Mine the Past for IT Thought Leadership

We often think thought leadership requires uncovering some fundamental new truth about the universe, proving it is correct, and showing how to get there. That’s a heavy lift, and it’s not always possible – or even necessary.

Sometimes, just having been around the industry, seeing a thing or two, and applying that historic perspective to a new issue is enough. For evidence, see this recent blog post by aviation industry analyst Richard Aboulafia expressing his skepticism about the much-hyped emerging technology of very light aircraft and air taxis.

His piece looks not forward but back, to the early 2000s, and the death of an earlier generation of companies trying to make air travel easier and less expensive through, among other things, very small jets available for rent. He used his  experience to list six reasons the current very light/very small “air mobility” market will collapse. They range from investors ignoring the high capital costs of the aircraft to a lack of serious engineering work to the human tendency to believe hype – all illustrated with detailed examples.

The lesson for IT marketers: Having been around and seeing several technology hype cycles gives your senior developers or executives the potential to develop compelling thought leadership. To do so, they need to look beyond the shiny surface of today’s tech toys for deeper trends and hard-learned lessons.

Several examples of how this could look like:

  • Data Lakehouses: The latest magic pill for our data woes? Look back on the history of traditional databases, data marts, data warehouses, and  data lakes and why each failed to solve the perennial challenges of scale, cost, speed and data quality. What similar questions should we be asking about data lakehouses that we are not, and how should that affect product development, customer purchase choices and marketing?
  • Security: The problem that keeps sucking up more money but never seems to get better. We’ve moved from firewalls to securing APIs, from whitelist-based antivirus to AI-enabled behavior analysis, and from descriptive to predictive to prescriptive security and zero trust security. But there always seems to be new threats around the corner, and security managers struggle for budget in part because previous magic bullets failed. What questions should we be asking, but are not, about the latest and greatest security approaches? What new approaches should be consider, such as considering security spending like insurance premiums – a cost of doing business that mitigates, rather than eliminates, risk?
  • Cloud Everything: Once upon a time centralized IT was in, with most data processing going through a mainframe. Then decentralized-client server was the rage. Now, the big cloud hyperscalers provide central sources of compute, storage and networking and are the default choice for many  workloads. Based on our lessons with previous computing models, what are the hidden weaknesses (from cost to security to vendor lockin to compliance) we’re missing in the move to cloud? When and why should companies consider keeping some internal IT capabilities?
  • Edge computing: This refers to the growth of processing and storage capabilities close to the edge of the network, quickly analyzing and acting on data from sensors, factory devices and vehicles. An industry veteran could look back at the spread of department-level local area networks in the 1980s for hard lessons about the need for standards, policies governing data sharing among groups,  proper security and for making sure local “edge” infrastructure doesn’t  become a hidden, unproductive drag on budgets. The technology may change, but the impulse to avoid slow, stodgy central IT to solve a pressing problem hasn’t. Nor have the problems of uncontrolled, local technology deployment.

Begin your quest for backward-looking thought leadership by asking your most experienced team members which recurrent problems or patterns they see, either in the underlying technology or business’ use of it. Then ask them to draw two or three hard-learned lessons from the past and apply them to the present.

They don’t have to be 100 % right in every one of your criticisms (or praise) of a technology or a business trend or their predictions. They just need a reasonable observation, connection, or question no one else has found. Getting the reader thinking alone new lines is real, and valuable, thought leadership in and of itself.

finding ideas for marketing contentAre your pitches, blogs, videos, podcasts and white papers rehashes of vague buzzwords like transformation and digital?

To avoid pumping out “me-too” messaging, push yourself (and your in-house subject matter experts) to dig deeper and come up with specific, actionable advice for your potential customers.

One great example comes from a story about data analytics on the TechTarget publishing and marketing site. Don’t let the fact it is old (December 2013) stop you from reading it carefully. The subject (data as a corporate asset) is as fresh as ever. More importantly, this story shows how to take a common, even overhyped, topic and bring fresh, compelling insight to it.

The secret: Asking tough questions based on real-world experience with customers — the kind your sales, support and marketing staff get every day.

Five Meaty Questions

After describing the new (as of 2013) trend of older industries such as manufacturing using Big Data, the piece gets to the good stuff – a five question quiz one vendor asks CIOs to see if they’re serious about treating data as a corporate asset.  The questions include “Are you allocating funding to data, just as you would for other corporate assets?” “Do you measure the cost of poor, missing or inaccurate data?” and “Do you understand the “opportunity cost” of not delivering timely and relevant data to your business?”

While each question has a “marketing spin” (a “yes” answer makes them a better prospect) each is also valuable because they help a prospect understand the real-life challenges of implementing new technology.  Note that each question:

  • Drills beneath good intentions to coldly measure how committed a customer really is. (How much are you willing to spend on this new technology?”)
  • Talks about the non-technical issues that often derail IT projects. (Does this initiative have its own budget?)
  • And describes specific processes (such as measuring the cost of poor quality data and the “opportunity cost” of not delivering high quality data) that can improve how a customer implements the new technology.

Providing detailed insights like this helps establish you as a trustworthy, experienced technology provider and makes it more likely customers will listen when you come to them with a more product-specific pitch.

Finding the Nuggets

Now, how do you wring such insights from your sales, marketing or product support staffs? Whether the subject is Big Data, security, containers or any other buzzword of the week, ask them questions like:

  • How do you know a prospect is serious about our product or service rather than just going through the motions?
  • What are the non-technical factors (such as budget, corporate culture, office politics or management processes) that make implementation of our product succeed or fail?
  • What words, phrases or questions do you hear from a customer or prospect that tell you working with them will be a nightmare, or a pleasure?

The answers to these questions are your “raw material.”  Your next steps are to decide which of the answers are most valuable and relevant, flesh them out with real-world examples and follow up questions from your SMEs, and don’t publish until you can provide detailed, specific and actionable recommendations.

Do all that, and you’re not just another echo chamber in the IT hype factory. You’ll deliver usable, actionable content that will keep your prospects reading — and buying.

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.

Use an Audit To Jump-Start Your Content Marketing

Content marketers generally approach content audits with all the enthusiasm that attends any audit. The very word conjures up stern-looking authority figures thumbing through your records to see where you’ve fallen short.

I’ve been through several content audits myself, mapping the collateral I have against the types of buyers I want to reach, and the stages they’re at in the buying cycle. The good news is that I found a lot more good, and timeless, content than I thought I would. If  you’ve been doing any blogging, white papers, case studies or email newsletters (and who hasn’t?) with any degree of care you must have stumbled on some insights, presented with some degree of style. It’s likely you’ve forgotten half of what you’ve done in the crunch of daily work, another reason the audit might be cause for relief, not grief.

In a recent Webinar with marketing automation firm Manticore, Mike Vannoy, COO of sales and marketing services firm Sales Engine International said this good news can help move you (or your boss) off square one with content marketing by giving you a concrete starting point. Just doing the content audit helped, he said.. “It made is less daunting. We knew where to focus and we found we were in much better shape than we thought we were.” In some cases, less was more, as with case studies. He found readers wanted “a one page case study, short and sweet, to take into their boss” to prove another customer had been successful with Manticore’s platform. Even quick, one to three minute videos were useful as well, he found.

Yet another piece of good news from Manticore’s audit was how much content could be reused, “with with a little bit of freshening up.” One five-year-old white paper, for example, turned out to be “still pretty current” once some minor language changes were made. It also built a promotable blog post around several paragraphs taken from a case study, and in turn used some blog posts as the basis for lead nurturing emails. (A recent guest column on my site explains how to take this even further, essentially creating a book for free out of a carefully planned series of white papers and other collateral.)

But lest you think the whole process was painless, I have found myself in trouble when I found overlaps in some of the categories, and the content, in my audit spreadsheet. If the same article or Webinar or white paper could apply both to “early evaluators” and “financial decision makers,” it showed I hadn’t defined each group and their needs carefully enough. As in so many marketing activities, defining your prospect’s very, very carefully and knowing their needs really, really well at the outset is critical.

Would love to hear your thoughts on how to make content audits less painful and more useful.

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.