For tech marketers and PR pros, 2023 could be a wild ride, with an uncertain economy and new options for engaging with customers, the media, and influencers. Still, as we’ve seen in the 25 years since Merritt Group’s founding, some things are evergreen.
So, what’s still working in marketing and PR? And how can we prepare for more changes, big and small? To find out, we’re talking with Alisa Whyte, CEO of Merritt Group, who’s been here since the beginning 25 years ago. We’re also joined by Tonya Klause, Marketing and Communications Director at Microsoft Federal.
Data is going to continue to be centrally important—really investing in our analytics tools to further refine what’s working. Not that we can’t do some experimentation — I think we should in our market. But data is going to be key.
— Tonya Klause, Marketing and Communications Director, Microsoft Federal
About our guests:
Tonya Klause is the Marketing and Communications Director at Microsoft Federal. She’s been with Microsoft since 2007, supporting the missions of government customers and “tech for good” pursuits. Tonya is skilled in both PR and marketing and advocates storytelling as essential to driving demand and engagement.
Alisa Whyte is Senior Partner and CEO of Merritt Group. For 25 years, she’s led award-winning campaigns for clients in technology, healthcare and government that leverage the right mix of modern marketing, communications and PR strategies to move their businesses forward. Her expertise in marketing and PR is matched by her commitment to making a difference in the community.
Episode transcript (edited for clarity):
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Welcome to Lay of the Brand, where we talk with the experts on tech marketing, creative, and PR to learn what’s new, what’s working, and what’s next. I’m Peter Jacobs with Merritt Group. On this edition of Lay of the Brand, we’re looking forward to uncover what we can expect in the year ahead for marketing and PR. A lot has changed in the last 25 years since Merritt Group was founded, but some things are evergreen. And for marketers and PR pros, jumping on a trend may not always be the way to go. So, what’s still working in marketing and PR? And how can we prepare for more changes, big and small? To find out, we’re talking with Alisa Whyte, CEO of Merritt Group, who’s been here since the beginning 25 years ago. We’re also joined by Tonya Klause, Marketing and Communications Director at Microsoft Federal. Thank you both for being here.Alisa Whyte, Merritt Group: Thank you, Peter.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Over the past 25 years, we’ve seen two major recessions, huge technology advances, and historically significant events, including the global pandemic. So, with all that upheaval in mind, what hasn’t changed when it comes to marketing and PR? Tonya?
Tonya Klause, Microsoft Federal: Customer first is a lesson that we learn over and over again. And particularly in our case with marketing to the government, that has to stay front and center for us in messaging, in our events, in any of our storytelling. So I think that has become even more acute over the last couple years in terms of, how do we keep that front and center when we aren’t in person or any number of scenarios. I’d say that’s always top of the list.
Alisa Whyte, Merritt Group: Just to piggyback on what Tonya said, I think a lot of it’s around having the right message. That’s as important as ever over the last 25 years, and really just making sure that it’s grounded in the right industry context and competitor environment. And along those same lines, we’re still seeing the importance of competitor analysis and making sure the message is grounded in the competitive landscape. And that’s something, too, from a messaging perspective and a competitor perspective, something that should really be refreshed probably every six months or so.
Tonya Klause, Microsoft Federal: That’s a really good point. There’s been a really good pivot to industry centricity. I think we’ve seen that a lot. Whether it’s government or commercial on the Microsoft side, [there’s been] a heavy investment in industry to just bring out richer, more contextual stories, scenarios, and messaging, to your point.
Alisa Whyte, Merritt Group: Absolutely. And I know, Tonya, this is something you talk about a lot as well, is just the importance of the narrative and the storytelling. And it can’t always be just about the product, but what’s the broader landscape and the environment that it’s in?
Tonya Klause, Microsoft Federal: I was at an industry event — probably kind of a year wrap up, looking at the new year — a couple weeks ago, and it was hosted by a reporter who happens to be in the government space. And the panelists he had, he made a point to know that, this person that I talked to and I’ve known for years always brings me good stories, always brings me something that I can work with — knows who my readers are, understands my audience, isn’t sending me — as good as, and important as, product press releases may be — aren’t just sending me product pitches left and right, but [they] know what my audience is interested in. So it was such a compliment to the person he was referencing. But it’s a good reminder, too, to know what your reporters are writing before you send them junk and it’s not just a blast note. This kind of goes to the value of relationships at the core of so much of our work as well — building those trusted relationships on the communication side, where it, you know, that it matters to build those over the long term. They know what you’re interested in, you know what they’re interested in, and it really develops that way.
Alisa Whyte, Merritt Group: Yeah, and I would totally agree with the importance of relationships, particularly on the PR side with the press, and even as that media landscape has evolved over the last 25 years, the traditional reporters, but n ow there’s key influencers to keep in mind, too, and even freelancers. So how does that landscape change? But I think at the core, at the crux of it, is just the value of those relationships and keeping them going and building them from the start.
Tonya Klause, Microsoft Federal: It’s a good point! It’s not easy to keep track of everyone. People in the industry move a lot. Not everyone, but there are a lot of freelancers that we get to work with. There’s a lot more consolidation in the media landscape. So, yeah navigating that can be a part time job sometimes, too.
Alisa Whyte, Merritt Group: Yes, exactly.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Well. let’s flip it around now. What big changes have impacted brands and markets in ways that will shape how we do things for years to come? And I’d like to talk about that in the context of how it might be different for an in-house marketing team versus an agency. Alisa, from the agency side, what big changes have happened?
Alisa Whyte, Merritt Group: I would say most recently, with the pandemic, we saw a lot of change in how you market — particularly in the last couple of years — and a shift towards more digital channels, just because people couldn’t meet in person. And I think what happened because of that, it really accelerated this digital transformation and the way that marketers move forward. So that’s been a huge trend, certainly more recently, and just, I think, moved folks along a lot faster in that direction, which is really interesting. The other thing I would add to that is just, we’ve seen over the last 25 years, greater alignment between both sales and marketing, and particularly probably in the last 10 years. I remember the days where marketing rarely talked to sales, and it was just, “that’s how it worked.” Now more than ever, there’s more integration. We regularly meet with the sales teams as a marketer. So I think that will continue, and I think that’s a good thing. There’s still more work to be done, but we’re certainly on a good path.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Tonya, from an in-house perspective, you run a major team at Microsoft. What have you seen that has changed for you in a positive way or a negative way?
Tonya Klause, Microsoft Federal: I agree with Alisa on the move to digital. People’s attention spans have contracted, I’d say, a little bit, particularly around digital stuff. So if you think about events, we haven’t fully moved to only digital. I think there’s been a lot of feedback on digital halls and digital events that, in some ways, has been good. We’ve developed digital events for our own internal audiences in a way that has made them super compelling now. From an internal communications perspective, we send multiple 1000s to a big city in the summer for a yearly kickoff. Probably in the pit of the pandemic, everything switched to all digital. Now we’re able to do these advanced hybrid events where, instead of 10,000 people in one place, maybe we move the event to different cities over the course of two or three days and we have a crowd of 500 and we bring people in virtually. You know, we’re starting to see Star Wars come to life with holograms and like ways to bring people together that are super interesting and compelling, where you’re still with your team and your people and meeting new people, but you’re getting to hear from the people who are, in our case, based in Redmond. And so, we’ve been able to really build out the digital event so it’s hybrid and it’s in person and together, so that it kind of brings the best of both worlds and creates the content that is tight enough that you’re not going to lose your audience. You do it in chunks. You really refine the storytelling and so on. So, I think this is still evolving.
In the industry, obviously, big events have come back in a new way. There’s a lot of debate, I’d say, internally with our teams around where we invest our money. Do we still continue to invest in big events and big booth build-outs? The jury’s still out on that. Our sales team leaders are starting to say, “Can we look at more digital and look at LinkedIn as a part of that?” because there’s so much from a data and customer insights perspective that we can gain that way.
I don’t think it’s ever going to be completely all “one or the other” or “all or nothing,” but we’re really looking at getting creative at the hybrid model. And people are still loving being back in person, so I don’t think those events should be taken for granted. And it goes to the point of relationships, too, and things that happen “in the room where it happens,” so to speak, that are really valuable. Things are being rightsized now as a result of some of the innovations that we’ve seen.
Alisa Whyte, Merritt Group: And I was just going to add to that, too, I think it’s which are the right channels, To your point, Tonya Is it events? Is it not? What channels make the most sense? And I think those are absolutely conversations that a lot of customers and clients are having right now.
One other area, too, that I wanted to mention is we’ve seen a lot of growth in paid but on a smaller scale. And I know this is even an area that we work with Microsoft on and with you on. Twenty-five years ago, even 10 years ago, it used to be these massive paid advertising budgets of millions of dollars. But now, you can have quite an impact just with a smaller-scale budget, like almost a micro paid budget, of $300,000. So we’re seeing a lot of B2B tech companies looking to invest in these smaller, very focused, targeted campaigns on the paid side, which I think is really interesting also.
Tonya Klause, Microsoft Federal: Yeah, and I love it, it’s where marketing and PR comes together. I actually used to use this as a justification for why PR was better than marketing. We would want to have editorial content that looked like organic editorial, but yet it was paid. And what better justification for the need and value of PR than editorial and the value that influencers and customers and readers place on it? But it’s, it’s never one or the other. Some of the paid advertising that we’ve done around really strong content has performed really well with the Washington Post, with some of our defense publications — really across the board. And putting together compelling content that is a bit of a mix and getting creative in those ad buys, to your point, I agree wholly.
Alisa Whyte, Merritt Group: One of the other things I wanted to mention, too, is I think there’s the shift towards humanizing the brand a bit more. And I don’t know if that’s largely in the last couple years or just more, in general, that’s been the trend. How do you build trust and have more of this personality of the brand shine through? From an authenticity perspective, that’s really important and something that we’ve seen as a trend, too, over these last few years.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: That’s something that we’re seeing a lot more of, where, because there’s more emphasis on customer experience, brands also need to recognize that they stand for more than just their products and services. Diversity, equity, and inclusion; sustainability; doing right by society. How does that impact the decisions you make about where and how you market?
Tonya Klause, Microsoft Federal: That’s a really good point. In the government space, we’ve been talking a lot about mission marketing. And there’s some overlap — quite a fair amount, probably — with our work on solving mission challenges. The federal government, gosh, from civilian to DoD. In civilian alone, it’s so many industries packed into one. Sustainability and health care and financial services. Customer experience is such a big mission on so many levels for the government. But so many of those have kind of intersection and overlap with policy priorities — whether they’re around security or around sustainability or, you know, any of these things that we see being prioritized.
On the policy side, we have a heavy emphasis on mission marketing that’s intersecting with a lot of those areas. We’re in the process of building out our digital transformation showcase. And it’s really all about customer experience, like what does the new world of work look like? What about everything from supply chain to security and solving customer challenges, which is a huge mission of government, again, on so many different levels.
So that’s a starting place for us, so often, in terms of how we think about marketing, which — I can’t speak for other companies, but it’s been a challenge. And it still flips on its head, the way we used to, and are used to, going to market as a tech company. We’ve always been a platform and product company. So it’s been a growth area for us. And we’re not perfect at it. We don’t get it right all the time. That’s really where we start from now is that customer perspective and solving those big challenges, some of which are global on our customers’ scale, and also down to the individual customer level, I’d say.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Well, you have so much data now and tools for using that data. You also have automation tools that can speed up and give you multiple avenues to make use of that information. Is this a good or a bad thing? And how do marketers take advantage of this in a positive way? Alisa?
Alisa Whyte, Merritt Group: We’ve definitely seen this evolution towards technology-based marketing and marketing automation and companies and brands embracing it. I think there’s still more work to be done, and there’s still some gaps in the whole journey and the whole lifecycle. But I think a lot of companies are making really good progress.
The ultimate goal is just to have that whole feedback loop where you can get data all around the cycle. Certainly from a measurement perspective, I think that enables a lot more personalization, too, which is a big trend right now. Certainly big in consumer, but also I think it’s relevant in B2B as well, because you don’t want to just blanket everybody, every buyer or prospect, with the same content. But how can you give them — like we were talking about with experiences — more personalized experiences? So it’s definitely still a work in progress. But we’re seeing some really, really good progress behind the scenes working with a lot of tech brands on their journeys and their move to more marketing automation.
Tonya Klause, Microsoft Federal: I think we have a long way to go on the B2G side. That’s not a bad thing. I just think it’s room for evolution and development. We have nurture streams and are working on a lot of the customization pieces. All of it has to be done within the context of privacy and, you know, honoring all of the compliance perspectives and so on. So I’d say it’s a little tougher for us than just a pure B2C play, so to speak, but there’s a lot of innovation, I think, left to be had — at least as I see it. And the way we’re evolving our tools and can go through all those checkboxes of compliance and so on, there’s a ton of opportunity. I wish we were farther than we are as an industry, but we’ll get there.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Speaking of experiences, and this ties back to what you’d said earlier, Tonya, about the digital gatherings that you’re seeing taking hold. The Metaverse, AR, and VR could completely change the meaning of experiential marketing. So is this something that marketers should be focusing on now?
Tonya Klause, Microsoft Federal: We should, for sure! We’ve been telling stories around VR and so on, and we’ve got some really interesting ones coming out. This is more of a customer scenario, in terms of VR and all of the opportunity for solving problems with virtual reality. We obviously have HoloLens on the Microsoft side, but seeing how scenarios for uses of that come to light for OSHA, for the military, for weather scenarios and healthcare scenarios. It’s just amazing.
I don’t think we’ve figured out how to market into the metaverse yet. I maybe should just speak for myself. I think we’re going there. Maybe this makes me a Luddite, I don’t know. I’m a little bit skeptical because I remember Second Life. And that was gonna be like this “new thing.” What was it, maybe 10 years ago? And we’re gonna have to be marketing in there. Not that we’re in the same place now as we were then but I think, whoever can crack the code — great. I don’t think the world is living in the metaverse yet. But it’s fascinating to see how, particularly on the consumer side, how people are experimenting. And t hat’ll be really just fun to watch as that evolves.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Alisa, what are you seeing, especially from a B2B perspective?
Alisa Whyte, Merritt Group: Just to add to what Tonya said, too,I think the traction we’re seeing is primarily on the B2C side, the consumer side. Some of the big consumer brands or luxury brands have really started to invest in this space. But to Tonya’s point as well, I think on the enterprise side, the B2B side, it’s still more tentative, I would say. Folks are starting to experiment a little bit more.
I think some of the use cases for it could be, and what we’re starting to see, is events. I know that was something Tonya talked about earlier, too. Certainly even product demos, I’ve heard some companies thinking about the metaverse there. And it goes back again to, how can you create a more interesting product demo, make it more experiential? So that’s another area, but it’s still very much emerging, I would say.
And then I think the other area for B2B would be around training. I’ve heard that’s something, and I think Accenture has been doing a bit in that area — training their workforce and new hires that come on board. So I think there’s so many different use cases, but it’s more of an experimental position that B2B companies are taking. And rightfully so, just to see what it could do or what’s possible. And I know even Microsoft, certainly, and Meta, enterprise Metaverse, they’re trying to figure it out. So it’s definitely coming.
Tonya Klause, Microsoft Federal: Such a good point on the training piece. There are so many opportunities there. From a scenario-based perspective, the sky’s the limit. I think you bring up a really good point there. I think the challenge in the B2B and B2G space is — particularly right now, when we’re in a tighter economic climate where we are scrubbing and analyzing every bit of spend and working to maximize that for impact — that makes some of the experience… experimental, I should say, initiatives a little bit tougher to justify, so to speak. We should be planning for that. Can we get past the next six months? And what does the year ahead look like? How can we be thinking about that world?
Alisa Whyte, Merritt Group: That’s a really good point, just given the economic times we’re in and sort of, “When’s the right time?” From a practicality perspective, just having the budget to do that,I think, is a challenge.
Tonya Klause, Microsoft Federal: Yeah, it’s going to be continually fun to watch what happens from a B2C perspective. And let some companies fail fast, then take learnings and see what emerges out of the early trends.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: And with that, it’s time for some predictions. The economy is obviously, right now, a huge driver of what B2B and B2G organizations are going to be able to do. So, where are things headed for marketers and PR pros? And what should they be taking action on in the year ahead? Tonya?
Tonya Klause, Microsoft Federal: When you said data is going to continue to be centrally important, I think, really investing in our analytics tools to further refine what’s working. Not that we can’t do some experimentation — I think we should in our market. But data is going to be key. We’re really doubling down on our storytelling efforts and working to put those into market from an in-person, experiential, and digital perspective. I don’t see that changing for us on the government side at all.
I think we’ve had to refine a little bit how many things we can prioritize from a content and theme and campaign perspective. Really knowing your priorities is so important, from a marketing and PR perspective, because we just can’t boil the ocean right now. So in some ways, these downturns help us really refine what we need to prioritize from a business perspective, and then follow the business priorities with our marketing and PR. So I think prioritization is going to be important. It’s always important, but in the next six months, relying on our data and improving that handshake between marketing and sales. We’ve got so much opportunity to build from a capabilities perspective. That’s kind of another huge place that we’re going to be looking.
Alisa Whyte, Merritt Group: And I would add, too, I think that the focus has been over the last couple of years on lead gen and h ow do we generate new leads, new prospects? But I think in 2023, just given the economy, there will be more of a focus on customer retention, too. And we can’t forget about customer retention. So marketing programs that can help inform the customer experience, make it better, help retain customers in these economic times — that is a very important shift and, I think, something that marketers should be thinking about as we head into 2023.
And then the other area I was going to mention is just, the age of the B2B tech buyer is trending to be younger. And so, we have to think as marketers, how do we market to that buyer and that demographic who might like information in a different way or in more of a B2C way? So I think that’s going to start to change how we think about marketing to the right personas, the right demographic, the age group, and probably change some of those practices.
Tonya Klause, Microsoft Federal: I love that. That’s such a good point. That’s such a good reminder. I think your retention point is very aligned with my nurture, and… We’ve got a ton of leads, right? Like, w hat are we doing with them, and how are we using the data to better understand who they are and how they’re buying? And, again, tee that up in compelling ways with our sales colleagues. So there’s just a lot of maturity there that we can build. So I like what you said about retention.
Alisa Whyte, Merritt Group: Yeah, and I think, too, a lot of companies are looking at, “We have all these existing customers, how can we grow them organically and cross sell or sell them more services?” So I think there’s a laser focus on that also.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: I’ve been talking with Alisa Whyte, CEO of Merritt Group, and Tonya Klause, Marketing and Communications Director at Microsoft Federal. Thank you both for sharing your insights and predictions. Lay of the Brand is brought to you by Merritt Group, an integrated strategic communications firm that blends the best of PR, marketing and creative to help our clients tell their stories and build business. Got a topic suggestion or want to share feedback? Subscribe to Lay of the Brand on your preferred listening platform and leave us a review. And please spread the word and tell your friends and colleagues to tune in as well. To learn more about Merritt Group and the show, check out layofthebrand.com.