As plastics companies emerge from the Great Recession, some are taking a fresh look at their marketing efforts and what they are finding isn't necessarily good.
On top of that, many are also wondering about how they should be using social media tools, including blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
The Plastics News Executive Forum featured two marketing experts to help companies get their messages on target.
Mary Scheibel, founder and principal owner of Scheibel Halaska Inc., a marketing communications firm in Milwaukee, talked about the current state of plastics companies' marketing plans and offered advice for improvement.
Her firm, working with Plastics News, recently did a survey, finding that companies are beginning to strengthen their marketing efforts, but that the message is often misguided.
Scheibel said marketing often is underappreciated at manufacturing companies.
Marketing communications is really undervalued by manufacturers but business-to-business manufacturers in particular, she said. It's tactical vs. strategic, it's descriptive vs. differentiating, and it's an expense vs. an investment.
Of the 310 companies that responded to the survey, 52.9 percent said they are increasing their efforts in marketing now that the economy has rebounded. But Scheibel said their message often needs to be sharpened.
For example, many companies don't do a good job explaining how they have changed to offer more-efficient or better services to customers. The vast majority of those polled 74 percent said the market is only somewhat aware of their efforts.
I tell a lot of people in this industry sector, 'You spend a lot of time telling me what you do, but you don't spend very much time telling me what you can do for me. And in the end, what you can do for me, that's really all I care about,' she said.
As additional proof, she said 77 percent of the companies said they bring a unique expertise to the market. But few feel they do a good job of communicating that message to customers.
For an industry that prides itself on excellence in manufacturing we're not translating excellence in manufacturing to excellence in communications, she said.
Too often, companies' marketing messages focus on their square footage or a listing of their machinery. She contrasted that to the marketing message of Plastikos Inc., Plastics News' current Processor of the Year: Since our inception, our focus is on solving the most difficult problems our customers have. We're pushing the engineering and technical limits of the plastics industry to make the impossible possible.
That is a pretty cool story, Scheibel said. Be creative. Make your story compelling.
Plastics companies today understand the importance of their websites the Web is now the No. 1 lead-generator for business-to-business companies. Typical plastics companies now invest in search-engine optimization, she said.
But Scheibel urged companies to take the next step and improve the stickiness of their websites.
Once you drive traffic to your website, what are they going to find there? Are they going to find valuable information that they can use? Are they going to find things that make them want to come back?
Are there things that you're offering them that will make them leave their contact information, so you have the ability to follow up with them? Because if you don't do that, then you're not going to improve your marketing [return on investment] despite how you generate traffic to your website, Scheibel said.
The survey also found that fewer than 30 percent of companies think that using social media is going to be important to the future success of their business.
I would really ask that you think differently about that. Because if recruitment and retention is going to be important to your company, you are not going to reach young people unless you're using digital means to do that.
Unless you're using social marketing and connecting with them on Facebook, sending things to mobile telephones, if you are not participating and having a really good website, you're going to have a really, really difficult time in the talent-acquisition world, she said.
Eric Schwartzman, an online communications consultant based in Topanga, Calif., offered a dizzying introduction into social media. He gave suggestions for companies interested in dipping their toes in the water as well as advice for companies that are still skeptical about social media's role in the plastics industry.
Schwartzman emphasized that it's not too soon for plastics companies to learn about, and start to use, the numerous tools already at their disposal.
He gave attendees a primer, showing them plastics-related posts on Twitter and in LinkedIn discussion groups. He demonstrated how to use Listorious and Google Reader to see what other plastics companies are already doing in social media, and how to use Hootsuite.com to find conversations indicative of an imminent purchasing decision.
Social media is an inexpensive way to generate sales leads, but it's also a way to collect competitive information and research new technologies, he said.
We're in sort of the first round of social media right now. Everyone is looking at it as a marketing opportunity and a [public relations] opportunity. But my prediction is ultimately it becomes useful throughout the organization because essentially it's just a new telephone; it's just a new way to communicate, Schwartzman said.
He urged companies to integrate social media into their everyday business. For example, take a typical call from a prospective customer. Why not record and transcribe a typical call and turn it into a blog post or a podcast? Promote the blog or podcast via Twitter and LinkedIn, and pretty soon you're using social media the right way.
Social media illiteracy is very high in the boardroom. It's very high. People think they get it, but they don't, Schwartzman said.
We're in the phase now where companies are basically snapping a Twitter feed or a Facebook page onto their existing marketing efforts and basically treating social media like a parking lot for press releases. And that's a fine first step. You've got to get there somehow. But that's not the objective.
The objective is to generate a healthy dialogue that is self sustaining, Schwartzman said.