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Not your father’s trade show.

More than a thousand “SpiceHeads” and vendors descended on Austin this week, complete with bandanas, unicorn disguises, green capes, alien outfits, tattoos and kilts.

It wasn’t Halloween and it wasn’t part of a “Keep Austin Weird” campaign.  It was SpiceWorld, the sixth and largest gathering of users of SpiceWorks’ free ad-supported network management and IT help desk software. The kitsch was not the usual “at the edges” trade show goofiness, but an essential part of SpiceWorks’ competitive edge.

Giving the mostly male, geeky IT support world a sense of community and fun generates tremendous engagement with the SpiceWorks site. Four and a half million IT pros visit the SpiceWorks site each month, spending 5.5 billion minutes in SpiceWorks (easily outpacing time on other tech sites just as TechTarget and CNET,) claimed co-founder and CEO Scott Abel. Most importantly, the ads and advice on SpiceWorks influenced more than $500 billion in IT purchases in the last year, he said.

Based on their browsing habits SpiceWorks serves up customized ads, along with the ability to solicit bids from advertisers such as CDW. One attendee called it “Facebook for Techies.”

(Customers download SpiceWorks’ ever-expanding stable of free software to run on their own servers, to ease concerns about SpiceWorks knowing too much about their internal systems. SpiceWorks collects data which it can use for services such as recruiting virtual focus groups for vendors.)

Community Uber Alles

It’s a model vendors and IT trade pubs have been trying to make work since the pre-Internet days of bulletin boards. But none of them thought to sweeten the pot with free software that solves real problems for the grunts in the trenches. None also gave so much control and recognition to folks who rarely get attention, much less respect, from tech giants.

SpiceWorks didn’t plan on such a central role for the community. It jumped on the bandwagon when it was how much heartfelt advice users were sharing. It ranges from problems with switches to bad bosses to charity drives for injured pets. SpiceHeads rate each other’s contributions, as well as those from the “Green Guy” vendor reps who answer questions and respond to complaints.

The 225-employee company accepts — even depends on — real-time, unvarnished feedback from its users. So do vendors such as Pertino, which relied on SpiceHead suggestions in designing its Cloud VPN (virtual private network). SpiceHeads will even trash an ill-conceived vendor advertisement on the site, and a smart vendor will openly admit it’s wrong, thank the community for its guidance and even encourage SpiceHeads to spoof the ad.

Stick It to the Man

Knowing its customers usually toil in obscurity and rarely get noticed when things go right, SpiceWorks goes out of its way to celebrate them as heroes. Super-hero or fantasy themes abound, as in the orange dinosaur mascot “SpiceRex” or the – what else? – alien at the AlienVault unified security management booth.

SpiceWorks doesn’t compete with its advertisers, says Technical Program Manager David Bsbbitt, because it deliberately limits its own offerings to the 20% of capabilities that solve 80% of most customers’ needs. Enough SpiceWorks’ users, especially as their organizations grow, will always need more sophisticated or scalable products, leaving plenty of room for all.  “You guys using tools developed by other software vendors is how we make money,” Abel told the audience.

SpiceWorks just announced APIs to encourage other vendors to integrate their offerings with SpiceWorks. One recent example is Fibrelinks’s MaaS360 mobile device management software. Like other vendors, FibreLink offers basic functionality for free, with other features such as the ability to wipe devices or reset passcodes, available at a discount for SpiceHeads.

The “we’re all in this together” sense of community is palpable. One attendee described her husband’s nervousness about her getting rides to the convention center from fellow SpiceHeads she’s never met.  “If I’d trust them (for advice about) my network, why wouldn’t I trust them for a ride?” she replied.

Show Me the Money

The privately-held company is not yet making spicy profits, said Abel, but it “is not wildly negative” and is focusing on new features such as “user profiles” that help SpiceHeads showcase their skills and projects. The goal is not so much to move into the recruitment business a la LinkedIn, he says, but to keep more SpiceHeads on the site longer. Spiceworks is also beefing up its content creation services for vendors, especially in the fast-growing video segment.

If you’re looking to market to CIOs or CEOs, SpiceWorld is not yet the place. Khakis and a button-down shirt was over-dressed; jeans, or even shorts, and a “Back the F: /** Up” T-shirt (“F” as in “F” drive — get it?) were more typical. SpiceWorks has to keep managing its users’ expectations for new features they’d like to see but aren’t on SpiceWorks’ radar. And as they grow, it will be a challenge to keep their “SpiceHeads first” culture intact.

But if you want to reach passionate brand recommenders in the trenches – and are willing to take some tough feedback from them when you don’t deliver – SpiceWorks is unlike any other marketing channel I’ve seen.

Author: Bob Scheier
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I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

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