Innovative Marketing Strategies: Tuning in to the marketing transformation in the electronics industry
“You tell me that it’s evolution, well you know, we all want to change the world …”
In February 2017, I gave a presentation at the ERA Conference in Austin, Texas, on how most rep firms could and should build bigger, better marketing functions within the business, and more specifically, build marketing programs for lead generation. After the presentation, while many agreed there was a need, one attendee approached me to say that his was a sales company, not a marketing company, and lead generation was the responsibility of the manufacturer.
In 2017, that rep firm owner was probably right, the only problem was — not enough manufacturers were operating true sales qualified lead programs for their rep sales teams. And, if we are truthful with ourselves, manufacturers could still do more lead gen in our industry today.
“Wait, rep firms are now generating leads for manufacturers? It was always the other way around. That’s a first …” — Walter Tobin, ERA CEO
Jump ahead to 2021, and rep firms across the country are now building their own marketing strategies and resources. They are subscribing to data and marketing platforms and creating their own lead gen programs. So, what changed them? Well, yes, of course, it was the pandemic. Or was it?
“There must be some way outta here, said the joker to the thief …”
The marketing changes evident in the rep industry in 2021 are not all being driven by the pandemic. As I talked to rep firm chiefs over the last few years, most already recognized the changing dynamics of their market and many were looking for a change anyway. They were looking at marketing as a way to create a competitive edge; they saw the digital transformation trend and pursued it; some saw it as necessary to create a new value proposition to their principals; a few even told me it was necessary for survival. So, creating a dedicated and consistent marketing function within the rep organization was already a change in motion for many, but the pandemic was the catalyst for many more.
In April this year, I conducted a series of interviews with 12 owners and managers of representative companies across the U.S. (Thank you to the folks at O’Donnell, MacInnis, EAS, Logix, Wallace, Mel Foster Co. and all the other firms who kindly took my call.) We talked about how marketing was changing for them, and how they were handling lead generation specifically. One theme resonated throughout every single firm: The pandemic had forced them off the road and into their offices, it gave them the time to re-evaluate, time to experiment and to build a more digital outreach strategy for new business. This piece is key. As the pandemic eases now in the summer of 2021, they are not going back to 40 hours of “windshield time.” Every one of them said that having time set aside for marketing is here to stay. Everyone I spoke to was reclassifying which meetings needed to be in person and which could now be virtual. Most said QBRs (quarterly business reviews) would now be virtual, many said RSM territory visits would now be virtual. All of this buys back time for marketing. This is big, very big.
During a recent ERA Water Cooler session (July 6, 2021), ERA CEO Walter Tobin commented: “Wait, rep firms are now generating leads for manufacturers? It was always the other way around. That’s a first …” It is. This is real change.
“Oh, won’t you show me the way …”
So, with all of this new-found time, it is now the rep firms who are taking the lead and engaging their manufacturer partners to create new lead gen programs. For example:
• At Wallace Electronic Sales, Rob Brunson has created a weekly web TV show to connect customers and principals.
• Mel Foster Company has just hired its first full-time marketing manager.
• Even before the pandemic, Brainard-Nielsen created an online Innovation Center and a webinar series to identify active buyers.
• Catalyst Unity hired Lectrix, a components marketing agency to build a full-scale lead generation program using content marketing.
• And courtesy of Schaffner USA, all of its reps are now receiving free monthly email and social media promotions to generate new leads from their own social networks and databases.
• Luscombe Engineering of San Francisco, too, is building data and collecting content to begin a lead gen program with their principals.
“I can’t stand losing you …”
One other noticeable change over the last year or so, and not a good one, is LinkedIn. Engineering customers are engaging much less with the plethora of product posts. Look for yourself and you will see exactly who is liking your posts. Today, it is much less likely to be your customers and more likely to be your channel partners, your community of business peers. So, what precipitated this change?
I am sure you have noticed that LinkedIn has become more personal and less business over the last 12 months. Also, the drop in engagement was self-inflicted by the overkill of product PR. Both are driving engineers away from connecting with suppliers. Quite simply, engineers want to be educated not sold to. As a result, LinkedIn for the components industry today is now more about community than customers. Use it to educate your channel partners about NPI activities, awards, promotions and new programs, but I would not expect LinkedIn to be a lead generation tool for most companies going forward (with a few successful exceptions).
“Darling, reach out, reach out for me …”
But the news about LinkedIn is not to say that product-based outreach is dead, or somehow bad for business. In fact, quite the opposite. On another recent ERA Water Cooler (June 22, 2021), guest Jim Davis, purchasing manager for GM Nameplate revealed two very interesting nuggets from the customer side of the fence: 1. He takes one cold call per day, and 2. In order to be that lucky winner, you better show him something truly new. “Show me something I don’t know!” Jim said. So, the cold call is not dead after all. Post-pandemic, as customers reopen, we are seeing the re-emergence of cold calling in the form of the so-called “sales enablement” approach.
Back at Wallace Electronic Sales again, Rob Brunson is leveraging LinkedIn data and using sales enablement platforms such as AutoKlose and Outreach to generate design engineering meetings with prospects. Rob will tell you that if you want to get on someone like Jim Davis’ calendar, you must do outreach at scale. One-to-one emails and phone calls work to nurture existing leads, but to reach enough prospects and to build a pipeline of new leads, you will need a scaled marketing strategy, such as the Wallace approach.
“Sunday morning I’m waking up, can’t even focus on a coffee cup, don’t even know whose bed I’m in, where do I begin?”
So, if you have not yet begun your rep firm’s marketing transformation or are looking for hints on where to go next, here are the five key ingredients: people, content, audience data, copywriting and platforms.
1. “Help. Coz I need somebody, help!”
Job #1: People. Create the resources. If no one on your team has the marketing chops, then hire someone like many other rep firms already have. Also, don’t be afraid to learn it, so much digital marketing today is self-taught. You can do this.
2. “I get by with a little help from my friends”
Content. Your prospective engineering customers want to be educated not sold to, and educational content is the language of love with design engineers. Most of your principals and distribution partners have a ton of it. So, talk to your channel friends and start building a simple library of whitepapers and webinars.
3. “I’ve seen all good people.”
Audience Data. As a rep firm, your email database, and your social networks are your biggest assets. So, build them, clean them, use them fully, and guard them well! And if you have not yet downloaded your LinkedIn connections, Google it, it’s easy. There are also plenty of low-cost contact data acquisition platforms available today. See the list below.
4. “Can’t write a letter, can’t write a postcard, I can’t write nothing at all … this ain’t no disco”
Copywriting. There are plenty of blogs and articles online to quickly learn how to write short, effective sales copy. But if you really cannot write, either hire someone who can or try some online tools for help. See the copywriting list below.
5. “Let me please introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.”
Marketing Platforms. This is how you connect with your future customers. Check out the sales enablement and marketing automation platforms listed below.
“Everybody’s working for the weekend …”
Check out these tools to help you get started:
• People Resources: Upwork, Fiver
• Copywriting Tools: Crystal Knows, Grammarly (free writing assistant)
• Email/ Marketing Automation Platforms: Active Campaign, Mail Chimp, Hubspot
• Sales Enablement Platforms: AutoKlose, Outreach.io, SalesLoft,
• Contact Data: Uplead, Apollo.io,
“Please, please me.”
In summary, talking about his new marketing approach, Catalyst Unity’s Tom Griffin recently made this comment: “This is not just about finding new design engineering customers, although of course, that is our first goal. An effective lead generation program attracts new principals too.”
“So, you might as well jump, JUMP!”
This is not evolution, it’s a revolution, so jump in, start now, experiment, fail, try again, succeed. And you will.
“If I could turn back time”
During a webinar this last winter, I asked Michael Knight, president, Exponential Technology Group and SVP Corporate Business Development at TTI Inc., if he was concerned that salespeople across our industry would revert to old habits in the post-pandemic period. Michael replied, “The changes have already taken root, and while some will probably yearn for the road, there is really no turning back.”
Dave Grohl said it best: “It’s times like these you learn to live again …”
About the author
Graham Kilshaw is the CEO of Lectrix, a strategy and marketing firm for the electronics industry. Lectrix focuses on sales-driven marketing strategies to link together manufacturers, distributors and representatives in order to optimize the power of audiences across the entire sales channel. The company is also an industry media publisher. From his 20+ years of experience, Kilshaw has developed a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of the global electronics industry. He is a blogger, author and past speaker at ERA, ECIA, EDS and Engineering the Conversation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.