I was reading the MarketingCharts newsletter today and saw a headline: “What Brings Website Visitors Back for More?” The data was based on a survey of 1000 people, and they found the top 4 reasons were, in order:
1) They find it valuable
2) It’s easy to use
3) There is no better alternative for the function it serves
4) They like it’s mission / vision
I thought about it for a second and had a realization – this is why people are loyal to ANYTHING! And achieving these 4 things should be precisely our goal as marketers:
1) Clearly demonstrate value
2) Make your offerings – and your marketing – accessible
3) Show why your particular thing is the best. (Hint: If it’s not the best you probably need to refine your positioning to find the market segment that it is the best for.)
4) Tell your audiences WHY. Get them to buy into it. Don’t just drone on about the what, but sell them on an idea. Captivate them with a belief!
Do those 4 things well, you win.
BTW, the MarketingCharts newsletter is a really good, easy to digest newsletter – mostly B2C focused but there’s some great stuff in there even for a B2B audience and you can get most of the key points in each day’s newsletter under a minute.
There’s been a ton of buzz in SEO circles about Google’s new RankBrain algorithm. This is very understandable for two reasons. First, it’s a nerd’s dream. It’s an artificial intelligence-based algorithm, and anything with AI in it is buzzy and awesome. Secondly, and more importantly, Google has stated that RankBrain is already the third most important ranking factor behind content and links.
To really understand what RankBrain means for life science SEOers, let’s zoom out a bit and understand what RankBrain is and what it does.
What Is RankBrain?
Put simply, Google RankBrain is a machine learning artificial intelligence system designed to help process search results in order to provide more relevant results to searchers. Specifically, RankBrain is intended to help Google return more relevant results for terms and phrases it’s never heard before. This was particularly important as the internet ever increasingly quickly spews forth new vocabulary and people speak in a stream-of-consciousness type manner into their phones.
Put somewhat more technically, RankBrain converts all language into vectors, with any given vector’s position and direction representing its conceptual meaning. Semantically related terms have vectors which are positioned close to each other and, similarly, groups of related terms (vectors) are positioned closely to other groups of vectors which have close semantic meaning. Through some crazy mathematics and / or magic which I’m sure would be beyond me even if I did have access to the details of it, this ever-changing map of vectors enables Google to make a best guess with regards to terms or phrases it does not know. However, it also [presumably] allows it to better map known concepts to each other as well.
How to Optimize for RankBrain
If this isn’t the first article you’ve read on how – specifically – you should optimize for RankBrain, then let me apologize on behalf of whatever other advice you may have received. The correct answer is: you do nothing. Continue to be a person, and do the rest of your job like a person. The “like a person” part is important.
Since the beginning of search engines, people have been trying to game the system. It’s been a decades-long battle between website owners, who want to convince search engines that their websites are important, and the search engines themselves who want to return the most relevant results to searchers. Initially, search engines were fairly rudimentary and it was easy to convince them your website was more important than it actually was. As time went on, search engines took away more and more tricks. By and large, search engines have won – it’s now extremely difficult to game the system. However, that doesn’t mean that the ranking systems were perfect. RankBrain is simply a response to allow it to better adapt to the actual people doing the searching. In other words, it’s attempting to make Google’s search algorithm a little bit more human. It’s becoming less important to obsess about every word you use since Google is starting to place less importance on the term itself and more importance on the meaning. After all, that’s what people are really looking for. They don’t want results that just have the words they used. They want results that will provide the meaning they seek.
This doesn’t mean that SEO is dead. It’s not. All this means is that you shouldn’t be trying to fool anyone. The best way to increase your website’s value to search engines is, by and large, to increase your website’s value to your target audience. Have great content that makes people want to share it? That’ll be good for SEO. Have a well laid out and easily navigable site? That’ll be good for SEO. Is your website highly relevant to the people you’re looking to target? That’ll be good for SEO as well. Of course there’s always some technical factors that people still manage to overlook – for instance, ensuring your title attribute is relevant and meaningful and that your page load times are decent – but at the end of the day if you’re making a site that’s great for your target audience, it’ll probably end up having fairly good SEO as well.
Don’t Forget to Use Words
I personally find this to be the most amusing piece of advice that I find myself giving over and over again: don’t forget to use words. Seriously, you can have the flashiest website, all the video content in the world, giant shiny infographics, and a totally cool podcast, and all those things are great. You know what none of them have? Words – the text kind. Think of it this way:
- What do people type / speak into search engines? Words.
- What do search engines’ web crawlers read? Words.
- What form the bulk of the results that search engines return? Words.
While the above is admittedly an oversimplification, it’s still 90% true. Words are still very important. It still comes down to the content.
First it was open access, then pure and simple pirating (Sci-Hub), and now preprints, as this recent New York Times article outlines. The business model of the major scientific publishers is under attack.
This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to many of us. For one, it’s been a slow and steady process occurring over the course of many years. Secondly, it’s something that scientists have openly complained about for a long while. The system of publishing in the biomedical sciences is slow, arduous, and by and large hasn’t been improved upon in centuries. The cost to institutions of obtaining subscriptions is huge.
That said, many of the large scientific publishers are some of the most entrenched, disruption-shielded companies in all of the sciences. Not only have they had a near-monopoly on the mass dissemination of scientific information for centuries, they have also been the de facto method by which scientists are evaluated. For any academic and many industry scientists, how many articles you publish and in what journals has the power to define the course – and the fruitfulness – of your career. Almost all generally accepted methods for measuring the impact of a scientist’s contributions are based around citations from publications in scientific journals. Deviating from the system would be a massive professional risk for all but the most respected and recognized scientists.
With such massive forces reinforcing the system of scientific publishing, escaping it would seem intractable. Now, perhaps for the first time, it seems vulnerable.
Understanding the Points of Weakness
The scientific publishing industry is something of a dinosaur, built for a world in which information had to be transmitted through the dissemination of physical objects. While it adapted rapidly to digital distribution in the internet age, it failed to accommodate for a number of other changing realities which altered its value to scientists.
Primarily, scientists no longer had an inherent need for publishers in order to effectively disseminate information. While publishers still helped organize and prioritize information, the dissemination of information has become easy, near-immediate, and free. This both decreased the value of publishers and also decreased barriers to pirating, since the unit-cost of disseminating any given article (or a great many articles) is effectively zero. Sci-Hub may be an unsolvable problem for publishers, and it’s not the only one of its kind. Scientists who don’t want to partake in such blatant piracy can use the #icanhazpdf hashtag on Twitter and have an article sent to them by a peer with access. This leads to a downwards spiral effect on the value that publishers add from an information dissemination standpoint – easier access to information leads to more pirating, which in turn provides easier access to information, all the while making publishers roles less as couriers and more as gatekeepers, trying to ensure that information can only be seen by those who pay for the privilege.
Additionally, while digital technologies were being used to make many aspects of life easier and faster, and scientific technologies continued to evolve at a rapid pace, innovations in publishing were extremely limited. Aside from eliminating the need to physically mail manuscripts, the arduous peer review process remains largely unchanged. While there is no immediately obvious replacement for peer review, the overall experience of submitting articles for publication remained very slow in a world that was becoming very fast, making the perception of the process feel slower even though it was no slower than before. This increasingly negative perception also erodes value, as it makes the traditional publishing process seem more flawed.
Costs, however, have not been reduced. Each publisher has, in essence, a monopoly on the information which they own. They do not compete to provide access to any given journal or article, so there is relatively little competitive pressure to decrease prices, aside from the constraints of institutional libraries’ limited budgets. Therefore the present situation is really not at all surprising. The perception of value has decreased – perhaps significantly so – yet prices have not decreased to match. The market believes it is overpaying, and it is revolting against the industry in a search for both a better value, a better experience, and a structure which is more in line with scientists’ own values.
Important Lessons for All Industries
Nothing exists in a vacuum. It was easy for scientific publishers to get comfortable with their seemingly irreplaceable status as the couriers of knowledge, but as the would changed around them they shifted from facilitating the spread of knowledge to inhibiting it. However, big publishers still have yet to substantially alter their business models to adjust to a very different reality. We must learn from this.
- Get what you give. Just because the products or services which you are providing remain unchanged, that doesn’t mean that your value remains unchanged as well. Benefits are relative, and your pricing should adapt to the benefits provided – even if you’re massively entrenched.
- Fighting your customers’ values is a losing battle. Scientists largely believe in sharing information. Once technology evolved to allow instant sharing of information at any scale, publishers became inhibitors to the flow of information. Not only were they inhibitors, but they were profiting from limiting access to knowledge. This made them a big target for scientists’ discontent.
- Customer experience always matters. Even if there are no alternatives, consistently poor customer experience will drive customers to seek alternatives. It creates an environment which is ripe for disruption.
- Anyone can be unseated, no matter how entrenched. The traditional scientific publishers haven’t been dug out yet, and they still have some time to adapt, but they are in desperate need of business model innovation. If they cannot adapt their business model, they will eventually fail.
No company, no matter how large it is, how much market share it has, how long and storied its history, or how entrenched it has become, is invulnerable. Eventually, everyone must adapt. It has become increasingly clear that one of the pillars of maintaining a successful company in today’s dynamic environments is agility. Time will tell whether publishers have the necessary agility to survive.
Marketers are used to seeing a lot of data showing that improving personalization leads to improved demand generation. The more you tailor your message to the customer, the more relevant that message will be and the more likely the customer will choose your solution. Sounds reasonable, right?
In most cases personalization is great, but what those aforementioned studies and all the “10,000-foot view” data misses is that there are a subset of customers for whom personalization doesn’t help. There are times when personalization can actually hurt you.
When Personalization Backfires
Stressing the points which are most important to an individual works great … when that individual has sole responsibility for the purchasing decision. For large or complex purchases, however, that is often not the case. When different individuals involved in a purchasing decision have different priorities and are receiving different messages tailored to their individual needs, personalization can act as a catalyst for divergence within the group, leading different members to reinforce their own needs and prevent consensus-building.
Marketers are poor at addressing the problems in group purchasing. A CEB study of 5000 B2B purchasers found that the likelihood of any purchase being made decreases dramatically as the size of the group making the decision increases; from an 81% likelihood of purchase for an individual, to just 31% for a group of six.
For group purchases, marketers need to focus less on personalization and more on creating consensus.
Building Consensus for Group Purchases
Personalization reinforces each individual’s perspective. In order to more effectively sell to groups, marketers need to reinforce shared perspectives of the problem and the solution. Highlight areas of common agreement. Use common language. Develop learning experiences which are relevant to the entire group and can be shared among them.
Personalization focuses on convincing individuals that your solution is the best. In order to better build consensus, equip individuals with the tools and information they need to provide perspective about the problem to their group. While most marketers spend their time pushing their solution, the CEB found that the sticking point in most groups is agreeing upon the nature of the solution that should be sought. By providing individuals within the groups who may favor your solution with the ability to frame the nature of the problem to others in their group, you’ll help those who have a nascent desire to advocate for you advocates get past this sticking point and guide the group to be receptive of your type of solution. Having helped them clear that critical barrier, you’ll be better positioned for the fight against solely your direct competitors.
Winning a sale requires more than just understanding the individual. We’ve been trained to believe that personalization is universally good, but that doesn’t align with reality. For group decisions, ensure your marketing isn’t reinforcing the individual, but rather building consensus within the group. Only then can you be reliably successful at not only overcoming competing companies, but overcoming the greatest alternative of all: a decision not to purchase anything.
Let’s be frank: if you are a laboratory products distributor, you have a ton of competition. With inexpensive digital marketing at anyone’s fingertips and drop-shipping increasing in prevalence, it’s incredibly easy for almost anyone to start a distribution company with little up-front investment. As the laws of economics would predict, if something is cheap and easy, lots of people will try to do it.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to succeed, however. In fact, it may be more difficult than ever.
The Value Squeeze
There are way too many distributors out there and differentiation is hard to come by. Distributors are facing increasing pricing pressure, and while it is certainly in part due to heightened competition and simultaneous tepid growth in research budgets, eroding margins also have a much more fundamental reason.
As a whole, distributors simply don’t add as much value as they once did.
Information used to be time consuming to find, and often difficult or impossible to find. Distributors were once viewed as a critical source of knowledge on various equipment. Today, for many purchases, it’s very easy for scientists to obtain the large majority of the information they need on their own. Doing so is often significantly easier for the scientists than subjecting themselves to a sales rep. We see evidence of this in the increasing delay of when customers are contacting suppliers within their buying journeys. The value of distributors to customers has eroded.
Geography used to be a massive barrier to the flow of information, and a local distributor was critical to allow customers to even know a product existed. Today, according to BioBM’s own research, 100% of users perform an internet search at some point in a buying journey (unless their goal is only to purchase a known product from a specific brand). Any company anywhere in the world can get in front of that customer with a simple search ad which costs all of a few dollars. Email can connect any two people in the whole world. Even product demonstrations are becoming increasingly virtual. The result: the value of distributors to suppliers has eroded as well.
The Four Models for Successful Distributors
The old rules are no longer relevant. Being a distributor in today’s business environment means assuming a particular role and providing a particular value. As such, there are a limited but highly defined number of business models which can reliably provide long-term success to both new entrants and incumbents alike.
- The Price Competitor. The Price Competitor attempts to be as visible as possible for people who are looking for a specific product, offer as many products as possible, and offer them at the lowest price. They seek the value buyers – people who know exactly what they want and only want the best price – and provide value to those customers by sacrificing margins to provide discounts. Their advertising is minimal but effective, as their razor thin margins simply don’t allow much else. They generally will deflect as much of the responsibility for support back to the manufacturers as they don’t want to spend the resources to do otherwise. For The Price Competitor, reducing cost as much as possible becomes almost a singular focus. The distributor who can obtain the best prices from their suppliers while operating on the lowest margins is most often the winner. The smart supplier, however, will avoid the price competitor, as they add little to no value to the supplier so long as the supplier’s list pricing is competitive
- The Exclusive Rep. The Exclusive Rep fills their product portfolio with unique items that they obtain exclusive rights to resell within their territory. Being beholden to their product lines, their success is often based on the products which they represent and their ability to maintain favored status with suppliers. To obtain their exclusivity, The Exclusive Rep will bear additional responsibility for developing the market in their territory, stock inventory, offer demos, or perform other services which are of value to the supplier. The additional value to the customer comes in the form of convenience – having someone local who knows the products well.
- The Relationship Builder. A difficult model for new entrants and one that is arguably the most endangered, The Relationship Builder relies on person-to-person relationships between their sales team and researchers. They rely heavily on an outside sales force. Acquisition of business is based on trust, extremely high levels of service, and loyalty. Because of this, they break the trend of the customer taking control of their buying journeys and instead customers may involve The Relationship Builder earlier and more directly. Relationship Builders used to be able to be effective in all types of sales, however due to easing access to information are presently most successful for complex purchases. These types of distributors add value to the supplier by having existing relationships with potential customers and add value to the customers by being a trusted source of information to aid them in their purchasing decisions.
- The Decision Engine. The Decision Engine provides a superior customer experience which makes the buying journey easier and more fulfilling for their customers. Their success is based on their ability to claim ownership of as much of the customers’ buying journeys as possible. They are adapting to a declining ability for salespeople to influence customers by providing the platform on which customers make their own decisions. The Decision Engine provides value to customers by enabling them to make purchasing decisions more quickly and easily, and provides value to suppliers by drawing in potential buyers.
Note that these business models are mutually exclusive. The price competitor generally does not have sufficient resources to take on any of the additional duties required by the other business models. The exclusive rep cannot be a decision engine due to lack of choice within each product category. The decision engine and the relationship builder have conflicting approaches to serving the needs of the customers’ buying journeys. The relationship builder will have a difficult time being seen as a trusted advisor if they are only promoting a single type of solution for each customer need, and therefore cannot reliably be an exclusive rep.
Lacking the ability to meaningfully differentiate aside from by their product offerings (and only the exclusive rep can reliably secure a differentiated product line), distributors must pick one of these business models and execute it better than the competition. That is the only mechanism to ensure success. Even then, the changing nature of scientists’ buying journeys puts business models themselves at risk.
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