Create the big idea

In an extract from her recent book, Heidi Taylor looks at ways of developing interlinking, ongoing stories and programmes that align with both your business and your purpose.

This should sound familiar to many of you. One of the senior salespeople in the business came to me very excited and said, “We’re writing an amazing piece of thought leadership, and it will be ready for you to publish next month!”

The core idea actually was terrific. As we all know, anniversaries are great hooks for marketing. In the run-up to the 65th birthday of the foundation of the NHS, the business wanted to talk about what the NHS could and should look like in 10 years’ time, on its 75th birthday. This was an important debate in the market at the time because in 2012 the government had passed the Health and Social Care Act; the NHS was operating under unprecedented budgetary constraint while in the midst of massive institutional reform.

These market conditions presented new opportunities for our business beyond where we had traditionally played. But when I sat down with the business to understand what they really wanted to achieve with this piece of ‘thought leadership’, I quickly realised there was simply no way a traditional thought leadership publication could achieve their objectives. Primary among those objectives was entry into a new market space where they needed to build awareness and credibility, and engage with different people – influencers and decision-makers – in the sector, not the usual finance people.

With such big ambitions, I saw the opportunity for marketing to do something very different from what we’d always done. We decided to turn our marketing process on its head – instead of a traditional ‘push’ campaign, from its inception we envisioned a multi-channel customer engagement campaign, driven by social media, where we could have open discussions and debate on not only the drivers and barriers for a future shared vision but the practical steps necessary to get there. We also wanted to bring the public voice into the debate. The campaign would then culminate in a more traditional report that we could take to our customers to stimulate buyer conversations that would align with our service offering.

What this meant was that we had to really understand our purpose and objectives for the campaign – who we wanted to engage with, where they were having the relevant conversations and, most importantly, what would inspire them to get involved in the story we wanted to create, enabling a campaign that would make a bigger impact and provide benefits long after the campaign ended.

From the outset, the foundation and focus of the campaign became about engaging on a very personal and emotional level, reminding people about what we cherish in the NHS and celebrating the eight decades of its achievements before getting into the very difficult discussions about what needed to be done differently.

Serendipitously, I had recently seen the IBM centennial film whose concept was around connecting the IBM technology over 100 years to the people who made it happen and the impact it had in the wider world. This IBM film inspired the short creative film that became the foundation for our campaign – the stories of ordinary people and their experiences with the NHS over the eight decades of its existence. The primary aim of the film was to drive people through social media channels to our website, where they could share their thoughts, ideas and experiences, and contribute to the developing story.

We continued to do our traditional marketing activity as well. The big difference was that we integrated everything under the campaign banner. For example, we still sponsored some conferences, but we made much more strategic choices about these events and were more creative around how we engaged with conference delegates – holding fringe events, roundtables and workshops around the emerging themes.

The campaign was wildly successful, far exceeding every expectation as well as metric we had for it. By engaging upfront with a broad range of stakeholders and the general public on an issue that really mattered to them, the campaign enabled a different kind of conversation to develop that would not have been possible with a more traditional approach. Furthermore, at a time when B2B organisations were struggling to get to grips with new technology and new tactics, the campaign embraced social media as a primary channel for communication and engagement. By doing so, the campaign proved that social media can increase the impact of marketing campaigns within a B2B environment.

I personally learned five powerful lessons:

Lesson 1: Make it human
I continue to give presentations in both public and private forums to B2B marketers about what made this campaign an award-winning one. Without fail, in the Q&A following the presentation, someone always remarks that it was easy for me because the NHS and healthcare are highly emotional topics that everyone can relate to and their own particular markets are just not that emotional.

I come down hard on this perspective – it’s lazy thinking and lazy marketing. Our job as marketers is to find that emotional connection with our customers, and then to create content and deliver campaigns that resonate and connect on that very personal, human level.

Think about it: how is it possible to make an emotional connection to a phone or a fizzy drink? The B2C marketing world has discovered how to tap into the human element of what they do. But it takes work and it takes knowing our customers on a much deeper level than as solely buyers of our products or services.

For the NHS campaign, there were many emotions which I could have capitalised on, but we found that the emotion that really connected with people was pride, and this emotion became the starting point for everything we did. The first time we showed the film, to an audience of over 100 senior people across the healthcare industry, when it ended, they cheered. It almost made me cry. A nursing association and an ambulance service asked for copies of the film to show within their own organisations at away days and the like. This is the kind of outcome that simply can’t be measured or upon which we can put a price.

We are humans, engaging with humans. Let’s make our marketing human as well.

Lesson 2: We must become social businesses
A social business is most commonly described as one that’s been created and designed to address a social need, such as homelessness or poverty. But in the context of B2B marketing I use this term to describe a business that’s completed the journey from an inside-out perspective to one that’s outside-in, where the company culture and organisational behaviour begin and end with the customer.

If we are to truly embrace the customer in B2B, we must become social businesses, because the world is a fundamentally social place. I’m not just talking about social media here. Ever since we lived in caves, we’ve come together in social groups to live our lives, to collaborate and to share. As humans, we are social beings.

Social media has given us some extraordinary new ways to connect and interact with others. What started out as an important social tool has become an important business tool as well. But embedding social within our wider B2B businesses has been problematic. Granted, a lot more of our people have been getting involved with social media. But the majority still remain sceptical and even fearful of using it. It’s no wonder really; much of B2B is highly risk averse, and social media feels risky.

So, we do social media training and create guidelines. We conduct social media ‘boot camps’ throughout our organisations, and many of us also have social media mentoring programmes. All with the objective of getting our people ‘on’ social media so they can become ‘advocates’ of our brands and help ‘push out’ our content.

But this is marketing’s objective for social within our B2B organisations. It’s the wrong perspective and it’s why we’re struggling. Embedding social into our businesses is about more than getting our people to use social media and it’s not about creating employee advocates. It’s about fundamentally changing our perspective, from thinking about what’s important to us – as marketers – to what’s important to our people, and most importantly, why it matters.

This is now the way in which our business world works, and we need to do a much better job helping our people at all levels in the organisation understand the purpose of social, the ‘Why’ for doing it. This simply cannot be done with slide deck presentations and mentoring by young people who admittedly totally ‘get’ social but don’t always know how to ask the larger questions:
• Why should our people push out our content anyway?
• What’s in it for them?
• How does it help them do their jobs better?
• Or become more employable over time?
• How do we better align the personal and professional (because that line has become extremely blurred in social)?
• What do they want to achieve with social media?
• What’s the bigger picture here, for them?

It’s not enough to just ‘do’ social. Simply being an employee advocate of our brands is not enough of a reason to get our people to embrace social. There must be a purpose to it, otherwise it’s just more stuff continually being shoved out into a way overcrowded world.

In the context of my NHS campaign, this is where I first learned the power of social media itself for B2B marketing. Because when I was developing the social media elements of the campaign, I was continuously told that our customers didn’t use social media. Well, they did, and we proved it. But we could have done even better.

Compared to the number of people throughout the company, we really had just a handful of people who were proactive with social media for the campaign. We could have done so much more on other platforms as well – for example on LinkedIn, on Instagram or with blogging. Even though the campaign achieved beyond our wildest expectations, how much more could we have achieved if significantly more people at all levels throughout the business had actively participated in the social elements of the campaign?

One of the many highlights of the campaign was when one of our most important customers tweeted a photo of our publication sitting right next to the top industry journal with the caption ‘A must-read!’ The inference, of course, was that our publication was as important as the journal that was read by every senior person in the industry.

Getting the companies we work for to embrace the use of social media remains a big challenge in B2B – here are five tips:
1 Develop individual clarity: for each person, what do they want to achieve with their social media activity? What is their purpose? Do they want to use social media as a way of networking within their industry, connect with potential customers, participate in debate on issues, share industry or other news, or become a thought leader or influencer?
2 Work with individuals: choose which platforms they will use based on their purpose; write their profile; find the right people to follow and the hash tags that are most relevant for them. Have them take two weeks to just ‘listen’, to understand what their customers are talking about on social platforms. Ask them to re-tweet and Favourite a lot.
3 Create small teams of five: each person to take ownership of a ‘Twitter Day’ of the week and the other four can simply re-tweet that person.
4 Create weekly ‘Tweet Sheets’: the marketing team can develop these and they are particularly useful for individuals who are just starting.
5 The 20/20/20 rule: 20 minutes in the morning, at lunchtime and at the end of the day is enough time to begin to build a solid social presence – commit to a schedule and stick to it.

Social media is more than marketing’s job within the organisation, it’s everyone’s job. Until we can extend our social media engagement activity beyond the marketing function into our businesses and throughout our organisations, we are not going to be able to realise the full potential that social can bring to our wider B2B marketing activity.

Lesson 3: Captivate the wider business upfront
Critical to the success of the campaign was the work we did getting the wider business invested in the campaign from the start. But I have to admit this happened almost by accident.

Because I had a really tiny budget, with the exception of the film, we had to completely develop and implement the campaign in-house, and this meant gaining wide commitment from the business to harness the time, talent and energy of our people outside the marketing function to deliver many elements of the campaign.

We created a campaign project team which included people of all levels within the business. In addition to owning and contributing to elements of the campaign, this team became the campaign ‘champions’ throughout the business, gaining high levels of internal engagement, excitement and involvement in the marketing activity. We actually had people of all levels throughout the business itself coming to the marketing team asking to work on the campaign!

The campaign ultimately became a real collaboration between marketing, sales and other functions across the business, with little or no delineation between what marketing did and what the business did, and became an extraordinary experience for everyone involved.

Lesson 4: Take some risks
We took a lot of risks with the campaign because we did many things that had never been done within the organisation. Chief among these risks was that this single campaign was the only marketing activity we did for the whole year for this part of the business. We poured the entire sector budget into this campaign, which meant we had to stop doing a lot of other marketing activity we typically did for the business over the course of the year.

Instead of starting with publishing a thought leadership report from our own point of view, and only then developing a marketing campaign around that report, we engaged upfront with stakeholders to debate the issues and articulate a shared vision. We eventually published a report, but we did so a full eight months after we began the campaign.

The film was a pivotal element of the campaign as it set the tone for what followed. Instead of creating a talking-heads video of our subject-matter experts speaking to camera, we developed a creative, emotionally driven film that tapped into the very real emotions of ordinary people. We even used some of our staff in the film.

We launched the campaign with only two pieces of content: the film and a single webpage with minimal copy, and then developed much of the campaign and its content in real time, by being responsive to the conversations across social media, online and in the market.

What was riskiest, though, was that we were asking people to get involved. Because even though we had a clear line of sight internally into what we wanted to sell into the market, the campaign wasn’t about us or what our organisation did, it was about a big issue with far-reaching impact. It could have been a disaster, no one might have responded and it all might have been just one more piece of noise out in the market. Understanding the risks and being open about them was our way of mitigating those risks.

Lesson 5: What comes next?
We became so caught up in delivering the campaign, so much of it in real time, over such an extensive period of time, that we didn’t give any thought to what we were going to do next. As a result, we lost momentum, both in the market and within our organisation. We simply forgot that one of the essential ingredients of a great story is having a great ending that keeps our customers wanting more.

This isn’t really surprising. Most B2B companies struggle with articulating any story beyond what they sell. As marketers, we become so consumed with what we do at a functional level in the moment that we simply don’t think long term.

The biggest lesson I learned that keeps on informing all of my B2B marketing activity is that we need to work harder and get better at developing interlinking, ongoing stories and programmes that align with both our business and our purpose. These stories then become the thread that joins up all our sales and marketing activity, and gives us a much a clearer and more compelling voice in the market.

This edited extract from B2B Marketing Strategy by Heidi Taylor is ©2018 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

Heidi Taylor is an award-winning marketing strategist and author of B2B Marketing Strategy.