What Can The World Cup Teach Us About B2B Storytelling?

Monday, I ran down to HP’s Cupertino cafeteria to grab a quick salad before my next meeting. I was surprised to see the room – normally empty -  packed with the lights dimmed. Normally, this meant an EVP was holding a quarterly update. Instead, the large projector screen was down with the Italy v Paraguay game playing. Without any sound, the room was quiet with the occasional synchronized sound of the “oh’s” and “whoa’s” of an intent audience. As I was getting my grilled chicken, there was the unmistakeable roar of the crowd reacting to a goal.

Alcaraz Header against Italy courtesy of Fifa.org

It was Antolin Alcaraz scoring his studly header against the stunned Italians. The Paraguayan players said they were playing for Salvador Cabanas who had been shot in the head in Mexico City earlier in the year.

Human stories like these stop us in our tracks. They are powerful enough to fill a normally empty cafeteria with people from all cultures. Good B2B marketing – or good marketing for that matter – will have the same stopping power. It’s all about putting it into a context that people will care about. The most tried and true formula is to tell a story.

The 5 Basic Storytelling Elements Applied to B2B Marketing

The Main Character – When you begin laying out a pitch to your customer, you may be tempted to start with an exaggerated problem, then introduce your solution to the problem. Instead, consider developing a character like you would if you were writing a screenplay for a movie. Ideally, this person should have similar qualities to your target audience. If you’re shooting a video, look for someone who looks like your target audience. Good character development will draw your potential customer in and make them care about what you’re about to say.

The Setting – Like the main character, the setting should help establish a connection with your audience. In B2B marketing this can mean choosing an industry and geography most relevant to your customers in which your story unfolds . When I present to customers, I always try to find and memorize a case study from their industry and region to earn their attention. (As I’m writing this, I’m studying about Smart Meters for a utility company presentation tomorrow).

The Plot – Your B2B plot should have a set up, a build up, and a pay off. What crisis does your character have? Was there a breaking point which gave your company an opportunity provide the solution? What were the results of the solution? And how did you help your customer “win” in the end?

The Backstory – In marketing, you need to make your point fast, fast, fast. So, the backstory in B2B marketing can be as simple as the context of your “main character’s” business, such as a big number – NYSE trades 13.3 million contracts traded per day – or a brand of which everyone will know the backstory. This helps set us the importance and drama of your story.

The Detail – This is your opportunity to embellish the story with color – make it more realistic and human. Depending on your marketing deliverable, you may or may not have an opportunity to embellish – but, this is the lowest priority element in B2B marketing.

When you put all these elements together with your B2B value proposition, you’ll have something much more powerful and impactful than 95% of what is produced today.

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Web 2.0, It’s About Cloud Computing, Now Buy Our Stuff

Last week, I went to Web 2.0, a conference in San Francisco at the Moscone Center looking for B2B stories. The last time I went in 2007, I was hoping to find some B2B case studies of which I found none. It was filled with companies all promising to be the next YouTube. All their names had x’s and z’s in them. This year, the exhibitors seemed much more grounded and the mood much more muted.

Outside Web 2.0 at Moscone Center, San Francisco

I found three general categories of exhibitors:

  1. The blue chips: HP, Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Adobe.
  2. The Web 2.0 platform suit vendors: Blue Kiwi Software, Tableau,  Opera Software
  3. The cloud plays: DAAS.com (datacenter as a service) specializes in ready to go Cloud Computing products. Clustrix - a brand new highly scalable database appliance.

In 2007, there were many more see-what-sticks consumer ideas, video on demand, parking space finders, widget download companies. This year, Cloud Computing was the magic word. I was impressed at how far the Web 2.0 space has developed. It seemed as though the recession cleaned out some of the never-gonna-make-it businesses (or at least limited their event sponsorship budget).

So what B2B stories did I find?

I got the pitch from the person in the Cisco booth, let’s call him Jim. This is how Jim’s story went:

  • Have you you ever heard of the human network? We’re enabling people to connect with each other in faster ways.
  • We believe that Cloud Computing will enable more possibilities for these connections.
  • Our routers, switches, and now this new blade server here (points to server) provide the backbone for businesses to create a Cloud infrastructure.

Being a marketing person myself, I felt that if I closed my eyes I could visualize the different departments’ and organizations’ messaging paragraphs as Jim told me the Cisco story… The first about about the human network comes from corporate, the Cloud comes from the worldwide marketing team and the last section comes from the product manager. The transition between the Cloud Computing story and the point about the blade server was so jarring, Jim seemd to have trouble connecting the two.

Just to show that I’m an equal opportunity critic, the HP story at Web 2.0 also went from Cloud Computing very quickly to the gear that we had on display at the conference. With hardware products, it’s often difficult for marketers to get from the customer problem and solution, to why they should by our gear. Since I’ve been working in HP Enterprise Services (formerly EDS), I find that they are very good at understanding the customer point of view, as mentioned in previous blog posts. Maybe a mashup or the two approaches could yield an effective story which combines the relevant points for the customer with the value proposition of the gear.

What is your experience?

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Put Yourself on Kool-Aid DeTox


Working in a large organization, it’s easy to get lazy with your marketing. Marketers like to market to themselves, their peers, their friends, create buzzwords, cool sounding phrases, repackage stale concepts. Just look at the evolution of SaaS (Software-as-a-Service). Before SaaS, we were talking about SOA (Service Oriented Architecture), before that it was Web Services. At some point, someone in marketing coined these terms which eventually became standards. But, most of the time, clever phrases get cycled and recycled by marketers to the point where customers have no idea what we’re talking about. Check out Prose and Cons: Marketing Jargon Gone Wild. This entertaining blog tracks marketing jargon trends. When I posted this “Crowdsourcing” and “Trust Agent” were on the rise.

The best way to detox yourself from your own Kool-Aid is to talk to customers. Unlike with internal constituents, customers will let you know immediately whether what you are on target or full of c*&p. You’ll also get a real-world look at the problems they’re dealing with which you’ll be able to use later to improve your value proposition.

Last week, I presented our introduction to HP deck to an enterprise customer in the HR outsourcing business. Just preparing for the presentation forced me to lift my head up from my every day work and brush up on our news and acquisitions. I had to learn about areas of our business of which I was unfamiliar. I got rid of our “fluffy” slides attempting to dramatize, such as ”When a mother dials 911, you know you can count on us.” That may work for an ad, but I could never imagine saying that to a VP of IT. The presentation also forced me to speak in plain English and strip out all the “Complete Integrated Solution” and “Best-In-Class” language which we so often find so liberally sprinkled throughout tech brochures.

A lot of marketers I know rarely talk to customers because it can be intimidating. What if they ask me a tough question? What do I talk to them about? But, as a marketer, you gotta do it. It’s like going to the gym; it takes discipline, but if you don’t do it your mind gets flabby.

Here are some easy, low key ways to meet with customers:

  1. Go to an industry conference. Talk to customers in booths, at sessions, in networking events.
  2. Seek out industry bloggers and forums. Enter the discussion by posting comments.
  3. Connect with a sales person. See if they wouldn’t mind you sitting in on a presentation.
  4. Do a case study on a customer.
  5. Present your expertise to customers. (OK, this requires more involvement, but is the best way in my opinion).

Not only will this sharpen your marketing, but it will give you better “street cred” with your peers and the sales force you support.

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Get Ready for the Upswing

Last week, I attended the IDC Directions conference in Santa Clara and came away with some interesting statistics. John Gantz, Chief Research Officer from IDC had some sobering data about how the recession hit the IT market:
  • The IT industry lost $1.7 Billion between 2007 and their forecast to 2013
  • BUT, there is a recovery it’s way
  • Nearly half of the new spending in 2013 is expected to come from emerging markets, where as in 2009, it was around ¼ of IT spend.
  • There will be an incredible proliferation of new devices and sensors which will connect objects to objects, devices to devices. You will be able to put a sensor in your FedEx package that tracks not only its exact location throughout the journey, but the surrounding temperature, and even vibrations.  Check out this video to get a glimpse of the future. HP Labs: Central Nervous System for the Earth
  • We’re about to hit an IT boom period. Companies have been holding off IT expenditures for as long as possible. When demand begins to pick up, these companies will need to upgrade ASAP to capitalize on growth.
  • John peppered us with all sorts of overwhelming statistics about how many petabytes, trillions of instant messages, and cell phone subscribers there will be.

If you have 5 minutes, you can get the full IDC prediction here.


Are Organizations Ready?

If John’s right, we need to begin turning on our jets in sales and marketing to get ready for the upswing. As many of you know and have likely personally experienced, marketing is one of the first areas to get hit when it’s time to tighten the belt.

What happened to the sales pipeline when they turned off marketing? Anything? Senior execs may not notice an immediate change in the bottom line which is why many conclude that marketing is a cost center, a waste of money. Over a long b2b sales cycle here’s what will eventually happen without the proper marketing investment.

  1. Fewer leads
  2. Deterioration of awareness and branding
  3. Lack of an overarching story that shapes your offering in the customer’s mind
  4. Fewer tools the sales force can leverage to convince customers of your value proposition

Marketing is an investment, not a cost center. Yes, sales will always close the deal and therefore get 98% of the credit for each sale. However, like a missile on its way to hit its target, there are thousands of touchpoints and variables both online and off that a customer hits before he or she ends up speaking with a sales person. And, once the sales person is out of the room, there are dozens more Google searches, conversations with colleagues, blog reviews, and industry forums the customer will use as he or she gathers information to make the final buying decision – many of these are “unmanaged,” out of the vendor’s control.

Customer Touchpoints

Touchpoints a customer may encounter throughout the phases of the b2b buying cycle.

Marketing’s job is to get into and influence as many of these touchpoints as possible to guide the customer down the right trajectory.

So, if you’re an executive wondering when the downturn is going to end, don’t wait until you report positive earnings to crank marketing back up. Like investors who sell all their stock and stuff cash under their mattress, those who keep marketing on ice too long will miss the boat when the turn around happens. Competitors will have already stolen your customers’ mindshare with their slick new “renaissance” campaign. Now is the time to recapture customer mindshare BEFORE they buy.

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Hello world!

My name is Alex Flagg. I’m originally a New Yawkah and grew up in Manhattan. I spent a good part of my career in advertising media planning for clients such as P&G, AT&T, and Microsoft. One brutal winter in 1995 on December 12th after a severe snow storm, I decided I had enough of the Big Apple and got a job in San Francisco and one of the top Technology ad agencies of the time, Anderson & Lembke. There, I was introduced to the world of Silicon Valley in the heyday of the Internet Bubble – $250,000 megaparties to celebrate a future dot-bomb’s second IPO, complete with ice sculptures and chocolate fountains – venture capitalists who taught that “profit doesn’t matter” when planning a startup – startups that were around for four years without a business model or any hope of making a sale. Crazy times indeed. I was there. I worked at these companies, we all did.

What I’ve found through my experience is that in High Technology Marketing, it’s really, really tough to create great stories that sell your products. High tech marketers often start at the wrong end of the story – with their product, then work their way back to the customer. There are only a handful we all know of that do it the right way. Apple – simple, elegant innovation. Google - the Internet made easy. 

What I’ll write about in this blog is:

  • Creating awesome compelling content for complex and boring products
  • How to simplify a complex story
  • High tech marketing on a shoestring budget
  • Writing compelling value propositions
  • Getting your social media marketing plan off the ground
  • And more…

Stay tuned!

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