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doub webster ciscoEngaging. Compelling. Fun. Viral. All terms you don't think of when you think of B2B marketing, right? Well, think again. Or better yet, read on to learn how Cisco is making content fun...and even funny...and nevertheless sells million-dollars routers and other high-tech infrastructure technology.

Doug Wester, Cisco's director of strategic communications in Cisco's worldwide service provider marketing division shares all.

Q: How long have you been at Cisco and what specifically do you oversee?

Doug Webster: I’m a senior director of our service provider marketing team, and I’ve been at Cisco for 12 years now. I came in from an acquisition years ago. Now I’m in charge of or leading our go-to market marketing for our service provider line of business. When we do marketing, it’s through—any company that offers you broadband, television, phone, or mobile services. These are very big companies, some of which have over 100,000 employees. They tend to be global in nature, and because of their size, the overall link to the sales engagement can actually be quite long, oftentimes two years.

Q: Which makes things very, very hard to track digitally and to do the online/offline metrics crossover.

Webster: It absolutely can. What we end up doing a lot of times with our marketing is we’re measuring various kinds of milestone aspects. So it’s very important when we’re going to have a new product come to market to generate very high touch, widespread awareness, and we’ll use more awareness metrics. Then go into the follow-on phase where we’re looking to really generate demand when we have a number of other types of vehicles that we’ll use along the way. Then it actually goes in the data aspect into Salesforce.com, where marketing activities are actually tagged in with the sales process so that you could see that there’s something we did maybe three quarters ago that contributed to playing a role in the eventual sale.

Q: You’ve been using a lot more content marketing; content creation and social networking and basically more social media marketing than in the past. Could you elucidate on that as an overall strategy, and also provide some specific examples of campaigns and results?
 
Webster: Sure. So, about two years ago, I was leading up to a big launch in March 2008. We were asked by a service provider business council to develop a cult following for our products, which is tough, because most people don’t even see our products. They’re in the background or the infrastructure. There’s a limited number of customers out there. Oftentimes we’ve done all of our marketing to go just to a few of the decision makers. We realized that in order to have broader based relevance we had to reach the different employees who all in some way or another do actually have some role. It’s not just “the” decision maker, but who are all the influencers within these large particular accounts? We needed to adopt almost consumer-like approaches to marketing.

That was really the engagement of social networking, what we referred to as the virtual, viral and visual way of marketing. Visual being, let’s use the video as creating the need for our technology to actually promote it. Let’s host things in a virtual way as well, for cost purposes and also to get that massive scale. Then let’s do social networking or the viral aspect and allow this audience to do some of the targeting to other members of their own respective communities.

Q: Could you walk us through a campaign that illustrates this on a more tactical level?

Webster: Sure. It was around the launch of a [router] called ASR 1000. That’s when our business council leaders asked for this cult following, and we went there and we developed a strategy to where we wanted to break through the noise. We did that by instead of having customer testimonials about what some of their challenges are and corporate talking heads that would be speaking in very technical detail, we said let’s actually enlist fairytale characters from Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny talking about how dependent they are on the network. Can you imagine what would happen if they have reliability issues on Christmas Eve? Christmas would be doomed!

We’re dealing with the same technological issues these customers are, but doing it in this funny, intriguing way that got it to where the way we were marketing was creating a lot of press attention. We incorporated all the aspects where people could send this to friends, and along the way, it encouraged them to register for this virtual event that was on this particular day to find out what it is that’s gonna save Christmas, that’s gonna help keep love in the world. We had 8,000 different members of the service provider community online at the same time for this reveal, and our overall results were about six times more than a launch we did in the traditional way in 2004. And we did it for about 1/8 the cost.

Q: You were doing this primarily in YouTube, or also via web sites?

Webster: We created a microsite. But to your point, we absolutely used YouTube and social media and the like. Part of our intent is to do what we refer to as exponential marketing. When you have a really creative content piece like that, we had it on our own web site, let’s also put it on to YouTube, let’s also put it on to some other aspects. If we have a white paper, let’s not just post it on the web site, but chop it up into nine different pieces and put it into blogs and start to repurpose content in all these other different vehicles, all driving back to the same point or to a core site. We’re seeing upwards of six times the consumption when you actually invest time into looking at other places where this content could actually live.

Q: But you’ve still got to drag the horse to water, so to speak. What do you do to push traffic to those channels?

Webster: You’re absolutely right. We have built up communities on Twitter and Facebook. We’ve With the ASR 1000 launch we developed an online game where you could defend the network against attacking forces.

Q: That sounds very much like the type of game that's played by the kind of people who run the network.

Webster: Exactly right! And, boy, I tell you when we came up with this idea, people thought I was sniffing too many dry-erase markers. But the guys that are the techies and the IT folks, well, here they are in a heroic way. We actually got our senior executives who are in the charge of the business council. We recorded cameos of them in “Mission Impossible” style and had a lot of fun with it. At each and every level, they need to hear about some new capability that's in the router that they need to leverage in order to advance.

So the more they played, the more they learned about our routers. Hopefully it also generated that kind of cool effect of “Hey, they’re engaging me in a way that I wanna be engaged in.” We even ran a tournament that had over 50,000 participants around the world. This is something we created in-house and got game developers and like to generate. It still has a lasting participation and appeal to the audience. We even had one senior writer of a large industry magazine vying for one of the finalist spots. Things like that pay a great deal of dividends. Because [players] need to register, we have an idea of what companies they come in from.

Q: How is this shift towards content, engaging content and social media influencing spend? How are you reallocating budget?

Webster: The ASL 1000 launch cost 1/8 of the CRS 1 launch. So it definitely is much more cost effective. We are reallocating budget much more heavily into social media and social networking, however, it’s important to note we’re not abandoning older ways of doing business. It’s just shifting the weight. For example, there are some key places where we will have paid placement. We’re also including a lot of search engine optimization. We’re really minimizing the number of sites for paid placement, because we feel we’re able to more than compensate with these other vehicles.

Instead of a press release, we do a social media release that has a lot more online assets. The language is much more approachable. We try to make it as easy as possible for online media like bloggers to take this stuff and run with it.

Q: You also had a campaign that features a tech journalist trying to get a scoop about a product release. Was that something aimed at that constituency?

Webster: That was more the free buzz equivalent to the next major launch we did at the end of 2008 where we had a series of viral videos released every three or four days in the two weeks leading up to the launch. It wasn’t necessarily targeted specifically at the online blogger community as much as it had blogger-based appeal because it featured our CEO and senior company officers. To make this stuff successful, it really does require some engagement and buy-in at the top levels. When you start engaging in social media and social networking you don’t have full control. There’s inherently a riskier element; however, the returns have been very strong and well worth the investment we’ve made.

Q: Let’s get back to how you're measuring. How are you cobbling together social media metrics with harder metrics like click-throughs and ad views?

Webster: We measure our activities in terms of overall awareness based on, say, hits to our sites. Those are our harder metrics. We track all the different pieces that need to be enticing and play back to a particular site. They may actually find out about something on a Web page, a viral video or YouTube, on Twitter or our Facebook site or a social media release, but we try to point them back to a site which gives them more functionality. Even while you’re engaging with the game, there are links that take you where you can learn more of the technical details.

That orchestration is key. We’ve adopted much more of a storytelling style when we go out to market. Instead of just talking in technical terms. The launch we did last March for the CRS 3, which is the most powerful router in the world…but instead of saying, “It has 322 terabytes per second capacity,” then there’d be silence on the other end. People don’t know if that’s big or not. If we say, “This router is so powerful it can support every man, woman and child in China to do a video call at the same time,” then all of a sudden, that’s picked up by Business Week, by Forbes, and by local press. We had to pull in extra security, because there were so many folks vying for coverage on the day of the announcement. We made something foreign much more readily understood. Storytelling is key.

When we look at metrics on that, it’s the number of articles generated, and our P.R. team has various tools that can reach into social media.

Q: Buzz monitoring?

Webster: Right. And [sentiment analysis].  We have other vehicles. A great example is a little viral video we created on a white board in-house, and send it out as a Valentine. In essence, “There’s no better way to tell your sweetheart that you love her than to give her this multi-million dollar router.” It engaged audiences in a way they’re not used to and coverage in the New York Times. We’ve had over 176,000 hits to date. That was well after the launch. You can get those little hits along the way, and the audience starts passing it to one another. It gives the sales team an opportunity to engage with our audience. We can map in other traditional marketing vehicles, and they start to get registered into our Saleforce.com system.

The challenge is because it's a two year long sales process, it gets really difficult to determine how an awareness piece yields an actual sale. I'll be honest and say we don’t have it entirely worked out yet.

Q: You’re probably not alone.

Webster: Yes, but awareness can open the door for our sales team to engage. I look at that as a success.

Q: We've discussed campaigns centered on launches. Are you doing any of this content storytelling and social marketing for products already in the pipeline?

Webster: Yes. In all cases, they started as a launch. We have continuing efforts to maintain that community of interest so the folks that were engaged with us at the launch want to continue to be engaged over the next several quarters. We want this technology top-of-mind for use within their networks. Maybe it’s a couple of viral videos we’ll stagger out throughout the year. We have some crowd sourcing efforts, one of which is called Prep the Net - there’s a whole following of people that make things out of these paper cutouts. It started up in Japan. So we allowed them to make this out of ASR 9000 and have them take pictures and upload it to a site. Now there are over a thousand uploads to the site. It’s kind of fostering a cult following.

Another example is a content piece called the Discovery of Data (http://www.discoveryofdata.com) where we look at the history of telecommunications and show how the ASR 9000 would be able to do things had it been available in 1910. It’ll ask people to tweet about it. We were able to create that as an e-book and have an iPad application coming out. So, we’re taking this content and packaging it in a way to take advantage of a lot of new technological and device trends.

Q: You're taking many proven B2C marketing techniques and applying them to the B2B space. Along the way have you found some tactics or techniques that don’t translate?

Webster: Well, the cost of entry is very, very low. As a result, we tend to experiment a lot and we go into it with buy-in from management that some of these things are going to totally fail. But because we’ve buffered them with other unique vehicles that will likely succeed or that could succeed, and with traditional outreach as well, such as a social media release, our risk profile is lowered.

Q: So don't bet the farm on any one thing?

Webster: Right. That’s a way we’ve been able to manage our risk. People thought we were crazy coming out with a game. We’re business marketers. But, boy, those techies really embraced it, and it proved to be wildly successful, more so than our most aggressive estimates.

Q: I can only imagine somebody criticizing that who’s never met a techie.

Webster: Yes. It’s about knowing your audience. Instead of reading a white paper, playing a game at work is a bonus. In 2008, there was a lot of activity around Second Life. Cisco has a campus there. We developed a router you could actually walk through, and there were various other areas. We did a press conference. And it did not work out well. It was a nice color corollary to the launch. But we only had a couple hundred people. So it wasn’t impactful, and it also was kind of weird, because you’d be talking to Mr. Kool-Ade or a penguin or the person who didn’t have any clothes on.

We’ll continue to introduce new things, then we’ll figure out where did we get the biggest returns and where we didn’t.

Q: How are you allocating budget for this? Is a piece allocated to social or content?

Webster: We’ve organized so we have a dedicated social marketing team. They work on developing content pieces that will be optimized for social media. They’ll also take existing content pieces and figure out how we can tailor them for that fit, as well as do that kind of exponential work we were talking about; “Can you take this and put this on SlideShare? Let’s convert this and put it on to YouTube.” Each one may only generate a couple hundred or a couple thousand more views, but in aggregate, we’ve been able to increase consumption of some of our pieces of content six-fold based on the efforts of just a couple of folks.

Their job also is to train all the other marketers on these new tools so that social media need not be the effort of a handful of people who we have dedicated to this, but top-of-mind to all people in marketing.

So some dedicated folks do a lot of the sustaining pieces, efforts in between launches. When we do have major launches a couple of times per year  we’ll actually carve out a percentage of the budget for efforts along these lines. Percentage-wise, I’d say about 25 percent of our budget is dedicated to more traditional things like paid placement, and about 75% is for more Web 2.0 social networking, social media outreach, content production, virtual, online events.

Q: One final question: what remaining points would you like to make about your marketing efforts?

Webster: I think a lot of people get the impression “Oh, you can do that because you’re Cisco.” I don’t agree. As marketers, these are tools we all have access to. With a bit of creativity and willingness to take risk, and assuming you can get support from executives  - which no question is needed - the returns can be very powerful. As we start to look at how our roles need to change, we need to be able to adapt these and incorporate them into the fold.

Rebecca Lieb

Published 14 July, 2010 by Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca Lieb oversees Econsultancy's North American operations.

Follow me on Twitter, or connect with me on Facebook.

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Comments (3)

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Kathy Klotz-Guest

Amen! What I love most is that we are finally talking about successful b2b companies that get that fun and humor are about engagement and people. Ultimately, all business is done between people. People - not faceless entities - engage, make purchase decisions, and build relationships. Fun tells a story and opens the door to a greater, more human conversation about needs - bringing a company closer to customers. And, after all, isn't social media supposed to be about conversations? Cisco has done some great work in going beyond the jargon-laden "super-serious" template too many b2b marketers seem so tied to. There is nothing customer-focused about jargon. Quite the opposite. Humor is serious business and it can be done in a professional way. Sure, it can also go the other way. But customers are far more approachable than we give them credit for. Most b2b marketers will err on the side of the right balance between corporate objectives and levity. There is also a big difference between comedy and lightening up a bit. And, yes, you can achieve ROI and have fun as I've blogged about. The important thing is that companies take small steps towards lightening up. Fun doesn't have to bet the farm in terms of risk, as organizations such as Cisco, Hubspot, and a few others have demonstrated. It is that kind of creative customer-centricity that yields success because it cuts through the jargon-laden, company-focused techno-babble that is all too common out there. Cisco also recently brought Tim Washer on board - the creative artist behind IBM's successful and funny videos, "The Art of the Sale." Now, the creative bar for all b2b companies has just been raised! Well played, Cisco. Well played, indeed!

about 6 years ago

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Andrew McFarland

Excellent article and timely too. Have had some recent queries from a company that is trying to re-energize their social media outreach. Their problem? Loosening their grasp on the reins.

As @KathyKlotz mentions, this is about people. Your customers want to engage with companies that energize them. And language that is either (1) too technical or (2) too full of legalese will only drive customers away. What do you want your brand to represent? Stuffy, slow and confusing or interesting, fun, and straight-forward? Great to see Cisco has had positive reinforcement from their followers! And great to have them share their successes.

about 6 years ago

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Bangalow Accommodation

Good to see big companies like Cisco getting into Social Media

about 6 years ago

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