We’re a B2B marketing agency based in Chiswick. We’re in one of these trendy workspace buildings where lots of SME’s and start-ups live.
We’re all highly proactive social types, so we get talking with the neighbours quite a bit. Since we’re a B2B marketing company, many of these chats get onto the topic of marketing strategy pretty quickly.
The weird thing we’ve discovered is that smaller businesses or start-ups often don’t think they do any marketing. They say all of their business comes from word-of-mouth.
This got us wondering: What’s the difference between “word-of-mouth” and “marketing”? What size does a business get to before it starts to think its word-of-mouth marketing approach has actually become a proper B2B marketing process? And as word-of-mouth tactics mature and morph into a formal marketing approach, what actually changes?
That thing you’ve been calling word-of-mouth: It’s really just funnel marketing
When you really think about it, it’s pretty rare to win business via word-of-mouth alone. Sure, a new prospect might be introduced to you that way, but it’s just the start of a long and complex B2B shuffle.
First, you have that initial conversation to assess the needs of the new prospect that’s been referred to you. You put the phone down and find yourself hunting for suitable references or customer examples.
You make sure that the evidence you’ve collated demonstrates your ability to addresses the problems they’ve described and get that evidence to them any which way you can. You send emails to follow up on the call and you bring the same topics up again during the inevitable coffee and lunch meetings that typically nudge prospects towards a deal.
When you’re small and getting started, this just feels like you’re getting the word out. As you grow, this formalises into a funnel marketing process.
How do you know it’s time to formalise your word-of-mouth approach?
When SMEs or start-ups come to us for help, it’s usually frustration that drives them. They feel they’re losing more opportunities than they’re winning. They’re spending too much time rifling through email histories trying to remember what it was they needed to do to close a deal. Usually, that’s because deals take longer to close than most of us would like. As a result hot leads go cold and the sales process needs to start all over again.
Funnel marketing simply maps out and formalises the steps required to move a new prospect up the sales funnel. In B2B marketing the top of the funnel attracts new prospect who don’t really know much about you. The bottom of the funnel is where new customers come out.
Attracting prospects into the top of the funnel is really all about education. In B2B, you need to let prospects know you understand their problems and can offer good advice.
If you’re a business that’s depended on word-of-mouth so far, this is probably not something you’ve had to think about too much. A referrer has already recommended you to your new prospect, so they know what you do and are likely to believe you can do it well (getting a good referral is one of the most important factors in deal closing).
Turning word-of-mouth into funnel marketing
The point at which a business decides it’s time to upscale and formalise a marketing approach is different for every company, but, when it comes, word-of-mouth business development experts usually have a lot in the bank already. If you’re ready to upscale, here’s a simple three-point action plan.
Think about the new business that word-of-mouth has delivered so far. Spend some time to map out the things that always helped convince customers you were right for the job. In B2B marketing we call this the customer journey. When you map out your customer journey triggered by word-of-mouth it’s probably something like:
Referral > needs assessment phone call or meeting > quick email follow-up (to say thanks, let the prospect know you understand the requirements and that you’ll be in touch soon) > detailed email follow up (examples of how you’ve solved similar problems in the past) > quote > further follow up.
The time-consuming part of this workflow is usually the detailed email follow up. That’s when prospects need to see evidence that convinces them you’re right for the job. In B2B marketing, these things are case studies or client testimonials. The good news is that you already have much of the content you need to create these things because you’ve been supporting the word-of-mouth process with personal emails for some time and, when you come to think about it, these mails usually focus on just two or three great things you’ve done in the past. Use these mails to create your first case studies and testimonials.
Protect yourself from negative selection.
No matter how unique you think your product, service or solution is, customers usually see things differently. Inevitably, when customers are exploring options they’ll shortlist four or five different providers based on positive factors. But since all of them seem equally well equipped to do the job, prospects struggle to choose a final option based on positive criteria alone. So they negatively select.
Negative selection is when the prospect you’ve been nurturing hits you with news like: “The other guys seem more professional/just seemed to have the edge”, “They convinced all of us of their expertise faster” or “When we shared all the proposals across the team some colleagues had already heard of some of the other companies on our shortlist”.
It’s pretty annoying when that happens, but it usually occurs when the other company has outgrown the word-of-month approach and upscaled its marketing. Your prospects check your competitor’s website and find well-produced, high-authority content and case studies, they seek them out on social media to discover active news streams that point to really helpful content, and they search for answers to their business problems online to uncover competitors that specifically address these problems head-on in blogs, downloads and other content. Word-of-mouth does not do these things, but upscaling things so it can isn’t difficult.
Make some sensible first step investments.
In the current environment, first step investments are usually technology. You’re going to need a website that keeps pace with your business, and your business changes fast. If you’re starting from nowhere then simple website builder tools like WIX or SquareSpace will get you off the ground. You’ll know your marketing is working when you outgrow these options and start looking for something that can really scale with your business.
Even when new businesses are launching and looking to build their first website, we usually recommend WordPress. WordPress is the world’s most popular open source platform and it’s truly scalable. We use it ourselves to build sites for start-ups and we use it to build sites for international enterprises.
When your website is powered up to support your new marketing process it’s time to put it to work. Turn your word-of-mouth marketing up a notch by investing in a good marketing automation platform. Hubspot, Pardot or ActOn are market leaders here but good economical alternatives include Autopilot and Insightly if budgets are tight (frequently we recommend the latter before the market leaders to those new to marketing automation).
Finally, learn how to adapt the word-of-mouth approach you’ve mastered for social marketing via tools like Hootsuite or Buffer and try automated tools like LinkedIn helper or ManyChat to upscale and turn the personal sales dialogues you’ve refined already into powerful social marketing workflows you can use to lead nurture via LinkedIn or Facebook.