The Role of Brand Communicators in an Outbreak

A lot of the work we do in healthcare marketing and communications is predictable. Brand-building, patient acquisition, and organizational support. But when a new health threat emerges, brand communicators have to respond quickly to help people minimize their risk of infection and to keep fear from spreading.

A lot of the work we do in healthcare marketing and communications is predictable. Brand-building, patient acquisition, and organizational support are long-haul types of activities that you sustain throughout the year. But when a new health threat emerges, brand communicators have to respond quickly to help people minimize their risk of infection and to keep fear from spreading unnecessarily.

That continues to be the case with the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), which emerged from the city of Wuhan and Hubei province in China. Authorities suppressed news of the initial cases, so when it finally hit the news cycle, it seemed to appear menacingly overnight. From that point on, the media coverage was almost breathless in its reporting on the quarantine of millions and disturbing visuals of jammed hospitals turning people away. Some of the images circulated online were haunting.

Fear Spreads Faster Than Facts

Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) worked quickly to understand how COVID-19 spreads and its mortality rate, people thousands of miles away from the epicenter began to fear for their safety.

At times like these, brand communicators must find facts from trusted sources, like the CDC, and disseminate it across multiple touchpoints. The information has to be pushed out assertively, because fear raises cognitive barriers that make it even harder to absorb information and assess risk within an appropriate context. For example, at the same time that COVID-19 was making headlines, millions in the U.S. had the flu, more than 100,000 hospitalizations would occur, and more than 12,000 would die from its complications. Yet we are so accustomed to the flu that we perceive its risk as less than the risk of something new.

Spread Facts

If you work in healthcare, you are part of a crisis response team with a responsibility to share evidence-based facts to combat fear and misinformation. The outbreak continues and our thoughts are with those who are impacted.

But with an ongoing dose of information, we can help reduce the spread of unnecessary fear and the spread of the virus. Learn more about COVID-19 from the CDC.

Healthcare Marketers Live in Multiple Worlds — Leverage That Insight

As healthcare marketers, you live in multiple worlds. Of course you are a professional. But every time you go to the doctor, you’re a healthcare consumer. And while your employer provides care to tens of thousands of people each year, it’s also one of the largest purchasers of health insurance coverage in your market.

As healthcare marketers, you live in multiple worlds. Of course you are a professional. But every time you go to the doctor, you’re a healthcare consumer. And while your employer provides care to tens of thousands of people each year, it’s also one of the largest purchasers of health insurance coverage in your market.

These multiple perspectives can be a strength as you build bridges among your audiences. Or they may frustrate you, because it adds nuance and complexity to the task at hand.

Let’s take a look at the duality of being both a provider of healthcare and a consumer of health insurance, with all of its rules and paperwork.

Hospitals are one of the largest employers in most communities. A hospital of 200 beds may employ as many as 1,400 full- and part-time benefit-eligible employees, while large facilities can top 5,000. Workforces of that size are diverse, with many roles that impact patient experience but don’t require familiarity with the intricacies of health insurance. But, hopefully, all of those employees are eligible for insurance and made their selections last fall for the 2020 coverage year.

Likewise, consumers who may have changed insurance or their doctor are beginning their patient experience journey. Perhaps, as a consumer yourself, you’ve taken one of your kids to a new doctor and experienced a little disorientation. What would have helped?

This is all to say that more often than you think, you have opportunities to see things through more than one lens. That recognition of the friction points can lead to real improvement in communications and brand experience.

Bring those insights to the table.

5 Ways Healthcare Marketers Can Prepare for Seat at the Table

Healthcare marketers, are you at the kid’s table or the grown-ups table? Whether in a small town or large city, your medical practice or hospital is impacted by external matters, such as zoning issues, health plan changes, and the national debate about healthcare access.

Healthcare marketers, are you at the kid’s table or the grown-ups table?

Whether in a small town or large city, your medical practice or hospital is impacted by external matters, such as zoning issues, health plan changes, and the national debate about healthcare access. Are you at the leadership table when these issues are made?

Historically — and even today, in some organizations — the marketing and communication function was seen as a “packager” of decisions made by others. This “take this and sell it” mindset can fail spectacularly when the stakes are high, forcing a series of clarifications that make the organization look uncoordinated.

A lack of upfront input from communications contributes to decisions that come across as tone deaf when messaged to the public or other influential audiences  In these situations, the communications function hasn’t failed, but leadership failed to anticipate the external response, because of a lack of communications input at the beginning.

The communications function should be a critical input to actual decision-making, especially when it impacts patients. Having communication professionals at the table can help operational leadership anticipate — and prepare for — criticisms and questions that will arise when major decisions are announced.

For this construct to work, however, the communications function needs to come to the table prepared. This requires five things:

  • Reading a broad array of consumer, medical, and policy publications to understand various perspectives on trending issues, as well as core ones;
  • Staying in contact with external audiences through original and third-party market research and participation in influencer events;
  • Anticipating likely questions and bringing well-developed FAQs to the table for solution development by the full leadership team with an emphasis on how the organization will help transition those who are negatively impacted;
  • Aligning (or internally pointing out misalignment) between a decision and the organization’s publicly stated mission, vision, values, and previous statements. In cases where they do not seem to align, be transparent about the considerations that led to the decision and any steps being taken elsewhere in the organization to lessen perceived harm; and,
  • Recognizing that the outcomes of issues management may impede progress on your carefully constructed strategic marketing framework, particularly if the issue lingers in traditional or social media.

Wishing you a happy holiday season and a seat at the grown-ups table.

Political Marketing That’s Fooling Some of the People, Some (or All) of the Time

Increasingly unable to escape the deluge of hysterical ill-directed political marketing that is overflowing my inbox, I’ve jealously started wondering what Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are guiding these communications consultants to justify their million-dollar fees.

Increasingly unable to escape the deluge of hysterical ill-directed political marketing that is overflowing my inbox, I’ve jealously started wondering what Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are guiding these communications consultants to justify their million-dollar fees.

Are their efforts fooling all of the people all of the time? Or just some of the people some of the time?

In product marketing initiatives, there can be lots of bottom-line winners — all of the brands whose clickthrough numbers exceed the company’s KPI targets and show the kinds of bottom-line sales results that bring smiles to shareholders’ faces and money to their pockets. But political marketing is a zero-sum game.

The ultimate KPI is winning or losing, becoming Senator, Governor or even White House occupant. Along the way, political marketers, like all fundraisers, especially those seeking campaign funding contributions, are no doubt watching to see all the obvious KPI metrics. They’re looking for percentages contributing, range of contribution amounts and average contributions, first-time or multiple “givers.” One can’t help but wonder: In the last analysis, do they really want to see more than the KPI which says “WIN” or “LOSE”?

I don’t know about you (and given our growing desires for privacy, I’m not sure I have any right to know about you) but I’ll bet my inbox gets more political fundraising and petition-gathering mail than yours does. Every day, mine displays a stunning collection that sorely tempts me to invoke the Spam solution.

But I hesitate, because I guess I’m a political junkie. Otherwise, I’d figure out a way never to hear any word that rhymes with “rump” again. (All readers’ entries will be gratefully considered, published and/or deleted.) You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Way back in early 2017, I wrote a column here venting my frustration with the tsunami of inviting, pleading, and threatening emails I was receiving daily from the Democratic party’s octopus of units, the DCCC, the Democratic National Committee, Maggie for NH, National Democratic Training Committee (the worst and most outrageous), Progressive Turnout Project and the imperious commands from House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi: “Not Asking for Money“ (which always end up asking for money) and the order, “READ NOW” “(don’t delete)”.  Here are some others:

  • URGENT — 20K SIGNATURES NEEDED: Women’s reproductive rights on the line
  • Add your name to hold Big Pharma accountable
  • Fwd: ? NOT asking for money
  • Sign this petition re: Trump’s golf course
  • Need Peter’s signature to STOP TRUMP
  • You have been selected to represent voters in your area

It appears that fooling the prospect into believing he/she is one of a very select group and asking for the target to complete a survey or a petition is this year’s most effective political marketing and, dare I say it, fundraising tool. I guess we all want to feel special; even if deep-down, we know that everyone has been “selected.”

Can I be the only person offended when assaulted by a subject line: “Peter is committed to vote for Donald Trump!?” Only after having voiced a few favorite expletives do I notice that “?”. But by then, I’m hooked on the rest of the message.

If the KPIs must first, be the number of surveys or petitions completed and the number abandoned and second, the contribution generation from the pitch at the end of the survey, I must be screwing up the political marketers’ dashboards. Given the number of headline changes, you’d think that either nothing works or everything does.

Can the almost daily surveys do anything more than fool a certain number of people into believing their voices reach the ears of anyone? Especially anyone who really cares what they think, more than whether they will pony up some money?

The hardly impartial rhetorical questions: “Donald Trump recently lied by claiming millions of voters cast their ballots illegally this year. Do you think he will use this lie to try to further suppress minority voters in future elections?” are always quite reasonably followed by, “Will you make a $3 contribution right now to help us advance our data-driven strategies to help Democrats win?”

What Data-Driven Marketing 101 teaches must be true, or they wouldn’t keep using the technique. And as pointed out recently in Forbes:

The amount of money invested will be in the billions of dollars — all spent within roughly a calendar year. The degree of sophistication, customization, micro-targeting, and proliferation across media channels is unprecedented. The goal is to create a lot of content that is both pushed to people — who then share it with others — and made available so that people find it on their own. What this means is that the authority of TV ads has diminished. At POOLHOUSE [an agency serving the Republican Party] we have to approach getting a candidate’s message out to voters in a much more complex manner, and that makes political marketing more challenging. But more interesting, as well.

The old way of marketing political candidates no longer works, as the exponential increase in information leads to higher consumer/voter intelligence.

How to develop KPIs to follow the complexity and drive strategic changes depends to a great extent on political judgement calls as much as traditional brand marketing experience, and may actually justify those sky-high consultant fees.

Perhaps I’m being overly cynical and should signal that at least some surveys have a grander purpose. Sky Croeser, writing in The Conversation opined:

Online petitions are often seen as a form of “slacktivism” — small acts that don’t require much commitment and are more about helping us feel good than effective activism. But the impacts of online petitions can stretch beyond immediate results.

Whether they work to create legislative change, or just raise awareness of an issue, there’s some merit to signing them. Even if nothing happens immediately, petitions are one of many ways we can help build long-term change.

The possibility of building “long-term” change is not without its merits; although, building the KPIs to measure the change is a daunting task.

Now imagine if that change means that political and general marketers could no longer fool all or even some of the people, all or even some of the time. But hold on a sec. Then we need to consider how many of us might have to change our ways or be out of the game.

Straightforward Steps to Achieving Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In marketing, empathy is the code word for understanding your audience’s needs, desires and communication preferences so well that your marketing is tuned perfectly toward meeting those needs and desires, and inciting action. At least … that’s the goal.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In marketing, empathy is the code word for understanding your audience’s needs, desires and communication preferences so well that your marketing is tuned perfectly toward meeting those needs and desires, and inciting action.

At least … that’s the goal. In reality, marketers are challenged on a minimum of a three different levels:

  1. Do we truly have the capacity for empathy, or do we just like to say we have it?
  2. How can we best achieve empathy?
  3. If we’ve achieved empathy, are we actually expressing it? Are we providing value to our audience based on that common understanding? Or are we still pushing product and employing a couple of words to make it sound like we have empathy?

Let’s make the correct assumption that we should have empathy at the core of our marketing. So … how we do achieve empathy? And how should it shape our communications?

Empathy requires truly understanding our audience.

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around it.”
— Harper Lee. “To Kill A Mockingbird”

Certainly this wasn’t written with marketing on the brain. And Harper Lee’s words are not even the origin of the idea. But I’m going to terribly twist the thought to our ends and say it’s a great statement about what it takes to truly understand an audience. And currently, most marketers aren’t taking this tact when they say their gaining an understanding of audience.

Because, usually, the process marketers take (dubbed persona creation) involves gathering just about everyone into a room to talk about the audience…except members of the audience themselves! Which means marketers come together to discuss their biased beliefs of what an audience thinks, feels, wants and needs.

We’ve even gone so far as to try and talk ourselves into believing that’s the right way to do things by quoting other people — like Henry Ford (“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”) or Steve Jobs (“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”).

I would posit that those dudes were smart enough to know how important it is to know what people are asking for. And that, if the whole story is told, Henry would’ve heard “faster horses” and interpreted the thought as “a more rapid means of personal transportation.” Therefore he knew what his audience truly needed, even if it wasn’t in the form the audience thought it might come in. That’s understanding people far below the surface. That’s empathy. (I’ll give Steve the same kind of credit.)

If you’re going to truly understand your audience, then you have to spend time with your audience, and hear what they’re saying beyond just the words used.

How do you spend that time? Here’s three straightforward ways.

Straightforward Method 1: Observe

I guess you could call it stalking … but not the creepy “get yourself arrested” kind of stalking. As audiences are now creating plenty of profiles, content and commentary, those signals become the easiest entré into understanding who your audience really is, as individuals. Simply observing the language used (including shorthand like emojis), the commonalities of self-description and other surface cues can help you better understand the tendencies, needs and wants of your audience.

As an example, take a look at my actual Instagram profile. You’ll see several things that might be important to you, as a marketer. If you’re selling bourbon or beer, you’ve got the info straight from me that I’m a part of your audience. Likewise, if you’re selling marketing technology, I might be a good target, too. Now, that’s a bit too easy…especially if I’m already following your beer brand, this is just validation that I’m actually interested, but it’s not really new information.

If you go a bit farther, though, you’d find information that builds from that validation point, and gives you some interesting angles to work into valuable content for me (and others like me in your audience). I’ve been spending time at the pool … I play golf … I proudly promote my Raleigh community…so on and so forth. And I haven’t even delved into the photos I’ve liked from others – to start to build a picture of who I influence, and who influences me. Or followed myself (in this case) to other social networks to see what I’m posting.

One way to build empathy for your customers.

As a marketer, you can build some pretty amazing interest graphs of your audience that go far beyond demographics. And those interest graphs become the sparks of new content that is driven specifically by what I’m already engaging in. (Like: “Best IPAs To Drink Poolside.”) This is gaining an understanding of who I am, what I like, what I do and what I think. This is building empathy.

(A note on demographics: We marketers love the idea of personas. But I not-so-secretly hate personas. Because the commonly accepted version of personas are based on demographics. And empathy cannot be defined by demographics. One 44-year-old digital marketing expert is not just like another. But if you concentrate on demographics and don’t dig into the individuals behind the averages, that’s what you’ll be led to believe.)

Direct Marketing: An Rx for Medication Non-Adherence

Direct-to-patient communications are an effective tool for overcoming barriers to adherence. Educating patients about how their medication works in simple language can go a long way to helping them realize how and why to take it.

healthcare marketingCiting a review in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine, the New York Times recently reported that people do not take their medication as prescribed. “This lack of adherence is estimated to cause 125,000 deaths, and at least 10 percent of hospitalizations, and to cost the American healthcare system between $100 billion and $289 billion a year.”

This news was not surprising to me. I know from professional experience that many prescriptions are never filled (20 to 30 percent according to the article), and that regardless of the condition for which the medication is prescribed, after three months only about 40 to 50 percent of those prescribed long-term medications are still taking them. I also know from controlled testing that direct marketing techniques can improve patient adherence with medications by 20 to 25 percent.

There are many reasons why people don’t take their medication. Forgetfulness is not significant among them. So medication calendars, special pill bottle caps and refrigerator magnets can have only a marginal effect. Refill reminders from pharmacies and Rx brands are not effective, because the most significant reasons for non-adherence are psychological:

  • Medications remind people that they are sick, or have a medical condition; many people would rather ignore or deny that. They see taking medications as a sign of weakness.
  • Medications are viewed by some as chemicals that are bad for the body in contrast to “natural” remedies, like fish oil or vitamins.
  • Medications for silent conditions, like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, don’t make people feel any different. So they see no benefit in taking them.
  • Many times people do not understand why they are taking a particular medication or how long they’re supposed to take it. Doctors do not have the time to adequately explain it. The standard physician visit is scheduled for 15 minutes, and according to another Annals of Internal Medicine study cited by Forbes, “even when in the examination room with patients, doctors were spending only 52.9 percent of the time talking to or examining the patients and 37 percent doing paperwork. In other words, shrink that 15 minutes to under eight minutes.”

Direct-to-patient communications are an effective tool for overcoming these barriers to adherence. Educating patients about how their medication works in simple language can go a long way to helping them realize how and why to take it. The stakes are high, and the stakeholders who stand to benefit most from increased adherence (besides the patients themselves) are insurers, healthcare providers, pharmacies, and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Each of the stakeholders has their own roadblocks for mounting an effective program, which I’ll explore in a future post.

The Most Effective Webinar Follow-up Email

“Was it helpful?”

That’s what your webinar should have been. Helpful in an actionable way. If it wasn’t? Sales representatives should gather intelligence and report their findings to the marketing department.

Thus, “Was it helpful?” is a very effective subject line when sending your webinar follow-up email message — I use it with my own business and clients successfully. Try it.

Will Slack Replace Email?“Was it helpful?”

That’s what your webinar should have been. Helpful in an actionable way. If it wasn’t? Sales representatives should gather intelligence and report their findings to the marketing department.

Thus, “Was it helpful?” is a very effective subject line when sending your webinar follow-up email message — I use it with my own business and clients successfully. Try it for yourself.

“I used this technique on a webinar follow-up yesterday and WOW, that really worked,” says Linda Simonsen of DigitalEd.

“I have never got such quick feedback (less than one hour).”

Following up With Attendees

“Did the   [insert title]    class last week help you   [insert goal of your customer]  ?”

Boom. Done. That’s your message. Nothing else.

No long-winded yackity-yack reminding the attendee about content of the webinar. You know they attended, now get to the point. They’re on a mobile device, pressed for time. Your buyers are deleting, deleting, deleting.

Stop them. Provoke them.

Give your customer a reason to hit reply and tell you — yes or no. It was helpful or it was not. In most cases they’ll even tell you why.

And they’ll tell you that crucial why because you asked in a way that provoked a response. Your approach style was brief, blunt and right to the point. In fact, your email really stood out because it was so darned short!

Why it works

Because it’s atypical. It’s not an awful template!

The best inbound lead follow up messages avoid standard templates found on Google.

This tactic helps you get in the discussion with prospects about their world, objectives, pains, fears and pressures. This approach helps them develop and act on the urge to hit reply and start the conversation.

Additionally, avoid calling your webinar a webinar. Make it a class, make it actionable. Classes have homework, did your webinar? Or was it typical — overloading attendees with information, overwhelming them to the point of preventing them from taking action on any of it?

What About Non-Attendees?

Since most webinars offer video replays, the same question applies. “Was it helpful?” Within the copy of your message simply adjust to include proper context. Segment your list and mail non-attendees a slightly different, equally provocative, message.

“Did the video replay of last week’s   [insert title]   class help you   [insert goal of your customer]  ?”

Ask the Question, Bluntly

Even if the goal of your webinar class is to shift a mindset, ask the question.

“Did the content marketing class help you see the challenge of empowering sellers with content differently … in a way you can act on?”

Yes or no.

The bluntness of this approach is why it works. Being direct (and brief!) gives customers freedom to share candid thoughts.

Rather than responding how customers typically do — hitting the delete button — they hit reply and let you know, quickly. That is what unsolicited email demands.

Being effective requires you to use short bursts of communications.

Facing the Future

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion at a major e-commerce conference. The topic was about the “Future of Marketing,” and naturally, the discussion went towards the Internet of Things and other futuristic technologies. The key question was, “How should marketers adapt to these rapidly evolving technologies?”

wwwRecently, I participated in a panel discussion at a major e-commerce conference. The topic was about the “Future of Marketing,” and naturally, the discussion went toward the Internet of Things and other futuristic technologies. The key question was, “How should marketers adapt to these rapidly evolving technologies?”

In a panel discussion, where panelists are supposed to share the stage with others, there generally is no time to build up a story. Nor does the modern-day audience have patience for a long intro. We’ve got to get to the point fast. The bottom line? Technologies change, but people don’t.

Well, they actually do change over time, if you want to be technical about it, but the whole premise of predictive analytics (and the reason why it works) is that people are predictable. Hence the phrase, “Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.” Even the manufacturers of products aren’t sure what is going to be invented in the near future. People, on the other hand, unless there are life-altering events such as getting married or having a baby, change “relatively” slowly.

Yes, new cool things come and go, but the early adopters of technologies will remain in search of cool new things and adopt them earlier than others and at a higher price point, movie collectors will collect movies in new super-duper-ultra-high-definition formats (ask them how many times they bought the “Godfather” trilogy), conservative investors will invest more conservatively, fashionistas will care more about the latest fashion than others, and outdoors enthusiasts won’t be flipping channels on TV on weekends unless they get injured doing outdoor activities. Here, I am also describing the reasons why product-to-product type personalization (as in “Oh, you bought an outdoor item, so you must be in interested in all other outdoorsy stuff!”) is mostly annoying and impersonal to consumers.

So, if (more like “when”) some smart person – or a company – invents a new way to communicate among people, marketers should NOT create a new division for it (like a social media division, email division, etc.). If wearable devices, such as watches or eyeglasses, become really smart and ubiquitous, I am certain some marketers will simply see the new invention as a piece of real estate where they will put their so-called “personalized” ads. From a consumer’s point of view, that would be the last thing that they would want to see on their new toy. You think that a banner is annoying on a computer screen? Try a 3D image projected out of your glasses, promoting some random things.

The first thing that a marketer must face is that all of these new devices will be connected to a network for “two-way” communications, not one-way blasting. It doesn’t matter if it is a watch, eyeglasses, set-top-box or even a refrigerator. IoT is essentially about data collection, not about marketers’ new sets of billboards. And the price of spamming through such personal devices – especially ones that people will wear on their bodies – will be quite stiff. My advice? Don’t do it just because you can (refer to my earlier article “Don’t Do It Just Because You Can”).

The second bit of advice is that marketers should not forget that they are NOT in control of communication. Consumers will cut out any conversation if “they” think that the message is irrelevant, intrusive, rude or simply uncool. Millennials are in fact less likely to be resistant to sharing their information on the Net, if “they” think such action will yield some benefits for “them.” The second that they decide it is a waste of their time or not worthwhile for that small space on the phone, they will mercilessly opt out and delete the app.

So, if a marketer thinks that all of these new devices will serve “them” as part of their multichannel arsenals, well, I am sorry to inform them they are just wrong. Call it any name you want, whether it is personalization, customization, customer experience or whatever, the key is staying relevant at all times. The goal should be keeping engaged without being fired by the new generation of impatient and tech-savvy customers. In fact, marketers have lost control over this matter already; the sooner they realize that, the better off they will be.

Then there is this data part. All of these new technologies will yield more data for sure, as the very concept of “connection” is about knowing the who, when, what and where of every event, maybe with an exception for the “why” part (remember the age-old argument that correlation doesn’t automatically mean causation?). That means this Big Data thing will get even bigger. Many companies don’t even know how to deal with transactional data or digital data properly, and they barely consume basic reports out of them. Most don’t have any clue about how to convert such data assets into real profit. A few have some idea that personalization is the way of the future, but may not know how to get there.

Now multiply all of those data challenges by a million to gauge the size of the data-related issues when everything that consumes electricity will start spitting out some form data at us. Bless those electrons and charged particles; now they will soon know to how to talk to us.

How do marketers get ready for such a world? I think the way our brain works may provide a clue, though I am not getting into a new discussion regarding machine learning at this point. Our brains, basically, are programmed to know what to ignore; they simply do not process everything that we see, hear, taste or feel. Many women complain about their male partners’ selective hearing, but in the age of abundant data, analysts must learn from those seemingly simple-minded men.

Big Data are big because we don’t throw away anything. Data that are useful for one purpose could be dismissed as worthless noise for others. Basically, Big Data must get smaller to make sense for decision-makers (refer to my earlier article “Big Data Must Get Smaller”).

There are movements in Silicon Valley to build a machine that would just provide answers out of mounds of data, much like the one in a satire movie called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” I dare you to say that even such a machine must go through some serious data selection/reduction processes first in order to provide any useful and consumable answers. Anyhow, even with such an omnipotent computer, the humans are the ones who need to ask the question wisely. If not, we will get answers like “42” for “The Question of Life, the Universe and Everything,” after 7.5 million years of calculation. That computer named Deep Thought in that movie actually pointed out that “The answer seems meaningless, because the beings who instructed it never actually knew what the question was.”

So, how are we supposed to ask questions in the age of abundant data and ubiquitous connections? Let’s remember that ultimately, marketing communication is about pleasing other human beings and treating them right. If that is too much, let’s start with not annoying them through every device and screen ever invented.

Then, how do we become more selective? Invest in analytics, and start cutting through the data before it is out of control. Why? Because consumers are in control of all these devices, and they will cut out any marketer who doesn’t conform to their standards.

We may never really know why people do what they do, but let’s start with talking to them only when necessary with a clear purpose, and offering benefits to them when we do get to talk to them. Modern-day analytics can already provide answers to such questions with available technologies. It is a matter of commitment, not technical challenges.

I really don’t think the future will be brighter just because we will have better technologies. Imagine spams through every device that you possess as a consumer. I, for one, would give up a talking refrigerator and all the benefits that come with it, if it becomes even remotely annoying to “me.”

One Size DOES NOT Fit All in B-to-B Marketing

Here’s a painful truth: B-to-B lead generation takes a lot of hard work BEFORE you execute any marketing or sales program. Work smarter, not harder, and follow these six steps to make a real difference:

Here’s a painful truth: B-to-B lead generation takes a lot of hard work BEFORE you execute any marketing or sales program.

Work smarter, not harder, and follow these six steps to make a real difference:

  1. Do your homework. What do you know about your existing customers? Do they fall into any particular vertical industries? What types of job titles do they encompass? It’s doubtful that they’re all C-level executives—chances are your real customers are well down the food chain. Select your top four or five vertical industries, identify their job titles, and plan your next steps with these verticals in mind.
  2. Find prospects that look like your target. Finding the right target is NOT like finding a needle in a haystack, and if you’ve always relied on renting a D&B list, then good luck to you. Think like your targets. Join their industry organizations, attend industry conferences and read their trade publications—increase the breadth and depth of your industry knowledge. Most of these organizations/events make their lists available for rent, and their data is probably more current and accurate at the levels you’re really targeting.
  3. Determine your targets’ pain points. What problem does your product or service solve? It’s probably different by vertical industry and by job title/function. Rent your list and use an outside research firm to contact prospects to help identify the challenges facing them in your particular area of expertise.
  4. Gather sales support assets. Use the information gathered in Step 3 to reposition your product, create new white papers or industry articles aimed at different functional areas within each company. Review existing case studies and determine how you can refresh and repurpose them by vertical industry based on your new found insights. Create assets digitally and in hard copy so you can use them in fulfillment and follow-up efforts.
  5. Create a destination of information. Before you start reaching out to prospects, create an online destination BEYOND your existing web site. Organize your new assets by vertical industry, as most organizations want to know that you understand and have experience in their category. A healthcare company, for example, will probably not have the same challenges as a financial services organization. And it’s most likely that your solution wouldn’t be identical either.
  6. Execute an outreach program. Now that you know your top four or five verticals, you’re ready to tap targets on the shoulder. Create a campaign by vertical target in order to highlight key benefits that are most relevant to that target (you should know what these are as a result of your research in Step 3).

All your outbound communications to each of these job functions within each of your target verticals should be different. The individual in finance, for example, will want to understand ROI while the individual on the technology side might be concerned about how well your product can be integrated into existing technology.

Your research should have already helped you identify the pain they’re facing, so leverage that learning in your communications. Whether it’s the initial contact, the follow up materials, or the landing page, mirror what you’ve heard to make the conversation most relevant from the beginning. Your participation in industry events and conferences should help you establish the correct tone and language in your communications.

B-to-B marketing should never apply a “one size fits all” strategy. The more relevant your communications, and the more you can demonstrate that you understand their particular industry and business challenges by tailoring your solutions, the more likely you are to engage in a meaningful discussion with your target. Listen to feedback and refine your communications accordingly. And yes, the results will be worth it.

Testing for B-to-B Marketers: How Hard is It?

B-to-B marketers are often guilty of laziness when it comes to testing their communications, whether it’s testing the copy approach, the layout, the offer or the target audience. Well, to call it laziness may not be entirely fair. It’s a fact that the typical B-to-B campaign targets universes that are too small to support a split test. If you’re selling specialized machine tools, you’re lucky if you have 10,000 potential customers worldwide.

B-to-B marketers are often guilty of laziness when it comes to testing their communications, whether it’s testing the copy approach, the layout, the offer or the target audience. Well, to call it laziness may not be entirely fair. It’s a fact that the typical B-to-B campaign targets universes that are too small to support a split test. If you’re selling specialized machine tools, you’re lucky if you have 10,000 potential customers worldwide.

I work with a company that offers employee benefits programs, and markets to HR professionals. We are planning a campaign to take the service into the Boston area, targeting firms with more than 100 employees, which number about 6,000 sites. At two HR contacts per site, using direct mail, we would have a mail plan of 12,000. With an estimated response rate of 1 percent, we’re looking at only 120 inquiries-clearly not enough to conduct a test of the two good offer ideas we are kicking around. Which is a shame, because we really have no idea which motivational offer is going to work better with this audience.

But in the digital world, B-to-B marketers have a lot more options for testing. Split tests are easy to set up, and applicable to any communications vehicle that drives a response-whether it be an email, a landing page, a banner ad, Adwords copy, anything, using free tools like Google Website Optimizer or scores of other SaaS or enterprise software tools.

Plus, there are abundant resources out there now to guide and inspire business marketers. Have a look at Which Test Won, a weekly comparison of two B-to-B live test versions-usually landing pages-where visitors are invited to go with their guts, and pick a winner. Then, you can view the actual winner and participate in a lively discussion of possible reasons why. This brilliant site was the brain child of Anne Holland, the founder of Marketing Sherpa.

So my client would like to conduct an offer test through digital channels, and we are exploring various options. It’s still not easy with a small prospect universe in a limited geography. There are not enough targeted banner media available to reach HR professionals in the Boston-only area. Email to entirely cold prospects is too spammy to generate leads at a reasonable cost-and still doesn’t solve the universe size problem that we face with direct mail. We considered Google AdWords with location targeting, but it’s going to be hard to sell the offer properly within the AdWords copy limits. Not to mention questions about how long it would take to get enough clicks to call the results. So our search continues, and we’d welcome ideas from Target Marketing readers on this one.

A version of this article appeared at Biznology, the digital marketing blog.