Community Building 101: The Acid Test Every Message, Blog Post, Tweet and Idea Must Pass

If you’re in business, you understand value. You ensure every action adds value to your business goals or bottom line. But do you evaluate your community-building initiatives as stringently?

Why social communities are important

Social communities can make or break your business. Whether you’re in B2B or B2C, there’s no better way to “cut through the clutter” than having a community of customers, prospects and influencers that has your back.

Social communities are valuable and can be your brand’s strongest advocates. They can also be a big driver for bringing in new customers. CrossFit and SoulCycle are both great example of using the social aspect of their brands to differentiate themselves in an otherwise crowded market.

But social communities don’t happen overnight.

First, choose the right audience for your specific cause or topic. This is where customer service is crucial, no matter the business or industry. This is the group that should remain at the center of all your marketing and community initiatives. Some quick, but important, questions to ask include:

  • Is the audience appropriate for your business?
  • Has your audience changed since you first started building a community?

Keep in mind that irrelevant, legacy audiences can be a source of blind headaches when they voice their disappointment in the way the company has changed. On the flip side, relevant legacy audiences can be your best friends – especially in times of trouble.

Once you’ve nailed down your audience, you’re ready to nurture your budding community with these four methods:


If you’re not engaged in social media listening, you’re missing out on tons of insights about the people who are actively talking about your industry and brand. Keep track of what the top influencers and prospects in your industry are reading and sharing. What hashtags are they using? What types of content are they sharing? What do their bios look like? What are their pain points?


While you want to control every aspect of the community-building efforts, you can’t. Control what you can and act responsibly, but know that at time you need to let your community develop organically. Allow your newfound audience to build its own momentum.


Once you’ve kept an eye on the pulse of activity within the community, opportunities to engage will present themselves. Ask and answer questions, comment on their posts, like their activities, share their content and follow them back. Over time, they’ll notice your engagement and appreciate it – and they will likely return the favor.


People love rewards and they love validation of their actions. Go ahead and thank people for sharing your content. Invite them to company events and webinars. Use your social platforms to maximize brand loyalty by first engaging your social community. Let them be the first to know about your brand’s news, rewards programs and more. This creates an exclusivity that people naturally crave. In turn, you can make your social media platforms the place customers are encouraged to refer your business through different contents, recognition and more.

Great! Now What?

It’s easy to forget that your business is not the center of your customers’ universe. Their lives are filled with experiences, information, relationships and stories that have nothing to do with you.

To them, you are an occasional blip on a crowded radar screen — and if you can maintain some frequency to your blip and some relevance to the audience’s radar screen, you’ve done more than most.

Focus on how well you engage those you attract.

Maintain awareness of your audience and how you want it to change over time as you continue to engage your social community.

To do this, we believe every social initiative, down to each tweet, should pass a quick “acid test” to evaluate its strength.

The Community Acid Test Every Message, Blog Post, Tweet and Idea Must Pass

  • Do we believe it?
  • Will it interest at least 50 percent of our target audience members?
  • Will they believe it?
  • Does it in any way risk making an audience member feel disrespected?
  • Will they feel good passing it along?
  • Does it build on themes our audience has already discussed?
  • Do we mind if the audience runs with it?
  • Can it impact the company in any negative way?
  • Does it add value to our audience’s life?
  • Does it help advance our cause or mission?
  • Does it help audience members feel good about their relationship with us?
  • Does it help build positive bias towards our brand in some way?

Depending on the answers to these questions, teams can easily decide whether to move forward with a specific tactical initiative, such as a particular blog post or tweet.

For example, suppose you sell energy recovery ventilation (ERV) technology for HVAC systems. Over time, you’ve built a social community of salespeople, facilities managers, HVAC equipment suppliers and commercial real-estate owners. For these audiences, you can offer tremendous expertise about HVAC, ERV and a host of associated benefits and opinions. You can start discussions about technology, help your audiences understand the competitive landscape and trade-offs, and opine about a wealth of topics ranging from clean-energy installations to various energy efficiency strategies.

As you can imagine, such an acid test varies from industry to industry. Creating and using your own acid test to evaluate your social content will ensure that you add value to the all-important intersection of your organization and your audiences’ lives.

In return, the community will add value to your business for the long term.

Technology & Disruption: 5 Rules of Engagement

Today, innovations in technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence are poised to disrupt a number industries – content marketing included. As unprecedented as it sounds, we’ve seen this many times before.

In 1985, Adobe launched Pagemaker (now known as InDesign), THE app that led to the disruption of advertising, marketing and publishing. Pundits forecasted the death of the designer and writer, as entrepreneurs and marketers began preparing their own ads, brochures and newsletters.

In fact, many of today’s creative directors, content strategists and senior designers all got their start in desktop publishing.

Here’s the thing: the smart agencies adapted.

They mastered the tools and produced designs, content, video and interactive properties that the untrained could never match. Instead of killing professions, this is one of many examples of new technologies fueling the marketing industry with the power to create what had never been imagined.

Now, most of our day-to-day tasks can be automated. Need a mobile site? Google can create it at the push of a button. Need a new display advertising campaign? Push a button in your AdWords account and eight new ads appear – right-sized, well-designed, and likely well-messaged.

What’s left for the humans to do? First, take your head out of the sand. Ignoring reality never helped anyone keep a job. Second, follow these rules when it comes to marketing automation:

While most of us might not think that marketing technology should rule our world, we can benefit from a few rules of engagement. Here are our top five:

  1. Stop resisting: Regularly explore what’s new and how it might contribute to your business and, more importantly, your clients’ marketing goals.
  2. Understand the technology: If a client mentions a popular marketing technology (Marketo, WordStream, HubSpot, Silverpop, etc.) you should know it and be able to speak to its relevance and effectiveness for that client. Otherwise, you’re not doing your job.
  3. Use the technology: Manage a campaign for yourself using new technology. If you specialize in direct marketing, use HubSpot and Marketo, if only to understand how they work. If you help your clients advertise, then you’d better offer a keen understanding of Google AdWords and the technologies that have sprung up around AdWords.
  4. Figure out how your role is changing: For example, AdWords and search have made a huge impact on media planning and advertising. But managing an AdWords campaign, getting the right clicks and keeping your quality score high (among many considerations) isn’t easy. Master this and doors will open.
  5. Understand what the technology is NOT doing: Technology is mostly fact-fed. It lacks the emotional intelligence and empathy humans have and consumers want in the content they consume. 

The human role will never disappear. Mastering new technology will ensure that agencies stay relevant with clients and comfortable with our new marketing partner: the machine.

You’ve Cat to be Kitten Me: A Quick Lesson on Cats in the Media

I recently switched desks, moving to another section of the office.

As I broke a sweat hauling a bookshelf, client folders, pictures and knick-knacks to my new space, I realized how much of my stuff is cat-related.

Cat butt magnets.
My day-by-day tear-off calendar.
A sticky note dispenser.

(Mind you, these things were given to me. Okay, except the cat butt magnets.) But it isn’t just the tangible “stuff” that’s cat related, it’s also my social media feeds, news sites, emails, TV news segments, GIFs and more.

We all know that dogs are America’s favorite pet. But, IMHO, cats are the ones that are dominating digital media… search algorithms and Google crawlers aside. Nearly two million cat videos were posted to YouTube in 2014 alone, resulting in almost 26 billion views. That year, cat videos received more views per video than any other content category.

For example, since being posted in 2007, Keyboard Cat has received more than 48 million views (and counting) on YouTube. These countless hours of watching cat videos have led to some interesting research.

In a survey of nearly 7,000 people, the Indiana University Media School measured the relationship between watching cat videos and mood. Overall, participants reported fewer negative emotions such as anxiety, annoyance and sadness after watching cat-related online media than before. They also felt more energetic, and the pleasure they got from watching cat videos outweighed the guilt they felt about procrastinating (#preach).

These views, videos and memes eventually led to the world’ first CatCon, held in Los Angeles in June 2015. Modeled after ComicCon, the “cat convention” attracted 12,000 people that year. This year, the crowd topped 30,000, plus 162 cats.

In the media, cat-related stories tend to go viral. Per BuzzFeed’s “Beastmaster,” the average feline story gets almost four times the viral views as canine. That’s not even going into the social media behind it.

Hashtagify reports #cat having a popularity score of 76.2 (never fear, #dog is right up there at 75) on Twitter. However, it looks like cats aren’t spending as much time on Instagram. On the platform, #cat has a mere 124 million posts, compared to #dog’s 147 million.

hashtags data by

So, what’s a marketer to do with all of this information?

  1. Cat content works – well, really anything furry and cute works. Users can’t resist liking and sharing animals on the internet. Even in terms of B2B social media, don’t be afraid to break through the clutter with furry content. A cat GIF is sure to spark more engagement and produce more smiles.

  1. Cats are your competition – there are thousands of memes, GIFs and videos out there competing for attention. Use this as a way to challenge yourself to think outside the box when it comes to your strategy. At EMA Boston, we do our best to surprise people. This GIF was sent agency-wide to express this idea… it’s the perfect example.
    1. Animals trigger the emotional appeal of your brand and there is a direct connection between sales volume and the emotional connection your consumers have toward a brand. Build a friendship with your audience by using good humor or a soft story – remember this Super Bowl commercial?



    1. Millennials love cats (or cat content). If your brand is looking for a way to reach millennials, a good cat-themed campaign may do the trick. According to a survey by Mintel, 51 percent of Americans in their 20s and 30s have cats. Just sayin’.


    1. Marketing can be fun, people. Do we need another super-serious graphic filled with stats about the user journey or decline in white paper consumption? If you enjoy your own company’s marketing, guess what? Others probably will too.


    1. As the winter grows darker and colder, and SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder – Google it) begins to kick in, start watching cat videos. It’s cheap therapy. In the meantime, enjoy this cute picture of my feline friend.


HUBgrown: Q&A with C.C. Chapman


Yesterday we wrote about how the conversation around B2C in Boston is evolving. These conversations are being led by many influential people in our community who believe Boston has the ingredients to build great consumer companies, not just B2B.

We recently asked C.C. Chapman, co-author of Content Rules and Amazing Things Will Happen, and seasoned marketer who has worked with brands like Nike, HBO and other household names, what he thinks about Boston’s business scene.

Here’s what he had to say.

HB: You’ve spent your career turning passive consumers into engaged activists. Some people would argue that Boston has a “relative indifference” to marketing itself. What’s your take? Is this a good or bad thing?

CC: New Englanders as a whole are definitely not into being marketed to. I grew up in New Hampshire and know how little tolerance there can be for that.

This isn’t just a New England thing though and today thanks to everyone being on the Internet, everyone is a bit more skeptical. We can skip all ads on television and are one click away from any that pop up in our face online. This is a good thing because it forces companies to be more creative, have a heart and find a common ground with the consumers they want to reach rather than just shouting BUY ME at them all the time.

When our book Content Rules hit shelves in 2010, it was one of the first books ever published on content marketing. In it we talk about how companies need to speak human and advised to share or solve, don’t shill. It is a bit sad that five years later I’m still giving this advice to almost every client I talk to. People today are choosing the brands they buy from like they choose their friends. They want to feel a sense of shared values and a connection that goes beyond the purchase.

HB: You travel frequently. Is there another startup-focused city you’ve visited doing something new and interesting that you think Boston could benefit from?

CC: Fargo, North Dakota instantly comes to mind.

What they’ve done is really built a community where the entrepreneurs, artists and city all come together for the common good. There is very little of an Us versus Them mentality and they are thriving because of it.

HB: You spent the last year as an adjunct professor at Bentley University, your alma mater. How do you think local universities like Bentley are preparing students for their careers?

CC: I think many local universities are doing a great job. One thing that Bentley does and why I chose it for my undergrad degree was that every student has to take a group of liberal arts AND business courses no matter what their degree is. This insures that all graduates come out with a well rounded understanding of the business environment they are entering. While I never wanted to be an accountant, having those classes under my belt helped me understand budgets and balance sheets in a way that many other computer majors might not.

What does worry me though is that not enough higher education institutions are updating and evolving to make sure the students are learning the latest and greatest.

At the end of my first semester teaching I had numerous students tell me how much they loved me sharing current event stories with them. Because it was a marketing class, I started each night talking about the campaigns that were making waves and new technologies that companies needed to pay attention to. If Professors are only teaching out of books and not teaching practical applications then students will not be as prepared as they should be.


HB: How can Boston, especially Boston-area universities, prevent the brain drain and figure out how to keep entrepreneurs here post-grad?

CC: I’m not sure we have that problem. While I don’t have any studies to look at, I think we see a lot of students stick around.

Then again, when you have so many colleges and universities and so many students graduating from around the world you are going to have some.

We need to make it as friendly as possible for students to open and start new businesses. We need more spaces where they can afford to start a business. Incubators and shared workspaces are finally starting to arrive and this will help greatly.

HB: In your opinion, what makes Boston’s business scene unique?

CC: Boston hates to lose. We celebrate victories of all sizes. This is what makes it great!

Read C.C.’s blog for more about his approach to marketing, causes he cares about and his travels.

Check back in a few weeks for an interview with an entrepreneur as she gears up for the official launch of her consumer startup.


Is Boston Consumed by B2B?


If you’ve read our previous HUBgrown posts or if you’re following our tumblr page, you may have noticed a trend—much of the content thus far has focused on Boston’s B2B tech scene. That is in large part because it’s the way I have approached this series, but that’s about to change. Why? Because the conversation around Boston and B2C is evolving, as it should be.

NextView Ventures’ Rob Go summarized the resurgence of consumer tech in Boston and how we, as a city, have the ingredients to build great consumer companies if we get past some of the cultural barriers. (Read his thoughts in more detail here…seriously, you need to right now.)

Back to HUBgrown, we saw glimpses of Boston’s consumer power come into play in our last post featuring Devin Bramhall. That’s just the beginning.

Our next post will feature C.C. Chapman. C.C. describes himself as a New England-raised storyteller, explorer and humanitarian. He is the co-author of the International bestseller Content Rules and is also the author of Amazing Things Will Happen. He travels the world speaking in front of audiences and encouraging them to do more to improve the world and teaching them how to understand and use content marketing better. Over the years of his career he has worked with a variety of clients including Nike, HBO, American Eagle Outfitters, ONE, Verizon FiOS and The Coca-Cola Company.

When I asked C.C., someone with years of consumer marketing experience, what it’s like living in a very tech, B2B-centric place, he (in a very polite way) asked me where I’m getting my information from:

“I’ve never thought of Boston as being B2B centric at all. There has always been a highly charged startup scene in and around Boston and yet we rarely get the attention that is deserved.”

He told me how he reads about new startups every day and, more often than not, most of them are consumer focused.

We plan on bringing you more of those stories in the near future, and more from C.C. in our next HUBgrown profile tomorrow.


4 Thought Leaders on Thought Leadership

“Thought Leadership.” What do you think of when you hear this term? If you’d asked me this a few years ago, I would have envisioned CEOs on stage at a big conference, or maybe a nice profile piece in a trade or business publication. But over the past year or two I’ve been rethinking how we define a “thought leader,” in part thanks to the work that Mitchell Levy is doing over at his Thought Leader Life blog and podcast.

So when I heard Mitchell’s voice (which I recognized because I’m a regular listener of the FIR Podcast Network) at the AMPlify conference before he got up to speak, I knew I had to connect with him. That connection turned into me co-hosting Thought Leader Life for the month of June (which stretched well into July if you’re really going to get technical).

Mitchell has argued for a long time now that everyone inside your organization can and should be a thought leader. I’ve come around to something very close to that same conclusion, and was able to put our arguments to the test through chats with four well-known thought leaders (in anyone’s book).

I was able to get some great insights on the topic from Mitchell and our four guests: Scott Monty, Paul Gillin, Emily Reichert and Ann Handley. The conversations involved mostly — but not entirely — B2B brands, and focused specifically on how to develop individual #ThoughtLeadership brands alongside the corporate brand. The primary question I wanted to answer was how organizations can strike a balance between individual and corporate brands.

In this first video, Mitchell and I set the stage for our interview series.

In this second video, you can hear our interview with Scott Monty, who argues that organizations are missing a huge opportunity by not taking advantage of the employee’s natural proclivity to be social. Companies that fail to appreciate the value of personal brands are more likely to disappear, he argues. All three of us agree that that CMOs face greater technological responsibilities than any other C-Level executive. Scott also made an interesting observation on our claim that all employees should be thought leaders: he differentiates “thought leaders” from “thought doers” and wonders aloud who will be responsible for carrying out the vision communicated by these leaders.

The third video is our interview with Paul Gillin, and we discuss why organizations need to take advantage of their employees and advocates and support their individual brands in order to advance the business. Paul argues that one of the most seemingly obvious but oft overlooked people to spread the message are employees — especially digital natives. Then the topic of money comes up. Paul explains that monetizing in the traditional sense has become very difficult, especially with interactions between the thought leader and the audience becoming more direct — see the disintermediation happening in the music industry for a prime example.

The fourth video — my personal favorite — is our interview with Greentown Labs CEO Emily Reichert, in which we delve into the tradeoffs in balancing your personal and corporate brands in depth. Emily argues that CEOs should always be thinking about how to use their personal brands to help build the corporate brand. They are two separate identities, but they must work together to grow together. Greentown Labs provides opportunities for member companies to become thought leaders in their own space. Emily also explains why she appreciates companies that actually outshine Greentown Labs in terms of marketing, because that means that Greentown has been successful in getting its member companies’ brands out.

The final video captures our conversation with renowned author and marketing content expert Ann Handley of MarketingProfs. Ann, a big fan of employee advocacy, encourages all 40 employees at MarketingProfs to build their own brand, and even provides training and content they can personally share to their own audience. In the interview, she elaborates on her recent article about establishing your “voice,” whether corporate or personal: to find your voice, think about three adjectives that best describe who you are. Her best advice for corporate CEOs is to sit down and discuss your voice and how to amplify it through your employees using social. We also chat about fear — why some corporations are fearful of letting their employees talk on social. Mitchell notes that it’s ironic how you trust employees to do work for you, and then not trust them to talk about what they do.

All in all these are five great conversations that add a lot of insight into how to succeed with both your personal brands and your corporate brands. I hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoyed putting them together for you.

HUBgrown: Q&A with Devin Bramhall

HUBgrown Image

Creator of The Master Slam and Executive Director of TEDxSomerville, self-proclaimed startup junkie Devin Bramhall recently sat down with HB to discuss her experience in Boston’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, share advice for folks interested in startups and offer tips for creating kick-ass content.

Devin BramhallHB Agency: How did you get involved in the startup world?

Devin Bramhall: I always say that I got into startups by accident: The first startup I joined [Springpad] in 2009 was from a random Craigslist posting. But I don’t think it was really an accident. My life has never been “normal.” I was home-schooled for most of my life, so I sort of hacked my own life (and education) from the start, including going to college in Hawaii for a semester when I was 16. So even though my turn to startups was somewhat accidental I think it came from the very active role I’ve taken in my own life from the start. I didn’t go to school, where your path is laid out for you – I made my own path from a very early age, and that transferred into my career. To be honest, I’m quite critical of startups. In many ways it’s harder to move your career in a startup because of the lack of a traditional structure and opportunity to advance, but I think that’s partially why they’re perfect for me. You have to make the life you want.

HB: On top of your day job, you run The Master Slam. What was your inspiration behind the event series? How did you start it?

DB: I launched The Master Slam when I was at Springpad to solve a problem: No one in Boston really knew who we were or what we did. Instead of going to a ton of events, I thought why not bring the people to us? But when I started to think about event formats I got a little bored and a little depressed because they all felt the same. Why would anyone come to an event I hosted that was the exact same as all the others?

So I brainstormed. I do live storytelling on stage—like The Moth—where storytellers share a first-person story and I love it so much. When I thought about event formats, storytelling was good but wasn’t a perfect fit. Then I thought about debates and competition, and I thought hold on, what if we put them together?

When I got goosebumps, I knew I was on to something. But I still needed someone to help me launch this thing – someone well-known to get bodies in the room.

That’s where HB’s Mark O’Toole came in.

I sent Mark an email describing the idea and asked him to be the featured speaker. I was nervous because I didn’t know him yet, and I wasn’t sure what he’d think. He was so nice about it! He said he thought it sounded cool and was totally in. Early win! Looking back, I realize that it’s the little things along the way – the “yesses” so to speak, that let you know you’re on the right track. The no’s? They’re an opportunity to rethink what you’re doing and come up with a better plan.

Long story short, we did it! About 80 people came to the first one and the rest is history. I keep doing it because it’s fun for people. They like it. It’s different and it’s a great networking opportunity.

HB: You’re Co-executive Director of Boston Content, a local community for marketers. Can you tell us more about it?

DB: I connected with Jay Acunzo and Arestia Rosenberg—the founders of Boston Content—at a couple events and they invited me to be on the committee. A year later, I became Co-Executive Director. I love the Boston Content community so much because its sole purpose is to give back in a very specific way: to help marketers grow and develop their skills and careers. We’re doing a ton with the new blog and multiple events; it’s really taken off in the past year.

HB: Do you have any advice for people who want to join a startup?

DB: My first piece of advice is to think twice. Not because they’re not great but because it’s a challenge—a good challenge. If you want to join a startup do your research, especially on the leadership team. That’s important in any company but especially with startups because they’re so involved with the day-to-day. You can only learn so much in an interview and always remember, as much as they’re interviewing you, you need to interview them, too.

HB: What do you love most about Boston’s startup scene?

DB: I’ve been really lucky. I’ve experienced a tremendous amount of support from the community and from the people I’ve worked with at startups. Perhaps it’s because the community here is smaller, but I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without all the help and mentoring I’ve received. I’m not sure if that’s unique to Boston but that’s what stands out to me the most, I’m incredibly grateful for it.

HB: How should startups utilize content?

DB: Don’t just create content for the sake of creating content. Don’t make a blog because you think you need to have one. Companies need to start by setting their goals then figure out the right content based on those goals. Identify your target—your humans—figure out their challenges, and then identify how you can solve those challenges for them. From there, find out what they’re consuming and where, and figure out how you can reach them through those channels and get them to take action.

It’s not content first. It’s goals and humans first. Figure out how to help them out! Once you do the answer is pretty straightforward.


Hit by lightning, bitten by a cobra, and ridiculously popular on YouTube

Growing up, the term “bad” meant good. As in, “That car is bad, man.” The cool factor has long worn off for this term, but I’m seeing a resemblance with the word “ridiculous.” The more ridiculous something is, the more attention it receives. “Did you see that play by Steph Curry? It was ridiculous!” Or “Last night’s episode of Game of Thrones was ridiculous! Best of the season!”

This trend is not only taking over your Gchat conversations, it’s also making strides in advertising, marketing and social media. For an example, we have to look no further than last summer’s viral hit the Ice Bucket Challenge. That one was so successful, it started to make pouring an ice cold bucket of water over your own head seem, well, not ridiculous.

How can you stand out amongst your competitors? Do something different and don’t be afraid to go against the grain. Put yourself at either end of the spectrum—amazing to awful—because either will be “ridiculous” and both will be memorable.

Just don’t get lost in the forgettable middle.

My current favorite piece of ridiculousness is – Kung Fury, 2015

Kung Fury is a Swedish, martial arts, comedic, short film (enough adjectives?) written, directed by, and starring David Sandberg. It has had over 15 million views in the past 20 days and it’s by far the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever watched. But not so ridiculous that it couldn’t be screened in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Seriously, check it out. It also got the attention of David Hasselhoff who watched the first 15 seconds of the 2013 trailer, and said, “I’m in.’” His music video ’TRUE SURVIVOR’ has also over 15 million views to help hype up the short film.

If you don’t think it’s an absolutely ridiculous piece of glorious cinema, reach out to me on Twitter (@MattGustavsen) and we’ll hash[tag] it out.

To throw it back a little bit, William Hung set the stage for ridiculousness in season three of American Idol.

The 2004 contestant gained fame because of his audition performance of “She Bangs” by Ricky Martin. His performance was not great, nor was it good. It was horrendous. But, his audition won him the support of fans, which then snowballed into three albums with Koch Entertainment. American Idol knows its audience well. The show features the most ridiculous auditions from the best and worst contestants, but never the middle ground.

Old Spice advertising campaign from 2010.

Old Spice was a well-established brand, but they were associated with elderly men and the scent of every grandfather in America. Wieden + Kennedy helped transform their brand in 2008 with the “Old Spice Swagger” campaign and even more so with “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” from 2010.

This campaign helped boost overall sales for Old Spice body-wash products by 11 percent in the first 12 months of its inception. There was nothing safe, and a lot of things ridiculous, about this change in direction. But taking that risk helped Old Spice thrive in a competitive environment.

If you’re looking to create attention for your brand, do something different. Do something unexpected. Do something ridiculous.

But first go watch Kung Fury.

What B2B Can Learn from Burt’s Bees – Shifting the Why of Your Business or Service


Image from New York Times

Burt’s Bees’ new campaign, “Uncap Flavor,” offers insight into how strong messaging can shift the reason for purchase in a customer’s mind. The campaign is highlighted in this New York Times piece, which explains how the lip balm industry has changed its marketing strategy from a functional message (curing chapped lips) to a message about personality-expressing accessories.

“[The marketing of lip balm] traditionally has been very functionally driven, just talking about, ‘You have dry lips, here’s a solution to your problem,’ ” said Tad Kittredge, associate director of marketing at Burt’s Bees. “But recently you’re starting to see a lot more of what I would call personality-driven and lifestyle-focused advertising, and we’re focused on the flavors as a way to reinforce the fun aspect of the brand.”

Other products and services have performed similar transitions. Apple is the most-referenced example of a company turning utilitarian products such as computers, phones, and music-playback devices into statement-making products reflective of their owners’ personalities.

The B2B world is catching up. Powerhouse Dynamics names its HVAC management technology SiteSage. An attractive unit with user-friendly interfaces, SiteSage enables restaurant and convenience store chains to manage equipment, control HVAC and reduce utility spending. Naming the device SiteSage instead of a generic moniker like “HVAC Monitoring and Control System” gives it more personality, makes it more memorable and creates a personal connection with B2B customers and prospects. It also differentiates it from competitive systems with generic names. And what restaurant chain owner wouldn’t want SiteSage minding the store rather than a random hourly employee who might not notice the freezer, which contains $50,000 of food, has stopped running?

IBM markets its cognitive computing platform under the Watson name. The platform promises a new partnership “between humans and computers that scales and augments human expertise.” IBM understands that even in a B2B sale, we like to imagine ourselves or our businesses in Sherlock’s shoes, solving mysteries and providing great service to the world… with Watson at our side. Many competitors market Business Information (BI), analytics and big data technologies. Not many of them have taken IBM’s lead to personalize the products and services and make them more immediately accessible.

In fact, much of the B2B world has to learn about marketing to the human beings who make up their business customers. Senior leaders and marketing teams often believe that their prospects make purchasing decisions based on cold comparisons of features and benefits. Perhaps they sell to engineers, financial services experts or hospital IT teams, and they know that these buyers will create systematic and rigorous evaluations before buying. Yet if you’ve been in business for any length of time, you’ve had the experience of losing sales to lessor competitors. Why does this happen? Often because the decision-making team liked something intangible about the winning bidder. Those intangibles might include a better responsive website; a strong visual identity; the communication they regularly receive from a particular company or brand; the product’s name and surrounding messaging and story. Any of these create a stronger personal connection with the buyer.

Just as Burt’s Bees can be more about personality and individual taste, even more diffcult-to-grasp or specialty products or services can be positioned to win their customers’ hearts, not just their minds. AG Mednet made a business of providing  high-quality image transfer for the clinical trial industry. A couple of years ago the company changed its positioning to be all about zero-delay clinical trials. This positioning showed a deep understanding — and commitment to — solving a larger problem for the industry into which AG Mednet sells. Suddenly the company’s product was associated with a huge industry pain, and that association helped AG Mednet’s reputation and lead generation skyrocket.

Strong marketing and positioning speaks the customer’s language and addresses the customer as a whole, not just a single problem. The lip balm industry exploded because it went from addressing lips that needed protection and healing to human beings whose search for personality and individuality has no end.

B2B marketers must ask themselves who their customers are as human beings, understand their needs, and position their products and services to make a critical difference in addressing those needs, while creating a personal connection with the audience and the industry. This is where the right agency partner can make a huge difference, offering outside perspective and helping a business understand why and how its offerings can move beyond the realm of features and benefits and into the realm of personal relationship with target audiences.




H2H PR – Haven’t We Always Been Doing It?

shutterstock_142034836Recently, B2B and B2C public relations have had some human company. Human-to-human (H2H), lately one of the industry’s favorite phrases, is now everywhere and it’s gotten there fast. But how people are using it and what it really means don’t seem to be in line.

The two main public relations categories, B2B and B2C, serve to create specificity and clarity when PR professionals describe their tasks and responsibilities. Each segment has its own audience, goals and messaging; differentiating between them allows for more efficient communication between professionals, their potential clients, and their client’s potential clients. In other words, B2B and B2C have their own distinct significations, and this is where H2H differs.

H2H is intended to help focus communicators on the people behind the companies, not on the companies themselves. The idea holds that all interactions are personal, even when executed in a business setting. In this context, for instance, a PR professional for a software security company needs to think about the IT manager as a person in its B2B communications plans, not the general role of the IT manager.

I’ve read and heard many communicators claim that they partake in authentic, feeling, H2H communications. A B2B agency can say they deal in human-to-human communications, just as a B2C agency can – the phrase itself does not speak to the kind of PR or branding being done, but rather to how it’s done. It’s a philosophy behind a practice, rather than the practice itself.

As a philosophy, H2H has become a diluted buzz-phrase, and, on some level, this is understandable. H2H has no alternative. There is nothing to distinguish it by. What would the opposite of H2H communication be? Has there ever been a situation in which we’re not trying to market to other people? The answer is most likely no. In the end, communicators have always been focused on people.

So if PR and creative communications are innately a human exchange, then why is this aspect such a popular topic right now?


Well, public relations used to be a very linear process, but today it’s not linear at all. PR is merging different outlets and means of accessing information into a single, tailored and aligned communications plan. It reaches beyond creating content or pushing out press releases to creating your own content outlets and nurturing lasting engagement.

Additionally, audiences are more nuanced than ever before. People have more options and outlets to find and express their opinions. While it has always been important for businesses to engage in these conversations, the explosion of communication platforms and communicators has made audience engagement a more challenging task that can’t be ignored.

But we all know this already. It’s this very challenge that invigorates us to strive for success every day. Each era before ours has faced their version of the almighty communications hurdle, and each one after our own will do the same. What we may not be so aware of are the secondary ways in which the hurdles we face influence our communications strategies. Terms like human-to-human and integrated marketing communications are phrases we drew up and then popularized as a way to try to define and somehow harness the hurdles we’re facing. In other words, they’re direct products of our challenges and not necessarily terms for our solutions.

Human-to-human is to business practices as integrated marketing communications is to just plain communications – it’s a method, it’s intuitive, and nobody knows precisely what it means. When you say you’re communicating to humans, what you’re really saying is that you’re doing what you should be doing. When you say you’re deploying an “integrated marketing communications campaign,” what you’re really saying is that you’re doing what you should be doing. These terms aren’t special anymore – they simply identify part of the very fabric of how we exchange news and information for action and reaction.

So, let’s let B2B and B2C delineate the spaces in which communications professionals play and let’s give H2H a break.


This post originally appeared on the PRSA Boston blog on July 10, 2014: