Saturday, March 28, 2020

A Temporary Change of Direction

For only the second time in over five years, I did not publish a post here last week. Over the past few weeks, I have found it increasingly difficult to create posts that I truly believe are timely, relevant, and useful for my readers.

The reason for my difficulty is COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. One way that I keep myself on a regular writing and publishing schedule is to always have several topics lined up for future posts. So when February began, I had already identified what I thought at the time were several solid topics.

But over the past two months as we have been bombarded with negative COVID-19 news on a daily if not an hourly basis, the topics I was writing about began to feel, well, almost trivial in light of unfolding events.

When I work with clients to develop marketing content, I stress that the most important attributes of good content are relevance and usefulness. The core idea is that your content should be helpful to your customers and prospects.

My goal for this blog has always been to provide useful information and thought-provoking ideas, but the business and economic repercussions of COVID-19 have fundamentally changed what constitutes "useful" and "thought-provoking," at least in the short term. Therefore, the content of this blog is going to be different for the next several weeks.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, marketers will need to rapidly adapt their strategies and tactics to meet changing business conditions. Time will become a precious commodity, and many marketers will find it difficult to keep up with all the information that could be vital for making sound business and marketing decisions.

Part of my work has always involved finding information and insights from sources that most marketers would not routinely encounter and making that information more accessible to the marketing community. This type of information will play a larger role in my posts for the next several weeks.

Some of my posts will address topics that don't directly relate to the day-to-day practice of marketing. But during this period, it's important for marketing leaders to play a central role in formulating their company's strategic response to COVID-19. Therefore, one of my objectives will be to identify and communicate information that will help marketing leaders fulfill this critical role.

In this post, I want to provide a few basic common-sense guidelines for communicating with customers and prospects during the COVID-19 outbreak. These guidelines are not earth shattering, and they are far from exhaustive. But they do provide a good starting point.

Provide Relevant, Useful, Timely, and Concise Information

I've already alluded to this point, but its importance cannot be overstated. Every communication you send, and every content resource you publish should be measured by these essential attributes. During a difficult period, the most effective way to approach content development and communications is to constantly ask:  "What information do our customers need right now?" Relevance and usefulness are always essential for good content, but they have a shorter shelf life during a crisis period.

When stress and uncertainty are high and time and attention are limited, it's also important to use clear and precise language and to make communications as concise as possible. Make your content easy to scan by using bullet points and headers to highlight the most critical information.

Avoid Promotional Content

For the next few weeks, customers and prospects will be especially sensitive to anything that smacks of brand opportunism. Therefore, avoid using any messages or content that is self-serving or promotional in tone or substance. Of course, there can be exceptions to this guideline. For example, I've already received at least a dozen emails from SaaS software companies offering free use of their apps for fairly significant periods of time. If your company has decided to provide customers and prospects with something that has substantial, out-of-the-ordinary value, it's both necessary and appropriate to communicate that offer.

Stay Connected to Customers

The extent and contours of the COVID-19 epidemic are changing every day, and that will likely continue for the next several weeks. As the situation evolves, customer needs and attitudes will also change. So it's vitally important for company leaders to listen closely to customers throughout this event. For most companies, the listening will necessarily be informal. Now is not the time to run a large survey, and in-person focus groups are an obvious no-no. But by continuing to talk with and listen to customers and prospects regularly, business and marketing leaders can get valuable insights on how to communicate effectively.

Illustration courtesy of William Allen via Flickr CC.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

A Worthwhile Perspective on the Economic Impact of Coronavirus

This will be a shorter post than you normally see here. For the past several days, I've been debating whether or not to write a post dealing with some economic aspect of the coronavirus outbreak, which the World Health Organization classified as a global pandemic last week.

My internal debate has revolved around two issues. First, I'm somewhat uncomfortable writing about the business impact of the outbreak while the virus is still causing widespread illness and a significant number of deaths around the world. That being said, it's undeniable that the economic aspects of the outbreak are vitally important to all of us.

The second challenge associated with writing about the outbreak is maintaining the right perspective. In a crisis such as this, we have a tendency to overemphasize the extreme possibilities and to largely ignore the much more likely probabilities. Focusing on extreme possibilities can easily lead us to (a) unreasonably minimize risks on one hand, or (b) an irrational panic on the other.

So with those considerations in mind, I'm using this post to recommend an analysis by McKinsey & Company that addresses the economic implications of the coronavirus outbreak. This analysis was published on March 9th, and McKinsey indicates that it will be updated regularly as the situation evolves. It's not clear how frequently these updates will occur, so you'll want to check this site every few days to get the firm's current thinking.

Two aspects of the McKinsey approach are particularly important for all of us to remember over the next few/several weeks. First, McKinsey displayed a significant amount of humility about its ability to see the future clearly. The authors of the analysis wrote, "The next phases of the outbreak are profoundly uncertain . . . Our perspective is based on our analysis of past emergencies and on our industry expertise. It is only one view, however. Others could view the same facts and emerge with a different view."

The second important characteristic of the McKinsey analysis is that it presents a range of possible economic outcomes. The authors of the analysis observed, "In our view, the prevalent narrative, focused on pandemic, to which both markets and policy makers have gravitated as they respond to the virus, is possible but underweights the possibility of a more optimistic outcome."

In the March 9th analysis, McKinsey descried three economic scenarios - a "quick recovery," a "global slowdown," and a "global pandemic and recession." It will be interesting to see whether or how McKinsey's thinking will change when the firm updates its analysis.

Image courtesy of Alachua County via Flickr (Public Domain).

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Should Sustainability Be Part of Your Brand Story?

The political debate surrounding climate change has been raging for the past two decades and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. However, several recent developments indicate that the leaders of many large business enterprises have accepted the reality of climate change and recognized they need to step up their focus on environmental sustainability.

August 2019 - The Business Roundtable, an organization whose members are the CEOs of major U.S. companies, issues a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation. The new statement says that corporations must serve the interests of a broad set of stakeholders, including "communities." The CEOs signing the statement committed to supporting communities by "embracing sustainable practices across our businesses."

January 2020 - Microsoft announces that it will become carbon negative by 2030, and it pledged that by 2050, it will remove from the environment as much carbon as the company has emitted since it was founded on 1975.

January 2020 - BlackRock, the world's largest money manager with over $7 trillion of assets under management, announces that will will make sustainability a major component of its investment strategy. In a letter to clients, BlackRock's global executive committee wrote, "We believe that sustainability should be our new standard for investing."

The general public is also becoming more concerned about the environment and climate change. In January, Pew Research Center polled a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults. In this research, 64% of the respondents said that the environment should be a top priority for the President and Congress. That was up from 47% in a 2016 Pew Research poll. Fifty-two percent of the respondents said that climate change should be a top priority, up from 38% in the 2016 poll.

Several recent studies have also found that B2B buyers - particularly younger buyers - are placing greater importance on the environmental and social practices of their prospective suppliers and business partners. For example, in a 2019 Marketo survey of 910 B2B buyers in the U.K., Germany, and France, 67% of the respondents said they seek to work with companies that are striving to reduce their impact on the environment.

In response to heightened buyer interest in environmental issues, some B2B marketers have made sustainability a part of their messaging strategy. Including sustainability in brand messaging can be effective, but it's also a tactic that must be used carefully in order to avoid being perceived as engaging in greenwashing.

Marketing that focuses on sustainability is one form of purpose marketing. Purpose marketing is strongly supported by some marketing pundits and strongly criticized by others. But one thing is clear. When a company engages in purpose marketing, it also invites close scrutiny. Therefore, it's critical for marketers to be sure their company is "walking the walk" before they begin "talking the talk."

There are two specific steps that marketers should take when adding sustainability to their messaging strategy.

Know Where You Stand - Before making sustainability part of their brand messaging, marketers should thoroughly understand what actions their company has taken to improve the sustainability of its operations. This analysis should also cover the company's supply chain because the company's reputation for sustainability will be significantly affected by the environmental practices of its suppliers.

Don't Exaggerate - When it comes to marketing messages around sustainability, it's best to use a conservative approach and be prepared to demonstrate the accuracy of any statements or claims that marketing messages contain. And if messages include commitments for future actions, marketers need to ensure that senior company leaders are fully onboard with those commitments

In today's business environment, it's increasingly important for B2B companies to have programs in place to improve the sustainability of their operations and to make customers and prospects aware of those programs. But marketers must be careful not to "overpromise and under deliver."

Image courtesy of Ron Mader via Flickr CC.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

How to Make Personalization Work in a Privacy-Conscious World

In my last post, I wrote that it's time for marketers to rethink their approach to personalization. The value of personalized marketing has been widely recognized for nearly two decades, and most marketing pundits are recommending that marketers expand their use of personalization. They contend that marketers should make personalization more specific and use it more frequently, in more channels, and for more types of communications and experiences.

The problem with this "more personalization" approach is that it fails to account for widespread and growing privacy concerns among both consumers and business buyers. Personalized marketing will not reach its full potential unless marketers use an approach that addresses these privacy concerns. Simply increasing the use of personalization will be ineffective at best, and may do more harm than good.

Personalization has been the subject of numerous research studies over the past few years, and these studies provide a good picture of what is required for personalized marketing to produce maximum results. There are three major components of an effective personalization strategy.

Make Personalization Useful

The first requirement for effective personalized marketing is that it must deliver meaningful and pragmatic value to the recipient. A 2018 study by Gartner/CEB documents the business value of personalization that is perceived by customers and prospects to be helpful. I've previously discussed this research, so I won't repeat that material here. For a more detailed description of the Gartner/CEB study see this post.

Make Personalization "Relationship-Appropriate"

The second component of an effective personalization strategy is to use a level of personalization that is appropriate for each customer or prospect. By appropriate, I mean that the level of personalization should match the real-world status of the relationship. A message or offer sent to a long-time customer can and should be more personalized than a first outreach to a new prospect.

To be effective, personalized marketing must be based on genuine insights about your customers and prospects. When you take personalization beyond such insights, it becomes inauthentic and will tend to be perceived as presumptuous. Corporate Visions recently conducted a field trial involving this principle, and you can read more about that research in this post.

Get Meaningful Permission for Personalization

Much of the concern about data privacy and personalization revolves around the issues of transparency and control. Many consumers and business buyers aren't confident they know what personal data companies are collecting about them or how that data is used. And many feel they don't have any meaningful control over those data practices.

Several recent research studies have shown how important transparency and control are for customers and prospects. For example, in a 2019 survey of 3,000 people in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., The Harris Poll asked participants about the importance of several data privacy practices. The following table shows the percentage of survey respondents who rated four transparency and control practices as very important or absolutely essential:

These research findings point the way to the third important component of an effective personalization strategy. In a world where privacy concerns are heightened, permission is critical to successful personalized marketing. If all the research about personalization tells us anything, it tells us that most consumers and business buyers will welcome and value personalized content when it is helpful, authentic, and based on permission that is willingly and consciously given.

So, how can marketers gain this kind of permission? There are three key steps.

Use Personalization "Programs" - In most cases, personalization efforts should be organized into discrete programs, each of which is designed to provide a specific type of value to a specific type of customer or prospect. This approach leads marketers to focus on the purpose of personalized marketing from the recipient's perspective.

Invite Participation - Invite your customers and/or prospects to "subscribe" to personalized content on a program-by-program basis, and reassure them that subscribing to one program won't open the floodgates to other marketing communications.

Be Transparent - It's important to be "radically" transparent in your invitation about the details of the personalization program. The main objective of the invitation is to persuade customers or prospects to participate in the program. So it should include:

  • Why the program will be useful and valuable for the recipient
  • What personal information will be used, and how the information will be used
  • How the personalized content will be delivered (format)
  • How frequently the personalized content will be delivered
  • The duration of the program
  • A clear statement that the recipient has the option to "unsubscribe" at any time
It's About How - Not Whether - to Personalize 
The issue for marketers is not whether to personalize marketing content and customer experiences. The evidence is clear that customers and prospects want and appreciate the increased relevance that personalization can provide. The real issue is how to deliver personalization in a way that respects privacy. By making personalization helpful, authentic, and permission-based, marketers will reap the maximum benefits of personalized marketing.

Top image courtesy of Josh Hallett via Flickr CC.

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Why It's Time to Rethink Personalization

With Personalization, Less Can Be More

Two Ways to Make Personalization Welcomed

The Growing Personalization Conundrum for Marketers