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Communicating Under Pressure

One of the fastest ways a company stands out from the crowd (for better or for worse) is how they communicate with the world when facing difficult circumstances. The tone that is set during these challenging times will resonate far and wide.

It is likely that your company will experience a delicate situation at some point in the future. (Perhaps you’ve already been through one.) What’s most important is how you communicate internally — with your executive team, other company leadership, and your employees. It is this tone that will then be conveyed outside your company, so you want to be sure to do a great job communicating internally before doing anything else.

Rumors of layoffs, potential buyouts, and pending lawsuits can spread like wildfire through your organization. Those rumors are often more frightening than the situation itself. Honest, clear communication from company leadership can put a halt to speculation and ease fears that may otherwise halt productivity and focus.

Yes, at times the details are classified or confidential. But if an information leak has occurred, it is better to devise a communications strategy before the news spirals out of your control. Rumors flying around internally soon make it outside of your company walls, and the media can disseminate the information — whether it is true or not — faster than you can contain it.

After communicating what you can with your teams, relaying a unified and thoughtful message to the rest of the world becomes priority. Your investor and public relations departments will be key in crafting and then communicating your message. Press releases, media alerts, television or radio interviews, blog posts, and social media, when used properly, can all relay your message quickly and clearly.

Honesty and transparency mixed with some tact and thoughtful compassion is a great formula for setting the tone of your message.

Accessibility, willingness to communicate, and reasonable response times can halt negative reactions and criticism.

Setting expectations appropriately and then meeting those expectations keeps trust in tact. (It’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver than over-promise and under-deliver!)

When a sensitive situation arises, balance out your speed of response with the time it takes to craft a thoughtful response. A hasty reaction without considering all of the potential impacts it may have is a mistake. The phrase, “slow is steady, steady is smooth, smooth is fast” is a good one to remember here!

Above all else, remember that you’re dealing with people and their lives. The situation you’re handling will have an impact on your employees and your customers. By being willing to put the people first, ahead of the company, you’ll gain loyalty and trust.

Let me give you an example.

The popular investment show Shark Tank recently featured a small home-grown business run by a young couple. They literally ran their business out of their garage, had no employees, and made many of their products by hand. They received a rather large investment from one of the “Sharks” and the moment their episode aired on TV, they sold out of every bit of product they had in stock.

Even factoring in the show’s estimated increase in business based off of past companies’ experiences, they surpassed those estimates by over 100%. They had to scale, and quickly! The holiday season was approaching, they had tens of thousands of new customers, and they simply could not keep up with demand.

What did they do? They communicated! They communicated often. It was with honesty, integrity, and compassion. They did their very best to ramp up production, hire a team, set up multiple manufacturing and fulfillment partnerships, train an entire customer service department, and handle the overwhelming response to their product.

Were they perfect at this process? Absolutely not. Some of the promises they made still weren’t met, they still had a large amount of unhappy customers, and it took them a number of months to get on their feet. But through it all they communicated with grace. When they were all caught up, they sent out an apology email with a large discount coupon for a future purchase. I’m certain they retained most of their new customers.

No company knows exactly what is coming around the next corner. No team or individual will always make the right decision in how to communicate during a crisis. However, making wise communication a priority during the tough times will strengthen your relationship with your employees and your customers. It is absolutely essential to success.

Product Management and Marketing: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

For this blog post I’ve asked long time friend and colleague, Robert Lonadier to share his insights on the role of product management and the dynamics of its relationship with marketing. Robert’s career spans the gamut of IT hardware, software, and services with an impressive record of achievement as both a product management and product marketing professional – he currently serves as a Senior Product Manager at EMC.
The roles of product management and product marketing have evolved considerably in the 20+ years that I have practiced them. Early in my career, product management and product marketing were largely left to their own devices. Thinking that the positions and function were somehow temporary, we were left to pretty much do as we pleased. Product Management’s job was to tell the engineer’s what the build. “Develop the requirements” they would say. But where to look for the source of the inspiration on what customer’s really wanted? “Talk to Sales and Marketing, they are the ones closest to the customer”.

And the textbooks were not much value, either. They either focused on consumer product management; large numbers of customer’s whose preferences were measured in tenths of a percentage of market share. Does anyone remember the Cola Wars? It’s no surprise these techniques did not transfer over well. A few innovative researchers, including Eric von Hippel of the Sloan School of Management, looked at how lead users identify the source of innovation, often in very surprising and unpredictable ways. Product Marketing grew out of the need to support sales. Help make Sales go more smoothly by greasing the skids. Provide “air cover” to Sales. It really took the classic microprocessor battles of the late 1970s (a good read on the subject is “Marketing High Technology” by William Davidow) for Product Marketing to hit its stride

Given how the disciplines evolved, product management and product marketing often have an uneasy relationship. So many functions can easily fall into each other’s bucket. There is even a well-respected product management body of knowledge called “Pragmatic Marketing”. So, it’s no surprise that many practitioners are confused about the proper roles between the two functions. And management is not making this easier by often times lumping the functions together and not properly defining the roles.

Product Management and Marketing’s Guide to Harmonious Co-Existence

So, what is a product manager and product marketer to do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Reach out to your product marketing/product management counterpart(s). Do not wait for management to step in and suggest this. Seize the initiative.
  • Clarify the roles and responsibilities up front. Especially if there is nothing already documented.
  • Be flexible. Depending on the skill level and capability of your product management/marketing counterpart, you may need to adjust what your contribution is in order to ensure that there are no gaps.
  • Remember you’re both on the same team and the real goal is to help your company reach its sales numbers.

The future of both disciplines is bright as the roles of product management and product marketing are critical to the development and marketing of successful products.  Companies that can clearly define and embrace both roles are more likely to see better overall results in bringing sellable products to market.

How Not to Name Your B2B Technology Company

Let’s be honest, the perfect company name can’t make a bad business model succeed, nor will a bad name cause a good business model to fail. And yet, when all things are equal, going to market with a memorable and compelling company name is like swimming with the current – it’s just plain easier.

A wisely chosen name requires fewer repetitions (and therefore less effort and marketing dollars) to promote. This is typically considered a good thing when you are a resource and budget strapped start-up.

So finding the perfect company name is easy, right? Absolutely! Anyone can do it – well that is until you do a bit of research and realize none of your brilliant ideas seem to be available.  The Internet age has led to a boom in technology start-ups and a bust on available brands.

This lack of availability has led to an onslaught of meaningless made up names (Twitter, Vonage, Skype) and inventive brands where basic grammar and spelling rules need not apply (eBay’s rogue “B”, reCAPTCHA’s runaway caps lock, Flickr’s missing vowel). There are many examples of success within these categories, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the right approach for your start-up. Your competitive position, marketing budget/resources and company goals are just a few of the factors to consider before naming your company according to the latest branding fad.

The Branding Creative Process: How to Get Started

Brand names can be developed and categorized in lots of ways – branding firm Igor offers a useful naming guide, which beaks down the categories into the following: Invented, Functional, Experiential and Evocative.

  • Invented brands typically include names built upon Latin roots (Agilent, Alliant) or poetically constructed names that are based on rhythm and the experience of saying them (Google, Kleenex)
  • Functional brands are asked to perform only one task: explain to the world the business that you are in (AllTheWeb, FriendFeed)
  • Experiential brands offer a direct connection to something real without being overly task oriented (Explorer, Safari)
  • Evocative brands differ from others in that they evoke the positioning of a company or product, rather than describing a function or a direct experience (Yahoo!, Apple).

There are no absolutes in naming – for every followed or broken branding “rule” lurks a failure or inexplicable success. However, we typically advise our business-to-business technology start-up clients (who lack either the budget or desire to hire a traditional branding firm) to skip the invented and functional names in preference for the experiential or evocative approach. Why? Because these methods typically produce a memorable name that inherently speaks to the value of the offering on an emotional, human cord without being overly cutesy, costing too much to promote or limiting future growth.

Swim with the Current: Choose a Compelling Company Name

If you decide to go it alone and name your new technology company internally, the following checklist can help you gauge whether the brand names you are considering may help or deter your marketing efforts. While there will always be exceptions to these rules, if you answer “Yes” to one or more of these questions, you may want to re-think your company name (unless you have the advertising budget of a Xerox or IBM, then by all means ditch this list and name the company whatever the heck you like – and call us, we’d love to help you spend some of that budget promoting that new brand ;)):

  1. Does the name have any negative associations? Be sure to consider all the intricacies of meaning beyond the intended usage. To start, do an Internet and news search to see what comes up. If you are selling into multiple markets or on a global basis, you need consider the negative associations across all target market languages and possible pronunciations.
  2. Is it difficult to pronounce? Write the name down and put it in front of 10-15 of your friends or colleagues. Ask them to read the name back to you. If two or more of them looks at the name in a confused manner or stumbles to read the name correctly, it may be red flag. A name that is difficult to say is difficult to remember. This means it will require a larger marketing budget to get the name to stick with target audiences. The ideal name is short and sweet. It rolls off the tongue. This typically means it will have two or three syllables (or even one).
  3. Does the name sound too technical? Hint: if your name is an abbreviation, acronym or contains roman numerals, it may be “too” technical. Remember the best brands speak directly to the value of the offering on an emotional level and make the brand memorable… strings of letters, numbers and technology jargon offer no emotive value and can pigeon hole your company as an out of touch technology vendor versus a visionary solution provider.
  4. Does the name sound similar to an established competitor? The goal of branding is to differentiate yourself from your competitors, not make yourself indistinguishable. Having a name with the same or similar keywords can cause market confusion and produce unintended results.  One of our clients, whose name started with same word as two of its competitors, was referred to in articles and reports collectively with its competitors and all were ridiculed for their lack of creativity. This is not a branding battle worth fighting if it can be avoided.
  5. Were you forced to pick a name by a deadline? People often don’t give themselves enough time to pick the perfect brand. Coming up with a great name takes time.  Perhaps the ideal name can just come to you as an epiphany, but more often than not you need to be more systematic and objective in your naming process. If you have to have a name by next Friday, you’re probably going to miss out on a lot of creative and compelling possibilities.
  6. Does the name explain a function of your offering? Naming your company after a single task or function of your offering can limit future growth if you decide to expand your offering or take a new approach based on market feedback. In addition, a functional name is typically derived from a limited number of industry keywords – and your competitors are probably already using these words. In the end, you can find yourself with a name that offers little, if any competitive positioning. If you have chosen a functional name, perform an Internet search to gauge competitive usage before you commit to the name.
  7. Does it infringe on existing names or trademarks? Infringement can be widely interpreted by some, even if you think challengers would be wrong or outright ridiculous to question your trademark application, it is best to do your research. The United States Patent and Trademark Office offers a searchable database of registered and pending trademark applications, as well as, helpful guides on the ins and outs of the trademark process.

Your Turn: Share Your Branding Advice

This list is compiled based on my ringside view from our marketing firm. I’m sure the list can be expanded upon and improved, so please feel free to agree, disagree or weigh in with your own branding experiences.

Is it Time to Get Real with Your Marketing?

Like many of my fellow marketers, I am by nature a rose-colored glasses kind of person. I can put a positive spin on just about anything. And if an overly complex product gets labeled “feature rich,” I’m okay with it.

It is like real estate listings where a small house is dubbed “charming” and a total dump is a “fixer upper’s dream.” To me these twists on terms are acceptable because it suits my view of the world.

But in marketing, above all else, it is our responsibility to understand prospective buyer’s needs, wants and desires. It is our mission to correctly frame our product’s value proposition and support the sales cycle with the information prospective customers need to make a buying decision in favor of the product we represent.

Sara Gate’s post on “IT Buyers Search for the Truth and Come Up Empty Handed” forces us to examine whether standard technology vendor marketing practices have failed to meet this responsibility.

Most IT buyers are practical, analytical, cautious and maybe even a bit cynical (okay, some are very cynical). After reading hundreds of technology vendor data sheets – inflated with exaggerated claims, ROI and cost saving numbers – it is easy to see why a lack of trust has evolved.

The truth about product functionality, cost of ownership, and deployment requirements seem like reasonable requests. But I can hear the conversation now about providing “real” answers to these questions: “But our competitors say…” “We will build that functionality if someone buys it.” “Under the right circumstances, a company could deploy our product in a day.” Yeah right, like if the world stopped spinning!

So the question becomes, how real is real enough to win back the trust of IT buyers and where do we draw the line? Microsoft is not going to change its Vista marketing materials to read, “Guaranteed to crash your system” nor would I advocate it.

But perhaps it is time to face the truth that whether we like it or not, the ability to share information (the good and the bad) is rapidly evolving thanks to the rise of social media. And people, in general, are fed up with the Stepford Wife approach to marketing.

Over time, the impact of this trend will be widespread, leaving vendors with a choice to (1) uphold their idealist views of their product and continue to alienate IT buyers, or (2) inject more realism into their marketing.

If you decide in favor of realism, here are a few ideas on how to win back the trust of IT buyers without losing the sale:

  • Stop marketing vaporware or product features that don’t exist. I am not sure how many companies would admit they do this, but the practice is widespread. And when you aren’t fooling anyone anymore, it is time to drop the act.
  • Don’t try to be so perfect. IT buyers have been through enough deployments to know that they never go off without a hitch. So next time you write a case study, don’t leave out that challenge your customer faced during deployment. Instead focus in on how they overcame the obstacle. Prospective buyers will appreciate the honesty and feel better prepared for their own deployment.
  • Two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because your competitors claim they can save companies 90%, doesn’t mean you should. If you cannot support the claim, don’t make it. Prospective buyers would rather see a documented case study with hard numbers that supports a 20% reduction in costs, than be given an empty over-inflated promise.
  • Respond to the conversation. If your marketing materials emphasize usability features, and yet the word on the street is that your user interface sucks, perhaps it is time to pick a new angle for your product until the usability issues are fixed. Tools like Monitter, BoardTracker and Technorati can help you track what people are saying on Twitter, message boards and in the blogosphere.
  • Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. The days of sweeping bad news under the carpet are gone. Be the first to tell your customers if something goes wrong and let them know what you are doing to solve the problem. They will be much more willing to forgive and forget (and you may even win some devoted fans in the process). Social media tools like Twitter are great for spreading your “not so good” news with a personal touch.

It’s your turn …
Share your thoughts, ideas and perspectives on technology vendors’ approach to marketing, IT buyers growing distrust, and how marketers should respond.

Speak the Language of Customers

To effectively market a new product, you must be able to name it and frame it in terms that resonate with your target audience. Potential customers will not buy what they cannot name or understand.

All too often we see technology vendors define their positioning behind closed doors, then cross their fingers and hope the message spreads like wild fire. The end result can be disappointing if not catastrophic.

Positioning exists in people’s minds, not in your words. If you want the market to understand your value proposition, you must frame a position in words that actually exist in other people’s minds.

Too much time spent with your founder and developers can desensitize you and make you believe those acronyms and techno-terms are commonplace, but don’t be deceived. If your friends and family have trouble articulating to others what your products does and why anyone should care, then you may need to rethink your positioning.

So where is a B-to-B tech marketer to find the words to describe the coolest invention since sliced bread? Try listening to prospective customers. Tune into their conversations to find out how they are describing the challenges they face and products – benefits and features – that are relevant to the solution you provide. Then integrate that language into your marketing materials.

Tactical Tips for Learning the Language of Customers

  1. Find the bloggers that are writing about your topic area. Subscribe to their feed, read their stuff and the comments they receive regularly.
  2. Join LinkedIn and industry groups that cater to the market segment you intend to serve. Tune out the vendor rhetoric and focus on user posts and comments.
  3. Use your network to find people who match the profile of your prospective buyers. Ask for 15 minutes of their time to discuss the market issues. Try not to let your viewpoint influence the conversation…just listen.
  4. Monitor discussion boards and forums to understand the real strengths and weaknesses of your competitors. Drinking too much of the company Kool-Aid can be harmful to the health of your marketing messages. A dose of reality will help ground you.
  5. Research keywords that are in use by your target demographics. Tools like Google AdWords Keyword Tool or WordTracker can help you research the popularity of keywords that may be used to categorize your products and services. Be leery of keywords that yield little or no results.

Your press releases, collateral, email campaigns and even product packaging can all benefit from the language used by real life tech buyers. With your new market-aware messaging in place, your founder may miss those special terms that he/she coined, but your prospective customers just might thank you with a shortened sales cycle.