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Wrenching Thought Leadership from Tecchies

thought leadership(This post first appeared in Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey (SWMS), which produces research and analysis that helps tech PR pros pitch more effectively. SWMS interviews editors, studies their work and produces research and analysis that helps tech PR pros land coverage and build relationships. Learn more here. mediasurvey.com/about)

Everyone and their brother seems to be looking for “thought leadership” these days – the unique, thoughtful insights that show you understand the technology you sell and the industry you’re selling into better than anyone else. In a recent Gartner survey close to a third of respondents said “…a form of thought leadership is the single highest driver of marketing-qualified leads (MQLs).”

But how do you extract compelling thought leadership from a technical specialist whose job is to be down in the weeds with the chip registers, whether to use linear regression, logistic regression or linear discriminant analysis in AI, or the ins and outs of Agile Vs. DevOps?

Here are four thought leadership tar pits I fall into with clients and tools I use to get out.

Morass One: “What do you mean by thought leadership?”

It’s not fair to ask a technical expert to deliver something you haven’t defined. My thought leadership elevator pitch goes like this:

  • It must present a new way of thinking about an old problem, a new question your customers should be asking, or even just define a problem most people can’t see yet.
  • It must be new thinking about how information technology can meet business challenges. If you’re repeating questions (or answers) the reader can get elsewhere it ain’t thought leadership.
  • It is about your customers and their challenges rather than your products or services. If you must mention your capabilities or customer success stories, limit them to proofs of your new thinking.
  • Even if you don’t have (or don’t want to share) a complete soup to nuts solution, you must explain why your thought leadership vision is plausible.
  • And you must tell the reader how to get started realizing this vision.

Morass Two: The Spec Sheet Syndrome  

You ask a product manager for thought leadership and get one – or worse, two or three – PowerPoints filled with product details (support for all leading hyperscalers, internal benchmarks like how many Tbytes of data they moved to the cloud, or vague benefit statements like “Increased efficiency and reduced data pipeline TCO.”

I counter with questions such as:

  • What is better, different, less expensive, more flexible about your tools or capabilities vs. your competitors?
  • How did these technical features or process frameworks increase the scale, efficiency, quality or agility with which the customer met their business challenge?
  • What lessons did you learn that others can use, regardless of the technology involved? (Push beyond technical details (“We used X sharding method for the database”) to business-relevant lessons (“We asked the sales teams what 20 percent of the data would produce 80 percent of the benefits and migrated that data first.”)
  • Push the customer engagement team or the customer to quantify the business benefits. You may not get specific figures, but you can probably find a safe range like “millions of dollars in savings” or “…at least 20 percent increase in customer satisfaction.”

Morass Three: Actually, All We Have is This Case Study…

The symptoms are similar to Morass #2 except your subject matter expert can tell you only about their use of one product or service for a one customer for a specific need. However spiffy the solution and how pleased the customer, this is a single success – not thought leadership for achieving repeated success.

I ask questions such as:

  • What makes this customer’s challenge, and our response to it, typical of a broader trend? For example, the need to effectively merge CRM systems after an acquisition, for pharmaceutical companies to use AI to speed drug development, or to migrate a legacy development team to DevOps?
  • What techniques, lessons or “tricks” did we learn in this engagement or deployment that could help others in the same boat? (Bonus points for lessons that are not specific to your product or service.) For example, rather than “Our machine learning platform helped us integrate more data types than anyone else,” you want something like “We started small and defined the business problem up front to keep us on track.”

Morass Four: We See the Problem But Don’t Have a Solution

Symptoms include statements like “We’re planning to address that in a future release,” “Everyone’s waiting for guidance from the regulators” or “We hope to fix that with our acquisition of vendor XYZ.”

Questions to dive deeper:

  • Even if we don’t have the “holy grail” answer, can we describe the problem in enough detail to hint at some answers? (“Five top reasons security is chronically underfunded and what our customers need to free up budget.”)
  • Explain why the common framing of a problem is wrong. “Struggling with scaling your machine learning project? That’s because they work best when they stay small and nimble.”
  • If you can’t answer one question, answer another that presents new thinking. For example, there’s plenty of back and forth about the best ways to deploy DevOps (the merger of development and operations teams.) Configuration management vendor Puppet took a different tack, citing survey results to argue that the term “DevOps” itself is too vague, and that more function-specific terms (such as DevOps for system administration or application development) delivers better business results.

Rinse and Repeat…and Repeat…

I wish I could say these tips will instantly unlock the gates of earth-shaking technology and market insights. Be ready to instead patiently explain all this multiple times to the same players in the same project before their eyes light up and they get it.

The good news is they often appreciate the extra effort you put in to bring the good stuff they know to market. As a PR or marketing person, this exercise also lifts you above the run of the mill hacks willing to happily repeddle the latest buzzwords. You are providing, if you will, thought leadership about thought leadership.

(What’s your secret sauce for extracting thought leadership from your best and brightest?)

Three Post Covid (?) Cloud Marketing Tips    

cloud marketing challengesAs we bob between COVID waves, many cloud marketers are trying to figure out how to reach prospects in an ever less predictable business climate. Differentiation is difficult with everyone playing a variation on themes such as:

  • Pandemic lockdowns have sped a shift to remote working and the “digitization” (whatever that means) of business.
  • The cloud is now the default choice for most new applications and workloads.
  • Most businesses are already running on multiple public and private clouds.

Beneath these “me-too” messages are questions which, if you can answer them, can raise your visibility and show clients you deserve their consideration. Three examples:

1) Managing the Cloud Right

Running apps and infrastructure in the cloud is less expensive than in those outmoded internal data centers – until it’s not.  It’s too easy for business units to quickly spin up cloud instances to support new applications, processes and AI experiments but fail to shut them down when they’re no longer needed. That  can be not only hugely expensive but risky if the cloud servers and data aren’t properly secured.

Your opportunity: Describe not only the best tools for finding, assessing and disabling unneeded cloud resources, but the messy political and process changes such control requires. Who gets to decide, for example, when a machine learning model has generated most of the insights it can and no longer deserves funding? How should you adjust IT cost chargeback processes when shifting from internally controlled data centers to internal and external clouds? How can businesses cost-affordably track the complex pricing methodologies of multiple cloud providers?

2) Keeping My Best People

Whatever it is that’s tempting folks to jump jobs post-COVID, it’s hitting IT companies hard. I’m hearing of attrition rates in the 30-40 percent range, with a hot job market giving IT and marketing professionals the freedom to jump ship if they’re not happy about anything from pay to their boss or their job satisfaction.

Your opportunity: Be brave enough to share candid, “in the trenches” experiences and tips exploring areas such as:

How many people are leaving not just for more pay but for better working conditions, more interesting work or even a more ethical corporate mission? What can their managers do to keep them on board even if (as is usually the case) that manager can only control their immediate work environment?

What are the warning signs top contributors are getting ready to jump ship? Is it their ominous silence in meetings, rolling their eyes when a pet project is delayed (yet again) due to conflicting corporate priorities, or they’re repeatedly pointing out how often competitors are executing on ideas they had suggested to you?

After you use these danger signs to identify the “flight risks” how do you keep those employees on board without going broke with pay raises? For example: Ensuring top talent knows their manager lobbied for funding for their pet projects; improved communication about the status of stalled projects; or retraining for employees or the problem managers who have driven many employees away. 

3)  Managing Cloud Vendor Lock

For years customers have tried to balance the advantages of “best of breed” technology from individual vendors against the financial and technical risks of being locked into that vendor’s product and upgrade cycles. Some argue the financial clout and technical breadth of the major hyperscalers make this question irrelevant. According to this thinking, the top players are all “close enough” in areas like AI, containerization and development tools  that you can safely place a strategic bet on one and reap the benefit of economies of scale and easier cost tracking.

Your opportunity: There’s plenty of room to argue either way – or even encourage debate. Build  credibility and drive engagement by basing your argument on real world experience with specific technologies and business cases. For example:

  • If you opt for multiple cloud vendors, does the cost and complexity of a single cross-cloud visibility and management platform outweigh the advantages of using multiple clouds?
  • Compare the capabilities of each hyperscaler in a specific technical area (say, AI or quantum computing). This should not be an ad for your preferred partner but an honest comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of each hyperscaler, advising which technical or business use cases they’re best suited for.
  • Do a similar comparison by industries and provide detailed enough advice to show your expertise. Rather than give one hyperscaler a good mark on generic manufacturing, tell the reader which has the best tools for process vs. discrete manufacturing. If you’re talking life sciences, tell the reader which hyperscaler or software as a service provider has the best tools for clinical vs. marketing processes.

What burning questions cloud or pandemic-related issues did I leave out? Building security and compliance into the cloud? Melding DevOps and Agile with cloud deployments? Deciding which legacy apps are too complex, risky or big to deploy to the cloud? And how are you helping clients answer them?

How to Be Your Own Trade Pub

Insert your insights here...

Insert your insights here…

The brutal mugging of the trade press at the hands of the Internet has meant fewer opportunities to place news story or opinion pieces. A recent post by Katherine Griwert at the Content Marketing Institute shows how to attract prospects to your site by publishing industry news on your own.

She cites security-as-a-service provider ProofPoint Inc., which faced challenges I often see with my clients. ProofPoint needed more content to boost their search ranking, their customers “weren’t always responsive when we ask what they want to learn and there’s only so much one can add to a site’s core products section,” said Director of Market Development Keith Crosley.

In response, ProofPoint added industry news to an existing white paper and weekly blog strategy, and assigned internal writers to generate ideas for articles based on news about around issues such as “data loss prevention” and “email security.” Results included a page rank that matches that of companies with several times its revenue, with organic search traffic rising 18 percent quarter over quarter, and news-related posts generating thousands of unique page views among organic search visitors.

Not Just News, Commentary

As Griwert points out, just re-posting industry news won’t draw as many readers (or impress your prospects) as much as explaining to them why it is important or telling them what they should do in response to it.  (For more on when and how to add value to content, read my ebook.)

For proof, look to cloud-based phone provider ShoreTel Sky, which found a 42 percent higher conversion rate among site visitors who read news content than those who read product promotional content. One of their tactics was to report on a story about what doesn’t belong in the cloud, and then explain why phone systems like theirs do belong in the cloud. This is a favorite tactic of mine: Gain instant credibility by admitting the weaknesses of your approach and explaining, by contrast, where it works best.

Other good ways to turn raw headlines from the Web into good content:

Explain why the reader should care: What trend does it illustrate, what opportunity does it uncover, and which dangers does it warn about? For example: “This wave of ‘software-defined storage’ announcements shows how much confusion there is around the term. This is an early-stage industry that promises great benefits, but needs to shake out before it is real.”

 Explain what the reader should do: “When reading about `software-defined storage’ be sure to look past the buzzword and ask how each offering meets your specific needs, such as scalability, availability and avoiding a single point of failure.”

 Explain what the original story missed and how that affects the reader: “Each of these announcements talk about software-defined storage without integrating it to the broader  software-defined data center. What good is software-defined storage if it’s a silo I need to manage apart from my servers and storage?”

 Expand on the story/explain the trend with an anecdote:  “I was talking with a client the other day who said `software defined storage’ is B.S. He says it’s nothing but a fancy term for storage virtualization, which has never proved its worth. This got me thinking about where we fell short with storage virtualization and where the industry needs to go from here…”

 And how do you tie the stories you write to the products or services you sell? The answer: Only when it’s justified. If in doubt, deliver smarts and insight to your readers, not a drumbeat about your most recent product release. When your product or service is a natural fit for a post, story, mention its advantages briefly with a link to an offer page, but don’t overdo it.

For example, here’s how I would do it for this post: If you’d like an editor’s help developing news content or an editorial calendar for your site, feel free to be in touch.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
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.

Using Follow-Up Questions To Drive Great Content

In journalism school they teach that the best reporters ask the dumbest questions.  That’s because the dumbest-sounding, most obvious questions are often the ones everyone else is dying to ask but are afraid to because they think they’ll look dumb themselves.

This is just as true when you, as the marketing or product manager, are asking a subject matter expert to explain the value of a new product or service. When you get a curt or obvious answer to your first question, asking the right follow-up can uncover the “news” you need to drive a compelling content marketing program using blog post, Webinars, white papers and more.

Here are some recent follow-up questions I’ve asked subject matter experts, with explanations of how they uncovered the hidden content marketing “news” potential in their original answers:

 I asked: “When you talk about the ‘risk’ if companies don’t use your software, I assume you mean business risks like      system downtime as well as legal and compliance issues?

SME clarified: “Yes, but even more important to our clients these days is the risk of spending money on security where they don’t have to when budgets are so tight.” The news: Customers are thinking more about the risks of misinvesting these days along with traditional risks like business continuity and compliance.”

I asked: “When you talk about storage virtualization, I assume you mean creating virtual storage pools, just as in server virtualization. Right?”

SME clarified: “Yes, we create virtual pools of storage. But we also virtualize associated storage applications such as backup and replication, eliminating those areas as potential bottlenecks.” The news:  There’s a new concept out there called storage application virtualization, it’s different than server virtualization and solves different problems.”

I asked: You say that as an outside agile development consultant, you serve as the “gate keeper” who ensures quality execution throughout a project from start to finish. What exactly does that mean?”

SME clarified: “With our years of experience, we know which common mistakes to look for, like not holding everyone properly accountable at each stage in an agile development process.” The news: Many customers may think they’re doing agile development right when they’re not, and the weak point is holding all the players accountable.”

I asked: “You’re announcing your first channel program for `IT consultants.’ What do you mean by an `IT consultant’ and how is it different from a traditional reseller?”

SME clarified: “An IT consultant doesn’t resell hardware or software, and only provides services. This is the first time we’ve offered a program specifically for these technology influencers. The news:  Even if they don’t resell products, folks who sell customers technical services can, for the first time, earn revenue by recommending this vendor’s hardware.

In each of these cases, asking even obvious-sounding follow-ups (“What do you mean by an `IT consultant?’” revealed an actionable, specific piece of information the target audience would find useful and that will keep them interacting with your brand. In each case, it’s easy to see how you could build out blog posts, case studies, Webinars, podcasts or videos building off the answer to even one question.

Bottom Line: If you’re not getting the actionable, interesting information you need for content marketing from your subject matter experts, ask!

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
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.

We’ve all read them: The “Five Questions to Ask When Buying XYZ” stories. For trade press editors, they’re a guaranteed draw for readers. They’re easy to digest, practical and, done right, geared to the problems or questions readers are facing right now.

This trade press staple is also a great standby for your content marketing efforts. But getting the maximum lead generation from them requires watching out for a few potholes I discovered as an editor.

  • Boring the reader with the same advice they can get everywhere else on the Web. To avoid this, scan existing stories in trade pubs and your competitor’s Web sites. Then go a step further than they did with a new angle, more detail or more precise advice. For example, in a piece for Computerworld on tough security questions to ask a cloud provider, I didn’t just advise readers to “Ensure proper authentication and access control.” I described the differences between the ideal but expensive “federated” identity management and the less secure, but less expensive, “synchronized” identity management. I mentioned several vendors and their approaches to authentication and access control, along with some best practices for implementing it.
  • Ignoring the real world: Don’t settle for offering high-minded but obvious advice like “Consult all stakeholders about their cloud security needs.” What should a prospect do faced with the messy reality of a hugely public data breach that has every business unit running scared and insisting on more security than anyone, in or out of the cloud, can provide? This is where your real-world experience can turn a good story great. If you’re a cloud provider you could, for example, tell the story of a real-world engagement where you proved to a customer (anonymous, of course) exactly where your cloud-based security is actually better than what the customer was doing in-house.
  • Confusing “evaluators” with those “ready to buy.” An “evaluation” story about, say, digital cameras would talk about megapixels, image stabilization, facial recognition, and image quality. A “ready to buy” story would instead focus on whether to take the “buyer protection” plan the cashier always pushes, what to look for in return policies and which Web sites to check for last-minute discounts. For the IT products and services you sell, your sales and marketing staff should know which questions to answer for both types of stories. This fine-tuning can give you two compelling pieces of content instead of one. Furthermore, tracking who reads the “evaluator” story vs. the “ready to buy” story helps you score their readiness to buy.

“Top questions before you buy” stories are almost always a good bet. But they work best if you go beyond the obvious advice, address the tough issues customers face in the real world, and tailor your advice to the reader’s specific place in the buying cycle.

For more tips, subscribe to “Editor’s Notes,” by regular newsletter of content marketing and PR tips for IT marketing pros.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
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.

Editorial CalendarAn editorial calendar (like this one for Computerworld, for whom I still write) is simply a list of content ideas, with a schedule for when each will be published.

This keeps everyone on schedule about what they need to produce, and when. To make an edit calendar really effective in content marketing, build it around the most important challenges facing your prospects, and the information that will keep them engaged.

When I needed editorial calendar ideas as a trade press editor, I asked myself and my other reporters:

  •  In our recent conversations with customers, what common problems have they mentioned?
  • In our recent conversations with vendors, what buzzword have they thrown around we don’t understand or believe in?
  • In our recent customer visits, what’s impressed us as so smart that our readers could learn from it?

Your sales, customer support and marketing staff aren’t paid to be reporters. But they are talking to customers and analysts and are (or should be!) following the competition. Here’s how to get them to share ideas that you can turn into great marketing content.

  • Tell them how many ideas you expect from them, and when.
  • Be specific about the type of ideas you want. “From support reps, we want two examples per month of smart workarounds customers have developed for common problems. From analyst relations, we want two of the newest/most insightful things you’ve heard this month. From sales, we want the objections you’ve heard most often during a close, and how you overcame them.”
  • Give them examples of “news” or trends you want. From a customer support rep: “A lot of mobile developers are asking for better Python documentation.” A sales rep might notice “Suddenly realtors are returning my calls. The market’s picked up and they’re willing to spend.” From analyst relations: “Analysts are really picking up on the `agile data’ theme but we think they should also be talking about the `orchestration’ layer we provide…” All of these are great grist for blog posts, white papers, videos and other content.

And a few final suggestions

  • Have your “requests” for editorial calendar ideas come from the top of the company to “encourage” cooperation.
  • Make the sharing of ideas part of employees’ evaluation and compensation.
  • Aim for a mix of topics, from the tactical (bug fixes and effective sales tactics) to the strategic (big trends in technology, how macro-economic trends are affecting sales) to the fun and off-beat (video of a well-known entertainer opening a big tradeshow.)
  • Use the “water-cooler” test. If it’s worth talking about around the office, it’s worth considering for the editorial calendar.

Let me know how these trade press tips work in corporate marketing and what challenges you’re still facing.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
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.