EXCLUSIVE: Bret Smith on B2B Demand Generation, Content Marketing & Account Based Marketing

Bret Smith is a reputed content marketing expert and also the founder and CEO of HIPB2B, a leading B2B  demand generation agency. With over 30 years of experience, Bret is the brain behind many innovations like Closed-Loop Demand Generation, Historical Behavior Scoring, Campaign Engagement Data, and Contact Verification. His clients include some of the biggest names in the IT industry, including Google, Microsoft, CenturyLink, and others. He is also the owner, co-founder, and Audience Recruitment Master of WebAttract LLC., a company associated with audience recruitment/demand generation components. He also founded SoftPOWER Inc., which dealt with streetlight management systems, and headed Pitney Bowes Software which has a presence in the telecommunications, insurance, financial services, public sector, OEM, emerging markets, and retail sectors. The companies that Bret Smith founded and helped launch have won numerous awards and honors for excellence in marketing and related activities. We spoke to him to find out more behind the science behind some of the concepts that he has popularized.


Could you tell us a little more about HIPB2B and what makes it so unique?

In 2018, we are a leading B2B agency and demand data provider. We’ve been around for just a bit shy of a decade. I started out doing what many people would have called sales prospecting; what I called it was Thought Leadership Marketing. Our job was to, at the time, set meetings for our clients but we didn’t do it in the conventional sense of just using the phone and trying to get someone to commit time. Instead, we used email and social media, and we also used the phone. After having done our homework on the individuals and their companies, our pitch to them was based upon the information that was available to us, and it was done in such a unique fashion that we piqued their curiosity and interest. I call it leadership marketing because I feel that building that relevance early on is really the foundation for content marketing. At this point, we are generating about seven hundred thousand qualified leads in a year.

You are a leading marketing influencer yourself today but who has influenced and inspired you over the years?

Well, if you are talking about inspiration, and, if I were to use an example that everyone would be familiar with, I would have to say Steve Jobs. Yeah, I mean I’m not going to say that in him you necessarily have the most engaging personality or the best management style. But the thing that really struck me about him, and I think still remains the hallmark of Apple today, is his passion for user experience. That is something that resonates tremendously with me.

Do you have a standout keynote or a favorite conference moment that you would like to share?

Listing conference moments would probably be a really long conversation. But in terms of a stand-out webinar, the one that impressed me most was one that scored in terms of our ability to get an audience for it. This is about five years ago. The landscape, of course, has changed tremendously and getting people to live events at scale, whether it is virtual or physical, is a much greater challenge. We did a webinar for small business marketers in association with a company called Dex media and managed to get over thirteen hundred registrants from our audience recruitment efforts. We thought that was a great success.

You have innovated many concepts including something called Campaign Engagement Data. Could you tell us a little more about what that means?

Absolutely. You have to let me go back just a little bit here. So, with B2B marketing, digital marketing in particular, and display ads and emails, the supposed highest form of engagement is when someone travels to a landing page by whatever means and fills out a form. That’s always been the prevailing wisdom but those forms, while important, stopped telling the complete story; and so we began looking at other forms of demand or what we call early demand, which is inclusive of opens and clicks and that includes people that make it to a page but don’t stay on it long enough to fill out a form, and so on. As we were doing that, interestingly enough, a leading marketing consultancy called Series Decisions announced a change to their methodology, which is called the demand waterfall. In that change, they acknowledged that early demand was at the top of the funnel and was, in fact, something that marketers should embrace. So, we began to look at this in a more granular fashion. We came up with a variety of methods, including historic behavior scoring, that enable us to look at their engagement over time. As an agency, while we might have a mission for a particular brand or a particular marketplace to get leads for a specific company, we are also able to look at the entire data across all of the engagements for all companies . So, we can look at them in terms of the campaigns that they engaged with, or the keywords like Marketing automation or Marketing technology or whatever their interest is to help us create a campaign engagement data / score that basically says we believe that these folks are ready to consider a purchase. This is one of the areas that we have focused a lot of time and energy on.

What do you think are some big trends in B2B brands?

Well, I would say that all brands should follow video. Hands down, that’s something we have been doing ourselves. You would know about social platforms like LinkedIn. Their algorithms give greater exposure to video content, and these days there is the affordability of both the tools and the platforms to store them on, and so there’s no reason not to do it, especially if you’ve got people willing to create the content and to be the voices and the faces behind them. I think in parallel to that, of course, is personalization. Personalization, for a long time, meant a mail merge with the first name or company name in the email. Now, personalization has to more to do with segmenting your audience and understanding what channel they want to engage on and how best to present your content.

Any particular trend that’s been a hit or has worked well this year?

Well, the trend I will call a hit would be ABM or Account Based Marketing. Those of us, in my generation, for thirty years called it Named accounts. At a philosophical level, I think ABM is extremely smart. I mean why go after a larger audience? Go for those that are actually seeking you, those you can sell your product to. Attribution has always been problematic. I mean the original argument was between the sales and the marketing of an organization. Now it’s more about how you attribute to a channel or a fractional one. That’s because we’re touching our prospects in so many different ways. And I think we’re still struggling with how best to measure that.

Any outdated strategy that you think marketers should leave behind in 2018?

You know, I’m not one of these all or nothing guys. And so, I am not going to suggest that folks abandon anything , but I will say this – go back to my remark about ABM. You know, philosophically, I think this is great for approach. The problem with ABM for many technology marketers is that, in general, it isn’t scalable. One of the things that we intend to do is with the early demand is to give a little scale to that ABM. This acknowledges that there are folks who are making decisions and there are lots of influencers too. Early on in the process they do their homework and 60% of them make decisions even before we talk to a sales rep. This is where we need to pay careful attention and ensure that we are delivering the right content. What we’ve seen particularly in the syndication marketplaces is just really tied unrealistically to named accounts, or what we call wish lists, so there may be a significant number of accounts that they want – such as specific titles that may describe their persona. In reality, many folks don’t necessarily exist against those  titles. For example, infoSec or information security is a real big thing these days for lots of obvious reasons. We have certain companies that are interested in those types of roles. However, what we find is that once you get above the manager role, like Directors or Vice President, etc., security as a keyword doesn’t necessarily occur in their title. My point is they might have responsibility for security but it’s not present in their title. When it’s specified that particular keyword must exist in the title, well, they just jettisoned 75% of their potential contacts. These are some of the things that seem great when you’re considering them in principle; reality dictates that a little broader net be cast.

What was your personal favorite piece of content marketing this year? Or any standout campaign that really appealed to you?

We did a video series back in April about engagement data. We wanted it to be in an interview style, but with the premise that you’re off camera in a relaxed setting – basically not just a talking head but essentially someone who is addressing a camera and is answering questions about a particular topic and its advantages. We wrote six pieces. There were five pieces that were usable in any circumstance for your enterprise or small business. Then there were two other pieces that basically there for small businesses and enterprises. We ran those as a separate series and we were just looking at metrics. A short time ago, we saw that the spikes in April were just insane (as captured on our social dashboard that we built for ourselves). We write three original blog pieces every week. We have a very significant audience and several channels but when we put that video out there, I think there was a certain element of interest in it in terms of the content as well as the way it was presented. Just as important, if not more so, is the way these social platforms treat video. Video basically gets higher billing over other forms. It was also a lot of fun to do. So, there are folks out there that would probably not think that, but I’ve never really met a microphone or a camera I didn’t like. You could put one in front of me and ask me to hold forth and you are going to hear a certain amount of information.

So what channel did you do those videos on?

In terms of the platform, it is hosted on Vimeo but we also distributed on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other related channels. It was pretty astounding because it had a direct impact on inbound in the same month, rather than having a delayed impact in the form of improving organic search for us. In other words, it delivered its own traffic. That’s pretty cool.

Are there any avoidable B2B communication tactics that you want to discourage marketers from using?

Well, the one that I would like to pick is the real-time response. I’m confident that there are certain offerings out there, which you stand a much better chance of closing the deal with the prospect where you catch them while they’re there. Just think about it. Real time engagement needs to be at the right point in the buyer’s journey. I personally hate it when I visit a site and I get hammered with chat bots. I just leave. It is not the UX that I want, and, more fundamentally, since we’re content marketers we think that if you need to inform them you need to put different types of content in front of them before you go for real time engagement. So, that’s one approach that we frankly discourage. We have chat available on our site but we let people choose what channel they want to use to reach out to us instead of us pushing them.

So, do you think marketers should even be looking into chatbots and AI? Do you think they should make that an option?

Absolutely. I don’t think we should ever say never. Always keep our minds open to which technologies can improve our business practices and do a better job of engaging prospects. AI holds a lot of promise. I’m certainly not an authority on the topic but I have heard a lot about it. Like anything out there, there do seem to be both upsides and downsides, but without a doubt – as long as we don’t lose humanity – that needs to be part of marketing, it can definitely play a role.

Talk about tools, are there any data analytics tools that you would recommend for small businesses – startups in particular?

For small businesses, I think there are lots of options right now because these days you have some fairly powerful web-based tools. Tools in the cloud don’t cost a great deal of money. It’s not like the old days where you had to invest a lot in a business intelligence platform. The obvious one is Google Analytics, which I think a lot of people use. There are quite a few other tools that are either free or pretty low-cost. The other thing that I would mention in terms of data analytics is the spreadsheet. I think most folks don’t really get under the hood and see what they have right there, which will enable them to manipulate data and get the insights they seek.

Are there any upcoming projects you’re working on that you could share with us?

Our marketing and creative group, their project this year was the launch of the V6 website. Everything’s original and there are no stock images. So, we’re pretty excited about that. On the operations side, we’ve been doing a lot of interesting things with contact data. Historically, we captured that by a variety of means, and we work with a lot of partners. But we have determined that given the tools at hand than our own processes and intelligence, we are able to construct a fair amount of data ourselves and that’s something that we have been diving deeply into since June. So, yes, exciting stuff that does a better job of telling the story of HIPB2B and at the same time it is in the interests of our clients in getting qualified leads.

What is your favorite book?  Or a book that you would like to recommend to our readers.

I have to give you two kinds of answers here. One being that I agree with you there are lots of marketing books out there. What I do to inform myself about what’s going on is primarily through social media platforms, and I don’t necessarily mean something like Facebook or Twitter. The best example I can think of is Medium. See, a lot of folks out there are very knowledgeable but write long-form content, not a book, but articles that are in-depth. I learn things on the fly that I otherwise wouldn’t be aware of, and we’re all busy these days. I need to confess that I get more of my information from these than books. That’s the best way for me. The second answer is my favorite book that I read in the past year or two isn’t a marketing book.  It’s a book called Before the Fall by a gentleman named Noah Holly who’s I believe is a writer on Fargo, the television series.

For more on Bret Smith, you can keep up with him on LinkedIn and Twitter. Let us know in the comments who you’d like to see us interview next!