The Kula Ring podcast is essential listening for manufacturing marketers who want to grow their digital presence and compete online.
Sponsored by Kula Partners—an agency committed to helping leading B2B manufacturers craft digital experiences that transform how they engage buyers, serve customers, and outpace their competition—The Kula Ring podcast features conversations about marketing, sales, and technology with top manufacturing executives from across North America.
The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.
Brian Richards, Digital Marketing Supervisor at Gardner Denver, shares his insights on how he led a digital transformation in his previous role at Knapheide Manufacturing—moving from push marketing tactics to pulling customers through their distribution network.
A Look at a B2B Digital Transformation with 20/20 Hindsight Transcript:
Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.
Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring. My name is Jeff White and joining me as always is Carman Pirie. Carman, how are you doing today?
Carman Pirie: I’m doing well, Jeff. I think when we have podcasts it’s maybe when I’m at my most hydrated. You kind of make it a point to make sure we have water sitting beside the mic and things of that nature. And generally I just drink espresso all day, which goes in the opposite direction of that. So, I’m feeling good. I don’t know that our listeners needed insight into my personal health and wellbeing, but …
Jeff White: I’m glad to hear you’re healthy.
Carman Pirie: It’s a good habit, you know?
Jeff White: Yeah. Well, with the life insurance policy we have to carry on each other, it’s good that you stay healthy.
Carman Pirie: Well, at least listeners should expect that I may likely make it through this episode.
Jeff White: If the next half hour is any indication, the rest of your life will go swimmingly.
So I’m excited for our guest today. Should be an interesting conversation.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. One of the things that I find as we’ve been having a number of marketers on the show, telling the story about their role and digital transformation and all its various aspects. I don’t know that we’ve had anyone that really could look at it in a bit of a rear view mirror.
Jeff White: “I did that, and it worked.”
Carman Pirie: Yeah. People are usually just kind of in the middle of it or what have you. So I’m excited for today’s guest because while he’s starting a significant new challenge, he just came out of a really interesting gig that drove a lot of change. So, why don’t we introduce him so you don’t have to like come in behind the curtain?
Jeff White: Talking about him in the third person?
Carman Pirie: Yeah.
Jeff White: So joining us today on The Kula Ring is Brian Richards. Brian is the Digital Marketing Supervisor at Gardner Denver. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Brian.
Brian Richards: Welcome. Thank you guys. Appreciate it.
Carman Pirie: It’s great to have you on the show, Brian. I wonder if we may just get underway with a bit of an introduction to you and your role at Gardner. So can you tell our listeners a bit about you and what you’re doing at Gardner Denver?
Brian Richards: Absolutely. So I started my new role about two months ago. So typically the Digital Marketing Supervisor at Gardner Denver is responsible for demand generation efforts. So that’s everything from your marketing automation platform, to web, paid digital media, trade shows as well. That’s lumped into demand generation here at Gardner Denver. So really well rounded efforts behind demand generation. And then just leading that team within the business unit here on our demand generation efforts across the Americas.
Carman Pirie: Give us some context of how big a team?
Brian Richards: Currently we have four within the United States. We also have team members down in South America as well.
Carman Pirie: Oh, nice. Cool.
Brian Richards: Yeah, so both continents span both North and South America. Gardner Denver has a global business unit, so there’s business units in Europe and APAC as well.
Jeff White: So I do think it’s interesting that as a Digital Marketing Supervisor that you’re including trade show in that capacity.
Brian Richards: Yeah. So I report out to a larger demand generation team at the corporate level. So, everything we do, really all the initiatives that we do, are focused around demand generation and really trade shows has kind of been lumped into that demand generation effort.
The trade shows that we participate in are end customer trade shows. So, they’re typically not your industry or distribution type trade shows. They’re end customer trade shows and we’re trying to pull those customers through into our demand generation efforts and initiatives.
Carman Pirie: Cool. Thank you for that introduction. And just as quickly as we got onto the subject of Gardner Denver, we’re going to completely leave it and kind of look in the rear view mirror a bit because you’ve just kind of exited an approximately 9 or 10 year stint with Knapheide Manufacturing. The last five years with them, you were their Manager of Interactive Marketing and Communications, leading a significant digital transformation. So, what I’d like to do is talk through that transformation a bit and maybe some of the highlights and lowlights of it, lessons learned along the way, et cetera.
I wonder, where might we begin with that? I guess as you started that role, how did you look at the challenge ahead around that transformation effort that you were leading and what were some of those formative planning mechanisms, and strategic approaches that you laid early on that you feel helped with this success?
Brian Richards: Absolutely. So, the biggest challenge when we started that digital transformation about five years ago, and really the real reason behind why we did it, is because traditionally as a B2B manufacturing company, a lot of our marketing efforts were spent on the push marketing tactics down to our distribution network or our dealer network. We started to recognize the importance of speaking to the end customer, the end user, and participating in a lot of pull type marketing tactics and pulling those customers through into our distribution network.
So, the biggest challenge honestly was the fact that we didn’t have the technology to do it when we started, we really didn’t have the talent, we didn’t have a fully staffed team, we didn’t have the processes. And quite honestly, we had spent the majority of the 170 years in business really working the relationship side with our distribution network and letting them market to the end customer. So, we came in with a mountain to climb, sort of to say. Right? Like I said, we didn’t have the technology, the people, the processes, and we weren’t really used to marketing to that customer segment directly. So those were really the big obstacles when we started.
Really what we did is we took a systematic approach and took a step back and determined what we would need in order to take baby steps forward to get the foundation laid, and the plumbing, and the electricity in, and all of the components you need before you move into the house.
So, that was not a short endeavor. It took us a good year to really understand what we needed to do on the tech side, what we needed to do on the talent side. Then also, how do we approach our customers, the end customers? What channels we wanted to go through, what mediums we wanted to utilize. So, we really spent the first year laying the foundation, so to say, for our efforts on the pull type marketing initiatives and really focused on that digital side.
Jeff White: I have to ask, choosing to leapfrog the distribution network must have been a bit of a surprise to them. How have they taken that? And has it actually increased the fruitfulness of that relationship? Or have you ended up changing the way that you do distribute the products or the way you did distribute the products when you were there?
Brian Richards: You know, it’s always interesting anytime you tell your distribution network or show your distribution network that you’re going to start directly marketing to their customers.
Obviously there’s some challenges behind that. Obviously there’s some perception challenges behind that. I think the biggest thing with us is, as a B2B manufacturer, if you look at any other industry, say automobiles for example, does Ford Motor Company directly market to end customers even though that they have dealers in their own network?
Absolutely they do. Right? You see TV commercials, you see radio ads, you see a whole lot of things, emails, you see a whole lot of things going. At the end of the majority of that manufacturer’s direct advertisement, they typically push them to the local nearest dealer.
Right. So that was our approach. Everything that we wanted to do direct to end customers. The end goal was really to cultivate leads for our distribution network and then park those leads on the doorstep for the distributors to close. So I think you really have to sell the value from a national perspective. Our distributors, some were very large, some were very small. I think you find that in a lot of distribution or dealer networks. You have to preach the value of you doing it on a national scale or a global scale and the efficiencies that you can gain. Also, the resources. I mean, a lot of times distribution networks and dealer networks just don’t have the resources that it takes to do a lot of the things, especially on the digital side, that you would like to within their market.
So that’s when you kind of centralize a lot of those efforts and you’ve got to make sure that you preach and you practice at the end of the day, everything we’re doing is to benefit you because if they win in their market, you win as a manufacturer.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think it certainly helps that you weren’t trying to leapfrog them completely and get them out of the process. That would be a key piece here to maintaining harmony. Clearly, they didn’t perceive it as a first step to trying to have a direct relationship fully with the customer and cutting them out.
Brian Richards: Yeah. And, I will note, distributors and dealers are naturally protective of their customer base. Especially when you’ve got a 170 year old company, like we were at Knapheide, coming in and saying, “Hey, we’re going to start talking directly to your customers.”
So, yes, there is absolutely some challenges there. I think over time, as the age of the average employee at distribution and dealer networks starts to get more adoptive of digital technologies, there may be a shift back to some of those functions at the local level or supplemental type efforts at the local level. But the problem we faced is a lot of our distribution networks, they relied on the relationship building type customer, right? So they weren’t going to go out of their way to participate in a lot of the digital platforms and technologies and initiatives that we wanted to do.
At the same time we understood there was massive efficiencies talking to millions of customers, and utilizing those digital platforms to do so, versus relying solely on the handshake model. So, like I said, there could be a transition back over time to some of the local efforts, but I think most manufacturers now are doing a lot of direct to consumer marketing initiatives. The majority of them, at the end of the day, they’re just trying to push those customers, those leads, back to the distributor doorstep, so when they’re ready to buy the distributors are armed with good quality leads to follow up on and grow their business.
Carman Pirie: It’s a dumb question. It’s a reasonably common model.
I want to go a little further than the one year of strategy and planning work that we’ve talked about. Once we started rolling out, what were those early priorities and early initiatives? How did you in some way pace them? Then let’s talk through some of the lessons learned with each of them.
Brian Richards: Absolutely. I think, even beyond the five year journey, one of the first things I did at Knapheide was launched a new website. I think websites are really the foundation of any digital marketing plan. It’s kind of like the pawn on the chess board, right? You kind of got to move those pieces first before you can really get moving. So, the first thing we did really even before that five year was made sure we had a website that was fully functional, capable, responsive, mobile friendly, search friendly, all those pieces that you need in a website. Lead generation capabilities within the website. So that was the first move that we made to put that foundation in place.
The next was really outbound. How do we target those customers? How do we talk to those customers? What platform are we going to use? And really we looked … marketing automation is obviously a massive, massive tool and in many B2B digital marketing toolboxes now. But, we looked at all the marketing automation platforms and we really looked at some of the top enterprise level type marketing automation platforms and we decided to utilize Oracle Eloqua platform because we understood that we would need pretty complex segmentation capabilities, pretty complex lead management and distribution capabilities. Lead nurturing, complex dynamic content, lead scoring, we would need all those tools on the digital marketing platform and the marketing automation platform.
So, after consideration of several different vendors, we went ahead and actually the big reason why we went with them was not only the capabilities but also we had an implementation partner agency that we utilized for about the first year that we were running Eloqua and they really helped us lay the foundation, lay the groundwork within the Eloqua ecosystem. That helped us hit the ground running on our own about, like I said, a year after we implemented. So, the marketing automation platform was a big one.
We also took a real hard look at the content and our content production. We were not used to producing content speaking to the end customer. So, we did a lot of primary research actually with a partner agency, understanding our customer base and our personas. That allowed us to speak more fluently to our customer base and understand their needs and challenges. How do we turn our products into solutions?
Carman Pirie: I’d be curious. When you were working through that, as you’re trying to change your tone and really understand how to cultivate the messaging for that end user, did you have any big surprises along the way there? In your research, were there learnings that just you didn’t see coming?
Brian Richards: I think a lot of the stuff that we’ve learned along the personas … we would speak to customers large and small. So it would be everything from the one man electrician, he’s a sole proprietor and it’s him in a truck and his business all the way up to large customers with hundreds, even thousands of trucks. I think the needs of those customers are very different. While we sold and we had always sold to both those customer types and everything in between, we didn’t know all of their challenges. We didn’t know all their pain points and everything from how do they acquire our product to how they get service for our products and where do they go when they need help. So, there was a massive learning curve there just because, like I said, we had a pretty extensive history of doing push marketing instead of pull marketing. So that direct contact with the end customer, it wasn’t always there. So, the needs of the customer and the pain points, those brought some things to our attention that we hadn’t seen before or we hadn’t heard before.
The other thing too was just the overall industries that we sold to. We had core vocations, core industries that we knew were our customers. But our products were so diverse that we started to uncover vocations or industries that we may have never considered before or we may not have spent time developing content for or understanding that customer base. So, there’s a lot of discovery in that time period of the primary research with end customers. I think really before we could speak fluently to that customer base, we really needed that research period to understand better who they were, what their challenges are, and how we can position ourselves to make them more efficient on the job and provide solutions on a job.
Jeff White: The Kula Ring is proud to be a media sponsor of the 2019 ManufacturED Summit Conference, which is being held September 16th to 18th in Chicago, Illinois. Carman and I will be live onsite recording interviews for future episodes of The Kula Ring. You can save $200 now with the discount code, KULAPARTNERS200 at manufacturEDsummit.com that’s manufacturEDsummit.com
Jeff White: Before you started down this path and started marketing directly to these customers, I’m assuming you must have provided resources to the distribution network for them to use to market your products. What did you think looking back on the work that you had done previously, given what you learned with the research?
Brian Richards: Absolutely. So we gave them resources, but they were your traditional resources. So, we provided the fancy literature, professionally printed. We provided the sales tools to help them go out and work with customers and quote products. We provided the training on how to sell our products and what are the features. Where we fell short a lot of times is just the fact that we lacked that link directly to the end customer.
We knew what the features of our products were, but we didn’t always know how the end customer was actually utilizing those features or maybe what features they needed to have in addition to the ones that we already offered. So, traditionally we offered the more traditional marketing collateral, your literature, your brochures, your product training, things like that.
So, when we started the digital effort, it was kind of a new frontier for us. Most of our distribution really did not participate in the digital marketing initiatives. A lot of them didn’t do email marketing. A lot of them didn’t invest highly in their websites. So, it was kind of a new realm. Our industry took awhile to adopt a lot of those digital marketing capabilities.
It was great for us because it enabled us to be the early adopter in that niche industry and position ourselves ahead of our competitors and really give us even more bandwidth with our distributors because we were going the extra mile with some of the marketing.
Carman Pirie: I really like that there’s a bit of a hidden lesson in this for distributors too.
I don’t want to underestimate the magnitude of the challenge and actually delivering on what I’m about to say, but nevertheless, I do feel like there is an opportunity for distributors to help manufacturing partners know customers better. If they could just get out of their own way to do that.
Brian Richards: Yeah. Yup. Absolutely. And not to discount their efforts at all either. I mean, distribution and dealer networks make manufacturers successful in what they do, obviously, through the sales channel and sales network. Traditionally in most industries, especially on the B2B manufacturing side, it can be a challenge to bring them into the 21st century. There are industries that are exceptions, no doubt, but the thing about the distribution network, which I think is attractive, especially for the digital marketing environment, is they’re smaller, they’re more nimble typically than the manufacturing side.
So for them to get set up and running with digital marketing, isn’t such a huge investment or even a time thing. They can jump in a lot quicker, make adjustments a lot quicker. Typically they’re very apprehensive really to adopt some of those platforms. So that’s where the manufacturers have to step in and do some of those efforts from a centralized perspective.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s interesting because of course as they face increasing pressure, every distributor conference will have a required talk track around the threat from Amazon for instance, or what have you. And those threats are real. I just can’t help but imagine, there’s some untapped pieces that you could deliver in that relationship as a distributor, right? But nevertheless, we’re not here to …
Jeff White: We didn’t come here to slam on distributors.
Carman Pirie: Or to even try to improve distributors’ business. I mean, We’re going to completely ignore them for the rest of the conversation. There was a hidden lesson in the middle of that.
As you shifted your content production efforts, I know that you also, as you built that team out in house, you also brought digital media planning and buying, etc. in house as well is my understanding. So there was certainly a time where you used outside resources to help stand this up, but then you saw fit to really consolidate things I think almost 100% internally. Is that correct?
Brian Richards: Correct. Yeah. So, when we started really investing in, because traditionally we hadn’t in the past, search and display, mostly across the Google network. We also did social media stuff as well. When we started investing in that, we had a partner agency. We worked through them to, to define and develop the paid campaigns online.
We did that for about a year and a half. We saw quite a bit of success. I think in our industry it’s, like I said, it was such a niche industry. It’s really hard for any agency I think to come in and develop campaigns for manufacturing companies, especially the more niche that industry is and be as successful as maybe they could be or even should be.
So, we let them run with it for about a year and a half. Had great success. I mean, it was a major driver behind our lead generation efforts, about 30% of our leads came from typically paid search but we did have some display out there. Then it just got to a point where our team was growing internally and I thought, “I just feel like we if we invested the time and effort we could do this better. We know our products, we know the search environment and what customers are utilizing for searching and researching our products.” So, we just made a decision that now the time is right, our team was growing, and the economy was great at the time, and we just made the decision to take it in house and just do a trial to see how it runs.
If we failed massively and numbers dropped, then we could have gone right back to the agency side. But, our throughput increased. Our lead volume increased from paid to about 40% over about a six month trial period. So, it just made sense. It was our dollars that we were spending and we were pretty critical of things like cost per conversion. When it was us watching over it.
So, it just made sense at the time. I mean, the time was right and the economy was right and we just felt like we could take it to that next level. So we did.
Carman Pirie: And how big of an investment did you make on the content generation side of this? How big of a team was that at the end of it?
Brian Richards: Honestly, that was all internal as well. So we had a team about three individuals that would handle basically all the digital ecosystem that you can imagine on Knapheide. That’s everything from website…
Carman Pirie: So those three people would be multifaceted then? They would be dealing with content in some instances?
Brian Richards: The Swiss Army knife is really the job description that we were looking for in the digital side. So, you had to wear a lot of hats. We did have people that specialized more in certain items than others. But, we definitely had to take a Swiss Army knife approach and really hire well rounded individuals. The other challenge is we’re in a very rural environment. So, you don’t have a large talent pool on the digital marketing side to choose from.
So training is of the utmost importance. You take people that have some experience, but you know can mold and you know want to grow as well with their responsibility. So, that’s what we did. We had a lot of success doing it. Obviously, we had some challenges. We had some bottlenecks in certain areas. We always could’ve done more, but we are also very cost efficient in our efforts on the digital side. So, it was a very conservative company and that’s really the reason why they’ve lasted as long as they have. And they’re 100% family owned and operated. It’s really a great story there. So, we kind of followed that model on the digital marketing side as well.
Carman Pirie: Very cool. I always used to armchair quarterback these things in hindsight and kind of try to talk to your former self five years previous and think through the advice you might have given as you were starting that role. So what is it? What might you say to yourself five years ago?
Brian Richards: Man, there’s probably a million things out there, but I’ll list a couple of my top ones. Probably the biggest one is fail more. Not fail intentionally, but take more risks. This environment, the digital marketing environment, there’s a whole lot of people out there doing a whole lot of things, so many platforms and tools and the talent pool is growing. I came from a very conservative industry, so, we were very conservative a lot of times with even some of the stuff that we did on the digital side, but take more risks. You’re never going to be revolutionary if you just kind of go by the norm and don’t jump every once in a while, right?
The other thing …
Carman Pirie: Just before you move on from that, and I’d say you’re right. I think there’s something in that digital is more measurable. Sometimes I think leads to fewer leaps of faith.
Brian Richards: Absolutely. Yup.
Carman Pirie: Fewer big bets because man, we can …
Jeff White: We could incrementally change this bid structure and change a word in the ad.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. And everything’s measurable to the point where, “Okay, how is it doing 30 days in? How’s it doing two days in?” Whereas some of the bigger bets in marketing history didn’t have quite as much visibility on immediate impact. Potentially. I don’t know.
Brian Richards: Yeah. The measurement is a big piece, obviously. In everything you do, marketing was typically the art, the feel good side. There’s a whole lot of science injected now into marketing and measurement and KPIs. You track everything you do and you live and die sometimes by those numbers. You know what I really tried…
Carman Pirie: But is it making us more conservative? This is the question.
Brian Richards: Exactly. Yeah. So what we tried to do is, I’ve always tried to look at it in terms of quarters. Like you said, nothing’s going to change overnight. So give yourself some time to accrue some data before you make knee jerk reactions and change what you’re doing based on a couple of weeks of feedback and data.
The other thing I think is important, especially if you’re a B2B marketer in a very niche industry, sometimes it can be a little bit lonely. Sometimes it can be tough to look and challenge yourself, especially if you work for the top dog in the industry or the market leader. So what I always tried to do is look outside of your industry, look outside of your niche industry for ideas, connections, benchmarking comparisons. Like I said, we were the market leader at Knapheide by far. So, you risk that complacency, right? So everything you do, you’re the top dog, but you risk that feeling of complacency.
So we tried to look outside our industry to other industries that were maybe bigger or more advanced and use that as inspiration to generate new ideas or connections or solutions too. We also tried to look at companies that spoke to the same customer base that we did. Maybe were not a competitor of ours, but they were selling products to the same industry verticals. That helped us tremendously in looking at things differently when we got ourselves into a corner and weren’t sure how to approach the solution.
Jeff White: Can you give us an example of somebody that you really held up as someone to follow or at least learn from?
Brian Richards: Yeah. There were quite a few. It’s kind of funny in the email marketing world. As an email marketer, you tend to sign up for other companies, not necessarily competitors, but people in your industry verticals. So, the power tool companies were big for us because they were the same customer base. The companies like DEWALT, Milwaukee, and Bosch. Obviously we were kind of part of the automotive industry with the products that we made at Knapheide. So, you would follow the Ford and General Motors and Ram.
You’d follow the equipment manufacturers too. The John Deeres and the Caterpillars and the Case IHs. So, those companies were obviously much larger than we were. But, they sold through a dealer distribution network in a lot of cases. They had a lot of the same challenges. They spoke to a lot of the same customers that we did. So, we tried to really look at what they were doing and understand. Can we bring those solutions? We don’t need to reinvent the wheel for everything. There are others that face this. So how do we replicate on our scale in our industry?
Carman Pirie: I think that’s some fantastic advice. Brian, I thank you so much for sharing it with us today. I think this has been a great opportunity to, again, look in that rear view mirror at a successful digital transformation. I mean, my goodness, over $20 million in annual pipeline added just on the B2B lead gen marketing automation apparatus alone within Knapheide. So your impact there is obvious and considerable and I thank you for taking the time to share it with us today.
Brian Richards: I appreciate you guys having me. It’s been great.
Carman Pirie: All the best.
Jeff White: Thanks very much.
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