At every stage of the tech-product sales journey, the comms function has never been more involved in the decision-making process. Social strategy, advocacy, and storytelling were among focal points as industry leaders joined Gideon Fidelzeid in New York at this Text100-hosted roundtable.
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-Bobby Amirshahi, VP of PR, Time Warner Cable
-Jason Bartlett, VP of global digital marketing, Xerox
-Rowan Benecke, regional director, North America, Text100
-Jeppe Christensen, VP, Republic Publishing – San Francisco
-Paula Davis, VP, corporate affairs and communications, Harman International
-Rick Lacroix, VP of corporate comms, Progress Software
-Mike O’Malley, VP of corporate comms, VCE
-Robert Painter, VP of marketing, Cognizant
-TJ Snyder, partner, The OutCast Agency
Making a decision
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): In 2012, Gartner analyst Laura McLellan predicted CMOs will spend more on IT than CIOs by 2017. Has communications’ role in the purchase-decision process notably increased? How has the IT-comms relationship evolved?
Rowan Benecke (Text100): An interesting finding from our Influence Index is the IT decision-maker may or may not have changed over time in terms of it being the CTO, CIO, the C-suite basically. What has changed is the influence of how that decision is made. It’s no longer made in isolation.
Depending on the country and region, the average is about six people involved in making that decision. In some cases, nine people are involved – and half of them are non-technical. It is fascinating that, for a technical purchase they are relying on the opinions of those who don’t come from a technical background.
Jason Bartlett (Xerox): The kinds of decisions made in IT departments have long been hardware decisions. In the marketing space now, so much is moving to the cloud. It’s become more of a solutions-based infrastructure decision. Because those don’t plug into servers, IT’s role has been diminished a bit within the broader context of decisions.
Digital marketing is driving a plethora of decisions around solutions, platforms, and software that have never really been a part of the ecosystem.
Robert Painter (Cognizant): For so long, technology was the back-office value proposition. Now we’re seeing technology playing much more of a front-office role. It’s driving value for the company like never before. Whether you’re a CMO or on the business side, you must be thinking about how tech plays in your value proposition.
Rick Lacroix (Progress Software): There’s a concept known as the citizen developer – basically an end user who creates a business application using the same skills a formally trained pro might. They then take that application to IT as a way of rolling it out across the company to make sure it complies with security policies and the like.
Reaching citizen developers is one of our main missions, because they are business workers inside the company. Their main objective is solving a business problem. It is not about the operating system they’re using. It is about identifying a problem and how quickly can they solve it.
Bobby Amirshahi (Time Warner Cable): It’s interesting to see how decision-making has changed the DNA of our own departments. For example, technology is crucial to communicating to our 50,000-plus employees spread across the US. As such, there is a clash of heads with the IT department to move quickly, to adopt new storytelling mechanisms such as video and social media into those Internet platforms.
However, in the last two years we have a much better relationship with IT. In fact, we have moved some people from IT into the communications function. It has helped bridge that gap.
Paula Davis (Harman International): Seventy percent of our business is done with automotive companies. The decision-makers there are the technical people, but the number-one thing our customers want is differentiation. Marcomms plays a pivotal role when we present our value proposition. It’s not just about the cost or the technology. It’s how you are going to differentiate us in the marketplace to the drivers and through our dealerships and sales reps.
TJ Snyder (OutCast): There’s a greater focus on business outcomes now. In the marcomms space, we are really trying to measure impact, look at data, and gauge influence. As such, there is a lot more room for experimentation. The approach has shifted from focusing on one kind of technology to thinking more about what you are really trying to achieve in this one moment in the lifetime of this one campaign.
Jeppe Christensen (Republic Publishing): As a communicator in this space, you need to understand what’s out there in terms of software as a service. Heads of marketing are increasingly looking to your recommendations about which tools they should use.
Benecke (Text100): The point about experimentation is interesting in terms of what has changed for the IT decision-maker. Back in the day, IT departments would dictate what kinds of technologies employees, partners, and the whole ecosystem would use. Now people are bringing that in and it has changed the downstream involvement of IT because they may not be involved in the purchase, but they’re certainly involved in the support and the ancillary issues around mobile, security, and privacy.
Mike O’Malley (VCE): SEO may seem like old news, but the idea of "these words aren’t working" or "let’s try these other words" all drove a lot of CMOs to the point where they said, "I have to really understand this if I’m going to be successful."
Bartlett (Xerox): We all get a lot of vendor pitches. What fascinates me is they are a constant reminder to communicators and marketers on how not to approach a sales cycle. It’s always vendor-in or vendor-out, as opposed to customer-in. They aren’t problem solving – and that is what is fundamentally wrong with so much marketing communications today. It’s not customer-in.
Lacroix (Progress Software): I’ve had other groups ask me for sign-ins to our measurement tools, as well as for a chance to get a real-time peek into what’s happening out there. They want to know what’s being said about the company in a fancy dashboard. It puts communications in a very strong position.
Channeling your efforts
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What are the best channels, platforms, and types of content to employ when targeting those pondering an IT purchase?
Bartlett (Xerox): You’ve got to fish where the fish are. And you can learn where they are by listening. In the b-to-b space, social is big. Peer-to-peer is big, so forums are very prominent. Blog platforms are also key.
That said, it’s less about the channel and more about the content and to what degree you’re providing value. It’s not about what Xerox offers. It is about the problem we need to help you solve.
Many companies are guilty of creating so much collateral about their products and solutions. You have to do some of that, of course, but we’re really lacking in those thought-leadership pieces. We’re lacking in subject-matter experts that we can present on an ongoing basis to engage in these communities, to create blogs. That’s the kind of content you can market to the b-to-b audience.
Painter (Cognizant): More than ever, clients and prospects need information, particularly with so many new technologies available. But more than information, people want a fresh perspective and they want to be able to find your point of view quickly.
From a channel perspective, take Google. Being found on Google is very important and not just from a company level, but a problem-solving level. If a b-to-b customer has a problem, they should be able to type it in and find you.
Christensen (Republic): You need to provide content that helps the viewer, not just to sell your brand. Be a visionary, be a thought leader, put content out there that is a bit outside of your comfort zone, but augments what you’re doing or leverages your business.
Amirshahi (Time Warner Cable): We also must constantly remind ourselves that we have great people we can put into these platforms as spokespeople. Adding human faces and personalities to the storytelling is essential. That is the way to be truly transparent and authentic in telling the brand’s story.
O’Malley (VCE): A few weeks ago, VCE had an analyst day and we co-located it with our customer advisory board. At one point, we had customers come in and talk with the analysts relatively unfettered on a panel. The analysts were completely blown away that we were able to do that and be candid about it.
Lacroix (Progress Software): The recent Heartbleed vulnerability presented an interesting situation for us. I was responsible for crafting our statement and working with our teams. The first place we put word out was in our communities. We had our security experts engage with customers who were asking questions about the patches. We amplified it through social media and directly interacted with our customers in the social communities. Our social media outreach strengthened the fact we were on top of the situation.
It’s also vital to note that we worked cross-functionally on our response. We worked with the engineering team to craft the statement in the most effective way possible. That not only assured accuracy, but it minimized friction.
Painter (Cognizant): The form of that content is important, too. Whitepapers of 3,000 or 4,000 words don’t work as well anymore. We recently created a perspective app where we take our content and reduce it down to less than 1,000 words so people can download it and read it quickly. We also package it on a video so it travels through those channels. If your brand’s content takes many forms, you get a much better engagement rate.
Davis (Harman): You have to focus on how people consume content, too. In our sector, we’ve found people love Flipboard. We’re presently looking at a Flipboard kind of application to deliver our news to our customers.
You also have to focus on your message. We are the bridge between Silicon Valley and Detroit. That’s a very important point to make to customers so they understand our value proposition. The way we highlight that is through a mix of original and user-generated content, but in all cases we capitalize on it by becoming thought leaders on the topics that original equipment manufacturers [OEMs] want to know about.
Furthermore, Wall Street is loving us now because where we once played primarily in the luxury space, we now go into lower-end vehicles, too. Those customers have high expectations of the technology in their cars, and communications plays a key role in messaging that. We provide surveys that reveal data showing this demand from this huge segment of the population. Creating that kind of authority and providing that market intelligence is really important for us. It’s a huge role communications can play.
The strongest voices
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Influencers play a key role as tech purchasers consider their options. Please identify the most notable figures or types of individuals who are truly impacting the decision-making process?
Benecke (Text100): The answer varies depending on where the customer is in the marketing funnel from awareness to intent to advocacy. That impacts how they are being influenced, as well as the kind of information they seek. The common denominator in all instances, though, is the third-party expert. In the b-to-b space, it’s particularly crucial to find that person or entity that decision-makers would recognize as having an informed viewpoint. And communicators have a huge role to play in driving awareness about who can and should be a champion for a particular product.
O’Malley (VCE): In the enterprise technology business, peer references, reviews, comments, and recommendations consistently trump anything else. A close second is third-party voices such as a Gartner or Forrester. But the peer is the one who really points the direction. The analyst is the one who provides a level of comfort in that direction.
I am in the business of creating customer champions. My focus isn’t necessarily what people do with our products, but rather it’s what they can do because of them.
Painter (Cognizant): B-to-b purchases are clearly very influenced. One thing we focus highly on is clarity and consistency. We try to make sure the client, financial analyst, market analyst, and social communities get the same message. You have to tell the same message about your brand and value proposition so that when clients are making the decision and influencers are involved, everyone has the same basis of knowledge about who you are and what you stand for.
Christensen (Republic): Building a community of brand advocates takes time. It can be scary because you’ll get get the good with the bad, but it can be powerful because it’s transparent.
Snyder (OutCast): Consistency of message is important, but so is the tone as it relates to different platforms. If you’re talking to the developer community, the tone of your message will be markedly different than when you address an executive community. Managing that has also become part of the communications function. We must pay attention to the sentiment out there, measure the conversations, and course correct as needed.
Bartlett (Xerox): During the last 18 months or so, we have done a ton of testing in the area of influencer marketing. A lot of brands today fall into a trap where they are going for the home run of a brand advocate. It’s understandable, but you tend to find people who are generalists within a particular area of business.
There are much smaller-scale influencers that can work a lot harder for you down in the trenches. We’ve identified people for our healthcare solutions business, for example, that were nowhere near our radar screens, but have a really strong sphere of influence over a small pocket of people.
Christensen (Republic): And if helps to have the right people to turn all of that long-haired technical content into a great story.
O’Malley (VCE): We have some very smart, astute executives, but a lot of our customers want to hear from somebody on the frontlines. As such, a lot of our content is written by sales engineers, people who interact with customers every day.
Amirshahi (Time Warner Cable): As much as we’re working with customers and using new channels, I try to impress upon our media relations team the importance of nurturing relationships, which is definitely old-school PR, but you can’t step away from that in doing b-to-b.
Snyder (OutCast): Now, when you have a big reporter or influencer, what they write can take off like wildfire so much faster. That makes it even more important to know what they’re thinking because that train can go so far down the track before you can even respond.
Davis (Harman): These people influence consumers, who have never had more power than they do now. Even in the b-to-b space, that is a major consideration.
Christensen (Republic): What’s interesting now is that if you’re a clever journalist today, you build your own brand. You build up a reputation around who you are that almost trumps the outlet you work for. Look at Walt Mossberg. It wasn’t The Wall Street Journal or AllThingsD. It’s him. That gave him the ability to start Re/Code.
Amirshahi (Time Warner Cable): Just in the last year, look at the explosion of technology blogs that have come from mainstream media wanting to get a piece of the pie as more consumers, influencers, and industry analysts are now going to who has the best story, who’s breaking the news, and who has the best understanding of today’s tech trends. It’s just becoming more mainstream type of information.
Davis (Harman): Yahoo built a huge part of its model around David Pogue. He was center stage at CES.
Tailoring the message
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What are the key elements communicators must focus on when crafting messages for those making tech-solution purchases?
Bartlett (Xerox): Research in the past 12 months has indicated you need upward of 15 to 20 touch points along the way to get companies in a very significant b-to-b purchase cycle. We sometimes focus so much on the beginning and the end of that. The power of thought leadership in particular on these high-ticket items is key. You must be able to prove that it’s not just features and benefits that are tied to a particular product or solution. You have to understand the specific dynamics of what Fortune 500 companies are looking for in an outsourcing agreement. You have to show nimbleness, customization, flexibility, and that you’re not just selling something in a box, but something that’s highly customizable.
Snyder (OutCast): On the enterprise side, you have to show vision to identify potential problems in five years and 10 years. On the consumer side, it can be more about the immediate situation.
Benecke (Text100): The sales cycle is longer in b-to-b. Eighteen months is probably not a long time in terms of some of these big decisions in OEMs. Of course, it’s so competitive now that so much changes within that 18-month cycle, so communicators have to be incredibly agile during that process. On the consumer side, conversely, you’re probably going to buy two or three phones in that 18-month period, for example.
Painter (Cognizant): Every message has to add some value and mirror back up to the client. Here’s what you’re going through, here’s how we can help, or here’s how you should think about this. Having that insight in the b-to-b space is irreplaceable.
O’Malley (VCE): There’s a piece of research out there by the Corporate Executive Board called the Challenger Sale. It examined multiple types of sales approaches and found that, in highly complex b-to-b transactions, the challenger – the person who tells a customer or client, "I know what you need, let me challenge your current expectations and your thoughts around the status quo, not just for now, but for the next several years" – was actually the one closing these deals more than 50% of the time. When we think about how we communicate, we follow that lead and challenge assumptions in the things we create.
Lacroix (Progress Software): A challenge we face, especially when dealing with a number of potential buyers, is tailoring the message so that it addresses everyone’s needs, but does not insult one of those purchasers. As you develop a message, for example, you will often describe a solution or product as simple, but that is a relative term. Your "simple" may be anything but to another company.
Amirshahi (Time Warner Cable): In the b-to-b space, the communications function of any company wants to support sales. It’s our job to make sure our PR managers assigned to the business services division or specifically a vertical market become friends with the sales lead for that vertical. As part of that, we show up to trade shows. On the social media side, we make sure we’re in the right places to take part in conversations with the decision-makers who are buying the IT services from us. It’s our number one job to become partners with the other folks who touch the client or the prospect.
Davis (Harman): The tech purchase decision is not so much a transaction as it is a partnership. As such, communicators need to understand the entire supply chain of how that company works, what the implications are for selling through this technology, what it means from a manufacturing perspective, and what it’s going to mean to their end users.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What are the main messaging considerations in the b-to-b space once the purchase has already been made? What role do existing customers play here?
Benecke (Text100): You have to start with the role of customer service and support after the sale and how that impacts social media. If there’s a happy customer, that’s great and can be amplified. If there’s an unhappy customer, this is where you really have to focus on the role of communications, as opposed to the product marketing or other teams in the organization. You have to plan that into the strategy so you are not blindsided or scrambling when there’s a crisis.
Bartlett (Xerox): Everyone seeks reinforcement they made the right purchasing decision. If you’re working with a business partner who sells and walks away, you’re left feeling cold and uncertain. In addition, if you sell and walk away to the next customer, you’re actually leaving the most important thing on the table, which is building advocacy. That powers your communications strategy moving forward.
Amirshahi (Tim Warner Cable): Our PR team that works on business services now has a monthly meeting where we talk to the folks who make sure product installations are complete. We never used to talk to them. The fact it is a focus now underscores the importance of communicating post-sale.
O’Malley (VCE): With our customers, we not only check that everything goes properly just after the sale, but we also make sure they know we’ll come back to them in six months to hear about the benefits they derived from our products and solutions. We want to engage customers post-sale once they feel they have generated significant benefits and we can try to measure those.
Bartlett (Xerox): We need to push communications and relationships down through the sales organization. A goal of ours should be to get our sales organizations to facilitate some of the marketing and communications post-sale because there’s only so much we can do in the core. The best way to foster advocacy externally is through building advocacy internally.
See the exclusive eBook of this roundtable for additional thoughts from these industry leaders, including a look at the role of storytelling in the b-to-b space, as well as global data from Text100’s Influence Index.