The Value of Claiming A Niche

I have a dear friend whose personal hallmark is, “I’m not for everyone.” She typically makes the statement right up front as a disclaimer when she meets new people. And she is right.

She is a strange mix of business savvy sales person, think Ivonka Trump, combined with the unplugged and raw style of comedian Kathy Griffin. Enthusiastic, demanding, driven yet funny, quirky and humble – people either love her or run for cover when she enters a room. This fact doesn’t bother her… life is too short to try to please people with whom you share little or no common vision or interest.

She is not trying to force relationships or pretend to be something she is not just to earn someone’s business or call someone a friend. She is more of a niche marketer by nature, focused on creating highly productive relationships with other like-minded individuals.

And in this manner my friend has created quite a loyal following of friends and colleagues who worship the ground that she walks on. I think there are lessons to be learned from her on the value of niche marketing:

Be true to your brand. Know who you are and what you stand for and don’t compromise.  People will question the credibility of the offering if the sales pitch changes for every new opportunity that comes along.

Don’t try to be all things to all people. You will fail miserably. No one thing can be the cure all. I can’t tell you how often we see companies lose market momentum because their resources are distracted chasing after some dead end custom project for a one-off customer.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Generic “one-size-fits-all” messaging doesn’t sell high priced enterprise software and services. If you have limited resources (as is the case with most early stage companies), it is unrealistic to think you can effectively market to multiple verticals. Hint… if all of your industry vertical solution pages contain the same messaging, you may benefit from choosing a niche.

The 80/20 Rule. If eighty percent of the output comes from twenty percent of the input, we can all benefit by defining and targeting the twenty percent of the market that can bring us the most value.

And finally… Don’t be afraid of commitment. So many companies are afraid to choose a target market because they may choose the wrong one. But like the eternal bachelor, by not choosing they effectively alienate all the contestants through a lack of commitment to a single focus.

Some of My Best Friends are PR Weasels

We’ve asked Robert Mullins, a veteran technology journalist who has written for high-profile publications like Silicon Valley Business Journal and Network World to be a guest contributor for the Attain Marketing blog. We think there’s real value for our readers to hear about PR trends and “in the trenches” stories from the media’s perspective. And, really, Lorraine did not ask for the shameless plug – but of course will take it (we are in the PR business). Enjoy!

I was happy to accept Lorraine Kauffman-Hall’s invitation to write for Attain Marketing’s blog about media relations. I’ve been a journalist for over 30 years including the last nine covering the technology industry in Silicon Valley. A lot’s changed, of course, for both PR and marketing firms and the media, but not the basic relationship.

Some journalists regard public relations people as a nuisance they have to suffer. One of my editors at the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal refused to take calls from PR people. “We can do that?” I asked facetiously. But seriously, I understand the symbiotic relationship at work: PR people want media attention for their clients and the reporter needs access to the right people to make a good story. It’s up to the reporter to determine whether the story pitched to him is worthy of coverage or not.

After working with a PR person for a while, I get to know what kind of stories I can expect them to pitch and they understand what kind of stories I’m looking for. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. In the late 1980s, I was the news director of the NPR station in my hometown of Milwaukee. A PR person for one of the big hospitals was in my office asking what kind of stories I’d be interested in. I explained to him that being public radio, we specialize in “issue pieces,” in-depth reporting on weighty subjects like health care for the poor, cancer treatments or health care costs. He nodded in agreement and then promptly pitched a story about the hospital’s program to give free Teddy bears to kids injured and in the emergency room! It went in one ear and out the other.

No Teddy bears pitches in Silicon Valley where I worked with Lorraine when she did PR for network security firm Certicom Corp. and I covered the network security beat for the Business Journal. Lorraine was a consummate PR professional, knowledgeable about the company and its products and able to provide access to key executives on stories that were legit.

Some of my best friends are PR people and some of them say some of their best friends are reporters. Some PR buddies will go so far as to pitch a story or pass on a news tip that isn’t even about one of their clients.

Don’t get me wrong. We reporters still have to sort through the spin, tests claims, voice skepticism and ask the tough questions. And we have to be straight with PR people and tell them the Teddy bear giveaway is very thoughtful, but not a story.

I look forward to writing more for Attain Marketing’s blog about media relations in the age of the Internet and social media, dos and don’ts for PR professionals and the changing media landscape.

Robert Mullins is a freelance technology writer in Silicon Valley.

Thought Leadership 101

The point of thought leadership is to express a point of view in the context of market conditions. Most companies focus on their products, functions and features. A real opportunity exists for companies that can paint a vision of the key issues, challenges, needs and requirements that truly concern customers. In doing so companies become an invaluable resource to the media and potential customers.

Future-focused companies that provide meaningful insight and guidance to support buying decisions (vs. just marketing fluff) are often rewarded with more press coverage, better lead generation results, and a shortened sales cycle. To succeed, companies need to directly focus on industry relevant issues and approach the marketplace strategically by building communications platforms that establish credibility and position the company and its stakeholders as subject matter experts.

We’ve boiled down some basics for thought leadership success:

  • Take the 40,000-foot view. Look beyond your technology-focused issues and geeky acronyms. Identify hot trends and determine how your company and products relate to the most current events. Companies should expand their network of contacts and company messaging to embrace the bigger picture. Innovative campaigns like rapid response media programs can provide a systematic approach to introducing your company to key industry influencers who will help bridge the perception gap.
  • Be an evangelist. Select one or several company spokespersons that can be both seen and heard as the voice of your industry. Scrap the tradeshow budget in favor of a limited presence at key venues. Although speaking opportunities can be difficult to secure, event coordinators will bend the rules to accommodate a cool customer case study. Of course you can host your own speaker’s webcast series, but the key is to invest in a good list of prospects to invite to your events. Today’s social media forums like blogs and online communities offer a great vehicle for company evangelism, but avoid preaching. Don’t just follow the herd mentality – taking a controversial position will increase your chances of being heard.
  • Involve customers and partners. Realize that your customers and partners might be very interested in claiming a thought leadership position in new markets as well. Use this to your advantage – instead of asking them to endorse your products, invite them to participate in an industry forum that addresses hot market issues (Thought Leadership webinar example). And for your next product launch tour, offer “select” customers the opportunity to meet with analysts and press to discuss key industry issues and position their company as a visionary – you’ll be much more successful getting them on board and be rewarded with more press coverage had you gone it alone.

The Bottomline: To escape today’s marketing black holes, adopt a thought leadership strategy that elevates both principal and firm above the fray.

Making the Sale: Credibility Counts

Early stage companies face challenges on all fronts, but establishing credibility with mainstream buyers is often one of the biggest marketing hurdles.

A press release claiming market leadership and marketing materials chock full of tidbits about your product benefits and expected ROI may help initiate conversations, but they won’t close deals.

For products and services with higher price tags, pragmatic business buyers often need more reassurance about the credibility of your company before making a buying decision – especially one that is seen as risky (a.k.a. investing in an innovative technology).

Ultimately prospective customers want peace of mind that you can deliver what you promise. People often seek the opinions of others whom they consider better informed within their community to validate the legitimacy of your company and technology.

Establishing credibility with the influencers within your buyer’s community should be a company priority if you want to hit your sales growth targets. Press, analysts, reference customers and influential partners can make or break your perceived credibility.

When it comes to building credibility it is all about a sound strategy and commitment to execution. While owning a large percentage of market share with a strong customer base can be helpful to your credibility building efforts – it is not essential or a guarantee of success.

We have seen clients with shoe string budgets and only a handful of customers successfully build credibility within their prospective buyer’s community. While better-funded players with broader customer bases may falter because they fail to make credibility a priority.

Here are 7 credibility building strategies and tips that we have seen work for our clients over the years:

  1. Create, document and disseminate a plan of execution. If you fail to plan, you will fail to succeed. Bring company stakeholders together to get buy off on plan goals, tactics, roles and responsibilities, timelines, and metrics for success. Then distribute the plan to everyone in the company.
  2. Declare credibility a company priority. Integrate credibility objectives into company and employee performance goals. Every employee should understand how he/she is expected to contribute towards meeting the goal and provide incentives for employees that make significant contributions.
  3. Resist over-inflating your marketing claims. You quickly lose credibility by claiming your product is a wonder tonic that cures all that ails your prospective buyer. Be realistic about what your product can and can’t do and then consistently deliver on your marketing promises.
  4. Get your sales team on board. Sales people tend to be protective of their relationships and resist opening customer reference discussions too early in the sales cycle. But the most successful companies begin these conversations early and aggressively. Brand promotion and contract discounts can be effectively used as bargaining chips during negotiations to secure reference agreements. But beware… before the deal is inked make sure the customer’s corporate communications team is on board or the agreement may be worthless.
  5. Integrate the plan into every stage of the customer lifecycle. An unhappy customer does not make a good reference no matter what type of pre-sales agreement was forged. Make sure your reference customers get the support they need at all costs.
  6. Build strong relationships with influential press, bloggers and analysts. Research and find the industry influencers, track what they are saying and try to forge a relationship. Avoid spamming this audience with meaningless noise and unsupported claims. The only way to solidify a productive relationship with press and analysts is to provide real value, so be strategic in your communications.
  7. Maximize relationships with strategic partners. High profile partners can elevate your credibility if the partnership has some substance. Microsoft Certified Partners are a dime a dozen, but if you are able to announce that you are joining forces with the likes of Oracle to solve an industry problem, you will instantly garner more credibility.

The Bottomline: Building credibility is a shared responsibility across the entire organization. With a properly executed credibility strategy, even small companies can achieve great things. So get your plan in order, commit to enhancing your credibility quotient, and witness an increase in sales conversion rates and revenues.

It’s a Video Revolution

People respond to visual communications – a picture paints 1,000 words, as they say.

In the past two years online video has transformed the communications landscape for businesses – and now the video revolution is fully underway.

Chew on these numbers a bit if you’re still not convinced that video is a powerful medium:

  • 52% of all Internet traffic is driven by online video.
  • More than 70% of all Internet users watch videos online.
  • In a single month, YouTube presented 9.5 billion videos to 138 million American consumers.
  • 123 million Americans watched videos online during every single month of 2007.
  • When Cisco added streaming video to its website, the traffic to its website increased by 600%.

Savvy businesses are using video across the customer lifecycle from generating awareness to advocacy – driving better results and greater return from their online marketing investments. With the explosion of online video, businesses taking advantage of this medium are leapfrogging their competition with communications that break through the clutter and connect with prospects and customers.

If you’re ready to get the camera out, here are several take away tips that may help:

  • Walk before you run. Start small and see what the possibilities are – video news releases, video articles or product tutorials are a good way to test the waters. Then you’re ready to move to bigger apps like video blogging and video podcasts.
  • Edgy is good but B2B companies need to keep content appropriate for business audiences. Video will always have inherent risk (you can’t control perception as well as written communications) but you should not add to the risk by overtly offending the viewer.
  • Always remain authentic and relevant to your audience. Don’t try to fool people with scripted or overproduced video content that has no real value.
  • Video ROI measurement includes easy tactics like number of plain views, star feature ratings, comments with feedback and having your video marked as a favorite – so use them to your advantage.

As an industry, we’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of what video apps will emerge. No doubt about it – if used smartly, video is a killer addition to your PR 2.0 and lead generation arsenal.