Named one of the top marketers by B2B Magazine in 2009, 2010 and 2011, Mark Wilson has made content marketing a cornerstone of how he connects with a sophisticated audience and business decision-makers. In recent years, Wilson has realized success by flipping the focus of his content marketing program from reaching the masses to more intimate conversations with small audiences — something he calls narrowcasting.
CCO spoke with Wilson about why narrowcasting works in the noisy environment, what it takes to create a successful content marketing program for the complex B2B sales cycle, and why quality matters.
CCO: Tell me about narrowcasting and how it relates to content marketing.
MW: Narrowcasting is about narrowly defining an audience and engaging them in a discussion with which they can emotionally and emotively connect. For complex B2B sales, you want to target decision-makers and their influencers, and create a self-referring community.
With narrowcasting, my rule of thumb is to narrow the audience to about 10,000 people who look similar. Ten thousand is a nice round number, and it’s cost efficient. You can physically and digitally communicate with them. You can target with them on platforms and still have the beginnings of an intimate conversation through social media, over the phone, or through an online community — as long as they’re passionate about the topic you’re talking to them about.
Before I came to Avaya, I did a lot of work in software, and one of the sectors we targeted was the financial industry. We began to slice this group by type of financial institution, size, role within the organization and location. When it came to location, a light bulb went off, and we realized we could target in cool ways. There are three geographic centers globally for the financial industry — New York, London and Tokyo. We focused on New York.
Our approach was to blanket this group from the time they rolled out of bed until the end of the day. We had articles in the magazines and papers they read while they drank their morning coffee. As they commuted to work, we had ads at the station and on the specific platforms that had trains to the financial district. We had ads inside the train cars and on the urban panels in the subway when they left the station.
We knew what buildings they worked in, and we had ads on the electronic panels in the elevator banks and in the publications inside their offices. We also integrated this with online and digital content, search, newsletters targeted specifically for this group, annual guides, and eBooks that focused on thought leadership.
We essentially did a full-court press for three years, and the results were phenomenal. We started this around a product launch, and it became the fastest growing and biggest market segment in the company’s portfolio. This product launch was the most successful in the company’s history.
We knew we really “made it” when we started to get a second round of pickup. Our ads appeared in the background of other people’s ads. There was an ad for the TV series Weeds. It shows a woman walking down the street in New York City, and in the background was one of our ads.
What made you head down this road?
In the 1990s, there was a lot of talk about database marketing and one-to-one marketing. There was a promise made at the time that we, as marketing professionals, didn’t deliver on. As automation and digital platforms improved, we could engage in a fundamentally different way. We could also measure how a broadcasting message didn’t work, and the effectiveness of narrowcasting became clear.
Marketers began making the shift once they looked at the quality of leads they were getting from “spray-and-pray” broadcast-type programs. Initially, things looked good. But when they followed leads into the sales funnel, what looked good at first glance didn’t produce results.
In the classic marketing funnel, we’ve gotten better at the top with narrowcasting. And at each level down, we keep getting better and better at making investments and getting better returns. In the end, narrowcasting helps marketers get rid of content spillage. Money that used to be spent reaching a broad audience is now better spent communicating more frequently with a narrow target audience. You have the opportunity to really engage with the right group of people.
How does this affect content strategy?
It boils down to segment, segment, segment. You have to think about your audience, and narrowly define and understand them. Sometimes marketers don’t invest enough time getting to know their audience and they should. You have to understand them more to target them well.
At Avaya, for example, one of groups we target is contact center businesses. We know who these customers are, down to their job titles. To build our audience, we get lists of people with these titles using LinkedIn or Dunn & Bradstreet. Once we know our audience, we know what drives them. Then it’s time to research and create a thoughtful, provocative point of view that they’ll understand and that sounds credible coming from us.
I think marketers skimp on segmenting because there’s a focus on generating activity; you don’t get credit for something that’s well thought out. There’s a perverse incentive to reward people for activity rather than the right answer. If you show a good segmentation strategy, it gets underappreciated for what that means for a marketing strategy. It’s hard to segment a market well.
What’s another B2B brand that does narrowcasting well?
IBM and Symantec. Symantec is good about having a steady communication around webcasts, forums, and communities to engage, and other assets they’ve created. They are like a machine, creating high-quality content and proactively engaging with an audience that self-selects to receive it.
IBM creates high-quality assets, too. The IBM Global CEO Study was excellent. It’s primary research and not marketing-speak. It’s a unique point of view with data that backs up a well-made argument.
What do you say to the marketer who thinks technology and data can overcome hurdles you think can be answered with narrowcasting?
Technology and data can help in building and executing a program. That said, the most important step does not involve technology or data. It’s about understanding a unique market segment that is self-referencing. The second most important step is having something compelling to say to this segment. Once you have these first two steps solidified, then technology and data can help.
We use Compile because it monitors the discussions in the audiences we care about (e.g., what people like, what don’t they like). It allows us to be smarter with our editorial calendar, the types of media we use and for what channels.
Marketing technologies are great, and have been around long enough to have a tested, standardized way of using them. For content marketing, I like more flexible tools that drive informed creativity, because when it comes to content, you want a message that’s interesting.