On The Kula Ring we love a niche market. The varied and interesting challenges that marketers face in these highly specialized markets never ceases to amaze. This week we are joined by one such marketer. Mike McCormack is the VP of Marketing and Strategy with the Appleton Group, a division of Emerson. Mike and his team market to customers that are secluded, both physically and technologically; within business infrastructures where internet connectivity may not be allowed for safety. It is an exciting conversation with unique hurdles that Mike and Appleton have had to overcome. You have internet though, because you’re reading this. So get listening, you won’t be disappointed.
Creating Marketing for Those Secluded by Necessity 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, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, sir?
Carman Pirie: I am happy to be here, and you?
Jeff White: I’m doing great. I’m happy to be here, as well.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think… You know, there’s a nut that needs to be cracked by manufacturing marketers, and I think it’s… There’s no magic bullet. And that’s why I think today’s conversation is so interesting because I do think it’s a challenge that’s going to persist for the next while.
Jeff White: For some time. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: It’s a pattern that they’re going to be navigating easily for the next five-plus years.
Jeff White: I have to think so and potentially even beyond. And it’s an issue that persists across… It really sometimes makes the job of marketers within a manufacturing organization that much more difficult when the connectivity with sales, and the kind of synchronization that needs to happen there that perhaps best comes to life digitally, isn’t necessarily gelling.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Without further ado, let’s jump into it. I think today’s guest is going to have some insight to offer.
Jeff White: Absolutely. So, joining us today is Mike McCormack. Mike is the VP of Marketing and Strategy at the Emerson Appleton Group. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Mike.
Mike McCormack: Thanks for having me on, Jeff.
Carman Pirie: Mike, it’s awesome to have you on the show. I wonder if we could start by getting a bit of an introduction to the Emerson Appleton Group, your part within Emerson, I guess, so maybe that’s a two phase intro, and then we’ll want to learn a bit more about you, as well.
Mike McCormack: Absolutely. Emerson is a Fortune 200 automation company that is global in its reach and scope, focusing on helping largely industrial, all the way from discrete, hybrid, and process industries, automate and improve their operations within their facility. Everything from control systems, to valves, to pneumatic automation, actuation. And then Appleton Group’s part in that is on the electrical space. So, we’re about providing electrical material largely to harsh, hazardous, or otherwise areas that need a higher level of safety for operators, as well as safety for electrical equipment itself.
Appleton is also a global company that’s part of the discrete automation part of Emerson that does focus in on that electrical safety and reliability within those harsh and hazardous environments.
Carman Pirie: Very cool. And you know, it’s funny, because we’re talking today about the challenge of navigating the transition from traditional to digital when you serve a market that frankly isn’t in front of a computer all day every day. And in some way, it feels to me like that challenge might even be more difficult because part of what you’re doing at Emerson Appleton Group is marketing more technologically advanced, progressive solutions. So, there’s a real desire probably to walk the talk.
Mike McCormack: Absolutely. Yes. As Emerson and Appleton continue to move into those more automation products, and more technologically sophisticated products, the need to have that marketing, and that training material as point of use becomes more crucial, and it is definitely a challenge when your user bases and that point of use are often in remote parts of the world, remote parts of the country, as well as just in parts that don’t have connectivity for a variety of reasons. Including IT security and just cybersecurity reasons to not have that general connectivity inside of a refinery, for instance, or a power plant, and other critical sites.
Carman Pirie: That’s an important distinction too because so often these conversations kind of start and stop around transition, kind of the aging of the workforce, a graying of the workforce, and the new folks coming in with different preferences. But beyond that dynamic, you’re saying this is just an environmental situational one, too.
Mike McCormack: Yes. Yes. It is. It is. And a lot of the existing industrial facilities across the globe have very restrictive policies on bringing in any kind of electronic equipment, especially ones that can communicate. And understanding what all of those requirements are. That can vary from company to company, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, is important for marketers to understand not just on your product development side, but also on how you’re gonna reach and communicate to customers.
Jeff White: Mike, on that front, if we’re talking about physically isolated plants, also knowing that buying groups, as we all know in this manufacturing space are larger and larger. How much of a role do the folks within those types of facilities, within those types of roles play in a broader buying arrangement?
Mike McCormack: So, usually at the point of use, those people, especially for technologically sophisticated products, ones that are connected themselves, or the ones that require an engineer’s level of decision making, it’s the plant people. The people who spend the majority of their days in fire-proof suits out in the plants, or otherwise out in those hazardous locations. They’re the ones making the buying decisions. The purchasing people who are usually behind a computer all day, for some of the more basic commodity products, they’ll make that decision on those pieces. But at the end, the purchasing folks who cuts the PO is gonna rely on that engineer out in the field for what they need to buy down to the exact manufacturer and specification, because it is so crucial to have the right equipment that works with the broader system out in the plant.
Carman Pirie: And you painted such a vivid picture there. I mean, you’re down to the suit that the person’s wearing, and you can almost… I can visualize that making it difficult to use technology, let alone not having access to it anyway. How are you… What are you doing? How are you operating in this space? How are you breaking through? How are you standing out when some of the tools that most marketers think of these days might not be available?
Mike McCormack: So, I think it starts with ensuring you have the right voice of the customer. That you’re talking to those people who you are trying to communicate to, and in this instance talking to them is usually in person, or at lunch, or when you can have some of their time outside of the facility to truly understand how they are doing their jobs every day. The best thing I can do is have my marketing communications people and my marketers out watching their behavior when they’re out in the field to understand what tools do they actually use and can use out in the field, and then ask those follow-up questions about how are they connecting to whatever they’re doing. How are they getting that information?
And in some cases, some of the older workforce are definitely pulling out lots and lots of pieces of paper, and they’re going back to their offices, or asking other people to print things out for them. So, that’s one area you have to make sure you can reach and make sure you have printable pieces in those cases. But those that do use digital tools, and those are becoming more and more common, we need to understand and make sure your content is consumable on these devices. Some areas have lower bandwidth restraints because they have an isolated network that’s behind a firewall that doesn’t have 5G, or doesn’t have the internet speed we’re all used to in our environment, like in an office environment, so you want to make sure you have material that’s able to be easily pulled up that’s low megabyte, low… Just low size.
And then you want to make sure that it formats correctly on some of the tools that they use. So, some of these hazardous environments have specific tablets that are actually intrinsically safe that are allowed to be out in a potentially explosive atmosphere, and those things don’t have all the features and functionality of your standard iPad or Android tablet that you’re looking at. So, you want to make sure your material is optimized for those devices when your user base are using those at the point of decision making.
Jeff White: I love that. And Carman knows that I love this stuff. Anytime you get into the design of something with these unique limitations that really get to the heart of a specific user need, that’s a special level of understanding of what you need to create and how you need to deliver it. You know, that medium is inherently different than all the marketing automated platforms that so many marketers get to enjoy when you’re kind of constricted by these rules, and formats, and specific things. So, hats off for digging into that and truly beginning to understand it, because it’s not a common thing to look at it to that level.
Mike McCormack: No. When you have a niche customer base, there aren’t academic journals or other research that’s readily available that you can Google and download and understand what best practices are, you have to understand the broader market’s best practices but then talk with your customers directly to understand how they want to be communicated with, and then format to make sure you’re there for their needs.
Carman Pirie: And you know, this just would impact content type, as well. I mean, my guess is that you can’t rely much on video, because obviously of size restrictions. I mean, yes, you can make lower res better streaming video or what have you, but do you find it does tend to default a bit more to written communication?
Mike McCormack: It does. You need to default to written communication including ensuring you have the right written communication that has the relevant information they need at each point in their decision cycle. Video content is crucially important when you’re introducing a brand new technology. That’s not something that someone is gonna make a decision on while they’re out in the field. That’s something in the office time they want to know and understand what you’re doing there. But when you are at the point of implementation, or at the point of replacing an existing thing, you need to have that written communication and in a consumable format, preferably kind of one page, one screen-esque format that is easy for them to access and see everything they need. Because when they’re in those fire suits with gloves and everything, they’re not… They don’t want to navigate through eight screens to go find what they need. You gotta be as accessible as possible.
Carman Pirie: I’d be curious. As you and the marketing team have gotten closer to customers and explored that kind of voice of customer research beyond the device, the unique devices, any other surprises? Any kind of assumptions that you carried into that that ended up being wrong?
Mike McCormack: You know, I think some of the assumptions that we had is that everybody does prefer digital communication. And when you actually get out and talk to customers, you understand that written physical materials are actually still important in some use cases, because some people have precisely zero connectivity out in the field either by that they don’t have the investment dollars to build out that connectivity infrastructure, or because of rules within their facility. Nuclear power plants, for instance, you need quite the lengthy approval to get something into that facility. But paper is generally allowed.
So, making sure that you really know your customer and what you need to do to talk to them, I think, and not just sort of assume the feedback you get digitally represents your entire customer base, because you’re not getting feedback digitally from those customers who are not digital enabled themselves.
Carman Pirie: I’m taking a bit of liberties here.
Jeff White: Wouldn’t be the first time.
Carman Pirie: But I think to say it’s the defining strategy would be the taking the liberties part, but I do think there’s something kind of charming or interesting about a Fortune 200 company, serious global brand, having a bit of the guiding north star to say, “We want to provide the best paper-based communications in our industry.” Nobody would be thinking that in 2023, but-
Mike McCormack: I don’t lead with that when I talk with our CEO and everything about our strategy. But ensuring you have the right communication for your audience I think is what’s important. And not just assuming that everyone works in the same environment that we work in.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. That self-reference criteria is killer for marketers.
Jeff White: Mike, how much… I think as marketers these days, we all try to make the effort to create once and distribute and repurpose as many times as possible. How much of that comes into play when you’re creating digital properties for things that you then need to distill down to one pager printable materials?
Mike McCormack: No, that’s a really good point, and that tends to be the crux of most of the ongoing discussions within our organization is we, like every other organization, have limited budget, limited time, limited resources to create everything, so we can’t do everything we want to do across the board to satisfy every customer need that we’ve discovered. So, we have constant kind of prioritization discussions to say, “For this type of material, for a brand new technology, major product launch piece, we’re gonna try and blanket it and have everything for everybody.” But then for different pieces, for different ongoing communications, we narrow that down and we try and follow the 80/20 rule and say, “All right, these five materials will cover 80% of our customer use cases,” and some people, yep, they might have to go to a printer, or they might have to wait until they’re in the office to access this, or in some cases they may not ever see it at all.
But you know, you cannot do everything for everybody, so trying to make sure that we’re hitting the right prioritization is crucial.
Carman Pirie: One assumes the multilingual nature of things, given the fact that you’re a global business, doesn’t make this less complicated.
Mike McCormack: It does not. No. No. And that’s where digital shines is in multi nature, with AI translations, and data banks of everything, it makes it far easier, and faster, and cheaper to have digital translations outside of your native language. So, when you get to the paper translations, that makes that prioritization and budget even more important. Including which languages and markets we’re gonna tackle and what pieces we’re gonna have available.
So, you kind of look at some kind of Maslow’s marketing hierarchy of needs of I’ll have a catalog page, I’ll have the real basic stuff physically and digitally in lots of languages, but yet your fancy automated, animated video that you want played, well, that might only be in our top two or three languages.
Jeff White: How far does this requirement to service the more offline customers go? Is it right through to the order stage, as well as kind of that early identification journey where you’re trying to get people aware of the new products and things like that? How does it go through to sales?
Mike McCormack: Well, just during COVID, we actually finally stopped taking faxed in orders, so we did stop taking handwritten orders recently. So, the order stage is still digital, so we make sure we have those tools available to people to order digitally. But the specifying and the designate that I want Appleton’s part ABC for our best customer base, we try and make sure that that’s available across the spectrum so that they can easily communicate, “Hey, I need this Appleton widget and here’s the part number,” to the procurement person who’s behind a desk.
Carman Pirie: And it does stand to reason that you could tolerate a bit more friction at the time of order. People have already made a decision. You kind of force them down the digital route a bit more. Whereas, in specifying, your friction elimination desires are even higher.
Mike McCormack: Absolutely. Because if on the specifying form it’s your part number, you’re getting 90% of those orders. That’s where the battle is truly won or lost. And you’re getting the price that you need. You’re not trying to come in late and change a decision based upon pricing or some other reason later on. Or you’re never gonna be as successful.
Carman Pirie: Right. That’s really helpful guidance as people are looking at, “Okay, what parts of this process can I maybe nudge my customers towards a more digitally centric motion?” And you know, starting with orders, maybe keeping specifying a bit more omni delivery is a good idea.
Jeff White: I think one of the things that is also perhaps worth exploring here is we talked a bit about a graying workforce on the purchasing side of things, and probably on the sales side of things, as well. I mean, we don’t want to be ageist about it, but it is a fact of the manufacturing space currently that we’re trying to get more and more young people into it, but it’s not necessarily moving as quickly as many would like. But are you finding on the other end that some of the newer entrants into the field are pushing back against the paper and trying to get better access? Or is it just that the environments are so restrictive and locked down, that’s not possible?
Mike McCormack: No. Absolutely. The younger workforce, those who have been digital for their purchasing information consumption needs their whole lives, or their adult lives, are definitely pushing their own companies to be able to do this. Because they know and see the efficiencies that would come from that piece, from the ability to cut down on errors, just even on… You know, we’ve seen them when someone misinterprets a handwritten SKU number written down and they order the wrong thing. That could cause thousands of dollars and more importantly weeks of downtime or some kind of mistake in a plant there when they’re ordering the wrong thing. And having that digital piece available is how they want to work.
And so, they’re pushing their own companies to think outside the box, to think about how they can set up their own private networks, still have the industrial security that they need, but they’re able to access this digitally. Because they also know that more and more information is only available digitally because manufacturers and suppliers can only afford in some cases to produce one, and you’re gonna produce the one that is easily distributable globally when you are forced to make that choice.
So, understanding who those voices are in the customer base, and what they’re pushing, and then where they think their company is going to allow that space in the future. Is it using more secure communication technologies? Is it using more cellular so it’s isolated from the plant infrastructure fiber network? Understanding where you think that’s gonna go is important, so that when we’re investing, and thinking about prioritization, we’re building content that is consumable by the majority of the people going forward rather than just the people who are gonna retire here.
Carman Pirie: Spray some Windex on the crystal ball a little bit, because it’s interesting to talk about this from a push-pull dynamic, like one of it is as that generation of buyers kind of changes out, they’re going to be pushing their organizations to that connectivity, so that kind of leads me to believe a little bit that the end might be in sight, and we could go more fully digital at some point in the near future. But then at the same time, you know, you mentioned nuclear energy as an example. That’s an industry that does not move fast and does not adopt new things quickly.
Mike McCormack: No, no.
Carman Pirie: So, I guess if you had to guess, do you see a time on the horizon when you think you’ll be able to be fully digital?
Mike McCormack: I do. I do believe that the future will be fully digital like it is in other industries that are farther along the technology curve and don’t have some of the same limitations. But I definitely think it’s beyond a five year time horizon. I’m thinking it’s somewhere in the 5 to 10 year range that we could get fully digital. But each year, we’re making sure we’re reassessing and understanding where we’re at, and each year we’re producing less and less pieces for the physical media and more and more as a percentage of what we do in the digital pieces. So, I suspect within five years that percent that’s physical is gonna get very low.
Carman Pirie: As you assess your buyers, I know I’m jumping around here a little bit, but there is something you said earlier that has had me thinking. You’ve mentioned around say a new product introduction, or solving a new problem, or solving an old problem in a new way, that’s the kind of area where people potentially would be doing the research at the desktop. That’s where video is going to come in handy and things of that sort. I’m assuming that that’s not everybody, but I guess do we have an understanding of the percentage of those tough to reach, on the ground, on the production line buyers that actually do have some office time, do have some of that research time? Do you have a sense of what that percentage looks like?
Mike McCormack: Oh, I think 100% of those hard to reach people do have some office time. I mean, they all have email addresses like every single one of us, and they’re accountable to their bosses, and have to fill out expense reports. I mean, I believe some of them are in the 5 to 10% of their time that’s behind a desk. Others, depending on their role and everything, can be 30 or 40% of their time behind a desk. So, when you’re trying to reach those people who are majority of their time out in the field, and only have 5 to 10%, you do want to make sure you have content that is brief and to the point because if you’re having your half an office day and you’ve got your email inbox to go through, and an expense report to fill out, and everything else you need to do for your day job, you want to make sure you have content that can be impactful, quick, and insightful to reach them to think about, “All right. Next time when I’m behind a desk, I need to save an hour to research this new technology or do this type of thing, too.”
Jeff White: In those cases where you have people who are still consuming the paper side of things, are you attempting at all to do any sort of attribution?
Mike McCormack: No. I mean, at the end of the day, it is about consumption, which in our case is delivery of that paper material out there. We know X amount got out to these locations. As to how much it’s being actually attributed, it’s a difficult thing to do.
Jeff White: Yeah. It’s refreshing to hear you say it like that, to be honest, because it would have been a guess, you know? If you were trying to say, “Well, we think this contributed this percentage of suppliers.”
Carman Pirie: I think you should do it like the old days of the community newspapers where they tried to suggest that every weekly newspaper was read by an average of 20 people. Like, “How? How?”
Mike McCormack: Yeah. I could spend all day trying to make assumptions on that, but I don’t think that that’s really gonna lead to any insights, so it’s more about having those conversations, trusting that it is being consumed and driving business, measuring your overall success rate as a business, but then continuing to listen to when you think we can actually continue to make that digital transition and relieve ourselves of that expense in both time and budgetary dollars on that physical media.
Carman Pirie: Mike, I want to change gears a little bit as we close out the show, and it’s getting to be that time of year. I don’t want to wish our year away yet, but we are starting to look ahead and plan for next year, and people are thinking about their 2024, et cetera. What are you most looking forward to? What do you think is gonna be the biggest change in 2024 for marketers?
Mike McCormack: As I sit and think about what we’re looking for for the next year or so, what we’re really trying to focus in on from listening to our customers that we hadn’t been quite as attuned to in the past couple of years is ensuring we have the right length of material and the right piece of marketing content that can kind of fit into enable conversations with sales organizations with the end customer’s piece. So, to ensure we can be more customizable in what we provide, so having… And this does lend itself to the digital piece, but ensuring we have the ability to customize conversations, or have our sales team customize conversations for their specific customer needs, because they are so varied and diverse. So, that’s one of the areas we’re looking at and focusing on in ’24 and we brought in some people from outside industries, from not industrial space, to help us think about how to do that a little bit better than what we’ve done in the past here at Emerson.
Carman Pirie: Mike, it’s been wonderful to have you on the show. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mike McCormack: Oh, it’s been my pleasure. I really appreciate it.
Jeff White: Thanks a lot.
Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring, with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at kulapartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-Apartners.com/thekularing.
Mike McCormackVP of Marketing and Strategy at Emerson, Appleton Group
Experienced marketing leader in the electrical, construction and automation industry. Currently serving as the Vice President, Marketing and Strategy for Emerson’s Appleton Group, a global provider of reliable and robust electrical construction material for the world’s most demanding environments.