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Selling strategies for the digital age

Selling strategies for the digital age

By Teresa Meek

Most companies know that the Internet has changed the way they interact with customers. But many don’t understand the impact of the change or realize that it calls for a whole new strategy.

“The power has shifted,” explains Shama Hyder, CEO of the Marketing Zen Group and author of “The Zen of Social Media Marketing.” “Now that information is available to everyone, you’re competing on a different level.

A lot of the old-school tactics were ‘push and interrupt.’ It needs to look very different today. It’s about creating a position for yourself as a thought leader in the marketplace.”

The ineffectiveness of old tactics is evident everywhere. A recent survey cited in Harvard Business Review found that, for B2B sales:

  • Connecting with a prospect typically takes at least 18 phone calls – and callback rates are below 1 percent.
  • More than three-fourths of buyers make their way to companies through recommendations, often found online.
  • Peer recommendations now influence more than 90 percent of buying decisions.

In addition, 72 percent of B2B buyers use social media to research solutions before purchasing, according to a recent LinkedIn survey (PDF).

“It’s about them discovering you, not you discovering them,” says Jasmine Sandler, a digital sales and marketing trainer. To reach today’s customers, you need to create a targeted but cohesive sales and marketing strategy based on who customers are, what they want and where they get information.

Here’s a roadmap of tactics to help guide your digital sales strategy.

Meet your audience on their turf.

In the days of mass media, you didn’t need to make decisions about where to reach customers.

“Eighty percent of people would watch a certain TV show at 8 p.m.,” Hyder says. “Your customers would attend a single trade show once a year and get their information there. Now, to reach those same audiences, you must have a targeted, segmented approach.”

It’s no longer enough to create buyer personas — you need to find out where your target customers get their information. Some audiences prefer Facebook, while others read print. Some browse blogs on a PC and others spend all their time on mobile apps or YouTube. You may have different customer segments across all channels, with each one requiring a different mode of communication.

Create an integrated marketing strategy.

Once you’ve determined the preferences and whereabouts of your audience, you need to create a comprehensive sales and marketing strategy that encompasses online, print and face-to-face communication.

That’s where a lot of companies fall short, Hyder says. Most have an online presence, with a website, social media pages and sometimes a blog. But many businesses don’t refresh their digital content over time. Digital content may also be disjointed, hard to find or poorly integrated with other types of customer communication.

“You need to think about the customer journey and how customers make buying decisions,” Hyder says.

An effective integrated marketing strategy has two parts:

  1. Develop content to answer your customers’ questions. What questions are your customers asking most often? What problems do they need help solving? Creating digital content that addresses these customer pain points will help you rank better in search engines, enabling customers to find you.
  2. Amplify your content in other channels. Your digital content should ultimately encompass a variety of forms, such as blogs, trade journal articles and events. In addition:
  • Videos can be inserted in emails, where they are great attention-getters.
  • Infographics provide information in an immediate, visual format.
  • Webinars show off your expertise.
  • White papers allow you to capture information for sales leads.
  • Comments on articles or blog posts written by influencers can put you in front of the kind of customers you’re seeking at zero cost.

Your sales and marketing teams must work together to create a streamlined, consistent message.

Examine your current marketing efforts to see what types of content are successful for you, Sandler says. If you do email marketing, for example, what topics have driven the best results? What is their style and length? What types of feedback have you received? Most email marketing software, including MailChimp and Constant Contact, will show you who opens your emails and how many times they are shared.

Customer surveys, website analytics and competitive research should inform your content, as well.

Become a thought leader.

Developing myriad forms of content may sound time-consuming, but it’s also cost-effective. Companies can save money by sharing knowledge with customers remotely instead of traveling to meet them, a McKinsey report found.

There are other benefits, too. Sharing your message across many different channels spreads awareness of your brand quickly. Establishing an online dialog with customers can also lead to improvements in products and services that will ultimately boost sales.

“It’s all about being a thought leader,” Hyder says. “It’s a consistent effort over time.”

A company blog is one best ways to share information with your customers. Consider your blog to be “the cornerstone for content,” Sandler says.

Information you share as a thought leader should not be sales-y, but down-to-earth, interesting and relevant to the audience. It may not even mention your brand. The goal is to build trust with your customers and prospects.

“It’s about humanizing what you do and making it interesting,” Sandler says.

Need ideas for blog topics?

  • Make a list of questions your customers ask – each one can be turned into a blog post.
  • Share news that affects your field, such as regulatory updates, new technologies or innovation.
  • Discuss industry trends and how could they impact your customers.
  • Highlight best practices.
  • Offer tips to help customers use your product or service.

And when you do talk about your business, don’t only tell people what your company does; explain the why behind your policies or pricing.

“Create a culture of sharing and transparency, using humor if possible,” Hyder says. Southwest Airlines, for example, created a “transfarency” website to explain its airline fees and how to avoid them.

Professional services firms often fall into the trap of creating boring content, like what’s already out there. To drive engagement, “put some personality behind it,” Sandler suggests. Share anecdotes about your customers and explain how you’ve resolved different types of issues for them 

What does an integrated strategy look like?

Used correctly, digital content not only stands on its own, it supports everything a brand does.

For example, Sandler worked with an accounting firm in New York that hosted popular events, but had trouble developing relationships with people who attended them. She helped the company create content to drive buzz about an upcoming event, posting promotions on Twitter and video interviews with practice leaders on YouTube. Then she created a hashtag for the event so that attendees could tweet insights in real time and others could find them. Sandler also obtained an email list of attendees and created a white paper and other content to distribute after the event– keeping her employer top of mind with its target audience. The successful program was later used as a model for other company events.

Disseminating information is no longer just the province of sales and marketing, either. Your employees need to be involved in spreading the word about your brand. Create an internal newsletter to keep colleagues current with new developments and encourage them to link to company blog posts or web pages on social media.

One firm Hyder worked with had a 30 percent increase in website views after engaging employees and asking them to share content. “People are happy to share — it’s just a matter of making it easy for them,” she says.

Though marketing content is usually directed at decision-makers, social media sharing has flattened hierarchies. Today, you never know where a lead will come from. Sandler was once hired to work with a company after an intern noticed one of her posts on a community discussion board. The intern mentioned it to the marketing department, which passed her name to the CEO.

“The decision-making process has changed,” she says. “More people in the organization are influencing the final decision.” 

Measuring success

The digital world offers unprecedented opportunities to measure sales and marketing results. Impressions, views, shares, mentions and comments are all critical parts of B2B selling, which involves a series of touchpoints before a customer buys.

Having a well-integrated digital strategy means taking advantage of all the touchpoints that are relevant to your audience, creating a consistent message across channels, establishing your company as a thought leader, and getting as many employees as possible to engage in social sharing.

It takes time, but if you share insightful, helpful information consistently, the results will show up in your bottom line.