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Carl Lewis: Welcome to the Connected Enterprise Podcast. I’m Carl Lewis, your host from Vision33, and my guest is Margie Agin, founder and chief strategist at Centerboard Marketing. Margie, welcome to the podcast. Please tell us about yourself and Centerboard Marketing.

Margie Agin: Thanks for having me, Carl. I'm the chief strategist of Centerboard Marketing. My sweet spot is the intersection of product marketing, content marketing, and demand generation for tech companies with complex products and solutions. I started Centerboard eight years ago after 15 years leading marketing teams as an in-house marketer at tech firms like Blackboard and Cisco. I was with a video conferencing company Tandberg, which was a wild ride. It grew rapidly before Cisco acquired it.

I've been at large and small companies and saw the issues they face when trying to stand out in a crowded market. When I started Centerboard Marketing, that's what I focused on, taking the perspective of an in-house marketer. I know what doesn’t work, so I offer that perspective to other companies.

Carl Lewis: It’s that connection to tech companies that drew my interest in what you do. Because tech companies are unique – no matter their size or whether they deal with hardware, software, or newware. And it's a very crowded field. You help companies refine their messaging and clearly communicate their value. Why is that important?

Margie Agin: Tech companies, particularly B2B ones, get intensely focused on product messaging – and rightfully so. They spent a lot of time and are excited about their products, the cool things they do, and how they work. The engineers are involved, though, and engineers are typically less focused on distilling that message for an external audience.

Either their product messaging is full of jargon, or they all sound the same. If you look at a typical tech company website, many use the same language and tone. The problem is that if customers can't tell the difference between vendors, they’ll choose based on price, and that's a race to the bottom nobody wants to win.

The trick is to transform the message from an internal-focused message to understanding what drives value for customers. The problem their products solve. They must translate techy language to human language that's clear for customers. They’ll build a connection with customers by being straightforward in their communication.

Carl Lewis: Yes. It’s easy to sound like we're always talking to ourselves in the tech industry. We know what we're talking about, so we think everyone else has a problem. There's a lot of emphasis on artificial intelligence, automation, integration, machine learning, and other technologies right now. But you say it's essential to refine your basic value message before initiating these marketing automation projects. Why?

Margie Agin: Technology is most effective when it can make a brand more human. So, the technology should be invisible. What should come through is your brand personality – your voice and messaging. The technology is sitting in the background, being an enabler. That’s table stakes now unless you're an early-stage startup. If you're midsized or larger, you’ll typically have email and marketing automation systems, maybe a chat feature on your website, and the ability to track people and retarget them.

But I work with many companies with all this stuff sitting on a shelf. Or they use only 10% of the capabilities. Because they built the infrastructure and got excited about the shiny new tool but left out the plumbing. And we have to fill the plumbing pipes with the content, messages, and offers customers care about. Those drive the action. We can't rely on technology to solve that problem. What story do we want to tell? When we know, we build the technology to tell that story. Know the right people, find them, and tell the story at the right time. Technology is amazing for tracking and targeting, but when it’s time to say something, you need the content and message ready.

Carl Lewis: Exactly. Plenty of companies have realized they must clarify their message. Especially during this pandemic. What are the biggest challenges companies face when creating clear communication about value?

Margie Agin: They must be open to hearing what their customers say about them. I've experienced that challenge firsthand – I can look at another company as an external person and see it, but it's hard to turn that lens on yourself and be objective.

You need a ruthless focus on customers. Their voice should be the loudest. The companies that will build brand value demonstrate how well they understand their customers’ goals and challenges. What they care about, how they behave, which words they use when they speak. Then you turn that around to reflect their issues and emotions, so they feel understood. Some companies are afraid to talk to customers or aren't sure how to extract the information they need. But the more you do it, the more it becomes a regular part of your business.

Carl Lewis: Yeah. I'm involved in doing routine customer surveys and reporting to our executive group. But companies can be reluctant to talk to their customers. Do you find that customers are reluctant to talk to their vendors, too?

Margie Agin: Sometimes, they're reluctant to put their logo out publicly and do a case study. I work with cybersecurity companies, and it’s difficult to get public-facing case studies because companies don't want to share the cybersecurity tools they're using.

Carl Lewis: Or even say they have them.

Margie Agin: That’s a challenge. But they don't always have to be public. Regular win or even loss interviews with lost customers give you insights and let you hear the language they're using. But you must ask the tough questions. Then, even if they never go public, you can incorporate those stories and thoughts as you develop content.

Carl Lewis: One thing I see is companies writing new value statements, trying to change how they speak about themselves, and defining the customer experience. But if they've been in business long, they have reams of standard collateral and content messages they're using in the field, with sales and operational people – everybody. How difficult is it to take a new expression and permeate an organization's collateral and material?

Margie Agin: Ideally, it starts at the beginning. If you're revamping or refreshing your brand, and you have an existing organization that's used to doing things a certain way, you must be open from the beginning to incorporate input from the field and other employees.

Salespeople, customer service reps, and tech support people have a direct connection with customers that a marketing team, for example, will never have. You need those different voices in the room. Marketing shouldn’t sit in an ivory tower and decide in a vacuum, then deliver the decision to the rest of the organization from on high. That’s a setup for failure.

Carl Lewis: The ivory tower. Yes.

Margie Agin: That's the bad rap marketing gets because they sit in a closed room with other marketing people and agencies. You have to open the door. Fewer than 50% of employees say they believe in their company's brand. Even fewer say they know how to implement it in their work. That’s why you get a homepage that says x, y, z – but the actual customer experience with tech support on the phone or in a store doesn't match x, y, z. Customers see right through that, and it falls apart.

You must be authentic to your core values and brand personality, or you won’t get buy-in from the organization. They’ll feel like it's something imposed upon them.

Carl Lewis: I hear that.

Margie Agin: After you've created something, and you're proud of it, you want to give the organization tools to make it easy for them to transition. For example, an ed tech company revamped its brand and brought in influencers from different departments. Every company has well-known people who've been there for a long time.

They created a war room with these people. They looked at the new brand statements and read customer quotes, so they knew what others said about them. And then they made it dead simple when they rolled it out. They had tools like writing guides accessible to everyone, or sample emails and scripts for customer service reps. Individuals can adapt them, but they help it sound like everyone's on the same page – everyone's using the same brand voice.

That’s how you get people to adopt it and incorporate it into their jobs: make it easy for them. Give it to them, so they don't have to do the heavy lifting. Now, people love working at this ed tech company because they feel included. They can be confident brand ambassadors; whether it’s customer service or sales, they're excited to be part of the company because they feel like management listened to them.

Carl Lewis: Yes. If anybody tells me, "It's easy," I know there's not much truth behind that. Nothing worth having is easy. You must pay a price somewhere.

Margie Agin: You can have it fast, easy, or cheap – but not all three.

Carl Lewis: Or you can work hard and get to the end together successfully. Has the pandemic affected the businesses you work with? Has it increased their sense of urgency about messaging, or simply affected their recognition they need this communication style?

Margie Agin: It's a hard time for people to make big changes. There were weeks in March where it felt like everything stopped as companies scrambled to figure out what to do, particularly if their events or budgets were planned, and they expected leads from in-person events. And it happened suddenly. Even until the week before, companies were thinking they might have an event in April. Then they had to turn off the spigot.

What did they do with that budget? Where do leads come from now? We've shifted toward digital marketing, and the content and contexts we use to talk to the audience must also shift to account for the new reality. You can't be tone deaf to what people are going through right now.

There’s also more of a focus on keeping and retaining existing customers. It’s because people are afraid of making big changes, but it can work to your advantage. It's a time to strengthen relationships with existing customers and support them. For example, one ed tech company selling to local school districts, teachers, and administrators stopped doing prospecting webinars and focused on webinars for existing customers.

Right now, those people are bombarded with change and free technology and content offers from all angles. It's the wrong time to offer something new and add to their stress. We want them to feel like we're helping remove their stress. We did a webinar series guiding them through the pandemic that focused on shoring up relationships with existing customers. Thousands of people attended. And it's fine that they're not new leads in the pipeline. It's a different way of evaluating success, with a metric of retaining and strengthening relationships. Maybe next year you can offer a different product or service, but it's hard to make that case now.

Carl Lewis: Understandable. You mentioned getting people together. I've seen organizations try to take steps like this with only the leadership involved. I've seen the leadership have the level below them come up with this, and then send it off to leadership. I'm betting you don't advocate for either of those. How can leadership and ‘regular’ employees collaborate to create new messaging?

Margie Agin: It depends on the size and culture of the company, how they’re organized, and how well they collaborate. People might be nervous to say what they think with their boss or their boss's boss in the room. You have to approach it flexibly. Maybe a series of workshops or surveys rather than just one, depending on company size. It's important to get multiple points of view and get leadership buy-in sooner rather than later.

I facilitated a workshop with a marketing company that offered advertising and web technology and services to help customers customize and manage the technology. They were part of a larger organization but had spun off, so they weren't new to the market. They had customers and experience. But they were going through the process of forming their own identity and story for the first time.

Did they want to showcase the innovative technology leader approach or their amazing customization and hands-on service? Which did they want front and center on the website? Which one will get the most emphasis?

We had many people in the room – from salespeople to service people. The CEO was in the back. The team went on and on about how their services were key and how people made the difference. They gave examples of special and unique things they’d done for customers. We thought we were on the right track, but the CEO was sitting in the back of the room with his arms folded across his chest, not talking.

We needed to bring him out. He was clearly thinking but keeping his thoughts to himself. He said, "I hear what you're saying, but we're a technology company. That's what investors want. Eventually, we want to be acquired. Plus, we can't sustain the idea of building something special for everybody. And we don't want to set the expectation that we can always customize. Let's drop all the service stuff and focus on our innovations."

If we hadn't gotten him to talk, we would have produced materials and a website, and the CEO would have nixed it. We saved a lot of money and time not going in the wrong direction. Sometimes people want it to be perfect before they send it to the CEO, but I believe in a more iterative approach where you get buy-in sooner rather than later – before you invest a lot of time and money.

Carl Lewis: The CEO’s perspective was that they must prepare to be acquired, right? So, he needed to show anyone who might acquire them that they were scalability related. Other people weren’t thinking about that. It gives credence to the fact that people from all over the organization must be involved. You hear every voice. Also, bring in what customers say.

I know you have a website and document you want to share. If our listeners want to initiate this thoughtful messaging for their company, how do they get started?

Margie Agin: I'd love for people to have actionable next steps and exercises/activities to do in a workshop format or in a small group to get the juices flowing. I have a page to share. The URL is brand-breakthrough.com. With a dash. It's an action guide. It runs parallel to a book I wrote last year: Brand Breakthrough: How to Go Beyond a Catchy Tagline to Build an Authentic, Influential, and Sustainable Brand Personality.

There are hands-on activities and checklists, questions to ask customers, and other templates. You can apply the methodology of talking to your customers and bringing in people from different departments to kickstart your brand journey. Over time, you'll incorporate new opinions and changes in the market. But there are good activities and questions to get you started.

Carl Lewis: Great. Repeat it for us, please.

Margie Agin: Brand-breakthrough.com

Carl Lewis: Perfect. Brand-breakthrough.com. As we wrap up, here’s a question I ask all my guests: How is communication changing in your business career, especially with the coronavirus? How did you work with your customers before versus how you’re working with them now? Has anything changed regarding getting work done?

Margie Agin: I’ve always worked from a home office – I just didn't have all these people around me all the time! My fourteen-year-old and eight-year-old are home. Luckily, I can arrange things so I can write in the morning or later if necessary. I was an early adopter of video conferencing; I’ve been using it for 15 years because of working with Tandberg and Cisco. We were video conferencing in 2005. I'm very used to that.

I've seen many companies that had this capability but didn't turn on the video. Now we're doing it because we crave human interaction. And we're curious about what people’s backgrounds look like. The benefits we believed in 15 years ago at Tandberg are finally mainstream. I think it’s exciting. I'm glad we can do it – but I’ll also be glad when I can meet people in person again.

Carl Lewis: Same here. The technology's great. I call myself a charter member of the gadget club – whenever something new comes out, I jump on it pretty quickly. But I still like being with people. There's something that elevates the human experience of being together.

Margie Agin: I agree.

Carl Lewis: Margie, thank you for being here. This has been more of an educational thing for listeners because we usually talk about the techy stuff. But every business must refine their messaging, and you gave us great ideas.

Margie Agin: Thank you for having me. It's been wonderful.

Carl Lewis: Until next time, everyone stay connected.