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.
In this episode of The Kula Ring, Jeff and Carman talk with Susan Towers, Marketing Director at Miller Fabrication Solutions. Susan shares her experience in moving between marketing roles in manufacturing and SaaS industries, rebranding a decades old family company, and why the manufacturing field is such an exciting place to work for marketers.
Opportunities for Marketers in the Manufacturing Industry Transcript:
You’re listening to the Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.
Jeff: Welcome to the Kula Ring. My name is Jeff White, and I’m joined by Carman Pirie. Carman, how are you doing? It’s just about Thanksgiving weekend in Canada here.
Carman: I’m doing well. Look, I got to say I think you have more radio voice on today than normal.
Carman: I feel like this is going to be good. I’m excited.
Jeff: Yeah, deeper. It’s the voice I’ve always wanted to have. Joining us today is Susan Towers from Miller Fabrication, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Welcome, Susan.
Susan: Thank you. Thank you both for having me.
Carman: It is an absolute pleasure to have you on the Kula Ring, Susan. I think we’ve got an awful lot to chat about. Before we get started, why don’t for the benefit of our listeners you give us a bit of background? Give us the Susan elevator pitch in five seconds or less.
Susan: Sure, sure. Just to give you a little bit of background about myself, I had first gotten my start in marketing working for an adhesives and sealants manufacturer for the building materials construction industry, and parlayed that experience into the tech world. Working within ERP, working in financial reporting software as an SAP and Oracle partner, working within the CMMS space, which is maintenance management software, so that’s SaaS environment. Today working back in manufacturing, this time for a strategic metal fabricator who focused on providing innovative OEMs with a number of manufacturing and value-added solutions.
Carman: Very cool. Look, the background is one of the things that really drew me to want to have you on the show today, I wanted to dive into that. That juxtaposition between your life as a manufacturing marketer and as a SaaS marketer, and just explore what those differences are, because I think frankly a lot of people live in one world or the other and very rarely see the other side of that fence. What are the things that you feel manufacturing got right that SaaS maybe didn’t, rather than think that SaaS is all that and a bag of chips? Fact is you started in manufacturing, got a taste of SaaS, and you had to go back. I’m curious what is it about manufacturing that’s such a draw?
Susan: I think that not necessarily comparing the two in terms of one being better necessarily, but that with manufacturing, there is so much open opportunity. In working in the SaaS space, one of the biggest challenges was how crowded the marketplace was. Every initiative that you were taking on, at least within the space I worked within, there was no green territory. You had a lot of copycat issues among competitors, so just creating a lot of noise to prospects. Trying to find different ways to rise above that noise, only to find out later on that that new tactic is being replicated by a competitor, it really just became a very embattled situation.
Whereas in the manufacturing space, again speaking within my own industry, there’s still a lot of green territory out there. There’s a lot of opportunity as a marketer to be able to try out different tools, different tactics along the way that aren’t necessarily being investigated by others. Like I said, it offers a lot of opportunity.
Carman: I’m sitting here listening to you, and I’m grappling for an example, and it’s not coming to me. I guess I’m just going to blurt it out. Maybe you’ll either agree with me or disagree. Guys, I guess I feel like in some ways, the more you say, if you will, digitally savvy online-driven marketing techniques when done in service of a SaaS brand, I don’t always feel that they have the same impact as actually when they’re employed in service of something a little bit more tangible that you can wrap your arms around. I think that’s one of the benefits or advantages, if you will, that manufacturers have. As they deploy these types of marketing tactics that are seen as a little bit more progressive, they almost land a little better because it’s a little bit more real. Maybe Blend Tech would be a good example of that, with the blenders.
Susan: I was going to say.
Carman: Will it blend?
Jeff: You’re dating yourself now. That was cool ten years ago.
Carman: I don’t know. Does that make sure, or am I smoking the good stuff on Friday?
Susan: I think to a degree, yes. Certainly when we can showcase our products on the floor, and you can see, “Okay, hey, we are contributing these really complex metal parts, and these are going to go into a piece of lift equipment or something like that, or we’re contributing to the development of some huge excavators,” to be able to show that to an audience, you get that. You see it. You’re right. Being in a SaaS environment where you talk about ROI points, and you talk about functionality, and you can demo a system, but without actually having it in place and using it day-to-day, you’ve got to use a lot of imagination.
Jeff: Yeah, there’s no question. The scale up, fail fast, and get something in front of people that they can agree on or disagree, and then change price points, and all of that different thing, it’s a very different dynamic than you see in actual hard manufactured goods. You can stand up a landing page in seconds for a SaaS product and trial a particular variant of that product without any real detriment to your existing customers or anything like that, but you can’t really do that, and you don’t have that level of flexibility in the real tangible world.
Carman: I’m really glad that my Blend Tech example dated me. That’s really helpful. I’m curious about any other differences you’ve noticed. It strikes me that these organizations have very different approaches on the sales side typically.
Susan: Yeah, yeah, and also I might add on to that before getting into specifics, working within manufacturing, which is notoriously a laggard industry, there is still a culture, internally and externally, where folks are just slow to adapt to change. Working in a tech environment, typically not so much the case. Trying to be able to employ some new technologies, it can be a bit of a struggle, especially depending upon the type of culture that you’re working with.
Carman: Let’s drill down on that a little bit. You’re quite right. You certainly bump into a lot more competitors using more advanced tactics on the SaaS space than you would in manufacturing, and therefore, like you say, you get a lot of me, too happening or what have you. It’s harder to stand out, but it’s probably also maybe a little easier to get those new ideas approved by the higher ups, whereas in manufacturing, maybe not so much due to just what you said. Maybe a bit of just lack of interest in change or being a bit slow to move. Any secret sauce to offer folks as to how to bring a little bit of that SaaS magic to manufacturing as a marketer?
Susan: I think at least what I’ve gone by is certainly education, but education and focusing on providing tangible results. Once you can not only explain the value of something … Certainly you can provide your case to the team, but when you can start to show those wins and they hold meaning to each department, I think that’s when it really starts to effect some change. At the end of the day, I will say this, as well, the battle of the perception of marketing within a manufacturer is still very much alive in that marketers are most often … I wouldn’t say most often, but often deemed as just the designers of brochures.
They create pretty brochures, they develop a really nice looking email advertisements and so on. Trying to explain to others within the organization the whole value of marketing, that doesn’t start to ring true to folks until you really start producing. Whether that means to the sales organization, you’re starting to produce qualified sales inquiries, you’re assisting along the sales process, whether it’s gaining greater efficiency, effectiveness, involving with account-based marketing activities and so on, or even for us in working hand-in-hand with the recruiting efforts within human resources.
How can marketing assist in providing or driving qualified candidates to take on our open opportunities?
Carman: Yeah, I used to work for a power utility, and the power company, some of the senior older, always male guys that would look down their nose a bit at marketing, and the line was always, “What does that have to do with generating electricity, anyway?” Man, you had to have an answer to that question at some point in order to stand in those conversations.
Jeff: Of course, also a monopoly. It’s a little different.
Carman: In that instance, yeah, yeah, yeah. A lot of uniqueness there, but still.
Susan: For our organization, I am the first marketer to work internal to the organization. We’ve worked with external agencies in the past, but to actually have somebody on board is a big step for our company, that is solely focused on marketing. I think there’s still a little bit of a, “Hey, what’s the extent of the value of marketing?” That’s just a challenge that I have to take on and hopefully chip away at each and every day.
Jeff: You talked a bit about developing leads and bringing those in, especially to the sales organization. I can’t really think of a better measure of ROI than delivering a lead that turns into a customer that delivers lifetime value towards the company. Is that the measure by which you’re being judged as the first marketer to ever be present within that firm?
Carman: Because that could be a [inaudible 00:12:54].
Susan: Yeah, yeah. It is. It continues to be a work in process, as well, to incorporate other aspects, because certainly we have a very dedicated existing customer base we want to make sure that we are also serving. Part of my focus is also on reimagining the customer experience. What does that look like day in and day out when we have these steady relationships over time? Because we are much more of a strategic partner in working with these large-scale OEMs as opposed to just focusing on strictly project work. That is an important component.
Carman: I have found that with a good number of manufacturing marketers these days that they find, and maybe it’s simply driven by the fact that a lot of people are very busy, so keeping their existing customers satisfied often just has more of a priority focus than maybe finding some new ones. A bit of some of what I’ve seen have been marketers that have had more success in attracting a budget from the C suite when it’s around serving customers versus attracting new ones, so positioning marketing initiatives through the lens of customer service does seem to help an awful lot of marketers find some additional budget.
Susan: We look to which customers do we really want to hold on to and replicate? That’s an important part of our business, is constantly evaluating that. Is this type of customer one that is going to help us push our business forward? We want to continue to dive down that relationship path together. That is a part of the research involved in our customer experience, and then how can we assist them even further in their supply chain?
Jeff: You recently went through a rebrand and a new web build and all of that. How much of that was driven from attempting to service new customers versus bringing on potential new leads?
Susan: It was a bit of both, but I will say certainly new business, for sure. With a lot of our existing customers, the message back was, “Well, yes, we know this.” Which is good. That means we’re in-step with one another. That means we’re communicating effectively. For our new business efforts, however, we wanted to step away from our roots as a welding and machine shop, which is how we were founded in 1963, and instead move on to and have an identity that reflects the path that we’re going down, which is as a full strategic partner to OEMs.
We offer a number of solutions outside of just the typical manufacturing solutions that you would see with your job shops, your machine shops. Nowadays, we offer a suite of, as I mentioned earlier, value added solutions. That can encompass anything from on-time delivery, excuse me, on-time scheduling, capacity management, logistics optimization. The list will continue to grow for us as we work closely with our customers and identify other areas.
You’re listening to the Kula Ring, conversations on manufacturing marketing. Don’t forget to subscribe now at KulaPartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-A partners.com/thekularing.
Carman: I think that there’s another layer of nuance to this rebrand that I think is worth exploring, too. It’s a rebrand of a, I believe third generation family business. That can’t come without some complexity. It occurs to me that there’d be an awful lot of folks bought in obviously to the name in that sense. I guess talk to me about that.
Susan: Yes, yes. Actually, Miller Fabrication Solutions was actually recommended by our president’s grandfather, the original founder of Miller, because at the end of the day, when we were discussing new brand names, it was mentioned to Eric, who is our current president, that we provide solutions to our clients. We are not just a welder. Therefore, our name should really reflect that. I thought, “Wow, he hit it on the head right there. That was perfect.” We decided to proceed with that. As you mentioned, we are now in our third generation of leadership, which is notorious for failure, quite honestly. I think we’re very fortunate in that we have truly a forward-thinking …
Susan: I don’t even want to just say leader, because really it’s the entire family is focused on driving the business forward and incorporating new technologies, and are very open to incorporating new technologies, which again for our industry is not very usual. I think we’re headed in the right direction, and we’re poised with the right people.
Carman: You’re quite right when you point out that succession is very difficult, especially the further you go down that path. First to second is easier than second to third, et cetera. One thing I had noticed is that the ones that do succeed, and I count some family-owned manufacturers among clients here at Kula, I have noticed that the ones that succeed in making that transition, that new generation does often come with a bit more of an appreciation for marketing than maybe the founding generation or previous generation. I guess while there’s some complexities, there’s also some hope for us marketers in all that.
Susan: Yes. Yes.
Jeff: Yeah. Speaking to that, as well, your new website is fairly advanced in terms of your employment of marketing automation technology and things like that. From what I’ve seen, you’re using HubSpot and other platforms that certainly would not not be at home within a SaaS operation, but certainly aren’t necessarily as common within manufacturers. How did that deployment roll out, and what benefits have you seen from a platform like that?
Susan: We have been using the platform now for a number of years. Certainly before my time in coming on board. Again, this is the vision of our existing leadership. I can only attribute the success of it so far to their foresight. We continue to try to incorporate as much new technology, and whether it be in marketing, or it be on the shop floor, in the production, or even in some of our business process development. All aspects, we try to take a fresh look at it and see what is out there that might be able to help us streamline our processes. I’m not sure that I fully answered your question, though.
Jeff: No, I think it’s interesting. How have you been using HubSpot? Is it primarily as a marketing automation platform? What components of the platform are you using?
Susan: We’re using it a bit as certainly marketing automation. We’re actually using it a little bit more as a CRM, which I think in many ways we’ve reached out limits with it, but it is a good tool, especially to start off with. For the needs, I think that when we had initially implemented it, I think it’s definitely satisfied our initial needs. I do foresee at some point where we’ll need to go to a true CRM as well as continuing employing marketing automation technology, and combining our analytics, and so on. More of a centralized approach to it will be more of the longer term need.
Carman: As you begin to look to that longer term, how are you prepping for that from a team standpoint? I was just struck by the fact that you said you were the market number one in somewhere near a half a century of business. What does marketer number two and three and four look like, or is that part of the roadmap here?
Susan: It’s definitely part of the roadmap. In the meantime, we bridge those gaps by surrounding ourselves with a number of consultants and agencies to help us along the way to cover all aspects of marketing, whether it includes copywriting to PPC to SEO to web design, graphic design, and so on.
Carman: I know that the long-term trend amongst marketing organizations probably for the last seven, eight years has been a trend. I think it flipped about eight years ago where there’s now more marketers working client-side than agency-side. It’s not expected to really ever return back the other way now at this point. Do you see that happening, as well, that you’ll be augmenting your external partnership compliment with more internal staff? I’m curious, is that something that you see near-term, or is that something that is a little further out for the new brand?
Susan: I definitely see building up the internal team. Absolutely, and I think that’ll be more of the shorter term than anything else. I’ll also see that there will always be in some way a need for agency consultant assistantance. That might just be my own personal preference, in that I like to work with the cream of the crop. Whomever has that particular talent, that skillset, I like to have that ability to pick and choose based on the particular need. The previous trend, or in some ways it’s still a current trend, but the trend in which using one agency to satisfy all of your needs, I’ve seen it fall short too often.
Susan: I take more of a specialization approach when working with others. The same thing goes, too, in working with folks internally, as well. For example, I am not opposed to working with folks remotely. If that means we have more of a team that becomes more of a virtual team, but yet we get to work with some of the top marketers in the country, in North America, then so be it.
Carman: I have found, as well, that the marketing, a lot of manufacturing organizations struggle on talent attraction. I think for a variety of reasons. Some of it’s location-based, some of it’s industry-based, et cetera. I do think that this more hybrid approach tends to find a fair bit of traction. Interesting. This has been lovely chatting with you. I think you’ve given folks an awful lot to think about. I’m curious if you have any parting advice for manufacturing marketers. Particularly it strikes me maybe it’s just the Canadian in me where we’re coming into Thanksgiving, and it makes it feel maybe a little bit later in the season than it is.
Carman: We’re not long before the end of the year, and we have to be looking towards planning in 2019, and things of that sort. Any parting words of advice or trends that you see coming around the corner that folks might want to keep an eye on?
Susan: This is probably nothing new to most of your audience here, but just the pace of technology and what is going to be available to us, even just within the next five years, is going to be extraordinary. I know I try to incorporate as much as I can, obviously within budget constraints and labor constraints, but definitely try to always be curious and observe what’s coming out, what’s been out, and how might I be able to apply it to the environment that I’m in today? I know sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in a pattern, in a way of doing things, but wherever possible, even if it’s just a small portion of what you do, just jumping out of that comfort zone and being a little curious into what else is out there, and how can we configure it to our industry?
Carman: There’s a critical core competency sitting in the middle of that that you probably with your SaaS background have a bit of a leg up on on some. I think that evaluating the technology landscape as it’s continually evolving, we know that that’s happening faster and faster every day. Being able to make sense of it and separate the wheat from the chaff in doing so, and take advantage of some of these technologies in an agile manner, be agile enough to take advantage of them, I should say. I could see that as being a huge advantage to marketers who have that skillset. I think that’s amazing.
Susan: It’s funny because today the bar is so high. We’re all consumers at the end of the day, and we expect things now that maybe we didn’t necessarily even know about just a few years ago. I see a lot of that. Those expectations are going to continue to carry over into the B2B world. The first one who can beat folks to the punch and roll out those higher expectations in a B2B environment, I think that those are going to be seeing the greatest success.
Jeff: Yeah. I think it’s really interesting in this day and age where people’s opinions of what interactive technology and the web should be are formed by massive companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google. When you can’t replicate that level of quality of interactive service on a traditional corporate website, people don’t necessarily understand why.
Carman: Or frankly care why.
Jeff: Yeah. They just think it should work that well, that search should be that good, or any number of things that they’re used to experiencing on Facebook. They don’t understand it doesn’t work that way.
Susan: Yeah. You have some of these organizations that have popped up that have just looked at things a little bit differently. You look at on the consumer end things like Stitch Fix, a company that’s $1 billion today. They’re changing the way consumers are shopping for clothing.
Carman: What about will it blend, though?
Susan: I’m sorry?
Carman: I said what about will it blend?
Jeff: You got back to this.
Jeff: It’s all right.
Carman: We can edit that out. We could edit that out.
Jeff: It’s fine, it’s fine. I think I used it in a “Social Media is Really Important” presentation that I gave around 2007. Oh, no.
Susan: Sounds about right, that time frame.
Carman: Susan, thanks so much for joining the Kula Ring today. Been a fantastic time chatting, and I think you’ve given folks a lot to think about. Thank you.
Susan: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
Carman: Take care now. Bye bye.
Susan: Bye bye.
Thanks for listening to the Kula Ring with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing making insight. Subscribe now at KulaPartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-A partners.com/thekularing.