I don’t think I need to tell anyone just how readily reachable customers are these days. We have an incredible amount of channels and tools at our disposal to reach a target audience. Advertising opportunities get continually more targeted. Want someone’s contact information? You can certainly dig it up. Want to target senior scientists working in genomics labs in pharmaceutical companies? You could easily do that with LinkedIn, or if you prefer otherwise there are a ton of publishers and websites who can help you target such an audience via advertising, email, or just plain old print.
So is it really necessary that life science companies spend tens of thousands of dollars (or more) creating conference exhibits, then tens of thousands more any time they want to exhibit at a conference? The costs are genuinely enormous – conferences are often the single largest line item in B2B companies’ marketing budgets. A 2014 study from Forrester Research put the percentage of marketing budget going to in-person events at 20%; almost 50% more than the second largest category, which was all digital advertising combined. That same study, however, found that while overall B2B marketing budgets were increasing, more marketers were planning on decreasing spending for in-person events than increasing spending for them.
A 2013 study from InsideSales.com (summarized nicely here by MarketingProfs) found that conferences were rated as the 4th most effective method for lead generation as well as the 4th most effective method for driving brand awareness by B2B marketers and salespeople. Considering that they found lead generation quantity and quality to be the #1 and #2 top marketing challenge cited, with product and service awareness third, perhaps conferences are still worth the cost after all. (FYI – lead generation has ranked the top marketing challenge in study after study for a long time. Not to excavate the internet, but here’s an example from 2013 published by IDG Enterprise and another from 2011 by MarketingSherpa) To add some more recent sentiment on the effectiveness of in-person events, a 2015 study from Regalix (summarized here by MarketingCharts) asked CXOs what online and offline marketing tactics they found to be effective. The #1 answer, with 84% of respondents citing them as effective, was in-person events.
There is one question that different people in the life science industry seem to have different opinions on that we can settle using data: are conferences falling out of style? We took a basket of North American conferences and got attendance data for the last 5 years to see if we could spot any clear trends. Full disclosure for the nitpickers among us, unfortunately they’re not truly random – they’re just the ones we thought of first and could obtain attendance data for.
|American Association for Cancer Research||12,254||11,761||12,415||15,794||16,500|
|American Chemical Society*||17,455||15,178||17,396||14,353||18,754|
|American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB)||7,440||5,606||7,484||5,138||5,758|
|American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG)||8,430||8,484||8,376||7,502||7,259|
*The American Chemical Society meetings are biannual. These numbers reflect a total attendance for both Spring and Fall meetings.
From this data, which admittedly is far from comprehensive, it seems that conference attendance is relatively steady, at least in recent years. Unfortunately that doesn’t help us answer our burning question: are conferences worth it?
None of those aforementioned studies say anything about ROI, they are all based on qualitative responses, and we all know something can be effective without being efficient. We’re also not just B2B. We’re life science. Maybe for us it’s different. Maybe the legendary scientific skepticism makes conferences not worth the cost?
We’re going to tap the collective knowledge of the market and see what you – life science marketers and salespeople – think. We’ll share the data we collect so we can see exactly what direction conferences are heading. Are they effective within our industry? Please take the survey. It has 23 questions and should take about 6 minutes. If we can get 100 respondents by the end of April we’ll create a resource listing scientific conferences with attendance, dates, costs, and location.
The average product launch has a lot in common with a firework show. A lot of effort goes into it and it’s relatively expensive. It makes a big splash and does a fairly good job of getting a lot of attention. Also like a firework show, after the big launch effort is over, the audience goes about their lives as if it never happened. People won’t think about it much after it’s over, and within a few weeks it’s lost to history.
That is not a satisfactory outcome for a product launch, but it is the outcome for most launch efforts. A lot of this is due to planning and strategy – marketers plan big splashes and track their “success” with vanity metrics so it looks like goals were met. That’s not how things should be done. A product launch shouldn’t just create a splash. It should start a movement. The goal shouldn’t be to get “x” number of people’s attention. That’s fleeting and far removed from the things that matter. The goal should be to change the way that your target scientists think; to change their opinions on how they should do things.
That begs the question… What do we need to change in order to move from this paradigm of creating big, splashy launches to creating ones that have a more profound impact – ones that start movements?
Three Things That Will Transform Your Next Launch
Beyond the standard things that companies normally think of for product launches, such as positioning and ways to reach the target audience, there are three key things that life science companies need to do in order to make their launch be the start of something that grows and becomes stronger with time instead of fizzling away.
1) Captivate the Audience
Captivating your audience should be priority #1 for most high-level marketing communications, but it’s especially important for product launches. As we’ve discussed previously, there are a number of things you need to do to ensure you get your audience’s attention and keep it for as long as possible.
First, start with your reason. Why did you develop this product or service? Why does it exist? Do NOT start your message by saying what the product is. You might genuinely care about your new product, but remember that your scientist-customers do not. Leading with a product-centric message is a sure-fire way to ensure a lackluster response.
Secondly, make the message something the audience can agree with – and is likely to agree with. You want them to buy into your message up-front in order to make them more receptive to everything else you have to say. Show the audience that you understand them and that your goals and values are aligned with theirs.
Lastly, make it emotionally compelling. This is what will really give your message the power it needs to drive people into action. Frame the message around something they care about and make it sincere.
Note that these three core components to captivating messaging remain true regardless of the format you’re using to deliver your message. However, using more highly engaging formats such as video or interactive content helps to both attract and maintain your audience’s attention.
2) Provide Genuine Value
Don’t just ask of your scientist-customers; give to them. In order to create a memorable, lasting experience, they need to be able to derive genuine value from it. If they do not, the experience will be fleeting. This is one of the reasons so many launches fall short – if the goal is just attracting attention and the metrics used to show success are things like visits or clicks, marketers are rewarded for creating stimulating and entertaining but ultimately shallow experiences (like fireworks).
The common intermediate goal of delivering a digital download or something similar is also insufficient in most cases. White papers are most frequently skimmed once and never touched again. Case studies focus on the wrong stage of the buying journey for most of your audience. Your goal should be to create a genuine resource for your customers related to the product or service being launched. Ask yourself: what are the needs of our target audience and how can we address them in a way that both is relevant to the product / service and creates value for our brand? Answer that question and deliver on it, and you’ll create a lasting, positive experience for your customers that is perceived over and over again.
3) Build On It
If you’re going to create lasting change in your market, a one-off event isn’t enough. To keep your movement going, you need to support it. The ways in which you can do this are myriad, but should be guided by your launch. Strive to create value and create experiences which build on those created in the launch itself. Even better, have the launch itself leave behind something tangible which can be built on or built around over time. Whatever you do, don’t just walk away. If you’ve come this far in the creation of a successful launch, keep going.
Which kind of launch do you want, the firework show or the movement?
Most life science companies still have a product focus, and many can get away with it because our industry, along with many other B2B industries, is a bit behind the marketing curve. Many companies place a very high priority on operational efficiency and building better products. Those things are undeniably important, but in many circumstances they’re not sufficient for winning markets anymore. There are plenty of products which were incremental improvements, or even significant improvements, and were offered at equal or lower products than their mainstream competitors but still failed. While there are many ways to fail in marketing a product, one of the largest is marketing a product. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
If You’re Only Marketing Products, You’re Doing It Wrong
Lets think about scientists for a minute. What are their goals? Maybe they’re trying to discover the next big drug. Maybe they’re trying to understand some burning scientific question. Whatever their goals are we can be reasonably certain that they are not to purchase “X” type of product. The need for a product is a low-order need. The experiment that the product will be used in is even a subordinate need to the ultimate goal. The point is that your product is relatively far from the thing that the scientist really cares about. Yet life science companies are trying to create competitive advantage in a manner which is almost entirely product-centric. That doesn’t make any sense.
We’ve seen symptoms of this shift from product to customer for a while. Personalization, for instance, tries to provide value by making the customer’s decision easier. Content marketing, when done well, tries to arm customers with knowledge. Companies are, whether conscious of it or not, being pulled into a more customer-centric viewpoint. But being pulled behind your competitors doesn’t create sustainable competitive advantage.
For a long time, companies looking to innovate would ask themselves “What else can we make and sell?” The question that you need to shift yourself to asking is “How can we provide value to our customers?”
Making the Shift
The most central facet of a customer-centric shift, especially since we are still talking about marketing products, is framing the product according to the needs of the customer. By that, I don’t just mean focusing broadly on customer needs, but rather focusing on specific customer segments’ purchase criteria and your products’ position relative to them. You don’t need to have a better, faster, or smarter product than your competitors. You need to have a product which more closely aligns with the needs of a specific customer. A Tesla is not claiming to be better than a Cadillac. They are simply meant for different audiences, and each segment is loyal to their brand in part because the brand focuses on their particular needs and desires (even if these desires are situational and therefore subject to change).
Think about how you can leverage network effects to your advantage. Most people think about customer data in the light of providing personalized promotions, knowing what company-created content to send to whom, or understanding a users’ purchase history. Get past that. Think about what information your customers have to share with each other and how you can help spread that information. This can be as complex as community-building or as simple as curating customers’ questions. Whatever the implementation, this information creates advantage over those who cannot provide such value. Network effects build on themselves and can be difficult to replicate.
On a non-product level, don’t forget to consider the brand advantages which drive scientists to your products in the long-term. Creating superior experiences for your customers imparts brand advantage for your company that manifest in improved customer acquisition and loyalty.
Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean product innovation, and customers are no longer making purchasing decisions solely based on the features of the product. Product-based advantages are becoming ever more tenuous, and competing effectively and creating sustainable advantage requires shifting focus to the customers. Provide superior value to them based on an understanding of their needs, and you’ll win their business.
Your life science company could have a stellar new product or a unique new service. It could be wonderfully differentiated and offer your customers a unique value. If you fail to effectively communicate that differentiation and value, however, than your marketing is still going to flop.
As we’ve discussed before, life science marketers often resort to facile claims to describe their products, and in most cases that not only leads to messages that are devoid of real meaning but also leads to messages that are not unique or differentiated. Even when meaningful claims are made, competing products / services tend to describe themselves in the same ways, using similar attributes. Your product may be differentiated, but if your messages are largely the same then how can scientists tell that your product is better than the competition? They can’t, which is why it is so important to not only differentiate your product, but convey a unique positioning in your marketing message as well.
One of the best and easiest ways to make sure that your positioning and value claims are unique is to perform an attribute analysis. An attribute analysis is a market research technique that determines how competing products / services are outwardly positioned* by looking at their marketing communications and seeing how they are defined.
To perform an attribute analysis, first list all the competing products or services and collect references which you will use for the attribute analysis. Webpages and pdf brochures are generally the best options in terms of content and accessibility, however product manuals and other more technical documentation may be used, as may marketing materials that are generally less accessible such as webinars or email blasts. Have at least two references for each product whenever possible, although more is better. Secondly, collect all the attributes that are used for each product. Note that attributes should be counted – you want to know how many times each attribute is used rather than simply if it is used. Attributes can include descriptive terms, features and specifications. The list of attributes can easily become larger than is valuable, so basketing similar terms is recommended (for a basic example, “fast” “rapid” and “quickly” could all be basketed under one attribute, and you could assign ranges for specifications such as “read lengths between 200 and 300 base pairs”) as is ignoring unimportant specifications or features (example: for many products, few people may care about weight). Once attributes are counted, you can group them into categories as well. You then have laid out in front of you a numeric map (or a visual map, if you plot the attributes) of the positioning of competing products and services. The data can be analyzed in various ways.
Having performed the attribute analysis, you will be able to see what claims are commonly used and which are uncommonly used. You can combined this with market knowledge of scientist needs to find positioning opportunities; positions that align with customer needs but which are not used by competitors.
*I use the term “outwardly positioned” because many companies do not have their positioning formalized or do not effectively translate their positioning into effective marketing messages. This erroneously leads to different outward and inward positions, where the company believes the product has a certain positioning but the positioning communicated through its marketing is different. You could also call these externally-facing and internally-facing positions.
Anyone who has spent time in sales or customer support can recall a few customers who always demand more than others or are just notoriously stingy. Chances are that all life science companies have some, and they’re all cutting into your profits. While a few extra service calls or the occasional negotiated discount might not be that bad, when this type of behavior is repeated or taken to an extreme customers can become unprofitable. This effect is aggravated by a very common practice: cross-selling.
Denish Shah and V. Kumar from the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University published an article in the Journal of Marketing which analyzed data from five Fortune 1000 companies. Their research showed that while only about one in five customers who cross-buy are unprofitable, those that are account for approximately 70% of companies’ total loss from customers. While cross-selling increases profitability from good customers, it also increases losses from bad ones.
Who are these unprofitable problem customers? There are many types, but in the life sciences we have noticed some that have a history of returning items, not making complete payments, demanding an inordinate amount of time from sales and service personnel, or requesting many demos or free trials before making only a small purchase.
The solution to minimizing the losses from these customers is not to stop cross-selling, and the authors of the aforementioned study note that cross-selling is definitely profitable in the aggregate, but it highlights the fact that there are such things as bad customers and companies need to shed them. However, unprofitable customers need to be flagged by sales, support, and / or marketing (this can be done very simply and easily in just about any CRM system) and these customers should either not be marketed to or should be “upsold” more profitable products to compensate. In some circumstances, especially for service companies, relationships with clients may need to be terminated altogether.
No matter what you do to limit the customer losses, do not cut back on service. It’s better to let unprofitable clients go than to offer poor or lacking service. Letting a customer go effects you one time. Poor service can leave a much larger impact.
Your company almost certainly has some problem clients, but chances are you probably wouldn’t be able to come up with a list. By keeping track of your problem customers and taking appropriate action to mitigate them, you’ll be able to increase your profitability with a very low expenditure of effort.
Over the 2+ years that BioBM has now been in business, we’ve had the pleasure of working with a wonderful diversity of life science tools companies and contract research organizations. One thing that we’ve been consistently surprised about is how many small life science companies lack positioning statements for their product lines and services. Positioning statements should be central parts of any marketing strategy. Even for the more pragmatic life science marketers who may eschew strategies for every product line, positioning statements should still be central to their marketing. They not only help form the basis of marketing messages, but ensure consistency in the message. Without them, marketing messages often degrade into uncompelling feature / benefit statements.
Such that life science marketers can more effectively create positioning statements, we’re going to give a quick lesson and offer some tips to help make the statement more powerful and help marketers avoid common pitfalls.
How a Position is Stated:
I’ll use a close approximation of Geoffrey Moore’s version from his book Crossing the Chasm (a great read, by the way): For [target customer] who [statement of need], the [product name] is a [product offering] that [statement of key benefit]. Unlike [primary competitive alternative], our product [statement of primary differentiation]. As you notice, there are a number of “variables” in this.
The target customer should be defined specifically. Keep in mind the target customer is NOT a market. “The pharmaceutical industry” or “environmental labs” are not customers. People are your customers. People make purchasing decisions, and you should state what people you need to speak to. There should be at least one noun that represents people (for example: “scientists,” “lab managers,” “analytical chemists,” etc.)
The statement of need cuts through your target customer to get to your customer segment. Of your target customers, what need will identify which will see value in your product? Ensure that you’re realistic. No matter what the situation, you will never achieve 100% market share so don’t pretend that you will. If you define the need too broadly, your targeting will be weak, leading to your messages not reaching the right people (and not being as effective when they do) and therefore decreasing the efficiency of your marketing communications.
The product offering should be a factual description of your product. There’s no place for terms like “revolutionary” or “breakthrough” in your product description. If you have fluff here, you’ll end up with fluff in your marketing messages, so be honest, be specific, and avoid exaggeration and hyperbole.
The statement of key benefit addresses how your product meets the aforementioned need of your customers. This statement should be specific and factual. Descriptors like “best” “reliable” or “high quality” should not be used. Also, benefits and specifications are not always interchangeable. If you use a specification or feature in your statement of key benefit, be sure to ask yourself if the benefit that feature / spec conveys would be obvious from the perspective of your audience. Furthermore, the focus should be on the single most valuable benefit; this is not a laundry list. Choosing one benefit is often not simple, but you either need to make the tough decision or reconcile multiple benefits in order to present them as one unified benefit. Lastly, note that the key benefit does not have to be your primary differentiator. That comes later.
The primary competitive alternative is not necessarily another product or service (although it often is). You want to address how most of your audience with your stated need are currently fulfilling it.
The statement of primary differentiation should summarize how your product or service provides value in ways that no other competitor can claim. It may be related to your statement of key benefit, but does not have to be. Remember: the key benefit is what provides the greatest value to the customer. The primary differentiators are what distinguishes you from other competitors. (Side note: the best differentiator should be determined by market analysis.)
A strong positioning statement is something that life science marketers can and should refer to in order to develop messages that are consistent and on target. To keep your marketing focused and ensure you target the most opportune audiences, have a positioning statement for all your product lines and service categories.
Many of you reading this may be familiar with BioBM, but for those who are not: the best one or two phrase description of what we do would be “marketing for small life science tools companies“. That being the case, we run into a lot of problems that are more common to smaller companies or start ups. For example, one of the more common issues that we run into is an improper marketing focus. A product is developed, and the manufacturer rushes to pull the advertising trigger before sitting down and thinking about the message or the audience. They focus on the channel rather than content and on their product rather than the users. They confuse an advertising plan for a marketing strategy.
When a product launch is on the horizon, the first question that needs to be asked with regards to marketing is “How?” The answer cannot be some combination of in journal X, website Y, search engine Z, and by emailing a bunch of people who really don’t want you to email them. That’s not “how”, that’s “where”. More specifically, the question that needs to be asked is: “How will we be able to persuade scientists that our product provides a superior value than alternatives?” That is the most basic question that marketing needs to ask. From that perspective, the answer “by advertising in journal X” seems both insufficient and a bit silly.
An advertising plan is not a marketing strategy. Before any life science tools company thinks about channels, it needs to address that most fundamental marketing question and, with consideration of the product or service, its competition, the behavior of the target market, and many other factors, consider the messages and content that will need to be delivered. (Side note: the positioning should have been determined long before this point.) Only then can the company start to think about how their marketing content should me delivered and how to draw people to it.
Companies resist change for many reasons: corporate culture, inter-departmental differences, vested interests, and many more. Yet one of the most common resistances to change, be it in marketing, product development, operations, or other areas, is one of the least justifiable: sunk costs. The reasoning that one’s company has already spent so many resources pursuing a particular endeavor is no more than an excuse with flawed reasoning and should be dismissed.
Ignoring sunk costs in decision making is a very broadly understood business principle however is often poorly implemented. This is often due to perception that changing direction would amount to the failure of the department, team or individual who is in charge of the current effort. Understandably, no one wants to be viewed as having failed.
So what can life science tools companies do to help ensure that we actually let sunk costs be bygones? First, we must ensure that all quantitative analyses used in decision making are unbiased and have ROI or other metrics calculated from the present day rather than any time in the past. In other words, we can only consider the costs and opportunities from the present day forward when we determine the opportunity costs of any particular option. That’s the simple part, however.
The more complicated part deals with defining failure. We also need to make clear how we define failure on any particular endeavor, as well as be cautious of how we disincentivize failure, to help ensure we create a culture that is appreciative of change rather than wary of it. An overly competitive corporate culture can contribute to such a resistance to change as well. All individuals and departments must work together to ensure that they progress effectively towards their common goals. This is admittedly a simplification, as such issues have been the focus of entire books, but it is still something that business leaders must be aware of.
When there is resistance to change within an organization, leaders need to determine the reason why such resistance exists in order to determine the validity of the resistance from a business standpoint.