Feb 09

Advise Senior Leadership on Corporate Strategy

Advise Senior Leadership on Corporate Strategy and Organization

Marketing is part of every company’s strategic mix.  The direction that a company decodes to head in should be based on an understanding of the market and trends that affect the business.  As a marketer, you should have a voice in the strategic decision making process.  Then, in the implementation of the strategy, you need to be able to advise senior managers on the structure of the marketing organization itself.

Unless you are a marketing bigshot in a large company, however, you may view the idea of advising senior leadership on strategy and the marketing organization as being a bit above your pay grade.    You may have more of a voice than you realize, though.  When your managers, the VPs of marketing and CMOs, need to advise their bosses, the CEOs and COOs, they may turn to you for comment.  (If they are smart they will.)   Plus, if you plan on moving up, you should learn to think about the bigger strategic and organizational picture.

In a small company environment, you should definitely have a point of view on strategy and the marketing organization.  In the intimate executive suite of a startup, for example, there can be many direct discussions about strategy and organizational shape amongst senior operational, marketing, engineering, finance, sales managers.  If you speak for marketing, you need to have at least one cent (or maybe two cents) on the topic.

Even defining “strategy” as it relates to marketing can be a bit challenging.  Strategy is one of those words that gets used, misused, misunderstood, and overused. It’s a word that can be used to inspire discussions, hurled as a threat or a catch-all “shut up” switch.  Invoking strategy is a great way to purport to take a discussion to a higher level, thus leaving lower level thinkers out of the mix.  It’s helpful, in that context, to think about strategy in terms of two broad constructs: High level corporate strategy, and marketing related strategy.

High level corporate strategy is the domain of Michael Porter and his classic work, Competitive Strategy. Strategic discussions in this realm have to do with erecting barriers to entry in a marketplace, creating economies of scale and protecting earnings growth over the long term.  High level strategy has a lot to do with marketing, of course, but it’s not really about marketing.  Deciding to acquire a firm with a patent portfolio, for example, is not a marketing decision. Where you may get pulled into the discussion, however, is on the significant front of “can we actually make this work?”

Marketing gets involved in strategy, however, when the discussion gets to competition, alliances and partnerships.   While some technology products are successful on a standalone basis, most require an alliance of some sort to get into the market.   For example, your product might be an add-on for Microsoft Exchange Server. In that case, your alliance strategy is extremely clear. You are part of the Microsoft ecosystem.  The Microsoft channel is potentially your channel.  Their release cycle affects your release cycle, and so on.  A broader example might be a decision to make your product compatible with the Linux operating system.  In this case, you are allying yourself with the Linux community, and perhaps some Linux vendors, such as RedHat.  This is partly a matter of technology strategy, of course. However, the way your company builds products to fit within alliances and channel partnerships is also very much a marketing matter.

Understanding strategy involves seeing where your product fits into an ever shifting ecosystem of technologies, products, vendors, partners and trends.  Where are you today?  Where do you want to be in a year?  It’s not a discussion that occurs in a vacuum.  Your competitors are constantly innovating and devising new ways of expanding their market share – putting you out of business, in effect.  How will you react?

Though they are surely gag-inducing, I am going to use the terms “holistic” and “high level” to describe how you can best assess your strategic options.  Gag, because these terms are overused. But, hate them as you might, they are indeed the most apt way to get at effective strategic thinking.  The subtext of this thought is that strategic discussions about competitors, alliances and partners are prone to devolving into engineering resource allocation arguments and sales-driven chest beating about what features the company needs to win deals now.  Similarly, strategic discussions of partnership can go into rat holes about what partner is the easiest to get, the partner most aggressively courting you, and so forth.  As a marketer, you are in a position to offer a more holistic and high level view of what is going on and how the company needs to plot its course.

You also have to be customer-centric.  The figure below summarizes how I would approach a strategy discussion.  The customer is at the center.  But, you need to include future customers along with existing ones.  From there, every discussion about the product, channel, or alliance strategy, as well as competition, should relate back to how these present and future customers will react?

So, imagine you’re sitting at the executive staff meeting reviewing Kwikapp’s strategic options.  Each option will have an impact on customers, alliances, channel, and product.  There are three options on the table, each of which has specific ramifications for the market that Kwikapp is in.  The chart below summarizes how you can think about these interdependent issues.  This example of course goes with my standard disclaimer that this is a completely hypothetical and should not be taken as a true reflection of any particular technology in the real world.

Let’s assume the following current situation:  Kwikapp is a Java-based application that is currently supported on the Apache application server running on Linux.

Strategic Option Definition Impact on present and future customers Competitive Impact Alliance Impact Channel impact Product/ 

Operational impact

Integrate with SharePoint Surface the Kwikapp functionality as a SharePoint Web Part No impact on present customers. 

Will be attractive to customers that are standardizing on SharePoint for their intranet portals.

Brings us into competition with various SharePoint-based content management systems, as well as SharePoint itself. 

 

However, SharePoint integration makes us appealing to Microsoft shops compared to incompatible competitors.

The SharePoint technology partner ecosystem is large, but we are not connected to it at all right now. To get included in solutions being developed for SharePoint, we will have to invest in making ourselves a known quantity in this area.  We face an obstacle as a non-Microsoft technology – this will have to be overcome through messaging and case studies. Similarly, there is a huge channel for SharePoint, but we are new to it and will have to work hard on building relationships. Product is not currently designed for SharePoint compatibility.   We will have to invest in development and continued support of this alternative technology.
Be “platform agnostic” Support any application server or database, including Windows Server, though not integrating with SharePoint per se. Very appealing for new clients who are on different app servers. Being able to say “Yes” to virtually any server scenario puts us in a strong position competitively. We fit into a number of alliance groupings with this approach, including the J2EE community, the WebSphere community, the Solaris and Linux communities, etc. 

 

From the database perspective, we fit into the oracle, MySQL and MS SQL alliance groupings.

We can work closely with IBM WebSphere though we need to be a proven reseller of their server licenses to get much support from them. Being platform agnostic can mean having serious support challenges, with each customer potentially having a different support scenario – e.g. Solaris 10 and Oracle 11 vs WebSphere 6.5 and DB2.

 

So, as you can see, strategic choices can be messy. There are few easy answers, despite the insistence from some that this or that move is a “no brainer.” In my experience, the phrase “no brainer” usually indicates a lack of brains on the speaker, who has not delved into the issue enough to understand the complexities involved.  That said, someone, at some point, needs to make a strategic decision.

Your job as a marketer is to understand the marketing implications of a strategic choice and influence the decision making process accordingly.  In this example, you might perceive that being platform agnostic is indeed a tremendously powerful marketing option.  You can tap into multiple alliances and team up with numerous channel partners.  Go for it! Encourage the executive team to go with the platform agnostic approach. Done, right? No…  You still have a responsibility to point out a few things.  The SharePoint strategy might still be a good idea, and it doesn’t necessarily conflict with the platform-agnostic approach.  SharePoint is a platform. You can support it along with all other varieties of servers and databases.  The Microsoft shops won’t care if you also support Java, though Microsoft might not be too keen on helping a company that also aids its rivals. (If you’re helping them sell a lot of SharePoint license, though, they might not mind so much, however.)

Okay, are you done now? No, you still have a couple of big hairy “gotchas” to inject into the discussion.  If you go for the platform agnostic strategy and perhaps the SharePoint integration strategy as well, you face two potential marketing challenges:  You may have service breakdowns as you struggle to support so many different technologies.  If the customer experience suffers, that will affect your brand image negatively – a problem that can be hard to correct once it is established as a public fact.  On another front, you will almost surely have a slower pace of innovation and release with such a broad strategy than you would have with a more focused approach to software development.  If you have to test every new release on multiple stacks, with myriad database, app server and operating system combinations, not only will you be slow, you will invariably miss some bugs and release defective code.  It’s a just a reality of the business.  Again, your image could suffer.  Faster rivals could capitalize on these weaknesses and overtake you.

Differentiating Between Partnerships, Alliances and Channel Relationships

I’m going off the marketing reservation a little bit here and discussing how I personally view the differences between partnerships, alliances and channel relationships.  This discussion may not reflect the mainstream views of the profession, but the truth is there is not much agreement on what these terms mean.  At a high level, of course, any business relationship between two companies in the technology industry could accurately be referred to as a “partnership,” but this generality does us no favors when we try to figure out what’s really going help our strategy.   While there is indeed overlap between the concepts of a partner and a channel partner, for example, they are distinctly different relationships.  So, feel free to take the following with a little pinch of salt.

Partnerships

In the technology industry, a partnership occurs when two or more businesses join forces to market their products to a common set of customers.   There are myriad possible combinations, but the three most common are the System Integrator (SI), Independent Software Vendor (ISV) and Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) approaches.

  • System Integrator – An SI is in the business of building complete information systems for its clients.  Like a contractor building a building, the SI will incorporate a variety of technology products into the system it is creating.  From a strategic perspective, SI partners can be a helpful way of extending your reach across a far broader market than you can likely access on your own. This is the case for several reasons.  For one thing, the SI usually has deep, trust-based relationships with clients you probably haven’t met, and even if you did, they wouldn’t know you at all.  The client prefers to buy from the SI.  The SI also usually implements technology in addition to selling it. In most cases the client wants to purchase a complete solution, and will rely on the SI to deliver it.   However, like all potentially great strategic options, SI partners have their good and bad qualities.  Ideally, the SI will walk your product into endless new accounts. However, most SIs need a fair amount of training and prodding to do that. The good and big SIs are also often overloaded with vendors trying to get them to build their products into solutions, so it’s easy to get lost.  Then, if the SI has problems with your technology or needs excessive support, your own resources can get stretched thin very quickly.
  • ISV – And Independent Software Vendor has typically created an application that contains other applications.  For example, many business applications require a database.  The creators of those applications may be ISV partners of a major database company, such as Microsoft.  Thus, if you buy the application, you will also be buying a license for Microsoft SQL Server.  From Microsoft’s perspective, the ISV is a conduit for sales revenue because each license of the vendor’s product “pulls” licenses for SQL Server.
  • OEM – An Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) is, as its name suggests, a concept borrowed from manufacturing industries.  An OEM is sort of the reverse of an ISV.  An OEM is a company that supplies parts that are built into a product that someone else sells. Think Bendix Springs.  Bendix made the springs, but Ford, GM and other sold the cars that carried them.  Bendix was an OEM for Ford and GM.  PCs are full of OEM parts.  The outside case may say Dell but the innards come from Panasonic, Intel, and many others.    In software, it’s no different, though things can get a little more abstract.  May software solutions contain elements from other software developers.  For example, you might sell an accounting system that ships with Windows Server and Microsoft SQL Server. In that case, Microsoft is an OEM for your product.   Software OEMs are common in middleware scenarios. For example, some platforms come with OEM-created adapters that connect them to mainframes.  Finding a good OEM relationship can be a great boon to your sales efforts.  If you are leveraging the sales volume of a big partner, their business will pull your along.  OEM business comes with its own pain, of course.  Your margins will likely be lower than if you were selling direct and support and maintenance issues can be a challenge.

Alliances

I define an alliance as agreement between companies or comparable entities – perhaps informal – to use one another’s technologies symbiotically.  This may not match everyone’s definition of an alliance, but I hope my approach to the concept will provide a useful framework for thinking about the issues involved.  In most cases, an alliance is between a small company and a much larger one, or with a large and influential community/organization.  For example, a software developer could be allied with Microsoft in both formal and informal terms.  The company might be a Gold Partner of the Microsoft Partner Program, formalizing the relationship in the alliance.  Informally, and perhaps even more important, the software developer is a “Microsoft shop” and deals with clients that also tend to be “Microsoft shops.”  Similarly, there are alliances in broader community categories, such as those surrounding the Linux operating system, Java and so forth.

From a strategic perspective, alliances can be defining and essential in both positive and negative directions.  Alliances tend to be exclusive, mostly due to the technological challenges of mastering one specific stack.  Some tech industry industries can be platform agnostic, but it’s pretty rare.  Generally, you’re in one alliance or another, even if you don’t plan to be.  The good part of an alliance is that it opens your business to numerous opportunities to sell within the alliance.  A J2EE application server “shop” will be a potential client if your product runs on a J2EE server.  Alliances provide opportunities for M&A, recruiting, and networking opportunities.    That said, alliance can limit your potential.  One example of this, which I bring up at the risk of bodily injury, is the IBM Lotus Domino alliance.  With absolutely no intention of offending anyone who loves Domino (And people love it, for sure), it is a fairly limited software ecosystem.  Certain companies are committed to it.  Others have embraced other technologies and will likely never consider Domino related products in the future.

Channel

Channel relationships involve selling your products through another company.  Or, it’s about selling someone else’s product through your company.  It shouldn’t be an alien concept to you.  Car dealers, supermarkets and gas stations are all examples of channel relationships.  In the tech industry, we just give the concept of dealership a fancy name like “channel partner.”

There are two basic types of channel partners:

  • A Value Added Reseller, or VAR – Sells your products as part of a solution they are building for someone.  The concept of a VAR overlaps with that of System Integrators. Often they are the same company.
  • A Value Added Distributor, or VAD – Sells your product as part of a large catalogue.  A VAD typically sells many products and serves as a important sales channel for major licensing deals. For example, companies such as Microsoft and Oracle sell much of their product through VADs, even in cases where the end customer is buying millions of dollars with of software.  The VAD processes the order, manages the “paper” of the cash transaction, and connects with the software vendor for management of license IDs and so forth.

Partnerships, Strategy and Marketing

Many partnerships in the technology industry blend the SI/VAR/OEM/ISV definitions.   Some companies only play one role but most of the time the SIs are reselling technology from others and profiting from it, VARs are doing SI work, and so forth.  It all runs together. From a strategy perspective, the main takeaway is that a technology company almost never succeeds all by itself.  It’s inevitable that your company is going to need to find partners. Or, you may have to assess how your current partnerships are doing and make changes.  And of course, you always have to be strategizing about how to best take advantage of your partner relationships to move your business objectives forward.  This is where marketing gets involved in the execution of strategy.

 


Dec 30

The Product Roadmap

Technology Product RoadmapProduct management is a process that ideally blends long and short term planning.  There’s always what is happening right now, but if you’re doing your job correctly, you should have your eye on the future.  Most product managers create a “product roadmap” to express how everyone believes the product should evolve over the next, say, five years. The chart is a rough approximation of a roadmap.  At each interval, perhaps a year, a major new platform integration is planned.

The roadmap exists for several purposes. For one thing, it’s about having agreement – or the appearance of agreement – on where the product is going.  The roadmap is also a concession to the reality that most teams can only do one major update at a time.  It’s often wishful thinking, anyway.  Nobody really knows where the market is going to be in five years, or what new technologies will be affecting product management decisions.

Sales is a major stakeholder in the roadmap.  In most large scale technology sales, there are client requirements that simply cannot be addressed by the current state of the product. No single product can satisfy every demand made by an enterprise.  As a result, sales people want to show their clients and prospects a product roadmap that demonstrates that you have a commitment to making the changes in the product that the client wants.

 

Dec 08

Should You Do Market Research?

I have to disclose that my wife is a professional market researcher and focus group moderator, so even asking this question is heresy. In some industries, serious market research is de rigueur.  For example, in my wife’s case of medical and pharmaceutical marketing, research is a fundamental of the process.  Few major marketing decisions are made in that industry without structured research and deep analysis.  But, having worked in technology for a while, I have some insight into which situations demand rigorous market research and which do not.

It’s worth digressing for a moment into the different forms of market research so we can all be on the same page.

Tech Market Research Overview

We all know what market research is, right?  Yet, when we really try to define it, the clarity we may have had starts to fall apart. At least, it does for me.  As a result, I thought I would start this section of the blook with a little overview of market research.  If your brain is perfect, unlike mine, you can skip ahead.

Market research, broadly speaking, is any activity you undertake to achieve a better understanding of the market, competitors and customer.  There is a spectrum of possible approaches to market research, some of which are better than others for a given objective.  Market research is yet another area, however, where the B2B tech industry is different from consumer-facing industries or other more conventional business marketing endeavors.  The culprit, as always, is the shape-shifting categories that we find ourselves in.  What market are you in?  It’s such a basic question but one that is hard to answer accurately much of the time if you market technology in the B2B context.  If you don’t know what market you’re in, how can you research it?   You can, of course, but some of the traditional approaches to research don’t hold up very well.

Original vs. Published

You have two broad choices when it comes to market research. You can buy published research or do your own. Doing your own may or may not involve engaging a specialized agency.  Published research, which includes industry reports and assessments of new technologies, and so forth, can be helpful, but also prone to error.  The tech industry is constantly in flux and categories are hard to pin down.  In that context, you can form wildly wrong conclusions from reading a published report.  I have seen so many examples of estimates of industry size or dynamics that simply don’t match reality.  For example, if you were looking at the mobile phone industry in 2005, Apple wasn’t even on the map. A few years later, it was the map.

Doing your own research is generally a better, if more costly idea.  You can form your own hypothesis to test and figure out what you want to learn for your specific situation.    That said, it is also easy to fall into many different types of thinking traps when you do your own research.  We are all victim to our own views and experiences, so you can the risk of designing a research project that confirms whatever erroneous view you already hold.

Formal vs. Informal Market Research

You also have a choice whether you want to what I call either formal or informal market research. I don’t think this is an industry standard term, but the difference between the two approaches should be clear. Formal market research involves collecting data in a systematic way from individuals who are (hopefully) blind to the entity that is gathering the information.  Formal research is almost always performed by a third party agency or contractor according to a structured questionnaire that they develop with you to achieve your research goals.   There two basic types of formal market research:

  • Quantitative – In quantitative market research, subjects are typically asked a narrowly focused range of questions on the research topic, with multiple choice, yes/no, or “scale 1-5” type of questions.  The answers can be tabulated as uniform data and presented as statistically relevant findings if the sample size is large enough.   For example, when Trident says “4 out of 5 dentists who chew gum recommend sugarless gum…”  that is a statistically meaningful statement (we hope) based on a market research survey.  To get to that finding, Trident had to interview some large number of dentists – a large enough sample to make the claim valid. If they interviewed 5 dentists and got 4 to say they preferred sugarless gum, that won’t work.  Examples of quantitative market research execution include phone surveys, “mall intercept” interviews, and online surveys.  In most cases, quantitative interview subjects are not paid for their time.

 

  • Qualitative – Qualitative is all about depth and subjectivity.  Qualitative research does not generally yield statistically relevant findings. However, it can offer real insights into customer behavior and preferences if it is executed correctly.  Two approaches to qualitative research predominate:

  • Individual Interview – Also known as an in-depth interview (IDI), this technique provides the deepest level of potential insight into the customer though the least statistical relevance.  It’s just one person’s opinion.  However, if a researcher talks to 20 individuals in depth and finds that each person has a similar point of view on an issue, that’s a significant finding.  IDIs can take an hour or more. In most cases, interview subjects are paid for their time.

 

  • Group Interview (Focus Group) – This is a better known qualitative research technique wherein a group of subjects are gathered into a discussion room that usually features a two way mirror so clients and agency personnel can observe the proceedings. In a focus group, a moderator takes the group through a series of open-ended questions, facilitates discussion amongst the members and probes for more information when a discussion is trending in a direction that fits the research objectives.  Focus groups can yield valuable insights into how people interact with one another to form opinions on a marketing topic.  The group often encourages people to talk more, though unfortunately groups can get hijacked by domineering personalities.  For this reasons, almost every focus group project requires a minimum of two groups.  In most cases, focus group subjects are paid for their time.

 

In both the IDI and focus group examples, the researcher prepares a report on findings from the research.  The raw results can be revealing, but as the marketer, you probably want someone to summarize and synthesize the findings.

Informal market research is similar to formal but it is homemade, essentially.  Examples of informal research include customer focus groups and user group discussions.  It is also relatively simple and inexpensive to put together a survey online and blast it out to your email list.  Here’s what’s right about informal market research: It’s cheap.  Don’t underestimate the value of that aspect.  It’s intimate and shows your customers that you are listening.  It’s direct.  It’s a dialogue between your company and its key stakeholders.  It can be a lot faster than formal research.  The formal market research process can be lengthy, perhaps by necessity.  To clarify objectives and produce an effective interview guide, recruit candidates, interview them, and then process the raw data, you’re looking at a minimum of 2-4 months.  Informal work can be executed more quickly. That, however, is also one of its major drawbacks.

The immediacy and rapid pace of informal research can be as much of a problem as it is a blessing.  Talking with your customers about your products and future plans has several major drawbacks.

  • It’s not a blind study – People tend to be a lot more honest when they don’t know who they are talking to, or about, in a market research study.  If you are speaking directly with someone who has already bought your product, you are not going to get the kind of deep findings you need about why they chose you over a competitor.  There is a relationship already in existence that will influence the discussion no matter how hard you try to obscure it.  They may not want to hurt your feelings, or insult the engineers who made the product. Or, they may be mad at you and express a lot of negativity that doesn’t reflect the product reality either.
  • You can get hung up on specific irritants – So many client focus groups devolve into of “You said you would add this feature a year ago. Why have you not done so?”  The subject’s frustration with whatever the issue may be – customer support, performance, etc. – will trump any productive research discussion.
  • You get myopic yourself  -  The best research opens up the thought process and discovers findings that one may not have thought of previously.   You run a huge risk in a client focus group of concentrating only on topics that are relevant to the customers and to your development team.  This may make short term business sense, but you’re missing a lot of potential findings by not asking broader, more open-ended questions.  For example, imagine you have a Java application that runs on Tomcat server.  Your biggest customer is hung up on wanting your app to run on Solaris.  You therefore ask your client focus group how much they want the app to run on Solaris.  What you don’t ask them, but which they might tell you if you knew how to probe with open ended questions, is that they actually want the app to run on Windows Server.
  • It takes a lot of work – Good market research takes a lot of work.  Chances are, you don’t have the resources to do it properly yourself on a regular basis.  Some companies set up a customer council and have a great first meeting. Then, six months later, at the second meeting, the marketing team is not prepared for the discussion.  They don’t have the bandwidth to do the intensive work of establishing research objectives, creating a discussion guide, and so forth.  The second meeting falls flat. The third meeting is an embarrassment. The fourth gets postponed. The group never meets again.  Your customers think you’re flakes and you’ve learned little.

You are going to want to talk to your sales team and get their input on the market, what customers want, and the kind of features that should be added to the product.  It’s absolutely essential. After all, the sales people are right out there in front of the clients, facing off against competitors. They know what sells.  But, be careful.   Sales can get hung up on what they need to sell something right now, not what the wisest long term product strategy might be.  Sales people can also be very persuasive (that’s their job, isn’t it?) to get you to buy into their view of what the product needs.  It’s necessary to filter input from sales to remain focused on what’s best for the product in the long haul.

Competitive analysis is another necessary but tricky aspect of doing informal market research. You have to do it. You would be derelict in your duties as a marketing professional if you didn’t.  Yet, you have to face the limits of competitive research.  On one level, unless you are going to buy your competitors’ products and tear them apart – something that most big companies do – your insights into the competitor offerings will be fairly limited. You can try to get customers to give you their opinions on your competitors, but many people feel uncomfortable doing so.  It will depend on your relationship.  The best competitive insights often come, unfortunately, when you lose a sale to a competitor. If you can figure out why you lost, that will tell you a lot. Otherwise, you are stuck with analyzing the public record, which is not always useful.  You will find your competitors product feature claims online, but you won’t know how well they work.  You may see list pricing, but you won’t see how they really charge.  Analysts can be helpful, but even these folks can be influenced to think one way or another – and they are often wrong.

The bigger picture about competitive analysis, and all of these research techniques, is that they tend to trap you in what is already happening and limit your thinking about the market and product to what is currently in favor.  Anyone doing market research should reflect on the fact that Steve Jobs, arguably the most successful technology entrepreneur ever, did not believe in market research.  As Jobs famously said, it wasn’t the customers’ job to tell him what they wanted.   Sometimes, true free thinking is the best market research.

What Does the Market Really Want?

Not all of us (or any of us) can claim the technology marketing genius of Steve Jobs. But, we can take a cue from him and try to be circumspect about market research.  Research will definitely tell you important things to understand about the customer and the market, assuming you are ready to listen.  It can also lead you astray.  The best practice is to try to take it all in – formal research, informal research, purchased research – and blend it with your own thoughts, your own gut instinct about what is really going on in the market.  If you’ve been working in a particular sector for a while, you are going to have your own ideas about what is going to work in the market and what isn’t. The trick is to trust your gut but allow yourself to see critical findings in the research process.  You may conclude ultimately that you are wrong, but don’t sell yourself short, either.

Partnering with Engineering

Partner with engineering. I know, barf!  Don’t you hate those MBA terms like “partner with engineering”?  I do, in general, but in this case, it’s actually a good idea in this case.  Like it or not, you are going to have to work closely with engineering to get your views on the product heard and your ideas implemented.  It’s a relationship, too.  Though engineering and marketing are on opposite sides of a tech business typically, it doesn’t have to be that way.  For the relationship and working partnership to be successful, you need to take the initiative to overcome a few major obstacles.  I am guilty myself of not being totally diligent on this front as I need to be, but I remain committed to the idea.

  • Take the time to understand the product from an engineering perspective – While you may not ever truly get the product at the code object level, you need to understand how the product works under the surface.  This will help you assess possible changes to the product in terms of difficulty and expense.  A lot of product ideas may seem cool, but when you evaluate them in the context of effort required to implement, you may see them different.  For example, it might seem appealing to adapt your product to integrate with a mainframe. However, you have to be sure that there really is a market for that integration before you set out on what can be a pretty costly and complex process.
  • Get to know your engineering counterparts – This sounds simple bit it’s often overlooked.  Engineers are people, too. Get to know them.  Having a personal connection will help you both as a listener and as an advocate of marketing’s perspective on the product roadmap.
  • Respect that engineering has its own plans and goals – You may have a sudden inspiration that seems like a no brainer.  Yes!  We need a WebSphere portlet!  Can you make it tomorrow?  Uh…. No.  The engineering team is usually hard at work adhering to a plan that was set out for them before you got involved.  Asking them to drop everything may not be a wise call. Going over their heads and getting a high level dictum requiring them to drop everything for your sudden inspiration or self-propelled change in product strategy is not going to make you any friends either.
  • Earn your credibility – A lot of engineers look at marketing as merely the people who make things look pretty.  In some cases, that’s true.  However, not all tech marketers are superficial.  You probably won’t rise to the level of engineering knowledge that they have, but you can be a quick study and show that you understand the engineering process.  For example, if your engineering team uses an agile software development methodology, you should try to get your head around how that process works.  You should have an appreciation for the develop-test-release process, and so forth.  Understand that good engineering takes time and talented people.

Nov 29

Inform Product Design

Some technology marketers are involved in product design, but not all.    The term that gets used most to describe marketers who contribute to product design is “Product Marketing.”  Sometimes, the phrase “Product Management” refers to this function, though product management is more typically a role that involves basic marketing on behalf of a specific product.

I mention this because marketing people need to be involved in product design but their input is not always welcome.  Titles can suggest a responsibility for product design input.  In my experience, marketing’s involvement in product development will be greeted with reactions that range from, “go @#$% yourself” to “Thank you for sharing. We’ll get back to you.”  Sometimes there’s real cooperation.  For marketing to have a seat at the product development table, there usually has to be some executive level support for the idea.  Otherwise, it’s prone to failure.

Your role in product development will also depend on the size of the company and marketing organization. In some cases, there is a specific product marketing function that has a distinct responsibility for researching customer needs and collaborating with engineers on product design.  Most of the time, though, the connection is a bit more tenuous.  But, marketing absolutely should be involved in product development.  One reason is that marketing’s own success or failure will depend, to a great extent, on the product itself.  A lot of fired marketing executives were guilty only of being forced to market a product that the market did not want.

Product Marketing Process Overview

First, let’s get an overview of how it’s supposed to work.  There are myriad variations on the pattern, but the cycle shown in the figure below summarizes most approaches to product marketing.   At the beginning, the product marketer tries to figure out what customers need and what the market will reward – not necessarily the same thing, as we sometimes see.  This stage is known as “requirements gathering.”   Gathering requirements can involve market research, discussions with clients and prospects, competitor analysis, as well as analysis of deals that were lost.  Sometimes this last one is the most important but is often neglected for psychological reasons.

A huge list of basic requirements is helpful, but it won’t get you where you want to go in terms of producing a commercially successful product.  To guide developers, you will need to merge the raw requirements with your company’s strategy and strengths.  The result will be a document known as a “Marketing Requirements Document” or MRD.  MRDs come in a lot of different shapes and sizes, but they generally contain the following sections:

  • Market overview
  • Customer profile and “buyer persona”
  • Key requirements  – Have to have
  • Secondary requirements – Nice to have
  • Product roadmap
  • Go to market plan, including partner strategy

 

The MRD is a consensus piece, essentially.  It can be long or short – I’ve seen them range from four pages to fifty.  The way it’s put together depends on the way your organization blends marketing and product development.  The main goal is to use the MRD as marketing’s input into the development process.  MRD and marketing input follows a cycle, shown below.  The first step is determining what customers want (duh!) through some kind of research. Then, after the list of basic requirements has been generated, you need to mesh them with relevant facts on the ground, such as company strategy, how the product is engineered, and so forth. For example, if your research indicates that your clients desperately want Adobe Flash video in a product built to support Windows Media, that is a factor that will need to be addressed in engineering. It’s not a show stopper, but it does complicate matters.

 

As the product development process continues, the MRD can be a touchstone for engineering and management to come together and agree on what features will be included in upcoming releases of the product.  The engineering twin of the MRD is the product-requirements document or PRD.  Sometimes, it’s all the same document.

 

Oct 12

News Flash: There is No Customer

Now that we know a bit about the customer, we need to understand that there is no customer in enterprise technology marketing.  What?  That’s right, there really is no customer.  There is only a committee of people who evaluate and purchase products.  If you need to think of a “customer,” imagine a hydra-headed creature that combines all the elements shown in the table below.

Your customer is a composite of multiple points of view held by the group of people that influence the purchase decision.  The chart below attempts to organize the composite by plotting each individual’s functional role and their purchase influence on two axes.  Big as it is, it is nonetheless a simplistic representation of the personas involved in an enterprise technology sale.  On the X axis, we have the three levels of influence.  On the Y axis, we list the stakeholder roles.  Roughly, these roles break into business and IT.

Stakeholder roles include basics such as “Individual User” and “LOB Manager,” but also “Group.”  Who is “Group?”  There is not anyone named “group” at most companies.    What I want you to understand is that the group that uses the product is itself a stakeholder, even if there is no specific individual stakeholder you can speak to about the group’s needs and wants.  Good LOB managers will consider the overall group’s perspective on a technology before they recommend purchasing it.

 

Defined as End User Influencer Decision Maker
Business Level
Individual User Information worker X    
Group Marketing Dept. X    
LOB Manager Marketing Director   X  
LOB Executive VP of Marketing     X
IT level
Operations Support desk personnel   x  
Developer        
Security     x  
Architect     x  
IT Manager Director of IT for Marketing   x  

 

Kwikapp wants to understand who the “customer” is when it sells its photo portal to a marketing department.  Understanding the customer(s) in this situation will drive sales and sales support work streams (e.g. collaterals, how to craft the proposal, how to demo the software, etc.)   Filling out the chart shown above, they can assign end user/influencer/decision maker status to each of the buyer personas they are dealing with in the sales process.  Here’s how it shakes out:  This is not an IT critical sale, such as a firewall or server, so IT in this case is an influencer, but not a decision maker.  IT will have to endorse the final selection, and they must be treated with great care.  However, the purchase order will be signed by the VP of marketing. It will come out of her budget.

The chart will look different depending on the customer situation.    The challenge is to see the path to building preference according to the lineup of influencers and decision makers.  It’s not that complicated an idea – you need to figure out what each buyer persona needs and communicate that you deliver it.  What’s their pain?  You solve it. The challenge comes in trying to understand and address so many different points of view.

Defined as Pain Solution
Individual User Information worker Can’t find images easily Searchable image repository with metadata and tagging
Group Marketing Dept. Multiple image repositories to manage and use Single repository of images
LOB Manager Marketing Director Needs more productivity from people on team Less time looking for images translates into greater productivity
LOB Executive VP of Marketing Wants faster execution of projects More product teams from use of portal.
Operations Support desk personnel Tired of fielding the same question about how to download an image over and over. Browser-based portal, hosted on standard server, is easier to support.
Developer   NA  
Security   Images are information assets that need to be secured, but most repositories make it hard to do. Security settings feature enables security management for asset repository.
Architect   NA  
IT Manager Director of IT for Marketing Adding systems means adding support budget, which is not possible. This portal enables consolidation of image repositories, resulting in fewer systems to maintain.

 

Narrowing the Customer Committee

Of all these personas, some will inevitably count more than others.  You seldom see a situation where everyone’s voice is equal in driving preference and selection.  Who really matters in this configuration?  The trick is to target who has the greatest pain and who has the greatest influence over the purchase.  If it helps, consider giving each buyer persona a score for their levels of pain and influence. If you assigned a number between 1 and 5 for pain and influence, the highest scoring persona would be the one you want to target.  At the same time, address the needs of the other members of the customer committee.  If you can balance your approach and message in this way, you should be able to move the preference needle with the whole group.

 

Oct 03

Understand the Customer

Understand the customer. Understand the market.  Create preference.  Aren’t these all basically the same activity? Yes and no.  As a technology marketer, one of your most basic jobs is to understand what the customers wants and what he or she will actually buy.  The two are not necessarily the same thing.  What you can interest people in, and what you can sell them are often completely different products.  This dichotomy is frustrating and perplexing, yet it is a fixture of B2B technology marketing.

The split between customer interest and an actual sale is yet another great difference between B2B technology marketing and consumer marketing.  In most marketing scenarios, if you have the attention of the customer, offer them something they want and need at a price they can afford, you are almost all the way to making a sale. Not so with technology marketing.  Take the iPad, for example. Though the popularity of this device may soon change this reality, right now, it is quite difficult or even impossible to sell iPads to corporate buyers.  Most business people see the iPad and love it. They want it. Indeed, many of them buy it for themselves for personal use in their jobs. However, if you went to the IT department at their company, you would more likely than not hear something like, “We like the iPad too but we don’t support it right now.”  Period. End of story. You are not going to sell iPads to that customer no matter how much better it may be than comparable tablets.

The iPad situation shows the dichotomy between the user and the buyer in a B2B technology sale.  The people who make the purchase decision are not always the same people who actually use the product.  In a lot of cases, the end users want something that the company will not buy for them.  How could this be, you might wonder?  Wouldn’t it make sense to equip your workers with the technology they prefer, tools that will help them do a good job?    It’s complicated…  Generally, the IT department is the main purchase decision maker in a B2B technology sale.  And, IT will only buy what it knows it can support.  They cannot acquire every technology that people want.  In most cases, IT has made commitments to service and support technology to some defined level – a “service level agreement” that binds it to performance criteria to the managers of the business.  Untested, little understood technologies simply cannot meet these criteria, at least initially.

The problem with many consumer technologies that people want to bring to work is that they lack enterprise management features.  For example, even if Windows isn’t your cup of tea, your IT department benefits from all kinds of elaborate management systems that can help them oversee thousands of Windows PCs without spending too much money and tying up all kinds of personnel.  Not all personal computing technologies come with this kind of administrative support technology.

Even proven enterprise technologies cannot always be adopted if they cannot muster support.  You might love an Oracle application, but if your company is an “IBM Shop,” it may be a tough sell.  There are good reasons for this, in business terms.  When an IT department commits to a given technology, it creates an efficiency that is hard to replicate when there are too many varieties of technology to maintain.

Does this mean that end user opinions are unimportant in B2B technology marketing?  Not at all.  End users are extremely important in the equation, though they almost always lack actual purchasing authority.  Business managers are not stupid.  They want their people to have the right tools to do their work and they will usually listen when people suggest or request new technologies in the workplace.  In cases where a business does acquire a new technology, very often an end user, or users, will be recruited to serve as a “champion” of the product to ensure broad adoption.  Searching for the champion can and should occur before the sales process is finished.  Smart technology vendors identify potential champions early on in the sales and marketing cycle, hoping to build enthusiasm for a new technology in the workplace that will translate into management support and an IT-drive purchase decision.

I like to think of the customer in terms of a hierarchy of engagement with the product purchase process.   Each level of the hierarchy is important to the process, but plays a different role.

Role in Purchase Process Optimal Marketing Approach
End User Though not always considered, their point of view can weigh very heavily on decision makers. Market to the end user emphasizing features that will make their lives
Influencer People whose opinions matter in the purchase process. Understand their pain and speak to it.
Decision Maker The person who can pull the trigger. Understand their pain, in the context of their relationships with end users and influencers… and speak to it.

 

Sep 23

Market Dynamics vs. Market Size

Market Dynamics vs. Market Size

 

If it’s any consolation, I am pretty sure that the biggest successes in the tech industry also were muddled about the size and definition of their respective markets from time to time.   In most cases, the true breakouts establish what the market is, and everyone else follows.  So, just be a big success and none of this will matter. How hard could that be?

 

Seriously, the best approach to understanding your market is to focus on what customers are going to buy from you in the near term.  This is a process that does not necessarily have to align with your analyst briefings and official boilerplate.  What are people buying today?  What’s similar to your product, and who is selling it? Who’s buying it? That’s your market.  For Kwikapp, for example, they sell a portal and image file management system. Like it or not, they have to face the fact that they have some very big competitors in their market.  They’re going to be going up against Microsoft SharePoint, IBM FileNet and WebSphere Portal, EMC Documentum, and OpenText.

 

In a market analysis we are not going to get into specific product-to-product comparisons.  We need to understand the market dynamics.   And, as the table below shows, segments really matter when you’re trying to figure out market dynamics. The tensions and opportunities are quite different depending on whom you are talking to about a particular technology purchasing choice.  The following is meant be illustrative, not necessarily reflecting a specific reality or definitive point of view on the market.

 


Segment


Dominant Players


Market dynamics


Possible strategies

Large Enterprise IBM

EMC

Large-scale vendor deals with very long lives, content management “religion.”  Large system integrators (including IBM Global
Technology Services) implement.
Create a compatible plug-in or system extension to enable Kwikapp functionality exposed to end user. Affiliate with large system
integrators.
Medium Enterprise Microsoft

OpenText

In-house developers buy content management solutions that are customized to work with Microsoft SharePoint or OpenText.  In some cases,
they work with Microsoft system integrator partners.
Integrate with Microsoft and OpenText products.  Cultivate reseller relationships with SI partners.

One thing you have to figure out right away is which segments will buy your product at all.  If your product is not enterprise grade, then you will not sell it into large companies no matter how good your relationships are with big system integrators. Similarly, if your product is priced for large enterprises and has features that make it costly to administer, it will not sell in medium-size business marketplace, generally speaking.   In practical terms, a given market segment might have a value of zero for your specific situation.

 

If your product can be sold in either segment, you need to figure out your probability of success factoring in the dynamics of the segments.  Your realistic overall market sizing based on realistic dynamics might look like this:

 


Number of Potential Customers


% currently in market for product


Number of Potential Deals


Average Deal Size


Total market for the segment


Large Enterprise

2,500 10% 250 $        100,000 $  25,000,000

Medium sized enterprises

12,000 10% 1200 $          20,000 $  24,000,000

Total market

$  49,000,000

 

There are a couple of big assumptions built into this model. The percent of customers currently “in market” for the product is a serious one.  Of course, every large enterprise in the world could buy your product, which in this case would represent a gross market size of $250 million.  Wow!  Yet, we all know that there are incumbents and customers that are not going to change their existing product or add a new capability in any given year.  As a result, we can determine a more realistic segmented market.

 

Then, we have to figure out how much we can actually sell given the market dynamics. Knowing that the product requires some kind of system integrator partner, we need a realistic assessment of how many deals we can do.  In the table below, we estimate how many SI partners our company can realistically find, sign, and support.  Then, we estimate how many deals each partner can bring in and fulfill in a given year.  That brings us to segment totals.  Note that the medium-sized enterprise segment looks more appealing based on the number of partners and deals it can support.  Perhaps we will want to focus only on that segment.

 


Number of SI Partners who can be engaged


Deals per year per SI


Total deals


Total projected revenue


Large Enterprise

5 8 40 $    4,000,000

Medium sized enterprises

30 15 450 $    9,000,000

Total projected revenue

35 490 $  13,000,000

 

This estimation process gives us two other things to think about.  One is market share.  A realistic market share goal for this company would be 27%, or $13 million in revenue in a 49% market. This is much more useful number than 1% of a billion dollar market, or some such figure you might get from working the industry reports.  Also, a huge factor to consider in this kind of thought process is how many deals can your organization realistically support?  This is often a surprise for people who are coming into enterprise technology for the first time.  The truth is, there is an upper limit to how many customer engagements a tech firm can support.  You have to go through an honest appraisal of what your company’s attainable market share goals can be given those constraints.

 

A small digression is in order.  If you sell enterprise technology, you will be involved in customer support.  The more complex and expensive your solution, the more intense the support demands will be.  This limits your ability to scale revenue.  Ideally, over time your product will become easier to support and require less support.  In the near term, however, it is almost always the case that support issues limit growth for enterprise technology companies.

 

Dominance is the other big market dynamics factor that influences market sizing exercises.  If one vendor dominates a category or customer segment, that will affect your ability to penetrate that market.  Your estimate of attainable market share should reflect realities of dominance.  In some cases, dominance is so complete as to make the whole discussion irrelevant. How big is the market for “Information Worker Productivity Tools”?  Well, it’s a big market, in the neighborhood of $20 billion! Should you care? I think not.  Microsoft has well over 90% of this market.  The industry is littered with the wreckage of companies that have tried to take market share away from Microsoft Office.  The remainder percentage is filled with open source solutions and specialized tools.  So, it’s a $20 billion market that you won’t be playing in, unless you decide to partner with Microsoft. Then, you’re in a different discussion altogether.

 

If Kwikapp wanted to hop on board the Microsoft Office wagon, it could create some hooks into Office that would enable Office users to gain access to the Kwikapp photo portal. For example, they could create a tool bar button for PowerPoint that would show a PowerPoint users photos that were available in Kwikapp for placement in a slide deck.  There a lot of PowerPoint users out there (Office has about 500,000,000 users worldwide though not all are on the 2007 or 2010 editions that have the toolbar.)  In this way, it is possible leverage a market that is essentially closed.

 

Not that it will be closed forever.  Even Microsoft Office is starting to feel encroachment from various mobile and non-Microsoft alternatives.  Tablets and smart phone devices appear to be chipping away at Microsoft’s dominant position.  So, while I wouldn’t advise anyone trying to build a business today by taking on Office, it is illustrative to try to see who is pulling ahead.  If one vendor is pulling out of the herd and moving ahead quickly, that is an important sign to watch for in understanding the dynamics of the market.

 

The “pulling ahead” phenomenon counts for a number of reasons.  On a practical level, if one product is gaining momentum in the market, it may sway potential customers to go with that product.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the one that pulls ahead takes over the market.  On the level of optics, it just looks good for the product that pulls ahead.  It looks as if you’re doing something right, and it lends credibility to your fund-raising efforts, whether from VCs or internal budgets.

 

Just to confound you a bit, though, consider the effects of market mass in contrast to speed.  In some cases, a single vendor will pull ahead and quickly start to dominate a category, only to be rolled back by bigger competitors later on.  The classic case of this was with BEA and IBM WebSphere.  BEA was an early innovator in the Java-based application server market and quickly rose to prominence.  Over a period of years, though, IBM WebSphere relentlessly pushed its way into the category and is today the world’s number 1 app server.  BEA was later acquired by Oracle.

 

Then, we have rigidity.  Some technologies just stick, and stick hard.  Mainframes, for example, are a continuing presence in numerous enterprises despite being eulogized as a dead technology for two decades.  It’s true that many organizations have replaced mainframes with distributed systems but a remarkably large segment of big transactional computing is still done by mainframes and will continue to be done that way for a long time to come. When you’re assessing the dynamics of your market, you need to understand whether you have a rigid component that will affect growth prospects for new entrants.   If you are in a market segment dominated by rigidity, you usually have more options that just walking away.  In the mainframe example, there are many companies that have succeeded by developing middleware that augments mainframe functionality and so forth –capitalizing on the rigidity
of the mainframe and making it work for their businesses.

Aug 16

Enter the Abstractagon

This chart is what I call an “abstractagon,” a visual crime committed in the name of helping technology entrepreneurs find clarity in their strategy. In this case, I am trying to show how the relatively small category of enterprise video fits into an evolving landscape of online communication and business virtualization. The idea was to situate the product accurately in the small category but show how enterprise video was morphing into something bigger. Business drivers such as remote work and virtual corporations, combined with trends such as distance learning and green businesses were creating opportunities for new technologies such as UCC and virtual meetings. Video was a factor in many of these new technologies, so it was possible to identify places were the small enterprise video category would grow as it merged with others.
If you are confused about what market you are in, one approach is to look at the major vendors and see what they are doing, and with whom they are partnering. For example, Microsoft describes SharePoint as a collaboration tool, among other things. Their site says, “Microsoft SharePoint 2010 makes it easier for people to work together.” This tells you that the idea of collaboration tools is going to be gaining traction in the marketplace, or at least in buyer-vendor conversations. Why should you care what Microsoft is doing? Well, the reality is that a big vendor such as Microsoft is going to be heard when it talks about its product categories. When I was public relations manager for SharePoint, we got almost a thousand pieces of press coverage for the product in a single year! (It was due to my incredible genius, of course.) Seriously, big vendors get coverage and analyst attention. They get talked about. They lead the discussions about categories and trends.
How Big is Your Market?
Let’s return to the issue of market size. The size of your market matters for a number of reasons. For one, thing, it can tell you how much of your product you can expect to sell. I was once involved in developing software that could only be used by movie studios and large media distribution companies. Not a good idea… when you only have 20 potential customers in the whole world, you’re not going to sell very much software. That market was probably about a $20 million a year. Given the number of incumbents, it was impossible to carve out any meaningful revenue for ourselves.
The discussion of market size for enterprise technology products brings to mind a hilarious comment made at an SOA conference a number of years ago. The speaker said something to the effect of, “SOA is now encountering an unforeseen obstacle on its way to becoming the de-facto enterprise architectural standard: reality.” Official prognostications are great, but they are not usually very helpful for gauging how much of your product you can actually sell. Industry firms may peg your market at some level (typically very high) but that number may be totally meaningless in actual sales and marketing terms.
How do research firms come up with market sizes that are not realistic? One problem stems from research firms’ tendency to correlate relatively open-ended questions with hard numerical estimates. For example, a research survey might ask IT managers what they are planning to spend on a certain category of software. The categories offered as choices may be a bit vague or aspirational, e.g. “Unified Communications and Collaboration (UCC).” One survey taker might consider UCC to include all productivity software, such as groupware and intranet software, while another might think that UCC only refers to VOIP hardware. The first person says that he will spend $10 million on UCC in the next year while the other says he will spend $50,000. Both are right, but the result can be a hugely inflated market size estimate.
A better way to estimate the true size of your market is to add up the sales volumes of your closest competitors in the relevant categories. This information may be hard to find, though you can develop ways of estimating the figures. Let’s say you sell a certain type of hardware appliance. You know that you sell $5 million a year worth of this product. You have several direct competitors of similar size. You think that each of them sells between $3 and $10 million each. A very large technology company also sells a similar product. However, even though they are a multi-billion dollar company, you estimate, based on articles you have read and other commentary available online, that they sell $40 million a year of their product. Your market size and share breakdown looks like this:
Sales Share
You $ 5,000 7%
Competitor 1 $ 3,000 4%
Competitor 2 $ 7,000 10%
Competitor 3 $ 4,500 6%
Competitor 4 $ 10,000 14%
Large Vendor $ 40,000 58%
Total Market $ 69,500 100%

In this assessment, your company has a 7% share of a market that’s about $70 million. Is that good or bad? Hard to say… However, if the industry research firms peg your market at $1 billion, you will be seen as having one half of one percent of the market. Ouch! That’s tiny, so small that you might get completely written off by buyers and analysts. Yet, do you want your investors to think you’re in a puny market? How many metaphors can I mix in describing this terrible dilemma? It’s a double-edged sword, a fool’s errand, full of narrow risky straits, rocks and hard places, and catch 22s.

Jul 31

Understand the Industry and Market

Understanding the market you are in may seem so obvious that it doesn’t bear discussion in a blook about marketing.  However, in technology marketing, especially in the enterprise segment, the industry is so continually in flux that it can be nearly impossible to pin down your category.    This is particularly true for newer technologies.   The technology landscape changes so quickly that categories are challenging to define.

The Streaming Video vs. UC Example

One example I’ve been close to recently is the categorization confusion surrounding webcasting and video streaming. Where does that fit in the technology industry?  An easy answer is that it is within the “enterprise video” marketplace, which is described as an approximately $700 million year segment.  You could also make a pretty good argument that enterprise video streaming is part of the much larger “Unified Communications” (UC) sector.  UC used to describe everything from phone handsets to video chat applications.  UC is a potentially massive category, encompassing much of what is now thought of as the phone industry – a hundred billion dollar plus space!  Or, is online video for corporations actually part of “Unified Communications and Collaboration” (UCC)?    Which is it?  And, does it matter?

Here’s a deceptively simple question.  Do you need to know what market you are in if you are going to sell a product?  Maybe yes.  Maybe no.  It is always shocking to me how many technology marketers cannot complete the most basic sentence describing their products. They are unable to fill in the blank in, “This is my product. It is a ________ product that does XYZ.”   When I worked on the Microsoft SharePoint team, there was little definitive agreement on what kind of product it was, even though it was selling at a rate of over a billion dollars a year.  It was a collaboration tool, a content manager, a search engine, a web authoring environment. It was almost a foot cream.

Think about the evolution of cell phones into smart phones, which is not evolving yet again into the split between phones, smart phones and app-phones, and tablets.  You could easily choose to buy a device without a care in the world about whether it was an app-phone or a smart phone.  You chose the device because it had features and functions that you liked.  Perhaps it was a good value.

With corporate technology, it’s not that different.  If you are considering a voice-over-IP (VOIP) system, how much impact will the product’s categorization have on you?  If the product is part of the UCC category, rather than just regular UC, will that matter?    At a feature level, whichever product fits your needs best should be the choice.  You may be influenced by analysts who report on product segments, however, regarding what they think the future holds and what will mean for your product selection.   If you read that collaboration solutions will inevitably merge with communications, making UCC triumphant over basic UC, that may influence your selection.

The real reason that categories matter is that they tell people a lot about how certain vendors are doing.  Product categorization and market segmentation in the technology industry is mostly about the vendors. Who’s winning.  Who’s not…   This is the source of the confusion.  Vendors want, for many reasons, to be perceived as the winner in the marketplace.  Who wouldn’t, right?  But, the preoccupation with being the winner leads to some awful marketing problems.   Vendors face pressure to categorize their offerings as winners, even if the winning segment isn’t well defined.  Thus, we end up saying, “This is my [winningest, cutting edgiest] product,” not “This is my [well known, reliable but low cost] product.”

Valuation is the biggest driver of categorization confusion.    Venture capitalists and the stock market place quite different values on technology companies based on their perception of what they are doing.  This is only fair and reasonable. All businesses are valued based on their perceived potential to generate future earnings.   If you are in the buggy whip business, watch out…  However, with technology, the valuation dynamics are a bit out of hand. Tech is one of the few business sectors where people can realize massive gains in valuation based largely on what Wall Street folks call “deal optics” – what you look like you’re doing.   We have gone through several cycles of boom and bust over this, with a few longterm winners, such as Apple, eBay, and Microsoft still on the market.  Even after the “tech wreck” of 2002, when so many vaporous technology companies imploded, the market still has an appetite for the next big thing.

Categorization is directly tied to valuation.  If you are in the enterprise software field, for example, a dollar of revenue for your product deployed as a traditional on-premise server solution will translate into about $2 of entity valuation.   A dollar of revenue of your product deployed as a software-as-a-service (or cloud) solution will give you $6 of valuation. If you are doing $10 million in on-premise business, you’re worth $20 million.  If you’re doing $10 million in SaaS, you’re worth $60 million!  What would you rather have?

As a result of these types of valuation practices, technology companies engage in egregious contortions to categorize themselves in the high value fields.  In this way, a maker of mainframe tools becames “An SOA infrastructure player,” an email service becomes a “cloud-based collaboration company,” and so forth.  I have come up with a joke to describe this challenge.  I say that if you can accurately define what category you are in, you are too late.  From a valuation perspective, the interesting stuff in the technology market is happening where things are fast moving and loosely defined.

To be fair, the customer is not always confused by valuation-driven category blurring.  Some enterprise buyers want the latest thing.  And, in a lot of cases, that latest thing is what they really need.  For example, budget constraints might push a sincere interest in migrating systems to the cloud.  Thus, even though cloud computing might be the flavor du jour and derided as a fad, it’s a real technology with strong benefits for the right buyer.

Where things get murky is when technologies try to dress themselves up to be something they are not. That benefits no one.

In the case of enterprise video, if I define myself as being in the enterprise video category, I’m limiting myself to a small market with limited upside. (I realize that $700M seems like a lot of money, but for a venture capitalist trying to arrange a big exit, it’s chicken feed.)  Yet, that’s the closest category to what a corporate video product really does.  If I put myself into the much larger UC category, I’m not being clear about what my product actually does. The VCs will be happy, but my customers will be confused.

 

Jul 25

Levers of Preference

As we’ve said, everything drives preference. Preference is inherent in the product itself, and all marketing is oriented toward building preference over all competitors.  For example, every piece of marketing copy needs to play on the reader’s desire to accumulate the “four currencies.”  This can be a stealth mission, with subtle and indirect gestures pushing the reader to consider how your product will give him or her a newfound wealth of money, time and security. A few specific marketing activities, however, should be pursued distinctly with preference in mind.

  • Demos – A demonstration of your product has to be larded with calls for preference, even if they are not overtly stated.   What you have to realize is that everything you say in a demo is prefaced by the unsaid, “Compared to everyone else, we do…”  How can you frame your demo to make that statement sound like, “Compared to everyone else, we are better, because of xyz.”  For example, the Kwikapp photo portal offers better security features than its competitors.  It integrates with all the leading identity management systems, while the competitors only integrate with one ID system.  The “feature barfing” approach to showcasing this advantage is to say, “We integrate with all identify management systems.” There’s no harm in saying it this way, but it would be a lot more effective, in preference terms, if the advantage were stated along the lines of, “You don’t have to worry about integrating with your identity management system.”  This latter approach emphasizes the true advantage of the Kwikapp in human marketing terms.
  • Public relations – PR is the first of three work areas that can drive confidence and preference.  Like the other two, analyst relations, and case studies, publications is all about showing off neutral third parties that have good things to say about your product.   In PR, your goal is to get reporters, and increasingly bloggers and other hybrid personalities, to write about your product.  The PR field has changed radically in the last five years.   Online “clippings” are everything today, while an article in a print magazine is nice but actually useful mostly as a PDF that you can share online.  The end goal has remained the same, however, which is to get other people to talk about how great your product is and build preference through the confidence that instills.  Media mentions take several forms, each of which is helpful. However, not all PR is created equal.
Influence CIO Magazine Wall Street Journal
“Vertical book” USA Today
  Readership

 

What’s worth more, a thousand words in an industry vertical publication or 200 words in the Wall Street Journal?    It depends, of course, on what you are trying to accomplish, but in general, the more influential the publication and the greater its readership, the more helpful the “ink” is going to be in driving preference and confidence.  A positive mention in the Wall Street Journal instills confidence.  A feature article in the Wall Street Journal is golden, assuming it’s saying something good about you.  The chart shown above depicts this tradeoff between readership and influence.  The old adage, “I don’t care what you say about me. Just spell my name right,” doesn’t apply to technology PR and confidence building.  A negative product review will hurt you probably worse than being omitted from the review altogether.

 

  • Analyst relations – Reports by recognized industry analysts can have a huge impact on preference and confidence.  Analysts offer themselves to the market as the ultimate in third parties.  They are neutral and knowledgeable. They compare products and select top candidates for consideration.   As a result, as you may know, analysts can command serious dollars for their work.  Analyst relations is a subtle game, however, with many misconceptions and myths surrounding it.  We will delve into AR, as analyst relations is often called, and PR, in depth a bit later on, but for now, consider the following:
    • There are two classes of analysts.  A small, select group are paid by enterprise buyers for their opinions.  The biggest, of course, is Gartner, though Forrester and some specialized smaller firms also belong to this elite group.  Other analyst firms are able to offer market insights to vendors and publish reports that are of general interest. However, they are not viewed as being completely impartial by the buyer.
    • You cannot buy good analyst coverage.  There’s a myth that you have to “pay off” the good analysts in order to get positive coverage. This is not true.    What’s true, though, is that if you are not a client of the analyst firm, you will not likely get much attention from them.  And, there’s some truth to the idea that you can engage with the analyst firm to the point where you make your products and views better known to them than if you did not engage with them. In other words, if you invite analysts to visit you for consulting, they will get much more exposure to you than if you didn’t.  But, it will cost you.  At the end of the process, you will still get an honest review, which you will listen to if you are smart.

 

  • Case studies – True accounts of real customers using your product are a fantastic way to move the needle on preference and confidence.  Buyers like to see companies like theirs using your product before they will entrust you with their business.  No brainer, right?  Well…  Case studies are not all that hard to create.  Typically, you interview the customer and write a two page document that summarizes the business challenge the customer faced and how they solved it with your product. So far, so good.  The problem arises, however, with permission.   Small companies generally don’t mind being the subject of a case study. In fact, they might feel flattered and enjoy the publicity.  Big companies, especially those that are publicly traded, hate having their names used (or misused, as they might put it) by vendors.  Big companies are very reluctant to grant you permission to publish a case study about them.    Their reluctance is based partly on a concern about brand dilution and possible liability.  If Coke allows a vendor to use their name, and that vendor is later accused of fraud, does that reflect badly on Coke?  Maybe, but in my experience, big company hesitation about case studies is a bit of a baseless hangup.  It’s a power thing, too, and that can actually be your ticket in the door for case studies.  If you are willing to grant favors or discounts, you may be able to buy a case study from a big client.

 

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