Showing all posts tagged marketing:

Enterprise brand advertising

I've spent most of my career around enterprise IT sales. I have learned a lot from my colleagues on the sales side, which makes me much more effective in supporting them. After all, let's not forget - whatever your business card or your email sig say your particular role is, ultimately we're all in sales, or we're all out of a job.

One of the things I have learned, however, is that there is a very common misunderstanding of the role of marketing and advertising in enterprise IT sales.

The first thing to bear in mind is the difference between direct marketing and brand marketing. To quote Wikipedia,

Direct marketing is attractive to many marketers because its positive results can be measured directly. For example, if a marketer sends out 1,000 solicitations by mail and 100 respond to the promotion, the marketer can say with confidence that campaign led directly to 10% direct responses. This metric is known as the 'response rate,' and it is one of many clearly quantifiable success metrics employed by direct marketers. In contrast, general advertising uses indirect measurements, such as awareness or engagement, since there is no direct response from a consumer.

Measurement of results is a fundamental element in successful direct marketing. The Internet has made it easier for marketing managers to measure the results of a campaign. This is often achieved by using a specific website landing page directly relating to the promotional material. A call to action will ask the customer to visit the landing page, and the effectiveness of the campaign can be measured by taking the number of promotional messages distributed and dividing it into the number of responses. Another way to measure the results is to compare the projected sales or generated leads for a given term with the actual sales or leads after a direct advertising campaign.

Sales people tend to assume that all marketing should be direct marketing - that is, marketing that should trigger a measurable action. Each campaign must generate a certain number of leads, a certain percentage of which will turn into actual qualified opportunities, and with any luck some of those opportunities will eventually close.

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Coffee is for closers only

Of course this situation generates all sorts of fun conversations where sales people question the quality of those leads, while marketing answers back with barbed retorts about the number of opportunities that the sales team actually convert. Lost in the Sturm und Drang of the resulting blamestorm is the question of whether this model can even work at all.

On the other hand, straightforward brand advertising is ridiculed as a waste of money. Since it is hard to measure almost by definition, it doesn't fit into the usual opportunity conversion spreadsheets, and is therefore the first expense to be cut when Sales is driving the bus. In fact, the only way of measuring the impact of brand advertising is by looking at what happens when you stop doing it.

I would argue that for the sort of long-duration, big-ticket sales cycles that we have in enterprise IT, the expectations of direct marketing in the traditional sense are overinflated. On the other hand, the potential of brand advertising is vastly underestimated - including by marketing departments.

Brand advertising - what is it good for?

Very few people in this space will make or even consider a purchase based on a single campaign or targeted VITO letter, no matter how good. This idea plays into the heroic self-image of sales, but it is rarely true. In actual fact, before receiving that first formal sales approach, our prospect already has an opinion of what our company and products are like. This opinion is formed from various different sources, but the most important ones are personal experience and received opinion. If you can get personal experience right the first time you have generally bought yourself a customer for life, but that's a whole other topic. The way you can influence the frame of mind of your VITO is to work on that other axis: the received opinion that they already have of your product and/or company.

In turn, that received opinion is also determined by two main sources: word of mouth, and - yes - brand advertising. Brand advertising helps position your company as the sort of company that your VITO would want to do business with: innovative, customer-focused, stable & reliable, or whatever your particular values might be.

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A prospect reading a VITO letter

So far, so much like direct marketing, except without the all-important metrics. Where brand advertising pays off is in what happens next. What you want to happen after VITO reads their customised1 letter is that they run down the hallway, burst into their colleague's office or their team's open space, and announce excitedly that they have just read about a very cool-sounding product from your company.

Their willingness to do this - to expose themselves in this way - is going to be predicated on your company's credibility in the space where you operate. In 2015, anyone getting excited about a new offering from Blackberry would have to do a fair amount of explaining (sorry, Blackberry). Vice versa, nobody has to explain why they are planning to buy cloud services from Amazon, storage from EMC, networking gear from Cisco, or insert your own favoured example.

While no amount of brand advertising could save Blackberry at this point, Amazon, EMC, Cisco, et al got to where they are in no small part by working on their perception in the market. In other words, their brand advertising ensures that VITO will be excited, rather than embarrassed, to involve their colleagues in an evaluation and advocate for a new offering.

What advertising can and cannot do

None of this is to say that brand advertising alone is sufficient if the products themselves don't meet expectations around price, performance, support, or any other axis that is important to customers. However, brand advertising can help get to the point where those variables can come into play.

Ironically, this distrust of advertising is one of the very few things that sales people and engineers both agree on. Both are making a category error which is nicely explained in this episode of the excellent Exponent podcast, with Ben Thompson and James Allworth.

Bottom line, I think overlooking brand advertising is a false economy. If you’re a startup, of course, you can’t blanket airports and fill out business magazines like the big guys2, so figure out what you can do in that space. And if you are big company that doesn’t do brand advertising, know that prospects are asking themselves why that is - and this definitely feeds into the perception they have of your company.


  1. You are customising your VITO letters to each prospect, aren't you? 

  2. Startups should not waste resources trying to act like bigger, more established companies. Startups have a disruptive value of their own, and can play on that3

  3. Says the guy with the psychedelic cow logo on his business card. I mean, check out our website. Nobody will mistake us for a staid, established vendor - and that’s the point

Air… BUS?

What's in a name?

Airbus is in the news, and analysts doubt that the company will pull ahead of its archrival Boeing.

I have only the most indirect relationship with the aerospace industry - basically, I fly a fair amount - but the whole idea of Airbus is off-putting to me. Airbus is a conglomerate of interesting companies that manages to be far less cool than the sum of its parts. Even the name implies disdain for its customers. Air… BUS? I don't want a "bus" experience of air travel, and I don't like the association of those ideas.

Even the logo manages to be desperately uncool and off-putting:

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Compare and contrast with one of the constituent companies:

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Could there be a more awesome name than "Aérospatiale"? The logo is pretty cool as well, although a bit retro now.

Since we're on the topic, let's talk about Boeing as well for a moment:

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Another cool logo, reminding us that Boeing is not just about a big bus that takes passengers between cities, but also about rockets that go to space.

This is not just theoretical marketing wonkery, either. The whole concept of the big A380 "super-jumbo"1 fits into that bus model of thinking: not the fastest, not the most innovative, just a way to stack as much self-loading cargo as possible in one bus and ship it to its destination as cheaply as possible (for the operator). This concept has largely failed to resonate with the market, and the A380 programme is in serious trouble, with Reuters calling it "poor-selling". Compare and contrast with the Concorde, which is still used as an image of technological success years after the termination of maintenance contracts - by Airbus - killed it as a commercial proposition.

I mean, just look at it!

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Nobody is going to sell posters of the A380 after the end of its service life. No airport will want to park one on its apron, and no travellers will gaze at it longingly from the windows of their more pedestrian aircraft.

What's in a name? Sometimes, everything.


  1. Surely it says something that they even define themselves in relation to categories that are already owned and defined by their arch-rival? There is only one "jumbo" jet, and that is the Boeing 747. Calling your own plane the "super-jumbo" just makes you look like Homer Simpson designing a car. Maybe they should just call the next one the "Airbus Homer", with gratuitous fins, bubble domes everywhere, and shag carpeting throughout the cabin. 

Signalling

I've been blogging a lot about messaging lately, which I suppose is to be expected from someone in marketing. In particular, I have been focusing on how messaging can go wrong.

The process I outlined in "SMAC my pitch up" went something like this:

  • Thought Leaders (spit) come up with a cool new concept
  • Thought Leaders discuss the concept amongst themselves, coming up with jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms (oh my!)
  • Thought Leaders launch the concept on an unsuspecting world, forgetting to translate from jargon, abbreviations and acronyms
  • Followers regurgitate half-understood jargon, abbreviations and acronyms
  • Much clarity is lost

Now the cynical take is that the Followers are doing this in an effort to be perceived as Thought Leaders themselves - and there is certainly some of that going on. However, my new corollary to the theory is that many Followers are not interested in the concept at all. They are name-checking the concept to signal to their audience that they are aware of it and gain credibility for other initiatives, not to jump on the bandwagon of the original concept. This isn't the same thing as "cloudwashing", because that is at least about cloud. This is about using the cloud language to justify doing something completely different.

This is how we end up with actual printed books purporting to explain what is happening in the world of mobile and social. By the time the text is finalised it's already obsolete, never mind printed and distributed - but that's not the point. The point is to be seen as someone knowledgeable about up-to-date topics so that other, more traditional recommendations gain some reflected shine from the new concept.

The audience is in on this too. There will always be rubes taken in by a silver-tongued visionary with a high-concept presentation, but a significant part of the audience is signalling - to other audience members and to outsiders who are aware of their presence in that audience - that they too are aware of the new shiny concept.

It's cover - a way of saying "it's not that I don't know what the kids are up to, it's that I have decided to do something different". This is how I explain the difficulties in adoption of new concepts such as cloud computing1 or DevOps. It's not the operational difficulties - breaking down the silos, interrupting the blamestorms, reconciling all the differing priorities; it's that many of the people talking about those topics are using them as cover for something different.


Images from Morguefile, which I am using as an experiment.


  1. Which my fingers insist on typing as "clod computing", something that is far more widespread but not really what we should be encouraging as an industry. 

SMAC my pitch up

I have a liking for terrible puns, so I have always had a soft spot for the analyst firm Horses for Sources. Their latest newsletter included a link to a blog post which I'd meant to write up the first time around, but got distracted… ooh! A squirrel!

Ahem. Anyway.

Here's the piece: Time to stop the buzzword balderdash and become meaningful again.

Am I smoking something illegal, or has our industry really started to lose the plot with the amount of buzz terms that - quite frankly - only mean something to the sellers and advisors trying to make their wares sound that little bit savvier than their competitors. And even then, I am not too sure whether many of them even fully understand what they are buzzing about either, more simply regurgitating what their competitors are saying.

They also provide a table of examples, which really doesn't look good for anyone talking about SMAC1:

I don't think the problem is with people parroting their competitors. Rather, in each company the "thought leaders" come up with terms like DevOps, cloud, or, yes, SMAC, and they mean something specific by them. Over a period of time when they are hashing out their concept, they develop these sorts of verbal shorthand to refer to quite complex structures. When they are communicating the concept to outsiders, sometimes - often - they forget to provide the extended definition. Their audience of sales people and other front-liners half-understand the concept, learn the shorthand by heart, and end up in front of customers regurgitating poorly understood messages. It's basically cargo-cult marketing.

The problem is not that the various visionaries have their own jargon or even that they talk in acronyms. The problems begin when they come down from the mountain and forget to translate that jargon into common language. The point is not to sound smart to people who don't understand the concept, but to communicate that concept.

A theory that you can't explain to a bartender is probably no damn good.
--Ernest Rutherford


  1. Hilariously, even Wikipedia's disambiguation page for SMAC doesn't have a definition for SMAC in this sense, just a link to let people create a page... 

Ban All Acronyms (BAA)

There's a tendency in the technology industry to speak in acronyms, generally three-letter acronyms or TLAs. Technology is not the only industry where this happens - I'm reading the FT right now, and it's saturated with EBITDA and FTSE, not to mention what the ECB is doing about the PIIGS - but because I work in tech I feel more confident talking about my own glass house.

At one level TLAs are no more than the logical end-state of jargon. Once you start repeating phrases instead of communicating, it's more efficient to condense those phrases to acronyms. It's also cool to be in the in crowd who knows what's going on.

The problem is that at some point you need to communicate what you're doing to the outside world, and if you've been talking about it in TLAs all along, they're going to slip into the conversation. Your audience will pick up on them and repeat them, and pretty soon the acronyms have taken on a life of their own and nobody even knows what they stand for any more.

Try an experiment: use the full names instead of the acronyms wherever possible. I mean, be sensible: people will look at you funny if you say Universal Serial Bus. But at least try to avoid adding to the stock of empty acronyms - the intellectual junk food of our industry.

And if the name is too long and unwieldy to use except as an acronym? Well, that's a big indication of something that needs fixing!

Monday realisation

Marketing, like IT, is infested with people who think they know what they're doing, but really really don't. In both fields, this devalues actual professionals.

I trained in IT (Comp.Sci. degree), and my lovely & talented wife is a marketing & PR professional. I noticed a while ago that our complaints were symmetrical: people tended to undervalue what we did, and indeed the entire field. There was also a tendency for people to jump in and try to do it for themselves, with consequences that were usually either hilarious or tragic depending on how close the observer was to the results.

Now that I am receiving formal training in marketing, I am getting it from both sides. At least I am prepared!


Image by Thom Weerd via Unsplash

Pulling the long tail

I love some gratuitous hyperbole. I admit to using it myself on occasion, but that doesn’t make it any less gratuitous…

Elite gratuitous hyperbole is to pretend to take someone else’s hyperbole at face value and use it as fuel for a new round of hyperbole.

Exhibit A comes via an MITX talk, entitled “'Blockbusters': Why The Long Tail Is Dead And Go-Big Strategies Pay Off”. What makes it a perfect example is the wilful misunderstanding of the Long Tail:

Elberse explained, Jeff Zucker focused on cutting spending and managing for maximum profitability across all of its programming. Alan Horn, on the other hand, had the opposite strategy: embrace risk and make a few huge bets a year.

The results? NBC fell from number one to the number four network and profits tanked. Warner Bros. experienced one of its most profitable decades under Horn’s leadership.

"The notion of smaller bets being safer is a myth,” Elberse told the audience. “It is safer to make bigger bets because they are likely to have bigger outcomes.”

The Long Tail was never about individual producers spreading their bets across many initiatives. Rather, it was about the newfound ability for smaller single-play producers to reach a much larger market thanks to web-phase retailers who are not constrained by their high street display space.

The Long Tail is not a mass-market play, throw it against the wall and see what sticks. It’s about a marketplace, with each individual producer making the biggest bet they can on their own product. The macramé jeans producer mentioned in the linked article is not Levi’s trying out yet another line, it’s some indie producer, probably in Shoreditch or Portland or Berlin. The Long Tail is Amazon or Etsy or whatever their go-to-market channel is, enabling them to go from a hundred sales to a thousand - but still not causing Levi’s or even 7 For All Mankind to lose much sleep.

What Elberse has identified is only the difference between spreading yourself thin and putting all your wood behind a few arrows. As consumers, we respond to that. When a restaurant has a hundred items on its menu, we know that they are not putting the same care and attention to each of them. That has nothing to do with Long Tail, it’s just doing a good job with your product versus doing a half-hearted one.


Image by Charlie Foster via Unsplash