The “massive shift” in the way that businesses talk to their customers over the past fifteen years has led to the creation of a lot of “noise.” And that makes it hard to focus on what’s important, observes Sam Strover, managing director of independent internet service provider Vostron.
“I get very frustrated by it,” he says. “The first twenty minutes of my day is dedicated to filtering out stuff, but you can’t have the filter set too high or you will miss out on important things. It is a constant battle.”
The ability of businesses to quickly send out large quantities of promotional material has led to “an awful lot of half-truths and confusion tactics”, says Strover.
“In the past, when we all stuck to billboard or TV advertising, the message could be effectively managed by the Advertising Standards Authority but it really can’t be any more.”
He argues that much of the “confusion and white noise” from the B2C space is now filtering through to B2B.
He’s referring particularly to the advertising of broadband, where providers are trying to create differentiation in a product that’s fundamentally very similar.
“One organisation comes up with a buzzword and then everyone jumps on it, when in fact it was not accurate in the first place,” says Strover. “The ante gets upped.
The issue is that as we move to a more content-driven approach to marketing, we are doing so at the same time that the general level of suspicion is growing among the end user that the information might not be correct.”
The challenge, he says, is achieving the marketing dream of a compelling narrative that wins over the customer, with enough technical detail to inform and engage but not so much that they are confused.
Which is why, as a technical business - Vostron provide internet connectivity, hosted IP telephony, co-location for the cloud, managed networks, and hardware - this is a particular issue.
“We can’t talk too technically, but then if we don’t talk technically at all, we are at risk of talking to our customers in the same way that B2C space talks to them,” says Strover. “It is finding that happy medium: talking in a way which the customer can relate to and understand.”
‘Content’ has an important role to play as an educational tool in this context, he says, but given variations in the level of understanding of the technology, the challenge of where to pitch articles is one of the biggest issues. “I am quite precious about content,” says Strover.
“I can’t stand going to a website that requires me to spend five minutes reading 300-word articles that I learn absolutely nothing from.
You’re asking someone for their time and if you give them nothing of particular use back, it’s a slightly pointless exercise. However, if you get too technical you have lost them before you have even started, and people’s amount of knowledge differs.”
With that in mind, Vostron’s approach is to have website content appropriate to different types or ‘personas’ of visitors. An IT manager, for example, won’t want to read the same material as a finance manager, Strover suggests. This can be achieved if a company knows the pages that different kinds of people are likely to land on, based on the search terms they are likely to use to get there.
Or, as Strover puts it: “We can’t just expect people to arrive at the homepage and logically work through the website.
It’s better they land on the page that meets their search criteria; for example an IT manager might come in at a level four page. Then the user is prepared to navigate from there.”
Once some kind of engagement has occurred (for example, a visitor asks for a call back or uses a broadband speed checker), the idea is to offer a human interface rather than another automated process.
“If you veer away from that during the critical first contact it is a negative and your company can become annoying and painful to engage with,” Strover maintains. For example, Vostron have adapted the live chat option so it’s less intrusive. “I felt strongly that we should not be having live chat boxes that just pop up,” qualifies Strover. “That makes me feel anxious so how does it make the customer feel? Instead, it discreetly sits in the sidebar and is accessible when needed.”
When people ask for a call, the system is integrated in such a way that they should get one within a few seconds. Then the information is captured and put into the customer relationship management system – though it’s not used for direct marketing.
Strover makes the point that website visitors should feel they have had a positive experience from a “relatively inexpensive value-to-value exchange.”
He goes on: “They’re not providing anything of particular value such as their name; we’re not asking for their inside leg measurement. If someone asks for a speed check we will also give them other information such as whether they have opened ports on their network; we give them a bit more than they were expecting, and at the end there is an option to reference our services against those they have already got. This is what you have, this is what you could get if you upgrade.” He suggests that traditionally, B2B marketers have not been as sophisticated in their approach as those in B2C.
Furthermore, he adds, business customers can be reluctant to post negative feedback on behalf of their company on review websites, so a supplier might not even be aware that they are alienating their customers.
“Given all this,” says Strover, “we are increasingly interested in behavioural driven campaigns, and not just social media. There are so many other mediums you can look at. If we crack it, I think everything will become easier.”
Most of Vostron’s communication is done digitally, but some printed marketing material is available in the form of ‘how to’ guides. “We know people like to have folders of stuff they can refer to, so we do offer small pieces of printed material that add some tangible benefit,” says Strover.
But there can be too much “content flying,” which is why he welcomes GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), a new EU data protection regulation that comes into force in May 2018.
It requires businesses to get active consent from the ‘data subject’ to receive promotional material, instead of relying on their passive acceptance via pre-ticked boxes or opt-outs. “There’s what you can get away with and then there is what you feel comfortable getting away with,” says Strover. “We built this business based on relationships and I really don’t see the point in setting out on a new relationship having already done something that upsets the customer.”
Strover would like regulation to go even further than GDPR. “What would make the biggest difference is having a global regulatory body for policing online communications, with some kind of local enforcement body. The Advertising Standards Authority jurisdiction does cover email and social marketing but they were created to monitor print and TV and their channels of complaint are very much geared to that. If their remit was expanded, they simply won’t have the systems and resources to cope. We need to rethink how regulatory agencies work, as print and TV become a diminishing part of the audience.”
Vostron are increasingly interested in video as a communications tool.
“It requires a new set of cost and skills but it is a surprisingly valuable part of the marketing mix now,” muses Strover. “That’s something I didn’t foresee a few years ago. A referral on some piece of static text saying ‘Vostron’s great’ is far less believable than a video of the same person saying it. And Google likes it, so it’s doubly valuable.”
One challenge is to make a video that results in the viewer feeling they have learned something, that it was worth the time they spent watching it.
Another is how to get a technical message across to the video production company. “You can’t just go to a video production agency and say ‘here is the customer, here is the marketing manager, go and make a video’,” says Strover. “They can convey the story but someone has to explain to him what the story is in the first place. Then how much of the technology needs to be put in? There is a danger that a video can become a bit vacuous.
And it takes resources out of the business to make these things.” Strover is anxious that the standard of a corporate video should be consistent with a company’s overall marketing image, which in turn reflects the sort of customers the company is aiming for. “We are very stringent,” he says. “We prefer to attract customers who want us to provide the whole package for them because that’s the way the technology will work best.”