Buz Ross is deeply aware of the truism that just because a company is in a communications business, it won’t necessarily be good at communicating about itself.
“Those in our sector can be like the stereotypical builder, the one with the unfinished extension at home the windows that need replacing,” laughs the managing director of event production, video production, and integrated audio-visual systems installer Whitwam Group.
He believes this issue stems partly from the fact that good client retention has enabled them to function quite nicely on an existing flow of work.
But one of his tasks when he became managing director last year was to start communicating the business better to attract new clients. He hired assistance to handle marketing communications and launched a new website landing page that features a short video for each of the company’s three divisions. “This is the first time we have said this is who we are and this is what we do,” says Ross.
This is part of a new strategy of ‘inbound’ marketing – in other words, the idea that you attract people to visit you through useful and engaging content, rather than by approaching them with a hard sell.
“Someone once said to me if you want to get to someone, write them a letter,” says Ross. “I would certainly be hard pushed to imagine that an email gets anyone a foot in the door. The challenge is to find ways of getting the potential customer to get in touch with us.”
One of Ross’s ideas is to offer services which are supplementary to a prospect’s existing supplier, services which the incumbent isn’t providing, rather than put Whitwam forward as a replacement. “When we have knocked on doors in the past, potential customers have often said they’re not looking for a new supplier. That gave us an idea for the conversation we should be having with them,” Ross explains. “Now when someone says that, we say okay, how about bolting this onto what you have already. That’s a door opener.”
A particular issue for businesses – including Whitwam – in communicating their message is the sheer quantity of information now out there, says Ross.
“You get snow-blind from all these companies pushing their ideas, and you ignore most of them. How long until we are all competing for people’s attention so much so that there won’t be enough space in the communications network to handle everyone’s promotional content and there will be the need for another kind of platform?”
Referring to the introduction of stricter data protection rules for business-to-business promotions, Ross says they are starting to use new inbound marketing software to potentially replace the popular HubSpot.
“There will come a point where everyone will be dumping tons of content into HubSpot, into the same pool, so we like to keep our eyes on exciting new alternatives.”
Extraordinarily, Whitwam began in 1909 as a family-owned high street retailer of pianos, sheet music and records. Today the three elements of the business - event production, audio visual installations, and video production - are separate divisions which enable them to concentrate on their own specific markets. Ross says that previously the business was “like a Chinese restaurant where the chef made really good pizzas.” In other words, for some customers, Whitwam was an event production company that just happened to offer video production services. The new structure means that the latter, which trades as Videofrog, could promote itself directly as a video specialist to customers who aren’t necessarily involved in events. A developing fourth division will involve engagement with event delegates in order to harvest their opinions, with the findings then being used as an inbound marketing tool.
The rapid development in online and imaging technology has enabled high-quality video to become an affordable and effective part of a company’s communications mix, says Ross.
“Our homes are altars to entertainment. How many children sit in the lounge and watch television? None; they all watch online.
Companies that get the digital proposition right have got the future generations on their side.”
The baseline use of video was traditionally corporate videos for websites and for promotional pieces to show in shops or at trade fairs. Now it is more for inbound marketing, such as interviews shot on location and documentary-style news stories.
“Video is a way of delivering rich-quality content that is a marketing influencer,” says Ross.
But it’s only been in the past few years that the quality of internet-based video has got to a suitable standard. “It’s like the electric car industry; the first vehicles were awful, but look at Tesla now,” says Ross. “Clients’ needs are not best represented by fuzzy-cam. You would not want to print a brochure on terrible paper with poor ink; nor would you want to communicate an important message through poor-quality video.”
With video still a relatively new medium for many businesses, there’s still a piece about education to be factored in. “Most new clients will ask for five-minute videos,” says Ross, “although analytics show us that many people won’t watch that length of video to the end. We challenge customers - what are you saying in five minutes that isn’t just repeating what you could have said in one minute?”
Animation and infographics can be useful tools for video producers, particularly to help viewers absorb complex concepts, he says, which is why he thinks video is particularly good for instructional purposes.
“If a customer has a problem with their dishwasher or motorbike, they can go straight to YouTube to find out how to fix it.
“A book instructs; a video shows you how it should move and feel.”
So the impact of video can be substantial, says Ross. “Footage from an event can reach huge numbers of people for an efficient cost. We filmed for the Bank of England for the launch of a new bank note and put the video on their website, their YouTube channel, and gave feeds to broadcasters. The story went global, including coverage on an Australian news network. It would have been impossible to have achieved that previously.”
Similarly, he goes on, by sending video of events like a factory opening to the local press, a company can get coverage they would not be able to achieve if they simply relied on inviting journalists to attend the event.
Looking ahead, Ross predicts that a subscription model will become increasingly used as a way to fund video. “Something being discussed at the moment is do you give video away for free and live off the clicks and adverts, or charge for it.
There’s an increasing acceptance of the subscription model for software, and I think we’ll see people subscribing to watch videos about their specific interest. It will offer a different channel of communication.”
Ross has been with Whitwam for the best part of eighteen years, since joining as an event technician when the business had just sold its retail operation.
Since then, he has been “the lighting guy, the truck driver, the sound guy, everything,” and that hands-on experience can enable a relatively small business to compete in a large market, he observes.
Technology is having a big impact on what businesses the size of a Whitwam can offer. Ross refers to the way apps have transformed events such as conferences and exhibitions.
“If an event is done well, guests will get exciting and interesting information about what’s coming up. That encourages engagement and manages people’s expectations.
Then at the event, the organisers will know who has signed in and can communicate any changes to the schedule.
Delegates can key in questions for the speakers at workshops; then after the event the organisers can send out material from the workshop and answer any questions there wasn’t time to address on the day.”
Ross believes that businesses need both a good-quality digital message and informed sales people to keep potential customers interested.
“A company’s sales team can’t get away with one-dimensional, scripted nonsense any more, because digital communication means the potential customer is much more knowledgeable.”