"The mid-market, which we define as companies with 100-1,000 employees, is one of the fastest growing segments of the IT marketplace," says Ed Abrams, VP Integrated Marketing Communications, IBM Americas. "It's a wide-open market. No company has over 10% marketshare -- it's very fertile ground."
This explains why so many tech companies previously focused on the Fortune 1000 or Global 100 have recently launched efforts to pursue the smaller accounts.
But, when the marketing herd tramples in to focus on the same target, it's harder to stand out. "It's absolutely a more competitive space now," Abrams agrees.
In early 2006, IBM's Mid-Market Express team created 150 offerings specifically designed and priced for mid-sized businesses. Everything was to be sold via IBM's 45,000 local partners (VARs, resellers, etc.) across the US.
But first, marketing had to prepare the ground. They had three goals to strike in just one campaign:
#1. Change brand perception -- Big Huge IBM is great for companies that aren't in the Fortune 1000.
#2. Garner new business leads -- thousands of them to fill that pipeline.
#3. Connect leads to local partners -- pick the right partner for each lead (kind of like romantic matchmaking) and make sure no one drops the ball along the way.CAMPAIGN
Proving that your best inspiration can come from in-house sometimes, Abrams decided to copy a small test campaign that IBM's Nordic marketing team had run in 2005.
The idea -- why not combine the power of online chat (which IBM has offered on various response pages for years now) with video?
Basically, the team perched a video camera on the top of a selected service rep's monitor. When that rep answered a live chat request, the chat box included a little video box showing the rep on the other end. (See link to creative samples below.)
With the personal video, Abrams hoped, Big Huge IBM would become Real Human Being IBM. Here's how the campaign played out:
Step #1. Prepare your reps
Abrams' team decided to handpick a "couple of dozen" reps to launch the test campaign and roll out to more if needed later.
"Their one goal was to send the right people to the right local partner based on that prospect's requirements. They weren't hard selling." Sometimes he suspected the chat would stay in chat mode, but often it might progress to a phone call on the spot between the prospect and the rep.
This meant the rep had to be great at typing, phone manners and loved to give service (rather than landing deals). In other words, someone whose idea of heaven was giving an inquirer concierge-style treatment. The perfect reps came from both ends of the spectrum -- some inbound people and some folks who had previously been in outbound roles.
Reps received a clear instruction manual to read through before their training and then were trained on the system itself. Training took only about an hour and included questions such as, "Should I comb my hair more now?" (Answer: you can if you want to, but it's OK to look pretty much just as you really do look.")
The reps also roll-played, taking sample chats and watching each other on the video. Everyone felt fairly comfortable after that.
Step #2. Prepare your local partners
With so many partners, the team needed a database so a rep could pick the perfect partner for each prospect quickly, easily and on the fly. Key -- IBM decided against relying on regional matches (zip sorts) as a sole attribute.
"The primary focus is not in terms of geography. It's not you're in Akron and can serve people in Akron. It's rather, you're a local retail bank and we have partners who have retail branch banking experience and then can serve Akron."
Second key -- partners had to be ready to pay the same sort of concierge-style attention to the incoming leads that they had just received from their video rep. If the ball was dropped at this stage, the investment would be lost.
But, you can't control how much attention or time any one of 45,000 busy partners will really pay to your latest marketing idea or leads. So Abrams viewed partner relations as a marketing campaign in and of itself -- including multiple media and repeat messaging over two solid months to prepare them for incoming leads, including:
- Web-based training
- local city training in-person via territory managers
- a session at the annual partners convention
- direct postal mail
IBM already had a CRM system set up via the partner portal to track and manage leads. Abrams’ team let partners know that only pre-vetted leads would make it through (no deluge of worthless contacts) and any lead that wasn't touched in 24 hours would be swiftly moved to another partner's pile.
Critical -- sometimes the best partner may be an internal IBM division. Abrams' team included internal contacts in the database and even devised a way to flag the notes they sent these departments for extra-quick response time.
Step #3. Create video ads and landing pages
Now the creative team stepped in to design the outgoing campaign. They made a series of banners (see samples below) showing a live concierge in person, along with the tagline: "If your business is not exactly big and not exactly small, you're in exactly the right place."
They also created a campaign microsite to function as a landing page that included some non-video content (case studies, etc.) along with a live video chat invitation.
Abrams' creative brief -- "It's an idea of simple. Doing business with IBM is as easy as driving through to pick up a cup of coffee in the morning. Let's get to the proof points quickly. Let's not make this a stereotypical IBM experience. As an IBMer myself, I've gotten lost in our Web pages."
He continues, "This needed to be very easy to navigate with only a few choices as a starting point. You see right away what we sell and you see the fine local partners who support you. Contact us and chat live."
The microsite wound up being a literal interpretation of this idea. You swoop up to a little drive-in window; inside, there's a video rep ready to help you out. If you don't want to talk to him, you can click on one of very few options on the nav bar. Otherwise, you would be invited to start discussing your needs with a real rep right away.
Wary of tire-kickers who might waste rep time, the team gave the reps a few introductory questions to determine if this was truly an opportunity.
Step #4. Gradual media rollout
Abrams had no idea what kind of response the campaign would receive, so he started advertising it slowly on a limited geographic basis.
The team were instructed *not* to use typical IBM media buys. This way, the message would not conflict with messaging sent to Fortune 1,000 markets. Plus, they hoped prospects would be happily surprised to see IBM turn up in unexpected places.
Although Abrams is a bit of a cynic about targeting online banners ("media is a blunt instrument"), his team tested a variety of sites, including:
- Local newspapers
- Regional BusinessWeek sites
- Regional ESPN traffic
They also supplemented the online media with postal direct mail packages in some markets.
The campaign launched in April 2006. Then, everyone held their breath. Would a pilot program that did pretty well in the Nordic countries play well in America's heartland?
Oh, yeah! The video concierge campaign worked so well that Abrams' team has continually extended reach and plans to run it during first-quarter 2007 if not even longer.
"The biggest surprise was how few technology tire kickers we really got," he notes. "I figured we'd get a ton of people clicking to see, 'Is there really someone real from IBM here?' Sort of like Prince Albert in a can. The reality is we've gotten a tremendous volume of high-quality prospects wanting to start a dialogue to do business with IBM. It was a very, very pleasant surprise."
- Responses come in a fairly steady stream 8am-8pm EST. "We really haven't seen tremendous peaks and valleys to speak of. It surprised me. I'm seeing call volume spread pretty even during the day and evening."
- Banner click rates are fairly standard compared to other banners.
- However, landing page activity is off the charts. People spend roughly 2 1/2 minutes on average on the microsite. "Based on historical benchmarks, that's phenomenal."
- Conversion rates for both visitor-to-lead and ultimately lead-to-sale are four times higher than those of historic campaigns.
Last but not least, the most common question prospects have about the video chat is "Can you see me, too?" (Obviously, the answer is no. But who knows someday. …) Useful links related to this article:
Creative samples from IBM's concierge campaign:
Avivocom LLC - the marketing technology that powers this campaign for IBM
OgilvyOne Worldwide - strategic agency involved in the campaign
IBM marketing execs will be presenting a new Case Study on their global email campaigns at MarketingSherpa's Email Summit in Miami March 4-6th. For more info: