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In the US, the day after Thanksgiving is a retailer's dream—one of the busiest shopping day of the year.

Every business, in fact, should capitalize on holiday cheer. But what if you're a service business or sell a more complex product, like content management systems, customer relationship management systems or niche products for a narrow market? What can businesses do to take advantage of the holiday shopping season?

What business or marketing challenges are you facing, especially with the New Year approaching? 200,000 "MarketingProfs Today" readers are available to check the list twice and provide gifts in the form of advice. Submit your challenge and receive a complimentary copy of our book, A Marketer's Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing.

This Week's Dilemma

Marketing wonderland during holiday season

The end of the year is a popular time for shopping. However, we're not a retailer, nor do we have a bricks-and-mortar store. We're a business that provides services and sells a Web-based application. How can a business like mine cash in on this time of the year, when shopping is big and businesses make last-minute tax-deductible purchases?

—Brooklyn, director of marketing

Previous Dilemma

Marketing new bits and bytes

What is the best approach or message for marketing technical services and solutions? We have used case studies and everything that prove the numbers in the ROI, but these approaches just don't seem to be enough to break the mental barrier and engage customers in solutions and/or projects—even in circumstances when these solutions provide more benefits, in the long and short term, financially and otherwise, than other solutions offered at present. We're working with open-source in knowledge management and information management to Small-Medium Businesses (SMB). When in an uphill battle with the technology adoption cycle, how do you convince prospects of the value of hi-tech solutions?

—Glenn, consultant

Summary of Advice Received

Glenn, much of the advice received covers the basic marketing rules, such as knowing your prospects and their needs, educating them and using demos and examples. However, readers went the extra mile and provide details on how to go about this when introducing new technology:

  1. Identify your prospect's needs.
  2. Educate the customer on the product.
  3. Use demos and case studies.

1. Identify your prospect's needs

"There is no single approach or message that will engage all prospective customers. The 'best practice' depends entirely on the specific markets you're targeting and the needs/concerns of the particular stakeholder," says Jason Jordan, principal with Go To Market Partners. He adds:

In our experience, ROI models work well for CFOs because they're the ones watching the financials. But product demonstrations are often more compelling to end-users because they're concerned about ease of use. Success stories may resonate with IT managers as they're the people who ultimately have to implement the technology.

The best advice I can give is to talk to your prospects (especially the ones who aren't purchasing) to understand what they individually need and why they aren't won over by your current approach/messaging. With the SMB marketplace, you may find that ROI isn't as important as the size of the initial investment (cash flow) or the unproven nature of the technology (risk). Regardless of your product and target market, there is no substitute for customer research—no matter how anecdotal. Once you identify your prospects' true needs/concerns, you can craft messaging that is clear and compelling.

Take the time to understand the target market's business challenges. Kim Zeuch, marketing director at FileNet, benefited from this process:

We've found the most successful approach to take is spending the time to understand both the business challenges of a target market, how specific customers within the target market are trying to deal with the industry challenges internally, and then presenting our products in the context of solving their challenge(s). We also develop demonstrations to illustrate how our products could potentially be applied to a given business challenge scenario. Of course, there is nothing better than a customer reference or testimonial.

Elaine Gray, marketing manager at Dialect Solutions Group, offers more on learning about a target market's needs:

I would suggest looking more closely at your market and breaking up your SMB segment into some specific verticals, which can be further researched to identify other benefits. Often marketers pitch on ROI, and this message can get lost in the clutter as everyone promises improvements to the bottom line. Focus on other benefits that align with your market's strategic needs. Find out the points of pain in that vertical and align the benefits of the solution to those points of pain.

Nikki Baird, director of marketing at StorePerform Technologies, suggests showing prospects how you can solve their problem:

If you can resonate with your prospects about the difficulties they have, the challenges they face and the issues they are struggling with, then you have gone a long way towards establishing your own credibility. I've found this especially true with SMBs where the decision-makers are much closer to the trenches, and usually have fewer stakeholders looking over their shoulders. Very few of our SMB customers do any kind of ROI analysis on whether to purchase our product. Instead they say, "I had a problem and you could solve it for me fast and relatively pain-free."

2. Educate the customer on the product

Technology needs extra care when it comes to explaining to others what it can do for them, especially new technology. Maya with BRIM explains:

A customer looking for a technology solution to his problem is in a confused state of mind, the primary reason being that he has little or no knowledge of that product/service and feels lost. At times like this, the ROI isn't a consolation to him. The better way to deal with such a situation would be to help him understand how this particular technology works. Some of the ways of doing this:

  1. Provide training about the product to the sales force (those on the shop floor and outside). These people serve as "teachers" or guides to the prospect customer. If they successfully explain the workings of the product to the customer, rest assured that half the battle is over.

  2. Provide pamphlets to any prospect visiting the store. This should cover information on the basics of the product, its uses and approximate price.

  3. Put out ads, preferably through the print media, with details of the product and the value it adds to the customer's life. The basic focus should be to make the customer feel that the product is useful to him, both functionally and psychologically.

Denis Du Bois, partner with P5 Group, Inc., uses a baseball analogy:

The problem you describe sounds as if you're swinging the bat, but not connecting with the ball. You're making a nice "whoosh" but wondering why you're not making it to first base. Assuming that your consulting client has a capable sales staff talking to the right decision makers, you should ask prospects why they're not moving forward with the purchase. Chances are, your efforts are not really answering all their concerns.

To clarify, let's take an example of a product that got stuck in the technology adoption cycle: energy-efficient fluorescent lighting. Businesses have been slow to move away from inefficient lighting. While nodding to the convincing ROI calculations and heartfelt testimonials, business buyers quietly have other concerns that aren't answered solely by the product: Does our situation really match that of the satisfied customers in the case studies? Do I know enough about the technology not to make a costly mistake? Have I considered all the potential ramifications? Will I be strung up if things go wrong? Will something better come along soon?

Vendor ROI calculations are always circumspect, raising more questions: Is my switching cost accurately given in the ROI calculations? Will our business situation change somehow (e.g., moving to another building) that would change the ROI for us before the payback is attained? The job of marketing is to create an environment for sales. When you support the sales reps with tools to answer all of their prospects' concerns, that environment will be complete.

Adrian Woodliffe, director at GENESIS, has been through this situation with a client company trying to achieve market penetration both here and offshore—and with a software product for business alignment, but with a revolutionary and non-traditional proposition:

The strategy that I employed for my client involved the following:

  1. Educating the market about the new paradigm, the new thinking. This approach used a strategy focused on PRIMARY DEMAND, not the product-brand. The product category was—which meant creating an awareness of a new category—a new territory a little removed from the norm. It was essential to shape the market landscape and educate audiences.

  2. Because the product was so difficult to portray to key audiences, we used metaphors to "paint the picture." And when talking to potential clients, we used metaphors/stories built around their business premise. So this was a targeted brand promotion.

  3. Branding is organic. It has to be! We started this branding program a year ago—the resulting metaphor/story approach came about only recently. BUT the groundwork had been done as to strategy and the resulting brand story. Without it, we would never have been able to arrive at the point we have.

So, if I can offer any advice, Glenn, it is: revisit your brand strategy, re-examine your brand story (and if you haven't got one please do so—it is invaluable!) and utilize targeted communication. A wholesale approach just ain't going to "cut the mustard!" It will be far too expensive—so educate only those you feel need to be educated and then deliver the product-brand.

There is also a caveat to this: if you have all the wherewithal and those that you approach are still not responding, ask yourself, "Are they the right recipients of this message? If they don't get it, maybe, just maybe, they are not the sort of company that we should be talking to!?"

A final thought—profile your ideal client company. Is it nontraditional, innovative, highly progressive? I am putting words into your mouth here, but you see what I mean. Drill right down to what you would want of them. And use that as a filter for your approaches to possible clients—if they don't fit that profile, why are you talking to them!? They most assuredly won't get it!

Mike Adams, business line manager of telecom with Atrana Solutions, suggests a two-pronged solution:

First, given that you are dealing with what sounds like relatively new technology, some market development is necessary. Beyond simply creating awareness for your specific product(s), a broader awareness of the general technology is needed. Identify organizations that are likely early adopters of technology similar to what you are offering.

Next, work on identifying individuals within other organizations who are early adopters that can be your advocates, both in their organization and in the broader marketplace. Trade publications can help identify individuals in many of them. Start or post to a blog that covers the technology you provide. Establish a presence for your organization wherever your technology is discussed, not through large advertising dollars, but through grass roots PR, article submission and old-fashioned relationship building. While all that is going on, take the marketing plan you have crafted for the actual product/service and act on it.

Many of the tactics used to develop the market can also be translated into actions for specific prospective customers. Look for other technology consultants who might serve as distributors and/or agents for your product. Keep a watchful eye on your competitors so you have knowledge of what the marketplace is doing—if they're making sales and you are not, evaluate why and change your approach. If no one is selling, you may be ahead of your time.

Andy McDermott at Entopia says that a vast majority of potential clients have become completely numb to suggestions that they "improve productivity," "lower costs," "advance agility and/or responsiveness" and "increase customer satisfaction":

This is because these phrases never tell them HOW these objectives will be achieved (other than purchasing the latest gizmo being described in these terms!). But, this seems just too obvious an answer, doesn't it? Then ask yourself—when was the last time I gave my clients a detailed presentation that spoke to the specific concerns of their industry and markets? For example, how much do I really know about biotechnology? Is biotechnology more like the drug industry or the chemical industry?

Does our marketing message speak to the daily concerns of people in this industry? Does it say it in a language with which they are familiar? Of course, attempting to speak in another industry's language can be scary! It is much more comfortable to speak about your own bits and bytes, speeds and feeds—as long as you keep in mind that what you are asking your client to do is translate YOUR brochure into a solution that may (or may not) produce effective business results.

Put yourself in his shoes for a moment—your message is essentially identical to the other 10 or 20 messages from vendors knocking on his door. Here's the surprising thing—if you can make any valid attempt to translate your services and solutions into an appropriate context for your clients, they will become AN ORDER OF MAGNITUDE more interested in your message because (probably for the first time) they are hearing a message that is immediately resonant with their needs. It's not rocket science, but it is hard work.

3. Use demos and case studies

Many people learn by seeing. Demos and pilots are a great way to go about doing this. Case studies aren't visual, but they show how a product is used and its impacts on the company who invested in it. Krishna Narayanan, SVP with Intelligroup Inc., believes that marketing complex solutions to the SMB segment is a tough job. Narayanan offers three strategies:

  1. Influence the key influencers: for key technology buying decisions, consultants and analysts are involved. These guys eat up case studies—particularly the ones with concrete proof points (also known as ROI). When the client sees broader evidence of your value (i.e., even the analysts seem to think you have value to add), there is a greater likelihood you will be considered.

  2. Engage in pilots—at a reduced cost or even free, depending on the lifetime potential of the prospect. Select the prospects with the greatest cache—either in their situation or in their name recognition. If you're doing anything for a reduced fee or free, be sure to sign up the client in a contract to be an active reference and PR vehicle.)

  3. Take one or two cases on the road and ask the clients to go do a conference presentation at an SMB-type event. Again, I hope you've signed them up already for the PR commitment.

Heidi Bullock, director of marketing with Vitra Bioscience, suggests recommending to the company for whom you're consulting to have a "road show":

They could select several hot areas where they think there are early adopters/potential customers such as for high tech, Silicon Valley. Have them host a lunch where people are invited and then can interact with the new product, and they can listen to customer testimonials (you mentioned you have case studies).

Have existing customers present how the product has helped them. This allows people to ask a lot of questions and it also provides a good opportunity for the sales team to see what aspects of the product people "get" and what needs more explanation.

David Gardiner at Neo Interactive Media believes there are many elements that come into play in selling services, particularly a new one, and that it may not be the ROI pitch slowing down sales efforts. "Begin by examining your entire marketing strategy from top-down," he says.

When marketing technology, it's effective to know, educate and show your customer.

Need a gift-wrapped solution? MarketingProfs readers have the gift of marketing intelligence.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hank Stroll (Hank@InternetVIZ.com) is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.