Monday, January 28, 2013

Content marketing can't close the sale

It takes a person to do that.

I read an article last week that promoted the use of content marketing in automobile sales. It started by detailing the way the Internet has changed the relationship between salesperson and customer. Salespeople used to have exclusive access to product and industry knowledge.  With it came credibility. They were the experts. Now that consumers can use online resources to know just as much as the salesperson, the power balance in the relationship has shifted.

So, how does the salesperson re-gain control? The article suggested that the solution was for salespeople to use various content marketing techniques. A post on the Dealer Communications site makes the point that product information is ubiquitous online and that consumers are actually looking for perspectives to help them parse all the data. That in turn provides opportunities for salespeople to provide consumers with unique insights using blogs, videos and other online content.

As I was reading this, I kept thinking about a famous quote from the hugely successful insurance salesman Ben Feldman. “Sales is 98% people knowledge and 2% product knowledge.” I began my working life as a headhunter, which is the most challenging sales environment you can imagine. My experience then and throughout my career has proven the wisdom of Feldman's words.

It seems to me that content marketing addresses the product knowledge portion of the quote. But that’s only 2% of the sale. What about the other 98%? Sooner or later, the sale must be consummated in a personal meeting. What happens then?

The same Dealer Communications post makes the following assertion. “When customers consume your self-published content prior to sale they have a stronger connection with you.” Really?? This assumes that sales connections are built on the knowledge or perspectives of the salesperson as opposed to the salesperson’s knowledge of the customer.

In his Sales Lion blog, Marcus Sheridan talks about using content marketing to boost the sales of a company that installs inground pools. The company changed its sales approach from a traditional model to one where a request for a quote is met with an invitation to review the company’s vast online resources (blogs, videos, e-books). I found the next two steps in their sales process astounding:

Once a potential customer educates themselves through our content, they tell us the pool and options they want, at which point we send them via email an actual quote.

If the customer reviews the quote and agrees to its terms, we then go out to their home to confirm there are no hidden costs and write up the contract.

It would appear that we’ve gone one step further and virtually eliminated the salesperson. The first personal contact with the company is to confirm the details of the order. According to the average cost of an inground pool is $20-30,000. I’m not sure about you, but there’s no way I would make a $20,000 buying decision without seeing someone. And even if I was prepared to do the preliminary work online, my interaction with the company rep would have huge impact on my decision. Content marketing may deliver the salesperson to my doorstep but it’s her sales ability that’s going to close the deal.

Even companies like Zappos that do all their business online have staked their success on the quality of the personal interaction with the customer. Tony Hsieh’s mantra of Delivering Happiness cannot be rendered by content alone and the training and selection of their customer service reps is now legendary.

In talking about great salespeople, Enterprise Rent-A-Car CEO Andy Taylor  says, “the people who are the most successful are the ones who listen most closely to the customer.” Continuing, he adds, “We follow the two ears, one mouth rule here.” Sales success is built on asking tons of questions and listening carefully to the answers. Moreover, sales is always a transfer of emotion. The only way to close a sale is to deliver what the customer has told you she wants in an way that makes her feel good about her decision. Content marketing can’t do that.

There’s no question that content marketing is valuable to the sales cycle. It can definitely generate leads and it can even help to qualify prospects. But capitalizing on that value and making the sale is going to take that 98% of people knowledge. The bottom line is that to improve sales results your human resources are still more important than online resources.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Major gifts fundraising isn’t normal

Those who have been involved in major gifts solicitations and have spent years trying to get inside the head and heart of a single donor in the hopes of securing that elusive impact gift will agree with the headline. Likewise, major givers who have endured countless presentations for projects in which they have no interest and asking for amounts that are patently absurd, may also agree. But that’s not the “not normal” I’m referring to.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to Major Gifts lately. No, my Powerball number hasn’t come up but I am co-authoring a book based on interviews with many of Canada’s top philanthropists. I’ve been considering how I can use what I’ve learned to help fundraising organizations. The yardstick I often use in approaching challenges in nonprofit organizations is what’s the equivalent for-profit situation and what would the ideal business response be.

I was trying to think of a business that offers products or services that range in price from $10 to $10 million. I couldn’t come up with one. And yet, that’s exactly what a hospital or college foundation is doing. They are selling opportunities that range from two digits to those that often exceed seven digits. Even if your organization’s definition of major giving is 5 digits, that’s still an incredible spread. I suspect that if you proposed a business venture with those parameters to your local bank, you’d be given a lecture about how a $10 sale requires a very different approach than one that is worth tens of thousands or millions.

And yet fundraising organizations have no choice but to do that which would be scoffed upon in the business world – and that’s why I say that major gifts fundraising isn’t normal. So, what’s a fundraising organization to do?

Be honest about the challenge. The for-profit world understands that a large ticket item requires a very different sales approach and so should you. Major gifts fundraising is, in may ways, its own discipline. It requires distinct knowledge and dedicated resources. If you’re going to be successful at it, you have to make the investment in time and people.

Resist the temptation. News of a philanthropist’s record-setting gift to a local organization is like the lure of a lottery ticket. “If she can give that organization $1 million, then maybe she will give mine $100,000.” You likely know nothing about that donor’s interests and have no relationship with her, but that doesn’t stop many organizations from thinking that they are going to secure that donor’s support. The reality is it's not going to happen. So, save yourself the time and the heartache and mine your current donor base. Maybe, the rule of tens (for every ten donors at one level, there is one donor who has the ability to add a zero to their gift) will work for you.

Be true to your organization. I mean this in two ways. First, define a major gift according to your needs and resources. For some, that will be a four digit amount and that’s OK – especially if it’s within your reach. Second, concentrate on developing a powerhouse case for giving that is authentic and compelling. In the interviews we conducted with major givers, we found that the the most likely determinant of whether and how much a philanthropist would give is the confidence that their gift would make a difference as well as the passion of the cause and its prime mover. There were also many, many instances in which a philanthropist gave more than asked – because the case for giving was so strong. If you worry about building a strong case and even stronger relationships, you may find that major gifts opportunities are less contrived and more organic.

It’s not for everyone. Let me completely contradict myself (I do it often) and say there may be organizations that are simply not set up for any kind of major gifts programs. Maybe that’s ok – as long as you can build a funding model that works on the volume of smaller gifts.

Normal or not, the challenge of major gifts is extremely demanding. Developing a realistic strategy that makes sense for your organization will help you save your sanity.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Branding to the converted

Preaching to the converted is usually taken as a waste of time. The same could be said of branding. Why bother branding to those that have already bought?

But I had an experience last month that ought to send a shiver down the spine of any independent school advancement professional – or for the keeper of the brand in any organization.

I was speaking with a woman whose oldest child is a grade one student at an independent school to which I consult on marketing and admissions issues. She told me that as a parent she didn’t really know how to articulate what distinguishes this school from others. And in a moment of panic, I thought, “Houston, we have a problem.”

You see, this is a school that mounts aggressive recruitment campaigns with very healthy budgets. And the marketing is effective. It generates hundreds of inquiries and provides a school of over 1500 students with enough new students to offset attrition and maintain stable enrolment.

The problem seems to be that four years after they signed on, parents clearly can’t remember why they chose the school and what makes it different. The reality is that current parents don’t see all the fancy advertising. The expensive viewbook they were once given is gathering dust somewhere – assuming it was spared from the recycling bin. They don’t look at the admissions section of the website.

And yet current parents are any school’s greatest salespeople. If they can’t articulate the brand, the return on marketing investment isn’t going to be very exciting. So, what to do?
Here are some suggestions for what is not an uncommon challenge.

1. Live the brand. A brand is way more than a logo and a tagline. If the brand is that which truly distinguishes a school, then it is defined by the sum of all experience with the school. Every interaction has an impact on that brand. Based on that, the goal is to have everything that happens at the school – educationally, programmatically, even administratively, reflect the brand. It’s possible that although the parent in my story felt that she couldn’t distinguish what was different about the school, her description of her family’s experience at the school may in fact reveal unique qualities. If she’s living the brand, she becomes an effective ambassador.

2. Communicate the brand. Current parents should be just as much a target of communication efforts as are prospective parents. Knowing what’s going on in their kid’s grade one class isn’t enough. They have to know about the notable events and successes throughout the school. More importantly that communication should also reflect the brand. Whether you’re using e-newsletters, social media, websites or old-fashioned print, what you say and how you say it has to convey the values, priorities and essential characteristics of the school.

3. Measure the brand. Let’s start this one with the basics. You absolutely need to be surveying your parents regularly. Are they satisfied? What areas need improvement? How do they assess the quality of core curriculum components and key aspects of student life? Assuming that those elements are reflective of the brand, those questions are already measuring your success at conveying the intended brand. You can go further. Ask parents about the extent to which they identify with the principles that are at the core of your brand.

An interesting question then arises. What happens if parents don’t identify with those principles? Well, you have two choices. One is to redouble your efforts to live and communicate the brand. The second choice is more intriguing. Even though the brand being articulated by your parents is different than what you intended, it’s possible that brand is more authentic and equally attractive. Maybe you need to rethink the brand.

Any way you slice it, branding and marketing efforts must be inbound as much as they are outbound. That way, current parents become powerful brand advocates for their school – and you reserve your spine chilling moments for horror movies.