LinkedIn’s Weak Link

On balance, most people would agree that the LinkedIn social media platform has been a positive development in the field of business. Until LinkedIn came along, often it was quite challenging to make and nurture connections with like-minded industry or professional colleagues, or to find relevant contacts deep within corporations or other organizations.

I’m old enough to remember the “bad old days” of fruitless searches through the Corporate Yellow Book, Hoover’s and Dun & Bradstreet mercantile listings to try to find good company contacts. Often the information was far too “upper-level,” out-of-date, or simply wrong.  Industry, state and regional directory listings were even worse.

Invariably, any data ferreted out needed to be vetted through phone calls made to beleaguered front-office receptionists who were understandably disinclined to spend much time being helpful.

Of course, as with Wikipedia all LinkedIn “data” is submitted information, and subject to varying degrees of accuracy. As well, the data are comprehensive and accurate only to the degree that each LinkedIn member keeps his or her employment and related information current and complete.

But as a crowd-sourcing database of information – and often with “deep-dive” data on members available to view – LinkedIn is miles ahead of where we were before.

That being said, there is one negative aspect about LinkedIn that seems to have become more pronounced over time — and that’s the burgeoning volume of LinkedIn connection requests that are happening.

Speaking for myself, I’ve spent an entire career nurturing my business relationships. That this has resulted in being one of the LinkedIn members who are in the “500+ connections” club speaks to a lifetime of establishing “real” connections with “real” people – not mindlessly sending out connection solicitations to just anyone.

But that’s what’s happening with many of the incoming requests-to-connect on LinkedIn. These days, I’m receiving requests daily from people I do not know personally and have never even heard of before.

These are the folks who take advantage of LinkedIn’s higher cost”premium membership” programs to gain access to the more detailed information contained in member profiles that is normally off-limits to all except first-degree connections.

In what ways are these people actually interested in connecting with me?  Are they simply sending out a rash of “spray-and-pray” requests in the hopes of getting a nibble … or perhaps making an effort to build their own network and look more like an “authority” in their line of work?

When I click through to view the profiles of those people requesting to connect, it turns out that most them are in fields that relate to my line of work, however tangentially. Likely they’ve identified my name based on shared professional organizations and vocational interests.

But their reasons for requesting to connect — if they even bother to give one — are so generic (or so lame) as to be laughable.

Early on, I did a bit of “empirical” research to see how a few of these connections might actually evolve after I accepted their request to connect. Big mistake, that was.  Recently, freelance copywriter extraordinaire Ed Gandia described something very similar about his own personal LinkedIn experience, characterizing the typical follow-up communiqué from a new LinkedIn connection as “the business equivalent of a marriage proposal” – to wit:

“I’d like to get on the phone with you about [marrying me/having kids/opening a joint bank account]. Here are three times I’m available to talk.  I’m so excited to hear what you can offer me as [my new husband].”

If ever we needed reminding about how not to engage in business development solicitations, these sorry LinkedIn communications are it.

The bright promise of LinkedIn is the ability to identify people with whom we can potentially work or collaborate.  In that regard, the platform can be very valuable.  It’s just too bad that so many people are now using it for ill-conceived (or perhaps desperate?) shotgun attempts to sell themselves, their products or their services.

It won’t work. Communications technology may have evolved but some fundamental things never change.  At the top of the list:  No one wants to be pestered by unsolicited pitches for products, consulting services, employment opportunities and the like.  Not then, not now, not ever.

Hopefully, LinkedIn can calibrate its business practices to ensure that the benefits of interacting with the social platform always outweigh the detriments. We all recognize that this is one way LinkedIn can monetize the data that’s valuable housed on its platform.  But LinkedIn needs to get this just right, lest they turn off their most consequential members – or worse, drive them away.

High-performance sales personnel: They excel in the same ways they always have …

spUnquestionably, technology has had a major impact on the way salespeople in the B-to-B arena go about doing their daily jobs.

Technology platforms and tech-oriented work practices have leeched into every aspect of sales management — from planning and execution to data mining and reference … sales call and results tracking … and compensation.

fall 2015 survey of U.S. business executives conducted by Brainshark and Forbes Insights confirms the degree to which technology investments are occurring as companies make efforts to improve sales productivity.

Here’s what the survey, which included U.S.-based executives from over 200 companies with annual revenues exceeding $50 million, found in terms of the types of investments that are being made:

  • Sales enablement technologies: ~55% are investing in these tools
  • Analytics: ~54%
  • CRM systems: ~53%
  • Learning technologies: ~45%
  • Mobile sales support technologies: ~44%
  • Social platforms: ~32%

And yet … when those same business executives were asked to identity the #1 most important characteristic of their strongest sales team members, technology-related characteristics don’t show up all that much.

As it turns out, tech adoption is a relatively minor part of being a high-performing salesperson. Instead, this survey found that the most important key characteristic of high-performing salespeople is “the ability to sell value over price.”

Here is the relative importance of five characteristics evaluated in the research – and where tech adoption fits among them:

  • The ability to sell value over price: ~81% identify as a key characteristic of high-performing salespeople
  • Consistency of execution: ~74%
  • Time spent with clients: ~48%
  • Leveraging marketing and sales content assets: ~26%
  • Adoption of technology: ~22%

The takeaway is that even though technology tools are helpful, there’s no substitute for the time-honored selling behaviors that separate the star sales performers from all the others.

For more information on the study findings, follow this link.

Business Bust? Lead Nurturing Efforts Coming Up Short

e-mail lead nurturing not effectiveWhen it comes to e-mail lead nurturing in the business world, it turns out there’s a whole lot of mediocrity — or worse — going on.

In discussions with my company’s clients, it seems that most of them are dissatisfied with what they consider, at best, only “middling” engagement levels that they’re achieving on their e-nurturing campaigns.

On top of that, many of them suspect that they’re underperforming their counterparts in the market.

I don’t think that’s the case.  Since we work with a variety of clients and thus hear about the results from a group of firms, not just one or two, we can see that most everyone is in the same boat.

Even so, it’s anecdotal evidence rather than statistically quantifiable data.

But now we have the results from a new B-to-B survey conducted by Bizo and Oracle Eloqua … and what they’ve found is that many companies are struggling like most everyone else when it comes to developing comprehensive lead nurturing programs that perform well.

This survey of ~500 B-to-B marketing executives revealed that nearly 95% of all companies have some form of lead nurturing program in place.   But having such a program in place doesn’t mean it’s all that effective.

How challenged are these marketers?  Consider these key findings from the research:

  • Nearly 80% of respondents report that their e-mail open rates don’t exceed 20% on average.
  • ~45% report that only 1% to 4% of known contacts develop into marketing-qualified leads.
  • Only ~5% of buyers on business websites are willing to provide detailed information on a “gated” contact offer form.

The implications of these findings are varied:

  • E-mail databases that are built from website visits tend to have significant omissions (and errors) regarding contact information.
  •  Only a smallish fraction of e-mail subscribers are reading the e-mails they receive … and by definition, no anonymous prospects are, either.
  • Because e-mail marketing relies on having access to prospects’ e-mail addresses, the e-marketing approach provides no opportunity to engage with a potentially much larger audience of customers who may be in the market for a company’s products and services at any given point in time.

The chances are likely, too, that those prospects are visiting relevant websites.  We know this because Forrester Research reports that the typical B-to-B buyer’s “journey” is nearly complete by the time he or she contacts a vendor’s sales department.

With so much useful information so available online, websites is where research can occur without have to deal with pesky sales personnel until “the time is right.”

It’s also why, despite the well-known negative aspects and limitations of web display advertising, nearly half of the respondents in the Bizo/Oracle Eloqua survey feel that online display advertising plays a role in attracting anonymous prospects and nurturing those leads through the sales funnel.

But marketers are also showing interest in multi-channel nurturing, and are receptive to adopting techniques that support the ability to nurture known and anonymous prospects without using e-mail.  Those tactics will probably the next new wave in lead nurturing practices going forward … provided people know where they can access the tools to make it happen.

More details on the Bizo/Oracle report can be found via this link.

The Day-to-Day Things Bothering B-to-B Marketers

Marketing Executives Group (LinkedIn)The discussion boards on LinkedIn are often good places to capture the pulse of what’s happening “on the ground” in the marketing field.

A case in point is a discussion started recently on the Marketing Executives Group on LinkedIn by Carson Honeycutt, an account executive at marketing research firm Mintel.

Honeycutt’s question was, “What are the biggest day-to-day issues for marketing execs?”

He was interested in getting input to help him speak to needs and offer solutions when interfacing with his customers and prospects – even if those solutions meant referring them to other vendors.

According to Honeycutt, he often hears responses like, “Too busy to talk. I’m swamped and we have no budget anyway.”

His query generated some interesting feedback. Comments ranged from the succinct (“sounds like you’re getting the brush-off”) to ones that were more helpful and useful.

The OfficeOne response I liked particularly well came from Brent Parker David, a marketing strategist at CRE8EGY. His listing of the day-to-day issues for marketing execs were to-the-point:

  • Too many meetings;
  • Lack of experienced creative thinking;
  • Personal and political agendas overshadowing the mission and the marketing objectives;
  • Too many “experts” who have never truly accomplished anything — but are very comfortable telling others what to do or how to behave.

I think most of us involved the marketing field for any length of time will be nodding knowingly at the above points …

Another response — more nuanced — came from Matt Smith, a marketing strategist in the consumer packaged goods  field. Here’s what he contributed:

“When Marketing doesn’t provide deep insights and a strategy to leverage them, price discounting takes over. This gives Sales the lead, as they are the executors. Growing sales, no matter how it’s done, is taken as progress. Sales is the hero, even though margins [may] have eroded.

“The byproduct of this is increasing their trade spend budgets — and by extension, their political clout. Conversely, Marketing loses clout as they don’t have an answer that drives sales AND margins. In the zero-sum budget game, the increased trade spend comes out of the advertising/promotion/innovation budget.”

Smith went on to add that “marketing is only stifled by bean-counters if they don’t know their customers and [can’t] devise a creative strategy to get them to buy more at higher margins.”

What are your own thoughts about the biggest day-to-day challenges facing marketing execs? Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

 

What Social Media is Teaching Us (Again)

Social MediaSocial media – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs and all that – burst onto the scene only a few years ago. Because of this, we’re still learning daily how these tools are impacting and influencing attitudes about companies and brands … as well as the propensity for people to buy products and services as a result.

But some aspects are coming into pretty strong focus now. One of the interesting insights I’ve drawn from social media is that it spotlights the “disconnect” that exists between marketing and sales personnel.

This disconnect has existed for decades, of course. In my nearly 35 years in business, I’ve heard a common refrain from sales folks. It goes something like this: “I have no idea what those people in marketing do all day long!”

On the flip side, the marketing pros have a few choice words for the sales personnel as well: “All they ever think about is the next order. Unless it delivers instant hot prospects who are ready to buy immediately, they’re not interested in any of our marketing programs.”

This is why so many B-to-B companies have tried to cross-pollinate between marketing and sales by moving staff back and forth between the two areas.

But what company is inclined to gives up its star sales performers to marketing? What happens more often is that the underperforming sales people are the ones who end up in marketing … where they then achieve only middling success there as well.

Conversely, so many of the best sales performers aren’t “God’s gift to strategic thinking” at all … while the marketing people who are so creative and insightful when thinking about markets are woefully inadequate when it comes to keeping up with a Rolodex® full of dozens of sales contacts.

Another part of the problem is the approach to metrics. Marketing personnel have historically been focused on reaching wider audiences. To a salesperson, things like “creating awareness” and “building a brand” are frustratingly fuzzy. Instead, salespeople focus on individual customers, sales quotas and other quantifiable information – real “bottom line” figures.

Today, social media is bringing all of this into sharper relief. To be most effective, social media demand that marketing and sales personnel work together. It’s no longer possible for the two groups to employ different approaches, different interactions and different metrics for success.

To my view, it’s going to be harder for marketing and communications personnel to get their heads around new expectations for metrics and analyses when compared to the sales folks. There are many new analytical tools to be mastered – and that’s probably a source of fear for many a marketer.

For salespeople, who live and die by facts and figures, this is duck soup by comparison.

And if you really think about social media, it’s about audience (customer) engagement in a direct and personal manner. Who’s been doing that for years? The sales force, of course.

So does it make any sense to “silo” social media activity and content development within the marketing department? Generally speaking, no.

In fact, many sales personnel have already embraced social media activities because they see it as another useful tool to leverage customer engagement. This is an environment they already know well, because they’ve always been in the business of building relationships.

So the times demand that marketing and sales team up as never before. For marketers, that means opening up the social media initiative and structuring it to include sales personnel as well the marketing staff. Redlining these tasks won’t work.

And here’s another idea: Have the marketing staff hang around with the sales force. Put them out there at trade shows and other industry events where they are forced interact with customers and behave like … salespeople!

[This is especially true if a company’s marketing staff comes from collegiate or administrative backgrounds – a common weakness in many mid-sized B-to-B firms where the most lucrative upward career paths take employees through engineering, R&D or sales, not through marketing and communications.]

Social media reminds us, once again, that the key to success in business is “mixing it up” with customers and prospects. We need to make sure we do the same inside our own companies.

McCormick Place Loses its Luster

Has all the grumbling about Chicago’s vaunted McCormick Place as America’s premier tradeshow venue finally reached critical mass?

For years, corporate exhibitors have groused about government-controlled, money-losing McCormick Place. Stories abound of exhibitors being forced to spend hundreds of dollars for services as mundane as plugging in a piece of machinery, or being charged $1,000 to hang a sign from the ceiling, because of onerous union rules governing “who does this” and “who can’t do that.” It’s been a constant refrain of complaining I’ve heard at every tradeshow I’ve attended at McCormick Place, dating back some 20 years.

Despite all of the criticism about McCormick Place’s high costs and lack of user-friendly service, it remains the largest convention complex in America, with over 2.5 million square feet of exhibit space. But attendance has been declining pretty dramatically, from ~3.0 million in 2001 to ~2.3 million in 2008. While the figures haven’t been released yet for 2009, it’s widely expected that show traffic will be reported as down another 20%.

As the current economic recession has put the most severe strains yet on the tradeshow business, it seems that a rebellion against McCormick Place is in now full swing. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “a gradual drop-off in business … has turned into a rout as a string of high-profile shows have pulled out.” The deserters include a triennial plastics show (~75.000 attendees), as well as the Healthcare Information & Management Systems Society’s annual conference (~27,500 attendees).

But isn’t tradeshow attendance off in other convention centers as well? Well … yes. But clearly not as much. In truth, tradeshow attendance has been under pressure at a “macro” level ever since 9/11, and an important reason beyond the issue of terrorism is technological innovation and the ability for people to interact through video-conferencing and for companies to demo their equipment and services via the Internet and other forms of digital communication.

Tradeshows were once the only way to gather a community together, but now there are other options. One school of thought holds that large tradeshows are now less effective than small, targeted conferences that provide heightened ability for attendees to interact with one another on a more intimate basis. Some events no longer charge attendees … but they make sure to “vet” them carefully to ensure that the show sponsors who are underwriting the costs are reaching prospects with important degrees of influence or buying authority.

On top of these “macro” trends, the current economic downturn just makes McCormick Place look more and more like a loser when it comes to the tradeshow game. Compared to Chicago’s three most significant competing tradeshow locales – Atlanta, Las Vegas and Orlando – the cost of many items from electricians (union labor) to foodservice (greasy spoon-quality coffee at Starbucks® prices) to hotel accommodations (room fees and surtaxes that won’t quit) ranges two times to eight times higher in Chicago. And in today’s business climate when every cost is scrutinized closely, none of this looks very cost-effective to the corporate bean-counters.

True, Chicago is more centrally located for travel from both coasts: Who wants to take a five hour flight from New York to Las Vegas or from California to Orlando to attend a meeting?

[On the other hand, no one can honestly say that the weather in Chicago is preferable to sunny Florida or Nevada!]

So it would seem that Chicago’s worthy tradeshow competitors have achieved the upper hand now. I just returned from two national shows this past week – the International Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Expo and the International Poultry Expo. Where were they held? Orlando and Atlanta – the same cities which are attracting McCormick Place’s erstwhile customers.