Regardless of which party is in the White House or controls Congress, companies are chasing what some perceive as limitless federal dollars.
New players enter the space every day, a trend that's only rising in the recession. But for the "beltway bandits" in the Washington, DC region and those throughout the country and beyond, there are many misconceptions in how to market to that enormous vertical.
Just as selling to government is different from selling to any other industry, marketing to government requires a distinct approach. Although there is no shortage of ways to reach government buyers, some ways are better than others.
To help shatter myths and guide you to a sound strategy, compiled below are some of the best-practices, advice, and recommendations we give to our business-to-government (B2G) clients.
1. Corporate Worldview—Expense or Investment?
For many companies that sell largely to the feds, marketing is seen purely as an expense: A necessary evil with the bare minimum dedicated to people and resources. Is it any wonder the return is consistent with the investment?
Reality: If marketing is viewed solely as an expense, then $1 is too much to spend.
Marketing needs to be tied to generating sales, filling the pipeline, and moving prospects to close. It needs to be an engine that is tightly integrated into your organization's strategic objectives.
If that's not the case, a return on any marketing investment will be the rare exception. You're better off saving your dollar.
2. Marketing Must Support Sales (and Vice Versa)
It's erroneous to think that business development (BD) has the same function as marketing. And it's dangerous to treat the two as silos.
Marketing must map out a strategic plan of attack to enable your BD pros to get face time and deepen relationships with those in strategic agencies.
Reality: Marketing should be part and parcel of your highest-level and most-strategic discussions and plans, and it should be coordinated within your organization.
Your BD and marketing teams should represent a unified force to help you reach your corporate objectives.
3. Be Realistic About and Patient With Programs
In reaching government buyers, public relations (PR) can work. Radio advertising can work. Whitepaper marketing can work.
But nothing can work optimally in a vacuum. Integration across marketing programs is critical to make your messages stick, and government is no exception.
Reality: It's unproductive to run a few ads and say, "They didn't work. No one called." It may be true that no one called, but not necessarily true that the effort didn't work.
Ads rarely make the phone ring. But they do work in tandem with other initiatives so the prospect has a working knowledge of your organization, products, etc.
4. Showing Up Isn't Enough
It's a crowded, complicated marketplace. Woody Allen's theory—that 80% of success is showing up—doesn't really translate in the government market.
BD needs to be where your buyers are, and it needs to be plugged in to events, vendor days, and meeting opportunities. That will put your people in the right places at the right times. But then what?
Reality: Marketing can really shine by giving your salespeople strategic tools that go beyond a discussion of brochures and pocket folders. We're talking about content that will help them do their jobs.
5. Deliver High-Value Content
In government as much as anyplace—possibly more than anyplace—content is king. Decision makers read the resources that help them be more effective in accomplishing their missions.
Content-rich newsletters, articles, case studies, or whitepapers can make a difference. A sustained effort, along with other strategic marketing initiatives, can be hugely successful.
Reality: Use those resources as door busters for breaking through to new contacts or for nurturing leads. Those resources will help facilitate relationships, as long as you don't send them off blindly to the overflowing inbox of an unwitting recipient.
6. Know When to Spend
Not all contractors are created equal. For small and young businesses, a library of high-end marketing collateral, ad placements, etc., are unnecessary and a waste of money.
Spend your BD time working leads within agencies and gathering intelligence. If you find that your message isn't resonating or you don't have quality leave-behinds that will motivate your audience, a modest investment will be necessary.
Reality: If what you are selling costs hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, it's essential to project an appropriate level of sophistication to your target audience. Shoestrings will never get you there.
7. Know What You Bring to the Table
Too many small contractors have a skewed idea of their value proposition. Some believe their greatest value is that they're the cheapest, or it's their small or disadvantaged status.
When selling to the government, set-asides matter. But they can't represent the only reason to work with you. Think beyond those factors to get at the heart of how you can affect your target agencies and their missions. Grow and market your business around those themes.
Reality: Your business will be built based on your reputation, your people, and the quality of your products and services. Are your marketing messages and tactics helping you get where you need to be, or are they standing in your way?
8. Doing Good Work Isn't Enough
If you do great work and have lost business to better-known firms, you understand that great work is not enough. There is no substitute for past performance; but if you fail to communicate that track record in your marketing, you will continue to miss out on opportunities.
There is a tendency among B2G companies to be modest in telling their story. Humility is a wonderful trait, but not in sales and marketing. Your story should be compelling and it should demonstrate how you can help your target audiences achieve their mission.
Reality: If your potential purchasers don't know about the work you've done for agencies like theirs, you won't get traction.
Your BD team needs fundamental tools that will carry the message. Case studies can be very powerful during the sales process. Chances are, potential purchasers already know a handful (or more) of your competitors that can provide solutions.
9. Time to Grow Up?
Maybe you have grown and evolved a successful business without a concerted marketing engine. The attitude has been to invest in sales, strategic alliances, and relationships. You've developed repeat business in key agencies and gotten significant referral business.
That sound methodology has gotten you where you are today. No one can argue with your success. But just because your organization has not needed a coordinated marketing effort in the past doesn't mean it doesn't need one now.
Reality: Referrals are worth their weight in gold. So are your relationships with target agencies. But will that approach alone continue to help you grow your company?
10. Marketing Is Fluff
Sometimes marketing is fluff. Sometimes it is meaningless, and sometimes it's flat out dishonest. We've all seen it. Companies try so hard to emulate one another or to serve all audiences. The messages are redundant, and the audience can't distinguish one message from another. That problem comes from an inability to distill and articulate value propositions to audiences. The end result is pabulum, and it's not good for anyone except your competition.
Reality: Good marketing materials should convey your differentiators, whether your company's revenues are less than $10 million or more than $1 billion.
Solid materials make an impression in terms of past performance, core convictions, superior services, methodology, etc. There's no substitute for high-impact, benefit-driven collateral materials and a distinct website. If you sound like your competition, it's time to rethink your approach.
11. Too Little Measurement, Too Late
It can be difficult to measure the return on investment (ROI) of marketing programs because of the following:
- Programs are often put in place without measurement vehicles.
- Companies do "reactive" marketing without a strategic road map.
- The focus is on measuring individual programs, but not on the big-picture marketing campaign.
- Sales is pressured to institute quick programs to achieve quarterly goals.
- There's a disconnect in C-level support for proactive, coordinated strategic marketing.
Reality: If ROI isn't being measured, it's impossible to gauge your programs' success and very hard to justify continued marketing spending.
In those instances, it's easy to see why Marketing is viewed as a cost center on a balance sheet rather than as the revenue producer that it is. Measurement is no longer an option—it's a mandate.
The Last Word
Marketing works best when it's part of your overall corporate strategy.
Many contractors treat marketing as an afterthought, failing to realize its greatest benefit and ROI. But by putting into practice the 11 tips discussed in this article, you will see the impact on your sustainable bottom line.