How do You Find Important Information and Things?
You probably manage important information like important objects, and therefore fall somewhere along a continuum (depending on the uniqueness, value and frequency with which you want to access the objects or information) of very deliberate placement to casually depositing.
You might put your keys and phone in the same place habitually, upon returning home, going to bed, etc. It's handy and easy to find. You might put valuable jewelry or coins, vehicle titles, and original birth certificates in a safe deposit box. And you might accumulate bills in a pile or folder kept in a certain place so that when you carve out time to work on them, they're readily available.
And no doubt you've developed similar systems for information. Items for your "swipe file" might get clipped and dropped into a folder for periodic review, or added to Pocket, Notion, Evernote, or even a DropBox or Google Drive folder depending on your workflow. Emails might get filed in Outlook folders under certain classifications to facilitate finding them later. (And you might have a more elaborate system of migration from your .ost to .psts since Outlook becomes bloated quickly with today's email volume.) Similarly, you may have designated file cabinets with hanging folders, and digital folder analogs, where you keep executed legal agreements and other important documents.
I'm pretty sure that over the years you've created a system - a directory structure - that allows you to find what you're looking for with a minimum of wasted time. It's relatively intuitive for you.
And my system, and the systems of others you know, are probably similar.
Must mean that everyone's is, right?
In fact, the difference in how people store and retrieve information is startling.
And the reason it's important to understand is that it has some enormous implications for how you market, sell and support customers.
"File Not Found"
Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.
Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.
Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students
Professors have varied recollections of when they first saw the disconnect. But their estimates (even the most tentative ones) are surprisingly similar. It’s been an issue for four years or so, starting — for many educators — around the fall of 2017. The Verge
That probably feels really, in fact unimaginably, foreign to the way you look at things.
And because it feels so strange, even likely wrong (you'd think of a person as disorganized and borderline irresponsible to handle their receipts, statements, and contracts that way), it's hard to avoid projecting our opinion on it.
But it's critical that we not do so - because these students (if indeed it began in 2017 and not earlier) are out of college now and using their engineering degrees in careers that make them your buyers. They are now consumers of your B2B manufacturing marketing.
Perhaps they're junior engineers working in an EPC and codifying a list of qualified vendors for a large project. Or maybe they're new plant engineers searching for internal information to provide context for projects that they're working on. Or perhaps they're in your own sales department and looking for the right enablement content they need to help nudge a recalcitrant buying team member to get them in line with the rest of their buying team.
The fact is that your directory structure mentality - and all its implications - are not only uncomfortable for them. That directory structure is as anachronistic to them as their chaotic file structure is offensive to you.
You "locate" things. They "search" for them.
It makes sense - they've grown up in a Google world. Every question they've had has been resolved via search. You might argue that has a number of downsides. And you might be right. But it doesn't matter. That's what they do.
This is an important mind shift, and it's going to be a difficult one to make. But it's necessary.
It's also a change that can potentially represent an important competitive opportunity because many of your traditional industrial competitors will resist.
And that will alienate prospects, customers, and employees.
Here are some examples of how you can start to think about the shift to search.
Your Website Experience
Early in your industrial website design and development process, I'm sure you had a conversation about navigation. You debated and finally decided what menu points to include in a navigation tree.
There was a time when websites had 10-20 pages and when that approach was adequate. Virtually everything on the site could be visualized through navigation.
Today, however, a typical middle-market capital equipment manufacturer should have hundreds or thousands of pages to reasonably support the diverse requirements of a website including marketing, sales enablement, customer success. Even if you only have 100, it's not possible to map all that through navigation.
And that creates an unsatisfactory experience for users - prospects, customers, and your own employees.
Think that's an exaggeration? Presumably, you have a tool on your site to record and observe user interactions (e.g. Hotjar, Lucky Orange, Crazy Egg or similar) Have you used it? Aside from heatmaps to understand clicks and scroll on high traffic/low conversion pages, recordings of site visits are hugely powerful.
And what they almost always illustrate is a frustrating visitor experience. You will cringe as you watch people move their mouse over navigation, gauging where they'll find what they need, and guessing only to quickly return to the previous page and try again. Often repeatedly.
Navigation almost never enhances the experience and almost always detracts from it - we just haven't caught onto that yet as clearly as we have with absurd telephone auto-attendant menus. (And perhaps, given the persistent prevalence of the latter despite the horrendous customer experience, it's probably safe to assume that even if they knew many executives would opt to keep them in favor of their own "efficiency!")
So why use it? Why not, alternatively, offer powerful site search and an AI enabled chat bot to help visitors quickly find what they need? (Learn more about conversational marketing and sales here.)
That's how you create a comfortable site experience for the rising generations of engineers that search instead of locate as well as for visitors who struggle with your navigation structure.
Contextually Appropriate Experiences
There are also tools to help push the dots closer together for users based on what you already know about them and can easily discern.
When you know that an incoming call or website visit is from a current customer, you can provide a smaller range of contextually appropriate responses - and they needn't be digital menus. Even a customer service person answering a phone call can be prompted with information from a contact's record, and create a conversation that's proactive.
Anonymous website visitors from certain industries (as identified through IP address resolution or previous interactions) can be shown dynamically generated content appropriate to their industry.
And visitors with different, known job functions and roles in a buying journey can be proactively routed by chatbot to the people most likely to be able to help them efficiently.
Imagine what that might mean for up & cross-selling opportunities beyond simply engendering more loyalty through better experiences. If your team knew that a current customer was now exploring higher throughput options, you'd have an opportunity to seed an interaction with information to proactively support their research (e.g. a guide on considerations when upgrading.)
If you asked each of your employees how to find the list of paid holidays, where to download a vacation request form, who your 401K contact is, and where to find the employee manual, how many would be able to point you to the current resource for each? Even for a couple of them?
Experience tells me...not many. And that's despite the fact that I'm sure your HR department has a directory structure with all that info. But where is it? How do you access the intranet? How are the folders named? Or maybe you asked IT to create a resource, but it's so cumbersome to create new resources and there's no way to easily search or cross-link resources that it's virtually unused.
That's why tools like Tettra are appealing to sit on top of communications platforms like Slack and MSTeams to create organic internal knowledge bases for business administration - including powerful search capability. It makes it easy for your team to access information when they need it, efficiently. To search for it.
Let's look at another example; your sales team's ability to access the right marketing and sales enablement resources at the right time (e.g. for the specific persona, at a unique stage in the buying journey, wrestling with a certain competitive comparison.)
You probably have a variety of one-pagers, videos, and presentation decks available in a shared drive via, you guessed it, a directory structure. And because they can't be readily identified, much less used in-line with sales workflows, they don't get used. Or even worse, each salesperson creates their own so critical messaging and value propositions are problematic, much less branding.
Of course, it's not only your company that has the problem. Your industry has it, and likely your prospects and customers do too.
So here's another competitive opportunity.
How about if you assemble a cadre of industry experts and create a public knowledge base. For instance, in the food manufacturing space that might include the following:
- ingredients manufacturers
- food scientists and food safety experts
- bulk material handling folks
- packaging expertise (machinery & materials)
- sustainability experts
- logistics experts
With a moderator/editor (learn more about industry knowledge graphs here) you could create your industry's centralized and SEARCHABLE knowledge graph. It's like Andrew Davis' Brandscaping on steroids!
Then, in an exciting additional step, offer firewalled and white-labeled space for your customers to use to build their own proprietary knowledge graph. Even offer them a moderator/editor/hosting service to make it easy for them. They'd then have access to the full public graph and their private section.
Not sure this is necessary? I know from conversations with engineering and procurement leaders in F100 companies that much of the existing knowledge is captured in meeting notes from periodic idea-sharing sessions and in email threads.
It's a gap. It's an expensive problem (everyone hates making the same mistakes more than once.) And it's an opportunity for companies.
It's Not About How YOU Traditionally Find Information
All of this opportunity hinges on a key question.
Are you willing to accept that others manage information differently than you? Or are you determined to project your preference and index system on others?
You likely think of your machinery as your key competitive differentiator.
As do each of your competitors.
What if you accepted that in general buyers probably presume technical parity and look for other differentiators. Ease of searching and finding information in ways that are comfortable for them could be a big one.
What's the downside to making it easy for everyone to find what they need?