As marketing professionals, it is our job to stimulate demand for a company's goods and services with one of two outcomes: increasing sales volume or increasing price.

When it comes to selling big-ticket items or complex services, increasing sales volume is often not an option. Fewer customers require these specialized solutions. Those that do require them tend to purchase only once, or—at best—infrequently.

Low sales volumes are not the only reason that companies look to marketers to generate higher prices for big-ticket items and complex solutions. These sales are also more expensive to conduct and close. Customers, anticipating that the purchase will have a significant impact on their businesses, usually require several levels of approval before they decide to buy, and sales cycles stretch out.

So, how do marketers get the price premiums they need?

First, marketers tap into prospective customers' most pressing needs and raise awareness of the "pain" prospects will experience if they fail to buy. Then, they develop a compelling value proposition that demonstrates how their solution is superior to that of the competition. The only caveat is that "superior" means different things to different people. Nowhere is this more apparent than when selling technology.

Like their peers in other industries that sell complex solutions, high-tech marketers employ a variety of tools to create value, depending on where the prospective customer is in the buying process and the departments that they need to win over. Brochures describe the benefits that users will experience, such as higher quality outcomes or increased ease of use. ROI calculators help financial buyers evaluate the return on investment the solution will deliver. Case studies help decision makers vicariously experience the results and benefits that others have derived from the product or service.

Technology marketers, however, face yet another hurdle. Whether the technology is a minimally invasive device for a teaching hospital or an automated enterprise-wide auditing system that assures compliance with Sarbanes Oxley, few of their sales close without the recommendation of a specialist whose job it is to compare technologies and determine whether each vendor's solution will perform as promised.

Technical Marketing's Secret Weapon

When selling to technical personnel, high-tech marketers turn to "white papers." Like other marketing aids, white papers position the product as superior to the competition's by highlighting differences that create unique value. They...

  • Create fear around a particular problem

  • Stir up doubt and uncertainty about existing solutions

  • Create demand for the new solution

  • Support a price premium for that solution

White papers may not be as slick and glossy as other marketing collateral, but they are essential to technical personnel. Before recommending a particular solution, technical personnel often need to understand how the product solves the problem. One key advantage that white papers have is that they can motivate technical experts to demand a particular technology rather than just a solution to the problem.

White papers are an excellent forum for explaining not only how the underlying technology works but also why it's the best way to solve a particular problem. Without this information, technical evaluators often stall in their decision-making process. By highlighting the shortcomings of the current technology and demonstrating how the new solution overcomes these obstacles, white papers do more than merely help companies differentiate their products. Since the prevailing solution has a known value, white papers help peg the worth of the new technology at a higher price.

White Papers That Work

White papers target the technical evaluator, but they are available to everyone. Since multiple audiences may reference these materials, white papers must do double duty and also speak to the needs of business and operations personnel.

Effective white papers often pull in less technical readers by starting with anecdotes that illustrate the problem. Then, they describe the current or competing solution and outline its shortcomings. Finally, they present the "desirable" solution and explain technically how the solution addresses and overcomes the issues just raised. Often, white papers include supporting diagrams illustrating the "before" and "after" scenarios.

To ensure success, many companies team a marketing writer with a technical expert. Together, the marketer and technical expert determine what benefits they want to convey and how they will convey them. The technical expert's job is to demonstrate the clear superiority of the company's solution by comparing the strengths and weaknesses of competing technologies. The marketing writer's role is to capture attention by clearly articulating the product's benefits and ensuring that the technical information is presented in such a way that non-technicians can understand it.

Advancing the Sales Process

White papers serve multiple purposes in advancing the sales process. Effective uses include the following:

  • Lead capture: Pique interest by offering white papers to prospective customers as a fulfillment piece for an email or direct mail campaign. When prospective customers respond to the offer, marketers can obtain lead information and begin to build a platform for future discussions.

  • Lead refinement: Provide an incentive for the "right" people to self-identify by posting an "ad" for the white paper on the company's Web site. By requiring interested parties to fill out a registration form before accessing the white paper, the company can filter out requests from competitors.

  • "Bait" for search engines: Deliver viewers to the company's Web site. White papers are dense with words that pertain to the company's technology. Search engines will direct viewers who specify relevant key words to the company's Web site.

  • Effective follow-up: Stay on prospects' radar screens. White papers give presenters at trade shows and conferences a way of continuing conversations with prospects by offering more substantial information about a solution than the information presented in product data sheets or on Web sites.

If your company sells complex products or services, you may want to take a page from the high-tech marketers' book. Continue to use conventional collateral to differentiate your solution and demonstrate value. Then, see if you can create independent demand for your unique methodology or business processes. If so, you can then use white papers to capture buyers' attention, generate qualified leads, shorten the sales cycle and justify a price premium. After all, if you can sell your product for more, then why sell it for less?

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Barbara Bix is managing principal of BB Marketing Plus, where she helps companies enhance their brands by capturing and enhancing the customer experience.