Executives from leading b-to-b companies, including Cisco Systems, IBM Corp. and USG, agreed that in a world changed by the Internet, as well as by competitive business forces, the old model of serving up static information to customers just doesn't work anymore.
"We are not the old IBM, where you just buy a box," said Matt Preschern, VP-small and medium business and ecosystem communications at IBM, during a keynote presentation.
"We are a very different company today. For us as a company, it is of paramount importance for us to understand who this give-me customer is, what they're looking for and how we market and communicate with them."
Preschern, who has been with IBM for 10 years, said the company has changed dramatically in the past five years, itself acquiring more than 60 companies, more than 40 of which were software companies.
In other key indicators of how IBM's business has changed, more than 40% of total company revenue is now generated by software and about 60% of revenue comes from outside the U.S.
IBM's customers are also changing. According to a study of 180 CIOs conducted last year by IBM, the No. 1 issue keeping CIOs up at night is IT-led business transformation (20%), followed by IT governance and budget issues (19%). At the bottom of concerns is IT implementation, which was cited as the top issue by only 3% of CIOs.
Preschern said IBM's business customers demand expertise and insights; are constantly looking for new ideas to transform their existing business model; demand personalized attention and customized solutions; seek open, collaborative business models; expect delivery excellence; and demand tangible business impact and timely ROI.
To address the changing needs of the marketplace, IBM has launched dozens of initiatives that focus on the new breed of customer, including CEO and CIO global leadership forums, the use of customer testimonials to tell IBM's story, holding "jamming" sessions for mass collaboration (which have resulted in at least 10 new businesses for IBM) and engaging customers and employees with Web 2.0.
"The days where you control your message are gone, and they're not coming back," Preschern said. "The best you can do is influence the message and have a distinct point of view in an industry context."
Michael Metz, senior director of Web marketing and strategy at Cisco Systems, agreed. In a keynote speech, Metz said the days of Web sites using static content as "bait" are over.
Increasingly, it is user-generated content that creates value for Web sites, Metz said, referring to such popular consumer destinations as Amazon.com and YouTube.
Calling Cisco's 7 million-page Web site "the single most innovative proof point of the brand," Metz discussed many of the new technologies Cisco is using to boost customer interaction, personalization and engagement.
Online video is one of the most successful new tools. Metz said customers who watched some of the more than four dozen embedded, two-to-four-minute videos on Cisco's Web site "stayed longer and viewed nine times as many pages [as those who did not]."
Another successful tool is "click-to-chat" functionality, which was added in November. "We started on 15 low-traffic pages," he said, noting that customers who engaged a live call center agent in a "Chat with a Cisco expert" chat window had a conversion rate of 43%.
When Cisco targeted the chat window—for instance, only offering it to customers who visited the pages three times in a week, made product comparisons or spent more than 45 seconds on a page—the number of sessions with the same high conversion rate doubled.
Recently, Cisco pulled all its Web 2.0 applications into one area of its site devoted to commercial solutions, Metz said. The project, code-named "Oreo" because the technology relied on the use of cookie data, quadrupled traffic and increased engagement and page views, he added.
All these changes, he said, were subjected to "pretty significant usability testing" before being turned on.
In another keynote presentation, Greg Salah, VP-marketing at building materials company USG, discussed how the 105-year-old company uses targeted marketing to reach increasingly diverse audience segments.
"We are challenged based on how our industry has evolved," Salah said, pointing to consolidation in the industry, products that have become commoditized and increasingly diverse audience segments with differing needs.
USG faces the additional challenge of working with a limited marketing budget to reach multiple segments, including channel partners, architects, builders, contractors and specifiers.
"When we go to the different verticals, they communicate with us in different ways," Salah said.
For example, USG found that within its largest segment—contractors—there has been a tremendous increase in Hispanic contractors, with more than 9 million in the U.S. today.
USG also discovered that Hispanic contractors are not heavy Internet users and do not read many trade magazines.
So to reach this lucrative market segment, USG developed grassroots marketing efforts, including a promotion called El Mero Mero Drywalero, a contest that awarded $10,000 to the fastest drywaller.
It also sponsors soccer teams in local communities and has developed local dealer education training programs aimed at Hispanic contractors.
Other marketing strategies that have proven successful for USG include sponsoring a car in NASCAR, which is the most popular sport among 70% of its product users; boosting its public relations efforts; and developing integrated marketing campaigns around the USG brand as well as specific products.
BtoB Editor Ellis Booker contributed to this report.