For many startups (and even established businesses), a strategic acquisition represents the ultimate goal. But big-money company sales don’t just happen; marketing a company for acquisition is a years-long process. Here are five lessons we've learned.
I frequently engage in consultative conversations with companies looking to grow their business. And no matter how quick they are to want to jump straight to tactics, I always tell them that success in an ever-global, ever-competitive business environment requires following a logical order of things.
Basically, they want to start counting their eggs before ensuring that their chicken is healthy.
There is no panacea – although several prospects with whom I’ve spoken with recently believe that “writing thought leadership content” was the answer. This is probably because they read a thought leadership blog about the importance of thought leadership.
How’s that for a meta view?
What I always tell them is that you can have the best-written piece with an eye-popping fresh perspective, but if it is not packaged, promoted, leveraged and sustained, it will fall flat. In short, if you want to grow your business, you have to put first things first.
To stick with my chicken/egg metaphor, you can’t get eggs without a chicken.
So, what’s a business to do? Follow these four steps in a logical order and you’ll be setting yourself up for success.
Step 1: It all starts with the brand.
Your brand is the visual, verbal and emotional attributes that define a company and set it apart from the competition. Your brand needs to be well defined, articulated in compelling fashion and visually in alignment with the image you want to project to the target consumer.
A prospect offering a very forward-thinking software solution to C-level executives who run multiple companies had the product – but the core positioning, messaging, differentiators, look and feel made the company look like a high school product. Lead generation efforts – networking, digital advertising, organic – weren’t working. And I can’t say I’m surprised. The brand looked amateur at best – and this is a kiss of death when trying to gain attention of busy decision makers.
Yes, branding matters. So ask yourself the question whether what your company does or offers is clear, compelling and differentiated from the competition. Better yet – ask an outsider for a fresh perspective and have them tell you what they think about your company vis-à-vis the competition.
Step 2: The brand must be brought to life on a solid foundation.
It’s one thing to have a style guide, an elevator speech and audience-specific talking points. The next step is to make sure you bring it to life.
Nowadays, and especially in B2B environments, the foundation for every business is the company website – the canvas on which the brand is painted. Your 24/7/365 interactive advertisement to the world must serve as the epicenter from which all your marketing efforts emanate from and to which all marketing and business development efforts point to.
The foundation is more than brand. It’s information architecture, conversion funnel planning, SEO, home base for thought leadership, 15-second credibility check, lead capture and much more. It’s the launching pad and safe landing zone for all marketing efforts. And it’s ever-evolving with nips, tucks and improvements based on customer feedback, movements in the market, opportunities and of course data.
Every great foundation can be regularly improved. Often business leaders and marketing directors are too close to it to see. So again, ask an outsider for a fresh perspective.
For example, think your website is done once it’s launched? Nope. It’s just getting started.
Does your website reflect the message and image you want for the brand? Is it easy and logical to navigate? What does that outsider think is the most important thing on your site should be? How does that compare to your judgment on what’s important? Then, back that with data by looking at your analytics and heat mapping software that tracks the movements of prospect through your site.
Step 3: With a well-defined brand and a solid foundation in place, now you can start thinking strategically about marketing.
In this sense, marketing is the outward, proactive promotion of the business.
The CEO of a financial services company I met with recently questioned the value of marketing. She never did a stitch of it in 20 years but felt compelled to invest in it now because everyone was telling her she needed to. The CEO wanted to skip over step 1 and 2 above and jump right to “pushing out thought leadership.”
As I started to walk her through the logical order of things and point out some real deficits in her company’s positioning and visual identity, she got defensive. All she wanted to know was how much it was going to cost for Altitude to write for her and how many leads she’d get.
Finally, she came around.
That’s when we started talking more strategic and how it’s not about writing a blog or sending out a press release. It’s about alignment with the brand and a plan that is based on the realities of goals, time and budget. And it’s about commitment – sticking to the plan. As we sketched out the bones of an editorial strategy, tremendous opportunity presented itself for the company to sponsor some primary research on the future of the market in a niche of the space that the company could own from a thought leadership standpoint.
The research could then be used as the lynchpin to a year’s worth of content – research paper, blogs, e-books for lead capture purposes and months’ worth of social media bait to drive site traffic and secure speaking engagements at industry events.
According to a 2014 study by Marketo, about one-third of companies don’t have a marketing plan. Only 56 percent of small businesses (fewer than 50 employees) have one. Simply put, there is no excuse. So if you don’t have a marketing plan, you are likely letting the tactics du jour run the show. This is ultimately costing you more time and more money than it would to develop a solid plan based on the realities of time, budget, goals and skills. If you have a plan, go back and make sure it is in alignment with the brand and can be supported by the foundation you have built.
Step 4: Business development.
Unless you are offering a “buy now” product, solution or service, there’s a fine gray line between marketing and sales. Too often, organizations that invest in steps 1-3 believe the job is done there and they don’t look further down the funnel into sales opportunity conversion.
A well-defined brand, solid foundation and strategic approach to marketing has one major goal: to get a prospect to want to engage in a sales conversation. That’s right. A real conversation. And here’s where the shades of gray come into play.
A client in the cloud computing space was correct in believing that marketing’s job was to drive leads – and invested smartly in steps 1-3 above. But business was flat. So we analyzed the leads that were coming in, assessed the quality of those leads and started to collaboratively problem solve.
We discovered that the company was getting about 40 leads per month, of which 20 were classified as high quality – the prospect had visited the website before, downloaded a white paper, signed up for a newsletter, had an email address that was from a business in the client’s top 1,000 target list or some combination of the four. Only one out of 20 turned into a sale.
The VP of sales’ answer was to double the number of leads. The real answer was to improve the close rate because the cost to double the leads was exponentially higher in this space whereas the cost of improving conversions further down the lead funnel was a matter of a shorter, more compelling demo, better follow up and better-trained sales folks.
So, the next time you are looking at your sales and asking what you need to do grow the business remember that success needs to follow a logical order of things. Pick apart each of the steps above. Assess. Measure. Test. Reassess. And stop wasting your time trying to answer which came first, the chicken or the egg. Because it’s clearly the chicken.