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.

create effective pitch deckOf the hundreds of pitch decks I’ve seen as a trade press editor, too many left me waiting until slide 26 for a clue about the company’s value proposition, or even a clear description of their product or service. That’s because their creators were too focused on their own approach to the market, and too little on what the reader needs to know.

Here are five ways to focus your decks on each class of reader so you’re sure they’ve gotten your message.

Tune the Problem Statement

Except where the reader (such as an investor) is truly new to a field, summarize the problem statement quickly and move on. Don’t make a chief information security officer sit through a list of headlines about recent breaches,  or a development manager listen to statistics about software failure rates. Instead, describe the three to five specific pain points you do the best job of solving. (In security, for example, it might in the range of threats you track. In development, it might be the speed or quality of your testing.) Then quickly move on to how you solve these problems. But as you do…

Differentiate Constantly

Too often, what passes for differentiation is a generic statement of end results (“We deliver true enterprise-wide protection against the threats facing your business.”) Instead, explain clearly and consistently what makes you different and better than the competitors. Insist that the notes section of every slide include at least one sentence beginning with the words “Unlike our competitors…”  and don’t rest until you can finish that sentence in a clear, convincing way. If any of your capabilities are “me-toos” acknowledge that and explain how you focused your development efforts on excelling in the areas customers care the most about.

Customize More Carefully

You probably already have variations of your deck for customers, for analysts/media, and  for investors. But from what I’ve seen these decks are often not fine-tuned closely enough, or provide the required level of detail,  for each audience.

For example:

  • Customers probably need far more specifics about pricing and delivery/bundling options than analysts/media or investors.
  • Analysts/media, on the other hand, probably want more of a focus on your competitive positioning and the details of how you achieve it. The more quickly you can get them to that place, the sooner you can begin explaining in detail where you excel.
  • Investors need far more detail about the founder’s backgrounds, long-term product, partnership and IPO plans than other audiences need – or that you want to share. They’ll also need more information about other funders and how much control they have over hiring or product decisions.
  • Along with the same competitive positioning and technical background as analysts, media outlets need good quotes and snappy descriptions of your product, service or differentiation.

Context, context, context!

You know how big a deal it was to wrangle that vague endorsement from an analyst or the brilliance of your API strategy chart – but the reader doesn’t. To provide the context readers need, avoid:

  • General statements of goodness from analysts that describe your solution as “comprehensive” or “innovative.” Instead, press them for quotes that describe your differentiation and tie it back to business benefits.
  • “Eye chart” slides describing your technical architecture, integration with other technologies or partners without explaining why the reader should care. .
  • Bare lists of customer logos. Prove these weren’t just proofs of concepts or one-off projects that never resulted in a follow-on sale. Describe the business benefits you delivered to each, and the unique capabilities that helped you deliver them.
  • Bare lists of brand name partners. Show how each partnership is resulting in added sales for you and the partner, and the benefits to your joint customers. If the partnership is too new for results but shows promise, explain that.
  • Headshots and canned bios of your leadership team. Instead, explain how their previous accomplishments will deliver for the target audience. (“XXX’s experience at Apple’s App Store will help us build the critical mass of developers we need with a revenue sharing model that works for them and us.”)

Translate for Mere Mortals

Define and explain every technical term in layman’s terms, even briefly, the first time you use it. Marketers often push back on this and tell me “The people we’re targeting will understand this.” Many will, but some will just nod knowingly without a clue because they don’t want to look dumb in front of others – and they just might be the key decision maker. Use these brief explainers to hammer home the business benefits, (“Our pre built Python libraries include the code required for common analyses of adverse drug reactions. This cuts the time required to build the statistical models our health care clients need by 50 percent…”)

The common challenge here — and it’s a big one — is looking at your pitch deck from the perspective of an outsider who doesn’t live and breath your business strategy every day. If you can’t hire an outside PR firm or marketing agency for a fresh look, run your deck past your most recent hire or freshest intern. If they don’t quickly “get” your message, you’ve got more work to do.

Wrenching Thought Leadership from Tecchies

thought leadership(This post first appeared in Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey (SWMS), which produces research and analysis that helps tech PR pros pitch more effectively. SWMS interviews editors, studies their work and produces research and analysis that helps tech PR pros land coverage and build relationships. Learn more here. mediasurvey.com/about)

Everyone and their brother seems to be looking for “thought leadership” these days – the unique, thoughtful insights that show you understand the technology you sell and the industry you’re selling into better than anyone else. In a recent Gartner survey close to a third of respondents said “…a form of thought leadership is the single highest driver of marketing-qualified leads (MQLs).”

But how do you extract compelling thought leadership from a technical specialist whose job is to be down in the weeds with the chip registers, whether to use linear regression, logistic regression or linear discriminant analysis in AI, or the ins and outs of Agile Vs. DevOps?

Here are four thought leadership tar pits I fall into with clients and tools I use to get out.

Morass One: “What do you mean by thought leadership?”

It’s not fair to ask a technical expert to deliver something you haven’t defined. My thought leadership elevator pitch goes like this:

  • It must present a new way of thinking about an old problem, a new question your customers should be asking, or even just define a problem most people can’t see yet.
  • It must be new thinking about how information technology can meet business challenges. If you’re repeating questions (or answers) the reader can get elsewhere it ain’t thought leadership.
  • It is about your customers and their challenges rather than your products or services. If you must mention your capabilities or customer success stories, limit them to proofs of your new thinking.
  • Even if you don’t have (or don’t want to share) a complete soup to nuts solution, you must explain why your thought leadership vision is plausible.
  • And you must tell the reader how to get started realizing this vision.

Morass Two: The Spec Sheet Syndrome  

You ask a product manager for thought leadership and get one – or worse, two or three – PowerPoints filled with product details (support for all leading hyperscalers, internal benchmarks like how many Tbytes of data they moved to the cloud, or vague benefit statements like “Increased efficiency and reduced data pipeline TCO.”

I counter with questions such as:

  • What is better, different, less expensive, more flexible about your tools or capabilities vs. your competitors?
  • How did these technical features or process frameworks increase the scale, efficiency, quality or agility with which the customer met their business challenge?
  • What lessons did you learn that others can use, regardless of the technology involved? (Push beyond technical details (“We used X sharding method for the database”) to business-relevant lessons (“We asked the sales teams what 20 percent of the data would produce 80 percent of the benefits and migrated that data first.”)
  • Push the customer engagement team or the customer to quantify the business benefits. You may not get specific figures, but you can probably find a safe range like “millions of dollars in savings” or “…at least 20 percent increase in customer satisfaction.”

Morass Three: Actually, All We Have is This Case Study…

The symptoms are similar to Morass #2 except your subject matter expert can tell you only about their use of one product or service for a one customer for a specific need. However spiffy the solution and how pleased the customer, this is a single success – not thought leadership for achieving repeated success.

I ask questions such as:

  • What makes this customer’s challenge, and our response to it, typical of a broader trend? For example, the need to effectively merge CRM systems after an acquisition, for pharmaceutical companies to use AI to speed drug development, or to migrate a legacy development team to DevOps?
  • What techniques, lessons or “tricks” did we learn in this engagement or deployment that could help others in the same boat? (Bonus points for lessons that are not specific to your product or service.) For example, rather than “Our machine learning platform helped us integrate more data types than anyone else,” you want something like “We started small and defined the business problem up front to keep us on track.”

Morass Four: We See the Problem But Don’t Have a Solution

Symptoms include statements like “We’re planning to address that in a future release,” “Everyone’s waiting for guidance from the regulators” or “We hope to fix that with our acquisition of vendor XYZ.”

Questions to dive deeper:

  • Even if we don’t have the “holy grail” answer, can we describe the problem in enough detail to hint at some answers? (“Five top reasons security is chronically underfunded and what our customers need to free up budget.”)
  • Explain why the common framing of a problem is wrong. “Struggling with scaling your machine learning project? That’s because they work best when they stay small and nimble.”
  • If you can’t answer one question, answer another that presents new thinking. For example, there’s plenty of back and forth about the best ways to deploy DevOps (the merger of development and operations teams.) Configuration management vendor Puppet took a different tack, citing survey results to argue that the term “DevOps” itself is too vague, and that more function-specific terms (such as DevOps for system administration or application development) delivers better business results.

Rinse and Repeat…and Repeat…

I wish I could say these tips will instantly unlock the gates of earth-shaking technology and market insights. Be ready to instead patiently explain all this multiple times to the same players in the same project before their eyes light up and they get it.

The good news is they often appreciate the extra effort you put in to bring the good stuff they know to market. As a PR or marketing person, this exercise also lifts you above the run of the mill hacks willing to happily repeddle the latest buzzwords. You are providing, if you will, thought leadership about thought leadership.

(What’s your secret sauce for extracting thought leadership from your best and brightest?)

Three Ways Hoarding Your Secret Sauce Hurts You

In the past I’ve argued for the value of sharing more, rather than less, of your consulting smarts in your thought leadership content and case studies.

Yet I keep running into resistance when I ask for examples of how my clients work their magic with customers and specifics of the challenges they’ve overcome for them. As a result, everything from white papers to ebooks to product and service descriptions are full of the same general, vague, and repetitive promises and gauzy goals a customer gets from my client’s competitors.

Here are the three main reasons I hear for not sharing “proprietary” knowledge in marketing content, and why I think each of them are wrong:

  1. Our readers understand the business problems and we don’t want to talk down to them by being too specific. Point taken about not being condescending. But you don’t want to bore them to death, either, by being too vague. Explaining a very specific case where you helped a client shows you can do what you claim, and that you have hands-on experience with the technology and/or industry in question.
  2. We don’t want to get too specific because we want to spark a further conversation with the reader. For me, actual success stories and specific tips spur me to click through to the next video, podcast, or blog post. The same vague claims and promises as your competitors aren’t, I suspect, generating those requests for follow-up conversations your marketing efforts need.
  3. If we tell them how to do it in our content, they won’t need us. My first, and easy response, is whether your secret sauce is so thin we could sum it up in a 2,500-word white paper? Of course not. Your value doesn’t come in knowing in general how to tackle the really big technical, change management or “digital transformation” initiatives, but how to do it in the real world. That requires, among other things, learning from past mistakes and knowing how to overcome the “real world” organizational, logistical and culture issues you only learn about from experience.

Sell Your Experience

There is no way a reader can acquire any of this from anything you would write, at least in the 1,500 to 2,000 word format that’s the high range of most of the content I write. It’s even harder to condense this expertise into a Webinar or video. And even if they could, most customers don’t want to steal the recipe for your secret sauce and do the cooking themselves. They want assurance that you have the secret sauce and know how to use it to help them.

For example, I provide detailed advice for writing marketing content in my blog. I have no fear my readers will use my advice to become expert writers because that’s not their skill set and they’re too busy running their own businesses to become professional writers. My aim is to show I’m so expert and experienced I can give away my “secrets” and have plenty more value to offer once they hire me. Which they do.

Have I broken through any of the resistance or do you still think your methodologies, frameworks and processes are too valuable to share?

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.

How to Play It Snarky But Safe

There’s a lot of talk about the need to make marketing content funny and edgy enough to rise above a sea of “me-too” blather.

Yet too many of my clients continue to play it safe – too safe, to my mind, to accurately describe the real business problems they help their customers solve. If, for example, one of their customers took six weeks to process a simple product change on their Web site, my client will balk at using that example because it makes the customer (even if they’re not named) look bad.

But it’s just that sort of real-world story that tells a prospect you understand their problems and you can help. How can you inject that drama and realism, along with some humor, into your content without burning your customers?

By using your knowledge of the quirks in your industry or market to create a snarky “Devil’s Dictionary” describing what commonly used clichés really mean. Here, for example, are samples from a Facebook post comparing common job descriptions for software developers with their “real” meaning. (Excerpts have been edited for brevity.)

What the Job Description Says What It Means
 
“…fast-paced environment.” …constant firefighting.
 
“…be a team player.” Must not question authority.
 
“Dynamic environment.” …leadership keeps changing our priorities.
 
“Self-starter” We have no process.
 
“Must be able to work with minimal supervision.” You’ll be blamed when something goes wrong.
 
“…work with cutting edge technology.” Do what everyone else is doing.
 
“…rockstar developer.” You’ll work very long hours with impossible deadlines.

Why is this content like this so valuable?

It’s real. Even if all these jabs aren’t true all the time, any developer will recognize the painful reality behind each of them. Content like this instantly shows your target audience you have hard-won experience in your field and aren’t just repeating the latest marketing jargon.

It’s funny and shareable. People need relief from tough situations by sharing a laugh with others who get the joke. Imagine if you created a list like this for your industry and it showed up on cube walls around the world, with your company name and contact info at the bottom?

You can show how you solve the problems you’re highlighting. Let’s say you’re a software recruiter and post this list and describe how you help developers avoid or cope with employers with chaotic, exploitative or otherwise miserable work environments. You’ve not only proven you know your industry, but how you can help your customers.

It protects the guilty. The creators of this list didn’t have to name any of their employers, or even mask them as “a global retailer based in the U.S.” That’s because the problems described by this list describes are so common they could apply to anyone in the industry. You get to tell real horror stories without implicating any of your customers or competitors.

Next Steps 

Don’t know how to get started? Imagine you’re at a bar trading war stories with friends or colleagues.  What common avoidable problems, organizational screw ups, failed promises and hyped technologies would you all complain about? While a “Devil’s Dictionary” is an easy way start, don’t be limited by that format. You could use a similar list of common headaches in your industry to create:

  • A series of blogs describing each of the problems and how you help your customers cope with them.
  • A “top ten” list of common problems or marketing half-truths.
  • Actual stories showing how these problems tripped up real people, with details of how they coped.

The beauty of this “snarky but safe approach” is you already have the raw material at hand. It’s just a matter of gathering it, packaging and promoting 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 bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

No Robot Overlords at MIT CIO Symposium

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
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.

Get Off the Commodity Bus!

differentiate IT service providersDo you feel like you’re stuck trying to differentiate yourself in a crowded, “me-too” market like, for example, local IT service providers?

Take a lesson from Southern New Hampshire University, maybe best known for the bus they send around the country delivering diplomas to graduates of their on-line programs.

They escaped a death spiral of rising costs and falling enrollment by recognizing an underserved market, reorganizing itself to serve that market better than its competitors and thus lifting itself out of the muck of “me-too” competitors.

Find the Underserved Customer…

The first step out of the commodity swamp was accepting SNHU had no compelling draw for the conventional market — high school seniors looking for a four-year residential experience.

The second step was realizing there was another, even bigger, underserved market. Fully 80 percent of the post-secondary education market is made up of working adults with families and other “non-traditional students.” For them, flexible course timing, fast help with anything from coursework to financial aid and a return on their investment are far more important than life in a dorm or weekend football games.

Understanding the new “customer”, and building on the school’s existing online offerings, SNHU President Paul LeBlanc reorganized everything from admissions to courses to financial aid to provide what these students need anytime, anywhere.

…and Cater to Them

How many traditional colleges, for example, pay more than 160 “admissions counselors” to stand by to answer phone calls (especially on weekends) to help prospective students find the right degree program? Rather than telling a busy applicant to find and send their own transcripts for transfer credits, SNHU hunts them down and even pays the administrative fees. And rather than wait for students to fall behind in their work before offering help, SNHU uses predictive analytics to alert instructors when a student goes too long without logging on to a course or spends too much time on an assignment.

By late last year, the school was nearing $535 million in revenue, a 34 percent compounded annual growth rate for the past five years. Over that time it grew its online offerings to 180 programs serving 34,000 “customers.”

The story isn’t perfect, as completion rates are still stuck at about 50 percent, and some students and faculty) question whether the highly standardized courses deliver a true quality education.

But think of how USNH stands out of the pack by having admissions counselors picking up the phone on weekends, which may be the only time a working person has time to think about college. Think about the competitive advantage of understanding that a non-traditional student might not know when they’re falling behind, and reaching out to them for help before they waste their hard-earned tuition. Even if the education is no better (however the student measures it) than a traditional school, the ease of access and focus on the customer’s real need is a major competitive advantage.

What “Job” Does Your Customer Need Done?

One tactic that helped SNHU zero in on these underserved students was asking what unfinished “job” their students (customers) wanted the school to complete for them. The unfinished work might be getting enough education to make more money without taking on too much debt or dropping the ball on work and family obligations.

What would such a customer-focused approach look like for, let’s say, a regional service provider that has trouble differentiating itself from the competition?

Ask yourself who is the real customer? Are you selling to a line of business manager, the CEO or the IT “super user” who got stuck with handling support? What do each of them really need in an IT service provider that they’re not getting? Easier to read monthly bills? More prescriptive analytics about performance issues? Getting to a human rather than a series of voice prompts? And are there new types of customers (say, those who got started with a cloud provider like Amazon Web Services but have grown so large they need outside management help) you could tap that you have not?.

Taking the “jobs” perspective also leads right to the business problems (or opportunities) your customers are trying to meet. All too often the on-site techies are too focused on incremental milestones or internal tweaks than on the business-critical “job” the customer hired them for, such as improving customer service, or bring new products to market more quickly.

In some cases, the “job” might be something the customer didn’t even think someone could do for them. In the case of SNHU, their prospective customers were often stuck with debt from previous schooling, and had stopped trying for more education because they thought the only option was more conventional schooling that had failed them before.

Find an underserved market, understand its needs and then turn yourself inside out to meet them. Not easy, but if you do it right you’ve got huge growth potential.

Are there any untapped niches left in the local/regional IT service provider market or it is “just” all about local presence and customer service? What’s worked for you in differentiating yourself or your clients?

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.

To Stand Out, Find Your “Micro Niche”

how identify target customer content marketingGot a sinking feeling your marketing copy is too “me too?”

If so, you’re not alone, according to content marketing guru Joe Pulizzi. He did an excellent post earlier this year arguing that many campaigns fail because the material they offer is too much like everyone else’s.

I’m always surprised when I push a client to tell me what makes them different and they tell me (as one did the other week) that “When you really get down to it, all of us do pretty much the same thing.”

Granted, this person works in the execution trenches of a global service provider, which makes it harder for them to take a strategic marketing view. But I really had to push them to describe the software tools and skills that help them win deals from the competition.

Niches Within Niches

Pulizzi has some excellent suggestions to fix this. Among them is the need to focus more closely on your specific market niche. I’d go further and say every business has a hyper-niche or it wouldn’t exist. Some of these hyper-niches, and their marketing implications might be:

  • Geographic: “We’re the only bar on the coast within ten miles of a popular beach.” Promote how easy you are to find and plaster the walls with local memorabilia and photos.
  • Skills: “We restore 18th century books, which requires specific skills to deal with the chemicals used in making them.” Show before/after examples and blog about how different types of 18th century paper age over time.
  • Geographic plus skills: “We do pest control in southwest Florida, where the breezes from the Gulf of Mexico bring in pests you won’t see anywhere else.” Blog about those local pests, the damage or diseases they cause and how to fight them.
  • Geographic plus skills plus real-time insights: “We sell real estate north of Boston. We have unique insights into what the latest plans for a rapid transit extension mean for housing prices along the route.” Blog  about your thoughts or, better still, develop an interactive map showing projected price spikes in each community.

Enough About Pests. How About Tech?

If bars, pest control services and realtors and differentiate themselves, so can we in the supposedly sexier tech industry. Try these hyper niches:

  • Customer service: “We put a director-level manager on site to manage our projects with you, and to coordinate with our off-shore team.” Link to bios of these on-site managers and case studies of how they sped implementation and reduced costs for your clients.
  • Geographic plus customer service: “As the only full-service Cisco partner in the Mid-Coast, we can reach your office within two hours with the equipment needed to restore your network.” Link to an interactive map showing travel time from your your site to local customers, and to  testimonials about the quality of your local service.
  • Skills: “We find the right human resources management software for you by evaluating not only different products, but your corporate culture.” Link to an interactive guide telling customers which platform best fits their needs in “soft” areas such as collaboration, quality of life and employee empowerment.
  • Real-time market insights: “With the sudden upsurge in demand for “digital” branding, we’re seeing massive confusion over what this means and how to explain your message.” Provide your own insights* for writing about digital in ways that drive sales.)
  • Skills plus real-time market insight: “We monitor the current performance and price of cloud providers such as Rackspace, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure and proactively recommend when to shift from one to another.” Link to a free sample assessment and case studies of how you helped others.

Differentiate Thyself

Given the complexity of technology, the rapid pace of change and the wide range of customers, there are plenty of micro-niches for us to work with – if we put in the time and work to identify and then exploit them.  To get started, download my free checklist for evaluating the  depth, originality and timeliness of your content.

*Shamelessly self-serving link to my own site.

 

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.