Customer Acquisition – A B2B Blog Is Not That Hard

I never thought that having a blog would be an avenue to customer acquisition, but it has proven so for Datamann. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

I noticed a few weeks ago that another catalog industry supplier was becoming more “aggressive” with their promotional emails. Just by chance, I got a personal email from that company’s CEO about something, and so I asked if they were in fact becoming more aggressive. “Yes, we are jumping on the blog bandwagon, but because we have so many authors it’s going to be difficult to gain a following such as yours. No “one voice” or a single point of view. But at least we are trying! I envy your discipline.”

I’ve got news for you: It has nothing to do with being disciplined. For me, it is the pure enjoyment of watching the feedback on Mondays through my web analytics, as to which postings do well, and which ones don’t. I can tell by the way the blogs spreads around the web, that the topic hit a nerve.

But the main reason I have kept up this blog to the degree that I have (a posting nearly every week for the past 4 years), is the knowledge that almost all of our new clients have come to Datamann in the past two to three years because they learned of us through the blog. It is an unbelievable recruitment tool and retention tool, although not a sales tool.

It has also been an awesome recruitment tool for the annual seminar which Datamann sponsors for the VT/NH Marketing Group.

I believe a blog can work in both consumer and B2B. But, I don’t believe that it will work for everyone. A few weeks ago, at the end of December, I wrote about my blogging philosophy (Did I Get You To Think About What Is Happening?). Basically I believe that if you don’t have an edge, if you don’t take a stand, if you don’t have something special to say, no one is going to read it. You have to take sides and make a point.

Kevin Hillstrom’s edge is that he gives analytical insight that no one else is even thinking about – and he gives it for free. If you follow his advice, you can make a boatload of money. Amy Africa’s blog takes no prisoners while dispensing unique online and mobile advice. You either love her style or you hate it – but Amy offers no apologies for her style or content. She’s good enough that she doesn’t have to.

And me? Well, I enjoy pointing out the foolishness that runs rampant in so many catalogs and in the catalog industry. I must be doing something right as I routinely get between 55% to 65% opens each week.

But in all three of those aforementioned blogs, we are not trying to overtly sell anything (most of the time). The blog allows people to know that we are challenging the status quo, and that we can help them. But we are not always ramming client case studies down your throat. Yes, once in while we will tout a specific product that we offer – but hey, we have to pay the bills to keep the lights on.

If you are a reader of this blog, you know I absolutely hate the types of blogs or articles that offer “5 tips on improving your homepage”. There’s nothing there. There’s no challenge to you as a marketer. It’s just insipid drivel. However, in my response back to the CEO mentioned earlier, in which I challenged her perception of my “discipline”, I offered her the following “helpful hints” that have helped me in keeping Datamann’s blog going.

  • I’m constantly looking for ideas for the blog in everything I read. I’m reading a book right now that my wife gave me for Christmas on the maple sugar/syrup industry, and I’ve already come up with ideas for four new postings. You never know from where ideas will come.
  • I mentioned to our minister one time that I had a blog. He told me that he often spends days working on a sermon, reworking it numerous times, one that he thinks covers all the theological bases. He is excited in the anticipation of giving it. After he delivers it Sunday morning, a few people will politely say “Nice sermon”. Then there are ones that he throws together Saturday night, which he feels almost embarrassed to deliver from the pulpit because no time or thought went into it, or it was (in his opinion) too shallow. Afterwards, parishioners will come up to him with tears in their eyes to say how that sermon had touched their souls and moved them. Well, no one’s soul has been touched by any of my postings – but the scenario is the same. Postings that I think are the best thing I’ve ever written, and which touch on some major catalog issue, will often times go nowhere, generate no comments, no emails, and has low readership. Conversely, some postings that I threw together at the last minute get tons of comments, huge readerships, etc.   You just never know which ones are going to resonate with the subscribers, and strike a nerve (and of course, that’s usually what I’m trying to do).
  • Keep it short. My minimum posting is 800 words, my normal is around 1,200 to 1,300 and my max is 1,800. If it runs longer, it becomes a Part 2.   And you’d be surprised at how many people contact me and say “when are you doing Part 2?”, when I’ve labeled something Part 1.   I also think it is a mistake for me to publish more than weekly. I have done it a few times, with special postings. But given my type of content, which is not as analytical as Kevin Hillstrom’s, I think I would over-expose myself publishing more often than once a week.
  • I also write for my existing readers/subscribers. Although my number of subscribers has nearly doubled in the past 12 months, I don’t write with “key words” in mind, hoping to attract attention through organic search. However, I will share one funny anecdote. In March 2013 I wrote a posting titled  Bra Catalogs – More Than Storage and Organization. If you search Google for the term “bra catalog”, my posting is always either at the bottom of page one or the top of page two’s search results. It is my number one most read posting from organic search, but it is read by average consumers – which was not my target audience.

Bra-Catalog-Blog-Header

  • Here is the most important piece of advice – don’t start a blog unless you can be committed, and yes, have the discipline to keep posting new material. What is your impression of a company when you go to their blog, only to realize that the last posting was in 2011? Not good.

I find it fun, and it sure beats cold calling. After 200+ postings, I think I have become a much better writer than when I started, although my wife still shutters at some of my punctuation. My parents would be proud that my liberal arts education is finally paying off.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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Did I Get You To Think About What Is Happening?

Would you bother to read this blog if it was just insipid drivel?

At year’s end, I want to say thank you to all of you who faithfully read this blog every week. I had a new client say to me the other day that he had signed up for emails from the blog after he had read a few of the postings. He started to say something along the lines of “Your postings are, umm… they are…” I finally finished his sentence by saying “They make a statement, yes?”

They make a statement – right or wrong – because you wouldn’t bother to read each week if all I did was offer insipid drivel like tips on how to pick a list broker, or five ways to grow your email response.

Why would you bother?

I stand behind everything I write.  I told the folks at Datamann four years ago when I launched this blog that it was not going to be a place for articles on “improving data hygiene”.  There were already enough of those sites. Just as I have been doing for the past 30 years in the catalog industry, I was going to offer my opinions and observations across a wide spectrum of catalog and ecommerce topics, including merchandising, creative, operations, the co-ops, inventory planning, social media, etc.  And that is exactly what they are – my opinions.   I write the same way I give critiques to clients – blunt, direct, and to the point. I don’t ever want anyone to be unsure of where I’m coming from – it’s hard for a client to miss the message in “I hate your catalog, it’s ineffective and won’t drive response.”

It’s probably a good thing I’m not in college now, because I’d be the number one trigger warning on campus.  You may not agree with what I have to say, but I hope I at least got you to think about what is really happening.

Unlike most consultants, I don’t fall short of telling a client what they are doing is wrong.  Because of that, clients trust me. That’s not to say that clients don’t trust others – but this is my style and this is what works for me.  It is also not to say that I don’t get it wrong sometimes. But as my wife says of me “Often wrong, never in doubt”.

If I wanted to play it safe, I’d write complimentary reviews of all our clients’ catalogs and websites, say wonderful things about Datamann, and never mention the problems facing our industry.  But no one would trust that, and moreover, no one would read that. I write about what is happening to our industry as a whole, and for the most part, how the catalog industry is being distracted by useless time-traps like “social media”, and losing sight of the really important issue which is providing better and exclusive merchandise, at the right price.

I also write about customer/consumer behavior. You and I may not like what consumers are doing today, especially since much of what they are doing is detrimental to the catalog industry. But that doesn’t change the fact that that is how they are behaving.  Unfortunately the industry trade publications, which are dependent on vendors for advertising, fail to address any of these topics. Instead, about five years ago, when their page counts dropped to less than 40 pages per issue, the industry trades switched to doing “fluff journalism” pieces such as the top 18 most important women that work for companies that advertise in their magazine.

Although I do write about the merchandise analytics and circulation planning that I do for clients, I don’t write about what Datamann does – because quite frankly, it is tough to make merge purge and list processing interesting on a continual basis. If I did B2B marketing about Datamann, it would be about dupe rates, NCOA and address hygiene – who wants to read about that every week? It can get boring very quickly. Sure, we do very innovative stuff with our clients’ merges, and matchbacks, but I view that as proprietary to them and to Datamann. I write to you as a consumer and a general catalog consultant. You don’t need help with address hygiene and match rates; you need help learning how to grow.

I don’t quote statistics of how Datamann identified x% more duplicates than a competitor, or how we increased profits for a client by 43%, because percentages like that are meaningless. We can always find more duplicates than the next guy – the question is whether that is what is right for the client.  And quoting percentage increases are meaningless because they only tell a portion of the story – what was the base on which that growth occurred? The company in question might have grown 43%, but could still be barely surviving. I believe there are usually far too many factors in play to say that any one vendor or consultant ever helped a catalog grow by the percentages often cited by others.

Those of you who are Datamann clients, and more specifically, clients that work with me, know that I never claim that any one thing that Datamann or that I did is responsible for your success. I always show you how everything you do is interrelated. And that’s another reason that clients trust Datamann.

I don’t cite statistics from the DMA (like email returns $44 for every $1 spent), which publishes such overly optimistic numbers that you can always find something in their reports to support just about any argument you want. Further, for some reason I’ve never understood, people believe because the DMA published it – the data and conclusions came from God.

I also don’t cite useless studies by other organizations, unless it is to show how useless they are. Here is a quote from a recent white paper from UPS called the Pulse of the Online Shopper. “Apps can be effective for retailers because they tend to serve more engaged shoppers. In this study, 4 in 5 mobile shoppers have used a retailer’s app instead of a browser to access a retailer at some point. Heavy shoppers use apps more than others.” No kidding! Wow, that is insight!

The worst part is that this “study” was based on 5,118 respondents that took a 44-minute online survey from UPS in February 2015. Now, who has time to answer a 44-minute survey? Just how reliable are these results if they are from people who had 44 minutes to kill on an online survey?  More important – think of the millions of packages that UPS delivers. Think of the hundreds of thousands of retailers they work with. Wouldn’t it have been more valuable to the rest of the world if they had drawn upon some information gathered from those retailers and the campaigns that drove the demand for those millions of packages?

There is a fine line that I walk with some of my postings. I’ve annoyed some readers to the point of them unsubscribing – usually within minutes of their having opened their email. My intention is never to annoy or embarrass anyone – but sometimes people are disappointed by the truth. For anyone in the industry that may have been disappointed by my observations and comments, I can only think of Winston Churchill’s comment: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Through my web analytics, I watch reaction to my postings. I can tell when I’ve struck a nerve somewhere. Often times the postings that I felt were rather innocuous generate the most readership and the most comments.

I try to be fair and independent, but I know I have also let a few of my personal biases through. (Now that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has grown a beard, I won’t be writing anymore about men’s catalogs that go over the top showing unshaven male models). I also have interjected information on my personal life, my small, rural home town, my family and even my catalog purchase habits. Many of you have responded that you enjoy how I “humanize” my postings with these comments. I have no plans to stop with these personal anecdotes.

The-Old-Man-of-The-Mountain

Make no mistake, this blog has proven to be a valuable tool for Datamann in terms of new client acquisition and client retention. I always, always have that fact in mind. Time and again, I will get a call from a company wanting help on an issue, and before I can ask how they learned of Datamann, they’ll say “I’ve been reading your blog for the past two years and you mentioned something a few weeks ago that we are having a problem with….”  But again, I write to what I believe is the truth, and don’t pander to potential new clients or existing ones. (Truth be told – every so often, I will write a glowing review of a catalog that I think has done a great job, mainly to dispel any complaints from readers that all I ever do is criticize the industry. And guess what? Those posting always have the lowest readership!)

The thing I enjoy most of all with this blog is hearing directly from readers. I appreciate it when you comment on things I’ve written, whether you agree or not. I will admit when I’m wrong (as I did earlier this fall on comments about an Eddie Bauer cover). I offer a sincere thank you to all of you that have taken the time to write to me with your comments, questions and concerns.

I have to also say thanks to Bill Mann and Kathy Reagan (brother and sister) who have run the daily operations of Datamann for many years. They have never once commented on or questioned anything I’ve written. They have never offered suggestions.  They have been completely hands-off. They have the same trust in me that all of you do. (Although we do have one guy in our processing department who had an English teacher in high school that must have been a cross between Noah Webster and the strictest grammartarian ever – he always finds errors in stuff that I have proof-read 15 times before I hit that “publish” button.)

As we approach a new year, I want you to know that I take your support of this blog sincerely. Paraphrasing something that Garrison Keillor once said, this business is so much fun, it’s easy to get too comfortable, which you know if you’ve ever stood up and made a speech. You’re terrified at first, but then the audience seems to like you, and they laugh out loud at what you’ve said. You relax, and feel that you could talk to these lovely people all night and tell them everything you know about the catalog industry. Their affection and approval inspire you to remember so many wonderful stories, and so you lavish yourself upon them, and then in a moment of silence, you hear the unmistakable sound of car keys jingling in the dark.

So far, I haven’t heard the jingling car keys when I’ve been giving speeches or writing for this blog, but when I do, I’ll let you know in style.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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When Your Catalog Is The Last Vestige of Communism and Marxism

When your merchants tell you that every product in the assortment has to be presented in the catalog, and presented in an equal way – do you ever tell them that you are tired of their SKU barfing?

A few weeks ago, one of my readers (a B2B cataloger) and I exchanged emails around the question of catalog design.  I told her that I thought too many consumer catalogs spend too much time on design for the sake of creating a nice design, without focusing on selling merchandise and driving response. She replied “Yes, it’s a conversation I find myself having not only with our creative group … who always want things to look ‘sleek, clean and pretty’ but also my marketers that are lured by the same siren call. And then I explain that we are not working on the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog.”

Ok – so maybe you are not working on the Neiman Marcus catalog. But whether your catalog is B2B or consumer, it still has to work well enough to drive response.   There are so many fundamental things a catalog has to do – which I’m not going to list here – but the emphasis has to be on making the customer say “Wow, I want to look at this and see what’s new”. Here’s a hint – the customer is not talking about a new “design”, but new “product”.

For most catalogs, if you don’t have new products to offer, you are not going anywhere. But there are some catalogs – mostly B2B – that rely on repetitive sales of staple products.  The problem I have with most of these catalogs is that they make absolutely no effort to sell anymore.

The problem, in my opinion, lies not with the Creative Department. If Creative were given the opportunity, they could create a catalog that would make those products look interesting, maybe even amazing, and drive response.

No, the problem is with the merchants. In most cases, they are the absolute dictators and czars of what goes in the book, and how it looks on the page. Sadly, they can often only think in terms like this: “if 6 wheelbarrows sell well on a spread, then 7 will sell even better, and 8 will be great”, as shown in the Gempler’s catalog spread below.

Gempler's-Wheelbarrow-Sprea

Can’t you just see hear the Creative Director saying “But they all look alike. Can’t we just show one, and line-list the rest? We could show someone actually using it. Why can’t we move the line-listing to the website?” While the merchant responds “Even though they look the same to you, and even though they are priced almost the same, we have to have this full assortment or we won’t look as strong in wheelbarrow authority as Grainger. Plus, I’m already line-listing 21 combinations of sizes and colors, and no, they can’t go to the website because everyone keeps this 692 page catalog on their desk all year long, and the line listing has to be there.”

Here’s an example of a consumer/B2B offender of this principle, The Jeffers Equine catalog.

Jeffer's-Cover

First, the call out on the cover says “Christmas 2015”.  Well, that cover does not exactly radiate Christmas to me.

Look at these two spreads inside, which are representative of every other spread in the catalog.

Jeffer's-Blanket-Spread

Jeffer's-Tub-spread

Every product is treated exactly the same, given the same amount of space. No hero shots, no effort to make one product look more important. (Hey, maybe it’s a best seller, but we can’t tell anyone that). The merchants/buyers in this case are afraid to give up one inch of space to help sell a better or new product, because it will “kill sales” of the product that is reduced in space. Of course, heaven forbid that a product gets removed entirely in order to give the remaining products more space, more credibility, more authority. No, this is pure SKU barfing – the last vestige of communism and Marxism – alive and well in the catalog world. Every product is treated exactly alike because the consumer loves our catalog so much, and they have all the time in the world, they will take the time to figure out what they want.

I am certain that some analyst or maybe even VP at Jeffers could offer to prove to me how every product pays for itself, and that every additional page (176 pages) adds incremental sales and profits. Maybe so. But why are they in an arms race to add so many products? Aren’t horse owners consumers too? Don’t they want to have someone tell them what’s the best blanket for their horse instead of dumping them with 4 spreads and over fifty blankets that are all presented exactly alike?

What happened to selling? We’ve gotten lazy – we just throw more products on a spread to drive sales. We justify it by saying that each product has a unique feature that will be of use to, or of interest to, an equally unique buyer somewhere.

That’s how we end up with 176 and 690 page catalogs. I’m not 100% certain why I receive the Jeffers catalog, as I don’t own a horse. But I am an infrequent buyer from Gempler’s. Moreover, I’ve only purchased a few quasi-consumer products from Gempler’s for use around our house. A simple analysis of our address will reveal that we are a residence and not a business. So why keep sending me a 700 page book, when a 100 page book would be more efficient? To their credit, Gempler’s does occasionally send a smaller page count book – but, in my opinion as a consumer and catalog professional, not often enough.

I doubt very much that sufficient merchandise analysis is done in most of these catalogs to determine the merchandise productivity of giving more or less pace to specific products or product categories. When I do a merchandise analysis for a client, I am always shocked – shocked! – at how little analysis they have previously done. Most clients don’t even calculate square inches anymore.

Don’t be lazy – stop throwing more products on the page. Marxism is dead. Every product should be forced to stand on its own, to generate its maximum potential, and not just attain an “average performance”.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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A Burning B2B Question Answered, With Implications for B2C

A reader posed a B2B marketing question a few weeks back which I want to address with some specific examples.

I tend to shy away from B2B postings because to me B2B just seems so easy, and yet most practitioners get it hopelessly wrong. That includes me, because after all, everything I do in the marketing of and promoting of Datamann is B2B, and if I was getting it right all the time, we’d have more clients.  It’s always difficult to give advice when your own practice of the craft could be improved. I like to think I’m qualified to answer many questions on marketing to consumers, but I’m still learning B2B as I go.

However, many of the subscribers to this blog are B2B companies, so let’s dig in.  Here was the question which was actually posed on the VT/NH Marketing Group’s website, and to which someone asked me to respond (edited and paraphrased for clarity):

“Years ago when we attended a seminar or conference, the focus was on direct mail, with discussions of  list maintenance, the best day to mail, page layout, etc. Fast forward 30 years and PPC ads coupled with email marketing now seems to be the focus for everyone in B2B. I suspect that many B2B marketers are doing far less direct mail. We market to very small businesses, often rural and sometimes even home based businesses such as excavation companies, tree maintenance companies, lumber yards, etc. I wonder if any one has any data, however casual, that might show that direct mail is more effective in rural areas and/or data that might point to an increase in effectiveness in direct mail because fewer pieces are being mailed?”

Let’s leave B2B catalogs aside, and simply focus on communicating with other companies without a catalog.

I subscribe to the all the usual marketing magazines (Internet Retailer, Stores, DM News, Multichannel Merchant, Target, Web Magazine), and always subscribe as a “mailer” or “retailer” to ensure that I’ll receive correspondence that Datamann’s competitors might be sending out.

But I never, ever get material through the mail anymore. Think about this – aside from office supply catalogs, when was the last time you received a postal mailing from a B2B company? Almost 100% of B2B correspondence I receive today is via email. B2B companies rent my email address from those magazine subscriber lists and email me daily. But, the emails are so easy to delete and so easy to block. (Add to these emails that obtain my name through legitimate list rentals, all the spam from companies that send me emails addressed to “hi lapierre”, and most B2B email just gets ignored).

Plus, corporate B2B emails always look so stiff. They are designed in a corporate office by some HTML programmer that has never even met a client of the company. They contain all the buzz-words de jour, are over-done with graphics, and are definitely not personal. But as an industry, we send out billions of them.

Meanwhile, the mail is empty and the phone doesn’t ring.

In my opinion, B2B companies and vendors’ collective abandonment of direct mail and telemarketing as sales tool, coupled with their over reliance on the internet, is simply crazy. We call ourselves “innovative marketers”, yet we act like lemmings. “Everyone else is doing emails, PPC and retargeting ads, so we should too.”

The company that posed the aforementioned specific question sells custom industrial engines. Not knowing their customers, I don’t think it makes a difference if they are rural or urban – small business owners have limited time and resources. You need to reach them in a number of ways – you cannot simply rely on email or PPC because it is easy. That company needs to be using a combination of traditional mail, as well as the email, PPC, etc.

Let me give you two specific examples of  what I would do if I were them. As you all know by now, Datamann is hosting a seminar in less than 3 weeks in Concord NH. We already have more people signed up this year – with three weeks to go – than attended last year. This is a result of several things. First, I brought in two “rock star” speakers to join me on the podium – so the “merchandise” is great.  Second, I know my audience enough to know they still respond to direct mail, so Datamann mailed out 1,500 brochures promoting the seminar. About a 1/3 of these were to members of the VT/NH Marketing Group, 1/3 were Datamann clients, and 1/3 were my own prospecting list.

I have just over 900 contacts on LinkedIn. I also have the subscribers to this blog. Over the years, I have been culling both of those lists, looking up addresses online, and assembling a dynamite mailing list which I use for Datamann, and to promote this event.

It would have been easy to just send those 1,500 pieces off to the post office and wait for the registrations to come in. It would have been equally easy to convince myself that saturating the web with some retargeting ads (which I did not do) was evidence of an aggressive “promotional” plan for the event. But instead, I followed that mailing up with over 500 personal emails promoting the conference. These were not emails through Constant Contact or SalesForce, but were from me. They looked personal – they were personal. There were NO graphics, just text. Not surprisingly, these emails drove the highest response.

I also had weekly postings on the Datamann blog (and writing an extra posting about the seminar each week for the past 4 weeks took time). Datamann does not have many followers on LinkedIn (it’s not something we have actively pushed), and the VT/NH Marketing Group has only a few more than that. Consequently, I also added these blog postings to my own LinkedIn account, where they were seen by not only my 900 contacts, but many more as well.

01-10-2015---LinkedIn-posti

Meanwhile, Kevin Hillstrom was mentioning the seminar in his blog, and Amy Africa was calling, emailing and doing God knows what else to her clients, cajoling them to attend. (Amy has been a one-person buzz saw recruiting attendees for the event). In other words, we were very proactive – but one-on-one. If you are a B2B company, there is a place in your marketing for indirect marketing, but there is also a place for one-on-one selling, and nothing beats telemarketing. If you are in B2B, you constantly must be looking for new leads, new contacts and new prospects.

Here is the other thing I would do if I were that company: I’d go heavy on YouTube. Most of you know that I own a construction backhoe – a full size, 8 ton backhoe, that is now 43 years old. The brakes are gone – the only way I can stop is to lower the front bucket (which drives my wife nuts). I searched on YouTube for Replace brakes on a 580B Case Backhoe, and guess what? Some guy had posted a step by step video on how to do it! If this video had been from a Case dealer, along with a list of parts at the end to order, I would have ordered the parts on the spot.

The point is this – we have forgotten and abandoned many of the viable marketing tools that got us to where we are. Some rightly should have been abandoned (bingo cards in magazines), but some are not only still viable, they would enjoy higher response than previously encountered simply because fewer companies are using them today.

In addition, there are new tools that are right for some, but not all companies. With my heavy New England accent, a half-hour YouTube video of me talking about databases and merge purge might not be the most impressive use of Datamann’s resources, but it might be right for the company selling engines and motors.  A small B2B company has a huge advantage in that they can be flexible, nimble and personal, and test new methods of one-on-one marketing. I previously worked at a huge conglomerate, which issued an edict from headquarters just as I was leaving, requiring all future marketing correspondence to first go through the corporate marketing department for approval, and then through the legal department. What a great way to stifle innovation! Sure, big companies have resources that little guys don’t have, and they have name recognition. But they also have huge, burdensome bureaucracies that bog them down in the name of “consistent on-brand messages” – and as a small B2B company, that is your opening to beat the big guys.

B2B marketing requires a different set of tools than consumer marketing, but the bottom line is that you can’t sit back and take an easy route to getting sales. You have to be pro-active.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

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