It’s All Niches Now

By Carman Pirie

Part 1: Why niches matter

Soda pop, potato chips, and marketing for manufacturers

When I was a boy my best friend’s name was Scott.
He lived across the street, a few houses down.
There were two general stores within a permissible walking distance.
While there were some differences, both stores carried what we liked.
Candy bars.
Soda pop.
Potato chips.
Like a lot of young boys our appetite for these things far surpassed our ability to pay for them.
We were probably 6 or 7 years old when we discovered that the things we liked were delivered to these stores in trucks.
Making matters easier, these trucks had logos on them matching what was inside.
Humpty Dumpty potato chips.
Even Doritos.
It was a revelation.
We spent days hiding outside of both stores watching for delivery trucks.
We discovered that they would arrive at consistent days and times.
We discovered that they always visited the two stores in the same order.
There were exactly two soda pop trucks.
Two potato chip trucks.
One smaller truck that delivered candy.
And a small van from a donut shop.
We lived in a town where people didn’t lock their doors.
Delivery drivers were similarly unconcerned, leaving cargo doors wide open as they spent what seemed like hours inside the store.
We figured we could steal whatever we wanted, but that idea didn’t sit well with us.
The stealing part may have seemed easy.
But so was the getting caught.
Each store owner knew us and knew our parents.
Any short term gains were unlikely to persist.
Besides, Scott could run faster than I.
So if we got caught I knew I would be the one getting caught first.
Not good.
Not only were the arrival days and times of the trucks predictable, so were the drivers.
We got to know them all.
I’m sure they had names, but they were brands to us.
The Pepsi guy.
The Coke guy.
And they all responded to “hey mister”.
That was the beginning of a very successful, years-long treat acquisition strategy.
Rather than steal, we would just ask.
“Hey mister - can we have a free bag of chips?”
And they, more often than not, said yes.
We learned the right times to ask.
A driver who was in a rush to leave the lot was less interested in hearing our pitch than one who was just beginning to offload his product.
We learned we couldn’t ask too often.
Getting an armload of soda pop at one store meant you didn’t ask the same guy for the same thing 10 minutes later at the next store.
And we learned about competition.
Finding a way to tell the Pepsi guy how generous the Coke guy was almost always resulted in getting more Pepsi.

Most of all, we learned something that most B2B marketers still haven’t learned.
We learned the power of a niche market and how to operate within it.
That while the amount of treats we could get seemed almost unlimited, the sources were finite.
We learned about the importance of targeting.
The fresh fruit delivery truck was of zero interest to us.
We learned that people matter.
First we needed to know the right trucks. Then we needed to know who drove them.
We didn’t just go for the easy steal. We played the long game.
As a manufacturing marketer, you can too.
But only if you first understand that your sources—your markets—are finite.
There are a limited number of people who can buy what you make.
And that changes everything.

Yes, everything.
It changes how you serve customers.
It changes how you prospect for new ones.
It changes how you build and grow your digital presence.
It changes how you sell.
Or at least it should.

It’s time to fall in love with niche.
Those thin slices of a market.
The dark corners.
The underserved.
The unexploited.
The opportunities waiting for a chance to happen.

If you’re like most B2B manufacturers, you serve several niche segments.
And for you, growth is going to come either from performing better within your existing niches or identifying and competing in new niches.
Either way, getting good at growth as a manufacturing marketer means getting good at marketing within niches.

Avoid the B2B Noise

While not a useless distinction, there’s a lot of noise surrounding B2B marketing.
Much of it, online and on the conference circuit, skews heavily towards the marketing of SaaS products and does not have direct application to manufacturing marketing.
Perhaps worst of all, most of the B2B industrial marketing narrative seems like it's mostly just about trying to get B2B companies to adopt more technology and “think” more B2C.

We believe that B2B industrial marketing as it is commonly understood and practiced today is outdated, unhelpful, and malicious to the manufacturers who invest in it.

Let’s face it: That’s why the majority of B2B manufacturers do not hire B2B industrial marketing agencies.

Manufacturing marketing isn’t B2B marketing.

Part 2: Attracting new customers in niche markets

Starting with the end in mind

Targeting within a niche means arriving at a definitive list of the target accounts you’re going to pursue. 
That’s starting with the end in mind. 
Starting with a clear view of the accounts you want. 
Too many B2B industrial marketers think the start and end of this exercise is with Buyer Personas. 
They invest too much time in their creation.
And their organizations extract little demonstrable value from the exercise. 
Buyer Personas are only part of the exercise, and they come later in the process. 
This is the domain of Ideal Customer Profiles (ICPs). 
That definition of firmographic characteristics that identify a business as likely being an ideal-fit customer. 
Once the ICP is defined, the hard work of identifying all of the businesses that fit it is next.
Identifying the typical buying committees you’re likely to encounter within your ICPs and then working through the key buyer personas within it are the final step.

One more thing about personas. 
When working through your buyer personas, think more about the business problems that persona is trying to solve and the potential buying objections they may be carrying at various stages in their customer journey. 
Think less about things like what kind of truck they’re likely to drive or the type of music they listen to. 
These are unnecessary and unhelpful distractions for the manufacturing marketer that are a hold-over from the early days of content marketing. 

The unlimited traffic myth

A fatal error made by too many manufacturing marketers.
Following a one-size-fits-all B2B marketing approach, many of the strategies and tactics marketers employ to drive traffic operate within a paradigm of unlimited traffic.
They act like there will always be more search terms to win. 
More paid search traffic to buy. 
More social visits to drive. 
More paid social impressions to purchase.
The list goes on. 
Sure, all of these tactics can be used to drive more traffic to your website, but remember: we started with a finite list of the target accounts that matter to us. 
That list is not unlimited. 
As a result, employing the typical B2B marketer’s digital demand gen approach in this context results in an over-investment in traffic attraction delivering a surplus of low quality contacts often defined as leads by marketing only to be defined as garbage by sales. 

All conversions are not equal 

Since it’s conversions from relevant contacts at our target accounts that we’re truly seeking, we must recognize that all conversions are not equal. 
With that knowledge, we should change how we seek to convert and manage leads. 
This is another significant gap between typical B2B marketing and marketing for B2B manufacturers—
Marketers operating within the unlimited traffic myth paradigm seeking to maximize conversions are driven to create conversion experiences that serve the widest possible number of visitors. 
For manufacturing marketers, the exact opposite approach is required—
Ideally, the conversion experiences you serve up would only appeal to your target accounts while repelling all others. 
The typical B2B marketer seeks to create conversion experiences built for thousands of visitors. The B2B manufacturing marketer’s ultimate north star is an audience of one. 

Part 3: Synchronized Selling

Finally on the same page

Embracing niche markets and focusing our marketing efforts on the target accounts within them has an interesting side benefit—
Suddenly, marketing and sales (and service) are all talking the same language.
Gone are the days of vanity traffic metrics and inflated MQL numbers.
When we’re starting from a defined list of target accounts, it becomes much more difficult to fudge the data and deal in abstractions.
But it’s not enough to just talk the same language.
To maximize your revenue potential, you also need to synchronize your efforts.
This moves beyond marketing and sales simply playing nicely with each other and having clearly defined roles.
Ideally, this is more like synchronized swimming than a medley relay.
It will require the deep integration of both people and systems in new and different ways than you’re used to.
And it probably won’t feel like the way you used to sell.

BANT is Bunk

Budget, authority, need, timeline. BANT.
This has been ingrained as close to gospel in today’s sales culture.
When a prospect has budget, authority, need and timeline, they are then deserving of sales attention.
Until then, they’re marketing’s problem.
But if you compete within niche markets, nothing could be more ridiculous.
As a manufacturing marketer, you are on a mission to make contact with your target accounts.
And once that contact is made, the next step should be determined by what that account needs in order to move closer to becoming a customer.
The next step shouldn’t be determined by some arbitrary divide between marketing and sales.
And it shouldn’t be determined by whether or not they’ve met BANT criteria.

Why isn’t budget important?
It isn’t important at this stage because you already know they can afford what you sell, otherwise they wouldn’t be on your target account list.
They’ve met the firmographic thresholds required (revenue, employee size, etc.) to already indicate they can pay.

Why isn’t authority important?
The old days of looking for the one and only person who has signing authority on a purchase decision are long gone.
We live in a world of consensus-driven buying committees.
Those committees are getting bigger and bigger.
The fact is, when a contact from one of your target accounts converts and becomes known to you and your organization, there’s no way for you to know if they will impact a future buying decision.
Navigating the complexities of purchase authority within a target account is something that happens as part of a sales process, not something that happens as a prerequisite for receiving sales attention.

Why isn’t need important?
It isn’t important at this stage because you already know they need what you sell, otherwise they wouldn’t be on your target account list.
They may already buy from your competitor.
They may not yet know they need what you sell.
But you know they do, otherwise they wouldn’t be on the list.

Why isn’t timeline important?
Because timelines change.
Your prospect doesn’t know everything you know when they first make contact with you.
Is it possible that you know something they don’t that may drive a heightened level of urgency? I hope so.
Nevertheless, the one thing we can all agree on about buying cycles is that they seem to just be getting longer.
Beyond that, as your marketing becomes more focused on the target accounts that define your niche markets, you begin to engage prospects earlier.
You’re gaining visibility into a part of the buying process that you didn’t have access to before—so your old timelines may not apply.
Lastly, every salesperson wants to be in a position to have influence on purchase specifications.
Set the spec, win the deal.
Those early moments of the buying process, perhaps well before a timeline is established, are often your best opportunities to influence spec.
One small investment by sales at this early stage could be the butterfly that sets off a sales hurricane several months later.
It’s best not to let this opportunity fall to the wayside simply because of arbitrary BANT criteria.

BANT is bunk, full stop.

The unlimited traffic myth revisited

Just as traditional B2B marketing leads manufacturing marketers down the path of thinking the top-of-funnel is unlimited, traditional inside sales thinking is similarly flawed.
Many of the “inside sales machine” models promoted by industry gurus are based on there being an unlimited number of prospects available to receive a flurry of phone calls and sales emails from lower tier business development reps.
For manufacturing organizations, this is just not true.
You grow within niche markets.
The number of prospects you have is finite.
These high volume inside sales models are simply a recipe for alienating your limited number of prospects, frustrating them with too many calls and too many emails.
Yes, as a manufacturer, inside or remote selling is going to be a bigger part of your sales future.
Just be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking your inside sales model is going to be the same as the ones talked about in most B2B inside sales books.
You will require more experienced, technically astute inside sales professionals for what is likely to be a longer, more consultative sales process.
The “quality vs quantity” balance you will find is going to look a lot different than it does for other B2B segments, driving differences in both resourcing and structure.

Part 4: Serving customers

Scale after the sale

Most of what you’ve been reading over the past few minutes is intended to communicate one overarching point—
As a manufacturing marketer, your key to success lies in embracing niche.
As you embrace niche, you discover that you find scale in your marketing in different places than other marketers do.
As an example, the top-of-the-funnel isn’t where you find scale.
Sometimes the ad creative you generate will only apply to one company, whereas other marketers may create a TV spot to be viewed by millions.
But because customer relationships are complex and long, and their lifetime value is high, your scale comes after the sale.
The repeat business.
The cross-sell.
The long game.
When your marketing creates relationships and not simply transactions, as is the case with almost all B2B manufacturers, it changes more than just how you think about and execute on your marketing strategy.
It also extends the role of marketing, demanding as much synchronization with customer service as what is desired with sales in order to maximize B2B manufacturer revenue potential.

Part 5: Why any of it matters

The road to Peggy’s Cove

There are places that are in the middle of nowhere.
And then there are places that seem another hundred miles further than that.
I think that’s what Peggy’s Cove must feel like to a lot of people.
Peggy’s Cove is a small fishing village of just 30 souls situated in an impossibly beautiful part of Nova Scotia’s rocky coastline.
And like a lone candle on a birthday cake, the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse stands above it all.
For most of the world, it was tragedy that brought Peggy’s Cove into their living rooms.
The ill-fated Swiss Air Flight 111 crashed in waters just off of Peggy’s Cove on September 2, 1998.
The world’s media converged on the small village, broadcasting the recovery effort play-by-play with the stunning lighthouse ever-present in the background.
The journalists who came to cover the story experienced the same journey everyone else does as they make their way to Peggy’s Cove.
Those last miles go on forever.
But nobody minds.
Travelling along St. Margaret’s Bay towards Peggy’s Cove it becomes obvious why this is home to some of the best day sailing in the world.
The coastline is stunning.
And the road seems to replace left and right corners with ooo’s and ahh’s every step of the way.
If you’re from a bigger city, far away, it’s the kind of drive that has you drooling at the listings in the window of the local real estate office while trying to do some fancy mental math on the potential of your 401(k) investments.

Partway between the last gas station and Peggy’s Cove, your eyes can’t help but look out onto the bay as you try to keep at least one of them on the road.
That’s why you didn’t notice the factory that makes some of the world’s most advanced radio transmitters.
It was on your left.
Nautel has been there for over 50 years.
Their more than 200 employees design and manufacture radio transmitters that serve over 16,000 customers in 177 countries.
There, in what some might say is the middle of nowhere and what others might say is a bit more out of the way than that, is an advanced manufacturer driving global innovation while also driving economic growth and impacting dozens of communities and thousands of families.
Dozens of communities.
Thousands of families.
And this same story plays out in communities large and small the world over.
Manufacturing has a way of driving a degree of focused economic impact that few sectors match.
It builds communities.
It moves families forward.
And we think that’s pretty important.

Less than a decade after Nautel’s journey began, a young technical draftsman joined the company.
He had grown up just a few minutes down the road, and my guess is he felt pretty lucky to get a job in his trade so close to home.
It was the beginning of a successful, 40-year long relationship and career.
There on the shores of St. Margaret’s Bay, on the road to Peggy’s Cove.
His son went on to start what would become Kula Partners.

Let's Connectcarman-crop

I invite your feedback and welcome your thoughts on marketing and sales for B2B manufacturers. Click here to send me an email or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Carman Pirie
Co-founder, Kula Partners