B-to-b communications structure must evolve to meet changing buyer needs and an increased focus on social media; how much work does your structure need?
In its day, millions of visitors flocked to the World’s Fair, a showcase of countries, cultures and industries, and a demonstration of what the world of tomorrow would be like. Although many of the marvels on display never left the drawing board, others – particularly in the categories of transportation and communications – are still a part of our everyday lives.
From space travel to portable phones, all innovation starts with a vision that is realized through preparation and commitment. An organization’s structure is no different; evolving it properly is based on the ability to foresee future challenges, manage disruption and guide what is often a large and complicated ship. In this paper, we discuss how b-to-b communications structure must evolve to thrive in the world of tomorrow and beyond.
The Heart of Change
The trends we have identified from client interactions, surveys and research studies have formed the basis for our vision of the b-to-b communications structure of tomorrow. While the core contributions of legacy roles from branding and advertising to public relations will remain, the way tactics are delivered as well as how specific roles respond to the evolving needs of various constituent groups must transform. In some cases, these roles will expand and require new skills; in others, they will be subsumed by new functions that provide greater leverage.
At the heart of the communications transformation is the creation of what we call the communications centre. Although many organizations currently have an integrated communications function whose role it is to ensure that communications roles are not isolated from one another, few extend the linkages to other functions such as field and product marketing. The communications centre gathers and distributes communications best practices, policies and skills, including developing and enforcing companywide social media policies; creating and monitoring global branding and content guidelines; and managing the allocation of creative resources. Most important, it also drives the interlock of communications activities within a broader campaign strategy, thus ensuring greater leverage and impact of reputation-focused functions.
The staffing of a communications center is often achieved with existing staff based on skills, and implemented in a shared service structure where appropriate roles can align to different communication functions based on need. The communications centre also can act as operations arm, aggregating and packaging measurements to be shared with other parts of the organization.
Three Critical Pillars
It is wishful thinking to assume that all communication roles can merely realign their responsibilities to the goals of the company and the new realities of the market. In many cases, existing roles will need to transform radically to maintain relevance and truly impact; to this end, we have identified three key functional pillars on which the communications organization must be built, including:
Influencer relations. The era of industry analysts as the single voice of opinion has ended, as vocal bloggers, pundits and community dwellers rapidly gain the respect once reserved for traditional voices alone. This digital group of influencers tend to communicate more frequently and quickly, and thus have the best chance of flying under your radar without a monitoring tool in place. Dedicated roles that specifically deal with driving reputation and awareness through social media channels will be necessary for a while, but will eventually go away, most likely absorbed by the communications center. This new structure recognizes that social media must become another tool within every marketer’s toolbox and integrated into the overall workflow. While social media monitoring will most likely sit in the communications centre, social media relations will need on demand access to this data to gauge the effectiveness of their efforts. Analyst relations (AR) should integrate its activities with field and product marketing; analyst coverage, quotes and reports should be a major player in both demand creation and sales enablement programs under an umbrella campaign structure.
Reputation management. In the b-to-b world, reputation is the sum of experiences and impressions that customers and prospects have by interacting with your organization, while brand is a subset that encompasses the image you project. Public relations (PR) is typically used by organizations to broadcast one-way messages to both target audiences and the market at large. Evolved PR functions cultivate a sense of back-and-forth community with their audiences, enabling them to not only drive awareness and support demand creation programs on a regular basis, but to also become a more credible source of information in the face of negative issues that can blossom into reputation-damaging events. Community management is a fairly new role; for many organizations, it merely acts as the operations and project manager for the online community. What it should be doing is ensuring that content flows into the community, driving adoption and ensuring subject matter experts are engaged. Community management should work closely with product marketing to communicate feedback related to your offerings and with customer support to elevate problems that emerge.
Communication services. At first blush, our third pillar may seem like the only part of the communications organization that isn’t changing. However, instead of merely serving as the repository for roles with little contact with (and direct impact on) customers, corporate communications must transform to become a well-integrated, widely used service bureau. For corporate advertisers, this means becoming more of an expert in online advertising and search engine optimization; for events, it means focusing on smaller, more targeted and less expensive events rather than large industry affairs. Both roles must expand their skill sets, particularly in regard to social media. In addition, your website is no longer sufficient as a marketing front door; instead, it’s an interactive way to reach buyers regardless of their stage within a buying cycle. Staff that can assist in website optimization will find their roles increasingly more relevant, particularly in the area of dynamic content as the more you can align content to the exact needs of a buyer, the more likely he or she is to continue to engage.
Building and protecting the reputation of a b-to-b organization has become more decentralized, particularly with the rise of social media from both an inbound and outbound nature. A critical success factor is creating a centralized communications centre to set policies and procedures, as well as to collect and propagate proven processes and skills where needed. The motivation is the realization that buyers’ habits are changing, the influencers that impact their decisions are different, and every interaction employees have with customers and prospects can have a long-lasting effect. Those who recognize and embrace these new realities and evolve their structure to meet these demands will emerge as the organizations that best leverage the entire communications function not just today but for years to come.
About the Author:
SiriusDecisions, a leading source for business-to-business sales and marketing best-practice research and data. SiriusDecisions Executive Advisory Services, Consulting Services, Benchmark Assessment Services, Learning and Events provide senior-level executives with the sales and marketing operational intelligence required to maximize top line growth and performance.
©Sirius Decisions, 2010. Reproduced with permission.