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This is where smart people and breakthrough ideas come together. Our thought leaders share insights, trends, perspectives and much more about what’s happening in our industry.

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Elevate your brand by getting the most out of discovery

In this era of big data and accessibility, you have all the tools of discovery at your fingertips.

There’s so much available, you’d think it would be easy to find the inputs you need.

The truth is it’s hard to distill the right information. You’ll have hundreds of pieces of information thrown at you from several directions. As a result, you have the daunting task of discerning what’s important and what will help you start developing that compelling brand story.

Discovery is finding and analyzing all the accessible information necessary to gain insights that will help you support development of a clear brand strategy. It’s called discovery for a reason, because you don’t always know what you’re going to find. It’s problem-solving in its truest sense.

Credit: Dave Bleasdale

The discovery phase within brand strategy is more complex than ever before. In my experience, I’ve noticed there are certain things you can do to make this process run a little more smoothly. Here are three things to keep in mind when starting your next round of discovery work:

  1. Remember the three factors that influence what information you’re seeking. A successful brand hinges on recognizing a customer need, fulfilling a promise to that need and doing it in a way that’s different in the marketplace. If you keep these factors at the root of your exploration, you’ll help yourself filter through information with greater purpose, while recognizing what information or research is still needed. If you can walk away from the discovery phase with a succinct and validated answer to each of these three factors, you’ll have a strong foundation for your brand strategy work.

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Earn loyalty with authenticity and emotion

I have a good bet on where my 4-year-old son will shop if he becomes a DIYer: the national home improvement store with a logo he could identify around age 2.

He wanders the aisles of this store with his dad, asking questions about what’s on the shelves. He gets free popcorn (so there’s no begging dad). He makes projects with wood, nails, paint and stickers featuring the hottest children’s movie characters, during hands-on workshops.

Those extra touches are making trips to this store memorable for my son, and they are authentically establishing an emotional connection with this brand he’ll carry as he grows. As a result, it’s very likely he’ll be a future loyal shopper.

Click to enlarge

Connecting emotionally to establish loyalty is nothing new. What’s different is that B2B brands are getting in on this favorite B2C marketing strategy. Here are six key elements to get started:

Understand your audience — Know what triggers emotions and how your audience wants to feel. Then deliver content that resonates and prompts actions. Pull the heartstrings of people who want to be empowered to help others. Bring a sense of calm to a stressed professional. There is a place for both these emotions in B2B communications.

Quality products — Yes, it should be par for the course that products and services deliver as promised. But quality control issues arise, and your response can have strong implications on customers’ loyalties. It’s essential to be well-positioned and have an issues management plan to quickly acknowledge the situation and take effective action.

Transparency — As more people demand to know what’s in products and how they’re made, be open. Sharing information builds trust; withholding it raises suspicions. Showcasing ethical business practices also will help your customers reaffirm they’ve made the right choice when opting for your offerings.

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Manage your reputation before someone else does

Think back to some of the giant brands of yesteryear.
Kodak. Ford. Sears.

How did they earn their prominence? They offered something new to customers. Kodak made cameras a household item. Ford brought the auto to the masses. Sears gave shoppers a more expansive selection of products than they could get elsewhere. Innovation fueled prosperity for these brands, giving them strongholds.

Back then, innovation gave brands credibility, respectability and value. Today, that’s simply just not enough. The data shows it.

The definitive voice in corporate reputation measurement, Harris Interactive, finds that brand reputation increasingly hinges on intangibles, such as how consumers feel about the company and corporate social responsibility. Beyond that, 44 percent of those surveyed (and the plurality of respondents) have negative perceptions of corporate America.

For companies that have put their PR programs on the back burner, it’s wake-up time. The most successful brands of tomorrow will have the strongest relationships with their audiences. Even today, the most valuable brands are also top performers in terms of reputation. Corporations must prioritize customer sentiment to achieve their fullest potential.

The rules are changing

A new age of transparency has dawned, thanks in large part to social media and other technology advancements. The corporate communications department is no longer the sole voice of a brand. This alone should be a huge motivator in strengthening and protecting reputation.

Think about it this way: If the way in which consumers feel about a company strongly influences its reputation, then voices outside of a company are helping to define it. Companies need a steady hand on efforts to boost corporate reputation.

Now think about what happens during an issues management situation or a crisis. With social media and mobile, news can spread like wildfire. A scenario that could have been contained 10 years ago has the potential to go viral today. Not only are more people aware of a corporation’s negative perceptions, but more people can spread those perceptions, regardless of accuracy in their reporting.

Of course, this is damaging to any company’s reputation. But those that don’t have a strong, positive image ahead of a crisis will feel the burn much more deeply than those that do.

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Great customer experiences transcend digital

It’s an amazing time in marketing to focus on the customer experience.

Like never before, technology allows us to easily interact with the customer. More often, it’s these interactions that make the difference because there’s little differentiating products and services from competing brands. The experience is the differentiator.

It’s not hard to understand why, in client meetings, I’m seeing the conversation turn to experience more and more. This is happening mainly because marketing’s new mission is to create memorable and useful experiences during the buyer’s journey. Advertising is one small touch point. And while it’s great for generating awareness, it doesn’t really contribute much to a meaningful brand interaction. Marketing is more and more about what we do, not what we say.

Anyone who has ever created an experience map for a brand knows there are many significant brand touch points that need to harmonize into an experience. For 10 years, we’ve mostly focused on the digital touch points because most marketers weren’t maximizing the new and promising technology. There has been blind enthusiasm for the notion that if the digital experience improves, it compensates for other inferior offline experiences.

We know now that your brand needs to be useful, usable and pleasant everywhere. No single app, mobile site or social media presence will make up for an average analog brand experience. In my study of considered purchases, some of the most meaningful experiences are offline, and they have traditionally been beyond the command of the marketer. Customer service, sales calls and dealership experiences are still much more important than we digital marketers anticipate. The marketing focus has now turned to providing great digital tools that improve the in-person experiences with usefulness and usability.

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Sorry, brainstorming: It’s empathy that drives innovation and creativity

There’s a big misconception that “innovation” means brainstorming a bunch of big (and preferably really cool) ideas.

Much of this thinking comes from watching widely admired companies kick out groundbreaking products and services, from the iPhone® to OXO® Good Grips. It’s understandable that we might picture these companies’ best and brightest in ideation sessions, furiously working to get their brilliant ideas out of their heads and onto a whiteboard.

But great ideas don’t usually materialize this way. Putting aside the growing chorus of those questioning brainstorming’s effectiveness, this simply isn’t the way innovation works. In fact, if you’re waiting for geniuses to drive innovation in your company, you’re doing it wrong. 

Innovation is about solving problems for people in ways that fit their lives. And you can’t do that without deeply understanding those people, and their unmet needs and desires. But how do you uncover those unmet needs and desires? We already know it’s not by asking people what they want. It’s through empathy.

Here’s why empathy works so well at driving innovation and creativity:

Empathy offers a fresh perspective: Seeing the world with new eyes is the best pathway to fresh ideas. It increases your ideas exponentially.

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Six tips for making technology work for you

As someone who handles network issues for our agency’s IT department, I’m always thinking about how people manage time, tasks and tools to “do stuff.”

At our agency, we’re all busy. There’s always something more to do. Maybe it’s that next hot client project or that overdue expense report. Whatever it is, we just have to dig in, get our hands dirty and get stuff done. Lucky for us, we have plenty of tools and technology to help us do just that.
Using technology in our daily personal and professional lives isn’t necessarily about fancy gadgetry and wizardry. It’s really about empowering people. Technology is meant to enhance, to facilitate better interactions and to help us achieve better outcomes in all we do.

Image from tumblr.com/midcenturymodernfreak

So, follow these six tips to expand your use of tech and do more meaningful work:
Try things without the fear of failure.
Always push boundaries relative to your use of technology. Why? Because that’s when exciting things happen. Let’s make those tools do impressive things.

Want to share a video feed of an in-progress meeting? Want to include high-definition audio while doing so? There are tools for that, and they can really add some pop to the meeting experience. Push that envelope.

Be pragmatic.
Reach for the stars always, but be realistic, too. When using technology to achieve new things and reach new heights, the goals we set for ourselves — our tools, our new platforms, our new ways of doing — also must be tempered with a realistic approach.

Perhaps you have a snazzy idea for how to share information with your audience at a trade show or, better yet, maybe you want them to share information with you! Live text feed solutions could do just that. We used one at one of our own meetings recently. 

Have something new you want to try? Test it first so that when it does come time to let it fly, you can soar.

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B2B marketers: Two steps to think like a B2C marketer

In 2010, in the throes of the Great Recession, I chose to make a seismic shift in my career.

I crossed over from the glitz and glamour of B2C marketing into the yeoman’s work of B2B marketing. I was hired to inject a B2C mindset into a challenger brand in a B2B industry. In preparation, I read up on the B2B marketing thought leadership at the time. It was less than inspiring. To wit:

“A B2B purchase is based more on logic … a consumer’s purchase is based more on emotion,” read one article. “If I have a B2B client they will be most interested in the feature of the client which is moisturizing the skin. If I have a B2C client they will be most interested in the benefit, which is relief of itching skin.”

This made my skin crawl, not itch. 

As a marketer with both B2C and B2B stripes, and now leading marketing and business development efforts for the premier independent business marketing agency in the country, I believe the influence of B2C marketing on B2B marketing to be undeniable, paradigm-shifting and permanent.

B2B marketing is both logic and emotion. Both right-brain and left-brain. Thinking and feeling. Business and pleasure. Professional and personal. Why? Because the B2B marketing game has been raised, thanks to the impact of digital technology on our ever-blurring personal and professional lives. And the importance of the influence of the personal on the professional cannot be overlooked. 

As business marketers, we need to borrow from the B2C marketing playbook to win this new game. Here are two steps to help you think like a B2C marketer for your B2B business and clients:

Step one: Customers are consumers

In the B2B world, “consumer” used to be considered a taboo word. B2B marketers experience longer sales cycles, their products and services are more complex, B2B customers are not impulse- or status-driven consumers, etc. 

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8 steps to stop driving your readers away

Just like any good marketer out there today, you understand the vital importance of strong content marketing.

You’ve developed a strategy. Drafted a beautiful content calendar. Gathered the best of the best thought leaders to share their insights. Chances are, one seemingly tiny thing is going to prevent your readers from consuming your content.

What’s stopping them? Your headline.

Without a well-written headline, your readers are going to scroll down their Twitter feed, move onto the next e-newsletter or search on Google for something that does a better job of piquing their interest. In fact, Social Media Today reports that 80 percent of people who see your content will read the headline but won’t stick around for the rest of the post.

  1. Stop pushing readers away. Follow these eight simple tips for writing brilliant headlines:State a clear benefit. Be clear about what knowledge readers will walk away with after their visit. Don’t forget that your post must follow through on this. If you set too high of expectations and you don’t deliver, your readers won’t trust you.

  2. Be brief, but don’t hurt your clarity. “Saving on your insurance” is short, but “10 ways to save money on your car insurance” is more clear. If you’re unclear in your post, you might get readers who click but then realize it isn’t what they want … and then leave. That’ll increase your bounce rates.

  3. Use lists and numbers. People know that lists are easy to read quickly, so headlines such as “12 reasons to …” and “5 tips for …” will grab attention. Use digits (“10 tips”) rather than words (“Ten tips”), and it’s best if you keep the number at the beginning of the sentence. Surprisingly, research has shown that larger numbers also perform better. This may be because it seems more dramatic (“Virus threatens more than 200,000 sites”) or because people see higher value or think it’ll be more readable (“50 ways to enhance your site’s performance”). Time units can perform well, too (“How to create an issues management plan in 2 days”).

  4. Go a little negative. Things that sound critical or concerning can absolutely grab a reader’s attention. “Google shuts down Google Reader” isn’t going to get as many shares as “Google kills Google Reader,” just like “The app you can’t live without” will be better than “The app that will improve your life.” Another example? “How to fail at UX” is better than “How to succeed at UX.”

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Hi, we’re Generation C

Image from UBM Tech“Generation who?” is probably what you are asking yourself. If you have not heard of us, keep reading.

We’re an economic power that spends directly and influences the spending of others. Many of us are, or soon will be, key B2B decision-makers, but we’re not your typical generation.

No, Gen C is not another name for millennials. Age does not define us. It’s about our behaviors and our mindset. We’re fueled by the Internet, rapid technology advancements and instant communication. We’re all about connection, creation, curation and community. Get to know us.

Gen C communicates differently
We bond, we align and we organize. Why does this matter? Because we want to tell and show the world how everything is doing, not just how we are doing. We crave originality and brands that are authentic — human versus formal or corporate. Every interaction with your brand — good or bad — can be worth tweeting.

Gen C is all about mobile
We are constantly connected. Our phones are the first thing we check in the morning and the last thing we look at before bed. We consume most of our content on mobile devices. When we’re ready to buy, we want the ability to research the brand, to find your nearest location or to hit purchase from the phone.

Gen C loves content

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Global B2B social media needs cultural context

Before sending branded social media efforts abroad, make sure it packs cultural context.

That message resonated with me last week in Chicago, at the Business Marketing Association’s global convention BMA14, when a panel I moderated on behalf of Bader Rutter and BBN examined global social media in the B2B industry.
With context comes nuances and details that only marketing professionals native to the country can bring to the table. The truth is, there simply is no one-size-fits-all approach. What’s truly needed is a unique balance somewhere between a top-down, corporate-authored social media playbook and giving regional resources too much flexibility to alter the brand’s messaging and tone of voice. It’s an art, and it requires trust in the people you work with.

Check out the sketchnotes from the panel discussion:

In the session, which you can watch, panelists from Singapore, England and Germany covered many topics and best practices:

  • Visuals as a way to overcome language barriers
  • Working with legal and privacy rules in Asia, the United Kingdom and the European Union
  • Staffing social media community managers abroad
  • Channels popular overseas but largely unknown in the United States
  • Enabling social media in a foreign sales force
  • The viability of social listening platforms outside the United States

I polled attendees, and about 55 percent of the voting audience had experience with global social media. They said cultural context was by far the largest barrier to execution.


The subject of local, regional and national barriers clearly was on the minds of audience members who fed us their questions via Twitter. Take a look below at the top six questions and responses from panelists Anol Bhattacharya, CEO, GetIT Comms; Paul Myerscough, director of content, Stein IAS; and Tom Foell, head of social media, wob AG, BBN Germany.

“What are some best practices to keep in mind when launching American brands abroad?”

“How can you ensure a unified message across social platforms in different country markets where cultures vary?”

Click to read more ...


BMA14: Data is useless without context, and more

Three days, 42 sessions, countless insights. BMA14 did not disappoint — for those who attended in Chicago or those who followed along via social media.

The hashtag #BMA14 burned up the Twittersphere, trending in Chicago just two hours into the conference as attendees scrambled to provide real-time updates during the annual global conference. The connectivity encouraged by BMA and journalistic zeal exhibited by the nearly 1,000 conference attendees proved some of the key themes at the sessions: human connections matter; data-driven communications — done right — are more important than ever; sales and marketing are a dream team; and global context is critical.

Here are some takeaways from two of our six team members who were at the conference: Andrea Bolyard, team leader, and Rick Stoner, social media strategist.

Here are Andrea’s takeaways:

Make a human connection
The marketing and advertising communities have waxed philosophical about the impending digital age and where it would take us. Well, it’s 2014, and it’s here. In the words of Jill Rowley, founder and chief evangelist of Jill Rowley #SocialSelling, customers today expect companies to feel personal. They don’t want to be sold to, and they definitely know when you’re selling instead of educating. To succeed in reaching buyers, brands need to be “transparent, collaborative and accessible where the buyer is.”

Work that data
Marketers have access to volumes of data. In fact, “volumes” probably isn’t even big enough to cover all the data you can review and analyze for any given marketing effort. The biggest challenge now is how to work with the information at hand to make an impact. A CMO panel led by Jeffrey Hayzlett from Bloomberg Television encouraged using information to augment personalization and segmentation in communications. The more you know about your audience, the more you should use the information to make your communications relevant — down to the individual level, if you can. Cracking highly sought-after audiences requires time, effort and diligence.

Sales + marketing = success

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Finding your inner octopus

The octopus is among the smartest animals in the sea. It’s known to be endlessly curious, use tools and learn.

We should strive to be more like the octopus — especially when it comes to insights and content.

Everyone talks about insights, but what are they, really? Some might think of insights as sharing a trend; some might see them as reflections on experience. Those things aren’t wrong, but insights are so much more.

At a conference I attended this year, one speaker offered this definition of insights:

  • Things you don’t know
  • Things you should know
  • Things that can change

However, while you can’t necessarily change the insight you uncover, you can at least use that insight to make a change. Take the evolution of CAPTCHA, for example. A CAPTCHA is a program that protects websites by distinguishing between people and bots. It’s amazing how its inventors adapted their creation once they learned how many collective hours humanity wastes on those pesky Web forms every day.

Another easy place to see this — at least with relative speed — is with content development. And the best content developers are really octopi: they’re curious, they use tools and they learn.

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Strong visuals need a strong foundation

I’m a designer. My job is multifaceted.

I create, conceive and direct all things visual, from print ads and Web pages to videos and illustrations. My job is to dream, analyze and bring ideas to life in ways that are lively, relevant and engaging.

Although I’ve been in the industry a relatively short time, I’ve already developed an aversion to certain phrases like “Freshen it up” and “Make this look better.” You can decorate a cake from the dollar store to look pretty, but you can’t change the integrity of the dollar cake. “Sprucing” doesn’t offer much extra value.

When I explain to people what I do, I stress having a strong conceptual foundation in my work so each design can evolve as a process. I need details to develop work that features a beautifully crafted design on the surface as well as the underlying value beneath.
One of the challenges of being a designer is that people view design as a subjective profession. Everyone has an opinion about the surface qualities of the finished product versus the idea that gives the design substance. Good design is based off of conceptual foundation; an idea needs to stand on its own before it’s visually translated.

Here’s an example. I made the 2013 poster design for the Silhouettes Fashion Show at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. I collaborated with a photographer, stylist, makeup artist and a fellow designer to make the design come to life. There are two ways of interpreting my poster design.

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It starts with a story

Contributors: Colleen Grams, Ryann Greve and Greg Nickerson

We’ve all had those moments. Ones that reveal who we will become later in life.

We asked some of our people to share stories about events that helped express who they are — the thought leaders of today. At BR, our vision is to inspire human connections that matter. That’s why we’re sharing these insights in this, the first in a series of perspectives that start with a story.

Having the tough conversations, by Colleen Grams 
I’m pretty comfortable being uncomfortable. The first time I remember noticing this characteristic was when I was 7. We lived on a U.S. military base in Germany, and when we felt particularly homesick, we went to McDonald’s.

My sister coaxed me into asking the German workers for ketchup because she wasn’t comfortable doing it. What was the big deal? I thought. What was the worst that could happen?

Later, the same qualities that made me feel OK asking for ketchup served me well in my journalism career. I rarely took no for an answer. I always thought of different “what if” scenarios to get the job done.

And now, in my role managing marcom programs for our clients, I ask a lot of questions. I can chat with just about anyone, and I’m not afraid to have tough conversations. Hopefully, I keep alive the spirit of that 7-year-old girl as I help our clients step outside their comfort zones. I’ve learned there are times it’s OK to feel uncomfortable. But eating fries just simply isn’t one of them!

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Social media channels are dead! Long live social media!

When it comes to prognosticating about social media, death is in and the future is subdued. After years of touting the medium’s potential for disruption, many journalists are now trying to put social media in a hearse and collect Web traffic on the way to the funeral. Recently, some influential media outlets published headlines that made my RSS feed look like an obituary section. Here is a quick look at the headlines about the dearly departed:


The digital funeral movement is certainly concerning for marketers managing brands active on social media. Corporate marketing budgets don’t have bereavement leaves. Years of investment in time, ad budgets and company culture sea changes are at stake. While I don’t have a crystal ball on which channels will prosper or perish (heads up, nobody does), I can tell you that as a marketer it’s a largely frenzied exercise in click-bait futility.

That’s because, although channels will come and go, social media isn’t going anywhere.

Twitter’s struggle to attract more mainstream users to maintain growth and Facebook’s problems with tweens are notable strategy issues but are largely irrelevant if today’s CMO sticks to these two digital content best practices:

  1. Treat every decision as an experiment
  2. Be where your audience is

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