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Got any product road maps you'd care to share?

Way back in November 2010, I asked “How Much Rope Should You Give a Corporate Reporter?”  The question just hit uncomfortably close to home, with a blog post (now on hold) that would have required me to get comment from one of my client’s competitors.

The topic is the effects of mergers and acquisitions on well-known product in my client’s market space. The post would have raised the question of what will happen to a well-known group of products, widely used by customers, as a result of their being bought by larger companies. Will the acquiring companies keep selling and supporting them? Will they continue to OEM them, as their former owners did, to multiple other vendors, or kill them off in favor of the acquiring company’s own offerings?

Trust Me, I’m the Competition

These are all great questions, which have formed the basis for countless stories and columns in the trade press down through the ages. As a reporter for a trade pub, I would call the acquiring companies, their customers, their competitors, resellers and industry analysts to ask if there have been or will be any layoffs in the development groups for those products? Will the acquired products be merged into existing product lines, and, if so, how? How long will the acquiring company support any “orphaned” products?

But as a paid representative of a competitor, would any of these folks – should they – take my call as a representative of a competitor? Is a competitor’s Web site an appropriate place to lay out your post-acquisition product strategy, or to defend it? Can you trust a paid representative of a competitor to quote you accurately, and not spin your comments into an ad for their products?

The easy way out is to just pose the questions in an “open letter to the industry,” calling righteously on your competitor, or customers, or someone else in a “legitimate” position to get to the truth. But that is misleading the reader by raising urgent and important questions, but not doing all you can to answer them. That, in my opinion, is lying to the reader, pretending to report the news while only sowing fear, confusion and doubt to boost your employer’s sales.

Morality? What’s That?

There are obviously moral implications here, and the practical need to not compromise my “reporter” reputation by putting my name to blatant marketing material. But there’s also a more practical content marketing question: How far should we go using traditional journalistic tools (like getting the other side of the story) to meet the business need of attracting and keeping readers on our client’s sites?

When to Repeat a Competitor’s Lies

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I hear their beta is buggy as heck...

We all have competitors dishing the dirt on us. One way to fight back: Boldly repeat their lies, only to demolish them point by point.

Maybe they’re saying your growth is unsustainable because you’re giving away product to score reference customers. Maybe they’re claiming customers are ripping out your software a year after installation because it doesn’t scale. Or that you’re in the process of ruining that great technology you acquired from a start-up last year.

Many of my clients tip-toe around the accusations, carefully crafting white papers or mission statements aimed at disproving these claims without ever describing them. By hinting that something might be, or could be wrong, and that you’re fixing it (without saying what it is and what you’re doing) you only make customers more confused and skeptical.

A bolder, clearer and more effective approach is to repeat and even amplify what you consider to be underhanded claptrap, loudly and clearly, and then refute it point by point. It’s a technique you’ve probably heard radio talk shows hosts use. I ran across it while browsing aviation Web sites (yeah, I’m an airplane nut) and seeing a promo for Emirates airlines rebutting charges it gets unfair government subsidies.

Note how Emirates, rather than tiptoeing around the subject with euphemisms like “the proper role of government in supporting the aviation industry” headlined the charges against them, repeating them (and naming those making them) in case the reader hadn’t heard them before.

Identifying the lying so and sos...

 

Then they refuted them, point by point and with pages and pages of statistics and even quotes from oil companies assuring they charge Emirates fair market rates for jet fuel even though the airline is in the middle of the world center of oil production.

 

...refuting them with unnamed sources. Oh, well.

They even defend their record on touchy subjects like the conditions of the many immigrant workers in the Gulf. Taking on risky issues like this that aren’t even central to their business fairly screams that they have nothing to hide. Its part of the sheer mass of facts, figures, numbers and angles they throw at the reader – everything from airport landing fees to whether Chapter 11 bankruptcy laws in the U.S. are, in effect, a form of government subsidy. I’m not sure I buy that argument, but it sure changes the terms of the argument.

And isn’t that what you want to fight unfounded rumors?

This in-your-face approach helps cut though today’s Web-based information overload, telling the audience “We’re so sure these claims are bogus we’ll blast them loud and clear so you can see how ridiculous they are.” This is chutzpa and it works, though I’m not sure I’d use that term resonates in the UAE.

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Is this what they mean by a transformative change?

After being nice and congratulating a vendor for a clear, simple job explaining their value proposition, my dark side takes over as I blast another for a confusing – and potentially damaging — attempt at rebranding.

When business process outsourcing firm Data Dimensions  recently announced a new “Mission, Vision, and Values statement” it totally failed to explain exactly what is new and why anyone should care. As someone who follows the BPO market closely, I was hoping to learn something.

But it was clear Data Dimensions was talking to itself, not its customers, from the very start with the headline “Data Dimensions Looks to the Future with a New Vision.” Unless I’m a Data Dimension employee or customer, why should I care?

The naval-gazing went on as the release explained the company wanted to “make our (vision) statement more in line with who we are and to better clarify our commitment to the clients that we serve, and the people we employ.” If you’re having an internal identity crisis, why publicize the fact, at least without mentioning what’s in this clarification for the customer?

Now, to the “meat” of the news, although there’s not much to chew on. The company’s new mission is — wait for it – to provide “innovative business process solutions (with) an uncompromising commitment to quality, responsiveness, and integrity.” It’s “vision” is “To be the leading solutions provider for every customer we serve!” For this, they wasted valuable Web bandwidth?

Their values (which I’m sure you’ve never heard of before) include “integrity, “excellence,” “innovative” and “responsive.” To make the kitchen sink of jargon complete, they collaborate with each other while recognizing the diverse background of their employees. And since you asked, you’ll be relieved to know “the new Mission, Vision, Values statement is posted throughout our buildings and in key public areas” and that it is actually “a continuation of the principles that Data Dimensions was founded on in 1982.”

Besides failing to explain the importance of this for its customers, Data Dimensions fails to provide any context by explaining what is new, or has changed. This makes me, as a suspicious reader, look between the lines for signals of problems or failures they’re trying to fix. If their values now include “integrity” does that mean they lacked integrity in the past? If they’re now committed to “excellence” and being “innovative” have they not been in the past? If they’ve always had integrity and innovation, why emphasize it now?

It may be wonderful that Data Dimensions went through this internal values clarification, but it’s not, in and of itself, anything the market cares about. It only becomes worth sharing when the company can explain specifically how it will deliver lower-priced, higher-quality, or more innovative services for its customers. Until then, these feel-good generalities teach the customer not to bother reading the next press release they see from this company.

Let me know if you think I’m being too hard on these folks or you want help explaining your own strategic repositioning. 

Yoda Says: Be Patient, Marketing Wanna-Be

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There is no such thing as "try." You're either generating leads or you're not.

For those of you who’ve been following my “Lone Ranger Content Marketing” blogs you’ll note it’s been quiet for the last few months. Too quiet, as they say in the movies.

The “problem” has been a glut of paying work customers have wanted delivered quickly. This has kept me from doing the hard, patient work required to use marketing automation software to distribute content and identify prospects by tracking what they read. That background work includes building customer personas, creating content to reach each customer type, measuring the readership of that content and then following up with the highest quality leads.

A recent post on the “Marketing Automation Software Guide” site does a great job describing what it really takes to get ROI from marketing automation software. In it, Justin Gray, CEO and chief marketing evangelist of marketing services firm Leaded, tells customer that “If you have all of your content in place and a solid plan, you will start seeing different (better) leads around the six-month mark as nurturing starts to precipitate leads out of the funnel and into sales.

His four pieces of advice, while aimed at larger companies than mine, also speak to a one-person (or similarly understaffed) MA operation:

  1. Get executive buy-in for the purchase you’re about to make…MA can get complicated and take a while to show results. You need the executive suite to fully understand this or they will get impatient, fast. For the one-person shop the “buy-in” means making regular time in your schedule, no matter what, for the MA grunt work regardless of what short-term fires you need to fight
  2. Assemble and assess your content, re-using existing content and building it into your lead scoring by shaping it around the buyer personas you’ve created. For you lone rangers out there, this is part of the background work you need to be doing every day.
  3. Determine milestones. What results do you want, and by when? This is a trial and error process so the plan will probably change quite a bit in the beginning. For sole practitioners (even if they’re working within larger organizations) such external milestones can help restore your focus when several days of urgent work for clients have taken our eye off the MA ball. 
  4. Don’t hand off every single lead to sales, but wait until “they are so hot they’re ready to sign.”  The temptation to “pounce” on a seemingly interested lead is even greater for a sole practitioner grinding away in isolation for months. Again, patience is best so when you do contact a lead, they sign and give you the reinforcement and ROI you really need – new business. 

Justin’s bottom line is that good marketing is hard, and that marketing automation (like other forms of automation) is only as good as the processes it speeds along. For a marketer working for a very small organization, or in isolation within a larger group, it seems the key is to work as slowly and methodically as you need to – but not to stop.

May the force be with you, and may it direct you the post itself here.

When to Outsource Your Writing

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What's our product positioning again this week?

One of the toughest decisions for budget-conscious marketers is when to hire an outsider to create marketing content, and when they can do the heavy lifting themselves. What they often overlook is whether they themselves understand what they want to say before bringing in outside help.

Marketers ask themselves if they have anyone on staff with both the subject matter expertise and writing ability? Does that person have time to write on top of their other work? And is writing a better use of their time than, say, selling or billing hours with clients? But a recent chat with Christophe Cremault, who heads up marketing for Radix, an innovative branding and marketing agency, gave me some new thinking on this question.

He pointed out there are two kinds of content sellers need.

The first is white papers, Webinars, podcasts, ebooks, etc. where you’ve already thought through the subject, knows what you want to say, and can explain it well enough that an outside wordsmith just needs to polish it up. Unless you already have a superb writer on staff, this is a slam dunk to outsource, and with the right writer you’ll get excellent, fast results.

The second case is where your content needs more work before you outsource it.  Maybe you haven’t thought through the tough questions, such as “What is our real differentiation?” or “What is the real pain point we’re addressing?” Other times, especially in large global organizations (you know who you are) scattered sales and operational units haven’t yet agreed on messaging, or functional groups are too busy meeting client needs to provide background.

Based on recent experience, you’re not ready to hire a free-lance writer, editor, or Webinar host until you can answer these questions in ten words or less. (More than that and you haven’t clarified your own thinking enough.)  

  1. The three messages we want to get across are __________, ________________, and ___________.
  2. The three things we do better than our competitors are _____________, ____________, and ___________.
  3.  The target audience(s) for this piece is (are)   ___________.
  4.  The action we want readers to take after reading this is to  ___________.
  5.  The one person who will serve as single point of contact for the free-lancer, who has the authority to decide when the piece meets our needs, is _____________.

 

The better you can answer these questions before hiring an outside writer, the less time you’ll spend in messy clarification sessions, revising useless copy, and juggling production schedules due to delays. You’ll also be the type of good client that writers want to work with, which is important in a market where increasing demand is letting writers be pickier about assignments.

But most importantly, you’ll be spending your precious marketing dollars most efficiently, and getting great content out to your customers before your competitors.

Coffee With Bob For Those 25 Hour Days

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Just checking Twitter once more before logging off...

Nothing makes me feel like a real industry expert than coffee with PR veteran Tim Hurley, who recently let me pontificate on his Web site about tech, PR and media trends in 2012. Based on a whole mess of reporting I’ve been doing for publications such as Computerworld and InfoWorld, and ongoing marketing work with clients in the cloud, storage and outsourcing areas, trends I managed to pick out of my cluttered mind include…

  • Cloud computing going mainstream
  • Not only apps, but everything IT, going mobile, and
  • The challenge of using social media to enrich customers’ lives rather than distract them to death.

Another big trend I keep seeing is internal IT staffs, and outsourcers, struggling to move up the fabled value chain and deliver innovation, and not just lower cost, to the business. This requires change not only in business models (how staff and outsourcers are measured and paid) but changes in mindset. Good luck doing that while cutting costs and keeping the wheels turning in a tough economy.

On the media/communications/PR/marketing world, I observed that content marketing is still struggling to prove its worth to the enterprise, as is social media. I also predicted, somewhat hopefully, that “content curation” (automatically gathering content from around the Web to push to readers) will turn out to be just another buzzword. Why so nervous? Because, despite claims to the otherwise, I think it  undermines my value proposition of creating unique, high-quality content. Hey, as Andy Grove once said, even paranoiacs have real enemies.

On the skills front, I recommend PR and marketing pros learn how to 1) work with social media without busting the budget or working 25 hours a day, 2) cost-justify these social media and content marketing efforts, and 3) develop a multimedia strategy that includes podcasts, video and Webinars easily viewable on mobile devices.

One of my predictions, that PR agencies that still focus on story placement in print pubs are missing the boat, has already been undermined by several PR pros telling me such placements still drive leads. They’re also very important to Indian-based outsourcing vendors, because in India the print trade press is still far more robust than in the U.S.

Let me know if I’m right or wrong on story placement, and if you have any great ideas for how not to work 25 hours a day.

Four Questions To Speed Up Your Tech Pitch

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Among the ongoing excellent recent posts from Lauren Goldstein, VP, Strategic Planning at Babcox and Jenkins, was some advice on how to talk to technical decision makers in business to business (B2B) sales. She recommended giving these “TDMs” more technical information earlier in the sales process than you would to a business decision maker, and to “Be clear about what your product is and what it does.”
I’d argue being clear is vital to reach any IT decision maker overwhelmed with things to do and sales pitches to sift through. Too many pitches I see are too obvious and self-serving when describing the problem they solve, and too vague in describing how they solve it.
This led me to dust off a simple template I used during my 15 years as an IT trade press reporter to understand whether, and how, to cover the Latest Great Thing someone pitches to me. Here it is:
Our product is (hardware, software/a service, or a combination thereof) that (describe the technical function it performs) to (describe in the business benefit it provides.) It is better than competitive offerings because it is (less expensive, easier to use, faster to implement, more scalable, more reliable, etc.)
This template works regardless of the type of customer you’re selling to, the industry they’re in and what problem you’re solving. Because it forces you to be specific, it also discourages you from using jargon such as “solution,” “seamless,” or “best in class” that obscures your message.
Finally, it forces you to define your value proposition very clearly. And that helps you develop everything from elevator pitches to product taglines to defining target markets and the segmented content necessary to reach them.
Do you have a template or formula that defines your value proposition?

Occupy Marketing Slams Puffy Collateral

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These white papers aren't even white!

Well, not quite. But my good friend (and sometimes boss) Larry Marion, CEO of Triangle Publishing Services, does the next best thing with these gloves-off scoring of actual IT white paper by brand-name  vendors.

You’ve all probably heard the best practices for white papers – skip the hard sell, prove your claims, make the text easy to read. But it’s not often you see someone who creates content for a living bite (or at least snarl at) the hand that feeds him by calling out vendors who have succumbed to the temptation to pitch rather than educate.

(By way of credentials, Larry’s has more than 20 years of research, writing and editing reports on the use of technology, interviewed hundreds of senior executives at large organizations about technology, and served as a judge of a major white paper contest for many years.)

Database giant Oracle got a dismal 42 out of 100 for a white paper on “Big Data for the Enterprise.” On the plus side, says Larry, writing “isn’t bad,” the first half covers the right issues and it provides lots of hypothetical examples of how “big data” (the analysis of very, very large data sets) can help businesses.

On the down side, though, he complains of “exceptionally heavy Oracle references,” and only “ one third-party reference, despite many debatable assertions,: no information about the author’s credentials (he’s  in Oracle product management, not exactly an unbiased source) and only one graphic that didn’t focus on Oracle’s product, rather than on customer needs. Finally, he says, there was no clear call to action, and several obvious errors caused by poor editing.

Thoroughly depressed on behalf of Oracle, I trolled through several other critiques in search of good news. But a Siemens white paper on “The Communications Tipping Point” did only slightly better, with 61 out of 100 points. On the plus side: Original survey data, lots of charts, a strong writing style and point of view, a good mix of external data sources and what Larry playfully calls “self-control – Siemens doesn’t  plug its solutions until the last page.

The weaknesses:

  • Headline needs a subtitle, so you know what the paper is about
  • Poorly conceived charts
  • Missing information
  • Who is the author? His/her credentials?
  • Some assertions lack data to support them
  • Some comments reflect unfamiliarity with business budgeting and spending practices
  • No clear call to action

(I would add that nowhere in the executive summary, which is all some people will read, did it describe what the “tipping point” is and why the reader should care. But this is Larry’s rant, not mine.)

A quick glance through Larry’s list showed no white paper got even a gentleman’s “C” for best practices. Was he too kind? Too cruel? Feel free to drop a note and let him know. But his basic protest – that too often vendors use white papers to sell rather than educate — is spot on and ignored too often. Let the street protests begin.

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