When Content Turns Off Buyers

best content B2B buyers Recent research  from on-line IT marketer Spiceworks says yes.  Their users don’t give a hoot about spray-and-pray email blasts or mindless product promos on Facebook. What does keep them caring about and buying from vendors, says Spiceworks, are personal, technical responses to their questions from someone who sees them as a person, not just a number.

It’s important to note that Spiceworks sells infrastructure-oriented (not business focused) tools to a fairly tactical audience. Close to two-thirds of their respondents are manager or director level, rather than the C-level execs that sign off on the biggest purchases. And just over half work in companies with fewer than 100 employees, with only 25 percent at enterprises with more than 1,000 employees.

But even if you’re selling higher-level business-focused software or (shudder) “transformational” business-focused business services, you can learn from Spiceworks’ findings.

Tip #1: Lecture, No. Discuss, Yes.

The survey showed that Spiceworks users rely heavily on peer recommendations, ratings and reviews and free product trials. Several respondents said they listen most to people that respond personally to their specific questions in a technical way. (Emphasis added.)

In the typical enterprise sale, this is where vendors rely on a sales rep, cite case studies, or arrange a one-off call with the reference customer if the prospect is serious enough. Another option, taking a page from Spiceworks, is to get that reference customer to do a Webinar answering questions from multiple prospects. To ease the path with their PR folks, stress that they will not endorse your product, but just describe their experience, the factors that went into their evaluation and their lessons learned. The resulting themes and tips can be repurposed into blog posts, white papers or “Top Ten” checklists.

An even easier way to get the conversation going is to have a product manager, technical lead or (in professional services) engagement lead do a Q&A on trends in, say, health care regulatory compliance, stress-testing for banks or the use of Big Data in retail. Begin with the questions or pain points bothering your current clients, and then open it up for questions. Make sure your subject matter expert comes across as a real person, treats the attendees like real people and can drill into either technical or business details. Again, mine this for “top tips” or “industry trend/thought leadership” content.

Tip #2: Facebook, No; Forums, Yes

Spiceworks found that while close to 90% of marketers use “mainstream” social media like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to build brand awareness and promote products, only 16% of IT pros turn to these channels to research new products or services. For them, Facebook and the like are or entertainment or other non-work topics.

“On the flip side,” Spiceworks found, “nearly all IT pros (92%) are using IT forums during the buying cycle, while only 61% of marketers are investing” in them. Just like a good survey should, these results neatly showcase Spiceworks’ differentiator: A large and active community built around its free cloud-based IT management software. Users provide the valuable, technically rich answers for the satisfaction of helping others, to make human connections in a sometimes-lonely profession, to gain “expert” status and (most importantly) so they can in return get fast, free and expert help.

If you’re selling very high-end or customized software, or very “customer-specific” service engagements, you may not be able to create such a community. (Or maybe Spiceworks has one for you.) At the very least, Spiceworks says, “invest the time and find out which social destinations your customer uses…” and don’t waste your efforts on blatantly useless networks. However you network (see Tip #1) keep the focus on answering specific questions from real people, not one-size fits all marketing messages.

Tip 3: Tell? No. Show? Yes. 

Spiceworks’ users scored videos and Webinars higher than any other content type in every stage of the sales cycle. This figures, since their users are the ones who have to live with the “look and feel” of apps that must deliver specific, well-defined functions.

In emerging, less well-understood area such as the use of Big Data in analyzing new health care models, or the impact of DevOps on databases, longer-form written text such as white papers is still essential, especially in the research and awareness stage.

What Content IT Managers Want, Throughout the Sales Cycle (left-hand columns)) and In Specific Phases.

What Content IT Managers Want, Throughout the Sales Cycle (left-hand columns)) and In Specific Phases.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t illustrate concepts with an illustration or video every chance you get. Don’t just claim the new reports you provide help uncover business trends – show it, with screen shots that are big enough to actually see. If you’re a high-level business consultant, do a quick video comparing the “before” and “after” of the process flows you simplified. Keep whatever you do short, sweet and clear. Finally, don’t be afraid to mix up your formats with variations such as ebooks (heavy on illustrations, short on text) and to tease longer-form print from shorter-form video and vice versa.

Marketing Must-Haves

In my view, Spiceworks’ findings hold most true for sales of tactical products sold relatively far down in the organization. For prospects further up the org chart, more of the care and feeding would need to be done by a sales rep, backed up by more conventional content.  But getting more interactive and personal, showing rather than telling, and choosing social media channels carefully are musts to all prospects groups.

What’s your take?

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

Eight Votes for Telling IT Prospects the Truth

Bigstock_48447038 (2)A month or so ago I suggested a daring concept: The IT vendors tell prospects the truth about the shortcomings, as well as the strengths, of their offerings.

My rationale: Customers will find out anyway, and telling them first strengthens your credibility, and also helps filter those who aren’t a good fit anyway.

Turns out at least eight marketers in the Spiceworks Tech Marketing community agreed. “If you don’t position your solution with a customer candidly, all you’ll end up with is a dissatisfied customer that is not referenceable and who will eventually leave you,” wrote “JBarnet” from Promys, a vendor of professional services automation software. But first they’ll tell other prospects how badly it all turned out.”

Disqualify Early

“I’ve trained many salespeople over the years, the ones (who have) killed quota consistently sell exclusively to ideal customer prospects and quickly weed out poor fit prospects,” he continued. “The reps who struggle try and turn weak fit prospects into customers,” and being honest is a great way to qualify prospects

“Within the first five minutes I state the OSes we support,” wrote “Josh” from cloud VPN vendor Pertino. “There are some variables that we can’t always uncover in the process, but I’d rather disqualify (the prospect) early and know that we may have a shot with them later than have them try it out and be disappointed.”

“If you’re not going to be honest, someone else online will be and those reading your content are going to call it out,” wrote Angela Cope with hardware and services provider softchoice.  “…there are pros and cons to everything, but if you outline which tech is best for (the customer) based on his/her needs, then the customer is going to start to build a deeper relationship with you that is based on trust. Getting your boss to think that way may be a challenge, but will be worth it in the end.”

The MessageOps team from the migration consulting services firm of the same name asked not only that vendors admit their weaknesses, but offer a fix. “I would certainly value a vendor telling me that `xyz’ isn’t something they believe they are the best at but I would appreciate it more if it came with a solution,” they wrote.

Let the Customer Decide

“…as a small company, we have to make sure that we establish our identity early on as not just another product, but a platform to partner with,” wrote “Josh” from Pertino. “We want to know that our customer is going to be 100% happy with deploying Pertino, and thus, we almost try to disqualify prospects.”

One example of a potential shortcoming: Pertino offers no command-line interface for admins to write their own commands. “…some ITers actually like the power of knowing CLI commands. So does that make it a weakness? We think no…” but their strategy is to “…Lay it all on the table and let the customer decide which are strengths and which are weaknesses.”

A similar vote came from Matt Stephenson, who manages Symantec’s presence on on-line communities such as SpiceWorks. “There are times when the facts are going to be batting practice fastballs about what makes our products shine,” he wrote. “Other times…the facts are 100 mph fastballs that blaze right past our strengths to our biggest faults. Owning those faults and admitting them….even…dare I say…pointing out where a competitor might be a better fit…establishes each of us someone who can be trusted.”

Honesty for the Rest of Us?

I’m wondering if my responses were skewed because the SpiceWorks community is, admittedly, all about blunt feedback to vendors and its members.

But how does how approach work out in the wide world, especially with more conservative management or with vendors who are in a downturn and struggling for survival with every sale? Have you proposed this and succeeded, or been laughed out of the room?

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

A Spicy Role in $500 Billion of IT Sales

SMB IT marketing

Not your father’s trade show.

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

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

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

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

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

Community Uber Alles

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

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

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

Stick It to the Man

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

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

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

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

Show Me the Money

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

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

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

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

SMB Buyers Reveal Hidden Desires

Marketing tips SMB IT managersEarlier this year, help desk software vendor and online community Spiceworks threw four Boston-area IT managers from small and medium businesses to the wolves – or, more specifically, to an audience of about 50 marketing and sales people.

The audience was actually well-fed with appetizers (and watered with drinks) but they were fairly itching to ask these real-life would-be customers what works and what didn’t in selling them IT products and services.

These four guys all came from different industries, ranging from legal to financial services and academic, and of course had somewhat individual preferences. But they were all down to earth, intensely pragmatic and surprisingly savvy about the tips and tricks we use to identify when they’re ready to buy.

They’re wicked busy. (I can use the word “wicked” since we were in Boston.) Their days are relentlessly busy and unpredictable. They don’t have a lot of time to waste on anything, and interruptions and nagging from vendors are huge turnoffs. One said any salesperson should assume they are always – always – doing something else on their computer while they’re on the phone.

Some tips these SMB buyers offered the marketers in the audience:

  • Just because they bailed in the middle of a Webinar doesn’t mean they’re not interested. They were probably called away on an emergency. Provide a link so they can see it as their leisure.
  • If they make time to talk to a salesperson they want it to be scheduled. Don’t just call and expect them to sit still for chit-chat.
  • Make all marketing content short and sweet. Keep white papers under four pages. Consider adding a spec sheet to a white paper so the customer has all the info in one place. (Most of my clients would hate to be so “salesley” but customers favor convenience over such stylistic fine points. If the white paper itself is informative and not hype, why not make it easy for the prospect to see a product data sheet as well?)
  • They don’t have time to be led down the garden path with something they can’t afford. Disclose the price early.
  • Their formal titles or roles are far less important than their pain. “I don’t care about whether I fit your profile” of a customer, one said. “I care about whether you can solve my problem.” Optimize your content for searches around problems, not around target titles.
  • Free trials rock. They’re a great, low-risk way to see if your software does what it says, when it’s convenient for the customer. 

None of these tips has anything to do with highfalutin’ theories about content funnels or prospect personas.  But they are intensely practical and a reflection of how busy SMB customers are, and the need to keep it short, clear and to the point when pitching them.

Have you –or would you – be so bold as to add a lowly product data sheet to your lofty thought leadership white papers? If so, how did it work?

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

Management Vendor Gets Ink With SMB Survey

As I’ve written previously, if you’ve going to do a survey hoping to get ink make sure it generates some hard news. A recent survey by network management vendor Spiceworks did just that, asking if small to medium sized businesses are keeping their IT hardware longer than before. The answer: Yes, and about a year longer, to be  specific. That, and other survey results, got Spiceworks mentioned in Investors Business Daily, and Network World, and eWeek.
The lesson: Imagine the headline of the news story you hope to see featuring your name, and work the survey questions from there. Including some nifty graphics LINK highlighting the juicy stuff doesn’t hurt, either.

An added note: Spiceworks itself has an interesting business model, providing free network inventory and management software paid for by advertisers and sponsors. Spiceworks also lets users join buying clubs and tell vendors what they’d like to see in future products through its “Voice of IT” program. It’s yet another threat to IT trade pubs and those who serve them, such as PR agencies: Give away the content (in this case software) to aggregate customers, and plumb those customers for market insights at the same time. I assume Spiceworks also charges vendors who want to do custom surveys of that customer base. Wonder if they’re making any money, from what sources (advertising vs. selling research) and how many IT managers buy into this model?

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.