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Leveraging development work for the customer decision journey

It is not unusual for developers of a new solution – particularly in bootstrapped startups, or academic spinoffs – to be so enamoured of their solution that they forget that they also need to convince the rest of the world of its benefits. Until it gets close to the end. As a marketeer, this can seem like a daunting task. But it may not be.

Agile audience identification

These days, particularly for software applications but also for other types of product, the development team is likely to be using an agile methodology. This means they have already defined their user roles and goals as part of the agile user stories ("as an x I want to y so I can achieve z", or similar). If the project is in artificial intelligence, whatever training data sets they have been using would also give big clues to the user roles and goals.

This already starts to define the core audience, and their concerns.

The rest would be knowing the process for making purchasing decisions in this core audience's organisations. You may be able to determine this information easily from experience or by surveying potential customers. Or it may be a candidate for using an agile marketing approach (covered in this article). The goal here is to tailor messages and delivery channels to those who influence the decision, those who have to sign off, and their typical concerns that the solution addresses.

The next steps would be to map the concerns of the core audiences and the decision makers to the customer decision journey: awareness, consideration, purchase, and not least loyalty.

Creating awareness

The greatest challenge here is making people aware. If a solution provides an efficient way of getting results out of existing data, the people who are today cutting and pasting that data into spreadsheets and pivot tables may not be aware that there is a way around this drudgery. Or their managers might be hopelessly chasing productivity targets, but cannot see a way beyond adding personnel, unaware that the same people can skip straight to the interpretation part where they can add real value...

These people need to be made aware. But they may be unlikely to do any searching that would get them to a product website or a YouTube video, however polished and interesting these are. However, they may be at (virutal) conferences, reading established blogs or magazines, on professional social media channels, etc. This is where defining the channel (and messages tailored to that channel) is most important.

Making a serious proposition

With their awareness raised, they need to be helped to reach an "Aha! I need one of these" moment. This is where more detailed content with a low threshold to consumption can play a significant role. This is a stage where video often works well.

These aren't discrete steps in the real world. So, while a core audience might see the benefit and transition quickly to the “purchase” phase, there may be a case for providing them with information they can present to their managers to advance their understanding of the benefits. For example, highlight results from peer-reviewed studies might be a killer argument here, in the case of academic spinoffs.

Turning considerations into sales

Turning consideration into confidence about the solution is the next stage. Data sheets – and even user documentation – can play a role here in the rational journey to a purchase decision. But it is important to provide emotional support for the decision too. Buyers need assurance they won't end up getting burnt on the solution. This is where having an endorsement from a key opinion leader, or case studies (for example, from beta test sites) can help.

But the other considerations to remember are those of the people still involved after the solution has been deployed, be they users or management. Satisfied customers are more likely to be open to upgrades, or up- or cross-selling. They may also become promoters – helping other potential customers over the threshold. This can be boosted with great after-sales experience, through relevant and useful solution documentation, training, and continued attention to support them getting the most out of their purchase, even as the product or their usage changes.

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Examining opportunities

Of the misunderstood terms that probably need to be reclaimed – or renamed - one of my ‘pets’ would be risk-based thinking. The immediate reaction is to assume that it is only applicable to dangerous situations. In fact, it is applicable when considering any change.

Whether an issue (be it a vulnerability, a threat or an opportunity) has been identified as part of process documentation (as described in a previous article), or by other means, risk-based thinking provides a systematic way of getting into the positive ‘plan-do-check-act’ spiral.

Risk-based thinking breaks such a consideration into seven steps, the 7 Rs.
(The 7 Rs are covered in more detail in this article.)

  1. Recognise: This is a description of what needs to change. This can be kept short: the why, how, who and when are covered in later steps.

    For example, ‘The sales people need material for sales discussions’.

  2. Rank: This starts with

    • A description of why the change could be beneficial.

    Importantly, this stage also includes consideration of

    • the impact (how much difference would the change make), and

    • the probability (how likely is the situation to arise).

    This is the ‘risk’ assessment that is central to the thinking: A risk is the product of the impact and the probability.

    • an estimate of the effort involved.

    For the leave-behind material, having this can act as a reminder for a potential customer, increasing mindshare.

    This might be needed once or twice a month, but the impact is significant.

    And a nicely laid-out 2-sider with the most important differentiators and links to more information on the web would not be too hard to put together.

  3. Respond: Based on the ranking, you can then decide on the appropriate course of action.

    The four essential options here are

    • Tolerate

    • Treat (fix the issue)

    • Transfer (make it somebody else’s problem)

    • Terminate (either by eliminating the source of the issue, or by deciding on a workaround)

    Even is something has very low impact, it might be worth treating if it happens very frequently: for example, spam email is annoying, setting up a good spam filter can save a lot of energy-sapping frustration, and over the course of a day or week, quite a bit of time.

    The opposite is also true: the likelihood of lightening strike is very low, but the incremental effort of having an off-site backup could prevent weeks – or months – of effort recreating data.
    On the other hand, the opportunity to win a lottery – although it could have very high impact – should probably be terminated if it means buying a ticket with your busfare home…

    If the correct response is to treat the issue, the next steps would be to complete the plan:

  4. React: This encompasses the planned actions and timeframe, and the acceptance criteria to know that the issue has been resolved.

  5. Resources: This is basically the people and tools that will need to be involved in the reaction.

    If we return to our example of the sales material, this might mean involving the product manager to identify the differentiators, and managing a design agency to get a good layout.

    Then comes the doing and the not least the checking:

  6. Report: Particularly if the issue was captured as part of process documentation, this step is about updating that documentation. It might also be a communication about the success of the project, for example, how the new 2-sider ensured a solution was remembered in the sales process.

  7. Review: This should reflect the status of the issue, and the status of the reaction.

Even if the original issue has been successfully mitigated or eliminated, there may be room for further improvement. So the review could also return to the next iteration of a plan-do-check-act.

And that is the seed for a culture of continuous improvement.

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An opportunity for examination

Everything we do - from brushing our teeth, to painting a masterpiece - is essentially a process. So if Socrates is right that "the unexamined life is not worth living", then this should probably apply to the unexamined process too: the unexamined process is not worth doing. Or to turn this on it's head (and put it in the words of Wham!): "If you're gonna do it, do it right".

There is a common perception that documenting processes is about removing the room for creativity, or eliminating the opportunity for individual judgement. While some organisations might try to apply process descriptions this way, nothing could be further from the spirit of process documentation. This is even an intention of the ISO 9001:2015 standard, which can serve as a useful guideline even if there is no ultimate goal of getting certified. Documenting a process is a way of getting a fresh perspective, to stimulate quality improvement.

Look again

Often we are so busy, that we lose sight of the processes, and this means we fail to recognise the potential for improvement. We are so used to brushing our teeth, that we don't think about how we could be getting better at cleaning our teeth.

There is an important distinction to be made from the outset: Documenting a process does not necessarily mean writing down every step. It is about describing what happens at a level of detail that makes the respects the intelligence and experience of the people charged with executing it. Unless the process is to be carried out by a robot, it is sufficient to say: 'Put toothpaste on the toothbrush.', we do not have to describe opening the tube, and where and how to squeeze it...

And this is the second important point. Documenting a process should involve the people who actually do it. It shouldn't be about how somebody thinks things should be done, it should be about how things really are.

Introducing MARIO

Rather than starting with a head-scratchingly empty page, there is an established template for describing each step of a process. A step takes an input, performs an activity on it, to create an output. We may also use resources: these are a special class of input doesn’t get used up or transformed by the process, that is, resources still exist after the activity has finished. In our example, the toothpaste is the input, the activity is putting it on the toothbrush, and the output is a toothbrush with toothpaste on it. The tube containing the toothpaste is a resource, which we put back on the shelf.

The final element is the management of the activity. This is not about the work of a manager – though it might be. It is about how we do the right thing (effectively) in the right way (efficiently), and how we can tell. That is, how do we ensure we have enough toothpaste to clean all our teeth (effectively), without ending up with a mouth full of toothpaste froth (efficiency).

If we take these together (management, activity, resources, input and output), we can remember them as MARIO. Not as much fun as a computer game, but as useful as any plumber in unblocking the unseen pipes that keep our processes flowing.

(For a suggested template for capturing this information, please see this article on the MARIO matrix.)

The next level

Documenting processes should be an end in itself. It should be about what we do today, not disturbed by the almost irresistable urge to improve. Documenting is level 1 of the 'game'. Fixing any issues that arise is level 2 (are there things we should be doing, or are there measures that could help avoid negative impacts). Which is not to say we should ignore any possible fixes and improvements: collecting these is an important part of documenting the processes and getting ready to level up.

But more about that in another article.


To be, or not to be agile?

“Can you do agile marketing?” can seem like a scary existential question. But what if it was just another toolbox: a useful way to enable taking a different approach for the projects that can best benefit from it.

Software developers have long known about agile methodologies, and have been using them to develop solutions for goals that are ill-defined (where it is necessary to develop understanding as development progresses), or to create minimally viable products while development continues on on furtther functionality. But the approach is valid for more than just software development.

The traditional way of managing a project makes a detailed map before beginning. Agile means starting with the destination and a compass, then iteratively improving navigation while learning more about the landscape.

In marketing terms, you do not need to work in an agile way if you are updating a product brochure: you know what to do, who to involve, and how to get it done. But it may be time to consider agile when accountability is vague, the subject matter expertise you need is unclear, or when you are unsure how to interpret (or are missing) relevant feedback or insights. That is, if it is not possible to create a clear and comprehensive briefing. This might be because you are doing something completely new (for example, implementing a new type of sales tool), or because you are operating in a new constellation (such as, a first time collaboration with a new business partner). It might also be an approach to consider if you are unsure why you are not achieving the KPIs you expect.

Finding the right problem

The essence of the agile methodology is discovering what the real issue is. This means making the value the project should deliver explicit. The biggest hurdle here can be a reluctance of some stakeholders to let go of being the expert, and instead to be truly curious and open to different perspectives.

The result of this part of the process should be a consolidated set of “stories”. Each of these stories is a problem statement, told in the terms of one of the roles involved. The template formulation is “As <role> I want to <do something> so I can <achieve value>”. For example, “As an IT decision maker, I want relevant information about product deployment, so I can gauge the impact on the IT team’s workload”. Or, “As a sales person, I want easy access to information on interoperability, so I can present the facts quickly and thus increase the IT decision maker’s confidence in our competence”.

The second key part to each story is the set of acceptance criteria that this part of the deliverable should meet. For example, for the sales person’s story, this might mean offline access to the current specifications of the supported interfaces, to be able to answer questions, even in a building with no cellphone reception.

Finding the right solution

The full set of stories provide the development team with both the big picture, and the blocks of work. Importantly, the goal is to implement incrementally – the deliverable of each “story” should be handled separately – and iteratively, with frequent reviews. This may mean that the initial deliverables are incomplete, but it allows for the early collection of feedback, so the deliverable can be refined (or redefined) before it is too late, or too expensive. In agile, development is not about implementing decisions, it is about continuously testing the best way of achieving results.

(The full methodology includes ways of dealing with open issues, as well as prioritising and planning work, but that is beyond the scope of this blog. There’s more background info here.)

Finding the right methodology

Not every organisation is ready for fully agile marketing. Not least, budgeting procedures might mean a project needs to be fully scoped sooner, rather than in the course of development. However, the agile methodology provides a toolbox that also lets you assemble hybrid projects. This might mean defining the stories, but then using these ast he specifications for traditional development.

It’s not a question of either/or. It’s a question of using the best tools to achieve the right results.

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Maintaining forward motion in turbulent times

Feel like you are paddling upstream at the moment?

Whatever your business, it might feel like the middle of a crisis is not the right time to start doing things differently. But especially when it is turbulent, kayakers always keep paddling, to keep themselves moving faster than the river they are on: it is how they make sure they maintain enough control of their situation.

When heading toward rapids, any incremental increase in control can make the difference between being able to steer toward safer, deeper water or drifting into rockier channels. Staying in control minimizes the risks of getting tumbled out of the boat or having to struggle to escape the backwash. 

As ever, the key to keep moving forward in business is to turn challenges into opportunities. Some businesses can do this by supporting efforts to combat the crisis, like General Motors exploiting its supply chain expertise to help ventilator manufacturers multiply their capacity in weeks rather than months. But in most cases, not having the "have to's" that normally fill every day is at best an opportunity to divert time and energy - maybe even budget - to strategic rather than tactical goals.

A chance to (re)connect

This could mean tackling internal challenges to tune your business model, processes, or teamwork. However, if your reasons to interact with customers have been diminished by current restrictions, there may also be significant potential in looking at new ways of engaging them, even to refine or redefine how they perceive you. This could be a chance, for example:

  • to share best practices you have come across that could benefit other users or customers, 
  • to up-cycle information that often goes unseen in white-papers or user guides - or hidden in the expertise in your organisation - that could help a wider audience if presented differently, 
  • to explore channels that can replace - and later complement - face-to-face communication, or even that can reach new audiences.
  • ...

We are living in unusual times. Maybe one important opportunity hidden in the challenge is to rethink how we can inform, educate or inspire our customers; to find ways (despite physical distancing) to improve the quality of our relationships; and not least, to ensure our customers know that we remain open for business and available for them. 

This is not a time to just go with the flow.

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Getting the goals of SEO in focus

Google introduced BERT in late 2019, a new search ranking tool. It doesn't revolutionize the game. It is more like a new "offside" rule.

Google has changes the rules of the SEO game from time to time. But its consistent message is clearer than ever: content should be optimized for the people using it, not for search engine algorithms.

Search engine optimization (SEO) until now has largely been about content-providers reverse-engineering the search engine algorithms - and principally the Google ranking tools - to find ways of tuning new or existing content to get a higher placing in search results. This is where recommendations like "make sure you have a keyword every 100 words" come from. At the same time, the search engineers have been analyzing how people are using the results to re-adjust the algorithm to overcome any 'distortions' from attempted SEO. 

As the algorithms became more sophisticated, so did the craft of SEO. Not only was this a bit like the tail wagging the dog, the dog was chasing that tail at the same time.

This 'chase' became necessary because ranking makes a difference, and is possible because the algorithms work with "relevant" words in the content. But the focus on relevance has meant giving less weight to "common" words like prepositions and articles - even though these might be important in determining a context. This means you get similar results for "Irish in Germany" and "Irish from Germany", though the first might be motivated by somebody looking for other expats, and the second about understanding the challenges faced by expat's children. 

Now Google has announced an additional, back-end search engine tool, that aims to understand the context, rather than just the words. The immediate difference is not huge, and not immediate (the existing search engine tools are still in use). It doesn't move the goalposts, but it does tilt the pitch. 

The new algorithm - bi-directional encoder representations for transformers, or BERT - uses artificial intelligence to analyse phrases and sentences to better match content to search queries. In short, it tries to work out meaning, more like a person would. This should mean that optimization can now be more oriented to the needs of searchers, rather than search engines.

Because artificial intelligence involves analyzing huge quantities of data, tricking BERT would take similar levels of computing power as Google has at its disposal. But there is an easier way to be sure of getting the best of BERT: ensure your content is meaningful, and meets (or exceeds) the needs of your audience. 

What meaningful content does your audience want?

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The pillars of (content) marketing

Whatever the time of year, there are certain fundamentals that underpin any marketing activity.

It's late October at the time of writing, which makes it open season for people to start forecasting trends for next year. But while trends come and go, the fundamentals abide.

Talking about trends is a good way of profiling yourself as an expert, and preying on the uncertainty of potential customers in what seems like a scarily inconstant world. And when it comes to content marketing, even marketing professionals seem susceptible to marketing!

A cursory review of trends for this year seems to indicate factors like video consumption habits, smart speaker use, and social/messaging content. The "customer journey" view of the sales process also features heavily.

Fundamentals

None of these forecasts are essentially wrong. But these are smoke. The fire remains the same: understanding.

  • Understanding how to get the attention of the audience you want to address - which, of course, includes their media habits and how to create for and apply the different media effectively.
  • Understanding the value you are offering, and how that converts to benefits for your audience. That is: what will interest them and motivate them to take the next step. This is where consistent quality of content plays the largest role, both to convince them of your value, but also reinforce your credibility as an advisor and provider.
  • Understanding what decision you want to trigger, and how they can justify that decision, which for marketing means understanding how to support the sales process.

It's easy to get distracted by the smoke. But it's fire that will keep you warm through the winter and grilling through the summer.

What fire do you want to get blazing?

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Getting results with video

With smartphones and modern cameras, anyone could shoot a video.But that doesn't mean everybody should.

Video is a powerful tool for getting a message across. And it has never seemed as easy to make your own videos. Everybody is doing it!

While access to adequate technology has become easy, there is still space for specialists that can make the subtle but definitive choices that add a sheen to a production that - even if it often goes unnoticed by the majority of viewers - can increase the watch-ability of a video, and not least boost the acceptance of the message.

Before

Organizing ahead of the shoot can be a significant factor.

Getting the location right can simplify the shoot for all involved - not least by making sure that background noise levels are quiet enough if sound is being recorded. 

Scripting or story-boarding obviously have a role in making sure the shoot can run efficiently - including by helping to plan for the appropriate equipment. 

It's also important to make sure any products that will be featured are ready for the camera. A lot can be fixed in post-processing these days, but having it right in front of the camera can still be a lot gentler on the budget. 

In short, it pays to think things through in advance.

During

On site, the lighting needs to be right. First of all, there has to be enough of it to get a good picture. But apart from the quantity, the quality of light can ensure a subject stands out from its background - literally and metaphorically. And that is before we even get to more creative possibilities... Getting the light right means having the right people with the right equipment.

What often gets forgotten in the focus on visuals, is the quality of the sound. Microphones built-in to cameras are often not up to the task - again it is a question of ensuring the subject can be distinguished from the background. So, as with lighting, specialized equipment and a trained ear can make all the difference if sound is being recorded on site. But even in post-processing, the quality of a voice-over recording - or the correct selection, placement and mixing of music to provide appropriate support for the message - can often make or break the acceptance of a video.

After

The cherry on the cake is probably the grading. This takes place at a late stage of production, but needs to be borne in mind from the start. This may be why early edits seem sort of drab: the video should be shot as flat as possible, so that the editor is not limited in adjusting the contrast, and the colour levels and saturation - even adjusting the grading locally to provide emphasis - to give the end result the correct look and feel.

Any questions?

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