Facing the Competition with Strategic Digital Marketing

Episode 109

November 10, 2020

Legacy manufacturers that previously dominated their verticals now have to contend with new entrants who know how to create focused messaging in digital spaces. In this episode of The Kula Ring, David A. Stark, Digital Marketing Transformation Growth Leader, talks about the value of shifting from a tactical to a strategic digital marketing strategy as competition increases, and how to bolster branding with a strong digital presence in order to reach prospects.

Facing the Competition with Strategic Digital Marketing 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, mate? 

Carman Pirie: I am doing well. Thank you for asking. 

Jeff White: Glad to hear you’re doing well. You just never know these days. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, it could be touch and go. Could be touch and go. Look, I’m excited for today’s conversation. I think we’re going to be able to dive in a little bit further into a scenario that I think a lot of manufacturing marketers could identify with in some way. It’s that so often we find ourselves, an organization has gone through a time of accelerated growth or even potentially an industry has sprung up it seems almost as if out of nowhere, and there’s a time when there’s just wind in the sails, and you can almost do no wrong as the marketer, right? 

Jeff White: You’re riding the wave of a really great product with a ton of interest. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Or you’re working in a new category that just has a ton of interest. But of course, as marketers, at some point we have to work a little harder at it, and I think today’s guest is going to help give some insight into that harder work. 

Jeff White: Absolutely. Yeah. Put a little structure on the bone, as it were.

Carman Pirie: Indeed, indeed. 

Jeff White: So, joining us today is David Stark, and David is a Digital Marketing Transformation Growth Leader. Welcome to The Kula Ring, David. 

David Stark: Well, thank you very much for having me, gentlemen. I appreciate it. 

Carman Pirie: David, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show and I know that your career spans a plethora of organizations and interesting categories.

Jeff White: Don’t call him old. 

Carman Pirie: Well, experienced, Jeff. Experienced. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Okay. 

Carman Pirie: But David, you worked with IBM for quite a time, and then most recently have worked in the 3D printing space, correct? 

David Stark: That is right. That is right. Yeah, I’ve been around marketing for about 100 years, it seems. Almost 20 of which were with IBM and the past four years in the exciting additive manufacturing, or better known as the 3D printing space. 

Carman Pirie: Fantastic. And I guess that’s the category that we’re kind of-

Jeff White: Talking. 

Carman Pirie: … teasing out a little bit in the intro to the show. 

Jeff White: Yeah. IBM rarely is called the innovative upstart, although they do some very innovative things. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, they’re gonna be mad at you now for saying that. 

David Stark: I was gonna say, many people just rolled over in their chairs at IBM when you said that.

Jeff White: Well, they don’t call them Big Blue for nothing. 

David Stark: That’s true. There’s bruises along the way, there’s no doubt about it. But yeah, 3D printing comparatively speaking is better categorized as something that is still relatively new. It’s perceived as a new approach to manufacturing by many, many companies. Although it has been around for a long time, the two companies that I worked for in fact were around for 30-plus years, and arguably the innovators in creating fused deposition modeling and selective laser sintering and so forth. If you’re gonna start an industry, you better finish the industry. 

But the reality is about six years ago or so, it was a little before I got into the space, 3D printing was the hottest thing since sliced bread from a stock market perspective. Everybody was assuming or projecting that every household would have a 3D printer in it, and why wouldn’t you if you believed the hype at the time. Why wouldn’t I want to print out spare parts in my guest bedroom when I break something at home? Why wouldn’t I want to be creative and create some cool art piece and whatnot? Why wouldn’t I want to duplicate anything that was actually going on in my house, like that Star Trek replicator idea kind of thing. 

But the reality was that 3D printing is harder than people assumed, and arguably it’s more expensive than people assume, so the consumer market, although it is still there and strong, you’ll find it very entrenched in education, and in hobbyists, and people doing what’s called prototyping in the space, the reality is the value proposition wasn’t there as well. Companies, in other words, couldn’t make as much money until you looked at broad manufacturers. And broad manufacturers are making stuff and why shouldn’t they embrace a technology? The challenge over the years was the technology had to catch up with the needs and requirements of the manufacturers who needed to produce in some cases what we would call machine critical parts. 

But without digressing too much, the stock market really hyped up 3D printing for a couple of years and then the bottom fell out. A company might have had shares selling for like $100 a share. Well, now they’re at like $7 a share, so the mighty have kind of fallen and now those companies are working quite hard and in some cases quite well to amplify their value propositions to penetrate the manufacturing space and to sell stuff, sell more things, but more at an industrial manufacturing arena. 

Jeff White: You know, in your time in the space, was there a very visible delineation between the home market for this just isn’t gonna happen and we really need to focus more on manufacturing? Or was that always a big part of it and the hobbyist side was just a nice to have? 

David Stark: It was a mixed bag, to be honest with you. At one shop that I’d worked for, they owned a company called MakerBot, and MakerBot is pretty well known, and still continues to thrive today. And it was more the hobbyists or a prosumer level kind of capability. A lot of penetration into the education space and so forth. But that business and the company that held it, a company called Stratasys, was kind of left into its own.

It was treated as a separate business. It was managed separately. It was marketed separately and so forth. Whereas the Stratasys machines, its portfolio, any acquisitions they made in the space were more around the industrial world, the professional-grade manufacturing of printers and materials and so forth that they required to deliver the characteristics that their end-use parts required. 

At 3D Systems, they had dabbled in and had been arguably pretty successful in the consumer space with a product line called Cube, which was one of their products, but over the years, the focus inside the business, from my perception, had changed and the products basically went end of life. There were some additional investments in the space to try to revitalize the B2C side of the house. The product didn’t take off as it had been anticipated it would take off. And again, the money was being made in more of the industrial and professional side, and that’s where the focus lay. 

Carman Pirie: One of the things that you mentioned in our conversation in the lead up to today’s show was this notion that at some point, these organizations need to make a shift from an engineering-driven and perhaps even sales-driven environment that values more tactical marketing, if you will, and shift to more strategic marketing. 

David Stark: Well, I see that’s very true, and actually it’s worth noting that in both organizations’ cases, what had also changed with the changing of the emphasis at the broader marketplace, at the stock market if you will, was that the competition became suddenly very, very fierce, particularly at the lower end of things. A lot of commoditization started to take place from companies that hadn’t even existed five years ago that was actually well funded, VC funded and so forth, and became very hard to compete there. It’s tough to also cede the market to somebody who’s new, but if you’re gonna stay in that market, then you need to understand you’re competing on the commodity basis and value for your dollar. 

But what became also true, because the competitors are coming at the low end, because the high end was so attractive, competitors also started showing up there out of the woodwork kind of thing. And whereas Stratasys and 3D Systems were really big companies and still are in this space, new guys came in like GE and HP, those new kids on the block decided-

Jeff White: Just little companies. 

David Stark: Yeah. Little companies. I mean, who would have thought that they would have grown up and done these things? But they decided they were getting into this space about four years ago or so and that was great because that validated the market. But at the same time, added a layer of complexity to the market. They had competitive technologies and they had deep pockets. And you know, the challenge was that they would potentially come in and drop a bunch of money in this space. At the same time, there were other competitors that came up, as well. Companies like Carbon 3D, which we can go ahead and take a look at. They’re funded by Google, so they have lots and lots of money, and that also became a challenge. 

If you think about marketing here, the challenges for any of these companies, including the ones I worked at, was how do you differentiate yourself in a space that’s become even more crowded, and how do you start to build a brand that actually resonates with a broader audience, so that you’re on that shortlist continually? You couldn’t rest on your laurels and say that “Well, because we’ve been here for 30 years or 35 years, of course, we’re always gonna be on the shortlist.” Well, the reality was these other guys coming in, big and small, had deep pockets and were willing to spend money to break into the market and build mind share and market share, and suddenly you found yourself slugging it out in ways that you hadn’t anticipated slugging it out. 

Carman Pirie: I’d be curious. Was it the new entrants, just well funded new entrants, but that are new brands that were the hardest to compete against? Or was it the established big brands, like HP or what have you, coming into the space that made it harder? 

David Stark: I think it was a little bit of both. 

Carman Pirie: You gotta pick one, though. I want to know which one was tougher. 

David Stark: There’s a lot. You didn’t tell me there’d be all this kind of pressure here, making hard decisions. I think the more challenging marketing competition came from newer brands. I think the challenges came from technologies and just deep pockets and longevity that was projected by these larger, more established brands. Although new to the 3D printing arena, one might assume that GE would still be around for a while. Or that GE would have invested heavily in the technology. In fact, GE was using its own technology to manufacture its own products, its own turbines, its own things. Maybe not turbines, but along those lines. They’re in so many different industrial spaces that they were manufacturing for these spaces, as well, so they were kind of drinking their own champagne as the phrase goes. 

Carman Pirie: You painted this picture of this, the marketer waking up in the middle of the night to find three new competitors under their bed or something. 

David Stark: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. 

Jeff White: And two of them are 100-year-old computer tech companies. 

Carman Pirie: Right, right, whereas all of a sudden your, “We’ve been in this space for 30 years,” really doesn’t mean that much anymore. 

David Stark: And you know, to go back to some of the IBM stuff for just a moment, and only to reference a phrase. I promise I won’t bore you with IBMer stories. But no, we used to say, “Don’t get Ubered.” Because the reality is these companies came into the 3D printing spaces where they hadn’t been before, at least they hadn’t been competitors before, and some of them became competition. There’d be times where you’d partner with them. But the long and short of it is if you as a marketing team weren’t sophisticated enough to anticipate what might happen, when the inevitable, unexpected did happen, you were kind of left going, “Uh, what?”

An example of that without getting into details here is one of the companies I worked for really felt that they had engineered materials, and in 3D printing, materials are like the ink to a printer, right? So, the materials. They had engineered materials and their technology in such a way that if you wanted to print really, really strong parts, you could do so. And by strong parts, I mean no human being could actually bend and break this part. They had a certain tensile strength, certain chemical resistance, heat resistance, characteristics of different polymers and all kind of stuff built-in. 

And they had been doing that a while, like of course we make the strongest stuff. Well, one of these younger upstarts kind of came in and they just completely started to own the make strong parts space. And just even using that phrase. Suddenly it became where you couldn’t just go in and tell people, “Of course we make the strongest stuff. I mean, look at who we are. We’re awesome.” The reality is other guys were out marketing the business for a while and gave our sales teams much agita. Like how come people aren’t coming to our website in droves looking for the ability to make strong parts and so forth. 

And when you get behind the scenes of some of those things, the engineers are great about validating how great and strong and truly awesome their stuff is, but if you can’t articulate that value proposition at 3:00 in the morning in a digital space when people are looking for it, in a language that they’re looking for it, then you’re kind of dead in the water. Because the value of the brands that had previously been the only game in town was lessened by all these new entrants coming into the spaces that had sexier money behind them to kind of amplify who they were and what they did. And spent some time to simplify some of their messaging so it resonated. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Seemed to me that there’s like the new entrants have a bit of gift of focus, that the folks who have been in the space for longer and have served a broader customer set or have come to market with a broader kind of value prop if you will-

Jeff White: And offering. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, it’s like the toothpaste, right? It’s like Crest and Colgate can try to talk about sensitive teeth all they want, but Sensodyne still owns that category. Because they have the gift of focus in that space. 

David Stark: Yeah. Yeah, no, you’re absolutely right, and a focused portfolio matters quite a bit. Both of the companies that I worked for had very large, diverse portfolios, and they were also publicly held, which also affords them different challenges than some of the competition, at least some of the newer upstarts. Yeah, you’re constantly, at least in a digital arena, you have the opportunity to continually monitor and observe what your competitors are doing. You have the obligation to try to evolve your content and surface it in such a way that it’s meaningful and engaging. 

But at the end of the day, there are levels of a business that need to really hone in on the who we are and what we do message, and if we don’t get that quite right, it’s just that much less likely that somebody who has not bought from you before is gonna seek you out. 

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Jeff White: David, that’s a great jumping-off point. One of the things that you were able to do at these organizations was really to use digital as a catalyst, I think is the way that you phrased it to us before. 

David Stark: Yes. 

Jeff White: And can we, I’d like to dive into that a bit and just get an understanding of what did you do in order to define their digital presence and to really structure your marketing in that way, to help those companies grow? 

David Stark: Yeah, and there’s probably not a very clean answer for it, but I’ll try. One of the first things that I needed to do at both organizations really was look at their web presence overall and find out was it contemporary, was it competitive, did it clearly surface meaningful value and did it have meaningful entry points that somebody could easily click on, and ultimately on the back end, would that create a lead for us.

The web presence needed to be revisited for both organizations. And I think for many organizations, that’s a place that you kind of set and forget, but you do need to revisit that web presence from time to time and make it better, stronger, faster. You don’t have to invest a kazillion dollars in doing that. Sometimes it’s just a matter of having some good design resources available to you, either internally or externally. But that was something that I needed to revisit, no doubt about it. 

Now, given the complexities of those organizations, you could imagine there were a lot of opinions about what kinds of content, and messaging, and so forth should be surfaced throughout that experience, and you won’t win every battle, for sure, nor should it be a battle per se, because a lot of these organizations don’t have a lot of digital experience in taking a website… It’s easy to make a website pretty. It’s a much different thing to make the site so that it has some longevity to it, so that it has organic traction, so that it is very consumable, that customers are willing to traverse the content and get a little deeper in the experience, that you have appropriate photography, and videos, and so forth, that were actually created for that channel in and of itself. 

You can’t take a brochure, white paper, or even a PowerPoint presentation that your sales guys love, and necessarily take that with its PowerPoint images and stick them on your website. It just doesn’t work. We had to go ahead and reinvent the websites, and a long journey there, no doubt about it. 

The other things that I revisited were things like social media presence. Basic lesson learned there was social media is about conversations. It’s about surfacing interesting content, arguably with an emotional spin to it, and that could be just making you happy, or making you think. It doesn’t have to be like getting tears out of you. But you have to have conversations with your audience, you have to know your audience, you have to make it easy for your audience to actually find you, and what we had at one of the shops where I had responsibility for social was what I call social media multiple personality disorder. 

They might have had, because of the silos that existed within the organization, each silo had its own little social media slice of the pie, and if you took it from the perspective of the poor human beings on the other side of the glass, they didn’t know where to go to actually hear what the company had to say and to interact with them. That became a challenge. You diffuse the effectiveness of your communications if you’re everywhere and you’re not managing any of them particularly well. The other thing that came into play was actually how do you measure the effectiveness of both the website and social, and anything else we might have talked about, how you measure it matters quite a bit. 

But in social in particular, there really wasn’t an effective way to measure the influence of their pushes. They were reporting up to the CEO on a weekly basis the number of likes they had on Facebook. That was like literally what was shared, so we had to make that better and spend a lot of time doing that kind of thing. Thinking about organic search as the foundation. Organic search is one of those marketing terms that’s been around for a long time. People don’t talk about it, because it’s not sexy necessarily today, but it is foundational and fundamental to how any brand, any company actually grows over the long term. Because if you don’t get that foundation right, what you end up with is you’re just working that much harder to make your meals. You have to pay for it. You have to push out a bunch of emails. You have to drop a bunch of advertising dollars. Your sales guys are working that much harder. 

You’ll find that you’re only resonating with people that recognize your brand, but if you’re looking for people that never heard of you before but saw the pain that you solve for, you have to be willing to instrument your entire digital ecosystem, and particularly your website, in such a way that the content is findable at 3:00 in the morning when somebody just starts off saying, “I need to print strong parts.” So, do you want to be found? Do you have content anywhere on your site to resonate with that? In addition to all the technical stuff that goes under the covers to making sure your site hunts. 

Think about paid media. Something else that we had looked at as well. Paid media, there’s never a perfect approach to paid media, but I’d say one of the things I’d advise anybody on is making sure that the paid media you are investing in is working and delivering the results that you’d like, and that you’re doing so as efficiently and effectively as possible. It sounds obvious, but the reality is a lot of companies don’t spend the time to understand what’s actually going on. They’re giving a lot of money to an agency in a lot of cases, no matter what size the agency is, and they’re looking at the results once in a while and they’re going back to the agency and kind of ripping them. Like, “Hey, how come I’m not making more money? I’m paying you 15% or 10% a month for my stuff. How come I’m not making more money? You guys are doing it wrong.” 

And the reality is within the business, you might not have the focus or the skills, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just maybe you haven’t invested in the skills to actually work with the paid media partner to ensure that what you’re investing in is aligning to your business objectives, and that the agency partner, or even if you’re doing paid media in house, that those people are enabled and empowered to do the jobs that you’ve retained them for. Those are just some of the areas that were looked at and improved upon. 

We also revisited things like the technical stack, like do we have the right technology under the covers to actually make marketing magic happen? Do we have KPIs that we can actually look at and observe so that we know we’re making progress? You have to think about progress as well in terms of short term and long term. Short term, most businesses are like, “Oh my God, fill my pipeline. My salespeople are eating hot dogs and beans.” Right? But strategic marketing is more about the long term, so what are we gonna be when we grow up? How are we gonna get there? What are those KPIs, if you will, and how does everything we do underneath that house of KPIs align to making progress against those results? 

There’ll always be the strange diagnostic measures that come under things like paid media, CPL, CPA, CPC, CPXYZ, whatever. But a lot of the management team that’s investing in you and empowering you to make these changes won’t speak that alphabet soup. They need to see something at a higher level. The practitioners need to see the diagnostics. The executives need to understand the impact to the business overall and without blowing them away with the detail that you can bring to bear as a digital person. 

Carman Pirie: I’m curious, David. How do you find, when you speak of revisiting the web presence, getting the organic search foundation in order, which inevitably means applying a more sophisticated information architectural lens to that web presence typically than what the organization’s experienced before, as I think of all these things and if I had to package them up in some way, it really is a long-term vision of how to sustainably grow an enterprise that’s based on some… Like I think you mentioned, digital marketing blocking and tackling, if you will, that has been around for 20 years now. I mean, organic search isn’t new. Although yes, algorithms change, et cetera. 

David Stark: Sure. 

Carman Pirie: I’m just kind of curious, how is that received? I’ve found that sometimes when there’s a level of sexiness to something new, people get a little bit more excited about investing in it. But I fundamentally agree with your approach. There’s too many people chasing bright, shiny objects, and not doing the basics right that actually lead to long-term success. I wish I was a fly on the wall for some of these conversations. I want to know how they went. 

David Stark: Sometimes good, sometimes bad. It just depended on what was going on. Yeah, organic search is a great example because it is a journey. It’s not an overnight thing. And depending on the health of your business and what your leadership team wants, sometimes that journey is, “Yeah, that’s great, but what are you doing for me this quarter?” You have to temper the long-term potential with the short-term deliverables. You still need to fill that pipeline full of magic so that everybody is making money, but helping to explain why we’re doing this, why we’re investing now, why it’s gonna cost X dollars to bring in a platform, why we need to have somebody doing this full time as like their job day to day matters, why we need to influence what product teams are creating and the messaging, and even the names of stuff based on the organic signals that we can derive by having these capabilities in house matters. 

Why we need to create content where it hasn’t been created before with these what I’ll call evergreen pages. That we have this organic equity building over time, and how do we leverage our domain authority, which is basically how big of a website do you have and how many internal signals does Google read to give you some authority here? Building that over time ends up saving them money 18 months from now, 24 months from now, and so forth. But the conversations can get very tense around this. It comes down to literally calculating, “Well, how much will it cost you to buy 100 leads which will generate 10 qualified opportunities worth X, versus how much will it cost you today to invest in a platform and invest in a human being that 18 months from now it will cost you Y?” Right? 

You need to break it down into the dollars and cents to some extent, and at some point, you have your breakeven in organic that says you’re getting more people to seek you out and to find you, so you’re having to work less hard and spend less money to bring people in. Organic and paid have this yin and yang kind of relationship. What you want to focus your paid media dollars on are on those more competitive terms and more of those short-term strategic things. Where you just gotta raise the volume knob really loud now. 

Organic allows you to continue to curate an audience over time if you’ve found the right monthly search volume, and your content hunts, and you bother to refresh that content every so often, it just helps offset the marketing costs overall. So yeah, those conversations were interesting I think is a good way to characterize them at times, and sometimes it’s a leap of faith. Like look, trust me, this is going to work, this is why this exists. But lots of people don’t like to take that leap of faith, which goes back to how well do they understand the potential power of digital marketing? 

Jeff White: And you were able to prove that that investment was worth it, were you not? 

David Stark: Yes. Yes. I did survive. I have some scars to prove it, but we were able to show the long-term organic growth and some of the competitive positioning and so on. A lot of that had to do with the instrumentation path that I chose to take. If you don’t have the luxury of making those investments, then it’s a little more difficult to relay your story, but a good organic person will go out of their way to help you to understand what’s going on and where we’re making progress. But it does challenge the business to think about what are the priorities, what are we really trying to be known for. 

It can’t just be the name of my product is a purple product, right? People are gonna type in purple product or they’re not. You want to be found if they type that in. But if somebody wants to type in the product that allows me to taste grape juice on a Tuesday, if you don’t have any content for that and your competitors are there, you need to spend the time to create the content to offset the competitors and kind of disrupt their pipelines. Long answer, short question, but yes, we were able to show the long-term potential and some of the short-term benefits of doing it right. But it is a journey. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I always chuckle. Of course, the longer the sales cycle, it doesn’t… Sales cycle duration does not seem to impact people’s desire for short-term success. 

David Stark: Yes, that’s absolutely true, and there’s a realization across the spectrum of the buyer’s journey. That it’s many, many touches that happen with a customer or a prospective customer over the lifespan of their relationship with your brand, and the challenge, a lot of companies are good at focusing energies on creating content messaging, websites, paid media, social media activities, et cetera, around people further into their buyer’s journey. They’re more close to comparing you to a competitor, they’re more close to wanting to know more about your product. 

Where companies take their foot off the gas and really where they need to put more emphasis on is before that, so before they can even spell the name of your company, how have you distilled your value proposition for the things you sell and how do you get those words out there and how do you surface the content that’s meaningful and engaging? And how do you surface that content across the different digital venues that are available to you? Paid, organic, social, your website search, you could define it paid, owned, or whatever you want to do. At the end of the day, you need to kind of be on in many, many places. A lot of companies will refer to this as multichannel marketing, or they’ll refer to it as omnichannel. It all depends on how sophisticated you are. That begets other cool ideas around account-based marketing, or ABM, and other things.

Carman Pirie: I feel like we could just jump off from there and have about four more episodes, but I’m also aware of the time. So, David, I think I just want to sign off and say thank you so much for sharing your expertise. I know we’ve kind of wandered a bit here in terms of-

Jeff White: It’s been good. 

Carman Pirie: … exploring the marketing reality that an organization faces as they move from the honeymoon period into something that’s a little bit more competitive. I think it’s been a fascinating conversation. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us. 

David Stark: Thank you for the opportunity to share this here. Yeah, it was… We kind of wandered around a little bit, but I think in a good way. I think a lot of companies out there have had similar sorts of challenges, where the shine has kind of come off of what they had done, the world has gotten more competitive. Crazy things like COVID interrupt your lives and it comes back to some of the fundamentals. Who are you? What do you do better than anybody else? And how are you instrumenting the systems and using the cool technologies and capabilities you have to kind of make sure that you’re findable? 

Jeff White: Love it. Thanks a lot, David. 

David Stark: Thank you. Appreciate it. 

Carman Pirie: All the best. 

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David A. Stark

David has a nearly 30-year tenure as a hands-on entrepreneurial marketing leader with a track record of delivering significant pipeline growth and innovation by transforming digital ecosystems for technology companies. He has evolved global web properties to be more user-centric with strong organic foundations, established social media strategies to be more conversational and compelling, improved the efficiency and effectiveness of paid media, used data across systems to deliver compelling insights to inform actions, built digital marketing teams, and much more.

The Kula Ring is a podcast for manufacturing marketers who care about evolving their strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Listen to conversations with North America’s top manufacturing marketing executives and get actionable advice for success in a rapidly transforming industry.

About Kula

Kula Partners is an agency that specializes in maximizing revenue potential for B2B manufacturers.

Our clients sell within complex, technical environments and we help them take a more targeted, account-focused approach to drive revenue growth within niche markets.


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