Notes from the Show
Technology is wonderful! But has it caused us to become too user focused?
In this episode Susan Tatum sits down with Dario Priolo, Founder and President of JK Research to discuss building your differentiation strategy through buyer focused marketing content.
Dario talks about how relevance is the key to gaining client trust and how the proliferation of ineffective marketing content is a result of technology driving marketing rather than customer interaction driving it.
Intro: You’re listening to Dare to Differentiate, a podcast for business owners in crowded industries who want to learn how to rise above the noise. In this show, we focus not on doing everything for everybody, but on doing a few things for the right people with excellence. So, if you’re ready to leave the herd, then you’ve come to the right place. Let’s get into the show.Intro: You’re listening to Dare to Differentiate, a podcast for business owners in crowded industries who want to learn how to rise above the noise. In this show, we focus not on doing everything for everybody, but on doing a few things for the right people with excellence. So, if you’re ready to leave the herd, then you’ve come to the right place. Let’s get into the show.
Susan: Welcome back. I’m Susan Tatum, and today I’m talking with Dario Priolo, who is the founder and president of JK Research. Welcome, Dario.
Dario: Hi, Susan. How are you today?
Susan: I’m great, thanks. How about you?
Dario: Very well, thank you.
Susan: Oh, good. So, Dario, we’re talking here about focus and differentiation and specialization, but before we dig in, to give it a little context, can you tell us a little bit about you and what you team at JK Research does?
Dario: Sure. So, JK Research is a marketing consultancy, but we focus exclusively on companies that offer human capital and/or sales performance improvement solutions. So, we work with, for example, training companies, we work with HR consulting firms, we work with sales consulting firms. There’s been a lot of technology sort of unleashed in the last ten years in those industries, so we work with all sorts of tech players.
And, you know, prior to launching my business in I guess November of 2014, I was a Chief Marketing Officer in those industries for about 15 years. So, I was the Chief Marketing Officer of, for example, the three largest sales training companies and a number of large human capital businesses.
Susan: All right. And what did you learn about differentiation doing that?
Dario: Well, it’s interesting because, you know, my company is called JK Research, and when I was sort of in my last CMO role, you know, everyone here has a story about how buyer behavior’s changing. Well, we knew that buyer behavior was changing, but we just didn’t know how it was changing. So, I created a very kind of in-depth – I call it “voice the buyer” – research approach so that, you know, at the end of the day, we could understand how our buyers were changing. So, they were basically like win/loss interviews on steroids. And that was very successful and extremely enlightening.
And so, when I decided to go off on my own, originally, I thought, “Well, I’m going to start up a market research company and that market research company’s going to focus on buyer behavior research.” And so, I was kind of conceiving the business and, quite frankly, getting very overwhelmed, you know, because it was the type of thing where there were just so many potential targets to go after.
You know, and that’s where my wife sort of stepped in and said, “Hey, you know, I’ve got a suggestion for you. Why don’t you focus on the human capital and sales performance industries because that’s really where you’ve lived for the past 15 years and they’re really good industries?” There’s a lot of innovation and disruption, and as a consultant, it’s a good place to be, and boy, am I ever glad that she told me to do that.
Susan: Good thing you married her, huh?
Dario: I know.
Susan: You know, I think it’s interesting. Because of the name, JK Research, and the approach – so, you actually do, if I’m reading your website correctly, many of the same things as a traditional marketing agency or an inbound or digital agency would do but you’re using research to get into the door? Is that fair to say?
Dario: I don’t know that we’re so much using it to get in the door, but we have, you know, sort of like an approach for creating strategy with clients, and that strategy is really heavily sort of built off of understanding your buyer. So, we offer a lot of the same services that, you know, an agency would provide but I think what’s different about us is two things: One, certainly a focus on our industries because there are nuances of those industries, but second of all, having a really strong research foundation to build strategy upon that is not sort of based on the gut feel of a client. It’s literally talking to their customers and talking to the market to really understand, you know, what’s happening and how they buy the types of solutions that my clients sell.
Susan: Yeah, that seems like a very – certainly accurate is the word that comes to mind. A very strong approach, and I don’t see a lot of that. I talk to a lot of marketing agencies and I don’t see a lot of people taking that approach.
Dario: No, it’s really interesting because, you know, again, I’ve been at this for a long time and one of the things that I’ve seen is that marketing has almost become, you know, like a technology-focused function now. You know, you see those eye charts with the 5,000 different marketing technologies out there, right?
Dario: And you’ve got to have your marketing stacked and you’ve got to have all that sort of stuff, right? Well, that’s fine and good, but I find that most marketers today don’t even talk to the customer. In fact, they’re actually afraid to talk to the customer. Most marketers have never sold. They’re really good with technology, they can, you know, program HTML. I mean, there’s stuff that they can do, they know the tools, but the question is that, without having really strong content that’s focused on what’s important to the buyer, I think what’s happened is that there’s been sort of this proliferation of a lot of really bad content, and it’s made easy by the technology that’s available.
Susan: You sort of hit on one of my soap boxes there. I see the same thing on LinkedIn with technology. And, you know, I mean, technology’s great. Don’t get me wrong; I love it. But we get to the point where we are using it I think for the wrong things and trying to automate what should be a human interaction, and so we end up with a lot of spam and a lot of just crap that’s out there and a lot of noise that’s hard to overcome.
Dario: Yeah, and I think people are fed up with it. I mean, think about, you know, like how many emails you get in your inbox every day. You know, I mean, you can’t sort of turn your LinkedIn feed on without being inundated by someone sort of taking sort of self-promoting selfie videos.
Susan: Yeah. Yeah. That’s so true. Somebody, and I believe it was Andy Paul – it was a sale consultant – said to me, “We have reached a point where actually acting human has become a competitive advantage,” and that really hit home with me.
Dario: That is so true, Susan. I mean, again, like it’s just so easy to blast people, you know, with irrelevant garbage, and that’s what I find. Like, when I’m working with my clients, the number one thing that I see that drives results is relevance. You know, if you can demonstrate to them how you’re relevant because you understand the problems that they’re coping with and you have experience and a track record solving those problems, more often than not, you’re going to get an opportunity to at least have a conversation with them.
Susan: Just out of curiosity, when you do your research, when you do the voice of the buyer interviews, how often are you surprised by what comes out of those?
Dario: Well, I am usually personally not surprised because I’ve done so many of them, but my clients are surprised. Because nobody in the client organization is doing this. They make a lot of assumptions. And, in fact, a lot of my clients – like, it’s almost sad, but – I mean, the marketing people don’t even talk to the salespeople. So, the people that have the best insight into the customer, the marketers, not only are not talking to the customer, they’re not talking to the people who are actually face to face with customers every day. And they’re making all sorts of assumptions and generalizations and they’re making stuff up and they’re putting stuff out there that is just not very good.
Susan: Not very good because it’s what everybody else is doing?
Dario: Yeah, that’s a big part of it, Susan. There’s a tremendous amount of copycat activity. But I like to think of content sort of in two buckets. You know, I believe that there is user-focused content and there’s buyer-focused content. Almost like, you know, your top of the funnel and your mid-funnel of the content. You can think of it like that.
So, for example, in my world, you know, like take a training company that does leadership development. Well, they’ll create all sort of content, you know, like, “Oh, ten tips to be a better leader of millennials.” Again, everyone’s doing that, right? It’s just been overdone and overdone and overdone and no one reads it. But the thing is that, even though it’s overdone, it’s focused on the user. You know, it’s not focused on the buyer. And what I try to get my clients to do is to really understand the triggers that are sort of the leading event that are aligned with the times when organizations are willing to invest, almost when they have to invest in the types of services that they offer.
So, for example, like take mergers and acquisitions. You know, when a company is going through an acquisition or they’re digesting a merger, that’s when they need really good leadership skills, right? They need human capital programs in order to retain the best talent and make sure that the integration goes smoothly. You know, that’s what I want to get my clients to position to; not just another leadership development program where we’re developing leaders for the sake of developing leaders. No, there’s a purpose, right? There’s a business purpose. And it’s identifying, again, the trigger events that are sort of almost like the necessary times when companies need to invest.
Susan: So, in doing that, in focusing on a trigger event, you have a bit of differentiation developing just in your approach.
Dario: Sure. Absolutely, because what you’re doing, it gets back to relevance, right? So, think about like, you know, If you’ve ever worked in a company that, say, had a leadership change or has gone through a merger. Those events consume the entire organization, you know? And a lot of things just kind of go off the table. They’re not willing to invest in other things until the dust settles around those major strategic initiatives.
So, if you can demonstrate how your solutions are relevant in those types of situations and if you can show how you helped other organizations through those types of situations through the solutions that you offer, then at least you have a prayer of being noticed and potentially being considered.
Susan: I’m just making a note here because I think that’s really interesting, differentiation by focusing on triggers or activities. There are just so many different ways that you can differentiate.
Dario: Sure, I mean, you know, even like, you talk about humanizing, right? So, I’ll give you another example. One of my trigger events for my business, I look at when sort of the major, you know, trade shows are there, the industry trade shows. One, for example, is there’s a big medical device trade show called LTEN and it’s Life Sciences Training Network. And so, you get all these companies that offer training and development solutions to medical device companies.
Well, if you’ve ever sort of participated in a trade show, you know that there are the haves and the have-nots. You have some people that are just so buttoned up and they look spectacular, and then others, it’s like, “Oh, my God. This thing got away on us but we preserved the booth and we had to show up and we showed up and we look like, you know, the neglected stepchild, right?”
So, what I’ve learned is that if I can identify who’s exhibiting at those events – and they usually make that very easy because it’s right on the website, they want you to sponsor the event – afterwards what I’ll do is I’ll reach out to the people who invested money to participate, to exhibit at those events, and I’ll say, “Hey, how did it go?” and I get a tremendous response.
Susan: Yeah. I think that’s brilliant.
So, when we talked previously, we were talking about all this “me too” ism that’s going on and you used a conference as an example, that I thought was really great, about what you saw when you went to the exhibit hall. Do you remember what I’m talking about?
Dario: Yup. Yup, yup. Yeah, that was the ATD conference, the American Talent Development conference, and that was in Washington, D.C. It’s a fairly large conference. There are probably 600 companies in the expo hall. And you’re absolutely right. So, of the 600, probably 300 of them, you know, offered some sort of leadership development training, diversity inclusion training, communication skills. I mean, oh, my God, it’s just – that and the learning management just comes, right? There must’ve been 100 different learning management systems there.
Susan: Yeah. How does a buyer make a decision when they’re faced with 100 different companies that are doing basically the same thing?
Dario: Yeah, I mean, at the end of the day, I think a lot of it comes down to fit, you know? And I think you have to really understand the customer and sort of their challenges, their use cases because there are a lot of nuances.
Like, for example, if you’re in the healthcare industry, you know, like a hospital, there are learning management systems that are sort of targeted to hospitals because they have certain regulatory issues, right? They’ve got record keeping and all that kind of stuff to demonstrate that people have done their continuing education, that sort of thing. But even then, you know, none of those providers are talking about that. Nobody there said, “Hey, you know what? We are the learning management system for hospitals.” And a few of the hospitals out there –
Dario: Yeah. Yeah. You know, like you said, it’s all “me too.” But you know FOMO, the fear of missing out?
Dario: I think people are just so afraid of potentially missing on something that they forget about targets.
Susan: So, they’re afraid of missing that random opportunity that might come along while they were focusing on something else?
Dario: Yeah. Yeah. So, “Oh, my God, what if a manufacturing prospect comes around and we’re telling people that we’re the LMS for healthcare?” Well, you know, you can’t win them all, right? Unless you’re huge, you can’t be all things to all people. Know your strengths, you know, know your sweet spot and dominate. Now, if you’ve completed dominated it and you’ve tapped out the market, then that’s one thing, you know? Then look for an adjacent market to grow.
Susan: So, when you’re working with your clients, you see that most of them have not been focusing because they’re afraid to take that step and say, “I’m going to do this and I’m going to set this other stuff aside?”
Dario: Well, what you actually end up learning when you start to dig deep in the research is that they do have pockets of strength. You know, they do have expertise in certain niches or in certain situations.
You know, for example, I have a client in New York and these people do amazing work with fast-growing companies. They’re an HR consultancy but they work with CEOs. So, these are fast-growing businesses, usually under 200 people, the HR function is somewhat immature. So, what they do, they’ll go in and they’ll work directly with the CEO kind of as their trusted advisor on human resource issues. And they’ve got sort of like a full breadth of capability. They’ll go in there, they’ll get policies and procedures set up and systems, and next thing you know, I mean, they’re working for 18 months with this company. And, in many cases, they’re recruiting the VP of HR when they need that role filled.
Susan: Right. So, they become a strategic advisor more than just another consultant.
Dario: Yeah, but what we did though – like, so, prior to working with them, you wouldn’t have known that. You know? It’s a strategic advisor to CEOs and fast-growing sort of small to mid-market companies. And that’s their market.
Now, before I started working with them and you looked at things like their website and whatnot, I mean, you’d think, “Oh, they’re one in 10,000 HR consultants out there.” You know, but what we were able to do was to really help them to identify the situations where they were the strongest and where they were really comfortable playing in. And then the other part of it is, you know, through tools like LinkedIn Sales Navigator, we can find them prospects. You know, there are lots of companies out there that are a great fit for what they do. And that’s exactly what we’ve done with them.
Susan: So, how did you lead them to I guess look inside their companies and figure out what they’re really best at or good at?
Dario: Well, what we did was we worked through their top 20 clients. You know, so we took a day and literally, we got some flipcharts and markers and were like, “Okay, let’s go through these, you know, one by one, and the account managers, right? You tell us. Or the lead consultants. Tell us about the account, tell us about what you’re doing for them, tell us how they sort of came around to being a client.” And when you do that, it’s like, whoa, we start to see patterns.
You know, so they had two distinct sorts of groups of clients. One was these small, fast-growing companies where they’re working directly with the CEO as a trusted partner in HR. and then they had some other real sort of niche coaching that they did around conflict resolution. So, conflict resolution in large companies where, again, maybe they required some specialized expertise in order to help resolve some of the conflict.
Susan: And so, I’ve dabbled in this a little bit with clients that come to us and they haven’t been through that exercise, and it seems like there are multiple things that you have to look at, like what are you really good at, where can you deliver really good results, and also, what makes a client fun to work with? I think that’s important.
Susan: So, there are multiple dimensions to it, right? When you really start looking at your client base and trying to figure out where you want to focus.
Dario: Yup. Now, the difference, though, Susan, is that – so, the biggest a-ha was that they actually had a marketing manager, okay? So, while we’re in this room talking about the accounts, it was completely new information to the marketing person. The marketing person had no clue, you know, what was going on in those accounts, what type of work was being done, kind of the situation in the client that lead them to become a client. They knew nothing about that. Now, they certainly blast the email newsletter, you know, every month and created a bunch of crappy whitepapers, but they had no clue. I mean, this was completely new to them.
Susan: Yeah, because they’ve basing it on their own sitting around, thinking, “Wow, I think they should be interested in this,” with no touch points at all.
Dario: Yeah, or it’s like, “Oh, I mean, I’m looking at – the Hay Group did this and Korn Ferry did that –”
Susan: Ah, good point.
Dario: And, “Oh, if they’re doing this, then we’ve got to do our millennial piece, right?” I mean, everyone’s got a millennial piece.
Susan: And that’s how we got where we are today.
Dario: That’s right.
Susan: So, what kind of tips or advice could you give maybe to our listeners who may be small to mid-size business owners, subject matter experts and want to start on that path to figuring out how to differentiate what their focus should be?
Dario: Yeah, I think first, you know, look at your clients. Do a deep dive. Well, there are two things. First of all, if you’re delegating marketing to kind of a junior-level person – and that happens a lot in these small to mid-size businesses because, you know, maybe, “We’ve got HubSpot, right? We’ve got to do email, we’ve got to do list management and stuff like that. So, okay great. We hired a marketer. We hired that marketer because they know how to use the tools. But what we’re forgetting is they don’t know the business,” and in fairness to the marketer – I don’t want to beat up the marketer – we’re not giving them the time and attention and information that they need in order to be successful.
Susan: That’s really interesting, yeah.
Dario: So, that’s the first thing. Yeah. So, the first is just, you know, recognize you can’t hire everybody. So, if you hire a marketer for that reason, know that you have to be the ones providing them with content, okay?
Dario: And then, second of all, again, like, you know, take a look within your existing account base and really get a sense of where your sweet spot is. And not only why they chose you, but what is happening in your client’s business when they come to the realization that, “Okay, I need an outside expert now to help me.” So, that starts to get to the trigger events, and oftentimes what you’ll find is that there’s no leadership, there’s maybe new funding, something has changed in their world, maybe there’s a crisis, and now they’re at a point where it’s like, “Wow, we can’t continue to function like this. We need to bring in an expert to help us.”
So, recognize what those triggers are for your business that are sort of leading indicators for what you do.
Susan: And the best way to figure that out is to talk to your client, rights? Or prospects?
Dario: Absolutely. Absolutely. You have to talk. And again, like, that’s where it tough. I think a good practice would be for, you know, maybe you’ve got a lead consultant or an account manager, but bring the marketing person in on the conversation, at least to listen. It’s a good learning opportunity for the marketing person to just get a better understanding of the business and the client.
Susan: Ah, that makes so much sense. Well, I could talk about this all day, but I think we’re running out of time here, so, Dario, thank you. And if people want to get in touch with you to find out more of what you’re doing and what they should be doing, how can they do that?
Dario: They should just go to my website, www.JKResearch.com, and my telephone number’s there, you can submit a contact form if you want or just call me directly and I would be certainly more than happy to talk.
Susan: Well, this has been a pleasure, and thank you so much for joining me, and let’s do it again.
Dario: Certainly, Susan. Thank you so much for having me.
Susan: All right. Bye-bye.