Monday, October 26, 2009

How Managers Help Marketers Increase Their Value

In my last post, I suggested some ways that marketers can increase their value in their respective firms. That caught the attention of marketing guru Suzanne Lowe who responded with a post on her own blog entitled "Can PSF marketers alone make "Marketing" indispensable? No way!" Her main point was that firm managers needed to get on board if marketing is to truly succeed.

No argument from me. But I wasn't trying to address the whole marketing conundrum, simply offering some advice to a group that often feels marginalized. If you've followed this blog, you know that there's been no shortage of recommendations for firm managers regarding how they can improve the marketing and business development function.

This week I return my focus to managers, this time taking up Suzanne's challenge to suggest ways managers can help marketers enhance their impact and influence:

Create an ambitious vision for the marketing function. Marketing (as contrasted with sales) in our business suffers from low expectations. We generally don't try to measure results and usually don't have specific outcomes in mind. Even many marketers don't seem convinced that marketing can produce reliable, tangible results. No wonder managers often look here for cost cutting in tough times.

We can do better. Marketing, well executed, brings customers to your door. It reinforces a distinctive brand. It positions your firm as a formidable player in your target markets. Good marketing is a strategic asset, and that includes the marketing professionals who make it work. Enlarge your vision of marketing and you're more likely to see marketers step up and demonstrate their real value.

Establish clear priorities and stick to them. As long as marketers are subject to the beck and call of their technical colleagues, their strategic value will be diminished. You need to define what marketing activities are most important and clear the time for marketers to work on them. Sure, everyone needs to shift priorities at times to pursue timely opportunities as they arise. But you can't achieve strategic marketing goals when your marketers function purely as an internal support group to those who don't really understand marketing.

To keep the marketing effort focused on what matters most, management should team with marketers to define goals and priorities. I suggest doing this at least quarterly. Then commit a specific portion (say 60-70%) of the marketing group's time to those priorities. Important marketing tasks shouldn't be done with leftover time. If unplanned requests for marketing resources exceed the remaining allotment, I advise an executive-level decision on whether to reallocate marketers' time. This helps sustain marketing as a strategic function rather than merely a resource pool for reactive business development activity.

Empower marketing staff with appropriate policies and procedures. Having established goals and priorities, it's helpful to put systems into place to reinforce these. In most A/E firms I've worked with, the de facto priority for marketing staff is working on proposals. Unfortunately, they are too often asked to spend enormous amounts of time on proposals where there's little reasonable chance of winning. And they're often unable to persuade their technical colleagues to respect proposal schedules and guidelines. Guess who gets judged by these misguided efforts?

This is a good place to start to add discipline to your business development process, if you haven't already. You want a go/no go decision process with some teeth in it, some rules for engaging marketing staff, requirements for meeting internal deadlines, standards for the work product and process. Management needs to stand behind these protocols without being either too rigid or too flexible. Such policies and procedures help build a wall around your marketing priorities, and help marketers preserve time and energy for more productive tasks.

Provide the professional development opportunities that marketers need. Many young marketers enter the A/E profession with a marketing or other relevant degree. Then they are schooled how to do business development by technical professionals with limited marketing expertise (or by other marketers so taught). I believe this is a significant reason why we see so few marketing breakthroughs in our business, as David Maister duly noted (see last post).

If you want marketers to excel, they need opportunities to learn from the marketing masters. Expose them to the best available workshops, books, videos, websites, blogs (of course!). Better still, find some way to offer mentoring or on-the-job coaching. Define professional development goals that propel the individual down the mutually-agreed-upon career path. Link training and development with your marketing vision and goals.

But--and here's an important point--if you want your marketing staff to learn best practices, be prepared to make some room for them to apply what they've learned. This is a fundamental shortcoming with much of the training we do. We don't reinforce (or in many cases, actually discourage) the application of what our people have learned. That limits their potential--and the positive impact on your firm.

Engage marketers in setting company strategy. I've facilitated many strategic planning meetings and I'm surprised by how often even senior marketers are excluded from the process. That devalues both the role of marketing and those charged with executing it. You can at least solicit input from your marketing group in advance of planning events. But having some marketing representation at the meeting is advised. Marketing is simply too important a function to be left on the sidelines.

My last employer regularly involved me in important strategy meetings even while I was still in a temporary, part-time marketing role. That enabled me to better understand the firm's strategy, to contribute to the process, and to build relationships with the key decision makers scattered across the country. Those experiences better prepared me to not only make substantial contributions on the business development front but to eventually step into other management roles during my ten years with the firm. Access is usually a critical step towards more success.

Consider creative ways to draw on your marketers' distinct skills. People with marketing backgrounds bring different strengths to your firm, strengths that you may find valuable even outside the marketing arena. Marketers often have good people skills and can be effective team leaders for various corporate initiatives. Some (like myself) have eventually grown into non-marketing management positions. Marketers should be strong communicators and can help with both internal and client communications. They may have skill as meeting facilitators. Many marketers are strategic thinkers and add another dimension to problem solving. They can be a valuable help to your firm's staff recruiting efforts (another form of marketing).

Wouldn't these activities pull marketers away from their primary responsibility of marketing? Perhaps. But aren't the most valuable people in your organization usually those who contribute in multiple areas? In my experience, being able to demonstrate value to the firm in other areas increased my credibility as a marketing professional.

I can think of other ways managers can help marketers succeed, but let these suffice for now. What about you? Whether manager or marketer, you probably have something to add to the discussion. Please do.

Monday, October 19, 2009

How Marketers Increase Their Value

Some time ago, consultant David Maister posted a provocative question on his blog: "Who are the marketing experts in professional businesses?" He noted that he would be hard pressed to offer evidence of any real marketing breakthroughs among professional service firms. "I can think of many professional businesses built by the professionals themselves (i.e., the marketing amateurs)," he wrote, "but it's very unclear (at least from the outside) what marketing professionals have contributed."

If you are a marketing professional, you are probably taken aback by such comments. But does he have a point? It's illuminating that among the many comments Maister received to his blog posting--including from such notable marketing experts as Seth Godin, Suzanne Lowe, and Charles Green--none really took exception! As a marketing professional myself for over 20 years in the A/E industry, I must confess I find it hard to argue with Maister.

I could point to several evidences of marketing mediocrity in our industry that seem to support Maister's point. Who's to blame for this is a matter for debate. I suspect it's a combination of marketers not getting the job done and their having too little influence in their respective firms to make a real difference anyway. The bottom line is the marketing function is not having the substantial impact in our business that we witness in other industries.

I know that many, if not most, marketing professionals in our business feel somewhat under-appreciated and, in some cases, disenfranchised. They often work on the fringe of shaping corporate strategy rather than in the mainstream. They may have marketing degrees and expertise, but find themselves merely providing specialized support to the engineers and architects who really determine marketing strategy.

The recession has provided further evidence of this diluted role. In many firms, marketers have been among the first positions to be cut. Think about that: When getting new business emerges as the biggest challenge, the first casualties are those specifically assigned to that task. Obviously, company management hasn't viewed their contributions as essential. Is something wrong with this picture?

One of the outcomes I'd like to see from this economic downturn is a transformation in our business development approach. We have relied too long on the reactive, seller-focused, sell-when-I-get-the-time-or-it-becomes-urgent model. The time has come to incorporate real marketing expertise in positioning our firms for success in the New Normal. Do we have enough capable marketers to step up to that role? And are managers ready to let them?

If you are a marketing professional aspiring for a bigger role, let me suggest the following strategies for elevating your value to the firm:

Establish yourself as the marketing expert. For the most part, engineers and architects still call the shots when it comes to determining how the company will market and sell. Some of these individuals possess strong client skills and are adept at bringing in new business. Yet many more have deficiencies in these areas, and almost none of them have real expertise in marketing. There's an obvious need here.

Unfortunately, most marketers have failed to establish themselves as the definitive experts in their own field. Some simply lack the expertise; others don't seem to know how to leverage it. Of course, it's not all their fault. Their employers don't always lend an open ear to their ideas. That's why you have to be as compelling as possible.

My boss once complained, "I hate to have a disagreement with you because you've always done all this research to back up your position."

"Then don't disagree with me," I responded (smiling, of course).

If you're going to be the marketing expert, then make yourself irrefutable. Dig deep to uncover the best practices, related research, success stories. Be sure it's relevant to our business (see next point). Win people over by impressing them with the depth of your knowledge about your craft.

Learn everything you can about our business, and about business in general. Perhaps the biggest obstacle most marketers face is a limited understanding of the business in which they labor. If you want to be viewed as a strategic asset, you need to know the business. I recommend reading extensively, asking lots of questions of your technical and management colleagues, sitting in on strategy meetings, getting involved in professional associations--whatever it takes to build your business expertise. You should also look outside our profession as well, because we can learn a lot from other industries. Yet you'll need to have a feel for what will work in our industry (and your firm) and what won't.

Develop your strategic thinking and problem solving skills. The best marketing people I've known were skilled strategists and problem solvers. Though they may have lacked technical expertise, they played an important role in defining corporate (and even project) strategy. This "outsider's perspective" can be extremely valuable. Marketers are often very good at synthesis, the ability to see the big picture and fit all the pieces of a problem or solution together. This can be the perfect complement to your technical colleagues' analytical strengths, which apply a different approach to problem solving.

Strategic thinking and problem solving skills are to some degree innate, but you can develop your abilities in this area. One of the best ways is to carefully observe those who are really good at it. Hopefully you have a few in your firm. Watch how they ask questions, search for answers, break down problems, evaluate solutions, weigh the ramifications, predict the outcomes.

Impact the content of the message, not just the presentation. Marketers often depend on their technically-minded colleagues to give them the core content for their proposals, brochures, and other marketing materials. The marketer is then relegated to the role of editing and graphic layout. But the strategic value of the marketing specialist increases when you significantly impact the content. This is when I really began to excel as a proposal writer, when I could reinterpret, reframe, revise, and challenge what my colleagues had written. Why is this important? Because marketers should be better communicators and bring a different strategic perspective, as noted above. This obviously requires experience, but you can start working in this direction at any stage of your career.

Earn the right to say no. Many in marketing roles have little more say over their work assignments than administrative staff. This is probably necessary early in your career. But eventually you have to be able to have some say over what you work on and how you go about it. The reason this is important is because you are the marketing expert--at least, that's what you need to be. Marketing will not be the strategic asset it could be as long as engineers and architects are dictating how it's done. But since this is a technically-driven business, you have to earn the right to drive the marketing agenda. This comes as your colleagues see that your ideas and strategies work.

Build your network. The power brokers in our profession are those who have strategic relationships. If you are not in a sales role, you can still network to develop relationships with potential clients. Or you can focus on nurturing other important relationships--with teaming partners, subcontractors, vendors, etc. To really succeed as a marketer, you need to distinguish yourself both in what you know and who you know. Get involved in professional associations, be consistent in keeping in touch with those in your network, become known as a helpful resource so that others want to talk with you.

Above all, demonstrate that your ideas work! I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating. As a marketer in our business, you generally have to work harder than your technical colleagues to gain respect and make a strategic contribution to the firm. This requires that you be diligent in increasing your knowledge, developing your skills, and learning and applying best practices. There is no substitute for success when trying to establish your indispensable value to the company.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Simple Steps to Better Writing

For an industry that readily admits its limitations when it comes to communication skills, it's interesting how often our business and technical success is determined by our ability to communicate.

For this post, let's focus on writing. We write proposals that enable us to win new work--or not. We write correspondence that can help sway a regulator's position, potentially saving millions of dollars in costs. We write reports that recommend specific solutions and solicit the buy-in of critical stakeholders.

Even our best technical ideas can flounder because of weak writing. Or succeed because of strong writing. Which is it in your firm?

Developing competency in writing takes considerable effort and experience. But there are a few relatively simple steps you can take to yield immediate improvement:

Start with an outline. Most technical professionals don't, and it shows. In developing an outline, first clarify what you want your document to achieve. Inform? Influence? Instruct? Weak writing often starts with a lack of clear purpose. Once you know what you're trying to accomplish, identify three to five key messages needed to achieve that purpose. Then arrange your content to support those main points. This is a departure from the common "pull the table of contents from the last one" approach. Perhaps it's time to rethink how you organize your documents.

Use simple, concise language. Much technical writing is plagued by overly long sentences, vague wording, and overuse of technical jargon. Try to keep sentences to no longer than 20 words. Avoid long paragraphs as well. Minimize the use of jargon; use commonly known words instead where possible. State your ideas as clearly and simply as possible.

Use Microsoft Word's grammar checking feature. While it's not perfect, this feature can help you improve the clarity of your writing. I also recommend that you make use of Word's readability statistics feature (to access it, click on the Microsoft Office Button > Word Options > Proofing > Show readability statistics). Strive for the following:
  • Passive Sentences (should be no higher than 30% for technical writing)
  • Flesch Reading Ease (60-70 recommended; should at least be over 50)
  • Flesch-Kincade Grade Level (7.0-8.0 recommended; no higher than 10.0)

Put the most important information first. This is the classic journalistic standard of the "inverted pyramid." Start each section and subsection with the most critical information first, followed by supporting information in descending order of importance. This increases the chance that the reader, who likely isn't reading your document word by word, will capture the key content.

Always include an executive summary. One study found that only 10% of managers read the body of technical reports, while 100% read the executive summary. This is where you want to synthesize your most important observations, findings, conclusions, and recommendations. The length of the executive summary will vary depending on the size of the document, but keep it as short as possible.

Use ample headings, subheadings, and bullets. Long blocks of text impair reader interest and decrease readability. Break up text into shorter sections with informative headings. Present complex or multiple issues in bullet form rather than long paragraphs.

Graphically present key information where possible. Figures, graphs, drawings, and tables (if not too complex) are effective ways to communicate key messages, especially to readers who will not read the document in detail.

Have someone review your draft. This is commonly done with reports and proposals, but is often neglected with other writing that serves key objectives. Correspondence with clients, regulators, and other outside parties should be always be reviewed by someone other than the author. Same for important internal memos and correspondence. And don't overlook email, which has become the predominant way we convey written messages.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Creating an Email Newsletter

The best marketing serves customers. That's a fact lost on most marketing professionals. They churn out the usual self-serving promotional hype that's easily ignored in our marketing-saturated world. If you want your marketing efforts to attract inquiries from potential clients, you need to provide content that clients value.

One of the simplest yet potentially most effective tools in your client-oriented marketing toolbox is an email newsletter or ezine. To be sure, there are advantages to printed newsletters, especially among us Baby Boomers who tend to favor hardcopy over electronic delivery. My generation also represents most of the decision makers you're targeting. But there are several disadvantages to print as well:
  • It's expensive
  • Therefore firms tend to publish less often
  • Your firm has to produce all the content
  • You can't track what happens to it after it's delivered

An email newsletter overcomes all these shortcomings, which in my opinion makes it the favored option. So how do you get started? Having produced a monthly ezine for several years now, let me offer some suggestions:

Identify the issues that your clients care about. This is one of the biggest advantages of focusing on a few key markets; you can become intimately familiar with your clients' world and tailor your services (and marketing) to fit their needs. You can also readily target your newsletter. Whatever your market mix, find out what topics your clients are likely to be interested in reading about.

The content of my ezine, like the content of this blog, usually is inspired by conversations with clients and work assignments. I do spend time researching issues relevant to the A/E business. But most of my ideas come with little extra work, just listening to what my clients are concerned about.

Search for the best insights, information, and resources you can find on those issues. I advise using the internet because it yields several advantages over printed content, as I'll note below. This, of course, can be time consuming. But it doesn't have to be. A few shortcuts to keep in mind:

  • Find web sites that routinely post content relevant to the targeted issues. For my ezine, I've bookmarked several sites that regularly post new content: Industry-related publications, top blogs, consultant web sites with extensive articles sections, even competitors' sites. I draw from these sources on a regular basis.

  • Subscribe to free email newsletters. Ideally you're looking for those in the format I'm recommending, where the content consists primarily of links to various internet articles and resources. You can choose the best content from these newsletters and link to them in your own publication. The one reservation I can think of is drawing from newsletters that a substantial portion of your audience might also receive.

  • Use Google Alerts. This can be a valuable tool, but use with caution. If you're not careful with search terms, you can be easily overwhelmed with too many email notices from Google. Start small and increase the scope of your search terms as you become more comfortable with it.

Of course, I highly recommend writing your own content. This is key to establishing your firm as content experts. But the advantage of email newsletters is that you don't have to produce all your content, or even any of it if you choose.

Select one of the many email marketing services. These services provide several tools that are really helpful in producing an email newsletter, including templates, list management, delivery, and reporting. The reporting function is particularly valuable. You can track how many open your newsletter, forward it, read which articles, and refer back to it multiple times. This enables you to evaluate which topics generate the most interest and the least. Some of the more popular email marketing services are Constant Contact, iContact, GetResponse, Stream Send, and Bronto. Here are a couple of reviews of these services to help you make a choice: TopTen Reviews and Star Reviews.

Design your email newsletter. The email marketing services above all provide a variety of templates for your newsletter, or you can import your own HTML. The important decision is how to organize the content. I suggest doing what I do in my own publication: Provide an introductory paragraph with a link to the full article. This makes your newsletter easy to skim, with a minimum of scrolling. You might choose to have different sections within your newsletter. I have three: Feature Articles, Industry Trends, From My Blog. You can check out my ezine here.

Commit to a publication schedule. Most firms I know that publish a printed newsletter do so only every quarter. I recommend monthly, which is much more achievable with an email newsletter. This is one of the easiest ways to get your firm in front of existing and potential clients on a regular basis. Only about 30% of my subscribers open my ezine (which is twice the industry average), even though they requested it. But every month they receive a publication they know has some useful insights and information, if they took the time to read it.

The point is: My ezine still pays off, even among those who don't read it. I've picked up several new clients who heard me speak at a conference, requested to be added to my mailing list, then called me when the need arose--sometimes years later. The ezine was the only contact I had with them. I've learned that whether they read my ezine or not was not a significant factor in getting the call. It was the monthly "reminder" they received in their inbox.

Any reason not to do an email newsletter? The most common one I hear is lack of time. I can empathize. But if I can publish a monthly ezine as a one-man shop, can't your firm? I promise it will be worth your time.