this activity was conducted online, across news websites, company websites and social networks. Three-quarters of the respondents said they used social media networks like LinkedIn to find and share information about products they were evaluating. The data from IDG gels with the annual market measures study of sales and marketing by New Zealand hi-tech companies, compiled by Concentrate and Swaytech.
Ninety-one per cent of companies in the survey felt it was important potential customers were able to conduct at least part of their buying process online (that is, finding information about their products and evaluating them), and 53 per cent felt this situation had become more common in the past 12 months. The content most suitable for early lead ‘‘nurturing’’ online was actually the promotional content least frequently produced. The most frequent was traditional marketing content used for late stages of the sales cycle – sales presentations, newsletters and company or product collateral.
Least frequent was less traditional marketing content used for early stages in the sales cycle – e-books, podcasts, info graphics checklists, webinars and opinion articles.
A revealing correlation in the survey was that producing that early stage, less traditional marketing content was associated with high growth.
When I ‘‘grew up’’ in the technology industry, buyers had much more restricted access to information. As vendors we could control that flow more easily and manage the sales process.
Today it is much harder, with buyers having access to huge amounts of vendor-produced and independent information about products. There is nowhere to hide in this online world – so how do you succeed? Of course the best strategy is simply to do a good job.
Good results mean good online word of mouth and a greater likelihood you will appear on a buyer’s potential purchase list.
But there are also some practical steps you can take.
You need to be able to understand and map the typical buying process your customers go through, and what sort of information they typically need to move along the process. Don’t just assume it, talk to some friendly customers and get their impressions of what’s useful.
What you produce depends a lot on what you are selling and to whom but if you are marketing complex products or services to other businesses you should pay attention to these three areas.
1. Informative content (for example, a white paper) that discusses the business problem your customer might be facing and the possible solutions (for example, an accounting software provider might provide ‘‘6 ways to reduce your aged debtors’’).
2. A plan for generating third party coverage of your product/ company, for example publicity in a trade magazine about a customer success.
3. Product content that is actually useful to your prospective customer – clear, well-written information that focuses on features and their benefits, not hype and nonsense, for example an online tool helping the reader build a business case to purchase your product.
The way to survive the torture of ‘‘burning ears’’ is not by ignoring it, but by being proactive about understanding how your customers buy and doing what you can to help them through that process.