Expertise in vertical industries necessary for tech pros

"Tech Co.'s dismal results point to slowing corporate buying," read a recent Wall Street Journal headline - just the latest of several articles that describe a new era in technology marketing.

"Tech Co.'s dismal results point to slowing corporate buying," read a recent Wall Street Journal headline - just the latest of several articles that describe a new era in technology marketing.

After years of increasing tech investment, CIOs, CEOs, and CFOs are limiting their acquisitions to technologies that will clearly make a difference to their bottom lines and for their particular industries. Industries are maturing, and corporate buyers are no longer willing to make "early adopter" purchases with limited guarantee of a return.

Gone are the days when tech companies could offer a product that would be adopted across a number of industries. To sell their products, companies are developing technologies designed to address the needs of specific vertical industries. In the past two months, Intel introduced a new focus on the healthcare industry, and Microsoft announced it would realign its sales organization from horizontal to vertical, a strategy already employed by such technology companies as IBM, SAP, and Siebel. Even venture capitalists advocate for their portfolio companies to identify a niche where their products will succeed. This realignment dictates a shift in PR strategy.

Vertical industry PR is not new to tech PR. For years, a few key vertical trade publications - in finance and banking, telecommunications, entertainment, manufacturing, energy, government, or medical, depending on a client's target market - have been on every tech PR pro's target media list. But these were often regulated to tier-three status, an afterthought - a place to pitch a customer case study or outlets for junior team members to practice calling the media.

Now, PR campaigns targeting vertical industry titles are a key component of top communications programs. These vertical industry efforts reach customers "where they live," use their language, stress benefits relevant to them, and highlight the companies they already know. These campaigns require deep knowledge of each target industry and a firm's best strategic thinking.

Vertical PR's rising relevance reflects many forces at work.

  • The growing maturity of tech solutions and the ability to tailor functionality to meet the needs of a specific industry.

  • The need for prospective customers to know how a solution has benefited similar companies before risking a purchase.

  • The integration of technology and industry-specific business operations, which has prompted vertical media to increase their coverage of technology as a service to readers.

    This increased focus on the technology needs of companies in specific vertical industries has even affected some of the horizontal tech trades. For example, InformationWeek revamped its beat structure to assign particular industries to reporters (e.g. financial services, manufacturing, retail, healthcare) instead of merely dividing up the areas of coverage by areas (enterprise software, networking, storage).

    Tech companies need PR pros who understand the challenges facing their customers. For financial services clients, this means studying key regulatory and legislative measures - especially if the technology being marketed might ease compliance.

    On the other hand, PR pros targeting the manufacturing sector need a solid grasp of the Six Sigma methodology and the lean manufacturing processes increasingly embraced by many manufacturing, and even nonmanufacturing, companies. The ones focused on telecommunications and wireless need to understand the implications of wireless data and content on Average Revenue per User. Nothing turns off an editor more to a company's story than a PR pro who doesn't understand the issues and jargon specific to each industry.

    In addition to writing about industry-specific issues and language, most vertical publications will only tell a vendor's story through the experiences of a customer in that specific industry. The PR team must cultivate customers who will participate in interviews by establishing a dialogue, identifying what companies would find of value in participating, and, in turn, stressing the benefits of increased visibility with audiences up and down their supply chain and in the relationship between thought leadership and market leadership.

    The growing importance of vertical industry marketing is good news for PR agencies that have always valued in-depth knowledge of a client's business and are quick to embrace change ... and terrible news for agencies that have relied on armies of young, under-trained staff with only rudimentary knowledge of the day's pitch. As PR pros struggle to master not just their client's business, but their client's customer's business, the gap between the average tech PR pro and the truly masterful PR strategist will continue to widen, as will the gap between those agencies simply providing arms and legs and those capable of helping clients establish markets, generate leads, and build corporate reputations.

  • Jeff Fishburn is a senior strategist with OnPR, Portland, OR, and Bellevue, WA.

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