John Gallant served for some 35 years in the IT trade press at IDG publications including Computerworld and Network World, most of them in senior editorial roles. In fact, both Saratoga B2B Group co-founders worked for him at Network World when he was editor-in-chief – and we both have immense respect for his knowledge of the IT industry. For his last 10 years at IDG, he served as chief content officer, overseeing editorial for all IDG U.S. properties.
John is now an independent content strategist, helping IT companies develop content strategy and create whitepapers, video, events and other material that gets their messages across to IT buyers. In this interview with Saratoga co-founder Paul Desmond, John draws on his deep editorial and content marketing experience to offer advice on the kinds of messages that work with an IT audience, how to get the attention of trade press editors, the value of content marketing and more.
Paul Desmond: What kind of marketing messages do you think resonate best with IT buyers?
John Gallant: IT buyers at all levels want to understand how a product or service solves a problem or creates an opportunity for them. How does what you’re offering help advance critical goals for IT today? They want to believe that marketers understand their goals and pain points, and not just in a generic way. Showing a clear understanding of the pressures and opportunities in their specific markets and verticals is really valued.
What are IT professionals most worried about these days, and how can IT vendors help?
IT leaders are under tremendous pressure to show that they are adding value to the business – meaning that they are helping the business achieve important goals like becoming more customer centric, creating new digital revenue sources and enabling innovation in the form of new products and services. In order to achieve that, IT executives are trying to move more of their own resources into customer-facing initiatives and working more closely with line-of-business leaders. Streamlining operations and cutting legacy costs enables them to be more innovative and deliver new capabilities more quickly. IT vendors can help by making clear how they enable IT shops to achieve those goals. You can show me how you help me build new things that benefit the business or you can show me how you help me free up the money that enables me to benefit the business.
Based on your long experience in the technology trade press, what are the most important things IT marketers should keep in mind when crafting messages to an IT audience?
I have heard one consistent message over 35 years of working with IT leaders: Show that you understand my business. This is said so often because it so often is not being done. IT executives hate cold calls and generic pitches. They don’t want to educate sales people who come in the door about what their businesses are trying to achieve. They want messaging that is crafted to their business and vertical market. They want to believe their strategic vendor partners understand how technology is being used by other companies in their industry and that they can help IT put new products and technologies into the context of their own business. IT leaders share a number of common concerns, but their real opportunities and problems are shaped by the unique dynamics of their markets and competitive set. Show that you get that. Show that you understand what they’re facing and put solutions in that context.
What are the biggest mistakes you see IT marketing folks make in terms of how they attempt to attract buyers? What kinds of things are they doing that they just shouldn’t?
The biggest mistake is focusing solely on product features – speeds and feeds, as they say. It’s important to remember that IT operations are undergoing major changes – from virtualization of resources to the shift to ‘as-a-service’ capabilities – and those changes are happening because IT shops are trying to focus more on moving the business forward, not just being great at deploying and integrating gear. As I mentioned earlier, putting marketing messages in the context of these major shifts and opportunities is vital. How are you helping IT advance the broad goals of improving the customer (internal and employee) experience? How are you helping dramatically reduce costs and streamline operations? How can you make a company more responsive and faster to move? No IT leader is saying: Gosh, if I just had faster routers everything would be great. IT leaders are thinking: How can I help sales glean more intelligence from all our transaction data? How can I enable mobile business? How can I improve collaboration among employees?
Case studies were routinely among the most popular stories in publications like Network World. Readers loved them and, often, IT professionals liked to tell their stories. But IT vendors often struggle to get customers to agree to participate in case studies. Any advice for how they can get more customers to agree?
This is certainly a problem and I think at the root of this problem is a risk/reward calculation. As a customer, why should I agree to serve as a case study for you? What do I get out of it other than a lot of hassles and sign-offs? Have you really thought through what the benefits are? Asking a customer to serve as a case study requires that you provide that kind of benefit. For example, how can you help the customer showcase an important new product or capability that makes the customer look like a leader in its vertical market? Here’s a case in point: I recently worked with an IT vendor that struggled to enlist a customer to share its experience with agile software development and DevOps tools. Looking through the customer base, we were able to identify a nearly 100-year-old company that has undergone a remarkable digital transition. That company was very eager to showcase a whole new set of products and services that it was able to bring to market because of its advanced software development process. It was a win-win. Asking customers for support in that context can go a long way.
What kind of marketing content do you see as being particularly effective in attracting potential buyers?
I’d suggest a couple of things here. Case studies are always popular because IT leaders value most the ideas and insights of their peers. They also value research and benchmarking information because, as human beings, they’re always eager to understand what peers are doing – particularly in their vertical market – and whether they are ahead or falling behind. Of course, those tools have to provide real value and not be self-serving. There are, for example, a couple of excellent security research reports delivered each year – one from a security software provider, the other from a telecommunications company – that offer in-depth and very valuable information that is eagerly consumed by IT leaders. I’d also recommend exposing your technology and market experts through blogging, but the blogging has to be consistent and not self-promotional. You also need to make sure customers and potential customers are aware this content exists. Like a publisher, you’ve got to work to drive readers to the content. Exposing this technical expertise builds trust and authority but, like any content plan, it requires hard work and consistency. I can’t tell you how many sites I’ve visited where the last blog post was written two or three years ago.
What advice do you have for IT marketers looking to get coverage for some innovative new technology in the trade press? What sort of approach is likely to resonate with editors?
There have been so many changes in the trade press, with staff and budget cutbacks, that it’s a real challenge to get coverage. Also, the reality is that new product announcements – for the most part – don’t move the traffic needle on tech websites and editors are reluctant to cover announcements from all but the biggest companies. How do you overcome that? I think there are a couple of opportunities. The first is to bring a reporter a great customer story, which is also a challenge, as we’ve discussed. That customer story should be provided in the context of issues you already know a particular reporter covers, like digital transformation or the move to the cloud. That means doing homework on who the key reporters, editors and analysts are and what hot-button topics they cover. The second is to offer ideas on significant trends and changes in a marketplace that can make a great trend story. You’ll get your company/product covered in that context. Let’s take the example of security. What are the big changes you and your executives are seeing in the security market? You have great insight because your team is in the field with customers all the time. Is anyone covering these trends and shifts? If no, suggest an idea to the right editor or reporter.
To what extent do IT marketers even need the trade press anymore? Can they achieve the same goals with their own content marketing efforts?
The simple answer is yes, because media outlets have already built an audience and getting your story or message out in front of the right audiences is highly valuable. But, in many ways, companies can achieve more – over time – with a commitment to a quality content effort, social media outreach and targeted marketing that is aligned with the key themes and issues on the minds of IT buyers. Building traffic to your own site through great content is a truly worthy investment but, again, it takes time and commitment. IBM, Cisco, Oracle and others have benefitted greatly from making a strong commitment to original content and content-focused outreach. You can’t control changes in the media market, but you can invest in and build your own content assets.
If you had to give just one piece of advice to IT marketers, what would it be?
Listen to potential buyers. Get out to conferences, build customer advisory panels, ask to visit an IT executive, etc. Ask them the right questions and then just listen. What keeps you up at night? What’s the most important goal your IT team is trying to achieve? What’s happening in your industry today? Where are you allocating money for new investments? Where are you cutting back? What does the business expect from you today? Their answers will tell you what your messaging should address.