scheierassociates.com http://scheierassociates.com Translating IT Jargon Into Business Benefits Tue, 02 Oct 2018 23:05:42 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 Differentiate This! http://scheierassociates.com/2018/10/nailing-differentiation-lessons-from-a-concrete-screw http://scheierassociates.com/2018/10/nailing-differentiation-lessons-from-a-concrete-screw#respond Tue, 02 Oct 2018 19:37:00 +0000 http://scheierassociates.com/?p=3098

product positioning Many of my small to medium size clients, such as regional IT service providers, struggle when I ask them what differentiates them from their competitors.  The best they can come up with is often:

  • “We really listen to our customers’ needs.”
  • “Our staff really cares about our customer’s success.”
  • “We take a consultative approach, rather than just trying to sell them stuff.”

Sound familiar? It should. These aren’t differentiators – they’re the minimum requirements to keep the doors open. To effectively explain what makes you better, you need to define and describe it from the customer’s perspective.

If you think your products or services are too much like commodities to stand out, check out this in-store display for a lowly cement screw, used to attach walls to concrete floors or hardware to blocks or bricks.

How My Screw Is Better Why The Customer Should Care
Stikfit T25 Bit For one-handed installation. (Speeds work, reduces effort.)
Serrated head Flush seating . (Improves appearance, makes painting easier.)
Serrated threads For quick install (speeds work).
Sharp point For immediate pickup. (Speeds work, reduces effort.)

In a few dozen words and an easy-to-understand picture, this screw manufacturer has given a harried contractor or do-it-yourselfer four reasons why their “commodity” product will make their life easier.  How can a regional IT services provider do the same for a busy prospect?

We’re Good, Just Like Everyone Else

The first step is the hardest: Identifying those subtle differences that set you apart from all your  “me-too” competitors. These differentiators do exist – the challenge is identifying them and explaining what they mean to the customer.  I’ll use some of the most common strengths I’ve seen in service providers and provide the customer benefits as an illustration.

How My IT Services Are Better Why The Customer Should Care
Platinum certification with leading hardware vendors. Faster and less expensive fixes for problems.
We care. Really. We work nights and weekends to keep you up and running in a jam.
We’re small and locally owned. You don’t have to chase multiple vendors in case of a problem. You can call our CEO’s cell 24/7 if you have an issue with our service.
We understand your industry. We stay on top of the latest technology and best practices in your industry so you don’t have to.

 Next: Do Your Homework

All these are obviously generic benefits for a generic regional IT services firm. But the same process can work for any hardware, software or services vendor. It even works in a new market like the Internet of Things or containers where multiple vendors make “me too” claims.

Whatever your offering, the lesson from this concrete screw holds true: Every product and service has some market differentiators. The hard work is identifying them and explaining in very clear terms how they help the customer.

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.
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Blockchain Blues, Case Study Heartache. http://scheierassociates.com/2018/09/blockchain-blues-case-study-heartache http://scheierassociates.com/2018/09/blockchain-blues-case-study-heartache#respond Thu, 06 Sep 2018 13:25:30 +0000 http://scheierassociates.com/?p=3084

best practices blockchain marketing case studies For those of you who follow this blog, sorry for having been out of touch. It’s been an extremely busy summer and fall,  what with time off off touring Iceland and Scotland and then with increasingly strong demand for marketing content.

But not all tech categories are as healthy as others, and in some ways, creating quality content is becoming harder and harder. Among the changes I’m seeing:

  • Email struggles: Clients are getting more sophisticated in their use of marketing automation tools to target customized emails to the right prospects. But the logistical details (like honing the messaging and integrating it into different email templates) are still challenges. The more nurture campaigns I do, the more my stock advice holds true: Get your messaging and workflows down before jumping into your first campaign. That will save uncounted hours of rework and chaos as you ramp your email volume.)
  • Blockchain blues: After a colossal wave of hype, concerns over security, cost, and speed are spreading doubts over blockchain (the distributed database technology designed to eliminate middlemen for everything from financial trading to customs paperwork.) Every week seems to bring news of another intriguing pilot, such as the AP (my former employer) using blockchain to be sure it gets paid when its content is republished. But next there’s yet another hack of a blockchain-protected cryptocurrency or concerns that blockchain uses more power and is slower than conventional transaction systems. Suggestion: In your blockchain messaging proactively address concerns such as cost, speed and security, and back up any claims with real-life successes, not just pilots. 
  • The “T” word: The craze to use “digital transformation” to describe just about every part of the IT industry is worse than ever. While some clients agree “DT” is so vague as to be meaningless, many marketers can’t resist sprinkling it like fairy dust into every piece of copy. One client had a good definition that ran something like this: “Long lasting, quantum improvements in efficiency, sales or costs.” That level of precision eliminates a lot of the “transformation” stories that turn out to describe only conventional cost-cutting or moving workloads to the cloud (not exactly radical in 2018.) Why not hash out a one-sentence description of “transformation” everyone on your marketing staff understands, and make sure each piece of marketing material explains how you help achieve it?
  • Case study heartache: By definition, a case study must describe how your product or service helped the customer, and how your product or service is better, cheaper, faster than its competitors. But extracting that essential information from vendors’ sales and delivery staffs is getting harder, not easier. I have no easy answer for this, except to train, train, train the staff working with the client to think about the business benefits of their work. That means metrics like lower costs, increased sales, quicker time to market or increased customer retention, not internal benchmarks like meeting project milestones or the number of employees who use a new application.
  • Operationalize this. From cloud migration to Big Data, many of my clients are promoting their ability to “operationalize” IT functions with automated, consistent, repeatable processes. The aim is to cut costs, speed delivery, and reduce security and other risks with standard ways of working across the business. Describing all this can get pretty dry, though, with long descriptions of frameworks, best practices, and the capabilities you’re streamlining. I try to keep it relevant by describing a business benefit for every process the client is improving, and pushing them (again!) for how they achieve that improvement better than their competitors.    

Bottom line: There’s plenty of marketing work out there, but it’s getting harder to deliver the caliber of content that gets results. What are you doing to keep quality up amid the rush to push content out the door, the need to learn new marketing platforms and clients that struggle to describe the business benefits of the solutions they sell?

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.
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Four Email Marketing Sinkholes to Avoid http://scheierassociates.com/2018/04/improve-management-of-email-campaigns http://scheierassociates.com/2018/04/improve-management-of-email-campaigns#respond Sun, 29 Apr 2018 17:48:13 +0000 http://scheierassociates.com/?p=3075

Tips creating email nurture campaignsI recently finished an email nurture campaign for a major software vendor. It included multiple emails across multiple streams for each step in the buyer’s journey (awareness, education, consideration and qualification.)

The writing was the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The 90 percent I didn’t see at first included defining the personas (hypothetical reader groups with various needs), deciding which personas should get which follow-on messages based on their reading behavior, defining the messaging for each stream, choosing everything from fonts to configuring the marketing automation system and entering the content into it.

If all this sounds a little overwhelming, it can be. It can also take attention from fine-tuning your emails so they generate interest, leads and sales. Here are the four sinkholes I found us falling into, with tips for avoiding them. Let me know which I missed and how you avoid such problems.

  1.  Oh, yeah. The content. Many of my colleagues were working overtime refining customer lists, designing email flows, building triggers for follow-up emails and fine-tuning personas. By the time I asked what they wanted in a specific email, their only direction might be “Oh, some thought leadership” or “A high-level overview focusing on our differentiators.” But they often hadn’t had time to think through what their thought leadership about a given topic might be, or which differentiators they wanted to highlight. Tips: Before diving into the detailed flow of a campaign, sit back and define what success would look like, and the three to five major points you want to stress across the email streams. Define, in two to three sentences, what your “thought leadership” is. Get sign-off on all this from the decision makers and communicate it to everyone who will edit or input the emails into your MA tool.
  2. Didn’t we change that font in the last version? If you’re running multiple email campaigns with multiple streams for multiple products, you’ve quickly got an awful lot of discrete emails to track. And they can all look pretty much the same as each subject line is, invariably, a variation of the same theme. Add in multiple feedback from multiple commenters and things can quickly get ugly. Tip: Institute a strong change control system – maybe with advice from your developers on how they manage multiple version of code – before you start handling the copy itself. We assigned a unique identifier to each email (such as “A3” for the third email in the first, or “education,” stream) and assigned a single person to keep everyone else on schedule.
  3. That’s not the headline, it’s the subject line! Nurture emails are made up of five or six elements, each with very specific functions and length requirements. The headline might be limited to 50 characters and meant to “Explain the main value prop” while the subhead might go up to 75 characters with the goal of “Expanding on the main value prop or describing a secondary value prop.” You want your writers, and editors, to focus on hitting these very specific targets, not trying to remember which component of the email they’re working on. Tip: Create very specific and clear templates with the required length and the purpose of each text blog, and make sure everyone from writers to editors to the admins who enter the text in your MA tool use the same template. Including any stock photos, illustrations or other graphical content will help the writer match their text to the tone of the illustrations.
  4. Wait. You want me to enter all this in the MA system, too? Every MA platform has its own user interface. None of them are rocket science but each takes time to learn. It might seem straightforward to have your writer not only draft the content but enter it in the system. But do you want to pay them to learn the system and do data entry rather than crafting great email copy? Tip: Consider hiring a dedicated staff to do the uploading so your content and strategy folks can concentrate on what they do best.

Those are my tips for staying out of the muck and mire of email marketing. What  hidden problems – or clever fixes — have I missed?

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.
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Pulling Case Studies Out of Customers http://scheierassociates.com/2017/11/how-create-b2b-case-studies http://scheierassociates.com/2017/11/how-create-b2b-case-studies#respond Thu, 16 Nov 2017 19:43:43 +0000 http://scheierassociates.com/?p=3049

how to create customer case studies One of the more predictable, and sadder, moments in my work with clients comes when I ask for a customer case study to help illustrate all the good things their hardware, software or services can do.

Their answer is often an awkward silence, followed by something like “Uh, we’ll have to talk to sales to see if they have anything. But they probably don’t so why don’t you start writing anyway…”

That hurts their marketing efforts, because a recommendation from a trusted peer – which is what a case study is – is one of the most credible forms of content you can publish. One recent survey showed that case studies are the top form of content busy B2B buyers want to read.

There are many reasons customers don’t want to help you create a case study. The interviews and review cycles take time out of their busy schedules, and force them to jump through hoops with their internal legal and PR departments for what they may see as “only” a favor for a vendor they’re already paying for a product or service.

Try These Tacks

The Content Marketing Institute recently published some helpful hints for getting customers to participate in a case study. They include (with my comments in italics.)

Create a formal submission and request process, and explaining to your own customer success, sales and marketing teams why case studies are so vital.  A good start, but it requires a lot of internal education and still may not break down resistance among your customers.) 

Create a formal document that outlines how to submit marketing case study opportunities. This can easily degrade, in my experience, into a dreary bureaucratic exercise producing “fill in the form” summaries with vague jargon like “transformation” or wooly benefits like “optimized systems” instead of the quantifiable specifics a good case study needs.

Create a case study request email template to make requests of your customers. A good idea as long as it gives the customer a good reason to cooperate. (See below.) I’d also suggest giving the customer engagement teams lots of rooms to customize them to build on what are (hopefully) their great relationships with clients.

Offer employees a bonus for recruiting customers for case studies. CMI admits this is a “bandage” approach that could get expensive and encourage subpar submissions, but can also jump start longer-term efforts. I actually like this idea, as long as you’re clear with your people about what makes a good case study. You could even make the production of case study “candidates” part of employees’ compensation, giving them an incentive to make case studies part of their “partnership” with their best customers. 

Provide value to the customers doing the case studies (and explain it to them). This is of course the Holy Grail. Possible hot buttons to push in today’s climate include:

  • Using the case study as a recruitment tool by showing the innovative work the client is doing.
  • Using the case study to help your client attract good business partners by, again, showing the innovative work the client is doing.
  • Telling the rest of the client’s organization about the good work IT is doing to grow revenue and market share.
  • Discounted pricing or extra support.

 Anonymous or “masked” case studies, such as referring to the customer as “a major European telecom provider.” A good, tried and true alternative. Not as powerful as a name-brand reference, but if specific enough it can still provide value.

A group case study describing average results seen by your customers. An interesting approach I’m currently trying with one client. Possible obstacles include making “apples to oranges” comparisons of benefits or challenges across customers, and widely differing quality of information or results across multiple customers.

What Else?

In these days of fewer, and larger, customers and increased regulation, getting customers to help out with case studies will probably get harder, not easier. What is working – or not working – for you?

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.
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Five Ways Storytelling Goes Bad http://scheierassociates.com/2017/10/five-ways-storytelling-goes-bad http://scheierassociates.com/2017/10/five-ways-storytelling-goes-bad#respond Thu, 05 Oct 2017 15:50:49 +0000 http://scheierassociates.com/?p=3040

Wherever you go in the content marketing industry, people are talking about brand storytelling.   You have to tell stories to get customers emotionally involved in your brand. The human mind is intrinsically geared to hearing and understanding stories.

Hey, I’m all for storytelling. When my clients go on about how they digitally “transform” this or that, I harass them for real-world examples – stories, if you will — to explain what they’re doing.  When they give me a cookie-cutter, jargon-filled case study to word-smith, I push back for more details on the business challenges and the internal implementation headaches that will bring their work to life.

But in each of those examples, I use stories to illustrate a wider theme or broader truth. When we use stories to trivialize, to distract, to pander or to cover up, we’re cheapening our profession and pulling the wool over our reader’s eyes. Is that we went into this profession for?

How might story-telling hoodwink a reader, either intentionally or not? Stick with me for a sec for an example from the pharmaceutical rather than the IT industry.

Yes, We Price Gouge, But Our People Are Nice

Consider these two audio spots I heard within ten minutes the other day on NPR:

The first described allegations that drug companies vastly overstate the cost of drug development to justify higher drug prices and greater profits.

The second was a promotional notice from an NPR donor – a drug company — inviting listeners to hear stories about how their employees volunteer their time to help their communities.

Which story is more emotionally engaging? The feel-good piece about the volunteers. Which is easier to tell? The feel-good piece about the volunteers. Which drive more positive views of the drug company? The feel-good piece about the volunteers.

But that volunteer story describes dozens or maybe hundreds of volunteers doing individual good works. Unless the drug company is giving them paid time off to volunteer, it’s not really about the drug company at all. The second story involves billions of dollars and whether hundreds of millions of people get the health care they need.

So you tell me. Which story is more important?

Where Storytelling Goes Bad

Story telling is essential because it grabs viewers and listeners emotionally. But it gets in the way when it:

  1. Describes only anecdotes while ignoring systematic root causes. You can always, for example, find a student from a failed family and lousy school who made it into Harvard. But that doesn’t mean poor schools and chaotic home lives don’t holding many more students back. A corrupt mortgage broker could tell lots of good stories about the nice people who work for them. But that doesn’t compare with the human loss caused by systemic abuses such as weak underwriting, corrupt lenders, and too-loose credit.
  2. Conflates a one-time event with real change. At the recent Content Marketing World Kate Santore, who heads up integrated marketing content for Coca-Cola, played a 2013 ad showing Coke kiosks encouraging person to person contacts  between citizens of nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan. The spot is beautiful and even inspirational. But did it make a lasting difference in how those people felt, thought or acted?
  3. Appeals to the emotion at the expense of clear thinking. Check out this light-hearted ad from Cisco claiming the ideal Valentine’s Day gift is an ASR 9000 Series Aggregation Services Router. I can see this working for top of the funnel “awareness” of a product, but will it convince either a system administrator to recommend it, or a CIO or CFO to approve the purchase?
  4. Doesn’t reflect the company’s true value or role. You have to praise Coke’s diversity-boosting Super Bowl ad this year as at least taking a stand on a controversial subject. But at the end of the day, is Coke’s mission showing “what unites us is stronger than what divides us” or selling beverages for a profit?
  5.  Doesn’t tell the customer what they need to make a purchase decision. At Content Marketing World, I overheard one speaker enthusing over how a post on a bank Web site about watching an eclipse out-performed traditional content such as, he sneered, “stories about the interest rate on credit cards.” Maybe it’s just me, but I want to hear about my bank’s interest rates.

Wherever I turn, I see “storytellers” trying to distract me with anecdotal, emotion-filled messages when what I need are facts. If we’re selling big-ticket IT solutions, we need to make sure “stories” support the message but don’t overwhelm it.

Thoughts?how story telling goes bad

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.
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Do You Want Sales or an Audience – or Both? http://scheierassociates.com/2017/09/content-marketing-driving-leads http://scheierassociates.com/2017/09/content-marketing-driving-leads#respond Wed, 13 Sep 2017 15:45:00 +0000 http://scheierassociates.com/?p=3033

Give clients “real business metrics,” says, Joe Lazauskas of Contently.

Walking the halls of my first Content Marketing World I wasn’t surprised to hear lots of agreement that high quality content is essential to effective marketing and sales.

But I was surprised at the mixed messages about whether the goal of that content should be to generate short-term benefit in the form of qualified leads and sales, or if it is enough – or even better – if content captures the right audience and makes you the dominant “voice” about whatever you’re selling.

The answer to this question will determine everything from your editorial to your distribution and content marketing measurement strategies. Hence, it’s something we need to figure out before producing a single piece of copy. Check out these arguments from both sides.

Show Me the Money… 

First, as if anyone needed convincing, research from the Content Marketing Institute and business news publisher SmartBrief  reinforced “the value of content marketing in guiding prospects during the purchasing process.” Among the findings: Two thirds tap sources other than manufacturers or vendors in the initial information gathering stage of a purchase, and almost as many said the most important consideration was that the information speak to their specific needs or pain points. That seems to point to the need for content to generate leads and sales, and to be measured on that basis.

One speaker, Joe Lazauskas, director of content strategy and editor in chief at software and services provider Contently, argued in favor of “accountable real business metrics” that generate return on investment, rather than just “impressions” when a reader sees a piece of copy. Another speaker, Jeannine Rossignol, chief executive and marketing officer of Edge Building and Construction, urged content marketers to think more like sales people and design content to drive sales, not just hits on a Web site.

…Or Show Me the Audience

But an Curran, CEO of content publishing software and services vendor PowerPost, argued that the real road to success for content marketers isn’t  in generating leads, but  in capturing share of “voice” – being a or the leading authority on a subject. The market presence and leads will follow, he argues.

But don’t his clients want hard dollar results like quality leads, I asked? Unfortunately, no, he said – because they often lack the internal processes that would let their sales forces put those leads to good use. This is a real and continuing problem, with some research indicating sales forces ignore a full 50 percent of the sales leads they’re given.

Robert Rose, chief content advisor for the Content Marketing Institute, had an even more revolutionary take. Maybe, he said, we’re not really in the business of creating content but of creating audiences. Those audiences can then be tapped for anything from advertising (Google) to sales of goods and services (Amazon) to tracking their needs to fine tune new products and services. Rose’s stance is not that sales and lead gen isn’t an essential goal for content marketing, but that focusing on it exclusively can blind you to even greater benefits.

“Strategic content creation helps build an engaged audience of people who exhibit specific, desirable behaviors – like greater willingness to share personal data, greater interest in upselling opportunities, and greater brand loyalty and evangelism,” he blogged in October 2016. “When your content compels your audience to adopt these behaviors, not only does it become easier for your business to achieve its long-term marketing goals, it can also open up new business opportunities – and even new revenue streams.”

When Things Go Bad

I can’t help think that, if and when the economy slows, our clients are going to revert to (if they’re not there already) demanding quality leads and not just share of voice or audience to justify their content spending.

But even so, should we be giving equal attention to building long-term audience and “share of voice” along with short-term qualified leads?

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.
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What We’re Doing Wrong in Blockchain Marketing http://scheierassociates.com/2017/07/what-were-doing-wrong-in-blockchain-marketing http://scheierassociates.com/2017/07/what-were-doing-wrong-in-blockchain-marketing#respond Mon, 31 Jul 2017 16:40:47 +0000 http://scheierassociates.com/?p=3025

blockchain marketing tips One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was “always explain what you’re talking about. Never assume your audience knows the background – even if they’re experts.”

I’m especially careful to do that now around blockchain, the distributed database technology that assures the integrity of transactions or data without a central clearing house.* The hype around blockchain is so great, and the marketplaces in blockchain-based virtual currencies so hard to understand, that one billionaire investor recently called digital currencies based on blockchain “an unfounded fad.” In one story, he freely admits he is stumped by such cryptocurrencies and isn’t alone among savvy Wall Street investors puzzled by their popularity.

How’s That Again? 

To understand where we’re going wrong, check out one company’s response to the successful hacking of its peer to peer platform for initial coin offerings. These allow individual investors to help fund startups, creating a more democratic alternative to initial public offerings of stock that are usually only open to insiders or big investors.

In a July 24 post on a discussion thread, this company (which will go unnamed to protect the accused) said “We were hacked, possibly by a group. The hack seemed to be very sophisticated… the hacker(s) made away with $8.4M worth of tokens.” Doesn’t sound good, does it?

Here’s a sample of their explanation, edited for brevity. See if you can make heads or tails out of it.

“Although I hate to see assets stolen, and I hate thieves, the incident proved both the resilient demand for our tokens and the utility of the decentralized exchange…the amount stolen was miniscule (less than 00.07%) although the dollar amount was quite material.. .(the tokens stolen) are software that represent our knowledge, advisory and consulting skills, products and capabilities. Without (our) team, the tokens are literally worthless…we aren’t selling currencies, we aren’t selling securities. We are selling capabilities…We have already landed (a regional stock exchange as a client) just 30 days after the initial token offering…now you can see how inconsequential the mere hack of a few million dollars”

 Get all that? It’s reasonably clear that this company is offering tokens, on its blockchain-based platform, that customers can exchange for their consulting services. But while the dollar amount was miniscule, the dollar amount was quite material. So that means…what?

It’s Only A Few Million Dollars

The mention of the stock exchange as a customer (right after the company said “we aren’t selling securities”) is needlessly confusing. So is the rest of the post which I didn’t quote, as it goes into rambling detail about meetings they had with senior hedge funds executives who are thrilled with what they are doing. Also left unanswered is the central question: If a hacker could steal millions of dollars of worthless tokens from their platform, why should a stock exchange trust them with actual securities?

Finally, I love this sentence: “Now, you can see how inconsequential the mere hack of a few million dollars.” Not to me. The writer failed to remind readers of the essential context that no actual money was stolen – only tokens for the company’s service, which the company could disavow. A phrase like “…the mere hack of a few million dollars” is and should be a red flag for a customer or investor who is already skeptical about blockchain.

What we are left with, then, is a chasm between the enthusiasm for, and investment in, blockchain among major industry, financial and technology players such as  IBM, Bank of America and Amazon  and the skepticism that naturally results when we can’t explain what a blockchain is, what we’re using it to sell, and why a security breach on one isn’t such a big deal.

Into the breach, as always, step marketers like us. Our job is to explain complex concepts in ways that clearly show how they help the reader, viewer, or listener (for those into video or podcasts.) If we can’t do that well, we shouldn’t respond at all, as we’re only contributing to the problem.

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.
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No Robot Overlords at MIT CIO Symposium http://scheierassociates.com/2017/06/ai-digital-transformation-trends http://scheierassociates.com/2017/06/ai-digital-transformation-trends#respond Tue, 20 Jun 2017 01:50:54 +0000 http://scheierassociates.com/?p=3019

The recent 2017 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass. was full of talk about “digital transformation,” driven by everything from artificial intelligence (AI) to blockchain to the Internet of Things. Among the insights, for me, were the current limits and future potential of AI, and how much a real (rather than hyped up) story of digital transformation stood out.

Are the Robots Coming for Your Job?

Some reports predict that artificial intelligence (software programs that can teach themselves how to do complex tasks) will take as many as half the jobs humans now do in the next decade. For those of us not made of silicon and algorithms, Tom Davenport, President’s Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management at Babson College, had some comfort from his survey of 160 such projects. He found no evidence of job loss, although there was some reduction in outsourcing.

The bad news, he said, is that smart machines are not yet delivering increased productivity, and that doing so may require the layoffs the experts are predicting. Nor is machine learning yet delivering other dramatic breakthroughs optimists had hoped for. He cited the MD Anderson Cancer Center, which spent $52 million in an attempt to use IBM’s Watson AI system to diagnose, treat and cure cancer. Not a single patient has yet been treated with the technology, he said, and the project is “pretty much on hold.”

However, the use of AI for more basic and labor intensive tasks, such as helping patients schedule visits and determining which patients are unlikely to pay their bills and thus need prodding, are delivering “huge and rapid” return on investment, he said.

He is still predicting big, and impressive, long-term results from AI, with an “amazing” breadth of projects underway spanning functions from legal to human resources to auditing. He also was careful to say his predictions about the limited impact of AI could change dramatically with the rapid, ongoing increase in machine intelligence (one of the programs he studied taught itself Italian.) When the “singularity” arrives (the point at which machines become more capable than humans), he said “all bets are off.”

Marketing/PR tips: Stay informed about AI developments and aggressive in understanding how they affect your industry, no matter how “low tech” it seems. Don’t underestimate AI and how quickly it is developing. One sweet spot for thought leadership (on which I’m working with one client) is how to ensure smart machines act ethically and don’t harm humans. With luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk warning of the dangers to the future of the human race this has obvious headline value.

Real Digital Transformation, at Last

The meaningless (to me, at least) “digital transformation” buzzword was all over the symposium, although not one speaker took the time to define it. Naturally, this meant discussion of how to achieve it was all over the map, and some of the examples were, shall we say, less than compelling.

The most convincing story at the conference came from Tetra Pak Group, a leader in the not seemingly digital nor transformative business of supplying milk and juice cartons and the machinery to fill and seal them. (Yes, they make those little juice cartons with the plastic straws that litter the back of every parent’s car.)

As CIO Mark Meyer described it, this 60-year old family-owned firm has dominated its space for years. Expansion came from entering new geographies, which it did with a classic razors and razor blade strategy: Sell the packaging equipment at a low margin to make higher margins selling the packaging material the machines need.

With increasing competitive pressures, the packing firm is increasing the amount of monitoring data it gets from its machines in the field, so it can sell services such as preventive maintenance and information about best production practices to reduce waste. Eventually, he hinted, it might get into the business of running its customers’ packaging equipment, “selling” a certain number of packed cartons guaranteed to meet their freshness, sterility and cost needs rather than just equipment and packing materials.

This is similar to the much-touted GE strategy of moving from selling jet engines to selling “time on wing”  – a jet engine on an airplane guaranteed to meet specific levels of reliability, thrust and fuel consumption, enabled by GE’s wealth of data about engine performance. The appeal of the Tetra Pak story is that it is an attempt to “transform” an even more old-style manufacturing company through the smart use of data, and in a fundamental and permanent way.

PR/marketing tips: if you’re touting a “transformation” story make sure the change your client is aiming for is 1) fundamental and 2) permanent. The more common and every day the product or service (i.e., milk cartons) the more dramatic the story. Be ready to capture reader attention by explaining the change in business models very clearly, and then sell to the tech reader with details such as the types of data required, the sensors that gather it, the networks that transmit it, the data models used to organize it and the AI capabilities required to analyze it.

Author: Bob Scheier
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