Online technology is changing the way companies reach their customers—and the innovations are rolling out faster than ever.

Brett Boyum remembers the good old days. It’s not hard to do—they were only a few years back. Marketing, even online, seemed simpler. You would construct a nice website with product information, and produce some banner ads, and incorporate them into your traditional mix of print ads.

For Boyum, vice president of marketing for Warroad-based Marvin Windows and Doors, websites and ads are still useful. But he and his company colleagues saw a new trend surface a few years back, and they’ve been taking advantage of it.

“Consumers want to deal with brands they can trust—brands that are going to be there today and tomorrow,” says Boyum. “They want to know you as a person. So the ability to tell the history of our story, the generations of the Marvin family that have been involved in the business and that share the same values that have been carried since day one, 100 years ago to today, really matter to consumers. We are finding that it is a purchase decision-maker.”

These days, Marvin has its own YouTube channel, an active presence on Facebook and Twitter, and an easy-to-navigate website with plenty of images and ideas for all of its customers—homeowners, contractors and designers. Mike Keliher works with Marvin as a marketing account director for Fast Horse, a Minneapolis-based marketing communications firm. He sees companies developing their own digital media outlets to strengthen their brands. “It’s not as simple as buying a broadcast ad and reaching a huge swath of people,” Keliher notes. At the same time, he points out, “you can target your message,” and it’s more cost-effective.

The online marketing story’s not all about Facebook and Twitter, however. The number of social media platforms—such as Pinterest, Pandora, Snapchat, Instagram—continue to multiply.

Along with numerous specialized online ad networks, mobile apps and automated marketing systems, business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) firms have a bewildering array of choices. Companies that are successfully making their way through this dense forest are blending more of their marketing and information technology (IT) disciplines.

Fostering customer connections

Marketing “is an ongoing process of engaging with people,” says Steve Diller, CEO of Scansion Inc., a San Francisco-based market strategy consultancy whose recent clients include Intel, Logitech and Aetna. That requires a company to create valuable experiences to keep customers interested in the brand over time. Product design, strong customer service and marketing communications, including online, “are really about evoking and developing a long-term relationship with customers based on how customers want to feel,” Diller says. These days, he notes, “manipulation doesn’t work very well most of the time.”

Internal research conducted by a major auto company (not Diller’s client) revealed that people often get bored with a particular brand four months after buying a car, Diller says. Though there’s no substitute for strong product design and customer service, online marketing messages, Diller observes, can provide fresh content, valuable ideas and uplifting experiences to maintain a connection between the customer and company.

Another big reason companies are boosting their online marketing is the abundance of market data showing the benefits of sites such as Facebook, which allows companies to target potential customers more closely. “It’s sort of terrifying [to see] the amount of data that is available,” says Nina Hale, founder and CEO of Nina Hale Inc., a marketing agency based in Minneapolis. “But it has made messaging so much more impactful for advertisers. They can send messages that actually resonate with people . . . and hit them at the right time in their [purchasing] journey.”

Hale also has many B2B clients, and B2B companies have embraced online marketing tools, though in some notably different ways from those in B2C. She has seen many B2B firms using marketing automation, which provides “a seamless interface between the first time someone sees an ad and the ultimate amount of money that lead brought in.”

This is where some of the most complex and fascinating technologies in the marketing realm are being developed and put to use. But the goals are traditional—generate useful leads and follow the sales “journey” to see where a customer makes contact with a company. A B2B marketer may be less concerned with building an emotional connection with the brand, but she, too, wants to maintain freshness in a potential customer’s mind.

Chris Schermer, CEO of the Minneapolis-based B2B marketing agency that bears his name, says that in the past three years, “most of our clients have had a reduction in traditional communications budgets and an increase in digital marketing.”

An example is Schermer client Wells Fargo Treasury Management, whose target market comprises senior finance executives and treasury managers at midsize to large corporations. (The company helps its customers manage payables, receivables, reporting and liquidity.) Among other services, Schermer has created industry-specific content for the firm’s website to attract customers with a variety of interests. Banner ads and online surveys help generate leads, and automated marketing systems can send the potential customer more information. “Every activity . . . goes into a record for that customer,” Schermer says. “We can form a picture of their needs and their interests, and where they are in their buying intent.”


Email continues to play a useful role in B2B marketing communications, Schermer says. Email also can be monitored, measured and integrated into an automated marketing system. But marketers can benefit from a website that techies have optimized for high search-engine rankings. Hale says that 80 percent of B2B buyers “start at a search engine.” In terms of social media platforms, Hale advises using LinkedIn, where B2B firms can post white papers and other content that will allow them to be known as “the go-to for that industry.”

But whether a company is B2B or B2C, “technology has made it much more possible to track people at each stage along the purchasing journey,” Hale says.

Sales, of course, are marketing’s chief goal. But how sales are generated has been changing in the past few years.

At Arden Hills-based Land O’Lakes Inc., digital marketing tools “allow us to be where our customer base is,” says Becky McManus, director of integrated marketing communications and brand design. Land O’Lakes does have a Facebook presence, to be sure. But the company has extended its marketing efforts in other ways. For instance, Land O’Lakes has conducted three “Twitter parties,” online gatherings in which Land O’Lakes starts a Twitter discussion around a topic. Two of these online events focused on “Cheese Chatter,” which brought together a discussion and exchange of ideas for snacks and meals that include cheese. (The other party was “Cookie Chatter,” which focused on holiday baking.) “These Twitter parties trended internationally within eight to 30 minutes,” McManus says.

A big part of Land O’Lakes’ online effort is providing recipes—content that’s also a service to consumers. Busy parents are “looking to put wholesome meals on the table,” but they don’t have a lot of time and they need ideas on what to cook, says Mike Caguin, chief creative officer at Colle & McVoy. The Minneapolis-based advertising and marketing agency works with Land O’Lakes.

“A lot of marketing is actually serving as inspiration and offering ideas, rather than advertising messages,” Caguin says. Digital technology, he adds, “has allowed marketers and brands to really add value to people’s lives in a way that a 30-second TV spot can’t.”

Where’s the ROI?

This explosion of digital possibilities has changed the relationship between IT and marketing departments at many companies.

“What I see happening is more collaboration,” Marvin marketer Boyum says. With digital media and all of its measurement tools, “you don’t just push a banner ad out and wait to see four months later what your response was. You are watching it daily and you’re watching to see which platforms online are working.” The only way to determine how well it’s resonating, he adds, “is working with your IT department to make adjustments in the execution of that digital media.”

Marvin’s IT department often comes up with ways to improve online marketing communications. For instance, the techies suggested ways for Marvin to make its website more interactive, thus more useful and welcoming to visitors. By suggesting user-friendly techniques such as animated tools, Marvin “gets the attention of the viewer and gets them into a page a lot quicker,” Boyum says. “It’s better than choosing a word, then clicking on it.”

At Land O’Lakes, the relationship between the marketing and IT departments also has been undergoing an evolution toward a much closer partnership and collaboration, McManus says. While IT still takes direction from the company to support business objectives, the department also keeps the company abreast of new technologies that might be useful for achieving marketing goals. For example, IT has recently been instrumental in informing marketing of opportunities about new marketing cloud and customer relationship management (CRM) technologies.

Land O’Lakes and Marvin still use traditional marketing media. But online is expanding, which raises the issue: What about return on investment, particularly on B2C? You can measure pins on Pinterest and quantify how many people have clicked on your Facebook post. But how do you tell whether they’re actually buying?

“This is a hot topic in the marketing community right now,” McManus says. One way Land O’Lakes approaches the challenge is by utilizing marketing mix studies that examine the types of programs the company has had in place—print, TV, coupons or online—to get a better handle on which provide the best “sales lift.” This is easier to do, she notes, for Land O’Lakes consumer products than its B2B markets, such as its Purina animal feeds and WinField crop inputs for the agriculture market. “We’re continuing to look at what our best practices are for ROI,” McManus says.

Marvin’s Boyum echoes those sentiments. A few years back, it was common to require company website visitors to register in order to obtain content—and for the company to capture consumer information. “Then the consumer took control again,” Boyum says, and people were less likely to visit a site with mandatory registration. These days, he adds, “You’re seeing more and more brands moving away from requiring that log-in, but it’s hard to keep track of the consumer who went on your site, and then two months later went out and bought a window.”

In some ways, technology has made marketing and selling easier. But you can be excused for thinking that it’s also made it more complicated. That reality has created incentives for IT and marketing to collaborate. The Internet has played a big part in marketers’ strategies for two decades. But, in a sense, the online party’s just starting.

Gene Rebeck is a freelance writer and TCB’s Northern Minnesota correspondent.