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BMA conference focuses on content, innovation

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Releasing the power of content, innovation and creativity drove the discussion earlier this month at the Business Marketing Association's international conference in Chicago. The three-day event, titled “Unleash,” attracted more than 600 b-to-b marketers, who shared strategies on how they are approaching new-business opportunities, marketing campaigns, technology and customer engagement. “Content, content, content—that's what we're here for. We need more content,” said Al Maag, chief communications officer at Avnet Inc. and new chairman of the Business Marketing Association. He said he plans to tap BMA members to provide content that will help marketers become more effective in their jobs. In a session titled “Unleash Your Content to Generate Meaningful Thought Leadership,” panelist Laura Ramos, VP-industry marketing, services, North America at Xerox Corp., discussed how important content marketing is in helping Xerox emphasize that it is not simply a copier company but also a service provider. Xerox tells this story on its website through video case studies, such as how the city of Dallas uses the company to boost its sustainability practices and cut costs. A key lesson Xerox learned about content marketing is a simple one: “It's important to have your customer tell their story, not yours,” Ramos said. Another panelist, Andrew Bosman, chief marketing and communications officer at Navigant Consulting, said his company has altered its content marketing strategy over the past few years. Previously, its employees focused on creating long, in-depth content, such as two-hour webinars and 30-page white papers. That content approach had two main problems, Bosman said. First, it was a challenge to create. Second, Navigant clients and prospects said they wanted shorter content. So the consultancy changed its model to emphasize short content that Bosman called “three minutes to impact.” The idea is to leave prospects hungry for more. “We don't want to tell a potential client everything we know,” Bosman said. During another panel, “Unleash Your Innovation,” moderated by Steve Liguori, executive director-global marketing at General Electric Co., b-to-b marketers discussed how they have developed innovative products and services to meet customer needs in a world changed by the Internet. “"Innovation' has gone through dramatic changes in the last decade,” Liguori said. “If you can't keep up with innovation and new-business models, clearly you will become a dinosaur and will become extinct.” One new strategy GE has launched around innovation is providing open forums for its customers, employees and business partners to contribute ideas for innovative products. Recently, GE debuted an Open Innovation Challenge on the Internet, asking people to contribute ideas for modernizing the power grid. “We thought we'd get a couple hundred ideas, and we got 4,800 ideas in six weeks,” Liguori said. “We can't be innovative if we're not willing to take some chances; and, with ideas we think are worth a shot, we are going to protect those ideas.” Another panelist, Andres Jordan, VP-innovation and head of content and new media strategies at Deutsche Telekom North, said, “I believe the telecom industry has failed in not being able to anticipate the impact of our networks on the world.” As a result, Deutsche—which historically had been an engineering company—started an innovation practice in which it has teams of people from marketing, sales, engineering and sales support work on developing ideas for new products and services. “These "Tiger teams' work very well, and people can come in with their passions,” Jordan said. “There is a cultural mind shift that needs to happen around innovation and ideas.” During a panel titled “Unleash Your Agency,” marketing agency executives talked about what they would like to see from their clients. John Favalo, managing partner-director of business-to-business at Eric Mower & Associates, Syracuse, N.Y., said he wants “clients with big ears, clients that are ready to listen [to big ideas].” Tom Stein, president-chief creative officer of the newly rebranded Stein+Partners Brand Activation, New York, said, “Our creative people are incredibly motivated by the opportunity to solve business problems.” Asked how agencies can “train” their clients, Favalo said, “Maybe it's not so much training as "keep talking.' ” When communication breaks down, he said, “bills get really, really high and relationships sour.” What's crucial, Favalo said, is to focus on outcomes rather than outputs and “make sure that the endgame always comes first.” The agency executives were generally upbeat about the outlook for their businesses. “What we're seeing is the budgets are getting smaller but the opportunities are getting bigger,” said Howard Sherman, president of Doremus, New York. “We're seeing pretty robust outlooks from many of our clients right now,” Stein said, particularly in the areas of product launches and thought-leadership initiatives. In a keynote session titled “Unleash Your Company Voice,” Roy Vallee, CEO of Avent Inc., discussed the importance of communications at his company. “Communications are the voice of the company and the voice of the CEO. They drive the brand, and research shows that branding drives stock prices,” Vallee said. Avnet uses an array of tools to communicate internally and externally, including employee emails, online videos sharing quarterly results, an intranet collaboration tool, social media and seminars for employees around the world. “Employees are your most significant branding effort,” Vallee said. “Employee engagement is very important to your business.” Sean Callahan and John Obrecht contributed to this report.
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