IT Marketing Smarts

When it comes to selling your organization on IT, it's the people and the product, not the print.

I recently read an annual report from the IT department of a major semiconductor manufacturer. At 30 pages long with a lot of 9-point font, it's an impressive document - full of information about missions, values, strategies, objectives, organizations, projects, service levels, costs and impact. But what is the value of this tome in a world where the success of communication often hangs on the phrasing of an e-mail subject line?

CIOs have entered the marketing game today, seeking to increase customer loyalty and secure funding. In addition to annual reports, brochures and newsletters, CIOs have marketed IT by showcasing IT awards, publicizing service-level metrics, branding projects, conducting town hall user meetings, publishing a catalogue of services and reviewing business unit performance.

Yet marketing veterans caution that these approaches can backfire - particularly in organizations where IT's credibility is already low. Mass-marketing pitches tend to fall flat if people's personal experiences counter what is being communicated. External IT awards and service-level metrics can reinforce a positive impression but will not sway those who are negatively disposed toward IT. Branding projects and town hall meetings are helpful in communicating change but have little impact on the approval process or the overall perception of success. Service and product catalogues can make it easier to do business with IT, but they typically are not utilized much by decision makers in the business. (For details of a comprehensive technology marketing program, see "Inside an IT Marketing Campaign", CIO March.)

But if mass-marketing methods can't help the average CIO, then what's the alternative? In order to evaluate what works and what doesn't when it comes to marketing IT, identify your primary targets for persuasion - namely, the people who make decisions about IT and those who influence them. CEOs and their direct reports should not be the primary targets of IT marketing efforts. Successful CIOs market one or two levels further down because they understand that senior executives are heavily influenced by key members of their organizations. These managers have formed their perceptions of IT based on their own personal experiences and the urban legends recounted in the hallways.

IT marketers should learn from the lessons of business-to-business marketing. Harvard Business School professor Das Narayandas, in a Harvard Business Review article titled "Building Loyalty in Business Markets", contrasts B2B efforts with mass marketing. Business markets consist of a relatively small number of customers - "segments of one", Narayandas calls them - that define value in different ways and desire customized products, quality or price. The sales process is typically lengthy due to the complexity of transactions and the large number of decision makers and staff types involved.

If that sounds familiar, it's because each IT customer is a segment of one. In contrast, mass-marketing approaches for consumer markets (where there are many buyers with similar needs who purchase low-priced, mass-produced items on a frequent and efficient basis) don't fit the IT challenge.

Narayandas emphasizes that although managing individual customers is difficult, it's imperative in today's business markets. It may distress some and please others to reaffirm what we all know: IT is a relationship business. The most effective marketing tool CIOs have is the people who interact with second- and third-level leaders in the business - the IT account managers, planners, function heads, and project and service managers.

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What Really Leads to Loyalty

It's the CIO's job to ensure that IT products and services are cost-competitive and differentiated from competitors - those external service providers doing end runs around your department.

But while meeting financial expectations will keep IT in the game, it's these nontangible services that foster long-term relationships and loyalty. Effective IT marketing consists of face-to-face communication with each segment of one to understand how that customer defines value and to ensure that IT is both delivering against his tangible expectations and over-delivering on the intangibles. By the end of every interaction with your department, it should be clear to customers why they are doing business with their internal technology provider.

All the pretty IT marketing collateral should make CIOs a little squeamish. Mass-market communications that contain inferior product and service positioning can make CIOs look like a socially inept kid trying to get attention.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of California-based Valuedance, an executive coaching firm

Reader Q&A

Q: Given that IT is a relationship business, is any sort of marketing - whether mass-market or B2B - appropriate? Marketing seems to run counter to the idea of a relationship.

A: That's the legacy of mass-marketing communications, but it really has nothing to do with the true purpose of marketing. Marketing consists of offering the combination of attributes necessary to satisfy a target market, as expressed through the "four P's" - product, price, promotion and place (meaning distribution). Ideally, all marketing would be relationship-based; after all, the best marketing is always word of mouth. IT hurts business relationships when it takes a narrow view of marketing by focusing exclusively on promotion through mass communication and ignores the other three P's.

Q: What organizational arrangements for IT work best when appealing to "segments of one"? Should relationship managers oversee every customer interaction? Should communication liaisons be paired with tech staff?

A: In a way, everybody in IT is in the marketing business. When CIOs are planning their organization's marketing efforts they can be facilitated through four dimensions:

• Strategy Ensuring that IT strategy is aligned with business strategy.

• Staffing Selecting people in customer-facing positions who have good communication, negotiation and relationship-building skills.

• Structure Allocating resources to liaison positions such as relationship managers.

• Systems/Processes Making it easy for customers to interact with IT.

Q: The CIO article you point to says the best IT marketing tools are regular reports to the board, IT scorecards with lagging and leading indicators, and real-time information on IT. Do these tools also work for business marketing?

A: These are great communication tools, but they don't constitute an effective marketing program. For that, IT needs to give more thought to how its products, services, pricing, development and delivery methods are supported by its communications.