Top Eight Ways to Better “Top Ten” Lists

How to tune top ten lists for effective marketingTurns out the folks over at Spiceworks, who seem to have thought of everything, have a forum talking about not only IT issues, but IT marketing. And one recent thread stopped me in my tracks.

It turns out that customers are on to our marketing trick of doing “Top Ten” lists of IT best practices, especially when the “Top Ten” list is only a thinly disguised way to say “Buy our stuff.”

One commentator kicked it off with “I’m in marketing here at Spiceworks and I have a confession: I’m not a fan of “Top 10” lists. Top 10 ways to boost conversion, top 10 social media tips, etc. The headlines sound so compelling that I always click and read, eager to learn some quick wins. But I wind up saying to myself “duh!” on a lot of the points or “that doesn’t apply to my situation” on others. Usually a big ole “whoomp wah” for me.”

David Letterman, Watch Out

One commentator cleverly did his own “Top Ten” list of why he hates Top Ten lists. 

  1. They are overdone.
  2. They oversimplify complex subjects.
  3. They dumb down the reading skills of the public.
  4. They are a cheap marketing ploy.
  5. They’ve become a cliché.
  6. Not many people can count to 10 these days.
  7. They pad out the list with silly tips at the end to make it to 10.
  8. Are you still reading this list?
  9.  Numbers make things look more important than they are.
  10.  Because.

All of which makes me realize I may not be as clever as I think I am when I advise clients that “A top ten list is always a good idea.” And that maybe it’s time for us to kick it up a notch and make sure we’re adding value.

Top Ten Lists With Oomph

  1. Run your list by someone currently working in the field to weed out “duh” tips.
  2. Tailor your tips to your audience. A “top of the funnel” prospect who needs educating might value a tip that rates only a “duh” to someone closer to a purchase. This might mean developing different “Top Ten” lists for prospects at different points in the buying cycle?
  3. Wherever possible, illustrate tips with recent stories and anecdotes. This builds your credibility and makes for better reading.
  4. Include specific recommendations about what to do, not just what not to do.
  5. Identify the specific, quantifiable benefits of doing the right thing.
  6. Ask readers for feedback to keep them engaged, get feedback on your tips and, most importantly, keep helping your audience to keep them engaged.
  7. Measure how your “Top Ten” list content does compared to your other content – and how various types of “Top Ten” lists (more advanced vs. more basic) perform. .
  8. Stop when you run out of smarts, as I hope I’m doing. 

Now, in the spirit of my own Tip #6, let me know whether and why Top Ten lists work or don’t work for you. Do you even measure their success? And do you ever ask for, or get, feedback about whether your clever Top Ten lists are actually boring the pants off your audience?

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 or call me at 508 725-7258.

Will open source software kill proprietary vendors?Talk to any CIO or IT analyst and it’s likely they won’t be talking about the latest database from Oracle or development platform from Microsoft. There’s even less excitement about hardware like the latest network switch from Cisco, storage gear from EMC or server from HP.

In fact, they’re probably not talking about any proprietary hardware or software at all. Today’s buzz is around cloud-oriented provisioning, management and integration tools such as Puppet, Chef and Jenkins and big data repositories such as Hadoop. They are only the tip of the iceberg of a veritable zoo of tools developed by the open-source community (or built in-house using open source tools).

Open source software is usually low-cost or free. But the biggest draw, according to many customers I’ve spoken with recently, is that anyone can enhance the software and share their improvements through open source code repositories such as GitHub. That allows organizations to develop, scale and improve innovative digital products at warp speed, in the DevOps model of near-continuous development, tweaking and deployment.

The New Normal

For example, business networking site LinkedIn conducts more than 100 experiments on its site per day to see which features its 175 million users like best. It stores 450Tbytes of data on storage from established vendors Oracle and Teradata, but another whopping five Pbytes (with another ten available) in Hadoop.

Much of LinkedIn’s heavy lifting is done by the Sensei distributed real-time database, the Azkaban job scheduler for Hadoop, the Bobo search platform and Zoie real-time indexing system for “elastic, faceted real-time search,” Norbert to manage clusters and workload distribution, and Kafka for messaging. Not only are all these open source, but LinkedIn built Sensei, Azkaban, Kafka and Voldemort in-house.

Or consider the Instagram photo-sharing site, which scaled from 25,000 members the first day to more than 30 million  in under two years. All this was done with only two engineers in 2010, three in 2011 and five in 2012, the year Facebook bought the site for $1 billion. Their infrastructure included the Nginx HTTP server and reverse proxy), the Redis keyvalue store database, the PostgreSQL object-relational database and the Django Web framework for Website creation – again, all open source.

That’s a pretty high-profile business, which earned a fortune for its founders, that didn’t generate many purchase orders for Fortune 500 software or services companies.

Need for Speed

This combination of speed, flexibility, scalability and low cost makes open source a huge challenge to the business model of mainstream software vendors. The mantra used to be that “Big companies like to buy from big companies.” But at a recent conference a CIO quipped that these days, you can indeed be fired buying IBM if open source could have delivered more capabilities for less money.

Some skeptics say the old-line vendors aren’t in close enough touch with the latest market requirements in areas like social, big data, Web 2.0 and mobile. In a big company, after all, requirements must be filtered through marketing committees and big development organizations before they reach the market. In open source, someone sees a need, codes it, and shares it. Even if legacy software providers survive, what (and how far) will they have to cut to meet open source price points?

Most proprietary software vendors are scrambling to respond. IBM was among the first, choosing not to fight the open-source Linux operating system but to embrace it as a way to sell other software, as well as hardware and services.

“I’m not sure there’s anything like a traditional proprietary software company left,” Ashesh Badani, General Manager of the Cloud Business Unit and OpenShift PaaS at Red Hat told me at the recent Red Hat Summit in Boston. Companies ranging from Intel to Microsoft are major contributors to open source efforts, he said. And even vendors who are not going the total open source route are approaching Red Hat for help developing user communities and using its partners to distribute their products.

Whatever software companies do on the technology front, they’ll need to tailor their marketing to play in the open source world. Once they’ve chosen a cute name and mascot for their offerings, there are some key messages they need to hit. Look for those in Part II of this series later this week.

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 or call me at 508 725-7258.

You Make Me Feel So…Optimized

We're just not leveraging our synergies, honey.

I just don’t feel we’re leveraging our synergies, honey.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, do these words set you afire?

I’m guessing not. That’s because “optimize” is a vague buzzword that could mean anything and, thus, means nothing.

I see this term every day in the raw material clients give me as prep for white papers, blog posts, bylined articles and other content marketing. I sometimes wind up using it, if making a stink with a client would just bog down the process without changing their mind.

But here’s why “optimize” is not only worthless jargon, but is actually harmful because it can lull buyer and seller into thinking they’re talking about the same goals when they’re not. Just as the buzzword “transform” can create landmines that can sink deals, confusion over “optimization” makes it harder for prospects to understand why to choose you over someone else.

Here’s why.

We’re Optimum! We’re Good!

Most folks would agree that to “optimize” something means to make it as good as it can possibly be. But “good” has very different meanings for different buyers and sellers.

One Web site I saw recently said their technology “optimizes” the Web. Does that mean reducing the cost of the Web, making it easier to use, or (as I suspect from their tagline) speeding access to it Saying “We speed your Web access” would have grabbed the attention of prospects who need that specific benefit – speed – but who might pass over a vague “optimization” promise.

Even worse is using “optimize” to convey opposing ideas. Outsourcing providers or consultants will promise, in one sentence, to “optimize costs” for customers and in the next sentence to “optimize their cash flow.” Last time I checked, you want to reduce your costs but increase your cash flow. Using the same word to mean two different things in adjacent sentences doesn’t say much for a service provider’s ability to keep you posted on progress and problems.

Optimize for What?

In other cases, “optimize” can mean too many things in content marketing. Does “optimizing” a data center mean speeding its performance or reducing its cost? If cost reduction is key, are capital (equipment) costs or operational (staffing, power, space) costs the main target?  Different data center owners will have different needs. Why not show how you can meet those specific needs rather than hiding it under overall “optimization?”

Finally, consider a consultant trying to sell a cellular carrier on its ability to “optimize” the carrier’s service and pricing plans. Does this mean “optimizing” the plans to deliver the most revenue and profit per customer (as a mature, entrenched player might want) or to sacrificing some profits to earn market share, as a hungry start-up might want?

I can hear someone out there saying “Optimizing” can mean any of these things, so we use it rather than list all the individual things we can do.”

I’m all for keeping things brief, but not at the expense of precision. If “optimize” really means “increase,” “reduce” or “speed” replacing it with those words is a draw. Adding the words “optimizing for cost (or speed, or market share, or whatever)” adds so much precision it’s worth the extra length.

Sweet nothings are fine for passionate moments, but marketing to time-starved B2B professionals requires clarity. I intend to scrub “optimize” from my marketing lingo wherever possible and replacing it with clear explanations of what my clients offer. Your thoughts?

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 or call me at 508 725-7258.

By Larry Marion, Editorial Director, Triangle Publishing Services Co. Inc.

In this era of iPads and short attention spans, is it worth writing a book to establish your (or your client’s) thought leadership?

Yes, but only if you plan from the start how to reuse parts of the book in other forms (such as white papers, Webinars and case studies) in lead generation campaigns, insist on top quality research and writing, and ride herd on all concerned to meet their deadlines.  Done right, you can produce a book (with all the associated prestige, lead generation and other benefits) for little more than the cost of the standalone content elements that make it up.

Here’s how it worked  with the recent publication by McGraw-Hill Professional of The Customer Experience Edge, by Reza Soudagar, Vinay Iyer and Dr. Volker Hildebrand. The three authors, executives at enterprise software company SAP, approached me in the summer of 2010 with a book idea and a vision of how to economically and efficiently produce it. Together we created four white papers, four case studies, two surveys, two mini books and other assets in addition to the book. Essentially, the total investment for the variety of assets produced a book for free—the normal spend on the co-branded white papers and case studies covered the cost developing the book, including a massive order of copies to be distributed by SAP.

The reasons for doing a book are not what you may think (ego and self-aggrandizement.)  Seeing a great idea take shape in a way that drives sales of the book is what drives the publisher.  For the authors and their corporate sponsor, a commercially published book is more than just a door opener for sales people.  Properly leveraged through webinars, industry events, white papers, case studies and other venues, a book becomes a clear lead generator.

In addition, many authors view a book as a critical component of their C.V., establishing their credibility in an industry in addition to the internal recognition.

Here are some other benefits we’ve seen from helping our clients produce books:

If the book includes leading edge customers, the corporate sponsor ends up with a much tighter bond with them.  The process energizes the customer base in ways you can’t imagine. For example, one of the users/customers cited in the Customer Experience book agreed to write the foreword.  In addition, customers quoted in your book enjoyed increased status as visionaries.

Besides the obvious leadgen, distributing a free copy to select customers instantly establishes your vision for a credible and compelling approach to a business problem or opportunity. Think of it as presales tool for your target market.

Here’s how SAP, Triangle Publishing Services and McGraw Hill delivered a book in October 2011, 12 months after the project began. Yes, you read that right: we delivered all of these assets in a year.

  1. Plan in advance.  We created a content development strategy knowing the goal is repurposing content, yet preserving enough unique content for the book to maintain the sanctity of the publisher’s copyright. McGraw Hill would not bother publishing a book that had already appeared as a series of free reports. The strategy also included recruiting the right team of researchers and editors—extensive prior experience required.
  2. Research. Our goal was to approach every leading edge user and consultant/analyst.  Together we identified 40 potential sources and approached them all. Most agreed to discuss their views and experiences, as well as alert us to other qualified sources.  Working with Bloomberg Businessweek Research Services, we conducted two surveys to identify the current state of customer experience goals and challenges among a global audience of senior executives. The surveys, and polls by others, enable us to deliver an evidence based narrative.
  3.   Writing and editing. We supported the authors with a style guide, to make sure the book would read as if it were written by one person.  This guide also established the tone, the target audience, our goals and other details in the beginning, with examples.  Repurposing the huge amount of information and survey data required two experienced editors who knew the customer experience domain as well as packaging content. They were intimately involved with every word and sentence, before the files were sent to McGraw Hill. We knew its standards and how to meet them.
  4. Project management—this program could only succeed in delivering the key assets within 12 months if publishing industry discipline was enforced. The bureaucratic delay cycle typical of corporate content development would not only stifle creativity, but would doom the book to a forbidden multiyear schedule.  The presses rolled on time due to a huge effort by all of those involved.

Lessons learned:

  • It is possible to do a book in one year, from start to finish.
  • It is possible to derive white papers, case studies and other collateral/assets from book research, but you must have a plan.
  • And you must be flexible—your original plan may be no more than a series of informed hunches.
  • Non writers are not familiar and typically uncomfortable with publishing industry style, work cadence and deadlines. In publishing, deadlines are not a wish list item.  It takes continued vigilance to maintaining the schedule.
  • Of course, while you stick  to the schedule, you don’t sacrifice quality or content.
  • Credibility is everything—the book should not be used to overtly sell a product. The book can sell ideas and techniques and capabilities.
  • Partners. Pick a publisher who is flexible, creative and focused on delivering great books. Avoid those  who just want your client’s money and don’t  care that the book would be replete with errors.
  • Insist on evidence for the points you’re making. No data, no credibility.

Take as much time to market the book as to write the book. Promotion is not just the publisher’s job—the authors must take the lead.

Bottom line: For most  nonfiction authors, and especially IT vendors, the financial rewards  come from leveraging the book as  the ultimate marketing tool, not as a direct revenue generator.

Want to hear more? Contact me at And to learn what NOT to do, read on…

One day last year I had an urgent telephone call from a vice president at a major public relations agency.  The Chief Information Officer (CIO) of a software company client had paid a ghostwriter to spend six months interviewing the CIO and doing other “research.” The PR team didn’t think the resulting 40,000 words  was a real book. Would I review and make recommendations, given my 20+ years of media experience (including the writing or ghostwriting/editing of four nonfiction books)?

It turns out the CIO and the ghostwriter together made a series of serious errors. The  manuscript  was devoid of examples or enough proof points for a white paper, let alone a book.  It turns out that the CIO had hired a writer who knew nothing about the topic area and had never written a book before.

Only about 20% of the manuscript was good enough for a book, so the CIO’s idea needed a lot of research to develop enough proof points to make it credible.  The client didn’t want to fund the additional work, legitimately complaining that it had already spent a lot of money and didn’t have much to show for the investment.

 So a great book idea died, even though I knew a publisher that would be interested in the idea. The lesson: Choose your author carefully, set your goals for the book and above all, plan for where you want to end up before you begin. 

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 or call me at 508 725-7258.

Companies have been hiring ex-journalists for years as PR people because they knew how to tell a story and how to work with their fellow ink-stained wretches. (For those old enough to remember ink.)

Marketing automation vendor Eloqua has gone a step further and hired Jesse Noyes, formerly a business reporter for the Boston Herald, as a “corporate reporter.” His goal, he says, is “to drill down within the company and the industry to find the stories that too often go untold. I will profile brands and the people that work for them. And I will attempt to explain game-changing trends as they happen.”

Good for Eloqua for recognizing that “old school” journalistic qualities such as fairness, thoroughness, and clarity are more important than ever, and can be found in professional reporters. And good for Jesse for riding the wave that has made every vendor a publisher who needs to tell their own story.

However, as someone who does his own share of “corporate reporting” for IT vendors, here are three tough moments I predict Jesse – or any corporate reporter — will face. When they come up, how should Eloqua respond? How would you respond?

  1. I found a really, really smart customer doing some leading-edge marketing automation –       but with a competitor’s product. Can I write the story?
  2.  I need the CEO or CTO to respond honestly and thoughtfully to a big announcement, but they’re busy talking to customers. Who will shake them loose so they can talk to me, and when? 
  3. Marketing complains my last story focused too much on the problems customers are facing, and want me to “take a more positive tone.” I’m reporting what I’m seeing in the marketplace. Exactly how brutally honest do you want me to be in my writing?

There are no easy answers to questions like these, but having even rough guidelines will be critical to making your “corporate reporter” successful. I (of course!) have ideas on my own, but am curious to hear yours first…

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 or call me at 508 725-7258.

I’ve been yelling for years that technical jargon in marketing content turns off B2B business buyers. Now, it’s official – or at least corroborated by a Forrester Research Inc. report.

“Vendor use of jargon and their lack of simplifying issue complexity often keep business-oriented buyers from grasping the nuances of how technology can help to solve their problem,” says a post on the Marketing Interactions blog. “When it's too difficult, the executive will choose to switch priorities” to something easier to understand.” (My emphasis.)

In other words, if you baffle them with your BS, they’ll tune you out. Only 15% of the exec surveyed by Forrester felt their meetings with salespeople are valuable and live up to their expectations, and only seven percent usually accept a follow-on meeting. That’s a pretty pathetic return for all those expensive feet on the street.

Explaining things clearly to your prospects isn’t rocket science. But it can be hard work because you have to get your nose out of your own technical brilliance and marketing buzzwords and speak plain English. And, as Forrester points out, you need to develop sales content geared to the needs of individual industries so buyers in each of them can understand why they should care about what you’re selling.

Marketing Interaction suggests creating “content designed to answer specific questions buyers have at each stage of the buying process” and “create a conversational brief for sales that indicates which resources should be used when for specific buyer segments.” That sounds like a series of FAQs (frequently-asked questions) aimed at prospects with different pain points, budgets, buying authority and/or existing infrastructures. That’s a good idea. But doing so won’t help unless you scrub the jargon from the answers to those FAQs.

For tips on doing that, see my presentation on “Art of the Pitch.” Or, just ask your mother, father, friend, partner, etc to read your material and see if they can make any sense of it. If they can’t, fix it.

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 or call me at 508 725-7258.
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