Now, as more IT leaders realize that -- essentially -- they now have to compete for their internal customers' business, they're asking "what do external IT service providers have that we don't?"
And a key part of the answer is an entirely new IT function that communicates what IT is already doing -- and listens closely as to what IT should do next.
In a word: it's marketing
Yes, Marketing Can Get A Bad Rap
I work in a marketing function at EMC, but -- frankly -- I never thought I'd be a "marketing guy".
I've always been relatively technical and analytical, not to mention very assertive -- certainly not the best temperament for a marketing professional. And, if I'm being honest, the marketing people here at EMC often struggle with me -- I don't really fit the standard profile.
Early in my career, though, I saw multiple examples of what I can only describe now as "marketing failures": wrong product, wrong audience, wrong message, wrong value proposition, poor communication and engagement mechanisms, etc.
It's an ugly train wreck I saw many times indeed.
The more I saw this happen, the more I started to think about what I was seeing. The answers ended up having more to do with marketing disciplines than they did with hardcore technology.
People with strong technology and analytical backgrounds are often dismissive of marketing disciplines. Perhaps that's because we're all constantly inundated with bad (and untargeted) marketing?
Having the world's "best" product or service can only get you so far. Unless it meets your audience's needs -- and they know about it -- your wonderful, amazing thing will sit on the shelf, un-loved and un-consumed.
No one would try and run a successful business without at least a basic appreciation for what marketing can bring to the table. If you believe (as I do) that IT is becoming an internal business, then you're going to have to eventually make an investment here.
Just as you have to do with finance, HR, product management and other corporate disciplines you'd prefer to ignore :)
Where This Comes Up
If you've been following my recent posts, you'll recall the basic talk track.
The real meaning of "cloud" is that IT is increasingly having to compete for its internal customers. As a result, there's now a strong interest from many IT leaders in transforming their groups from traditional IT shops to leaner and more responsive service-oriented functions who can compare favorably to external service providers.
The bulk of this transformative discussion involves people: their new skills, their new roles -- and how they're organized. Some of these functions are essentially re-formulations of familiar functions: it's the same work, it's just done in a different way.
And a few of these functions are entirely new for the majority of IT organizations. "Go-to-market" is one of those -- there's often nothing pre-existing to build on: it's a net new functional proposition.
Hence the head-scratching when I bring it up.
The IT Perspective
As I meet with IT leaders, I often get to see versions of the same movie I've seen earlier in my career: good people trying to do a good job, but aren't quite sure of what audiences they're targeting, no clear message delivered to those audiences, uncertain of their value proposition, disconnected from the people using their services, and so on.
My somewhat personal definition of "marketing" is "the act of aligning what you do with who you do it for".
And in a world where IT organizations have to compete by delivering attractive IT services that their internal customers want to consume -- well, you'd think investing in that all-important "alignment" might be a useful leadership topic.
When I probe on this issue, it isn't surprising that people often get just a bit defensive. You'll hear things like "everyone knows what we do". Really? How does that magic happen?
Or "we meet regularly with our business leaders". That's great (and important), but no substitute for a regular flow of bi-directional communication between the people who are consuming the service and the people who are delivering it.
So, in an effort to be helpful, allow me to present my personal view regarding the essentials of what a marketing function might look like inside a medium-to-large IT organization -- as well as the sort of job descriptions and profiles you'll be looking for.
If you're an IT leader -- and you're still reading this -- you might want to bookmark this page :)
Outbound Marketing -- The Essentials
Done poorly, it's that extremely annoying "noise" that we're all subject to on a perpetual basis: unwanted emails, advertisements in the middle of what we're doing, sales pitches coming from nowhere, and so on.
Done moderately well, it informs you of products, services and offers you're tempted to find out more about. Or perhaps it gives you a better impression of the people making the offer -- also an important consideration.
The relatively easy part of outbound marketing is describing what you offer, and why it's worth considering. The somewhat more difficult part of outbound marketing is precisely profiling your audience's interests, and reaching them in a way that's targeted around their needs, and not yours.
I mean, if someone pitched me directly as "hey, we know you're a 50-plus IT industry executive with three kids who travels too much …" I'd be really tempted to hear the rest of what they had to say.
At a very high level, outbound marketing usually attempts to do a few things:
- communicates what your group does and what you do, and why it might matter to the recipient
- - creates a "brand" perception around shared values: good customer service, being trustworthy, knowledgeable, etc.
- encourages people to find out more, or to take you up on your offers
Whether that's done in a newsletter, an internal web site, posters in the cafeteria, blogs, etc. -- those are simply vessels for your outbound message.
When I encounter internal marketing functions -- of any sort -- I usually find two common problems: the material is written from the point of view of the provider (not the consumer), and the material is put in locations where the audience can't routinely encounter it -- like some boring corporate portal.
How would I find that information?
What would it look like when I see it?
What conclusions would I form about internal IT from the materials?
Does it look like they want my business, or are they just going through the motions?
I've had IT groups show me their internal marketing communications, and -- yes -- it often looks like it was created by IT people :)
Fortunately, finding people who know how to communicate effectively using a variety of mechanisms isn't all that scarce a skill -- it's just relatively scarce in IT settings.
And you probably have people living elsewhere in your organization who do this sort of thing routinely :)
Inbound Marketing -- In A Nutshell
More proficient marketing functions are also adept in finding out what their prospective customers want -- specific needs, how they want to consume, and so on.
This is the world of surveys, focus groups, discussion forums, interviews et. al. -- various mechanisms where you prod and probe to find out what people really want, even if they're not quite sure of how to put it into words.
If you don't invest in this function, you end up making a lot of educated guesses as to what people want from you -- a hit and miss proposition at best.
You don't go too far down this path until you realize the segmentation is an important concept: figuring out which specific individuals should be sought out for their perspectives -- and why. Hint: there is no "right" segmentation model -- as you learn, you'll tend to iteratively come up with different schemas for classifying your internal customers.
While there's nothing wrong with seeking out senior executives for their perspectives, that's not enough -- you need to balance that with people who are actually consuming what you deliver, and not their boss's boss's boss.
Done well, you end up with a combination of an aggregate metrics view (how do people think we doing, what do people need) as well as a healthy selection of more focused and diverse audiences, and how they feel about the same questions.
You might think this looks like traditional requirements planning, and you'd be only partly right. The best inbound marketing efforts create multiple "personas" around specific individual profiles, needs and perspectives. These personas are the contextual background that bring life to sterile requirements.
From Outbound and Inbound … To Engagement
You'll notice that -- based on the schema here -- there's one marketing function essentially pushing information out, and another pulling information in. True magic starts to happen when outbound and inbound blend seamlessly into what I call "engagement marketing".
If you're in the role of delivering stuff that people want, you'll get incredible insights into what your customer wants, and why they think they want it. If you're in the role of consuming what others produce, you'll welcome the ability to express your perspectives -- and have them listened to.
For example, in my role at EMC, I aspire to fully engage with our customers and partners. It ain't all talking, and it ain't all listening -- it's a dynamic and orchestrated mix of both. Much of what you see here in this blog is a direct result of that sort of engagement.
Hiring The IT Marketing Profile
The good news is that basic marketing skills are relatively easy (and inexpensive) to acquire.
For outbound marketing, you're looking for people who can communicate effectively via multiple channels: written, visual, social, in-person, and so on. Ditto with inbound marketing: effective at gathering information from surveys, interviews and the like. For example, I've found that young college interns or grads can be an excellent source for the right basics.
However, acquiring those basic skills will only be part of the answer. You'll have to be very precise, for example, in telling these individuals who to target, what the message is, exactly what you're looking for, and so on.
Also, keep in mind that individual activities aren't effective unless they're part of an overall program, which usually involves a more senior skill set.
Moving up the seniority ladder, a good marketing professional will be able to define an overall marketing strategy with all the essential elements: segmentation, persona creation, message generation, communication and measurement disciplines.
Going even farther, I believe the most effective marketeers are the ones who can establish an empathetic connection with their audiences.
For example, if you're offering IT services to mechanical engineers, it's helpful to be interested in mechanical engineering, know what mechanical engineers do for a living, how they use IT in their jobs, and so on.
Somewhere, there's an intergalactic marketing rule book, and somewhere near the top will be the maxim Know Thy Audience :)
How Many -- And How Much?
I'd offer that -- as a starting point -- you should be thinking of around 0.5% to 1.5% of your IT headcount targeted at these internal marketing and communication functions as a general rule of thumb.
For a 100-200 person IT function, that's one relatively senior person and perhaps one more junior helper. For a 500-1000 person IT function, that's around 2-5 people: two senior ones, and perhaps three more junior ones.
And, of course, in smaller settings, it's just another hat to wear for the existing staff :)
Any marketing function -- IT or otherwise -- needs a small budget to help things along: graphics designers, printing costs, maybe an external consultant here and there. It shouldn't be a large amount (at least, compared to other IT expenditures!) but it's not exactly a zero number, either.
There's Still The Strategy Piece
Up to now, we've been talking about building a function that's familiar in just about every business model, but relatively foreign to the IT function. But, at some point, that marketing function has to plug into The Big Picture at a very fundamental strategy level.
And since IT organizational strategy should be nothing more than a reflection of the overall corporate strategy, there's some heavy lifting here when you really start digging in. You often get to deal with very thorny and complex questions for which there will never be a clear and unambiguous answer.
How much should IT focus on the "as-is" business vs. investing in what the business aspires to be?
What parts of the business are important for the future -- and deserve more investment -- and which parts of the business should be considered as steady-state "cash cows"?
What new customer segments and customer relationships is the business trying to establish, and how can IT help?
How can IT deliver better tools for the most important knowledge workers to be increasingly more effective? And so on ...
I often meet with IT leaders who want IT to be more relevant to the business.
I suppose I should be offering a disclaimer: be careful what you ask for -- you just might get it.