How to speed-shift into modern marketing

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Moving a large, conservative organization into modern marketing is a ton of work.  Such organizations tend to stick to old methods long after their return on investment has dwindled to nothing. And paradoxically, new ideas are judged against the metrics of the old methods in their heyday.

It took my team in a large health care organization three years to make the pivot. I believe we could have cut that time in half if we had only known:

If you build it, they will NOT come.

In our case, innovation started on the PR side of the house. We were all-in on content marketing: Developing consumer-oriented multimedia stories and presenting them on a carefully curated website.

Screen grab from a content marketing site developed by the author's teamBut the traffic we brought to the site spiked only during our sporadic promotional efforts – social media posts, exposure on media partners’ websites, etc. We had this idea that health consumers would find our website, be amazed by the content, bookmark it, and return whenever they had a health question of any kind.

Silly us. Consumers go wherever their search takes them, and they seldom go first to a “walled garden” to answer their questions.

In addition, we didn’t target our audience. Any consumer lured into our garden was a win in our mind, even though that person may not be in the market to buy our health care.

Which brings us to the second lesson learned:

PR has to come off its high horse.

The media relations team “owned” the organization’s social media assets, having been first to recognize their potential for influence and image cultivation. When it became clear that our lovely content marketing site was doomed unless it became a part of the popular online conversation about health, we decided to use our Facebook and Twitter accounts to call attention to the content.

And we decided to do that in support of marketing and sales goals. Little did we know the conflict that would cause.

PR and media relations are driven to tell the organization’s story. Marketing Communications and Sales are driven to answer the questions consumers have. Here’s the conflict: Consumers may be flocking to stories about flesh-eating bacteria while health experts think they should be more concerned about sunscreen. The Marcomm folks wanted to post “The Nasty Beasties That Live Under Your Fingernails” and PR wanted to post “Five Reasons to Get a Colonoscopy.”

The PR and media team were alarmed by Marcomm’s posts, which they dubbed “square watermelon” stories. Will “silly” posts undermine the carefully cultivated image they had developed for our sites?

petri dish with blue bacteria spelling out Go BroncosThe turning point came in a petri dish. During NFL playoff season, our lab guys had coaxed blue bacteria to coalesce in an orange medium to spell out “Go Broncos.” The post broke all previous records for shares and comments. The wave lifted our Facebook and Twitter engagement scores and created a new benchmark.

Over time, the PR and Marcomm teams developed a balance of strategic and square watermelon stories, and learned to invest in paid boosts to keep the overall social metrics increasing.

This put our social assets in play for lead generation. And that would require direct connection to Sales’ target audiences and lead conversion process.

Which leads us to the third lesson learned:

Everyone is in Sales.

Our Marcomm team was a pretty traditional shop. As one Sales leader put it: “We in Sales decide what sells and you in Marketing make it look pretty.” While this undersold the value of the marketing team, it also gave them permission to mail it in. “We gave them what they asked for. It’s not our fault they didn’t follow through on the business reply cards.”

Sales success was defined as meeting the numbers each quarter. Marketing success was defined as getting the collateral materials done on time.

This parasitic relationship was recognized as dysfunctional on both sides of the equation. But it was the way things were done. If Sales made its numbers, Marcomm breathed a sigh of relief. If Sales didn’t make its numbers, it blamed Marcomm.

As is often the case, crisis was the mother of innovation. The small business customer base was eroding. More consumers were gaining choice in the health insurance marketplace. Meeting the Sales growth figures became an organizational imperative. Marcomm had to step up.

Sales figures became the responsibility of Marcomm as much as it was of Sales. Both sides became jointly interested in what constituted an optimal shopping journey. They mapped out the journeys taken by different consumer segments, the problems they were trying to solve, and the times and places where they were doing the shopping. They agreed on definitions of what constituted a lead that was ready for a Sales call. They developed an automated process to usher prospects through the shopping journey, and that also provided ways to monitor what worked. This led to the ability to evaluate tactics dispassionately: Instead of Sales saying, “do some social media, for heaven’s sake,” they were saying, “can Facebook posts give us leads at a lower acquisition cost?”

I’d like to say that shift occurred in a quick, orderly way. But unfortunately, Marcomm and Sales were not aligned at the start. Marcomm used brute force (and control of the purse strings) to push the envelope, win grudging acceptance by Sales, then hammer out roles, processes, and success metrics.

Which leads to the fourth lesson learned:

Recognize when you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

So many of the obstacles to PR and Marcomm innovation are self-imposed and self-fulfilling. There are always a thousand good reasons why a new idea won’t work. All of them start with preconceived notions that need to be challenged:

Event booths are a waste of time. True, they were a waste of time the way we were activating them. We gave away jump ropes and water bottles to whoever stopped by, chalking it up to some vague brand awareness goal. But when we shifted our thinking, setting clear lead generation goals to event activation, we were able to send leads to Sales direct from the event booth. We had participants provide emails, income, and health insurance information before entering into an engaging experience. It’s amazing what people will share about themselves in exchange for throwing a bean bag through a hole.

A brochure never closed a deal; that’s Sales’ job. We used this one a lot to fend off the never-ending requests for collateral pieces. Switch the thinking to: What does the sales associate need to complete the final mile to conversion? Marcomm can do a lot to help. We just have to realize our job doesn’t stop at the top of the funnel. We are uniquely equipped to start conversations with prospects and can learn their needs, what they value, and when they are ready to buy. For this, an automated system is essential (we used a Marketo platform and nimble outreach developed in consultation with experts at Intelligent Demand).

Let’s spend three-quarters of the year planning for the three-month buying cycle. Switch the thinking to: If all you worry about is the buying cycle, you’re too late. Focus on the shopping journey. And by the way, shopping doesn’t stop at purchase. Buyers evaluate the purchase after the fact and their product/service experience weighs on their re-purchase decision.

It takes three months to spin up a campaign. This is what we say when Sales comes to us with a hot opportunity we need to exploit. Switch the thinking to: There are campaigns in the field all the time; how might we adjust them to meet this new opportunity or challenge? If your campaigns are built on a common strategy, following a set process, and driving toward clear goals, they should be somewhat modular. Tweaking them should be a relatively easy matter of changing the creative and dialing media channels up and down.

In summary, here’s how I think I could have shortened the three-year journey to modern marketing into 18 months:

Get PR and Marcomm together at the start. Help them find their common goals and their complementary skills. Have them do real things right away, so they can work out their differences as they go.

Get Marcomm and Sales together as well. Help Marcomm see its role in Sales; help Sales appreciate the full set of skills and tools at Marcomm’s disposal. Have them do real things, too, so that they can work out roles, processes, and scorekeeping as they go.

Challenge the preconceived notions about what PR does and what Marcomm does. If the knee-jerk response is “that will never work,” take a few minutes to explore how it might work.



Steve is sole proprietor of Connected Communication, LLC, a consultancy that helps organizations develop integrated PR, communication, and marketing programs. His particular expertise is in the health industry, including insurance, health delivery systems, and digital health. Steve also is professor of public relations and journalism at Metro State University of Denver.


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