“Call your customers,” says Paul Gillin. “Find out what motivates them, what they worry about and how they define success … The better you understand the people who buy your products, the more effectively you’ll be able to reach them.”
Over the last decade Paul Gillin has written three books about social media and a fourth, his latest – Attack of the Customers – about why critics assault brands online and how to avoid becoming a victim. Prior to that Paul had a long career in the IT trade press, including as editor-in-chief of Computerworld and as one of the founders of TechTarget. He’s still got his finger on the pulse of IT, as he regularly interviews CIOs in the course of reporting and writing about IT issues. In this interview with Saratoga B2B co-founder Paul Desmond, Gillin provides sound advice for IT marketers on topics ranging from how best to use social media – including why you can forget about Twitter – to how to get the attention of IT buyers and trade press editors, what CIOs really care about and more.
Paul Desmond: What’s your assessment of the role of social media marketing for B2B IT companies today? How important is it to getting messages across?
Paul Gillin: Blogs, LinkedIn and community forums are essential parts of any B2B IT marketing strategy. The rest you can largely do without. Every single IT-focused startup has one or more blogs, and most of the larger vendors have multiple topical blogs. They are an important part of explaining the context of the company’s products, the technical details and the vision of the leadership. They’re also a magnet for search engines, which helps in the discovery process. Community forums appeal to the technical professionals who have to make the products work every day. They provide peer support and recommendations, which makes them a useful word-of-mouth channel for new companies. LinkedIn is an important device for connecting people to each other and establishing the credibility of business leaders. Before going into a meeting with a vendor, IT executives routinely check the LinkedIn profiles of the people they will be meeting with. Having a rich profile with a strong mission statement that conveys a track record of achievement and a knowledge of the market paves the way for more productive sales meetings. I like to say that LinkedIn is your personal homepage because it’s probably the first result for a search on your name. Businesses are all about people, after all. As far as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the rest, you can skip them. B2B buyers don’t pay much attention.
You’ve advised lots of companies on how to develop an effective social media strategy. What are some of your key pieces of advice?
• Understand who you’re trying to reach and what channels they use.
• It’s better to be very good with one or two social media platforms than to be mediocre with six.
• Always be positive, constructive and customer-focused. Your social media presence shouldn’t be about promoting your interests. It should be about making your customer successful.
• Once you choose to use a social media platform, use it a lot. Limit the range of topics you discuss and post frequently – at least weekly for a blog and daily for short-form platforms like LinkedIn.
• Engage with others. The way you build a following is by asking and responding to questions, complementing the good work of others and being helpful. Don’t just treat social media as a megaphone for your own messages.
What are some of the most common mistakes you see marketers make with respect to social media?
Sort of the inverse of the points made just above. Too many marketers still treat social media as a channel for delivering messages. That’s not necessarily bad, but they would do better to abstract their value to a higher level. The best B2B tech companies see themselves as allies of their customers. They use social media to deliver content that customers will find useful, even if it doesn’t come from them. Many companies do a poor job of measuring the results of their social media efforts. They waste time by pouring resources into channels that aren’t responding. Measurement is about more than likes or page views. As my friend Katie Paine says, “measure what matters.” That may be shares, downloads, leads, registrations or something else. Use metrics that matter to your business.
How do IT buyers employ social media? Is it really a source of information for them? It’s hard to imagine an IT buyer turning to Twitter when researching a new product category.
And they don’t. I have never spoken to a CIO who relied upon Twitter for much of anything. Enterprise IT buying decisions are complex. Relationships and expertise matter. They do use search engines to find vendors, so SEO and blogs are helpful there. They do want proof that the companies they are considering have the expertise and commitment to make them successful. Your social media should convey expertise. Use it to highlight the people within your organization, the services you provide and your knowledge of the markets you serve. It’s okay to sprinkle in some humor and offbeat stuff to give your presence personality, but don’t let that overwhelm the core message that you are very good at what you do.
What is it that IT marketers don’t understand about the IT buying process? What myths about the process should be dispelled?
The number one myth is that the CIO makes all the decisions. I’ve spoken to many CIOs at very large organizations, and none of them are micro-managers. They rely heavily upon their technical experts and – perhaps surprisingly – a few strategic vendors to guide them. They may sign the checks, but they trust others in the organization to guide them. Another common myth is that CIOs are risk-takers. They are not. Fundamentally, their job is to protect and manage data. The fastest way for a CIO to get fired is to experience a protracted outage or suffer a security breach. They aren’t daredevils. This is why partnerships are so important to small IT firms, in particular. A reference from IBM, SAP or Cisco confers credibility that tells the CIO that the company is a safe choice.
From your experience as an editor, what advice can you give in terms of how to get the attention of IT trade press editors, especially in the current environment where staffing levels are so low? What kinds of pitches work?
Tech reporters have never been more overwhelmed than they are today. As you note, staff levels have been cut, production quotas have been increased and the volume of messages from PR agencies continues to grow. Understanding the publication and the editors has never been more important. Delivering messages that relate to an individual journalist’s coverage areas are the best way to get attention. That doesn’t mean just looking at the last two stories the reporter has posted. Scan several months’ worth of coverage to see what topics surface most frequently. To the degree you can personalize the message, that’s always appreciated. That doesn’t mean using mail-merge in the greeting. Surface something the reporter has written and comment meaningfully upon it. Try to relate pitches to issues in the news. Most of us are looking for a fresh angle on the stories everyone else is reporting. Can you help with that? Offer people with interesting backgrounds as interview subjects. Perhaps your CTO formerly worked in the White House or led a standards committee for an important piece of technology. People are as important as topics. If you secure an interview, for goodness sake prepare your executives. They should understand who they are speaking to and what the reporter’s interests are. In my experience, most executive interviews quickly devolve into product pitches. Don’t let that happen. Think of the journalist as a customer: How can you make him or her successful?
You’ve interviewed your share of CIOs over the last few years. How do you see their role changing within their organizations?
It wasn’t long ago that people used to joke that “CIO” stood for “career is over.” How that has changed. The convergence of big data, cloud and mobility is reshaping the way organizations work and how they relate to customers. The CIO is at the center of a phenomenon that many people call “digital transformation.” While that term is badly overused, the concept is important. Leaders are realizing data is their most important asset, and most are ill-prepared to translate that reality into a strategy. They are leaning heavily upon their CIOs for help. In many ways, this is the golden age of the CIO. Those who can apply technology strategically to the business can have a greater impact than ever before.
What are CIOs most concerned about today? And how does that effect how IT marketers try to reach them?
For several years I worked on an annual project that involved interviewing between 50 and 100 CIOs in depth about just this question. The issues that came up most frequently were business alignment, performance and security. They need to make their organizations more nimble, responsive and innovative. They want to get rid of tasks that aren’t a core competence, manage data more effectively and keep the bad guys out. One of the most attractive features of cloud computing is that it enables organizations to move more quickly, fail faster and focus on the business rather than technology implementation. IT marketers who can relate their companies to this goal of business agility have the highest likelihood of getting the CIO’s attention.
If you had to give just one piece of advice to IT marketers, what would it be?
Call your customers. I don’t mean just to say hi, but to engage in a meaningful half-hour conversation once a week about what they do. Find out what motivates them, what they worry about and how they define success. Don’t pitch them on a product; learn about them as people. I am amazed at how few IT marketers really understand the people they market to. This isn’t about demographics; it’s about psychographics. The better you understand the people who buy your products, the more effectively you’ll be able to reach them. And your customers will love you for showing so much interest.